Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Two

Stoney Creek, August, 1868

The following morning Tom headed out early, leaving his family eating a hearty breakfast with the Pollards. When he arrived at the scorched hut, there was no sign of his father or his brothers. He picked his way through the hut and found what clothes and bedding were salvageable. His mother's books were ashes, as were the newspapers on the walls of the room that he had built for himself and Elizabeth. The table and chairs were charred beyond repair. He looked around at the vegetable garden. The cabbages and carrots looked as good as he had ever seen them. The fruit trees, too, were enjoying the rain and promised good fruit in the summer. The chickens and pigs were making their usual morning noises, waiting for William and Theresa to bring them a feed.
     He went to the shed and found the bucket of peels and carrot tops his mother had put there the day before. It seemed an age ago that their hut had been warm and cosy, the smell of fresh bread and steaming stew waiting for them all after their hard day's work.  He threw the bucket of scraps to the pigs and chickens and collected half a dozen eggs.  As he walked back towards the blackened remains of his home he determined that this would be a new beginning. He would not allow his father to destroy his family's dream.  Perhaps it might even be a Godsend in disguise.
     As he rode back to Stoney Creek, he wondered how to tell his mother that Joseph and Mick were gone. 
     Norah was inconsolable all afternoon, sobbing in Kathryn's arms. 
     ‘I'm sorry, Ma. I'd have gone back if Mrs Pollard hadn't insisted I stay, but you know sooner or later this was bound to happen. They have to find out for themselves what he's like. He's always talked about taking them with him and they've wanted to do it for years. They'll learn, and they'll be back. I'm sure of it.’ Tom wasn't as sure as he sounded but he wanted to calm his mother so they could make plans.
     ‘But they're only boys. They're not used to surviving like Michael does. And goodness knows what danger they'll be in.’
     ‘Come now, Norah,’ Kathryn coaxed. ‘You said it yourself just recently, sure you did. They have to start growing up soon. Tom's right. They have to learn for themselves now. I know tis hard but you have to be brave, and trust.’
     ‘I'm trying, Kathryn, but I've lost three children now. This is almost worse than having babies die…this wondering where they are, whether they're alive or dead, whether they need me.’
     Kathryn held her through another bout of tears.
     ‘Ma, where's the coat?’ Tom could restrain himself no longer.
     ‘Out on the fence. I put it there last night after we'd cleared it out. It smelt so bad. I thought the rain and fresh air might –’
     ‘It's not there.’
     ‘I put it just near the gate, away from the house.’
     ‘It's gone. It wasn't there when I left this morning.’
     ‘It must have blown off. The wind was bad for hours,’ Kathryn suggested.
     ‘No,’ Norah insisted. ‘I made sure it was well attached, and it's so heavy. Even if it blew off it wouldn't be far.’
     ‘Then he's taken it on his way through,’ Tom hissed. 
     ‘What?’ Norah looked stunned.
     ‘I tell you he's come and taken it.’ Tom was adamant. ‘Which is all the more reason  we have to move quickly.’
     ‘But where will we go? You said the hut's not fit to live in.’
     ‘It's not, but I've made some decisions, Ma. I want you to trust me with this. We need to leave here. We'll be putting the Pollards in danger if we don't. Pa will know that we found that gold and I don't know what he's capable of. I'm taking you all into Kelso. I'm sure Mr Atkins will put us up. Mary's been saying she wants to get work there. I reckon he'd give her a room large enough for you and William and Theresa to stay with her if she works for him.’
     ‘What about you?’
     ‘I'll take a room too, and I'll get started on rebuilding just as soon as I can. I might even be able to get some extra work on one of the other farms. I'll find something. And we know where there's a good crop of vegetables and fruit for the next few months. We won't starve,’ he said with a chuckle, trying to lighten the mood. ‘I can see to the animals and the garden. The cows will be fine. I can take care of all that, Ma. Don't worry.’
     ‘And where's the money coming from to take a room at the inn…and rebuild?’
     Tom swallowed and then raised his chin defiantly. ‘I'm taking this gold into Bathurst just as soon as I get you lot settled in Kelso. I'll get the cash and we'll use it to set ourselves up.’
     ‘Tom! It's not ours! You can't use someone else's money that way.’
     ‘Well, I can't go all over the countryside looking for who owns it, can I? I wouldn't even recognise those men if I saw them. And if I wander into some diggers' camp and say I've gold that Michael Kearns stole, I'd have every digger from here to Wellington down my throat. If the time comes when we find out who it belonged to, I'll start paying it back. But for now, we need to use it. I won't have my family with no roof over their heads while I've a pocket full of gold.’
     ‘What about the key?’ Hamlet said quietly as the family made ready to leave.
     ‘I'll hold onto it. Maybe one day I'll find out who owns it. But, perhaps, whoever it is has gone to the bank and claimed their box anyway, like you said.’
     ‘Maybe,’ Hamlet mumbled. He tentatively offered his hand to Tom in farewell. 
     Tom reached out and shook it gratefully. Elizabeth's face broke into a broad smile and Kathryn nodded approvingly.
     ‘Good things come from bad, so they do,’ she said softly. ‘Now you get yourselves settled in Kelso and we'll be in to visit before too long.’
     ‘Thank you, both of you, for everything.’ Norah's face was losing the swollen redness of her morning grief. ‘I'll see you soon, then. We'll be fine, so we will.’ Despite her words, it was clear her heart was breaking over her lost sons and daughter.

By November, Norah was more optimistic. 
     ‘Tis wonderful what he's achieved, Kathryn. I've never seen Tom work so hard, and he's had some help from friends on other properties. They've been very understanding.  They know what Michael's like and glad to see Tom so keen to rebuild. We'll be back in before Christmas, so you'll be able to come and see it all. I have a real kitchen at the back, and the stove is huge and the copper for washing is grand, especially for the cold weather. It's all so much better than we had before. Tom says he'd still like to add some extra rooms for him and Elizabeth but that'll come in time.’
     ‘I've never doubted Tom would take care of Elizabeth.’
     ‘I know you haven't, but Hamlet still has his doubts. I don't blame him for worrying that Tom might be like Michael. That's what it is, isn't it? And sometimes Tom worries himself that a part of his father might be in him, too. He agonises over it. But there he is, working on the rail line as well as keeping up the farm. How could anyone think he's anything like his father?’
     ‘I know he's not, Norah, but it's very hard for Hamlet. He's tried to put the past behind him…his own past I mean. He's tried for so many years to deserve his mother's forgiveness. So he struggles with the idea of forgiving a man who's never tried to redeem himself. He can't understand Michael, sure he can't, and it frightens him to think his daughter might end up with someone like that.’
     ‘Who of us can forgive a man like Michael?’ Norah's voice was hardly audible. ‘God asks much of us when He asks us to forgive those who don't deserve it.’
     ‘He does, and tis only with His strength that we can do it.’
     ‘I keep asking Him to help me with it, Kathryn, for I know I can't forgive Michael in my own strength. Not when his wrongs go on and on. Not when I keep wondering if my daughter's safe, or even alive. And the boys…what has he done with them? But I have to leave it all in God's hands, sure I do.’ Norah blinked away tears and did her best to smile.

It was early August the following year, and Norah was chatting with Mary in the kitchen of the Kelso Inn, where she had now been working for a year. Norah was proud of the way that her daughter had applied herself to her new position. 
     ‘There's a young man would like to speak to you, Norah.’ Bob Atkins popped his head around the door. 
     ‘Oh?’ Norah said distractedly. ‘Who would know I was here?’       
     ‘I think you'll want to see him.’ Bob smiled.
     Norah frowned at her daughter and followed Bob into the bar.
     ‘Hello, Ma.’ The young man stood with his dusty hat in his hands. He was taller than she remembered, but not so chubby. Probably hasn't eaten a decent meal since he left a year ago, she thought. She looked him up and down, afraid she was seeing an apparition and if she rushed at him and took him in her arms he might vanish.
     ‘Joseph, oh, Joseph. Is it really you?’ Somehow, her legs moved toward him, although she thought they would collapse under her, such was her shock and delight. 
     ‘Where have you been?’ She looked into his face, which she was sure hadn't been washed for months. His hair was caked with dirt and she had to admit that he smelled almost as bad as his father had the last time she had seen him. 
     ‘I'm all right, Ma. You shouldn't worry,’ he said. ‘I've come into town for supplies.  Pa and Mick are out near Sunny Corner, probably not for long, though. Pa likes to move around a lot.’
     ‘I imagine he does. And what is it you're doing with him? Where did you get money to buy supplies? Is Mick all right?’
     ‘Whoa, Ma. One thing at a time. Mick is fine. He likes the life…the movin' about.  We've found a few specks…not much. Sunny Corner's pretty mined out. But we stay out of the main camps. Pa's…well, he's not…himself. He comes and goes, if you know what I mean.’
     ‘He's always come and gone, Joseph. That is being himself.’
     ‘No. I mean…in his head. He goes on about all kinds of things. Often doesn't make much sense. And then he goes quiet, as if he's thinkin' a lot, but I wonder if he's just gone blank. It's hard to explain.’
     ‘It sounds like he's losing his mind, Joseph, and in no condition to be caring for you and Mick. Look at you! You're starting to look just like him. Please come home. Tom's rebuilt the old place. Please Joseph, come home.’ Norah's eyes filled with tears and Joseph looked away.
     ‘I can't, Ma. Mick wouldn't leave Pa, and I can't leave Mick out there. He's only ten and he doesn't think too well for himself, you know.’
     ‘That's why he needs to be home with his family.’ Norah felt herself getting annoyed.  ‘And you too. You're only a year older than Mick yourself, Joseph. You're not old enough to be – ’
      ‘I'm nearly twelve, Ma, and I'm bigger than you.’ He stepped close to show that he looked down on her. 
     ‘Yes, I can see you've shot up. I think you're going to be tall, like Tom,’
     ‘No. I'm not like Tom.’ His voice turned steely and then softened again. ‘I have to look after Mick. He wants what Pa…well, Pa keeps talkin' about adventures, about finding treasure, about going to Sydney. We can't work out why. He babbles on about it.  Seems to have something to do with Mr Pollard but he doesn't come right out with it. He goes round and round in circles. He hates the Pollards. I don't understand it really, but Mick's determined to help Pa do what he wants. I have to stay with 'em, Ma.’
     ‘I see. Then, there's nothing I can do except pray for you boys, and hope one day you'll...’ Norah leaned into her son's chest, letting the tears flow. 

Joseph patted his mother’s back awkwardly. He was anxious now to be away lest he give in to her. Life with his father was not as exciting as he had hoped and certainly not too comfortable, but he couldn't imagine coming back to live with his mother and Tom again. Too much hard work and routine. He knew exactly how it would be with Tom.  And his mother would be at him to read books. No, he had to take his chances with his Pa for a while, at least until he worked out what he wanted to do with his life. 
     ‘Don't worry, Ma. I won't tell Pa and Mick I saw you. It was just that I spotted Mary out back at the washin' line a bit earlier, an' I thought I'd say hello. Pa is real mad about…losin' his gold. But I know you and Tom need it to look after the young ones, so  it's all right.’ It was the only way he knew to tell his mother that he really did care about her and his young brother and sister.

Norah watched her son walk from the inn and then she collapsed into a chair. Within moments, Mary was at her shoulder, rubbing her arm softly.
     ‘Don't worry, Ma. They'll come back.’
     ‘Rebecca hasn't.’ Norah wiped tears from her face. ‘She hasn't even let me know if she's alive. What have I done wrong?’
     ‘You haven't done anything wrong, Ma. It's Pa. He's bad. You've done the best you can. And Rebecca is probably married, maybe got babies. She's sure to be all right.’
     Norah almost grinned. Kathryn would say that Mary had her mother's optimism, even when it was hardly warranted. But then, the reality of her grief struck her. ‘No, if she had babies and she was all right she would know how a mother's heart aches for her children. She would contact me if she was all right.’
     ‘Then I guess we'll have to do what you always say.’
     ‘What's that, love?’
     ‘We'll have to trust God and be patient.’

Early in November, two carts pulled up in front of the Kelso pub. The occupants of both were still chattering animatedly about the train they had seen pull into Bowenfels Station, just out of Lithgow. The inaugural train from Sydney through the Blue Mountains, had, for the first time, crossed the gorges and steep inclines across which the Great Zig Zag Rail line had been built. The Zig Zag was regarded as a major engineering feat, reported as being without parallel in the world.
     Tom had insisted they go and watch the first train come in, so having left Wiseman's Creek very early that morning, they had waited excitedly on the station while Tom explained the steep manoeuvres, sharp curves, ledges and deep cuttings, as well as the amazing series of reverses which the train would make before coming into the last station. William's eyes had been on stalks all day. Now they were all very tired and anxious to be home. 
     ‘I'll just be a minute,’ Norah called to Tom, as she headed into the inn to see Mary to her room.
     She smiled back at the pair on the front bench of the cart behind. Elizabeth sat close to Tom, her head almost resting on his shoulder. They looked so happy to be together, apparently oblivious to Annie and Harriet behind them, giggling into their hands. It seemed that the couple hadn't a care in the world, yet Norah knew that there would be hell to pay if Hamlet found out that Elizabeth and Tom had driven together to Bowenfels. He was still hoping Elizabeth would forget about marrying Tom; that the pair would grow apart, rather than fuel their love. 
     But Norah and Kathryn knew the two were finding ways to be together in spite of Hamlet's directives. Hamlet was so busy with the farm that he had no time to check on what his girls were up to. And it was quite beyond Norah and Kathryn how Tom and Elizabeth managed to get messages to one another and find places to meet. They only knew that they hadn't the heart to try and stop them.
     So here they were, having had a whole day together in full view of the two families, except for Hamlet, of course, who had insisted that he had far too much to do to be watching a train come into a station. Norah prayed that he would relent soon and give his daughter his blessing, for it was clearly a battle that he was not going to win.
     As she climbed back onto the bench of Kathryn's cart, Norah smiled at young William. His sister, Theresa was draped across him, all but falling asleep. 
     ‘No news?’ Kathryn asked, her low expectation obvious in her voice.
     ‘No. I don't really expect that Rebecca will turn up there after all these years. Bob Atkins tries to distract me now, by giving me a loan of his books. He has a real love of poetry, you know. We have that in common. It gives us something else to talk about.’
     She clutched a small book in her lap. It was no compensation for her daughter but there were often words that helped her give voice to her hopes and dreams. Even what they had seen that day gave her hope for what seemed impossible. If men could make a train climb up a mountain, then, surely, she would one day hold her lost children in her arms again. 

Just before Christmas, Johnny Pollard returned home from Wellington, where he had been living for eighteen months. He had stayed on after the stock drive to work on one of the larger properties in that area. Hamlet had been very disappointed, sensing the future of his farm collapsing bit by bit. However, this year Johnny had a greater surprise for his parents. He brought with him his wife of five months. He and Suzannah O'Neil had been married in July in Wellington, with the approval and permission of Susannah's parents, Johnny assured his family, who had all been gaping at the young girl since she’d walked in the door half hour before. 
     ‘Tis just a bit of a shock, son.’ Kathryn gathered her wits about her and ushered the couple into their small parlour.
     Susannah looked no more than seventeen; a pretty faced, fair haired girl with a broad Scottish accent. Kathryn wanted to hear all the details of how the couple had met, and the answer to a dozen other questions about her son's life over the past year or so.  Hamlet wanted to know if his son was coming back to help on the farm and once Johnny had indicated that they would like to stay, his father visibly relaxed, an almost forgotten smile creeping across his face. 
     ‘At least for a while,’ Johnny continued, his manner apologetic. ‘Susannah needs to be settled. We have a baby coming, and she could do with some help…from Ma, if that's all right with you two.’
     ‘Of course it is,’ Kathryn assured them, her face lighting up. T'will be grand to have a wee one around again, won't it, girls?’
     Harriet and Annie nodded in unison. 
     The thought of becoming a grandmother was very exciting for Kathryn and she felt sure this would give Hamlet new hope for the future. Johnny and Susannah's faces broke into broad smiles of relief and the atmosphere in the house was brighter than it had been for months. 

Elizabeth wondered if the focus on her brother and new sister-in-law might be a welcome thing for her as well. Surely, now that her father had his son back working with him and was going to be a grandfather, his unreasonable rage about her desire to marry Tom would weaken. 
     The moment for testing her hopes came toward the end of January.
     ‘Are you sure?’ Tom asked, his face showing both joy and fear.
     ‘Not absolutely, but the signs are there,’ she answered. ‘I feel very ill and it's hard to hide from Ma. She'll know soon as look at me, I'm sure. I thought we were careful...’
     ‘I'm sorry, Lizzie. It's become so hard to love you so and not…be with you. It's time for your father to get over this anger with me just because he hates my father. I don't even know why he hates him so much. It's Ma that's been hurt all these years, not your Pa.
     ‘Whatever he says, we can't wait now, Tom.’ She looked up into his face, tears welling in her eyes.
     ‘Isn't it just as well I've been building that extra room on our place, then? I knew we would need it soon and though I thought it would be just the two of us, I'll be more than happy for it to be the three of us. You're not to worry, Lizzie. I'll make him understand.’

But Hamlet did not understand. He was aghast that his daughter had spent time with Tom in a manner that could result in her being pregnant.
     ‘You're lying. It can't be true. You're just saying this to make me agree to you being wed and I won't do it. I'll not have my daughter married to a Kearns and that's the end of it.’
     Hamlet stormed from the house leaving his daughter sobbing at the table, Tom trying to comfort her. 
     Kathryn followed him into the yard. She caught up with him at the woodpile where he was about to let his rage out with an axe.
     ‘This has gone far enough, Hamlet. We can't keep those two apart. Elizabeth wouldn't say she was to have a baby if she wasn't. So if that's the case, then they're married before God already whether you approve or not.’
     Hamlet's arms stopped in mid air, his axe waving about menacingly. With a loud sigh, he dropped the implement heavily onto the wood pile. His shoulders slumped and he collapsed onto a large sawn off log.
     ‘What's it all coming to? What have we done wrong? Two of them now, sneaking off, turning up with babes on the way – ’
     ‘Turning up happy as larks, you mean? Finding someone they love and want to spend their lives with? Is it so bad, Hamlet?’
     ‘I don't mind about Johnny and Susannah. She's a nice lass and he's working hard now to make this place their home. It's the other. I'll never accept a Kearns in my family, Kathryn. How can you ask me to after what his father did to me…to us…what he stole from us, what he's brought on us all these years?’
     ‘We've had some terrible losses, I know, but we cannot keep blaming Michael. We can never really know why we suffered some of those losses. I'm really sorry about the brooch. I know how much it meant to you and it can't be replaced. But the money, that's passed. We've done what we wanted to do. We’ve built a place to raise our children. We have a farm.’
     ‘Not like we might have had.’
     ‘And what if we'd had a place twice as big? What good would it have been? Just twice the work is all.’ Kathryn stood tall, her hands on her hips, as if daring him to argue with her.
     He sighed deeply and shook his head, knowing she was right and yet unable to feel the peace and acceptance she did.
     ‘I'll not fight this any longer with Elizabeth. But that doesn't mean I'll be happy about it either. Every time I look at her I'm reminded of that brooch. Have you noticed how much she looks like my mother? She's the image of her and I can't even show her what her grandmother looked like. I can't help but think of what heartache that rogue of a man caused. If Elizabeth marries Tom Kearns, the day will come when she'll regret it, I'm sure of it.’
      'You're a stubborn man, Hamlet, and a fool when it comes to this. You'll be the one with regrets. Surely, if Elizabeth reminds you of your mother then you ought to think what your mother would have wanted for her granddaughter. A happy marriage with a good man, that's what. And Tom’s a good man…whatever his father did.’

To be continued...

Carol Preston

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