© Emma Beach and Cheryl Burman
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End of summer, 1852
Port Phillip Bay, Colony of Victoria, Australia
The barque had spent the best part of the night beating outside the Heads, awaiting some sort of signal. The signal must have come, for a two-masted boat tumbled out between the headlands, plunging and lifting in the swell. It drew close enough for Betsy to see the name, Boomerang, painted in large flowing letters under the bowsprit.
‘The pilot,’ a sailor standing nearby explained. Betsy had no idea what a pilot was. She nodded anyway, sending the blonde braids hanging either side of her head bouncing on her shoulders.
A dinghy was lowered from the Boomerang into the choppy seas and a ladder slung over the side. Three sailors scrambled into the bobbing, tiny boat.
‘What are they doing?’ Betsy asked the sailor, who was watching the scene as intently as herself.
‘Bringin’ the pilot on board. He’ll see us safe through the heads, past the Rip, we ’ope.’
‘Is it dangerous then?’ She frowned at the sailor, who tipped back his cap and examined the pink sky.
‘Prob’ly not today, Miss,’ he assured her. ‘Good weather today. Not like other times I bin through ’ere.’ He lifted his cap and held it to his chest. His eyes were sad.
The pilot came aboard, greetings were called. The Captain yielded the wheel and the pilot nosed the barque into the foaming gap between those grand guardians, Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale.
Betsy clung hard to the nearest bolted-down object as terrifying minutes passed with the sea roiling below them, white waves clashing. When she was sure this must all end in calamity and was preparing herself for death by reciting the Psalms in gasping breaths – then, with no warning, the barque spurted forward into the still waters of Port Phillip Bay like a pebble skipping across a millpond. The courageous group above deck cheered and the men clapped each other on the back as if personally responsible for the safe passage.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Betsy murmured to Annie. Her older sister had appeared beside her at the rail once the ship had steadied.
Annie nodded. ‘So calm.’ She took in great gulps of salty air while the greenish hue of her skin returned to its normal cream. ‘Like a great lake.’
Betsy shaded her eyes, feeling the sun’s heat on her face even this early in the day. Although Mother would likely scold her for no bonnet, the soothing swell of the blue-green waters meant she was in no hurry to go below for a mere bonnet.
Even the timid had braved the deck now, everyone crowding on the forecastle to glimpse this first sight of their new country. The bay widened before the ship’s prow. Sandy beaches came into view, mounds of shiny seaweed sending a faint smell of kelp across the glittering waters. In the far distance, a broken line of hills rose into an unstained sky.
‘Do you think Mother will find this country more to her taste than New Zealand?’ Betsy asked her sister, tossing back a long braid to frown into Annie’s blue eyes.
Annie laughed, shaking the golden curls peeking from under her bonnet. ‘Let’s trust she does. Personally, I hope to never board another ship for as long as I live.’
Memories of the wild three-week storm which had harried the Canterbury on the voyage from London to Port Lyttleton rose uninvited in Betsy’s mind. She shuddered, reliving her terror as she had clung to Annie in the narrow, smelly berth, eyes squeezed tight. She had buried her head in her sister’s neck and tried not to breathe the stench of vomit, urine and human excrement pervading the stifling air, or to hear the cries of their fellow emigrants whose gabbled prayers to God stole through the boom of the gale whipping about the little ship.
Mother had done that to them.
Just as she had now removed them from the comfortable peace of Port Lyttleton to hurl them into the maelstrom of gold-fevered Melbourne. Betsy had loved the tiny village, with its neat rows of new houses smelling of fresh-cut timber, their crisp straight edges softened by flowery curtains swaying in the harbour’s salty breezes. She had loved exploring the warehouses-cum-shops which boasted all the items considered necessary for a civilised life and therefore shipped by the crate load across the oceans from Home. Most of all, she had loved its tall brown mountains embracing the budding settlement like loving, protective arms.
‘I suppose,’ she muttered to Annie, ‘we’ll have more ‘opportunities’ here than in New Zealand.’
Annie giggled. ‘Like our stepfather once said, we’ll have the chance to ‘better ourselves’.’
Our stepfather. His voice rang in Betsy’s head: ‘We could all find ourselves a better life, in California.’ She shut her eyes to help recall George Fitzwater’s solid build and thick brown beard as he stamped the flags in the Twickenham cottage’s tiny kitchen, eyes alight with enthusiasm for a new adventure.
All she saw was his broad back, her step-sister’s trunk balanced on his shoulders, as he, and the step-sister, walked out of their lives that hot June day on the teeming East India Docks.
Less than a year ago.
Betsy sighed. ‘That was California, though,’ she pointed out to Annie. ‘Where Mother didn’t want to take us.’
‘For fear of us girls running wild in godless mining camps.’ Annie laughed again, clamping her hand to her bonnet as a gusty breeze tugged at its peak.
Betsy laughed too, reminding her sister of the man-eating natives which Mother also feared. As did Betsy, of course. Granny Baker didn’t call her Little Mouse for no reason.
Annie shrugged, letting the past go, and pointed directly ahead at a clutch of stone and timber buildings crouched beyond a short pier past a squat lighthouse. ‘Do you think that’s Melbourne?’
‘No, not yet, Miss.’ The ship’s mate had joined them at the rail in time to hear Annie’s question. He touched the edge of his cap. ‘It’s William’s Town, where we’ll meet the medical man.’
‘Medical man?’ Betsy frowned.
‘Yes, indeed. He’ll want to know if we’re all well enough to go on land. Lot of nasty diseases making their way into the colony.’
Betsy stole a narrow-eyed look towards Mother, in conversation with a female passenger further along the rail. Betsy’s younger sisters stood either side of her, their heads not far above the railings, their eyes intent on the settlement on the shore. A fringe of auburn hair which had escaped Mother’s bonnet bounced on her white forehead as she made some emphatic point to her listener. One slim hand clasped her waist, the other rested on the gleaming wood.
She didn’t appear at all concerned at having uprooted her family from the hygienic comfort of Port Lyttelton to die in this strange land of a nasty disease.
Betsy sighed and forced her attention back to the scene ahead. The boat lay off a short distance from William’s Town’s crowded pier, waiting, she assumed, for this medical man. A rowboat separated itself from the mass of small boats dodging like water rats between the larger vessels and came out to meet them.
‘That must be him,’ Annie said, eyeing the moustached, uniformed officer clambering on board.
Betsy tried to think if any of the passengers had shown any sign of illness on the short voyage from New Zealand. Some seasickness, to be expected. The little boy in cabin class with a severe cold. Was it more than a cold? She fretted, scanning the deck for the child. There he was, in his mother’s arms, red-faced and coughing.
The medical man only patted the child’s head and moved on. Betsy let out the breath she hadn’t known she was holding. A clean bill of health was awarded, the passengers cheered, and some left the ship, offloaded onto waiting lighters together with crates and boxes of cargo.
Sailing away from William’s Town, the barque wove its way between numerous listing wrecks. Betsy’s spine tingled, for the gaunt ships were a spectral sight even in the morning brightness, with torn canvas wrapped around peeling masts and ropes dangling from sagging rigging. Gulls perched on the lopsided beams, their white feathers an inappropriate pearl necklace against the blackness of the rotting wood.
The passengers pointed and exclaimed, until a sailor explained, in a sorrowful voice, ‘Been anchored ’ere since they found the gold. Crews up and left ’em. Captains too. Off to Bendigo for the gold, fast as could be.’
The ships’ loveless plight tugged at Betsy’s heart.
They’re like us. Deserted first by Papa, then by Mr Fitzwater, leaving us fatherless like those ships are captainless.
It seemed to her these vessels had been discarded on the seas solely to give her an excuse for melancholy.
Dear Papa had died. It wasn’t his intention to desert them. Betsy didn’t think it was Mr Fitzwater’s either. More, it was Mother’s determination to make a new life in the respectable, God-fearing settlements being established by the Canterbury Association in New Zealand which had led to the second abandonment.
The sun climbed into a sky as blue as any The Canterbury had sailed under, and the ship moved into a river-mouth. Wide at first, it quickly closed about them, the waters becoming browner the further inland they travelled. Betsy’s melancholy melted in the brilliant light and she hung over the rail, as curious as any other twelve-year-old, peering upstream. So narrow was the estuary and so choked with vessels, she felt the need to suck in her stomach as other ships passed them by.
Their passage along the muddy river was slow. Betsy gazed across the flat, swampy land, watching the grasses sway, dry and burnt by the summer sun. Colourful birds rose above her, calling in haunting tones.
She imagined herself as one of those birds, spying on the ant-like people below, curious at these strange arrivals creeping their way across the uncivilised marshland.
The chatter on deck and the cries of seagulls grew louder the closer they drew to the docks. A gusty breeze lifted and fell, and someone exclaimed, ‘Goodness, what a terrible smell.’
Betsy mistakenly inhaled, gagging at the stink of raw sewage.
‘Phew,’ her sister Louisa complained, with all the bluntness of a nine-year-old. She dragged a dark ringlet across her face and buried her nose in its hot sweatiness. All over the deck, women placed handkerchiefs to their faces, while the men coughed into their hands.
Hard on the smell came a rising clamour.
Betsy leaned on the rail, peering ahead into the confusion of the dock, listening to the sailors shouting instructions to those on the wharf tying the barque fast to the great timber landing. Their cries clashed with the bellowed curses of labourers hauling crates and trunks from other arriving ships. Adding to the cacophony was the haggling between wagon-drivers and disembarking passengers who would throw up their hands and, finally, load some small portion of their luggage onto the empty drays.
The swarming seagulls shrieked in competition, protesting every new invasion of their already crowded brown river.
Overlaying all were the smells: of too warm bodies, decaying food, horse dung, and, mostly, of sewage. Betsy held her nose and dared to peek over the side into the scum-laden waters, quickly lifting her head again at the sight of a dead rat bobbing amidst the litter.
She shrank back, closing her eyes and wishing she could also close her ears and nose. Had she imagined the sparkling bay behind them? Those placid, clean waters must have belonged to a different world.
What were they doing here, in this smelly, strident place? No good could come to them amongst this unwelcoming squalor.
‘Hurry along, Betsy. Do you expect to be carried ashore?’
She opened her eyes to see Annie, Louisa and Sarah on their way to the gangplank to join the eager line of disembarking passengers. Her mother waited, one foot tapping, her own and Betsy’s belongings at her feet.
‘Sorry, Mother, I’m coming.’ She took a shallow breath and hurried onto the wharf.
Mrs Fitzwater accosted a wagon driver, wanting to know what his price would be to transport the family to an address in Little Collins Street.
The address, together with an introduction, had been provided by the gentleman whose story of booming Melbourne had led Mrs Fitzwater to remove her daughters from New Zealand to the new colony. The gentleman had explained how lodgings were so scarce in the booming town newcomers had to be housed in tents. Mrs Fitzwater had been grateful to avoid the tents, although ten-year-old Sarah and little Louisa had expressed disappointment at not being able to play soldiers.
A line of young men and families quickly formed behind Betsy’s family, all eager to purchase the wagon driver’s services.
The driver pushed back his hat and scratched his shiny forehead.
‘What we carry.’
‘Little Collins Street you say?’
He hummed and aahed, stretched up to peer over their heads at the families with their trunks and boxes, and rubbed his sweaty forehead with a crumpled handkerchief.
The price he quoted brought a gasp of horror from Mrs Fitzwater. It seemed it was true, what the Captain had said, about the vast expense of getting goods ashore and to your destination.
‘Robbery!’ she exclaimed. ‘How far can it be?’
‘’tain’t far at all, ma’am,’ he confessed. ‘These youngsters with you?’ inclining his head at the four girls.
‘Well, ma’am, if’n I be you, I’d walk it and save myself a pretty penny.’
Instructions were given, to which Betsy paid no attention as they involved several lefts and rights and street names she couldn’t remember. She trusted Mother would, or Annie, who listened keenly.
‘Ask anyone, if’n ya get lost.’ The driver stepped away and started bargaining with the family behind.
‘Come along, it appears we have some exercise ahead.’ Mrs Fitzwater hung one bag over her shoulder, tucked another under her left arm and picked up her carpetbag in her right hand. ‘Good for us, after all those days on the boat.’
Without waiting for her daughters, she walked with what Betsy considered uncalled-for confidence in the direction the driver had indicated.
Annie, Louisa and Sarah fussed with their own luggage, Sarah complaining tearfully how sweltering it was and how heavy the bags were and she was certain she was carrying most of Louisa’s belongings as well as her own.
Pushing down a deep yearning for the calm of Port Lyttelton, Betsy collected her own bags and started, hesitantly, after her family.
End of summer, 1852
Melbourne, Colony of Victoria, Australia
It was indeed hot. Not hot like on The Canterbury in the tropics where the heat had dampened her skin and the breeze off the rolling sea offered a random coolness. This was a dry heat, where the sun’s fingers pinched at Betsy’s bonnet and the glare from the azure sky made her squint. There were no trees to offer even occasional shade. Her woollen dress itched her skin.
Their way was all uphill, straight and long, the wide streets hidden in a miasma of dust kicked up by the mass of wagons, plodding bullock carts, horses and pedestrians.
They trudged along the broad thoroughfare beside hotels, public buildings, shops and houses, hardly any one of them completed. To Betsy, the whole place exuded an insubstantial air, suggesting it could all be taken down and packed away tomorrow should someone decide they wanted to move the town elsewhere.
Those shops offering a familiar face, with large glass windows stuffed full of samples of every good to be purchased inside, seemed out of place: English travellers in a heathen land. The larger, Betsy assumed more important, buildings were of great blue-coloured stones with their names engraved in tall letters above fancy porticoes. There were others, too: rude shacks of timber and hastily-fired bricks sulking in the presence of their grand neighbours, giving the impression they might give up their pretence and tumble to the baked earth at any moment.
Here and there, narrow planks of wood stretched from the pavement to the road, providing a grit-layered bridge across wide, deep gutters to the mean and grand buildings alike. The gutters were dry, although full of decomposing refuse to add to the general stink.
Betsy wrinkled her nose. Did the rain, when it came, wash the gutters clean? The ground was so dry, dusty and cracked, she couldn’t imagine it ever rained in this country.
Once, she caught sight of a man in a narrow alley, relieving himself. She averted her head, locking shocked eyes with a bare-footed, thin black man. He appeared as lost and frightened as Betsy felt, carried along by the careless mob.
‘Sarah,’ Annie exclaimed. ‘Mother, quick, something’s wrong with Sarah.’
Sarah had dropped her bags in the dirt of the street and stood, swaying. Annie reached her first, supporting her sister around the waist while Betsy pirouetted around, searching for somewhere Sarah could sit.
‘Over there.’ She pointed to a shop with an awning offering shade. Mrs Fitzwater rushed to help Annie while Louisa danced from one leg to the other, crying, ‘What’s wrong with her?’
Betsy wondered also, understanding this was not merely a matter of heat and excitement, for Sarah’s eyes rolled wildly, her arms shook and her legs trembled. Mother and Annie half-carried the quivering girl to the pavement under the awning, where she collapsed onto her back, her head lolling, her arms and legs shuddering violently. A woman leaving the shop stepped around them as she would step around stray dogs. The shopkeeper himself, hearing the commotion, ran out, gasped, ‘Oh, good God,’ and ran back inside, calling over his shoulder, ‘Water, I’ll fetch some water.’
‘Watch our bags,’ Mother snapped at the hysterical Louisa. ‘Betsy, run to this address. I think it’s not far, up the lane ahead, Little Collins Street, do you see?’
‘Yes, yes, I see.’ It was the address they were trying to reach.
‘Bring this Dr Campbell here, if he is at home, quick as you can.’
With a last worried glance at the writhing Sarah, Betsy ran to the lane, clasping her bonnet to her head with one hand, skirts gathered in the other. People on foot and in wagons stared at this girl flying along in the heat, making way for her in light of the urgency of her mission.
181, 181. Where was it? Had she passed it? Should she go back, no she hadn’t gone far enough, it must be here somewhere.
Her blood hammered in her veins, the sweat dripping off her face as she raced up the long hill. She faintly registered there weren’t so many fetid puddles and piles of rubbish here, and the air seemed clearer and fresher. She slowed, watching for the rare house numbers.
She pounded on the gleaming wooden door with its brass number, 181, and a sign, Dr M Campbell, Surgeon, engraved in copperplate on a polished timber shingle secured to the brick wall. Below it, another less neat sign proclaimed Rooms to Let in white paint.
A plump woman in a brown dress and white cap peered out through the open door. ‘Whatever’s going on?’
Betsy gasped, unable to speak.
‘Is it an emergency?’ The woman came out from the house to squint into Betsy’s sweating face. ‘On account of the doctor is sitting down to his dinner at the moment.’
‘Yes, an emergency, ma’am.’ Betsy’s chest heaved. ‘My sister, some sort of attack, convulsions, down there.’ Still breathing hard, she pointed back down the lane.
The woman frowned, and Betsy had the panicked thought she might turn her away.
‘My mother,’ intake of breath, ‘is Mrs Fitzwater. We’re on our way to you, to Dr Campbell, for the rooms.’
‘Lordy!’ The woman placed her hands on her hips. ‘What a way to arrive. Come in, come in, I’ll let the Doctor know.’
Betsy didn’t want to go in. Sarah might be dying. She wanted the Doctor to come out. Still, she followed the woman inside to a cool hallway lined with chairs, grateful to hear her calling, ‘Doctor, an emergency, a young girl, you’re needed.’
A tall, stooped man with narrow brown eyes and mussed, thinning hair hurried out from a room to one side of the hall, wiping his mouth with a large napkin. ‘Well, Mrs Godfries, what’s this about?’
‘It’s Mrs Fitzwater. Remember how we were talking about her last evening and wondering if they were coming or not? Now this girl tells me they’re on their way here and her sister has had some sort of attack, convulsions, she says.’
While Mrs Godfries explained, Dr Campbell strode into a room whose open door was adorned with a ceramic plate inscribed Surgery. He emerged with his doctor’s bag, asking Betsy, ‘Can you breathe yet?’
‘Yes.’ She had stopped panting, although her throat was so dry she could hardly move her tongue.
‘Then we had best go.’ The Doctor opened the door, standing aside to let Betsy pass through. He pulled the door shut, saying, ‘Lead the way.’
They trotted back down the hill, Betsy answering Dr Campbell’s questions as they hastened along.
‘The shop with the awning,’ she puffed. ‘I left them there.’
She blinked. Mother, her sisters and all their luggage were nowhere to be seen.
The Doctor hurried across the wooden plank and into the shop. Betsy went in after him.
In the dim coolness, she found a white-faced Sarah sitting on a chair, Mother standing beside her holding a glass of water, and Annie kneeling at their sister’s feet clasping the girl’s hands. Louisa, her fist in her mouth, stood by their piled bags next to the counter.
‘Ah, Dr Campbell.’ The shopkeeper rushed forward to grasp the Doctor’s hand. ‘You’re a sight for sore eyes, if ever there was one.’
The Doctor nodded at Mother. ‘Mrs Fitzwater, I assume?’
‘Yes, and thank you for coming so quickly, Dr Campbell. I have no idea what happened, and as you see, she appears recovered, though pale and weak.’
‘Sarah? Is that right?’ the Doctor asked Sarah. She let her head fall to her chest in what appeared to be a nod.
The Doctor looked into Sarah’s eyes, probed her mouth, felt her wrist and her neck and questioned Mother about what had happened.
‘Epileptic fit,’ he pronounced.
‘Epilepsy?’ exclaimed Mother. Her hands flew to her chin in urgent prayer.
Betsy frowned at Annie, who shrugged her ignorance.
The Doctor nodded his confirmation. ‘Let’s get her home and into bed, and I’ll explain later.’
‘Will I die?’ Sarah’s voice was so small and scared, Betsy’s heart somersaulted.
‘No child, you won’t die. Come along, you can walk I think? Good girl. Here, take my arm. Your mother and sisters will bring your things.’
Sarah stood, rocked briefly, clutched the Doctor’s arm, and shuffled across the shop floor to the door.
‘Go on ahead,’ the Doctor instructed Betsy, ‘and let Mrs Godfries know we are on our way, and to make up a bed on the couch in the front room.’
Mrs Godfries opened the door immediately at Betsy’s rapid knock.
‘Is everything all right?’ she asked.
Betsy nodded, as she could hardly speak. Between deep breaths, she managed to pass on the instructions for the couch and asked if she might help herself to some water, please.
Mrs Godfries pointed to a door at the back of the hall. ‘There’s a jug of boiled water in the kitchen.’ She left Betsy to look out for herself and headed up the dark-stained stairs to fetch the linen.
Betsy took her glass of water back into the front room, looking about as she gulped it down, curious about how a Doctor lived in the colonies.
Very well, it appeared. This front room was grander even than Mrs McDougall’s lodging house parlour in Port Lyttleton. The wooden floor was covered by a patterned rug such as Betsy had never seen before. And as well as the couch being made up by Mrs Godfries for Sarah, two deep, leather chairs stood either side of a cast iron fireplace where kindling lay ready for the winter. Along the wall by the fireplace, a polished bookcase threatened to heave its contents onto the grand carpet. A tall, glass-fronted cabinet contained thick leather tomes, side-by-side with strange-looking instruments, while an occasional table covered with papers sat beneath the velvet-curtained window facing the lane.
This was where they were to live? In Betsy’s dazed mind, she hoped Sarah’s illness wouldn’t detract from her mother’s anticipated delight.
Mrs Fitzwater and her daughters arrived, escorted into the house by Dr Campbell. Betsy held her hand to her mouth to stop from laughing as her mother gazed around, raising her eyebrows, and raising them even higher as she entered the front room.
Introductions were made to Mrs Godfries while Sarah was deprived of her boots and bonnet and tucked up on the couch with a glass and a jug of water on a stool by her side.
Betsy grinned at Annie and Louisa standing in the hallway with their eyes popping and their heads about to fall off their shoulders.
‘Come along, we’ll get your bags upstairs.’ Mrs Godfries interrupted their awe to usher the three of them up the stairs. As they went, Betsy could hear her mother expressing her gratitude to the Doctor.
‘Unusual circumstances, but I’m pleased to make your acquaintance at last Mrs Fitzwater,’ the Doctor said. ‘We were near to giving you up.’
‘I thank God you didn’t, Dr Campbell. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.’
Betsy considered this covered both poor Sarah’s attack and the shortage of accommodation in the town. Mother was right to thank God, and that it was a Doctor they would stay with, and in such a lovely house, at least until they knew what ailed Sarah.
Mrs Fitzwater sank into the softness of the leather wing chair to the side of the cold fireplace. Her feet in their dusty boots lifted momentarily from the rug. She planted them firmly down again and straightened her back, her hands clasped on her lap and her still-bonnetted head lifted high.
‘A most pleasant room, Mrs Godfries,’ she said, as if such rooms were as normal to her as nests to a bird.
Mrs Godfries, returned from directing the three girls upstairs, placed a china cup of tea on a doily protecting the polished gleam of the side table. ‘Yes, indeed, Mrs Fitzwater. Before the gold, the Doctor had it all to himself, but the shortage of accommodation in the town is so acute he felt it his God-given duty to share his good fortune.’
And at a reasonable price, Mrs Fitzwater considered. She was pleased at the apparent bargain she had found for herself and her daughters. To be housed in such respectable lodgings would enhance their own respectability right from the outset of this new venture.
‘Does the Doctor receive many guests?’ she asked. Such as these newly wealthy miners I’ve heard so much talk of?
Mrs Godfries chuckled, hands on her broad hips. ‘Not many, no, Mrs Fitzwater. Much too busy with his patients, is the good Doctor.’
‘Oh, I see.’
‘I’ll leave you to your tea. Tasks to attend to, you understand.’ Mrs Godfries nodded at Sarah, asleep on the long sofa. ‘I’m sure your little girl will be as right as rain come tomorrow. This heat sets off all kinds of strange ailments and reactions.’
The housekeeper waddled through the doorway into the hall and Mrs Fitzwater was left to sip her tea and ponder. She could faintly hear the girls above her, giggling and chatting in the room allocated to them by Mrs Godfries. She stood up and walked to where Sarah lay, her stockinged legs curled under her and one arm flung over the edge of the sofa. The girl’s face was flushed and damp and her eyelids flickered from time to time as if the epilepsy had still not finished its course through her frail body.
My ethereal one, Mrs Fitzwater thought with a rare touch of something more than simple motherly love. Sarah had always been the child who pulled most at her heart. But not the one who worried her most. No, that was Betsy.
She turned from Sarah and wandered back to her deep chair and the cooling tea. Instead of sitting again, she picked up the cup and sipped at it while peeking between the velvet curtains into the laneway beyond. Well-dressed men and women walked past, intent on their necessary errands, for who would go out voluntarily in this heat? The women carried elegant parasols to protect them from the fiery sun; their accompanying men wore tall hats.
Just like in London on a summer’s day.
Would that be her girls in the years to come? Not so far ahead for Annie, perhaps. Her oldest was fifteen, and wore her hair up and her skirts long. Yes, a good match for Annie could come along as soon as it liked.
Now, Betsy. Mrs Fitzwater sighed. Little Mouse, Betsy’s grandmother called her, for the girl seemed mostly content to go along with what her elders and betters decided for her. On occasion, however, she was wont to show a mulish obstinacy which Mrs Fitzwater worried concealed a trait likely unattractive to a suitable husband.
Like the day in Port Lyttleton’s one road, after the luncheon at the McDougalls’ lodging house where Betsy had worked as a domestic; the luncheon where Mrs Fitzwater had first heard of the newly minted miners of Melbourne and their search for respectable wives.
Betsy had run – run! – after her as she and the two youngest girls had walked back to Mr James’ house, where Mrs Fitzwater was the housekeeper.
She had turned, eyebrows raised at the sight of her daughter running in the street.
‘What on earth, Betsy?’
‘Mother, you won’t take us away from here, will you, please? Not to Melbourne, or anywhere?’ Betsy had clasped her hands under her chin and stared at her mother as if she was some lowly actress in a melodrama.
Mrs Fitzwater had drawn back, lifting her chin to show her view of these unfortunate dramatics. It was also a gesture of surprise, albeit suppressed, that Betsy had so quickly divined her mother’s newly-formed intention to seek out these well-off potential husbands.
‘It’s not about Hamish, Mother, truly.’ Hamish was the young man of the house who appeared to be sweet on Betsy. A wagon-driver, a mere wagon-driver! ‘But Mrs McDougall is so kind and I’m learning so much’ (as if this argument should appeal to her mother) ‘and I very badly want to stay.’
‘What you want, Elizabeth,’ Mrs Fitzwater had told her in the coolest of tones, ‘is of little matter to me if I deem it not to be in your interest.’
She had reached out to touch Betsy’s shoulder, appeasing. ‘My dear daughter, it’s as I said to Annie on the beach just last week – the opportunities here are too limited.’ She had shaken her head. ‘You would both end up marrying quite unsuitably, simply because there is no other choice. I will not see such a thing happen.’
‘Christchurch? Could we go to Christchurch instead?’
Over the imprisoning brown mountains, following the high, rough trail pursued by most of those who sought a new life on the south island of New Zealand. They had all passed through Lyttelton. Mrs Fitzwater had neither seen nor heard anything to tempt her into following their path.
‘No different.’ She had dismissed the idea with a flick of her gloved hand. ‘No, for your sakes, my daughters’ – with a glance towards Louisa’s and Sarah’s gaping faces – 'we must move on.’ She had sighed, reliving the past several difficult months. ‘We’ve come this far and gone through so much, we must take the extra step to make it all worthwhile.’
‘It’s worthwhile here, Mother.’
Mrs Fitzwater’s appeasement had flamed into glittering anger. ‘You will not contradict me, Elizabeth. We will do what I believe is best for my family and that is an end to it.’
She had taken Louisa and Sarah by their hands and walked away, tossing over her shoulder, ‘Shouldn’t you be helping Mrs McDougall this instant, and not arguing in the street like a common servant?’
‘I am a common servant.’
Betsy had shouted it out. Mrs Fitzwater had wheeled about in time to see the girl clap her hand to her offending mouth before she blurted out goodness knows what other thoughts. Probably about not being too good to marry a wagon driver.
She had nearly given way to a strong desire to slap Betsy’s cheek, to bring some sense into her pretty romantic head. Their public position in the road had stopped her half-raised hand.
‘The sooner I take you from here the better, Elizabeth,’ she had hissed. ‘I am ashamed, totally ashamed.’
There had been a heavy rainstorm that afternoon. Mr James had invited Mrs Fitzwater to take tea with him in the over-furnished parlour. He had passed the time with the usual dreary talk about his beatific wife who had died shortly after their arrival in the colony, and her babe with her. Mrs Fitzwater considered the wife to have been a poor creature, frail in health and subject to fainting. She didn’t know if she could abide the man’s mawkish twitterings about this weak, although sainted, creature much longer.
After the tea things had been cleared away and Mr James had removed himself to his study, Mrs Fitzwater had stood by the open parlour window breathing in the salty, moist wind blowing fitfully off the beach.
She had mulled over the stories the luncheon guest at the lodging house had told about those gold-seekers in the new colony of Victoria who had struck it rich. There were many of them, it appeared, but rough men, from poor backgrounds.
‘So these newly rich men haul themselves into the genteel classes by marrying the first decent woman they come across, which,’ the guest had nodded in Mrs Fitzwater’s direction, ‘is difficult given the number of decent women in the colony is as yet very small.’
‘Is that so?’ Mrs Fitzwater had drawn her eyes away from the guest to eat her bread-and-butter pudding.
Standing by the velvet curtains in Little Collins St, Mrs Fitzwater nodded briskly, remembering how she had felt justified that wet Sunday in her plan to take her family from that isolated, dull and tiny village and seek another new life amongst the gold-tinted prospects of flourishing Melbourne.
June - December, 1852
Melbourne, Colony of Victoria, Australia
‘Do you remember the scorching weather the day we arrived?’ Annie asked.
‘And dry.’ Betsy gathered her skirts with one hand and scowled at the mud, and worse, clinging to the hems. With her other hand, she hugged her basket of shopping close to her chest, her head bent against the cold wind squalling up the filthy lane.
The balmy weather of autumn had fled, forced north by the incessant southerlies, or perhaps drowned by the constant rain.
‘And how comfortable it was in Dr Campbell’s house?’ Annie grimaced.
Betsy shook her head. No use dwelling on their short-lived luxury.
Dr Campbell had moved to Bendigo in the middle of April to care for those former miners who had metamorphosed into men of import in the booming gold town, plus the wealthy squatters settling the vast grassy plains around about.
He hadn’t invited Mrs Fitzwater and her daughters to accompany him. Although Betsy saw no reason why he should have done so, her mother had taken their consequent forced move into the hastily-erected shanties of East Collingwood very badly.
Mrs Godfries had gone with the Doctor. ‘Of course,’ Mrs Fitzwater had sniped.
Wanting to move away from this tired topic, Betsy grumbled, ‘Do you remember how you once said the weather was so much more pleasant here than at home?’
The narrow street resembled a river more than a road, and they had to skirt rank puddles as they scurried along, hoping to reach home ahead of the next driving shower.
Annie giggled, tripping around the worst of the mud. ‘I think I said, I believed so,’ she defended herself. ‘Besides, I was talking about New Zealand.’
They both laughed, sharing the memory of Port Lyttelton’s interminable drizzle. Betsy chose not to also think of Hamish or of Mrs McDougall’s bright parlour.