© Emma Beach and Cheryl Burman
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1852 - 1853
“AUSTRALIAN FEMALE MART AND LADIES DEPOT, 134 Bourke-street, MRS MCCORMACK, MANAGER - This well-known establishment for civility, attention and moderate charges, is daily well attended by Town and Country Employers. Females requiring speedy and well-paid Situations will save much trouble by attending .... Numerous orders now remaining.”
The Argus, Melbourne, Dec 1852
Melbourne - Sydney Road, Colony of Victoria, Australia
Carts, carriages, pedestrians, and riders on galloping horses with steaming necks crowded the pot-holed track. The coach lurched its drunken way among them, and Betsy lurched with it, counting off the distance between herself and Annie’s waving form with each jerk of the hard seat. She fixed her gaze on the scuffed wall opposite and clenched her jaw to stifle the tears.
Mother was right – it was time she earned her way.
Annie’s husband couldn’t be expected to keep Mother, Betsy, Sarah and Louisa as well as his new wife, could he?
And she would be thirteen next month, which although not fourteen as Mother had lied to the haughty Mrs McCormack at The Ladies Mart, did mean she was almost an adult.
Besides, it would be exciting living on a station. Mother had beamed at Mrs McCormack, who had just priced Betsy at seventy-five pounds. ‘How grand you will be, Elizabeth,’ she had exclaimed, the use of Betsy’s proper name emphasising the grandness of living on a station.
Betsy didn’t believe any of it.
Panic bubbled in her throat. She wasn’t only fatherless now. She was motherless and sisterless too, jolting all alone towards who knew what in a coach crammed with indifferent strangers. Was Annie still waving? Was Mother already sorry for sending her daughter away? Betsy clutched at these thoughts as tightly as she scrunched Louisa’s farewell gift of a white embroidered handkerchief between her fingers.
The other passengers chatted like birds in spring, as if they had never had to leave anyone or anything behind in their lives. Betsy turned from their carefree gossip. She propped her chin on her hand and miserably watched her sighing breaths stamp fleeting circles of damp on the window’s pitted glass. Outside, the traffic thinned as the coach rattled past the half-built houses, shops and hotels and on into the countryside, where the ruts in the dry-baked track deepened and the passengers laughingly apologised for constantly bumping against each other’s shoulders. Betsy looked out at sturdy farmhouses scattered across low hills. Sheep and cows grazed on the summer-faded slopes, and teams of bullocks dragged ploughs through the fields, kicking up clods of black earth. Bell-like birdsong drifted in with the dust and, once, Betsy heard her first kookaburra. She winced at its coarse laughter mocking her troubles.
Those troubles had begun a week ago, two days before Annie’s wedding.
‘Sarah, Louisa and I will go to live with Annie and Mr Littlejohn in Prahran,’ Mother had explained. ‘I shall pay our way by housekeeping for them, but –’ Mother’s smile had put Betsy in mind of the witch tempting Hansel and Gretel into her gingerbread house ‘– Mr Littlejohn, Malcolm, cannot see his way to fend for us all. I mean, Betsy, we do have a lot of mouths to feed, and Louisa and Sarah are growing girls.’
The sturdy farms with their sheep and cows and bullocks fell away when the track wound its ragged way up through the mountains. Betsy, eyes tight shut, clutched the edge of her seat as the coach catapulted around the narrow curves, hugging stony cliff-faces, forced to the very edge of precipitous drops by great laden wagons inching their way down. The passengers’ chatter fell away too, and their oohs and gasps rose in panic. Betsy waited to be hurled from the coach into some forsaken valley, to die in agony in a twisted wreck of splintered coach and screaming horses before she even reached the faraway grand station.
The imperious Mrs McCormack at the Ladies Mart must have hated poor little Betsy Luckett to do this to her.
‘Live-in?’ Mrs McCormack had queried from behind her desk in the airless brown office at the top of Bourke Street.
‘Yes, live-in would be best,’ Mother had concurred. As if that wasn’t what she’d already agreed with Mr Littlejohn; send one of the hungry growing girls away, let someone else feed her.
The heat of the day burned hotter, and the air in the packed carriage thickened with the sickly odours of too hot bodies. Passengers got off and got on, the new travellers cheerfully fresh until the sour mugginess turned them as morose as the old ones. Betsy’s cheeks blazed and she could barely catch her breath, squashed between the hard side of the coach and a big-bosomed woman wearing a bonnet sporting a cornucopia of fruit, flowers and birds.
The hours and the jagged miles dragged on until they reached a small town called Kilmore, where a change of horses gave Betsy a short reprieve. She gulped water from a stone bottle and chewed Sarah’s carefully packed sandwiches sitting in the warm shade of a hotel verandah. Tears welled at the memory of Annie on tiptoes, waving, the early sun snatching at her sister’s curls as if it would steal their gold from under her bonnet. Betsy wiped a hand across her nose. She wasn’t even halfway there yet; so many more miles to go, whisking her away from her sisters. All the fault of that thin-nosed woman at the Ladies Mart.
Mrs McCormack had lifted a letter from her desk and peered over her wire glasses from it to Mother. ‘Goomalibee is looking for a domestic, someone to help in the kitchens mainly, with cleaning and other general duties also required.’
‘Goomalibee?’ Mother had asked.
‘Yes, yes.’ Mrs McCormack’s tone suggested everyone in the colony knew Goomalibee.
Betsy squirmed, remembering her moment of joy. This must be some famed, elegant mansion situated high on the cliffs by the cool beaches of Port Philip Bay. She would wander there during her precious free time, playing tag with the waves caressing the damp sand with their lacy fingers.
‘It’s up-country, north, two days’ coach ride from Melbourne. A station, thousands of acres, sheep and cattle, you know the type.’ Mrs McCormack had arched her thin brows. ‘Squattocracy, good family, very wealthy.’
Two days’ coach ride? Betsy’s moment of joy had drowned in the imagined waves caressing the damp sand.
‘Station?’ Spots of excited pink had lit Mother’s cheeks. ‘Would Betsy be indentured?’
What was indentured?
‘Precisely, Mrs Fitzwater.’ The manageress had examined the letter once more. ‘They’re willing to pay £75 for a four-year contract. Up front.’ She glanced at Betsy’s frowning face. ‘That means, Miss Luckett,’ she explained with a sidewise tilt of her tightly coiffed head, ‘you will be obliged to work there for at least four years.’
Four years! On the shady verandah, Betsy’s welling tears spilled onto her cheeks.
The reprieve at Kilmore over, and the passengers shoe-horned back on board, the coach sped on, pitching violently into ruts and across streams, flinging the suffering travellers rudely against each other. The mutual apologies had long since ceased. Betsy’s fingers ached from the constant clinging to her seat to save herself tumbling to the floor like a rag doll tossed away by a toddler in a tantrum. Night came and the swaying coach creaked on, its tiny pools of yellow lantern light the only guide in the blind dark. The elderly man opposite Betsy clenched and unclenched his fists, peering into the darkness, muttering about bushrangers.
Bushrangers? Betsy’s heart quickened, recalling her constant terror on the long journey to New Zealand that she and her sisters would be snatched away by the pirates whom everybody knew roamed those perilous seas in search of treasure – and virginal girls. Now, on dry land, she had to worry about bushrangers? Betsy sniffed back more tears. Her legs were stiff, her dress clung stickily to her back and underarms, and her carefully coiled braids sank limp and damp to her hot scalp. Her throat-parched misery at the bumping, stifling journey fed her lonely fear and her yearning for her sisters until she thought it would be impossible not to sob out loud. Had Mother understood what she was doing to her daughter? Seventy-five pounds might be a staggering amount to be had all at once, but at what price? Betsy’s expulsion from her family, cast into the far, far away outback as if she was some scabrous leper. For four years. Four years away from Annie and Louisa and Sarah.
A lifetime. Like this jerking, hot and suffocating coach journey.
Longwood to Benalla
The bugle rang out. ‘Looong ... woood!’ the driver called. The coach rolled to a halt and, every bone aching, Betsy peeked out at a large, brick-built double-storey inn. Bright lanterns lighted the hotel’s long verandah; a haven in the surrounding blackness.
‘Thank God, Longwood at last. And here is the Salutation Inn,’ cried a top-hatted gentleman. He wasted no time in pushing open the coach door and jumping onto the road with a noisy exhalation of breath.
Betsy scrambled stiff-legged after him. With Mother’s carpetbag – bequeathed to Betsy on the understanding Mother had the right to ask for it back at any time – banging against her limp skirts, Betsy wandered into the Salutation Inn’s softly-lit parlour where the coolness rising off the flagged floor was as refreshing as a breeze. She fell gratefully onto a settle which didn’t rock and pitch, and watched in a blank trance of fatigue as the landlady, Mrs Middlemiss, fussed around the travellers, allocating rooms according to a list laid on the gleaming bar. Betsy leaned against plump cushions and breathed in the soothing smell of wood polish mingled with the scent of dried herbs bunched against the beams above. She could happily stay in this homely sanctuary all night. Or forever.
‘You’re the last, dear, so you must be Betsy Luckett?’ Her hostess smiled at Betsy from the other side of the now empty bar.
‘Where you headed, Betsy?’
Mrs Middlemiss – a big-breasted hen of a woman – came out from behind the bar to hand Betsy a tall, cool drink. Betsy nodded a grateful thank you, gulping it down.
‘Goomal ... Goomali..’ Her exhaustion tripped over the unfamiliar name.
‘Goomalibee?’ the landlady cried. ‘Truly?’ Betsy kept nodding. ‘Why, ain’t that marvellous.’
Betsy gazed into the landlady’s beaming face while Mrs Middlemiss, her motherly smile growing wider, explained, ‘Our Jane is a maid there, since the spring. She’s usually at Delatite, with Mr Chenery’ – she appeared to assume Betsy knew what Delatite was and who Mr Chenery might be – ‘but Mr Goodman’s agreed to have her at Goomalibee for a time, a sort of apprentice to the housekeeper there.’
Betsy’s tired mind sagged under the weight of the unknown names. She knew if she opened her mouth to ask for explanations, she would weep. She hoped another nod would suffice.
‘You’ll be working with our Jane.’ Mrs Middlemiss appeared to think this was a miracle sent from Heaven for her Jane’s benefit. ‘I’m sure you’ll be great friends in no time at all.’
Betsy managed a smile.
The landlady peered under Betsy’s grimy bonnet. ‘D’you mind me asking, dear, how old you are? You look very young to be going somewhere so isolated all by yourself.’
Betsy was suddenly attentive. ‘Fourteen,’ she lied, ‘at least, next month I’ll be fourteen.’
‘Hmm.’ Mrs Middlemiss let it go, instead taking personal charge of ‘our Jane’s new workmate’, as she told Mr Middlemiss on their way out of the parlour. She settled Betsy in a clean, hot room crammed into the roof space, checked there was water in the jug and bowl, and let her guest know that a simple supper could be had downstairs.
When Mrs Middlemiss bustled out, the silence which replaced her lively presence struck Betsy like a shock of cold water. She plumped onto the flower-patterned bed quilt to stare at a picture of playful kittens hanging above the washstand, and conjured her sisters. Annie, tossing sun-blushed curls and laughing at the world; frail, fretting Sarah; and Betsy’s beloved Louisa. Betsy wiped the back of her dusty gloved hand across her sticky face, swallowing down a memory of Louisa on the strident hornets’ nest of the East India Docks that hot June day a year and a half ago. ‘Too many people, Betsy,’ Louisa had complained, the deep blue eyes framed by shiny dark ringlets blinking up, wanting a reassurance Betsy hadn’t been able to give.
No Annie here. No Sarah or Louisa. No Mother either. Betsy was utterly alone, in a wrongly quiet room. Her eyes moved from the tumbling kittens to the flower-patterned quilt. This would be the first time in her whole life she would sleep by herself. She might have cried, already missing Sarah’s skinny arms flung over her face or Louisa’s hot breath on her neck. Except her bone-weary body could no longer find energy for crying, nor for simple suppers. She peeled off her crumpled, dirt-streaked gown, slid beneath the cool sheet and fell instantly asleep.
In the morning, a breakfast of bacon, sausage and boiled eggs left Betsy almost keen to mount the coach and get on with her journey. Mrs Middlemiss came out to bid her goodbye, pressing a cake tin into her hands, ‘for you and our Jane to share.’
Betsy wished Mrs Middlemiss was her mother.
The view through the grime-streaked coach window showed a very different countryside today; flat, and barren. Betsy gaped at the vastness. What a huge country this was, and how empty. How did anyone know where they were? There was nothing out there, except the occasional tall, sparsely leaved tree, and kangaroos grazing at a distance, a shimmering mass of grey rippling through the heat haze. The only movement was of the birds: immense flocks wheeling away from the parched earth, their pink and white plumage fluttering pastel against the startling blue of the sky. The other travellers, dozing or gossiping, were all that was familiar in this alien landscape.
Worry crept in to lay with Betsy’s loneliness. Betsy knew Mother dreamed of her daughter catching the eye of a squatter’s son, or, to not be too ambitious, of a farmer at least. Their own households, that’s what Mother wanted for her daughters. Betsy sighed and wriggled on her slippery seat. Mother always talked about households, not homes, invoking visions of her daughters ordering around cooks and downstairs maids and gardeners. Well, Annie might have achieved Mother’s ambition – the family’s Cinderella, whisked into respectable wifedom by her Prince Charming; even if her cottage in Prahran wasn’t the crenellated mansion and fancy carriage of a newly wealthy miner which Mother had doubtless envisioned when fleeing across the Tasman to gold-boom Melbourne.
But for Betsy, how could even modest dreams be realised in this empty wasteland?
Betsy pressed her forehead against the filthy coach window. Had Mr Fitzwater been right all along? Her mind wandered to the wintry night back home in Twickenham nearly two years ago, when a cold Annie had tugged at the sleeping Betsy’s arm, hissing, ‘You have to come listen to this, Betsy. We’re emigrating!’
The two of them had crouched at the bottom of the black stairs, shivering in the icy chill, their nightgown-draped backsides stuck up in the air and their noses pressed to the firelit ruddy gap beneath the staircase door. Mother, sitting in her chair below the chemises and pinnies steaming to dryness on the rack above, had put aside the shirt she’d been mending. Her thin lips were curved in a rare smile. ‘They need your skills, badly,’ she was flattering her husband of less than a year. ‘You’ll be a Master, the girls will be gentlewomen.’
In the rocking coach, Betsy felt again the frisson down her spine at Mother’s unusual excitement, her amber eyes alight with reflected flames from the fire.
‘They’ll marry well, George, with a choice of respectable suitors, given all the country gentlemen, and squires too, signing up to go there. Why –’ she had stabbed her darning needle in the air – ‘they’ll have their own households!’
‘What?’ Betsy had mouthed.
‘New Zealand,’ Annie had mouthed back, stretching her rosebud lips. ‘The man in church yesterday. Remember?’
The coach careered across the emptiness, the dust from the horses’ hooves drifting through the creaking joints to layer the sweaty passengers with a gritty dark powder. Betsy wished she could feel cold again, like she’d felt on that bottom step.
Her stepfather hadn’t been convinced about New Zealand. California had been his choice.
‘California offers real chances to rise high, Ann,’ he’d insisted, jumping from the settle to pace the few steps to the fire and back again, waving his pipe, warming to his plan. ‘No class or lords or gentry there – every man can make what he can of himself, that’s what I hear.’ He had slid his wife a sideways grin. ‘The girls could have their own households in truth, dear wife, in California.’
Betsy couldn’t help her tiny smile against the dirty glass, seeing again Mother’s horrified stare, as if Mr Fitzwater had suggested they emigrate to Hell.
‘Gold,’ Mother had sneered. ‘I tell you, George, I’m not being dragged to some godless mining camp.’ She had brandished the darning needle like a duelling sword. ‘Do you want my girls to grow up wild and godless?’ she had accused her husband. ‘Do you want them to marry naked savages? Or, not much better, gambling, drinking miners living in shacks in the woods?’
Afterwards, snuggled between Louisa and Annie, Betsy would lie staring at the stars through the gap in Mother’s new curtains at the attic bedroom window. She hated the idea of leaving this lovely house in Queens Square which Mr Fitzwater had found for them, with its tiny courtyard and Annie’s rag rugs on the kitchen floor.
‘Why do we have to go anywhere?’ she had whispered to Annie as they lay beside their sisters in the cramped bed after another night of spying.
She had felt Annie’s shrug against her arm. ‘I suspect it’s a struggle for them.’ Annie snorted a quiet giggle. ‘I suspect Mr Fitzwater didn’t think too closely about what he was taking on with Mother, having to house and feed us four as well.’
The soupy heat of the coach lulled Betsy into a bleary dreaminess. Nothing in her past felt real, and her future seemed dangerously uncertain, like the stormy temper of the oceans battering The Canterbury on its eternity-long voyage to New Zealand. For Mother had won. More or less.
‘I’m giving you this chance to come home, Ann, to behave as a proper wife should.’ Mr Fitzwater stood on the hot, stinking East India Docks with the gulls screeching in a brilliant summer sky. His hat was crushed in his hands, his dark hair glistening with sweat. He’d followed his wife and stepdaughters from Twickenham, on this day they would leave England forever.
The queue of restless emigrants had watched openly, intent on this family drama being played out, it appeared, solely to amuse them while they waited. Betsy had waited too, clutching at the thin straw of hope, their chance to be saved, held out by her stepfather’s offer.
Mother had huffed at the proffered olive branch. ‘No, George, it’s too late.’ She had managed to sound aggrieved. ‘I want a better life for my girls, and for myself. We’re going to New Zealand, with or without you.’
‘Without me, wife.’
The sun blazed now in a different brilliant sky. Betsy, rocked by the swaying coach, fell into an unrefreshing slumber where shrieking gulls dived above hot brown plains, and storm-swept ships plunged into towering waves of dust, while Mr Fitzwater frolicked, chuckling like the Devil, in piles of golden nuggets heaped about a godless mining camp in California.
Benalla to Goomalibee Station
The clattering of the horses’ hooves on wood jolted Betsy awake. They were crossing a bridge. A sluggish ditch dribbled along far below.
‘Beee ... naaaa ... lla!’ The driver’s shout reached Betsy from above.
She rubbed her sticky eyes and squinted through the filthy window. They’d stopped outside a stone inn, The Old Black Swan. The shadows cast by the inn’s high walls told Betsy the afternoon was well advanced. Her heart started a nervous pattering. This was where she was to leave the coach, but no one had told her what she was supposed to do next.
The passengers poured from the coach in a stretching, sighing gush of rumpled skirts and sweat-blackened coats. Luggage was tossed from the roof, and Betsy’s tin trunk and Mother’s carpetbag set down on the dusty road. She stood beside them, unable to think what to do.
‘Is someone meeting you?’ A fellow passenger, a smartly dressed woman, peered into Betsy’s face.
‘I don’t know.’ Betsy sniffed. ‘I’m supposed to go on to a station, Goo ... Goomalibee, but I don’t think they know I’m coming.’
The woman sighed. ‘Dear,’ she called to her husband who was organising the removal of their trunks into the inn.
‘Yes, dear, what is it?’
She hurried over, whispering and glancing towards Betsy, standing by herself beside the vacated coach. The husband nodded and strode into the inn.
‘He’ll ask inside.’ The woman gave Betsy a comforting smile.
Her husband returned, with a rueful look. ‘It appears there’ll be a dray or a cart from Goomalibee at some stage, to collect the mail and supplies from the coach. But –’ he shook his head ‘– it might not be until tomorrow given how late it is already.’
Betsy stood in a silent circle of panic, determined not to cry. She couldn’t walk there, even if she knew where to go, not with her trunk. She had no money to pay for a room. Would the landlord let her sleep somewhere, like the stable? Did she dare ask?
‘The landlady says you can come inside and wait. If someone does come today, they’ll be here soon.’
‘Thank you,’ Betsy managed. It was better than standing in the dust like an abandoned Guy on the sixth of November.
Inside, Betsy bit at a fingernail and settled at a table with a glass of water. Her stomach rumbled. She couldn’t ask for food, not with no money. How could Mother have done this to her? Shooing Betsy off with no more thought than if she was a troublesome fly, much as she’d shooed off her husband on the sun-glared, noisome docks.
‘Without me, wife,’ Mr Fitzwater had quietly declared, twisting his sweat-stained hat in his strong labourer’s hands. He had spun on his heel and strode away. Betsy had bitten her tongue to stop from screaming ‘No! Don’t leave us.’ She had watched his back until the surging horde consumed him.
Betsy pressed her lips together and blinked, pushing down the teasing memory of her lost stepfather and the short-lived comfort of having a man to care for them all again, after dear Papa had died. Weary, homesick tears threatened, for here she was, in this unearthly place with no one at all now to care what happened to her. She imagined them all in Annie’s new house in Prahran, drinking tea in the cramped parlour. Surely her sisters were worried about her, miles and miles away from her family? Or – Betsy wiped her eyes with Louisa’s handkerchief – didn’t they care, grateful only for their escape from the East Collingwood slums in overcrowded, rowdy, Melbourne? Mother had hated that hovel where winter’s rains and winds had swept contemptuously through the gaps around the door and the one window, and where the fire’s yellow flames could coax only a sulky heat from the thin logs. Well, Mother was free of the icy draughts and winter chills now, her flight from New Zealand vindicated by Annie’s marriage. But it was really Betsy who was making it all happen. She was the sacrificial lamb, because Mr Littlejohn believed growing girls shouldn’t need feeding. Were they expected to live on air?
Huddled in her misery, Betsy was vaguely aware of a weathered man ambling into the room, greeting the landlady in a drawling lilt which could have been saying anything.
‘Ah, Sam, the very man we need,’ said the landlady. ‘Have a present for you.’ She inclined her head towards Betsy. ‘The latest girl for Goomalibee was on the coach. No warning, would you believe?’
Sam veered from the bar and continued his stroll in Betsy’s direction, his wide-brimmed hat going around and around in his hands. Betsy watched him approach, hope beating a soft tattoo in her chest that it might be all right after all.
‘Fer Goomalibee?’ he asked in the same low drawl.
‘Betsy Luckett, sir.’
A brown-toothed grin lit his face. ‘Mostly people call me Sam.’
‘Sam.’ Betsy stood, while the landlady nodded, saying, ‘From Goomalibee, dear, here to fetch the mail and supplies. He’ll take you there.’
‘Sure will.’ Sam nodded. ‘You wait ’ere while I load up the cart, then we’ll be off.’
Betsy balanced on the far end of a crate pressed against the front of the spring-cart, crushed by Sam’s warm bulk taking up the rest of their novel seat.
The last part of her long, long journey. Finally. Her breath kept catching in her throat. The furthest she’d ever been from home by herself. And she’d done it by herself too. A tingle of pride warmed her dazed tiredness. And curiosity. Now she was nearly there, Betsy tried to think what this Goomalibee would be like. Was her new mistress – Betsy couldn’t remember her name – a kind person, like Mrs Middlemiss? Betsy crossed her fingers, hoping.
Their way out of the township was brief, quickly passing the dishevelled trail of timber houses and stores squatting on its dry flatness. Nor did they see any people, save for a family of natives watching from the side of the track. The sight of the naked mother, a fat baby held to her hip, made Betsy blush.
Her weariness made her grateful for Sam’s silence as the cart bounced along through the emptiness. Sparse trees cast long shadows over the road while screeching birds flocked to their beds. In the far distant shadowy east, Betsy spotted the glint of flames and heard a barely audible thud, a primitive heartbeat. She stared, glassy-eyed, at the sandy track while the miles flowed beneath them; pride, curiosity and nerves all blunted by the rhythmic trotting of the horse. Her mind skipped back to Prahran, wanting, so much, to be there with them all, sitting over the remains of supper, talking, comfortable. Louisa or Annie might be saying, anxious for her, ‘Do you think Betsy’s getting on all right? Do you think she’s safe at her new place yet?’ Betsy hoped they were.
They travelled north for a while, gradually arcing around to the west where the sun was lowering itself to the far horizon. Betsy had to squint to see anything ahead, for this was no mellow bedding down, with trees and cottages silhouetted on the tops of pleasantly rounded hills. This gold and scarlet sunset had a violent strength, with the great yellow ball rebelling against having to settle for the night and pause its torment of the parched earth. Betsy prayed they would arrive before the dark came. She couldn’t imagine, didn’t want to imagine, the total blackness which must soon overwhelm them.
Then there, up ahead, an ugly square house emerged from the dusk, marking the end of the track. A verandah guarded the one closed door and two blank windows. Above the house’s wood-shingled roof, smoke trailed from an unseen chimney, adding its warm scent to the air’s arid hotness. Was this Goomalibee, at last? Was this the grand squatter’s homestead Mother and Annie talked about? Maybe it was a gatehouse, or where the single men slept.
The horse stamped, knowing its journey was ending and wishing to get on to its stable and supper. Sam jumped down, calling, ‘Cooee, who’s about?’
Before Betsy could decide if she should get down or wait for someone to tell her what to do, the door opened and a rotund woman wearing an apron and a scowl hurried out.
‘Who’s making all that din?’ the round woman scolded. ‘Oh, it’s you, Sam.’ She spotted Betsy and scowled harder. ‘What’s this then?’
‘The new maid.’ Sam waved a hand. ‘Found ’er in Benalla along with the mail and supplies from the coach.’ Sam hauled out Betsy’s trunk and bag and made off with them to the house.
This must be the homestead, Betsy decided. Unless she was to cook and clean for a bunch of single men.
‘Please, ma’am,’ she gathered the courage to tell the cross woman, ‘I’m Betsy Luckett, and Mrs McCormack has sent me to you.’
‘From the Ladies Mart in Melbourne, ma’am. I’m your new domestic.’ Betsy dreaded the woman would shake her head in ignorance.
‘Ah, I see. And about time.’ She sniffed, suggesting the homestead, such as it was, had ground to a halt for the lack of one domestic. She stepped closer, peering up at Betsy’s dust-grimed face. The dimming light showed shiny red skin stretched over plump cheekbones and small, harried pale eyes. ‘Well, don’t slouch up there like milady! Come on down and get inside before these mozzies eat us to the bone.’
Betsy scrambled off the cart, her clumsy legs not wanting to hold her up after all her journeyings.
‘This way.’ The woman turned back to the house, walking with quick duck-like steps along a stony path lined with poor attempts at flower beds. Her wide backside swayed beneath layers of black skirts. Betsy tripped along behind, glimpsing beyond the house shadowy structures dissolving into the greyness. Thin, warped trees stood in clusters here and there, their silver trunks ghostlike in the darkening evening. She had no chance to see more of her surroundings. The sun sank completely into the burning horizon, plunging everything into blackness beyond the rectangle of yellow light spilling from the door.
‘Hurry up,’ the woman called over her shoulder. ‘Haven’t got all night.’
Betsy hurried, leaving her trunk on the verandah and lugging the carpetbag behind her while the woman led her along a straight hall lined with hessian, past two rooms on either side and into a wide, timber-floored kitchen spreading the width of the house. Night dimmed the corners, but in the lamp light Betsy could see pots, pans, jars and bowls stacked by type and size on shelves around the walls. Against one wall, a dresser so battered it must have been dragged from Melbourne behind a bullock dray displayed mismatched plates, jugs, cups and serving dishes. The heat from a massive cast-iron range supplemented the general warmth and Betsy broke out into an immediate sweat. The smell of frying onions lingered, although the long table was bare of any food except a pile of grainy dough waiting for someone’s attention.
‘Now, Betsy – it is Betsy, right?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Betsy murmured.
‘I’m the cook, Mrs Wilson, and I expect you’ll mostly work for me. Leastwise, it’s how it worked with the one before, although work may be too strong a word to use in that missy’s case.’ She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. ‘Anyway, it’s up to Mrs Stretton to decide where you spend your time.’
She put her hands on her jutting hips to examine Betsy’s hot face and crumpled dress. She was like a portly cat deciding if it was hungry enough to pounce on the mouse caught in its stare.
‘Not much of you, is there?’ came the prune-mouthed verdict. ‘Never mind,’ she grunted, ‘we’ll soon build a bit of muscle on those skinny arms.’
Betsy wanted to shrink into the wooden floor.
‘I hear our new maid has arrived.’ A middle-aged woman looking impossibly cool in a crisp cotton dress and white cap came into the kitchen, smiling at Betsy. ‘I’m Mrs Stretton, the housekeeper. You are?’
‘Betsy Luckett, ma’am.’
In the face of this paragon of tidiness, Betsy’s own slovenly state made her pray even more urgently to sink into the floor. She bobbed a curtsy.
Mrs Stretton’s dark eyes twinkled. ‘Lovely manners, how nice.’
Betsy squirmed at the cook’s snorted titter.
‘Let me show you your room,’ Mrs Stretton said, ‘which you’ll share with Jane, our other maid, and you can wash the dust off. Do you have clean clothes in the trunk I spied outside? Yes? Good, I’ll make sure it’s put in your room.’
Mrs Stretton collected two lanterns from hooks on the wall, lit both, and stepped into the night. Betsy stayed close behind the housekeeper, the carpetbag banging against her leg, grateful for the lanterns’ guiding brightness. They crossed a stony yard towards a dimly seen long building with several doors.
A howl went up, and another, harsh and threatening in the encompassing blackness. Betsy jumped, startling Mrs Stretton who said, ‘Dingoes. Wild dogs. You mustn’t worry about them.’ She paused and held the lantern to Betsy’s face. ‘Town lass, hey?’
‘Where’re you from?’
‘Ah, very nice. Orchards, if I remember. And the Common.’
The Common. Memories of Papa rushed at Betsy from the hot darkness. Papa, dead far too young, the neighbours had said. There he was on the Common, throwing his little girl high, crying, ‘Up you go, Betsy, my sweet little mouse!’ Her gasping terror, but loving it, her heart swooping like a flying bird ...
Mrs Stretton pushed open a door, going ahead with the light. Betsy’s shared room was hot, like everywhere else indoors, the one window tacked shut by an oilcloth covering against flies, moths and mosquitoes. Two iron bedsteads, one tidily made up, the other with folded linen and a flat pillow at the end, nearly filled the space. The rest was taken up by a scratched pine chest with its bottom drawer hanging out, hungry for clothing, and a rickety washstand topped with a rose-decorated bowl and a yellow jug. A row of hooks by the door held a pinafore and a dress.
Betsy would have her own bed, like last night at the cosy Salutation Inn. She would have to get used to sleeping by herself. It would be a luxury really, not having to curl up with her sisters. She gulped back a sob.
‘Come to the kitchen when you’ve cleaned up, and Mrs Wilson will have something for you to eat.’ Mrs Stretton placed a lantern on the chest and left, her light bobbing across the yard.
Betsy slumped onto the bed. Dizziness flooded her aching bones, and she felt as if she was floating, unanchored, in the vastness of the skies. Her body might be here in this strange place a world away from everything she’d ever known; her mind just hadn’t caught up with it yet. She desperately wanted to lay her aching head on the flat pillow and close her eyes forever. But Mrs Wilson was expecting her to come and eat the food she’d had to prepare. Betsy groaned out loud and stirred herself, untying her bonnet and using her fingers to comb out her dust-encrusted hair. She washed her face and hands in the tepid water in the washbowl, drying them on the towel she found on a shelf under the stand.
Back in the kitchen, she ate and drank mechanically, blinking her drooping eyelids open and watching the cook finish her kneading and tamp the dough into loaf tins. The last of the tins covered with a damp cloth, Mrs Wilson blew out her plump cheeks in a long breath. A lanky string of sweaty hair dangling from beneath her rumpled cap lifted and fell.
‘Off to bed now,’ she said, squinting at Betsy’s lolling head. ‘You make sure you’re here on time in the morning. Early.’ She glared in anticipation of Betsy’s tardiness.
‘Yes, and thank you for the tea and food, ma’am.’ Betsy remembered her manners despite her sleepiness.
‘Humph,’ Mrs Wilson responded, waving at Betsy to depart so she could deal with the lamps.
It seemed Betsy’s finger-crossing, hoping her new mistress would be as motherly and kind as Mrs Middlemiss, had been in vain.
The fluting warbling of magpies woke Betsy a moment before Jane tugged at her shoulder. She forced open sticky eyes, certain they must be pinkly swollen from the homesick tears she’d given way to once Jane was snoring in the dark.
‘Time to get up, sleepy head, else old Ma Wilson’ll be shouting at us like the divil.’
Jane pushed her frizz of ginger hair under her cap, grinning at her impudence.
Betsy’s workmate had been overjoyed Betsy had met her Mam and Da and thrilled to receive the cake from her mother. She’d pumped Betsy for news of home while they lay on their scratchy mattresses, undeterred when Betsy had nothing to tell beyond assuring her both parents appeared well, and the Salutation Inn was as lovely as ever.
Although the grin suggested Mrs Wilson wasn’t really the devil, it was, after all, Betsy’s first day and she must make a good impression, no matter how tired she felt. Mother would know if she didn’t. She stumbled from the bed, clammy and grimy, sluggish after a night dreaming of lurching coaches and the banshee howls of wild dogs. She pulled her one clean dress over yesterday’s shift, leaving off her petticoats at Jane’s suggestion about the heat in the kitchen, splashed water on her face, hastily tied on a pinny and followed Jane across the night-cooled yard to the house.
The station was already well awake. Men wheeled barrows of feed between the outbuildings or carried saddles and blankets in preparation for the day’s riding out on the bare paddocks. A line of cows mooed outside a milking shed, and beyond a stand of skeletal trees Betsy saw cattle grazing, dark stains on the lightening ochre of the earth. Black men barred their way into the house. They squatted in the shadows, bony knees to their chins, opossum furs across their hunched shoulders. Betsy hesitated, clutching at her skirt. Jane ignored the men, and they ignored her, giving Betsy the courage to hurry past.
‘Here you are, you lazy missies,’ Mrs Wilson cried, her hands dusty with flour as she rolled a giant round of pastry at one end of the table. ‘What time do you call this?’
Betsy started to apologise, saw Jane’s shrug and closed her mouth. The kitchen, hotter than on the previous night, smelled of baking bread and wood smoke.
‘Wood and water, Betsy. You, Jane, off to the hens for more eggs, then start the sausages. Quick now, and stop wasting time, else that breakfast bell’ll be ringin’ and nothin’ll be done.’
Jane scampered out, carelessly swinging a wicker basket. Betsy hung back, not even in the kitchen yet. Her mind was blank. She had no clue where the woodpile was, nor from where she should fetch the water. Would she have to go past the blackfellas? Her heart set up a nervous pattering. Mrs Wilson seemed to assume Betsy knew these things and had no fear of blackfellas.
The cook put aside her rolling pin and raised her eyes to the ceiling. ‘Dear Lord, they’ve sent me another stupid one.’ She wiped her floury hands on a towel and bustled to the doorway, grumbling. ‘Like I don’t have enough to do.’ She grabbed tight hold of Betsy’s arm and hoisted her back into the yard. ‘I’ll show you where things are this once, just this once, and afterwards I’ll expect you to know. Understand?’
‘Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.’