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Not Like Mrs Hays by Emma Beach and Cheryl Burman

© Emma Beach and Cheryl Burman

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* equals italics.

‘Guilty.’

The word rang across the stifling, full-to-the-rafters courtroom, lifted high on the shoulders of a sniggering, guttural roar of salacious joy.

‘Silence! There will be silence in my court.’

But you cannot silence the tumultuous thrill of a sinner cut low with one simple word.

‘Guilty.’

The word still rings in her brain; an eternal echo rattling in her skull like shot in an empty tin.

A single, simple word that is as true as it is false.

***
The light through the high barred window, or its absence, is Elizabeth’s sole measure of time. During the day, she sits on her cot, hands folded and feet together, trying to be a proper woman, despite it all. When the window is dark, she lies on the cot with eyes wide open. Sometimes sleep comes. Sometimes blessedly dreamless. Not always. She is given food which she doesn’t eat and swallows a mouthful of water when she remembers to be thirsty.

Her warders, those women who have bossed her for the past six months, are now subdued. They handle Elizabeth like a piece of fine porcelain, as if afraid of breaking her before her time.

‘Please!’ she wants to beg them. ‘I need your callous bullying. I need your sly pinches. I need to know I’m yet a breathing, living, woman, just like you.’

She’s not like them. The warders look away when she tries to catch their eyes.

The washroom is empty again. It’s always empty when Elizabeth is taken there. No doubt her sinfulness is contagious.

‘Guilty.’

The man’s fat red nose glistened with sweat; his beard hung in greasy ropes from whiskered cheeks.

*The beard hung*, Elizabeth tells herself. *And I am to be hanged.*

Her body is quiet, as if already laid to rest. Her mind, however, blunders around like her sons danced about the mulberry tree outside the shanty’s oil-clothed window. *Round and round the mulberry bush*, the boys sang, tunelessly and gleefully.

Elizabeth’s mind berates her. ‘I am a sinful woman.’

Everyone says so. A scarlet woman. A female monster. Not a proper woman at all.

Worthy Mrs Ellis decided Elizabeth’s sinfulness. Mrs Ellis told the magistrates she’d seen Elizabeth go into the stable with Davey that glorious April morning. Not with Bob, Elizabeth’s husband. Bob was ill, heaving and sweating on a vomit-soaked bed, screaming his delirium into the stuffy air while his body strove to cleanse years of stinking booze from his veins.

Elizabeth blinks into the bright rays streaming through the barred window. She remembers it was sunny then too, the morning of the stable.

Golden daylight peeking around the green-hide blind marked the end of her night-long vigil at Bob’s bedside. He appeared no better.

‘How long will he be like this?’ Elizabeth asked Julian. Her cook was once a pirate. He knew these things.

Julian stood at the kitchen workbench, one dark hand holding a potato. The coach passengers passing through must be fed, whatever Bob’s health or Elizabeth’s weariness.

‘Boss might not get better, Missis,’ he told her, his wet bark eyes indifferent. ‘Might die ...’ he turned away, muttering, ‘... hundan.’

*Bastard,* Elizabeth knew it meant.

Her hands shook as she soaked cloths to ease Bob’s burning skin.

She jumped at the slam of the back door.

‘Can ya lend a hand with the horses this mornin’, Betsy?’ Davey’s querulous voice reminded Elizabeth that Davey was tired too, helping with the shanty's rowdy customers until the last man had blundered his way through the midnight blackness to his patient horse. ‘I overslept an’ I won’t have everythin’ ready for the coach in time if I don’t get help.’

Yes, Elizabeth would help, if only to escape Julian’s bitter presence.

‘Thank you, Davey.’ She lightly touched Davey’s arm as she passed through the door he held for her. Julian’s narrowed glance hurried Elizabeth’s steps.

The autumn morning was clear and cool, with air which didn’t smell of smoke and whiskey and sickness. The magpies warbled in the stringy barks, proud of the magical day as if it was all their own making. A kookaburra laughed his appreciation of the magpies’ wizardry.

Elizabeth was comforted. Bob couldn’t die. Not on a day like today.

She grinned at Davey, purely for the pleasure of the morning. Davey drew in a sharp breath, and blocked her path to the stable.

‘Come away with me, Betsy.’ His strangled voice stopped her smile, and her heart. ‘I love you, ya know I do. You love me, too.’

Love? Davey’s white-blond hair shone silver in the early light. What would it be like to cherish that downy softness against her fingers? The wholesome smell of horses and hay reached out an invitation like a warm blanket.

***
In the cold cell, Elizabeth stares at the white wall. Is it a sin to want to love? She flicks her head to banish the image of Davey’s silvery hair and pleading eyes. It works, only to be replaced by Bob’s scowl.

*I am a failed wife.*

Bob often said so. Like the wet March afternoon after a rare trip into town.

‘Yer an embarrassment, Betsy.’ Bob’s tone was conversational.

Elizabeth paused from lighting the parlour fire, her face towards the reluctant flames. What now?

‘Didja see the way the store-keeper looked at ya? Like yer not fit to enter ’er fancy shop?’

‘I don’t know how I’ve upset her.’ Elizabeth squinted into Bob’s glowering face, seeking forgiveness for unknown trespasses. ‘I haven’t been into town for weeks. How could I have upset her?’

‘Word spreads ’round ’ere, don’t it?’ He waved his glass, splashing whiskey over her hair. ‘Word about the way ya flirt with the guests. Not respectable is what Mrs Storekeeper’s heard.’

Elizabeth flinched at the old accusation. ‘Do you truly think so?’ She responded as she always did, appeasing the household god. ‘You always say I should make the customers welcome, Bob, so I do; I try to make them feel welcome.’

‘Yeah, they feel welcome, all right.’ He casually tossed whiskey dregs over her dress. ‘Got worse since that Gedge boy got ’ere, I reckon,’ keeping the conversational tone as he slouched to the card table.

Bob’s days of casually tossing whiskey over his wife are done with.

Elizabeth shifts her unfocused gaze to the scarred wood of the bolted door.

*I am a failed wife.*

The words chant a roundelay in her buzzing brain, mimicking the children’s cries of round and round the mulberry bush.

Her fatherless, motherless boys.

There’s a rock lodged in her stomach, a gravestone under which she buries all thought of never seeing her sons again. Never in this life. And as she’s a sinful woman, a female monster, never in the next life either.

The sky between the bars of the high window is starless black. She lies on the cot and conjures her sons’ faces. She would gladly die today to feel Johnny’s curls, damp from his hot pillow, pressed against her arm, or to laugh at Thomas spinning on his heel, dark fringe flicking on his lolling forehead ... *We makin’ a willy willy, Mama.*

Rain drumming on the shanty roof, splashing to the ground outside her window. The wind bowing the branches of the mulberry tree, sending them scraping against the wall, overriding the night calls and whispers of the secretive bush.

***
Elizabeth’s barrister visits.

She twists on the cot to face him. Does he have news of Johnny and Thomas? No. He has come to tell her that tomorrow she will be taken from Beechworth Gaol and sent to Melbourne.

Elizabeth silently adds, *to be hanged by the neck until dead.* She wants to be sick.

The barrister touches her sleeve. ‘There’s still the Executive Council,’ he says, once again. ‘They may well decide not to carry out this sentence upon a woman and a mother. No woman has been hanged in the Colony, and pray God none ever will be.’

Elizabeth lets hope lift a corner of her despair.

‘Besides,’ the barrister is indignant on Elizabeth’s behalf, ‘there’s no real evidence against you. It’s an intolerable injustice you’re even here.’

But she is here.

And haunted by Mrs Ellis’s prune-like lips above her crumpled neck, telling the magistrate: ‘An’ she and Davey Gedge were in the stable over an hour.’

‘Remember Mrs Hays?’ the barrister asks. ‘Murdered her husband in 1860, guilty as can be, yet reprieved by the Executive Council.’

But Mrs Ellis’s righteous anger will not be silenced. Elizabeth’s mind trawls over her trial, reliving the passion of her accusers, reliving her shame. A fallen woman, crowed the prosecutor, relaying Mrs Ellis’s tales. A conniving adulteress who tempted an upright young man with her lustful ways. A female monster who made a cat’s paw of her half-caste cook, filling him with brandy before forcing him to shoot her desperately ill husband.

A failed wife.

Elizabeth sees no reason why the upright personages of the Executive Council should think kindly on the Elizabeth Scott portrayed in that airless courtroom.

***
A warder shepherds her through the gaol’s arch to the dray standing in the drive. Julian and Davey wait, manacled, by its side. Julian stares into the dawning sky. Davey pouts and turns his head from Elizabeth’s shy smile of greeting.

Despite the early hour and the unseasonable bitter wind, spectators have gathered. They hug themselves inside their coats and murmur into each other’s ears, their gloating eyes on Davey and Julian being hoisted into the dray like sacks of oats. Heat prickles Elizabeth’s skin at the idea of being hoisted up like that.

‘Here, use this.’ A warder holds a wooden chair out for her.

She tries not to care about the sniggering spectators and nods her gratitude. She places the chair next to the dray, grasps her skirts and steps in, careful to avoid any show of ankle. Gracefully done, given the circumstances. The crowd agrees.

‘Look at her! Thinks she’s a lady!’

‘Cool an’ collected like she was off on a picnic.’

Elizabeth’s face flames at the taunts. She busies her eyes and hands to adjust her dress, and slides to the floor. Beside her, Davey shifts to create a gap between them.

Head down, Elizabeth holds out her arms for the irons.

***
Days pass. The dray stops occasionally to rest the massive bullocks pulling it along. Once a day, a constable herds Elizabeth like a dumb sheep to some reeking privy behind an inn. Otherwise, she crouches in the back and sways in time with a grim Julian on one side and a brooding Davey on the other.

Not the Davey whose anxious eyes gazed down that sparkling morning, ignoring the magpies’ persistent joy. ‘A fresh start, Betsy. You wouldn’t ’ave to be afraid anymore,’ he insisted.

Elizabeth is afraid.

Bread and water are placed into her shackled hands. Much of both adds to the accumulating filth on her dress. Her bonnet and shawl grow wet in the constant drizzling rain, dry when the sun peeks through the everlasting clouds. Her dress sticks to her skin, and her stockings gather in a wrinkled mass about her ankles. Her body aches. Staring, catcalling mobs hail them in every town.

‘There she is, the female monster.’

‘Bit little fer a monster!’

‘And there’s ’er lover, the kid she made do it.’

‘A mere boy, poor thing.’

‘The nigger too.’

‘Well, yeah.’

Leering cackles.

Julian concentrates on the birds wheeling in the sky. Davey’s head falls to his chest, hiding shamed tears. Is he ashamed at how he tempted Elizabeth that glorious April morning: a blue-eyed snake, urging her to bite the apple?

‘We can take the boys,’ Davey pleaded, ‘and go to Sydney. I’d never shout at ya, Betsy, or beat ya, for God’s sake. I’d always look after ya, I would.’

Elizabeth couldn’t meet his anguished gaze. She dipped her head and forced her feet forward. Davey paced beside her, darting quick looks to the side of Elizabeth’s face.

‘If we don’t go, Betsy’ – Elizabeth risked a sideways glance; his stricken eyes frightened her – ‘if we don’t get away, from ’im, I swear I won’t be responsible fer, fer ... I can’t stand it, I can’t.’

They’ve gotten away from him, and here they both are, jolting towards death in an open dray. Towards Melbourne, not Sydney. Elizabeth’s heart grows as cold as her body.

***
Today, the houses and shops don’t end at a muddy, rutted track through raw scrub. They keep on, growing grander. The traffic thickens. Pedestrians scurry from the rain under black umbrellas tugging at their owners’ grasp. Few people show any interest in the dray and its burden.

Melbourne. They’ve arrived. Elizabeth, exhausted and shivering, feels no relief.

The bullocks carve their way through the genteel thoroughfare with its iron-laced terraces. They cross several intersections without stopping, like a royal train. The rain ceases as the dray draws close to its journey’s end.

‘Here we are, home at last.’ The constable riding by their side waves his whip and chortles.

Elizabeth peers between the bullocks’ heads. Her mouth opens in a wordless, ‘Oh,’ as the bluestone fortress of Melbourne Gaol rears up ahead, blunt with newness, wetly dark. She eyes the gaping maw of the arched entrance. Her stomach churns. The same churning which has sickened her since the horror began, late on the cold April night.

Outside the shanty, the magpies roosting in the stringy barks snuggled feather to feather for warmth, while Mr and Mrs Ellis snored under grubby quilts in their dray. Inside the shanty, heat from the range misted the kitchen window.

‘Betsy, God help us, Betsy.’

Elizabeth swung around, her back to the range, to stare at Davey across the candlelit kitchen. His lean figure was bent at the waist, hands clamped to his thighs. A pistol hung from his shaking fingers.

Her heart lurched.

‘I shot the bastard.’ Davey lifted his head to meet Elizabeth’s horrified gaze. ‘I couldn’t stand it, not any more ... But ... the bloody pistol didn’t fire.’ He stared at the failed pistol. ‘The bloody pistol didn’t fire.’

Elizabeth’s stomach churned.

‘He saw me, Betsy, he saw me. He opened his damn eyes right as I pulled the trigger, an’ he saw me.’ Davey’s pupils were large in the dimness. ‘He’ll kill me, Betsy. For sure. He’ll kill you, too.’ He whimpered like a kicked dog. ‘Help me. Please.’

Elizabeth sways with the wagon, praying, ‘Help us all. Dear God, help us all.’

The bullocks trundle through the gaol arch and halt. Julian and Davey are hauled out, thrown to the stone flags, hefted up and dragged through a black opening. Neither looks back.

A greasy-haired warder ambles to the dray. He rattles a moist sigh, and clambers up. Elizabeth clenches herself tight as he tosses her over the side like a rag doll, into the arms of his colleague. Her unfeeling legs fold and she falls against the man’s stained jacket. He pushes her roughly away, with a leer, but in that instant she doesn’t know if the fetid stench which assaults her comes from him, or herself.

‘Our murderin’ whore, come ’ome fer one last meal,’ the man jeers to his mate.

Elizabeth cowers under their lewd guffaws.

She’s dragged, clumsy on numbed feet, into a shadowy corridor of clay-coloured stone. Heavy doors are set into the foot-thick walls. Iron galleries rise above, with more doors, all of them closed.

The sullen silence chills her.

They remove her irons and search her. Elizabeth grits her teeth, staring straight ahead, squirming at the lusting fingers sliding down her sides.

The prying is over. The searcher draws back to smirk at her reddened face. A scowling girl appears, dumps a blanket into Elizabeth’s arms, and yanks her across the flagstones to an open door. With a push at the small of Elizabeth’s back, the girl sends her stumbling into a frigid cell.

Dust motes lit by early afternoon sunlight from a high window float in one corner of the tiny space. Elizabeth shivers: the window allowing the thin stream of sun also proves no barrier to the cold wind, the iron bars unchallenged by glass. She clutches the blanket to her chest, feeling its threadbare lightness. Her latest (last?) home is devoid of any furniture save a slim pine board which must do for a bed, and a bucket in the sunlit corner. She lays the blanket on the board, expecting to hear the clang of the door shutting her in, and the scrape of the great key in the lock. It will be a relief, to be by herself.

The door stays open. She hears a whispered conversation between the warder and the scowling girl. Less than a minute later a person resembling a giant underfed peacock appears in the doorway. He comes no further, standing with his blue and green waist-coated chest puffed out, incongruous below an ascetic, sombre face. One hand presses a handkerchief to his nose. The other holds a sheet of heavy cream paper between long, delicate fingers.

‘Mr Wintle, the Gaol Governor,’ the warder fawns.

Wintle frowns at Elizabeth. She returns his frown. Nothing so colourful has crossed her path for many years.

‘Mrs Scott.’ The Governor lowers the handkerchief to nod his balding, beardless head.

She blinks. Mrs Scott?

She’s jolted into remembering her manners, giving a tight nod.

‘Your presence here is a great misfortune.’ The Governor’s eyes appear to be in a permanent state of sadness, like a saint who has tired of the harrowing world but knows there is yet more sorrow to be endured.

The man’s compassion summons a scratchiness at the back of Elizabeth’s throat.

‘However’ – even his ‘However’ carries sympathy – ‘it is one which the court in its full consideration of the law has decided you have brought upon yourself.’

Yes. After all, she was there.

She was there, in the warm kitchen, watching through the white fog smothering her exhausted mind. Julian, reluctant and scowling, had been persuaded from his bed to deal with Davey’s crisis.

Their crisis. Davey was right. Bob would kill Davey, and Elizabeth too.

Now Julian held moulded clay with the tongs while Davey poured melted lead into the hole to make a bullet. The hot smell burned Elizabeth’s nostrils.

‘You finish, Gedge.’ Julian waved a hand at Davey and stalked away, back to his room. ‘’member, call Ellis straight ’way, tell ’im Boss kill hisself.’

Julian had done his part to save the Missis – he thought.

‘No.’ Davey’s cry leapt after him. ‘I can’t do it. I can’t face him, not again.’

Julian halted, his back rigid.

‘You do it, Cross,’ Davey begged. ‘To save Betsy. I know you’ll do it to save Betsy.’

Julian hadn’t saved her.

The Governor lifts the sheet of cream paper. Elizabeth sees the broken red wax of the seal, imprinted with a crown. The Executive Council?

Hope fights to beat a path to her heart. They’re pardoning her. As they did for Mrs Hays.

She can go home. To her boys.

‘Mrs Scott,’ Wintle repeats, his sorrow clear, ‘I have today received this missive from the Chief Secretary.’

His solemnity curbs hope’s struggle to reach Elizabeth’s thudding heart.

‘It informs me,’ Wintle glances at the cream paper with its blood red stain, ‘that the sentence of death passed upon you at Beechworth Court on Friday 23rd October has been examined by the Executive Council, and a decision made.’

Elizabeth nods. Decisions are difficult things. If she had made a different decision that bright April morning, Bob would be alive. She would still have her sons.

Elizabeth swallowed blurring tears while the magpies sang. ‘I can’t, Davey, I can’t just leave him. As long as he lives, as sick he is, I have to stay with him. I’m his wife.’

She hardened her heart against Davey’s disappointed gasp. A horse whickered softly. ‘Let’s deal with these horses, eh?’ Elizabeth slipped past Davey into the musky stable.

From the corner of her eye, she saw a dray kicking up dust on the track from the road.

Mr and Mrs Ellis. Thank God. Female company at last.

The worthy Mrs Ellis.

Wintle lowers the letter and gazes at Elizabeth. Sweat trickles down her back. The Governor’s eyes are dark and pitying. Elizabeth grows cold.

‘The decision of the Executive Council is that the sentence of death pronounced by Chief Justice Stawell,’ Wintle lowers his voice, ‘will be carried out.’

Carried out ... carried out ... Not like Mrs Hays ...

The white walls of the cell darken. She shuts her eyes. The Governor keeps talking.

‘The Council has appointed this Thursday morning, 11th November, as the date of your execution.’

Elizabeth stretches out her arms, blind, reaching for something solid. Solid like the shanty’s chimney; Davey pushing her against the stones, hissing, ‘It’s what you want, Betsy, ya know you do ...’

It was what Davey wanted.

‘I know you’ll do it to save Betsy.’ Davey’s challenge sped towards Julian’s back like a thrown blade.

The ex-pirate spun on his bare heel. ‘Go outside,’ he barked at Elizabeth. ‘Go ’way from here.’ He took up the brandy sitting on the table as if waiting for the party to begin, gulped it, slammed down the empty glass and seized the loaded shotgun in one hand, the useless pistol in the other.

Panic knifed through the swirling white fog filling her mind. ‘No!’ Elizabeth pushed herself from the chair, stretching out her arms, begging.

Julian paced to the bedroom.

‘No, you can’t.’ Elizabeth’s anguish fell on stony ground. ‘Julian, no. You mustn’t!’

His footsteps didn’t slow.

Elizabeth’s insides were a curling pit of shame. Her lurch towards Julian was jolted to a halt by Davey’s arm clamped around her waist.

‘Let’s go,’ Davey hissed. He hauled Elizabeth the other way, away from Julian, pushing her into the blackness of the parlour. She struggled, pleading, ‘No, no.’ Davey forced her across the room and through the front door to the paler blackness outside. He didn’t stop there. He kept going, dragging Elizabeth along the verandah.

Tell Ellis – Julian’s words scrambled in Elizabeth’s whirling mind. Ellis is out there.

Davey stopped. His hands cupped Elizabeth’s cheeks, tight, as he pressed her to the cold stones of the chimney. She struggled in Davey’s hold. She should be running, screaming, to her husband’s side. She must not fail him.

‘No, Julian, no!’

Her frantic plea couldn’t reach the ex-pirate now.

Davey leaned into her. ‘It’s what you want, Betsy, ya know you do. So’s we can be together.’

Nausea surged through her throat. She shoved at Davey’s chest and he crushed her harder against the stone. His short breaths fell warm on her face in the freezing air.

Ellis’s dray ... out there ...

‘The bastard’s dyin’ anyway.’

‘Ellis!’

The crack of the blast drowned Elizabeth’s scream. She jerked, held fast by Davey’s hard body. The magpies roosting in the stringy barks shrieked their fright. The dog howled, once, then whimpered. The silence which came after was tainted only by Elizabeth’s shuddering breaths.

In the death-shadowed cell, Elizabeth’s breath shudders again. She wraps her arms about her waist, keening.

*I am a failed wife.*

***
The sentence of death pronounced on Elizabeth Scott, David Gedge and Julian Cross by Chief Justice Judge Stawell was carried out on 11th November, 1863 at Melbourne Central Gaol. Elizabeth was the first and youngest woman hanged in the Colony of Victoria, Australia. She was twenty three years old. The evidence which convicted her of the murder of her husband was thin. With the noose around her neck, Elizabeth turned to Davey and asked, ‘Will you not then clear me, Davey?’ Davey didn’t answer.

Her execution took place seventeen years to the day before that of the internationally renowned murderer and bushranger, Ned Kelly, in the same gaol.

But who has heard of Elizabeth Scott?

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