© Emma Beach and Cheryl Burman
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This is an historical novel. The main characters and events are true. * denotes italics
Melbourne, Colony of Victoria, Wednesday 11th November 1863
Elizabeth peels off the sweaty, stained gown worn the past six days, wincing at the muffled click of her unhealed collarbone beneath its makeshift bandage. A wave of nausea threatens. She steadies herself with her good arm against the cold stone wall, concentrating on the dress pooling around her ankles. Sweat prickles down her back.
The nausea passes.
Kicking aside the soiled garment, she bends over the brown paper parcel lying on the cot. Her stiff fingers refuse to unpick the tight knots of string, and she tears at the paper, pulling it apart to release her best black stuff gown. The dress arrived yesterday from Beechworth, whisked away to the laundry house for pressing and now returned.
Elizabeth tilts her head, drawing in her bottom lip with her teeth in a restrained sign of pleasure. Sunlight streaming from the high window coaxes a soft sheen from the gored, voluminous skirts. Laid against the threadbare blanket, the dress appears to her as luxurious as any silk.
She gives a quick nod, conscious of the thick blonde braid at the nape of her neck. With her hair pulled tightly back, the gown will look becoming against her indoor-pale skin.
Lifting the dress to hug the bodice to her chest, Elizabeth longs for her prized petticoat. In a flush of generosity, Bob had allowed her to buy the rich red wool on a rare trip to Mansfield. She had spent hours stitching it, but never worn it; the shanty offering no occasion special enough for its embroidered glories.
She raises her arms to pull the dress over her unwashed chemise, wincing again at the sickening click of bone. She sinks to the cot, smoothing the skirts to distract from the pain, then resting her hands on her knees at the knock on the heavy wooden door.
Elizabeth waits, knowing whomever it is will enter without any permission from her. Her permission is of no interest to anyone.
She gives no greeting as the Chaplain approaches, touching his hat to her in his normal way; a gesture which has always caused Elizabeth a mild pang, unused as she is to such pretty manners. Today, dressed respectably in her clean, black gown, she mutely accepts the gesture.
The Reverend pulls up a stool by the side of the cot.
‘My daughter,’ he intones, ‘it is nearly time.’
Elizabeth looks down at her hands, now clasped tightly on her lap, and says nothing.
The Chaplain ahem’s, and opens up his Book of Common Prayer.
‘Almighty God,’ he reads gravely, ‘unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts...’
The words wash over Elizabeth, summoning a long ago memory of Sunday services back home, in Twickenham. There she is, the young Betsy, clutching Louisa’s pudgy hand while her much-loved older sister Annie holds on to poor little Sarah; all of them proudly wearing their hand-me-down floral muslins, tossing their beribboned hair, walking solemnly behind Mother and Father along the cracked stone path into the Church’s ever-cold tiled porch.
The memory stabs at her so that she nearly cries out. The Reverend falters, peers at her closely, and continues his reading:
‘....open thine eye of mercy upon this thy servant, who most earnestly desireth pardon and forgiveness.’
*Pardon and forgiveness?*
The words bring Elizabeth back to the present.
*Do I desire pardon and forgiveness?*
Showing no sign to the clergyman, Elizabeth repeats the words to herself, *pardon and forgiveness*, testing them, seeing them written in large letters on the stone wall of her cell, mocking her.
*Me? Is it me who should desire pardon and forgiveness?*
Images of her mother, her husband, her children – even the shanty customers – circle round her mind like gaudy figures on a silent carousel.
*I tried, always. They can never say I didn’t.*
The Chaplain finishes his reading and gently touches Elizabeth’s head in a blessing. She shrinks from his touch. He quickly removes his hand, saying to her, ‘Now child, they are here. Are you ready?’
In reply, Elizabeth stands and faces the door as it swings open for her for the last time.
The hangman, recognisable by his missing eye, blocks her view of the milling bodies in the corridor. Elizabeth remembers his name is Jack Bamford. In a snatched moment in the washroom - the only place she saw other prisoners - an older woman had whispered to her, ‘They say Jack Bamford, with the one eye, will hang yer, girl. Be grateful for God’s mercies, ’cause Jack’s reputation is for a quick, clean ’anging.’
Elizabeth had stared, not comprehending, and the woman had patted Elizabeth’s shoulder and left, nodding her grimy, greying head.
Ignoring the officials in starched collars and tall hats pushing their way into the tiny cell, Elizabeth takes the two short steps to Bamford. She faces him steadily. He gives her a half-smile, which broadens when Elizabeth pushes back her elbows and crosses her arms behind her so they can be pinioned. The movement hurts, but not enough to stop her fussing clumsily with her sleeves, trying to ensure the rope doesn’t interfere with their graceful folds.
*Mother would insist.*
Lifting her head high, Elizabeth steps out of the shadowy cell, hearing the officials filing behind her and the hangman into the even darker corridor. She stops there, just ahead of a whispering group of men holding notepads and pencils, those at the back stretching up or peering around their colleagues to catch a better glimpse of the pretty murderess.
Elizabeth avoids the whispering journalists, turning her eyes upwards to the symmetrical galleries surrounding each tier of cells, reached by the dark green wrought iron staircase. The top floor glories in early morning sunshine so that Elizabeth fancies the arched skylight as a porthole to the heavens; although the rays don’t penetrate to the scrubbed flagstones where she stands, waiting to be led down the dim passage.
A female warder grasps Elizabeth’s elbow, shepherding her through the crush of journalists and officials, moving away from the cells.
It’s hardly any distance before they come to the high bluestone arch marking the exit from the corridor. Elizabeth jerks against the warder’s grip, unwilling to forsake the comforting uncertainty of the shadows for the chill reality waiting in the sunlit yard.
Her trembling fingers find the soft cotton of the handkerchief she has tucked into her sleeve, stroking this reminder of Louisa’s last message.
‘Louisa’s husband, as you would expect, will not allow her to visit,’ Annie had explained, in a tone which led Elizabeth to understand her sister shared their mutual brother-in-law’s lofty morals.
‘She does, however, send you this,’ – lips pursed, Annie had held out the white square – ‘and tells you God will be merciful.’
*If God is to be merciful, He needs to hasten.*
The warder’s insistent tug on her pinioned arm forces Elizabeth forward, over the mud-caked slabs, out of the dark shelter of the arch, into the daylight. Her eyes sting in the blinding brightness. She squeezes them shut, the thought half-forming, *Is this to be my final journey, into the eternal darkness?*
Her breath catches, matching the gasp of surprise rising from the eager crowd waiting in the courtyard.
Whispers eddy in the clear air.
‘Yes, only twenty-three I believe!’
‘Poor little thing!’
‘Surely she couldn’t have done anything so dreadful?’
And, ‘How brave she appears!’
‘You must be brave, Betsy,’ Annie had instructed her. ‘Mother would expect it.’
Eyes still tightly shut, Elizabeth considers. *Can I be brave?* The word now, as then, means nothing to her.
Butterfly wings of fear flicker in her stomach.
*They won’t do it. Louisa’s right. God will be merciful.*
*She searches for the edge of the handkerchief, her lips moving as she breathes the propitious words.*
Hesitating still, despite the warder’s tightening grip, Elizabeth opens her eyes to peer across the yard. Her gaze falls first on the Sheriff and then on the gaol Governor. Both stand with their hands behind their backs, chins lifted high as if to distance themselves from the unruly throng.
Neither even glance towards the massive gate through which Elizabeth’s reprieve must surely come.
The warder nudges once more at her elbow and Elizabeth bends her head, watching her dainty boots as she carefully picks her way through the muddy yard. Her escort of grey-serged guards hem her close, pushing at the crowd to keep them at bay. Elizabeth’s nostrils flare in distaste at the lingering scent of urine and sweat emanating from guards and onlookers alike.
Further ahead, she catches sight of the backs of her convicted accomplices, trussed as she is, and already herded outside without so much as a goodbye.
Julian Cross, a priest by his side, appears to be praying.
Davey too, ignores the crowd. Elizabeth can hear him even now protesting through his sobs, that ‘Cross committed the murder. Me an’ Betsy had no hand in it.’
The escort’s laughter chills Elizabeth’s heart.
She watches the prison warders shove both Julian and Davey in the small of their backs, making them stumble into the crush of men struggling for the best views. The guards lean into the crowd, urging them back, clearing Elizabeth’s path to the sturdy wooden structure where the three nooses hang, barely moving in the damp, still air.
*God is merciful.*
Elizabeth’s stomach churns as she watches Davey and Julian climb the narrow steps to the platform, the gathering falling silent around her as the ending begins. Navigating the steep steps after Davey, Elizabeth's careful poise deserts her as her skirts and pinioned arms send her off balance. It’s the Reverend who steadies her, reaching out his arm as he climbs to the platform behind her.
The rough timbers groan beneath all their weight as the hangman manhandles first Julian, then Davey, directly beneath the nooses. Julian’s lips move, still praying. Davey sobs softly, paying no heed to Elizabeth. She wants to bend towards him, to offer comfort, and to whisper of hope.
She can’t. Bamford is kneeling before her, binding her legs.
*It will stop my skirts billowing, if it comes to that.* Then, bitterly, *My executioner is more a gentleman than my husband ever was.*
Bamford double-checks the noose around each of Davey’s and Julian’s necks. When he comes to Elizabeth, he leans in close to her ear, his lank, greasy hair brushing her cheek. She catches a whiff of his fetid breath and tries not to recoil in disgust as he secures the knot under her chin. The fibres in the noose itch at her neck, making her want to reach up and scratch.
*God will be merciful.*
The butterfly of fear lodged in her stomach quickens its beating wings.
Dimly understanding the hangman’s face might be the last she sees, Elizabeth tries to focus on Bamford as he tugs on his forelock, muttering, ‘God Bless’. He stands back to survey his work, nods to himself and moves forward again.
Elizabeth raises her eyes to the bright blue sky.
*God will be merciful.*
One last sight, and a white calico hood hides the world from her. She draws in a sharp breath. The cruelty of the last minute deprivation stings her more than anything else she has suffered these last months.
The drumming starts, matching Elizabeth’s racing heartbeat.
She tries to imagine the scene, desperate for anything to distract her mind: the gaol officials standing straight; the men of import on the scaffold itself removing their hats, discreetly hugging their self-satisfaction at holding the best vantage point. Within the hood’s grey blindness, she can hear the crowd below buzzing softly with greetings and apologies, well-spoken men of society jockeying for position amongst rough workers taking the morning off for the show.
Are her sympathisers here, anxiously craning their necks for any movement in the ranks of the Sheriff’s men?
*Where is my reprieve?*
Dread fills the hole where her heart once was.
It seems no time at all, and also an eternity, before a hush descends on the audience, *like the curtain opening at the beginning of a play*, the thought came, *with me the tragic heroine*
The flickering wings of fear blaze into panic.
*They’re going to do it.*
She draws in another precious breath, stifled against the white hood.
*Pardon and forgiveness.*
*Not for me.*
The realisation blossoms in the mist filling her head.
*Not for me. It’s not me who needs pardon and forgiveness.*
Even through the calico hood, Elizabeth senses the one hundred eyes following her awkward attempt to turn to Davey, the one man who can rescue her now.
She lifts her voice, not attempting to stop the tearful trembling, to plead, ‘Davey, will you not then clear me?’
Twickenham, London, Spring, twelve years earlier
Harsh whispers woke Betsy from her dream of Papa. It was the dream she always had, where he tossed her into the air telling her what a sweet little girl she was, while Annie hung onto his legs, giggling, ‘Me too, Papa, me too.’
She lay still, listening to the darkness. Her sleeping sisters snuffled and snorted beside her. Then it came again: raised voices which tried to be quiet and couldn’t, welling up the black stairwell along with the odours of day-old boiled cabbage and coal smoke.
Betsy slid noiselessly from the bed, grateful to be the one on the end despite the chilly air. Shivering in her nightgown, she tiptoed to the door, halting mid-step at a sudden squeak in the bare floorboards. She held her breath and poked her head around the frame to hear what was going on.
*Doesn’t Mother like her new husband and our new home?*
Her mother had been out of temper since they had moved from the tiny house in Haken Lane to this larger dwelling in Queens Square, soon after her marriage to her second husband, Mr George Fitzwater. The house was new, sitting at the edge of the village, hard by the orchards which stretched away up the Avenue and beyond.
*Mr Fitzwater seems kind enough and surely it’s better than being the Widow Luckett?*
Although her father’s death was three years ago, Betsy clearly remembered the loud wailings which hadn’t seemed to her so much about poor Thomas Luckett, than about how her mother was meant to bring up four growing girls in a godly manner now her breadwinner had been taken from her so precipitately.
Betsy had gathered from the conversations of the adults that Father had ascended to heaven ‘far too early’, in one of God’s mysterious ways. But Betsy knew he was thirty-one, which had seemed a great age to her then, and still did.
She hugged warmth to herself as she leaned against the doorframe. *What will I be like when I’m thirty-one?* Thirty-one was too far away to even consider.
‘...and Elizabeth too.’
The voices from the kitchen carried clearly now, as if the owners could no longer bother to remember there were sleeping children above them. The mention of her proper name brought Betsy to attention, frowning into the dark.
*What about me?*
‘The girl’s far too young to go into service.’
‘It’s what we agreed, before we became man and wife. You must remember, Ann?’
No reply from her mother. In the silence, Betsy heard the crackle of the fire, and sniffed the sharpened smell of coal smoke.
*Service? Leave home and become a servant in someone’s else house?* Betsy’s heart picked up a beat.
‘My Eliza Ann’s in service,’ said George, so quietly Betsy nearly fell down the stairs trying to hear.
‘Your girl’s fifteen. She’ll be married with her own household soon enough, I should think.’
‘Your Annie’s thirteen, the same age my Eliza Ann was when she started out.’
Another silence, interrupted by another crackle from the fire.
‘If we can find somewhere suitable, a good position in a good household, then perhaps my Annie, if it must be. But not Betsy, not yet.’
In her hiding place on the landing, Betsy gave a soft sigh of relief.
‘You have your heart set on Richmond House, perhaps?’ George snorted.
Richmond House was a grand, red brick, many-windowed dwelling in huge grounds, almost opposite their own new home. Betsy knew being in service in such a place would earn a young girl quite a deal of respect.
‘Why not?’ Mrs Fitzwater countered.
George heaved a huge sigh. ‘We can’t afford the luxury of fussiness, Ann. I’m a poor labourer, and this house costs me a pretty penny. You know that. We talked of all of this before we wed.’
There was only a muffled humph in reply.
‘Perhaps you’d rather I sent the two young ones to the orphanage?’
Even from the top of the stairs Betsy heard her mother’s gasp, which matched her own, quieter one.
‘Because if I have to support ’em all, we’ll all end up in the workhouse like as not.’
Betsy’s stomach lurched at the bitterness in her new father’s voice.
*The workhouse? No, please God, not there.*
It was the picture of Sarah and Louisa in the dread workhouse which made Betsy think hard about Mr Fitzwater’s threats. Her stomach curled at the image of the two little girls, only eight and nine years old, bare-footed, ragged, cold and tearful within the hungry darkness of the damp stone walls. Mother had managed to keep them from the workhouse over the last three years, with, Betsy knew, help from both Granny Luckett and Granny Baker. The thought of having survived until now, only to end up there... No, it wouldn’t do, ever.
Much better to come to terms with life as a domestic, even if it couldn’t be Richmond House.
She shook her blonde head, chewing her top lip. She already spent much of her day helping her mother with cleaning and cooking and washing, so the only difference in becoming a domestic would be that she would not be at home. Which meant she would not be another mouth to feed.
*And I am eleven, after all!*
She nodded sharply, her mind made up. Her new father was right. She and Annie could and should earn their own ways.
*I’ll tell Mother in the morning I want to go into service. And Annie’ll come too. I’ll make her.*
The raised voices had quieted, the only sounds coming from the kitchen now were of crockery and pots being tidied away. Betsy shivered harder on the cold landing. Her toes on the bare floor felt like tiny snowballs.
Trying to feel righteous, she crept back into the warm bed, causing Annie to wriggle and grunt sleepily.
It was a long time before she slept.
‘Mother,’ Betsy said the next day as she scraped squares of potato into an iron pot, ‘I’ve decided I should leave home and seek a position in a household.’
She was helping her mother prepare their dinner, peeling and chopping vegetables while Mrs Fitzwater diced a chunk of bacon. Mr Fitzwater, still unwashed and dusty from his morning’s labouring, sat on a stool before the smoking kitchen fire with a mug of tea.
Her mother looked at her with startled eyes. Betsy’s new father glanced up with a grin, red lips peeking through his full brown beard.
‘Ah, I thought I heard a mouse on the stairs last night,’ he joked. He waved the mug at his wife, saying, ‘There you are, Mrs Fitzwater. Done, nice and easy.’
Ann glared, first at her husband, then at Betsy.
‘We’ll see,’ she said, pushing back a loose lock of light brown hair with the back of her reddened hand.
‘Or,’ Mr Fitzwater smiled slyly into his empty mug, ‘we could all find ourselves a better life, in California.’
Mrs Fitzwater stopped chopping, the knife poised above the bacon. Betsy saw her mother’s pale blue eyes narrow.
‘California?’ asked Sarah, lifting her head from the pile of mending she and Louisa were slowly working through. ‘What’s California?’
‘Not a what, a where,’ answered Mr Fitzwater, gesturing towards the cottage door as if California was on their doorstep. ‘Mr Jarrow, the master, was telling me only this morning how his cousin is there, and how well he’s done. He would go himself, he says, only he has his business here which does him well enough.’
‘Gold,’ muttered Mrs Fitzwater, returning to her chopping with a fierceness which made Betsy glad the poor pig was well past feeling anything. ‘Is that what you intend, George? To take us to some godless mining camp?’
‘Don’t know how godless they are, my dear. I do know a man can make a fortune, and not only from gold.’
Betsy saw the glint in her stepfather’s dark eyes. He stood up from his stool to pace the short distance from the fire to the table, setting down the mug before pacing back again. The clack of his work boots on the flags quieted as he stepped onto one of Mrs Fitzwater’s bright rag rugs, throwing his arms wide to exclaim, ‘Think of it! Opportunities abound there, so we are told.’
Mrs Fitzwater laid down her knife and put her hands on her hips, glaring at her husband. ‘And how would the girls be schooled? Louisa and Sarah will start this autumn, learning to read and write just as Annie and Betsy have done. Would you deprive them of their opportunities?’
‘Humph!’ her husband replied. ‘Opportunities to be servants, which is all God has in store for your girls, Mrs Fitzwater, if we stay in England. I’m talking of opportunities to make much more of ourselves.’
‘Mother, why shouldn’t we go?’ Louisa laid down a half-darned sock to watch her stepfather’s enthusiastic pacing. ‘We can always return if we fail.’
Betsy thought this sensible advice, especially from such a little girl.
‘Yes, of course, we can always come home if we don’t like it,’ she concurred, earning a wide grin from Mr Fitzwater and a prim nod of Louisa’s dark curls.
Betsy flinched at her mother’s scowl.
‘If we fail, Elizabeth, we would have no means of return.’
Betsy hadn’t considered this. Not able to return? As poor as ever, only now in a strange, wild country? Her heart contracted.
Mrs Fitzwater wiped her hands on her greying apron, wringing the material into a tight ball. ‘No, we will not even consider such nonsense.’ She faced her husband, hands clasped dramatically to her generous breast to plead, ‘Please, George, put this idea away, for the sake of your new family.’
‘It is for their sakes I consider it!’ George cried, lifting his broad shoulders and throwing up his hands. ‘But as you are so set against it, we will not talk on it further.’
He pulled on his coat and collected his hat from the peg by the door. His hand on the handle, he twisted around to address his wife. ‘It needs to be one thing or the other, Ann, because we cannot go on as we are forever.’
Betsy stood frozen, her hands full of chopped carrots, as her new father stomped outside. A gust of wind slammed the door shut behind him.
Mrs Fitzwater stared at the door for a moment, before turning her baleful attention to her daughters.
‘Get on with your tasks, all of you,’ she snapped, flinging the handful of bacon chunks into the pot.
Nothing further was said about either Betsy or Annie going into service, until the next Sunday. And then not by Mr or Mrs Fitzwater.
Following on behind their mother and stepfather as they walked home from church through the village in the soft pattering rain of an English spring day, Betsy asked Annie, ‘What’s made our mother so distracted?’
Ann Fitzwater had emerged from St Mary’s the Virgin looking most thoughtful. Betsy noticed her mother didn’t even tell Louisa to straighten her hat, knocked out of shape in a game of tag with a group of other young churchgoers.
Annie tilted her head towards Betsy and smiled her soft smile. ‘The man who talked about going off to New Zealand, I suspect. Didn’t you hear him mention the gentlemen and country squires all signing up?’ She cast a mischievous look at Betsy, her long lashes fluttering against pink cheeks. ‘I saw Mother lean forward and become quite attentive.’
‘New Zealand? But she didn’t want us to go California! Isn’t New Zealand much further from home?’
Annie shrugged. ‘Yes, I believe so. But I suspect it’s about who is there, not how far away it is.’
Betsy frowned at these ambiguous words.
Annie smiled again. ‘The gentlemen and the country squires. Don’t you see? They want to build a little England in that far country, with all its politeness and good behaviours.’
‘You mean, we would find work as domestics there, just as here?’ It seemed to Betsy she would rather remain in her familiar home than take herself to the other side of the world just to do the same work.
‘Perhaps. Or perhaps we would ‘better ourselves’, as our new father says.’ Annie squinted into the rain from under her bonnet. ‘In any case, the weather is so much pleasanter there, I understand.’
The parson from St Mary’s held out the thick, opened envelope with one hand while removing his hat with the other.
Betsy carefully took the damp hat, gave it a little shake, which scattered water over her mother’s clean floor, and hung it on the peg beside the door alongside their various bonnets, shawls and coats. She waited for a while to see if their visitor would remove his coat, then returned to stand obediently with her sisters.
Mrs Fitzwater took the envelope, her eyebrows raised in a question.
The parson smiled widely above his white cravat. ‘All’s well, Mrs Fitzwater. The Association has issued an embarkation order for your family, for the Canterbury, for June.’
He turned to the girls lined up by the scrubbed kitchen table, nodding approvingly at their clean pinafores and neatly mended shoes. Betsy stared back, noting how the sun nudging its way through the open front window sparkled on the vicar’s grey hairs. Unconsciously, she gave a toss of her own blonde braid, feeling its comforting weight on the back of her brown woollen dress.
‘Off to New Zealand! What an adventure!’ the parson told them, his smile growing wider. ‘Four well-brought-up girls like you should have no problem finding yourselves good positions and then, God willing, husbands and children. A superior life, that’s what you all go to, in this faraway new world.’
He peered at them down his long nose, gently shaking a finger. ‘I trust you will thank God every day for such opportunities.’
Betsy exchanged a wide-eyed look with Annie. *New Zealand?*
Listening from the top of the dark staircase, the girls had heard the arguments raging each night, until a few weeks ago, at which time all conversation between husband and wife had ceased.
It was about California or New Zealand, with George insisting California was full of the most promise, the land of milk and honey - and gold - while Ann constantly harked on about rough mining camps and man-eating natives and lack of churches and schools and did he want the girls to end up wild and godless? Because she certainly did not.
Which would never happen in the civilised society being created even now in New Zealand, she insisted, where the girls, far from being fated to be servants all their lives, would mix with their betters and, God willing, find well-off husbands and set up comfortable homes of their own.
‘Why can’t we stay here, in England?’ Annie had complained to Betsy.
With the knowledge gained by her earlier eavesdropping, Betsy had been able to explain that the choices were California, New Zealand, or the workhouse. Annie’s soft eyes had grown round, and then she had laughed. ‘No,’ she had told Betsy, ‘it can’t be so bad,’ explaining how Mr Fitzwater’s master had so much business with all the houses being built in Twickenham with the coming of the railway, there must certainly be enough work and enough money for their stepfather to keep them all, at least until she, Annie, found a position for herself, which she had told her mother and stepfather she intended to do very soon. And, Annie suggested, it wouldn’t be long before Betsy also could go out to work, perhaps as a daily maid in one of the nearby big houses, of which there were many in Twickenham.
Betsy had been comforted, especially when the arguments had ceased. *It appears nothing will change. There’s no more to be worried about,* she had decided.
Now here was the parson, with his surprising news.
*It seems Mother has won and things will change after all.* Betsy tried not to mind. At least they had a father again, who would doubtless do what was best in all their interests. And it would settle forever any anxiety about the workhouse.
As if reading Betsy’s mind, Sarah asked, ‘Are our new father and sister coming with us to New Zealand?’
Betsy saw a look pass between her mother and the parson.
‘Mr Fitzwater and Miss Eliza Ann Fitzwater have been approved too,’ the parson said, his smile still fixed to his face.
‘Is our new father happy about New Zealand?’ Betsy wanted to know.
‘Why should he not be happy?’ her mother asked tartly.
‘They’re arguing again,’ Betsy whispered to Eliza Ann. Both of them lay across the bottom of the bed, at the other girls’ feet.
‘Father wishes to go to America still,’ Eliza Ann whispered back. ‘But your mother is a strong-minded woman, and it seems she will never be persuaded.’
Eliza Ann had given up her position as a downstairs maid in a mansion in Knightsbridge and joined them in the house in Queens Square until they all left for their new life.
Betsy felt shy in front of this almost-grown girl who earned her own money. Or used to earn her own money. Eliza Ann however, seemed happy to play the role of big sister to the younger girls, thereby putting Annie’s turned-up nose somewhat out of joint.
Betsy sighed and wriggled in the hot bed. ‘Well, it’s only one more day until we leave. There’s not much he can do to change her mind in so little time.’
‘I hope they won’t argue all the way to New Zealand,’ giggled Eliza Ann. ‘That would be most tedious, wouldn’t it?’
Betsy grinned, then lay listening to the gentle snoring of her sisters. She wondered, again, what New Zealand would be like.
It was well before dawn when Betsy was woken by her mother and set to making the breakfast while Mrs Fitzwater fussed around the luggage, counting the boxes and the little trunks, lifting the lids then closing them again. Occasionally she called up the dark, narrow staircase to her daughters, unnecessarily urging them to hurry along, come and have something to eat, make sure they had everything they needed and at this rate they would miss their train into Waterloo.
‘Where’s our new father?’ Betsy asked as she set out the mugs, taking advantage of a break in her mother’s fussing.
‘Gone to work, as always.’
‘Gone to work?’ Betsy’s stomach flipped. ‘But today...?’
‘He has decided to stay, perhaps join us later.’ Her mother’s tone suggested this was perfectly normal and not to be worried about, as if her husband had said he would come along late to a walk on the common.
A bleak sense of abandonment stole into Betsy’s soul. Her knees shook so much she plumped down on her stepfather’s stool by the cold fire.
‘He can’t stay!’
‘He can and he is.’ Ann Fitzwater continued to poke through the baggage, her back set firmly to her daughter. Betsy saw two of the boxes had been set apart, at the bottom of the stairs.
‘He left us without saying goodbye?’
She wanted to wail, ‘We’re to be fatherless, again? Why are we going still?’ She couldn’t say it out loud, with the preparations all made, the wagon ordered and the Embarkation Orders sitting on the kitchen table.
Her mother didn’t look up from the case she was opening for the fourth time as she said, ‘He said goodbye to me, and wishes us all good luck and God’s blessings on our voyage.’
‘What about Eliza Ann? Did he say goodbye to her?’
‘How should I know. You must ask her yourself.’
Nothing more was said. Ann Fitzwater was leaving England with or without a husband.
East India Docks June 18th 1851
The dray rumbled along Barking Road, busy even at this early hour with wagons and carriages. No-one spoke. Mr Fitzwater’s unexpected absence appeared to have disquieted the family, especially Eliza Ann. The abandoned daughter leaned against Betsy with red-rimmed eyes and a handkerchief pressed to her quivering mouth.
The gatehouse of the East India Dock came into view, marking their destination. Betsy eyed the dome-mounted structure with its three arches with awe. *A fitting entrance to usher people towards their new, unknown, lives.*
On the opposite corner, a group of dock workers sat with heads down and backs bent at rough tables outside a tavern, while groups of two or three wearily leaned against the red-brick walls, huge mugs clutched in their hands.
‘Help ’ee with the baggage, ma’am?’ Porters competed with scruffy urchins for the privilege of carrying their trunks through the arch into the port itself.
Betsy watched her mother choose two porters. Barrel-chested men with rolled-up sleeves and caps pulled tight over their greasy hair, each of them gripped the short, solid handles of a roomy handcart.
‘Carefully, if you please,’ she instructed them as they manhandled the trunks from the dray to the handcarts. ‘Now, girls,’ turning to her daughters and step-daughter, ‘have you each got your own bag, the one for the ship?’
They all nodded, holding up the bulging, unwieldy sacks for inspection. Betsy saw Eliza Ann’s hands trembling as the girl tried to keep her tears at bay. Mrs Fitzwater took no notice, picking up her own, new, carpetbag and leading the porters through the arch, into the throng of emigrants, labourers and sailors.
Betsy took tight hold of Louisa’s hand, keeping their mother in sight as they stepped around the crates and boxes which lay strewn everywhere. Seagulls wheeled and shrieked, diving into heaps of stinking, uncleared rubbish, squabbling raucously over rancid morsels. Rough-looking men led wagons piled high with listing, roped luggage, shouting, ‘Make way, make way,’ as they threaded their clumsy way across the docks along a pitted track. Here and there, families who appeared to have camped overnight tried to snatch a little more sleep. They stretched out protectively over their belongings or huddled together under cloaks to ward off the rays of the sun climbing relentlessly into a cloudless sky.
Ahead, Betsy saw the tall masts of ships, their tops swaying in gentle arcs in the summer calm. She looked away, not wanting to think about boarding one of those ships and sailing away forever. Instead, she let go of Louisa’s hand and dawdled behind, casting hopeful glances over her shoulder, willing her stepfather to surprise them with a change of mind.
‘Is that him, there?’ Betsy whispered to Eliza Ann, also peering constantly behind her.
Eliza Ann stopped, staring at a man hurrying in their direction. She sighed, shook her head. ‘No, it’s not him.’
‘Hurry up, Betsy, Eliza, you’ll become lost in all this crowd,’ cried Annie, keeping pace with her mother. Mrs Fitzwater, clutching the all-important envelope of Embarkation Orders to her chest, was hard on the heels of the porters with their handcarts, peering ahead to seek out the Emigration Office.
Betsy hurried as directed, hating the noisy mass of bodies and the shrieking gulls, wanting only to go home to the cramped tidiness of the Queens Square house. What was her mother thinking, to take them on such a journey with no man to care for them?
At the depot the porters dumped their luggage, took their payment, touched their caps to Mrs Fitzwater and disappeared into the mass of people. Betsy and her sisters and mother were at the end of a long queue of emigrants. Mothers in shawls and bonnets, with babies on their hips and baskets in their hands, hushed older children running excitedly in circles around them. The fathers stood with eyes peeled forward, standing guard over shiny new trunks and boxes tied with heavy ropes.
Betsy stared back along the docks, her hopes diminishing as they inched forward.
‘There, that’s him, he’s coming!’ Eliza Ann’s joyous cry caused most of the queue to whirl around, seeking the source of such happiness.
‘Yes, yes, I can see him.’ Louisa stood on tiptoes and waved frantically, although it was clear to Betsy that Mr Fitzwater had seen his family. Eliza Ann also waved, calling out, ‘Here, Papa, we’re here.’
He didn’t return their waves. Betsy also noted he appeared to have no luggage with him. A sense of something not quite right nagged at her own relief. She glanced at her mother. Mrs Fitzwater stood very still, staring towards her husband with widened eyes.
*Why does she look so surprised?* The thought didn’t help Betsy’s unease.
Then he was there, tall and broad, and dressed still in his work clothes.
‘Papa, you’re coming too, I’m so glad, it was awful having to leave you so,’ Eliza Ann sobbed, throwing her arms around her father.
George didn’t look at his daughter. He put her gently away from him and spoke to his wife.
‘No, I am not coming, Eliza Ann. I made up my mind to that some days ago, didn’t I, Mrs Fitzwater?’
Mrs Fitzwater nodded.
The queue of people had grown quiet, intent on this family drama being played out solely - Betsy squirmed at the thought - to amuse them while they waited.
Neither her mother nor stepfather seemed aware of anyone else, their eyes locked on each other.
‘I'm giving you the chance to come home, Ann,’ George said quietly. ‘We will sort things out, I dare say.’
‘Sort things out?’ Her voice was scornful. ‘By dragging us all off to some God-forsaken gold mine?’
‘Or we can stay here.’ Mr Fitzwater’s tone was placating, but Mrs Fitzwater was in no mood to be placated.
‘Now he says we can stay here!’ For a frightening moment, Betsy thought her mother might appeal to the eager crowd for their view on this. She didn’t. ‘No, George, it’s too late for that. I want something better for my girls, and for myself. We go to New Zealand, with or without you.’
The silence was interminable. Eliza Ann broke it. ‘Come with us, Papa, it’s surely not too late? We need you with us. I need you.’
Betsy watched her stepfather’s face closely. He tore his gaze from his wife and turned to his daughter, reaching out to grasp her arm.
‘Yes, Eliza, you do need me. And I need you.’ He looked down at their baggage piled at their feet. ‘Which one is yours?’ he asked her.
Frowning, Eliza indicated her trunk.
George picked it up, said, ‘Come along now, daughter. I must return to work.’
Betsy’s heart sank to her boots as her new father walked steadily back the way he had come. He stopped some distance away, waiting for his daughter to catch him up.
Eliza Ann stood very still for a moment. Then she turned to her step-sisters, kissing each of them on the cheek and murmuring, ‘Goodbye, I’m so sorry. May God bless your journey and your lives.’
She said nothing to her stepmother, but walked quickly towards her father, who took her arm and steered her into the noisy throng. Betsy lifted a hand to wave, in case either of them looked back.
The crowd sighed as one and returned to their chattering. Mrs Fitzwater and her daughters made their way forward, the girls with their heads down, avoiding the other travellers’ eyes. At last they reached an officious gentleman in a waistcoat who ticked off their names on a list.
‘Eliza Ann Fitzwater?’ he queried, peering behind Mrs Fitzwater.
‘Not coming,’ she said abruptly. Betsy watched the man cross Eliza Ann’s name off the list.