In peaceful Hertfordshire of New South Wales in the mid-nineteenth century, a bored and reckless man who leads a swashbuckling life in the army of the East Indian Company is told by the overseer that a married man has more chance of gaining a pardon from the penal colony and being granted land.
Gentle Mary Anne becomes the unwitting wife of such a man, sold for a bottle of rum. With no other prospects, she takes her mother’s advice to love and care for her husband and his children in hopes that loving a hard man consistently will bring about the happily-ever-after she longs for.
GENRE: Historical: Australian ISBN: 978-1-920741-91-4 ASIN: B003Y3BPP4 Word Count: 70, 079
The candle flickered fitfully in its brass holder on top of the high chest of drawers. The yellow light reflected from the polished cedar furniture, but it did little to dispel the shadows in the corners of the room.
The figure lying in the high brass bed moved slightly. Immediately the man and woman sitting on either side rose and bent over the quiet form.
The woman lifted the candle down and held it closer to the sleeper. “It’s amazing the way she hangs on.”
“She’s not ready to go yet,” responded the dark bearded man. “She’s not very big, but she’s got a mighty big will.”
“Yes indeed.” His companion gave a soft chuckle. There was a pause as each thought of their mother’s life.
“James ought to be back soon. I hope he found the minister at home. If he didn’t, Mother will probably be gone before he gets here. She’d want a blessing before she goes.”
“Rose, let me relieve you. You must be tired,” whispered her sister, coming into the room.
“Oh, Liza, you are a dear. I really don’t want to leave her though. She stirred just now. She might just slip away when I’m not here.”
“Carrie’s making a hot drink and bringing it in.
“We’ll sit here together. I don’t think anything will really disturb her.”
The door opened again and Carrie came in carrying a tray with four steaming cups. She set it down on the small table by the wall.
“No change?” she asked softly.
“Rum. Rum. Rum!” The quavering voice came from the bed. The words came in rising crescendo.
The old lady’s arm flung back the covers then dropped onto the counterpane. The four watchers leaned over her.
“Do you think Mother wants some rum?” asked Thomas incredulously. “I thought she hated the very thought of it.”
“No. No. She’s wandering. She’d never touch it. Not a drop.”
“I wish James would soon come with the minister. It’ll be a cold ride for them. But at least it’s fairly moonlit.” Eliza pulled back the lace curtain and looked out. The sky was clear, the stars bright with the brilliance of a frosty night. The rising moon cast deep shadows under the trees but on the open road the travellers would be able to see their way clearly. She let the curtain fall and turned back to the others by the bed.
Their mother’s breathing was shallow and slow, although fairly regular.
“Come on. Drink your tea up,” Rose said. “We might have a long sitting.” They settled down in the cane chairs.
The room was comfortably, though simply furnished. The polished floorboards were scattered with rugs, sheepskin or cowhide, and a woven rug beside the bed. Starched white linen covers were laid out with brushes and combs on the duchess. A lace-edged runner across the top of the chest of drawers protected the polished surface.
“All for rum!” There was pathos in the tone. A cry.
“What is it, Mother? What’s troubling you?” Rose leaned over the bed, pushing the sheet back from her mother’s face. “Would you like a drink?”
The old lady’s eyes were closed. The eyelids fluttered slightly, but didn’t open. It was a small face, lined, but gentle in its repose, with a halo of soft silver hair. Two long plaits lay out over the pillows.
“Papa! No. No! Papa!” The voice was high. Panic in the tone.
They looked at each other. How far back down the years was her mind now? Or was it all delirium? Was it just rambling of the mind?
“She was only a child when they came out, wasn’t she?” Rose asked. “She never talked very much about those early years. I suppose she didn’t remember very much about England.”
“Perhaps. But I think there were things she didn’t want to remember. Whenever I asked questions about the voyage out, or things like that, she never seemed to want to talk about it. Not like most old people. They usually enjoy talking about when they were young.” Tom looked thoughtfully at his mother. “But not our mother.”
Carrie leaned forward.
“I came across a postcard the other day, when I was cleaning in here,” she said. “It must have fallen from her chest of drawers. It was very old and addressed to Miss Mary Anne Ferguson. It was a lovely little note, obviously to a child, calling her Papa’s little princess. It was from Grandfather. I could hardly believe it.” The others were all attention. “I put it back in the top drawer. She’s never mentioned having anything like that. I thought she might not want me to see it. The address was Hertfordshire.”
Eliza nodded. “Father came from Hertfordshire, too, you know. I wonder if he knew her then. They never spoke of it”
“Father didn’t say much about his home either. Of course, he was so much older than Mother. She would have been very young when he was brought out.” Tom walked to the window again. “Still no sign of them.” He turned back to the bed.
Carrie stood up and gathered the cups and saucers. “I’ll take these out and wash up,” she said quietly.
She had just gone out and closed the door when the old lady reared up, her eyes wide filled with a horror they could not see. “Sold! Sold!” she cried. Tears coursed down her cheeks. “Sold!” she screamed, her arms flailing the air.
They were beside her at once, trying to calm her.
“What can we do? We can’t let her go on like this!” Rose wailed, almost in tears. “Mother, Mother. What is the matter? Don’t cry. Don’t be upset. You’re all right. We’re here with you.” She put her arm about her mother, smoothing the older woman’s hair. “There, there. You’ve been having a bad dream.”
Old eyes looked up at her, not quite comprehending.
“Lie down, Mother. It’s all right. Here, have a little drink.” Rose eased her mother back on her pillows. She was quiet now.
Carrie came back with another candle.
“Hoofbeats!” exclaimed Tom. “Listen. Can you hear two horses?” He was on his feet but stood still to listen. “Yes. Yes. I’m sure there’s more than one.” He left the room quickly, calling softly over his shoulder. “I’ll light the lantern and go and open the gate. Is the kettle still on?”
Carry followed him from the room. “Yes. They’ll feel like something hot.”
The cold air stung Tom’s face as he opened the back door and stepped out into the night. It would be a good frost in the morning. The lantern bobbed across the paddock to the gate. He pulled the latch and stood waiting for the riders.
What had Mother been thinking about in her dazed condition? Perhaps she had been thinking about Grandfather and his rum bouts. It was odd. She never talked about rum. Never said anything against him. Oh, well, those were her ethics. He was her father. She would hear no word against him.
The riders slowed as they approached the gate.
“Goodnight, Mr. Rushbrook. Thank you for coming. Sorry to bring you out on a night like this,” Tom greeted. The minister reached down and shook hands.
“Not at all, Tom. I would have been upset if you hadn’t called me.”
They were through the gate now and waited until Tom had shot the latch.
“A wonderful lady, your mother. An example to us all,” the minister said as they rode across the paddock to the house. The riders dismounted and James led the horses away.
“Carrie’s got something to warm you up,” Tom called.
They were all round the bed. She was asleep again now.
“Sleeping like a baby. You should have seen her a while ago. We had a job to hold her,” Rose told the newcomers.
“Happens sometimes. It’s to do with the blood flow I understand,” Mr. Rushbrook said.
“Or it’s just dreams. Poor Mother. It was like a nightmare.” Eliza stroked her mother’s arm. “Poor Mother.”
“It’s really just age you know,” Rose said. “After all, she’s had a very long life. It can’t go on forever, I suppose. She’s been wonderful until this last couple of weeks. We are very lucky.”
“She is confused when she comes to,” Eliza added. “Then tonight there have been these other ramblings. Almost as though there is something troubling her. Perhaps it is just dreams. But maybe there are memories mixed in too.”
The old lady moved. They were instantly alert.
Her eyelids flickered, then opened. She looked around. Recognition in her eyes.
“Hullo, Mrs. Dowling.” Phillip Rushbrook moved to her side. “Have you had a nice sleep?”
She nodded slowly. “Sit down, Mr. Rushbrook,” she whispered. Then a little stronger, “Rose, get Mr. Rushbrook a chair.”
“I heard you were not so well today so I came to see you. I thought you’d like us to have prayers together.” He leaned forward, his hand on hers.
“Yes,” she replied softly.
“We’ll just ask God’s blessing on you. And the girls might make another hot drink for us.” He turned to them. “Perhaps I could have a little time alone with her after that. She may tell me if there is something worrying her,” he said softly.
They prayed together a few minutes. Then they left him alone with her.
“Are you comfortable, Mrs. Dowling?” he asked.
“Are you content? Is there anything worrying you that you want to tell God about? Anything I can help you with?”
She was silent. Her eyes closed.
“Anything you have done that you want to ask forgiveness for?” He paused. “Anyone who has hurt you? And you are still hurt about?” He was sure she was conscious.
Then a tear slid down her cheek. Her face crumpled and she wept. “Sold,” she whispered. “Sold for a bottle of rum.”