In Memory of Mary Miller

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By Helen F Miller

 

The year is 1902 and Australian women now have the right to vote and be elected, but that has little if any impact on you. The drought is in its sixth year, eighth you hear in the southern states, and it is a dry hot November afternoon.

The detached kitchen is sweltering. You finish cooking supper and leave it on top of the wood stove to keep warm while Hannah sets the table. The sound of little Florrie playing in the shade between the house and the kitchen makes you smile.

Out in the front garden, young Fred watches down the road for Jack to get home from the tannery and calls, “He’s coming!”

You walk out of the kitchen taking the path between it and the house to the side garden and push the damp hair back off your forehead. The ground lies dry and thirsty, a veritable dust bowl; the plants in the vineyard sag; the fresh ploughed paddock beyond shows no sign of moisture in the turned soil. This farm at the top end of Green Wattle Gully is suffering.

No matter. It is your home and you see beyond the dust and cracked earth. Thirty years, fourteen children, three dead, their passing raw. No woman should ever be made to feel that way. You push the pain aside and look around, squinting as the late afternoon sun hovers over the tree line. It is a peaceful place, the gentle slopes of the hills and dales caressing to the soul. You love this time of day when the evening light softens the stark intrusion of reality.

You also love the man walking towards you, your husband of thirty-one years, Christy. He and Harry have ploughed in the harsh sun all day and you watch them make their weary way from the barn. Harry is growing fast, a young man at sixteen, and a great help to his father. You turn away to check the small tub is full of water for them to wash off the dust before supper and notice you still hold the tin of matches in your hand.

Jack, another fine son, arrives at the same time. You know he misses his young wife and children over at Wellcamp, but times are hard and if he boards with you and Christy, he can work at Fairbanks and Smith’s tannery. He has been with you three weeks this time.

Supper is a jolly meal, as usual, with Christy playing with the children, making them laugh. After they help with the washing up, you damp down the fire, untie and drape your apron over the back of a chair, drop the tin of matches into your skirt pocket, then take two candles to the sitting room at the front of the house. While the younger ones play in the cool of the verandah, Christy sits and chats with Jack and Harry. The sky is hazy and makes the setting sun orange. The dust storms of late are bigger than usual.

Christy takes out his tobacco; he smokes two cakes of Luxury a week. You hand him the tin of matches. He lights his pipe and takes a deep, satisfying puff.  “It’s been a long, hot, tiring day. I’ll be having an early night, tonight.”

“But we did finish ploughing that paddock before we knocked off.” Harry sounded pleased with their efforts.

“Yes, boy, we did. How was your day, Jack?”

“It was long, hot and tiring too. The tannery smells bad enough anytime, but in the heat it’s worse.” Jack yawns.

“At least it’s paid work.”

On the half hour past seven o’clock, you call Hannah, Fred and Florrie to come inside and get ready for bed. You light the candles, hand one to Harry, and take the other into the younger children’s bedroom, the one behind the sitting room, while they get into their night clothes and climb into the bed they share.

When you return to the passage between the two small bedrooms, you close the back door, but do not bother to lock it. You stop at the door to the other room to say goodnight. Jack is already in the bed against the far wall and Harry is sitting on his portable canvas stretcher with its straw mattress along the inner partition. The thin wall of horizontal pine boards nailed to the studding separates his bed from yours.  His head lies towards the inner corner of the room, while your bed faces the opposite direction with the head against the outer wall.

You walk through the sitting room to shut the front door then turn back. Both the children’s rooms are in darkness, so you know Harry has doused his candle. You enter your bedroom and change into your white nightgown while Christy wears his flannels to bed.

You blow out the last candle and leave it on the chest of drawers near the tin of matches, then climb into bed, a thick tubular iron bedstead with a wire base and two kapok mattresses. You slide across to lie against the partition wall.

Christy leans back on his side of the bed, smoking his pipe while you talk.

“This drought has hit us hard, Mary.”

“We’ve been through hard times before.”

“I’m glad we were able to get that loan. We can pay our accounts and buy fodder now.”

“That’s good. We can’t afford to lose any more cattle.”

“No. I don’t even want to add up what we’ve lost. Six head of cattle is a lot. They’re worth six or seven pounds each.”

“Will you be able to start the well digging again?”

“No. I’ll leave that until the good times come back.”

“I wonder if Charlie will come back then, too. It’s been three weeks now. I miss him.”

“He knows we don’t need three of us to manage the farm. Harry’s big enough to help me now and Fred does his bit on the weekends and after school. Charlie’s better off living with his sister and getting what work he can in Toowoomba.”

“Did you hear how others are faring on Tuesday when you went to town?”

“After I left the QN Bank, I ran into young Henry Herman. We stopped for one drink before I came home. I told him about the horse lying down and how I had a good deal of trouble to get him up.”

“He’s your best horse. You don’t want to lose him. How’s Henry faring?”

“His farm’s as dry as everywhere else, but he’s still getting contracts for well digging. A lot of people are looking for water these days.”

“The drought can’t last forever. We’ll get by a little longer.”

“Yes, we will. Getting that bank loan has made me feel quite jolly.”

You laugh and kiss him goodnight then lie on your right side to go to sleep. He finishes his pipe and sets it down on the chest of drawers beside the tin of matches where he can reach them if he wakes and wants a smoke during the night.

The full moon is three days away, so plenty of light filters in through the window you left open to let the cool night air chase out the lingering heat of the summer day.

Hours later, just before midnight, you wake in the darkness. Something has hit you, smashed into your left hip and shoulder.  It is a piece of timber. You check the frame on the top of the bed, but it is still there. You do not know where the wood came from. The moonlight shows that you are alone in the bed. You cannot see Christy.

You look around the room. The bed clothes at the foot of the bed are on fire. The walls of the house and iron from the roof are gone. You look back at the bed. The fire is getting bigger. You cannot see or hear anybody about the place.

The partition between your bedroom and the boys’ room is gone. You leap out of bed through the studding, calling as you run into the passage, “We are getting burned and we don’t know it. Where are my children?”

You head for the kitchen through the partly open back door.

“Christy!”

There is no reply. You run towards the barn.

“Christy! We are getting burned.”

There is still no reply. You cannot see anybody. Your panic grows. Where is Christy? You fear he is burnt, maybe dead. Alarmed and sobbing, you return to the house through the back door. The younger children are still in bed.

“Wake up! You have to get out of the house. We are getting burned.”

You rush into the boys’ bedroom. The timber of the partition has been blown from one side of the room to the other. You did not notice it piled against the western wall when you first jumped out of bed. Jack’s iron frame bed with its fibre mattress is still against the southern wall. He is lifting up the falling timber. He has a crack in his face. There is no sign of Harry or his bed.

“Where’s Harry?”

Jack nods at the pile of timber. “He’s under here. He called out to me.”

You rush to help him. He stops you.

“Where’s father?”

“I don’t know. I can’t find him. He might be burnt.”

“We need help. I’ll get Harry out. You run and get Mr Moore. Put some shoes on first. There are nails and timber everywhere.”

Afraid and crying, you run out the back of the house and pull on the old shoes you keep in the kitchen. You are in your nightgown, but have no time to dress. You run across the road to the home of the head man at Campbell’s Slaughter Yards, a few hundred yards away.

You call out. Mrs Moore opens the door. “Who’s there?”

“For God’s sake, come, my poor old man is burnt.”

Mrs Moore rouses her husband and son, Ned, and they run with you back to the house. Mrs Moore overtakes you and Jack meets her at the gate. He asks her to see to Harry’s hurts. She runs back to her house to get some matches for light and a bottle of oil to dress Harry’s face. Your tin of matches is gone with the clock and the candle and Christy’s pipe, with the chest of drawers, with your clothes. Mr Moore and Ned hurry away to alert the police and your family members who live nearby.

While you were away, Jack freed Harry and put him in the children’s bed with four-year old Florrie. He then saw the burning mattress in your room, rolled it up and dragged it out to the yard.

When you return, Hannah and Fred are carrying water to put out the fire and, after speaking with Mrs Moore, Jack returns to helping them. You find Harry in the children’s bed all covered with blood and in a terrible state. You do not know how he got hurt.

“Mother, my arm and stomach hurt,” he complains.

You stay with him until Mrs Moore returns. She lights a candle and the extent of his injuries come as a shock. He looks as if all the skin is taken off his face and his arms are hurt as well.

Mrs Moore says, “Harry, I will not touch it until the doctor comes.”

“Can I have a drink of water?”

“Yes, but you will have to sip it.”

You get the water and give it to Mrs Moore then, leaving Harry in her care, start looking for Christy again. You cannot find him. You see a big rent in the floor at the foot of your bed. It was not there when you went to bed. You look around and realise it was not the fire that caused the damage. You do not know what happened.

More people start to arrive. Your daughter, young Mary, who lives just down the road, and her husband, Edward Bousen, are among the first. While he goes to get his cart to convey Harry to hospital, the police arrive, Sub Inspector Dillon and two mounted men.

Once Harry’s gone with Edward and the fire is put out, Mrs Moore takes Hannah, Fred and Florrie home with her. Jack stays with you and looks around the house. He also notices the big rent in the bedroom floor and the rafter broken above it.

In the dark, Sub Inspector Dillon examines the damage as best he can. You watch as he notes the external walls of your bedroom, the boys’ room and the sitting room blown out, the partitions between those rooms blown away, the ceiling and iron of the roof blown off, except for ten sheets over the children’s bedroom, almost the whole building wrecked. Seeing it through his eyes helps you comprehend the destruction in a detached, almost unemotional daze.

Edward Bousen returns. The ambulance has met them on the road and taken Harry from there.

Through the long hours of the remaining night, you wait; sometimes looking for Christy, other times resting in the kitchen, impatient for the dawn, but when it arrives your heart finds no relief. The harsh light of day hides nought. You stand in the garden and survey your home while the police investigate and Fred helps Sub Inspector Dillon to draw a plan of the house, telling him where the beds were when you all went to sleep.

The only room still intact is the children’s bedroom with just a few boards out of place. Studs and gaps stand where walls once were, the window glass smashed to powder, the verandah all but gone, the absent ceiling and iron of the roof replaced by open sky, your meagre furniture and beloved trinkets shattered.

Everything is covered with blood and other matter you do not want to recognise. You cannot avoid seeing it, stuck to the walls and studding and some of the rafters, and splashed onto the inside and outside of the iron which remains on the roof. A large smudge of blood on one of the doors into the passage looks like something struck it with considerable force.

Sub Inspector Dillon shows something to Jack and he comes over to you. His face is pale and wretched. It fills you with fear. Your stomach clenches.

“Mother, it seems father has been killed in an explosion. He is blown apart. The police asked me to identify his remains.”

You reel under a wave of nausea and come close to fainting. Jack grabs you to stop your fall and you cling to him. He walks you to the kitchen and sits you down at the table. You cannot hear his other words; the blood pounding in your ears makes you deaf. Your other children, the ones who have arrived, rush to join you and he tells them what has happened.

You sit with your hands in your lap. The skirt feels strange. You know you ran to Mrs Moore’s house in your white nightgown, but your memory of dressing is vague. This skirt and blouse are not your clothes. They lay in tatters with the chest of drawers. You cannot remember who brought them to you.

After a while you stand up. Hands reach out to help.

“I am well. I need to see for myself.”

You go back into the garden and stop near the gate. Two constables are searching for Christy, finding his body piece by piece and placing the flesh and bone in a tub for the undertaker Burstow.

You turn your back on the house, fearing your composure will once more desert you, and look across the road to Mrs Moore’s place. At least young Hannah and little Florrie are away from this horror, safe with a caring friend. Your eyes cannot avoid the disaster as the ground is covered in house boards, nails, glass, and roofing iron, some as far as a hundred yards away.

People keep arriving, offering sympathy, which you take with a nod and a weak smile. Voices are low murmurs. You start to panic. If you hear one more platitude… you have to get away.

You make your excuses, move towards the side of the house, and stand in the garden staring through the studding into the bedroom you and Christy shared. The iron bed has the knobs knocked off the posts and the bottom end stands out from the wall. One bedpost is broken away near the rent in the floor where the hardwood boards, joists and ground plates are smashed downwards and broken into pieces. You remember what Jack told you. The police think Christy was sitting or bending over at the end of the bed when the explosion erupted. He must have been out of bed. There is no blood on your nightgown.

You try not to remember Jack telling you how the police found one foot with the shattered shinbone still attached jammed between the boards and the ground plate. Taking a deep breath to keep calm, you turn away and follow the path through the garden to the back of the house.

You stop outside the wall and look through the studding to where Harry was found. You are worried about him and in the same moment, thankful none of the other children suffered serious hurt.

Then your eyes turn to the back door, standing wide open now. In the night it was a quarter closed, leaving enough room to pass through without difficulty. Bile rises to your throat as you stare at it. You gulp hard to push it back down, and bury your face in your hands.

You cannot remember how many times you passed through that door in the minutes after the explosion, or if you tried to push it farther open. If you had looked, you would have been the one to find Christy’s head and neck intact with a good deal of the backbone wedged in behind the back door. Perhaps it was better that the police found him, but you shudder to think you passed so close by without seeing him; you all did.

You return to the detached kitchen, the only room undamaged. There are people everywhere outside. Most of your children were here now, and many friends, bringing food and clothing, offering help.

There are others too, people you know a little or not at all, newspaper writers, some with cameras, others full of opinions. It angers you that they dare to think they know what happened, accusing Christy of keeping explosives in the house when he never did. Even when he bought them in town, they sat on the shelf in the kitchen until he took them to the farm at Gowrie. Then there were the ones whispering that he took his life on purpose, that he let the drought get to him.

You whisper under your breath, “You don’t know him at all if you think that.”

Your mind turns over and back again, trying to think of anyone who did not like Christy, someone who might want to do him and his family harm, but can think of no one.

You sit back at the table, your hands in your lap, your eyes glazing as you lose track of time and place in your thoughts. A small hand takes yours and you look up to see Hannah clean and pretty, dressed in borrowed clothes.

Your other children are standing behind her. Young Mary has a good dress draped over her extended arms. It is time to get ready for the funeral. It will be this afternoon. Undertaker Burstow cannot keep Christy’s body long in the state it is in.

“Give me time alone. I will dress and be with you in a minute.”

The children depart and leave you with your memories. It is good you did not see Christy’s face in death. You close your eyes and it is night again.

He puts out his pipe and settles down in the bed. His arms wrap around you and he whispers in your ear, “Maria Mathilde, my immaculate lamb, sacrifice your body to me.” You gasp in shock at his sacrilege, but slide closer into his embrace. Then his lips touch yours with the sweetness that has never subsided in thirty-one years and the passion begins. Oh, the passion.

You will not feel those arms around you again, the touch of his hands on your willing body. You will not hear his sweet whispers in the depth of night. You will not smell his tobacco rich breath or taste his kisses any more. You will not see his beloved face in the morning or the night.

You grip the table edge to stop your hands as they start to shake. You stand and splash water on your face as if that will sweep away the thoughts. You remove the skirt and shirt, slip the dress on and button it up. It is a little large, but that is not important. You have something to do, somewhere to be, someone to say goodbye to.

 

The End

 

Notes:

  1. Christophe Johann Friedrich Müller and his wife Maria Mathilde Andersen were my great grandparents. They were known as Christopher (Christy) and Mary Miller.
  2. The facts for this piece of creative non-fiction come from birth, marriage and death records and the statements from the Inquest of Death of Christopher Miller (Archives Register No. 40/03) held on 19 November 1902 and 12/13 January 1903 at the Police Court in Toowoomba. The date of death was 13 November 1902. The inquiry was conducted by Sub Inspector Dillon on behalf of the Crown before RA Moore Esquire PM and P Connor Esquire JP. The inquiry found the cause of death to be ‘Killed in an explosion – blown to atoms’ and no persons were accused. To this day, over one hundred years later, the mystery remains unsolved.
  3. Mary’s feelings, thoughts and movements in this story are how I imagine she may have been. That she and Christy had a loving relationship and that her children were very important to her is apparent from the court documents. Some of her spoken words in this story are direct quotes from the Inquest statements.
  4. Other facts of the period are that the Commonwealth of Australia gave women the right to vote and be elected to Parliament in 1902 (http://www.aec.gov.au). The Federation Drought covered most of Australia and was at its worst in 1902. It ended in December of that year (http://www.bom.gov.au). The full moon was on 16 November 1902 (http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/?year=1902&country=29).

 

Bibliography:

‘A Horror – Near Toowoomba on Thursday Night – A Frightful Explosion – A Man Blown to Pieces – A House Wrecked – Extraordinary Mystery’ 1902, Toowoomba Chronicle, 15 November.

 

Australian Electrical Commission (AEC)2011, Women and the Right to Vote in Australia, AEC, viewed 9 August 2014, http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/australian_electoral_history/wright.htm.

 

Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) nd, The Federation Drought, 1895 – 1902, Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology, viewed 9 August 2014, http://www.bom.gov.au/lam/climate/levelthree/c20thc/drought1.htm.

 

‘Funeral of Miller’ 1902, Darling Downs Gazette, 15 November.

 

Inquest into the death of Christopher Miller [1903] Archives Register No. 40/03.

 

Miller, F c1982, Collation of birth, death and marriage details for Christophe Johann Friedrich Miller and Maria Mathilde Andersen and their children, unpublished.

 

Timeanddate.com 2014, Calendar for year 1902 (Australia), timeanddate.com, viewed 9 August 2014, http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/?year=1902&country=29

 

Image by Tamara Menzi