She stood in the octagonal room where she could see, as if in the middle of a spiders web, through the doorways and windows of each of the six rooms to the outside beyond. First at one window, then the next, there he was again, pressing his cupped hand above his eyes to peer in. She stood with each hand on the youngest two children’s chest, their backs against her thighs and pressed down hard, willing them to be still. Desperate for them to be quiet. For if he knew there were children here it may be different. Just how different she didn’t know. His quick two steps between each window provided her a second to rap out the words. Hide. Now. And so they scuttled along the floor gasping with glee and terror combined. She remained standing, watching him prowl the perimeter like the cat at dusk. What did he mean by coming around here again?
No frantic clucking of the chickens had warned her this time. The gang he usually rode with weren’t to be seen. Had they left their horses up the drive and were even now creeping up the veranda like the tendrils of ivy dying in the heat? Her eyes looped around and around, following her body as she turned, not quite seeing anything but blurs of green foliage and yellow grass beyond. She stopped. No, he was alone, she felt it in her bones. But why had he come here again?
The floorboard creaked in the nursery as it was lifted up and the children climbed into the cellar. She saw a small white hand reach up from the depths and pull it back down into place. They were safe and if they remained quiet they would stay that way. Food and drink were already stored down there for such an occasion, and this bluestone homestead, being where it was amongst 85,000 acres, had been surrounded on more than one occasion by bushrangers and their gangs. And now, here he was again. And he’d found her alone. What did he want?
But then, the most surprising thing happened. Something that made her stomach cramp hard and her cheeks warm like the side of the teapot. He knocked on the front door. Such a civilised sound, coming from such an uncivilised man. Her fingers found her mouth, pulling and pushing around her cheeks. What should she do? The ordinary response would be to answer it of course, like the well-bred lady she now was. But was he playing at being civilised, or just playing with her fear?
When he’d last arrived with pistols held ready and his men circling the property, she’d stifled her scream but not before her youngest had let out his own. And he’d heard it. At least she thought he had. He’d cocked his head ever so slightly and turned to the window where the open floorboard lay beneath. She guessed he couldn’t see the hole from outside because of the deep window ledge. But it’d seemed that his eyes had met hers through the glass, although that was impossible too, the glass warped her reflection, didn’t it?
With a shout he’d called the men back and the hooves receded down the long drive. She was left with her imagined terror as they ambushed and violated her and her home. Except that they didn’t. Except that it never happened. But now here he was again. Alone. As was she. And he likely knew she had children. Five in fact. The governess was by the lake with the remaining three and the rest of the staff were in the paddocks. She had no one to call. And no one to answer the door. His timing was perfect.
Her fingers worked at the cuffs of her dress, pulling them down hard to cover the scars that belied her past. She could handle this man, she’d known men like him before. Vicious, violent and volatile. But she’d survived the experience although she still bore the evidence of it. While her husband had chosen not to see the scars, his family didn’t. And his death had meant her exile to this place. Everything provided for of course, they didn’t want to be accused of cruelty, but the message was clear; you married above your station and now he’s dead you’re no longer one of us. She’d accepted the terms, for what other way did she have to support the children? And a life of solitude was something that she almost welcomed now that he was gone.
She calculated how many loaded pistols were stored in the wall cavity in each room, yet had no time to retrieve one as he knocked a second time. How dare he come here and disturb her again. She’d deal with him properly. She answered the knock, pulling the door open with a composed face and lips that felt as cold and unmoving as those on her daughters’ porcelain doll.
‘Good morning,’ she said and looked into his face. He was dirty, his hair dark and damp, his neckcloth stained. But there was still something about him. About his eyes perhaps.
‘Good morning,’ he replied, and held his cap in his hands. ‘Sorry to bother you Ma’am but I’m thirsty. Any chance I could have a glass of water?’
‘Water?’ she said, her voice croaking as if she needed a drink herself.
‘Yes. Water,’ he replied. ‘I’m on my way through to Gunning and I’ve been riding hard. So’s my horse.’
It was true. The horse was tied up to a veranda post and its fur darkened with sweat.
‘I’ll stay out here if you like,’ he offered. ‘On account of my muddy boots.’ He smiled. He had good teeth. It’d been a long time since she’d seen teeth like that. Or a smile.
She swallowed. ‘I’ll just be a moment,’ she said, and closed the door behind her. Water. Unlikely. He could drink from the nearby stream or river for that matter. The Murray was fresh and limitless. So what did he really want from her? She lifted the lace doily from the jug on the timber table and poured a glass then opened a tin and retrieved a biscuit as well. Surely he would understand this gesture of kindness? She could add the arsenic now if she wanted. He was a murderer. She paused, no. She’d seen enough people die in misery on the ship, she couldn’t inflict it on another. Not without severe provocation anyway.
She opened the door again and passed him the plate and glass. He raised his eyebrows to receive, then, noting the two cane chairs and small table on the veranda, sat down. She hovered on the threshold.
‘Won’t you sit with me?’ he asked.
She stepped through the doorway and sat beside him, seeing but not seeing the huddle of elm saplings she’d planted that reminded her of home.
‘So what exactly do you want?’ she asked, and looked at him directly.
He coughed, swallowed, reached for his glass then regained his composure.
‘What makes you think I want anything other than a glass of water?’ he replied.
‘You’ve blood on your hands. And you and your gang have been terrorizing the valley for months now. You don’t come here just to ask for a glass of water.’
He nodded. ‘And you’re right. About all of it. But I’ve not come to bother you. Or your children.’
She took a breath. Deep but quiet. He did know about them, but she wouldn’t show she was nervous.
‘So what then?’
‘I’ll not hurt you,’ he said, looking quickly up at her before his next bite.
‘Thank you,’ she said, her voice almost cracking again.
‘But I do need something from you.’
‘Yes?’ she said, hearing the cane chair creak as he leant forwards towards her.
‘I need you to write something for me.’
‘Write? You mean a letter?’
‘Yes. You’re educated now aren’t you? You can read and write?’
‘Yes, of course I’m educated.’ But she wasn’t. Not in the manner he thought anyway. Her husband had taught her the basics but he didn’t know that. All he saw was a genteel lady. And that’s all he should see.
‘Who to, I mean, what for?’
‘Way things are going I figure it’s only a matter of time before I’m caught and hung. A life for a life and all that. But it’s for my mother back in the old country.’
‘I see,’ she said, and made to smooth her skirt unnecessarily. ‘Well, I can get some paper and… perhaps it’s easier if you just come inside.’
‘You’ll have me inside?’ he said, and smiled again.
This time her fingertips tingled with an old, old feeling. Was she right to trust him?
‘If you wipe them,’ she said. ‘One of the benefits of being a lady is that I don’t have to wash the floors myself.’
‘Very good,’ he said, and picked up his glass.
She walked inside first, straining to hear any noise from the cellar, but the children were quiet, even as they must have heard the heavy tread of his footsteps. She led him through the middle octagonal room and into the sitting room, gesturing for him to sit in the armchair facing the window while she sat at her desk. She fussed with the paper and the quill, then looked up to find him seated and staring out at the elms.
‘This room, this place, it’s like a fortress,’ he said. ‘Noticed when I walked through the middle there you could see all around through the windows.’
‘I had it designed in India and built to my specifications,’ she replied, a little proudly. ‘It enables air flow, but mostly, as you noted, it enables one to see and prepare if there were to be an… unwelcome visit.’
His hands were still now, the cap resting over his knee.
‘Once I dictate the letter, will you post it for me?’ he said.
‘Yes, I’ll post it,’ she replied.
‘My word,’ she said. ‘If you’ll give yours that you’ll not come here again after today. You and your gang.’
‘My word,’ he said, and held her eyes. ‘And I’m good for it.’
‘A gentleman always should be,’ she said. ‘When you’re ready.’
‘I’m no gentleman as you well know,’ he replied, then stared back out at the trees, whose branches were punching the air in the hot summer wind.
I’ve taken up with a bad lot and have to pay my dues. A man done me wrong and was hurting a girl as well. I had to stop it and blood was spilled. After that, the lure of the gold and a pistol in my hand was too much to refuse. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused you by saying it. The lady whose writing this is a good woman and too kind hearted to refuse me even though I’ve caused her trouble. Please pray that God may have mercy on my soul.
She finished the s with a slight quiver, the ink trembling with the motion. His eyes hadn’t moved, and she looked at the elms as well, still blinking quickly. Why the tears? The man was a murderer and a thief for God’s sake. It was a man like him that’d killed her husband. Why have pity on him?
‘Would you like another glass of water?’ she offered.
‘Yes, I would,’ he said, and rubbed his hands over his knees. He picked up the cap again. ‘Then I’ll be off.’
She took his glass and left the room for the doorway opposite, where the timber table sat with the jug. She poured the water and noticed where his fingerprints had left imprints of dirt on the glass. When she re-entered the room he was looking at the sketches on the mantelpiece above the fireplace.
‘I’ve been wondering where your husband is,’ he said quietly.
‘He’s dead,’ she replied. ‘Killed by a bushranger defending a neighbour’s property.’
‘And yet you let me in and gave me water?’
‘What choice did I have?’ she said. ‘You could have forced yourself in anyway.’
‘I’m sorry for it.’
‘That your husband was killed.’
‘Thank you,’ she said.
He picked up a small watercolour she’d done of her childhood home in England.
‘Pretty. You paint as well?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Home,’ he said, and it wasn’t a question.
‘Yes,’ she replied, although it was to agree not to answer.
‘You look well,’ he said. ‘Time’s been kind to you.’
She cleared her throat. ‘I’m not frightened of you, you know that. I may be a lady but I’ve seen enough men like you to know you’re all cowards at heart.’
‘Really?’ he said, and carefully replaced the picture then stepped in closer. ‘Now what have you seen exactly?’
Her teeth clamped down. She’d not talk. But people like her and him had a way of sensing each other. He smelt of leather, gum leaves and mud.
‘You still remember don’t you?’ he asked.
‘None of your concern,’ she said. But she did. He’d saved her life a hundred times over back then just by taking her hand in his. It’d made the work bearable. But that was before –
‘He’s dead now. You’re alone. With five children.’
‘There’s many like me,’ she said. ‘Widowed young. I’m doing very well thank you.’
‘There’s many like me too,’ he said in return. ‘Sick of the poverty, the starving, the hopelessness of it all. Without a good woman beside him a man can go mad.’
‘Or turn to violence,’ she added.
‘Or desperation born out of loneliness,’ he re-joined.
She blushed; aware of his height, aware of his broad shoulders, his tanned skin, his still white teeth and his dark eyes. Aware that they were both older now, both worldlier, and that the kind words exchanged in the bowels of the ship on the long voyage over here, words that grew into more when they were sentenced to work at the farm together, now seemed like a lifetime ago. Then suddenly from beneath their feet, a cry.
His eyes still on hers he smiled. Her own eyes widened.
‘So that’s where they are,’ he said. And tapped his foot three times on the floorboards. There was a fraction of a pause. Nothing. Then the sickening sound of three taps back. Dear God, the children thought it was the signal for safety. Any minute now they would push up the floorboard in the nursery and come tumbling in the room. Any minute –
‘I’ll be going now,’ he said, and put the cap on his head. ‘And I’ll trouble you no further.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Of course.’ What stupid game was this? Using manners and blushing like a girl when he was a… a bushranger? She should’ve got her pistol from the cavity in the kitchen when she’d the chance. She cursed herself for blushing, cursed herself for wanting him to stay and talk, for wanting the company, for desiring him when he’d blood on his hands.
He paused as he stood on the threshold of the front door.
‘I meant to do my time and make a fresh start,’ he said. ‘But I couldn’t let it go on.’
The breath caught in the back of her throat. ‘I read about it in the paper,’ she replied. ‘You didn’t have to kill him.’
‘You left. And he was beating the dog and Martha to death. He was an evil bastard and I was sick of it.’
‘He was still your better,’ she said. ‘Now look where it’s got you. Murder’s wrong.’
‘That it is,’ he replied. ‘But so is what he was doing to Martha. Gentleman or not, he shouldn’t have been allowed to get away with it. I warned him but he only laughed.’
She felt a hot ball of sick in her stomach as she remembered Martha’s pimpled face.
‘You were pretty enough to catch the eye of a gentleman who took you away and gave you nice dresses. Martha didn’t have that sort of luck. It was just me and her, and the last time he touched her, it wasn’t even her that was left. She took her own life to end it all you know. Only regret is that I didn’t take his sooner.’
He untied the horse and climbed up. ‘A life for a life. He beat hers out of her, I blew his head apart and since then I reckon taking from the rich is a fair pay back for all the ways the bastards like him think they’re above the law. Good day to you Ma’am and all the best with your family.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, and dipped her head.
He was gone then, a scramble of hooves followed by the rhythmic canter down the drive. And in the silence his words seemed to hang, even as the wind stilled in the space he’d left behind. Her hands found her cheeks again and pushed them up. What had she done? What had she said? How foolish she’d been to take him into her home, endanger the children and herself, a known bushranger for goodness sake? Going back inside she heard the children scrambling from the nursery as they helped each other up, then the call from the governess outside with the other three coming back from the river. She went to her desk and quickly folded up the letter she’d written for him. It wasn’t until later that evening that she saw, on a separate piece of paper, his disfigured handwriting.
‘Thank you for the company and the conversation. I called again to see if what I saw the first time was not just a dream. When the rope finds my neck, it’s your face I’ll try to see. Again.’
This short story is inspired by Elizabeth Hume’s home, Byramine Homestead, built in 1842 by her famous brother in law Hamilton Hume in the Yarrawonga district of Victoria.
Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.