November 8th, 1846
Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land
The bell of the penitentiary chapel tolled eight. Pale and careworn, wearing neither coat nor hat, the prisoner stepped up to the scaffold alongside the Under Sheriff.
A man vaulted onto the platform, silencing the catcalls of the barbaric crowd. ‘My brother is about to die, wrongly accused.’
‘No great loss. The halfwit ’ad his chance.’
The man shrugged off the Under Sheriff’s restraining arm and faced the crowd. ‘My brother broke no laws of this country, however, he has been found guilty. I hope and pray that in a few minutes his spirit will be with his saviour in a world of happiness.
‘Everything he said in his defence was the truth. He did not fire the fatal shot, nor was he present at the house of the deceased. His only crime was to unwittingly aid the perpetration of this foul deed.
‘He has solemnly declared, the words of a dying man, that he did not hold the pistol in his hand.
‘The justice system has failed us all. In the eyes of the law he has been found guilty, but he goes to his maker with a clear conscience.
‘I swear I will succeed where the law has failed and bring the perpetrator of this filthy deed to justice.’
The prisoner raised his head, smiled at his brother and stepped forwards into the hands of the hangman who drew the cap over his head.
The drop fell and launched an innocent man into eternity.
June 1st, 1851
Sydney, New South Wales
He strutted across the oriental carpet like a rooster, chest puffed out, thumb jammed in the fob pocket of his waistcoat, then came to a halt in front of her.
Muffling a sigh, Catherine drew herself up to her full height. ‘I thank you, Mr Bartholomew, for the honour you do me but I’m not yet prepared to entertain the possibility.’ She handed the large square-cut sapphire ring back to him.
A worn smile creased Pa’s eyes, sending a razor-sharp pang of sorrow through her. ‘Come, my darling girl, your mother was younger than you are now when we married. Every girl wants to marry. A woman needs a protector, better to choose one than be at the mercy of all and sundry.’
Pleating and unpleating her skirt in her damp fingers, Catherine turned to the window, her gaze fixed on the incessant crush of humanity weaving its way past The Pulteney Hotel and along Bent Street. The new gas lamps turned night to day and it was as though no one ever slept. No dawn, no dusk, no sunsets over distant hills, just the never-ending kerfuffle of too many people packed into a city in danger of toppling into the vast harbour.
‘Catherine, please think carefully. My fondest wish is to see you happy.’
Pa’s concern for her wellbeing was drawn from nothing but love, and the fear that scored his weathered brow. Fear and loathing for the growing tumour deep in his belly had led to this whirlwind trip to Sydney and Bartholomew’s proposal had taken her completely by surprise; she’d only met the man a week ago.
Pa hadn’t been a young man when he’d married Ma and so he could see nothing wrong in the alliance proposed by Bartholomew, that pillar of Sydney society. Dull yet stupendously wealthy, richer than Croesus as his business schemes spewed money into the coffers below the bank in Sydney. He was old—so very old—and she wasn’t yet twenty-one.
‘Let me make a suggestion, Catherine. Your father has appointments and I would very much like the opportunity to show you everything Sydney, and I, have to offer.’
‘An excellent idea, Bart. My mind is made up.’ Pa heaved himself out of the chair, the effort scoring his face, and clasped Bartholomew’s shoulder. ‘It’s time Catherine experienced the delights of Sydney life. I’ve been remiss in her education and a tad selfish keeping her in the Hunter.’
Bartholomew nudged Pa with his elbow, as though they shared some secret to which she was not party. ‘Not at all. I’m so sorry you won’t be able to join us, Reginald.’
‘Not half as sorry as I am.’
Catherine schooled her mouth and swallowed the threatening pout. She’d have to succumb but how she wished she could delay the marriage. Pa hadn’t a selfish bone in his body. He’d given her an education more suited to a son than a daughter, perhaps just as well as matters had turned out, because there was no son who would inherit the vast property of Cottington Hill.
He’d paid a heavy price for his attempts to secure a dynasty in this new land he’d embraced with such a passion, and ultimately he’d failed. Three sons and a wife buried, and only a daughter left. His name would die with him even if she produced an heir.
She sneaked a glance at the man Pa had chosen for her and shuddered. Did it have to be Bartholomew? He’d no need of her inheritance and the idea of him fathering her children didn’t bear thinking about. She really didn’t want to marry. Not Bartholomew, not anyone. Was there no way to escape the inevitable?
‘My dear.’ Bartholomew approached and bent over to kiss her hand.
Thank goodness she was wearing gloves. Even through the fine leather the prickle of his whiskers sent a shudder straight down her spine. She took two steps back, widening the distance, hoping to escape the suffocating cloud of unwashed linen, brandy and stale tobacco that surrounded him. Her stomach heaved.
‘I’m absolutely delighted you’ve finally come to Sydney and to celebrate I have a little surprise in store. I am going to whisk you away.’
‘Pa?’ He couldn’t leave her alone with Bartholomew. Surely it wasn’t appropriate.
‘Catherine, I have a long overdue appointment with the physician, as you well know.’
‘Yes. And I’m to come with you. It’s important I understand your treatment.’
‘Bart has assured me this is something you can’t miss. He has managed to procure tickets and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You will have time to come with me and join Bart in the evening.’
What in heaven’s name was he talking about? ‘Tickets for what? Nothing is more important than your health and wellbeing.’ It was imperative that they procured more laudanum. Pa put a brave face on it all but the pain had grown so much worse in the last few weeks. They’d run the gambit of all accepted cures; a change of air, bleeding, the leeches and, with Father Brown’s assistance, even resorted to the power of prayer. Nothing, it seemed, could halt the appetite of the tumours eating away at Pa from the inside out. She clamped her teeth and bit back her ever-present tears.
Totally unaware of her distress, Bartholomew let out a bark of laughter, his shoulders heaving with obscene bonhomie, straining the buttons on his garish brocade waistcoat. ‘The circus. Rudi’s Equestrian Circus. Everyone in Sydney is agog. I knew the moment I heard about your riding capabilities that you would find it fascinating.’
How could he think of anything so frivolous at a time like this? A circus. Visions of Roman gladiators and rampaging lions flashed in front of her eyes. Pa was about to be thrown to the lions, the ones gnawing at his innards were his challenge and therefore hers.
Bartholomew’s tiny eyes glowed like coals and he appeared positively excited, dancing from one foot to the other in a parody of a jig. ‘I have managed to secure front-row seats, a box. The circus is an unprecedented novelty and an opportunity not to be missed. This is their penultimate show.’ He bounced on his toes, giving a glimpse of the man he might once have been, before a surfeit of money and good living had made their mark on his waistline and florid complexion.
‘Come and sit down.’ Bartholomew clicked his fingers and waved in the direction of the windowseat. ‘Let me explain. All the ladies in town are thrilled with the spectacle.’
The way he carried on made it seem he was the one so impressed with the circus, nothing to do with any of the ladies in town. He was behaving like a child on the eve of his birthday.
‘Surely you wouldn’t want to miss it.’
Pa stifled a groan and eased himself to his feet. ‘If you will excuse me, I must retire and rest before I see Doctor Manning.’
Catherine jumped up and guided him to the door.
‘You know it is my greatest wish to see you settled.’
‘I know, Pa. It’s just …’
He patted her arm then shrugged her off. ‘I shall be all the better for a quick nap. Go and hear what Bart has to say. You deserve to be spoilt.’
The door clicked closed and the possibility Pa and Bartholomew had planned the entire debacle flittered through her mind.
By the time eight o’clock came around Catherine had decided that despite her companion the evening might at least provide a distraction. After their trip to Doctor Manning’s Pa had taken to his bed with a draught of laudanum and fallen into a deep sleep. No doubt exhausted by their journey from the Hunter, he hadn’t stinted on the dose, knowing he had a fresh supply.
Bartholomew stood waiting at the foot of the hotel stairs, dressed in a fine evening suit and looking quite the man about town with his top hat and cane. His gaze followed her as she walked down to meet him and a flush darkened his face. She’d presumed he was proposing a marriage of convenience and didn’t harbour any great affection for her, however, the look on his face bordered on salacious.
She’d never fallen in love, had no idea what it may entail, other than the unshakable belief her feelings for Bartholomew were not, could not, be a precursor to love.
Truth be told he repulsed her, with his hot sweaty hands, foul breath and irritating habit of fiddling with the old coin in his fob pocket. He made her skin creep, bored her to death and filled her with the insurmountable desire to flee. If it hadn’t been for Pa’s insistence she’d send him on his way.
‘My dear, you are a vision to behold. Delectable, as delectable as ever. You take my very breath away.’
His remark as good as took her breath away. Pa always said she was beautiful, resembled Ma, although her memories of her mother were blurred by childhood. She was blessed with Ma’s thick hair and blue eyes; beyond that she’d never dwelt on the matter. Her last and abiding memory of Ma was a pain-ravaged, fever-ridden woman wasting away from birthing sickness after the loss of her third son.
‘I see you have the good sense to wear something warm.’ He pawed at her cape. ‘Despite the temperate days, the evenings can become chilly and we will be sitting in the open air. Are you happy to walk? I can call a carriage.’
‘No, no, I like to walk.’ At least she did until he slipped his arm through hers in the most intimate manner. How she wished she had more than the vague fleeting memory of Ma before she became sick or even someone she could ask for advice or guidance. Despite the very best tutors, they’d all been male and Mrs Duffen was the only woman she could turn to. As much as she appreciated the housekeeper’s advice, it hadn’t extended to the nuances of a Sydney courtship.
She’d read in the Maitland Mercury of girls being presented to the governor before they entered society in search of a husband. Pa had never suggested that and to be honest she’d been pleased to be free of such hoo-ha. Now, however, she wasn’t sure how to behave and Bartholomew’s nearness made her more than uncomfortable.
‘The show encompasses gymnastic displays, tightrope, slack rope, vaulting, juggling, acrobatic and equestrian feats.’ Bartholomew’s hands waved and his eyebrows waggled up and down, a pair of hairy caterpillars arguing over the creased skin of his forehead. ‘It is the equestrian feats I thought would particularly interest you. Your reputation as a horsewoman precedes you.’
How would he know unless, of course, Pa had slipped the idea into his mind? ‘It sounds fascinating. Where does this circus take place?’ She couldn’t imagine. Outside somewhere if horses were involved.
‘In a tented arena behind The Adelphi Hotel in York Street, between Market and King. Not a stone’s throw from here.’ Bartholomew squeezed her arm and hurried her along through the throngs of people strolling the streets.
Row upon row of fine buildings had sprung up since she last visited Sydney and above them all, the towering spire of St James’ Church reigned. Lights blazed from the shops, with dressmakers and bonnet makers displaying an amazing array of clothing in their windows.
‘Sydney is the city of the future. It has everything to offer. Museums and zoos, horse-drawn omnibuses and ferries. Tomorrow we will promenade in Hyde Park and take strawberry ices in the Café Parisienne. You are missing so much locked away in the Hunter.’
Certainly life at Cottington was a far cry from this whirlwind of activity.
Bartholomew tugged on her arm and drew her to a halt. The lights surrounding The Adelphi Hotel blazed and the sweet smell of confections and other treats filled the air, rather like the local shows and race days at home.
Following a line of flares that led around the back of the hotel they arrived in front of a large ring surrounded by row after row of tiered seating. Fresh sawdust spread over the ground muffled the smell of horses, sweat and numerous bodies. Children scurried around chasing each other and all manner of people crowded the entry.
‘Our seats are somewhat away from the riff-raff. Since the fortuitous arrival of the Russian Cossack’s troupe with the country’s very first equestrienne, Princess Valentina, the whole world is begging for a glimpse.’ Bartholomew stopped suddenly and pulled her even closer. ‘I should warn you about one thing, Catherine, I would hate your sensibilities to be offended.’ He patted her arm almost as though she were an aged aunt. ‘I’m told most of the ladies find it adds a touch of spice to the entertainment.’ His beady eyes gleamed and he lowered his voice. ‘In some instances the performers’ attire could be regarded as vulgar.’
Whatever was he babbling about? ‘I’m not easily offended, Mr Bartholomew. I’m a country girl as you well know, used to country life.’
He glanced from left to right then leant close to her ear, his breath fanning her cheek. ‘The performers, both men and women, are somewhat scantily clad, short skirts and tight garments, which leave little to the imagination.’
Catherine pulled away, stifling a laugh. Perhaps now was not the time to mention that she preferred to ride astride and favoured a disreputable pair of stockman’s moleskins topped off with a loose shirt and cabbage-palm hat. ‘I’m sure I shall manage, Mr Bartholomew. Thank you for your concern.’
His shoulders drooped a little and he slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. ‘In that case let us find our seats.’ With a succession of rather neat little skips somewhat at odds with his top hat and evening clothes he led her under the billowing canvas awning.
A long stage overlooked the ring where strangely garbed creatures cavorted and performed a series of peculiar antics. Walking on their hands, contorting into impossible poses, leaping and tumbling to the accompaniment of a band, if it could be called that, no more than a fiddle, tin whistles and a drum.
An assortment of people packed the tiered seats and the dirt surrounding the arena. She’d never seen such a collection: some in evening clothes like Bartholomew, and others wearing nothing more than slops or filthy working clothes. ‘How many people do you think are here?’
‘Six, seven hundred, maybe a thousand.’
‘That must be half of the population of Sydney.’
‘Nowhere near, my dear. Nowhere near.’ He smiled at her in a benign manner and patted her hand once more. ‘We are close to forty thousand now. The authorities were fearful of the mischief and vagrancy that might ensue with such a performance, yet nothing has eventuated. Sydney is simply captivated. From the poorest street beggar to the highest echelons of society.’ He tugged at his waistcoat and puffed out his chest.
Within moments of settling into her seat the flares dimmed, the music ceased and a vibrating anticipation filled the arena. Then Catherine picked up the soft steps, a muffled whisper before a single flare blazed to life in the centre of the ring.
Her breath caught.
Oiled skin gleamed dark as mahogany under the lights, one man astride a pure white stallion. Her skin rose in an embarrassing rush of bumps and she pulled at her sleeves, her palms damp under her gloves.
‘Ladies and gentlemen …’
The crowd broke into a fevered applause punctuated by whistles and cheers from the seats behind them.
The man sat, not a muscle moving, right hand raised in salute and the bridle loose in the fingers of his left, until the crowd calmed. ‘Welcome to Rudi’s Equestrian Circus.’ His knees clenched and, like a conquering hero, his horse reared tall and statuesque.
‘Is that Rudi?’
‘No. That is the maître du cirque. Rudi is rarely seen. I believe he had some sort of accident, which prevents him from riding. It is Princess Valentina we have come to see.’ Bartholomew clutched at the rail in front of him and leant forward in anticipation.
The band picked up again and the ring filled once more with a confusing cornucopia of ropewalking, tumbling, acrobatics and juggling.
To a long drum roll and wild applause a woman appeared. Clad in a sky-blue cape trimmed with white fur she posed in various attitudes as her horse circled the ring at a smart canter.
And overseeing it all the maître du cirque, astride his pristine white stallion, barely moving, legs clad in tight white breeches and his muscled chest bare.
‘The chap is renowned for his death-defying horsemanship.’
Unable to drag her eyes away from the magnificent man, even for a moment, Catherine managed a brief nod and, as if to prove Bartholomew’s words, his horse reared again and then broke into a canter. His body swirled faster than she could follow, legs slicing like scythes through a paddock of wheat. A blur above, beneath, astride the horse while it galloped around and around.
Then two more horses entered the ring, no bridles, no saddles. They circled like dancers at a ball, mesmerising, twisting and turning in the smallest space, and then the maître du cirque leapt up, one foot on each of the two horses. Princess Valentina vaulted from her horse onto his until she stood, arms outstretched, on his shoulders.
Catherine had never seen anything like it. For a moment she imagined herself balancing astride his broad shoulders, circling the ring. Her heartbeat soared and her throat tightened until she could hardly gasp a breath. The horses came to a standstill, pawing the ground. Princess Valentina released her flowing cape; it swirled in the air and settled in the middle of the ring, a splash of cornflower blue against the packed dirt. She leapt to the ground, her lithe body clad in white breeches and tight blue chemise.
With a strangled gasp Bartholomew jumped to his feet, drumming the palms of his hands on the wooden rail encasing their seats. The sound mixed with the pounding hoof beats reverberated beneath her rib cage, then the band struck up. The insistent rhythm on the taut pigskin drum thrummed in her head while the fiddle vibrated through her fizzling blood.
A tin-whistle fanfare emptied the ring and the flares dimmed once more, leaving only the heart-stoppingly handsome stallion and his master. The horse leapt onto the stage and walked, legs lifting high, hooves clattering along the entire length.
A low moan slipped between her lips as he came to a halt only a matter of feet in front of her. Her reflection flared back at her in the horse’s eyes. She could count every one of the thick black eyelashes surrounding the glowing orbs. Its whiskery nostrils twitched, taking in the scent of her.
Then the maître du cirque swung his long leg over the horse’s neck and landed lightly on his feet. He removed the bridle from his horse and walked up half a dozen or more steps onto a podium in the centre of the ring while the animal stood arrogantly viewing the captive audience.
The horseman’s chest expanded as he breathed in, every one of his ribs flaring. ‘I would like some volunteers.’
The urchins crowded on the ground leapt up, tumbling over each other in their enthusiasm.
He raised his hand. ‘I require a number of ladies and perhaps a handful of gentlemen to accompany them.’
The children sank back down with disgruntled moans and amidst much tittering, excitement and encouragement five ladies stood in the adjoining boxes and were escorted into the ring to great applause.
‘One more to make an equal number.’ His eyes pinned Catherine, turning her throat dry and making her heart hammer.
Bartholomew nudged her. ‘Go on, my dear. I think he would like your help.’
Her pulse swooped and she dropped her gaze, trying to catch a breath. ‘No, no. I couldn’t.’ Why on earth had Bartholomew chosen such conspicuous seats? A flare illuminated their box and every one in the sea of faces craned to look at her.
Bartholomew jumped up and held out his hand to help her rise, his movement knocking her hat from her head. In an instant the horseman leapt from the podium and stood in front of their box. He swung open a small door and swept an outrageous bow, his fingers trailing so low they brushed the hem of her skirt.
How she wished the ground would open up and swallow her. Heat rose to her face when the audience began drumming their feet. With the thunderous noise filling her ears she lifted her hand. His warm brown fingers clasped hers and he brought them to within an inch of his lips before leading her to the arena where the other men and women stood in a line, their faces wreathed in smiles and no sign of the ghastly embarrassment that made Catherine’s skin prickle and her blood burn.
The white stallion hovered above her on the platform and in one precise movement the maître leapt up beside his horse. He held up his hand and silenced the crowd. ‘Tell me, Tsar, how many ladies are here in front of you?’
As quick as an errant thought the horse struck the stage six times with his hoof. The crowd cheered and clapped and the men standing in a group to one side nodded their heads knowingly.
‘How many of these ladies are wearing hats?’
The woman standing next to Catherine released her hatpins and snatched her hat from her head, holding it behind her back.
In an instant the answer came. Four hoof-knocks.
Despite her embarrassment a smile tugged at Catherine’s mouth; the display was impressive but she had no doubt training and patience could provide such a result. Her horse, Bessie, had taught herself to unlatch the bolt on the stable door and if caught had the audacity to rebolt it from the outside. Nevertheless, the crowd was impressed and so was she. It was a wonderful performance and she wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The maître raised his hand once more. ‘And how many of these women have captured my heart?’
Silence tumbled in the space between them and their eyes locked. Her heart crashed against her ribs as she licked her dried lips.
One solitary thud echoed on the wooden platform and the stallion took a step closer, fanning her face with a cloud of warm breath.
The other five women tittered and turned to return to their seats. Colour flared in her face. Oh but she wanted to leave, rush back to the safety of the cushioned seats in the box.
‘Thank you, ladies.’ He bowed to the group, his hand almost sweeping the floor again. ‘And gentlemen.’ Once more applause broke out, followed by ear-splitting whistles. She turned to flee.
He clasped her arm, holding her captive, and his dark eyes scanned her face as though he wanted to read every one of the secrets locked in her heart. ‘Forgive me. I would not have embarrassed you for all the world. Tsar has never responded thus. Believe me.’ When their palms touched a breathlessness seized her, making her legs almost buckle.
She tugged away, blood thundering in her ears, and as good as leapt the barrier in her haste to leave the ring.
‘Capital, capital, my dear.’ Bartholomew swung open the door of the box and she staggered inside and sank down.
The remainder of the performance passed in a blur of heated confusion and thundering heartbeats while she tried to drag her errant thoughts under control.
‘And so the show is over.’ Bartholomew’s beaming face drifted into focus. ‘Do tell me you enjoyed the circus as much as I did. Princess Valentina is a joy to behold, is she not? I have attended every one of her Sydney performances.’
She managed to curve her lips into a semblance of a smile and gave a nod, her heart hammering so loud Bartholomew must be able to hear it.
He clapped his pudgy hands. ‘Come. I can see that the spectacle has unnerved you. I, myself, had exactly the same response after my first visit.’
She doubted that, doubted it very strongly.
‘What you need are some refreshments. We will commandeer one of the carriages for the trip back and then I have a little surprise planned. Come, my dear.’
He lifted her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm and led her out across the empty arena, through the raised tent flap to a waiting carriage.
Never had she been so relieved to step into the privacy of a carriage. Her ears still rang from the discordant notes of the mismatched band and the ribald calls of the audience. The smell of the sawdust ring and the overpowering warmth and odour of so many bodies closely packed together clogged her nostrils.
The experience had assaulted every one of her senses. She blinked back a few tears, though why her eyes should burn so she had no idea. Letting her eyelids fall she relived the image of the maître du cirque astride his stallion, his bronzed skin gleaming in the limelight.
When she snapped her eyes open she found Bartholomew peering at her with a look of concern etched on his face. ‘My dear, you’re exhausted. Fear not. A little refreshment will revive you once we return to your hotel, and we’ll call in on your father and tell him of our wonderful experience.’
His comment hit her like a sledgehammer. She hadn’t given a thought to Pa in the past hours. ‘How long have we been gone?’
‘The time has flown. It is late. Well past midnight.’
Pa’s laudanum would have worn off and he’d need her. She read to him most nights to help take his mind off the pain before he took his second dose. A flush of guilt swept through her. ‘Are we nearly there?’ Surely they must be; it had taken only a matter of moments to walk and the carriage ride had lasted an eternity.
‘Almost, my dear. Almost. The driver’s taken a longer route because of the number of people on the streets after the performance.’
Beyond the window the swirling tide of people still lined the streets and a cold hand clasped at her throat. ‘I must see Pa. As soon as we return.’
‘Of course, of course. He is a lucky man to have such an attentive daughter. Your beautiful mother was just the same.’
‘You knew my mother?’
‘Sadly, no. I have been told she was quite the belle of the town, in high demand.’
Catherine raised her eyebrows, a side of her mother she knew nothing of. Pa liked to tell the story of how they’d met at the horse races in Hyde Park and Ma had swept him off his feet. Within a matter of weeks they married and she moved to the Hunter. Since then his only trips to Sydney had involved the meetings of the Royal Agricultural Society at The Pulteney Hotel. It was where he’d met Bartholomew.
The carriage drew to a halt and the door opened.
‘Here we are. You go and tell your father of our evening and I’ll arrange for refreshments to be sent to your rooms.’ He bowed his head over her hand and lifted it to his lips, bringing the memory of the maître du cirque’s warm grip flooding back.
‘Do you know the name of the horseman?’
‘Sergey Petrov, I believe.’
‘Goodnight, Mr Bartholomew, and thank you.’
Sergey. She mouthed the word as she mounted the stairs, seeing nothing except the horseman’s statuesque bearing as he sat astride his magnificent stallion.
‘I’m home.’ No, not home. ‘I’m back.’
The rooms were bathed in the greenish tinge of one lamp and the door to his bedchamber was closed. She knocked gently and twisted the handle. The air was stale and warm and a solitary candle flickered on the bedside table, bathing him in a muted glow. She stepped closer.
And her heart stopped.
Pa lay on his back, his head to one side, eyes wide and staring. A strangled cry caught in her throat.
No. It was not possible.
His forehead was cool, almost cold to the touch and when she lifted his hand a sigh shuddered from his body. For a moment her spirits lifted and then cold certainty descended upon her.
‘Pa.’ She shook him.
His head lolled.
She pulled back the linen sheet and bent down, resting her cheek against his chest then her palm, willing his heart to beat beneath her aching hand. ‘Pa.’
On the bedside table a bottle of laudanum lay, the stopper pulled. She stood it up, feeling for a damp patch on the cloth.
Surely he hadn’t taken a whole bottle. She staggered and groped for the table, her foot catching the upturned glass at her feet.
‘Pa.’ Her screech echoed and her heart shattered.
Once the crowds dispersed and the hustle and bustle came to an end, a glorious peace descended on the circus camp. Everyone wound down and took time to relax before they headed off to bed.
‘There you go, Timmy, thanks.’ Sergey handed the reins of his horse to the young groom and slipped on the shirt he offered. ‘He deserves a good feed. They both do.’
‘Nice show tonight.’ A second groom, Zac, took Valentina’s horse and they disappeared behind the circle of tents to the stables at the back of the hotel. The horses were in good hands. They had to be, for without them Rudi’s Equestrian Circus wouldn’t exist.
‘You get them every time with that counting stuff.’ Valentina slipped her hand through his arm. ‘How do you get him to do it?’
‘Tsar can count. I’ve told you that before.’
‘Rubbish. You pull on his mane, stamp your foot, blink or something.’
‘Believe me, I don’t. He made a mistake tonight. He’s supposed to count all the ladies, not just one.’ Sergey hadn’t the time or the inclination to dally with one woman, any woman. He couldn’t. He had no idea what the future held. Five years of fruitless searching gave a man a lot of time to think, a lot of time to learn where his priorities lay.
‘Maybe Tsar knows more than you think. You couldn’t take your eyes from her.’
‘From who?’ As if he didn’t know the answer, and Valentina was right, she’d caught his attention. Not that he’d admit it to anyone, except perhaps his big sister. It was her hair, when her hat had fallen off. He’d never seen anything like it, the colour of sunshine, and eyes as blue as a summer sky. One of the Australians they liked to call cornstalks. Her family must have been amongst some of the first settlers, although her father had the look of London about him with that ridiculous top hat and flamboyant waistcoat.
‘The woman with the hair.’ Valentina tossed her own back from her face, black as the night sky, same as his.
‘Unusual colouring, that’s all. Took me by surprise. Now come on, Rudi’s waiting, wants a word.’ Sergey picked up the pace and crossed the camp to the largest of the tents grouped around the flickering fire pit. Inside the lamplight shone, throwing Rudi’s silhouette against the canvas, hunched over the table, his perpetual bottle of rum at his elbow.
‘Do you think Rudi’s any better?’ Valentina tugged on Sergey’s arm to slow him down and lowered her voice. ‘He seems to be drinking a lot more. That’s what he does when he’s in pain.’
‘He’s never out of pain. Won’t ever be. Lucky he can still manage to put one foot in front of the other.’
‘It breaks his heart not to ride anymore.’
There was no doubt about that. Hard enough for any man but for a man with Cossack blood it was as good as a death sentence. The accident had robbed Rudi of his will to live and it was only when the opportunity to buy the circus had come up that he’d found a new way to use his skills. ‘We’re lucky he found an alternative, and he’s got you.’
‘Me?’ Valentina arched a winged eyebrow at him.
‘And you’re not?’
‘He lives his dreams through us now.’ A strange thought for a man who was only ten years older than he was. If it hadn’t been for Rudi, he wouldn’t have had the chance to become a horseman. He’d have ended up like his father, hidden behind a scorching fire heaving irons, a blacksmith. ‘Come on. Let’s not keep him waiting.’
When they walked into the tent Rudi lifted his head, gave a quick grunt and returned to tallying the final monies in his ledger before shutting the tin box with a satisfied bang.
‘Another successful evening?’
‘Down a bit on the last couple of weeks, but good enough.’
‘So we’re back on the road?’ Sergey brought two stools to the other side of the table and helped himself to some rum. ‘Valentina?’
She shook her head and sat down, arranging her brilliant blue cape around her shoulders as though she were still the centre of attention.
‘There’s no point staying in Sydney any longer. One more show tomorrow night before we head off.’ Rudi tapped at the table where a roll of animal skin lay. ‘Time to try new pastures.’
‘What’s the plan?’ One more show would suit Sergey down to the ground. The sooner they got out of the city, the happier he’d be. The claustrophobic atmosphere and seething mass of people made him long for some wide-open spaces and uninterrupted sky. Besides, he’d exhausted every avenue in Sydney.
‘I thought we might head inland. Lots of settlers in the Hunter with money to spend on a night at the circus.’ Rudi unfurled the animal skin and laid it on the table, smoothing it flat with his two big paws.
‘What’ve you got there?’
‘What does it look like? A map.’
Sergey frowned and leant closer. Maps were hard, if not impossible, to come by. Rudi had pulled strings. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘Reinvested some of the profits. Picked it up from a bloke who works in the Government Survey Office.’
‘It covers the whole of south-eastern Australia.’
‘Yep. Compiled from the exploratory expeditions. Got all the roads and tracks marked, too.’
A whistle sneaked out between Sergey’s teeth. It couldn’t be an original, would have to be a copy, it looked like kangaroo skin; an original would be on parchment. Someone making a quid or two on the side. He ran his finger over the coastline, the route they’d spent the last eighteen months travelling from Port Phillip, up the coast and onto Sydney. ‘Must’ve set you back a bit.’
Rudi shrugged his heavy shoulders. ‘A bit, more importantly a swag of tickets for the last two weeks’ performances. I reckon it’s worth it. You know as well as I do moving the circus takes planning. No point finding ourselves stuck in the middle of nowhere, jammed between a swollen river and a mountain range. We need to go where the people go and roads mean people.’
Or one person in particular.
‘I’ve been asking around. Place called Maitland. It seems we can either backtrack across the Hawkesbury River then take the road through Wollombi.’ He traced the route with a stubby finger then looked up and pinned Sergey with a fierce stare. ‘Or take the paddle steamer to Newcastle and up the Hunter River to Morpeth.’ He stabbed at the coastline and then followed a winding line inland. ‘Much quicker.’ He slammed his palm down on the table. ‘We’ll do that.’
‘With five wagons, three drays and more than twenty-five horses?’ A vision of some overloaded half-sunken ark wallowing in the ocean off Sydney Heads flashed through Sergey’s mind.
‘More than one paddle steamer.’
‘It’ll cost.’ They’d need to split the troupe, send some ahead, a day or two apart.
‘Money but not time.’
Sergey smoothed the kangaroo skin and picked out the route up the coastline then inland along the river from Newcastle. ‘Green Hills?’
‘They call it Morpeth now. Map’s a few years old. It’s just a hop and a skip to Maitland. It’s a thriving town, spend a few weeks there and see what’s what.’
Thriving communities meant businesses; businesses meant money, or the need for money, and that meant pawnshops and pubs—the sort of places all manner of low-life congregated. His fists balled in his pockets, the taste of revenge thick on his lips.
‘Nothing this side of hell, and maybe not even that, would induce me to set foot on another ship.’ Valentina puffed out her cheeks and waved her hand in front of her face. ‘I’ll travel by road.’
Her eyebrows rose high up her forehead and she peered down her long straight nose. ‘I’ll not travel by boat ever again, certainly not on the ocean. Whether it’s a sailing ship or a steam kettle.’
‘Paddle steamers. Takes only a few hours. It will be very pleasant.’
‘No. I’ll travel by road.’
‘Don’t be difficult. We’ll dine at the Quay, board the steamer, breakfast at Newcastle and arrive in Morpeth in a matter of a few hours,’ said Rudi. ‘Travel to Maitland, set up camp and be comfortably established by nightfall.
‘Think of the time it will save for a little inconvenience and days fighting over all those gluepot, corduroy roads.’
‘She won’t do it.’ Sergey rocked back in his chair. He understood his sister’s refusal; she’d suffered appallingly on the journey from Van Diemen’s Land. The moment the ship left Hobart wharf her face had turned a delicate shade of green. ‘Let her go. Dan and Hawke can go with her.’ He didn’t want to be subjected to weeks of complaints and the tirades they’d suffered after the last trip.
‘So when we arrive in Maitland I’ll be minus my tent men and our leading lady.’ Rudi hit his fist on the lid of his takings box. ‘We’ll be lucky to see money like this for a while if we’ve only got half a show.’
‘Sergey’s well able to entertain the crowd, and quite strong enough to sort out the tent with some help from the grooms. You can manage without me for a week or so. Minnie and May and the other girls can extend their performances. They’ll be happy with the extra attention. Jymie can entertain the crowd for hours with his juggling tricks, especially now he has those flaming hoops. Besides, I have some business to attend to before I leave Sydney.’
‘What kind of business?’
‘Nothing to concern you, little brother of mine.’
Rudi threw up his hands and rolled his eyes. ‘It’s impossible to argue with you two when you side against me.’ He flicked his whip in a playful manner, narrowly missing Valentina’s long booted leg. ‘So be it. I’ll make arrangements for the troupe to leave as soon as the paddle steamers can accommodate us.’
‘I’ll make my own arrangements. We’ll take four horses and arrive fresh and rested in a little less than a week.’
So be it. Anything would be better than his sister throwing her heart up.
He stood, turned to leave then stopped. ‘Valentina, have you a moment?’ He needed to get to the bottom of this Sydney business. Trouble followed his sister like the legion of admirers who swarmed to her every performance.
She raised an eyebrow in question then thought better of it, threw Rudi an apologetic smile and nodded.
‘Walk with me.’ Sergey led the way into the big tent, quiet and empty after their earlier performance. ‘What’s this business you have to attend to?’
‘I’m not sure it’s anything to do with you.’
He huffed out a sigh. ‘It has plenty to do with me as you very well know. Are you up to your old tricks again? You promised that was all over.’ What was the little minx planning? Had some bauble caught her eye? That was the last thing they needed.
‘It has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with that. I made a promise to Batya and I’ll honour it.’
Promises were important. He understood that only too well, especially the ones they’d made to their father on his deathbed. ‘Perhaps it would be better if I waited and travelled the Great North Road with you.’
Her eyes flashed and her hands stole to her hips, a familiar sign. ‘You’ll do no such thing. If you must know, I have a dinner engagement and I don’t intend to take my little brother along.’
‘A dinner engagement?’
‘Yes. I have an admirer. Is that so hard to understand?’
No, of course it wasn’t. Every man in every audience had his eyes on Valentina, most of the women as well. The first equestrienne in New South Wales was a novelty.
‘In case it’s slipped your notice I’m no longer a child. Besides,’ she stuck out her lower lip, ‘I’m entitled to a little romance in my life. So are you, my brother dearest.’ She patted his arm. ‘Perhaps you should chase up the lovely young lady who caught your eye tonight.’
‘Whatever are you talking about?’ He turned away. Damn Valentina and her sharp eyes.
‘Don’t give me that nonsense. I saw your face.’ She tossed her black mane, then coiled a curl around her finger before tucking it behind her ear. ‘I’d give anything for hair that colour.’
‘I was simply concerned she’d been embarrassed by Tsar’s antics.’
‘And you would like to make it up to her.’
‘Of course. I’ve no idea what prompted Tsar to pull that stunt.’
‘Perhaps your horse knows more of your heart than you’re prepared to admit. Unlike you, I have nothing to hide. I’ve been invited to dine and I intend to accept. One night, just one night, and then I’ll be on the road and right behind you. I’ll be in Maitland before you know it. Dan and Hawke will be ample protection from any bushrangers or other undesirables and besides, Rudi can’t manage without you.’
‘Rudi would have Dan and Hawke if I accompanied you.’ If Rudi got wind of her assignation he’d forcibly restrain her. He guarded his circus’s reputation like a dingo with a carcass. Only yesterday he’d fined two of the grooms five shillings each for swearing and given two of the slack-rope walkers a talking-to for fluttering their eyelashes.
‘It’s not necessary. I’m entitled to my own freedom and I’m in no danger.’
‘You’re always in danger. Any woman travelling alone is in danger.’ Any woman who couldn’t keep her hands in her pockets, away from temptation.
‘How many times do I have to tell you I’ll not be alone? Dan and Hawke will take care of me.’
‘Answer me one question. Should I know anything more about this meeting, this assignation?’
‘Rest easy.’ Did he imagine it or did those familiar brown eyes slide away from him? ‘I’ve told you. It’s to do with me. Something for myself. I know what I’m doing.’
‘You make certain Dan and Hawke are with you.’
‘I am definitely not taking two muscle-bound rope walkers to dinner.’
‘Oh, Valentina, what am I to do with you?’ He dropped a kiss onto the top of her head. ‘Be sensible. Let them escort you and wait outside until your dinner is over.’
‘I’ll do that.’ She turned up her face and he kissed her forehead before she walked away. And with that he had to be satisfied. She did deserve something for herself after all this time, and what difference would one evening with an admirer make? She was a grown woman, five years older than him.
He wandered back into the tent where Rudi had his nose still buried in the map. ‘Change her mind?’
‘Not a hope in hell.’ Rudi didn’t need to know about this man who was courting Valentina. ‘I can see her point. She was ill for the whole voyage to the mainland. She’d be no use in the ring for at least a week. Cut your losses. It can’t take her more than a few days.’
‘You’re going to have to make some changes to the performance. Spend more time in the ring and have a word with Minnie and May. They can organise the girls to do more rope walking and something else. Get them to turn themselves inside out and wrap around a chair or two, that should go down well. See what Jymie can come up with. Those flaming hoops went down a storm the other night.’ Rudi threw the words over his shoulder, his eyes glued to the map. He was up to something.
‘What’re you looking at? I thought you had the route planned.’
‘Distances, places. This place here.’ He stabbed at the map. ‘A place called Ophir, out west. There’s been a bit of talk. A bloke called Hargreaves reckons he’s discovered gold in the area.’
‘It’s nothing new. They’ve been talking about it for years. Gold’s been found all over the place. The government decided to give him some acknowledgement. Granted him a pension or some such thing. Half his luck.’
‘We’re better off. We’ve been pulling hundreds a night. The Hunter will be just as good. They’re starved for entertainment outside Sydney.’
So they were off to the Hunter. Just as well because he’d exhausted every back alley, every pawnshop, every dubious haunt in The Rocks and around the harbour.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of The Currency Lass by Tea Cooper! Coming March 2017.