Land of Golden Wattle by JH Fletcher

1982

It was eleven o’clock in the morning and a kookaburra was calling from one of the stringybark trees as Rebecca, all her life known as Bec to everyone but her late grandmother-in-law Bessie Penrose, stepped on to Derwent’s wooden deck. The big house, surrounded by its vast acreage, had been her home for sixty-eight years. It stood on the summit of the sharp-sided hill that for one and a half cen­turies had been called Emma’s Lookout and from its north-facing deck you could see forever.

Granddaughter Tamara was standing with her hands on the guardrail and Bec joined her. Side by side they looked out beyond the rock-strewn hillside and the undulating paddocks flowing down the long valley to the heat-shimmered line of distant hills. All this was Derwent land, bright with golden wattle in spring but now burnt brown by the summer sun. Emma Dark had named the estate in 1831 and now Derwent was the largest property in the Tasmanian high country.

Bec could feel the sun burning holes in the top of her head. ‘Looks like we got another scorcher. And me all done up like a pox doctor’s clerk.’

Nothing to be done about that because today, Saturday 13 February, was a special occasion, or so everyone but Bec seemed to think. As far as she was concerned it was a load of nonsense. She wasn’t slow to say so, either. She said it now.

‘A lot of fuss about nothing,’ said Bec.

Tamara sighed. ‘It’s your eighty-fifth birthday. You think that’s nothing?’

‘It’s only important if you reckon it’s the last one I’ll be having,’ Bec said. ‘Otherwise it’s a day like any other. Nothing to make a fuss about.’

It was a lot worse than a fuss. Bec thought chaos would have been a better word, with caterers and the florist and a regiment of women who had been brought in to set out the tables and cook the food and light the barbecue and organise the drinks and arrange the flowers and put out the birthday cards and –

‘The good Lord give me strength,’ Bec said.

‘I guess he will,’ Tamara said. ‘He’s done pretty well by you so far.’

Bec supposed that was true but was not about to admit it. With age she suspected she was getting to be more and more like her old nemesis Grandma Bessie: these days it seemed more fun to grouse than smile. Grousing kept the competition on its toes, and by the time people got to her age just about everyone was com­petition, being younger and therefore likely to outlive her if she didn’t watch it.

‘My hundredth might be worth a nod,’ she said. ‘That would be something. Isn’t that what they say: not many people die above a hundred? Eighty-five is neither here nor there. You’re old, even if you feel as fit as a flea, but that doesn’t mean you like having it thrust down your throat. That’s the only purpose I can see of hav­ing this party: to remind me I’m old. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m not planning to keel over just yet.’

‘I should hope not,’ Tamara said. ‘I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get this blow out sorted. Don’t you go dropping dead on me.’

‘Spoil the mood, would it?’

‘I wouldn’t say that. But it would be bloody inconvenient having people tripping over your body all the time.’

Bec laughed. ‘There’s some would say I’ve been an inconvenience all my life.’

‘And proud of it,’ said Tamara.

That was what Bec liked about her granddaughter. Tamara had spirit. She was a fighter and Bec, who’d been a fighter all her life, valued that quality above all others. Tamara was proof that the blood was still strong. Ever since the days of Emma Tregellas, the first member of the family to set foot on the island, the women had shown them. Yet today there was something in her granddaughter’s manner that seemed somehow different from usual.

‘You OK?’ she asked.

‘Why shouldn’t I be?’

‘Just asking.’

There was something; Bec was convinced of it.

Two days before, at Bec’s suggestion, Tamara had gone to the new Agfest show. It was an hour’s drive away and Bec had assumed she’d be back that evening but in the event she wasn’t. She hadn’t said what she’d been up to and Bec hadn’t asked but judging by the way she’d been since she got back it was obvious that something had happened. Bec wasn’t going to push it; she’d find out soon enough if there were anything to find out. Now she looked at the cloudless sky with the sun promising to be even more of a torment by mid-afternoon.

‘A birthday bash is always a good excuse for a piss-up,’ Tamara said.

‘This mob doesn’t need an excuse,’ Bec said. ‘When are they arriving, anyway?’

‘The first of them should be turning up in about half an hour.’

‘Trotters in the trough,’ Bec said. ‘I can’t wait.’

‘Be nice,’ Tamara said. ‘They’re only coming because they love you.’

Bec cackled like a pregnant chook. ‘They’re coming to feed their faces. And to try and find out whether your dad will let you go on running Derwent when he packs in being a trustee or whether he plans to appoint somebody else.’

‘We’d all like to know that,’ Tamara said.

‘I doubt you need worry,’ Bec said. ‘With David gone there’s nobody but you.’

She could say it now. When they’d had the news that Tamara’s brother had been killed in Milan two years before, the shock of her grandson’s death had left Bec so traumatised that she had been barely able to speak. She’d hauled herself out of the shadows even­tually, as she had so often in her life, but talking about it would never be easy. The pain would remain but life moved on and you had to move with it and pretend all was well.

‘I hope you’re right,’ Tamara said. ‘Derwent’s my life: you know that. But Dad’s always been against having a woman in charge.’

‘He got that idea from Bessie Penrose. Her father had set up the trust but Bessie was determined to use it to make sure I would never get my hands on it. You’re running it now in any case,’ Bec said.

‘But I’m not a trustee.’

‘Of course you’re not. The man’s still alive, isn’t he?’

‘As far as we know. When was the last time you spoke to him?’

‘On his birthday. 20 June.’

Nearly eight months before.

‘Anything could have happened to him in that time,’ Tamara said.

‘He’s still cashing his cheques.’

As trustee under the family trust, Giles, Bec’s only son and Tamara’s father, was custodian not merely of the Derwent land but of its pride and history, but he’d never given a toss about any of that. There had been hard words about what Bec had called his selfishness but Giles couldn’t have cared less what his mother thought or said. First his wife Kathleen had walked out on him then, on Tamara’s eighteenth birthday, he had split too, heading to Sydney like a latter-day Paul Gauguin to play at being an art­ist. Unfortunately he didn’t have Gauguin’s talent but that hadn’t affected his lifestyle. As trustee and principal beneficiary he treated Derwent as a cash cow. The pay-outs he got as beneficiary allowed him to pursue his only real talent: playing games with the succes­sion of bimbos whom he managed, God knew how, to entice into his bed.

Bec had protested but it had done no good.

‘Stop your nagging, Ma,’ Giles had said. ‘I could always sell it, you know.’

‘It’s not yours to sell. It belongs to the trust.’

‘And as trustee I can realise whatever assets I like.’

To Bec that had been the ultimate sacrilege. ‘You would get rid of Derwent? Sell your heritage?’

Giles had sneered. ‘What’s my heritage ever done for me? I’ll tell you something, Ma. The only reason I don’t sell it is because of David; I know what the place means to him. But don’t keep on at me, OK, or I might change my mind.’

So Bec had said no more. She would never admit it even to herself but Giles had been a sad disappointment to her. And now David was dead.

‘Is your dad coming today?’ she asked.

‘No idea. We sent him an invite but he didn’t answer.’

‘Well, ain’t that a surprise,’ Bec said.

‘I’d better go and make sure they’ve got everything ready for our guests,’ Tamara said.

‘Mustn’t keep the hogs waiting,’ Bec said.

She watched Tamara walk into the house. Thank God for her, she thought. Tamara represented the future of the family and – surely? – of Derwent itself. But Bec remained uneasy, never able to forget how their lives and future were hostage to her son’s whims.

A hundred and fifty years before, Emma and her husband had built the house on land granted to them by Lieutenant Governor Arthur – twenty thousand acres in the middle of what at the time had been a dangerous wilderness – and imported merino sheep from Spain. The genes of those first animals still existed in the abundant flocks that over the years had made Derwent the huge operation it now was.

Bec looked out across the upland paddocks with their grazing flocks, the watered valleys rich with canola, triticale and poppies. The initial holding had grown first to thirty thousand acres on the death of Emma’s uncle Barnsley and then to fifty thousand acres after Emma’s granddaughter Bessie had snared Phelan Penrose into marriage one hundred and eleven years before.

At least that was something she did, Bec thought. The old bitch.

‘Laid herself out like a plate of meat,’ Bec remembered telling Tamara only last week. ‘You can be sure of that.’

She was the only member of the family old enough to remem­ber Bessie and the antagonism that had inspired unremitting war between them until the moment of Bessie’s death.

‘He would have lived to regret it,’ she said. ‘You can bet your socks on that. Bessie would have made for tough chewing. Too tough for little Phelan, that’s for sure.’

Below the house stringybarks towered as proud as guardsmen above the tangled scrub. Bec’s husband Jonathan had had them planted in March 1914 to celebrate their marriage. In those days the roads of the high country had been gravel tracks where in winter the horses’ hooves struck sparks from the frozen ground, but the road joining the house to the Midlands Highway had been sealed in the early 1970s after Bec, still fancying her grand prix chances at seventy-five, had nearly done a high dive off what she had thereafter named Nitwit Corner, the hairpin halfway up the hill, where the road skirted the edge of a hundred foot drop.

Born lucky, Bec thought. Or at least so far.

There had been tragedies along the way but on the whole the family hadn’t done too badly since Emma Tregellas arrived in what then had been called Van Diemen’s Land.

The living and the dead, Bec had often said, all of them both past and future.

Now, with advancing age, her thoughts turned more and more to Tamara because in Tamara Emma and the rest lived, as they did in her.

The family’s history was a tale of gold, wool and a lust for land; of enmity and love, blood and fulfilment, and a scandal that Bessie at least had been determined to conceal.

She existed in their image. The past and future, both were now. She could see their faces, hear their voices, share their rain and sun and wind.

Emma, living three lifetimes in her own short life, had been the first.

1826

 

When Major Toby Tregellas, her belligerent father, was killed in a duel, seventeen-year-old Emma went to Norfolk to live with her bachelor guardian, the Rev Arthur Naismith.

She didn’t want to go. She disliked Arthur and his pious ways. She disliked his clammy hands and his eyes, sly and pale, which undressed her when he thought she wasn’t looking. She disliked the way he listed all the things a young lady was not permitted to do. She must not run. She must not sing except in church. She must not raise her voice. She must not walk unescorted. She must be obedient, quiet and respectful at all times, especially to Arthur and Arthur’s patroness, the elderly and autocratic Dowager Countess of Raedwald, whose residence, Raedwald Hall, lay a mile from the Norfolk coast. Emma liked nothing about him at all.

‘He wants me to be a mouse,’ she told her reflection. ‘I am not a mouse.’

Nor had any intention of becoming one. At Chatham Barracks, where her father had been stationed before his fatal duel, the major had treated her with more than usual indulgence, as a companion rather than a daughter.

On occasion he had even had her sit beside him at the roulette table, watching the spinning wheel, hearing the clatter of the ball seeking its slot, as he gambled and lost, gambled and lost again. He claimed her presence brought him luck. She saw little evidence of it yet somehow it never seemed to matter, the world contracted to the bright lights, the spinning wheel, the white faces of the gamblers, jewelled hands moving golden guineas on the green baize. Before the fatal shooting Emma had been a lively soul, fond of dancing and flirting, popular with the subalterns.

‘That is who I am,’ Emma said. ‘That is life.’

She knew that life with Arthur Naismith, her long-dead mother’s cousin, would not be like that at all. Life with Arthur would be like attending six funerals at once but Emma was under age, with Arthur her only relative, so to Norfolk she went, to his strait-laced and gloomy house backing on to Fairweather Broad.

The day after her arrival Lady Raedwald declared she wished to meet her.

Raedwald Hall was large with large rooms and stood in the mid­dle of a large park, yet even Raedwald Hall was barely large enough to accommodate the dowager’s over-generous flesh and the opin­ions she had never learnt to keep to herself.

Hooded eyes inspected Emma closely. Over-large nostrils flared; withered lips were downturned. ‘Young girls these days are spoilt,’ she said. She favoured Arthur with a glance. ‘You agree?’

Arthur agreed.

The eyes challenged Emma, seated upright upon the uncomfort­able chair to which she had been directed. ‘And you, miss. Do you share my opinion?’

‘No, ma’am,’ said Emma. ‘I do not.’

It took a brave person to say no to Lady Raedwald. Her feathered headdress quivered.

‘You presume to question my views?’

‘I am sure some young girls are indeed spoilt. But not all, ma’am. By no means all.’

Lady Raedwald was displeased. ‘You are remarkably free with your opinions, miss.’ She turned to Arthur, spearing him with her disapproval. ‘One has to wonder what the world is coming to when a girl of your cousin’s age should take issue with her elders in so unseemly a fashion.’

‘I agree, your ladyship.’

‘Discipline is what is needed. Discipline leads to right thinking and an appreciation of one’s true place in society. I had thought this young woman might be a suitable companion to me but clearly she is unready. Mr Naismith, your cousin needs to learn respect.’

Emma might not have been in the room.

‘I shall see to it, your ladyship,’ Arthur said.

‘But Mr Naismith,’ Lady Raedwald said, ‘that will not do at all.’

‘Your ladyship?’

‘A young woman living alone with an unmarried man? I cannot permit that, Mr Naismith.’

‘I have a maid, your ladyship.’

Her ladyship drew herself up in her chair. ‘A maid is hardly a suitable chaperone.’

Chastened, Arthur hung his head.

‘I shall find work for her here. Regrettably not as my companion but rest assured we shall find something for her to do.’

‘I appreciate your ladyship’s concern for my welfare,’ Emma said. ‘May I know what you have in mind?’

Her ladyship’s glare could have peeled paint. ‘No, miss, you may not. The important thing, if you do not wish your good name to be irretrievably compromised, is to remove you into my care without delay.’ She glared at Arthur, fidgeting unhappily on his chair. ‘I take it you have no objection, Mr Naismith?’

‘On the contrary,’ he said. ‘I am deeply indebted to your ladyship for your condescension towards my cousin.’

Emma, however, objected strongly to the old hag’s interference in her affairs and on their way back to the vicarage wasted no time saying so. ‘I refuse to go and live with her. She’s horrible.’

She had thought Arthur and his funereal face, his funereal house, trial enough after the carefree life she had led in Chatham; now, compared with the horrors of living under the same roof as the gor­gon they had just left, the vicarage seemed as desirable a residence as she could have wished. However, Arthur made it clear that her wishes were irrelevant.

There would be a four-day interlude as her ladyship had guests and did not wish to endure the inconvenience of an ungrateful and seemingly rebellious girl for that period, but after that to Raedwald Hall she would go.

The day before she was scheduled to leave the vicarage, Emma had a visitor. She had been in the upstairs sitting room when Maudie, the maid, told her a gentleman was waiting and had asked to speak to her.

‘I don’t know any gentlemen in these parts. Did he give a name?’

‘He’s Captain Dark, miss. Captain Ephraim Dark.’

‘I have never heard of Captain Ephraim Dark.’

Maudie had a coy look.

Emma looked at her. ‘I gather you know who he is.’

‘Yes, miss.’

‘Then pray enlighten me.’

‘He’s her ladyship’s nephew, miss.’

The way Maudie coloured up made it clear there was more to the gallant captain than that.

‘And?’

‘He used to be here often, miss. Afore he went to Van Diemen’s Land with his regiment.’

And still there was more.

‘How well did you know him, Maudie?’

‘Us maids was all gone on Ensign Dark, miss. ’im was a reckless devil: used to ride like the wind. We would all turn out to watch ’im, when we could. Oh yes,’ she said, sighing, ‘us was all gone on Ensign Dark.’

‘Why does he want to see me?’

‘He says he’s an acquaintance of your uncle. Your uncle what lives in Van Diemen’s Land, miss.’

Emma had always known Father had a brother. His name was Barnsley, Barnsley Tregellas. He lived on the other side of the world and she had never set eyes on him. All she knew about him was that there had been ill feeling between the brothers; she remembered Father getting a letter from him once and being in a black rage about it for days afterwards.

‘Once Barnsley gets his hooks in you he never lets go,’ Father had said. He’d given her a ferocious look. ‘Be warned. He’ll suck the blood out of your veins, given half a chance. Well, he’s not going to suck mine.’

What he had meant by that Emma had no idea. She’d heard of bats that sucked your blood but not men. All she knew about her uncle was that he lived on an island far away where convicts were sent to get rid of them. Imogen Barnes, a girl she’d known in Chatham, had told her that in Van Diemen’s Land the stars were all over the place and people walked upside down.

Emma had questioned that rumour. ‘How can people walk upside down? Why should they want to, anyway?’

‘It’s the punishment they get for the bad things they’ve done.’

Emma didn’t believe a word of it but since she had no plans to go there it hardly mattered. She found it difficult to imagine what her uncle could be doing in such a place. Sucking convicts’ blood? That seemed even less likely than people walking upside down.

Imogen had also introduced her to the mirror of love.

Emma had been fifteen when Imogen had guided her to a pool like a shining mirror set about by stunted trees. The waters of the pool were black and still.

‘Come here at night and alone,’ Imogen said. ‘Look into the pool and people say you’ll see the face of your true love.’

Emma was determined to try it out for herself so the next night her father was busy with one of his ladies she sneaked out. She was conscious of an aura of magic. A fox barked. She came to the pool shining beneath a sky bright with stars. She looked at her reflection and waited. She saw what might be a shadow in the water. A face? A man’s face? No way to know. Were those eyes watching from the pool’s depths? And was there a black figure with a spear behind the first man? Impossible to be sure. She waited but saw no more.

Eventually, chilled by the night air, she returned home. Had she seen anything? She didn’t know. Yet the feeling of magic lingered.

When I see him I will know, she thought.

Now, out of the blue, someone called Captain Dark from Van Diemen’s Land was asking to see her. Perhaps he would be able to tell her whether the stories of people walking upside down were true or not.

Luckily, Cousin Arthur was from home; Lady Raedwald had summoned him to the hall an hour earlier.

No doubt Arthur would disapprove of her behaviour – receiv­ing a strange man unchaperoned? – but Emma cared nothing for Arthur’s opinion.

‘Ask Captain Dark to come up,’ she told Maudie.

It would be the first time Emma had acted as hostess since her arrival in Norfolk but in Chatham she had done so regularly in the intervals between her father’s mistresses, so she remembered to tell Maudie to bring tea. While she waited she had a few moments to practise her hostess smile before Captain Dark stepped into the room and her heart stopped. Only for an instant but between one instant and the next a life could change.

Emma’s cheeks creaked as she gave her visitor the full benefit of her smile while her heart, restored to life, smashed so loudly against her ribs she found it hard to believe he did not hear it.

The captain was tall and sturdily built, with the darkest of dark hair and brilliant blue eyes: Emma was not at all surprised that Maudie and the other maids had been gone on him.

He bowed over her hand and talked in a friendly way but he had a nasty limp that made Emma wince to watch him.

And still her heart pounded while she sat with what she feared was a foolish smile clamped to her face.

Over tea he explained that the limp was the reason for his being in England.

‘Had a problem with the natives. They were making a nuisance of themselves so the governor ordered us in to sort them out.

Unfortunately some of them didn’t want to be sorted. There was a skirmish and I ended up with a spear through my foot.’

A black man with a spear?

The captain laughed, although what was amusing about a spear through the foot Emma could not see.

‘I suppose I must count myself lucky it wasn’t my neck,’ he said. ‘Didn’t look like much to begin with but the confounded thing festered. Local treatment wasn’t doing much good so the colonel decided I should come to London to get it sorted out.’

Emma didn’t know what to say to a man who on first acquain­tance talked about a festering foot. Despite his fine manners it did not seem a genteel thing to do yet she found she did not care what he had to say or how he said it.

She grappled with the challenge of speech. ‘I understand you know my uncle, Captain?’

‘Indeed. He asked me to deliver a letter to your father. He said it was important so as soon as we docked I went to Chatham, only to find that Major Tregellas, alas, was with us no more. Then I discov­ered you had come to Norfolk and were living not far from my aunt’s place. Couldn’t have been more convenient. As I’m staying with her I thought I’d take the liberty of calling on you. I hope that is in order?’

‘Perfectly in order,’ Emma said.

‘Aunt suggested it would be the proper form to hand the letter to your guardian but I thought I’d do it this way.’

‘Lady Raedwald knows about the letter?’

‘I mentioned it to her, but not what it says. Could hardly tell her that, could I, since I don’t know myself?’ He laughed, then winced as he eased his troublesome foot. ‘I was tempted, mind.’

Emma’s coolness of speech concealed the tumult of her heart. ‘Give it to me and you won’t be tempted any more, will you?’

The seal on the envelope was intact. She put the letter to one side and gave her visitor another of her special hostess smiles.

‘More tea, Captain?’

‘Mr Tregellas said the letter was important,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you going to open it?’

Emma’s smile remained undented. ‘All in good time, Captain Dark. May I offer you more tea?’

‘No, thank you. I must go. Since we shall be neighbours for a time maybe we shall see more of each other,’ he said.

She gave him a modified smile, the one that said maybe yes, maybe no. When he was gone she sat for a while, stunned and unable to move. The dark water of the pool gleamed. The shadow floated amid a reflection of stars. Imogen’s voice: You’ ll see the face of your true love.

Eventually she recovered enough to open the letter. After the trouble Captain Dark had taken to get it to her its bleak contents came as a disappointment.

Sir

I note that despite numerous undertakings to the contrary you have so far failed to repay the sum of one thousand guineas I loaned you eighteen months ago.

You will recall that this loan was for a period of six months only and is therefore considerably overdue.

I am reluctant to approach the colonel of your regiment in this regard but in the absence of appropriate action on your part I shall have no alternative. I shall therefore be grateful if you will place this matter in hand without further delay.

I shall also be grateful if you will convey my compliments to my niece.

I have the honour to be, sir, your servant

BARNSLEY TREGELLAS

Emma eased her breath as she put the letter down. She remem­bered a time about two years before when her father had been sud­denly in funds. She had thought he must have made a killing at the tables but now it looked as though it had been a loan from his brother. That would explain Father’s unkind remarks about Barn­sley putting his claws into him; no doubt her uncle had simply wanted his money back.

Oh Father, Emma thought. She had loved him dearly and still did but had there ever been a more irresponsible man? Wine, women and cards had been his life, and singularly unsuccessful he had been at all of them. Drinking more than was good for him, taking up with brazen women who fleeced him and left him, he’d rarely picked up a pack of cards without losing every penny he had on him. Charm he had possessed in buckets but even charm could not keep a man afloat forever and at the time of his death Father’s debts had been close to drowning him.

Of course she’d been foolish to think his windfall could have come from cards yet that had been the one time when her father had acted sensibly, handing her a hundred guineas to hold on his behalf for the time, as he put it, when Lady Luck ceased to smile.

She still had it.

No one else knew about it but there it was, in a sealed packet at the bottom of her case. How it had happened was that her father had, yet again, been drunk when he gave it to her. Later he had for­gotten all about it and Emma had not enlightened him, holding it as a precaution against the day when Father’s dissolute ways might land them in serious trouble.

Now Father was dead and Emma thought she had every right to treat the hundred guineas as her own. Her uncle might have had another view but what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him and the money might well come in handy one day, containing the prom­ise of a freedom that otherwise would remain forever beyond her reach.


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