1808 Agnes Banks, NSW
Rose Winton wants nothing more than to work with her father, eminent naturalist Charles Winton, on his groundbreaking study of the platypus. Not only does she love him with all her heart, but the discoveries they have made could turn the scientific world on its head. When Charles is unable to make the long sea journey to present his findings to the prestigious Royal Society in England, Rosie must venture forth in his stead. What she discovers there will change the lives of future generations.
1908 Sydney, NSW
Tamsin Alleyn has been given a mission: travel to the Hunter Valley and retrieve an old sketchbook of debatable value, gifted to the Public Library by a recluse. But when she gets there, she finds there is more to the book than meets the eye, and more than one interested party. Shaw Everdene, a young antiquarian bookseller and lawyer seems to have his own agenda when it comes to the book – and Tamsin. In an attempt to discover the book’s true provenance Tamsin decides to work with him.
The deeper they delve, the more intricate the mystery becomes. As the lives of two women a century apart converge, discoveries rise up from the past and reach into the future, with irrevocable consequences…
Agnes Banks, New South Wales, 1808
Rose loved Pa’s dusty workroom filled to overflowing with notebooks and samples, paints and charcoals. A treasure chest of strange and wonderful objects. A charred boomerang; the tall, tall seed head from the shaggy grass tree; a huge oh-don’t-touch emu’s egg painted with careful patterns, more tiny dots than even she could count. Collected heads of banksia, their knotted faces leering; the beautiful curling tail feather of a bulln-bulln; and in the centre of the worn table her most favourite of all—the mallangong. Once it lived and breathed until Bunji’s Pa speared it out in the billabong. Now it sat … pre-ser-ved for all eternity— that’s what Pa said. Pre-ser-ved. She ran her hand over the dark brown fur and touched its funny little beak.
Pa rose from the chair, his brown face wrinkling as he smiled his special smile. ‘Shall we go down to the river, my heart?’
A trickle of excitement ran through her—she’d sat quietly waiting all afternoon for him to say those very words. ‘Yes please, Pa.’
‘Put on your boots before you tell your mother we are off.’
She rammed her feet into her clodhoppers, leaving the long laces trailing, and hoisted her knapsack carefully onto her back. Pa’s supplies were precious. How she loved the wooden box with its tiny blocks of paint and brushes wrapped in fine linen. Pa promised she’d have her own paintbox when she was bigger, all her very own. Now she shared his and she had to be careful, so very careful not to break anything.
The box came from London a long time ago with Pa on the big ship when the colony was blackfellas’ country. Now there were people everywhere—mostly convicts with their clattering, clanging chains and long sad faces.
Some days Mam was sad too. She’d stare down the river and sigh as though she’d been waiting a long, long time and every time Pa went to Sydney Town she asked him for a letter. When he shook his head, tears came to her eyes. One day she’d write her a letter so Pa could bring it back; maybe then Mam would smile.
‘Mam, where are you? We’re going to the river to see the mallangong.’
Mam turned from her seat on the ground, her fingers dirty from scrabbling in the garden where she grew her medicine— herbs that made people well, helped birth their babies, fixed their fevers and healed their cuts and bruises. That made Mam happy but the letter sadness never left her eyes no matter how hard Rose tried to be a good girl.
‘Tell your pa not to be late for tea. And don’t forget to keep your hat and boots on. The sun’s still strong.’
‘We can’t come home too soon because the mallangong don’t play until the sun goes down.’
‘You and your mallangong. I’m frightened one day I might lose you. You’ll swim away and not come back to me, go and live with them in Yellow-Mundee’s lagoon.’
She’d never do that, never leave Pa. Why would she do a thing like that?
‘Off you go now. That’s your pa calling; he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’
Pa was always saying he had two precious treasures brought to him by the piskies. That made Mam smile. A sad faraway smile. She leant over and brushed her lips against her mother’s smooth cheek, wrinkling her nose when the curl of hair, black as black, tickled her face. ‘Bye Mam.’
Little puffs of dust rose at her heels and her heart beat in time with her boots as she ran. The rain hadn’t come and it was hot and dry and dusty. Down by the river it would be cool, underneath the big gum where the fallen branch stretched its arms into the river. That’s where the mallangong dug their burrows in the damp sand.
She skipped down the well-worn path. She was a big girl now and knew the way but still Mam said never go alone, not unless Pa was there. The blackfellas mightn’t like it if she did. Mam was a silly fuss. Bunji and Yindi were her friends: they showed her all the secret paths up through the rocks where the grass trees grew and down to the swimming hole where it was never hot. Sometimes they laughed at her when she took off her boots and tried to swim. Not her chemise, she never took off her chemise. Good girls didn’t do that. Yindi didn’t have to wear boots, or a hat.
A jackass made her jump right off the path and almost fall into the long grass. She waved her fist at him. He didn’t care. Just laughed and flew away.
She slowed and scuffed her feet. She hated her boots, hated them more than her apron and her hat. She plonked down onto the ground and reefed them off, tying the strings together and hanging them over her shoulder. Pa wouldn’t notice. By the time she got to the river he’d have his easel set and his paints—oh, his paints! No, he wouldn’t. She had his paintbox in her pack.
Quick, quick. She must be quick. Her bare feet pattered on the dry earth as she leapt around the tough kangaroo grass. Not much grass now, only the bunches like tiny spearheads. The bulbs tasted delicious—soft and always juicy. Yindi’s mam, Yukri, had shown her which ones to pull.
When she reached the big gum tree she skittered to a halt, her heart big and pattering hard. She loved Pa so much. His big strong arms and rumbling voice made her safe. ‘I’m here Pa.’ She waved and weaved along the track right to the edge of the billabong.
Pa raised his finger to his lips then beckoned. He hadn’t set up his easel; he stood staring across the grey-green water. ‘There’s movement over there. Can you see it?’ He took the pack from her back and settled it on the grass, then her boots. He didn’t say anything about her bare feet even though his lips made a funny shape as though he was eating his laugh. ‘Step lightly now. Shade your eyes with your hand, like this.’
She peered across to the shadows beneath the roots of the big tree. Little ripples broke the top of the water. Then she saw it. A squeal jumped out of her mouth as the sleek dark brown body dived and twisted.
‘She’s looking for food.’
‘Maybe she’s got babies.’
‘Juveniles. Call them juveniles. See? Just above the waterline.’
‘Juveniles.’ She wrapped her tongue around the word then squinted hard and moved her hand to and fro. ‘Yes, yes there. I can see the hole into their burrow.’
‘Good girl. You watch carefully. Tell me what she does. I want to make a record.’
‘Can I make one, too? Please Pa, please.’
He twisted one of her curls around his finger and tucked it behind her ear not saying a word about her missing hat. Thank goodness. Mam would be mad. Perhaps the jackass had made off with it.
‘Sit down over there and I’ll set you up. We must always record our evidence. It’s the only way.’ He opened his paintbox and took out a piece of charcoal. Only a little bit. It was precious and she mustn’t waste it. Then he passed her little sketchbook to her from the pack. Squirming she turned the pages past the first few drawings. They were baby drawings. Now she did better. She could make the mallangong’s fur look wet or dry when she mixed the paint. Dark for wet and not so dark for dry and she knew their fingers and their toes—webbed. She knew that word very well. And their bills, like a duck but not really; not hard and snappy like Mam’s ducks; soft and bendy.
Pa sat down next to her and his special smell of pipe and grass and scrunched-up leaves made her nose prickle. She turned her head to see his face, his deep brown skin almost like the blackfellas, with big creases around his eyes. He said they came when he was on the big ship and they’d got deeper like the cracks in the sandstone rocks at the swimming hole. Maybe he was getting old. That made her goosey even though the sun was still shining. Bunji’s grandfather was old, very old, and he’d died. She’d snuck through the trees and seen the corroboree. Big bonfires, the dancing stomp of the feet making her chest bounce.
‘So where is your drawing?’
Chewing her lip, she studied the empty page.
Hands laced, thumbs circling, Pa waited while she drew the outline and shaded it with a crosshatch of fine lines, to bring the mallangong to life, just as he’d shown her.
‘I think you’ve been dreaming. Here’s my picture.’
The riverbank, the tree and there the little hole, the door to the burrow and the mallangong swimming through the water fast, so fast it left arrows on the surface. And then another diving deep.
‘I didn’t see two. Were there two?’
‘No, my heart, just one. I wanted to show Sir Joseph one diving down. Why do you think they dive so deep?’
She knew the answer and Pa knew it too but he liked to ask her questions just to make sure. ‘They push their bills along the sand at the bottom of the river sucking up the fishes and …’ she moved her lips and tongue into place ‘… crustaceans.’
‘Crustaceans, very good. And what are they?’
‘Maybe prawns and other shellfish. If they’re very hungry mallangongs can eat half of themselves.’
‘I don’t think they eat themselves.’ Pa’s big, deep, rumbling laugh made her laugh, too. But then it flew away and she frowned.
He was teasing. She scowled back at him. ‘He eats half as much as he is heavy. There.’
‘That’s right. You’re such a clever girl. One day you will know all there is to know about these special creatures and I will take you to meet Sir Joseph. You can tell him and his fine friends all about Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. Would you like that?’
She mouthed the words, her lips fighting the slippery rhythmical sounds. ‘Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. What’s paradoxus?’
‘It’s an old word, from the Latin. Something that is contradictory, against common belief, differing from what people believe is true.’
‘But the mallangong is true. He’s here, we see him almost every day.’
‘Indeed we do, indeed we do.’ Pa stared out across the water and tapped his charcoal stick against his teeth, the way he always did when he was thinking.
‘Where does Sir Joseph live?’
‘In London, in a very fine house.’
London! That meant a ship, a ship with big white sails, not like the lighters that travelled up and down the river with their flapping square of ragged canvas. A voyage across the ocean. As long as Pa was there she might like that. ‘Can Mam come too?’
‘No, Mam must stay here.’
‘Why? That’s not fair. She’ll be lonely if we leave her.’
‘Such a wise head on these young shoulders.’ He hugged her close, making his sketchbook fall to the ground. ‘You’re right. She would be lonely. I was only dreaming.’
‘Mam says we mustn’t be home too late or tea will spoil.’ She bent over and picked up his open sketchbook keeping her fingers right on the edge the way he’d told her, then blew across the paper so the charcoal wouldn’t smudge.
He took it from her and gazed out across the river. The sun was setting and the mallangongs had gone home. ‘You’re a good girl and I love you and your mother very, very much. I will never leave her. Not after all she’s lost.’
What had Mam lost? Perhaps she could help find it. Then maybe Mam would smile. Everyone felt miserable when they lost something.
Sydney, Australia 1908
Dust, ink and old paper, binding leather and hushed tones cocooned Tamsin Alleyn in a familiar tranquillity. Beneath the muted hum of the incandescent lights she took a deep breath, her heart hammering and her fingers itching to unwrap the package from London.
‘I thought I might find you in here. Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?’
‘I just want to open this. I think it’s more of the correspondence from London that I requested.’ She snipped the string securing the brown paper, rolled it into a ball and deposited it in the desk drawer with a flick. Funding was tight at the Public Library of New South Wales now they were working on the Mitchell bequest and every little bit helped.
‘Come along, hurry up.’
She’d spent months writing letters, sending requests to the Royal Society asking for the return of the letters sent to Sir Joseph Banks from the early Australian naturalists. Dear God let her hard work be rewarded.
‘Bring your lunch. I’ve got something I want to talk to you about.’ Edna Williams left with a spring in her seventy-year-old step Tamsin envied.
Not game to ask what it was Mrs Williams wanted to talk about she reluctantly left the unopened package and made her way down the corridor and up the stairs. She’d been so pushy about the correspondence, determined the letters should be returned to Australia where they belonged. Besides it had gone some way in dragging her out of the morass she’d waded through ever since she’d sold Mother and Father’s house. Not because of the memories, more because there weren’t any and try as she might she couldn’t feel any connection with the past.
She shouldered open the door to the tearoom.
‘I’ve made you my favourite, a Grey’s tea with some lemon.’
Mrs Williams patted the chair next to her, her dark beady eyes darting like fireflies around the room and her buttoned boots tapping. ‘Do hurry up.’ The no-nonsense woman rarely showed a glimmer of impatience yet today her feet were jiggling around like a young girl promised a strawberry ice. She was up to something.
What had she forgotten? The two librarians from the cataloguing department threw closed-mouthed smiles at her, a cloud of bemused expectancy almost visible above their heads. Whatever was afoot wasn’t a secret.
‘Right. I’m ready.’ Tamsin picked up her cup and inhaled the aroma of bergamot. Quite what Mrs Williams could have to complain about she had no idea. Ever since Tamsin had managed to wheedle her way into the job she’d given it her all. Coming at the lowest point in her life, and facing the daunting prospect of having inherited a bundle of worthless shares and a house she couldn’t maintain, a salary of ninety-six pounds a year was not to be sneezed at.
‘Are you up for a trip? It’s fairly short notice I’m afraid.’
‘A trip?’ A trickle of anticipation worked its way across her shoulders and she concentrated on the slice of lemon swimming on the surface of the tea while she tried to look calm, responsible and professional. Of course, she was. It was exactly what she needed. The last time she’d left Sydney she’d been wrapped in a shawl, clutched in her mother’s arms.
‘You’re the obvious candidate, given all your hard work with the Royal Society.’
Her heart took up an irregular patter. Surely Mrs Williams wasn’t going to suggest she take a trip to England. Highly unlikely. The Blue Mountains would do. Somewhere she could shrug off the lead boots that still made every step an effort despite the job of her dreams. She still couldn’t believe it. When she’d filled in the application form she’d simply been flying a kite, a badly balanced hastily tacked together kite at that. And she’d landed here firmly on her feet, working in this prestigious establishment with a history dating back to the 1820s. ‘Of course I am.’
If she was lucky a trip might get her out of the celebrations at the Missionary Society. Even after all the years it still hurt too much. She hadn’t managed to come up with anything to say that would be deemed appropriate. What could she say to commemorate her parents’ death? She hadn’t seen them since they’d handed her into the care of the Sydney Ladies Academy the moment she turned ten. She had nothing but bitterness to offer.
‘It’s not too far and you’re about the only person who has sufficient understanding of the matter. We can cover the transport and accommodation costs if you’re prepared to stay at one of the local establishments.’
It must be something important if they’d managed to find the money for an overnight stay. ‘I’m all ears.’
‘I received a letter from a Mrs Quinleaven; she lives just outside a small town in the Hunter. She has a book she’d like to donate to the Library. She’s getting on a bit and wants to make sure she delivers it before it’s too late. She has no faith in the postal service and transport to the area is a little patchy.’
Tamsin pushed her empty cup away tapping her fingernail on the table. ‘The Hunter’s not too bad. I know the train goes to Maitland. I could do the trip in a couple of days.’
‘We might have to consider a travelling companion. Is there anyone you would like to invite?’
Tamsin shook her head. It didn’t require much thinking, there was no one she could ask, except perhaps her housekeeper but the thought of any kind of close contact with Mrs Birkenhead didn’t fire her with enthusiasm. ‘I’m quite able to travel alone. It’s hardly very far.’
‘You really should pay more attention to these things. It’s hardly appropriate for a young lady to be seen travelling alone.’
Tamsin lowered her lids mostly to cover the rolling of her eyes. ‘I think at the ripe old age of twenty-five I hardly classify as young. Besides this is the twentieth century, not Regency England.’
‘I know, I know. I’m sure you’re quite capable of managing. Please don’t start on the New Woman claptrap. I’m an advocate, remember?’
‘I won’t, I promise. Now what exactly is this donation?’ A library full of books she could understand but one book? It must be something quite special. She leant forward resting her elbows on the table, her chin cupped in her hands.
‘A sketchbook. Detailed anatomical line drawings and watercolours.’
Mrs Williams’s dramatic pause signalled something more. She lowered her voice and leant closer. ‘We think it belonged to Winton.’
‘Charles Winton?’ Winton the naturalist, one of the first to send Sir Joseph Banks detailed information about the platypus. One of the very men whose correspondence she’d requested from London. ‘How thrilling. Where did the sketchbook come from?’
‘The usual sort of thing. Been in Mrs Quinleaven’s possession for years and she’d never bothered to do anything about it.’ Mrs Williams gave a disdainful sniff as though incapable of believing anyone could be uninterested in such a legacy.
‘No. No relation as far as we know. A promise she made apparently. I’ve no idea how it came into her possession.’
‘I can go and have a look. If it’s authentic it would be a wonderful addition to the letters. As you know I’ve requested Winton’s correspondence in particular. I think that’s what’s in the parcel.’
‘The sketchbook will have to be appraised to certify its authenticity; perhaps the people at the Mitchell, although they have their work cut out preparing for the opening. I’d like you to check for signatures and dates, take a look at the paper type and construction, the illustrations, any clues to previous ownership. You know the sort of thing. And while you’re there you might enjoy exploring the area. I believe there have been sightings of the platypus in the local waterways although the exact location might be a bit difficult. A personal view would give you some insight into Winton’s letters. Take a couple of extra days. It will make the display all the more relevant.’
Tamsin pushed back her chair. ‘It would be an absolute pleasure, Mrs Williams.’ She almost bent down and kissed the woman’s peachy powdered cheek; instead she grasped her hand and squeezed it, inhaling her dusty scent of rosewater. ‘Thank you so much for thinking of me. When would you like me to leave?’
‘As soon as possible. Say tomorrow, and stay over the weekend, or longer if you need to. Make it a bit of a break. You could do with one. You’ve been looking a bit peaky lately. There’s a hotel in the nearby town, Wollombi—the Family Hotel, I think it’s called. They have rooms and it’s very respectable. I’ve looked up the train times. The Brisbane Express leaves from Central Station. You’ll be in Maitland in time for an early lunch then pick up the branch line to Cessnock. After that you’re on your own. It’s about eighteen miles to Wollombi. There’s a regular postal service every afternoon which takes passengers; if not there’s bound to be someone who can help if you ask at the station.’
‘I understand it’s very short notice. I wanted to give you first refusal. If you don’t feel comfortable Ernest and Harry are willing to go.’
Tamsin shot a look across the room at the two cataloguers trying to prove they weren’t hanging on Mrs Williams’s every word by pretending to be deep in conversation.
And then she remembered and her shoulders slumped. ‘There’s just one tiny hitch; it can be resolved with a telephone call. May I use the office?’ Not waiting for an answer Tamsin headed for the door barely managing to control her desire to dance across the room. If Mrs Williams got wind of the fact she was supposed to be attending a function at the Missionary Society, Ernest and Harry would be off on the weekend of their dreams and she’d be sipping tea and making polite conversation to a group of starchy matrons who wanted to reminisce about Mother and Father.
She closed the door of the office behind her and picked up the handpiece.
‘One-two-five please.’ She stared out of the window over the rooftops at the palm trees fringing the entrance to the Botanic Gardens.
‘This is Mrs Benson.’
Tamsin stood tall. ‘Tamsin Alleyn, Mrs Benson. I’m afraid I will be unable to attend the function for Mother and Father. Please accept my apologies.’
‘Surely not. We have several people looking forward to meeting you. They feel they owe your parents so much.’
Tamsin bit back a groan. ‘It’s inescapable. I’ve been asked to go and assess a new exhibit for the Library. It’s a great honour and if I refuse …’
‘Obviously far more important. You do realise this is a charity event.’
Tamsin rolled her eyes; no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for the society. Everyone presumed she’d follow in Mother and Father’s footsteps. She couldn’t do it. Their shoes were far too big and uncomfortable. ‘I’m terribly sorry. There really is nothing I can do about it.’
‘In that case I shall be forced to make your excuses.’
‘I’m sorry to let you down, perhaps we can organise another time.’ The receiver clattered into the cradle and she swallowed a whoop of excitement before belting back into the tearoom.
‘All sorted, Mrs Williams.’
Chairs scraped as the cataloguers threw her looks that would have frozen the Hunter River and left the room. Mrs Williams rubbed her hands together and opened a file sitting on the table in front of her. ‘I know you are familiar with the
story of Charles Winton.’
‘Absolutely. How does Mrs Quinleaven know the sketchbook belonged to him?’
‘Apparently, some of the works are signed and dated. It’s the dates we’re very much interested in. According to the very limited information Mrs Quinleaven provided, the drawings and notes predate the recognised timeline for the classification of the platypus. If that’s the case Winton should be credited for his discoveries.’
‘There’s so much conflicting evidence. It took scientists three attempts before they came up with the scientific name we use today. Although I have to admit I like “platypus”, from the original Platypus anatinus, even though they had to abandon it because it belonged to a beetle.’
‘That’s not like you. You’re usually a stickler for the correct terminology.’
Tamsin didn’t understand either. Platypus just felt right. ‘I didn’t think any of Winton’s sketchbooks and papers had survived. Wasn’t there a fire or something?’
‘You’re thinking of the Garden Palace fire, well before you were born. It decimated our collection and the few copies of his notebooks and drawings we held were lost, hence our desire to get hold of his correspondence. You’ve done a remarkable job, I might add.’
An undercurrent of anticipation swirled in the confined air of the tearoom, working its way into her blood, burning away the lethargy and inertia that had plagued her for so long. ‘I can’t wait.’ She wanted to go now. Now, this minute. ‘I’ll make sure the parcel contains the letters, and then collate them.’ What made her say that? Waiting until the morning would be hard enough never mind postponing the trip for another day.
Mrs Williams’s lips twitched. ‘Have a quick look to make sure there’s nothing relevant before you go. I suggest first thing tomorrow morning. It’s a tedious journey. I’d value your opinion on the sketchbook’s authenticity. There’s no point in going through with this if it turns out to be some upper-class hobbyist’s doodles.’
‘Surely Mrs Quinleaven would have checked that out before she made her offer.’
‘Yes well, time will tell. If you think it is worthwhile bring it back and we’ll get hold of someone in the Mitchell wing and ask their opinion. Ask all the questions you can think of and remember the Royal Society motto—Nullius in Verba.’
Take no one’s word for it.
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