- CHAPTER ONE
- CHAPTER TWO
- CHAPTER THREE
- CHAPTER FOUR
- CHAPTER FIVE
- CHAPTER SIX
- CHAPTER SEVEN
- CHAPTER EIGHT
- CHAPTER NINE
- CHAPTER TEN
- CHAPTER ELEVEN
- CHAPTER TWELVE
- CHAPTER THIRTEEN
- CHAPTER FOURTEEN
- CHAPTER FIFTEEN
- CHAPTER SIXTEEN
- CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
- CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
- CHAPTER NINETEEN
- CHAPTER TWENTY
- CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
- CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
- CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
- CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
- CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
- CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
- CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
- CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
- CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
- CHAPTER THIRTY
- CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
- CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
- CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
- CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
- CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
- CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
I would like to dedicate this book to the men in my life;
To my husband Peter, my strength and support, and sons Damien and Mark, my best productions to date.
And to my brother Peter Haran, a fellow author, who once casually suggested I should write a book.
And a special thank you to Michael Meller, the man who saw a glimmer of inspiration in my writing and got my career started.
Echuca – 1866
A shrill whistle announced the arrival of the train from Melbourne in the busy port of Echuca, on the Victorian side of the mighty River Murray. As a balloon of steam from the funnel drifted up and dispersed in the canopy of ancient river red-gums, the noise startled sulphur-crested cockatoos on the other side of the river, in New South Wales, and they fled their roost in the branches of Eastern Grey Box trees, screeching in protest.
The train platform was alongside the three tiered red-gum wharf, an ugly construction which spanned a quarter of mile long and stood more than twenty feet high. It was flourishing with activity, as burly wharfies, mostly a scarred breed of rum-swilling, knuckle fighting thugs, loaded wool, stores and machinery, and off loaded timber, tobacco, flour, tea, wines, spirits and wheat, from fifty or more paddle steamers congregated at the wharf. It was near knock-off time, four in the afternoon, so many of the wharfies had a desperateness about them, as they eyed the Star Hotel on the esplanade, the nearest of more than twenty such establishments in town.
Some of the steamers at the wharf-side were headed westwards, to the Murray/Darling junction at Wentworth, but the bales of wool in the freight cars on the back of the train and on drays that had come from inland stations, were destined for a trip to the Murray mouth, where they’d be loaded onto ships bound for the markets in London. Shearers also used the paddle-steamers to ferry them to the many stations that bordered the one thousand, six hundred and nine mile river, from its origins in the Snowy Mountains, to the mouth at Goolwa, where it emptied into the sea.
Joe and Mary Callaghan were passengers on the train. They had come to Echuca to take possession of a paddle-steamer they’d commissioned a year earlier. After making arrangements for their trunk to be unloaded from the train, and grabbing their suitcases, they were barely able to get through the throng of people on the busy station platform, as men began off-loading the freight in the rear carriages. It was Mary’s first visit to Echuca, but Joe had been in the town a year earlier to put down a deposit and talk over the plans for their paddle steamer, and a month ago when he’d come back to check last minute details with Ezra Pickering, the shipwright. After living on the goldfields, Mary wasn’t shocked by the rough or sleazy characters on the wharf, or the prostitutes plying their ‘wares’ on the esplanade. She’d seen it all in the last two years. She was looking forward to a different life, which included the tranquility of the river, sleeping in a real bed, and not waking each morning to the sound of digging and the grumbles of men with hangovers.
It had been raining on both the previous occasions that Joe had been in the port, but today, although there was a brisk breeze, the sun was glistening on the peaceful, green surface of the flowing river. With all his heart, he wanted to believe it was a good omen.
It was the most exciting day of Joe and Mary’s married lives, and the end of a two year nightmare, working on the Bendigo gold fields. For the first six months they’d lived in a small, patched tent, often ankle deep in mud, while they searched for alluvial gold amid a population often struck down with dysentery and fevers. When it seemed finding their fortune would take longer than expected, they’d built a bark hut with a wood slab floor, but still their daily existence had been torture, especially for Mary, who froze in the winter and wilted in the heat. She felt like her being revolved around three buckets. One contained drinking water; another was for washing themselves and their clothes, while the third was for relieving themselves. Every day, while Joe worked himself to near exhaustion, she kept the fire going and tended to those buckets, emptying and refilling until she thought she would go mad. If not for their objective, of owning a paddle steamer, they wouldn’t have lasted a few weeks on the gold fields.
Before moving to Bendigo to search for gold, Joe worked on the Melbourne wharves for three years, but he hated the politics and stand over tactics of the unions, so he took up a position with less pay at the nearby Governor Hindmarsh Hotel. After learning everything he could about the hotel business, he and Mary looked for a hotel to manage. They ended up in the Overland Corner Hotel on Cobdogla Station, near the riverside town of Barmera in South Australia. It wasn’t until the hotel was built, and became a staging post for the coach run between Adelaide and Wentworth, that Europeans came to the area. Joe was the second manager. The first, Bill Thomson, had been offered the position of managing a hotel in the city soon after his arrival, and as his wife had refused to live in ‘the bush’, he quickly took up the new post. Mary felt quite differently. The prospect of living in the country, near the river, excited her as much as it did Joe.
The Overland Corner hotel had been built from limestone mined in a nearby quarry in 1859. The walls were twenty inches thick, an ideal insulation against the dry summer heat, and the floors were made of red-gum. On the day the Callaghans arrived, nearly three hundred aboriginal women turned up to see Joe’s ‘white fella gin’. A white woman in the area was unknown at that time, but even so, Mary was quite bemused by all the attention. However, she quickly learned that being a minor celebrity had its drawbacks, especially when she couldn’t get her chores done because the aboriginal women constantly called her from the back door of the kitchen, wanting to touch her hair and feel her clothes. The site the hotel was built on had been used by aborigines for thousands of years. They’d camped there and built wurlies, surviving on the resources the river provided. When the Europeans came, the aboriginals began trading the good quality ochre they collected from the nearby cliffs. Mary found it useful for reddening the hotel fire places.
Even before Joe took over managing the Overland Corner Hotel, a huge pile of wood was maintained nearby to feed the hungry boilers of paddle-steamers passing by, and there was also a camping place for drovers, who could graze their cattle or sheep on the lush river flats before continuing on to Adelaide. Soon after being built, the hotel became a staging post for mail coaches on the run between Wentworth and South Australia. But it was the growing number of paddle-steamers on the river that convinced Joe that the river trade was going to boom, and he wanted to be part of it.
“The mighty Murray River will be the life-blood of this country,” he’d often said to Mary.
It was watching the passing paddle-steamers that gave Joe the idea of getting the money together to buy his own. He knew he’d be unable to achieve this by saving the small wage he received for managing the hotel, so he got it into his head that he and Mary would have to work the goldfields. It was a risky endeavor and a lot to ask of Mary, but after three years in the hotel, she’d had enough of drunken drovers and shearers. But life on the goldfields proved to be a hell of a lot worse, with robberies, vicious fights and even murders taking place. The nightly ritual of soldiers rounding up and beating the drunken, brawling men on the fields often left her quaking, and praying for a miracle.
After a year, Mary couldn’t take anymore and threatened to leave Joe on the fields. As luck would have it, that very day he struck pay-dirt, a nice sized nugget which enabled them to commission the building of their paddle-steamer. It took almost a year to complete, although it felt like ten, and it wasn’t large or grand, but it would be the first real home they’d had since marrying in 1851, and setting sail on the Fair Lady for a better life in Australia.
After fifteen years of marriage, the Callaghans had long ago given up hope of having a family, since God hadn’t blessed their union with a child, but Joe had researched the possibility of making a decent living by ferrying logs from the forests near Barmah to the ship building yards and saw mills in growing towns along the river. He had been born in County Donegal, Ireland, like his father and mother, but his family had moved to England when he was only two, so he’d spent his early years on the River Thames, where his father had been a barge master until his death from pneumonia in 1848. As soon as Joe was old enough, he joined the merchant marines, which satisfied his love of boats. After getting his master’s ticket, he came back to England, where he met Mary. After marrying, they headed for Australia, but Joe always had it in mind that he wanted to be around boats. He didn’t want to go to sea again, as that meant being separated for long periods of time from Mary, but he was drawn to the river. So in a sense, he felt like he was coming ‘home’, the only place where his heart and soul would be happy.
Joe and Mary booked into the Bridge Hotel for the night, which was only a stone-throw from the station and owned by Silas Hepburn, the founder of Echuca and a powerful man in the town. Joe had been told Mr. Hepburn owned many of the businesses on High Street, and large chunks of land around the town, so he was looking forward to meeting such a successful, industrious man. Mary thought a room in such an up-market hotel was a luxury they couldn’t afford, especially when she learned it would cost them five pounds, which was three times the going rate of rooming houses. But Joe insisted she deserved a treat, a night of comfort after enduring living in a tent and cramped hut for two years.
The Bridge Hotel overlooked the square, where drays queued to cross the Murray on the pontoon, also owned by Hepburn. It was a two-storey affair, built of wine-red bricks, with white pointing and a white washed veranda and upper balcony, supported on wooden columns. Single storey wings curved around to High Street and the esplanade. Prospective customers were sized up when they came into the hotel and given rooms accordingly. Drovers were directed to the tap room, where they could have a merry time, while holidaymakers were given a quiet apartment with a sumptuous meal. Anyone on a budget was given a back room, where they could ask for a meal at the kitchen door. Joe wanted to give Mary the comfort of a private apartment, but she insisted a room with a comfortable bed was good enough. She did, however, concede to her husband when it came to having a nice meal in the dining room.
As Joe and Mary dined that evening, Silas Hepburn and his wife, Brontë, made their acquaintance. Brontë was cheerful and seemingly willing to give any assistance she could, but it was obvious from the minute he opened his mouth, that Silas Hepburn was arrogant, and a self-styled monopolist, who had no hesitancy in trumpeting his own success. Joe quickly got the impression that Silas was checking him out to see that he wasn’t going to set up a business that would run in direct opposition to any of his own. When Joe said he was the owner/operator of a new paddle-steamer, Silas wished him well and made him a coveted offer of assistance in the way of a ‘loan’ if the need should arise. This, Joe found odd, and he immediately became suspicious. He’d always disliked ‘money lenders’. In his mind they were akin to ‘bottom feeders’ in the pond of life.
When Joe was last in town, a month ago, he had hired a man called Ned Gilford, and arranged to meet him in the hotel the night he and Mary arrived. Mary would be the first to admit that Joe was in the habit of helping others down on their luck. It wasn’t that he was naïve; he just sympathized with anyone in a tough spot. So she was not surprised when Joe told her about Ned and how he came to be hired as their crewman.
Since he was inexperienced in river-trading, Joe had every intention of hiring a crewman with knowledge of the river, trading, and paddle-steamers. He had been heading for the wharf, to put the word out that he was looking for someone capable, when he saw a group of men jeering a man who was trying to lift the front of a fully laden bullock dray. Ned looked to be on the wrong side of fifty, but fit for his age. Even so, he was almost busting his guts to lift the front dray wheels off the ground. At first Joe thought he might have been drunk and showing off, but it didn’t take him long to realize that Ned wanted to impress his audience, who were mostly mocking his efforts. When Joe took a closer look he could see that Ned was trying to prove his strength, and thought his actions were desperate, and sad. Before he did himself any harm, Joe stepped up and asked him if he would work for him. The relief and gratitude in his features almost broke Joe’s heart, but he pretended to be delighted to have found a crew member. Ned was just disappointed that he couldn’t start immediately, but they made a date to meet.
Ned Gilford did not appear that night, and had left no message with Mrs. Hepburn, who oversaw the running of the domestic side of the hotel. Joe was disappointed, as he had truly believed Ned wouldn’t let him down.
“Perhaps he’s delayed for some reason,” he said to Mary the next morning, when she returned from buying supplies, which included the basics for the food larder and new linen and crockery, and Ned still hadn’t turned up.
“Perhaps he’s had a better offer,” Mary said.
“Well, we can’t wait any longer,” Joe said. They couldn’t afford to stay another night in the hotel, because they soon discovered that it wasn’t just the room that was expensive, everything in Echuca was three times the price it had been on the goldfields. Nevertheless, Joe left a message with Brontë Hepburn. If Ned turned up, he was to meet them on the banks of the river near the shipbuilding yards.
Joe and Mary hired a driver and carriage to take them to the shipbuilding yards with their trunk, suitcases and supplies. As they made their way along the banks of the river, admiring all sizes and shapes of paddle-steamers, they passed a punt, which their driver told them was Hepburn’s punt. Hundreds of sheep were crammed onto the punt, crossing from New South Wales to Victoria.
“They’re heading for the slaughter yards on the goldfields, where they’ll feed the hungry miners,” their driver said.
“How much does Mr. Hepburn charge the drovers to use the punt?” Joe asked.
“He negotiates a fee for the sheep, depending on the numbers, but for cattle he charges between threepence and sixpence per head, and sixpence for a horse.”
“It would be cheaper to swim them across,” Joe said, outraged at the blatant extortion.
“If they swim, he charges one penny per head for the use of experienced punts-men to guide them over. The punts-men claim to know the currents and where the snags are, and they’ve got some gruesome stories to tell if the stockmen need convincing. The stockmen know they’re being conned, but they can’t afford to take chances.”
Joe was beginning to think Mr. Hepburn was a very shrewd businessman, and told their driver so.
“He’s done all right for a ticket-of-leave prisoner from Port Arthur,” the driver said, and laughed at the look of surprise on Joe and Mary’s faces.
As soon as Joe saw the paddle steamer docked near the shipping yard, he cried, “There she is!” She was by no means the biggest paddle steamer on the river, but she stood out because her paddle boxes were wide, louvered and curved at the top, an idea he and Ezra had come up with when drawing the plans.
“Are you sure that’s it?” Mary asked.
Joe’s smile broadened.
Mary found her husband’s excitement infectious. “I can’t wait to go aboard.”
Joe quickly unloaded their trunk and supplies from the carriage and the driver went on his way.
Leaving their things on the riverbank, and taking his wife’s arm, he said, “Let’s go and inspect our new home.” He had been looking forward to this day for a long, long time. It was overcast and threatening to rain, but not even a torrential downpour could dampen his spirits.
Mary stopped. “Can we?” she said uncertainly. “Should we get permission first?”
Joe laughed. Although Mary spoke her mind in a common Cockney accent, she’d always been a bit reticent when it came to authoritive figures, and living on the goldfields amongst arrogant troupers hadn’t helped. He knew it would take time for the experiences of the past two years to pass, and her confidence to build.
Mary was a little on the plump side, but small enough to fit neatly under the crook of Joe’s arm, where he could protect her. Her hair was curly and brown and always worn tied back with a ribbon. Her face was quite ordinary, but he’d fallen in love with the warmth in her eyes, and her gentle smile, which always brightened his day.
“We don’t need permission to go aboard, Mary. She’s ours,” Joe said.
When they got to the companionway, Ezra Pickering appeared with a note book and pen in his hand. He was a quiet, conscientious man, with an undeniable passion for boats, like Joe. He’d earlier told Joe that he built his first steamer from scraps of wood and iron from a dismantled dray, and Joe had quickly become impressed with his attention to detail and the obvious pride he took in his work. The boats were built on the bank of the river where a gentle slope to the water’s edge provided the ‘slipway’. Ezra had been checking that his laborers had done all the last minute jobs he’d set them. He was not a man who left anything to chance.
“Good morning, Joe,” he said. “Please come aboard.” He took Joe’s outstretched hand and greeted Mary.
Once aboard, Joe turned to his wife. “Welcome aboard The Marylou, darling.”
Mary gasped and looked at her husband with wide eyes. “You named our boat … the Marylou!”
“That’s right, after my Mary Louise.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “Come and take a look for yourself.” He took her up to the bow and turned her to face the wheelhouse. He pulled a rope attached to a piece of muslin below the wheelhouse window, and it fell away. Written in bold letters underneath the window was P.S. Marylou.
Tears sprang to Mary’s eyes. “Oh, Joe! You are full of surprises.”
Ezra Pickering came up behind them. “Let me tell you a little about the P.S. Marylou,” he said proudly. “She can carry fifty eight tones of cargo. She’s seventy six feet in length and seventeen feet across the beam. Her draught is two feet four inches …”
“What does that mean?” Mary said.
“She can float in as little as twenty eight inches of water, because she has a flat bottom,” Joe said.
“Oh.” Mary was startled. She’d always been afraid of very deep water, and like most of the ‘newcomers’ in Australia, unable to swim, but Joe had promised he’d teach her. “Are some parts of the river that shallow?” she asked Ezra.
“Yes. There are sand bars, clay banks, and snags to think about. And most summers the river runs dry in sections,” Ezra said, “but I’ve left charts in the wheelhouse.” He looked at Joe earnestly. “I suggest you study them … thoroughly. But as we discussed before, if you do get into trouble, the boat has steam powered winches.” He turned to show Mary the three cabins, but the engine house, set down in the middle of the boat and surrounded by a banister, caught her attention. She noted the name on the side of the engine. Marshall @ Sons, Gainsborough, England.
“Look, Joe, the engine was made in England,” Mary said.
“That’s a thirty six horsepower steam engine,” Ezra boasted. “It arrived here only two months ago. There’s a ton of wood on the bank, which is all you’ll need to get started, but you’ll want help to chop and load it. You have hired a crewman, haven’t you?”
Joe frowned as he glanced anxiously at his wife. “Yes, he should be meeting us here.” “Good,” Ezra said. “It will take several hours to build up enough steam to take off. I suggest you go down river today, to the Campaspe Junction, and then come back. Then if you have any problems or questions, we can discuss them.”
Joe glanced at his watch again. It was still early, but if Ned didn’t turn up, he’d need to find another crewman, fast.
The Callaghans were looking at the cabins when Ezra called out that there was someone asking for Joe on the river bank.
“It must be your crewman,” he said.
Joe and Mary went to the companionway, where they could see a man standing on the bank.
“Who is that?” Mary said. She thought he couldn’t possibly be their crewman. He looked much older than she’d been expecting.
“It’s Ned … Ned Gilford,” Joe said. He also thought Ned looked older than he remembered, but he recalled how grateful he’d been to be offered work. He had been so grateful, in fact, that Joe would have been bewildered had he not shown up at all.
Mary caught the relief in her husband’s tone, but the doubts in her own mind wouldn’t be quieted. Joe needed someone strong and capable. The one time she thought he should have used his head, instead of his heart, was when hiring a crewman.
Ned was standing at the far end of the companionway, with his hat in his hand. As Joe went towards him, he noticed his face was flushed and perspiring. He wondered where he had come from, and if he’d walked to the ship building yards, carrying his large swag.
“Mr. Callaghan,” Ned gasped. “I’m sorry I’m late. I had a couple of days work in the Barmah forest, and … I needed the money. I’m sorry I couldn’t get away sooner …”
Joe wasn’t angry because he was too pleased to see him. “Yer here now, Ned,” he said. “Welcome aboard the P.S. Marylou.”
Joe introduced Ned to his wife and Ezra Pickering.
“I take it you’re experienced with steam engines, Mr. Gilford?” Ezra said.
Ned looked at Joe, and flushed. He twirled his hat in his hands nervously. Even Mary felt sorry for him.
“I … well no … I do a bit of everything … usually cutting wood, but … I’m a quick learner…” Ned paled and Joe thought he was going to faint.
Ezra’s bushy brows knitted together, taking on the appearance of a hairy caterpillar over his deep-set eyes. He looked at Joe over his bifocals. “You should have hired someone experienced with steam engines, Mr. Callaghan.”
“I’ve never sailed on a river, so I have a lot to learn, like Ned, but we’ll learn together,” Joe said defensively. “We’ll take a few days to familiarize ourselves with the boat and the river.” Joe glanced at Ned, who looked totally bewildered. “Ned’s strong, so we’ll soon have the wood aboard. Right, Ned?”
Ned couldn’t believe his ears. After Ezra had pointed out the fact that Joe had made a mistake in hiring him, he expected to be told the position was no longer his. “Yes … yes … sir,” he mumbled.
Ezra addressed Joe. “I know it’s been a while since you were at sea, so I’ll have one of my men give you some basic instruction with the engine controls and pumps … once you’ve got the wood aboard, just to familiarize you … and your … crewman … with the Marylou. It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Callaghan. Good luck in the future.” He glanced at Ned again, as if Joe was going to need all the luck he could get. The two men shook hands.
“You’ve done a fine job with the Marylou, Mr. Pickering,” Joe said. “A mighty fine job!” He loved the smell of new wood and varnish and he was reveling in the feel of a deck beneath his feet again.
Last time Joe had been in town, the Marylou had been on the river bank. He’d inspected her thoroughly, and discussed the finishing details with Ezra, which amounted to some painting, oiling and the fitting of some engine parts. He was proud indeed to own such a fine vessel. In fact, apart from the day he’d married Mary, it was the proudest day of his life.
“I’m pleased you’re a satisfied customer,” Ezra said. When Ned and Joe went onto the bank to attack the wood pile, he turned to Mary. “Why don’t I show you the galley?”
“On boats, the kitchen is usually called a galley, but you call it what you like, Mrs. Callaghan,” Ezra said smiling.
Mary beamed at the thought of having her own brand new kitchen. She had her pots and utensils in their trunk. After two years of panning tailings, she was also looking forward to having hands that didn’t look like she made clay bricks for a living.
Following Ezra Pickering to the galley, Mary was unexpectedly overcome with a sense of calmness. Given their circumstances, it was slightly absurd. The boat had taken every penny they’d earned, and they really didn’t know what they were doing, but nonetheless, she had a good feeling about the future because they had a home to call their own, a permanent roof over their heads. She had no idea of the cost of wood for the boiler, or the expense of keeping the boat in prime condition. Her thoughts were more basic. She believed they could live on fish from the river for the rest of their lives, if they had to.
Joe noticed that Ned was limping slightly as they went down the companionway. “Are you all right, Ned?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m fine, Mr. Callaghan.”
Joe thought his voice held a hint of strain. In fact, he thought Ned looked unwell. “Call me Joe, Ned. We’re going to be living and working closely, so there’s no need for formality.”
Ned nodded, but he thought Joe’s tone held a hint of regret. He tried to tell himself it was his imagination, but it didn’t work.
Ned kept his gaze downcast, as if avoiding Joe, who did experience his first pangs of uncertainty. He wondered if he hadn’t been too hasty in hiring him. After all, Ned was a complete stranger. He thought of the men he’d met on the goldfields. A lot of them had dubious pasts, and it dawned on him, that Ned could too. Not only that, he knew he could well have used someone with experience, and not just with the steam engine. It would have helped to have a man on board who knew something about river trading. For a fleeting moment he considered the idea of hiring an extra hand, but that idea soon fell flat. He couldn’t afford it. And he certainly couldn’t tell Ned he’d changed his mind about hiring him. The two of them would just have to do the best they could, and learn the ropes fast.
“Please tell Mary that I’ll sleep on the riverbank,” Ned said. “I’ve got my own swag and I’m quite happy camping. It wouldn’t feel right to crowd you and your wife.”
Joe looked at him blankly. He wanted to offer him a cabin, but he thought it wise to find out how Mary felt first.
Joe didn’t have to say anything, because Ned understood. “I’m real grateful for this job, Joe,” he said. He shuffled uncomfortably and seemed to favour one leg. “Getting work at my age isn’t easy, but I am strong … and I keep fit. I won’t ever let you down. If it makes you feel any better, you can give me a month’s trial.”
Joe’s uneasiness diminished. Whatever Ned was about, he deserved a fair go.
“I hired you outright, Ned, and I’m a man of my word.” Even so, Joe sensed there was something Ned was holding back. “Every man deserves a chance,” he added. “I want to make a real go of this venture. I want to give Mary the life she deserves. That’s what’s important to me. Can you understand that, Ned?”
Ned nodded. “I swear you won’t be sorry for hiring me, Joe.”
Joe nodded and studied his perspiring features. “Did you walk here, Ned?”
“Not from Barmah, that’s just over forty miles away. I got a lift on a steamer to Moama, and then crossed the river on Hepburn’s punt … with a flock of sheep.”
“We passed the punt,” Joe said.
“I saw the carriage on the river bank, and recognized you,” Ned said. “So I guessed you were heading for the ship building yard.” Ned was grateful that Joe hadn’t hired someone else.
“So you walked from the punt?” Joe said. “That’s at least a mile from here.”
Ned nodded. His stomach was growling, but the pain in his foot bothered him the most. The walk had felt like ten miles and his foot felt like it was going to explode from his boot.
“Would you like a drink before we start?”
Ned removed his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. “I’m fine. The sun has a sting in it this morning,” he said, wiping perspiration from his brow as he began swinging the axe.
Joe didn’t think it was especially warm, and was sure there was something wrong with Ned, but he didn’t press the matter. He wanted everything to go right.
Taking off his own jacket, he said, “I’ll get our trunk and the stores aboard for Mary, so she can begin settling in. Then I’ll give you a hand.”
Joe was exhilarated, when, at dusk, he pulled the P.S. Marylou alongside the bank at a place marked as Boora Boora on his charts. He hadn’t wanted to stop or turn back when they reached the junction where the Murray met the Campaspe River, so called to the captain of a paddle-steamer going in the other direction to let Ezra Pickering know that they’d gone on, just in case he thought they had gotten into trouble.
After Ned had tied the steamer to a couple of trees on the bank, he shut down the engine. The afternoon hadn’t gone entirely smoothly, although they had miraculously avoided any serious mishaps. Joe had been in the wheelhouse operating the engine controls and steering the boat, while Ned was down in the engine room, making sure the engine was stoked and had enough steam. There were shouts of confusion when Ned wasn’t sure whether they were supposed to be going forwards or backwards, as Joe practiced different maneuvers, like turning the boat around, especially as he often got mixed up with the control levers. At the same time, he was constantly studying the charts to avoid snags, sand bars, and overhanging trees, which were marked, while keeping to the right side of the river. He also had to remember to signal with one, two or three blasts on the horn when he was changing direction or approaching a blind bend in the river. It wasn’t surprising that he almost ran them aground twice, but by days end, Joe felt he was getting the feel of the Marylou, and the steam engine wasn’t the complete mystery it had been to Ned that morning.
They had stopped not too far from where there was a wood pile marked on the map. Buying wood was usually done on an honour system. The wood was cut and left on the bank by the nearest landowner, so when a paddle-steamer stopped for fuel, and no one was in attendance, the money was left behind. They had traveled at a slow pace, with Joe doing his level best to keep out of the way of traffic, but the steam engine’s boiler seemed to consume wood at an alarming rate. Although Ned was astounded by how quickly a ton of wood disappeared, it didn’t come as a total surprise to Joe, as he had spent considerable time on steam powered ships in the Merchant Marines.
At lunch time, Mary had given Joe and Ned bread and cheese, and mugs of tea, and she planned to do the same in the evening, as that was all she had. But as soon as they stopped, Ned took his swag ashore and set up camp. He had been quiet most of the day, and to Mary’s way of thinking, rather surly, so she didn’t ask him to stay aboard. But a short time later, the smell of cooking fish tantalized the air.
Mary and Joe came out on deck to see where the smell was coming from.
“Would you like some Murray Cod for supper?” Ned called. “There’s too much for me here.” He lifted a rather large pan that was still not big enough to hold the fish that was overhanging the sides, and they could tell it was heavy because he was using two hands.
“Saint’s preserve us,” Joe exclaimed. “Did you just catch that whopper?”
“Aye, on a hand line,” Ned called. “A long time ago some aboriginals showed me a few tricks, and I can truthfully say I’ve not gone hungry since.”
“Can you show Joe how it’s done?” Mary said excitedly.
“Of course. I’ll bring it aboard when it’s cooked.”
Night was falling quickly. Gripping the railing, Mary glanced at the water. Without the sun glistening on its surface, it looked gloomy and frightening but she supposed she’d get used to it. She could hear crickets in the reeds at the water’s edge and a silvery moon was rising in the inky sky. The glow of Ned’s fire illuminated his small campsite, but behind him, the trees formed a wall of impenetrable darkness. On board, Joe was lighting oil lanterns.
“Oh, Joe,” Mary said. “It’s so peaceful here.” She was so thankful to be away from the bedlam of the goldfields, where she’d always dreaded the nights. It was only dreaming of their future life aboard their boat, and the serenity of the river, that had kept her going.
Joe put his arms around her waist. “It is peaceful, isn’t it?” He was slightly distracted, as he watched Ned on the river bank. He was walking towards the boat with the pan of fish. Even in the light from his campfire, Joe could see that his limp was more pronounced than it had been earlier and he wondered if he had an old injury that bothered him when he was tired.
During the meal, Ned was quiet, but the Callaghans tried to draw him into conversation, with moderate success. Mary told him that she and Joe had been married fifteen years, and that they had no children, and that the P.S. Marylou was their first real home. She asked Ned about himself, but he seemed reluctant to give much information away, so she resorted to questions to learn that he had never been married, and since arriving in Australia from Cornwall, he’d traveled from Port Phillip Bay to the tip of Cape York, without ever putting down roots. He’d apparently done all sorts of jobs, from snake catching to baling wool, and he almost smiled when he admitted he’d once been given the job of picking fleas off a station owner’s dogs. He said it was one of the many ‘low’ points in his life. Joe and Mary got the feeling there had been many.
The Callaghans were curious about whether Ned had ever been a guest of the crown, a parolee, as more than half of Australia’s population had been convicts, especially when he didn’t say which ship he’d traveled on, or when, but they didn’t like to ask outright.
“Boora Boora is a funny name, Ned. Do you know what it means?” Mary asked when they’d finished eating the succulent fish and mopped up the juices with some bread.
“A few years ago I worked on a nearby station with an aboriginal roustabout who was from the local Yortta-Yortta clan, and he once showed me a Boora ring. Come to think of it, it could have been around here, but I didn’t get too close because he said it was where his people performed ceremonies, so it’s likely Boora Boora is a sacred aboriginal site.”
“What kinds of ceremonies were performed in the Boora ring?” Mary asked, her imagination running to all sorts of horrible things, like animals being sacrificed or … God forbid, humans.
“To be honest,” Ned said. “I didn’t want to know then … and I haven’t changed my mind. I believe it’s best to keep away from that kind of thing.”
Mary looked at Joe. “Maybe we shouldn’t have stopped here.”
“We’re not interfering with anyone,” Joe said.
“Don’t worry, Mary. We’ll be all right,” Ned added wearily. He rubbed his leg. “I’m ready to hit the swag.”
In the lamp light, Mary and Joe could see Ned’s features were strained and ashen. He also had a fine film of perspiration on his forehead. They were both becoming worried, but knew he’d deny being ill if they suggested it.
Mary glanced at the dark riverbank fearfully, not the least bit comforted by Ned’s bland reassurance or her husband’s lack of concern about stopping near a ceremonial aboriginal site.
“We’ll get an early start in the morning,” Joe said. “Thanks for the fish, Ned. It was delicious.”
“It was indeed,” Mary said, “and I still can’t believe how big it was.”
“They say there’s cod in the Murray that’s as big as a man,” Ned said, struggling to get to his feet.
Mary noticed his features crumpled in pain. “Are you all right, Ned?”
“Yes,” he mumbled. “I just got a bit of a cramp in my foot. Goodnight.”
“Why don’t you sleep in a cabin, Ned?” Mary suggested as he turned to go. She knew she’d worry about him on the bank, alone, especially as he seemed unwell. “There’s two empty, so it doesn’t make any sense that you sleep on the riverbank. You don’t know who’s about.” She glanced into the darkness of the trees again, and shuddered.
“I’ll be fine, Mary,” Ned said. “I’m used to sleeping under the stars.”
“But it looks like rain tonight,” Joe added, his matter-of-fact tone not masking his concern.
“If it rains, I’ll come aboard and throw my swag on the deck, undercover.”
Mary and Joe followed him, and stood at the railing while he leapt from the boat to the bank. He tried to muffle the pain it caused him, but Joe and Mary heard him cry out as he landed on his feet, and watched him hobble to his campsite. They looked at each other in confusion, but neither knew what to say or think. The weariness of such a long day had suddenly caught up with them.
Ned covered himself with a blanket as he lay down beside his dying fire. His foot was giving him Hell but he knew if he took his boot off, he’d never get it back on again. An hour later, he still couldn’t sleep. The pain was getting worse, and he was also cold because his fire had died. Even so, he didn’t have the energy or the inclination to look for wood.
Another hour passed, and the pain had become almost unbearable. Ned sat up and massaged his leg. He was dying to remove his boot, but all he could think of was the next morning, when Joe would be expecting him to chop and load wood on the boat. He knew he’d never get his boot on again, and how could he tell Joe what had happened and expect to keep his job?
Suddenly Ned heard a noise, - a rustling in the reeds behind him, and a muffled cry. Nearby, a small creek joined the Murray, and the noise seemed to have come from that direction. Keeping still, Ned listened. He was thinking it could have been ducks in the reeds, where they nested, but that wouldn’t explain the accompanying muffled cry, which had sounded human. After a few moments, when all was quiet, he went back to rubbing his leg. Then he heard the muffled noise again. This time it sounded like an anguished cry.
“I know I’m not imaging things,” Ned whispered. Nevertheless, he begrudged the intrusion. Grumbling, he struggled to his feet, and hobbled to the water’s edge. The silver glow of the moon cast a path of light across the surface of the river, but in the dark shadows, under some overhanging trees near where the creek flowed into the river, Ned thought he saw movement. It was just a shadowy outline, but he watched and listened. He was now sure what he heard had been the anguished cries of a woman and thought it must be an aboriginal. Then he heard a noise, not a splash, but a movement across the surface of the water. As he stared into the darkness, he was sure something had been pushed out from the river bank. It was a bulky shape, not very large, - but too small to be a boat.
Ned watched entranced as the object moved nearer to the path of light that the moonlight made on the water’s surface. When it reached the light, he could see it was a small bathtub, with what appeared to be light coloured material draped over the top, its edges dragging in the water. Now Ned was really confused. An aboriginal was unlikely to be in the possession of a child’s bathtub.
As Ned watched the small tub drifting in the water, he didn’t know what to think or what to do. Then his mouth dropped open in horror when he heard a baby cry. He glanced back to where the shape of someone had been under the trees, but whoever had been there, had gone. It crossed his mind that the baby in the tub had been set adrift for a reason, but what reason? It was madness.
Knowing he must do something, Ned reacted instinctively. Ignoring the pain in his foot, he hobbled towards the P.S. Marylou and scrambled aboard, calling Joe. He was leaning over the side of the boat when he and Mary appeared.
“Get a lantern,” Ned shouted. “There’s something in the river. It looks like a tub … and I think there’s a baby in it.”
Joe and Mary looked at each other, their sleepiness replaced by shock.
“Hurry!” Ned said.
Ned sounded frantic, so Joe quickly lit a lantern and went to his side. Mary was already there, peering out into the darkness beside Ned. For a few moments Ned couldn’t find the small tub, as it had left the path of light made by the moon, and his heart sank, wondering if it had already overturned.
“How could a tub … with a baby in it, get into the river, Ned?” Mary said. She was wondering whether Ned had been dreaming.
“I thought … I heard a woman …”
Mary interrupted. “A woman!”
“It was too dark to see her, but she was making sounds … like she was in pain. I then heard something in the water, like a boat being pushed from the bank … only it wasn’t a boat, it was a small tub. I saw it drift into the moonlight on the river. I didn’t know what to think … until I heard … a baby cry.” Ned realized his story sounded far fetched, and he began to wonder if he’d imagined hearing a baby cry. It did seem incredible that someone would set a baby adrift on the river.
“Are you sure it wasn’t an animal, Ned?”
“I know what an animal sounds like,” he snapped. He knew he wasn’t making much sense, but he didn’t like the idea of Joe and Mary thinking he’d lost his mind.
Joe and his wife glanced at each other, neither sure they believed Ned.
Then the silence was broken by the frail cry of a baby. They all turned to look at the river again.
“Oh, God,” Mary gasped, with her hand to her mouth. “There is a baby … out there.”
Joe held the lantern up, and it cast a wide circle of pale light on the river. The three watched in horror as the tub containing the baby drifted silently past the boat, carried by the current of the river. They felt helpless, as it was too far away to be reached with a pole.
When the baby cried again, Mary panicked. “We must do something,” she said turning to Joe. “The poor child will perish if the tub overturns.”
Before Mary or Joe knew what was happening, Ned shed his jacket, and awkwardly threw himself over the rail.
Joe instinctively went to stop him, but Ned plunged into the murky depths of the river, disappearing below the surface.
Mary glanced down at the deck. “He’s still got his boots on, Joe,” she cried. “He’ll drown.”
Joe held the lantern aloft again, and he and Mary watched in shock as Ned surfaced and began swimming towards the middle of the river to follow the small bathtub, which was quickly being swallowed by the darkness.
Joe called out to Ned, but all he and Mary could hear was the splashing of Ned’s arms and legs as he went after the tub.
A few agonizing moments later, Ned called, “I’ve … got … it.” His voice was faint as he was already a considerable distance from the Marylou.
“He’ll never make it back here against the current,” Joe said to Mary. “Not with his boots on.”
“They’ll both drown,” Mary cried. “What can we do, Joe?” Mary couldn’t believe their first night aboard their boat had turned so disastrous. It was a nightmare.
“I’ll get a rope,” Joe said, his tone strained with anxiety as he slipped his boots on. Taking the rope and lantern, he jumped onto the riverbank and started running downstream, calling for Ned to try to make it to the nearest bank. Joe knew Ned’s clothes and boots would be weighing him down, and in his heart, he gave him … and the baby … little chance of surviving.
Joe soon caught up with Ned. In the darkness, he could just make out the shape of his head and the bathtub drifting slowly. He realized Ned was trying to get to the bank where a tree had fallen, its branches reaching out to him like rescuing hands. His progress was slow, and Joe was sure that his head bobbed under the water more than once.
Somehow Ned made it to the spindly tip of the nearest branch, but it snapped when he grabbed it. At the same time, Joe waded into the shallows and threw the rope out, but the current carried it away before Ned reached it. Pulling the rope in again, Joe quickly coiled it and tied one end around the fallen tree trunk. Holding onto the rope, he waded into the river up to his waist and threw the coiled end of the rope out to Ned again. Miraculously, it landed near him. In the darkness, Joe couldn’t tell whether Ned grabbed it, because he went under again.
Mary had followed Joe with a blanket in her arms. She stopped on the riverbank beside the lantern that Joe had put down and watched in horror as the tub tilted. “Pull him in, Joe,” she called, terrified that Ned and the baby would be lost in the dark, murky waters of the river.
Feeling Ned’s weight on the rope, Joe pulled with all his might and the tub inched closer. In the agonizing seconds that passed, Ned’s head did not appear, but Joe could see his hand protruding from the water, holding the side of the tub. How he didn’t pull the tub under, Joe would never know, but he went out farther, until the water was under his arm pits, holding onto the fallen tree branches and the rope, until finally he saw the top of Ned’s head and was able to grasp him by the scruff of his neck.
Mary’s heart was thudding wildly, but tears of relief rolled down her cheeks as Joe pulled Ned and the small bath tub to the safety of the riverbank.
On the riverbank, Mary threw the blanket around Ned and picked up the small bathtub containing the baby. Joe helped Ned to his feet, putting his weight under his shoulder to support him. He was weak and had swallowed his fair share of the river, but somehow Joe managed to get him back to the P.S. Marylou. Once they were all aboard, Mary lifted the baby out of the tub and held it near the lamp, and gently unwound the shawl it was wrapped in. They all fully expected to see an aboriginal child, but gasped in shock when the baby was quite obviously white. It was a tiny girl, only hours old. Her umbilical cord had been crudely tied with a piece of string and she was still covered in the sticky remains of the afterbirth.
“Poor little mite,” Mary said, her eyes filling with tears as the baby’s chin wobbled. Mary quickly wrapped her again, and held her protectively close to keep her warm. “How could any mother set her baby adrift on the river?”
“I’ll see if I can find her mother,” Joe said, lighting another lantern. “Maybe she’s in some kind of trouble.” He was thinking that perhaps she’d been involved in one of the aborigine’s sacred ceremonies.
“Are you all right, Ned?” Mary asked when Joe had gone. “What were you thinking, leaping into the river with your boots on? It’s a miracle you didn’t drown, you and this little one.”
“I didn’t stop to think. I had to take a chance, Mary. If I didn’t do something, this precious little girl would have surely drowned, or at the very least drifted for days and died of dehydration.”
“Well, she certainly owes you her life, but we’ll have to get her some milk. I don’t know whether you were brave … or foolish, but you must have had an angel watching over you, or you would never have made it back to the riverbank.”
“I don’t know about an angel, but I wouldn’t have made it without Joe.”
Mary suddenly noticed watery blood seeping from one of Ned’s boots. “You’re hurt, Ned.”
Ned followed the line of her gaze, and paled. “No … I’ll be fine. I swallowed a bit of water, but it won’t kill me.” He pulled his foot back and tried to hide it.
“Take your boot off, Ned. I want to see where that blood is coming from.”
“It’s nothing, Mary, honestly. I probably scratched my leg.”
Not for the first time, Mary sensed Ned was hiding something. “There’s too much blood for it to be coming from a scratch. Now take that boot off, Ned,” she said in a tone that broached no argument.
Ned sagged, not an ounce of fight left in him. The pain in his foot was worse than ever, so he knew he really had no choice but to remove his boot. It would cost him his job, but it had to be done.
Pulling the boot off slowly, Ned cried out in pain as his flesh felt like it was coming with it. When it was finally off, the relief of pressure was blissful, but even he was shocked by the sight of his sock. It was sodden with blood. When he peeled the sock off, it was Mary who got the shock of her life.
“Oh, Ned …” The top of his foot, right down to his toes, had a deep gash. “How on earth did you do that?” It was obvious it couldn’t have happened while he was in the river.
“I was swinging an axe when the handle broke and the head flew off. It went straight through my boot. I’m lucky not to have broken any bones.”
“Indeed, but you are fortunate to still have your toes. When … did it happen?”
“The morning of the day I was due to meet you and Joe. A man I was working with gave me this old pair of boots. Squeezing this foot into one took ages. That’s why I was late getting here.”
Mary now understood why Ned hadn’t taken his boots off to sleep. “You must have been in agony today, Ned.”
Ned barely nodded.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I know I was lucky to get this job. At my age, finding work isn’t easy.”
“You can’t wear a boot for at least a few days, Ned. Your foot could go gangrene if it gets infected.”
Ned’s features fell in disappointment. “I can’t work without a boot on, Mary.”
“Work! You can’t work, Ned.” Mary looked into his blue eyes and knew what he was thinking. “Joe’s a good mate to have when the chips are down, Ned.”
Before Ned could reply, Joe appeared.
“I couldn’t see anyone, but I did find shoe prints in the soft mud at the water’s edge, near where a creek leads into the Murray. They were too small to belong to a man, and the aboriginals don’t wear shoes, so there’s little doubt they belong to a white woman.” Joe looked embarrassed. “There was also … evidence … that she’d just given birth …” He suddenly noticed Ned’s foot. “For the love of Christ. That’s a terrible cut, Ned.”
When Ned didn’t say anything, Mary told Joe what had happened. “An axe handle broke and the axe head went straight through Ned’s boot and into his foot,” she said. “He can’t wear a boot for a few days.”
“I can see that. You must be in a lot of pain, Ned, and here am I with not a drop of whiskey to help you.”
Ned was speechless. It seemed Joe hadn’t even given a thought to him not being able to work.
It suddenly occurred to Joe why Ned had been limping. He also understood that Ned had hidden the injury because he’d been frightened of losing his job. “Mary can bandage that foot for you, Ned,” he said.
“I’ll still be able to chop wood,” Ned said, holding a glimmer of hope.
“No, Ned. I’ll chop the wood.”
Ned’s head dropped.
“You stay on the boat. You could manage to feed the boiler, couldn’t you? You won’t need a boot on your foot to do that.” Joe didn’t expect Ned to work, but he knew Ned wouldn’t sit idle and feel good about it.
Ned looked as if the world had been lifted from his shoulders.
“There’s no hurry to begin transporting wood,” Joe said, “besides, we’ve got to go to Echuca or Moama, where we can hand the baby to the proper authorities.” He looked at the baby, who appeared to be studying Mary with a gaze so beguiling for one so young.
“How could her mother not want her?” Mary said, looking into the baby’s eyes. “A child is such a blessing.” She’d prayed for a child for years, so the thought of someone not wanting their own was incomprehensible.
“It was a strange twist of fate that brought her to us,” Joe said, a little bewildered by the night’s events.
“The Lord does work in mysterious ways,” Ned said softly. He was feeling as if something more powerful than he could ever understand had brought him to this point. Of one thing he was certain, he was truly blessed to have met people as kind as Mary and Joe.
“You’re right, Ned,” Mary said. “The baby’s mother set her adrift, into a perilous future. If you hadn’t been here with us … and insisted on sleeping on the riverbank, we wouldn’t have known she was floating in a tub down the river.”
“And if you hadn’t jumped into the river to save her … at the precise moment you did, she would have been gone,” Joe added. He glanced at the child knowing she certainly would have drowned. It was a miracle they’d stopped at Boora Boora, but now she had a chance at life.
“I’ve always believed we are not completely in charge of our own destines,” Ned said. He looked at Mary. “I think that little girl was meant to come to you.”
Mary looked at Ned. She didn’t know what to say.
“Are you suggesting we shouldn’t hand her in to the authorities?” Joe said. He hadn’t considered not doing so. It wasn’t that he wanted to turn his back on her, but he didn’t think it was legal to just keep her.
Ned thought of his own childhood. He wouldn’t like to see the baby suffer the same fate, or any child for that matter. “Believe me, you’d be handing her into a future far worse than floating down the river.”
Mary and Joe stared at Ned incredulously. Although times had been tough, and money often short, they’d both had good upbringings … in loving families, but they knew not everyone was so fortunate. Ned’s tone was such that they knew he was speaking from experience, and his words were chilling.
Mary felt protective of the tiny baby, but a shocking thought occurred to her. “Her mother might have a change of heart, and want her back,” she said. She couldn’t bare the thought of falling in love with the little girl, only to have her taken away again.
“It’s well over a thousand miles to the Murray mouth from here,” Ned said soberly. “If the baby had made it that far, without the tub overturning, she would have been washed into the open sea. It seems to me her mother wanted to dispose of her, but not where her body would be found and questions asked.”
Mary gasped in horror, pulling the baby closer.
Ned sighed. He hated to think unkindly of the baby’s mother, but what else was there to believe? “I don’t know her circumstances, but for someone to have a baby alone, on a riverbank, and then put the child in a tub and set her afloat, it seems to me, she either hoped the baby would be found somewhere down river, or that she’d be washed into the sea. Either way, she doesn’t expect to get her back.” Ned was thinking of his own mother, who had cast him out like an unwanted kitten, and not ever given him a second thought.
Mary looked at Joe. “Dare we … keep her, Joe?”
Joe saw the spark of hope in his wife’s eyes. He knew Mary had never felt truly complete without a child. “We could ask the authorities if we could adopt her,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be as easy as you think,” Ned said, “and meanwhile she’d be placed in an orphanage and not get the love you could give her.” Again Ned was talking from experience. Times were hard and very few couples were looking to adopt a child. The few that were rich and could afford them had plenty to choose from.
“If we kept her, what would we … tell people?” Mary asked.
Joe looked at Ned, who seemed to have all the answers. He couldn’t believe he was even considering the idea of just keeping the baby.
“You are new comers to this area, aren’t you?” Ned said.
Joe and Mary nodded.
“Then only the three of us will know she’s not really yours.” Ned looked at Mary. “As far as anyone else is concerned, you gave birth to her … tonight.”
“But what about … Ezra Pickering, and Silas and Brontë Hepburn?”
“You were sitting down in the dining room of the hotel when you met the Hepburn’s,” Joe said, “so they wouldn’t have noticed that you weren’t pregnant, and you were wearing a large overcoat when you met Ezra Pickering, so that would have disguised your condition.”
Mary and Joe looked down at the baby girl. She was so tiny … and vulnerable, so in need of someone to love her. Mary’s heart welled with all the love she had to give a child. Joe saw the warmth and love in his wife’s eyes and knew in that moment, she’d given the baby her heart.
Looking at the baby, Mary whispered, “You came into this life unwanted, but Joe and I will love and cherish you, until the day we die.”
“What will you call her?” Ned said, smiling. He was pleased the tiny baby girl wasn’t going to endure the loveless life he’d suffered as a boy.
Mary looked up. “She deserves a grand name, not something plain, like Mary, especially with her near disastrous beginnings.” She smiled. “I’ve always loved the name Francesca. There’s something exotic and special about it, and this little girl is very special.”
As if knowing everything was going to be all right, the tiny baby stretched her legs and one slipped from under the shawl. For the first time Mary noticed a birthmark on her left upper thigh.
“Will you look at that?” she said. “She has a birthmark.” She ran her finger over it. “It looks like a tiny star.” She glanced at Joe and Ned, and her smile broadened. “I knew she was special.” Touching the baby’s tiny nose, she said, “How does Francesca … Starr … Callaghan sound?”
Ned and Joe smiled.
“Very grand,” Ned said.
“It’s a name fit for a princess,” Joe said. “Our … little princess.”
Echuca - 1883
As Francesca Callaghan stepped off the train from Melbourne she was immediately astonished by the level of noisy activity in the port. The thrashing of paddle-wheels slapping water, and piercing whistles, formed a background to the shouts of men working on the wharf. For a few seconds she found herself overwhelmed with the vitality of her surroundings … but then the most disgusting smell enveloped her, and she had to cover her nose with a rose-scented handkerchief.
The wharfies were moving bales of wool, tallow, tea, coffee, bran, sugar, raisins … but amongst the cargo there were hundreds of raw sheep skins. The bloody edges smelt foul and were attracting millions of flies. To make matters worse, an auction of small livestock was taking place on the river bank at the end of the wharf, which included sheep, goats, piglets and chickens. The bidding was fierce … but the repugnant odour carried on the fresh breeze. It was a blessing it wasn’t a hot day.
With barely time to take in her surroundings, Francesca was jostled aside by men who were intent on unloading the goods at the back of the train, and alighting passengers in a hurry to go about their business. After living in urban Melbourne for many years, the chaos and rudimentary lifestyle came as quite a shock, but one glance at the river, flowing peacefully through the turmoil, and she knew leaving her position at Kennedy’s Ironmongers had been the right thing to do.
Francesca had been born on the river near Echuca, and it was a place she called home, despite her long absence. Yet, as she clutched her small suitcase and headed for the wharf, she felt like a stranger amid the pandemonium. Even so, her nerves jangled with anticipation. She was thrilled to be home, although a little anxious about how her father would feel about her leaving her position with the Kennedy’s without giving notice. Over the course of several months, she’d written to tell him how unhappy she was, and that although the Kennedy’s had employed her as a bookkeeper, she’d ended up as a cleaner/child minder for a pregnant Mrs. Kennedy, who had been having babies for nearly eighteen years, - thirteen in all, with five of those under the age of six years. Francesca never had time to do the book work she loved because she was constantly being called upon to feed, change or wipe snotty noses. When her father didn’t reply to her final letter, and Frank Kennedy took her to task because the books weren’t up to date, it had been the last straw. She packed her suitcase and caught the train home.
At seventeen, Francesca had completed her studies at Pembroke Boarding School for girls in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern, before taking up the position of bookkeeper with the Kennedy’s. The Kennedy’s had worked on the gold fields at the same time as Joe and Mary. Although friendships were rarely formed on the fields because of the fierce competition and secrecy surrounding gold digging, Frank and Ida had been very young and naive at the time, so Mary and Joe had taken them under their wing. They’d kept in touch when they went to Melbourne to buy into a business, so when Joe had written and told them Francesca had finished school and would soon be looking for work, and Frank replied to say they needed a bookkeeper, she looked set.
The arrangement had seemed ideal because Joe felt he could trust the Kennedy’s to look out for his daughter’s welfare, and they had kindly offered her an attic room in their house. He even hoped Ida would become a surrogate mother figure, someone Francesca could talk to at a difficult time in any girl’s life, when she was verging on womanhood, and experiencing all the confused feelings and changes that come at that time.
As she trotted along the wharf, searching for the P.S. Marylou, Francesca was unaware she had caught the attention of the wharfies. In a fetching gown made of burgundy brocade, and a bonnet trimmed with lace, she made quite an eye-catching picture amid the drab crowd on the muddy esplanade and the wharf.
Her mind was preoccupied with thoughts of her father and her uncertain future, so she was startled when a wharfie called out. “Where are you going, pretty lady?”
At first Francesca didn’t realize he was talking to her. She assumed he was addressing one of the few gaudily attired women on the wharf, who were trying to garner ‘customers’. It wasn’t until she heard the wharfie’s mates jeering him on, that she stopped. They’d all noticed she was young, unaccompanied and seemingly lost, which made her ripe as an amusing distraction from a hard day’s work.
Francesca was now upwind of the rank sheep skins and livestock, so she tucked her handkerchief in a pocket, and glared at the wharfie. “Are you addressing me, sir?”
“I sure am,” he said. Gratified and somewhat startled that someone so lovely had responded to him, he gave her a gaping, soulful, repulsively wet grin.
Francesca took a step backwards and mentally cringed. “I don’t see that my destination is any of your business,” she retorted sharply, and his smile evaporated like steam in the chill air. “I suggest you get on with whatever you are supposed to be doing.”
Turning away she began scanning the nearest of the boats tied to the wharf for the P.S. Marylou. She was sure the man making a nuisance of himself would slink away to lick his wounded pride.
The surrounding wharfies looked at each other, raised their brows and laughed. Feeling foolish and determined to come out on top, her tormentor traipsed after her. Curious to see her reaction, his fellow workers continued to watch, despite the fact that they had much to do before sunset.
Francesca picked her way around produce and supplies; dismayed that nobody looked familiar. But then there were many more boats at the wharf than there had been four years earlier, when she’d last been home for a brief visit. If the amount of people milling around the wharf and esplanade were anything to go by, the town had grown considerably and business was thriving. This bolstered Francesca’s confidence that she’d be able to find a position that suited her.
She was suddenly aware that she was being followed. Stopping, she turned on the wharfie. “Go away,” she snapped, her irritation growing. “Haven’t you got something better to do?”
“Can I carry your suitcase?” he asked, feigning charm, but Francesca noted the glint of something sinister in his squinty eyes, and she shuddered with revulsion.
“You can do no such thing. Now leave me alone,” she hissed. She tried not to panic, but after being sheltered at Pembroke and chaperoned on most outings, and then having no life of her own with the Kennedy’s, it was difficult not to. She was never more aware of her lack of life experience.
When it was obvious he wasn’t going to leave her alone, Francesca eyed the wharfie mutinously. She was tempted to tell him he was in dire need of a bath, but instead she tried to compose herself. She realized she was going to have to deal with his type if she was going to live in Echuca, which meant it would be wise to make an example of this man, so that the rest left her alone. But what could she do?
While contemplating the situation, Francesca carried on along the wharf. She noticed the drop to the river was about ten feet, not too far, but far enough, which gave her an idea. A quick glance around and she also noted that most of the other wharfies had lost interest in what she was doing and had gone back to work.
Near the end of the wharf, Francesca stopped again, and dabbed her handkerchief to her eyes, as if she was upset. She was satisfied to see her unwanted admirer looked momentarily concerned. She purposely dropped her handkerchief and it landed near his feet. The wharfie glanced at it, and Francesca gave him her most beseeching look. Although he’d only wanted to taunt her, the wharfie saw the dropped handkerchief as a change of fortune, an excuse to become her hero, so he bent to pick it up. Just as he had the handkerchief in his grasp, he felt her foot in his side. Before he could react, she gave him a shove, and he went over the side of the wharf, into the river.
Francesca heard a splash, and then a shocking thought went through her mind. What if he couldn’t swim? She peered over the side of the wharf. When she didn’t see him, she panicked. She glanced at a man watching the surface of the water from a nearby steamer with a startled expression on his face.
“Don’t just stand there, save him,” she shouted.
He looked up at her in startled amusement. “You pushed him over the edge,” he replied casually. “I’m not jumping in the river after him.”
Francesca gasped in shock. “But … he might drown?” Thoughts of her mother flashed through her mind, and she was overcome with remorse. She didn’t know what to do, and the seconds that passed seemed interminable.
The man on the boat seemed unconcerned. “You should have thought of that a few moments ago.”
“Well … I didn’t … .”
He shrugged his shoulders and went about his work as if it had been a piece of wood that had fallen from the wharf.
His casual attitude shocked Francesca. She glanced about for someone else to help, seriously considering the possibility of jumping in the river herself. Then she heard a gurgling sound and the wharfie’s head finally bobbed up in the water. She sighed with relief when he didn’t seem to be panicking, although he was spluttering with rage and indignation. As she looked down at him, he glared up at her, and she realized the man on the boat must have known he could swim. All his mates would have known. Her eyes narrowed with fury.
“What the Hell did … you do that for?” the wharfie shouted angrily from the water.
“I told you to go away, and besides … you needed a bath,” she shouted down at him. “Perhaps you’ll think twice about foisting your unwanted attentions on me again. And as for you …” She pointed an accusing finger at the man on the nearest steamer, but he laughed, as did several other men who had heard the splash in the water.
Despite her confusion and embarrassment, Francesca couldn’t help feeling victorious. A few moments earlier she’d been panic stricken and helpless, but she’d found a way to deal with an unwanted nuisance, and she thought she had every right to be proud of herself. Unfortunately the man on the boat had tarnished the depth of satisfaction she might have enjoyed, and she resented it.
Francesca glared at him, but annoyingly, he just smiled back at her. He was very handsome, she noticed, although there was something cocky about him. It could have been the angle at which he held his head, or the overly confident way in which he moved.
“Do you by any chance know where I might find the P.S. Marylou?” she called, annoyed with herself because she was unable to stop from returning his infectious smile.
“Who wants to know?” he said, coiling a rope with stealth. Francesca noticed he looked supremely fit, unlike some of the men on the wharf, who looked as if they spent most of their lives drunk. His hair was very dark, and his white teeth flashed in a tanned face. She wondered if he had a Spanish or Greek background. His boat was called the P.S. Lady Ophelia, although he didn’t have a detectable accent.
“Do you know, or not?” she said, not sure she should be giving this stranger her name.
“I might, but Joe Callaghan wouldn’t want me telling just anyone his whereabouts.”
Francesca was relieved he seemed to know her father. But she didn’t like the fact that he was implying she was someone of dubious standing. “I’m not just anyone,” she said indignantly, but he lifted one dark brow as if he didn’t believe her.
“I don’t know that, do I?” he said annoyingly.
Francesca felt incensed, but then noticed his lips moved at one corner and she realized he was toying with her, even though she’d just proved she could deal with an ‘annoying’ problem if she had to. She sensed it wouldn’t be wise to let her guard down because despite being devastatingly attractive, he was full of himself. “If you must know, I’m Joe Callaghan’s daughter.”
The handsome stranger looked momentarily surprised. He was thinking she was young, and delectable, and that he wouldn’t mind kissing her honey sweet lips, although she’d probably bite if given half the chance. “Do you have a first name, Miss Callaghan?”
She thought twice about telling him, but she wanted to find her father. “Francesca.”
“Francesca!” Her name rolled off his tongue with silken tenderness. “It suits you. I had no idea that Joe had such a beautiful daughter. I might have shouted him a few more drinks in the pub had I known.” His eyes seemed to dance in the afternoon sun, reflecting the sparkle on the surface of the green river.
“My father is too smart to let someone ply him with rum just to get on his good side. Now is he here in Echuca or not? I don’t see the Marylou at the wharf.”
The stranger looked up at her for a moment, then dropped his head, and smiled. “His boat is moored down river.” The casual, unspecific flick of his finger in the general direction of the riverbank was most unhelpful as far as Francesca was concerned.
“I’m going that way in about half an hour, if you’d like a ride,” he said. The thought of getting to know her appealed to him immensely, but he wasn’t going to act like an overzealous adolescent. He knew from experience that if he handled her right, she’d come to him … eagerly.
Francesca was taken by surprise. She was also tempted to accept a lift aboard the Ophelia, but it didn’t seem the appropriate thing to do. Besides, she thought the invitation had been somewhat lukewarm. “I don’t know you, so I could hardly accept a ride on your boat.”
“My name is Neal Mason, so now you know who I am, and I know who you are, and I’m a friend of your father’s, so that takes care of proprieties.”
To Francesca’s way of thinking he was giving her a fine example of his cockiness. “I … I only have your word that you know my father well.”
He hesitated momentarily with what he was doing, and his green eyes narrowed. “Are you calling me a liar, Miss Callaghan?”
It occurred to Francesca that she’d offended him, until she noticed he was trying to hide a smirk. “I don’t know, perhaps.” She was becoming flustered, but annoyingly, he continued coiling a rope as if he was just idly passing the time.
“If you’d sooner take the chance and walk down the riverbank … that’s up to you.”
Francesca had been expecting him to try and talk her into going with him, and if he had, she might have accepted his offer, since she didn’t fancy carrying her suitcase too far.
“Just don’t push any more wharfies in the river,” he said lazily. “There are still plenty of boats to be unloaded.”
When all the men nearby laughed, with the exception of the man she’d pushed in the river, who was grumbling from under the wharf about being cold, Francesca felt her cheeks begin to burn.
Casting him a haughty look, she picked up her suitcase, lifted her chin, and walked on.
“Watch where you are going, Miss Callaghan,” Neal called sarcastically. “With your nose so far in the air, you might trip up.”
Feeling foolish and more embarrassed than she’d ever been in her life, Francesca continued on without a backward glance.
Silas Hepburn had been standing near the wool store, watching Francesca. Like most of the men who had witnessed her alight from the train, he’d noticed how pretty she was. He’d also noticed she was being harassed by a wharfie. He’d been about to go to her assistance, when to his utter surprise, she’d shoved the man bothering her over the side of the wharf. He’d always had an eye for a pretty girl, but seldom came across one with so much pluck. For the first time in a long time, he found himself titillated.
“Excuse me, miss,” Silas said, as she went to pass him by.
Francesca was startled, as she did have her nose in the air, and was unaware of anyone around her. “Yes,” she snapped, taking in his pompous air and bloated features.
He was astonished, but not put off by her lack of cordiality. “I was going to offer my assistance with the man who was ‘foolishly’ bothering you …”
For a moment Francesca thought he meant Neal Mason, but then she realized he was referring to the wharfie. “Then why didn’t you?” She was still feeling utterly foolish, so was in no mood to watch her manners. “One good deed is worth a hundred good intentions,” she added caustically. She thought if he had come to her aid, she wouldn’t have spoken to Neal Mason, and she wouldn’t now be feeling like a naïve dimwit.
Silas was taken aback yet again. He was accustomed to being treated with the utmost respect, even by strangers who noted his distinguished countenance, and yet this slip of a girl was giving him what amounted to a dressing down. “I … was about to … when, for some strange reason, he lost his balance … and fell into the river. Most unfortunate …”
Francesca gasped. Neal Mason had aroused her defenses and she was sure this man’s cold eyes were glinting with hidden accusation. “That was hardly my fault.” She was sure she couldn’t have been so unlucky that someone else had witnessed her shove the wharfie into the river.
“I wasn’t suggesting it was. He was obviously a clumsy oaf, like many of them are. I had a piano, one of the first upright grand pianos built by Heinrich Steinway in 1862, sent down from Tooleybuc a few months ago, and they dropped it getting it off a steamer.” He pursed his lips angrily. “Anyway, I won’t go off on that tangent because I get irate just thinking about it. Are you lost … or looking for someone?”
“No. I’m fine. Excuse me.”
Francesca had taken an instant dislike to this man. She didn’t care for the way he was leering at her, or the fact that he was possessed with an over inflated air of importance. She was sure it was self-importance, as she doubted he was actually a man of high standing in the community.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” Silas said, puffing out his chest and confirming her earlier opinion of him. “I’m Silas Hepburn, founder of this fair town. There’s not much that happens around here that I don’t know about, so if you are looking for someone, it’s quite likely I can give you a clue to their whereabouts.” He stroked his reddish-brown beard with soft, fat fingers.
Hepburn. Francesca recalled the name from her childhood, and of course there was Hepburn’s Punt, but she wouldn’t have recognized Silas. For a fleeting moment she wondered if she should apologize for her abruptness, but quickly banished the thought. Anyone who boasted about founding a town and named landmark’s after himself was conceited enough without her kowtowing to him. It should be he who made amends for not coming to her assistance when she needed it, and if he could do so by telling her where her father was, all well and good. Neal Mason had been vague about the whereabouts of the Marylou, so she had no idea where to find it.
Glancing over her shoulder, Francesca noted that Neal Mason was taking a keen interest in her discussion with Silas Hepburn, and as Silas was an important man in the town, she decided it wouldn’t do any harm for him to think she was making friends in high places.
“I was actually looking for a paddle-steamer, the P.S. Marylou. Do you know where I could find it?”
“The Marylou?” Silas frowned and studied her features more closely, noting the ringlets of shining dark hair that fell from under her bonnet, and her porcelain skin. Her eyes were the colour of the sky on a clear day, but today the sky was a cold, miserable grey, more befitting the colour and lack of warmth in his eyes. “Are you … looking for Joe Callaghan?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I am.”
Silas couldn’t hide his surprise, or stop himself voicing his thoughts. “What would someone so … poised and elegant want with the likes of that brash Irishman?”
“I beg your pardon? Joe Callaghan is my father … and he’s certainly not brash.”
Silas gasped and his eyes bulged like hard boiled eggs. “I … didn’t know … that is, I had forgotten Joe had a daughter.”
“Well, Mr. Hepburn. I am Francesca Callaghan, and I can’t say it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance, because it hasn’t. Now if you will excuse me …” She was vaguely aware of laughter in the background, which incensed her even more.
Silas was only aware of his growing desire for her. “If you don’t mind me saying so, Miss Callaghan, you are a very beautiful young woman,” he said to her retreating figure.
Francesca stopped and spun around. She no longer cared that Neal Mason was watching or that it was likely snippets of their conversation were carrying on the wind. “If you must know, I do mind.”
She was astounding Silas more by the minute. “Most young ladies like compliments.”
“Do they? I prefer an honest insult … to insincere flattery … and I certainly don’t appreciate insults that are directed at my father.”
Despite his utter shock, Silas couldn’t help laughing. “I apologize for being so unkind about your father, Miss Callaghan. He and I don’t often see eye to eye. But I must say you are certainly unique, and I mean that most sincerely.”
Francesca had to bite her tongue, because the things going through her mind were most unladylike.
“I can give you a ride to the Marylou in my carriage, if you’d like,” Silas said, not for a moment considering the possibility that she’d turn him down. “Your father’s steamer is moored down river a ways and it might not be safe for someone so … lovely … to be walking alone. As you’ve already found out, the lower classes can make a nuisance of themselves.”
Lower classes! Who does he think he is? He was starting to make her skin crawl. She’d rather throw herself off the Moama Bridge than ride beside him in a carriage, and was tempted to tell him so. It was only the fact that he knew her father that stopped her. “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Hepburn,” Francesca said between clenched teeth. “I can take care of myself.”
“As you have so admirably demonstrated, Miss Callaghan.” Silas was barely able to hide his disappointment as he doffed his hat.
Francesca had already turned to head off down the riverbank, determined to distance herself from such an abhorrent man, but she heard him mumble, “It’s a pity your father can’t do the same.”
His remark puzzled her, but she did not acknowledge it. Instead, she quickened her pace.
Francesca was beginning to think that Silas Hepburn had lied to her about the whereabouts of the P.S. Marylou. She had been walking for more than a mile with no sign of the paddle-steamer, and her suitcase was growing heavier by the yard. Up ahead she could see a left hand bend in the river, and if her memory served her correctly, there was a ship building yard and slip-way a bit further on, so she doubted she would find the Marylou anytime soon. She decided she’d go just a little further.
Francesca had not forgotten how beautiful the river was, but she had failed to remember how it could stir feelings of peace and serenity. While away, she’d often associated the river in the context of the tragedy involving her mother, but glistening in the sun, the Murray aroused some very happy childhood memories and an unexpected longing to recapture a part of her life that had been lost for a very long time.
When she rounded the bend, Francesca still couldn’t see the boat, so she stopped, wondering what to do. She was surrounded by gum trees, and walking on a narrow path mostly trodden by fishermen. Paddle steamers were coming and going along the river, some towing barges, but when the P.S. Ophelia came into view, she hid behind a tree because she didn’t want Neal Mason to think she was lost. When he’d gone by, she gazed up river, and observed pelicans swimming under the branches of a distant tree on her side of the bank. They drew her attention to what looked like a boat almost hidden by the same overhanging branches. She decided to investigate, hoping perhaps that someone was aboard who could tell her if her father’s boat was anywhere nearby.
As she neared the boat, Francesca could see the paint was blistering and the decks were in need of a clean, and she wondered who it belonged to. Even some of the railings looked loose. It was quite a shambles and upsetting to see what had once been such a proud vessel, so neglected. It wasn’t until she looked up and saw the name that she gasped in shock. It was the P.S. Marylou.
Going aboard, Francesca tentatively called out, and Ned appeared. Dear Ned, she thought. She hadn’t seen him or her father since their last visit to Pembroke, two years earlier. He had aged considerably since then. His hair was snow white, and he was slightly stooped, but he had remained faithfully by her father’s side for many years. Through the good times, the happy, carefree days of her childhood, when work had been plentiful, - and the not so good times, including the tragic loss of her mother. She’d only been seven at the time, but she would never forget how broken her father had been. Soon afterwards he’d sent her to boarding school. At the time she’d found it impossible to understand why. It had made her feel as if the accident had somehow been her fault. Only the passing of time had helped her understand that he’d been trying to do the best for her.
“Hello, Ned,” she said, as he stared at her in bewilderment.
“Frannie,” he whispered. He was momentarily lost for words. The last time he’d seen her she’d been a gangly adolescent. He couldn’t believe the poised and beautiful young woman before him was little Frannie.
Ned’s mind flashed back to a night, so long ago, when he’d almost drowned trying to rescue a tiny baby from the river. As he looked at her now, he couldn’t have felt prouder if she had been his own daughter. For the first seven years of her life, they’d had a special bond. It had broken his heart when Mary had been killed and Joe had sent her away, but it had been a pain he’d had to live with. Joe was someone he loved and admired and he had to believe that he knew what was best for Frannie, and he thought living aboard a paddle-steamer with two men who worked long hours, was no life for a little girl.
As Ned came towards her, Francesca noticed his walk was stiff, but his lined face broke into a welcoming smile.
“I’m sorry I didn’t let you know I was coming,” Francesca said. “It was a spur of the moment decision.” She dropped her suitcase, as Ned wrapped his arms around her, and tenderly squeezed. Despite his age and decline, he still had a lot of strength in his hands, she noticed.
“It’s wonderful to see you, Frannie, but what are you doing here?”
“I left my job, Ned. I couldn’t take it anymore.” She glanced around. The boat was in terrible shape, which confused her because her father had always taken so much pride in the Marylou. “Where is dad, Ned?” Francesca suddenly had the feeling something was wrong. “Is he … all right?”
Ned’s craggy features saddened. How could he tell Francesca that her father hadn’t been all right for some time? He glanced towards the living quarters. “He’s on board, Frannie. He’s lying down I think …”
Lying down in the afternoon? Francesca looked around her again, and Ned could see her confusion. He’d tried to keep things in good order, but Joe had discouraged him, insisting there didn’t seem much point.
“The boat doesn’t look like it’s moved for months, Ned. What’s going on?”
Ned’s head dropped. Where did he start? “The boiler gave way last January …”
Francesca gasped. “Why didn’t dad write and tell me? I haven’t had a letter for months …”
Ned didn’t know what to say. “We’ve had it fixed,” he mumbled, “but …”
Hearing voices, Joe appeared. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw Francesca, but the warm welcome she had hoped to get didn’t come.
Tears welled in Francesca’s eyes when she saw how terrible he looked. One side of his face was marred with an ugly red scar. “Dad, your face,” she whispered, going towards him. She realized he must have been burned by the boiler.
“One of the boiler tubes ruptured … What are you doing here?” Joe said more harshly than he intended. He turned his face away self-consciously.
Francesca stopped short. She couldn’t ignore the feeling that she was the last person he wanted to see, or the smell of rum on his breath.
“I wrote to you, dad, telling you how unhappy I’ve been. I couldn’t take living with the Kennedy’s anymore, so I left.”
“You left your job with the Kennedy’s …”
“All I was doing was changing nappies and cleaning up the children’s mess and the house … and Ida is pregnant again … It was just awful. I love bookkeeping, but I never got the chance to do it … or a minute to myself.”
“It was a job … and a home, Frannie.”
“I’m too young to be mothering a tribe of little ones. I did so much for them, they were calling me momma. You got my letter’s didn’t you, dad?”
Joe nodded. Francesca had sounded terribly unhappy, and he did think she looked a bit thin and pale, but her problems were nothing compared to his.
“Why didn’t you reply?”
Joe’s head dropped. “I … had other things on my mind.”
Francesca felt hurt that these ‘other things’ were more important than she was. “Ned just told me about your boiler troubles, but you could have written, dad. You could have told me you’d been hurt.”
Joe turned further away and rubbed his stubbled chin. His unkemptness shocked Francesca.
“I didn’t want to worry you, Frannie,” he mumbled. “I know that’s no excuse, but it’s the best I can do.”
Ned looked at Joe. He remembered his reluctance to open Frannie’s letters the past few months. Sometimes he’d opened them and insisted on hearing her news, but lately Joe had kept them to himself. Ned had tried to tell him that he should write, but his words fell on deaf ears. He would have written himself, but he’d never learned how. But even if he were literate, he didn’t know what he’d say to her. How could he tell her their situation could hardly get any worse? It was the very reason Joe couldn’t write.
“I can’t believe you gave up a good job, Frannie,” Joe blurted out angrily. “Frank must be furious.” He hadn’t meant to sound so unfeeling, but he hadn’t wanted Francesca to learn of his circumstances.
“Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said, dad? Look, I’ll write and apologize if you want me to, but when Frank complained because the books weren’t up to date, and he could see I was always busy cleaning, feeding, or bathing his children, it was the last straw.”
Joe couldn’t help feeling angry. Not with Frannie, but with her timing. She couldn’t have come home at a worse time. “What do you want to do?”
Francesca didn’t exactly know. She wasn’t in a hurry to marry, and she knew bookkeeping jobs were hard to find for women, and yet she couldn’t imagine herself doing the kind of work young ladies were expected to do, like dress-making, or becoming a milliner or a governess.
“For now, I want to spend time with you and Ned,” she said. “I’ve missed you both. We’ve seen so little of each other in the last few years. I almost feel like … we’re strangers.” Francesca hadn’t meant to sound accusing; she was just stating the truth.
But Joe was suddenly overcome by a sense of guilt. “That can’t be helped,” he said impatiently. “Life on the river was no place for a little girl.”
“I’m not a little girl anymore, dad.”
“No, Frannie girl, you’re not,” Joe said bitterly.
Frannie girl. Hearing him say that pulled at Francesca’s heart strings. It was what he’d always called her as a child.
“Perhaps you are old enough to understand that life doesn’t always turn out as we want it to,” Joe said.
“What are you trying to say, dad?”
Joe glanced at Ned.
“Tell her, Joe,” Ned said softly. “She should know the truth.”
Francesca looked from one to the other, and her heart started to thump. “Tell me what? What’s happened?”
“We’re going to lose the Marylou,” Joe said, his voice breaking with emotion.
Francesca paled. “No, dad. How can that be?”
Joe placed his hands on the railing and looked across the Murray, to the far bank where a sea eagle was perched on a tree limb overhanging the water. It was rare to see one, but he couldn’t appreciate the sighting. He couldn’t imagine not having a deck beneath his feet, or traveling the length of a river he’d come to love.
“When the boiler gave way, I didn’t have the money to fix it. I had to borrow it, but it still took weeks for the repairs to be done, and in that time my arm has stiffened so much that I can no longer work the control levers or turn the wheel.” He’d hurt his arm trying to save Mary from the paddle wheels of a passing steamer after she’d been thrown overboard when the Marylou had collided with the P.S. Kittyhawk. She’d been struck and killed, and Joe’s arm had been almost wrenched from its socket.
“I’m falling behind on loan repayments and I can’t afford to hire someone …”
“Oh, dad. Didn’t you have insurance to cover the boiler?”
“Ned and I had been patching the boiler tubes for so long, they were nearly all blocked, so there was no steam pressure. Insurance only covers the cost if you have an explosion, it doesn’t cover rebuilding. I’m sorry, Frannie. I know this is not the welcome you would have liked, but … you chose a bad time to come home. At least I knew you had a roof over your head with the Kennedy’s. Never mind, perhaps they’ll take you back.”
Francesca understood that losing the Marylou would kill her father.