Andie looked out of the small glass window at the Geelong harbor. Two small sailing ships lay moored to Moorabool Wharf, men scuttling around them like ants and making black trails from their decks to the wharf as unloading continued. The feather tip of the white quill stroked his brow as he sat in contemplation. The smell of sea salt and dead fish mingled with the usual odors of large towns and he wrinkled his nose in recognition.
His gaze returned to the sheet of letter paper in front of him.
Freshly inked, the pen wrote, "...it would be wonderful to go with them on such a trek, but it sounds as though it cannot be done.
You will remember Targus Cranston, I am sure. He has been staying with us these last two nights and left this morning for Ballaarat again. He has promised to call in on John at Hanging Rock and convey our best wishes to him. I do hope John will come to Geelong and live here once he realizes he is in no danger. It seems silly to us, but he is so sure he will be arrested if he is seen.
And as I have said, we have still had no contact with James or his new family since they landed in Melbourne five years ago. I thought they might try to contact us, since it has been over ten years since we have seen him. We can only hope that they contact us soon. It would be best if the old troubles are forgotten. I think Jessie has forgiven him for making improper advances to her.
We are doing quite well still in the shop, although business has dropped off somewhat during the winter. However, we still make enough for our needs. Jessie is filling out nicely and has become a fine figure of a woman, nodded to by many of the rich landowners of this town, although her somewhat fragile emotions require regular doses of her 'medicine' to soothe her."
He dipped the quill in the inkpot and wiped the excess on the edge while inspiration came again.
"Young Ian remains a worry however. The local Doctors agree that he is totally deaf, and will remain so for all his life. He is still very slow to speak even the simplest word and cannot grasp the idea of letters or numbers still. However, I persevere, giving him two hours of my time each evening when possible, trying to inculcate the skills of a good hand in him, as he is quite able to hold a quill correctly. However, he understands nothing of what I say to him and I despair of him ever having the ability to learn. At nine years of age I would have expected him to be helping me in the shop, but that of course is impossible. He hardly has a word to say to either of us, rather still makes his needs known by hand language. But when all is said and done, he is a handsome lad, with red curly hair surrounding a cherubic face, although quite small for his age.
Reaching the end of the page, he turned it ninety degrees and proceeded to write the next lines at right angles across the existing sentences.
"This truly is a land of opportunity, as each day on my strolls through the streets of this Town I recognize people who have made their fortune either on the Goldfields, or by selling land, or by farming sheep on that land.
Indeed the Editor and Owner of The Geelong "Advertiser," Mr. James Harrison, who I have mentioned before in this letter, has recently made great inroads into manufacturing his new machine which will keep meat frozen on the ships used for taking it back to England. You may recall his first attempt failed due to leaky pipes I believe, but he is sure this new model will do the job most efficiently. He has also set up a similar machine in a Brewery at Bendigo Town, about one hundred and fifty miles from here, to cool the beer they produce there. Also he has set up an Ice-making machine in the town and people can purchase Ice to keep their foods fresh, as the summers here can be quite hot, as I have told you. And much, much cheaper than the Ice we have had to ship over from Boston in America. For this ice we pay twopence a pound. Mr. Harrison believes his ice can be made for half of that cost.
And to think that all this came from realizing that the printing typeface became extremely cold as the ether used to clean used ink off it, evaporated. Truly a great man with extreme perception. Why he is even in regular contact with European Inventors such as William Faraday himself. Who knows where this wonderful invention will lead."
He paused, then composed his thoughts again.
"Tonight I am to attend a grand function and write it up for the Paper. Members of the Geelong Cricket Club have been keeping fit throughout the winter months by playing with a football, and some twelve months ago decided to make themselves into a separate Club. There was at first some dissent about whether they should play by the rules of Rugby or of Association, so they compromised and the local game is a mixture of the two.
Truthfully, it must be seen to be appreciated. Twenty five strong men and true on each side, charging at the others with fists out-flung, determined to wrest possession of the ball from their opponents and see it past the goalposts, one way or t'other. Tonight marks the First Anniversary of the Geelong Football Club and all the local dignitaries will be there. Word has it that some of the Cricket Clubs in Melbourne are to do similar.
So you can see that all here is abuzz, and the chances for advancing one-self are many. Both Jessie and Myself wonder if you all would think about joining us here in this lucky land at some time in the near future. Especially as you seem to be finding the life back home increasingly arduous.
We hope that you are all keeping well, and that George is up and about again. The pains in his gut that you wrote about must have been a sore trial indeed. There was an Aberdeen woman on our ship who had similar pains to those you describe, but she was vomiting up dark brown suet all the time just like wee Jenny did last year. Sadly, this lady also passed over on the voyage.
I vow George must have been eating rotten meat again, or mayhap some old fish. He is probably laughing at this as he hears you read it. Anyroad, I am sure he is up and about by now.
Give our love to Billy, Isobel-Mary and the Bairns. We are so happy that his chest is better and he is no longer suffering from the Black Spit. Now, if only he could find some sort of employment. But, as ye say, there are no jobs to be had anywhere at home. Maybe it is time that ye all came out here to live.
Think on it, please. We would indeed be grateful of your company, what with Jessie missing her folks as well.
I believe the "Glasgow Star" is departing from Point Henry for home tomorrow, and so I will finish up now, preparatory to sealing this missal and making sure it gets on board before sailing time.
So Mother, we remain,
Your loving son and daughter-in-law, and Grandson,
Andrew and Jessie McCubbin."
Ian was sitting on the floor in the kitchen, his mouth open and meowing noises at Jessie. Sunlight from the tiny window caught his russet locks and swept over his face as he moved his head from side to side in anguish. His arm waved and hit the leg of the table, which produced a louder howl as tears began to run down his pale cheeks.
"What d'ye want, wee Ian?" Jessie asked for the third time as she came around the end of the table towards him.
A more strident howl was his response as he waved his arms at her.
"D'ye want somethin' to eat? A drink meybe? What?"
More howling as he shook his head in denial. His fingers stabbed at the shelf by the outside door and he tried to mouth the words he needed, but only guttural sounds came forth. Tears of frustration were now running from reddened eyes. His nose ran, adding to the look of abject despair on his face. Jessie knelt beside him as the kitchen door opened and Andie crashed into the room.
"What on earth is going on? Can ye not keep him quiet while I'm working? It's hard enough keeping the names and figures in my head long enough to manufacture a lucid sentence without all this racket goin' on. Is he hurt maybe?"
"I dinna think so, Andie. He seems to want somethin' an' I canna fathom what it is." She put her arms around the youngster and held him to her as if to stifle the noise.
"Well, for God's sake find out what it is an' settle him down. I need peace an' quiet to finish this article an' it's way beyond time it was completed."
Andie turned to leave but stopped as Ian tore himself loose from Jessie's grasp and began flailing about again, his howling now taking on a more strident sound.
Jessie twisted to look at Andie and barked, "I'm doin' my best, Andie, but I canna understand what he wants. I canna understand him at all, d'ye see."
Her voice started to raise in pitch and volume as she continued throwing this information at her husband's face.
"He's my own son, and I canna talk to him. I canna get through to him. He's not like other laddies. He can't tell me what he needs."
Ian stopped sobbing and clung to his mother, sensing that his pain had given birth to something greater as she continued.
"I canna talk to my son. I dinna ken what he wants or feels. But he is my son. I canna tell him I love him. D'ye no' see, I want to tell him I love him! But I canna talk to him! I canna get through!" And she collapsed over her son, sobbing uncontrollably.
Andie crossed the floor, knelt by her side and held them both as the emotion of the moment washed over them all.
Locked inside his mind, Ian wondered at the commotion he had caused. He had wanted to go outside where things were colorful and moved... where there were birds to watch and people walked by. Where watching a horse and cart pass by would fill in some time and he could feel the sound of the wheels through his hands on the cobblestones.
How to tell his mother? All she seemed to want is for him to stay quietly in the corner by the hearth. He knew that corner. Knew every strand of sisal frayed from the mat before the fireplace. Knew the hand made clay bricks by feel as his fingers traced their surface time and again. Knew the wash of sunlight on them as the end of day shone through the tiny glass panes of the window set high in the wall.
Alone inside his head he wondered at the outside world. Mother and Father seemed to communicate with each other by opening their lips and twisting them about. He had tried that, but somehow it didn't seem to work. Later on, his mother had placed his fingers on her throat, and he had felt the vibrations there as she spoke to him, but when he tried to do the same she only looked at him with puzzled eyes.
And Father... Father placed a feather in his hand and tried to make him squiggle with it. He would dip the point in black ink and hold the feather over a sheet of paper and make squiggles, large and small, quickly and slowly, while Ian looked on. Then he would place the feather in Ian's hand again, cupping Ian's small fist with his own, and squiggle on the paper again.
After some months of this, Ian could copy the squiggles under his father's writing, but he still had no idea of their meaning, or indeed if they meant anything at all.
In solitude he watched the sword of the sun rake down the face of the bricks and spill its shavings on to the floor beneath.
"Twenty years! Twenty years? Who in Hell does he think he is?" Robbie stood in his doorway, face alternating from rage to bewilderment as the constable gripped his sleeve.
"I have my orders, Sir," he mumbled unhappily. "The orders were given to me by Master Spittal's maid herself. She found the orders on his desk just after he retired to his quarters.
"I only punched him! A goodly clout I agree, but no more than he deserved."
"Aye, that's as may be, but he is acting as Factor while his good father is away, so any orders he issues, we must abide by. So, ye see, Sir, ye have to be comin' with me now."
"Can it not wait until the morning, then? My mother is asleep, as is the rest of the family. I was just finishing off my book before the fire, or I would be abed as well. I do not cherish the thought of a trip to Thornhill at this time of night to straighten out this mistake."
"Och I'm sorry lad, I have my orders. You can leave a note for your mam if ye likes. But be smart about it... The wind's bitter cold an' my bed is awaitin' me at home."
Robbie quickly scribbled out a note and left it under Isabella's cup on the table, knowing that she would be first up to light the fire. He took his coat from the hook by the door and followed the Constable out into the bracing wind.
On reaching the road, the constable mounted his horse.
"What about me?" queried Robbie.
"This old nag canna hold the twain of us. An' I won't be walkin', that's for sure. I tell you what I will do. I'll only travel at walkin' pace, so you can keep up easy. An' remember I have yer word as a McCubbin that you'll no' try to escape. 'Tis only two miles. We'll be there in an half an hour."
Shrugging his shoulders, Robbie hunched into his coat and turned his face into the blustery wind.
"Surely they will realize their mistake tomorrow, and set it to rights," he declared.
"Not up to me to say," his captor replied. "You will no doubt be able to have your say at the trial. We have six criminals up before the bench on Thursday. You ken that Mr. McGurr has been made Magistrate yesterday? It will be his first day of sittin'."
Dismay sat heavily on Robbie's shoulders. Although he had not had dealings with McGurr himself, his brother Andie had locked horns quite severely with the man some years before, and the McGurr made no pretence of hiding his dislike of the McCubbin family. He would revel in this chance for revenge, Robbie was sure.
He thought of running. Escaping into the hills where no one, especially this clod of a policeman, could find him. He knew spots where he could hide out for months. But what of the family? George in bed very ill, Mother Agnes slowly losing her memories and occasionally not recognizing her own children, Billy with a new baby daughter and George still struggling to keep the farmlet going. The scandal would ruin them. No, better to front up and plead for a fair sentence... maybe a fine, or a few days in the lockup. That would be no scandal, as most of the young bucks of the area had languished in the lockup for a day or so at some time. Such was the penalty for a bit of fun now and then.
The horse's flanks and a black leg and boot kept pace with him as he trudged on through the starry night. He clutched his coat around him and shivered.
"I have little idea what convinced Mr. Harrison to change his mind, save maybe to bring the news of brave young Edward Mitchell's departure with Burke and Wills to our home readers. However, he has directed me to ride to Melbourne tomorrow to be there in time for the farewell to the great expedition." Andie grasped his wife by the shoulders as his shaky voice continued.
"The only other reason I can perceive is that he has had a disagreement with the Editor of 'The Age' and thus will probably not receive the coverage of the event that he was expecting from that source. And to cap it off, I am to travel to Melbourne by the new steam train and stay overnight at the "Morning Star" hotel. Is it not wonderful news, my love? I am, in some small way, going to be a part of this exciting event."
He took Jessie's hands in his, and held them to his chest. Her face was blank, then suddenly mirrored his joy as she replied, "Aye, it's wonderful, indeed it is."
His borrowed cart-horse shied as the last strap was cinched tight. Hooves clattered on the cobblestones as the roan moved sideways. Andie straightened up from checking the girth strap, and turned to his wife.
"Now you look after things here, lassie. I know the shop'll be in good hands. Nevertheless, I think you should ask Targus to stay and help out if he calls in. I should be back in a few days. Mr. Sharkley is not due his rent for another three weeks, and there should be plenty of trade in that time to cover it. And remember the cigar box under the stair-tread. It has over sixteen shillings in it, if needed.
"Don't you go worrying yourself about me, my love. Ian and me, we can handle things here while you are off gallivantin' after yer heroes. Now, get ye gone or they'll be back home with all the best stories told, before you reach Melbourne."
He looked down into her deep brown eyes for some time, seeing the tears start to swell in the corners, then wiped them away with his thumbs as his hands caught hold of her face. A deep kiss, telling of past loving and future desires crushed her full lips and her arms came up to imprison him for a moment. Time passed unnoticed and after a brief eternity he broke away and hoisted himself into the saddle.
"It should only be a couple of days, my love. Then I will return with such a story as you will not believe. Until then mo duinne, farewell and may God be with you."
The larrikin streak in him surfaced then as he wheeled his mount in the narrow street and galloped off around the bend towards the railway station, leaving naught but dust and clatter in his wake.
Ian stood at the door, his fingers clutching the wooden doorpost as his father disappeared from sight. Finally his mother turned and clutched him to her voluminous skirts, almost smothering him in her pent-up passion. He struggled and freed himself from her embrace as she turned to enter the empty cottage. A large black rat scuttled by, hugging the gray stone wall as it went, and he crouched down in the street to watch it scavenge.
Ever mindful of the worth of a penny, Jessie had tied some chook feathers to a stick to form a duster, and this was getting its first tryout as she cleaned up some spilt flour from the middle shelf. She noticed dust on the labels of jars stacked on a higher shelf, and with a 'Tut, tut,' at Andie's careless housekeeping, she dragged the stepladder over. Hand hitching her skirts out of the way, she climbed up four rungs and was able to reach the jars at full stretch. A flick of the duster brushed dust in her eyes, and she stopped to rub them.
The doorbell clanged and she squinted painfully as she turned partly round.
"Won't be a jiffy, I've just got some dust in my eyes."
"'S oright, luv. Where's the boss?"
"He's away at present. May I be of some assistance?" she asked as she blinked painfully, screwing up her face. The feather duster in her hand waved as she ground away at her sandy eyelids.
"You look like yer could use some 'elp, you does. 'Ere, I'll 'elp yez down." And she heard heavy footsteps come around the counter. Holding onto the shelf with one hand and rubbing her eyes with the other, she replied, "Oh, thank you, but don't bother. I'll be all right in a jiffy."
She felt hands on her waist, steadying her and her skin shrank from the unfamiliar touch. Still squinting in pain, she looked down and saw Gus Drake grinning up at her, stale ale rank on his breath as he belched.
Drake had recently had a run-in with Andie over non-payment of his account. The raised voices had woken her and she remembered hearing Drake's foul oaths as he crashed out of the shop, knocking over a barrel of tent poles as he went.
The feather duster clattered to the floor as he rocked her from side to side. She grabbed for the shelf with both hands and held on tight as he wobbled her waist back and forth.
"Bit unsteady, them steps," he quipped, as his hands slid up her bodice. "A nice lass like yerself might do 'erself an injury. Never mind, Gus is 'ere to 'elp."
She drew a sharp breath as she felt his hands on her breasts. The smell of stale ale powered his breath.
"Mister Drake! You forget yourself. Unhand me at once. Or I'll call for my son."
"That dumb bastard ain't gonna be of no use to yer, now is he. Anyhow, with the boss away chasin' them 'splorers, yer gonna need a man to 'elp yer today. An' I don't ask fer much," and she felt his hands squeeze her breasts tighter. "Only a bit o' fun from time to time. You knows."
"Mister Drake. Take your hands off me or I will scream for Constable Harper." Her eyes still gritty, she was able to swing one hand down with all her might and slap Gus over the face. With a bellow of rage, he stepped away holding his reddening cheek, then grabbed her again by the skirts.
"No bloody wench does that to Gus Drake an' gets away with it!" and with that he lifted her skirts up and grabbed her buttocks below the corsets. "See here. I can be nice, or I can be the other... your choice. Just to let yer know, here's a sample." And he pinched her as hard as he could.
With a scream of pain, Jessie lashed out at him with her boot, and overbalanced, her head striking the rounded edge of the counter as she fell.
"Shit!" Gus spat as his beady eyes quickly went to the door. He moved away from the counter, knelt beside her and saw there was no blood. "Only knocked out. Whew, the luck o' McGinty with me agin!" and he straightened up.
With another quick look around, he scuttled to the door, opened it carefully so the bell remained silent, and disappeared into the street.
Wind howled around Andie's face. Its grip squeezed his throat shut. He had to fight to gulp a breath. The train rounded a curve and smoke streamed down the carriages towards him. He had his eyes closed to prevent the cinders from getting in them, so had to alternate between sitting in his window seat looking at the view, and sticking his head out the window feeling the speed on his face.
A long howl from the steam whistle brought his eyes open, and he quickly pulled his head back in. Sitting on the green leather seat across from him was Silas Keen, reading a copy of "The Argus." He shook the large sheets into order as he turned the page. Andie could read the headlines, which stated that Mr. Crombie's acting troupe would open "The Maiden's Tale" at the "Theatre Royal" that night. Next to him squatted Father O'Malley, his knees spread wide. Andie had made his acquaintance briefly at the opening of the St. Augustine Orphanage for Homeless Children three years before. Father O'Malley was busily tucking into a leg of ham, while reading from a notebook on his lap. The opened notebook was also a convenient serviette, as evidenced by the spots of meat and fat on its pages. O'Malley pushed the wire-frame spectacles further up his bulbous nose and sniffed.
His large round eyes looked over at Andie and he said, through a mouthful of ham, "Damn noisy, these things! Should have taken the coach, but was too late to get a ticket. Will have to take my man to task about that when I return. Not decent, this mode of travel, I say," and he squinted at Andie. "Ah... McCubbin, isn't it? Work for the paper or some such nonsense, eh?"
"Aye, Sir. We met at the opening of the Orphanage. How is it going?"
"Very well. Forty-five grubby urchins off the streets. Not as big as that Protestant Orphanage, but we do better by our charges. We are teaching them carpentry and also how to make boots. The girls learn needlework from Miss Keating, and the little wretches make all their own clothes, be they neat or otherwise. Them as learns best, dresses best. I must say it is often a bit of a chuckle to see some of the boys with their bums hanging out where the seams have split."
Another huge mouthful of ham blocked any further comments for a while, allowing Andie to watch the passing countryside again as the train chugged across the flat landscape towards Williamstown.
A few minutes later a query forced its way through the masticated meat as the cleric tilted his balding head to one side and stared at Andie.
"Oh, I'm on my way to report on the departure of the Grand Victorian Expedition into the outback," answered Andie. "Geelong's own Edward Mitchell is one of the brave band to explore the unknown reaches of this continent."
"Is there a man of the cloth in their caravan? I think not. What's more I believe they are employing heathens to control camels. Camels to take their luggage! What rot! Why they cannot use God's own horses for this work, I cannot fathom. Camels indeed! You mark my words ... no good will come of this!"
"Och, wee Ian, what am I to do? I should call in the Constable, but how can I explain what happened. I would be the laughing stock of Geelong. Mrs. Mercer would never speak to me in the street again. And the Ladies Temperance Group would shun me forever. No, I canna let that happen. Not with Andie so close to being accepted in polite society. Ah, what to do?" and she brushed a lock of hair from Ian's brow as he lay beside her on the big bed.
She had regained consciousness moments after Gus had left, staggering to her feet with a blinding headache. She could find no signs of bleeding, but the side of her head throbbed painfully and the rim of a bruise could be seen above her left ear.
"Lucky I only clipped the edge of the counter," she thought. "If I had hit it squarely, my ear would have been a pulp."
She squirmed around to relieve the pressure on her badly pinched buttocks
Hot compresses to bring out the bruises had been agony, but the pain helped momentarily to assuage the memory of his coarse fingers feeling her hindquarters as if she was a sheep or cow.
"Andie would kill him...or more likely be killed. Och, if only John or Targus was here. They would know what to do."
Andie looked at the outside of the "Morning Star Hotel" and sighed. Harrison had arranged a night's accommodation for him, right enough, but he might have known it wouldn't be very posh, with Harrison crying poor all the time. The "Morning Star" was far from plush. Broken boards and windows framed the entrance. Some shabbily clad beggars squatted on the step, their eyes pitiful, their mouths open in plea, their hands out for any coin.
Andie brushed past them into the gloom of what could laughingly be called the foyer. Here he signed a grubby book, and was shown his room by a raggedly dressed old man. His small cubicle contained a rudimentary bed, which had been strengthened by nailing angle-pieces to the legs on either end, a chair, a stand with a cracked dish and an urn full of old dusty water for his ablutions. A chamber pot sat partly under the bed, a sign on the wall proclaiming that it was the resident's duty to empty it into the cesspit every day. A stained and torn blanket over a lumpy straw-filled pillow covered the bed. A sheet of oilskin was tacked over a broken pane, keeping back some of the cool breeze, and some rather lewd sayings were scribbled on the Hessian covered walls. This was his accommodation for the night.
He put his small traveling case under the bed, and decided to go out for some tea, as it was close to six p.m. Closing the door behind him, he was not surprised to find there was no way of locking it. A squat furtive fellow was coming down the passageway, and Andie said jovially, "Good thing I haven't anything worth stealing in there, 'cause there's no locks on the door."
" 'Tis alright, young feller-me-lad. No one will be after pilferin' yer things while I'm around. Yer room's next to mine, an' I got friends round 'ere."
"That's very kind of you. Let me introduce myself. Andrew McCubbin, reporter for the 'Geelong Advertiser' at your service," and he doffed his hat with a flourish, then laughed at the absurdity of the act in this squalor.
"They call me O'Leary round these parts. Ev'ryone knows me. You 'ere for a reason, or is ye just slummin'?"
"Och, I'm here for the Expedition sendoff tomorrow."
"Oh, that bastard Burke's little shindig. I 'ope that copper gets 'imself lorst an' fries in 'ell."
"I take it he's not yer favorite man, right enough."
"Nah, The bastard shopped too many o' me mates in 'is time. Bloody wallopers, stickin' their bloody noses into everyfin'. Like to catch 'im outside one o' these fine nights. Me an' the boys of me 'push.' I'd slit 'is gizzard, that I would."
"Well, I certainly hope I don't come across your 'push' tonight. I have a great liking for the way my head sits at present. I would hate to see it rolling down the street," and he gave a slightly strained laugh.
By now they had reached the foyer of the Morning Star, and Andie bid his acquaintance a very fair night as the stocky man sloped off to the left towards Russell Street.
Little Bourke Street was filled with scuttling nightlife, as Andie turned right towards Swanston Street and the eating houses he knew abounded there. Dark shadows and mysterious alleys encouraged him to walk in the gaslit circles that almost overlapped each other down the center of the street.
After supping on a cheap meal of soup and stew, he sauntered along Swanston Street towards the bright lights of the theatre district. The street was crowded with pleasure seekers, ogling the shops and each other, well-dressed young couples promenading, top hats being lifted, fans fluttering in recognition. The latest in crinolines walked side by side with dress suits, top hats and canes. They kept to the brightly lit areas, wary of the thieves and pickpockets who abounded in the shadows.
One of the brightest areas was the vestibule of the 'Theatre Royal.' The lights drew the fashion set like moths. A rainbow of fluted dresses and black suits filled the foyer and spilled into the bars and waiting areas inside. The early show was about to start as Andie pushed his way through the throng to buy his ticket to "The Maiden's Tale" which he remembered from the front page of the "Argus."
Ribald comedy and some risque costuming made the show something for Andie to remember well. The dance routines showed a lot of leg, something that he was not used to seeing in parochial Geelong. Indeed, some of the dancing brought quite a flush to his cheeks as the men in the audience showed their appreciation in no uncertain terms.
Feeling dry after the show, he made his way over to the inner bar and ordered a pint of Scrumpy, that potent brew from fermented apples. He was about to raise the glass, when a voice at his elbow stopped him.
"Phew, it's hot in here. I wonder if I can get anything cold to drink?"
Andie turned to see the profile of a pretty lass standing next to him. She was not looking at him, so he presumed her words were not directed at him.
Nevertheless, he said, "Would you let me order you a refreshing drink, lass, it being unseemly-like for you to order from the barman. That is if yer husband wouldn't object, of course."
"That would be awfully sweet of ye, sir. And as I am not in the state of married bliss, there will not be a problem in that area."
"First, let me introduce myself, then. My name is Andrew McCubbin. I am a reporter for the 'Geelong Advertiser,' up here to document the departure of Mr. Burke and his party."
"Oh, how thrilling. I am Olinda Dowling. I am connected with the play that has just finished. I am understudying Miss Coleman, the star. It is tiring work, for I must be nearby at each performance in case she cannot go on."
"An actress, indeed. I am much honored." He turned to the bar and called, "Barman, give the lady her pleasure, and at my expense, please," as he turned back to her.
"Why, thank you kind sir," she curtsied and placed her finger under her chin before turning to wink at the barman.
Andie grinned at her mocking way, and leaned his elbow on the bar near his schooner of cider. Something about those gray eyes in her pretty face unsettled him. They drew him in like a magnet.
Somehow, with a couple of pints of Scrumpy inside him, and a flush on his face, he found himself walking back towards the Morning Star with his arm firmly around the petite waist of Miss Olinda Dowling, she of the charming laugh and suggestive lilt. Melbourne was indeed different to Geelong, he mused, his feet treading carefully along the cobbled street.
"Whoops, nearly shlipped," he cautioned as he grabbed her tighter.
" 'S orright, dearie," she replied, her refined accent slipping, "You jist 'ang on to me as tight as ye likes, ducky. Now where did ye say ye was stayin'?"
"The Mornin' Stahh."
"Right. Know it well. Just up the street a ways."
"An' what 'ave we 'ere, eh?" a voice from nowhere spoke.
As if a net was closed on a shoal of fish, the push surrounded them.
"Couple o' toffs out promenadin' where they shouldn't aughta, eh?"
Low growls came from the other faceless bundles surrounding them. One of them pushed Andie, making him stagger into the one on the opposite side.
"'Ere, none of yer shovin'!" the other replied and pushed the couple back. It developed into a pushing match, back and forth, the shoving getting steadily harder each time.
This was the way the push operated. Select their prey in a quiet place, surround them, keep them off balance, then when they fell, put the boots in, rob the victims and disappear into the night.
"Haul orf, you daft buggers, he's a friend of O'Leary's," screeched Olinda. She was actually a well-known prostitute in Melbourne, who combined these arts with a love of the theatre, a comfortable marriage of occupations. She had been waylaid by different pushes in the past, the gangs not hurting her much, content to roll her clients instead. Andie had told her through the evening of his arrival and the chance meeting with O'Leary, so she thought at least this one would be safe to walk with on the streets.
The name acted like a bucket of water on a dogfight. Instantly, the push faded into the dark. She pulled Andie up from where he had fallen, and escorted him, dusty and disheveled, back to his room at the hotel. No one cast a second glance at the couple as she half dragged him up the stairs.
He indicated his door, and pushed it wide. Extricating himself from her grip, he sat gingerly on the bed with his head in his hands. She pulled out her kerchief and dipped it into the dusty water in the pitcher, then wiped his face with it. This seemed to sober him up somewhat, but he made no complaint when she took off his coat and laid it on the room's one chair. She closed the door, dropping the room into near darkness.
His head was spinning, along with that strange feeling of 'other place' which one gets after a skinful. Everything felt slightly unreal, so it did not seem out of place for her to swing his legs up on to the bed and start taking off his boots. That done, she unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off, with some help from him.
"Thanks, lass," he mumbled, "I'm sorry I'm not better company."
"Ye'll do just fine," she said in a slightly amused voice. She undressed quickly, dropping her clothes on the floor as she did. As with most ladies of the night, she only did up a few of the myriads of buttons, hooks and eyelets that held her dress together, when she was 'on the job.' So in a matter of a couple of minutes, while Andie lay there with his eyes shut, she was down to her vest and drawers.
Andie was a little surprised when she lay next to him, but wasn't in any mood to resist as he sobered up fast. Her advances were tender and seductive, as she was as much a courtesan as a prostitute.
Soon they were enmeshed in each other, she at the helm, he her loyal crew as they sailed into what was, for Andie, uncharted waters.
This night might be expensive on his purse, but the lessons he learned...
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