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Authors: Johanna Nicholls

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BOOK: Ghost Gum Valley
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‘You are
of great love, sweet lady. But it is not in my nature to love any woman. And you know I can't stay until dawn. I must protect your good name.'

Marmaduke avoided her eyes, knowing this was a half truth. It was his ironclad rule never to be discovered in a lover's bed at breakfast. A condition designed to create for each lady a memorably erotic experience – a romantic illusion that would be shattered by his early morning raspy voice, unshaven jaw and the headache that made him uncivilised until after two cups of coffee. This agreement for him to depart from a lover's bed under cover of darkness was established at the beginning of each liaison. Marmaduke knew he was valued for his discretion – it had opened a surprising number of bedchamber doors for him.

stay, my dear,' she pleaded. ‘You know I have always loved my husband but I was a great disappointment to him. I believed
I was cold by nature until you showed me who I really am. Each night you have always been the giver. This last time please allow me to be the lover who gives more. I want you to remember the woman you set free.'

Marmaduke hesitated. This latest ‘sweet lady', whose name he never used but knew to be Mrs Cagney, was not like any other woman he had bedded. Modest and faithful during her marriage to the husband who had rejected her, she had been in despair when Marmaduke first met her. She had long ago lost her husband's love but Marmaduke had introduced her to the world of the senses. Now she was a very different woman. Her pale blue eyes expressed the passion of a young girl in the delicately lined face of a thirty-five-year-old woman.

Marmaduke had only intended to kiss her lips in farewell but he discovered he had taught her too well. Her hands caressed him with gentle urgency, stroking his face, his chest, his thighs, drawing him to her with the courtesans' tricks that he had shown her. Her mouth covered his body with passionate, demanding kisses, gently biting him. She grew in confidence as he responded to her seduction, murmuring his pleasure to encourage and excite her. He knew it was now too late to make his planned exit. He must allow her to use his body, departing in the knowledge that she now possessed all the love arts she needed to win back her husband.

Marmaduke stroked the long Nordic blonde hair with its delicate grey streaks, kissed her neck and guided her tentative hands in the ultimate caresses she needed to make him break his last taboo.

‘Please,' she whispered, ‘you have driven me crazy with delight but you've never once lost control. How do I know if I can succeed
you, unless—'

‘Hush, sweet lady. You must remember the thing you want most – a babe with your husband. There must be no doubt of that. Every child deserves to know its true father. And you know I've vowed never to risk fathering children.'

She clasped her hands around his waist, dug her fingernails into his back and, in a rising peak of passion, entwined her legs around him to hold him captive.

‘Let me love you completely. I shall never see you again. The shield you use to keep a woman safe, I beg you, use it again!'

Marmaduke tried to calm her with kisses. ‘Safe, sweet lady, but not infallible! Nothing is. Forgive me, I can't risk it.'

Marmaduke held her in his arms while wrestling with his personal code of ethics. When they first came together he did so knowing she had been publicly and privately humiliated by her philandering husband Sean Cagney. Marmaduke had decided she deserved every bedroom art he could teach her. But now it was no longer a simple question of keeping to their original arrangement to explore everything, teach her everything.

Marmaduke knew that all Sydney Town gossiped about her rival. This lusty young former convict had Sean Cagney so infatuated she drove around in his carriage flashily dressed, determined to replace his wife.

Marmaduke realised that for once he had lost control of the game. He did not have the heart to deny this sweet lady's desperate need to prove her powers of seduction.

God willing
my luck holds and the damned shield will protect us both.

He held her face between his hands, kissed her with a well-judged measure of ‘uncontrolled' passion and cried out in fervour.

‘My God, you're so beautiful. I can't resist you!'

The lady's joyous cry of triumph was his reward.

Marmaduke awoke at dawn feeling distinctly uneasy but unable to pinpoint the reason. It was not until he heard the mocking sound of a kookaburra's laughter and his eyes focused on the shadow play of sunlight on the rows of exotic plants around him that he remembered where he was – lying on the floor of the glasshouse on Sean Cagney's estate. Cagney's naked wife lay asleep with her head on his shoulder. The fine age lines of her face were erased except for her sleepy smile. Her body was as supple and relaxed as a cat. He felt a flash of satisfaction followed by anger at himself for breaking his arch rule –
never stay till dawn.

Marmaduke gave a wry smile at the sight of the fall of false hair that had parted company with her own and lay across the bedroll like an exhausted lap dog.

‘Wake up, my sweet lady.'

He kissed her cheek like an absent-minded friend, helped her to dress and secured the bedroll out of sight.

Mrs Cagney reached out to stroke his cheek. ‘I'll
forget you.'

‘Nor I you! But you must return to the house right now! Take some flowers with you in case you are spotted in the garden.
reputation is of no consequence. Yours is precious. Remember your husband is returning from Van Diemen's Land next week!'

She sighed with resignation. ‘Yes, but with his young mistress. He intends to pack me off on the next ship to England and instal her in my place.'

Marmaduke hid his growing agitation. ‘For your own sake, please leave me now.'

As he watched her saunter dreamily back to the house with a bunch of flowers in her arms, he hastily dressed, slung his coat over his shoulder and headed for the tradesmen's gate. He congratulated himself on his narrow escape too soon and was confronted by the sight of a carriage approaching along the carriageway towards the villa. Marmaduke knew his luck had run out when he identified the carriage by the coachman's livery.

It's Sean Cagney!
Just for once, God, I'm asking you to save my skin, not for my sake but to protect that sweet lady.

He had seconds to decide. Flee or face the consequences? Salvation came in the form of an abandoned garden hoe. He ditched his coat jacket, rubbed soil on his face and shirtsleeves and began diligently hoeing the rose garden.

When Cagney ordered the carriage to draw level with him, Marmaduke wore the hang-dog expression common to many assigned men. The older man's gravelly voice sounded as if he had just smoked a box of Cuban cigars. His thick crop of greying red hair and heavy Irish jaw suggested he could be a jovial singing drunk one minute and a fighting drunk the next. Right now he had the look of a husband who had been rogering his mistress and has come home half satiated, half guilty.

Sean Cagney addressed Marmaduke in the arch tone of master to servant. ‘This rose garden is a damned disgrace.'

Marmaduke quickly ran through his options.
I haven't a hope in hell of fooling an Irishman with a fake Irish accent. I'd better try a Geordie one.

He mumbled a reply so thickly accented it was undecipherable. But Sean Cagney cut across his words.

‘Hang on! Haven't I been seeing you before? Who are you? No Government man sports a ridiculous head of hair like yours!'

Marmaduke answered with real pride. ‘I'm a free man. Earnt me ticket-of-leave, I did. Hired to landscape your garden!' For a moment Marmaduke wasn't sure if the cuckold had bought his story.

Cagney seemed to waver. ‘Well, if this is being the best example of your work, you ain't worth your salt. Get back to work!'

Before Marmaduke had time to mask his relief at his reprieve, Cagney ordered his coachman to proceed to the villa.

Marmaduke whistled, light of heart, as he jogged along the new road being built by the convict labour of an iron-gang shackled together. He sent up a vote of thanks to Aphrodite, goddess of love and other related matters, that Cagney had not noticed his flash new landau when driving past it. Thomas had stationed it in a spot discreetly screened by the bush. As Marmaduke approached it the driver was slumped asleep on his box seat but woke up startled and apologetic.

‘Shall I return you to the Princess Alexandrina, Marmaduke?'

‘A short drive around the harbour foreshores, Thomas. I'm in need of fresh air.'

On arriving at the curve of a bay where a sliver of golden sand was sucked by the incoming tide, Marmaduke felt drawn to the water.

‘Drop me down here, Thomas. Order yourself a decent breakfast at the new inn down the road. Come back for me in, say, an hour,' he said, handing him money to cover the meal.

Marmaduke removed his brandy flask and one of the books he kept on board then strode down to the water's edge.

Relieved to find this serene little cove deserted, Marmaduke sank down on the grassy verge that sloped down to the beach. Despite its pristine beauty his mood suddenly plummeted and he gazed disconsolately at the tranquil scene. Not a soul in sight. The only signs of life were seagulls. Close at hand, two fat specimens squawked in a high-pitched argument as they struggled to gain a share of their prize – a fish, flapping in its death throes.

These raucous birds seemed to symbolise what his life had become – a string of clandestine, meaningless liaisons. Women he called ‘sweet lady' but never by name. Each one brought him intense but transitory sensual gratification. He did not include Cagney's wife on this list but his other fleeting affairs had left him in a place somewhere between irony and emptiness. He performed so well that these ladies of Quality would do anything to please him in bed; however none would ever risk her place in Society by publicly acknowledging one of the ‘untouchables' – the son of an Emancipist.

His control over the hypocrisy of the game gave Marmaduke an odd sense of pleasure. But was this all there was to life? He flipped the pages over to his place in his well-worn copy of
The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Goethe's first novel continued to draw him back at intervals in search of fresh meaning. He was fascinated by the brilliant portrait of the gifted but melancholic young man so obsessed by his passionate love for a married woman that he blew out his brains rather than live with the truth that he could never be more than her friend.

Werther's sorrows had haunted Marmaduke for years.

How can any man be fool enough to destroy himself for love? Romantic love is a fine tool for poets, but in real life it's a ridiculous illusion to be avoided like the plague.
Passion is nothing more than Lust sailing under false colours – like a pirate ship that lowers its Jolly Roger to trick the ship it intends to plunder.

Momentarily satisfied he had mastered the truth that eluded so many romantic fools, Marmaduke was forced to concede that at nineteen he had been one of them, standing humiliated at the altar waiting for the bride who never came. That memory drew him towards the grey danger zone of that no man's land – melancholia.

Intent on shaking free from it, he downed another mouthful of brandy then wandered across to a tiny stream, cupping his hands to drink the deliciously cold fresh water before it drained into the harbour.

Yet he was haunted by the unwanted memory of a night some weeks earlier, the faces of two cousins whose husbands neglected them in pursuit of their convict mistresses. These cousins were on the guest list of every polite assembly, yet in private they had vied for Marmaduke's attention until they agreed with each other to share
him on the same night. He hadn't desired either of them. Marmaduke tried to shrug off his tawdry role in the game but the memory persisted and overcame him with a sense of his own degradation.

I give women pleasure. No one gets hurt. But what in hell lies ahead of me? Nothing of value now I've lost Mingaletta

On impulse, he stripped off his clothes. In need of the shock of cold water to lift his jaded spirits, he walked into the harbour until the waves covered his shoulders. No doubt any passers-by would gain the impression he was hell-bent on suicide, but in tough old Sydney Town few would bother to prevent it. As low-spirited as he felt Marmaduke had always dismissed suicide as the option of a coward.

If young Werther had chosen to go on living he would have found a dozen pretty women who wanted him. He'd have forgotten his Lotte in a trice.

A line of Werther's leapt to mind. ‘Our happiness and misery depends very much on the objects and persons around us. On this account, nothing is more dangerous than solitude.' He was overcome by a primitive desire to cleanse himself of his decadent memories.

BOOK: Ghost Gum Valley
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