Authors: Elsie Locke
Because this is a book about a real family, we shall begin with introductions. The story starts in New South Wales, Australia, in March 1859, not quite twenty years after British settlers began to arrive in New Zealand.
The parents are Mary Elizabeth Small and Stephen Small. There is a grown-up daughter, Mary Ann, and the ages of the children are: Bill, fifteen; Jack, twelve; Archie, nine; Jim, seven; Emma, two.
Don’t be surprised to find words and expressions in this book that we don’t use now—like yards and miles instead of metrics; a river called Teremakau which we now know as the Taramakau; unusual talk of blackfellows and Maoris. My characters speak, and dress, and act as people did at that time.
Archie Small squatted beside the hutch where he kept his pet ring-tailed possum and told his little sister Emma, for the fourth time, a long story about how he had put the ring on the tail himself. The possum could not be bothered any more to eat the strips of carrot which they passed through the wire. It had been a long and dismal day, with Archie having to mind Emma, and Jim so sick they weren’t even allowed in his room, and Emma crying for her mother who had gone away in such a hurry. The only way Archie could think of to comfort her was to show her the animals he loved—the parrots in the trees, the late calves in the paddock and the lizards asleep on the dry logs.
Now the delicious smell of hot beef stew came drifting through the rickety doors of the farmhouse. Archie lifted his nose to enjoy that smell and bounded inside. But his big sister Mary Ann was not dishing up. She was pushing the swinging iron pans to the side of the fireplace.
‘Aren’t we to have it yet?’ he asked shyly, for he was a little afraid of Mary Ann, who was like a second mother in the house but had not yet learned to be kind when she was stern.
Mary Ann brushed the hair back from her sweating face. She hardly seemed to notice that he was there. ‘I must see if mother is coming,’ she said, and went outside, leaving Archie to enjoy nothing more than another whiff of that beautiful smell. He went back slowly to Emma and the possum.
From the veranda Mary Ann looked out over her mother’s gay garden, past the orange trees and the peach trees and the rolling pastures with their patches of bluegum. The track could be seen at several points, but there was no sign of anyone. Only her brother Bill, dark and strong and already taller than she, came from the calf paddock with the empty buckets.
‘Isn’t she home?’ he called.
Mary Ann’s voice trembled. ‘Oh Bill—I’m that feared! What if she never comes back? Why did she have to go?’ Then to Bill’s consternation—for she hardly ever cried—she sat down on the steps and sobbed into her apron. He sat beside her, not knowing what to say, or how to tell of the wild plans that had haunted his mind all through this long and wretched day.
His father had risen early and mustered the young cattle for selling far inland, where the prices were good. He had driven off in the buggy with his riding horse tied behind, and the two blackfellows alongside to help with the mob. The children had rejoiced silently to see him go—until at the last minute Mother had come out wearing her town dress and telling some story about needing to buy braid and buttons. This did not sound like a real reason: not after last night! If Father’s drunken rage had gone only a little further, then Jack and Jimmy might have been killed, instead of being knocked up so badly that they were kept in their beds all day. How many bruises Mother had, under those long sleeve and long skirts, no one could guess. Yet she had left them all, with two boys flat on their backs, to go with Father! And what if he had turned upon her somewhere on that lonely way into Berrima?
‘Don’t cry, Mary Ann,’ said Bill. ‘She’ll come, and Father will be miles away, and we won’t see him for a week.’
‘A week!’ cried Mary Ann. ‘He’d do better to lose himself in
the desert and never come back. And the cattle with him. He loves them at least! Every care for the stock while the house is crumbling to pieces and we haven’t a stitch to go out in looking decent!’
‘He looks after the cattle ‘cause there’s money in them,’ said Bill.
Mary Ann looked at him sideways. Was he sticking up for Father? But he’d been down in the paddocks last night, and hadn’t seen what went on; the worst scene they’d ever had. Stephen Small had seized a chair and struck his wife to the floor, and Jack, trying to get in between, had taken the next blows until his shoulder and arm were paralysed with the bruises. Mary Ann, following her mother’s orders, had lifted Emma and run to the bushes to hide, with Archie at her heels; but Jim, pinned to the floor by fear, had been picked up and hurled against the wall where he had lain white and still, with not enough breath left for crying. Through the whole day he could scarcely be roused to take a drink of water.
‘Bill, you go look at Jim,’ she said sharply. ‘It might be you next.’
‘Oh no it won’t!’ The words came out in a rush. ‘See here! I’m going away.’
‘Yes, me. To the goldfields!’
He couldn’t mean it! Bill, the only one who was anything like a man to protect them all! Mary Ann turned on him with scorn.
‘Stuff and nonsense. The goldfields? They don’t give any licences of boys of your age!’
‘There’s jobs a-plenty to be had, helping out. And any rate you can say what you like, I’m going to run away.’
‘Then you must take us all along with you, Bill,’ said a gentle voice behind them, ‘for we’re all of us going to run away.’
‘Mother!’ Mary Ann jumped up with gladness.
Mrs Small was standing in the doorway. She had returned unseen, and already looked at the sleeping Jimmy, and made Jack’s arm comfortable upon a pillow. Her clothes were dusty from her long walk, but she was smiling.
‘I’m sorry, Mother,’ said Bill, half-ashamed, half-defiant, ‘but I can’t stand any more of it!’
‘Nor can the rest of us, Bill. I’m not teasing! We will all run away—but not, I think, to the goldfields. I’ve bidden your father a longer goodbye than he knows; and I’ve seen the coaching agent in Berrima, for we’re to travel tomorrow morning.’
‘And Father consented!’ Mary Ann was astonished.
‘Oh no!’ Mrs Small’s face creased all over with smiles, and suddenly Mary Ann thought how pretty she looked, with her blue eyes and sandy hair, and her worries thrown recklessly away. ‘He thinks I’ve come home with my buttons and braid, and, dear me, I quite forgot to buy them. The droving will keep him for a week. A week’s grace we have, to be away to a place where he’ll never find us. Never again!’
‘But what if he does find us? And Mother, how will we manage? Where will we go?’
‘Can anything be worse, my dear, than staying here?’
She put her hand on the girl’s arm as if to say, ‘Have courage!’ But before she could say more, they heard the joyful squeals of Archie and Emma, who had seen their mother and come running; happy because she was home, and because the stew over the kitchen fire would be something more than a most delicious smell.
Jack Small rolled over on his stretcher-bed and at once began to dream. He was falling over a steep bank into the Wingecarribee River—rolling and bumping his shoulder; and when he looked up and tried to call for help, there was his father leaning over the bank and grinning horribly. He hit the bottom but it wasn’t the river, it was a floor, with a goanna crawling out of a crack towards him. When he tried to shout, ‘Go away!’ the words came out as dry grunts, and he saw that it was no goanna but his brother Jim lying curled and limp against the wall. Jack reached out his hand and there was his father in between, still grinning horribly. He tried once more to bawl, ‘Go away!’ and woke up.
It was not his father standing there, but his mother in her white apron, holding a candle in one hand and a plate in the other.
‘Don’t be troubled, Jack,’ she said kindly. ‘You’ve lain over on your sore shoulder and got to dreaming. But we can’t let you lie abed, for we shan’t have time to spare, with the coach due to leave at nine. You must grin and bear that sore shoulder. Now have your breakfast, so we can be washed up and away.’
Jack struggled up and began on the heated-up stew, fried potatoes and milk. Through the doorway he could see Mary Ann wrapping plates in tea-towels and putting them in the big wooden chest with the name LONDON still showing from the old voyage. She had been busy with brooms and buckets all night; for if Father came back to an empty house, it still had to be a clean one. Jack reached under the mattress with his good arm and drew out his belt and his sheath-knife.
Mrs Small had to dress Jim as if he were a baby, he was so dazed; and she had to help Jack too, and put his sore arm in a sling. In the dawn light, Bill made ready the hand-cart, which was all they had, since Father had taken the buggy. They piled it high with boxes, carpet-bags, two rolls of blankets and one billy with bread and cold meat for the journey, and another packed with fresh eggs. (‘A present for someone,’ Mrs Small said mysteriously.) Last of all, Bill turned the calves in with the cows and opened the fowl-yard gate. Wouldn’t Father be furious if they all went bush! But they must find their own food and water now.
Everyone had taken a special treasure. Mary Ann carefully wrapped a silk handkerchief around the brooch and locket sent by her aunt in England, Bill had his set of draughts, Jack his knife, Jim his stuffed koala and Emma her rag doll, Bibi. Only Archie was in trouble, for his treasure was alive. He stood in front of the hutch and stroked the barred tail of the possum.
‘Archie, you must open the door and let him go,’ called his mother. ‘They wouldn’t allow him in the coach.’
‘We could hide him in a billy,’ pleaded Archie.
‘They’d hear him scratching, stupid,’ said Jack.
‘I could put him with the clothes in the carpet-bag!’
‘He’d make a fine mess of the clothes—ugh! I’ll catch you another one, Archie, when we get there.’
Archie was not to be trapped.
‘Will there be ring-tails where we’re going? Will there?’ Mrs Small puckered her face while she thought of an answer.
‘I’m not sure. But there’ll be something for a pet, be sure of that! Your possum will be happy in the trees, now he’s grown big. He wouldn’t be happy shut up in a bag, would he?’
But Archie was still clinging to the hutch when the hand-cart was pushed through the gate; then he flung open the cage door, sobbing, and raced after the others as his pet came slowly out and sat on top of the cage, not able to believe in his freedom.
The house, with its bare slab walls and bark roof, looked more dreary than ever. Mrs Small had a last friendly look at the geraniums, the tall lilies, and the blaze of bottlebrush on the hedge. Her flowers could run wild now, or be smothered by the weeds, and she could not stop them.
‘I shall make a garden that beats this one,’ she said cheerily.
All the same, she closed the gate so that the cattle could not get in to chew the flowers; and took Archie by the hand, to comfort him for his greater loss.