The Secret Fate of Mary Watson

BOOK: The Secret Fate of Mary Watson
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For Rob
and my children

Contents

 

Brisbane
Autumn, 1879

1
Strange what you might find in the Positions Vacant column.

2
Wilson’s not sure how or why the wheels have fallen…

Cooktown
Spring, 1879

3
Eight o’clock on a Saturday night at French Charley’s, and…

4
The next night is a long one and I’m glad…

5
Seven o’clock and I’m yawning already, playing another tedious Mozart…

6
It’s been ten days since I first met Bob. We’ve…

7
The edge of the bed at midnight seems a fitting…

8
Saturday night, nine thirty. French Charley’s, like a sickening carousel,…

9
Something’s changed in the bar when I come back from…

10
‘You frightened the life out of me!’

11
It’s not Heccy Landers who stops me on my way…

12
Crunch-crunch go my boots through the wiry grass. Click-click goes…

13
I know as soon as I walk into French Charley’s…

14
Bob’s gone fishing. To give us both time to think,…

15
It’s nine at night. I’m not lying in wait for…

16
The afternoon sun boils a seafood stench off Ah Ping’s…

17
I hear the medicinal balls first. Bob’s hidden behind boxes…

18
Bob uses the stick to half-sway, half-hobble to the Sea…

Townsville
Summer, 1880

19
The sky’s same moody stare. The same abrasive sun, rubbing…

Rockhampton
Autumn, 1880

20
Twelve-year-old Carrie and I stroll the waterfront towards Monroe’s bookshop.

21
Nine in the morning and he’s already drinking. I take…

22
‘Your passage is booked then?’

Lizard Island
Winter, 1880

23
Logic has deserted me. My body won’t be talked out…

24
The first thing I hear are the three tethered dogs…

25
I can hear the breeze sweeping sand from the doorstep…

26
I find the camphorwood box in the corner behind some…

27
‘Think ye can make it?’

28
A sharp in-breath as I wake, bile on my tongue.

29
Ah Sam was right about the squall. Three o’clock and…

30
It’s been another week of sulky weather. A blustery wind…

31
When I go to collect the eggs, the coop’s a…

32
It’s a prank. It must be. I hold my nose…

33
Five o’clock, and balmy for July. We’re sitting outside on…

34
An afternoon in Gehenna. Stripped, hacked and portioned. A hot…

35
It’s ten in the morning. Bob was off at dawn…

36
Four in the afternoon. The wind stiff and sou-easterly across…

37
Two days before the drop. Somehow, Bob has to be…

38
One more night before I brave the darkness with my…

39
The morning sky is wrapped in a straitjacket the colour…

40
Nearly a month has passed since the drop. And the…

41
The men went fishing again this morning. Both luggers expected…

42
At eight o’clock, Bob sinks sideways in the chair. By…

43
Percy’s been ignoring me for three weeks. Coolly, politely. Firmly.

44
A bleak day. Wet and dirty. Percy and Bob came…

45
Percy’s been talking to Ah Leung. The Chinaman has had…

Cooktown
Summer, 1880

46
Back to a muddy street with shops nudging each other…

47
Bob has spent the week since Carrie left soaking up…

Lizard Island
Winter, 1881

48
Screams ricochet off the limestone walls. Ferrier’s face is the…

49
After dinner, in the rocking chair, the rhythm of my…

50
‘I think they should come with us,’ Bob says.

51
The luggers are loaded. Most of the crew is already…

52
The first night. Still life with squeaky rocking chair, sleeping…

53
The wind’s from the southwest this morning, blowing hard and…

54
The last four nights, I’ve invited Ah Sam and his…

55
Ah Sam sprinkled some ground dragon bone and oyster shell…

56
The next morning at eight, I stand outside with the…

57
I wake with a start. The rocking chair quivers. Ferrier,…

58
Strangely enough, I’m too exhausted to sleep. It’s ten at…

59
It’s a beautiful morning, the sky a lapis-lazuli blue, like…

 

(copy of an original document held in John Oxley Library, Brisbane)

 

Left Lizard Island September 2nd, 1881 (Sunday afternoon) in tank or pot in which bêche-de-mer is boiled. Got about three miles or four from the Lizards.

September 4. Made for the sand bank off the Lizards but could not reach it. Got on a reef all day on the look-out for a boat, but saw none.

September 6. Very calm morning. Able to pull the tank up to an island with three small mountains on it. Ah Sam went ashore to try and get water as ours was done. There were natives camped there so we were afraid to go far away. We had to wait return of tide. Anchored under the mangroves, got on the reef. Very calm.

September 7. Made for an island four or five miles from the one spoken of yesterday. Ashore, but could not find any water. Cooked some rice and clam-fish. Moderate S. E. breeze.
Stayed here all night. Saw a steamer bound north. Hoisted Ferrier’s white and pink wrap but did not answer us.

September 8. Changed the anchorage of the boat as the wind was freshening. Went down to a kind of little lake on the same island (this done last night). Remained here all day looking out for a boat; did not see any. Very cold night; blowing very hard. No water.

September 9. Brought the tank ashore as far as possible with this morning’s tide. Made camp all day under the trees. Blowing very hard. No water. Gave Ferrier a dip in the sea; he is showing symptoms of thirst, and I took a dip myself. Ah Sam and self very parched with thirst. Ferrier showing symptoms.

September 10. Ferrier very bad with inflammation; very much alarmed. No fresh water, and no more milk, but condensed. Self very weak; really thought I would have died last night (Sunday).

September 11. Still all alive. Ferrier much better this morning. Self feeling very weak. I think it will rain today, clouds very heavy, wind not quite so hard. No rain. Morning fine weather. Ah Sam preparing to die. Have not seen him since 9. Ferrier more cheerful. Self not feeling at all well. Have not seen any boat of any description. No water. Near dead with thirst.

(copy of an original document held in John Oxley Library, Brisbane)

 

I am a
bêche-de-mer
fisher residing at present in Cooktown and belong to the firm of Fuller and Watson. I have recently resided at Lizard Island and first went to reside there in 1879. I built on Lizard Island a dwelling, smoke and storehouse, and cultivated a small portion of the island.

I was married on the 30th May, 1880 to Mary Beatrice Phillips Oxenham [sic]. Subsequent to our marriage we resided on the Lizard Island, and since. In March last year (1881) my wife went to reside in Cooktown pending her accouchement and returned to the island about the end of June last, being then the mother of a male child born on the 3rd June.

On the 1st September, I left with my partner Fuller, taking our boats to fish northward on a six-weeks’ cruise.

About the end of October while fishing at Restoration Island, I was informed that the Aborigines from the
mainland had attacked the island and that my wife, child and two Chinamen who were left on the Lizard Island in charge were missing, and my houses sacked and property all destroyed. Upon my immediate return to Lizard this report was confirmed by personal observation. Since the 7th November last I have been untiring in my search for traces of my wife and child, assisted by the police and Harbour authorities and others, amongst the islands and coast land between Cooktown and Cape Melville.

From information I received I visited No. 5 Island Howick Group this morning in the Government Schooner
Spitfire
accompanied by Harbour-master Fahey and the Inspector of Police. On this island I found the remains of my wife and child.

I recognised the body of my wife, although in a state of decomposition, by her clothing, a leather belt she wore round her waist and her hair. I also produce a ring — I remember its being made by a Chinaman in Cooktown and subsequently placed by me on the third finger of her left hand on the occasion of our marriage. The ring I now produce I took off her finger this morning and recognized it as the one placed by me on her finger on the occasion of our marriage.

I also identify a revolver found in the vicinity of the body as the one left by me on Lizard Island in the beginning of September last. A box containing clothing, jewellery and two one-pound notes, half sovereign and silver, also her diary, I identify as our property.

The diary in which is recorded in pencil the
circumstances attending my wife’s departure from Lizard Island, I recognize as her handwriting. I recognize the remains of the child by its clothing found on it and in the vicinity. The child’s name was Thomas Ferrier Watson.

I also recognize portion of an iron tank in which I found the bodies of my wife and child on No. 5 Howick, as that I used for a
bêche-de-mer
boiler on Lizard Island — also two paddles which I picked up near the boiler and identified.

I also saw the remains of a Chinaman lately in my employ named Ah Sam. I saw them on the island in the vicinity of my wife and child. I recognize them to be those of the Chinaman from the peculiarity of his hair, the clothing and contents of his box — and identify a rifle found alongside the body as one left by me with my wife on Lizard Island. I believe that my wife, child and the Chinaman, Ah Sam, died from thirst.

I make this statement from circumstances related by my wife in her diary which records I recognize as her handwriting.

Sgd. Robert Watson

Taken and sworn before me on board Government Schooner
Spitfire
this 24th day of January, 1882

Sgd. B. Fahey, Water Police Magistrate

Prologue

It’s peculiar the assumptions we all make. For instance how, in a diary, the truth bone’s connected to the hand bone. But those experts at smuggling, the Chinese, know how accommodating anatomy can be. They dig up their dead relatives, then send the bits and pieces home to Canton Province in large earthenware jars. The fact that no customs official cares to dig through the contents for contraband doesn’t mean the gold nuggets aren’t there, tucked in snugly between the bones.

In hindsight, I’d rewrite my ending. Specifically, I’d correct that small but telling error in the tank diary. It was October, not September, when Ah Sam, the baby and I left Lizard Island. You might think it a trivial point. But it seems to me the kind of clue that an eagle-eyed observer could well home in on, suspecting things are not exactly as they seem.

The cynical might well advise: Don’t believe everything you read.

I would prefer to put it this way: The truth lies waiting to be uncovered.

Brisbane

Autumn, 1879

1

Keen observation is a skill that the homely find useful.

From the secret diary of Mary Watson

12TH MAY 1879

Strange what you might find in the Positions Vacant column. For instance: Dutiful daughter for life-wrecking father. Young ladies with expectations of a benevolent family life, or even a respectable name, need not apply. Good luck with your interviews, Papa. For my part, I’m applying for a new life. I just hope it doesn’t ask me for references.

Mid-afternoon, a mild Brisbane autumn. A cat’s tongue of cloud laps at the sun. The spilled milk tips down the shopfronts of Edward Street. My boots crunch through the toffee wrappers of a thousand fallen leaves.

I stop at the two-storeyed Ulster Hotel. Mrs Menzies, proprietor of the boarding house where I’m staying, told me I’d find Mr Wilson inside. In my jobless state, I desperately need to convince him he won’t find a better governess for his offspring anywhere between here and Mount Isa.

A horse and buggy are drawn up outside. His? The suspension’s seen better days, and the trap hangs low at the back. The horse’s elastic has gone at the neck; the bristly head droops as though the knacker’s yard has been whispering sweet nothings in its ear for months.

A man in dirty overalls holds a young boy in britches above his head. The boy has a chimney brush in hand, clearing away the cobwebs under the verandah ceiling. My eyes fix on the man’s damp armpits.

‘Excuse me. Could you tell me where I might find Mr Wilson? Of Witterby Downs?’

Two pained blue eyes peer through the boy’s legs. The braces jiggle as he lifts the top half of the acrobatic act over his head then onto the ground in front of him, dodging a pair of wiggling boots in the process. A patch of dirt mars the boy’s left cheek. A caul of web adheres to a spot on the side of the man’s head.

‘In the bar, miss,’ he says. ‘But you’d better hurry if you want to talk to him. There’ll be a poker game upstairs shortly and you’ve no hope of getting any of the men’s attention then.’

He looks at my face and I’m aware of what he sees. I’ve had eighteen years to get used to the landscape, after all. My maternal grandmother’s eyes set too far apart. Hooded lids like half-closed envelopes on two grey letters. The square jaw and big ears of some long-lost uncle. I scratch a cheek with a finger too thick to be ladylike. Mine are man’s hands, useful for scraping the hairs off a scalded pig. One day I will make some farmer a wonderful wife etc, etc.

‘No hope,’ he repeats, after his perusal. ‘In fact, you could cut your own throat and then lie in the middle of the table and the men would deal the cards right over the top of you.’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘there go my plans for the day.’

The fellow seems nervous. His fists open and close, and he won’t hold my eye. He keeps glancing at the pub door, then looking away, distracted. But I’ve no time to analyse his mood. I need to find Mr Wilson before the poker game starts.

The air inside is stale and hoppy; old beer soaked into rugs that haven’t been aired. Tradesmen and dock workers chat and smoke quietly in the corners. Near the window opening onto the street, several better-dressed men sit leisurely, nursing pints of ale. Only one man props up the bar, his back to me.

‘Mr Wilson?’

He turns. Veteran of a travelling boxing troupe, if ever I’ve seen one. Short, stocky, thick-necked, caught in a meat press as a child, perhaps. It’s hard not to feel the discomfort of all that bulk, crushed down into five feet nothing and bulging outwards at each seam. My first thought is: dumb and apeish. But there’s some cunning lurking behind his protruding eyes.

‘Not every day a young lady comes looking for me.’ He winks exaggeratedly and licks a fleshy bottom lip.

‘Mary Oxnam,’ I say, but don’t offer my hand. ‘Mrs Menzies tells me you may be looking for a governess.’

I’m going through the motions now. My instincts have already made up their mind.

‘Ah, the sweet widow Menzies. She’d be missing her husband by now, don’t you think?’

Sweet? I think of the old harridan floating into the kitchen this morning while I sat at the table peering at the Positions Vacant columns in the
Brisbane Courier
. I’m not sure what I found more alarming about her: the white hair piled high on her head in a snowy mountain, or the dark pupils of her eyes, like two climbers who had fallen from the alps above and turned black
from frostbite, their picks still in hand, as she enquired, ever so delicately, about: ‘the small matter of the board that’s owing today, Miss Oxnam!’

‘No, I don’t think she’s missing her husband at all,’ I reply. ‘He did, after all, leave her a debt-free establishment with which to practise her considerable business acumen. And, from what I can gather, she’s been attracting the avid attentions of several gentlemen of a certain age, with less-than-certain resources for their dotage.’

My eyes are drawn to a frayed patch on Mr Wilson’s stretched waistcoat. ‘Is that your horse and buggy outside, sir?’

‘Yes.’ He blinks. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘No reason.’

I calculate the extra information. If he intends to play poker upstairs, he must have ample money to bet. But no money, it seems, for a decent mode of transport, nor a new waistcoat. Neither dumb ape nor slimy opportunist; rather, a classic case of habitual gambler. As if to prove it, his fingers twitch around his glass, those bulging eyes stray to the stairs.

He smiles with his thin top lip. ‘Matter of fact, Miss Oxnam, I am looking for a governess for my two children. Think you might fit the bill?’

‘How much would the job pay, Mr Wilson?’ No use trying to sniff the honeysuckle without first beating out the bees.

He picks up his beer and takes a swallow.

‘Depends,’ he says. ‘There are always bonuses to be had with duties above and beyond the call, if you know what I mean. But, at the start, let’s say two shillings a week.’

Big spender. I could make that much cleaning, and would rapturously prefer to.

‘And Mrs Wilson?’ I enquire politely.

‘Sadly, gone to heaven, with the angels.’ The thick bottom lip pushes out in melancholy.

‘And the eunuchs,’ I add, flicking an imaginary speck of dust off my collar. ‘How restful for her.’

I’d thought the far-off gaze meant he was, in spirit, already in the card room above. But his ears are still open, it seems.

‘You’ve a smart mouth, Miss Oxnam. Yes, indeed, smart as paint.’

But I’ve done no real damage; his tone has a gleam to it. The heavy brows lift and I realise then what the bulging brown gaze reminds me of: weeks-old cowpats; cracked and dry on the surface, with smelly slop just underneath.

He glances at the clock on the wall. ‘There’s a poker game upstairs. Come up and watch, why don’t you? We often have an audience of appreciative ladies. I’ll even buy you an ale and lemonade. And, afterwards, we’ll talk some more. Happens to be I like a spirited filly.’

I hear the implied appendage: more fun to break her in.

He gestures to the bartender to bring me a drink before I have a chance to refuse, then hefts his bulk off the stool. I pick up the cool glass when it arrives, deciding I’ve nothing better to do for the afternoon. The sweet widow Menzies is doubtless lurking about my room, looking for something she can pawn to pay for my supper tonight. And if I can’t be a player, I can at least be entertained. Poker is serious business, and a good spectator sport for those who understand it. But as for the job, Mr Wilson of Witterby Downs can take his gambling habit, his two shillings a week and his half-dead horse and ride off into the sunset without this spirited filly tied to the backboard.

 

Pipe smoke has bullied the air clear out of the room. Five fine leather-padded chairs are positioned around the poker table. Wooden ones skirt the walls on three sides; on the fourth, French doors open onto the verandah. The muffled clip-clop sounds of Edward Street trot in. Two women in their thirties perch like crows on their seats. They’ve been watching me since I came in the door, whispering to each other. They probably think I’m Wilson’s fancy piece. The thought’s so disturbing I need a long swallow of my drink. Bubbles hit the back of my throat too quickly and I suppress a cough.

I nod to the man I spoke to outside, under the awning. He’s leaning against a heavy wooden post, a foaming glass in hand. His small companion has disappeared, and he’s exchanged his overalls for tan trousers. The piece of cobweb still clings to the hair above his left ear. He doesn’t acknowledge my gesture; looks away, as if he doesn’t want to be noticed. Strange. I hadn’t thought to offend him; hadn’t really had the chance with the few words we’d exchanged.

I take a seat against the wall opposite the verandah, ignoring the now pointed looks of the women. Minutes pass, and another six spectators arrive. Three are men, neatly dressed, as if they’d like to be considered players should someone drop out from what’s obviously a well-established circle. Two of the three seem easy in manner. Only one, a tall fellow, sixtyish, with bushy, grey-white sideburns, strikes me as having enough tension in his shoulders to be a part of the inner sanctum. Sure enough, he takes his place at the poker table. The other men take seats together near the wall to my left, separating me from the whispering women.

Wilson takes his spot across from Sideburns and scoots his
chair forward until the padded barge of his belly nudges the pier of the table. His bearing is confident, probably too casual. Afternoon sun falls amber in a column on the wood in front of him as he stacks his chips. It’s a bit early for such an act — he reminds me of Papa: always that projection of relaxed confidence, right through until almost the end, when the liquor has spoiled his judgement and his more sober opponents have scooped away the last of his stake. That’s when things got nasty. An angry Jack bouncing out of his box, fists flailing.

Two more players arrive. One is at least as short as Wilson, and fatter, but much more meticulously attired. I christen him Dandy for his gold silk cravat and his greasy little moustachios. He purses his lips and fidgets as he takes the chair opposite Wilson, next to Sideburns. The other fellow stands near the French doors, looking out onto the street, his wide back to me. His blondish hair is cropped short, his pale bone trousers and blue shirt neatly pressed. He’s tall, holds his body steady. He seems self-assured, relaxed.

Some movement or noise turns Wilson’s attention towards the door. He startles slightly, a wallaby smelling a dingo on a far ridge.

I twist my head slightly. Not a dingo filling the doorframe; more like a bear. He must be six foot tall, with shoulders so broad and straight they could be used as a try square. A long, black beard hangs halfway down his chest. But it’s the steady intensity of his dark eyes that has every man in the room suddenly skittish. My own gaze turns away, but I’m curious to know who Blackbeard is. And why he commands so much nervous attention.

The tall player by the verandah turns, exchanges a glance and a nod with Blackbeard. They’re not equals, that much is clear, but
this man’s closer to being so than any other contender in the room. The deference is there — superficially, at least. But I detect the frayed edge of something else beneath the surface of his green eyes that interests me. Not to mention the fact that he’s very attractive. Clean-shaven, fair-featured. I judge him to be forty, perhaps. His skin is biscuit-brown, and that blondish hair, seen front on, has gold flecks in it.

Handsome must feel my attention because, mortifyingly, he catches my careful inspection. He nods. The ghost of a smile lifts the right side of his mouth, ending in a fold of skin. The line remains for a while after the smile recedes, suggesting he’s almost always vaguely amused. Or, perhaps, chronically cynical.

I grin stupidly in response, then hide the bottom half of my face in my glass as I take another drink. Not only mortified, but an idiot, it seems.

Blackbeard’s big strides, meanwhile, have eaten up the space between the door and the poker table. He sits with his back to the verandah, puts a booted ankle across his knee. Then strokes his beard, slowly. He, too, has noted me. Those bottomless black eyes pin me for a moment, then move on without betraying any readable impression.

Cobweb draws a thin, burlap curtain over the opening in the French doors. Handsome walks around the table and sits with his back to me, facing Blackbeard, Wilson on his left, Dandy to his right. Sideburns, between Blackbeard and Dandy, takes a long swallow from a large glass of whisky and smiles nervously without making eye contact with his opponents. Cobweb sits near the wall, several seats to my right. He stares resolutely ahead, but I get the distinct impression he’d rather stand. Wilson glares at him briefly, then reaches for the deck and shuffles the cards.

The players ante up, the poker game begins, and no one seems relaxed any more.

Especially the continental Dandy. I’d noticed him wince when Blackbeard walked behind him. Now his forehead’s sweating. Of course, it could be the fact that his waistcoat’s too tight. A donkey track of buttons strain at their holes as they twist over his belly.

The game is five-card draw, and it’s played mostly in silence. Sideburns has started well, and Dandy isn’t doing badly either — he may be a fop, but he’s hard to read under the sweat and the fidgeting. He has a strong French accent; I should have guessed. Wilson is a rock — he plays few hands, and, when he’s in, it’s with strong cards. Blackbeard’s been unlucky early on. Handsome’s back is to me and, without seeing his face, it’s difficult to tell how he plays. All five of them are clinical. This is a serious game.

The ante is ten shillings, and the pots so far have run up to eighty pounds. It’s exciting to watch, but worrying. No … discouraging. So much money, and they’re playing with it as if it doesn’t count. I know quite well how the game works. I could play. I could win. Just one pot would take me a long, long way. But you can’t bet what you don’t have. Damn Mrs Menzies. There’s enough for three years’ lodgings just sitting on the table. Minding Wilson’s horrors for a month would barely make the ante for a single round, and there’s no pretending that his ‘bonuses’ would make a difference. I seethe and simmer, cross and uncross my ankles. If Papa was in my position, he’d try to bluff his way through a losing hand. But I’ve seen what that leads to.

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