Read Wildflower Hill Online

Authors: Kimberley Freeman

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life, #Romance, #Historical, #20th Century, #General

Wildflower Hill (32 page)

BOOK: Wildflower Hill
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It was the fourth night of shearing. Beattie was wearily climbing the stairs for bed when she saw Charlie emerging from the bathroom, his hair wet, dressed in a loose shirt and denim pants.

“Good night, Charlie,” she called as he headed toward his bedroom.

“Good night, Beattie,” he replied as the door closed behind him.

Beattie.
Not “missus.” To hear his lips speak her name was a soft and unexpected pleasure. Her heart felt warm, and she couldn’t help smiling.

Then finally, finally, money came in.

The wool classer had declared the fleeces very fine, yet they still had good weight. The resulting payment, when it was sold on, was far greater than Beattie had budgeted for. The bank, which had been sending her increasingly terse letters of demand, was paid out. More important, Beattie was able to
pay Mikhail and Charlie, lining each of their pay packets with a generous bonus.

“I can’t take this extra, Beattie,” Charlie said. “You own the business, you take all the risks, so the rewards should go to you.”

“You took many risks yourself,” Beattie countered. “You worked for me for months without real payment.”

He pushed the envelope back into her hands. “Give me what I’m due and not a penny more. Buy stock. What am I going to spend money on? Buy stock and make this business even stronger, so I have a job next year and the year after. That’s how you can repay me.”

Beattie heeded his advice, organizing another fifteen hundred sheep to come in November.

At last there was money for furniture. She opened up the dining room, put in a table big enough for six, moved two sofas into the sitting room. She bought a bed for Lucy and put it in the room next to hers. There was money for rugs and for curtain fabric. For the electricity and telephone to be reconnected. Wildflower Hill transformed, just in over a month, into a proper home. Lucy came at the start of the Christmas holidays, and for the first time since they had left Henry all those years ago, Beattie knew she could give her daughter everything she needed.

Beattie had thought it through carefully. She would hire a governess to teach Lucy her lessons, someone who could also help in the kitchen and with the household chores. Lucy would grow up learning about the farm, how to run it, how to ride and muster and do all the million jobs that Beattie
and Charlie managed. Then, when she was a young woman, she could work alongside Beattie in the business and inherit it—and her own financial stability—when Beattie was gone. Beattie knew she could offer Lucy more than Henry and Molly: more than a life circumscribed by town, school, and church; more than being a well-behaved girl in training to be a well-behaved woman.

But Beattie was wary of approaching Henry and Molly directly, so she phoned Leo Sampson and asked him to come out and meet with her to discuss it.

She hadn’t seen Leo since he’d handed her the keys and papers to Wildflower Hill over a year ago, hadn’t spoken to him on the phone since she’d refused to sell another portion of Wildflower Hill to Jimmy Farquhar. He was as pleasant and practical as she remembered him.

“I must say, Beattie,” he said, dropping his battered leather briefcase on the dining table, “you have made a real success of this place. I didn’t think you could do it.”

“I had good advice from Charlie Harris,” she said, sitting opposite him. “He’s been wonderful.”

Leo frowned.

Beattie wasn’t going to endure petty prejudice in her own home. “You, too, Leo? You don’t believe that nonsense about him stealing from Raphael? You of all people know what kind of man Raphael Blanchard was.”

“I do, and I also know what a good man Charlie Harris is. But they speak ill of him in town, and a number of them are saying . . .” He struggled with words for a moment, then said, “That you shouldn’t have him here.”

“If I didn’t, I’d have gone under a year ago.”

“Yes, and don’t underestimate the jealousy people feel about that. You were a maid. Now your business is doing almost as well as Farquhar’s. That you have in your employ a black man who’s considered a thief . . .” He trailed off. “Look, Beattie, I know how hard you’ve worked here. But you must also work on your relationship with the folks in town. There isn’t much goodwill there for you. And like it or not, you are part of the community. Your business relies on goodwill as well as good sales.”

The doors to the courtyard were open, letting in the smells of earth and wildflowers, the summer wind. Beattie sighed deeply. “Thanks for your concern, Leo,” she said. “But I want to talk to you about something other than business.”

He pulled out a fountain pen and a notepad and adjusted his glasses. “Go on.”

“I want my daughter back. I know that Henry and his wife are prepared to hire a lawyer against me, so I wanted to consult you first.”

He scribbled on his page, then looked up at Beattie. “They are prepared to take you to court over her custody?”

“I’m sure of it.”

He cleared his throat, seemed to be taking a long time to answer. Beattie’s heart sank slowly.

“Go on,” she said. “Tell me.”

“If I may . . . as I understand it.” Again he cleared his throat. “Henry was married to Molly when you fell pregnant with Lucy?”

“Yes.”

He drew a tally mark on his page. “You ran away with Henry to another country to escape his wife?”

“Yes.”

Another tally mark. And slowly they built up. She’d taken Henry’s daughter away without his knowledge. She’d assisted at Raphael’s gin and poker parties. She’d wagered her body to win the farm.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Beattie said irritably. “But not everyone knows about those things.”

“They will find out. If Henry puts a lawyer on it, they will find out. They’ll ask Margaret Day, they’ll talk to Terry over at Farquhar’s, they’ll find Alice, and she’ll be only too glad to fill in the details.”

“But Henry was just as bad. I had to leave him because he drank and gambled and let us starve.”

“Can you not see how many marks I have on this page?” He picked up his pen and made one more, longer and darker than the others. “Beattie, you don’t know what they’re saying about you in town,” he said gently.

“Then you’d better tell me.”

He couldn’t meet her eyes. “There’s talk that you and Charlie are lovers.”

Beattie’s whole body grew warm. Embarrassment tingled into desire. “Who is saying that?”

“One of the shearers apparently mentioned that Charlie sleeps in the house.”

“Terry slept in the house when Raphael lived here.”

“Raphael wasn’t a single woman of questionable sexual morals.”

Beattie’s throat blocked up.

“The chances of you getting Lucy back under the circumstances . . . You should consider letting Charlie go.”

“I will not let him go,” she said through gritted teeth. “If I lose Charlie, this business won’t be worth passing on to my daughter. We are not lovers. He is my employee.”

“I have no doubt you’re telling the truth,” Leo said.

Beattie had a sudden realization, and the words bubbled out of her quickly. “You aren’t to talk of this to anyone. If Charlie thought he was making my life difficult in any way, he’d be gone in a second.”

Leo spread his hands. “This entire meeting is confidential.” Beattie fell silent. Thoughts and feelings chased themselves through her mind and her body.

“Just be aware that, if you proceed, it will be difficult. You’d be better off asking Henry and Molly nicely if you can spend more time with Lucy. Buy your own car and get down there to Hobart on weekends. Keep it amicable.”

She’d considered buying a car but had bought more sheep instead. She felt keenly the difficulty of balancing Lucy’s present against Lucy’s future.

Then she grew grumpy. Why should she have to ask anyone nicely—especially a woman who wasn’t even related to Lucy—to spend more time with her own daughter? It was so unfair.

“I want her back, Leo,” Beattie said, her voice catching.

“Then follow my advice,” Leo said. “Give it another six months, make sure you’re stable, hope for the rumors to go away.”

“Six months is a long time in a child’s life.”

“She’ll still be a child in six months or a year. Imagine: one more good wool clip, and you’ll be quite wealthy. Wealthy people always have more power.”

Six months or a year.
Her heart didn’t want to listen to Leo’s advice, but her head had already submitted. One more year. One more wool clip. Then she’d be in a better position.

“Proceed with caution,” he said, sliding his notebook back into his briefcase. “And for God’s sake, make some friends in town.”

When the new stock came, it was clear that Beattie could no longer be Charlie’s off-sider. He needed a man, a well-trained one, to work with him. She hired a stockman named Peter to come in peak seasons, and she spent more time inside the house with her bookwork and her new sewing machine. It was hard to get used to not being around Charlie as much, but her body thanked her for it at the end of the night, when there was no sunburn to tend to nor callouses to treat on her hands.

Autumn gilded all the leaves on the row of poplars that lined the driveway. Beattie didn’t fear winter’s approach this year; in fact, she barely noticed it. Rain had made mud of the paddocks, green of the hills, but she was comfortable inside. Lucy slept upstairs in her warm bed but was due to return home to Hobart in two days.

Beattie worked at her sewing machine under the window of
the sitting room, letting down the hems of Lucy’s school uniforms. The little girl grew taller by the moment. Beattie and Henry had an agreement: he would keep up with the shoes if she took care of the uniforms. She hummed to herself as she sewed, the squeak of the pedal on the sewing machine keeping a comforting rhythm. On the wireless, a man talked about Germany. It seemed everyone wanted to talk about Germany these days. It made her glad that she was so far away from Europe. Then she sensed movement behind her and looked around.

Charlie stood at the threshold, a grin on his face.

Beattie smiled in return. It was always a pleasure to see him. “Hello,” she said.

“I have something for you.” He pointed at one of the sofas. “Sit down and close your eyes.”

“What is it?”

“Go on.”

Beattie switched off the wireless, moved to the sofa, and closed her eyes.

“I’ve been tracking this down for weeks now. You might see a few calls to Launceston listed on the phone bill. But I think you’ll like it.”

Curiosity prickled all over her skin. Then something large and heavy dropped into her lap. She opened her eyes. It was a bolt of black cloth.

“Wool,” she said, running her fingers over it. “Fine wool.”

“Your wool,” he replied.

“You mean . . . ?”

“I talked to the selling agent, and he put me on to the
manufacturer who bought most of our last clip. Look, the wool is sold at auction, and sold on and sold on . . . Well, there’s no way of knowing for sure if it’s all yours. But it’s Tasmanian wool from this region. Might be a bit of Wildflower Hill in there.”

Beattie unwrapped a few feet of the cloth and bunched it in her hands. She felt a sense of promise, of possibility, that she hadn’t felt since she was a teenager.

“Sorry, black was all they had.”

She realized she hadn’t said anything to Charlie yet. “Thank you,” she said, breathless. “It means so much to me.”

“I know. I remember you telling me that night Mikhail was sick.”

She gazed up at him, and for a moment their eyes locked. Then his gaze slid away. Her pulse hammered in her throat. He had gone to so much trouble . . . why? How else could she read it but as a sign of his affection for her? Perhaps his desire?

“Anyway,” he said, slouching toward the door.

“I’ll make you something,” Beattie called.

“Nah, don’t worry about me. Keep it for yourself.”

Then he was gone. Beattie pulled out a few more feet of the fabric and held it up to her face, her mind already drawing patterns. She had a grand idea.

All through April and May she worked and never made a single thing for herself or Lucy. Instead, she designed two skirts and made ten of each in varying sizes. Then she embroidered twenty tags and sewed them into the seams:
Blaxland Wool.
The feeling of pride that seeing those tags in the skirts gave
her was unutterable. She lovingly folded the skirts between tissue paper and stacked them on the sofa.

Leo Sampson’s words came back to haunt her:
like it or not, you are part of the community.
He was right, she did need their goodwill. She especially needed the goodwill of Tilly Harrow, who ran the general store, if Beattie wanted her to stock these clothes for sale.

One fine, clear Friday morning, she walked down to town to speak to Tilly directly.

After Tilly had heard Margaret Day’s gossip, she had cooled considerably toward Beattie, so Beattie hadn’t tried to engage her again or even smile at her. Better to be rejected wearing a stony face rather than a grinning one. But today she applied a smile as she waited at the counter.

“Morning,” Tilly said in a vague tone, not quite meeting her eye.

“Tilly, I need to ask you a very big favor.”

Tilly’s mouth twitched downward.

Beattie stumbled on. “I’ve made these . . . They are fine work, made with local wool.” She pulled out one each of the skirts: the long slender one and the flared one. “I need somewhere to sell them and wondered if I could leave them here to sell on consignment.”

This time Tilly’s mouth went in the other direction. It seemed she found Beattie’s request amusing. “You’re not serious?” she said. “There’s not a person in town who’d buy something you made.”

Beattie folded the skirt back into its tissue paper, keeping her dignity. She realized hotly and clearly that she never should
have come here. That she should have taken a bus down to Hobart and gone to a larger store, where women were more interested in fashion than in the designer’s shady past. She turned to leave, but then her annoyance got the better of her. “What have I ever done to you, or to anyone in this town,” she asked, “to be treated so poorly?”

Tilly blinked back at her, perhaps considering this question for the first time: a pack animal suddenly asking itself why it did what the others did without question. Then her face hardened again. “There are plenty of people who are honest and work hard, who are justified to dislike people who don’t.”

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