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By Frances Burke
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2012 Frances Burke
All rights reserved.
Nicola Redmond stood at the balustrade, watching the waves forty feet below, sucking and receding from the rocks in the wash of a passing yacht. Beyond the steps tumbling down the cliff face the harbour spread, glistening in the sunlight, its magnificent foreshores buttressed in golden stone and scalloped in sand-rimmed bays.
'We own the best view in the whole of Sydney,' said a satisfied voice behind her.
Nicola turned and smiled. 'Why, Mother! Even better than Lake Maggiore? I thought the outlook from the prince's palace gardens was your absolute favourite.'
Millicent Redmond patted her shining coiffure and sighed. 'Ah, Maggiore, Como, nights at La Scala Opera. And Rome. How I miss the Via Veneto, the gardens, the galleries. Really, Nicola, it is not kind to remind me.'
Her daughter hid her impatience at this preference for a sophisticated European lifestyle over life in 'the colonies'. Nicola loved her home, a red-brick and stone mansion set high on a tree-lined point and almost surrounded by water. She loved the city, glimpsed a mile or two to the west, its sandstone buildings topped with coppered domes and spires that reflected the hot light peculiar to this great southern land. And she loved the relative freedom of a young and vibrant society where it was possible to escape the restrictions of the old world.
As Millicent stepped back through the long windows to rejoin her guests, sunlight was briefly trapped in the diamond bracelet at her wrist, her husband's gift to celebrate her recent return from their daughter's obligatory London season. Nicola blinked, momentarily blinded. Then her hand went to her throat, to the heart-shaped fire opal pendant that had been the expression of Papa's love for her.
Her reminiscent smile was tinged with worry. Papa didn't seem quite himself. At times he was quite distrait. But there could be no doubt of his joy in the reunion with his beloved wife and daughter. Just look at this magnificent party he'd thrown in honour of their return.
Snatches of conversation floated through the arched doorway from the salon, along with music and the clink of crystal as champagne flowed.
'I believe that recovery is in sight.' The booming tones of Arthur Claxton, insurance underwriter and prominent in the business community, were addressed to a colleague.
'Don't speak too soon,' was the retort. "Dollar Bill" Borbidge, whose nickname came from his habit of turning his money into American currency for investment, spoke with the dissatisfaction of a man whose system had lately let him down.
Of course, men could speak of nothing but finances these days, thought Nicola. In London, while reluctantly circling ballrooms and parading in The Row, she couldn't help hearing discussions of the mid 1890s crash and the Depression that had followed. British financiers who'd been caught up in Australia's disastrous bust were furiously disparaging. They tended to forget how eagerly they'd embraced the preceding boom.
Josephine Claxton's nasal voice cut across the conversation.
'Enough of such talk, Arthur. This is a party.' She strolled out to Nicola, trailing an aura of cologne and camphor that was peculiarly her own. 'My dear, what a wonderful trip you've had. All those exotic places; the opportunity to mix with la crème de la crème.'
Nicola hid a grin. Her favourite memory was of a scramble up a stony goat track in Greece to view the two-thousand-years old remains of a temple to Diana.
'And you were actually presented before Her Majesty.' Josephine sounded wistful. She enjoyed a relatively high position on the colonial social tree; but there was undoubtedly an extra cachet to acceptance into London's upper circles.
Nicola tried to look as if her presentation had been the highlight of her trip. But in fact she'd cheerfully have forgone the experience of tight lacing, of manoeuvring a three-foot train, along with fan, feathers and other useless furbelows, and the ultimate in anxiety: a full court curtsy. The wonder was that she hadn't toppled when rising from the difficult locked-knee position. It made her feel hot, just remembering it.
'Shall we go inside, Mrs Claxton? They're lighting the lamps, and I believe Papa is going to make a speech.'
Outside the sun was dropping beneath the horizon with the speed of the semi-tropics, and the evening star had risen above a pale crescent moon. All along the northern shore lights glimmered, reflecting in wine-dark waters. Nicola paused, held by the beauty of the tranquil evening.
At that moment her father brushed past her, walking as if in a dream. He crossed the marble paving to the balustrade and stood for a long moment, as though imprinting the scene on his mind. Then, as Nicola watched, frozen, not quite comprehending, he climbed to the railing and, without a backward glance, stepped into space.CHAPTER 2
NICOLA CLOSED THE door of her mother's bedroom softly, not wanting to disturb the waxen-faced woman lying drugged into merciful oblivion. With her friend Rose Basevi tiptoeing beside her she moved down the stairs and into the music room, her room, the one place which held no reminders of either her dead father or the mother who had retreated beyond the barrier of hysteria and subsequent exhaustion.
Nicola slumped on to the piano stool. 'What am I going to do, Rose? She's been like this for four days. I can't reach her although, God knows, I've tried in every way I could think of.' She pressed her palms to her throbbing temples, smoothing back a few loose strands of hair. Normally as vibrant as burnished copper, they were dull and stringy from lack of care. For the past few days she'd had neither the time nor the inclination to fuss over her appearance.
Rose crouched down and put an arm around her. 'Wait. It's all you can do. Doctor Freeman says she'll eventually recover.'
'Not if she doesn't eat. She wouldn't touch the pie you brought, or even Josh's tangerine oranges, which she normally adores.'
Rose pursed her lips. Palely blonde and reed slender, her bones seemingly too frail to support her, she'd always been seen as a foil to the statuesque Nicola. Although superficially unalike, and coming from entirely different backgrounds, they yet shared many things in common, and until Nicola's enforced departure on a Grand Tour they had been inseparable.
Now Rose's voice took on an edge. 'Yes – the oranges. The ones Master Josh is supposed to have bought with pennies earned at the market. I've my suspicions about that.'
'It was a kind thought. Don't enquire too deeply into the provenance of the oranges.' Nicola managed a smile. 'You are lucky to have a young brother, you know.'
'I know. Nicola, what can I do to help? Is there someone seeing to your affairs? I'm afraid my father wouldn't be of much use....'
Joseph Basevi's sacking from his position as supervisor in a tailoring establishment had brought his family to severely reduced circumstances, as Nicola knew. It had also changed him, severely undermining his status in his own eyes.
She said, 'Our affairs are in hand. I've an appointment with Mr Charlton Perry of Perry and Squires, solicitors, next Monday. He was always concerned with Papa's business.' Her face crumpled and tears slid silently down her cheeks. 'If only I'd known, I could have shared his worries, helped him find a way through. All that money spent on a stupid European tour ... Oh Papa, Papa!'
Rose hugged her until she reached the sniffing stage and began to hunt for her handkerchief, then said, 'His pride and self-esteem were so bound up in his business. He just couldn't face the people who had depended upon him. I've seen how that can happen to a man.'
Nicola put away her handkerchief. 'Rose, he was a good man, but I can't help but think he abandoned his responsibility to the folk who trusted him and lost all they had in the world. He must have seen this coming for months.' She threw up her hands. 'Anyway, it's useless speculating. I must deal with the aftermath, with Mother's collapse and whatever else our dubious future holds. I expect Mr Charlton Perry will inform me of the details.'
Rose stood up. 'Nicola, I must go now, if I want to keep my place.' She paused. 'I so wish I'd been with you when it happened. I just couldn't afford to lose those hours of pay.'
'Of course.' Nicola hugged her. 'You came when you could. Rose, it's terrible that you must give up your own dreams and go to work in a factory. I'd no idea things were so bad back here, while I was off cavorting in London ballrooms.'
'And being bored beyond bearing, knowing you.' Rose smiled. 'Things will get better. Now, would you like Josh to come after school for company?'
'No, dear. You need him at home. I'll be perfectly all right alone.' Nicola glanced down at the piano keyboard, chequered in rainbow light from the Burne-Jones style windows, and felt her spirits lift. 'I still have my music, and it's a comfort.'
Minutes later the first notes of a Chopin nocturne followed Rose down the drive as Nicola sought her own brand of oblivion.
The family carriage having been put down, Nicola took the steam tram into the city for her appointment with the solicitor. Normally she would have enjoyed the novelty and the exhilarating sensation of speed. She didn't mind the cinders and grit. They were a small price to pay for the illusion of being part of the modern world, the scientific world racing them all into the next century. However, today her mind was on other matters.
Clutching her hat and averting her eyes from the few pseudo-holly-decorated doorways, incongruous in the heat of an Australian Christmas, she occupied herself with speculation on the news that Mr Charlton Perry would have for her. Might it be possible to salvage something from the ruin? Her mother received a small income derived from her own family property, so they wouldn't actually starve; yet, unless Papa had provided for them in some unspecified way, the future looked bleak.
She left the tram at the harbour terminus and hurried through the drab streets, aware that there was little sign of jollity to mark the season. There was no bunting or extra lights and only a minimum of stock displayed in storefront windows. Faces of passers-by were serious, and there were so many beggars. She felt her spirits sink.
The rooms occupied by Perry & Squires, Attorneys at Law, were pleasantly situated one block up from the Circular Quay, overlooking the busy shipping lanes. Nicola, being escorted to a seat opposite Mr Charlton Perry's desk, thought such a vista must be quite distracting for him. Perhaps he was too dedicated to his work for such diversion. His staid figure, in a frock coat of ancient cut, his creased cheeks outlined in mutton chop whiskers, were echoed on every wall, where a phalanx of strikingly similar faces hung, their collective frowning gaze confronting the room's occupants. It was all rather demoralizing.
Nicola sat with her hands clasped tightly in her lap. She'd taken care with her appearance, brushing her hair until it glowed like autumn beech leaves, before piling it high beneath a saucy little feathered hat. Her dress, in a dark-indigo shade which was the closest she came to mourning, was laced to the required hourglass silhouette, the shoulders raised and sleeves puffed to accentuate her narrow waist. Knowing how well she looked helped to give her confidence. With a glance at Mr Perry, she sat back and waited for him to open proceedings.
He surprised her by crossing to a side door and ushering in another man, much younger, taller and broader, and with a head of hair almost as startling as her own. Of a rich golden-brown shade, it waved thickly and was worn a good deal longer than fashion now decreed. His grey eyes rested on her with a steady, examining look.
Mr Perry cleared his throat. 'Miss Redmond, permit me to introduce Mr Andrew Dene.'
The newcomer bowed and took a chair opposite Nicola, while Mr Perry settled himself behind his desk and met her questioning gaze with the utmost blandness, saying,
'I have requested Mr Dene's attendance at this meeting since he is a beneficiary of your father's estate.'
Nicola's mouth opened and the lawyer waited politely while she sought for words. Eventually she said, 'Mr Perry, I understand that my father's estate has been bankrupted. My mother and I have little expectation, but whatever is left will surely be ours?'
'Hrrmph. I'm afraid that is not the case. It appears that many years ago your father borrowed a sum from Mr Dene's father, using your mother's dowry, an investment in a manufactury, as collateral. The money has never been repaid and the debt reverted to the late Mr Paul Dene's estate. Mr Andrew Dene has only recently made claim as the sole legatee.'
'I don't believe it. Papa wouldn't....' Nicola choked, and stopped. Her gloved fingers gripped her purse tight enough for the seams to bite into her skin.
Andrew Dene leaned forward, searching her face. 'Your mother didn't tell you, Miss Redmond?'
'I don't suppose she knew.' Nicola controlled her voice with difficulty. She'd known things were bad, but losing her mother's property would leave them destitute. She turned to the lawyer. 'Can nothing be done? Surely the agreement can't be binding without my mother's permission.'
Mr Charlton Perry cleared his throat. 'Your mother would appear to have placed her affairs in your late father's hands. The agreement is perfectly legal, I assure you. I drew up the contract myself.'
'And Papa's estate? I know the bank has gone, but he owned houses in the inner city and had other interests in the press and in mining.' Under his strictly non-committal gaze her own didn't waver.
'It is regrettable, Miss Redmond, but your father's estate cannot cover his debts, let alone provide a residue for you and Mrs Redmond. However,' he nodded in Andrew Dene's direction, 'Mr Dene and I have come to an arrangement which I believe to be very generous on his part.'
She stiffened. 'What sort of an arrangement, Mr Perry?'
'One which I am sure you and Mrs Redmond will find satisfactory. I might add that there is absolutely no legal compulsion upon Mr Dene to offer any sort of assistance.' The solicitor's precise voice had cooled. The unspoken word: ingratitude, hung in the air.
Blood rushed to Nicola's cheeks. This man was her solicitor, but he acted more like a guardian. He simply had no right to be making arrangements for her future without consultation.
She said, 'Mr Perry, have I misunderstood, or are you actually proposing an act of charity by a perfect stranger?' Turning swiftly to Andrew Dene, she added, 'And you, sir. I've no doubt that your intentions are kindly, but they are also humiliating.' Her lips trembled with suppressed emotion, and she closed them firmly. The events of the past few days were having a delayed effect, but nothing would induce her to show weakness in front of these two men, not even this latest, shocking blow.
Andrew Dene said gently, 'Miss Redmond, you're quite mistaken, believe me.'
Mr Perry couldn't contain himself. 'My dear young lady, I can assure you that Mr Dene's offer is designed merely to redress what he sees as an injustice. Perhaps if I were to speak with Mrs Redmond ...' The implication was all too clear: Nicola was a feather-headed innocent, not to be trusted with matters of business.
Mortified, Nicola rose with all the dignity she could command. 'Gentlemen, I can't possibly speak about this until I have discussed the matter with my mother. I shall be in touch with you, Mr Perry. Good day, Mr Dene.'
She moved swiftly to the door, but Andrew Dene was there before her, his voice concerned. 'Miss Redmond. Please believe that this situation has been a shock to me, also. I'm sure that a satisfactory arrangement can be reached after discussion.'
She nodded stonily, holding her purse to her bosom in an effort to contain the emotions threatening to boil over. Then she was through the door and out into the street.
Safe in the privacy of a cab, she waited for angry tears to flow. But she found they had turned into a solid lump of misery that wouldn't be moved. What could she say to her mother? How were they to survive? What had her papa been thinking of to leave them in such straits?
Excerpted from Dark Passage by Frances Burke. Copyright © 2012 Frances Burke. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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