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Not since The Thorn Birds has Colleen McCullough written a novel of such broad appeal about a family and the Australian experience as The Touch.
At its center is Alexander Kinross, remembered as a young man in his native Scotland only as a shiftless boilermaker's apprentice and a godless rebel. But when, years later, he writes from Australia to summon his bride, his Scottish relatives quickly realize that he has made a fortune in the gold ...
Not since The Thorn Birds has Colleen McCullough written a novel of such broad appeal about a family and the Australian experience as The Touch.
At its center is Alexander Kinross, remembered as a young man in his native Scotland only as a shiftless boilermaker's apprentice and a godless rebel. But when, years later, he writes from Australia to summon his bride, his Scottish relatives quickly realize that he has made a fortune in the gold fields and is now a man to be reckoned with.
Arriving in Sydney after a difficult voyage, the sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Drummond meets her husband-to-be and discovers to her dismay that he frightens and repels her. Offered no choice, she marries him and is whisked at once across a wild, uninhabited countryside to Alexander's own town, named Kinross after himself. In the crags above it lies the world's richest gold mine.
Isolated in Alexander's great house, with no company save Chinese servants, Elizabeth finds that the intimacies of marriage do not prompt her husband to enlighten her about his past life — or even his present one. She has no idea that he still has a mistress, the sensual, tough, outspoken Ruby Costevan, whom Alexander has established in his town, nor that he has also made Ruby a partner in his company, rapidly expanding its interests far beyond gold. Ruby has a son, Lee, whose father is the head of the beleaguered Chinese community; the boy becomes dear to Alexander, who fosters his education as a gentleman.
Captured by the very different natures of Elizabeth and Ruby, Alexander resolves to have both of them. Why should he not? He has the fabled "Midas Touch" — a combination of curiosity, boldness and intelligence that he applies to every situation, and which fails him only when it comes to these two women.
Although Ruby loves Alexander desperately, Elizabeth does not. Elizabeth bears him two daughters: the brilliant Nell, so much like her father; and the beautiful, haunting Anna, who is to present her father with a torment out of which for once he cannot buy his way. Thwarted in his desire for a son, Alexander turns to Ruby's boy as a possible heir to his empire, unaware that by keeping Lee with him, he is courting disaster.
The stories of the lives of Alexander, Elizabeth and Ruby are intermingled with those of a rich cast of characters, and, after many twists and turns, come to a stunning and shocking climax. Like The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough's new novel is at once a love story and a family saga, replete with tragedy, pathos, history and passion. As few other novelists can, she conveys a sense of place: the desperate need of her characters, men and women, rootless in a strange land, to create new beginnings.
Chapter One: A Change of Fortune
"Your cousin Alexander has written for a wife," said James Drummond, looking up from a sheet of paper.
The summons to see her father in the front parlor had fallen on Elizabeth like a blow; such formality meant a lecture for transgression, followed by a punishment appropriate for the offense. Well, she knew what she had done — over-salted this morning's porridge — and knew too what her punishment was bound to be — to eat unsalted porridge for the rest of the year. Father was careful with his money, he'd not spend it on a grain more salt than he had to.
So, hands behind her back, Elizabeth stood in front of the shabby wing chair, her mouth dropped open at this amazing news.
"He asks for Jean, which is daft — does he think time stands still?" James brandished the letter indignantly, then transferred his gaze from it to this youngest child, light from the window pouring over her while he sat concealed by shadows. "You're made like any other female, so it will have to be you."
"Are you deaf, girl? Aye, you. Who else is there?"
"But Father! If he asks for Jean, he'll not want me."
"Any respectable, decently brought-up young woman will do, judging by the state of affairs in the place he writes from."
"Where does he write from?" she asked, knowing that she wouldn't be allowed to read the letter.
"New South Wales." James grunted, a satisfied sound. "It seems your cousin Alexander has done well for himself — made a wee fortune on the goldfields." His brow wrinkled. "Or," he temporized, "at least has made enough to afford a wife."
Her first shock was dissipating, to be replaced by dismay. "Wouldn't it be simpler for him to find a wife there, Father?"
"In New South Wales? It's naught but harlots, ex-convicts and English snobs when it comes to women, he says. Nay, he saw Jeannie when he was last home, and took a strong fancy to her. Asked for her hand then. I refused — well, why would I have taken a shiftless boilermaker's apprentice living in the Glasgow stews for Jeannie, and her barely sixteen? Your age, girl. That's why I'm sure you'll do for him — he likes them young. What he's after is a Scots wife whose virtue is above reproach, whose blood he shares and can trust. That's what he says, at any rate." James Drummond rose to his feet, brushed past his daughter and marched into the kitchen. "Make me some tea."
Out came the whisky bottle while Elizabeth threw tea leaves into the warmed pot and poured boiling water on top of them. Father was a presbyter — an elder of the kirk — so was not a drinker, let alone a drunkard. If he poured a dollop of whisky into his teacup, it was only upon the receipt of splendid news, like the birth of a grandson. Yet why was this such splendid news? What would he do, with no daughter to look after him?
What was really in that letter? Perhaps, thought Elizabeth, accelerating the steeping of the tea by stirring it with a spoon, the whisky would provide some answers. Father when slightly befuddled was actually talkative. He might betray its secrets.
"Does my cousin Alexander have anything else to say?" she ventured as soon as the first cup was down and the second poured.
"Not very much. He's no fonder of words than any other of the Drummond ilk." Came a snort. "Drummond, indeed! It's not his name anymore, if you can believe that. He changed it to Kinross when he was in America. So you won't be Mrs. Alexander Drummond, you'll be Mrs. Alexander Kinross."
It did not occur to Elizabeth that she might dispute this arbitrary decision about her destiny, either at that moment or much later, when enough time had passed to see the thing clearly. The very thought of disobeying Father in such an important matter was more terrifying than anything she could imagine except a scolding from the Reverend Dr. Murray. Not that Elizabeth Drummond lacked courage or spirit; more that, as the motherless youngest, she had spent all her little life being tyrannized by two terrible old men, her father and his minister of religion.
"Kinross is the name of our town and county, not the name of a clan," she said.
"I daresay he had his reasons for changing," said James with unusual tolerance, sipping at his second tipple.
"Some sort of crime, Father?"
"I doubt that, or he'd not be so open now. Alexander was always headstrong, always too big for his boots. Your uncle Duncan tried, but couldn't manage him." James heaved a huge, happy sigh. "Alastair and Mary can move in with me. They'll come into a tidy sum when I'm six feet under."
"A tidy sum?"
"Aye. Your husband-to-be has sent a bank draft to cover the cost of sending you out to New South Wales. A thousand pounds."
She gaped. "A thousand pounds?"
"You heard me. But don't get your head turned around, girl. You can have twenty pounds to fill your glory box and five for your wedding finery. He says you're to be sent first-class and with a maid — well, I'll not countenance such extravagance! Och, awful! First thing tomorrow I'll write to the Edinburgh and Glasgow newspapers to post an advertisement." Down came his spiky sandy lashes, a sign of deep thought. "What I want is a respectable married couple belonging to the kirk who are planning to emigrate to New South Wales. If they're willing to take you along, I'll pay them fifty pounds." His lids lifted to reveal his bright blue eyes. "They'll grab at it. And I'll put nine hundred and twenty-five pounds in my purse. A tidy sum."
"But will Alastair and Mary be willing to move in, Father?"
"If they're not, I'll leave my tidy sum to Robbie and Bella or Angus and Ophelia," said James Drummond smugly.
Having served him two thick bacon sandwiches for his Sunday supper, Elizabeth threw her plaid around her shoulders and escaped on the pretext that she'd better see if the cow had come home.
The house wherein James Drummond had brought up his large family lay on the outskirts of Kinross, a village dignified with the status of market-town because it was the capital of Kinross County. At twelve by ten miles, Kinross was the second-smallest county in Scotland, but made up for its lack of size by some slight degree of prosperity.
The woollen mill, the two flour mills and the brewery were belching black smoke, for no mill owner let his boilers go out just because it was a Sunday; cheaper than stoking from scratch on Mondays. There was sufficient coal in the southern part of the county to permit of these modest local industries, and thanks to them James Drummond had not suffered the fate of so many Scotsmen, forced to leave their native land in order to find work and live, or else subsist in the squalor of a reeking city slum. Like his elder brother, Duncan, who was Alexander's father, James had worked his fifty-five years at the woollen mill, turning out lengths of checkered cloth for the Sassenachs after the Queen had brought tartan into fashion.
The strong Scottish winds blew the stack-smoke away like charcoal under an artist's thumb and opened the pale blue vault to near-infinity. In the distance were the Ochils and the Lomonds, purple with autumn heather, high wild mountains where crofter's cottages swung decayed doors on nothing, where soon the absentee landlords would come to shoot deer, fish the lochs. Of scant concern to Kinross County, in itself a fertile plain replete with cattle, horses, sheep. The cattle were destined to become the finest London roast beef, the horses were brood mares for saddle and carriage horses, the sheep produced wool for the tartan mill and mutton for local tables. There were crops too, for the mossy soil had been extensively drained fifty years ago.
In front of Kinross town was Loch Leven, a broad, ruffled mere of that steely blue peculiar to the Scottish lochs, fed by translucent amber peat streams. Elizabeth stood on the shore only yards from the house (she knew better than to disappear from sight of it) and looked across the loch to the verdant flatlands that lay between it and the Firth of Forth. Sometimes, if the wind blew from the east, she could smell the cold, fishy depths of the North Sea, but today the wind blew off the mountains, redolent with the tang of moldering leaves. On Lochleven Isle a castle reared, the one in which Mary Queen of Scots had been imprisoned for almost a year. What must it have been like, to be both sovereign and captive? A woman trying to rule a land of fierce, outspoken men? But she had tried to bring back the Roman faith, and Elizabeth Drummond was too carefully reared a Presbyterian to think well of her for that.
I am going to a place called New South Wales to marry a man I have never met, she thought. A man who asked for my sister, not for me. I am caught in a web of my father's making. What if, when I arrive, this Alexander Kinross doesn't like me? Surely, if he is an honorable man, he will send me home again! And he must be honorable, else he would not have sent for a Drummond bride. But I have read that these rude colonies so far from home do indeed suffer a scarcity of suitable wives, so I suppose he will marry me. Dear God in Heaven, make him like me! Make me like him!
She had gone to Dr. Murray's school for two years, long enough to learn to read and write, and she was well, if narrowly, read; writing was more difficult, since James refused to spend money on paper for silly girls to despoil. But provided she kept the house spotlessly clean, cooked her father's meals to his liking, didn't spend any money, or hobnob with other, equally silly girls, Elizabeth was free to read whatever books she could find. She had two sources: the texts in the library of Dr. Murray's manse and the drearily respectable novels that circulated among the feminine members of his massive congregation. No surprise, then, that she was more informed about theology than geology, and circumstance than romance.
That marriage would be her lot had never occurred to her, though she was just beginning to be old enough to wonder about its pleasures and perils, to look at her older siblings' unions with fascinated interest. Alastair and Mary, so different, always arguing, yet, she sensed, enjoying some deeper communion; Robert and Bella, perfectly matched in parsimony; Angus and his twittery Ophelia, who seemed determined to destroy each other; Catherine and her Robert, who lived in Kirkaldy because he was a fisherman; Mary and her James, Anne and her Angus, Margaret and William....And Jean, the oldest daughter, the family beauty, who at eighteen had married a Montgomery — an enviable catch for a girl of good enough blood but absolutely no dowry. Her husband had removed her to a mansion in Princes Street, Edinburgh, and that was the last time the Drummonds in Kinross ever saw Jean.
"Ashamed of us," said James with contempt.
"Very canny," said Alastair, who had loved her and was loyal.
"Very selfish," said Mary, sneering.
Very lonely, thought Elizabeth, who remembered Jean only vaguely. But if Jean's loneliness became too much to bear, her family was a mere fifty miles away. Whereas I will never be able to come home, and home is all I know.
It had been decided after Margaret married that Elizabeth, the last of James's brood who lived, was to remain a spinster at least until her father died, which family superstition believed would not be for many years to come; he was as tough as old boots and as hard as the rock of Ben Lomond. Now all of it had changed, thanks to Alexander Kinross and a thousand pounds. Alastair, James's pride and joy after the death of his namesake, would override Mary and move her and his seven children into his father's house. It would go to him anyway in the fullness of time, for he had cemented his place in James's affections by succeeding his father as loom master at the mill. But Mary — poor Mary, how she would suffer! Father deemed her a shocking spendthrift, between buying her children shoes to wear on Sundays and putting jam on the table for breakfast as well as for supper. Once she moved in with James, her children would wear boots and jam would appear only for Sunday supper.
The wind began to bluster; Elizabeth shivered, more from fear than the sudden chill. What had Father said of Alexander Kinross? "A shiftless boilermaker's apprentice living in the Glasgow stews." What did he mean by shiftless? That Alexander Kinross stuck to nothing? If he was shiftless, would he even be there to meet her at journey's end?
"Elizabeth, come inside!" James was shouting.
Obedient, Elizabeth ran.
As the days flew by they conspired to give Elizabeth little time for reflection; try as she did to stay awake in her bed and think about her fate, the moment she lay down, sleep claimed her. Every day saw quarrels between James and Mary; Alastair, away to the mill at dawn and not returning until after dark, was fortunate. All of Mary's own furniture had to be moved to her new residence, and took precedence over James's chipped, battered pieces. If Elizabeth wasn't running up and down the stairs with armloads of linens or clothing (including shoes) or on one end of the piano, the bureau, the chiffer-robe, she was outside with one of Mary's rugs spread over the clothesline, beating it within an inch of its life. Mary was a cousin on the Murray side, and had come to her marriage with a certain amount of property, a small allowance from her farmer father, and more independence of mind than Elizabeth had credited any woman could possess. None of which had impinged on her in the way it did after Mary came to live with Father. Who didn't always win the battles, she was amazed to discover. The jam stayed on the breakfast table every morning and was there again every night. The children's shoes went on their feet before service at Dr. Murray's kirk on Sundays. And Mary flirted her shapely ankles in a pair of exquisite blue kid slippers with heels high enough to turn her walk into a mince. James spent much of his time in towering rages and soon had his grandchildren in healthy fear of his stick, but Alastair, he was learning, had become putty in Mary's hands.
Elizabeth's only chance to avoid this domestic turmoil were visits to Miss MacTavish's establishment in Kinross's main square. It was a small house whose front parlor, opening straight on to the pavement, bore a big glass window in which stood a sexless dummy clad in a very full-skirted pink taffeta dress — it would never do to offend the kirk by showing a dummy with breasts.
Everyone who didn't make her own clothing went to see Miss MacTavish, an attenuated spinster lady in her late forties, who, upon inheriting a hundred pounds, had given up employment as a seamstress and opened her own business as a modiste. It and she had prospered, for Kinross contained women able to afford her services, and she was clever enough to produce magazines of ladies' fashions that she insisted were sent to her from London.
Five of Elizabeth's twenty pounds had gone on tartan wools from the mill, where Alastair's position allowed her a small but welcome discount. These and four house dresses in coarse brown linen she would craft herself, together with her unbleached calico drawers, nightgowns, chemises and petticoats. When the expenditure was totted up, she found that she had sixteen pounds left to spend with Miss MacTavish.
"Two morning gowns, two afternoon gowns, two evening gowns and your wedding dress," said Miss MacTavish, enchanted with this commission. She wouldn't make much of a profit on the exercise, but it wasn't every day that a young and very pretty girl — oh, such a figure! — was thrust into Miss MacTavish's hands without a mother or an aunt to spoil her fun.
"As well," the modiste chattered as she wielded her tape measure, "that I am here, Elizabeth. Were you to go to Kirkaldy or Dumfermline, you'd pay twice as much for half as much. And I have some lovely materials in stock, just right for your coloring. Dark beauties never go out of fashion, they don't fade into their surroundings. Though I hear that your sister Jean — now there was a fair beauty! — is still the toast of Edinburgh."
Staring at herself in Miss MacTavish's mirror, Elizabeth heard only the last part of this. James wouldn't brook a mirror in his house and had won that particular encounter with Mary, who, when James produced Dr. Murray as reinforcements, was obliged to keep her mirror in her own bedroom. Beauty, Elizabeth sensed, was a word that tripped easily off Miss MacTavish's tongue, and served as a balm to soothe a customer's misgivings. Certainly she saw no sign of beauty in her reflection, though "dark" was accurate enough. Very dark hair, thick dark brows and lashes, dark eyes, an ordinary sort of face.
"Och, your skin!" Miss MacTavish was crooning. "So white, and quite flawless! But do not let anybody plaster you with rouge, it would ruin your style. A neck like a swan!"
The measuring done, Elizabeth was led into the room wherein Miss MacTavish's bolts of fabrics were arranged on shelves — the finest muslins, cambrics, silks, taffetas, laces, velvets, satins. Spools of ribbon in every color. Feathers, silk flowers.
Elizabeth sped straight to a bolt of brilliant red, face alight. "This one, Miss MacTavish!" she cried. "This one!"
The seamstress-turned-modiste went as red as the cloth. "Och, dear me, no," she said, voice constricted.
"But it's so beautiful!"
"Scarlet," said Miss MacTavish, shoving the offending bolt to the back of its shelf, "is not the done thing at all, my dear Elizabeth. I keep it for a certain element in my clientele whose — er — virtue is not what it should be. Naturally they come to me at a prearranged hour to spare embarrassment. You know your scripture, child — the 'scarlet woman'?"
So the closest to scarlet that Elizabeth came was a rust-red taffeta. Irreproachable.
"I don't think," she said to Miss MacTavish over a cup of tea after the choices had been made, "that Father will approve of any of these dresses. I won't look my station."
"Your station," said Miss MacTavish strongly, "is about to change with a vengeance, Elizabeth. You can't go as the bride of a man rich enough to send you a thousand pounds wearing naught but tartan from the mill and plain brown linen. There will be parties, balls, I imagine, carriage rides, calls to pay on the wives of other rich men. Your father ought not to have kept so much of what, I am sure, is your money, not his."
That said (for it had burned to be said — what a miserable old skinflint James Drummond was!), Miss MacTavish poured more tea and pressed a cake on Elizabeth. Such a beautiful girl, and so wasted in Kinross!
"I really don't want to go to New South Wales and marry Mr. Kinross," Elizabeth said unhappily.
"Nonsense! Think of it as an adventure, my dear. There's not a young woman in Kinross who doesn't envy you, believe me. Think about it. Here, you will not enjoy a husband at all, you will spend your best years looking after your father." Her pale blue eyes moistened. "I know, believe me. I had to look after my mother until she died, and by then my hopes of marriage were gone." Suddenly she sighed, beamed. "Alexander Drummond! Well do I remember him! Barely fifteen when he ran away, but there wasn't a female in Kinross hadn't noticed him."
Stiffening, Elizabeth realized that at last she had found someone who could tell her a little about her husband-to-be. Unlike James, Duncan Drummond had had but two children, a girl, Winifred, and Alexander. Winifred had married a minister and gone to live near Inverness before Elizabeth had been born, so that was her best chance gone. Quizzing those of her own family old enough to remember Alexander had produced curiously little; as if, for some reason, the subject of Alexander was forbidden. Father, she realized. Father didn't want to give back his windfall, and was taking no chances. He also believed that ignorance was bliss when it came to marriage.
"Was he handsome?" she asked eagerly.
"Handsome?" Miss MacTavish screwed up her face, shut her eyes. "No, I wouldn't have called him handsome. It was the way he walked — a swagger. He was always black-and-blue from Duncan's stick, so sometimes it must have been hard to walk as if he owned the world, but he did. And his smile! One just went — weak."
"He ran away?"
"On his fifteen birthday," said Miss MacTavish, and proceeded to give her version of the story. "Dr. MacGregor — he was the outgoing minister — was quite heartbroken. Alexander, he used to say, was so terribly clever. He had Latin and Greek, and Dr. MacGregor hoped to send him to university. But Duncan wouldn't have that. There was a job for him in the mill here in Kinross, and with Winifred away, Duncan wanted Alexander here. A hard man, was Duncan Drummond! He'd offered for me, you know, but there was Mother to care for, so I wasn't sorry to refuse his offer. And now you're to marry Alexander! It's like a dream, Elizabeth, it's just like a dream!"
That last remark was true. In what corners of her mind the constant hard work permitted her, Elizabeth thought about her future much as clouds passed across the high, wide Scottish sky; sometimes in airy, lighthearted wisps, sometimes sad and grey, sometimes stormily black. An unknown severance with unknown consequences, and the limited ken in which she had spent her barely sixteen years could offer her neither comfort nor information. A tiny thrill of excitement would be followed by a bout of tears, a spurt of joy by a dizzying descent into despond. Even after intense perusal of Dr. Murray's gazetteer and Britannica, poor Elizabeth had no yardstick whereby to measure this complete and drastic upheaval.
The dresses got made, including her wedding dress, every item folded between sheets of tissue paper and packed in her two trunks. Alastair presented her with the trunks, Mary with a veil of white French lace to wear at her wedding, Miss MacTavish with a pair of white satin slippers; all the members of the family save James managed to find something to give her, be it Cologne water, a scrimshaw brooch, a pin cushion or a box of bonbons.
James's respectable Presbyterian married couple answered one of his advertisements from Peebles, and after several letters had traveled back and forth between Kinross and Peebles, said that, for fifty pounds, they would be pleased to take custody of the bride.
Alastair and Mary were deputed to take Elizabeth on the coach to Kirkaldy, where they boarded a steam packet for the journey across the Firth of Forth to Leith. From there several horse-drawn trams took them into Edinburgh and to Princes Street Station, where Mr. and Mrs. Richard Watson would be waiting.
Had she not been felled by the choppy ferry crossing, Elizabeth would have been agog; in all her life she had never been as far afield as Kirkaldy, so the huge city of Edinburgh ought to have transfixed her, if her delight at seeing Kirkaldy was anything to go by. Catherine and Robert lived there and had put them up, shown Elizabeth the sights. But she could summon up no enthusiasm for Edinburgh's bustle, its wintry beauty, wooded hills and ravines. When the last of the trams deposited them at the North British Railway station, she let Alastair guide her, install her in the tiny, boxlike second-class compartment she was to share with the Watsons all the way to London, and left him to search the jam-packed platform for her tardy chaperones.
"This is quite tolerable," said Mary, gazing about. "The seats are well padded, and you've your rug for warmth."
"It's the third-class passengers I don't envy," Alastair said, pushing two cardboard chits into Elizabeth's left glove. "Don't lose them, they're for your trunks, safely in the luggage compartment." Then he slipped five gold coins down inside her other glove. "From Father," he said with a grin. "I managed to convince him that you can't go all the way to New South Wales with an empty purse, but I'm to tell you not to waste a farthing."
The Watsons finally arrived, breathless. They were a tall and angular couple in shabby clothes that suggested Elizabeth's fifty pounds had promoted them from the horrors of third-class to the relative comfort of second-class. They seemed pleasant, though Alastair's nose wrinkled at the liquor on Mr. Watson's breath.
Whistles blew, people hung out of the carriage windows to exchange screams, tears, frantic clutches and final waves with those on the platform; amid huffs and explosions, clouds of steam, jerks and clangs, the London night train began to move.
So near, and yet so far, thought Elizabeth, eyelids drooping; my sister Jean, who started all of this, lives in Princes Street. Yet Alastair and Mary have to hire a room in the railway hotel, and will go back to Kinross without so much as setting eyes on her. "I am not receiving," her curt note had said.
The eyelids fell, she crashed into sleep sitting curled in one corner with her cheek against the icy window.
"Poor little thing," said Mrs. Watson. "Help me make her more comfortable, Richard. It is a sad state of affairs when Scotland has to send its children twelve thousand miles to find a husband."
Screw-driven steamships cut their way across the North Atlantic from Britain to New York in six or seven days, but there was no coal to fuel a steamship en route to the opposite end of the world. That was still served by sail.
Aurora was a four-masted barque with double topsails, square-rigged on her foremast and mainmast, fore-and-aft-rigged on her mizzens, and she completed the twelve thousand miles to Sydney in two and a half months, stopping only once, in Capetown. Down the Atlantic, then across the Southern Ocean into the Pacific. Her cargo consisted of several hundred water-flushing ceramic toilets and cisterns, two barouche carriages, suites of expensive walnut furniture, cotton and woollen fabrics, bolts of fragile French lace, crates of books and magazines, jars of English marmalade, tins of treacle, four Matthew Boulton & Watt steam engines, a consignment of brass doorknobs, and, in her strongroom, many very large cases marked with the skull-and-crossbones. On her way home, she'd carry thousands of bags of wheat and her strongroom would exchange cases marked with the skull-and-crossbones for gold bullion.
Much against the will of her master, a fanatical woman-hater, Aurora took a dozen passengers of both sexes in some degree of comfort, though she owned no staterooms and her cooks were of the plainest kind — plenty of fresh-baked bread, salty butter kept in insulated firkins, boiled beef and whiskery potatoes, and floury puddings laced with jam or treacle.
Though Elizabeth found her sea legs halfway across the Bay of Biscay, Mrs. Watson did not, which meant that Elizabeth's time was taken up in ministering to her. Not a distasteful duty, as Mrs. Watson was a kind soul who seemed to labor under many burdens. The three of them had one cabin blessed with a porthole and a small maid's cubicle opening off it; Aurora hadn't entered the English Channel before Mr. Watson announced that he would sleep in the passengers' saloon to give the women privacy. At first Elizabeth wondered why this news distressed poor Mrs. Watson so, then realized that much of the Watsons' poverty stemmed from Mr. Watson's penchant for strong drink.
Oh, but it was cold! Not until they passed the Cape Verde Islands did the winter weather finally lift, and by then Mrs. Watson was coughing badly. At Capetown her frightened husband sobered sufficiently to call a doctor, who pulled his mouth down and shook his head.
"If you want your wife to live, sir, I suggest you bring her ashore here and sail no farther," he said.
But what to do with Elizabeth?
Fortified by half a pint of gin, Mr. Watson didn't stop to ask himself this question, and Mrs. Watson, lapsed into stupor, couldn't ask it. The two of them were off the ship with all their belongings not half an hour after the doctor had departed, leaving Elizabeth to fend for herself.
If Captain Marcus had had his way, Elizabeth would have been bundled after them, but he reckoned without taking one of his three other women passengers into account. She called a meeting between herself, the two married couples, the three sober single gentlemen, and Captain Marcus.
"The girl goes ashore," Aurora's master said, tone adamant.
"Oh, come, Captain!" said Mrs. Augusta Halliday. "To put a sixteen-year-old ashore in a strange place without a soul to protect her — for the Watsons are no fit guardians — is quite unconscionable! Do it, sir, and I will report you to your owners, to the Master's Guild and whomsoever else I can think of! Miss Drummond stays aboard."
As this announcement, delivered with a martial glare in Mrs. Halliday's eyes, met with murmurs of agreement from the others, Captain Marcus understood that he was beaten.
"If the girl is to stay," he said between his teeth, "I'll have no contact between her and my crew. Nor any contact between her and any male passenger, married or single, drunk or sober. She will be locked in her cabin and take her meals there."
"As if she were a prisoner?" asked Mrs. Halliday. "That is disgraceful! She must have fresh air and exercise."
"If she wants fresh air, she can open the porthole, and if she wants exercise, she can jump up and down on one spot, madam. I am master of this vessel, and my word is law. I'll have no harlotry aboard Aurora."
So Elizabeth spent the last five weeks of that interminably long voyage locked inside her cabin, sustained by the books and magazines Mrs. Halliday sent her after a hasty trip ashore to Capetown's only English bookshop. Captain Marcus's sole concession was to agree that Mrs. Halliday could escort Elizabeth twice around the deck after darkness fell each day, and even then he followed behind, barking at any sailor who came near.
"Like a watchdog," said Elizabeth with a chuckle.
Once the Watsons quit the ship she had recovered her spirits, despite imprisonment; that she understood, knowing that both her father and Dr. Murray would have approved of the captain's edict. And it was bliss to have her own domain, a larger one than her little room at home, which she was forbidden to enter until it was time to go to bed. If she stood on tiptoe she could see the ocean through her porthole, a heaving vastness that stretched forever, and during the nightly walks on deck she could hear its hiss, the boom it made when Aurora's bows hammered down.
Mrs. Halliday, she learned, was the widow of a free settler who had made a modest fortune in Sydney by opening a specialist shop that catered to the best people. Be it ribbons or buttons, stay-laces or whalebone insertions, stockings or gloves, Sydney society purchased them at Halliday's Haberdashery.
"After Walter died, I couldn't wait to go home," she said to Elizabeth, and sighed. "But home wasn't what I expected. So very peculiar, that what I had dreamed about all those years turned out to be a figment of my imagination. I have become, though I knew it not, an Australian. Wolverhampton was full of slag heaps and chimneys, and would you believe that I found it hard to understand what people said? I missed my children, my grandchildren, and the space. We tend to think that, just as God made Man in His image, Britannia made Australia in her image. But she has not. Australia is a foreign land."
"Isn't it New South Wales?" Elizabeth asked.
"Strictly speaking, yes. But the continent has been called Australia for a long time now, and whether they're Victorians or New South Welshmen or Queenslanders or from the other colonies, people call themselves Australians. Certainly my children do."
Alexander Kinross came up in their conversation frequently. Sadly, Mrs. Halliday knew nothing of him.
"It's four years since I left Sydney, he probably arrived in my absence. Besides, if he's a single man and doesn't go into society, only his colleagues would recognize his name. But I am sure," Mrs. Halliday went on kindly, "that he is above reproach. Otherwise, why send for a cousin to marry? Scoundrels, my dear, tend not to marry at all. Especially if they live on the goldfields." Her lips drew in, she sniffed. "The goldfields are dens of iniquity plentifully supplied with shady women." She coughed delicately. "I hope, Elizabeth, that you are acquainted with the duties of marriage?"
"Oh, yes," Elizabeth answered tranquilly. "My sister-in-law Mary told me what to expect."
When Aurora entered Port Jackson she was taken in tow by a steamboat; plagued by the presence of a pilot he detested, Captain Marcus was too engrossed to notice that Mrs. Halliday had liberated Elizabeth from her confinement, taken her up on deck to point out with proprietary pride the landmarks of what the good lady called "the grandest harbor in the world."
Yes, Elizabeth supposed that it was grand, gaze absorbing massive orange cliffs crowned by thick blue-grey forests. Sandy bays, gentler slopes, increasing evidence of habitation. The trees, tall and spindling, became replaced by rows and rows of houses, though on some foreshores they remained around what were majestic mansions, whose owners Mrs. Halliday named with succinct comments that ranged from defamation to condemnation. But the air swam with moisture, the sun was unbearably hot, and over all the beauty of this grand harbor lay a terrible stench. Its water, Elizabeth noted, was a dirty, detritus-laden brown.
"March is not a good month to arrive," Mrs. Halliday said, leaning on the rail. "Always humid. We spend February and March praying for a Southerly Buster, which is a south wind that cools everything down. Is the smell bothering you, Elizabeth?"
"Very much," said Elizabeth, face pale.
"Sewage," said Mrs. Halliday. "A hundred and seventy-odd thousand people, and it all flows into the harbor, which is little better than a cesspool. I believe that they intend to do something about it — but when is anybody's guess, my son Benjamin says. He is on the city council. Water is a difficulty too. The days when it cost a shilling a bucket are gone, but it is still expensive. Few save the colossally rich have a supply laid on." She snorted. "Mr. John Robertson and Mr. Henry Parkes don't suffer!"
Captain Marcus descended, roaring.
"To your cabin, Miss Drummond! At once!"
And there Elizabeth remained while Aurora was towed to her berth; then all she could see through the porthole were masts, all she could hear were bellowing voices, the chug of an engine.
When, it seemed hours later, the knock fell on her door, she leaped off her bunk, heart thudding. But it was only Perkins, the passengers' steward.
"Your trunks have gone ashore, Miss, and so must you."
"Mrs. Halliday?" she asked, following him into a chaotic world of winches lowering crates in rope baskets, ruddy-faced men in flannel shirts, sailors whistling and jeering.
"Oh, she disembarked a long time ago. Asked me to give you this." Perkins fished in his waistcoat pocket and handed her a small card. "If you need her, you can find her there."
Down the gangplank, across the filthy boards of the wharf between high stacks of crates and cases — where were her trunks?
Having found them in a relatively peaceful corner against the wall of a tumbledown shed, Elizabeth sat on one, put her purse in her lap and folded her hands on top of it. Where to go, what to do? Thinking that if Alexander Kinross saw the Drummond tartan he would recognize her at once, she was wearing one of her home-made dresses, but this was not the weather for serge wool; in fact, she thought, dazed with heat, little of what reposed in her trunks was suitable for this climate. Sweat dewed her face, ran down the back of her neck from her hair, confined inside a matching bonnet, and soaked through her calico underwear into the Drummond tartan.
And after all that, it was she who recognized him in an instant, thanks to Miss MacTavish. She sat looking down a narrow lane between the off-loaded cargo and saw a man who walked as if he owned the world. Tall and rather slender, he was dressed in clothes strange to her eyes, used to men in working flannels and caps, or in the splendor of kilts, or in somber suits over shirts stiff with starch and stiff hats upon their heads. Whereas he wore soft trousers made of some fawn-colored skin, an unstarched shirt with a scarf at its neck, an open coat of the same skin that dangled long fringes from its arm seams and hem, and a soft fawn hat with a low crown and wide brim. Under the hat was a thin, deeply tanned face; his hair was black sprinkled with grey and curled on to his shoulders, and his black beard and mustache, greyer than his hair, were carefully trimmed into the exact same style as the Devil wore.
She rose to her feet, at which moment he noticed her.
"Elizabeth?" he asked, hand out.
She didn't take it. "You know that I am not Jean?"
"Why should I think you Jean when you're obviously not?"
"But you — you wrote for — for Jean," she floundered, not daring to look at his face.
"And your father wrote offering me you instead. It's quite immaterial," said Alexander Kinross, turning to signal to a man in his wake. "Load her trunks into the cart, Summers. I'll take her to the hotel in a hackney." Then, to her: "I'd have found you sooner if my dynamite hadn't chanced to be aboard your ship. I had to clear it and get it safely stowed before some enterprising villain got to it first. Come."
One hand beneath her elbow, he guided her through the aisle and out into what seemed an enormously wide street that was as much a depot as a thoroughfare, littered with goods and crowded with men attacking the wood-block paving with picks.
"They're putting the railway through to the docks," Alexander Kinross said as he thrust her upward into one of several loitering hackneys. Then, as soon as he was seated beside her: "You're hot. It's no wonder, in those clothes."
Finding her courage, she turned her head to study his face properly. Miss MacTavish was right, he wasn't handsome, though his features were regular enough. Perhaps that they were not Drummond or Murray features? Hard to believe that he was her own first cousin. But what chilled Elizabeth was his definite resemblance to the Devil. Not only in beard and mustache; his brows were jet-black and sharply pointed, and his eyes, sunk deep between black lashes, were so dark that she could not distinguish pupil from iris.
He returned her scrutiny, but with more detachment. "I'd expected you to be like Jean — fair," he said.
"I take after the Black Scot Murrays."
Came a smile; it was indeed, as Miss MacTavish had said, a wonderful smile, but no part of Elizabeth's anatomy went weak at the sight of it. "So do I, Elizabeth." He reached out a hand and put it under her chin to turn her face to the brilliant light. "But your eyes are remarkable — dark, yet not brown or black. Navy-blue. That's good! It says there's a chance our sons will look more like Scots than we do."
His touch made her uncomfortable, so did his reference to their sons; as soon as she felt he would not take offense, she pulled away from his fingers, stared at the purse in her lap.
The cab horse was plodding uphill away from the wharves and into a genuinely big city that seemed, to Elizabeth's unschooled eyes, quite as busy as Edinburgh. Carriages, sulkies, gigs, hackneys, carts, drays, wagons and horse-drawn omnibuses thronged the narrow streets, lined first with ordinary buildings, but then with shops rendered alien by awnings that jutted to the edge of the pavement; their presence hid the contents of the shop windows from any traveler on the road, a frustration.
"The awnings," he said, it seemed able to read her mind — yet another characteristic of the Devil — "keep shoppers dry when it rains and cool when the sun shines."
To which Elizabeth made no reply.
Twenty minutes after leaving the dockside the hackney swung into a wider street flanked on its far side by a sprawling park wherein the grass looked absolutely dead. Twin tracks ran down the middle of this street; here the horse-drawn public transport took the form of trams. Their driver drew into the curb outside a large yellow sandstone building with Doric pillars around its entrance, and a marvelously uniformed man helped her out of the hackney. His bow to Alexander was deferential, but became even more so after Alexander slipped a gold coin into his hand.
The hotel was incredibly luxurious. An imposing staircase, plush crimson everywhere, huge vases of crimson flowers, the glitter of gilt from picture frames, tables and pedestals. A colossal crystal chandelier blazed with candles. Liveried men bore her trunks away while Alexander led her not to the staircase but to what looked like a gigantic, lacy brass bird cage, where another liveried man waited with his gloved hand on its open door. As soon as she, Alexander and the attendant were inside it, the cage jerked and quivered, then started to rise! Half fascinated, half terrified, Elizabeth looked down on the receding lobby, saw the cross section of a floor, a crimson hallway; creaking and groaning, the bird cage continued to rise. Four, five, six floors. Shuddering, it stopped to let them out.
"Have you not seen a lift, Elizabeth?" Alexander asked, his voice amused.
"Or, in California, an elevator. They're governed by the principle of hydraulics — water pressure. Lifts are very new. This is the only one in Sydney, but soon all commercial buildings will grow higher and higher because their occupants won't have to climb hundreds of stairs. I use this hotel because of its lift. Its best accommodation is on the top floor, where there's fresh air, a view, and a lot less noise." He produced a key and used it to open a door. "This is your suite, Elizabeth." Out came a gold watch; he consulted it and pointed to a clock ticking on the marble mantel. "The maid will be here shortly to unpack for you. You can have until eight o'clock to bathe, rest, and change for dinner. Evening dress, please."
That said, he vanished down the hall.
Her knees were weak now, but not due to Alexander Kinross's smile. What a sumptuous room! A pale green color scheme, a vast four-poster bed, and an area containing a table and chairs as well as something that looked like a cross between a narrow bed and a sofa. A pair of French doors led out on to a small balcony — oh, he was right! The view was wonderful! Never in her life had she been up more than one flight of stairs — if only she could have seen Loch Leven and Kinross County from such a lofty eminence! The whole of eastern Sydney was spread before her — gunboats moored in a bay, many rows of houses, forests on the distant hills as well as along the foreshores of what did indeed look, from so high up, the grandest harbor in the world. But fresh air? Not to Elizabeth's sensitive nose, still able to smell that fetid stink.
The maid knocked and entered bearing a tray of tea, little sandwiches and cakes.
"But have your bath first, Miss Drummond. The floor butler will make the tea when you're ready," said this dignified person.
Elizabeth discovered that a huge bathroom lay through a door beyond the bed, together with what the maid called a dressing room, replete with mirrors, cabinets, bureaux.
Alexander must have explained to the maid that all this was strange to his intended bride, for the woman, expressionless, took over — showed her how to flush the water closet, drew her a bath in a massive tub and washed her salt-caked hair as if she saw naked women every day and thought nothing of it.
Alexander Kinross, thought Elizabeth later, sipping tea. Impressions can be treacherous, shaped by accident and gossip, ignorance and superstition. It was Alexander Kinross's misfortune that he happened to be the image of a head-and-shoulders sketch of the Devil that Dr. Murray had deliberately hung on the wall of the children's Bible-study room. Its aim was to terrify the children of his congregation, and it succeeded: the thin mouth with its slight sneer, the horrible dark pits of eyes, a malignancy suggested by shrewd lines and shadows. All Alexander Kinross lacked were the horns.
Common sense told Elizabeth that this was sheer coincidence, but she was far more a child than a woman. Through no fault of his own, Alexander entered Elizabeth's life with an ineradicable handicap, and she took against him. The very thought of marrying him terrified her. How soon? Oh, pray not yet!
How can I look into those diabolical eyes and tell their owner that he is not the husband I would choose? she asked herself. Mary told me what to expect in the marriage bed, though I already knew it is no joy for a woman. Dr. Murray made it clear to me before I left that a woman who enjoys the Act is as loose as a harlot. God gives pleasure in it only to husbands. Women are the source of evil and temptation, therefore women are to blame when men fall into fleshly error. It was Eve who seduced Adam, Eve who entered into league with the serpent, who was the Devil in disguise. So the only pleasure women are allowed is in their children. Mary told me that if a wife is sensible she separates what goes on in the marriage bed from the person of her husband, who is her friend in all else. But I cannot envision Alexander as my friend! He frightens me more than Dr. Murray does.
Hoops, Miss MacTavish had remarked, were out of fashion now, but skirts were still voluminous, held out by layer upon layer of petticoats. Elizabeth's petticoats were singularly unlovely, made of unbleached cotton without embellishment. Only the evening dress itself had been crafted by Miss MacTavish, but even it, Elizabeth sensed as the maid helped her into it, was unimpressive.
Luckily the gas-lit hall was dim; Alexander's gaze passed over her and he nodded in apparent approval. He was clad tonight in white tie and tails, a masculine fashion she had seen only in magazine illustrations. If anything, the black and white served to enhance his Mephistophelian quality, but she put her hand on his arm and allowed him to lead her into the waiting lift.
When they arrived in the lobby she understood a great deal more about the limitations of rural Scotland and Miss MacTavish; the sight of the ladies strolling about on gentlemen's arms reduced her pride in the dark blue taffeta dress to nothing. Their arms and shoulders were bare, one separated from the other by a puff of silk or a froth of lace; their waists were tiny, their skirts gathered at the back into huge humps that cascaded frills into trains sweeping the floor behind them; their matching gloves came up past their elbows, their hair was piled high and wide, half-naked bosoms blazed with jewels.
When the pair entered the dining room, it stilled. Every head turned to survey them; men nodded gravely to Alexander, women preened. Then the whispers began. A toplofty waiter guided them to a table at which two other people already sat, an elderly man in what she was to learn to call "evening dress" and a woman of about forty whose gown and jewels were superb. The man rose to his feet to bow, the woman continued to sit, a fixed smile on her otherwise unreadable face.
"Elizabeth, this is Charles Dewy and his wife, Constance," said Alexander as Elizabeth sat in the chair the waiter drew out.
"My dear, you're charming," said Mr. Dewy.
"Charming," Mrs. Dewy echoed.
"Charles and Constance are to be our witnesses when we marry tomorrow afternoon," Alexander said as he took the menu. "Do you have any preferences in food, Elizabeth?"
"No, sir," she said.
"No, Alexander," he corrected gently.
"Since I know all too well the sort of fare you ate at home, we'll keep it simple. Hawkins," he said to the hovering waiter, "a flounder meunière, a sorbet, and roast beef. Well-done for Miss Drummond, rare for me."
"Sole," said Mrs. Dewy, "doesn't exist in these waters. We make do with flounder. Though you should try the oysters. Quite the best in the world, I venture."
"What on earth is Alexander about, to marry that child?" asked Constance Dewy of her husband as soon as the lift had deposited them on the fifth floor.
Charles Dewy grinned, raised his brows. "You know Alexander, my dear. It solves his problems. Puts Ruby in her place and at the same time gives him someone young enough to mold to his liking. He's been single far too long. If he doesn't begin to raise his family soon, he'll not have time to train sons to run an empire."
"Poor little thing! Her accent is so thick that I could hardly understand a word she said. And that awful dress! Yes, I do indeed know Alexander, and his taste runs to opulent women, not dowdy misses. Look at Ruby."
"I have, Constance, I have! But only with a spectator's lust, I swear," said Charles, who stood on excellent and humorous terms with his wife. "However, little Elizabeth would be a real stunner if she were made over, and do you doubt that Alexander will make her over? I do not."
"She's afraid of him," Constance said positively.
"Well, that's only to be expected, isn't it? There's no sixteen-year-old in this iniquitous city half as sheltered as Elizabeth obviously has been. Which is why he sent for her, I'm sure. He may philander with Ruby and a dozen others, but he's not a man who'd want anything but complete innocence in a wife. It's the Scots Presbyterian in him, protest though he does that he's an atheist. That's a church hasn't budged an inch since John Knox."
They were married in the Presbyterian rite at five the following afternoon. Even Mrs. Dewy had no silent criticism to level at Elizabeth's wedding gown, very plain, high to the throat, long-sleeved, ornamented only by tiny covered buttons down its front from collar to waist. Its satin rustled, the calico underpinnings didn't show, and the white slippers emphasized ankles that Charles Dewy judged promised long and shapely legs.
The bride was composed, the groom imperturbable; they made their vows in firm voices. When they were pronounced man and wife, Alexander lifted Elizabeth's lace veil off her face and kissed her. Though the salutation looked innocuous enough to the Dewys, Alexander felt her shiver, her tiny withdrawal. But the moment passed, and after warm congratulations outside the church from the Dewys, the bridal couple and their two witnesses went their separate ways, for the Dewys were going home to somewhere called Dunleigh while Mr. and Mrs. Kinross walked back to the hotel for dinner.
This time the other diners applauded when they entered, as Elizabeth was still clad in her wedding dress. Red-faced, she kept her eyes on the carpet. Their table bore white flowers, chrysanthemums mixed with feathery white daisies; sitting down, she admired them for something to say, something to alleviate her embarrassment.
"Autumn flowers," Alexander told her. "The seasons are reversed here. Come, have a glass of champagne. You will have to learn to like wine. No matter what you might have been taught at the kirk, even Jesus Christ and his women drank wine."
The plain gold wedding band seemed to burn, but not as much as the other ring on that same finger, a diamond solitaire the size of a farthing. When Alexander had given it to her during lunch, she hadn't known where to look; the last place she wanted to look was into the little box he held out.
"Don't you care for diamonds?" he had asked.
"Oh, yes, yes!" she managed, flustered. "But is it proper? It's so — so noticeable."
His brow creased into a frown. "A diamond is traditional, and my wife's diamond must be fitting for her station," he said, reaching across the table to take her left hand, slide the ring on to its third finger. "I know all this must be very strange for you, Elizabeth, but as my wife you must wear the best, have the best. Always. I can see that Uncle James didn't endow you with more than a small fraction of the money I sent, but I suppose I expected that." He smiled wryly. "Careful with his bawbees, is Uncle James. But those days are over," he went on, turning her hand within both of his. "From today, you'll be Mrs. Kinross."
Perhaps the expression in her eyes gave him pause, for he stopped suddenly, got to his feet with unusual clumsiness. "A cheroot," he said, going to the balcony. "I like to smoke a cheroot after I've eaten."
And that had been the end of the subject; the next time Elizabeth saw him was inside the church.
Now she was his wife, and had somehow to eat a meal she did not want.
"I am not hungry," she whispered.
"Yes, I can imagine that. Hawkins, bring Mrs. Kinross some beef consommé and a light savory soufflé."
The rest of their time in the dining room became locked in a mental cupboard she could never afterward pry open; later she would understand that her confusion, the agitation and alarm within her, were due to the swiftness of events, the crush of so many foreign emotions. It wasn't the prospect of her wedding night that lay at the base of her state of mind, it was the prospect of a lifelong exile with a man she couldn't love.
The Act (as Mary phrased it) was to take place in her bed; no sooner was she in her nightgown and the maid had withdrawn than a door on the far side of the room opened, and her husband came in wearing an embroidered silk robe.
"Into bed with you," he said, smiling, then went around all the gas jets, turning them out.
Better, much better! She wouldn't be able to see him, and, not seeing him, might manage the Act without disgracing herself.
He sat sideways on the edge of the bed, turned with one knee under him to gaze down at her; apparently he could see in the dark. But her desperate attack of nerves was abating; he seemed so relaxed, so loose-boned and calm.
"Do you know what must happen?" he asked.
"It will hurt at first, but later I hope you'll learn to enjoy it. Is wicked old man Murray still the minister?"
"Yes!" she gasped, horrified at this description of Dr. Murray — as if it were Dr. Murray who was the Devil!
"There's more blame for human misery to be laid at his door than at the doors of a thousand decent, honest heathen Chinee."
Came the rustle of silk, his full weight on the bed, movement in the coverings as he slid beneath them and gathered her into his arms. "We're not here together just to make children, Elizabeth. What we're going to do is sanctified by marriage. It's an act of love — of love. Not merely of the flesh, but of the mind and even the soul. There's nothing about it you shouldn't welcome."
When she discovered that he was naked, she kept her hands as much to herself as she could, and when he tried to take the nightgown off her, she resisted. Shrugging, he peeled it up from the hem and ran those rough hands over her legs, her flanks, until the change came that prompted him to mount her and thrust hard. The pain brought tears to her eyes, but she had known worse pangs from Father's stick, falls, bad cuts. And it was over quickly; he behaved exactly as Mary had said he would — shuddered and swallowed audibly, withdrew. But not from her bed. There he remained until the Act happened twice more. He hadn't kissed her, but as he left he brushed her lips with his.
"Goodnight, Elizabeth. It's a fine start."
One comforting thing, she thought drowsily; he hadn't felt like the Devil. Sweet of breath and body scent. And if the Act was no more fearsome than this, she knew that she would survive — might even, eventually, enjoy whatever life he intended her to lead in New South Wales.
For the next few days he stayed with her, chose her maid, supervised modistes and milliners, hosiers and shoemakers, bought her lingerie so lovely that her breath caught, and perfume and skin lotions, fans and purses, a parasol for every outfit.
Though she sensed that he thought himself considerate and kind, he made all the decisions — which of the two maids she had liked would get the job, what she would wear from colors to style, the perfume he liked, the jewels he showered on her. "Autocrat" was not a word she knew, so she used the word she did know, "despot." Well, Father and Dr. Murray were despots, for that matter. Though Alexander's imperiousness was subtler, sheathed in the velvet of compliments.
At breakfast on the morning after that surprisingly bearable wedding night, she tried to find out more about him.
"Alexander, all I know about you is that you left Kinross when you were fifteen, that you were an apprentice boilermaker in Glasgow, that Dr. MacGregor thought you very clever, and that you have made a wee fortune on the New South Wales goldfields. There must be far more to know. Please tell me," she said.
His laugh was attractive, sounded genuine. "I might have known that they'd all shut their mouths," he said, eyes dancing. "For instance, I'll bet they never told you that I knocked down old man Murray, did they?"
"Oh, yes. Broke his jaw. I've rarely felt such pleasure. He'd just taken over the manse from Robert MacGregor, who was an educated, cultured and civilized man. You might say I left Kinross because clearly I couldn't stay in a town of Philistines led by the likes of John Murray."
"Especially if you broke Dr. Murray's jaw," she said, feeling a secret, guilty satisfaction. Most definitely she couldn't agree with Alexander's opinion of Dr. Murray, but she was beginning to remember how many times he had made her miserable, or shamed her.
"And that's really the sum of it," he said, lifting his shoulders. "I spent some time in Glasgow, took ship for America, went from California to Sydney, and made somewhat more than a wee fortune on the goldfields."
"Will we live in Sydney?"
"Not in a fit, Elizabeth. I have my own town, Kinross, and you'll live in the new house I've built for you high on Mount Kinross and out of sight of the Apocalypse — my mine."
"Apocalypse? What does it mean?"
"It's a Greek word for a frightful and violent event like the end of the world. What better name is there for something as freeing and earth-shaking as a gold mine?"
"Is your town far from Sydney?"
"Not as distances go in Australia, but far enough. The railroad — railway, I mean — will take us within a hundred miles of Kinross. From there we will travel by carriage."
"Is Kinross big enough to have a kirk?"
His chin went up, making the beard look more pointed. "It has a Church of England, Elizabeth. I'll have no Presbyterian parsons in my town. Far sooner the Papists or the Anabaptists."
A suddenly dry mouth made her gulp. "Why do you wear those strange clothes?" she asked to divert him from this sore subject.
"They've become an idiosyncrasy. When I wear them, everyone deems me an American — thousands of Americans have come here since gold was discovered. But the real reason I wear them is that they're soft, supple and comfortable. They don't chafe and they wash like rags because they're chamois skin. They're also cool. Though they look American, I had them made in Persia."
"You've been there too?"
"I've been everywhere that my famous namesake went, as well as places he didn't dream existed."
"Your famous namesake? Who is that?"
"Alexander...the Great," he added when her face remained blank. "King of Macedonia and just about the whole known world at the time. Over two thousand years ago." Something occurred to him, he leaned forward. "You are literate and numerate, I hope, Elizabeth? You can sign your name, but is that the size of it?"
"I can read very well," she said stiffly, offended, "though I have lacked history books. I did learn to write, but I haven't been able to practice — Father kept no paper."
"I'll buy you a copy-book, a book of example letters that you can use until your thoughts go down on paper easily — and reams of the best paper. Pens, inks — paints and sketchbooks if you want them. Most ladies seem to dabble in watercolors."
"I have not been brought up as a lady," she said with as much dignity as she could muster.
His eyes were dancing again. "Do you embroider?"
"I sew, but I do not embroider."
And how, she wondered later in the morning, did he manage to deflect the conversation from himself so neatly?
"I think I may be able to end in liking my husband," she confided to Mrs. Augusta Halliday toward the end of her second week in Sydney, "but I very much doubt that I will ever love him."
"It's early days yet," said Mrs. Halliday comfortably, her shrewd eyes resting on Elizabeth's face. There were big changes in it: gone was the child. The masses of dark hair were piled up fashionably, her afternoon dress of rust-red silk had the obligatory bustle, her gloves were finest kid, her hat a dream. Whoever had wrought the image had been wise enough to leave the face alone; here was one young woman who needed no cosmetic aids, and Sydney's sun didn't seem to have the power to give her quite extraordinary white skin a glaze of pink or beige. She wore magnificent pearls around her neck and pearl drops in her ears, and when she drew the glove off her left hand Mrs. Halliday's eyes widened.
"Ye gods!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, this wretched diamond," said Elizabeth with a sigh. "I really detest it. Do you know that I have to have my gloves specially made to go over it? And Alexander insisted that the same finger on the right-hand glove be similarly made, so I very much fear that he intends to give me some other huge stone."
"You must be a saint," said Mrs. Halliday dryly. "I don't know of any other woman who wouldn't be swooning over a gem half as splendid as your diamond."
"I love my pearls, Mrs. Halliday."
"So I should think! Queen Victoria's aren't any better."
But after Elizabeth had departed in the high-sprung chaise drawn by four matched horses, Augusta Halliday succumbed to a little weep. Poor girl! A fish out of water. Loaded down with every luxury, thrust into a world of wealth and prominence, when by nature she was neither avaricious nor ambitious. Had she remained in her Scottish ken she would no doubt have continued to look after her father, then turned into a maiden aunt. And yet been comfortable with her lot, if not idyllically happy. Well, at least she thought she could like Alexander Kinross, and that was something. Privately Mrs. Halliday agreed with Elizabeth; she couldn't see Elizabeth coming to love her husband either. The distance between them was too vast, their characters too much at odds. Hard to believe that they were first cousins.
Of course by the time that Elizabeth came to visit in her chaise-and-four, Mrs. Halliday had found out a great deal about Alexander Kinross. Quite the richest man in the colony, for unlike most who found paydirt on the goldfields, he had hung on to every grain he dredged from the alluvium, and then sniffed out the reef. He had the Government in one pocket and the Judiciary in the other, so while some men might suffer shockingly from claim-jumpers, Alexander Kinross was able to deal with them and other nuisances summarily. But though he went into society if he was in Sydney, he wasn't a society man. Those worth knowing he tended to beard in their offices, rather than wine and dine them; sometimes he accepted an invitation to Government House or to Clovelly at Watson's Bay, but never to a ball or soirée held just for enjoyment. Therefore the general consensus was that he cared about power, not about people's good opinion.
Charles Dewy, Elizabeth discovered, was a minor partner in the Apocalypse Mine.
"He's the local squatter — used to run two hundred square miles until the gold arrived," said Alexander.
"So called because he 'squatted' on Crown Land until — as possession does indeed tend to be nine-tenths of the Law — he virtually owned it. But an Act of Parliament changed things. I softened his attitude by offering him a share in the Apocalypse, and thereafter I can do no wrong."
They were leaving Sydney at last, no grief to Mrs. Kinross, who now owned two dozen large trunks, but no personal maid. Having, it appeared, made a few enquiries about the town of Kinross and its location, Miss Thomas had quit that morning. Her desertion did not distress Elizabeth, who genuinely preferred to look after herself.
"Never mind" was Alexander's response to the news. "I'll ask Ruby to find you a good Chinese girl. And don't start saying you would rather not have an abigail! After two weeks of having your hair dressed, you ought to know that you need a pair of hands to do it that are not attached to your own arms."
"Ruby? Is she your housekeeper?" Elizabeth asked, aware that she was going to a house staffed with servants.
That made Alexander laugh until the tears ran down his face. "Ah — no," he said when he was able. "Ruby is, for want of any better words, an institution. To refer to her in a less grand way would be to demean her. Ruby is a master of the acid remark and the caustic comment. She's Cleopatra — but she's also Aspasia, Medusa, Josephine and Catherine di Médicis."
Oh! But Elizabeth had no opportunity to pursue this avenue of conversation because they had reached Redfern railway station, a bleak area of sheds and braided iron tracks.
"The platforms here are rather derelict because they're always talking of erecting a palatial terminus at the top of George Street — but that's all it is, talk," said Alexander as he helped her down from the chaise.
The aftermath of seasickness had rendered her incapable of curiosity when she boarded the London train in Edinburgh, but today she gazed at the Bowenfels train in awe and amazement. A steam-wreathed engine mounted on a combination of small wheels and huge ones, the latter joined together by rods, stood panting like a gigantic and angry dog, wispy smoke curling from its tall chimney. This infernal machine was linked to an iron tender full of coal, behind which were eight carriages — six second-class and two first-class — with a caboose (Alexander's word) on the back to hold the bulky luggage, freight, and the conductor.
"I know the back of the train moves about more than the front, but I'm compelled to lean out the window and watch the locomotive working," said Alexander, ushering her into what looked like a plushly comfortable parlor. "For that reason, they couple one first-class car behind all the other cars. This is really the Governor's private compartment, but he's happy to let me use it whenever he doesn't need it — I pay for it."
At seven o'clock on the dot the Bowenfels train pulled out of the yard, with Elizabeth glued to a window. Yes, Sydney was big; it was fifteen minutes before the houses became scattered, fifteen minutes of rattling along, clickety-click, at a breathtaking pace. An occasional platform flashed past after that to mark some small town — Strathfield, Rose Hill, Parramatta.
"How fast are we going?" she asked, liking the sensation of speed, the swaying motion.
"Fifty miles an hour, though she's capable of sixty if they really stoke the boiler. This is the weekly through-passenger train — it doesn't stop before Bowenfels — and it's a lightweight affair compared to a goods train. But our speed slows down to eighteen or twenty miles an hour once we begin to climb, in some places less than that, so our journey takes nine hours."
"What does a goods train carry?"
"Down to Sydney, wheat and produce, kerosene from the shale works at Hartley. Up to Bowenfels, building materials, stock for country shops, mining equipment, furniture, newspapers, books, magazines. Prize breeding cattle, horses and sheep. Even men going west to prospect or find work on the land — the fare is uncollectable. But never," he said emphatically, "dynamite."
His eyes went from her animated face to several dozen big wooden cases stacked from floor to ceiling in one corner, each one marked with the skull-and-crossbones.
"Dynamite," he said, "is the new way to blast rock apart. It never leaves my custody because it's so scarce that it's nigh as precious as gold. I had this lot shipped from Sweden through London — it was with you on Aurora. Blasting," he went on, voice growing more excited, "used to be a risky and unpredictable sort of business. It was done with black powder — gunpowder to you. Very hard to know how black powder would fracture the rock, what direction the explosive force would take. I know, I've been a powder monkey in a dozen different places. But recently a Swede had a brilliant idea that tamed nitroglycerin, which of itself is so unstable that it's likely to explode if it's jarred. The Swede mixed nitroglycerin with a base of a clay called kieselguhr, then packed them in a paper cartridge shaped like a blunt candle. It can't go off until it's detonated by a cap of fulminate of mercury tightly crimped on the end of the stick. The powder monkey attaches a length of burnable fuse to the detonator and produces a safer, far better controlled blast. Though if you have a dynamo, you can trigger the blast by passing an electric current down a long wire. I shall be doing that soon."
Her expression provoked a laugh; she was amusing him a lot this morning. "Did you understand a word of that, Elizabeth?"
"Several," she said, and smiled at him.
His breath caught audibly. "That's the first smile you've ever given me," he said.
She found herself blushing, looked out the window.
"I'm going to stand on the plate with the engineers," he said abruptly, opened the forward door and disappeared.
The train had crossed a wide river on a bridge before he came back; ahead of it now lay a barrier of tall hills.
"That was the Nepean River," he said, "so it's time to open a window. Our train has to climb a gradient so steep that it has to zigzag back and forth. Within the length of much less than a straight mile, we will ascend a thousand feet, rising one foot for every thirty feet traveled."
Even at their much reduced speed, opening a window was ruinous to one's clothes; big particles of soot flew in and landed everywhere. But it was fascinating, especially when the track curved and she could see the locomotive laboring, black smoke pouring out of its chimney in huge billows, the rods attached to its big wheels driving them around. Occasionally the wheels would slip on the rails, losing traction in a flurry of staccato puffs, and at the end of the first zigzag the train went up the next slope backward, the caboose leading and the locomotive bringing up the rear.
"The number of reversals has the locomotive leading again at the top," he explained. "The zigzag is a very clever idea that finally enabled the Government to build a railroad over the Blue Mountains, which aren't mountains at all. We're ascending what is called a dissected plateau. On the far side we descend on another zigzag. If these were real mountains we could travel in the valleys and go through the watershed in a tunnel — a far easier exercise that would have opened up the fertile growing country in the west decades ago. New South Wales yields nothing easily, nor do the other colonies of Australia. So when the Blue Mountains were finally conquered, the men who worked out how to do it had to abandon all their European-based theories."
So, she was thinking, I have found one of the keys to my husband's mind — and to his spirit, if not to his soul. He is enthralled by mechanical things, by engines and inventions, and no matter how uninformed his audience, he will talk and teach.
The scenery was spectacularly outlandish. The heights fell away many hundreds of feet in dramatic precipices to mighty valleys stuffed with dense grey-green forests that became blue with distance. Of pine, beech, oak and all the familiar trees of home there were none, but these alien trees had their own beauty. It is grander than home, she thought, if only because it is so limitless. Of habitation she saw no sign apart from a few tiny villages along the train line, usually associated with an inn or a mansion.
"Only the natives can live down there," said Alexander when a big clearing gave them a particularly wonderful view of a vast canyon ringed with perpendicular orange cliffs. "Soon we'll pass a siding called The Crushers — it's a series of rock quarries — and on the valley floor beyond there is a rich coal seam. They're talking of mining it, but I think the cost of bringing it a thousand feet straight up will be prohibitive. Though it will be cheaper to ship to Sydney than the Lithgow coal — hauling that up the Clarence zigzag is very difficult."
Suddenly his hand swept in a grand gesture, encompassing the world. "Elizabeth, look! What you see is the geology of the earth in all its glory. The cliffs are early Triassic sandstone laid atop Permian coal measures, under which lie the granites, shales and limestones of Devonian and Silurian times. The very tops of some of the mountains to the north are a thin layer of basalt poured out of some massive volcano — the Tertiary icing on the Triassic cake, now all but eroded away. Marvelous!"
Oh, to be that enthusiastic about anything! How could I lead a life that would enable me to know the tiniest fraction of what he knows? I was born to be an ignoramus, she told herself.
At four in the afternoon the train arrived at Bowenfels; this was as far west as the train went, though the chief town was Bathurst, forty-five miles farther on. After an urgently needed visit to the lavatory on the platform, Elizabeth was bundled into a carriage by an impatient Alexander.
"I want to be in Bathurst tonight," he explained.
At eight they reached the hotel in Bathurst, Elizabeth reeling with fatigue; but at dawn the next morning Alexander was bundling her back into the carriage, insisting that the convoy start moving. Oh, another day of perpetual travel! Her carriage led the way, Alexander rode a mare, and six wagons drawn by draft horses carried her trunks, cargo from the Rydal rail depot, and those precious cases of dynamite. The convoy, said Alexander, was to deter the attentions of bushrangers.
"Bushrangers?" she had to ask.
"Highwaymen. There aren't many left because they've been hunted down remorselessly. This used to be Ben Hall country — he was a very famous bushranger. Dead now, like most of them."
The cliffs had been replaced by more traditionally shaped mountains not unlike those in Scotland, for many were cleared of trees; here, however, no heather grew to lend the autumn some color, and what grass grew was lank, tufted, brownish-silver. The deeply rutted, potholed track wound aimlessly to avoid big boulders, creek beds, sudden plunges into gullies. Perpetually jerked and tossed, Elizabeth prayed that Kinross, wherever it was, would soon appear.
But it did not until nearly sundown, when the track emerged from a forest into open space and became a macadamized road lined with shacks and tents. If all that had gone before was utterly strange, it paled compared to Kinross, which her imagination had visualized as Kinross, Scotland. Oh, it was not! The shacks and tents turned into more substantial wooden or wattle-and-daub houses roofed with a rippled iron or sheets of what looked like tree bark strapped and sewn down. Habitation straggled down either side of the street, but a few side lanes revealed wooden towers, struts, sheds, a bizarre landscape whose purpose she could not guess at. It was ugly, ugly, ugly!
The houses became commercial buildings and shops, all sporting awnings held up by wooden posts; no one awning looked like its neighbors, nor was joined to them, nor had been erected with any attention to symmetry, order or beauty. The signs were roughly hand-painted and announced that here was a laundry, a boarding house, a restaurant, a bar, a tobacconist, cobbler, barber, general store, doctor's rooms, an ironmongery.
There were two red-brick buildings, one a church complete to spire, the other a two-storied block with its upper verandah lavishly adorned by the same cast-iron lace Elizabeth had noticed all over Sydney; its awning was of curved rippled iron, had iron posts holding it up, and yet more lavish application of cast-iron lace. An elegantly lettered sign said KINROSS HOTEL.
Not a single tree stood anywhere, so even the foundering sun beat down like a hammer and turned the hair of a woman standing outside the hotel to pure fire. Her attention riveted by the martial posture, the sturdy air of invincibility the woman exuded, Elizabeth craned her neck to watch her for as long as she could. A striking figure. Like Britannia on the coins or Boadicea in illustrations. She gave what seemed a mocking salute to Alexander, riding beside the carriage, then swung to stare in the opposite direction from the convoy. Only then did Elizabeth notice that she held a cheroot, her nostrils trickling smoke like a dragon's.
There were plenty of people around, the men shabbily clad in dungarees and flannel shirts, with soft, wide-brimmed hats on their heads, the women in much laundered cotton dresses thirty years behind the times, shady straw hats on their heads. And many were unmistakably Chinese: long pigtails down their backs, quaint little black-and-white shoes, hats like conical cartwheels, women and men in identical black or dark blue trousers and jackets.
The convoy passed into a wilderness of machinery, smoking chimneys, corrugated iron sheds and high wooden derricks, then came to a halt at the bottom of a sloping cliff that ascended at least a thousand feet. Here railway tracks actually ran upward until they disappeared from sight among welcome trees.
"Journey's end, Elizabeth," said Alexander, lifting her out of the carriage. "Summers will let the car down in a moment."
And down the tracks it steadily came, a wooden conveyance not unlike an open omnibus on train wheels, for it had four rows of plain plank seats-for-six as well as a long, highly fenced tray for freight. But these seats were built at an impossible angle, so that sitting in one tilted the passenger far backward. Having closed the end of their seat with a bar, Alexander slid down beside Elizabeth and put both her hands firmly on a railing.
"Hang on and don't be afraid," he said. "You won't fall out, I promise."
The air resonated with sounds: the chug of engines, a quite maddening constant, thumping roar, metallic screeches, the slap-slap of rotating belts, crunches and grinds and howls. From high above came a separate noise, one lone steam engine. The wooden car began to move over the level ground to where the rails curved up, gave a lurch, and started to ascend the incredibly steep slope. Magically Elizabeth went from almost lying down to sitting upright; her heart in her mouth, she gazed down as the town of Kinross spread before her, widening in scope until the fading light turned its unlovely outskirts to impenetrable shadow.
"I didn't want my wife down there," he said, "which is why I built my house on top of the mountain. Apart from a snake path, this car is the only way up or down. Turn your head and look up — see? It's being pulled by a heavy wire cable that's wound or unwound by an engine."
"Why," she managed, "is the car so big?"
"The miners use it too. Apocalypse's poppet heads — those derricks holding winches — are on that wide shelf we just passed. Easier for the men than going in through the tunnel at the bottom because of giant ore skips and the close proximity of locomotives outside. Cages let them down into the main gallery and bring them up again at the end of the shift."
A coolness descended as they passed into the trees, as much, she divined, from altitude as from the sheltering boughs.
"Kinross House is over three thousand feet above sea level," he said with that eerie habit he had of reading her mind. "In summer, comfortably cool. In winter, much warmer."
The car ran on to flat ground at last, tilting them, and came to a halt. Elizabeth scrambled out before Alexander could help her, marveling at how quickly night fell in New South Wales. No long Scottish gloaming, no witching hour of soft radiance.
Hedge screened the car siding; as she came around it she stopped dead. Her husband had built a veritable mansion in this remoteness, of what looked like limestone blocks. Of three full stories, it had big Georgian-paned windows, a pillared porch at the top of a sweeping flight of steps, and an air of having stood there for five hundred years. At the foot of the steps was a lawned terrace; a great effort had been made to create an English garden, from trimmed box hedges to rose beds and even a Grecian temple folly.
The door was open, light streamed from every window.
"Welcome home, Elizabeth." Alexander Kinross took her hand and led her up the steps and inside.
Everything of the best, brought here at what her Scottish canniness said was astronomical cost. The carpets, furniture, chandeliers, ornaments, paintings, drapes. Everything, including, for all she knew, the house itself. Only the faint reek of kerosene gave the lie to its being situated in a gas-lit city.
It turned out that the ubiquitous Summers was Alexander's chief factotum, while his wife was housekeeper; an arrangement that seemed to give Alexander a peculiar pleasure.
"Begging your pardon, Marm, would you like to refresh yourself after your trip?" asked Mrs. Summers, and led Elizabeth to a properly functioning water closet.
Never had she been more grateful for anything than for that invitation; like all carefully brought-up women of her era, she sometimes had to go for hours upon hours without any opportunity to empty her bladder, thus dared not drink so much as one sip of water before leaving on an expedition, no matter of what kind. Thirst led to dehydration, concentrated urine to bladder and kidney stones; dropsy was a great killer of women.
After several cups of tea, some sandwiches and a piece of delicious seed cake, Elizabeth went to bed so tired that she remembered nothing beyond the foot of the staircase.
"If you don't like your quarters, Elizabeth, please tell me what you'd prefer," said Alexander over breakfast, taken in the loveliest room Elizabeth had ever seen; its walls and roof were of glass panes joined together by a delicate tracery of white-painted iron, and it contained a jungle of palms and ferns.
"I like them very much, but not as much as this."
"This is a conservatory — so named because in cold climates it conserves frost-vulnerable plants from death during winter."
He was dressed in his skins, as Elizabeth had privately christened them, his hat dumped on a spare chair.
"Are you going out?"
"I'm home, so from now on you'll not see much of me until the evening. Mrs. Summers will take you over the house, and you must tell me what you don't like about it. It's your house far more than it's mine — you're the one will do most of the living in it. I don't suppose you play the piano?"
"No. We couldn't afford a piano."
"Then I'll have you taught. Music is one of my passions, so you'll have to learn to play well. Do you sing?"
"I can carry a tune."
"Well, until I can find you a teacher of piano, you'll just have to pass your time in reading books and practicing your penmanship." He leaned to kiss her lightly, clapped his hat on his head and vanished, hollering for his shadow, Summers.
Mrs. Summers appeared to conduct "Marm" over the house, which held few surprises until they reached the library; every room was sumptuous in the style of the Sydney hotel, even echoing the form of its main staircase, a splendid affair. The large drawing room held a harp as well as a full-sized grand piano.
"Brought the tuner all the way from Sydney once the piano was put in the right place — a fair nuisance it is too, what with not being allowed to move it a hair to clean under its legs," said Mrs. Summers, disgruntled.
The library was definitely Alexander's lair, for it didn't have the contrived look the other rooms displayed. Where its vastness wasn't dark oak bookshelves and dark green leather easy chairs there was Murray tartan — wallpaper, drapes, carpet. But why Murray? Why not his own tartan, Drummond? Drummond was a rich red checkered with multiple green and dark blue lines — a very striking pattern. Whereas Murray had a base of dull green more distantly divided into checks by thin red and dark blue lines. It hadn't escaped her that her husband's taste ran to splendor, so why this muted Murray?
"Fifteen thousand books," said Mrs. Summers, voice awed. "Mr. Kinross has books on everything." She sniffed. "Except he ain't got a Bible. Says it's rubbish. A godless man — godless! But Mr. Summers has been with him since some ship or other they was both aboard, wouldn't hear of leaving. And I expect I'll get used to being a housekeeper. House ain't been finished more'n two months. Until then I just kept house for Mr. Summers."
"Have you and Mr. Summers any children?" Elizabeth asked.
"No," said Mrs. Summers shortly. She straightened, smoothed her spotless starched white apron. "I hope, Marm, that youse'll find me satisfactory."
"I'm sure I will," Elizabeth said warmly, and produced her widest smile. "If you kept house for Mr. Summers, where did Mr. Kinross live before this house was built?"
Mrs. Summers blinked, looked shifty. "At the Kinross Hotel, Marm. A very comfortable establishment."
"Does he own the Kinross Hotel, then?"
"No" was Mrs. Summers's answer; no matter how hard Elizabeth probed, she refused to be more forthcoming on the subject.
The other servants, the mistress of Kinross House discovered as the tour progressed to kitchen, pantry, wine cellar and laundry, were all Chinese men. Who nodded, smiled, bowed as she passed.
"Men?" she squeaked, horrified. "You mean that men will clean my rooms, wash and iron my clothes? Then I shall deal with my underthings myself, Mrs. Summers."
"No need to make mountains out of molehills, Marm," said Mrs. Summers, unperturbed. "Them heathen Chinee been washing for a living long as I know of. Mr. Kinross says they wash so well on account of they're used to washing silk. It don't matter that they're men — they ain't white men. Just heathen Chinee."
Elizabeth's personal maid arrived just after lunch, a female heathen Chinee who to Elizabeth's eyes was ravishingly beautiful. Frail and willowy, a mouth like a folded flower. Though Elizabeth had never seen Chinese before today, something about the girl said that there was European in her ancestry as well as Chinese. Her eyes were almond shaped, but were widely opened and possessed visible lids. She wore black silk trousers and jacket, and did her thick, straight black hair in the traditional pigtail.
"I am very pleased to be here, Marm. My name is Jade," she said, standing with her hands clasped together and smiling shyly.
"You've no accent," said Elizabeth, who in the past months had heard many different accents without realizing that her own Scots accent was so thick that some of her auditors didn't understand what she said. Jade spoke like a colonial — a trace of East London Cockney intermixed with North of England, Irish, and something more distinctively local than any of those.
"My father came from China twenty-three years ago and took up with my mother, who was Irish. I was born on the Ballarat goldfields, Marm. We've been following the gold ever since, but once Papa fell in with Miss Ruby, our wandering days were over. My mother ran away with a Victorian trooper when Peony was born. Papa says that blood calls to blood. I think she was tired of having girl children. There are seven of us."
Elizabeth tried to find something comforting to say. "I won't be a hard mistress, Jade, I promise."
"Oh, be as hard as you like, Miss Lizzy," said Jade cheerily. "I was Miss Ruby's maid, and no one's as hard as her."
So the Ruby person was a hard woman. "Who's her maid now?"
"My sister, Pearl. And if Miss Ruby gets fed up with her, there's Jasmine, Peony, Silken Flower and Peach Blossom."
Some enquiries made of Mrs. Summers revealed that Jade was to occupy a shed in the backyard.
"That isn't good enough," said Elizabeth firmly, surprised at her own temerity. "Jade is a beautiful young woman and must be protected. She can move into the governess's quarters until such time as I need a governess's services. Do the Chinese men live in sheds in the backyard?"
"They live in town," said Mrs. Summers stiffly.
"Do they ride up from town in the car?"
"I should think not, Marm! They walk the snake path."
"Does Mr. Kinross know how you run things, Mrs. Summers?"
"It ain't none of his business — I'm the housekeeper! They are heathen Chinee, they take jobs away from white men!"
Elizabeth sneered. "I have never known a white man, however poor and indigent he may be, willing to soil his hands on other people's dirty clothes to earn a living. Your accent is colonial, so I presume you were born and brought up in New South Wales, but I warn you, Mrs. Summers, that I will have no prejudicial treatment of people of other races in this house."
"She reported me to Mr. Kinross," said Mrs. Summers angrily to her husband, "and he got the pip something horrible with me! So Jade gets to live in the governess's rooms and the Chinee men get to ride the car! Disgraceful!"
"Sometimes, Maggie, you're a stupid woman," Summers said.
Mrs. Summers sniffed. "You're all a pack of unbelievers, and Mr. Kinross is the worst! Consorting with that woman, and marrying a girl young enough to be his daughter!"
"Shut your mouth, woman!" Summers snapped.
At first it was difficult for Elizabeth to fill in time; in the wake of that exchange with Mrs. Summers, she found herself disliking the woman so much that she avoided her.
The library, for all its fifteen thousand volumes, was not much of a solace; it was overloaded with texts on subjects that did not interest her, from geology and engineering to gold, silver, iron, steel. There were shelves of various committee reports bound in leather, more shelves of New South Wales laws bound in leather, and yet more shelves filled with something that rejoiced in the title of Halsbury's Laws of England. No novels of any kind. All the works on Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and the other famous men he mentioned from time to time were in Greek, Latin, Italian or French — how educated Alexander must be! But she found a simple retelling of some myths, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the complete works of Shakespeare. The myths were a delight, the others hard going.
Alexander had instructed her not to attend service at St. Andrew's (the red-brick Church of England with the spire) until she had been in residence some little while, and seemed to think that Kinross town contained no inhabitants with whom she would care to associate. A suspicion began to grow in her that he intended to isolate her from ordinary folk, that she was doomed to dwell on the mountain in solitude. As if she were a secret.
But as he didn't forbid her to walk, Elizabeth walked, at first confining herself to the beautiful grounds, then venturing farther afield. She found the snake path and negotiated it down to the shelf where the poppet heads of the mine reared, but could find no vantage point from which she could watch the activity unobserved. After that she began to penetrate the mysteries of the forest, there to find an enchanting world of lacy ferns, mossy dells, huge trees with trunks of vermilion, pink, cream, blue-white, every shade of brown. Exquisite birds flew in flocks, parrots in all the colors of the rainbow, an elusive bird that chimed like fairy bells, other birds that sang more melodically than a nightingale. Breath suspended, she saw little kangaroos leaping from rock to rock — a picture book come to life.
Finally she went far enough to hear the sound of roaring water, and came upon a clear, strong stream that tumbled in lacy leaps down a monstrous slope, down to the wood and iron jungle of Kinross below. The change was dramatic, horrific; what atop the falls was paradise was transformed at the mountain's foot into an ugly shambles of slag heaps, detritus, holes, mounds, trenches. And the river down there was filthy.
"You've found the cascades," said Alexander's voice.
She gasped, whirled around. "You startled me!"
"Not as much as a snake would have. Be careful, Elizabeth. There are snakes everywhere, some capable of killing you."
"Yes, I know there are. Jade warned me and showed me how to frighten them away — you stamp very hard on the ground."
"Provided you see them in time." He came to stand beside her. "Down there is the evidence of what men will do to lay their hands on gold," he said. "Those are the original workings. They haven't yielded placer in two years. And yes, I'm personally responsible for a great deal of the mess. I was here for six months before the word leaked out that I'd found paydirt on this wee tributary of the Abercrombie River." He put a hand under her elbow and steered her away. "Come, I want you to meet your teacher of piano. And I'm sorry," he continued as they retraced their steps, "that I didn't think to bring in the kind of books I should have known you'd prefer. A mistake I'm busy rectifying."
"Must I learn the piano?" she asked.
"If you wish to please me, yes. Do you wish to please me?"
Do I? she wondered. I hardly see him except in my bed, he doesn't even bother to come home for dinner.
"Of course," she said.
Miss Theodora Jenkins had one thing in common with Jade; they had both followed the gold from place to place in company with their fathers. Tom Jenkins had died of liver failure due to strong drink when he reached Sofala, a gold town on the Turon River, leaving his plain, timid daughter with no roof over her head nor means of support. At first she had taken employment in a boarding house, waiting on tables, washing dishes and making beds; it gave her that roof over her head and her keep, if not more than sixpence a day in wages. As her leanings were religious, church became her great comfort, the more so after the minister discovered how well she could play the organ. After the Sofala gold failed she moved to Bathurst, where Constance Dewy saw her advertisement in the Bathurst Free Press and brought her to Dunleigh, the Dewy homestead, to teach piano to her daughters.
When the last of the Dewy girls went to boarding school in Sydney, Miss Jenkins returned to the drudgery of teaching piano and taking in mending at Bathurst. Then Alexander Kinross had offered her a little house in Kinross plus a decent salary if she would give his wife daily lessons on the piano. Hugely grateful, Miss Jenkins accepted instantly.
She was not yet thirty years old, but she looked forty, the more so because her coloring was nondescript and her skin, after constant exposure to the sun, was seamed with a network of fine lines. Her musical gift she owed to her mother, who had taught her to read music and tried to find a piano for Theodora to play on whichever goldfield they happened to be living.
"Mama died just one day after we arrived in Sofala," said Miss Jenkins, "and Papa followed a year later."
This kind of nomadic existence fascinated Elizabeth, who had never been more than five miles from home until Alexander had sent for her. How hard it was for women! And how pathetically glad Miss Jenkins was for the chance Alexander had offered her!
That night in bed she turned of her own volition into her husband's arms and put her head on his shoulder.
"Thank you," she said very softly, and pressed a kiss on his neck.
"For what?" he asked.
"For being so kind to poor Miss Jenkins. I will learn to play the piano well, I promise. It is the least I can do."
"There's one other thing you can do for me."
"Take off your nightgown. Skin should feel skin."
Caught, Elizabeth obliged. The Act had grown too familiar to provoke embarrassment or discomfort, but skin on skin didn't make it more pleasurable for her. For him, however, this night clearly marked a victory.
Oh, but learning to play the piano was difficult! Though she wasn't entirely without aptitude, Elizabeth didn't come from a musical environment. For her, it meant starting from absolute scratch, even in rudimentary matters like the forms music took, its vocabulary, structure. Days and days of stumbling up and down the scales — would she ever be ready to play a tune?
"Yes, but first your fingers have to become more nimble and your left hand has to get used to making different movements from your right. Your ears have to distinguish the exact sound of every note," said Theodora. "Now once again, dear Elizabeth. You are improving, truly."
They had passed from formality to calling each other by their first names within a week, and had established a routine that did much to alleviate Elizabeth's loneliness. Theodora came up on the car at ten o'clock each weekday morning; they did the theory of music until lunch, which they ate in the conservatory, then transferred to the piano for those interminable scales. At three Theodora took the car down to Kinross again. Sometimes they walked in the garden, and once took the snake path until Theodora could point out her little house to Elizabeth; she was entranced with it, so proud of it.
But she didn't invite Elizabeth to visit it, and Elizabeth knew better than to ask. Alexander had been firm on that point; his wife was not to visit Kinross for any reason whatsoever.
When Elizabeth missed her second lot of courses, she knew that she had conceived. But what she didn't know was how to tell Alexander. The trouble was that she still didn't really know him, nor was he the kind of person she thought she might want to know. Rationalize her fears though she did, he still loomed in her mind as a rather remote figure of authority, immensely busy — she didn't even know what to talk to him about! So how could she give him this news, which filled her with secret joy that had nothing to do with the Act or with Alexander? No matter which way she turned it over in her mind, she couldn't find the words.
Two months after she arrived in Kinross House, she played Für Elise for him; for once he had come home to dinner. Her performance delighted him, as she had wisely waited until her fingers could negotiate the keyboard without a mistake.
"Wonderful!" he cried, plucked her off the stool and sat down in an easy chair with her on his lap. First he chewed his lips, then cleared his throat. "I have a question to ask."
"Yes?" she said, expecting a query about the piano lessons.
"It's two and a half months since we married, but you've had no monthly courses. Are you with child, my dear?"
Her hands clutched at him, she gasped. "Oh! Oh! Yes, I am with child, Alexander, but I haven't known how to tell you."
He kissed her gently. "Elizabeth, I love you."
Had the interlude continued with Elizabeth cuddled on his lap and tenderness flowing in him — had he only confined what he said to the delight of a coming baby and the sweet fact that this girl, still half a child herself, was ripe for closer intimacies — who knows what might have happened to Elizabeth and Alexander?
But suddenly he jerked her to her feet and stood before her with grim face and angry eyes that she took as evidence that she had in some way displeased him. Elizabeth began to shiver, to shrink away from his hands, which were squeezing hers convulsively.
"Since you are to bear my child, it's time that I told you about myself," he said in a hard voice. "I am not a Drummond — no, be still, be quiet! Let me talk! I am not your first cousin, Elizabeth, just a distant cousin on the Murray side. My mother was a Murray, but I have no idea who my father was. Duncan Drummond knew my mother had been seeing some other man for the simplest of reasons — she had refused to sleep in his bed for over a year, yet grew heavy with a child he knew he hadn't generated. When he taxed her, she wouldn't say who the man was — only that she had fallen in love and couldn't bring herself to be intimate with Duncan, whom she had never loved. She died giving birth to me, and carried her secret to her grave. Duncan was too proud to say that I was not his son."
She listened torn between relief that he wasn't angry at her and horror at the story he told, but most of her was wondering why he had destroyed her lovely moment of feeling enfolded and enfolding. Someone older, more mature, might have asked why this news couldn't have waited for another day, but all Elizabeth knew was that the devil in him was stronger than the lover. Her baby was less important than his secret illegitimacy.
But she had to say something. "Oh, Alexander! The poor woman! Where was the man, if he let her die like that?"
"I don't know, though I've asked that question of myself many times," he said, voice harder still. "All I can think is that he cared more for his own skin than for my mother or me."
"Perhaps he was dead," she said, trying to help.
"I don't think so. Anyway," he went on, "I spent my childhood suffering at the hands of a man I thought my father, wondering why I could never please him. From somewhere I had a mulish streak that wouldn't let me cower or beg, no matter how hard or how often Duncan beat me, or what foul thing he put me to do. I simply hated him. Hated him!"
And that hate still rules you, Alexander Kinross, she thought. "How did you find out?" she asked, feeling her heart slow a little from its frantic tattoo.
"When Murray arrived to take over the kirk, Duncan found a soul mate. They huddled together from Murray's first day, and the story of my parentage must have been told almost at once. Well, I was used to half living at the manse, studying with Dr. MacGregor — Duncan wouldn't go against his minister — and was naïve enough to assume that Murray would continue. But Murray banished me, said he'd make sure I never went up to university. I saw red, and hit him. Broken jaw and all, he managed to spit out that I was a bastard, that my mother was a common whore, and that he would see me in hell for what I and my mother had done to Duncan."
"A terrible story," she said. "So you ran away, I was told."
"That very night."
"Was your sister kind to you?"
"Winifred? In her way, but she was five years older than I, and married by the time the truth came out. I doubt she knows to this day." He released her hands. "But you know, Elizabeth."
"Indeed I do," she said slowly. "Indeed I do. I sensed that there was something wrong from the moment I met you — you didn't act like any Drummond I knew." A smile came, dragged up from some reservoir of strength and independence that she hadn't known she possessed. "In fact, you reminded me of the Devil, with that beard and those eyebrows. I was absolutely terrified of you."
That provoked a laugh, a look of astonishment. "Then the beard comes off at once, though there's not much I can do about the eyebrows. At least there can be no doubt of the identity of this child's father."
"None at all, Alexander. I came to you untouched."
For answer he lifted her right hand and kissed it before he turned and left the room. When she went up to bed he wasn't there, nor did he come that night. Elizabeth lay wide-eyed in the darkness, weeping. The more she found out about her husband, the less she believed she could ever come to love him. His past ruled him, not his future.
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Colleen McCullough
Part One 1872-1885
One A Change of Fortune
Two In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great
Three Finding a Reef and a Bride
Four Home Truths and an Unexpected Alliance
Seven A New Kind of Pain
Part Two 1888-1893
One Two Budding Young Women
Two Disputes, Industrial and Otherwise
Four Birth and Death
Five A Man's World
Six Anna's Dolly
Part Three 1897-1900
One The Prodigal Returns
Three Alexander in Control
Four The Lady Doctor
Five Alexander Rides Again
Posted January 8, 2004
What a wonderful story! The reader becomes entranced by the characters and the story! I have already cast the book for the picture that will surely come! The beautiful untouchable wife is Nicole Kidman. The husband-entrepreneur should be Russell Crowe. The good-hearted former hooker who loves the entrepreneur should be Geena Davis. There. When will it be on the screen?
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Posted July 9, 2012
Boring............I skipped more paragraphs than I read. Way too much information. Alexander was a jerk and Elizabeth was just weird. It ended ok but you had to suffer through the whole boring ass book to get there. I always hated the man has a mistress thing and this pushed it too far. Please don't make a movie out of this trash
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Posted February 27, 2007
I have a voracious appetite for period and historical fiction and was very satisfied after reading this novel. In several scenes i actually felt it was myself having the experiences and thoughts of the characters. This novel was magnificently written and brought to life in my imagination and i advise all people to read this novel for the pure joy of life, love and happiness. Enjoy!!
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Posted April 1, 2005
Boring!!!The characters are interesting but they get lost in all the tecchnical talk.I felt like I was reading a school study book.I loved The Thorn Birds but this is a snorer.
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Posted February 19, 2004
Australian writer Colleen McCullough (author of the memorable 'Thorn Birds') has crafted another epic novel sure to win hearts. Her characters are once again compelling drawn, and commendably intriguing. Voice performer Jenny Sterlin gives admirable voice to this century spanning story. Protagonist Alexander Drummond is a complex individual and larger than life (perfect for the big screen). Never having known his real father he runs away from his home in Scotland to escape his cruel step-father. He was only fifteen, little knowing that the hurts of his childhood would drive him to become one of the wealthiest men in the world. Just prior to his 30th birthday fate takes him to Sidney, Australia, when that country is experiencing a gold rush. He strikes it rich once again, and builds an opulent mansion atop a mountain. He has begun a torrid affair with the rough but beautiful Ruby Costevan, madam of a local brothel. This is a woman Alexander deeply loves but knows he can never marry. Instead he dispatches a sum of money to one of his uncles in Scotland, asking that the man send a daughter in return. Enter young, lovely and obedient Elizabeth whom he quickly marries. It's a union bound to fail, bring only unhappiness to both and bearing heavily upon their offspring as well as Ruby's son. Colleen McCullough once again proves just what an extraordinary writer she is with 'The Touch,' a story all will be drawn into and few will forget.
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Posted July 29, 2006
This is the first novel by the author that I read but I did enjoy the Thorn Birds movie. This book was well written and had great character development and an enjoyable story line. The only downfall was the tangents about the mining industry.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 8, 2005
I believe the writer knew exactly what life was all about during that time period of the book and was able to portray the characters effectively and give them life that I was able to understand and agree with.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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