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Eugenia could see him at last. She had been gripping the side of the small rowing boat, straining her eyes shorewards, ever since she had clambered down the ladder of the Caroline, leaving that three-months-long home anchored in the blue waters of Sydney Cove. Mrs Ashburton was perched on the narrow plank beside her, taking up the room of two with her ample girth and billowing skirts. She was exclaiming petulantly as the wind tore at her bonnet. The brisk breeze had also nearly snatched Eugenia's parasol from her hand. She had had to furl it and let the sun beat on her unprotected face.
Sun and wind and water, wooded slopes with rocky outcrops, glistening honey-coloured sand and patches of pale red earth, primitive rows of buildings clustering round the little jetty. The town of Sydney in Botany Bay, or New South Wales as this part of Australia was now being called.
When Eugenia at last caught sight of Gilbert she thought that he was the colour of Australia with his red hair and sideburns, his sunburnt skin, and strong blue eyes.
He was waving wildly.
'Eugenia!' She could hear his voice above the clatter and confusion of the boat being tied up at the jetty.
He cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed, 'Welcome to Australia! Have you brought my vine cuttings?'
Mrs Ashburton gave Eugenia a nudge and began to laugh in her jolly fashion.
'Well, that's a fine welcome, miss! Which is more important to this young man, his intended wife or his vine cuttings?'
Mrs Ashburton, a family friend who had providentially been travelling to Australia to join her son, and who had agreed to chaperone Eugenia, had proved a great trial on the long voyage. She was garrulous, tetchy, unpredictable, and had an irritating habit of constantly losing her possessions. The voyage had been spent in a search for a mislaid fan, or lorgnette, or shawl, or smelling salts, or any of a dozen other objects. But she was kind. And at this moment Eugenia's only friend.
All the same her ribald remark gave Eugenia a flutter of uncertainty. She knew Gilbert's dedication to his vineyard, but she had not imagined it would take precedence to her in this first moment of encounter.
She had met Gilbert three years ago at her uncle's chateau in Burgundy. Her mother was of French descent, and her Uncle Henri was a noted viticulturist with a chateau and vineyard. It happened that the young Englishman, Gilbert Massingham, who had already spent five years in Australia and had seen its possibilities as a wine-growing country, was visiting France at the same time as Eugenia, for the purpose of collecting vine cuttings. He had been travelling in Malaga, Portugal and the wine-growing areas of the Rhine for the same purpose.
On her first evening Eugenia had seen the way he had looked at her Uncle Henri's wife, who was a very beautiful woman, still young and graceful, and a gifted hostess. Indeed, she had been convinced that he had been interested in no one but Aunt Honoria, until she realized that he saw her aunt as an essential complement to the dinner table, the silver and fine crystal, the epergne full of roses, the good food. And the wine. A chilled white burgundy in long-stemmed shallow glasses with the fish, and later with the pheasant, a full-bodied claret. Eugenia watched the young man raise his glass and silently toast Aunt Honoria. Then, with a speculative look in his eyes, he had turned to Eugenia and raised his glass with a curious deliberation.
It would of course have been rude to ignore her, the only other woman at the table. But his subsequent attention to her, in the drawing-room, and afterwards strolling on the terrace, had nothing to do with wine.
Or had it?
It certainly hadn't seemed to when he had followed her to England, and asked permission to call on her parents.
They were in London for the end of the season. Jessica, the eldest daughter, had been presented. Eugenia must wait until the following year, since she was scarcely eighteen, and money was a little short. There were three younger sisters also, so it was important that Jessica and Eugenia find husbands before too long. A certain younger son of an earl had been particularly attentive to Jessica, and now, it seemed, Eugenia had her Australian.
But he was not an Australian, Eugenia emphasized. He had merely spent five years in the Colony, and being of an adventurous and ambitious nature had decided that it was the country of the future. Orphaned at an early age, he had been brought up by a maiden aunt, whose modest fortune he had eventually inherited. With no family and a comfortable amount of money, he could afford to indulge in the adventure of sailing across the world and discovering the country for which he was to develop such a passion. He had already acquired a thousand acres of land near Parramatta, a settlement some distance from the already overcrowded town of Sydney. On this land he proposed erecting a house suitable to which to bring a wife.
But more important than the house was the frail beginning of his future profession as a viticulturist.
His whole visage changed when he spoke of his infant vineyard. Some men saw Australia in terms of sheep or cattle, some in trading, some were already prospecting for gold. But soon after his arrival Gilbert had visited a small thriving vineyard at vintage time and his imagination had been instantly fired. The challenge of such a life exactly appealed to him. Not for him the dusty sheep or the cattle dying in a drought. He much preferred the luscious grapes, the satisfying red wine and the hazards and uncertainties and triumphs attendant on the beginning of an industry that could become world famous. This was something worthy of dedicating his life to.
After Australia, Gilbert went on, England was small, confined, limited. The skies were too diffused a blue, the weather too cold, the cities too crowded. There was too much poverty, squalor, crime. When Eugenia's father pointed out that on the contrary Australia was little more than an outdoor prison, a miserable dumping ground for the dishonest trash and riff-raff of the British Isles, Gilbert vigorously denied such a thing.
That state of affairs had existed only in the time of the first Fleet and the second Fleet, nearly half a century ago. Now, explorers were making exciting discoveries, the country was large beyond imagining, and could hold unbelievable riches. Responsible settlers were wanted, hard-working healthy adventurous young men. And women to marry them. The convicts, only a fraction of the population, were an asset in their own way since they represented a constant supply of cheap labour.
Gilbert himself could never hope to build the house he planned without the use of convict labour.
He would begin it on his return. When it was finished, could he anticipate the arrival of his bride?
Yes, yes, Eugenia wanted to cry, because she was in love with Gilbert Massingham's vitality and persuasiveness. But afterwards, because she had a strong streak of caution and commonsense, she was glad her father had stipulated that she should wait until she was of age. Three years would give both of them time to be sure of their feelings. Gilbert would return to Australia and build his house and establish his vineyard (if such a thing were possible), and Eugenia would remain at Lichfield Court, the old red brick manor house in Wiltshire which had belonged to her father's family for two hundred years.
Gilbert was anxious that she should spend the three years continuing her study of music, painting and other ladylike pursuits, none of which, he assured her, would be wasted in the new colony. He took the greatest pleasure in listening to her fluent French, although it was a language he spoke very little of himself. His own education had been practical rather than classical. He seemed to think that possessing a wife who spoke French was somehow an asset to be compared with an appreciation of good wine. Everything, Eugenia reflected, came back to wine.
But her devotion to her lessons was not to exclude time for writing letters. Eugenia was a dedicated letter writer. She assured Mr Massingham that addressing a correspondence to him would give her the greatest pleasure.
That was when the reality of her rather perplexing courtship by the redheaded young man from the colonies turned into the dream.
He lived for her on paper. She had almost forgotten what he looked like. He was the black-scrawled handwriting that began 'My dearest Eugenia' and ended 'With devoted thoughts', and if the matter in between was largely concerned with plain facts about house building, and the problems of establishing healthy grapevines in alien soil, she scarcely noticed. She loved to be called dearest and to have someone dreaming devoted thoughts of her.
In the flurried weeks preceding her departure, Sarah, the sister who was only eleven months younger than her, and who had always been like her twin, had constantly burst into tears, and begged Eugenia to assure her that she was happy. It was such a tremendous thing to do, to travel by sailing ship fifteen thousand miles to marry a man whose features she could scarcely remember.
By that time the matter had gone too far, and Eugenia was too proud to admit her own misgivings. In any case, what else was there for her? Jessica had married her Honourable, and little Elizabeth, younger than both Eugenia and Sarah, was engaged to marry a curate with very moderate means. That left only Sarah and Milly. Milly was still a schoolgirl, and Sarah herself said that she would never marry. She meant to stay at Lichfield Court with Mamma and Papa, to comfort them in their old age. She was a born spinster.
But Eugenia was not. And her excitement was real enough. It was the greatest fun gathering together a very complete trousseau, because it was unlikely that she would be able to buy wearable gowns or decent bonnets or good materials in Australia. The formal dozen of everything must be two dozen, and in addition she must take out a great many household goods. Gilbert had written asking her to bring various pieces of good furniture, a massive oak dining table, chairs and sideboard, a bed and bedroom furniture which she was to please choose for herself, since he trusted her good taste entirely. She was also to find some good drawing-room pieces, but not a carpet, as he had already ordered fine carpets from China. And pictures and knick-knacks, of course. A Waterford crystal chandelier, for instance, would look well, and some good wall mirrors in the Chippendale style.
The rest of the house could be adequately furnished with materials at hand. He had come across an ex-convict carpenter who was making pieces for the spare bedrooms and the kitchen. Bamboo and cane furniture was practical for the climate. In the summer a great deal of time would be spent on the verandah.
Lastly, and most importantly, he wanted her to bring the selection of vine cuttings her Uncle Henri had promised him. She was to send someone to France to get them. If no one was available whom she could trust, she must go herself. And she must see that the cuttings were correctly dipped in the solution that would preserve life in them during the long voyage. He had arranged with Mr Charles Worthington at Kew Gardens to advise her in this respect. He would like at least a hundred cuttings, since some would undoubtedly die. He would then have a good number of varieties of grapes, for white and red wine, for sherries and for drying into raisins. His crop this year had unfortunately been badly affected by a long drought, but some grapes had survived. The vintage would be small.
After reading and discussing this letter, more than half of which concerned Gilbert's grapes, Sarah commented that she felt drunk from wine already.
'Don't, I beg you, become a drunkard,' she entreated.
Eugenia laughed merrily. 'What a very unlikely prospect!'
'Gilbert seems obsessed by the subject.'
'Any man who is to succeed in life must be obsessed by his chosen career,' Eugenia said a little pedantically.
'Yes, I know, but this career requires so much tasting of the product, doesn't it? You know the ritual that goes on at Uncle Henri's at vintage time.'
'Yes, and I have never noticed that Uncle Henri became the worse for wine,' Eugenia retorted. 'Anyway, I hear that rum is the drink in Australia. And I assure you I will not be tasting that.'
It was exciting making the trip to London to look for the furniture Gilbert asked for. He had put five hundred pounds at Eugenia's disposal. That seemed a fortune, although when she began choosing the quality furniture Gilbert wanted, it soon disappeared. Eventually her grandmother suggested giving her a four-poster bed as a wedding gift. It was in the French empire style, painted pale grey and decorated with gilded cupids and loveknots.
Her treasured piano which had also been a gift from her grandmother on her eighteenth birthday could not be left behind. There were many more personal articles of furniture among her baggage, her writing desk, her favourite water-colours, rugs, quilted bedspreads, a Dresden dinner and tea service, silverware, household linen. All these things were intended to make her feel civilized in a rough wild country.
But now, in this heart-shattering moment three months later, while Gilbert shouted anxious enquiries about his vines, she could only think that the lovely French bed was going to be too fragile for his big frame.CHAPTER 2
'The sun has caught your nose. It's as red as a bottlebrush.'
Gilbert roared with laughter. To tell the truth, he was a little shy of the young woman who stood in front of him. He had forgotten how aristocratic she looked. Women in this country, even the more gently bred who may have contrived to keep their peaches and cream complexion during the long voyage from England, soon acquired peeling sunburnt skins and freckles. It surprised him that he suddenly cared passionately that this should not happen to his wife.
'What is a bottlebrush?' she was asking in her soft well-bred voice.
'It's a shrub that grows here. It's vivid scarlet. I'm uncommonly happy to see you, red nose and all.' He wanted to take her in his arms and hug the breath out of her. But he had an instinct that she would not care for so public an embrace, and that he must restrain his ardour until they were alone. He satisfied himself with a chaste kiss on her cheek and a murmured, 'Welcome, my love,' and Mrs Ashburton, who had had the delicacy to move a little distance away to permit the lovers a moment of privacy, came forward, her plump hand held out, her expression unabashedly inquisitive.
'Well, Mr Massingham, aren't you going to thank me for delivering your bride safely to you?'
Eugenia performed the necessary introduction.
'Gilbert, this is Mrs Ashburton who has been in charge of me. Or I in charge of her, I don't know which. But here we both are safely.'
'I'm happy to meet you, ma'am. I understand you have a son in Sydney.'
'Yes, my only child. But he doesn't appear to have much feeling for his mother or he would be here to meet me.' She continued to study Gilbert, and presently nodded approvingly, saying to Eugenia, 'You are a fortunate young woman, I believe. I could wish I were forty years younger myself.' She nudged Gilbert, laughing coyly. Then she exclaimed, 'Why, there I see my son. Don't let us bother with introductions at present. You two are anxious to be off. We will all meet again shortly.'
'At our wedding, ma'am,' said Gilbert, 'if not before.'
'Certainly at your wedding. I have no intention of missing that.'
Mrs Ashburton took her departure, thrusting her way through the crowd to reach her son. Gilbert turned to Eugenia.
'I have arranged for you to stay with good friends of mine, Edmund and Bess Kelly. Your Mrs Ashburton is quite a personality, isn't she?'
'A rather overpowering one at times,' Eugenia admitted. 'Who are Edmund and Bess Kelly?'
'Edmund is a land agent. He was an officer in the navy, but abandoned it to settle here when he saw the money to be made with so much land for sale. He brought his wife out from England. They have a house in King Street. You may find it a bit cramped, but I promise you won't be able to make that criticism about Yarrabee.'
Excerpted from The Vines of Yarrabee by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1969 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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