An Emma Berry Murray River Mystery
A novella series prequel
PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Copyright © 2017 by Irene Sauman
Saddled With Death.
Published by Jakada Books at Shakespir
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Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Cover design: Mirna Gilman, BooksGoSocial
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry (epub)
Creator: Sauman, Irene, author.
Title: Saddled with death / Irene Sauman.
ISBN: 9780994503152 (epub)
Series: Sauman, Irene. Emma Berry Murray River mystery ; novella prequel to bk.1
Subjects: Historical fiction.
Murray River Estuary (N.S.W.-S.A)—Fiction.
This book is dedicated to my children,
Janine, Karyn and David
Making life worthwhile.
Adelaide Observer Saturday 8 March 1873. The Sandridge town pier presented a very busy appearance on Monday, in consequence of the embarkation of the horses shipped by Messrs Warren and Lalor on board the ship Berkshire for Madras and Calcutta. During the last few years the quality of the animals shipped for the India market has been steadily advancing, until at last in order to find horses of the proper stamp and breeding, the dealers who supply the India market have found it necessary to travel from one end of Australia to the other in order to keep up the standard of excellence.
Emma Haythorne watched with interest as the short, thickset figure of Mr. Vernon Appleton made his way awkwardly, cane in hand, down the plank linking the paddle steamer, Mary B and the river bank. He had a stiff right leg that didn’t bend at the knee, so a sideways motion, dragging the stiff leg behind, was the safest way on the narrow plank. It seemed all eyes were on him as he descended and he was aware of it. A crew member, who stood on the bank to assist the last few steps, was waved irritably away.
“Good to see you.” George Macdonald extended his hand in greeting to his half-brother. Mr. Appleton looked up at the taller man without a smile and gave the hand a perfunctory shake.
“You remember our sister-in-law, Dora, and young Anthony,” Mr. Appleton said, as a handsome middle-aged woman joined him on the bank, followed by a young man of perhaps twenty, who had a similar build to his uncle, though not yet as broad as he might be in later life.
George Macdonald welcomed them both politely. Twenty-three-year-old Bea Macdonald and her brothers greeted their uncle, aunt and cousin in turn. Everyone seemed a little formal, but it was many years since they had seen one another so that perhaps wasn’t surprising.
“Miss Haythorne. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Emma smiled at the tall, bearded man who appeared at her side.
“Captain Berry. How good to see you. No, I’m afraid Mrs. Macdonald is ill and I’m assisting Bea in taking care of her and the household.”
Behind the Captain several of the crew were off-loading some light luggage. The steamer rocked slightly as a gust of wind whipped down, rippling the water and shaking the leaves of the gum trees that lined the bank. Emma pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Winter was settling in.
“Nothing serious, I hope,” Daniel Berry said.
Emma glanced across the river at the grey-green bush beyond and then back to her companion.
“I doubt Mrs. Macdonald will leave her bed again,” she replied quietly. “She grows weaker by the day. It’s really just a matter of keeping her comfortable.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
Emma nodded. Her attention was drawn to the woman now carefully edging her way down the plank, a girl of about eight following, clutching her hand. The woman gratefully accepted the assistance of the crew member as she neared the end and stepped onto the river bank.
“May I present Madame Gabriela Fournier and her daughter, Sachi,” Mr. Appleton announced, more enthusiasm in his voice than she had heard so far. The woman looked to be in her early thirties, not very tall, but elegant. Emma could tell that her mourning attire was fashionably cut, from pictures she had seen in the mail-order catalogues. But it was Madame Fournier’s companion, following her casually, hands in his jacket pockets, who took Emma’s eye. Strikingly handsome, tall and straight, his clothing immaculate, his blonde hair swept into a wing on one side. How long did he spend in front of the mirror each morning to achieve that effect? “And her brother, Mr. Claude Devereaux.”
“These visitors then have come to pay their respects?” Daniel Berry said, smoothing his beard. Mr. Devereaux’s appearance must have reminded him of his own.
“Pure coincidence, Captain. They are returning from a visit to England and apparently decided on taking a detour along the river to visit family before continuing home. I’m not even sure they know of Mrs. Mac’s condition, as they have been away for some six months. Mr. Appleton has a property west of Melbourne and his sister-in-law keeps house for him. I know nothing about their travelling companions. French, it would appear?”
The visit had been heralded by a telegraph sent from Fremantle to Adelaide and then to Wentworth, before being carried the last thirty miles to Nettifield by steamer. The imminent arrival of half a dozen visitors had been greeted with some dismay, given the sad circumstances at Nettifield, but the place was made as ready and welcoming as possible.
Beds had been moved in from the shearers’ quarters and extra linen sent over from Emma’s home, Wirramilla, with one of their domestics, dark-skinned Janey Wirra, accompanying it. Nettifield boasted only one Irish maid so an extra hand was most welcome. Emma’s mother would have come herself but a useful person, rather than someone fussing around and giving directions, was of more practical benefit. Emma could thank her grandmother for managing that.
Daniel Berry cleared his throat. “They are French. Met on the voyage from England apparently. I can tell you that Devereaux is a pleasant enough fellow, and is hoping to see some good horses, and Mr. Appleton enjoys the company of Madame Fournier.”
Emma raised her eyebrows and answered him teasingly. “How intriguing. You keep a good eye on your passengers, then, Captain?”
“Well, and why not? It breaks the monotony of staring at the water and the trees, and listening to the crew argue about who has the better record at duck shooting.”
Mr. Appleton was standing now beside Madame Fournier as they spoke to the Macdonald boys. Was the woman widowed or in mourning for another family member?
“He certainly seems well disposed toward her,” Emma commented, interested to hear more.
“Emma, come and be introduced,” pixie-faced Bea Macdonald called. “Sorry, Captain, but my need is greater.”
“Perhaps I will see you back home on my return trip,” Daniel Berry said, then hesitated, as if realising that Emma’s return to Wirramilla could mean the end of her being needed at Nettifield. “By the way, my brother, Sam, will be joining the Mary B at Echuca. He has had his fill of the gold fields at last.”
“You must be pleased about that. I look forward to meeting him.” If Sam Berry was anything like his older brother she was certain she would like him, especially if, unlike his brother, he was not spoken for.
Daniel Berry tipped his cap and turned back to his steamer. Bea drew Emma into the group and introduced her. Mr. Appleton and his sister-in-law nodded to her in a politely disinterested way. Anthony Appleton showed a little more interest, managing a slight smile with the incline of his head, but it was Mr. Devereaux who outdid them all, bending over Emma’s hand with a murmured “Enchente.” Well, he was French, and they were inclined that way. Madame Fournier smiled and gave Emma her hand.
“Come now,” urged Mr. Macdonald, “it’s too cold to be standing around down here. The boys will carry up the luggage.”
“And tea will be ready in the drawing room in fifteen minutes,” Bea added brightly.
The Macdonald boys did as they were bid and gathered up the bags that had been unloaded from the steamer. The Mary B was already pulling out into the river as the party moved up to the homestead a hundred yards away on rising ground, sounding its whistle as it did so.
The Nettifield homestead was looking smarter than Emma had seen it for some years, with a fresh coat of paint on the gutters and window frames. George Macdonald had harried his station hands and his sons in tidying and painting, weeding the garden beds and ensuring everything was in order about the farm buildings and the yards.
The proper work of the station had been put on hold. The sheep could look after themselves, as the autumn rains had brought good grass, but Matty Macdonald, Bea’s elder brother, had confided to Emma that the station was in danger of not meeting the next delivery of horses for the Indian remount trade. Matty had wondered why his father suddenly cared about how the place looked, but Emma thought it perfectly reasonable that Nettifield put on its best dress for the visitors. And it had given everyone a bright prospect in the middle of a sad situation.
The homestead itself was a timber clad building surrounded by deep verandahs on all sides, some of which were enclosed with half-height walls and canvas blinds for extra sleeping accommodation. It was to this the guests’ luggage was taken. Bea gave the ladies a quick tour of the facilities while Emma went out to the separate kitchen building, attached to the back verandah, to help with the tea.
“Are they very posh, Miss?” Tillie, the Irish maid, paused in her task of slicing the ham. She looked a little anxious.
Emma laughed. “A little posher than we are I think, Tillie. They don’t have any servants with them, though. They’ve been sent on by sea to Melbourne with the rest of the luggage – steamer trunks and hat boxes and what not. At least we won’t have any strange valets or ladies’ maids looking down their noses at us.”
“But more work for us,” said Janey, feverishly buttering a stack of bread.
“Probably. It will only be for a few days,” Emma consoled.
“I need to take a small plate in to Ma,” Bea said coming into the kitchen in a rush.
“I can do that, Bea. You go and entertain your guests,” Emma said. “You know your menfolk aren’t too comfortable with drawing-room talk and I can’t see Mr. Devereaux or his sister being interested in sheep.”
“Thank you, dear, I will. Tell Ma all about them, won’t you, and I’ll bring Aunt Appleton in to see her shortly.”
Bea went off again and Emma helped Janey and Tillie put the trays of food together. She left them to deliver it all to the drawing-room, while she prepared tea for Mrs. Macdonald and took it up the hall to the front bedroom. She paused outside the door for a moment, to prepare herself. Instead of the robust, healthy woman she had known all her life, Mrs. Macdonald was now weak and shrunken, her skin grey.
She was lying back in bed propped up on her pillows, her face turned toward the windows. Mr. Macdonald had raised the bed with rounds of timber cut from a thick tree branch so it was high enough for a clear view down across the river. A fire burned in the corner fireplace and the room smelt of wood smoke and medicines. The patient turned her head slowly and gave a small smile as Emma came in.
“You saw your visitors arrive, then?” Emma said in greeting.
“Aye,” came the reply from a dry throat. Emma helped her sit forward while she plumped up the pillows and set a folding tray in front of her. Mrs. Macdonald sipped thirstily from the teacup, before nibbling the edge of a sandwich and crumbling a piece of cake. Her plate always looked as if she had eaten more than she really had. Emma poured her a second cup of tea and sat down again in the bedside chair.
“Bea said she would bring Mrs. Appleton in to see you later.”
“Dora. That will be nice.” The ironic tone suggested anything but. “How is young Anthony?”
“Looks like a nice lad. I haven’t spoken to him or heard him speak, for that matter. Mr. Devereaux is quite charming. And his sister seemed pleasant.”
She was about to add something about whether the woman had lost her husband but thought better of it. Death wasn’t the best subject for a sick room.
“What about Vernon? How is he?”
Emma paused for a moment. “He didn’t seem very friendly, but perhaps that’s just his manner. Captain Berry says he enjoys Madame Fournier’s company. Perhaps there’s a romance in the air.”
Mrs. Macdonald’s hands moved restlessly on the cover. “You know I would like to see you and Matty settled, Emma, don’t you?” she said, her voice querulous. Emma did. “That ten-year arrangement is all very well, but you know I won’t be around to see it.”
Emma wished Matty had never told his mother about that particular discussion, but perhaps he had felt compelled to quiet her. At least, no one else in either family knew about it. She suspected her own parents would be surprised at the idea. Matty had suggested --when she was seventeen and he nineteen--that they throw their lot in together if they were both still unmarried in ten years’ time. Hardly a romantic proposal. Emma considered herself as practical as the next girl, but the romantic interludes she read of in her Trollope novels held a charm she found difficult to completely put aside. Perhaps someone would yet come along and sweep her off her feet. There were still a few years left before that ten had been reached, and she, at least, was in no hurry to get to it.
“It’s not really practical right now, you know,” Emma said, not being able to come up with any other excuse and realising also how weak that one was.
Mrs. Macdonald sighed. “Matty said the same thing to me yesterday. I suppose I must accept it, but it is hard. If I keep on at him about it he’ll likely stop coming in to see me. And so will you.”
“I’m sure neither of us will do that,” Emma assured her, but she did hope the subject would not be raised again any time soon.
Mrs. Macdonald gave another sigh. “Can you draw the curtains, please, Emma. I’ll just have a little nap.”
“Of course, can I get you anything else? Are you comfortable?” She looked toward the collection of herbal remedies on the bedside table that her grandmother kept well stocked.
“I’m fine, dear.”
“I’ll tell Bea no visitors for a bit then, shall I?”
“Thank you, dear.” She was asleep before Emma left the room.
“Tis really odd, I’m thinking,” Tillie was saying when Emma entered the kitchen. The maid was loading cups and plates into a trough of suds. Emma winced as she heard the crockery being roughly clinked together.
“Don’t load the trough so full, Tillie. All the cups and plates are getting chipped.”
Tillie gave her a sullen look and went on with what she was doing. Janey raised her eyebrows at Emma, who just shook her head. Tillie wasn’t her responsibility.
“What is it that’s really odd?” she asked instead.
Tillie didn’t answer immediately. Emma looked enquiringly at Janey.
She shrugged. “Mr. Appleton and Mr. Macdonald don’ seem to like one another much.”
“That Mr. Appleton,” Tillie said, turning from the trough, “visitin’ a house and behavin’ that way. That’s not the Irish way, that’s for sure and certain. Not at all, it isn’t.”
“Really?” Emma hadn’t seen Tillie so indignant about anything before. “What has he done, exactly?”
“He looks like he has a bad smell under his nose,” Tillie said, “and the Master is the smell.”
Emma winced as the girl thumped a plate down on the drainer.
“That might just be his manner, Tillie.”
“Bad manners then, is what I’m thinking.”
“Are they still in the drawing-room?”
“The men have gone to look at the horses,” Janey said. “The ladies are waitin’ on more tea.”
“I’ll take it.”
It was time she got to know the guests. They seemed interesting, at the very least. She took the tray with the fresh pot into the drawing room. Dora Appleton was sitting at one end of a sofa and Madame Fournier at the other. Sachi was in between, sitting as close to her mother as possible. Or as far from Dora as possible, she wasn’t sure which. She put Mrs. Appleton at around forty, someone who had been very attractive when younger, and was still handsome, but with a hardness now she could see around the mouth and eyes.
Mrs. Appleton watched as Emma set the tray on the low table between the sofas and looked in sharp surprise when she sat down on the opposite sofa beside Bea and began to refill the teacups.
“Do you live here, Miss…er… Harthorne?” Dora Appleton asked, clearly puzzled as to Emma’s social position.
“Haythorne. No, Mrs. Appleton. My family own Wirramilla, further up river, about a two-hour ride away. You will pass it on your way home.”
Mrs. Appleton looked relieved. That put Emma on a par with Bea so the woman clearly knew now how to treat her.
“Emma is helping me look after Ma,” Bea said, giving a grateful glance at her friend. “I don’t know how I would manage without her.”
“That’s what friends and neighbours are for,” Emma responded, as she handed around the teacups.
Madame Fournier nodded in agreement. “That is very true, very true, Miss ‘Aythorne. I shall miss my friends back in Paree. They have been, how you say, support, after my poor Louis … but,” she shrugged her elegant shoulders, “my mother is ‘ere, in the colonies. What can you.” So, she was a widow.
“Whereabouts in the colony do your family live?” Emma asked, not wanting to be drawn into a conversation about the importance of mothers.
“Bendigo. The gold fields.” She grimaced. “All dust and holes and rough men. But Claude tells me the city is not so bad, n’est-ce pas?”
“It has some lovely buildings now. The rawness is wearing off,” said Mrs. Appleton.
Madame Fournier too a sip of tea but did not acknowledge Mrs. Appleton’s remark. “My brother tells me our mother’s home is a new construct. Very comfortable, he say. I hope it is so.”
Emma held out a plate of Janey’s oat and treacle biscuits to Sachi, who delicately took one.
Emma smiled at the girl. Mrs. Appleton sniffed.
“Perhaps you would like to see Ma now, Aunt,” Bea suggested.
“Oh, she is sleeping right now,” Emma said.
“She sleeps a lot, I’m afraid,” Bea said apologetically. “I will look in on her shortly. I know she will want to see you, and Uncle Appleton as well.”
“Sad, very sad,” Dora Appleton raised her handkerchief to her eye, although there didn’t appear to be any tears.
“Whereabouts did you travel in England, Mrs. Appleton?” Emma asked. “I have never been there myself, but I have read a great deal about the countryside and about London.”
“That’s nice, but reading is hardly the same as seeing the real thing, of course, Miss Haythorne,” Mrs. Appleton said. “We went to visit Vernon’s sister and other family members in Sussex. Beautiful countryside. Vernon insisted Anthony and I go along too, of course. It’s important to keep up family connections, isn’t it? I’m sure they will be very useful to Anthony during his life. Vernon’s sister’s husband holds a high position in the Colonial Office, and Vernon had a lot to discuss with him about the conditions in the Victorian colony, Vernon being a JP of course, and much consulted in our district.”
She went on to describe the numerous cousins, and several great aunts and their various houses, which, though very nice in their way, were apparently nothing as grand and spacious as their own Hillcrest.
“It is very pleasant to have a nice home, is it not?” Madame Fournier put in at that moment.
Emma and Bea both agreed, but the pinched expression that quickly passed across Mrs. Appleton’s face suggested something else. It was almost as if Madame Fournier was picking at a sore spot that she knew Mrs. Appleton suffered from.
“When we were in London,” Mrs. Appleton continued, “we saw Queen Victoria driven in state to the opening of Parliament. She wore a yellow satin gown with a large pink bow at the back. You know, my dears, it did not suit. She is too short and heavy for such a thing. Prince Albert would have advised her against it were he still alive. But there were thousands out to see her, you know, great throngs of people in the streets, including the rougher elements of society, amazingly well behaved, really, though the weather was most inclement, threatening snow.”
Bea gave a small cough.
“How very interesting,” Emma said quickly.
Bea obviously remembered poring over the London news with her and reading the article about the opening of Parliament the previous year. It was the first the Queen had attended since Prince Albert’s untimely death almost a decade earlier, and it clearly told how the Queen’s dressmakers had successfully persuaded her to forgo the pink bow.
Sachi was restless and Madame Fournier excused herself and took the girl out into the garden. They had no doubt heard the stories before. Mrs. Appleton watched them leave.
“One is thrown into the company of people in the confines of a ship whom one might not associate with in the ordinary way,” she said obliquely.
It was a few minutes later, when she was recounting her visit to the Tower of London, that she stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence, as if something had caught her attention. Bea took the opportunity to excuse herself to look in on her mother, giving Emma a regretful look as she did so. Emma, not wishing to be stuck with the garrulous woman, stood and began gathering up the teacups and plates. As she did so, she glanced out the side window and saw what had caught Dora Appleton’s eye—Vernon Appleton in the garden talking to Madame Fournier. Mrs. Appleton seemed riveted to the scene.
“Perhaps you would like to take some time to unpack,” Emma suggested. Dora Appleton came to herself with a start. “I’m afraid we can’t provide a maid for you. The girls will be occupied preparing dinner.”
“Oh, of course, of course,” she said, getting to her feet. “I understood that, when I sent my maid on with my luggage.”
Emma felt, for some reason, that the maid was as much an invention as the sighting of Queen Victoria.
When Emma entered the kitchen later she found Bea sitting at the table, scratching at a piece of paper, and Janey and Tillie preparing dinner.
“Oh, Emma, come and help me,” Bea wailed.
“What on earth is it?” She looked at Bea’s piece of paper. It had a lot of crossings out around a line drawn in the middle.
“I’m trying to work out the seating for dinner. Dad asked me to seat Uncle Appleton as far from him as possible.”
“My goodness. Why?”
“He didn’t say, except that it would make for a more pleasant meal. Surely, they haven’t quarreled already? He’s only been here a few hours.”
Emma shook her head. “I don’t know, dear. I only saw your uncle for a few minutes at the landing. I must say, he didn’t seem overly happy to be here, but why trouble to make the journey to visit if they don’t care for one another?”
The detour meant over a thousand miles of river and a two-hundred-mile train journey to reach Melbourne. One day steaming by sea from Adelaide would have achieved the same end.
“I have no idea, but it’s very unpleasant.”
“Perhaps there’s an old problem they need to sort out.”
“But what will I do?” Bea asked. “Uncle Appleton will be insulted if I sit him at the end with the boys.”
“Sit him beside Madame Fournier,” Emma suggested. “That should make him very happy, though I wonder if your Aunt Dora will like it.”
“Why ever not?”
“I suspect there’s a little tension between them. Perhaps she doesn’t care for Madame Fournier’s friendship with your uncle. I can’t imagine what it’s been like with all of them stuck together on a ship for all those weeks.”
“Why would she be concerned about a friendship? Perhaps she just doesn’t like the French,” Bea suggested.
“Perhaps. Here, let’s have a look at that table arrangement.” She took the pencil from Bea. “Now, if we put your dad at the head as usual, we could put Jim and Matty on either side, and then…” Emma wrote names down rapidly. “There. What do you think?”
Bea studied the result. “But look where you’ve put Aunt Appleton, Emma. Next to Mr. Devereaux. If she doesn’t like the French that is not the best place. And she can see Madame Fournier across the table next to Mr. Appleton.”
“I doubt she would mind sitting next to Mr. Devereaux,” Emma said. “And it might keep her from talking all over us. You nearly put your foot in it earlier, you know.”
“Oh, I know. I’ll be more careful in future,” Bea promised. “But it was so obvious she hadn’t seen the Queen opening parliament, it took me by surprise. I will be on my guard now. We mustn’t embarrass her, no matter how boastful she is. That would be incredibly bad manners.”
“She probably thinks we are just country bumpkins who know nothing about the world.”
“Mmh.” Bea turned her attention back to Emma’s seating arrangement, “I see you’ve put yourself on Mr. Devereaux’s other side, you forward girl.”
“Well, someone has to sit there. And see, you will be able to gaze at him from across the table. You have a far better seat than I.”
Janey looked up from her potato peeling, and grinned. “Ooh, I’m goin’ to watch that. What’ll Captain Berry think?”
“You are getting to be as bad as your mother,” Emma scolded.
The Wirramilla housekeeper thought Emma and the Captain would make a good match, despite Emma explaining that he wasn’t available. Even if she had been interested. Which she wasn’t. Tillie looked from Emma to Janey, eyes wide at the badinage between mistress and servant. Emma hoped she wasn’t learning bad habits. Bea wasn’t likely to be firm enough to deal with it.
“In any case, you will not be watching,” Emma went on. “Tillie will serve and you will stay in the kitchen to look after the cooking. As you are the more experienced cook,” she added, to soften the order. “That’s all right, isn’t it Bea?” After all, it was her kitchen.
“All right. It will have to do, I guess,” conceded Bea, whose mind seemed still to be on the table arrangement.
Claude Devereaux held Emma’s chair for her before taking his own seat at the table beside her. On his left, as planned, was Dora Appleton and next to her was nineteen-year-old Alex Macdonald. Jim Macdonald, the middle one of Bea’s brothers, sat on Emma’s right. Opposite him, and going down the other side of the table, were Matty Macdonald, Bea, Madame Fournier, Mr. Appleton and Anthony Appleton.
Mr. Macdonald took his seat at the head of the table. One thing he hadn’t allowed yet was for Bea to take her mother’s seat at the other end. It had been decided that Sachi would sit there tonight, but as it turned out Sachi elected to stay in the kitchen with Janey. She had found and fallen in love with Hux, the family’s aging Newfoundland. Hux loved everyone and Sachi had christened him l’ours, French for bear. The dog seemed perfectly comfortable with his new name.
Tillie served the soup. At the far end of the table, Alex and Anthony appeared to be engaged in a continuation of an earlier discussion on the merits of a .22 rifle over a shotgun for hunting various game, their voices drifting down the table. Alex was of similar build to Anthony, unlike his two taller and older brothers, having taken after their mother, rather than their father. Perhaps like attracted like in their case. They were also both the youngest in the family group.
Claude turned and spoke to Dora Appleton, and Bea, directly across from Emma, asked her uncle what he had thought of the horses. Mr. Macdonald, despite not wanting to sit near his half-brother, caught the question and seemed to strain forward to hear the answer.
“Humph. Something could be done with them, I suppose,” he said, “if they were properly broken in.”
“I explained that to you,” George Macdonald responded in exasperation. “They’re still getting acclimatised to the stable. These horses have run wild for a year or two. They can’t be loaded onto a steamer and sent on a voyage for several weeks without first getting them used to being in a stall.”
“Well, if you will try to train wild brumbies.”
Mr. Macdonald opened his mouth to respond as Bea pleaded with her eyes to Emma for help. Apparently, any seat in the same room was too close a proximity for these two.
“Madame Fournier.” Emma jumped in with the first thing that caught her eye, the silver chain wound several times round the woman’s neck. “I couldn’t help but admire the necklace you are wearing. It is very elegant.”
“Yes? Thank you.” Her mouth lifted a little at the corners acknowledging Emma’s attempts at diverting an argument. “It is of the period of Napoleon the second,” she continued. “A sautoir gifted by my mother on my marriage.” She fingered the small pendant hanging in the centre. “A little heavy, I’m afraid, but I do favour it.”
“Ah…” Madame Fournier looked to her brother.
“A long chain, something around the neck.” He shrugged.
“Merci, Claude. My English is not perfect I’m afraid, Miss ‘Aythorne.”
“You do very well, Madame,” Mr. Appleton said, in what was to Emma an irritatingly ingratiating manner.
“It is kind of you to say,” Madame Fournier responded formally.
Emma turned her attention to her soup. All that could be heard for the next few minutes was the clink of spoons on bowls and the occasional slurp. She began to wish she had seated Mrs. Appleton in a more prominent position after all. Even that lady’s self-serving monologue would be preferable to the awkward silence as everyone seemed to be wondering what topic of conversation would be safe. Whatever was wrong between Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Appleton it clearly wasn’t something that had just begun with the horses.
Tillie cleared the soup bowls and local conversations tentatively started up around the table. Alex and Anthony, probably unaware of any tension, had moved on to hunting stories, and Jim Macdonald asked his father a question about a new lambing paddock, which Matty joined in on. Estimations of fence posts and wire, and when they could do the work, reached Emma’s ears.
Mr. Appleton attempted, with a poor accent, to say something in French to Madame Fournier, and Claude Devereaux reached across and refilled his sister’s wine glass. Perhaps he thought she needed fortification. Apart from responding to Claude’s remarks to her, Mrs. Appleton was strangely quiet.
Tillie returned with Janey, bearing the roast lamb and vegetables. While Mr. Macdonald carved the meat, she and Tillie served up the crisp potatoes and carrots and the green beans, before the plates were passed down for the addition of slices of lamb. The gravy boat did the rounds. Janey had flavoured the gravy with herbs, the way her mother had been taught by Emma’s grandmother.
The scent of the gravy made Emma suddenly homesick for the comforts of Wirramilla and her own family, fond as she was of the Macdonalds. Perhaps when the visitors had left she would leave Janey in her place and go home for a few days. The knowledge of Mrs. Macdonald lying in the bedroom was always present in the back of her mind. Unfortunately, she couldn’t give Bea a break from that, not that she thought Bea would take it if offered, in any case.
“Do you live far from here Miss Haythorne?” Claude Devereaux asked, startling her as if he had been reading her mind.
“Oh, n-no. My family’s property is two hours’ easy ride further up river. Wirramilla it is called. You will pass it on your way home,” Emma said, hearing an echo of the words she had spoken to Dora Appleton a few hours earlier.
“And it is the same as this place? Sheep and horses, yes?”
“We concentrate on sheep, although, of course, we have horses for work and pleasure. My own horse, Pepper is in the stable here.”
“Ah, let me guess. It is the little roan.” He smiled, his gray eyes twinkling at her.
“Wrong, sir. That is Bea’s mare, Poppet.”
“And a poupée she is indeed, mmh?” Was he referring to the horse or to Bea as a poppet? He put a finger to his lips as he mused. “Then it must be the dark horse, pepper coloured is it not?”
“Very clever. You are right, of course.” Although what he would make of names like Poppet and Pepper she did not know. They had been much younger when they’d named the horses.
Janey’s dark hand reached from behind for Emma’s empty plate.
“Is anyone in the kitchen with Sachi, Janey?” Emma asked, knowing there wouldn’t be as she could see Tillie waiting behind the other side of the table.
“No, Miss,” Janey replied, on her best behaviour in company. “Hux is with her,” as if that absolved the need for anyone else.
“The child shouldn’t be left on her own, regardless. Please stay in the kitchen with her. Tillie can serve dessert.”
“I would appreciate, if you would,” Madame Fournier said. “She is in a strange place.”
The click of the tongue that followed told Emma that Janey was ill-pleased at being barred from the dining room and missing the action, whatever there might be of it. She was a worse gossip than her mother, if that were possible.
“She has been with you a long time, that one?” Madame Fournier asked, turning to Bea when Janey had left with a pile of plates.
“Oh, no. Not with us. Janey comes from Wirramilla. Another loan,” Bea said, with a smiling look at Emma.
“But you are right, Madame Fournier,” Emma said. “Janey was born at Wirramilla. Her mother Lucy is our housekeeper of twenty-five years.”
“Ah, that explains it. It is very comfortable to have long-time servants, is it not?”
“Most of the time,” Emma said with a laugh.
“I am fortunate to have Mrs. Appleton. A very competent housekeeper,” Vernon Appleton said, attempting to take his part in the conversation. “Not that she is a servant, of course,” he hastened to add, “being in fact my dear brother’s widow.” Did a look from Dora prompt that qualification? “But certainly, it has been a very comfortable arrangement.” Perhaps not so much for Mrs. Appleton, who didn’t comment.
Tillie served the dessert of apple crumble with fresh cream and everyone occupied themselves with it for a few minutes.
“And what do you do when you are not riding your Pepper, Miss Haythorne?” Claude Devereaux eventually asked.
“I read, I garden, I assist my grandmother with her herbal remedies. There is always something to do in the running of a home, even with servants.”
“That is true. And what do you read, when you are not doing something?”
“My favourite author is Anthony Trollope. Do you read him, Mr. Devereaux? A very English author. His mother lived for some years in France, I believe.”
“Ah, yes. The inimitable Fanny. Very amusing her work on the Americans, don’t you think?”
“They did appear a little raw, didn’t they, like us here in the Australian colonies perhaps.”
“No, no. I cannot allow that. Australian’s have much more savoir faire. If you are a fan of Trollope, Miss Haythorne, you would have read his latest book.”
“Which one is that?”
“The Eustace Diamonds.”
“No, that title has not reached us yet.”
“You have a treat in store then. I will give you a quote: ‘the softest, tenderest, truest eyes which a woman can carry in her head are green in colour.’ What do you say to that?”
Emma felt her face growing warm. Green eyes were a trait she shared with her grandmother. “Really, Mr. Devereaux.”
“Claude, vous êtes un flirt incorrigibles,” Madame Fournier remonstrated gently.
“You have been caught out, sir,” Emma said. She was suddenly aware that Matty’s eyes were on her.
“You speak French, Miss ‘Aythorne?” Madame Fournier asked in surprise.
“I have been taught, but I rarely get a chance to speak. I would be ashamed of my accent now.” It had been eight years since her short time at Miss Enid Marshall’s School for Young Ladies in Adelaide, when Madame Dupre had tried to hone her pronunciation.
“We must be careful what we say in the lady’s hearing, ma chère soeur,” Claude said in mock dismay.
“You will, at very least, my dear brother,” said Madame Fournier. “And in English. Behave.”
Claude would have looked suitably chastened if it weren’t for the gleam in his eyes. Not someone to be taken too seriously, Emma decided. But fun, nonetheless.
“Thank you, Madame,” she said.
The men did not remain in the dining room with their port at the end of the meal, but accompanied the ladies to the drawing room, where Tillie was serving tea. Mrs. Appleton, freed from her restricting seat at table, took the armchair by Mr. Macdonald and engaged him in conversation. Vernon Appleton wasn’t fast enough to claim the seat on the sofa beside Madame Fournier, Claude beating him to it. Had she imagined Madame Fournier’s quick hand signal to her brother?
Vernon, relegated to the opposite sofa beside Bea, didn’t look displeased. Perhaps he adhered to the idea that it didn’t become a lady to appear too eager. Emma seated herself comfortably to one side. She’d had enough of dinner conversation and was happy to observe. Alex and Anthony still hadn’t worn out their conversation, and were both chatting happily in the corner, but Jim and Matty, more at home in the saddle than the sofa, stood around looking not entirely comfortable. Feeling they needed rescuing, Emma caught Jim’s eye and beckoned him over. He nudged Matty, who followed.
“Are you enjoying your visitors?” she asked quietly, hoping not to catch Mrs. Appleton’s ear.
“Rum lot,” Matty replied, leaning against the back of her armchair. “Don’t seem to like one another much. You seem to be getting on all right with that Devereaux fellow, anyway, Em. Bit too smooth for my liking.”
“He knows his horses,” Jim said, before Emma could respond to Matty’s remark. “You’ve got to admit that. He thought several of the two-year-olds we had collected would break in nicely. He could see they had good breeding.”
“Which your uncle didn’t apparently, from what he said during dinner,” Emma said.
“No. Well, they were spooked. Got a bit restless in the stalls, didn’t they, Matt?”
“How did that happen?” Emma wanted to know. “Was Pepper all right?”
“Yeah, she was grand. Stamped her feet and nickered at the younger ones to settle down.”
Emma laughed at Jim’s fanciful explanation. Knowing Pepper, she’d probably just kept her head in her feed trough. The mare’s placid personality and love of her food were well known.
“So, what did happen?” Emma asked.
“Oh, well, it was young Anthony,” Jim explained, with an apologetic look toward his cousin, fortunately unaware of what was being said about him, engrossed as he was in his conversation with Alex. “He knocked over a couple of buckets and startled them. The young horses we’re still breaking in started kicking up a rumpus, lashing out in their stalls.”
The sudden influx of a group of men into the quiet stables, and several metal buckets clanking into one another, could have unsettled any horse, much less ones that were not fully broken-in.
“They were all right, though? None of them were injured?” Bea asked, picking up on the conversation.
“No damage done ‘cept to a stall door,” Matty assured her. “We thought of putting them back in the paddock for a couple of days, but figured it would defeat the purpose.”
“You put them into the stable before they were ready,” Mr. Appleton said.
Emma glanced across at Mr. Macdonald. Fortunately, he didn’t appear to have heard, his eyes unfocused, staring at nothing as Mrs. Appleton talked.
Tillie was yawning over the stove, shoving more wood into the firebox, when Emma entered the kitchen next morning. The water in her wash bowl had been icy and the kitchen, its fire banked during the night, offered a welcome warmth to her chilled fingers. She was greeted by the smell of the fresh baked bread that Janey was just turning out of the tins onto the table. The girl cut several slices and popped them on the griddle to toast.
“Have you taken hot water into Mr. Devereaux and Mr. Appleton?” Emma asked, after greeting them both.
“Not yet,” Tillie said yawning again.
“Well do that now, and then have your breakfast. You’ll be too busy to eat once everyone gets up. Are Mr. Macdonald and the boys about?”
“Went off to the stables half an hour ago,” Janey said, her eyes on the toast.
Tillie bustled out with one of the kettles as Bea came in with a steaming bucket of milk.
“Poor Daisy wasn’t happy with my cold fingers this morning,” she said. “They’d warmed up a bit by the time I got to Maisie.”
“You’ll have to do them the other way around tomorrow, then, to even up,” Emma quipped.
“Huh, my hands could be icicles before Daisy would make way for young Maisie. Seems even cows have a pecking order.”
“Bit like people,” Janey said sourly, clearly still smarting at being sent back to the kitchen the previous night.
“We’re none of us free to do whatever we please,” Emma told her, shutting her up before she could say anything more. She spread honey on the toast Janey handed her and put the plate on a tray with the small teapot and a cup and saucer. “Do you want to take this in to your mother, Bea? I can deal with the milk.”
“Thank you, I will.”
Emma poured the milk into china jugs, protecting their open mouths from dust and flies with bead-trimmed muslin covers. She set the jugs on the dresser. At least in this weather there was no difficulty in keeping the milk cool. Tillie came back, having topped up the kettle at the rainwater tank outside, and the three sat down to tea and toast. By the time Bea returned for her own breakfast, they were all occupied cooking eggs, bacon and sausages, and another stack of toast, for the men.
“That’s it,” Emma said, when the dining room table had been set, all the food keeping warm in the bain-marie on the sideboard, and Tillie standing by with the teapot. “We can leave them to it for now.”
“Good morning.” Madame Fournier came into the kitchen with Sachi, who made a beeline for Hux on his blanket in the corner.
“Breakfast is ready in the dining room, Madame Fournier. Please, do help yourself,” Bea told her.
“Oh, may I just have tea and toast in here? It reminds me of my grand-mere’s kitchen at the farm in Provence, so warm and welcoming. And I hear enough about horses and sheep.”
“If you prefer. You’re most welcome.”
Emma saw Mrs. Appleton in the doorway, staring at Madame Fournier with a considering look. “We are just making some more toast, Mrs. Appleton. Unless you would prefer the cooked breakfast in the dining room?”
“Good morning. No, some toast would be very nice, thank you,” Mrs. Appleton said, seating herself at the far end of the table from Madame Fournier. There was a noticeable chilling in the atmosphere as both ladies ignored one another. Janey made more toast and Bea poured a fresh brew. Sachi joined her mother, coaxing Hux to sit at her feet.
“May I take l’ours for a walk after breakfast?” she asked, looking from Bea to Emma. She had her uncle’s grey eyes. They must be a Devereux family trait.
“Yes, of course. It will do him good,” Bea said.
Madame Fournier agreed. “The three of us will go, ma chere. It will do us all good, all these weeks on boats.”
“Good,” Sachi said, and laughed. “All good.”
“Stay within sight of the river,” Emma warned. “The mallee scrub looks all the same. It is easy to get disoriented and lose your direction. The sun can only tell you so much, and that’s when you can see it.”
“We will, certainement,” Madame Fournier assured her. “Thank you for warning. Is any direction best?”
“Downstream would be best. There is a creek not far upstream, and of course, it has water in it at this time of the year. You would not be able to cross. You could follow it for some way in, of course. That would be safe enough.”
“We will go downstream. Perhaps tomorrow we will venture up, yes?”
Breakfast over, Madame Fournier and Sachi, with Hux at their heels, set off on their walk. Sachi had borrowed the egg basket to take with her, in case she found anything interesting. Mrs. Appleton went to her room, stating she had some mending to do, and was promptly replaced by Matty, asking for a packed lunch to be made up.
“For five of us,” he said. “Us three, Anthony and Mr. Devereaux. There’s a bunch of wild horses hanging around near the bottom of the lake chain. We figure we might see if there’s anything worthwhile among them.”
“We have the leftover roast lamb. We were going to have that for lunch anyway,” Bea said. “I thought you had enough horses for the next shipment,” she added as she hunted out the jar of fruit chutney from the pantry and set Tillie and Janey to making up sandwiches.
“Yeah, we have. It’s just something useful to do while they’re here, and Mr. Devereaux is keen for some riding. Tomorrow we’ll have to get on with the training. Wouldn’t mind hearing what he has to say about that.” Matty seemed to be warming to the Frenchman.
“How long are they planning to stay? Has anyone said?” Emma asked.
“They arranged with the agents for the Sapphire to call in and collect them on its way upriver. Two or three days.”
“Good. The sooner they get back to their respective homes, the better, I think. I suspect they’ve spent too long in one another’s company already.”
Matty grunted. “Wouldn’t know about that, Em, but Uncle Appleton doesn’t seem to be enjoying his visit much. I asked him to join us but he said he wasn’t comfortable riding with his stiff leg. Seems pretty bitter about that.”
Emma and Bea took the lunches out to the yard where the boys were saddling up the horses. Mr. Macdonald was readying his own horse for Mr. Devereaux.
“You should be joining us, Miss Haythorne,” the Frenchman said, coming up to her.
“Not today, sir.” If it had been just Bea and her brothers she would have, and had done many times, but her presence would put a damper on this outing, she suspected. “Pepper isn’t up to fast riding these days, I’m afraid,” she said in explanation.
“That’s no excuse. I’m sure a suitable ride could be found for you. You’re sure you won’t reconsider?”
“Positive, thank you all the same.”
“Very well. My misfortune.” He gave a little bow of his head and moved away to his mount.
“What was he saying to you?” Bea asked, turning back from putting some lunch in Jim’s saddle bag. Emma told her. “You could have gone.”
“No, I could not. You would have had to come as well, or I would have had to take Janey, more like, and that would have left you and Tillie to do everything. Besides, it’s a lads’ day out.” But it was not without a twinge of regret that she watched them leave.
The paddle-steamer Wattlebird called in mid-morning, delivering some supplies that had been ordered, and the mail and newspapers. Emma spent an hour sitting at Mrs. Macdonald’s bedside, reading to her from the papers. Lunch was a quiet affair with half the group away. Most of the conversation at the table was between the four women. Mr. Appleton and Mr. Macdonald barely said a word, and none directed to one another. It was as if a truce had been called. Or a lull in the storm.
After lunch, Madame Fournier sat at the kitchen table and read, while Sachi drew pictures of Hux and sorted through the treasures she had collected on their walk. Gum nuts, leaves and seed pods littered part of the table, making it more difficult for Bea and the girls, who were baking. Mrs. Appleton chose to sit in the drawing room with some embroidery work and Emma, to be hospitable, and because the kitchen was getting crowded, sat with her, occupying her hands, if not her mind, with some practical needlework of her own.
The room was quiet, Dora Appleton rarely speaking, seeming to be occupied with the work she had in hand and her own thoughts. She was sitting in front of the window that looked onto the garden, to have the better light. Over Mrs. Appleton’s shoulder, Emma saw Sachi wander into the garden with Hux and seat herself on a bench. She was feeding a biscuit to Hux when she looked up. Vernon Appleton came into view and stood looking down at the child.
It was impossible to tell what he was saying to her, but whatever it was Sachi didn’t appear interested. She continued to break off pieces of biscuit and feed them to Hux, not looking up again, and responding once with a shake of the head. Mr. Appleton must have tired of the one-sided conversation because after a few minutes he left. His perseverance in his quest of the widow was to be admired, but clearly, he wasn’t going to get any help from the daughter.
Was Madame Fournier seriously considering Vernon Appleton? He was not a romantic figure, unlike Mr. Devereaux. She couldn’t see anything at all attractive about the man, neither his appearance nor his personality. But then how well does one ever know someone else’s thoughts and motivations? If Madame Fournier was looking for a secure future for herself and her child, Mr. Appleton might be just what she needed.
It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. Emma was listening out for the return of the horse riders, when Mrs. Appleton looked up, needle poised.
“What was that?”
“The steamer whistle?” Emma asked, having recently heard one. “They sound their whistles at every bend, as a warning for anything coming the other way.”
Mrs. Appleton gave her a look. Of course, the woman already knew that, having travelled the river.
“I thought I heard shouting.”
Emma listened. There was silence for moment and then, yes, there was something, faintly. She went to the front window overlooking the river and pulled back the lace curtain. Vernon Appleton and George Macdonald stood partway down the slope, gesticulating, the sound of their voices wafting up but not the words. Curious, Emma went into the hall and out onto the verandah.
“Spite,” Mr. Macdonald was saying. “You keep bringing that up. Whatever did I have to be spiteful about?”
“My father didn’t pay you any attention, did he.” Vernon Appleton’s red face poked toward his brother like a turtle popping his head from his shell. “He preferred me. You resented that.”
“Oh, not that tired old story again. He was your father, not mine. Of course, he favoured you. Would have been unnatural of him not to. But he was good man. He’d be upset to hear you going on in this way. So would our mother.”
Vernon Appleton shook his finger under George Macdonald’s nose. “Don’t you tell me what my father would or wouldn’t do. He knew it was your fault, despite your story. Your fault I’m crippled. You—” Mr. Macdonald pushed his brother’s hand away, turning and taking a step up toward the homestead. “Don’t you turn your back on me, you miserable cur…” His words were cut off as Mr. Macdonald whirled back, shaking his fist under his brother’s nose.
“One more word and you’ll find yourself swimming for your life, bad leg or not,” he shouted. “You hear me? I’ll have you down that slope and into the water faster than you’ve moved in years.”
“Well, that would save you paying me what you owe, wouldn’t it?” The two men glared at one another, until Vernon muttered something and turning, limped up to the side garden. George Macdonald continued to stand, poised for a moment, before striding away toward the farm buildings. Neither man seemed to have noticed Emma standing on the verandah.
“Well, well,” Mrs. Appleton’s voice came from behind her. “That’s been festering for a long time. I couldn’t understand why Vernon suddenly decided to pay this visit.”
“It was a spur of the moment idea, then?”
“Oh yes. He announced it after we left Cape Town and sent off the telegraph as soon as we berthed at Fremantle. Mr. Devereaux was interested in the horses and Vernon suggested they join us.”
Had Mr. Appleton jumped at the opportunity of extending his time with Madame Fournier? The visit certainly didn’t appear to have been about renewing his acquaintance with his brother, unless he wanted to torment him. And what was that about money owed?
A bell was ringing. Bea came hurrying from the kitchen and up the hallway to her mother’s bedroom as Emma came in from the verandah.
“What is going on? What’s happening?” she heard Mrs. Macdonald ask as Bea closed the bedroom door behind her. A moment later she was back out as Emma and Mrs. Appleton were just settling themselves again in the drawing room.
“Emma, what is Ma going on about, do you know? She said Dad and Uncle had a fight.”
“They had an argument out front.”
“Did you hear? Can you come and talk to Ma about it? She’s very upset.”
“Yes, of course. Excuse us,” she said to Mrs. Appleton.
Mrs. Macdonald was propped up on pillows as usual, giving her a view out the front window. She was twisting a handkerchief in her hands. For a woman who had always been active and involved it must have been difficult to lie there now, shut off from everything. Emma went to the bedside and took up one of her hands, stilling them.
“Did you hear what was being said, Emma?” Mrs. Macdonald asked, her eyes anxious on Emma’s face. Emma hesitated. “Was it about his leg? It was, wasn’t it?”
Emma nodded. “I gathered Mr. Appleton blames Mr. Macdonald for the fact he has a bad leg.”
“As if George doesn’t feel bad enough. Why has he come here, raking up old wounds, causing trouble? Why?”
“He might just be following Madame Fournier.” Emma suggested. “He is paying attention to her every chance he gets.”
“So why can’t he leave George alone, then? I’m afraid…” Her voice faltered and she coughed. Bea helped to a sip of water from the glass on the bedside table.
“What are you afraid of Ma?” Bea asked gently.
“Your father will only take so much. If Vernon pushes him too far—oh, I wish they had never come here. When are they leaving? It can’t be too soon.”
“In another day or two, so Matty said. The Sapphire is to collect them on the way upriver.”
“Bea, tell your father to come in and see me,” Mrs. Macdonald’s voice took on a surer note. “Go fetch him, right away.”
“Ma, I’m sure there’s no need—”
Bea looked across the bed to Emma, and back to her mother. “Alright, Ma. Don’t upset yourself.”
“Bea doesn’t understand men, not really,” Mrs. Macdonald confided when her daughter had left. “You’d think she would with three brothers, wouldn’t you, but it’s not her nature. She trusts too much to their good feelings.”
“That’s not such a bad thing, is it? She is still young.”
“So are you, but you are far wiser. Her father wouldn’t insist on her going to that school you went to. It was a mistake. It would have widened her view of the world.”
“Perhaps.” It was more likely Bea’s trusting view would have been confirmed under Miss Eunice Marshall’s genteel finishing. “Tell me, what was the cause of Mr. Appleton’s bad leg?”
“Oh, he fell out of a tree as a young lad. Smashed his knee badly. He wears a leather brace on it even now. But he’s always claimed George pushed him. There’s a lot of resentment there.”
Emma nodded. “He said something about spite and that Mr. Macdonald resented his father favouring him.”
“Oh dear, did he?” Mrs. Macdonald agitation increased. “That riles George more than anything he can say about the accident. Oh, dear.”
She’d said too much. “You mustn’t upset yourself. Nothing bad has happened.”
Emma helped her drink a little more water. She would send Tillie along later with some soothing chamomile tea.
“Where are they now?” Mrs. Macdonald asked.
“I don’t know exactly.”
Footsteps sounded in the hall.
“That’s George.” She looked relieved.
Mr. Macdonald entered the room breezily. He wasn’t a man to show his feelings in front of others but Emma was pretty certain that bravado would evaporate once he was alone with his wife. His face had a ruddy glow now. He’d likely been by the fire in the smithy, banging out his anger on a piece of iron. It wouldn’t be the first time, and certainly a healthier outlet than throwing his brother in the river.
“What’s up, old girl?” he greeted his wife. She held out her free hand to him.
Emma gave the hand she was holding a squeeze and moved toward the door, where Bea was standing. They went out, closing the door quietly behind them.
“You don’t really think there will be trouble, do you?” Bea whispered, stopping a little further along the hall.
“I don’t know. Perhaps your Ma can do something.”
“Perhaps. She’s the only one Dad seems to listen to—most of the time, anyway. Oh, I was so looking forward to seeing them, Em. They’re family after all. One should be able to get along with family, shouldn’t they? But Madame Fournier seems to be the nicest of the lot and she’s a perfect stranger.”
“Families have long histories, woven from many years together,” Emma said. “Their relationships are bound to be more complicated.”
“That sounds like something your grandmother would say,” Bea grumbled.
Emma laughed. “You know me so well. Now don’t worry. I have an idea. Your father and uncle were alone together today, weren’t they? All we need to do is make sure that doesn’t happen again. If someone is always with one or the other of them it will prevent any real trouble. We’ll tell Matty and Jim about it when they get back and get them to help.”
Bea brightened at the idea. “That would work, wouldn’t it?”
“Between us and the boys and your Ma what could possibly go wrong. It’s only for another day or two.” Perhaps they could engage Madame Fournier as well to keep Mr. Appleton occupied.
It was just on dark when the boys and Mr. Devereaux arrived back. By the time the horses had been taken care of and they had cleaned up, it was time for dinner. There had been no opportunity to talk to Matty or Jim alone.
The girls were dishing out and Emma was putting a tray of food together for Mrs. Macdonald, when Bea came in to the kitchen. Sachi had left some flowers she had gathered on her walk, and Emma added them to the tray to tempt the invalid’s appetite.
“Dad’s not joining us for dinner tonight,” Bea said. “He’s going to eat with Ma. What will our guests think?”
“They will think he is being very considerate of his ill wife,” Emma responded, reaching for another tray. “They will understand that he wants to spend as much time with her as possible.”
“Will they? I do hope so. Ma probably just wants to keep him away from uncle.”
Emma agreed. Not that anything physical was likely to flare up during dinner, with others present.
“Get Matty to sit at the head of the table,” Emma suggested. “As if it’s a normal occurrence.”
She hoped this arrangement would prevent the guests feeling ill-used. Her seating arrangement the previous night hadn’t been such a good choice. Tonight, she was attempting to reconcile it. With Matty at the head, several on that side of the table were moved up a seat, Mrs. Appleton swapped seats with Bea, and Sachi took the seat between her mother and Anthony Appleton.
Claude Devereaux seemed to enjoy the new arrangement, claiming he was a thorn between two roses with Emma and Bea on either side of him. The atmosphere was more relaxed as everyone knew one another a little better and there was no threat of an argument hanging over them. The visitors regaled the table with stories about their journey from England and the other passengers on the ocean-going steamer.
“One had to make one’s own entertainment,” Madame Fournier said at one point. “You remember the fancy-dress? Of course, none of us have costumes so we beg and borrow, and make masks from whatever.”
“You were a most frightening Madame Defarge,” Vernon Appleton said. “Mr. Dickens would have been proud of you.”
“Thank you kindly.” Madame Fournier tapped a finger on the back of his hand. “But your Captain Ahab was –how you say—l’inspiration.”
Mr. Appleton gave a small bow of his head. Dora Appleton stabbed at her meat.
Toward the end of the meal, when Tillie had just cleared the plates after the main course and they were waiting for dessert to be served, Mr. Appleton announced he wanted to leave the next day.
“You’ve seen the horses, haven’t you Devereaux? And I have seen my brother. There’s no reason to delay our journey any longer. I am most keen to get on home to Hillcrest. No matter how much you trust your manager there is nothing like having your own hands on the reins.”
“How are we to travel?” Mr. Devereaux asked. “We are waiting on the Sapphire.”
“That is the question, of course. My knowledge of the river steamers is limited but I should imagine any one of them would welcome some paying passengers. I saw several pass by going upriver today.”
“Do we stand on the river bank and hail one as it comes by, as you would a hansom cab?” Mr. Devereaux joked, raising his hand.
Mr. Appleton looked to Matty. “We hang out a white cloth to indicate if we want a steamer to call in,” Matty explained. “But they mayn’t have cabins for everyone.”
“Are you all intending to leave tomorrow?” Emma asked, looking at the faces round the table.
Claude Devereaux turned to his sister, who nodded. “Yes,” he said. “It has been a most pleasant interlude but we have no claim on your hospitality. We are here at the invitation of Mr. Appleton. It has been gracious of you to accommodate us.”
“You’ve been most welcome,” Bea said. “If you are unable to get a berth tomorrow you are welcome to stay until the Sapphire arrives, you know. All or any of you.”
“Thank you. We will see.”
Mr. Appleton nodded. “It will depend on the accommodation available of course. I should hate to break up our party on this final leg of our journey. We have come so far together.”
Mrs. Appleton did not appear to agree with those sentiments, if her expression was any indication.
“What do you think of Uncle Appleton’s announcement?” Bea asked, when she and Emma were back in the kitchen. “I mean, he seems as keen to get away from Dad as Dad is to avoid him.”
“Indeed. Nor does he want to lose sight of Madame Fournier,” Emma said, switching out a chipped cup from the tea tray. “I wonder how that will play out. She seemed more disposed toward him tonight.” The plate with the warm biscuits had a chip as well. She twitched the linen napkin to cover it. Bea would have to start threatening to dock Tillie’s wage if this kept up.
“Take this into the drawing room Tillie, while I make tea for Ma and Dad,” Bea told the maid.
Janey came back from the dining room with a pile of dessert dishes, which she dumped into the trough. “Madame’s just gone to put Sachi to bed,” she said, as she began to wash up. “She seems in good spirits.”
“Sachi or Madame?” Emma asked absently.
“Madame of course. You moonin’ about that Mr. Devro? Missin’ him already?”
“I knew I should have kept you in the kitchen.”
“Huh. Tillie tells me everythin’ anyways.” And probably exaggerated things in the telling.
“I wouldn’t be too bold if I were you, miss. I saw you at the clothes line flirting with that young station hand this morning. Wait until I tell your mother about that.”
“I weren’t flirtin’. He was askin’ about the visitors.”
Emma went to join their guests in the drawing room while Bea took the tea tray in to her parents. Madame Fournier still hadn’t returned. Alex and Anthony, who appeared inseparable, were playing dominoes in the corner and Matty and Jim were talking about their day with Claude Devereaux. The Appletons were both quietly drinking their tea.
Rather than try and make conversation Emma sat herself at the piano and played a little Mozart. She half expected Mr. Devereaux to come over and stand by the piano but he seemed more interested in his conversation and remained seated. It piqued her slightly. Bea came in followed shortly by Madame Fournier, but she didn’t stay longer than to have some tea and then she retired.
“This country air is making me sleepy,” she explained.
Gradually, everyone else followed her example. Bea and Emma returned to the kitchen to plan the meals for the next day, as well as they could, given they had no idea if any of the visitors would be at lunch or dinner.
“A big pot of mutton stew would be the thing,” Bea decided. “Enough to feed everyone twice over. It won’t go to waste if they leave early.”
“Good idea.” Emma yawned. “I seem to have been sitting half the day and I’m more tired than ever.”
She and Bea left Tillie and Janey at the table, enjoying a late supper, all their tasks finished for the day, and went off to Bea’s bedroom, which Emma was sharing. The house settled down for the night. Emma thought she had only been asleep for a few minutes when someone was shaking her awake again.
“Who is that?” She blinked as the light from a candle in front of her face left everything else in shadow.
“There’s something wrong at the stables,” Janey’s voice came from the shadow.
Bea stirred. “Emma?”
“What do you mean, something wrong.” Emma sat up and looked at the timepiece on her bedside table. “It’s one o’clock in the morning, Janey.” She could see more clearly now. The girl was still fully dressed. “What are you doing still up? No, on second thoughts, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”
“I aint done nothin’ I shouldn’t,” Janey said, arcing up, her English fracturing in the process.
“What is wrong at the stables?” Bea asked.
“Abe says it sounds like horses loose, and they shouldn’t be.”
“Abe?” Emma said. “Okay, okay,” as Janey opened her mouth again.
“I’ll tell Matty,” Bea said.
She threw a blanket round her shoulders and went out into the hall. Janey was still looking mutinous.
“You did the right thing to wake us, Janey,” Emma said, trying to be conciliatory.
“You like kaanyi hit with stick,” the girl said, and disappeared before Emma could think of a suitable response to being told she behaved like an angry snake.
Perhaps she should send the girl home and bring her sister Sal over to help, though Janey was usually the easier one to deal with. Clearly, she felt she could behave more freely here than back home at Wirramilla, where Emma’s mother kept a firm hand.
Well, she wasn’t going to get back to sleep now until the problem, whatever it was, was dealt with. She pulled her coat on over her nightdress and slipped her feet into her house shoes. Emma hoped everyone wasn’t being woken for a false alarm. Though on second thoughts, it would be better if it was.
Emma joined Bea on the verandah between the back door of the homestead and the kitchen building, where they could see across to the stables. The kerosene lamp hanging by the back door cast its light over them, but offered no warmth. Emma shivered despite her coat. There would be a frost tonight.
Another lamp showed the silhouettes of two men, walking in a moving pool of light across the hundred or so feet that separated the homestead from the stable, at this moment a darker black in the overall blackness. Emma could see that the man holding the lamp was Matty, his hastily donned shirt hanging out the back of his pants below his jacket.
They reached the stable and stopped. Listening perhaps. There was a small door to the side of the large stable doors and it was this one that the men cautiously opened, holding the lamp high to get a good view of the interior. For a moment, everything was still, then Matty stepped inside and the door shut behind him, his companion swallowed up in the shadows. Footsteps sounded, getting closer, and the young man Emma had seen talking to Janey earlier in the day entered the area of lamplight where they were waiting.
“You need to get the boss, miss,” he said to Bea, his hand on the verandah post.
“What is it?”
“Someone’s there, down on the floor.” Tillie, who had appeared on the verandah, let out a little scream. Bea told her to go stoke the kitchen fire and put the kettle on, and went to fetch her father.
“Who is it?” Janey asked the young man, presumably Abe.
“It’s a man, is all I could tell. And there’s some horses out of the stalls.” Emma hoped the man wasn’t one of the Macdonalds. A station hand perhaps. And then felt badly for wishing an accident on anyone.
The faintest glow was visible from Matty’s lamp along the bottom of the stable door. She stepped off the verandah, the chill hitting her as she left the protection of the buildings, and headed toward the stable without even thinking. Her first reaction was to help if someone was injured or ill. She wasn’t her grandmother’s apprentice for nothing.
“You need to be careful, miss,” Abe said, catching her up. “The horses are spooked.”
“Did you see any blood?” The smell of it could upset horses.
“Too dark to know.”
They reached the small door. Emma turned with her hand on the latch. “Don’t you do that girl any harm now,” she said in her most commanding voice.
“I—I don’t mean any,” he said, his tone surprised and indignant.
“You’d best not,” she replied and entered the stable, shutting him out. What she meant by harm probably didn’t match his idea anyway.
The first thing she saw was the body, lit in a pool of light from Matty’s lamp. It lay near to the row of stalls, face down, head toward the stalls. The face was turned away from her but it was obvious that it was Vernon Appleton. He was not lying in a comfortable position, the way his good leg was bent and the other stiff and straight, lifting his hips slightly off the floor. One didn’t choose to lie like that. There were three horses out of their stalls, huddled at the far end of the stable. A young piebald stamped its foot at her entrance and another shook its head and snorted. They were clearly unsettled.
Matty looked up, startled, as she came closer.
“What are you doing here?”
A harsh note in his voice surprised her.
“I thought perhaps I could help.”
“It’s a little late for that.”
There was a pool of blood on the brick floor by Mr. Appleton’s head. She was standing on the opposite side of the body to Matty. She bent down to touch a hand, lying flaccid. There was no warmth. The side of his face that she could see was without blemish.
“Was it an accident?”
“Well, of course it was. What else could it be?” She looked at him sharply, his defensive tone surprising her. “It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” he said, indicating the horses at the end of the stable. “He must have let them out of their stalls, for some reason, and was knocked down.”
It was a reasonable assumption, given Vernon Appleton’s compromised mobility, but it was still only an assumption.
“But why would he be letting the horses out of their stalls?”
“How would I know? He’s been arguing with Dad ever since he got here. Perhaps he did it out of spite.”
It was possible, especially in light of the argument she had witnessed earlier. Had he heard about that? Was Matty’s animosity to her questions based on his fear that his father may have had a hand in Vernon’s death? She couldn’t discount that fear.
“We should turn him over, see what injuries there are,” she said.
“There’s no need for you to be involved, Em. We’ll deal with it.”
If she had been a cat her fur would have stood on end. She was all but betrothed to him, almost a part of his family. Of course, she needed to be involved, especially if there was the chance the Macdonalds might treat this death as an accident when it was something else. Emma sought for words to say that Matty would not find offensive as they stared at one another across the body.
The door opened and Mr. Macdonald entered the stable.
He stopped just inside the door. Emma could see Bea and Jim behind him in the shadows. He swept his gaze around the space. He seemed to be having difficulty taking in the scene. He wiped a hand across his eyes as if what he saw would change when he looked again.
Death was as common as life, but it always came as a shock none the less. He walked over and stared down at his brother for a moment. Emma stepped away. He bent down on one knee and shook his brother by the shoulder.
“You idiot,” he muttered. “Why couldn’t you have left it alone?”
“Is he dead, Emma? Is Uncle dead?” Bea asked coming up to her.
“Yes, I’m afraid so, dear.”
“Was it the horses? How did they get out?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you want us to do?” Matty asked. Mr. Macdonald continued to stare around him. “Dad?”
“Why couldn’t he have left it alone?” Mr. Macdonald repeated, as if to himself.
“Dad? Do you want Jim and me to take care of this?” Matty said eventually, when it seemed their father wasn’t going to take charge of the situation.
“Get the horses back in their stalls. I’ll—I’ll talk to you shortly.”
Mr. Macdonald wandered over to the door and cast another look around, shaking his head, before leaving.
“He’s upset,” Bea said, trying to excuse her father’s behaviour. “You would be too if that were Jim or Alex lying there.”
“Probably,” Matty admitted, but Emma could see he was worried.
What Happened Next
Matty picked up a halter hanging from a nail beside one of the empty stalls. The horses shied and shuffled as he and Jim approached them. Matty made crooning noises and got the halter onto one, soothing it before putting it into an empty stall close by where they stood. The only other available stalls were near to where the body was lying.
“I don’t think we’re going to get them in there until we move him,” Jim said to his brother.
Jim shrugged. “Okay.”
While the boys were occupied with the second horse, Emma knelt beside the body and looked more closely at the face and head. The skin was washed out, but her initial assessment stood. There were no marks. She stood and bent down, placing both hands under the body and bracing her feet.
“Emma. Leave it,” Matty called.
She ignored him and heaved, putting all her effort into it. The lifeless body lifted and hung. She leaned into it and the body rolled, falling with a flat thump on its back, the arm flailing out. Bea gasped and she heard Matty curse as the horse they were dealing with reared back. Emma’s stomach lurched at the damage to the side of Vernon Appleton’s head that was now open to view. Matted blood caked his cheek, his forehead and hair.
As well as the patch of bloodied floor where his head had been, another area of blood was revealed at chest level. Emma stepped back and stared at it. This wasn’t connected to the blood that had come from his head wounds. She needed to clean the blood off his face, see what the damage there could tell her. Would they see evidence of a hoof print?
She heard someone gagging behind her, and realised it was Bea. She had turned to help her friend when Matty appeared between them.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded. “I told you, this isn’t your concern.”
He didn’t get angry often, but it was evident now in his eyes and the set of his face.
“Matt,” Jim shouted. “Get over here.”
Jim was holding one horse that was balking at moving forward, while the piebald had backed itself into the far corner. Matty was torn between the two, but eventually went to aid his brother. Emma drew in a deep breath and let it out again quietly.
“Are you all right?” she asked Bea.
“Yes, I’ll be fine. Whatever’s the matter with Matty?”
“He’s afraid this wasn’t an accident.”
Bea’s eyes widened as she realised the import of Emma’s words. “He thinks Dad did this?”
“I suspect so.”
“But that’s ridiculous. Dad wouldn’t knock someone down and then leave them lying there. He wouldn’t.”
Bea may have been trying to convince herself, but it certainly sounded more like the Mr. Macdonald she knew. Could years of anger and frustration have warped his normal behaviour?
“Help me clean up his face, so we can see the injuries. We need water and some cloth.”
“There’s some cleaning cloths in the tack room.”
Bea headed for the small room at the far end of the stable while Emma grabbed one of the several buckets of water that stood just inside the door. Jim and Matty had managed to get the second horse into its stall and were securing the piebald to a support post where it wouldn’t injure itself.
Emma and Bea met back at the body. Emma soaked a cloth and tried to wash the blood from the face wound. It wasn’t very successful. The water was icy cold and the blood had partly dried. Matty and Jim joined them.
“Whoa. Something’s made a nice mess of him,” Jim said, hunkering down. “There’s blood all down the front of him as well. Did all that come from his head? What was he doing here? Did he let the horses out and get knocked down?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Emma said, laying the wet cloth over the injuries to soak and soften the blood. “We have to clean him up first. See what his injuries can tell us.”
It would help if she could get Jim on side, but Matty had other ideas.
“We’ll deal with this, now,” he said. “Why don’t you go back to the kitchen with Bea.”
It wasn’t phrased as a question. Emma looked up at him. When had he started sounding like his father?
“What are you afraid of? That it wasn’t a horse that did this?” she asked quietly.
He coloured at her words and his hands clenched by his side. “You’re not at Wirramilla now, Em. It isn’t your place to be taking over.”
“You’re afraid your father had something to do with this, aren’t you?”
Matty’s hands opened and fisted again.
“What are you talking about?” Jim wanted to know.
“He’s afraid your dad did this,” Emma repeated. “He doesn’t want me to find out that it wasn’t an accident with the horses.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. Dad wouldn’t have left him lying here like that. He’d of got help.”
“That’s what I said,” Bea put in.
“Your uncle’s death must be reported to the police, whether it’s an accident or—something else. You know what gossip there would be along the river if there were questions left unanswered. And you all need to know the truth, whatever it might be.”
“Even if it was Dad did this?” Matty said harshly.
“Oh, hush,” Bea told him, while Jim said at the same time, “What’s wrong with you? I don’t know how you can even think that.”
“And if he didn’t, Matty? You would always wonder,” Emma said. “Secrets destroy people, destroy families. Don’t do something you’ll regret.”
She lifted the cloth off Vernon Appleton’s face, but the injuries were still clouded with blood.
“I’d like to know if it was one of the horses,” Jim said. “We can’t send off a horse that killed a man.”
“Perhaps he had a heart attack and just fell down,” Bea offered hopefully.
“I’m afraid there’s too much blood loss for that,” Emma explained.
“Well, we can’t leave him here. Where are we going to put him?” Jim asked getting to his feet. “We can’t bury him in this condition, either. Ma would have got him ready but she’s not up to it now. Perhaps Aunt Appleton.”
“Sure, we can leave it up to her,” Matty said, sounding relieved at the idea. “We can put him in the laundry for tonight.”
“I can clean up his face there,” Emma said, determined not to let it go. “Some hot water would help.”
“There’s a table in the tack room, we can use the top of it to carry him on,” Jim said, and went to get it.
Matty opened his mouth to say something then seemed to think better of it. She couldn’t reassure him. She just knew they were doing the right thing. He turned away and went to help Jim. They laid their uncle’s body on the table top, which was several boards nailed to a frame, and carried him up to the laundry behind the kitchen.
The board was placed across the wash troughs. Mr. Macdonald was nowhere around. He clearly needed some time to digest what had happened, but whether that was from shock or guilt Emma had no idea. Bea went into the kitchen and came back with Janey and the kettle. Tillie had gone back to bed, not wanting anything to do with “no dead body.” Hot water was added to a half bucket of cold.
“I’ll take what’s left in that,” Matty said, taking the kettle from Janey. “I’ll go get rid of those blood stains in the stable.”
“Don’t you try dealing with that piebald by yourself,” Jim warned him. “I’ll come and give you a hand with him shortly.”
Emma was thankful for the warm water as her hands were icy. She gently sponged the dried and coagulated blood from Vernon Appleton’s face. It didn’t take long to reveal the damage. The cheek bone was broken and there were abrasions to the forehead, which had bled freely. It hadn’t been a horse that knocked him down. Not unless their shoes made small, rounded indents, of which they could see at least three.
“What caused that?” Jim asked.
Emma didn’t know. “It doesn’t look bad enough to have killed him, though. Do you think he might have had a heart attack? But there’s all this blood on his vest, too. It doesn’t connect with the blood from his head wounds. That stops at his shoulder.”
It was frustrating. They still didn’t have an answer, but it wasn’t her place, as an unmarried woman, to be undressing a male body searching for further injuries. Matty poked his head in at the laundry door, keeping his eyes averted from their activity.
“Did anyone pick up Uncle’s cane? I looked for it just now back at the stable.”
Emma and Jim looked at one another, and back at the injuries on Vernon Appleton’s face.
“Look at this,” she said, stepping aside so Matty could see the injuries. He hesitated before stepping in.
“It wasn’t a horse, Matt,” Jim said.
“So I see. Satisfied, are you?” he said, looking pointedly at Emma, who ignored him.
“These marks could be from the knob of Uncle’s Malacca cane, but I don’t reckon that silver knob would have enough weight to kill him,” Jim said.
“It might have been filled with something, but there could be another injury. All that blood on his vest has come from somewhere,” Emma said.
“You’re not going to go investigating that, now, and that’s final,” Matty said roughly. “Aunt Appleton can look into it tomorrow.”
“Of course, I wasn’t going to,” Emma replied, annoyed that he would think she would.
“Why don’t Emma and I go back to the kitchen and you two see if you can find out where that blood has come from,” Bea suggested. Three heads turned to look at her in surprise. “Well, we want to know, don’t we? We don’t have to wait for tomorrow.”
“I’m up for it,” Jim said. “This is getting serious. It’s obvious he’s been attacked by someone.”
“All right,” Matty conceded. He didn’t have much choice.
“Who could have done this?” Bea asked when she and Emma were back in the kitchen.
Emma could think of only one person who had been angry enough with Mr. Appleton to have done him injury. Janey stoked the fire under the kettle but neither of them wanted tea. They sat at the table in silence. Bea put her head down on her arms. Emma tried not to think at all.
She was relieved when Mr. Macdonald came into the kitchen twenty minutes later with the boys. He was looking more like himself again, but they were all looking grim. Jim sat down beside Bea as if he needed to be close to someone and Matty took a seat on the other side of her. Mr. Macdonald remained on his feet.
Emma let Bea ask the question. She had achieved her end for the moment.
“What is it? What did you find?” Bea asked.
“There’s a wound in his chest, near his heart,” Jim said. “He’s been stabbed with something. Something thin, and probably longer than the blade of a pocket knife.” All the men carried a pocket knife on their belt.
“No. Who could do such a thing?”
“We’ll send a message to the police at Wentworth in the morning,” Mr. Macdonald announced. Emma was glad to hear that.
He sat down opposite his children, his back to the fireplace. Emma sent Janey off to bed and busied herself with the kettle. She handed around mugs of hot chocolate with dollops of cream on top. Comfort food. She took the chair beside the fireplace, giving her support while not intruding.
They sat, hands wrapped around their steaming mugs, trying to get around the idea that someone had beaten and stabbed Vernon Appleton to death in their stable. Questions were voiced, suppositions proposed. Two weapons? Did that mean two assailants? What was he doing there late at night? Why was he attacked? By whom? Who let the horses out? Why? Bea went to a drawer and took out all the knives, laying them out on the dresser, bread knife, carving knives, vegetable knives. They were all accounted for.
Emma let their voices wash over her and gave herself up to her own thoughts. What sort of a weapon if not a pocket knife, or a knife from the kitchen? A sword? She almost smiled at the thought of knights on horseback. A knitting needle? Hardly strong enough to go through a vest, shirt and undershirt. And what would someone with a knitting needle be doing in the stable late at night? Had he surprised someone? She sat up straight, her mouth opening in a silent ‘oh’.
“What?” Matty picked up immediately on her sudden movement.
“What if,” Emma began slowly, her mind working through the idea as she spoke, “what if Mr. Appleton went out for a stroll before bed and saw someone or heard something in the stable, and went to investigate and surprised someone stealing the horses.”
“That would explain why the horses were out,” Matty said thoughtfully, eager to believe. “It could be something like that, couldn’t it?”
“Makes sense,” Jim said.
“What do you think, Dad? Uncle was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Mr. Macdonald roused himself. “Could be the case.” He nodded. “Could be why there was more than one weapon used. Might have been more than one person, I suppose.”
“Wouldn’t they have shot him?” Bea asked.
“Wouldn’t want to make any noise and wake us,” Matty said.
“But they didn’t take the horses,” Jim said, frowning.
“Frightened at killing someone and ran off?” Matty suggested.
“Hardly,” his brother scoffed.
“Might have decided the horses were too flighty.”
Heads nodded. Mr. Appleton may have been right in his criticism after all.
“As soon as it’s light we’ll scout around and see if we can find any evidence of it,” Mr. Macdonald said. “They’ll have thrown his cane away somewhere.” He pushed his empty mug aside and stood. “It’s time we were all back in bed. Cock crow in a couple of hours.”
Emma lay awake. It always seemed harder to get back to sleep when you’d been wakened in the middle of the night. The feeling of wanting her own family faces around her, that she had felt two days ago, had returned with renewed vigour. That strangers had been sneaking around in the night and murdered someone was unsettling to say the least.
To stop herself listening for any little sound she tried to conjure up an image of her grandmother in the stillroom at Wirramilla, concocting some healing herbal potion, bunches of dried herbs hanging above the fireplace. Another fireplace, this time the kitchen, Lucy Wirra in her armchair taking her morning tea, her daughters Janey and Sal bustling round, son Jacky poking his smiling face in at the door looking for a treat. Her father reading the papers over breakfast in the morning room, her mother with her letters…
The rattle of a cup woke her as Janey put it, none too gently, on her bedside table. She opened eyes that felt gritty and saw that Bea’s bed was already empty.
“What time is it?”
“After seven,” came the short reply. Apparently, she hadn’t yet been forgiven her remarks in the middle of the night. There was no point in saying anything. Janey would resume her normal behaviour in her own time. “Mrs. Macdonald is asking to see you,” the girl added on her way out.
Emma didn’t even have time to say ‘thank you,’ something else that would be held against her. She took a sip of tea. Half cold, of course. She dressed quickly, feeling a step behind everyone else. Had the boys discovered any evidence of horse stealers?
She took her cold tea back to the kitchen without a word to Janey. Only she and Tillie were there. She heard voices coming from the drawing room as she passed on her way to Mrs. Mac’s bedroom. Sounded like Mr. Devereaux and his sister. Perhaps they were discussing the events of the night. She knocked on the bedroom door.
Mrs. Macdonald was looking more drawn than usual.
“How are you feeling? Do you need something?” Emma asked, crossing to the bed.
“Perhaps a little of that tonic your grandmother sent last week,” Mrs. Macdonald said, turning her head to look at the collection of bottles and jars on the bedside table. “It does my throat good.”
Emma poured some into a measuring glass. The tonic contained a little laudanum and honey among other things. She helped Mrs. Macdonald to sit up and sip, then plumped up the pillows and made sure she was comfortable.
“Ah, that’s better. Thank you, dear.”
“Janey said you wanted to see me. Was it about anything in particular?”
Mrs. Macdonald gave her a look reminiscent of her better days. “What is going on, Emma?”
Had Mr. Macdonald told her about Vernon’s death or not?
“Why do you think something is going on?” she ventured.
“I heard George go out last night. The sleepout door squeaks and I heard Jim’s voice. He didn’t come back for ages. When I asked him this morning he said Vernon had an accident in the stable, and I wasn’t to worry about it. When someone tells me not to worry that’s exactly what I do, of course, because it means they aren’t telling me everything. They’ve had a fight, haven’t they?”
“I don’t know.”
That was true. She didn’t know if they had or that Mr. Macdonald was responsible for what had happened. But would telling her about Vernon’s death worry her more than what she was imagining?
“Is he injured?”
Emma closed her eyes, the vision of Vernon Appleton in a pool of blood on the stable floor vivid in her mind.
Mrs. Macdonald tried to lift herself up on one elbow but fell back onto the pillows with a gasp.
“Oh, dear Lord, he’s dead, isn’t he? George has killed him. I knew there was going to be trouble after that argument.”
“No, no. We don’t know who was responsible. It may have been horse stealers. We think he might have disturbed them while they were getting the horses from the stable and was attacked. And Mr. Mac was sending for the police this morning as well.”
“Horse stealers? Are you serious?”
Emma nodded, hoping madly it was true.
“Was he shot? I didn’t hear a shot.”
“No, he wasn’t shot. I guess they didn’t want to alert anyone.”
“So how was he killed, then?”
Emma hesitated for a moment. “He was knocked about the head with his cane and, and then stabbed with something. They’re out looking for evidence that someone was around last night.”
Mrs. Macdonald stared at her silently as she absorbed the news. “So, you don’t know for certain it was horse stealers killed him, do you?” she said at last.
“No, but several horses were out of their stalls. Someone had let them out.”
The questions raised last night niggled at her. She started as a hand clasped her arm with surprising firmness. Mrs. Macdonald was watching her closely.
“Find out for me, Emma,” she said. “I doubt anyone else will tell me the truth if George wants to hide it from me, and I need to know. George and Vernon never had a good relationship. Vernon always blamed him for the damage to his leg. Claims George pushed him out of a tree when he was five years old. George says Vernon fell trying to push him out.” She gave a small shrug. “Boys fighting. Who knows what they were about.”
“You want me to find out what happened?”
“I don’t want to go to my grave suspecting him of being responsible for something he didn’t do. I need to know, one way or the other. Promise me now.” Her grip tightened.
“But the police are being notified.”
“They’ll arrive days after the event, after Vernon is buried and then they’ll only know what they’re told, won’t they?”
Emma knew that would be so. Hadn’t she said as much to Bea and the boys in the stable? She promised reluctantly that she would do what she could. She wasn’t sure how much co-operation she would get.
“Would you like more tea, or something else to eat?” she asked, eager now to get out of the room and gather her thoughts.
“Just do this for me.”
As she left the bedroom, Madame Fournier appeared at the drawing room door, holding Sachi by the hand.
“Miss ‘Aythorne, what a dreadful thing to happen,” she said, her look anxious, her free hand going to her chest. “Poor Mr. Appleton. This is dangerous country. I hear about bushrangers. But Claude and I, we must leave. A house in mourning, it do not need guests.”
That was true enough, but if it turned out not to be intruders who had killed him it was someone on the property, which meant their visitors needed to stay until the matter had been resolved.
“It is dreadful indeed, Madame. But as for you leaving today, you were told last night, that would depend on a steamer being able to accommodate you. There is no guarantee.” She didn’t know if Mr. Macdonald had put out a signal for a steamer to call in. “But rest assured, no one expects you to leave in haste.”
“That is very kind, but we impose.”
“Mama, can we take a walk?” Sachi asked, tugging at her mother’s hand. “We were going to go the different way, Mama. And Hux needs out.”
“Oh, very well, cherie. But I must talk to oncle Claude and we will pack to be ready.”
“Oh.” Sachi let herself be led away.
Emma went on to the kitchen. She found Bea on her own testing the hot irons on the hob, a basket of clean laundry on the floor. The living still had to be catered to. Tillie and Janey would be cleaning out the fireplaces, dusting and making beds at this time of the morning. A large pot simmered on the stove, giving off rich smells of meat and onion.
“Emma, where have you been?”
“Talking to your mother.”
“You didn’t tell her, did you? Dad said we weren’t to tell her about Uncle Vernon just yet.”
“Well, she asked me outright what was going on,” Emma explained, somewhat annoyed. Mr. Macdonald would be annoyed at her now. “I tried to skirt around it, but you know your mother, she wouldn’t be put off and anyhow, she already suspected it was something serious.”
“So, she knows he died? And how?”
Emma nodded. “Have the boys found anything?” she asked, wanting to get off the subject of what she had told Mrs. Macdonald
“No. They’ve had Tommy Waradjee check for tracks all around the place, but all they can find are their own tracks from yesterday.” Tommy Waradjee was a black stockman and as expert a tracker as any of his race. If he said unknown men and horses hadn’t been around last night, then they hadn’t.
“And they haven’t found the cane?”
“No. Jim says it’s probably in the river.”
“Do you suppose it could have been one of the station hands?”
“What reason would they have to kill Uncle Vernon? What reason would anyone have?”
Emma had to admit she couldn’t think of any, except for Mr. Macdonald. He was still looking as the most likely, in fact the only person who had a reason for attacking Vernon Appleton, regardless of the issue of two different weapons. From Bea’s furrowed brow Emma could see that was on her mind as well.
“I suppose the men have been questioned about anything they might have seen last night?”
“I don’t know. You’d have to ask Dad.”
If he would tell her the result.
“May I have some breakfast, now?”
Bea and Emma turned as Mrs. Appleton advanced into the kitchen and sat down at the table.
“Tea and toast?” Bea offered, swinging the kettle over the fire.
“Thank you, that will do nicely. Such a dreadful business this. But it’s fortunate that I’m here to take over, as the elder female family member, since your mother isn’t well enough, Beatrice.”
“Yes, thank you, Aunt.”
“Your father is having the grave dug as we speak, so the burial will take place as soon as it is ready.”
“And I understand they haven’t found any evidence of horse stealers. I hope the perpetrator isn’t closer to home.” She glanced sideways at Bea and stopped. “Could he have been mistaken for someone else, perhaps?”
“Who?” Bea demanded. “Why would anyone want to kill anyone here?”
“I don’t know, I’m sure, dear. Why would anyone want to kill Vernon, is what I would be asking.” The question hung in the air. “There seems to have been quite some activity going on last night. I believe you had something to do with that, Miss Haythorne. Very commendable of you, I’m sure. But I will handle the matter from now on. It isn’t fitting for young unmarried girls to be dealing with the mortal remains of the deceased. I do hope you haven’t told your mother of your doings, Beatrice.”
“Of course not, Aunt,” Bea said, giving Emma a quick glance.
Emma turned away, not wanting the woman to read her face. Dora Appleton was right about her role, and it was only fitting that she should take it on, but did she have to sound so pleased about it and so—patronising? There were footsteps on the verandah and Matty came in and leaned against the doorframe, arms folded. He didn’t look happy. Mrs. Macdonald was right. They needed to know the truth for the suspicions were eating them up.
“How are you this morning?” Emma asked him.
“I’ve just been speaking to Mum,” he said, staring at her.
She would have the whole family annoyed at her soon. She was aware that Mrs. Appleton was watching them closely.
“Is there something else wrong?” she asked, her tone more imperious than Emma cared for.
“We’re all upset about Uncle Vernon,” Bea said, doing her usual job of smoothing things over.
“Of course, you are,” Dora Appleton replied. Emma doubted the woman was convinced.
“Can we take a walk?” Emma asked, going up to Matty quietly. She went past him to the verandah and he followed as she stepped down and continued around to the side garden.
“Your mother asked me what had happened. I couldn’t lie to her Matty,” she said, as he came up beside her. “I knew if your dad hadn’t told her the whole story that he didn’t want her to know, but I couldn’t lie when she asked me straight out.”
“I suppose not,” he said somewhat grudgingly. “It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it?”
“It is. And then, Mrs. Appleton…”
“What about her?”
“Oh, she does rub me up the wrong way. As the elder female family member—her words—it’s only right that she should take charge of preparing your uncle for burial. But she appears to believe that means putting Bea and I in our place as well.”
“Ah, well we can’t have that happen, can we?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You do have a habit of, well, of exerting your will, let’s say. A bit like Aunt Appleton.”
“I’m not at all like Aunt Appleton,” Emma insisted warmly, turning to face him. “And I only exert my will, as you call it, when it seems necessary. You have to admit that your Uncle’s injuries needed to be examined and the truth discovered.”
“The truth is yet to be discovered, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But at least we know what it is we are dealing with.”
“Which is what exactly?”
“Well, as there’s apparently no evidence of any intruders or horse stealers, then someone here at the station attacked your uncle. Your mother has asked me to find out the truth.”
“And you can’t wait to start—investigating,” he said. It sounded more as if he meant sticking her nose in.
“I’ll ask questions, yes. I was hoping your uncle had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but if that’s not the case, then I think it more likely that he brought his problem with him, rather than found it here on the station, don’t you?”
“Except for the problem with Dad, of course.”
Still at the top of a list of one, but she wasn’t about to say that out loud.
“Who knows what lurks beneath the surface. Perhaps Mr. Devereaux didn’t like your uncle paying attention to his sister. Perhaps your uncle made a proposition to Madame Fournier and she had to fight him off.” She couldn’t really imagine either of those things, in reality. “Matty—something was said during the argument your father and uncle had yesterday, about money owed.”
“Oh, yes? You think Dad killed him because we owed him money?”
“Matty.” Emma’s frustration bubbled over. “Can’t you just answer the question? Can’t you see I’m trying to help? Or would you rather the police ask these questions?”
“Wanting to know about our business is supposed to help, is it?”
“Yes. Stop fighting me. This isn’t like you. Do you really think I want it to be your father? Help me prove it wasn’t.”
“Can you? Can you prove it wasn’t Dad?” The haunted look in his eyes told Emma all about his fears on that score.
“Tell me about this money.”
Matty sighed and rubbed his hand across his head before answering.
“Money was invested in the stable so we had the proper facilities for the Indian market. Uncle got a twenty-five percent return on the horses we send.”
The Nettifield stable was a model of its type, with its solid timber-clad walls and brick floor, and the chutes from the hay loft down to the manger in each stall. Emma understood now how they had achieved that.
“Well, the relationship between your father and your uncle can’t have been all that bad if he invested money in your business.”
Matty shrugged. “I don’t know the details. It was some years ago, when Uncle Allan was still alive.”
“Aunt Appleton’s husband, Vernon’s younger brother.”
“Oh, so it may have been Allan who made the investment and Vernon inherited it, along with Allan’s share of the property?” Emma clarified.
“That could be.”
“Was Vernon unhappy with the return he was getting?”
“It wasn’t happening fast enough for him, apparently.”
“Was he demanding his investment be repaid?”
“Not that I know of. Dad’s not said.”
“Thank you for telling me.”
It saddened her. She was afraid it had just added to the weight on the scale against Mr. Macdonald. She started, as a man appeared between the homestead and the stable, a rifle slung over his shoulder, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He was wearing a dark wool jacket, light-coloured moleskin trousers and brown calf-length boots, the lot topped with a wide brimmed, felt cabbage-tree hat.
“Dad’s got some of the men out. Patrolling I suppose you could call it,” Matty said, in response to her look. “Until the police arrive anyway.”
“So, he has sent for them, then?”
“Did you think he wouldn’t?”
Emma hadn’t been sure. Even now, he could just be going through the motions, playing a bluff.
“Would they stop anyone trying to leave? Madame Fournier was talking about leaving today, if a steamer comes by that can take them,” she said. “And we need to keep everyone here until we know what happened in the stable.”
“All under control, Em.”
In other words, mind your own business, but that was exactly what she couldn’t do.
Jim came around the corner of the homestead at that moment with Mr. Macdonald. Alex, Claude Devereaux and Anthony Appleton followed. No words were spoken. Matty joined them as they went around the back of the kitchen building to the laundry. They’d be carrying the body of Vernon Appleton up to the graveyard in a few minutes.
She didn’t want to go back to the kitchen. A walk to clear her mind was what she needed but she had come out without a shawl. She went in at the back door, not looking toward the kitchen though she could hear Sachi talking to Hux. Would Madame Fournier be attending the burial? She somehow doubted it.
After collecting her shawl, she let herself out the front door and walked down along the river. The water reflected the gray, wind-whipped sky. Invisible birds chirped and sang above her head and a magpie swooped away, startling her as she passed close below his perch.
How was she going to discover who had killed Vernon Appleton? And if it had been Mr. Macdonald would she ever be welcome at Nettifield again? The questions made her stomach ache.
Lunch was another quiet affair. A burial is one sure way of reminding people of their own mortality, regardless of any grief that accompanies it. And there was the shadow of another that would come soon enough. What had befallen them didn’t seem to affect anyone’s appetite, however, as the mutton stew and thyme-flavoured dumplings were soon cleared from their plates, though she wouldn’t have counted on some of those present being able to remember later what they had eaten.
“Perhaps we may get a steamer going up this afternoon,” Madame Fournier remarked hopefully to her brother at one point during the meal. She was nothing if not single-minded. Claude was non-committal. Would he comply if his sister persisted? There was no reason for any one of them to stay now that the person who had invited them was in the ground. She thought she had an idea for keeping them another day or so but was loath to voice it at the table. She really would be seen to be pushing herself forward if she did. She would mention it quietly to Mr. Macdonald. It was important she speak to him first.
After lunch the men went down to the training yard, working on the theory, no doubt, that keeping busy was therapeutic and prevented too much thinking. Besides, there was a necessity to be practical. The shipment to India would not be filled of its own accord. After helping Bea and the girls clean up after lunch, Emma left them and took herself off after the men.
She found Mr. Devereaux and Anthony watching the Macdonald boys working several of the horses. Mr. Macdonald was by himself further down the yard. He stood in the age-old stance, one foot up on the lower bar of the fence. As she approached, he pushed back his hat, showing the white band across the top of his forehead where his hat normally sat, shading his face. Tall and otherwise sunburnt, he looked older than the fifty-three she knew him to be. He didn’t look at her as she stopped beside him.
“Are the horses all right after the disturbance last night?” she asked, by way of greeting.
“Seem to be.” His tone was dismissive. This conversation was never going to be easy.
“Mrs. Macdonald asked to speak to me this morning. She wanted to know what had happened.”
He turned to look down at her. “And of course, you told her.”
“I didn’t have much choice.”
“What? A clever girl like you?”
She had never really understood why her education bothered him. He was successful at what he did, knew things she didn’t. Wasn’t that enough?
“I couldn’t lie to her, when she asked me straight out, now could I?” she demanded. She was getting tired of all this disapproval. She hadn’t caused this problem. “She wants me to find out what happened. Find out who did this.”
“Tighten the rein, Jim,” Mr. Macdonald called out to his son, as his mount tried side-stepping. “Give him more bit.”
“Will you help me find out who did it, Mr. Mac?” she asked, deliberately using the more intimate form of his name, the one she had used since she was a child. “Can you tell me anything about last night?”
She was going to be quiet now. He either answered or he didn’t. He pulled a tobacco pouch and papers from his shirt pocket, rolled a cigarette and took a drag.
“All right,” he said finally. “For whatever good it will do you. I went out for some air, have a smoke. I’d been sitting with Martha all evening. Sitting there to keep away from Vernon and then I find him in the stable.”
“Why did you go there?”
“I heard some noise. He’d opened one of the stalls and was leading a horse out.”
“What did you do?”
“I yelled at him. He yelled at me. He was going to open the main doors and let the horses out, make it difficult for me to meet the shipment, so he could demand…” He bit off whatever he was going to say. Demand repayment of the investment? “It was your Pepper he had, would you believe,” he went on. “Didn’t even get that right, did he.”
“He told you he was planning to let the horses out?”
“Of course not.” Mr. Macdonald gave her a scornful look. So much for your education, he seemed to imply. “He wouldn’t admit to it, would he? Gave me some cock and bull story about having a sudden urge to get up on a horse again. As if I was going to swallow that. But it was obvious what happened because he let several of them out afterward and got knocked down. Well, that’s what I thought when I saw him, later, anyway.
“Always full of nasty goings on, he was. Anything to make me look bad, making sure I got blamed for everything that went on when we were growing up. You know he blamed me for pushing him out of a tree and smashing up his leg? It was the other way around. He fell trying to push me out.”
How true that was only the two of them would ever know. That he was angry at his half-brother was obvious, but there was something else under the bitterness, regret perhaps, about business that now would never be finished. If Vernon Appleton had chosen Pepper, the quietest horse in the stable, perhaps he really was just doing what he said, on a sudden whim, away from prying eyes.
“Did you leave him there, in the stable?” Emma asked.
“No, of course not. I saw him out, saw him head towards the homestead.”
“And he went in? I suppose the lamp on the back verandah was lit.”
“It was lit. But no, I didn’t stay to watch. I went down to the river. He must have gone back to the stable, blast him.”
Had Mr. Macdonald visited the stable a second time himself, to make sure everything was still as it should be before heading to bed, and found Vernon there letting out the horses again?
“What do you think happened to him?”
“Someone beat his head in and stabbed him to death, didn’t they?” he said harshly. Emma winced at the words, but he took no notice. “Couldn’t even die without causing trouble.”
“I suppose you’ve spoken to the men? Did anyone hear or see anything last night?” She had to ask as she couldn’t very well question them herself.
“I told them this morning what had happened. As much as they needed to know anyway. Any questioning I’ll leave to the police.”
“Matty said you had sent for them. But do you think it might be better to question the men yourself?” She suspected they would be more free with their answers.
“I don’t have the time, Emma.” It was final. She didn’t press it. He took a last pull on his cigarette and dropped the butt, crushing it under his boot into the sand. “I suppose Martha thinks I did it. Vernon and I got into a bit of an argument yesterday. She saw that. I didn’t tell her too much. I didn’t want her to worry but it appears she is anyway.”
Emma didn’t tell him she had seen the argument as well. Everyone’s suspicions seemed to hinge on it.
“Yes, she is worried. I can’t imagine she really believes you had anything to do with it.” Though she knew that wasn’t true.
“You reckon.” Obviously, he didn’t either.
“Has anyone asked you to signal for a steamer going upriver?” she asked, changing the subject.
“No. And no one will be going anywhere until the police say they can.”
“Have you thought of asking Mr. Devereaux if he would like to help with the training? Matty and Jim seem to think he knows what he’s about.”
“And why would I do that?”
“It would keep him occupied. You heard them at lunch. Madame told me earlier they are hoping to get away as soon as they can.” She looked down to the group at the far end of the yard. Madame had joined her brother and Anthony Appleton. “It would be better, don’t you think, if you didn’t have to keep them here by force?”
“Is this what they taught you at that smart school of yours?”
“No, Mr. Mac. I learned that from growing up with people like you,” she replied with some spirit.
“Too clever for your own good,” he muttered.
He looked up toward the homestead and Emma followed his gaze. Mrs. Appleton was making her way down past the stable.
As Mrs. Appleton came up, Emma prepared to leave. She took a couple of steps away but stopped when Mrs. Appleton started speaking.
“George, it isn’t my want to cause trouble,” she said, “and I was just going to ignore what I’d found, but then I realised that I couldn’t. There is a murderer among us who must be brought to justice, to pay for what they have done.” Mr. Macdonald looked at her and waited. She took a deep breath and expelled it. “I know who killed poor Vernon.” She produced a piece of notepaper from her pocket with a flourish.
“What?” Mr. Macdonald took the paper, opened it and read. “Where did you find this?”
“It was in poor Vernon’s jacket pocket. I almost missed its significance, almost threw it away. I couldn’t, didn’t want, to believe it.”
Mr. Macdonald stared at it for a moment longer. Then he looked at Emma standing several paces off. Mrs. Appleton turned to look at what he was seeing. If she was surprised that Emma was still there she didn’t show it, but when he held out the paper to her, Mrs. Appleton’s gaze went smartly back and forth between them, assessing.
Emma studied the paper. It was a folded piece of good quality notepaper, with a small entwined monogram embossed in one corner. She couldn’t make out the letters, but it didn’t matter. The note was short and it was signed.
Meet me outside at eleven. Gabriela.
“You see, she arranged to meet him. She wanted to marry again, you know, someone with money. They must have argued or, or he refused her and she killed him in a rage.” Mrs. Appleton was almost triumphant. “That is why she is so keen to leave now.”
Had it happened that way? Emma remembered the possible scenarios she had presented to Matty. She’d suggested Vernon had made advances to Madame and she had to fight him off. Mrs. Appleton might want to put the blame on Madame Fournier, and not on her brother-in-law, as the instigator of whatever had happened. But it was Gabriela who had issued the invitation.
“You must put her under arrest, George.” Mrs. Appleton was insisting. “She must be locked up somewhere secure until the police arrive.”
“I don’t think we need go that far. I already have some of my men stationed around the place to make sure no one wanders off or tries to attract the attention of a steamer. The police should be here late tomorrow, providing there is anyone available at the station. Besides, we’re surrounded by miles of bush. Running off would be suicide for someone who doesn’t know the place.”
“Would you like for me to speak to Madame and see what explanation she can give for this note?” Emma asked.
Mr. Macdonald nodded. “Send Devereaux up here first. Just to be on the safe side.”
“I will come with you,” Dora Appleton said firmly. Emma couldn’t very well refuse her company. They walked back toward the other group.
“Miss Haythorne, I do hope you won’t hold my words earlier against me,” Mrs. Appleton surprised Emma by saying. “I’m not myself. This dreadful business has completely undone me.”
“That’s perfectly understandable,” Emma murmured. “It has upset us all.” Perhaps she should give the woman a little latitude, even if she didn’t care much for her.
“That is most kind of you.” They continued in silence for a few more steps, but were fast approaching Madame Fournier and her brother. “Mr. Macdonald holds you in great esteem, it seems.”
Ah, so that was it. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, Mrs. Appleton. He holds his wife in great esteem. I am but a go-between.”
“I really should pop in and see dear Martha.”
There was no time to say more.
“But we are just in the way here, Claude,” Madame Fournier was saying, her voice rising slightly. It seemed she was running out of patience with her brother.
“Hello,” Emma greeted them. “I’m sorry your visit has been interrupted in this way.”
Mr. Devereaux acknowledged her words with an incline of his head.
“It is very distressing, what has happened,” Madame Fournier agreed. “We really must be leaving soon.”
“I think Mr. Macdonald has a favour to ask Mr. Devereaux,” Emma said. “He would like to speak to you,” she said to the Frenchman.
“What is this favour?” Madame Fournier demanded, before Claude could respond. “Don’t agree to something that will keep us here Claude, s’il vous plaît.”
“Stay calm, Gabriela,” her brother said, patting her on the arm. “We are not in any danger.”
“You cannot know that, Claude,” Madame Fournier responded sharply. “I have heard of bushrangers, and we already have men walking around with guns. Are they meant to keep us in or others out?” She shivered and drew her shawl more tightly around her, tucking her gloved hands underneath the folds.
“You are upsetting yourself,” Mr. Devereaux repeated, more firmly. “It is understandable, as I have been telling you. We can’t leave until we have spoken to the police. Now I will speak with Mr. Macdonald.”
He left them, and Anthony, after a moment’s hesitation, followed. Emma realised she hadn’t yet said a word to the lad since they were introduced. How was he dealing with the death of his uncle? She would have to talk to him soon. Right now, she proposed that the ladies return to the homestead. Madame Fournier’s note was burning a hole in her pocket.
Emma suggested they sit in the drawing room, but Madame Fournier wanted to check on Sachi who, she said, was in the kitchen. Bea was mixing cake batter and Tillie was cutting out a batch of scones, when they entered the room.
“You’re a little early for afternoon tea,” Bea said.
“Perhaps we could just have a pot of tea in the drawing room,” Emma suggested. “I’ll make it.” She took the teapot from the hob and emptied it into the slops bucket.
“Oh, but it is much nicer in here,” Madame Fournier, said, taking a seat beside Sachi, who was drawing, Hux at her feet.
“Can we go for a walk, now?” the girl asked, looking up eagerly at her mother, pencil poised over her paper.
“Non, cherie, it is too dangerous.”
“I need to speak to you privately, Madame,” Emma said. They could forgo the tea. She needed to take control or Dora Appleton would. “Please join me in the drawing room.
“Yes, please, Madame.”
Madame Fournier looked from her to Dora Appleton. “Oh, very well.” She gave a shrug and got to her feet. “I will be back shortly, cherie.”
She followed Emma into the homestead, Mrs. Appleton taking up the rear as if to prevent escape.
“What is this matter you wish to speak?” Madame asked once they were seated.
Emma produced the note. “Can you explain this, Madame? It was found in Mr. Appleton’s jacket pocket.”
Madame Fournier took it in her hand and glanced at it. “What is this?” she asked, flourishing the paper.
“You know what it is,” Mrs. Appleton said. “You arranged to meet Vernon last night and killed him.”
“What? Merci.” She glared at the older woman. “You are out of your mind. Why would I? What reason?”
“Did he refuse to marry you? Or did he make some advance on you and you have to fight him off?”
“Refuse to marry? Fight him off? You are mad. There was not that between us. Beside, he could not chase if I run. No.”
Emma acknowledged the truth of that. With his stiff leg and need of a cane he would not have been difficult to avoid.
“Did you arrange to meet Mr. Appleton at eleven o’clock last night?” Emma asked.
“Non, non. Of course not.”
“Then what was that note doing in his pocket?” Mrs. Appleton persisted.
“How do I know? I never write to Mr. Appleton, certainly not to meet.”
“And yet it is your note, Madame?” Emma asked.
Madame Fournier looked at it again. “Yes, is mine. My note paper, my initials, Gabriela Marie Fournier. I write this, is true.”
“On what occasion would you have written a note such as that?” Emma asked.
The note didn’t stipulate what time of day, morning or evening, but ‘outside’? Outside where? Outside the homestead seemed a logical answer. It seemed the sort of note you would slip to someone after dinner.
“Oh, any, many. Meet with a friend for breakfast, shopping. I have many friends in Paree. Maybe I send it to Claude, on the ship.”
“But it wasn’t found in your brother’s pocket, Madame.” Mrs. Appleton was like a bloodhound on the trail.
“What can I do about a note that left my hand? It could go anywhere. Poof. And what reason to kill Mr. Appleton. We were—ah—connaissances.”
Mrs. Appleton stared, uncomprehending and clearly annoyed at being so.
“You were just acquaintances, Madame?” Emma supplied the translation.
“Oh, please. You were clearly more than mere acquaintances. My brother-in-law was courting you,” Mrs. Appleton quickly said.
“La. A little flirt on the steamship to pass time. What he thinks, is his business. It was Claude’s idea, this visit. He wants to see horses. I do not care.”
“So, your brother used you as bait, Madame?” Mrs. Appleton spat the words at her. “To entice Vernon to make this visit? How noble of him.”
Madame Fournier had the grace to blush and looked down at her hands. Had it been Claude Devereaux in the stable last night? Had the deception been revealed, Vernon Appleton discovering he had been led on, made a fool of? It seemed a flimsy enough reason to kill someone, but who knew what words had been hurled. A gentleman’s honour, or a lady’s, could have been impugned. And the problem of the two weapons again. Could it have been the two of them? Emma tried to clear her mind of supposition.
“What was so special about the horses?” Emma asked.
Madame Fournier shrugged. “It is all about the spirit and colour of the horse. For young men you know, these things, the cut of the jacket, the fold of the cravat.” She shrugged again, “A matching fast pair for a curricle, Miss ‘Aythorne. Some men might do most anything.”
“Might they indeed.” Mrs. Appleton remark was heavy with suggestion.
“Tch,” Madame Fournier responded.
“What time did you retire last night, Madame?” Emma asked. “Did you see anyone outside?”
“It was not late, was it? Near ten, I think. I saw Mrs. Appleton on her way to the outhouse as I was come in.” This with an oblique glance at the older woman. “I went to the kitchen for milk for Sachi. Someone was in the garden.”
“You saw someone else outside?”
“I smell a cigarette and when I look I see a glow. So, a man.”
That would have been Mr. Macdonald. She would have to ask this question of everyone.
“Thank you, Madame. I’m sorry for the questions, but you must see the matter of the note needs to be cleared up.”
“I suppose so, but never have I been accused of such a thing as to kill someone. One would have to be excessive passionate to do such a thing, non?”
Emma thought so as well, given the circumstances of the murder. Madame Fournier left them, whether to take a walk with Sachi or not, she didn’t ask. Whatever she did she would be watched.
“Well, what a thing.” Mrs. Appleton was on her feet, walking about the room. “Playing up to a man as if in a game. Using him to further her brother’s interest in horses. Horses! Have you ever heard of such a thing, Miss Haythorne?”
She seemed highly disturbed, but then she had lived with Vernon for probably some twenty years. However close or not their relationship, it would be natural to feel some outrage at his treatment.
“The French,” Dora Appleton continued, “are wholly immoral and without the finer feelings of properly civilized people.”
“That is probably over stating the matter a little,” Emma remonstrated mildly.
Mrs. Appleton reined herself in and sat down, pressing her hands together in her lap.
“There I go again. Please forgive me. Poor, dear Vernon. Better he hadn’t lived to learn of that woman’s true intentions.”
“I don’t know if she was telling the truth about the note, in any case,” Emma said. “If they arranged to meet outside, they may have gone to the stable. It would have been warmer. I just can’t see her knocking him down and then stabbing him. Unless he attacked her. Or Mr. Devereaux was involved as well. It could have been an honour killing, I suppose.”
“It all comes back to the French pair, doesn’t it,” Dora Appleton said, her words laden with satisfaction. “That note is the only reason Vernon was in the stable in the first place.”
Unless Mr. Macdonald’s idea was the correct one, and he went to let the horses out to ruin chances of meeting the shipment. But why do that if he had money invested in the project?
“Did you see anyone around last night?” Emma asked Dora.
Dora looked a little startled but answered immediately. “Only George, Mr. Macdonald. I said goodnight to him but I don’t think he heard me. He was walking down to the river.”
“You didn’t see Mr. Appleton?”
Emma thought it must have been after the brothers encountered one another in the stable, as Mr. Macdonald had said he went down to the river then. But if that were the case, where had Mr. Appleton got too? He must have doubled back to the stable immediately? Or hid in the shadows so Dora didn’t see him. When he took Pepper out of her stall was he just filling in time? Or was he hoping to show off for Madame when she kept their assignation? But how would she know he was in the stable? That was a sticking point.
Everyone had been outside sometime between ten and eleven o’clock, but no one had taken any notice of the exact time, so it was impossible to work out the sequence of encounters. And anyone could be lying.
“The scones are hot out of the oven,” Bea said appearing at the doorway. “Do you want afternoon tea here or in the kitchen?”
“In the kitchen, I think,” Emma said, not looking at Mrs. Appleton for agreement. She had heard enough from Dora for the time being.
“Dora’s probably relieved in truth. She wouldn’t want another woman in the house,” Mrs. Macdonald said to Emma later, when she related their interview with Madame Fournier. “Dora likes to be in charge.”
Emma admitted she had noticed that. “She did seem genuinely upset at the idea of Madame leading Mr. Appleton on because Claude wanted to visit, though.”
“Well, I’m sure she must have some decent feelings, deep down. I don’t imagine her life has been easy, even before Allan died. They were very alike those two brothers. Did what they wanted. Vernon the worse because of his bitterness, but neither were very amiable men. George takes after their mother, thankfully.”
Mrs. Macdonald coughed and Emma helped her to a mouthful of tonic.
“Did you know them well?” she asked.
“I knew the whole family when George and I were courting,” Mrs. Macdonald said, leaning back gratefully against her pillows. “We lived in Melbourne. My family had a small general store on the corner of the street where the Appletons lived, so I knew them from when I was about twelve-year-old. Mrs. Appleton, Finona Macdonald she was, was a widow and George was four years old when she married old Mr. Appleton.
“It was a surprise to everyone in the street, apparently. They all thought he was a confirmed bachelor but she was very pretty and, of course, she had no money, so she took him. She gave him three children though, Vernon, Allan and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was sent to England to an aunt when Finona died and she never returned. The boys all went on the land. Old Mr. Appleton helped finance them all, including George.”
She closed her eyes and took in several short, shallow breaths. It was a long speech for her.
“Who will inherit Hillcrest?”
“Anthony. Some thought he would inherit his father’s share when Allan died, but it went to Vernon. Dora was upset about that.”
“Well, the inheritance seems simple enough now. But I don’t seem any further forward with discovering what happened to Mr. Appleton,” Emma said. “That note of Madame Fournier’s is pretty damning but there’s nothing to show she wrote it last night, and she maintains she didn’t. I can’t imagine her stabbing him. Someone else must have been involved and the only person that could be is her brother.”
Could the handsome and charming Frenchman have killed Vernon? She had to admit it was a possibility.”
“And George hasn’t talked to the men, you say?” Mrs. Macdonald asked.
“Apart from telling them what happened, and having some of them patrol the homestead, no, he is going to leave it to the police.”
“That won’t go down well. It would be as if we don’t trust them. Ask Matty to talk to them first thing in the morning. I’ll speak to George about it tonight. It needs to be handled carefully, Emma. You will tell him that, won’t you?”
Emma said she would. But would Matty tell her if he discovered something that pointed to his father? One thing she was relieved about; Mrs. Macdonald hadn’t once mentioned her suspicions about her husband’s involvement. Her mind seemed to have turned to other possibilities.
There was nothing more she could do until the men came in from work. She went to the kitchen and was relieved to find that Madame Fournier and Sachi were out somewhere and Dora had gone to her room to rest. She could pretend life was normal for a little while. At least until Tillie started on about the murder.
“I shan’t sleep a wink tonight. We could all be murdered in our beds,” she wailed.
“Don’t sniffle over the custard,” Emma told her sharply, startling Bea.
“Dad’s put armed men all around the place, Tillie. We’re perfectly safe,” Bea soothed, giving Emma a concerned look.
“I’ll come work for you, Miss, if Tillie doesn’t stay,” Janey said, glancing slyly at Emma.
“You’ll get yourself into trouble, if you’re not careful,” Emma told her.
Janey clicked her tongue. Any warning about involvement with Abe was going to be ignored. The situation was putting them all on edge.
Bea kept everyone busy in the kitchen, deciding to keep the rest of the mutton stew for lunch next day. Dinner that evening consisted of cottage pie with fresh greens, followed by apple crumble and Tillie’s custard.
Outside there was a lamp alight at every corner of the homestead, dispelling the shadows, beyond which Emma imagined the patrolling men. She wasn’t sure if hiding in the darkness was the better option to being surrounded with light, like a target. When they gathered in the drawing room she told Matty of his mother’s request that he speak to the men.
“What am I supposed to ask them?” he wanted to know.
“Ask them if they saw anyone around late last night, perhaps where they wouldn’t normally be. If anything seemed odd, I guess. It’s most important you don’t make it sound as if you suspect anyone. You’re asking for their help.”
“I suppose I could go and talk to them before they head out for work,” Matty said, looking a little dubious.
“They won’t speak up in front of everyone, accusing like, though, will they?” Jim said. “You’d have to talk to them on their own, have a chat.”
“Crikey, when did you turn into a policeman?” Matty asked his brother.
“You should read the serials in the newspaper,” Jim told him. “It’s the way the police interrogate. They separate the witnesses to see if their stories match up.”
“Interrogate? You’ve been listening to Joe.”
Well, not for a while anyway. Emma’s older brother had joined the New South Wales customs service two years ago, and had only been home once.
“He’s right, though,” Emma said. “People feel freer to speak if others aren’t listening. But it would take too much time to talk to them all separately, and you could miss the one person who knows something. Perhaps you should ask them to come and talk to you if they have something to say.”
“I suppose so, but I’d have thought it better left to the police.”
Emma sighed quietly. Just like his father.
Matty’s report, given to Emma next morning as she was clearing the dining room after breakfast, added no new information. Several of the men had seen Mr. Mac wandering about, smoking, but the men’s quarters did not have a view of the homestead, as the farm buildings, including the stable, interposed, and they hadn’t seen anyone else about. On the matter of one of their own acting oddly, the response was “You mean, apart from the Professor?”
If anyone remembered the Professor’s proper name it was probably only Mr. Macdonald, when he wrote out his cheque. The elderly man had a penchant for quoting Shakespeare or the romantic poets to anyone who would listen, and for throwing Latin phrases into the conversation. He was a general hand about the place, having tramped up the river with his swag, stopped for some tucker and an odd job, and stayed. It was rumoured he had made a fortune on the goldfields and gambled it away, but no one really knew. When questioned by Matty he hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary that night, either, and gave a lucid account of his own actions.
“What about Abe and Janey?” Emma asked. “They were out for several hours after dinner. I should have spoken to them before.”
“Abe already told us he and Janey were sitting in the smithy most of the time. It was when he was walking Janey back to the homestead that he heard the noise in the stable.”
Emma hoped sitting was all they had been doing, but at least he had some manners, walking the girl back to her room. Matty’s questioning hadn’t ruled out someone among the station hands being the murderer, but motive and the manner of the death still spoke of a more personal involvement.
Matty went off to his work with the horses and Emma followed hoping to catch Anthony.
She found him leaning, solitary, on the rail. In the yard, the Macdonald boys had been joined by their father and Claude Devereaux, with five horses being put through their paces, cantering and turning and stopping on command. Mr. Devereaux cut a fine, upright figure, clearly at home on a horse. Anthony, engrossed in what he was watching, didn’t notice her approach.
“Hello,” Emma said. He started and then gathered himself together.
“How are they getting on with the training?”
“Very well, I guess. Uncle George seems to know what he’s about. I wouldn’t have the patience for this type of thing.”
They watched the activities in the yard for a minute or two.
“I’m sorry about the loss of your uncle,” Emma said finally, turning to him. “Not a pleasant end to your holiday, I’m afraid.”
“Thank you. No, it isn’t.”
“Do you know anything about what happened that night?”
“Me?” He sounded surprised, and a little taken aback. “Why would I know anything?”
“You might have seen someone outside that night, wandering about, near the stables perhaps. I’m asking everyone.”
“Oh. No, I didn’t.”
“What time did you go to bed?”
“Um, it was after ten. We were playing dominoes, Alex and I. But we’d been out riding all day. We were tired.”
“I remember. Did you enjoy the day?”
“Yes, it was great. I really enjoyed it. The country up here is different to down south. Much drier and the bush is stunted and scrubby.”
“It is. I sometimes wonder how anything can survive, but it seems to. Do you get a lot of riding at home?”
“I do, but I just ride around and visit people. An overseer does all the real work at home because Uncle doesn’t ride, but Mother says that’s what gentlemen do. They give the orders and others do the work.” He frowned. “It isn’t like that here, is it?”
“No. I imagine Mr. Macdonald would find life very boring if he did it that way. Are there other gentlemen farmers in your neighborhood?”
“Most of them. The ones worth knowing anyway, Mother says.”
Of course, she would. “I see. And are you going to be a gentleman farmer yourself? I hear that Hillcrest will be yours now.”
“I don’t know that I want Hillcrest,” Anthony said, anxiously. “Is that dreadful of me, Miss Haythorne?”
“Of course not. There’s something else you would rather be doing?”
“I think I’d like to travel and see places. I enjoyed England, and London was exciting, so much going on. And then there are my cousins in England and their friends. I would like to see more of them. I think,” he confided, “that I’m like my Dad. He preferred new things, new ideas, new places. He was away from home a lot, especially when I was younger. When I got older we would spend hours together inventing mad things, making improvements to farm equipment. I think he should have been an engineer—or a blacksmith. He invested in other people’s enterprises, too, in a small way. He helped out a neighbour who was developing a new plough, and he helped Uncle George build his stable, did you know?”
“I had heard something about that. Did the new plough work out?”
Anthony laughed and had to admit it had never gone into production. He had a nice laugh, unaffected despite his Mother’s influence.
“Uncle Vernon was rather scathing about it at the time, but Dad just shrugged and said the next idea might be a winner. He said it was more exciting than watching the weather and hoping for a good pasture. He didn’t care much for sheep, either. I miss him.”
“You sound like my brother, Joe. He doesn’t want to farm either. At least, not yet.” Of course, the matter of inheriting Wirramilla wouldn’t have been a concern for Joe if their older brother, Michael, had lived. “But you’ll be able to do what you want, now, won’t you?”
“I don’t know,” he said, suddenly morose. “My mother always talks to me about Hillcrest and how wonderful it is, and about our place in the world. Mother would never let me sell the place. There will be Appletons at Hillcrest for generations, she says. That’s what Uncle Vernon wanted too.”
“It obviously isn’t your vision, though,” Emma said, sorry for the young man who seemed trapped in someone else’s dream. “I’m sure your mother would understand if you had other plans, for a few years at least. You could put the property in the hands of an agent. There are any number of properties worked in that way.”
Few of them were managed as well as an interested owner would do it, but there would still be income for him to pursue his own dreams. Farms in the south-west of Victoria did well with their higher rainfall and cooler conditions.
“We only have one life to live,” Emma said lightly. “I wouldn’t want to get to the end of it with nothing but regrets for things not done. And men have far more choice in that than we women do.”
“I suppose that is true enough. It’s something to think about, anyway.”
He might have killed his uncle in order to inherit Hillcrest, but it would have made more sense if his mother had been the victim. On her way back to the homestead, she encountered Mrs. Appleton in the garden.
“Have you seen Anthony?” she asked Emma. “I really must speak to him. The poor boy. He is heartbroken at losing his Uncle.”
Emma hadn’t thought he was, but he may have been hiding his true feelings about that. She thought Dora looked a little drawn.
“He’s at the training yard,” she said, and the woman went off in that direction.
When Emma took Mrs. Macdonald her lunch tray, she told her of her conversation with Anthony. Mrs. Macdonald agreed that he had to make his own decisions.
“He’ll stand up to Dora one day, if he’s anything like his father and his uncle,” she said.
Emma thought he seemed nicer than those two men, from all she’d heard, and wondered if he would.
“I hope he does,” she said. “Life will be miserable for him if he spends it doing something he dislikes.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him. Have you spoken to the Frenchman yet?”
“No. I hope to see him after lunch.”
“I won’t hold you up, then. Ask Bea if she would come in.”
Emma caught Claude Devereaux as the men were heading back out to the training yard.
“May I have a word, please?” she asked him, directing him into the drawing room.
She knew they would be alone there. Madame Fournier and Sachi were in the kitchen and Mrs. Appleton was in her room. She hadn’t come to lunch and had seemed withdrawn, as if what had occurred had finally hit her.
“This is about what happened to Mr. Appleton?” Mr. Devereaux asked, when they were seated. He seemed more serious than she had seen him previously. They probably all were. “My sister has told me, in great detail,” he added with an ironic tilt of his lips, “about the note you found.”
“I’m sorry to have upset her, if I did,” Emma said, “but the matter had to be gone into.”
Did he have no shame in encouraging her to flirt just so he could view some horses? And she still in mourning? Not that it had seemed to hinder Madame in any way. Perhaps the mourning was of long standing. She had no idea on that point.
“And you have been given the job of going into it, as you say?” he asked, his eyebrows raised. Ah, there it was. The disapproval, that this wasn’t something a young woman should be involving herself with.
“Well, we could have left it to the police, of course, but Mrs. Macdonald wanted it settled before they arrived, if that was possible.” She wasn’t about to mention Mrs. Macdonald’s fear that her husband was the killer.
He crossed his legs and leaned back in his armchair.
“And now you want to know what I was doing that night” he said, a slightly amused expression on his face now.
Emma nodded. “Where were you, when Mr. Appleton was in the stable?”
“Asleep, pure and simple, Miss Haythorne. It had been a long day and I did not wake once my head hit the pillow.”
“You saw no one around before you went to bed? Heard nothing?”
“I saw Mr. Appleton heading in the direction of the stable before I went to bed.”
“And what time was that?”
“Oh, about half past ten or a little after, I should imagine.”
Whether that was the first time he went to the stable, or when he returned after being confronted by Mr. Macdonald, she had no idea.
“And he was alone?” she asked.
“Did you see Mr. Macdonald? He was seen outside by some people, smoking a cigarette.”
“No, I did not.”
They gazed at one another in silence. He appeared to be patiently waiting for her next question, but offering nothing.
“What do you think happened, Mr. Devereaux?” she asked finally.
His hands went out in a typical Gallic gesture. “Someone knocked him down and ran him through as he lay there. Not a particularly gentleman-like thing to do, but I understand those are the facts.”
“Ran him through? That is the sort of remark I imagine you would make if he had been in a sword fight.”
“But it was sword, was it not?”
Emma stared at him. “Where would anyone get a sword? Do you have a sword in your luggage?”
“I do not.” He was looking as puzzled as she felt. “Mr. Appleton brought the weapon with him. He had his cane, his sword-stick.”
“His sword-stick. The cane he used, it was a sword-stick. Some men carry them if they are in a rough neighbourhood. They are popular in London, I believe. That is where Mr. Appleton acquired his, so he said.”
Emma’s head was spinning.
“Are you saying his cane had a sword in it?”
“Yes, that is what I am saying. That is what a sword-stick is.”
“I have never seen one. How does that work?”
“There is a button a little way below the knob. You press and release the sword, draw it out. The cane is like the scabbard. This was not known?”
“No. No, it was not,” Emma said faintly.
At least not by her. Had some people been holding out on her? Who else knew Vernon Appleton’s cane was a sword-stick? If Claude Devereaux, then possibly all the visitors. Did Mr. Macdonald know? Even if she asked him he could just deny it. Vernon Appleton had taken the weapon to the stable with him. That made it a crime of opportunity, because whoever he encountered in the stable can’t have had a weapon of their own. They used what they found there.
None of the station hands would have known about the sword-stick. Some other stranger finding him there wouldn’t have either. Unless of course, Vernon drew the sword to defend himself and was overpowered, his weapon used against himself. Given his disability, one would imagine that would not have been too difficult to achieve.
It didn’t help. Everyone was still under suspicion, including all the Macdonald men. Because she suddenly realised she couldn’t eliminate Matty, Jim or Alex, either. How much had Allan Appleton invested in George Macdonald’s stable? Was it enough to kill for? Had Anthony Appleton done it to inherit Hillcrest to pay for the life he wanted to lead? Anyone could be lying to her and Mr. Macdonald could still be playing a nice bluff. He could be laughing up his sleeve, watching her stumble around.
“Are you unwell, Miss Haythorne?” Mr. Devereaux asked, leaning toward her, concern etched on his handsome features.
Emma rallied with an effort.
“It could be anyone, couldn’t it? Knowing what the weapon was leaves it even more open, it would seem.”
“Do you think so?”
“Don’t you? Almost anyone could have knocked him down and used his sword-stick against him. Imagine,” she said, her mind flying, “you are hitting him with the knob of the cane and in the process the button is depressed and the sword flies out. We know the cane itself was not sufficient to have killed him. It had not sufficient weight.”
“But why kill him at all? That is the question, surely?”
“I could posit a motive for almost everyone on the station but there is no proof for any of it.”
“I can tell you only one thing: that it was not done by a gentleman. It was as I said, an underhand act.”
But who at Nettifield could claim to be a gentleman in the sense of the word Claude Devereaux implied? Honourable men. Honourable men did not murder. They might kill in a fight, in self defense, in protecting something or someone, but they did not murder. If she thought about if carefully she should be able to decide who could or could not have done it. Couldn’t she?
“Have you spoken to anyone else about the sword-stick?” she asked.
“No. No one said anything in my hearing about the weapon not being known, and I have not spoken of it to anyone but you. I was expecting to speak to the police, whatever Gabriela said about leaving. A Devereaux does not run from trouble, Miss Haythorne.”
Which was an odd thing to say considering Madame Fournier was a Devereaux too. Perhaps he didn’t include women in that sentiment.
Emma got to her feet and Claude Devereaux stood as well.
“Thank you,” Emma said. “I appreciate your speaking with me. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
“My pleasure. I wish you luck in unmasking the culprit.” There was no mockery in his voice.
A Sharp-Edged Confrontation
Emma wondered what the effect would be if she announced to the kitchen at large that Mr. Appleton had been killed with his own sword-stick, but when she entered the room there was no-one there. Probably just as well, or she may have been tempted. She didn’t know where Janey and Tillie had skived off to, but Bea was likely with her mother. Talking to her and Mrs. Mac seemed a good idea right now. She went back into the homestead and along the hallway and encountered Bea leaving her mother’s room.
“She’s asleep,” Bea told her. She said she had let the girls go watch the horse training for a while, when Emma asked. Emma forbore to say anything about giving servants too much latitude. Janey was probably flirting with Anthony Appleton by now. Back in the kitchen, she told Bea what she had learned from Claude Devereaux.
“A sword-stick,” Bea echoed. “That’s positively medieval. Poor Uncle.”
“Yes. A gun would have been a more sensible weapon for him to carry. He wasn’t sure enough of foot for a sword fight. But then, he may never have expected to use it. It may just have been a conceit.”
“Have you spoken to everyone? Do you have any idea who did this?”
“Yes, and no.”
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“I have some idea of who didn’t do it, but I have no evidence for who did.”
“Do you think the police will be able to sort it out?”
Emma shook her head. “I’ve no idea. They may be able to frighten some information out of someone, but I doubt it. I think it’s up to us.
“Up to you, you mean.”
“Well, you could help. You could listen to me go over everyone’s motives and movements and give me your ideas.”
“All right.” The cuckoo clock on the chimney breast whirred and announced two o’clock. “Oh, look at that time. We need to get some baking done. I’ll go fetch those girls or we’ll not have anything for the men for afternoon tea. We can discuss this later can’t we?”
Emma said of course, they could. Bea threw her shawl around her shoulders and hurried out. Emma began to assemble the baking requirements, putting out two large mixing bowls, a jug of milk, the set of scales, baking powder, bowl of eggs. She was about to measure out some flour from the tub for the scone mix when Mrs. Appleton came into the kitchen, closing the door that Bea had left partly open. The woman was white and shaking. Emma started to move around the table to her, thinking she was ill.
“What have you been saying to my Anthony?” Mrs. Appleton cried out, her voice hoarse with anger and distress. “What ideas have you been putting into his head?”
Emma stopped. “None that I know of, Mrs. Appleton,” she said keeping her voice calm. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll make us a cup of tea.”
She may as well have saved breath.
“You told him he could put in a manager. A manager. He wants to travel. He doesn’t care for sheep, he says. My son is supposed to run Hillcrest. I’m to be the lady of the house again. Do you realise what that man did when Allan died?”
As she spoke, Emma moved slowly back around the table, putting it directly between them. Dora Appleton’s demeanour was unsettling.
“He sacked the housekeeper and said I could do the job now, earn my keep. Housekeeper. For the past four years. I was the lady of the house when Allan was alive.” She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.
“And it was for nothing anyway. That French minx, leading him on. He wanted to marry her. But I dealt with it, and it would have been all right. It still would have been all right because Anthony got Hillcrest.”
She dealt with it? It didn’t take a genius to work out what she meant. She’d killed Vernon Appleton to prevent his marrying Madame Fournier.
“You used that note of Madame’s to lure Mr. Appleton outside, didn’t you,” Emma said. Play for time. Bea and the girls would be back in a few minutes.
“She dropped it on the ship. I’ve no idea who it was meant for. She could have been carrying on with half a dozen men for all I knew. He thought he had a chance with her. I saw him go back into the stable after George routed him. But he laughed at me. Laughed when I said Hillcrest should belong to Anthony. He said Anthony would have a share of it with his own children. Well, there won’t be any children now will there?”
“Did you let the horses out?”
“Of course, I did. It would’ve looked like an accident if you hadn’t stuck your nose in.” She was agitated, walking back and forth in front of the table.
“But you stabbed him. You couldn’t pass that off as an accident.”
“George would have been blamed, then. Everyone knew they hated one another. But I handled it. And then you put ideas into Anthony’s head. He wants to put me in a nice little house in Melbourne. Hillcrest is supposed to be ours. If I can’t have Hillcrest, you’ll pay for it.”
From behind the folds of her skirt she produced a sword. A thin, sharp sword with a battered silver knob. Brandishing it, she made a rush around the table. Emma skittered the other way. Dora screeched in frustration. Keeping her eye on her, Emma stepped backward toward the door but the woman was too fast, running at her, sword held out in front. Emma dashed around the table again.
“What story are you going to give if you kill me?” Emma gasped.
“Oh, that’s simple enough. You threatened me with this sword, but I took it off you and you were stabbed. I will claim self defence. It was you who killed Vernon, I will tell them.”
She was completely mad.
“What possible motive could I have. I didn’t even know the man.”
“You propositioned him and he rejected you. You were desperate for a husband, someone with property. He threatened to embarrass you to your friends.”
No one would believe it, of course, but it would hardly matter if she was dead. Dora came at her again around the table and she skipped back, grabbing a fire iron as she passed the fireplace. How effective it would be against a sword she didn’t want to consider, but it was all she had. Dora continued to press and they circled the table again. She was closer now. Bea, where on earth are you?
As Emma came around past the fireplace again, keeping her eyes on Dora, she caught her heel in the bottom of her skirt and almost fell. Dora bounded forward with a cry of triumph, sword thrusting forward. Emma desperately parried with the fire iron as she grabbed at the table with her other hand to steady herself.
Her fingers touched the bowl of eggs. Steadying herself, she reached in and grabbed one, hurling it at Dora’s face. It wasn’t the best shot, using her left hand, but she could hardly miss at that distance. It hit Dora on the forehead. Glutinous egg white and runny yolk dripped down her face and off her eyelids. As Dora clawed it away, Emma threw several eggs on the floor at her assailant’s feet.
She stepped back, encouraging Dora to come at her again. As she did so, she stepped on the broken eggs. Her feet slipped from beneath her. She fell, with a scream of rage, landing flat on her back. Emma leapt forward, lifted Dora’s legs and pushed them up, keeping the woman’s body pressed to the floor and giving her no purchase to get up.
But Dora still held the sword and she lashed out wildly, screaming in frustration, slicing at Emma’s skirt and inflicting a cut on her leg. Emma brought the fire iron down on Dora’s arm, bringing a screech of pain from the woman. She hit her again, this time on the wrist. The sword dropped to the floor from numbed fingers and she flicked it away under the table with the fire iron.
Emma dropped to her knees, still clasping Dora’s legs in what was anything but a dignified position. She was kneeling in broken egg, and there was egg on her clothes and hands from Dora’s shoes. She was shaking now. She could feel blood from the cut running down her leg but she couldn’t look at it.
Dora continued to struggle feebly, but the fight had been knocked out of her and she lay sobbing, flat on her back, legs in the air. Emma almost cried with relief when she heard the kitchen door open. The sound was followed by Tillie’s scream.
“Well it did look odd, Miss,” Tillie excused herself half an hour later. “All I could see across the table was your head and a pair of legs. I thought, that ain’t natural.”
“And you threw eggs at her,” Bea said, not for the first time.
“I hope there’s enough left for the baking,” Emma murmured inconsequently.
Bea shook her head. She was sitting on the floor, fastening off a bandage wrapped around the cut on Emma’s leg.
“I don’t think anyone is thinking of cakes and biscuits right now. You’re going to have a nice little scar there now,” she added, “but fortunately the cut isn’t deep.”
Janey, quiet for once, refilled Emma’s teacup, to which Matty added a splash of brandy, for the second time. Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Devereaux were securing Dora Appleton until the police could deal with her. Bea had administered a dose of laudanum, so they wouldn’t have too much trouble with the woman, though there was little fight left in her. Alex and Jim had taken Anthony out somewhere. Emma felt particularly sorry for him. It was clear that his mother was mentally unstable, driven to do what she did by her obsession with her position in life and her feeling of having been badly treated.
“This is what happens when you stick your nose into other people’s business,” Matty remonstrated, though gently.
“Dear Matty,” she murmured, putting her head on his shoulder. She had stopped shaking and the brandy was making her sleepy.
He put his arm along the back of her chair and patted her shoulder awkwardly. “That’s okay, old girl. But don’t do it again.”
“But she solved it, Matty,” Bea insisted. “Aunt Appleton could have gotten away with it. It would have haunted us forever if we hadn’t known who did it.”
“Has your mother been told?” Emma asked, trying to rally.
“Yes, and she’s very pleased it’s been sorted. But I didn’t tell her about the fight. She doesn’t need to know you put yourself in danger.”
This was said with a note of warning. Emma took it on board.
“What about Madame Fournier?” she asked. She could only imagine what Madame was feeling right now. It was her leading Vernon Appleton on to contemplate marriage that drove Dora Appleton over the edge.
“She’s upset,” Bea said. “I imagine she will be more careful who she flirts with in future. Which is a shame, she didn’t mean any harm.”
“No,” Emma said, stifling a yawn, “but she did rather enjoy the fact that it annoyed Mrs. Appleton.”
It was all a result of people, who didn’t like one another very much, spending too much time together.
Mr. Macdonald came back into the kitchen.
“How is that cut on your leg, Emma? Not too much damage, I hope?”
“No, thank you,” Emma said. “Bea has bandaged it up nicely and I can barely feel it.”
“Good. You did a fine job ferreting her out.”
“All I did was talk to people.”
“Well,” he said, “you’re good at that, anyway.”
Emma opened her mouth for a smart come back.
“I think you should rest for a bit,” Bea spoke up quickly.
Emma found herself bundled off and tucked into bed. She was alseep in seconds but woke two hours later with a fuzzy head. This was why, she reminded herself, she never normally had a nap during the day. She went to the kitchen where she found preparations under way for dinner.
“How are you feeling?” Bea asked. She was rolling pastry. A large pie dish filled with chicken and vegetables was on the table beside her.
“My head’s fuzzy, but otherwise I’m fine.”
“That’s the brandy,” Janey said, from the other end of the table where she was shelling peas.
“Madame and Sachi and Mr. Devereaux have left,” Bea said, before Emma could respond to Janey’s remark.
“The Swallow called in,” Bea explained. “They’d broken a steering joint and needed it mended at the smithy. Madame immediately asked if they would take three passengers.”
“What about the police? Shouldn’t they have waited for them?”
“Dad didn’t seem to think it mattered. We know what happened and I think he was just glad to be rid of them. One could say they had outstayed their welcome.”
She would have liked to speak to Madame and Claude, if just to say goodbye. She would probably never see them again. Perhaps she would write, but realised she didn’t have an address.
It was mid-morning the following day before the police—a Lieutenant Forrester and two troopers—arrived. Mr. Macdonald spoke to them and they interviewed Emma and took her statement. It all seemed satisfactory. Dora wasn’t denying anything. The troopers took over guarding her from the Nettifield men who had been doing the job, and late in the day they took her on board a steamer heading for Wentworth. She would be taken to Adelaide and then by sea to Melbourne for trial. Anthony was to go with her. Mr. Macdonald offered to accompany him but Anthony would not hear of it. He had people he could stay with in Melbourne, he said. He would not be alone. Before they left, Emma was able to speak to him.
“I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances,” she told him. “I feel some responsibility for your mother’s distress. She said I had put ideas in your head.”
“On, no, Miss Haythorne. Don’t for one moment blame yourself. If anyone should feel some blame it is Madame Fournier and her brother, but even then, I can’t blame anyone but herself. I hadn’t realised how much her situation had affected her mind. That had obviously occurred before Uncle Vernon set eyes on Madame.”
“How could you have known? She seemed perfectly rational.”
“Yes. She had killed my uncle before you and I spoke and what you said just clarified what I already felt, what our trip to England led me to understand about myself. I will be selling Hillcrest. Let someone else build new memories there. For now, though, I will see that my mother is properly taken care of.”
“I am glad you are doing that. I wish you all the best.” He shook her hand.
“Emma, stop daydreaming and pass the salt.” Rose Haythorne’s voice jolted Emma back to the present.
She had been daydreaming over lunch, again. The events at Nettifield still filled her mind. Mrs. Macdonald had passed away peacefully a month after Vernon’s murder. Emma’s mother and grandmother had both gone over and visited with her in the final days, and Emma had returned home a week after the burial. That was three weeks ago, and she hadn’t been able to settle to anything since.
She had gardened and helped her grandmother prepare herbal mixtures in the stillroom. She had visited often with Nella, Lucy’s eldest daughter who was married to their overseer and expecting her second child. There was even a promised visit from brother Joe to look forward to before Christmas. But nothing made any difference. Nothing lifted her spirits. And to make matters worse, the idea of a future as Matty Macdonald’s wife just depressed her.
After lunch, she went again to the still. The shelves were stacked with potions, powders and ointments awaiting orders from up and down the river. Her grandmother’s remedies were a legend in her own time. They hadn’t helped Mrs. Macdonald though. And they wouldn’t have helped Dora Appleton. She wondered how Anthony was dealing with it all. And Madame Fournier. She shook her head. She didn’t want to keep thinking the same things around and around, over and over.
A steamer whistle sounded its distinctive note from the river.
“There’s the Mary B,” her grandmother said. “Go talk to Captain Berry, Emma. Perhaps you need to take a holiday, a short trip somewhere.”
“Perhaps, Grandmamma.” If she could conjure up the interest.
She went down the slope at the edge of the plateau to the landing area on the lower ground. A group of children from the black’s camp ran ahead of her excitedly, hoping for some sweets. They waited for the steamer to reach the landing. Captain Daniel Berry stepped down the boarding plank, a bundle of newspapers and letters in his hands. Another man followed him. Similar build and colouring as the Captain, a few years younger and clean shaven. He had a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye as he looked at her.
“Miss Haythorne,” said Captain Berry, “I’d like to introduce my brother, Sam.”
Robyn Clough, Murray Darling Authority.
Don Fraser and Echuca Historical Society.
Dr Christina Eira, Community Linguist, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages.
Brendan Kennedy, Traditional Custodian in the Region.
Trove and the National Library of Australia’s digitised newspapers project.
Curr, Edward Micklethwaite, The Australian race, Melbourne, Gov. Printer, 1886-87.
Jupp, James (ed), The Australian People, Cambridge University Press, 2001 edition.
And a big thank you to everyone who has written about the Murray River paddle steamers.
Irene Sauman is a retired historian living in Perth, Western Australia. She grew up and went to school in New South Wales, by the mighty Murray. Several generations of her father’s family were involved with paddle steamers on the river.
Irene is a widow with three children and four grandchildren all living in Western Australia. She loves reading, watching tennis on television, and is active in her local croquet club. Her favourite authors-gone-by are Anthony Trollope, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie. She reads a lot of cozy mysteries, especially British-flavoured.
Irene can be contacted through her . She is also on , where she is a member of the Aussie Readers group and several cozy mystery groups.
If you enjoyed this book, and would like to to recommend to other readers, leave a review at your favourite website. The author thanks you.
for notifications of new titles and receive a free Emma Berry short story Death Ruins a Wedding.
Other titles by the author can be found at or your favourite online retailer: They are also available in print.
A GEM OF A PROBLEM, Emma Berry Book 1.
A BODY IN THE WOODPILE, Emma Berry Book 2.
A USE FOR OLD UNDERWEAR, short story.
“Emma? Could you go and help Sal with the wash, dear? It won’t be done before dark at this rate.”
Emma Berry turned from her work, her hands in a bowl of soft chamomile soap, a row of shaped bars laid out on the bench beside her.
“Yes, Mother, if you need me to.” Heaven forbid the wash didn’t get completed on a Monday.
“Well, I wouldn’t be asking if I didn’t,” was the plaintive reply.
Emma exchanged a wry smile with her grandmother, Eleanor Haythorne, who was stirring a pot over the fire. The scent of rosemary rising in the steam added to the pungency of the still-room. She finished moulding the last bar of soap and dried her hands before rubbing in some soft tallow to lessen the effect of the lye. She kissed her grandmother on the cheek.
“Sorry, Grandmamma. Duty calls.”
“We’ve done enough here for one day, child,” her grandmother said. She lifted the pot from the fire, the firelight reflecting in her green eyes. With her expertise in herbal remedies it was little wonder some along the river called her a green witch.
Emma stepped out into the yard and paused to take in a breath of fresh air, untainted with the scent of herbs. Even though she had seen it for all of her twenty-seven years, the view from the plateau to the north still had the power to catch her pleasantly by surprise. One could see forever across the mallee scrub from this height, its grey-green haze lining the horizon, the Murray River winding around the base of the plateau, the glimpses of its waters, blue in the distance between the trees, exerting their pull.
To the west and the south the view was truncated by garden plantings and farm buildings, but the landscape was the same. Man may have decreed the Murray as the boundary between the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales, but the land had other ideas.
Shouts and laughter reached her. She waited, a smile playing on her lips. Thirty seconds later five skinny black children, barefoot, their clothes damp and mud spattered, burst through the opening in the plumbago hedge separating the homestead garden from the farm buildings.
“We gotta big heapa leeches eer missus,” the eldest, Mickey, called out on seeing her. They crossed the garden and he dropped a bucket at her feet and stood back, hands on hips. His sisters, Mary and Mina, giggled shyly behind him. The two younger boys put down a second bucket, half full of wet mud from the creek.
Emma dutifully looked into Mickey’s bucket. At the bottom was a bunch of fat, pink, wriggling leeches.
“How bigga heap?” she asked.
“Sixty n’ three,” Mickey said proudly. Emma had taught him to count, drawing lines on the ground—four straight down and one across, four fingers and a thumb. But she didn’t have time for the ritual of counting them today. The wash was waiting. She would have to trust it was right. Not that it mattered, but she wouldn’t tell them that.
“Good,” she said, nodding. “I’ll takem.”
“Aaaww.” Manny stamped the ground and screwed up his face, but Mickey stood taller. His count was accepted.
“We gettem big big heap mordar,” he said.
“No needem tomorrow, Mickey. Later.” His face fell, but she ignored it. “Puttem in here mud,” she told them. Mickey tipped the leeches into the second bucket and heads bent to watch as they started to burrow. Emma took a piece of paper and a pencil from her pinafore pocket.
“Sixty-three leeches,” she said as she wrote, holding the paper against her palm. “Tucker for…” If she had abandoned the leech count she had better make sure not to disappoint entirely. She counted heads. “…one, two, three, four, five, six.”
The children erupted with giggles and hoots of laughter as Manny dodged behind her and appeared on the other side to be counted a second time.
Emma rubbed her eyes. “I see’em only five.” Touching heads and naming each child she held up one finger for each. “Mickey, Manny, Mary, Mina and…”, raising her thumb, “Max. Five.” She handed the note to Mickey. “Takem missus Lucy.”
They were gone in an instant. The promise of ginger ale and cake had that affect. Housekeeper Lucy Wirra would seat them on the back verandah and see they were paid for their efforts. There was a ready market for leeches among the medical profession, and it added to the income from the herbals. But it had been the idea of Lucy’s son, Jacky, to recruit the camp children to collect them. They had proved more than eager. Emma picked up the buckets and took them into the still-room.
“A last batch of leeches, Grandmamma,” she said.
“Good. The packing box will be full. They’ll need to go off to Melbourne on the next steamer heading up.” In the oilskin- and straw-lined box, the leeches, comfortable in the cool mud, would arrive safe at their destination and end up in the hands of doctors and alchemists.
“I’ll finish the packing in the morning,” Emma promised. “Leave it for me to do.” Her grandmother was getting too frail for the heavy work.
Emma left the still-room again and entered the steamy washhouse that occupied part of the same outbuilding. Sal was stirring the contents of the copper tub with a round wooden stick, smooth and almost white from use, her brown skin slick with sweat and the steam rising from the bubbling water.
“Where’s Janey?” Emma asked.
“Helpin’ Nella,” Sal grumbled. “Gracie gottem that chickenpox now.”
That made all three of Nella’s little ones fallen ill. Nella, the eldest of Lucy Wirra’s three daughters, was married to overseer Jeff Brackett.
“Poor little things,” Emma commiserated. “Perhaps I could help nurse them tonight and give you all a rest.”
Sal gave her a sideways look. “I can’t keepem eyes open, mikkgun,” she said. Emma didn’t take much notice. Sal was always complaining of feeling tired. But she would do it for Nella.
Sal deftly wielded the stick in the tub, straining to lift the heavy wet sheet and drain the hot water before dropping it into the trough. Emma tipped a bucket of cold water in on top and sloshed and squeezed to rinse out the suds, her fingers tingling from contact with the hot cloth. She lifted a corner of the sheet and teased it between the rollers as Sal turned the mangle.
“Emma.” It was her mother’s voice again from the doorway. “Daniel’s here.”
“Daniel!” Emma looked around. She had a vague idea she had heard a steamer whistle, but you heard them so often as they signaled at the bends, it barely registered. She tucked a stray strand of dark, damp hair back under her black cap, the only concession she made in her dress to mourning. It wasn’t as if Wirramilla was a public place.
Daniel’s bulk filled the washhouse doorway, blocking the light. Emma’s stomach turned over at the sound of his voice. He sounded so like Sam.
“Are you on the Mary B?” she asked. Their steamer should have been back on the river by now. It was over three months since the accident.
“Fraid not,” was Daniel’s response.
“Take Daniel out to the arbour,” said her mother. “I’ll send some tea.” She sighed. “And Sal, I suppose you will just have to do what you can with the wash. I don’t suppose we will run out of linen before next Monday, but we really must make sure it all gets done next week.”
“Thank you, Missus Rose,” Sal said, with obvious relief.
Emma kissed her mother on the cheek, surprising the lady. Rose Haythorne wasn’t known for consideration of her servants.
“I’m staying at Nella’s tonight, to help with the children,” Emma told her.
“Oh, well, if you think it necessary, dear.”
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.”
Her mother gave her a sharp look, but Emma pretended not to notice. Rose Haythorne was of English upbringing and took an attitude to servants in contrast to a mistress of Scottish background, such as her mother-in-law, Emma’s grandmother. An English mistress wouldn’t nurse a sick servant, but a Scottish one would. And Emma had not only inherited her grandmother’s green eyes and tall slim figure, but had also taken on many of her attitudes and sensibilities.
Emma took off her pinafore and hung it on a nail, smoothing her skirt over her belly. It was flat now, but she could still feel the ghost of the roundness it recently had. She stepped out to walk with Daniel across the lawn. Below, on the river, she could see the gentle plume of smoke from the Lisette, hanging above the treetops like a question mark.
“How have you been?” Daniel asked softly, turning to look at her, his eyes only a couple of inches above hers.
Emma felt her throat tighten and blinked at the tears never far away. It was easier to put it in the background in the everyday bustle of life, but then someone would ask the question. It was meant kindly, but it was difficult to answer without allowing her grief to show and then feeling embarrassed and pathetic, or covering it up and sounding hard and unfeeling. The in-between must come eventually, but she hadn’t got there yet.
“Oh, day follows day. I try to keep busy, you know. And you?”
They had reached the grape arbour at the far side of the garden. Leaf buds were bursting on the vine and the air trapped inside was warm. A rustle overhead told of lizards among the canes. Daniel brushed off a chair with his hat and offered it to her before sitting down himself.
“Much the same, I suppose,” he said. There were shadows under his eyes and tightness about his mouth above the dark, neatly clipped beard. They’d looked much alike, he and Sam, except Sam had been clean-shaven. And Sam had always lounged, confidently, long legs thrust out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. Daniel looked as if he wasn’t sure what to do with his legs when he sat. Emma had always found him comfortable and reassuring, a dear friend. She may have married his brother, but she had realised, now she no longer saw him every day, that Daniel had been an important part of her married life on their paddle-steamer.
“So, the Mary B is still not back on the water?” she said. She had inherited half-ownership of the steamer from Sam, making her Daniel’s partner in the vessel. “I thought it wouldn’t take more than a month or so once the problem with the insurance had been dealt with.”
“The boat yard has a lot on at the moment, so they say.”
Emma nodded. Meanwhile, Daniel piloted for the McCulloch Company. He found it hard not to be his own master.
Her attention was momentarily diverted as Charley Ah Lo, the Lisette’s Chinese cook, trotted across the garden and around the corner to the kitchen. He would be visiting Lucy to top up her store of river gossip in return for some fresh eggs for his galley. He’d probably leave with some vegetables as well. Daniel hadn’t seen him, which was just as well. He didn’t like his crew mooching at the stations.
“Emma…” Daniel drew her attention again. He hesitated and looked down at his hands. “I had an odd conversation with Major Barnaby before I left Echuca.”
“Barnaby? Of Honey Hills?”
“The same.” He waited, looking at her as if she was supposed to know what he was talking about. She shook her head, frowning. “You can’t tell me?” he asked, finally.
“I’ve no idea what you’re referring to. Why the mystery?”
“He intimated he had some arrangement with Sam.”
“An arrangement? About what?”
“He said Sam was delivering something for him. He wouldn’t say exactly what. He was hedging. Sounded dodgy to me. But he threatened if the item wasn’t returned I would regret crossing him. What was Sam doing, Em?”
She shook her head again. Daniel had left the Mary B at Euston to travel south by coach, and it was only two days later the accident had changed everything. If anything out of the ordinary had happened in the days leading up it had been pushed from her mind.
“Why would Sam have anything to do with Major Barnaby?” she asked. “You didn’t do any work on the Murrumbidgee. Unless he was hoping to get a contract from up that way. Do you suppose that was it? Honey Hills is only ten miles from the junction, after all.”
The Murrumbidgee, or Bidgee as it was commonly called, was one of the two major tributaries to the Murray, feeding in from New South Wales and forming the northern boundary of the rich Riverina district.
“Whatever it was, he didn’t discuss it with me,” Daniel said. “You sure you don’t know?” He gave her a sharp look.
“Of course, I’m sure. Isn’t it listed as part of the cargo?”
“No, there’s no record of anything, so it isn’t covered by insurance. When did the Major get in touch with Sam, anyway?”
“I didn’t know he had, Daniel. Why are you getting annoyed at me? You were his partner. Sam didn’t discuss business with me.” Didn’t discuss much of anything, if the truth be told.
“You sure he didn’t take a side trip up the Bidgee, after I left the Mary B?”
Emma stared at him, amazed. “I think I’d remember if we had, Daniel.”
He regarded her steadily. “Well, it doesn’t make sense. Surely Barnaby isn’t trying to pull a fast one, claiming to have lost something in the accident when he didn’t?”
Emma had no answer. Daniel seemed to suspect her of hiding something. Of lying to him, in fact. But if Major Barnaby was pressing, it was a concern. Honey Hills was one of the largest pastoral properties in the Riverina district and it didn’t do to get on the wrong side of powerful people. As if the accident hadn’t done enough damage to their reputation.
Emma tried to bring a picture of the Major to mind. She had met him, once, some years before, when she had accompanied her grandmother on a visit to Honey Hills to see Major Barnaby’s wife. Lady Adeline credited Emma’s grandmother with safely bringing the youngest Barnaby daughter through a childhood illness. Emma remembered the Major as arrogant and stand-offish, though Lady Adeline seemed to have his measure.
“What was that brother of mine up to?” Daniel asked, leaning forward. “As if wrecking the Mary B wasn’t bad enough, now this threat about a mysterious package. It doesn’t make sense.”
Emma put a consoling hand on his arm. It wasn’t only because Daniel missed his younger brother. There was an element of responsibility, a feeling he should have been there and prevented it. Sam had needed an eye kept on him, she’d discovered.
“I’ll give it some thought and see what I can remember,” she told him, more to comfort than with any hope. She heard the squeak and bang of the kitchen screen door. Lucy came across the garden with the tea tray.
“We’ve had a letter from Joe,” she said, changing the subject. “He’s been posted to Wentworth. Mother’s pleased. She’s hoping she’ll see more of them, now they’ll only be fifty miles away.” At the moment her older brother, a customs officer, was eight hundred miles upriver at Albury with his wife. “And Catherine’s expecting. I’ve been thinking I might go and stay with them for a few months to help out.” It would be something useful to do, anyway.
“You’re going to Albury?”
“No, I’ll wait until they move to Wentworth. In December, Joe says. Catherine’s due in January, I believe. They’re cutting it a little fine. I’m thinking the Mary B should be ready by then and we could bring them down.”
“Hmm. We’ll see.”
Lucy arrived and put the tray on the table. “You stayin’ with us long Capt’n Daniel?” she asked. Lucy loved a title.
“No, just a quick visit to enjoy your scones,” Daniel responded gallantly, eyeing the plate of baked goods that accompanied the tea.
“Hmmph.” Having accepted the compliment as her due, Lucy strode back to the homestead, her black skirt whipping around her thin brown ankles.
“I never know how to treat your Lucy and the rest of her family,” Daniel admitted as Emma poured the tea. “They don’t behave like any servants I know.”
“That’s because they’ve been at Wirramilla since forever. They’re as much a part of the place as the Haythornes.”
And part of the family if it was true Nella was her grandfather’s child. A year older than Emma, Nella had also been a house servant until she had married. She was lighter in hue and had stronger European features than Lucy’s younger three children. Lucy herself was half-caste, the child of an early explorer, or an escaped convict. To Emma, who had been born at Wirramilla and grew up with them, they were an extension of her family.
“I suppose you took what you could get when you were as isolated as this place would have been back then,” Daniel commented.
“Why, Daniel, do I sense an air of disapproval?” The story of Nella’s parentage was an old rumour along the river. He would have heard it, especially after his family became connected with hers by marriage. If it didn’t bother her grandmother, she couldn’t see why it should bother her or anyone else.
He shrugged. “You lead a comfortable life here,” he said, but Emma caught a harsh note in his words, which surprised her. Well, neither of them were themselves these days. She would have to make allowances for him.
for notification of new titles and receive a free Emma Berry short story Death Ruins a Wedding.
Family are more deadly than strangers. In this novella series prequel, Emma Haythorne (unmarried, but soon to meet Sam Berry) is staying at neighbouring Nettifield pastoral station, on the Murray, to help her friend Bea Macdonald look after the household comprising her three brothers, father George and terminally ill mother, Martha. Family visitors arrive by paddle steamer, on their way home from a trip to England. Shortly into their visit, George Macdonald’s half-brother, Vernon Appleton, is found dead in the stable. Emma is charged by the dying woman with finding out who killed him, but who, apart from her husband, had a motive? An Emma Berry Murray River Australia cozy mystery. Includes a sample of Book 1, A Gem of a Problem.