Authors: Deborah Challinor
This one is for my good mate Michelle Holman,
who always listens no matter how much I whinge
: A Sense of Something Moving
: With Feet that Make No Sound
: Phantoms on their Errands Glide
September 1830, Sydney Town
As a lurid dawn broke over Sydney Harbour, the sun a slash of fire on the horizon, a handful of tardy bats straggled homewards across the shadowed land on a warm, salty breeze to seek dark shelter in trees and caves. Below them folk — free men and women and convicts alike — awoke, stirred blearily in their houses, and set about preparing for the day ahead.
The weather promised to be fair after a week of almost constant, pelting rain, and housewives and servants built fires beneath coppers for a long day of boiling mouldering laundry. Lags from Hyde Park Barracks looked forward to time outside the walls, even if it were only working on the roads or the tunnel from Lachlan Swamp, and ladies relished the prospect of time in the shops unhampered by heavy capes and umbrellas. In paddocks horses squelched morosely in steaming puddles, while their better bred, more highly strung counterparts kicked out at stalls and ostlers’ boys. After a quick breakfast, market gardeners out towards Parramatta rushed to check that their recently planted vegetables hadn’t been washed right out of the ground.
Sydney Town was finally beginning to dry out, but at least everyone’s water barrels were full, and Tank Stream was perhaps cleansed of a fraction of its filth. The day that Mr Busby announced the completion of his water bore would be a day to celebrate indeed.
Those abroad by the time the sun hung free of the eastern horizon noted the change in the taste of the wind and agreed that spring had definitely arrived.
Sarah Morgan sat with her back against a sandstone wall, wrapped in a cloak of fear and gazing sightlessly at nothing, not even moving when she heard the rattle of keys.
There was little point. From outside came the clank and bang of the gallows being prepared: she knew very well who was coming for her.
The heavy door creaked open and the priest asked, ‘Are you ready, Sarah?’
She didn’t respond.
He tried again. ‘Sarah, have you made your peace with God? Would you like to say a final prayer? It is not too late for redemption.’
Slowly, hearing her neck bones scrape as though her vertebrae had rusted, she moved her head to face him. ‘I don’t want redemption. I don’t regret what I did. I’m glad I killed him.’
The turnkeys peering over the priest’s shoulder stared at her.
As though he hadn’t heard, the priest persisted, ‘God will offer you forgiveness if you repent.’
‘No. I refuse to. I hate spiders and that’s what your God is.’
Shocked at her blasphemy, one of the turnkeys backed out of the cell, rapidly crossing himself. The other, evidently not so superstitious, fastened Sarah’s hands behind her back with wrist-irons, then they were all in the corridor, their footsteps echoing hollowly off the flagstones. The passageway was cool and dim, and for several seconds a pair of sleek rats kept pace with them, scampering along the base of the wall, their pale faces those of the two girls belonging to the reverend on the convict ship
. What had been their names? Sarah struggled to remember: Eudora and Jennifer? No, Geneve, that was it. And then the rodents vanished.
She blinked rapidly.
‘Those rats,’ she said to the priest. ‘Their faces, did you see them?’
‘Yes, the Seaton girls,’ he said. ‘I know their father well.’
She stared at him in disbelief. Oh God, she was so frightened she was losing her mind.
Up ahead the door seemed to loom twelve feet tall. The priest, dwarfed, pulled it open and sunlight poured in, blinding Sarah. She squinted, shocked and confused by the noise until she realised it was the roar of the crowd gathered on Gallows Hill above the gaol, come to watch the day’s hanging.
Beyond the door stood a column of soldiers, the scarlet and white of their jackets and trews glaringly bright. A drum began a slow, mournful beat as loud almost as her heart, and the troops set off towards the gallows across the yard. The turnkeys followed, gripping her elbows, while the priest trailed behind in his flapping black vestments, a tall, thin bat droning the funeral service under his breath: ‘Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet he shall live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’
A funeral service for
When her knees gave way the turnkeys simply jerked her upright again and dragged her along between them.
The good people of the Rocks cheered heartily.
She was hauled up the gallows’s wooden steps and placed on a trapdoor beneath one of three rope nooses. Why were there three? She knew the number was profoundly important, but not
it was. If she closed her eyes and really concentrated it might come to her, but her terror and the drumming and the shouting and the rush of her own blood in her ears were all too much and it wouldn’t. Surrendering, she let her need to know float away.
From the gallows she could see over the high stone wall and into the Harrington Street crowd, and all the way up the hill to the
houses and shops and pubs perched along Gloucester, Cambridge, Cumberland and even Princes streets. In the mob she fancied she recognised familiar faces. There was her master Adam in his sober black coat and hat, hands cupped around his mouth, shouting and shouting and shouting. What was he trying to tell her? She’d never hear him from here. Mrs Dick from the Factory had come, too, and James Downey, and, oh God, Bella Jackson, and Mr Skelton from the pawnshop. And there was Rachel, her long pale hair falling free and catching the sun, turning everything around her to silver. No, that couldn’t be right: Rachel was dead.
She couldn’t see Friday and Harrie, but didn’t blame them at all for not coming to watch.
The door to the gaol swung open again; more manacled figures emerged and suddenly there they both were, shuffling into the sharp light.
’ Sarah shouted in horror, her cry echoing around the yard. ‘
No, not them!
Harrie and Friday barely glanced up.
But no matter how loudly she screamed, Harrie and Friday were resolutely escorted across the yard and up the steps to stand beside her. The drum rattled on relentlessly, and overhead in the endless white sky crows wheeled and jeered.
Sarah blurted to Friday, ‘But I confessed! I told them it was me!’ Terror and panic conspired to make her feel dangerously light-headed, and she felt as though she might pass out. This was all horribly, horribly wrong.
Her copper hair shimmering in the sunlight, Friday shook her head sadly. ‘You dobbed us in, Sarah.’
Sarah gasped. The shock almost stopped her heart and sent waves of confused dismay through her entire body. She hadn’t, surely. Had she? She couldn’t remember.
‘It’s for the best,’ Harrie said in her lovely, kind voice. ‘We’ll be with Rachel soon. We’ll all be together again.’
Sarah couldn’t believe she could have done such a thing. ‘I didn’t! I know I didn’t!’
But Friday and Harrie would no longer meet her eye.
Then a great howl rose from the crowd as the hangman arrived. Clomping up the steps in an absurdly large pair of heavy black boots, a top hat, and a coat reaching his ankles, he creaked his way across the gallows platform.
‘Tell him!’ Sarah pleaded. ‘Tell him you’re innocent!’
But Harrie and Friday said nothing, standing as still as statues, their hair lifting slightly in the light breeze, not even blinking. Refusing to help themselves.
Desperate, Sarah cast her gaze back out over the crowd. Adam had moved closer, his hands still raised, still trying to call out to her.
She opened her mouth and shouted as loudly as she could, but nothing at all came out this time. She tried again, straining until she thought her eyes might pop out of her head, and still nothing emerged, except perhaps for a tiny croak.
And the drum kept on beating, the crowd clapping in time now; a slow, gleeful, anticipatory cadence.
The hangman crouched, opened his leather case and removed three white hoods. He pulled one each over Harrie’s and Friday’s heads, and then Sarah’s. The fabric smelled of lye soap and caught on her ear on the way down. The hangman then settled the noose around Sarah’s neck, tightened it slightly and adjusted the knot so it sat just beneath her right ear.
She dragged in ragged, terrified breaths, the cloth of the hood drawing close against her mouth. ‘Friday? Harrie?’
‘Hush, girl.’ The hangman stood back.
The drummer stopped drumming.
The priest intoned, ‘For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
The hangman yanked the trapdoor lever.
Sarah dropped like a stone.
She jerked upright, gasping, her shift plastered to her chest with sweat, her hand on her throat where she could still feel the rough scratch of rope. She sat for a few minutes, head bowed, until her heart slowed.
Her room was dark, though birds were starting up a racket in the tree in the backyard. She lit the candle on her nightstand and turned the miniature clock Adam had given her so Esther could never reprimand her for being late in the mornings. It was five-twenty — time to rise in a few minutes anyway.
Sarah threw back the bedclothes and set her feet on the floor. This was the fourth or fifth time she’d had the hanging dream, and every time she awoke feeling utterly hagridden, tormented — and riddled with cold, greasy fear. They had murdered Gabriel Keegan five months earlier and she had imagined the dread of being found out would have subsided a little by now, but it hadn’t.
Thanks to Bella Jackson.
Sarah knelt and reached beneath the iron bed for the po and crouched over it, bunching her shift up around her waist and peeing for what felt like ages, then tossed the contents out of the open window. She crossed to the small chest of drawers and poured cold water from a jug into a bowl and scrubbed her face with a washcloth, then brushed most of the knots from her straight black hair and tied it up in a ponytail. Sniffing the armpits of the plain, sage-green dress she wore almost every day and deciding it would do, she shrugged it on over her head and fastened the buttons at the side.
She cleaned her teeth with bicarbonate of soda and, after a cursory glance in the tiny looking glass on the wall, took the candle and went downstairs.
Her mistress Esther Green was, as usual, already in the kitchen; coiffed and corseted and wearing yet another new dress. Sarah
knew she wore stays because she’d crept into Esther’s room one day and had a good poke around, discovering a drawer full of good-quality demi-corsets. Being slender, Esther didn’t
to wear one, but all women of class did therefore Esther Green had to, even though, as an emancipated convict, she was hardly a toff. But rather than ask for Sarah’s assistance she’d bought demi-corsets, which she could — just — fasten herself. This suited Sarah: she would rather walk a mile over broken glass in bare feet than consent to lace Esther Green’s stays.
Sarah deduced from the way she was banging the porridge spoon around that Esther was in a bad mood. As a rule she often was, and usually at her worst at breakfast time. ‘Morning,’ Sarah muttered.
‘Sarah,’ Esther replied brusquely, without turning from the fire.
Esther Green believed that instead of residing in a series of small rooms above her husband Adam’s jewellery shop on George Street, and daily cooking in a skillion kitchen — little more than a shed — attached to the house just beyond the back door, she should be living in much grander style. That the kitchen was so located to prevent heat and cooking smells permeating the house and shop, particularly in summer, was to her irrelevant, and so was the fact that the bricks forming both the large fire hearth and a barrier between the kitchen and house had cost a small fortune. Adam made good money as a manufacturing jeweller; if only he could be persuaded to work harder and sell more, then surely there must soon be the means to acquire a bigger and better-appointed house, perhaps on Woolloomooloo Hill on the other side of Hyde Park where the smarter set were building. If not there, up on Princes Street would possibly do, though it was rather too close to the rabble of the Rocks. Then she could have her modern indoor kitchen, with a big American cooking stove and room for enough sideboards to store her good crockery and cutlery and servingware. She loved to cook: Adam knew that. It was the least he could do for
her, considering. She could also take on more servants — proper domestics from England, not sluttish convict girls — and get rid of sly, nasty, wanton Sarah Morgan.
She set the wooden spoon back into the pot and turned around, wiping her hands on her flower-sprigged calico apron. ‘Have you emptied the chamber pots yet?’
Sarah shook her head: it was a chore she hated. In the mornings Esther always crapped in hers — on purpose, Sarah suspected, so she would have to clean it out. Esther could easily use the privy in the backyard. Adam did. And why couldn’t Esther call it by one of its usual names? What was wrong with pisspot? Or thunder mug? Or even just po? No one called it a chamber pot.
‘Well, go and do it then!’ Esther demanded.
Sarah left the kitchen and went inside, passing through the small dining room where she would claw a sliver of revenge when she sat down to breakfast with Adam and Esther. Adam insisted on it and it drove Esther wild — probably
Adam insisted on it — otherwise she would have to eat in her room, or outside, or standing in the kitchen or parlour.
She met Adam on the first-floor landing.
‘Good morning, Sarah. And how is everything today?’
‘Same as usual.’
By ‘everything’ Sarah knew he meant Esther and her mood. There were two bedrooms on the first floor and Adam and Esther occupied one each, usually after a difference of opinion, which was a frequent occurrence. The following morning Adam always pretended nothing was amiss, as though Sarah couldn’t possibly have heard Esther’s carping demands and bitter accusations rising through the floorboards of her tiny second-floor attic room. Sarah couldn’t decide whether the pretence was a product of his embarrassment, or because he didn’t want to admit to himself the bellicose state of his marriage.