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Authors: Johanna Nicholls

The Lace Balcony

BOOK: The Lace Balcony
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In loving memory of Fredric Hundey Parsons.

Celebrated comedy scriptwriter, playwright and biographer, Fred was a proud Australian of Yorkshire birth. He had a deep love of comedy, cricket, Australian history and bush legends, every facet of show business from Shakespeare to circuses – and the magic of books.

The Lace Balcony
is for you, Dad
.

‘If it is a lie I tell, it was a lie told to me.'

‘My she breag t'aym breag cheayll mee.'

Traditional beginning of a Manx Gaelic story

‘Most Europeans . . . if asked to describe Australia . . . think only of ropes, gibbets, arson, burglary, kangaroos, George Barrington and Governor Macquarie.'

Blackwoods Magazine
, published England, November 1827

‘True Patriots all . . . we left our Country for our Country's Good.'

Attributed to English convict, actor and thief, George Barrington (1755–1804)

BOOK ONE
1827–1831

‘They loved each other beyond belief –

She was a strumpet, he was a thief.'

Heinrich Heine 1797–1856

Chapter 1

Penal Colony of New South Wales, November 1827

Fanny Byron halted for a moment to watch her first Australian sunrise, a spectacular, gaudy display of colour fanned out over the horizon against a bolder blue sky than any she had ever seen in England or on the voyage out to New South Wales.

Now, as she wended her way between opposing streams in the crowd jostling along the main thoroughfare of George Street, it seemed that the whole of Sydney Town was alive and touting for custom.

‘Ullo, darlin'. Is ye buying – or
sellin'
? If you're
sellin',
I'm
buyin'!'

Fanny averted her eyes from the direction of the rasping Cockney voice, its innuendo not without good humour.

She suppressed a smile.
The cheek of him. Can't he tell the difference between a decent girl and these other poor slatterns?

Aware she was blushing, Fanny held her head higher as she seized every break in the motley crowd to wedge her way past the high stone walls of the Military Barracks.

Buffeted from side to side, she was carried along on a tidal wave of flotsam and jetsam – a shifting sea of faces, males outnumbering females five times over. There were occasional pairs of top-hatted men of Quality and officers in their uniforms of red coatee and helmet, their swords swinging against tight white breeches; but for the most part the faces in the crowd were rough-hewn, either with shaven heads or unkempt hair and beards, many wearing the sun-bleached slop clothing that seemed to be the common garb of current convicts and ‘old lags' alike – except for the arrows printed on the prisoners'.

The cries of street sellers touting their wares, ‘Rabbitoh', ‘Fresh oysters', ‘Cherry ripe, come and buy!' were suddenly broken up by a roar of ‘Stop that thief!', causing Fanny to clasp the money purse secured within her bodice. A ragged urchin pushed her aside to duck between two men impeding his progress, sending a cartload of peaches flying in all directions before he was swallowed up by the crowd, leaving his victim, a stout gentleman, puffing in his wake.

Fanny was reminded of the small army of child pickpockets in London.

The few females in sight ranged from gaudy, bedraggled prostitutes, to harassed matrons armed with baskets of merchandise and barefoot little girls with old faces, tugging at men's coat tails to beg alms. Not a single lady of Quality in sight.

On closer inspection this new, alien port was not simply a transplanted pocket of London she had been told was originally chosen as a dumping ground for thieves and vagabonds following the loss of the American Colonies.

Sydney Town already had a character of its own. Cages of parrots feathered in the colours of the rainbow hung in the doorways of shopfronts. Painted signs swung on chains in the wind, their alphabet letters a mystery to her, but their illustrations proof enough that the penal colony had an abundance of jewellers, milliners, dress and mantua makers – a comforting sight.

There must be some ladies of Quality here – or at least of the nouveau riche. All I need is a single one who needs a lady's maid. I can't be too choosy – what with me having been in service to a courtesan.

Despite the sounds of haggling and occasional altercations that reminded her of Covent Garden, Fanny was surprised by the crowd's jovial, carnival mood. They appeared tolerant of the steaming, humid heat, the foul smell of garbage and sewage that seemed worse than London's mean streets, matter no doubt rotting faster because of the semi-tropical climate.

Fanny was forced to pick her way carefully, clearing her skirts above the refuse, mindful that these were her last decent pair of boots. The money purse stored in her bosom for safety held the few remaining coins that must cover her needs until she secured a position.

I refuse to give in to panic. I'd trust that priest better than any other man.

Out of all her fellow passengers on board the
City of Edinburgh
, that had dropped anchor in Port Jackson yesterday, the priest was the only one to engage her in kindly conversation. She had drawn from him the details of his future work as a prison chaplain, impressed by his eagerness to save the souls of Catholics and others awaiting
execution. Father Francis Xavier's fatherly interest in her was in marked contrast to the open or covert lust shown by other males on board, and the disdain of the two lady passengers who barely recognised her existence during the 112-day voyage from Southampton to Port Jackson.

I feel sure the priest will be true to his word and recommend me for a decent position. Heaven knows I need one – with no written character from Madame Amora.

The thought of the beautiful face of the ageing courtesan smiling at her that first day she began in service to her as a twelve year old brought tears to Fanny's eyes – and how badly it had ended five years later.
Madame trusted me, then turned on me like a venomous snake. All because of a man! If only I could have put things right with her.

Fanny was distracted by the realisation she was drawing attention to herself, the object of open admiration from passing gentlemen and of all too familiar leers from men of the lower orders, both classes mentally stripping her naked.

She hastily drew her shawl around her shoulders, better to conceal her décolletage, her blue velvet gown providing only a token modesty scarf to minimise the expanse of bare flesh.
A lá mode
when worn once or twice by her mistress, the gown was now past its prime by London standards, but fine enough to impress Sydney Town, the raggle-taggle end of the British Empire. Right now she was anxious that it would pass muster for her interview with Father Francis Xavier.

Her eye was caught by a shop window displaying tiny boots that would be just perfect for Daisy's first shoes – the toddler had been barefoot for the whole voyage.

On impulse she dived inside, only to be disappointed that the price was beyond her means. She promised herself these shoes for her little stepsister would be her first purchase as soon as she was employed.

The fashionable bonnets tempted her and made her own look shabby in contrast. While trying them on, the mane of hair that she had failed to secure with pins fell down around her shoulders like a cloak of gold.

The shop assistant gasped in admiration. ‘Cor, you look just like a mermaid!'

That's unlikely to help me gain work as a housekeeper.

Fanny hastily bundled up her hair and invested a few precious coins in a white ostrich plume to freshen up her old bonnet, an impulsive choice that added a few proud inches to her tall figure and helped create the illusion of a gentlewoman.

Her confidence now buoyant, she stopped short by the insignia carved in stone proclaiming ‘His Majesty's Prison and Courthouse'. Mounting the stone steps, she hid a nervous smile at the irony of her entering this place voluntarily. Yesterday, within hours of her arrival, she had pawned the ring she had taken from Madame Amora's jewel box in London.

If that pawnbroker suspected it was stolen, the police might be searching for me right now. Where's the last place they'd expect to find me? Visiting a prison!

•  •  •

The hands of the decrepit wall clock seemed weighed down, advancing the minutes with agonising slowness as Fanny waited, seated alone in the small ante-room of the prison chaplain's office.

She was distracted from her anxiety by the appearance of an armed guard, who ushered in a prisoner and prodded him against the opposite wall as far from Fanny as the cramped quarters allowed.

The guard's manner was apologetic, his accent Irish. ‘No need to be worrying yourself, Miss. I'll be keeping a sharp eye on this fella to be sure.'

‘Thank you, officer. I'm sure the lad means me no harm.'

The guard looked dubious and cast a warning look at the prisoner. ‘Ye never can be telling with the condemned, Miss. Some are being as meek as lambs, scared to meet their Maker. Some would be killing a babe to avoid The Finisher.'

The Finisher.
Fanny had not been in the Colony half a day before she became aware of the universal hatred for its hangman, Alexander Green. A man so shunned that even hardened prostitutes rejected his money, he was said to be so often drunk that he regularly bungled the job and caused prisoners to be strangled to death on the gallows. It seemed a week seldom passed in Sydney Town without its quota of executions – a rate said to be even higher than in England. Despite the fact that the role of Public Executioner was despised, the Governor could find no man willing to replace Green, The Finisher.

Condemned. So this poor creature is one of The Finisher's next customers. He looks more like a lost child.

The lad was slumped against the wall, eyes downcast, wrists manacled, his bare feet, ingrained with dirt, were shackled by a chain barely long enough to allow him to shuffle. He was no taller than she was, slightly built with long legs like a crane. His shaven head was marked by bruises, his young face wearing the sad-comical expression of a circus clown. He sniffed as if fighting to hold back his tears – hardly a portrait to strike fear in a woman's heart.

Who am I to judge? The lad probably got nicked picking some gentleman's pocket. The theft of a handkerchief cops seven years' transportation. If he'd done murder they'd have hanged him in England and saved themselves the cost of his passage. So what's he done to deserve execution? Perhaps he's a second offender.

Finally, unable to bear his distress, Fanny turned her most winning smile on the guard. ‘Excuse me, officer, I know I am quite safe in your hands. Would you permit me to approach this young lad?'

Without waiting for his consent, she crossed to the prisoner's side of the room, removed the handkerchief from her bodice and said gently, ‘May I? It's perfectly clean.'

The lad raised his head in surprise and met her eyes with an expression he might have given if an angel had spoken.

As she would to a small child, Fanny gently dried his tears.

‘There, that's better. I can see you are quite a good-looking lad.'

It was a sweet, absurd line of comfort that no doubt both recognised was a lie, but the lad's eyes crinkled in a smile when she tucked the handkerchief into his manacled hand.

‘You have the face of a Madonna, Miss. I would promise you I'd never forget you – but I've precious little time left, so that isn't a fair compliment.'

Fanny was quite taken aback by his well-modulated voice, deeper than expected from one so young, with a touch of an unfamiliar accent.

‘What is your name, lad?'

He cast a swift glance at the guard, who was standing in the doorway opening onto the corridor, lighting his pipe. ‘William Eden, Miss. Will – to you. I come from a good family. But I cannot lie to
you. The truth is I am not guilty as charged. But not entirely innocent either. I'm to be hanged tomorrow.' He added with a shrug, ‘It could be worse. I could have been sentenced to Moreton Bay!'

BOOK: The Lace Balcony
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