Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
It was March the 18th, 1853, when the Randell family gathered at Nao No on the Murray. The station had always been a family outpost, a satellite in their growing economic constellation. It was a perfect location for fattening cattle and escaping summer’s heat with swimming holes and sailing skiffs. It was not, however, as well appointed as the homestead at Kenton Park in Gumeracha.
The guests arrived in a trap, a wagonette and a carriage. WB Randell, the patriarch, was indeed proud of his sons as he spotted the paddle steamer at rest, smoke issuing from the stack. Mary Ann Randell sat beside him, along with their seventh son Samuel, and their daughter Hannah, wife of local clerk Alfred Swaine.
Others of the guests were the family rouseabout from Kenton Park, Allan, along with school teachers Miss Jane and Miss Mary Ellen Rowland. These two were old family friends – daughters of land agent and accountant, Charles Rowland. Also in the party was a Mr Henry Jamieson, visiting from his holdings upriver.
Smiling from the bench seat of the carriage, talking happily with Ebenezer, was Bessie Nickels, her eyes already searching out the commanding figure of William on the riverbank. He and his brothers were welcoming the first of the guests, fielding exclamations of delight and admiration of the paddle steamer floating alongside the landing.
WB Randell looked the vessel up and down from the shore. ‘You beys ‘ave done a proper job here. Ye can be proud of yeselves.’
‘It’s as well we have, for Cadell will be here all too soon,’ said William as he strode to meet his mother. ‘So what do you think?’ he asked her.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said.
‘Now cover your eyes,’ he instructed, and when she had done so the deckhand pulled aside a sheet that had been strung to hide the paddle steamer’s name. The elder brother walked his mother up close to the boat in the meantime. ‘Now open them.’
Mary Ann Randell opened her eyes and burst out, ‘Ye sweet things, ee named yer boat for ye mither.’
Tom, Elliot and Samuel escorted the group across their makeshift boat yard, and to the gang plank that would bring them on board. Meanwhile, the boiler steamed and hissed, and the deckhand shoved in another log and slammed the firebox door shut.
William climbed aboard and readied the helm. From there he had the luxury of watching the guests board. His eyes rested on Bessie. She was growing up more every time he saw her. Very much the young lady, but still lively and spirited. His father, bearded and distinguished and his mother, handsome and sharp as a pin, followed.
The Rowland sisters were either side of thirty, always conservatively but finely attired, both bright and interesting, well-read and speaking apropos of the latest news. Yet William found their presence claustrophobic. He did not believe that he had encouraged Mary Ellen in any way, apart from a polite interest, and somehow it seemed that an ‘understanding’ had grown up, that he and she might marry. Rather than saying anything, he had simply let the situation draw out for so long that it became obvious that no proposal would be forthcoming.
Now, showing neither favour nor disfavour, he welcomed the guests aboard, and settled them on the timber bench seats that had been installed for the occasion. Bessie however, had no intention of sitting with the other passengers, instead she took her place beside William at the helm station, flushed and excited at the excursion.
When the guests were settled William made a show of issuing nautical commands to his brothers and they hurried with the anchors and lines, while keeping the boiler at a low and very safe pressure.
Finally, William opened the regulator to push steam into the cylinder, then swung the wheel in a wide arc and thereby took the Mary Ann into the main stream.
They steamed the twelve miles down to Wall Station, owned by the Baker family, and the hours passed in brilliant sunshine, with Bessie telling William of her plans when she had finished school.
‘Just six months and I’ll be all grown up,’ she said. ‘I’ve already had some offers of work. Miss Randell, the younger, that is, thinks that I should become a school teacher, and Mrs Swaine thinks I could make a good seamstress.’
‘And which would you prefer?’ asked William.
‘Neither,’ she said. ‘I’d rather do what you’re doing.’
William grinned, ‘You’d like to captain your own steamer?’
‘Maybe,’ she smiled back.
Later, however, when they landed on the jetty at Wall Station and strolled ashore, William found himself walking next to the elder Rowland sister.
‘It’s not becoming, you know,’ said Miss Jane Rowland.
‘You and that child, Bessie, flirting.’
‘She’s sixteen, that’s hardly a child, and we’re not flirting. We’re friends.’
‘A man of near thirty, really?’
‘I’m only twenty-eight, and I just told you. We’re friends.’
‘My sister Mary Ellen is still … receptive to any advance you might make.’ She stared. ‘Time’s running out for her, you know. As it already has for me.’
It was food for thought, and William wondered if he was doing Bessie a disservice by encouraging her. Worse, was he doing something patently wrong? After lunch he sought her out alone.
‘Don’t go getting the wrong idea. We’re just friends, right?’
‘Of course. I know that,’ said Bessie. ‘I’m not a silly child.’
Finally, back at Noa No, the party scouted up the horses and turned for home. Elliot went with them as an extra driver. It was a strange thing, but when he returned the following day he said to William.
‘Did you see anything happen with Bessie the other day?’
‘She damned near cried all the way back to Gumeracha. Wouldn’t tell me a thing about what was wrong.’
William looked at the ground and shuffled his feet.
Continued next week …
©2021 Greg Barron
Photograph of Bessie and William courtesy of Randell’s Mill. https://www.randellsmill.com.au/