Category: Beyond the Big Bend

Beyond the Big Bend

Prologue – The Prize

The Murray River, called Dhungala by the Yorta Yorta, and Millewa by the Ngarrindjeri, was once as wild and free as the land over which it flowed. In those days before reservoirs and locks it ran unbroken and unhindered from the Snowy Mountains, meeting other important rivers – the Ovens, Goulburn and Loddon – gathering volume with each junction. It wound through the red gum forests of the Barmah Choke then collected the Murrumbidgee. It ran serenely through vast reed beds near Swan Hill, until it met the Barka – the Darling, winding all the way down from Queensland. This combined river, the mighty Murray in its final form, flowed on into South Australia, around the Big Bend with its towering limestone cliffs, to Lake Alexandrina and a dangerous, shifting ocean bar that had claimed many ships.

In its natural flow, the Murray River had moods and seasons, rising in June from winter rain and snow-melt in the Snowy Mountains, rising in her natural bed until October. From then on, through summer, the river shrank, a pattern broken only by monsoonal or cyclonic rains far up the Darling, sending down floods that spread out over the plains, idling downstream at a speed of ten miles a day.

Powerbrokers and colonial administrators had talked for years of how the river could become a transport artery like the Rhine, Mississippi or the Nile. How bales of the world’s best wool that took three months to cart from remote stations to the city by bullock dray, would do the same in just weeks.

In the year 1851, the South Australian legislature requested funds from the Lords’ Treasurers in London to reward intrepid adventurers prepared to open the river trade. The sum of four thousand pounds was duly approved, and South Australian newspapers proclaimed that the government would pay half this amount to the owners of the ‘First and second iron steamers, of not less than forty horsepower, and not exceeding two feet of draught, that shall navigate from the Goolwa, at least as far as the junction of the Darling, a distance of some 490 miles.’

Scotsman Captain Francis Cadell, always alert to opportunities to increase his power and improve his finances, heard the call. An experienced mariner, having started as a midshipman at the age of fourteen, he was in South Australia as captain and owner of the clipper, Queen of Sheba. Already he was intimate with the governor, and he dined at the finest tables in Adelaide.

The other main player in this drama was less well-travelled but just as interesting. William Randell, at just twenty-nine years of age, was already deeply committed to building a paddle steamer for river trade – his family owned a flour mill at Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills, and farmland near Mannum. He dreamed of trading up the river in his own vessel.

Partly by chance, and partly by design, in August 1883 two paddle steamers entered into a race for the title of the first steam-powered vessel to navigate the Murray.

William Randell’s Mary Ann was home-made from pit-sawn river red gum logs in the Kenton Valley, Adelaide Hills, and assembled on the banks of the river at Noa-No. The work was done by two bush carpenters and three brothers who had never seen such a vessel in their lives. Her seven-horsepower engine was made by a local engineer, and her boiler by a blacksmith at the family flour mill. When the Mary Ann set out to conquer the river she had a crew of five.

The Lady Augusta was constructed by some of Sydney’s best shipwrights, in a Darling Harbour yard. At just under one hundred feet in length she was twice the length of the Mary Ann with many times the tonnage. She had twin twenty-horsepower steam engines, and had been built with no expense spared. She set off with forty on board, including the governor of South Australia and his wife.

Given that the Mary Ann didn’t meet the criteria set down by the South Australian government there is no certainty that William Randell cared much about the cash prize offered by the South Australian government. Yet, he most certainly knew about the plans being laid by the much-lauded Captain Cadell and his Lady Augusta.

There is no doubt that Randell wanted to get to the Darling junction first. Prize or no prize, he wanted to beat the intrepid sea captain with all his backers and their money, in his game little home-made steamship.

© 2021 Greg Barron

This is the first chapter in a new serial story, with new instalments every week. Continued next Sunday

Chapter One – The Saw Pit

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

In 1852 Gumeracha occupied a wedge-shaped block between the upper Torrens and its tributary Kenton Creek. It was scarcely a town, barely even a village, just a scratch on the grasslands of the Adelaide Hills, that so-often tinder-dry vastness with its deep gullies and rounded hills, that draw the eye on into the distance: where banksias grow in twisted stands, and golden wattle trees signal the coming of spring with the purest of yellow blooms.

This tiny settlement had a store, several farms, and the Randell family’s stone flour mill. It stood three storeys high, with wings at each end, one for the storage of wheat, the other a mill office. The millstone inside was powered by a stationary steam engine, and sweating stokers fed the firebox with red-gum blocks while dark smoke poured from the stack. Wagonloads of wheat arrived, poured by the hands of labourers into the mill hoppers. Other teams hauled sacks of flour, away down the Adelaide Road.

Nearby, on the creek bank, stood a shed of bush poles, clad with branches to keep out the sun. Inside was a saw pit – six feet deep and three feet wide – lined with walls of loose river stone. Above the pit a heavy river red gum log had been chocked into place. More logs were piled nearby; barked and trimmed, still with the marks of chains where the bullock team had snigged them up. Piles of scantlings lay on the ground, being slowly claimed by the dust.

Two men, stripped of their shirts, worked the pit saw, with its handles perpendicular to the blade. One stood in the pit and one on the log, their biceps and shoulders swelling with the effort of driving the blade. The saw cut only on the down stroke, which allowed the man below to use his weight to assist, but the pit was a hell of heat and falling sawdust, reeking of fresh-cut timber, while hands blistered and tempers frayed. The rounds were first taken off the log, leaving a square flitch, at which time boards could be taken off at the desired thickness.

The men who weren’t sawing were busy with chisels and hand saws, cutting out the mortises that would one day help lock these pieces together into a boat.

‘Halt there,’ cried William Randell. ‘You’re off the line boys.’ William was the oldest brother, prime instigator of this venture, and a stickler for accuracy.

‘Scarcely a few thou,’ complained Tom, but still he backed up the blade an inch or two and tried again.

When it started to grow dark, the men packed up, and William was surprised but pleased when a slim figure appeared, sitting on one of the stacked eight-inch beams, swinging her sixteen-year-old legs, saying nothing, but humming a popular tune as she watched.

Remnants of the saw pit on Kenton Creek. Photo: https://www.randellsmill.com.au/

Elliot, Tom, and the two carpenters walked home while William finished the last of the tidying up. When this was done he sidled across to the girl, wiping his hands on a rag.

‘Hello there Bessie, are you back from school?’

Bessie, more properly known as Elizabeth Ann Nickels, beamed, ‘Yes, Ebenezer brought me home today. Two whole weeks of freedom – can’t complain about that, can I?’ She came to her feet easily and looked around. ‘You’ve made progress, in these last months,’ she said, and her gaze returned to William. He was twelve years her senior, and she worshipped him. Good looks and an irrepressible character ran in the Randells like gold threads through cloth.

‘That we have. In two weeks we’ll start carting all the pieces down to the Murray, and put her together.’

‘Like a jigsaw puzzle,’ Bessie said.

‘Yes, exactly that,’ he agreed. ‘Then she might start looking like a boat at last.’

William was not especially tall, and he was long in the torso and short in the legs. He had never once in his life been able to touch his toes, but was a strong and nimble man nevertheless. He fumbled in his pockets for a tortoiseshell snuff box, and took a pinch with long, artist’s fingers.

‘Shall I walk you home?’ asked Bessie.

‘I might look in on the mill as we pass, but we can walk together some of the way, if you want to.’

As they walked Bessie skipped ahead sideways so she could see his face. ‘Miss Rowland told me to ask after you,’ she said impishly.

‘Oh did she?’ William grimaced. He and Mary Rowland, the younger of two school mistresses at the Rundle Street Girls’ School in Adelaide, had gone perilously close to getting engaged a couple of years earlier. In truth he had viewed the situation with alarm, aware that his natural friendly demeanour had been mistaken for romantic interest.

Bessie’s eyes danced. ‘I rather think that she’s still sweet on you.’

William fumbled for a way of changing the subject. ‘And did you do well in your examinations?’

‘Well enough to keep Father happy at least,’ she smiled. ‘Oh it’s so tedious, William – apart from English and History – I rather like those. I want to finish with school and start living.’

‘I was the same,’ he admitted. ‘But you’ll be finished soon enough.’

Nearing the mill, William slowed his pace and stopped. ‘I’d better check on things inside. Perhaps it’s best if you get on home.’

‘Of course. Will you be at church tomorrow?’

‘You can bet on it,’ he smiled. And when he reached the side door of the mill he paused and turned back to watch Bessie run up the track towards the Nickels’ family home. Sunset turned the yellow grass to rich gold, and her hair was the same colour. Bessie was great company, and she brought sunshine and happiness wherever she went.

William’s attention was quickly taken as he approached the blacksmith’s shop outside the mill, with its glow of fire from the forge, a boiler taking shape from iron and the muscular form of the blacksmith hammering away. This boiler would one day build steam for William’s river boat, and he walked across to consult with the blacksmith.

The rest of the engine was being manufactured in Hindmarsh by German-born engineer Mr Claus Gehlkin. It would be an old-style beam engine with a ten-inch cylinder, and a projected output of around seven horsepower. The intention was that the engine would be economical – William did not intend to spend all his time cutting wood on the riverbank to feed the firebox.

William closed his eyes for a moment, daydreaming of what his paddle-steamer would be like when she came together. He pictured himself in the wheelhouse, navigating the bends and bars of the great Murray River.

It was strange, but whenever he had that vision, Bessie was always beside him.

© 2021 Greg Barron

Continued next week!

Photographs of the mill and old sawpit courtesy of Randells Mill. https://www.randellsmill.com.au/

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Chapter Two: Down to Noa No

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

W.B. Randell, the family patriarch, and the founder of Gumeracha, was not convinced that the paddle steamer ‘scheme’ would ever turn a profit. ‘This boat idea is attractive to you, I can see that,’ he told the chief conspirators, William, Tom and Elliot. ‘But treat it as a hobby while we go about the business of managing our family’s affairs. That’s the main game and please don’t forget it.’

Still, he allowed the brothers leeway to complete their duties while also following this new passion. The next stage of the operation – hauling all the prefabricated boat parts down to the Murray River had to be undertaken as a normal part of the routine – usually while also droving small mobs of cattle to fatten on the kangaroo grasses and fodder-trees along the banks.

From Gumeracha to the family’s property at Noa No was some thirty miles. First a rough trail that followed the River Torrens as far as Narcoonah, then a sharp turn on a south-easterly heading down a road that already bore the family name. This track reached the river at Mannum before detouring northwards along the Murray to Noa No.

After more than a dozen such trips, the dray loaded down with heavy timber sections and planking, chasing strayed bullocks and horses breaking hobbles and heading for home, enduring broken wheels, bogs and all the other inconveniences of the road, the makings of a paddle steamer lay beside the river in carefully laid out piles. This makeshift boat yard stood on an isthmus of hard ground between two flood-plain lagoons. From this slight rise the brothers had views up and down the always changing river: at mist rising off the surface in the early morning, sunlight dazzling the eyes at noon, and every ripple hiding a moonbeam after dusk.

Each section of the boat was numbered and labelled, but the wood was still green and had, in many cases, swelled or warped. Forcing pieces to fit often required the use of steam, along with persuasive jigs and iron jacks. No stage of the building went smoothly, but slowly the keel and a series of ribs took shape – the gentle and practical lines of a shallow-drafted riverboat. When the brothers tired of home-butchered beef or mutton they ate fat murray cod or callop from the set fishing lines Elliot checked morning and night.

One day William and his brothers were fitting planks into the frame when an unusual-looking skiff with a spritsail rig appeared from upstream. At first it appeared as if it would sail on past.

‘What the hell is that?’ breathed Tom. He was the second-eldest son, and had traditionally been William’s partner in all the schemes and adventures the pair could dream up. They knew most of the boats in the area, and this one was out of the ordinary.

‘No idea at all,’ said William, pausing from his labours to watch the boat, and take a pinch of snuff.

The strange craft looked at first as if it would carry on downstream. Suddenly, however, it tacked and doubled back into the current. Just offshore from the Randell brothers’ little boat yard, the crew lowered the sail and sculled into the bank.

This unusual vessel was roughly eighteen-feet in length, constructed of what appeared to be tallow-infused canvas stretched over a timber frame. It was crewed by as filthy a mob of desperados as William had seen. Three of the four, he guessed correctly, looked more like out-of-luck miners than seamen.

Flanked by Elliot and Tom, William walked to meet the skiff as the crew made her fast to the bank. The man who stepped from the boat and approached the skeleton of the new paddle steamer was tall and broad-shouldered, with a jaw like a wooden strut and a moustache more advanced than the unshaven stubble on the rest of his face.  

‘Who, may I ask, are you?’ the new arrival inquired, removing his cap to reveal a tousled head of hair.

William was aware that he was on home ground; that this man was the interloper. ‘Well sir, I might just as easily ask the same question. Who are you?’

‘I’m Captain Francis Cadell of Leith, Scotland, sea captain and explorer.’

So this is the famous Francis Cadell, William thought. He bowed from the shoulder, eyes twinkling. ‘And I’m William Randell, of Gumeracha, herd boy and errand-runner.’

Ignoring the joke, Cadell’s eyes roved the site with deliberate slowness, as if taking in every detail. ‘What, may I ask, are you constructing here?’

William Randell was not stupid. The other man’s reputation had preceded him. If there was anyone in South Australia likely to get a paddle steamer on the river and collect the government reward money ahead of him, it was Captain Cadell. ‘Oh, this? Just a barge, sir.’

Captain Cadell raised one hairy eyebrow. ‘A barge? Well what’s that?’ he said, pointing to a sheet-metal object up on blocks on the other side of the clearing. ‘It looks like a strange little boiler.’

William folded his arms across his chest. ‘Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.’ To distract Cadell, he approached the skiff, with its crew now stretching their legs on the bank. ‘Speaking of strange – I don’t think I’ve yet seen a vessel like this one,’ he said, ‘I’ll hazard a guess and say that it’s some kind of transportable boat?’

‘You’d be right,’ said Cadell.

William went on, ‘And you’ve come from far upstream?’

‘Thirteen-hundred miles, all the way downriver from Tyntynder Station, in Victoria,’ said Cadell, puffing out his chest. ‘We carried the frame on a wagon from Melbourne and up through Bendigo. She’s proved to be a stout little vessel, but I’ll be happy to be voyaging on the Murray in a more solid craft soon enough.’

‘Oh,’ said William, ‘so you’re building something more substantial then?’

‘I am. My Lady Augusta is on the slips at Chowne’s shipyard in Sydney as we speak. Waterline length of a hundred feet – twin engines – forty horsepower all up. A fitting vessel to first navigate the river with steam and collect two thousand pounds from the Government of South Australia.’

William forced a smile. ‘Well best of luck then; I’d best get back to work.’

Cadell inclined his head. ‘No doubt we shall meet again.’

‘No doubt,’ said William, watching the crew pile in, with Cadell giving the transom a final shove before clambering aboard and touching his forehead with three extended fingers in mock salute.

When the strange craft had been rowed out into the stream, and the sail unfurled, filling with the dry South Australian breeze, William turned to his brothers; ‘From now on we’ll work night and day. We can’t let that Scottish prig beat us.’

© 2021 Greg Barron

Continued next week!

Chapter Three – Boiler Trouble

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

For William and his brothers, hard days and hard weeks followed. They installed lateral stringers to support the hull, then fixed the remaining boards to the frame with brass screws; laying the timbers edge-to-edge in a manner known as carvel planking. The seams  needed to be caulked with oakum to help make them watertight, though William had been warned that leaking was as natural to wooden boats as floating.

The deck also had to be laid and caulked, hatches made to access the holds, then the boiler and engine installed, along with a helm station and bunkhouse constructed. Elliott and Tom went back to Gumeracha for more light timbers several times: the ‘finishing off’ was using far more material and taking more time than they had anticipated. William hired casual labourers when he could, and family farm hands were also expected to pick up the tools when not working with livestock.

The three brothers made a strong team. William was the unquestioned boss, with good instincts and a natural sense of fair play. Tom was great with his hands and always reliable, able to stick at a task until was done and done well. Elliott was quick with a joke, the perpetual helper, responding to shouted commands of ‘A minute over here please Elliott,’ or ‘Has anyone got a free hand?’ The younger brother’s occasional absences to check his fishing lines or to chase a goanna were as forgivable as his immense appetite for treacle pudding. Above all, the three brothers had a work ethic that drove them from dawn to nightfall, and progress was steady if not remarkable.

Right through the process, however, the three brothers were still expected to play their part in the family business. Tom managed, on behalf of his father, a block of fruit trees, and Elliott was constantly coming and going with cattle. William, too, had responsibilities with the mill and sale of timbers from the saw pit.

By late December of 1852, with the infamous South Australian summer beginning to bite, William fell ill from overwork and obsessive sleeplessness, He returned to Gumeracha to recuperate, worn out and somewhat disillusioned with the size of his undertaking.

Still, the work continued. The absence of one brother was compensated for with the arrival of another – the recently married John, or young Ebenezer arriving to lend a hand. William recovered and went back more determined than ever, and the riverside structure was now starting to look like a real boat. By then it was the talk of the river for miles around.

Finally, with half the population of Mannum watching, helping, or hollering useless advice, Tom drove a bullock team, hitched by heavy chain to the hull, into the shallows until the water frothed at their chests. The bullocks bellowed with the effort, while the paddle steamer slid on sapling rollers into the water.

‘Gee Rogue; up Sergeant; stead-ee, stead-ee,’ cried Tom, and the crack of his whip sounded above the shouts and slip of the hull. Meanwhile, his heeler dashed through the shallows nipping at fetlocks and yapping excitedly.

At last, with the boat near to floating free, the team was led ashore, glossy from the water. Now, the brothers began to load their creation up, starting with three tons of three-foot-long dry river red-gum logs for the hold, all carried by hand through the shallows and passed up on board. Twice they had to call on the bystanders to help push the craft into deeper water as her draft increased. At this point they deployed anchors bow and stern to hold her length-wise to the current.

Finally, they carried on their personal effects; bedding and tools, while Elliot stoked the firebox. The stack streamed grey smoke into a cloudless sky.

William was back on shore, surrounded by several young female admirers when Elliot gave a loud shriek, then caused  a mighty splash as he jumped overboard and headed for dry land at a run.

‘What on earth is wrong?’ William shouted.

‘It’s the boiler,’ Elliott shouted. ‘It’s swellin’.’

‘Swelling?’

‘Yes.’

‘Badly?’ William asked. The group of young ladies were already beginning to back away.

‘Damn you William. What CAN’T be bad about it?’

‘Is it going to blow?’

‘I reckon so. Get everyone away from the damn thing.’

William, however, needed to see the situation with his own eyes. He walked towards the boat, the water almost to his thighs now. ‘By God you’re right,’ he called back to Elliott, who was now standing with Tom on the shore. William  cursed under his breath, not only had the  boiler swollen, but steam and boiling water was leaking through the seams.

‘Get away from there,’ cried Tom, and William reluctantly began sloshing towards the bank, his dungarees wrapping wetly around his legs.

He was only halfway there when there was a terrible popping sound then a hiss of steam: a cloud that rose to the skies like a thunderhead.

William did not hesitate.  He galloped for the bank like a racehorse, accompanied by a howl of laughter from the spectators, who were all now at a safe distance. He didn’t stop until he was out of the water, at which point he turned to watch as a jet of steam shot from the boiler to the oohs and aahs of the assembled spectators.  

The three brothers hurried on into the safety of the trees, where they finally turned to see a plume rising into the heavens.

‘Well at least she bloody floats,’ said Elliott.

William shot his younger brother a look that would have wilted a lesser man. ‘Glad you think it’s funny,’ he said. ‘I don’t.’ And he crossed his arms and stared at their beautiful boat, enveloped in a shroud of steam and smoke like a warship.

Continued next Sunday!

© 2021 Greg Barron

Photo: William Randell in later life, pictured with the boiler that first brought steam power to the Murray River.

Chapter Four – Captain Cadell

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Accompanied by the crisp sound of my shoes on the teak boards I pace the short distance from the curved bulkhead to my desk. In my hand I hold a letter, and already I have read it three or four times, smarting at the insult contained therein. I, Captain Francis Cadell of Leith, do not take insult lightly, and my lips twist and writhe with the force of words that try to hurl themselves across five hundred miles to the author of that letter.

The captain’s cabin of the SS Cleopatra feels like a prison to me.  Right now I need to be free, yet I’m chained to my command. I pause in my pacing to look through the observation window across the Town Jetty of Hobson’s Bay, where gangs of stevedores are unloading the ship’s holds via a derrick, powered by a donkey winding engine, enveloped in a shroud of steam and smoke from its vertical boiler. Beyond this, to the east, I see the ruffled waters of Port Phillip Bay and St Kilda Beach, a few strollers holding their hats in the wind.

The activities of strangers, and indeed the unloading of the Cleopatra interests me but little. I am the captain of this steamer only for a few months; a stop-gap measure to ensure that my bank account balance is recorded in black ink. Not enough, however, never enough. Money, damned money. A curse or a blessing depending on the lack or surfeit.

I pause to mop my brow with a handkerchief, then sit at my desk to read the letter one last time, hearing the voice, as I read, of Thomas Chowne, boatbuilder of Pyrmont, Sydney.

Resolved to action at last, I pick up and trim a quill, dip the nib in my ink pot and address an envelope to that most useful but wooden human being, Mr William Younghusband of Adelaide, South Australia.

After a pensive moment, listening to the shouts of the stevedore gangs deep in the steamer and on the pier, I begin to write.

My Dear William

Forgive me for getting quickly to the import of this letter, but you and I have known each other and worked for each other’s interests for some five years now. I must tell you that those very interests are threatened, and threatened harshly.

As of this moment, I am in Melbourne with the Cleopatra. As soon as our cargo is discharged, probably Thursday, we will be loading passengers and goods bound for Sydney. There, as you know, at Chowne’s Shipyards at Pyrmont, lies my almost finished vessel, the Lady Augusta, which we both know will one day be the pride of the Murray River. The launch party is scheduled for seventeen days from now – for which event I have lined up a bevy of dignitaries, along with an attractive and well-connected young lady to swing the bottle (Miss Williams will wear an eye-catching dress of my favourite colour – blue, she assures me), followed by a repast fit for the gods.

At the thought of the delightful Miss Williams in a blue dress I allow myself a pause. I have aspirations concerning this young woman, but that base desire is nowhere near as important as the cause of this letter. I force my mind back to the issue at hand and continue to write.

What is the problem? I hear you ask. My answer is twofold.

The first issue is that I am in receipt of a letter from my boatbuilder Thomas Chowne, demanding an overdue progress payment of two thousand pounds. If this amount does not reach his bank account in ten days’ time, he will cancel the contract and place our beautiful new paddle steamer in the hands of auctioneers. Demand for river vessels is apparently strong on the Hunter, Manning, Macleay and other rivers north of Sydney.

The second problem is that I do not have two thousand pounds, or even a fair portion of it, being fully stretched in all directions.

Now, as you know, the Legislative Council of South Australia has offered a prize of two thousand pounds to the first two mariners to navigate the Murray as far as Swan Hill. In doing so they set conditions that made it possible for only a very specific kind of vessel to succeed in claiming the prize.

As you also know, in  anticipation of liquidity problems, I wrote to the Governor, Mr Young, and asked him, that in addition to the prize already offered, we might enter into a second, more private agreement. The terms of which are as follows: £500 to bring the Lady Augusta through the bar, £1000 to steam up to the Darling Junction, and £250 per quarter to operate as a trading entity on the river for the first twelve months.

For reasons known only to himself, Governor Young has not yet accepted this generous offer. He has obfuscated, delayed and bedevilled me at every turn. This is where I require your assistance. I implore you to use every force of persuasion at your disposal to get Young to accept this arrangement. Your position on the Legislative Council will make it impossible for him to ignore you, particularly if you can enlist allies into our cause. Promise him a berth on our inaugural voyage up the Murray if you have to. Promise him anything that I have in my power to deliver.

 The moment that I receive your return letter with the news that Governor Young has signed the agreement, a discreet firm of financiers here in Melbourne will provide me with a loan for the amount of two thousand pounds. I will place a  teller’s cheque in the hands of Thomas Chowne when I reach Sydney, and the launch will go ahead, bringing excellent publicity and the beginnings of this great new venture.

I do not need to remind you of the glory and wealth that awaits us as inaugurators of the river trade. A million pounds worth of wool a year can be moved on that river. Haulage fees for such a vast fortune will make us rich.

I also don’t need to remind you of the ragtag band of hill-brothers who are cobbling together their own vessel near Mannum. The blow to our pockets and reputations if they are allowed to supplant us will be both insulting and irretrievable.

I await your urgent response. Abraham Knott, master of the Norwood will wait off Port Adelaide for your response, up to forty-eight hours he promises me, then fly with the nor’easterlies back to me with the answer. Please do not let this crucial task take longer.

Yours

Francis Cadell (Captain)

After putting the quill back in the holder, I lift the two pages up to waft in the candle heat to dry them. This done, I fold them into the envelope, then raise the brass bell from the desk and toll it lustily.

The lad who hurries in a few moments later stands at attention. He is a slow-witted specimen, though reliable. ‘Yes, Captain, sir?’

‘Take two men and a skiff. I need this letter rowed across to the master of the fast schooner Norwood, do you know it?’

‘Yes sir.’

‘And hurry. They sail for Adelaide with the tide.’

The lad takes the package and leaves. Now I breathe at last, leaning on my desk with one hand, allowing myself to think forward to  the launch of the Lady Augusta, and the blue dress of Miss Williams.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image: Hobson’s Bay, 1853, from the Signal Staff, Williamstown (State Library Victoria)

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes here.

Chapter Five – The First Run

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron  

William Randell inspected the near-ruined boiler with a sinking heart. The firebox had been formed with copper sheet, and the searing-hot river red gum fire had scorched and melted its way through, leading to the catastrophic mixing of water and heat inside the boiler. Amazingly, the main body of the unit was still intact.

‘We’re lucky we didn’t blow everyone up,’ said William, taking a frustrated pinch of snuff and turning to sneeze. Recovering his equanimity, he turned to Elliot. ‘Would you ride for home and bring back everything we’ll need – iron plate, bolts and tools. I’ll make a list. If Father will allow you the wagonette that would be quickest – you could be back by tomorrow afternoon at a pinch.’

While he and Tom waited for his younger brother’s return, William could scarcely keep away from the boiler, even after it had been stripped of all the ruined material and cleaned to bright metal with a wire brush. ‘Building the firebox from copper were a blunder,’ he said to Tom, ‘but I’d have thought that quarter inch steel plate would be sufficient for the boiler itself.’

‘It were expanding,’ said Tom. ‘You saw for yourself.’

William said little in reply but at least they had the final fit-out of the paddle-steamer’s cabins to keep them busy. In between tasks they swam in the river and attended to Elliot’s set-lines.

The younger brother returned the following afternoon in a farm wagonette, the springs near inverted with weight, the horses blown and hunting for water. Grinning from cheek to freckled cheek, Elliott climbed to the rear of the vehicle and threw off a canvas tarpaulin. ‘I brought enough steel plate to rebuild the firebox – hand auger, drill bits, files an’ bits ‘n’ bobs.’

William grinned, and reached up to grip his brother’s hand. ‘Well done boy, you’ve got a full machine shop back in there. Let’s get to work then.’

Elliott paused, ‘That’s not all I’m bringing. Father ‘ad news of Captain Cadell. Ee’s done a deal with the governor to be first with a boat on the river, for a two-thousand pound reward, staged payments for getting’ through the bar, up to the Darling then running a freight service for twelve months.’

William whistled, ‘Where’s our two thousand pounds?’

‘It’s all about connections, boys,’ said Tom. ‘Cadell has the right friends.’

‘Not only that,’ Elliot went on, ‘But his new paddle steamer is named after the Governor’s wife – the Lady Augusta, and she’s to be launched in Pyrmont, Sydney in just a few weeks.’

‘The mongrel! Is it ready so soon?’ cried William. ‘Then let’s not waste a minute. We’ll be first on the river, but we need to be first to the Darling too.’

***

Less than a week later, without an audience this time, and under a cooling sun and a breeze that smelled of autumn, Elliot lit a blaze in the firebox of the rebuilt boiler, beginning with small sticks and scrap timber. They’d done their best with the refurbishment, drilling holes with a brace and bit, and installing bolts instead of rivets.

Yet, Elliot was still wary. As the boiler’s glass showed full water, and the pressure gauge slowly flicked upwards towards a working pressure of thirty pounds-per-square-inch, he jumped overboard and headed for the bank. From a safe distance the three brothers watched as the boiler reached full pressure, beginning to bleed off through the safety valve.

‘It’s holding together,’ said William hopefully, but even from the bank he could see that it was again swelling appreciably.

‘Maybe we should have used half inch plate,’ said Elliot.

William shook his head. ‘If so we’d have had a lot more trouble fixing her – drilling holes in quarter inch steel was bad enough.’ After a long pause he fixed a cautiously pleased expression on his face, ‘Let’s take her for a test run, then let her cool down. I’ve got an idea.’

With the boiler still swelling and beginning to leak at the seams the three brothers leapt aboard and weighed the anchors. It was Elliot’s job now to prepare the engine for its first run, ‘oiling ‘round’ and checking the gauges.

Then, while Tom tidied the lines and stowed the ground-tackle William took the helm. ‘Here we go boys,’ he cried as he opened the regulator. Looking back at the engine he grinned. It was a beam-engine, operating through a process beginning with steam jetting into the single cylinder, which was  jacketed with timber for insulation. The piston moved upwards in response, forcing the overhead beam upwards on that side and down on the other. The movement of a slide valve allowed steam into the opposite end of the cylinder, thus forcing the piston to move in the other direction. Down came the beam. This cycle delivered reciprocal motion to a connecting rod at the other end of the beam, which applied rotary force to the crankshaft. It was an old design, even in 1853, but like the boat, it had been constructed there in Hindmarsh, South Australia, by German-born engineer Mr Claus Gehlkin and made to last. With a breathless rush, both port and starboard paddlewheels started to churn, bringing up the smell of river water so it was thick in their nostrils.

William punched one fist into the air and shouted an old school scrimmaging cry, using the wheel to steer the brand-new vessel into the current, facing it mightily. Within a few minutes the little paddle steamer was making five knots upriver, while grey teals and black ducks left staccato patterns on the river surface as they winged away from their path.

‘It works,’ cried William to his brothers, and there was a pricking of tears in his eyes. ‘The first steamer on the River Murray!’ This fact was true for all to see, with smoke streaming from the stack, and steam escaping in puffs with each stroke of the piston.

‘Indeed she is,’ said Tom. ‘But now look, she needs a name. You’ve been cagey about what to call her?’

Elliot took up the cry from his place near the engine astern. ‘A working steam boat needs a name. What will we call her?’

‘I would’ve thought that obvious,’ said William. ‘There’s only one fitting name that I can think of.’

Tom grinned, ‘I’m guessing you want to name her after Ma? The Mary Ann?’

‘That’s it,’ said William. ‘Just what I was thinking.’

‘The Mary Ann it is,’ agreed Elliot, ‘and you’re right, there’s no better name.’

 It was a special day for William, as he continued to steer this wonderful creation of theirs, for he was learning that their creation now had a life and personality of its own – and the river by boat was always interesting – a shepherd on the bank with his flock taking water on a shallow spit; a couple of travellers camped on the eastern bank, and the beauty of the river stretching dreamily into the distance, gilded with the realisation that the adventure was only just beginning.

Over the next three hours the engine gained and lost power as Elliot walked a tightrope between threatening to blow the boiler apart with too much heat, or to underfeed it through cautiousness. Tom divided his time between running repairs and sounding the channel with a lead line. William was already marking depths on a sketch-chart, as well as listing issues that would need attention when they returned to their makeshift boathouse.

It was an important first journey, and on their return to Noa No, William put his plan for improving the boiler into action. The three brothers dragged heavy bullock-chains aboard, then wrapped them tightly around the boiler, using shackles. As a finishing touch, they used a sledgehammer to pound heavy timber wedges in between chain and boilerplate to make it tighter still.

When it was done, the three brothers lounged on the deck, while William produced a single bottle of ale, brewed in Oakbank in the Adelaide Hills, the brewer’s name, Johnston, stamped on the brown glass bottle. It was a rare treat for the boys, for whom alcohol was rarely, if ever, consumed, their father and Baptist church both being opposed to its consumption.

‘Beer? Father would kill us,’ said Elliot.

‘Ar there boy. What he don’t know won’t hurt him, and it’s just a small mug each – something special after what we’ve been through.’

Jar in hand Elliot stood back and regarded the newly-wrapped boiler. ‘Looks jerry-built, but I can’t deny that it will be stronger.’

Tom turned to William, ‘What’s next?’

‘If that great goob Captain Cadell can extort money out of the South Australian government, so can we. I’ll write a letter to Governor Young meself and see what we can get.’

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Chapter Six – Scouting the Bar

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

The slip and glide of the oars, and the flap of the sails soothes my heart as we sail and row down the Goolwa Channel, with Hindmarsh Island to port, and the isthmus of low sand, shearwater nests and spinifex that separates us from a raging sea to starboard. Six stout men on board and the whaleboat is filled to the gunnels with equipment. The sounds of quiet talk, and the cries of birds combine to sooth my soul, for I am in turmoil inside. I am angry, helplessly angry, for things in recent days have not gone my way.

That foolish boatbuilder, Henry Chowne, upon my arrival in Sydney, and after accepting my cheque for two thousand pounds – so hard won from my deal with the South Australian Government and through the agency of a Melbourne moneylender – showed me a glaringly incomplete Lady Augusta and admitted that we would have to delay the launch. God how I hate delays.

My dear Captain Cadell, he had said. I thank you for the receipt of the two-thousand-pound progress payment. Unfortunately, I have bad news. Men of all trades are deserting my employ and heading for the Australian goldfields and this is causing chaos in the yard. I’m sure you understand that this makes it difficult …

What fool of a man cannot keep his tradesmen from chasing dreams of millionairedom in far flung wildernesses? I hear also that Chowne is mixed up in business problems; lawsuits and such with his brothers. That kind of thing I have no patience for.

He attempted to talk me around to a launch date in April, but after a torrid argument we settled on March 24. Even then my new flagship will not be fully finished – the engines not installed at that stage and some of the fitout incomplete.

 Forced to resume my duties as master of the Cleopatra, I steamed back to Adelaide via Melbourne with the usual cargoes and tedious passengers at the captain’s table. My problems worsened at Port Adelaide when the fool of a pilot, John Taylor by name, refused to let me take the Cleopatra ashore to have her hull scrubbed – a sorely needed procedure. Once he had been rowed off towards the shore I admit that my temper got the better of me.

 I took it upon myself to take the steamer in, ordered forward revolutions and set off. It was then that the cockswain of a nearby boat called out that our screw had contacted a disused mooring chain (where I do not believe any mooring should have been) and had fouled.

I called on the mate to investigate, and after a glance over the stern he replied that he was not convinced that the screw was foul, and that we should try again. Thanks to this irresponsible report I ordered forward revolutions again, at which point the screw, but lightly wrapped at that stage became fully entangled. Oh, what embarrassment for a man such as I, with passengers, crew, and neighbouring boats all laughing at this misfortune.

I did, of course, protest directly to Governor Young of the incompetence of the port authorities in leaving a disused mooring hidden under the water. They, however, counter attacked by launching an inquiry. This kangaroo-court decided that by moving my ship, after she had been moored and secured by a licensed pilot, I had violated No. 2 Schedule A of the Ordinance No. 3 or some such rot, and thereby incurred a penalty of £20. You can imagine how the fires of my rage are burning at this.

Even now, heading down the Goolwa Channel, my face reddens with the memory. But like any man of action, I am determined that the delay while a team of divers from Feejee work to untangle the mess will be worthwhile, for with the Cleopatra going nowhere for several days I planned and executed a hurried trip down to the Goolwa.

***

Of all the things on my mind over the first four months of 1853, first and foremost is a murderous beast, capricious and capable of murder on a whimsy. Even I, Captain Cadell know a killer when I meet one, and the bar of the River Murray has killed ships and men before. We go forth to help ensure the Lady Augusta’s safe passage.

This will be my second attempt to scout out the treacherous and narrow channels hidden amongst the breaking surf and pressure waves. The first was undertaken in January, in a government skiff we carried overland from Encounter Bay, in the company of my agent William Younghusband, the pilot from Port Eliot and three stout oarsmen.

We ran out through the bar, taking white water over the bow, and showing our bravado, plying the ash blades like Hercules powered our left arms and Achilles the right. Safely we rode the swells back through to the calm, holding position, broaching down the face of several waves but this was easily corrected with the oars.

Fired with salt-lust and courage I decided to repeat the adventure, steering us again for the break. This time, meeting a much larger set of waves than before, we came unstuck.

Every true mariner has felt the gut swooping fear when he sees the green glassy slopes of the wave that he knows will bring mayhem and destruction on the boat in his charge. This knowledge comes long before the event, for in a seaman’s mind always is the capabilities of his vessel. After this realisation there is nothing but prayer and hope; that some quirk of the sea or the hand of God will intervene.

Not this time. Our skiff was grasped in the jaws of that wave as if in the fangs of some seaborne tiger. The boat rolled and all six aboard were dumped into the surf, cold water, and fully clothed as we were, a disaster. And the next wave, it seemed was even larger, picking me up bodily and twisting me around.

Thankfully we made it onto the beach alive, and to assuage my shame I told myself that in a well-found whaleboat (like the one I am in now), with a crew of scurvy fellows the capsize would not have happened, but it was true that I’d taken a knock to my pride, and for many nights I had nightmares of the Lady Augusta, my new riverboat rolling on  that same wave, my hopes and dreams of a riverboat fleet on the Murray River torn asunder. And as the months passed I realised that the scant knowledge of the bar that I had gained in that disastrous foray were useless, for the channels change almost weekly.

Now, with the Cleopatra in Adelaide until the morrow, I have recruited men to camp on the beach here, study and mark the channels so that we will know the way in when I return with the Lady Augusta. At least then something good might come of these weeks of bad fortune.

 Ahead we see the high ground of Barker’s Knoll and Observation Hill, and it is on the beach below this small peak, that tents will be pitched for my observers who will watch and buoy the mouth – that half-mile gape of the great river.

In several weeks’ time I must cross this terrible stretch of water with a river boat not made for such a place – a river boat has no vee in the hull – no grip on the water. But the paradox is that I must bring the Lady Augusta through or give up all hope of glory.

I hear that Randell is coming to Goolwa with his home-made steamer in less than one week, and dearly I would love to stay and view that odd little creation, But the Cleopatra must sail with tomorrow’s tide for Port Melbourne and then Sydney, just in time for our delayed launch date.

Now, as the stem of the whaleboat thumps into the beach, and we unload stores, pitch tents, and say our farewells to those who will stay behind, I can smell the inland borne on that river. For me it is the smell of future wealth. Dare I hope, an empire?

 Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Chapter Seven: The Governor’s Gift

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Feb 28, 1853

William Randell had a pleasant surprise when a letter came back from the governor’s office, on official letterhead, with the following response: We applaud your initiative, and your desire to begin trade on the River Murray. We ask you to take your vessel to Goolwa, on Thursday next, where we would like to review the vessel and reward you appropriately for your endeavours. We also require that any cargo be reviewed for customs purposes.

‘In other words,’ drawled Tom, ‘they’ll award us some paltry amount then claim it back in customs duties.’

‘Still,’ mused William, ‘at least he’s taking us seriously – and we simply won’t pack any cargo.’

While they prepared for the journey downriver, Ebenezer arrived from Gumeracha with a cargo of fruit for the dignitaries who would board the Mary Ann in Goolwa, all grown on the family property – apples, pears, peaches, and golden drop plums.  

With a hired man joining them as general deckhand and stoker they set off on the eighty river miles to Goolwa, including the crossing of a violent Lake Alexandrina. Steering into the teeth of a twenty-five-knot southerly wind was a sobering experience for William, the waters of the shallow lake whipped into short-period swells that broke over the bow, and filled their eyes and lips with salt.

The Mary Ann, forced to prove her mettle in conditions she had not been designed for, showed that despite her shallow draft, she could  maintain steerage in anything the Murray  could throw at her. Even so, the vessel’s speed bled away to the point that it became impossible for her to reach Goolwa on the appointed day.

‘The Governor will wait for us until tomorrow at least,’ William promised as the crew powered on through a blustery night. They took  bleary-eyed turns at the helm, then finally rounded Point Stuart and anchored in the relative calm of Goolwa Channel after dawn, damp but unbowed by the experience. Each of the brothers managed a few hours’ sleep before ensuring that the Mary Ann looked her best.

 Finally, they steamed into Goolwa, to the pounding blasts of an unexpected nineteen-gun-salute. ‘A reception fit for an admiral,’ cried William. ‘Nineteen guns, and look at that crowd!’

Not only was Governor Young waiting on the wharf with his wife and official entourage, but there was also a large contingent of spectators. They were mostly well-dressed local gentlemen and ladies, with daughters like dutiful shadows and boys in suits running rampant. Finely-groomed hounds on leashes growled at dock-side mongrels.

As the Mary Ann steamed gently alongside, wharfmen tied her snugly to the bollards. And while Governor Young greeted the intrepid Randells warmly, a catering team from the Goolwa Hotel swarmed aboard with trestles and plates of hams, pickled tongue and baked vegetables.

Not to be outdone, the young ladies of Goolwa had been cooking for several days. Dressed in gowns befitting a ballroom, they came armed with a feast of cakes, confectionaries, and pastries, throwing admiring glances at the intrepid Randell brothers as they went.

Governor Young mounted a dais, with the band conductor’s baton pausing mid stroke. His Excellency spoke of progress, made a lot of Captain Cadell’s boat that would soon be on its way, and pointed to a barge being constructed for the Scottish Captain at the Winsby Brothers’ boatyard adjacent to the wharf. Still, Young did heartily congratulate the ‘back-country ingenuity’ of the Randell boys and the industriousness of South Australia’s children that would one day make the state great.

With a flourish befitting a magician, Governor Young promised to make available the sum of three hundred pounds, drawn from the Crown moiety of the Land Fund, to be mailed at a later date, as a sign of encouragement and a reward. When the repast was ready, the official party, led by His Excellency and Lady Augusta, walked the gangway into the paddle steamer and examined the rough but solid carpentry that characterised the vessel.

Elliot had artfully ensured that the boiler pressure was so low so that no sign remained of expanding metal or steam hissing through seams, but the chain-wrapped vessel caught even the Governor’s eye. ‘That one won’t get away from you, Mr Randell,’ he commented drily, and it took William some moments to understand that the taciturn Governor had  just made a joke.

The meal went well – the Gumeracha fruit being a particular favourite, and the men who complimented William on both the boat and the food were names he had seen in the newspapers since his youth, but never dreamed of meeting like this. Apart from His Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor and Lady Young, there was Mr Torrens, the Colonial Treasurer, Mr Finniss the Colonial Secretary,  Mr John Morphett, Speaker of the Legislative Council and all their  wives, along with a few sons and daughters. William found himself the object of attention of both the Lady Augusta and a Mrs Maturin, who appeared to be as flirtatious as she was highly placed.

When the meal was over, and the tables and remaining food removed, there was a shaking of hands all around, and the band played as the Mary Ann steamed at a sedate pace away from the wharf, the new deckhand also raising what canvas her mast would carry to save on fuel.

At the helm, William was quiet and thoughtful, inspired by this entrance into the higher echelons of the Colony. The  Governor had said that the ‘Murray River would one day be a canal of commerce, alive with steam boats of all kinds, bearing passengers and goods into the interior, and the wealth of a nation back to Mother England for the glory of the empire.’ At that moment, proud and excited, steering out into a beam sea, William could almost see that future unfold before his eyes.

Later, after the lake and into the calm of the river, Tom joined him, and together they enjoyed the serenity of a river sunset.

‘So we can head off for the Darling now?’ asked the younger brother.

‘That we can. But how about a family day first. I know Father’s been itching to get down for a look.’

‘Good thinking.’ Tom smiled. ‘Tis strange. Father was never a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the boat, yet I’ve a feeling that he’s proud of what us ‘as done now.’

‘I think so too,’ said William. ‘And I’m proud that us has made him proud.’


©2021 Greg Barron

No post for the next two Sundays as I’m off on a research trip. It’s a good chance to catch up on any episodes you’ve missed at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Illustration: The Goolwa in 1854, etching by JH Adamson (State Library of South Australia)

Chapter Eight – The Family Picnic

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.

‘What isn’t?’

‘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?’

‘No. Why?’

‘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/

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Chapter Nine – The Blue Dress

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

What a day it is, here in Pyrmont. The waters of Johnston’s Bay glimmer in the sun with views across to the Glebe Island grain wharf and Balmain as I, Captain Francis Cadell stroll through the crowd of dignitaries who have gathered here, more for the promise of food and drink at my expense that the launch of the strange vessel on the slips.

Thomas Chowne and I share a glance. Now that he has my money, or should I say that of my Melbourne money-lender, we are at peace. I am again the famous Captain Cadell, explorer, sea captain and adventurer. The women fawn on me and men wish that they could be like me.

The band of the 11th Regiment play Rule Britannia as my eyes fall on the creation of my designing pen and their steam-saws and adzes. The Lady Augusta in the slips, ready to ride the rails. The glittering Miss Williams in her blue dress draws our eyes like a diamond in our midst.

I swallow a lump of misapprehension. It is true that Thomas Chowne and his men did a sound job of the hull, albeit with delays, and some public infighting between the brothers that I know much more about now than I did when I placed the order. Yet I, the man who had designed one of the most beautiful clipper ships in existence, the Queen of Sheba, can scarcely believe that I have had a part in creating such an ill-favoured monster as this. For the Lady Augusta is, I have to admit, an ugly boat – and I know that many of the people on the quay that day think the same, though the whispers are too soft for me to hear.

That ugliness is, in part, because her hundred-feet length of deck is crowded with accommodations. This is a commercial necessity. In extracting the required contract from the Governor, Younghusband promised he and his family a trip on the first voyage. Then, of course, he could hardly be expected to travel without his wife, the Lady Augusta for whom the boat was named.  Younghusband himself would also have to be on board, along with his wife and two daughters. The list goes on. More than twenty-five extras have to be accommodated, and in the style to which they are accustomed. Shallow drafted riverboats have no room below decks, so everything is crammed on top.

I know that it is a dog of a boat – as ugly as any ever launched, but later, these excess cabins can be removed, and her appearance will alter for the better. What will I care? By then I’ll carry trade goods the length and breadth of the river, making money from settlers, miners and farmers desperate for stores.

My mind comes back to the moment, admiring the delectable Miss Williams – that svelte female form in a figure-hugging dress. At least, I decide, I have a handsome young woman to launch my paddle steamer. She fusses and giggles in her shining dress,  preparing to launch, with a silk-covered bottle suspended by a blue silk sash.

‘I name this boat, the Lady Augusta,’ she cries in a bird-like voice, and the new vessel slides down into the water. This is a nervous moment, for I have seen many a calamity on the slipways of my native Louth, on the Firth of Forth, and it is good to see this bastard lady float at last. She rides high in the water, being unladen, and still lacking her twin boilers and steam engines, now being finished up in Sussex Street by George Russell and company.

It is Chowne himself who takes up the cry. ‘Three cheers for the Lady Augusta and Captain Cadell.’ The crew of the Esmerelda, floating alongside, join in.

I feel my heart swell with pride. Yes, it is I who will soon be on the River Murray, and she will become the Mississippi of this country, and  riches will rain down upon me.

The Cleopatra, the vessel of which I am currently captain, comes alongside to take the Lady Augusta in tow so our guests can get out on the water. And once they are on board the caterers bring on a feast that has cost my backers dear but I assured them was necessary. I sit next to Miss Williams, and her body is a writhing snake inside that dress.

We toast Prince Albert, and the Queen. Chowne, his tongue hanging out of his mouth like an overgrown dog,  raises to toast to Miss Williams.

Much later, back in my cabin on the Cleopatra, the blue dress rustles as it hits the floor, and my future seems very bright indeed.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Photo: View of Darling Harbour, Pyrmont and Johnston’s Bay from Balmain. State Library of NSW

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Chapter Ten – Swords and Low Water

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

‘What on earth are ee goin’ to do with that thing?’

Elliot Randell was leaning on the side of the deck, watching while William ran a whetstone along the blade of a sword – a fearsome weapon some three feet long, with a two-handed hilt, and filigree on the guard.

‘Ar,’ William replied, hefting the weapon, ‘I’ll use it to defend the Mary Ann from all manner of dangers.’ He was quite proud of the sword – given to him by a friend – no doubt a family heirloom that had been hosting spider webs in a corner for years.

One of the two deckhands they had hired was just sixteen years, green and raw, straight off the farm, and he happened around the corner of the main cabin, just in time to hear his captain’s declaration.

‘D-d-dangers?’ the lad stammered. ‘What kind do you mean?’

William stood up and pointed the weapon towards the north. ‘Oh, proper terrible dangers,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘River pirates for a start! And who knows? Armed colonies of Jacobite revolutionaries perhaps.’

‘Pirates … revolutionaries? You’re kidding aren’t you?’

‘Not at all, but more than that, there’ll be hordes of painted warriors all competing to cut our throats. First the Meru, then the Danggali, the Latje Latje, the Kureinji—’ He lowered the point to the deck. ‘Oh I’d reckon that this sword will’ve proved its worth by the time us wins our way back south.’

‘Win our way?’ gulped the young deckhand.

‘Yes, an’ us may lose a man or two.’

The young deckhand disappeared aft, leaving William chuckling to himself.

It was March the twenty-fourth, 1853, and the Randell brothers had packed the last of their trade goods into the hold and prepared for a morning departure. William was feeling cocky, but he put down the sword and looked at Elliot seriously.

‘I can’t wait to finally get away. Us has got the jump on that damned Captain Cadell, by a couple of months at least. He may have launched his Lady Augusta, but the engines aren’t in her yet, and then he’s got to bring her all the way around by sea, then cross the bar. Us’ll not only get to the Darling Junction before him, but will sell every damn bag of flour in our holds and be back here before he steams into Goolwa.’

‘Unless the boiler does blow up on us,’ observed Elliot drily. Keeping that leaking iron vessel in one piece remained his primary concern.

‘There’s that,’ admitted William. A moment later there was a terrific splash, and the sound of a man churning through the water towards the riverbank. It was the young deckhand, all his belongings in a hastily gathered bundle, heading for the shore at a rate of knots.

‘Well done,’ called Tom from the wheelhouse. ‘You just scared our new stoker off with that damned sword of yours.’

William looked down at the weapon then shrugged. ‘Good Christ forgive me. I were only joking.’

As planned, Elliot rose in the dark to heat the boiler, and they cast off the lines at dawn. The river was full of promise over those early miles with a light mist rising from the surface. They made a good eight knots at first, and the deck was a cheerful place, all smiles and jokes, with the sun on the water and the hinterland beckoning.

By the time they had reached the village of Nildottie, however, there were worrying signs – mud bars across half of the river, and shallow treacherous channels that required painstaking attention to navigate.

‘It’s damn shallow,’ said Elliot, but by evening they had passed through the ‘Big Bend,’ an important milestone, and a place of dramatic scenery, where limestone cliffs, pockmarked with caves, often lined the great river’s banks.

William declared that reaching the Big Bend was worthy of issuing a glass of beer all round, a new institution that was always accompanied with a muttered, ‘Ar there everyone … remember not to tell Father.’ When the remaining deckhand asked if he might have another measure, they stared at him as if he were a drunkard. Beer to them was a special treat, not a staple.

On the second and third days the river became ever shallower. They passed Morgan at a crawl, and there they pulled into the bank and unloaded several tons of supplies, caching them on the riverbank. This helped, for a time.

Finally, at Penn’s Reach,  there was no way through. They charged the shallows with the engine thumping, and the paddlewheels throwing spray, but they made no headway. They waded ahead for hundreds of yards through water never deeper than their knees. The Mary Ann drew three feet, even after removing much of her burden.

By dusk of that evening William sat in the bow with his legs hanging over the edge, his two brothers beside him. ‘I’m afraid us has no choice but to turn back,’ he said, ‘an’ wait for a fresh in the river. It just weren’t fated to be this time.’

‘We’ll have to come back when she rises,’ agreed Tom reluctantly.

William thought of Cadell with all his power and official backing, being so close on their heels. He could have cried with frustration. After all their work, and overcoming great difficulties, this seemed like a cruel trick – to have set out not only at the worst time of year, but in a period of drought into the bargain.

Later, back in Nao-No, William and his brothers kept the Mary Ann’s hold full of supplies and played a waiting game.

Each morning William walked down to the water to examine the marker he had installed to monitor river levels. Every morning he felt a hollow sense of disappointment fill his chest. Even a ride up to Gumeracha, an afternoon spent walking with Bessie and a couple of nights at Kenton Park, the family home, failed to raise his spirits.

Months passed. April, May, June, and July. The river continued to drop. It was impassable. The dream that had seemed so close, now looked like an impossibility.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image: River cliffs near Morgan, SA. State Library of South Australia.

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Don’t forget to check out our Australian books at ozbookstore.com

Chapter Eleven: Captain Cadell and the Bar Crossing

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Before me lies almost half a mile of breaking waves, dangerous waters indeed, even for myself who has sailed from the age of fourteen, and conquered river bars all over the world. I am a seaman second to none, but even I feel the cold breath of fear at bringing the Lady Augusta through the Murray River bar, for if she should founder every penny I own will founder with her.

If I shall cross, good things will come my way. Young and his pandering government are in my pocket, and all I have to do is bring this vessel through, then beat that damned William Randell and his brothers to Swan Hill.

‘Stand away,’ I shout from my place at the helm. After twenty-four hours of lying at anchor in five fathoms, waiting for the seas to calm, I will wait no longer, and we circle again, still building steam and power in port and starboard engines.

This Murray River bar of South Australia, is the worst I have seen, and indeed I have been capsized in a small boat here in the past. Today I will overcome. My pride as a seaman, and a Scot, will not allow me to fail here today, though the vessel beneath me is not a sea boat, but a paddle steamer, made for rivers. She is one hundred and five feet from stem to stern, and twelve feet across the beam – yet without the depth of keel to track her straight, and with the windage of her multiple cabins causing her to scud sideways with every gust.

Ahead I see the western and eastern shoals that guard the Murray’s mouth, then the broad gape in between. Much of it is shallows, but the men I landed on a beach inside the estuary some weeks ago have marked a narrow channel through. I can see the buoys now, in between the backs of the rollers crashing in, even as we bear down on the channel.

 At the last moment I turn full lock and we bear off out to sea again. One more circuit, hoping for a lull. My heart is hammering. The bar is a graveyard, but I must get through, today, and it must be now, at the full flood of the tide, for during the ebb the bar is impassable.

Finally, is it a lull? I glance behind and the next few swells are indeed a little smaller.  I swing the vessel around, and point her again at the gap. 

‘Do we have full steam, Mister Napier,’ I call, addressing the engineer.

‘Yes captain.’

‘Then hold hard, we are going through.’

With both engines at full revolutions, I take the Lady Augusta into the channel, feeling that unearthly swoop as the powerful rollers take the ship in their grip. Yet ahead the surf is confused, and a sideways wave smashes us on the starboard beam. My stomach lurches as we ship water: tons of water, the free-surface effect heeling the boat sharply from one side then another. Everything I own is at stake here. Each plank of the Lady Augusta is hocked to the last nail.  

Holding the wheel hard a’port the hull straightens, though an increase in speed makes us plough into the back of the wave I am following. The one behind breaks onto the stern, and I hear the shouts of my crew, as I focus on bringing us up and on.

I ease back on the governor – waiting, waiting – then open up again to full speed. We surge onwards, with both paddlewheels thrashing us forward, now finally finding position in clean water between two waves. The key, as every seaman knows, is to choose a wave and match its speed, never allowing its predecessor to catch up, nor to let your vessel reach it.

‘We’re going to make it,’ shouts my chief officer, a Yankee named Copeland, his accent twanging over the sounds of wave and sea, ‘Good going skipper.’

Another wave: another series of swells and breaking white water, and then abruptly we are through and into the relative calm beyond, with Mundoo Island forward and Hindmarsh to port. The crew cheer and raise their hats, someone starts singing Rule Britannia and I let them have their moment, trying not show my own relief.

‘By God Commander,’ says Davidson, clapping his hand on the small of my back. ‘You must have iced water in your veins.’

I turn to him. We have a plethora of captains aboard. Davidson had skippered the Lady Augusta on much of the sea journey from Sydney, and will take over again for the long journey up the river. Edmund Robertson, also on board, will captain the soon-to-be-launched barge Eureka, while I serve as Commander of this fleet of two boats, which will give me sufficient time to ingratiate myself with my passengers and ensure the flow of funds.

‘Enough chatter,’ says I. ‘We shipped water, get those pumps working. You’ll take command as soon as we reach Goolwa.’

‘Very good sir,’ says Davidson and I can tell by the spring in his step that he is pleased at the prospect.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Chapter Twelve: The Dry River

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

When Captain Cadell pushed through the river bar to the relative calm of the Goolwa Channel, the Randell brothers had suffered through months of waiting for the low and sluggish Murray River to rise. Yet this was no ordinary surfeit of rain, it was a long and terrible dry that became known as the ‘Black Thursday” drought of the early ‘fifties.

Day after day, the waters fell further, until the marker itself was high and dry, and recording the drop became pointless. Word came that the Darling had become a chain of pools filled with floating dead fish – no longer flowing at all – and apparently getting a rowboat through the Murrumbidgee from Wagga Wagga to Narrandera was nigh on impossible.

Through these soulless days, news of Captain Cadell and his progress came constantly, for the big-city press loved to record the Scotsman’s every move. The fitting out of the Lady Augusta had been completed, followed by her departure from Sydney under the command of Captain Davidson. The newspapers reported the new paddle-steamer’s arrival in Melbourne, and didn’t they crow when Cadell himself met his creation at Port Elliot, taking command for the run through the bar!

With the spectre of Cadell on their tails, the Randell brothers waited for a fresh in the river, and the work of improving and fine-tuning the Mary Ann palled on William. Worse still, his father was not prepared to have his sons spend their time in unprofitable activity. It was a bitter blow when Elliot was recalled to the farm to tend the orchards. If all this wasn’t enough, the three-hundred-pound cheque that had been promised from the South Australian government – money that William needed desperately to show his father that their efforts were showing some return – had not arrived, and appeared to have been forgotten.

With each new snippet of news William fell deeper into a sense of despondency that only another visit to Gumeracha to see his family and Bessie could lift him from. It was a cool mid-August day when he spent much of the afternoon walking with Bessie through the crackling-dry paddocks of Kenton Villa, across the road from the Randell’s property, talking of very little, but feeling warm in his heart from every glance and the exchange of some of their very first loving words.

Bessie, at seventeen, was a sensible, attractive and lively young woman. Her face, surrounded by curls, was both determined and full of fun. When they held hands her skin was cool and dry. William had a feeling that anything was possible when he was with her.

His mood improved immeasurably over that very pleasant hour, though this was not to last. Having said his farewells, he was heading home through the Nickels’ front garden when he was hailed by Bessie’s mother, who had been pruning roses.

Elizabeth Nickels Senior, like a good proportion of Gumerachans including the Randells, hailed from Devonshire and spoke with a strong accent. She had the same name as her daughter, but a rather different demeanour. Secateurs in one hand, and a thorny length of rose stalk in the other, Mrs Nickels confronted William across a garden bed fringed with local stone, her stubborn chin out-thrust like a weapon.

‘Excuse us, William Randell,’ she said.

‘Yes, Mrs Nickels?’ He paused, hands in his pockets, impatient to get across the road to a warm kitchen and a cup of tea.

‘Well I just want to tell ee that you’re paying a little too much mind to young Bessie, and I, fer one, am not thinkin’ on marryin’ her off to a bey near twice ‘er age.’

‘Not twice ‘er age,’ complained William. ‘I’m only twenty-nine.’

Elizabeth held her ground stubbornly. ‘Too much difference  fer my liking,’ she said, ‘an’ I won’t have it. Cast yer eye somewhere else, for that’s a union that won’t proceed while I live to ferbid it.’

William stared at her, heart sinking, then turned on his heel, wondering when anything was going to go right for him.

The next morning, as he prepared to leave, William found a gift-wrapped package atop his saddle, which was sitting on a beam that served as a rack in the stables. A card affixed by a ribbon said, ‘From Bessie to William. Not to be opened until you reach the Darling River!’ Smiling again, William carefully rolled the small item in his swag.

In no hurry to get back to Noa-no, William walked his horse all day, then camped beside the track near Narcoonah – a spot the brothers favoured because of a tiny spring and a flat clearing. He had scarcely set off after breakfast the next day when he saw Tom riding towards him at a canter, his horse near blown, horse and rider sweating even in the cool morning.

‘What is it?’ cried William, expecting the worst.

Tom’s face was animated, almost bright red. ‘It’s the bloody river – she’s rising. Twelve inches overnight, and more even while I saddled me horse – I’ve got the boys warming the boiler now.’

There was no need to say any more, for William was already digging his heels in, and his gelding launching off her back legs, eager for the run. By the time they reached the river at Noa-no the measuring stick was again under water, reading almost forty inches and still rising.

‘This is no flash in the pan,’ said William. ‘We can steam as far up as we’ve a mind to this time.’

‘And we’ve still got the jump on Cadell by a few days,’ agreed Tom.

‘We leave this very day,’ roared William. And while the holds were already full of trade goods such as tea, flour and sugar, and the fuel holds were bulging with three-foot lengths of red gum log, there were a hundred final tasks that needed to be done. All the Noa-no farmhands were called to the fray, and human chains passed goods into the Mary Ann, floating free and able to be brought up higher and closer than ever before.

The boiler was blowing off steam, and they were just about to cast off, when the rapid hoofbeat of a lone horseman sounded from further up the lane towards Mannum. William paused from being about to climb aboard for the last time, watching the man come. He was riding too fast for his ability. He was tall and gangly, a little awkward in his seat.

The horseman stopped beside them and swung off his horse, and William cried, ‘Why, it’s the Reverend Davies. What are you doing here?’

The newcomer was pink-faced from exertion, around William’s age, eyes shining with excitement. ‘I was in Mannum, and saw that the river was on the way up. I heard the Lord God in my ears, and he spoke to me.  He told me to ride and beg that you will allow me to journey upriver with you.’

‘We’d be honoured,’ said William, figuring that having one of Heaven’s earthly representatives on their side could only help matters. ‘You only just made it, we’re about to cast off. There may be hardships. Can you manage?’

‘With the Lord’s help, I can,’ said the Reverend.

William turned to one of the crew. ‘Quick, help the Reverend get his gear aboard.’

Finally, a little after one in the afternoon, with just that small group of farm workers to clap them off, the Mary Ann’s paddle wheels began to churn, and away she went into the fast-flowing river. The Reverend Davies was good company, delighting in every aspect of the scene, pointing out this and that on the banks and speaking of natural beauty and its creator as one and the same thing.

William was ecstatic but also sad. Leaving Bessie had been difficult, but his thoughts now roamed over fractured ground. She was still a child. Her mother would never let them marry. They would have to be just friends, the very best of friends. But how could he be happy if she married someone else?

His mind touched on the gift-wrapped package that he was not to open until they reached the Darling. It was nestled amongst his shirts in the drawer in his cabin. For that, as much as any reason, he wished to reach the Darling River as fast as the Mary Ann would carry him.

Continued next week … and in the meantime check out our Australian stories at ozbookstore.com

©2021 Greg Barron

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Photo credit: State Library of South Australia

Chapter Thirteen: Anne Francis Finniss

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Anne Finniss waited until the footman had opened the carriage door, then climbed through, settled back onto the leather seat and arranged her skirts. Her good friend Mrs Irvine, then young Louisa Younghusband followed, the former removing her gloves and the latter putting on lady-like airs that made Anne smile. Her own son Travers, of course, had insisted on sitting up on the box next to the driver and he was already asking questions and pleading for a turn at the reins.

Anne was more than a little surprised at herself. After all, the idea of heading from Adelaide down to the Goolwa, where she would join the ‘first’ (for so the Governor and his staff kept repeating as if the Randell brothers did not exist) steam-powered voyage up the Murray seemed to be not only adventurous, but also a little frivolous for a mother and hostess.

Captain Cadell himself had invited fourteen-year-old Travers to come along on the voyage. Anne and her husband, Colonial Secretary Boyle Finniss could hardly let him go alone, yet would they deny the boy the trip of a lifetime? Boyle would be busy administering the colony while the Governor, Sir Henry Young, was also on the voyage, and thus Anne agreed to go.

Still just thirty-four years of age, Anne didn’t find the prospect of a five-week adventure altogether distasteful. She, like most of South Australian society, admired Captain Cadell very much. This realisation had at first made her feel guilty, before she decided that it was not sinful for a strong-minded woman to think well of a man other than her husband, provided it was purely in a theoretical way.

Anne, and the other ladies who moved in Adelaide’s highest circles, knew themselves to be a new breed of woman – independent, not subject to the social mores of England. Anne, although she had married an Englishman, would always be proud Irish, true to her County Westmeath roots, and originally of a social class far below that of Mrs Irvine, Mrs Young, Mrs Palmer and the others.

Anne was also something else that these ladies were not. She was a genuine, twenty-four-carat beauty. Even at sixteen years one glance of her face had compelled Boyle Finniss, then a Lieutenant of the 82nd Regiment, stationed in the town of Mullingar, Ireland, to pursue her from the moment he laid eyes on her.

When Anne insisted that she would not marry a soldier Finniss sold his commission and applied for a land grant in Australia. Originally landing in New South Wales, Finniss had sensed opportunity in South Australia and moved the young family there.

Even now, at thirty-four years, Anne’s skin was clear and healthy, her hair shining auburn, and she had the defined jaw and strong cheekbones that artists loved to paint. She felt that her thirty-four years were hard-earned, with six living children and one deceased, yet the active Irish girl was still inside her – the spirit of adventure and love of new horizons. Again, the excitement at spending many weeks aboard a boat with Captain Cadell rose, and she subdued it. Her husband was a good man – honest beyond reproach – with all the virtues.

That night the carriage stopped at Alexander Anderson’s Emu Inn at Morphett Vale, and Travers, just fourteen years old, treated Anne as if he was her escort. He was a sturdy boy, with the intelligence and honesty of his father, and a smiling face. It was quite a party that night at the inn’s dining room, joining with their Irish host, and passengers from a second carriage – the Younghusband family including their three daughters, along with dignitaries Mr Bright and Mr Palmer.

‘All these girls,’ Anne quipped to Travers when they reached their room. ‘You won’t know which one to flirt with.’

‘Shush mother, I’ve got better things to do than fret about girls.’

The next day a couple of incidents broke the monotony of travel in light but persistent rain, once when one of the horses drawing the lead carriage fell over on a steep and slippery slope, and the other when a tree branch caught the canopy of the second. Both times Travers went to help. Just fourteen-and-a-half, he was such a young man that Anne’s heart almost burst with pride.

Arriving at the Goolwa at last they craned their necks to see the Lady Augusta moored in the river. To Anne she was not an ugly boat, but a new kind of vessel, made expressly for the interior waterways of her adopted country.

As they left the carriages, Captain Cadell came ashore to greet them, and there was a spark in his eye as he kissed her gloved hand. A boat was prepared to row out with most of their luggage and a tour followed. This began with the steamer, followed by a stint aboard the new barge, the Eureka, which was to be launched the following day.

A tented camp for the official party had been prepared just out of town, and after the tour Anne and the others embarked again on the carriages. As they pulled away from the riverbank Anne looked back and saw Captain Cadell in animated conversation with a dark-haired young woman – very pretty, with the gloss of youth in her eyes.

‘That’s Miss Williams,’ said Mrs Irvine. ‘The one who will launch the Eureka tomorrow.’

‘She’s very attractive,’ said Anne.

‘Yes, she’s the same young lady who launched the Lady Augusta in Sydney last May. Strange that Captain Cadell would bring her all this way just to launch a barge.’ She pursed her lips and lowered her voice so Louisa Younghusband would not hear. ‘Though of course he may not have brought her all this way for that reason only.’ There was a strange expression in her eyes, as if she were watching Anne’s face for a reaction.

©2021 Greg Barron

Image is of the Emu Inn, Morphett Vale (State Library of South Australia)

Continued next week …

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes here.

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Chapter Fourteen: Launching the Eureka

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Anne Finniss, her son Travers, and the other guests camped in field tents belonging to the 11th Regiment of Foot, the British garrison then stationed in the colony of South Australia. These had been made habitable with stretcher beds off the ground and warm blankets. One tent had been outfitted with a cast iron bath. In a clearing near the river a warm fire had been lit, and after supper the company gravitated to chairs arranged around the blaze.

The gentlemen began to tell stories, an activity greatly enlivened when Captain Cadell himself arrived in a whaleboat with his captains, Davidson and Robertson. Miss Williams accompanied the group also, dressed demurely in Indian muslin and a grey woollen cloak, sitting quietly to Cadell’s right side, making little eye contact and appearing to Anne’s eye at least, to be distinctly unsettled.

There, around the hearth, Anne watched her son Travers hero-worship Cadell, as the young sea-captain told stories to fire a boy’s imagination. He told how at Travers’s own age of fourteen he had signed on as a midshipman on the Minerva, an East Indiaman of almost a thousand tons and one of the best trading ships afloat. He told of daily life on board as one of the ship’s most junior officers, on the ‘Great Circle’ route through the Indian Ocean.

He told stories of being double-crossed by a Portuguese trader in Macao, the pagodas of Canton, and double-dealing Chinese officials. There was scarcely a sound as he related his rapid promotion – fifth officer by the age of eighteen, and then his part in the Opium Wars between Great Britain and China, beginning with the requisitioning of the Minerva as a troop ship and ending with the  bloody siege of Ting-hai.

Cadell told the enraptured audience of cannons with mouths wide as a man’s spread arms, of gunshot wounds and raw naked terror and Anne felt herself melt with admiration, knowing that she was not the only woman there who was deep in his thrall, the soft Scots tones of his voice working together with the sounds of the river and the night creatures.

‘I was third officer of the troopship Eruaad, at the end of the war,’ said Cadell, ‘and by then I was grown up indeed. Graduate of a hard school, I might add.’

He told of his promotion to first lieutenant, at which point he was given an incorrect navigational order by the captain that he refused to obey, believing that it would result in the destruction of the ship. ‘I lost my position,’ he said. ‘But I saved the lives of a hundred men in so doing.’ He locked his eyes on young Travers. ‘So do you know what I did then?’

The boy slowly shook his head. ‘No sir, I do not.’

Cadell grinned wolfishly. ‘I was given my own command and spent twelve months hunting the blood-thirsty pirates of the Malacca Strait. In appreciation of my efforts, I was given a sword by the Sultan Zainal Rashid Al-Mu’adzam Shah I of Kedah. It’s in my cabin in the Esmerelda, and I’ll show it to you the first chance I get.’

When Anne looked at Travers, his eyes shone, as if in rapture at the possibilities painted in the air by a skilled storyteller who did not shrink from placing himself as the centre of the action.

Near midnight, at the change of the tide, Cadell rose to his feet. He announced that he would head off back to his berth on the Lady Augusta, and finished with a rough schedule for the following day. The company rose and applauded, shouting ‘hear, hear,’ as the Scotsman and his entourage walked back to their boat, and rowed away with the current.

******

Preparations for the launch of the barge Eureka, arranged for one pm, took most of the following morning, with the women busy bathing, doing each other’s hair, and dressing in finery brought for the occasion. Only Mrs Younghusband had brought a maid to assist her, and Anne detested this need with a silent passion.

Travelling by carriage to the Goolwa jetty, they found it crowded with onlookers, both local and from as far away as Adelaide and the Hills. Anne and Travers were in time for the Governor, Sir  Henry Edward Fox Young’s arrival, announced with the firing of cannons and musketry.

Miss Williams was there also, in an ostentatious blue satin dress with so many layers of petticoats so that it flared out from her tiny waist like the sails of a clipper.

The band had hardly finished their first tune when Captain Cadell mounted a dais and announced that the launch would not proceed until the following day due to a technical problem with the Eureka. There was a stunned silence, and Anne gripped her son’s hand, sensing his disappointment.

More disappointment and ill-luck dogged the launch. The following day the event was again scheduled for one pm, and a slightly smaller crowd gathered. The band was still enthusiastically present. Captain Cadell, as he had the day before, mounted the dais and regrettably announced that the launch was again not possible.

Anne happened to be very close when Miss Williams turned on Cadell and hissed. ‘You are making a fool of me. You’ve dragged me halfway around the country, for what?’ She threw down the scissors that would have cut the silk sash. ‘I will thank you to have my things collected, and find a coachman to take me to Adelaide, for I will not tarry here another day.’

Two days later, at eight in the morning, the barge Eureka was finally launched. Her decks had been garlanded with banksia flowers and in the absence of Miss Williams, Eliza Younghusband, just thirteen years old and smiling like a doll with this great honour, cut the ribbon to a chorus of shouts and cheers.

All that day men laboured to load and prepare the Lady Augusta for departure. Anne settled into the ladies’ quarters on board, and she and Travers partook of the feast planned for that day. The not-quite finished Goolwa Hotel was still a couple of months away from opening but her staff prepared yet another feast of Herculean proportions, and the diners were entertained by a member of the crew singing a bevy of colonial songs, Come, Fill the Flowing Bowl and Hurrah for a Bushman’s life. Anne thought that his voice was average, but his efforts pleased her nonetheless.

It was seven in the evening when the Lady Augusta’s steam was up and she powered away into the stream with the barge Eureka lashed to her starboard side, the departure bell ringing and the band playing “Off she Goes.”  

The few words that Anne knew rang in her head as the musicians played, a fiddle taking the lead.

Off she goes to Donnybrook Fair,

She’s got time and money to spare,

Looks like rain but she don’t care,

Off she goes to Donnybrook Fair,

When they called out ‘Three cheers for Captain Cadell, and the first steamer on the Murray,’ followed by a bellow of ‘Huzzah!’

Even Anne knew that the Mary Ann was already one hundred and fifty miles upriver, having sailed a few days earlier. The official line, it seemed, was that the other paddle steamer was just some kind of experiment and didn’t really count.  Captain Cadell, they reasoned, would swiftly overhaul it. Anne, like everyone else on board the Lady Augusta, believed that he would.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image is of Sir Henry Young in 1850.  Source: State Library of South Australia

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes here.

More books and free stories at ozbookstore.com

Chapter Fifteen: That Cursed Boiler

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

William Randell had enjoyed a challenge since the day of his birth. He was thirteen years old when his parents left their hometown of Kenton in Devonshire, and boarded the Hartley for a sea journey across ten thousand miles of ocean to Australia. Life on board a three-masted sailing ship was tough, and the Hartley was just ninety feet long with a beam of twenty-three.

After five long months of storm seas, stagnant calms, hunger and disease, the Randell family stepped ashore at Port Adelaide, South Australia, the latter being an institution that was younger than William. It was, however, a place of opportunity – the first Australian settlement to be gazetted as a province rather than a colony.

After years of hard work, with the Randell family both contributing mightily and at the same time benefiting from the brisk pace of settlement, William was quietly furious that the government had turned their back on he and his brothers. He was also missing Bessie, and her mother’s warning not to pursue the relationship was flying in the face of a stubborn desire to spend every possible moment with her for the rest of his days.

In that first week of steaming up the Murray there were too many incidents to allow William to fixate excessively on love and anger. The main problem was boiler leakage, caused partly by poor design, and partly the departure of Elliott at their father’s orders. The younger brother had learned to gentle the boiler along, knew just how much heat it would stand; when to rake or spread the fire and when to blow off steam.

The new ‘engineer’ had no such skills. He was a blunt, unimaginative kind of fellow, a hard worker, yet unable to anticipate just how much heat “one or two more” red gum logs would produce. The bullock chains they had wrapped around the shell were holding, though frequent stops were required to remove blackened and weakened wooden wedges, then create new ones to drive in and tighten the chains further.

‘That cursed boiler,’ came the shout, over and over, when it hissed and steamed, and the paddlewheels lost impetus. The sound of a sledgehammer pounding against a new wedge would follow and finally the stoker or deckie would shout that power had been restored. All in all, these were days of frustration, made worse by a following breeze from the south that captured emissions from the stack and shrouded the Mary Ann with smoke, unpleasant to breathe and stinging the eyes.

On a positive note, the Reverend John Lloyd Davies had turned out to be great company. He was a schoolmaster as well as a man of religion, and he had an interest in, and some knowledge of, almost everything. No cod or callop would be caught without him dissecting its innards, exclaiming at the shape of the heart, or evidence of its diet that he extracted from slimy strings of gut.

Davies also loved to sing, and his tenor voice boomed out across the waters at odd moments, competing with the racket of the steam engine, occasionally joined by Tom. He made notes and sketches and threw himself into the adventure of that journey with great spirit. Groups of Meru on the banks or navigating their bark watercraft were of special interest. He called to them as the Mary Ann passed, and carried on a barter when he could.

Finally, working on a strict protocol of steaming only during the day and tying up to a tree branch overnight, they navigated the Big Bend for the second time. By Saturday of the first week, they had limped their way ten miles above Moorundie, a busy depot town in those days. There William decreed that they would spend the Sabbath in a state of rest. He was pleased at having a minister aboard to deliver the service.

‘We shall,’ he proclaimed, in a theatrical manner, ‘awaken the echoes of this river’s primeval solitudes by the voice of prayer and the song of praise.’

The Reverend John Davies conducted the service very early the following morning, while steam rose from the water. It was a beautiful moment, with the sun rising over the trees that crowded the banks, giving both the verge grasses and the river waters a yellow glow, while a cold wind stirred from the north-west.

When it was over William requested one last prayer.

‘And what would that be?’ asked Davies.

‘Could we pray that God will ‘elp us reach the Darling Junction before that devil Captain Cadell?’

‘Of course,’ said Davies with a malicious grin, and again they bowed their heads.

*****

The following day the Mary Ann finally steamed to within sight of the spot where they’d been defeated, back in March, by shallow water and mud-bars.

‘It’s just ahead Will,’ cried Tom.

‘What is?’

‘That shallow place where we turned back last time.’

William’s hand whitened on the helm. His nervousness, however, was unfounded. Deploying a lead line, they consistently sounded between twenty and thirty feet of water depth, and there were smiles all round. At least the river was now on their side, and they were learning to live with the boiler.

‘Full ahead,’ he shouted, ‘nothing will stop us now.’ Inside William’s head, however, he intoned one more prayer – this time asking for Heavenly assistance in ensuring that the worst of the boiler problems were behind them.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image: Murray River, Moorundie. Lithograph by Eugene von Guérard. State Library of South Australia

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Chapter Sixteen: Up the Goolwa

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

The failed launches of the last few days are an embarrassment and disappointment to me, but now, as we pull away from the Goolwa jetty with the Eureka lashed alongside, I am satisfied that my reputation is intact. The empty space in my bed where Miss Williams, until recently, has slept, is a lack I feel keenly. On the other hand, her presence on board and in my cabin would have been a scandal and she is not the kind of woman easily hidden. Her departure, on balance, is for the best, and when I ask Mr Davidson to make one-quarter revolutions on both engines, heading upstream in the Goolwa Channel of the Murray River, she is the last thing from my mind.

Rather, my thoughts concern only the river herself and the safe navigation in the dark of this glassy evening. My boat, the Lady Augusta, so homely and box-like from a distance becomes beautiful to those on board. She has luxury berths for twelve gentlemen forward, and four ladies aft, as well as my own cabin, sleeping accommodation for lesser guests and my officers, as well as hammocks for the crew below decks. She is fully 105 feet in length, her upper works of New Zealand pine, as are those of the Eureka, with a hull of blue-gum planks. She smells of tar and wood, fresh from the adze. Lanterns burn both aft and on the hurricane deck, and her masts stab towards the sky where the glow of stars make such a brilliant array that the dignitaries arrayed on our decks point and exclaim at their beauty.

A huge fire is burning on the bank, a column of sparks rising in a line upwards into the firmament. All day the Ngarrindjeri people – those dark-skinned fishers of the river lands – have been gathering in numbers, piling up firewood. They were given two sheep which they suspended above the flames and have now cut down to eat. I see their figures in the firelight, dancing with bloody chunks of mutton-flesh in their hands. I hear the tapping of sticks and the drone of otherworldly instruments that fade with the increasing revolutions of the engines.

The jetties and the fire are soon past, and our little quarterdeck relaxes somewhat, able to fixate on the route, and I tell my captains and lieutenants that they best get used to travelling by night, for I will not allow the Randell boys in their home-made paddle steamer to reach the Darling Junction before me.

Yet I feel strangely breathless and alone. I realise that I am afraid. Yes, I have faced Chinese guns, and the very worst Atlantic Ocean storms, where a ship becomes a helpless lump of flotsam. I am not afraid of the river waters. I am afraid that the Lady Augusta will strike a snag missed by the lookouts and sink with loss of life. That one of the foolish lubbers cavorting on the deck will fall overboard and drown themselves. There are so many ways in which my plans can go awry, and I must control my fear that they will come to pass.

Yet, that first evening is like a dream – passengers climbing the ladder to thank me for bringing them on this journey. All are in excellent moods with the assistance of French champagne. They can see now that the Lady Augusta and her barge are well suited to this river work, and the Russell and Company engines are truly excellent – of the latest compound horizontal type, smooth and quiet, and the chuff of steam with each cycle is comforting, the boilers holding their pressure at a consumption of just four hundred pounds of wood per hour.

In three hours of night-steaming we run fifteen solid miles, almost to Lake Victoria, and there in a broad segment of the channel we set a single anchor, and with a watch officer charged with keeping look-out and maintaining coals in the fireboxes, we go to our beds.

*****

At four o’clock in the morning, after a light but refreshing sleep, I wake and accept hot shaving water from Jeray, a native of China who serves as both second steward, assistant to John McAulay, and my own personal batman. Dressed and presentable, I rap on the door of William Davidson, nominally the master of the Lady Augusta, but overshadowed, I know, by my presence on board. William Webb the Chief Officer and Napier the engineer share a cabin and I knock until I hear a reply.

‘I want full steam by quarter-to-five, men,’ I say, and I hear the groans, but they do not dare complain.

By half past four I am topsides, while Tom Nevin and Henry Petrie the Able Seamen prepare to raise the anchor. Firebox doors clang as the stokers Rob Robson, Evan Thomas, William Cruise Teague and Lewis Chandler bring up more three-foot lengths of red gum and bring the fireboxes up to heat. By ten to five the anchor and hawser are stowed, and we are travelling at half revolutions up the channel, the gentle splashing of the paddlewheels bringing the scent of the river, not unpleasantly, to our nostrils.

As breakfast is served the vista of Mount Barker near the mouth provides a talking point for the guests. Water birds in vast numbers, tens of thousands perhaps, take to flight and blank out the sky with their wings. I see swans, ducks, signets, spoonbills and pelicans in uncountable numbers and I can only guess at the resources of small fish that must exist to sustain them.

As we prepare to round Point Sturt into Lake Victoria, an expanse of water some thirty-five miles by fifteen in size, Mr Davidson warns me that according to the port-side watch the south-westerly is blowing Force Six and I can feel how the wind works against the blunt sides of the Lady Augusta’s cabins.

‘Should we lay up here for the day and hope it blows itself out?’ asks Davidson from his place beside me.

‘No, we go on,’ I say. ‘But the crossing must be swift. Three quarter speed ahead now.’ And under a blue sky buffeted by cold and inclement winds, we enter the broad expanse of Lake Victoria, and I can see how the breeze has whipped its surface into a frenzy, foam flecked on the surface and catching the sun.

The journey that has theretofore been smooth and pleasant, changes into a rampaging ride of troughs and crests as the shallow water and the wind increases to Force Seven, a near gale. Within an hour most of the guests are sick, and it is a terrible sight to see Mrs Younghusband bent over the rail. Again my fear returns. I need the goodwill of these people for my plans to come to fruition, and seasickness does not make for a kindly disposition. I pray that none of the gentlemen or women aboard demands to be returned to shore.

It is strange, but Anne Finniss, the wife of the Colonial Secretary, seems to be affected not at all. I watch her assist the other women, and her carriage remains upright and her colour strong. She is an exceedingly handsome woman, as the best of Irishwomen can be. I know about her humble but honest beginnings and admire her already. I am also fond of her son Travers.

Seeing the way that she weathers that lake crossing, I admire her a little more.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image is by James Hazel Adamson. View of Goolwa with the Lady Augusta approaching the jetty. Courtesy State Library of South Australia.

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes here.

More books and free stories at ozbookstore.com

Chapter Seventeen: The Swamp

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Anne had not failed to notice the flashing looks from Captain Cadell as the Lady Augusta tackled the lake, but she was determined to ignore him. In fact, with her son beside her, and after several hours of assisting ill passengers, the attention did not sit well with her. A sense of indignation began to grow.

Under no circumstances, she told herself, would she allow herself to be the subject of a shipboard obsession. As if to punctuate this emotion she glared from her position on the promenade deck to the wheelhouse, where Captain Cadell stood with his captains and happened to be looking back her way. Anne’s glance caught him by surprise, and he turned sharply.

Travers placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned into the view of Pomanda Island. It was a strange but picturesque little place, surrounded by reeds and thickly colonised with shrubs. ‘May I cross to the Eureka to help Captain Robertson?’ he asked.

‘Not in these conditions,’ said Anne patiently. ‘It might be dangerous. Soon enough we’ll enter the river and things will calm down.’ The lake had already begun to narrow as they approached the river entrance.

‘So, I can go across when we enter the river?’ he asked, as if determined to extract a formal promise.

‘For sure you can,’ she agreed, and reached up to touch his hand, just as Mr Mason, the South Australian ‘Protector of Aborigines’ came alongside. He was a man of medium height, with chocolate brown eyes and a fondness, Anne had earlier decided, for the sound of his own voice.

‘Young Travers,’ the gentleman said. ‘You should be thankful we don’t land at Point Pomond, for it is infested with snakes. There are hordes of the damned things.’

Anne shivered theatrically. ‘Snakes? Well it’s a good thing we’re not stopping.’

‘What kind are they?’ asked Travers, his interest piqued. ‘Blacks, tigers or browns?’

‘Black snakes mostly, but some brown fellows as well. I’ve shot twenty of the vile creatures in a day.’

‘You live near here, don’t you Mr Mason?’

‘Yes, not far ahead, on the reserve of course. Come with me to the other side and we’ll be able to watch  it coming up.’

Anne and Travers dutifully followed their guide to the starboard rail, which was already lined with spectators. Their height above the water provided a tremendous view on either side, and to Anne’s eye the eastern bank appeared as flat meadows peppered with stately pines. The grass was very green near the river, with scattered cattle grazing.

‘That land to starboard,’ Mason went on, ‘is Portalloch Station – belongs to a Scot called Neil Malcolm, and a good fellow he is too. The white house there is his, and that’s him waving now.’

The lake was less than half a mile across by then, growing calmer by the mile, and ahead they saw the entrance to the Murray River itself, a moment of excitement for all the passengers. It was surprisingly narrow there, and murky with the earth of inland flood plains., Anne now gave Travers leave to skip over to the Eureka.

‘Be careful,’ she said, but he was already gone.

A mile inside the river, Mason pointed out a heap of cut wood stacked on the right-hand bank, next to a new jetty made of red gum piles and planked with the same timber. ‘This is the Reserve coming up now,’ he said. ‘Our sable brethren have been cutting wood for some days for fuel. Rather excited about the whole thing they were, I must say.’

‘You get on well with them, don’t you?’ Anne asked.

‘I do. I’ve lived in the area now for nigh on two decades – I was a policeman at Wellington, so I’m pleased to say that I have their respect, and they get nothing but fair dealing from me. They are not all the same – being from different groups, with similar but discrete languages, but most of them identify as Ngarrindjeri.’

‘Stand by all,’ came the booming voice of Captain Cadell. ‘We will stop and load fuel here. You may step ashore briefly if you wish.’

The engines surged, belching smoke that filtered the sun brown as they swung into the new jetty. The chief steward supervised the lowering of a gangplank, then shepherded those ladies and gentlemen who wished to go ashore. A swarm of black men, bearded and agile, appeared and began the work of loading the boat. Most wore ill-fitting European clothing, with a smattering of furs and more traditional garb. Members of their families were on the shore: mothers with babes, and small children running and smiling.

Travers appeared again, hurrying back from the Eureka to this new source of excitement, full of limitless energy. ‘May I help with the loading, Mother?’  

‘I suppose it won’t hurt,’ she said, and nearly burst with pride as she watched him run over to join in the work, loading his sturdy arms as full as any grown man and bantering with the labouring Ngarrindjeri.

 ‘He’s a fine lad,’ said Mason.

‘Thank you. Boyle and I are quite proud of him of course.’ She pointed across at a stone house in the distance. ‘That’s your house, is it?’

Mason nodded, he was the Protector of Aborigines, and this was the main reserve in this part of the Province. ‘Yes, I can see my wife coming along now. I’d best go and meet her.’

‘You’ve done a good job here. These … Ngarrindjeri look healthy.’

‘Thank you. The work of civilising and bringing Christianity to them is proceeding beyond expectations.’

Mason walked to the ladder, descended, and left the Lady Augusta via the gang plank. Anne saw how some of the labouring men called to him as he went, smiling and laughing. The Protector of Aborigines was popular with his charges, it seemed.

*****

It was mid-afternoon when they reached Wellington. A crowd had gathered out front of the Inn, shouting out their huzzah’s as the Lady Augusta hove into view. At that moment also, the government ferry had almost reached the Western bank, loaded down with men, horses and equipment, all setting out for the goldfields.

Of most interest to the passengers on the Lady Augusta, the escort bringing gold from the Victorian fields to Adelaide was also on board, the distinctive armoured coach guarded by grim police with rifles, taking no part in the hard work of hand-winching the ferry across.

Ashore, too, the gold-seekers were lined up waiting to board when the ferry had disgorged its passengers, or were camping nearby, a few desperate returnees calling out the foolishness of those setting off.

‘It aren’t like what you think,’ one dishevelled digger called. ‘Don’t believe what you hear – there aren’t no nuggets layin’ around waitin’ to be picked up, and the likely ground is all pegged. If you don’t ‘ave capital don’t bother.’ A huddle formed around him, some incredulous, others downright aggressive towards him.

With some hours to kill, Travers first prevailed on Anne to buy him some shot and caps for the small calibre revolver his father had allowed him to bring on the journey. Then, back on the steamer he disappeared again, weaving through the crowds of Wellington locals taking the opportunity to step aboard the ‘first “real” paddle steamer on the Murray.’

A short time later he was back, his face shining with excitement, gripping Anne’s hand excitedly, ‘Mother, there’s an interesting swamp across the river – full of water birds. Lillie Younghusband wants to go for a row, and Captain Cadell gave me permission to take one of the small boats. Can I please?’

Anne smiled, ‘I don’t think it’s seemly for you to head off on the river alone with Lillie.’

‘Then you can come too, can’t you?’

Anne had been looking forward to sitting down with her novel – she had lately been reading a book that all her friends were talking about – a spooky tale called Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Yet, Travers was almost impossible to say no to – and that was part of what worried her about letting him get away from adult eyes and across the river somewhere.

‘Of course I can,’ she said. ‘Let me get my coat.’

*****

Lillie Younghusband was such a lively young thing, dressed in a spotted dress and white bonnet, that Anne couldn’t help getting caught up in the spirit of this adventure. Travers rowed like a man across the current and still had the wind to talk constantly. Anne remained in the background, occupying the bow seat, enjoying the excursion very much.

Across the river was the entrance to the swamp, and it was true that the surface was alive with birds. Pelicans, ducks, black swans and a dozen other species, breaking into noisy flight as the rowboat approached.

There were vast armies of reeds, and shallow places where the water was no more than waist deep, the tips of dying grasses still visible, having been inundated by the rising waters. Red gums and paper barks grew on islands and banks, often partially draped with green creepers. The trunks and limbs of dead trees rose in eerie grey shafts from the water.

For some thirty minutes Travers rowed, laughed and sky-larked, the two youngsters leaning over to splash each other or pointing to a blooming lily-flower and once, a black snake shimmying across the water surface. Anne, however, was growing conscious of the passing time.

‘We really need to go,’ she said. ‘Captain Cadell will be wanting to leave.’

‘Can I have a quick swim first?’ Travers said.

Lillie burst into laughter, ‘You’re mad Travers, it’s the middle of winter.’

Anne inclined her head reluctantly, and Travers stood, stripped off his shirt, and dived over the side, surfacing a stone’s throw sway from the boat, bursting through the surface and blowing a raspberry. ‘It’s cold alright,’ he said, but made no move towards the boat. Instead he duck-dived down, returning with a handful of swamp detritus that he threw in Lillie’s direction. It fell short, but it was enough to send her into fits of giggles.

Again Travers dived, and Anne waited for him to surface, but seconds ticked past. Her heart started to hammer uncomfortably. ‘Travers?’ she called.

A moment later the Lady Augusta’s steam whistle blew distantly. It was a recall. Anne looked around desperately. Travers had still not surfaced. Even Lillie had stopped laughing, but was looking desperately around them.

 Anne stood up, heedless of the now rocking boat. Her voice rose in pitch and cracked out across the water. ‘Travers, you get back here right now!’

Again the steam whistle sounded, and Lillie too was standing, peering around in the water. All the humour and fun had gone from the day. Anne’s voice thinned with the strain, and she saw that Lillie close to tears. The mood had changed, just like that, and Anne tried to reason out how many seconds had passed since her son had gone under. The pain in her chest was like a knife, as again the whistle sounded.

A moment later Travers burst from the water, laughing. ‘I bet I had you worried,’ he gasped.

Anne’s temper had always been quick to rise, and even with the relief that came flooding into her, she turned on him. ‘You stupid boy. Get in this boat right now. Captain Cadell has been blowing the recall and if we are late I will die of embarrassment.’

Anne fitted the oars to the rowlocks while he sulkily climbed over the transom, and sat, shivering, his skin pale and raised in goose-bumps. He raised himself to change places into the rowing position, but she was already beginning the first stroke.

‘I’ll row, you just get yourself warm,’ she snapped.

‘I didn’t even know you could row,’ he said miserably.

‘I can do a lot of things you don’t know about,’ she said, and it was true, for she had grown up within a stone’s throw of the River Bhrosnach, on a bend as it wound through Mullingar. Her childhood had been filled with boats and skipping stones and tickling trout from the water on river bends.

It was a good distance back to the Lady Augusta, but she rowed skillfully, and finally, when they came up to the steamer she was blowing off steam and all other passengers had boarded. Captain Cadell said nothing as he watched Tom Nevin help them aboard, preparing to lift the rowboat up onto the davit, but his face was thunderous, and there were no more admiring glances that evening.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes here.

More books and free stories at ozbookstore.com

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