ANTONIA'S JOURNEY a novel by Paul Coan Williams
Antonia Newland stepped sideways as the ship hove to in the brisk breeze. The Enterprise, six months out from Portsmouth, was now lined up for the final run in through the imposing twin headlands which guarded Port Jackson.
"We had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbor in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security," was Captain Arthur Phillip's assessment of the magnificent harbor forty years previously.
A vast blue sky seemed to reach up forever, studded with cloud castles along the horizon. The balmy breeze was doing its work well, for Antonia could feel her muslin dress moving freely with the movement of the air. She would give it another few minutes airing before stowing it with the others; then that would be it! Everything washed and, in its own way, ironed. She would change into the pink and white walking outfit which had charmed all back at Sandringham House. Whatever Sydney Town 1831 held for her, she would be as ready as any twenty-one year old could be.
The mainsail cracked and filled as it took the following wind, and the Enterprise surged on the heaving swells. On deck bustled dozens of curious passengers, mostly English. For forty years ships had plied this route laden with cargoes of unwilling souls, unhappy convicts and their unhappy jailers. Now, things were changing. The colony had proved surprisingly benign, yielding a good living to many and a fortune to some. The pace of immigration was quickening, as many committed to the challenge of life on the other side of the world.
Antonia frowned slightly with her thoughts. I'm a gambler. I bet no-one knows that. I've seen people playing cards and seen them making bets they can't afford. It's a disaster. But I'm gambling my life, my reputation and our family history.
It was true. Antonia's branch of the Newland family, once influential and well-connected, was almost extinct. Her mother had died bearing her, and now her father was not long for this world. It was he who had rounded up what was left to stake her new life. It was he who had secured the passage out in reasonable comfort, and it was he who had secured the services of the Reverend Allsopp as chaperone, mentor and spiritual guide on a journey which would have been nigh impossible for a single woman otherwise.
When people look at me they see a nice girl. But I'm not a girl, I'm a woman. And I'm not nice either. I can't afford to be. I know I'm not a bad person, but I'm as good as is possible in this funny old world.
Antonia sighed. The Reverend Allsopp had served his purpose, but she knew she would not care if she never saw him again. His solicitousness had quickly turned to covetousness within days of the journey's commencement, and she had rarely encountered a creature with so many hands. God's insurance policy had threatened to demand a heavy premium and she had been hard put to it to maintain a pleasant demeanour and her modesty.
Here I am. People think I'm pretty, but I don't care as long as Marcus thinks so. How soon could we be married? Will he be at the quay-side to meet me? Will I have to behave properly? Will I shake hands or curtsey or kiss him? Better not – it might not look right, and besides, these women will give me hell. It would be bad start. No, I'll be proper in my behavior. No one will be able to fault us.
“Penny for y' thorts, luv.” Antonia jumped, startled out of her reverie.
“Oh, I think that would be over-valuing them,” she murmured.
An observer would have seen a slim and graceful young woman speaking graciously to a less well-favored older woman of the class which keeps the estates and their families well fed. She was stout and freckled, with frowsty ginger hair struggling to escape a mobbed cap. Considering the way this woman had treated her during the voyage, Antonia decided upon her excuse to make an exit. “Goodness, we are into the harbor already. I must go and change for the docking. Please excuse me.”
So saying, she took her leave in order to make her final preparation for landfall.
The crowd was excited. The crew were excited too, Antonia could see. And, she had to admit, she could hardly contain herself either. The only thing was, she wasn’t going to show it.
Six months, six dreary months of cold and wet, sickness and fever and endless rolling and tossing were evaporating in a balmy breeze that propelled the sailing ship “Enterprise” through the magnificent bluffs which guarded the entrance to Sydney Harbour. The crowd chattered animatedly as they swept past fishing boats, forts and, perched on picturesque headlands, attractive and substantial residences. Even from afar, Antonia could see the bustle of activity as gardeners worked their way along hedgerows, seemingly transplanted from their English homes, and groomsmen led horses through carriageways. Occasionally the crack of an axe, the clatter of hooves or the rumble of a mill could be heard over the endless creaking of ship cables and the flapping of sails billowing in the stiff breeze.
The others thought her stand-offish. And what’s more, she didn’t care. In fact, she didn’t care to be associated with them at all. She had paid the price on the journey, being ostracized by some, and chided by others, for the crime of being “uppity”.
“’n I think y’re jus as happy as the rest ‘v us to see land.”
Antonia didn’t have to turn, for she recognised the voice of Isaac, the bosun. She liked him, as he was an honest man with a good mind. He was always respectful, and she felt safe with him, unlike many of his colleagues.
“Do you think anyone would not be happy to see land, Isaac?”
“Indeedy maam, indeedy. Some isn’t fit to go ashore, and some knows it too.”
“But you’re not one of them Isaac?” she went on, with a playful smile.
“I leaves you t’be the judge ‘o that maam” he countered with his most innocent face, which only made him look so comical that Antonia burst out laughing. This drew the attention of a couple of the older ladies who drew together as if for protection from evil spirits.
“Don’t look now Eliza”, muttered one, in a stage whisper meant for a generous audience. “It’s that dreadful creature again.”
Ignoring the advice, Eliza spun round, squinted meaningfully toward Antonia, and remarked into the air “Which one?” This drew a couple of laughs, but on this day, the day of their arrival in the colony of New South Wales, the thoughts, hopes and fears of the group were on their future, the future of this new colony and the future of their own little lives.
“New life, eh?” muttered another woman, more coarse than poisonous.
“Lookin' fr an 'usband?” she added, offensively Antonia thought.
Nettled, she did what she had sworn not to do, and bit back.
“No, I am promised to Captain Oldham of the Regimental Corps.”
Now the stir was noticeable. Even though she had not spoken loudly, her morsel of information seemed to have electrified the whole crowd. She regretted it immediately, like a card player who has produced a trump too soon. For the moment the victory was sweet and she savoured it. But a small knot of concern lay undigested inside her. There had been no letter, no news – nothing!
Isaac spoke. Her mind only half there, Antonia turned languidly to concentrate on what he was saying. What strange creatures we are, she thought as she perused his weather-beaten features. Decades of salt and sun had turned his face into a leathery map criss-crossed with dozens of mysterious channels, most of them good-natured. And from this tawny visage glittered a pair of startling blue eyes, as bright and inquisitive as those of a jackdaw. Yet his face was pleasant and his presence comforting. What was he saying now? Ah yes, only to be expected, he wanted to know her plans. Already she'd be having to elaborate, and there were ears waving like mainsails in the breeze she thought, eager to catch any scraps of information and gossip to enliven their lives. Oh dear, she thought, is this what life is going to be like in this new place. And to think I thought I'd be leaving all that behind in Norfolk. The cat's out of the bag now though.
It was a fine post, a comfortable barracks and superb weather. Prospects for advancement were excellent, but Major Jackson sighed heavily as he shuffled his paperwork yet again. His aide looked up, but remained tight-lipped. He knew better than to guess the boss's mood on these occasions. The Major was a fine man and a good soldier, and it was to be supposed that he found standards a little too easy, a little too slack for his exacting temperament. He would have supposed wrong, for uppermost in major Jackson's mind were concerns of a more trivial and domestic nature.
Jackson sighed again, completely oblivious of the effect it had on his subordinate, who hunched his shoulders and buried his head in a vast ledger.
Drumming his fingers now on his desk, a substantial one made from local timber, by convict craftsmen, he gazed abstractedly through the window. Far below stretched the dimpled waters of the harbour. Across its steel blue surface crawled beetles of various sizes. These were small working ships, ferrying wood and coal and horses from place to place, landing people and food along the coves and inlets. Still daydreaming, he lined up imaginary cannon sights on real ships, calculating, by habit, range and elevation, charges and timers. He sighed again as his worries reasserted themselves. Why did life have to be so difficult? It was easier being an artillery man in India. Guns, muskets, cannon, soldiers. Prisoners, rations, marches. These were bread and butter to him. Cake too for that matter. But what did he know about hired help? How should he know what Lydia should wear to the Ball? What the hell was a Viennese waltz, and how was it different from any other?
His unfocused eye gradually became aware of a larger shape down on the water, and the dark scowl of vexation on his brow lightened several shades. By Jove! It was the “Enterprise” running a couple of days early. No doubt the poor sods on board were glad of that. Well, he didn't care if it carried wheat, wool, convicts or slaves. As long as it held a new outfit for Lydia, he would be eternally grateful. And if it turned out that the domestic help was of a superior quality to their predecessors, he would be almost as pleased. A dancing master might be too much to hope for.
Lydia Jackson picked moodily at a frayed hem. The needle was blunt, but still managed to draw blood on too many occasions. It was just too infuriating, to have come half-way round the globe and be forced to do one's own mending. The only girls she'd had who were any good had gotten above themselves, and had upped and married, and they didn't seem to care to who. So frustrating to see them playing madam when they might, with a little modesty and perseverance, have been part of a truly fine establishment. She rested her work for a moment and straightened her back.
Not for the first time she wondered whether it might be possible to train some of the native women in some of these domestic tasks. Did they really wish to sit under the trees all day, doing nothing? Maybe that's how this colony made you feel – there seemed to be a lot of it going about, and to tell the truth she felt less energetic by the week. Surely though the native women would appreciate the chance to learn civilised ways, she thought. She pictured an extensive staff of obedient, starched helpers, dutifully washing, cooking, ironing and repairing. In her mind's eye she saw a splendid and beautifully manicured lawn sweeping down to the harbour. Fashionable visitors thronged the enclosure, and envious neighbours peered through the wrought-iron fences and hedges.
She was unaware that she was smiling gently at the thought, so was embarrassed at being rudely disturbed by Sadie's “Master's home, missus.”
She saw immediately that Sadie had missed nothing, and even suspected that her coarse voice was pitched even more roughly than usual, to annoy her. If so, it had been effective, she reflected. She stifled the impulse to round on the florid servant, saying only “Very good” but meaning nothing of the sort.
Everyone liked Myles – except Lydia. He'd bombed and hacked his way across half the world and she'd accompanied him as a good wife. Now it was her turn. Just a modicum of style, just a soupcon of comfort, just a smidgin of style was all she asked. To dress, to walk, to be entertained as a lady was reasonable surely, but here, in the heat and dust of Sydney, the dream was evaporating. She turned to her needlework again. She would have an elegant hem for the Ball even if she had to stay up all night, and Myles would accompany her in gentlemanly style, including the dance floor, or there would be consequences. For the moment at least, they inhabited two different worlds.
She had heard the clatter of horse's hooves on the path, and now the tread of her husbands boots on the flagstones. Today they sounded crisp and authoritative, unlike the measured fatalistic tread she had become used to. Something had happened!
“Ship's in” he rapped, laying aside his belt and tunic. He waved aside the excuse for a servant who appeared at the door waiting for orders. The man was a wreck, and no-one really wished to know his history. Just one of the myriad nameless and possibly harmless convicts who had been strained out of the mainstream of life by the sieve of circumstance. Truth was, Jackson rarely had any good news for his wife and was relieved to be able to impart the latest item.
Awareness swept over Lydia, but all too often disappointed, she controlled the spark of elation that threatened to engulf her.
“That's nice dear” was all she said.
Baffled, he rejoined “Well, I'm off then.”
“Checking the ship of course. Any disease, stowaways, marriages, babies – in any order you like” and he laughed heartily at his own joke.
Despite herself, so did Lydia.
“I'm coming too.”
Sydney Cove looked busy and dirty. There was a motley collection indeed, of all types to be seen from the ship. Most of the people seemed to be English of one sort or another, but there were also representatives of far-flung races and colonies, while there appeared to be considerable numbers of folk well-heeled and well turned-out. Even the fashions appeared to be reasonably current.
There was a small military deputation as well, and Antonia's eyes were glued to this group, the group from which she imagined Marcus would emerge. Still the ship manoeuvred, jockying for a position along the quay.
Isaac had deputed his authority to the harbour master and pilot and found time to chat again to the pleasant young woman who had been such a welcome change on the voyage.
“You done well with that lot miss” he began.
“I don't suppose they mean any harm” she responded.
His blue eyes peered hard at her for a moment before they both burst into hearty laughing.
“Well, it can't be helped anyway.”
He watched her carefully, but politely as they talked. She knew he was watching to see if she spied Marcus. She didn't. But that in itself was not remarkable, for he could be away anywhere, on patrol or routine garrison work.
She didn't notice him leave, but next became aware of Isaac on the wharfside, threading his way through the crowd. There he was again, talking earnestly to the redcoats. They looked serious. That feeling tightened in her stomach.
“So y'r gennleman's here for ye is he luv?”
The false solicitude of the woman was so odious that Antonia could have swept her into the noisome water of the harbour with one blow. No vulture ever smelt carrion so keenly as this witch. Something was wrong! Every nerve in her body told her so. And every instinct told her not to give in to it.
“The gentleman to whom I am engaged is currently on patrol in the Blue Mountains” she replied stiffly.
“Corse 'e is luv, corse 'e is.”
And with a hoarse chuckle, she swept away to join the disembarking throng.
While Major Myles Jackson helped go through the formalities of a new vessel's arrival, Mrs. Lydia Jackson arranged to view the cargo. It all took time, but her importunate demands soon saw a nest of soft bundles released to her care. Her husband, meanwhile, totted figures of another sort. The number of souls having departed Plymouth, less the number of souls arriving in Sydney gave the number of soft bundles claimed by the sea en route – mostly babies. He had a check-list of duties and he worked his way methodically through them all. One in particular he regretted.
Here on the dockside were the newly arrived. Men looking for work, girls looking for husbands and younger sons looking for land. One way or another it was the Land of the New Start. And surely, thought Lydia, amongst this lot are some who know how to dress a table, who can speak the King's English in a manner which he would find intelligible and who might provide an oasis of cultured company.
Then her eyes fell upon Antonia. Damn, she thought. If only she were more plain. Still, there was something about her. And damn again, she thought, for it appeared that her husband had the same thought, as he seemed to be approaching her, though not with any great certainty. Still, what could it matter in the end?
“Miss Newland I presume” he murmured.
Antonia responded well, showing fine breeding and a graceful air. Still, there was something coltish in her eye. She looked suspicious.
“I regret Madam, that I have sad news.”
The knot in her stomach turned into a fist that gripped her with icy fingers. She waited, struck mute.
“I have to tell you that Captain Oldham is no longer with us. He disappeared on patrol some six months ago, and I have to tell you that little hope could be entertained of ever finding him alive. The other men with him also died – their bodies were seen. I'm sorry.” And he said it again “I'm sorry.”
The words echoed in Antonia's brain. They seemed ludicrous. “I'm sorry” he'd said. No, thought Antonia, I am the one who is sorry. I am sorry, I am sick, I am sore. I am confused and lost, for my world has gone. I am on the wrong side of the world and I have no future. My man is gone, the one I promised myself to, the one who promised himself to me, the idol of my childhood, my hero, my protector. I am sorry, I am sorry.
She became aware that he was looking at her, and so was a woman with a very strong and determined face. Was she his wife? Why didn't he die? Why did it have to be Marcus.
She had borne up all through the journey. When the rest of the ship's company was leaning over the side, emptying their stomachs into the India Ocean, she had turned into rope and steel, had become just another part of the ship, evoking the admiration of the crew and old Isaac. The fevers and cramps that came and went amongst the assemblage seemed to pass over her, just as the the plagues of Egypt spared the Chosen Ones. She had come to feel that she was a creature of destiny, marked out for fortune's munificence.
But this feeling crumbled like sand, and the taste of triumph turned to bitter ashes in her mouth as she tried to grasp the meaning of the words she had heard. She was unaware of the voices, the salts, the bustle of horse and carriage as she was carried like a baby, who knows where. As if in a dream, she saw the harbour recede, the little gardens file past; the hustle and bustle died down until soon there was little but the clip-clop of hooves and eventually the shuffle and clatter of arrival. She was ushered inside on someone's arm, and given a draught of something. She didn't even know if it was hot or cold, but soon found herself unutterably tired, and unable to remember anything. Even without the shock of her news, it had been a long and exhausting journey with precious little sleep. She didn't even remember going to bed.