The Good Woman of Renmark
Adventure, romance and history combine in this thrilling 19th century journey through the South Australian bush and along the mighty Murray River in the company of a determined heroine.
Maggie O’Rourke has always had a hard head. No man was going to tie her down to a life of babies and domestic slavery, even if that man was as good (and as annoyingly attractive) as Sam Taylor. Maggie is happily earning her own way as a maid in a house on the Murray River when disaster strikes.
Forced to defend herself and a friend from assault by an evil man, she flees downriver on a paddle steamer. With death at her heels, Maggie begins to realise that a man like Sam might be just who she wants in her hour of need. As for Sam, well, Maggie has always been what he wants.
The further Maggie runs, the more she discovers there are some things she cannot escape…
Dragging in great gulps of air, Maggie slumped against a tree, its bark rough under her hand as she steadied herself. She wiped sweat from her forehead and squinted into the tangle of scrub behind her. No one was coming.
She recognised her surroundings. She usually came this way to visit the banks of the much-loved river. She was a long way from the road, she knew that, so going north, the river was ahead of her. It wouldn’t be far that way.
She pressed a hand over her heart and firmly tried talking it down from its rapid hammering. Her jaw ached where the pulse banged under her ears, and her throat was dry. Squeezing her eyes shut, she listened with all her might to the sounds of the bush around her. Except for a few birds and buzzing flies, she couldn’t hear a thing—but the voice in her head that kept shouting she’d killed a man.
Why doesn’t it feel like I’ve killed a man? Stupid. How would she know what that would feel like?
It wasn’t as if it had been done by someone else. But it felt as if she’d been standing outside her own shoes and some angry, terrified, righteous other woman had slammed that rod down on Boyd’s head. No. She’d done it, all right, and there was no time to stop for any ladylike trembles. Not that she’d ever been ladylike, but she had improved since being at Mrs Chaffey’s. To get ahead in the world, Maggie knew she had to be a little more refined than the tomboy she’d been in the past. All the same, it was not her intention to have weak-kneed wobbles or to stop and grizzle, as her mother would admonish in her quiet, lilting voice.
Deep breaths, Maggie-girl. Be brave. When were you ever not brave?Her mother. Ma. Maggie crept a hand under her pinafore and felt for the tiny drawstring purse she always wore. It had her savings in it. On her mother’s advice, she’d always kept it on her person, ensuring that she would never be without money in any situation. Rubbish to the thinking that a woman shouldn’t mind her own money. How was a person to get by if she didn’t have any money? Couldn’t trust the banks, that much was clear to anyone these days, and had been clear for a while. And, because she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed a bank account of her own; her father or, if she had one, her husband would take care of it for her. Bah to that. So it made perfect sense to carry her own money, and to hide it.
Maggie closed her fingers over the sturdy, soft leather purse. Its contents would be her salvation now. There might only be four pounds, six shillings and sixpence in it, but she knew it was her fortune, every penny hard won.
Yes, yes, you have money. But where are you going to go? You just killed a man.
Her side pinched where the stitch still hurt. One thing she’d yet to learn was how to run without killing herself. Breathing deep into her abdomen, the stitch eased. Still she waited, alert, her eyes darting towards every flit of a bird and every rustle of leaf litter. Then she heard the faint whistle of a paddle-steamer.
Ears straining, she heard it again. The river wasn’t too far away now. If she kept going …
And then do what? Stroll out to the riverbank and wave? Would the news of her having murdered a man reached the townsfolk already? Would it be racing along the river as fast as a bushfire?
She leaned back on the rough tree trunk. Dear God. What to do? What to do?
Home. Go home to your parents, to Echuca. No, no. They’d catch her there. They’d take her away to gaol and hang her not long after … What a terrible thing that would do to her parents.
But would she be a criminal in the colony of Victoria? She didn’t know. And who would she ask? Oh, excuse me, protecting myself and my friend, I’ve killed a man in Renmark, South Australia. Does that make me a criminal in Victoria too?
She had defended herself and always would. She was a strong woman and no man was going to inflict a denigration on her, or on anyone near her, and get away with it. Maggie was the one who didn’t allow stray hands and fingers of others to linger when they’d tried touching her as she’d stood in a packed crowd some-where. If they believed it was their right to handle her and other women like they were possessions, why do it so furtively? No, she’d concluded, they knew they were wrong, and she would say so every time.
Apart from her father and her brother, there was only one man she’d ever wanted near her, and it was Sam. Down to earth, happy, laughing Sam, with his broad chest and his kind brown eyes. Oh, stop bringing Sam into this. For goodness sake, she’d given him marching orders too.
But now what? Think, Maggie. A sob escaped, tearless and scratchy, and she swallowed down the next one. Think, Maggie O’Rourke. Dammit, dammit, dammit.
That was a very good mimic of Sam’s mildest cursing, his voice now in her head. Oh, and now tears might come—Sam, I only wish … all right, I know I’ve opinions that are just as strong as yours but no less valid because they’re mine.
She’d sent Sam packing after their last little tryst, and he was not a happy man. But sending Sam away had been the best thing to do. For Sam. Well, for her, really.
She’d always tried to do the right thing in her life … like helping sick people, or defending those weaker than herself, espe-cially in the play yard at the Camp Hill school in Bendigo, where the family had lived before relocating to Echuca. Or like picking up that iron rod and cracking it over the head of the monster attacking poor Nara. Surely the law would see why Maggie had done it? Surely any policeman would understand the need to—
Her stomach plummeted. The police would ask what the woman had done to attract the ire of the man who attacked her. The law would ask why a so-called decent man like Robert Boyd would lower himself to such a thing. With no witnesses in their favour, it would be the servant women’s word against that of a so-called pillar of society—so-called by himself, that is. Maggie had seen and heard enough about how working-class women fared under the law, let alone the poorest of women like Nara. She and her husband eked out an existence however they could. This terrible economic depression had displaced so many for years.
Oh yes, there were some decent magistrates, but they were moved along in the country circuit too quickly for Maggie’s lik-ing. She had often been asked to assist with transcribing at the makeshift courts when the male clerk could not attend. That drew raised eyebrows, and on occasion, objections. How ridiculous that was, and she’d said so—she was merely using the skills her mother had taught her. Besides, the loutish, lazy clerk hadn’t shown up, so who would have recorded proceedings? There wasn’t even a reporter for the newspapers for miles around.
This was how the law worked. Women had some rights under the law, but they were not upheld as much as the rights of men. Maggie had been vocal in her views about it, a firm believer in her rights, human rights—that was how some of the suffrage ladies described it in their articles and letters.
Mrs Chaffey had quietly warned her that perhaps the local people weren’t so keen on the things she believed in. After that, Maggie had tried to temper voicing her own opinions, but she couldn’t help it. She’d let anyone know that she was all for the vote for women, and she’d scoured the newspapers for any word of it.
What would her rights be in gaol? She’d have none.
Bah! The law would ask why she had taken it upon herself to inflict grievous harm upon a person. Was it because she was in some nefarious scheme with her accomplice to steal from the man, or worse? Maggie squeezed her eyes shut. Didn’t matter a boot that the man was a ruffian, a low scoundrel masquerading as someone with morals. His poor family … although she doubted anyone would have alerted his wife that he was a dangerous brute. Maggie wasn’t the violent person, he was. She wasn’t someone who hurt people. She was a woman who stood up for herself and her friends, for people who had befriended her, like Nara and Wadgie.
She opened her eyes but all she saw was how quickly he’d sunk into death. How quickly the light went out of his eyes. Maggie had never seen a dead man, only dying or dead animals, but the light snuffing out when life departed had looked the same. He was dead.
She drew in short shallow breaths. Staring at the dusty ground at her feet, at ants scurrying by, at crackling-dry fallen leaves, Maggie suddenly knew with alarming clarity that life as she knew it was gone. In its place was a strange unknown, with no safety, no shelter. No haven into which she could crawl.
Hearing another faint blast of a paddle-steamer whistle, she pushed off the tree and grabbed at the strings on her apron to tug it open. She needed to get rid of it—it was white, and therefore a flag, waving that she was likely a servant, a maid. She pulled it off over her head and was about to fling it into the bush when she stopped—it could be useful. She lifted her skirt, and retied the pinafore underneath, hiding it from view. Besides, she shouldn’t leave anything behind for someone to find, to track.
She looked down. Her dress was presentable, a classic check in a dull brown with a bodice of box pleats nipped at the waist. It wouldn’t attract too much attention, if any at all. She brushed quickly at the full skirt, smoothing its creases and ensuring the pinafore wasn’t showing. Feeling it tied there, it seemed as if it had a role in a greater plan that she hadn’t fully thought out yet. It felt mildly ridiculous to be thinking such an odd thing. Is this how a murderer thinks and acts, as if outside of oneself looking in? As if the crime committed had been carried out by someone else?
A waft of breeze found the loose tendrils of her hair. She must look a mess—she’d been running like a mad woman and would have hair to match. She deftly picked out the hairpins and poked them onto her bodice, dropped her long hair and finger combed it. Knots and snarls nearly defeated her, but it was becoming man-ageable. She plaited it swiftly, wound the finished braid to the back of her head and stabbed in the pins once more. It felt tight, but it would have to do.
Now, move quickly. The quicker, the better. She could beat any news of her terrible felony reaching the local people near the river if she acted fast. But oh, for a plan. She had to have a plan. She had money. She looked respectable. No, she didn’t, not yet—she needed her hat, and a bag of some sort. A lady always carried a bag when she was travelling.
Her own hold-all—something she had fashioned from an old dress of her mother’s—was still back at the house. She had to have it. Apart from anything else, it held her latest letter to Sam, yet to be mailed.
‘What is wrong with me?’ she whispered, aghast. She’d hit a man over the head, she’d run from the crime, was hiding in the scrub and now worried about needing her bag and her hat. Dear God, my mind is skewed.
Finally, impatient with herself, she took a couple of steps away from the tree. Nothing happened. No smite from high above. No voice suddenly calling her out from behind. No thundering of policemen’s boots crashing through the bush. There was nothing except a whisper of leaves on the breeze, perhaps a wallaby skit-tering away. Again, she put one foot in front of the other until she was heading towards the river, her pace swift, her steps light.
Out of breath after what seemed like ages, Maggie stopped, resting by a fallen log, hidden by a copse of straggly mallee near where the bank dropped away to the river. To her left and a little distance away, paddle-steamers and their barges were tied up with ropes thrown to the low water mark and secured to posts sunk deep.
It wasn’t a robust-looking river in this area these days. Drought had decimated the flow, but the water level was still high enough. The single wharf of sturdy beams and cross-trusses rose above the water. Men were unloading what looked to be house-hold furniture from one barge, and others were stacking bales of merchandise—wool perhaps—ready to be loaded.
Further along, there was a group of people milling about, out of the way of the workmen but keen on their industry. Perhaps someone would recognise her. Maggie took a deep breath. Hopefully no one would take too much notice unless she got in the way of the workmen. She would go down quietly and identify for herself which boats were which, and which way they were headed, and when. If boats were going upriver to Mildura and onto Swan Hill, and even to Echuca, she wouldn’t go that way. The police might think she’d run to the closest border and might even be waiting for her there.
And she couldn’t take passage on the coach—it didn’t depart for days and she couldn’t wait. She was sure to be known as a criminal by then. She’d have to go by boat the long way, down-river, perhaps all the way to Tailem Bend and somehow, by some stroke of luck and good fortune, find a way into the colony of Victoria. Then go to Melbourne, and write to her parents from there. Have her father come for her. Maybe Sam would come.
Was it the best idea—going downriver? Well, it would have to be for today.
It was a foolhardy idea, that’s what it was. Her mind was still skewed but working fast. She pinched her nose and shook her head. Just do something, anything! Trying to calm the terror mounting in her belly, she stood tall then froze as a low voice spoke almost in her ear.