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Read a sneak peek: The Postmistress by Alison Stuart

by Alison Stuart

A stunning historical tale of loss, desire and courage that is full of the terror and the beauty of the Australian bush, for readers of The Thorn BirdsThe Naturalist’s Daughter and The Widow of Ballarat.

To forge a new life she must first deal with her past…

1871. Adelaide Greaves and her young son have found sanctuary in the Australian town of Maiden’s Creek, where she works as a postmistress. The rough Victorian goldmining settlement is a hard place for a woman – especially as the other women in town don’t know what to make of her – but through force of will and sheer necessity, Adelaide carves out a role.

But her past is coming to find her, and the embittered and scarred Confederate soldier Caleb Hunt, in town in search of gold and not without a dark past of his own, might be the only one who can help. Can Adelaide trust him? Can she trust anyone?

When death and danger threaten – some from her past, some born of the Australian bush – she must swallow her pride and turn to Caleb to join her in the fight, a fight she is determined to win…

‘Meticulously researched and brilliantly realised, Alison Stuart’s novel of vengeance, love and the power of a determined woman is hugely enjoyable.’ Tea Cooper, author of The Woman in the Green Dress

The Postmistress

 


Prologue

Oldfield House
Liverpool, England
6 December 1861

Tock, tock, tock …
The muffled tick of the marble and gilt clock on the mantelpiece beat out the minutes of Adelaide’s life. She stared at the egg congealing on her plate and fought back rising nausea. At the far end of the table, her father, Sir Daniel Lewis, read his morning mail.
Tock, tock, tock …
‘More tea, Miss Lewis?’ Hawkins, the footman, hovered at her elbow.
Adelaide shook her head.
As the man turned away, her father brought his fist down on the table with such force that it rattled the crockery and caused Hawkins to slop tea onto the oriental rug, the dark liquid spreading across the pattern of entwined leaves. The footman gave a cry of alarm, fell to his knees and mopped frantically at the wet stain with a table napkin.
‘Leave that,’ Sir Daniel snapped at the footman. ‘Get out.’
The man rose to his feet and inclined his head, closing the door behind him with a soft click.
‘What is it, Papa?’ Adelaide’s voice sounded reedy and thin.
Her father looked at her, his mouth a hard line and his brow furrowed. He waved the telegram he held. ‘Calamitous news. The Evangeline has not made port in Savannah.’
‘The Evangeline is lost?’ The room spun and Adelaide grasped at the table.
‘I fear so.’
‘What of … what of Mr Barnwell?’ It took a supreme effort to keep the tone of her voice even and disinterested.
Her father shrugged. ‘If the Evangline is lost, we can only assume all hands are lost with it. I will have to inform his father, of course, but His Lordship has other sons.’
Adelaide’s hand rose to her mouth but not in time to choke back the sob.
He cleared his throat and for a fleeting moment his features softened. ‘I believe Barnwell had indicated that he intended to ask for your hand on his return from America. I know you had formed a tendresse for him and I liked young Barnwell, but you are only seventeen and I would not have given my consent to such a match. Marriage is not about love—’ Sir Daniel cast her a hard look. ‘I have other plans for you, my girl. You’re not settling for any third sons when you could be a countess.’
Adelaide forced herself to meet her father’s hard eyes, searching for a chink of weakness, some indication that he truly cared for her, but she met only the impenetrable armour that had enabled Daniel Lewis to become one of the wealthiest and most successful shipping magnates in England.
‘You can dismiss my heart so readily, Papa? I wish I could do likewise.’
‘There will be other men, better prospects.’
Adelaide looked at her hands, still clutching the table, the knuckles white. She couldn’t tell him, couldn’t admit to the foolish moment of weakness, the naivety of two people who had fancied themselves in love and gone that step too far. Now Richard was dead, and the lacings of her corset would not conceal her shame for much longer.
Her father indicated the telegram with an exasperated wave of his hand. ‘A cargo lost. Nothing for it. I need to go to London to talk with the insurers.’
‘What about the crew and their families?’ Adelaide ventured.
‘I daresay I shall now be beset with pleas for compensation. I’ll pay the men’s wages for the voyage, if that’s what concerns you.’ He pulled his watch from his waistcoat and consulted it. ‘I will catch the eleven-fifteen train. Do not expect me back before week’s end.’
Adelaide took a deep shuddering breath and straightened. ‘Very well. If you will excuse me, Papa.’
But his attention had already turned back to the telegram from his Savannah agent. At the door, Adelaide gave her unloving father one last look.
Only when she reached the sanctuary of her bedchamber did her stiff resolve give way. She fell, howling, into the arms of her maid, sobbing out the dire news about the Evangeline and the loss of Richard Barnwell. She had no secrets from Netty Redley. Netty had been with her since childhood and had realised the horrible truth even before Adelaide.
‘What are we to do, Miss Adelaide?’ Netty ventured when the tears at last subsided.
Adelaide dashed at her swollen eyes. ‘I can’t stay. You know what he will do when he finds out that I am with child. Remember cousin Edith?’
Netty’s mouth tightened and she nodded.
If Adelaide ever found the courage to tell her father the truth of her condition, she would be sent away for the duration of her pregnancy. The child would be taken from her arms as soon as it drew breath and placed in an orphanage or, if it was lucky, with a family that wanted a child. That had been the fate that had befallen her cousin, Edith. Edith, who now lay in a lonely, unmarked suicide’s grave hard up against the churchyard wall.
Netty straightened and held Adelaide at arm’s length. ‘Don’t you fret, Miss Adelaide. We’ll pack your bag and go to my sister in Whitby. She’ll take us in for a little while until we can make some plans.’
‘What do you mean “we”? I can’t take you with me,’ Adelaide sobbed. ‘I’ve no means to pay you.’
Netty’s shoulders straightened. ‘I’ll hear none of that, Miss Adelaide. I’ve been with you since you was a bairn and I’ll not leave you now. Whatever is in your future is in mine and we’ll make the best of it.’ She paused. ‘As for means, there’s your mother’s jewellery. That’s yours to do with as you think fit.’
Adelaide wiped her eyes on the handkerchief Netty offered and a small gleam of hope edged its way into her heart. She would take nothing that would lead her father to an accusation of theft, but the trinkets bequeathed to her by her mother would help. Her fingers circled the chain she wore around her neck, a plain silver locket. The last gift from Richard containing a lock of his hair. She had given him a matching token. Now it lay at the bottom of the unforgiving ocean.
She crossed to the window in time to see her father stomping from the house to the waiting carriage, the epitome of wealth and success in his well-tailored wool coat and beaver hat.
When he returned from London, she would be gone.

 

One

Williamstown, Victoria
21 November 1871

Caleb Hunt narrowed his eyes and considered the odds in the ridiculous game of chance that the locals called two-up. His life now depended on the fall of two pennies: heads and tails, or heads and heads, or tails and tails? He knew his limits and would have cashed in his losses a good hour ago, but luck had turned his way, and a scruffy pile of crumpled banknotes was accumulating to his credit.
Now it came down to Caleb and a sweating, bearded Irishman wearing corduroy trousers and a moleskin waistcoat. With a cold gambler’s eye, Caleb could tell that the man had wagered his entire life on the fall of these two grubby coins. A life now neatly folded and in the custody of a large bald-headed man called the boxer.
A second man, who acted as ringmaster in this circus, stepped forward out of the jostling crowd. He jerked a thumb at Caleb’s opponent. The Irishman wiped a hand across his sweating forehead, his eyes narrowing and his breath coming in huffs as if he had run a hundred yards.
‘I calls odds,’ he said, casting Caleb a sideways glance. Odds—the two-way bet of one head and one tail. Nothing either of them could do or say would influence the outcome. It was chance, nothing but chance.
Caleb crossed his arms. ‘I call heads.’
The ringmaster placed the two coins on a flat piece of wood, which he handed to a third man. ‘Come in, spinner,’ he said.
The spinner gave a practised flick of the wrist, sending the pennies twisting into the air. The light of the gas lamp caught their graceful arc as they hovered for a heartbeat and then fell to the grubby flagged floor. One coin fell flat, revealing the well-worn visage of Queen Victoria, but the other continued to spin on its side. The whole room held its breath as the coin resolved itself.
A roar went up.
‘God Bless Her Majesty,’ the ringmaster called. ‘Heads have it.’
Hands slapped Caleb’s back and he released his tightly held breath in a whoosh.
He glanced at his opponent. All the colour had drained from the Irishman’s face and he stared at the two coins as if they might magically resolve themselves into odds, but the gods of chance had spoken and Caleb had prevailed.
‘Again,’ the man said, casting wild glances around the circle of faces. ‘Toss again.’
‘Don’t be a fool, man. You’ve nothing left to bet,’ the boxer said. ‘Sign this paper and be on your way.’
The Irishman’s face coloured and his eyes glinted as he scrawled on the paper the boxer gave him, signing away his life and his livelihood. He turned on Caleb. ‘You cheated. I know you cheated.’
Caleb held up his hands. ‘And how exactly do you think I did that?’
‘I don’t know, but you conned me.’ He lunged at Caleb.
Younger, fitter and more sober, Caleb easily evaded the man’s flailing fists.
The boxer stepped in and gestured to two burly men. ‘Take him outside and dunk him in the horse trough. That’ll cool him down.’
The men ejected the Irishman from the hotel even as he still screamed invectives at Caleb.
The boxer handed over Caleb’s winnings: a bag of coins, the crumpled banknotes and the signed paper.
‘If I was you, mate,’ he said, ‘I’d make myself scarce. You’ve made yourself an enemy there.’
‘Thanks for the advice,’ Caleb said. As if one more angry drunk in his life made any difference. He set coins down on the sticky surface of the bar. ‘Drinks for all.’
A roar of approval went up and the barkeeper passed tankards of foaming beer to eager hands.
Caleb slowly downed his beer, only his second for the night. He’d long since learned that the secret to successful gambling was a clear head.
He unfolded the paper that the Irishman had staked in the game. Surmounted with the coat of arms of the Colony of Victoria, it appeared to be the registration form for a mining claim in the name of Roderick Hannigan. He turned the document over and read the elegant copperplate that gave the details of the gold-mining claim: ten acres at Pretty Sally in the Maiden’s Creek Goldfield. A second scrap of paper signed by the same Hannigan gave the bearer the rights to the claim.
Caleb’s pulse quickened. When he had boarded the ship in San Francisco, all he knew about the distant British colony of Victoria had been one thing.
Gold.
He tilted his head and considered the legality of the transfer. In this rough and tumble place, who cared much for legalities? As far as he was concerned the claim at Pretty Sally was now his.
‘Where’s Maiden’s Creek?’ he asked the barkeeper as he carefully folded the papers and stowed them in his pocket.
The man leaned an elbow on the bar and scrutinised a dark corner of the room as if it contained a map of Victoria. ‘About a hundred miles east of Melbourne in Gippsland.’
Caleb had been in the Colony barely twenty-four hours and all he had seen were the stinking streets of the port of Williamstown. Anything beyond this town remained a mystery.
‘How would I get there?’
‘Best way is to find one of the coastal traders heading for Port Albert but there’s a regular coach from Melbourne.’ The man paused. ‘If you want some advice for nothing, I can tell you that the only money to be made on the goldfields is in the pockets of the shopkeepers, the whores and the grog shops. Seen too many of you new chums heading off with gold fever in your eyes.’
Caleb laughed. ‘Seen them myself on the Californian goldfields.’
The barkeeper straightened and ran a dirty cloth across the counter. ‘You from California?’
‘Virginia,’ Caleb replied.
‘Virginia,’ the man repeated. ‘Did you fight in the war?’
Caleb picked up his empty beer glass, his fingers tightening around it. He pushed the glass at the barkeeper. ‘Pour me a whiskey,’ he said.
As he did so, the barkeeper jerked his head at a lithograph hanging above the bar—an elegant three-masted barque—and said, ‘We had a ship here back in sixty-five. They had her up in dry dock, so they was around for a while. The officers were popular with the ladies. All the high and mighty from town was down here courting them. Took on a good crew before they left.’
‘What was she called?’ Caleb asked out of politeness rather than interest.
‘It had a pretty name. Too pretty for a warship … Shenandoah. That’s it.’
Shenandoah.
Caleb downed the vile liquid that passed for whiskey in this place in one gulp. How could one word have the power to evoke pain as real as the jerk of a knife?
Several whiskeys later, he had become maudlin and homesick and when that happened, it generally resulted in singing. He pushed to his feet and turned to face the crowded room.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, we’re bound away
’Cross the wide Missouri.

The fiddle player who had been entertaining the bar with Irish ballads picked up the old melody.

’Tis seven years
since last I’ve seen you,
Away, you rolling river.
’Tis seven years
since last I’ve seen you,
Away, we’re bound away
’Cross the wide Missouri.

Caleb broke off with the drunken realisation that it had been seven long years since he’d crossed the Missouri, never to return. One more whiskey and he would be sobbing on the bar.
‘Got to get back to my lodgings,’ he slurred at the barkeeper as he paid for his drinks.
‘Good luck with the claim—’ the barkeeper said.
Caleb stepped out onto the street.
For November, the night was oppressively warm and the waterfront street was busy with trade from the many pubs and brothels. He crossed the road and stood on the water’s edge looking out into the night. Beyond the stinking mud flats, the riding lights of innumerable ships shimmered across the calm, still water of Hobson’s Bay. Beyond the boats, distant pinpricks marked a settlement on the far shore.
His soldier’s instincts prickled, and he turned in time to catch the gleam of a knife in the street lamp as a man lurched out of the darkness.
‘Don’t do it, Hannigan,’ he said, holding up his hands and stepping backwards. ‘I’m not armed,’ he lied, the familiar weight of his Colt revolver resting against his hip, hidden by his jacket.
‘You took my claim!’ Hannigan lunged, but Caleb sidestepped and whirled on his heel, sending Hannigan staggering past him. The Irishman turned, his lips bared in a snarl.
‘You don’t want to kill me,’ Caleb said. ‘I reckon that’d be a hanging offence in this town. Nasty way to die.’
The knife wavered and Caleb held his breath, his fingers itching to draw the Colt. But he didn’t want to shoot the man. It had been just such an unfortunate misunderstanding that had led to his hasty departure from San Francisco.
Hannigan gave a sob and moved the knife to his own bearded neck. ‘I’ve nothing left,’ he sobbed. ‘May as well just—’
Caleb jerked forward to stop him but he doubted Hannigan had the guts to end his own life. ‘Listen, Hannigan,’ he said, ‘I’ve a proposition for you. ‘Tell me about this claim of yours.’
Hannigan’s hand dropped to his side. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Is there gold at this … Pretty Sally?’
‘Oh, there’s gold,’ Hannigan said. ‘The alluvial stuff’s gone but there’s a reef running through the hillside.’
‘How do you get it out?’
Hannigan spluttered. ‘What do you know about gold mining?’
‘Some,’ Caleb said. ‘Dig it up and stomp it out of the rocks?’
‘That’s pretty much it.’
‘Sounds like hard work.’
‘It is. And bloody expensive too.’
Caleb scratched his unshaven chin. ‘I have a problem, friend. A problem you might be able to help me with.’
‘What’s that?’
‘I now have the right to mine a piece of land for gold, but I don’t know where this land is and what I know about gold mining you could write on a postage stamp.’
Hannigan straightened. ‘So, what are you proposing, Yankee?’
‘Nothing if you are going to call me by that name.’
‘So what do I call you?’
‘Caleb Hunt. How were you planning to fund this expensive expedition?’
The man sucked in a breath through his moustache. ‘I came to town to register the claim but I needed money to pay for the equipment I ordered from McEwan’s. I thought there would be easy money to be made with two-up—’
‘My father used to say, never gamble with money you’re not prepared to lose.’ Caleb’s father would never have considered gambling at all—the words were good advice from a friend that Caleb had consistently failed to follow in his life.
Caleb took out his pipe, filled it with tobacco and struck a match on the sole of his boot. He drew in the smoke and kept his eyes fixed on the twinkling lights of the boats. ‘I think you and I could strike up a deal, Hannigan. I’ve got the money you need for the equipment, but I need someone who knows what he’s doing to work the claim. I’ll pay you a fair wage and, if we strike gold, then you get ten per cent of the profits. Does that sound fair?’
The Irishman’s beard jutted. ‘But it’s my claim.’
‘Not any more. That’s my offer, take it or leave it.’
Caleb straightened and started to walk away, leaving the big man standing on the sidewalk, the knife still in his hand. He half-expected the knife between his shoulder blades but if he had judged the man rightly, Hannigan was no murderer. Hotheaded perhaps, but not one to knife a man in the back.
‘Wait, Yankee.’
Caleb smiled. Hannigan would continue to call him ‘Yankee’ precisely because he knew it annoyed him, but if that was the price of this man’s cooperation, it was worth it. He turned back to face Hannigan, relieved to see he no longer held the knife.
The Irishman spat on his hand and held it out. ‘A deal, Mr Hunt.’
Caleb returned the gesture before wiping his hand on his trousers.
They arranged to meet in the morning and Caleb went back to his lodgings in the dingy street behind the main thoroughfare. As he washed his hands in the battered tin basin, he hummed the tune of ‘Oh Shenandoah’ with the sense that, for the first time in seven long years, he really had crossed the Missouri for a new life at the bottom of the world.

Two

Maiden’s Creek
10 December 1871

Adelaide Greaves set aside her sketchbook and drew her knees up to her chin, enjoying the rare feeling of freedom that Sunday afternoons brought to her busy life. She and Danny had climbed the hill behind the cemetery to their favourite picnic spot, a large rock sheltered in a stand of tall gums. From here, they had a clear view down the steep-sided valley in which the township of Maiden’s Creek nestled. The town clung to the curve of a once pretty creek, now a clogged and stinking sewer, into which all the waste, both human and industrial, poured. Commercial buildings fronted the main street, exuding an air of prosperity and respectability, while the homes of the town’s residents were scattered higgledy-piggledy across the hillsides above, placed wherever a piece of flat ground could be found or hewn from the rocky soil. Whisps of smoke rose from crooked chimneys constructed from the local stone, bringing with them the smell of eucalyptus and roast meat.
At the far end of the valley, a massive spoil heap of broken rock spewed down the hillside, bright and harsh against the darker granite. Most days of the week, the tall chimney below the Maiden’s Creek Mine belched smoke from the boilers that were used to run the mine’s machinery, particularly the heavy stamping batteries that crushed the raw rock and measured the steady rhythm of the town’s heartbeat. On Sundays, only a watching fire trickled a thin line of white smoke from the chimney and the stamping batteries were silent. The townspeople found the silence deafening.
Above her a flock of bright, multicoloured parrots chattered among themselves as they swooped and dived in the stand of trees. She rarely saw the strange, shy fauna of this land. The endearing little wallabies with their soft, dark eyes and fat wombats kept their distance from the town. However she kept a wary eye out for snakes and spiders before setting the picnic blanket down in the shadow of the rock.
Beside her, Danny scribbled away in an exercise book, a lock of blond hair falling unregarded across his eyes.
‘What are you writing?’ she asked.
Danny looked at her, his blue eyes so like his father’s that a chill settled on her. Would she ever be able to look at Danny and not think of the man who had never come home? The young man whose death had forced her into this life of deceit and hard work for which nothing in her upbringing had prepared her.
‘A story about the time Papa was attacked by pirates and fought them off single-handedly.’
Ah … papa.
A pang of guilt stirred in Adelaide’s chest. At nine years old, Danny had begun to notice the absence of a man in his life and the boy’s long-lost father had taken on heroic proportions. She only had herself to blame. It was she who had filled Danny’s head with stories of his brave seafaring father, whom she had given the fictional name of John Greaves, borrowing her mother’s surname. In Adelaide’s story, he had been lost at sea in the months before Danny had been born, forcing her to make the long-planned trip to Australia alone, except for Netty Redley.
‘Mrs Greaves!’ A young woman’s voice carried up the hill.
Adelaide stood and waved at the two women in light dresses toiling up the slope towards her, one carrying a sun hat by its strings and the other pressing her bonnet to her head. A passing stranger would take them for friends, three young women passing time together on a mild, early summer’s day, but Sissy and Nell were working girls, dancers employed in the establishment referred to in hushed and disapproving tones by the respectable matrons of Maiden’s Creek as ‘that place’, and by most of the men of the district as ‘Lil’s Place’. No one knew Lil’s real name. Lily White was a stage name, a soubriquet that had long since faded with her looks, her years and her figure, but the name stuck. Whatever the matrons of Maiden’s Creek might think, Lil ruled her establishment with an iron fist and her girls were safe, clean and generally happy.
The young women sank onto the blanket on either side of Adelaide. Nell took off her bonnet and fanned herself with it as she turned her face to the sun.
‘You will develop a colour,’ Sissy warned.
‘I don’t care. I love the sun. Nothing would induce me to go back to Yorkshire now,’ Nell replied.
‘Lil may have a few words to say if you turn up looking like a carrot,’ Sissy said.
‘Lil don’t scare me. She’s all hot air,’ Nell said. ‘Whore with a heart of gold, just like you and me, Siss.’
Like most girls reduced to earning their living in such establishments, Sissy and Nell had only the most basic literacy skills. When Sissy had come into the post office and asked Adelaide to write a letter to her sister in Melbourne, Adelaide had offered to help the girl with her reading and writing. The lessons had become their regular Sunday afternoon activity. Lil observed the Sabbath and the girls took full advantage of their day off. With the advent of the warm weather, the women had taken to meeting at the rock rather than in Adelaide’s cosy parlour.
‘I brought you a present.’ Sissy drew out an orange from a canvas bag.
Adelaide took the fruit and pressed it to her nose. It brought back memories of Christmas in the kitchen of Oldfield House, where the cook would make the orange souffle Sir Daniel had loved so much.
‘Where did you get it?’ Adelaide asked.
‘A present from a friend,’ Sissy said.
Danny stared at the orange with avaricious eyes and Adelaide took out her paring knife to carefully cut the fruit into four segments. Danny sucked the flesh dry then positioned the skin in his mouth so it resembled bright orange teeth. The girls laughed.
‘Eh, you’re a one,’ Nell said, ruffling his hair.
‘Danny, it’s time for you to get home,’ Adelaide said. ‘I will be testing you on those Bible verses the Reverend Johnson set the Sunday School to learn.’
She knew Danny would have liked to have stayed, but he kept his peace and dutifully packed his notebook and pencil into his canvas satchel and tossed the dessicated quarter of the orange into the bush. But she didn’t miss the look he cast her—a look so like her father’s when he disapproved of something.
The three women watched the boy lope down the path in the one-sided gait of a child pretending to ride a horse.
‘He lives in his head, that one,’ Sissy said. ‘I hope one day I’ll have a boy like Danny.’
Nell poked her friend’s arm. ‘Aye, well, you play your cards right with Mr Penrose and you’ll be wed by winter.’
Sissy’s sad eyes belied her smile. ‘Mr Penrose’s uncle wouldn’t ever let him marry the likes of me,’ she said. ‘If wishes were fishes …’
The mine’s engineer, Will Penrose, worked for his uncle Charles Cowper, who was a major shareholder and manager of the Maiden’s Creek Mine and one of the most important men in the town. As long as Will worked for his uncle, any fondness he may feel for one of Lil’s girls had to stay within the four walls of Lil’s establishment.
‘When is Mr Penrose back?’ Adelaide asked.
Sissy laughed. ‘I don’t know, Mrs Greaves. Depends on what machinery the ship is bringing into Port Albert.’
‘To work,’ Adelaide said. ‘Did you bring your slates and the primer?’
Like obedient schoolchildren, Sissy and Nell produced their slates and Adelaide began the lesson. Both were apt and able students and, with a bit of education, they could escape their life in Maiden’s Creek.
The tolling of the bell of St Mary’s, the Catholic church, broke the spell of the afternoon.
Nell jumped to her feet. ‘Is that the time? Come on, Sissy, Lil will fine us if we’re late.’
Carrying their hats, and with barely a farewell or backwards glance, the young women scampered down the hill.


The Postmistress

The Postmistress by Alison Stuart will be available in-store and online June 17th 2019

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