The Banker's Wife
Inspired by a well-loved scene in the film... I know this never really happened but I did wonder who she was and how she had ended up there, on that particular day.
The thing I liked to do best of all when I was a wee girl in Scotland was to go by myself up to the top of our street and look across the vast, windy expanse of greens and fawns and indigos rolling out before me like a great ocean. The Pentland Hills. Of course, in those early days I didn’t know that that was what they were called, but because even the street was a steep climb for my short legs, I fancied that what I saw there must surely be the biggest mountain in the world. On a clear day - and you may believe that there weren't many of those – I would stand on a bit of a rock that stood sentinel at the point where the dirt track snaked away into the clumpy grass, and I’d look clear across to the horizon, feeling the wind on my face and imagining what lay beyond. How grand it would be, I’d think, as the cold air slapped and flapped at me, to be grown up and to be able to run, on and on across the bracken and the gorse until you maybe found the end of the world. In our house, it seemed that everywhere you turned there were people talking and banging doors and working and going in and out and wanting to know what you were about. But when I saw all those miles of empty space, I knew there was more to life, and I was glad. Then I'd hear my mother calling me and I'd turn around and make my way down the grey cartwheel ruts back to the house, feeling the ridged mud hard under the soles of my boots. And after the first few yards of looking over my shoulder at the vanishing expanse of sky, I'd start to skip and jump over the puddles and run, and by the time I was halfway down, I'd a' forgotten again for a little while about how I felt when I was up there.
From reading that, you may be forgiven for thinking that I was a child who thrived on my own company but in fact nothing was further from the truth. If there was a day when I was responsible for less than half of the noise in our bustling, crowded house, then my mother counted herself fortunate. From the moment I woke up until I closed my eyes again, I laughed and chattered and shared my imaginings with anyone who would spare five minutes to listen. Who knows? Perhaps what I really yearned to find on the other side of the hills some day was not, after all, solitude but simply a bigger audience in a grander theatre.
At school they thought me clever, and for a while when I was grown, I taught there too and imagined I might be a schoolmistress all my days. Then I met Charles Scott and thought myself even cleverer for marrying him. Believe me, I’ve paid dearly for that vanity ever since. He was a bank clerk and therefore a step above us, but not so much as to make the match out of the question. He would certainly have been welcomed with open arms into many families where the daughters would have shunned him as a beau. For the sad truth was that Charles, for all he was a good, steady man, draped with fastidious honesty, was deadly dull. If he was the good catch that in my naivety I believed him to be, then all the lasses but me the length and breadth of Lothian must ha’ been looking the other way, for he was nearly thirty years old and still a bachelor.
I was never so clouded in my judgement as to mistake his dullness for shyness or any other more favourable attribute. Indeed, I am ashamed to tell you that it was his dullness that captivated me. Here at last was the appreciative, spellbound spectator I had sought all my life. He and I concurred entirely in the notion that I lighted any room in which he sat, merely by walking into it and bestowing a smile upon him. My gaiety, such as it was, enchanted him. He made me feel that I was everything that I could be and everything that he couldn’t. If I ever suspected that he didn’t entirely complete my life, so what? At least he paid me the compliment of making me feel I completed his. So flattered was I by his doe-eyed love-making and his pleasing prospects, that it did not occur to me to seek a more worthy companion – someone less easy to impress, someone who challenged me and found in me a passion to equal his own. In short, I did not do what I had promised myself I would: I did not first walk over the hills to see what lay beyond.
One day, in an unaccustomed, stumbling speech, he told me that he felt he could advance his career in the colonies, that he had saved for a passage to Australia, and that he wanted me to go with him as his wife. Australia. The farthest corner of the Empire – indeed, the farthest place it was possible to go on God’s earth. A place of transported convicts and strange animals and gold-mining desperados. From the very little I knew of the place, I could no more imagine Charles there than I could see him flying to the moon. Later of course, I realised that he understood far more about it than I did. Not for him the glamorous stampede of the gold rush, not for him the wild speculation on dirty alluvial mining. Rather he had cleverly identified the more modest but secure prospects for a man who was content to follow on behind, counting the gold into little bags and writing it up in ledgers. Of course, at the time, I did not see this. I was instead pleasantly surprised – excited even - to discover apparent depths of adventurousness in my beau that I had not hitherto suspected.
It was only much later, during those never-ending years of sitting with him by the tick of a dusty clock, no longer caring whether or not I entertained him, that I came to see the truth of it. Yes, it took courage to sail away like that without a backward glance. Yes, it took devotion to promise to build a life for us in that great, unknown place. But I took his plan as a signal that he could, after all, be my hero, and when all was said and done, he couldn’t. Back then however, I was eighteen, my mother was crying because she would never see me again, I was going to the other side of the world and I was the talk of the district – and all that drama, well, that was good enough for me.
* * *
I’d never thought a great deal about the physical intimacies of marriage. Oh, I was a terrible flirt, but the boys I knew were maybe as ignorant as I was, or too afeared of the trouble that might follow to seek closeness. As for Charles, even when we were engaged, he always asked before trying to kiss me, and I saw no link between his clumsy attempts at endearments and the vague restless yearnings I felt. I therefore refused his requests frequently, and although he was disappointed, he never seemed to take offence. When I finally lay with him on our wedding night in the narrow iron bed with no more preparation than my mother’s uselessly euphemistic instructions, I couldn’t have been more surprised. Charles’ legs were thinner than I might have imagined, very white and hairy, and at first his nakedness both repelled me and made me want to laugh. His aroused state was shocking; it was as if it didn’t really belong to him – so big and dark and seemingly with a life of its own. He stroked my hair a good deal, soothing me as if treating an injured animal, calling me ‘my dear’ and being gentle to the point of timidity. Yet beneath his mannered caress, his excitement transformed him before my very eyes. He glowed, firstly with anticipation and later with exertion, and straight away I saw how it could be. How that tingling unease I felt could be channelled into all that pushing and panting and grasping. Even as Charles spent himself apologetically upon me, a great vista of the possibilities of passion opened up. My belly was not on fire, but the embers had glowed into life, and I wondered if I was the first bride to resolve there and then, to explore love – with or without my husband.
Ten years passed. We lived for a time in Melbourne, which I found diverting enough. I learned there how to run a house, how to spend money and how to live the life of a discreet married woman of reasonable position. Seldom can an interest in natural history and the field trips it occasioned have been put to such good use. I also had four children, the youngest scarcely born before Charles was offered the post of manager for the bank in a place called Euroa, some hundred miles to the north east. I had never heard of Euroa before, and when we arrived I immediately understood why. Back home in Edinburgh, they had built a vast, grand railway station in the valley of filth that divided the old and new towns, so uniting and enriching a great city. In Victoria, by contrast, men had simply followed the gold prospectors, constructing a meandering railway up through the valley, and here and there building a few places where the train could stop, presumably in the hope that some misguided fools might build a town around them. Squatters rushed in to take the best land and water, poor selectors followed in their wake, staking out claims to increasingly hopeless parcels of land. Whatever vision all these people must have had of how this dusty place between creek and hills could one day be, I had no idea. They certainly had strange ideas of what constituted a fine town. Some places thereabouts, Jerilderie and Benalla for example, were larger and more thriving than Euroa, but that was like saying that a dying man thrives more than a corpse. No wonder that I stood in that filthy dustbowl of a street, pointlessly twice as wide anything I’d seen at home, looking up at another set of frowning, oppressive hills, and feeling that I had, after all, been transported for life without having committed any crimes greater than vanity and youth.
Nonetheless, I knew my place, or perhaps understood my fate. I did not fail in my duties to Charles, although I admit that I despised him for it. So I punished him in the only way I knew how – by freezing him from the marriage bed. Poor Charles, although bewildered and clearly hurt, accepted without question my assurances that no woman with children wishes to be troubled further by her husband. I am certain he believed me. Even as we lay in separate rooms, he embraced what he saw as my feminine fragility and loved me all the more. As for me, I soon discovered that my bitterness had done little more than deny me the comfort of his body, poor though that was. My pride would not allow me to recant and instead festered within, stoking my contempt and poisoning my soul.
* * *
It was in the spring of 1878 that I first heard talk of Ned Kelly and others who soon became known as his gang. A bunch of wild Irish cattle runners and horse thieves, they had outraged Victoria when Ned and his brother had apparently shot a policeman at their mother’s selection and then later killed another at Stringybark Creek, not far from Euroa. They had gone to ground and before the year was out they were outlawed with a substantial price on their heads. Local talk had it that they couldn’t survive long in the bush; they had no money, no resources and were sure to be turned in by right-thinking folk. Yet weeks passed and they were not. Stories and rumours began to spread, articles speculating on who they might all be and what might become of them began to appear in newspapers. My afternoon teas and whist drives were finally enlivened as we exchanged the latest gossip and imagined the fear and horror of coming face to face with such degraded monsters.
At least, that was certainly how poor Mrs Pinkerton felt. She appeared to waver on the very brink of fainting as she relayed to us the latest alarming news. Ned Kelly, a great brute of a man, would apparently stop at nothing - ‘nothing at all’ she emphasised, her watery eyes regarding us fiercely, her veined hand failing to control the rattling tremble of her teacup - to show his contempt of the squatters, of ‘English’ society, of the law, of the very Empire itself. I didn’t know much about the law or the Empire, but as I looked around at the company and considered the ‘good’ folk of Euroa, I couldn’t help but have a sneaking sympathy for him on that score. Call it boredom, call it a fledgling Celtic solidarity, but at the very least he’d given us the most interesting conversation we’d had in years.
Whether she was trembling with excitement or genuine fear, we never discovered. I pray it was the former, for it was only the following week that she passed away. I may have found her ridiculous, but I’d be sorry to think that she worried herself to her grave, and so I hoped that the Kelly gang had provided her with a little entertainment in her last few days in this world.
It was on the day of her funeral that I finally came face to face with them. I say ‘finally’, but of course, living at a place like Euroa, I had hardly expected to become personally embroiled in the events of the day. I remember that the children and I were almost ready to leave for church when the door to the parlour was flung open and two young lads, looking almost as startled as we must have, fell through it. There was a pause, almost as if they had not been expecting to find anyone in, then one of them who sported rather flushed plump cheeks brandished a pistol in our general direction and told us that we would have to do what he said. The threat sounded so absurd coming from this boy that rather than be frightened I wanted to laugh. The children themselves seemed more interested than alarmed at this strange interruption to the day. It was only too apparent that whatever intent he harboured towards us, he had never said, much less done, anything like this in his life before. His companion was a much cooler customer, although apparently equally lacking in whatever etiquette might govern a hold up. For a while he seemed unsure of his purpose, but when our shaking maid identified him as an old school friend, he cheerfully explained he was robbing the bank, sat down and started to chat with her as if he’d stumbled across her while making a delivery to the kitchen door. It was all quite extraordinary.
A few minutes later, Charles entered the room flanked by two other men a year or so older, and it was at that point that I finally understood we were in the presence of the Kelly gang and thus unlikely to be attending Mrs Pinkerton’s funeral after all. I couldn’t help but notice straight off that Ned himself was a handsome fellow with a bluff, cheery face and the wide, strong shoulders of a working man. He wore a good suit, but looked exactly what he was; a farmer’s boy in his awkward best, complete with an unfortunate cravat in an unflattering shade of magenta.
The fourth man, whom I guessed must be Joseph Byrne, was a different matter entirely. His suit was no better than his leader’s, which is to say that it was inexpensive but decently enough cut; but he inhabited it with an elegance and grace which the finest bespoke tailoring could not have improved upon. If he’d worn a burlap sack though, I believe the effect would have been the same. He stood calmly amongst the chaos as if he was exactly where he meant to be and the world could take that as it wished. There was no arrogance about it, no posturing. He simply was. Beyond his obvious good looks he had about him a quality that made me conscious of him even when I looked away, and drew me to look again. Such was the effect that I found myself glancing slyly at Fanny to see if she felt it too, but her face was impassive. His eyes, which were dark enough that you’d call them black, moved on constant alert, like a bird’s, sliding from side to side, checking on Ned, and taking in everything about the proceedings; yet of more than any of them, he remained perfectly composed in his demeanour. He said nothing. There was a lingering boyishness about his slender frame and the slicked-down curls around his fine features, but when those eyes finally locked on mine, there was nothing childish about him. With that one glance, I discerned that although he was engaged upon robbing a bank, to Joe Byrne, I was by far the most interesting thing in the room.
So there we were in the parlour, all seven of us - with the possible exception of Joe Byrne - uncertain of our roles. It should have fallen to Ned Kelly to take control, and certainly his words were authoritative enough – we were to be taken to Faithfull’s Creek as hostages – but like the boy whom I now took for his brother, he sounded as if he was speaking lines from an ill-rehearsed play. And if he could not command the situation, then it was quite clear that his followers certainly weren’t going to undermine him by trying. I found myself revising the popular image of the Kellys. They may conceivably have shot policemen, but I doubted very much that they had planned it in advance. A little mild horse-stealing, no dialogue required, seemed about what they were fit for. I’d known harder men come staggering from the pub in my childhood in Scotland.
Charles, rather predictably, did nothing. Of course, there are few men who, by the force of their personality alone, could successfully order armed robbers – no matter how inexperienced - from their premises, but even so, his utter lack of protest left me embarrassed for him and for our son. By default therefore, all eyes turned to me, the lady of the house, and like the well-trained banker’s wife that I was, I did my best to rise to this most unusual challenge to my hospitality.
Looking back, I confess that my irritation with Charles, the awkwardness of the gang and of course my awareness of those black eyes watching my every move, may have led me to preen myself a little. I lectured Ned as if he were a child. I insulted him. I insulted his clothing, but my insults were really a deeper assault on his dignity and purpose. Interestingly, this brought forth the sole remonstration to fall from Charles’ lips that morning. Apparently it was more acceptable for outlaws to steal the bank’s money and take his family hostage than it was for his wife to label them blackguards for doing it. I continued to chide Ned, but to be frank at that moment I’d have taken any one of the gang for a man of worth compared to my husband. With luck, I hoped, they might bear Charles off into the bush, never to be seen again. And if they needed money so badly, then God help me I would load it from the vault myself to speed them on their way.
And all through this, I was conscious of the dark man in the corner watching and waiting to see what would happen next.
At Ned’s suggestion, I retired to my room to change into more suitable clothing. Although Charles’ craven impotence and the gang’s hesitancy meant that I did not expect any of us to be deliberately shot, I can’t deny that I was apprehensive about the ordeal ahead. Nonetheless, it was certainly a thrilling, not to mention long-overdue, diversion from daily life in Euroa. I held another dress in front of me, trying to imagine myself traveling nine or ten miles in the hot December sun with a gun at my back, and found my mind wandering to a fantasy of how I might relate the story to neighbours and newspapers afterwards. They were brutes, I’d say as everyone gathered around me. It was petrifying!
It was at that very second that I looked back at the mirror and saw Joseph Byrne reflected in it over my shoulder. He was leaning easily on the doorframe smiling to himself, as well he might to see me stood there in my petticoats playing with a dress for all the world as if I were off to a party. There was, I realised, no way of telling how long he’d been standing there or what he’d seen. His unconcerned boldness shocked me from my complacency, and as I hastily turned to face him my body shivered in a first acknowledgement of fear.
“How dare you!”
Afterwards, I wondered if I’d known all along that he would follow me, that - decorum aside - there was no need to ask him what he wanted; but at that point, there was no doubt that my fright was genuine. It may sound obvious, but after all, I had no real idea of how an armed robbery progressed, or to what extent the normal rules of society might be suspended. Was he planning to stand there and watch me dress? Had he after all come to shoot me, or worse? Joe saw all that and more, and for all he wore such a grave expression, I knew he was amused at my discomfiture. We both understood that he could do whatever he chose now, and it wasn’t particularly the gun that he carried that gave him permission.
“Ah, sure, I mean no harm,” he said, and his voice was unexpectedly low and silky. He slipped through the door and closed it quietly but firmly behind him. I pulled the dress a little more tightly against me, but he was distracted by a porcelain dish on the chest beside him.
“What are these, these skulls?” he asked, perhaps considering that his scheme – whatever it might be - would best be served by distracting small talk, or possibly at as much of a loss as I about what to do next.
Quite clearly he lacked any embarrassment at my state of undress, and my heart quickened with the realisation that this was because the company of semi-clad women was of no particular novelty to him. My exposure, which would have sent most men of any class plunging from the room in panic, he accepted as a minor detail. Maybe this should have terrified me further, but I must confess that his worldliness stabbed a thrill through me, and it was oddly reassuring that he was more interested in the skulls than in my bare arms. It seemed only polite to answer his question, so I mustered what little dignity I could in the circumstances.
“I collect them,” I said.
He picked up one of the skulls, lifting it to his face and opening its jaw.
“Hello!” he squeaked, pointing it at me.
This was both so unexpected and so amusing that I could not help but laugh. And straight away he put down the skull and stepped closer, no doubt exactly as he’d calculated he might. His acceptance of my dishabille did not, it seemed, signify disinterest after all. Now he leaned again, but on the bedpost this time, ostensibly waiting for me to speak but mostly issuing a silent invitation for me to admire his fine physique and his handsome face and the glossy dark curls escaping, despite best efforts of comb and oil, onto his collar. He was close enough now that I could sense that the soft cotton of his shirt was warm from his chest, which rose and fell gently just beneath it. He wore cologne, but there was a lingering trace of outdoors, of horse and leather and fresh air, that clung to him too.
It was a subtle little exhibition, and as you may have gathered, it was not wasted on me. Of course, I kept the dress up high as the last defence of my modesty, but he was drawing me in, this quiet visitor, who unlike my husband, seem to be revelling in the possibilities that sprang from our obvious mutual attraction. Unseemly desire turned my very being in on itself, and I knew that whatever was going to happen I wanted him to stay in the room with me for longer.
“So you’re Joe Byrne?” I said, hearing surprise in my voice, and no wonder, for the splendid specimen of young manhood before me bore no resemblance whatsoever to the cruel caricatures in the newspapers. Whatever trials the good Lord had set aside for Joe, He had certainly not neglected to bless him too. I wondered what he thought of the things they were saying about him. “The papers say you have the facial features of a creature born to crime,” I added teasingly.
“I’m the handsome one of the bunch,” he said dismissively, speaking the undoubted truth as if it were any inconsequential little joke. You certainly are, said my entire being, unbending yet further.
Now he was closer I could see that his eyes weren’t black at all – that was an illusion caused by their intensity and the thick fringe of sooty lashes. They were brown; brown with flecks of gold, clear and young and also, unexpectedly, full of merriment and warmth. Whatever his mission in my room, Joe Byrne was enjoying himself. Perhaps almost as much as I was.
Presently, it occurred to me that I had been presented with an irresistible opportunity to learn the first-hand truth behind the rumours. It meant my revealing an indecorous acquaintance with gossip, but it seemed unlikely that he would condemn me.
“They say you married a housemaid in Deniliquin with the exotic name of Modilla,” I ventured brazenly, trying and failing to inject a note of prim disapproval into my tone.
“We were just good friends,” he shrugged, regarding me more curiously now, but completely un-offended by my impertinence.
As I have hinted earlier in my story, I was not unacquainted with taking my pleasures where I could. It may have been some years since we had left Melbourne and the opportunities afforded by its Natural History Society, but I could still identify the moment in an exchange between a man and a woman where possibility yields to probability. Undoubtedly, this was such a moment.
“I’m sure you have a lot of good friends,” I said pointedly. I moved to the chaise-longue and seated myself carefully. Earlier, I had dismissed the glimmer of an idea that he had followed me to my room with more in mind than might properly concern the taking of hostages. Now, however, there was not the slightest doubt in my mind that he would follow me to the seat. And he crossed the room, just as I knew he would, carefully laid his gun down between us and sat down too.
“Sure there’s no harm in being friendly,” he murmured in a way that made an indecent proposal of the innocent words. As if to set the seal on his intent, he reached over and gave a little tug at the dress I still clutched to my bosom. A cat may look at a king, and Joseph Byrne, without a trace of shame, looked at me. Just as I’m sure he’d known he would after first laying eyes on me not ten minutes before.
“No, I don’t suppose there is,” I replied, my voice catching in my throat and my heart beating so fast that I was sure he could see it pulsing in my breast. He brushed one finger down my bare arm. It was the lightest of touches but it delivered promise and poignancy, for it was so long since I had felt flesh on my flesh, and my body cried out with something very like relief. I could scarcely breathe with the audacity of the appalling thing we were about to do, and when he responded to my acquiescence by pulling me to him for a kiss, I knew that the devil was in Joe, but not for the robbing of banks or the shooting of policemen or the stealing of horses.
“Oh, you’re a beast, an absolute beast.” The words can barely have reached his ears before his lips were on mine and his fingers were in my hair, and all circumspection was gone.
Or not quite. He broke away after a few seconds and sat back, the little trimmed hairs around his mouth gleaming wetly from the kiss, and a dark flush on his cheek betraying at last his inner excitement. He looked at me, his expression impenetrable.
“An ‘absolute beast,’” he said after a moment, as if trying the sound of my words for himself, weighing them in his mind for a decision. Eventually, he spoke again and when he did all trace of silk and coaxing was gone from his soft voice. “I’ll admit I’m a larrikin and I’ll take me chances where they come, but I can’t have ye thinkin’ worse of me than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I reckon I can tell right enough when a woman’s willing.” He glanced at my dishevelled clothes and my bosom spilling over the top of my chemise and permitted himself a little smile. I didn’t mind. My experience of Joe Byrne might have been brief, but I certainly believed him.
“And if she needs to pretend to herself and to me that she’s fightin’ for her honour, and pushing me away and callin’ me names – to be sure, I’ll play along with that. But I’d never take a woman by force, and, well, in the circumstances…”
He tailed off, but still uncomprehending I stared him out until he continued. He did not falter under my gaze; on the contrary, his voice became colder but patient, spelling it out for me.
“You’re a married lady and we’ve no business together, even at the best of times, but I reckon you and me both could use a little fun while we’re waiting. Then again, if it’s not what you want, we’ll stop now and no harm done. What I won’t do is play games, all the time wondering in me mind what yer really thinkin’ because I don’t want to read in the papers tomorrow that on top of the rest of it the Kelly gang’s wanted for rape.”
The shock of that word spoken aloud was like a slap to me, but at least his meaning was made plain. We both knew that if we were caught I’d have no choice but to lay the blame on Joe, and there wasn’t a soul alive who would take his word over mine. Seemingly, that was a chance he’d made up his mind to take. But I could see he needed to satisfy himself that he could trust me; that I wasn’t planning to label our intimacy a violation unless I was forced to.
Later on, I heard tell that it was Joe’s brains that Ned Kelly relied on, and I had more reason than most to believe the truth of that. The urgency of his kiss told me that his need for me was maybe even more profound than mine for his, yet even so he had kept on thinking, continued to work out exactly what was happening. As one whose life thus far had been a series of drifts, each as ill thought-out as the last, I admired him for that. So I reached for his hand and put it back where it had been and smiled to show him that wherever we were going, we were going together. He smiled back then, coolness all gone like the sun emerging from a passing cloud, one corner of his mouth turning up in a little smirk.
“If it’s the excitement you’re after,” he said, suddenly amused, “There’s no need for games is there now? There’s your husband right along the passage there, and there’s me mates waiting for me while they’re robbin’ his bank. I reckon there’s enough risk there for the both of us, don’t you?”
So that was how I came to lay with Joe Byrne in the stifling summer heat of my room. With painstaking care as if we had all the time in the world rather than a few silent, intense moments, he unlaced and unhooked and freed me. He wanted to take my hair down too, until I pointed out that if he did that we’d need Fanny Shaw to fix it again before I could leave the room. Finally, we were together on the bed, his slim, hard rider’s flanks pressed warmly against me, both of us stripped of all the pretences that divided us when we were dressed. His acceptance of his own body and of mine, and the things we might do together was absolute, and it helped to fill whatever mutual emptiness had driven us to this shocking union. My poor underused bed creaked with the unfamiliar movement, threatening to betray us, and we laughed into each other’s eyes, Joe teasingly placing a finger over my lips as if to stop the giggle that threatened to erupt. We moved to the floor (I don’t believe any man but Joe could have persuaded me to do that) and as he buried himself in me once more, there was a new somberness in his abandonment, a solemn joy in the pursuit of my pleasure, without which it seemed his own experience would be all the more incomplete.
It was not perhaps quite thirty minutes since I’d first laid eyes on Joe that I stood once again watching his reflection behind me in my mirror. Despite our best efforts to temper hasty passion with due care, as he’d helped me up he’d told me with a wink that my back hair resembled nothing so much as a bird’s nest and now he stood behind me, frowning in concentration as his fingers - surprisingly nimble - worked at restoring it to something of its former neatness. To continue to be so near to him was to linger in the heat of our frantic joining, and I prayed for time to stand still as he tucked and pinned with such earnestness, that if it weren’t for the muttered curses under his breath, I would have believed he did such things every day of his life.
“There. That will have to do,” he declared eventually, turning me to face him and taking my elbows in his hands. His face wore a newly stern expression.
"Susan, now listen to me,” he said, and that was the only indication I ever had that he had heard my name and remembered it, “We’ve to put an end to this right here. We have to go out there and then your whole family’s coming with me as a hostage to Faithfull’s Creek. You understand that don’t ye?”
I was still in dumb reverie from our love-making, my thoughts running mainly on willing the sensation of his fingers on me to leave a permanent imprint. I nodded, but he must have known I was only half-following his words for he spoke again, more good-humouredly this time, his lips parting just enough for the briefest glimpse of his teeth, like blunted pearls on wet, pink satin.
“It might help if you looked like you’re just a wee bit afraid of me now. Or if ye can’t manage that, then at least go back to looking down yer nose at the shitkicker that I am. ”
"I'll certainly do my best," I said, prim once more, and he laughed then, knowing my manner for facade in a way that Charles never had.
“Come on then you,” he said, pushing the pistol back in the waistband of his trousers. “Let’s be making a move.”
“What will we say if they ask why we’ve been so long?” I asked, suddenly panicked at the thought of facing everyone.
Joseph Byrne was a cool character. He looked at the floor and shook his head as if the answer was almost too obvious to speak aloud.
“Nothin’,” he said. “You don’t say nothin’.”
And so that’s what we did.
* * *
Later that day we chanced to be, if not alone, then at least far enough from prying ears for me to ask him daringly,
“Will you ever pass this way again?”
He didn’t answer immediately. First, he turned his head away and funnelled a burst of smoke from the side of his mouth, then he dropped the cigarette end to the floor and ground it into the dust beneath his heel. I waited, wondering if he was choosing his words with care or simply in no hurry to answer me. When he finally spoke, his voice was sarcastic but not unkind.
“Sure I will, and while I’m in the bank asking for ye, I can tell yer husband, thanks for the money by the way.
A veil of disappointment must have descended over my face at his words, because he winked at me then and added, “I’m not saying that would be my choice, me darlin’ but I think it will be some time before I’m around Euroa in the broad light o’ day again, don’t you?” It was the first time since we’d left my room that he’d revealed even a glimmer of remembrance of what had passed between us, and I glowed. I couldn’t help myself. Joe, however, his mind elsewhere, squinted up at the distant ranges that were blurring now with the fading light, and the smallest of sighs escaped him.
“But where will you go? What will you do?” I asked, as if without returning to me he could not possibly have further purpose or plan in the world.
“We’ll go where we choose until them bastard coppers see sense,” he said bitterly, and I knew then that my silly preoccupations were not his. That whatever we’d shared for those few minutes, it was a thing apart to him. At some level, be it a sense of loyalty and injustice or just sheer zest for life, he’d chosen not to be defined by the hand that fate had dealt him. For a brief moment that morning, he had let me taste that freedom too, and while I wanted to taste it again, his destiny was not entwined with mine. For all he was an outlawed Irish selector’s son, and for all the distance I’d travelled from where I’d begun in this world, I knew who was the richer.
“Go on, go and sit down now,” he added, more loudly for the benefit of others, gesturing with his gun, and I turned to see Charles watching us, not even with suspicion, but perhaps with curiosity. For one short-lived second, I hesitated. To what purpose, I have no idea. Our eyes met and knew, then he looked away. I picked up my skirts, did as I was told and went to sit by my husband. Joe and I did not speak again.