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The Currency Lass
 


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The Currency Lass


  The Currency Lass

  TEA COOPER

  www.harlequinbooks.com.au

  About the Author

  Tea Cooper is an established Australian author of contemporary and historical fiction. In a past life she was a teacher, a journalist and a farmer. These days she haunts museums and indulges her passion for storytelling. She is the bestselling author of The Horse Thief, published by Harlequin in 2015, and The Cedar Cutter, published in 2016.

  www.teacooperauthor.com

  Also by Tea Cooper

  The Horse Thief

  The Cedar Cutter

  (Available in ebook)

  Matilda’s Freedom

  Lily’s Leap

  Forgotten Fragrance

  To my currency lad.

  My love, always.

  Author’s Note

  Currency lads and lasses were the first generation of children born in the colony, the children of convicts or emancipists. The term implied inferiority and a distinct identity. They were also referred to as cornstalks as they were taller and fairer, and stronger and healthier than the children of free settlers who were known as sterlings. The currency lads usually excelled in sport, and contests were organised between currency and sterling boys in foot races and knuckle boxing.

  Contents

  About the Author

  Also by Tea Cooper

  Author’s Note

  Prologue

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-One

  Twenty-Two

  Epilogue

  Historical Note

  Acknowledgements

  Excerpt

  One

  Prologue

  November 8th, 1846

  Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land

  The bell of the penitentiary chapel tolled eight. Pale and careworn, wearing neither coat nor hat, the prisoner stepped up to the scaffold alongside the Under Sheriff.

  A man vaulted onto the platform, silencing the catcalls of the barbaric crowd. ‘My brother is about to die, wrongly accused.’

  ‘No great loss. The halfwit ’ad his chance.’

  The man shrugged off the Under Sheriff’s restraining arm and faced the crowd. ‘My brother broke no laws of this country, however, he has been found guilty. I hope and pray that in a few minutes his spirit will be with his saviour in a world of happiness.

  ‘Everything he said in his defence was the truth. He did not fire the fatal shot, nor was he present at the house of the deceased. His only crime was to unwittingly aid the perpetration of this foul deed.

  ‘He has solemnly declared, the words of a dying man, that he did not hold the pistol in his hand.

  ‘The justice system has failed us all. In the eyes of the law he has been found guilty, but he goes to his maker with a clear conscience.

  ‘I swear I will succeed where the law has failed and bring the perpetrator of this filthy deed to justice.’

  The prisoner raised his head, smiled at his brother and stepped forwards into the hands of the hangman who drew the cap over his head.

  The drop fell and launched an innocent man into eternity.

  One

  June 1st, 1851

  Sydney, New South Wales

  He strutted across the oriental carpet like a rooster, chest puffed out, thumb jammed in the fob pocket of his waistcoat, then came to a halt in front of her.

  Muffling a sigh, Catherine drew herself up to her full height. ‘I thank you, Mr Bartholomew, for the honour you do me but I’m not yet prepared to entertain the possibility.’ She handed the large square-cut sapphire ring back to him.

  A worn smile creased Pa’s eyes, sending a razor-sharp pang of sorrow through her. ‘Come, my darling girl, your mother was younger than you are now when we married. Every girl wants to marry. A woman needs a protector, better to choose one than be at the mercy of all and sundry.’

  Pleating and unpleating her skirt in her damp fingers, Catherine turned to the window, her gaze fixed on the incessant crush of humanity weaving its way past The Pulteney Hotel and along Bent Street. The new gas lamps turned night to day and it was as though no one ever slept. No dawn, no dusk, no sunsets over distant hills, just the never-ending kerfuffle of too many people packed into a city in danger of toppling into the vast harbour.

  ‘Catherine, please think carefully. My fondest wish is to see you happy.’

  Pa’s concern for her wellbeing was drawn from nothing but love, and the fear that scored his weathered brow. Fear and loathing for the growing tumour deep in his belly had led to this whirlwind trip to Sydney and Bartholomew’s proposal had taken her completely by surprise; she’d only met the man a week ago.

  Pa hadn’t been a young man when he’d married Ma and so he could see nothing wrong in the alliance proposed by Bartholomew, that pillar of Sydney society. Dull yet stupendously wealthy, richer than Croesus as his business schemes spewed money into the coffers below the bank in Sydney. He was old—so very old—and she wasn’t yet twenty-one.

  ‘Let me make a suggestion, Catherine. Your father has appointments and I would very much like the opportunity to show you everything Sydney, and I, have to offer.’

  ‘An excellent idea, Bart. My mind is made up.’ Pa heaved himself out of the chair, the effort scoring his face, and clasped Bartholomew’s shoulder. ‘It’s time Catherine experienced the delights of Sydney life. I’ve been remiss in her education and a tad selfish keeping her in the Hunter.’

  Bartholomew nudged Pa with his elbow, as though they shared some secret to which she was not party. ‘Not at all. I’m so sorry you won’t be able to join us, Reginald.’

  ‘Not half as sorry as I am.’

  Catherine schooled her mouth and swallowed the threatening pout. She’d have to succumb but how she wished she could delay the marriage. Pa hadn’t a selfish bone in his body. He’d given her an education more suited to a son than a daughter, perhaps just as well as matters had turned out, because there was no son who would inherit the vast property of Cottington Hill.

  He’d paid a heavy price for his attempts to secure a dynasty in this new land he’d embraced with such a passion, and ultimately he’d failed. Three sons and a wife buried, and only a daughter left. His name would die with him even if she produced an heir.

  She sneaked a glance at the man Pa had chosen for her and shuddered. Did it have to be Bartholomew? He’d no need of her inheritance and the idea of him fathering her children didn’t bear thinking about. She really didn’t want to marry. Not Bartholomew, not anyone. Was there no way to escape the inevitable?

  ‘My dear.’ Bartholomew approached and bent over to kiss her hand.

  Thank goodness she was wearing gloves. Even through the fine leather the prickle of his whiskers sent a shudder straight down her spine. She took two steps back, widening the distance, hoping to escape the suffocating cloud of unwashed linen, brandy and stale tobacco that surrounded him. Her stomach heaved.

  ‘I’m absolutely delighted you’ve finally come to Sydney and to celebrate I have a little surprise in store. I am going to whisk you away.’

  ‘Pa?’ He couldn’t leave her alone with Bartholomew. Surely it wasn’t appropriate.

  ‘Catherine, I have a long overdue appointment with the physician, as you well know.’

  ‘Yes. And I’m to come with you. It’s important I understand you
r treatment.’

  ‘Bart has assured me this is something you can’t miss. He has managed to procure tickets and it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You will have time to come with me and join Bart in the evening.’

  What in heaven’s name was he talking about? ‘Tickets for what? Nothing is more important than your health and wellbeing.’ It was imperative that they procured more laudanum. Pa put a brave face on it all but the pain had grown so much worse in the last few weeks. They’d run the gambit of all accepted cures; a change of air, bleeding, the leeches and, with Father Brown’s assistance, even resorted to the power of prayer. Nothing, it seemed, could halt the appetite of the tumours eating away at Pa from the inside out. She clamped her teeth and bit back her ever-present tears.

  Totally unaware of her distress, Bartholomew let out a bark of laughter, his shoulders heaving with obscene bonhomie, straining the buttons on his garish brocade waistcoat. ‘The circus. Rudi’s Equestrian Circus. Everyone in Sydney is agog. I knew the moment I heard about your riding capabilities that you would find it fascinating.’

  How could he think of anything so frivolous at a time like this? A circus. Visions of Roman gladiators and rampaging lions flashed in front of her eyes. Pa was about to be thrown to the lions, the ones gnawing at his innards were his challenge and therefore hers.

  Bartholomew’s tiny eyes glowed like coals and he appeared positively excited, dancing from one foot to the other in a parody of a jig. ‘I have managed to secure front-row seats, a box. The circus is an unprecedented novelty and an opportunity not to be missed. This is their penultimate show.’ He bounced on his toes, giving a glimpse of the man he might once have been, before a surfeit of money and good living had made their mark on his waistline and florid complexion.

  ‘Come and sit down.’ Bartholomew clicked his fingers and waved in the direction of the windowseat. ‘Let me explain. All the ladies in town are thrilled with the spectacle.’

  The way he carried on made it seem he was the one so impressed with the circus, nothing to do with any of the ladies in town. He was behaving like a child on the eve of his birthday.

  ‘Surely you wouldn’t want to miss it.’

  Pa stifled a groan and eased himself to his feet. ‘If you will excuse me, I must retire and rest before I see Doctor Manning.’

  Catherine jumped up and guided him to the door.

  ‘You know it is my greatest wish to see you settled.’

  ‘I know, Pa. It’s just …’

  He patted her arm then shrugged her off. ‘I shall be all the better for a quick nap. Go and hear what Bart has to say. You deserve to be spoilt.’

  The door clicked closed and the possibility Pa and Bartholomew had planned the entire debacle flittered through her mind.

  By the time eight o’clock came around Catherine had decided that despite her companion the evening might at least provide a distraction. After their trip to Doctor Manning’s Pa had taken to his bed with a draught of laudanum and fallen into a deep sleep. No doubt exhausted by their journey from the Hunter, he hadn’t stinted on the dose, knowing he had a fresh supply.

  Bartholomew stood waiting at the foot of the hotel stairs, dressed in a fine evening suit and looking quite the man about town with his top hat and cane. His gaze followed her as she walked down to meet him and a flush darkened his face. She’d presumed he was proposing a marriage of convenience and didn’t harbour any great affection for her, however, the look on his face bordered on salacious.

  She’d never fallen in love, had no idea what it may entail, other than the unshakable belief her feelings for Bartholomew were not, could not, be a precursor to love.

  Truth be told he repulsed her, with his hot sweaty hands, foul breath and irritating habit of fiddling with the old coin in his fob pocket. He made her skin creep, bored her to death and filled her with the insurmountable desire to flee. If it hadn’t been for Pa’s insistence she’d send him on his way.

  ‘My dear, you are a vision to behold. Delectable, as delectable as ever. You take my very breath away.’

  His remark as good as took her breath away. Pa always said she was beautiful, resembled Ma, although her memories of her mother were blurred by childhood. She was blessed with Ma’s thick hair and blue eyes; beyond that she’d never dwelt on the matter. Her last and abiding memory of Ma was a pain-ravaged, fever-ridden woman wasting away from birthing sickness after the loss of her third son.

  ‘I see you have the good sense to wear something warm.’ He pawed at her cape. ‘Despite the temperate days, the evenings can become chilly and we will be sitting in the open air. Are you happy to walk? I can call a carriage.’

  ‘No, no, I like to walk.’ At least she did until he slipped his arm through hers in the most intimate manner. How she wished she had more than the vague fleeting memory of Ma before she became sick or even someone she could ask for advice or guidance. Despite the very best tutors, they’d all been male and Mrs Duffen was the only woman she could turn to. As much as she appreciated the housekeeper’s advice, it hadn’t extended to the nuances of a Sydney courtship.

  She’d read in the Maitland Mercury of girls being presented to the governor before they entered society in search of a husband. Pa had never suggested that and to be honest she’d been pleased to be free of such hoo-ha. Now, however, she wasn’t sure how to behave and Bartholomew’s nearness made her more than uncomfortable.

  ‘The show encompasses gymnastic displays, tightrope, slack rope, vaulting, juggling, acrobatic and equestrian feats.’ Bartholomew’s hands waved and his eyebrows waggled up and down, a pair of hairy caterpillars arguing over the creased skin of his forehead. ‘It is the equestrian feats I thought would particularly interest you. Your reputation as a horsewoman precedes you.’

  How would he know unless, of course, Pa had slipped the idea into his mind? ‘It sounds fascinating. Where does this circus take place?’ She couldn’t imagine. Outside somewhere if horses were involved.

  ‘In a tented arena behind The Adelphi Hotel in York Street, between Market and King. Not a stone’s throw from here.’ Bartholomew squeezed her arm and hurried her along through the throngs of people strolling the streets.

  Row upon row of fine buildings had sprung up since she last visited Sydney and above them all, the towering spire of St James’ Church reigned. Lights blazed from the shops, with dressmakers and bonnet makers displaying an amazing array of clothing in their windows.

  ‘Sydney is the city of the future. It has everything to offer. Museums and zoos, horse-drawn omnibuses and ferries. Tomorrow we will promenade in Hyde Park and take strawberry ices in the Café Parisienne. You are missing so much locked away in the Hunter.’

  Certainly life at Cottington was a far cry from this whirlwind of activity.

  Bartholomew tugged on her arm and drew her to a halt. The lights surrounding The Adelphi Hotel blazed and the sweet smell of confections and other treats filled the air, rather like the local shows and race days at home.

  Following a line of flares that led around the back of the hotel they arrived in front of a large ring surrounded by row after row of tiered seating. Fresh sawdust spread over the ground muffled the smell of horses, sweat and numerous bodies. Children scurried around chasing each other and all manner of people crowded the entry.

  ‘Our seats are somewhat away from the riff-raff. Since the fortuitous arrival of the Russian Cossack’s troupe with the country’s very first equestrienne, Princess Valentina, the whole world is begging for a glimpse.’ Bartholomew stopped suddenly and pulled her even closer. ‘I should warn you about one thing, Catherine, I would hate your sensibilities to be offended.’ He patted her arm almost as though she were an aged aunt. ‘I’m told most of the ladies find it adds a touch of spice to the entertainment.’ His beady eyes gleamed and he lowered his voice. ‘In some instances the performers’ attire could be regarded as vulgar.’

  Whatever was he babbling about? ‘I’m not easily offended, Mr Bartholomew. I’m a countr
y girl as you well know, used to country life.’

  He glanced from left to right then leant close to her ear, his breath fanning her cheek. ‘The performers, both men and women, are somewhat scantily clad, short skirts and tight garments, which leave little to the imagination.’

  Catherine pulled away, stifling a laugh. Perhaps now was not the time to mention that she preferred to ride astride and favoured a disreputable pair of stockman’s moleskins topped off with a loose shirt and cabbage-palm hat. ‘I’m sure I shall manage, Mr Bartholomew. Thank you for your concern.’

  His shoulders drooped a little and he slipped her hand into the crook of his arm. ‘In that case let us find our seats.’ With a succession of rather neat little skips somewhat at odds with his top hat and evening clothes he led her under the billowing canvas awning.

  A long stage overlooked the ring where strangely garbed creatures cavorted and performed a series of peculiar antics. Walking on their hands, contorting into impossible poses, leaping and tumbling to the accompaniment of a band, if it could be called that, no more than a fiddle, tin whistles and a drum.

  An assortment of people packed the tiered seats and the dirt surrounding the arena. She’d never seen such a collection: some in evening clothes like Bartholomew, and others wearing nothing more than slops or filthy working clothes. ‘How many people do you think are here?’

  ‘Six, seven hundred, maybe a thousand.’

  ‘That must be half of the population of Sydney.’

  ‘Nowhere near, my dear. Nowhere near.’ He smiled at her in a benign manner and patted her hand once more. ‘We are close to forty thousand now. The authorities were fearful of the mischief and vagrancy that might ensue with such a performance, yet nothing has eventuated. Sydney is simply captivated. From the poorest street beggar to the highest echelons of society.’ He tugged at his waistcoat and puffed out his chest.

  Within moments of settling into her seat the flares dimmed, the music ceased and a vibrating anticipation filled the arena. Then Catherine picked up the soft steps, a muffled whisper before a single flare blazed to life in the centre of the ring.

 
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