In Melbourne Jail, the hangman lies awake. Not time to get up yet. Yawning, he rubs his dead eye, heaves himself on to his side and squints up at the notice tacked to his door. 11.11.1863. Today. Mansfield Murders.
Three for the drop, and one of them a woman. A woman. First time, or first he’s heard of it. Stringing up a tart! He scratches his balls. Tasty looking piece, too. For the other kind of drop. But there again, handsome is as handsome does. All the same in the end, under the skirt. Or under the hood. Hanging a woman, though. They must be worried, bringing the time forward and all. Might be worth an extra bob or two.
Time to get up.
Six o’clock. Pale slivers of light finger the grey blanket, climb the grey cell walls. Today. It’s today. I suck in my breath, hold it, count to sixty. How many seconds, how many minutes does it take to die? I touch my neck and wince. My collar bone still aches. And I think, it’ll ache for the rest of my life.
‘Not much of you’, Matron Gee said when she came to take my measurements. ‘You’ll be quick.’ How quick is quick?
Not unkind, the Matron. Not like in the courtroom, not like the rows of angry faces, from the judge frowning down to that goggle-eyed clerk at the front table taking off his spectacles and rub, rub, rubbing them like he was trying to rub me out of his sight. He’d be Davie’s age, that clerk: probably walking out with some nice girl. Not some Jezebel; not some Elizabeth Scott.
Julian Cross. David Gedge. Elizabeth Scott. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty as charged of the murder of Robert Scott. Bob. My husband.
Elizabeth. That would be me. Not Betsy Luckett, not any more. No more bonny Betsy Luckett…
To be hanged by the neck until dead.
How quick is quick?
Time. Marking time, keeping count, tick tick tick; as if you could actually stop it or start it. One second, two seconds, three seconds, same as all those years ago, rolling and pitching in that ship’s dark hold. Counting seconds: one, two, three: ten, twenty, thirty, forty, sixty: one minute. Start again: one, two,three: but there’ll be no starting again this time. No more adding, no more subtracting, no more times tables.
Davie. Dear Davie.
It might be sunny outside. Sunny Australia: not like Twickenham. There, it was rain outside and in, streaming down the window pane like the whole world was bawling… until Ma dabbed her eyes with the dish clout, sniffed and shoved me away.
‘Give over, Betsy. No use crying over spilt milk. Or George Fitzwater. Call Annie and Louisa. Sarah too.’
New Zealand, that was the go. The colonials were crying out for women, Ma said. Not fine ladies, none of your airs and graces; just ordinary, decent women with their wits about them. They couldn’t get enough of us, Ma said.
They’ve had enough of me, Ma.
She’d already booked our passage. Two days out, and Dr. White made her ship’s Matron, gave her an apron and the keys to the medicine cupboard. Told you we’d do well, she said, jingling them over our heads. Me and Annie and Louisa joined hands and skipped ring-a-ring-a-rosy, a pocket full of posy, a-tishoo, a-tishoo…
The three of us took it in turn to mind Sarah, run messages, fetch and carry whatever needed fetching and carrying. After that we could go to Reverend Eade’s lessons. Annie and Louisa got bored, but I never missed one. He made me his Monitor, in charge of the slates and the chalk. And then I thought of the mentals. Mental arithmetic. So when the hatches were down and we couldn’t see to read, he could still give us sums to do in our heads.
I was better than anyone, boys included. That’s when he gave me my handkerchief, for a prize. You’ll go far, my girl, he said, you’ll go far.
Here it is. Bit crumpled, but still beautiful. White linen, with silky white roses stitched into each corner.
Dr. White wrote Ma a reference. He said going to New Zealand was a mistake, that there were better opportunities in Melbourne. So we got off one boat and straight on to another. He was right. Six months later, our Annie was a married woman and Ma was engaged to be housekeeper somewhere called Goomalibee Station near somewhere called Mansfield.
Such a hot, bumpy, ride on the coach as that was, with no idea how far it was and Sarah going are we there yet. But out the window the sky was blue and the trees were silver and once we saw a kangaroo, just for a few seconds, bounding along right next to us before it disappeared into the bush...
‘Look, Betsy, look!’ Sarah bounced and bounced on the seat till her fits started and we had to take turns holding her down.
I used to love the way you said Betsy, so slow, so smiley, like you were
The crack of that shotgun: I can hear it yet. The crack of doom.
The look on Elias’ face, coming out of the bedroom: no way, he said.
No way in the world Bob could have shot himself, not lying like he is.
I looked at you; you kept looking at the floor. Oh, we should have bolted right there, right then, changed out names, lived rough, anything… lived.
Shut up, you said, shut up. I have to think. Pray, I whispered, don’t think, pray. Forgive us our trespasses, forgive those that trespass against us… you spun me round by the shoulders.
‘Say this after me, right? Say this…’
I said it. Yes, outside when I heard the shot. No, didn’t see Julian Cross. Yes, did see David Gedge, outside, running to Elias’ wagon. Yes, Bob always kept a pistol beside his bed; except it wasn’t a pistol shot that killed him, was it? It was the shotgun, the shotgun you gave Julian to load…
‘The black fellow’s shot Bob,’ you said.
You meant Julian, though he wasn’t. I suppose people called him that because of his shiny black hair. His skin was browner, that was all.
Bob’s arm was sticking out from the bed, his hairy big arm, so stiff, so heavy. I wanted to hide it under the blanket. I kept worrying the boys would wake up. But they slept through the whole thing, in behind the boxes Bob had stacked up to stop the noise from the shanty waking them. He did a good job.
When Ma said Bob Scott wanted to marry me, I laughed. But she wasn’t joking. She said I’d be fourteen soon, we had to think ahead. She said Bob had come to see her, that he’d done riding boundaries. He was setting up a shanty on the Delatite road and he needed a wife. He’d had his eye on me for a while, had I not noticed?
No. No, I had not noticed. He was just another one of the men who chucked me under the chin and teased me for taking the horses carrots and left over bread. I’ve always liked horses.
‘Well, there you are. He’s a horseman.’
‘But Ma, he’s so old, I couldn’t…’
‘You know. What people do. Love, courting, all that.’
‘Love? Don’t talk to me about love. Love’s not going to pay the bills or keep a roof over your head. Here today, gone tomorrow, that’s love. But tomorrow’s bills still need paying, tomorrow still needs a roof over its head. Sarah, now. These fits of hers, they’re getting worse. She needs to see a doctor. How am I supposed to pay for a doctor? Dear God, girl, look around! What else are you going to do?’
I didn’t know. So I ran down the paddock to the horses; I let them crowd round me and nuzzle…
What else are you going to do? I put my arms round Peggy’s neck, buried my face in her mane. She stood perfectly still, her neck solid and warm. I thought about being boosted onto her back, riding round the paddock with the wind in my hair, able to see for miles and miles… Ma was right. This was better than Twickenham:
It was Bob’s idea to boost me.
And Sarah was my little sister.
See how the embroidery catches the light? White on white.
After we signed the registry, Ma hugged me. She said Bob had promised her he’d take his time.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’ll find out.’
I used to look over his shoulder and count. Like Ma said, you just have to get used to it. It wasn’t so bad, really. At least, not till he got on the grog. I mean, he didn’t run off on me, not like Ma’s George or Annie’s Malcolm. Too shickered to run anywhere, never mind run the shanty. Couldn’t even add Julian’s wages up right. The first time I showed him his mistake, he gave me a clip round the ear. Julian was a chink, a black fellow, dago, nigger. But then Julian walked out and there was nobody to cook. He said he’d come back, but only if I did the accounts. So Bob changed his mind..
I liked the accounts. It took my mind off burying babies.
Three little graves, all in a row. Then, finally, Johnny. And a year later, little Tommy. Bob stood drinks all round. Any excuse. At first, he’d bailed punters up if he thought they were getting too friendly with me, but after a while he didn’t even notice. Or said it was good for business. Not that there was ever anything to notice, not before Davie.
Reverend Singleton said don’t cry, pray. Your babies are in a better place. That’s what I should be doing now: praying. Repenting, like the judge said. But how can I repent what I didn’t do? And I can’t repent what I did do either. Davie, Davie, when I said I’d die for you, I never thought I’d have to…
Julian twigged long before me. It was the one time his every single word came out perfect, smooth and round as stones in a river.
‘I’m innocent, but I’ll hang for it.’
Do you have nightmares, Davie, like I do? Bob’s eye, blasted out of its socket, does it glare at you too?
Your hands stroking my face, skimming my throat, cupping my breasts, whispering how he couldn’t stand the thought of that man’s dirty great paws mauling me: But we only had to wait, my love, we only had to wait! Bob was on the way out, he said so himself. His heart, he’d a dicky heart. But he would not go near a doctor. Shysters, he said. Crooks.
You wouldn’t listen. You never listened.
Stop. Get up. Make yourself decent.
Carefully, Sir William Stawell lowers the heavy horsehair wig onto his head. He tweaks it this way, tweaks it that; stalks to his armchair. With a swirl of scarlet robe, he is seated. He nods at the man behind the easel and composes himself to sit perfectly still for the next hour.
By which time he should have got word about the execution: the first execution of a female in Victoria. Unbelievable. Although when you came to think about it, it was, after all, a woman who brought sin into the world in the first place. Eve. Adam’s downfall. Not to mention Lilith; Jezebel; the Whore of Babylon etc. He did not anticipate any difficulty: good idea, though, bringing it that hour forward. One never knew how the rabble might react.
Absolutely brazen. Those big eyes, you’d think butter wouldn’t melt… but hard as nails. No tears, no pleading. Not so much as a blush. Doubt she’ll keep it up, though. The pinioning, that’s what breaks them, the pinioning.
Men, now, they’ll confess, they’ll repent. Females, never. And then they drag their men down with them. That Gedge boy, good character by all accounts until he met her. They get away with it too, plead pregnancy, bat their eyelashes, pretty please; get off with a rap over the knuckles. Well, not on his watch. What was it the Inspector General said, opening the jail’s new female ward? ‘The most depraved of their sex’. Absolutely.
He only just stops himself from shaking his head.
Voices in the corridor. Time.
Braiding, keep braiding. Up off my neck.
Bit of neck draws the punters, Bob used to say. It was braided that afternoon he came bustling in, pleased as punch, to tell me Bevan coaches would be changing horses at his shanty.
‘My wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, this is David Gedge. Bevan’s man. He’ll be lodging with us.’
You smiled. I smiled. You took my hand and kept holding it while Bob poured. The world felt bright all of a sudden, echoey…
When I went out to feed the horses, I knew you’d follow.
So neat, so fine: should have been a jockey. Hair the colour of straw, lashes long as any girl’s. Funny too: you’d have us all in stitches, the way you could do Julian’s stutter, or punters whingeing, or Bob slurring his words…
You… undoing my braids, your lips on my neck… I had no idea skin could feel like that. No more counting seconds, no, losing, drowning myself in them…
I can’t hate you. I should. But that’s for Julian, that’s his right. He should hate me too, for not telling them, even though I knew… no. Not telling them because I knew.
Last braid. Right. Black dress. Jezebel, hissed that woman in the front row.
Johnny. Little Tommy. Not even a goodbye kiss. When they ask about their mother, what will they be told? Annie promised, swore she’d tell them my side when they’re older…
I will never be older. I used to think twenty three was old. I mean, you were only nineteen. I used to say I didn’t know what you saw in me… just so you’d pull me down in the straw and show me. You used to say I was the reason men came to the shanty, that together we could make it a goldmine.
I used to say that you were my reason.
People have always said I’m pretty, always smiled, always liked me. Till that courtroom. Judge Stawell: slit eyes, slit mouth. Sergeant Moors, stiff as a post in the jury box, staring straight through me. He didn’t stare through me in the Benalla lockup, nor in the cart on the Melbourne road. Oh no, he was sorry for me then, poor little pet, come to daddy… hand on my leg…
I jumped up. He shoved and I fell onto the road.
Every pothole from there to Melbourne stabbed straight through my collar bone. I wouldn’t cry. I counted. Added, subtracted, said my times tables ...
Like a row of empty bottles, that jury: cold and dark and dusty. Up in the gallery, their wives one long hiss when Elias said he’d seen Davie and me go into the barn…
Don’t look at Davie, said Mr. Stephen, you’ll make matters worse. But how could they be worse? Just a glance, just a single solitary glance…
Davie? Head down. Back turned. Julian between him and me.
I twisted my handkerchief tighter..
‘Criminal passion’, said Prosecutor Smyth. Hiss. Purse lipped women with shoulders pinned high; telling beads, flashing crochet hooks.. One lifted the end of her shawl and wiped her mouth.
Count. Add. Subtract. Times tables.
In front of the church, the two women link arms.
‘They’ll be far better off at the orphanage’, says Annie.
‘Of course they will; far too much to expect you to take them. You’ve done all you can.’ Louisa squeezes her sister’s arm.
‘They’re very well spoken of. The couple in charge.’
‘And we’ll visit, of course. It’s not like we won’t be keeping an eye on them.’
The church bell chimes. The women start; together, they bow their heads, knot their fingers. Four. Five. Six …
‘Remember the way she was always counting? The sums she could do in her head?’
‘I used to think it wasn’t fair. Having the looks and the brains too.’
The clock chimes for the ninth time.
‘She’s on her way.’
Her handkerchief: how many stitches to a rose? You’d have to count how many roses and multiply. But each rose might not have the same number. You’d have to work out an average.
Reverend Eade: will he read about me in the paper? Will he recognize me, will he remember giving a girl called Betsy a handkerchief and telling her she’d go far?
You don’t go any further than this.
This time tomorrow I won’t be here. Won’t be anywhere. Like a sum somebody got wrong and rubbed out, but no chance of correcting it, even though I could have; oh, I could have. Mentals. I could always do mentals.
Stand up. Twist your handkerchief. Count.
‘There was no trembling of the limbs, no paleness of cheek or lip, no quiver of the eye and indeed no indication that she was filled with dread of the hangman’s touch as any woman not altogether of adamantine heart might be expected to be. She seemed entirely unsexed; and in point of nerve far excelled her fellows … She offered no opposition to the executioner during the process of pinioning …’*
One. Two. Three. The woman’s hood turns.
‘Davie, will you not clear me?’
* (The Herald, 12.11.1863)