s dark earth rained upon the coffin an air of expectancy hung over the open grave. Onlookers, in their Sunday best, sweltered in the afternoon heat. Men stood, heads bowed, hats held to their hearts; a gesture of courtesy. The women eyed me covertly from beneath veiled hats. Hopeful perhaps, that before going to meet her maker, Miss Josephine Langley had confessed her guilty secret to me.
The mystery surrounding my elderly employer hadn’t palled over the years. Those who remembered the beautiful, young, effervescent Josephine talked knowingly of ‘the tragedy’ at Cherry Tree Bay. Others whispered of betrayal and murder in that house of secrets.
I kept my back to the spectators, my jaw aching with the effort of holding in my grief. No one offered condolences. I dropped a spray of pearly-white frangipani blooms into the grave; a travesty of life and death.
Old doctor Rowlands, face beet red above the white of his stiffened collar, took my arm muttering. “Damned nosey parkers. Only here to gawk.”
I glanced over at Tom standing apart from the group, tears streaming down his rutted cheeks. Only we three mourned Miss Josephine: two elderly men and a young woman. A wave of sadness for all the injustices of life, washed over me and I wept for Miss Josephine, and for myself. I am alone again.
As I followed Tom towards the sulky where the horse waited patiently in the shade, a heavy hand descended on my shoulder. “Excuse me Miss Fairbank.” A fat man, face shiny with perspiration, raised his hat. “I’m Freddy Hoyle from Northern News. If I could have a few words.”
Tom cut him off abruptly. “Leave her alone you bloody vulture.” He elbowed the man aside, and helped me into my seat, then clicking his tongue at the horse we moved off followed by a rumble of disapproval. I didn’t care what they thought, I’d be leaving Cooktown soon, and even if I chose to, I could add little to the mouldering heap of gossip built up over the years. Josephine Langley had taken her secrets to the grave.
My life changed the day I arrived at Cherry Tree Bay. My first seventeen years, were spent in silent justification of my existence. Illegitimate; I learned that hateful word early. It branded me. With each passing year, my mother faded away as if my presence robbed her of her rightful place in the world. She died, leaving me with an uncertain future, to match my uncertain past.
After half a dozen fruitless attempts at finding a job, Miss Josephine Langley’s letter seemed the answer to my prayers. Written on expensive stationery, the words eloquent but to the point, informed me that I had been successful in my application. The envelope included a boat ticket from Brisbane to Cooktown and ten pounds advance in wages.
Though cars lumbered along the main street, I was met at the landing by a boy driving a horse and buggy. Colin had the beginnings of a downy moustache, cheeks glowing with rosy pimples, and a burning desire to fill me in on the local gossip. He loaded my one port into the buggy and we clip clopped down the main street past quaint shop fronts and hotels, and out onto the road leading to Cherry Tree Bay.
“They reckon the place’s haunted.” Colin cast me a sly glance. “‘bout every six months there’s a new housekeeper. Some I’ve brought out here and never seen ‘em again. Never been a young one like you before.”
“I’m not a housekeeper. I’m to be Miss Josephine’s companion.” I’d had years of experience, being at someone’s beck and call.
“Well, good luck to yer. She must be about a hundred years old and loony as they come. I don’t want to put the wind up yer, but everyone knows she murdered her fella. Poisoned him she did, when he found out about her.”
I wished he would just shut up. The handle of the umbrella I was holding for shade, slid in my moist grip. “Found out what?”
“What it was that she done, of course.” He started whistling, leaving me to draw my own conclusions. Colin raised his hand in a lazy salute. “That’s Mrs Harper’s place.”
“How many houses are there at Cherry Tree Bay?”
“Two. That’s number one.”
As a mode of transport the buggy was perfectly acceptable, still, it added to my sense of displacement. Dust puffed beneath the plodding hooves and I glanced nervously at the wall of bush sliding by. On the other side waves rolled listlessly onto the pallid sand. What had possessed me to go gallivanting off to this remote place to live with some old woman who could well be a lunatic?
I’d just plucked up the courage to ask him to take me back to town, when we rounded a bend in the road and he pointed up ahead. A roof showed in dark outline against the pale sky. I pictured a house as decrepit as its ancient owner, cowering behind the tropical foliage. Of course that image didn’t fit with the elegant and expensive stationery, but fear of facing an unknown future combined with Colin’s ghoulish stories had unnerved me.
Colin pulled up beside tall iron gates and leaned over to pull a bell chain almost hidden in the pink wilderness of creeping Maiden’s Blush. An elderly black man opened the gate, and raising his hat, introduced himself as Tom. He handed Colin a ten shilling note.
As he turned the buggy, the youth touched his cap. “Cheerio Miss. Rather you than me.”
I watched his retreating back, fighting down a wave of panic.
“Been filling your head with nonsense has he?” Tom picked up my port. “You’ll be right, girlie.”
I followed silently behind him, oblivious to the beauty of the purple and red bougainvillea cascading over trellises. Giant tree ferns reached lacy fronds to the pale blue sky. The scent of frangipani piquant in the afternoon heat drew my attention and with Colin’s words whispering in my ears, I stared at the layer of pearly blooms blanketing the ground.
Perspiration trickled down my cheeks, as I clutched my purse and peered into the dark shaded depths of the veranda.
“Well, Louise Fairbank, let me take a look at you.” Miss Josephine Langley’s voice was soft, but firm. Not the voice of an old lady. Beside the white wicker chair on a small table dressed as elegantly as its mistress, sat a tea tray set for two. Shrewd blue eyes surveyed me from the ruins of a once beautiful face. I had the illusion that a young girl, peered out from behind the mask of fine wrinkles.
“Well, what do you think miss, will I do? Or has young Colin Edwards convinced you I’m a murderess posing as a harmless old lady?” At her deep throaty chuckle, my tension eased and I shook my head.
“You must be parched. The bathroom is down the hall. Don’t be long now, you’ll have to play mother.” She indicated her gnarled fingers.
And so my life at Cherry Tree Bay began. Most evenings we sat on the veranda talking, sipping sherry from crystal glasses, drinking in the fragrance of the night. When the bugs chased us, we retreated inside to listen to the radio or read. Not long before she died, Mr Churchill’s disembodied voice had informed us of the fall of Singapore.
‘… this is the worst disaster and the largest capitulation in British history.’ But the war seemed so far away, part of another world.
Cherry Tree Bay was our world. From catalogues, Miss Josephine ordered books, magazines, and records to add to her extensive collection. We enjoyed a mixture of classical and modern music and her library of books filled a whole room, in ten years I couldn’t have read them all.
Though her blue eyes missed little, Miss Josephine’s sight was failing. It was my pleasure to read to her. Jane Austen was a favourite with both of us, along with Dickens and the travels of Marco Polo and slim books of Henry Kendall’s poetry. The lively discussions afterwards were almost better than the journeys between the pages. Miss Josephine insisted that literature and language were doorways to understanding. Doors opened for me, that I never knew existed.
Tuesdays, I waited at the gate for the weekly delivery of papers, and even though he never tired of trying to frighten me, I looked forward to seeing Colin’s cheery face. I had been at Cherry Tree Bay a few months when he peered at me closely. “Yer lookin’ a bit peaky Miss Louise. It’s probably that Chinee fellas cookin’. Old Wong gave me a try once. It tasted okay but I tipped it in the bushes.”
At my quizzical look, he went on. “Well if someone was tryin’ to poison yer, they’d make it taste good. Only makes sense.”
I didn’t ask why anyone might want to poison Colin, but a few days later when Mr Wong served up a meal that tasted strange, I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. I pushed the food around my plate until Miss Josephine, casting me a look partway between amusement and exasperation rang her little silver bell.
“Mr Wong, would you kindly bring Louise something a little more bland.” He slid silently from the room on his black-slippered feet.
Mr Wong had been with Miss Josephine more than twenty years, but housekeepers came and went. I recall one in particular named Edna Jones. I had been at Cherry Tree Bay for about a year when Mrs Jones’s employment was abruptly terminated. Although she maintained the household in an impeccable condition she had taken to wearing slippers similar to Mr Wong’s, for comfort she said, but Miss Josephine was convinced it was so she could eavesdrop, hopeful of taking back gossip to the local busybodies.
One morning, as we sat on the veranda we saw her shadow just beyond the French doors, ostensibly dusting. Miss Josephine leaned towards me her voice slightly raised. “The worst part was all the blood. So tiresome, I really liked that rug but the stains wouldn’t come out.” She gave a theatrical sigh. “I had to get rid of it, evidence you know. So we buried it under the frangipani tree.”
A china ornament shattered on the floor. Miss Josephine summoned Mrs Jones. “You can finish up right away. Tom will drive you back to town. I’ll put whatever wages are owing to you in the post.”
Miss Josephine was chuckling as she turned to me and while I could see the humour of the situation there was something spiteful in her amusement. She was not someone to be crossed and if as the gossips suggested the man she loved treated her abominably—well who knows what she might have done?
Yet to me she showed only kindness, even if at times she spoke plainly. Eyeing me over the top of her half-moon spectacles she told me once. “You’re not such a plain Jane you know. It’s your self-deprecating manner that detracts from your looks.” I had to ask later what that meant. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen eyes quite that colour, they’re almost navy blue. With that dark red hair of yours, if you were a horse I’d call it roan, my dear you could be stunning.” She eyed me reflectively. “But then I don’t really think that’s your style, Louise, is it?”
Despite her candour I came to love Miss Josephine dearly. On her death-bed she spoke slowly, between little gasps. “Don’t weep for me dear girl. I’ve made my peace with God. I imposed my own penance for my wickedness. A lifetime spent alone stands as testament to my repentance.” She closed her eyes and I took her hand, the thin papery skin felt cool. “We’re even now, God and I.” Her breath was ragged.
I couldn’t hold back my tears. “Hush Miss Josephine, don’t tire yourself.”
“I’ll be resting soon enough my dear. I never cared what the busy bodies thought of me, always prattling on. They’ll never know what happened. They can go on about it for another sixty-odd years for all I care.” Her little snort of amusement ended in a cough. I held a glass to her lips and she lay back waxen as the white frangipani blooms.
She clasped my hand drawing me closer. “Louise, I want you to know the truth.” One last breath escaped in a long rattling sigh and she was gone.
No doubt I’d been postponing the inevitable by not packing up my belongings. I had made no plans for a future away from Cherry Tree Bay. And, following Gerald Forbes’ visit that morning, it was no longer necessary. We faced each other across Miss Josephine’s dining room table. My own face had gone bright red. “That can’t be right sir.”
Miss Josephine’s solicitor removed his glasses and mopped his face with a snowy handkerchief. Though not too many years my senior, we were worlds apart. He represented authority, an educated man, someone to be held in awe.
“There’s no mistake. In her last will and testament, dated 10th October 1941, apart from a settlement on Tom Parkins and another on Mr Wong, Miss Josephine Langley has left everything to you. The house is yours and you can now count yourself a very wealthy young woman.”
My lips moved, but no sound came out. Gerald Forbes turned his snort of amusement into a cough. It made him seem more approachable, not so distant and frightening. Although he’d visited the house many times on business I’d been too shy to talk to him. I’d never noticed his eyes before; nice eyes, brown, and warm.
I wondered what he thought of me, so young and unworldly. As if reading my thoughts he said. “Don’t worry about anything Louise. I’ve looked after Miss J’s affairs since my father died. Everything is in order.”
At the door, he turned to face me. “Josephine Langley was a good friend to you, but she was a very strong-minded woman and just a might overbearing. It’s time for you to stand on your own feet. I hope her money brings you more happiness than it did her.”
Reaching up, I kissed his cheek. “Thank you Mr Forbes.”
He touched his face. “The name’s Gerald. Good day to you Louise.”
As I watched him walk down the steps, excitement bubbled up inside of me. Like a child I twirled around and around, until dizzy and exhausted I dropped to the veranda floor. A car engine sounded close by and I sat up to see Gerald backing his green Austin out of the gateway. I returned his wave, strangely unembarrassed that he’d witnessed my odd behaviour.
* * *
t is two weeks since I said goodbye, yet Miss Josephine’s vibrant presence lingers. I listen for the light tap of her cane and look up from my reading expecting to see her eyeing me quizzically, an enigmatic smile curving her lips. Tea for one is a lonely thing.
Each day, my claim to the house becomes more real. I’m emerging from a cocoon. Butterfly, or moth? I await my metamorphosis. At night in the house of secrets, I’m not so brave. The letter Miss Josephine left for me lies unopened beside my bed. What if it’s a Pandora’s box and I release not the evils of the world, but truths that will change my feelings towards her?
Mystery permeates this house. It has seeped into the weatherboards, the polished timbered floors and into the richly panelled walls. Unanswered questions hide in dark corners. When the sun has gone, even the gardens decked in riotous colour, seem to conceal truths best left undisturbed.
“It was her fee-on-say she done away with.” Colin’s voice echoes in my mind. “Her and the old man buried him under the frangipani tree. Ma says that’s why it’s got the best flowers in the district. All that compost. Course she wasn’t old then. Grandpa reckons she was a corker in her day.”
I touch the envelope, breathe in the scent of Jickey. Finally, unable to postpone the inevitable, but with a feeling of dread, I open Miss Josephine’s last letter. Her hand writing, though a bit shaky, is still elegant.
“My dearest Louise, on several occasions I almost had the courage to share my secrets with you, but then I’d notice a flicker of doubt on your sweet face and coward that I am I couldn’t risk your censure. Now that I am gone it should make no difference to me what you think, but I believe that wherever I am, it will. You’ve filled my last years with joy and laughter.
I’ve loved only one man in my life; Daniel Barton. Sixty years have passed, and still the ache of loss remains. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of my wedding day and perhaps a grain of truth may have endured. But most of the gossip is conjecture. Until recently I had no desire to set the records straight, but you my dear are the daughter I was denied. I see so much of myself in you.’
Oh how I wish that were true. I lack her strength of purpose, and certainly her beauty, captured for all eternity in the sepia photograph hanging in the hallway. I feel as though I know the young Josephine, gazing lovingly into her young man’s eyes. He’s handsome enough, but there’s a weakness in his chin. Perhaps that weakness destroyed their love.
Like you Louise, I never had a loving relationship with my mother. At fourteen she placed me in service with a well- to- do family. I didn’t intend to spend my life waiting on others, so I watched and learned to act like a lady. When the youngest son returned from university, I encouraged him to declare himself in love with me. His horrified family packed him off back to England and I was given a substantial sum to remove myself from Melbourne. Gold had been discovered at the Palmer River and after outfitting myself as a lady, I boarded a steamer for Cooktown determined to find a rich and handsome husband.
I could hardly believe my luck when, on the very first day I met Quentin Harley. Not only was he darkly handsome, charming and obviously rich, his manner was that of a gentleman. I concocted a story about going to meet an uncle and he spun me a fine yarn about his business dealings in the boomtown. The night before we disembarked, he suggested a glass of port. A toast to new beginnings, he said. Louise, that small act changed my whole life.
I am absolutely stunned. Miss Josephine appeared every inch an educated, genteel lady and yet it was all just an act. I feel as though she has slammed a door in my face. Oh, why didn’t you trust me, as I trusted you?
Louise, can you imagine my horror when I awoke in a strange bed with Quentin Harley sitting in a chair by my side. He looked different somehow. His face had a lean and hungry quality that frightened me. What was I doing alone with him in a bedroom? Beneath the covers, I was naked. Panic seared my stomach. I clutched the sheets to my bosom and tried to sit up, but fell back nauseated and dizzy. He leaned over and touched my hair. Such an intimate gesture. My throat was dry and my voice came out in a croak. “What has happened to me? Have I been ill?”
He leaned back in the chair, crossing his long legs. Smoke from his cheroot drifted lazily towards the ceiling. When at last he spoke, I recoiled as though slapped. “You my dear are in a brothel.”
I rolled onto my side and wept, clenched my fists against my eyes, but they were no shield against reality. Quentin traced his finger along my cheek. “You’re so beautiful Josie.” His voice was thick. “Marry me and you’ll want for nothing. Refuse and I swear I’ll put the roughest miners who frequent this establishment into your bed. You can be a whore, or you can be my wife.”
Oh, poor Miss Josephine, she had no escape.
Well I got what I wished for Louise. I married a rich and handsome man and true to his word, I wanted for nothing. Jewellery, expensive perfume, the latest in fashions, I had only to ask. I had everything except my freedom. Pride kept me a prisoner. I refused to walk the streets on my husband’s arm. I was a bird in a gilded cage. Quentin told me often enough that he would see me dead rather than let me go. He had absolute power over me and though I loathed his attentions, I lived in fear that he’d tire of me and carry out his earlier threats. My wedding band was the only difference between me, and the prostitutes downstairs.
In seeking escape from the confines of my narrow world, I discovered the power of the written word. I placed my life on hold, living vicariously through my books and the moving picture outside my window. Sailing ships and steamers disgorged a steady stream of hopefuls, all with one common goal: to strike it rich on the Palmer river gold fields. Without having to lift a finger, the gold walked through the door and into Quentin’s coffers.
The days and weeks blurred together in a stream of broken images: Charlotte Street, baking in the heat, a quagmire in the wet: ladies sheltering beneath colourful parasols, fastidiously avoiding drunken miners and turning their children’s eyes away from the black men and women weaving silently through the throng.
But good things come to those who wait. Quentin suffered from attacks of gulf fever. They call it Malaria now and after four years of bondage, and just before this house was completed, my husband died, leaving me a rich woman. There was nothing to connect me to him. I took a coach south to Cairns, returning to Cooktown a few months later as the bereaved widow of a city business man.
I feel as though I’m caught up in a novel. Only Miss Josephine and Daniel Barton didn’t live happily ever after.
Louise, at last, I had the life I’d dreamed of. In keeping with my new image, I attended service at St James’, never putting less than ten shillings in the plate. There was little chance of being recognized in church by any of the ladies from the house. Welcomed by the elite of Cooktown, invitations to social functions flowed in. I received several offers of marriage, but none took my fancy.
Then Daniel swept into my life, sweetening the air I breathed. Hours were lost in the darkness of his eyes. Nights, robbed of sleep, I lay revelling in the wonder of him. My longing for him, physical in its intensity, filled me with a sweet ache. I begged him to make love to me. After all, in a few short weeks, we would be wed, but he refused my offer, saying he wouldn’t risk sullying my reputation. Were there ever two men more different than Quentin and Daniel? And yet in the end, both betrayed me.
Daniel knew only that I was a widow. I thrust the voice of my conscience aside, time enough to tell him about Quentin after we were married. Newly arrived from England, he was looking to buy a cattle property. We’d build a house and raise a brood of children.
I told myself we had each other, nothing else was important. He was marrying me not my past. I reasoned that Daniel couldn’t blame me for what had happened, surely our love set us apart from the cares of the mundane world. Still I couldn’t overcome the sense of dread that threatened me.
I’ve asked myself a thousand times Louise, why on the night before our wedding I suddenly blurted out the truth. I think it was to be a test of faith. In hindsight I realized that our love was too new, like a delicate seedling, it needed nurturing. In easing my conscience, I destroyed his love and my life.
We’d dined at Cherry Tree Bay. I’d arranged with the housekeeper to return to town once the dessert was served. Daniel and I would drink a toast and then go to my bed. Tomorrow we’d make our lifelong commitment to each other, why wait any longer to consummate our love? If only I’d stuck to that plan. If only, if only. I’ve lived a lifetime of regret. That night, like a floodgate opening, the pain of those four years with Quentin came pouring out.
My memory of that night is as clear as if it happened only yesterday. I waited in an agony of suspense for Daniel to speak, my fingers tracing the heart-shaped splash of red wine on the tablecloth. The ticking of the clock, filled the room. When I could no longer bear the silence, I forced myself to meet his eye. His face was ashen. I reached out, pleading. “Daniel.” He pulled away from me, as if he couldn’t bear my touch.
He stood before me, a stranger wearing my beloved’s face. “I cannot believe that this house, all your money, everything has come from that place.” He pressed his lips together as if to keep something foul from his mouth. “A brothel. Josephine how could you?”
“Daniel please. We’ll move somewhere else. Leave it all behind. No one need ever know.” I was weeping.
His voice was flat. “I’ll know.” At the door, he stopped. “I can’t talk about this now. I need time to think.” I looked around half expecting to see my dreams, crushed and broken, lying amongst the detritus of the evening.
Still, I clung to hope, surely once he had time to think things through, he’d realize it wasn’t my fault. The next day, my swollen eyes hidden behind a lacy veil, I waited for Daniel at St James’. He never came. Voices rose and fell, dropped to hushed whispers, then faded into silence. I felt a light touch on my shoulder. “Time to go home now missus.” My good and loyal friend Tom was a young lad then, and it was on his arm that I left the church.
Daniel was waiting for me here on the veranda. I ran the few steps to his side. His face was tight with misery and hope that had flared so briefly died. “I love you Josephine, I’ll always love you. But everything is spoiled now. If only you’d walked away when he died, I could forgive you. But, I can’t marry a woman who has lived off the proceeds from a whorehouse.”
In less than a day, I had plummeted from cherished sweetheart to the lowest of the low. With a cry of anguish, I ran inside and snatched up the scissors from my sewing basket. He was right behind me. I turned to face him and in that instant read the fear in his eyes. Like a woman demented, I lashed out, slashing, cutting and stabbing. For what seemed an eternity Daniel stood there as if frozen to the spot. Then he cried out my name and I watched in fascinated horror as the bright blood trickled onto the carpet.
Daniel caught my wrist and tore the scissors from my grasp. I beat my hands against his chest. “You’ve ruined my life. You’ve destroyed me. Get out, get out of my house.” My legs gave way and I sank to the floor. My precious wedding dress, stained red with my own blood, hung from me in ribbons. Rage gave way to agony so intense; I thought I’d surely die. As I wept, I made a vow, that I would never again leave Cherry Tree Bay.
A few years later, I read Daniel’s wedding notice in the Sydney social pages. Of course if I read it so did others. Yet still the tales persist that I murdered him and buried his body in the garden. If someone died that day Louise, it was me. Daniel dealt me a mortal wound. I planted the white frangipani tree as a reminder of what might have been.
Yet in hindsight I know that I, not he, destroyed my chance of happiness. I chose to punish myself. Louise, I had committed a far greater sin.
On the night he died, I sat dozing by Quentin’s bed. He was feverish, twisting and turning, crying out my name. I felt no compassion. He revolted me, this man who ruled my life, defined my existence. I stared down at him lying in his own puke, vulnerable and weak, so completely at my mercy. My hand was steady as I poured laudanum into the quinine the doctor had prescribed. I administered a lethal dose to my husband. Some might call it murder; I chose to think of it as poetic justice. If the elderly doctor had his suspicions, he kept them to himself.
It’s all so long ago. What does it matter anymore? I’ve paid my dues. All connection with the brothel was severed long before you were born. Take what I offer and embrace life, make of it a feast. You’re a beautiful young woman and you deserve the best. For now, goodbye Louise.
Ever your friend, Josephine Langley
PS. My dear, you could do worse than to encourage Gerald Forbes, he’s a fine young man. I’d like to think that you will fill the house with love, and the laughter of children.”
The house at Cherry Tree Bay is silent now, the ghosts banished. Rest in peace Miss Josephine.
* * * * *
Lori Hurst has proved her dedication as an aspiring best-selling author by managing to complete a lengthy MS while her home, set in tropical north Queensland, is literally being constructed around her. The mammoth house-building project taken on by her husband Peter and herself is enough to daunt all but the most intrepid writer. Of course she has the compensation of a huge deck complete with an inspiring view where family & friends gather to catch up, admire or help. Not necessarily on a voluntary basis. She claims that whilst painting – the house that is – her mind is free to create & most times when she has a brush in one hand there’s a voice recorder in the other. Like a myth of phoenix rising from the chaos of a house in progress, rather than from the ashes, her short stories & articles continue to emerge.
Her publications at Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.