Hergott Springs, Outback South Australia, Sunday, 5 April 1891.
Harriet Manning mouthed the numbers as she surveyed the drab hall… seven, eight, nine… It was meagre congregation today. Mrs Sanderson and her husband were absent again. They'd only been three times since Christmas, even missing last week and that was Easter Sunday. And who's to blame them?
The hall was beginning to show the effects of seven years in the harsh sun. George, with the help of a few of his congregation had cobbled the structure together from whatever materials they'd been able to scrounge. Old packing cases and second-hand corrugated iron were much in evidence, but the builders had not been competent. Now, the timber was split and cracked and the grey paint was peeling from the sheets of iron. Some sheets had become nail sick and were beginning to lift. It had always leaked when it rained, but rain was rare. It was the sun that did the damage. A beam of sunlight, rife with dust motes, streamed through a gap in the roof, shining on the floor a few feet to the side of the dais and Harriet smiled. It's just as well it isn't shining on the lectern, she thought. If it had been, George would have claimed it was divine approval.
She looked from the sunbeam back to her husband who was grasping the lectern with his podgy hands. His face was a mask of fury as he spat out his sermon, a tirade of eternal damnation that awaited those in his congregation who failed to repent their sins.
For some of us, she thought, that torment had already arrived. With a sigh she reached up, trying to ease her hair where she had pulled it into a bun, but it remained painful. She should not have dragged it so tight.
Harriet sighed. So little joy in her married life.
According to George, even the pride in her hair was an affront to God. Before her marriage she would brush it until it gleamed like burnished copper, glistening in the sunlight as it streamed around her shoulders like a cascade of tumbling water, but at George's insistence it had for years been imprisoned in a temperate bun. It was still tight and she reached up, pulled out one of the pins and felt immediate relief. She slipped the pin into her prayer book. It would be safe there until she was home.
'Today's reading is taken from Deuteronomy, chapter 32,' George intoned from the dais;
'… a fire is kindled in Mine anger,
and shall burn unto the lowest hell…'
George lifted his eyes and glared at the congregation, no doubt trying to find some fault as he examined each person in turn. His scowl deepened as if he was disappointed and he returned to his diatribe.
Harriet sighed and closed her eyes, but she couldn't blot out his harangue. The Song of Moses, she knew her Scriptures. George had seen to that with his obsession, but why was he always so negative?
She squirmed on her chair, trying to find an less painful position, but the chair was hard and unyielding. They were all cast offs from people's homes, and no wonder. Each was as uncomfortable as the others.
George had made few converts in Hergott Springs. Only fifteen in chapel this morning out of a population of six hundred. Harriet wondered why the rest of the town wasn't burning in the fires of hell. Hardly surprising the Sandersons had become disenchanted. She could understand them, but they were lucky. They had a choice.
Behind George she could see the pastor who had arrived from Adelaide to inspect his flock and reinforce George's message. He stood tall and to attention, a veritable Jack Sprat, dominating the dais. George, shorter by a foot, could have been Humpty-Dumpty. For a moment Harriet thought she could detect a smile in the pastor's glowering features, but she knew she was wrong. Two days he'd been here. Two days of purgatory. He was so miserable he made George seem a bundle of joy.
Harriet wondered about joy. It was a word that had little meaning for her since her marriage twenty-two years ago, but this morning had been the first time George had used violence.
'I trust you're not proposing to lead the service in those boots?' The pastor scowled as he spoke.
'Why? What do you mean?' George's face filled with apprehension.
'You should be more respectful when you're preaching the Lord's word, George. Those boots are a disgrace. They need cleaning.'
'If you say so.' George sat without protest and unfastened the laces. He removed the boots and passed them to Harriet.
She frowned, but took them across the passageway to the kitchen without a word, wondering what the pastor could object to as she blackened them again.
'… in her place… assert yourself. Show…' Snippets of the authoritarian voice carried across the open space between the kitchen and sitting-room as she worked.
'Yes. I'll do…' George's subservient whine was quieter, and Harriet was unable to make out more of his words.
She put the brushes away and took the boots through to George, but the louring pastor snatched them from her hands. He turned them over, snarling as he tapped the insteps with his finger.
'Disgusting. Look at this dirt. If you were my wife…' He placed the boots on the dining table, removed his belt and turned to George. 'You know your duty.'
Harriet's mouth gaped. George was proud of that table and she'd spent years polishing it at his insistence.
George's face flamed red and at first she thought he was going to protest, but he said not one word of rebuke. His flabby lips firmed into a taut line and, like a well trained spaniel eager to do its master's bidding, he took the belt that the pastor held towards him.
'Hold this and stand still,' he snarled as he slid a dining chair in front of Harriet. Automatically she gripped the back, surprise and shock keeping her speechless. She glared at the sullen pastor and gasped as the first stroke lashed across her shoulders. But she stifled her cry as the sting gave birth to anger and she resolved to remain silent. She concentrated on the calendar which showed an image of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus. It was the only decoration George had allowed.
Five times more the leather slashed before the pastor nodded and George handed the belt back to him.
'We should be going,' the pastor said, his austere features reinforced by his habitual scowl. 'It will set a bad example if we're not first at the chapel.'
George hurried to replace his boots, still wheezing from his exertions. 'Don't be late,' he growled at Harriet as he led the pastor to the front door.
She choked back her tears and tried without success to ease the sting in the spreading welts. Her anger grew as the pain intensified, and she moved to her bedroom window to watch as they marched down the path and into the parched street. The gaunt pastor towered over her husband. At his side George seemed shorter than usual as he half ran to keep pace with his striding leader. Before they'd taken a dozen steps their boots were begrimed, whitened with the bull-dust from the ruts.
'I hate that man,' Harriet said aloud, surprised at the venom in her words.
Now she watched George on the dais and wondered, not for the first time, what had attracted her to him. Pressure from her parents, she realised. They were so besotted with their Church that they jumped at the opportunity to marry her off to such a devoted adherent of the Faith.
At seventeen she'd been too young to know better. In the newness of her marriage she'd tried to please her husband, joining him in his evangelical crusades, misunderstanding his bigotry for a desire to help those less fortunate. With hindsight she realised that even then she'd had her suspicions, but the children came along and she was too busy to notice how restricted her life had become. It was only after they'd left home that the full force of her unhappiness hit her, but by then she was imprisoned in Hergott Springs. She'd wished many times that she could leave, but the only way out was by buggy or by train. They had never owned a buggy and the train was out of the question. George worked for the railway.
This morning had been a glimpse of hell on earth. If that was George's religion, it was the last of it. All their married life he had preached at her, forever urging her to be ready to accept God's enlightenment. Well, she'd had enough of God's enlightenment. Once she was organised she'd leave for Adelaide. She couldn't think what she would do, not yet. She had no training for anything except a drudge, but she could read and write, and her arithmetic was good, the legacy of helping her father with the accounts of his shop. Whether it would help her to find work she didn't know. Leaving Hergott Springs wouldn't be easy. She would have to bide her time until the right moment, but this morning had been the end of her joyless marriage.
This morning she'd stood silent, determined not to give that wretched pastor the joy of seeing her cringe. She still felt the lash across her shoulders, the weals fierce beneath her bodice. Duty indeed. What sort of God compelled his disciples to be so hypocritical about an irrelevance such as boots, clean or otherwise?
Joy… She couldn't get the word out of her head.
The only joy she'd experienced had been while the boys were young, but George had schooled them well. Long before they were ten, they too were staunch supporters of the Faith and their childhood lost. They had grown up as duplicates of their father, sour featured, constantly fighting the evil that surrounded them. Now they were gone from her life. Joseph was dead. He had never known joy either. He'd been ill, too weak to fight the fever he'd caught at the theological college that George admired so much. Esau was now at that same college. He could be as dead as his older brother for all the love he showed to her.
Esau… She wondered if he'd ever loved her. He'd never shown her any affection. Not once had he helped her in the house and as he'd got older he'd expected her to drop whatever she was doing to attend to his whims, just like his father. Like some arrogant lord he'd refused to eat anything not to his liking, demanding she cooked something else immediately. George had done nothing to discourage him.
Her married life had been nothing but drudgery.
She thought of the two children she'd passed as she walked to chapel less than half an hour earlier. Dirty as mangy dogs, they had been screeching and laughing at the game they were playing. She knew all the children. The boy and girl were the children of another railway worker, one of the many George had failed to convert and so were damned. He had forbidden her to socialise with those outside his Chapel, and so she had few friends. She quickly corrected herself, no friends. For a moment she knew jealousy, but she dismissed the thought. It was negative and she'd had enough of negativity.
If only she had somewhere to stay. She stole a glance to Hanna Smailes, the large woman sitting on her right staring enraptured as George poured his vitriol over the congregation. She was the closest she had to a friend, but she couldn't ask her for help. Hanna was as extreme as George, possibly more so. Robert, Hanna's husband, sat quiet and subservient on her right, as always he was wearing a look of resignation on his face. She followed Hanna's gaze back to George. How could he disapprove of so much?
Harriet's thoughts returned to the children and their laughter. She'd forgotten how to laugh. Even the Afghan cameleers laughed. Heathens that they were, their laughter drove George to anger. They laughed often and Harriet wondered how they could be so cheerful. Like her they had nothing but work in their lives. They had left their women behind in the country they had come from, somewhere north of India, or so she'd been told. Not one woman in their camp, no families, just work and their camels.
Maybe that's why they laugh so much. Maybe she'd laugh without her family.
She closed her eyes. Life can be better, she thought, and smiled. She stiffened and straightened her shoulders, wincing at the stab of pain from the weals. Most of the people in the town seemed happy. Their life must be better than hers. As she opened her eyes her smile vanished and she clenched her teeth, staring hard at her husband.
'Life will be better for me too,' she whispered.
Adelaide, Sunday, 9 August 1891.
A frown replaced Harriet's smile as she laid the table and thought back to the whipping. If it hadn't been for that whipping…
She brushed her hair back from her face, watching in the mirror as the auburn waves spilled across her shoulders, gleaming in the morning sun. It was such a relief not to have to pile it into that unattractive bun.
Leaving George hadn't been as difficult as she'd expected. It had taken three months of scrimping and saving to raise the money for the fare, with a little extra for living expenses. George had been away inspecting some repair work on the line when she'd bought the ticket just minutes before the fortnightly train pulled out from Hergott Springs. Her apprehension had evaporated as the train moved south through the desiccated desert, but she had still worried how she'd earn a living when she reached Adelaide.
She'd been lucky to find the housekeeper's position. Even luckier that Mr Mackenzie was so kind and generous. One pound a week to clean and cook for him, plus her food and board. She'd never had so much money.
A widower with no family, Mr Mackenzie was lonely and showed his appreciation for everything she did for him. After George's indifference it had made her eager to please him more. That he had no religious convictions came as such a relief after the years of George's dogma.
Such a generous man. How lucky she'd been.
Last night she'd been pleased to show her own appreciation in the time-honoured manner. She closed her eyes to better relive the experience and felt his arms wrap around her waist, drawing her tight to him. She hadn't heard him enter the room and for a moment she was startled, but she relaxed and snuggled into his embrace. He kissed her and she returned his kiss with passion.
Harriet pinched herself.