Mystic Mountains-Settlers Book 1
In the early 1800s the penal colony of Botany Bay was an unforgiving and harsh place. Isabella O’Shea is transported to New South Wales for wounding a member of the British aristocracy who raped her, so it is understandable that she loathes members of the upper class and the system that punished her; sentenced her to seven years transportation.
Tiger Carstairs is rich, ambitious and English-so is it any wonder she is determined to hate her new master. Tiger dreams of making a new life beyond the aptly named Blue Mountains, so called because of the perpetual haze of blue surrounding them.
Mystic Mountains is a story of courage and persistence-traits that were essential for the settlers who carved out a new life in a raw land where suffering and heartbreak were commonplace.
Isabella and Tiger face tragedy and many hardships in their quest for a new life in this untamed land.
March 1818 Sydney Cove.
A wind as hot as the devil’s breath sent the longboat rocking. Isabella tried not to think about her roiling stomach as she raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun that blazed down on them. Fear, like some deadly snake, coiled itself around her innards, sliding viciously into every muscle and bone, every part of her body, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth.
The woman Isabella now counted as a true friend groaned. “S’pose we’ll ‘ave to get used to this heat,” she muttered as she ran a hand around her nape and blew a strand of greasy hair out of her eyes. “‘Tis hotter ‘ere than it was on the stinking ship when we was anchored off Rio de Janeiro!”
Isabella grimaced. “That’s a fact, Gracie.” They had been forced to get used to a lot of things, a deep and abiding despair more than anything else.
“These blooming six days we’ve been stuck out on the water ‘ave seemed longer than the whole bloody voyage,” Gracie grumbled. “Gawd but it’ll be good to get me old feet on solid ground again.”
Isabella wrapped her arms about her middle and shuddered, swallowing the bile that threatened to choke her. “I don’t ever want to see the ocean again as long as I live, Gracie.” Much as she might wish she were back in Stepney, she would never want to repeat that dreadful voyage. A violent storm lasting for nearly two days coming round the Cape had caused such wretchedness they’d feared they would all perish. No, she wouldn’t care if she never saw the ocean again.
Gracie nudged Isabella as the wharf loomed before them. “Well, girl, ‘ere we go, ‘ow d’ya feel, eh?”
“As if a mess of worms are wriggling about inside me, that’s how.”
Even when evading the constables in the alleyways and back lanes of Stepney Isabella had always felt that one day things would improve. That certainty died on the day of her arrest. Gracie had tried to give her some hope for better days ahead, but Isabella knew that a woman in her position had little hope for anything in life, least of all a bright future.
Gracie winked broadly at one of the sailors, now getting ready to stow the oars. He blew a raspberry and she chortled. Isabella had no idea how she would get by without Gracie. The older woman had been like a rock on the awful voyage. Dougal too. She saw the Scot now on one of the other longboats, which was carrying cargo. She waved and his plain face reddened as he shot her a cautious grin.
The first mate made a rude gesture. “Right, you lot,” he shouted. “Get a move on. The time has arrived for you to leave this illustrious vessel. Steady now, we don’t want you falling in the drink and spoiling your nice clothes, do we?” He sketched a bow. “This here’s Government Wharf.”
Isabella felt like pushing him into the sea, but the small moment’s triumph wouldn’t be worth the punishment she knew him capable of dishing out. How she hated him. Sweat trickled between her breasts and ran down her legs and she trembled as much with fear as with anticipation.
The man leered and suddenly grabbed her arm. “Now we’ll see ‘ow you’ll manage without that Scottish dolt watching over you every step of the way. You got away with it on the ship, slut, but let’s see how you like having one of those toffs putting his hands under your shift, eh?” He grinned evilly as he nodded to the men milling about on the wharf. “And not only his hands. He’ll be poking on you with more than his hands, mark my words.”
Isabella squirmed. “Let me go!” But he tightened his grip until she thought her arm might break.
“I will, after you gives me a little thank you kiss for being so nice to you.” Before she could back off he pressed his wet sloppy mouth over hers.
He was pushed aside, and forced to let her go or head into the water, as the women jostled to be first off the boat.
“All right, all right, don’t shove,” one shouted, elbowing Gracie.
Gracie threw herself bodily at the first mate. “Whoops, must ‘ave tripped,” she said with a grin.
Isabella wiped her mouth on the hem of her skirt, and jumped swiftly onto the dock. The first mate shook a fist at Gracie and she waved audaciously. He cursed loudly.
Gracie muttered, “Just look at that Marjorie, carrying on like the doxie she is.”
A buxom woman on one of the other boats lifted her skirts and shook a leg, making the boat wobble dangerously. The sailors guffawed. Some of the women made lewd gestures and shouted obscenely to the sailors as they climbed out, adding to the crew’s amusement.
Isabella was silent. She would never feel anything but heartsick at being brought to this hostile land. Some women had stolen with one purpose in mind: to join lovers and husbands already transported, and these few were cheerful at the prospect of being reunited with their menfolk.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a shout. “That there’s The Rocks.” The first mate jerked his head towards the cottages and shacks sprawled on the hillside. “If any of you ladies is interested in working in the public houses and rum taverns, that’s where you should head,” he said, amid coarse laughter from his mates.
“Gawd, let’s ‘ope we’ve seen the last of pubs, eh?” Gracie said as Isabella huddled closer to her side. Gracie had made no secret of being a whore in London. To most of the women whoring was the only means of supporting themselves and families apart from thieving. Isabella shuddered and Gracie patted her hand. “You’ll have no need to end up over there, you wait and see.”
“I hope to God I don’t, Gracie.” For a period back there in Stepney she had expected to spend the rest of her days as a whore. Most of the young girls in that slum had resorted to selling their bodies to save themselves from starvation.
But for good or evil, that scum of a gentleman had put paid to that expectation.
She grimaced as Gracie went on blithely, “I saw it in me tea leaves, you’re gonna make yer fortune ‘ere in the colony.” She chuckled at Isabella’s sceptical look.
“Oh Gracie, what am I going to do without you?” Isabella shook her head. The thought of their impending separation made her feel sick.
“You’ll do a treat, ducks, yes you will.”
“I only wish I was as certain,” Isabella muttered. She’d been lucky to end up with Gracie when the prisoners were split into mess groups at the start of the voyage. Gracie had been her protector and her mentor. Not even a childhood spent foraging for sustenance in Stepney, or the violence during her stay in prison, prepared her for the hardness and cruelty of some of the thieving harlots on the prison ship. Gracie held Isabella’s hand when they’d peered through the scuttle holes to get their last despairing glimpse of London, knowing they’d never see it again.
Gracie now tapped Isabella beneath the chin and grinned again, showing the many gaps in her teeth. “You’ll get a good master, don’t fret, then all your troubles will be over.”
Isabella had a feeling her troubles would never be over.
Dazedly she watched as the boat dropped off the last woman and turned to head back to the ship for the next load of human cargo. The haze caused by the swirling dust gave the scene a sense of unreality. Sweat seemed to seep from every pore in Isabella’s skin, soaking her ragged clothing, but she’d grown used to almost every form of human discomfort. What was a bit of sweat? The wind raced across the wharf, the flying dust stinging her cheeks, bare arms, and ankles.
The harbour was a cauldron of activity. Longboats ferried cargo to and from the dozen or so ships bobbing at anchor in the cove, most bound for exotic and oriental ports. At first sight of it the startling scenery had lifted the convicts’ flagged spirits after weeks of endless ocean, but that first sense of exhilaration had soon dispelled.
Gracie nudged her. “Buck up dearie, ‘ere’s the nobs.”
Isabella tried to stop her fingers shaking as she wiped at her dry, cracked lips. Soldiers, lined up and armed, stared at the unkempt women as if they were no better than the rats that had swarmed below decks.
“Stand to one side,” one of the soldiers ordered and another waved his truncheon.
“What do they think we are, a load of stupid sheep?” Isabella moaned.
“Ah well, we should be used to it by now.” Gracie sighed as they all moved to where they’d been directed.
“They’re looking at us as if we’re creatures on display at the fair. You’d think they’ve never seen a female con before.”
There were men everywhere, not just the soldiers. They lurked around corners and on rooftops, treating the arrival of a shipload of women as a spectacle.
“‘Tis a fact that we’ve been brought here because they have a shortage of women in the colony, Bella. I s’pose that lot’s waiting to find out which of us they’re gonna own, eh?” Gracie jerked her head towards a motley group of men standing openly surveying them, eyes gleaming.
It took some time to bring all the prisoners to shore. Isabella was close to fainting with the heat before the final boatload was set down.
At a signal from one of the officials a gentleman came out of a building. Moving with stiff precision to the centre of the dockyard, he stopped, then wiped his face on a white kerchief as he cast his eyes along the row of women. Unsmiling, he announced, “On behalf of Governor Macquarie I welcome you to New South Wales.”
“God bless me, if he don’t sound like ‘e’s really glad to see us who’ve come from the other side of the world at the King’s pleasure.” Gracie chuckled. “Nice of Governor Macquarie to send one of ‘is codgers to make sure we’re all ‘appy to be ‘ere.”
“Yes, happy as larks,” Isabella retorted in a sharp whisper.
“As you know,” the man went on, “you have been allocated quarters or assigned masters. These good men,” he gave the officials a stiff smile, “have spent many hours taking your particulars to ensure that everyone goes to an appropriate place of employment. You will show your allegiance to these masters. If you work hard to prove you’re of some worth to the new colony you will earn your freedom as many others have before you.” Obviously bored, he ran his eyes along the row of sweltering women. “Many of you will be in far better positions than you would ever have hoped to attain in England.” He turned and strode back into the building.
Isabella blew upwards in an effort to cool herself. She’d only taken in half of what he’d said. She was a prisoner, for all his fancy words. Still, in the long run, better to work here, hopefully in some nob’s kitchen, than to rot in a prison back home. Or face the hangman’s noose.
Home? It was so far away and so far removed from where she stood now, that it seemed as if the years before she’d been arrested had been lived by another person. But for all their poverty she’d always known what it was to be a part of a close, loving family. Oh how she missed her ma, and her brothers and sisters.
Isabella ignored the leering looks they received from men scurrying to off-load cargo. Her legs felt as if they would give out on her at any moment. Her bad foot with its crooked toes was beginning to ache fiercely and she swayed.
At last they were herded to where a stern government clerk sat at a table, a ledger in front of him and a pen in his hand.
Gracie poked Isabella in the back. “I ‘ope I get a strong ‘ansome master,” she said with a chuckle. “Like that one with the gold ‘air over there. Look at ‘im. Lord, ‘e’d do me fine. E’s been staring ‘ard at us since we came ashore. Stands out from the other lot like a boil on yer nose, don’t ‘e? Rather a dandy, I don’t mind saying so. I’ll warm ‘is bed any time ‘e likes.”
“Can’t say I noticed him,” Isabella lied.
“Oh no, suddenly you’re blind, eh?”
“One member of the gentry’s the same as the other. They can all rot in hell.”