Unsure of his real past or name, Finn O’Connor thinks he was born in Ireland and taken from his mother as a baby by a gypsy woman. As a toddler, an English woman then took him to London. About ten he fled to join a gang of boys who survived by their wits on the streets. Five years later, he was arrested for a minor crime and transported to The Colony of New South Wales for a 10-year term. In 1846 as transporting of criminals neared an end in NSW, he was moved to the infamous penitentiary at Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land.
On the day Finn received his papers of freedom an accidental meeting brought him into contact with 20-year-old Esther Blythe. Born in Surrey, England, genteel Esther is kind and caring. As a 4-year-old her parents brought her to Van Diemen’s Land where her Papa, a doctor, took on the task of providing medical aid to the prisoners at the Port Arthur Penitentiary and its surrounding area. Sadly, both parents were killed in an accident, leaving Esther with no option but to work as a governess/nursemaid.
For reasons that even she did not comprehend, Esther took the ex-convict under her wing when they met outside the penitentiary hospital. Could be she saw a fellow lonely soul who simply wanted someone to have faith in him. Life seems to take a turn for perhaps the better from then on, but will these two lonely people overcome many obstacles to find the happiness they seek together as they face an uncertain future.
Port Arthur Tasmania 1848
Through a haze he could hear a voice somewhere above him, and although vaguely aware that someone had called his name all else was lost in pain. The sweat on his face began to sizzle with the heat—or so it seemed. As he opened his eyes a fraction of this sweat ran into their corners and began to sting as if boiling his eyeballs to add to the sawdust already there, or perhaps it was blood.
“Hang on Finn, yer silly bugger, they’ve gone to fetch ‘elp.” The speaker then disappeared and Finn tried to move, but he had to grit his teeth as a searing pain shot through his shoulder and down his arm.
Heaven knew, he’d had his share of agony and discomfort since coming to this godawful place, but this topped it for certain. To take his mind off it he tried to think of better moments in his life, but they were sparce, far back and almost all lost in time.
A sudden movement beside him in the sawpit alerted him that someone had jumped into the pit and was now leaning over him in the narrow space. “Well, here’s a fine mess you’ve got yourself into young fellow,” a kindly voice said. “How in heaven did you manage to do this to yourself? They said you was the top man, so how come you ended up down here amid the sawdust and dirt?” Patting Finn on the unhurt shoulder, he added, “I’m what’s the nearest to what can be called a doctor here today, they call me Johnson.”
Finn squinted up to see that this Johnson was not a lot older than himself, and was likely nearing his thirtieth year. His mop of unruly hair drooped over his forehead as he began to use a knife to hack his way through Finn’s shirt sleeve, and Finn gritted his teeth as the pain seemed to worsen. To add to his injury was the knowledge that he’d done this damage by his own foolishness. If he hadn’t been larking about as usual to show how handy he was with his fists, none of this would have come about. Never one to shirk from a fight, when the big oaf they called Bear started to taunt him, of course he could not back down from the inevitable.
“You’ve lost a small amount of blood from your forehead, but as far as I can see it’s just where you caught the log on your way down.” Turning to rummage about in a small bag he had at his side this Johnson fellow produced a piece of rag and then began to wipe away at the blood. “I fear the problem with your arm could be a lot worse—probably broken.” The searing pain when he moved that arm made Finn flinch and Johnson apologised. “It’s as I expected, we’ll have to get you off to the infirmary.” Patting Finn’s shoulder he said with a small laugh, “This’ll stop you fighting for a while,” then apologised again, adding, “Sorry, my attempt at humour.”
As another shape appeared above him Finn recognised it as his Scottish working mate Spence who then dropped down to stand at his side opposite the man tending him. “We’ll have to haul you up, matey, so grit yer teeth, eh?” Finn’s teeth ached already with the gritting. “How the bloody hell you managed to get yourself in this mess, I can’t work out. It’s not as if you don’t know how to look after yourself. Mucking about never did you any good, and if I told you once I told you a million times, stick to the rules.”
“’Twas that big oaf Bear, if he hadn’t delivered that mighty punch that knocked me sideways and down here, I would have beaten him to next week. Doc here says it’s not that bad—that’s right isn’t it, doc?” Finn grimaced as he tried to push himself up onto his good elbow.
“Well, honestly, I’ve seen many worse. You were unfortunate that you didn’t pick a more suitable spot for your match.”
Someone up above then tossed a rope down, ordering, “Tie it round his shoulders, Spence, and we’ll haul him up.”
Finn had a feeling he might have passed out as he was dragged up out of the pit, only just being squeezed past the huge log that they had been in the process of sawing through when the accident happened. “Guess it could have been worse, matey—if the log had fallen in on top of yer,” one of the haulers said as they lay him down beside the pit.
This cheerful observation accompanied by a chuckle did nothing to ease the guilt Finn felt. If they had been working on this one for longer and had cut further through it, the log would have fallen onto Spence, and his mate would not now be alive and kicking. He could only offer thanks that they had only started sawing a short time before his silly argument with Bear. Cursing his idiocy for allowing the big idiot to stir him so, he vowed never to be so daft next time.
As Johnson gave orders for Finn to be assisted to the small cart that stood a short distance away, Finn saw Bear standing some distance back laughing his stupid head off and Finn knew his vow would never be kept. “How long before I can get back to work, Doc?” he asked, as Johnson clicked the horse into a walk, once he’d ensured Finn was comfortably settled behind him.
Johnson laughed. “In a hurry to get back to the job, are you? I would have thought you would welcome a stay in hospital to get away from the horrible tasks set upon you?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad working out here amid the trees, a lot better than working on the new prison they are building.” There were times when Finn almost relished the tough going. “It beats the work we were set to up north by a long way, or working on the treadmill all day.”
“You came down from Sydney Town, did you, when they decided to close it?”
“Yes, and it won’t be long afore I will be a free man. Done my ten years haven’t I?”
“Goodness, ten, eh? You must have been a young ‘un when they sent you here.”
Finn chuckled. “That’s a fact. Think I was about fifteen. Never know for sure as I wasn’t certain when I was born.”
“You aren’t alone in that fact, Finn, many of the men in the prison yonder would have no idea when they were brought into this world. One good thing about it is you never have a birthdate to celebrate so don’t notice the years passing.”
Finn said nothing to that as Johnson pulled the horse up in front of the hospital. No doubt this man had never been locked away in pitch black solitude where all you had to do was count the hours and the minutes as they ticked away. Johnson jumped down, and awkwardly Finn did the same. Together they walked towards the brick structure that Finn thought was one of the ugliest buildings he had ever seen. The pain in his arm had subsided and only ached when he moved it, but he wasn’t about to say anything as a night in hospital as the doc said would not be hard to take. Anything was better than sleeping amid the stench of the other men he usually shared his sleeping quarters with.
“I’ll leave you here with this capable young man,” Johnson said after he’d explained to the fellow who met them as they came in just what he thought was Finn’s injury. With a small salute he walked off.
“Can you write?” the man who was some sort of nurse or orderly asked, after he’d led Finn into a room and told him to sit down.
“Yes, I can.” Finn felt quite indignant. Being treated like a child irked him. “I’ve been reading and writing since I was this high.” He signaled a spot about knee high. That wasn’t strictly true for he hadn’t properly learned his letters until he was likely ten or more.
“Write your name here, then.” The orderly pointed to the page lying on a table. “What’s your sentence? Got much longer to serve, have you?”
“My time is just about up.” Finn squared his shoulders, and a twinge of pain reminded him why he was here. “Should get my pardon any day now.”
“Right ho.” The fellow peered down at the sheet of paper. “Finn O’Connor, you wait here and someone will come along and see what needs to be done.” As Finn sat on a bench, he walked out carrying the page.
The next day Finn walked out of the hospital with the proof that he was a free man tucked firmly into his trouser pocket. As luck would have it the injury had turned out to be not broken, but something to do with the shoulder joint having to be pushed back into its rightful position. The doctor who did this told him he had dislocated it when he fell. After the pain from that subsided, he was told to rest it as much as possible. So, no more fighting for some time, was the order given him.
It appeared that when his name came before the Commissariat’s office, they realised that his ten-year sentence ended a month or so back and therefore he was deemed free to go wherever he wanted. Just one thing held him back, he had not one penny to his name and possessed just the rags that he stood up in. A young nurse had found him a shirt somewhere to replace the one the doc cut about, but it was not a lot better than the old one. There was the bundle he carried that contained his mug and plate, a worn hairbrush he’d taken from a man who died, and a picture Finn collected somewhere along the way of a place in Ireland called Kilmallock that he kept, as it looked like a nice place to live.
As he pondered what to do next, a soft mutter of annoyance came from behind him and he turned in time to see a woman take a tumble. Landing in a heap at the foot of the steps, her skirts flew about, showing a glimpse of one perfectly shaped ankle. Seldom did females of good breeding travel about alone in these parts so he looked about to see if her carriage driver was here to assist her. A small cart stood not far away, but there was no one else in sight so he went to kneel at her side, asking, “Are you all right miss?”
With a small toss of the head, she looked up at him from the most beautiful pair of eyes he had ever seen. Hair as black as night was pulled back into some sort of roll behind her head beneath the bonnet that she hastily straightened. At a guess he thought perhaps she was about twenty years of age. Not used to being this close to a woman in some time he stood hurriedly and offered a hand, feeling like the idiot he knew she must think him, while he sent up a small prayer of thanks that at least the hand was cleaner than it had been yesterday.
As she took the outstretched hand she smiled, and Finn’s silly heart seemed to do a somersault. “Just feeling a bit stupid,” she said in what Finn called a posh English accent. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
When she stood—close enough for him to feel her sweet breath on his face, he realised he still held her hand and dropped it as if it was a piece of hot coal. “Easily done,” he muttered, looking about again as he asked, “Is your driver somewhere?” again feeling foolish for obviously nobody else was nearby.
“No, I came alone.” Holding a small package aloft she added, “Simply came along to pick up this medication for the small girl who is in my charge.” Brushing at her skirts, she looked around. “Are you waiting on someone?”
“No, I have just come from the infirmary too—only this was because in my foolishness I had a fall and injured my shoulder.” Lifting this arm as if to prove it was also all right, he dropped it swiftly, not knowing what to do or say next, and asked, “Might I ask why you are not afraid of me, Miss? Most females might be inclined to run swiftly from a man alone in these parts.” A stupid blush rushed to his cheeks and he cursed his fair skin and light hair, not for the first time, as he turned away in the hope of hiding his face.
At her small laugh he turned back. “Exactly that, sir, you are alone, and I know that had you been a criminal you would most likely have been on the way back to the prison accompanied by a guard—am I correct?”
Finn stared at her. No females that he had come into contact with—and they were few and far between—had been anything like this one. “I’ve just gained my freedom, Miss, and am wondering where to go and what to do.” Feeling the need to prove the truth of this he delved into his pocket and brought out the precious paper and held it aloft.
With barely a glance at it, she laughed again and asked, “So where do you think you will decide on? It’s a long trek to Hobart where most seem to head once gaining their release.”
Another surprising statement from her. Pushing the paper back into his pocket, he glanced about. “I doubt my meagre funds will take me as far as Hobart at this time—perhaps later. I need to find employment first and foremost.”
“Ah, yes.” With a finger to her chin, she appeared to be making a decision before she said, “The family I am employed by are in need of a man capable of doing a variety of jobs around their small property, perhaps that would suit. The husband is away a lot about his business and his wife sadly hit a decline after giving birth, and therefore is scared of going out and about, so you would have to prove you are trustworthy.”
“And how would I do that, Miss? It’s a fact that we are not given a recommendation on receiving our freedom.”
With a twist of the mouth as if indicating that she was thinking about that, she looked him up and down before saying, “I will vouch for you. Sadly, your clothing gives away the fact that you have been a convict.” Shaking her head she added, “I have an idea. We will soon find a solution to that.”
Mystified that a complete stranger—and a female at that—should be so trusting, he blurted, “I could be a murderer for all you know. Why would you help me in this way?”
“I hope I am a good judge of character, and I know a bit about the past of most who gain their freedom. My Papa was a medical man. We relocated here to Port Arthur in forty-five after the hospital was built and he told me tales of men who were transported for the silliest of crimes. So, what was your crime? Steal a loaf of bread did you, or something just as trifling?” Without waiting for his response, she turned and with a wave of the hand said, “Look, I have to get back or my mistress will start panicking, so are you interested or not?” She headed towards the cart, where the horse was in the middle of a nap, its head bent.
Shaking his head in disbelief, Finn trailed after her. Surely this young female was perhaps mad or was she a gift from the gods? Without assistance she climbed aboard the small vehicle and picked up the reins as she sat back on the bench. As he joined her, she asked, “So what name do you go by? Mine’s Esther by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you, Esther.” With a feeling he had drifted into some strange other world, he added, “I go by Finn O’Connor.” The Finn part was probably fact. As for his surname, he had no idea who had called him that somewhere along the way in his growing years, but he kept it as a way to prove that he was born in Ireland. As the horse began to trot, he asked, “You said your Pa was a medical man—is he not one anymore?”
“Sadly, for me, my dear Papa, along with my Mama, was killed just last year when the carriage they were in overturned after hitting a rock.”
“Oh, I am sorry to hear that. It must have been awful for you. Are you alone now or do you have siblings?”
After a deep sigh, she admitted, “It was the worst time of my life—and no I have no brothers or sisters. That of course is why I am employed as companion of sorts to the girl in need of the medication I was sent to collect. It’s a shame, but she is currently a sickly child and has a nasty cough.”
“So, you not only lost your parents, you also lost your home?” Although he had never known what it was to have a real family, nonetheless a place somewhere near Finn’s heart ached for this young girl who had hers snatched away so cruelly.
Without answering that, she gestured ahead to where a cottage surrounded by a few trees sat atop a slight knoll. “We have arrived,” she said as she pulled up a short distance from a gate in the fence surrounding the garden. “Say little to my mistress, but let me explain to her that you are looking for employment.” Finn nodded, still feeling as if he was in the middle of some strange dream. “Please wait here while I go and fetch you something more presentable to wear. I suppose you realise that you look far worse than a farmer’s scarecrow in those filthy rags.” The look of scorn she sent to his trousers made him realise such if her words had not.
As she walked off, he scratched at his head, knowing at least his hair and body were now clean after the nights’ stay in the infirmary. Was there no end to the oddness of this female? Where on earth would she find clothing for him? Surely not from her employer’s wardrobe?
And how could she be so trusting of a complete stranger and an ex-con at that. If he found the will to do it, he could jump onto her cart and urge the horse away as fast as it could go. Common sense kicked in just as fast as that idea hit him—the troopers would be after him in no time and it was doubtful if the guards would let him pass the place called Eaglehawk Neck anyway, where it was rumoured they kept starving dogs tethered, not to mention the guards who were reported to be no better than savages. And with no money or chance to earn some, about the only option available would be to join up with a gang of bushrangers or the like.
Then there was the matter of this girl who was close to being the best person he had ever come across. She soon returned as he stood rubbing the soft nose of the horse whose warm breath was strangely comforting. Pressing the bundle she held beneath her arm into Finn’s arms, she advised, “Go behind that tree and change, then wait for my return.” Speechless he obeyed, watching her as she led the horse around the fence, disappearing behind the house.
The trousers were of good quality, and she had even provided him with an undergarment such as he had never worn in all his adult years. The shirt he tucked into the belt of these trousers felt soft as butterfly wings against his skin. Lastly, he pulled on a waistcoat, just as she called out, “Are you ready?”
Picking up his ragged trousers and holey shirt he rolled them into a ball before going to stand before her. “I have to ask you, miss, whose togs do I have the pleasure of wearing?”
Sucking her bottom lip in she nodded as she ran her eyes up and down his length. “They were my Pa’s. As luck would have it, I was loathe to part with all of my parents’ belongings after their unfortunate death. I am happy that they fit you well. My Papa was also a big man.” Turning abruptly, she waved over her shoulder. “Come, we will go and present you to my mistress. Leave your discarded things there beneath that tree and you can burn them later.” Stopping before the doorway she said, “I unfortunately have no boots that I could get for you.”
“That’s fine. I got these from a bloke who lost a bet not too long ago.” Truth was the fellow who owned them died, and Finn had to fight a couple of the other men who were set on getting them.
“I told my mistress that I met you on the road. Say that you are seeking work and can do most jobs around the house and outside. Do not mention that you have only recently been given your freedom.”
As he followed her, Finn took in the house before them. By no means a rich man’s property, it was a sturdy cottage which he presumed had been provided for the master of the house on coming to take up his post in the area, whatever that was. As they went beneath the small porch and through the doorway, the smell of cooking coming from somewhere at the back of the house was welcoming and his mouth watered as the thought of a good home-cooked meal made him glad this girl had brought him here, if nothing else mapped out.
A small girl came from one of the rooms and eyed him warily as she demanded, “Who’s that?”
“Now Becky, don’t be rude, I taught you better manners than that. This is Finn and he is going to work for your Mama.” Wrinkling her tiny nose, the child sent Finn a frown before following his rescuer through a doorway.
A long time had passed since Finn stood inside such a building, in fact the courthouse where his sentence was announced those ten years ago was the last place where he’d come up against members of the gentry. It was obvious by the scant furnishings that these people could not be termed nobs though. Digging his hands into the trouser pockets he felt a sense of elation such as he’d never felt in his life. From convict and inmate of the devil’s own prison to an almost employed worker—and all within a matter of a day. What would Spence have to say about this kettle of fish when next he saw him?
When Esther appeared at the doorway beckoning him, he straightened his spine before following her. The woman who reclined on a sofa took him by surprise. Fully expecting a dowdy older person, she was almost beautiful, and not a lot older than himself. Hair the colour of sand was drawn back from a narrow face. Sad eyes took in his entire length from his unruly hair to his battered boots, before she said, “Esther tells me that you are handy around the house and garden, is that so?”
Deciding to be on his best behaviour, he gave her a small bow before answering, “Yes Ma’am, I can put my hand to just about anything.” Spence would laugh heartily at that lie.
With a small nod, she asked, “So why are you seeking employment with us? Did your previous employer not want your services anymore, and if that were the case, just why was that so if you are so handy?” This was said with a touch of what he thought was derision.
Glancing at Esther in confusion, he realised that he had not taken the time to concoct a story that might please this woman. She came to his rescue by saying, “Finn’s previous employer recently went back to England.”
The woman nodded as she continued to stare at him. As if coming to a decision she said, “I will not tolerate alcohol consumption of any kind while you are in our employ, is that understood? My husband will decide on a wage—if any is earned, and if you prove worthless then you will leave without causing us any fuss or bother.”
Finn nodded, while thinking how odd this person seemed to be—but then again what did he know about the upper class except they could be bullies and tyrants. “Thank you, Ma’am, I vow to do my very best.” Inside he wondered how good his best would be. And then wondered if his rescuer Esther was by now likely regretting her rash decision to fetch him here. Following on from that was the question once again of why she had been so keen to bring him here.
With a flap of the hand his new employer said, “Take him to the stable Esther, where he can sleep. He can come to the kitchen at meal times where Nelly will give him food. The only time you are to come into the house…Finn…is if we need you for heavy work that the women cannot undertake, such as bringing logs for the fire.” As if suddenly coming to a thought, she added, “And do not pay attention to our silly maid Cora who is likely to desire your interest.” She rubbed at her head then as if it was paining her, and flapped her hand again in dismissal.
Esther nodded to Finn and he followed her out, feeling the need to rub at his own head in total confusion. The child tagged behind them as he followed Esther around the house to what Finn presumed was the stable. “Mama doesn’t like you much,” the girl informed him, adding, “But I think you are probably nice—you have a funny name though.”
“Ah, that’s because it’s Irish, and I am glad you like me,” Finn said, feeling so odd he wondered how many other peculiar folks he would find dwelling in this house. Esther seemed to be the most sensible, but following on from that thought came the one that perhaps she wasn’t or why else would she have picked up a likely convict and decided to assist him in this way.
The girl skipped ahead to where the horse still stood harnessed to the cart in front of the shed which consisted of an open section where there was space for two vehicles. “Once you get settled, could you please take care of removing my horse’s harness, Finn.” Stroking the bay’s head she said, “Danny Boy here is of Irish descent much like yourself. Everything goes in there.” She pointed to the open part where, apart from a few bales of hay, there was a jumble of odd pieces of equipment including a chopper and a handsaw. “Come, I will show you where you can make yourself comfortable. I did not think it through when I invited you along, but the cook Nelly and the maid Cora sleep yonder there in the small room alongside the laundry.” Her gesture took in a small addition tagged onto the back of the cottage. “It is a small residence without room for staff.”
“Esther sleeps in my room,” the child informed him before coughing a few times and then skipping off back towards the house—obviously tired of this new addition to the household.
“She doesn’t seem to be so sickly,” Finn said, thinking that she appeared to be quite lively—as compared to some of the very poorly kids he had lived amongst in his early days before his capture.
“Her cough mostly bothers her at night, upsetting her Mama,” Esther said before opening the door to one side of the shed. Finn followed her inside to where it smelt strongly of horse and hay. Surprisingly, the space was larger than he expected. A roped off section was no doubt where two horses could be settled at night, and he wondered briefly where he could sleep. Esther answered that when she pointed to what was no more than a rough shelf, saying, “There is a cot of sorts where you can make yourself comfortable. At least it is closed off from the weather. I am afraid you will have to share it with Danny and the master’s horse and their hay and grain. Perhaps you can stuff some straw into a grain sack to make a mattress of sorts. I will see what I can fetch you for bed coverings and perhaps find you some other items of clothing.”
As if thinking this over, she turned saying, “I will leave you to take care of Danny. Once unharnessed he goes into the small yard until nightfall—there behind the shed. The master’s horse goes straight into his stall when he gets home, which is usually at a late hour.” After a quick jab in that direction, she began to walk off.
“Can I ask you one question before you go,” Finn called after her. When she stopped and faced him, he asked, “Just why are you doing this for a man who for all intents could be a rogue and a thief?”
Sending him a smile, she surprised him once again by saying, “My father taught me not to judge a person by their past, Finn. Use your intuition he advised, for there are many types of men here in the colonies, and you will learn that not always those who are incarcerated for so-called criminal offences are the untrustworthy ones.” While he stared at such wise words from one so young, she added, “Do not prove my judgement wrong, will you?” With a small nod she walked away.