The doctor was right about one thing. It was touch and go. Ruby nearly died and it was three weeks before the haze of fever and pain subsided, leaving her weak and pale but alive. Eventually she could walk from her bed to the door, returning dizzily to fall with relief back against the pillows. Meanwhile Mary fed and changed the baby, prepared basic meals for Walter and cared for Ruby while he was at work.
“We need to register Annie,” Ruby said to Walter one day when she was feeling a little better.
“Well I can’t,” he replied rather shortly. “What with work and looking after you and the baby”.
Ruby managed to stop the retort that would only cause an argument. “Maybe Mary can do it. She’s probably done it before”.
Mary gladly accepted the chance to get out of the house for a while.
“Now I want her registered as Annie May Lane”, Ruby directed. “May is my second name and the name of my aunt. It has been a family name for generations.”
Several hours later Mary popped her head through the bedroom door.
“All done”, she said cheerfully. “Annie Mary Lane, just like you said”.
Ruby fumed at the cheek of the woman. She decided then that she must regain her strength because Mary had to go. She made an effort to eat everything on her plate, however unappetising, and began to take an interest in caring for her infant daughter.
Annie thought Mary was her mother. She wriggled and cried when Ruby tried to hold her.
The day came when Ruby diplomatically told Mary the news that she would no longer be required. Maybe Mary thought she would be there for months to come because she was furious.
“We can’t afford to keep you,” Ruby pleaded. “I must manage on my own”.
“Well! I wish you luck with that!” Mary scoffed. “All right! I’m leaving right now. Let’s see if you can do without me…and don’t come crawling back asking for me to return because I shall be otherwise engaged.”
She left the baby mid feed, put her in her cot and stormed to her room. In five minutes she was dragging her suitcase out the front door. Mary had left for good.
Ruby’s screams had subsided and were replaced by the lusty cry of a newborn baby. Walter stopped pacing the footpath in front of his home and peeked in the front door.
“It’s a baby girl,” the midwife said with false cheerfulness. Her eyes were tired and her body sagged. “Your wife… she’s not good. I think we should get the doctor.”
Walter cursed under his breath. Money was tight and the doctor would be another expense he could not afford. His mind drifted back seven years, when his first wife lay dying in that same room.
“Yes, yes, of course, I’ll get him now.”
As he ran towards the doctor’s house he quickly became breathless. He was now forty seven years old and not as fit as the young footballer who had married Hannah Simons almost twenty years before. In ten minutes he had reached the clinic where the Irishman Dr Dunlop lived and worked. His wife answered Walter’s frantic ringing.
“My wife …she may be dying. She just had a baby, a girl, but the midwife said she has lost a lot of blood.” Walter gasped out his words.
Marion Dobson smiled encouragingly. “Now don’t you be worrying. I’m sure your wife’s a strong young woman. I’ll send the doctor as soon as he gets back. He’s attending a sick man right now but I’m sure he won’t be too long.”
Walter turned to retrace the mile to his home. He found his wife pale and semi conscious, tossing in the bed as wave after wave of pain coursed through her body.
The midwife turned to leave.
“You’ll have to get someone to care for that baby, Mr Lane. Your wife won’t be able to feed the poor waif in her condition. I have to go as I’ve got my own bairns to see to.”
“But who can I ask?”, cried Walter, suddenly terrified of being left alone with a dying wife and a helpless infant.
“I’ll send Mary.” The midwife’s attitude softened towards the troubled man. “She’ll get some milk and a feeding bottle. You just give her the money. It’s called Glaxo – the milk for the baby. It’s better than straight cow’s milk as it doesn’t upset their little tummies so much.”
The midwife faced the groaning, writhing form on the bed. “Good luck, Mr Hall. I hope the doctor can help. There’s nothing more I can do. I’ve tried all I can to stop the bleeding. Maybe he can give her some medicine to stop the cramps.”
It seemed an eternity before Dr Dunlop’s horse and cart arrived. The doctor tied his horse to the front fence and walked straight in the open door. He motioned Walter out of the bedroom and closed the door behind him. Ten minute’s later he came out into the hall where Walter stood anxiously.
“It will be touch and go,” he said. “The afterbirth has not come completely away. I’ve given her some medicine which should help.”
He spent the next hour with Ruby but finally had to leave and attend to other patients. Moments later, a plainly dressed young woman arrived at the front gate with a battered suitcase.
“Mrs Hammond said I was to come and help. My name’s Mary and I’m used to looking after children. I’ve got ten brothers and sisters and I’m the eldest. I’ve had to leave next sister down to look after the young ‘uns while I’m here. Now where’s that baby?”
Walter felt some relief for the first time that day. Ruby lay quietly on the bed, probably as a result of laudanum administered by the doctor. The baby was taken care of and at last he could attend to his own needs. He cut a slice of bread, smearing it with dripping, and ate hungrily. He threw some kindling in the fireplace and soon the comforting crackling of a fire and the soft depth of his favourite arm chair lulled him into a deep, unconscious sleep.
Ruby decided she should be happy. She had her own home and her unruly family was a distant memory. Her stint as a domestic servant with Aunt Lil had not endeared her to the lifestyle, especially as the aunt made continual pointed remarks about when she was going to marry “poor Walter”.
Walter showed her his cottage in Williamstown. She imagined replacing the worn curtains and making cushions to brighten the rooms.
She envisaged a vegetable garden out the back and flowers behind the picket fence. She would put pot plants on the front verandah, a new rug in the hall and polish the furniture until it shone.
They were married as soon as possible, putting up her age to 23 so Reuben’s permission wasn’t needed. Walter even carried Ruby over the threshold of their little cottage before asking jokingly what was for tea. She primly replied it was to be called “dinner” from now on.
Ruby’s knowledge of marital duties was confined to her mother’s rapid explanation when she turned 16. She knew it led to childbirth and childbirth was dangerous, even fatal for the mother. She was somewhat relieved when she found that Walter, after their painful and embarrassing wedding night, was not particularly interested in physical relations and so performed it as a sort of duty once a month.
Even so, after throwing up her Christmas dinner and most subsequent meals after that, she realised that she was either dying of a strange disease or expecting a baby. A visit to the doctor confirmed what she already suspected.
Walter’s reaction was not as enthusiastic as she had hoped. He talked a lot about finances, or lack thereof. Her attempts to brighten up the house had led to many arguments over “wasting money”. Now he bemoaned the extra expense a child would bring to the household.
“He’s just a complaining old man”, Ruby thought. “He is so set in his ways he has lost the joy of life”.
It was true that Walter liked nothing more than to arrive home from work, read his paper by the fire with a glass of beer and then move to the kitchen table to consume his stew, shepherd’s pie or chops, potatoes and peas. He did not want to hear about Ruby’s day, but told her stories of the men at the Workshop or the horse that came second.
Most weekends he was absent, either at Flemington Race Course or playing the mysterious “two-up” at some unknown location. He would arrive home worse the wear from too much drink and fall asleep on their bed so that she moved to the other room to avoid his beery breath and sudden, loud snores.
Apart from her guilt over leaving Theo, the one person Ruby missed from her estranged family was her mother. Her only communication with Christina had been a letter to say that she was getting married (and not to tell father). Her mother had replied wishing her every happiness and the hope that her marriage would be more successful than Christina’s own. Ruby now wrote another letter informing her of the impending birth. A reply came two weeks later with the following news.
My dearest daughter,
Such wonderful news from you about the coming child. I am so happy that all is going well for you. How I wish I could see you again.
Since I last wrote we have had a disaster. We have lost the house. I smelt something burning in the kitchen and gave the alarm but there was no water available to put out the flames. Then the fire brigade arrived but they broke the lug on the hydrant and so no water came out. At first the fire was only in the kitchen but it spread across the passageway to the main house and much is lost.
We were able to get some of the furniture from the house but the family Bible has gone. At least Reuben had the house insured so we will not be completely destitute. He is talking about moving to Terang.
I still have that pain I was telling you about. The pills do not seem to be helping. I think maybe I should see a doctor.
Your loving mother,
Ruby felt this was a perfect opportunity to ask her to come and stay for a while. She and her mother could share the double bed and put Walter in the single bed in the other room.
Walter was not impressed. “You want me to leave my comfortable bed so you and your mother can natter all night. Your mother will not approve of me and will compare me to that wonderful father of yours who can do no wrong.”
Christina visited for one week. Despite Ruby’s protestations she did not attend the doctor but every night religiously took her Carter’s Little Liver Pills which she assured her daughter had now almost cured her.
They discussed her sister Maud’s impetuous marriage to Basil and the subsequent arrival of baby Charlie shortly after. More scandalous was the fact that Basil had left his new young family and was reported to be living in New Zealand with another woman.
She also complained that Reuben was a difficult man to live with.
“You are so lucky, Ruby, to have a husband with a steady job, a dear little house and a baby on the way. “
Ruby told her about her own problems but Christina thought they were insignificant.
“Every marriage has its difficulties,”she cautioned, “but you have so much to be thankful for. Don’t throw away what you have.”
The Reverend John Hennessey swallowed his hot tea, munched his toast and marmalade and looked at his wife. “Three small weddings here today. If you would be so kind my dear, I would like you to be there for all three.”
“A typical Saturday, then?” said Janice. “Who have we got today?”
“First couple are from the country. Just came down to Melbourne with the parents because they want it quiet – not a big church wedding. She’s eighteen, he’s twenty two. I’d say they’ll be a family of three shortly.”
“The next two are not your usual couple. He’s forty six and she’s twenty three! Would you believe, he’s old enough to be her father but they seem determined to go ahead. He’s from Williamstown and comes from a large family. Parents are drapers in the main street. He’s been employed since he was fifteen at the Workshops near there where they build and service the trains.”
“Do you think he will be kind to her? Janice asked with concern.
“He seemed genuine enough. His first wife died of cancer six years ago. They had no children which was just as well I suppose.”
“What about the young woman? You don’t think she was just after his money or a house?”
“That my dear, I can’t tell you.” He thought back to the interview he had with the couple some weeks before.
He had questioned Ruby about her homelife and found she was concerned about leaving her brother Theo.
“He’s slow, you know, and can’t read or write even though he’s eleven. He hardly went to school because he was always sick. I’m worried what will happen to him with me gone because I was always there for him up until I started my job with Madame Chanel. My mother’s not so well either so I had to do a lot of the work around the house. My sister Maud was very good at avoiding the jobs and made herself scarce when anything had to be done. My other brother James – well he was always helping my father outside.”
“What does your father do for a living?” asked the Reverend.
“He and my mother used to be fishmongers and then greengrocers. They moved around all over Victoria. When I left home in Stawell last year Father was buying and selling second hand goods. It was a bit easier on my mother as she only had to do the books.”
“Will your parents be coming to the wedding?”
“No.” She looked at Walter. “They don’t approve of our marriage.” Then she looked defiantly at John. “I’m 23 so I don’t need anyone’s permission to marry Walter.”
“No, of course not.”
The Congregational Church in Richmond was conveniently situated on a tramline. The first young couple, plainly dressed, arrived at 10 o’clock accompanied by two sets of parents and a friend. They were ushered into the church where John performed a short and simple ceremony pronouncing them man and wife. Janice took them into the annexe where the photographer waited to preserve the couple’s happiness for eternity.
At a quarter to eleven Walter and Ruby arrived, accompanied by a friend from Walter’s work. The bride wore a sensible dark skirt which partially covered black booted ankles. From a knee length cream silk coat peeped a white blouse with ruffled collar and a black velvet neck band. On her head sat a large white hat leaning jauntily to one side, a blob of cream silk decorating its crown.
Walter, looking handsome in his dark suit, stood pensively beside his bride. John thought back to the meeting with this mismatched couple. Their age difference worried him, not only because Ruby seemed so young and vivacious but Walter truly did seem like her father in his actions and speech. Ruby had been living as a companion and housekeeper for his Aunt Lilian in Melbourne. He wondered if that is where they met.
Walter sat on the chair, one arm leaning on a table, while Ruby stood beside him, her arm on his shoulder. The photographer covered the camera and himself with a black cloth while the two stood frozen waiting for the signal to relax.
Janice ushered them out the side door and welcomed in group number three. A day’s work nearly over and one more happy couple to send off into the world.
“Do you mean to say you are two years my senior, sir, and yet you wish to marry my daughter?”
Walter faced the hostile Reuben Clark with trepidation. “I only thought we might go walking together with a view to getting to know each other a little better … and if…” his courage was spiralling out of control down some unseen plughole.
“And if?” exploded Reuben. “My daughter is the most eligible young woman in Stawell. She has had unsuitable suitors before and you sir are just another one. And now I wish you good day.”
He rose and opened the parlour door indicating to Walter their talk was over.
Walter took his leave, glad to rejoin the world of trees and sky and oblivious birds. As he picked his way over the stony lane he became aware of a light footfall behind him. It was Ruby.
“Walter, I’m sorry about my father.” She looked at him with a woebegone face. “Look, I’m going to leave this place. Can you help me get a job in Melbourne? I’ll do anything, sew, cook, clean…”
“I’ll see what I can do Maybe an aunt…?”
“Good!” Ruby leaned across and kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”
With that she ran back towards Clark House and left Walter in a state of agitation. He thought of his aunts and wondered if any of them used or needed domestic help. What was Ruby planning to do? Was she merely using him to escape or did she intend they should be together one day?
Back in his room he took out his writing paper and penned a letter to his favourite aunt. Unlike other members of his family, she might be less inclined to condemn the hasty and ill-considered actions he was undertaking.
Dear Aunt Lil,
I have met a young woman of whom I am very fond. She wishes to leave her parental home and work as a domestic servant or companion in Melbourne. She is a qualified seamstress and very striking in appearance, being tall and stylishly dressed.
I have hopes that at some time in the future she will consent to be my wife. Five years of loneliness since the sad departure of my dear Hannah has left a void that I hope Ruby Clark can partially fill. How I long to have laughter and happiness once again in my small house in Williamstown.
For your co-operation in this matter I would forever be in your debt.
Your loving nephew,
Sealing the envelope, Walter half-ran to the Post Office lest he change his mind. He rubbed the red kangaroo on the penny stamp for luck and stuck it on the envelope. Mrs Hawkins behind the counter looked enquiringly at the address and Walter muttered, “My aunt, ” although he wondered afterwards why he felt compelled to say anything.
Now all he could do was wait. Wait for a reply from Aunt Lil and wait for a further intoxicating encounter with Ruby Clark.
Ruby was mortified. All her life she had been brought up to think she was equal to anyone. Her mother Christina had impressed upon her the importance of correct grammar, good manners and upright posture. She had attracted a number of suitors but not one possessed the attributes her father desired. Now she was nineteen and dissatisfied with the noisy, rowdy house and the long hours working at Madame Chanel’s.
The one important contribution her father Reuben had made to her upbringing occurred on the day she left school.
“Dressmaking or millinery,” he had said. “I can get you a position in either of those trades. I’ll not have idle girls hanging about the house all day reading and gossiping.”
That was a stinging rebuke which Ruby resented. She had missed so much school caring for baby Theo when he was sick that she always felt unable to catch up with her lessons. At least a job dressmaking would provide money and time away from the multitude of jobs at home.
“Madame Chanel” was really Alice Morecome and although she had never been to Paris, she was an expert dressmaker and a patient teacher. Ruby became skilled at her work and enjoyed following the latest fashions from Europe, recreating them in the backroom of Madame Chanel’s shop. One exciting day a representative from the new Myer Emporium in Melbourne came to visit. He was looking for original designs to add to the store’s collection. As he was leaving he spoke quietly to Alice so that Ruby could not hear, but he was looking at her with interest.
“Ah, Ruby, would you walk across the room for Mr Adler. Nice and tall now. Straight back.”
Bemused, Ruby did as she was told.
Mr Adler looked pleased. “Miss Clark, I think you are what we are looking for to model our gowns for the Spring Racing Season. With a little bit of training in deportment you would have an assured job with Myer. Of course you would have to move to Melbourne but all that can be arranged.”
Reuben was incandescent with rage at the suggestion that his eighteen year old daughter should move to Melbourne to model clothes for a Department Store. Mr Adler left the interview with Ruby’s father glad that he had escaped with his life.
While Walter witnessed the altercation between Reuben and his adversary, Ruby was walking home from work, grieving over lost opportunities. Loud angry voices woke her from her reverie and all at once she saw her father, the next door neighbour… and Walter.
Ruby’s first thought was to run back in the direction from which she had come. Instead she hid behind a tree and watched, horrified, as the police arrived and removed both her father and Walter from the scene. The wife of their neighbour was on the ground beside her husband, cradling his head, but he seemed to regain consciousness rather quickly and was up and about, yelling at anyone who cared to listen that he had nearly been murdered.
If there had been any chance of securing Walter’s affection her father had completely ruined everything. Why would he be interested in someone from a rag-tag family like hers? Ruby would have to get away from this family and this town. A few more months at Madame Chanel’s and she would have saved enough money to make a new start in Melbourne. This was just the sign she needed.
Walter sat at the breakfast table of Mrs Owen’s establishment, savouring his scrambled eggs, bacon and tomatoes. He was enjoying his time in Stawell and was not looking forward to returning to the empty house in Railway Parade, Williamstown.
Mrs Owen bustled in with a fresh pot of tea. “How was the party last night, Mr Lane? Are you glad I talked you into going?”
“Well yes and no. There was a Miss Clark who entertained us with fortune telling. That seemed to appeal to most people. The piano playing was very ordinary.”
Mrs Owen looked as if she had eaten a sour lemon. “Miss Clark can be charming when she pleases but she can also be a stuck up little miss. Gets that from her mother, putting on airs and graces. And her father’s a dealer, so he says. Whatever that means! Shameless little hussy she is too. There’s a picture of her in the Photography Studio window wearing nothing but a sheet!”
Walter wasn’t brave enough to ask where the tantalising Miss Clark might live but decided to do a reconnoitre of the town after work. His efforts were rewarded when he reached a large, rambling dwelling with the name “Clark House” fortuitously printed on a sign at the front gate.
On either side of the front fence two men faced each other aggressively, one tall, with dark hair and sideburns and the other smaller, older and considerably agitated.
“Enough, I have had enough,” said the older man. “You will have to put a stop to your wife and children insulting me.”
“You are a liar, you dirty old dog,” the tall man growled.
“I can’t get to my front gate without your boys shooting their shanghais at me.”
“You’re a liar. My boys do not own shanghais.” He gestured towards two youths watching from the verandah.
“As for your wife, she is no better than a whore. She encourages those boys.”
“How dare you insult my wife! You are an old dog, a putrid old dog and worse than a dog, a mongrel. I should give you a hiding you won’t forget.”
“Come over here and do it then, you coward.”
With that, the tall man leapt the fence and pushed the other man in the chest, forcing him backwards into the dirt. The older man lay motionless until the police arrived.
Walter rushed over to see if he could assist and instead found himself a prime witness to the altercation. The evening spent at the police station was not what he had in mind. He was beginning to have serious doubts about pursuing any sort of relationship with Miss Clark.
But then again, Ruby could not help her parentage. She obviously needed assistance to escape from such a chaotic household.
Walter decided with new resolve that he would visit Clark House again tomorrow.