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Rich Historical Fiction: Read an extract from The Woman in the Green Dress by Tea Cooper

December 19, 2018

Chapter One

London, 11 November 1918

A whole, unexpected morning off. With pay! All because Mrs Black reckoned they’d driven back the Hun, the toffs had finally signed the piece of paper, and the Armistice would be a done deal. The whole idea had Fleur Richards’ heart pounding fit to bust.

It wasn’t until she reached the end of the Strand and walked around the corner that she was finally convinced Mrs Black knew what she was talking about. Hundreds of thousands of people, crowded into Trafalgar Square, though they were strangely quiet.

A huge rumble shook the pavement. The maroons fired with a blinding flash of light. Smoke billowed into the air.

In the stillness of the moment she fancied Hugh stood beside her.

The sky is higher in Australia.

Truly?

The stars are brighter and the sun always shines.

I don’t believe you.

You will. Not long now. I promise.

A flurry of bugles sounded the all clear, drowning out his voice, and the streets erupted. The whole of London must have downed tools. Everyone hugging each other, cheering wildly, throwing their hats in the air, a swirling whirlpool of happiness; strangers with tears streaming down their faces, embracing one another, and the bells, bells that hadn’t rung for four years, pealing like it was Christmas, Easter and the King’s birthday all rolled into one.

Not long now, my love. Not long now. We’re going home.

Without thinking she threw her arms around the nearest person. He picked her up, twirled her around and deposited her back on the pavement with a thump. Before she could move, the tall lanky soldier grabbed her hand and towed her towards one of the packed buses circling the square.

If she closed her eyes she could almost imagine it was Hugh’s hand she held. She hadn’t known love could be like that. One look and it was as though their souls had merged. The image of his face always before her eyes and his voice drowning out her fears.

I’ll be back before you know it!

Hands reached out and grabbed her. Her feet took on a life of their own and she was hauled aboard the bus, dizzy with excitement, her head swimming.

A number 13. Dad’s bus.

‘Oi! Fleur. Hold tight.’ The clippie’s voice brought her back to reality. ‘Your dad can’t be here, nor your mum neither, but you can. I’ll bet me boots they’ll be watching and cheering up there, waving the old flag.’

Blowing the clippie a kiss she swung up the steps, squeezing past the people hanging on by their fingernails, and eased onto the platform. The soldier threw her a cheeky salute and blended into the crowd.

‘Is it really over?’

A young boy, hardly old enough to shave never mind wear his tattered uniform, grinned at her. ‘Armistice was signed at five this morning. ’Ostilities to cease on all fronts at 11 am on the knocker. That’s what they said.’

Mrs Black was right!

One of the drivers, she couldn’t remember his name but she’d met him at Mum and Dad’s memorial, patted the small space on the edge of the seat. ‘Sit yourself down. We’re off to see the King.’

The bus slewed to one side, throwing her against his broad shoulders as they turned into the Strand. ‘Never thought we’d see the day.’

She’d had serious doubts herself but thankfully she’d been proven wrong. ‘I’m meant to be going to work this afternoon.’

‘Nah, you’re not. No work today. Not for you. Not for anyone.’

She didn’t mind work. It gave her a sense of purpose and at least she didn’t have to worry about a decent meal and queueing for hours for a pound of tea and some canned meat. Her feet might ache at the end of the day but her stomach didn’t rumble.

The man heaved himself to his feet. ‘Ladies and gents. This ’ere young lady’s worried about missing work. Do we think she should go?’

A resounding roar filled the bus and she was snatched from her seat and swirled around, landing on the lap of an American with big white teeth and a smile to match. ‘No work for you today, doll. And I’ll be taking on anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.’

That was something she’d like to see. This man might be all big and brash but Mrs Black would make mincemeat of him, then slap him between two pieces of pastry.

The bus lurched around the corner and trundled off, but didn’t get far. A procession of cheering civilians and fighting men all decked out with flags filled the Mall, bent on reaching the gates of Buckingham Palace, every one of them shouting ‘We want the King!’ ‘We want the King!’

The American grabbed her hand. ‘Come on! We’re not missing this.’

They jumped off the bus and joined the throng, pushing forward as though their lives depended on it.

They didn’t have to wait long.

A thunderous cheer echoed and the King, all dressed up in a posh uniform with enough gold braid to rival the crown jewels, appeared on the palace balcony.

The Yank’s eyes glowed in awe. ‘Is that the Queen, next to him?’

‘She’s the one in the dreadful hat, and that’s her daughter, Princess Mary. I’m not sure who …’ Fleur, clamped her mouth closed as an all-encompassing hush descended on the crowd. So quiet even the Queen up there on the balcony could have heard her.

The King stepped forward and she craned to hear his words. ‘With you I rejoice and thank God for the victories which the Allied arms have won, bringing hostilities to an end and peace within sight.’

And that was all. The Queen waved a Union Jack and a massive roar rocked the air, the force of it shaking the ground.

Somewhere behind her a band struck up and she found herself yelling—not singing, no one could call it singing—‘God Save the King’, ‘Tipperary’, ‘The Old Hundredth’. With her heart fit to burst she sucked in enough air to join in ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

Then the King waved his hat to the crowd and trooped off with all the other toffs.

Four years, fourteen weeks and two days of hell. And it was over. Just like that.

Not long now, my love!

Several hours later Fleur floated home dizzy with delight, with bubbles of happiness fighting for space in her chest.

I’ll take you home. As soon as it’s over, I’ll take you home.

She was going to Australia, with Hugh. Soon, so soon.

By the time she’d reached Kings Cross, rain had seeped under her collar and trickled down the back of her blouse but nothing could dampen her euphoria. Not even the familiar stench of stale sweat and old cabbage that greeted her when she threw open the front door. She could cope with anything. All she had to do was wait for Hugh.

She tripped up the stairs and slipped her key into the lock and went straight across the room to fling open the window.

So much had changed since she’d stood on Waterloo station, waving a soggy handkerchief, watching the train pull out taking Hugh away and leaving her with nothing but dreams and a carefully folded marriage certificate in her pocket, convinced she’d never see an end to the war. Now hundreds of bonfires had consumed the blackout and the acrid smell of the fireworks dispersed more than the stench of her room. Her fear, too, was gone.

A group of crazy Tommies called up a greeting as they staggered down the street brandishing trophies and souvenirs from different uniforms. Hugh always looked so smart. Slouch hat, turned up at side, puttees and belt always worn. Not like these dishevelled revellers bundling their friends into flag-strewn motor cars. She grinned down at them and waved as they disappeared into the clamouring crowd, amidst a flurry of bunting and shaking rattles.

There was no need to waste her money on lighting tonight; the glow from the streets and the joy in her heart could illuminate the whole of London. The bloody slog was over.

With a delicious yawn, she collapsed onto the bed and pulled off her shoes, wriggling her toes in relief, tasting the remnants of brandy from the hip flask the American kept pressing on her.

Rummaging in her pocket for sixpence for the gas, she came up blank. There had to be one somewhere. She reefed open the drawer and shot the contents all over the floor.

Bending down, she scooped up the odds and ends and frowned at the white envelope staring up at her.

Ministry of Information printed in the top left-hand corner and slap bang in the middle Mrs Hugh Richards.

There must be a mistake. She didn’t use her married name, hadn’t told more than a handful of people about her marriage. The letter must be meant for someone else, another Mrs Hugh Richards.

It couldn’t be bad news. Bad news came in a telegram. No one had hijacked her with a dreaded telegram.

‘Fleur. Fleur. Are you there?’

No, she wasn’t. At least she didn’t feel as though she was. The door inched open. She slid to her knees, started to edge beneath the bed, overtaken by some childish craving to become invisible.

‘Oh Fleur. I’m sorry. I hoped to catch you before you came upstairs.’

She forced down the overwhelming need to hide and eyed her landlady with suspicion. What was she doing here? What did she want? The rent was paid.

‘You found the letter?’

Oh, God! So, it wasn’t her imagination. She bent over and picked up the envelope.

‘You’re going to have to open it, you know.’ The woman took two steps into the room.

She cradled the envelope against her chest. ‘There’s been a mistake.’

‘No dearie, I don’t think so.’

Why was the battle-axe calling her dearie? She’d never heard any form of endearment slip between her nasty, narrow lips.

‘You’re going to have to open it. Here, let me.’ She stretched out her hand and tugged at the envelope.

Fleur grasped it tight in her fingers and sank down onto the bed.

‘Come on, dearie. Best to know.’ The interfering busybody eased down beside her.

Fleur shot to her feet. ‘Go away. Leave me alone.’

‘I was only trying to be helpful. Have it your own way.’ Huffing and puffing, the woman stomped off, shutting the door with an irritated clunk.

It couldn’t have anything to do with Hugh. It said Ministry of Information. He was a soldier, just an ordinary Australian soldier, a tunneller. And if anything had happened to him it would be a telegram.

She shot the bolt on the door. No audience, no snooping onlookers, no meddlesome landlady. Just her and an envelope.

It wasn’t a telegram!

The war’s over!

The words shrieked through her head like the six-o’clock steam train out of Waterloo, all noise and belching clouds of smoke. She’d trailed down there often enough, stood in the shadows watching, waiting, hoping Hugh would step onto the platform, his face creased with the lopsided smile he saved for her and his blue eyes sparkling, and now there was this. A nasty envelope with her name—his name—smudged on the front. A name she’d barely got used to wearing. A surname she didn’t deserve to have. It belonged to his mother, his sister, someone whose arms had held him far more often than hers had.

The typewriter’s ‘s’ key had blurred from overuse: all the wives and mothers who’d received frightful news. News she wasn’t going to receive.

The folded paper crackled as it fluttered in her fingers.

She glanced down at the precise writing:

Dear Mrs Richards

I have information regarding your husband, Corporal Hugh Richards.

What did that mean? Perhaps he was coming home, maybe he’d been injured, Missing in Action … she forced her eyes back down to the paper.

I would appreciate it if you could call at Wellington House, Buckingham Gate at ten on the morning of Tuesday 12th.

Yours, most sincerely,

Archer Waterstone

What was going on?

Hugh couldn’t be dead. There’d be a telegram, not a handwritten letter on expensive writing paper. Besides she’d have known if he was dead, felt it in the special part of her heart reserved for Hugh, and Hugh alone.

We’ve got our whole future ahead of us.

She twisted the thin silver band on her finger.

No one’s going to take me away. Not now I’ve found you.

He made her heart sing, and now she doubted she could even manage a half-hearted whistle, never mind a sob. She was cold, so very cold.

‘Fleur? Open the door. Fleur! I’ve got a cup of tea for you.’

Was it too much to ask for a few minutes’ peace? The doorknob rattled.

‘Fleur, I know you’re in there. Is it bad news?’

It wasn’t a telegram. It wasn’t bad news.

‘I’ll leave the tea outside.’ Footsteps retreated and then silence, blissful silence.

Shivering, Fleur teetered to the door and slid the lock. God, what she wouldn’t give for a bath. In Australia, they had the bathrooms out the back, and in summer a bath under the stars.

No need to worry about anyone watching, not when you’ve got acres and acres to call your own.

She’d go mad if she didn’t pull herself together. She picked up the tray and kicked the door shut behind her.

With Mum’s trousers under her dressing gown and Dad’s old cardigan over the top she curled up in the chair.

Why hadn’t she heard from Hugh? She’d longed for letters. Billet-doux he called them. Billet-don’t, more like. He’d written a few then they’d dried up quick enough to make her wonder if he’d changed his mind, regretted their madcap race to the registry office.

She eyed the expansive handwriting, sprawling across the immaculate envelope, nothing like usual buff-coloured telegram forms, elegant like Hugh’s hands. Long elegant fingers and pale nails—a pianist’s hands.

Concentrate. She had to concentrate.

Buckingham Gate! Ten o’clock.

How the hell was she meant to do that? It was halfway through her shift. Right at the busiest part of the morning. No chance. Mrs Black would have a fit. Not a chance in hell. Not after today. Didn’t the man understand women had responsibilities? And she certainly couldn’t do without her job. Not if … a groan slipped between her lips and she swallowed it down with a mouthful of tea, choking in the process.

If something had happened they’d send a telegram. Hugh wasn’t dead. He’d promised they’d go to Australia and she couldn’t miss work. Couldn’t ask for any time off. Not after today. She was tired, so tired. Her eyes kept closing of their own accord. She’d write a note, get Mrs Black’s boy to deliver it when she started her shift. That was the answer. Tell Mr Archer Waterstone she’d make another time.

She slipped underneath the blankets and curled into a tight ball, hugging her memories close, waiting for the dream to come, the same dream she’d had every night since the first Zeppelin raid, the ominous shadow dampening the grey morning light. She groaned and covered her ears, knowing the whine of the bombs would come next. Then the sudden silence as the world held its breath to see what devastation the bloody Huns had wrought, waiting to see whose turn it was to die.

Strangely she couldn’t see Dad’s hands clutched, knuckles white on the steering wheel as though, even in death, it was his responsibility to drive his passengers away from danger. No clouds of smoke, no wreckage full of screaming twisted agony.

Instead she dreamt of Hugh.

She lifted her eyes, past the dome of St Paul’s to the hill where St Martin’s stood and he was there, bathed in sunlight on a patch of grass, holding out his hand and she ran, ran through the tattered streets, sliding on the rain-soaked cobbles and she reached out to him …

He’d filled her head and her heart with dreams and promises of clear skies and pure white birds.

Doves?

No, cockatoos with crests as golden as the midday sun.

Chapter Two

Sydney, NSW, 1853

After 265 days aboard ship Stefan von Richter stepped off the gangplank and onto Australian soil, leaving behind the misery that had haunted him since they’d fled Vienna.

Chickens clucked underfoot, pigs snuffled through the refuse where vendors stood and shouted their wares. A ripe stench caught in the back of his throat, making his eyes water and his lungs snatch.

A series of dilapidated sandstone steps led away from the gin dives and warehouses fringing the quay but with his large travelling trunk, botanising box and specimen case, he’d need the services of a barrow boy.

An assortment of folk dressed in drab and tattered garments milled between over-filled carts, carriages, horseshit and noise. A mangy tortoiseshell cat and a three-legged dog rummaged in blood-soaked dirt beneath a butcher’s stall. And beyond, a skinny, freckle-faced urchin balanced on one leg, clinging to a lamppost, eyeing him with dubious curiosity. Shading his eyes from the midday sun he raised his hand and before he’d even framed the words the lad sidled up to him.

‘Need some help wiv that lot, Gov?’ The lad inclined his head towards his luggage. ‘Where you headin’?’ His face looked as if it hadn’t been washed in weeks and a line of grey dirt traced the back of his neck, nevertheless his eyes shone bright, reminding Stefan of someone he’d long forgotten.

‘The Berkeley Hotel, Bent Street.’

‘Opposite the public fountain.’

He glanced down at the crumpled notes in his hand. ‘Quite right.’

‘Be back in a tick. Gotta get me barrow. Good job I spotted you.’

‘A bit of extra height gives a man an advantage.’

Avoiding a goat tethered to a lopsided cart the lad darted away over a series of festering rubbish heaps with the speed of one of the famed marsupial rats and vanished into the seething mass of humanity.

Within moments a tattered barrow nudged against his thigh and in a flash the boy had his belongings neatly stacked. ‘Can’t take this lot up the steps, doubt you’d make it either with that limp, we’ll ’ave to go round the back of the warehouses and cut across in front of the Fort. Stick wiv me and you won’t get those boots wet.’ He set off at a gallop without waiting for an answer.

Fifteen minutes later, Stefan stood outside an impressive three-storey sandstone hotel inhaling his first dose of fresh air since the ship docked. If his walk from the quay was anything to go by, the Berkeley Hotel must be one of the finest buildings in the colony. He pushed open the door and made his way to the desk. He didn’t miss the flicker of recognition when the clerk’s eyes lit on his uniform.

‘Captain, may I say how happy we are to see you gracing our humble establishment. I cherish my memories of the Baron’s visit.’

Stefan brought himself to his full height and clicked his heels. When the barrow boy’s face broke into a wide grin he realised his mistake; he was in Australia, not rubbing shoulders with a bunch of ageing European diplomats. He removed his shako and ran his fingers through his damp hair. ‘I take it you received my instructions, Herr Sladdin?’

The clerk interlaced his long white fingers and bowed his head. ‘Indeed, indeed and we have set aside the Baron’s suite.’

Gut.’

‘And should you be interested our gaming tables are in operation tonight if you have a mind to try your hand.’

‘Not tonight. I have an invitation.’ In fact, he had a raft of them and letters of introduction which would have to be attended to before he could settle the matter closest to his heart.

‘And you will be travelling, as the Baron did?’

‘I will. I have been assigned the privilege of transcribing his New Holland Journal and preparing his notebooks for publication.’ As a sop to compensate for the musket ball in his leg which rendered him less than useless.

Sladdin gave an obsequious bow and dangled a long shanked key between his thumb and forefinger. ‘May I escort you to your rooms?’

Scrawny but determined, the lad elbowed his way between them, and with a flash of cheek in his coal-black eyes, stood on tiptoes and grabbed the key.

‘Watch it.’ Sladdin shot him a look that would have curdled cream and darted around the desk, pushing the lad aside. ‘I’ll see to it.’ He bent to lift one end of the collector chest and it landed with a resounding crash, just missing his toes.

With a grin of triumph, which lasted only until Sladdin landed a well-aimed boot on his backside, the boy hefted the chest onto his shoulder and went scuttling up the stairs.

‘Follow me, Captain. The Baron’s suite, on the second floor, has a delightful view. I trust it will be to your liking.’

As long as it was clean it would do, although he’d put money on the harbour miasma if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.

Once they reached the top of the stairs Sladdin slithered around the boy and threw open the door with a theatrical flourish. He crossed the room and drew back the heavy velvet curtains, letting the light stream in. ‘Through here we have the bedchamber.’ A connecting door revealed a well-sprung bed with snowy linen.

Gut. Danke schön.’

‘I can arrange accommodation for your manservant on the third floor …’

‘I am travelling alone.’

‘Don’t leave the trunks unattended, boy, bring them here.’ The chest clattered onto the floor at the end of the bed and the lad skittered out of the room. ‘Would you like me to arrange a reputable manservant?’

‘I have no need of one. What you can do, however, is have hot water sent up along with some black coffee, and make some enquiries for me regarding a decent mount and a packhorse. I intend to travel to Wiseman’s and explore the Hawkesbury district. I hope to see something of your remarkable flora and fauna.’

‘Perhaps the Baron will be joining you?’

‘Sadly, no. He now holds a diplomatic position at the court of Tuscany.’

‘Delightful. I could perhaps be of some service to you.’ Like a magician Sladdin produced a flyer from his inside pocket and dropped it onto the table. ‘May I suggest the Curio Shop in Hunter Street.’

The man’s oily subserviency made his flesh creep. ‘Would you excuse me. It took an eternity to disembark and I am late for an engagement.’ He pointedly held the door wide and Sladdin bowed and scraped his way out. Before he had the opportunity to turn the tow-headed urchin reappeared bent double, lugging his trunk.

‘Where d’you want this?’

‘Under the window will do just fine.’ He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a coin and flicked it high in the air. It disappeared into the lad’s pocket before it had finished spinning.

‘Anyfing else, Capt’n?’

‘That’ll be all for the time being. I might have something for you tomorrow. Where will I find you?’

‘Just ask him downstairs.’ He made a fine imitation of Sladdin’s wringing hands and winked. ‘Hang around the public fountain most days—tips are good. Lotsa toffs use this place.’

‘Off you go then.’ A guttersnipe he might be but he had half a brain by the sound of it. There was something about the lad that made him smile.

About to toss out the flyer Sladdin had left on the table the headline caught his eye.

Visitors to Sydney should not leave without calling upon The Curio Shop of Wonders at 84 Hunter Street.

What in heaven’s name was the clerk up to? He smoothed out the paper and moved to the window where the light was better.

Skins of native birds, beasts and reptiles well-preserved and ready for setting up. Fur and feather rugs made up or made to order. Entomological specimens and requisites, carved emu eggs and other beautiful souvenirs. All kinds of taxidermical work executed in the finest style.

Fascinating. Truly fascinating. The clerk must have a finger in every pie and he had picked his mark. He very much wanted to see these strange animals in their natural habitat and the prospect of enhancing the Baron’s journal with a display of taxidermied specimens, when it was published, would appeal to the population of Vienna who continued to be besotted by all matters New Holland.

He folded the flyer and tucked it into his uniform pocket. There would be plenty of time the next day to take a walk around town; meanwhile he had several weeks of shipboard grime to dispense with and a ball to attend.

By the time he’d availed himself of the hot water and changed into his dress uniform the sun had dipped below the buildings. Having locked the door behind him, he made his way to the ground floor. Sladdin was nowhere to be seen and not a carriage in sight.

True to his word however, the young lad lurked near the fountain, picking at the patchwork of scabs on his knees. He shot to his feet. ‘Do anything for you, Captain von Richter?’

The use of his name took him by surprise; Sladdin had simply addressed him by rank. He raised an eyebrow.

‘Gotta know who you’re dealing wiv.’

He’d picked the intelligence in his eyes right enough, even though he reeked of stale fish and a few other odours he’d rather not dwell on. ‘And who am I dealing with?’

‘Albert Peregrine Burless, at your service.’ He executed a bow, that would have stood him in good stead in Prince Metternich’s circles, and clicked his bare, blistered heels together.

‘Very well, Herr Burless. Make sure you are available tomorrow morning.’

‘Bert’ll do, Captain. Can’t ’ave people finkin’ I got ideas above me station.’

Until he had a decent bath and found a pair of boots that was highly unlikely to happen. Still he couldn’t fault him for trying.

Guten Abend, Bert.’ He turned, searching for a carriage. If he didn’t get a move on he’d be making a spectacle of himself arriving late at Government House.

‘If you cut through the inner Domain you’ll get to the Governor’s quick smart.’

And how would Bert know where he was heading? ‘What makes you think …’

‘The scrambled egg gives it away.’ He gestured to his epaulettes and the surplus of braid adorning his redundant uniform. ‘Lights have been blazing for hours and there’s a stream of carriages. Better off on foot.’

Stefan struck out down the street in Bert’s wake where, unless he was very much mistaken, there was a distinct improvement in the night air, nowhere near as odorous as down near the docks. His lips twitched at the memory of the Baron’s observation that the Antipodes housed some of the worst smells in the universe.

He had no idea where Bert would lead him. Well away from the Berkeley Hotel and the sandstone monstrosities the townsfolk liked to admire. To their right the fort loomed, a useless cardboard-like edifice more suited to a child’s toy box than any real defence.

As they rounded the corner a castellated, turreted gothic edifice appeared. Bert skirted the vehicles crowding the carriageway and surrounding access road.

‘What’s the escort worth?’

‘Nowt.’ Bert disappeared into the shadows without waiting for another tip, a further point in his favour.

By the time he reached the doorway the reception line stretched the length of the hallway but fortunately the governor, Sir Charles FitzRoy, spotted him and waved him to his side. ‘My pleasure to welcome you to our shores, Captain von Richter.’

‘The pleasure is entirely mine.’

‘It must be nigh on twenty years since the Baron was here. I trust we will have the opportunity for further conversation.’

‘I have no doubt of that.’ He took his leave and made his way into the ballroom where beribboned girls and powdered matrons glided across the floor, eyelashes batting against flushed cheeks like large moths seeking entry to a candlelit soirée. Whatever had possessed him to attend? Weeks aboard ship starved of female company, no doubt. Would he ever learn?

Unable to catch one of the waiters circulating between the variegated lamps and wreath-encircled columns, he crossed to the tall doors standing open onto a terrace framing the view of the gardens. The moon cast a silvery sheen over the plants, giving them a ghostly almost incandescent glow, and the balmy night air carried a hint of eucalyptus and salt from the harbour.

‘Captain.’ Sir Charles’s hand rested on his arm. ‘I have managed to escape for a few moments. I’d very much like to hear the news.’ He led him outside and down some steps to a sandstone bench overlooking the harbour.

‘Letters and dispatches and six-month-old newspapers leave much to be desired. I believe you were with the Prince when the chaos erupted in Vienna.’

He’d hoped to leave the memories of the March Revolution and Prince Metternich’s subsequent escape behind. As Chief Minister, Prince Metternich bore the brunt of the hostility to the Hapsburg’s oppressive rule. Deserted by his friends and unwell, he turned to the Baron for assistance. We escorted him, and the Princess, through the mobs in Vienna and thence to Holland, and on to England. It took us almost a month to make our way to London. Fortunately no one suffered any lasting injuries.’ His leg gave a sympathetic twinge and he rubbed at his thigh.

‘You are being modest. I am well aware of the part you played. Your wounds have healed satisfactorily?’

‘Indeed they have. I have simply acquired a little extra baggage.’

‘They couldn’t remove the musket ball?’

‘No. It’s left me with a slight limp, nothing more.’

‘And the Prince has now returned to court after his exile and the Baron is firmly ensconced in Florence.’

‘As Austrian Envoy Extraordinary, ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.’ Sir Charles appeared to have a very up-to-date knowledge of the circumstances despite his request for news. ‘And he finally married so his travelling days are over. I am acting as his amanuensis, charged with the task of reworking his diaries and copious notes of his travels here in Australia and preparing them for publication.’ He glanced over his shoulder at the sweep of gardens surrounding the residence. Only the fresh scent of the eucalyptus trees hung in the breeze. ‘I also have another reason for gracing your shores, a more private matter.’

‘And you require my assistance?’

He inclined his head. ‘The Baron received a letter from an old acquaintance, a mineralogist by the name of Professor Johann Menge who found what he believed to be a precious stone.’

‘In the colony?’ Sir Charles groaned. ‘What sort of precious stone?’

‘An opal.’

‘For goodness sake. The country is currently in the grips of gold fever, inundated with an increasing stream of fortune hunters. At this precise moment in time I would prefer to keep the matter quiet.’

‘And so would the Baron. Unfortunately, Professor Menge passed away and the stone has yet to be authenticated. He believed it to be the first found in Australia.’

Sir Charles shook his head. ‘Where is this opal?’

‘That is where I hope you can help. Before Professor Menge died he sent it to an acquaintance of his, one Thomas Bishop, perhaps you know of him? I believe he resides in Sydney. I have been asked to collect it.’

‘Thomas Bishop. Indeed, I do, poor man.’

His stomach sank. If Sir Charles was going to tell him some misfortune had befallen Bishop their entire plan would be shot. ‘Poor man?’

‘Such a sad story. His wife died most unexpectedly, in a tragic house fire. Only days after my own wife.’

‘Please accept my condolences.’

‘I miss her very much.’ Sir Charles stared out across the water at the rising moon for a few moments before turning back to him. ‘Mrs Bishop was a charming woman. Mr Bishop has removed himself from the city, something I quite understand, upped sticks, and bought land in the Hawkesbury district, not far from St Albans.’ The Governor slapped his hands together as though dismissing the whole affair. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I must attend to my other guests. I’d very much like an opportunity to speak at greater length.’ He stood and gazed down at Stefan. ‘Don’t get up.’ Sir Charles took the steps two at a time and disappeared into the throng of dancers.

About the author:

Tea is an award winning Australian author of historical fiction. In a past life she was a teacher, a journalist and a farmer. These days she haunts museums and indulges her passion for storytelling.

She is the bestselling author of several novels, including The Horse Thief, The Cedar Cutter, The Currency Lass and The Naturalist’s Daughter. Her latest book, The Woman in the Green Dress, releases at the end of 2018, followed by The Girl in the Painting in 2019.

Read our review of The Woman in the Green Dress here

Purchase a copy of The Woman in the Green Dress here


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