Sentence of Marriage originally opened several months earlier in 1881. I came to feel that the pace of the opening chapters was a little too slow, and that it would be better to introduce Susannah sooner. This meant discarding most of what made up the first six chapters.
For readers who would like to see something of Amy’s time working at the school with Miss Evans, and the death of her grandmother, the original six chapters are included here.
The old woman’s breathing made a rattling noise in her chest as she fought against her own weakness, the ominous sound exaggerated by the middle-of-the-night silence of the room. It was dim; the single lamp was turned down so low that there was barely enough light to make out the shallow rise and fall of the covers over the woman’s chest.
The girl at the bedside gently pushed wisps of grey hair away from the damp forehead and laid her cool hand on it. ‘It’s all right, Granny, you’ll feel better in the morning,’ she murmured, wishing it might be the truth. The doctor had said if the infection went to her chest she would have little chance. Even the mildness of this March night had her shivering, while at the same time the exertion of struggling for breath brought out beads of perspiration on her forehead.
Her grandmother was trying to speak; the girl put her head close to the old woman’s mouth to make out the words. She seemed to be talking to the girl, but the name she was saying over and over was strange.
‘Annie, come here,’ she muttered, ‘there’s a weight on my chest, girl. Lift it off for me.’ She made a choking sound, mumbled something the girl couldn’t catch, then got her breath and tried again. ‘Annie, come closer. I can’t see your face. Annie!’
‘I’m not Annie, Granny,’ the girl said in bewilderment. For the whole twelve years of her life her grandmother had been so strong, so indomitable. Now she seemed like a child herself.
‘Where’s Annie?’ the old woman cried in distress. ‘Is that you, Annie? What are you doing there, girl? I can’t see you… it’s all dark.’
‘I’m not Annie,’ the girl said again, raising her voice in an attempt to force understanding on her grandmother. ‘Annie was my mother. I’m Amy.’
The old woman’s mouth worked as if she was trying to say an unfamiliar name. As the awareness faded from her face she said, like an echo, ‘Amy’.
She did not speak again, and the laboured breathing became fainter. Amy’s father came into the room an hour or so after midnight, checked that her grandmother was still breathing, and touched Amy on the arm.
‘You should have a rest now, girl,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll sit with her for a while. You’ve done your stint.’
Amy shook her head fiercely and took hold of her grandmother’s hand. She had let her brothers take her place at the bedside that evening while she prepared a meal that she was too overwrought to eat, but now that she sensed the end was not far away she refused to give it up again. Her father sighed and sat down beside her. Neither of them spoke, but Amy was grateful for his presence.
Just before dawn the silence of the room became even deeper, as the old woman finally gave up the long struggle. Amy’s father searched for a pulse, then gently but firmly disengaged Amy’s hand from her grandmother’s and led her back to her own room, not speaking until he had sat her down on her bed.
‘You get some sleep,’ he said. ‘You’ve done all you can, you made it easier for her. I’ll look after everything now. I don’t want to see you up before lunch-time.’
‘What about your breakfast, Pa?’ she asked, suddenly aware just how tired she was, now that there was no longer any reason to stay awake.
‘Me and the boys will get our own breakfast after milking for once, don’t you worry about that.’
‘But Pa,’ she started to protest half-heartedly.
‘No arguing. Don’t worry, we’ll leave plenty of mess for you to clean up, that’ll make you feel better.’
She couldn’t help but smile, despite the sense of loss slowly seeping into her awareness. She gave her father a hug, and when he had left the room she obediently undressed and slipped between the sheets. She was asleep before she had time to start thinking about what life was going to be like without her grandmother at the centre of it.
The church was packed to overflowing for the funeral, where the minister talked in glowing terms of Amy’s grandmother’s devotion to her family. He spoke of how she had travelled to New Zealand from England as a young bride, and had raised her daughter alone after being widowed. She had come to live in Ruatane to run the house for Jack Leith when his young wife, her only child, had died. Jack had been left with three children to raise, the youngest of them little Amy, her grandmother’s namesake, and of whom she had been so proud.
Afterwards a long procession of gigs and buggies made the short journey to the cemetery to pay their last respects. They made a doleful parade, with the horses kept to a slow walk and everyone in sombre colours.
After the burial Amy stood beside her father at the cemetery gate with her two brothers behind them as what seemed a never-ending stream of people came past to shake her father’s hand and commiserate. She wanted to get away from all the long faces and solemn words, to find somewhere to be alone and let all the sadness out. Instead she had to be very brave and grown-up, and act as though she were grateful to these people. She was the lady of the house now.
Her older brothers shuffled uncomfortably, and she saw Harry run his finger under his collar. They were hot from standing in the sun for such a long time in their good suits. The collar of her black crepe dress felt scratchy against her neck; she would have liked to undo a button, but she had to be dignified. Amy wished her cousin Lizzie could stand with her, but she was some distance away with her own parents and brothers; it was not Lizzie’s grandmother who had just been buried.
‘It’s a sad day for your family, Jack,’ said Mrs Carr, who lived on one of the farms closer to the town than Jack’s. ‘And you’ll miss your granny, won’t you, Amy?’ Amy nodded, the lump in her throat making it too hard to talk.
‘Yes, she was a fine woman,’ Jack agreed, ‘and she did a good job of bringing my girl up for me, didn’t she, Amy?’ He gave her a squeeze, and she smiled up at him bravely.
‘You’ll have to look after the menfolk now, won’t you, Amy,’ Mrs Carr said. ‘Hard work for a girl her age, Jack,’ she added, looking at Jack seriously. Amy bristled a little at what felt like criticism.
‘Amy knows what she’s doing,’ Jack said. ‘She’s a good little housekeeper.’
‘It’s a child doing a woman’s work, though,’ said Mrs Carr.
‘I don’t mind,’ Amy said. ‘I like looking after Pa and John and Harry.’
‘Of course you do, dear.’ Mrs Carr gave her a pat on the head, which Amy found rather irritating, before walking over to join her husband and their three daughters at their buggy, displaying an ample rear end that swayed and tilted with each step, the whole effect heightened by her bustle. Amy watched, frowning a little, then she suddenly remembered an irreverent conversation she and Lizzie had had after church one Sunday.
‘Ladies glide,’ Lizzie had said, quoting from Ladies magazine in what she imagined was a ‘high class’ voice, ‘but Mrs Carr waddles!’ They had been in fits of giggles over this.
Amy made the mistake of glancing in Lizzie’s direction while watching the unfortunate Mrs Carr clamber awkwardly into the buggy, leaning heavily on her husband’s arm. She saw the corners of Lizzie’s mouth twitch upwards. Lizzie looked at Amy; their eyes met, and each knew what the other was thinking. Lizzie put a hand over her mouth and turned her face away, and Amy was horrified to feel a giggle working its way up. She managed to half-squash it so that it came out sounding like a muffled sob. Jack turned to her, looking concerned.
‘All right, girl?’ he asked. She nodded, forcing herself back into composure. ‘It’s been a long day for you, hasn’t it?’ Jack said. Amy felt guilty, as though she had been caught lying. She couldn’t understand how she could possibly have wanted to laugh at such a time. Tears were pricking at her eyes, but she would not allow herself to cry in front of anyone. She would show them—a child indeed! She was twelve and a half! ‘We’ll go home soon, and you can have a rest,’ her father said.
When all the mourners had made their sympathetic comments and left the graveyard, Lizzie walked over to Amy as briskly as she could without breaking into a trot.
‘I’m coming with you,’ she announced, taking Amy’s arm. ‘I’m staying the night. Are we going now, Uncle Jack?’ she asked, turning to Amy’s father.
‘I suppose we’d better, if you say so, Lizzie,’ said Jack, with the usual amused tolerance he displayed towards Lizzie. ‘It’ll be a bit of a squash, you know. Are you going to put Amy on your lap?’
‘There’s plenty of room,’ Lizzie said. ‘Amy and I can sit in the front with you, we don’t take up much space.’
It was indeed something of a squash in the buggy; Lizzie was only eighteen months older than Amy (though she liked to refer to the gap as two years), but she was several inches taller and much more sturdily built. But Amy found it comforting to be squeezed between her father and cousin. Lizzie usually got her own way; but then she was usually right, so the people around her found the most sensible course was to go along with her.
Lizzie fussed over Amy when they got back to the farm, insisting she have a lie-down for an hour while Lizzie bustled about in the kitchen and the men went off to start milking. Amy put the mourning dress and the bonnet she had lined and trimmed with black crepe into her wardrobe, ready to be brought out again for church that Sunday. She undid the black silk ribbon from around her hair, folded it neatly and laid it on her dressing table in front of her little bookshelf.
The ribbon rested against a photograph in a silver-plated frame. The picture showed a dark-haired woman, Amy’s mother, holding a tiny baby that Amy had been assured was herself at the age of six weeks. The woman was sitting on the verandah of Amy’s house, smiling at the photographer as she held her baby daughter close. Four-year-old Harry stood beside his mother, clutching her skirt and looking dubious, while a young-looking Jack stood on her other side holding six-year-old John by the hand. Jack had an identical photograph on the dressing table in his room.
Amy picked up the photograph and studied it, then replaced it and ran her finger softly along the spines of the row of books that were like old friends to her. But she was in no mood to take comfort from reading, so she lay on the bed in her chemise and petticoats, staring at the ceiling and listening to Lizzie crashing cups and plates. She wondered idly what Lizzie was doing, and decided she was probably rearranging things on the dresser into what she considered a more sensible layout. Amy could not bring herself to care about it. She felt as if there were a knot inside her, holding in the grief, but she had been trying so hard not to give in, to seem brave, that now she couldn’t untie it.
Lizzie let her get up in time to help with dinner. Amy changed into one of her everyday work dresses, slipping a black arm band over one sleeve, before joining her in the kitchen. Lizzie did most of the work herself, giving Amy only the simple tasks. Amy found it was easy to let herself be organised; it saved her the trouble of thinking, and just now she did not want to think.
The evening meal was only slightly subdued. Amy knew her brothers, sixteen-year-old Harry and John who was nearly nineteen, were not greatly upset over the loss of their grandmother, who had always had more to do with Amy than with them. Out of consideration for Amy they made few jokes, but other than that they talked freely. Amy took little part in the conversation, but Lizzie made up for that.
After the meal, the girls cleared the table and washed the dishes while the men pushed back their chairs and stretched their legs out.
‘I’ll get my sewing,’ Amy said when the dishes had been dried and put away. Her evening needlework had been neglected lately.
‘Oh, no you won’t,’ said Lizzie. ‘An early night for you, I think.’
‘I’m not tired,’ Amy protested.
‘You need a good night’s sleep. Doesn’t she, Uncle Jack?’ Lizzie asked, appealing to Amy’s father. Amy considered this most unfair.
‘Lizzie’s right,’ said Jack, ‘you go off to bed now.’ So it was no use arguing. Amy glared at Lizzie for getting her sent off to bed like a child, but her cousin refused to catch her eye.
‘I’ll just get things straight for the morning,’ said Lizzie, heading for the dresser to get the plates for breakfast.
‘No, you can go to bed too, Lizzie,’ Jack said, taking both girls by surprise.
‘That’s all right, Uncle Jack, I don’t mind staying up for a bit.’
‘Lizzie,’ Jack said, in a much firmer voice than he normally used to either girl, ‘I said you can both go to bed. Now,’ he added, with emphasis. ‘Good night, girl,’ he said to Amy more gently. Amy kissed him on the cheek, feeling the familiar tickle of his beard against her chin.
Lizzie gave a very slight toss of her head, took Amy by the hand and walked out of the room. But she stopped just outside the door and held it open a little.
‘That girl could talk the hind leg off a donkey,’ Amy heard her father say. ‘I think my ears would drop off if I had to spend all evening in the same room as Lizzie!’
Lizzie let go of Amy’s hand, flung the door open dramatically, and rushed into the room. Amy peered around the door after her.
‘Did you call me, Uncle Jack?’ she asked, all wide-eyed innocence. Jack looked embarrassed.
‘No, I didn’t,’ he said gruffly. ‘Go to bed, for goodness sake!’
‘Yes, Uncle Jack,’ Lizzie said, smiling sweetly. Amy noticed she closed the door behind her this time. ‘I didn’t want to stay up, anyway,’ she assured Amy.
Amy’s spare nightdress was something of a squeeze for Lizzie, but she declared it was wearable if she left the top buttons undone.
‘It’s very short, but no one’s going to see me in it. You’ll need a new one when you get a bosom,’ she said, enjoying her superiority.
They brushed each other’s hair to get ready for bed. Lizzie stroked Amy’s long black curls, admiring the way they spilled down her back.
‘Your hair is so pretty,’ she said, without a trace of jealousy. ‘Ma always says she wishes my hair was wavy like yours.’ Lizzie’s fair hair, although thick and healthy, was obstinately straight, defying all her mother’s attempts at curling it in rags.
‘But yours is blonde,’ said Amy.
Lizzie shrugged. ‘That just means I get freckles if I leave my bonnet off for five minutes. Your skin always seems to stay creamy. Ma says you’re like a little doll, with your great big blue eyes and all that hair.’
‘Little doll’ was too much for Amy. ‘Just because I’m small, everyone treats me as though I’m a baby,’ she said, tears threatening again. ‘You’re the worst of the lot!’ she added, more bitterly than she had intended.
‘Come on,’ Lizzie said. ‘Hop into bed.’ Amy obeyed, and Lizzie put out the lamp before climbing in beside her. She put an elbow on the pillow and propped her chin up in one hand. Amy could just make out her cousin’s face in the half-darkness. She remembered nights when she had woken up crying, frightened by bad dreams, to find her grandmother kneeling beside the bed, ready to scoop Amy up in her arms and carry her off to her own bed to be kissed and comforted.
‘Now,’ Lizzie said very softly, all bossiness gone, ‘there’s no one here but you and me, and you’ve no need to try and impress me. You miss her, don’t you?’
Out of habit, Amy struggled one more time to be sensible and to keep her feelings under control. But Lizzie’s matter-of-fact kindness was just too hard to fight, and Amy abruptly gave up the losing battle.
‘Oh, Lizzie,’ she said, flinging her arms around the older girl’s neck and at last letting the healing tears come, dissolving the hard knot of self-control. ‘I didn’t want to upset anyone, and no one will talk about her to me! And now she’s gone, and they’re all acting as though she never existed.’ Her voice subsided into incoherent weeping. Lizzie held her close until the flood stopped and Amy, worn out with emotion, went to sleep in her arms.
As the ache of losing her grandmother faded, Amy found her life had become a little easier with the old woman’s passing. Nursing her grandmother through the last illness had taken a toll, and that burden had now been lifted. She found she was quite capable of keeping the house clean, her larder well-stocked, and her menfolk well-fed, and was still able to snatch a few moments for her precious reading.
It did not occur to her brothers that being asked to run a household was in any way remarkable for a girl of her age. If Jack occasionally worried about his ‘little girl’ wearing herself out he said nothing, seeing no alternative.
Late one afternoon in April, Amy was surprised to see a small gig pulled by a dappled grey pony coming up the road to her house. She was even more surprised to recognise her old teacher driving it. Amy rushed into her bedroom to put away the book she had been reading while waiting for the oven to heat up, then ran out to the gate to meet the teacher. She held the bridle as the woman got out of the gig.
‘Miss Evans!’ Amy said in delight. ‘What are you doing here?’ She realised how ungracious that sounded. ‘I mean, how lovely to see you,’ she corrected herself.
Miss Evans smiled at her. She was in her thirties, small and stocky, with a round face framed by brown hair pulled back rather severely from her forehead. The stern effect was softened by bright eyes set above rosy cheeks, but many of her pupils had discovered to their cost that those eyes could flash a warning, and those small hands could wield a strap most effectively when she felt the need. Ten years of running a single-teacher country school had taught her ways of coping with boys who, in their last year at school, might tower over her.
‘I hope I’m not being a nuisance, dropping in on you like this?’ she asked.
‘No, not at all,’ Amy assured her. ‘I was only doing some baking, but it’s all in the oven now. Would you like a cup of tea? I was just going to make one.’
Miss Evans accepted gratefully, and Amy, anxious to be a gracious hostess, took a tray into the parlour. How nice it was to be treated as an equal, instead of like a child, by Miss Evans.
‘I’d like to speak to your father, if I may,’ Miss Evans said after a sip of tea. Amy felt a moment’s irrational fear, as if she had done something naughty at school and was going to get in trouble for it, then was angry at herself for being so foolish. She had, after all, left school at the end of the previous year, after easily passing her Standard Six examination.
‘Pa’s milking right now. He’ll be back in half an hour or so, if you can wait till then. Would you like to stay for tea?’
‘Oh, I couldn’t put you out like that. But I would like to talk to you before he comes.’
Amy felt sudden consternation. What was she going to do? She had to start getting the meal on soon, before the men came back from milking, but she couldn’t possibly do that while Miss Evans sat by herself in the parlour and then send the woman away unfed.
‘Are you sure you won’t stay?’ she asked.
Miss Evans saw the worried look on her face and laughed.
‘No, I won’t stay,’ she said cheerfully, ‘but perhaps you can invite me some other day, rather than my arriving out of the blue and throwing you into a panic—no, don’t argue, Amy,’ she interrupted Amy’s feeble attempts at denial, ‘your feelings show too clearly on your face. Now, we’re going out to the kitchen and you can carry on with whatever I interrupted while I talk to you. When your father comes up I’ll have a word with him, then I’ll leave you all in peace to think over what I have to say. Come along,’ she said, getting up and walking out of the room. Amy could only do as she was told.
‘Now,’ Miss Evans continued when she was sitting at the kitchen table watching Amy work, ‘you are a very clever girl, Amy Leith, and the one thing you are not going to do with your life is spend the rest of it peeling potatoes! What happened to your ambitions, girl?’
‘Oh, Miss Evans,’ Amy said, putting down her knife, ‘I know I always said I wanted to be a teacher like you, and I’d still love it, more than anything. But that was before Granny got sick. Pa needs me here now.’
‘But you should be thinking about more schooling—maybe even about going to a High School.’
‘Who’d look after the house?’ Amy asked, knowing there was no answer. She had given up that dream months before.
‘Have you ever mentioned it to your father?’ Miss Evans asked. Amy shook her head. ‘I’d like to hear what he has to say about it,’ the teacher said. Amy was quite sure Miss Evans would not like the answer.
‘Nice to see you, Miss Evans,’ Jack said when he came in. ‘Has my girl been naughty?’ He dug Amy in the ribs. She turned her face away to hide her embarrassment. Miss Evans looked at him sharply.
‘Mr Leith, I know you’re a busy man, so I won’t take up much of your time. I have come to see you about Amy, but not because she’s done anything wrong. Quite the reverse, in fact. Amy is the cleverest pupil I’ve ever had, and I’d like to see her go further.’
Jack looked at her, bemused. ‘She’s a good girl,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know what you mean about going further. What’s wrong with where she is?’
‘Amy would like to be a teacher,’ said Miss Evans. Jack looked at his daughter in surprise. It had clearly never occurred to him that she might have such grandiose ambitions. ‘I think she would make a very good one, and I’d like to help her get there.’ Without giving him the chance to interrupt, Miss Evans went on. ‘Ideally she should go to a High School now.’
‘What? That’d mean she’d have to go and live in Auckland!’ Jack said in amazement. ‘I couldn’t let her do that—where would she live, anyway?’ Amy was a mere spectator; she felt that they had both forgotten her presence.
‘She could board there during the term, and come home in the holidays,’ said Miss Evans. ‘I know a few families in Auckland, she’d have no trouble finding a place to stay where she’d be well looked after.’
There was a short silence while Jack attempted to take in the outlandish suggestion his daughter should spend months at a time away from home just to get more education. He shook his head.
‘No, I’m not sending her to live with strangers half the year. You don’t really want to go away do you, girl?’ he asked, turning to Amy. She struggled with her thoughts.
‘I really would love to be a teacher, Pa,’ she said, her eyes imploring him to understand, ‘but, no, I don’t want to leave you. And they do need me here,’ she said, turning to Miss Evans.
‘Of course we do,’ said Jack, his usual heartiness returning. He put his arm around Amy. ‘What else could the girl possibly need to learn?’ he asked Miss Evans in genuine bewilderment. ‘She can read and write, she can do sums better than I can, and she can cook and sew as well as any woman.’
‘Perhaps Amy wants more than that,’ said Miss Evans. Jack looked at her blankly. ‘Perhaps she wants to make her own way in the world.’
Jack’s face relaxed into a smile. ‘I don’t think my girl’s ever going to have to worry about that sort of thing. Do you think a pretty little thing like her will have any trouble finding a husband when the time comes?’ He gazed proudly at Amy, and she felt herself blush. ‘That’s years and years off, she’ll still be my little girl for a long while yet. But she’s going to stay home with me until that time comes.’ Amy tried to keep her expression steady, but she was aware of her lower lip quivering.
Miss Evans seemed to know when she was beaten. ‘Very well, Mr Leith, that’s your decision,’ she said, pursing her lips. ‘But perhaps you’d consider an alternative? Amy, how would you like to spend a few hours each week helping me at the school?’
‘I’d love that, Miss Evans,’ Amy said, pleased and surprised. She turned a pleading face to her father.
Miss Evans spoke before Jack had a chance to reply. ‘It would just be helping me with the little ones, Mr Leith. I think it would be good for Amy to have some experience with small children, don’t you? They’re just babies, really—they need mothering more than anything at that age.’
Jack looked thoughtful. ‘Well,’ he said slowly, ‘I suppose it would be good for her to learn something about little ones, what with her being the youngest. All right, if you think you can handle the extra work, girl, I don’t mind you doing it. But you’re to stop if it gets too much for you—your work here comes first.’
Amy threw her arms around her father’s neck and pulled his face down to kiss him, while Miss Evans smiled on. ‘Thank you, Pa! I’m sure I can do it as well as my work.’
Amy walked Miss Evans back to her gig. When they got to it Miss Evans stopped close to her and said conspiratorially, ‘They’re not babies at all, you know—the little ones, I mean. Looking after them is just as much real teaching as preparing the top class for their examination. And you don’t really need to go to a High School, either. I learnt to teach by working with an experienced teacher, you can too. You spend a few months with me, and we’ll see what we can do about getting your father to agree to your being indentured.’
‘What’s indentured?’ Amy asked.
‘Oh, it means you’re officially learning to be a teacher. You spend four years as a pupil-teacher, like an apprentice to a qualified teacher—that’s me, of course,’ Miss Evans said, smiling. ‘You’d get a bit of salary, too, a few pounds a year, anyway. I’d give you extra lessons after school, so you wouldn’t miss out through not going to a High School. Now, you’re thirteen, aren’t you, Amy?’
‘Twelve and a half.’
‘Hmm, you’re meant to be fourteen to become a pupil teacher. I might be able to pull a few strings after you turn thirteen, though. We don’t need to make too much noise about exactly how old you are.
‘I didn’t really think your father would agree to your going to a High School,’ Miss Evans went on, ‘but I thought it was worth a try. And anyway, when he’d turned you down on that he wanted to make it up to you, so it wasn’t hard to get him to agree to the next best thing.’ Her eyes twinkled.
Amy felt she wanted to give her a hug, too, but restrained herself and just put a hand on the teacher’s arm. ‘Thank you, Miss Evans,’ she said with feeling. ‘And I’ll try and come tomorrow! Let’s see—tomorrow’s Thursday, and I don’t really need to make more butter till Friday… if I wash the floors first thing, I could leave them to dry while I come down… yes, I will come in tomorrow.’
‘You’ll be welcome whenever you do,’ Miss Evans said.
Amy practically pushed the men out the door next day after breakfast so she could scrub the kitchen floor. ‘And don’t come back in here before morning tea,’ she admonished them. ‘I don’t want you tracking wet footprints all through the house.’ After finishing the scrubbing she put on a clean pinafore and brushed her hair for the second time that morning, then set off down the track at a brisk pace.
The steepest of the hills on both sides of the valley were still bush-clad. Many of the tallest trees had been milled over the years, but scattered among the lower-growing manuka were lofty totara, rimu with their drooping foliage, and the darker leaves of puriri, prized for the hardness of its timber. Where the forest canopy had been removed tree ferns flourished, with an occasional nikau palm among them looking like something from the pictures of tropical islands Amy sometimes saw in her father’s newspapers.
Nearer the house, the slopes had been burned off and sown with grass years before. Shorthorn cattle wandered among the blackened stumps that had survived the burning, with sheep in the steeper paddocks. The farm’s only flat land was in two paddocks edging the creek; here the stumps had been laboriously hauled out and the ground ploughed, so that maize and potatoes could be grown.
Amy came to the end of the farm track and turned onto the road that led down the valley. It was a pity she couldn’t ride today; it would certainly have been faster. But she didn’t have a side-saddle, and it wouldn’t be right for her to hitch up her skirts and ride to school astride, as she always had when she was a pupil, now that she was going to be a teacher. Perhaps she would ask her father for a side-saddle if it wasn’t too expensive.
It took her almost half an hour to reach the school, long enough to start feeling apprehensive. She knew that a few of the pupils, those who had failed their Standard Six examination the previous year and had parents who were willing to let them have another try, were as much as a year older than her; many of the others were taller than she was. How would she get them to do as she said? She hoped Miss Evans would stick to her stated intention of having Amy work with the little ones.
Amy walked along the road past the fence that marked the boundary between her father’s farm and the much smaller one of his neighbour, Charlie Stewart. When she passed the next boundary fence and reached the Kelly farm she was almost at her destination.
The school sat on a little pocket of land carved off one corner of the Kellys’ farm, just big enough for the schoolhouse with its little yard and a small paddock for the horses. A patch of milled-over bush ran down a slope to the east of the building. Despite her apprehension, Amy approached the schoolhouse eagerly. Teaching was a dream that had been part of her for too long to be spoiled by a fear she recognised as foolish.
The schoolhouse itself consisted of one room. The floors and walls were of kauri planks; the floors were impregnated with the dust of years of muddy boots, and the walls had been stained with an ugly dark varnish that hid the beauty of the kauri grain. The room would have been gloomy but for the large sash windows that lined the northern wall, letting the sun pour in and giving a view over bush and paddocks towards the sea, just out of sight at the mouth of the valley. Amy, recalling chilblained fingers trying to form neat letters, knew that it could be bitterly cold in winter when the big wood-burning stove seemed to have little effect, but now in autumn the windows were flung open and the room was comfortably warm.
It seemed strange to walk into the building where she had spent so many years learning, knowing she now had a position of importance. The room was not large, but there was plenty of room for the twelve or so children who made up the roll. Their desks were arranged in rows, with the youngest at the front and the ‘big children’ at the back. This was, of course, unless one of the older children misbehaved in some way. Then they would, after suitable physical chastisement, be put into the front row with the little ones for as long as Miss Evans felt was necessary to give them the proper sense of shame. Today no one was suffering that ignominy.
Miss Evans greeted her cheerfully, and Amy was soon installed in front of the three children who were currently making up the first class. They were small enough to call her ‘Miss Amy’ without giggles. At Miss Evans’ suggestion she read them a story. They were too young to follow the work the teacher had put on the blackboard in front of the desks for the second class, much less the sums that had been set out on a board lining one of the side walls for the top class, but they were just learning to use their slates, and after the story Amy carefully wrote a row of As on each slate for them to copy. She helped them hold the slate pencils properly between chubby fingers, and tried not to notice when the pencils made an unpleasant scraping noise. When Bessie Aitken, a plump little cherub with a beaming face framed by a mop of fluffy blonde curls, completed a row successfully and turned to Amy with a look of delight, Amy wanted to give her a hug out of sheer pleasure.
Her morning at the school raced by, and it seemed no time at all before she was walking briskly home to get lunch on. She soon noticed that her excited account of all she had done that morning was met with only tolerant amusement by her brothers, who were mystified as to why anyone would willingly spend time at school. Her father’s smile held a hint of wariness, and more than once he asked if she was sure she could manage her work at home as well as at the school. Amy assured him she could, and let the conversation shift to other matters. Home was clearly not the place to talk about her teaching.
When Saturday came Amy missed going to the school, though she had to admit to herself that she needed the extra time to catch up on the tasks she had skimped over the previous two days.
Cooking was vital; the men would notice any shortcomings in that area, and she had to keep them happy. She also needed to make butter twice a week, enough for the family plus some to sell at the store in town; and a supply of cheese every few weeks. But there was no danger of her menfolk noticing if the cleaning was left for a few days. It was just a matter of being organised, and if that meant the dusting got done on Saturday instead of Friday it wasn’t the end of the world. She had a sneaking suspicion her grandmother would not have approved. ‘Every task has its time and season,’ Granny had been fond of saying, especially when Amy had wanted to do something ridiculous such as baking on the wrong day of the week.
After lunch she walked up the valley to the next farm, where Lizzie’s family lived. She saw her uncle and his two older sons, Bill and Alf, standing in a paddock near the farmhouse; Amy waved to them but hurried on to the house. She was eager to share her news with someone whom she hoped would understand just how exciting it was.
Lizzie was helping her mother in the kitchen, but when she saw the excited look in Amy’s eyes she found a ready excuse to go outside with her so they could have some privacy.
‘We’ll just go and pick some beans for you, Ma—and Amy’s are finished, so can we pick some extra for her?’
‘Of course you can,’ Aunt Edie said amiably. ‘Take little Ernie with you, though, he’s getting under my feet.’
‘Ma!’ Lizzie complained. ‘Do we have to?’
‘Get away with you, girl! What’s wrong with looking after your brother for five minutes? He’ll be no trouble, will you, sweetie?’ The little boy gurgled at her.
Lizzie looked disposed to argue, but her father wandered into the kitchen at that point. Arthur was less easy-going than his good-natured, rather vague wife; even Lizzie would not disobey her father lightly.
‘Yes, Ma,’ she said meekly. She scooped up her little brother and shepherded Amy out the back door.
‘I don’t know why Ma had to go having a baby,’ Lizzie grumbled as they picked beans and tried to stop the one-year-old from pulling up too many plants by the roots. ‘There’s ten years between Alf and this one—you’d think she’d have more sense at her age.’
Amy laughed at Lizzie’s self-righteous tone. ‘Don’t be so silly Lizzie! You love Ernie, don’t you? He looks so sweet, too, with those curls.’ She ruffled Ernie’s long, fair hair. ‘He could be a little girl—especially now while he’s still wearing dresses. It’ll be sort of sad when he grows up a bit and Aunt Edie puts him in trousers.’ She picked up the child and squeezed him, but he wriggled to get down.
‘Of course I do, but I seem to end up looking after him all the time. I hope she’s not going to do it again,’ Lizzie said grimly.
‘Have babies, you mean?’ Amy shrugged. Being farm bred, they had much more idea of the mechanics of reproduction than city girls would have, but they were both rather hazy on the fine details of baby-making. ‘Babies just happen, I suppose. But Aunt Edie must be getting a bit old to have any more, isn’t she?’
‘I hope so. Anyway,’ she turned an eager face to Amy, ‘what are you so full of?’
‘Lizzie, it’s wonderful!’ Amy burst out. ‘I’m teaching at the school with Miss Evans!’
‘What?’ Lizzie said in amazement. ‘What on earth do you want to do that for?’
‘You know I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,’ Amy said, startled.
‘I know you’ve got your nose in a book half the time, and you used to be in love with Miss Evans, and you always went on about how you wanted to be a teacher like her, but I thought you’d grown out of it. You haven’t mentioned it for ages.’
‘That’s because I didn’t think I’d be able to, now I’ve got to look after the house and everything. But Miss Evans talked Pa into letting me help her.’
‘Do you get paid?’ Lizzie asked. ‘Is that why you’re doing it?’
‘No, of course I don’t. I’m just learning.’
‘I thought you said you were teaching.’
‘I’m learning to be a teacher.’
‘Eh?’ Lizzie struggled with the idea. ‘But you don’t want to be a spinster, do you?’
‘You sound like Pa,’ Amy said in exasperation. ‘It’s got nothing to do with being a spinster. I just want to do something.’
‘What’s wrong with getting married and having babies?’
‘You were complaining a minute ago about looking after babies!’
‘That’s different,’ said Lizzie. ‘They’ll be my own babies. I’ll be able to do things the way I want, not the way Ma says to.’
‘You’ll have to get a husband first, and he might have something to say about that,’ Amy said mischievously.
Lizzie gave a snort. ‘Men,’ she said with some disdain, ‘don’t know anything about babies. Anyway,’ she turned the conversation back to the subject of Amy, ‘don’t you want a house of your own one day?’
‘I’ve got one,’ said Amy. ‘And I’ve got quite enough men to look after, thank you. But Lizzie,’ she put her hand on Lizzie’s arm and looked into her eyes, trying to make her down-to-earth cousin understand, ‘it’s not enough.’
‘What’s not enough?’
‘All this.’ Amy gave a wide sweep of her arm, taking in the whole valley. ‘Spending all my life in this little place, looking after Pa then getting married and having lots of babies, never seeing anywhere else, never learning anything interesting. Miss Evans says I could be a good teacher, I want to do something useful, not just cooking and cleaning and looking after babies.’
‘That’s useful enough, isn’t it?’
‘Not for me,’ Amy said. ‘Oh, never mind, Lizzie. You know what you want, just let me want something different. Don’t let’s argue about it.’
‘You’ll grow out of it,’ Lizzie said, and Amy resisted the urge to dispute the issue. She would have to resign herself to the fact that none of her family understood her longing to break out of the narrow little future they assumed for her.
April – May 1881
Determined though she was to spend as much time as possible at the school, Amy knew she couldn’t go every week day. Monday was completely taken up with washing, and there was no escape from that. On Tuesday morning she looked at her pile of ironing and realised she would have to stay home that day as well. But she found she could manage two or three afternoons a week plus a morning or two, albeit with some swift running across the paddocks.
It was wonderful to be with Miss Evans. On days when she was not in a rush to get home, Amy stayed behind for a while after the children had left. Miss Evans talked to her about teaching, and about the children with their different abilities and weaknesses.
‘Miss Evans,’ Amy asked her one day, ‘if I get to be a teacher—’
‘When, Amy, not if,’ Miss Evans interrupted firmly, and Amy smiled at her.
‘When I’m a teacher,’ she said, ‘do you think I’d be able to get a job somewhere else?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ said Miss Evans. ‘There’s no rule that says you have to work in the town where you were born. I don’t come from here, you know. In fact, it’s better not to work where you grew up, at least at first. You have trouble getting the children to take you seriously otherwise, if you went to school with their brother or sister just a few years before.’
‘So do you think I could go somewhere like Auckland?’
‘Is that where you want to go?’
Amy nodded, looking down at the floor. She was shy of exposing her dreams to others, holding them up to be ridiculed.
Miss Evans put a finger under Amy’s chin and lifted it, making Amy meet her gaze. ‘Amy,’ she said very seriously, ‘the most important thing is for you to know exactly what you want, then to set about getting it. Don’t worry about what other people think of you, and don’t let them try to make you in their image. No one has the right to do that to you. That includes me, by the way—don’t carry on with teaching just to please me, for heaven’s sake. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
‘I think so,’ said Amy, ‘but… isn’t that a bit selfish?’
‘Isn’t it a bit selfish for other people to expect your life to revolve around them?’
‘But, what if they need you?’
‘Like your father and brothers need you to wait on them, you mean? Even when it means running yourself ragged so you’re half asleep by three o’clock—yes, I’ve seen you yawning, though you hide it very prettily, so it’s no use denying it.’
‘That’s not fair,’ Amy said, rising to her family’s defense. ‘It’s my job to look after them, they work hard. Teaching’s just what I want for myself.’
‘And so it’s worth nothing?’ Miss Evans sighed. ‘If you want to see this through, Amy, you’ll have to be prepared to be called a lot of names. “Selfish” is one. And sometimes “Old Maid” is another. Most men, you see, think a woman’s a bit strange if she wants to have a real job—you’ve already seen that with your father.’
A lot of women think it too, Amy thought, remembering Lizzie’s reaction.
‘And it might mean making a choice between… but you’re a little young to worry about that, I think. But I want you to remember what I said about knowing what you want and working for it. Will you do that?’
‘I’ll try,’ said Amy.
I know what I want, she thought to herself as she trotted up the road from the school. I want to be a teacher, a really good one. And I want to go and live somewhere exciting, like Auckland. But I want to look after Pa, too… at least, I should want to… no, I do really… I think. How can I do them both? Wanting did not seem too hard to manage; getting what she wanted was more of a mystery.
[The section where Amy and Lizzie see a beached whale was originally included here.]
May – June 1881
Amy’s family got to church a little early the next morning, some time before Lizzie’s. Amy passed the time letting her gaze wander, watching the various members of the congregation as they took their places.
The church was small, holding around ninety people in its eight rows of pews when it was full; today the congregation was about fifty strong. It had been built fifteen years earlier, and Jack still occasionally referred to it as the ‘new’ church. Walls, floor and ceiling were all made of broad kauri planks the colour of dark honey, as were the pews, and with the morning sun coming through the high, narrow windows behind the altar (they were of clear glass; Ruatane did not run to stained glass windows) the church felt warm and cosy after the cold drive into town. That meant in summer the church could get unbearably hot, especially when the sermon was particularly long.
Arthur and his family arrived a few minutes before the service began. Lizzie’s father did not approve of ‘pew-wandering’, as he called it, so the girls were not allowed to sit together, but Amy sneaked occasional glances at Lizzie as the organ wheezed and groaned its way through the hymns. If she craned her neck just a little she could see Frank where he sat on the opposite side of the church, a few rows back from the two Leith families. Lizzie sang with great gusto, and appeared quite oblivious to everyone around her, but Amy thought she saw her cousin dart a glance once or twice in Frank’s direction.
Frank seemed to be having trouble concentrating on his hymn-book. His eyes kept wandering to the other side of the church, then he would recall himself with a start and study his hymn-book earnestly, trying to find his place. Amy wondered why he bothered, as she had noticed he never actually sang. Perhaps it helped him be prepared to sit down at the same time as everyone else. She realised she was letting her own attention drift, and made an effort to concentrate properly during the rest of the service.
Afterwards Amy found herself being dragged in Lizzie’s wake as her cousin all but ran to intercept Frank before he had the chance to escape from the church grounds. They caught up with him just before he reached the gate into the horse paddock.
‘Hello, Frank,’ Lizzie said brightly, trying to hide the fact that she was puffing.
Frank turned and smiled shyly at them both.
‘Hello Lizzie, hello Amy.’ Amy nodded to him and dropped back a step, giving Lizzie the centre stage. He seemed to gather his courage. ‘You’re looking very well, Lizzie.’
‘Thank you,’ Lizzie said, smiling as sweetly as if she had been paid a great compliment.
Frank seemed to be stuck for something else to say at that point, but he looked intently at a clod of earth in front of his foot as though it held a deep fascination. He looked at Lizzie with an odd mixture of relief and regret in his face.
‘I’ve got to go now, Ben doesn’t like waiting for lunch.’ He reddened, and added, ‘I’ll see you next Sunday.’ He turned and walked briskly over to where his horse was tethered.
‘I think he likes me!’ Lizzie whispered.
Amy laughed at her affectionately. ‘He doesn’t have much choice, does he? Who could help liking you once you decide they’re going to?’
Lizzie poked her tongue out, but she looked smug. ‘That Ben’s a fly in the ointment, though. Fancy Frank having to rush home just to keep him happy—Ben hardly ever comes to church, either, just Christmas and Easter. I don’t think he likes women.’
‘I don’t think he likes people,’ said Amy.
By the end of May the occasional showers of early autumn had turned into set-in rain for several days on end. On the first Monday in June Amy looked out the back door at the grey sky as she prepared to do the washing. It looked as though the rain might hold off… then again, it might not. She didn’t have much choice but to risk the weather; Monday was washing day, and that was that. They would all soon run out of clean underclothes if she didn’t get last week’s washed.
She carried buckets of clean water from the rainwater barrel to fill her copper and the two rinsing tubs, thankful that at least the wet weather meant she could use the barrel water rather than having to haul it all up from the well. In summer that was hard work, even when she could talk one of her brothers into helping.
While she waited for the water to boil in the copper she picked over the piles of clothes she had sorted the day before, wondering yet again how four people could create so much washing, and how three men could get their clothes so filthy. Many of her own clothes, although they didn’t need scrubbing, were too delicate for boiling, and needed to be washed carefully by themselves.
Amy felt a few spots of rain while she worked, and hoped they wouldn’t turn into anything worse. She had everything washed by the time she had to prepare lunch; afterwards she rushed back to the piles of wet clothes and started carrying them all to the clothesline.
She had half the load pegged on the line when the heavens opened and the rain began in earnest. She looked in the west, where a bank of ominous grey clouds was now massing, suggesting the weather was going to get worse before it got better. Amy frowned at the threatening sky. This was going to throw her whole week into disarray, she thought as she carried load after load of wet clothes into the house and draped as many things as she could over chairs in front of the range. At least she might be able to get some underclothes dry.
Her temper was frayed by dinnertime, and it was made worse when Harry complained about clothes being everywhere.
‘What do you expect me to do with them?’ Amy snapped. ‘You want your clothes washed and ready for you to wear. I didn’t make it rain, did I?’
‘Well, I just don’t like having my dinner with drawers on the back of my chair,’ said Harry. ‘It puts me off my food.’
‘Don’t eat it then,’ Amy said tartly, but she pulled the offending garments off Harry’s chair and put them on her own instead.
‘Now, girl, that’s enough,’ Jack reproved. ‘There’s no need for you to get sulky just because you had a drop of rain on your washing.’
It means I can’t go to the school on Wednesday. But she could not say that to her father. He would only decide she couldn’t cope with both jobs. Anyway, he was right to say she shouldn’t snap.
‘I’m sorry, Harry,’ she said.
‘That’s all right,’ said Harry. ‘It was just the drawers that worried me.’
‘And don’t talk about underwear in front of your sister,’ Jack said sternly.
‘I can’t help talking about it when it’s staring me in the face,’ Harry muttered, but a warning look from Jack silenced him.
It was Wednesday before Amy got her washing completely dry, and Thursday before the ironing was finished, so to her disappointment Friday was the only day she managed at the school that week. She hoped fervently that the winter would not be too wet.
On the following Tuesday afternoon Amy was ironing at the kitchen table while her father used a corner of the table to do his accounts. He had been there for some time before Amy noticed that the sighs and quiet grumbling that usually went with this task were more pronounced than usual.
‘Are you having a bit of trouble with that, Pa?’ she asked as she put one of the irons back on the range and carried its mate, now hot, to the table.
Jack pushed the account book with the pile of invoices and receipts on top of it away from him in disgust. ‘I can’t get these numbers to add up. There’s something wrong with them.’
‘I’ll help if you like. Just let me get this finished first, I won’t be much longer.’
‘No, that’s all right,’ said Jack. ‘Don’t let me interrupt you, I can do it.’ He pulled the book over and peered at the figures. She heard him muttering under his breath as he scratched away with his pen. ‘Damned stupid things!’ he cursed, scrawling lines through his latest attempt. ‘Oh, sorry, Amy, I forgot you were there for a minute.’
Amy put the iron on the range out of the way and laid the shirt she was working on across the back of a chair, then carried another chair around the table and put it beside her father’s. She reached over and took the pen out of his hand, and pulled the book and the bottle of ink towards her. She looked at the page her father had been working on and raised her eyebrows at the crossings-out and ink-blots.
‘You’ve got in a bit of a muddle here, haven’t you, Pa? You should have asked me to help before—you know I don’t mind doing it.’
Jack looked embarrassed. ‘Well, you seemed busy.’
Amy smiled at him. ‘It won’t take me long. But I think I’d better start a new page.’
She transferred the figures to a fresh page, checking them against the invoices and receipts as she did so, and put a large cross through the offending sheets. She soon had all the amounts entered and balanced.
‘There!’ She pushed the book back to her father. ‘How does that look—can we afford to eat this month?’
Her father looked in admiration at the orderly columns filled with Amy’s small, neat figures. ‘I don’t know how you can just do it all in your head like that.’
‘So is it going to be a good quarter?’ she pressed.
Jack ruffled her curls. ‘Don’t you worry your head about that. You get on with what you were doing.’
‘Pa!’ Amy protested. ‘I’m interested, you know.’
‘All right then,’ said Jack. ‘Since you’re so keen to know, yes it is—I think it’s going to be quite a good quarter. I might build up the herd a bit this spring, keep a few more of the heifer calves than usual.’
‘I don’t think I could make any more butter and cheese than I do now, Pa,’ Amy said in alarm, picturing herself having to make butter three or four times a week instead of twice. That would probably mean the end to her teaching altogether.
‘Of course you couldn’t—you do quite enough now,’ Jack said. ‘Do you know they’re talking about maybe building a cheese factory in Ruatane in a year or two? That’d make things a bit easier for you, wouldn’t it? There should be a bit more money out of it, too. In fact, I think I might take a trip up to Auckland soon, and see about replacing that old hay mower before next season—we’ll need more winter feed if the herd’s bigger, and they should have all the latest gadgets up there. Look at this fancy-looking one.’ He pushed an open catalogue of farm implements in Amy’s direction, displaying an illustration of an elaborate mower being drawn by two horses. ‘It’s a good time for me to go, while there’s no milking to do.’
Amy’s eyes lit up. ‘Auckland! Oh, I wish I could go with you, Pa.’
Jack patted his knees in invitation, and Amy climbed on his lap to be enfolded in a hug. She wound her arms around his neck.
‘I wish you could come, too,’ he said. ‘I miss my little girl when I go away. But you’ve got to keep those brothers of yours in line, don’t you? I’ll only be away a week or two. And I’ll bring you back something pretty. Would you like that?’
‘Bring me back a book!’ she said, and Jack laughed.
‘You and your books. Haven’t you got enough yet?’ Amy shook her head. ‘All right, something pretty and a book, how’s that?’ She hugged him, and he planted a kiss on her hair. ‘You’re not going to get too big for cuddles soon, are you?’
‘Not for a long time.’ Amy gave him one last squeeze, then disentangled herself and went back to her ironing.
I do wish I could go, too.
Winter in the school meant chilblains and sniffles, and Amy had to spend more time than she wanted reminding the little ones to use their handkerchiefs instead of their sleeves. More serious was an outbreak of measles that started with Bessie Aitken and spread rapidly through the school, especially among the younger children. By late June half the pupils were away with measles or colds, including all the under-nines, and Miss Evans told Amy she might as well stay home herself for a few days.
‘I’ve been seriously considering closing the school for a week,’ she confessed to Amy one afternoon. ‘I don’t think it will come to that after all, but there’s really nothing for you to do here at the moment. I can’t justify wasting your time until we get the little ones back.’
‘But… I can come back then, can’t I?’ Amy asked anxiously.
Miss Evans’s worried face softened into a smile. ‘Of course you can, Amy. In fact, I’ll miss you till then. But I’m sure you’ve plenty to do at home.’
‘Yes,’ Amy admitted, ‘I’ve always got plenty to do there.’
Lizzie arrived just after breakfast the next day, as Amy was getting ready to do some baking.
‘Good, you’re here. Ma wanted me to bring the little fellow over with me when I said I was coming.’ She made a face. ‘But I got her talking about something else, and she’d forgotten by the time I left. Alf told me there weren’t any tiny ones left at school, so I thought I’d just pop over and see if you were home. You’ll help me with this, won’t you?’ She put a brown paper parcel on the table and proceeded to unwrap it, revealing a neat little grey felt bonnet and a length of mauve satin ribbon.
‘That’s pretty!’ Amy exclaimed, taking the ribbon in her hand.
‘Mmm. I got it in town yesterday, and I thought it would brighten up this boring old bonnet. But I can’t get it to go right, and you’re good at that sort of thing.’
Amy looked at her speculatively. ‘Will you do some baking for me while I do it?’
‘Of course,’ said Lizzie. ‘Just lend me an apron, and I’ll get on to it.’
Amy tried the ribbon various ways before she decided what looked best, then she fetched her sewing box and stitched the ribbon neatly around the bonnet, with a large bow in front.
‘There!’ she said, when it was done to her satisfaction. ‘How does that look?’ She tried it on herself first, and went into the passage to look at her reflection in the mirror there.
‘It suits you,’ Lizzie said, coming up behind her and wiping her hands on the apron. ‘You could do with a new bonnet, you know. That black one you wear to church doesn’t do anything for you—nor does the black dress, come to that.’
Amy took off the bonnet. ‘I don’t wear mourning to look glamorous. I wear it to show respect.’ She fingered her black arm band as she spoke.
‘How long are you going to wear it?’
Amy shrugged. ‘I’m not sure, about a year, I suppose. Some people think I’m too young to bother. But I want to do the right thing.’
‘You always want to do the right thing, don’t you?’ said Lizzie. ‘You try a bit too hard sometimes, you know.’
‘That’s my look-out,’ Amy said. ‘Anyway,’ she thrust the bonnet towards Lizzie with a smile, ‘let’s see it on you. I want to see what the new weapon looks like.’
‘Weapon?’ Lizzie looked at her blankly, then put the bonnet on, tilting her head to check the effect at different angles.
‘Yes, a weapon in your battle to catch a husband.’ Amy shrieked as Lizzie made a rush and grabbed her around the waist. She pulled out of Lizzie’s grasp and ran into the kitchen, putting the table between them. ‘Careful!’ she said between giggles. ‘Don’t you spoil that ribbon—I’m not doing it for you again if you pull it off.’
‘I hope you made a better job of the stitching than that,’ Lizzie said witheringly, but she took the bonnet off and put it carefully on the table. ‘Weapon, indeed. You just watch your step, my girl.’
‘Why, what will you do?’ Amy turned her head and sniffed. ‘Lizzie, you did get those biscuits out of the oven, didn’t you?’
‘Whoops!’ Lizzie made a dash for the oven and snatched the tray of biscuits out of it. ‘Oh, they’re not too bad,’ she said brightly. ‘Just a bit more brown than golden.’
‘Lizzie, you are the limit!’ Amy gingerly lifted one biscuit off the tray, exposing a rather blackened bottom. ‘You were meant to be watching those, not preening yourself in front of the looking glass.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Lizzie. ‘Slap a bit of icing between them and no one will know. Men never notice that sort of thing. Ma burns biscuits all the time, Pa never complains.’
‘Perhaps I wanted to eat some too,’ Amy said, ‘and I’ll know, won’t I? Anyway, I like things to be nice.’
‘Don’t make such a fuss. Look, I’ll scrape the bottoms and they’ll be fine.’ Lizzie took up a biscuit to illustrate her point and started scraping it over the slops bucket. ‘Ow! That’s still hot!’ She put her burnt finger in her mouth.
‘Leave it,’ Amy said, tipping the tray load into the bucket. ‘The pigs can eat them—I’ll make another lot.’
‘You didn’t need to do that!’ Lizzie protested. ‘They would have been all right. You’ll make me feel guilty, throwing them out like that.’
Amy looked at Lizzie’s injured expression and could not help smiling. ‘I doubt that, Lizzie. You’re not very good at feeling guilty, are you? And you’re right, it doesn’t really matter.’
‘You’re not very good at staying angry, come to that,’ said Lizzie. ‘I’ll make some more, you sit down.’
‘Don’t give me any more practice at getting annoyed!’ Amy said with mock sternness. ‘You watch them this time!’
‘Like a hawk,’ Lizzie promised, hand on heart.
‘You’re really set on catching Frank, aren’t you?’ Amy asked as she tidied away her sewing things.
‘I’m just planning ahead, that’s all,’ Lizzie said, stirring her mixture vigorously. ‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘Well,’ said Amy, ‘Frank’s nice, but he’s not very… well, exciting, is he?’
Lizzie stopped her work. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Oh, I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with him. It’s not so much Frank, it’s just.… well, he’s just the same as everyone else around here. I mean, if you married him you’d just move down the road a couple of miles. Apart from that everything would be the same. Why do you want to bother?’
‘There’d be a few more differences than that,’ Lizzie said, with a smug expression Amy found exasperating. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand.’
‘Don’t talk like that, Lizzie! You don’t know any more about it than I do!’
‘Any more about what?’
‘You know what—stop it!’ Amy was annoyed to feel herself blushing.
‘I was just talking about running my own house,’ Lizzie said haughtily. ‘I don’t know what you were talking about, I’m sure.’
‘Humph!’ said Amy. ‘I think I know more about that than you do. At least I don’t burn biscuits all the time. Running a house isn’t as wonderful as all that, you know.’
‘Of course, when I was your age I wasn’t very interested in getting married either, I don’t think,’ Lizzie said, dropping spoonfuls of biscuit dough onto the tray. ‘You’re only twelve, after all. You’ll have to grow up a bit more before you start being interested.’
‘I’m nearly thirteen,’ said Amy.
‘Well, I’m nearly fifteen then.’
‘You are not! You only turned fourteen a couple of months ago.’
‘By the time you’re thirteen I’ll be nearly fifteen.’
‘No you won’t! You’ll be fourteen and a half, that’s not “nearly fifteen”.’
‘Don’t let’s argue about it.’
‘You always say that when you’re losing,’ said Amy. ‘Not everyone gets married, you know.’
‘I know,’ said Lizzie. ‘And that’s terrible—all those old maids, stuck at home being bossed around all their lives with everyone making fun of them. That’s why I don’t want to leave it too late.’
‘Who ever bossed you around?’
‘Pa does sometimes—well, sort of. Ma tries to, when she thinks of it.’
‘I expect husbands can be pretty bossy.’
‘That’s why you’ve got to pick one carefully!’ Lizzie said in triumph.
‘Mmm, I can’t really imagine Frank telling anyone what to do—especially someone like you. But Lizzie, I think there could be worse things than not getting married.’
‘Like marrying the wrong person. Imagine being stuck forever with someone horrible.’ Amy gave a shudder. ‘I’d much sooner be an old maid. Anyway, I don’t know if I’ll bother getting married. I might be too busy teaching.’
‘Don’t you worry,’ said Lizzie. ‘You won’t need to be an old maid. When I’ve got everything organised for myself, I’ll sort something out for you.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Amy said, lifting a cushion and aiming it at Lizzie. ‘Don’t you dare start matching me up with anyone. I’m quite happy as I am.’
‘We’ll see,’ said Lizzie. She ducked as Amy threw the cushion.
June – July 1881
[What is now the opening section of the book was originally included here.]
It was wonderful to get back to school the following week, even though it meant a return to her routine of rushing between there and the farm. Amy had now been working at the school for three months; long enough to see real progress in her young pupils. They could all chant the alphabet, and even the slowest could manage to count up to twenty. When Amy wrote simple words on their slates for them to copy, the children needed only a small amount of prompting to sound the words out correctly.
During their precious few minutes after class Miss Evans praised Amy’s work with the children, suggested ways of helping the struggling ones, and spoke of Amy’s future teaching career as a settled thing. One day Miss Evans brought along an official letter, a response to one she had written to the education authorities, detailing the steps Amy would need to take to become a qualified teacher once she was old enough to begin her official training. Amy left school that afternoon so buoyed with excitement that she arrived at the house with only vague memories of the walk home.
‘Oh no!’ Amy said in alarm, looking at the schoolroom clock one Wednesday morning. ‘I should have left quarter of an hour ago—I have to go, Miss Evans.’ She hurriedly said her goodbyes and rushed out the door.
She scurried along with her head down. When a man loomed into her field of view she gave a small cry, and barely avoided walking into him. She recognised the tall, slightly stooped figure, and felt a sudden irrational fear. Amy collected herself and bobbed a small curtsy.
‘Good morning, Mr Stewart. I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.’ She was annoyed to hear her voice shake a little.
‘Humph,’ the man grunted. ‘You seem in a great hurry, girl.’
‘Yes, I’m just going home from school. I’m teaching there, I mean,’ she added, worried he might think she was still a pupil. Not that she should care what Charlie Stewart thought of her! she told herself.
‘Excuse me, I must be getting on.’ Amy sensed his eyes on her as she walked away; she felt uneasy under his gaze.
It had rained the previous night, and the ground was muddy, but when she got to her boundary fence Amy decided she really would have to take the direct route across the paddocks to have any chance of getting home in time to make lunch.
It seemed unfair that the sky chose that moment to open, drenching Amy within moments and turning the soggy ground into a treacherous series of puddles. The rain was so heavy that she could barely see her way in front of her to dodge the stumps. Amy climbed over the last fence before the house and rushed just a little too much. She missed her footing, and went sprawling into a sheet of muddy water.
Amy picked herself up and looked at her pinafore, now covered in brown mud from top to bottom. When she took a step one boot came off; she lost her balance, and put her stockinged foot into the mud before she could recover. She put the boot back on over her muddy stocking and struggled up to the house.
She opened the door into the kitchen and saw her brother John sitting at the table, warming himself by the range. He looked at her in amazement.
‘What happened to you? You look half drowned.’
‘Nothing—I just fell over, that’s all,’ Amy said, pulling her pinafore off over her head. ‘Don’t tell Pa.’
‘Don’t tell Pa what?’ came a voice from the doorway into the passage. Amy froze as Jack walked in. He stared at her; she knew she must make quite a sight. She was streaming with water from head to foot; her hair was plastered to her scalp; the pinafore that she had half pulled off was caked with mud, as was much of the dress underneath it. It was impossible to tell where her boots stopped and her legs started, the mud was so thick on her lower legs.
‘Look at the state of you!’ said Jack. ‘What were you doing running about the paddocks in this weather?’
‘I was in a hurry to get back, that’s all,’ Amy said. ‘I’ve just got a bit wet and dirty, it’s nothing to make a fuss over.’
‘You’ll catch your death of cold, wandering around in that state—you’d better get changed.’
‘I know, I’m going to.’ Amy hung her filthy pinafore in the porch and tugged off her boots. She turned her back to them and peeled off the mud-caked stockings before scurrying through the kitchen and into her bedroom.
She towelled herself dry and put on a clean dress, hoping her petticoats weren’t too damp, then went back to the kitchen and got lunch ready as quickly as she could. Harry had joined his father and brother by this time. Amy felt her father’s eyes on her and did her best to hide her shivering.
‘What are you all doing home so early?’ she asked, trying to sound bright.
Jack grunted. ‘Gunpowder didn’t go off, so we had to leave it for the day—it might decide to go off later. Then it looked like rain anyway, so we came back. I thought you had the sense to come in out of the rain, too, not run about in it.’
‘I didn’t see it coming on,’ said Amy. ‘Eat your soup while it’s hot,’ she added as she carried steaming bowls to the table, hoping to distract him. Her father said a quick grace and started on his soup, but he continued to look at her in a way that Amy found troubling.
After lunch John and Harry went off to one of the sheds to do some inside work, but Jack remained sitting at the table.
‘You’re finding it a bit much, aren’t you?’ He made it more of a statement than a question.
‘No,’ Amy said, knowing she sounded defensive. ‘I know what I’m doing.’
Jack gave a deep sigh. ‘You’re a bit young to be looking after the house by yourself, anyway. And I’m not sure about this other business, Amy.’
‘I’m all right, Pa, I just got a bit wet. I won’t go back to school this afternoon now that the rain’s set in.’ She did not add that she was wearing her only other work dress, and couldn’t risk getting it muddy as well.
‘No, you won’t,’ Jack said. ‘You’re not to go back there until the weather fines up again.’
‘All right,’ Amy said, wondering how long the rain was likely to last.
Her father continued to look at her with a worried expression. ‘I don’t know about all this, Amy. Maybe I’m not looking after you properly.’
‘Of course you are.’ Amy went to him and stood behind his chair, wrapping her arms around his neck and laying her cheek against his. ‘I was silly to get wet, but it wasn’t your fault.’
Jack pulled her around to sit on his lap. ‘Maybe there’re things I should be telling you,’ he said, frowning slightly.
‘What—like coming in out of the rain?’
‘No. Things your ma would be telling you if she was here.’
Amy could see he was embarrassed, and it made her feel awkward, too. ‘I know all about looking after the house. Granny taught me those things.’
‘And you make a good job of it all, for a girl your age,’ Jack said. Amy wished he had not qualified his praise. She hid her face against his chest so that he would not see her expression. ‘But I’m not sure I should let you have your own way over this teaching.’
‘Please, Pa,’ Amy said in a small voice.
‘Well, we’ll see. Are you shivering, girl?’
‘Just a little bit,’ Amy admitted. ‘I’ll warm up when I start moving around.’ She got up and started clearing the table.
‘What’s this?’ Jack felt his lap. ‘There’s a damp patch where you were sitting.’
Amy put her hand to her mouth in horror. Her petticoats really had been too soaked to leave on, after all. ‘I think I left it. I’m afraid I’m still a bit damp.’
There was a moment’s silence, then Jack burst into one of his hearty laughs. ‘It’s a long time since you’ve given me wet trousers, girl,’ he snorted. ‘I thought you were past that stage long since! Now for goodness sake go and get changed properly,’ he said, pointing at the door. ‘I’m not such an ogre that I want you wandering around in wet clothes rather than wait five minutes for my lunch.’
‘Yes, Pa,’ Amy said meekly. When she reached the door she impulsively ran back to her father and gave him a kiss, then darted from the room, leaving Jack sitting at the table looking thoughtful.
Jack was more cheerful when he came back from town the next day. ‘I’ve booked myself on the steamer for next week,’ he said. ‘Friday the twenty-second—I should be able to have a week or so in Auckland and still get back before calving’s really started. And I’ve got somewhere to stay, too—Sam Craig at the store knows a chap up there he used to be in business with years ago. Sam’s written to this fellow and arranged for me to stay with them. He reckons they’ve got a flash house in Parnell. Better than staying in some boarding house, anyway.’
‘That’s good, Pa,’ Amy said, looking up from the kitchen floor where she was kneeling with a scrubbing brush. ‘Watch your step! Don’t walk over there—it’s wet.’
‘Oops, sorry… too late now, I’ve done it,’ Jack said, looking guiltily at the muddy footprints he had left across the floor.
‘Never mind.’ Amy carried her bucket over to where Jack was standing looking awkward. ‘I do wish you’d remember to take your boots off before you come inside, though.’
‘I’ll be out of your way for a week or two soon, anyway, when I go to Auckland.’ Jack belatedly took off his boots and put them outside the door.
‘Pa!’ Amy looked at him reproachfully. ‘You know I’d sooner have you here, even with your muddy feet.’
The sun appeared again that weekend, and Amy got her washing dry on Monday with the aid of a stiff breeze. Tuesday brought more sunshine. Amy spent the morning ironing, but by lunch-time she felt trapped inside as she looked out the window at white clouds scudding across the sky.
When she had cleared away the lunch dishes she looked at the pile of ironing still to be done, and her lips set in a firm line. I’m going to school this afternoon. I’ll finish this lot tonight.
The children were restive that day; they had been forced to stay inside for much of the previous week, and now they found the sunshine streaming through the windows distracting. Amy needed to be constantly alert to keep their attention, and more than once had to speak sharply when she found a child staring dreamily out of the window instead of doing the work she had set them. The crushed look on a normally eager little face that resulted from her scolding was like a knife-wound to Amy’s soft heart. She was even more tired than usual by the time she got home and starting preparing dinner.
It was unfortunate the men chose that evening to come home later than Amy expected them. She had the meal ready by five, but Jack and her brothers wandered in closer to six o’clock, and then seemed to take a ridiculous amount of time to remove their boots and wash the worst of the dirt from their hands.
Amy served the dinner in silence, knowing she would be tempted to snap if she spoke to them, and anxious to appear calm and capable. She fretted over the meat, feeling it must be dried out after standing so long, but the men ate it without comment.
It was almost eight o’clock before she could shoo them out of the kitchen and start on the remaining ironing. She could hear their voices from the parlour; she knew she would not be able to join them that evening.
The pile of clothes was still depressingly high when Jack popped his head around the door on his way to bed.
‘Still up, girl?’
‘Yes, I just want to finish this off,’ Amy said, trying to sound as though there was nothing unusual in her ironing at this time of night.
‘Don’t sit up too late.’
‘I won’t, Pa,’ she said, wondering what he would consider ‘too late’.
There was so much still to do. But she couldn’t leave it till morning, or she would never catch up. She made sure her lamp had plenty of kerosene in it, and plodded on resolutely.
By midnight her eyes were aching and she could hardly keep them open. She forced herself to iron carefully around each shirt button, to press each scrap of lace to perfection, and to give the heavy cloth of the men’s work clothes the firm pressing it needed.
But she was so tired. Perhaps if she just sat down for a few moments she would be better able to go on. She carried the iron to the range to heat up again, then sat down at the table. Just for a minute or two. If she could close her eyes for a little while perhaps they would stop hurting so much. She laid her head on her arms and let her eyelids droop. Ahh, that felt good. She would get up soon and carry on. Just a moment longer.
‘Amy!’ She woke with a start as someone shook her shoulder. ‘What are you doing up at this time of night?’ It was her father. She looked about stupidly, not sure for a moment where she was.
‘I… I was just finishing this ironing,’ she said, recollecting herself. ‘I’m nearly finished.’ She got up and began walking a little unsteadily towards the range.
Her father took her by the arm and turned her to face him. ‘Do you know what time it is?’ Amy shook her head. ‘It’s three in the morning! I saw a light on, and I thought you must have left the lamp on by accident. Then I came out and found you sound asleep with two irons getting red-hot on the range.’
‘I must have nodded off. I’m sorry the light woke you—I’ll be finished soon,’ she ended lamely. Amy looked at her father’s face, and looked away from what she saw there.
‘No, you won’t,’ said Jack. He moved the irons to a cool part of the range, then took Amy’s arm again and guided her to the door. ‘You’re going to bed right now.’
‘Pa,’ she protested half-heartedly, too tired to argue.
‘Shh,’ Jack ordered. ‘We’ll talk about this in the morning.’
Amy gave up the struggle and let him half-lead, half carry her to her bedroom, where he laid her down on the bed still fully-clothed. She was asleep before he had left the room.
She woke a few hours later with a sense of impending disaster, then abruptly remembered what had happened. She got up and brushed her hair, and went out in her crumpled clothes to make breakfast.
John and Harry talked as they usually did during the meal, without seeming to notice that Amy and Jack were both almost silent. Amy found it difficult to eat, her throat was so tight. When they had finished the meal Jack sent his sons off to the bush clearing where they were working. ‘I’ll be along shortly,’ he said.
They sat in silence, Amy avoiding her father’s eyes. At last he spoke. ‘You know what I have to say, don’t you Amy?’ Amy could not speak for the lump in her throat. She managed a nod. ‘I can’t have you staying up all night trying to catch up on your work, and just about setting fire to the place into the bargain. It’s got to stop.’
‘I’m sorry, Pa,’ Amy choked out. ‘I won’t do it again—I can manage, really I can. I just shouldn’t have tried going to school on an ironing day.’
‘No, Amy,’ said Jack. ‘It’s my job to look after you—I mightn’t be able to do it as well as your ma would have, but I’ve got to do my best. And I’m not going to have you working day and night trying to do two jobs. You’ve got to give up one, and you know which it is.’
Amy looked away from him and tried to think of an argument that would change her father’s mind, but all she could say was, ‘It’s what I want, Pa.’
‘You can’t always do what you want,’ Jack said heavily. ‘You’ve got to learn that sooner or later. That’s it, Amy, there’s no more to be said about it. You’re not going to that school again.’
Amy raised eyes filled with tears, but he had already stood up and was walking out the door.
July – September 1881
‘There’s no more to be said about it.’
Her father’s words echoed in Amy’s head as she walked down the road that afternoon. She went slowly, and with a heavy tread; she had no need to rush now. There was one more thing yet to be said, and one more visit to make to the school: she had to tell Miss Evans it was over.
Miss Evans was tidying her desk before leaving for the day, and she looked up in surprise when the door opened. She smiled at Amy, then her expression changed to concern when she saw Amy’s distressed face.
‘What’s wrong, dear?’
Amy had to exert all her self-control to stop herself from rushing into Miss Evans’ arms and bursting into tears, but she was not able to keep her voice quite steady.
‘I can’t be a teacher, Miss Evans. Pa says I can’t come here any more.’ She blinked hard at the tears she could feel welling up.
‘Oh, Amy, you poor girl.’ Miss Evans put an arm around Amy’s shoulders and drew her to a chair. ‘Now, don’t get upset—can you tell me about it?’
Amy sniffed, then remembered herself and pulled out her handkerchief. ‘He says I can’t manage to do my work as well as come here, so I have to give up the school.’
Miss Evans’ face hardened. ‘I see. He can’t see past the end of his nose, of course, so he wouldn’t think about what you want. It doesn’t really surprise me—he’s no more selfish than most men, I suppose.’
Amy felt a rush of guilt at exposing her father to such criticism.
‘It’s not his fault, Miss Evans. He really does think it’s too much for me. And I haven’t been managing very well lately,’ she added, looking down at the floor as she recalled her ironing disaster.
Miss Evans looked at her searchingly, then gave a sigh. ‘And I’m afraid that’s my fault as much as anyone’s, if I’m honest. I could see you were tired out, I should have told you not to come so often. But I enjoy your company too much.’ She gave Amy a rueful smile. ‘You can call me selfish, too, if you like.’
‘No, you’re not selfish!’ Amy protested, but Miss Evans dismissed her objections with a wave of her hand.
‘Yes, I am, but never mind that. Amy, I don’t think you need to get too upset about this.’
Amy looked at her in surprise. ‘Don’t you want me to come any more?’
‘Of course I do,’ Miss Evans said, giving Amy’s arm a small shake. ‘Don’t look so wounded! That face of yours is going to give you trouble later, Amy—your feelings play over it like clouds rushing across the sky. I can read every thought as though you were a book.’
Amy looked away in embarrassment. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said in a small voice.
‘Well, don’t be,’ Miss Evans said briskly. ‘All I meant was that this needn’t be the end. You go along with your father—you don’t really have any choice, of course—until he’s calmed down. Then in a few months, maybe next year, we’ll have a little chat with him again.’
‘Do you think that’ll do any good?’ Amy asked.
‘Yes, I do. To be quite honest, I think perhaps you are a little young to cope with teaching at the same time as running a house. Next year you’ll be thirteen, and things might be easier for you at home. And your father will have forgotten whatever you’ve done that’s annoyed him—burned his dinner, have you?’ Her eyes twinkled, and Amy felt herself smiling in response.
‘It was a bit worse than that,’ she admitted.
‘Don’t tell me, then. Now you go off and sweeten your father up, and next year you’ll be back here with me.’ She sounded so confident that Amy couldn’t help believing her.
‘I will, Miss Evans, thank you!’
Amy walked home with a light step, wondering why she had not noticed the birds singing and the sun shining on her way down.
[The remainder of this chapter is largely unchanged]