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  • Published: 1 March 2022
  • ISBN: 9781760898229
  • Imprint: Bantam Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 432
  • RRP: $32.99

The Last Station

Extract

Benjamin Dalhunty twitched the curtain in the study. Outside on the veranda, the wool broker from Goldsbrough Mort & Co. awaited an audience, his filthy hands making a sorry mess of the hat he held. He was stocky. Spade-headed. The type of rugged fellow Ben’s father admired. The sort of man Ben knew he could never be, though he suspected his father still believed in the possi­bility of miraculous transformation. As if it were conceivable for Ben at some future point to become the man expected of him and suddenly find the wherewithal to manage hundreds of thousands of acres.

Beyond the white paling fence of the homestead fifteen stockmen rode past, followed by the overseer. The Goldsbrough wool broker turned to watch as one flat-topped wool wagon and then another and another trundled by, the towering bales momentarily blocking the agapanthus sky. This was fortuitous timing, for it allowed the broker to understand the enormity of the business he hoped to vie for. And yet even as Ben stared at the man’s broad back, a vision arose of sandstone buildings. There he was. Benjamin Dalhunty. Striding along a city street toward his office. Black umbrella swinging jauntily. Ink-stained fingers eagerly awaiting blank paper. His copperplate was second to none.                                                                                                                                                                                             The slide and thud of a drawer drew Ben reluctantly back into the present: the cedar-lined study with its thick Aubusson rug. His father, Alfred, remained ensconced behind the mahogany desk, squaring up different denominations of pound notes, the growing stacks perfectly aligned. Once satisfied with his counting he marked down the amount in a green ledger and packed the money into a metal box, keeping a portion of it aside. That afternoon, before he left on the paddle-steamer for Bourke, from where the Sydney-bound train was due to depart the next day, Alfred would slip out to the grove of palm trees located a half-mile from the rear of the homestead and bury the cash for safekeeping. The palms had been a passion of Ben’s late mother, who had spent time in Ceylon, and it was beneath them that Alfred stashed his hoard. This miserly attribute amused Ben. It was hard to leave behind humble beginnings forged on the outskirts of London.

Alfred Dalhunty was wary of banks, his main complaint being the expectation that money borrowed should be repaid, and invari­ably sooner than was convenient. These infernal institutions, he declared, never made anyone’s fortune, which was why he’d mastered the art of prevarication. Drip-feeding the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney and the London Chartered Bank of Australia kept them marginally content – and besides, neither bank wished to lose any Dalhunty business.

Alfred locked the box and patted the lid affectionately before pocketing the remaining notes and sitting the container on the floor. He straightened curved shoulders and swivelled his office chair, displaying the profile that drew comparisons with Napoleon, along with the sweep of hair that fell across his brow. Ben waited for the usual speech about the importance of the station running smoothly in his father’s absence. The unstated message was clear. Ben was to heed the station’s manager, Mr Todd, in all things. Mr Todd was, after all, the finest manager west of the divide.

And didn’t the man know it. Riding about with his superior air.

It was not unusual for Mr Todd to ignore Ben, as if he were merely another worker, and a barely useful one at that.

‘And keep that young wife of yours out of mischief. It’s one thing for her to have visitors, but I’m not partial to her gallivanting about the countryside and leaving my grandson alone in the care of the Aboriginal domestics. People come to us. It’s what’s expected. Rachael isn’t in the city anymore. We have a hierarchy out here for good reason.’ Alfred squinted at Ben’s necktie. ‘Purple? Dalhuntys don’t wear purple.’

Ben considered the colour rather chirpy. It lifted the drab cloth of the suits he wore and Rachael agreed it complemented his tanned skin. ‘I thought—’

‘Well, don’t think, son. It doesn’t suit you. We have a valet for that,’ decreed his father.

At last count, the homestead staff consisted of four house­maids, a cook and her assistant, the valet, two washerwomen, a boy to chop wood and Mrs Wilson, head of the household and all matters domestic, who also doubled as a lady’s maid for Ben’s wife. A man was likely to trip over one of the many people running about the place, and that was before he took a step beyond the gate, where the business of making money supplanted everything else.

To keep the cogs of pastoralism oiled, it was necessary to employ a village of eighty, comprised of stockmen, blacksmiths, farmworkers, carpenters, contractors and general labourers. There were so many people Ben was at a loss as to why his father felt it neces­sary to spend three months in Sydney every year when station life could be just as noisy as the city. At times, with numerous men riding about the place and steamboat whistles continually screech­ing when the river ran, it was all Ben could do not to retreat to his bedroom and place a pillow over his head.

Ben was reluctant to interrupt his father, who was now collat­ing papers for planned business meetings in Sydney, but quietly he reminded him that the wool broker was still outside, here to tout for their business, and the heat was punishing. Alfred clacked his dentures in irritation. He was fond of the teeth left him by his father. ‘Waterloo teeth’ he called them, a grisly reminder of their battlefield provenance, although to Ben the inclusion of hippopotamus ivory was far more reminiscent of fashionable Piccadilly than the Waterloo killing field. Alfred liked to believe that the scavenged teeth belonged to one of Wellington’s ex-Hanoverian sabre-wielding soldiers. The essence of a dead warrior was deemed an advantage when their pastoral existence was hard-won. There was a certain combative element to their lives.

Mrs Wilson entered, following a single knock on the door. She greeted her long-time employer with a curt hello and with the briefest acknowledgement to Ben, sat a silver tea tray on the desk. She straightened her five-foot-five frame, deftly avoiding the low-hanging candelabrum and poured a single cup. Once the task was completed she ensured the solid silver teapot, sugar bowl and creamer were perfectly positioned to display the D insignia etched on each piece.

Alfred proceeded to give the housekeeper final instructions. The Aboriginal women and girls working in the house were to be treated firmly but not harshly. Managing them appropriately was a civic duty if they were to assimilate into society and the use of any language other than English was not to be tolerated. The head gardener was to pay careful attention to the watering of the orchard (marmalade and homemade cordial being particular favourites of Alfred’s). And the bird netting protecting the orange koi in the pond, purchased at great cost from Victoria, was to be checked thrice daily. Mrs Wilson was dismissed and, with three neat steps backwards as if departing royalty, she eventually left the room.

Were it not for Mrs Wilson, Ben would have dispensed with the household domestics entirely during his father’s absence and spent languorous hours with his wife and baby son dozing on a blanket next to the manmade pond. Being ‘left in charge’, as Alfred termed it, meant little. His power was restricted to riding about the run and tipping his hat in greeting to Mr Todd. Not that Ben had the slightest idea what he might order the staff to do, even if they were willing to listen to him. Frankly, he preferred watching his wife embroider grub roses on Julian’s baby socks than pretend interest in the differing qualities of clean and greasy wool. But pretend he must.

The Dalhuntys’ land spread south-west, near the confluence of the Culgoa and Barwon Rivers, where the mighty Darling began, and it was a day’s ride to their closest neighbour and the fence that separated their sheep. Between here and there a man could cross river flats dense with black soil, meander through redgums and cross rusted ridges, doing his best to spot nobs of merinos among clusters of saltbush. In a good season the land was plump and fertile, the trees full leafed, the grasses greener than green and the animals bulging. In a bad one, settlers bowed their heads and tried hard not to stare. At times, the savagery of the place could make a man weep. It still astounded Ben how his father loved it so.

Outside, the wool broker was speaking to their manager. Mr Todd, bespectacled and heavily bearded, gave his usual animated response, a single scratch of the forehead. Of more interest to Ben was the stranger who had joined them. The third man was tall and spare with a peaked cap. Undoubtedly Captain Augustus Ashby. The riverboat captain had, during a chance meeting in Bourke eighteen months prior, managed to convince Alfred to assign him the highly coveted transportation of Dalhunty Station’s wool clip after the previous riverboat tasked with the contract had hit a snag in the river and sunk, resulting in a shambolic attempt to save the beer on board, and taking a crewman to his muddy end. Ashby’s unapologetic approach had been novel, brash and timely, and had impressed Alfred. That feat alone was worthy of admiration and Ben could not begrudge the justified pride that radiated from the man who was soon to float nearly two thousand bales of Dalhunty wool to South Australia.

Ashby was granted immediate entry to the study. Alfred put aside the tea just served. Stout glasses of brandy were offered all round and Ben was introduced to the Captain, who reciprocated with a firm handshake and a jovial manner. He cut a fine figure in a tailored coat, polished boots and close-clipped beard and yet still retained the aura of a can-do individual. Capable and presentable. Already the robust wool broker, still suffering ignominy outdoors in the heat, had fallen a notch in Ben’s estimation.

‘A pleasure to meet you, Benjamin. I look forward to a long asso­ciation.’ Captain Ashby didn’t stand on ceremony. He drained the brandy and sat the glass on the desk. ‘I see Goldsbrough Mort are here to offer their services.’

‘It would be churlish to decline a meeting. They are taking on more clients now the railway is opening up the west. The direct route from Bourke to Sydney is proving popular,’ replied Alfred.

Ben stayed by the window and sipped at the brandy as his father and the captain took up seats opposite each other. The captain was yet to fully gain the measure of Alfred. If that were possible. A wariness overtook his sociable charms.

‘So you’re in agreement with this trade minimisation strategy the government has in play, using railways to stop the transport of wool to South Australia?’

Alfred peered about the study as if formulating the correct tone in which to convey unwelcome news. This was one of a series of tactical traits that included sitting a guest on the veranda facing the brutal afternoon sun. Railways were foremost in Alfred’s mind. He was nothing if not progressive, as long as advancements were in his best interests. The politicians would rather build roads and railways than locks, especially if it meant the profitable wool trade was delivered to Sydney rather than down the Murray-Darling to the southern states. The fact Ashby was unwilling to grasp the significance of the railway’s importance boded ill for the man’s business, but that was not Alfred’s concern.


The Last Station Nicole Alexander

With the riverboat trade along the Darling River slowly dying, a once-prosperous pastoralist family fights to survive – and discovers there is a cost to love . . .

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