“Information has been received at the City Detective office, of a diabolical murder, committed about midnight on the 11th inst, at Devil’s River, near Mansfield.”
‘NEWS AND NOTES’, The Star (Ballarat, Vic), 22 April 1863, p. 2
Wednesday, 11th November, 1863.
The Colony of Victoria.
Elizabeth peels off the sweaty, stained gown worn the past ten days, wincing at the click of her unhealed collarbone beneath its makeshift bandage.
A wave of nausea threatens. She steadies herself with her good arm against the cold bluestone, concentrating on the dress pooling around her ankles.
The nausea passes.
Kicking aside the soiled garment, she reaches for the brown paper parcel lying on the cot. Her icy fingers refuse to unpick the knots of string, so she tears at the paper, ripping it apart to release her best black gown. The dress arrived yesterday from Beechworth, whisked away to the laundry house for pressing and now returned.
She tilts her head, biting her cracked lip in a restrained sign of pleasure. Dawn sunlight streaming from the high window coaxes a sheen from the voluminous skirts. Laid on the threadbare blanket, the coarse fabric appears to her as luxurious as any silk.
She pats the thick blonde braid at the nape of her neck. With her hair pulled back, the gown will look becoming against her indoor-pale skin.
Hugging the bodice to her chest, Elizabeth longs for her prized petticoat. In a flush of contrition, Bob had allowed her to buy the fine scarlet wool on a rare trip to Mansfield. She had spent hours stitching it, but never worn it; the Shanty offering no occasion special enough for its embroidered glories.
She raises her arms to pull the dress over her unwashed chemise, wincing again at the sickening click of bone. Sweat prickles her back. She sinks to the cot, smoothing her skirts to distract from the pain, frowning at her ragged, bitten nails.
She starts at the knock on the heavy door, unbidden hope beating a tattoo in her chest.
Has it come? As Mr Milner-Stephen promised? As they did for Mrs Hays?
She waits; whoever it is will enter without any permission from her. Her permission is of no interest to anyone.
Hope turns sour as the Reverend Studdert approaches, touching his hat to her in his normal way. The gesture has always caused Elizabeth a mild pang, unused as she is to such pretty manners. Today, dressed in her clean, black gown, she mutely accepts it as her due.
The Reverend pulls up a stool by the side of the cot.
‘My daughter,’ he intones, ‘it is nearly time.’
Elizabeth examines her clenched hands, and says nothing.
The Reverend ahems, and opens his Bible.
The simple act summons for Elizabeth a memory of long ago Sunday services back home in Twickenham. There she is, eight-year-old Betsy, clutching Louisa’s pudgy hand while her much loved older sister Annie holds on to poor little Sarah; all of them proudly wearing their hand-me-down floral muslins and tossing their beribboned hair. Annie teases, ‘Mind the cracks,’ as they trail Mother and Papa along the old path and into the Church’s eternally cold porch.
The memory stabs at her and she cries a soft gasp. The Reverend falters, peers at her.
Elizabeth casts her eyes to the open Bible. She sees he will read from the Psalms.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Will he offer me that comfort?
It’s a bitter thought. No: he reads gravely, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness …’
Mercy. Yes, Mr Milner-Stephen promised mercy.
Not God’s mercy. Governor Darling’s mercy.
‘… according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences. Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.’
Mine offences? My sin?
Showing no sign to the clergyman, she repeats the words to herself, mine offences, testing them, seeing them written in large letters on the stone wall of her cell, judging her.
Are my offences so wicked to bring me to this?
Images of her mother, her husband, her children – even the Shanty’s customers – circle round her mind like gaudy figures on a silent carousel.
I tried, always. They can never say I didn’t.
The Reverend finishes his reading and touches Elizabeth’s head in a gentle blessing. She shrinks away. He quickly removes his hand, saying to her, ‘Now child, they are here. Are you ready?’
In reply, she stands and faces the door as it swings open for her for the last time.
The hangman blocks her view of the milling bodies in the corridor. His glaucous blind eye tells her this is Jack Bamford. In a snatched moment in the washroom – the only place she sees other prisoners – an older woman had confided, ‘They say Jack Bamford with the one eye will hang ye, girl. Be grateful for God’s mercies, ’cause Jack’s reputation is for a quick, clean ’anging.’
Elizabeth had stared, not comprehending. The woman had patted Elizabeth’s shoulder and left, nodding her grimy head.
Ignoring the officials in starched collars and tall hats pushing their way into the cell, she takes the two short steps to Bamford.
She tips back her head to gaze steadily up at him. His sly smile broadens when she pushes back her elbows so they can be pinioned. The movement hurts, although not enough to stop her fussing with her full sleeves behind her back, trying to ensure the rope doesn’t interfere with their graceful folds.
Mother would insist.
Head high, she steps from the shadowy cell, hearing the officials and the hangman following her into the even darker corridor. She stops there, ahead of a group of whispering journalists gripping their writing boxes, those at the back stretching up or peering around their colleagues to catch a better glimpse of the pretty murderess.
Elizabeth ignores them. She lifts her face skywards to the symmetrical galleries surrounding each tier of cells, reached by the dark green wrought iron staircase. The top floor glories in early morning sunshine so that she fancies the arched skylight is a porthole to the heavens; although the rays don’t penetrate to the cold flagstones where she stands, waiting to be led down the dim passage.
A female warder grasps her elbow, shepherding her through the pack of journalists and officials. It’s hardly any distance before they come to the arch framing the exit from the corridor. Elizabeth jerks against the warder’s grip, unwilling to forsake the comforting obscurity of the shadows for the chill reality waiting in the sunlit yard.
Her tremulous fingers find the soft cotton of the handkerchief she has tucked into her sleeve, stroking this reminder of Louisa’s last message.
‘Louisa’s husband, as you would expect, will not allow her to visit,’ a faded and tousled Annie had explained. Her tone had led Elizabeth to understand her sister respected – not necessarily shared – their mutual brother-in-law’s lofty morals.
‘She does, however, send you this,’ Annie had pushed the white square through the bars of the cell door’s tiny window with a defiant glare at the hovering warder, ‘and tells you God will be merciful.’
If God is to be merciful, He needs to hasten.
The warder’s pinch of her pinioned arm forces Elizabeth forward, over the mud-caked slabs, out of the dark shelter of the arch, into the daylight. Her eyes sting in the blinding brightness. She squeezes them shut.
Is this to be my final journey, into the eternal darkness?
Her breath catches, matching the gasps of the invited guests waiting in the courtyard. Whispers eddy in the crisp air.
‘So young, so amiable a face.’
‘Only twenty-three I believe.’
‘Surely she couldn’t have instigated such horror?’
‘See how cool she is. Where are her tears?’
‘A sinful woman, a female monster.’
‘Perhaps she is brave.’
‘You must be brave, Betsy,’ Annie had instructed her. ‘Mother would expect it.’
Eyes tightly shut, Elizabeth considers. Can I be brave? The word means nothing to her.
Butterfly wings of fear flicker in her stomach.
They won’t do it. God – and the Governor – will be merciful.
She searches for the edge of the handkerchief, her lips moving as she breathes the propitious words.
Hesitating still, despite the warder’s tightening grip, she opens her eyes to search the yard. She finds the Sheriff first, beside Gaol Governor Wintle. Both stand with their hands behind their backs, chins held high to distance themselves from the ogling throng.
Neither even glances towards the massive gate through which her reprieve will come.
The warder nudges once more at her elbow and Elizabeth bends her head, her worn boots picking their short way across the muddy yard. Her escort of grey-serged guards hems her close, pushing back the murmuring spectators to clear a path. Her nostrils flare at the scent of sweat emanating from guards and onlookers alike.
Not far ahead, she catches sight of her convicted accomplices, trussed as she is and herded outside without so much as a goodbye.
Julian Cross, with a priest by his side, appears to be praying.
Davey too, ignores the onlookers. Elizabeth hears him protesting through his sobs, ‘Cross committed the murder. Me an’ Betsy had no hand in it.’
The escort’s snigger chills her bones.
She watches the prison warders shove both Julian and Davey in the small of their backs, making them stumble into the unseemly crush of the men of import struggling for the best views. The guards urge the gentlemen away, leading her to the sturdy wooden structure where the three nooses hang, unmoving in the damp, still air.
God is merciful.
Her gut churns as she watches Davey and Julian climb the narrow steps to the platform, the spectators falling silent as the ending begins. Navigating the steep steps after Davey, her careful poise deserts her as clinging skirts and pinioned arms send her off balance. It’s the Reverend who steadies her, reaching out his hand as he climbs to the platform behind her.
The rough timbers groan beneath all their weight as the hangman manhandles first Julian, then Davey, beneath the nooses.
The priest offers Julian a crucifix and he kisses it before returning to his silent praying.
Davey sobs softly. Elizabeth wants to offer him comfort and to whisper of hope.
She can’t. Bamford is kneeling before her, binding her legs.
It will stop my skirts billowing, if it comes to that. Then, bitterly, My executioner is more a gentleman than my husband ever was.
Bamford double-checks the nooses around Davey’s and Julian’s necks. When he comes to Elizabeth, he leans in close, his lank, greasy hair brushing her cheek. She catches a whiff of fetid breath and tries not to recoil as he angles the knot under her ear. The hemp noose rasps against her neck, making her want to reach up and scratch.
God will be merciful.
The butterfly of fear lodged in her stomach quickens its beating wings.
Dimly understanding the hangman’s face might be the last she sees, she tries to focus on Bamford as he tugs on his forelock, muttering, ‘God Bless’. He stands back to survey his work, smiles his black smile and sidles up to her once again.
She raises her eyes to the bright blue sky.
God will be merciful.
One last sight, and a white calico hood hides the world from her. She draws in a sharp breath. The cruelty of the last-minute deprivation stings her more than anything else she has suffered these last months.
Her heart races.
Within the hood’s grey blindness, she can hear the buzz of greetings and apologies from the gentlemen crushed into the small yard. She imagines the scene, desperate for anything to distract her mind: the gaol officials on the platform, hugging their self-satisfaction at holding the best vantage point; the guests removing their hats as they gaze upwards.
Is there any movement amongst the Sheriff’s men?
Where is my reprieve?
She hears only the murmuring crowd and seagulls screeching above.
Dread fills the hole where her heart once was.
It’s no time at all, and an eternity, before a hush descends on the audience, like the curtain opening at the beginning of a play, with me the tragic heroine.
The flickering wings of fear blaze into panic.
They’re going to do it.
She draws in another precious breath, stifled within the white hood.
Mine offences. My sin.
The realisation blossoms in the mist filling her head.
Not me. It’s not my sin.
Even through the calico hood, she senses the forty eyes following her awkward attempt to turn to Davey, the one man who can rescue her now. The spectators fall silent.
She lifts her voice, not attempting to stop the tearful trembling, to plead, ‘Davey, will you not then clear me?’