In the 1830s, Hepzy Titchworth, a young girl with a touch of magic in he genes, is deported from her native England to Van Diemens Land for horse theft. She is hired out as a housemaid to the rather dysfunctional and clueless Benbow family, who are trying unsuccessfully to run a sheep property in the midlands. Despite her lowly position, Hepzy and her powers of enchantment have a definite impact, not only on the Benbows, but the whole of the district.0
Coming-of-age / Young adult fiction
Ann Martin (Australia)
Leicestershire, England, 1834
It was supposed to have been a moonless night. Everything had depended upon darkness.
The three of them, Robin, Hepzy and Tilda were Titchworths. They had Titchworth see-at-night eyes, just like cats, but they needed a curtain of cloud across the moon so that they would not be seen.
Mam was sleeping her weary sleep and Gran was waiting in her secret, hidden place as they wrapped themselves in their sackcloth cloaks and slid out of the cottage. Crossing the fields was swift and easy, Robin and Tilda nipping along like elf-shadows, Hepzy’s lopsided limp-along more goblin than elf, but just as fast.
The spirits of the tanglewoods knew how to be spiteful, but tonight they were welcoming. With a kindness they usually kept for their own, they accompanied the children across seeping, slippery mosses, through snatching briars and over decaying logs before singing them on their way.
Beyond the woods, another pitch black hour through field and lane brought them to the iron gates of the Frostburn Estate. Robin, who had a gifted way with locks, used charm and a thin, sharp blade to get them inside.
Just one light gleamed like a low-hanging yellow star from where they knew the house to be. It could have been a lantern still alight in Her Ladyship’s room and they would have been happier had it not been there. But it was a simple matter to skirt widely around the house, keeping close to the edge of the spinney where Lady Frostburn bred pheasants for her gentleman friends to shoot.
No lights showed at the back of the house. Indeed, only Titchworth eyes would have known that the great granite building loomed there. Noiselessly, the children entered the stable yard, creeping past the groom’s quarters and the main stables to the door at the end, where Her Ladyship kept the new white thoroughbred she was training herself - and after her own fashion.
This time, no charm or special skill, but the combined strength of all three of them, lifted the iron bar that sealed the door. The white horse whinnied to them and Hepzy answered in a soft whisper, “Hush-yer, hush-yer, we’ve come to getcher!”
Then the horse knew and patiently waited.
While Robin’s blade sawed at the rope tether, Hepzy and Tilda tore up their aprons and wrapped the rags around the horse’s hooves. The last strand of the rope snapped and Robin swiftly mounted, reaching down to swing Tilda up behind him. Then with Hepzy holding the end of the tether and murmuring words of freedom, they made their way out into the yard.
In that instant they were doubly betrayed. From out of nowhere leapt a gusty wind, flapping Hepzy’s cloak and pushing back the curtain from the face of the moon. As light spilled across the yard, the horse tossed her head and shrieked. Whether the cry was of fear or excitement they could not tell, but it was loud and it was shrill. Immediately there were answering whinnies and the stomping of hooves from the main stables and all their stealth and silence was lost.
The moon, purposely it seemed, picked out the white horse, just to show how its beams could turn her to silver. It also showed the whiplash welts that criss-crossed her flanks; Lady Frostburn’s preferred method of horse training.
Oh, ‘ide us, dark, ‘ide us! Hepzy begged. But the darkness had fled and they could only do the same.
A sudden lantern flicker filled the window of the groom’s quarters and they heard curses and blundering thumps.
“Up, our Eppy, up!” Clinging to the horse’s mane with one hand, Robin reached down and grabbed at Hepzy’s cloak. As he tried to haul her up, Tilda, too young, they now knew, to be there, did her best to cling to Hepzy and Robin at the same time. Half-trained or not, the horse seemed to know that she must make all speed to the shadows of the spinney.
Behind them a man’s voice thundered violent threats. But then came the gunshots, one…two…three….
“‘E don’t care oo ‘e floppin’ shoots, us or the ‘oss!” Hepzy’s legs were pedalling wildly and her cloak was dragged up over her head as she slid downwards out of Robin’s grasp. Then she hit the ground with such a thud that her body bounced.
For a while she lay there like a stone and the wind sobbed in her ears, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I was only playing!’
Once she was able to breathe again, she crawled to her hands and knees. She knew that nothing good could happen to her now, but as she watched the horse galloping with her sister and brother, safely beyond gunshots and towards the open gates, because she was Hepzy Titchworth, she felt a kind of joy.
Then a hand grabbed her hair and hauled her to her feet. A mouth that smelled of beer and onions and rotten teeth bawled into her face, “I gotcher! Din’t I? Din’t I?”
A blow to the side of her head sent her tumbling sideways, but again she was pulled up by her hair. A second, heavier blow, smashed her head in the opposite direction. But Hepzy didn’t know much about that. At last the darkness had returned, and it lovingly drew her down into a place where she felt nothing.
Green Pastures, Van Diemens Lands, 1836
In the buzzing heat of a January afternoon, Hector and Caroline Benbow sat on their verandah, quite unaware that their children sat underneath it.
The Benbow children had discovered weeks ago that underneath the verandah was an excellent place for them to lurk and listen. From behind the jasmine-covered screen they had learned all kinds of things that they weren’t supposed to know. Most afternoons, while Caroline sipped her tea and Hector puffed on his cigar, their private conversations tricked down between the floorboards to be caught by Rosie May, Heck and Ivy below.
Arf listened, too, but being no more than five-years old, he heard most things either half-right or completely wrong. The others had only allowed him to be there after Rosie May had threatened him that if he ever, ever gave away their hiding place, they would tie him up and gag him and leave him under the verandah all night, by himself.
“Hector, darling,” said Caroline. “I wonder if when you go to Hobarton tomorrow you might bring me back ten yards of muslin in a pale yellow and also a housemaid.”
A housemaid? The children frowned at one another as their father said exactly what they were thinking.
“But my sweetness, we have Norah. When she is in the right frame of mind, she works very well. I’m not sure that we can afford another servant.”
Rosie May couldn’t see her mother’s face, but she knew what Caroline would be doing. And she knew that Hector would be no match for a pair of deep blue eyes slowly filling with tears.
“I was thinking of a convict,” she said, with a tremble in her voice that was also guaranteed to work every time. “We would not have to pay her and it is well-known that convicts eat very little.” She paused to give her husband time to consider the wisdom of that. Then, with her usual unerring aim, she fired her winning shot. “When the new baby arrives, I’m sure I won’t be able to manage without another pair of hands.
Baby? Somehow Rosie May managed to gulp back a splutter that threatened to choke her
“Baby? I don’t want…” Arf’s opinion on the matter was cut short as Heck clamped his hand over his young brother’s mouth.
Caroline’s teacup clinked into its saucer and her skirts rustled. “Hector, did you hear something?”
The children did not so much as breathe, but they knew that their father was unlikely to rouse himself from his comfortable chair on behalf of a sound he couldn’t be sure of.
“Possums,” they heard him say. “I shall instruct Pennyfeather to shoot them.”
This seemed like a suitable time for the children to crawl out backwards through the jasmine and into the long grass. The fact that Pennyfeather the gardener was also Pennyfeather the head shepherd, in charge of five hundred merino sheep, made it possible for them to travel all the way to the kitchen door under cover of uncut grass and unpruned shrubbery.
In the kitchen Norah, the housekeeper and cook, was sitting with her head on the table and her shoulders shuddering with the force of her broken-hearted sobs. Heck hoisted Arf up onto his shoulder, so that he could reach down a stone jar of sugared plums from the top shelf. This they carried into their mother’s sewing room, where they knew they would be undisturbed. Caroline had no idea how to sew and no desire to learn.
Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1
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