JULIE JANSON Benevolence: extract
This week we’re delighted to bring you an extract from Julie Janson’s new novel Benevolence.
In this vivid and very moving novel, Indigenous author Julie Janson takes us back to the early days of Sydney and reveals them to us through the eyes of a young girl, Muraging, who is taken to the Native Institution at Parramatta and given the name Mary when she is 12 years old.
The school is initially run by an English couple, Mr and Mrs Shelley, who have been missionaries in Tahiti. When Mr Shelley dies, Mrs Shelley continues with the assistance of Mr Barnes, an ex-convict who fancies himself as an explorer.
Mary is torn between her desire to run away and her father’s injunction that she learn English and waibala ways to help her people. One consolation is her friendship with Mercy, a girl the same age who has been at the school for a while and is looked up to by the younger children.
It is the time of the frontier wars, and at night the children whisper stories to each other of what they have seen: the violent clashes between their people and the white arrivals; their families killed. Beyond the school fence Mary sees Aboriginal people wandering the roads in rags, unable to return to their traditional lands.
And all the while she waits for her father, Chief Berringingy, to come for her as he promised.
In this extract Mary has been at Mrs Shelley’s school for three years, and Governor Macquarie is in charge of the colony. The Governor and his wife are keen to ‘civilise’ the natives.
Extract courtesy of Magabala Books
from Chapter Five, 1819: Elopement
Mary is three years older and her English is nearly fluent. She writes a letter to the Governor asking about her father and fears she will never see him again. The image of his face floats in front of her and she tries to keep him there all day. One day she thinks she can hear his voice arguing with Mr Barnes. The voice demands his child, Muraging, but he is told to go away. Mary runs to the door but there is no-one there. She rushes outside, convinced she will see him, but the path is empty.
The days continue and the seasons change. Cold winds blow from the mountains and Mary can hear the whistling of birds telling her to be strong. She sees other children’s families camping near the schoolhouse, but still no sign of her own.
One day, Mary watches as Mercy hands a baby boy to his mother under the fence. Mrs Shelley holds out her arms to take him back but Mary is standing with her and shakes her head as she points to the mother and says, ‘Baby wants his mummy, please Mrs.’
Can’t she see this baby needs his mother’s milk? Mrs Shelley relents and smiles. She walks away with Mary’s hand firmly in her own.
Mrs Macquarie visits the school in her horse and carriage. She shimmers in silk and a coloured hat as she pats the girls’ heads with her white gloved hand, which makes Mary feel strange and light-headed. The lady’s presence makes Mr Barnes and Mrs Shelley bow and mumble. She moves like a swan, gliding across the floor of the school room where she takes off her glove and places a hand on Mary’s.
Mary gazes at the pale pink nails and gold rings as the hand directs hers to the ink well, dipping the nib. The lady places a piece of parchment on the desk then directs the writing of Mary’s name. With a flourish and a firm grip, she pushes the nib to write curls and no blots. Mary inhales her perfume, like some strange hypnotic flower, and the lady whispers:
‘My dear child. I guess that you can smell my perfume from India, Harum bin Ali. Let me anoint you – dab some on your hand. Such a pretty thing, and so clever,’ says Lady Macquarie.
Mary allows the perfume to touch her wrists and ears and she swims in fields of flowers. She wonders if a smell can take you away into the sky and take away sadness.
Lady Macquarie reads aloud from the Sydney Gazette:
‘Every human heart must have fondly dilated with the glorious and humanising conception of beholding so many children, snatched from the wilds of barbarism, ignorance and misery … the Native Institution must then have shone forth with all the resplendency so vast and glorious as an object that is capable of emitting: The civilisation and salvation of fellow creatures, at present involved in gross darkness.’
‘Lovely, we are so very proud,’ says Mrs Shelley.
‘I will undertake to make certain that, after the arrival of the next ship, you all have some Canton cloth, Scotch cloth and lovely Pondicherry cotton to make new attire for all,’ says Mrs Macquarie.
Mary swoons with love and watches the lady sit near the new female students who are struggling with their writing. These girls have a wildness about them and they whisper about escaping in a language she cannot quite understand.
One day, two of the newer girls, Betty Fulton and Nancy, elope into the wild. The girls are seen throwing away their clothes and running naked through the bush. Before long, however, they are both returned to the school and native police constables are swiftly rounded up to marry them at St John’s church in Parramatta.
Mrs Shelley informs the children that the young couples are to be given a hut, a farm and a cow. They will live near Nurrugingy, beside Richmond Road in the bush. They are also given tea and loaves, three petticoats – that Mary has sewn – and a quarter pound of soap, two yards of print cloth and the same of calico. Mary is jealous of these girls and their new-found freedom and wonders at the justice of it.
Death has recently come to the school – the babies died in the night of pestilence. Harry, too, is sick and his feverish head lies in Mary’s lap. His hands clutch the blanket and he thrashes back and forth. Mary prays to God, but Jesus does not come to heal him. She makes a medicine of sarsaparilla vine and drips little bits into his mouth with honey. They boil up willow bark for pain and fever and rub the eucalyptus oil from steamed leaves onto the child’s chest. Other little ones are sick and Mrs Shelley paces the room with her lantern.
Mary and Mercy wash the little ones’ heads with cool water. Harry does not survive. The baby’s ghost is now amongst them. Mercy takes some sticks and they make a fire in a bowl in the babies’ room so they can cleanse the area. But as the blue smoke winds up to the roof, Mrs Shelley runs in with a bucket of water and puts it out.
Mary thinks she cannot stay in this terrible place a moment longer. The waibala force them to stay in rooms full of death and spirits. Mr Barnes takes Harry’s crib and washes it with turpentine, but the girls will not go near it. They can feel the baby’s face looking at them and the light from his crib fills the house.
It is cold and Mary escapes the dormitory – she would rather curl up by the kitchen fire and sleep with the dogs.
Time moves slowly and the long year has made Mary stronger. She keeps the memory of her father safe and will not talk about her aunts. Perhaps they are gone forever. The mob’s camp at Freeman’s Reach is a secret thing and only Mercy is allowed to know about the people who live in this fading place.
‘You’d better not eat with your fingers, you dirty guttersnipe. My da would fix you, gach maidin,’ says Cook. For many years she was a convict and her suffering has made her angry and bitter. A Presbyterian from Ireland, she waddles when she moves and is always eating more than her share. When Mary reaches for more bread, Cook hits her hand with a metal spoon.
‘You go and empty the chamber pots quick fast or feel my stick. You Sambo san Afraic,’ Cook bleats and Mary runs to do her work.
Mr Barnes sits in the kitchen when Mary runs through and grabs a piece of bread to eat. He is furious and chases her with a wooden spoon – she laughs and escapes to the yard. He calls to Mrs Shelley but she is preoccupied with the storeroom and has lists to be made.
‘That heathen black girl will be the death of me!’ he yells as he enters the storeroom.
‘Leave her; she shows unending spirit which is to be … condemned,’ says Mrs Shelley distractedly.
Mr Barnes reads out from the list Mrs Shelley is making: ‘Ten yards of cotton cloth, caps and bonnets, smocks, aprons, candles, beds and blankets.’ He surveys the yard to search for Mary for punishment.
Meanwhile, Mary runs her fingers down the shiny, smooth glass windows out in the backyard. She admires her own reflection with her hair in braids and her prickly starched smock. She has come to admire the English sewing and her own ability with making a neat French seam.
One day, Aboriginal Chief Nurrugingy comes to the school door. He stands outside with his spears, woomera and cloak. Mary recognises him as a Burruberongal Elder. She silently begs that this man has been sent by her father. All the children gather at the door.
‘Hello old man, what do you want?’ Mr Barnes says in a surprised voice.
‘Give daughter. Come,’ says the Chief.
He points at a yellow-haired child hiding behind Mary’s back, but Mrs Shelley is business-like and holds the little one’s hand with a proprietor-like firmness and says, ‘I will not attempt to dissuade you from taking back your daughter but, if you insist on taking her, there shall be consequences. In my humble opinion, she will not acquire the advantage of an education to help her to adapt to a new life.’
The man snatches up the little girl and runs out with her over his shoulder. Mary leans against the wall and watches as the pinafore and apron are thrown into the paddock as the father dashes away. She imagines herself running behind them with the sun on her face and the smell of eucalyptus. She is diving into a clear pool and floating amongst pink waterlilies with white herons standing nearby in orange and purple light.
Mary can now write compositions and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Her annual examination results will be adequate, with a second prize. They will print this in the Town Gazette.
‘Mary, come to me, my dear child,’ says Mrs Shelley. Mary is not sure what she wants but stands before her with hands behind her back.
‘Would you like to indulge me and learn to play the violin?’
But before she can answer, Mr Barnes interrupts: ‘No, Mrs Shelley, this is unconscionable. You will spoil the wretched child. We cannot afford more of our time on such wasteful occupation. They need to be singing God’s words.’ Mr Barnes knows about the proper education of natives. But Mrs Shelley does not listen to him; she places the delicate instrument in Mary’s hands and shows her how to hold it. The bow screeches on the strings. Mary is learning to play the violin. She grins glaringly at Mr Barnes.
‘Idleness will not be tolerated. I have often thought about sending out the older girls into occasional service to teach them for their future employment,’ says Mr Barnes. ‘Heaven forbid that you have to feed them forever. I see enough idle laziness in the sable brethren around the town. I have offered them as servants to that superb man, Magistrate Masters. He requires them only when he entertains as does the Governor, for heaven’s sake.’
Mary is alarmed at this news and whispers to Mrs Shelley, ‘We don’t want to be servants, Mrs. That magistrate, he’s a bad man; he whips people,’ says Mary.
Mrs Shelley nods at Mary and puts her finger to her lips to shush Mary. She eats her scone, and dips pieces into a tea cup, as she inclines her head to Barnes.
‘Well, you should have spoken to me first. But since you have made up your mind and you think that you are my admirable superior in all matters, I shall allow the older girls to go to work,’ says Mrs Shelley.
Later, Mrs Shelley sits on a milking stool by Mary’s bed. The candle glimmers with yellow light and she looks pretty. Wind blows a shutter somewhere and it clatters. Mary can hear the wind sing of the great gum forest, the rivers and tumbling stones.
‘The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want …’ Mrs Shelley sings gently like a whisper.
‘I don’t want to be a servant,’ says Mary.
‘You will be, tomorrow. But don’t be afraid, no-one will hurt you there. I will see that you and Mercy are treated in a compassionate way. Nothing to fear. I will remonstrate with any employer who does otherwise. Sleep, child.’
Mr Barnes is smoking a pipe on the verandah while humming a tune from his hymn book. The acrid smell spreads across the field. He searches the hills for gathering tribes, men in topknots with bones in their noses and men with painted shields. He searches for men with flying sharp spears and clattering boomerangs, men bringing terror and bloodied bodies. The air is buffeted by a coming storm.
From Julie Janson Benevolence Magabala Books 2020 PB 356pp $19.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.