Authors: Peter Watt
‘Next,’ he bellowed and another hopeful stumbled apprehensively into his office.
Matthew pushed his way past the mass of bodies in the drill hall, fuming. Saul had dobbed him in! He picked up his swag from where he had left it and hoisted it onto his shoulder. Someone muttered, ‘Bad luck,’ as Matthew strode towards the door but he ignored the sentiment. Bad luck for Saul Rosenblum if he ever caught up with him again, he thought bitterly. There would be a settling to be made.
Outside the drill hall he found the shade of a gum tree just off the dusty street and sat down in the dry grass. He wanted to curl up and sleep off his hangover but realised that he needed to move fast if he was to have any chance of joining up. He took stock of the little money he had left and figured he still had enough for a boat fare to Sydney – with just a little left over for a couple of days food and accommodation. It was a gamble, but he was the son of two tough pioneers who had fought overwhelming odds most of their lives, and he was not going to take a step backwards.
Matthew rose to his feet, shook off the dust of Queensland, and headed in the direction of the Brisbane River wharfs where the coastal steamers could be found. He was going south to Sydney.
rthur first noticed the young man as he lingered long after Arthur had completed filming the Sunday crowds strolling in the Domain. The amateur orators were surrounded by clusters of hecklers and supporters as they stood on their soap boxes to deliver their tirades against the devil, papists, the idea of federation and any other subject that was bound to arouse passions on a balmy spring afternoon.
The magnificent view from the Domain gardens took in the harbour below so some of the people attending just simply sat on the grass and enjoyed the afternoon. The orator attracting the most hecklers was a tall, gaunt man speaking out against the colony’s involvement in a war across the sea, a war, he declared, that had nothing to do with Australian interests. His Irish accent was distinct, and the hecklers
were kept in check by a group of tough-looking men who supported the speaker’s views.
But the gaze of the tall, broad-shouldered young man with the tousled hair had remained on Arthur alone as he ground away at the cranking handle of his camera. Dressed in the clothes of a working man and his face tanned by the sun, he seemed to have no interest in the colourful characters delivering their sermons and tirades. Assisted by Ralph, Arthur began to pack the cumbersome camera. He has an intelligent look about him, Arthur mused as he returned his camera to its polished wooden case.
It was then that the young man approached and spoke. ‘I’ve read about cameras that take moving pictures. How do they work?’
Arthur was mildly taken aback by his educated accent despite his shabby working clothes of a labourer.
‘You are interested in cameras then?’
The young man smiled sheepishly, confirming his youth. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty, Arthur guessed.
‘I’ve never seen one before. Only read about them.’
‘You want to be a camera operator then?’
‘Not really. I’ve come to Sydney to sign up for the war in South Africa,’ Matthew said politely. ‘But the camera and how it works interests me.’
‘Better to learn how to use a camera than a Lee Metford rifle, young man,’ Arthur replied. ‘The people we shoot with a camera stay alive. I know what I am talking about.’
‘You don’t believe we should be fighting for the Queen?’ Matthew asked without rancour.
Arthur ceased his packing and turned to stare at him. ‘How old are you?’
‘Eighteen,’ Matthew lied, his eyes fixed on those of the older man. ‘My name is Matthew Duffy, sir,’ he said, offering his hand.
Arthur took it and felt the firm grip.
‘I am Arthur Thorncroft, formerly of the New South Wales Contingent that once sailed for the Sudan to fight the Queen’s enemies. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr Duffy. It seems you share your family name with a very dear friend of mine.’
At this Matthew involuntarily started a little, but he knew the man’s words were mere coincidence. There were many in the colonies with the surname of Duffy. ‘I thought that with your experience serving the Queen you would have been all for us fighting the Boer, Mr Thorncroft,’ he said.
‘Time – and a bit of wisdom that comes with age – makes one more questioning of crusades. But please don’t misunderstand me. I applaud the courage of the boys who sailed from here not two weeks ago. Their intentions are honourable and their courage unquestioned. It is just the wisdom of committing so many fine young men to fight a people with so much in common with ourselves that I question.’
‘I still intend to sign on. I have heard New South Wales is going to raise a publicly subscripted regiment to join the first contingent in South Africa.’
‘The Bushmen’s Rifles, I hear they will be called from my dear friend, Major Duffy.’
At the mention of his friend’s name and military
rank Matthew suddenly paid attention. His mother had spoken to him of her brother’s son’s military involvement in the colony. There could be few other Major Duffys than his own cousin. He glanced away lest the older man should see the recognition in his face.
‘You will have some rather stiff competition to join the ranks of the new unit should you muster for enlistment,’ Arthur continued. ‘Many will be called but few chosen.’
‘I’ll get in, Mr Thorncroft,’ Matthew stated with the confidence of youth. ‘No matter what happens.’
‘I’m sure you will. But until then, allow me to extend an invitation to join my assistant and myself for supper, Mr Duffy. There I will be able to show you the soon to be great industry of moving pictures.’
He could see that the boy – as he thought of him, despite the age he had proffered – now wore an expression of gratitude. He was a handsome lad of intelligence and good breeding, Arthur thought. And there was something about young Matthew Duffy, with both his forthrightness and naivety, that made him appealing.
Matthew sat in the living room of the smart, dark brick house that was both home and studio to Arthur and his assistant. Ralph said very little but in his occasional veiled glances there was a hostility that Matthew did not understand. But Arthur made him feel welcome. The roast mutton with potatoes,
pumpkin and minted peas was a change from the monotonous fare of this last week at the boarding house where he had resided. Hefting bricks all day working as a labourer on a building site had toned his boyish fat into muscle. He had already been accepted by his older workmates for the age he claimed to be and in some ways he was beginning to wonder where the years between fourteen and eighteen went. And the port he carefully sipped on was a change from the beer he had swilled like a veteran at the Ultimo Hotel with his workmates.
When Arthur offered him a cigar Matthew accepted, but watched Arthur carefully as he prepared his own. Matthew was careful to appear as if he knew what he was doing. When they were settled in with the port and cigars Ralph left them with a surly goodnight, saying he had work to do developing the day’s film.
‘Where do you call home, Mr Duffy?’ Arthur asked as he watched a ring of smoke rest on the still air of the small but comfortable room.
‘I come from Queensland. From a property up there.’
‘Your parents’ property?’
‘No. My father died a long time ago. My mother works in Brisbane as a seamstress,’ Matthew lied smoothly. ‘Lost track of her when I went out west to work.’
Arthur’s smile at this went unnoticed by Matthew. ‘No relatives in this colony?’
‘None,’ Matthew answered, taking a sip from his port then a puff on his cigar.
‘Then I can presume you are pretty well alone in Sydney.’
‘Pretty well, except for my mates where I work. But none of them are staying in the same boarding house as me.’
‘You are welcome to take up lodgings here and work with Ralph and myself if you wish.’
Arthur’s sudden offer took Matthew by surprise. He liked the cottage with its well kept gardens and unconventional residents. In fact, all of Sydney had a wonderful unconventional atmosphere compared to the country town feel of Brisbane or Townsville. From the moment he had stepped off the coastal steamer from Brisbane and onto the shores of Sydney, Matthew had fallen in love with the city on the harbour. It seemed a place that held a promise of not knowing what the morrow would bring, and already a new opportunity had presented itself. He could move away from the squalid boarding house that stunk of boiled cabbage and sweating bodies. Besides, Sydney was the original home of his mother and of many relatives he had never met but had heard much about.
‘You would not be paid much, I’m afraid, Matthew,’ Arthur said apologetically as he watched the boy think over his offer. ‘But I’m sure you would be learning a craft that could one day take you far. At the very least, the food is probably much better than you are getting at your boarding house. I would deduct your board and lodgings from your wages each month.’
‘Your offer is most kind, Mr Thorncroft. I think I
would like to learn to be what you call a camera operator. I’ve never heard of anyone else being called such a thing before.’
‘A unique title for a unique young man,’ Arthur said with a smile of satisfaction, extending his hand to seal the deal between them.
Given the new and exciting world of moving pictures, the boy might forget his foolish notion of running off to war, Arthur thought as he shook Matthew’s hand. Even now, he still remembered that terrible day when he had stood beside a young Captain Patrick Duffy in the Sudanese desert and gazed upon the rotting bodies of young Scots soldiers killed by the dervishes. The obscenity of war had become a reality that day. And now another Duffy had come into Arthur’s life. And for some reason he did not want this young man to lose either his life or soul to war. Whether it was in the name or his appearance, Matthew Duffy was very much like Patrick.
‘He is a Mr Brett Norris,’ Lady Enid Macintosh said as gently as she could. ‘Catherine has gone away with him. I believe they sailed for London two days ago.’
Patrick bowed his head and stared into the murky white tea in his cup as a butterfly fluttered to a rest on the edge of the garden table. The morning was magnificent, a zephyr of a breeze playing amongst the masses of blooming flowers amidst the lawns of the house. The spring air tempered a soft kiss to the bright sunlight and close by tiny birds twittered as
they sought out the nectar of the flowers with their curved beaks.
Enid gazed at her grandson with sadness. She too felt the weight of his crushing pain. He looked so strong and handsome in his uniform, she thought. And how could any woman not love him for his gentleness? A week earlier, Patrick had visited his old friend Colonel Hughes and asked for a commission as a special services officer with a regiment in South Africa. His request was granted and now it was only a matter of time before he sailed for the African continent.
‘It’s probably a good thing that I did not know it was Norris,’ Patrick sighed, his shoulders slumping as he sat with the cup and saucer in his lap. ‘If I had known, I think I would have killed him.’
‘He is not all to blame, Patrick,’ his grandmother cautioned. ‘It takes two people to be involved in such matters.’
Patrick rose from his chair. Placing the cup and saucer on the table, he stared across to the harbour and the numerous boats plying the placid blue waters. Busy steamers heading for all the ports of the world passed frolicking little sailing skips.
Enid noticed her grandson’s distant expression. Her efficient intelligence network had proved as reliable as always with the name of Catherine’s lover and the places and dates they had been seen together reported to her over a period of weeks. But Enid had not told Patrick of her information for fear of what he might do – a fear he had now confirmed. ‘Do you know this man Catherine is with?’ she asked.
‘I met him once in Ireland when I was on leave from the regiment,’ he replied without turning. ‘That was the same time I first met Catherine.’
Enid frowned. She had liked the young girl who had first come to her in Sydney from Ireland to seek out Patrick. The girl had good breeding, despite the fact that she was Irish by birth. For a time she had been a good wife to her grandson but now Enid was bitterly disappointed by Catherine’s betrayal.
Patrick resumed his chair at the table with its immaculate white linen tablecloth and stretched his long legs in front of him, affecting a relaxed manner which did not fool his grandmother. ‘Well, I will have enough to worry about looking after my men,’ he said casually, as if able to dismiss his past so easily. ‘They are going to need me.’
‘Make sure that you look after yourself first,’ his grandmother chided gently. ‘Your children need you too... and so do I.’
‘Me? You know nothing can happen to me. I have the luck of the Irish – along with my Anglo-Scots blood,’ he answered as he leant forward to grasp her fragile hands in his own broad fists.
She gave a wan smile in return but she did not feel so sure about his reassurances. Something terrible haunted the family, she knew. ‘You have seen war, Patrick, and you know it does not respect your optimism. Just be careful.’
As Patrick flashed her one of his now rare smiles, Enid was reminded of the young boy who stood in her library for the first time thirty years earlier. If only he could know how precious he was to her. But
he had a new focus now: the tough soldiers he loved so much.
They discussed the children. In his year-long absence they would stay at the house in the care of a governess. And Enid had convinced him that she was more than capable of managing the family estates and companies in his absence. Over the years she had formed an efficient and reliable staff of advisers around her who would continue to ensure the expansion of the Macintosh financial empires.
‘I should complete my preparations,’ Patrick said finally, leaning back in his chair. ‘I sail for Queensland in three days hence to join a unit steaming for Capetown. I promised the children I would spend as much time as I could with them before I left.’