When Woody Creek Was Born
Maximilian Monk and James Richard Hooper sailed from England on the same slow boat. Monk, a younger son of English gentry, came cabin class. Hooper, the only son of a shepherd, came steerage – or cattle class.
What Hooper lacked in the monetary department, he made up for in stature and constitution. An overly tall, rough-cut young man, he had no sense of fear and an all-encompassing desire to own the land he worked. In the colonies it was said that there was land for the taking. Hooper, and a party of seven, financed by Maximilian Monk, set off from the settlement of Melbourne to claim their share.
They followed a river that fed into a creek, then for days followed that creek’s twists and turns through a native-infested forest. Before they found an end to the tall timber, one of their party was dead, another of them dying, and the rest wishing they’d never left England’s shores – until they stumbled out to an expanse of green pasture, cleared for them by God or bushfire.
In those distant times, possession was nine-tenths of the law in Australia – and there was little enough law to be had in the few
settlements. Hooper’s party claimed those pastures, naming them Three Pines, for the trio of Murray pines they made camp beneath. Two days later, they dug a second grave beneath the central tree.
History books have been written about the colonisers’ struggle to tame Australia. Poets have written odes to sunburnt countries and sweeping plains, to sunsets the like of which few Englishmen had seen. A land of droughts and flooding rains, Australia. Suffice it to say that two land-hungry men from different backgrounds, with different priorities, ended up dividing the Three Pines property. Monk took the lion’s share and the name: he’d put up the money to find it, then to buy it. His family put up the money to build him a mansion for his English bride.
Hooper did without a house or wife for years, and when he got himself one of each, his wife was dead in under twelve months. Babes of the Hooper line, big in the head, broad in the shoulder, had a bad habit of killing their mothers in childbirth. Back in the days when a family may have produced a dozen offspring in the hope of raising two, a Hooper considered himself blessed if he got one son out, intact. When he did, that son was cherished – which may have explained why the Hoopers had grown taller, stronger, than their neighbours. They were men of perseverance, and James Hooper persevered with wives. He wed four, and for his persistence got himself two living sons and a daughter, who failed to reach her second year.
His firstborn, Richard, would have inherited the family property had he toed the line and wed when he was supposed to wed. His father, grown old, had grown impatient to see the next generation. A Hooper temper could smoulder for years but rarely flare – which was as well. Set one spark flying, and, like fire in the eucalypt forest, there was no stopping it until it burned everything in its path.
James Hooper’s temper flared in 1860, and raged for weeks. The last old man Hooper saw of his firstborn for ten years was his big black stallion clearing the post-and-rail fence that separated Hooper land from Three Pines.
By 1860, Maximilian Monk had a dozen maids to clean his house, to dress his wife, to cook and serve what they cooked. One of them, a buxom dark-eyed Welsh gypsy of a girl, disappeared the same day as Hooper’s son.
There was a nine-year age difference between James Hooper’s sons, and the younger, Walter, was as tame as the older was wild. Walter wed who he was told to wed, and in 1869 his wife gave birth to Vernon Claude. She survived the birth, but only for a month or two. The day she was buried, old man Hooper heard rumours that led him to a hut, not ten miles from his own property, where he found Monk’s dark-eyed serving wench, a two-week-old female infant slung in a shawl at her breast. He didn’t speak to the gypsy, but had a good look at the infant, Gertrude, who appeared to be as sturdy as her mother.
That was the day old James dared again to visualise a long line of grandchildren; and in the years to come, though he never offered a penny piece to his son, never spoke a word to his serving-wench daughter-in-law, he did what he could for young Gertrude.
The small settlement of Woody Creek was born around the time of Vern and Gertrude, and it grew as they grew, as old James Hooper grew old.
Determined to see his grandchildren rise above his own shepherding past, Hooper encouraged young Gertrude to wed Archibald Foote, a Melbourne physician of good family. Before he died, he found a prize for his beloved grandson: one Lorna Langdon, an Englishwoman packed off to the colonies by her brother to find the husband she’d failed to find in England. She admitted to twenty-nine, which made her a few years Vern’s senior, but she had five hundred pounds a year and her brother was the Henry Langdon of Langdon Hall.
The old man lived to see Vern wed, then went to his grave, unaware it would take Vern ten years to impregnate his narrow-hipped, sniping bitch of a wife, or that she’d die with a ten-pound infant stuck inside her.
A Willama doctor cut her open and got the babe out, got it breathing. After all his effort, the babe turned out to be female. Vern had wanted a son to name for his grandfather. He filled in the infant’s registration form with the same name he’d had cut onto her mother’s tombstone: LORNA LANGDON HOOPER.
What did a man know of infants? He left her at the hospital for a month, until he found a nursemaid, the daughter of one of Monk’s labourers. Thereafter, he forgot about little Lorna. In hindsight, he should have farmed her out – or hired an older, less attractive, less compliant nursemaid.
He ended up wedding the nursemaid, and in a hell of a hurry. When his reason for wedding her in a hurry decided to put in a hurried appearance, Vern, desperate for a healthy son, ran to saddle his horse to ride for Gertrude, the town midwife since she’d deserted her crazy quack husband.
He was mounting when his nursemaid wife called to him from the window. ‘It’s a girl, Vern.’
The infant looked small enough to have come early, sounded lusty enough not to have – and if it hadn’t, it wasn’t his.
Its mother named it Margaret, and nine years later he erected a second tombstone: RITA HOOPER. DIED BY MISADVENTURE. She’d died beneath the hooves of a stallion she shouldn’t have been trying to ride. He didn’t mourn her. She’d been eight days dead when he went to Gertrude and told her she was marrying him, that he’d been in love with her since he’d turned sixteen, which was a fact. At eighteen he would have wed her had his grandfather not been deadset against cousin marrying cousin. Now, free of the old man’s dictates, he’d have the one he wanted in his bed.
He might have done it too, if not for Amber, Gertrude’s daughter, who was too much like her crazy quack father for Vern’s liking. Always a fly in the ointment, that girl: surly, wilful, and, at the time, walking out with Norman Morrison, the stationmaster, a pompous fool of a man and son of overbearing, bulging, super-superior Cecelia Morrison.
Vern and Gertrude argued over that girl, and there was never a winner when it was Hooper against Hooper. A Hooper would cut off his nose to spite his face rather than back down.
Maybe Vern took his third wife to nark Gertrude. Maybe he did it for the money. Widowed, childless Joanne Nicholas owned a sawmill, a large and classy house in the middle of town, and was reputed to have inherited a fortune from her husband.
Vern told Joanne that she was needed out at the farm; that his girls were coming home from their school and needed a mother. She told him she wasn’t moving, and that his girls would be welcome to stay in town with her. She paid a city housekeeper to keep her house looking classy, paid a gardener to keep her half-acre looking like a city park. He liked her house. Her sawmill was making money, but with good management could make more.
A busy man, he’d bedded Joanne six or eight times when she told him she was pregnant. Menopausal, he thought. She turned out to be the former, but seven months later proved too old for pregnancy, was crippled by it. Vern brought Gertrude into town to have a look at her. She told Joanne to get herself down to the city doctors before the infant killed her.
In April of 1919, a team of surgeons cut Vern’s oversized lump of a son out of his mother, cut him out six weeks early. The operation turned Joanne into a semi-invalid, but she survived it, as did the boy. They named him James Richard. Jimmy, his mother called him.
Joanne lived for six more years. Vern loved her for giving him his son, but it wasn’t easy. She had a lot of bad traits. She read books by the dozen, ordered them from the city in crates. He blamed her for turning Lorna into what she became. Daughters got too many outlandish ideas out of books.
As did sons. During the six years young Jim clung to his mother’s skirts, she turned him into a mummy’s boy, a sooky little bugger of a kid who spent his life with his nose stuck between the pages of a fairy book. Vern couldn’t do a thing with him. Little Jimmy didn’t like the smell of sheep and refused to look at a horse. If Vern forced him into a saddle he’d pass out. If he took him within sniffing distance of the mill, Jim sneezed for a week.
Lorna was the rider. She should have been the male. She knew how to bowl a cricket ball, but let her bowl one at Jim and he’d dodge it. Kick him a football and he’d stand there and let it fall on his head. If he hadn’t refused to go to the city school, the masters might have turned him into a parson. Vern had given up on him and started planning his grandsons.
He’d almost got Jim wed to Sissy Morrison, Gertrude’s granddaughter – young enough, hips wide enough to birth a Hooper a year for twenty years. And that damn fool of a boy had gone and got himself involved with Jenny Morrison, pretty as a picture, voice on her like an angel, and a hot-pants little half-dago slut of a girl who at seventeen was already mother to two illegitimate brats.
She gave Vern his only grandchild, a son she named James Hooper Morrison, little Jimmy, and maybe the first good-looking Hooper ever born. The day Vern first set eyes on that boy, he decided to claim him, legitimise him and make him heir to the Hooper fortune, which by 1941 was well worth being heir to, all thanks to Joanne. She’d been rolling in money, her first husband’s. Her family had made a bundle out of Broken Hill mining shares.
Like his grandfather before him, Vern saw females as vital for wedding, bedding, breeding and seeing to a man’s comfort, but more pain in the arse than companion. He did his best to marry off his daughters. Margaret had a couple of chances. Lorna, who looked worse than her mother, had none. Had he raised her Catholic, he might have got rid of her into a convent. He hadn’t. He’d educated her at the Methodist Ladies College, then, not knowing what else to do with her, had over-educated her at a university.
He could thank Lorna for kidnapping his grandson. She’d helped herself to little Jimmy while his mother was laid low with the flu. At the time, Vern couldn’t work out why Lorna had bothered. She’d shown no interest in producing kids of her own. He found out why a few months before he died. Lorna wanted control of the estate, and little Jimmy was her key to the gaining of it.
An ugly woman, she measured six foot one and a half in her lisle-stockinged feet. The Hoopers’ height, their too-long dominant jaw, and her mother’s eagle-beak nose, wasn’t a good combination. She’d inherited someone’s brain. She could total a row of ten figures while Vern was still looking for a pen, and had the devious nature of a backstreet lawyer. By her forties, she was a formidable force he’d grown too weary to keep in its place.
Vern had been dying by degrees for several years when Lorna decided that it would be in her best interests to adopt the boy, and in order to do that she needed to wed. With no suitable merchandise to be located locally, she wrote to her maternal uncle, Henry Langdon of Langdon Hall, explaining to him that her father not being long for this world, she required an Englishman of good breeding with a view to matrimony, and as soon as possible.
Henry Langdon had his own agenda. He wanted an heir for Langdon Hall, preferably one with a drip or two of Langdon blood in it. He and his wife, Leticia, childless, had raised Leticia’s youngest brother as their own: one Bernard Grenville, a pint-sized, curly-haired cherub of a man with an artistic temperament. They’d educated him at the best schools, hoping he’d gather a little common sense along the way. Had Bernard displayed any sign of sense, common or otherwise, Henry may have adopted him. He hadn’t. When the letter arrived from his niece, Henry, realising he might kill two birds with one well-aimed stone, put a proposition to Leticia.
‘A serious woman could be the making of your brother,’ he said.
He’d met his niece three or four times. She’d fitted the criteria. They sat Bernard down, mentioned Lorna’s prospects, didn’t remind him of her height; mentioned a sea voyage, first class. And thus little Bernard Grenville, artist, newly tagged Grenville-Langdon, had sailed away to meet his intended.
Lorna was not at all pleased with her mail-order acquisition. However, if she must prostitute herself to that pint-sized pom in order to gain control of her nephew and her father’s estate, she’d do it – or agree to do it.
Poor little Bernard was not so sure. He took one look at his intended’s size eleven lace-up shoes, her sparrow ankles encased in wrinkled lisle stockings, and had no desire to look higher. Higher was a chin you could hang a coat on, a nose fit only for trumpeting snorts of disdain, ears like a London cab’s open doors, black beetle eyes, a tongue that dripped acid.
There was also a sister, Margaret, a plump and chatty little dormouse of a woman with a head of platinum-blonde curls. Margaret stole Lorna’s intended. Margaret and Bernard married, and before Vern Hooper died, they became the legal parents of Vern’s beloved grandson.
They also gained control of the Hooper estate, until little Jimmy Morrison Hooper Grenville-Langdon reached his thirtieth year, or wed.
Excerpted from Ripples on a Pond by Joy Dettman. Copyright © 2013 by Joy Dettman.
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