The only people who are disgustingly idle
are the children of those who
have just become rich…
—George Bernard Shaw
The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to
Socialism and Capitalism
Phryne Fisher was watching an unprecedented spectacle. She leaned back in her cushioned chair in her sea-green parlour and took a sip of one of Mr. Butler’s most impressive cocktails.
Lin Chung, Phryne’s Chinese lover, was in a rage. He was pacing. He was shouting. Phryne had never seen the sense in intervening in a really good rage. Better, she thought, to pay attention and allow the enraged one to expel it from his system. She listened.
‘It is outrageous! After handing over the family to me—she said that was what she was doing—after retiring, she still wishes to keep all the reins in her own hands! She will not let loose one iota of her power unless I force her to do so, and even then she objects to every decision I make!’
‘Indeed,’ Phryne murmured. He had been ramping for about ten minutes and surely must cool down soon. Admittedly, Lin Chung’s formidable grandmother was enough to ruffle the calmest. She had been the sole ruler of the Lin family in Victoria for more than twenty years, ever since her meek husband had died as the only way to remove himself from her benevolent but extremely firm rule. She had only agreed to step down after her judgment had proved to be faulty, and clearly she was not going quietly.
‘Since our sister Su-Niang’s marriage to their son, we are no longer at variance with the Hu family! I wish to visit, and Grandmother has forbidden me! As though I was ten years old!’
‘Yes, but that does not mean that you have to stay forbidden,’ said Phryne. ‘You are the head of the family, you know.’
‘I cannot disobey her,’ said Lin, lowering the volume a trifle. ‘That would shame her. She is terribly venerable and what she will tell the ancestors about me if I cause her to have an apoplexy doesn’t bear thinking about. We would all come down with leprosy. Or typhoid. At the very least, bad luck unto the fiftieth generation.’ Lin Chung finally managed a smile. Phryne felt encouraged to continue.
‘Oh. I see. Yes, this needs consideration. Mr. Butler? Could you concoct a couple of considering cocktails?’
‘Certainly, Miss Fisher. Miss Eliza was inquiring, Miss? About the…noise?’
‘Tell Miss Eliza,’ began Phryne, and bit her tongue. The Hon. Eliza Fisher, Phryne’s younger sister, had arrived two days before, filled the small house with a hundred trunks, and had immediately made her presence felt by loudly disapproving of the climate, the house, the staff, Phryne’s two adoptive daughters, the shops, the manners of these appalling colonials and even the sea, which was far too blue and not to be compared to Skegness. Phryne had once been close to Eliza, but it was amazing what a few years and a county education could do for a girl. Render her unbearable, for instance.
‘Tell Miss Eliza that all is well and suggest that she might find a sherry soothing. Where is she?’
‘In the smaller parlour, Miss Fisher. She is reading Vogue.’
‘Give her a sherry, Mr. B, and send Dot to talk to her. She can bear all that huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ talk better than I can.’
‘As you wish,’ said the butler, and dematerialised in that special butlerine manner which Maskelyne would have paid thousands of pounds to learn. He was back, far faster than was actually possible, with two glasses, which he bestowed upon the recipients with the air of a bishop sprinkling holy water over the devout.
Lin Chung, finding himself on his feet, sat down, abashed.
‘I’m sorry. I have been making a scene.’
‘No, really, it was fascinating. I’ve never seen you so enraged. I wonder what’s in this cocktail? It’s delicious.’
‘Cointreau, I think, maybe orange juice. How does he do that so quickly?’
‘He moves in mysterious ways,’ said Phryne. ‘I’ve an idea. Can you meet Mr. Hu by accident? Say, in the street?’
‘What do you mean? I’d have to wait outside his office all day.’
‘No, what I meant was that you should ask Su-Niang to tell Mr. Hu that if he wanted to meet you he should, as it might be, pass by the front of the Lin family mansion at eleven o’clock, where he would encounter you, entirely by accident. He would then invite you to his house for tea, and you could not properly refuse as you are no longer having a feud with the Hus. That way you preserve Grandmother’s authority and you get to talk to Mr. Hu.’
‘And if he invites me to his house, then I must invite him to my house.’ Lin Chung was delighted. ‘After which all the cousins and family will be able to mix freely and we may at last find out what happened to the Lin cousin who ran away with that Hu man.’
‘You mean that you have lost a female relative and haven’t been able to find her? That seems careless.’
‘Not at all. We haven’t tried to find her. She was cut off, of course, from the Lin family by her disgrace. The Hu man might also have been exiled. Great Grandfather Hu was in charge then; a very unbending person. You think Grandmother is strict? Compared to Old Man Hu, Grandmother is the voice of complaisance and the epitome of democracy.’
‘Formidable,’ commented Phryne, fascinated by the mechanisms of a real feud. ‘How long ago did you lose this Lin lady?’
‘1911, I believe. I was a child but I remember the fuss. Slammed doors. Lin Wan’s mother screaming. Hysterics. I was kept out of it, being a boy. But we have always wondered what happened to Lin Wan. Her mother is still alive and not well. She was one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to Mr. Hu. Plus, of course, the gold they stole from us in 1857. With compound interest it ought to be a tidy sum by now. Excellent solution, Phryne. I shall telephone Su-Niang immediately, if I may?’
‘Certainly, and get a move on. We’re taking the whole merry family to Luna Park this afternoon, you know.’
‘Including…’ Lin paused. Inflexible courtesy stopped him from saying what he thought of Phryne’s sister Eliza, but even inflexible courtesy can develop cracks under such vehement disapproval as Miss Eliza showed for Lin Chung.
‘Yes, her too. Perhaps we can push her off the Big Dipper. And Luna Park will, of course, be a garish colonial imitation which is not a patch on Sunday Bank Holiday at Brighton. Courage,’ she said. ‘We can lose her, and the girls are really looking forward to this expedition.’
‘Very well,’ replied Lin Chung, and went into the hall to telephone his sister.
‘Did you say gold?’ Phryne asked when he came back, having arranged to meet Mr. Hu entirely by coincidence at eleven the following morning.
‘What?’ Phryne’s conversation sometimes had the effect on Lin Chung of two of Mr. Butler’s cocktails before lunch. ‘Gold? Oh, yes, the Hu robbery. It was in 1857—I have the exact date somewhere—at Castlemaine. Four Lin couriers were carrying quite a lot of gold from the diggings at Forest Creek to the bank at Castlemaine when they disappeared. They were ambushed by Hu robbers. Their bodies were never found, which is of course very serious. They should have been properly buried. We have been making offerings for them at the Festival of Hungry Ghosts ever since.’
‘This feud,’ commented Phryne, ‘has antique value if it has been going on since 1857.’
‘1854,’ corrected Lin Chung. ‘The Lin and the Hu families have both been in Australia since 1851. We came out from the Sze Yup, the Four Provinces, in search of the Second Gold Mountain. That was when it started. Hu jumped a Lin claim, then Lin jumped a Hu claim, and it rather went downhill from there. Of course, the goldfields were lawless places.’
‘Eureka Stockade and so on?’ Phryne had a very low opinion of the Eureka Stockade. Any revolutionary movement which was easily crushed by twenty-five soldiers in one afternoon did not deserve the name.
‘And the pogroms against the Chinese. They massacred us at Lambing Flat in New South Wales when the gold started to run out. In fact, a perfectly promising anti-Chinese riot was stopped at Golden Point, I am told. By a lone policeman. We remember him, even if no one else does. His name was Constable Thomas Cooke. A very brave man.’
‘He must have been. How much gold are we talking about here?’
‘Four hundred ounces troy weight. That is, let’s see, at goldfield prices that was two pounds six shillings the ounce…well, about nine hundred pounds. That was real money in those days.’
‘That’s real money in these days,’ said Phryne, startled. ‘And you haven’t seen it since then?’
‘No. And because we were at feud with the Hu family, we couldn’t ask about it in order to find the bodies and bury them. Several Hus have attributed their bad luck in Castlemaine to their avenging ghosts.’
‘Yes, I can see that the couriers might have been quite cross about being robbed and murdered.’
‘In any case, I am not the one to ask. I don’t know much about that time. I must speak to Great Great Uncle Lin Gan about this before I go to Castlemaine.’
‘Great Great Uncle?’
‘Yes, he’s very venerable, very sleepy, and might not remember anything about it, but he was born on the goldfields. Now, what about this outing?’
‘Lunch,’ said Phryne. ‘Then Luna Park. Just,’ she sighed, ‘for fun.’
• • • • •
The weather was perfect for a trip through Mister Moon’s laughing mouth into Luna Park. Phryne loved carnivals, circuses and funfairs, and once she had donned her walking shoes and gathered her family about her she led them into the park with an expectation of pleasure. Ruth and Jane, her adopted daughters, were wearing their new cotton dresses: the darker Ruth in fuchsia, the paler Jane in lobelia blue, with matching ribbons on their straw hats. Phryne had persuaded Lin Chung into a casual suit of exquisite shantung. She herself wore a neat dark red suit and a small cloche hat which could not be blown off, even by the hurricane which always raged over the Scenic Railway. Dot, Phryne’s confidential maid and companion, wore a terracotta jacket and an immovable hat jammed down onto her twined plaits. She was privately swearing an oath that no one was going to get her onto that Scenic Railway again, not if it were ever so. Last time she had nearly lost her hat and her lunch had striven to follow.
The Hon. Miss Eliza Fisher wore full English Lady Mayoress Opening the Fair panoply, flowered dress to mid calf, wide straw hat and an unwise pair of high-heeled shoes. Phryne, who was not, as she freely admitted, a nice woman, smiled privately. If
Eliza’s ankles survived the day, her heels probably wouldn’t. Miss Eliza was fully four inches taller than Phryne, taking after her big, florid father rather than her thin dark mother. She was large-boned, blonde and imposing, with a high colour and bright blue eyes. Phryne could imagine her dominating a dinner party. But not Phryne’s dinner party, except over Phryne’s dead body. She could not understand what had happened to Eliza. When she had been called Beth, she had been Phryne’s little sister, to be protected and fought for. Now she was not only not little, but she was combative enough for two. Three, even. She seemed to have landed in Australia determined to loathe the place where she was born, and she had made her point with such force that even the sound of the county drawl which she now affected made Phryne’s teeth ache. Phryne, who had been looking forward to seeing Beth again, could not wait to get rid of Eliza.
She sneered as she passed under the Coney Island image: ‘How common! But I suppose you enjoy these vulgar amusements.’
Ruth and Jane bridled. Dot said quickly, ‘The carousel! Let’s go on the carousel!’
Phryne bought tickets and distributed them freely. Eliza condescended so far as to seat herself gingerly in a chariot and the girls threw themselves onto their favourite steeds. Jane loved a black horse called Barbary and Ruth doted on a white stallion called Winter. Phryne mounted the step with Lin Chung behind her and found a horse with fiery nostrils and a golden mane. The carousel began to move to ‘Moonlight in Vienna’ and all was gilt and dust and music. Phryne caught scents as they whirled around: chips frying in old fat, a gust of Turkey lolly, pure spun sugar, then machine oil, saddle soap, and finally ice cream. The calliope music was loud and simple and jolly. Damn Eliza! She was not going to be allowed to spoil Phryne’s innocent amusements.
Phryne settled down to enjoy herself. She loved carousels. She had ridden on them in Paris, she had ridden on them in Blackpool, and for her money this Luna Park carousel was the best in the world. Not a creak or a thump from the engine, not a bump from whatever it was that made it go round—gears, perhaps? Ruth turned and laughed, and Phryne laughed with her. All the fun of the fair.
When the music stopped she handed over another ticket and Luna Park whirled around her again like the aftermath of Mr. Butler’s very special cocktails. The ones for resurrecting the dead, perhaps. She was sure that Mr. Butler would have a cocktail for that. He had one for all other situations. She should ask him to concoct a special for Miss Eliza. With cyanide as a base and a little sprinkle of strychnine for that tingle on the tongue. And now the horses were slowing down again.
Phryne reluctantly left the carousel and the girls tugged at her hands, one in each direction.
‘The River Caves!’ cried Jane.
‘The Scenic Railway!’ cried Ruth.
‘Both,’ said Phryne. ‘I will go on the Scenic Railway with you, Ruth dear, and Lin, Dot and Jane will enjoy the damp delights of the River Caves. Which will you have, Eliza?’
‘They both sound disagreeable,’ drawled Eliza, patting her hat on which the entire Chelsea Flower Show waved and bloomed. ‘One is wet and the other’s windy, don’t you know.’
The ‘don’tcherknow’ settled events for Phryne. ‘Then you shall sit here, breathe the sweet St. Kilda air, and wait for us to come back,’ she announced, taking Ruth’s hand. ‘And perhaps buy yourself an ice cream. Back in a jiff,’ she said, and they ran away from Miss Eliza and her disapproval.
As they climbed the wooden steps to the Scenic Railway, Ruth remarked, ‘I never had a sister, so of course I could be wrong, but are sisters usually so different? From each other, I mean.’
Ruth was a little afraid that she might have been making a personal remark—Miss Joseph was really firm about how making personal remarks was the height of impoliteness. But Phryne smiled.
‘People change, grow apart. She wasn’t like that when we were children. But she stayed in England and did the flowers and became a baronet’s daughter and I—well, I did a lot of other things. And they were most enjoyable too. I’m intending to do some of them again. Come along, Ruth. This looks like a nice little car.’
They climbed into the car and the bar which restrained the unwise or merely drunken from doing handstands on the railway clicked down across their laps. Phryne just had time to hear Ruth say thoughtfully, ‘It won’t be like that with me and Jane, but then, she isn’t my sister at all, really,’ before they were off in a swoop like a gull’s, down the slope and round the corner at neck-breaking speed.
Speed! Phryne had never had enough of it. Faster than a car on a road, faster even than her Gypsy Moth lolloping up into the sky with that heart-lifting leap as the ground releases the plane and the law of gravity is, for a little time, repealed. Down again into an intoxicating gulf, then a whisk along the highest rail, the carriage running flat and fast. Phryne could see right out to sea, as blue as washing day, with white birds flying and boats like toys etching little trails in the watery silk. Then down, down, levitating, hair lifting, Ruth screaming with delight, Phryne joining her. Only making love with a really worthwhile lover was as exhilarating as the Scenic Railway. And Lin, the lover in question, poor man, would now be enduring the Japanese Scenes, Arizona Cowboys and Tropic Dances of the mannequins in the River Caves. Despite their popularity with courting couples, to whom any dark could be usefully employed, Phryne considered them a waste of a good penny. Besides, the water smelt faintly of bleach. She had dark enough in her own bedroom and no one to forbid her to lie down with whomsoever she wished.
Except Eliza, of course, who would be carrying home to Father overheated tales of Phryne’s intrigue with a Chinaman. And what could Father do about it? She reflected further. Forbid her the house? He was welcome to it.
On that defiant note, the Scenic Railway went down, climactically, for the third time.
Phryne and Ruth, a little dishevelled but very happy, met the rest of the party at the entrance to the River Caves. A mob of children swept them apart for a moment. They were all dressed alike, small mommets with grey serge tunics and round felt hats, led by one nun from the front and herded by another two from behind. Phryne caught up a straying midget and returned her to her insecure grasp on the rope which they were all holding.
‘Oh, thank you,’ gasped a small plump nun. ‘Hang on, Keziah, do! It’s their annual treat,’ she explained as the whole string halted while the head nun hunted for their ticket to the River Caves.
‘Are they a school class?’ asked Phryne.
‘No, they’re orphans,’ said the nun. ‘The Board has an arrangement with Luna Park. We can have five rides, and this is the last, thank God.’
‘And ice cream?’ asked Jane. She and Ruth had been as poor as these children, and badly treated as well. They had keen sensitivities when it came to poverty.
‘I’m afraid we don’t run to ice cream,’ said the nun. ‘But we’ve a pound of mixed lollies for the train home.’
‘You now have funds,’ said Phryne, reaching into her purse. ‘Ice cream and Turkey lolly. It will take days to get them unstuck, but we can’t have everything.’
‘Thank you, but…’ The nun hesitated. Her sister nun gave her shoulder a quick push.
‘Take the money, Sister Immaculata, and say thank you,’ she urged. ‘It’s only once a year for the poor little mites. God won’t mind them having a treat.’
‘Thank you,’ said Sister Immaculata, unable to resist the lure of the ten-shilling banknote. ‘God bless you. May we know which name to remember in our prayers tonight?’
‘Jane,’ said Phryne. ‘And Ruth. They were orphans themselves.’
‘Not any more,’ said Ruth, taking Phryne’s hand.
The young nun smiled.
‘God bless you, Jane and Ruth. Sister! Sister Benedict! We’re having ice cream!’ called Sister Immaculata to the leading nun. The orphans, to a girl, heard and understood.
The entire group, dragging their rope, descended on the ice-cream stall.
It was unfortunate that Miss Eliza was in the way, and that she got so smeared by grimy little hands before Phryne, fighting down an urge to laugh, could unwind the orphans and release her. The orphans, single-mindedly determined upon ice cream, a delicacy which few of them had ever tasted, were not cooperative.
Finally Eliza was extracted in no very pleasant frame of mind. She brushed at her dress, settled her hat, and scowled freely at all bystanders. She announced that she was going home.
‘One more ride,’ said Phryne. ‘We haven’t been to the Ghost Train yet. You can come along or find a seat somewhere away from the orphans and their ice cream. That was a good deed, girls.’
‘Did you give them the money for the ice cream?’ demanded Miss Eliza. ‘But, Phryne, they’re…’—she lowered her voice—‘Catholics.’
‘Really?’ asked Phryne, who was losing control of her patience. She had never had a great stock to call upon anyway. ‘How did you work it out? The ladies dressed as penguins, was it?’
‘You’re making fun of me,’ diagnosed Eliza. ‘You don’t have any standards, do you?’
‘Yes, but they’re different from yours,’ retorted Phryne. ‘Come along.’
Something of the elder sister in her voice compelled even Miss Eliza to fall in behind as Phryne handed over her tickets to the Ghost Train attendant, who wore a gorilla suit. He grunted acknowledgement, which was probably all he could do through that mask. They settled themselves in two connected carriages.
With a jerk, the little train slid into the dark.
Phryne liked the Ghost Train even though it was palpably fraudulent, being unsupplied with ghosts. In fact, any ghost who wanted a quiet place to rattle his chains in peace would have chosen an unadjacent area. Any real supernatural moaning would not have been heard over the shrieks, screams, growling noises and rattlings which emanated from behind the scenes, produced by enthusiastic Luna Park employees. Cobwebs made of cotton thread trailed pleasurably over the face. A ghost draped in a rotting shroud groped for them as the train clattered past. Phryne held on to her hat as a furry arm swiped for her head and the werewolf’s shriek of disappointed rage followed them down the dark passage.
‘All right, Lin dear?’ she asked the beautiful young man beside her.
‘I could do you a genuinely frightening Ghost Train, you know,’ he answered. He had been trained as a magician in China. ‘With mirrors and luminous paint and a few tricks, I could give you a journey into madness and nightmare.’
‘I know you could,’ said Phryne affectionately. ‘But I’ve seen real nightmares and I prefer horrors which are really, really unreal. Like that cowboy dummy. One could never imagine that he was a real corpse, could one?’
The train stopped. The dummy hung from the low ceiling. Phryne reached up and grabbed the foot, trying to turn the papier-mâché mask towards her. The boot came off in her grasp.
‘Drat, I’ve broken it,’ she commented. Then she made a small noise like a kitten’s mew. Only Lin Chung saw how she froze while examining the broken-off boot. All the colour leached out of her face, leaving her the colour of the moon.
‘What is it?’ he asked with sudden concern.
She showed him. Inside the dummy’s boot were the leathery ragged skin and the darkened bones of a real human foot.
• • • • •
In the thirteenth year of the reign of the glorious Emperor Lord of the Dragon Throne Kwong Sui of the Ching Dynasty, seventh day of the seventh month, festival of the Bridge of Birds.
The unworthy nephew Sung Ma reports that he has joined the Lin Family from the Four Provinces who are going to the Second Gold Mountain to seek gold. They have employed me because I am literate and have some knowledge of medicine and divination. I am leaving on the ship Kate Hooper in the morning.
I know that your justifiable wrath will be measureless at this rebellion, honoured Uncle, but once I failed the second literary examinations and you informed me that I could no longer stay idle in your house, I must have money, and where to find it? I must become a merchant, to do that I must have capital, and they say that in this place there is gold in the streets.
My little capital should be sufficient to maintain my mother and sisters until I return. I know that to descend from scholar to gold grubber is a disgrace. But I have failed as a scholar. Perhaps I will succeed as a ku’li. My strength is certainly bitter enough. Please convey my respectful love to my aunt and cousins. I enclose a letter for my mother which, if you would be so kind, you might allow your steward to read to her.
The disgraced younger nephew Sung Ma kowtows three times and begs forgiveness.