Barney and the Secret of the French Spies
Barney’s Farm, Colony of New South Wales June 1798
‘Help!’ I screamed. But no one heard me: there wasn’t anyone to hear my cry echo through the trees and tussocks and along the river. No one except the o’possums and the sheep. Was I really going to die here, alone? Only nineteen, with so much still to live for? ‘Help me! Please!’ I choked again. I tried to prise away the rope that strangled me. The rope twisted tighter and
tighter around my neck, but I forced my fingers between it and my flesh. ‘Help,’ I whispered. I had no breath for more. No one answered. No one would answer. Harry-One-Eye and Stinky, my two convict shepherds, were miles away, keeping an eye on my main mob of sheep. Bill, my convict foreman, had taken the rest of the convict crew to the new block I’d been granted, clearing the trees along the creek flats so we could plough them. But I wouldn’t be doing any ploughing if I was dead. Strangled by a sheep. ‘Baaa,’ said the ram, pulling harder on the rope, trying to get away. I yanked at the strand around my neck, but it didn’t budge. And it was my own fault. I’d tethered the new ram instead of making a pen for him, then, when I’d bent down to move his tether so he could munch on a new lot of grass, he’d run a circle round and round me — and put a loop of rope around my neck, which was now getting tighter and tighter the more he tried to run away. Me, Barney Bean, strangled by a sheep! Of all the stupid ways to die … I’d faced the London slums as a boy and survived,
hiding from kidnappers who’d steal a likely child to train him as a pickpocket. I’d survived prison with Ma, when she was convicted for stealing just to keep me and her alive. Most children died in prison. I starved and caught prison fever, just like them. But unlike them, I lived. I’d crossed the world to the new colony in New South Wales, waves breaking right over the ship, rocks with wicked teeth that could wreck an armada, scurvy that rotted the teeth from your mouth and then killed you. (These days so many convicts and ships’ crews died on the voyage from England, but thanks to Captain Phillip, back on the First Fleet we’d nearly all lived.) I’d had to hide from older convicts who wanted to steal my rations before Elsie and I were rescued by Mr Johnson, the colony’s clergyman, and his wife. I’d been nearly bitten by a snake, almost eaten by a shark and in danger of being shot by a bushranger too. I’d survived all of that — and now I was going to be killed by a sheep. I’d have laughed if I hadn’t been terrified. Or if I’d had enough breath. No! No sheep was going to get the best of Barney Bean.
The first thing to do was stop that ram from trying to run away — he was running because I was struggling and trying to yell. So I sat still. The ram stared at me, still tugging. At last he seemed to calm down. He took a mouthful of grass and munched it, keeping an eye on me. Now to untangle myself without alarming him again. I moved, slowly as I could, red fog creeping in around the edges of my vision, unwinding myself from the rope rather than trying to unwind the rope from my neck, with the ram at the other end. I moved slowly around, keeping hold of the rope hard in case the ram bolted again. One more turn around … and a dip of the head … and … I was free! ‘Baa?’ said the ram. ‘Baa to you too,’ I said, moving out of range and collapsing onto the tussocks. That ram could just stay there till Bill and the others came back and built a pen for him. But he was a fine ram, I remembered as the air got back into my lungs and the shakes eased off. All my sheep were good ones. Mr Johnson and Mr Marsden, the clergyman sent out to help him, were grand judges of
sheep. Mr Johnson had bought me my first sheep, and Mr Marsden had chosen the ram for me. I headed back to my house. My house. They were two such grand words. My house! Ten years earlier I’d been a convict brat with only the rags on my back. I never dreamed I’d have a grand farm and a proper house. It was a good house too. Just a small cottage so far, as we’d also had to build huts on the range for the new shepherds last year, and a cottage for Bill now he was my official ‘overseer’, as well as a bunkhouse for my convict workmen. But the previous year’s wool sale had made me enough money to pay a stonemason to build me stone walls and a proper wide fireplace and chimney, with good wooden shutters at the windows, connected to the wattle-and- daub hut I’d started with. The cottage only had two rooms, with the original hut now the kitchen, but it was sturdy enough to keep out snakes and o’possums, as well as any convicts who might want to steal or hurt what was mine. It needed to be too, because New South Wales was a gaol without walls — you were only put in chains if you committed another crime after you were sent here. And the soldiers were mostly as bad, and as dangerous,
as the convicts. Lots of the New South Wales Corps soldiers had been given the choice between prison for crimes they’d committed in the army or going to New South Wales. So there were plenty of ruffians about. And rum too. The New South Wales Corps soldiers had made it the colony’s ready money, rum instead of coins. Even wages were often paid in rum now. Drunk men didn’t work. Men addicted to rum steal or kill to get more alcohol. But there was no rum on my farm. After seeing what grog did to the colony once we grew enough wheat and potatoes to brew alcohol, I let all my men know I wasn’t having home-made rum turning them into lazy swine or drunkards bashing each other. I’d known just what I wanted when I started my farm, even though I was the youngest farmer in the colony. I wanted to grow things, see tiny carrot seeds turn into great big sweet roots, see baby lambs wriggle their white tails in the sunlight. I wanted a home, a safe place for me and Elsie, just like we’d dreamed of nine years back, when it had just been her and me, before the Johnsons rescued us, two starving orphans. I was going to give Elsie everything she wanted too. A house with more rooms added on every year, and a
silk dress for Sundays and parties, and good pots for her kitchen, and even books, because Elsie was like me. We both liked reading books, seeing the world and ideas beyond the colony. All I had to do now was get her to marry me. Maybe I’ll ask her when she and the Johnsons come to visit the farm in a few weeks’ time, I thought. They could visit again when Mr Johnson came downriver to give the service at Parramatta. I opened my good solid wood door and poured out a mug of the sarsaparilla tea that was always warm on the stove. Proper tea was expensive for every day — though Elsie could have it if she wanted. I sat on my good solid chair — I’d made the chairs and table myself, just like Mr Johnson had shown me. Do you know what it’s like to sit in a chair that’s full of memories? The memory of the day Bill and I cut down the tree; that hot day we split the wood for timber; those days watching it dry out so the wood didn’t shrink and warp when I’d made my chair. Every inch of this house and of my farm had memories — and there were far more grand ones to be made. One day I might be rich in money, but I’d already learned that other riches matter far more than coin.
I wouldn’t have swapped my house for the King of England’s castle. I bet I was happier than he was too, especially as the newspapers from England said that King George III was mostly mad and locked up in his room. I’d just taken a swig of tea and a bite of last night’s damper and bush honey when I heard feet running up the hill. I opened the door just as the ragged figure, more whiskers than face, reached the house, panting. I didn’t know him, but I’d seen him about: one of the ticket-of-leave men who ran boats up and down the river from Parramatta to Sydney Town, carrying goods or people. ‘Got an urgent message for Mister Barney Bean!’ Whiskers panted. I frowned. What could be so urgent that a boat would come out here just to give me a message? ‘I’m Barney Bean,’ I said. ‘Message from Mr Johnson.’ Whiskers handed the scrap of paper to me. Paper was precious in the colony. This message really was urgent — too urgent to trust to the memory of a ticket-of-leave man who might be too drunk or muddled to learn it properly.
I broke the wax seal. The writing was in the colony’s brown ink, made of boiled wattle galls thickened with egg yolk, not the black ink the governor and officers used.
Dear Barney, Elsie is desperately ill. We fear typhus. Come at once. Your loving friend, Richard Johnson .
‘Wait outside!’ I ordered Whiskers. ‘I’m coming back with you.’ I grabbed my hat, shoved a change of clothes into the kangaroo-skin bag Bill had made for me last Christmas, then pulled out the brick from my secret hiding place and slipped my coins into the bag too. I left the note on the table, under the treacle tin, so Bill would know where I’d gone and why. I’d been teaching him and the convict workers to read, just like Mr and Mrs Johnson had taught
me. I was glad of those lessons yet again. Bill might have thought I’d been drowned, or speared, or snake- bit somewhere, if he hadn’t been able to read the note. I scribbled Back soon with a bit of charcoal on the note too. I prayed it would be soon. And then I prayed that it wouldn’t be soon, because it takes a long time to recover from typhus, and ‘soon’ would mean Elsie was … I couldn’t say the word, not even to God. I couldn’t think it. ‘Come on!’ I yelled to Whiskers. I ran down the hill to the boat tethered at my dock. It was small and colony made, with both oars and sail. The wind was with us, but I pulled at the oars too, till my hands would have blistered if they hadn’t been hardened from years of work. It had always been me and Elsie, ever since that day after Ma had died when I found her, starving and terrified. I’d thought she couldn’t speak back then. Now I knew she could speak, for I’d heard her say, ‘I love you, Barney,’ when I went off to sea, plus a couple of other words years back, though she’d never said another thing since. Elsie. The best cook in the colony, and the prettiest and kindest, but she could be stubborn too. She could read a book even faster than Mr Johnson …
If I kept thinking about her, maybe she wouldn’t die. I shut my eyes, just for a second. I’d thought the word now. I’d let it in. Elsie dying. Elsie, and all the bright days of our future, lost … The little boat took me right in to Sydney Cove, below the Johnsons’ house. I leaped out in the shallows, thrust a shilling at Whiskers and ran up the hill, my wet trousers clinging to my legs. I didn’t even knock on the door … ‘How’s Elsie?’ The convict maid looked up from her darning, Milbah and Henry playing at her feet. She was new since I visited last — none stayed long these days. They’d get drunk, and then there’d be bad language and worse behaviour … ‘Mr Barney? Mr Johnson said you’d come. He’s down with the governor, but Mrs Johnson is with the poor young lady in the isolation hut at the hospital.’ I nodded, still out of breath. I turned to run down to Cockle Bay, but the maid spoke again. ‘The mistress said to give you a crock of soup to take down to the hospital. It’s keeping hot by the fire.’ I waited while she poured it out and placed it far too slowly into a basket with a loaf of damper and a tiny
crock of goat’s cheese. If Elsie needed soup, she was still alive! I grabbed the basket and ran like I was the boat, with the south wind at my back. The hospital smelled of old blood and of even older thatch on its huts’ roofs. This was where Ma had died, when an oyster cut went bad. This was where I’d tended Black Caesar. Now I panted up to the small isolation hut, where infectious cases were kept. I opened the door and there was Elsie on one of the bunks, the only patient, propped up on pillows — good ones Mrs Johnson must have brought her — her face too white and her body too still in the bed, but breathing so loudly I knew she was alive. Mrs Johnson sat on the chair next to her, bathing her forehead with a cloth that smelled of gum trees and lavender. And then I realised … ‘You shouldn’t be here!’ I said urgently to Mrs Johnson. If Elsie had typhus, Mrs Johnson could catch it. Typhus came to New South Wales on nearly every convict ship that arrived back then. People stayed away from the newcomers in case they caught their diseases.
That was why the isolation hut was so far from the rest of the hospital. When Mr Johnson had rescued the crippled wretches from the Second Fleet, he’d stayed away from home till he knew he wouldn’t bring the infections home. But there was Mrs Johnson sitting with Elsie, while her two children waited for her by the fire … ‘Elsie doesn’t have typhus, Barney,’ said Mrs Johnson quietly. ‘But I don’t understand … The note said … What’s wrong with her? Will she get well?’ ‘She has a congestion of the lungs. A sudden one. We can only pray and hope, and try to feed her broth, just small spoonfuls so she doesn’t choke, and help her to sit when she coughs. The lavender and native oil will help her breathe. Surgeon White was sure the native oil has great curative powers …’ Somehow I’d found my way to Elsie, was sitting on the bed, her small hand hot in mine. ‘Why is she here then, not at home? Why did Mr Johnson say that it was typhus?’ Mr Johnson never lied. Then I remembered his exact words: Elsie is desperately ill. We fear typhus. Everybody feared typhus. Mr Johnson had never said typhus was what Elsie had.
‘There are reasons Elsie has to be kept from everyone except for my husband and myself, and you,’ said Mrs Johnson, even more softly. ‘Mr Johnson can explain them better than I can. I need to go and make sure the children are fed. Mr Johnson will be here as soon as he can. Meanwhile, feed her …’ ‘It’s all right. I know how to nurse someone.’ I’d helped nurse many sick people by then. Mrs Johnson hesitated. ‘Not just nursing,’ she said. ‘Make sure no one else comes in here. No one at all. It’s vitally important, Barney. Just me or Mr Johnson. You understand?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, although I didn’t. If Elsie didn’t have typhus, why did everyone have to be kept away from her? Mrs Johnson bent and kissed my cheek. ‘We love you and Elsie as if you were our children,’ she said quietly. ‘God bless you, Barney Bean, and Elsie too.’ And then she left.
Angus&Robertson An imprint of HarperCollins Children’sBooks , Australia
First published in Australia in 2018 by HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Limited
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Text copyright © Jackie French 2018 Illustrations copyright © Mark Wilson 2018
The rights of Jackie French and Mark Wilson to be identified as the author and illustrator of this work have been asserted by them under the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 . This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 , no part may be reproduced, copied, scanned, stored in a retrieval system, recorded, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher. HarperCollins Publishers Level 13, 201 Elizabeth Street, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia Unit D1, 63 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand A 53, Sector 57, Noida, UP, India 1 London Bridge Street, London SE1 9GF, United Kingdom 2 Bloor Street East, 20th floor, Toronto, Ontario M4W 1A8, Canada 195 Broadway, New York NY 10007, USA
National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication data:
French, Jackie, author. Barney and the secret of the French spies / Jackie French ; Mark Wilson, illustrator. 1st edition. ISBN: 978 1 4607 5130 5 (paperback)
ISBN: 978 1 4607 0595 7 (ebook) French, Jackie. Secret histories ; 4. For primary school age. Spies—New South Wales—Juvenile fiction. Spies—France—Juvenile fiction. Spy stories. New South Wales—1788–1851—Juvenile fiction. Wilson, Mark L., illustrator.
Cover design by HarperCollins Design Studio Cover illustration by Mark Wilson Cover image: Girl by Alexander Vinogradov / Trevillion Images Author photograph by Kelly Sturgiss Typeset in Berkeley Old Style Book by Kelli Lonergan Printed and bound in Australia by McPherson’s Printing Group
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