Red Queen to White Queen, Part 19; Lady of Australia


Over the next year, on Mondays and Thursdays, I will introduce consecutive passages from my new novel, Red Queen to White Queen. The book explores how a Colombian matriarch came to exert a lifelong dominance over her family, until a newcomer threatens her reign. At the end of each chapter, you will find a recipe from the book.

Cast of Characters:
Magdalena (Magda): Already in her 80s when the book begins, Magda is the most powerful figure in her family. Flashbacks explore the life that made her who she is.
Rosalba: Magda’s daughter, who has devoted her life to the care of her mother.
Immaculata (Imma): Magda’s lifelong servant
Dante: Magda’s husband
Seňora Moreno: Family friend of long standing
Desiderio: Magda’s son xxx
Don Claudio & Don Cosimo: Italian brothers, friends of the familyx
Father Martens: Magda’s Belgian tutor

Click here for Part I

The gold fields of Australia beckoned to Dante like a siren. Like most Italian youth of his generation, he dreamed of making his fortune there.

Dante’s friend, Alonzo, had set out for that continent the year before. One by one, Alonzo’s brothers had followed. Their mother bragged of their success to Dante as he wrapped up her purchases in his father’s bakery.

Twenty-year-old Dante was the eldest of eight sons. The bakery would never be able to support them all, he reasoned. Far better for him to leave Bologna, tracing a path for his brothers to follow.

Late at night, while rocking the newest little brother, Dante pored over the English dictionary, repeating the strange words to himself. It was not long before the words formed orderly patterns in his head. Learning English was no trouble; the larger problem was coming up with the fare.

The answer came to him late one night, at the neighbourhood poker game. As usual, he had folded early: Dante had little skill and less luck. As always, he stayed on to watch, hoping to glean some tips from the top players.

A heavy-eyed man at the table flipped him a coin. “Here boy, run out and get us some bread.”

It was the price Dante paid for being allowed to linger at the table long after other players had left. Catching the coin in his hand, he made for the door. He slipped into his father’s bakery and was packing up some loaves when the idea came to him: the bread merely whet the players’ appetites. What they needed were sandwiches, stuffed with hearty slices of meat and cheese, with an olive or two for good measure.

Dante made his preparations carefully. Early the next morning, he raided his mother’s carefully hoarded supply of mortadella and provolone, intending to replace them later from his profits. Between customers, he prepared the sandwiches, rolling them in parchment paper and hiding them behind the flour barrels.

That night saw a busy trade in sandwiches. Over time, his small hoard of coins began to mount. Dante was surprised at how easy it all was.

Telling the family was harder.

The words of Dante’s father soared above the cacophony of voices.

“It is a travesty for an eldest son to leave the land of his birth,” he shouted, pounding the table with his fist.

Dante paid little attention to his father’s outburst. He knew it would blow over once his father grasped the practicality of the plan. His mother’s tears troubled him more.

“But Papà, I can do as Alonzo has done and send passage to all my brothers.”

His mother’s sobs grew noisier and she ran off, weeping.

His father was growing calmer by the moment. “Perhaps, my son, but it will take several years to earn the fare…”

He stopped short as Dante pulled the ticket out of his pocket.

The father’s normally ruddy face grew pale at the sight of it. “Where did you find the money for that? I hope you have not endangered your mortal soul by roaming the streets with those thugs …”

“No Papà, I made it honestly, selling sandwiches at the poker tables. I already supply the food for two games and there are hundreds more in this city. It can be a thriving business. Cesar can take my place there when I leave. ”

“So stay here and make it grow. Why go across the sea to a country filled with convicts?”

“There is gold in Australia, Papà. I will return as a wealthy man. And I swear to you, I will never forget the needs of my family.”

Dante’s ship sailed from Genoa. He had spent the previous night indulging in some drinks and female companionship at the dockside brothel—the first and last time he would sample the living wares of this port city. At dawn—his wits dulled by exhaustion, grief, and alcohol—Dante made his way up the gangway of the “Lady of Australia.” At the top, a crew member was trying to calm an irate passenger complaining about the rough treatment of his bags. He glanced at Dante’s ticket then waved him aboard.

The number on the ticket did not match the one scratched into the bunk. Dante stepped back into the passageway, hoping to catch one of the stewards darting to and fro. When Dante presented his ticket, the man waved it aside, quickly escorting him to an unclaimed bunk. Dante threw his bundle on top then headed outside to claim a spot at the ship’s rail. Who knew how long it would be before he returned to the land of his birth?

Dante kept his distance from the few Italian passengers on the ship: his goal was to learn English and he set about it with the same determination he brought to most things. The ship was so severely understaffed there was no opportunity to practice English with the crew. He tried to seek out some home-bound Australians but was hard pressed to find even one English-speaking passenger. He assumed they were all spending their new-found wealth in first class.

The ship’s pace was leisurely, with a detour to Barcelona to take on hundreds of Spanish passengers. Although it was Dante’s first experience with that language, he was soon able to grasp whole sentences. Both, after all, were lingue romanze.

Dante spent most of the day at the ship’s rail, hoping for an early glimpse of the Suez. As time passed, however, he grew more and more uneasy. As far as he could ascertain, the ship seemed to be sailing determinedly west.

A chance remark at the card table finally brought it all into focus:

“My girl’s waiting for me in Barranquilla: a beautiful Creole of good family. We’re to be married…”

Dante felt the wind whistling in his ears, as understanding came in a rush. Wildly, he looked around for the nearest steward, hoping for an official rejection of this new, ghastly reality.

“Where go this ship?”

The crew member gazed patiently at Dante. After 20 years of service on the sea, there wasn’t a question in existence that could catch him by surprise.

“We dock in Barranquilla, Colombia.”

“But ship name Lady of Australia!”

“Ah, what’s in a name?” the man asked.

Aware of the futility of quoting Shakespeare to an Italian, the steward spoke more deliberately. “Our home port is London,” he said, more slowly this time. “We’re outward bound from the Mediterranean, headed for the coffee fields of Colombia. Barcelona was our last port of call.”

Dante collapsed by the rail and wept.

Check back on Thursday, April 28th, for Part 20. All text is protected under copyright to Susan Young de Biagi. Images are in the public domain.


Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.

As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.

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