Matteo Borgoni walked off the ship like a man reprieved. He closed his eyes and inhaled the early morning air, detecting the usual animal dung and the grease and tar of a busy harbour, but also something fresher, more life- giving. Seagulls squawked overhead, searching for tiny fish among the seaweed rippling against the wharf piles for their breakfast. “This,” he sighed with a lighter heart than he’d had in a long time, “this is where life begins again.”
At first glance, Port Chalmers was more makeshift and primitive than he’d expected after Melbourne. Wooden buildings stood haphazardly along the main street and scattered over the hillside. The port hummed with activity, which pleased him. A busy port was good for business, but he hoped the city of Dunedin – some eight miles south-west – would be more prosperous. He heaved his bag onto his shoulder and, dodging horses, carts, trolleys and people laden with goods and baggage, he followed the steady stream moving along the wharf to where the authorities were waiting.
He’d seen the likes of many of his fellow passengers before. Poor miners and prospectors coming from the gold rushes of Victoria hoping for better luck. Most would move on again, empty-handed and defeated. A few had families, dragging them from one rough-and- ready tent town to another in the hope of striking the big one. He’d met a handful of Italians among them. Crazy people, in his opinion.
A voice from behind announced the presence of a toffee-nosed Englishman.
“This way, my dears, follow me.” He pushed his way forward as he escorted his wife and daughters to wherever they were going. “Make way, I say. Make way for the ladies. Coming through.”
Eventually, the queue moved along, and Matteo’s turn came.
“Name!” barked the official, who ticked him off the passenger list and waved him on.
At thirty-five, Matteo had seen a lot of living. He was barely twenty-one when he left his home near Lake Garda in Northern Italy – a tiny hamlet surrounded by snow-capped mountains in the Dolomites, where life was measured from one festival to another filling the square with customs and chatter. On the odd occasion, he’d returned when money allowed. When he didn’t have the funds, he wrote to his sister, Gabriella, who understood him; understood why he needed to leave the traditions and shackles of the small village behind and find a new life; why he had no freedom in their tiny three-storey brick home living the peasant lifestyle. His dreams were too ambitious to be confined.
As he walked towards the village, the sun pleasantly warm on his back, he let his dreams fly free again.
“Hey, Matteo,” a fellow Italian called in heavily accented English. “You come?”
“Si, I come.”
Over the years living in Melbourne, Matteo had learnt to speak English. Now it was his everyday language, even with other Italians. There were too many regional differences to speak his mother tongue to passing strangers.
The younger man clapped him on the back and together they made their way along the dirt road. Trees covered the hillside, and the lush, green countryside appealed to Matteo.
He’d arranged for his packing crates to be transferred directly to Dunedin, but the new paddle steamer, designed for the shallow waters of Otago Harbour, wouldn’t be leaving for a while yet – and he needed a drink.
With a beer in hand, they sat in a crowded barroom of the Royal Hotel, taking in their new surroundings.
“So, tell me, what brings you here?” asked Stefano, his accent far stronger than Matteo’s.
“A new adventure.” Matteo shrugged away thoughts of his past failures.
“Gold. You look for gold. I go look.” The young man’s eyes gleamed at the thought of making his fortune, as many others had yearned to do in the goldfields of Australia and New Zealand.
“No, I’m a businessman; a craftsman. I set up shop here.”
Matteo had soon learnt that life was a case of ‘each man for himself’ when the madness of gold took hold. He’d seen too many fools work themselves to death for a few ounces of the shiny metal hidden in veins in the rock, and had far bigger plans than living the filthy, harsh life of a miner.
“What, no gold? Then why you leave if you have business?”
“Leave where? Home, or Melbourne?” He didn’t want to talk about why he’d left Melbourne. No one here needed to know.
Stefano pulled a face. “I think I know why you left home. My papa say things not the same since Risorgimento. Si? Unification. Phht! He asks how can the north be like the south when our food and our words are different? People fight to keep what is theirs of right; they don’t want change. They don’t need one nation. They want to be Trentino men like you, or Tuscan like me. Friends, but not the same.”
“Si, infatti,” Matteo agreed, wondering how much Stefano had experienced first-hand, given his youth, and how much was his father’s opinion. Nothing was as simple as he made it out to be. “I left during the ’48 revolution – it was that, or fight, and I did not want to fight. Detesto politica. Generation after generation, many revolutions. One side say this; the other that. I don’t want to know.” But if what his cousin Alessandro had written was true, there was much infighting and disagreement still going on. “But it is better to be one people – Italian people – than be ruled by foreigners, si?” He sipped his beer and curled his lip at the bitter taste.
The men continued to chat about the strife still going on at home as the states fought to become a kingdom, or not – depending on which reports came from where – resolving nothing, and agreeing life was better away from it all.
“Which way you go to Dunedin?” asked Stefano. “By paddle steamer, why?”“I’m told there’s a new road now, over the hills.” “So I heard, but by all accounts it’s no more than
a bridle path and not suitable for wagons. And I need to transport some goods – belongings I brought from Melbourne. Do you have a horse?”
Stefano shook his head. “No. I use all my money on the ship here and on a licence and tools for mining. I walk.”
“There are many seagoing craft between here and Dunedin; perhaps you could work your way …” Matteo paused before he came to a decision. “But come with me. I could do with some company on our first night. I buy a ticket.”
“Truly? You let me travel with you?”
Matteo nodded, glad to have someone to talk to for a while until he got settled.
They ordered some food and more beer while they waited for the ship’s whistle to alert them to its departure. Within the hour, they were boarding The Golden Age.
“A good omen for me, si?” laughed Stefano on seeing the name.
“Maybe it is,” agreed Matteo as they made their way up the gangplank.
“Welcome aboard this magnificent vessel during her first week of operation in this wonderful harbour,” said the captain. “It is my pleasure to transport you to Dunedin, and I personally guarantee your safety.”
Matteo leant against the rail admiring the new paintwork and studying the intricate construction of the paddle wheels and saloon facilities.
“I hope he’s right,” he said to Stefano in a soft voice. “From what I hear, all is not well. They left one of their owners behind. He was supposed to captain it on its maiden voyage over here. And then they struck a big storm and the ship was damaged.” Matteo wondered how unusual a rough crossing was, given his own less- than-comfortable passage. “They left the cook behind, too. Locked up, they say, for stealing the engineer’s watch. Not a good start.”
“How you know all this?”
Matteo lifted his shoulder. “I ask questions.” He looked around to make sure no one could overhear him. “I heard another story. About a Signor Alexander Leys, the engineer, who disappeared overboard a few days ago. I wonder how the captain can say everyone is safe when he lose someone.”
“Incredible!” said Stefano, agog at Matteo’s words.
“Not so much. Pays to be careful, that’s all,” said Matteo in warning. “But I’ve got better things to worry about. First task, find good vino – if such a thing is possible. I cannot survive on that beer.”
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