Part 4 out of 5
"Quite romantic," said aunt Helen, smiling; and a great thankfulness
overcame me that Mr Goodchum had been unable to discover my identity
until now. It was right enough to be unearthed as Miss Melvyn,
grand-daughter of Mrs Bossier of Caddagat, and great friend and intimate
of the swell Beechams of Five-Bob Downs station. At Goulburn I was only
the daughter of old Dick Melvyn, broken-down farmer-cockatoo, well known
by reason of his sprees about the commonest pubs in town.
Mr Goodchum told us it was his first experience of the country, and
therefore he was enjoying himself immensely. He also mentioned that he
was anxious to see some of the gullies around Caddagat, which, he had
heard, were renowned for the beauty of their ferns. Aunt Helen,
accordingly, proposed a walk in the direction of one of them, and hurried
off to attend to a little matter before starting. While waiting for her,
Harold happened to say it was my birthday, and Mr Goodchum tendered me
the orthodox wishes, remarking, It is surely pardonable at your time of
life to ask what age you have attained today?"
"Oh! oh! 'sweet seventeen, and never been kissed'; but I suppose you
cannot truthfully say that, Miss Melvyn?"
"Oh yes, I can."
"Well, you won't he able to say it much longer," he said, making a
suggestive move in my direction. I ran, and he followed, grannie
reappearing from the dining-room just in time to see me bang the garden
gate with great force on my pursuer.
"What on earth is the girl doing now?" I heard her inquire.
However, Mr Goodchum. did not execute his threat; instead we walked along
decorously in the direction of the nearest ferns, while Harold and aunt
Helen followed, the latter carrying a sunbonnet for me.
After we had climbed some distance up a gully aunt Helen called out that
she and Harold would rest while I did the honours of the fern grots to my
We went on and on, soon getting out of sight of the others.
"What do you say to my carving our names on a gum-tree, the bark is so
nice and soft?" said the bank clerk; and I seconded the proposal.
"I will make it allegorical," he remarked, setting to work.
He was very deft with his penknife, and in a few minutes had carved S. P.
M. and A. S. G., encircling the initials by a ring and two hearts
"That'll do nicely," he remarked, and turning round, "Why, you'll get a
sunstroke; do take my hat."
I demurred, he pressed the matter, and I agreed on condition he allowed
me to tie his handkerchief over his head. I was wearing his hat and tying
the ends of a big silk handkerchief beneath his chin when the cracking of
a twig caused me to look up and see Harold Beecham with an expression on
his face that startled me.
"Your aunt sent me on with your hood," he said jerkily.
"You can wear it--I've been promoted," I said flippantly, raising my
head-gear to him and bowing. He did not laugh as he usually did at my
tricks, but frowned darkly instead.
"We've been carving our names--at least, I have," remarked Goodchum.
Harold tossed my sun-bonnet on the ground, and said shortly, "Come on,
Goodchum, we must be going."
"Oh, don't go, Mr Beecham. I thought you came on purpose for my birthday
tea. Auntie has made me a tremendous cake. You must stay. We never dreamt
of you doing anything else."
"I've changed my mind," he replied, striding on at such a pace that we
had difficulty in keeping near him. As we resumed our own head-wear,
Good churn whispered, "A bulldog ant must have stung the boss. Let's ask
On reaching the house we found other company had arrived in the persons
of young Mr Goodjay from Cummabella, his sister, her governess, and a
couple of jackeroos. They were seated on the veranda, and uncle Jay-Jay,
attired in his shirt-sleeves, was appearing through the dining-room door
with half a dozen bottles of home-made ginger ale in his arms. Dumping
them down on the floor, he produced a couple of tots from his
shirt-pockets, saying, "Who votes for a draw of beer? Everyone must feel
inclined for a swig. Harry, you want some; you don't look as though the
heat was good for your temper. Hullo, Archie! Got up this far. Take a
draw out of one of these bottles. If there had been a dozen pubs on the
road, I'd have drunk every one of em dry today. I never felt such a daddy
of a thirst on me before."
"Good gracious, Julius!" exclaimed grannie, as he offered the governess a
pot full of beer, "Miss Craddock can't drink out of that pint."
"Those who don't approve of my pints, let 'em bring their own," said
that mischievous uncle Jay-Jay, who was a great hand at acting the clown
when he felt that way inclined.
I was dispatched for glasses, and after emptying the bottles uncle
proposed a game of tennis first, while the light lasted, and tea
afterwards. This proposition being carried with acclamation, we proceeded
to the tennis court. Harold came too--he had apparently altered his
intention of going home immediately.
There were strawberries to be had in the orchard, also some late
cherries, so uncle ordered me to go and get some. I procured a basket,
and willingly agreed to obey him. Mr Goodchum offered to accompany me,
but Harold stepped forward saying he would go, in such a resolute tragic
manner that Goodchum winked audaciously, saying waggishly, "Behold, the
hero descends into the burning mine!"
Ah, For One Hour of Burning Love,
'tis Worth an Age of Cold Respect!
We walked in perfect silence, Harold not offering to carry my little
basket. I did not dare lift my eyes, as something told me the face of the
big man would not be pleasant to look upon just then. I twirled the ring
he had given me round and round my finger. I occasionally put it on,
wearing the stones on the palm-side of my finger, so that it would not he
taken for other than one of two or three aunt Helen had lent me, saying I
was at liberty to use them while at Caddagat, if it gave me any pleasure.
The Caddagat orchard contained six acres, and being a narrow enclosure,
and the cherries growing at the extreme end from the house, it took us
some time to reach them. I led the way to our destination--a secluded nook
where grape-vines clambered up fig-trees, and where the top of gooseberry
bushes met the lower limbs of cherry-trees. Blue and yellow lupins stood
knee-high, and strawberries grew wild among them. We had not uttered a
sound, and I had not glanced at my companion. I stopped; he wheeled
abruptly and grasped my wrist in a manner which sent the basket whirling
from my hand. I looked up at his face, which was blazing with passion,
and dark with a darker tinge than Nature and the sun had given it, from
the shapely swelling neck, in its soft well-turned-down collar, to where
the stiff black hair, wet with perspiration, hung on the wide forehead.
"Unhand me, sir!" I said shortly, attempting to wrench myself free, but I
might as well have tried to pull away from a lion.
"Unhand me!" I repeated.
For answer he took a firmer hold, in one hand seizing my arm above the
elbow, and gripping my shoulder with the other so tightly that, through
my flimsy covering, his strong fingers bruised me so severely that in a
calmer moment I would have squirmed and cried out with pain.
"How dare you touch me!" He drew me so closely to him that, through his
thin shirt--the only garment on the upper part of his figure--I could
feel the heat of his body, and his big heart beating wildly.
At last! at last! I had waked this calm silent giant into life. After
many an ineffectual struggle I had got at a little real love or passion,
or call it by any name--something wild and warm and splendidly alive that
one could feel, the most thrilling, electric, and exquisite sensation
I thoroughly enjoyed the situation, but did not let this appear. A minute
or two passed and he did not speak.
"Mr Beecham, I'll trouble you to explain yourself. How dare you lay your
hands upon me?"
"Explain!" he breathed rather than spoke, in a tone of concentrated fury.
"I'll make _you_ explain, and I'll do what I like with you. I'll touch you
as much as I think fit. I'll throw you over the fence if _you_ don't
explain to _my_ satisfaction."
"What is there that I can explain?"
"Explain your conduct with other men. How dare you receive their
attentions and be so friendly with them!"
"How dare you speak to me like that! I reserve the right of behaving as I
please without your permission."
"I won't have a girl with my engagement ring on her finger going on as you
do. I think I have a right to complain, for I could get any amount of
splendid women in every way to wear it for me, and behave themselves
properly too," he said fiercely.
I tossed my head defiantly, saying, "Loose your hold of me, and I'll
quickly explain matters to my own satisfaction and yours, Harold
He let me go, and I stepped a pace or two away from him, drew the costly
ring from my finger, and, with indifference and contempt, tossed it to
his feet, where the juice of crushed strawberries was staining the
ground, and facing him, said mockingly:
"Now, speak to the girl who wears your engagement ring, for I'll degrade
myself by wearing it no more. If you think I think you as great a catch
as you think yourself, just because you have a little money, you are a
trifle mistaken, Mr Beecham, that is all. Ha ha ha! So you thought you
had a right to lecture me as your future slave! Just fancy! I never had
the slightest intention of marrying you. You were so disgustingly
conceited that I have been attempting to rub a little of it out of you.
Marry you! Ha ha! Because the social laws are so arranged that a woman's
only sphere is marriage, and because they endeavour to secure a man who
can give them a little more ease, you must not run away with the idea
that it is yourself they are angling for, when you are only the
bothersome appendage with which they would have to put up, for the sake
of your property. And you must not think that because some women will
marry for a home they all will. I trust I have explained to your
satisfaction, Mr Beecham. Ha ha ha!"
The jealous rage had died out of his face and was succeeded by trembling
and a pallor so ghastly, that I began to have a little faith in
descriptions of love which I had hitherto ridiculed.
"Are you in earnest?" he asked in a deadly calm voice.
"Most emphatically I am."
"Then all I can say is that I haven't much respect for you, Miss Melvyn.
I always considered that there were three classes of women--one, that
would marry a blackfellow if he had money; another, that were shameless
flirts, and who amuse themselves by flirting and disgracing the name of
woman; and a third class that were pure and true, on whom a man could
stake his life and whom he could worship. I thought you belonged to this
class, but I have been mistaken. I know you always try to appear
heartless and worthless, but I fancied it was only your youth and
mischief, and imagined you were good underneath; but I have been
mistaken," he repeated with quiet contempt.
His face had regained its natural colour, and the well-cut pleasant
mouth, clearly seen beneath the soft drooping moustache, had hardened
into a sullen line which told me he would never be first to seek
reconciliation--not even to save his life.
"Bah!" I exclaimed sarcastically. "It appears that we all labour under
delusions. Go and get a beautiful woman to wear your ring and your name.
One that will be able to say yes and no at the right time; one who will
know how to dress properly; one who wouldn't for the world do anything
that other women did not also; one who will know where to buy the best
groceries and who will readily sell herself to you for your wealth.
That's the sort of woman that suits men, and there are plenty of them;
procure one, and don't bother with me. I am too small and silly, and
have nothing to recommend me. I fear it speaks little for your sense or
taste that you ever thought of me. Ta-ta, Mr Beecham," I said over my
shoulder with a mocking smile, and walked away.
When about half-way down the orchard reflection pulled me up shortly
under an apple-tree.
I had said what I had said because, feeling bitter for the want of love,
and because full of pain myself, I rejoiced with a sort of revenge to see
the same feeling flash across another's face. But now I was cool, and,
forgetting myself, thought of Harold.
I had led him on because his perpetually calm demeanour had excited in me
a desire to test if it were possible to disturb him. I had thought him
incapable of emotion, but he had proved himself a man of strong and deep
emotion; might he not also be capable of feeling--of love? He had not been
mean or nasty in his rage, and his anger had been righteous. By accepting
his proposal of marriage, I had given him the right of expressing his
objection to any of my actions of which he disapproved. I on my part had
the liberty of trying to please him or of dissolving our engagement.
Perhaps in some cases there was actually something more than wounded
vanity when a man's alleged love was rejected or spurned. Harold had
seemed to suffer, to really experience keen disappointment. I was clearly
in the wrong, and had been unwomanly beyond a doubt, as, granting that
Harold Beecham was conceited, what right had I to constitute myself his
judge or to take into my own hands the responsibility of correcting him?
I felt ashamed of my conduct; I was sorry to have hurt any one's
feelings. Moreover, I cannot bear to be at ill-will with my fellows, and
am ever the first to give in after having quarrelled. It is easier than
sulking, and it always makes the other party so self-complacent that it
is amusing as well as convenient, and--and--and--I found I was very, very
fond of Harold Beecham.
I crept noiselessly up the orchard. He had his back to me, and had moved
to where a post of the fence was peeping out among the greenery. He had
his elbow placed thereon, and his forehead resting on his hand. His
attitude expressed dejection. Maybe he was suffering the torture of a
His right hand hung limply by his side. I do not think he heard me
My heart beat quickly, and a fear that he would snub me caused me to
pause. Then I nerved myself with the thought that it would be only fair
if he did. I had been rude to him, and he had a right to play tit-for-tat
if he felt so disposed. I expected my action to be spurned or ignored, so
very timidly slipped my fingers into his palm. I need not have been
nervous, for the strong brown hand, which had never been known to strike
a cowardly blow, completely enfolded mine in a gentle caressing clasp.
"Mr Beecham, Harold, I am so sorry I was so unwomanly, and said such
horrible things. Will you forgive me, and let us start afresh?" I
murmured. All flippancy, bitterness, and amusement had died out of me; I
was serious and in earnest. This must have expressed itself in my eyes,
for Harold, after gazing searchingly right there for a time, seemed
satisfied, and his mouth relaxed to its habitually lovable expression as
"Are you in earnest? Well, that is something more like the little woman."
"Yes, I'm in earnest. Can you forgive me?"
"There is nothing to forgive, as I'm sure you didn't mean and don't
remember the blood curdling sentiments you aired."
"But I did mean them in one sort of a way, and didn't in another. Let us
"How do you mean to start afresh?"
"I mean for us to be chums again."
"Oh, chums!" he said impatiently; I want to be something more.
"Well, I will he something more if you will try to make me," I replied.
"How? What do you mean?"
I mean you never try to make me fond of you. You have never uttered one
word of love to me."
"Why, bless me!" he ejaculated in surprise.
"It's a fact. I have only flirted to try and see if you cared, but you
didn't care a pin."
"Why, bless me, didn't you say I was not to show any affection yet
awhile? And talk about not caring--why, I have felt fit to kill you and
myself many a time the last fortnight, you have tormented me so; but I
have managed to keep myself within bounds till now. Will you wear my ring
"Oh no; and you must not say I am flirting if I cannot manage to love you
enough to marry you, but I will try my best."
"Don't you love me, Syb? I have thought of nothing else but you night and
day since I saw you first. Can it be possible that you don't care a straw
for me?" and a pained expression came upon his face.
"Oh, Harold, I'm afraid I very nearly love you, but don't hurry me too
much! You can think me sort of secretly engaged to you if you like, but I
won't take your ring. Keep it till we see how we get on." I looked for
it, and finding it a few steps away, gave it to him.
"Can you really trust me again after seeing me get in such a vile beast
of a rage? I often do that, you know," he said.
"Believe me, Hal, I liked it so much I wish you would get in a rage
again. I can't bear people who never let themselves go, or rather, who
have nothing in them to carry them away--they cramp and bore me."
"But I have a frightful temper. Satan only knows what I will do in it
yet. Would you not be frightened of me?"
"No fear," I laughed; I would defy you."
"A tomtit might as well defy me," he said with amusement.
"Well, big as you are, a tomtit having such superior facilities for
getting about could easily defy you," I replied.
"Yes, unless it was caged," he said.
"But supposing you never got it caged," I returned.
"Syb, what do you mean?"
"What could I mean?"
I don't know. There are always about four or five meanings in what you
"Oh, thanks, Mr Beecham! You must be very astute. I am always thankful
when I am able to dish one meaning out of my idle gabble."
The glorious summer day had fallen asleep on the bosom of the horizon,
and twilight had merged into dusk, as, picking up the basket, Harold and
I returned cherry- and strawberry-less to the tennis court. The players
had just ceased action, and the gentlemen were putting on their coats.
Harold procured his, and thrust his arms into it, while we were attacked
on all sides by a flood of banter.
My birthday tea was a great success, and after it was done we enjoyed
ourselves in the drawing-room. Uncle Jay-Jay handed me a large box,
saying it contained a present. Everyone looked on with interest while I
hurriedly opened it, when they were much amused to see--nothing but a doll
and materials to make it clothes! I was much disappointed, but uncle said
it would be more in my line to play with that than to worry about tramps
I took care to behave properly during the evening, and when the good-byes
were in full swing had an opportunity of a last word with Harold, he
stooping to hear me whisper:
"Now that I know you care, I will not annoy you any more by flirting."
"Don't talk like that. I was only mad for the moment. Enjoy yourself as
much as you like. I don't want you to be like a nun. I'm not quite so
selfish as that. When I look at you and see how tiny you are, and how
young, I feel it is brutal to worry you at all, and you don't detest me
altogether for getting in such an infernal rage?"
"No. That is the very thing I liked. Good night!"
"Good night," he replied, taking both my hands in his. "You are the best
little woman in the world, and I hope we will spend all your other
"It's to be hoped you've said something to make Harry a trifle sweeter
than he was this afternoon," said Goodchum. Then it was:
"Good night, Mrs Bossier! Good night, Harry! Good night, Archie! Good
night, Mr Goodchum! Good-bye, Miss Craddock! Ta-ta, Miss Melvyn! So long,
Jay-Jay! Good-bye, Mrs Bell! Goodbye, Miss Goodjay! Good night, Miss
Melvyn! Good night, Mr Goodjay! Good night, Mrs Bossier! Good-bye, Miss
Melvyn! Good night all!"
I sat long by my writing-table that night--thinking long, long thoughts,
foolish thoughts, sad ones, merry ones, old-headed thoughts, and the
sweet, sweet thoughts of youth and love. It seemed to me that men were
not so invincible and invulnerable as I had imagined them--it appeared
they had feeling and affections after all.
I laughed a joyous little laugh, saying, "Hal, we are quits," when, on
disrobing for the night, I discovered on my soft white shoulders and
arms--so susceptible to bruises--many marks, and black.
It had been a very happy day for me.
Thou Knowest Not What a Day May Bring Forth
The next time I saw Harold Beecham was on Sunday the 13th of December.
There was a hammock swinging under a couple of trees in an enclosure,
half shrubbery, partly orchard and vegetable garden, skirting the road.
In this I was gently swinging to and fro, and very much enjoying an
interesting book and some delicious gooseberries, and seeing Harold
approaching pretended to be asleep, to see if he would kiss me. But no,
he was not that style of man. After tethering his horse to the fence and
vaulting himself over it, he shook me and informed me I was as sound
asleep as a log, and had required no end of waking.
My hair tumbled down. I accused him of disarranging it, and ordered him
to repair the damage. He couldn't make out what was the matter with it,
only that "It looks a bit dotty."
"Men are queer creatures," I returned. "They have the most wonderful
brains in some ways, but in little things they are as stupid as owls. It
is no trouble to them to master geology, mineralogy, anatomy, and other
things, the very name of which gives me a headache. They can see through
politics, mature mighty water reservoir schemes, and manage five stations
at once, but they couldn't sew on a button or fix one's hair to save
I cannot imagine how the news had escaped me, for the story with which
Harold Beecham surprised and startled me on that long hot afternoon had
been common talk for some time.
He had come to Caddagat purposely to explain his affairs to me, and
stated as his reason for not having done so earlier that he had waited
until the last moment thinking he might pull himself up.
Business to me is a great mystery, into which I haven't the slightest
desire to penetrate. I have no brains in that direction,--so will not
attempt to correctly reproduce all that Harold Beecham told me on that
afternoon while leaning against a tree at my feet and looking down at me
as I reclined in the hammock.
There was great mention of bogus bonds, bad investments, liabilities and
assets and personal estates, and of a thing called an official
assignee--whatever that is--voluntary sequestration, and a jargon of such
terms that were enough to mither a Barcoo lawyer.
The gist of the matter, as I gathered it, was that Harold Beecham, looked
upon as such a "lucky beggar", and envied as a pet of fortune, had been
visited by an unprecedented run of crushing misfortunes. He had not been
as rich and sound in position as the public had imagined him to be. The
failure of a certain bank two or three years previously had given him a
great shaking. The tick plague had ruined him as regarded his Queensland
property, and the drought had made matters nearly as bad for him in New
South Wales. The burning of his wool last year, and the failure of the
agents in whose hands he had placed it, this had pushed him farther into
the mire, and now the recent "going bung" of a building society--his sole
remaining prop--had run him entirely ashore.
He had sequestrated his estate, and as soon as practicable was going
through the courts as an insolvent. The personal estate allowed him from
the debris of his wealth he intended to settle on his aunts, and he hoped
it might be sufficient to support them. Himself, he had the same
prospects as the boundary-riders on Five-Bob Downs.
I had nothing to say. Not that Harold was a much-to-be-pitied man when
one contrasted his lot with that of millions of his fellows as deserving
as he; but, on the other hand, considering he had been reared in wealth
and as the master of it since his birth, to be suddenly rendered equal
with a labourer was pretty hard lines.
"Oh, Harold, I am so sorry for you!" I managed to stammer at last.
"Don't worry about me. There's many a poor devil, crippled and ill,
though rolling in millions, who would give all his wealth to stand in my
boots today," he said, drawing his splendid figure to its full height,
while a look of stern pride settled on the strong features. Harold
Beecham was not a whimpering cur. He would never tell anyone his feelings
on the subject; but such a sudden reverse of fortune, tearing from him
even his home, must have been a great blow to him.
"Syb, I have been expecting this for some years; now that it is done
with, it is a sort of grim relief. The worst of all is that I've had to
give up all hope of winning you. That is the worst of all. If you didn't
care for me when I was thought to be in a position to give you all that
girls like, you could never look at me now that I'm a pauper. I only hope
you will get some fellow who will make you as happy as I would have tried
to had you let me."
I sat and wondered at the marvellous self-containment of the man before
me. With this crash impending, just imagine the worry he must have gone
through! But never had the least suspicion that he was troubled found
betrayal on his brow.
"Good-bye, Syb," he said; "though I'm a nobody now, if I could ever be of
use to you, don't be afraid to ask me."
I remember him wringing the limp hand I mechanically stretched out to him
and then slowly revaulting the fence. The look of him riding slowly along
with his broad shoulders drooping despondently waked me to my senses. I
had been fully engrossed with the intelligence of Harold's
misfortune--that I was of sufficient importance to concern him in any way
had not entered my head; but it suddenly dawned on me that Harold had
said that I was, and he was not in the habit of uttering idle nothings.
While fortune smiled on him I had played with his manly love, but now
that she frowned had let him go without even a word of friendship. I had
been poor myself, and knew what awaited him in the world. He would find
that they who fawned on him most would be first to turn their backs on
him now. He would be rudely disillusioned regarding the fables of love
and friendship, and would become cynical, bitter, and sceptical of there
being any disinterested good in human nature. Suffering the cold
heart-weariness of this state myself, I felt anxious at any price to save
Harold Beecham from a like fate. It would be a pity to let one so young
be embittered in that way.
There was a short cut across the paddocks to a point of the road where he
would pass; and with these thoughts flashing through my mind, hatless and
with flying hair, I ran as fast as I could, scrambling up on the fence in
a breathless state just as he had passed.
"Hal, Hal!" I called. "Come back, come back! I want you."
He turned his horse slowly.
"Well, Syb, what is it?"
"Oh, Hal, dear Hal! I was thinking too much to say anything; but you
surely don't think I'd be so mean as to care a pin whether you are rich
or poor--only for your own sake? If you really want me, I will marry you
when I am twenty-one if you are as poor as a crow."
"It is too good to be true. I thought you didn't care for me. Sybylla,
what do you mean?"
"Just what I say," I replied, and without further explanation, jumping
off the fence I ran back as fast as I had come.
When half-way home I stopped, turned, looked, and saw Harold cantering
smartly homewards, and heard him whistling a merry tune as he went.
After all, men are very weak and simple in some ways.
I laughed long and sardonically, apostrophizing myself thus:
"Sybylla Penelope Melvyn, your conceit is marvellous and unparalleled! So
you actually imagined that you were of sufficient importance to assist a
man through life--a strong, healthy young man too, standing six feet three
and a half in his socks, a level-headed business man, a man of high
connections, spotless character, and influential friends, an experienced
bushman, a man of sense, and, above all, a man--a man I The world was
made for men.
"Ha ha! You, Sybylla, thought this! You, a chit in your teens, an ugly,
poor, useless, unimportant, little handful of human flesh, and, above, or
rather below, all, a woman--only a woman! It would indeed be a depraved
and forsaken man who would need your services as a stay and support! Ha
ha! The conceit of you!"
The Beechams were vacating Five-Bob almost immediately--before Christmas.
Grannie, aunt Helen, and uncle Jay-Jay went down to say good-bye to the
ladies, who were very heartbroken about being uprooted from Five-Bob, but
they approved of their nephew settling things at once and starting on a
clean sheet. They intended taking up their residence--hiding themselves,
they termed it--in Melbourne. Harold would be detained in Sydney some time
during the settling of his affairs, after which he intended to take
anything that turned up. He had been offered the management of Five-Bob
by those in authority, but could not bring himself to accept managership
where he had been master. His great desire, now that Five-Bob was no
longer his, was to get as far away from old associations as possible.
He had seen his aunts off, superintended the muster of all stock on the
place, dismissed all the female and most of the male employees, and
surrendered the reins of government, and as Harold Augustus Beecham, boss
of Five-Bob, on Monday, the 21st of December 1896, was leaving the
district for ever. On Sunday, the 20th of December, he came to bid us
good-bye and to arrive at an understanding with me concerning what I had
said to him the Sunday before. Grannie, strange to say, never suspected
that there was likely to be anything between us. Harold was so
undemonstrative, and had always come and gone as he liked at Caddagat:
she overlooked the possibility of his being a lover, and in our
intercourse allowed us almost the freedom of sister and brother or
On this particular afternoon, after we had talked to grannie for a little
while, knowing that he wished to interview me, I suggested that he should
come up the orchard with me and get some gooseberries. Without demur from
anybody we set off, and were scarcely out of hearing before Harold asked
me had I really meant what I said.
"Certainly," I replied. "That is, if you really care for me, and think it
wise to choose me of all my sex."
Ere he put it in words I read his answer in the clear brown eyes bent
"Syb, you know what I feel and would Eke, but I think it would be mean of
me to allow you to make such a sacrifice."
I knew I was not dealing with a booby, but with a sensible clear-sighted
man, and so studied to express myself in a way which would not for an
instant give him the impression that I was promising to marry him
because--what I don't know and it doesn't matter much, but I said:
"Hal, don't you think it is a little selfish of you to want to throw me
over just because you have lost your money? You are young, healthy, have
good character and influential connections, and plenty of good practical
ability and sense, so, surely, you will know no such thing as failure if
you meet the world bravely. Go and be the man you are; and if you fail,
when I am twenty-one I will marry you, and we will help each other. I am
young and strong, and am used to hard work, so poverty will not alarm me
in the least. If you want me, I want you.
"Syb, you are such a perfect little brick that I couldn't be such a
beggarly cur as to let you do that. I knew you were as true as steel
under your funny little whims and contrariness; and could you really love
me now that I am poor?"
I replied with vigour:
"Do you think I am that sort, that cares for a person only because he has
a little money? Why! that is the very thing I am always preaching
against. If a man was a lord or a millionaire I would not have him if I
loved him not, but I would marry a poor cripple if I loved him. It wasn't
because you owned Five-Bob Downs that I liked you, but because you have a
big heart in which one would have room to get warm, and because you are
true, and because you are kind and big and--" Here I could feel my voice
getting shaky, and being afraid I would make a fool of myself by crying,
I left off.
"Syb, I will try and fix matters up a bit, and will claim you in that
time if I have a home."
"Claim me, home or not, if you are so disposed, but I will make this
condition. Do not tell anyone we are engaged, and remember you are
perfectly free. If you see a woman you like more than me, promise me on
your sacred word that you will have none of those idiotic unjust ideas of
keeping true to me. Promise."
"Yes, I will promise," he said easily, thinking then, no doubt, as many a
one before him has thought, that he would never be called upon to fulfil
"I will promise in return that I will not look at another man in a
matrimonial way until the four years are up, so you need not he jealous
and worry yourself; for, Hal, you can trust me, can you not?"
Taking my hand in his and looking at me with a world of love in his eyes,
which moved me in spite of myself, he said:
"I could trust you in every way to the end of the world."
"Thank you, Harold. What we have said is agreed upon--that is, of course,
as things appear now: if anything turns up to disturb this arrangement it
is not irrevocable in the least degree, and we can lay out more suitable
plans. Four years will not be long, and I will be more sensible at the
end of that time--that is, of course, if I ever have any sense. We will
not write or have any communication, so you will be perfectly free if you
see anyone you like better than me to go in and win. Do you agree?"
"Certainly; any little thing like that you can settle according to your
fancy. I'm set up as long as I get you one way or another, that's all I
want. It was a bit tough being cleared out from all the old ways, but if
I have you to stand by me it will be a great start. Say what you said
last Sunday. again. Syb, say you will be my wife."
I had expected him to put it in that way, and believing in doing all or
nothing, had laid out that I would put my hand in his and promise what he
asked. But now the word wife finished me up. I was very fond of
Harold--fond to such an extent that had I a fortune I would gladly have
given it all to him: I felt capable of giving him a life of servitude,
but I loved him--big, manly, lovable, wholesome Harold--from the crown of
his head to the sole of his foot he was good in my sight, but lacking in
that power over me which would make me desirous of being the mother of
As for explaining my feelings to him--ha! He would laughingly call them
one of my funny little whims. With his orthodox, practical, plain,
commonsense views of these things, he would not understand me. What was
there to understand? Only that I was queer and different from other
women. But he was waiting for me to speak. I had put my hand to the
plough and could not turn back. I could not use the word wife, but I put
my hand in his, looked at him steadily, and said--
"Harold. I meant what I said last Sunday. If you want me--if I am of any
use to you--I will marry you when I attain my majority."
He was satisfied.
He bade us good-bye early that afternoon, as he intended departing from
Five-Bob when the morrow was young, and had two or three little matters
to attend to previous to his departure.
I accompanied him a little way, he walking and leading his horse. We
parted beneath the old willow-tree.
"Good-bye, Harold. I mean all I have said."
I turned my face upwards; he stooped and kissed me once--only once--one
light, gentle, diffident kiss. He looked at me long and intently without
saying a word, then mounted his horse, raised his hat, and rode away.
I watched him depart along the white dusty road, looking like a long
snake in the glare of the summer sun, until it and he who travelled
thereon disappeared among the messmate- and hickory-trees forming the
I stood gazing at the hills in the distance on which the blue dreaming
mists of evening were gathering, until tears stole down my cheeks.
I was not given to weeping. What brought them? I hardly knew. It was not
because Harold was leaving, though I would miss him much. Was it because
I was disappointed in love? I persuaded myself that. I loved Harold as
much as I could ever love anyone, and I could not forsake him now that he
needed me. But, but, but, I did not want to marry, and I wished that
Harold had asked anything of me but that, because--because, I don't know
what, and presently felt ashamed for being such a selfish coward that I
grudged to make a little sacrifice of my own inclinations to help a
brother through life.
"I used to feel sure that Harry meant to come up to the scratch, but I
suppose he's had plenty to keep him going lately without bothering his
head about a youngster in short frocks and a pigtail," remarked uncle
Jay-Jay that night.
"Well, Sybylla, poor Harry has gone: we will all--even you included--miss
him very much, I am sure. I used to think that he cared for you. It may
be that he has not spoken to us on account of his financial failure, and
it may be that I made a mistake," said aunt Helen when she was bidding me
I held my peace.
Boast Not Thyself of Tomorrow
We felt the loss of the Beechams very, very much. It was sad to think of
Five-Bob--pleasant, hospitable Five-Bob--as shut up, with no one but a
solitary caretaker there pending the settling of the Beecham insolvency;
with flowers running to seed unheeded in the wide old garden, grass
yellowing on the lawns, fruit wasting in wain-loads in the great orchard,
kennels, stables, fowl-houses, and cow-yards empty and deserted. But more
than all, we missed the quiet, sunburnt, gentlemanly, young giant whose
pleasant countenance and strapping figure were always welcome at
Fortunately, Christmas preparations gave us no rest for the soles of our
feet, and thus we had little time to moon about such things: in addition,
uncle Jay-Jay was preparing for a trip, and fussed so that the whole
place was kept in a state of ferment.
We had fun, feasting, and company to no end on Christmas Day. There were
bank clerks and young fellows out of offices from Gool-Gool, jackeroos
and governesses in great force from neighbouring holdings, and we had a
On Boxing Day uncle Jay-Jay set out on a tour to New Zealand, intending
to combine business with pleasure, as he meant to bring back some stud
stock if he could make a satisfactory bargain. Boxing Day had fallen on a
Saturday that year, and the last of our guests departed on Sunday
morning. It was the first time we had had any quietude for many weeks, so
in the afternoon I went out to swing in my hammock and meditate upon
things in general. Taking with me a bountiful supply of figs, apricots,
and mulberries, I laid myself out for a deal of enjoyment in the cool
dense shade under the leafy kurrajong- and cedar-trees.
To begin with, Harold Beecham was gone, and I missed him at every turn. I
need not worry about being engaged to be married, as four years was a
long, long time. Before that Harold might take a fancy to someone else,
and leave me free; or he might die, or I might die, or we both might die,
or fly, or cry, or sigh, or do one thing or another, and in the meantime
that was not the only thing to occupy my mind: I had much to contemplate
with joyful anticipation.
Towards the end of February a great shooting and camping party, organized
by grannie, was to take place. Aunt Helen, grannie, Frank Hawden, myself,
and a number of other ladies and gentlemen, were going to have ten days
or a fortnight in tents among the blue hills in the distance, which held
many treasures in the shape of lyrebirds, musk, ferns, and such scenery
as would make the thing perfection. After this auntie and I were to have
our three months' holiday in Sydney, where, with Everard Grey in the
capacity of showman, we were to see everything from Manly to Parramatta,
the Cyclorama to the Zoo, the theatres to the churches, the restaurants
to the jails, and from Anthony Hordern's to Paddy's Market. Who knows
what might happen then? Everard had promised to have my talents tested by
good judges. Might it not be possible for me to attain one of my
ambitions--enter the musical profession? joyful dream! Might I not be able
to yet assist Harold in another way than matrimony?
Yes, life was a pleasant thing to me now. I forgot all my wild
unattainable ambitions in the little pleasures of everyday life. Such a
thing as writing never entered my head. I occasionally dreamt out a
little yarn which, had it appeared on paper, would have brimmed over with
pleasure and love--in fact, have been redolent of life as I found it. It
was nice to live in comfort, and among ladies and gentlemen--people who
knew how to conduct themselves properly, and who paid one every attention
without a bit of fear of being twitted with "laying the jam on".
I ate another fig and apricot, a mulberry or two, and was interrupted in
the perusal of my book by the clatter of galloping hoofs approaching
along the road. I climbed on to the fence to see who it could be who was
coming at such a breakneck pace. He pulled the rein opposite me, and I
recognized a man from Dogtrap. He was in his shirt-sleeves; his horse
was all in a lather, and its scarlet nostrils were wide open, and its
sides heaving rapidly.
"I say, miss, hunt up the men quickly, will you?" he said hurriedly.
"There's a tremenjous fire on Wyambeet, and we're short-handed. I'm
goin' on to knock them up at Bimbalong."
"Hold hard," I replied. "We haven't a man on the place, only Joe
Slocombe, and I heard him say he would ride down the river and see what
the smoke was about; so he will be there. Mr Hawden and the others have
gone out for the day. You go back to the fire at once; I'll rouse them up
"Right you are, miss. Here's a couple of letters. My old moke
flung a shoe and went dead lame at Dogtrap; an' wile I was saddlun another,
Mrs Butler stuffed 'em in me pocket."
He tossed them over the fence, and, wheeling his mount, galloped the way
he had come. The letters fell, address upwards, on the ground--one to
myself and one to grannie, both in my mother's handwriting. I left them
where they lay. The main substance of mother's letters to me was a hope
that I was a better girl to my grannie than I had been to her--a sentiment
which did not interest me.
"Where are you off to?" inquired grannie, as I rushed through the house.
"What horse are you going to take?"
"Old Tadpole. He's the only one available."
"Well, you be careful and don't push him too quickly up that pinch by
Flea Creek, or he might drop dead with you. He's so fat and old."
"All right," I replied, snatching a bridle and running up the orchard,
where old Tadpole had been left in case of emergency. I clapped a
side-saddle on his back, a hat on my head, jumped on just as I was, and
galloped for my life in the direction of Bimbalong, seven miles distant.
I eased my horse a little going up Flea Creek pinch, but with this delay
reached my destination in half an hour, and sent the men galloping in the
direction of the fire. I lingered for afternoon tea, and returned at my
It was sundown when I got in sight of Caddagat. Knowing the men would not
be home for some time, I rode across the paddock to yard the cows. I
drove them home and penned the calves, unsaddled my horse and returned
him to the orchard, then stood upon the hillside and enjoyed the scene.
It had been a fearfully hot day, with a blasting, drought-breathed wind;
but the wind had dropped to sleep with the sunlight, and now the air had
cooled. Blue smoke wreathed hill and hollow like a beauteous veil. I had
traversed drought-baked land that afternoon, but in the immediate
vicinity of Caddagat house there was no evidence of an unkind season.
Irrigation had draped the place with beauty, and I stood ankle-deep in
clover. Oh, how I loved the old irregularly built house, with here and
there a patch of its low iron roof peeping out of a mass of greenery,
flowers, and fruit--the place where I was born--home! Save for the murmur
of the creek, the evening was wrapped in silence--sweet-breathed,
balmy-browed, summer quietude. I stretched out my hand and stained my
fingers, next my lips and teeth, with the sweet dark fruit of a
mulberry-tree beside me. The shadows deepened; I picked up my saddle,
and, carrying it housewards, put it in its place in the harness-room
among the fig- and apricot-trees--laden to breaking point with ripe and
ripening fruit. The two servant girls had departed on their Christmas
holiday that morning, so grannie and auntie were the only members of the
family at home. I could not see or hear them anywhere, so, presuming they
were out walking, I washed my hands, lit a lamp, and sat down to my tea,
where it had been left for me on the dining-table. I remembered--wonderful
aberration from my usual thoughtlessness--that the book I had left in the
hammock had a beautiful cover which the dew would spoil, so I left my tea
to bring it in. Two little white squares struck my eye in the gathering
dusk. I picked them up also, and, bringing them to the light, opened the
one addressed to me, and read:
No doubt what I have to write will not be very palatable to you; but it
is time you gave up pleasuring and began to meet the responsibilities of
life. Your father is lazier if anything, and drinks more than ever. He
has got himself into great debt and difficulties, and would have been
sold off again but for Peter M'Swat. You will remember Peter M'Swat? Well,
he has been good enough to lend your father 500 pounds at 4 per cent,
which means 20 pounds per year interest. Your father would have no more
idea of meeting this amount than a cat would have. But now I am coming
to the part of the matter which concerns you. Out of friendship to your
father, Mr M'Swat is good enough to accept your services as governess to
his children, in lieu of interest on the money. I have told him you will
be in Yarnung In Friday the 8th of January 1897, where he will meet you.
Be careful to remember the date. I am sorry I could not give you more
notice; but he wants his children to commence school as soon as possible,
and he deserves every consideration in the matter. Perhaps you will not
find it as pleasant as Caddagat; but he has been very good, and offers
you a fair number of holidays, and what he will give you is equal to
20 pounds. That is a lot in these times, when he could easily get so many
better girls than you are in every way for half the money, and make your
father pay the interest, and thereby be 10 pounds in pocket. You will have
to help Mrs M'Swat with the work and sewing; but that will do you good,
and I hope you will try hard to give every satisfaction. I have also
written to your grandmother.
That letter wiped away ever vestige of my appetite for the dainties
before me. M'Swat's! Send--me--to M'Swat's! I could not believe it! It
must be a nightmare! M'Swat's!
Certainly, I had never been there; but all those who had gave graphic
descriptions of the total ignorance of Mrs M'Swat. Why, the place was
quite tabooed on account of its squalor and dirt!
The steel of my mother's letter entered my soul. Why had she not
expressed a little regret at the thing she was imposing on me? Instead,
there was a note of satisfaction running through her letter that she was
able to put an end to my pleasant life at Caddagat. She always seemed to
grudge me any pleasure. I bitterly put it down as accruing from the curse
of ugliness, as, when mentioning Gertie, it was ever, "I have let Gertie
go to such and such an entertainment. We could not very well afford it,
but the poor little girl does not have many pleasures for her years." I
was smaller than Gertie, and only eleven months older; but to me it was
"You must think of something besides pleasure."
The lot of ugly girls is not joyful, and they must be possessed of
natures very absurdly sanguine indeed ever to hope for any enjoyment in
It was cruel, base, horrible of my mother to send me to M'Swat's. I would
not go--not for 50 pounds a day! I would not go! I would not! not for any
I stamped about in a fever of impatience until grannie appeared, when I
handed both letters to her, and breathlessly awaited her verdict.
"Well, child, what do you say?"
"Say? I won't go! I can't! I won't! Oh, grannie, don't send me there--I
would rather die."
"My dear child, I would not he willing to part with you under any
circumstances, but I cannot interfere between a mother and her child. I
would not have allowed any one to do it with me, and believe in acting
the same towards any other mother, even though she is my own daughter.
However, there is time to get a reply before you would have to start, so
I will write and see what can be done."
The dear old lady, with her prompt businesslike propensities, sat down
and wrote there and then. I wrote also--pleaded with my mother against her
decree, begged her to leave me at Caddagat, and assured her I could never
succeed at M'Swat's.
I did not sleep that night, so arose betimes to await the first
traveller, whom I asked to post the letters.
We got an answer to them sooner than we expected--at least grannie did.
Mother did not deign to write to me, but in her letter to grannie I was
described as an abominably selfish creature, who would not consider her
little brothers and sisters. I would never be any good; all I thought of
was idleness and ease. Most decidedly I could not get out of going to
M'Swat's, as mother had given her word.
"I am sorry for you," said grannie, "but it cannot be helped. You can
stay there for two or three years, and then I can have you here again."
I was inconsolable, and would not listen to reason. Ah! that uncle
Jay-Jay had been at home to rescue me from this. Then aunt Helen brought
her arguments to bear upon me, and persuaded me to think it was necessary
for the benefit of my little brothers and sisters that I should take up
this burden, which I knew would be too much for me.
It was a great wrench to be torn away from Caddagat--from refinement and
comfort--from home! As the days till my departure melted away, how I
wished that it were possible to set one's weight against the grim wheel
of time and turn it back! Nights I did not sleep, but drenched my pillow
with tears. Ah, it was hard to leave grannie and aunt Helen, whom I
worshipped, and turn my back on Caddagat!
I suppose it is only a fancy born of the wild deep love I bear it, but to
me the flowers seem to smell more sweetly there; and the shadows, how
they creep and curl! oh, so softly and caressingly around the quaint old
place, as the great sun sets amid the blue peaks; and the never-ceasing
rush of the crystal fern-banked stream--I see and hear it now, and the
sinking sun as it turns to a sheet of flame the mirror hanging in the
backyard in the laundry veranda, before which the station hands were wont
to comb and wash themselves. Oh, the memories that crowd upon me!
Methinks I can smell the roses that clamber up the veranda posts and peep
over the garden gate. As I write my eyes grow misty, so that I cannot see
The day for my departure arrived--hot, 110 degrees in the shade. It was a
Wednesday afternoon. Frank Hawden was to take me as far as Gool-Gool that
evening, and see me on to the coach next day. I would arrive in Yarnung
about twelve or one o'clock on Thursday night, where, according to
arrangement, Mr M'Swat would be waiting to take me to a hotel, thence to
his home next day.
My trunks and other belongings were stowed in the buggy, to which the fat
horses were harnessed. They stood beneath the dense shade of a splendid
kurrajong, and lazily flicked the flies off themselves while Frank Hawden
held the reins and waited for me.
I rushed frantically round the house taking a last look at nooks and
pictures dear to me, and then aunt Helen pressed my hand and kissed me,
"The house will be lonely without you, but you must brighten up, and I'm
sure you will not find things half as bad as you expect them."
I looked back as I went out the front gate, and saw her throw herself
into a chair on the veranda and cover her face with her hands. My
beautiful noble aunt Helen! I hope she missed me just a little, felt just
one pang of parting, for I have not got over that parting yet.
Grannie gave me a warm embrace and many kisses. I climbed on to the front
seat of the buggy beside my escort, he whipped the horses--a cloud of
dust, a whirr of wheels, and we were gone--gone from Caddagat!
We crossed the singing stream: on either bank great bushes of
blackthorn--last native flower of the season--put forth their wealth of
magnificent creamy bloom, its rich perfume floating far on the hot summer
air. How the sunlight blazed and danced and flickered on the familiar and
dearly loved landscape! Over a rise, and the house was lost to view, then
good-bye to the crystal creek. The trees of Five-Bob Downs came within
eye-range far away on our left. What merry nights I had spent there amid
music, flowers, youth, light, love, and summer warmth, when the tide of
life seemed full! Where now was Harold Beecham and the thirty or more
station hands, who but one short month before had come and gone at his
bidding, hailing him boss?
It was all over! My pleasant life at Caddagat was going into the past,
fading as the hills which surrounded it were melting into a hazy line of
The coach was a big vehicle, something after the style of a bus, the tilt
and seats running parallel with the wheels. At the rear end, instead of a
door, was a great tail-board, on the principle of a spring-cart. This was
let down, and, after we scrambled over it into our seats, it was fixed
half-mast, all the luggage piled thereon, and firmly roped into position.
When this was completed, to any one on the ground only the heads of
passengers were visible above the pile. Had the coach capsized we would
have been in a nice fix, as the only means of exit was by crawling up
through the back of the box-seat, which rose breast-high--an awkward feat.
Frank Hawden and I parted good friends. I leant out and waved my
handkerchief, until a bend of the road hid him from sight.
It was noon, the thermometer registered 112 degrees in the shade, and the
dust was simply awful. It rose in such thick grey clouds that often it
was impossible to discern the team of five which pulled us, and there was
danger of colliding with passing vehicles. We were very much crowded,
there being sixteen passengers. When we settled down and got started, I
discovered that I was the only representative of my sex, and that I was
sandwiched between a perky youth in his teens and a Chinaman, while a
black fellow and a man with a red beard sat opposite. A member of
Parliament, farther up the seat, who had been patronizing New Year's Day
races in a portion of his electorate, bawled loudly to his companion
about "the doin's of the 'Ouse". In the perky youth I discovered a
professional jockey; and when he found that I was a daughter of Dick
Melvyn, the one-time great horse-breeder, he became very friendly. He
gave me a couple of apples out of his tin box under the seat, from whence
he also produced his whip for my inspection, and was good enough to say:
"If you can't stand the stink of that bloomin' chow, miss, just change
seats with me. I've knocked about, so that I can easy stand some tough
smells without much inconvenience."
I cautioned him to talk lower for fear of hurting the Chinaman's
feelings: this amused him immensely. He laughed very much, and, leaning
over to the red-bearded man, repeated the joke:
"I say, this young lady is afraid I might hurt the chow's feelin's.
Golly! Fancy a bloomin' chow havin' any!"
The other man also thought it a great joke. I changed seats with the
jockey, which put me beside a young gentleman of a literary turn of mind,
with whom I had some conversation about books when the dust, rumble of
wheels, and turf talk of my other neighbour permitted. They were all very
kind to me--gave me fruit, procured me drinks of water, and took turns in
nursing a precious hat, for which, on account of the crush, no safe place
could be found among the other luggage.
Before we had gone half our journey the horses knocked up. All the men
were forced to walk up hills for miles and miles in the dust and heat,
which did not conduce to their amiability, and many and caustic were the
remarks and jokes made upon the driver. He wore out two whips upon his
team, until the labour and excessive heat sent the perspiration rolling
in rivulets down his face, leaving muddy tracks in the thick coating of
dust there. The jockey assisted with his loaded instrument of trade, some
of the passengers thrashed with sticks, and all swore under their breath,
while a passing bullock-driver used his whip with such deadly effect,
that the sweat which poured off the poor beasts was mingled with blood.
"Why the deuce don't you have proper horses?" demanded the red-bearded
The man explained that a ministerial party had chartered his best team to
go on a tour of inspection to a mine; a brother coachman had been "stuck
up" for horses, and borrowed a couple from him, whereupon he was forced
to do with animals which had been turned out for a spell, and the heat
and overloading accounted for a good part of the contretemps. However, we
managed to catch our train, but had to rush for it without waiting for
refreshments. Nice articles we looked--our hair grey with dust, and our
faces grimy. The men took charge of me as carefully as though I had been
specially consigned to their care. One procured my ticket, another
secured me a scat, while a third took charge of my luggage; and they were
just as thoughtful when we had to change trains. Off we went. Grannie had
packed me quite a large box full of dainties. I produced it, the men
provided drinks, and we had quite a pleasant picnic, with all the windows
down to catch a little air.
I love the rush and roar of the train, and wished on this occasion that
it might go on and on for over, never giving me time to think or stop.
But, alas, at 1.20 we pulled up at Yarnung, where a man came inquiring
for a young lady named Melvyn. My fellow passengers collected my
belongings, and I got out.
"Good-bye, gentlemen; thank you very much for your kindness."
"Good-bye, miss; you're welcome. Some of us might meet again yet. Ta-ta!"
A shriek, a jerk, and the great train rushed on into the night, leaving
me there on the insignificant little platform, feeling how lonely and
unhappy, no one knew or cared.
Mr M'Swat shouldered most of my luggage, I took the remainder, and we
trudged off in the dark without a word on either side. The publican had
given M'Swat the key, so that we might enter without disturbing the
household, and he escorted me to a bedroom, where I tumbled into bed with
It is indelibly imprinted on my memory in a manner which royal joy, fame,
pleasure, and excitement beyond the dream of poets could never efface,
not though I should be cursed with a life of five-score years. I will
paint it truthfully--letter for letter as it was.
It was twenty-six miles from Yarnung to Barney's Gap, as M'Swat's place
was named. He had brought a light wagonette and pair to convey me
As we drove along, I quite liked my master. Of course, we were of calibre
too totally unlike ever to be congenial companions, but I appreciated his
sound common sense in the little matters within his range, and his
bluntly straightforward, fairly good-natured, manner. He was an utterly
ignorant man, with small ideas according to the sphere which he fitted,
and which fitted him; but he was "a man for a' that, an' a' that".
He and my father had been boys together. Years and years ago M'Swat's
father had been blacksmith on my father's station, and the little boys
had played together, and, in spite of their then difference in station,
had formed a friendship which lived and bore fruit at this hour. I wished
that their youthful relations had been inimical, not friendly.
We left the pub in Yarnung at nine, and arrived at our destination
somewhere about two o'clock in the afternoon.
I had waxed quite cheerful, and began to look upon the situation in a
sensible light. It was necessary that I should stand up to the guns of
life at one time or another, and why not now? M'Swat's might not be so
bad after all. Even if they were dirty, they would surely be willing to
improve if I exercised tact in introducing a few measures. I was not
afraid of work, and would do many things. But all these ideas were
knocked on the head, like a dairyman's surplus calves, when on entering
Barney's Gap we descended a rough road to the house, which was built in a
narrow gully between two steep stony hills, which, destitute of grass,
rose like grim walls of rock, imparting a desolate and prison-like
Six dogs, two pet lambs, two or three pigs, about twenty fowls, eight
children which seemed a dozen, and Mrs M'Swat bundled out through the
back door at our approach. Those children, not through poverty--M'Swat
made a boast of his substantial banking account--but on account of
ignorance and slatternliness, were the dirtiest urchins I have ever seen,
and were so ragged that those parts of them which should have been
covered were exposed to view. The majority of them had red hair and wide
hanging-open mouths. Mrs M'Swat was a great, fat, ignorant,
pleasant-looking woman, shockingly dirty and untidy. Her tremendous,
flabby, stockingless ankles bulged over her unlaced hobnailed boots; her
dress was torn and unbuttoned at the throat, displaying one of the
dirtiest necks I have seen. It did not seem to worry her that the infant
she hold under her arm like a roll of cloth howled killingly, while the
other little ones clung to her skirts, attempting to hide their heads in
its folds like so many emus. She greeted me with a smacking kiss,
consigned the baby to the charge of the eldest child, a big girl of
fourteen, and seizing upon my trunks as though they were feather-weight,
with heavy clodhopping step disappeared into the house with them.
Returning, she invited me to enter, and following in her wake, I was
followed by the children through the dirtiest passage into the dirtiest
room, to sit upon the dirtiest chair, to gaze upon the other dirtiest
furniture of which I have ever heard. One wild horrified glance at the
dirt, squalor, and total benightedness that met me on every side, and I
trembled in every limb with suppressed emotion and the frantic longing to
get back to Caddagat which possessed me. One instant showed me that I
could never, never live here.
"Have ye had yer dinner?" my future mistress inquired in a rough
uncultivated voice. I replied in the negative.
"Sure, ye'll be dyin' of hunger; but I'll have it in a twinklin'."
She threw a crumpled and disgustingly filthy doth three-cornered ways on
to the dusty table and clapped thereon a couple of dirty knives and
forks, a pair of cracked plates, two poley cups and chipped saucers. Next
came a plate of salt meat, red with saltpetre, and another of dark, dry,
sodden bread. She then disappeared to the kitchen to make the tea, and
during her absence two of the little boys commenced to fight. One
clutched the tablecloth, and over went the whole display with a
bang--meat-dish broken, and meat on the dusty floor; while the cats and
fowls, ever on the alert for such occurrences, made the most of their
opportunities. Mrs M'Swat returned carrying the tea, which was spilling
by the way. She gave those boys each a clout on the head which dispersed
them roaring like the proverbial town bull, and alarmed me for the safety
of their ear-drums. I wondered if their mother was aware of their having
ear-drums. She grabbed the meat, and wiping it on her greasy apron,
carried it around in her hand until she found a plate for it, and by that
time the children had collected the other things. A cup was broken, and
another, also a poley, was put in its stead.
Mr M'Swat now appeared, and after taking a nip out of a rum bottle which
he produced from a cupboard in the corner, he invited me to sit up to
There was no milk. M'Swat went in entirely for sheep, keeping only a few
cows for domestic purposes: these, on account of the drought, had been
dry for some months. Mrs M'Swat apologized for the lack of sugar, stating
she was quite out of it and had forgotten to send for a fresh supply.
"You damned fool, to miss such a chance wen I was goin' to town with the
wagonette! I mightn't be groin' in again for munce [months]. But sugar
don't count much. Them as can't do without a useless luxury like that for
a spell will never make much of a show at gettin' on in the wu-r-r-r-1d,"
concluded Mr M'Swat, sententiously.
The children sat in a row and, with mouths open and interest in their big
wondering eyes, gazed at me unwinkingly till I felt I must rush away
somewhere and shriek to relieve the feeling of overstrained hysteria
which was overcoming me. I contained myself sufficiently, however, to ask
if this was all the family.
"All but Peter. Where's Peter, Mary Ann?"
"He went to the Red Hill to look after some sheep, and won't be back till
"Peter's growed up," remarked one little boy, with evident pride in this
member of the family.
"Yes; Peter's twenty-one, and hes a mustatche and shaves," said the
eldest girl, in a manner indicating that she expected me to be struck
dumb with surprise.
"She'll be surprised wen she sees Peter," said a little girl in an
Mrs M'Swat vouchsafed the information that three had died between Peter
and Lizer, and this was how the absent son came to be so much older than
his brothers and sisters.
"So you have had twelve children?" I said.
"Yes," she replied, laughing fatly, as though it were a joke.
"The boys found a bees' nest in a tree an' have been robbin' it the
smornin'," continued Mrs M'Swat.
"Yes; we have ample exemplification of that," I responded. It was honey
here and honey there and honey everywhere. It was one of the many
varieties of dirt on the horrible foul-smelling tablecloth. It was on the
floor, the door, the chairs, the children's heads, and the cups. Mrs
M'Swat remarked contentedly that it always took a couple of days to wear
"off of" things.
After "dinner" I asked for a bottle of ink and some paper, and scrawled a
few lines to grannie and my mother, merely reporting my safe arrival at
my destination. I determined to take time to collect my thoughts before
petitioning for release from Barney's Gap.
I requested my mistress to show me where I was to sleep, and she
conducted me to a fairly respectable little bedroom, of which I was to be
sole occupant, unless I felt lonely and would like Rose Jane to sleep
with me. I looked at pretty, soft-eyed, dirty little Rose Jane, and
assured her kind-hearted mother I would not be the least lonely, as the
sickening despairing loneliness which filled my heart was not of a nature
to be cured by having as a bedmate a frowzy wild child.
Upon being left alone I barred my door and threw myself on the bed to
cry--weep wild hot tears that scalded my cheeks, and sobs that shook my
whole frame and gave me a violent pain in the head.
Oh, how coarse and grating were the sounds to be heard around me! Lack,
nay, not lack, but utter freedom from the first instincts of cultivation,
was to be heard even in the great heavy footfalls and the rasping sharp
voices which fell on my ears. So different had I been listening in a room
at Caddagat to my grannie's brisk pleasant voice, or to my aunt Helen's
low refined accents; and I am such a one to see and feel these
However, I pulled together in a little while, and called myself a fool
for crying. I would write to grannie and mother explaining matters, and I
felt sure they would heed me, as they had no idea what the place was
like. I would have only a little while to wait patiently, then I would be
among all the pleasures of Caddagat again; and how I would revel in them,
more than ever, after a taste of a place like this, for it was worse than
I had imagined it could be, even in the nightmares which had haunted me
concerning it before leaving Caddagat.
The house was of slabs, unlimed, and with very low iron roof, and having
no sign of a tree near it, the heat was unendurable. It was reflected
from the rocks on either side, and concentrated in this spot like an
oven, being 122 degrees in the veranda now. I wondered why M'Swat had
built in such a hole, but it appears it was the nearness of the point to
water which recommended it to his judgment.
With the comforting idea that I would not have long to bear this, I
bathed my eyes, and walked away from the house to try and find a cooler
spot. The children saw me depart but not return, to judge from a
discussion of myself which I heard in the dining-room, which adjoined my
Peter came home, and the children clustered around to tell the news.
"Did she come?"
"Wot's she like?"
"Oh, a rale little bit of a thing, not as big as Lizer!
"And, Peter, she hes teeny little hands, as wite as snow, like that woman
in the picter ma got off of the tea."
"Yes, Peter," chimed in another voice; "and her feet are that little that
she don't make no nise wen she walks."
"It ain't only becos her feet are little, but cos she's got them beautiful
shoes like wot's in picters," said another.
"Her hair is tied with two great junks of ribbing, one up on her head an'
another near the bottom; better than that bit er red ribbing wot Lizer
keeps in the box agin the time she might go to town some day."
"Yes," said the voice of Mrs M'Swat, "her hair is near to her knees, and
a plait as thick as yer arm; and wen she writ a couple of letters in a
minute, you could scarce see her hand move it was that wonderful quick;
and she uses them big words wot you couldn't understand without
"She has tree brooches, and a necktie better than your best one wots you
keeps to go seeing Susie Duffy in," and Lizer giggled slyly.
"You shut up about Susie Duffy, or I'll whack yuz up aside of the ear,"
said Peter angrily.
"She ain't like ma. She's fat up here, and goes in like she'd break in
the middle, Peter."
"Great scissors! she must be a flyer," said Peter. I'll bet she'll make
you sit up, Jimmy."
"I'll make her sit up," retorted Jimmy, who came next to Lizer.--She
thinks she's a toff, but she's only old Melvyn's darter, that pa has
to give money to."
"Peter," said another, "her face ain't got them freckles on like yours,
and it ain't dark like Lizer's. It's reel wite, and pinky round here."
"I bet she won't make me knuckle down to her, no matter wot colour she
is," returned Peter, in a surly tone.
No doubt it was this idea which later in the afternoon induced him to
swagger forward to shake hands with me with a flash insolent leer on his
face. I took pains to be especially nice to him, treating him with
deference, and making remarks upon the extreme heat of the weather with
such pleasantness that he was nonplussed, and looked relieved when able
to escape. I smiled to myself, and apprehended no further trouble from
The table for tea was set exactly as it had been before, and was lighted
by a couple of tallow candles made from bad fat, and their odour was such
as my jockey travelling companion of the day before would have described
as a tough smell.
"Give us a toon on the peeany," said Mrs M'Swat after the meal, when the
dishes had been cleared away by Lizer and Rose Jane. The tea and scraps,
of which there was any amount, remained on the floor, to be picked up by
the fowls in the morning.
The children lay on the old sofa and on the chairs, where they always
slept at night until their parents retired, when there was an all-round
bawl as they were wakened and bundled into bed, dirty as they were, and
very often with their clothes on.
I acceded to Mrs M'Swat's request with alacrity, thinking that while
forced to remain there I would have one comfort, and would spend all my
spare time at the piano. I opened the instrument, brushed a little of the
dust from the keys with my pocket-handkerchief, and struck the opening
chords of Kowalski's "Marche Hongroise".
I have heard of pianos sounding like a tin dish, but this was not as
Pleasant as a tin dish by long chalks. Every note that I struck stayed
down not to rise, and when I got them up the jarring, clanging,
discordant clatter they produced beggars description. There was not the
slightest possibility of distinguishing any tune on the thing. Worthless
to begin with, it had stood in the dust, heat, and wind so long that
every sign that it had once made music had deserted it.
I closed it with a feeling of such keen disappointment that I had
difficulty in suppressing tears.
"Won't it play?" inquired Mr M'Swat.
"No; the keys stay down."
"Then, Rose Jane, go ye an' pick 'em up while she tries again."
I tried again, Rose Jane fishing up the keys as I went along. I perceived
instantly that not one had the least ear for music or idea what it was; so
I beat on the demented piano with both hands, and often with all fingers
at once, and the bigger row I made the better they liked it.
Mr M'Swat very kindly told me I need not begin my duties until Monday
morning, and could rest during Saturday and Sunday. Saturday, which was
sickeningly hot and sultry, and which seemed like an eternity, I spent in
arranging my belongings, brushing the dust from my travelling dress, and
in mending a few articles. Next morning rain started to fall, which was a
great God-send, being the first which had fallen for months, and the only
rain I saw during my residence at Barney's Gap.
That was a hideous Sabbath. Without a word of remonstrance from their
parents, the children entertained themselves by pushing each other into
the rain, the smaller ones getting the worst of it, until their clothing
was saturated with water. This made them very cold, so they sat upon the
floor and yelled outrageously.
It was the custom of Peter to spend his Sundays in riding about, but
today, being deterred by the rain, he slept some of the time, and made a
muzzle for one of his dogs, between whiles.
From breakfast to the midday meal I shut myself in my bedroom and wrote
letters to my mother and grandmother. I did not rant, rave, or say
anything which I ought not to have said to my elders. I wrote those
letters very coolly and carefully, explaining things just as they were,
and asked grannie to take me back to Caddagat, as I could never endure
life at Barney's Gap. I told my mother I had written thus, and asked her
if she would not let grannie take me again, would she get me some other
situation? What I did not care, so long as it brought emancipation from
the M'Swat's. I stamped and addressed these missives, and put them by
till a chance of posting should arise.
Mr M'Swat could read a little by spelling the long words and blundering
over the shorter ones, and he spent the morning and all the afternoon in
perusal of the local paper--the only literature with which Barney's Gap
was acquainted. There was a long list of the prices of stock and farm
produce in this edition, which perfectly fascinated its reader. The
ecstasy of a man of fine, artistic, mental calibre, when dipping for the
first time into the work of some congenial poet, would be completely
wiped out in comparison to the utter soul-satisfaction of M'Swat when
drinking in the items of that list.
"By damn, pigs was up last Toosday! Thames the things to make prawfit
on," he would excitedly exclaim; or--"Wheat's rose a shillun a bushel!
By dad, I must double my crops this year." When he had plodded to the
end, he started at the beginning again.
His wife sat the whole afternoon in the one place, saying and doing
nothing. I looked for something to read, but the only books in the house
were a Bible, which was never opened, and a diary kept most religiously
by M'Swat. I got permission to read this, and opening it, saw:
1st. Fine. Wint to boggie creak for a cow.
2nd. Fine. Got the chestnut mair shode.
3rd. Fine. On the jury.
4th. Fine. Tail the lams 60 yeos 52 wethers.
5th. Cloudy. Wint to Duffys.
6th. Fine. Dave Duffy called.
7th. Fine. Roped the red filly.
8th. Showery. Sold the gray mair's fole.
9th. Fine. Wint to the Red hill after a horse.
10th. Fine, Found tree sheap ded in sqre padick.
I closed the book and put it up with a sigh. The little record was a
perfect picture of the dull narrow life of its writer. Week after week
that diary went on the same--drearily monotonous account of a drearily
monotonous existence. I felt I would go mad if forced to live such a life
"Pa has lots of diaries. Would I like to read them?"
They were brought and put before me. I inquired of Mr M'Swat which was
the liveliest time of the year, and being told it was shearing and
threshing, I opened one first in November:
1st. Fine. Started to muster sheap.
2nd. Fine. Counten sheap very dusty 20 short.
3rd. Fine. Started shering. Joe Harris cut his hand bad and wint hoam.
4th. Showery. Shering stoped on account of rane.
Then I skipped to December:
1st. Fine and hot. Stripped the weet 60 bages.
2nd. Fine. Killed a snake very hot day.
3rd. Fine. Very hot alle had a boagy in the river.
4th. Fine. Got returns of woll 7 1/2 fleece 5 1/4 bellies.
5th. Fine. Awful hot got a serkeler from Tatersal by the poast.
6th. Fine. Saw Joe Harris at Duffys.
There was no entertainment to be had from the diaries, so I attempted a
conversation with Mrs M'Swat.
"A penny for your thoughts."
"I wuz jist watchin' the rain and thinkin' it would put a couple a bob a
head more on sheep if it keeps on."
What was I to do to pass the day? I was ever very restless, even in the
midst of full occupation. Uncle Jay-Jay used to accuse me of being in six
places at once, and of being incapable of sitting still for five minutes
consecutively; so it was simply endurance to live that long, long
day--nothing to read, no piano on which to play hymns, too wet to walk,
none with whom to converse, no possibility of sleeping, as in an
endeavour to kill a little of the time I had gone to bed early and got up
late. There was nothing but to sit still, tormented by maddening regret.
I pictured what would he transpiring at Caddagat now; what we had done
this time last week, and so on, till the thing became an agony to me.
Among my duties before school I was to set the table, make all the beds,
dust and sweep, and "do" the girls' hair. After school I had to mend
clothes, sew, set the table again, take a turn at nursing the baby, and
on washing-day iron. This sounds a lot, but in reality was nothing, and
did not half occupy my time. Setting the table was a mere sinecure, as
there was nothing much to put on it; and the only ironing was a few
articles outside my own, as Mr M'Swat and Peter did not wear white
shirts, and patronised paper collars. Mrs M'Swat did the washing and a
little scrubbing, also boiled the beef and baked the bread, which formed
our unvaried menu week in and week out. Most peasant mothers with a
family of nine have no time for idleness, but Mrs M'Swat managed things
so that she spent most of the day rolling on her frowsy bed playing with
her dirty infant, which was as fat and good-tempered as herself.
On Monday morning I marshalled my five scholars (Lizer, aged fourteen;
Jimmy, twelve; Tommy, Sarah, and Rose Jane, younger) in a little back
skillion, which was set apart as a schoolroom and store for flour and
rock-salt. Like all the house, it was built of slabs, which, erected
while green, and on account Of the heat, had shrunk until many of the
cracks were sufficiently wide to insert one's arm. On Monday--after the
rain--the wind, which disturbed us through them, was piercingly cold, but
as the week advanced summer and drought regained their pitiless sway, and
we were often sunburnt by the rough gusts which filled the room with such
clouds of dust and grit that we were forced to cover our heads until it
A policeman came on Tuesday to take some returns, and to him I entrusted
the posting of my letters, and then eagerly waited for the reply which
was to give me glorious release.
The nearest post-office was eight miles distant, and thither Jimmy was
dispatched on horseback twice a week. With trembling expectancy every
mail-day I watched for the boy's return down the tortuous track to the
house, but it was always, "No letters for the school-missus."
A week, a fortnight, dragged away. Oh, the slow horror of those
never-ending days! At the end of three weeks Mr M'Swat went to the post
unknown to me, and surprised me with a couple of letters. They bore the
handwriting of my mother and grandmother--what I had been wildly waiting
for,--and now that they had come at last I had not the nerve to open them
while any one was observing me. All day I carried them in my bosom till
my work was done, when I shut myself in my room and tore the envelopes
open to read first my grannie's letter, which contained two:
My dear child,
I have been a long time answering your letter on account of waiting to
consult your mother. I was willing to take you back, but your mother is
not agreeable, so I cannot interfere between you. I enclose your mother's
letter, so you can see how I stand in the matter. Try and do good where
you are. We cannot get what we would like in this world, and must bow to
God's will. He will always, &c.
Mother's Letter to Grannie
My dear Mother,
I am truly grieved that Sybylla should have written and worried you. Take
no notice of her; it is only while she is unused to the place. She will
soon settle down. She has always been a trial to me, and it is no use of
taking notice of her complaints, which no doubt are greatly exaggerated,
as she was never contented at home. I don't know where her rebellious
spirit will eventually lead her. I hope M'Swat's will tame her; it will
do her good. It is absolutely necessary that she should remain there, so
do not say anything to give her other ideas &c.
Mother's Letter to Me
My dear Sybylla,
I wish you would not write and worry your poor old grandmother, who has
been so good to you. You must try and put up with things; you cannot
expect to find it like holidaying at Caddagat. Be careful not to give
offence to any one, as it would be awkward for us. What is wrong with the
place? Have you too much work to do? Do you not get sufficient to cat?
Are they unkind to you, or what? Why don't you have sense and not talk of
getting another place, as it is utterly impossible; and unless you remain
there, how are we to pay the interest on that money? I've always been a
good mother to you, and the least you might do in return is this, when
you know how we are situated. Ask God &c.
Full of contempt and hatred for my mother, I tore her letters into tiny
pieces and hurled them out the window. Oh, the hard want of sympathy they
voiced! She had forced me to this place: it would have been different had
I wanted to come of my own accord, and then sung out for a removal
immediately; but no, against my earnest pleadings she had forced me here,
and now would not heed my cry. And to whom in all the world can we turn
when our mother spurns our prayer?
There never was any sympathy between my mother and myself. We are too
unlike. She is intensely matter-of-fact and practical, possessed of no
ambitions or aspirations not capable of being turned into cash value. She
is very ladylike, and though containing no spice of either poet or
musician, can take a part in conversation on such subjects, and play the
piano correctly, because in her young days she was thus cultivated; but
had she been horn a peasant, she would have been a peasant, with no
longings unattainable in that sphere. She no more understood me than I
understand the works of a watch. She looked upon me as a discontented,
rebellious, bad child, possessed of evil spirits, which wanted trouncing
out of me; and she would have felt that she was sinning had she humoured
me in any way, so after cooling I did not blame her for her letters. She
was doing her duty according to her lights. Again, it was this way,
grannie did not come to my rescue on this occasion on account of her
attitude towards my father. The Bossiers were not at enmity with him, but
they were so disgusted with his insobriety that they never visited Possum
Gully, and did not assist us as much as they would have done had my
father's failure been attributable to some cause more deserving of
After reading my letters I wept till every atom of my body writhed with
agonized emotion. I was aroused by Mrs M'Swat hammering at my door and
"What ails ye, child? Did ye git bad noos from home?"
I recovered myself as by a miracle, and replied, no; that I was merely a
little homesick, and would be out presently.
I wrote again to my mother, but as I could not truthfully say I was
hungry or ill-treated, for, according to their ability, the M'Swats were
very kind to me, she took no notice of my plaint, but told me that
instead of complaining of monotony, it would suit me better if I cleared
up the house a little.
Acting upon this advice, I asked Mr M'Swat to put a paling fence round
the house, as it was useless trying to keep the house respectable while
the fowls and pigs ran in every time the door was opened.--
He was inclined to look with favour upon this proposition, but his wife
sat upon it determinedly-said the fowls would lose the scraps. "Would it
not be possible to throw them over the fence to the fowls?" I asked; but
this would cause too much waste, she considered.
Next I suggested that the piano should be tuned, but they were united in
their disapproval of such a fearful extravagance. "The peeany makes a
good nise. What ails it?"
Then I suggested that the children should he kept tidier, for which I was
insulted by their father. I wanted them to be dressed up like swells, and
if he did that he would soon be a pauper like my father. This I found was
the sentiment of the whole family regarding me. I was only the daughter
of old hard-up Melvyn, consequently I had little weight with the
children, which made things very hard for me as a teacher.
One day at lunch I asked my mistress if she would like the children to be
instructed in table-manners. "Certainly," her husband replied, so I
"Jimmy, you must never put your knife in your mouth."
"Pa does at any rate," replied Jimmy.
"Yes," said pa; "and I'm a richer man today than them as didn't do it."
"Liza, do not put a whole slice of bread to your mouth like that, and
cram so. Cut it into small pieces."
"Ma doesn't," returned Liza.
"Ye'll have yer work cut out with 'em," laughed Mrs M'Swat, who did not
know how to correct her family herself, and was too ignorant to uphold my
That was my only attempt at teaching manners there. In the face of such
odds it was a bootless task, and as there were not enough knives and
forks to go round, I could not inculcate the correct method of handling
Mrs M'Swat had but one boiler in which to do all her cooking, and one
small tub for the washing, and there was seldom anything to cat but bread
and beef; and this was not because they were poor, but because they did
not know, or want to know, any better.
Their idea of religion, pleasure, manners, breeding, respectability,
love, and everything of that ilk, was the possession of money, and their
one idea of accumulating wealth was by hard sordid dragging and grinding.
A man who rises from indigence to opulence by business capabilities must
have brains worthy of admiration, but the man who makes a fortune as
M'Swat of Barney's Gap was making his must he dirt mean, grasping,
narrow-minded, and soulless--to me the most uncongenial of my fellows.
I wrote once more to my mother, to receive the same reply. One hope
remained. I would write to aunt Helen. She understood me somewhat, and
would know how I felt.
Acting on this inspiration, I requested her to plead for me. Her answer
came as a slap in the face, as I had always imagined her above the common
cant of ordinary religionists. She stated that life was full of trials. I
must try and bear this little cross patiently, and at the end of a year
they might have me back at Caddagat. A year! A year at Barney's Gap! The
possibility of such a thing made me frantic. I picked up my pen and
bitterly reproached my aunt in a letter to which she did not deign to
reply; and from that day to this she has rigidly ignored me--never so much
as sending me the most commonplace message, or casually using my name in
her letters to my mother.
Aunt Helen, is there such a thing as firm friendship when even yours--best
of women--quibbled and went under at the hysterical wail from the
overburdened heart of a child?
My predecessor, previous to her debut at Barney's Gap, had spent some
time in a lunatic asylum, and being a curious character, allowed the
children to do as they pleased, consequently they knew not what it meant
to be ruled, and were very hold. They attempted no insubordination while
their father was about the house, but when he was absent they gave me a
dog's life, their mother sometimes smiling on their pranks, often lazily
heedless of them, but never administering any form of correction.
If I walked away from the house to get rid of them, they would follow and
hoot at me; and when I reproved them they informed me they were not going
"to knuckle under to old Melvyn's darter, the damnedest fool in the
world, who's lost all his prawperty, and has to borry money off of pa."
Did I shut myself in my room, they shoved sticks in the cracks and made
grimaces at me. I knew the fallacy of appealing to their father, as they
and their mother would tell falsehoods, and my word would not be taken in
contradiction of theirs. I had experience of this, as the postmistress
had complained of Jimmy, to be insulted by his father, who could see no
imperfection in his children.
M'Swat was much away from home at that time. The drought necessitated the
removal of some of his sheep, for which he had rented a place eighty
miles coastwards. There he left them under the charge of a man, but he
repaired thither frequently to inspect them. Sometimes he was away from
home a fortnight at a stretch. Peter would be away at work all day, and
the children took advantage of my defenceless position. Jimmy was the
ringleader. I could easily have managed the others had he been removed. I
would have thrashed him well at the start but for the letters I
constantly received from home warning me against offence to the parents,
and knew that to set my foot on the children's larrikinism would require
measures that would gain their mother's ill-will at once. But when M'Swat
left home for three weeks Jim got so bold that I resolved to take
decisive steps towards subjugating him. I procured a switch--a very small
one, as his mother had a great objection to corporal punishment--and when,
as usual, he commenced to cheek me during lessons, I hit him on the
coat-sleeve. The blow would not have brought tears from the eyes of a
toddler, but this great calf emitted a wild yope, and opening his mouth
let his saliva pour on to his slate. The others set up such
blood-curdling yells in concert that I was a little disconcerted, but I
determined not to give in. I delivered another tap, whereupon he squealed
and roared so that he brought his mother to his rescue like a ton of
bricks on stilts, a great fuss in her eyes which generally beamed with a
Seizing my arm she shook me like a rat, broke my harmless little stick in
pieces, threw it in my face, and patting Jimmy on the shoulder, said:
"Poor man! She sharn't touch me Jimmy while I know. Sure you've got no
sense. You'd had him dead if I hadn't come in."
I walked straight to my room and shut myself in, and did not teach any
more that afternoon. The children rattled on my door-handle and jeered:
"She thought she'd hit me, but ma settled her. Old poor Melvyn's darter
won't try no more of her airs on us."
I pretended not to hear. What was I to do? There was no one to whom I
could turn for help. M'Swat would believe the story of his family, and my
mother would blame me. She would think I had been in fault because I
hated the place.
Mrs M'Swat called me to tea, but I said I would not have any. I lay awake
all night and got desperate. On the morrow I made up my mind to conquer
or leave. I would stand no more. If in all the wide world and the whole
of life this was the only use for me, then I would die--take my own life
Things progressed as usual next morning. I attended to my duties and
marched my scholars into the schoolroom at the accustomed hour. There was
no decided insubordination during the morning, but I felt Jimmy was
waiting for an opportunity to defy me. It was a fearful day, possessed by
a blasting wind laden with red dust from Riverina, which filled the air
like a fog. The crockery ware became so hot in the kitchen that when
taking it into the dining-room we had to handle it with cloths. During
the dinner-hour! slipped away unnoticed to where some quince-trees were
growing and procured a sharp rod, which I secreted among the flour-bags
in the schoolroom. At half-past one I brought my scholars in and ordered
them to their work with a confident air. Things went without a ripple
until three o'clock, when the writing lesson began. Jimmy struck his pen
on the bottom of the bottle every time he replenished it with ink.
"Jimmy," I gently remonstrated, "don't jab your pen like that--it will
spoil it. There is no necessity to shove it right to the bottom."
Jab, jab, went Jimmy's pen.
"Jimmy, did you hear me speak to you?"
Jab went the pen.
"James, I am speaking to you!"
Jab went the pen again.
"James," I said sternly, "I give you one more chance."
He deliberately defied me by stabbing into the ink-bottle with increased
vigour. Liza giggled triumphantly, and the little ones strove to emulate
her. I calmly produced my switch and brought it smartly over the
shoulders of my refractory pupil in a way that sent the dust in a cloud
from his dirty coat, knocked the pen from his fingers, and upset the ink.
He acted as before--yelled ear-drum-breakingly, letting the saliva from
his distended mouth run on his copy-book. His brothers and sisters also
started to roar, but bringing the rod down on the table, I threatened to
thrash every one of them if they so much as whimpered; and they were so
dumbfounded that they sat silent in terrified surprise.
Jimmy continued to bawl. I hit him again.
"Cease instantly, sir."
Through the cracks Mrs M'Swat could be seen approaching. Seeing her,
Jimmy hollered anew. I expected her to attack me. She stood five feet
nine inches, and weighed about sixteen stones; I measured five feet one
inch, and turned the scale at eight stones--scarcely a fair match; but my
spirit was aroused, and instead of feeling afraid, I rejoiced at the
encounter which was imminent, and had difficulty to refrain from shouting
"Come on! I'm ready, physically and mentally, for you and a dozen others
My curious ideas regarding human equality gave me confidence. My theory
is that the cripple is equal to the giant, and the idiot to the genius.
As, if on account of his want of strength the cripple is subservient to
the giant, the latter, on account of that strength, is compelled to give
in to the cripple. So with the dolt and the man of brain, so with Mrs
M'Swat and me.
The fact of not only my own but my family's dependence on M'Swat--sank
into oblivion. I merely recognized that she was one human being and I
another. Should I have been deferential to her by reason of her age and
maternity, then from the vantage which this gave her, she should have
been lenient to me on account of my chit-ship and inexperience. Thus we
Jimmy hollered with renewed energy to attract his mother, and I continued
to rain blows across his shoulders. Mrs M'Swat approached to within a
foot of the door, and then, as though changing her mind, retraced her
steps and entered the hot low-roofed kitchen. I knew I had won, and felt
disappointed that the conquest had been so easy. Jimmy, seeing he was
worsted, ceased his uproar, cleaned his copy-book on his sleeve, and
sheepishly went on with his writing.
Whether Mrs M'Swat saw she had been in fault the day before I know not;
certain it is that the children ever after that obeyed me, and I heard no
more of the matter; neither, as far as I could ascertain, did the
"ruction" reach the ears of M'Swat.
"How long, how long!" was my cry, as I walked out ankle-deep in the dust
to see the sun, like a ball of blood, sink behind the hills on that
Where Ignorance is Bliss, 'Tis Folly to be Wise