My Brilliant Career was the first novel by Australian author Miles Franklin, written while she was still in her teens. The protagonist, Sybylla Melvyn, is an imaginative and tomboyish figure who is sent to live with her grandmother. She meets a man named Harold Beecham, whose attempts to court her are met with stubborn refusal.
E-text prepared by an anonymous Project Gutenberg contributor
A few months before I left Australia I got a letter from the bush signed "Miles Franklin", saying that the writer had written a novel, but knew nothing of editors and publishers, and asking me to read and advise. Something about the letter, which was written in a strong original hand, attracted me, so I sent for the MS., and one dull afternoon I started to read it. I hadn't read three pages when I saw what you will no doubt see at once—that the story had been written by a girl. And as I went on I saw that the work was Australian—born of the bush. I don't know about the girlishly emotional parts of the book—I leave that to girl readers to judge; but the descriptions of bush life and scenery came startlingly, painfully real to me, and I know that, as far as they are concerned, the book is true to Australia—the truest I ever read. I wrote to Miles Franklin, and she confessed that she was a girl. I saw her before leaving Sydney. She is just a little bush girl, barely twenty-one yet, and has scarcely ever been out of the bush in her life. She has lived her book, and I feel proud of it for the sake of the country I came from, where people toil and bake and suffer and are kind; where every second sun-burnt bushman is a sympathetic humorist, with the sadness of the bush deep in his eyes and a brave grin for the worst of times, and where every third bushman is a poet, with a big heart that keeps his pockets empty.
England, April 1901
TWENTY. SAME YARN (Cont.)
TWENTY-NINE. TO LIFE (Cont.)
'Possum Gully, near Goulburn, N.S. Wales, Australia, 1st March, 1899
Just a few lines to tell you that this story is all about myself—for no other purpose do I write it.
I make no apologies for being egotistical. In this particular I attempt an improvement on other autobiographies. Other autobiographies weary one with excuses for their egotism. What matters it to you if I am egotistical? What matters it to you though it should matter that I am egotistical?
_This is not a romance—I have too often faced the music of life to the tune of hardship to waste time in snivelling and gushing over fancies and dreams; neither is it a novel, but simply a yarn—a real yarn. Oh! as real, as really real—provided life itself is anything beyond a heartless little chimera—it is as real in its weariness and bitter heartache as the tall gum-trees, among which I first saw the light, are real in their stateliness and substantiality._
My sphere in life is not congenial to me. Oh, how I hate this living death which has swallowed all my teens, which is greedily devouring my youth, which will sap my prime, and in which my old age, if I am cursed with any, will be worn away! As my life creeps on for ever through the long toil-laden days with its agonizing monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality, how my spirit frets and champs its unbreakable fetters—all in vain!
You can dive into this story head first as it were. Do not fear encountering such trash as descriptions of beautiful sunsets and whisperings of wind. We (999 out of every 1000) can see nought in sunsets save as signs and tokens whether we may expect rain on the morrow or the contrary, so we will leave such vain and foolish imagining to those poets and painters—poor fools! Let us rejoice that we are not of their temperament!
Better be born a slave than a poet, better be born a black, better be born a cripple! For a poet must be companionless—alone! fearfully alone in the midst of his fellows whom he loves. Alone because his soul is as far above common mortals as common mortals are above monkeys.
There is no plot in this story, because there has been none in my life or in any other life which has come under my notice. I am one of a class, the individuals of which have not time for plots in their life, but have all they can do to get their work done without indulging in such a luxury.
I Remember, I Remember
"Boo, hoo! Ow, ow; Oh! oh! Me'll die. Boo, hoo. The pain, the pain! Boo, hoo!"
"Come, come, now. Daddy's little mate isn't going to turn Turk like that, is she? I'll put some fat out of the dinner-bag on it, and tie it up in my hanky. Don't cry any more now. Hush, you must not cry! You'll make old Dart buck if you kick up a row like that."
That is my first recollection of life. I was barely three. I can remember the majestic gum-trees surrounding us, the sun glinting on their straight white trunks, and falling on the gurgling fern-banked stream, which disappeared beneath a steep scrubby hill on our left. It was an hour past noon on a long clear summer day. We were on a distant part of the run, where my father had come to deposit salt. He had left home early in the dewy morning, carrying me in front of him on a little brown pillow which my mother had made for the purpose. We had put the lumps of rock-salt in the troughs on the other side of the creek. The stringybark roof of the salt-shed which protected the troughs from rain peeped out picturesquely from the musk and peppercorn shrubs by which it was densely surrounded, and was visible from where we lunched. I refilled the quart-pot in which we had boiled our tea with water from the creek, father doused our fire out with it, and then tied the quart to the D of his saddle with a piece of green hide. The green-hide bags in which the salt had been carried were hanging on the hooks of the pack-saddle which encumbered the bay pack-horse. Father's saddle and the brown pillow were on Dart, the big grey horse on which he generally carried me, and we were on the point of making tracks for home.
Preparatory to starting, father was muzzling the dogs which had just finished what lunch we had left. This process, to which the dogs strongly objected, was rendered necessary by a cogent reason. Father had brought his strychnine flask with him that day, and in hopes of causing the death of a few dingoes, had put strong doses of its contents in several dead beasts which we had come across.
Whilst the dogs were being muzzled, I busied myself in plucking ferns and flowers. This disturbed a big black snake which was curled at the butt of a tree fern.
"Bitey! bitey!" I yelled, and father came to my rescue, despatching the reptile with his stock-whip. He had been smoking, and dropped his pipe on the ferns. I picked it up, and the glowing embers which fell from it burnt my dirty little fat fists. Hence the noise with which my story commences.
In all probability it was the burning of my fingers which so indelibly impressed the incident on my infantile mind. My father was accustomed to take me with him, but that is the only jaunt at that date which I remember, and that is all I remember of it. We were twelve miles from home, but how we reached there I do not know.
My father was a swell in those days—held Bruggabrong, Bin Bin East, and Bin Bin West, which three stations totalled close on 200,000 acres. Father was admitted into swelldom merely by right of his position. His pedigree included nothing beyond a grandfather. My mother, however, was a full-fledged aristocrat. She was one of the Bossiers of Caddagat, who numbered among their ancestry one of the depraved old pirates who pillaged England with William the Conqueror.
"Dick" Melvyn was as renowned for hospitality as joviality, and our comfortable, wide-veranda'ed, irregularly built, slab house in its sheltered nook amid the Timlinbilly Ranges was ever full to overflowing. Doctors, lawyers, squatters, commercial travellers, bankers, journalists, tourists, and men of all kinds and classes crowded our well-spread board; but seldom a female face, except mother's, was to be seen there, Bruggabrong being a very out-of-the-way place.
I was both the terror and the amusement of the station. Old boundary-riders and drovers inquire after me with interest to this day.
I knew everyone's business, and was ever in danger of publishing it at an inopportune moment.
In flowery language, selected from slang used by the station hands, and long words picked up from our visitors, I propounded unanswerable questions which brought blushes to the cheeks of even tough old wine-bibbers.
Nothing would induce me to show more respect to an appraiser of the runs than to a boundary-rider, or to a clergyman than a drover. I am the same to this day. My organ of veneration must be flatter than a pancake, because to venerate a person simply for his position I never did or will. To me the Prince of Wales will be no more than a shearer, unless when I meet him he displays some personality apart from his princeship—otherwise he can go hang.
Authentic record of the date when first I had a horse to myself has not been kept, but it must have been early, as at eight I was fit to ride anything on the place. Side-saddle, man-saddle, no-saddle, or astride were all the same to me. I rode among the musterers as gamely as any of the big sunburnt bushmen.
My mother remonstrated, opined I would be a great unwomanly tomboy. My father poohed the idea.
"Let her alone, Lucy," he said, "let her alone. The rubbishing conventionalities which are the curse of her sex will bother her soon enough. Let her alone!"
So, smiling and saying, "She should have been a boy," my mother let me alone, and I rode, and in comparison to my size made as much noise with my stock-whip as any one. Accidents had no power over me, I came unscathed out of droves of them.
Fear I knew not. Did a drunken tramp happen to kick up a row, I was always the first to confront him, and, from my majestic and roly-poly height of two feet six inches, demand what he wanted.
A digging started near us and was worked by a score of two dark-browed sons of Italy. They made mother nervous, and she averred they were not to be trusted, but I liked and trusted them. They carried me on their broad shoulders, stuffed me with lollies and made a general pet of me. Without the quiver of a nerve I swung down their deepest shafts in the big bucket on the end of a rope attached to a rough windlass, which brought up the miners and the mullock.
My brothers and sisters contracted mumps, measles, scarlatina, and whooping-cough. I rolled in the bed with them yet came off scot-free. I romped with dogs, climbed trees after birds' nests, drove the bullocks in the dray, under the instructions of Ben, our bullocky, and always accompanied my father when he went swimming in the clear, mountain, shrub-lined stream which ran deep and lone among the weird gullies, thickly carpeted with maidenhair and numberless other species of ferns.
My mother shook her head over me and trembled for my future, but father seemed to consider me nothing unusual. He was my hero, confidant, encyclopedia, mate, and even my religion till I was ten. Since then I have been religionless.
Richard Melvyn, you were a fine fellow in those days! A kind and indulgent parent, a chivalrous husband, a capital host, a man full of ambition and gentlemanliness.
Amid these scenes, and the refinements and pleasures of Caddagat, which lies a hundred miles or so farther Riverinawards, I spent the first years of my childhood.
An Introduction to Possum Gully
I was nearly nine summers old when my father conceived the idea that he was wasting his talents by keeping them rolled up in the small napkin of an out-of-the-way place like Bruggabrong and the Bin Bin stations. Therefore he determined to take up his residence in a locality where he would have more scope for his ability.
When giving his reason for moving to my mother, he put the matter before her thus: The price of cattle and horses had fallen so of late years that it was impossible to make much of a living by breeding them. Sheep were the only profitable article to have nowadays, and it would be impossible to run them on Bruggabrong or either of the Bin Bins. The dingoes would work havoc among them in no time, and what they left the duffers would soon dispose of. As for bringing police into the matter, it would be worse than useless. They could not run the offenders to earth, and their efforts to do so would bring down upon their employer the wrath of the duffers. Result, all the fences on the station would be fired for a dead certainty, and the destruction of more than a hundred miles of heavy log fencing on rough country like Bruggabrong was no picnic to contemplate.
This was the feasible light in which father shaded his desire to leave. The fact of the matter was that the heartless harridan, discontent, had laid her claw-like hand upon him. His guests were ever assuring him he was buried and wasted in Timlinbilly's gullies. A man of his intelligence, coupled with his wonderful experience among stock, would, they averred, make a name and fortune for himself dealing or auctioneering if he only liked to try. Richard Melvyn began to think so too, and desired to try. He did try.
He gave up Bruggabrong, Bin Bin East and Bin Bin West, bought Possum Gully, a small farm of one thousand acres, and brought us all to live near Goulburn. Here we arrived one autumn afternoon. Father, mother, and children packed in the buggy, myself, and the one servant-girl, who had accompanied us, on horseback. The one man father had retained in his service was awaiting our arrival. He had preceded us with a bullock-drayload of furniture and belongings, which was all father had retained of his household property. Just sufficient for us to get along with, until he had time to settle and purchase more, he said. That was ten years ago, and that is the only furniture we possess yet—just enough to get along with.
My first impression of Possum Gully was bitter disappointment—an impression which time has failed to soften or wipe away.
How flat, common, and monotonous the scenery appeared after the rugged peaks of the Timlinbilly Range!
Our new house was a ten-roomed wooden structure, built on a barren hillside. Crooked stunted gums and stringybarks, with a thick underscrub of wild cherry, hop, and hybrid wattle, clothed the spurs which ran up from the back of the detached kitchen. Away from the front of the house were flats, bearing evidence of cultivation, but a drop of water was nowhere to be seen. Later, we discovered a few round, deep, weedy waterholes down on the flat, which in rainy weather swelled to a stream which swept all before it. Possum Gully is one of the best watered spots in the district, and in that respect has stood to its guns in the bitterest drought. Use and knowledge have taught us the full value of its fairly clear and beautifully soft water. Just then, however, coming from the mountains where every gully had its limpid creek, we turned in disgust from the idea of having to drink this water.
I felt cramped on our new run. It was only three miles wide at its broadest point. Was I always, always, always to live here, and never, never, never to go back to Bruggabrong? That was the burden of the grief with which I sobbed myself to sleep on the first night after our arrival.
Mother felt dubious of her husband's ability to make a living off a thousand acres, half of which were fit to run nothing but wallabies, but father was full of plans, and very sanguine concerning his future. He was not going to squat henlike on his place as the cockies around him did. He meant to deal in stock making of Possum Gully merely a depot on which to run some of his bargains until reselling.
Dear, oh dear! It was terrible to think he had wasted the greater part of his life among the hills where the mail came but once a week, and where the nearest town, of 650 inhabitants, was forty-six miles distant. And the road had been impassable for vehicles. Here, only seventeen miles from a city like Goulburn, with splendid roads, mail thrice weekly, and a railway platform only eight miles away, why, man, my fortune is made! Such were the sentiments to which he gave birth out of the fullness of his hopeful heart.
Ere the diggings had broken out on Bruggabrong, our nearest neighbour, excepting, of course, boundary-riders, was seventeen miles distant. Possum Gully was a thickly populated district, and here we were surrounded by homes ranging from half a mile to two and three miles away. This was a new experience for us, and it took us some time to become accustomed to the advantage and disadvantage of the situation. Did we require an article, we found it handy, but decidedly the reverse when our neighbours borrowed from us, and, in the greater percentage of cases, failed to return the loan.
A Lifeless Life
Possum Gully was stagnant—stagnant with the narrow stagnation prevalent in all old country places.
Its residents were principally married folk and children under sixteen. The boys, as they attained manhood, drifted outback to shear, drove, or to take up land. They found it too slow at home, and besides there was not room enough for them there when they passed childhood.
Nothing ever happened there. Time was no object, and the days slid quietly into the river of years, distinguished one from another by name alone. An occasional birth or death was a big event, and the biggest event of all was the advent of a new resident.
When such a thing occurred it was customary for all the male heads of families to pay a visit of inspection, to judge if the new-comers were worthy of admittance into the bosom of the society of the neighbourhood. Should their report prove favourable, then their wives finished the ceremony of inauguration by paying a friendly visit.
After his arrival at Possum Gully father was much away on business, and so on my mother fell the ordeal of receiving the callers, male and female.
The men were honest, good-natured, respectable, common bushmen farmers. Too friendly to pay a short call, they came and sat for hours yarning about nothing in particular. This bored my gentle mother excessively. She attempted to entertain them with conversation of current literature and subjects of the day, but her efforts fell flat. She might as well have spoken in French.
They conversed for hours and hours about dairying, interspersed with pointless anecdotes of the man who had lived there before us. I found them very tame.
After graphic descriptions of life on big stations outback, and the dashing snake yarns told by our kitchen-folk at Bruggabrong, and the anecdotes of African hunting, travel, and society life which had often formed our guests' subject of conversation, this endless fiddle-faddle of the price of farm produce and the state of crops was very fatuous.
Those men, like everyone else, only talked shop. I say nothing in condemnation of it, but merely point out that it did not then interest us, as we were not living in that shop just then.
Mrs Melvyn must have found favour in the eyes of the specimens of the lords of creation resident at Possum Gully, as all the matrons of the community hastened to call on her, and vied with each other in a display of friendliness and good-nature. They brought presents of poultry, jam, butter, and suchlike. They came at two o'clock and stayed till dark. They inventoried the furniture, gave mother cookery recipes, described minutely the unsurpassable talents of each of their children, and descanted volubly upon the best way of setting turkey hens. On taking their departure they cordially invited us all to return their visits, and begged mother to allow her children to spend a day with theirs.
We had been resident in our new quarters nearly a month when my parents received an intimation from the teacher of the public school, two miles distant, to the effect that the law demanded that they should send their children to school. It upset my mother greatly. What was she to do?
"Do! Bundle the nippers off to school as quickly as possible, of course," said my father.
My mother objected. She proposed a governess now and a good boarding-school later on. She had heard such dreadful stories of public schools! It was terrible to be compelled to send her darlings to one; they would be ruined in a week!
"Not they," said father. "Run them off for a week or two, or a month at the outside. They can't come to any harm in that time. After that we will get a governess. You are in no state of health to worry about one just now, and it is utterly impossible that I can see about the matter at present. I have several specs. on foot that I must attend to. Send the youngsters to school down here for the present."
We went to school, and in our dainty befrilled pinafores and light shoes were regarded as great swells by the other scholars. They for the most part were the children of very poor farmers, whose farm earnings were augmented by road-work, wood-carting, or any such labour which came within their grasp. All the boys went barefooted, also a moiety of the girls. The school was situated on a wild scrubby hill, and the teacher boarded with a resident a mile from it. He was a man addicted to drink, and the parents of his scholars lived in daily expectation of seeing his dismissal from the service.
It is nearly ten years since the twins (who came next to me) and I were enrolled as pupils of the Tiger Swamp public school. My education was completed there; so was that of the twins, who are eleven months younger than I. Also my other brothers and sisters are quickly getting finishedwards; but that is the only school any of us have seen or known. There was even a time when father spoke of filling in the free forms for our attendance there. But mother—a woman's pride bears more wear than a man's—would never allow us to come to that.
All our neighbours were very friendly; but one in particular, a James Blackshaw, proved himself most desirous of being comradely with us. He was a sort of self-constituted sheik of the community. It was usual for him to take all new-comers under his wing, and with officious good-nature endeavour to make them feel at home. He called on us daily, tied his horse to the paling fence beneath the shade of a sallie-tree in the backyard, and when mother was unable to see him he was content to yarn for an hour or two with Jane Haizelip, our servant-girl.
Jane disliked Possum Gully as much as I did. Her feeling being much more defined, it was amusing to hear the flat-out opinions she expressed to Mr Blackshaw, whom, by the way, she termed "a mooching hen of a chap".
"I suppose, Jane, you like being here near Goulburn, better than that out-of-the-way place you came from," he said one morning as he comfortably settled himself on an old sofa in the kitchen.
"No jolly fear. Out-of-the-way place! There was more life at Bruggabrong in a day than you crawlers 'ud see here all yer lives," she retorted with vigour, energetically pommelling a batch of bread which she was mixing.
"Why, at Brugga it was as good as a show every week. On Saturday evening all the coves used to come in for their mail. They'd stay till Sunday evenin'. Splitters, boundary-riders, dogtrappers—every manjack of 'em. Some of us wuz always good fer a toon on the concertina, and the rest would dance. We had fun to no end. A girl could have a fly round and a lark or two there I tell you; but here," and she emitted a snort of contempt, "there ain't one bloomin' feller to do a mash with. I'm full of the place. Only I promised to stick to the missus a while, I'd scoot tomorrer. It's the dead-and-alivest hole I ever seen."
"You'll git used to it by and by," said Blackshaw.
"Used to it! A person 'ud hev to be brought up onder a hen to git used to the dullness of this hole."
"You wasn't brought up under a hen, or it must have been a big Bramer Pooter, if you were," replied he, noting the liberal proportions of her figure as she hauled a couple of heavy pots off the fire. He did not offer to help her. Etiquette of that sort was beyond his ken.
"You oughter go out more and then you wouldn't find it so dull," he said, after she had placed the pots on the floor.
"Go out! Where 'ud I go to, pray?"
"Drop in an' see my missus again when you git time. You're always welcome."
"Thanks, but I had plenty of goin' to see your missus last time."
"Why, I wasn't there harf an hour wen she had to strip off her clean duds an' go an' milk. I don't think much of any of the men around here. They let the women work too hard. I never see such a tired wore-out set of women. It puts me in mind ev the time wen the black fellers made the gins do all the work. Why, on Bruggabrong the women never had to do no outside work, only on a great pinch wen all the men were away at a fire or a muster. Down here they do everything. They do all the milkin', and pig-feedin', and poddy-rarin'. It makes me feel fit to retch. I don't know whether it's because the men is crawlers or whether it's dairyin'. I don't think much of dairyin'. It's slavin', an' delvin', an' scrapin' yer eyeballs out from mornin' to night, and nothink to show for your pains; and now you'll oblige me, Mr Blackshaw, if youll lollop somewhere else for a minute or two. I want to sweep under that sofer."
This had the effect of making him depart. He said good morning and went off, not sure whether he was most amused or insulted.
A Career Which Soon Careered To An End
While mother, Jane Haizelip, and I found the days long and life slow, father was enjoying himself immensely.
He had embarked upon a lively career—that gambling trade known as dealing in stock.
When he was not away in Riverina inspecting a flock of sheep, he was attending the Homebush Fat Stock Sales, rushing away out to Bourke, or tearing off down the Shoalhaven to buy some dairy heifers.
He was a familiar figure at the Goulburn sale-yards every Wednesday, always going into town the day before and not returning till a day, and often two days, afterwards.
He was in great demand among drovers and auctioneers; and in the stock news his name was always mentioned in connection with all the principal sales in the colony.
It takes an astute, clear-headed man to keep himself off shore in stock dealing. I never yet heard of a dealer who occasionally did not temporarily, if not totally, go to the wall.
He need not necessarily be downright unscrupulous, but if he wishes to profit he must not be overburdened with niceties in the point of honour. That is where Richard Melvyn fell through. He was crippled with too many Utopian ideas of honesty, and was too soft ever to come off anything but second-best in a deal. He might as well have attempted to make his fortune by scraping a fiddle up and down Auburn Street, Goulburn. His dealing career was short and merry. His vanity to be considered a socialistic fellow, who was as ready to take a glass with a swaggie as a swell, and the lavish shouting which this principle incurred, made great inroads on his means. Losing money every time he sold a beast, wasting stamps galore on letters to endless auctioneers, frequently remaining in town half a week at a stretch, and being hail-fellow to all the spongers to be found on the trail of such as he, quickly left him on the verge of bankruptcy. Some of his contemporaries say it was grog that did it all.
Had he kept clear-headed he was a smart fellow, and gave promise of doing well, but his head would not stand alcohol, and by it he was undermined in no time. In considerably less than a twelvemonth all the spare capital in his coffers from the disposal of Bruggabrong and the Bin Bins had been squandered. He had become so hard up that to pay the drovers in his last venture he was forced to sell the calves of the few milch-cows retained for household uses.
At this time it came to my father's knowledge that one of our bishops had money held in trust for the Church. On good security he was giving this out for usury, the same as condemned in the big Bible, out of which he took the text of the dry-hash sermons with which he bored his fashionable congregations in his cathedral on Sundays.
Father took advantage of this Reverend's inconsistency and mortgaged Possum Gully. With the money thus obtained he started once more and managed to make a scant livelihood and pay the interest on the bishop's loan. In four or five years he had again reached loggerheads. The price of stock had fallen so that there was nothing to be made out of dealing in them.
Richard Melvyn resolved to live as those around him—start a dairy; run it with his family, who would also rear poultry for sale.
As instruments of the dairying trade he procured fifty milch-cows, the calves of which had to be "poddied", and a hand cream-separator.
I was in my fifteenth year when we began dairying; the twins Horace and Gertie were, as you already know, eleven months younger. Horace, had there been any one to train him, contained the makings of a splendid man; but having no one to bring him up in the way he should go, he was a churlish and trying bully, and the issue of his character doubtful.
Gertie milked thirteen cows, and I eighteen, morning and evening. Horace and mother, between them, milked the remaining seventeen.
Among the dairying fraternity little toddlers, ere they are big enough to hold a bucket, learn to milk. Thus their hands become inured to the motion, and it does not affect them. With us it was different. Being almost full grown when we started to milk, and then plunging heavily into the exercise, it had a painful effect upon us. Our hands and arms, as far as the elbows, swelled, so that our sleep at night was often disturbed by pain.
Mother made the butter. She had to rise at two and three o'clock in the morning, in order that it would be cool and firm enough to print for market.
Jane Haizelip had left us a year previously, and we could afford no one to take her place. The heavy work told upon my gentle, refined mother. She grew thin and careworn, and often cross. My father's share of the work was to break in the wild cows, separate the milk, and take the butter into town to the grocer's establishment where we obtained our supplies.
Dick Melvyn of Bruggabrong was not recognizable in Dick Melvyn, dairy farmer and cocky of Possum Gully. The former had been a man worthy of the name. The latter was a slave of drink, careless, even dirty and bedraggled in his personal appearance. He disregarded all manners, and had become far more plebeian and common than the most miserable specimen of humanity around him. The support of his family, yet not, its support. The head of his family, yet failing to fulfil the obligations demanded of one in that capacity. He seemed to lose all love and interest in his family, and grew cross and silent, utterly without pride and pluck. Formerly so kind and gentle with animals, now he was the reverse.
His cruelty to the young cows and want of patience with them I can never forget. It has often brought upon me the threat of immediate extermination for volunteering scathing and undesired opinions on his conduct.
The part of the dairying that he positively gloried in was going to town with the butter. He frequently remained in for two or three days, as often as not spending all the money he got for the butter in a drunken spree. Then he would return to curse his luck because his dairy did not pay as well as those of some of our neighbours.
The curse of Eve being upon my poor mother in those days, she was unable to follow her husband. Pride forbade her appealing to her neighbours, so on me devolved the duty of tracking my father from one pub to another and bringing him home.
Had I done justice to my mother's training I would have honoured my paternal parent in spite of all this, but I am an individual ever doing things I oughtn't at the time I shouldn't.
Coming home, often after midnight, with my drunken father talking maudlin conceited nonsense beside me, I developed curious ideas on the fifth commandment. Those journeys in the spring-cart through the soft faint starlight were conducive to thought. My father, like most men when under the influence of liquor, would allow no one but himself to handle the reins, and he was often so incapable that he would keep turning the horse round and round in the one place. It is a marvel we never met with an accident. I was not nervous, but quite content to take whatever came, and our trusty old horse fulfilled his duty, ever faithfully taking us home along the gum-tree-lined road.
My mother had taught me from the Bible that I should honour my parents, whether they were deserving of honour or not.
Dick Melvyn being my father did not blind me to the fact that he was a despicable, selfish, weak creature, and as such I despised him with the relentlessness of fifteen, which makes no allowance for human frailty and weakness. Disgust, not honour, was the feeling which possessed me when I studied the matter.
Towards mother I felt differently. A woman is but the helpless tool of man—a creature of circumstances.
Seeing my father beside me, and thinking of his infant with its mother, eating her heart out with anxiety at home, this was the reasoning which took possession of me. Among other such inexpressible thoughts I got lost, grew dizzy, and drew back appalled at the spirit which was maturing within me. It was a grim lonely one, which I vainly tried to hide in a bosom which was not big or strong enough for its comfortable habitation. It was as a climbing plant without a pole—it groped about the ground, bruised itself, and became hungry searching for something strong to which to cling. Needing a master-hand to train and prune, it was becoming rank and sour.
Disjointed Sketches And Grumbles
It was my duty to "rare the poddies". This is the most godless occupation in which it has been my lot to engage. I did a great amount of thinking while feeding them—for, by the way, I am afflicted with the power of thought, which is a heavy curse. The less a person thinks and inquires regarding the why and the wherefore and the justice of things, when dragging along through life, the happier it is for him, and doubly, trebly so, for her.
Poor little calves! Slaves to the greed of man! Bereft of the mothers with which Nature has provided them, and compelled to exist on milk from the separator, often thick, sour, and icy cold.
Besides the milking I did, before I went to school every morning, for which I had to prepare myself and the younger children, and to which we had to walk two miles. I had to feed thirty calves and wash the breakfast dishes. On returning from school in the afternoon, often in a state of exhaustion from walking in the blazing sun, I had the same duties over again, and in addition boots to clean and home lessons to prepare for the morrow. I had to relinquish my piano practice for want of time.
Ah, those short, short nights of rest and long, long days of toil! It seems to me that dairying means slavery in the hands of poor people who cannot afford hired labour. I am not writing of dairy-farming, the genteel and artistic profession as eulogized in leading articles of agricultural newspapers and as taught in agricultural colleges. I am depicting practical dairying as I have lived it, and seen it lived, by dozens of families around me.
It takes a great deal of work to produce even one pound of butter fit for market. At the time I mention it was 3d. and 4d. per lb., so it was much work and small pay. It was slaving and delving from morning till night—Sundays, week-days, and holidays, all alike were work-days to us.
Hard graft is a great leveller. Household drudgery, woodcutting, milking, and gardening soon roughen the hands and dim the outside polish. When the body is wearied with much toil the desire to cultivate the mind, or the cultivation it has already received, is gradually wiped out. Thus it was with my parents. They had dropped from swelldom to peasantism. They were among and of the peasantry. None of their former acquaintances came within their circle now, for the iron ungodly hand of class distinction has settled surely down upon Australian society—Australia's democracy is only a tradition of the past.
I say naught against the lower life. The peasantry are the bulwarks of every nation. The life of a peasant is, to a peasant who is a peasant with a peasant's soul, when times are good and when seasons smile, a grand life. It is honest, clean, and wholesome. But the life of a peasant to me is purgatory. Those around me worked from morning till night and then enjoyed their well-earned sleep. They had but two states of existence—work and sleep.
There was a third part in me which cried out to be fed. I longed for the arts. Music was a passion with me. I borrowed every book in the neighbourhood and stole hours from rest to read them. This told upon me and made my physical burdens harder for me than for other children of my years around me. That third was the strongest part of me. In it I lived a dream-life with writers, artists, and musicians. Hope, sweet, cruel, delusive Hope, whispered in my ear that life was long with much by and by, and in that by and by my dream-life would be real. So on I went with that gleaming lake in the distance beckoning me to come and sail on its silver waters, and Inexperience, conceited, blind Inexperience, failing to show the impassable pit between it and me.
To return to the dairying.
Old and young alike we earned our scant livelihood by the heavy sweat of our brows. Still, we did gain an honest living. We were not ashamed to look day in the face, and fought our way against all odds with the stubborn independence of our British ancestors. But when 1894 went out without rain, and '95, hot, dry, pitiless '95, succeeded it, there came a time when it was impossible to make a living.
The scorching furnace-breath winds shrivelled every blade of grass, dust and the moan of starving stock filled the air, vegetables became a thing of the past. The calves I had reared died one by one, and the cows followed in their footsteps.
I had left school then, and my mother and father and I spent the days in lifting our cows. When our strength proved inadequate, the help of neighbours had to be called in, and father would give his services in return. Only a few of our more well-to-do neighbours had been able to send their stock away, or had any better place to which to transfer them. The majority of them were in as tight a plight as ourselves. This cow-lifting became quite a trade, the whole day being spent in it and in discussing the bad prospect ahead if the drought continued.
Many an extra line of care furrowed the brows of the disheartened bushmen then. Not only was their living taken from them by the drought, but there is nothing more heartrending than to have poor beasts, especially dairy cows, so familiar, valued, and loved, pleading for food day after day in their piteous dumb way when one has it not to give.
We shore ourselves of all but the bare necessaries of life, but even they for a family of ten are considerable, and it was a mighty tussle to get both ends within cover of meeting. We felt the full force of the heavy hand of poverty—the most stinging kind of poverty too, that which still holds up its head and keeps an outside appearance. Far more grinding is this than the poverty inherited from generations which is not ashamed of itself, and has not as an accompaniment the wounded pride and humiliation which attacked us.
Some there are who argue that poverty does not mean unhappiness. Let those try what it is to be destitute of even one companionable friend, what it means to be forced to exist in an alien sphere of society, what it is like to be unable to afford a stamp to write to a friend; let them long as passionately as I have longed for reading and music, and be unable to procure it because of poverty; let poverty force them into doing work against which every fibre of their being revolts, as it has forced me, and then see if their lives will be happy.
My school life had been dull and uneventful. The one incident of any note had been the day that the teacher, better known as old Harris, "stood up" to the inspector. The latter was a precise, collar-and-cuffs sort of little man. He gave one the impression of having all his ideas on the subjects he thought worthy of attention carefully culled and packed in his brain-pan, and neatly labelled, so that he might without fluster pounce upon any of them at a moment's warning. He was gentlemanly and respectable, and discharged his duties punctiliously in a manner reflecting credit on himself and his position, but, comparing the mind of a philanthropist to the Murrumbidgee in breadth, his, in comparison, might be likened to the flow of a bucket of water in a dray-rut.
On the day in question—a precious hot one it was—he had finished examining us in most subjects, and was looking at our copy-books. He looked up from them, ahemed! and fastidiously straightened his waistcoat.
"Comparisons are odious, but, unfortunately, I am forced to draw one now."
"This writing is much inferior to that of town scholars. It is very shaky and irregular. Also, I notice that the children seem stupid and dull. I don't like putting it so plainly, but, in fact, ah, they seem to be possessed with the proverbial stupidity of country people. How do you account for this?"
Poor old Harris! In spite of his drunken habits and inability to properly discharge his duties, he had a warm heart and much fellowshiply humanity in him. He understood and loved his pupils, and would not have aspersions cast upon them. Besides, the nip he had taken to brace himself to meet the inspector had been two or three, and they robbed him of the discretion which otherwise might have kept him silent.
"Si-r-r-r, I can and will account for it. Look you at every one of those children. Every one, right down to this little tot," indicating a little girl of five, "has to milk and work hard before and after school, besides walk on an average two miles to and from school in this infernal heat. Most of the elder boys and girls milk on an average fourteen cows morning and evening. You try that treatment for a week or two, my fine gentleman, and then see if your fist doesn't ache and shake so that you can't write at all. See if you won't look a trifle dozy. Stupidity of country people be hanged! If you had to work from morning till night in the heat and dust, and get precious little for it too, I bet you wouldn't have much time to scrape your finger-nails, read science notes, and look smart." Here he took off his coat and shaped up to his superior.
The inspector drew back in consternation.
"Mr Harris, you forget yourself!"
At this juncture they went outside together. What happened there we never knew. That is all we heard of the matter except the numerous garbled accounts which were carried home that afternoon.
"Sybylla, what are you doing? Where is your mother?"
"I'm ironing. Mother's down at the fowl-house seeing after some chickens. What do you want?"
It was my father who addressed me. Time, 2 o'clock p.m. Thermometer hung in the shade of the veranda registering 105 1/2 degrees.
"I see Blackshaw coming across the flat. Call your mother. You bring the leg-ropes—I've got the dog-leg. Come at once; we'll give the cows another lift. Poor devils—might as well knock 'em on the head at once, but there might be rain next moon. This drought can't last for ever."
I called mother, got the leg-ropes, and set off, pulling my sun-bonnet closely over my face to protect my eyes from the dust which was driving from the west in blinding clouds. The dog-leg to which father had referred was three poles about eight or ten feet long, strapped together so they could be stood up. It was an arrangement father had devised to facilitate our labour in lifting the cows. A fourth and longer pole was placed across the fork formed by the three, and to one end of this were tied a couple of leg-ropes, after being placed round the beast, one beneath the flank and one around the girth. On the other end of this pole we would put our weight while one man would lift with the tail and another with the horns. New-chum cows would sulk, and we would have great work with them; but those used to the performance would help themselves, and up they'd go as nice as a daisy. The only art needed was to draw the pole back quickly before the cows could move, or the leg-ropes would pull them over again.
On this afternoon we had six cows to lift. We struggled manfully, and got five on their feet, and then proceeded to where the last one was lying, back downwards, on a shadeless stony spot on the side of a hill. The men slewed her round by the tail, while mother and I fixed the dog-leg and adjusted the ropes. We got the cow up, but the poor beast was so weak and knocked about that she immediately fell down again. We resolved to let her have a few minutes' spell before making another attempt at lifting. There was not a blade of grass to be seen, and the ground was too dusty to sit on. We were too overdone to make more than one-worded utterances, so waited silently in the blazing sun, closing our eyes against the dust.
A few light wind-smitten clouds made wan streaks across the white sky, haggard with the fierce relentless glare of the afternoon sun. Weariness was written across my mother's delicate careworn features, and found expression in my father's knitted brows and dusty face. Blackshaw was weary, and said so, as he wiped the dust, made mud with perspiration, off his cheeks. I was weary—my limbs ached with the heat and work. The poor beast stretched at our feet was weary. All nature was weary, and seemed to sing a dirge to that effect in the furnace-breath wind which roared among the trees on the low ranges at our back and smote the parched and thirsty ground. All were weary, all but the sun. He seemed to glory in his power, relentless and untiring, as he swung boldly in the sky, triumphantly leering down upon his helpless victims.
This was life—my life—my career, my brilliant career! I was fifteen—fifteen! A few fleeting hours and I would be old as those around me. I looked at them as they stood there, weary, and turning down the other side of the hill of life. When young, no doubt they had hoped for, and dreamed of, better things—had even known them. But here they were. This had been their life; this was their career. It was, and in all probability would be, mine too. My life—my career—my brilliant career!
The summer sun danced on. Summer is fiendish, and life is a curse, I said in my heart. What a great dull hard rock the world was! On it were a few barren narrow ledges, and on these, by exerting ourselves so that the force wears off our finger-nails, it allows us to hang for a year or two, and then hurls us off into outer darkness and oblivion, perhaps to endure worse torture than this.
The poor beast moaned. The lifting had strained her, and there were patches of hide worn off her the size of breakfast-plates, sore and most harrowing to look upon.
It takes great suffering to wring a moan from the patience of a cow. I turned my head away, and with the impatience and one-sided reasoning common to fifteen, asked God what He meant by this. It is well enough to heap suffering on human beings, seeing it is supposed to be merely a probation for a better world, but animals—poor, innocent animals—why are they tortured so?
"Come now, we'll lift her once more," said my father. At it we went again; it is surprising what weight there is in the poorest cow. With great struggling we got her to her feet once more, and were careful this time to hold her till she got steady on her legs. Father and mother at the tail and Blackshaw and I at the horns, we marched her home and gave her a bran mash. Then we turned to our work in the house while the men sat and smoked and spat on the veranda, discussing the drought for an hour, at the end of which time they went to help someone else with their stock. I made up the fire and we continued our ironing, which had been interrupted some hours before. It was hot unpleasant work on such a day. We were forced to keep the doors and windows closed on account of the wind and dust. We were hot and tired, and our feet ached so that we could scarcely stand on them.
Summer is fiendish and life is a curse, I said in my heart.
Day after day the drought continued. Now and again there would be a few days of the raging wind before mentioned, which carried the dry grass off the paddocks and piled it against the fences, darkened the air with dust, and seemed to promise rain, but ever it dispersed whence it came, taking with it the few clouds it had gathered up; and for weeks and weeks at a stretch, from horizon to horizon, was never a speck to mar the cruel dazzling brilliance of the metal sky.
I said the one thing many times but, ah, it was a weary thing which took much repetition that familiarity might wear away a little of its bitterness!
In spite of our pottering and lifting, with the exception of five, all our cows eventually died; and even these and a couple of horses had as much as they could do to live on the whole of the thousand acres which, without reserve, were at their disposal. They had hardly any grass—it was merely the warmth and water which kept them alive. Needless to say, we were on our beam-ends financially. However, with a little help from more fortunate relatives, and with the money obtained from the sale of the cowhides and mother's poultry, we managed to pay the interest on the money borrowed from the bishop, and keep bread in our mouths.
Unfortunately for us, at this time the bishop's agent proved a scoundrel and absconded. My father held receipts to show that to this agent he had regularly paid the interest of the money borrowed; but through some finicking point of law, because we had not money to contend with him, his lordship the bishop now refused to acknowledge his agent and one-time pillar of the cathedral, and, having law on his side, served a writ on us. In the face of our misfortunes this was too much: we begged for time, which plea he answered by putting in the bailiff and selling everything we possessed. Our five cows, two horses, our milk separator, plough, cart, dray, buggy, even our cooking utensils, books, pictures, furniture, father's watch—our very beds, pillows, and blankets. Not a thing besides what we stood up in was left us, and this was money for the payment of which my father held receipts.
But for the generosity of our relatives we would have been in a pretty plight. They sent us sufficient means to buy in everything, and our neighbours came to our rescue with enthusiasm and warm-hearted genuine sympathy. The bailiff—a gentleman to the core—seeing how matters stood, helped us to the utmost of his power.
Our goods were disposed of on the premises, and the neighbours arranged a mock sale, at which the bailiff winked. Our friends had sent the money, and the neighbours did the bidding—none bidding against each other—and thus our belongings went for a mere trifle. Every cloud has its silver lining, and the black cloud of poverty has a very bright silver lining.
In poverty you can get at the real heart of people as you can never do if rich. People are your friends from pure friendship and love, not from sponging self-interestedness. It is worth being poor once or twice in a lifetime just to experience the blessing and heartrestfulness of a little genuine reality in the way of love and friendship. Not that it is impossible for opulence to have genuine friends, but rich people, I fear, must ever have at their heart cankering suspicion to hint that the friendship and love lavished upon them is merely self-interestedness and sham, the implements of trade used by the fawning toadies who swarm around wealth.
In conjunction with the bishop's name, the approaching sale of our goods had been duly advertised in the local papers, and my father received several letters of sympathy from the clergy deploring the conduct of the bishop. These letters were from men unknown to father, who were unaware that Richard Melvyn was being sold off for a debt already paid.
By the generosity of relatives and the goodness of neighbours as kind as ever breathed, our furniture was our own again, but what were we to do for a living? Our crops were withering in the fields for want of rain, and we had but five cows—not an over-bright outlook. As I was getting to bed one night my mother came into my room and said seriously, "Sybylla, I want to have a talk with you."
"Talk away," I responded rather sullenly, for I expected a long sing-song about my good-for-nothingness in general—a subject of which I was heartily tired.
"Sybylla, I've been studying the matter over a lot lately. It's no use, we cannot afford to keep you at home. You'll have to get something to do."
I made no reply, and my mother continued, "I am afraid we will have to break up the home altogether. It's no use; your father has no idea of making a living. I regret the day I ever saw him. Since he has taken to drink he has no more idea of how to make a living than a cat. I will have to give the little ones to some of the relatives; the bigger ones will have to go out to service, and so will your father and I. That's all I can see ahead of us. Poor little Gertie is too young to go out in the world (she was not twelve months younger than I); she must go to your grandmother, I think."
I still made no reply, so my mother inquired, "Well, Sybylla, what do you think of the matter?"
"Do you think it absolutely necessary to break up the home?" I said.
"Well, you suggest something better if you are so clever," said mother, crossly. "That is always the way; if I suggest a thing it is immediately put down, yet there is never any one to think of things but me. What would you do? I suppose you think you could make a living on the place for us yourself."
"Why can't we live at home? Blackshaw and Jansen have no bigger places than we, and families just as large, and yet they make a living. It would be terrible for the little ones to grow up separated; they would be no more to each other than strangers."
"Yes; it is all very well for you to talk like that, but how is your father to start again with only five cows in the world? It's no use, you never talk sense. You'll find my way is always the best in the end."
"Would it not be easier," I replied, "for our relations to each give a little towards setting us up again, than to be burdened with the whole responsibility of rearing a child? I'm sure they'd much prefer it."
"Yes, perhaps it would be better, but I think you will have to get your own living. What would they say about having to support such a big girl as you are?"
"I will go and earn my own living, and when you get me weeded out of the family you will have a perfect paradise. Having no evil to copy, the children will grow up saints," I said bitterly.
"Now, Sybylla, it is foolish to talk like that, for you know that you take no interest in your work. If you'd turn to and help me rear poultry and make dresses—and why don't you take to cooking?"
"Take to cooking!" I retorted with scorn. "The fire that a fellow has to endure on that old oven would kill a horse, and the grit and dirt of clearing it up grinds on my very nerves. Besides, if I ever do want to do any extra fancy cooking, we either can't afford the butter or the currants, or else the eggs are too scarce! Cook, be grannied!"
"Sybylla! Sybylla, you are getting very vulgar!"
"Yes, I once was foolish enough to try and be polite, but I've given it up. My style of talk is quite good enough for my company. What on earth does it matter whether I'm vulgar or not. I can feed calves and milk and grind out my days here just as well vulgar as unvulgar," I answered savagely.
"There, you see you are always discontented about your home. It's no use; the only thing is for you to earn your own living."
"I will earn my own living."
"What will you do? Will you be examined for a pupil-teacher? That is a very nice occupation for girls."
"What chance would I have in a competitive exam. against Goulburn girls? They all have good teachers and give up their time to study. I only have old Harris, and he is the most idiotic old animal alive; besides, I loathe the very thought of teaching. I'd as soon go on the wallaby."
"You are not old enough to be a general servant or a cook; you have not experience enough to be a housemaid; you don't take to sewing, and there is no chance of being accepted as a hospital nurse: you must confess there is nothing you can do. You are really a very useless girl for your age."
"There are heaps of things I could do."
"Tell me a few of them."
I was silent. The professions at which I felt I had the latent power to excel, were I but given a chance, were in a sphere far above us, and to mention my feelings and ambitions to my matter-of-fact practical mother would bring upon me worse ridicule than I was already forced to endure day by day.
"Mention a few of the things you could do."
I might as well have named flying as the professions I was thinking of.Music was the least unmentionable of them, so I brought it forward.
"Music! But it would take years of training and great expense before you could earn anything at that! It is quite out of the question. The only thing for you to do is to settle down and take interest in your work, and help make a living at home, or else go out as a nurse-girl, and work your way up. If you have any ability in you it would soon show. If you think you could do such strokes, and the home work is not good enough for you, go out and show the world what a wonderful creature you are."
"Mother, you are unjust and cruel!" I exclaimed. "You do not understand one at all. I never thought I could do strokes. I cannot help being constituted so that grimy manual labour is hateful to me, for it is hateful to me, and I hate it more and more every day, and you can preach and preach till you go black in the face, and still I'll hate it more than ever. If I have to do it all my life, and if I'm cursed with a long life, I'll hate it just as much at the end as I do now. I'm sure it's not any wish of mine that I'm born with inclinations for better things. If I could be born again, and had the designing of myself, I'd be born the lowest and coarsest-minded person imaginable, so that I could find plenty of companionship, or I'd be born an idiot, which would be better still."
"Sybylla!" said my mother in a shocked tone. "It is a wonder God doesn't strike you dead; I never heard—"
"I don't believe there is a God," I said fiercely, "and if there is, He's not the merciful being He's always depicted, or He wouldn't be always torturing me for His own amusement."
"Sybylla, Sybylla! That I should ever have nurtured a child to grow up like this! Do you know that—"
"I only know that I hate this life. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it," I said vehemently.
"Talk about going out to earn your own living! Why, there's not a woman living would have you in her house above a day. You are a perfect she-devil. Oh God!" And my mother began to cry. "What have I done to be cursed with such a child? There is not another woman in the district with such a burden put upon her. What have I done? I can only trust that my prayers to God for you will soften your evil heart."
"If your prayers are answered, it's more than ever mine were," I retorted.
"Your prayers!" said my mother, with scorn. "The horror of a child not yet sixteen being so hardened. I don't know what to make of you, you never cry or ask forgiveness. There's dear little Gertie now, she is often naughty, but when I correct her she frets and worries and shows herself to be a human being and not a fiend."
So saying my mother went out of the room.
"I've asked forgiveness once too often, to be sat upon for my pains," I called out.
"I believe you're mad. That is the only feasible excuse I can make for your conduct," she said as a parting shot.
"Why the deuce don't you two get to bed and not wrangle like a pair of cats in the middle of the night, disturbing a man's rest?" came in my father's voice from amid the bedclothes.
My mother is a good woman—a very good woman—and I am, I think, not quite all criminality, but we do not pull together. I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.
She wondered why I did not cry and beg forgiveness, and thereby give evidence of being human. I was too wrought up for tears. Ah, that tears might have come to relieve my overburdened heart! I took up the home-made tallow candle in its tin stick and looked at my pretty sleeping sister Gertie (she and I shared the one bed). It was as mother had said. If Gertie was scolded for any of her shortcomings, she immediately took refuge in tears, said she was sorry, obtained forgiveness, and straightaway forgot the whole matter. She came within the range of mother's understanding, I did not; she had feelings, mother thought, I had none. Did my mother understand me, she would know that I am capable of more depths of agony and more exquisite heights of joy in one day than Gertie will experience in her whole life.
Was I mad as mother had said? A fear took possession of me that I might be. I certainly was utterly different to any girl I had seen or known. What was the hot wild spirit which surged within me? Ah, that I might weep! I threw myself on my bed and moaned. Why was I not like other girls? Why was I not like Gertie? Why were not a new dress, everyday work, and an occasional picnic sufficient to fill my mind? My movements awakened Gertie.
"What is the matter, dear Sybylla? Come to bed. Mother has been scolding you. She is always scolding some one. That doesn't matter. You say you are sorry, and she won't scold any more. That's what I always do. Do get into bed. You'll be tired in the morning."
"What does it matter if I will be. I wish I would be dead. What's the good of a hateful thing like I am being alive. No one wants or cares for me."