My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Eleven

Yah!

“Bah, you hideous animal! Ha ha! Your peerless conceit does you credit. So you actually imagined that by one or two out of every hundred you might be considered passable. You are the most uninteresting person in the world. You are small and nasty and bad, and every other thing that’s abominable. That’s what you are.”

This address I delivered to my reflection in the glass next morning. My elation of the previous night was as flat as a pancake. Dear, oh dear, what a fool I had been to softly swallow the flattery of Mr Grey without a single snub in return! To make up for my laxity, if he continued to amuse himself by plastering my vanity with the ointment of flattery, I determined to serve up my replies to him red-hot and well seasoned with pepper.

I finished my toilet, and in a very what’s-the-good-o’-anything mood took a last glance in the glass to say, “You’re ugly, you’re ugly and useless; so don’t forget that and make a fool of yourself again.”

I was in the habit of doing this; it had long ago taken the place of a morning prayer. I said this, that by familiarity it might lose a little of its sting when I heard it from other lips, but somehow it failed in efficacy.

I was late for breakfast that morning. All the others were half through the meal when I sat down.

Grannie had not come home till after twelve, but was looking as brisk as usual.

“Come, Sybylla, I suppose this comes of sitting up too late, as I was not here to hunt you to bed. You are always very lively at night, but it’s a different tune in the morning,” she said, when giving me the usual morning hug.

“When I was a nipper of your age, if I didn’t turn out like greased lightning every morning, I was assisted by a little strap oil,” remarked uncle Jay–Jay.

“Sybylla should be excused this morning,” interposed Mr Grey. “She entertained us for hours last night. Little wonder if she feels languid this morning.”

“Entertained you I What did she do?” queried grannie.

“Many things. Do you know, gran, that you are robbing the world of an artist by keeping Sybylla hidden away in the bush? I must persuade you to let me take her to Sydney and have her put under the best masters in Sydney.”

“Under masters for what?”

“Elocution and singing.”

“I couldn’t afford it.”

“But I’d bear the expense myself. It would only be returning a trifle of all you have done for me.”

“What nonsense! What would you have her do when she was taught?”

“Go on the stage, of course. With her talent and hair she would cause quite a sensation.”

Now grannie’s notions re the stage were very tightly laced. All actors and actresses, from the lowest circus man up to the most glorious cantatrice, were people defiled in the sight of God, and utterly outside the pale of all respectability, when measured with her code of morals.

She turned energetically in her chair, and her keen eyes flashed with scorn and anger as she spoke.

“Go on the stage! A grand-daughter of mine! Lucy’s eldest child! An actress — a vile, low, brazen hussy! Use the gifts God has given her with which to do good in showing off to a crowd of vile bad men! I would rather see her struck dead at my feet this instant! I would rather see her shear off her hair and enter a convent this very hour. Child, promise you will never be a bold bad actress.”

“I will never be a bold bad actress, grannie,” I said, putting great stress on the adjectives, and bringing out the actress very faintly.

“Yes,” she continued, calming down, “I’m sure you have not enough bad in you. You may he boisterous, and not behave with sufficient propriety sometimes, but I don’t think you are wicked enough to ever make an actress.”

Everard attempted to defend his case.

“Look here, gran, that’s a very exploded old notion about the stage being a low profession. It might have been once, but it is quite the reverse nowadays. There are, of course, low people on the stage, as there are in all walks of life. I grant you that; but if people are good they can be good on the stage as well as anywhere else. On account of a little prejudice it would be a sin to rob Sybylla of the brilliant career she might have.”

“Career!” exclaimed his foster-mother, catching at the word. “Career! That is all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them,” looking severely at Everard.

“There is a great deal of truth in what you say, gran, I admit. You can apply it to many of our girls, I am sorry to confess, but Sybylla could not be brought under that classification. You must look at her in a different way. If —”

“I look at her as the child of respectable people, and will not have the stage mentioned in connection with her.” Here Grannie thumped her fist down on the table and there was silence, complete, profound. Few dared argue with Mrs Bossier.

Dear old lady, she was never angry long, and in a minute or two she proceeded with her breakfast, saying quite pleasantly:

“Never mention such a subject to me again; but I’ll tell you what you can do. Next autumn, some time in March or April, when the fruit-preserving and jam-making are done with, Helen can take the child to Sydney for a month or so, and you can show them round. It will be a great treat for Sybylla as she has never been in Sydney.”

“That’s right, let’s strike a bargain on that, gran,” said Everard.

“Yes; it’s a bargain, if I hear no more about the stage. God intends His creatures for a better life than that.”

After breakfast I was left to entertain Everard for some while. We had a fine time. He was a perfect gentleman and a clever conversationalist.

I was always desirous of enjoying the company of society people who were well bred and lived according to etiquette, and possessed of leisure and culture sufficient to fill their minds with something more than the price of farm produce and a hard struggle for existence. Hitherto I had only read of such or seen them in pictures, but here was a real live one, and I seized my opportunity with vim. At my questioning and evident interest in his talk he told me of all the latest plays, actors, and actresses with whom he was acquainted, and described the fashionable balls, dinners, and garden-parties he attended. Having exhausted this subject, we fell to discussing books, and I recited snatches of poems dear to me. Everard placed his hands upon my shoulders and said:

“Sybylla, do you know you are a most wonderful girl? Your figure is perfect, your style refreshing, and you have a most interesting face. It is as ever-changing as a kaleidoscope — sometimes merry, then stern, often sympathetic, and always sad when at rest. One would think you had had some sorrow in your life.”

Lifting my skirt at either side, I bowed several times very low in what I called my stage bow, and called into requisition my stage smile, which displayed two rows of teeth as white and perfect as any twenty-guinea set turned out on a gold plate by a fashionable dentist.

“The handsome gentleman is very kind to amuse himself at the expense of a little country bumpkin, but he would do well to ascertain if his flattery would go down before administering it next time,” I said sarcastically, and I heard him calling to me as I abruptly went off to shut myself in my room.

“How dare anyone ridicule me by paying idle brainless compliments! I knew I was ugly, and did not want any one to perjure his soul pretending they thought differently. What right had I to be small? Why wasn’t I possessed of a big aquiline nose and a tall commanding figure?” Thus I sat in burning discontent and ill-humour until soothed by the scent of roses and the gleam of soft spring sunshine which streamed in through my open window. Some of the flower-beds in the garden were completely carpeted with pansy blossoms, all colours, and violets-blue and white, single and double. The scent of mignonette, jonquils, and narcissi filled the air. I revelled in rich perfumes, and these tempted me forth. My ruffled feelings gave way before the delights of the old garden. I collected a number of vases, and, filling them with water, set them on a table in the veranda near one of the drawing-room windows. I gathered lapfuls of the lovely blossoms, and commenced arranging them in the vases.

Part of the old Caddagat house was built of slabs, and one of the wooden walls ran along the veranda side of the drawing-room, so the songs aunt Helen and Everard Grey were trying to the piano came as a sweet accompaniment to my congenial task.

Presently they left off singing and commenced talking. Under the same circumstances a heroine of a story would have slipped away; or, if that were impossible without discovery, she would have put her fingers in her ears, and would have been in a terrible state of agitation lest she should hear something not intended for her. I did not come there with a view to eavesdropping. It is a degradation to which I never stoop. I thought they were aware of my presence on the veranda; but it appears they were not, as they began to discuss me (wonderfully interesting subject to myself), and I stayed there, without one word of disapproval from my conscience, to listen to their conversation.

“My word, didn’t gran make a to-do this morning when I proposed to train Sybylla for the stage! Do you know that girl is simply reeking with talent; I must have her trained. I will keep bringing the idea before gran until she gets used to it. I’ll work the we-should-use-the-gifts-God-has-given-us racket for all it is worth, and you might use your influence too, Helen.”

“No, Everard; there are very few who succeed on the stage. I would not use my influence, as it is a life of which I do not approve.”

“But Sybylla would succeed. I am a personal friend of the leading managers, and my influence would help her greatly.”

“Yes; but what would you do with her? A young gentleman couldn’t take charge of a girl and bring her out without ruining her reputation. There would be no end of scandal, as the sister theory would only be nonsense.”

“There is another way; I could easily stop scandal.”

“Everard, what do you mean!”

“I mean marriage,” he replied deliberately.

“Surely, boy, you must be dreaming! You have only seen her for an hour or two. I don’t believe in these sudden attachments.”

Perhaps she here thought of one (her own) as sudden, which had not ended happily.

“Everard, don’t do anything rashly. You know you are very fickle and considered a lady-killer — be merciful to my poor little Sybylla, I pray. It is just one of your passing fancies. Don’t wile her passionate young heart away and then leave her to pine and die.”

“I don’t think she is that sort,” he replied laughingly.

“No, she would not die, but would grow into a cynic and sceptic, which is the worst of fates. Let her alone. Flirt as much as you will with society belles who understand the game, but leave my country maiden alone. I hope to mould her into a splendid character yet.”

“But, Helen, supposing I am in earnest at last, you don’t think I’d make her a bad old hubby, do you?”

“She is not the girl for you. You are not the man who could ever control her. What I say may not be complimentary but it is true. Besides, she is not seventeen yet, and I do not approve of romantic young girls throwing themselves into matrimony. Let them develop their womanhood first.”

“Then I expect I had better hide my attractions under a bushel during the remainder of my stay at Caddagat?”

“Yes. Be as nice to the child as you like, but mind, none of those little ladies’-man attentions with which it is so easy to steal —”

I waited to hear no more, but, brimming over with a mixture of emotions, tore through the garden and into the old orchard. Bees were busy, and countless bright-coloured butterflies flitted hither and thither, sipping from hundreds of trees, white or pink with bloom — their beauty was lost upon me. I stood ankle-deep in violets, where they had run wild under a gnarled old apple-tree, and gave way to my wounded vanity.

“Little country maiden, indeed! There’s no need for him to bag his attractions up. If he exerted himself to the utmost of his ability, he could not make me love him. I’m not a child. I saw through him in the first hour. There’s not enough in him to win my love. I’ll show him I think no more of him than of the caterpillars on the old tree there. I’m not a booby that will fall in love with every gussie I see. Bah, there’s no fear of that! I hate and detest men!”

“I suppose you are rehearsing some more airs to show off with tonight,” sneered a voice behind me.

“No, I’m realisticing; and how dare you thrust your obnoxious presence before me when I wish to be alone! Haven’t I often shown —”

“While a girl is disengaged, any man who is her equal has the right to pay his addresses to her if he is in earnest,” interrupted Mr Hawden. It was he who stood before me.

“I am well aware of that,” I replied. “But it is a woman’s privilege to repel those attentions if distasteful to her. You seem disinclined to accord me that privilege.”

Having delivered this retort, I returned to the house, leaving him standing there looking the fool he was.

I do not believe in spurning the love of a blackfellow if he behaves in a manly way; but Frank Hawden was such a drivelling mawkish style of sweetheart that I had no patience with him.

Aunt Helen and Everard had vacated the drawing-room, so I plumped down on the piano-stool and dashed into Kowalski’s galop, from that into “Gaite de Coeur” until I made the piano dance and tremble like a thing possessed. My annoyance faded, and I slowly played that saddest of waltzes, “Weber’s Last”. I became aware of a presence in the room, and, facing about, confronted Everard Grey.

“How long have you been here?” I demanded sharply.

“Since you began to play. Where on earth did you learn to play? Your execution is splendid. Do sing ‘Three Fishers’, please.”

“Excuse me; I haven’t time now. Besides I am not competent to sing to you,” I said brusquely, and made my exit.

“Mr Hawden wants you, Sybylla,” called aunt Helen. “See what he wants and let him get away to his work, or your grannie will be vexed to see him loitering about all the morning.”

“Miss Sybylla,” he began, when we were left alone, “I want to apologize to you. I had no right to plague you, but it all comes of the way I love you. A fellow gets jealous at the least little thing, you know.”

“Bore me with no more such trash,” I said, turning away in disgust.

“But, Miss Sybylla, what am I to do with it?”

“Do with what?”

“My love.”

“Love!” I retorted scornfully. “There is no such thing.”

“But there is, and I have found it.”

“Well, you stick to it — that’s my advice to you. It will be a treasure. If you send it to my father he will get it bottled up and put it in the Goulburn museum. He has sent several things there already.”

“Don’t make such a game of a poor devil. You know I can’t do that.”

“Bag it up, then; put a big stone to make it sink, and pitch it in the river.”

“You’ll rue this,” he said savagely.

“I may or may not,” I sang over my shoulder as I departed.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:53