My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Twenty-One

My Unladylike Behaviour Again

Joe Archer was appointed to take us home on the morrow. When our host was seeing us off — still with his eye covered — he took opportunity of whispering to me his intention of coming to Caddagat on the following Sunday.

Early in the afternoon of that day I took a book, and, going down the road some distance, climbed up a broad-branched willow-tree to wait for him.

It was not long before he appeared at a smart canter. He did not see me in the tree, but his horse did, and propping, snorted wildly, and gave a backward run. Harold spurred him, he bucked spiritedly. Harold now saw me and sang out:

“I say, don’t frighten him any more or he’ll fling me, saddle and all. I haven’t got a crupper or a breastplate.”

“Why haven’t you, then? Hang on to him. I do like the look of you while the horse is going on like that.”

He had dismounted, and had thrown the bridle rein over a post of the fence.

“I came with nothing but a girth, and that loose, as it was so hot; and I was as near as twopence to being off, saddle and all. You might have been the death of me,” he said good-humouredly.

“Had I been, my fortune would have been made,” I replied.

“How do you make that out? You’re as complimentary as ever.”

“Everyone would be wanting to engage me as the great noxious weed-killer and poisonous insect exterminator if I made away with you,” I answered. I gave him an invitation to take a seat with me, and accepting, he swung up with easy grace. There was any amount of accommodation for the two of us on the good-natured branches of the old willow-tree.

When he had settled himself, my companion said, “Now, Syb, I’m ready for you. Fire away. But wait a minute, I’ve got something here for you which I hope you’ll like.”

As he searched in his pockets, I noticed that his eye had quite recovered, though there was still a slight mark on his cheek. He handed me a tiny morocco case, which on being opened disclosed a costly ring. I have about as much idea of the prices of things as a turkey would have. Perhaps that ring cost thirty pounds or possibly fifty guineas, for all I know. It was very heavy, and had a big diamond supported on either side by a large sapphire, and had many small gems surrounding it.

“Let me see if it fits,” he said, taking my hand; but I drew it away.

“No; don’t you put it on. That would make us irrevocably engaged.”

“Isn’t that what we intend to be?” he said in a tone of surprise.

“Not just yet; that is what I want to say to you. We will have three months’ probation to see how we get on. At the end of that time, if we manage to sail along smoothly, we’ll have the real thing; until then we will not be any more than we have been to each other.”

“But what am I to do in the meantime?” he asked, with amusement curving the corners of his mouth.

“Do! Do the usual thing, of course; but don’t pay me any special attentions, or I’ll be done with you at once.”

“What’s your idea for this?”

“It is no use making fools of ourselves; we might change our minds.”

“Very well; so be it,” he said laughing. “I might have known you would have things arranged different from any other girl. But you’ll take the ring and wear it, won’t you? Let me put it on.”

“No; I won’t let you put a finger on me till the three months are up. Then, if we definitely make up our minds, you can put it on; but till then, don’t for the life of you hint by word or sign that we have any sort of an arrangement between us. Give me the ring and I’ll wear it sometimes.”

He handed it to me again, and I tried it on. It was a little large. Harold took it, and tried to put it on one of his fingers. It would fit on none but the very top of his little finger. We laughed heartily at the disparity in the size of our hands.

“I’ll agree to your bargain,” he said. “But you’ll be really engaged to me all the same.‘

“Yes; under those conditions. Then it will not matter if we have a tiff. We can part, and no one will be the wiser.”

On my suggesting that it was now time to go to the house, he swung himself down by a branch and turned to assist me. Descending from that tree was a feat which presented no difficulties to me when no one was by, but now it seemed an awkward performance.

“Just lead your horse underneath, so that I can get on to his back, thence to the ground quite easily,” I said.

“No fear! Warrigal wouldn’t stand that kind of dodge. Won’t I do? I don’t think your weight will quite squash me,” he returned, placing himself in leap-frog position, and I stepped on to his back and slid from there to the ground quite easily.

That afternoon, when leaving the house, I had been followed by one of the dogs, which, when I went up the willow-tree, amused himself chasing water lizards along the bank of the creek. He treed one, and kept up a furious barking at the base of its refuge. The yelping had disturbed grannie where she was reading on the veranda, and coming down the road under a big umbrella to see what the noise was about, as luck would have it she was in the nick of time to catch me standing on Harold Beecham’s back. Grannie frequently showed marked displeasure regarding what she termed my larrikinism, but never before had I seen her so thoroughly angry. Shutting her umbrella, she thrust at me with it, saying, “shame! shame! You’ll come to some harm yet, you immodest, bold, bad hussy! I will write to your mother about you. Go home at once, miss, and confine yourself in your room for the remainder of the day, and don’t dare eat anything until tomorrow. Spend the time in fasting, and pray to God to make you better. I don’t know what makes you so forward with men. Your mother and aunt never gave me the slightest trouble in that way.”

She pushed me from her in anger, and I turned and strode housewards without a word or glancing behind. I could hear grannie deprecating my conduct as I departed, and Harold quietly and decidedly differing from her.

From the time of my infancy punishment of any description never had a beneficial effect upon me. But dear old grannie was acting according to her principles in putting me through a term of penance, so I shut myself in my room as directed, with goodwill towards her at my heart. I was burning with shame. Was I bold and immodest with men, as accused of being? It was the last indiscretion I would intentionally have been guilty of. In associating with men I never realize that the trifling difference of sex is sufficient to be a great wall between us. The fact of sex never for an instant enters my head, and I find it as easy to be chummy with men as with girls: men in return have always been very good, and have treated me in the same way.

On returning from her walk grannie came to my room, brought me some preachy books to read, and held out to me the privilege of saying I was sorry, and being restored to my usual place in the society of the household.

“Grannie, I cannot say I am sorry and promise to reform, for my conscience does not reproach me in the least. I had no evil — not even a violation of manners — in my intentions; but I am sorry that I vexed you,” I said.

“Vexing me is not the sinful part of it. It is your unrepentant heart that fills me with fears for your future. I will leave you here to think by yourself. The only redeeming point about you is, you do not pretend to be sorry when you are not.”

The dear old lady shook her head sorrowfully as she departed.

The afternoon soon ran away, as I turned to my bookcase for entertainment and had that beautiful ring to admire.

I heard them come in to tea, and I thought Harold had gone till I heard uncle Jay–Jay address him:

“Joe Archer told me you ran into a clothes-line on race-night, and ever since then mother has kept up a daddy of a fuss about ours. We’ve got props about a hundred feet long, and if you weren’t in the know you’d think we had a telegraph wire to old St Peter up above.”

I wondered what Harold thought of the woman he had selected as his future wife being shut up for being a “naughty girl”. The situation amused me exceedingly.

About nine o’clock he knocked at my window and said:

“Never mind, Syb. I tried to get you off, but it was no go. Old people often have troublesome straitlaced ideas. It will blow over by tomorrow.”

I did not answer; so he passed on with firm regular footfall, and presently I heard his horse’s hoof-beats dying away in the darkness, and the closing and locking of doors around me as the household retired for the night.

During the following fortnight I saw Harold a good many times at cricket-matches, hare-drives, and so forth, but he did not take any particular notice of me. I flirted and frolicked with my other young men friends, but he did not care. I did not find him an ardent or a jealous lover. He was so irritatingly cool and matter-of-fact that I wished for the three months to pass so that I might be done with him, as I had come to the conclusion that he was barren of emotion or passion of any kind.

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