My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Twenty-Four

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 their life.”

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! 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!”

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