My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Twenty-Eight

To Life

It is indelibly imprinted on my memory in a manner which royal joy, fame, pleasure, and excitement beyond the dream of poets could never efface, not though I should be cursed with a life of five-score years. I will paint it truthfully — letter for letter as it was.

It was twenty-six miles from Yarnung to Barney’s Gap, as M’Swat’s place was named. He had brought a light wagonette and pair to convey me thither.

As we drove along, I quite liked my master. Of course, we were of calibre too totally unlike ever to be congenial companions, but I appreciated his sound common sense in the little matters within his range, and his bluntly straightforward, fairly good-natured, manner. He was an utterly ignorant man, with small ideas according to the sphere which he fitted, and which fitted him; but he was “a man for a’ that, an’ a’ that”.

He and my father had been boys together. Years and years ago M’Swat’s father had been blacksmith on my father’s station, and the little boys had played together, and, in spite of their then difference in station, had formed a friendship which lived and bore fruit at this hour. I wished that their youthful relations had been inimical, not friendly.

We left the pub in Yarnung at nine, and arrived at our destination somewhere about two o’clock in the afternoon.

I had waxed quite cheerful, and began to look upon the situation in a sensible light. It was necessary that I should stand up to the guns of life at one time or another, and why not now? M’Swat’s might not be so bad after all. Even if they were dirty, they would surely be willing to improve if I exercised tact in introducing a few measures. I was not afraid of work, and would do many things. But all these ideas were knocked on the head, like a dairyman’s surplus calves, when on entering Barney’s Gap we descended a rough road to the house, which was built in a narrow gully between two steep stony hills, which, destitute of grass, rose like grim walls of rock, imparting a desolate and prison-like aspect.

Six dogs, two pet lambs, two or three pigs, about twenty fowls, eight children which seemed a dozen, and Mrs M’Swat bundled out through the back door at our approach. Those children, not through poverty — M’Swat made a boast of his substantial banking account — but on account of ignorance and slatternliness, were the dirtiest urchins I have ever seen, and were so ragged that those parts of them which should have been covered were exposed to view. The majority of them had red hair and wide hanging-open mouths. Mrs M’Swat was a great, fat, ignorant, pleasant-looking woman, shockingly dirty and untidy. Her tremendous, flabby, stockingless ankles bulged over her unlaced hobnailed boots; her dress was torn and unbuttoned at the throat, displaying one of the dirtiest necks I have seen. It did not seem to worry her that the infant she hold under her arm like a roll of cloth howled killingly, while the other little ones clung to her skirts, attempting to hide their heads in its folds like so many emus. She greeted me with a smacking kiss, consigned the baby to the charge of the eldest child, a big girl of fourteen, and seizing upon my trunks as though they were feather-weight, with heavy clodhopping step disappeared into the house with them. Returning, she invited me to enter, and following in her wake, I was followed by the children through the dirtiest passage into the dirtiest room, to sit upon the dirtiest chair, to gaze upon the other dirtiest furniture of which I have ever heard. One wild horrified glance at the dirt, squalor, and total benightedness that met me on every side, and I trembled in every limb with suppressed emotion and the frantic longing to get back to Caddagat which possessed me. One instant showed me that I could never, never live here.

“Have ye had yer dinner?” my future mistress inquired in a rough uncultivated voice. I replied in the negative.

“Sure, ye’ll be dyin’ of hunger; but I’ll have it in a twinklin’.”

She threw a crumpled and disgustingly filthy cloth three-cornered ways on to the dusty table and clapped thereon a couple of dirty knives and forks, a pair of cracked plates, two poley cups and chipped saucers. Next came a plate of salt meat, red with saltpetre, and another of dark, dry, sodden bread. She then disappeared to the kitchen to make the tea, and during her absence two of the little boys commenced to fight. One clutched the tablecloth, and over went the whole display with a bang — meat-dish broken, and meat on the dusty floor; while the cats and fowls, ever on the alert for such occurrences, made the most of their opportunities. Mrs M’Swat returned carrying the tea, which was spilling by the way. She gave those boys each a clout on the head which dispersed them roaring like the proverbial town bull, and alarmed me for the safety of their ear-drums. I wondered if their mother was aware of their having ear-drums. She grabbed the meat, and wiping it on her greasy apron, carried it around in her hand until she found a plate for it, and by that time the children had collected the other things. A cup was broken, and another, also a poley, was put in its stead.

Mr M’Swat now appeared, and after taking a nip out of a rum bottle which he produced from a cupboard in the corner, he invited me to sit up to dinner.

There was no milk. M’Swat went in entirely for sheep, keeping only a few cows for domestic purposes: these, on account of the drought, had been dry for some months. Mrs M’Swat apologized for the lack of sugar, stating she was quite out of it and had forgotten to send for a fresh supply.

“You damned fool, to miss such a chance wen I was goin’ to town with the wagonette! I mightn’t be groin’ in again for munce [months]. But sugar don’t count much. Them as can’t do without a useless luxury like that for a spell will never make much of a show at gettin’ on in the wu-r-r-r-1d,” concluded Mr M’Swat, sententiously.

The children sat in a row and, with mouths open and interest in their big wondering eyes, gazed at me unwinkingly till I felt I must rush away somewhere and shriek to relieve the feeling of overstrained hysteria which was overcoming me. I contained myself sufficiently, however, to ask if this was all the family.

“All but Peter. Where’s Peter, Mary Ann?”

“He went to the Red Hill to look after some sheep, and won’t be back till dark.”

“Peter’s growed up,” remarked one little boy, with evident pride in this member of the family.

“Yes; Peter’s twenty-one, and hes a mustatche and shaves,” said the eldest girl, in a manner indicating that she expected me to be struck dumb with surprise.

“She’ll be surprised wen she sees Peter,” said a little girl in an audible whisper.

Mrs M’Swat vouchsafed the information that three had died between Peter and Lizer, and this was how the absent son came to be so much older than his brothers and sisters.

“So you have had twelve children?” I said.

“Yes,” she replied, laughing fatly, as though it were a joke.

“The boys found a bees’ nest in a tree an’ have been robbin’ it the smornin’,” continued Mrs M’Swat.

“Yes; we have ample exemplification of that,” I responded. It was honey here and honey there and honey everywhere. It was one of the many varieties of dirt on the horrible foul-smelling tablecloth. It was on the floor, the door, the chairs, the children’s heads, and the cups. Mrs M’Swat remarked contentedly that it always took a couple of days to wear “off of” things.

After “dinner” I asked for a bottle of ink and some paper, and scrawled a few lines to grannie and my mother, merely reporting my safe arrival at my destination. I determined to take time to collect my thoughts before petitioning for release from Barney’s Gap.

I requested my mistress to show me where I was to sleep, and she conducted me to a fairly respectable little bedroom, of which I was to be sole occupant, unless I felt lonely and would like Rose Jane to sleep with me. I looked at pretty, soft-eyed, dirty little Rose Jane, and assured her kind-hearted mother I would not be the least lonely, as the sickening despairing loneliness which filled my heart was not of a nature to be cured by having as a bedmate a frowzy wild child.

Upon being left alone I barred my door and threw myself on the bed to cry — weep wild hot tears that scalded my cheeks, and sobs that shook my whole frame and gave me a violent pain in the head.

Oh, how coarse and grating were the sounds to be heard around me! Lack, nay, not lack, but utter freedom from the first instincts of cultivation, was to be heard even in the great heavy footfalls and the rasping sharp voices which fell on my ears. So different had I been listening in a room at Caddagat to my grannie’s brisk pleasant voice, or to my aunt Helen’s low refined accents; and I am such a one to see and feel these differences.

However, I pulled together in a little while, and called myself a fool for crying. I would write to grannie and mother explaining matters, and I felt sure they would heed me, as they had no idea what the place was like. I would have only a little while to wait patiently, then I would be among all the pleasures of Caddagat again; and how I would revel in them, more than ever, after a taste of a place like this, for it was worse than I had imagined it could be, even in the nightmares which had haunted me concerning it before leaving Caddagat.

The house was of slabs, unlimed, and with very low iron roof, and having no sign of a tree near it, the heat was unendurable. It was reflected from the rocks on either side, and concentrated in this spot like an oven, being 122 degrees in the veranda now. I wondered why M’Swat had built in such a hole, but it appears it was the nearness of the point to water which recommended it to his judgment.

With the comforting idea that I would not have long to bear this, I bathed my eyes, and walked away from the house to try and find a cooler spot. The children saw me depart but not return, to judge from a discussion of myself which I heard in the dining-room, which adjoined my bed-chamber.

Peter came home, and the children clustered around to tell the news.

“Did she come?”

“Yes.”

“Wot’s she like?”

“Oh, a rale little bit of a thing, not as big as Lizer!

“And, Peter, she hes teeny little hands, as wite as snow, like that woman in the picter ma got off of the tea.”

“Yes, Peter,” chimed in another voice; “and her feet are that little that she don’t make no nise wen she walks.”

“It ain’t only becos her feet are little, but cos she’s got them beautiful shoes like wot’s in picters,” said another.

“Her hair is tied with two great junks of ribbing, one up on her head an’ another near the bottom; better than that bit er red ribbing wot Lizer keeps in the box agin the time she might go to town some day.”

“Yes,” said the voice of Mrs M’Swat, “her hair is near to her knees, and a plait as thick as yer arm; and wen she writ a couple of letters in a minute, you could scarce see her hand move it was that wonderful quick; and she uses them big words wot you couldn’t understand without bein’ eddicated.”

“She has tree brooches, and a necktie better than your best one wots you keeps to go seeing Susie Duffy in,” and Lizer giggled slyly.

“You shut up about Susie Duffy, or I’ll whack yuz up aside of the ear,” said Peter angrily.

“She ain’t like ma. She’s fat up here, and goes in like she’d break in the middle, Peter.”

“Great scissors! she must be a flyer,” said Peter. “I’ll bet she’ll make you sit up, Jimmy.”

“I’ll make her sit up,” retorted Jimmy, who came next to Lizer. —“She thinks she’s a toff, but she’s only old Melvyn’s darter, that pa has to give money to.”

“Peter,” said another, “her face ain’t got them freckles on like yours, and it ain’t dark like Lizer’s. It’s reel wite, and pinky round here.”

“I bet she won’t make me knuckle down to her, no matter wot colour she is,” returned Peter, in a surly tone.

No doubt it was this idea which later in the afternoon induced him to swagger forward to shake hands with me with a flash insolent leer on his face. I took pains to be especially nice to him, treating him with deference, and making remarks upon the extreme heat of the weather with such pleasantness that he was nonplussed, and looked relieved when able to escape. I smiled to myself, and apprehended no further trouble from Peter.

The table for tea was set exactly as it had been before, and was lighted by a couple of tallow candles made from bad fat, and their odour was such as my jockey travelling companion of the day before would have described as a tough smell.

“Give us a toon on the peeany,” said Mrs M’Swat after the meal, when the dishes had been cleared away by Lizer and Rose Jane. The tea and scraps, of which there was any amount, remained on the floor, to be picked up by the fowls in the morning.

The children lay on the old sofa and on the chairs, where they always slept at night until their parents retired, when there was an all-round bawl as they were wakened and bundled into bed, dirty as they were, and very often with their clothes on.

I acceded to Mrs M’Swat’s request with alacrity, thinking that while forced to remain there I would have one comfort, and would spend all my spare time at the piano. I opened the instrument, brushed a little of the dust from the keys with my pocket-handkerchief, and struck the opening chords of Kowalski’s “Marche Hongroise”.

I have heard of pianos sounding like a tin dish, but this was not as Pleasant as a tin dish by long chalks. Every note that I struck stayed down not to rise, and when I got them up the jarring, clanging, discordant clatter they produced beggars description. There was not the slightest possibility of distinguishing any tune on the thing. Worthless to begin with, it had stood in the dust, heat, and wind so long that every sign that it had once made music had deserted it.

I closed it with a feeling of such keen disappointment that I had difficulty in suppressing tears.

“Won’t it play?” inquired Mr M’Swat.

“No; the keys stay down.”

“Then, Rose Jane, go ye an’ pick ’em up while she tries again.”

I tried again, Rose Jane fishing up the keys as I went along. I perceived instantly that not one had the least ear for music or idea what it was; so I beat on the demented piano with both hands, and often with all fingers at once, and the bigger row I made the better they liked it.

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