My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Twenty-Nine

To Life — continued

Mr M’Swat very kindly told me I need not begin my duties until Monday morning, and could rest during Saturday and Sunday. Saturday, which was sickeningly hot and sultry, and which seemed like an eternity, I spent in arranging my belongings, brushing the dust from my travelling dress, and in mending a few articles. Next morning rain started to fall, which was a great God-send, being the first which had fallen for months, and the only rain I saw during my residence at Barney’s Gap.

That was a hideous Sabbath. Without a word of remonstrance from their parents, the children entertained themselves by pushing each other into the rain, the smaller ones getting the worst of it, until their clothing was saturated with water. This made them very cold, so they sat upon the floor and yelled outrageously.

It was the custom of Peter to spend his Sundays in riding about, but today, being deterred by the rain, he slept some of the time, and made a muzzle for one of his dogs, between whiles.

From breakfast to the midday meal I shut myself in my bedroom and wrote letters to my mother and grandmother. I did not rant, rave, or say anything which I ought not to have said to my elders. I wrote those letters very coolly and carefully, explaining things just as they were, and asked grannie to take me back to Caddagat, as I could never endure life at Barney’s Gap. I told my mother I had written thus, and asked her if she would not let grannie take me again, would she get me some other situation? What I did not care, so long as it brought emancipation from the M’Swat’s. I stamped and addressed these missives, and put them by till a chance of posting should arise.

Mr M’Swat could read a little by spelling the long words and blundering over the shorter ones, and he spent the morning and all the afternoon in perusal of the local paper — the only literature with which Barney’s Gap was acquainted. There was a long list of the prices of stock and farm produce in this edition, which perfectly fascinated its reader. The ecstasy of a man of fine, artistic, mental calibre, when dipping for the first time into the work of some congenial poet, would be completely wiped out in comparison to the utter soul-satisfaction of M’Swat when drinking in the items of that list.

“By damn, pigs was up last Toosday! Thames the things to make prawfit on,” he would excitedly exclaim; or —“Wheat’s rose a shillun a bushel! By dad, I must double my crops this year.” When he had plodded to the end, he started at the beginning again.

His wife sat the whole afternoon in the one place, saying and doing nothing. I looked for something to read, but the only books in the house were a Bible, which was never opened, and a diary kept most religiously by M’Swat. I got permission to read this, and opening it, saw:

“September

1st. Fine. Wint to boggie creak for a cow.
2nd. Fine. Got the chestnut mair shode.
3rd. Fine. On the jury.
4th. Fine. Tail the lams 60 yeos 52 wethers.
5th. Cloudy. Wint to Duffys.
6th. Fine. Dave Duffy called.
7th. Fine. Roped the red filly.
8th. Showery. Sold the gray mair’s fole.
9th. Fine. Wint to the Red hill after a horse.
10th. Fine, Found tree sheap ded in sqre padick.”

I closed the book and put it up with a sigh. The little record was a perfect picture of the dull narrow life of its writer. Week after week that diary went on the same — drearily monotonous account of a drearily monotonous existence. I felt I would go mad if forced to live such a life for long.

“Pa has lots of diaries. Would I like to read them?”

They were brought and put before me. I inquired of Mr M’Swat which was the liveliest time of the year, and being told it was shearing and threshing, I opened one first in November:

“November 1896

1st. Fine. Started to muster sheap.
2nd. Fine. Counten sheap very dusty 20 short.
3rd. Fine. Started shering. Joe Harris cut his hand bad and wint hoam.
4th. Showery. Shering stoped on account of rane.”

Then I skipped to December:

“December 1896

1st. Fine and hot. Stripped the weet 60 bages.
2nd. Fine. Killed a snake very hot day.
3rd. Fine. Very hot alle had a boagy in the river.
4th. Fine. Got returns of woll 7 1/2 fleece 5 1/4 bellies.
5th. Fine. Awful hot got a serkeler from Tatersal by the poast.
6th. Fine. Saw Joe Harris at Duffys.”

There was no entertainment to be had from the diaries, so I attempted a conversation with Mrs M’Swat.

“A penny for your thoughts.”

“I wuz jist watchin’ the rain and thinkin’ it would put a couple a bob a head more on sheep if it keeps on.”

What was I to do to pass the day? I was ever very restless, even in the midst of full occupation. Uncle Jay–Jay used to accuse me of being in six places at once, and of being incapable of sitting still for five minutes consecutively; so it was simply endurance to live that long, long day — nothing to read, no piano on which to play hymns, too wet to walk, none with whom to converse, no possibility of sleeping, as in an endeavour to kill a little of the time I had gone to bed early and got up late. There was nothing but to sit still, tormented by maddening regret. I pictured what would be transpiring at Caddagat now; what we had done this time last week, and so on, till the thing became an agony to me.

Among my duties before school I was to set the table, make all the beds, dust and sweep, and “do” the girls’ hair. After school I had to mend clothes, sew, set the table again, take a turn at nursing the baby, and on washing-day iron. This sounds a lot, but in reality was nothing, and did not half occupy my time. Setting the table was a mere sinecure, as there was nothing much to put on it; and the only ironing was a few articles outside my own, as Mr M’Swat and Peter did not wear white shirts, and patronised paper collars. Mrs M’Swat did the washing and a little scrubbing, also boiled the beef and baked the bread, which formed our unvaried menu week in and week out. Most peasant mothers with a family of nine have no time for idleness, but Mrs M’Swat managed things so that she spent most of the day rolling on her frowsy bed playing with her dirty infant, which was as fat and good-tempered as herself.

On Monday morning I marshalled my five scholars (Lizer, aged fourteen; Jimmy, twelve; Tommy, Sarah, and Rose Jane, younger) in a little back skillion, which was set apart as a schoolroom and store for flour and rock-salt. Like all the house, it was built of slabs, which, erected while green, and on account Of the heat, had shrunk until many of the cracks were sufficiently wide to insert one’s arm. On Monday — after the rain — the wind, which disturbed us through them, was piercingly cold, but as the week advanced summer and drought regained their pitiless sway, and we were often sunburnt by the rough gusts which filled the room with such clouds of dust and grit that we were forced to cover our heads until it passed.

A policeman came on Tuesday to take some returns, and to him I entrusted the posting of my letters, and then eagerly waited for the reply which was to give me glorious release.

The nearest post-office was eight miles distant, and thither Jimmy was dispatched on horseback twice a week. With trembling expectancy every mail-day I watched for the boy’s return down the tortuous track to the house, but it was always, “No letters for the school-missus.”

A week, a fortnight, dragged away. Oh, the slow horror of those never-ending days! At the end of three weeks Mr M’Swat went to the post unknown to me, and surprised me with a couple of letters. They bore the handwriting of my mother and grandmother — what I had been wildly waiting for — and now that they had come at last I had not the nerve to open them while any one was observing me. All day I carried them in my bosom till my work was done, when I shut myself in my room and tore the envelopes open to read first my grannie’s letter, which contained two:

MY DEAR CHILD,

I have been a long time answering your letter on account of waiting to consult your mother. I was willing to take you back, but your mother is not agreeable, so I cannot interfere between you. I enclose your mother’s letter, so you can see how I stand in the matter. Try and do good where you are. We cannot get what we would like in this world, and must bow to God’s will. He will always, &c.

Mother’s Letter to Grannie

MY DEAR MOTHER,

I am truly grieved that Sybylla should have written and worried you. Take no notice of her; it is only while she is unused to the place. She will soon settle down. She has always been a trial to me, and it is no use of taking notice of her complaints, which no doubt are greatly exaggerated, as she was never contented at home. I don’t know where her rebellious spirit will eventually lead her. I hope M’Swat’s will tame her; it will do her good. It is absolutely necessary that she should remain there, so do not say anything to give her other ideas &c.

Mother’s Letter to Me

MY DEAR SYBYLLA,

I wish you would not write and worry your poor old grandmother, who has been so good to you. You must try and put up with things; you cannot expect to find it like holidaying at Caddagat. Be careful not to give offence to any one, as it would be awkward for us. What is wrong with the place? Have you too much work to do? Do you not get sufficient to cat? Are they unkind to you, or what? Why don’t you have sense and not talk of getting another place, as it is utterly impossible; and unless you remain there, how are we to pay the interest on that money? I’ve always been a good mother to you, and the least you might do in return is this, when you know how we are situated. Ask God &c.

Full of contempt and hatred for my mother, I tore her letters into tiny pieces and hurled them out the window. Oh, the hard want of sympathy they voiced! She had forced me to this place: it would have been different had I wanted to come of my own accord, and then sung out for a removal immediately; but no, against my earnest pleadings she had forced me here, and now would not heed my cry. And to whom in all the world can we turn when our mother spurns our prayer?

There never was any sympathy between my mother and myself. We are too unlike. She is intensely matter-of-fact and practical, possessed of no ambitions or aspirations not capable of being turned into cash value. She is very ladylike, and though containing no spice of either poet or musician, can take a part in conversation on such subjects, and play the piano correctly, because in her young days she was thus cultivated; but had she been horn a peasant, she would have been a peasant, with no longings unattainable in that sphere. She no more understood me than I understand the works of a watch. She looked upon me as a discontented, rebellious, bad child, possessed of evil spirits, which wanted trouncing out of me; and she would have felt that she was sinning had she humoured me in any way, so after cooling I did not blame her for her letters. She was doing her duty according to her lights. Again, it was this way, grannie did not come to my rescue on this occasion on account of her attitude towards my father. The Bossiers were not at enmity with him, but they were so disgusted with his insobriety that they never visited Possum Gully, and did not assist us as much as they would have done had my father’s failure been attributable to some cause more deserving of sympathy.

After reading my letters I wept till every atom of my body writhed with agonized emotion. I was aroused by Mrs M’Swat hammering at my door and inquiring:

“What ails ye, child? Did ye git bad noos from home?”

I recovered myself as by a miracle, and replied, no; that I was merely a little homesick, and would be out presently.

I wrote again to my mother, but as I could not truthfully say I was hungry or ill-treated, for, according to their ability, the M’Swats were very kind to me, she took no notice of my plaint, but told me that instead of complaining of monotony, it would suit me better if I cleared up the house a little.

Acting upon this advice, I asked Mr M’Swat to put a paling fence round the house, as it was useless trying to keep the house respectable while the fowls and pigs ran in every time the door was opened. —

He was inclined to look with favour upon this proposition, but his wife sat upon it determinedly — said the fowls would lose the scraps. “Would it not be possible to throw them over the fence to the fowls?” I asked; but this would cause too much waste, she considered.

Next I suggested that the piano should be tuned, but they were united in their disapproval of such a fearful extravagance. “The peeany makes a good nise. What ails it?”

Then I suggested that the children should be kept tidier, for which I was insulted by their father. I wanted them to be dressed up like swells, and if he did that he would soon be a pauper like my father. This I found was the sentiment of the whole family regarding me. I was only the daughter of old hard-up Melvyn, consequently I had little weight with the children, which made things very hard for me as a teacher.

One day at lunch I asked my mistress if she would like the children to be instructed in table-manners. “Certainly,” her husband replied, so I commenced.

“Jimmy, you must never put your knife in your mouth.”

“Pa does at any rate,” replied Jimmy.

“Yes,” said pa; “and I’m a richer man today than them as didn’t do it.”

“Liza, do not put a whole slice of bread to your mouth like that, and cram so. Cut it into small pieces.”

“Ma doesn’t,” returned Liza.

“Ye’ll have yer work cut out with ’em,” laughed Mrs M’Swat, who did not know how to correct her family herself, and was too ignorant to uphold my authority.

That was my only attempt at teaching manners there. In the face of such odds it was a bootless task, and as there were not enough knives and forks to go round, I could not inculcate the correct method of handling those implements.

Mrs M’Swat had but one boiler in which to do all her cooking, and one small tub for the washing, and there was seldom anything to eat but bread and beef; and this was not because they were poor, but because they did not know, or want to know, any better.

Their idea of religion, pleasure, manners, breeding, respectability, love, and everything of that ilk, was the possession of money, and their one idea of accumulating wealth was by hard sordid dragging and grinding.

A man who rises from indigence to opulence by business capabilities must have brains worthy of admiration, but the man who makes a fortune as M’Swat of Barney’s Gap was making his must be dirt mean, grasping, narrow-minded, and soulless — to me the most uncongenial of my fellows.

I wrote once more to my mother, to receive the same reply. One hope remained. I would write to aunt Helen. She understood me somewhat, and would know how I felt.

Acting on this inspiration, I requested her to plead for me. Her answer came as a slap in the face, as I had always imagined her above the common cant of ordinary religionists. She stated that life was full of trials. I must try and bear this little cross patiently, and at the end of a year they might have me back at Caddagat. A year! A year at Barney’s Gap! The possibility of such a thing made me frantic. I picked up my pen and bitterly reproached my aunt in a letter to which she did not deign to reply; and from that day to this she has rigidly ignored me — never so much as sending me the most commonplace message, or casually using my name in her letters to my mother.

Aunt Helen, is there such a thing as firm friendship when even yours — best of women — quibbled and went under at the hysterical wail from the overburdened heart of a child?

My predecessor, previous to her debut at Barney’s Gap, had spent some time in a lunatic asylum, and being a curious character, allowed the children to do as they pleased, consequently they knew not what it meant to be ruled, and were very hold. They attempted no insubordination while their father was about the house, but when he was absent they gave me a dog’s life, their mother sometimes smiling on their pranks, often lazily heedless of them, but never administering any form of correction.

If I walked away from the house to get rid of them, they would follow and hoot at me; and when I reproved them they informed me they were not going “to knuckle under to old Melvyn’s darter, the damnedest fool in the world, who’s lost all his prawperty, and has to borry money off of pa.”

Did I shut myself in my room, they shoved sticks in the cracks and made grimaces at me. I knew the fallacy of appealing to their father, as they and their mother would tell falsehoods, and my word would not be taken in contradiction of theirs. I had experience of this, as the postmistress had complained of Jimmy, to be insulted by his father, who could see no imperfection in his children.

M’Swat was much away from home at that time. The drought necessitated the removal of some of his sheep, for which he had rented a place eighty miles coastwards. There he left them under the charge of a man, but he repaired thither frequently to inspect them. Sometimes he was away from home a fortnight at a stretch. Peter would be away at work all day, and the children took advantage of my defenceless position. Jimmy was the ringleader. I could easily have managed the others had he been removed. I would have thrashed him well at the start but for the letters I constantly received from home warning me against offence to the parents, and knew that to set my foot on the children’s larrikinism would require measures that would gain their mother’s ill-will at once. But when M’Swat left home for three weeks Jim got so bold that I resolved to take decisive steps towards subjugating him. I procured a switch — a very small one, as his mother had a great objection to corporal punishment — and when, as usual, he commenced to cheek me during lessons, I hit him on the coat-sleeve. The blow would not have brought tears from the eyes of a toddler, but this great calf emitted a wild yope, and opening his mouth let his saliva pour on to his slate. The others set up such blood-curdling yells in concert that I was a little disconcerted, but I determined not to give in. I delivered another tap, whereupon he squealed and roared so that he brought his mother to his rescue like a ton of bricks on stilts, a great fuss in her eyes which generally beamed with a cowful calm.

Seizing my arm she shook me like a rat, broke my harmless little stick in pieces, threw it in my face, and patting Jimmy on the shoulder, said:

“Poor man! She sharn’t touch me Jimmy while I know. Sure you’ve got no sense. You’d had him dead if I hadn’t come in.”

I walked straight to my room and shut myself in, and did not teach any more that afternoon. The children rattled on my door-handle and jeered:

“She thought she’d hit me, but ma settled her. Old poor Melvyn’s darter won’t try no more of her airs on us.”

I pretended not to hear. What was I to do? There was no one to whom I could turn for help. M’Swat would believe the story of his family, and my mother would blame me. She would think I had been in fault because I hated the place.

Mrs M’Swat called me to tea, but I said I would not have any. I lay awake all night and got desperate. On the morrow I made up my mind to conquer or leave. I would stand no more. If in all the wide world and the whole of life this was the only use for me, then I would die — take my own life if necessary.

Things progressed as usual next morning. I attended to my duties and marched my scholars into the schoolroom at the accustomed hour. There was no decided insubordination during the morning, but I felt Jimmy was waiting for an opportunity to defy me. It was a fearful day, possessed by a blasting wind laden with red dust from Riverina, which filled the air like a fog. The crockery ware became so hot in the kitchen that when taking it into the dining-room we had to handle it with cloths. During the dinner-hour I slipped away unnoticed to where some quince-trees were growing and procured a sharp rod, which I secreted among the flour-bags in the schoolroom. At half-past one I brought my scholars in and ordered them to their work with a confident air. Things went without a ripple until three o’clock, when the writing lesson began. Jimmy struck his pen on the bottom of the bottle every time he replenished it with ink.

“Jimmy,” I gently remonstrated, “don’t jab your pen like that — it will spoil it. There is no necessity to shove it right to the bottom.”

Jab, jab, went Jimmy’s pen.

“Jimmy, did you hear me speak to you?”

Jab went the pen.

“James, I am speaking to you!”

Jab went the pen again.

“James,” I said sternly, “I give you one more chance.”

He deliberately defied me by stabbing into the ink-bottle with increased vigour. Liza giggled triumphantly, and the little ones strove to emulate her. I calmly produced my switch and brought it smartly over the shoulders of my refractory pupil in a way that sent the dust in a cloud from his dirty coat, knocked the pen from his fingers, and upset the ink.

He acted as before — yelled ear-drum-breakingly, letting the saliva from his distended mouth run on his copy-book. His brothers and sisters also started to roar, but bringing the rod down on the table, I threatened to thrash every one of them if they so much as whimpered; and they were so dumbfounded that they sat silent in terrified surprise. Jimmy continued to bawl. I hit him again.

“Cease instantly, sir.”

Through the cracks Mrs M’Swat could be seen approaching. Seeing her, Jimmy hollered anew. I expected her to attack me. She stood five feet nine inches, and weighed about sixteen stones; I measured five feet one inch, and turned the scale at eight stones — scarcely a fair match; but my spirit was aroused, and instead of feeling afraid, I rejoiced at the encounter which was imminent, and had difficulty to refrain from shouting “Come on! I’m ready, physically and mentally, for you and a dozen others such.”

My curious ideas regarding human equality gave me confidence. My theory is that the cripple is equal to the giant, and the idiot to the genius. As, if on account of his want of strength the cripple is subservient to the giant, the latter, on account of that strength, is compelled to give in to the cripple. So with the dolt and the man of brain, so with Mrs M’Swat and me.

The fact of not only my own but my family’s dependence on M’Swat — sank into oblivion. I merely recognized that she was one human being and I another. Should I have been deferential to her by reason of her age and maternity, then from the vantage which this gave her, she should have been lenient to me on account of my chit-ship and inexperience. Thus we were equal.

Jimmy hollered with renewed energy to attract his mother, and I continued to rain blows across his shoulders. Mrs M’Swat approached to within a foot of the door, and then, as though changing her mind, retraced her steps and entered the hot low-roofed kitchen. I knew I had won, and felt disappointed that the conquest had been so easy. Jimmy, seeing he was worsted, ceased his uproar, cleaned his copy-book on his sleeve, and sheepishly went on with his writing.

Whether Mrs M’Swat saw she had been in fault the day before I know not; certain it is that the children ever after that obeyed me, and I heard no more of the matter; neither, as far as I could ascertain, did the “ruction” reach the ears of M’Swat.

“How long, how long!” was my cry, as I walked out ankle-deep in the dust to see the sun, like a ball of blood, sink behind the hills on that February evening.

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