My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Thirty

Where Ignorance is Bliss, ’Tis Folly to be Wise

When by myself, I fretted so constantly that the traces it left upon me became evident even to the dull comprehension of Mrs M’Swat.

“I don’t hold with too much pleasure and disherpation, but you ain’t had overmuch of it lately. You’ve stuck at home pretty constant, and ye and Lizer can have a little fly round. It’ll do yous good,” she said.

The dissipation, pleasure, and flying round allotted to “Lizer” and me were to visit some of the neighbours. Those, like the M’Swats, were sheep-farming selectors. They were very friendly and kind to me, and I found them superior to my employers, in that their houses were beautifully clean; but they lived the same slow life, and their soul’s existence fed on the same small ideas. I was keenly disappointed that none of them had a piano, as my hunger for music could be understood only by one with a passion for that art.

I borrowed something to read, but all that I could get in the way of books were a few Young Ladies’ Journals, which I devoured ravenously, so to speak.

When Lizer’s back would be turned, the girls would ask me how I managed to live at Barney’s Gap, and expressed themselves of the opinion that it was the most horrible hole in the world, and Mrs M’Swat the dirtiest creature living, and that they would not go there for 50 pounds a week. I made a point of never saying anything against Mrs M’Swat; but I fumed inwardly that this life was forced upon me, when girls with no longings or aspirations beyond being the wife of a Peter M’Swat recoiled from the thought of it.

My mother insisted upon my writing to her regularly, so once a week I headed a letter “Black’s Camp”, and condemned the place, while mother as unfailingly replied that these bad times I should be thankful to God that I was fed and clothed. I knew this as well as any one, and was aware there were plenty of girls willing to jump at my place; but they were of different temperament to me, and when one is seventeen, that kind of reasoning does not weigh very heavily.

My eldest brother, Horace, twin brother of my sister Gertie, took it upon himself to honour me with the following letter:

Why the deuce don’t you give up writing those letters to mother? We get tongue-pie on account of them, and it’s not as if they did you any good. It only makes mother more determined to leave you where you are. She says you are that conceited you think you ought to have something better, and you’re not fit for the place you have, and she’s glad it is such a place, and it will do you the world of good and take the nonsense out of you — that it’s time you got a bit of sense. Sullivan’s Ginger. After she gets your letters she does jaw, and wishes she never had a child, and what a good mother she is, and what bad devils we are to her. You are a fool not to stay where you are. I wish I could get away to M’Swat or Mack Pot, and I would jump at the chance like a good un. The boss still sprees and loafs about town till some one has to go and haul him home. I’m about full of him, and I’m going to leave home before next Christmas, or my name ain’t what it is. Mother says the kiddies would starve if I leave; but Stanley is coming on like a haystack, I tell him, and he does kick up, and he ought to be able to plough next time. I ploughed when I was younger than him. I put in fourteen acres of wheat and oats this year, and I don’t think I’ll cut a wheelbarrow-load of it. I’m full of the place. I never have a single penny to my name, and it ain’t father’s drinking that’s all to blame; if he didn’t booze it wouldn’t be much better. It’s the slowest hole in the world, and I’ll chuck it and go shearing or droving. I hate this dairying, it’s too slow for a funeral: there would be more life in trapping ‘possums out on Timlinbilly. Mother always says to have patience, and when the drought breaks and good seasons come round again things will be better, but it’s no good of trying to stuff me like that. I remember when the seasons were wet. It was no good growing anything, because every one grew so much that there was no market, and the sheep died of foot-rot and you couldn’t give your butter away, and it is not much worse to have nothing to sell than not be able to sell a thing when you have it. And the long and short of it is that I hate dairying like blue murder. It’s as tame as a clucking hen. Fancy a cove sitting down every morning and evening pulling at a cow’s tits fit to bust himself, and then turning an old separator, and washing it up in a dish of water like a blooming girl’s work. And if you go to a picnic, just when the fun commences you have to nick off home and milk, and when you tog yourself on Sunday evening you have to undress again and lay into the milking, and then you have to change everything on you and have a bath, or your best girl would scent the cow-yard on you, and not have you within cooee of her. We won’t know what rain is when we see it; but I suppose it will come in floods and finish the little left by the drought. The grasshoppers have eaten all the fruit and even the bark off the trees, and the caterpillars made a croker of the few tomatoes we kept alive with the suds. All the cockeys round here and dad are applying to the Government to have their rents suspended for a time. We have not heard yet whether it will be granted, but if Gov. doesn’t like it, they’ll have to lump it, for none of us have a penny to bless ourselves with, let alone dub up for taxes. I’ve written you a long letter, and if you growl about the spelling and grammar I won’t write to you any more, so there, and you take my tip and don’t write to mother on that flute any more, for she won’t take a bit of notice.

Yr loving brother,

Horace.

So! Mother had no pity for me, and the more I pleaded with her the more determined she grew upon leaving me to suffer on, so I wrote to her no more. However, I continued to correspond with grannie, and in one of her letters she told me that Harry Beecham (that was in February) was still in Sydney settling his affairs; but when that was concluded he was going to Queensland. He had put his case in the hands of squatters he had known in his palmy days, and the first thing that turned up in managing or overseeing he was to have; but for the present he had been offered the charge of 1600 head of bullocks from a station up near the Gulf of Carpentaria overland to Victoria. Uncle Jay–Jay was not home yet: he had extended his tour to Hong Kong, and grannie was afraid he was spending too much money, as in the face of the drought she had difficulty in making both ends meet, and feared she would be compelled to go on the banks. She grieved that I was not becoming more reconciled to my place. It was dull, no doubt, but it would do my reputation no harm, whereas, were I in a lively situation, there might be numerous temptations hard to resist. Why did I not try to look at it in that way?

She sent a copy of the Australasian, which was a great treat to me, also to the children, as they were quite ignorant of the commonest things in life, and the advent of this illustrated paper was an event to be recorded in the diary in capital letters. They clustered round me eagerly to see the pictures. In this edition there chanced to be a page devoted to the portraits of eleven Australian singers, and our eyes fell on Madame Melba, who was in the middle. As what character she was dressed I do not remember, but she looked magnificent. There was a crown upon her beautiful head, the plentiful hair was worn flowing, and the shapely bosom and arms exposed.

“Who’s that?” they inquired.

“Madame Melba; did you ever hear her name?”

“Who’s Madame Melba? What’s she do? Is she a queen?”

“Yes, a queen, and a great queen of song;” and being inspired with great admiration for our own Australian cantatrice, who was great among the greatest prima-donnas of the world, I began to tell them a little of her fame, and that she had been recently offered 40,000 pounds to sing for three months in America.

They were incredulous. Forty thousand pounds! Ten times as much as “pa” had given for a paid-up selection he had lately bought. They told me it was no use of me trying to tell them fibs. No one would give a woman anything to sing, not even one pound. Why, Susie Duffy was the best singer on the Murrumbidgee, and she would sing for any one who asked her, and free of charge.

At this juncture Jimmy, who had been absent, came to see the show. After gazing for a few seconds he remarked what the others had failed to observe, “Why, the woman’s naked!”

I attempted to explain that among rich people in high society it was customary to dress like that in the evening, and that it looked very pretty.

Mrs M’Swat admonished me for showing the children low pictures.

“She must be a very bold woman,” said Jimmy; and Lizer pronounced her mad because, as she put it, “It’s a wonder she’d be half-undressed in her photo; you’d think she oughter dress herself up complete then.”

Lizer certainly acted upon this principle, as a photo of her, which had been taken by a travelling artist, bore evidence that for the occasion she had arrayed herself in two pairs of ill-fitting cuffs, Peter’s watch and chain, strings, jackets, flowers, and other gewgaws galore.

“There ain’t no such person as Madame Melber; it’s only a fairy-tale,” said Mrs M’Swat.

“Did you ever hear of Gladstone?” I inquired.

“No; where is that place?”

“Did you ever hear of Jesus Christ?”

“Sure, yes; he’s got something to do with God, ain’t he?”

After that I never attempted to enlighten them regarding our celebrities.

Oh, how I envied them their ignorant contentment! They were as ducks on a duck-pond; but I was as a duck forced for ever to live in a desert, ever wildly longing for water, but never reaching it outside of dreams.

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