My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Thirty-One

Mr M’Swat and I Have a Bust-up

Men only, and they merely on business, came to Barney’s Gap — women tabooed the place. Some of them told me they would come to see me, but not Mrs M’Swat, as she always allowed the children to be as rude to them as they pleased. With the few individuals who chanced to come M’Swat would sit down, light his pipe, and vulgarly and profusely expectorate on the floor, while they yarned and yarned for hours and hours about the price of wool, the probable breeding capacity of the male stock they kept, and of the want of grass — never a word about their country’s politics or the events of the day; even the news of the “Mountain Murders” by Butler had not penetrated here. I wondered if they were acquainted with the names of their Governor and Prime Minister.

It was not the poor food and the filthy way of preparing it that worried me, or that Mr M’Swat used “damn” on an average twice in five minutes when conversing, or that the children for ever nagged about my father’s poverty and tormented me in a thousand other ways — it was the dead monotony that was killing me.

I longed feveredly for something to happen. Agony is a tame word wherewith to express what that life meant to me. Solitary confinement to a gipsy would be something on a par.

Every night unfailingly when at home M’Swat sat in the bosom of his family and speculated as to how much richer he was than his neighbours, what old Recce lived on, and who had the best breed of sheep and who was the smartest at counting these animals, until the sordidness of it turned me dizzy, and I would steal out under the stars to try and cool my heated spirit. This became a practice with me, and every night I would slip away out of hearing of the household to sing the songs I had heard at Caddagat, and in imagination to relive every day and hour there, till the thing became too much for me, and I was scarcely responsible for my actions. Often I knelt on the parched ground beneath the balmy summer sky to pray — wild passionate prayers that were never answered.

I was under the impression that my nightly ramble was not specially noticed by any one, but I was mistaken. Mr M’Swat, it appears, suspected me of having a lover, but was never able to catch me red-handed.

The possibility of a girl going out at night to gaze at the stars and dream was as improbable a thought for him as flying is to me, and having no soul above mud, had I attempted an explanation he would have considered me mad, and dangerous to have about the place.

Peter, junior, had a sweetheart, one Susie Duffy, who lived some miles on the other side of the Murrumbidgee. He was in the habit of courting her every Sunday and two or three nights during the week, and I often heard the clang of his stirrup-irons and the clink of hobble-chain when he returned late; but on one occasion I stayed out later than usual, and he passed me going home. I stood still and he did not see me, but his horse shied violently. I thought he would imagine I was a ghost, so called out:

“It is I.”

“Well, I’ll be hanged! What are ye doin’ at this time ev night. Ain’t yuz afraid of ghosts?”

“Oh dear no. I had a bad headache and couldn’t sleep, so came out to try if a walk would cure it,” I explained.

We were a quarter of a mile or so from the house, so Peter slackened his speed that I might keep pace with him. His knowledge of ‘etiquette did not extend as far as dismounting. There is a great difference between rudeness and ignorance. Peter was not rude; he was merely ignorant. For the same reason he let his mother feed the pigs, clean his boots, and chop wood, while he sat down and smoked and spat. It was not that he was unmanly, as that this was the only manliness he had known.

I was alone in the schoolroom next afternoon when Mr M’Swat sidled in, and after stuttering and hawing a little, delivered himself of:

“I want to tell ye that I don’t hold with a gu-r-r-r-l going out of nights for to meet young men: if ye want to do any coortin’ yuz can do it inside, if it’s a decent young man. I have no objections to yer hangin’ yer cap up to our Peter, only that ye have no prawperty — in yerself I like ye well enough, but we have other views for Peter. He’s almost as good as made it sure with Susie Duffy, an’ as ole Duffy will have a bit ev prawperty I want him to git her, an’ wouldn’t like ye to spoil the fun.”

Peter was “tall and freckled and sandy, face of a country lout”, and, like Middleton’s rouse-about, “hadn’t any opinions, hadn’t any ideas”, but possessed sufficient instinct and common bushcraft with which, by hard slogging, to amass money. He was developing a moustache, and had a “gu-r-r-r-l”; he wore tight trousers and long spurs; he walked with a sidling swagger that was a cross between shyness and flashness, and took as much pride in his necktie as any man; he had a kind heart, honest principles, and would not hurt a fly; he worked away from morning till night, and contentedly did his duty like a bullock in the sphere in which God had placed him; he never had a bath while I knew him, and was a man according to his lights. He knew there was such a thing as the outside world, as I know there is such a thing as algebra; but it troubled him no more than algebra troubles me.

This was my estimation of Peter M’Swat, junior. I respected him right enough in his place, as I trust he respected me in mine, but though fate thought fit for the present to place us in the one groove, yet our lives were unmixable commodities as oil and water, which lay apart and would never meet until taken in hand by the omnipotent leveller — death.

Marriage with Peter M’Swat!

Consternation and disgust held me speechless, and yet I was half inclined to laugh at the preposterousness of the thing, when Peter’s father continued:

“I’m sorry if you’ve got smitten on Peter, but I know you’ll be sensible. Ye see I have a lot of children, and when the place is divided among ’em it won’t be much. I tell ye wot, old Duffy has a good bit of money and only two children, Susie and Mick. I could get you to meet Mick — he mayn’t be so personable as our Peter,” he reflected, with evident pride in his weedy firstborn, and he got no farther, for I had been as a yeast-bottle bubbling up, and now went off bang!

“Silence, you ignorant old creature! How dare you have the incomparable impertinence to mention my name in conjunction with that of your boor of a son. Though he were a millionaire I would think his touch contamination. You have fallen through for once if you imagine I go out at night to meet any one — I merely go away to be free for a few minutes from the suffocating atmosphere of your odious home. You must not think that because you have grasped and slaved and got a little money that it makes a gentleman of you; and never you dare to again mention my name in regard to matrimony with any one about here;” and with my head high and shoulders thrown back I marched to my room, where I wept till I was weak and ill.

This monotonous sordid life was unhinging me, and there was no legitimate way of escape from it. I formed wild plans of running away, to do what I did not care so long as it brought a little action, anything but this torturing maddening monotony; but my love for my little brothers and sisters held me back. I could not do anything that would put me for ever beyond the pale of their society.

I was so reduced in spirit that had Harold Beecham appeared then with a matrimonial scheme to be fulfilled at once, I would have quickly erased the fine lines I had drawn and accepted his proposal; but he did not come, and I was unacquainted with his whereabouts or welfare. As I remembered him, how lovable and superior he seemed in comparison with the men I met nowadays: not that he was any better than these men in their place and according to their lights, but his lights — at least not his lights, for Harold Beecham was nothing of a philosopher, but the furniture of the drawing-room which they illuminated — was more artistic. What a prince of gentlemanliness and winning gallantries he was in his quiet way!

This information concerning him was in a letter I received from my grandmother at Easter:

Who should surprise us with a visit the other day but Harold Beecham. He was as thin as a whipping-post, and very sunburnt [I smiled, imagining it impossible for Harold to be any browner than of yore]. He has been near death’s door with the measles — caught them in Queensland while droving, and got wet. He was so ill that he had to give up charge of that 1600 head of cattle he was bringing. He came to say good-bye to us, as he is off to Western Australia next week to see if he can mend his fortunes there. I was afraid he was going to be like young Charters, and swear he would never come back unless he made a pile, but he says he will be back next Christmas three years for certain, if he is alive and kicking, as he says himself.

Why he intends returning at that stipulated time I don’t know, as he never was very communicative, and is more unsociable than ever now. He is a man who never shows his feelings, but he must feel the loss of his old position deeply. He seemed surprised not to find you here, and says it was a pity to set you teaching, as it will take all the life and fun out of you, and that is the first time I ever heard him express an opinion in any one’s business but his own. Frank Hawden sends kind regards, &c.

Teaching certainly had the effect upon me anticipated by Harold Beecham, but it was not the teaching but the place in which I taught which was doing the mischief — good, my mother termed it.

I was often sleepless for more than forty-eight hours at a stretch, and cried through the nights until my eyes had black rings round them, which washing failed to remove. The neighbours described me as “a sorrowful lookin’ delicate creetur’, that couldn’t larf to save her life”— quite a different character to the girl who at Caddagat was continually chid for being a romp, a hoyden, a boisterous tomboy, a whirlwind, and for excessive laughter at anything and everything. I got into such a state of nervousness that I would jump at the opening of a door or an unexpected footfall.

When cooling down, after having so vigorously delivered Mr M’Swat a piece of my mind, I felt that I owed him an apology. According to his lights (and that is the only fair way of judging our fellows) he had acted in a kind of fatherly way. I was a young girl under his charge, and he would have in a measure been responsible had I come to harm through going out in the night. He had been good-natured, too, in offering to help things along by providing an eligible, and allowing us to “spoon” under his surveillance. That I was of temperament and aspirations that made his plans loathsome to me was no fault of his — only a heavy misfortune to myself. Yes; I had been in the wrong entirely.

With this idea in my head, sinking ankle-deep in the dust, and threading my way through the pigs and fowls which hung around the back door, I went in search of my master. Mrs M’Swat was teaching Jimmy how to kill a sheep and dress it for use; while Lizer, who was nurse to the baby and spectator of the performance, was volubly and ungrammatically giving instructions in the art. Peter and some of the younger children were away felling stringybark-trees for the sustenance of the sheep. The fall of their axes and the murmur of the Murrumbidgee echoed faintly from the sunset. They would be home presently and at tea; I reflected it would be “The old yeos looks terrible skinny, but the hoggets is fat yet. By crikey! They did go into the bushes. They chawed up stems and all — some as thick as a pencil.”

This information in that parlance had been given yesterday, the day before, would be given today, tomorrow, and the next day. It was the boss item on the conversational programme until further orders.

I had a pretty good idea where to find Mr M’Swat, as he had lately purchased a pair of stud rams, and was in the habit of admiring them for a couple of hours every evening. I went to where they usually grazed, and there, as I expected, found Mr M’Swat, pipe in mouth, with glistening eyes, surveying his darlings.

“Mr M’Swat, I have come to beg your pardon.”

“That’s all right, me gu-r-r-r-l. I didn’t take no notice to anything ye might spit out in a rage.”

“But I was not in a rage. I meant every word I said, but I want to apologize for the rude way in which I said it, as I had no right to speak so to my elders. And I want to tell you that you need not fear me running away with Peter, even supposing he should honour me with his affections, as I am engaged to another man.”

“By dad, I’ll be hanged!” he exclaimed, with nothing but curiosity on his wrinkled dried tobacco-leaf-looking face. He expressed no resentment on account of my behaviour to him.

“Are ye to be married soon? Has he got any prawperty? Who is he? I suppose he’s respectable. Ye’re very young.”

“Yes; he is renowned for respectability, but I am not going to marry him till I am twenty-one. He is poor, but has good prospects. You must promise me not to tell anyone, as I wish it kept a secret, and only mention it to you so that you need not be disturbed about Peter.”

He assured me that he would keep the secret, and I knew I could rely on his word. He was greatly perturbed that my intended was poor.

“Never ye marry a man widout a bit er prawperty, me gu-r-r-r-l. Take my advice — the divil’s in a poor match, no matter how good the man may be. Don’t ye be in a hurry; ye’re personable enough in yer way, and there’s as good fish in the seas as ever come out of ’em. Yer very small; I admire a good lump of a woman meself — but don’t ye lose heart. I’ve heerd some men say they like little girls, but, as I said, I like a good lump of a woman meself.”

“And you’ve got a good lump of a squaw,” I thought to myself.

Do not mistake me. I do not for an instant fancy myself above the M’Swats. Quite the reverse; they are much superior to me. Mr M’Swat was upright and clean in his morals, and in his little sphere was as sensible and kind a man as one could wish for. Mrs M’Swat was faithful to him, contented and good-natured, and bore uncomplainingly, year after year, that most cruelly agonising of human duties — childbirth, and did more for her nation and her Maker than I will ever be noble enough to do.

But I could not help it that their life was warping my very soul. Nature fashions us all; we have no voice in the matter, and I could not change my organisation to one which would find sufficient sustenance in the mental atmosphere of Barney’s Gap.

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