My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Thirty-Two

Ta–Ta to Barney’s Gap

It chanced at last, as June gave place to July and July to August, that I could bear it no longer. I would go away even if I had to walk, and what I would do I did not know or care, my one idea being to leave Barney’s Gap far and far behind. One evening I got a lot of letters from my little brothers and sisters at home. I fretted over them a good deal, and put them under my pillow; and as I had not slept for nights, and was feeling weak and queer, I laid my head upon them to rest a little before going out to get the tea ready. The next thing I knew was that Mrs M’Swat was shaking me vigorously with one hand, holding a flaring candle in the other, and saying:

“Lizer, shut the winder quick. She’s been lyin’ here in the draught till she’s froze, and must have the nightmare, the way she’s been singin’ out that queer, an’ I can’t git her woke up. What ails ye, child? Are ye sick?”

I did not know what ailed me, but learnt subsequently that I laughed and cried very much, and pleaded hard with grannie and some Harold to save me, and kept reiterating, “I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it,” and altogether behaved so strangely that Mr M’Swat became so alarmed that he sent seventeen miles for the nearest doctor. He came next morning, felt my pulse, asked a few questions, and stated that I was suffering from nervous prostration.

“Why, the child is completely run down, and in a fair way to contract brain fever!” he exclaimed. “What has she been doing? It seems as though she had been under some great mental strain. She must have complete rest and change, plenty of diversion and nourishing food, or her mind will become impaired.”

He left me a bottle of tonic and Mr and Mrs M’Swat many fears. Poor kind-hearted souls, they got in a great state, and understood about as much of the cause of my breakdown as I do of the inside of the moon. They ascribed it to the paltry amount of teaching and work I had done.

Mrs M’Swat killed a fowl and stewed it for my delectation. There was part of the inside with many feathers to flavour the dish, and having no appetite, I did not enjoy it, but made a feint of so doing to please the good-natured cook.

They intended writing at once to give my parents notice when I would be put on the train. I was pronounced too ill to act as scribe; Lizer was suggested, and then Jimmy, but M’Swat settled the matter thus:

“Sure, damn it! I’m the proper one to write on an important business matther like this here.”

So pens, ink, and paper were laid on the dining-room table, and the great proclamation went forth among the youngsters, “Pa is goin’ to write a whole letter all by hisself.”

My door opened with the dining-room, and from my bed I could see the proceeding. Mr M’Swat hitched his trousers well through the saddle-strap which he always wore as a belt, took off his coat and folded it on the back of a chair, rolled his shirt-sleeves up to his elbows, pulled his hat well over his eyes, and “shaped up” to the writing material, none of which met with his approval. The ink was “warter”, the pens had not enough “pint”, and the paper was “trash”; but on being assured it was the good stuff he had purchased especially for himself, he buckled to the fray, producing in three hours a half-sheet epistle, which in grammar, composition, and spelling quite eclipsed the entries in his diary. However, it served its purpose, and my parents wrote back that, did I reach Goulburn on a certain day, a neighbour who would be in town then would bring me home.

Now that it was settled that I had no more to teach the dirty children, out of dirty books, lessons for which they had great disinclination, and no more to direct Lizer’s greasy fingers over the yellow keys of that demented piano in a vain endeavour to teach her “choones”, of which her mother expected her to learn on an average two daily, it seemed as though I had a mountain lifted off me, and I revived magically, got out of bed and packed my things.

I was delighted at the prospect of throwing off the leaden shackles of Barney’s Gap, but there was a little regret mingled with my relief. The little boys had not been always bold. Did I express a wish for a parrot-wing or water-worn stone, or such like, after a time I would be certain, on issuing from my bedroom, to find that it had been surreptitiously laid there, and the little soft-eyed fellows would squabble for the privilege of bringing me my post, simply to give me pleasure. Poor little Lizer, and Rose Jane too, copied me in style of dress and manners in a way that was somewhat ludicrous but more pathetic.

They clustered round to say good-bye. I would be sure to write. Oh yes, of course, and they would write in return and tell me if the bay mare got well, and where they would find the yellow turkey-hen’s nest. When I got well I must come back, and I wouldn’t have as much work to do, but go for more rides to keep well, and so on. Mrs M’Swat very anxiously impressed it upon me that I was to explain to my mother that it was not her (Mrs M’Swat’s) fault that I “ailed” from overwork, as I had never complained and always seemed well.

With a kindly light on his homely sunburnt face, M’Swat said, as he put me on the train:

“Sure, tell yer father he needn’t worry over the money. I’ll never be hard on him, an’ if ever I could help ye, I’d be glad.”

“Thank you; you are very good, and have done too much already.”

“Too much! Sure, damn it, wot’s the good er bein’ alive if we can’t help each other sometimes. I don’t mind how much I help a person if they have a little gratitood, but, damn it, I can’t abear ingratitood.”

“Good-bye, Mr M’Swat, and thank you.”

“Good-bye, me gu-r-r-r-l, and never marry that bloke of yours if he don’t git a bit er prawperty, for the divil’s in a poor match.”

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