My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Thirty-Five

The 3rd of December 1898

It was a very hot day. So extreme was the heat that to save the lives of some young swallows my father had to put wet bags over the iron roof above their nest. A galvanized-iron awning connected our kitchen and house: in this some swallows had built, placing their nest so near the iron that the young ones were baking with the heat until rescued by the wet bagging. I had a heavy day’s work before me, and, from my exertions of the day before, was tired at the beginning. Bush-fires had been raging in the vicinity during the week, and yesterday had come so close that I had been called out to carry buckets of water all the afternoon in the blazing sun. The fire had been allayed, after making a gap in one of our boundary fences. Father and the boys had been forced to leave the harvesting of the miserable pinched wheat while they went to mend it, as the small allowance of grass the drought gave us was precious, and had to be carefully preserved from neighbours’ stock.

I had baked and cooked, scrubbed floors and whitewashed hearths, scoured tinware and cutlery, cleaned windows, swept yards, and discharged numerous miscellaneous jobs, and half-past two in the afternoon found me very dirty and very tired, and with very much more yet to do.

One of my half-starved poddy calves was very ill, and I went out to doctor it previous to bathing and tidying myself for my finishing household duties.

My mother was busy upon piles and piles of wearying mending, which was one of the most hopeless of the many slaveries of her life. This was hard work, and my father was slaving away in the sun, and mine was arduous labour, and it was a very hot day, and a drought-smitten and a long day, and poddy calves ever have a tendency to make me moralize and snarl. This was life, my life and my parents’ life, and the life of those around us, and if I was a good girl and honoured my parents I would be rewarded with a long stretch of it. Yah!

These pagan meditations were interrupted by a footfall slowly approaching. I did not turn to ascertain who it might be, but trusted it was no one of importance, as the poddy and I presented rather a grotesque appearance. It was one of the most miserable and sickly of its miserable kind, and I was in the working uniform of the Australian peasantry. My tattered skirt and my odd and bursted boots, laced with twine, were spattered with whitewash, for coolness my soiled cotton blouse hung loose, an exceedingly dilapidated sun-bonnet surmounted my head, and a bottle of castor-oil was in my hand.

I supposed it was one of the neighbours or a tea-agent, and I would send them to mother.

The footsteps had come to a halt beside me.

“Could you tell me if —”

I glanced upwards. Horrors! There stood Harold Beecham, as tall and broad as of yore, even more sunburnt than ever, and looking very stylish in a suit of grey and a soft fashionable dinted-in hat; and it was the first time I had ever seen him in a white shirt and high collar.

I wished he would explode, or I might sink into the ground, or the calf would disappear, or that something might happen.

On recognizing me his silence grew profound, but an unmistakable expression of pity filled his eyes and stung me to the quick.

I have a faculty of self-pity, but my pride promptly refuses the slightest offer of sympathy from another.

I could feel my heart grow as bitterly cold as my demeanour was icily stiff, when I stood up and said curtly:

“This is a great surprise, Mr Beecham.”

“Not an unpleasant one, I hope,” he said pleasantly.

“We will not discuss the matter. Come inside out of the heat.”

“I’m in no hurry, Syb, and couldn’t I help you with that poor little devil?”

“I’m only trying to give it another chance of life.”

“What will you do with it if it lives?”

“Sell it for half a crown when it’s a yearling.”

“It would pay better to shoot the poor little beggar now.”

“No doubt it would the owner of Five–Bob, but we have to be more careful,” I said tartly.

“I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” I returned, leading the way to the house, imagining with a keen pain that Harold Beecham must be wondering how for an instant he could have been foolish enough to fancy such an object two years ago.

Thank goodness I have never felt any humiliation on account of my mother, and felt none then, as she rose to greet Harold upon my introduction. She was a lady, and looked it, in spite of the piles of coarse mending, and the pair of trousers, almost bullet-proof with patches, out of which she drew her hand, roughened and reddened with hard labour, in spite of her patched and faded cotton gown, and the commonest and most poverty-stricken of peasant surroundings, which failed to hide that she had not been always thus.

Leaving them together, I expeditiously proceeded to relieve the livery-stable horse, on which Harold had come, of the valise, saddle, and bridle with which it was encumbered, and then let it loose in one of the grassless paddocks near at hand.

Then I threw myself on a stool in the kitchen, and felt, to the bone, the sting of having ideas above one’s position.

In a few minutes mother came hurrying out.

“Good gracious, what’s the matter? I suppose you didn’t like being caught in such a pickle, but don’t get in the dumps about it. I’ll get him some tea while you clean yourself, and then you’ll be able to help me by and by.”

I found my little sister Aurora, and we climbed through the window into my bedroom to get tidy. I put a pair of white socks and shoes and a clean pinafore on the little girl, and combed her golden curls. She was all mine — slept with me, obeyed me, championed me; while I— well, I worshipped her.

There was a hole in the wall, and through it I could see without being seen.

Mother was dispensing afternoon tea and talking to Harold. It was pleasant to see that manly figure once again. My spirits rose considerably. After all, if the place was poor, it was very clean, as I had scrubbed it all that morning, and when I came to consider the matter, I remembered that men weren’t such terrible creatures, and never made one feel the sting of one’s poverty half as much as women do.

“Aurora,” I said, I want you to go out and tell Mr Beecham something.

The little girl assented. I carefully instructed her in what she was to say, and dispatched her. She placed herself in front of Harold — a wide-eyed mite of four, that scarcely reached above his knee — and clasping her chubby hands behind her, gazed at him fearlessly and unwinkingly.

“Aurora, you mustn’t stand staring like that,” said mother.

“Yes, I must,” she replied confidently.

“Well, and what’s your name?” said Harold laughingly.

“Aurora and Roy. I belong to Sybyller, and got to tell you somesing.”

“Have you? Let’s hear it.”

“Sybyller says you’s Mr Beecher; when you’re done tea, you’d like me if I would to ‘scort you to farver and the boys, and ‘duce you.”

Mother laughed. “That’s some of Sybylla’s nonsense. She considers Rory her especial property, and delights to make the child attempt long words. Perhaps you would care to take a stroll to where they are at work, by and by.”

Harold said he would go at once, and accepting Rory’s escort, and with a few directions from mother, they presently set out — she importantly trudging beneath a big white sun-bonnet, and he looking down at her in amusement. Presently he tossed her high above his head, and depositing her upon his shoulder, held one sturdy brown leg in his browner hand, while she held on by his hair.

“My first impressions are very much in his favour,” said mother, when they had got out of hearing. “But fancy Gertie the wife of that great man!”

“She is four inches taller than I am,” I snapped. “And if he was as big as a gum-tree, he would be a man all the same, and just as soft on a pretty face as all the rest of them.”

I bathed, dressed, arranged my hair, got something ready for tea, and prepared a room for our visitor. For this I collected from all parts of the house — a mat from one room, a toilet-set from another, and so on — till I had quite an elaborately furnished chamber ready for my one-time lover.

They returned at dusk, Rory again seated on Harold’s shoulder, and two of the little boys clinging around him.

As I conducted him to his room I was in a different humour from that of the sweep-like object who had met him during the afternoon. I laughed to myself, for, as on a former occasion during our acquaintance, I felt I was master of the situation.

“I say, Syb, don’t treat a fellow as though he was altogether a stranger,” he said diffidently, leaning against the door-post.

Our hands met in a cordial grasp as I said, “I’m awfully glad to see you, Hal; but, but ——”

“But what?”

“I didn’t feel over delighted to be caught in such a stew this afternoon.”

“Nonsense! It only reminded me of the first time we met,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s always the way with you girls. You can’t be civil to a man unless you’re dressed up fit to stun him, as though you couldn’t make fool enough of him without the aid of clothes at all.”

“You’d better shut up,” I said over my shoulder as I departed, “or you will be saying something better left unsaid, like at our first meeting. Do you remember?”

“Do I not? Great Scot, it’s just like old times to have you giving me impudence over your shoulder like that!” he replied merrily.

“Like, yet unlike,” I retorted with a sigh.

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