My Brilliant Career, by Miles Franklin

Chapter Nine

Aunt Helen’s Recipe

“Dear me, Sybylla, not in bed yet, and tears, great big tears! Tell me what is the cause of them.”

It was aunt Helen’s voice; she had entered and lit the lamp.

There was something beautifully sincere and real about aunt Helen. She never fussed over any one or pretended to sympathize just to make out how nice she was. She was real, and you felt that no matter what wild or awful rubbish you talked to her it would never be retailed for any one’s amusement — and, better than all, she never lectured.

She sat down beside me, and I impulsively threw my arms around her neck and sobbed forth my troubles in a string. How there was no good in the world, no use for me there, no one loved me or ever could on account of my hideousness.

She heard me to the end and then said quietly, “When you are fit to listen I will talk to you.”

I controlled myself instantly and waited expectantly. What would she say? Surely not that tame old yarn anent this world being merely a place of probation, wherein we were allowed time to fit ourselves for a beautiful world to come. That old tune may be all very well for old codgers tottering on the brink of the grave, but to young persons with youth and romance and good health surging through their veins, it is most boresome. Would she preach that it was flying in the face of providence to moan about my appearance? it being one of the greatest blessings I had, as it would save me from countless temptations to which pretty girls are born. That was another piece of old croaking of the job’s comforter order, of which I was sick unto death, as I am sure there is not an ugly person in the world who thinks her lack of beauty a blessing to her. I need not have feared aunt Helen holding forth in that strain. She always said something brave and comforting which made me ashamed of myself and my selfish conceited egotism.

“I understand you, Sybylla,” she said slowly and distinctly, “but you must not be a coward. There is any amount of love and good in the world, but you must search for it. Being misunderstood is one of the trials we all must bear. I think that even the most common-minded person in the land has inner thoughts and feelings which no one can share with him, and the higher one’s organization the more one must suffer in that respect. I am acquainted with a great number of young girls, some of them good and true, but you have a character containing more than any three of them put together. With this power, if properly managed, you can gain the almost universal love of your fellows. But you are wild and wayward, you must curb and strain your spirit and bring it into subjection, else you will be worse than a person with the emptiest of characters. You will find that plain looks will not prevent you from gaining the friendship love of your fellows — the only real love there is. As for the hot fleeting passion of the man for the maid, which is wrongfully designated love, I will not tell you not to think of it, knowing that it is human nature to demand it when arriving at a certain age; but take this comfort: it as frequently passes by on the other side of those with well-chiselled features as those with faces of plainer mould.”

She turned her face away, sighed, and forgetful of my presence lapsed into silence. I knew she was thinking of herself.

Love, not friendship love, for anyone knowing her must give her love and respect, but the other sort of love had passed her by.

Twelve years before I went to Caddagat, when Helen Bossier had been eighteen and one of the most beautiful and lovable girls in Australia, there had come to Caddagat on a visit a dashing colonel of the name of Bell, in the enjoyment of a most extended furlough for the benefit of his health. He married aunt Helen and took her to some part of America where his regiment was stationed. I have heard them say she worshipped Colonel Bell, but in less than a twelvemonth he tired of his lovely bride, and becoming enamoured of another woman, he tried to obtain a divorce. On account of his wife’s spotless character he was unable to do this; he therefore deserted her and openly lived with the other woman as his mistress. This forced aunt Helen to return to Caddagat, and her mother had induced her to sue for a judicial separation, which was easily obtained.

When a woman is separated from her husband it is the religion of the world at large to cast the whole blame on the wife. By reason of her youth and purity Mrs Bell had not as much to suffer in this way as some others. But, comparatively speaking, her life was wrecked. She had been humiliated and outraged in the cruellest way by the man whom she loved and trusted. He had turned her adrift, neither a wife, widow, nor maid, and here she was, one of the most estimably lovable and noble women I have ever met.

“Come, Sybylla,” she said, starting up brightly, “I have a plan — will you agree to it? Come and take one good long look at yourself in the glass, then I will turn it to the wall, and you must promise me that for three or four weeks you will not look in a mirror. I will put as many as I can out of your way, and you must avoid the remainder. During this time I will take you in hand, and you must follow my directions implicitly. Will you agree? You will be surprised what a nice-looking little girl I will make of you.”

Of course I agreed. I took a long and critical survey of myself in the glass. There was reflected a pair of hands, red and coarsened with rough work, a round face, shiny and swollen with crying, and a small round figure enshrouded in masses of hair falling in thick waves to within an inch or two of the knees. A very ugly spectacle, I thought. Aunt Helen turned the face of the large mirror flat against the wall, while I remarked despondently, “you can make me only middling ugly, you must be a magician.”

“Come now, part of my recipe is that you must not think of yourself at all. I’ll take you in hand in the morning. I hope you will like your room; I have arranged it on purpose to suit you. And now good night, and happy dreams.”

I awoke next morning in very fine spirits, and slithering out of my bed with alacrity, revelled — literally wallowed — in the appointments of my room. My poor old room at Possum Gully was lacking in barest necessaries. We could not afford even a wash-hand basin and jug; Gertie, the boys, and myself had to perform our morning ablutions in a leaky tin dish on a stool outside the kitchen door, which on cold frosty mornings was a pretty peppery performance: but this room contained everything dear to the heart of girlhood. A lovely bed, pretty slippers, dainty white China-matting and many soft skins on the floor, and in one corner a most artistic toilet set, and a wash-stand liberally supplied with a great variety of soap — some of it so exquisitely perfumed that I felt tempted to taste it. There were pretty pictures on the walls, and on a commodious dressing-table a big mirror and large hand-glasses, with their faces to the wall at present. Hairpins, fancy combs, ribbons galore, and a pretty work-basket greeted my sight, and with delight I swooped down upon the most excruciatingly lovely little writing-desk. It was stuffed full with all kinds of paper of good quality — fancy, all colours, sizes, and shapes, plain, foreign note, pens, ink, and a generous supply of stamps. I felt like writing a dozen letters there and then, and was on the point of giving way to my inclination, when my attention was arrested by what I considered the gem of the whole turn-out. I refer to a nice little bookcase containing copies of all our Australian poets, and two or three dozen novels which I had often longed to read. I read the first chapters of four of them, and then lost myself in Gordon, and sat on my dressing-table in my nightgown, regardless of cold, until brought to my senses by the breakfast-bell. I made great pace, scrambled into my clothes helter-skelter, and appeared at table when the others had been seated and unfolded their serviettes.

Aunt Helen’s treatment for making me presentable was the wearing of gloves and a shady hat every time I went outside; and she insisted upon me spending a proper time over my toilet, and would not allow me to encroach upon it with the contents of my bookshelf.

“Rub off some of your gloomy pessimism and cultivate a little more healthy girlish vanity, and you will do very well,” she would say.

I observed these rites most religiously for three days. Then I contracted a slight attack of influenza, and in poking around the kitchen, doing one of the things I oughtn’t at the time I shouldn’t, a servant-girl tipped a pot of boiling pot-liquor over my right foot, scalding it rather severely. Aunt Helen and grannie put me to bed, where I yelled with pain for hours like a mad Red Indian, despite their applying every alleviative possible. The combined forces of the burn and influenza made me a trifle dicky, so a decree went forth that I was to stay in bed until recovered from both complaints. This effectually prevented me from running in the way of any looking-glasses.

I was not sufficiently ill to be miserable, and being a pampered invalid was therefore fine fun. Aunt Helen was a wonderful nurse. She dressed my foot splendidly every morning, and put it in a comfortable position many times throughout the day. Grannie brought me every dainty in the house, and sent special messengers to Gool–Gool for more. Had I been a professional glutton I would have been in paradise. Even Mr Hawden condescended so far as to express his regret concerning the accident, and favoured me with visits throughout each day; and one Sunday his gallantry carried him to a gully where he plucked a bouquet of maidenhair fern — the first of the season — and put them in a bowl beside my bed. My uncle Julius, the only other member of the family besides the servants, was away “up the country” on some business or another, and was not expected home for a month or so.

The Bossiers and Beechams were leaders of swelldom among the squattocracy up the country, and firm and intimate friends. The Beechams resided at Five–Bob Downs, twelve miles from Caddagat, and were a family composed of two maiden ladies and their nephew, Harold. One of these ladies was aunt Helen’s particular friend, and the other had stood in the same capacity to my mother in days gone by, but of late years, on account of her poverty, mother had been too proud to keep up communication with her. As for Harold Beecham, he was nearly as much at home at Caddagat as at Five–Bob Downs. He came and went with that pleasant familiarity practised between congenial spirits among squatterdom. The Bossiers and Beechams were congenial spirits in every way — they lived in the one sphere and held the one set of ideas, the only difference between them, and that an unnoticeable one, being that the Bossiers, though in comfortable circumstances, were not at all rich, while Harold Beecham was immensely wealthy. When my installation in the role of invalid took place, one Miss Beecham was away in Melbourne, and the other not well enough to come and see me, but Harold came regularly to inquire how I was progressing. He always brought me a number of beautiful apples. This kindness was because the Caddagat orchard had been too infested with codlin moth for grannie to save any last season.

Aunt Helen used to mischievously tease me about this attention.

“Here comes Harry Beecham with some more apples,” she would say. “No doubt he is far more calculating and artful than I thought he was capable of being. He is taking time by the forelock and wooing you ere he sees you, and so will take the lead. Young ladies are in the minority up this way, and every one is snapped up as soon as she arrives.”

“You’d better tell him how ugly I am, auntie, so that he will carry apples twelve miles on his own responsibility, and when he sees me won’t be vexed that all his work has been for nothing. Perhaps, though, it would be better not to describe me, or I will get no more apples,” I would reply.

Aunt Helen was a clever needlewoman. She made all grannie’s dresses and her own. Now she was making some for me, which, however, I was not to see until I wore them. Aunt Helen had this as a pleasant surprise, and went to the trouble of blindfolding me while I was being fitted. While in bed, grannie and auntie being busy, I was often left hours alone, and during that time devoured the contents of my bookshelf.

The pleasure, so exquisite as to be almost pain, which I derived from the books, and especially the Australian poets, is beyond description. In the narrow peasant life of Possum Gully I had been deprived of companionship with people of refinement and education who would talk of the things I loved; but, at last here was congeniality, here was companionship.

The weird witchery of mighty bush, the breath of wide sunlit plains, the sound of camp-bells and jingle of hobble chains, floating on the soft twilight breezes, had come to these men and had written a tale on their hearts as had been written on mine. The glory of the starlit heavens, the mighty wonder of the sea, and the majesty of thunder had come home to them, and the breathless fulness of the sunset hour had whispered of something more than the humour of tomorrow’s weather. The wind and rain had a voice which spoke to Kendall, and he too had endured the misery of lack of companionship. Gordon, with his sad, sad humanism and bitter disappointment, held out his hand and took me with him. The regret of it all was I could never meet them — Byron, Thackeray, Dickens, Longfellow, Gordon, Kendall, the men I loved, all were dead; but, blissful thought! Caine, Paterson, and Lawson were still living, breathing human beings — two of them actually countrymen, fellow Australians!

I pored with renewed zeal over the terse realism and pathos of Lawson, and enjoyed Paterson’s redolence of the rollicking side of the wholesome life beneath these sunny skies, which he depicted with grand touches of power flashing here and there. I learnt them by heart, and in that gloriously blue receptacle, by and by, where many pleasant youthful dreams are stowed, I put the hope that one day I would clasp hands with them, and feel and know the unspeakable comfort and heart-rest of congenial companionship.

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