They were expecting me on the frosty evening in September, and the children came bounding and shouting to meet me, when myself and luggage were deposited at Possum Gully by a neighbour, as he passed in a great hurry to reach his own home ere it got too dark. They bustled me to a glowing fire in no time.
My father sat reading, and, greeting me in a very quiet fashion, continued the perusal of his paper. My mother shut her lips tightly, saying exultingly, “It seems it was possible for you to find a worse place than home”; and that little speech was the thorn on the rose of my welcome home. But there was no sting in Gertie’s greeting, and how beautiful she was growing, and so tall! It touched me to see she had made an especial dainty for my tea, and had put things on the table which were only used for visitors. The boys and little Aurora chattered and danced around me all the while. One brought for my inspection some soup-plates which had been procured during my absence; another came with a picture-book; and nothing would do them but that I must, despite the darkness, straightaway go out and admire a new fowl-house which “Horace and Stanley built all by theirselves, and no one helped them one single bit.”
After Mrs M’Swat it was a rest, a relief, a treat, to hear my mother’s cultivated voice, and observe her lady-like and refined figure as she moved about; and, what a palace the place seemed in comparison to Barney’s Gap! simply because it was clean, orderly, and bore traces of refinement; for the stamp of indigent circumstances was legibly imprinted upon it, and many things which had been considered “done for” when thirteen months before I had left home, were still in use.
I carefully studied my brothers and sisters. They had grown during my absence, and were all big for their age, and though some of them not exactly handsome, yet all pleasant to look upon — I was the only wanting in physical charms — also they were often discontented, and wished, as children will, for things they could not have; but they were natural, understandable children, not like myself, cursed with a fevered ambition for the utterly unattainable.
“Oh, were I seated high as my ambition,
I’d place this loot on naked necks of monarchs!”
At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour. In the broken-down man, regardless of manners, one would have failed to recognize Dick Melvyn, “Smart Dick Melvyn”, “Jolly-good-fellow Melvyn” “Thorough Gentleman” and “Manly Melvyn” of the handsome face and ingratiating manners, one-time holder of Bruggabrong, Bin Bin East, and Bin Bin West. He never corrected his family nowadays, and his example was most deleterious to them.
Mother gave me a list of her worries in private after tea that night. She wished she had never married: not only was her husband a failure, but to all appearances her children would be the same. I wasn’t worth my salt or I would have remained at Barney’s Gap; and there was Horace — heaven only knew where he would end. God would surely punish him for his disrespect to his father. It was impossible to keep things together much longer, etc., etc.
When we went to bed that night Gertie poured all her troubles into my ear in a jumbled string. It was terrible to have such a father. She was ashamed of him. He was always going into town, and stayed there till mother had to go after him, or some of the neighbours were so good as to bring him home. It took all the money to pay the publican’s bills, and Gertie was ashamed to be seen abroad in the nice clothes which grannie sent, as the neighbours said the Melvyns ought to pay up the old man’s bills instead of dressing like swells; and she couldn’t help it, and she was sick and tired of trying to keep up respectability in the teeth of such odds.
I comforted her with the assurance that the only thing was to feel right within ourselves, and let people say whatsoever entertained their poor little minds. And I fell asleep thinking that parents have a duty to children greater than children to parents, and they who do not fulfil their responsibility in this respect are as bad in their morals as a debauchee, corrupt the community as much as a thief, and are among the ablest underminers of their nation.
On the morrow, the first time we were alone, Horace seized the opportunity of holding forth on his woes. It was no use, he was choke full of Possum Gully: he would stick to it for another year, and then he would chuck it, even if he had to go on the wallaby. He wasn’t going to be slaving for ever for the boss to swallow the proceeds, and there was nothing to be made out of dairying. When it wasn’t drought it was floods and caterpillars and grasshoppers.
Among my brothers and sisters I quickly revived to a certain extent, and mother asserted her opinion that I had not been ill at all, but had made up my mind to torment her; had not taken sufficient exercise, and might have had a little derangement of the system but nothing more. It was proposed that I should return to Barney’s Gap. I demurred, and was anathematized as ungrateful and altogether corrupt, that I would not go back to M’Swat, who was so good as to lend my father money out of pure friendship; but for once in my life I could not be made submit by either coercion or persuasion. Grannie offered to take one of us to Caddagat; mother preferred that Gertie should go. So we sent the pretty girl to dwell among her kindred in a land of comfort and pleasure.
I remained at Possum Gully to tread the same old life in its tame narrow path, with its never-ending dawn-till-daylight round of tasks; with, as its entertainments, an occasional picnic or funeral or a day in town, when, should it happen to be Sunday, I never fail to patronize one of the cathedrals. I love the organ music, and the hush which pervades the building; and there is much entertainment in various ways if one goes early and watches the well-dressed congregation filing in. The costumes and the women are pretty, and, in his own particular line, the ability of the verger is something at which to marvel. Regular attendants, of course, pay for and have reserved their seats, but it is in classing the visitors that the verger displays his talent. He can cull the commoners from the parvenu aristocrats, and put them in their respective places as skilfully as an expert horse-dealer can draft his stock at a sale. Then, when the audience is complete, in the middle and front of the edifice are to be found they of the white hands and fine jewels; and in the topmost seat of the synagogue, praying audibly, is one who has made all his wealth by devouring widows’ houses; while pushed away to the corners and wings are they who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow; and those who cannot afford good linen are too proud to be seen here at all.
“The choir sings and the organ rings,” the uninteresting prayers are rattled off (“O come, let us worship, and fall down: and kneel before the Lord, our Maker”); a sermon, mostly of the debts of the concern, of the customs of the ancients, or of the rites and ceremonies of up-to-date churchism, is delivered, and the play is done, and as I leave the building a great hunger for a little Christianity fills my heart.
Oh that a preacher might arise and expound from the Book of books a religion with a God, a religion with a heart in it — a Christian religion, which would abolish the cold legend whose centre is respectability, and which rears great buildings in which the rich recline on silken hassocks while the poor perish in the shadow thereof.
Through the hot dry summer, then the heartless winter and the scorching summer again which have spent themselves since Gertie’s departure, I have struggled hard to do my duty in that state of life unto which it had pleased God to call me, and sometimes I have partially succeeded. I have had no books or papers, nothing but peasant surroundings and peasant tasks, and have encouraged peasant ignorance — ignorance being the mainspring of contentment, and contentment the bed-rock of happiness; but it is all to no purpose. A note from the other world will strike upon the chord of my being, and the spirit which has been dozing within me awakens and fiercely beats at its bars, demanding some nobler thought, some higher aspiration, some wider action, a more saturnalian pleasure, something more than the peasant life can ever yield. Then I hold my spirit tight till wild passionate longing sinks down, down to sickening dumb despair, and had I the privilege extended to job of old — to curse God and die — I would leap at it eagerly.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54