In spite of our pottering and lifting, with the exception of five, all our cows eventually died; and even these and a couple of horses had as much as they could do to live on the whole of the thousand acres which, without reserve, were at their disposal. They had hardly any grass — it was merely the warmth and water which kept them alive. Needless to say, we were on our beam-ends financially. However, with a little help from more fortunate relatives, and with the money obtained from the sale of the cowhides and mother’s poultry, we managed to pay the interest on the money borrowed from the bishop, and keep bread in our mouths.
Unfortunately for us, at this time the bishop’s agent proved a scoundrel and absconded. My father held receipts to show that to this agent he had regularly paid the interest of the money borrowed; but through some finicking point of law, because we had not money to contend with him, his lordship the bishop now refused to acknowledge his agent and one-time pillar of the cathedral, and, having law on his side, served a writ on us. In the face of our misfortunes this was too much: we begged for time, which plea he answered by putting in the bailiff and selling everything we possessed. Our five cows, two horses, our milk separator, plough, cart, dray, buggy, even our cooking utensils, books, pictures, furniture, father’s watch — our very beds, pillows, and blankets. Not a thing besides what we stood up in was left us, and this was money for the payment of which my father held receipts.
But for the generosity of our relatives we would have been in a pretty plight. They sent us sufficient means to buy in everything, and our neighbours came to our rescue with enthusiasm and warm-hearted genuine sympathy. The bailiff — a gentleman to the core — seeing how matters stood, helped us to the utmost of his power.
Our goods were disposed of on the premises, and the neighbours arranged a mock sale, at which the bailiff winked. Our friends had sent the money, and the neighbours did the bidding — none bidding against each other — and thus our belongings went for a mere trifle. Every cloud has its silver lining, and the black cloud of poverty has a very bright silver lining.
In poverty you can get at the real heart of people as you can never do if rich. People are your friends from pure friendship and love, not from sponging self-interestedness. It is worth being poor once or twice in a lifetime just to experience the blessing and heartrestfulness of a little genuine reality in the way of love and friendship. Not that it is impossible for opulence to have genuine friends, but rich people, I fear, must ever have at their heart cankering suspicion to hint that the friendship and love lavished upon them is merely self-interestedness and sham, the implements of trade used by the fawning toadies who swarm around wealth.
In conjunction with the bishop’s name, the approaching sale of our goods had been duly advertised in the local papers, and my father received several letters of sympathy from the clergy deploring the conduct of the bishop. These letters were from men unknown to father, who were unaware that Richard Melvyn was being sold off for a debt already paid.
By the generosity of relatives and the goodness of neighbours as kind as ever breathed, our furniture was our own again, but what were we to do for a living? Our crops were withering in the fields for want of rain, and we had but five cows — not an over-bright outlook. As I was getting to bed one night my mother came into my room and said seriously, “Sybylla, I want to have a talk with you.”
“Talk away,” I responded rather sullenly, for I expected a long sing-song about my good-for-nothingness in general — a subject of which I was heartily tired.
“Sybylla, I’ve been studying the matter over a lot lately. It’s no use, we cannot afford to keep you at home. You’ll have to get something to do.”
I made no reply, and my mother continued, “I am afraid we will have to break up the home altogether. It’s no use; your father has no idea of making a living. I regret the day I ever saw him. Since he has taken to drink he has no more idea of how to make a living than a cat. I will have to give the little ones to some of the relatives; the bigger ones will have to go out to service, and so will your father and I. That’s all I can see ahead of us. Poor little Gertie is too young to go out in the world (she was not twelve months younger than I); she must go to your grandmother, I think.”
I still made no reply, so my mother inquired, “Well, Sybylla, what do you think of the matter?”
“Do you think it absolutely necessary to break up the home?” I said.
“Well, you suggest something better if you are so clever,” said mother, crossly. “That is always the way; if I suggest a thing it is immediately put down, yet there is never any one to think of things but me. What would you do? I suppose you think you could make a living on the place for us yourself.”
“Why can’t we live at home? Blackshaw and Jansen have no bigger places than we, and families just as large, and yet they make a living. It would be terrible for the little ones to grow up separated; they would be no more to each other than strangers.”
“Yes; it is all very well for you to talk like that, but how is your father to start again with only five cows in the world? It’s no use, you never talk sense. You’ll find my way is always the best in the end.”
“Would it not be easier,” I replied, “for our relations to each give a little towards setting us up again, than to be burdened with the whole responsibility of rearing a child? I’m sure they’d much prefer it.”
“Yes, perhaps it would be better, but I think you will have to get your own living. What would they say about having to support such a big girl as you are?”
“I will go and earn my own living, and when you get me weeded out of the family you will have a perfect paradise. Having no evil to copy, the children will grow up saints,” I said bitterly.
“Now, Sybylla, it is foolish to talk like that, for you know that you take no interest in your work. If you’d turn to and help me rear poultry and make dresses — and why don’t you take to cooking?”
“Take to cooking!” I retorted with scorn. “The fire that a fellow has to endure on that old oven would kill a horse, and the grit and dirt of clearing it up grinds on my very nerves. Besides, if I ever do want to do any extra fancy cooking, we either can’t afford the butter or the currants, or else the eggs are too scarce! Cook, be grannied!”
“Sybylla! Sybylla, you are getting very vulgar!”
“Yes, I once was foolish enough to try and be polite, but I’ve given it up. My style of talk is quite good enough for my company. What on earth does it matter whether I’m vulgar or not. I can feed calves and milk and grind out my days here just as well vulgar as unvulgar,” I answered savagely.
“There, you see you are always discontented about your home. It’s no use; the only thing is for you to earn your own living.”
“I will earn my own living.”
“What will you do? Will you be examined for a pupil-teacher? That is a very nice occupation for girls.”
“What chance would I have in a competitive exam. against Goulburn girls? They all have good teachers and give up their time to study. I only have old Harris, and he is the most idiotic old animal alive; besides, I loathe the very thought of teaching. I’d as soon go on the wallaby.”
“You are not old enough to be a general servant or a cook; you have not experience enough to be a housemaid; you don’t take to sewing, and there is no chance of being accepted as a hospital nurse: you must confess there is nothing you can do. You are really a very useless girl for your age.”
“There are heaps of things I could do.”
“Tell me a few of them.”
I was silent. The professions at which I felt I had the latent power to excel, were I but given a chance, were in a sphere far above us, and to mention my feelings and ambitions to my matter-of-fact practical mother would bring upon me worse ridicule than I was already forced to endure day by day.
“Mention a few of the things you could do.”
I might as well have named flying as the professions I was thinking of. Music was the least unmentionable of them, so I brought it forward.
“Music! But it would take years of training and great expense before you could earn anything at that! It is quite out of the question. The only thing for you to do is to settle down and take interest in your work, and help make a living at home, or else go out as a nurse-girl, and work your way up. If you have any ability in you it would soon show. If you think you could do such strokes, and the home work is not good enough for you, go out and show the world what a wonderful creature you are.”
“Mother, you are unjust and cruel!” I exclaimed. “You do not understand one at all. I never thought I could do strokes. I cannot help being constituted so that grimy manual labour is hateful to me, for it is hateful to me, and I hate it more and more every day, and you can preach and preach till you go black in the face, and still I’ll hate it more than ever. If I have to do it all my life, and if I’m cursed with a long life, I’ll hate it just as much at the end as I do now. I’m sure it’s not any wish of mine that I’m born with inclinations for better things. If I could be born again, and had the designing of myself, I’d be born the lowest and coarsest-minded person imaginable, so that I could find plenty of companionship, or I’d be born an idiot, which would be better still.”
“Sybylla!” said my mother in a shocked tone. “It is a wonder God doesn’t strike you dead; I never heard —”
“I don’t believe there is a God,” I said fiercely, “and if there is, He’s not the merciful being He’s always depicted, or He wouldn’t be always torturing me for His own amusement.”
“Sybylla, Sybylla! That I should ever have nurtured a child to grow up like this! Do you know that —”
“I only know that I hate this life. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it,” I said vehemently.
“Talk about going out to earn your own living! Why, there’s not a woman living would have you in her house above a day. You are a perfect she-devil. Oh God!” And my mother began to cry. “What have I done to be cursed with such a child? There is not another woman in the district with such a burden put upon her. What have I done? I can only trust that my prayers to God for you will soften your evil heart.”
“If your prayers are answered, it’s more than ever mine were,” I retorted.
“Your prayers!” said my mother, with scorn. “The horror of a child not yet sixteen being so hardened. I don’t know what to make of you, you never cry or ask forgiveness. There’s dear little Gertie now, she is often naughty, but when I correct her she frets and worries and shows herself to be a human being and not a fiend.”
So saying my mother went out of the room.
“I’ve asked forgiveness once too often, to be sat upon for my pains,” I called out.
“I believe you’re mad. That is the only feasible excuse I can make for your conduct,” she said as a parting shot.
“Why the deuce don’t you two get to bed and not wrangle like a pair of cats in the middle of the night, disturbing a man’s rest?” came in my father’s voice from amid the bedclothes.
My mother is a good woman — a very good woman — and I am, I think, not quite all criminality, but we do not pull together. I am a piece of machinery which, not understanding, my mother winds up the wrong way, setting all the wheels of my composition going in creaking discord.
She wondered why I did not cry and beg forgiveness, and thereby give evidence of being human. I was too wrought up for tears. Ah, that tears might have come to relieve my overburdened heart! I took up the home-made tallow candle in its tin stick and looked at my pretty sleeping sister Gertie (she and I shared the one bed). It was as mother had said. If Gertie was scolded for any of her shortcomings, she immediately took refuge in tears, said she was sorry, obtained forgiveness, and straightaway forgot the whole matter. She came within the range of mother’s understanding, I did not; she had feelings, mother thought, I had none. Did my mother understand me, she would know that I am capable of more depths of agony and more exquisite heights of joy in one day than Gertie will experience in her whole life.
Was I mad as mother had said? A fear took possession of me that I might be. I certainly was utterly different to any girl I had seen or known. What was the hot wild spirit which surged within me? Ah, that I might weep! I threw myself on my bed and moaned. Why was I not like other girls? Why was I not like Gertie? Why were not a new dress, everyday work, and an occasional picnic sufficient to fill my mind? My movements awakened Gertie.
“What is the matter, dear Sybylla? Come to bed. Mother has been scolding you. She is always scolding some one. That doesn’t matter. You say you are sorry, and she won’t scold any more. That’s what I always do. Do get into bed. You’ll be tired in the morning.”
“What does it matter if I will be. I wish I would be dead. What’s the good of a hateful thing like I am being alive. No one wants or cares for me.”
“I love you, Sybylla, better than all the rest. I could not do without you,” and she put her pretty face to mine and kissed me.
What a balm to the tempest-tossed soul is a little love, though it may be fleeting and fickle! I was able to weep now, with wild hot tears, and with my sister’s arms around me I fell asleep without undressing further.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08