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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
“Sister Ann, Sister Ann, do you see anyone coming?”— from poor cowering Fatima. And from the watcher on the look-out always the same monotonous reply: “Naught but the dust that blows before the wind!”
She was really Edith; but ever since as children they had acted the BLUEBEARD play, she had been Ann to them — Sister Ann. And the name fitted her like her own skin. For Ann quite literally spent her life on the watch — for the next disaster, she being the only one who might ward it off.
Of late, however, her vigilance had had a double aim.
Without counting her — and no one ever did, she was so different — there were six of them, six girls in a row. (Brother Stephen the lawyer came after Ann, and little Timothy, who still rode every day to school, right at the end of the line.)
While they were still young, being so many hadn’t troubled them. But now that they were all but one of them grown up — and she fast coming on — the calamity of their number was self-evident. “Old O’Grady and his six gals” was the snigger that went the round. And though it stung, it was bearable. But what if, some day, the “old” was shifted from Papa, and “maids” took the place of “girls”? Merely to think of it made their respective bloods run cold, though at first each thought for herself, for even among sisters a fear of this magnitude was hard to broach. Time, however, shattered their delicacy and, nowadays, the likelihood (or unlikelihood) of their ever finding husbands was openly discussed.
No help was to be expected from Papa. Stephen’s training and setting-up had cost POTS of money; and of course the station didn’t pay. When Papa bought it and carried them off from town, it was on the strength of a rumour that gold had been found there. Characteristically (and adorably) he had swallowed the yarn, prospecting, sinking shafts, and so on. But not a trace of the colour showed; and the poorer by several thousands he had been forced to turn squatter — and of squatting he knew no more than a child. Things had gone from bad to worse with him; and ever since last winter’s floods swept away his three precious bridges over the river, he seemed finally to have lost heart; and was now oftenest to be found sitting in the porch, his red beard sunk on his chest, a glass of rum and milk before him. Always just the least bit . . . well, fuzzy . . so that if you spoke suddenly to him he had to look hard at you to make sure which you were.
It was Ann who had taken command: Ann, her skirts pinned up, in leggings or jack-boots, a battered old straw on her head, who stumped about from morning till night, seeing after hands, horses, stock. Her skin was the colour of a well-baked pie-crust, her nose scaly, her hair always half down. While the sun-wrinkles round the corners of her eyes were fast running into her cheeks. But Ann didn’t care a threepenny-bit how she looked. Or what she did. When an infuriated stallion broke loose from his paddock and came thundering up to the house, it was Ann who intrepidly led him back and replaced the slip-rail. Or when a new closet was needed, she went out and superintended the digging of the pit and the filling-in of the old one.
Not that the rest of them were idle — Ann wouldn’t allow that; each had her job, and grumbling didn’t help. Car, next in age to Ann, was dressmaker to the family; and a good part of her day went at the treadle-machine. However, since her chief interest was dress and the fashions, it didn’t come too hard on her. She was also a dab at cutting and fitting, and wore her own clothes with such an air that they might have been bought in Paris — helped, of course, by a marvellous, simply MARVELLOUS figure. Very tall, with a rich, full bust, Car possessed a waist so tiny that Gemma’s seventeen-inch silver belt spanned it with ease.
The others, having no marked talents, fared worse. Deb toiled, till her feet throbbed, in the flagstoned dairy, amid great flat dishes of milk off which she skimmed cream wrinkled like parchment, and as yellow; or churned butter; or made cheese. Ell had charge of the fowls, the maddening fowls, for ever straying or laying out of the nest; and so it went on, down to young Flo, who ought to have been at boarding-school and wasn’t, for lack of funds, and did her resentful bit by flipping a feather-whisk over surfaces on which you could have written your name in the gritty, white dust.
The single one of whom nothing was expected or asked was Gemma. For Gemma was delicate, and unfit for exertion. The beauty of the family, and Ann’s darling, she was free to laze away her days thinking of her health or her looks; not getting up from the bed she shared with Ann (which Ann left at unearthly hours) till she felt inclined to, sometimes only just in time for dinner.
Papa, himself so given to “sitting around”, could not tolerate idleness in others. He was for ever quoting the ant at Gemma, or making pointed allusions to drones. He had also an Irish impatience with “side” or vanity. And when poor Gemma, hungry for masculine admiration, was it only her father’s, went up to him one morning and, with her chin in the air, showed off her newly-scrubbed and polished teeth, all she got was: “Teeth? Where? I see nothing but gums.” And as he turned away: “My dear, they’re not a patch on Ann’s!”— at which there was a general burst of laughter. Really it took PAPA to pretend he preferred Ann’s teeth, large, white, even as these were, to Gemma’s small pearls.
But Ann didn’t laugh, she was furious.
“The old fool doesn’t know what he’s saying!”— And the horse she was driving came in for a cut over the head.
Once a week she got out the buggy and drove the ten miles to the neighbouring township, with a load of butter and eggs; or cheese; or fowls. These articles were her own peculiar perquisites; and she took no one with her to see what she made by them. The money was earmarked for a special purpose: to meet the expense of entertaining the guests she got together whenever possible. Young men only, of course; and from town, not township. For her sisters’ qualms about their persistent maidenhood were slight compared with hers; and Papa, who had done the damage by burying his family alive, was now too inert to remedy it. For all he cared, these six girls — of whom even the plainest was comely — might wither unseen and unwed. And in a land, too, where women stood at a premium!
It was ludicrous, it was absurd; and since the poor things’ own hands were tied, she herself had shouldered the job of finding them husbands. So far, without success. Indeed, everything that could go wrong had done so. Eligibles were rare, nor was she free to pick and choose, she had just to take what offered: with the result that Car, the stately, was philandering with a youth seven years her junior; Bab’s making sheeps-eyes at a totally ineligible, while Gemma, the victim of a week of full moons and verandah hammocks, was shedding secret tears over a tall dark handsome fellow who, they had subsequently learned, was already bespoken. That must not, MUST not be.
On this particular day she, Ann, carried a more than usually heavy load. And the price she meant to ask for her goods was stiffer. For during the last visit paid them by the “ineligible”, it had leaked out that he knew a wealthy squatter who was still a bachelor; and straightway he had been half-whipped, half-wheedled into a promise to bring this unicum with him, the next time he came. A splash had now to be made, Gemma got up to kill.
On Gemma her hopes were pinned: Gemma who, did she seriously lay herself out to please, was irresistible. — Which was one reason why Papa’s aspersions on the girls’ looks — Papa had gone on to say Gemma was getting fat, very soon she’d be able to boast a double chin (at twenty-five!)— had bitten so deep. For after all Papa was a man, and judged women with a man’s eye. But there was more in it than this. The love Ann bore her younger sister had in the course of time grown to be a kind of passion; and it was with something of a mother’s savagery that she thought of dimples running to lines, lovely lips thinning, the exquisite oval of the face losing its shape. — And as she bumped down and up the bed of a dry creek, breathed dust for air, fought the flies, she felt that she would cheerfully have given years of her own life to keep Gemma as she was.
He was short, thick-set, sandy-haired — such hair as remained to him, it wasn’t much — with pale, rather prominent blue eyes, which fled did they chance to meet yours, seeming to rest by preference on inanimate objects. Socially, too, he was a dead weight. He either sat mum, or barked out short, staccato sentences: the “and that’s that!” style of thing which effectually put a stopper on conversation. And his name was MacNab.
Gemma’s recoil was instant and instinctive (poor lamb, poor sacrificial lamb!). But feeling Ann’s eyes glued sternly on her, she did her best, her LEVEL best, in the hour that followed. Her prettiest, too; making full play with her thickly-fringed lids and what was known among them as: her “Ellen Terry” mouth. She had him all to herself. Ann soon winked and grimaced and accompanied Papa from the room; Babe and the “ineligible” had been bundled off to gather mushrooms; while the remaining sisters — for fear of alarming by their numbers they had not been produced — kept religiously to the back of the house.
But “Gemma, what are you doing here?” from a dismayed Ann when, entering the bedroom, she found Gemma sitting limply on the side of the bed. “Where is he, child? What have you done with him?”
“DONE? It’s not me, it’s Papa. He came back. And then he went over to talk to him,” flamed Gemma, confusing her pronouns in her haste. “He CAN talk, too, if he wants to. He’s not so dumb as he makes out to be.”
“You silly child, it’s only shyness. He’s not used to a pretty woman’s company. I saw that at a glance. Come now, darling,” and Ann held outspread the dress, cut low in the neck, and sleeveless, to show the dimpled arms, in which Gemma should have continued her work of enchantment.
But the girl’s lips were trembling, and she pushed the dress away.
“I’m NOT going to wear that thing. Oh, it’s no use, Ann, I can’t — I couldn’t EVER like him.”
But Ann was obdurate. Petting and cajoling, she hooked and buttoned, and straightened the mass of chestnut hair. Then, taking firm hold of Gemma’s arm, led the unwilling victim back to the forsaken guest. —“Or what will he think of you?”
But he wasn’t thinking anything. Fortunately (or unfortunately) he seemed to be getting on quite well with Papa. At least, there the two of them sat pow-wowing, their glasses before them. Unfortunately again, and thanks to her own misguided caution, today that old fool Papa had all his wits about him, not a drop of liquor having crossed his lips till now. And when sober he was no fool. Even she saw how impossible it was for Gemma to chip in — on a talk moreover that turned entirely on sheep! And having stood for a moment, hat in hand as it were, Gemma gave her a flaming, what-did-I-tell-you look, and stalked out of the room.
At supper it was the same. Though she sat next him, he didn’t even trouble to hand her the salt (after helping himself), but went on speaking to Papa across her. It was plain the man hadn’t an idea in his head except business, and of business Gemma, alas! knew nothing. Her one effort, made in obedience to Ann’s fierce eyes, merely exposed her ignorance. To cover it, Ann sprang in with a remark on the existing wool prices (about which she knew considerably more than Papa). And this led to a rather heated argument, in which she found herself siding with MacNab against Papa; for in all the former said there was a good deal of rough horse-sense.
That night (after giving Papa a wigging he wouldn’t forget) she took the resentful girl in her arms and spoke long and earnestly. It wasn’t only herself Gemma had to think of. it was everyone of them. Papa was literally on the rocks for money: if he couldn’t contrive to get a loan the station might be sold over his head. In which case her sisters would have to turn out, go as governesses or even worse. It lay with Gemma to prevent this. As a married woman, with a substantial settlement and in a good position, she could give these unfortunates their chance: take them about with her, introduce them to the right people, see that they met likely men. About herself she, Ann, wouldn’t speak: except to say she didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to go on working as she did. She was nearing forty; and the most trying years of a woman’s life were at hand.
Gemma’s tears ran down her cheeks, trickling off her nose.
“I know, I know ALL that,” she sobbed. “But, oh Ann, it’s so . . . so humiliating. Besides, I’ve got SOME feelings of my own.”
“Yes, and I know what they are, too, and why you’re not putting your heart into this affair. It’s because you can’t or won’t forget all that moonshine about young Spencer.’’
“It’s NOT moonshine. He said . . . Howard said . . . .”
“I don’t want to hear. Nothing will alter MY opinion of him. Now, darling, just you listen to me.”— And patiently Ann set herself to begin again from the beginning.
She had the satisfaction next morning of seeing the pair go off together, Gemma having been cajoled into showing the visitor round. Never had Gem looked prettier: in a rose-besprinkled print, rose on white, a sort of Dolly Varden hat tied under her chin with rose-velvet strings. But from her spy-hole Ann was concerned to see him halt at the pig-sties; and not for a moment only: they continued to stand there in the sun, leaning over the wall. (Gemma! . . . who never went within coo-ee of the pigs without a handkerchief to her nose.) As was only to be expected, when at last they moved it was to make a bee-line back to the house, Gem feeling ill and needing to lie down. Not too ill though to say what she thought of him.
Ann clicked her tongue, and went away to scratch her head and ponder. The thing was plain: her schemes for Gemma’s benefit were not coming off. Nor was it ONLY Gemma’s fault: the man seemed as little taken with her as she with him. Could it be that she was not his “style”? Himself so short and stumpy, might he not perhaps incline to women of more regal proportions? In that case, there was no lack of choice to hand. What about Car, Car, the tall and willowy, the superbly busted? The experiment was at least worth trying. And so Car was commanded to appear at dinner, introduced as if she had just come home. But it didn’t work. For all the attention he paid her she might have been a broomstick. He had evidently no more eye for a fine figure than for a pretty face.
That afternoon, Car having frostily withdrawn to make merry over him with the hidden sisters, Papa bottle-free and normally sodden, Gemma declining to get off her bed; that afternoon there was nothing for it, Ann saw, but herself to take him on. SHE had no feminine shrinking from sties; it didn’t matter to her how long she stood over them, breathing in the odour of pig. No, HER difficulty was to keep from smiling when she heard him say: “As I was telling your sister . . .” (Poor little Gemma!)
But soon she forgot to smile. For the man knew what he was talking about, having, it seemed, worked out the precise amount of artificial food required, in addition to household swill, to bring a pig to its prime. If what he said was true, she had been putting herself to unnecessary expense. The chance of saving so-and-so many shillings per week was too good to miss; and she asked methodical questions on weights and measurements.
The horses visited — there wasn’t much about horse-flesh either he didn’t know — she got into her breeches and rode with him to an outlying paddock where the hands were ring-barking. Here again she grew interested in spite of herself. For though, as one of them, he admitted the sheep-farmers’ need for pasture, ever more pasture, he sighed over the havoc that was being wrought to attain it. Besides, it cut both ways. No grass without moisture; and the countries with abundant rainfalls were those that were richest in forests. How shortsighted then, to strip of its trees a land already so poor in rain! The present generation might wilfully shut its eyes to the folly of it; those to come would have theirs opened, and be the sufferers.
He loved trees, too, it seemed, for their own sake.
With a hand on the trunk of one they stood by, he said: “It goes to my heart to see a mighty specimen like this doomed to a lingering death.”
Yes, he certainly gave one something to think about. — And that night Gemma was left in peace.
The following day the two of them went out together almost as a matter of course. (“Ann’s Old Man of the Sea!” tittered the sisters.) And this time it was Ann who did most of the talking. As they climbed a boulder-strewn hill, their bridles over their arms, she found herself confessing to the struggle it was to keep the place going, bemoaned her own inexperience, Papa’s fatal lassitude. And in doing so let slip, for the first time, the family’s full size. He listened attentively and sympathetically; and in return gave her various useful tips how to cut down expenses and improve her control; for he, too, it now transpired, had once been poor, suffered hardship.
And so it went on. They walked, rode, talked together, for each of the five days he stayed with them.
On the last morning — he was travelling by the next day’s coach — he turned to her, and abruptly, without a word of preamble, asked her to marry him.
They stood by one of Papa’s make-shift bridges, which the oftener she saw them the surer Ann felt would be demolished by the first spring flood. Her thoughts were with her eyes, and she didn’t grasp what he was saying till after she had been idiot enough to ask him to repeat it. Red to the ears with embarrassment and in a daze at what she heard, before she could stop herself she had blurted out: “ME? Marry YOU?”
It sounded terrible, cutting to a degree; and so, apparently, he took it, going even redder than she was, and saying equally bluntly: “I see. That settles it then.”
“Oh no, it doesn’t,” spluttered Ann. — But this was even worse, for he might misconstrue it, and she rushed on: “That is . . . I mean . . . Of COURSE I can’t marry you. But . . . but it’s very nice of you to ask me.”
Recovering from the snub he ventured: “But why not? What are your reasons?”
“REASONS? Why, I’ve never even thought of marrying — never! How could I? Desert all these poor things? . . . who depend on me for everything? Impossible!”
He ignored the family’s claims on her. “Nor had I. Till I met you, Ann.”
“Look here, I’m forty next birthday!”
“And I’m forty-five.”
“That’s different. No, please don’t go on. It’s not a bit of use.”
“Then it’s definitely ‘no’?”
“Quite, quite definitely.”
They made their way home in silence. Not till considerably later did Ann reflect that, of all the reasons she had urged on Gemma for marrying, not one had occurred to her.
The pair’s reappearance, before the morning was half over, struck the sisters as odd, very odd. Car and Gemma also reported on Ann’s extraordinary dumbness at dinner, and the clapping on of her hat directly after, MacNab being left to make the best of it with Papa. Could they have quarrelled? Or had Ann at last had enough of him?
Gemma was deputed to find out.
Ann was plaiting her hair for the night. She had taken off her bodice for comfort and stood in her corset, arms and shoulders bare, running her fingers nimbly down the first of the two long thick ropes that fell to below her waist. None of them had hair like Ann’s — they, who would have known what to do with it! Whereas she just bundled it up anyhow — being of course long past vanity.
But one tail was finished, the other begun, it was now or never, for, once in bed, Ann went straight to sleep.
Gemma cleared her throat — she didn’t much fancy the job, for Ann wasn’t the sort of person you pumped — and her first words came a little tentatively. “I say, Ann, what’s up? Between you and the octopus, I mean.”
For a second Ann’s busy fingers stopped their braiding. “UP?” she echoed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, yes, you do,” persuaded Gemma. “Why, at dinner anyone could see something was wrong; you hardly opened your mouth. And going off by your self like that afterwards.”
“Nonsense. Come, don’t sit there half-undressed. I’m nearly ready.”
“Oh, get on, Ann, you can’t deceive me. Have the two of you had a row?”
“Mind your own business.”
“I think it is mine!” said Gemma with some spirit. “Wasn’t he brought here in the first place solely on my account?”
“AH! you should have played your cards better, my dear.”
The covert sneer galled Gemma, and she retorted hotly: “I like that! Played my cards indeed! Who with! That dry old stick? — a person who’s got no more guts in him than a ventriloquist’s dummy?”
“Now it’s you who don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, don’t I?”
“One might even say YOU were the dummy. And consequently failed to interest him.”
“While you HAVE, I suppose? No, really, Ann!” and Gemma broke into a low, but very offensive laugh.
Ann paused in the shedding of her clothing and glanced sharply up.
“My good girl, if I chose, I could make you laugh on the wrong side of your mouth. As it is . . . Now stop your silly chatter and get to bed.”
“Silly chatter! But that’s you all over. You never give anybody credit for an ounce of brains but yourself.”
“Well, brains I’m afraid you must allow me. But attractions and so on, none worth mentioning, eh?”
“Naturally not. At your age!”
“Oh-o! Well it may amuse you still more to hear that everyone isn’t of the same opinion — I have had a proposal.”
“You WHAT?” exploded Gemma, shooting up from her seat at the bedside. But there it remained. Relapsing, she just sat and stared at her sister, open-mouthed, incredulous. And Ann had peeled off both stockings and hung them up to air before Gemma came to sufficiently to put the natural but superfluous question: “Who from?”
“Who do you think?”
“You don’t mean to say . . . want to tell me that man’s asked you to marry him? YOU!”
The tone bit. Ann flushed. “And why not? I’m neither a chimpanzee, I suppose, nor do I yet hobble about on sticks!”
But Gemma could only sit and mutter to herself. “Well, I’m DAMNED! DAMNED, that’s what I am!” Ann had poised her long white nightgown above her head and wriggled into it before Gemma asked faintly: “And . . . and what did you say?”
“Never you mind,” said Ann. “That’s my business.” And puffing out the candle she got into bed and pulled the sheet up over her head. — Gemma had to finish undressing in the dark.
She couldn’t sleep. And as soon as Ann’s breaths began to come heavily and regularly, she sidled out and padded barefoot to the room where Car and Deb lay.
“Girls, wake up!” she hissed. “Hush! don’t make a noise,” for Car, a light sleeper, was at once on the spot. “But I simply must tell you. That . . . that creature has asked Ann to marry him!”
“ANN? ANN, do you say? Good GOD!” from Car, sitting bolt upright.
“That’s just what I said. And wasn’t she in a paddy!”
Here Deb raised herself on one elbow. “Does she mean to take him?”
“How do I know? She’s huffed, and wouldn’t say.”
“WELL . . . of all the — God, what a scream!” And Car laughed so immoderately that she had to retire under the bed-clothes.
“What the dickens ‘ll happen if she does?”
“Well, he mayn’t, but I do,” said Deb. “If Ann goes, I’ll never set foot in the darned old dairy again!”
On coming in next morning from her early round, Ann was confronted by a battery of eyes: eyes big and bold with curiosity, or stealing furtive peeps from under their lids, but all alike greedy for information. Better just take the bull by the horns and be done with it.
Summoning the six to the bedroom and firmly closing the door, she turned to them and, in what was privately known as her “public-speaker” voice, “addressed the meeting”.
“I see Gemma has told you. And I suppose it had to come out. Though I didn’t intend it till later . . . after the person concerned had gone.”
“Then he IS going?”
“Of course he is.”
“So you refused him?”
“Of course I did!” said Ann again, this time with considerable emphasis, and a sharp glance round. (Was it fancy, or DID she surprise a queer expression on more than one of these prying faces?)
“But —” ventured Car.
“But why?” Deb asked outright.
“WHY?” echoed Ann, seemingly unable to believe her ears. “Well, of all the idiotical questions . . . Are you daft? What in the name of fortune do you suppose would become of this place — Papa and the whole lot of you? — if I weren’t here to look after things?”— To which, naturally, there was and could be no reply.
But, though tongues were held, the silence was an uneasy one. And presently it was broken by Gemma, the privileged, who murmured as if to herself. “When I think of the dozens of reasons for taking him that were rammed down MY throat!”
At this Ann opened her eyes, opened them very wide indeed. “What’s that got to do with me? You’re surely not trying to compare us, are you?”
“Lord forbid! I hope I know my place. Still, SOME people might say what’s sauce for the goose can also be sauce for the ganderess.”
“Don’t be impertinent.”
“Impertinent? just because for once I venture to say what I think?”
“I’ve no wish to hear it.”
“Of course not! You never want to hear anybody but yourself. Only what you think or say or do matters. You must always be cock of the walk.”
“Well, well, well!” said Ann in a low descending scale, and with an appreciatory nod to each word. “So THAT’S your opinion of me, is it? That’s your thanks for all I’ve done for you? Cock of the walk!” And swinging round on her heel, to get the whole pack under her eye: “Are any of you labouring under the delusion that I enjoy being forced to slave as I do? To toil from morning till night solely to keep the place together and a roof over your heads? That I wouldn’t rather have had a life of my own — like any other woman? If so, you’re even greater numb-skulls than I thought! Fools — who ought to be thanking God on your knees that I saw where my duty lay. Without me to look after you, you’d all end in the gutter!”
“Gutter or no gutter, I’d be jolly glad NOT to be looked after for a bit,” from Deb, who sat with her feet on a chair.
Ann laughed contemptuously.
“Well do I know it! If I weren’t here you’d every one of you be lolling round — just like Papa. Eternally resting from something you hadn’t done!”
“What we’d like is a rest from YOUR eternal bullying and badgering — INcluding the dairy!”
“AND the sewing-machine!”
“And those beasts of fowls!”
And dusting rooms and working in the kitchen, said the eyes of the two youngest, whose tongues lacked the courage to speak out.
This time the pause that followed had something ominous in it. No one, nothing stirred: except Ann’s eyes, which travelled cold as ice from one to other of the rebel faces.
“Well, upon my word! — And may I ask if that’s all? Are there any more insults, any more names you’d like to call me? I may as well know exactly where I stand.”
‘It’s IN you, I suppose, to make slaves of people.”
“Or it’s grown on you. I don’t believe you COULD stop now, even if you tried.”
“Papa says so, too.”
“Says you won’t even let us call our souls our own.”
Ann’s cheeks burnt a brick-red.
“Oh, he does, does he? So Papa’s in it too, is he? Well, that makes it QUITE plain — plain as my nose — what’s at the bottom of all this. It’s just the dirty Irish blood in you coming out!”
“You’ve got it, too!”
“I’m damned if I have!” And with a shattering bang of the door, Ann flung not only from the room but the house.
At breakfast her chair stood empty. — And an uncomfortable meal it was. Papa asking fatuous questions, where she could be, what doing; MacNab sitting stolid as a lump of wood; themselves suffering from a severe attack of cold feet as the aftermath of their daring.
By this time Ann was miles away, having walked her hardest and without a stop, to put distance between herself and the house — the house that held them. In all her life she’d never been so angry, felt so outraged. And fresh spasms of wrath kept gripping her at each fresh memory of the things she had had to listen to. How dare they, how DARE they! The ingratitude, the vile ingratitude, of their conduct was bad enough, but ten times worse the impudence of it. These underlings — creatures who had sat at her feet, eaten out of her hand ever since the youngest of them came into the world. Whom she had washed and dressed and dosed and punished. To whom her lightest word had been law. Why, it was just as if a flock of tame domestic animals should suddenly go berserk and tear the hand that fed them. — But she’d make them pay! A bully, was she? . . . a slave-driver? Well, from now on they should learn the real meaning of these words. No more excusing, no more favouritism; all alike should work the clock round; Deb, the ring-leader, answer for every ounce of butter she failed to produce, Gemma be hauled out of bed at her, Ann’s, own hours. — And as she plunged forward, over stick and stone, her lips curled with malice at the separate forms of revenge devised for each single sister.
But, little by little, pace and distance told; and hurt got the better of anger. For the wound to her self-love had been a cruel one. Her own picture of herself — the pleasing, private image nursed by each of us — was that of a superior being: able business-woman, expert manager, sole brains and hence rightful head of the family, looked up to in admiration by every one who came in contact with her — and especially by her sisters, for the masterly manner in which, Papa having failed them, she had leapt to the rescue. Whereas it now turned out that they had given her as small credit as thanks for the feat. Instead of prizing her, priding themselves on having her, they had all the time been secretly resenting her authority, thinking mean, underhand things of her, poking fun at her behind her back. The sting of it, the humiliation, was so harsh a mouthful that, like an overdose of mustard, it brought tears hot as mustard to her eyes.
MacNab waylaid her trudging home, grim of face.
He attached himself to her, turned back with her, remarking as he did: “I noticed you weren’t at breakfast, Miss Ann.”
These harmless words gave Ann just the peg she needed. She laughed loudly and sarcastically.
“You don’t say so. Now fancy that!”
He winced, and made an apologetic sound. “Is . . . er . . . is anything the matter?”
Her only answer was to quicken her steps, in an attempt to shake him off.
“I wondered . . . merely wondered . . . if I could be of any use?”
“When I need help I’ll ask for it.”
“Miss Ann —”
“Oh, for God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me be!” And with that her face wrinkled and contracted, she began to cry in earnest. (Devil take the man, with his poking and prying.)
Undeterred, he kept on at her side, suiting his pace to hers, now quick, now slow.
Till she rounded on him: “If you can’t take a hint . . . if you must know . . . well, today I’ve made the pleasurable discovery what my sisters really think of me . . . and feel about me.”
If she thought to surprise him she was mistaken.
“Yes?” he said unmoved. Adding in the next breath: “I saw that from the first.”
In her own surprise, Ann lowered her handkerchief to exclaim: “YOU? How?”
“Oh, one has one’s ways. One’s not as big a fool as one looks.”
“You’re no fool,” she said warmly. “It’s me. I’m the fool and always have been. Blind as a bat. Hugging the belief that they needed me, and . . . were glad of me. When all they want is to get rid of me, to be left to their own devices.”
“And don’t you think it might perhaps be quite a good thing, for them?” A question so inept, so inane, that it did not seem to Ann worth answering.
However she raised no objection when, on coming to the pigsties, he seemed to wish to pause there. For, with her face in the state it was, she couldn’t show herself at the house. Rigorously she mopped her eyes, wiped her cheeks, blew a resounding peal on her nose.
He gave her time, himself standing in an easy attitude, his arms crossed on the top rung of the gate, one foot on the lowest, looking down as if absorbed in the tumbling mass of piglets. But when she ceased to sniff and had put her handkerchief away, he turned.
“There’s something I’d like to say to you, Miss Ann, and I do hope you won’t take it amiss. First, I’m exceedingly sorry for what has happened — in a way I’m afraid I’ve been the innocent cause of it — and sorrier still for the pain it has given you. But it’s like this . . . or at least this is how I look at it,” he corrected himself. “Your sisters — these very charming young ladies — are all grown women now and you . . . well, of course one sees how hard it must be for you to realise it, who have had them in your care since they were children. But don’t you think you are perhaps holding the reins a little too tight? Keeping the curb on a little overlong?”
“But, but —” spluttered Ann, incensed anew by this busy-body interference.
He raised his hand. “I think I know what you’re going to say. That if you did not treat them as you do —”
“Nothing of the sort! If every one of them didn’t pull her weight, take a fair share of the work —”
Again he broke in. “Where would you be, eh? Or, rather, where would they be? To which my answer is: very much poorer no doubt, but also very much happier. As happy as you are.”
“ME? I, happy?”
“Why certainly. Though you won’t admit it. Believe me, Miss Ann, you’re one of the born workers, belonging by nature and bent to the busy bees of this world. Were you forced to sit idle, you would droop and pine. But every mortal has his own idea of happiness, and yours is plainly not theirs. Now why not leave them to themselves for a bit? Give them a taste of freedom? Frankly I don’t think you would regret it. They’d soon find their feet.”
“Not if I know them.”
“You’re too hard on them.”
Ann was pale with anger.
“Does this mean you’re siding with them? Standing up for THEM— against me? I’ve never heard anything so unfair! Or such nonsense either! All this twaddle about happiness. Why, Papa would go smash in six months and they’d be dragged down with him! You’ve seen for yourself what he is.”
He nodded. “But I’ve seen something else, too. That YOU have washed your hands of him! He at least is free to follow his ‘own devices’.”
“I think you’re a thoroughly unprincipled person. Happy — and bankrupt!”
“Not necessarily. If I could only persuade you, Miss Ann, to give my plan a trial, I’d see to it that your father got a substantial loan.”
“A loan? A loan to Papa? Oh no you DON’T!”— as crushingly as if he were out to borrow rather than lend. “Why, you might just as well pour your money down the sink! You’d never see a penny of it again.”
“I called it a loan but . . . Come, come, Ann, be reasonable, show yourself the sensible woman you are, and — and change your mind.”
For a moment she could do no more than echo his last words. Then, however, their full significance dawned on her. “Look here — is this an attempt to buy me off?” she plumped out, at the same time rounding on him with a look that was meant to kill. But it failed. For the small, pale eyes that met hers were so full of kindliness, of understanding, and, yes, of a sort of mischievous twinkle, that she hurriedly dropped her own. And even felt something of a fool for her heroics. So HE didn’t take her seriously either. Like the rest of them had probably all along been smirking behind his hand at her expense. This discovery ought to have been equally mortifying, but, strange to say, it wasn’t. And as she stood there, fumbly and unsure, she became conscious that offence and anger alike were petering out. The goodwill that shone from these eyes, after what she had gone through that morning, was so grateful that it had a queer effect on her, making her feel soft and silly. If he didn’t stop looking at her like this, she’d end by having to fish for her handkerchief again.
“Oh, the whole thing’s so absurd . . . so utterly absurd,” she mumbled, with a hearty sniff to relieve her need.
“On the contrary it’s the most sensible proposition — business proposition — I’ve ever made. To anyone.”
“A business proposition? That I should desert them, leave them in the lurch. Let Gemma — GEMMA! — make what hash she likes of her life?”
“But, my dear woman, it’s her life. You can’t live it for her. And she’s quite old enough to know what she wants. Now just you let them choose their own sweethearts”— this with so much meaning that Ann squirmed. “A beauty like Miss Gemma” (so he had thought her pretty, had he? It sounded almost funny now) “will never lack suitors. No doubt she already has a favourite up her sleeve.”
“Oh, is there anything you DON’T know?” sighed Ann in despair. “I declare you’re enough to provoke a saint.”
But he felt her weakening, and steadily pressed his advantage home. Until she found herself reduced to the flimsy objection: “But how can you be sure I shouldn’t bully and slave-drive you, too?”
“No chance of that, my dear, between people who’re labouring for the same end. And to whom work’s a sort of gospel. Your sisters now, you’ll never feel safe or happy with them again. A scene like this morning’s — from which if I mistake not you’re quoting — will always stand between you. — See here, Ann: the very first time I saw you I said to myself, there’s the woman I’ve been looking for, that’s the wife for me!” And covering with his the hand that lay on the wall, he fell to in earnest to raze her last defences.
Round the spyhole from which, a few days previously, Ann had stalked him and Gemma, were congregated the sisters, armed with an old field-glass through which, by turns, they followed the couple’s every movement.
Minute by minute the excitement grew.
“LORDY! He’s put his arm round her shoulders.”
“Oh, let me see!”
“No, me! I’m next.”
“Heavens! I do believe she’s going to take him,” from Car, holding tight to the glasses and warding off the pushful with her elbows.
“I believe she HAS taken him,” said Deb solemnly, after a further prolonged scrutiny, and freed her eyes to drink in the effect of her announcement on the staggered group.
But not for long were they mum. And amid the self-congratulatory hugs, the hoorays and polka-steps in which they let off their feelings, Gemma’s absence was noticed.
“Gem! I say Gem, where ARE you? Oh, come here, do! You’re missing all the fun.”
But Gemma did not budge. Stretched in a hammock, her hands clasped behind her head, her eyes fixed and distant, she was already deep in her own problem. How, without loss of dignity, to lure back the tall dark handsome lover so boorishly shown the door by Sister Ann.
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University of Adelaide
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