A Lifeless Life
Possum Gully was stagnant--stagnant with the narrow stagnation prevalent in all old country places.
Its residents were principally married folk and children under sixteen. The boys, as they attained manhood, drifted outback to shear, drove, or to take up land. They found it too slow at home, and besides there was not room enough for them there when they passed childhood.
Nothing ever happened there. Time was no object, and the days slid quietly into the river of years, distinguished one from another by name alone. An occasional birth or death was a big event, and the biggest event of all was the advent of a new resident.
When such a thing occurred it was customary for all the male heads of families to pay a visit of inspection, to judge if the new-comers were worthy of admittance into the bosom of the society of the neighbourhood. Should their report prove favourable, then their wives finished the ceremony of inauguration by paying a friendly visit.
After his arrival at Possum Gully father was much away on business, and so on my mother fell the ordeal of receiving the callers, male and female.
The men were honest, good-natured, respectable, common bushmen farmers. Too friendly to pay a short call, they came and sat for hours yarning about nothing in particular. This bored my gentle mother excessively. She attempted to entertain them with conversation of current literature and subjects of the day, but her efforts fell flat. She might as well have spoken in French.
They conversed for hours and hours about dairying, interspersed with pointless anecdotes of the man who had lived there before us. I found them very tame.
After graphic descriptions of life on big stations outback, and the dashing snake yarns told by our kitchen-folk at Bruggabrong, and the anecdotes of African hunting, travel, and society life which had often formed our guests' subject of conversation, this endless fiddle-faddle of the price of farm produce and the state of crops was very fatuous.
Those men, like everyone else, only talked shop. I say nothing in condemnation of it, but merely point out that it did not then interest us, as we were not living in that shop just then.
Mrs Melvyn must have found favour in the eyes of the specimens of the lords of creation resident at Possum Gully, as all the matrons of the community hastened to call on her, and vied with each other in a display of friendliness and good-nature. They brought presents of poultry, jam, butter, and suchlike. They came at two o'clock and stayed till dark. They inventoried the furniture, gave mother cookery recipes, described minutely the unsurpassable talents of each of their children, and descanted volubly upon the best way of setting turkey hens. On taking their departure they cordially invited us all to return their visits, and begged mother to allow her children to spend a day with theirs.
We had been resident in our new quarters nearly a month when my parents received an intimation from the teacher of the public school, two miles distant, to the effect that the law demanded that they should send their children to school. It upset my mother greatly. What was she to do?
"Do! Bundle the nippers off to school as quickly as possible, of course," said my father.
My mother objected. She proposed a governess now and a good boarding-school later on. She had heard such dreadful stories of public schools! It was terrible to be compelled to send her darlings to one; they would be ruined in a week!
"Not they," said father. "Run them off for a week or two, or a month at the outside. They can't come to any harm in that time. After that we will get a governess. You are in no state of health to worry about one just now, and it is utterly impossible that I can see about the matter at present. I have several specs. on foot that I must attend to. Send the youngsters to school down here for the present."
We went to school, and in our dainty befrilled pinafores and light shoes were regarded as great swells by the other scholars. They for the most part were the children of very poor farmers, whose farm earnings were augmented by road-work, wood-carting, or any such labour which came within their grasp. All the boys went barefooted, also a moiety of the girls. The school was situated on a wild scrubby hill, and the teacher boarded with a resident a mile from it. He was a man addicted to drink, and the parents of his scholars lived in daily expectation of seeing his dismissal from the service.
It is nearly ten years since the twins (who came next to me) and I were enrolled as pupils of the Tiger Swamp public school. My education was completed there; so was that of the twins, who are eleven months younger than I. Also my other brothers and sisters are quickly getting finishedwards; but that is the only school any of us have seen or known. There was even a time when father spoke of filling in the free forms for our attendance there. But mother--a woman's pride bears more wear than a man's--would never allow us to come to that.
All our neighbours were very friendly; but one in particular, a James Blackshaw, proved himself most desirous of being comradely with us. He was a sort of self-constituted sheik of the community. It was usual for him to take all new-comers under his wing, and with officious good-nature endeavour to make them feel at home. He called on us daily, tied his horse to the paling fence beneath the shade of a sallie-tree in the backyard, and when mother was unable to see him he was content to yarn for an hour or two with Jane Haizelip, our servant-girl.
Jane disliked Possum Gully as much as I did. Her feeling being much more defined, it was amusing to hear the flat-out opinions she expressed to Mr Blackshaw, whom, by the way, she termed "a mooching hen of a chap".
"I suppose, Jane, you like being here near Goulburn, better than that out-of-the-way place you came from," he said one morning as he comfortably settled himself on an old sofa in the kitchen.
"No jolly fear. Out-of-the-way place! There was more life at Bruggabrong in a day than you crawlers 'ud see here all yer lives," she retorted with vigour, energetically pommelling a batch of bread which she was mixing.
"Why, at Brugga it was as good as a show every week. On Saturday evening all the coves used to come in for their mail. They'd stay till Sunday evenin'. Splitters. boundary-riders, dogtrappers--every manjack of 'em. Some of us wuz always good fer a toon on the concertina, and the rest would dance. We had fun to no end. A girl could have a fly round and a lark or two there I tell you; but here," and she emitted a snort of contempt, "there ain't one bloomin' feller to do a mash with. I'm full of the place. Only I promised to stick to the missus a while, I'd scoot tomorrer. It's the dead-and-alivest hole I ever seen."
"You'll git used to it by and by," said Blackshaw.
"Used to it! A person 'ud hev to be brought up onder a hen to git used to the dullness of this hole."
"You wasn't brought up under a hen, or it must have been a big Bramer Pooter, if you were," replied he, noting the liberal proportions of her figure as she hauled a couple of heavy pots off the fire. He did not offer to help her. Etiquette of that sort was beyond his ken.
"You oughter go out more and then you wouldn't find it so dull," he said, after she had placed the pots on the floor.
"Go out! Where 'ud I go to, pray?"
"Drop in an' see my missus again when you git time. You're always welcome."
"Thanks, but I had plenty of goin' to see your missus last time."
"Why, I wasn't there harf an hour wen she had to strip off her clean duds an' go an' milk. I don't think much of any of the men around here. They let the women work too hard. I never see such a tired wore-out set of women. It puts me in mind ev the time wen the black fellers made the gins do all the work. Why, on Bruggabrong the women never had to do no outside work, only on a great pinch wen all the men were away at a fire or a muster. Down here they do everything. They do all the milkin', and pig-feedin', and poddy-rarin'. It makes me feel fit to retch. I don't know whether it's because the men is crawlers or whether it's dairyin'. I don't think much of dairyin'. It's slavin', an' delvin', an' scrapin' yer eyeballs out from mornin' to night, and nothink to show for your pains; and now you'll oblige me, Mr Blackshaw, if youll lollop somewhere else for a minute or two. I want to sweep under that sofer."
This had the effect of making him depart. He said good morning and went off, not sure whether he was most amused or insulted.