Boast Not Thyself of Tomorrow
We felt the loss of the Beechams very, very much. It was sad to think of Five-Bob--pleasant, hospitable Five-Bob--as shut up, with no one but a solitary caretaker there pending the settling of the Beecham insolvency; with flowers running to seed unheeded in the wide old garden, grass yellowing on the lawns, fruit wasting in wain-loads in the great orchard, kennels, stables, fowl-houses, and cow-yards empty and deserted. But more than all, we missed the quiet, sunburnt, gentlemanly, young giant whose pleasant countenance and strapping figure were always welcome at Caddagat.
Fortunately, Christmas preparations gave us no rest for the soles of our feet, and thus we had little time to moon about such things: in addition, uncle Jay-Jay was preparing for a trip, and fussed so that the whole place was kept in a state of ferment.
We had fun, feasting, and company to no end on Christmas Day. There were bank clerks and young fellows out of offices from Gool-Gool, jackeroos and governesses in great force from neighbouring holdings, and we had a merry time.
On Boxing Day uncle Jay-Jay set out on a tour to New Zealand, intending to combine business with pleasure, as he meant to bring back some stud stock if he could make a satisfactory bargain. Boxing Day had fallen on a Saturday that year, and the last of our guests departed on Sunday morning. It was the first time we had had any quietude for many weeks, so in the afternoon I went out to swing in my hammock and meditate upon things in general. Taking with me a bountiful supply of figs, apricots, and mulberries, I laid myself out for a deal of enjoyment in the cool dense shade under the leafy kurrajong- and cedar-trees.
To begin with, Harold Beecham was gone, and I missed him at every turn. I need not worry about being engaged to be married, as four years was a long, long time. Before that Harold might take a fancy to someone else, and leave me free; or he might die, or I might die, or we both might die, or fly, or cry, or sigh, or do one thing or another, and in the meantime that was not the only thing to occupy my mind: I had much to contemplate with joyful anticipation.
Towards the end of February a great shooting and camping party, organized by grannie, was to take place. Aunt Helen, grannie, Frank Hawden, myself, and a number of other ladies and gentlemen, were going to have ten days or a fortnight in tents among the blue hills in the distance, which held many treasures in the shape of lyrebirds, musk, ferns, and such scenery as would make the thing perfection. After this auntie and I were to have our three months' holiday in Sydney, where, with Everard Grey in the capacity of showman, we were to see everything from Manly to Parramatta, the Cyclorama to the Zoo, the theatres to the churches, the restaurants to the jails, and from Anthony Hordern's to Paddy's Market. Who knows what might happen then? Everard had promised to have my talents tested by good judges. Might it not be possible for me to attain one of my ambitions--enter the musical profession? joyful dream! Might I not be able to yet assist Harold in another way than matrimony?
Yes, life was a pleasant thing to me now. I forgot all my wild unattainable ambitions in the little pleasures of everyday life. Such a thing as writing never entered my head. I occasionally dreamt out a little yarn which, had it appeared on paper, would have brimmed over with pleasure and love--in fact, have been redolent of life as I found it. It was nice to live in comfort, and among ladies and gentlemen--people who knew how to conduct themselves properly, and who paid one every attention without a bit of fear of being twitted with "laying the jam on".
I ate another fig and apricot, a mulberry or two, and was interrupted in the perusal of my book by the clatter of galloping hoofs approaching along the road. I climbed on to the fence to see who it could be who was coming at such a breakneck pace. He pulled the rein opposite me, and I recognized a man from Dogtrap. He was in his shirt-sleeves; his horse was all in a lather, and its scarlet nostrils were wide open, and its sides heaving rapidly.
"I say, miss, hunt up the men quickly, will you?" he said hurriedly. "There's a tremenjous fire on Wyambeet, and we're short-handed. I'm goin' on to knock them up at Bimbalong."
"Hold hard," I replied. "We haven't a man on the place, only Joe Slocombe, and I heard him say he would ride down the river and see what the smoke was about; so he will be there. Mr Hawden and the others have gone out for the day. You go back to the fire at once; I'll rouse them up at Birribalong."
"Right you are, miss. Here's a couple of letters. My old moke flung a shoe and went dead lame at Dogtrap; an' wile I was saddlun another, Mrs Butler stuffed 'em in me pocket."
He tossed them over the fence, and, wheeling his mount, galloped the way he had come. The letters fell, address upwards, on the ground--one to myself and one to grannie, both in my mother's handwriting. I left them where they lay. The main substance of mother's letters to me was a hope that I was a better girl to my grannie than I had been to her--a sentiment which did not interest me.
"Where are you off to?" inquired grannie, as I rushed through the house.
"What horse are you going to take?"
"Old Tadpole. He's the only one available."
"Well, you be careful and don't push him too quickly up that pinch by Flea Creek, or he might drop dead with you. He's so fat and old."
"All right," I replied, snatching a bridle and running up the orchard, where old Tadpole had been left in case of emergency. I clapped a side-saddle on his back, a hat on my head, jumped on just as I was, and galloped for my life in the direction of Bimbalong, seven miles distant. I eased my horse a little going up Flea Creek pinch, but with this delay reached my destination in half an hour, and sent the men galloping in the direction of the fire. I lingered for afternoon tea, and returned at my leisure.
It was sundown when I got in sight of Caddagat. Knowing the men would not be home for some time, I rode across the paddock to yard the cows. I drove them home and penned the calves, unsaddled my horse and returned him to the orchard, then stood upon the hillside and enjoyed the scene. It had been a fearfully hot day, with a blasting, drought-breathed wind; but the wind had dropped to sleep with the sunlight, and now the air had cooled. Blue smoke wreathed hill and hollow like a beauteous veil. I had traversed drought-baked land that afternoon, but in the immediate vicinity of Caddagat house there was no evidence of an unkind season. Irrigation had draped the place with beauty, and I stood ankle-deep in clover. Oh, how I loved the old irregularly built house, with here and there a patch of its low iron roof peeping out of a mass of greenery, flowers, and fruit--the place where I was born--home! Save for the murmur of the creek, the evening was wrapped in silence--sweet-breathed, balmy-browed, summer quietude. I stretched out my hand and stained my fingers, next my lips and teeth, with the sweet dark fruit of a mulberry-tree beside me. The shadows deepened; I picked up my saddle, and, carrying it housewards, put it in its place in the harness-room among the fig- and apricot-trees--laden to breaking point with ripe and ripening fruit. The two servant girls had departed on their Christmas holiday that morning, so grannie and auntie were the only members of the family at home. I could not see or hear them anywhere, so, presuming they were out walking, I washed my hands, lit a lamp, and sat down to my tea, where it had been left for me on the dining-table. I remembered--wonderful aberration from my usual thoughtlessness--that the book I had left in the hammock had a beautiful cover which the dew would spoil, so I left my tea to bring it in. Two little white squares struck my eye in the gathering dusk. I picked them up also, and, bringing them to the light, opened the one addressed to me, and read:
No doubt what I have to write will not be very palatable to you; but it is time you gave up pleasuring and began to meet the responsibilities of life. Your father is lazier if anything, and drinks more than ever. He has got himself into great debt and difficulties, and would have been sold off again but for Peter M'Swat. You will remember Peter M'Swat? Well, he has been good enough to lend your father 500 pounds at 4 per cent, which means 20 pounds per year interest. Your father would have no more idea of meeting this amount than a cat would have. But now I am coming to the part of the matter which concerns you. Out of friendship to your father, Mr M'Swat is good enough to accept your services as governess to his children, in lieu of interest on the money. I have told him you will be in Yarnung In Friday the 8th of January 1897, where he will meet you. Be careful to remember the date. I am sorry I could not give you more notice; but he wants his children to commence school as soon as possible, and he deserves every consideration in the matter. Perhaps you will not find it as pleasant as Caddagat; but he has been very good, and offers you a fair number of holidays, and what he will give you is equal to 20 pounds. That is a lot in these times, when he could easily get so many better girls than you are in every way for half the money, and make your father pay the interest, and thereby be 10 pounds in pocket. You will have to help Mrs M'Swat with the work and sewing; but that will do you good, and I hope you will try hard to give every satisfaction. I have also written to your grandmother.
That letter wiped away ever vestige of my appetite for the dainties before me. M'Swat's! Send--me--to M'Swat's! I could not believe it! It must be a nightmare! M'Swat's!
Certainly, I had never been there; but all those who had gave graphic descriptions of the total ignorance of Mrs M'Swat. Why, the place was quite tabooed on account of its squalor and dirt!
The steel of my mother's letter entered my soul. Why had she not expressed a little regret at the thing she was imposing on me? Instead, there was a note of satisfaction running through her letter that she was able to put an end to my pleasant life at Caddagat. She always seemed to grudge me any pleasure. I bitterly put it down as accruing from the curse of ugliness, as, when mentioning Gertie, it was ever, "I have let Gertie go to such and such an entertainment. We could not very well afford it, but the poor little girl does not have many pleasures for her years." I was smaller than Gertie, and only eleven months older; but to me it was "You must think of something besides pleasure."
The lot of ugly girls is not joyful, and they must be possessed of natures very absurdly sanguine indeed ever to hope for any enjoyment in life.
It was cruel, base, horrible of my mother to send me to M'Swat's. I would not go--not for 50 pounds a day! I would not go! I would not! not for any consideration.
I stamped about in a fever of impatience until grannie appeared, when I handed both letters to her, and breathlessly awaited her verdict.
"Well, child, what do you say?"
"Say? I won't go! I can't! I won't! Oh, grannie, don't send me there--I would rather die."
"My dear child, I would not he willing to part with you under any circumstances, but I cannot interfere between a mother and her child. I would not have allowed any one to do it with me, and believe in acting the same towards any other mother, even though she is my own daughter. However, there is time to get a reply before you would have to start, so I will write and see what can be done."
The dear old lady, with her prompt businesslike propensities, sat down and wrote there and then. I wrote also--pleaded with my mother against her decree, begged her to leave me at Caddagat, and assured her I could never succeed at M'Swat's.
I did not sleep that night, so arose betimes to await the first traveller, whom I asked to post the letters.
We got an answer to them sooner than we expected--at least grannie did. Mother did not deign to write to me, but in her letter to grannie I was described as an abominably selfish creature, who would not consider her little brothers and sisters. I would never be any good; all I thought of was idleness and ease. Most decidedly I could not get out of going to M'Swat's, as mother had given her word.
"I am sorry for you," said grannie, "but it cannot be helped. You can stay there for two or three years, and then I can have you here again."
I was inconsolable, and would not listen to reason. Ah! that uncle Jay-Jay had been at home to rescue me from this. Then aunt Helen brought her arguments to bear upon me, and persuaded me to think it was necessary for the benefit of my little brothers and sisters that I should take up this burden, which I knew would be too much for me.
It was a great wrench to be torn away from Caddagat--from refinement and comfort--from home! As the days till my departure melted away, how I wished that it were possible to set one's weight against the grim wheel of time and turn it back! Nights I did not sleep, but drenched my pillow with tears. Ah, it was hard to leave grannie and aunt Helen, whom I worshipped, and turn my back on Caddagat!
I suppose it is only a fancy born of the wild deep love I bear it, but to me the flowers seem to smell more sweetly there; and the shadows, how they creep and curl! oh, so softly and caressingly around the quaint old place, as the great sun sets amid the blue peaks; and the never-ceasing rush of the crystal fern-banked stream--I see and hear it now, and the sinking sun as it turns to a sheet of flame the mirror hanging in the backyard in the laundry veranda, before which the station hands were wont to comb and wash themselves. Oh, the memories that crowd upon me! Methinks I can smell the roses that clamber up the veranda posts and peep over the garden gate. As I write my eyes grow misty, so that I cannot see the paper.
The day for my departure arrived--hot, 110 degrees in the shade. It was a Wednesday afternoon. Frank Hawden was to take me as far as Gool-Gool that evening, and see me on to the coach next day. I would arrive in Yarnung about twelve or one o'clock on Thursday night, where, according to arrangement, Mr M'Swat would be waiting to take me to a hotel, thence to his home next day.
My trunks and other belongings were stowed in the buggy, to which the fat horses were harnessed. They stood beneath the dense shade of a splendid kurrajong, and lazily flicked the flies off themselves while Frank Hawden held the reins and waited for me.
I rushed frantically round the house taking a last look at nooks and pictures dear to me, and then aunt Helen pressed my hand and kissed me, saying:
"The house will be lonely without you, but you must brighten up, and I'm sure you will not find things half as bad as you expect them."
I looked back as I went out the front gate, and saw her throw herself into a chair on the veranda and cover her face with her hands. My beautiful noble aunt Helen! I hope she missed me just a little, felt just one pang of parting, for I have not got over that parting yet.
Grannie gave me a warm embrace and many kisses. I climbed on to the front seat of the buggy beside my escort, he whipped the horses--a cloud of dust, a whirr of wheels, and we were gone--gone from Caddagat!
We crossed the singing stream: on either bank great bushes of blackthorn--last native flower of the season--put forth their wealth of magnificent creamy bloom, its rich perfume floating far on the hot summer air. How the sunlight blazed and danced and flickered on the familiar and dearly loved landscape! Over a rise, and the house was lost to view, then good-bye to the crystal creek. The trees of Five-Bob Downs came within eye-range far away on our left. What merry nights I had spent there amid music, flowers, youth, light, love, and summer warmth, when the tide of life seemed full! Where now was Harold Beecham and the XXX or more station hands, who but one short month before had come and gone at his bidding, hailing him boss?
It was all over! My pleasant life at Caddagat was going into the past, fading as the hills which surrounded it were melting into a hazy line of blue.