The morning came, breakfast, next Harold's departure. I shook my head and slipped the note into his hand as we parted. He rode slowly down the road. I sat on the step of the garden gate, buried my face in my hands, and reviewed the situation. I could see my life, stretching out ahead of me, barren and monotonous as the thirsty track along which Harold was disappearing. Today it was washing, ironing tomorrow, next day baking, after that scrubbing--thus on and on. We would occasionally see a neighbour or a tea-agent, a tramp or an Assyrian hawker. By hard slogging against flood, fire, drought, pests, stock diseases, and the sweating occasioned by importation, we could manage to keep bread in our mouths. By training and education I was fitted for nought but what I was, or a general slavey, which was many degrees worse. I could take my choice. Life was too much for me. What was the end of it, what its meaning, aim, hope, or use?
In comparison to millions I knew that I had received more than a fair share of the goods of life; but knowing another has leprosy makes our cancer none the easier to bear.
My mother's voice, sharp and cross, roused me. "Sybylla, you lazy unprincipled girl, to sit scheming there while your poor old mother is at the wash-tub. You sit idling there, and then by and by you'll be groaning about this terrible life in which there's time for nothing but work."
How she fussed and bothered over the clothes was a marvel to me. My frame of mind was such that it seemed it would not signify if all our clothes went to the dogs, and the clothes of our neighbours, and the clothes of the whole world, and the world itself for the matter of that.
"Sybylla, you are a dirty careless washer. You've put Stanley's trousers in the boil and the colour is coming out of them, and your father's best white handkerchief should have been with the first lot, and here it is now."
Poor mother got crosser as she grew weary with the fierce heat and arduous toil, and as I in my abstraction continued to make mistakes, but the last straw was the breaking of an old cup which I accidentally pushed off the table.
I got it hot. Had I committed an act of premeditated villainy I could not have received more lecturing. I deserved it--I was careless, cups were scarce with us, and we could not afford more; but what I rail against is the grindingly uneventful narrowness of the life in which the unintentional breaking of a common cup is good for a long scolding.
Ah, my mother! In my life of nineteen years I can look back and see a time when she was all gentleness and refinement, but the polish has been worn off it by years and years of scrubbing and scratching, and washing and patching, and poverty and husbandly neglect, and the bearing of burdens too heavy for delicate shoulders. Would that we were more companionable, it would make many an oasis in the desert of our lives. Oh that I could take an all-absorbing interest in patterns and recipes, bargains and orthodoxy! Oh that you could understand my desire to feel the rolling billows of the ocean beneath, to hear the pealing of a great organ through dimly lit arches, or the sob and wail of a violin in a brilliant crowded hall, to be swept on by the human stream.
Ah, thou cruel fiend--Ambition! Desire!
Soul of the leaping flame,
Heart of the scarlet fire,
Spirit that hath for name
Only the name--Desire!
To hot young hearts beating passionately in strong breasts, the sweetest thing is motion.
No, that part of me went beyond my mother's understanding. On the other hand, there was a part of my mother--her brave cheerfulness, her trust in God, her heroic struggle to keep the home together--which went soaring on beyond my understanding, leaving me a coward weakling, grovelling in the dust.
Would that hot dreary day never close? What advantage when it did? The next and the next and many weeks of others just the same were following hard after.
If the souls of lives were voiced in music, there are some that none but a great organ could express, others the clash of a full orchestra, a few to which nought but the refined and exquisite sadness of a violin could do justice. Many might be likened unto common pianos, jangling and out of tune, and some to the feeble piping of a penny whistle, and mine could be told with a couple of nails in a rusty tin-pot.
Why do I write? For what does any one write? Shall I get a hearing? If so--what then?
I have voiced the things around me, the small-minded thoughts, the sodden round of grinding tasks--a monotonous, purposeless, needless existence. But patience, O heart, surely I can make a purpose! For the present, of my family I am the most suited to wait about common public-houses to look after my father when he is inebriated. It breaks my mother's heart to do it; it is dangerous for my brothers; imagine Gertie in such a position! But me it does not injure, I have the faculty for doing that sort of thing without coming to harm, and if it makes me more bitter and godless, well, what matter?II
The next letter I received from Gertie contained:
suppose you were glad to see Harry. He did not tell me he was going, or I
would have sent some things by him. I thought he would he able to tell me lots about you that I was dying to hear, but he never said a word, only that you were all well. He went travelling some weeks ago. I missed him at first because he used to be so kind to me; but now I don't, because Mr Creyton, whom Harry left to manage Five-Bob, comes just as often as Harry used to, and is lots funnier. He brings me something nice every time.Uncle Jay-Jay teases me about him.
Happy butterfly-natured Gertie! I envied her. With Gertie's letter came also one from grannie, with further mention of Harold Beecham.
We don't know what to make of Harold Beecham. He was always such a steady fellow, and hated to go away from home even for a short time, but now he has taken an idea to rush away to America, and is not coming home till he has gone over the world. He is not going to see anything, because by cablegrams his aunts got he is one place today and hundreds of miles away tomorrow. It is some craze he has suddenly taken. I was asking Augusta if there was ever any lunacy in the family, and she says not that she knows of. It was a very unwise act to leave full management to Creyton and Benson in the face of such a drought. One warning and marvellous escape such as he has had ought to be enough for a man with any sense. I told him he'd be poor again if he didn't take care, but he said he didn't mind if all his property was blown into atoms, as it had done him more harm than good, whatever he means by talking that way. Insanity is the only reason I can see for his conduct. I thought he had his eye on Gertie, but I questioned her, and it appears he has never said anything to her. I wonder what was his motive for going to Possum Gully that time?
Travel was indeed an unexpected development on the part of Harold Beecham. He had such a marked aversion to anything of that sort, and never went even to Sydney or Melbourne for more than a few days at a stretch, and that on business or at a time of stock shows.
There were many conjectures re the motive of his visit to Possum Gully, but I held my peace.