My Brilliant Career/Chapter 8
Possum Gully Left Behind. Hurrah! Hurrah!
If a Sydney man has friends residing at Goulburn, he says they are up the country. If a Goulburn man has friends at Yass, he says they are up the country. If a Yass man has friends at Young, he says they are up the country, and so on. Caddagat is "up the country".
Bound thither on the second Wednesday in August 1896, I bought a ticket at the Goulburn railway station, and at some time about 1 a.m. took my seat in a second class carriage of the mail-train on its way to Melbourne. I had three or four hours to travel in this train when I would have to change to a branch line for two hours longer. I was the only one from Goulburn in that carriage; all the other passengers had been in some time and were asleep. One or two opened their eyes strugglingly, stared glumly at the intruder, and then went to sleep again. The motion of the train was a joy to me, and sleep never entered my head. I stood up, and pressing my forehead to the cold window-pane, vainly attempted, through the inky blackness of the foggy night, to discern the objects which flew by.
I was too full of pleasant anticipation of what was ahead of me to think of those I had left behind. I did not regret leaving Possum Gully. Quite the reverse; I felt inclined to wave my arms and yell for joy at being freed from it. Home! God forbid that my experiences at Possum Gully should form the only food for my reminiscences of home. I had practically grown up there, but my heart refused absolutely to regard it as home. I hated it then, I hate it now, with its narrowing, stagnant monotony. It has and had not provided me with one solitary fond remembrance--only with dreary, wing-clipping, mind-starving recollections. No, no; I was not leaving home behind, I was flying homeward now. Home, home to Caddagat, home to ferny gullies, to the sweet sad rush of many mountain waters, to the majesty of rugged Borgongs; home to dear old grannie, and uncle and aunt, to books, to music; refinement, company, pleasure, and the dear old homestead I love so well.
All in good time I arrived at the end of my train journey, and was taken in charge by a big red-bearded man, who informed me he was the driver of the mail-coach, and had received a letter from Mrs Bossier instructing him to take care of me. He informed me also that he was glad to do what he termed "that same", and I would be as safe under his care as I would be in God's pocket.
My XX-six miles' coach drive was neither pleasant nor eventful. I was the only passenger, and so had my choice of seats. The weather being cold and wet, I preferred being inside the box and curled myself up on the seat, to be interrupted every two or three miles by the good-natured driver inquiring if I was "all serene".
At the Halfway House, where a change of the team of five horses was affected, I had a meal and a warm, and so tuned myself up for the remainder of the way. It got colder as we went on, and at 2.30 p.m. I was not at all sorry to see the iron roofs of Gool-Gool. township disclosing to my view. We first went to the post office, where the mail-bags were delivered, and then returned and pulled rein in front of the Woolpack Hotel. A tall young gentleman in a mackintosh and cap, who had been standing on the veranda, stepped out on the street as the coach stopped, and lifting his cap and thrusting his head into the coach, inquired, "Which is Miss Melvyn?"
Seeing I was the only occupant, he laughed the pleasantest of laughs, disclosing two wide rows of perfect teeth, and turning to the driver, said, Is that your only passenger? I suppose it is Miss Melvyn?"
"As I wasn't present at her birth, I can't swear, but I believe her to be that same, as sure as eggs is eggs," he replied.
My identity being thus established, the young gentleman with the greatest of courtesy assisted me to alight, ordered the hotel groom to stow my luggage in the Caddagat buggy, and harness the horses with all expedition. He then conducted me to the private parlour, where a friendly little barmaid had some refreshments on a tray awaiting me, and while warming my feet preparatory to eating I read the letter he had given me, which was addressed in my grandmother's handwriting. In it she told me that she and my aunt were only just recovering from bad colds, and on account of the inclemency of the weather thought it unwise to come to town to meet me; but Frank Hawden, the jackeroo would take every care of me, settle the hotel bill, and tip the coach-driver. Caddagat was XX-four miles distant from Gool-Gool, and the latter part of the road was very hilly. It was already past three o'clock, and, being rainy, the short winter afternoon would dose in earlier; so I swallowed my tea and cake with all expedition, so as not to delay Mr Hawden, who was waiting to assist me into the buggy, where the groom was in charge of the horses in the yard. He struck up a conversation with me immediately.
"Seeing your name on yer bags, an' knowin' you was belonging to the Bossiers, I ask if yer might be a daughter of Dick Melvyn, of Bruggabrong, out by Timlinbilly."
"Yes, I am."
"Well, miss, please remember me most kindly to yer pa; he was a good boss was Dick Melvyn. I hope he's doin' well. I'm Billy Haizelip, brother to Mary and Jane. You remember Jane, I s'pose, miss?"
I hadn't time to say more than promise to send his remembrances to my father, for Mr Hawden, saying we would be in the dark, had whipped his horses and was bowling off at a great pace, in less than two minutes covering a rise which put Gool-Gool out of sight. It was raining a little, so I held over us the big umbrella, which grannie had sent, while we discussed the weather, to the effect that rain was badly needed and was a great novelty nowadays, and it was to be hoped it would continue. There had been but little, but the soil here away was of that rich loamy description which little water turns to mud. It clogged the wheels and loaded the break-blocks; and the near side horse had a nasty way of throwing his front feet, so that he deposited soft red lumps of mud in our laps at every step. But, despite these trifling drawbacks, it was delightful to be drawn without effort by a pair of fat horses in splendid harness. It was a great contrast to our poor skinny old horse at home, crawling along in much-broken harness, clumsily and much mended with string and bits of hide.
Mr Hawden was not at all averse to talking. After emptying our tongues of the weather, there was silence for some time, which he broke with, "So you are Mrs Bossier's grand-daughter, are you?"
"Not remembering my birth, I can't swear; but I believe myself to be that same, as sure as eggs is eggs," I replied.
He laughed. "Very good imitation of the coach-driver. But Mrs Bossier's grand-daughter! Well, I should smile!"
"Your being Mrs Bossier's grand-daughter."
"I fear, Mr Hawden, there is a suspicion reverse of complimentary in your remark."
"Well, I should smile! Would you like to have my opinion of you?"
"Nothing would please me more. I would value your opinion above all things, and I'm sure--I feel certain--that you have formed a true estimate of me."
At any other time his conceit would have brought upon himself a fine snubbing, but today I was in high feather, and accordingly very pleasant, and resolved to amuse myself by drawing him out.
"Well, you are not a bit like Mrs Bossier or Mrs Bell; they are both so good-looking," he continued.
"I was disappointed when I saw you had no pretensions to prettiness, as there's not a girl up these parts worth wasting a man's affections on, and I was building great hopes on you. But I'm a great admirer of beauty," he twaddled.
"I am very sorry for you, Mr Hawden. I'm sure it would take quite a paragon to be worthy of such affection as I'm sure yours would be," I replied sympathetically.
"Never mind. Don't worry about it. You're not a bad sort, and think a fellow could have great fun with you."
"I'm sure, Mr Hawden, you do me too much honour. It quite exhilarates me to think that I meet with your approval in the smallest degree," I replied with the utmost deference. "You are so gentlemanly and nice that I was alarmed at first lest you might despise me altogether."
"No fear. You needn't he afraid of me; I'm not a bad sort of fellow," he replied with the greatest encouragement.
By his accent and innocent style I detected he was not a colonial, so I got him to relate his history. He was an Englishman by birth, but had been to America, Spain, New Zealand, Tasmania, etc.; by his own make out had ever been a man of note, and had played Old Harry everywhere.
I allowed him to gabble away full tilt for an hour on this subject, unconscious that I had taken the measure of him, and was grinning broadly to myself. Then I diverted him by inquiring how long since the wire fence on our right had been put up. It bore evidence of recent erection, and had replaced an old cockatoo fence which I remembered in my childhood.
"Fine fence, is it not? Eight wires, a top rail, and very stout posts. Harry Beecham had that put up by contract this year. Twelve miles of it. It cost him a lot: couldn't get any very low tenders, the ground being so hard on account of the drought. Those trees are Five-Bob Downs--see, away over against the range. But I suppose you know the places better than I do."
We were now within an hour of our destination. How familiar were many landmarks to me, although I had not seen them since I was eight years old.
A river ran on our right, occasionally a glimmer of its noisy waters visible through the shrubbery which profusely lined its banks. The short evening was drawing to a close. The white mists brought by the rain were crawling slowly down the hills, and settling in the hollows of the ranges on our left. A V-shaped rift in them, known as Pheasant Gap, came into view. Mr Hawden said it was well named, as it swarmed with lyrebirds. Night was falling. The skreel of a hundred curlews arose from the gullies--how I love their lonely wail!--and it was quite dark when we pulled up before the front gate of Caddagat.
A score of dogs rushed yelping to meet us, the front door was thrown open, lights and voices came streaming out.
I alighted from the buggy feeling rather nervous. I was a pauper with a bad character. How would my grandmother receive me? Dear old soul, I had nothing to fear. She folded me in a great warm-hearted hug, saying, "Dear me, child, your face is cold. I'm glad you've come. It has been a terrible day, but we're glad to have the rain. You must be frozen. Get in to the fire, child, as fast as you can. Get in to the fire, get in to the fire. I hope you forgive me for not going to meet you." And there was my mother's only sister, my tall graceful aunt, standing beside her, giving me a kiss and cordial hand-clasp, and saying, "Welcome, Sybylla. We will be glad to have a young person to brighten up the old home once more. I am sorry I was too unwell to meet you. You must be frozen; come to the fire."
My aunt always spoke very little and very quietly, but there was something in her high-bred style which went right home.
I could scarcely believe that they were addressing me. Surely they were making a mistake. This reception was meant for some grand relative honouring them with a visit, and not for the ugly, useless, had little pauper come to live upon their bounty.
Their welcome did more than all the sermons I had ever heard put together towards thawing a little of the pitiless cynicism which encrusted my heart.
"Take the child inside, Helen, as fast as you can," said grannie, "while I see that the boy attends to the horses. The plaguey fellow can't be trusted any further than the length of his nose. I told him to tie up these dogs, and here they are yelp-yelping fit to deafen a person."
I left my wet umbrella on the veranda, and aunt Helen led me into the dining-room, where a spruce maid was making a pleasant clatter in laying the table. Caddagat was a very old style of house, and all the front rooms opened onto the veranda without any such preliminary as a hall, therefore it was necessary to pass through the dining-room to my bedroom, which was a skillion at the back. While auntie paused for a moment to give some orders to the maid, I noticed the heavy silver serviette rings I remembered so well, and the old-fashioned dinner-plates, and the big fire roaring in the broad white fireplace; but more than all, the beautiful pictures on the walls and a table in a corner strewn with papers, magazines, and several very new-looking books. On the back of one of these I saw "Corelli", and on another--great joy!--was _Trilby_. From the adjoining apartment, which was the drawing-room, came the sweet full tones of a beautiful piano. Here were three things for which I had been starving. An impulse to revel in them immediately seized me. I felt like clearing the table at a bound, seizing and beginning to read both books, and rushing in to the piano and beginning to play upon it there and then, and examine the pictures--all three things at once. Fortunately for the reputation of my sanity, however, aunt Helen had by this time conducted me to a pretty little bedroom, and saying it was to be mine, helped me to doff my cape and hat.
While warming my fingers at the fire my eyes were arrested by a beautiful portrait hanging above the mantelpiece. It represented a lovely girl in the prime of youth and beauty, and attired in floating white dinner draperies.
"Oh, aunt Helen! isn't she lovely? It's you, isn't it?"
"No. Do you not recognize it as your mother? It was taken just before her marriage. I must leave you now, but come out as soon as you arrange yourself--your grandmother will be anxious to see you."
When aunt Helen left me I plastered my hair down in an instant without even a glance in the mirror. I took not a particle of interest in my attire, and would go about dressed anyhow. This was one symptom which inclined my mother to the belief of my possible insanity, as to most young girls dress is a great delight. I had tried once or twice to make myself look nice by dressing prettily, but, by my own judgment, considering I looked as ugly as ever, I had given it up as a bad job.
The time which I should have spent in arranging my toilet passed in gazing at my mother's portrait. It was one of the loveliest faces imaginable. The features may not have been perfect according to rule of thumb, but the expression was simply angelic--sweet, winning, gentle, and happy. I turned from the contemplation of it to another photograph--one of my father--in a silver frame on the dressing-table. This, too, was a fine countenance, possessed of well-cut features and refined expression. This was the prince who had won Lucy Bossier from her home. I looked around my pretty bedroom--it had been my mother's in the days of her maidenhood. In an exclusive city boarding-school, and amid the pleasant surroundings of this home, her youth had been spent.
I thought of a man and his wife at Possum Gully. The man was blear-eyed, disreputable in appearance, and failed to fulfil his duties as a father and a citizen. The woman was work-roughened and temper-soured by endless care and an unavailing struggle against poverty. Could that pair possibly be identical with this?
This was life as proved by my parents! What right had I to expect any better yield from it? I shut my eyes and shuddered at the possibilities and probabilities of my future. It was for this that my mother had yielded up her youth, freedom, strength; for this she had sacrificed the greatest possession of woman.
Here I made my way to the dining-room, where grannie was waiting for me and gave me another hug.
"Come here, child, and sit beside me near the fire; but first let me have a look at you," and she held me at arm's length.
"Dear, oh, dear, what a little thing you are, and not a bit like any of your relations! I am glad your skin is so nice and clear; all my children had beautiful complexions. Goodness me, I never saw such hair! A plait thicker than my arm and almost to your knees! It is that beautiful bright brown like your aunt's. Your mother's was flaxen. I must see your hair loose when you are going to bed. There is nothing I admire so much as a beautiful head of hair."
The maid announced that dinner was ready, grannie vigorously rang a little bell, aunt Helen, a lady, and a gentleman appeared from the drawing-room, and Mr Hawden came in from the back. I discovered that the lady and gentleman were a neighbouring squatter and a new governess he was taking home. Grannie, seeing them pass that afternoon in the rain, had gone out and prevailed upon them to spend the night at Caddagat.
Mr Hawden took no notice of me now, but showed off to the others for my benefit. After dinner we had music and singing in the drawing-room. I was enjoying it immensely, but grannie thought I had better go to bed, as I had been travelling since about midnight last night. I was neither tired nor sleepy, but knew it useless to protest, so bade every one good night and marched off. Mr Hawden acknowledged my salute with great airs and stiffness, and aunt Helen whispered that she would come and see me by and by, if I was awake.
Grannie escorted me to my room, and examined my hair. I shook it out for her inspection. It met with her approval in every way. She pronounced it beautifully fine, silky, and wavy, and the most wonderful head of hair she had seen out of a picture.
A noise arose somewhere out in the back premises. Grannie went out to ascertain the cause of it and did not return to me, so I extinguished my lamp and sat thinking in the glow of the firelight.
For the first time my thoughts reverted to my leave-taking from home. My father had kissed me with no more warmth than if I had been leaving for a day only; my mother had kissed me very coldly, saying shortly, "It is to be hoped, Sybylla, that your behaviour to your grandmother will be an improvement upon what it has ever been to me." Gertie was the only one who had felt any sorrow at parting with me, and I knew that she was of such a disposition that I would be forgotten in a day or two. They would never miss me, for I had no place in their affections. True, I was an undutiful child, and deserved none. I possessed no qualities that would win either their pride or love, but my heart cried out in love for them.
Would Gertie miss me tonight, as I would have missed her had our positions been reversed? Not she. Would my absence from the noisy tea-table cause a blank? I feared not.
I thought of poor mother left toiling at home, and my heart grew heavy; I failed to remember my father's faults, but thought of his great patience with me in the years agone, and all my old-time love for him renewed itself. Why, oh, why, would they not love me a little in return! Certainly I had never striven to be lovable. But see the love some have lavished upon them without striving for it! Why was I ugly and nasty and miserable and useless--without a place in the world?