10 Nov Brighten’s Sister-in-law
Brighten’s Sister-in-law by Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
JIM was born on Gulgong, New South Wales. We used to say ‘on’ Gulgong—and old diggers still talked of being ‘on th’ Gulgong’— though the goldfield there had been worked out for years, and the place was only a dusty little pastoral town in the scrubs. Gulgong was about the last of the great alluvial ‘rushes’ of the ‘roaring days’—and dreary and dismal enough it looked when I was there. The expression ‘on’ came from being on the ‘diggings’ or goldfield—the workings or the goldfield was all underneath, of course, so we lived (or starved) on them—not in nor at ’em. Mary and I had been married about two years when Jim came—— His name wasn’t ‘Jim’, by the way, it was ‘John Henry’, after an uncle godfather; but we called him Jim from the first— (and before it)—because Jim was a popular Bush name, and most of my old mates were Jims. The Bush is full of good-hearted scamps called Jim.
We lived in an old weather-board shanty that had been a sly-grog-shop, and the Lord knows what else! in the palmy days of Gulgong; and I did a bit of digging (‘fossicking’, rather), a bit of shearing, a bit of fencing, a bit of Bush-carpentering, tank-sinking,—anything, just to keep the billy boiling.
We had a lot of trouble with Jim with his teeth. He was bad with every one of them, and we had most of them lanced— couldn’t pull him through without. I remember we got one lanced and the gum healed over before the tooth came through, and we had to get it cut again. He was a plucky little chap, and after the first time he never whimpered when the doctor was lancing his gum: he used to say ‘tar’ afterwards, and want to bring the lance home with him.
The first turn we got with Jim was the worst. I had had the wife and Jim out camping with me in a tent at a dam I was making at Cattle Creek; I had two men working for me, and a boy to drive one of the tip-drays, and I took Mary out to cook for us. And it was lucky for us that the contract was finished and we got back to Gulgong, and within reach of a doctor, the day we did. We were just camping in the house, with our goods and chattels anyhow, for the night; and we were hardly back home an hour when Jim took convulsions for the first time.
Did you ever see a child in convulsions? You wouldn’t want to see it again: it plays the devil with a man’s nerves. I’d got the beds fixed up on the floor, and the billies on the fire—I was going to make some tea, and put a piece of corned beef on to boil over night—when Jim (he’d been queer all day, and his mother was trying to hush him to sleep)— Jim, he screamed out twice. He’d been crying a good deal, and I was dog-tired and worried (over some money a man owed me) or I’d have noticed at once that there was something unusual in the way the child cried out: as it was I didn’t turn round till Mary screamed ‘Joe! Joe!’ You know how a woman cries out when her child is in danger or dying—short, and sharp, and terrible. ‘Joe! Look! look! Oh, my God! our child! Get the bath, quick! quick! it’s convulsions!’
Jim was bent back like a bow, stiff as a bullock-yoke, in his mother’s arms, and his eyeballs were turned up and fixed—a thing I saw twice afterwards, and don’t want ever to see again.
I was falling over things getting the tub and the hot water, when the woman who lived next door rushed in. She called to her husband to run for the doctor, and before the doctor came she and Mary had got Jim into a hot bath and pulled him through.
The neighbour woman made me up a shake-down in another room, and stayed with Mary that night; but it was a long while before I got Jim and Mary’s screams out of my head and fell asleep.
You may depend I kept the fire in, and a bucket of water hot over it, for a good many nights after that; but (it always happens like this) there came a night, when the fright had worn off, when I was too tired to bother about the fire, and that night Jim took us by surprise. Our wood-heap was done, and I broke up a new chair to get a fire, and had to run a quarter of a mile for water; but this turn wasn’t so bad as the first, and we pulled him through.
You never saw a child in convulsions? Well, you don’t want to. It must be only a matter of seconds, but it seems long minutes; and half an hour afterwards the child might be laughing and playing with you, or stretched out dead. It shook me up a lot. I was always pretty high-strung and sensitive. After Jim took the first fit, every time he cried, or turned over, or stretched out in the night, I’d jump: I was always feeling his forehead in the dark to see if he was feverish, or feeling his limbs to see if he was ‘limp’ yet. Mary and I often laughed about it—afterwards. I tried sleeping in another room, but for nights after Jim’s first attack I’d be just dozing off into a sound sleep, when I’d hear him scream, as plain as could be, and I’d hear Mary cry, ‘Joe!—Joe!’—short, sharp, and terrible— and I’d be up and into their room like a shot, only to find them sleeping peacefully. Then I’d feel Jim’s head and his breathing for signs of convulsions, see to the fire and water, and go back to bed and try to sleep. For the first few nights I was like that all night, and I’d feel relieved when daylight came. I’d be in first thing to see if they were all right; then I’d sleep till dinner-time if it was Sunday or I had no work. But then I was run down about that time: I was worried about some money for a wool-shed I put up and never got paid for; and, besides, I’d been pretty wild before I met Mary.
I was fighting hard then—struggling for something better. Both Mary and I were born to better things, and that’s what made the life so hard for us.
Jim got on all right for a while: we used to watch him well, and have his teeth lanced in time.
It used to hurt and worry me to see how—just as he was getting fat and rosy and like a natural happy child, and I’d feel proud to take him out— a tooth would come along, and he’d get thin and white and pale and bigger-eyed and old-fashioned. We’d say, ‘He’ll be safe when he gets his eye-teeth’: but he didn’t get them till he was two; then, ‘He’ll be safe when he gets his two-year-old teeth’: they didn’t come till he was going on for three.
He was a wonderful little chap—Yes, I know all about parents thinking that their child is the best in the world. If your boy is small for his age, friends will say that small children make big men; that he’s a very bright, intelligent child, and that it’s better to have a bright, intelligent child than a big, sleepy lump of fat. And if your boy is dull and sleepy, they say that the dullest boys make the cleverest men— and all the rest of it. I never took any notice of that sort of clatter— took it for what it was worth; but, all the same, I don’t think I ever saw such a child as Jim was when he turned two. He was everybody’s favourite. They spoilt him rather. I had my own ideas about bringing up a child. I reckoned Mary was too soft with Jim. She’d say, ‘Put that’ (whatever it was) ’out of Jim’s reach, will you, Joe?’ and I’d say, ‘No! leave it there, and make him understand he’s not to have it. Make him have his meals without any nonsense, and go to bed at a regular hour,’ I’d say. Mary and I had many a breeze over Jim. She’d say that I forgot he was only a baby: but I held that a baby could be trained from the first week; and I believe I was right.
But, after all, what are you to do? You’ll see a boy that was brought up strict turn out a scamp; and another that was dragged up anyhow (by the hair of the head, as the saying is) turn out well. Then, again, when a child is delicate—and you might lose him any day— you don’t like to spank him, though he might be turning out a little fiend, as delicate children often do. Suppose you gave a child a hammering, and the same night he took convulsions, or something, and died— how’d you feel about it? You never know what a child is going to take, any more than you can tell what some women are going to say or do.
I was very fond of Jim, and we were great chums. Sometimes I’d sit and wonder what the deuce he was thinking about, and often, the way he talked, he’d make me uneasy. When he was two he wanted a pipe above all things, and I’d get him a clean new clay and he’d sit by my side, on the edge of the verandah, or on a log of the wood-heap, in the cool of the evening, and suck away at his pipe, and try to spit when he saw me do it. He seemed to understand that a cold empty pipe wasn’t quite the thing, yet to have the sense to know that he couldn’t smoke tobacco yet: he made the best he could of things. And if he broke a clay pipe he wouldn’t have a new one, and there’d be a row; the old one had to be mended up, somehow, with string or wire. If I got my hair cut, he’d want his cut too; and it always troubled him to see me shave—as if he thought there must be something wrong somewhere, else he ought to have to be shaved too. I lathered him one day, and pretended to shave him: he sat through it as solemn as an owl, but didn’t seem to appreciate it—perhaps he had sense enough to know that it couldn’t possibly be the real thing. He felt his face, looked very hard at the lather I scraped off, and whimpered, ‘No blood, daddy!’
I used to cut myself a good deal: I was always impatient over shaving.
Then he went in to interview his mother about it. She understood his lingo better than I did.
But I wasn’t always at ease with him. Sometimes he’d sit looking into the fire, with his head on one side, and I’d watch him and wonder what he was thinking about (I might as well have wondered what a Chinaman was thinking about) till he seemed at least twenty years older than me: sometimes, when I moved or spoke, he’d glance round just as if to see what that old fool of a dadda of his was doing now.
I used to have a fancy that there was something Eastern, or Asiatic— something older than our civilisation or religion— about old-fashioned children. Once I started to explain my idea to a woman I thought would understand—and as it happened she had an old-fashioned child, with very slant eyes— a little tartar he was too. I suppose it was the sight of him that unconsciously reminded me of my infernal theory, and set me off on it, without warning me. Anyhow, it got me mixed up in an awful row with the woman and her husband—and all their tribe. It wasn’t an easy thing to explain myself out of it, and the row hasn’t been fixed up yet. There were some Chinamen in the district.
I took a good-size fencing contract, the frontage of a ten-mile paddock, near Gulgong, and did well out of it. The railway had got as far as the Cudgeegong river—some twenty miles from Gulgong and two hundred from the coast—and ‘carrying’ was good then. I had a couple of draught-horses, that I worked in the tip-drays when I was tank-sinking, and one or two others running in the Bush. I bought a broken-down waggon cheap, tinkered it up myself— christened it ‘The Same Old Thing’—and started carrying from the railway terminus through Gulgong and along the bush roads and tracks that branch out fanlike through the scrubs to the one-pub towns and sheep and cattle stations out there in the howling wilderness. It wasn’t much of a team. There were the two heavy horses for ‘shafters’; a stunted colt, that I’d bought out of the pound for thirty shillings; a light, spring-cart horse; an old grey mare, with points like a big red-and-white Australian store bullock, and with the grit of an old washerwoman to work; and a horse that had spanked along in Cob & Co.’s mail-coach in his time. I had a couple there that didn’t belong to me: I worked them for the feeding of them in the dry weather. And I had all sorts of harness, that I mended and fixed up myself. It was a mixed team, but I took light stuff, got through pretty quick, and freight rates were high. So I got along.
Before this, whenever I made a few pounds I’d sink a shaft somewhere, prospecting for gold; but Mary never let me rest till she talked me out of that.
I made up my mind to take on a small selection farm— that an old mate of mine had fenced in and cleared, and afterwards chucked up—about thirty miles out west of Gulgong, at a place called Lahey’s Creek. (The places were all called Lahey’s Creek, or Spicer’s Flat, or Murphy’s Flat, or Ryan’s Crossing, or some such name— round there.) I reckoned I’d have a run for the horses and be able to grow a bit of feed. I always had a dread of taking Mary and the children too far away from a doctor—or a good woman neighbour; but there were some people came to live on Lahey’s Creek, and besides, there was a young brother of Mary’s—a young scamp (his name was Jim, too, and we called him ‘Jimmy’ at first to make room for our Jim—he hated the name ‘Jimmy’ or James). He came to live with us—without asking—and I thought he’d find enough work at Lahey’s Creek to keep him out of mischief. He wasn’t to be depended on much—he thought nothing of riding off, five hundred miles or so, ‘to have a look at the country’— but he was fond of Mary, and he’d stay by her till I got some one else to keep her company while I was on the road. He would be a protection against ‘sundowners’ or any shearers who happened to wander that way in the ‘D.T.’s’ after a spree. Mary had a married sister come to live at Gulgong just before we left, and nothing would suit her and her husband but we must leave little Jim with them for a month or so— till we got settled down at Lahey’s Creek. They were newly married.
Mary was to have driven into Gulgong, in the spring-cart, at the end of the month, and taken Jim home; but when the time came she wasn’t too well—and, besides, the tyres of the cart were loose, and I hadn’t time to get them cut, so we let Jim’s time run on a week or so longer, till I happened to come out through Gulgong from the river with a small load of flour for Lahey’s Creek way. The roads were good, the weather grand—no chance of it raining, and I had a spare tarpaulin if it did—I would only camp out one night; so I decided to take Jim home with me.
Jim was turning three then, and he was a cure. He was so old-fashioned that he used to frighten me sometimes—I’d almost think that there was something supernatural about him; though, of course, I never took any notice of that rot about some children being too old-fashioned to live. There’s always the ghoulish old hag (and some not so old nor haggish either) who’ll come round and shake up young parents with such croaks as, ‘You’ll never rear that child—he’s too bright for his age.’ To the devil with them! I say.
But I really thought that Jim was too intelligent for his age, and I often told Mary that he ought to be kept back, and not let talk too much to old diggers and long lanky jokers of Bushmen who rode in and hung their horses outside my place on Sunday afternoons.
I don’t believe in parents talking about their own children everlastingly— you get sick of hearing them; and their kids are generally little devils, and turn out larrikins as likely as not.
But, for all that, I really think that Jim, when he was three years old, was the most wonderful little chap, in every way, that I ever saw.
For the first hour or so, along the road, he was telling me all about his adventures at his auntie’s.
‘But they spoilt me too much, dad,’ he said, as solemn as a native bear. ‘An’ besides, a boy ought to stick to his parrans!’
I was taking out a cattle-pup for a drover I knew, and the pup took up a good deal of Jim’s time.
Sometimes he’d jolt me, the way he talked; and other times I’d have to turn away my head and cough, or shout at the horses, to keep from laughing outright. And once, when I was taken that way, he said—
‘What are you jerking your shoulders and coughing, and grunting, and going on that way for, dad? Why don’t you tell me something?’
‘Tell you what, Jim?’
‘Tell me some talk.’
So I told him all the talk I could think of. And I had to brighten up, I can tell you, and not draw too much on my imagination— for Jim was a terror at cross-examination when the fit took him; and he didn’t think twice about telling you when he thought you were talking nonsense. Once he said—
‘I’m glad you took me home with you, dad. You’ll get to know Jim.’
‘What!’ I said.
‘You’ll get to know Jim.’
‘But don’t I know you already?’
‘No, you don’t. You never has time to know Jim at home.’
And, looking back, I saw that it was cruel true. I had known in my heart all along that this was the truth; but it came to me like a blow from Jim. You see, it had been a hard struggle for the last year or so; and when I was home for a day or two I was generally too busy, or too tired and worried, or full of schemes for the future, to take much notice of Jim. Mary used to speak to me about it sometimes. ‘You never take notice of the child,’ she’d say. ‘You could surely find a few minutes of an evening. What’s the use of always worrying and brooding? Your brain will go with a snap some day, and, if you get over it, it will teach you a lesson. You’ll be an old man, and Jim a young one, before you realise that you had a child once. Then it will be too late.’
This sort of talk from Mary always bored me and made me impatient with her, because I knew it all too well. I never worried for myself— only for Mary and the children. And often, as the days went by, I said to myself, ‘I’ll take more notice of Jim and give Mary more of my time, just as soon as I can see things clear ahead a bit.’ And the hard days went on, and the weeks, and the months, and the years—— Ah, well!
Mary used to say, when things would get worse, ‘Why don’t you talk to me, Joe? Why don’t you tell me your thoughts, instead of shutting yourself up in yourself and brooding—eating your heart out? It’s hard for me: I get to think you’re tired of me, and selfish. I might be cross and speak sharp to you when you are in trouble. How am I to know, if you don’t tell me?’
But I didn’t think she’d understand.
And so, getting acquainted, and chumming and dozing, with the gums closing over our heads here and there, and the ragged patches of sunlight and shade passing up, over the horses, over us, on the front of the load, over the load, and down on to the white, dusty road again— Jim and I got along the lonely Bush road and over the ridges, some fifteen miles before sunset, and camped at Ryan’s Crossing on Sandy Creek for the night. I got the horses out and took the harness off. Jim wanted badly to help me, but I made him stay on the load; for one of the horses—a vicious, red-eyed chestnut—was a kicker: he’d broken a man’s leg. I got the feed-bags stretched across the shafts, and the chaff-and-corn into them; and there stood the horses all round with their rumps north, south, and west, and their heads between the shafts, munching and switching their tails. We use double shafts, you know, for horse-teams—two pairs side by side,—and prop them up, and stretch bags between them, letting the bags sag to serve as feed-boxes. I threw the spare tarpaulin over the wheels on one side, letting about half of it lie on the ground in case of damp, and so making a floor and a break-wind. I threw down bags and the blankets and ‘possum rug against the wheel to make a camp for Jim and the cattle-pup, and got a gin-case we used for a tucker-box, the frying-pan and billy down, and made a good fire at a log close handy, and soon everything was comfortable. Ryan’s Crossing was a grand camp. I stood with my pipe in my mouth, my hands behind my back, and my back to the fire, and took the country in.
Reedy Creek came down along a western spur of the range: the banks here were deep and green, and the water ran clear over the granite bars, boulders, and gravel. Behind us was a dreary flat covered with those gnarled, grey-barked, dry-rotted ‘native apple-trees’ (about as much like apple-trees as the native bear is like any other), and a nasty bit of sand-dusty road that I was always glad to get over in wet weather. To the left on our side of the creek were reedy marshes, with frogs croaking, and across the creek the dark box-scrub-covered ridges ended in steep ‘sidings’ coming down to the creek-bank, and to the main road that skirted them, running on west up over a ‘saddle’ in the ridges and on towards Dubbo. The road by Lahey’s Creek to a place called Cobborah branched off, through dreary apple-tree and stringy-bark flats, to the left, just beyond the crossing: all these fanlike branch tracks from the Cudgeegong were inside a big horse-shoe in the Great Western Line, and so they gave small carriers a chance, now that Cob & Co.’s coaches and the big teams and vans had shifted out of the main western terminus. There were tall she-oaks all along the creek, and a clump of big ones over a deep water-hole just above the crossing. The creek oaks have rough barked trunks, like English elms, but are much taller, and higher to the branches—and the leaves are reedy; Kendel, the Australian poet, calls them the ‘she-oak harps Aeolian’. Those trees are always sigh-sigh-sighing—more of a sigh than a sough or the ‘whoosh’ of