|Newspaper Title||The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939)|
|Trove Title||Small Mercies|
She was a little brown-faced woman of 35, and he was a drover, who might have been as old, or older, for the hard, wearing life had given him many a wrinkle
which in point of years he did not de- serve, and his long, lantern-jawed face and lank black hair, just a little gray at the temples, added to his look of age. For he had " lived," too—not in the best sense of that word, but in the hardest. In the old droving days a man made £500 as easily as he spent it—if long nights of watching the restless beasts on chill, gray, Australian plains, when every tossing horn seemed tipped with frost from the silver of the big, cold moon, or necessary loitering under the blistering midday heat in summer and drought time after the poor famished cattle or dumb, suffering sheep, could be called earning even hundreds easily. But only a few months of that, and hey ! presto ! the streets of Sydney or Melbourne— cheeks freshened by the sea breeze blow- ing over Coogee's sandy flats or Manly's Ocean Beach, or beautiful St. Kilda ; or days of luxury at Scott's, when money filtered out of young hands like water into silken laps ready for, oh ! how much more ? Jack Rouse had his past, and perhaps poor Sybil had hers—her dreary little past, enlightened by the stray smiles of stray young English clergymen who valued her ever-ready assistance at tea meetings and church decorations. For would she not stand for hours pouring tea out of one of those great pewter pots peculiar to Sunday school feasts since such were first invented for the over-filling of hardy youngsters, or the knee-wearying of luckless pastors, and for opportunities to budding shop girls and the grocers' assistants? But, alas! none of these much-accepting clergymen ever asked Sybil to accom- pany him back to his ancestral halls, when he finally got the consent of his Bishop to leave this region of dreary bush rides and half-filled churches. For Sybil came of a class beneath them—so they thought. She would have made an excellent wife to a struggling curate, even in "Merrie England," but—they knew what they owed to their sister, who had married a Colonel, or their (mother, a Dean's widow, and they re- frained. But I think had Sybil's cheeks been fresher, her small flat waistless figure plumper, the dark eyes—her one beauty—had not been turned on them in vain. Forgive her if she sighed a little as the years waned and she cut tons of ham sandwiches and thick bread and butter, and poured out pints and pints of weak tea.
Poor Sybil had always had a hard life. Her father, an apparently flourishing storekeeper, had failed sud- denly and unexpectedly through specu- lation elsewhere, and her delicate mother had not long survived the shock. The father, rendered almost imbecile by his double misfortune, now added himself as another burden to the al- ready overcrowded household of Sybil's married brother. Her only sister mar- ried a struggling bank clerk of poor antecedents, and soon very much re- pented her folly, for with a houseful of toddlers, and barely £100 a year to live, on in an outlying township, where one paid double for everything, and vege- tables and fruit, which the weakly, sickly woman craved, were rare luxu- ries. Mrs Pentland decided she could never get on without Sybil, her senior by a year; and so Sybil was sent for. She was teaching at the time in the public school near the pretty mountain town where she had been born and bred, but, ever ready to sacrifice her- self to what she deemed her duty, Sybil came. Such a slim, forlorn little figure, all dust and grime from two days jolting in the coach, and a day's weary- ing railway journey. But Sybil was not much over 20 then, and had still that prettinees which after years of the drying, ageing, Queensland climate left her little of. There was a little pink in her cheeks, and the shadows under her dark eyes made them only the brighter and bigger; and Jack Rouse, who was himself barely 20 then, stepped forward from where he stood by the post office door and helped her down from the swaying coach. She wore yellow cotton gloves, and a brown gos- samer veil flew out behind her small, black sailor hat. Everything about her bespoke the "little school marm"; noth- ing about her showed the fine lady, or the sort of vulgarly attractive women Jack had been used to ; but he was a little struck with her, nevertheless, al- though she did wear black list shoes with shiny toe-caps. Jack was fas- tidious enough about his sister's foot gear away in Sydney, but the bush does away with the glamour of French polish or delicate kid gloves. It is the true women's, faces we look for, and the brave men's hearts, and so these two fell in love almost at first sight. Per- haps it is easy to fall in love when one is loitering about a dead-and-alive bush township waiting for cattle to take to Homebush or over to Albury ; when one counts the polled cedar trees over and over again, and sees where this one was charred by the fire at Maloney's pub last year or how that one shows signs of the fatal cedar moth and will soon be a leafless skeleton, covered with wriggling, brown masses of hairy caterpillars. One gets tired, too, of being taken continually to Den- hams to be "shouted" for, or of won- dering Rawson's wool will fetch, which has just lumbered by in a table- top waggon, with the cursing driver slouching along beside his straining team. One gets weary of talking strike, or the chances of the May race meeting. And so, perhaps this is why Jock felt so drawn towards the new face of Pentlarid's sister-in-law. He knew Harry Pentland, knew him for a man who spent half his income on him- self, and good-naturedly gave his wife and three or four little ones the residue; knew him for a jolly fellow at an even- ing in the private bar over euchre or what not ; and so it was no difficult matter to get introduced to his sister-in law. It was a tumble-down little place where the Pentlands lived, with a bark and shingle roof, that leaked abomin- ably in the rainy season, and kept in the heat on summer nights, even when all the little wooden shuttered windows stood agape for every breath of cool- ness. There was a long, low verandah attached, with a few easy squatter chairs and a drooping grapevine, which looked after itself, and yet bore spleen- didly ; and here Sybil often sat with a great basket of Harry's undarned socks or the children's stockings, and odds and ends of ragged garments, before her. Here Jack dropped in, and watched the pink cheeks fade under the blasting heat, till even a lover's eyes noted how sallow she was getting, and wished that he "wasn't such a beggar to spend," that he might have saved a little against a tiny home somewhere, where poor hard-worked Sybil might coax back her fleeting beauties. But he went on a long trip with fats to market, and made a good cheque, and—alas!—spent it after the manner of his kind ; and Sybil darned, and darned, and humoured Harry Pentland's morning growl over underdone chops and tough steak, for Mrs Pentland was as helpless as Sybil was helpful. And Sybil poured out more tea, and sang in the choir in her thin contralto, and turned her dark eyes on vanishing curates. For Jack seemed lost, almost, as far as matrimony was concerned. He came back periodically from yellow hair and blue eyes in the big towns to these patient dark ones, and swore (privately) that it was a shame, and snubbed Harry Pentland and his peevish wife for working her so hard, and yet never bound the little waiting heart to him by a word, though he did by many a look. " How could I tie her to me ?" he asked himself, "a fellow like me, up one day and down the next ? Why the deuce can't I keep up? And droving going to the dogs." But was it all unselfishness ? Younger faces there were in plenty—and fresher. Sybil was getting sadly worn with waiting, and only the big eyes remained unchanged. To do Jack justice, he never spoke word of marriage to any other woman. But then he didn't to Sybil either. To her it seemed inevit- able that year after year Jack should come, leaner, lanker than ever, and sit and look at her, and sigh, and ask after Mrs Pentland's latest ailment, and snub Harry, and try to make friends with the children, and then go off for months again, when she knew nothing of him
except by the "stock passings" in the newspapers. If any nice man had asked her to marry him, she knew she would have done so. She longed, as some women do, for some spot of her own— her very own ; not overrun with grubby little Pentlands, or overcrowded with Mrs Pentland's physic bottles or Harry's pipes. Her own room here was such a den —a low, sloping roof, a rough, uneven floor made of those dark boards that never look clean. She had papered the whitewashed walls herself, with pic- tures from stray "Graphics" or news- papers that Jack had given her, with here and there a gaudy almanac—for this poor little thing had no artistic taste whatever, except that which lay in dress- ing quietly and always a little behind the fashion. Neat as a new pin her- self, the hopeless squalor of the Pentland household disheartened her; but still she struggled on, fighting against Harry's growing fondness for frequent- ing Denham's bar, and her sister's in- creasing love of the dingy horsehair sofa and the " Young Ladies' Journal." The children swarmed about the place un- heeded, happy enough, with their dirty faces and unlimited mud pies in the back yard; and Sybil took them in and scrubbed them and turned them out again, and they came back dirtier than ever. The days had gone by when she had thought how pretty, Flossie would look as her bridesmaid, and combed out Janey's curls pondering whether blue or pink would suit them best at her " auntie's wedding." She had cut Janey's curls off now, and let Flossie burn her face to her own desire. For Sybil was losing heart. It was more for that dreamland home, with its clean, tidy "best parlour," and treasured wool mats, and few wax flowers under a glass shade that Sybil sighed than the necessary adjunct of a husband ; but to a girl of her class and character he was naturally there, not only as a means to an end, but perhaps, when she looked at Harry's now careless indifference and remembered all he used to be to her sister—perhaps even as a necessary evil. And so it came about that Sybil was 35 before Jack Rouse proposed to her. Broken in health; quite broken in pocket, he came to the township suffering wretchedly from fever and ague. He put up at the principal hotel. Sybil was too well trained in old-fashioned con- ventionalism to go there to see him, although she had lost all thought of him as a lover now; but one day he staggered down the street to see her. Very worn, and miserable he looked in his baggy, white moleskins and shabby brown coat. But when does a woman's heart, mind exteriors when she knows a man is ill in mind or body? She was quick to find him an easy chair, quick to settle a cushion behind his head, and ready with a comforting cup of tea. And it came into Jack's head that he could not live any longer without some woman to tend and minister to him. Inside they could hear the slow whirr of Mrs Pentland's sewing machine. She had a rare industrious fit to-day; and every now and then her querulous voice rose, scolding the children, who played uproariously in the back yard. A few bees buzzed, in the honeysuckle vine by the veranda, and a tiny bird swung un- perceived on a straggling branch of the grape vine, and Sybil darned away and waited for Jack to speak. He did, finally, though not, as she ex- pected, with brief accounts of that gay world that she was never to have part in. He simply held out his hands, shak- ing more with the ague that was upon him than with a lover's passion— " Sybil, I want you now," he said. Sybil forgot to be the "school marm" or the patient Griselda now. She did not even clasp her little brown hands with the large knuckles and exclaim, " Oh, my !" as was her habit when agitated. She only dropped on her knees, and laid her head on his, and Harry's socks rolled away on the uneven boards, and the silver thimble, her one heirloom, was lost for ever down a crack in the veranda.