Triangles of Life and Other Stories

Triangles of Life

II. Chawlton

Henry Lawson

TAKE the steamer from Circular Quay or Woolloo-mooloo Bay, or Dalgety’s Wharf, or from any other port you may in Australia—the White Star Line—all one class—or the Orient, or any other line that suits your condition, circumstances or convenience (or is it Fate?), and you’ll cross the Pacific, Canada, or the everlasting eternal States and the Atlantic—or go round by the other side of Africa and see the peak (of Teneriffe), if it isn’t too cloudy. Or by Colombo and the Red Sea and up Suez Lane, and by Italy—Genoa—(and the Street of Stars, you know)—where there’ll be more to see—and you’ll come eventually to Plymouth or Prince Alfred’s Docks—anyway to London.

I arrived on Saturday, and started out exploring on Monday morning from No. 4 Windsor Terrace, City Road—where Micawber lived—and struck across country, and got bushed, of course. London has more sameness and monotony, for its size, than the Bush. Somewhere in the wilds between St. Pancras (a rather dirty, dusty and immoral Saint) and High Holborn, I inquired of a tall man leaning comfortably against a post outside a tavern—a beerhouse—for the way to Waterloo Station. He thought, rubbed well behind his ear with the ball of his palm, and asked, as an afterthought, or last chance—

“Does it matter much?”

“Beg pardon,” I said.

“Is it particular?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “the last train leaves before midnight, I believe, and I want to be there before then.”

“O—o—oh!” he said. “Why that’s—let’s see—that’s—that’s—why, you’ve got eight or ten hours yet.” Then, confidently, “Tell you what to do! They sell good ale here: an’ a comfortable parlour. You might drop in for awhile an’ have a rest, and by that time me or some one might be able to direct yer. No, I don’t want any. I’ll jest watch here in case a likely director comes along. Or, wait a minute, I could direct where you’ll find a policeman! There’s one on point just round the corner.”

I looked at him hard, but could make nothing of him. He was a Bushman in disguise, I think.

However, I found High Holborn. Or, rather, it found me, and swung me in, and there I bumped against a buck youth with a vacantly inquiring expression, prominent pale eyes, and very large and prominent buck teeth. Otherwise he was just the kind of new chum we set grubbing about the Homestead until we can trust him alone beyond the first fence. He was examining and picking his teeth with great attention in a grotesque mirror on one side of a shop window—a fat woman with a shawl was fixing her hair and hat in the other, which was concave—hairpins and hatpins between her teeth. I passed behind them, and before the reflections several times, but not the ghost of a ghost of a sign of a smile on either of their screamingly distorted features—their sweet counterfeits. So I concluded there was no frivolity here (though I wondered if these were of the people for whom my agent advised me to write humorous stuff), and I tapped the youth and inquired the way to the Strand.

“The Strained? Oh, yes—the Strained. Take the first turn round that there half-corner, where you see them green buses going round. That Chawnchery Lane. Foller them green buses—they’ll take yer right into the Strained. Don’t take no notice of them there courts.”

I thanked him and went on, but felt that he had hesitated. Then he was at my shoulders again, rather vaguely in the rush and rattle, but with the air of a man who had, on second thought, decided to tell me of something, of no particular importance, but which might be worth my while to know, which had happened, or occurred to him, since we last met.

“That’s right. Go on as I tell yer. Foller them green buses, and don’t take no notice of them bloody courts.”

As if there was a deadly feud of long standing between his tribe and the courts. It must have been deadly, and of considerable previousness, for they don’t, as a rule, hint of private or family quarrels to outsiders in England. They say that such and such is “no class” in North London—and that’s about all. And, by the way, it was the “Strained” at that time—before the widening; and I may remark that Pall Mall is “Paul Mawl,” “Pell Mell,” or “Pal Mal,” to those who know it best. Also there were many tram and bus routes, and different colours to each one, and different shades for each section and branch, and they were covered with advertisements with “grounds” of all colour, so the wanderer might just as well be colour blind.

Cross Waterloo Bridge and take train from a big grimy station there on the right-hand side—up the river by train to Shepperton-on-“Tems.” You might stroll round—they are pleasant lanes between deep ditches and blackberry hedges on autumn afternoons. You might stroll round by pleasant brooks, within sound of the river; and by some brickfields, that cannot spoil the scene, and come into the story towards the end, and little unsuspected “hamlets”—that’s the word—lying in wait, half-hidden in side pockets, nooks and corners of the hedges—like shy children who want to give you a pleasant surprise—and you’ll come to either Halliford, Sunbury, Upper Sunbury, or Sunbury-on-Thames. But I want to get you to Charlton, and you’ll be lost in English lanes. But you’ll be directed. You’ll meet a fresh, peachy-bloomed-faced, clear-eyed youth, with the bulk limbs and plod of an English farm labourer, a detached and shelving underlip, which might do if it were trimmed and shored or braced up—were it not for a vague chin, which is hopeless—and a general expression like a blank note of interrogation—if such a thing could be. But he’ll direct you according to the best of his lights.

“Chawlton, sir? Oh, yes, sir! Chawlton. You take that lane wot yer see there, sir, and foller it till yer come to a bridge goin’ across the water, sir. No, sir, that’s not the “Tems,” sir—that’s only a backwater runnin’ inter the Tems, sir. Git through the fence to the right jest before yer come to the bridge, sir; don’t cross the bridge. Don’t cross the bridge, sir. Git through a panel jist at the foot of the bridge where yer see a path worn, sir. (Don’t take no notice of that lane on the other side, sir.) When yer git through yer’ll see medder in front of yer, sir—yer’ll be in the medder, in fact, sir. Go right across the medder till yer comes to a gate with a turnstile and another stile on either side, sir. Yer can take whichever yer like, sir.” (I looked at him for a sign of a bucolic humour, but none was there.) “Go through there an’ yer in Harry Leonard’s farm, sir. Go right through by the house, and it’ll bring yer right inter the road agenst Chawlton, sir. (Mind and don’t take no notice of that there lane I told yer of, sir.)”

The farmhouse stands, or rather squats, low, in dark, damp-looking greenery, just inside the orchard—this is on low-lying Tems gravel flats—with a heavy roof of red tiles—stained like iron rust, and some of them glass—that comes down so low behind that you could scratch your shoulders against the eaves. But there are rooms in the roof that hid the mysteries of the births of great, great grandfathers. The old farmhouse, as is the case of many others, looks as if it were taller at one time—higher and lighter at one time, but had settled down, like a big rusty old hen, over ceaseless generations of chickens. Stable, barn, and one big outhouse of wide—12-inch—weather-boards, tarred. Big trees along the lane to the road—“hellums,” or beeches, or something—it doesn’t matter—and “hashes” at the hend of it, “agenst the road.” Also big, mossy logs that were never cut up for firewood. The short lane runs from the back of the house into the road, and from the road to the kitchen door, or, to be precise, to the outer kitchen, or slush-house, door. As seems the case with most farmhouses round here. The front approach and front door is either a mystery or a legend—a vague bucolic superstition. Maybe there was a front entrance, and visitors, and light—in other days.

Farmer’s wife dead—the village people never talk of her to new-comers—perhaps not amongst themselves. Leonard took another woman, with a baby girl—his or some one else’s—as housekeeper. Baby grown to fresh, pretty little English village beauty—“fresh” as a half-broken filly—“Miss Leonard.” Her girl friend, adopted sister, or something, as companion.

Leonard, who has a little to do with the story, stands smoking—hand to pipe, casually—in the front back-side, or whatever it is, gateway, leading into the road. He is a stoutish man, calm, contented in the gloaming, with a calmness and content that he has made for himself, or rather has made his farm hands make for him (for he owns them body and soul)—with a smile that is watch-dog like, and not altogether bland at any time. Something suggestive of the mastiff with nothing on his mind and stroked by passers-by—or a dog of lesser degree succeeding in being, or seeming, unconscious under certain circumstances. Something saturnine. Two youths in their Sunday clothes, crouched behind a heap of metal a bit along to the right, and whom the blackberry overgrowth had prevented from diving into the ditch in time. They have been coming to see the girls, up at the house, under the impression that Mr. Leonard was gone to Shepperton on club business. Another young fellow, who was up at the house, slips down and out desperately—out past Leonard, bending obsequiously, and an apologetic and propitiatory hat held vertically, parallel to his ear—as if Leonard were a stationary funeral and the boy were forced by haste, and much against his will, to disobey the last injunction of the deceased, and pass the corpse.

A little man, who has been busy about the stable, passes out. A little man in corduroys, and that heavily seamed, double-fronted, calico-lined, monkey-jacket sort of coat they wear. A little man with pale blue eyes and a smile—a fixed smile. I’ve seen big men with it. It is as though there were deep merry dimples once, and they extended into the care and age lines, down the cheeks and into a fixed smile. I’ve wondered how such men manage at a funeral. But sudden and deep sorrow affects such expressions painfully; more so than in ordinary or seldom smiling men. You’ve seen the ghastly attempt at a smile of the smileless. But the reverse—well, in ordinary circumstances, liken it to a big goodnatured dog, sitting smiling his twelve-inch smile, and his master putting on a severe or mocking expression and persisting in catching his eye.

Mr. Leonard said, “Well, Billy!—as the sayin’ is.”

And Billy said, “Good evenin’, Mr. Leonard.”

And Mr. Leonard says, “Good evenin’, Billy (as the sayin’ is),” and something about the morning’s work, perhaps. “Don’t forget them there, etc., in the morning, Billy.” And Billy says, “Alright, sir,” and turns towards the village.

And Billy’s corduroys flicker away in the dusk.

He passes and is passed by a tall, oldish man (oldish is the word) with a bend—or—stay—by an elderly man—an elderly labouring man, who would be tall but for the bend. An elderly labouring man with a squarish face—oblong, but features square, rather. Gladstonian face without the politics, and a dirty-looking grey frill beard, like the hair of a white Scotch terrier that’s been in the ashes and wants washing. We don’t notice that they nod or speak to each other in passing, but something makes us feel that it’s just the same as if they did. The old man is bent from the hips up, and carries his arms with his hands clasped behind—on a lower rear gable as it were—or the end of the rain slope. He wears no coat, of course, but generally a calico-backed waistcoat hanging open in front, and a red speckled handkerchief round his neck, knotted under his frill. One fancies that his running (on some improbable village occasion) would be a question of his legs keeping up, perforce, indignantly, and with breathless difficulty, with the forward top-heavy weight of his body. He is the farm and village handy man, “Jack-of-all-trades,” but wait a minute—“Jack” doesn’t fit him—say Old-George-of-all-trades. And his name is George, too. Old George Higgins; and he is, or, rather was, father-in-law to the little man with a smile.

Mr. Leonard says, “Well, George (as the sayin’ is), ain’t yer fixed them pipes at the Bow Winders yet?”

And old George says, “Not yet, sir. I’m jist going up for somethin’ fer a bit more ‘roddin’.” And he plods up the lane. “Roddin’” is a sewer pipe-cleaning arrangement of his, composed of stout wire, old clothes-line, pliable poles, sticks, etc.—and more of the Bow Winders later.

Charlton is a name on a big grained and varnished gate in a high brick wall, much higher in one place, where there is a tennis ground or something behind it. Glimpses through the gate, when it opens to the carriage—opens reluctantly and shuts quickly—jealously and indignantly behind it—reveal an oblong two-storied house, partly end on, very fresh and clean, painted in light colour with French grey about the windows, and splashed and sprayed with ivy.

“Chawlton” is the farm labourers’ village opposite, on the frontage of the farm. Six square, two storied cottages, or rather hutches, of dirty, smoky-looking brown brick, with dirty, smoky-looking tiles, but why I don’t know, for this is far from London’s smoke and grit. Perhaps it was soiled or inferior material from the kilns. Gable roofs all running the same way, and the houses in a straight row and exactly alike. Two or three-foot hawthorn hedge in front, and no division whatever, save an old batten here and there—and the footpaths running up to the back fence—between the vegetable gardens behind. The cottages are double, yet square; four pigeon-hole rooms aside; kitchen-dining-and-general-living-room, with the narrowest and steepest of little stairs running up through it—sort of dirty little ladder with the rungs boxed in. Inevitable dark little parlour in front, with the pitiful little useless toy “suite” on time payment, which is never used. They draw the blind and open the front door sometimes, like the dusty lid of a chest on end, to let some one see the suite, who hasn’t seen it before. Two bedrooms upstairs. I haven’t seen them, so I don’t know what they’re like. There must be a spare room for Granny, or Aunt Emma, when she comes for her annual holiday. Some of the family, if there is one, sleep on made-up beds downstairs on such occasions.

But opposite the gate with “Charlton” on it is a double cottage of a much better class, with bow or bay windows—“fitted up like London.” This is the Bow Winders that Leonard speaks of. Five rooms; one extended above the wash-house, coal-house and convenience. Sewage runs into a mysterious hole somewhere at the bottom of the orchard. The sewage of the labourers’ cottages is buried at the back of the gardens, mostly by moonlight or lantern light. The people of Charlton paid the farmer the difference in the expense of building a better class cottage opposite their gate, so that a square brick hutch wouldn’t blink in, with its little sore eyes, as it were, when the carriage came out. Hence the Bow Winders.

English village owners and builders seem to have a fixed idea that English families—each of its own class—are born in couples, or twos, or twins, to live together as twins, and grow up, and down, together as twins, for in modern villages round London the hutches or houses are twins, with, even in the better class, or week-end village, seldom a dividing hedge or fence more than breast high. Perhaps this was to save extra walls and space. Maybe it is conducive to morality, and mitigates curiosity, speculation, gossiping and mischief making, where people see pretty well what’s going on and what the next door people are doing, all the time. But it helps build up those awful things called “respectability” and “keeping up appearances,” and the awful better-class English Silence. The 3s. per week hutch-twins are kept apart, of course, and the £25, £30, £45 and £50 to £100, and so on—pounds a year twin villas clan together in clannish silence, so class distinctions cannot clash. And the common people pull their forelock harder and squirm lower the higher the rent a man pays per quarter for his house. This twin-villaed, paling-fenceless style does very well in conservative, cast-iron-customed, own-business-minding and necessarily polite, trades-entranced English better class villages, as also in twin-hutched, spiritless, farm slave villages, where all the women have to go out and take their chance at the butcher’s cart; but it would never do in wide, free, democratic Australia, where your neighbour, if so built and constituted, is free to loom up over the shrubbery and curse and criticize, and tradespeople and carters to fling things on the front verandah and smoke in their fellow-countrymen’s or women’s faces—whether they smoke or not, as many union barbers do now in Sydney, where Mrs. Liberty-Freedom is free to forget, as painfully, frequently, and freely as she dares, that she is a lady—or ought to be one.

I had my fences raised three or four feet in Harpenden, a day-end village, but that was nothing. We were Australians, and therefore unconventional. Also we were used to living alone and privately in the Bush. I only had one suit at a time, but that was nothing. I was an Australian, and therefore had money. I fled to London for the first winter, where there were lights, privacy and humanity.

Fate sent a friend and an Australian to me in a high flat in Clovelly Mansions in Gray’s Inn Road (where an “old maid” once “lived a life of woe” ), in London. And, in order to escape from London and high rent for the second summer I sent my friend scouting. Fate sent him, in a circle almost, to Chawlton, at a time when one of the “Winders” was vacant. And I took it and got some blinds and things from Stains, and we were accepted at once as writin’ gents or something from London, who wanted to have a lark or somethin’, and do as they liked. Had we gone in bags and barefoot it would have been the same. We didn’t work and therefore we were gents.

Leonard had “some things” on the beams in the tarred shed. A double bedstead, washstand, etc., and some chairs, also a mattress, palliasse, quilt and pillows, almost new, and tied up in a light, but good, reddish carpet, like a gigantic man-o’-warsman’s bundle. The things were good, much better than was generally found in the cottages, and I took them, and started to get the Winder ready for the family. Higgins was told off to carry the things down and fix them up for me, for “being gents” we were supposed to be incapable. Higgins carried them all down on his head, and, looking at it now in an Australian Bush, and not from an English farm-labouring-village light, I think it was one of the cruellest loads that a man ever was called upon to carry.

There was, next the Bow Winders, on the outside, an old house of brick set in criss-cross beams, with rooms in the steep tiled roof, of course, and let to a painter, which house was older than the oldest inhabitant knew, and had been occupied by the Higginses in other and far better days. Before the Higginses were labourers to the Leonards. Days that have long gone out of England for ever. Along towards Shepperton, some hundred yards or so from the end hutch of the village, was the village beerhouse—“beer-shop” they call it in London (they call things by their names)—with a low door that you stumbled in through, on to sanded floors, and under a low dark old ceiling, with the inevitable great beam, anywhere but in the centre. I stood outside that door late one night, after returning from London, and rapped at family bedroom window above—in the roof—and scared them all, and shook hands with the landlord afterwards—when he put his head out—to soothe him, and said I only wanted to borrow some matches. But that was nothing, for was not I a gent?

I still see the Gypsies dropping in, calling to each other on fine days, and calling for their ale, the hags demanding the funnel-shaped warmer from over the bar, pouring their half-pint into it, and sticking it down amongst the coals. And then hurrying out and on after the caravans.

And old Higgins in the cold sunlight standing outside the door, his bend rather more pronounced than usual, and hands held half hanging, well out and forward—in the attitude of an exhausted pelican, and asking for arf-a-pint to be brought out to him. “Hiff you please, missus.” For he’s bin fixin’ them thundrin’ drain pipes at they “Winders” agen, and ain’t fit to come in.

And also, on Sunday morning, the brightest time, between church and dinner, a memory glimpse of a bright fair-haired little maid in charge of her jolly, good-natured and rather irresponsible young dad, and her extremely neat and clean but rather “fresh” and equally irresponsible old grandfather.

“Now then, grandfather, if—you—don’t—come—home—to—dinner—at—once—I’ll tell mother you’ve been drinking more beer agen—so there! There’s two bottles at home.” Then that quick, inimitable, unexpected, startling little-woman comment, “You’re old enough to have more sense if father ain’t.”

Chorus: “That’s a good ’un.”

The parlour with a long table piano at one end and a small-paned window at the other—like one of our narrower ones laid on its side to fit the inn. A model of a ship over the mantel and above it a portrait of the landlord’s own ship. For he was a youngish man-o’-warsman, retired on rheumatism, and his wife a youngish woman with reddish hair, the last and only surviving child of a long line of village publicans. They were childless, and during his rheumatic attacks she referred to him to gentlemen customers as “her baby.” There was a hole into the bar, opposite the piano, through which the landlord might serve drinks—and keep an eye on his wife. Clients, for whom the landlord refused to “slate it” further until settled with, made grumbling and nasty comments about babies.

The long side parlour, sacred to Leonard and his equals and one or two of the elders, and doubly sacred on Club or meeting nights when births, deaths, accidents and widows and orphans were provided against, or arranged for, or disposed of. Then the solemn conclave would relax.

Leonard, who always said “As the sayin’ is,” and would be indicated, particularized and disposed of right off and at once and for ever in the Bush by some variation of his habitual expression. “The Sayin’ Ass,” for instance.

He would like to say a few words, as the sayin’ is. He had heard, as the sayin’ is, all as had been said, as the sayin’ is, here this afternoon, as the sayin’ is. Now, gentlemen, as the sayin’——He started to tell me a yarn once (as the sayin’ is), and after about half an hour, introductory, mostly “as the sayin’ is,” an’ so to make it short, as the sayin’ is, he went to Australia, as the sayin’ is, and kept an hotel, as the sayin’ is, but, anyhows, as the sayin’ is——Another as the sayin’ is—or whatever you call them places, as the sayin’ is—I was never up in geography, as the sayin’ is, but, anyhows, as the sayin’ is——Another tall good-natured sawney arose occasionally to say he “’ad a happy thought.” Who would he be in the Bush but “Happy Thought”? or some pleasant variation of it, say Happy Squeak, Happy Yell, Happy Shriek, Happy Streak, Happy Smell—or Happy Stink.

This was in the House of Lords—with a gentleman or two—walking tourists or cyclists, occasionally at the lower side table by the window, when the lords of the village would edge further along the table and lower their voices in respect to strangers who were or might be gents. Or a motor would break down, and the folk come in out of the rain. Then the lords of the village would sidle out and home with all expedition, despite a polite protest from one of the gents, and a footman or two would drop in for a glass in the bar, amongst the British commons, who’d make room, but were never so impressed as the lords.

The British commons sat round on narrowest of stools, and by narrowest of tables, boxed in with narrowest of settees, with the window, by the fireplace, in the little, low, saw-dusted bar-room: one generally in front of the fire in a position favourable for holding forth on opportunities, or leaning against the mantel, hooked on to it with one elbow, the other arm hanging loosely, and hanging himself, rather forward seemingly—either somewhat exhausted with the last effort, or in half unconscious acknowledgment of applause or approbation, imaginary on his part or otherwise. They passed the big pewter on Saturday nights, and the old homely, good-humoured greeting jokes about, or at the old changeless, good-humoured butts, and the sly three-cornered, homely digs at each other. And discussed interesting and important little trivial events of their work day. And joked about the ever convenient scandal about Bob So-and-so and Mrs.——, or Lizzie——, etc., etc. Men talk goodhumoredly and leniently about these things—and bigger scandals, be they social or political, because they recognize that they are sinners themselves—which women never do—and are mute, inglorious and inactive swindlers, by necessity or the dead hopeless weight of circumstances.

And they’d talk of old yarns, and men who told them—“Bill Stubbins, wot used to tell that there yarn about, etc., etc.,” or “Tom Scroggin’—he could tell that yarn. I’ve never heard no one as could tell it like him, poor Bill” ; or “That chap as come to work in the brickfields one year; I never could remember that man’s name—as used t’ sing that song about, etc., etc.” But this is more like the Bush. And they’d talk of men who left their village and went to London or “abroad”—which is everywhere else—and more of men who went abroad and wrote back, and still more of men who came back, and, which was equally frequent in such cases, went abroad again. And of men of whose deaths, fortunes, entrance into high society, or the gaol, or accessions to fame—or the gallows—they had heard rumours of. In undoubted cases (the fireplace ornament):—

“———An’ he wos a stannin’ here on this very spot where I’m a stannin’ now, a-talking to you——” In a loud impressive, not to say aggressive tone, and with a forward sling of the arm and forefinger, that sounded and looked, from the other side of the road, and through the door or window, like one-half of a domestic row.

But old Higgins was a refreshing change—for the first time at least—when they could get him past a certain point in drinking, which happy circumstance had to be brought about very delicately, with much guile, great circumspection and carefully veiled diplomacy. If there happened to be a strange, unobtrusive face or two present, it was so much the easier. They feigned to be careless of his presence, and greatly and warmly interested in a conversation or argument amongst themselves, which was full of carefully “blinded” little traps for Higgins. Long association and practice, and many tacitly understood mental rehearsals had made them perfect. They’d pass the pewter to him, out of his turn, and leave it longer in his hand, in an absent-minded way. Then, presently, he’d begin to get uneasy, and edge and shuffle on his seat, and move his bend towards the fireplace—and one would nudge me respectfully.

Higgins had possessed and studied from boyhood an old elementary book of Euclid—the only thing he ever read, except an occasional newspaper, which he studied for the same reason that “free thinkers” study the Bible.

“Life,” he’d say, after some preliminary shuffles, coughs and grunts, “is wot I call made up of triangles—ekal hatteral triangles. Circles is made up of triangles, and made with triangles, if you consider the legs of the compass the sides, and the lines between the points the bases. Squares is double triangles when you run a line to opposite corners. Oblongs, the same way, is hobtuse or haycute angles—an’ both. An’ a right hangle is a right hangle, no matter which side you might lay it on. It’s a right angle if you lay it flat, but all sorts of angles if you run lines from the corners to the bases—which yer can’t in wot I call the equell try hangles of life.

“Now this is my case” (this was before the trouble with his daughter), “there’s that there Lizzie o’ mine at the happix, and me and the missus at the hextremities of the base. We can’t come no nearer for a right hangle try-hangle is rigid. We might change corners, but that would make no difference between me and the missus, but one of us, if we could agree about it, or to take turn ’en turn about, might change corners with Lizzie—which might do her some good—but we’d be just as far from each other as ever. And if we laid the triangle flat we’d be just as far off as ever, and it would do none of us any good. An’ if we was to put hinges on it it wouldn’t make no difference.

“Now, if I was to go out and another man—say, a younger an’ more experienced one—was t’ take my place I—I—well, I don’t know who’d be at the happix pretty soon, but one on ’em would.”

(A Voice: “Mrs. Higgins is jest out the door listnin’ all the time!”)

“She’s gone to Shepperd’s for starch—an’ an eye out for a likely second, maybe. My ole woman is fore-seein’.”

“But what about Billy here?”

“Well, if I died, an’ Billy an’ Lizzie gets married. I know where Billy would be—where I left—for a while at least. And anyways, supposin’ I didn’t die. I know who’d be at the happix, especially if it was a girl. An’ so on with the triangles of life; children, and more children, allus crowdin’ the happexes, an’ the old people bustin’ themselves to death shorin’ up the legs or bases of the ekel try hangles of life, till they give out of old age, and then summon comes down as often as not.”

“Life is a triangle,” once said Brennan, the silent semi-foreman (a Reynold’s Newspaper reader), to the surprise of all, who had dropped in, in the absence of his wife and her mother from the village, to get his bottle filled. “Life is a tryangle. You’re right there, Higgins, and you and me and the rest of us in hundreds of English villages are shoring up the props. And they’re comin’ down, Higgins!” and he went out.

They stared at one another, and “Wot’s come over Brennan to-night,” they grumbled. “He must be gettin’ speerits from somewhere.”

Poor old Higgins! Pausing for wind in the dusty field in a sweltering mid-afternoon, with a hoe, or other handy implement—or a piece of “roddin’” of suitable length, at the Winders—one end planted between his hob-nailed boots, and his hands resting on or grasping the other end—and his frilled chin on the uppermost hand—he formed an eloquent triangle of life, that only needed the last life blow to knock sideways, backways, frontways, or anyways, and have it over.

Who would he be but “Old Tryangles” in the Bush?

The village had its stale mysteries—two of them. When the old cottage had been some time empty, on account of the Higginses being unable to pay the rent charged for the home of their ancestors, there came an unknown but respectable looking woman in black to Leonard, who said she was an invalid with an only daughter, and needed country air, and she persuaded Leonard to let her have the place at the ordinary rental. By and by a man came round, a short stout man, like a cross between an old Maori chief and an English labourer. Leonard spoke to her about it, and she said he was her husband. He became the village and roundabouts house-painter. They had lots of books, bound volumes of old magazines, London journals, etc., that looked as if they had belonged to a library. I talked to the girl, who seemed peculiar, and was a bit deaf, and we exchanged books. They were from Hindia, she said. She told me some of her history, and wrote the rest. It seemed she was entitled to estates in Scotland from a dead uncle, but there had been a lot of trouble, and she had lost them but there was a big law-suit coming on between her lawyers and the others. The painter and his wife were faithful old servants of her uncle’s estates, who had thrown in their lot with her, and were sticking to her. Her poor faithful servants! she hoped to reward them in the near future. She was hengaged to a hofficer in Hindia, but had given him up when she came home and found she’d been robbed of her fortune. He wrote frantic letters, but she had made up her mind for his sake, and he would never find her, not until she came into her hown. If never, then never.

She was a curious lunatic, but hardly to be wondered at, being the only girl in that village, alone and apart, with some common mystery or disgrace over her, and some tons of London Journal literature. He might have been a librarian, book-worm, book-dealer, thief, receiver of stolen property, fugitive from India—or anything.

She went to Shepperton three nights a week with an old fiddle case (which she called her violin), and—and came back again; as thousands of sane girls do from other towns. She said she was taking lessons—as thousands of other girls do.

The other mystery was a Scotchman, who lived alone in a barred and barricaded house, that looked as if it had been built for a bakery (I don’t know why I thought so), along about the middle of the big cabbage field, and kept about twenty extremely optimistic and friendly dogs. Some said he had to keep them or lose a legacy. Others said that he had a big fortune and estates in the north, and preferred to live alone, but was bound by the will to keep up five carriages, and so many pairs of horses, and so many coachmen, butlers, stewards, footmen, maid servants, gardeners, etc., etc., etc., which he did. With a man with a likely eye to look after them, too, I should think. ’Twas also said that his wife came in a carriage to see him “every once in two years,” but never went inside, or even left the carriage. No one had been inside. He was a pleasant man; had been a gentleman; was certainly educated and intelligent, and seemed well read, and he never washed so far as I could see—save perhaps when he sweated and used his handkerchief. But he was never seen to sweat, and no one had ever “seed no handkercher.” I made inquiries. He used to run round and across fields with his dogs, early mornings. He paid cash, and publican and tradespeople were scandalized when I called him “Scotty.” They called him Mr. Morton, and all treated him with respect. He might have been a lunatic, a coiner, or forger, a ruined author—or publisher—or an ordinary dirty eccentric refugee from society. So the Scotch hermits seem to be settling in England, as well as Scotch doctors, publishers and general imposters. It was a sad day for the English when England was annexed by Scotland. The English people have been against the alleged union from the very first, I believe.

Have you noticed that our hatters, or hermits, are, as a rule, scrupulously clean about their persons, tents and caves? as well as clean mouthed? Perhaps they are hermits to be clean and fresh, while the others are to be dirty.

I never saw the parson at or near the village, though he had a bike, and was a well knit, active man, quite young—an athlete, in fact, and a keen sportsman. He had a tombstone in the churchyard, sacred to the memory of his third wife—or was it his fourth?—and they said that “parson was keep’n company again.” He wore tourist jacket, cap, knickerbockers, and a bike—the last mostly between his legs—whenever I saw him. He seemed an improvement on “The Private Secretary.” But I can’t think exactly in which way. He might have been more useful out here in an English eleven.

The Shepperton doctor was Scottish—and a friend of mine. So I won’t write about him.

There was that something of the “sullen, silent” atmosphere—without the “half-devil and half-child” business about the village which had struck me forcibly while school teaching a pair of low-class Maories at the other side of the world a year or two before. Men and women worked in the fields for, the men from fifteen shillings to a pound a week, and the women seven to eleven shillings. I used to hear them calling each other in the dark, on bitter cold mornings. Those who had children, and no old granny capable of looking after them, used to club together and pay one of their number to look after the children while they were in the fields. Some had to pay to have old granny looked after, too. The children who were old enough to do so worked in the fields. The woman with the hoe was there, plenty of her—not twenty miles from London—bag aprons and the hoes. There was an old solitary couple I noticed often in the big cabbage field. They lived in one hole in the end of an old hovel, but were clean on Sundays. I’ve often seen them plod home, bent, in the rain, with sacks tied on and their hoes on their shoulders—bags heavy with wet, and hobnailed boots—they both wore them— heavy with clay. End of a “good” week they’d come into the beerhouse for their pints, or half-pints. Their philosophy was grim—practical—they talked—or drivelled, or doted, or cackled, about “them as ’as it,” sometimes: not resentfully, discontentedly, enviously, or covetously, but from habit, as other old couples had done before them for generations. She treated him as a rather useless overgrown child with whom she “had no patience,” and he defended himself, or rather took it all with grumbling humour or sarcasm—as other old couples have done for generations. It seemed as though they had been only children of old couples right back to the beginning of ’em, and it had ended, or was ending, without a child. In bad weeks they sometimes “wished as they ’ad it” —but you couldn’t conceive them as being in earnest about it. If they had “it” suddenly and survived the shock, there would probably be no old couple on earth—or young couple either—who would know less what to do with it. The fear of “they lawyers,” and “they banks,” and “they thieves” would probably drive them to bury it, and sleep on it, and fight about it, and shift it to a new place every night, and sleep on it there, and end by not sleeping at all, because of watching each other all night. And it might end by one poisoning—or hoeing—the other. Or they’d turn misers and die in dirt and starvation.

There were no village beauties, nor dancing on the village green in that village. (I wonder if there ever had been in England.) Because there was no green, and an utter absence of girls. They had to go to service before they were old enough. Or to a factory. Girls prefer the factory in England, both in this and “better-class” villages. Because, after factory hours, long as they be, the girl’s time is her own. And because English middle class mistresses are seldom human beings where “maids” are concerned, and “keeping up appearances” is a fetish, a religion—very life to them.

The farm hands on Saturday nights sometimes went home three or four arm-in-arm, singing “Comrades—comrades—since the days where we were boys—sharin’—each other’s—sorrers— sharin’—each other’s joys.” Never anything else. They shared their joys on a bank outside the Winders one night, and I complained on the grounds of the sleeping children. I never heard them share each other’s joys after that, and have always been remorseful and sorry about it.

The men—as I mentioned before—got from fifteen shillings to twenty shillings per week, and the women from seven shillings to eleven shillings in the season. They paid three shillings for their hutches—deducted from their wages—twopence a pint for their ale, and anything from threepence to one shilling per week on the suites that were never used. Besides club fees for births, illness and burials (which seemed the only things that ever happened there). I don’t pretend to know how they did it, but they grew their own vegetables, and got seed potatoes, etc., free, I think. Some worked at the brickfields and other places when not wanted on the farm. They were slaves, and treated as slaves, and seemed invulnerable in their position as willing slaves. I’d often fill the pewter, and be just getting comfortable with them and getting copy when one would spoil it with, “We ’ope we ain’t intrudin’, sir? We ’ope we ain’t makin’ too free, sir?” They’d carry a “gent” home beastly drunk and call him “sir” all the time. “Excuse us, sir, but you’re bein’ sick, sir! Hadn’t we better stand yer up agen the wall, sir? Till yer right, sir? Once I said, “For Heaven’s sake don’t call me sir,” which only embarrassed and struck them dumb! It was no use trying to treat them as equals. “He’s a gent, and Gol darn it! Why don’t he let us treat him like a gent?” And the servants, or “maids,” well, if I treated one as I’d treat an Australian girl, she’d reckon I was “no class,” and she’d lose cast by being in my service. It’s easier to get up amongst the upper class in England. But don’t be proud. It’s coming in Australia every day.

One Brennan, who lives in the nearest hutch to the Winders, was sort of upper hand on the farm. Sort of super, whose position was not recognized in any way by the farmer, but who was made to feel his responsibility all the same, and who, therefore, seemed sullenly apart from his fellows. He was the trusted man to go to London with the wagon or wagons of fruit and produce in season. Started at four in the morning, got back at any time at night—or next morning in the fog—was probably allowed eighteenpence for travelling expenses, and was secretly known by the whole village to get twentytwo shillings a week, instead of a pound, which was secretly held by his wife and the whole village to be a secret between him and her and the boss. She set out the bread and cheese on the table and the black bottle of ale, late in foggy “Lunnon night,” and went out to the front with something over her head, now and then, to look for her chap.

She had a holiday once every two years to a married sister’s at Margate, but told me she was going to have on’ this ye’. “We ain’t going to do this work all me life for nothin’. My chap give it to me this year.” She used to sit outside in the sun and sew calico—well, combinations—with an offhandedness that set even me at my ease, and I was a shy man.

One day I heard him ask her to wash his trousers, and he added “only wash the linin’.” Which gave me a poor opinion of his intelligence. But I’ve thought since that the linin’ was probably put in so that it could be undone and drawn out at the bottom of the pants. (I’ve a vague impression of seeing some so.) For on Sunday morning he sat at the back and read Reynold’s Newspaper. He lent it to his wife’s father afterwards, who lived with granny next door in the other half of the dog-kennel; but I don’t know who he lent it to.

This is no democratic touch, because I’m supposed to be a democrat in a democratic country. It is no literary trick. This was five years ago, and a sign on the face of it of the great change that was coming and is coming to English politics. That the white world never dreamed would come to England. Was it only one sign of the silent, sullen seeming undercurrent of thought, that was going on in that and hundreds of other English villages.

And to such a village had come, some three or four years ago, little Billy with his smile. And while Billy is getting used to conditions which are strangely new to him after exile to London and a nightmare “abroad,” and while men and women are getting used to Billy, who has never changed, I’ll tell you of something else.

I have neither stage-room nor time to describe the villages, fairs and gipsies connected with them, though I’ve seen fairs, from one at Little Hilliford (where Sykes and Oliver Twist passed that morning) to Islington Fair, which is a surprisingly small and cramped affair for its name and fame—as indeed are most other famous things in London, from St. Paul’s, which seems a dirty old toy at first Australian sight, to the Angel at Islington, or The Cheshire Cheese, in Wine Court Ally, Strand, where, in the little cramped, sawdusted dining-room The Immortal British Bore sat in a corner (where a marble plate on the wall now records the fact) before he got up and made that most original and world-famous proposal of his.

The memories of old Paddy’s Market and Paddy’s Market Square of twenty years ago will give old Sydneyites a very good idea of the real thing.

Some gipsy caravans are models in woodwork, with polished brasswork inside, and fitted like a ship’s cabin. But most of the travelling ones are rough and dirty enough. I shall always remember the gipsies as hurrying on, camping at a fire left by a caravan ahead, probably, for a few minutes it seemed, and hurrying on. Caravan hurrying on after caravan, and gipsies on foot hurrying on after gipsies on foot, talking their own “outlandish,” and calling to each other. Running in and out of line to the beerhouse (generally in a pocket of the hedges out of sight of the road till you see it), and hurrying out and on again. But they camped, sometimes by Charlton, where, as in most other places, they were outcast and unappreciated, and were hurried on as soon as possible. Between Charlton and its Four Lanes was a triangular piece of ground, hedged in and known as the “Three Corner Medder,” or “Three Corner Loosen,” or something, and this the Gipsies sometimes hired from Leonard as a camp for themselves and horses. It was a perfect triangle, and the side lanes, both went to church and the post office, or rather to a stile and a path that ran across a sort of waste or common to the church or the post office, which latter seemed a pretty vine-covered, flower-fronted English village-drama cottage and nothing else. Across the open space ran a big, old avenue from nowhere to where a court, castle, keep, or stately home of England formerly stood.

The gipsy tents are very low, and rounded—exactly like the round tilts on spring carts and drays, that went out with my childhood, only brown. Exactly as staged in “Romany Rye.”

I well remember one day passing two lone caravans camped in one of the lanes, and two sullen, resentful-looking men grazing their horses, with ropes attached, along the roadside. And as we passed I saw the old crone hurrying up and down the steps of one of the caravans. When we returned, an hour or so later, she was poking round the fire like a witch in daylight—and the daylight didn’t make any difference—she said—

“Come on, my pretty young gents, and see what you shall see,” beckoning me in particular, and she climbed the steps, shutting the lower half of the door.

“Come on, my pretty young gent,” she said, “and see the Gipsy child!”

I stood on the lower step and looked in. It was very neat and clean, with a bunk like a ship’s bunk in front end of it, and in it lay a young woman with the clearest, freshest olive complexion I ever saw, with the red through it like a blush—it may have been a blush—and great brown eyes, half wild, half laughing, if I might put it so—turned to us, and from her side the crone lifted a fine brown baby, naked, as far as I could see in the flash, and she held it up over the door for a moment for my friend to see too. She spoke of broth or something, and I gave her a shilling, and later on sent down some broth, or, to be exact, not liking to ask any of the villagers to carry broth to a common gipsy, I carried it down myself, Australian fashion, and gave it to one of the sullen men, who rubbed off his hat in a surprised manner. Perhaps he thought it was beer. I didn’t look back to see. Just round the corner of the hedge I came on Leonard talking to the other man with very little as the sayin’ is about it.

“I was jest shiftin’ of ’em on, as the sayin’ is,” he said to me. “They’re worse than no class, as the sayin’ is, and I can’t trust my turnips, as the sayin’ is.”

“But, Mr. Leonard,” I said, “one of the young women’s just had a child, and she surely could never stand the jolting on in that caravan. It would kill her, man!”

“Don’t you be afraid of that, as the sayin’ is,” he said; “they’re only animals, as the sayin’ is—an’——”

And so on.

But I persisted, and he said, “Ah, well, as the sayin’ is, since you wish it, as the sayin’ is, I’ll give them another night, as the sayin’ is.” And he stepped back to the man to tell him that as the gent, as the sayin’ is, and, etc. And if they behaved themselves as the sayin’ is, etc.

I passed the Three Corner Medder at nightfall next evening, curious to see if the gipsies were gone yet, and the old crone by the fire called to me.

“Come, my pretty young gent, and I’ll tell you your fortune true.”

I thought it rather mercenary, but, having spent an hour or so at the Farmers’ Arms, I went and sat on my heel in front of her, since she didn’t rise. She took my wrist in her bony hand, which seemed startlingly white, like a skeleton one, but it may have been a play of moonlight or daylight through a hole in the hedge. Her hair was grey under the hood, a dirty grey, her face was hollow, but the lower half squarish, in thin lines, like her mouth. But her eyes! I hadn’t noticed them so much in daylight—perhaps they had contracted like a cat’s—but now they seemed the blackest and most piercing I had ever seen. Piercing, but like a shining black wall when you tried to look into them. And they were fastened on mine. I thought of cheap mesmerism or hypnotism, and all the old tricks and patter, as she repeated in a harsh, cracking voice—

My pretty young gent, you may laugh your last,
    And laugh till your laugh is through,
But I’ll tell you the tale of your dead, dead past,
    And I’ll tell you all too true.

“Oh, I’ve heard that before,” I said; “tell me something new, granny?”

“The old before the new,” she said; “the old before the new.” Then, after a pause that seemed no pause, and with a distant humming in my ears and a sudden feeling of helplessness and heaviness, came a voice, or voices—they didn’t seem hers—as of a hundred imps singing round in a great mile wide circle—

Wrap me up in my stockwhip and blanket,
    And bury me deep down below,
Where the dingoes and crows won’t molest me,
    In the land where the coolibars grow.

I had fingers and toe to the dust to start up, but she held me as a vice, and I felt a great heaviness and a weight on my shoulders, as if Sampson’s hands were there, and I went down again. Heaviness and weight vanished. But I had laughed my last, as far as she was concerned. I had had my laugh through, and was done with—had no further use for it for the time being. The last time I had heard those lines sung it was by a young woman, a girl of eighteen, in a fourth rate pub in Sydney, and she was recklessly drunk—and she had been a schoolmate of mine. It brought as much of the tale of the dead, dead past back to me as I wanted just then, and I let the old gipsy know that without speaking. “Ah!” she said. “You have brown eyes, and your people may have been of our people once. But you fear the black eyes! You fear the black eyes!”

That was a fact anyway.

Then she, she was sitting on a black box of some kind, folded her skeleton hands on her lap, and turned a little to face the full moon that was just looking over the hedge, and which can look with more expression over an English hedge than over any sea, mountain, plain, bush or scrub in Australia. Then, taking my hand again, and holding it on her bony knee, she began to sing—and in another voice, but low and sweet, as of an old woman who could sing once, before her voice went (tragically, and before a crowded audience, maybe), patting my hand with her bony one the time—as far as I can remember or reconstruct—

You have come, by bush and town,
From where blue-eyed men are brown,
Drought and rain and sun and shade—
Gipsies born and gipsies made,
Follow still the gipsy trade.
Children pray in Sunday school
For princes who shall never rule.
Folk do many foolish things
For the kings who are not kings;
Men and women bow and crawl
Where no tyrant reigns at all.
And the worst of all things be,
In the light of Liberty.

You have come in strife and pain,
You shall go but come again.
One that’s sane shall drive you mad,
One that’s mad shall drive you sane.
He whose wealth you helped to make,
Make you rich for your own sake.
You shall sink but rise again,
With the strength of ten times ten,
And shall be a king of men.
Those whose names you write and call
Make you famous over all.
One who’s deaf shall make you hear,
One who’s blind shall make you see.
Absent ones be ever near,
Nearer still in pain and fear;
One who never dreamed a dream
Shall reveal the mystery—
Raise your eyes and you shall see.
        [I saw hypnotic visions and illusions here.]
Yesternight in Land o’ Scorn,
Was a gipsy baby born.

In the Country of the Blind
Was a sighted stranger kind.
Go you calm, or go you wild,
You have helped a gipsy child;
He shall grow with courage grim,
Strength of sight and strength of limb—
All you lack shall be in him.
Go you far or go you near.
Take no guards, and take no fear.
Where you walk, there he shall run,
In the snow or in the sun.
Shield your daughter and your son.
Lined your face and grey your hair,
Under home or strangest skies,
Sunk in seeming dark despair,
Death or madness everywhere,
Be your friends however fair,
Let your enemies beware
Of dark eyes and of dark hair.

And she hitched round and fixed her own on me, with a jerk, so to speak. I got up in a hurry while I could, and, as she still continued to regard me with that intent night-cat look of hers, I got out half a crown, awkwardly enough, and, as she never moved a finger, I laid it down on the edge of the ashes. She never looked at it, but at me, so I shuffled off, and round the corner I made good time to the Farmers’ Arms.

But a strange thing was to happen. I worked all that night, and went out at daybreak with my pipe, and seemed to be swung round in my eccentric strolling past the Three Corners. I thought I’d see how the gipsy camp looked asleep, but it was gone. It was, save for a circular patch of white ashes, as if it had never been. The grass was clean. Even the signs of horses had vanished. I walked over to the place where the fire had been, and there, on the very rim of the circle of white wood ash, lay my new half-crown. It flashed in my mind then that she had been in a kind of trance when I laid it down and had seen nothing. But when I picked it up I saw that it was marked. Marked deeply round the rim, as I have seen others marked, and with lines and tiny little partly sunk drill holes in many places. Whenever I look at it now I seem to see new marks and combinations. I have never found anybody who could, or would, read it for me.

Some day I may.

Triangles of Life And Other Stories - Contents

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