Chapter 1 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]

Chapter I.

“And were there really shops full of lollies and toys once upon a time, Uncle Wally?” Rex asked dubiously.

“Plenty of them, towhead,” I told him.

He raised his head from my shoulder against which he had been snuggling, and turned for confirmation of the amazing statement to Lynda. As such an idea belonged to the realms of fairy tales in his mind, his appeal to his mother was to unimpeachable authority.

Lynda, looking up from her knitting, nodded her head and added, “And perhaps we shall have them again sometime, darling.” Then seeing the few wretched little sweets I had given him, she charged me with spoiling her son — unconscious of the pathos of the indictment.

“What’s spoiling?” He was at the age when every new word demanded elucidation.

“Something you, at least, will never suffer from,” I told him.

Just then the long-drawn wail of a steam siren came from the mills by the distant wharf. To a thousand men it was a summons to another night of toil. Lynda put aside her knitting and stood up. “Eight o’clock, Rexy boy, bed time!” She held out her hands. With an obedience that was part nature and part training, he slipped off my knees. He bestowed rather a sticky kiss, first on his father and then on me, and turned to his mother. Fergus and I watched them until Lynda closed the door of the next room behind her.

We sat staring at the smouldering heap of smoky coal slack on the hearth that scarcely took the chill from the room.

I spoke my thoughts aloud. “Spoiling him! Think of it, man! Half a dozen miserable little sweets one wouldn’t have given to a beggar child a few years ago! That’s spoiling him! The tragedy of it!”

Fergus stirred uneasily in his creaking home-made chair. “Luxury is relative, although we have only learned it lately,” he said. “But don’t let it get you down, Wally.”

“But it does get me down!” I retorted. “I know you and Lynda have carved out some strange kind of paradise for yourselves in the common hell we live in, but I cannot help wondering what Rex and a few thousand kiddies like him will think when they are old enough to know what we have done to them.”

“We?” Fergus sounded argumentative.

“Yes, we! You, I and everyone else who survives. We asked for it, and got it. But it’s so infernally unfair to them. Dash it, Fergus! it was their heritage more than ours.”

“That conscience of yours must be a nasty companion,” Fergus grinned. “Don’t let it prod you, old boy. Be reasonable, and recognise that neither you nor I, personally, could have altered things one hair’s breadth. Kismet!”

“Kismet be blowed!” I came back. “I doubt if in another twenty years the children who are growing up now will accept that explanation.”

“Arguing can’t help us, Wally — or them.” I knew he was trying to turn me off the subject. It was a settled policy of both my sister and Fergus not to let me dwell on the works of the “Paramount Power.”

But I felt I had to talk, if only for once. “Sorry old man!” I replied, “but it was the thought of the boy that set me going. This room, your shack here, epitomizes everything. That waste coal you are graciously permitted to buy; this chair you have made yourself; that table — and we stole the wood it was built from; that synthetic muck that Lynda is using to knit undies for the boy, while they take all our wool; and you, mind you Fergus, are lucky in this luxury because you had the good fortune to have trained as a metallurgist, and they want your brains.”

“It’s you who have the right to grouse, Wally. Lyn worries about your camp life.

“Pah! what matter about me,” I said. “We men can stand it, though the yoke does gall. I’m on day shift, not as an act of mercy, but because I have a certain value in these as a working animal,” and I held out my blackened and calloused hands. “No, it’s the Lyndas and the Rexes of our world who do the suffering. I tell you Fergus ——”

Lynda’s re-entry cut me short. She went to her chair quietly and took up her work. Then before her fingers began to weave she looked from one to the other of us. Then she smiled. “What is it that is so important I may not hear it?”

Fergus turned a sympathetic eye on me. “Sorry Lyn,” I said, “We got talking about twenty-eight south and one hundred and twenty-nine east, and all that.”

“Wally, why will you talk of it?” she said gently, “it only hurts.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, “Don’t I know how you two try to help. I do understand, and God knows I am grateful, but my dears, if I don’t talk, do you imagine I don’t think? That first day is with me in every waking hour.”

Fergus looked, and I have no doubt felt, uncomfortable. He hates it to be known that he has been helping anyone. Lyn stretched out her hand, and patted my patched dungaree knee. “Talk of something else, Wally,” she pleaded.

“I am sorry Lyn, for letting myself go,” I said contritely. “But it was thinking of Rex and you that started me off. I was wondering what he would think later on.”

“He’ll stick it out, like two other men I know,” she smiled.

“Well,” I announced, “one thing I am determined on is that Rex will know the truth when he gets older. I have made up my mind to write the whole thing just as we saw it. If ever we get out of this mess it may be a lesson to remember.”

They looked at one another, and I almost smiled at the concern in their faces. Their comment was characteristic of each. Said Lynda, her voice deep with feeling, “Why crucify yourself again, Wally?”

“A small price to pay if the lesson is learned,” I replied.

From the practical angle Fergus put in, “And need I remind you of what the P.P. would do if they got hold of your literary efforts. Three minutes trial, three minutes to the nearest wall, and then — phut! Don’t be a mug, Wally.”

I laughed. “The case in a nutshell!”

“Besides,” he went on, “Suppose you did write it you wouldn’t have an earthly hope of doing anything with it.”

“It would be worth doing even for the faint chance of getting it through to the next visit of the United States Commission of Inspection,” I contended.

“You’re right about it being a faint hope,” Fergus growled. “Lord! It makes me sick to think how the P.P. hoodwinks those futile Commissions. And then our lords and masters have the nerve to publish their reports to tell us of the ‘broad humanity of their administration.’ I’d like to have five minutes up a dark lane with the American gent who wrote that phrase.”

“Do you think they are really hoodwinked?” I asked Fergus. “They might be playing possum. You know the Yanks are not fools exactly, as a rule.”

“If they’re not,” he retorted sourly, “those reports must be a salve to the national conscience. Anyway, it wouldn’t make any difference to us.”

Then Lynda returned to the attack. “Listen, Wally, why take the risk now? We have only twelve years to endure before the evacuation. You could do it then.”

“Evacuation!” I snorted. “Lynda, we’ve got to face the fact sooner or later. There is not going to be any evacuation.”

“But the Treaty of Berlin!” she gasped, her glance going from me to Fergus.

He nodded his head. “I’m afraid Wally is right.”

“But how could they ——” her voice broke.

“Lyn, old girl,” I said, “we must recognise now that so far as Australia is concerned, the Treaty of Berlin was a complete washout. At the time the Powers gave the P.P. twenty years’ right of occupation during the period of rehabilitation, each of them knew it would be permanent. The clause was a sop to their consciences. Think for a moment! Who is going to enforce the evacuation obligation? Not Berlin or Rome — their people wouldn’t allow another war, for one thing. Can Britain, even with the best will in the world? Russia has too much internal trouble to bother about anything else. And, as for the United States, they’ll utter pious platitudes, and fall back on the national policy of non-intervention. No! we’re finished!”

[Burton did less than justice to the United States. Washington was fully aware of the danger arising from the twenty years’ occupation clause. It was with the object of ultimately enforcing it that the Pan-American Confederation was formed, which made the evacuation of Australia the leading plank in its policy of control of the Pacific — a policy that bore fruit in 1966. — Eds.]

“Yes,” added Fergus, “and the deuce of it is that the P.P. can use the evidence of the American Commissions of Inspection to prove their justification for sitting tight. They are treating us with kindness and generosity, and we are repaying them with savage hostility, and are totally unfitted to govern ourselves.”

“I’m afraid this is a nasty shock for you, Lynda,” I said.

She smiled up at us both. “Not so much as you would think. I suppose we all thought it before, and have not put it into words.”

That was like my sister. Her pluck was always unconquerable, and I never knew her try to dodge an issue, however disagreeable. I think the hard knocks only welded her closer to Fergus.

“I’m afraid,” I said, “I’ll have to make a move to the camp. My permit is only till 10.30, and the blighters will cancel it for keeps if I’m late.”

“Wait,” Lyn said, jumping up. “I have some scones.”

“Not on your life,” I laughed. “I’m not eating your scones. You two would give your hides to feed me, but you’re not going to.”

“Oh! Wally!” she was a little hurt at my refusal.

“Don’t be sore with me, Lyn,” I protested. “I know you want me to have them. If you and Fergus won’t have them Rex must. He is more important than I am.”

“But I made them for you,” she pleaded.

“And I am sure you did. But ——” my eyes fell on her knitting, “How many meals did you go without to buy that wretched wool substitute for towhead’s undies? Now, the truth!”

Lyn looked guilty. “He must have his clothes.”

“Surely!” I answered, “and therefore you and Fergus must develop a streak of lean in your physical bacon, and yet you want me to eat your scones. No, my dear girl! Honesty before social polish is my newest motto.”

Fergus grinned at me, understanding. “He’s a dour deil, Lyn, and it will take more than you to move him.”

“Oh! You men!” She resigned herself to the inevitable. “But Wally, please don’t write anything,” she asked, returning womanlike to another problem.

“I’ll give no promises, dear.” I stood up, nerving myself for the real reason of my visit. “Lyn, I’ve something to say that will hurt a bit.”

She stood silent, and waiting.

“I’m afraid I will have to cut out my visits to you — at least for a while.”

She put out her hand in appeal.

“You know,” I hurried on, “I’m mixed up in things we don’t talk about, and the risk of bringing suspicion on you and Fergus is not fair. My coming here is too dangerous for you.”

“But you’re not suspect?” Her voice caught, and fear came to her eyes.

“Honestly, Lyn, I think not.” I reassured her. “You know how careful we are, and the precautions we take. If they suspected me I should have been picked out before now. But the risk is always there. Sooner or later — well, we can’t afford to take risks.”

“Were you followed?” asked Fergus anxiously.

“Yes,” I laughed, “but that is mere routine. Every man who is given leave at night has a trailer. Mine’s cooling his heels outside, and, by jove! I’m going back through the swamp, and I’ll make them cooler before he has finished with me.”

“Well, perhaps,” Lynda said wistfully, “you can send us messages through Bob Clifford.”

I was afraid of that, but I had to tell them. “You will have to know sooner or later, Lyn. They got Clifford this afternoon.”

Fergus rose to his feet with a curse on his lips, and he was a man who seldom used “language.” Lyn covered her eyes with her hands. “Has he been ——” The word would not come to her lips.

“No,” I replied, “but it’s almost worse. They have drafted him for the Yampi mines.”

“Have you seen anything or is it hearsay?” asked Fergus.

“I saw him in the gang as they were being marched to the transport. We just looked at one another. It was too dangerous to give any sign of recognition. But I feel certain he knew that I understood,” I explained.

“Did you hear what happened?” asked Lyn. There were tears in her eyes.

“Just the usual thing. He and about twenty-five others were called out at afternoon muster, and were marched to the transport direct. No trial or explanations. The yard Commandant announced to the muster that they had been drafted for Yampi.”

“That cruiser business last week, I suppose,” said Fergus, thoughtfully.

“Most likely,” I replied. “But of course they never admit anything. Still, when a hole thirty feet long is blown below the waterline of a perfectly new 15,000 ton cruiser while she is lying at her moorings, we mustn’t be surprised if some nasty-minded officer of the P.P. tries to connect us with the joyful event. Have you heard anything about it, Fergus?”

He shook his head. “You know I don’t hobnob with the P.P., but I have picked up enough of the language to overhear that they are boiling with rage about their beastly ship. I think they must have lost about seventy men as well, from scraps of indignation I hear.”

“And we’ll pay the price, more or less,” I added. “But it’s worth it.”

Lynda put her hand on my arm. “Wally were you ——”

But Fergus cut her short. “No questions Lynda. now or ever. By heaven! Wally I’ll help ——”

“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” I interrupted. “Remember the rule, and it is cast iron, we’ll have no married men in the game.”

“But ——” he began.

“No ‘buts’ old man,” I persisted, “It is too unfair to the women to let you in. Remember what they did to Harry Bell’s wife to make him speak, and they say that until she lost consciousness, she screamed to him not to tell.”

“Ann Bell only did what any of us would do,” said Lynda softly. “Harry did a braver thing by keeping silent.” Then she placed her hand through Fergus’ arm and looked up at him with a queer little smile on her lips and went on, “Darling, if you ever bought my life at that price I would spit in your face before I died of shame for my husband.” And we both knew she meant it. But that is what the P.P. had made of our men and our women.

“Anyway Lyn, dear,” I said, “You must see that I have to keep clear of you both.”

She nodded. “I’ll have to practise what I preach. Good-bye, dearest, and God guard you.” She put her arms about me and kissed me.

Fergus came to the door with me. “About that trailer of yours,” he whispered, “You won’t ——” he paused.

“No,” I reassured him. “I had thought of it, but it would be too obvious. Not to-night at any rate. I know who he is, and we can do it some other time. I’ll take him a dance in the swamp, and with luck he might get pneumonia. Anyway, we have him on the list of pests, and it’s only a question of time before his name is struck off.”

He wrung my hand. “Good night and good luck old man. Try to get news of yourself through to us.”

“It’s a promise,” I replied, and walked off slowly towards the camp to give my follower time to sight me. It is a remarkable coincidence that four evenings later he was accidentally run down and killed by a motor lorry on the Maitland Road.

Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 13-21

[Editor: Changed “she gently” to “she said gently”; “why take the risk now.” to “why take the risk now?”; “what happened,” to “what happened?”; “Lynda softly..” to “Lynda softly.”.]

Speak Your Mind