An unfinished love story
Brook let down the heavy, awkward slip-rails, and the gaunt cattle stumbled through, with aggravating deliberation, and scattered slowly among the ragged native apple-trees along the siding. First there came an old easy-going red poley cow, then a dusty white cow; then two shaggy, half-grown calves — who seemed already to have lost all interest in existence — and after them a couple of ‘babies,’ sleek, glossy, and cheerful; then three more tired-looking cows, with ragged udders and hollow sides; then a lanky barren heifer — red, of course — with half-blind eyes and one crooked horn — she was noted for her great agility in jumping two-rail fences, and she was known to the selector as ‘Queen Elizaberth;’ and behind her came a young cream-coloured milker — a mighty proud and contented young mother — painfully and patiently dragging her first calf, which was hanging obstinately to a teat, with its head beneath her hind legs. Last of all there came the inevitable ‘red steer,’ who scratched the dust and let a stupid ‘bwoo-ur-r-rr’ out of him as he snuffed at the rails.
Brook had shifted the rails there often before — fifteen years ago — perhaps the self-same rails, for ‘stringy bark’ lasts long; and the action brought the past near to him — nearer than he wished. He did not like to think of that hungry, wretched selection existence; he felt more contempt than pity for the old-fashioned, unhappy boy, who used to let down the rails there, and drive the cattle through.
He had spent those fifteen years in cities, and was come here, prompted more by curiosity than anything else, to have a quiet holiday. His father was dead; his other relations had moved away, leaving a tenant on the old selection.
Brook rested his elbow on the top rail of an adjacent panel and watched the cattle pass, and thought until Lizzie — the tenant’s niece — shoved the red steer through and stood gravely regarding him (Brook, and not the steer); then he shifted his back to the fence and looked at her. He had not much to look at: a short, plain, thin girl of nineteen, with rather vacant grey eyes, dark ringlets, and freckles; she had no complexion to speak of; she wore an ill-fitting print frock, and a pair of men’s ’lastic sides several sizes too large for her. She was ‘studying for a school-teacher;’ that was the height of the ambition of local youth. Brook was studying her.
He turned away to put up the rails. The lower rail went into its place alright, but the top one had got jambed, and it stuck as though it was spiked. He worked the rail up and down and to and fro, took it under his arm and tugged it; but he might as well have pulled at one of the posts. Then he lifted the loose end as high as he could, and let it fall — jumping back out of the way at the same time; this loosened it, but when he lifted it again it slid so easily and far into its socket that the other end came out, and fell, barking Brook’s knee. He swore a little, then tackled the rail again; he had the same trouble as before with the other end, but succeeded at last. Then he turned away, rubbing his knee.
Lizzie hadn’t smiled, not once; she watched him gravely all the while.
‘Did you hurt your knee?’ she asked, without emotion.
‘No. The rail did.’
She reflected solemnly for a while, and then asked him if it felt sore.
He replied rather briefly in the negative.
‘They were always nasty, awkward rails to put up,’ she remarked, after some more reflection.
Brook agreed, and then they turned their faces towards the homestead. Half-way down the siding was a clump of saplings, with a big log lying amongst them. Here Brook paused. ‘We’ll sit down for awhile and have a rest,’ said he. ‘Sit down, Lizzie.’
She obeyed with the greatest of gravity. Nothing was said for awhile. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, gazing thoughtfully at the ridge, which was growing dim. It looked better when it was dim, and so did the rest of the scenery. There was no beauty lost when darkness hid the scenery altogether. Brook wondered what the girl was thinking about. The silence between them did not seem awkward, somehow; but it didn’t suit him just then, and so presently he broke it.
‘Well, I must go to-morrow.’
She thought awhile, and then she asked him if he was glad to go.
‘Well, I don’t know. Are you sorry, Lizzie?’
She thought a good long while, and then she said she was.
He moved closer to the girl, and suddenly slipped his arm round her waist. She did not seem agitated; she still gazed dreamily at the line of ridges, but her head inclined slightly towards him.
‘Lizzie, did you ever love anyone?’ — then anticipating the usual reply — ‘except, of course, your father and mother, and all that sort of thing.’ Then, abruptly: ‘I mean did you ever have a sweetheart?’
She reflected, so as to be sure; then she said she hadn’t.
Long pause, and he, the city man, breathed hard — not the girl. Suddenly he moved nervously, and said:
‘Lizzie — Lizzie! Do you know what love means?’
She pondered over this for some minutes, as a result of which she said she thought that she did.
‘Lizzie! Do you think you can love me?’
She didn’t seem able to find an answer to that. So he caught her to him in both arms, and kissed her hard and long on the mouth. She was agitated now — she had some complexion now; she struggled to her feet, trembling.
‘We must go now,’ she said quickly. ‘They will be waiting for tea.’
He stood up before her, and held her there by both hands.
‘There is plenty of time. Lizzie ——’
‘Mis-ter Br-o-o-k-er! Li-i-z-zee-e-e! Come ter yer tea-e-e!’ yelled a boy from the house.
‘We must really go now.’
‘Oh, they can wait a minute. Lizzie, don’t be frightened’ — bending his head — ‘Lizzie, put your arms round my neck and kiss me — now. Do as I tell you, Lizzie — they cannot see us,’ and he drew her behind a bush. ‘Now, Lizzie.’
She obeyed just as a frightened child might.
‘We must go now,’ she panted, breathless from such an embrace.
‘Lizzie, you will come for a walk with me after tea?’
‘I don’t know — I can’t promise. I don’t think it would be right. Aunt mightn’t like me to.’
‘Never mind aunt. I’ll fix her. We’ll go for a walk over to the school-teacher’s place. It will be bright moonlight.’
‘I don’t like to promise. My father and mother might not ——’
‘Why, what are you frightened of? What harm is there in it?’ Then softly, ‘Promise, Lizzie.’
She was hesitating.
‘Promise, Lizzie. I’m going away to-morrow — might never see you again. You will come, Lizzie? It will be our last talk together. Promise, Lizzie. . . . Oh, then, if you don’t like to, I won’t press you. . . . Will you come, or no?’
‘One more, and I’ll take you home.’
It was nearly dark.
* * * *
Brook was moved to get up early next morning and give the girl a hand with the cows. There were two rickety bails in the yard. He had not forgotten how to milk, but the occupation gave him no pleasure — it brought the past near again.
Now and then he would turn his face, rest his head against the side of the cow, and watch Lizzie at her work; and each time she would, as though in obedience to an influence she could not resist, turn her face to him — having noted the pause in his milking. There was a wonder in her expression — as if something had come into her life which she could not realize — curiosity in his.
When the spare pail was full, he would follow her with it to the little bark dairy; and she held out the cloth which served as a strainer whilst he poured the milk in, and, as the last drops went through, their mouths would come together.
He carried the slop-buckets to the pigsty for her, and helped to ‘poddy’ (hand feed) a young calf. He had to grip the calf by the nape of the neck, insert a forefinger in its mouth, and force its nose down into an oil-drum full of skim milk. The calf sucked, thinking it had a teat; and so it was taught to drink. But calves have a habit, born of instinct, of butting the udders with their noses, by way of reminding their mothers to let down the milk; and so this calf butted at times, splashing sour milk over Brook, and barking his wrist against the sharp edge of the drum. Then he would swear a little, and Lizzie would smile sadly and gravely.
Brook did not go away that day, nor the next, but he took the coach on the third day thereafter. He and Lizzie found a quiet corner to say good-bye in. She showed some emotion for the first time, or, perhaps, the second — maybe the third time — in that week of her life. They had been out together in the moonlight every evening. (Brook had been fifteen years in cities.) They had scarcely looked at each other that morning — and scarcely spoken.
He looked back as the coach started and saw her sitting inside the big kitchen window. She waved her hand — hopelessly it seemed. She had rolled up her sleeve, and to Brook the arm seemed strangely white and fair above the line of sunburn round the wrist. He hadn’t noticed it before. Her face seemed fairer too, but, perhaps, it was only the effect of light and shade round that window.
He looked back again, as the coach turned the corner of the fence, and was just in time to see her bury her face in her hands with a passionate gesture which did not seem natural to her.
Brook reached the city next evening, and, ‘after hours,’ he staggered in through a side entrance to the lighted parlour of a private bar.
They say that Lizzie broke her heart that year, but, then, the world does not believe in such things nowadays.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 188-194
poddy = poddy calf, a hand-fed calf; can also refer to an unbranded calf
poley = hornless (especially used regarding cattle); from “polled”, meaning to cut off horns or cut off hair
Vernacular spelling in the original text: