[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]
Old Parkinson had eight sons. Or rather, Old Mrs. Parkinson had the eight sons, and Old Parkinson idealistically approved. He was far too much of an idealist to function more than initially as a father. It was Mrs. Parkinson who had borne and bred the eight large sons between her twentieth and thirty-sixth year, in addition to humouring Old Parkinson’s ideals. She had wedded him, dreaming of sons, in England in the eighteen-seventys, while Parkinson was dreaming of Liberty. And together they had gone to the Antipodes, each seeking a dream.
The first son was born on the boat, and the rest of Mrs. Parkinson’s dreams came true at regular intervals in huts and even in tents as the family moved farther into the Bush each year, seeking El Dorado in the empty land. And Old Parkinson’s dreams also came true, for he found a liberty to think, and to move, and to talk grandly of life, and to stretch the limbs of his mind in the wide sunny spaces of the Bush; and to visualise the new earth, Australia Felix, where class and property mattered not at all in the estimation of men amongst men, where brotherliness was a necessity of life in the adventure — the last European adventure — into action against Nature’s prodigality of resources.
And thus in fecundity the two dreamers drowsed, and they never awakened, which proves the gods are tolerant of happiness now and then, whatever may be deduced to the contrary from the more generalised observation of mankind upon the earth.
When they landed they had two hundred pounds, and a grand piano, and a ’cello, and also, already, as previously explained, a son.
“You have the baby grand, and I have the grand baby!” Mrs. Parkinson had exclaimed happily; and Old Parkinson, giving his earnest fancy full play, had answered sonorously:
“Australia needs both!”
He hoped, strange fellow, to find new rhythms of joy in the far-away land, new melodies of a translucent sweetness trilling like birdsong in clear air, and perhaps he did find them, the strange old fellow, for in all his travels there was never one evening that he did not play music in darkness alone at one end of the hut, behind a curtain, dreaming with his fingers, asleep almost; while the sons, growing, barelegged, gawky, rowdy lads, were being washed and bullied and clouted and cajoled by that other dreamer, preparing meals over a bustling red fire.
Their two hundred pounds had soon dwindled, and Parkinson had found that music of his sort was of no cash value. There were pupils enough in the seaport town where they had landed; but Parkinson, virtuoso, would not teach five-finger exercises to children. Concerts, too, were out of the question in a land where canons of taste were being deliberately forgotten by adventurers to whom such fal-lals smelled heavily of drawing-rooms.
“Can you play the Lancers, Parkie?” he had been asked often enough, and kindly enough, by darnce-organisers; but poor old Parkinson had wrinkled his sensitive nose apologetically:
“They bore me rather, you know, really,” he would explain.
So his music had precisely no cash value at all; and when the two hundred pounds were almost done, Mrs. Parkinson, already heavy with another dream becoming actual, had tendered for the contract to supply stores to the navvies on a new railway just being built into the Bush along a famous coaching-route; and had obtained the contract, and Parkinson, virtuoso, found himself, piano and all, in a rail-head camp weighing sugar and tea — a vocation so utterly ridiculous that it did not even clash with any of his sensibilities.
Thus the years went on, and the rail-head went on; and always the Parkinson family went on, into the Bush, increasing in sons.
So at last they came to our township, where it drowsed — a pub, a police-station, a blacksmith shop, and a “general store,” outposted in the enclosing Bush — and there the railway reached its destination; so there the dreamers settled, and the navvies all took up land and started bushwhacking; but Old Parkinson couldn’t be a farmer, so they took over the general store, and there dreamed on, and never awakened.
The sons grew, and to none of them would Old Parkinson teach a note of formal music.
“It destroys the soul,” he would say, palely.
So the sons became great strapping bushwhackers, delighting the heart of their mother when at last they were big enough to do all the work of storekeeping, and Old Parkinson could be quite freed to think of Freedom. And it was strange to hear the Parkinson boys of an evening, outside in the fresh air, entertaining the inhabitants of the growing township to musical “items” on the accordion, and the tin-whistle, and the mouth-organ; while inside the log hut, curtained and devotional, the Old Man played entire ’cello or piano-forte concertos in the dark by himself, hearing, or perhaps seeing, the grand orchestra which should have been there, and never once wishing himself back in Europe from his dream-adventure.
Thus the years passed, and Old Parkie, or “The Professor,” as he was called affectionately, became a fixture in the township, quite accepted, as many odder humans were accepted in that community, as part of the landscape. Always he kept his hair long, always he wore a velvet collar, always he was courteous and gentle and tolerant and immensely aloof. He had never chopped a tree, or killed an animal, or even mounted a horse, or milked a cow, or made a penny by his own efforts. Nobody could have been less an Australian of that bustling generation; and yet nobody will ever live more worthily in that land than he did. That man used his Freedom, and destroyed nothing.
The story really ends here, because that’s all there is in it. Already, when the Old Woman died, the eldest son was married, and a newer cycle of fecundity had begun. Before she died, exhausted, she had cuddled her first grandson; and when the Old Man died, aloof, his nerves had long been calmed by a flute-like calling which haloed tall trees in his mind alone in the deepest silences. It matters hardly at all that the eight sons prospered, and that nowadays there are at least forty young Parkinsons running about gawky in the Bush — acclimatised.
P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, , pp. 114-122
Australia Felix = (Latin) “fortunate Australia”, or “happy Australia” (“felix” may be translated as blessed, fortunate, happy, lucky, or successful)
darnce = dance (as pronounced with a long “a”, especially as enunciated by someone with an affected tone, or with a regional accent)
fal-lal = (also: fallal, fal lal) a showy article or item of finery, especially regarding dress