Authors: Eleanor Dark
Allen & Unwin's House of Books aims to bring Australia's cultural and literary heritage to a broad audience by creating affordable print and ebook editions of the nation's most significant and enduring writers and their work. The fiction, non-fiction, plays and poetry of generations of Australian writers that were published before the advent of ebooks will now be available to new readers, alongside a selection of more recently published books that had fallen out of circulation.
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Eleanor Dark was born in 1901 and educated in Sydney. She is one of Australia's most highly regarded writers of the 1930s and '40s.
Dark began writing in her childhood and contributed verse, short stories and articles to various magazines. Her first novel,
was published in 1932. A further nine novels followed:
Prelude to Christopher
Return to Coolami
Sun Across the Sky (1937), Waterway
The Little Company
(1959), and the trilogy of historical novels
The Timeless Land
Storm of Time
Dark also wrote short fiction, essays, radio scripts and poetry. She was married to Eric Dark, a medical doctor and leftist social thinker. She died in 1985, and Varuna, her house in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, is now a writers' centre.
This edition published by Allen & Unwin House of Books in 2012
First published by William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd, London, in 1959
Copyright Â© Eleanor Dark 1959
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
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The Narrow Escape of Herbie Bassett
Some Remarks upon the Nature of Contrast
leaves the highway so unobtrusively that, although it is the only side road between Tooloola and Dillillibill, strangers sometimes miss it. There are many car tracks leading off to half-hidden farm gates, and the Lane, at its junction with the bitumen, looks much the same as these. There is no signpost; if there were, it would bear the name Black Creek Road, for only by the inhabitants of the district is this mile-long strip of red earth called, in half derisive affection, Lantana Lane.
It follows a winding, hilly course along the crest of a ridge from which (where the lantana permits) one may look down across sloping farmlands to Black Creek on the one hand, and Late Tucker Creek on the other; both are tributaries of the Annabella River, whose estuary is visible from a point where the Lane, coming to an abrupt end at the top of a steeply plunging hillside, overlooks a stupendous view. Miles of farmlands lie below, lightly linked by ribbons of red road to the clustered roofs of little towns, and beyond them blue ocean and white beaches proclaim a stretch of the long, Queensland coastline, fading north and south into a haze of distance. Until this point is reached, however, one sees very little except the high walls of lantana, between which there is just room for two cars to pass, unless their owners are faddy about paintwork; but this we dwellers in the Lane have long since ceased to be. We are more concerned for our springs, axles and universal joints.
And with reason. The surface of the Lane is composed, for the most part, of football-sized boulders thinly overlaid with the native earthâor, at the bottoms of the hills, where this has washed down upon them, deeply buried. In such places vehicles proceed with comparative smoothness except in rainy weather when, as likely as not, they are unable to proceed at all; for our soil combines with water to produce a mud of such slipperiness that even our dogs cannot walk on it without skidding. Then there is The Bump between Kennedys' and Dawsons'; among so many bumps, it claims the distinction of capital letters, for it is bedrock, a section of the earth's crust here nakedly exposed, and pity help you if you hit it unwarily. There is The Dip, too, just opposite the Griffiths', where it is nearly always greasy because of an underground seepage. And of course there is The Tree blocking half the road at the foot of Hawkins' hill; but we shall have more to say about this later.
And yet, despite all these hazards, we are fond of the Lane. A dead-end road must obviously develop a character quite different from that of a thoroughfare. Heaven only knows who the travellers along the Tooloola-Dillillibill road may be; the flash of sun on their paint and chromium is all we ever see of them. But if a car turns off into the Lane, it is making for one of the farms behind the lantana; it is one of us; or one of our friends; or Wally Dunk, delivering the groceries; or Doug Egan on his big truck, collecting our fruit for market; or Sam Ellis approaching, honk, honk, honk, to leap from his van at our gates, thrust the bread into the boxes nailed to their posts, and be off again, honk, honk, honking the news of his arrival all the way down to Ken Mulliner's. We do not need to look up from our chores, for we know them all by the sound. Thus there is a cosy, family atmosphere in the Lane, and those who live in it will stoutly assure you that it is by far the best part of Dillillibill.
Jack Hawkins' grandfather once owned all the southern side of the ridge, and most of the northern slope as well. There was no Lane in those days, no Dillillibill, and only a bridle track to the railway town of Rothwell. But since then the land has been subdivided and re-subdivided until there are now ten farms fronting the Lane. The largest of them is only thirty-five acres, the smallest is eight, and the rest are all between twelve and twenty. Those rural Moguls who measure their properties in square miles would doubtless be amused by our presumption in claiming to be on the land at all; and indeed, we have only a toe-hold.
But we hold on tight. In the cause of survival many forms of life develop many strange faculties and physical characteristicsâand small farmers have developed powerfully prehensile toes. This has been made necessary by the Curse which has relentlessly pursued them down the generations for six thousand years.
The first of their kind, as we may recall, took over a going concern, and his status was that of a caretaker rather than a proprietor. His instructions were to dress and keep the gardenânothing whatever being said about re-planting, grafting, cross-pollination, original research of any kind, or even developmental work. But the garden (containing, as it did, samples of every form of vegetation), was more than one pair of hands could dress and keep, so Eve was rung in to helpâas she still is, on all one-man holdings.
Now when men pry into mysteries they are called scientists, but when women do the same thing they are called inquisitive, and if we are to reprobate the inquisitiveness which began the search for knowledge, we cannot but view with some reserve the scientific genius which has so stubbornly pursued it, even into the dreadful fastnesses of the Atom. Eve's husband was clearly a bloke with a sluggish intellect and no ambition; we have her, and her alone, to thank for the fact that we now know enough to blow ourselves into small pieces. But in common justice we must bear in mind the disadvantage under which she laboured. She was not really at all inquisitive about atoms; her curiosity was directed towards quite different matters. And being entirely innocent of knowledge, she could not possibly be expected to know that all knowledge interlocks, and that fiddling with one bit disturbs the whole cohesive structure. Of course the Creator of the garden knew this very well, having just spent a solid week designing and manufacturing parts for assembly into a working model; and to see one's unique achievement endangered by a pair of ignorant meddlers (particularly when they have been created, merely as an afterthought, to preserve the status quo) is enough to make anyone curse.
So Eve and her offsider were for it. The great anathema was uttered. Cursed was the ground for their sake; in sorrow should they eat of its fruits; thorns and thistles should it bring forth, and with the sweat of their faces should it be for ever bedewed. So exactly has this maleficent prophecy been fulfilled throughout the centuries, that we cannot fail to marvel at the persistent way in which each generation produces a fresh crop of mugs not only willing but eager to dare its bane for the sake of possessing a bit of earth of their own.
To the stern and awful voice of the Lord has now been added the somewhat peevishly didactic voice of the Economist. Even the most junior apprentice to this craft knows, and will tell you with assurance, that the small farmer is doomed. He is done. He cannot compete. He cannot afford to be mechanised, and if he is not mechanised he is not in the race. Nor can he live-through-the-bad-years-on-the-fat-of-the-good-years, because the good years no longer produce much surplus fat, and in any case (whether owing to Acts of God or acts of nuclear research), seem to be getting worse, and farther between. He has becomeâto put it quite plainly and brutallyâan Anachronism. Whenever he is warned by the economists of all this, he listens a trifle absent-mindedly, and does not answer back. There is one reply which he might make, but never doesâand this is a pity, for it is based upon figures, which are things economists respect very highly. Those who have consulted certain tables compiled by insurance companies will have noted that farmers live longer than any other description of people except clergymen. We cannot account for the longevity of the clergy (indeed, it would appear to conflict with Professor Freud's theory of wish-fulfilment, since they may be supposed to hunger for the hereafter), but it is clear that farmers live long precisely because they indulge in such anachronistic habits as rising early, working hard all day in the open air, retiring early, and sleeping like the dead. They are therefore in a position to look those who warn them in the eye, and retort: “Better a live farmer than a dead economist.”
The ten Anachronisms in the Lane are all alike in that they fulfil the prophecy of the Book of Genesis by sorrowing, sweating and contending with noxious weeds. And they are all alike in that an economist would need to do no more than cast an eye over their account books to say: “I told you so.” But these are the similarities of their condition as practising farmers; their dissimilarities of personality and background are so marked that the observer is driven to enquire what common factor it can be which has brought them all together in Lantana Lane. He will discover, if he examines the matter, that on only four out of the ten farms are to be found people who were born, so to speak, with brush-hooks in their handsânamely, the Hawkins, the Bells, Herbie Bassett and Joe Hardy. Now some are born farmers, some achieve farming, and some have farming thrust upon them. The Hawkins, the Bells and Joe Hardy were born farmers; Herbie Bassett had farming thrust upon him; but the rest have achieved farming, and they have found their way to it by paths so strangely various that we shall pause for a moment to glance at them.
Aub Dawson had a newsagency in a Melbourne suburb fifteen years ago, and his wife, Myra, was a cashier in a large store before she married him. He is a solid, active, rubbery little man who, in those days, used to gamble on the horsesâwhich, as he often remarks now, are drearily predictable compared with the things farmers gamble on. Myra tells us they made quite a lot of money out of the newsagency, but quickly lost it again on the race-tracks, so at last Aub woke her up in the middle of one night, and said he had been thinking. When he says this she always knows that she is going to hear something very cynical beginning with “Listen, love,” and what she heard was this:
“Listen, loveâremember that little farm we used to talk about when we were engaged? Right. Well, I thought I'd play safe, and make some money instead. So now I get up in the dark, and work like hell all day seeing that everyone gets their crosswords, and comics and cheesecake, and I make some money. Right. What happens to it? We both like a flutter, so we put it on the wrong horse, and lose it. Now suppose we put it into a little farm insteadâwhat happens then? We still get up in the dark and work all day seeing that everyone gets their vitamins, and we're still gambling, and we still lose our money. Right. Which way would we rather lose it? “
Put like that, it was really quite simple, and within six months Aub and Myra were settled in the Lane. Aub bets on this or that market, instead of on this or that horse, and usually bets wrong. He gets a hunch that Melbourne is rising, and sends his fruit thereâand Melbourne falls; next week he backs Sydney, and Melbourne pays top price. But he says it's all good, clean fun, and Myra swears that she would find the life quite perfect if only she weren't so allergic to ticks.
Henry Griffith is an Englishman, and was once a lawyer. His wife, Sue, also English, was the daughter of an archÃ¦ologist and a French pianist of no mean repute. She is one of those women who would look elegant in a cornsack girdled with a bit of string, but she is usually to be seen around the farm in shirt, shorts and gumboots. To these she frequently adds headgear in the shape of a tea-cosyâgorgeously striped in rich shades of green, yellow and vermilionâwhose purpose is to remind her that she has left the iron switched on, or a cake in the oven; but its effect, in combination with the rest of her toilette, is to make her look rakish and enticing, like a musical comedy she-pirate. As for Henry, it is difficult to imagine what can have prompted him to choose the law as a profession, for he likes to get things done fast. He also has a lively sense of humour, and a massive bump of irreverence; had it not been for the fact that he is an extremely stubborn cuss, persistent in pursuing a course that he has set, these qualities would surely have bumped him out of the legal profession before he was fairly into it. As it was, he hung on grimly until his thirty-sixth birthday, when he took the day off, and had time to reflect.
He reflected that the effort of spinning out for months matters which could have been settled in hours was already producing in him symptoms of acute nervous irritation, and might well end by giving him stomach ulcers; that he seemed constitutionally unable to experience that sharp thrill of horror which shook his colleagues when they encountered a departure from precedent; that a time might come when he would not even want to laugh at the multitudinous absurdities which surrounded him; and that his partner was a pompous ass upon whom some day, he would surely inflict actual bodily harm. He put all this to Sue, and it terrified her; so when he suggested that they try farming in the Antipodes, she immediately rushed out and bought their steamship tickets. Thus they arrived in the Lane where, as they agree, impecuniosity is chronic, and absurdity by no means unknownâbut pomposity is blessedly absent.
Ken Mulliner is not much over thirty, but he has been many thingsâ-soldier, carpenter, taxi-driver, bus-driver, garage mechanic; he met his wife when he was driving the bus, and she was its conductress. We know of her only from hearsay, however, for as soon as she saw the prospect of farming ahead, she found herself a tram-guard, and told Ken he could go and grow pineapples by himself. Ken does not appear to have been at all cast down at finding himself duly and legally released from the bonds of marriage; in fact his elder sister (who often brings her two boys to stay with him), has expressed the opinion that he was never so pleased about anything in his life. Certainlyâif one may judge by his cheerful, ugly face, his brightly roving eyes and his sardonic grinâthe unfortunate affair has caused no damage to his psyche.