by Margaret Ann McCarter (1861-1913)
A short story with a conservative moral sense, “Overstepping” gives a picture of late nineteenth-century rural Victorian life and values.
“Well, Clara dear, we have had a hard battle, but at last we have won, and the dear old farm is now our own.”
A happy, bright light beams in the honest, manly eyes of the young farmer, George Maybanks, as he addresses his wife. His heart is full of joy, and fondly patting her rosy cheeks, he continues, “to your aid, little woman, much of our success is due; for, had you not been satisfied with the poor home I gave you when you came to me a bride, I would not have had the heart to struggle on.”
Clara smiles contentedly. Her dark head is nestling restfully on the hopeful breast of her husband; his rough, toil-stained hand is gently smoothing the wavy tresses which crown her shapely head.
George Maybanks dearly loves his young wife. They have been married about four years, but the short honey-moon tour did not end those many loving attentions, which, in the days of courtship and sometimes in the early days of married life, men are wont to bestow on the woman of their choice. The pity of it. that meg should so often forget those little kindnesses which are so necessary to cement the love bonds throughout life’s way.
“George, dear,” says Clara, sweetly, and her voice sounds very soothing to the tired man after his long day’s toil on the farm, “I am so happy to know that this season’s crops are free, and that the monthly cheques from the creamery will now be our own. Just picture how nice it will be, and, George,” and the soft brown eyes look up lovingly into the admiring face of her husband, “I suppose you will I now start to build our new house?”
A frown of pain passes over the farmer’s features, and his caressing fingers twitch a little as he says somewhat hesitatingly, “Clara, love, we had better wait for a little while — patience, dear, patience, and then we shall have the new house. Let us not again involve the dear old place. It is poor, but it is our own, and no one can take it. from us. Yes, love, let us wait a little.”
A look of disappointment darkens the brown eyes of the young wife, and her voice sounds somewhat reproachfully as she says: ”George, I am surprised! You promised; you said that when—”
“Yes, yes, love,” interrupts George, I know I promised, but would it not be better to save the money first, and then we can buy the timber and all we need for the new building so much cheaper for the ready cash! It only means a couple of years waiting, and this freedom from the grasp of the mortgagee is glorious. Let us wait, little woman.”
Clara does not answer; she is not only disappointed; she is vexed, and, for the first time George Maybanks can see that his wife has a temper, and a will of her own.”
“I think you are mean,” she says half angrily. “I did not mean living in this” — and she points disdainfully at the whitewashed walls of the humble, though comfortable dwelling, from the low ceiling of which hang many hams and flitches of bacon. “I could put up with this when you could not do better,” and, pouting irritably, she disengages herself from her husband’s fond embrace. “I am perfectly ashamed,” she continues, “of this poor looking house,” and, as she looks around she does not now admire the fine new dresser, so thoughtfully contrived for her by her loving husband; she is not now proud of the basket of newly laid eggs just gathered, and which stands prominently on the dresser; nor of the many rows of neatly arranged bright china, which adorn its shelves. The smoking loaves of homemade bread, which she has just baked, and set to cool on the clean white table, do not now gladden her heart as usual, while the week’s supply of rich, golden butter, which that morning George brought home from the creamery, is pushed aside with an impatient air, and taking up her knitting she works on sulkily.
In the trustful eyes of George there is the shadow of tears, and the kindly heart is much hurt at the unkind remark of his wife. He did not like to bear her speak so disparagingly of the old home. Clara, can see that her words were cruel, and, though she may be thoughtless in some things, still she is a kind, affectionate wife, and now regretting her hasty speech, she, woman-like, atones.
“Forgive me, George,” she cries impulsively. “I am sorry I spoke so unfeelingly,” and again “the dark head is Pillowed on her husband’s breast, while gentle voice whispers coaxingly, not be cross, George. Tell me you will forgive what I have said.” It is wonderful how a pair of lovely eyes, a winsome face, and a soft cooing voice can win a man.
Yet there are some who prate of “women’s rights,” and crave more, power for the gentler sex. What greater “rights” can woman hare than the power to rule the brainy sons of Adam with that never failing, omnipotent influence Poets call love?
A cloud of sadness troubles the brave heart of George Maybanks, but he feels no anger, and, fondly kissing his wife, he changes the subject by casually remarking, “I think I will put the calves into the shed; the night promises to be stormy.”
Clara can understand by her husband’s kiss as he hastens away, that all is over. She thinks he has forgotten her outburst of passion, and, with a relieved mind, she proceeds to prepare the table for tea.
But George does not forget, and the next morning a close observer might easily discern a determined light lurking in his truthful eyes, and after taking tie milk to the creamery, and attending to several urgent duties on the farm he hastens away to the neighbouring township of Cinderdene. The name Cinderdene does not appear on the Victorian map, but it is here called Cinderdene because its streets are paved with the ashes of a sleeping volcanoe, which have been belched forth centuries long gone bye. The township is a thriving one, nestling cosily amid its rich, evergreen surrounding landscape, with its many lakes dotting hero and there its extensive pastoral lands, and looking in the distance like so many jewels in a setting of emerald.
A few days later the neighbouring farmers are straining their necks endeavouring to see where the waggon loads of timber, passing along the road, are going. The surprise is great, and many are the comments passed as the teams turn in at the slip-panel, and unload near the house of George Maybanks.
“Shure, then, but Maybanks is going to put up a new house; how grand he’ll be, entirely, with his fine dashing wife; faix, they won’t be lookin’ at us at all, at all, then,” says Mrs. Casey, wife of the adjoining farmer, as an envious light flits for a moment over her ruddy face.
“Ugh!” ejaculates Mike, her husband, “I don’t like to see thim flash buildings going up so soon; shure, they were well enough without it,” and Mike knocks the ashes out of his old, clay pipe, as he dismisses the subject.
Soon the carpenters are at work, and in a couple of months the Maybanks’ new home is erected. Clara is very proud and happy, even George, now wonders why he should have hesitated about building.
“George, the furniture of the old house will newer do for this home,” says Clara, sweetly, one day, as they are looking through the new residence.
“I suppose not,” says George, and with the air of a man who is pleased to transfer the responsibility of the task, he adds, “You had better look after those things yourself, and get what you think best, dear.”
Clara loses no time in furnishing to her heart’s satisfaction, and, with a glad smile, she goes about her household duties. Everything about the place speaks of having been looked after with a thoroughness and care not often found in the homes of young wives.
On Sunday, as they drive to church in the new buggy, Clara feels that she is the envied of all her neighbours, and the surrounding farmers now begin to look up to George as a man of importance. The conclusion arrived at by many is that George Maybanks has inherited money from some one, and, of course, they accordingly treat him with that respect, which the world always considers due to men of property.
“The Maybanks have grown very grand entirely, since they put up their new house,” observes Mrs. Casey to her neighbour, Mrs. Collins. “Have you seen the fine buggies that call there lately? All the great people of the district are visiting them now.”
“Indeed, yes; I have noticed that myself, and it’s a lot of money they must have,” and there is an envious tone in Mrs. Collins’s voice as she continues— “If all I hear be true, Maybanks wants a lot of money to afford to have the fine company, and Betsy Carey, their servant, told our Katey that Mrs. Maybanks does be dressed up like a real lady when the visitors go there.”
For a moment a surprised look broadens on the face of Mrs. Casey. “Indeed, and they don’t do all that grandeur on the profits they get from the farm,” she remarks, in the tone of one capable of adjusting even the muddled finances of a State Treasury; “for Mike told me only the other day—now this is betwixt ourselves” — find Mrs. Casey lowers her voice—”that the Maybanks’ cheque from the creamery is not half what it used to be.”
With a knowing nod of her head, Mrs. Collins says, in a portentous tone. “Indeed, it’s my belief that the Maybanks have borrowed the money to build the new house. Can’t you see the worried looks that’s on Maybanks’ face, and Betsy Carey told our Katey that, she often hears them talking about interest, but, of course,” adds Mrs. Collins, “it is none of our business.”
George Maybanks has indeed altered much. Great wrinkles, the reliable tell-tales of time and mental worry, are now to be seen on George’s honest face, and tiny patches of grey have, too soon, appeared amongst his thick, dark hair.
He does not look like a man elated with his altered position; he rather seems to be weighted down with some heavy sorrow. Social triumphs are evidently not to him what, they are to his
Clara, on the other hand, seems to live in enjoyment of the present. She seems a very butterfly of lightness, and only now and then a keen watcher might observe a slight shadow of care flitting across her comely features. There are no wrinkles in her face, and no patches of grey mar the beauty of her wavy tresses.
One day, as George and his wife are driving home from the township, Clara notices that George is more dejected than usual, and with wifely concern, she asks, “Is there anything new amiss, George? You do not seem yourself at all; you look very worried today.”
George sighs, as he gazes into the sweet, fair face of the woman he loves, “Dear wife,” he says, “it is for your sake and for the sake of our little ones that I am worried; but, bah! it is all my fault. I should have had nothing to do-with that human shark — that licensed thief—curse him I The common burglar takes, it may be, a paltry piece of plate, and the law punishes him; the world shuns him; and honoured churchmen turn from him with scorn. That accommodating, but rapacious, thief, he can rob us of everything—aye, even our life’s blood, and the law protects him, while the world smiles upon him, and calls him an honest man. Curse him! again I say!”
“Oh, George, do not take our position so much to heart,” says Clara, and then she adds, encouragingly “Why will you men always look of everything? Why look so downcast? We have the property, a beautiful home, splendidly furnished, and the best horses and buggy in the district. What matters it if we are a little pinched just now? Soon we will e free!” and then, as if to brighten his hopes, she adds triumphantly, “Why, George, all the neighbours envy us!”
“Envy me!” he repeats; “they need not envy me the finely-furnished home. The very look of everything in it tortures me. I would gladly exchange it for the dear old weather-board cottage, for in it I had peace, and could always rest contentedly after a hard day’s work. That, avaricious leech did not then worry, did not gnaw and sap the very substance of our existence. I could then meet all my obligations, and proudly hold up my head amongst men; as for this fine buggy, I would willingly have the old spring-cart, which I could call my own. Ah, I say, do not mention the new house. Everything about it. seems to cry bailiff, and every roll of the buggy wheels brings agony to my soul.”
For a moment Clara does not speak. The look on George’s face frightens her. She has never heard him speak like this before. Then gently and sympathetically, she says, “George, dear, do not take such a dark view of things; we will soon overcome all these difficulties, and then all will be well again.”
George does not reply, but a hopeless look blanches his face, as he drives up to the house, and a little while later, as lie is turning the horses into the paddock, he murmurs to himself. “Ah, would to heaven that all would come right again!”
Day after day, week after week, the patches of grey amongst the black locks become more conspicuous, and the wrinkles deepen on the farmer’s face, now growing haggard with care. At length, one day, when driving home, “Look, George, look!” exclaims Clara; “see, there are some strange men up at the house! I wonder who they are!”
George’s heart almost ceases to boat as he looks in the direction indicated, for he recognises one of the men. A killing pain of despair creeps over his soul as he assists his wife and little ones to alight from the buggy. Sighing heavily, he slowly enters the house. As he does so, he knows that he is not now master there, for the bailiffs have taken possession.
The dreaded blow has at last fallen. Very soon, George Maybanks, accompanied by his wife and two helpless little children, go forth homeless. They pass out into an unsympathetic world, whilst in their ears is ringing, and in their hearts is echoing, one awful word, a crushing, cruel word—Mortgagee!
Mrs McCarter, “Overstepping“, Advocate (Melbourne, Vic), 27 Sep 1902: 5