by Jessie Urquhart (1890-1948)
A rural short story from 1930.
It was hot work hilling potatoes. Raking the dry clods of earth about the milky stalks, with the sun pressing closer and closer, like the lid of an iron box, on the top of one’s head, and the consciousness that no matter how hard one worked the end of the row got no nearer.
A runnel of sweat coursed down the woman’s face, and she wiped it away with a grimy hand and went on with her task, muttering an inarticulate word as she did so. Hilling, hoeing, sweating…
Of what use resenting the laziness of the man on the verandah? Asenath Hart had long since ceased to kick against the pricks, and she knew that if she did not plough and dig, cart vegetables and eggs to town, she and her husband would starve. Not that life was so desirable that either should seek to prolong it. Still, there you were!
The end of the row at last! She straightened her back and pushed her broken hat further off her head, casting about in her mind as to whether she would go on with her work or have dinner. She decided in favour of work, knowing that the longer she was out there in the paddock the less time she need spend in the man’s company. A flicker of hate gleamed for a moment in her eyes.
A man riding along the road reined in his horse as he came near her.
‘G’day, Mrs. Hart,’ he said.
‘G’day,’ she answered.
‘Pretty hot working there.’
He glanced up at the house. ‘Don’t seem right,’ he said, ‘for you to be out here in the paddock and him there on the v’randah.’
She broke a dry clod so viciously that a cloud of earth powdered up into her face.
‘Nothin’s right for folks like me,’ she answered.
He lit his pipe and gathered up the reins. ‘Never hear nothin’ of Pete, I s’pose?’ he ventured.
‘Never,’ she replied, and went on hoeing.
Pete! Why had the fool mentioned the boy’s name to-day, when heat and work had already tried her to breaking point? Suddenly the rows of dark plants, the fence, the house danced crazily together, and she knew that if she looked at the man sitting there she would strike him with her hoe. But for him Pete would be whistling and clattering about the farm now, filling the empty days with the brightness of his own youth. This was his home, where he belonged.
She called to mind, as she had done so often, the jibes he had met with silence for her sake, the sarcasm he had endured with indifference, when all the time the hot young blood had surged in his veins with hate. And at last even love for his mother could not hold him in check, and there had followed hot words, revilings, blows. She shuddered as she remembered them. And later he had gone. Five years ago now and never a word, a line.
The end of the row. She threw down her hoe and walked to the house.
‘Kettle boilin’?’ she asked, kicking the loose earth from her boots.
‘Oh, I forgot.’ The man detached himself lazily from his chair. ‘But sit down, Asenath; I’ll do it.’
‘If I can hill up half an acre of potatoes,’ she told him savagely, ‘I don’t s’pose boilin’ a kettle’ll kill me.’
They ate their corned beef and bread in the kitchen silently, the woman’s hands ingrained with dirt, the nails broken; the man, tall, lean, handsome except for his disfiguring eye-cap, opposite her. Once Asenath glanced at him, and her heart contracted to see how like he was to Pete; then she called to mind the day John had met with that accident, and found herself wishing the gun explosion had finished its work in stead of merely disfiguring him. It had given him the excuse of seeing her toiling on the farm, labouring like a man to keep the place going.
At first he had spent his time at the nearest bush hotel, but lately he had been content to sit about the verandah pulling at his short black pipe. . .
All afternoon she worked in the paddock, planting out young tomatoes, putting up a canvas shelter for them, weeding the bed of lettuce, and all the time the thought of Pete crowded everything else from her mind. Later on the man bestirred himself to milk the cow and feed the fowls, while she carried buckets of water from the well at the back door to the young vegetables.
When the soft, pulseless dusk fell on farm and bush the woman walked to the gate and looked down the long white road. She was not conscious of any particular thought, only dimly at the back of her mind was the knowledge that one day Pete would come down that way with his long loping stride. It was nearly dark when she saw a man’s figure emerge from the shadowed road and come toward her, and as he drew nearer a sudden fear filled her heart. How would they meet, she wondered, father and son.
He was at the gate now.
‘Pete,’ she said, opening it for him. ‘You’ve come back, my son.’
‘Yes,’ he answered, and kissed her.
Silently they walked towards the house, in darkness now save for a gleam of light shining through the hall from the kitchen. John Hart sat in there reading by an oil lamp, and hearing two people coming along the hall he glanced up expectantly. No one ever came to the farm.
‘John,’ his wife said, ‘here’s Peter.’
As she spoke the woman looked furtively from father to son, and thought again how alike they were. Both tall, lean, supple, the boy’s hard life giving his face a premature maturity, the man’s easy one preserving his youth.
‘The prodigal’s return,’ the father said suavely; ‘but if you expect to exchange husks for fatted calves, my lad, you’re makin’ a big mistake.’
‘I don’t,’ the boy answered quickly. ‘I only came back to see Mum.’
‘An’ what do you think of her?’
Pete swallowed hard, and did not even look at the shrivelled little woman standing near him; instead he took a step toward his father.
‘I came for somethin’ else besides,’ he added. ‘To square up with you for how you’ve treated us both. I don’t care about meself, but people’ve told me how you loaf about on the verandah while she works on the farm like a man.’
‘Well, havin’ seen your mother and told your father what you think of him you can git back where you came from. At once — now.’
‘No,’ Asenath cried sharply, ‘he shan’t! This is his home — he’s our son.’
‘You fool,’ the man turned on her, ‘to believe his mealy-mouth talk of coming to see you! He only came back, like a whipped pup comes home, because he’s made every other place too hot to hold him. Git out, I say!’
He took a menacing step nearer the boy.
‘This house b’longs to me, an’ so does your mother. I’ll do as I like with both,’ he said.
In a frenzy of rage he caught up the poker hanging beside the stove, and Asenath, motionless as a stone woman, saw his advance on the boy, saw Pete leap at his father. There was a moment’s struggle, and then the lamp was knocked off the table and the room plunged into darkness.
Fumbling across the room to the mantelpiece, the woman’s foot hit a soft, inert body, and in the flickering light of the match she struck she looked into the face of the living man.
‘Dead?’ she whispered thickly.
For an instant there was silence while Asenath’s brain worked frantically; then with cold hands she lit a candle and walked, like an old woman, to the window. It was a clear moonlight night, and the dark leaves of the potato patch were level as a carpet; clear, too, was the outline of the fowlhouse and the barn, while further back the black phalanx of gum-trees stopped abruptly at the fence. She turned.
‘Come,’ she said. ‘We must bury him.’
But the man, tall and lean as a ghoul in the dim light, made no movement, and taking his arm she shook him roughly.
‘You fool!’ she said. ‘We must bury him now — at once.’ But as he bent over the dead man she pushed him aside and passed her hand quickly across the quiet face; then together they carried him out.
Through the littered farmyard, past the ramshackle barn, and out of the gate they went, staggering a little with their heavy burden, and when they came to a place where the bush was thickest they paused.
‘Go back,’ she said, ‘to the barn and bring a spade and a long-handled shovel.’
While he was gone she stood alone among the moonlit trees with the dead man.
The next day she finished hilling the potatoes, and began to dig a patch for the cabbages propagating a box by the back door. It was hard work, for the ground was dry and lumpy; but she dug and carted manure from the stable and water from the well, with now and then a dull glance at the house, where the man still sat pulling at his short black pipe. How terrible now was the tie that bound her to him.
A neighbour riding by pulled in his horse.
‘Hot work diggin’ to-day, Mrs. Hart,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she answered, brushing aside a strand of hair.
‘Why don’t you get your old man to do it?’
Asenath followed his glance to the verandah.
‘Oh, him!’ she muttered, and went on with her work.
Summer waxed and waned; the potatoes were dug and carted into the township. People who saw the woman toiling there in the burning noon made occasional offers of assistance, which were ungraciously refused. Why should other men work to keep her man in idleness, their wives said. . . No visitors ever went near the lonely farm, and when Asenath took her produce into the town she met any friendly advances with a stony discouragement. Sometimes the man drove her in that old-fashioned sulky, with the marketing piled up on the tray at the back; more often the woman went alone.
So a year passed as the five previous ones, monotonously, laboriously, heavily. Potatoes were planted, hilled, tended. Carrots and turnips grew in serried rows; tomatoes spread in thick, leafy profusion against the fowlyard fence. Everything on the farm showed signs of the woman’s unfailing care.
Then one morning when she was planting seedlings a car drew up alongside where she worked. There were two men in it, strangers, and one got out.
‘Know anyone of the name of Hart about here?’ he asked.
She straightened herself and swept a swift, keen eye over him.
‘Don’t know anyone about here at all,’ she answered.
‘Sure?’ he said.
A quiver of anger passed over her face, and the man felt a sudden pity for her standing there with the warm muddy soil oozing from her heavy, broken boots. A wisp of grizzled hair fell over her face, and her eyes held the mute suffering of an animal with its back to the wall.
‘What’d make me say I didn’t if I did?’ she countered, her mind working like a trapped mouse. ‘Anyway,’ she added, ‘wait here a minit an’ I’ll go an’ ask me old man. He’s got more time for gossiping ‘n me.’
The man followed her outside the fence, and saw her walk in a leisurely way to the man smoking on the verandah, saw her pause and speak to him; and then as she came down the garden path he lounged inside.
‘He says,’ she told him, meeting him at the gate, ‘that he thinks they’re the new folks at the cross-roads; but you’d better ask at the store.’
Instead, however, the stranger opened the gate and came in, while the man in the car drove slowly alevel with them.
‘I don’t think I’ll bother asking anywhere else, Mrs. Hart,’ he remarked. ‘It’s your husband I want to see — John Hart.’
She blocked his way and faced him unflinchingly.
‘Then you can’t,’ she told him. ‘He ain’t here.’
‘Then your son will do in that case — Peter Hart.’
Gently he pushed her aside, but she gazed sullenly at him.
‘He ain’t here, neither,’ she said in a dull voice.
Instead of answering he merely thrust her away and walked into the house. For a moment she made no effort to follow him, only stood there among the flowerbeds with a faint, elusive smile on her face. Then she, too, went into the house.
The stranger was in the kitchen when she came in, bending over something lying on the floor. When she paused beside him he stood up, holding a black eye-cap in his hand. He did not speak, and the woman knelt down by the dead man, gazing intently at the ruined face, into the clear young eyes. Then gently she closed them.
‘My son,’ she said softly.