Mr. Tunks, that is to say, "Councillor Tunks, J.P., our well-known and highly-respected Shire president," as the local "educator" has it, was showing Miss Palmer, the new school-teacher, over his cowyard - that is to say, over his estate. As became a Shire president - thrice elected - Chairman of the School Board and Library Committee, Life Governor of the local hospital, and leader of the Progress League, Councillor Tunks wore an air of chesty importance. The fact that Councillor Tunks's chest, overburdened with the weight of so much importance, had slipped down a little, is a matter for comment only amongst the flippant and uncultured. We shall ignore it here.
"This," said Mr. Tunks, in a tone of mingled pride and patronage. "This is wot I calls me nursery, Miss Palmer, an' them's the hinfants. Fourteen poddies we got at present, an' would a' 'ad two more, but for that young scoundril Frank went to bed one night an' fergot to feed 'em."
"What perfect dears!" said Miss Palmer, stroking the nose of one of the calves. "I think calves are such attractive creatures, Mr. Tunks."
"Your sentiments does oyu credit, Miss Palmer," said Councillor Tunks, with condescencion. "Interlechal people, like ourselves, understands that carves is carves. Carves grows into cows, Miss Palmer; an' cows is the mainstay of the country....Bill!" he broke off, addressing a small, scared-looking urchin who was laboring across the yard with two heavy buckets. "Ain't yer cleaned that sepyrater yet, you young scoundrel? By Gum, if I get to you, me lad, I'll warm yer jacket. An' tell Frank to 'urry with them cows. It's time 'e set 'is traps long ago. Remember, you get no tea till yer finished, the pair o' you!....Yes, Miss Palmer," he continued, returning to the councillor's manner. "Cows is the mainstay of the country, an' the man who is successful in cows is successful in life. As you say, carves is interestin' creachers."
"But I was not altogether referring to their utility, Mr. Tunks," ventured the teacher. "I think that all young things are delightful - calves and lambs and kittens; they are so gentle and innocent and playful" -
"'Ere, 'ere, Miss Palmer. Agen I say yer sentiments does you credit."
"You are a lover of nature, Mr. Tunks?" inquired the teacher.
"I ham," answered Mr. Tunks, who habitually employed the aspirate for emphasis. "I ham, Miss Palmer. That is to say, Hi am. All young things appeals to me, Miss Palmer - the young carves, that seems to trust yer as though they knowed you wouldn't 'arm 'em; the young, innercent lambs, buckin' about in the paddicks; an' the chickens, an' the little ducks, an' all the rest of 'em. See that little foal there, Miss Palmer. There's a picter for yer! All innercence an' trustfulness an' beauty. some day 'e'll grow up an' be an 'orse, an' 'ave to work; but now's 'is time fer play. Give 'em their fling while they're young, that's my motter....Ullo! Wot's up now?" he asked, as his wife appeared beckoning in the doorway.
Mrs. Tunks wore none of the importance of her lord. Indeed, the worthy councillor appeared to have mopped up the whole family supply of that commodity. She was a meek, faded woman, flat-breasted and scraggy-necked, worn with heavy toil and much child-bearing; and her patient eyes wore the dull, half-scared look which was emphasised in the eyes of the children.
"It's Sarah," said Mrs. Tunks in a weary monotone. "She's got the toothache - bad. Someone else'll have to do the" -
"Wot!" thundered the cow-master with sudden fury. "I'll toothache 'er! The lazy, good-fer-nothin' himidge! Excuse me, Miss Palmer," he said striding towards the house. "Hi must 'ave discerpline."
As his loud voice came from within, punctuated by meek protests, the waiting teacher recalled the picture of Sarah as she had known her during the first day in school - a mere infant of not more than eight or nine years, smileless and ever weary. She had the same dull, heavy look as her brothers and sisters: like theirs, her brain seemed to be numb; like theirs, her tiny childish hands were already roughened by toil; and she shared, to a great degree, the family tendency to fall asleep in school.
For five minutes, Mr. Tunks continued to thunder in his castle.
"not in my 'ouse! Not in my 'ouse, you good-fer-nothin' baggage! None of yer loafin' an' lollin' about 'ere. If you did yer work an' kept yerself warm, you'd 'ave no toothache. Hout you get, me lady....Where's Ellen? Ellen, wotcher mean by leavin' these dishes about 'ere? Get a move on, now, the lot o' yer, or I'll make it warm fer you.....Where's Frank? Ain't you gone out with them traps yet, you young imp? Wot!! Don't you answer me like that....There, take that to go on with; and get a move on, the lot o' yer. I won't 'ave no loafin' in my 'house. I won't 'ave it."
Preceded by a youngster, who carried a score of rabbit traps slung across his shoulder, the lord of the cowyard came out of the house and rejoined the teacher.
"Discerpline, Miss Palmer, discerpline in school or at 'ome is allus necessary. Wot was we talkin' about? Ha, yes; young carves an' foals an' all them innercent little things. I appreciates yer sentiments, Miss Palmer; I appreciates yer sentiments."
Miss Palmer said nothing. Had the good councillor been an observant man he might have noticed a suspicious tightness about the little teacher's lips, a moistness in her eyes as she gazed after the small lad limping away across the paddocks. She coughed to hide her annoyance.
"Hi beg yer pardon?" said Mr. Tunks politely.
"I didn't speak," said the teacher, somewhat icily. "I was merely thinking, Mr. Tunks," she continued with sudden temerity, "of some verse that your talk suggested."
"Ha! po'try!" exclaimed Mr. Tunks. "Hall lovers of nater is lovers of po'try, Miss Palmer."
"You are a lover of poetry, Mr. Tunks?"
"Hi am. Hi ham, indeed. In me young days, Miss Palmer, I useter ricite "The Hold Bark 'Ut" from end to hend without a fault. Would you mind lettin' me 'ear the bit you spoke abut?"
"Perhaps" began the teacher, losing courage.
"Never mind 'ow high flown it is, I'll appreciate it, Miss Palmer. It's me dooty to appreciate it as Chairman of the School Board. Fire away, Miss, don't you be bashful."
Forsaking discretion, the little teacher quoted softly:-
Do you hear the children weeping, O my brothers, Ere the sorrow comes with years? They are leaning their young heads against their mothers - And that cannot stop their tears. The young lambs are bleating in the meadows; The young birds are chirping in the nest; The young fawns are playing with the shadows; The young flowers are blowing towards the West - But the young, young children, O my brothers, They are weeping bitterly! They are weeping in the playtime of the others, In the country of the free.
"Good! Hexcellent! That's wot I call po'try!" exclaimed Mr. Tunks with surprising enthusiasm. "Oo wrote that, may I arst?"
"It was a woman writer," replied Miss Palmer, rather taken aback, "named Elizabeth Barrett Browning. You like it?"
"Hi do. Hindeed Hi do. That bit about the young lambs bleatin' in the meaders is tiptop. She mighter put in somethin' about carves though. 'The young carves is nosin' at the bucket,' or somethin' like that. Would you mind sayin' it again, Miss Palmer? Jest that bit beginnin' with the lambs."
With increased confidence, Miss Palmer quoted again:-
The young lambs are bleating in the meadows; The young birds are chirping in the nest; The young fawns are playing with the shadows;
"That orter be carves," interpolated Mr. Tunks.)
The young flowers are blowing towards the West - But the young, young children,
"Very good, hindeed! Hexcellent!" said Mr. Tunks.
"But I haven't finished," said the teacher.
The councillor waved his hand airly.
"Oh, that bit about the kids howlin'," he said. "That ain't nothin'. They're allus howlin'; but it ain't worth writing po'try about. P'rhaps she was like my missus, allus wantin' to coddle 'em. Women's like that, but I don't 'old with it. Or p'rhaps she meant it fer 'umor; but I reckon 'umor's outer place with that bit about the lambs. That's the bit that 'its me."
The councillor's hide was plainly impervious to the keenest of rapiers, and with fine courage the little teacher decided to try a club.
"Mr. Tunks," she said with suspicious evenness, "don't you think that young children deserve as much consideration as young animals - as 'carves'? Do you think the playtime of their lives should be spoiled with work and worry and tears? Haven't they as much right to enjoy their youth as your foal?"
Mr. Tunks stepped back and surveyed the little teacher from head to toe, his eyes bulging with astonishment.
"Miss Palmer," he exclaimed, "you su'prise me! An' a young woman of your perfeshin, too! You - you hastonish me! Where's our civilisation, I arst yer? Where's our hedication? Children ain't carves or foals; they're 'uman bein's! I've 'eard this sort o' tork before, an' I jest put it down to hignerance. But a young woman of your standin' who's supposed to be hedicated! You su'prise me! W'y, they might as well be blackfeller's children instead of civilised 'uman bein's. Blackfeller's children don't do no work; an' when they grow up, wot are they? Blackfellers, of course! No, Miss Palmer, we musn't ferget that our children is civilised, an' treat 'em as civilised bein's, wot's meant to work. Look at me, I never 'ad no schoolin', though you mightn't believe me. Workin' when I was eight year old, an' wot am I now? President o' this Shire, three times; Chairman o' the School Board an' the Progress Committee; one o' the leadin' men o' the district, and a J.P., Miss Palmer - a J.P. You take the hadvice of a hixperienced man, an' drop them notions about coddlin' kids. They may be all right in towns where there's money an' cranks in plenty; but out 'ere we're civilised, Miss Palmer, an' we treats our children civilised. Wot? You must be goin'? Well, I'll see you as far as the sliprails. I'm glad you seen the carves; an' I'm glad I've 'ad this little tork with you. You'll 'ave to drop them old-fashioned notions out 'ere; drop 'em like a 'ot brick, as the sayin' is. I don't 'old with 'em, an' none o' the School Board 'olds with 'em. You'll find us all sensible, plain-spoken men."
The little teacher walked along in silence, not knowing whether to cry or laugh, and at the sliprails Councillor Tunks was once more all easy affability.
"Wot you wanter do," he advised, "is to read more o' that 'Lizabeth Browner's po'try about the lambs an' carves. She don't 'old with children playin' with the shadders or chirpin' in the nest. Don't she say so? 'They're weepin',' she ses. I dare say she was a sensible, civilised woman. Good-bye, Miss Palmer, an' you mustn't mind if the children is a bit late for school in the mornin's now and then. Young Frank an' Bill they has their rabbit traps to go round; an' that Sarah, she lies in bed till all hours. After four o'clock it was this mornin' before she was out. An' wallop 'em plenty, Miss Palmer, wallop 'em plenty. That's wot they're sent to school for."
"Are you sure," asked Miss Palmer, very sweetly, pretending not to see the hand held out condescendingly. "Are you sure Mr. Tunks, that you would not rather send your carves?" And before the excellent councillor could reply, she had turned and gone.
For some minutes Mr. Tunks remained leaning on the rails, gazing at the retreating figure.
"If I was sure," at last mused the Chairman of the School Board. "If I was sure that that young woman meant to be himpident, I'd report 'er to the Department." And for another space, he still gazed at the trim figure stepping across the paddock. "Dashed if I know," he muttered again. "S'pose she meant if fer a joke....'Rather send yer carves'....Seems to me she's a bit hignerant fer a teacher." Still, for another minute, Councillor Tunks stared with puzzled expression after the vanishing figure. Then his brow cleared, and he removed his gaze.
"Yes, that's all it is," said the lover of nature, turning toward the house. "Just hignerance."
"C. J. Dennis"
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002-03|