Harkness’s long-running regular column for the West Australian, ‘The Passing Hour’, was a repository for many different types and styles of writing. In this edition from 1903, the entire column is given up to a Christmas story very similar to those she was publishing in Britain around 1890, but with a distinct political element, and incorporating a experimental and enigmatic style more comparable to some of her early political fiction (such as ‘The Gospel of Getting On’), and regular snippets of fiction which appeared in ‘The Passing Hour’.
Source: The West Australian, 25 December 1903, p. 4. Accessible from the National Library of Australia via Trove
THE PASSING HOUR.
(By “John Law.”)
Through the thick vine leaves that curtained the little house came the hot sunlight, falling on a woman whose tired head was bent over weary fingers busy with needlework. All night she had worked, and now, at 8 o’clock on Christmas morning, her eyes ached, and her lips were like the parched earth in the garden hidden by the vine trellis. To her came a boy, rubbing the sleep away with his knuckles, a boy of ten or eleven, just a boy, and nothing more to look at. He kissed his mother, but did not wish her a merry Christmas, for they were not alone in the room: a man lying on a bed, in a heavy sleep, made them silent. The boy went away, ad presently came back, carrying a cup of tea. He whispered, “There’s nothing in the bread box.” “I know,” said his mother. “You must be quick and dress, and take this work home to your aunt, and get the money for it.” He left the cottage, carrying a parcel, while bells called people to church; but the milkman, driving past the gate, filled his heart with bitterness. Figs and mulberries, half buried in rich, green leaves; pink and white roselike oleanders on tall bushes; and a cloudless blue sky, contrasted sharply with his pain, and swelled his angry feelings, and when he reached his aunt’s house, and was told to go to the back entrance and wait, he pined for something to fight about.
“Come and see my rabbits,” called his cousin from the further end of the yard.
“I’ll have a lop-eared rabbit myself by next Christmas,” he said, looking into the rabbit-hutch.
“You!” sneered his cousin. “Who’s going to pay for it?”
A minute later the boys were rolling in the dust. They fought until a man pulled them apart, and told his nephew to go home and be ashamed of himself. “Here’s your money and go,” the man said, giving the boy a cuff. He went, but he did not go home. Close by was the cool, flowing river, and on its sandy bank he threw himself down, so soon as his uncle’s house was out of sight. He turned his face to the sky, and looked up till the light in his eyes became darkness. A military band was playing, and, suddenly, the music seemed to repeat to him some words from a Dickens’ Almanack he had received at school as a Christmas present. “Every man is sent into the world for something,” played the band. “Every man is sent into the world for something.” The soldiers were marching to a cathedral service. The Governor’s carriage followed, uniforms and feathered helmets, half hidden by a cloud of white dust, and he heard the drum, beating, it seemed to him, beating, “Every man is sent into the world for something.” He felt for the coins lying in his pocket, silver that had seemed to blister his fingers when he picked it up from the ground; then he jumped up, and ran towards home. But when he came to the tall poplars growing on flat, bare ground, half a mile from the cottage, he stopped, for some men were walking slowly towards the gate, carrying a shutter that had a black figure on it. He ran fast then, knowing his drunken father must have met with an accident. Faster and faster he ran, till he reached the cottage, where the men had laid the shutter on the bed. His mother did not cry, but when the men had gone away, she knelt down, and silence filled the place.
Twenty years later a great conference was held in Sydney, closing on the day before Christmas. Men of importance and standing from all parts of Australia were present; and one amongst them attracted peculiar attention and interest. In his own State he held already a position of importance in Parliament, and all over Australia his name had begun to be talked about by those who lead public opinion and make political forecasts, and as the outer man is soon marked by the inner person, this man’s appearance was taken as an indication of what he might one day become in politics. He had a silent face; eyes watching, ears listening, lips seldom speaking, except on the platform. “Let the other man do the talking,” he said. “The other man is sure to talk if you wait long enough.” Sandy hair, eyes of no particular colour, a powerful frame, lips that padlocked his brains—these things had grown up with him, and worked like parts of a well-oiled machine. Dress, manner, and other etceteras, had their places; but the man who used those things was all mind and purpose.
To him, in the hot, close, conference chamber, came on Christmas Eve a message; and he left the place, putting a letter in his pocket. He walked through the crowded streets, where people moved up and down, laughing, talking, and buying Christmas presents; children sold white flannel flowers and crimson Christmas bush; bands strove against peals of bells; and the Moreton Bay fig trees filled the air with a heavy languorous odour. Many-coloured lights were in Macquarie-street; but thick clouds hid the stars in heaven. At the hospital gate he asked for a patient, adding, “the man is my cousin,” and they took him to a long ward, filled with beds, where he found his cousin playing chess. “You are better,” he said. They did not talk much. “And you are a great man now,” said his cousin, with a laugh, for he was jealous. “I have to thank you, to some extent,” was the reply; “you taught me, one Christmas morning—many years ago—a lesson.” “And what was that?” “Every man is sent into the world for something.” He took out of his pocket a five-pound note, laid it on the bed, and rose to go away. But the doorway of the ward was then filled with nurses. They came in, singing a Christmas carol—singing softly, for in the accident ward some of the men were very ill. “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men,” sang the nurses, as they passed the two men.
“Sir,” said a breathless porter, “the Premier is downstairs. He wants you to go home with him to dinner.”
“I will come,” he said; but he added, shaking his cousin’s hand, “To-morrow, I will look you up again, Jack.”