This month, we showcase two very different pieces of short fiction, both published in Australian newspapers – the Adelaide-based Southern Cross and the Perth-based West Australian, for which Harkness wrote regularly and in which she held her own miscellaneous column, ‘The Passing Hour’ (in which ‘Two Christmases‘ appeared in 1903). The writing style of the two stories is widely different. The short sketch ‘Ideals’ is reminiscent of earlier work inspired by Olive Schreiner, but also clearly shows that she continued to produce experimental writing for years after her association with Schreiner had waned. ‘A Leap Year Story’, although published four years later, is much more traditional in style and content, illustrating the ways in which Harkness continued to adapt her writing to her readership – the references to Perth suggest an intention of bringing the story closer to her readers’ experience. Despite these significant differences, however, it is interesting to note that both stories address a similar topic in their engagement with traditions and conventions surrounding marriage and love.
Source: Southern Cross, 20 April 1900, p. 3. Available via Trove – National Library of Australia.
Ideals, by John Law.
“Your ideals will be your ruin,” he said.
They stood at the foot of an old-fashioned staircase.
He had offered her his title and fame.
Outside a carriage was waiting.
She smiled, and he went away.
“Her ideals have been my ruin,” she read.
She was standing beside an open grave.
It was her son’s message.
Source: The West Australian, 27 February 1904, p. 10. Available via Trove.
A LEAP YEAR STORY.
(By “John Law.”)
“When I was a little boy,” said an old resident, “I had an uncle who was fond of telling stories. But on a Sunday it was exceedingly difficult to coax a story out of him. We children made a deep hole in the garden, and buried his beautifully-bound and illustrated copy of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ Other so-called Sunday books disappeared from his library. At last, he fell into our trap, and on a Sunday, when we sat on the arms of his easy chair, one of us said a Bible lay on the table, or on the mantelpiece was a prayer-book. That was supposed to give a Sunday flavour to any tale he might be led into telling.” In somewhat the same way, it is necessary to begin a story in Perth; and I beg to assure the reader that, although it is Leap Year, and ladies have, consequently, peculiar privileges, and a white silk dress is said to be the consolation prize when any lady makes an offer to any gentleman and the banns are not published, the people in this tory have never been in Perth, bar one, and that one is of no consequence.
Imagine yourself, then, in a sunny hayfield, sitting under a shady tree, beside a girl whose mother will not believe you to be a full-grown man, and refuses to accept you as a prospective son-in-law. The girl is dressed in some light blue stuff, and on her lap is a hat, trimmed, I remember, with red poppies. She is pretending to make a wreath with little pink and white flowers, and I cannot see her face, only her dark curly hair, and small busy fingers. I am saying: “I hardly know how to tell you, Cicely; it seems scarcely fair to repeat it, but I am so upset. It is all your mother’s fault. When I tell her I want to marry you, she only laughs, and asks me to play with your small brothers, or pick strawberries to make jam, or do something else that she calls ‘sensible.’ Supposing Evangeline had known how it is between you and me, she would never have done it.”
“Done what?” asks Cicely.
“Well, I don’t know that I ought to tell you, but really I must tell someone.”
Then Cicely said, “Please go on.”
“Well, yesterday, at the picnic, Evangeline asked me to marry her—at any rate, to be engaged.”
“And what did you say?” demanded Cicely.
“I can’t remember. I was so upset. My, what’s the matter, Cicely? You are spoiling that wreath. Don’t go away. Stop! Cicely! Oh, I say!”
But she was gone. She ran fast, between the haycocks, until she reached her mother; and she sat, on a bundle of hay, beside an old lady until the sun went down. Her mother offered me bread and jam, and put so much sugar in my tea I could not drink it. And Cicely made another wreath—all poppies and wild mignonette this time, I remember—and she would not look at me. So I refused her mother’s invitation to dinner, and I went back to the man who was trying to teach me farming.
That evening a very small note was brought to the farmhouse, addressed to “H. Clive, Esq.” I was at the gate, and I took it from the gardener. I knew the handwriting, and I thought it was an invitation to dinner or something of that sort. Clive had been on the farm longer than any of us, and he received all the invitations. By “us” I mean the six men, of all ages, from 18 to 28, who were learning farming. I laid the note on Clive’s table, as he had gone to a neighbouring town, and I loafed about until bed seemed the only place for a man in my distressing predicament. But the night was hot, and the stars played little games in the sky, so I sat on my windowsill, smoking, until Clive came home. I heard him say that he meant to take out a particularly vicious young horse early next morning. Then he wished the farmer’s wife good-night, and went to his room. A few minutes afterwards my door flew open, and he walked in.
“I suppose I ought not to show you this,” he said, holding out the little note, “but, ’pon my word, I can’t help it. What am I to do?”
I took the note, and read:—“Dear Mr. Clive.—Will you marry me? I am so unhappy. Please let me know as soon as possible.—Yours sincerely, Cicely ——.”
“Is the child mad?” he asked.
“We are all mad,” I told him gloomily. “Cicely is in love with you, I am in love with Cicely and Evangeline is in love with me.”
“No, Evangeline is in love with me, you stupid,” he said, after I had told him everything. “We had a little tiff at the picnic; but she will be married to me before Christmas.”
Now, it takes but a short time to tell you all this, but hours passed while we talked about it. Clive was 23, I was 18, and the girls were much younger than either of us. We felt that their happiness lay in our hands—and yet we laughed.
“If we accept their offers, how will they support us?” we asked. At last we hit on a plan that would make matters all right again, in our opinion; and we wished one another a gay “good-morning.” But “man proposes, God disposes.” Clive went to the stable before the sun was up, and saddled the vicious young horse I have already told you about. Some of the men who worked on the farm found him, not long afterwards. I had to take the news to the vicarage; and the tolling bell than told the village people that Clive had gone where old and young become once more but little children.
Evangeline I never saw again. Cicely I met after my family decided to send me to Australia. I asked her to wait for me. My family had land in Australia, I said and then I could soon make a home for her. Many men went to Australia, and sent for the girls who had promised to be true to them. The last evening—the evening before I left the farm—Cicely and I met at a harvest home. The hay and the wheat were all stacked; a big red moon showed that autumn had taken the place of summer. We climbed to the top of the hayrick, and there we promised to be true to one another for ever and ever.
Here I would like to end this story, and in very truth it ended on the hayrick. But, remembering the belief of my good uncle, that a story is nothing without a moral, I must add that, when I had been in Australia a year and a few months, I received a newspaper in which was an account of Cicely’s marriage with the vicar of the village, in which stood the hayrick. He was a widower, and he had fat tithes (I speak without bitterness), also six grown-up children. Not long afterwards I married myself, and my wife, if she reads this story, will, I am sure, believe that Cicely was but a comet in my life, while she is the whole solar system. Yet, when I see a red poppy, the memory of that sunny hayfield comes back to me; and I think of Leap Year with just a little flicker of tenderness.