Loving Daughters takes place in a small village in New South Wales and is a brilliant, unsentimental portrait of two sisters: one artistic and restless, the other houseproud and her father’s favorite. The entry of an eligible young man into their lives creates a disturbing triangle of desire and rivalry.
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By Olga Masters
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 1993 The Estate of Olga Masters
All rights reserved.
Evelyn, the mother of Small Henry, succumbed to a kidney disease and died hours after he was born.
The doctor from Pambula was there, and the Reverend Colin Edwards was sent for when death was imminent.
George Herbert, an uncle of the newborn, rode to St Jude's rectory in Wyndham to rouse Edwards from sleep. He helped harness Edwards's surprised and shivering horse to his sulky, then cantered off, the ring of hoofs on the dustless, winter road emphasizing the quiet, rather than disturbing it.
Edwards followed at a slower pace. He tried to utilize the time composing a suitable prayer, but barely got his brain working when Honeysuckle came in sight.
The doctor's car moved off before Edwards pulled the sulky up, which suited both drivers, the doctor feeling responsibility for the death, the minister social inferiority for not owning a car. They were happier avoiding an encounter.
Inside the house there was little activity, except for the Herbert girls, Enid and Una, in the clothes they wore to evensong eight hours earlier, moving lamps and bringing in tea. Their bodies apologized when they lapsed into normal, brisk movement. The lamp wicks were lowered, dimming the room, so that only white clothes stood out.
The newly widowed Henry, the child's father, stood drooping at the window near the fireplace.
His father, Jack, was in a straight-backed chair, his easy one empty, a token of mourning.
Henry's older brothers, Alex and George, were on the couch sharing a private shame that their main regret was the approach of daybreak and no sleep possible before framework began.
Violet, their aunt, the wife of Jack's brother Edgar, having brought the child into the world, was still on watch by his basket. He was still now and sleeping, having shown then he was alive by swimming motions with his arms and legs, as if he did not believe himself yet free of the waters of his mother's womb, and unlike her he had no intention of drowning.
As soon as he decently could Edwards left, pacing his horse quite swiftly for him, feeling the room clinging to his back.
He felt free of it only when he unharnessed the horse under the big gum, both of them dimly shaped in the reluctant dawn. He slapped the horse's rump to acknowledge the errand done. The horse took two or three steps as its acknowledgment.
The scene at Honeysuckle returned to him when he was between his hairy blankets, the sheets pushed to the foot of the bed by his agitated feet.
The funeral! His first! He had seen little of the girl, turning on those rare occasions in embarrassment from the great egg shape that made a shelf for her hands. Gods, you have designed things in the strangest way. Our Father which art in heaven, he prayed in hasty repentance.
He punched a hollow in his pillow for his head and turned over, away from a corner of the room where a girl's slim shape had cut itself into the shadows.
He shut his eyes, but it returned. The blouse it wore had dark spots on white. Or was it all white with fine pleats gently stretched where the buttons ran from neck to waist?
Miss Enid was in the spots, I think, he said to himself, giving the pillow another punch. He remembered one of them in the kitchen, tumbling loaves of bread from tins onto the table, a face absorbed in the task, sorrow left in the living room.
They're making use of this extra time, he remembered thinking, wondering if they were grateful for it. Eyes and ears constantly bent towards the kitchen, he heard a rush of water from an emptied dish onto a plant outside the back door.
That would be Miss Enid, he thought, pleased with his observation. She was the gardener. Put me to sleep, Lord. Sunday service is only a few hours away. (I will see them both!) Lord, put such foolishness out of my mind. Better that I think of the dead girl.
He would be expected to say something from the pulpit. The pews, more full than usual, would be eager for it. He might not say anything to nark them! (Lord, forgive this wicked turn of mind.) Our sister has departed this life. A gentle soul.
He supposed she was gentle. At seventeen she would scarcely be any other way. He thought she looked trapped, like a large grey uncomplaining rabbit with round, watery eyes, and two teeth in front constantly pinning down her bottom lip. Her hair was gingerish, pulled back from her face, as if she wanted to emphasize its skimpiness.
Enid and Una had erect heads, crowned with brown hair, one more abundant that the other. Which? Go to sleep!
Tomorrow I will have all this nonsense out of my head. I promise You.CHAPTER 2
Una sat in the Herbert pew given to the church, and he knew she was twisting her hands in her lap by the movement of her arms near her shoulders, although he couldn't see past the second button of her black jacket (he marvelled that she and others had so quickly found black clothes to wear) due to the Robertsons in the next pew tending towards obesity.
He had a foolish fear in his head that he would not reach the door in time to shake her hand, and when he did he assumed a severe expression he didn't intend. To chase it away he asked about the baby, wishing too late that he had used the word 'child'.
'With Aunt Violet,' Una whispered, and he was aware only then of Violet Herbert missing from the Herbert pew. He watched Una's back go down the wooden steps, and had to jerk his eyes away when he saw a question on a rotund Robertson stomach.
No one need ever know, he said to himself, shaking hands with an energy that surprised those in his grip. Bravely unconcerned he lifted his chin at the sound of the Herbert's motor starting up but allowed himself a brief glance that way, rewarding himself with the knowledge that Una was a good inch taller than her sister and had a straighter back.
It had been his practice on fine Sunday afternoons these past few weeks to put on his wide brimmed clerical hat, tuck his Bible under his arm and take a long walk.
It was both good exercise and a means of exploring the district. He varied the direction, although his choice was limited to the way to Candelo and Pambula and two or three turn-offs, some no more than cart wheel tracks.
Last Sunday he had gone Honeysuckle way.
'Under the circumstances ...' he murmured, giving the Burragate turn-off an apologetic look as he strode past it. He walked with his head down to save the wind catching the underneath of his hat and blowing it away into the Hickeys's paddocks, bare and still like lakes rising one on top of the other until they reached the house sitting among fruit trees on top of the ridge. A Hickey was riding by the fence next to the road and Edwards bobbed his head so that his hat brim bounced a couple of times. That was good enough. The Hickeys were Catholics.
Honeysuckle came up on his right. It sat an elderly lady surveying her surroundings. Refined though she was, she smoked a pipe, but it was a gentle dreamy smoke drifting away to rest on the barns and dairy well back from the house. She wore a bright skirt spread to one side, quite gay for her age, hinting at a reluctance to let go of her youth. The honeysuckle vine, which gave the farm its name, was piled thickly along the fence separating the house from the orchard. The old lady's colourful skirt was on the other side. This was Enid's garden.
Her mother, Nellie, when she was alive, had kept the honeysuckle trimmed and planted violets in clumps by the steps and lilies and other bulbs by the edge of the verandah, and found this enough to manage.
Enid at eighteen had coaxed Jack to fence a generous area on the kitchen side of the house, taking in some orange and lemon tress. Her garden, colourful and ordered all the year round, often caused buggies and cars to stop and spill out gaping occupants to spread against the wire admiring, until a driver strode away annoyed at the delay and honked a horn or rattled reins.
Enid's heart thumped with pride on these occasions, glad she had won the battle with Jack to have wire not palings, although he continued for some time to complain about the cost.
Edwards smelled something now heady and sweet, unaware that it was wallflowers spread at the base of rose bushes so the bushes appeared to rise from the centre of thick brown and gold patterned bed quilts.
While he smelled and looked at the shut face of the house, a curtain fell back into place at a window on the side nearest the orchard. He paused long enough to admire a stretch of fruit trees, so still against a light grey sky he wondered if they were dead until he saw bumps like tiny breasts along the bare limbs. His face warm, he went up the steps and knocked on the door.
Henry opened it. He was in the process of rolling a cigarette and went on quite expertly with the job using one hand while he held the door with the other. Henry had round grey watery eyes rather like those of his late wife. Edwards looked into them for tears. There were none but a spark that said Henry was by no means done with life.
'Yep,' he said using a slang term he had brought from the city with the new wife six months earlier. 'Nothing to keep me here now.'
Edwards glanced towards the hallway leading off a corner of the room, where behind one of the closed bedroom doors he suspected the young wife's body to be. He listened in the creaking silence for something that might say she approved or disapproved his plan.
Perhaps Henry listened too. He looked down at the cigarette between fingers resting on a knee.
Edwards raised his head and listened for the child, then realized Violet would have him. Her house was quite close to the rectory. It came as a shock to Edwards that he actually had a new neighbour. His spirits lifted at the thought and this surprised him too.
They remained uplifted for at that moment Una came in with a tray of tea and cake cut with slices overlapping each other, yellow and tender, breathing freshness. Here was Una! She's come! It might have been Enid, or neither might have appeared, but Una was here. He looked with gratification at the open door which gave her to him. The tea she poured was tan, and the cups were decorated with pale pink flowers. The pink matched Una's cheeks and the tea her tannish eyes unlike any other coloured eyes he had seen. Even sipping his tea and looking into the liquid he kept seeing Una's eyes, which were no longer around for she had slipped away with a jug of roses from the table. Would he not see her again during the visit? The disappointment turned the cake dry in his throat. But she returned to put the roses back, having removed one or two limp ones and given the others fresh water.
'Your roses are beautiful, Miss Herbert,' he said.
'They're Enid's,' she said.
'I'm sorry, I should be saying Miss Una.'
He laid his cup on its saucer as she went out, thinking it best that he did not look after her.
'Yep,' Henry said. 'Nothing to keep me here now.'
I will leave before I hate this man, Edwards thought, standing up. He asked Henry to thank Miss Una for the tea, so happy at saying her name aloud twice in ten minutes that he was walking rapidly up the road before he realized it.
The four-mile walk to the rectory took Edwards to tea time, for the evening meal was never called dinner in those parts, most families eating largely at midday.
He threw off his hat and coat, made up the fire in the kitchen stove and put the kettle on. Often he made tea without the kettle boiling, it took such an interminable time, and then he would sit over it bluish with leaves floating about and drink it with a pained expression as if doing penance for a wrongdoing.
He decided now to walk outside, thinking this might have the effect of boiling the water faster. But outside there was no garden, just rough grass with a track worn between the back door of the house and the back porch of the church. He surveyed it miserably, thinking of the Honeysuckle garden. Then he went inside and looked through his window at the darkening sky above Violet Herbert's home where the small baby was, and wondered at it looking the same.
The baby reminded him of the funeral tomorrow. Good, he thought before he had time to stop himself. Then in repentance he dropped on his knees by a chair to pray and was there when Wilfred Watts arrived with a can of fresh milk.
Wilfred jumped in fright when he saw the big soles of Edwards's boots just inside the kitchen door, causing some milk to splash on the doorstep. Wilfred, who was eleven and the son of Mrs Watts who cooked and cleaned two days a week at the rectory, stared at the running milk and clutched the can hard in the crook of his arm as if to avoid a further spill. Edwards flung a cup of water on the step and both of them watched the milk turn pale blue and gather dirt as it raced away to trickle into the grass. Edwards took the can and emptied the milk into a saucepan, his only jug being half full of soured stuff from the last delivery.
He set the chair firmly against the wall to dispel any thoughts Wilfred might have of a resumption of the prayer.
'Somebody died,' Wilfred said, accepting the rinsed out can.
'Yes, my boy,' Edwards said, thinking not of the dead girl, but the alive and lively Una.
'Mum said the Herbert girls'll be glad,' Wilfred said.
He tapped the can against a knobbly knee while he shared this reflection.
'Well, death is said to be a happy state,' Edwards said.
Wilfred steadied the swinging can. 'Why do people bawl then?' he asked.
Edwards remembered a shadowy girl's shape at the kitchen dresser with half a back visible from the living room. A head bowed briefly while a handkerchief was tucked into a cuff. Yes, Una had wept.
'God blesses those who weep,' Edwards said.
Wilfred, embarrassed to hear God mentioned in conversation this way, stared at his bare sprawled feet, the cracked soles beginning to invade the uppers with brown threads like rough darning.
Edwards sat sideways on his chair.
'Come to church and you'll understand,' he said. 'Perhaps.'
'One day Mum'll get us all new boots,' Wilfred said, trying to push his feet deeper into the grass.
'God wouldn't worry about the boots,' Edwards said.
'The people would, though,' Wilfred said.
As if there were no argument against this, Wilfred spun the can a couple of times then turned and sped off home.CHAPTER 3
After tea at Honeysuckle, Enid made a wreath of wallflowers and daisies and laid it in a tub of water on the washhouse floor. There it rocked about, hitting the sides of the tub as if there was something disturbing it. Enid stayed until it was still, holding a lighted candle and the edges of her blouse together at the neck. Cecil Grant, the undertaker from Bega (who had an eye on Enid), had brought a coffin late the previous night. Cecil, his rumbling hearse and the girl's body would pass the night at the Wyndham hotel, the cost included in the funeral charges. The wreath had the effect of returning the body to Honeysuckle just as Enid had it thankfully out of the way. She felt now she should leave the candle burning in the wash house. Oh what foolishness, she said to herself, shutting the door with a brisk little click. It may well burn the house down and bring us more trouble.
She went to the bedroom she shared with Una, passing the kitchen, which was settling itself for the night under the heavy smells of food cooked for the meal when the funeral was over.
The bedroom was once Jack and Nellie's, Jack taking a smaller room when both girls finished their education at boarding school and Nellie by that time dead several years. It was a showroom at Honeysuckle, up a step from the living room and on a level of its own. It had been Nellie's sanctuary, furnished with mahogany pieces shining like dark brown silk. There were two chintz-covered chairs, thick hooked rugs on the floor and a double bed with a handsome crocheted quilt and pillow shams. Enid kept it immaculate, constantly straightening the clothes in the wardrobe, and wiping out the jug and basin on the marble washstand after every use. Lately she had emptied a drawer in the dressing table for the creams and powders Una had taken to using, to save a clutter and spillage on the unblemished surface. Enid saw three of Una in the dressing table mirrors for she now had a dress spread on the bed intended for the funeral. It was a black moire silk, plain except for a pale blue piping at the high neck and wrists of the long tight sleeves. She touched the trimming as if willing it to disappear. Enid glanced at it while she removed the pillow shams and turned the quilt back.
'Perhaps it could be unpicked,' Enid said. She sewed but did not have Una's talent with the needle.
Excerpted from Loving Daughters by Olga Masters. Copyright © 1993 The Estate of Olga Masters. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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