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An Important Happening

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Sketch on page 120 of 'An Important Happening'

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IT was more than an ordinary Red Letter Day in the settlement, that on which the young children of the district were vaccinated. It was a perfect orgie of lymph.

Live however remotely one may, the law will find one out, and enforce its exactions. Little fear was there in that far place of an outbreak of small-pox, yet the regulation regarding its prevention extended even there. It was, I believe, Lady Mary Wortley Montague who first introduced the idea of vaccination into Britain. A plague on the house of Montague, or so our parents might have said. A notice had been sent to every settler along the valley, requiring that his children, or such of them as had not already been vaccinated, should be presented for that purpose at the house of a centrally situated neighbour. Here followed the date and the hour at which people were to attend. It has been indicated already that the folk of the valley had sown plentifully for the next generation.

Almost every household there had several children to present for the ceremony. Never before, since the first arrival there had driven into the rich loam the first peg, had a doctor attended locally to minister to the community in this fashion. Indeed, the appearance there of a medical man for any purpose was a rarity. We were naturally a healthy community, too busy to be ill, too busy also to imagine ourselves so. Even when an infant arrived, the women managed amongst themselves. That is till later; when the steady increase justified it, a prototype of Mrs. Gamp, sure of continuous work, settled in the district. That this lady was not diplomaed mattered nothing. Heaven blessed her work, so that she was able to declare that her sum in addition always came right.

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As for the vaccination of their infants, parents had been supposed to attend periodically for that purpose at the nearest town where a doctor lived. That was thirty miles distant, and so the requirement was systematically ignored, thus it was that only the older children of the Spearys', and a few others born before the days of the settlement, were able to show the curious white mark upon the left arm which was the record of their parent's obedience to the law's demands. We had often admired Minnie Speary's “mark,” and she was ever ready to display it, and to discant upon it. She pretended to remember all about it, and was very proud of the distinction it conferred upon her. We had envied her experience, and here we were suddenly flung upon the necessity of receiving upon our own persons the same sign manual. Our parents were not so pleasantly titillated at the prospect as we were; indeed there was, strangely as we thought, a good deal of grumbling among them on the matter; murmurs about “Government fad” and suchlike tags of complaint came to us. But the law was at our doors, so to speak, and obedience to it was the only virtue.

Claribel had a frock for the event, hastily “run up” from an old silk gown of our mother's; the child, being “a tear-away,” seldom had “a rag to her back”—I give the phrases as I heard them spoken. Claribel, as I have indicated, had a natural love for finery, but her pleasure in regard to the impending outing had been seriously dashed by a sudden volte face on the part of Minnie Speary. That young lady recanted her former alluring representations regarding “the man with the needle.” She asserted that being vaccinated was a terribly painful experience, that one's blood gushed out in spurts when the doctor stuck the needle into one's arm, and that later the arm swelled to the size of a pillow. She described to us how she had kicked and screamed, even turning aside in her agony from bribes of lollies. Finally they had had to hold her down.…A sanguinary recital that poisoned the excited anticipations of Claribel, causing in their place the darkest forebodings.

It took a good deal of reassurance from our parents, and

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a more careful bridling of their own views on the subject of vaccination, to get Claribel submissively into the pretty new frock on the important morning. I was by no means comfortable in my own mind either as to what was about to befall me, but a stoical pose I had assumed at the time had to be lived up to; I dared not show any trepidation, not even when I saw myself suggestively clad in my short-sleeved frock instead of in the newer long-sleeved one. I consoled myself. After all, nothing very dreadful could be coming to me, for was not my mother taking for the same performance my younger sisters and brother? I decided against Minnie Speary's later story.

I have called the event an orgie, and the name not ill describes it. The doctor arrived at the neighbour's house at about eleven a.m., and his labours amongst us extended to the sunset of a long November day. True, he had to pause midway in his operations, and wait for the arrival of the mailman with a fresh supply of the mysterious “lymph,” which seemed to be as important a factor in the performance as the needle itself.

It was at the house of Mrs. Grey that we were assembled, and it was some time before the hour appointed, early as that was, when the first comers arrived. Most people came in vehicles of some kind, chiefly drays, and spring-carts. But there was one buggy there. It was the first buggy that we had seen, and it seemed a very grand affair indeed. The buggy belonged to Mrs. Darling, who lived in a distant township, and she had her infant with her. The child, we learned, had been vaccinated before, but it had not “taken,” and so was to be done again. This coming to our ears soon after our arrival at Mrs. Grey's, routed the fears of Claribel once more. It was surely something really agreeable for Mrs. Darling to go to so much trouble to have it performed on her baby again.

But some who came had not even a dray or spring-cart for their conveyance thither. There were the Watts, for instance, who lived twice the distance from the Greys' that we did who came in state in our big new dray. They had had to

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walk, and Mr. Watt was losing a day from his grass-cutting, as he explained many times in the ensuing hours, in order to carry the two-year-old boy Simmy on his back to what he referred to as “this foolery.” On the journey he had also been obliged to make a crossing of stones over the creek, and to carry the baby over as Mrs. Watt was inclined to a “swimming head.”

Fortunately it was a fine day, for the accommodation of Mrs. Grey's house was much overtaxed by the great influx of people. We overflowed freely to verandah and garden. I fancy that in some respects, notwithstanding the long day's fag with refractory children, our mothers enjoyed the gathering at the Greys'. It was not often that so many of them met together—indeed, there were neighbours brought face to face upon a common errand that day who had never met before.

Such talk as there was among them! So many exchanges of experiences old and new, such public chats, such private confidences among the women. I know that my mother tried her next batch of bread upon the principles employed by Mrs. Lavender in yeast-making, and that she gave a good harvest-field cake recipe (“receipt” they called it in those days) to Mrs. Blore. We children hung about with open eyes and ears. I know that I heard many a conclave in which my mother had part, and that I received a vast amount of information about a vast variety of matters—some of them beyond my comprehension. I remember, for instance, asking my mother later what Mrs. Blore had meant when telling the story of her own vaccination she had said that she had been done on both arms, adding that the doctor at the time had been “half seas over”—a very mystifying phrase that was.

Quite a number of the fathers were present that day, making public acknowledgment of their responsibility for their offspring. Mr. Grey was kept busy escorting newcomers to the barn to see his fanners, a new purchase; this machine was supposed to clean grass-seed as no fanners in the world had ever before done. I fancy that the gentleman had a good deal of free labour performed in the winnowing of his rye grass-seed that day, for each and every neighbour of them

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must have a turn at the handle himself. Those men were critics who took nothing for granted.

So many people gathered together; it seemed rather like being at church, yet it was different, because that day one was allowed to play. And as well there were people there whom one never saw at church. Mr. Lavender was there with his three children to be vaccinated, and we knew that they had not been christened—a thing commented upon much by their neighbours. Mr. Lavender had called christening “humbug,” it had been said, but evidently he didn't think vaccination “humbug,” for as well as bringing his family for that operation, Mr. Lavender was heard to say that he intended to ask the doctor if he couldn't be done himself “as a precaution.” He was, during the following month, going to Melbourne for some farm machinery, and he had been reading in the Weekly Times that two coloured sailors at Sandridge had been discovered to be suffering from the small-pox. Whether Mr. Lavender was vaccinated that day or not, I do not remember, but his three children were, and each of them showed plainly enough that the performance was greatly objected to. They were the three first victims of the day's orgie, and each in turn rent the air, or as much air as there was in Mrs. Grey's congested parlour, with its yells. The cries came to the verandah alarmingly, and thoroughly demoralised the innocents awaiting their turn there.

“Now, now,” we heard their mother, and the doctor soothing.

Lucy Speary plucked at Claribel's arm, and the two vanished. I stood my ground, though I would dearly have liked to retreat also to the thicket of acacia that received the pair. But there was that inconvenient reputation for stoicism to be thought of.…

I think the doctor performed first upon the younger children, for it was well into the afternoon before, for me personally, was set at rest the question as to whether the operation of vaccination was painful or not. In the end I was rather scornful of those of my peers who had made a fuss about it. The thing hurt a little, but not more than a mosquito bite,

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not so much as the sting of a March fly. Swaggering a little, I went in search of Claribel, who was again missing. Her first essay at hiding had ended at sight of the picnic that was set in the shrubbery for the company. That temptation was not to be resisted, and she and Lucy had emerged from the acacia umbrage. But they had slipped away again. The second flight had been farther afield than the shrubbery, and some of the bigger boys had had to scour the dog-wood patch in the lower paddock before the pair was found.

It was as they were being inveigled back to the danger zone that I met them with my braggadocio account of my experience of “the man with the needle.” “But why did some of them cry?” Claribel was suspicious, and I was fain to suggest that it was the doctor himself of whom they had been afraid. “He has teeth, and one eye larger than the other, but he hurts hardly a bit,” I assured. Nature had certainly not been kind to the doctor, for as well as the strange eye and the prominent teeth, the gentleman had a huge nose. An alarming man to approach timid children to do with them—Heaven knew what!

Poor Mrs. Grey, what a day for her that was! She had no children of her own; it had been remarked that she had sometimes said that she wished that she had a dozen. That day she was as the Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe as regards the number of children on her hands. The Greys evidently regarded themselves in the character of host and hostess, and had made many preparations for the entertainment of their young guests. When our first shyness was gone we took advantage of these provisions on our behalf. The term “took advantage” is capable of more than one meaning; certain it is that a second meaning was given to it sometimes during that day by the more forward of the juveniles. Mr. Grey had provided for one thing, a fine swing. From a horizontal branch of a box-tree near the garden, all day long the ropes went to and fro, a child seated between them. There was generally some clamouring among the candidates for the next swing; whose “turn” it was sometimes becoming a matter of heated debate. Lucy Speary, in

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charge of two smaller ones, would allow neither of them on the swing, alleging that it was dangerous. It was observable however that she herself was willing to risk a fall as often as possible. Indeed, finally Lucy did get a big tumble; she went face downward in the dust, due I suspect, to a calculated push from Jimmy Wood, who was manipulating the ropes at the moment. Lucy's nose bled violently, and between tears, blood and dust she was such a sorry object that Mr. Grey, coming upon the scene, decided to dispense with the swing altogether.

Resisting the entreaties of a wistful chorus, he forthwith climbed the limb to undo the ropes. By some mischance he presently lay in the dust where Lucy had fallen, but in Mr. Grey's case there were no tears, or blood, though plenty of dust. We thought it rather fun to see a big man sprawling, and it put a great strain upon our natural politeness to keep our shy smiles from developing into downright laughter.

The abolition of the swing sent the children adventuring in search of other entertainment. Some of them found the gate into the vegetable garden, and poured into the enclosure, overrunning the trim beds. Jenny Wood speedily made herself sick by eating too many blushful tomatoes, and a highly pungent vegetable which turned out to be garlic. Nothing there escaped “sampling,” and some wry faces accompanied this dinner of herbs; not all within that garden was suitable provender for the rankest vegetarian. Later, the unlatched gate was found to have allowed to the banquet a less fastidious eater than any of us were. No one admitted responsibility for the gate when Mr. Grey (not so fond and indulgent of children perhaps as his wife was) demanded in a high voice how the sow and her brood had got the opportunity to demolish his lettuces and beet.

My observation of these and other happenings of the day (I will not say my own part in them) caused me to ponder furiously upon a remark made by my aunt to my mother on the homeward journey that evening, “Mrs. Grey,” she said, “has had the bloom rubbed off her ideals concerning the angelic nature of children.”

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It was over at last; the wolf that had postured to Little Red Riding Hood had gobbled up the last child, the whole infant population of the district was well and truly vaccinated. But wait! there was the aftermath, and it was the aftermath that proved on the whole the greater ordeal for the parents —and for some of us too. Feverish petulance was the mildest consequence. I remember my own inflamed arm that would knock itself against things.…

Mr. Seymour “wrote to the Department”—whatever that might mean, we wondered—about his Joe. Some rash had appeared on the child. The doctor attended at their house, and the father's complaint had a consequence other than had been looked for. The doctor pronounced the rash to be in no wise caused by or related to the vaccination, and examining their other boy he discovered that it was necessary to revaccinate him.

Reporting this outrage to my father, our neighbour remarked that he considered the whole business to be “an unwarrantable interference with the freedom of the individual,” a fine sonorous sentence that I learned by heart, and used afterwards to repeat upon occasions, appropriate and inappropriate.