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The Old Games

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Sketch on page 100 of 'The Old Games'

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THERE are games common to childhood everywhere, and others that seem to be suggested to special groups of children by their environment. I have early recollections of both. The “hide-and-seek” that Cain and Abel no doubt invented was our heritage; and we had as well many original pastimes suggested by the material about us. One of these sports was bullock-driving; another that I remember was playing at pack-horses. Bullocks and horses in human service were familiar to us, and it would have been strange had the sight of animals in harness not given us the imitative impulse. We made of ourselves beasts of burden at these games, bearing willingly the whip of a driver who took his office seriously. The whip was not, however, of a very terrible character, having generally for thong a strip of the under-part of stringy-bark, tied to a long stick. If the driver were expert he could crack it successfully, but more often than not, at the first flourish the lash would fly off the handle, just as he so jocund drove his team afield. We used to bring a rare lot of light wood for my mother's fires in a wooden cart made by my father out of an old packing-case furnished with wheels of small circumference from sawn-off logs. It was a vehicle inelegant enough, but serviceable and joy-giving. We used to draw lots, I remember, to decide who should be driver of the team. Dick would hold the lots in his hand, and it is to me still a mystery how it was that the law of chance so frequently favoured the holder of the lots. When we played at being pack-horses, the wood we carried was in bundles on our backs, as we saw the men load the horses when preparing them for the trips up the mountain track, whither our father's team went frequently in front of the whip of a hunch-shouldered driver.

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These were certainly games suggested by our environment, as I have since seen the children of miners in an up-country town setting forth with their picks and shovels and “crib tins” to the play that was their father's work. Ours was a world specially designed for such games as these, indoors or out. There were barns and sheds everywhere, and haystacks and standing crops, and farther afield the ambush about the creek, and the bush itself. I remember once tunnelling into a haystack so deeply to make a good hiding of it, that I was almost smothered; and once Fred hid himself so recklessly amongst some bags of chaff in a barn that after a time, in response to his involuntary movements, an avalanche of bags descended upon him, so that all the ambushed ones within hearing of his muffled cries had to emerge from their several hiding-places to render the struggler first-aid.

I make serious claim to our having, if not invented, at least developed in pursuit of this same game of hide-and-seek the art of camouflage so much heard of to-day. To find Red Riding Hood in our wood, where most objects suggested her, was a pretty puzzle for a searcher. Annie's striped pinafore swishing forth from a scrub clump by no means proclaimed, though it suggested, the immediate presence there of Annie herself. Nor did the crown of Dick's hat peeping above a fallen log necessarily mean that the curly head and mischievous brown face of its owner were reconnoitring below it. I remember to this hour the experience of literally seeing stars where stars were not. The perils of blind man's buff played on a half-cleared landscape where abound stumps of felled trees as high as one's face are not to be minimised. To come with bandaged eyes hastily into contact with one of these is to bring about the immediate necessity for a bandaged nose. Blind man's buff is more suited to an environment where nothing more solid than chairs and tables is to be encountered. It was a bitter day for my tomboy pride that on which it was borne in upon me that there is a tyranny of garments—that the child of the skirted sex is, becoming subject to the skirt, thereby tamed. Moral lectures from certain aunts used to the more “correct” ways of little town

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girls had in their sundry administerings failed to curtail the athletic ventures of Claribel and myself. There was not a tree, dared by the boys, along whose limbs we too had not swung and clung. A lengthened frock was the real reformer. It was, though, a bitter day when a trammelling skirt reduced me to inferior place in the matter of “vaulting with the pole.” Tournaments of this diverting exercise Dick and I often had, and for long I could clear a height at which he boggled or brought down the barrier. And then a new skirt of more generous length brought me my Waterloo. Was it, I wonder, symbol and epitome of much in woman's race in life? I rebelled sorely, I know, and smarted at my cousin's derisive and triumphant laughter when my flying sails brought my downfall. It was the same in running. I was no more the peer of the boys, and for a year or so had the further chagrin of seeing Claribel, my yet unfettered junior, surpass me in such sport.

Very early we came to cricket—or cricket came to us. I cannot remember how old I was when I first stood defending an old kerosene-tin from the onslaughts of a rag ball. That A. H. of whom I have before spoken was a born cricketer; he gave us the lore of it, not, I fancy, as a drilled-in lesson, but bawled to us bit by bit as the exigencies of the game in progress necessitated. The boys admitted us willingly enough to what in those days at least was regarded by divine right as exclusively a masculine game. We were grateful, knowing this, till experience lessened our gratitude, as we began to notice how much in the field we were, running, running after flying balls amid stentorian urgings to yet swifter flight; how seldom bowling, or with the bat. We mutinied at last, Claribel and I and our two younger of the non-cricketing sex. Whereupon the astonishing discovery was made that no kerosene-tin was for long safe when I, ball in hand, opposed it. It was a disconcerting discovery to Dick especially when, on my first essay, amid a barbaric roar from his brothers, the “wicket” he guarded tintinnabulated his defeat. And thus from inglorious scouting, from stopgaps and makeshifts, we were promoted on our merits to the glory of full-fledged cricketers on equal

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terms with the boys. I remember a black eye from a smart ball once, and bruised shins often; but who cared when glory went with such wounds? Claribel and I finally achieved the great distinction of taking part in a full-dress match on a prepared sward, and with the actual regulation tools of the game.

There was one great occasion on which we all gave demonstration of our skill and prowess. It was on a birthday of the assertive Dick, when to “sports” he had arranged in his own honour certain relatives were bidden. Besides the cricket match there were general sports all more or less strenuous and designed to call forth the applause of the admiring elders, whose part it was to show their amazement and approval, and incidentally to provide and spread the goodly picnic under the “grand-stand” box-tree. It was as if we had prepared and rehearsed for that day from the hours of our infancy. The games, great and small, important and trivial, were gone through as the culmination of a long apprenticeship. Our repertoire was interrupted only by the picnic (no irrelevancy that!) and ended by nightfall. We ran through the whole gamut, it seems to me, and used every muscle of our bodies in the display. It was a great day, and stands out in my memory—with its aftermath of aches. Fred had a sprained ankle for his remembrance. Tree-climbing being on the sports list he must, in scorn of older folks' warnings, go to the extreme end of a half-rotten limb of the gum-tree he had scaled. The law of gravitation did the rest. My uncle supplied the befitting philosophy, while he bound a handkerchief round the injured leg, congratulatory that it was not a fractured bone.

There was a waterhole that lay—or, should one say, that stood?—neutrally midway between our house and the home of my cousins in a paddock where rushes and tussocks introduced one to its brink. This old pre-historic waterhole was never known to dry up, and was haunted by things of interest, both imaginary and real. Eels of a coarse flavour lived in its depths, and sometimes consented to take the worm dropped to them at our peril no less than at the peril of worm and eel. Such was the waterhole, fear of whose mythological monsters

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kept us, as toddlers, I verily believe, from a watery grave, thereby justifying the pious fraud of our elders in so peopling it with the brutes of fable. Its existence lent suggestions for aquatic sports of various kinds. Mossy logs of antiquity, deliciously risky for a venturing foot, thrust up their pachydermatous backs here and there over its surface. Wildfowl used to come and flirt tentatively with its reeded edges. There were willows planted modernly, and native vegetation planted anciently. There were water-lilies and duckweed on its murky waters, and lush islands of rushes here and there well away from its edges. There the domestic geese and duck fancied an unmolested reign, being of insular tastes—especially in the laying season. Instinct perhaps it was that suggested to them that, deposited there, their eggs had a better chance of becoming the oar-footed young of their dreams; fluffy babies, capable, when their time came, of reaching the big world past the sedgy shore. But instinct, doing its best for the preservation of the species, could not provide against the ingenuity of young human despoilers. Many a nest's contents we got, unaddled still by brooding, and bore them home. We had for such ventures a wonderful raft, which usually allowed itself to be cumbrously paddled to the desired island. As often as not it threatened to turn turtle or otherwise take itself and its passengers from the face of the waters. Then the bright eyes of danger would look suddenly forth at the hardy mariners aboard, and tense moments would follow. More than once a cold plunge had been the rower's fate, while the rest of us, according to the depth of the water where the disaster occurred, cheered, jeered, or feared from the margin. To gain the alluring water-lilies, too, many an embarking on that rude raft was undertaken; our mothers loved to set the sweet blooms in a shallow dish of water for indoor adornment, and that afforded excuse enough for any rashness in the enterprise of obtaining them. Little they ever knew how near to tragedy our pious desire to consider the lilies at close quarters sometimes brought us. There were times when an unwary pair of wildfowl made temporary home at that waterhole; and more than once we abstracted their eggs from

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the secret nest, and made a foolish hen foster-mother to strange wild creatures that soon, turning like divining rods to their true element, made her a thing of nerves. Later, with fierce ingratitude, such broods invariably further followed their nature by taking to the bush.

We used to stilt-walk about a certain quaggy portion of the waterhole paddock. Certainly to walk in that part at most seasons of the year, even in stout boots, would have meant wet feet, but across that rushy, reedy patch no road ran anywhere, and nothing but the spirit of childhood called us there at all, by stilt or foot. Still, there we went. I remember one day taking a “short cut” to my cousin's house by that route. I had been sent to borrow some sugar. Whether my errand required hasty execution I do not remember, but I made my marshy detour on my stilts, and left them hidden somewhere before my journey's end, proceeding by their cumbersome means again on the return trip with my borrowed sugar. I reached home muddy and sugar-less; some will-o'-the-wisp of that marsh spirited away my sweet burden; but, then, what can one expect when one's stilts go suddenly deep into crabholes?

We had, under the teaching of other children, once we started to go to school, a whole galaxy of new games; that is, games new to us, though old as childhood, most of them. Of these I do not speak; there was never the romance and fascination about them as there was about those learned or invented by our isolated selves. It makes children inventive to have to create their own pastimes from the nature about them, and there is a great and simple joy, as I have found, in making your own toys, or in seeing them made by more dexterous hands. When I grew older I refused to be lured from long allegiance to a rag doll—whose beloved features my mother had originally drawn in ink—by the pink-cheeked beauty of a fine wax creation presented to me by a visiting aunt. Earlier than that, my first doll, I have been told, was simply the knotty little root of a native gum-bough. On this wooden head I poured my infant oblations for many a day and night. Were I not chary of serious philosophy, I might

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here enter upon a dissertation in favour of childhood being kept more intimately the friend of simple things, rather than being encouraged to become the restless, dissatisfied seeker after more elaborate distractions.

Some of our games we found in action on the school playground. It seemed like a purloining to us; we were their inventors—or thought we were. I remember that in regard to some of these games we compromised as to our exclusive right to them only so far as to play them on the road to or from school. Top-spinning—our originals had been made from cotton-reels—was one of these, and marbles was another. For many a day I had my right thumbnail worn to tenderness from “firing” my marbles from it. It was long before I could use my knuckle for that purpose as the boys and Claribel did. What rings we made on the dusty road! How many semi-truancies we played to finish a game against time! What searches in heather and fern for lost “alleys” and “glassies”! What squabbles over the ownership of “taws”! What doughty battles, what streaked faces and dirty hands! and the worst of it—or the best—was that while other games had their seasons and came and went by tacit ordination with the phases of the calendar, marbles lasted the whole round of the year!

I do not remember cards in our home; our Puritan ancestry saw to that. I remember seeing the labourers with a pack sometimes, and wondered what the charm and what the sin of them might be. I always liked puzzle-games, and Claribel and I invented many of a transparent sort; and anagrams and cryptograms had their turn on the winter nights, as we were promoted to a later sitting-up hour. I began quite early to air my cleverness in literary puzzle-games in the column set apart for them in some of our papers and magazines. Very proud was I when my name appeared as a prize-taker in some contest of this kind. I fear I made myself rather insufferable to Claribel and Dick about it, for they had small skill in such things. When we had circle enough by the addition—a frequent thing—of the cousins beyond the waterhole paddock, we played such simplicities as “proverbs” and

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“consequences,” games of my mother's girlhood. In the latter game, attended by all the adjectives complimentary and uncomplimentary that occurred to us, Claribel and Dick were invariably brought into romantic juxtaposition. But though so often joined by this conspiracy on the part of the rest of us, Fate, or the good angel of each, in the after-dealings with my sister and cousin, contrived to disregard the lead. More sophisticated (a matter again of lengthened skirts) we grew still further away from the primitive sports that held us earlier. The 'teens sapped their charm. We reached the sadly sophisticated level of “charades,” and even of tiny dramas. Childhood perished thus, amid the sands of sentimentalism and of melodrama.