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Minnie Grave

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Sketch on page 130 of 'Minnie Grave'

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I DO not remember the circumstances of her coming, I simply remember that one day she seemed to appear suddenly in our kitchen—the kitchen of the second stage of the pioneering, when a stove had replaced the old camp oven, and other chattels had evolved correspondingly to a state of comparative convenience and grandeur. Coming pell-mell into that region of cookery from school one evening, Claribel and I stood amazed at the apparition that confronted us—that is, if anything so stout and solid as Minnie Grave could be called an apparition. Minnie stood looking at us, sleeves above elbows, and a large white apron covering her front. She had arrived and become domiciled all in the day. Very much at home she was already, apparently, for she seemed so much mistress of the kitchen that we sensibly felt ourselves intruders, and paused after the first impetuous advance. She had an air of authority about her, though later we found that, as the common phrase has it, her “bark was worse than her bite.” Encountering our abashed looks on this occasion of our first meeting, Minnie disarmed our fears with a smile that digged dimples in her plump cheeks, and made her look the soul of good nature. She entered upon her reign of order at once, however, and a glance of meaning at our boots caused us to step back to the scraper outside the door. Minnie Grave's idea of order was, we found, much like that of Aunt Dinah's. When her kitchen—or “kitching,” as she preferred to call it—was newly cleaned for the day we might enter it only gingerly, and touch nothing in it without permission. That interdiction obtained for about an hour after the daily brushing and scrubbing was done; after that, and before, one might make what chaos of the room one pleased.

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But for that hour the kitchen was a region sacred to order, and to the maker of the order.

Dressed in her afternoon print dress—always a striped print, for her taste ran to stripes—like Mrs. Glegg's, Minnie would sit on a chair by the table end, facing the window, in perfect idleness, her hands in her lap, a very queen. The one-fire stove bright, and a fireplace that would have rejoiced even Sarah Battle by its spotlessness, the tins on the shelves polished to shining, the floor scrubbed, Minnie enjoyed herself with a perfect contentment, surveying the gleaming result of her labours. The former meal done with, the next meal —there always is a next meal looming in a country farm-house—prepared for the stove, why not the hour of ease for the cook, and, if the cook preferred it, an ease literally of idleness, still why not? I have since wondered why Minnie at such times did not prefer to get away from the scene of her labour instead of abiding among the pots and pans, polished bright though they were by her red, industrious hands. I can only conclude that Minnie Grave was a devotee to the daily round, and found its environment a soothing inspiration. Only when she had a whole day off did she put away the apron —badge of her calling. What Minnie did on those days off we learned later, and it will be no indiscreet violation of the sanctity of her private affairs (it's all so long ago) if I reveal presently what occupied her at those times of recreation.

But I have left Claribel and myself standing stock still on the doorstep after our hasty backing to the forgotten scraper, school-bags still upon our shoulders, gazing at the new invader of my mother's hitherto uncontested haunt. I see Minnie now, her “five foot nothink”—as Hooper once proclaimed her height to be, after measuring against the washhouse door-jamb—her hair plastered flat to her head and switched into a tight nob at the back, never a tendril of that straight black hair escaping from its rigid confines. It was a very rectitude of hair. The face that looked complacently at us with the smile creating deeper dimples at each moment was amazingly flat and wide. There was the merest little dab of a nose, much like an infant's. Her black

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eyes made the face seem fierce; it was they, I think, that had made us retreat; but the mouth belied the eyes, telling the truth emphatically enough as to the good nature of its owner. The chin, too, had a wonderful cleft in it, like a dimple out of bounds. We were friends at once after the interrogating stare on both sides; we accepted Minnie on her chin value, so to speak. We were now joined by Annie, and two peeping cousins, who always reached our kitchen door on their return from school, before their own. There was a peeping face at an inner door, too—our mother's enjoying our surprise. It was a kind of conspiracy, this coming of Minnie to take over the work of the house for a time. They laughed at our surprise, and good understanding was cemented at once by sweet hot cake all round. The boys, devouring theirs with ardour, declared “she's not a bad sort.” And so Minnie was accepted, the basis of our judgment being, as I hint, not all aesthetic.

We were actually proud, presently, of Minnie's advent to our household. I remember boasting, though naturally a modest child, to Lucy Speary, at school, that “our Minnie” made better cakes than her mother did, which statement Lucy rebutted by the simple argument of a pinch.…But Minnie could do much more than cook. Never have I seen a tornado in being, but I imagine that one in action would not ill resemble Minnie. The dust would speed before her as Sennacherib's army sped before the destroyers. She could not “abide dirt and dust,” and waged a continual war against it. There was a youth who was getting out the autumn crop of potatoes that season, and who came periodically to the kitchen for his victuals, which Minnie served out to him. This youth had a remarkable squint. I remember that vividly, because his was the first squint I had ever seen. He was a fop in his way, and always dressed up quite grandly when he came to the kitchen on this errand. I recollect hearing my mother once remark slyly to my aunt on an afternoon when they drank tea together, that “it amused her to see Peter in his salmon-coloured tie and tight blue coat, trying to look ‘unutterable things’ at

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Minnie.” I did not know what “unutterable things” might be, but, watching on the next opportunity, I thought that Peter did look queer, talking to Minnie and looking bashfully in another direction. We children, in the barbaric way of childhood, called the poor youth “Squinty Eye” without thought of offence. We soon found that to Minnie we might not speak of him thus. Here we stumbled upon a puzzle of quite psychological perplexity, which we wrestled with in solemn and serious conclave. There were present at this conclave Annie, Claribel, myself (plase aux dames), Little Jack—who was of no use in the debate at all, and whose presence I only mention because of its irrelevancy—Fred, Dick, and that A. H., the first of our group to cross the Blue Divide. In this problem, Annie's seniority had telling effect. She was a whole two years my senior, and though Fred was older than she, it is apparent that it is sex that counts in some things. Why should Minnie snap at us for calling Peter “Squinty Eye” when she herself sometimes said very rude things to Peter—things that confused and hurt the youth, as we could see?…In some moods she was kind to him but as often, when he came for his victuals, she railed at him, for “messing the kitchen floor” before the man's boots were over the threshold. “Splodgin' over my clean floor like a roanoseros.” Peter would get very red in the face and stamp his boots afresh on the door-mat. It was indeed a puzzle. Claribel's testimony capped it. She had seen Minnie making the new necktie that Peter wore last Sunday. Then it was that Annie's seniority declared itself. “Silly,” said she, “can't you see they're in love?” And perhaps it was so, for why did Minnie eventually marry Peter of the queer eyes unless they had, despite their oddness, drawn her heart?… But that was long after.

There was sometimes in evidence, apart from Peter, a susceptible and sentimental side to Minnie's somewhat bovine nature; it was this side that reigned when she put off the white apron and made holiday. She never took a holiday except when there was to be a ball, and then she rested all day, to be ready for the exertions of the night. Dances to

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Minnie Grave were a business; she loved them, and went long distances to take part in the pleasure she best loved. A dance was to her what a new Charlie Chaplin is nowadays, to her prototype, except, perhaps, that Minnie's zest was greater because the opportunity to indulge was less frequent. She would travel twenty miles—riding, or by wheels, in any fashion—and there was never lacking a swain to escort her. Our childpart in these excitements consisted in watching Minnie robe herself, and in lending assistance at critical moments during that operation. But she only dressed at home when the ball was a local one; when it meant a ride or drive to a distance Minnie carried her fine things in a bandbox. But to see her dress! I conclude that the next best thing to being a beauty is to think oneself one. Such pirouetting before my mother's big mirror, in the best light the house afforded; such creakings of corsets—tight-lacing days those —such rustlings of petticoats and furbelows, so many prunings and preenings as went to the adorning of Minnie! My mother's hands were always called into service, while we did minor lady's-maid duties. Though we never, as I say, had the joy of actually seeing Minnie amid the ensuing scenes of conquest, we used to hear all about the happenings.

The youth Peter having gone to some distant place, it was no part of Minnie's idea to hang her heart on the willows. She corresponded with him faithfully—did I not know every turn of his queer handwriting on the envelopes that I bore from the mailbox to her so often? For many months his letters came after hers ceased; and, cease after a time they did, for no other reason apparently than that, as Minnie expressed it, “she couldn't be bothered.” And letter-writing to Minnie really must have been a bother. The evening her letter to Peter was written was a strenuous one for her. With sleeves rolled high above her plump elbows, the kitchen table scattered with writing paraphernalia, she would sit laboriously at her letter. She used highly scented paper, and spoiled a good deal of it in the process of writing. I would recognise that perfume as belonging to Minnie's love-letter paper now, were I to come into contact with it—clinging, heavy, I think I

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didn't like it. I knew all about that letter-writing, because I had to be on hand to help with the spelling. I would rush through my “homework,” pleased and rather important at helping Minnie with her private correspondence. She would even appeal to me to suggest items of news, and many a bit of Peter's letter has been mine in idea and phrasing. I don't know how these passages dovetailed into Minnie's own style, or whether Peter ever detected the hand of another in the epistles from his inamorata. But they ceased, those letters of double authorship, and it was only later that Minnie and Peter came together again.

Minnie had what was called “a pleasing voice,” and was always in demand at the balls and parties where dance was interpolated with song. “The Gipsy's Warning” was one of her contributions, generally followed by “Gentle Annie.” These she sang to us, too, many a time, and the voice, as I remember it, was not a Melba's. On Sunday evenings we all sang from my mother's favourite, Wesley's selection, and from Moody and Sankey's. I can hear Minnie's voice now, “Holding the Fort.” But those dances (I return to them as she did). They were excellent hearing, the little jealousies and heart-burnings, as well as the happier passages. There was one, I remember, from which Minnie arrived home before daylight—an unheard-of thing. A rift had come into the lute which, widening rapidly, had resulted in the lights (candles on wall brackets) being blown out and the candles confiscated by an offended youth, with whom the belle of the ball had refused to dance. And so, in darkness, they had to break up the revelry by night. All these things were of the newly-dawned social life of the primitive place—a social life that came into being by the natural needs of the growing up generation born there. We ourselves were too young, and in any case our parents too puritanic I suspect to give us any part in these things, except the joy of Minnie's chronicle, a chronicle of doings in which, it has since struck me, the lady herself was not a supernumerary. In the story of the outraged youth and the confiscated candles, for instance, it was Minnie herself, the implacable belle of the ball, who would not dance, and

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so brought darkness down. If hers was not a face to fire the topless towers of Ilium, it was surely but from lack of opportunity.

That was the year the racehorse Darriwell won the Melbourne Cup. I recall the name because so many Darriwells sprang up suddenly about us. A young bull calf, a puppy and a cat at least we had, and about the district a confusion of horses named after the illustrious one. The fame of the racehorse filtered to us through the medium of the workingmen of the place, whose conversation at the approach of November, and through it, was full of strange, turfy terms, rather shocking to the ears of the more serious. But that year, when Minnie was in the midst of her reign, domestic and social, there was especial interest and excitement in the racing season. A bullock driver living near had won the £1,000 sweep in Tattersall's. This man became suddenly the centre of interest, and without loss of time began to play the double rôle of prodigal and Lothario. In the latter character he swept the romantic Minnie Grave off her feet, and for a time in the former rôle his presents were showered upon her. To our delighted ears she poured forth stories of the gentleman's wonderful doings, actual and prospective, and showed us certain dazzling articles of jewellery purchased for her adornment by his wealth and admiration. And then suddenly something happened. We never knew what, but Minnie's wonderful jewellery, which had increased in beauty at every gift, was made into a parcel and packed off by one of the farm-boys, as though it were a pair of old boots, to the Darriwell hero. There were some tragic days when Minnie wept constantly, and made many blunders about her work. During this sad period she found some consolation in pouring into the ears of us children stories hinging upon the faithlessness of men. These were entirely in the abstract, but tacitly we knew their source of being. Whether warned by our seniors or by our instincts I do not know we refrained from indicating that we suspected any personal application in these woeful tales of perfidy. Claribel, who had been responsible for the name of Darriwell bestowed on the puppy and

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kitten of a few months previously, during the heyday of the romance, changed the names of both. I shall always regard that action as illustrating the tactfulness that belongs to a delicate nature.

Ah, well! there's poetic justice in real life sometimes; the bullock driver wasted the remnant of his thousand pounds with deliberate speed, and, shorn of his trappings, rumour began to breathe many unlovely things about his name. The dénouement, indeed, has in it all that art could wish, and what life does not always give. Minnie, missing the man of moral squint, eventually gained the other, whose obliquity of vision was merely physical.