My Career Goes Bung – (The End of My Career) – Chapters 1-6 – fiction by Stella Miles Franklin


A wallaby would have done just as well as a human being to endure the nothingness of existence as it has been known to me. This, I suppose, is why I want to tell of the only two lively things that have happened in a dull, uninteresting life. You don’t know me from a basket of gooseberries, or wouldn’t if only I had kept myself to myself, but as I didn’t, I shall endure the embarrassment of bringing myself to your attention again in an explanatory postscript. In company with ninety-nine per cent. of my fellows, the subject of self is full of fascination to me. There are cogent reasons for this.

One of the interesting happenings is my entanglement with Henry Beauchamp. The other is my experience in writing a new style of autobiography. Such a departure grew out of my satiation with the orthodox style. I shall deal with the autobiography first. These notes are slightly and somewhat expurgatedly compiled from my diary.

I was at that stage of chrysalism when boys dream of becoming bushrangers, engine drivers, or champion pugilists. Nothing so garishly simple relieves a girl. I yearned to make the whole world into a beautiful place where there would be no sick and starving babies, where people of advancing years could be safe from penury, where all the animals could be fat and happy, and even our little sisters, the flowers, might not be bruised or plucked against their wish. The prospect of settling down to act tame hen in a tin pot circle, and to acknowledge men as superior merely owing to the accident of gender, revolted me.

Life among boys and girls at an institution such as the Stringybark Hill Public School, ere adolescence has arrived to mess things up, is a good example of democracy. There were no wealthy within competitive reach, money did not count to any extent, and beauty and birth did not count at all. We never heard of such things. Only the merit of brains and honesty weighed in the school room, and athletic prowess coupled with fair play on the playground.

Any sort of lessons except long addition sums were a joy and sinecure to me. On the playground, though small, I was fleet of foot and exceptionally agile, could vault as high as any boy of my own age till I was twelve, and was always chosen as captain whether the game happened to be cricket, rounders or prisoners’ bar. A balance was preserved in my status by the fact that the dunces at lessons were always the best hats or runners outside, and that athletes when grown up had so much more glory than mere scholars.

I was impatient to be done with school so that I could take hold of life in the big world, I could not understand why people stayed in some lone hole with no more spunk in them than a milch cow, while the universe elsewhere teemed with adventure.

I expected to continue in enjoyment of the friendship and affection of my fellows, working for and winning a high place in all the activities that I essayed. I thought that there would be any number of activities to choose from. I was sure of winning love and acclamation because I never cheated in a game or put on airs over my ascendancy in them, and eagerly shared anything and everything within my power.

Thus came the last day under the rule of the gentle old teacher in the little slab school house among the tall trees on the stringy bark range. Old Harris, as we called him behind his back, got drunk on occasion but was condoned by the kindly settlers because he knew and loved each child individually. He could bring what there was out of the thickest skulls and I rioted unrebuked and highly encouraged within his jurisdiction. He had been educated at one of the great colleges in England. I don’t know which as he never mentioned it to the simple circle of Stringy-bark Hill. He was supposed to be related to big swells hut that likewise he never mentioned unless he was a bit tipply and some flash intruder was putting on airs. He had the manners of an angel, a dear kind face, and wouldn’t have harmed a grasshopper. These qualifications earned him the protection of the rudest and crudest. He taught a mere handful of children the rudiments of education for less than £3 a week and boarded with a family who were industrious, honest and kind, but could offer him no congeniality of mind or companionship of knowledge.

Ma condemned his fecklessness to be stuck there, but Pa would rub the top of his head – his own head – and remark, “At Old Harris’s age life boils down to a decent bed and a good feed, and those things are his.”

At the end of my last day with him he patted me on the shoulder – an unusual liberty for this diffident soul. He never seemed to have any egotism except when he was drunk. It must have been ingrowing like squeezed toenails. He made a little speech over me, the kind which youth accepts as drivel at the time, but which comes back vividly when youth has grown towards this drivelling knowledge itself. It returns to me now in the drivellage of my twentieth year, and here it is.

“Sybylla, you are a good girl – clean and true – and a gifted one to boot. You are as game as a young lion but I fear that the opposing forces will break your heart. You are a glad young thing now, but with your ability and temperament, alas, it will take more than ordinary conditions to keep you happy. You have a quicker brain than any scholar I ever had, but that will not help you unless you use it to hide the fact of its existence and to enhance your beauty; and of beauty you have ample to secure what would satisfy most of your sex, but which will never content you, so I might as well hold my tongue. At any rate, good fortune attend you. The old school house will be dull and lonely without you.”

I thought that he must have had a drop, but now when he is dead and six years have passed, I simply know that his experience of life was more than mine.

I was let out in advance and he stood looking after me as I swung down the path between the young trees which I had helped to plant on by-gone Arbor Days. Affection is a terribly binding thing. It always keeps me from breaking bonds, so I turned back every few steps to wave to the old man with a wistful regret that he was a finished chapter and that I could not take him with me into the glamorous young world towards which I was headed.

I had two miles to go by a short cut, which I followed for the joy of fallen logs to vault, and I sprang high every yard or two for the gum leaves that splashed their outline on the ground. The sky was a washing-bag blue with mountainous white clouds of thunderous splendour piled in the west. What a sunset it would be’ I revelled in every scrap of beauty that came my way, and was excited to picture the beauty and adventure that I was going to broach beyond the ragged horizon to be seen from the tall fence host. The loveliest most thrilling thing in sight was the road that led from the front paddock to Goulburn, then on and on to Sydney – first port of call in my voyage of conquest. I climbed on to the garden post for a view before entering the house, my school days past.

“What are you doing there like a tom-boy?” inquired Ma. “You must change your ways now. The happiest days you’ll ever know are over – all play and no work and worry. You’ll find life a different matter.”

LIFE a different matter – I should hope so! – like a blue ocean of adventure calling with a deafening invitation to embark.


But how to get on to that ocean? I was on a small weedy waterhole that seldom swelled into a stream and there were many snags. Upon leaving school these multiplied like fury.

I entered into the life of struggling incompetent selectors. The chief burden of that, for the women, was unrestricted child-bearing, and I was now a woman, as Ma reminded me, a fact which made me rebellious. Ma said I was always a wilful and contradictory imp and that during the throes of rearing me, she was frequently put to such confusion that despite I was her first and last and only child there were times when she could have cheerfully wrung my neck. Ma said most girls felt the way I did at first, but soon settled down. All girls wished that they were men.

At that I flashed out like a tornado, insulted. Never in my life had I a wish to be a man. Such a suggestion fills me with revulson. What I raged against were the artificial restrictions.

Girls! I do not address those feeble nauseating creepers who seem to fit into every one of the old ruts, the slimy hypocrites who are held up as womanly, but those who have some dash and spirit. You remember what we had to learn, girls, things that one cannot write in plain print or else truth would be abused as indecency; and there were other things too subtle to be expressed even to the elect, but which wielded the strongest subjecting influence. The dead dank gloom that settled on us upon learning that the eternal feminine was the infernal feminine! But Ma always said, “You’ll have to get used to it. There is no sense in acting like one possessed of a devil.”

A man can get used to having his legs cut off, and women have even greater endurance, or, seeing the conditions under which they live and work and dress and reproduce their species, they would have been extinct with the Great Auk, and what a pity they weren’t!

Girls! Do you remember how we loathed the correct meek merely sexy specimens who had none of our foolhardy honesty, or any unsmutched ideals of life and love? We clamoured for the opportunity to be taken on our merits by LIFE: we wanted to play it as we played our games, where, if there was any doubt about us being bowled out, we did not want to hold on, we laid down our bats without whimpering.

The first foul blast from the tree of knowledge was that we weren’t to be allowed any unadulterated HUMAN merits. Sexual attractions alias WOMANLINESS was to be our stock-in-trade. If we did not avail ourselves of it we were defenceless, and might even he execrated. How we abhorred the cunning girls who found no trouble with their role. In school they had been ranked by attainment, and their marks had seldom risen even to FAIR. Now in the hierarchy of mere gender their pandering intelligence was to score every time. We could come into line or find ourselves on an outside track alone.

Girls, how did you take it?

It seemed to develop into a storm between Ma and me. Ma at last said, “Bother it, I have nothing to do with it. It is God’s will.”

It was a relief to be indignant with God, but a trial not to be able to get at Him in any way. In my perturbation I collided with Great-aunt Jane, who said that the Lord loveth those whom He chasteneth. His way of saving the world did not appear to me as efficient for a being who was all-powerful. He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to save it, and allowed Him to be nailed on a cross in ghastly agony – without saving anything considerable as far as history shows.

“Heaven knows what He would have permitted to be done to a daughter,” I remarked.

Aunt Jane stood this pretty well. “Ah,” she laughed, “You’ll grow to sense. A husband and children of your own will put you in your place.”

The dire soul-crushings with which old wives threaten me consequent upon the glories of motherhood are enough to quell a quadruped. Aunt Jane repudiated the blame too, and said I should have to wait until the next world to have things righted.

“According to what I have heard, a woman who has had the hell of bearing twelve children to give some male object a heaven of begetting is just as likely to go to hell as the father: and the next world’s joys are open equally to men, more so, in fact. That next-world-payment-of-debts is sloppy rubbish,” I snorted.

“You have a great deal to learn,” said Auntie. “You are a rude ignorant girl. If you persist in thinking as you do, you’ll come to harm.”

Pa rubbed his hair up on end and gently remarked, “What is coming to harm in this debate, Aunt Jane, is your theology.”

Pa’s words fell as healingly as rain on the dust. I was sorry I had been rude to Auntie. When I got Pa alone I questioned him further, and he said, as if talking to himself, “As high as a people rises, so high will be its gods.”

“The trouble with the Church of England God,” Pa continued, “is that he is made in the image of some darned old cackling prelate, so mean and cowardly that the Devil, for consistency and ability, is a gentleman beside him.” Pa had a twinkle in his eye as he added, “But you know, it isn’t gentlemanly to upset people of less mental powers than yourself; besides, it is dangerous. Think as much as you like, my girl, but let sleeping dogs lie unless you can do some real good by waking them up.”

Great-aunt spends a lot of time with us. She says Pa is the nicest man she has ever known in a house, that I should thank God on my knees every night for such a parent. This so differs from Ma’s inculcations that I would attribute it to Auntie’s love of contradiction, only that under cross-questioning she says that had she had such a father when a girl she would have thought herself in heaven. Her father was an unmerciful autocrat. His daughters had to live their lives under cover, so to speak, like mice. I wish I could be so dominating, but judging by Grandma and Ma and myself, this progenitor’s progenitiveness is becoming diluted with the generations.

I concede that technically Ma is my primary parent and Pa merely secondary. The question of woman’s emancipation and the justice which is her due make this fatally clear in theory, but when it comes to the practice of an affection which springs spontaneously from my human breast, Pa can have no second place; and when it comes to being understood, well – but – but – Ma says having children of my own will teach me. I wonder what.

I had lots of other stuffing in me too. Resiliently I renewed my attack on LIFE. Rebellion against artificial WOMANLINESS did not interfere with all that rushed out of my mind on the wings of imagination. There was one great recreation open to me, even at ‘Possum Gully, which was a sop to energy. I could ride. I could ride tremendously. I loved horses and seemed to become part of them. In the district were any number of good horses, most of them owned by bachelors. As one of these Bachelors said, “A lovely high-spirited girl is just the thing to top-off a good horse.”

All kinds of horses, from racing stallions to hunting mares, were brought to clue with the owners included as escorts and the source of chocolates in wonderful boxes. Some of the horses demanded skill and attention to handle, and that saved their owners from my dialectics and me from their love-making. There was no use in a man offering me a horse that was moke enough for love-dawdling, and that’s how that worked out.

Pa forbade fences. Ma said that unless I meant to marry one of the men it was foolish and unladylike to be riding about with them; they would have no respect for me. If I really was against marriage I’d have to take up some trade or profession; she wished she had been trained to something so that she could be independent and not be dragged in the backwash of man’s mismanagement.

This brought me to consider my prospects and to find that I hadn’t any. I loved to learn things – anything, everything. To attend the University would have been heaven, but expense barred that. I could become a pupil-teacher, but I loathed the very name of this profession. I should have had to do the same work as a man for less pay, and, in country schools, to throw in free of remuneration, the specialty of teaching all kinds of needlework. I could be a cook or a housemaid and slave all day under some nagging woman and be a social outcast. I could be a hospital nurse and do twice the work of a doctor for a fraction of his pay or social importance, or, seeing the tremendously advanced age, I could even be a doctor – a despised lady-doctor, doing the drudgery of the profession in the teeth of such prejudice that even the advanced, who fought for the entry of women into all professions, would in practice “have more faith in a man doctor”. I could be a companion or governess to some woman appended to some man of property.

I rebelled against every one of these fates. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary groove. There were people who had done great things for the world, why not be one of such? Ma threw cold water on these haverings. Ma is the practical member of our ménage. She has to be, so that we have a ménage at all. Ma’s thesis was that if all the millions who have gone have not improved the world, how was I going to do it in one slap How would I start about it? Whereas, improvement seemed to me so simple that all that was needed was common sense and energy.

Pa was sympathetic. Ma says that I take after him, except when I am commendable. Pa has ever acknowledged the relationship with pride even during my most debbil-debbil stretches, which is very generous of Pa.

“There have been great women, haven’t there, Pa?”

“Of course there have, and are, and will be again,” said he.

“But what on earth makes you think you might be one of them?” demanded Ma.

“Why shouldn’t she be?” murmured Pa.

“You can’t be anything without means these days.”

“The times are always the same. People make their opportunities.”

“She doesn’t strike me as that kind.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” maintained Pa. “Greatness has sprung from unlikelier sources.”


Poverty is a stultifying curse. We suffered from it. Ma blamed Pa. Pa never blamed anyone but himself. He had not always been poor. He was no businessman. Bad seasons and foolish investments lost him his parental station. Ma considered his term in Parliament as Member for Gool Gool his biggest financial mistake. Pa had been under heavy election expenses, and was robbed by a partner during his absence. Pa had had ambitions to improve the Colony through political action, and had failed. That was why Ma was alarmed by my symptoms. I was too young to remember Pa’s Parliamentary term. Ma’s abiding reference to it is that men are very fond of the sound of their own voices. Well, I like Pa’s voice too, because it is never raised in blame.

Pa is tall and lean and lank and brown as is the ribbed sea sand, and he is fond of poetry. Byron is a favourite with him. He can quote Byron by the page.

This makes the madmen who have made men mad
By their contagion; conquerors and kings,
Founders of sects and systems, to whom add
Sophists, bards, statesmen, all unquiet things.

* * *

He who surpasses or subdues mankind
Must look down on the hate of those below.

Such lines roll splendidly from him. Ma says a man betrays himself by what he extols. I asked if that also applies to women, but Ma says not nearly so accurately, as women have to pretend to like so many things to humour men.

Ma extols Dr. Watts. He is prosaic compared with Byron.

Not more than others I deserve,
Yet God has given me more,
For I have food while others starve,
Or beg from door to door.

Which suggests mean favouritism on the part of God, and a priggish self-satisfaction on the part of one who has petty deserts.

Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do, has often driven me exasperated and frustrated from meditation when a thought was filling out like a sail catching a breeze.

Dr. Watts was the lighter side of Ma. She was also a whale on Shakespeare. I enjoyed him too, but Milton was too much of a good thing. Ma insisted that I should learn long slices of Milton as discipline and to elevate thoughts.

Where joy for ever dwells; hail, horrors; hail,
Infernal world; and thou, profoundest hell,
Receive thy new possessor; one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a Bell of heaven.

“Bust” was the most ferocious expletive ever heard from women in Ma’s family. It was considered the height of vulgarity and not allowed at all, really, but in the depths of some overpowering exasperation even Great-aunt Jane has been overheard expleting it. “Bust Milton’.” I said many times to myself. “Paradise is lost surely enough while you have to be learning this stuff by heart.”

The most interesting line in the book was, “Witness, William Yopp, Ann Yopp”. They were a funny note in the stiff gilt-edged volume. Why had they a name like that? They were attached to the information that Mrs. Milton had got eight pounds for the twelve books of P.L. Poetry didn’t seem to be a lucrative business, but of course that was over three hundred years ago, and to-day was different.

Ma said as I wasn’t in a position to tackle professional training I must help Pa on the place. He could not afford to hire men. This brought me back to my idea of a career at the top where there was plenty of room above the tame-fowl openings, which were all that lay before one so poor and isolated. Ma said I should take stock of my possibilities and banish all silly delusions. Ma assisted in this stock-taking. She dwelt upon my lack o t special gifts and said we should not shrink from unpleasant facts about ourselves, we must face them and grow strong. We must accept God’s will without whining. It must be dreadful to have a daughter as disappointing as I am to Ma, and it is just as hard for such a fiasco of a girl to have a superb mother. I did not know which of the two trials was the heavier, but Ma did. Hers was the trial and mine the failure to take advantage of my heredity in her. However, life went on.

At that date there was a parliamentary election. FREE-TRADE or PROTECTION became a war cry. Pa was called upon to support the Member for our electorate.

‘Possum Gully livened up. We had meetings at our house and I accompanied Pa on the rounds. There were young men everywhere all eager to argue politics with me. How I chafed that women were classed with idiots and children! Of course I should have had to wait until I was twenty-one to vote, but I longed to stand for Parliament then just as I was with my hair in a plat and my skirts above my ankles. I hankered to tackle the job of Premier for a start. The young men all said they would vote for me when I put up. Our Member was one of those who advocated extending the franchise to women, so I adored him and we were great friends. He said I was one of his best canvassers.

Scorning tame-hen accomplishments and lacking special gifts of God, which lift a person from obscurity to fame through an art, a sport, or an invention, I returned to the thought of general greatness. Pa was very proud when old campaigners said I was a chip of the old block. He was strenuously in favour of woman suffrage. Ma expostulated with him for taking me about. She said we soon would not have even a poor roof to cover us. My Grandma got to hear of me and wrote letters blaming Ma. When Great-aunt Jane next stayed with us she did her best to save me.

“You’ll grow into one of those dreadful female agitators – eccentric women that men hate. You’ll get the name of a man-hater if you don’t take care.”

“This men-hating business seems to be as lop-sided as God’s will for women. You condemn a woman if she doesn’t worship men. She is the one in the wrong to hate the darling creatures, though they’re pretty hatable by all accounts. Then if a girl is fond of men that also disgraces her. I do like logic and fair play.”

“So do I,” interposed Ma, “but you’ll have to resign yourself to it all being on the other side.”

“It’s all silly nonsense. The men don’t act as if they hated me. The old ones as well as the boys all are friendly wherever I go.”

“Men will always blather to a forward woman while she is young; but they won’t respect her or marry her,” said Aunt Jane.

“She couldn’t marry more than one at a time, however willing she is,” said Pa. “She has plenty of time yet.”

When Pa and I were driving around the electorate together he talked about LIFE and said that my idea of being Premier was not fantastic. The political enfranchisement of women was inevitable, and women free could do what they liked with the world.

Votes for women was a magic talisman by which all evils and abuses were to be righted. Women no longer would have to pander to men through sexual attraction and pretend to be what they weren’t. They would burgeon as themselves. Those were splendid days. Pa said I must educate myself in readiness as by the time I should be of age I could stand for Parliament and discover if I had ability as a statesman. As a beginning he suggested that I should study history and the lives of great people to learn how they conducted the business. To this end the poor dear once again postponed a new suit, which Ma truly said he needed to prevent his being mistaken for a scarecrow, and brought me home an armful of books, including some autobiographies.

That’s how the trouble began.

The histories I left for later consumption, as the people in them are always so long dead and are nearly all kings and queens and military or political murderers who have no relation to the ordinary kind of people like those I know in Australia. The biographies of real people nearer our own day, and especially the autobiographies, where people told about themselves, filled me with excitement.

Judging by the way Ma always misunderstands my deeds and purposes and intentions, and by what she and Aunt Jane tell me that other people do think or will think of me, it seemed that an autobiography was a device for disseminating personal facts straight from the horse’s mouth.

I read ardently, nay, furiously would better express the way that one tackles the things one wants to do. Grace Darling, Charlotte Brontë, Joan of Arc and Mrs. Fry passed in review, evidently by dull old professors. These were a long time dead. Lives nearer to my own day had more appeal – until I read them. What I absorbed from autobiographies was not how to be great so much as the littleness of the great. Every one of those productions, whether the fiction that passes for reality or the decorated reality that is termed fiction was marred by the same thing – the false pose of the autobiographer.

Now, we are always warned against egotism as something more unforgivable, more unpopularising than vulgar sin. Yet everyone is a mass of egotism. They must be if they are to remain perpendicular. Henry Beauchamp later explained this to me. He says that little Jimmy Dripping is a much more important person to little Jimmy Dripping than the Prince of Wales is. If this were not so he says that the end of little Jimmy Dripping would soon be mud; that each fellow’s self-importance is the only thing that keeps him going. Well then, why make such an unholy fuss about egotism?

Ma despised egotism because she had none herself and happened by an accident to be perfect. Pa and I seemed to have whips and whips, but of the wrong kind. The best kind, the most profitable is like the hippo’s epidermis. Another word for it is hide – HIDE. It works so that you think your own performance of sin or stupidity is quite all right, and only the other fellow’s all quite wrong. Pa said that that kind of egotism was a magnificent battering ram for worldly success, but to have it you must be born without a sense of humour and without the ability to see yourself as others see you. I was beginning to suspect that a sense of humour was more profitable to the other fellow than to the owner.

The business of egotism needs to be regulated by give-and-take in real life or there would be general obstruction of all conversation and social intercourse, but that does not apply to an autobiography, at least not in conjunction with logic. The fact of an autobiography is in itself an egotism. People perpetrate autobiographies for the sole purpose of airing their own exploits. If they go off the track of displaying the writer they likewise cease to be autobiographies. Such documents are usually mawkishly egotistical instead of frankly so because they attempt the scientific impossibility of being unegotistical. Too, in autobiographies, the hero of the narrative tries to deprecate his goodness, while at the same time he often endeavours to depict himself as a saint worthy of wings. If he has a penny-dreadful parent he nevertheless paints himself as adoring him (or her) and by honouring one or both is a contestant for the doubtful prize of long life, which the bible promises people for enduring their immediate progenitors in any circumstances. (And I never could see in strict logic how that works.)

I have examined all available autobiographies since then but not one have I found by woman or man, scientist or simpleton, which did not assume the same pose. So little greatness did I find in the lives of the great as related by themselves that for a time I was diverted from the idea of becoming great myself by the notion of constructing a fictitious autobiography to make hay of the pious affectations of printed autobiographies as I know them.

Who has not read an autobiography beginning thus: “At the risk of being egotistical I must admit,” etc. I determined to flout these pretences with an imitation autobiography that would wade in without apology or fear, biffing convention on the nose.

The days were goldenly long and warm, I was rabid for mental and physical action, and there was none in that state of discontent in which it had pleased God to place me. It makes me question His amiability in placing His victims. In addition to riding I swam in our weedy water-holes among leeches and turtles where there was also an occasional snake, but of mental pabulum there was no crumb to be found, except in books, I was a voracious reader, but after all, books pall on one when that one is throbbing to be doing something exciting. From ‘Possum Gully to Spring Hill and round about to Wallaroo Plains there wasn’t a real companion of my own age, nor any other age. The dissatisfaction of other girls stopped short at wondering why life should be so much less satisfactory to them than to their brothers, but they accepted it as the will of God. None of them was consumed with the idea of changing the world.

The idea of writing a book to make fun of the other books grew with cossetting. Ma said she had sufficient experience of my ideas to be chary of them. EXPERIENCE seems to stand by Ma like a religion.

Pa rubbed the top of his head contemplatively and said, “If you are man enough to write a book, I’ll get you some paper.”

“How could an untried girl write a book?” demanded Ma. “Why not start with a little story for the ‘Children’s Corner’? You can’t run before you learn to walk.”


A ream of paper is a large quantity to one who has never written a book nor met anyone who has done so – 480 sheets all to myself.

“That’ll hold you for a bit,” said Pa.

“What a waste!” said Ma.

The pleasure of good penmanship on all that lovely white paper edged me on to begin upon my spontaneous career of slinging ink, of which this volume is to be the petite finale.

Ma admired classical features. Pa had them. Perhaps that is what misled her into a poor match, and why, no matter how often my looks are praised as lovely, she will not rank me as a beauty. She says such talk is to make a fool of me. So to be done with the uncertainty, I accept Ma’s dictum that beauty lies in actions, and as my actions are all wrong, where could be my beauty? Nevertheless, bang went another convention. Men cared only for prettiness in girls, yet our house was a rendezvous for young men from all over the electorate and beyond it, who slid not honestly come to talk politics with Pa, though they pretended that they did. I wasn’t in danger of being embittered by a lack of admirers, nor of platonic men friends, as I was simple enough to think they were at the start, They teased me about dropping the Premiership and taking to writing.

Ma said there was no sight more nauseating than lovesick men all cackling and he-hawing and pretending they were angels who wouldn’t let her pick up her thimble; while by-and-bye if I should marry one of them, most likely he would leave me to chop the wood and would turn her out of his house.

Pa said there was no use in quarrelling with NATURE or taking a jaundiced view.

Ma rejoined that EXPERIENCE had shown her that common sense was very rare.

It was a spring without a spring. The breezes had a strong dash of summer, but the cloudless skies looked down with an excess of that pitilessness which the Persian poet has advised us not to call upon. Not a speck the size of a man’s hand came up for weeks to give even false hope, and the half-opened leaves withered on the rose bushes and orchard trees. The starving stock lacked strength to bring their young to birth, and the moan of dying creatures throughout that country side was a reproach to whatever power had placed them there. The earth was as dry as ashes. Isolated shrubs and plants, that had been the pride of settlers’ drudging wives and daughters, died in spite of efforts to keep them alive with the slop water collected after household use. The wattle trees, however, because they were natives, were putting forth an unstinted meed of bloom with an optimism rivalling “God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world”. Masses of lovely yellow fluff swayed to waves in the breeze and wafted perfume too chaste for the seventh heaven of oriental belief. This loveliness lacked competition in the grim landscape. I culled sprays to press between the leaves of some old book, and wondered would there ever come a day when I should be as homesick for a bower of wattle bloom set in a frame of gumtrees as I was now wild to escape to other lands of castles and chateaux and Gothic cathedrals.

The drought made work in the garden superfluous. I had leisure to utilise that ream of paper. The burlesque autobiography grew apace. My idea of ridicule speedily enlarged as a reticule into which anything could be packed. I could express my longing to escape to other lands and far great cities across the sheening ocean to strange ports above and below the Line, where big ships and little go for their cargoes. It was an opportunity to crystallise rebellion and to use up some of the words which pressed upon me like a flock of birds fluttering to be let out of their cages. There is artistic satisfaction in liberating words: and they entered into me and flew from me like fairies.

It was absorbing to allot parts to characters. Uncertainty when to interpolate “Odds fish, ma’am,” or “Gad Zooks,” put me off a historical track, though I had started in an ancient castle on an English moor. I was also in a quandary about style, but at that time dear old Mr. Harris came to spend a few days with us prior to leaving the district. I let him into the secret. He was sympathetic in one way and discouraging in another. He said that the pursuit of literature was a precarious staff of life, but an engrossing hobby, if one had the leisure and the means. He asked me where the scene was set, a question I did not understand. He said if I would trust him to see the first chapter he could probably tell me.

We walked among the wattle blossom in the gully beyond the vegetable garden till we reached the top, where there were some rocks. We sat down, and he said, “My dear Sybylla, I have read your beginning. Though immature it has promise.”

I nearly stifled in agonised expectation of his condemnation. My whole feeling had come to the surface as sensitive as the nerve of a tooth. I knew he would never be mean enough to tell Ma the full depth of my foolishness.

“Why do you write about a castle in England that you have never seen?” he asked gently.

Without waiting for my reply he continued, “I’ll tell you, my dear little girl. The castle in England is a castle in Spain, and ‘tho’ ’twas never built,’ imagination makes it more enthralling than things near at hand. Why not try reality?”

I asked breathlessly what he meant.

“Well, instead of the roses on that castle wall, why not this fragrant bower of wattle? Instead of the wind moaning across the moor, why not the pitiless sun beating down on the cracked dusty earth?”

“But that couldn’t be put in a book – not in a story!”

“Why not, child?”

“Everyone knows that, and it is so tame and ugly.”

“It would be most novel and informing to those who are as familiar with the castle or a slum street as you are with the wattles and the baked paddocks. Australia is crying out to be done: England is done to death.”

This was an expanding idea, like opening a window and letting me look into a place I had not known before.

“You see, you know everyone in the Australian bush. You could picture them with a vigor and conviction that would be refreshing: and my dear, if you could project yourself upon the canvas it would be most successful.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that!” I shrank from this. “Besides, I have never done anything like the heroines in novels. I am not sweetly good, and though Ma thinks I am possessed of a devil, I have never done anything really unrespectable. For example, I could never have been so unkind as to throw that dictionary back at the teacher like Becky Sharp did, though I wish I could do that kind of thing. It must be splendid.”

“If you could draw portraits of all the characters that furnish your life it would be a good beginning.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t put in real people. They would not like to see themselves except as white-washed saints – like the yarns on the tombstones. I’d have to imagine people to make them interesting.”

“Um!” said he, and then with a chuckle, “you go ahead. I shouldn’t be surprised if they turn out to be more real that way. But there is one thing, my dear, be Australian. It is the highest form of culture and craftmanship in art to use local materials. That way you stand a chance of adding to culture. The other way you are in danger of merely imitating it, and though imitation is a form of flattery to the imitated, it is a form of weakness or snobbery in the perpetrator. You must find your own way and your own level. The material is in you: all that is required is industry in cultivation.”

I could hardly wait till the end of his visit to plaster the ideas he had put into my head upon the original burlesque. Ma said that Mr. Harris was right to a certain extent, that to pretend to be what one was not was the height of vulgarity, but she couldn’t see that an interesting book could be made of reality: it was dreary enough to live in the bush in drought time: no one could possibly find any pleasure in reading about such misfortune.

Ma always brings up EXPERIENCE. She has often routed Pa from the field of philosophy with the records of EXPERIENCE, and she now inquired what was the sense in wasting time and paper in this way? Why not do something practical? Pa though, is always willing to believe that the latest venture must be better than the preceding.

I set out to do the equivalent of taking two photographs on the one plate. I was to burlesque autobiography and create the girl of my admiration, and fill in with a lot of lifelike people as a protest against over-virtuous lay figures. One thing I have always envied in girls is the ability to fly into a towering rage. At school there were two bad-tempered dunces and they enjoyed my brain effort-. I lived in terror of their temper and did their sums with alacrity. Poor Old Harris was careful not to stir them up, and they did pretty well what they liked. So my heroine was to be the antithesis of conventional heroines. All my people were to be created in the image of reality – none of them bad enough to be tarred and feathered, none good enough to be canonised. But people are never what they think themselves, and by the results which accrued it would seem that it is equally difficult to present a character as you intend.

Up to that date I do not remember being so fully interested in anything. I had a secret delight. I ceased to talk about it even to Pa. He and I had quite opposite tastes in stories. He liked adventure: Mayne Reed, Fenimore Cooper, Captain Marryat, Gil Blas, Rider Haggard, but I had one or two of George Gissing’s books, Vanity Fair, Colonel Newcome and Esther Waters, and enjoyed that style. No, I could not write dashingly enough to interest Pa. Ma was reading an annotated edition of Shakespeare, and that took her above my sphere of effort.

Bewitchment shadowed the paper as I progressed, I could not do what I liked with the people. I often found them as troublesome as Ma found me, and I think in the end they made rather a pie of my theme, though I did not know it at the time. The book was a companion as well as an entertainment, a confidant and a twin soul. You know how a piece of lace that you have made yourself has a charm lacking in a much better piece made by someone else? So with that book. I used to climb on the hay in the shed behind the stables on Sunday afternoons and read it over – like doing all the parts in a play myself, though at the time I had not seen a play. I must have had a lot of ingrowing egotism, and it came out in this way as the pimples or boils that are common to boys.

I was sardonically amused to depict that reality suggested by Mr, Harris.

Our home was of wood and of the usual pattern and situation in a particularly ugly portion of the bush. We were dished in a basin of low scrubby ranges which are familiar to the poorer settlers where the fertile patches are land-locked in a few big holdings by hard-headed fellows who got in early with capital and grants and convicts.

Instead of hedges we had dog-leg and brush fences, and stumps in the cultivation paddocks. There were fowl-houses covered with tin to render them safe against sharp-snouted spotted marsupial cats; the mess-mate roosting trees also had wide rings of tin around the trunks to save the turkeys by night. Cowsheds were roofed with stringy-bark. Fields of briars and rugged ranges were all around; a weedy water hole in the middle; the not-yet-bleached bones of beasts were a common decoration. No roofs but our own were within sight. It was a raw contrast to the English scenery on which I doted, with its thatched cottages, trailing roses, gabled farm houses, towered ancestral halls with Tudor chimneys amid oaks and elms and cawing rooks and moors and downs, wolds, woods, spinneys and brooks. Such reality as mine would look mighty queer in a book, something like a swaggie at a Government House party, but it was as easy to describe as falling off a log.

The people belonging to this scenery were so ordinary and respectable and decent that a yarn about them could not possibly attract the attention of a reader. The probability of readers must have popped up somewhere along the track. I had had no thought of them when I started. I’m sure nothing but genius could make the ‘Possum Gully kind of reality interesting, and as I am only a jokist I had to bring out the paintpot of embellishment to heighten or lower the flat colorless effect.

There are times when our own case is so blinding that we are unable to feel or to see outside it. We are shut within ourselves. Sometimes these moods are merry and sometimes sad, but always self-sealed. If merry, so all-sufficient is our hilarity that grey skies or black nights have no power to damp our inward fire. But let us be sad, and the brilliance of the sun seems callous. We cannot reach outside ourselves. When young we demand so much that is beyond us that the first lessons in EXPERIENCE are the hoeing of the chastening row of disappointment.

I had a fever which fed upon itself like the green-eyed monster, and it was a great relief to be shedding it like a snake-skin. A desire to have someone to read the result came upon me towards the end. I don’t know whether this was gregariousness or mere egotism, like my cat’s when she brings home a kitten and dumps it for us to see. I was more selective than the cat. She doesn’t pick her appreciators. She drops her kitten among us regardless of passing boots, and also regardless, of who may be in the boots. I adore her and indulge her and so have been surprised that she did not bring me her kitten.

I was more demanding. I wanted someone who would understand. Who better than our greatest Australian author? I quite understood him since ever I was old enough to lisp a line of his ballads, what more sequential than his understanding of me? In the innocence of my heart, or it may have been the heartlessness of my innocence, I confidently sent him the manuscript. Having worshipped at his shrine with a whole-heartedness which we can enjoy but once in life, I felt sure of welcome within the gates of his interest.

In those days so entire was my unsophistication that I did not suspect that an author, even the AUSTRALIAN GREATEST, may not have earned thousands by his pen, and may be pestered by so many literary duds that he sees each fresh one draw near with weariness and terror.

To escape making a short story long, my idol welcomed my attempt with cheers for its ORIGINALITY, and asked would I trust him with the manuscript?

WOULD I!!!!!

I’d have given him any or all of my treasures, even my black-dappled-grey filly, a doll, a book of girls’ stories or a little box covered with velvet and sea shells. When I come to think of it, these were my only treasures, and he could not take the filly with him to London whither he was going. I was excited by his acceptance of the manuscript. I once gave Ma a little story for her birthday. She thanked me, but did not look as if it were an enjoyable present, and never said whether she read it before burning it under the copper. I hoped the great Australian writer would read my offering before burning it, as I had taken pains to write it nicely – no blots or scratchings-out.


This matter of the autobiography settled with satisfaction, I regained my chronic distaste for the kind of life into which it had pleased God to stuff me. The entertainment of fashioning my characters and acting their parts gave me the idea of being an actress. Acting appeared to be the only avocation open to a girl who was not a musical genius nor trained in anything but domesticity. Heaven knows why I had such a notion, for I loathed hypocrisy, and in my circle, acting was another name for this. I had never seen a play nor a mummer, nor even read one – a play I mean – except Shakespeare’s. It must have been the delirium of day-dreaming. Fantasy.

My delirium escaped me one day and really startled poor Ma. We had a State child called Eustace to help about the place, or hinder, Ma said. He had once been an elephant’s leg in a school play in Goulburn and considered it a great lark. I concocted a scene, in which I was to accidentally fight a duel with him. He refused to fight unless I wore trousers. I put on Pa’s, but Eusty said Odds Fish, no dashing blade would fight with such a spectacle. So I tried a pair of Eusty’s in which I showed a bit of knee like a fat boy. Eusty called me Greedy Guts. We staged the drama in the hay shed. Pa was concerned that we might have set alight to the straw. Ma said never, never let her hear of me again putting on trousers; showing my person, failing in self-respect before a State School boy!

My defence was that to act Shakespeare (whom everyone respects next to the bible), I should have to don doublet and hose. Me acting SHAKESPEARE! Ma was shocked to discover such foolishness in me. I must really be mad. This put me in a fantod so that Ma reported me to Pa and threatened to enlist the clergyman to exorcise the devil in me.

“Now,” said Pa, when left to rebuke me, “you must be careful not to upset your mother. The game is not worth the candle.” The only thing wrong in the affair was that I had upset Ma: I must never upset Ma: she was a wonderful woman.

“She is not always right just because she is my mother,” I grumbled.

“The law is that the Queen can do no wrong,” said Pa.

“Yes, but a Queen is a being raised to false majesty.”

“Have you forgotten that a woman’s kingdom is the home?”

Pa had a twinkle in his eyes, but I refused to melt. EXPERIENCE was certainly teaching me that a sense of humour is too often an advantage to the one who hasn’t it. A lack of a sense of humour, like a lack of good-temper, can be used as a waddy.

Later Ma upbraided Pa because he had not severely trounced me. Pa said, “I see nothing wrong with the child’s intellect except that it is too bright for its uses”.

“If she comes to harm, you must take the consequences,” said Ma. “I find her with a boy – swept up from the gutter or somewhere – in a pair of trousers exposing her flesh.”

“Eustace is a fine boy. He only needs a chance.”

“A chance to get into mischief and laziness. Dear me, where would a child of mine get notions of the stage – the lowest…”

Pa began to rub his hair gently on end and remarked, “I suppose a sea bird reared in the middle of a desert would retain aquatic tendencies.”

“She does not take after my side of the house,” said Ma.

She was too perturbed about my aberration, as she called it, to leave me to Pa. She “took me in hand”. I resented the evil she discerned in me, felt that she was unfair, but there was no appeal against Ma. She disabused my mind of any notion that I could go upon the stage. She ridiculed my every feature and every contour. Ma believes in finishing things. She says it is a sign of a weak mind to begin things and leave them half done. Ma has no weakness of mind. She always finishes the hardest task. She finished me to squashation like a sucked gooseberry. I often longed for death or a nunnery as an escape from my depressing lack of desirable attributes.

But I was freed from notions. Never again would I have the conceit and delusions to think of the stage. Never would I have the effrontery to seek any but the humblest jobs. Should anyone flatter me I would know them for what they were at the first soft word. Ma had ensured me against making a fool of myself by attempting flights, but she had not helped me towards contentment. The native wombat role for me henceforth. Those who are low need fear no fall. I had always jeered at the Blackshaws, our neighbours, by saying they would never make fools of themselves and by adding that those who had not enough stuffing to make fools of themselves at times would never make anything else of themselves.

The finishing stroke in Ma’s finishing school was the threat to report me to the nice little clergyman. I loved him dearly. Like Old Harris he was an outlet. I was so worked up that I warned Ma that I’d listen to what she told him. Ma said it was a grave pass to be dictated to in her own house by a creature she had brought into the world. She demanded an apology. I refused. If I expressed contrition to Pa all was washed out, but with Ma it was different. She said penitent gush was useless without reform in deeds. Ma was what she called consistent.

The clergyman came next day, and after dinner, when Pa was at the stables feeding his horses, I loitered in the passage to hear what Ma was saying. Sure enough, she was reporting me as an abnormal specimen. I was infuriated, but the clergyman’s voice, in the tone of the Collects – perhaps it was the Twentieth Sunday after the Melbourne Cup – said, “But my dear Mrs. Melvyn, I cannot see anything wrong at all. That child has such glorious eyes that when they are fixed upon me I always find I can preach a better sermon.”

“She can be nice when she wants to.”

“Adolescence is a difficult time. You might let her come with me around the parish and to stay with my wife and daughters till I come next month. During our progress I could find time to talk to her on spiritual things: and I get so tired of driving, and she is such a clever whip.”

That was one in the eye of Ma. I was as gay as a lark, and a Willy-wagtail or two thrown in, when serving supper. I awaited breathlessly to hear the results of the clergyman’s championship. Disillusion awaited me.

There was only a thin partition between my bed and Ma’s, and I could always hear Ma’s final injunctions to Pa. Tonight Pa opened the discourse. “Mr. David wants to take Sybylla with him.”

“So he said.” Ma’s voice was a drought of common sense.

“Are you letting her go?”

“I am not.”

“Can’t you spare her?”

“Not to Mr. David.”


“Why should I let her run around with that silly old man?”

“He’s not so silly.”

“All men are silly where there is a young girl.”

“I think you carry suspicion too far,” murmured Pa.

“His cloth doesn’t protect a man from being blind to faults in a girl, though he would be dull to the problems of older women.”

Pa gave a loud grunt. In a little while Ma complained, “I wish you wouldn’t snore so”. Pa hadn’t begun yet, so Ma was taking time by the forelock, as she often adjured me to do.

I lay awake pondering her words. Surely a clergyman, and such a nice lean helpless-looking little one as Mr. David, would not he guilty of flattery or trying to make a fool of me; and he wasn’t a bit like the pretentious Canon, who had once taken Mr. David’s place. Now, if it had been the Canon! I remember chortling when I read the table of consanguinity beginning, “A man may not marry his grandmother,” but Pa had said that human nature was such that…well, such daunting things are attributed to human nature that one would prefer to be one of the higher animals and have decent instincts.

I had a good yarn with Mr. David on his next visit. I had him alone because a neighbour who was ill sent for Ma, and Pa had driven her over. I confessed one thing that prejudiced me against God was that He had to be fed on everlasting praise. I had to grow strong in disapprobation, but God had to be praised unceasingly by measley creatures which He Himself had made. The Psalms were ridiculous with fulsome praise. Egotism in me had to be stemmed and denied, but God seemed to be a sticky mess of it. Another reason I could not respect God was that it seemed so despicable to continually spy upon distressed little girls for the purpose of condemnation.

Mr. David chuckled and said, “Poor God: He has need of young minds like yours to think their way to Him, not to rebel against Him. He needs your help to free Him from all the stupid misrepresentation. Sybylla, m’dear, God is aching for your loving help.”

The problem was thrown on me in a way that had never even been hinted in ‘Possum Gully by anyone except Pa, and his theories were discredited by Little Jimmy Dripping’s common sense.

This devastating idea haunted me day and night. The God made by disagreeable and selfish old men in their own image and erected as a bogey to control women and children retreated before it. Was there no God, only as He was made manifest by nobility and truth in ourselves? This idea, at first releasing, grew to be terrifying. It left one lost and alone. The European God with all His masculine bullying unfairness was at least something to be sure of, however unsatisfactory. No God except as we demonstrate Him! Whew! There was a burden too difficult and demanding to be borne. No wonder people evaded such a vast responsibility by hypocrisy, or sought less exacting conceptions of God in josses which could be placated by praise and candles and incense and other material bribes. It was a sobering revelation.

However, LIFE went on.

I loathed ‘Possum Gully more and more. The horses were dog-poor. To ride them at the beginning of a bleak and droughty winter would have been wanton cruelty plus extravagance. March was crisp and cool, with a hint of frost which makes one feel as strong as a young colt, and I rebelled against the continual shining of pot lids, the unnecessary whitening of the hearth, just because Ma insisted upon being the top-notcher.

I took to the piano. Ma said that hard work and worry had driven piano-playing out of her. I said why not turn it the other way about, and drive out dullness with the piano, but Ma preferred to excel in spotless floors and windows. My thumping on the piano irritated her as a love of idleness, and I had to desist.

I hated every bit of the life but the sunsets and moonlight and the wild flowers. The watch-dog’s bark was often the only incident of the day with its promise of a caller to break monotony. Sometimes this would be a tea agent or a stock inspector. The regular visitors were Mrs. Olliver, Mrs. Blackshaw, or Mrs. Crispin come to spend the afternoon. I resented their inadequacy as society. It was not their fault. I loved them warmly, much more than they loved me, I am sure, and did more for them than they did for me, because I was something for them to criticise and cackle about. “That Sybylla does this and that.” Someone was always reporting what the other said, and that annoyed Ma. Pa said rubbish, if criticism was sifted out of conversation people would be silent from Goulburn to Bourke and Broken f fill and beyond.

Poverty can make pioneering a sorry job. In any case it has always been heavier on women than on men. ‘Possum Gully was a generation or two removed from frontier pioneering, though Australia never had a frontier. She had an outback which became back paddocks with familiarity. But all the trying part and none of the adventure of pioneering remained at ‘Possum Gully. The inconvenient houses depending on the main strength of drudgery, the absence of comfort or beauty or any cultural possibilities or opportunities for self-development were still enough to induce Back Blocks lunacy in any one above a cow in ability.

Those good ladies all had large families, and their conversations were about recipes for cakes and puddings and little Tommies’ tummyaches, and then boasting bees as to who skinned her hands the most in washing her husband’s trousers of moleskin. They and their daughters, following in their tracks, were held up to me as admirable. Horrors! Broken down drudges talking of uterine troubles and the weariness of child-bearing! I could not accept that as the fullness of life from any God worthy of worship or gratitude. These martyrs to stupidity were extolled in sententious tones as “mothers of families”. They were populating Australia. I said that instead of Ned Crispin and others I should prefer Australia to remain populated by kangaroos and the dear little bears and kangaroo rats that were as thick about us as sheep. This was the sort of thing that made me entertaining to the ‘Possum Gullyites, and troubled Ma.

Another winter wore away and a bit of a spring deluded the land. We had saved a few hundred sheep, and wool would be scarce because so many sheep had died. Just as shearing was coming on Pa had a call from an old colleague to help fight a by-election in Junee. This was a key electorate on Pa’s side, and he said he could not let the country down. The shearing would take only a few days, and Mr. Blackshaw offered to oversee it. He too saw the importance of Junee being saved for the right side.

This infuriated poor Ma. She said Pa might as well have been a drunkard who went on the booze at critical times. To leave our sole income to the superintendence of an outsider was not merely undignified, it was lunacy. Ma said I could now see why she tried to save me from my father’s tendencies. She held that a man should first save his home and family, and the country could come second. Pa said if the country was not saved for the homes and liberty Australia might as well be under the Russian Czars.

At any rate Pa went, ran away in a crisis, Ma said, just because he loved to hear himself spouting on a platform. Ma said I would never understand what she had suffered, that life was a bitter thing with a useless husband. I ventured to say that Pa didn’t have such a slashing life either. Ma maintained it was much harder for her, but that I could not understand that.

I was piqued by this accusation of lack in understanding. I said I could understand it was easier for Pa because he was so proud of her and thought her so wonderful. He at least had the satisfaction of thinking what a stroke he had done to choose and win such a wife, while she must always be ashamed of herself for marrying so much beneath her; but that did not appease Ma. Quite the opposite. Quite, quite the opposite! I gathered that Ma had the added affliction of me as a daughter, which couldn’t matter so much to Pa because I took after him.

Then Mr. Blackshaw’s back was smitten and he could not rise from bed. All the men at one time or another had a bad back. It was Mr. Blackshaw’s turn. Ma was a deserted heroine.

“It is my turn to save the ship,” said I. “You always say that I’ll have to help Pa. I know how to pick up and roll a fleece, and Eusty can be tar boy and rouse-about.”

This did not dispose of the pressing. We had a hand-worked press of Pa’s construction which Ma said showed what a helpless botcher Pa was, but all the neighbours used to borrow it, which further shows the standard of the neighbourhood, or that Pa wasn’t so bad.

We turned the hayshed into a floor for two men with blades, who wanted to learn so that they could go down the Riverina next year. The skilled shearers had not yet returned to their little homes in the wallaby scrubs around us. These lads had to do their own work and come a distance each morning and they were very slow. All this prolonged the festival.

Ma vetoed the idea of my working in the shed. It would have been fun and a relief from the pot lids and d’oyleys. (It sometimes took half an hour to iron one of the prevalent d’oyleys.)

“You would be talked about,” said Ma, “and the boys would be giggle-gaggling with you instead of attending to their work.”

She decided to attend to the shearing herself and let me do the cooking. this was a disappointment, as to press one’s face into a nice fat sheep all white from the shears is a delight. The two shearers were selectors’ sons in their teens. We knew each other minutely, but did not “associate”. We were a grade higher socially, but had we shown it they would not have shorn for us, and would have slanged us throughout the neighbourhood. Ma and I managed to be too busy to sit down to meals with them, and thus was a gradation of the caste system preserved.

The shearing was saved but the country was lost in so far as Pa’s man was rejected by the electors, and Pa did not have his election expenses paid.


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