Once upon a time, out in the deep Mallee forest near the Murray River there lived three sisters, aged sixteen, fourteen and thirteen … for as was common in those days, children came in quick succession. Their names being … from the eldest: Tess, Maggie and Rose. It was the years of post-Great Depression and the second world war raged another world away … in the deep Mallee where the sisters lived, the war was only a policy inconvenience, or in their case an opportunity for their father and mother to gain steady employment at a charcoal burning camp as he; a mechanic, and she; as cook to around a dozen men who cut the mallee wood to burn in the pits to make charcoal. The two younger girls helped their mother with the preparation of the food, while, Tess, the eldest worked not far away at Portee Station, a cattle and sheep station on the rim of the Murray River.
Being of a family that by necessity throughout the Great Depression had to make their living moving from town to town, seasonal crop to seasonal crop for work, the girls were schooled at home by their mother who was fortunate back in her native Ireland to have had an excellent education because of her middle-class family … coming to this country to be suddenly married and a mother of three girls at the start of the worst set-back for the nation’s economy in its short history while moving around seeking casual employment left her to make do on her own capabilities.
A long time back she had abandoned her middle-class sensibilities to the practical bent of survival … another thing that she had abandoned was her Protestant religion to swing to Catholicism … and she embraced that faith with all the fervour of the religious convert … she was unbending and unyielding in her reverence toward the belief and standards of that faith … and as such would not tolerate her daughters becoming corrupted by such deviant subjects like romantic novels or poetry, herself having a long time before cast out such publications from her possessions till the only tome of any literature in her domestic enclave … which by frugal providence was a hand-stitched, split wheat-bag tent of her husband’s own design, for rarely was there a actual house over or around them … was her large, prized edition of The Bible (with illustrations).
So when her eldest daughter brought home a second-hand book of poetry; The Collected Poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon, accompanied by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, her lips pinched, her eyes narrowed and her heart hardened and at first opportunity, she cast both editions out of the tent-flap with an admonishing chastisement and appropriate irony considering their present establishment to her daughter that such wanton literature will not be tolerated under her roof while she yet lives!
This did not deter Tess from pursuing her secret inner desire to one day become a poet herself … she dreamed of lines of absolute beauty written with the most delightful script on pages of soft paper … Her favourite poem from the book she now held most dear to herself was Thora’s Song … her romantic heart ached for the chance to just feel the same emotions Thora felt for her lover … and Tess would dream of one day meeting just such a poetic soul as herself to be able to exchange that similar felt emotion in tender moments of love … As such a time had not yet come, Tess would stroll to the river’s edge on her evening off perambulations and there under the fading light of an afternoon’s umbra shine, read softly out to the air the works of Adam Lindsay Gordon, taking particular care on that most loved poem Thora’s Song, her lilting Irish falsetto matching tune with the many river birds calls and warbles there so that the lingua franca of the evening on the river’s edge was a song in itself … a melody of harmonies that lay a hymn of sound floating just above those primrose-lit waters of the soft flowing Murray River.
To this dream of poet, Tess would, in between chores in the kitchen of the riverside station where she worked, take time to compose poems of her own hand. Most of these crude attempts she screwed up and burnt in the big kitchen stove … some … a few she felt happier with she placed between the pages of a school exercise book she used for her home school lessons that she taught to her younger siblings when she went home for two days a week to the charcoal camp where her family lived … Tess would sometimes read these poems out to the giggling frivolity of her siblings who had little interest in literature and more in ribbons and hats.
Now the world of that district held to habit and routine and the celebration of Empire Day was one of fan-fair, parade and concert in the main town institute, where a repertoire of songs and short skits of plays and dances by locals were encouraged. So that when Tess arrived at her parent’s tent on the Friday afternoon, her sisters excitedly greeted her with the news that they were going with old Eddy in the truck to Truro to audition as sailors in a skit dancing The Sailor’s Hornpipe … and surely Tess would come along to watch! … Of course Tess was as excited and delighted and went to sleep that night formulating a desire to approach Miss Josie Rudge, the organising person, on the morrow to see if she could perform a poetic recitation at the event.
The dour Miss Rudge, school teacher and choralist for the Truro Congregational Church, was a disciplinarian type who “took no prisoners”, as she was want to say whenever the children got out of hand …
”In line! In line!” … she’d demand “and no fooling around … I’ll take no prisoners if I see anyone mucking about! … you there! … back in line … watch the markers on the floor … in line!”
But yes, they were seeking appropriate recitations for the “in-betweens” of the songs and dance routines and Miss Rudge gave Tess a time that afternoon for a reading. The piece Miss Rudge picked was a short poem that tested the elocution of the reader … more suited to one of the preferred young ladies from a “good family” of the district who were favoured with an exclusive schooled education in Adelaide and spoke the “King’s English” with just a little bit of plummy accent. Of course, Tess, coming from the Mallee bush with the hint of brogue of her Irish mother slipping off her lips like a syrup of Sligo was hard pressed to wrap those words around her tongue and she stumbled in quite a few places with the desired entrapment placed there by the cunning Miss Rudge.
And as she finished the reading from the elevated stage, Tess, who had prided herself on her practiced poetry was somewhat shy and reticent of her chances … The stern Miss Rudge did not dismiss Tess there and then, but rather encouraged her to practice when at home and she will be notified of her placement with in the fortnight.
Tess felt encouraged by that short advice and regardless of a faint feeling of caution, spent the following days at and after work bending her spoken language to deliver to the best of her capability those immortal words of her beloved bard; Adam Lindsay Gordon, and his poem, Thora’s Song.
Unbeknownst to Tess, from the first introduction of herself to Miss Josie Rudge, she hadn’t a chance of stepping out on that stage at Empire Day to deliver any thing at all, as her family situation was already known and scorned by the stern Protestant Miss Rudge, who despised anything Catholic entering within her perimeter of “England forever” … and after Tess and her sisters departed, she was heard to say to her assistant most viciously:
“The nerve! … to think I would allow the daughter of that Irish Catholic woman to stumble and ramble with her atrocious interpretation of the good King’s English upon my stage … On Empire Day of all times .. The poor child threw out more “Haiches” from her mouth than Clem Highett would dud hen’s from his hatchery! … and that mother of hers! … a face the map of Ireland … “As Catholic as Connaugh” they would say … No, I won’t have it … I will send a letter to her this week or so … don’t want to break the poor kitchen maid’s heart here and now … I’ll let her sisters dance The Hornpipe though … don’t want to appear too officious … do we?”
Unaware of the futility of her ambitions, Tess kept softly practicing her recitation whenever she had time … so that the Lady of Portee Station … Margaret Esau, would smile to herself when she heard her young servant girl softly reciting poems on the back verandah of the Portee Station Homestead on many a quiet evening.
Margaret Esau encouraged Tess to work on her pronunciations, for she was well aware of Tess’s poetical ambitions which were innocently and proudly confessed when Margret first interviewed Tess for the position of kitchen maid … an ambition that made Tess’s eyes shine with delight when she said it and brought a sympathetic smile to Margaret’s lips … for she could see that while the ambition was worthy, the letter Tess had written and the language of her spoken words displayed a working class accent with less than ready education. And so Margaret would sensitively correct any of the more exaggerated mistakes of interpretation when Tess served at the table … even promising Tess a day off so as to be able to attend to rehearsals when required. So it was a rather worried Margaret Esau that heard the gentle sobbing on the back verandah outside the kitchen one evening … Upon enquiry, she was shown the letter of rejection from Miss Josie Rudge of the Empire Day Hall Committee, citing (dishonestly) a lack of space within the program for Tess’s poetry recitation. Margaret comforted the sad Tess and taking the letter from her hands, Margaret said she would see if she could persuade Miss Rudge to find space for Tess’s reading.
This reassurance did little to comfort Tess’s unease, for she had read something unsettling in the tone of Miss Rudge’s letter … a more than hint of slighting tone of voice … even the opening address of “Dear Child” felt like a dismissal of her as a working girl with a place in the household of a large station … a position of responsibility that Tess wore with some degree of pride … And even though the wording was seemingly polite and respectful, Tess (as did Margaret when she read the letter) could feel her eyes burn with indignation when the writer had consoled her with the expression that “ … regardless of this lost opportunity to recite with those fine young ladies from the Adelaide private finishing schools, she was sure to use her accrued skills learned at the kitchen table to further herself in the arts of scullery maid or another hand trade”.
This example of passive snobbery on Miss Rudge’s part did not go un-noticed by Margaret Esau and while Tess wept for the burning insult, Margaret’s lips pinched together in anger for the presumption of Miss Rudge’s to insult her; Margaret’s young study, with such language reserved for that middle-class to use against one of their own … “She has no right to presume” Margaret hissed and took it upon herself to sort Miss Rudge out by putting her back in her place in the order of status in the district.
Tess had gone to that spot on the banks of the Murray River where she felt most private and secure, she took with her that tome of poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s that she felt in kinship with and began to read out loud that most private of her favourites;
“We severed in autumn early,
Ere the earth was torn by the plough;
The wheat and the oats and the barley
Are ripe for the harvest now.
We sunder’d one misty morning,
Ere the hills were dimm’d by the rain,
Through the flowers those hills adorning —
Thou comest not back again.
My heart is heavy and weary
With the weight of a weary soul;
The mid-day glare grows dreary,
And dreary the midnight scroll.
The corn-stalks sigh for the sickle,
‘Neath the load of the golden grain;
I sigh for a mate more fickle —
Thou comest not back again … ” (Adam Lindsay Gordon)
The soft lilting of her voice now pitched less high as a sadness weighed down upon her soul … that gentle wash of the Irish brogue inserted from her mother’s talk and homeland as sweet as the honeyed air of summer skies … Her Irish tongue a whisper of angels in the voice when saddened enough to sing a lament to her own destiny … for there was growing in her heart a dread that her ambition to aspire for a poet was but a pipe dream … the words of her mother damning such heathen verse to Sheol and the tittering laughter of her sisters when she tried to share with them her love for the written word in rhyme and metre and now that letter from Miss Rudge, a teacher at the Truro school no less, that gave more than hint of Tess’s incompetence with the language, all buffering down on her spirit and telling her that she was just being a silly girl to try to reach for a place above her station in life .. the life of a servant girl and workhorse for her betters and nothing more … her dreams of one day writing poetry that sang with the spirits of the Gods of air, fire and water … a dream of smoke and mirrors … a will o’ the wisp that will vanish with the first puff of wind … silly person … silly girl.
Tess stood and straightened her skirt and turned to go … she had noticed the silence of the birds as she read her verse … and she sensed that even they were in accord with her sombre mood and were wont to intrude too cheerfully upon her mood there … Tess stopped for just that moment in her departure and,turned to address The River …
“Goodnight,” she said.
A few days later, Tess was called to the telephone to receive a call from Miss Rudge of the Empire Day Concert Committee … the short of the conversation … for it was short and terse .. was that, yes, there now appeared a place in the program for her to recite some poetry and it was imperative that she most promptly attend to rehearsals on the fifth of the month 10:00AM sharp … at the Civic Hall Truro … and report to her, Miss Rudge. And the telephone went dead at that demand. Tess was beside herself with joy and handed the receiver back to Margaret who smiled in kind.
“Did you … ?” Tess asked and then stopped.
“I think Miss Rudge looked into her heart and reconsidered” Margaret cut any further conversation on the subject short … “I always say, Tess … that The River has ways of letting a poor man live like a king and in turn making the wise man look like an ass! … You know … I wasn’t always the wife of Mr, John Esau … ”
It was after Tess had left to walk to the river that evening on receiving the letter, that Margaret Esau placed a call through to Miss Josie Rudge’s residence … there was a controlled anger in Margaret’s voice as she explained that it would be a pity for herself and her husband John, who were quite generous to the school and hall committees, to make the trip to Truro for the concert only to find that her house-maid, Tess was being denied a chance to recite a most favoured poem that she had been practicing assiduously for the last few weeks …
“Oh but really, Mrs Esau … the girl is totally unsuitable to recite on stage,” Josie Rudge complained. “She is almost illiterate and her elocution is as deep and broad as an Irish bog!” … Margaret let a long silence hang in the air before she answered:
“I have been coaching her, Miss Rudge.”
There was a sharp intake of breath at the other end of the line … then a new tack was tried …
“Well, the McBain twins have come back for the holidays from their finishing school in Adelaide and I have promised them a quartet of songs with piano accompaniment in the program” …
“Yes, we are well acquainted with the McBains of Anna Creek Station … quite well acquainted and I can assure you that they will not mind if you reduce their girls to a triplet of songs and make shift to place young Tess into the repertoire.” This last with the stern voice of the Lady of the Manor … of course, Miss Rudge complied with Margaret’s wishes and a telephone was put through several days later to tell Tess the good news.
Tess walked out onto the stage of the Truro Civic Hall on the evening of the Empire Day Concert and stood proud to recite her favourite poem:
“From the collected poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon.” She spoke in a clear and precise voice … the hint of Irish brogue adding a lilt of delightful colour to her words …
Thora’s Song, Tess announced .. and she began the recital.
And when Tess had finished the poem, and a suitable round of applause rent the high ceilings of the hall, she surprised everyone to announce that she …
“ … would now like to do a short poem of my own hand in recognition of our benefactor Mrs Margaret Esau of Portee station … on a theme gratefully borrowed from Mr Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; “Hiawatha” … and Tess began:
“On the shores of the mighty Murray,
By its calm and tranquil waters,
Stood the halls of Portee Station … “
John Esau leaned over to whisper into Margaret’s ear …
“Be blowed if she hasn’t stolen some of the thunder of Mr Longfellow” … and he chuckled.
“I suspect Mr Longfellow can spare a bit,” Margaret smiled.
“The cheek of the girl,” John smirked.
“Yes,” Margaret agreed, “marvellous, isn’t it?”
There is an announcement in the regional newspaper of the times of the proceedings of that Empire Day evening … it reads thus:
“Items that were particularly well received were “The Flag Makers”, a patriotic tableau presented by grades VI and VII. A nautical song; All Over the Place by Pauline Harris assisted by the senior girls who danced The Sailor’s Hornpipe.
Films were also shown on the school’s projector, interesting and instructive films in keeping with the observance of Empire Day. They were entitled “Battle for France” the “Evacuation of Dunkirk” and the fall of France (two years ago) and “The Navy at Work.”
A variety of songs and poetry recitals were given by the young ladies of the district … Of particular appeal was the recital of a poem Thora’s Song from The Collected Poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon, by Miss Tess Jones of Portee Station.
The dancing and other items were arranged by Miss Josie Rudge and Mrs I. Richards was the pianist for the evening … A grand time was had by all!”
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