The Moving Finger | Mary Gaunt #AWWshortstories

Mary Gaunt’s first short story collection The Moving Finger (1895) contains seven stories.

I read the two Christmas themed ones back in December last year. These were read with a seasonal lens in mind. The following five stories have been read using my ‘female experience’ lens as they will be part of a post that will end up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge: The Early Years.

The links attached to each title will take you to the online version of the story at Project Gutenberg.

  1. Trotting Cob
  2. Christmas Eve At Warwingie
  3. Lost
  4. The Loss Of The Vanity
  5. Dick Stanseby’s Hutkeeper
  6. The Yanyilla Steeplechase
  7. A Digger’s Christmas

The Trotting Cob

“Hi—hey—hold up there, mare, will you? What did you say, mister? A light? Yes. That ‘s Trotting Cob, that is. The missus ‘ll give us a cup of tea, but that’s about all. Devil fly away with the mare. What is it? Something white in the road? Water by ——. Thank the Lord, they’ve had plenty of rain this year. But they do say there’s a ghost hereabouts—a Trotting Cob, with a man in white on him? 

It’s not easy to start a story with speech written in the vernacular. It took me a bit to realise we were on a stage coach and that we were listening to a one-sided conversation between the coach driver and one of his travellers. The location appears to be the (fictional) Murwidgee waterhole along the stock route between the real western NSW towns of Hay and Deniliquin. I loved the descriptions of place. Gaunt obviously had an appreciation of the Australian countryside, although I don’t know how much she travelled about before moving to Europe after her husband died in 1900.

One waterhole in summer, and in winter a whole chain of them, but the creek seldom if ever flowed, except in a very wet season. It was a permanent waterhole—Murwidgee, fed by springs, and the white cockatoos and screaming corellas came there and bathed in its waters, and the black swans, and the wild duck, and teal rested there on their way south, when summer had laid his iron hand on the northern plains.

Women, however, were not highly though of in this world.

The coach driver was ‘emphatic in his opinions on the foolishness of women‘, although as it turns out, it is the foolishness of men that is at the heart of the story. Although, it is the woman who pays the highest price.

Nellie Durham was a pretty girl, a little simple perhaps, but still sweetly pretty, with those wistful blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes, that looked out at you so earnestly, and the wealth of fair hair. So dainty and so pretty—the coarse cotton gown was quite forgotten, and in those times, when women of any sort were scarce, many a man turned out of his way just to speak a word or two to Mother Durham’s granddaughter.

Nellie didn’t stand a chance when Gentleman Jim (who was known to the police thereabouts as an ‘escaped convict, bushranger and cattle-duffer‘) started paying attention to her. Not because he loved her (‘I wasted all the love I had to give on a woman, who made a plaything of me—oh, about the time you were born I suppose. That’s the way of the world, my dear‘) but because Nellie loved him and believed in him, ‘and if it is a great thing to be loved, it is a still greater thing to be believed in and trusted.

However Gentleman Jim was the jealous type. He may have appreciated how wonderful it is to be believed in and trusted, but he could not return the favour. When another man appeared on the scene, a more suitable match for Nellie, his first response was to say he will kill her if she married this other fellow.

You’ll have to read the story yourself to find out just how badly this ends for Nellie.


“Helm, old man, we ‘ve lost the track!”

“Don’t be a howling idiot, man. Lost! how could we be lost? Why, there’s the track right ahead, and pretty fresh too.”

Lost felt like a pretty typical outback adventure story of two men seeking a new life, ‘They had gone out to seek new country, crossed the Queensland border into South Australia, and now, old bushman as he was, Anderson had only the vaguest idea of their whereabouts.‘ Two men who had no idea how to find water or navigate through the wide open spaces. Two men who were getting desperate, desperate enough to consider killing one of the horses to drink its blood.

But the love of life is strong in us all, and the hope of life is as strong. How could they die, these strong men with life in every vein?

We all know the tragic tale of Burke and Wills. Their expedition into the centre of Australian in 1860-61 would have been well known to Gaunt as well, Lost feels very remiscent of their story.

The older bushman’s advice to young Helm, “Mothers are made of different clay to other women; but don’t you bother about the other. Women are all alike, take my word for it. It’s out of sight out of mind with all of them. But write to your mother.” Helm is young enough and romantic enough to see that perhaps Anderson has been unlucky in love, and luckily, this faith makes him write a message in the salt pan, just in case someone finds it and rescues them. His faith may not have been repaid in time, but Anderson’s more cynical view is repaid in full.

Once again the landscape comes in for some loving from Gaunt.

in different circumstances he might have admired the landscape, for it had a weird beauty all its own; miles and miles he could see in the clear bright atmosphere, far away to the other side of the wide lake, where a dark clump of trees or scrub was apparently raised in the sky high above the horizon. He knew it was only the effect of the mirage, another token, had he needed a token, that there was no moisture, no water, not the faintest chance of a drop of rain. And yet there had been some rain not so very long ago, for the mesembryanthemum growing in dark green patches close to the edge of the salt was all in flower, pink, and red, and brightest yellow, such gorgeous colouring.

The Loss of the Vanity

“You don’t care. Oh! Susy, you don’t care!

“But I do,” she sobbed. “You know, you know I care.”

Mary Gaunt does not write happy endings.

This was my fifth short story by Gaunt, and I knew that poor Suzy and her amour, the sailor, Ben Harper were never going to end up together, no matter how much they loved each other at the beginning of the story.

Susy with the blue eyes and rose-leaf complexion, and waving chestnut hair. So pretty she was, this daughter of the South, it hardly seemed possible she could be the child of the stern Puritan parents, and yet she had grown up in their ways, grave and obedient, walking in the narrow path set so straight before her without a question, and without a doubt. 

Her father’s words about salvation and duty continue to ring in her ears so loudly, that she ultimately felt that she had no choice, not even when love was on offer. She lets Ben go, back to the sea where he belongs.

But the sea is also a hard taskmaster. Bad weather, rocky shoals and dark, stormy nights can change everything. Any hope for Ben and Susy is dashed when the Vanity goes down in sight of her home on the southern coast overlooking the Southern Ocean.

Dick Stanesby’s Hutkeeper

“Hallo! Dick. You here! Why, I thought you were away up tea-planting in Assam.”

“And I thought you were comfortably settled down on the ancestral acres by this time.”

This is the first story I’ve read by Gaunt where the Aboriginal experience is considered by her protagonists and herself. One man was from the “wipe ’em out” camp, while the other expressed the unpopular view that “they were here first” and should be left to it, as there was no need for white people to come to this country at all.

Which isn’t to say that the story didn’t end badly for the local tribes concerned, and especially for the young Aboriginal woman that had been living with Dick Stanesby. Gaunt clearly highlighted her unhappy plight as being unwanted by either side. Her mixed background left her on the outside of both societies. One man’s guilty conscious wasn’t enough to change anything or save anyone.

The Yanyilla Steeplechase

My dear, my dear, so you want to know why I am an old maid?

Well, nobody asked me to marry them, I suppose that must have been it.

An older woman, reminesces with her niece about the love of her life – a young stockman who rode the wildest horse at the Yanyilla Steeplchase in the hope of winning her hand in marriage.

Gaunt writes a story heavy with patriarchal power. A father who thinks it’s funny to use his daughter to win a bet on a horse race. A mother who has no power to say anything or change this situation except to blame her daughter for hanging around too long when the men were “getting excited“. A neighbouring station owner who uses the situation for his own advantage and a young man who trusts that youth and an even playing field will bring him success.

As I said above, happy endings were not Mary Gaunt’s thing!

Many of Gaunt’s stories were informed by tales told by her father around the dinner table – things he had seen and heard on the gold fields during his Gold Commissioner days. Her later stories (so I have been told) take on a naval tone as her brothers’ seafaring stories make their way into her repertoire.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops as well as the influence her own travels then have on her writing and stories later in life.


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on; nor all your piety and wit Shall lore it back to cancel half a line, Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

Title: The Moving Finger
Author: Mary Gaunt
Imprint: Project Gutenberg
Published: 6th November 2016 (originally published 1895)
Format: eBook
Pages: 266
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

16 thoughts on “The Moving Finger | Mary Gaunt #AWWshortstories

  1. Well, there’s some reading here! Thank you for the links, I’m not one for reading much in the way of short stories but I find these older ones from a different era more appealing. I’ll probably start with Dick Stanesby’s Hutkeeper…


    1. It’s the one I found most interesting. Certainly some old fashioned thinking & attitudes on display but also a real attempt to consider another way of looking at colonisation from 1895.


        1. I think it has been done. I have a couple of books on my shelves that are probably the result of PhD’s. I looked at the topic myself and still have notes from all the turn of the century books I read saying where and how Indigenous people are (or are not) mentioned.


  2. As I read your reviews I was trying to think what country Gaunt could describe first hand. Certainly the town ‘overlooking the Southern Ocean’ as she lived in Warrnambool when first married.
    She seems to me quite ‘adventurous’ in using second hand accounts eg. the Northern Territory and NorthWest goldfields in her novel, Kirkham’s Find.
    I’ve been on the road between Hay and Denniliquin quite often – and at one stage I thought that I might retire as a drover of sheep out there. It’s so flat that you could imagine water refusing to flow anywhere (‘Murwidgee’) but I can’t place it.


    1. Certainly her father would have travelled to all the gold fields around northern Victoria and maybe into NSW? She used a lot of his work stories as a basis for her own.
      Actually her story Lost, was one that I noticed the absence of any Aboriginal people, but perhaps her characters were just like Burke and Wills, oblivious to the ways of Aboriginal tribes and therefore unable to seek their help.


    1. I’ve often wondered if there are some Australian Women Writers lurking in your vaults that could be suitable for your British Library Women Writers series. Certainly ones like Gaunt spent most of their adult lives living in the UK or Europe.


  3. I have had the ebook of this on my iPad for years. I’ve picked it up and started stories but been distracted. One day I will get to it, but thanks for this survey of the stories.

    BTW I liked your point about it’s being hard to start a short story with dialog. I’d never really thought about that before, because it can be quite an engaging way too – but I take your point also!

    PS Sorry I’m late – I’ve been busy, and was at a film festival from last Friday to Monday, so am still trying to catch up.


    1. I ended up putting the ebook on my phone & read most of them that way. Short stories can work for me this way for those times when an appointment is running late, I’m on a bus etc. If I had to read anything longer, it would drive me crazy but one short story every now and again is manageable.

      Thanks to this head cold, I’ve also got behind with everything except reading Grand Days this week! A film festival sounds like a much better excuse 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have occasionally read on my phone but it’s usually a book that I’m reading on my iPad and I’m only out with my phone. I’m not sure what I’m reading on a device makes much difference really because they are synced. I don’t see any reason for reading one thing on one device and a different thing on the other.


        1. Ahh mine are not synced which is the problem!! I’m just reading the online version on whichever device I’m on. I tried one app that was hopeless & never looked further 🤷🏼‍♀️


          1. All my devices and laptop are Apple so the syncing comes with the territory. I’m guessing you are not Apple-oriented? I take advantage of it all the time – emails, photos, e-books and audiobooks.

            Liked by 1 person

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