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  ― 95 ―

The Triumph of Faith.

Under the fervour of the dawn a faint breeze passed over the forest to a rustle of leaves, shaking dew on the sleeper's face. Crouching figures silently detach themselves from the huddle of darkness in the undergrowth, and crawl nearer towards him, gripping their spears. A bird bugled from a bough above his head as though giving warning. He stirred, and a long spear was poised and quivered. It sank, and again the figures slid nearer like snakes to crouch, listening, peering. Behind the barrier of boughs of the forest avenue bristled the golden lances of the ascending sun. Branches with leaf-clinging dews became spangled in the light with tremulous stars. Sweet odours steamed from hidden flowers, as from a censer. Huge trunks oozed pungent gums. A drowsy hum began to drone from under the rank vegetation and hang about aged roots, that exhaled a damp, cool, earthy smell. Abrupt notes and whistles from the neighbouring thickets were being answered at intervals by clear clarion calls, and bell-like chimes, in the awakening depths of the forest. Suddenly the figures leap to their feet, with spears pointing towards the sleeper, and simultaneously become


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transfixed, their wild eyes riveted on something beside him—a small lidless box, cushioned in blossoms, on an old, weather-stained wheelbarrow, across which a sunbeam had just sloped, lighting up a beautiful and yet awe-inspiring object behind a trellis work of wood. What was it? They gazed on it paralysed with terror. A tiny face, like a cherub's enframed in clustering tresses more lustrous than the sunbeam of which they seemed a part, beamed out at them as though sculptured in wax. Again the sleeper stirred, and with one impulse the figures fled, melting into the forest shadows like things of air.

The sunbeam lengthened, reaching the sleeper's long white hair and wrinkled face, and his eyes opened, glancing apprehensively towards the box. They grew moist as he lay gazing at it with a far-off wistfulness. Stretching his limbs, he groaned audibly with pain. Every bone began to ache. He felt too weary to arise, late as it was, and push onward. Eighteen miles yet to journey! His hand wandered to his rosary for his matin prayer. The beads clicked, slipping from his knotted fingers as he fell into reverie. Pictures of his past life came and went unsummoned, some vague, some vivid. From the day his wife had deserted him for another, some thirty years ago, to the day he found the little being, whose corpse was in yonder box, eighteen months since, everything was cloudy, like a


  ― 97 ―
distant dream. Was it possible he had once cut himself off from God and man through his outraged feelings, had been a “hatter,” dwelling in the dense scrub, a mere machine? Though dim, the memory of those wasted years was not powerless. But ever since the little being entered into his life, shedding sunshine through the darkness and diffusing innocent joy, it began to lose its sting. He had viewed the working of her presence on him as a miracle. What else was it? He remembered now with a shudder the callous indifference with which he had surveyed the smoking home-stead as he emerged on to the creek bank, bent on fishing, twenty miles from his lair. “Blacks!” he had grimly muttered as he turned to cautiously regain the thick scrub. Then—and here the old man breathed heavily as the picture took shape in his mind—then he had rubbed his eyes, petulantly rebuking himself for such idle fancies. But the marvel did not vanish, still nestled at his feet, and his heart gave a great leap as he gazed wonderingly on it. Surely it was his darling Kathie, dead years agone—was he mad? A cold sweat was on him. His legs shook as he knelt beside the tiny figure under a bush, witless of her poor murdered parents. Her delicate face, touched in the cheeks with rose-bloom; her dimpled chin, a glen of loveliness; her large, mild eyes opening like blue bells, as his trembling hand stole timorously over her gold locks


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—at this moment a bird overhead thrilled the air like a blown clarionette, and the old man, rudely disturbed, shook himself and crawled to his feet, a blissful light fading from his watery eyes.

Fearing to make a fire in the hunting ground of wild blacks, the old man hastily munched some of the corned mutton and damper with which he had provided himself for his journey, deposited the remnants in his tucker bag, rolled up his blanket, and pushing in front of him the ancient, clumsy barrow containing the primitive coffin with its tiny corpse in the home-made nightdress he had washed to gleaming whiteness for its last sad office, he entered a forest avenue as vast as a cathedral, through which the lonely bush track meandered. Meanwhile, the sun rejoicing in a sea of blue splendour, was lifting veil after veil of azure mist from the pageant of spring. Choirs of magpies answered one another from the tree-tops, their fruity notes welling deep-throated, till the old man fancied young angels were chorussing him a song from Paradise. On the day previous, when he had tottered and fallen, stricken through with weariness, and lain as one dead, his soul gasping for help from the Blessed Virgin, the golden chime of a bellbird in some secluded dell lulled him like a Vesper call, and his shaking fingers stole to his beads and he arose refreshed, his load of seventy years strangely lightened. Gradually he became as one spell-bound,


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moving in a dream among seraphic beings, some with lovely female faces smiling down on him, some with majestic fronts compassionately gazing from sunny places, their radiant locks circled with aureoles. Sometimes he heard melodious voices chanting paeans of victory over death. He listened eagerly, endeavoring to find whence they came, and confounded them with the deep boom of the wood pigeon, with the fluting notes of the butcher-bird. Flowers spilt liquid scent at every step. The very ground under his feet fumed with cleansing odour, and when a wind loitered among the boughs laden with blossom, he seemed moving in a sea of precious perfume. Snakes slipped from his path as though conscious he was protected. Tall gums swaying towards one another seemed whispering the wherefore he was journeying, dappling him with light and shade, and often dropping leaves on the little coffin as mute pledges of their sympathy. Wattles smothered in smouldering gold were lavish of delicious nooks for him to rest in. And ever and again from some ridge falling water would point like a plume to its pools to replenish his bag. And all the while the cherub-like face beamed out at him with lips pursed like a half-opened rosebud, her hands folded round a cross on her bosom, her long tresses like flames in the sunshine, like slips of virgin gold in the shadow. Sometimes he lost himself gazing at her, and halted without knowing


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it, letting down the barrow legs very gently under the delusion she was asleep. With half-lidded eyes he would await, till growing anxious he would cry, “Kathie!” startling himself with the sound of his voice.

Towards noon the old man felt very weary. Couched beside the barrow he thought of many things. He thought of the object of his long journey—to bury Kathie in consecrated ground; he thought of Father Brophy, regarding whom he knew little, having kept aloof from him for fear his little charge should be taken from his far-off lonely camp in the big scrub. He had now repented of that childishness, for then she might have lived. Yes, his poor old heart had been selfish in his love. He was punished, and his white head bowed silently. But ever since her chubby hands wandered over his shaggy chest, loosening the ice-bands about his heart, ever since her bird-like cries called down sacred thoughts to his soul, he had tried to quieten the insistent voice within himself by teaching her such devotions as her mind could grasp. How could he explain why he had not sought assistance, why he had kept her so sweetly to himself. How could he—could he explain it all? The old man was sobbing softly. All at once he burst out: “O, Father, me very soul was hers, me sweet lamby. Me Kathie! She was come to me to lead me to God. She would sleep with her little


  ― 101 ―
arms around me neck all the night through, an' her little heart beat against mine, an' rain would fall, an' the wind would blow, an' we was as happy as two lambs. Every day she would be wid me crawlin' about me feet, an' when I used to get pretty live creatures to play wid her she would sing like an angel—Father, it was singin', though she had no words. Then she died!” The forest was breathless in the noontide. Everything seemed listening. A beam of sunshine slept on the tiny face that seemed strangely hushed.

Towards sunset the old man knew his strength was about spent. For some hours a keen pain at his heart and a thickness in his throat, making it difficult for him to breathe, had steadily increased; while his legs kept giving way from under him and seemed spongy. Yet, such was his determination to accomplish his purpose, such was his faith in the efficacy of his prayers, that for a little while he managed to stumble on, clutching the barrow handles to support himself when the ground appeared to fall away from his feet. He had issued from the forest on to a mountain ledge fledged with saplings, overlooking the little township in the gully, when his whole body seemed suddenly emptied and he sank on his knees bewildered. He strove to rise and failed, feebly settling down in the long grass, where he lay all night moaning faintly at times, with numb fingers touching his beads. Towards morn he crawled to


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his hands and knees, thinking someone was calling him. Perhaps it was the sough of the wind in the forest. Perhaps——. So tenacious, however, was his nature that the cold wind of dawn found him on his feet pushing the barrow towards the bridle track that led to the town. There was no hesitation till he reached it. Then the spasmodic vigour flashed out, like the last sudden gleam of an expiring candle light, and he fell on his face and lay motionless. Had he journeyed nearly sixty miles to fail in sight of his goal? No! A figure in a cassock had just turned his horse's head into the bridle-track and was cantering towards him. His prayer has been answered.

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