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Chapter XII.

“Suddenly rose from the South, a light, as in autumn the blood-red
Moon climbs the crystal walls of heaven,
Columns of shining smoke uprose, and flashes of flame were
Thrust through their folds, and withdrawn, like the quivering hands of a martyr.”

LONGFELLOW.

In a few days, all the extra workmen had departed: some to neighbouring farms; some to their own homes; and others to their migratory tours, up and down the country; of this number was John; he came up to the house the evening before he left, to take leave of Mrs. Doherty and Gertrude.

“If we all live Missus, I hope to be here next year, but that is in God's hands—I am getting an old man now, and may not be alive.”

“Nonsense, John! you will live many a year yet,” returned Mrs. Doherty—“Have you seen Mr. Tudor?”

“I shall see him in the morning, Missus: but I shall be off afore you are up. He is a fine young gentleman—every one says how handsome you, and he behave: we would sooner work for you than any employer in the quarter.”

“Thank you, John.”

“I've a message for you, Miss,” pursued the shearer, turning to Gertrude, as he stood in the doorway, twisting his hat round and round, between his hands.

“Indeed John, and what may it be?”

“They a'nt my words, Miss: but they are His—they are these, ‘watch ye, therefore, and pray always,’ ” and with this solemn message, the shearer bid them farewell, and departed to the huts, to await the morning for his journey.

The heat of summer, so oppressive to the immigrant, had set in—the green fields turned brown; the locusts sang in the trees; and the cockchafer hummed round all green things; of an evening, when the sun had set, nature appeared to revive; the drooping flowers held up their languid heads, and the gaudy Sphinx Moth hovered above them, sucking, with its long trunk, the honey from the Corolla: then, walking became agreeable, or yet more pleasant was it to lounge in the easy chairs in the verandah, and read, or work, or converse.

Gertrude liked to combine all these occupations; busily employing her needle, while from time to time, she read a paragraph from the open book on her knee; or conversed with Mrs. Doherty.

She used to exert herself much through the day, that she might have the evening hours free from interruption; and by allotting each occupation its fixed time, and doing it with all her might, she succeeded. Those who systematically employ time, live really speaking, twice as long as the trifler, moments glide on so swiftly, and noiselessly, that we do not mark their flight; until the grave encloses us, and the hours passed in idling, are for ever lost.

Tudor used to train the creepers round the verandah posts, and trim the shrubs, when above the females' reach, or too laborious for them, and requiring greater skill than Lakin possessed in floriculture; thus he was employed, and Mrs. Doherty found sufficient amusement in watching him, and Gertrude plied her needle, with the story of ‘Evangeline’ beside her, when Dr. Bower joined them. He used in summer, if possible, to travel by night, to avoid the heat, and he was now on his way to a patient, but paused to take a cup of tea, and have an hour's chat.

Gertrude brought out a little stand, and set the tea things; and presently he was deeply engaged in conversation, tea, ham, and bread, and butter.

“What were you reading?” inquired he, when he had communicated the news of the district.

Gertrude held up the book.

“What, poetry! that is wasting time.”

“How so?” called Tudor from the top of the ladder, pausing in his endeavours to direct a stubborn branch of a Cape Honeysuckle.

“What good does it do?” responded the Doctor.

“Elevates the mind, refines the sentiments, and carries many an important lesson through the ear, to the heart.”

The doctor was nothing of a poet; not only not a rhymester, but he had no poetry in him. The convenience of a moonlight night, not its beauty, and the utility of the brook, not its musical babbling, were his medium of valuation; so he disputed the assertion altogether.

“And supposing, which mind you, I do not, that poetry can refine, what's the use?”

“Of refinement?”

“Yes.”

“To raise men above savages; to bring them nearer to their Creator; to purify the taste. Are not these worth doing? nor are these all it does.”

“I did not think you were a poet, Tudor; I rather thought the very pattern superintendent, and most zealous, and ardent of farmers, was an utilitarian,” remarked Dr. Bower, in his saturnine manner.

“Perhaps the ‘pattern’ combines the two,” returned he, laughing good-humouredly.

“Do the men work as well, while you indite Odes to the Moon?” inquired the other, rather satirically.

“What they would do in such a case, I cannot say. It is possible to have a poet's heart, without his pen.” And he returned to his occupation.

“That is the reason we may conclude there are so many poor writers of verse,” pursued the Doctor, when the branch was nailed down.

“All verse is not poetry,” returned he.

Doctor Bower looked a little puzzled. “Do you confine poetry to the gentry, to the aristocrats among writers?”

“By no means—no one disputes the poetical talent of Burns, or Shakespeare; yet neither of them were of the aristocracy.”

“A great many celebrated people, have been of humble origin,” remarked Mrs. Doherty.

“They have,” replied Tudor, “for genius is the gift of Heaven, not of wealth, or station; and I do think that those obstacles which surround the poor man of talent, arouse his energies; he is thrown on himself, and he then learns his own strength, and weakness, he must exert all his powers, or fail, and failure to such minds, is intolerable; besides, his mind is not satiated with appliances—book by book, he forms his little library, and to buy those books, he must toil, and he must suffer want perhaps; then by painful and intense application he maintains his ground, before he takes another step, and the soul-crushing lethargy, which clings more or less around all, is shaken off, and the man relies on himself, and respects himself, while the vast field of knowledge yet unexplored, leads him on, and humbles him with a sense of very ignorance.”

As he leant over the ladder, his cheek glowing, his eye full of intense feeling, and his quick yet impassioned tones, coming to them, Gertrude felt that he knew something of this course he was describing; and that those cravings for knowledge which urge on the mind from step to step, make it long for the time when earthly weakness, and infirmity shall no longer retard its progress, was not unknown to him: though the world might never pronounce its verdict on his talents: though it were even to deny their existence.

“Who would have expected such enthusiasm from you?” returned the visitor, a little perplexed.

“I am sorry to disappoint your expectations,” replied Tudor with his usual gravity; recalled by the doctor's want of sympathy; however he had read Gertrude's face, and that was enough; and a brisk volley of hammering succeeded, while Dr. Bower argued the matter at greater length with the females; Mrs. Doherty did not care for poetry, but did not see that it could do any harm; and Gertrude whom Tudor's collection of books had introduced to many of the choicest poems in the English Language, and who had an intuitive love of the beautiful which had been early cultivated by her parents, and fostered among the grand old arches and stained windows of the church of Comb Ending, and solemn Yews shading many a quaint gravestone—as well as the sunny meadows and the cheerful stream flowing through the village, felt infinitely more than she could express.

In these days it is customary to talk of ‘beautiful’ books, ‘beautiful’ poems, ‘beautiful’ religious sentiments, and ‘beautiful’ death-beds: but Dr. Bower being ‘behind the times’ had not included this universal phrase in his vocabulary of common words; nor were his opponents given to such unmeaning sentimentality; and like Tudor, Gertrude felt nipped by the frost of uncongeniality; and the Doctor was under the impression that he had entirely silenced and confuted every argument adduced; and in this pleasant delusion started on his lunar excursion, in a very mollified mood.

Some important business letters called Tudor away to Sydney, during the short period between shearing, and haymaking, and he departed on horseback very early before any one else on the farm was astir.

It was a summer's day, “so hot, so blazing hot,” each said as they met. The sun rose like a ball of fire, and soon shone fiercely; the air was flickering with the moisture evaporating from the earth, which cracked in the harder clays, and crumbled into dust, in the lighter parts; the cattle, and sheep retired to sheltered glades, and slept. The Magpies assembled in the thick trees, and chatted in a confidential tone; a few blacks who had come up from the camp, to visit Nanny, rolled themselves in blankets, or Opossum-skin cloaks, and slept on a sunny bank; in every tree, myriads of Locusts sung, and chirped their ceaseless shrill whirr, and fell a ready prey to birds, or ants; the air was impregnated by a sharp peculiar smell, a scorched smoky smell; and there was a bright blue cloud, just a little peculiar column, which seemed to augment as the day advanced.

Gertrude was languid, and oppressed; it was her first Australian summer, and when she took her work, and sat down to make an apron for Mrs. Doherty, the needle bent, then broke, was renewed, then the cotton knotted, and she sat dreaming, and listless, when Kitty entered.

“How hot!” “Isn't it warm?” were the mutual salutations.

“Will it be like this all the summer?”

“No, not every day; the bush is afire.”

“The bush on fire! Oh, what can we do?”

“Don't be frightened: it's away in the gullies.”

Gertrude knew that every thing that did not happen on the farm, was assigned to the vague locality of the gullies, so she was not quite satisfied, and inquired if they were far.

“Well, I think that fire's a good bit off, but you look out to-night when it's dark, and see how red it looks—my word! what a fire we had three years ago!”

“Was any one burnt?”

“No: but a field of wheat down at Muttee Muttee was; and two score of sheep out at Jimbindoon. Mr. Tudor was up near a week, riding from place to place, beating out the fires, and changing the sheep. First it broke out at Jimbindoon, then ran down to old Tom's water holes, then it turned 'cause of the water, and ran down to Inkersole's, then cross the stoney wheat paddock, and on to the farm again, we thought we should all have been burnt. You can't think how thin Mr. Tudor got, day and night he was at work, I don't think he eat, or slept, oh! eight days at least, mother kept a pot of tea always ready, and when she'd see him galloping by, she'd fill a basin, and take out to him, and see how he did drink: it was so hot you know: he was quite black, with being always in the smoke.”

Gertrude looked far from re-assured, and walked to look out of the window. Kitty came to her side.

“You have not been down to see Betsey, since she married.”

“No, I was ill when she first came to Muttee Muttee, you know.”

“I was down there yesterday.”

“Were you?” Gertrude was interested in spite of herself: she had not heard of Charley since he left; certainly she had not expected to do so.

Kitty, who perhaps had some little shrewdness in surmising, went on unquestioned.

“Betsey told me they had word that Charley was well, but not coming down yet; not till after Christmas; but mother will be wanting me, and I came up to ask for a few cherries.”

“You had better gather them, they are nice in the hedge now; good bye!”

Left alone, Gertrude took up her work again, but was too restless to do much; the fire alarmed her, and she found she was repeating aloud “not till after Christmas;” and she brushed a tear from her cheek.

When darkness did come, there were apparent, not one, but five, vast portals of burning red, in a solid mass, like sombre grey masonry, arching over head, from which glared out rays of light, as from a luminous world beyond. The air was still, hot, and close; the tree frogs shrieked by the water, and the grasshopper chirped. The smoke was sensibly thicker, and when Gertrude retired to rest, it was with a troubled heart, which yet was solaced by committing its burdens to Him “who comforteth us in all our distresses.” “Is He not stronger than the flames; than death itself; shall ought endanger us without his permission?” then gratefully, and in faith she repeated. “No, ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God, in Christ.’ ”

Morning came, still hot and oppressive, while the smoke obscured every distant object, Mrs. Doherty looked out of the window often, and wished Tudor was at home. Gertrude watched the countenances of her companions to ascertain their danger.

“Where is the fire, Nanny?”

The black woman scanned the smoky horizon, and shook her head.

“Where is the camp?” pursued Gertrude.

“Blackfeller move camp down along ob river missus; fire come up gullie him bin say burra berri, to fire down along ob scrub, the blackfellow move camp, murry quick.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.”

“I am afraid that fire burra berri now.”

“I belibe so, Missus.”

Both women looked sorrowfully at each other, and turned an apprehensive glance at the high dull forest, between them and the flames; the grass was white, and parched with the hot sun, it was an unusually sultry season, and very dry; there had been no rain for many weeks.

“I wish Tudor was here,” said a voice behind them, and Gertrude turned, as Mrs. Doherty's hand was laid upon her shoulder.

“I have just sent Lakin on horseback, to see if the fire has come on the sheep run.”

“Do you apprehend any danger?”

“To us?”

“Yes, to the farm.”

“No, none; at least, none at present; if the hill takes fire—”

“In which quarter is the wind?”

“Directly towards us: watch how the smoke drives.”

Towards noon, the roar of the flames could be distinguished, and the leaves of the orchard trees quivered at the breath of the hot smoke. The ripe wheat lay between the bush and the garden: a spark falling there, and the whole twenty acres would be in a blaze.

As night approached, the sun was shut out from their view, and a thick darkness veiled the earth; the wind rose, and carried up columns of sparks and blazes; then died down to a perfect calm: again arose, each time driving the flames before it with frightful rapidity, till a wall of fire shut in the farm.

Mrs. Doherty and Gertrude stood in silent anguish in the side verandah, and Nanny squatted in the yard: all eagerly attentive to the progress of the fire. The families from the huts formed groups, weeping and awestruck; here was a mother, with her babe in her arms, and half a dozen sobbing children clinging round her skirts, and hiding their heads from the choking smoke; there, another stood sentinel over her household treasures: some were praying, some weeping, some silent: the men were hurrying here and there in uncertainty, with no one to take the lead; here a few, kept together by a master spirit, vigorously swept back the flames with green boughs; and there, others ran with pails of water, half emptied by their speed, and dashed it upon some building, or on the devouring flames, which illuminated the whole scene.

Presently a horseman came speeding up the path, leaning forward over the horse's neck, as if his impatience overleapt its reckless speed. The females shrieked, “Tudor,” and ran into the yard as he sprang from the saddle, he threw an arm round each, pressing them to him for an instant: then he dashed into the stable, saddled two horses, and returned to them.

“Gertrude,” he said, calmly, very calmly, “if the fire catches the wheat, take out the horses, let Nanny have Benbow, and do you and Mrs. Doherty mount the other two, which I have saddled ready, ride to the road, leading to Rocky Creek. You know it?”

“Yes?”

“Mark the lowest line of fire, dash through; you must wrap wet blankets round you, don't fear, and then gallop across the black burnt ground: there is no danger there, only from falling trees: get down to the long swamp, and stay in the water.”

“You?”

“I will be with you if I can, but most likely, I cannot. Put trust in God, Gertrude. 'Tis time to try if we have faith. If I am not with you—if I should not come—then go to the road, the public road. I trust to you, Gertrude, be firm.”

Then he left them.

“Oh thank God! thank God, that he has come,” cried Mrs. Doherty, sobbing hysterically, and clasping her hands: but Gertrude took the meaning of his words, “If I do not come,” and she was silent with agony.

‘Mr. Tudor,’ ‘the master,’ ‘the super,’ cried one, or other, as he joined the agitated men, calmed them by his firmness, and stimulated them by his activity; regular bands were formed; parties to beat out the flames from the neighbourhood of the ripe wheat, and the buildings: a line of men and boys were stationed from the creek to the woolshed, passing buckets of water which were judiciously applied, and kept the inflammable bark roof, and wooden walls cool, and moist: in the manner, the huts were protected; some of the women even joined in the service, while Gertrude filled large cans with weak run and water, and sent by Lakin, round among the scorched, thirsty creatures, who quaffed a pint as if it were a spoonful, and returned refreshed to their labour.

Morning broke upon a scene of funeral blackness, and desolation, but the danger was passed. The prayers of all were answered.

Gertrude and Nanny prepared breakfast in the long kitchen; and Mrs. Doherty found linen rags to bind up sundry burns: the whole party were perfectly spent with fatigue; the men fell asleep over their beef, and bread, and threw themselves on the kitchen floor, with open mouths, and loud snores.

“Won't you rest, Ned?” said Mrs. Doherty, as Tudor passed. He smiled faintly, and shook his head. “Do, for one hour. The sofa in the back parlor is pretty cool, do.”

“No, thank you, I must go down to Muttee Muttee, the fire is running that way, and they have few hands. I shall get back in an hour, or so: let the men sleep, poor fellows, I may need them again: by-the-bye where is Ben, I did not see him.”

“Him bin go 'n washhouse, Mis'er Ned: him too much jerrau,” said Nanny.

Tudor's lip curled in contempt.

“I wish you would stop; well, if all is right there, won't you rest after you come back.”

“I must ride over to Owen. The sheep run is right, Lakin says.”

He turned into the washhouse, and brought out the coward, Ben, with little ceremony, and bade him feed, and wash the horses, and have a fresh one saddled for him on his return.

Mrs. Doherty watched him go on his neighbourly errand with moist eyes, and marked the sharp lines of his scorched, sooty figure. Happily, the strength of the fire was spent, and it died out in a few days; leaving nature in mourning for her children; and many a seared and hollow tree, to tell the tale for centuries to come; while others formed a pile of charcoal, and ashes.

The harvest began, and ended in peace; the drays brought a servant; and Nanny returned to the camp, quite tired of civilization, and conventionalities for the time; the bush fires on the far horizon gave them no uneasiness, for nearer home there was absolutely nothing to burn: then came Christmas, with his brows wreathed in roses and lilies; and after the autumn rains such a fresh shoot of green, that the sweeping destruction of the fire was half forgotten.

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