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Chapter XXVIII.

Knowest thou the deep, cool dale,
Where church-like stillness doth prevail;
Where neither flock nor herd you meet;
Which hath no name nor track of feet?

VELHAVEN.

THE elder Miss Markarld had long been in delicate health. Two years previous to Gertrude's introduction to the family, she had been thrown from her horse, and severely injured; the consequence had been frequent attacks of chest complaints, which kept her an invalid, and made her a perpetual patient for Dr. Morris. About this time a cold augmented her malady, and she was ordered to have change of air.

Mrs. Markarld could not leave her family, and the younger sister was from home.

“Could not Gertrude accompany me mamma? She is quiet, and I cannot bear noise,” said Miss Markarld.

“I think she is the very person; but where will you go?”

“To the Shoalhaven. There are those Scotch people who used to rent our bush farm; they were very decent people, and I could board with them, for they live there now.”

Mr. Markarld was not disposed to entertain this idea, but his daughter's mind was set upon it; and she had her own will in every thing, as agitation was considered injurious, and any opposition immediately excited her.

Most unexpectedly, Gertrude found herself in the midst of preparations for a journey, by land and sea; the ordinary confusion of such an event, heightened in a tenfold degree by Miss Markarld's ill health rendering many extra precautions and preparations essential.

The ludicrous confusion and bustle of a short steam trip promised to reach its utmost height, as the travellers exchanged a seat in the carriage for a place in the ladies' saloon. Gertrude indeed, was not destined to remain there long, there were packages innumerable to see after, and to know the exact locality of.

“Gertrude,” said Miss Markarld, from among a pile of pillows and shawls.

She approached.

“Where is my small bonnet box?”

“Quite safe miss, just there above that brass rod.”

“Bring it me. I cannot see it.”

The box was brought, and then returned to the same situation.

“Gertrude, where is my silk shade; I really think I dropped it on deck, go and see.”

The waves of the wide Pacific were not acting in strict conformity with their name, and the reeling movement of the vessel disposed the young girl to make sudden runs in a rather dangerous manner. The drawn shade was not on deck, and after a lengthened search, it was discovered beneath the pillows under Miss Markarld's head.

So often did the pretences arise for requiring her attention, that the notice of the other female passengers was aroused.

“I say young woman,” ejaculated a comfortable looking dame, clearly a farmer's wife, returning home after a marketing trip. “You just let her be; if she wants them things, let her get up after them,” and she gave the shawl twisted about her shoulders an indignant jerk.

Gertrude replied that the lady was ill.

“And what are you? I wonder,” demanded the zealous good wife.

The girl passed her hand over a white cheek, and smiled faintly.

The wind was getting up, and the waves in concert; there was rolling and tossing of the boat, and staggering up and down stairs, among the male passengers, and strong voices pronouncing opinions that “a southerly buster” would overtake them. Miss Markarld's fears rose with the winds, and the stewardess and Gertrude were incessantly interrogated upon the subject. A certain concomitant to water excursions seized upon the inhabitants of the various berths, and the confusion increased apace.

Gertrude found she was in perfect ignorance of the coast scenery, or the appearance of any other objects than her young mistress, and the boxes and baskets legion by name, till they were seated in a dog-cart, which their future host had brought to convey them home. The little voyage and its pleasures that might have been, and ills that were experienced, was ended, and they were driving along the banks of the Shoalhaven river: the first Australian river of any magnitude that Gertrude had seen. Mr. M'Donald lived at some distance from the mouth of the stream, and when they drew up at the farm-house door, she was reminded of the Wedlakes' residence; but here the walls were built of the trunks of the cabbage palm, and a group of standing trees cast a tropical appearance over an otherwise not very remarkable scene.

It was the old story of a farmer's upward struggles; the stumps were still standing where the trees had lately reared their ponderous heights. A nice little room had been lined with clean white calico, and the plain furniture had evidently been made the most of, in expectation of Miss Markarld's visit. This was to be the apartment of her and Gertrude, for she needed constant care.

The weather was beautiful, and to remain much within doors not to be thought of. Miss Markarld was desirous of seeing the rich vegetation which clothes the gullies, lying between the wild mountains overhanging the higher course of the river. The gully par excellence they could not penetrate, but there were many beautiful spots within reach by boat, or on horseback, where the stream broken by rapids is no longer navigable.

Mrs. M'Donald would pack a basket with refreshments, and deliver it into the hands of her son David, a sturdy lad of some fourteen years; and under his escort the visitors departed for the day; the constant exposure to the fresh air, and the exercise she took, was rapidly strengthening Miss Markarld; and having no one else to speak to, she gradually attached herself to Gertrude.

Slowly guiding their horses, they would ascend the banks of the river a few miles. High mountains, rocky and wooded, rose on either side, now receding, now approaching, they rose abruptly from the water's edge, or gave place to a green level; but the tortuous course of the river required the explorers to ford it in several places, where a bank of pebbles occasioned those rapid falls in the stream, locally known as the “Rapids,” or the “Crossing places.” A broad belt of forest oaks resembling the fir, rather than the Quercus, shadowed the banks; mingled in places with the Native Lavender, the Passion-flower and other plants; but the chief attraction to the wanderers, were the gullies; here the cabbage and bangale palms moved, their feathering umbrel formed tops on high, and the sweet glossy hickory scattered its fragrant seeds, and the myrtle and free nettle, the one with small leaves, the other with large pale green foliage, added novelty to the copse wood. So thick and dense it was, that the sun's rays rather stole in, than shone, making Mosaic pavement of light and shade upon the mossy ground; dancing among ferns, and brambles, and seeming to set on fire the scarlet breasts of the king-parrots, as they sported through the matted branches, interwoven with the Virgin's Bower, and the leafless stems of a creeper peculiar to such localities. The air was heavy with odours which a thousand leaves and blooms exhaled; and the silence was broken by the notes of the creeper, the bell-bird, the stockman's whip, and the varied cries of the lyre-bird.

It was fairy land to Gertrude; she had been within a few miles of such gullies, but never before in them; they had rather appeared as Ignis-fatuus, than realities; but now they're actual somethings, contrasting vividly with the dry sombre forests of graceless Eucalyptic she was familiar with. Every old stump, or rock supported a superb parasite; it was nature's store-house of jewels; literally piled up from the ground, to the topmost branches of the trees, was an almost solid mass of luxuriant vegetation—little streams of water were babbling among tree ferns, and stones, green and soft as velvet with moss.

“—The rivulet
Sends forth glad sounds, and tripping o'er its bed
Of pebbly sands, or leaping down the rocks,
Seems with continuous laughter to rejoice
In its own being.”

Pendant from the branches hung the Flying Fox, that bat of mammoth growth, wrapped round with its long dark wings—such a sight always aroused Miss Markarld's attention, and elicited a command to David M'Donald to throw a stone at the creature to awaken it from its sleep, in those twilight regions; though nocturnal in its habits, the fox obeyed the request conveyed in the language of stones, which language of projectiles finds a world-wide interpretation, and slowly buffeted away to another tree.

Where the females' wanderings would have terminated, is problematical, had not their companion interposed a grave: “We'll no go up there, I dinna ken the war and we maun be lost.”

This was unanswerable; and the idea of losing their way in such a tangled thicket, miles from any dwelling, or likelihood of meeting a traveller, had the effect David M'Donald intended; and they made retrograde steps to where they had secured their horses.

Nor were their wanderings confined to glen scenery: they ascended the lofty mountains, and gathered the nuts of the Barrumany, or Zamia Palm in the barren, sandy flats, lying back from the river; they peered into nests of birds, and the round holes in the stems and branches of trees, where the opossum and squirrel slept, rolled round like a furry ball.

David, of an evening, wonderstruck his parents by the recital of where they had been, and what they had done. One day Miss Markarld had collected a handkerchief full of sand, which glittered with mica.

“Is it gold?” David enquired.

“No, only “fools gold”—it is no value.”

“Just think on it mither; she spoilt her white handkerchief for stuff, that was no worth,” said the guide, that evening. On another occasion, his surprise was aroused by having to collect a great quantity of variegated quartz, in the provision basket, and to his discomfort carry it home; this time Mrs. M'Donald's wonder rather took the form of displeasure, and she intimated that “Dav was unco fash'd with dragging hame sich rubbish; and it was no use when he had brought it hame.”

Miss Markarld received her words in haughty silence, and withdrew to the sanctity of the calico lined room. However, the family were really kind, and disposed to put themselves to no small amount of [trouble] for the young ladies; and David on the whole, found no sources of complaint, though their rambles appeared to him entirely without aim.

“Miss Markarld, is it not damp, the dew must be falling?” The sun had already neared the horizon; the invalid was seated by the river's bank, where she had sat for an hour or two.

“No, do not disturb me,” she returned peevishly. Gertrude withdrew to a short distance, and stood anxiously watching her: she looked pale and weary, and though the evening air felt mild, an imperceptible moisture must be exhaled at that hour, so near the water. Just then, a voice singing one of the old Scotch versions of the Psalms, caught her attention, and filled her with pleasurable emotion; the singer was Mr. M'Donald, and she could see him in the distance, paddling across the river in the hollowed stem of a tree, which formed into a rude canoe, was called the Mudgerie.

The golden rays of the sun were falling upon the solitary rower and his perilous bark, and dancing on the ripples they made; and on the languid evening air his voice lingered with a rich full melody, that brought the tears into the eyes of the listeners. Miss Markarld had elevated her head, but Gertrude saw her pass her hand before her eyes hurriedly, as if unwilling her emotion should be perceived. They could not clearly catch the words, but they knew it was a hymn of praise, for that was essentially the spirit of the Scotch farmer: “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord,” he was ready to exclaim with the Psalmist. The hour, and the solitude added a peculiar solemnity to the act of worship. No one but themselves was in sight; the farms on the shore appeared already buried in slumber, only a few cows lowed to their calves, as they strolled leisurely along the bank and the black swans, and pelicans, passed over changing their position from the sea to the river, or the reverse, the flying fox was beating its wings like muffled drums, on its way to the orchard, in search of pillage; the whole scene was so wild and novel, and the Mudgerie so much in keeping with the rest, that Gertrude almost regretted to see it near the shore, and Mr. M'Donald sprang on a few logs piled up for a wharf.

“How would you like a sail in that wee bit of a boat miss?” he said cheerfully to Miss Markarld.

“Very much. I shall go some day,” she returned determinedly.

The former understood her unbending character, so wisely refrained from strengthening her determination, by opposing it; for though his wife and family often had crossed in it before they had a real boat, the Mudgerie was unquestionably dangerous, and liable to upset.

Gertrude had run up to the cottage for a large woollen shawl, and now advanced, and folded it round the young lady's shoulders; she did not repel her this time, but she was evidently indisposed to move, and her companion sat down to wait her pleasure.

“How happy he seems,” she said at length bitterly.

Gertrude assented.

“There are times when I hate life; when I hate myself, and every thing: what's the good of life?”

“Dear Miss Markarld, life has great good—the blessings we receive from God and from each other, and the happiness and comfort we may bestow—yes indeed, ‘the gift of life is good”’ her earnest words sprung from her heart, and but feebly conveyed what she would have said.

Empty indeed is a world without God in it, no wonder if they who have not that resting-place, weary in such a sunless wilderness, at times. “No man is truly happy who is not at peace with God, and with himself.”

“Tell me all about this,” the sick girl said, after awhile; and in the silent evening scene Gertrude opened her heart to her, and told her of Christ and Him crucified; and how he has said, “Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

Was her emotion to pass away with the bright tints of the evening sky? She prayed not. She had introduced her German Bible, to translate some of its glorious promises; and from that time Miss Markarld often withdrew to the seat beneath a wild fig tree on the water's side, and Gertrude sat at her feet, translating her favourite passages, or singing the grand old hymns of Luther—her cheerful, patient demeanour, had prepared the invalid to receive her words with respect, and consideration; and so much did she enjoy these quiet hours, and their rambles with David, that the period formally arranged for her stay, was constantly exceeded, and a more distant day fixed for their departure.

Sometimes when David was necessarily detained at home, they accompanied the farmer to the fields, or the barn; wide fields of onions, and potatoes, did not possess however equal interest with the noisy little corn mill.

“Coming to see us grain the corn?” the farmer used to say, with a good natured smile, as he threw his coat over a pile of bagged grain, to make a seat.

“Do not stop the mill Mr. M'Donald, thank you, I will do that,” interposed Gertrude, and the noisy clatter recommenced.

The great pile of golden cobs, one by one were presented to the rough iron wheel, and the hard grains quickly removed; this labour was not confined to the farmer, for his daughters could render him assistance in it.

The whirring and rattling of the noisy little mill had great charms for the visitors, especially as it was frequently the occupation of a wet day, when they could not walk out. Miss Markarld was utterly regardless of her hostess's alarm, as she spread an umbrella and stepped out on to the wet ground, “she was going to see the mill” was her only reply, as she picked her steps through the muddy yard, Gertrude dutifully following.

But these amusements were abruptly terminated, by Mr. Markarld's appearance among them—he had come to fetch his daughter home.

“I approve of your care Mrs. M'Donald,” he said in a grandly condescending tone. “Miss Markarld is decidedly better.”

Mrs. M'Donald was evidently rather gratified, by the consciousness that she was so, than by his manner of acknowledging it; but she was a kind hearted woman, not disposed to be fastidious about styles.

The packing and bustle of the sea voyage had to be reenacted, with a host of poultry and a chorus of melancholy pigs, and calves, destined for the Sydney market, adding a pitiable increase to the voyagers.

Mr. Markarld sat in the cabin sipping brandy and water, and talking politics with a stout passenger; and his daughter retired to the ladies' saloon, prepared to be unwell, and irritably sensible of the presence of a crying child, and a group of fellow sufferers. Gertrude could hear cheerful voices on deck, persons who were going home; others who were anticipating a shopping, or visiting week; pleasures past, and to come, discussed with smiles of gratified remembrance—it made her remember how lonely she was; that she had no home to go to: no loving circle to amuse with the recounting of her adventures: she thought with some dread of the dull garret room—but these dissatisfied feelings were not of long continuance; she could at least make others happy, and find her own happiness in that: it was a resolve well carried out, and it lessened that sense of loneliness; it is impossible to bestow pleasure, without receiving it; she went to her German bible again, and it said to her, “Trust in the Lord for ever, for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength.”

The return to the Park renewed Gertrude's former mode of life, with this slight modification, that occasionally Miss Markarld sent for her to read aloud to her, as she reclined on a couch, weary and feverish, for her temporary amendment of health had given way, and she was perhaps more decidedly an invalid, than previously.

These were pleasant hours to Gertrude, and made her acquainted with many works, before unknown to her. Miss Markarld had naturally a strong mind, and perhaps her view of life taken from a sick room, was rather acidulated; she therefore found no pleasure in society, but made her world in books: here were friends whom time changes not;—beings, and flowers, from which the hand of death needs turn away, for it is powerless—her library was varied; travels and exploratory narratives occupied the first place, then poetry and fiction, and there were times when the bible, and works on sacred subjects met with attention; but the sick girl belonged to a family who had placed the respectabilities of life in the room of religion; and these authorities taught her that far above all these things stood Christ the Lord; it disturbed her complacency, and she was unwilling to be humbled; even as a mere nothing before Him; so those better themes were often put aside; but Mr. M'Donald's evensong of praise was not forgotten, and when the rich rays of the setting sun were flooding in at the open window, and the pensive hush of evening had fallen upon the Park, she would request Gertrude to sing a hymn, and with her head rested on her white slender hand, she listened in silence and longed—she could not define for what, but the unsatisfied spirit had no resting place.

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