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Red-Letter Days

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Sketch on page 150 of 'Red-Letter Days'

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IN these times there are no red-letter days, the days I still have a child-like longing for, perhaps because they never come! The old-time Red Letter Day has, I fear, really gone out with the primitive and simple life of the pioneer outback years; or it has flown farther and farther into the wilds, even as the emu and the lyre-bird have retreated before the invading sociabilities of man. Where I am now, the occasional day does not exist; the unceasing surfeit of events, of entertainments, has killed it: sophistication has made it a thing of yesterday. With it has gone the keenness of one's palate for the anticipation of happenings, the delight in participation, and the sweet joys of never-fading retrospect. The picture-house unreality alone would have made an end of it. There are those who say that it is childhood's zest that gives the glamour, the rosy hue to occasion: that sets the colours in the memory and the imagination faithfully to last through the more critical years. But I know it is not so; I know that such days have power to find us young if they had but elbow-room in our calendar. Such an one caught me unawares, but responsive, not long since, in an aloof place where rustics sported. And Claribel says so, too; and she knows; she has had even more than I of the over-plus of sociabilities, and of mental confectionery on her daily dish. Yet the occasional great day, caught in its passing on a country green, found her in the sudden experience ready to meet it with the old-time thrill of heart and rhythm of toe.

Our first Red Letter Day of the Bark House era was, as my remembrance goes, very much a domestic one. It was a Christmas Day, when issuing from a bustle of preparations, dressed in our finest clothing, we, and the family of my aunt,

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set forth in our respective chariots—commodious drays drawn by “Nugget” and “Dolly.” Our destination was the home —more primitive even than our own bark castle—of a bachelor friend of my father's, newly settled near us. 'Twas a great ride that, over the bumpy bush-track, the ups and downs of which sent us anon into each other's arms from our improvised seats. There was a wealth of late bush-flowers, which, as the red-letter spirit had entered into our pliant parents also, took us often to the ground and into the bush about us for the trailing garments of glory. We were all decked when we arrived at the journey's end, and so were old “Nugget” and “Dolly,” the geniuses of the wheels. The sturdy draughts stepped proudly with their festoons from collar, winkers and saddle; from all and any part of their gear that would offer a buckle or a crevice. We were a holiday party when we reached the loftily perched home of John Parker, away in the back hills. What a climb it was to the house from the last pinch where the vehicles had to be left; but when we arrived what a world lay spread beneath! We gasped with delight, for it was our first seeing of the blue distant wonder that was the prelude to the ocean. It might have been the sky at which we gazed, for the moment silent upon the peak; only it was not the sky, but the mystical sea come by magic almost to the feet of the little inlanders. The blue of the sky melted into the glimmer of the water or the water into it. There were puffs and wisps of smoke from steamers about the Entrance, as our host told us, giving a realistic touch to the marvel, and making it for our elders—one with the story of romance and of reminiscence. Of the more mundane joys of the feast of that day I remember best the huge plum-pudding—proudly proclaimed as the work of our wifeless but competent friend. My mother and aunt praised it while they ate; our synonym for praise was our appetite. Like Adam Bede, we each had “twice o' puddin',” and I fancy it was only the interpolatory shake of my aunt's head that held Dick from falling into the indiscretion of a third supply of the be-raisined beauty. It was a wonderful day, even though it held the inevitable mishap—if so slight a thing as

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a fall into the creek from a sharp declivity can be counted such. Dick—did I not say it was his shin that suffered?— was rather important, displaying in the aftermath a leg much decorated with sticking plaster (supplied by our host, who was ready for any emergency), a limb already veteran in the matter of honourable scars.

The leaping mind refuses to be chronological; the next Red Letter Day from the past is well away from my mere infancy, and sees me crowned by eight summers, and, to be literal, an extra winter, since I was an autumn comer to this planet.

There had straggled into being, a mile or two away from us, a township, which in a haphazard fashion perched itself on either side of the little creek that here ran among steep hillsides. Sociability and business demanded a neighbourly crossing of the stream, and a bridge had “been built for the ratepayers”—I heard my uncle phrase it so. The opening of this bridge for general traffic—heretofore we had known but cobble-stones—made occasion for a real Red Letter Day. To the celebration came everybody. We children saw there more strangers at once than we had seen in all our lives before. There was, of course, a feast; my mother and all the other matrons of the district had baked and boiled for that. There were hams and turkeys, and tarts and cakes, and I know not what else. I tasted my first grapes at that feast, in a place that grew none. As I remember the purple spray allotted to me, those grapes were by no means sour, though Lucy Speary, seated beside me, having devoured her own share, tried to persuade me that they were. The oldest lady inhabitant of the place opened the bridge. We had a vantage spot, and saw the ribbon cut that stretched across its approach; we saw the bottle of wine broken as well. Claribel was shocked at that, it seemed such a violent action, the breaking of glass, and such a wasteful one to a soul frugal as hers. The folks laughed, we saw, when old Tommy, who worked for us, and who was making holiday with the rest, evidently also frugal of soul, edged up and secured a drop of the unspilled wine from the broken bottle. That was the first time I heard a

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speech made. Claribel and I, resplendent in new hats and frocks, all made from a silk dress of my mother's city days, heard it from our seats in a spring-cart, wherein we had, like Timotheus, with other diminutives, been “placed on high.” The “local Member” it was who made the speech. I remember only the grey beard, the emphasising hand, and a phrase or two. “This auspicious occasion,” he said it several times, as though he liked the sound of it as much as Claribel and I did; only Claribel saying it afterwards had it “suspicious,” which made Dick laugh, though he never ventured to set her right. The speech made a great impression upon us; not the matter of it, but the fact of it. I made a speech myself soon after this at Fred's birthday picnic on the hillside; and we all “hip-hipped” after it as the Member and the people had done at the opening of the bridge.

Going to school on the first occasion made a Red-Letter Day, though it held its fears, too, and the importance of the event faded into the light of common days later on by a too-frequent repetition. Then the coming of a city relative to visit us, or the going away of one after a sojourn with us. In this last the excitement was dashed with some natural pensiveness. We had somewhat spectacular ideas of farewelling parting guests. Till the top of the long hill put them on the high road, swallowing them up into the strange world again, we waved to the visitors from the roof of my aunt's dairy—the point that gave them longest to our view, and us to theirs. Fred and A.H., to outdo the smaller, feebler fry, on one occasion of this kind, hoisted from the dairy roof the counterpane from their mother's bed upon two poles in valedictory honour of their favourite aunt—one who had left them rich in “marbles,” not that that, of course, had anything to do with their affection for her!

There were horse races now and then in the McDermots' big paddock, and some fine reckless riding on a track that circled deftly round among the red-gum trees. The spectators watched the proceedings from the centre of the wide ring from such “grand stands” as stumps and fallen logs. We all used to go with our parents to this “fixture,” as Peter McGregor

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called it; we used to wonder at the word. These were the only horse-races our parents approved, and that, I fancy, because they were under the auspices of some Presbyterian people, and were innocent of the usual vices. At any rate, if there was betting or gambling carried on at those sports it was not known to the sedate, or to the very young. I remember on one of those occasions an amateur jockey was thrown in a race, two horses galloping over him before he could scramble clear, which he finally did quite scathless. Dick, Claribel and Fred, imitating the performance later, failed to repeat it exactly; Dick, in consequence, receiving a blow on the head from the foot of one of the horses leaping over him— actually from the heel of one of Claribel's stout school shoes.

When one goes into the psychology of the Red-Letter Day—or the human psychology that makes such days stand forth from the ordinary calendar—one finds that even in the least eventful life there are numbers of them. There was for us, for instance, the day when a new member of the family arrived—an event always as mysterious as unexpected, and of as cogent interest to us, whether happening in our aunt's house or in our own—and it used to occur impartially turn and turn about in each family. The coming of itinerant callers and other breakers-in upon the even tenor of our quiet life, I have before spoken of. The great Red-Letter Days were those which projected us outward as it were, taking us into the communal life. They meant a going out; the adventure of meeting our neighbours rather than some mere domestic happening. I could talk much of trifles belonging to the latter category, even of the milestone events that happen to one's inner being.…But for the present I am for the more physical adventures. Nothing more important, or, I should say, nothing that made us feel more important, happened to our childhood than the incidence of a sweeping attack of the measles that sent all the juveniles of the household down like nine-pins, and served in the same way our young cousins and playmates across the paddock.

The mad pranks played in convalescence are my chief recollections of this time. I faintly recollect that I felt ill,

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and have memory of seeing myself, in a hand-glass, strangely speckled, but all that must have soon passed, and the rest was fun. I have no doubt that our two mothers regarded it all otherwise, when I remember the fugitive flittings out of bed, and the premature and clandestine games with our afflicted young cousins, who were likewise supposed to be safe in their beds a long paddock-space away from us.

In more advanced times there was the opening of the Mechanics' Institute. That was a great occasion! We saw people dance for the first time on a real polished floor, in real set dances, and to “proper music”—not to the strains of a concertina or other such simple instrument to which the labouring men used to swing round sometimes in the evenings. Indeed, I found myself, embarrassed and incapable, on the floor at the Mechanics' ball. Tom Speary pulled my shy feet along, and whirled me about somehow, for a few minutes to drop me giddy beside his sister Lucy, who laughed at me in a fine superior way, she being, despite her youth, a seasoned devotee to those old dances no longer known in this age of jazzing. There were, of course, always the annual socials when once the church had been built. These used to seem exciting affairs, though looking back I fancy that our lack of sophistication may have given a glamour to the festivities not altogether inherent in their nature. I remember that even at the time some of the speeches, after the feasting part of the celebration was over, used to tire us. I have memory of trying to stifle a yawn on an occasion when our minister was making what was called “the financial statement,” and wondering how it was that the older folks seemed so interested. I remember, too, that we came to know, after several of these socials, what joke one of the visiting ministers was going to tell next, before the joke actually came. Claribel and Dick came to some trouble on one occasion for mimicking, in the presence of my aunt, one of the divines who had lent his oratory to our church social, and whose native Scots dialect had not been unduly adulterated by a more cultured accent. There were, of course, rivalries, and a few ruffled feelings in connection with those socials now and then. I remember being

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struck when still very young by the fact that Christians (in the special sense) had tempers as well as wicked folks, when Mrs. Speary spoke rudely to Mrs. McDermot, because all the visiting ministers had sat at Mrs. McDermot's table at the tea meeting. Claribel, commenting on the incident afterwards, thought that Mrs. Speary was not “redeemed,” whereupon Dick gave her certain Scriptural texts calculated to confound such drastic reasoning. We were all great little theologians in those days, brought up, as Nat Jones, the horse breaker, used to say (with a shade of contempt), “between the leaves of the Bible.”

A Red-Letter Day was that on which I first went for a trip to the city. My childhood was almost past before that happened, and it fell that I had formed an inflated idea regarding some things, and in the experience there was much dissipating of romantically conceived notions. I was a stranger in a strange land on that first visit to the world of streets and crowded houses, and, disillusioned, I was glad to set my feet upon soft grass again, and to feel the quiet of the trees about me. Yet for all that the visit to the city gave me glimpses and sights, suggestions and impulses, that added much to the gatherings of my secluded days. And so its mark is on my calendar.

It was long in that old place of my early home before any of the native born young people were old enough to be married. But marriage, like death, is bound sooner or later to come wherever there are human folk. When Molly Speary got married there was a wonderful party at her parents' house. Everyone was there to the smallest infant, and there was such a night of fun as never before was known in that part of the world. It seemed that people who had long forgotten how to dance rediscovered the lost art under the inspiration of Dave Sparrow's violin, and forthwith seized and taught the mazy mysteries to others who never had known them before. And the speeches, the feasting, the songs! The roast sucking pigs were all that art can add to nature; the wit of the speeches had scarce a fine finish, and the songs had in the rendering perhaps less of melody than of good

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fellowship and sentiment. But what of that! “On with the dance” was the order of the night. As for the singing, it was generally the older people who ventured, and the oldtime songs, to which they turned lip and heart. Mood and moment gave a forgotten courage, and the forgotten song came to lips long used to prose. I remember Mrs. Hamden's eye—she such a matter-of-fact soul when one went on an errand to her house!—shining with a tear, as, seated with her youngest on her lap, she sang that old song with the refrain, “the beating of my own heart was the only sound I heard.” I remember, too, Mr. Marsden, whose voice was rough beyond most others when he shouted to the plough horses, becoming very soft and tender to “Annie Laurie.” I remember also George Rendle, who had a blue anchor on his wrist, and who used to tell us when we asked him about it, that it was a “birth-mark”—though what that was we did not know. I remember him singing something about “Yo Ho, Boys,” and pretending to pull ropes in the air to such effect that he had to repeat the performance three times. I remember much more also. I remember, in fact, everything that took place at that party, even to the burning of my eyes when we faced out to the cool, keen air to go home at daybreak.…And Molly Speary's eldest daughter is now “a woman grown and wed,” and Molly herself a grandmother.