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John Parker

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Sketch on page 182 of 'John Parker'

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IT is not given to everyone to remember lastingly, unjostled by other events of the kind, the coming of the first stranger to one's doorstep. To me, the parting of the curtain of the bush to admit John Parker to our home stands distinct. I was but three and a half, so a backward counting tells me, and his coming seems almost my first memory. Claribel and I, looking up from our play, saw a tall stranger emerging to the open from what was to us the pathless wild. So tall he seemed, and so fair, with his long, flowing beard of ruddy gold! Later, reading gave him the character of a certain Viking in a book of Norse tales. Later, again, he became Arthur in our further reading—always some exalted figure, for he was well loved of us. He was at that period probably more like one of Bret Harte's heroes in his picturesque digger's attire; but of these we knew nothing. Tall and spare of frame, and fair of face, for all his weatherings, John Parker was not at that time, or later, an unheroic figure. He had a long leg and a long stride; when he moved he was animation from head to foot, and his mind was alike of a liveliness and vigour that made him a striking personality to young and old. As we grew older, and knew the inner man of him more, it was to find there the same uprightness as characterised his outer aspect. He was a man of sterling rectitude; of an ancestry that bore no paltering with truth. Nor would he tolerate in his intercourse the small change of the ordinary social pretences that go unwhipt by most.

But I set out to tell of his first appearance in our lives, from which he was never again far. Claribel and I stared, and ran doorward, with the surprising news, told amid tumblings and gaspings. My father happened to be in the house at the moment, and he went striding forward. Strangest

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thing of all, to him the stranger was no stranger! An ejaculation of surprise, and the two struck hearty palms. I can see John Parker now as, peeping, I saw him at that moment. The wide slouch hat off, the hair long and flopping forward, to be impatiently flung back with a quick motion of the hand, kept from falling across his eyes by that or the quick jerk of the head. We saw that gesture then, and heard the hearty, high-pitched voice. He let fall his swag at the verandah post, and never again were he and swag together. He was done with wandering, and had come to our wild region to settle on the land. He became a near neighbour, and shortly no more strange to our shyness. It was not long, in fact, before Claribel and I tumbled and gasped in running to meet this so-good friend of ours. He was a man who won children; their lover always.

They had met and parted again and again on the goldfields, my father and he, in the feverish rush from place to place of the days that even then were ended. Our humble roof was his while the search for land went on, and rich entertainment was ours to sit in the evenings and hear talk of wonderful El Dorados, of fortunes won and lost. Not ours in such rich stories to find an anti-climax to buckets of glittering quartz, and dishes of pebbly gold, in the present meanness of surroundings of the tale-tellers. Romance was not ungilded by our visible poverty. We did not know it for poverty, indeed; nor had we need to question unkindly our circumstances, food and bed, playtime and freedom, and impregnable shelter and love! Well vanished, Golcondas, I to whom you were truly but a “tale that is told” have never regretted your vanishment! Claribel was soon wooed from her hassock to the adventurer's knee, for his charm drew, and the recital of his wonders was better than the tales of our books. The narrative impulse seized my father, too, who had put away these things for what was at hand. The two struck fire from each other's memories, and to the glow of the winter blaze on the hearth they flung out the fragments of their experience from that vast epic of the fifties, the dazzling whole of which will never be comprehended in one focus.

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And then that phase seemed to pass. There is a gap in my recollections. John Parker was “on the land” when I next remember him. It and its fascinations captured him too, and, like my father, when he came he had ceased to talk of deep-down El Dorados. It was of the golden furrow that he talked now, or that which would be golden when the share could be laid to it. The romance of the surface had captured him, I say, and henceforth we children had less interest in the talk, since the themes were everyday. John Parker had taken the high hills for his own, three miles away from our valley to the west, and a pile of rough country between made it seem a world away. Those long, strong arms had taken their task; he had to let in the sun to those umbrageous hills; to the gullies at foot of the sharp spurs, where there was scarcely a path amid the scrub. It was a task for Hercules, but toil he loved who had set his hand to this. He shirked not one jot of the battle with wild Nature, but revelled in overcoming. He loved difficulty and the delightful result of bending the wild to his plough.

And more than that. He loved the unconsidered increment, or that which was unconsidered by most of his neighbours. The marketable result of his clearing, sowing and gathering was not for him the whole. The letting in of beauty, the gaining of wider sweeps of view, of vistas vast and far stretching as half of England. For John Parker such by-produce of his labours was even more than the corn. The altitudes fed him, and his love of far horizons grew by what it fed on. As some men plunge their hands among the harvested grain, so John Parker would plunge his spirit into the beauty that he had made clear for his eyes by the felling of tree and bush. Every year he attacked fresh heights of the wild hills that stretched back and back from the hard-won clearing where his house stood. With mighty strokes on long, long days he had cleared the immediate green that stood like an organic wall in its thickness between his first little hut and the world beyond. And then from that the conquering of fresh fields—the task was for all his life.

He was never very practical, they said, but would spend

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weeks in clearing away what other hastier folk ploughed round or over. He had an inverted sense of what was most important—a value of his own as to what mattered most in a landscape, even when that landscape was a field ploughed to yield grain. He viewed his environment as an artist and poet rather than as a farmer, whose first and last thought in the circle of the year is the sprouting and the garnering of his sowings. John Parker, I know, thought first of his morning feast of purples on the regal mountains; his evening draughts of tender lights and trailing shadows over the distant plains. His enthusiasm leapt and shone in his eyes when he strode over his hills like a host of Nature, displaying the beauties of the panorama to those who came.

And as the years went on there were many who came, like “a city that is set on a hill,” that growing clearing and the fame of it could not be hid. I have chronicled elsewhere, with a reminiscent pen that trembled between the two childhood loves of wild nature and of Christmas pudding, my first visit to that alpine region. And that was but the beginning of visits innumerable through all the succeeding years to that last year, when the native returned to find the ever-enduring hills under the touch of spring, and the man, their lover, bent with the press of years and toil.

Lover of the wild as he was in such excess, never was heart more gentle to his kind than John Parker's. He had indeed an extravagant idea of children. Wordsworth's feeling in the “Intimations of Immortality,” was his rather than the more scientific attitude of this rationalistic age. There was no light and shade in his conceptions of us little ones of those days—that is to say, it was all light. He beheld us in a golden glow “trailing clouds of glory.” There was no room for imperfections in his picture of us, I remember that I had rather died than that “Mr. Parker” had caught me in any meanness. That feeling begat in me a kind of secondary virtue; it tended to make “being good” habitual, for one knew not at what moment our friend's long-tailed “Nelly” might come flying to the verandah post. He was like a good “bogey,” and he rode fast and came

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unexpectedly. He caught Claribel throwing portions of a ruined mud-pie at Dick once as a mark of her temporary disapproval. She, poor child, was almost shrivelled up in the flame of her own quick shame. He was, as I say, an extravagant idealist not only as to children, but also in regard to older folks; and yet, reconcile it who can, just as vehemently was he a believer in “original sin,” according to the stern creed of the Church to which he adhered. It may be, I have sometimes thought, that he believed that the leaven of original sin was only in such members of the human family as remained outside his personal circle. True it was, in any case, that, generally speaking, there was a nimbus about the head of those whom he counted as friends—especially those of tender years. He had a large heart, and all went in. This idealising extended itself to the aesthetic sense: the children of his acquaintance were all beautiful, as well as good. No child on earth had ever before such glorious locks as the tossing brown curls that drooped over Claribel's young brow. Not the Dark Rosaleen herself had more beauteous cheeks than Muriel M——, the infant of a neighbouring friend. John Parker often drew upon the poets' rich stores for descriptions of these obscure little maidens. As for Claribel! My mother had a way of rushing in upon our friend's rhapsodies, fearful of the effect of such hyperboles of praise. Claribel became, and remained to the end—I believe owing to some fancied resemblance to Lady Byron—the most admired. A man of strangely mixed elements was John Parker. So stern, so tender—the interplay, I fancy, of natural temperament and doctrine. He was old-fashioned, too, in his romantic ideas about women, and while so much always the general admirer that he never married, there were certain predilections almost embarrassingly pointed in his own peculiar way. He named his pet animals to the third and fourth generation for those whom he chiefly admired. Not only so, but at one and the same time half a dozen of the creatures of his doorstep would bear the one name. Thus, have I known a brood of brindled kittens, and twin lambs, all living out their blissful lives about his feet as “Muriel.” Sufficient it was that confusion was

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avoided by the addition of numerals. I remember, on one occasion we came upon him in grief over the untimely death in the third month of her age of “Maude the 3rd”—a lamb sweet in itself as a pastoral of Wordsworth's.

There were those who sometimes jestingly complained that there was not a chair to be sat upon without careful inspection in John Parker's house, so many lazy pets there were. One, indeed, had to walk circumspectly approaching the door, for the rush of gentle creatures whose confidence outran their shyness.

There was a noble horse, a great red roan creature, that loved John Parker as an equal—understood his every word and look. Rein or bit or blinker were not for him. Without restraining or guiding headgear, in regal freedom and understanding, “Donald” drew his load. Have I not heard his master declare that it was his will, if that faithful friend survived him, the horse should serve no one else, but should live out his days free and unburdened among the hills he had borne so staunch a part in clearing? That other horse of his—the long-tailed “Nelly,” that he always rode as though in a tourney—standing in the stirrups; leaning forward, his arms shot out, the long beard flying—what a creature she was! John Parker almost broke his heart when Nelly snapped a bone in her leg, and had to be shot, after long nursing of the leg in a sling. None but her owner had ever found much virtue in Nelly. She had “too much white in the eye,” Nat Jones said, ever to be reliable. But one could rely upon her for a bolt up hill and down when she espied the flip of a bridle carried behind the man's back. It was the work of hours to catch her when she took the mood; and many a wild whirling run up hill and down her owner had; and yet one heard always of her perfections.

Never was more curiously mingled than in John Parker the Calvinist and the Pantheist. He worshipped Nature and burned to her the incense of a daily devotion, and just as constantly he thumbed the pages of a stern theology. A fierce dogmatism was his. He stood by literals—by the law, and the prophets, as he saw it, and them. He condemned

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none that fell, and yet behind his nature's gentleness was the inflexible belief that they were born already condemned. He himself, who would succour a fly, believed hardily in a Power that doomed utterly. One comes against such walls of granite in the gentlest of souls. His was a voice of terror to me sometimes. In the midst of genial converse, hurled, it may be, by some chance word, into violent theological discussion, I have known him to mount and ride away with raised voice and burning cheek because some godless soul had expressed a doubt of predestination, or had interrogated the doctrine of original sin. These dread words and their ideas dimly with them, came first to me from his lips in debate with my father. They made my childish heart fear, just as other kindlier gifts from him lapped us in a sense of happiness. They were awful words, and Claribel and I afterwards discussed their meaning and portent as we, uneasy of conscience, lay abed, after some venial sin of the daytime.

John Parker never missed the monthly church service held at the McDermots', and in the days when we were small, one or other of us always rode home on front of his saddle, perched near Nelly's neck—Nelly a model of deportment at such times. Our house for dinner or my aunt's, on those Sundays was the unfailing custom; and it was after dinner that the portentous theological discussions I have referred to always occurred. The sermon of the morning's hearing was traversed with thoroughness, and there were generally citations from some divine to support or rebut a contested point. From these we gladly slipped away, wondering, as I have always wondered since, how our elders found substance in such dry themes.

Claribel and I liked John Parker best when he “talked poetry,” and he had a head and a heart full of it. Mostly he confined himself to authors of an earlier date, but could come easily from Young's “Night Thoughts” to Longfellow, or Tennyson's early poems; from Goldsmith he would rove to Bryant. It was Bryant I heard him quote with tremulous feeling once upon a beautiful evening. It was in later years, and we stood upon one of the top-most hills beyond his house.

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Around us the world lay melting into evening's magic-darkling, yet clear. Across the opaline sky toward the distant lakes was flying one wildfowl, a dark speck in the wide, clear expanse. Not unlike a prophet with his long, greyed hair and beard, and all like a poet, John Parker stood hat in hand, his hair backward flung, hand pointed to the solitary bird. Standing thus he repeated the American poet's beautiful lines, “To a Waterfowl,” from its opening, “Whither 'midst falling dew,” to the verse ending, “lone, wandering, but not lost.” There his voice quavered, and he broke off. That scene and all it held comes back to me now when the short line reaches me: “John Parker passed away early this morning.”

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