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The Old House

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Sketch on page 10 of 'The Old House'

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THE old house is no longer there. The structures of pioneer days are not for permanency. We were born in it, the whole wild, shy, little seven of us, and when it began to tumble and lurch itself out of plumb, hands, I know not if desecrating or reverent, were laid upon it, and it was demolished.

I have heard of the building of the old house from my mother, till I imagined that I remembered the actual putting together of those bush timbers. I saw my father, a little grey of whisker—early so—bending to the rough timbers with adze and saw to shape them to something like fitness for the part they were to play in that wonderful architecture. I saw, too, in imagination, Uncle William, acting as “handy man” to father; he not knowing about building so well; his brief pioneering experience having been confined to a shop in the town, which they now call the city. I made uncle a trifle grey, too, as he was when actual memory of him supplanted the imaginary.

They did it in a fortnight or three weeks at most, so my mother used to say. They are tenacious chroniclers of details, these pioneers, especially the women, whose common round was circumscribed by a belt of bush, and to whom a small incident, from the infrequency of incidents, was pages of life. But the building of the first home in the wilderness is not a small incident: the coming to it from a yet more inadequate tent meant much.

My father intended to get on, to subdue the scrub, to woo the virgin soil of his selection, to move on to finer things in the way of a house; so, strapping on his sapling riders over the bark roof with his strands of green hide, he had told mother, and often afterwards. From what I know of her, she looked on brave enough, but wistful for the days when

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her home should have more of art about its shape and make. But why, she perhaps thought, did father set in the ground such vast upstanding logs for verandah posts? The Philistines were safe under that verandah, though Samson were about. I remember their girth. We played hide-and-seek behind those posts later. We used to run round and round them, too, till the world spun with us. Were they not set there for the unborn us? There must, indeed, have been haste in the building of that old house. It is authentic memory now which tells me of trees within reach of it that on windy nights made our elders speak of possibilities. It was long before they were all cut down, one by one, for, dangerous or not, there were many trees further off, and a wilderness of scrub to be got rid of first, so that the crops might grow—also to feed the unborn us. Truly those pioneers did have to think of us; we came very quickly, and we clamoured so when we came.

One tree I mind—I catch my father's phrase—bent so towards the house that my mother's nervousness in a windy season insisted that it must go. Claribel was toddling soon, I think. So my father went at it. Uncle, with his long arms and legs, and his lean, resolute English face, had been a climber after birds' nests of old, and now a proof was demanded of his powers. He had to climb the leaning tree, and tie ropes on the limbs on the house side of it, so that in falling it should be directed the other way. It must be memory now, the thing's so clear with me. I was about three—a silent, noting youngster. There was my father, chopping, chopping, cautiously, stepping back from the tree every now and then, and eyeing its branches, it creaking and rocking a little. There were uncle, and old Angus, the “working man,” pulling on the ropes with a “yo-ho.” Angus had been a sailor, mother explained, and “yo-ho” was a sailor's word when he pulled a rope, just as the tattoo on his arm belonged to a sailor. Jack said he wanted to be a sailor, and mother smiled absently. There we were, Jack and mother and I, away to the stump by the front gate for safety. Mother was holding me, and anxiously keeping Jack near her, lest his excitement should get the better of him. Every time the

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tree swayed she gripped us both. It was down at last, safe and away from the house. I don't remember any more about it, I think, till Claribel and I pulled a lump of crumbling bark off the yet lying trunk for mother's baking fire, and a lot of spiders sent us running like little Miss Muffit. Ah! that was long ago. But the house—I wander in my reminiscences, as the old pioneers are said to do. Can it be that I'm becoming an old pioneer myself, of the second period? That's possible, for the time of which I speak just now is very far in the past. It was the beginning of the settlement of those old districts to which came the broken-fortuned men from the gold-fields. The surface, they said, will give us what the deep earth failed to yield. The house of my memory was all of stringybark, and a framework of bush timber. If not beautiful to the eye— though of its defects we small ones were not conscious—it was cosy in winter, and cool in summer. The heavy, thick sheets of bark kept the fierce sun at bay, as we realized later when the era of the iron roof set in. And if here and there, for want of sufficient lap in the first place, or from some other cause, there was a chink in the bark wall, still it could be and was filled up or covered over.

My mother pasted newspapers over the bark walls two or three times a year; she did it till there was a thick layer that began to peel itself off. I remember the joy of the first doing; though it was not joy to her, especially when she came to the rough side of the bark in the skillion rooms. It peeled and peeled, and she had to have more and more paste, till the flour ran out, and we had potatoes for a day or two, till more flour could be got. The day, I say, was a joy to us, revelling in a scene of paste and muddle, but, looking back, I know my mother to have been a saint that she did none of us meddlers an injury, nor screamed to high heaven against the poetry of pioneering. She did neither of these things as I recollect, but had a transformed house when my father came at night, to stare amazed.

It was cosy, I say, at night, when the bush wept or howled without, or when the frost polished up the stars. The fireplace occupied almost all one end of the front room—parlour

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was too ostentatious. Great logs roared, the more wood disposed of that way the better, and gave us merry thoughts; glowed, and gave us the queer dreams of childhood, as we sat on the home-made hearth-rug. Old fireplace, with your ample hobs, your uncouth, dangling chains and pothooks, beside your brightness it was that I first made the acquaintance of Topsy, of Tiny Tim, of Robinson Crusoe, and of many more of the life-long friends of the inner me.

How white were those hobs, though only pipeclayed. I remember the uprooted tree, discovered on a Sunday walk to the hill paddock, that yielded the wherewithal for the joy of a “clean hearth,” if not the “rigour of the game.” Home we carried the first instalment of pipeclay in our handkerchiefs, and though it was Sunday, and the Puritan in the family blood, the rough stones and their mud surface might not remain till to-morrow. My mother laid on the first coat, and when the newly lit fire dried it, it was wondrous. The whole room was aglow, the brighter and cleaner for it. It was always white afterwards; I can smell it yet, a pleasant earthy smell. How my mother smiled, looking into the fire that Sunday night, “Little Folks” forgotten on her knee till we nudged her to its pages. She soon transformed the floor, too, and by constant labour kept it smooth and fresh, the wonder of the occasional stranger and the emulation of the neighbour woman. Yes, the old room was comfortable and pleasant, and, if I have known grander parlours, never have I known one that was more truly a retreat from the strain of things. There were home-made chairs, father-made chairs, chairs upholstered by my mother with some disused crimson curtains she had rummaged from a box of old-time grandeurs. Such an effect! It tutored our savage little souls, the crimson chairs on the white floor, the firelight playing over it all. The walls almost white, too, with the newspapers, relieved here and there by pictures from “The Graphic.” I remember the “Sea King's Daughter,” with her fair face and blue eyes, condescended to smile upon us for years from above the rude red-gum mantelshelf, and Stanley greeted Livingstone over the sofa.

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At night in bed, we saw the stars through an occasional chink—the “unascended stars”—or heard the 'possums scrambling on the roof, or emitting their “whiff whiff” from the boxtree nearby, the last one left standing, and covered all over with their quaint scribblings; or when the mopoke hooted to the moon we grew fanciful till we floated into the palace of sleep, away from the plain bark walls of our little room.

No house stood for long bare, digged round, or left with the scrub to the door. Man made a garden early, and he that is pioneer again and again in the world retains that instinct. Where they all came from, the simple flowers, I cannot remember; from neighbours established before us, I suspect, except such as came as seeds in letters from friends afar, who, through the blessed if infrequent post, had touch with our remoteness. There was a laburnum at the back; it had achieved a shade before I remember it, which in the afternoons was a pleasant flicker on the kitchen window. There was a gooseberry bush at the back, too, that always betrayed us by tearing the letter “L” in our pinnies when we went near it.

In the front there was a shrub—I have never known its name. We called it “Mrs. Seymour's Shrub” because one of that name had brought it as a little plant to my mother. She had, I remember, a plant of rosemary in exchange. Flowers were current coin in the settlement in those days. What one had, all came to have. The sweet-scented verbena we called father's bush. The only time he wore a flower was when he gathered a spray of it as he passed on his way to the gate. But that was only to church on Sunday. It was his one betrayal of sentiment, so far as flowers were concerned. It put him in mind of his mother, he would say, fingering his spray fondly. How, or why, we did not know; but it seemed strange, and awed us a little. Father's mother, how old she must be!

Mother had many sentiments—daisies, violets, buttercups and primroses, and, last of all, a daffodil; these gathered England about her. She talked with far-away eyes of things

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before God had made us, out of the dust on the road to the township, the only road and the only dust we knew. How her talk engages imagination and memory! Forty years after, wandering in the native home of her and of these things, I have remembered and understood her feeling.

I have been back to the site of that old house and garden. And it is now only a site. Not a timber of the house remains, but in the garden a still-suggested mound that was once the beflowered grave of many pets; and by the broken fragments of the paling fence an aged aloe. “Adam's Needle,” we called it; it had seemed somehow to belong to Sunday school, and to “man's first disobedience.”

The cruel spikes our fancy had played about, half in wonder, half in fear; they belonged to the pain of the world in some sense. We were nursed by the stern ethics of the day to such childish, yet unchildlike, imaginings. But fear did not keep us from yielding to the temptation to put our petty records upon the broad, thick leaves of the formidable aloe. Still there, uncouth, unreadable, are the obese initials of our little swarm—a scattered swarm now.

Just one I make out of these obscure letterings; the one legible, the one indelible, A.H. And he, of us all, is the one who passed while yet youth was with him, to that House and Garden in which the old pioneers are one by one assembling.