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The First Church

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Sketch on page 28 of 'The Author's Mother'

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THE first church we used to attend was not a church at all. Service was held at a neighbour's house, where we assembled on one Sunday morning a month. I don't think I remember the first time I went. I was too young, I expect, for that, but my recollections go back to a very sleepy little girl, dutifully trying to listen to a sermon about the plagues of Egypt. Suddenly one would awaken from force of will, or a private nudge or whispered injunction from one's mother. Looking around with a guilty feeling after such a happening, I have seen other dozing young folk making pillows of their mothers. We were sleepy, I know, because of the country custom of rising early, a custom that was not relaxed on Sunday mornings; rather, folk rose earlier on church morning, I think. There were so many odds and ends of jobs to be done before we might dress and be off, that it meant early rising. There were the milking and other outside things that must be done on Sunday as well as weekday; and also the midday dinner had to be urged forward a few points further than had been done on Saturday night.

One member of the family in our household always stayed to cook the dinner. When I got big enough I took my turn; not unwillingly, for one could read in snatches while watching the pots: a thing one could not do in church: there were too many eyes to see one's page, and no healthy child cares to read in church or elsewhere the books approved by one's elders. I had “Nick Whiffles,” a kind of Kit Carson tale, for my Sunday morning's company. The book lasted me about a year, I think, for when church is only once a month, and you are one of four to take the turn at home, and that practically the only time you are quite alone, it takes some

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months to get through a forbidden book. A louder sizzling than should proceed from the oven, and the sudden boiling over of a vegetable pot, are also interrupting incidents to be reckoned with.

When the Sunday school began, superhuman arrangements were made about the dinner. A cold meal was instituted, with hot vegetables, which my brother, dashing ahead on horseback, would have nearly cooked when we drove up. My father had been brought up strictly in Calvinistic usages; he was more than reconciled to the cold dinner, though I remember hearing a neighbour comment adversely on the practice which his wife, too, had sought to institute. “Not for me,” said he. “One's stomach before one's soul. I can show you Scripture for it.” But I never heard the text or texts by which he proved his principle.

The Sunday school lasted more than an hour, and was held in the same room before the commencement of the church service. This meant our going earlier than the elders, and having to walk, the rest driving in time for the church. I think that must be the period at which my sleepiness became pronounced; it meant, besides the earlier rising, walking two miles over a hilly road. I reflect that I got my “golden texts” hard, and most of my Scripture training, too—not all, perhaps. We had, and still have, an old-fashioned leather-covered Bible at home that was used frequently in the home circle. It has in the front of it a picture of our first parents, and on the flyleaf the handwritten records of events put there by our last parents. There are set forth the births of us children chronologically; Claribel a year and three days younger than I, a fact I had on more than one occasion to turn up for her chastening. In front of the record of these proud events was written, in my mother's hand, on top of the page, the year and date of her marriage—a kind of sign manual of our legitimacy, I suppose. Dick and Claribel and I used to look with half awe, half dislike, at the pictures of the old patriarchs that were scattered between those leather covers. I remember we scratched the face of Abraham, because of his cool preparations for the offering up of Isaac, and Claribel

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disliked Moses because his beard was like that of Owen, the old man who did odd jobs about the place, and of whom we were for some reason frightened.

There were eight of us who used to go to that Sunday school—four girls of our family, and four boy cousins. Once we were chased back when midway between our boundary fence and the McDermott's, by some wild bullocks of McDermott's. Claribel had on a red frock, and we blamed her for it, though really we had no serious objection to being sent back, once we were safe inside our own fence again, where Dick discoursed learnedly to us on the fury of cattle against red. As long as Claribel had that dress, he suggested, it would not be safe for us to come again. I fancy the dress must have been discarded, or the bullocks put on other pastures, for I know that we were packed off to Sunday school again next Sunday. The Sunday school was conducted by local people, except on the fourth Sunday of the month, when the minister came and took charge of the class of older children. Fred was in that class, and was never quite sure whether it was a distinction to be proud of, or a doubtful blessing, because the minister used to ask the class a good many questions about the subjects of the whole past month's lessons. On other days the class had nothing to fear; it was taught then by Charles Andrews, the State schoolteacher of Black's Hill, whose methods were exceedingly superficial. We young ones soon discovered, in fact, that Mr. Andrews had only assumed the pious office because a young lady neighbour had the class of little girls who sat on the form at the end. His eye, it was noticed, was oftener fixed on the profile of Miss Creswell than on us or our books. It was an admirable arrangement, under cover of which alleys and “glassies” were able to change hands unnoted, and 'possuming experiences might be related without let or hindrance. The little girls found it out first; it was Claribel, I think, who diagnosed the reason for Mr. Andrews' glaring abstraction as to what was passing in his class. The girls were inclined to be interested in the romance. Claribel had begun to read surreptitious books, and informed us coming home one day that “Miss Creswell's fair

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face was glowing like a roseleaf under the ardent gaze of Mr. Andrews.” Fred, I remember, guffawed at that, and cut a somersault on the grass; his hymnbook flying. In any case, the romance didn't appeal to the boys except as a diverter. They had, I know, a kind of contempt for Mr. Andrews, apart from this reprehensible weakness of his. He had been known to swear outside the store at the township on one occasion. Phil McDermott had heard him. So in the downright way of children we had decided that Mr. Andrews was not fit for the sacred office he assumed; indeed, I used to think of him when the minister preached from a particularly Presbyterian text about doom, as he sometimes did.

There was one of the teachers, though, whom we just as definitely knew to be fit to point the way she led. That was Jessie McDermott, the eldest daughter of the house. I was in her class, and knew her a little, shyly, outside as well. She died when she was but twenty-seven; true to the best, hers was a beautiful life. If we whom she taught haven't kept the letter of all she used to say to us on those Sunday mornings so far away, not one of us, I am sure, has ever quite forgotten or lost the spiritual precipitate of her inculcations. It was sublimated Presbyterianism she taught. What the others taught was just Presbyterianism. There she used to sit, one with us, as it were; nothing of the pedagogue about her, and yet our guide. Grey eyes that smiled, or, many a time, even there, nursed humour, as when Lucy Speary ventured the assertion that the whale swallowed Noah to save him from the flood.

Outside, she was full of humour. She it was, I remember, who gave me my first impulse to comedy, and when she came, as she did later, to look to me for understanding of her sallies, proud, indeed, was I. But in Sunday school, of course, she was usually grave enough in her little human talks with us bush children.

I used sometimes, to look at Jessie McDermott, and think of what I'd heard my mother say, that it was only her spirit that kept her alive, she was so frail. She did die later; but though her brief life ended, the influence of it still hangs over

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many a spirit. Outside, she never taught directly; but there was a ministry about her life. It was strange the effect she had on all sorts of people, even people with whom she had never had direct touch. I remember a post and rail splitter who had had but an occasional word with her as she rode along the road where he worked, who said when she died—“They're the kind that go.” Hers was the first dead face I looked on. We Sunday school children went to see her. An image of peace she was, so that the tranquillity of her aspect comforted us. I almost wondered why, because our grief till we had been admitted to her presence had been so great. “Old Mac” cried after he had been in the room; I remember seeing him coming out. I had not much liked the old man before, and it made me wonder, with a kind of respectful awe, that such a queer, not-much-account old man should shed tears.

“Old Mac” used to come to the church services, and we Sunday school children knew that he used purposely to come early to play foolish tricks upon us. He would come into the room where we were, and would sit near our class, leaning on his knotty stick; presently he would lean forward, and pull the flowing hair or tweak the ear of one of us, and then stare at his stick, as though absorbed. No child would giggle at last, and, though his joke had long ago become a nuisance, Old Mac continued to repeat it, and without variation.

From first to last, we had church services for nineteen years at the McDermotts'. For that time we gathered in the largest room in their house, kept unfurnished for that purpose, except for rows of chairs and forms. And for that length of time, too, they entertained the minister on his periodic visits to the district. We built a church at last. With scotch caution, every penny was in hand before brick was set on brick. They did it well, but cheaply, too, for the young men of the place carted the bricks and timber, and helped with much of the construction. There it still stands, and will stand, by the old box-tree, staring aggressively to the road. The site was owned by the McDermotts' old shepherd, Jack Carter, of the days when their station was a sheep run. When

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old Jack died, and was taken a long way to the nearest cemetery in a buggy, he left to the church the acre and a half whereon stood the hut of his retirement. He had never gone to church, so far as I can remember; but it is often the Jack Carters who in their wills remember the church of their fathers.

There was a great wrangle as to where the building should be erected. Some objected to the Jack Carter site, as too far from their own doors. Roderick Wallace was implacable; he registered a vow never to darken its doors, because the Carter faction had carried the day. And he kept his word, shocking the district by taking to burning-off on Sundays; he, a churchgoer all his life, and his father, as he had often previously boasted, an elder of the kirk in Scotland. The burning-off stood, to the younger generation at least, as the open sign of Roderick Wallace's alliance with a darker power.

There was a wonderful tea-meeting when the church was opened. “Swiss-roll” had just come within the ken of the local housewives, and was on the tables in plenty. It was a great feast, for, though there were songs and speeches as part of the celebration, the feasting was the chief consideration. The local minister and the visiting ministers all sat at one table, and it was whispered that they had not shown much tact in doing so; every matron had hoped to have at least one of the guests at her table. Roderick Wallace unexpectedly sent a contribution of some dainty-looking pastry kick-shaws for the tea-meeting, though neither he nor any of his family came to it. He was proud of his wife's skill in cake making (she was the daughter of a confectioner), some whisperers said, seeking an explanation of the matter. We younger ones washed up in the marquee while the real meeting was going on in the church. Our own minister made the financial statement amid applause that came out to us. There were some very serious jokes in the speeches of the other ministers, and between it all the church was launched, and a fine little building it was. The lamps, hanging down the aisle, were the finest in any church for twenty-five miles around, someone said; and the pulpit, which was really a reading-desk, was a credit, though it might with advantage

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have stood a trifle lower, as our minister was rather short.

Oh, the old times! Though from association, I grew fond of the new church building when it was new no longer, my thoughts go most persistently back to the big room at the McDermotts'. The walks across those hills, despite red frocks and aggressive bullocks, are meet for happy memories. They were sown with bluebells, those hills, all the year, it seems in looking back. Yes; it must have been always spring there. I seem to remember flowers always, though a vision of dry grass fitfully intrudes, and even a circling of crows from arched ribs, and crickets screaming in the cracked volcanic soil. It is momentary, that picture—an illusion. Come when you would, in tenderness of spring, glare of summer, or chill of autumn, over the rounded brow of the hill above the gentler slope, where the McDermotts' house stood, there was spread afar a purple vista of primeval nature at her grandest. Many a time, in later years, have I stood in fancy in a dip of that rolling hill, above the house, and touched again the vanished days, that even, while they passed, seemed as permanent as those towering mountain peaks, blue and immutable before me.