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The Hill

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Sketch on page 38 of 'The Hill'

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JUST as the valley had received a too ample sowing from Nature's hand, so the hill rising baldly and blandly out of it, had been niggardly treated in the matter of big timber. Never, I imagine, had there been many trees, great or small, on its grassy undulations; just here and there an hospitable box or gum for bird and tree-loving beast. One tree, in particular, I remember; it was a real veteran, pipy enough of bole to nest many a 'possum and parrot; green enough of branch to screen from heat or storm many a temporary tarrier. It was a royal tree. When we learned at school about the Druids beneath the spreading oaks, I used to transport that old tree to the ancient landscape, and set the traditional scenes under its boughs.

It had a history though of its own, that fine old box. Its trunk bore strange hieroglyphs; the illiterate, prehistoric signatures of roving aborigines, cut in by their tomahawks. Whether to reach some unwitting 'possum in its hollow or to bring the savage nearer to heaven, one could only guess. But there they were, those strange foothold scars almost grown over in the puckered way in which Nature sews up the wounds in her soft flesh. I have dreamed of corroborees there under that tree with a free rein to fancy. Claribel and I ran away one night at dusk from its umbrageousness from strange forms and strange sounds. Childhood has a quick appreciation of uncanny things. We were laughed at for our imaginings; older people lose the acuter sense that is with them early; they thought us fanciful; we knew they were dull.

Once we discovered a very fascinating bit of evidence as to the blacks having been somewhere in the past beneath the old tree. It was more than the nicks that they had left as a

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record. It was an actual tomahawk that marked their Stonehenge. We found it one day when trying to establish a garden under the old tree. We had the relic for years. I don't know what finally became of it. White fellows are as bad as black fellows for losing things. My father gave us a dissertation on the method of its making; how the blacks grew a handle into it, as into all their primitive tools; in their lazy way content with Nature's slow and silent forging, where we, the impatient, rush to glowing fires and anvils. It was lore that charmed us; in its nature as fascinating as anything of the Druids; it was something that the children of the future, even the bush children, will have to take on trust.

There were other things besides peeping 'possums and preening birds that shared our love of the old gum. Never was there such a tree as that for bees when it flowered; it gave honey-burdens to thousands. The boughs were murmurous all the bright days, and we knew where the bees came from that filled their hexagons with that richness. Ay, we had that transformed box-tree blossom with our breakfast on winter mornings, dripped golden and glistening from the spoon on to the wholesome home-made bread. There was no adulteration of anything in those days for us; we were too near the source, too intimate with the processes. It is hard to leave that old box-tree, it's so dear to me still. One might almost say of it in Miltonic phrase as of the small humans of my play hours, that we “were nursed upon the self-same hill.” My botanical lore is not great. I don't know how long such trees should live. It may be that it has stolen a march on Nature, and has exceeded its span. Anyhow, there it still stands to this day, defying the elements, and providing a diminishing shelter for surfeited cud-chewing cattle.

There was in my childhood's days a sturdy native grass along that hillside; a grass that refused to be displaced by all the later sowings of fine imported herbages. It held its own bravely amongst the interlopers, and when they were sparse from hot Decembers it was robust and tufty, flinging itself forth from its native soil in spite of all things. On the higher hills, more distant, the grass used to burn up and drive

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away in dust beneath the breath of summer, leaving bare the parched, cracked ground, with its swarm of harsh crickets to every crack; leaving, too, unsheltered, the hosts of other creeping things to complain of their lot in their own ungodly fashion. Or it may be that this vocal life of the volcanic hills was rejoicing that its stern summer environment was congenial to its adaptive nature; but in our appraisement of things in those days we were led rather by fancy than by science. The cicadas, with their harsh, unoiled notes, were scolding, and nothing that the useful knowledge of the schoolbooks later taught us conflicted with that fancy.

It was the most beflowered hillside that we knew, that bountiful slope where the old box-tree stood. Never have I seen of our own clear-hued variety so many bluebells as came there magically every October. They were like Wordsworth's daffodils; and, like his daffodils in subtler respect, too, they have given me many a time since “the harvest of a quiet eye.” In October the grass itself was in full bloom, waving richly in the breeze, and all amongst it “blue ran the flash across.” No other flower contended with the bluebells for first place in the eye there; they were too manifold in their fluttering battalions to suffer eclipse, even by the pressing hordes of clover bloom, or any other of the wilder things known to us by names invented at the dictation of our own fancy. Some of these varieties I have since recognised, endeavouring to justify huge polysyllables in the Botanical Gardens. Poor, sweet, be-Latined things. A beautiful spot still, that annually renewed hill slope. Perhaps I had something of the poet in me as a child, or heaven lay about me there? I remember lying in the October grass amongst the others of our little group, and hearing Dick, who by nature had an eye to the practical, call the dancing garment of the hillside “good feed,” and I recollect how, with all my heart—and not without a touch of priggishness—I pitied him.

We could in children's fleet way be at the house in two minutes when we played on that hillside. It was in the days when one ran more often than one walked. We got the wind on the hill whenever it stirred, and we loved it. I have wondered

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since wherein the charm lay in running against the wind in sheer elemental love of contending with it, were it zephyr or hurricane. Since then I have come to associate wind with dust, and it may be that that has lost me the charm of it, though I suspect that hurling oneself against battling elements is a love that one loses with the coming of long skirts.

There was a queerly fascinating spot farther along the oval backbone of our hill. It was something of an adventure going so far. There was an unshapely brush fence to climb, on the far side of which lay the land of adventure. The hill changed there abruptly from its grassy blandness to a rugged rockiness, crowned finely in a huge chaos of rocks that some giant convulsion had flung there long before the era of King Billy's tomahawk, no doubt. It was a terrible, a delightful place; there were narrow spaces between the ungainly masses of heaped-up stone, and dark little passages into which you peeped. Always some glowing eye looked back at you. The wild, shy, mountain things of our own land were not enough with which to people this rocky region; we dipped into our romances and into the dragon lore of our knowledge for suitable denizens for such a splendid and awful place. There were little tracks trodden by the pattering feet of innocent wild things, tracks that led us from the dividing fence to the terrible region. There were lion tracks, and the darkest passage under the biggest heap of rocks was a tiger's lair. Dick had seen the tiger, but we had only heard it growl, till one day he showed it to us clear enough, “burning bright” in its lair. There was a sheep's shinbone at the entrance. We all saw the tiger that day, one by one heroically peeping, holding to each other, in running attitude. With rare temerity, we set traps later on, keeping well together and speaking low, except when the question as to who should own the skin came up. I fancy the tiger must have heard that debate, and been warned thus of our designs upon him. At least the question of the ownership of his skin never became a “live” one, if I may put it so. The tiger retired to his apocryphal existence again.

We used on our birthdays to have picnics on the hill, on such of the birthdays at least as fell in the autumn and winter

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of the year. In summer the orchard or the creekside naturally claimed us for such festivities.

A slope is, perhaps, not an ideal place for spreading a table, but we rejoiced at overcoming such difficulties as the hillside presented in that respect. It was possible always to keep the dishes fairly level by propping them on the “down-side” with a chip. Dick's birthday was in the mellowest time of the year; in the height of the apple season. It was always a point of honour with us to have at his feast samples of every variety our orchard grew, and they were many. It was no less a point of honour for the hero of the occasion personally to consume an apple of each variety provided. It was, indeed, a mercy that my cousin's nativity occurred in the mellowest season, otherwise one of those gay, irresponsible feasts might have ended for him in a manner recalling the tragedy of Tommy Jones and his sister Sue.

Annie, the eldest of the girls of us, was a born cake-maker and baker. I fancy she came to the earth with recipes for fancy baking already in her head; there was no teaching about it, at any rate. The first time she broke into cake-baking was one afternoon when our mother was visiting a neighbour. We younger ones, who had brought to Annie the light sticks for her baking fire, stood in awe at the delightful result of her magical performance. Some of her cakes did not survive long enough to cool, for the boys, informed by some strange sixth sense, arrived as the cakes came from the oven. It established a reputation, that afternoon's baking, for Annie, and a new respect was hers; a cake-baker compels youthful homage. We gave ours freely, and like the quality of mercy. Especially as one of the numerous birthdays of the party approached did this spontaneous homage flow out toward our older and superior member. She was generous, and always rose to “hundreds and thousands” and icing for the cake festivals. She never, as I recollect, condescended to threaten reprisals for any of our sins, but the mere significant mention of “birthday” would send anyone of us flying to do her bidding at any time. A gift such as hers carries with it a corresponding power.

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Oh, those old birthday feasts, when nothing was to mar their joy! I remember no wet day to spoil any one of them; all things waited upon us, regal young barbarians that we were: sky and air and earth, abundance and daintiness of food, strong, healthy appetites, and good digestion. We have come to the time—those of us who are still of time— when birthdays come and go, making no ripple upon our calendar, or, if remembered at all, with a kind of pensiveness, the pensiveness that comes to those who have rounded the higher slope of life's long hill.

A strange thing befell me one day playing on that hillside; the thing's not strange, but the result. It began my growing up. At our play a fiery ant suddenly stung me, sending a thrill of pain through all my body. I had, I remember, the quick passing sympathy of the others. But child sympathy is like a gust; and besides, those with me knew that a bulldog ant's sting is a small matter. But my pain was keen; the creature had stung me on a vein, I suppose. Fred rubbed the reddened leg with some soft, tender fern frond, the panacea with us for such hurts. And then to their game again. I sat apart; and the hour is always distinct with me as that of my first realisation that I was I. The others were sorry, so I reasoned, but they played on; the pain was mine, mine alone. I think I was about seven years of age. But through the physical hurt I became conscious of my isolation—of “the loneness of my ego,” as the jargon of to-day would have it. I had no name for the feeling then, of course; only the sense of loneliness.

The bright beauty of the afternoon struck a sadness through me, the calls of the others to me to come back to the game jarred on me. I sat on alone, the physical pain, I think, quite gone, but a deeper one holding me. I could see my mother moving about outside the house in the distance. That made the realisation sharper; not even she had felt the fiery sting: she did not even know about it. Only I. I have wondered if such realisations in young children usually come first through physical pain. I heard a mother say once that she never realised sharply that her child was a separate

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individual, a rounded and distinct being in itself, till she helplessly saw it in pain. And there must come a time, far or near, when the child, too, realises that. If very young, the knowledge will most likely come through physical pain or delayed, it may come through the sharp processes of mental or spiritual suffering.

The hour went—and the mood. I do not remember when or by what circumstance another such came, but in recent years, when the hidden life is stirred, and the isolating sense holds me, there sometimes comes before me, sharp and distinct, the scene and sounds of that bright afternoon on the hill so many years ago.