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The Coming of Visitors

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Sketch on page 110 of 'The Coming of Visitors'

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A VISITOR passing or lingering was an event to us in our remoteness; it was a challenge too, the appearance over the hilltop of pedestrian or rider. Over that eminence, silhouetted as he advanced against the clear horizon behind him, came the stranger to our door. There was no other approach to our stringy-bark castle save for the rare adventurer who, from the trackless bush westward, might find our primitive dwelling. Through the panels leading off the high road—uncleared and ill-defined enough itself, the track for king and commoner alike was down the sharp steepness of the black volcanic soil of the old hill that rose suddenly out of the loamy valley whereon stood that bush home—“the house where I was born.”

I have said that the coming of a visitor was a challenge, and it was so to our shyness and curiosity, and to that dash of the social instinct that is in us all, even the most alien, farthest from “humanity's reach.” And shy we were, and curious, too, as any legitimate children of Eve should be. My earliest recollections include a picture of Claribel and myself crouched in the old garden by a squat laburnum bush watching the minister linking his horse's bridle to the staple in the corner-post of the verandah. There was a spot by that post trodden by the restless feet of the waiting horses of our restful visitors. People paid long visits in those days, and left without haste. I have wondered since if it was the conversation—amiable gossip much of it—or the interminable tea-drinking, that made calling in that part of the old Queen's reign and Empire so protracted an affair.

That old minister and his brown horse with the long tail —as though it were ungodly to interfere with Nature's furnishing—how kindly was the man! how welcome his visits!

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How he found time for their leisureliness, infrequent though they were, I do not know. He had a charge wide as a dukedom, broad as a principality, and rougher than either. Wild, hard tracks the long-tailed brown carried his devoted master over—missioner, indeed, that master; his best work, perhaps, that outside the pulpit; those visits to the remote cabins of the pioneers, to whom he came as a glad touch from that very actual world beyond—the city, or the places the settlers had known before the scrub had closed like a curtain about them. He has the pride of place in my fond memoirs, the dear, kindly, so-human man who came to talk of heaven, and remained to chat of earth to my parents, wistful of the ways and doings of men. He brought books too. From a stout bag of oil-cloth strapped in front of his saddle came to our eager eyes the bright-covered “Chatterbox” and the blue beauty of the boards of “Jessica's First Prayer.” There was always some treasure left with us, sometimes in exchange for the silver coin from my mother's scant personal store, sometimes as the gift that the heart that delights in children's delight cannot withhold. The “Band of Hope” and the “Children's Friend”! What Sunday afternoon reading they made till the brown horse with the oilcloth bag stamped his feet again by the verandah post!

From the sanctuary of the drooping laburnum bush, despite shyness, we always emerged, for that most challenging visitor prevailed. If our stammering tongues had for a few minutes to engage in considering the infant Samuel, or the Vision of Belshazzar (it was before the days of Sunday school with us), were we not compensated for the ordeal of catechism by the treasure of a story-book whose matter was more modern if not more authentic?

There were more visitors ahorse than afoot coming over the steep hilltop in those days. The tracks did not invite long walks; people rode or stayed at home for the most part. The mothers went abroad but seldom; the clinging young generation saw to that. A plump infant in arms and two dragging at the skirt, on a tussocky, uneven track, does not make for afternoon foregatherings among scattered neighbours.

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These were the days before wheels had come to the rescue, and while large families amongst the young settlers was a rule still honoured by observance. But there were some few near neighbours in that place of small selections who contrived to get now and then into each other's company, the smallest members of their brood with them. They made these visits to the neighbouring women in that hour or two between the washing up of the midday dinner dishes and the preparation of the evening meal. When the little ones came to our house with their mothers we emerged shyly enough to do our social part. How strange may shy children be, tucking their faces away from the company in their mother's skirt, and eating their cake half aside and furtively when the call was irresistible. I remember an occasion when Jean McDermot, afterwards so clever and bold at school, came with her mother to visit us. Lucy Speary, in whose being the elements of shyness had not been mixed, was with us, too, that day. Lucy pushed Jean into the shallows of the waterhole where we were having a game of frog-catching. Unabashed, Lucy laughed at the result of her attempt to initiate the shy one into the rough and tumble of her own childhood ethics. Claribel and I took the immersion of Jean seriously, feeling, I suppose, the onus of our position of hostesses of the two between whom the unfortunate episode had occurred; yet we were uncertain in our inexperience as to what was demanded of us. We took our dripping visitor to her mother. Then, according to a rapidly evolved ethic, formed in her sinless and unlettered heart, Claribel impulsively took the blame of having pushed the sufferer into the water. Lucy was too amazed, and Jean too shy, to speak, and so it went at that with a rousing reprimand and homily to Claribel.

There were the occasional stranger-callers, agents and their ilk. These ubiquitous beings apparently leave no place unvisited—possibly they are even to be found amid the “reaches of the moon.” There was one tea-agent whom I remember. He was a mixture of simplicity and guile. I knew this from the verdict of my elders. Like most children we accepted people on the surface seeming, and this gentleman

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was charming—extraordinarily charming. He praised our looks till Claribel tossed her curls with consciousness and my mother frowned.

Nevertheless the man went away with an order for a huge chest of tea.

It was in this chest that the fact of his guile was revealed. My neighbouring uncle had also succumbed to the persuasive wiles of the gentleman, and received a large quantity of tea which “displeasured his palate.” The brew had a tang like wattle-bark, so we heard our elders aver in indignant agreement. To us, when bemilked and besugared, it seemed much as any other tea that we had known; the infant taste is not critical in such matters.

That visitor did not reappear; possibly unfriendly thought-waves from that district went out to him warningly, for he had sold his shocking commodity to almost everyone along the valley.

We had sometimes, too, another kind of agent, as persuasive, but in the result leaving us a more honest delight. He was known as the “book man,” and was, I really believe, one of the world's greatest orators. He would pour forth such profuse strains of premeditated art upon the beauties and benefits of the volume he had in hand that one wondered how such a desirable work required to be hawked around the remote places of the world. I fancy folks about that neighbourhood used to order a copy of whatever book he was vending, to bring the man's flow to a semi-colon, if not to a full stop.

Through him from time to time came some valued additions to our old bookshelf—“Foxe's Book of Martyrs,” which Dick and I used to make ourselves “creep” by reading, came in this way. I think my uncle and father had the joint ownership of it, and it went to and fro between the two houses. So, too, “The World's Wonders” and an American medical work, which my aunt finally hid because my uncle used to imagine that he had ulceration of the stomach after a dip into the book. There was a fascinating chart of the human interior, too, I remember, in this volume; Claribel and I

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thought it a very vulgar picture, but somehow or other we were often drawn to take a peep at it. The finest thing the book agent ever brought was a musical album. Forerunner of the gramophone! I can hear you now, ticking out your mandoline-like notes with appalling precision. We used to “play” it to visiting children, pitting it as a source of entertainment against the Spearys' stereoscope, which showed views of Melbourne as though snow were over the city. Pages of relatives, and of my mother's old friends, from their cardboard prisons, were from time to time compelled, unwillingly enough, no doubt, to listen to those lamentable strains.

There came one evening a very wonderful man; he was a travelling tailor, I think. I remember chiefly the blackness of his beard and the huge tooth—a shark's, he told us—set in gold, that he wore as a scarf-pin. He came at dusk, and as a matter of course remained for the night; unwrit laws of the bush have decided it so. After tea, the “black man,” as Claribel and I whisperingly called him, “read our heads.” A more virtuous family of children of brilliant, intellectual promise surely never before graced a settler's home! Our parents must since have had their hours of rue at our failure to fulfil the scientific predictions of our agreeable guest. Word of the interesting doings at our fireside somehow percolated to the ears of our cousins across the paddock, and soon Dick was glowing in the knowledge that a brilliant future for him was lying perdu under that curly hair of his. Indeed, he began to trade upon that future forthwith by suggesting that his superiority exempted him from the little daily tasks allotted to him, till in self-defence it became necessary for Fred to shake his too credulous brother from the pedestal whereon he had been set.

There were no Afghan or Indian hawkers in those days; but to a place remote from shops it was natural that the itinerant vendor of clothing should penetrate. A man from a distant town used periodically to find his way to our wilds with a covered waggon load of drapery of all sorts.

The mountain came to Mahomet since Mahomet could not go to the mountain. He was a boon and a blessing to

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the mothers of wild bush children, and a lively trade that hawker would ply! To keep us clad meant liberal purchasing, and round that big waggon, with its boxes of drapery spread open for our mother's inspection, we would joyfully flock. It was an unstaled, if recurring, event, that visit of the hawker's cart: our one touch with finery and with fashion, and I doubt not our elders enjoyed it too. There were the comparatively uninteresting boxes containing the house and table linen; the men's mercery—which brought the wearers of coloured shirts and moleskin trousers from the flats—and the more interesting and dainty things for feminine adornment. Many a delighted “Oh!” would we utter at the sight of the gay ribbons, the soft laces that the obliging hawker, with all the arts of Bond or of Bourke Street, would display to tempt my mother's slender purse. It was an hour to remember, that occasional beauty feast among the kickshaws of Fashion—albeit, as some hinted—fashion of an antecedent date. How disappointed we were when, passing by the more dainty fabrics, my mother, in quest of school dresses for her tomboy girls, would select (with our unwilling approval) the modest print or homespun.

Now and then it would happen to us that a relative from the city—that wonderful terra incognita, Melbourne—would come to stay with us for a week or two. Such preparations for the great event—the fit and proper reception and treatment of the honoured visitor! We polished up everything, we children, and tidied inside and out the house in fine style. With befitting zeal we raked up the scattered wood-heap, and pulled up the grass tufts from the gravel of the back-yard. It was an event that titillated us finely; the pleasures of anticipation, the compunctions of shyness were ours in equal proportion. We were proud, and we were humble, and when we sought to be most at ease, were most nervous. There was the rivalry, too, of the cousins over the paddock. They had a “spare room” in their house; we had none, but there were certain compensations about our home, such as a finer and better-kept flower garden, and ripe fruit. These things we would duly balance against the undoubted weight of the

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“spare room.” The visitors being impartially related to each household, it used to end in their impartially dividing their time between the two families. They seemed so grand with the touch of town about them, those aunts and girl cousins! I was so self-conscious, so diffident of myself, so admiring of them, that I never quite enjoyed their sojourn with us. I had a gaucherie from nervousness that made me hold myself badly, and spoiled my best intentions. My shyness was an actual pain when it made me silent; a disadvantage when it made my speech flounder. But oh, the worship I have felt, peeping afar from a crack in the door at a dignified and quite splendid kinswoman dressed in silk, and with an air of fineness that fitted her so well! Self-banished, I would watch her from my humble coign seated there by the fireside, her head against the crimson cushion of my mother's home-made rocking chair, her court about her. Dick—who always followed the guest everywhere, greedy of glory—with his familiar ease squatted beside her on the hassock where her slim shoe-tip rested, and Claribel surreptitiously feeling the softness of her delicate scarf. And the elders grouped about hearing her account of things long lost. How I envied the something in those others—the something that allowed them that social ease, the something I had not, and the absence of which made me an immolated Ishmael when I most longed to be of the circle. That same shyness it was that caused me once for a whole week to avoid meeting face to face one of these visitors of my kin, till caught at last too late to beat an actual retreat, I sheltered ignominiously under the table, where, ostrich-like, I sought to hide myself between the hanging fringes of the old red repp table cover.…And yet there are those to whom I have since told the story who have doubted the possibility of its being true.