Chapter VIII

  ‘Fairacre, 3rd February.

‘THANK you for your kind inquiries after my chickens. They thrive apace. Ten out of twelve of them seem to have gained a firm footing in the world. One especially, a buffy white, nimble creature, is so trenchant a warrior in the battle of life that we have named it Hector, not after the family, but the classical hero. He picks crumbs out of his brothers’ mouths as if he were a Christian merchant; he hops on his mother's back, and, stretching his neck, spoils twenty muscatel grapes in half a minute. He snatches happy insects out of the sunshine, and, with one slight arch of his neck, hurls them into an unshrived eternity. The place where his tail ought to be is fast developing; a tiny yellow comb is faintly visible. Alas! I see plainly that Time, who scatters his poppy-seeds with a ruthless hand, is bent on his destruction. For the day on which he becomes what Kirsty terms “a cockerel,” his fate is sealed. But, then, our own special doom awaits each of us; and Hector

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has this advantage in being shelled a fowl: he never sinks into sallow meditations as to his coming fate. The present hour, with its worms and sunshine and sweet opportunities of theft, is enough for him. He listens to all the speculations that can be addressed to him with unmoved composure. Only this morning one held him in her hand, and said: “Ah, little feathered atom, so lately shelled from one eternity into another; fleeting pilgrim in a passing show; confined to a few roods of earth, yet linked by subtle chains to the remotest star—nay, perchance, to spirit itself! To know thee wholly, how largely must the boundaries of human knowledge be widened. Time and space, and the solar system—all are necessary to thy existence——”

‘Hector listened with round rolling eyes, but at this point he made a sudden dart at the speaker's mouth, as if it suddenly struck him that it was alive, and possibly as good to eat as a beetle.

‘Yesterday I made several visits to sick people. Two of them—Mrs. Rupert and Mrs. Morland—have been slowly dying for nearly two years. Do you remember hearing mother speak of them? One of consumption, the other of some internal malady. Can one witness such long unavailing struggles without pondering why human beings should endure so much, all to no purpose? .… People speak about waiting for the end. But has not the end of the body come when it is smitten with an incurable agonizing malady?

‘It would seem that when I enter on moralities, my dear, you and I are undone, like salt in water. At any rate, you will not feel disposed to grumble that, just at the moment I was dipping the inquisitive beak of my pen in ink, to come without further phrase or disguise on the yolk at the heart of euthanasia, who should call but Mr. Willie Stein. You know how he makes these sudden appearances from the far north. The thermometer is very high; the wind is from the east, and threatens to veer to the north; there are crowds of undelightful things that ought to be done the day before to-morrow; Duty, like an old hag that ought to be burnt at the stake for sedition, peers in at you from time to time; and then, to fill up the measure, in comes Mr. Willie! Here is an aboriginal myth he told me: Once upon a time the pelicans went to fish and found a great deal of

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barracoota, which they left in a gully while they went for more. Up came some greedy thieving magpies and stole the booty. The pelicans, in revenge, rolled them in the ashes, and that is the reason why they are partly black. This belongs to the same class of legend as that of the venomous snake who made the moon angry by killing so many blacks, till at last she burnt its head as it slept in the grass at night. So that is the reason why its head is black and its bite harmless. You see, Australian myths have this in common with those of classic Greece, that they also endeavour to give an account of the origin of things.

‘You ask about my translation of “Faust.” I have not done so many lines per day since you left. You see the second part is to our speech, with its many one-syllable words, a perfect trap for the translator. I am glad, however, you encouraged me to undertake this task, for in no other way can one draw so near to the heart of a work in a foreign tongue. But as for any literary value, of course the thing is naught. I could make you die of laughing at subtilties, screwed words, and rhymes hacked and raked all to no purpose. The performance is like nothing so much as a bar-horse that hath his eyes blinded trying to race a soar eagle. But then I feel that I have climbed a little nearer to Goethe—and is there anything in life more delightful than the tranquil friendship that grows out of long and frequent intercourse with a great writer? One who is not only among the most majestic sons of light, but a frontier savant of life—who penetrated to the outposts of human nature, and unflinchingly noted the vantage-ground of good and evil.

‘Early next week I am going on one of my periodical visits to Dr. and Mrs. Stein. They have staying with them, just now, an old friend, who arrived from Germany a few days ago—a man who is as steeped in research as a seaweed is in ozone. But is it? Well, if not, it ought to be.

‘It is cruel of you to vaunt the praises of the Melbourne climate over ours, when we are having such atrocious hot winds. Yesterday, some of us did nothing but lie on the floor in Apostolic raiment, swallow ice, and feebly murmur the old aboriginal incantation: “Sun, sun, burn your wood—burn your internal substance and go down!” ’

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  ‘Fairacre, 15th February.

‘If I were a South Sea Islander, this is the day on which I would beat my idol black and blue. I have completely fallen out with myself. Dearest dear, do not put up your eyebrows in that unbelieving way. You should have heard me speaking to myself a little while ago. “What sort of a creature do you call yourself?” I said. “If the wind is from the north-east, if a dress is a misfit, if people say the same things to you, if they say nothing at all, you are like a bundle of stinging-nettles—cross and disagreeable all over. What have you done to your soul that it does not raise you above the petty malice of the passing hour? Go away—go to someone who does not know you so well as I do—no, I won't have you at any price.

‘And, lo! my friend, here I am, with a pen and a scrubby little ink-bottle, and a sheet of paper, and a shivering, homeless ego, thrust from its accustomed throne. May I come to you? Do not ask me inside if you are busy writing sermons. No, it wouldn't be safe. Just give me a mat at the door and one of the old poets till you have finished. It would be no use making a confidant of me. You could not feel for me. If I said my pretty pink crêpe de chine has been spoilt in the sleeves, you might try to look sympathetic, but you would really be smiling inside. And yet greater failures have much greater consolations. If you construct a wrong system of ethics you make your claim surer to be ranked a philosopher; if you make it clear that the majority of mankind must be damned, you may possibly be reckoned severe, but are sure to be considered a sound Christian. But what comfort can be drawn from having the wrong sort of sleeve? I defy you to find any; or if you do, 'tis because you are not a woman.

You. Is that the only reason why you have become “a house divided against itself”? Well, some of your sex have ere now pretended to be racked with toothache, when they were really suffering from heartache.

‘But I deny the imputation; besides, what so reasonable as to be quite out of humour with one's self from time to time? And yet an invincible self-approbation is one of the boons I envy your full-blown Philistine, man or woman. Take Mrs. Towers, for instance, who chants eternal pæans

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to everything she possesses, from her eleven children to her apricots; from her husband to her Ligurian bees. You know how one seldom meets her, without hearing of some visitor who has travelled far and wide, and yet regards his visit to Hawthorn Vale as the happiest event in a life not barren in joy. How it must save the tissues of the brain to be in such a state of mind as that perennially! …

‘This afternoon Esther and the three children arrived. Poor dear! it is so sad to see her in mourning still. Unless husbands have been very angelic, it seems rather a mistake to wear mourning so long. But I think this is one of the subjects I should skip. I have some thoughts in future of trying to imitate Providence in letting events fall heavily or lightly as they may, but without remark or expostulation. This will be all the easier, because the children have taken entire possession of me. To-morrow we are going for an endless ramble by the Torrens away towards the hills, beyond Windsor, and all the other pretty little townships, crowded with gardens and orchards and orangeries and fields of vegetables. Perhaps we shall see some mountain ducks on the river, and hear the loud ringing calls of ash-coloured cuckoos away in the gum-tree tops. Here is a bon mot from your nephew Clement:

I: “Why, Clem, you are growing frightfully tall! And yet it is not so very long since you were in petticoats!”

Clem: “No; but you, Aunt Stella, are in them still; Will you never grow out of them?”

‘I felt too crushed to attempt a reply. I think I shall send this to Mr. Punch, as a specimen of an Australian boy's idea of repartee at nine.’