Chapter XII

  ‘Fairacre, 10th April.

‘ALAS! the young gentle autumn was a treacherous make-believe. For the last week we have had an inordinate fit of hot weather—frequently the sky overcast and lowering:

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it promises to rain, but the clouds turn to vapour; the wind changes, but it is not cool. To-night, again, the barometer has fallen; the moon and the stars are all hidden, the air is intolerably sultry, and there is that further sign of change—unending swarms of insect life. I write by my open window, and they come floating in, hovering round the lamp, creeping on the table, getting in the way of my pen—creatures on foot and on wing—thinglets that fly one moment and fall down helplessly the next—morsels that crawl with half-spread wings, and things that fly as if with legs. They terrify me—these purposeless hordes that struggle into existence one moment and the next are crushed by a footfall, the accidental turning of a leaf, the scratch of an idle pen. Do they not throw some light on the cataclysms of human history? Are they not linked closely to our race and lot—part of an incomprehensible world in which stronger than righteousness or justice, or any figment of morality, reigns the impulse of every single organic being to increase in numbers? Is it true that some form of thought underlies the lowliest manifestations of life? What instinct or purpose is subserved by those pretty little pearl-gray moths, with silver dust on their wings, who dash into the flame of lamp or candle, as if it were the source of life? Here is one of them which I have twice saved from consuming itself. One wing is scorched and it is very limp, as if rescuing it from burning were defeating its only purpose, snatching it from the one possible joy of existence. The thought possesses me that some higher intelligences than we know may thus regard our lives. But have we more power to fashion and to mould them than this helpless thinglet that was called into being by forces over which it wields no control, and seeks nothingness by an impulse equally beyond its influence?

‘Last night the rain came down in torrents; towards morning there was a thunderstorm, of which I heard nothing. But to-day the air and the sky are clear and fresh, the Torrens is babbling, and the birds are singing the blithest legends imaginable all over the Park Lands. The Major and Mr. Ferrier are spending the day with us. Poor Mr. Ferrier is forever telling us about the conversion of some aborigine. I often wish we could keep an old black fellow

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on hand at Fairacre for him to convert from time to time, and then perhaps he would spare us these endless recitals. But my heart smites me for speaking like this of the zealous ex-missionary, and I am sure mother likes to listen to him. Then he is so entirely in earnest. Perhaps you would like to know his story of to-day? It was about a half-caste boy who, after being at the Mandurang Mission Station for a year, began to show signs of repentance and grace. One day he stole some sugar. “Was that after he showed these signs?” asked the Major. From some people the inquiry would sound ironical, but not from the dear guileless Major, who is evidently quite unused to theological phrases, and was merely trying hard to comprehend all he heard.

‘ “Yes, sir,” answered Mr. Ferrier; “it was some weeks after we had great hopes of him. The old Adam is strong in all of us, but perhaps especially so in our poor half-caste natives. Do you know, my dear sir, that there was a canon law of the Church in the early ages which rendered converts from heathenism ineligible for the priesthood to the second and third generation? Well, I knew Thomas—we always gave our people Christian names at their baptism—had taken the sugar; but I said nothing to him. I felt the time had come when he must be allowed to stand or fall. The boy was dear to my wife, and she wished me to take him aside and remonstrate with him. But I said, ‘He knows good from evil now; we must see whether the root of the matter is in him.’ We read the Word of God, and had prayers in the evening as usual. My dear wife offered the prayer; she wrestled with God mightily for the soul of the half-caste boy. Ah, my dear friends, I wish you had known her—not a thought for self. Her only thought was to win souls for the Saviour, and many of these poor people were verily brought through her means to the foot of the Cross. It was only nine months after this it pleased God to take her from me.”

‘There was such pathos in the old man's voice, it gave one a lump in the throat. The Major hastily drew out his handkerchief and pretended to cough. But Dorothy at four and a half can make-believe much better than the Major at fifty-seven.

‘Mr. Ferrier went on to tell how, after the natives retired for the night, he sat in the sitting-room writing out his

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monthly report, leaving a blank where he was to write of Thomas, till he found whether he would repent him of his theft. His wife sat with a book in her hand, but he knew that she was crying, not reading. At last a tap came at the open window, and a timid voice saying: “Missie, missie, me want to gabber!” It was Thomas. The wife at once went out, and the boy talked to her for some time. Presently she came in with “a light on her face,” as Mr. Ferrier expressed it, and she said: “Paul, you need not leave a blank for Thomas now. The Lord has given him to us as a prey snatched from the snarer.” “And though he had a passionate temper, and sometimes gave way to it, yet from that day till the hour of his death I never had reason to doubt that he was a chosen vessel of grace,” said Mr. Ferrier solemnly.

‘No one could doubt the good man's sincerity. But I confess I never hear him talk in this fashion without a great longing to know what conception an Australian aborigine could really form of the profoundly metaphysical dogmas of Christianity. They are so kneaded into our literature, so imbedded in the marrow of our minds by inheritance and instruction, we could not if we would really cast them from us at least as phases of thought. But a savage who cannot count beyond three, and goes out to murder some tribal foe because a kinsman has been killed by the fall of a tree—what idea looms up in the twilight of his mind when he is kept at a mission and taught the Creed and the Teu Commandments? Here is an anecdote I fished from Mr. Ferrier, when I was trying to glean aboriginal myths from him. An old man, badly wounded, came to the mission one day. They nursed him and fed him, and he seemed so docile and to accept all he was taught so readily, that they thought he was in a short time ready for baptism. One thing puzzled them, however. Though he bathed often, and had clean clothing on, a peculiar odour always hung about him. A few days before he was to be baptized, it suddenly struck Mr. Ferrier that this was caused by something with which he smeared his hair. But this was not the case. It was the kidney-fat of an enemy rolled up, and secured among his locks. He would allow no one to touch or remove it, for it was a point of honour with him to keep this ghastly

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memento until he had also murdered the brother of his victim. In the meantime he was very anxious to be baptized.

‘The rain has rather battered some of our chrysanthemum bushes. But then there are such angelic multitudes—in all shades—white and pale-cream, pink and rose; red are our special favourites among the Japanese. This last shade has for me as irresistible a charm as the pink ear of the maiden which in Tom's Turkish song robbed her lover of his reason.’