Chapter XIII

  ‘Fairacre, 20th April.

‘AFTER listening to innumerable tales of conversion, after hearing of aborigines who talked on their deathbeds like leaflet tracts, ever since we first knew Mr. Ferrier, he has at last told me a charming little myth. It bears no traces at all of being the production of natives that, to use Dr. Stein's expression, had been “tampered with by the missionaries.” You might put everyone of them that ever laboured in Australia in rows, and bribe them with the promise of a whole continent of blacks, all ready to talk broken English and wear second-hand store clothes on Sunday—and yet between them the worthy missionaries would never produce anything with the peculiar cachet of an aboriginal myth. But if I say much more you will vow that I am enamoured of the subject—it is as a master passion on which people must notoriously be mistrusted. It is such a short myth, dear, after all, that I am obliged to add to it with a preface. Do you notice how Tom is training me to dabble in bulls?

‘The sun is a woman who courses over the sky all day, keeping up enormous fires. But at last she uses up all the wood she has for that day, and she goes down at night among the dead. They stand up in double lines to let her pass, and do her reverence. She has a lover among them, who gave her a great red kangaroo skin. Each morning, when she rises, she throws this over her shoulders.

‘Another thing I learned yesterday is that the good little

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man's special blacks noticed the stars, and had names for some. The evening star they called Kyirrie; the Milky Way Kockadooroo; and there is a cluster of stars visible in the western sky, during the winter months, that they knew by the name of Amathooroocooroo, which signifies “claw of eagle-hawk.” Please to reckon it henceforth among the classic constellations.

‘Then, floating in the Milky Way, is still to be seen the bottom of the ark of Neppelle, who transported himself in it to heaven to escape the waters with which another god flooded the earth to drown his unfaithful wives. And did you ever hear that three of the stars in the Southern Cross are two aboriginal Helens and their lover, who escaped with them to that far retreat from the fury of the deserted husband? The astronomical lore of our natives may not have been very scientific—but at any rate they knew which sex was always causing mischief. But there, dear—it is a sore subject—and I know many of you are now sincerely repentant.

  ‘Fairacre, 30th April.

‘You would be very much shocked to hear of Mr. Stanhope's sudden death. It took us all dreadfully by surprise. It is only seven days ago that Allie and I met him and his mother at Sir Edward Ritchie's; and then, as always, he looked the picture of health and strength, and overflowing with merriment. We had great fun about Leo, who really is getting quite past any whipping I can give him. In his wildest days he would sit at the kitchen-table and eat sugar, but now he almost gets into the pony-carriage instead of drawing it. Mr. Stanhope was particularly diverted at the trick I told him Leo has acquired of stopping short when he sees any very poor or disreputable-looking persons, making sure mother is in the trap and wants to speak to them.

‘ “When you drive those glossy thoroughbreds that are being trained for you, you will wonder how you could ever bear to sit behind Leo,” he said, and laughed when I pretended not to understand. Then he took out a little pocket-calendar and said: “My mother and I are going to Cape Town in November. Mind, the event must come off before then, for it is a pact between Ritchie and myself that we

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should see each other go off the hooks.” The next day he was attacked with violent congestion of the lungs. He was ill barely five days. He was buried this morning. I write the words, but they seem to convey no meaning. I see him strong and young, his eyes full of laughter, turning over the calender filled with engagements and appointments; but not a word of this one inevitable assignation. Nothing left of all that eager, vivid personality save a poor clod of earth hurriedly hidden out of sight! Good God! is not this the bitterest insult that could be devised for the last scene of the last act?

‘There is a wonderful fund of unbelief in the heart regarding death. Yes, we must all die; but individually it is as though immortality were a birthright we are to inherit without tasting the bitterness of dissolution. Is it very bitter? and in the hereafter, does it indeed matter very much if we pass away with empty lamps? In that supreme moment when the soul is sundered from the body, do we perceive that the life which was all in all to us was but a dream grafted upon a dream—a passing vision crowded with phantoms? … And now the curtain is drawn. We see no more. All beyond is so shadowy and faltering.

‘How is it the thought of death does not haunt us more? The event is so tremendous. I have often had the feeling after the death of one I knew, that never again could I be lulled into such entire forgetfulness of this one absolute certainty. But gradually the impression vanishes. We are planted so deeply in the life that now is—we may be shaken and horrified and apprehensive—but the world is like one of those hydra-animals which may be turned inside out, and the exterior surface will then digest and the stomach respire.’

  ‘Fairacre, 7th May.

‘Fanny Harrison has returned from her Melbourne visit, and has been telling us tales about your overworking yourself—visiting sick people day and night—reading to incurables and blind people by the hour—making superhuman efforts to save larrikins from themselves. Don't, dear darling; at any rate not so much. It gave me a shiver all down the vertebræ when I thought, “What if Cuthbert should turn out one of those clergymen who take life so

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seriously that they die of it like a dose of arsenic?” Do not forget that it was a neglected cold when he was so much engrossed with the sick and poor one hard winter that brought on the lung complaint of which father died.

‘I cannot get over a certain awkwardness of not knowing exactly what to say when I first visit people who are very poor, and hopelessly ill. So I mostly listen to them, and read a little only if they wish it. Poor Thomson seems to like this, for the last time I visited him he aired his grievances. People are very kind, he said, and lots of ladies always visit him; but they do read so much to him. “No doubt ‘tis very good of them, but when a chap lies in bed month after month, never expectin' to get up again in health, and often cussing himself for having been a fool and partly to blame for his misfortune—why, then, a lump out o' the Bible don't seem to hearten him up much. Now, there's Mrs. Cannister and Mrs. Meadows, and her dorters—’tis my belief as they uses Bibles not properly divided into chapters. In course there's a good deal of it taken up with Jew names, and stories not meant for gineral use. But I don't see why them ladies should pick out the melanchorliest psalmses for me. Well, I mean them as is all about the horrors of death bein' on me, and the waters goin' over me, and my eyes bein' consumed from weeping, and bein' a worm and no man, and the arrers sticking fast in me, and bein' in a pit, and in a dry thirsty land, and arskin' the Lord why He cast me off for iver, and that I forgit to eat my bread, bein' like a howl in the desert and a perlican in the wilderness, and a sparrer atop o' the house without a mate, which is what niver happens, as far as I know the varmin; and coals of juniper, and scattered at the grave's mouth and lying in wait for my soul. Yes, Miss Stella, ye may laugh, but it's true—the creepingest things. Yes, I remember what's read to me pretty well, but then I've heerd it all over and over agin—some days twicet over.

‘ “And then Mrs. Cannister—she sits there as you may be now, only more frontin' me, so that she can fix her eyes onto me—and she reg'lar ivery week says to me: ‘Now, my good man’—if there's anything I hates it's them words; if she said ‘my wastin' away toad,’ I'd like it better—‘now, my good man, do you not begin to feel that it's all well, and all for the best in the hands of the Lord?’ And if I'm tired

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I just mostly gives a nod, so as she may stop jawing. But other times I says: ‘I donno as to things being so very well. If my family was pervided for, an' I didn't lie awake half the night coughin' and spittin', I might be more sartin on the point. As to things bein' in the hands of the Lord, I know well, if I'd have been stiddier and different-like in many ways, I wouldn't be in the fix I'm in now.’

‘ “When I says anythin' like that, the old dame looks for a more dismaller psalm the next time. It licks me, though, how people can go on saying it's all in the hands of the Almighty, and He does everything for the best. Now, Miss Stella, if you take it that me—and a good many of the chaps I've knowed—was the handiwork of the Lord, I'd like to know who has spiled more horns nor He before making a good spoon!”

‘You may not think very highly of this man's theology, but I like him for his honesty in admitting that he is to blame for what he calls the “fix” he is in, and a straighter way of looking at things than people generally allow themselves.’

  ‘Fairacre, 10th May.

‘The Fortuniana and tea-roses, and the heliotrope and various other sweet-smelling flowers, still flourish in our garden in golden abundance. I brought a great posy to Frau Kettig this afternoon, with various other things of a more material kind, but the flowers delighted her most.

‘Yes; I have just returned from seeing her. How angelically good and uncomplaining she is all through her illness! She is more grateful for being destitute than I am for all I possess. I assure you, dear, I threw stones at myself nearly all the way home. I talked with the dear old woman for a long time, and read her favourite hymn to her, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.’ Then she chanted the two first verses—her thin, old, toil-marked hands devoutly clasped, her eyes half closed. … Through the little window at the foot of her bed I could see the sky, clear blue and serene like a great heavenly web woven throughout of hope and love.

‘ “Surely it must be so,” I thought, looking at the frail old woman with her load of eighty winters—with all her cruel bereavements and losses, and now in her diseased old

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age, after moiling like a slave for sixty-eight years, dependent on charity for her bread, yet lifting up her trembling aged voice and hands in tearful love and gratitude to God—the great Father in whose hands are a thousand worlds full of treasures—who yet has bereft this sincere loving soul of all. If there were not some tremendous force of love behind the “mocks of this world,” could spirit achieve so signal a triumph over matter?

‘ “It is a fair summer day of the Lord, full of His sunshine, and yet cool; and the flowers thou hast brought me, beloved child, take me back to the sweet Thuringian woods,” she said, with the simple directness which makes the grand old German sound like one's mother-tongue. I could not trust myself to speak. After a little she said, as if suspecting that I was too sorry for her: “When one no longer hopes to rise again, how good and dear it is to think on the day when all waiting and weariness are forgotten in beholding the face of the beloved Redeemer!”

‘Here is Fatima at my elbow, rubbing herself against me and purring benevolently, looking a little askance at Dustiefoot, who has indeed too often tried to make a plaything of her tail. But he is fast asleep just now, with his nose against my shoe. Fatima likes those lucid intervals in which Dustiefoot slumbers and she can purr of “auld langsyne” without interruption. Dear old tabby! tell me quick and tell me true, is your ardent liking for fish a proof that in another world you will sail a boat and cast a net into the sea? Certainly, though you love fish even to felony, you cannot go a-fishing in the life that now is—which things are a parable. I begin to see that this infatuated pen of mine will get me into trouble if I do not stop.’