Chapter XVI

  ‘Fairacre, 9th June.

‘I CANNOT report that mother is better; but she insists on thinking of other people as much as if she were quite well. Poor Thomson is failing rapidly. Yesterday at her wish I spent part of the day in taking care of him. I must tell you what happened. After I had chatted with him for a

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little he said: “There is a chapter, Miss Stella, as I liked when I was a boy—somewhere in the Old Bible part—’tis about being took up by the hair, and looking in at places, and seeing the women-folk weep for Thomas. I'd like you to read it to me.”

‘Would you be able to find a chapter in the Bible by this? I doubt whether I would, only that lately I have been rather fascinated by Ezekiel. It was the eighth chapter he meant—where the likeness as the appearance of fire put forth the form of a hand, and lifted the prophet up by a lock of his hair. “Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.” “I like them parts o' the Bible, so strange, and yet they seems quite real like.” You may be sure that I did not attempt to foist any interpretation upon the text. There is a point at which those who have read much of the best, and those who have read very little, seem to meet—enjoyment of vague mystery and wonder, leading to a subtle sense of the marvels that lurk under the masking raiment of commonplace. Just as I rose to go, the storm, which had been gathering all the morning, began to come down in torrents. The rain beat sharply against the window-panes, and the room suddenly darkened. I noticed the sick man gazing at the window with a very sombre look, an expression that had in it something—how shall I say it?—more tragic than poverty or disease. “Miss Stella,” he said in a low voice, “do you believe as them that is gone could ever come back from the other world?” “I don't know. I have often wondered whether they do or can,” I answered, awed by a sudden conviction that the man, to use our nurses’ phrase, had at some time “seen something.” He moved restlessly, as though his head were uneasy. I smoothed and shifted his pillow, and then to my dismay I saw that great tears were rolling down his cheeks. No doubt he had moved so that I should not see them, and I had done the very thing I ought not to have done. Some strong wave of emotion swept over him, his bosom heaved convulsively, and he sobbed half aloud.

‘I felt horribly distressed, and not knowing what else to do, I tidied up the fireplace and put some wood on the fire. “I saw his face as plain as daylight at that very window, a

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week ago,” he said, when he recovered himself. And then he told me this little story. He came to South Australia twenty years ago, a lad of eighteen. He was for some weeks a knock-about hand on a sheep-station near Jarranda Bay. One of the shepherds suddenly left, and he was sent to take his place. A few days after he went to the Stone Hut, as it was called, he found an old black woman, who was dying, and had with her only her daughter, a half-caste, a slip of a girl of fourteen. They were beside a little creek, and had had nothing to eat for three days except a big snake the girl had killed near the water. They were on their way with other blacks to a great corroborree that was to be held eighty miles further on, when the mother was taken ill and left behind with her only daughter Caloona. Thomson fed them, and gave them all the comforts he could. In a week the old black woman died, and then the girl lived with him. He engaged himself as shepherd for two years, and stayed altogether for eight. Caloona, he said, turned out mighty handy, and she was always so wonderfully thankful. “When you told me about that little dog of yourn, Miss Stella—Fly you call him—I thought he was for all the world like my poor Caloona. She would follow me about, and wanted to wait on me hand and foot, and thought so much on me. I tuk to reading the New Testament and minding all the good things my grandmother used to tell me. Caloona soon learnt to cook and do things much handier nor many a white woman, and she kept the hut as neat and clean as a new pin. I bought clothes and things for her from a hawker, and, if you believe me, Miss Stella, she looked much prettier in them than many an altogether white girl. She would be up and working before it was light, so as to have breakfast and dinner cooked and come out with me after the sheep. Even when the little boy was born she stopped in the hut but a few days. She was that proud of the little chap—he was fairer than you could believe—and he grew very fast. He was out all day long in the woods with his mother and me, and when it rained we just made a nia-nia of boughs for him and put a 'possum skin over it. He was sharper nor a needle; and many's the time he made us lie down on the grass roaring with laughing at his old-fashioned ways.

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‘ “But onfortinately as he grew older he showed signs of a very bad temper, and he would turn and strike his mother for the least thing. I could not stand that, but Caloona only laughed, and that encouraged him. That was what come between us. I allays heard as mixed bloods was worse nor full blacks or full whites, and I was afraid how the youngster might turn out. When we was out shepherdin', and in the evenings, Caloona used to tell me tales o' her mother's tribe, how they quarrelled and fought, and in the end murdered each other, sometimes, perhaps, for the sake of an emu-skin. As the boy got older I couldn't bear to hear her laugh over them things. Then I thought, ‘It's no use beginning to teach the boy if the mother knows no better.’ So I began to learn her to read and write. She was not long in learning to read out of a big Testament my mother give to me when I was leaving the old country. But she didn't seem able to take in as Jesus Christ was man and God, and she gave Him a native name as vexed me—meaning ‘him as makes believe.’ And I suppose I couldn't explain proper, for when I tried most hard she would go off in a fit of laughing, and the youngster would wake up and laugh too, fit to crack his sides, and somehow, when the two laughed in that way, it used to rile me oncommon. The boy was very sharp—everyone as saw him said that—but somehow he was sharpest in doing things he oughter not to do; and when I was trying to teach him like he allays seemed duller, and given to cryin', and his mother used to watch me, her hands all of a tremble at whatever she was doing.

‘ “Well, Miss Stella, to make a long story short, when the boy was a few weeks over seven I found him setting a puppy on to some sheep with young lambs. I took him by the hand to the hut, and before punishing him I asked why he did such a thing. His mother stood there shiverin', looking at us, and the boy burst out cryin' and denied it hard an' fast. He said he was callin' the dog off. This riled me so much that on the instant I give him a bad thrashin'—worse, I know, nor I should have—so that the mother turned on me very fierce like. I got into a bad Scot, an' told her if she didn't let me bring up the boy proper she had better clear. In course, I never meaned a word of it, and never thought as Caloona would take it to

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heart. But the boy sulked and would eat no food, an' made believe he was very badly hurt. God knows, perhaps he was, though I didn't believe a word of it, an' I felt very hard agin him for telling such barefaced lies. Next day his mother stayed in the hut with him, and wouldn't even look at me when I was going out. When I came home that night they were both gone, an' from that day to this I never set eyes on them. ‘What became of them, an' where are they now?’ that's what I says to myself over an' over agin. An', then, a week ago, before the lamp was lighted, I saw the boy out there at the window in the rain as plain as I see you now, Miss Stella.

‘ “This morning the Canon said as I ought to take the Sacryment, and I was thinking over things. The moment I heered your voice I says to myself, ‘I'll tell Miss Stella; she'll understand as 'twasn't through my being such a bad lot.’ I haven't got very much longer to live, and I've many times heard that at the last people felt quieter like if they told all that was on their minds. I couldn't tell the Canon, Miss Stella; for in course he'd tell his wife, an' then Lord only knows how many melanchorly psalmses she'd read to me next day! an' yet 'twas through trying to do my best that it all come out wrong, as it were. I never told a word of this to my wife; what 'd be the good? 'Twould only fret her.”

‘The more simply anything is told, the more is lost in re-telling it with the cold little snout of a pen. The very mise-en-scène—the homely little room—the door leading into the kitchen behind, where the worn-out wife rested—everything so quiet and common-place—the rain dashing against the small window, through which the sick man fancied he saw his half-savage boy out in the gloom—all helped to make a quiet but forceful seizure on the heart. Thomson had hardly ceased speaking when Mr. Ferrier entered. The moment I saw him it flashed across my mind that the half-caste boy he told us of some time before might be Thomson's child. The poor man was so exhausted that in a few minutes he fell fast asleep. I motioned Mr. Ferrier to the window, and asked him if he knew anything of that lad's mother. Yes; she had been at the Mandurang Mission six months before she died. Her native name was Caloona. I told him Thomson's story as briefly as possible. “Oh, how

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wonderful are the ways of the Lord!” he ejaculated at the close—not very relevantly, I thought.

‘The sick man was soon wakened by a fit of coughing. When this was over, Mr. Ferrier took his hand and said: “My friend, instead of reading to-day, will you let me tell you a little incident that happened at the Mandurang Mission Station?” Thomson nodded a weary assent, as if he knew beforehand that this could have no interest for him. I was about to slip away, but Thomson asked me to stay a little longer. The ex-missionary's little incident was soon told: How, late at night, a young half-caste woman, with a boy of nine, came to the mission spent with illness and weary wandering. She had lived for years with white people, and then gone back to her tribe. But the savage life was too much for her, and when her strength began to fail she found her way to the mission, anxious to have her boy properly cared for after her death.

‘When he learned the names of the mother and son, Thomson's strength seemed to return to him in a strange way. He half sat up, his face all alight, asking a torrent of questions.

‘With the tenderness of a gentle-hearted woman Mr. Ferrier gave full details. He divined that this strong, rugged nature, wearied with mortal illness, stricken with remorse for the past, craved hungrily for all that could be told him of the poor fugitive mother and her boy.

‘ “A few days before her death she seemed to wander,” said Mr. Ferrier, “and she kept on saying: ‘We got back to the Stone Hut one evening—big one tired and hungry; but strange man there, and we went away. Me want to tell masser boy very good now; but masser gone.’ ” There was the sound of deep sobs in the room, and Mr. Ferrier's voice failed him. I went to the little window and looked out. The sky was overcast, and on the horizon sheet-lightning played in wide flames. There was thunder in the air, and the atmosphere was heavy, and made me feel that the world is full of desolate women and fugitive children. The murmur of voices went on after a pause—question and answer—and then the one grave voice, with its fervent accents:

‘ “They are buried in one grave in the mission churchyard at Mandurang. Not far from them my own wife and

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only daughter lie buried. Ah, my dear friend, their dust reposes there in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the just. In the words of a holy man of old, ‘Every body, whether it is dried up into dust or dissolved into moisture, or is compressed into ashes, or is attenuated into smoke, is withdrawn from us, but is reserved for God in the custody of the elements.’ ” I do not know that poor Thomson took in much of this. “She went back again—she went back again,” he said several times, in a low voice.

‘ “I knew well the youngster was dead ever since I seen him at the window,” he whispered to me as I went away. I spare you my reflections, as I walked home in the gathering dusk, on the strangely pathetic threads mingled in the yarn of all lives when we know something of their inward history. What passionate affections to end in a little mound of earth! What fears and agitation and anguish that avail nothing! What vivid hopes held close in the heart, only to vanish fruitlessly as morning mist! What glowing plans, stretching out into the coming years, to end in bitter disillusion and disenchantment with life!