previous
next

XII The Temple of Learning

ON the following morning I rose very early, packed my clothes and books into two large boxes which had mysteriously arrived during my sleep, then slipped out of the house to look for a conveyance. As I did not wish any of the Push to know the exact direction of my movements, I strolled right into George Street before I selected a van. In this I rode back to my uncle's shop, and before seven o'clock my belongings were all quietly transferred to the street. I was very excited, but strangely miserable. I was about to face an unknown world. It was no use telling myself that it was the world for which I was


  ― 100 ―
most suited; the fact remained, I viewed my departure with the keenest regret. This was the only home I remembered, and the word “home” has such an inherent charm about it that I was overwhelmed with vague sorrow and an unspeakable loneliness when I thought that for many months I should visit it no more. I felt myself an exile, and found myself unable to remember the miseries I had endured within its walls. I crept back for one last look. Dearly I should have liked to say goodbye to all its inmates, but although growing late the house seemed wrapped in slumber. Not even Judith was astir. I recognised my uncle's hand, however, in the stillness, and from long habit of obedience deferred my wishes to his will. I climbed into the van, and sitting on one of my boxes gazed back as we departed, my eyes blurred with tears.

“Where to, sir?” asked the driver as we turned the corner of the lane.

I explained to him that I wished to go to some quiet hotel near the University.

“The Kentish is the place for you!” he replied, and I assented.

In an hour we stopped before a small and very clean-looking public-house, standing at the corner of Derwent Street and the Parramatta Road, and right opposite the University gates. I liked the look of the place, it seemed quiet and respectable. I entered, and made a bargain with the landlord, who agreed to give me good board and lodging for £2 per week. That night, armed with a portmanteau, I took train to Leura Falls, where I remained for three glorious weeks. It was my first visit to the country, and amazingly did I enjoy it; wandering throughout the peaceful summer days through leafy coverts on the hillsides, climbing rocks and gullies, or lying in the shade gazing out over a prospect as varied and magnificent as the imagination can conceive. But it is not the purpose of my narrative to describe the beauties of the mountains, though I could linger for days dreamfully weaving word-pictures of the fern-clad slopes of Leura: its quaint village, and its silent, incurious inhabitants; its giant valleys, and its numerous cascades—one of which, the largest, falls in broken fashion from the mountains


  ― 101 ―
to the plains in leaps of seven hundred feet or more, over hollow rocky caverns which reverberate the music of the rushing waters, in deep magically booming notes, like the voices of imprisoned monsters, who ceaselessly complain.

I returned on the 13th of March, and proceeded on my first invasion of the University in great fear and trembling. However, Mr. Barff, the registrar, received me very courteously, explained to me my curriculum, and gave me a receipt for my first quarter's lecture fees, which I thought were ridiculously small. I entered as a classical student of arts, signed my name in a great book, and was informed that I must attend on the morrow at the commemoration, to take the necessary oath, and be formally received as a member of the University. Mr. Barff then gave me into the hands of a lackey, who took me over the building. It seemed to me a stately but unfinished pile. Viewed from the front it covered a wide area, and suggested, with its central tower and wide extended wings, the form of a mediæval fortress. In the rear was a huge quadrangle, but incomplete; the hinder walls terminated at the angles, and on one side were women's quarters built of wood, with tennis courts before them; on the other stretched men's common-rooms, queer little buildings of white pine; while beyond, the continuity was entirely broken and defaced by incongruous stone edifices, used as laboratories, engine houses, and store-rooms. Far to the left rose a huge stone building, which I was informed was the medical school. From the tower itself I obtained a magnificent view of the park surrounding the University grounds, the various colleges—Paul's, Andrew's, and John's—great, weird, ugly structures three-quarters of a mile away, and in the farther distance all around, almost the whole of Sydney. Well, at last, I reflected, I stood in the temple of learning, which I had so often vainly sighed to visit. But my first impressions were dreary. The classrooms were public schoolrooms, pure and simple, unglorified by any sign of advanced arrangement. Their furniture consisted of plain plank desks, wooden benches, and a lecturer's cedar desk. The floors were even uncarpeted. The great hall was splendid, but gloomy; its only relief a big organ near the roof, whose burnished escaladed pipes reflected the


  ― 102 ―
glories of a stained-glass window in a distant wall. I left feeling depressed and melancholy, and to cheer myself visited the city to purchase my cap and gown. I think I spent that night almost entirely before a mirror, indulging in queer antics, and making speeches to the furniture. Shall I confess it? the absurd alpaca gown and not unbecoming trencher made me indescribably happy. I decided that I had already, by means of it, become a learned, grave, and reverend seignior. I thought myself extremely good to look upon, and resolved to have myself photographed at the earliest possible opportunity for the benefit of my uncle, Judith, and the Push. You see, in my loneliness, I had grown to regard those people as my home-circle, and yet for years I had loathed my life among them, and longed to escape it, even through the halls of death.

Have you ever felt nervous, felt that the eyes of an unknown and unfriendly people were bent critically upon you? Can you understand my feelings when, arrayed in cap and gown, I tremblingly advanced on the morrow to the great hall? They were terrible. I knew that I was ghastly white. My knees knocked together as I walked, my teeth chattered in my head. I felt undressed; nay, completely naked! I became bitterly conscious of little spots and blemishes on my skin; a small mole underneath my right arm gave me infinite discomfort. Every now and then I furtively tugged at my garments to reassure myself that they were still about me. Deathly chills chased each other over my frame, intermittently succeeded by burning flushes. The hall doors were barred. Involuntarily I had arrived too early, but a great crowd of graduates and undergraduates was gathered on the terrace. Among them were their relations—fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins; all beautifully dressed, happy, and smiling. A long row of handsomely equipped carriages was drawn up on the terrace by the arch. The coachmen sat upon the boxes, grasping reins and whips, their lips curled with immeasurable disdain; the footmen stood beside the carriage doors, nonchalant and insolent as princes or puppies. I bowed my head as I passed them, in humble acknowledgment of their crushing superiority. Feeling that with each step I took I committed


  ― 103 ―
an unconscionable crime, I tremulously approached the crowd, staring in meekest deprecation at the ground. I did not gather confidence even when I realised that no notice was taken of me, for I stupidly imagined that their lack of attention sprang from the indifference of contempt. I waited for the doors to open in an agony of stretched sense, which gradually merged into a mood of defiance and recklessness. At last I tore my glance from the ground, and in response to an attack of fierce resentment of imagined grievances, threw back my head and glared around. I was astounded to observe that everybody was minding his or her own business. They were laughing, chatting, shaking hands, and indulging in all manner of innocent conventional frivolities. B.A.'s and Masters of Arts, in their furred robes, were receiving the congratulations of their friends, and returning the good-natured chaff of experienced undergrads. Beautiful women, collected in groups, discussed each other's gowns. Some of them glanced at me with not unapproving eyes, but their glances overwhelmed me with shame. My relief was intense when at last the door opened, and the rush for seats commenced. The students massed themselves on a daïs, the visitors about the body of the hall. In a few moments the place was thronged and packed to suffocation. The Chancellor, accompanied by the Senate, entered, took his place, and bowed. Instantly pandemonium reigned supreme. It might have been a Push picnic, but certainly not a meeting of the Dogs' Push, for they behave most decorously in their assemblies.

A great skull, with a pipe thrust between its fleshless jaws, stuck upon a pole, was reared up from the medical contingent—a fitting emblem of their calling—and wreaths of smoke presently issued from its hollow eyes. Soon a mighty chant broke out, led by an arranged choir, and “Who Killed Cock Robin?” was howled by three hundred throats. The Chancellor read his speech, interrupted by frequent cat-calls and weird cries. The Governor of the Colony, Lord Jersey and his wife, made their appearance, and were presented in turn amid a thunder of applause. “Trot her out!” yelled someone, when Lady Jersey was referred to by the Chancellor, and the sentiment evoked a storm of


  ― 104 ―
approbation. I quickly lost my nervousness in these proceedings. I thought to myself—“there is, after all, very little difference between larrikins and gentlemen; gentlemen are more noisy, impertinent, and better educated, but less brutal; that is all.”

The Governor made a speech which was not the least attended to, and no sooner had he finished than another song was sung. The oath was administered, and the new undergraduates received, amid an uproar that never ceased; and finally, the ceremonies complete, I left the building with buzzing ears and an intimate conviction that anticipation is at all times preferable to realisation. How I had dreamed of that day!

At the gates an open victoria passed me; seated therein were three ladies, and one of them was Amber Eyes. She saw me, smiled, and slightly inclined her head. I swung off my cap, astonished and charmed beyond words. I thought the meeting the best of omens.

previous
next