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Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 27148

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Sad indeed was the breaking-up of that pleasant home at Y--. It followed upon, and was a consequence of, the death of our little daughter, when she was nearly a year old.

These are the times when the Bush dweller feels his geographical position most keenly-when he needs the best medical advice and cannot get it. I do not say that our dear old German doctor was not a good doctor in his way, for he was; but practically nothing had been added to his knowledge since he was young, and in this case he confessed frankly that he was altogether at fault. He had never met with a similar one-nor have I; and after looking up all the authorities at his command, even to the papers and notes of lectures of his student days, his honest mind would not pretend to have made itself up. His professional credit was not so dear to that man as truth. "I don't know," he said in so many words. And how often I have wondered whether, if we had been rich, we could have found someone else who did! Would a special train and a thousand guinea fee have saved her?

These are questions that shock some of my clerical friends, mothers amongst them. "It was the Lord's will," they say, and seem to think that settles it. A few months ago I was spending an evening with a young curate and his wife, whom I had not met before; they were ardently religious people, in their own line, and they had recently lost their only son. The mother gave me the history. He had had an internal tumour or something of the sort, a growth that steadily increased, and which the doctors had plainly said must be removed if his life was to be saved. The parents replied-and they repeated the words with such proud confidence that they were right words-"No, if the Lord intends him to get well, he will get well without that." And instead of the operation-urged by their incumbent, who also gave me these facts, as well as by other friends-they had prayer-meetings at the bed-side. The little sufferer, described as a bright boy of nine, swelled and swelled until he died. "The Lord needed him," said the mother to me. And "We feel so honoured to have a child in Heaven." She made my blood run cold. I can never have shocked the "good" people more than that ultra "good" woman shocked me.

We left nothing to these chances. When whooping-cough came to the township, I took extraordinary precautions to keep my children from catching it. The epidemic was nearly over when the little boy fell a victim, and then I watched day and night to prevent contact with the baby. Quite at the last (the lady I have spoken of would have some remarks to make on this) my efforts were defeated; the baby took it in spite of me. She was a healthy and happy little soul, and at first her case seemed just an ordinary one. But after coughing for a week or two, she ceased to cough suddenly, and fell into strange fainting-fits; they seized her so silently and swiftly that I hardly once saw her go into one, although she was in the room with me, and my eye, as I thought, never off her. A cry from her nurse or somebody would cause me to jump as if I had been shot, and there lay my little one, wherever she happened to have been sitting or crawling, exactly like one dead-grey, limp, eyes sunk, lips drawn back, neither breath nor heart-beat discoverable. We would snatch her up and rub her and give her brandy; and after some minutes, more or less, she would struggle painfully back to life, and as soon as respiration returned begin to shriek in the most terrible manner, and keep it up until completely exhausted; then she would drop asleep, remain asleep for a whole day, perhaps, and awake placid and cooing, ready to be fed and played with, apparently as well as ever. At intervals of a day, or two days, she had perhaps half a dozen of these fits; then she had one that lasted nearly three hours. All the while that she lay in our arms, we having no hope that she would revive again, a thin stream of what looked like grey water trickled from one nostril; it was the only sign of life. The old doctor, having done all he knew, sat looking on, as helpless as we. However, again she struggled back, and, getting breath, began that quick, agonising shriek which was so maddening to hear and impossible to stop. The doctor put his hands to his ears. "I can't stand it," he said; "I must go outside. Call me if you want me." After awhile he went home, but the shrieks lasted the greater part of the night, gradually, as her strength wore out, dying into hoarse wails and moaning off at last into exhausted sleep.

She slept the entire day, and I sat by the cradle and watched her, sopping several handkerchiefs with those foolish tears which I am supposed to weep for the pleasure of it and could help shedding if I liked. Then, towards evening, a little hand began playing with the cradle-frills, and the happy little coo that used to wake me of a morning broke the silence of the room. I could not believe my eyes and ears. We sent post-haste for the doctor. Well, there she was, looking as if nothing had happened. And for three weeks thereafter she had no more fits, but ate and played, and throve and fattened, apparently better than she had ever done in her life.

"Whatever it was," said the doctor, "that last attack has carried it off. You will see she will be all right now."

At the end of the three happy weeks that seemed to prove him right, I gave a little musical party. He brought his flute, and we were in the middle of a more or less orchestral performance, when I fancied I heard a cry from the next room-a cry with that peculiar sharp edge to it that I had so learned to dread. I rushed to the cradle, the doctor after me, and we lifted the child up and examined her. "Oh, she's all right," we said, with long breaths of relief; "it was only our noisy music that disturbed her." We placed the nursemaid on guard, and went back to the drawing-room, and for the rest of the evening made less noise, while she made none, but slumbered peacefully.

In the morning she woke up as usual; that is, I did not know when she woke. She hardly ever cried to be taken up, but played with her bed-clothes and her toes, and gurgled and gabbled to herself until I chose to lift her into my bed. She was in the most blooming condition. From the time that I dressed her, until breakfast was ready, she played with the cat on the dining-room floor, and a vivid memory of the day is of the smothered chuckles of the two servants while G. was reading prayers, because of the hilarious and irreverent shouts and crows with which baby enlivened the proceedings. When breakfast came in she was carried out. At the door her nurse held her up and told her to say good-bye to her father and mother. The bright little creature, perfection in my eyes, with her sunny curls and blue eyes and the little face lit up with the fun of going through her tricks, kissed her hand and waved it, and nodded and farewelled us in her baby language, and the door closed upon our last sight of her in life.

It was my habit to take her for an airing after breakfast, while the servants helped each other with the housework, and this particular morning was a glorious one, the crisp, sunny winter morning of Australian hill country, with the first hint of spring in it. I got her little cloak and hood and went to the kitchen to fetch her. The kitchen was large and airy, opening upon the garden, and her cradle was sometimes placed in a corner there, where she could be watched by the servants, who were both devoted to her. It was there now, and she was in it. "She seemed sleepy," said the elder girl, "so we laid her down."

"She must have been awake earlier than usual," I thought, and, stooping over the cradle, I saw her, as I believed-and still believe-sleeping quietly, carefully tucked up, the little golden head laid sidewise on the pillow. It was not her bed-time by an hour or two, but her habit of not telling me when she started the day seemed to explain the too early sleepiness. I told the girls they were right to put her down, and went off to the housework on my own account. Some time later the elder servant came to me where I was busy, G. being with me. "Oh, ma'am," said she, gaspingly, "I wish you'd come and look at baby. She's so pale!" G. almost flung me aside lest I should get to the door first, and dashed to the kitchen. We both knew instantly what had happened. The servants had not left her for a moment; she had not made a movement or a sound; she could not have known what had happened herself, which was something to be thankful for. One of her strange fits had seized her-the one, at last, that she would never come out of. Her father snatched her up-lying exactly as I had left her-and called for the brandy; we tried to pour it down her throat, where not a drop would go, until she grew quite cold and rigid in our arms.

It was the first of these almost insupportable bereavements, and the effect on my health was so severe that a complete change of surroundings was considered necessary-to get me away from the house whose every nook and corner was haunted by such agonising visions of what had been. G., for his part, could no longer stand the Murray journeys, involving such long and complete separation at a time when we needed so much to be together. So he cast about for a more compact parish, and one offered that fulfilled the requirements-and more.

It was so far away from Y-- that we had to sell our furniture and begin at the beginning again. At this auction the amateur sofas went, and from that time I bought sofas. The new drawing-room was graced with a "suite" in green rep-such was our taste in pre-exhibition days-and the sofa was of that curly shape which prohibited repose. By filling the upper concave end with my big cushions I could make head and shoulders comfortable, but then there was no scope for legs and feet; and one had to anchor one's self with the right hand to the sloping and slippery framework of the back to keep from rolling off. I never did appreciate that ingenious design, and the suite was no sooner in its place than I found even the colour of it annoying. To improve the effect I made holland covers for every piece-pretty chintzes were unprocurable-and at least a fresher and brighter air was imparted to the room; but I was not sorry that we had to have another auction at the end of three years' companionship with the suite.

In other ways this fourth home was a great change from the other three. We were now down in the flat, settled, macadamised country, only twenty miles or so from Ballarat and fifty from the metropolis-quite "in the world." I say "down," but it was a colder, wetter, snowier place to winter in than any other that we have known on this side of the globe-seventeen hundred feet above sea-level.

Apart from the trouble I have spoken of, and a bitterer one of the same nature that was soon to follow it, and the further misfortune of a carriage accident from the results of which I suffered for many years, my life at B--, socially considered, was more to my taste than had been the case before in Australia, or than has been since. For there I first discovered the resources of the colony in its intellectually-cultivated class, and enjoyed the society and friendship of some who represented it at its best-members of a small, inter-related, highly exclusive circle of about half a dozen families, who had had time and the means to read, travel, and generally sustain the traditions of refinement to which they were born.

Chronologically, they were the first gentlefolk of the land-"Rolf Boldrewood" speaks of some of them in his Old Melbourne Memories-and they still merit the title in another sense. The clans have dwindled, indeed, but not all the original heads have fallen yet, and I have not heard of a mésalliance amongst their descendants. If they do not marry with each other, they marry with their kind. As with the Salisburys and Buccleuchs and modern London Society, they remain uncontaminated by the influences which have made our own little world of fashion a faint copy of the big one at home. Money, which "runs the show" elsewhere, is no passport to those dignified homes, dating from "before the gold," in which I have spent so many happy hours.

My own passport to it was a little tale in the Australasian-my first to run as a serial in that paper. It is gone now, and was never worth keeping, but as a story about the colony, written from within, it aroused interest in its anonymous author at the time, amongst those whose eyes were keen to note literary events, small as well as big. My friend, "Rolf Boldrewood," had not yet received the worldwide recognition that he now enjoys; he was a "Sydneysider," and supposed to belong to his own colony. Poor "Tasma" had scarcely begun her brief literary career; Mary Gaunt, and others now on the roll, were mostly in their nurseries or unborn. So that I had the advantage of a stage very much to myself, which of course accounted largely for the attention I received. And of all the pleasure and profit that I derived from my long connection with the Australian press, nothing was more valuable to me than the uplifting sympathy of those readers I have mentioned, who were also as fine critics as any in the world.

The first night at B-- gave me the key of the position. The one socially "great house" of our new parish entertained us. Its owner, an old Wykehamist and cadet of a noble Scottish family, who, having practic

ally built the church, and being its main supporter, stood for what would have been the patron of the living at home, himself fetched us from Ballarat, driving the wonderful "four greys" that were as well known as he was. Never shall I forget my first sight of that sweet old house in its incomparable old garden-of the sunset from the plateau along which we drove to it from the lodge gates, the picture that has delighted me so many, many times. And never shall I forget my reception, the dinner, the evening, the sensation of finding myself suddenly and unexpectedly in a place where brains and good breeding alone counted, and nothing else was of any consequence. From the hour that I set foot in that house the situation, as it concerned me personally, was completely changed. I found, if not my level, the level which suited me.

Another house of the charmed circle began to help to make life interesting for us both. It lay within comfortable driving distance, and its family had recently returned to it from extensive travels about the world. The actual structure, to which I paid my first visits, was a modest relic of the fifties, but already there was arising from the crest-of a neighbouring hill the most desirable country house, in its own style, then built or a-building-to my thinking, at anyrate-the final dwelling-place of the owner of the surrounding land, who had been its owner from "before the gold." It was after this home of taste had been completed that we held our famous International Exhibition of 1880, which first taught us as a community the rudiments of modern art; and I remember the satisfaction with which the mistress of G-- wandered from court to court, and found no exhibits more pleasing, in their respective classes, than the treasures she had gathered for herself in foreign parts. Whether it were a Persian rug or a Venetian wine-glass, her specimen was, in her opinion, unsurpassed by any picked model of the like manufacture; in which I agreed with her. There is no lack now of what are generally described as artistic things; hundreds of Victorian homes, big and little, may in the tastefulness of their appointments outshine G-- to-day; but it was otherwise twenty years ago. At that date, when we stay-at-homes were all for gold and white wall-paper and grass-green suites (but the reader bears in mind that I put holland covers over mine) in our drawing-rooms, I believe G-- was unique in the colony as the first example of the new order. I may say here that we became rapidly ?sthetic afterwards, because it is our constant habit to follow English fashions ardently as soon as we get an idea of what they are.

I had not been long in B-- before I heard of the flattering notice excited by my story-Up the Murray was its name-and by the discovery, on the part of our neighbours aforesaid, that the humble author was living where she was. Arrangements, unbeknown to me, were made for mutual introductions and acquaintanceship, and one day I was invited to join a driving party from our "great house"-which I wish I could describe in less vulgar terms (but to call it B-- would be confusing)-to meet half-way upon the road a driving party from the other. The day was beautiful, and I see now before my mind's eye the panorama of the spring landscape. We halted on the brow of a hill-the four greys dancing themselves into complicated knots and being dramatically disentangled with the whip-thong-and down below the carriage from G-- toiling up the stony Gap track towards us. How well we learned that road afterwards, going to and fro continually either in the vehicles of our friends or in our own. If I have ever done anything to earn a respectable place in my profession I owe it to the awakening and educating influences that surrounded me at this time. My intellectual life was never so well-fed and fortified.

Of Melbourne Society, so called, I knew little as yet. My "set" held much aloof from it, gathering only its own affinities into the charming house-parties that brought whiffs of the gay world to us from time to time. Although I was now so near to it, I do not think I paid one visit to the metropolis while we lived at B--; invitations I had, but the inclination was lacking. I was satisfied as I was. We made expeditions occasionally to Ballarat, then, as now, the second city of our state, where a small group, long since vanished, of the old families still resided, to attract our particular old family thither, and where on our own account we had a few clerical and other friends to welcome us. One of these expeditions was typical of several.

The date it stands against in my diary is September 10th, 1873-the time of budding spring. Our "squire," with a part of his family, arrived at the parsonage in the lovely morning, with the "old carriage," as it was called-a deep-seated, roomy vehicle that I can hardly give a name to, but which was the easiest and cosiest that I ever rode in. G. and I joined the party, and we started on our long drive. It took us about three hours if we did not stop by the way, but these excursions would have been very incomplete without the roadside picnic. Picnics were our joy, also our forte, and the country is made for them. So we stopped when we met the groom who had been sent ahead with fresh horses-the "old carriage" was heavy, and not built for Australian roads-and we lunched under the gum-trees with that exquisite appetite that we never know indoors. Then, at our leisure, on again until we trundled into the streets of the golden city-which, I may remark in passing, is a truly charming city, and to my mind ought to be the Federal Capital, if only because of its cool and bracing climate (although it is also almost exactly central for all the states as well). But in discussing sites for the future Washington, no one seems to take into account what an effect upon legislation a languid air and mosquitoes of a night may have.

We spent the balance of the afternoon shopping, and were then deposited, with our evening clothes, at the house of one of the historical few-perhaps the most witty and world-cultured of them all, certainly the brightest company. He had been much in France, I think; he spoke often of Paris, with the air and knowledge of a born Parisian; his singing of French songs was as un-English as it could be. It was always said of Colonel R. that he would never be old, and I met him the other day on a tram, and in the course of our ride together found him as mentally alert as ever, although he confessed to me, with a comical dolefulness, that he was some years past eighty. He still wore his smart, "well-groomed," gallant air (accent on the first syllable of this adjective, please), and was as ready as of old with his pretty compliments.

We dined with him and his wife, and then went all together to the Academy of Music (newly built) to hear Ilma de Murska. She was a small, fair-haired, glittering person, with a frilly train like a pink serpent meandering around her feet, and the way she trilled and rouladed was amazing. After the concert we had a merry supper, and then-by this time indifferent to the flight of the hours-changed our clothes and prepared for the homeward drive. We had but one pair of horses now for the whole journey, so that it was necessary to take the hills at a walk, and we reached B-- at about four in the morning. We inside the carriage could have slept almost as easily as in our beds, but we were obliged to keep awake to watch the swaying bodies on the box. It was funny to see us winding scarves round our squire's ample waist, and tying him to the low rail behind him, without disturbing his slumbers. These precautions would have been useless, however, had not one of us stood ready to clutch his sleeve at critical moments. On finding himself too sleepy for our safety, he had given the reins to his little son, who was a perfectly competent substitute. But that it was thought well to tie him into his seat to prevent them from dragging him over the dashboard, he could at nine or ten years old drive four horses so well that I preferred to trust myself to him rather than to any casual man, if I was to ride behind them.

It was upon one of the hills between B-- and Ballarat that the accident took place which impaired my health for many years; but then no member of this family was driving. We had just started after our picnic lunch on the second stage of the journey, and had come to the top of a steep bit of road that had a sharp turn at the bottom, when something went wrong with the brake. The huge, top-heavy vehicle-one we called "the caravan"-ran upon the horses, which, as usual in Bush harness, had no breeching to back against, and there was nothing for it but to send them downhill at full gallop; they did their part, but the sharp corner was too sharp for us, and as we swung round it we swung right over. It seemed an inevitable thing, yet I am convinced that our squire would not have allowed it to happen. He was taking a brief rest inside the carriage, with the ladies, and so got a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder, which, together with the disgrace of the catastrophe, much incensed him. We used to get into marvellous tight places under his devil-may-care handling of his notoriously wild, half-broken horses, but never without coming safely out of them; they were the occasions of proving what a miraculous whip he was. Once a wheel came off when the team were in mid-career, and in the twinkling of an eye he had so turned the other three wheels as to balance the waggonette upon them until its occupants could get out. One day four other horses were rushed up a broken hill track amongst trees to some mine workings on the top, and as there was no turning space here they had to come down backwards. We were showing the country to some officers of an Italian man-o'-war, and the dumb dignity with which those men went through the ordeal spoke volumes for their breeding as well as for their nerve.

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But I feel clogged and dulled while talking of this place. I do not want to go on talking of it, but to get past it to scenes that are not forever associated with sorrows that do not bear thinking of. It was a pleasant dwelling-place, indeed, but now it remains, even at so great a distance off, but the stage setting of the second domestic tragedy, so much more terrible than the first-the death of our eldest son when he was five. He was one of those bright and beautiful children of whom people say, when they are gone, "He was too good for this world," and "He was not meant to live"-that was the first thing my friends said to me, or I should know my place better than to thus speak of him; and every year and day your child is with you adds that much more of strength and depth to the love whose roots are the very substance of the mother's heart; and the bitterest thing of all is the suffering you cannot alleviate, and not to lose them at a stroke, which I had thought so supremely dreadful. After ailing nothing all his life, he took scarlet fever in its worst form, struggled against it with all the power of his perfect constitution and brave and patient temper, rallied and relapsed, got dropsy, and died by inches-conscious nearly to the last, and only concerned for his mother's tears and the trouble he was giving people. If he had been humanly restive under the agonies that he must have borne I could myself have borne it better; it was his heroic patience and unselfishness-that "Please," and "Thank you," and "Don't mind," and "Don't cry" which only failed when he could no longer force his tongue to act-which seemed the most heart-breaking thing of all. "If you had read of this in a book," they said who helped to nurse him, "you would never have believed it;" and so I may expect incredulity from the reader to whom I now have the bad taste to tell the tale; but whenever I have thought of his conduct during that last and only trial of his short life, I have realised to the full what he would have been to us if he had lived. People say to me, "Oh, you cannot tell how he might have turned out." But I can tell.

Well, if he had lived he would have been a man of thirty now-married, doubtless, and perhaps to some woman who would have made him wretched. There is always that pitfall in the path of the best of men. Also the success that must have attended the possession of such mental powers as his would have been a danger. "Don't you teach that child anything until he is seven at the least," our old German doctor was continually warning us, and we did not; but somebody gave the child a box of letters, and he could read the newspaper before he died. If you recited to him, once, a long narrative poem-"Beth Gelert" or "The Wreck of the Hesperus"-he would go off to his nurse or somebody and repeat it from end to end, almost without a mistake. He had a passion for mechanics, and, having seen a railway or mining or agricultural engine at work, would come home and, with bits of string and cotton-reels and any rubbish he could lay his hands on, make a model of it in which no essential part was lacking. The frequent appeal at the study door, "Just a few nails, please, daddy, and I won't 'sturb you any more," was the nearest he came to teasing anybody.

Well, he died at five years old, and the common impulse of all who knew him, including his fool of a mother, was to say, "Of course!" I was childless for a fortnight. Then another little daughter came, as it seemed, to save my life.

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