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   Chapter 12 XIIToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 26447

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


THE SIXTH HOME

The charms of solitude at "The Old Parsonage" were outweighed by its disadvantages when I became that miserable creature, the confirmed invalid. The fire danger which made me nervous in summer was bad for health; the silence and loneliness of the winters, when nobody came, were worse. My husband, of course, was much away from home; the servants lived in their detached house; and so good and capable were they that for a time-after the elder babies began to go with Miss C. to school-I saved the expense of my dear little lady-help, who, however, came back to me later on. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I could get hold of my own children. Their devoted nurse and mine, already mentioned, watched us like a cat to keep us apart, lest their exuberance should fatigue me. The hour before tea (not afternoon tea, but the solid evening meal) was grudgingly conceded to us. Maria-she, like Dik, is dead, and I may give her the name now held in so much love and honour-would then bring them, beautifully brushed and garbed (she used to put clean socks and pinafores on them twice a day, although there was nobody but ourselves to see them), to my sofa side, and permit us to play together, provided we behaved ourselves. All the while she hovered in the doorway to see that I was not clambered over or roughly handled in any way, and long before time was up would advance to sweep them out, with her "Come now, I can see that mother is getting tired." She saw it before I did. They were as good as gold, thanks to her splendid training. Never were such model children-until the day that, as a broken-hearted bride, she parted from them, when they "played up" in a manner to drive the house distracted. When they had their little aches and pains, and I used to beg Maria to let them sleep in my room, she would not allow it. Many a time have I surreptitiously carried a fretful child to my bed, and settled down with it comfortably, as I thought, and then had it gently but firmly taken from me, despite my expostulations. I had, at anyrate, the comfort of knowing that no mother could tend them better than she did, and the theory of the household that I was not strong enough to stand anything had some foundation in fact. But my inactive life-although I still got through a large amount of sewing and novel-writing-and my many hours of brooding solitude, had their own bad effect upon my broken health. There came a day when I declared, with tears, that if I had to spend another winter in that place I should go melancholy mad.

So I did not spend another. G. also had had enough of it. And particularly he wanted to get back to the Melbourne diocese, from which he had been automatically expelled. But although he had been automatically expelled, his old diocese held him to be a legal stranger when he applied for re-admittance. It had a regulation, since abrogated, that no clergyman from outside could take a living until he had served unbeneficed for a year; and no exception was made in his peculiar case. However, we freely paid the price to get our way-exchanged our substantial parish, secure for life, had we so willed it, for a humble curacy, which might lead to anything or nothing-and on the 16th of November 1883 left the old parsonage for a home that was the greatest possible contrast to it-a grubby little terrace house in a low part of one of our premier cities-a house we had to take as the only one in our new parish that was then available. Our principal occupation and amusement during the short time that we lived there was hunting for another, which fortunately we had not found when the summons came to us again to move on.

But there was an interval between the uprooting in the Western District and the re-planting in this cramped spot-for the children and me. The elder ones were placed with some friends who kept a kindergarten at the seaside, and the baby and Maria accompanied me on a round of visits which lasted into January of the following year. This was perhaps the gayest period of my life, in spite of increasing invalidism. Socially it was the most brilliant era that Victoria has known in my time, and I was so placed that the best of everything came my way. The house that was my town head-quarters for many years then possessed its magnet of a daughter-now on the roll of the grandees of England, by her marriage an aunt to Royalty-and wherever she was, there was good company and plenty of it, for she had her pick and choice. And there for the time being was I also, for we were close friends, as we remain to this day, none of the usual arguments of the world against it having had any effect upon that faithful heart.

And this reminds me to make-as in these intimate disclosures I have an opportunity to do-a little explanation. When I wrote a novel called The Devastators, I knew that I was laying down a rule contradicted in my own circle by two glaring exceptions. This bright and beautiful woman is one of them; the other is a person still nearer to me. I had to apologise to both of them when that book came out. From their childhood they have been exposed to flatteries that should have spoiled them utterly; both have proved unspoilable. In the case of one of the pretty faces, it does not even care to look at itself in the glass; the mere ordinary vanity of the ordinary female is lacking. So that to this large extent my theory of the effect of physical charm upon its possessor is discredited. While I am glad to state the fact, I am sorry to remain of the opinion that such exceptions are exceptions, and that the rule is still the rule.

With the elder of the incorruptible pair-the younger was then a small child-I had great times in Melbourne, varying my social revels with a visit to the doctor twice or thrice a week. The distinguished globe-trotter was plentiful at that time. Lord and Lady Rosebery, amongst others, were touring the colonies and the houses of some of my friends. At one I spent three days with them. At another I had a still more interesting week-end with Archibald Forbes. He came nearest to the popular newspaper presentment of him, but I have little faith left in printed history when it deals with the inner lives of my illustrious contemporaries; from which it logically follows that I am a hopeless sceptic in respect of the printed history of the past. "It may have been thus," think I, when I con the so-called authentic records of my race in this or that particular, "but I wish I could have been there to see for myself."

It is not for me, a fellow-guest, to play reporter, but some incidents of those occasions when I could study England and Australia in conjunction upon the domestic stage may be mentioned without offence to taste or hospitality. For instance:-One fine afternoon the house-party, which included the Roseberys, went out to the tennis ground of the establishment. When we arrived there we found the beautiful grass court, kept like a bowling green, in the possession of a crowd of strangers, holiday trippers of the 'Arry and 'Arriet type; they had invaded the grounds from the railway near by, had found racquets and balls, and were in the middle of an exciting game. Did they scurry away, scared, on the appearance of the smart folks from the house? Did anybody order them off, or even request them to desist? Not a bit of it. They calmly continued their game, which took a long time, while we sat down meekly and waited. When they had quite done they trooped away without a word, and then Lord Rosebery wearily took up his racquet and started in. Typically Australian as this incident was, I cannot imagine it happening to those older great houses spoken of in a former chapter-houses of no particular size, as far as their material fabric is concerned, and with no liveried servants attached to them, but of a dignity secure of public respect, even in this disrespectful country.

Male house-servants, by the way, and men's valets, seem to me quite out of harmony with the domestic traditions of this land. With us they mark no caste, save that of wealth, and belong mainly to those who do not know what to do with them. I have sat at breakfast with a regiment of men in full-dress livery in waiting round the table-a degree of state that, to the best of my belief, an English duke dispenses with-and this in a house with no morning-room to go to when breakfast was over, but only the same gilded and satiny drawing-room used over-night; and where guests who had never done such a thing in their lives might find themselves put to sleep in the same room with strangers. A young titled Englishman, to whom this happened, cut his acquaintance with the place in consequence, although his entertainers never knew it. My "old families" are very chary of these exotic innovations, and, whatever one's aristocratic leanings, it does hurt one to think of an Australian man-synonym for simple and hardy manliness-submitting to be dressed and coddled by a trousered lady's-maid, and to think of another Australian man condescending to that sort of servitude. But no Australian man does condescend to it, I am sure; the Australian valet, as well as his liveried house-mates, is an imported article.

Against the lady's-maid in petticoats, who outnumbers him a hundred to one, I have nothing to say-quite the contrary. She is a "grateful and comforting" institution in this country, so far as I have known her, and three representatives of her class are on my list of friends. I like a lady's-maid myself at times, and my own Maria took up the r?le as one to the manner born when she and I were visiting "the quality" together. She packed and unpacked, and sewed tuckers, and laid out my evening clothes, and was as jealous of my dignity and her own, amongst strange servants, as if we had been grandees all our lives. I was envied the possession of her. "How do you come to have a woman like that?" said a person of wealth and consequence to me one day. "Why doesn't she go to the good houses? She would be snapped up anywhere. She could command any wages she liked to ask." "Well," said I, with a serene smile, "you offer her a better place. I will not stand in her way if she likes to take it." Maria's father was overseer of a great station, and she had never been in service until she came to me. I knew no bribe short of a husband and home of her own would entice her to leave me.

Charming associations surround the spot where I foregathered with the great war correspondent. There is a Mount-for it is not quite a mountain, while it is much more than a hill-situated forty-four miles from Melbourne and about seventeen hundred feet above it. In its natural state every inch was covered with forest trees and scrub, so that our mutual friend and host, who was one of the first to make a residential suburb of it, had to chop out a hole in the dense growth upon the steep hill-side to see where he was, when prospecting for a site on which to make a home. That home, when I began to frequent it, had become the show-place of the district. The pretty house made no pretensions to be more than a cottage, but the garden was notoriously one of the loveliest in the land. Its owner was a gardener born; he came up twice a week to his family from his business in town and his bachelor quarters at the Melbourne Club, and revelled in his darling pursuit through all his leisure hours. His head gardener was an importation from famous gardens at home; he had a salary of £200 a year, a house in the grounds, and two men under him; and all their work was exquisite. The garden dropped down and down, from the terrace that had been cut for the house to stand on, to an artificial lake at the bottom-velvet lawns and precious trees and shrubs, with a "fern gully" on one side of it, where you stepped down a glade dark with arching fronds, protecting thickets of innumerable rare varieties, from New Zealand and elsewhere, kept moist and cooled by a perennial cascade of crystal-clear mountain water, punctuated at intervals by pools with goldfish or water-flowers in them. In the spring that fairy tunnel was carpeted with lilies of the valley in myriads-the only place where I have seen them growing in this country, except in flower-pots. Up under the verandah roofs red bells of lapageria used to hang like a drapery, and the treasures of the unpretentious glass houses into which the sitting-rooms opened were beyond count. It was a fitting environment for one of the finest flower-painters of her day-known far beyond the limits of these realms, as, indeed, so is the place which reared her. Many a globe-trotter would recall it if he chanced to read these words. The Prince of Wales and his brother, when they were boys, stayed here; their noble chief took the opportunity to choose a wife for himself out of the house, a sister of the gifted lady who painted flowers so marvellously, and with whom Archibald Forbes fell-in a strictly platonic fashion, of course, for she was already married and he about to become so for the second time-so deeply in love. He raved about her in an English magazine article after he got home. He said she was ... but there is the artic

le (in a bound volume) to speak for itself.

It was winter when I went to this house to meet him. Beautiful as the place was in warmer seasons, abloom with flowers, when one sat under trees to read, and, looking up from one's book, looked down again upon the glimmering city and the sea fifty miles away, I think it was in winter that I liked it best. Oh, it was cold! Wrapped about with mountain mists or with whirling snow, it was like an Alpine chalet; but one came in out of this weather to great wood-fires with cushioned basket-chairs beside them-a fire to each room-and that was an effect that could not have been surpassed. It poured with rain on the night I speak of. I was staying at a neighbouring country-house, and joined the Saturday party coming up from town at a wayside station. A son of my host, who had been through the Russo-Turkish war with Archibald Forbes-one on one side, one on the other-was with them; and fine company they made, with their deadly reminiscences. They had met on the bloody field of Plevna, the most vivid incident of which, it appeared, was a banquet upon a looted German sausage (I think it was) when both were starving.

We passed, in dripping mackintoshes, across the little platform lonely in the scrub-there is a considerable station there now, and the Mount is populous with country-houses-to the covered waggonette awaiting us. Up the steep and miry Bush track, then like any other Bush track, the poor horses strained and struggled, slipped and fell. The men had to get out and do the climb on foot. It was pitchy dark, and the trees closed us round. But presently we turned in at a gate and passed through the perfect garden to the lighted house-the blazing bedroom fire to dress by, the glowing drawing-room hearth to gather around afterwards, the exhilarating dinner and evening talk. Mr Forbes had just come from New Zealand, and that country had enchanted him. He had roamed the earth-Switzerland, Norway, the Rockies, the Yosemite, all the famous beauty spots-but never, he declared, had he seen anything to match New Zealand scenery. A coach drive through the Otira Gorge had simply turned his head. The husband of the flower-painter had captained British troops in the Maori wars, and the house happened to possess a fine collection of New Zealand photographs, bound in several volumes. These I spent a long Sunday morning over, while Mr Forbes descanted upon the pages as I turned them. I made a promise to myself and him that not many years should pass before I saw the originals of those pictures, but-as a matter of course-I have not seen them yet. In my sadder moments I am convinced that I never shall. There was no church upon the mountain then-only a little school-house where, on alternate Sunday afternoons, an Anglican clergyman took a turn with his Presbyterian brother; on such occasions we ladies of the house brushed through the bracken-fern and woodland scrub to the humble tabernacle. My hostess played the harmonium; the potential Personage of the family led the singing. But on this wet and wintry Sunday we stayed at home. I had much friendly intercourse with our chief guest, and we corresponded afterwards. This was about four months before the gay time which included the Rosebery episode.

The diversions of that gay time soon palled upon me. I was glad to exchange my camp in town-lap of love as well as luxury though it was-for a home of my own, however 'umble. We collected ourselves in the little terrace house, which managed to hold us, a governess for the children included; and as soon as she had made us as comfortable as she could, Maria's ill-used young man came for her, and we lost a friend who could never be replaced. The 20th of February 1884 was her wedding-day, and no obsequies were ever celebrated with more pangs and tears.

Miss P., the new governess, was a treasure notwithstanding. A curate brother (he is a portly canon now), who wanted her for his housekeeper, reft her from me three months afterwards; and she is married, I hear, this long time, and I hope the man who has got her appreciates his luck. She had a handful with those children after Maria's influence was removed, but the way she managed them (in that confined space) made me envious of her moral vigour and the texture of her nerves.

When they were all disposed of for the night she and I used to take walks together. In my state of health, especially in the hot weather-and that was a particularly hot place-dressing and calling were too much for me; I waited until after dark, and then went out in about three garments, the most delightful costume that I ever wore in my life, and one to which I look back now with regret and longing unspeakable. Oh, why can we not relieve the inescapable fatigue of life in that way always, and not only for a few brief hours in thirty years! It was the heavenly fashion then to wear a long, light, loose paletot of China silk-the early dust-coat, before it had been spoiled. It buttoned at the throat and all down the front to the hem, which cleared the ground by about three inches. It had roomy pockets outside; the sleeves were roomy also; there was no need to wear a dress under it, nor anything whatever round the waist. I did not, and so walked with the sensations (as I should imagine them) of a disembodied spirit.

Night after night, in this delicious liberty, we roamed that city everywhere. It is a big city-the third in the state-with its due proportion of dens and slums, of drunks and larrikins, but there was not a hole or corner that we feared or had cause to fear. She, calm, strong, protective, was the man of the pair; I, with my hand on her arm, could wish no better. It was our joy to wander in the most out-of-the-way places, and to find a new one if possible every night. We watched trains from black railway embankments; we sat in the public gardens away from lamps and out of call of people; we poked into blind alleys and prowled over deserted mines-and we were never molested or annoyed by anybody or anything. One day we read, with high indignation, a letter in the newspaper which represented the town as so rowdy at night-time that it was not safe for decent people to be abroad. I became a newspaper controversialist myself, for once, in order to confute that gratuitous liar, who, I am quite sure, was not a decent person. The manners of our people may not be superfine, and in fact they are not-there was no justification for the fastidiousness of some persons who could not see any good in Archibald Forbes because he drank his tea out of the saucer instead of the cup-but in the conduct at the back of manners I have always found them decent to the decent, in whatever walk of life.

The pokiness of the poky house did not trouble me, but its situation was detestable. Never will I live in a terrace house again, if I can help it. I used to hunt in vain for a quiet corner to write in, for I am not like my friend, "Rolf Boldrewood," who can calmly pursue his literary labours in a roomful of noisy family. If I settled myself at the rear of the premises, the maid next door would take the opportunity to sing in her back-yard at the top of her voice, and, in view of the performances of the children in mine, I was not in a position to expostulate. If I fled to the front, I was distracted with the rattle of the street and the horrible jingle of a public-house piano out of tune. In the stilly night one had sometimes to bury one's head in the bed-clothes to avoid hearing the conversations of the husband and wife in the next house. Their window was close alongside ours, and we had to open them in summer to enable us to breathe. Twice a week or so G. used to go out with his broom and pail of disinfectant, and, starting at the top of the terrace, flush and sweep the main gutter of all the houses down to the bottom-and then was summoned for creating a nuisance, because the overflow of a neighbour's nastiness, from an unreachable source, was detected in our ground. We had good reason to believe that this deadly insult (to persons who made domestic sanitation a fad, if not a passion) was contrived as a punishment for his impertinence in meddling with other people's drains. One or two of them used to stand at their yard doors and look at him sourly while he was doing it, but it was the only way of cleansing our own.

In spite of these drawbacks, our sojourn here was pleasant. There was no hardship in being curate to such an incumbent as Archdeacon M'C., beloved by all who knew him. The taste of town life was sweet, after so many years of rural isolation. My friends were near, dropping in continually, between one train and another, as they passed up and down on the railway; and, best of all, there were the most "filling" library and reading-rooms, conveniently near to me, that I had ever had the run of. My pleasantest memories of this particular year are of that institution and the grave, grey, bookish old librarian, who did all he knew to make it delightful to me. Though I never saw him after '84, he has his place in the little company of true friends made for life; "gone, but not forgotten," as the obituary column says of a baby buried yesterday-I have not forgotten him in seventeen years, nor ever shall. We used to talk books by the hour when he was disengaged. He hoarded volumes for me in the secret recesses of his desk, and of the new publications coming in I always had my choice before they were put upon the shelves. It mattered not that I was entitled to but one or two at a time, the more I would accept in excess of my allowance, the better he was pleased. Sometimes he left them at my door on his way home to bed, although my door was out of his road. And I never was at a loss for recreation with those reading-rooms to browse in-green pastures and still waters for the fattening and refreshing of mind and soul. They alone would have made any place good to live in.

Just before Christmas, 1884, Bishop Moorhouse offered G. the parish which was our favourite of the whole series-for six months. A clergyman in England, belonging to one of our old families, already mentioned, had a wish to return to his own people. He offered himself unconditionally to the Bishop of Melbourne, who responded by appointing him to this parish, up in the northeastern mountain country, in the neighbourhood of our early homes; and G. was to take charge of it until its incumbent-elect was ready. The latter, finding it beneath his expectations, and being simultaneously offered a London living, decided, after long deliberations, to remain where he was; and we, who went there for six months, stayed nine years. It was so congenial a place, that when (June 12, 1885) news came up to us that the Board of Nominators in Melbourne had elected G. to the incumbency, we said to each other that we had nothing left to wish for. To be safe and settled once more had been our anxious desire for some months; we now felt that if we had had our choice of all the districts and dwellings in the diocese, we could not have suited ourselves better.

But first we had to pay toll-heavy toll. My health continued to fail, so that I could not enjoy my pretty home, and the end of years of stop-gap doctoring was the announcement that it was useless, and that radical measures must be resorted to. On March 9, 1886, I was deposited in a private hospital in Melbourne, fully aware of the fact that my case was considered serious enough to make it as likely as not that I should die there. Of all the black hours of my life, I think that was the worst-when my husband had said good-bye to me and gone back to the children whom I dared not hope to see again, and I was left to my hard fate (on a very hard bed) amongst cold-eyed strangers to whom I was of no account whatever, except in the way of business. Once, when I was a child under governesses, I took a violent fancy to go to boarding-school; I pestered doting parents until they reluctantly acceded to my wish; but no sooner was it realised than I began to weep and pine away with a home-sickness that could only be cured by fetching me back again-I think at the end of the first quarter. That brief experience of exile from the Place of Love faintly foreshadowed my mental sufferings-worse than the physical ones, which were indeed no joke-under this bitterer separation; yet both school and hospital did their best for me, and were governed with all the kindness and good-will that discipline and the general conditions admitted of.

For months, that seemed years, I was imprisoned in the latter place-even now I cannot pass it without a shudder, a thrill of thankfulness to be outside instead of in-and I was then sent forth with a reprieve only, and not a full discharge. The nurse, strange to say, gave me the hint that I should probably "die of it" shortly; the doctor, appealed to for the honest truth, first abused the nurse for her indiscretion, and then endorsed her view. But nurses and doctors have their human limitations; even they don't know everything. The kindly reader may like to hear that I not only did not die of it, but am in no danger of ever doing so.

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