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   Chapter 14 XIVToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 21854

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Towards the end of May 1886-against professional advice, to which we opposed our private opinion that the best way to get well was to get rid of the homesick cravings that were beyond doctor's reach-I was transferred from my hospital bed to one in the house of a dear Melbourne friend, where I lay in all the luxury that love and money could provide, and with portions of family around me, for a few more weeks; until at last it was considered that I might make the long journey to my home in safety. I had a bed in the railway carriage, and reached the goal of my desires at midnight, when the long-motherless bairns were asleep. Thereafter, although weighed down at times with the thought of my supposed impending doom-never really out of my mind, and constantly spurring me to extreme efforts to turn the available time to the best account, in the interests of my prospective orphans-I persisted in getting well and in enjoying myself accordingly. Indeed, the charm of life at this period-only to be understood by those in like case, who have been so near to losing it-is a bloom upon the retrospect that is likely to misrepresent it in these pages. Beauty is in the eye and heart of the beholder more than in the thing beheld. However, I can only paint as I have seen, and the reader will make allowances.

Certainly Home No. 7, which was in the near neighbourhood of Homes 1, 2, and 3, was a trifle dilapidated. G.'s successor there, when he first saw it, called it a "shanty"-he came from the modern suburban villa which we now occupy, and was used to high ceilings and electric bells-and he thought (until the rain ceased and the sun came out) that it would be impossible to bring his family to quarters so mean by comparison with what they were accustomed to. But they were good enough for us. The most we asked of the vestry was to keep roofs weather-tight; for the rest, we felt ourselves equal to making a satisfactory abode out of a far worse shanty than that. Indeed, we had done so more than once.

All the paint was off it, and the soft grey of the dissolving wood-work was in perfect harmony with every other detail of the composition; I used to dread to turn my back on the place, lest the parish should take a notion to smarten up while I was away, although I knew that the time was near when something would have to be done. They could only have put staring patches on their old garment, which would have made it hideous. It was so beautifully, mellowly "all of a piece" now, that I begged G., who rather hankered after painters and carpenters, to keep their hands off, if he loved me. "It will last our time," I said, as he drove the amateur nail, and I saw to it that old age did not mean dirt; and we made it do that-barely. The back of the house was level with the ground, but the front was in the air, so that its verandah was a balcony and you descended from it to the garden by a flight of twelve steps; before we left we had abandoned the front entrance because it had become impossible by our unaided efforts to keep those steps in place. Also the verandah floor in places was dangerous to walk upon; the constant watering of flower-pots and palm-tubs had rotted it through. And the ivy, cut into a hood round one of the drawing-room windows, rioted out of bounds. On the whole, I was glad to go when the time came-to our sunny, airy, far-too-public villa with the high ceilings and the electric bells, which will never suit me as well. We had grown too dilapidated to keep tidy, too picturesque for health.

After our time-and soon after-an opportune legacy to the parish was devoted to the work of restoration, and enabled the restorers to make what they called a good job of it. I saw the place the other day, and it is now almost like a common house. The ivy is all cleared away; so are some of the trees which, while I knew they were too many, I could not bear to have touched; the verandahs are sound and painted, the rooms light. My ?sthetic soul grieved over some details of the change, but my hygienic conscience admitted that the whole change was a good one.

Many things were gone from the garden, which in our time had sheltered us from every prying eye. The thinning of the trees and bushes had left spaces bare but for pine-needles and cones, and exposed the house to the gaze of the passer-by. Great screens of laurel used to stand this way and that, and some had been taken down; a magnificent lemon-tree had disappeared-but I think that was our fault. We sunk a kerosene tin, with small holes in the bottom, in the earth beside it, and filled the cavity with water whenever we thought of it, so that moisture was always percolating to the roots; and the result of this treatment was such splendid growth that the tree doubled and trebled its size in two or three seasons. The fruit was enormous and weighed it down. I used to break off a branch bearing a cluster of half a dozen or more, and by the time I had carried it to a friend in the town my arm would feel as if I had been carrying a pail of milk; and I was ready to teach anybody the true art or lemon-growing. But after a few splendid years the tree suddenly got tired: I suppose it had worked itself out; and then it dwindled steadily, despite our care, and we left it ragged and sick. It must have died of that illness. Another lemon-tree, treated in the same way, lives still, in a sticky, threadbare fashion, but this bears a small, half-sweet fruit, whereas its neighbour was Lisbon of the finest quality. Evidently lemons do not object to that vigorous climate, where it snows in winter, for our doctor up there, whose recreation is fruit-farming, has a fine grove of young trees, the produce of which has already gained top prices in the market; but oranges will not climb so high. Within a few miles, however-at W--, near Home No. 1-they grow to perfection.

The two things in the parsonage garden which make it unique are there still-the avenue and the slabbed pathways. The avenue, from the front door to the front gate, is of some kind of pine that runs up in a straight mast to a great height and then branches like an umbrella; here it makes a roof to the descending aisle. And the aisle is paved with shallow steps of the silvery granite which is the very substance of the hills. No one step matches another; all are rough-hewn and of about the same width, but they are long or short, thick or thin, just as it happens, dropping down and down in a manner as informal as the architecture of Nature herself; and the same arrangement obtains where it has been necessary to make footholds round steep corners. Those original alley-and-stairways were an inspiration of the designer, who probably had no design but to face his tracks with something that the rain would not wash away; but how often has the amiable Philistine urged us to get the vestry to "make proper paths!" They will do it some day, and then I hope no reader of these pages, touring in the locality, will look for Home No. 7 in the expectation of finding it. But, all the same, that garden was a trap to the stranger on a dark night.

I remember on one occasion being awakened from my first sleep-my hours are early at both ends of the day-by terrifying bumpings and crashes amongst the thick bushes and down the treacherous paths. G. was at a meeting in the town; maid and lady-help had both followed the children to bed; it was nine o'clock or thereabouts, when any other house would have been still alive. My fears of burglars or stray cattle were dispelled by the voices of lost and floundering men calling to each other. Supposing the servant about, I left her to attend to them, but it was a long time before they brought up at the dining-room verandah. There she argued with them at length, and presently tapped at my door.

"It's two gentlemen from Melbourne, ma'am." Like Maria, she was most particular in giving me that title so rare in this country.

"Didn't you tell them Mr C. was out?" I called.

"I did, ma'am. And they want to see you."

"Didn't you tell them I had gone to bed?"

"I did, ma'am. But-"

"Well, go and tell them again that I have gone to bed." The idea of that statement, once made, not being sufficient! I was indignant.

She went, and talked to them again; she returned with a pair of visiting-cards, and protested, as she lit my candle, that the gentlemen would not go. I read the names, and knew them, although the owners were strangers to me. One was a University Professor. (N.B.-Since this was written he has joined the majority, one of the greatest losses to the country, outside the University as well as in, that it has sustained for many a day.) I decided to get up.

"Put the lamps in the drawing-room, and tell them I will be there in a minute." And I whisked up my hair, tossed on a tea-gown, and went forth to receive them. "We were determined to have you out," said the Professor to me years afterwards, and dwelt upon the extraordinary difficulties that he and his friend had had to overcome to compass that end. Glad enough was I, and still am, that they succeeded. No talk that I ever had is more refreshing to remember than that which I enjoyed until past midnight-especially after G. came back from his meeting to divide us into pairs. There are books and ideas that can never suggest themselves without bringing it all to mind. The garden is haunted by the figures of those groping and resolute men.

There, too, walks the ghost of that dear vice-regal lady whom we all remember with such love. I see her slowly mount the rugged path under the pines, glancing from side to side upon the half-wild growth with pleasure in her artistic eye; coming for that quiet talk which municipal dignity would have baulked us of, and the memory of which is precious now that I am never likely to have another. I read somewhere not long ago, in gossip of old Holland House and the charming society that once gathered there-by one who was of it-that she was lovely as a budding girl, and remarkable for her air of high distinction; immediately I thought of her as she looked that day, coming towards me under the trees. Like the rest of us, she is growing old now, but she will always have that beauty and that air, the blend of a gentle nature with gentle blood.

An account of this visit from our then Governor's wife may be worth giving, if only to illustrate municipal dignity-Government authority-as it is conceived of in these parts.

She had honoured me with a private friendship-unsought by me-for some time when, in the ordinary routine of state functions, arrangements were made for the Governor to visit our town, she accompanying him. It was an exceptional compliment, conferred for the first time, and the excitement throughout the district was intense.

When the time approached she wrote to ask me to meet her on her arrival, and I was du

ly at the station when the decorated train arrived, but far, far away on the edge of the crowd, which built a solid rampart between us-official representatives of the town, their families, and the processions they had organised to receive and escort the vice-regal party-and by no means could I get nearer. In normal times I had every reason to feel myself a respected member of the community, but I was now to be taught my place municipally as it were. My representations were simply not listened to; I am sure they were not believed. That vice-royalty could harbour a thought outside the official demonstration was inconceivable to them. I could see my friend's tall head turning from side to side as she sought for me over the bowing heads of people presenting bouquets and reading addresses of welcome, but I was not tall enough for her to see me; so I gave up the struggle for that day, and went home and had a bath-it was ragingly hot-intending to send her a note of explanation later. As I was putting myself into an old, cool gown, word was brought to me that she was coming up the garden. I went out to her as I was, and she spent an hour or two, of happy memory, with me-the only resting time she had throughout her visit-leaving me to my customary quiet evening and early bed, while she returned to the hotel to the state banquet and reception that filled the first day's programme.

That of the next day (December 30, 1885, and a burning north wind) was packed with engagements in a fashion that took no account of a woman's strength-and a delicate woman at that. There was first a monster picnic to the show view of the neighbourhood, twelve steep miles up into the hills; it was to start as early as nine or thereabouts, feast sumptuously and make speeches when it got there, and return in time for two more afternoon functions, at two separate public institutions, and a concert in the evening. It was arranged overnight that I should accompany my friend to the picnic, and after she left my house she notified to the proper authorities her wish that I should be allotted to the carriage selected for her. Next day she told me the result. The answer of the town was that it was very sorry, but it could not be done. The order of precedence had to be observed.

I was at the hotel at the appointed hour, and she was already in her seat-she had chosen it, under the circumstances, on the box, between the Governor and the driver-and the body of the vehicle, a large open brake, was packed with municipal ladies, every bit as "good" as I was, of course, but all strangers to her. Behind the vice-regal carriage stood a long line of other brakes, rapidly filling up. I sat down on a bench under the hotel verandah to watch the process and await my turn. My dear lady in the distance made a gesture which signified "Where are you going to be put?" I shook my head to indicate that I had not the least idea. Then the cavalcade started, and soon all the splendid four-in-hands had vanished in a cloud of dust-and I was still sitting under the verandah, I and a friend staying with me, a daughter of that house where I encountered the midnight opossum. It was discovered then that there was still a remnant left behind, and a buggy was brought out, a scratch pair harnessed to it, and we and a few more odds and ends, as it were, cleaned up.

Of course we were hours late at the rendezvous. When we arrived the banquet was in progress, the Governor's wife sitting amid her court, which occupied every chair, and looking almost as difficult to get at as she had been at the railway station. I made no attempt to get at her. My companion and I sat in our own buggy, and a nice man brought us plates of turkey and trifle, and tumblers of champagne, and we enjoyed our lunch and our liberty and the whole proceedings. By-and-by the Governor came to tell me that he expected me to accompany his party back to town the next morning. I had that to look forward to.

On our return from the picnic, and when near the gates of the first institution that was to be inspected, the cavalcade halted and word was passed back to me that my lady in the leading carriage wished to speak to me. I went to her. She was dusty and sunburnt, and very tired. "Go home," she said, "and rest. You can rest-I can't."

I went to Melbourne with her next day-the very hottest day, I think, that I was ever out in. She had been unable to sleep, she said, and was almost prostrated by the weather and her fatigues. In the state carriage we could lie down on blue satin sofas, in the lightest indoor clothes, and a maid in a little ante-room had cool drinks and sponges and such things in readiness. The Governor held a cloth continually soaked in water over an open window against the fierce north wind, to try if by evaporation he could freshen the air; but it remained oven-like for all his efforts.

At last, when we were halting at a wayside station for a train to pass, a minister was sent for from the compartment where he was travelling with the suite, in some kind of official charge of the expedition.

"Do," said his liege lady, "do please go and ask them if they will hose the carriage." She was fainting with the heat, and this seemed to her the best way to get relief-as it would have been. He hurried off, much concerned at her distress, to, as he said, see what he could do. Presently he returned, and said-my own ears heard him-that he was very sorry, but it could not be done. "It would blister the paint."

She was idolised throughout the colony as no Governor's wife ever was before or since, and with good reason; and the people who, as in this case, were supposed to be entertaining her, were neither mean nor selfish, nor intentionally rude. I am sure the idea that they were not treating her with the highest consideration never crossed their minds.

Other friends, departed or no more, are indissolubly one with that old house and the old garden in which it stood. How many phantom faces flit amongst those shades? Every block of stone, every step of the verandah stairs, has a figure or a group. They sit in twilight, in moonlight, musing alone or talking together-the deep, intimate talk of those resting hours. There is a bishop amongst them with his pipe-he, too, now on the other side of the world, but with a green memory here that will not wither yet awhile. And still other friends, that never talked, except in a language that few trouble to learn.

For originally the garden was a "Zoo" on a small scale. The first parson was a rabid naturalist, who experimented with new breeds of birds and collected snakes for the study of their habits and customs. We were warned that one of their habits was to escape frequently, and that we should probably find house and grounds alive with their descendants, but we did not; only two put in an appearance upon the premises in nine years. Two large aviaries remained of the birds' village that once was when we took possession; we kept flower-pots and tools in one, and for a while I had turtledoves in another-not for long, since cages are an abomination to me, however big. Both are cleared away now, with their leafy screens. But the wild birds love the place-or did love it. It was mainly for their sakes that the axe was not laid at the root of any tree while we were there, and they came to it from far and near-far, I should say, since one rarely heard a bird-note, not even that of the once ubiquitous magpie, on the surrounding hills-and set up housekeeping in peace and privacy, and in larger and larger numbers every year.

How soon they know where they are welcome! And it is the same with all dumb things. I am convinced that there is scarcely a creature living which does not prove itself possessed of quite human intelligence as soon as one begins to make a friend of it. They walk under our feet and scatter from our path in fear and trembling; their minds are cramped and starved by their hunted, down-trodden, tragical lives; they are shut up within themselves. But show them a little kindness and understanding and comradeship, and the results are astonishing. I have tried it often enough to know. I have had such things as toads and hedgehogs scrambling after me about garden paths, preferring to burst themselves rather than lose the chance of my company. Some white rats presented to my children were let out of their cage to enjoy themselves in an enemy-proof room, and had not been thus indulged for a week before their endearments became overpowering. A widowed dove was my companion for several years, and fell sick and refused food if parted from me, which was only when I went out of the house; and then it would follow if not guarded carefully, and was killed at last in a tangle of street traffic through which it was hunting me. In this very house at B-- I was silly enough to make friends with a mouse that had a hole in the hearth by which I used to sit alone at work. All I did was to put a crumb or a spoonful of milk between me and it. Soon it took to sitting in its porch-we could just see its little snout twiddling-to watch until the family were all gone from the room, and to running out to me fearlessly the instant the door was closed behind them.

This was in the dining-room. Opposite its glass doors, across the verandah and a path, there was an arrangement of granite blocks to shore up the ground where the hill had been cut away to make a level for the house, and in the interstices of this rough wall more mice lived. We were quite unaware of the fact until I had begun petting the hearth-dweller, when they suddenly popped out from their burrows as bold as brass. I could not resist giving them a crumb or two, and their subsequent behaviour convinced me that their indoor neighbour had communicated to them the fact that there was a friend at court. As I sat at meals, in broad daylight and sunshine, the French window open between us, I could see them sitting on their thresholds, staring across the gap with all their eyes. "You will rue this," said the person in authority, and I soon did. We became all at once inundated with mice. Alas for the eternal tragedy of life! A cat was introduced. One morning I was writing at the dining-table, with my back to the hearth, when a tremendous clatter of fire-irons made me jump out of my chair. I flew after that young tigress, and I got her prey from her, but too late. My pet died in my hand-and I am never going to take any notice of a mouse again.

Of all my dumb companions here-those humble fellow-creatures of ours, the possibilities in the way of social intercourse with whom (I will not say "which") are amongst the happy surprises reserved for an enlightened future-Toby was the bosom friend.

Toby, although he was only a dog, shall have a chapter to himself. The reader who is not a dog-lover, being hereby forewarned, can skip it.

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