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   Chapter 18 XVIIIToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 30827

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


THE END OF BUSH LIFE

In 1893 our long country life came to an end. For years we had been hankering after a Melbourne parish, and at times, I must confess, had done a little canvassing for the vote and interest of the influential, under the well-founded impression that Providence helps those who help themselves; but it is very hard, when once "out of it," as the country-clergy describe their case, to get in, and we had come to consider our chances of metropolitan preferment as about equal to that of the camel which would pass through a needle's eye. Then suddenly it came to us, unsought.

There are three ways of reaching the goal, in our diocese. To be elected by the Board of Nominators is the regular way. When a parish falls vacant the Board meets to fill it from a prepared list of eligible candidates. The diocesan nominators have probably agreed upon their man; the equal number of parochial nominators have almost certainly done the same; the Bishop, acting as chairman, has the casting vote. There is generally a friendly discussion, in which one side or the other may allow itself to be over-ruled, but the result may be fairly calculated upon when the parish representatives are united and resolute, and not too unreasonable in their choice. Since they pay the piper, they naturally demand to call the tune, and considerations of justice no less than of peace make it inadvisable to force an unwelcome instrumentalist upon them. What the parishes want is the man they know-the man on the spot, that is-and let him be as young and smart as possible. Seniority and long service have no part in the merits of the case, so far as they are concerned. The old Bush parson who, in his favourite phrase, has borne the burden and heat of the day, and sees himself deprived of what he regards as his legitimate reward, is not the man for them; for the efficiency of a church in this country is in the last resort a matter of money, which is also-it cannot be denied, nor can it be helped-the matter of first concern to its official guardians. A good man is desirable, of course, but not if he is too old and out of date to draw the large and lively congregation necessary to the maintenance of a satisfactory income. This is the squalid way in which the voluntary system works, and I often wish the advocates of Disestablishment at home could live under it for a few years. On the other hand I know the defects of the arrangement I was brought up to. I remember a half-witted rector of my child's days, occupant of a family living, who used to run belated to the reading-desk dragging on his surplice over his hunting pinks and tops, or leave us to wait for him in vain while he carried his Saturday diversions too far afield to get home for Sunday; and another who left all to a poor curate while he lived on the income of his fat living in foreign parts; and still another-the son of a bishop, who had bestowed the plums of the see upon him ere he was grown up-whose long retinue of liveried servants was an object of interest to me at church, and who, one of the last of the big pluralists, still alive in old age when I left England, was too high above his parishioners to be approached except through the humble curate. There are faults in both systems-in all. And as for the one I am speaking of, which leaves the old worker unpaid, and gives the prize to the beginner who has not earned it, I for my part do not see that any great wrong is done. That the world is for the young is Nature's own decree; if we, who are no longer of that fortunate company, cannot see it, we ought. We too have been young, we should remember, and have had our favoured day-that day when we had as good a chance of getting the better of our betters (if they were our betters) as those who supersede us now. But what I started to say was that the regular path of promotion to a Melbourne parish is to be elected by the Board of Nominators, and that that path was virtually closed to us-not because we were old, for we were not, but because we were so distant and little known.

The second way is to be appointed directly by the Bishop. But, with few exceptions, the Bishop can choose for himself only in the case of parishes too small to have their own nominators, or not bothering to have them, or not qualified to have them because their churches are still in debt. A church must not only be built, but paid for, before it can be consecrated, the act of consecration carrying with it full parochial rights. These lame ducks of parishes did not come into our account.

The third way is by exchange. This was our way.

G., being in town, fell in with the incumbent of the place which is now our home. He had occupied it for many years, without thought of leaving it; but his wife was convalescing from severe illness, and the doctor had advised that she be taken from the sea to a bracing inland climate. The climate we had to offer seemed the very thing-and I may say here that it proved so, even beyond expectations-and the suggestion of an exchange, coming in the nick of time as it did, was hailed as a special interposition of Providence. That was exactly what we thought it.

About a week after G.'s return, Canon S. came up to B-- to investigate. It rained hard, and he was a little dashed at first; he called the picturesque little house a "shanty," though not in our hearing. But when the weather cleared he brightened with it, and I think I may say that he never had another regret in connection with the place. The vestry was consulted, and the three parish nominators gave consent. A few days later the Bishop gave his. Then G. went to town, to be "passed," in his turn, by the vestry of the other parish, and a night or two afterwards, as I was going to bed, the telegraph boy brought me a message from him:-"All satisfactorily settled."

The invalid came up, and we established her, with a daughter, in the nicest lodgings we could find. She was a dreadful wreck, apparently past being mended by any climate, but the next time I saw her she beat all the records of persons of sixty-five for joyous energy and youthfulness. "I wake up in the morning," she said to me, "and wonder what it is that makes me feel so happy." It was the same with her husband, several years her senior. "I can walk twelve hilly miles, and take a service, and walk back again," he bragged, his figure and step and fine-featured old face alert and alive. "I am twenty years younger than when I came."

Certainly B-- deserves to be one of the sanatoriums of the world, and it is the fact that English doctors, who knew its virtues, sent several hopeless invalids to us, either to make miraculous recoveries or to prolong for years in tolerable comfort some life not worth a month's purchase at home. One of the latter cases I lovingly recall to mind-that of a gifted young fellow who, with mother and sisters, had rooms in our chief hotel year after year, although he came to us in apparently the last stage of consumption. He was a dear friend of mine, and a loss to the stock of intellect and genius in the world. "Don't you think I'd better stop this?" he once said to me as we were taking a Bush walk. "I am keeping my mother too long from her home and the rest of her family, and doing nothing to compensate her for what I cost." He meant that he had only to cease breathing that life-giving air to bring on the inevitable end, and that the sooner it came the better for those who were exiled for his sake. We discussed the matter quite fully, and in the quietest way, and I persuaded him that it was better to go on, on their account and his own, at least until the effort became too painful. He died amongst us at last, but none of them regretted those saved years which he unquestionably owed to the B-- climate. A consumptive friend of his came out to try the cure, and became so well that he thought himself proof against further danger, and went home again-to die. Another consumptive, whom winters on the Riviera and in the Engadine had failed to benefit, lived in B-- for, I think, five years, and from the day he came gained much ground and never lost any; he was an active townsman, hard put to it to find enough to do, and seemed to enjoy life as much as any of us. Unfortunately he had a delicate wife, a sufferer from acute asthma, for which a milder climate was required. The rare and vigorous climate of our hills was pronounced to be as bad for her as it was good for him. She grew worse and worse, and so they struck camp and went down to live by the sea-and there he died. Of course he might have died if he had stayed in B--. On the other hand, he might have been alive now.

But the best proof I can give of the healthiness of those parts is the case of three brothers, the elder of whom entertained me on my first visit into the remoter wilds of our first parish. Originally they were four brothers, sons of a highly-placed English clergyman, all four smitten with consumption, out in Australia to save their lives, if possible. One was too far gone and died before he could get a start; another, being at the time in apparently sound health, was killed in a buggy accident many years later; the remaining two are still enjoying life, as hale as the average old man of their age, and indeed more than that. The elder, on that memorable drive to his home amongst the Murray ranges, told me he had left England with but one lung. "I used to feel it when digging or climbing hills," said he, "but now it troubles me very little"-and that was thirty years ago. He had already been some time in the country.

They had good blood in their veins, but little or no money in their pockets, and they had to make their own way by the hardest of hard work-the sort of work that was done in those days, when men were men. Indeed, the history of their career is the most instructive thing that I can put into this casual chronicle, and I am glad I thought of it before too late.

The three brothers took up land, wild, uncleared land, together; each had his own piece, but neighboured the other two. With their own hands they felled trees and made fences, and built their huts and yards, dug and ploughed and milked and all the rest of it-these consumptive lads!-which seems to show that not only the right air, but strong exercise in it, is necessary for the complaint. They spent nothing in labour and next to nothing on food. They raised their own meat and vegetables, made their own candles-after awhile sold them as well-and their own soap; used wild honey for sugar, and indeed carried frugality to the finest point in every direction. As soon as they could marry they chose useful wives, who did not want servants, but would nurse the baby with one hand and scrub and wash and make butter with the other. When I paid the visit I speak of I found the children trotting about bare-footed, in linsey-woolsey (I forget how to spell that word) overalls, little sacks in shape, with two holes to put the legs through, in which they could make mud pies without spoiling anything. At dinner, after the mutton, there was a lovely apple pudding, as I thought; I remember my greedy chagrin at finding it was filled with quinces (so soon after the W-- quinces), to be eaten with wild honey instead of sugar. The jams were also made with wild honey, and the cakes and other sweets.

This was the way to get on in the world, and the fortunes of this household rose to the level of its deserts. Soon after I had made his acquaintance, the house-father took a trip home, leaving his admirable wife to keep things going in his absence. He came back with three young Jackaroos, sons of the good families associated with his own, enterprising lads with money and a desire for the life he had made successful; they paid him high premiums for instruction, and he set them on his farm work-which was far better, from his point of view, than paying professional labourers to do it. One of them felt aggrieved at being kept at milking and fencing within such narrow bounds, and ran away and was never heard of more-by me; the other two, and more who followed them, bought stations and took root in the country, which they have made their own.

So this plan of the relays of paying instead of paid labourers increased the resources of our friend, and he started upon fresh enterprises. He parted with his much-improved holding, settled his family in a town where the growing children could go as day scholars to one of the best public schools, and started for "out back" in Queensland. Land speculation here was a big thing, with big money hanging to it, in those days; and he was the right man for the golden chance he saw. He took up country, no longer by acres but by miles, did something to it to give it a claim to be a civilised "property," sold it, and went back further to repeat the process.

In a short time he was a very wealthy man. I believe the Boom and its consequences gave him a bad set-back, but he could afford it. His family, in a fine town house, have lived the life of the rich for many years. The other surviving brother was of a slower temperament. He still sits, as Dik would say, upon the same land that he first squatted on-probably in the same house (with additions to it). He dairy-farms, as so many of his neighbours now do, getting up with his sons in the middle of the night to milk and to drive the load of cans to the Butter Factory near by. He still works hard, and he has not made his fortune. A quiet, staunch, useful man in shire and church and all the relations of life, and "as good as they make 'em." Both are good, and their country would be the better of a few more of the same sort.

And to think that it was all due to the accident of climate! For one may be almost sure it was.

Walk some fresh spring or autumn morning up those hills, as I used to do-having always loved to kill two birds with one stone, and three birds if possible, I would at those seasons take my work there, so as to combine business with pleasure and with profit to my health-and you will feel that you are literally drinking the elixir of life. A week ago I went to call on an old friend come back from England, after some years' residence there-her husband had been one of those very Jackaroos of whom I have just been speaking-and she told me she had been for a trip up to B--, where she had once lived, while we were there. "I had forgotten," she said, "what that air was. It was a new revelation to me. There certainly can be nothing like it in the world"-and she had been travelling extensively. Yes, although I was ill there, and felt that nothing but the sea would cure me, I go back now at intervals, when the sea has temporarily failed in its effects, and I get the same surprise that she did, every time. I step out upon the little platform in the clear, cold night, at the end of my long journey from the muggy city, and that stuff that I draw into my expanding lungs makes a new creature of me in three breaths.

Well, those mornings in the hills ... let me try to describe one of them-in April, let us say.

It begins with a nipping-cold bath and a roaring fire to breakfast by. But while we pile the logs on the hearth we also set wide the two door-windows to the sun. The meal and little housekeepings disposed of, I look out over the tree-fern on the rockery to the s

ky which I can see above the bank of new-blown chrysanthemums that line the upper fence-look at the cat basking full-length on the threshold-and fetch my big hat. Half an hour later I am in another world.

It is ten o'clock, and the sun has been shining with all its might since eight, yet the dew is thick on the steep and rugged track and on the little strips of lawn between the rocks; my stout boots, made on purpose for this rough work, and the hems of my petticoats are drenched. No delicate wild flowers in these verdant spaces now. The grass tufts are sprinkled with dead leaves and wisps of bark with the colour bleached out of them. When those brittle shavings were freshly peeled their outsides were a rich chocolate tint and the insides a tender shade of lilac. They come from a large-leaved kind of gum-tree, and I have often carried bits home and laid them on my writing-table, merely to look at the colour, as if they were flowers; but they fade like flowers too.

11 A.M.-I sit with pencil and paper on my knee. The sun has long since dried my skirts and is now burning my boots. I bask in the warmth and the matchless air, like the cat on the doorstep, and (having successfully dodged my dog) in the utmost solitude that can be imagined. Though the hidden town behind me is so near, I have only once, in scores of mornings, met a human being here-a local naturalist with a butterfly-net. Not even a bridle-track threads the thousand hills of which the one I sit on is as a single wave in a heaving sea-a sea flowing to the horizon. The distant ranges and the sky are of hues that neither language nor pigment could give an idea of. The ranges are covered with trees, the rounded, feathery tops only showing, with the effect of plush or the bloom of downy fruit; their turquoise tint has a shade of indigo in it, deepening in the folds to an intenser colour. The sky is living blue light, without an earthly stain.

Nearer-more within the limits of this world-wooded and rocky slopes, darkly green against those heavenly blues, fold over unseen valleys at my feet; nearer still, the gum saplings, with the sun shining through their leaves, the sharply-contrasting spears of Murray pine, the tossed heaps of granite rocks, mossed, lichened, fern-fringed in shady crevices, the wattle tree that makes a frame for the beautiful whole. It will be a golden frame later on; to-day its blossoms are represented by crinkled buds of the size of a pin's head. Spiders' webs shine between twigs and the green blades under them. The light flashes up and down the little threads continually; they are never still, though there is hardly a stir of air.

But never was solitude less lonely. There is only too much companionship for the purpose I have in view. The leaves talk, although there is hardly a stir of air-the little tongues glitter at the edges as they swing and turn; and another voice accompanies them, one that never ceases and cannot be ignored. It belongs to a waterfall in a hidden gorge near by. The stream, yellower than any Tiber with the washings of gold mines, tumbles several hundreds of feet over a jagged staircase of rock to the valley beneath, and makes a great commotion at that place; here it is merely a purring, crooning whisper all the time. Birds are scarce, but every now and then a handful of minute brown things, with a delicate little unobtrusive twitter, scatter themselves around me. A crow comes and sits as near as he dare, to complain of my intrusion; perhaps he does not mean to complain, but his comment upon my presence seems a perfect wail of woe. As for the ground-dwellers-lizards, spiders, ants-they are constant company, and the most distracting of all with their complicated man?uvres, which are full of cultivated intelligence when you come to look into them, There was a time when the presence and curiosity of so many little active creatures seemed a drawback to the otherwise perfect charm of the place, but now I do not mind them any more than they mind me. The trouble is that I cannot mind them less. More and more I neglect my own business to watch them at theirs, until I have to recognise that this study would have to be given up, even if winter were not near.

Winter ... that word reminds me of other scenes. There is an entry in my journal against June 6th, 1887:-"Five hours' heavy snow. Five inches on the ground." And another for the same month two years later:-"Woke up to find everything white with snow. Four inches officially reported. Broke trees and bushes." Our distant ranges used to wear white caps for weeks together, and white mantles on occasion, but oh, the joy of shovelling snow in one's own garden! It rarely stayed long enough to be shovelled, but once in a way it did, and the first of the occasions cited is unforgetable, because it was the first.

All the year round we sleep with windows open; here the upper sash was pulled down level with the lower, and stayed so night and day; and that window was at the foot of the bed. In wakeful hours I could watch the stars shining through the branches of the trees, and trace the shadow-patterns of the moon when it was her night out. Accustomed to rise early, I rarely fail to note the first glimmer of the dawn, and the first shaft of sunlight was levelled straight at my eyes, as by a marksman ambushed behind the looking-glass. As the sun rose I used to lie with eyes half shut to see the dazzle of rainbow colours that then filled them-as likewise to see, involuntarily, how the room was swept and dusted. There was a beautiful rosy-blossomed tree framed by that open square-I forget its right name, the "Tree of Heaven" was that given it by the vulgar tongue (I think it belongs to Queensland)-and it was my almanac the year round. Every morning a little bud grew bigger, a frond uncurled a little more; as the days passed the foliage spread and thickened, the leaves yellowed, browned, and fluttered away. And then the rain would drive in and make a mess on the dressing-table. Or a wind blew down upon the bed, causing regrets for the eider-down imprudently discarded overnight when we were full of the warmth of the drawing-room fire. Or-wonderful and soul-stirring experience-snow.

On that morning of June 6th, 1887, I felt the peculiar snow-cold, without knowing what it was, when I got out of bed to take in my early cup of tea. I had finished it, and was enjoying a few peaceful minutes before going to the bathroom, gazing upon the bare tree-twigs and their background of leaden sky, when suddenly I perceived the picture speckled with fine white particles, and understood that it was snowing. In the twinkling of an eye I was into dressing-gown and slippers, calling up the house to look at the sight. The governess was an Englishwoman, who had not seen snow since leaving her Kentish village, and never expected to see it in Australia. I went to her room first, colliding with a maid who was rushing thither on the same errand; then to the nursery, where I found three little night-gowned figures already at the window, flattening three little noses against the glass. The children were chattering and shouting with delight. The fine white particles had become substantial flakes by this time, and were dusting the roofs and bushes to an extent that promised snowballs presently; and the two small boys were wild at the prospect of fights in the street on their way to school. Australian boys of British parentage take as naturally to snowballing as to plum-pudding; you would think, to see them at it, that it was their regular winter amusement. The bath tap flowed unheeded, until the water overflowed on to the floor; the fowls invaded the sacred precincts of a beautifully-kept kitchen, and walked about there unmolested; the cat got on the table and drank the milk. It was washing-day, but no one thought of that. The snowstorm was the one absorbing interest to everybody, except the father of the family, who likes his bed and is not in the habit of exciting himself.

When the postman came it had been snowing-good solid snow-for more than an hour, and as he tramped up the twelve white steps to the front door his feet sank an inch and a half into the soft carpet that covered them. Shrubs and trees, creepers and bushes were thick with snow. Masses of the delicate foliage of the marguerite daisy and some young pepper trees sent us into raptures with their beauty, for there was no wind to shake them. So did some old fences smothered in green creepers, the long sprays and trails of which were as neatly covered as with hoar-frost. Each arching blade of pampas-grass bore heaped-up ridges of snow, and the feathery heads looked as if they had been dipped into cake-icing, as if nothing that was not sticky could have adhered so thickly to such unsubstantial things. Every laurel leaf held a sausage-roll of snow. The corrugated iron roofs were dazzlingly white and smooth-two or three inches of snow in every groove. The back-yard and orchard were a white plain, the latter diversified with weeds and suckers that never looked so beautiful before, the naked fruit-trees being loaded with the white powder on every branch and twig. Beyond the outer fence on one side there was a mass of furze bushes, covering a piece of waste land; all this was white, too, stretching away to the grey sky.

It was amusing to see the consternation of the fowls when they were let out. They had never seen snow before, and did not know what to make of it. They tried to walk through it, and they tried to eat it; they flew from point to point and back again, craning their necks from side to side, in search of the earth that had disappeared. They took refuge in the kitchen under dressers and tables, and, when driven thence, under the fowl-house walls, where they stood all day, each on a single leg, with feathers puffed up, the picture of patient misery. The cat had left her kittens in an outhouse before the snow began, and afterwards proposed to return to them. She daintily sounded the snow with her fore-paw, mewed piteously, and in the end went back to the kitchen and left the kittens to their fate. But she was, for a dumb animal, a singularly bad mother. The first time she had kittens she overlaid and suffocated them, and the second batch she carried from a warm bed in the middle of the night, and in a tempest of rain, while they were yet blind and helpless, and deposited them beside an overflowing water-tank, so that when they were found they were so drowned and chilled that it took a whole day's nursing to bring them round.

This was the state of things at half-past eight. It snowed, without stopping for a minute, until twelve, when the drift was six inches in some places, and in others a foot. All the heads of pampas-grass were broken off, borne down with the weight; and stout myrtle and box bushes, which had taken the snow solidly, were trailing to the ground with their stems splitting. We had one tree-fern that rose from the centre of a rockery, and spread itself over it like a handsome umbrella. It stood in front of the dining-room windows, and was an object of constant interest to the family, which always knew when it started a new frond and how it was getting on generally. At twelve o'clock ferntree and rockery were one smooth white mound-the snow covered the whole thing completely; not so much as a green tip the size of a pin's head stuck out anywhere. Even the native gums had managed to catch and accumulate the soft flakes, so that they looked as if full of white blossoms; wattles were bent and loaded like the pepper-trees, while the great pines would not have disgraced a Canadian winter forest. Such a sight had not been seen in that town since it was planted in the mountains in the old gold days. We neglected all our work to gaze upon it. And then a little wind began to blow through the white stillness, and there were signs that the snow was going to turn to rain. Huge masses fell from roof eaves and boughs, falling with a soft but heavy thud upon the garden beds and paths, which had been so smooth and spotless. "Pure as untrodden snow"-that is a good phrase. How dazzlingly pure it is! I know it is silly to say these things to an English reader, but let him be an exile for seventeen years, as I had been, and see how a snow-storm will strike him then. It brought to my home-sick heart memories of the old days of youth, before one realised that there was such a place as Australia in the world; visions of flat fen marshes, all black, white, and grey, like a photograph-of frozen meres fringed with pollard willows, and dry reed-beds rattling in the wind-of old snowballings, old skatings, old walks with old sweethearts on the ringing roads, old talks by the winter firesides ... things unspeakable.

By half-past twelve the rain had come, the snow was going. It was already slushy about the doors, semi-transparent under eaves and branches. More and bigger lumps of it slid and fell, revealing the broken limbs of the trees that had seemed so strong, but were not strong enough for the weight they had had to bear. The boys had come home with rosy faces and exulting mien, their collars limp as rags, their boots and stockings saturated, their coats plastered with melting snow. They had had as good a snowballing as England could have given them-one they will not forget as long as they live.

But the common winter day up there was, in fine weather, a thing beyond words. The nipping and eager temperature, the iced pools and frosted grass in the shadows, the dazzling sun in the open, the diamond glitter and transparency of the air through which one viewed the sapphire-blue ranges miles away, the ringing granite roads, that knew neither mud nor dust, the exhilaration, the invigoration, the pure joy of life....

And I left this sweet place hard-heartedly, without a pang. So did G. His dignity of Rural Dean was laid aside with no more regret than I felt for the old frocks that I gave away because they were not worth packing. We were Bush folks no more. He was going to be "town clergy," and no unimportant member of that much-envied band; and I was going to live with books and other stirring things-the "larger life," which somehow never proves quite deserving of its name. And we were going nearer to England than we had yet been. The day after I knew "all satisfactorily settled," I began sorting, clearing up, dismantling-a job I love only a few degrees less than the rebuilding of a new home out of chaos. "The nuisance of moving!" is a lamentation one hears often from those who have to do it; nobody ever heard it from me. It puzzles me how any housewife, interested in having her things nice, can fail to enjoy such an opportunity for putting new ideas in practice. I have thoroughly enjoyed it eight times, and should like nothing better than to move again to-morrow, provided it were to the right place-the place that I am so long getting to that I almost despair of seeing it again.

We were moving now too far to take all the furniture with us; in bulk it was not valuable enough to be worth the heavy railway charges. So I packed the special treasures and all else that I could, and, leaving G. to struggle with the sale and the final farewells, preceded him to Melbourne, that I might lay the foundations of the new home before he came to it.

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