Kanga Creek, by Havelock Ellis

Part ii

THE WOMEN went about their work. The old man still kept up the conversation. During the evening he told the young schoolmaster briefly that he could have no room there, every room was occupied; tonight his wife would make a bed on the settle and tomorrow he could go and look about the valley. Soon after nine they went outside and strolled around the little farmhouse. When they came in white sheets had been neatly laid on the narrow wooden settle, and the schoolmaster was left alone. He partly understood and at last fell asleep.

Early next morning he got up and walked about outside. Kanga Creek lay among the spurs branching out from the central range. Beyond Carroll’s farm the valley, with the little creek threading a path along its centre, seemed to run up into a gully against the side of Mount Bambaroo which stood at the head far away, with its dense mysterious cedar forests. There were hills on every side except where the valley opened out to the south.

After breakfast the young schoolmaster made his way to the other two homesteads, at one or other of which he hoped to find lodging. The three little farms that occupied the valley formed the three angles of an isosceles triangle; Carroll’s was the apex; the little schoolhouse came nearly in the middle; from apex to base was about two miles. The two farms forming the base he was now nearing belonged to two brothers, Thomas and Robert Quick. Old Quick had come out from England with Carroll long years ago and settled in the valley to till the soil, breed a few cattle and sheep, and beget many sons and daughters who had overflowed into neighboring valleys. Now he was dead, and a little wooden cross and a great heap of stones marked his lonely hillside grave. Thomas Quick, who had been out ring-barking on the hillside since early morning, had returned for breakfast. He received the schoolmaster shyly and respectfully, and he spoke slowly and with difficulty, as one who was seldom called upon to express himself in words. While his wife stood in the background smiling out of her large pleasant brown eyes, he tried to explain that they had no empty rooms. Then the young schoolmaster went across to Robert Quick’s farm; he came forward still more shily than his brother, and his hands nervously clutched and worked round the verandah post as he stammered an answer to the teacher’s few questions and remarks. From round the corner a little boy with merry black eyes peeped at the new schoolmaster.

The young schoolmaster walked slowly back to the schoolhouse. He went through the ill-made gate and stood on the verandah; he looked at the place more carefully than at first. It was built of great rough-hewn slabs, some of which were loose and could be moved with slight effort. Inside it had once been papered over, but the paper had mostly fallen away, and here and there were great chinks between the slabs. The place was divided into four compartments, for the two at the back could scarcely be called rooms though one contained some shelves and a box that held the schoolbooks and registers. The two rooms each opened on to the little verandah. The schoolroom contained a table, and such desks and forms as were necessary for twelve or eighteen children; here was the fireplace; it was clear the room had served also as his predecessor’s kitchen. The other had been his bedroom; it contained two pieces of furniture only, a four-legged stool and, for a bedstead, eight pieces of wood put together so as to sling a couple of flour sacks, forming a kind of hammock; there were also two sacks on the floor. After he had noticed these things and had seen also the extent of the property he had bought of Gray — an axe, a bucket, a broom, a saucepan, a frying-pan, a plate, a cup, a knife, a fork and two spoons — he sat down at the table with his head on his hands gazing vacantly at the opposite wall. He sat so still that at last three lean mice appeared on the floor and hopped cautiously about. Then he got up and went out. He walked slowly across the stony creek down by the grim shea-oaks, and along the narrow track, past a boulder of red lichen-covered sandstone, that led to Carroll’s farm. The little man saw him at the gate of the paddock, and came forward with his leisurely but business-like walk, and the little clay pipe thrust carelessly in the corner of his mouth. After a few remarks he said suddenly, with an outburst of decision: “I can’t have you staying here any longer; you must clear out. I have got a sick daughter in there and my wife has to go about of nights. Me and my son Jim built yon schoolhouse and there you must bide.” Then he closed his mouth and pressed his thin lips together with an air of determination, holding the little clay pipe in his hand. The young schoolmaster looked for a second at his scrubby grey chin and then said quietly: “Very well.” Soon he had taken up the small black bag and was going, at first slowly, then very swiftly, along the little track past the red sandstone boulder towards the schoolhouse. He had been about to tell his resolve to live at the schoolhouse and he instinctively resented the little man’s petulant outburst. It seemed like the climax to the series of petty miseries that had been descending upon him; he felt tired of this new strange life that he could not retreat from, even before it had begun. He walked still faster, and, as he went down by the gaunt black shea-oaks and stumbled over the smooth grey stones in the creek bed, his eyes were pricking and stinging as though they would burst. He thought it would be sweet to be a child to lie down and cry.

While he was unpacking the black bag to see what it contained besides books, and making preparations for the night, he heard a gentle tap at the door. A little girl, with large brown motherly-looking eyes, delivered a neat message and handed him several dishes, round which a great striped blue and white handkerchief was knotted. They contained some cooked mutton and a peach pie. This little attention was pleasant to the schoolmaster, and by and by, after he had eaten a slice of the pie, and it began to grow dark, he lay down very cautiously on Gray’s bedstead. It was not so uncomfortable as it looked, but he could get no sleep. He was oppressed by a dreary and profound loneliness; all his senses were abnormally awake; the bare and unaccustomed walls seemed to press fiercely towards him through the gloom. At intervals he heard the curlew’s melancholy monotonous cry; a great moth sailed in through the open space over the door and flung itself noisily against the walls; he watched occasional stars pass slowly over some chink in the shingled roof; he was startled by a rapid and excited clambering of feet in the schoolroom chimney and for a few minutes some animal seemed to be dashing about the next room with almost supernatural energy; then after more clambering, there was silence. These new and unexpected phenomena kept his senses in a state of tension. He began to feel cool, too; it was summer, but Kanga Creek was in the hills. And once, as he tossed restlessly over, Gray’s hammock came to the floor. Here he lay, and as the pale dawn light slowly filled the room there came to him a soothing sense of rest. After that he went outside in trousers and shirt and stood on the verandah and felt the sweet warm silent sunlight that flooded all the land; then into the schoolroom where everything looked the same as the day before except that his silk hat was rough and there was fluff in it as if some small marsupial had found a nest there.

It was Sunday, and he occupied himself with preparations for the schoolwork that was to begin next day. On Monday two little troops of girls came toddling gravely towards the schoolhouse with their slates and bags of books and lunch, all chattering earnestly together in womanly fashion; and then, a little later, shrieking and shouting, came four or five boys. They all belonged to the three neighboring homesteads; only one pale sickly girl rode over from an adjoining valley, and fastened her pony to the fence. Then the schoolmaster rang the dull-toned old cattle bell that at other times served to keep the schoolroom door open, and the children formed in double line, to ‘show hands’ and march into school. So began the daily routine of the youth’s life in this quiet valley. He had arranged that Thomas Quick should take his spring-cart into Ayr to bring out his box and some provisions that he had carefully made a list of, with a pair of blankets and another bucket from Trogg, the Chinese storekeeper. Mrs. Carroll had undertaken to send what bread he required on her baking days twice a week, if he supplied the flour, and he began to gain a pleasant sense of independence. He made no further additions to his household furniture, perhaps unconsciously arguing that in a life so remote from that he had been used to it was scarcely worth while to attempt any outside reconciliation. Beside, Gray seemed to have lived in some such way; why should not he? He realised, too, for the first time, with a delightful sense of freedom, that mere everyday life could become a far simpler and easier thing than he had ever before imagined. The school routine ran like a connecting thread of commonplace through his life; it gave equability and poise, while it was for the most part too slight to put any strain on the free play of his emotional and intellectual life. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he was at Kanga Creek; Thursday and Friday he walked over the range to the neighboring valley of Blair’s Creek, where six or eight children awaited him in a rough little schoolroom. Next week it was Monday and Tuesday at Kanga Creek; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at Blair’s Creek, and all the hours out of schooltime were his own. The Carrolls or Quicks seldom came near him; he seldom went near them. So it went on.

In that far valley the life of men was as the life of cattle or trees. There was little gladness there and little sorrow. It seemed even, sometimes, as if life stood still, and the old recurrence of birth and death ceased. Man had come to that new strange corner of the earth, and struggled strongly with Nature, as with Atlanta her lovers struggled of old, and now, in seeming, he had conquerred, and they lived together silent and content. Early in the morning the measured music of a distant axe might sometimes float down the hillside; a remote cattle bell tinkled lazily all day long; between school hours the children shouted down among the stones and the shea-oaks in the creek’s bed, or perhaps chanted in their play the old rhyme of Oranges and Lemons — the old rhyme that had been born under the shadow of City churches and had wandered around the world into this valley of great myrtles — and at night the low monotonous cry of the curlew or the sudden scream of an animal in pain echoed along the creek. There was little sound there beside. No flocks of cockatoos rose into the air with shrill discordant yell; it was seldom that any gorgeous family of parrots alighted there, to adjust their noisy quarrels or to play at making love. Only at night sometimes the wind roared in long paroxysms among the hills, as though an ocean had broken loose, and with slowly gathering force swept at last through the gorge and down the valley, and once or twice the manifold crash of an uprooted tree came to startle the young schoolmaster as he sat reading at the little brown table, with two empty packing cases set to guard the candle from the blast.

No strangers ever came to that valley. One evening the schoolmaster heard a knock at the door and found a woman outside who asked the way to the town beyond the hills. “I and another lady’s camped under yonder tree,” she explained, jerking her hand towards a delicate curl of smoke. That was the only stranger he saw. No Chinaman made his way there with the inevitable baskets hanging from his shoulders. No great drays laden with bales of cotton or some small and weighty fragment of mineral wealth ever crawled past there with long team of bullocks. Only, at intervals of three or four months, he heard of the hawker’s visit to the Carrolls or Quicks. On Sundays the elder Carroll girls, with their brothers, would sometimes ride into Ayr early the morning, and the schoolmaster heard their laughter and the clatter of their horses’ hoofs on the stones as they crossed the creek, and again when they came back late in the moonlight. Thomas Quick sat on his verandah and read some old numbers of the “Sunday at Home;” and in the afternoon, when her husband, with his little clay pipe stuck carelessly into the corner of his mouth, had started on a walk round his land, and the children were away, Mrs. Carroll put on a clean dress and sat down on the verandah with an open Prayer Book laid on her knees. No religious service had ever been held in that remote valley; and she read little in the Prayer Book, but this reminiscence was soothing to her. She sat there in her print dress, and her worn anxious face became peaceful; as she looked into the soft bright sky and the dusky green hillside she dreamed of the time, long years ago, when she was with Mrs. Thompson, at what was now Burton’s farm, and the days still farther away when she was a child playing in old Kentish hop fields.

The drought broke up soon after the schoolmaster’s arrival, a swift tawny red flood came foaming down the creek among the shea-oaks to become afterwards a quiet streamlet. Every morning now, as he had arranged with the Carrolls, Bessie — who was one of his pupils, a pale-faced girl with loose-looking lips and a quick-toned voice wavering between impertinence and coquetry — brought him a large bottle of milk, and he began the day by going down to the creek and bringing up two buckets of water and then made himself some porridge. After that, if it was the day for going to Blair’s Creek across the hills, he put a book — Heine or Montaigne or “Wilhelm Meister”— into one pocket of his alpaca jacket, and some biscuits for lunch and a flask of cold tea into the other, and started over the eastern ridge. Sometimes the exhilaration of the fresh air and soft distant sky, the silence and isolation of that strange land, wrought in the young schoolmaster’s veins to an ecstacy of abandonment. Once he flung himself down beneath a gum-tree with excess of joy in the presence of that glad warm earth, as though he would kiss the whole world. Sometimes, as he stood looking into the creek or walking along the hillside, he would sing over to himself some fragment of verse. One day it would be Prinzessin Ilse, and uplifted by the emotional reverberations of the lyric and the intoxication of the strong bright air he would walk on, scarcely feeling how the track here and there became steep and rough, till he shouted aloud:

Es bleiben todt die Todten

Und nur der lebendige lebt!

Then he stood still, hot and out of breath, on the summit of a little stony hill. A few spotted thistles grew on its sides with their glossy white-veined leaves, while a little way off on the stout branch of a dead tree a huge jew-lizard basked stolidly in the sun. As he stood there he was only conscious of the dusky green hills, with the bright mysterious peace as of Beulah resting on them, that stretched, range after range, as far as his eye could reach, that no man had touched, that were still clothed in their infinite robe of sunlight and silence.

At that time it seemed as if he had reached a finely touched moment of life. The simplicity to which he had from taste and indolence reduced the process of living, the strenuous walks across the hills to Blair’s Creek, the brief monotony of schoolhours, left open all the highest springs of enjoyment. His young mind, set free by the books he was reading by day and by night, went tracking in all directions the problems of the universe. How many times the dreary heat of that path across the hills, or the toilsome slime of the descent after rain, was made sweet and easy by this inner life which rendered him unconscious of the things around him. But yet in spite of himself the things around him formed an inseparable part of his mental process, and some indifferent or unnoticed object, some mere bush or hillock, became linked to an idea and for ever recalled it with persistent iteration; and he grew irritated that the free pearls of his thought should be strung and confined by the commonplace line of his path across the hills. Yet, sometimes, under the stress of some peculiarly soft and exhilarating flood of light and air, of some wider pulse of blood, he was called out of such concentrated and abstract moods by more concrete appeals from the large nature around him. Sometimes it was the apple-gums that grew on a slope at one part of his way and were lost in the valley; they soothed him with their large gracious limbs and soft cinnamon bark; and for that day his journey would be swifter. At another time it might be the great slow elastic bounds of a large kangaroo across his path and down into the gully below. On one evening, as he came down the ridge, he caught a sudden glimpse of the red roses half hidden in green leaves that grew up the schoolhouse verandah posts and a quick thrill of delight ran through his body. Often after that as he came down from the crest of the ridge he looked wistfully at the roses, but no pulse of joy was stirred. It is only at rare and subtly poised moments that some vast electric touch of Nature’s finger can overflow brain and body with so sudden a spasm of delight. It was by the development of these new channels of sensational and mental activity that the youth lived gladly without human companionship. He united a strong longing for sympathy with an equally strong distrust of his own power to evoke sympathy.

This morbid self-scepticism, while it was mistaken for proud reserve, had rendered all approach to the human beings whose love he longed for little more than a prolonged agony on the threshold of intimacy. At this point of his life he was lifted above the struggles that ended in self-contempt to a new and joyous sphere of freedom. Books absorbed him chiefly. Often he read, sometimes aloud, till long past midnight, and when the Carrolls rode home over the creek one Sunday night they heard him and said to one another that the schoolmaster was frightened at being alone. No passion came to disturb him; his emotional nature seemed mostly dormant during those peaceful days. The year before, a woman’s face and form and voice had strung his imagination with a strange, half bitter sweetness; now that desire had passed into a tender dream which seemed to him as the embodiment of a phase he had passed through, and he wrote some verses addressed to ‘Ada’ with the motto:

Wenn ich dich liebe was gehts dich an?

On his path over the range at the highest point before the descent into Blair’s Creek distant twin hills came into view whose large swelling curves seemed the vast breasts of the goddess of that land lying recumbent across the earth. Whenever he reached the crest that brought those montains breasts suddenly to his sight a faint pulse of pleasure, half emotional, half intellectual, went through the young schoolmaster, and if he had grown tired he was tired no longer. On one evening, during the occasional half hour that he spent with the Carrolls, as he sat on the settle and replied briefly while the old man talked in his downright way of German aggrandizement and the Congress and the unnecessary expense of maintaining a royal family, and lamented that he had never learned to read and had to depend on his daughter for the news in the “Mercury”, the schoolmaster’s eyes casually fell on the figure of one of the elder girls at the point where her breasts swelled out beneath the brown stuff dress. A sudden giddiness seized him; in the person of that coarse unlovely girl the whole unrealised power of womanhood smote him.

It was not long after this that he sat one evening in the schoolroom reading Middlemarch on the bench at the little brown table in the corner by the fire. It was August, the evenings were still cool. He had dragged in a young sapling that the creek had washed down, one end reached to the back of the deep fireplace, the other was outside the door; he was burning it up into pieces of two feet long, instead of using the axe. By and by, as he read on, from the midst of the narrative’s solemn elaborate texture the figure of Dorothea began to clothe itself with intense, quivering, strangely vivid life. It seemed to become the embodiment of all the latent instincts of his heart, of the old vague longing for love, the fierce hidden yearning of unviolated youth for some larger human thing to reveal its own immense mysteries of freedom and life. All these profound sexual instincts were at the moment stirred within this youth with a power born of his isolation and became incarnated in Dorothea. He read on, steadily and fiercely, hour after hour, to the end. But this Dorothea that he had created, this symbol of the loveliness of love, haunted and tormented him with its unattainable sweetness. At intervals he had seen to the burning sapling and now it lay in pieces of two feet long in a heap on one side of the hearth. He walked fevereshly across the little room, diagonally from the little brown table to the back door. At intervals, as was usual with him, he spoke aloud; they were short, bitter, despairing words. With the world-weariness of youth it seemed to him that life had no more possibilities. In all the world there was no sweet-bodied, sweet-souled woman to bring to such a creature as he that chalice of love that he was thirsting for with the old elemental thirst that was first born with the dim far birth of life itself. Only scorn could the ideal Dorothea, it seemed, have of him. He flung himself on the floor before the fire, maddened at the thought, and clenched his hands, while now and then a low moan came from him, as he tossed round at each convulsive throb of that tortured nerve of his heart in which alone at that moment he seemed to live. “There is no one in the world anywhere who can love, who can give me the love I want.” Then for some time he sobbed. He got up at last; the fire was out; only a faint red stump lay in a heap of white ashes between the bricks. He lifted the latch and went out on to the verandah. It was starlight; the moon had not risen yet, but the eastern sky was pale. He walked down and pushed open the little ill-constructed gate, and stumbled slowly and aimlessly over the uneven ground. As he passed he tore convulsively the leaves of a gum-bush; the strong camphoraceous odor that clung to his hands sickened and irritated him; no flood of thought came to carry him out of himself and to make his step quick and elastic.

He walked back and leant against the fence. Bambaroo stood out with its great rounded summit and awful gloom. Then the top of the highest gum-tree became bright; an illumination crept slowly over all the gum-trees and at last the moon heaved itself over the ridge. He felt the unreal of an animal in pain; he came into the dark schoolroom again, and walked up and down, the same torture fermenting in him, till he grew weary. Then, at dawn, without undressing, he lay down on his hammock.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37