THE CREEK was little more than a string of silent pools; the black roots of the sombre shea-oaks along its edge were distinct in the moonlight as they seemed to twist among the stones down to the water. A few scattered red gum-trees went up to the soft-far-away sky and a faint dream-like mist bathed the large outlines of the hills around. It was very still. The small vacant school-house stood on a flat a hundred yards from the Creek, with its little verandah and its rough fence. Everything seemed asleep after the scorching January days of drought, and no wind swept down that night through the gorge at the head of the valley or tumbled like an ocean among the hills. No other human habitation could be seen. There were few signs of life; nothing but a distant curlew’s melancholy long-drawn cry. Once a native cat climbed the chimney and made his way noisily down inside. Then nothing more might be heard save now and again the awkward flight of a great moth. The strong bright moon sailed across the clear sky and sank behind the western range, leaving a last kiss on the summit of the tallest gum-trees. After that the valley was left to the stars.
In the evening the English youth had entered a saloon carriage at Sidney station; he was about 18 years old and fair; his face was of a slow meditative East–Anglian cast. He carried a small black bag fromwhich he at once drew out a book and began to read. In his pocket were several large official documents, including one which appointed him Teacher of the Half–Time Schools at Kanga Creek and Blair’s Creek.
Now and again the young traveller looked out; he saw nothing but an immense series of dim vast slopes, and feeling the cool night air he buttoned up his coat and tried to go to sleep. As the hours passed on the train stopped occasionally at some small station. At these moments a profound silence could be felt. There seemed to the youth something heroic and pathetic in the energy that had perched these rough little emblems of civilization on the mountain ledges. Humanity appeared as a huge Don Quixote.
At last they reached the end of the line and the young Englishman followed the other passengers, hastening to fill the little omnibus which carried them into the town. At the Club House he was among those who stood for hours shivering at the entrance, waiting for the Ayr Coach; it was cold, even in January, at early morning on these high tablelands. At last it came, a ricketty, uncomfortable little yellow vehicle which was to carry fourteen persons, including a young woman who arrived late and found a resting place on the knees of an outside passenger. Gold had lately been found near Ayr and there was just then a new rush in that direction. There was still a further pause of half-an-hour outside the post-office while the mail bags were served out to the various coaches. A grey light was in the sky as the heavily-laden coach jolted fiercely along the rough and silent road between the never-ending rows of ring-barked gum-trees. Once or twice it stopped for a few moments at a wayside inn or post-office to deliver the mails, and a hastily dressed figure appeared in the dim light and exchanged a few words with the driver. At one inn most of the men got down and entered. The young Englishman remained seated. By and by a clergyman who had been seated beside him and who appeared to know everyone on the road came back to the coach and pressed him to have some whisky; he refused. Now and then, in ascending a hill, it was necessary to walk. The young Englishman was faint and weary with the unaccustomed motion of the coach, but he was ashamed not to follow the example of the others and he toiled on with body bent forward and eyes fixed on the bushes at his feet, too tired to think of anything but the next step forward.
Now the road became smooth and the coach no longer flung the heads of its occupants against the roof. Here and there a farm lay back from the road and into many homes that coach as it wound among the hills brought a daily ray of life from the outside world. How many people were there in it? Who was driving it? Were they bay horses or grey? But the young Englishman knew little of these things; he had a vague sense that he was being carried into a new and strange world and he was too weary yet to be more than bewildered.
In a few hours they stopped for breakfast at the half-way house. It was a little silent and solitary inn, with a bench in front, standing back and up from the roadside. Nothing could be seen around save scattered gum-trees and rough fences. The men went inside the house; the women stayed in the coach; the young Englishman after he had had some brandy and water came outside and stood in front of the bench looking at the silent scene. The air was soft and luminous; there was no sound but the chattering of a magpie; nothing stirred save when a young woman got out of the coach below and disappeared momentarily down a curve in the road.
“Well, young man, off to the diggings?” The Englishman felt a smart slap on the back and turning swiftly round faced the carelessly good-natured countenance of the man who had undertaken to nurse the supernumerary passenger.
“No,” he replied, after a slight pause, in a cold and gentle voice. Then the others came out and the coach soon moved forward. It had long been broad daylight; on each side the arid and undulating land was thinly covered by drooping gum-trees, and wattles that had long since shed all their molten gold across the land; now and then a flock of cockatoos, loudly screeching, arose with their white wings gleaming in the bright air. At length a sudden turn in the road revealed the little town of Ayr close beneath, and the coach went down the hill, over a wooden bridge, past the little red-brick church, into the broad ill-defined street that ended at the post-office. Ayr was an old town; for thirty years it had nestled down there with the hills hemming it in on every side, and there was about it the calm serenity of age. The coach drew up at the post-office, and, as the young Englishman walked past the handsome new Bank to the end near the church he noticed the lazy air of a few men in careless undress who strolled in front of the silent public houses or stores. He stopped a a moment before one store styled in large letters Emporium for Fancy Goods, and looked idly at the few pails, brushes, and tins spread about, at the collection of valentines manufactured at Hoxton, and the announcement that ladies and gentlemen might have them addressed free of charge. From a house near the little red-brick church a large fat man, with a bland shaven face, and an immense green umbrella clasped in his hand, was slowly ambling down his front path to a buggy that stood at the gate.
No doubt it was the Rev. John Chapman, Chairman of the local School Board of the Half–Time Schools at Kanga Creek and Blair’s Creek; and, after a moment’s hesitation, the youth addressed him. He held out his hand and smiled benevolently, but evidently he knew little about the Half–Time Schools at Kanga Creek and Blair’s Creek. “I am just going out to a farm some miles off,” he said; “if you like I will put you down at our Public School; Williams will probably be able to tell you more than I can.”
In a couple of minutes they had reached the neat buildings of the Public School, with their galvanised roofs and outbuildings. Here the clergyman left his young companion, after having invited him to spend the night at the parsonage, and went off with a faint benevolent smile on his large shaven face. The public schoolmaster was a dark, wiry, restless little man: “Come in, come in,” he said, “we’re just going to have dinner. Queer fish, Chapman,” he added a few minutes later. “Pretty well played out, his business. He comes here and gives his Bible lessons, but I don’t interfere with him; we’re very good friends. He’s not a bad fellow. Children are quite well able to think for themselves. Only the other day he was talking to them about David, telling them that he was a man after God’s own heart. Then I heard my little Jim’s voice pipe up: ‘If you please, sir, what about Uriah’s wife?’ ‘Hush,’ said Chapman, ‘we must never talk about such things.’ But children ain’t satisfied when their questions are turned off that soft way; they see through it — they see through it.” He had sat down with his legs crossed and his hands between his knees and moved his foot restlessly. The young Englishman felt attracted by this eager, nervous little man, who suddenly broke off: “No, I believe in God, but the Bible is a pack of lies.”
“But if you don’t believe in the Bible where do you find the evidence for your God?” the Englishman interposed.
“Here!” he returned, emphatically striking his breast with his fist. “There’s no evidence stronger than that. If you or any man tell me to doubt that I just tell him he’s a fool.”
“But how do you know that you are justified in trusting the evidence of your heart?” The young Englishman was fairly aroused; it was not long since he had found his own heart full of ghosts.
The little man was about to retort more fiercely than before, but at that moment his wife entered, followed by the children. He briefly introduced them. “Three more children out, nine altogether, and another one coming.” He jerked his head and thumb toward his wife who, with the eldest girl, was busy occupied bringing in the dinner. She was a pale active woman with no particular expression; if she had ever possessed any clear individuality constant work and much child-bearing had worn it away. She took no notice of her husband’s remark. After dinner Williams said: “I’ll take you now to see your predecessor, Gray; he’ll be able to tell you everything you want to know about Kanga Creek; I’ve never been there myself. Gray’s not classified, as you are, he has found it pretty hard work to get along, poor fellow, with a wife and two children. I’ll leave you with him for a while. To tell you the truth,” he added, “I’m going to write a letter to the “Stockwhip” this afternoon — our free-thought organ, you know. And I have some local notes to get ready, too, for the “Mercury”; we haven’t started a paper at Ayr yet. Ever seen the “Stockwhip”? Of course I don’t sign my letters; that wouldn’t do. If you ever see anything with ‘Anti-humbug’ at the end of it you’ll know who wrote it. Couldn’t find a good Greek word for ‘humbug’; they hadn’t the thing so they didn’t need the word. Perhaps we shan’t need it some day either.”
The dwelling of the late teacher of the Half–Time Schools at Kanga and Blair’s Creeks was small and dark and close. Two young and dirty children played about the door. Gray himself was some half dozen years older than his successor; he seemed to the latter a typical cornstalk, tall and thin with very long legs and arms, large feet, loosely hung jaws, colorless face, scant sandy whiskers. He invited them in with a rather sickly smile but with plain colonial cordiality.
“Here’s your successor to Kanga Creek. He wants you to tell him something about it. Can he get anyone to take him in there?”
They entered and sat down; the stuffy little room seemed already quite filled by Gray’s loose sprawling limbs which moved about in a spasmodic fashion. His wife remained in the background. She might have been a servant-girl once. Her pale young face looked as if it ought to be pretty, but it was already worn and weary.
“I dare say you’ll be able to get accommodation with some of the people there. A former teacher, I believe, had a room at John Carroll’s. I stayed at the schoolhouse, you know, and came in every Saturday.”
“Provisions are not too plentiful out there, are they?” asked Williams.
“Well,” he replied slowly, “I used to take some meat out with me on Monday morning, but in such weather as we’ve been having lately I’ve often had to throw it away before I got half way. You’ll get along all-right. There is no milk or butter to be had, but I used to keep plenty of flour there; one can always make dampers.”
“When one is well up in colonial cooking. But the drought’s pretty certain to break up now.”
“Yes, I guess it can’t last much longer.” He gathered his limbs together with a convulsive movement and walked to the door.
“Someone has been advertising in the Herald for the last three weeks ‘Lord Jesus, send rain’!” remarked the Englishman.
“Ah, he thought the Lord Jesus took in the Herald, did he?” replied Williams. “Yes,” he muttered clenching his teeth, “that’s the old cancer that has been eating into the world so long. Someone to shift the responsibility on to! Rain, wars, diseases, babies, much the same. Well, I must be going.” He started up in his swift nervous way. “See you again this evening, eh? Going to Chapman’s? Very well; tomorrow morning. We’ll get you off all-right.” He gave the young Englishman’s hand a quick grasp and went out.
“I don’t think you’ll have much trouble with the children,” said Gray sprawling down again on an uncomfortable old wooden chair. “The boys are much the same as all boys who’ve spent their lives in the bush. You may have some trouble with one or two of the girls, especially that O’Shaugnessy girl; I don’t like that girl; she is too big to come to school now.
By the by, I’ve left at the Creek all the things I need out there, axe, saucepan, frying pan — very good frying pan — bucket, all in very fair condition. You shall have them for ten shillings; they may come in useful.”
The Englishman said he saw no objection to this arrangement in any case, and the bargain was concluded at once.
“Come out on the verandah and have a smoke; it’s cool out there now.”
“I don’t smoke,” said the Englishman; “I must go now; I promised to go to Mr. Chapman’s.”
He walked down through the darkening, grass-grown street. It all seemed very silent. Unconsciously he missed the immense chorus of locusts that formed a perpetual shrill background to the field of sound at Burwood, the Sydney suburb where he had spent most of the months that had passed since his arrival, and seemed to make the hot still air thrill with even intenser heat. But the exhilaration of the air failed to touch him; he walked slowly with his head down, only looking up occasionally to make sure of his road. His heart was sick and tired; he would gladly have gone back to Sydney by the next coach. What was he to do in this wilderness? But he had nowhere to go, nothing to do.
The clergyman was lying on a couch that ran nearly all round the old wooden parsonage. It was a deep verandah partly closed in by a vine which made a cool gloom where several chairs were placed. He greeted the youth kindly with his soft feminine voice and large faint smile.
“Come and sit down, you will find it very pleasant here; have you gained the information you required?”
“It is not like I expected,” he answered indirectly.
“Ah! you have not been long from England. You will find that things are not so bad as they seem at first. It is a healthy life; you will not have much work. You might — I scarcely know — you might find some society.”
In a little while it was supper-time; the clergyman introduced his sister, a quiet middle-aged rather prim lady, and busied himself about his guest’s comfort with an almost feminine kindness that yet had about it a touch of old-world delicacy, grateful, to his own surprise, to the young Englishman’s sense. He got into the large comfortable bed, half soothed already, and fell asleep.
In the morning, after breakfast, he went to a store and bought a few things that he needed: a pair of shoes, a grey alpaca coat. Then he went back and found the clergyman talking to the schoolmaster by the paddock beyond the schoolhouse. Soon Joseph, the schoolmaster’s son, appeared with two horses. Williams indicated a mild-looking animal. “You needn’t be afraid of Bushman, he’s no buck-jumper.” The clergyman, dubious of the Englishman’s knowledge of riding, said anxiously as he approached to mount, “This side,” and shook hands with gentle fervor. The schoolmaster wished him good luck heartily, and they went off at a walking pace, Joseph leading the way, past the little red-brick church and over the wooden bridge. When they were out of sight the clergyman turned to the schoolmaster, shaking his head slowly, and said with a faint smile on his large smooth face: “I do not think that young man will stay there very long.” “Well, it won’t hurt him,” replied the schoolmaster brusquely; “do him good to rough it a bit; he wants something to shake him up.”
As they rode over the wooden bridge a young woman cantered by; as she passed the young schoolmaster turned towards her; she was also turning towards him and their glances clashed for an instant and rebounded. His guide soon struck to the right. There were few trees here; on each side of the path the prickly pears spread their fleshy and harsh grey leaves. Beyond the land stretched afar, brown and parched. They rode on slowly, Joseph in front, the young Englishman behind, with the small bag in front of him; he wore a hat and coat for which he owed five pounds to a tailor in George Street.
There was silence all around; the bush was everywhere dry and parched; the strong sun glared down on them, and a great swarm of flies buzzed and teased around. Save for occasional lines of rough-hewn rails there were few traces of life. Once or twice they passed a group of two or three human habitations, now and then an isolated hut, roofed with great sheets of bark. Gradually these became fewer, and the path was now a faintly marked track. From one solitary house a woman came out suckling her baby; two children stood, one on each side, holding tightly to her dark blue gown. They gazed up at the strangers with great unblinking eyes, so close that the young Englishman saw the large freckles on the woman’s breasts.
The path inclined gradually upwards to the mountains; they passed several hills in the distance; a great tessellated wall of rock struck the traveller’s unobservant eye fixed on his own thoughts. About mid-day they reached a farm belonging to Burton, a member of the school board. They found him coming home from the vineyard. He stood with his eyes fixed on the horse’s head, returning to the young Englishman’s short remarks still shorter answers, with shy sullen reserve, and soon passed on, Joseph went to the side door for some water; and then they pushed on through the parched monotonous bush, which now opened out into gracious park-like undulations scattered with trees. A few miles more and they entered the valley of Kanga Creek. Two little homesteads stood, one on each side, at the entrance of the valley, each with its small garden in front. They passed these, and by and by crossed the creek near the little schoolhouse; less than a mile further on, at the head of the valley, they reached another homestead, older and larger, belonging to Carroll, the earliest settler in this valley. Here at last they dismounted. The measured thud of threshing came from a shed not far off. Soon a man, having thrown down his flail, advanced to meet them with rough and honest straightforwardness. He was a little man, wrinkled and sharp-eyed and energetic; his chin was covered with stubbly grey hair. He took them into the dark low living room. His wife, a worn-looking woman, yet active and kindly, set before them an immense piece of salt beef and two huge loaves; she made tea from the kettle that hung over the fire in the large chimney. Two tall muscular girls came in for the evening meal. They said nothing, but began at once. The swift and silent decision with which they ate and drank and struck their mugs down on the table fascinated the young Englishman’s attention. Directly they had finished they went out. Carroll carried on the conversation with the self-possession and self-respect of a man who has fought his own way against odds. Joseph, who had been hastily satisfying a ravenous appetite, soon got up to go. The young Englishman shook hands with him almost warmly; the day’s ride had been silent, but it had resulted in a feeling of comradeship with the boy who had been his guide, and he had acquired a soothing sense of reliance on him. When, a moment later, he heard the sound of retreating hoofs a weary sense of loneliness settled on his heart. The cord that had united him to society was finally severed; now he was to live and breathe by himself, and find out alone the mysteries of an untried world.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54