IT WAS spring; the men about Kanga Creek were away at shearing; the children were mostly at home with whooping cough. It was spring, and the land was growing glorious with wattles; everywhere the feathery and golden festoons hung lightly over the brown earth. Life with the young schoolmaster went much as of old. He had seen his new friend more than once since that meeting under the manna gum-tree by the lagoon. And often on Saturday or Sunday he had taken a book, to walk to the remote lagoon, to sit on a fallen trunk or lie beneath the slight shade of the trees. But somehow he could never read peacefully at that beautiful spot; it seemed there was something there that broke in on his self-contained life. Once or twice, when on the point of setting out in that direction, he had even by a sudden impulse turned off to the high ridges on the left. He no longer dreamed vaguely of love; but sometimes, after he had come out on the verandah in the early morning, and washed at the bucket on a bench, and eaten his porridge with the milk that Bessie had brought from the farm, he stood for a moment in front of a dusty iridescent little window-pane which served as a looking-glass. Here he would peer in and wonder whether he was as hateful to look at as he had often thought, and he would pass his finger over his young moustache. Then he would glance at his boots that were never polished, or at the old alpaca coat, rather frayed at the wrists and about the pockets. Perhaps he even meditated whether it might not be possible to amend these things. But when he turned and went through the little gate he no longer thought of himself, the bright scarlet breast of the Australian robin flashed upon him with delight as he walked rapidly across the bristly kangaroo-grass over the ridge; and all the careless vigor of youth pulsed in his young limbs by the time he had reached the path on the valley side. He shouted in the exuberance of muscular enjoyment.
The wind wailed and howled among the shea-oaks; the rain poured suddenly and swiftly down; he sat all this gloomy September afternoon of spring on the little bench between the hearth and the window. His book was open on the table before him; it was Marlowe’s Faustus, at the vision of Helen of Troy.
The rain poured eagerly dawn on the shingled roof, and from the creek came a sound of rushing waters, slowly increasing to a mighty roar. He had reached the awful close of the drama, and with a shudder yet thrilling through him he felt the need of movement, of human society, at all events of change. He opened the door and stood on the verandah. The sky was gloomy but the sudden twilight had not yet come. The creek was now a torrent and swept visibly and tumultuously round the gradual curve of its course, a red brown mass of waters crested with white foam, leaping over the stones and the gaunt roots of the shea-oaks, and bearing down mountain saplings, burnt logs, great boughs, even whole tree-trunks along on its breast. He reflected that he would have few pupils tomorrow, for the creek would not be passable yet; he walked rapidly along the little verandah, to and fro, with his hands in his pockets, gazing down. It was very pleasant to hear the elemental stir and the continuous roar of the creek coming down from the hills with a sound like that of a wind over a forest.
As he turned once at the end of the verandah he glanced up and started at the vision that he saw on the other side of the rough log gate-post, on horseback, with the large hat that he knew firmly fastened on over a face that smiled, half in embarrassment. “I can’t get across,” she called out, as he ran down to the gate; “I’ve come all the way from Thwaites Flat.”
Soon she was off the saddle, the reins were thrown over the post, and they went into the little schoolroom. The faint confusion he had seen on her face at first had now vanished; it was his turn to feel embarrassed as she examined with ostentatious curiosity his household arrangements, criticising them frankly as a connoisseur, condemning them mostly as needlessly primitive. She laughed at the great frying-pan; she looked into the large biscuit tin; she opened the old box that contained the school registers, took out one of the blue-covered books and turned over it’s flimsy leaves in rapid critical examination: “I see you keep your registers very nicely,” she said, in a tone of approval. Then she went up to a pile of the young schoolmaster’s own books that lay on the floor; she sat down on a low form, took them up one by one, read the titles and turned over a few of the leaves. “I must say,” she said when she had reached the last, “that I never knew a young man who had such a good collection of books.” He received the compliment in silence but with a thrill of genuine gratitude; it released him from the half-ashamed embarrassment which the sudden appearance of this young lady among the naked details of his simple life had at first aroused. He began to exhibit his possessions, and started some preparations for tea by putting the little billy on the fire. And soon he made tea for her and brought bread and butter and a tin of fish, and sat down beside her on the rough form at the table in the corner between the hearth and the window. After they had eaten the host sought to amuse his guest, and thinking of the books with which she had expressed satisfaction he stood up, reached over her head to a little bracket just beyond near the chimney, and took down a green volume, the summit of a pile insecurely poised. It was a book by Darwin. He placed it in front of them on the table and they turned over the leaves, examining the illustrations. When they reached a chapter on the subject of Blushing she began to read; they read together, leaning together towards the book; they followed the sober scientific discussion of the process of blushing, why such and such persons or races blush or do not blush, where and how they blush, sometimes smiling or laughing together. It seemed to the young schoolmaster that he was tasting a new pleasure. He had always looked at women from afar, seriously, having had no sisters or girl-friends; it was a new experience to realise that a woman was so human, so curious, laughing and smiling with him over these things of which he could scarcely have ventured to speak. He felt that a barrier had been broken down, and that he had been brought nearer than before to another human soul. When the reading was done and the green book lay closed on the rough red-brown table before them, the schoolmaster instinctively took it up to replace on the little bracket above in the corner. He stood up and leaned over her, and she moved her head aside. As he sat down, the bent head and the twisted brown hair, so close to him, the neck with its fine down, the curves of the shoulder and breast beyond, and with this a peculiar feminine odour, struck suddenly and penetratingly on his sense. He was oppressed by a sensation of faintness. He found himself sitting now close beside her and before he realised what he was doing his arm was fast around her waist. Years before he had meditated with awe on the divinity that hedges a woman, and now he genuinely wondered at his own audacity. He glanced at her apprehensively; she was slowly smiling. He pressed his arm closer, but at the same time, fearful, and as if to divert her attention, he began rapidly to talk of indifferent things, to compare notes about the schools, to question her about her life. It was so pleasant to sit there; the visible nearness and the vaguely pleasurable play of physical sensation became interpreted as the outward signs of inward affinity, as the promise of a sweet intimacy to come, to which no limit or measure could be set.
“Look here,” she exclaimed, suddenly starting up, “the fire’s going out; I’ll go and get some wood,” she said, as he rose too by her side. It seemed very easy and natural then that she should stay all night, and the young schoolmaster had proposed it and was answering her objections before he quite realised what he was doing. She continued to find natural and unnatural reasons for going at once, but she stayed; and meanwhile the night had grown on, and it would be difficult now to seek shelter elsewhere. She became quiet and thoughtful, yet falling in with all that he arranged. There was little to arrange; they looked after the horse together, and then he left her to find rest in the narrow hammock, and returned to the bench by the fire in the schoolroom. The dull light from the hearth met the light that for a brief time came between the loose slabs from the room beyond. Then they wished each other good night. For long hours he was vaguely conscious of that opposite wall, of the small window near him, of the great map of Australia — the huge island continent in the midst of the sea — hanging, in the gloom, on the wall beyond. These things mingled together in an unrestful waking dream. At length the stream of consciousness seemed to be slowly carrying him and merging him in the sea. It seemed to him that he belonged to a race of men whose destiny it was to be taken possession of after death by albatrosses. He seemed to be floating in the sea, which was his natural element, and an albatross with far-spread white wings was swooping around him. He feared it would seize him; at last its beak grasped his hand, but it was a grasp only, firm not painful. Then he became conscious of the deep, gentle, tender gaze of the albatross’s blue eye fixed upon his own. The gaze of those eyes fascinated and absorbed his consciousness; the beak and the grasp of the hand seemed to vanish. Slowly the eyes merged into a woman’s, large, soft, luminous, imploring; and the face was an oval, beautiful, woman-face; yet the transformation gave him no surprise, and he was not surprised when the albatross-woman spoke: “You will be mine someday.” “Perhaps I shall,” he answered indifferently. Then she pressed his face passionately to her own and said some tender word — he knew not what. And then he became vaguely conscious of the whole form of a woman. But when he stretched out his arms to embrace it, face and form became alike unsubstantial. He started into waking life; the sunlight was streaming through the window-panes at his side. When he went out on to the little verandah, the next door was open and the room was empty. He stepped up to the hammock and looked down, curiously, at the neatly folded blanket. As he looked down he saw a long hair; he took it up and carried it out on to the verandah, and held it up in the bright sunlight so that it shone golden brown, and looked at it with a smile of pleasure on his face, until he heard the careless shouts of children, echoing across the ridge.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54