THE Inspector was coming. The children sat in two rows on two sides of the rooms — the mischievous Robert of the dark bright eyes, the fair deliberate Charlie, John of the red stupid face and broad bucolic grin, his sifter Mary, large and gentle, the motherly little Amy with her slow sweet smile, Bessie of the loose lips, Anne, tall, straight, and sullen, in rough brown stuff dress, and beside her the tiny five years old elegante, Jane, in her pink little princess frock, and the pendants hanging from her fairy shell-like ears. Jim, the youngest, with solemn portentous face and sing-song drawl, slowly spelt the words from his reading-book, while the others wrote at dictation.
The schoolmaster walked up and down the room diagonally from the open door to the farther corner, sometimes looking out for any sign of the inspector’s approach, sometimes, as of late he had done from time to time, unconsciously smiling to himself, so that the children looked at each other and whispered, “Teacher’s pleased.”
It was a day of still and brilliant heat and the sun glared down from a cloudless sky. A buggy passed through the valley below and its occupant would not have observed the schoolhouse if the schoolmaster, who heard it rattling across the stones in the creek, had not sent down Robert as a messenger.
The grave black-bearded inspector went quietly through his work, asked questions of children and of master, made his notes, and inwardly marvelled that the youth had been sent to this forlorn spot. Then he went his way to Carroll’s farm through the glaring sunshine of the silent noon. The schoolmaster’s spirits began to rise lark-like in spite of the heat and oppression of the day. He was glad of the dreaded ordeal he had gone through so easily; glad, too, to have seen a man who was civilized even though uncommunicative; glad also of the guest whom he expected tonight.
That night the young schoolmaster walked towards the lagoon. It was long since he had met his friend, and he was eager to see her again. He led her into the schoolhouse, lighted only by the sullen glare of a log, and they sat down together on the bench between the wall and the table. Never before had the young schoolmaster been in so restless a mood of high spirits. The wild humor which possessed him dominated his companion. He put his arm round her, and they waltzed about the room in the light of the rising moon.
They sat down together, and he watched the heaving of her breast. Then his hand wandered instinctively up to the large buttons that were rising and falling, and sought to unfasten them; her hand resisted, but yielded to his gentle child-like insistence, and helped in the task. He remembered how, the year before, at Burwood, when dancing, his partner’s low-necked dress slipped down, and his own feeling of faintness, almost of repulsion, the unaccustomed sense of nakedness. Now it was quite otherwise. He nestled his head down and with the sudden involuntary maternal impulse which is not far from any woman she pressed his head against her with both hands.
The heat of the day still seemed to cling to the little schoolroom in which they sat together in the semi-darkness, playing like children. Oppressed by the heat she began to unfasten the large buttons; emboldened by the darkness they gradually took off some of their clothing. He encouraged her by example, and aided in the process, lingering, and finding in it the delicious satisfaction of an instinctive desire for nearness.
Then came the suggestion that they should go out of the close little schoolhouse into the open air.
The night was hot and still; the full moon was high in the sky; Bambaroo, with its large and gentle outline, seemed mysteriously near. They walked slowly, hand in hand, to the creek with its pools of burnished silver under the face of the moon. They stepped carefully over the large smooth stones; she placed her arm round him, and he softly grasped and caressed the other hand. Then he placed his arm around her. Each touch sent an unknown thrill through his being. To touch her, to feel through the thin garment the living play of the muscles of the flank — the steady swing of the pendulum in its socket — was in itself a joy that sufficed to fill the whole field of sensation. This woman was a new gospel, and every movement a fresh verse to the youth’s hungry soul.
They reached the soft rounded sandstone boulder that lay, a little mass of brown, on the dull green slope. He looked into her face with entreaty, half wistful, half eager, and he began to unfasten her last garments. She murmured remonstrance: “I can’t if you don’t too,” she said. And she untied the knot when his unskilful fingers were at fault.
The moon was bright above; below, a straggling row of pools, each a great pearl, marked the line of the creek; from the delicate boughs of the tall gums the long pale leaves drooped silently; there was no sound but the occasional scamper and cry of some nocturnal animal, or the remote melancholy call of the curlew; to the right loomed the great purple mass of Bambaroo; to the left soft luminous clouds lay on the horizon formed by a distant ridge. Close behind stretched upwards the dusky green slope, the background on which rested the bright pale forms, inquisitive, alive, thrilling with a pulse of Nature so swift that the Nature around seemed dead. She sat on the stone, and he lay at her feet, clasping her leg and softly resting his cheek on her knee, while her hands wandered from his hair to his neck. She said nothing and he was very still; he feared by any word or movement to break in upon her mood of sweet complaisance. His eyes were bright; a new life was thrilling through him,
“I wanted to bring you here,” he said suddenly, “I wanted to seat you like a queen on this throne. It’s been waiting for you thousands and thousands of years. I often think,” he went on, caressing the knee, “of everything that has gone on in the world since this stone came here. I lie here and dream about Helen of Troy, about Cleopatra, about Héloïse and Abélard, about — oh, so many things. And all that time one might have come here and seen everything as it is now. I’ve almost got to think that this stone is the only ancient thing and the only living one. Perhaps, it is as old and unchanged as anything in this old land. It’s so smooth now with no frost to hurt it, and not much rain. It has been here so long. And now you are the highest thing that it ever touched. It has never felt anything before so fair and soft.”
He wanted to prolong this moment; he talked on at random; his bright eyes and excited face were turned up to hers. There was silence in the night; the large, clear moon sailed on above; below, the youth lay entranced in the fragrance of the woman’s body; afar, very far, sounded now and again the slow melancholy sobs of song, the sharp cries of pain, the mysterious ways of Nature among her children, slaying some, and therewith feeding others.
They were silent now. He stroked her knee caressingly. Then he dared impulsively to lift his lips, to leave a few soft shy kisses. He looked up, then, with a glance of inarticulate appeal. She stooped towards him, a smile of delight hovering on her lips.
“How beautiful your eyes are!” and she kissed them both softly.
“And yours,” he said, “are so bright, and your cheeks,” and he pressed his own against them. And so for some minutes, with arms clasped around each other, they remained silent and absorbed in one kiss.
Faint and far, out of the silence, there came the sound of horses’ hoofs, Her ear caught it first, and she suddenly took hold of his shoulder, exclaiming nervously: “What’s that?” The rhythmic beat of the hoofs slowly, surely approached, the steady tramp of an inevitable fate. “It must be Charlie, who went into Ayr today,” he said, after an interval. They swiftly slipped into their garments, ran up and behind the ridge, and listened intently to the tramp of the hoofs that now tumbled loudly and irregularly among the loose stones in the creek, to grow faint again and remote. Then they both went back, silent and shamefaced, to the schoolhouse.
It seemed as though a gate of Paradise, left ajar, had swung to.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54