‘ANTI-HUMBUG’ Williams ran out from his school-house door as he saw his young acquaintance alight from Quick’s spring-cart.
“You’re a brick!” he exclaimed, emphatically slapping the youth’s shoulders, “a regular brick! The inspector told me they ought never to have sent you to such an hole, and I may tell you now that Chapman has been expecting you to throw it up ever since you went out. Well,” he went on as he drew his guest into the parlor, chasing out a few of his children in order to gain space and silence, “and so you’re going to leave us for good, and be off to the old country again; I dare say you’re right. Australia is pretty much played out. Things are not what they were when I came out. There’ll be a bust-up some day, mark my words. Droughts and theology, deserts and dry bones, that will undo the place. What would old Buckle have said? Curious action of the climate, eh? But we brought the virus with us from the old land. Coelum non animum.”
During dinner Williams drew out the youth regarding his future movements: “So you think of going in for the law? I don’t know that you could do better. It’s the path to open a career for young talents. I was going in for the law once but my health broke down so they sent me out here — thirty years ago now. Well, perhaps you won’t regret the time you’ve spent in Australia when you’ve got your chambers in some old court in the Temple.”
The younger man rose, for he had various matters to settle in Ayr before the coach left. When he came back a few hours later out of the hot dusty road, he found the schoolmaster asleep over the “Stockwhip” with his head on his arms, and a jug of shandy gaff beside him. The youth refrained from rousing him; but as the coach rumbled heavily off, his last vision of Ayr was a glimpse of the wiry little man running down the street and waving his hat in farewell.
At Sydney, instead of seeking quarters in Castlereagh Street, he went to a boarding-house in the corner of Wynyard Square. It was a highly respectable establishment, even patronised by distinguished missionaries from Pacific islands; after breakfast every morning a gaunt young Scotchman offered up a long prayer in which with much fervent repetition he would insist that all our righteousness is but as filthy rags. The young schoolmaster adapted himself to the ways of the place with his usual calm tolerance of everything that had no hold on his own inner life, and made as little attempt to flee from the Scotchman’s filthy rags at this house as from the young woman’s chignon at the other.
In this brief camping-space on the road of life he lived as in a dream, making no attempt to reconcile the haunting thoughts of yesterday with the eager thoughts of tomorrow. On the morning after his arrival he strolled along the wharves, into the Botanic Gardens, the Public Library, the long meandering curves of George Street, round by the University, bidding goodbye to his old haunts. On his way back he dropped in at his barber’s an old man in George Street to whom he had often been before. “And so you’re going home? To live at Croydon again? Ah, Croydon!” exclaimed the old man, “Ah, dear; many’s the time I’ve eaten walnuts at Croydon Fair. All done away with now, is it? Ah, dear, dear. Yes, the happiest days of my life were spent at Croydon, long before you were born. Ah, Croydon Fair. You don’t get such walnuts out here; dried up things. Ah, dear, dear.” And he left the chattering old man lost in memories to return to his room in Wynyard Square. As he looked out of the window at the hard bright sunlight stretching far along the street opposite, the old barber’s mood of reverie seemed to find an echo in him, and the child of the north gazed for the last time, half absently, half wistfully, at the things that were vanishing from his sight.
The leisurely voyage in a sailing ship gave him time to review his experiences. He associated a little with the other passengers, and more often quietly observed them: the silent suspicious clergyman stealing about with slippered feet; the jovial, red-faced priest returning after a long life spent in the bush, with the bishop’s Latin letter in his pocket, to visit old Tipperary once more; the hot-eyed mate carrying on an intrigue with the second-class passenger who occupied a cabin alone with her little child; the grammar-school master eager to see for himself the strange beautiful old country described by Dickens and Washington Irving; the graceful Irish woman, pure of heart and free of tongue, sometimes desiring to thrust a skewer through that indiscreet member; the lanky lad who was going to Edinburgh to study medicine and the clergyman’s daughter, dark and bright-eyed, who crept in together between the lifeboats to spend long evening hours. He noted all these things, but they were only the setting to his own thoughts which went back, again and again, to Kanga Creek. He knew where she was now; he could picture it all; the town on the Hawkesbury where her father was mayor, and her daily life there; household work in the morning, perhaps cleaning a grate or preparing dinner; then an hour’s singing at the piano; in the afternoon, most likely, a canter on horseback with her brothers, and in the evening, may be, a dance to which her friends would be called in — the bank manager, no doubt, the surveyor and the solicitor’s clerk — and she would be whirled round in a waltz, flushed and delighted, on the arms of one of these fellows who would then take her out to the cool verandah where she would bury her hot face in the frozen sweetness of a great slice of melon as she listened to his pretty speeches. Oh, he knew it all! She thought him a child, and as an inexperienced child he had behaved. And she lived in a cheerful, easy-going little world from which he was aloof, and yet was filled with resentment at his aloofness. He clenched his fists in his ulster pockets and pressed the nails into the flesh as he walked rapidly up and down the poop, striving to forget, to forget, his thoughts persistently on the future.
As the ship cut swiftly through the great blue foam-edged waves his thoughts were pressing into the future, reaching forward to the time when, as he could not know, he would look back to the days that were past as to the sweetest thing that life could give, when he would thirst for the strange solitudes that the black man has left and the white man has not yet taken for his own, and where the mystery of the early world is still alive, for the great silvery gums bursting out of their tattered garments of bark, for the tremulous fragrant gold of the drooping wattles in spring.
All this was long ago. A succession of teachers have kept school at Kanga Creek since these things happened. And the pale young man with the tight lips who is now schoolmaster at the Creek knows nothing of any alphabet of love once taught in that place. He works up his school, he drudges on as he awaits the inspector’s visit, he looks ambitiously forward to the promotion which will some day deliver him from the lonely and hated bush; to this end he works in schoolhours and out. Perhaps sometimes an intangible presence, the echo of a feminine voice, the rustle of a woman’s clothing, the faint fragrance of a woman’s body, may come out of the past to haunt the old schoolhouse and make the plodding schoolmaster restless, he cannot tell why. It may be only the breath of Nature expanding the rosebuds on the verandah posts or fashioning the little breasts of the girls whose prattling laughter arises from between the saplings below. But however that may be, surely in the autumn nights the great wind still tumbles among the hills like a sea, bearing into the valley the far rumor of the wide world outside, and the giant myrtles still mount high to be kissed by the rising moon, and the flowers spread abroad their prodigal loveliness. And the little birds still play at their early games of love.
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50