Short Stories/The Children's Graves
The Children's Graves
Every one said said Donald was a "damned good chap." He reminded me of the twelve apostles; I say twelve because I couldn't single out the one that came to my mind when I first set eyes on him at the Laura. I recognized a face I knew; the face came back to me out of the long, long ago, and I puzzled over it till I hit it. "Judas"! Yes!! I remembered it now—Judas! with the beautiful eyes—not the scowling, evil-faced, thick-set German of the cheap illustrated Bible—but W. G. Wills Judas, out of "Charles I," whom the King describes to the traitor Murray, beginning the lines, if I remember aright.
I saw a picture once, by a great master. Yes, that was Donald, and he ought to have been roaming about the Laura in a toga and halo; but wore instead an old pair of what had once been grey trousers, very patched and ragged round the bottoms—old blucher boots burst out where the little toe of the right foot should have been. I never saw the toe, but I presume it was there—for the sake of argument we will say it was there—and a smile—a soft, undecided sort of smile. He also wore a white cotton coat, or what had once been a white coat, and a faded cabbage-tree hat. Donald, like Judas, had his price, which, with the characteristic of his race, was generally as much as he could get—for Donald kept a store at the Laura, and also the pub, which he dignified by the name of "York Peninsular Hotel."
I never heard Donald laugh but once. He was a solemn man; he'd a high forehead, soft dark eyes, and a patriarchal beard. He laughed once when we all were sitting around the table at "supper," in the back roped space behind the pub, and I describing how coming down from Mayburn with the women, he overtook the coach in which were two old women in their way to Cooktown.
We all camped at Shepherd's Creek, Graham's place (Graham the teamster). Here he kept a large back-roofed slab building also called a hotel (he bought poor MacDowell out just before that worthy dropped down dead), into which we were all glad to turn. Soon after our arrival the rain came down in torrents. The warden was sandwiched in a little partitioned space between the two old women, who slept in one bed together, and Graham's old woman and daughter-in-law, who slept in another just the other side of him. One of the old women was the German wife of the German Accommodation House keeper (another hotel) at Maytown.
The poor warden, dead tired, couldn't get a wink of sleep, for he lay between, and was the recipient of the whispered confidences of the four women. The two old Maytown women discussed and pulled to pieces in the usual feminine way a young woman who recently arrived at Maytown, and created a stir in that almost God-forgotten place. They left the poor girl without a shred to her back or to her reputation, the conversation ending with a parting shot from the German frau, who clinched all matters relating to the new arrival with "Vaal, she stoppit met me at my hause, ven she coom up mit der coach, and I vas zee all vat she haf got, und she may haf dree vite dressis, but she haf no chemeeses, ain't it."
Donald lifted his arm above his head, bringing his fist down with a bang on the table that made everything jump.
"Chemeeses! My God, Chemeeses!" cried Donald and let a roar out of him that startled the dog and set all the parrots, in a huge home-made cage, screeching.
Donald's wife was on a jaunt, at the time, in Cooktown, at the races on her way home from Herberton, where Donald himself had been the previous year.
I never heard Donald laugh since.
This is where Donald's wife comes in: A rather dominant women with a napoleonic nose, and a look in her hair as if she had been down South a bit trying the "fachons." There was a suspicion of "Titian Red" gone wrong about it, and it looked dusty and dull, with dark patches on the temples and back of the neck, where it was brushed up and put in a "bun." There was also in connection with it, an elaborately curled bunch of uniform colored hair that was given the place of an honored guest in the "front." She wasn't a bad sort though, and usually wore loose wrappers of cotton print, somehow suggesting the ladies one sees standing in the doorways of East Lansdale Street, Melbourne, in the vicinity of the Theatre round the corner, and handy to the "pub" and Parliament House.
But I got interested in the woman, for close to my tent were two little graves, which every evening she used to go and visit with her children. The graves were fenced in from the goats; a few dried-up flowers grew on them, and, under the small mounds in the open, solitary bush, lay all that was left of two little children, who had once been hers.
I used to sit and weave romances round her and the solitary graves—forgetting all about the Titian red of her hair—only seeing the good in the woman, and thinking of the broken-hearted mother.
I asked the "Sub's" wife about it all, and the little thin big-eyed woman got quite pathetic, and told me all the sad story, and I went to my camp and dreamed dreams and wrote a couplet about the dead babies.
"Born in the world—to die,
"They knew no mortal strife.
"Their birth a never-ending death—
"That death, the birth of Life."
This year Mrs. Donald was looked up to as a wonderful person, for she had been there. The Duke and Duchess of York's visit paled before the home-coming of Mrs. Donald at the "Laura."
The sun dipped in the West, throwing a red glow over the land, but the shadows were all cast from the East, where the stronger light of a great big full moon rose slowly and majestically shining through the crooked-bowed ironbark trees, standing out like cut patterns in cardboard, all painted black. The silver light made the earth mystical, and the air was full of the loud far-off sounding shrillness of myriad insects, that the coming night or sinking sun had wakened. A solitary chirrup-chirrup close to my tent—the soft call of a dove to its mate from the trees in full bloom, whose delicate scent came to me on the gently-moving soft night air—the screech a long way off of a cockatoo—and the distance deadened tinkle of the bells of hobbled horses, were all the sounds to be heard until presently through the long grey grass came the z-z-z-rup—z-z-z-rup of a woman's dress.
I looked towards the sound and saw a figure advancing to the little graves. The moment seemed sacred; it was the unhappy mother; and I took the pipe from my lips and muttered with reverence, "Fidelium animoe defanctis; per misercordiam Dei requiescat in pace."
I felt a little choking in my throat; and the tears came up in my eyes while I watched the lonely figure lean her arm upon the white rails and gaze into space. I went back to my tent for the verse I had written, meaning to hand it to the bereaved mother when she had come to the front of the tent, and saw the still motionless figure standing at the graves. She had not moved. I thought I knew what was passing in her mind. I remembered the heart-ache I had suffered when one I loved was almost taken from me. I had gone through the agony of it all—I had suffered—and I knew how she was suffering now. I could not see so far away, in the moonlight, but I pictured the hot tears trickling down the poor pained face—and for a moment she seemed transformed—she was beautiful. I had been standing for perhaps a minute watching, when, between me and the moonlight, I became conscious of a moving object. It was all in white—almost ghostlike—and it glided across the Police paddock in the soft, yielding, unsounding sand, so silently it seemed almost unreal. I looked steadily and recognized the thin frail figure of the "Sub's" wife. She glided on and on—past the rough turnstile in the wire fence of the paddock, and into the long grass, and towards the solitary figure at the graves. It was a solemn moment. These two devoted women—in the solitary bush—a thousand miles from any city—the one sorrowing, the other, in her womanly way, coming out into the night to comfort her.
And the two stood in the soft, silver light, alone! The moon shone gloriously—the silence had grown intense—for the birds were roosting, and the insects dumb, and the horse bells silent.
God was over all!
Suddenly the stillness was broken. A rather harsh voice mingled in exclamations of delight with a little soft one:
"Well, I declare! I didn't know you were back."
"I've had the time of my life. Herberton was simply great. And you know Emma's not going to marry Tom; but—she's engaged to another chap."
"No! You don't say."
"Yes, she is. She's going to marry the one they call the 'greasy bounder at the Bank.'"
Then they drifted into "gussets" and "placquets," and "the sleeves ain't worn full any more now" was the last I heard as I turned into my tent, tore up the verse I held in my hand, and, lighting my pipe with it, I strolled over to Donald's pub and told him the "chemise" story over again—at which he was just going to roar, but stopped suddenly, and looked through the open door towards the graves of his little ones. Then we heard the "square-faced" and a half-drunken digger from Ebayoolah start singing on the verandah outside:
"She was h-all—me—fancee—pinted 'er."
"Ho! 'hi never shall forgit!"
I put down the glass.
"So long, Donald."
"So long Chemeeses! Lordy! Lordy! cheemeses! Brings back old times! I ain't seen a chemees since last Herb—"
I didn't hear the last of Donald's sentence. I often wondered whether Mrs. Donald did. I passed her with a "Good-night," afterwards, from the shanty door—for Donald never smiled again that I saw.