The New Arcadia/Chapter 32

CHAPTER XXXII.

AMAZONA—THE FLIGHT OF THE MAIDENS.

"Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever!
Do noble things, not dream them all day long:
And so make life, death, and that vast for-ever
One grand, sweet song."—C. Kingsley.

"Yet no cold votress of the cloister she.
Warm her devotion, warm her charity ;
The face the index of a feeling mind.
And her whole conduct rational and kind."—Crabbe.

On the morning of her flight, Gwyneth sallied forth with merely a small bag, which waxed heavier as she proceeded. Looking down upon the Vale, as she topped the hill, she thought with aching heart of all that had happened since the cavalcade of fugitives had joyfully descended that way. She avoided now the dusty track that meandered about the wide, fenced road. She shrank behind a gum-tree as a cloud of dust hurled itself, with ominous rattling accompaniment, along the road, and by degrees there emerged from the thick canopy two horses, a tray-wagonette, a silk-coated selector, and wife with faded finery that had done duty in Bourke Street. The man was smoking, the woman suckling a child. From the pillar of dust they emerged for one moment, into the cloud they disappeared, and Gwyneth pursued her way.

Now, past the old township of Hampstead, left out in the cold by the railway, the distant roar of whose infrequent traffic resounds through the world of gums, three miles away. New Hampstead—now styled Gumford—scorning the older, whose very name it cast off, seeking a lustre of its own, revels in all the luxury of two trains a day, and all the township turned out to interview them!

No "Cobb and Co." rattles now along the "straight-run" into the deserted township of Hampstead, with its one length of "macadamized" swept clean by rain and wind. No bushranger, or strange suspected character, flings now, as of old, from his horse at the shanty—once famed hostelry—and, casting down "a fiver," demands "drinks all round." No camp of blacks obtrudes itself amongst the wattle-boughs beside the sinuous, high-banked stream. The Australian "Auburn" lives alone on the memories of halycon bygone days, of which, in the long summer evening, a handful of fossilized fogies tell, beneath the once-animated verandah.

Across the long bridge at Gumford Gwyneth passed. A timorous glance she cast at the camp of nomad nonentities that ever sprawls and holds high conclave beside the friendly piers. That sacred fire, around which grizzled beards of the bush, smooth chins from the city are gathered, is never suffered to die out. Ere one weary tramp, or party of aimless wanderers, leaves the rendezvous, another old sinner from the stations, or youngster from town, not yet carrying swag as though part of him, takes up the vacated position and piles high the never-failing logs.

"Hungry, and thirsty, and footsore, and old,
Oh! sad are the years that his grey hairs have told;
All trackless the desert lies stretching before
The eyes of 'Old Archie' grown blighted and sore;
He drags his tired feet through the hot burning sand,
With a swag on his back and a stick in his hand.
The bottle he carries is drainless and dry,
And all he can do is to lie down and die."

For records of rascality and crime, for tales of youth's fair promise blighted, for sights and sounds suggestive of the white man turned savage, and the free man slave, for a glimpse, from the "Bridge of Sighs," at a stream of weird, wasted life, flowing perennial from station to homestead, forest to plain, from north to south of the vast continent—streams of humanity uncared for, unthought of—men of promise of yore, who work and drink and trudge again, to beg at last and to die, with crow to caw the funeral obsequies, and ant to compete for the last legacy of flesh—for a peep into this world unique, stand for one moment, as Gwyneth did, upon the bridge that spans the sapling-shrouded stream, ere you cross the tarred timbers and find yourself in Great Gumford.

Gwyneth made for the railway-station, as the benighted traveller on the illimitable plains for the light in the window, the scrambler in the dark forest for the barking of the dog.

The straight, level line of rail that connects Gumford with the outer world, divides the township and countryside into two hemispheres. On that side, plain for hundreds of miles; on this, forest: there, they drink squash and shandygaff; here, whisky and strong beer: there, they wear silk dust-coats, affect tray-buggies, and shave; here, the bullock-team holds its own, German wagon and lumbering dray, the beard is thick and tangled: here English Churchman, who swears by his own, Scotch Kirkman, sinewy "Holy Roman"; there, smooth "Bible-Christian" Primitive Methodist, with light dash of mild "Salvation Army." Speedily climate and physical conformation of country affect the habits and character of the population.

The plan of Gumford is simple. Facing the all-important railway-line run two rows of opposing public houses and stores. Here, at the conservative corner, where squatters imbibe, Thomas Coke holds sway. Mark him as he stands, with legs well set beneath a portly frame, head of a Bismarck, on broad, unrounded shoulders, descendant of generations of Irish gentlemen. Blood and breeding tell. A lay-rector, brought up to sniff Popery, sip port, and bag game, ruined by the O'Connell Reforms of which, with clenched fists and flashing eye, he still speaks. Wife and daughters he left in Ireland, so that he might seek fresh fortune and a new home in Australia.

First the paid manager, then the proprietor of rural hostelries, the disendowed rector, with the dignity and grace that never forsook him, played the host for profit, as erstwhile for love. Tom Parnell and "the Radical crew," as he termed it, of this new land he roundly denounced, turning away thereby clients more liberal to Will Short's 'Farmers' Arms' opposite. "He went on Sunday to the church," not to "sit among the boys," but to occupy front seat and to hand round the plate, looking the squire of the parish he was born to be. He wrote each week [to the daughters in Dublin, and sent them means to maintain the position the family had ever filled. For thirty years father and daughters never wavered in their ardent, Hibernian affection. Here, they never saw each other more. To the last, in dusty, sordid, brawling Gum ford, Tom Coke held his head high, ever sober, solid, dignified—a gentleman and Christian, untainted by all the grossness of the bar. God rest thee, Tom Coke, and keep thy memory green!

As Gwyneth passed. Coke's quick eye observed her, as did that of the young bank-clerk spending his spare hours in the only way that suggested itself, lounging and refreshing oft, beneath the hospitable verandah.

L'homme qui rit of the township, who stands talking to the bank-clerk, checks for one moment his hilarity as the maiden passes; the half-stupefied tramp, sitting on his swag and leaning against the verandah-post, looks up with admiration, as he grinds his tobacco in revolving palms. The bank-manager is crossing the road with the twentieth client to commemorate at Tom Coke's bar, account-squaring results of a fruitful harvest.

"Deuced fine girl!" he exclaims, as the frightened thing hurries past. The bank-clerk—with handsome face and open heart, who might be a man of worth to-day, if the wealthy institution he served had bestowed one thought on the pitiable lot of such as he—follows the girl to the platform. The appearance of such a girl in Gumford was an unwonted experience. With the absence of ceremony acquired in the country, the youth, curious and admiring, asks can he "do anything for her?" The round man who ever laughs is rolling, with hands in pocket, across the desert of dust to see "this pretty piece of goods."

"No train for two hours," the lounging station-master reports.

Here, to be gazed at and questioned by half-intoxicated natives, Gwyneth cannot stay. She remembers the St. Clouds at the store opposite, whose pretty daughters had been delighted with her retreat at Mimosa Vale, and had repeatedly asked her to spend a few days at Gumford.

Smiling, good-natured St. Cloud almost leaps the heaped-up counter, when he sees the anxious-looking maiden threading her way amongst bags and tins and cases that range about the floor.

The wanderer is taken by storm; begged to remain in the cosy, domestic addendum to the busy store. The girls play and read and paint. Gwyneth could be happier resting there, where the freedom and freshness of the country are associated with tastes and accomplishments of city life; but she dare not; she will, as soon as possible, hide herself in the metropolis.

The three clear-eyed, round-cheeked specimens of rustic beauty "see her off" from the platform upon which, including storekeeper King of the township, with tall hat on side of head, all Gumford, from bank-manager and mad doctor to tramp and tinker, stand; and, in the "second-class ladies' compartment," midst bottles and babies, Gwyneth pursues her weary journey towards the distant seaboard.

Past deserted "flats" and "rushes" and "gullies," where maddened thousands once dug, where the crash of "cradles" exceeded the present roar of the train as it speeds through miles of half-filled graves of golden hopes; past the gardens into which, here and there, enterprising holders of "miners' rights" have transformed the ocean of mingling mullock heaps; through now civilized Quartzopolis, where oak and elm mingle strangely with gum and curragong,—casting pleasant shade and bright streaks of green across the city, greed-for-gold left so bare; past the roaring "stampers" treading out the yellow specks embedded in milk-white quartz: past "Poppet heads," where the ringing signal-stroke of metal on metal gives the word for earth's treasures to be hauled from two thousand feet below the roaring city; now rushing through the lonely "stations," whose sheep spread over pastures where millions of human beings might prosper; through the garden of the land, across Dividing Range where rain falls oft, and the black soil yields a richer harvest than all the gold-spangled rock left behind; on, ever on, screeching past sleepy platforms and nameless "sidings," towards the glow in the southern sky, where myriad lights of the never-sleeping city cast their Aurora Australis on clouds rolling up from the Southern Pole.

More terrified, and with reason, than in forest and on plain, the lonely girl extricated herself from the mass of human freight which the express disgorged on the seething platform; hurried through the throng of boisterous, beckoning "cabbies," of friends welcoming travellers and monopolizing half the platform in the process, of porters looking carefully after those having no luggage or needs.

Stepping into a tram, Gwyneth in half-an-hour found herself at Bridge Road, Richmond. A few steps brought her to the shop of Mrs. Strivens, a whilom neighbour of hers.

The good lady was counting the takings of the day. Hers was a small green-grocer's shop. In the window was a card, that Gwyneth was relieved to recognize still in place, "Apartments to Let." A warm welcome Mrs. Strivens accorded the wanderer.

"Yes, there was a bed to spare, though not a room. Pennie Scribblings and Millie Cole were still with her, and a new boarder whom Gwyneth would not know."

The two old friends, who happened to come in a few moments after, received Gwyneth with delight not unmixed with surprise.

"There, I'm not going to kiss you any more!" exclaimed demonstrative Pennie, panting. "Now, sit down. Take off your bonnet. Mrs. Strivens, kindly oblige us with 'coffee for four' without the pistols! Now, Evangeline—you know that was always my name for you—I'm going to keep to it—tell us what good luck brings you to town. We thought you had renounced the city for ever."

"Gwyneth, darling, you are more beautiful than ever," said Millie, the Academy student, as she took her friend's hands and looked lovingly into her face. "You shall sit for me to-morrow, dear. But, stay, your countenance is more pensive. There are fresh lines of thought and care; you have a story to tell, darling. Now we will hear it."

Gwyneth did not tell the story; at least not the more important part. She explained that her father had been called away, and that she, finding the life dull, had resolved to see her former friends again. To Pennie that night the poor girl confided more.

Pennie was correspondent for two papers, reported for two more, was sub-editor of another.

"But I'm heartily sick of the Society trash!" she exclaimed; "of taking notes of nothing, and writing up everything not worthy a thought."

"What of your book?" asked Gwyneth. "Has that been a success?"

"Just where it was, half-finished. I get no time for real writing; scribbling for a living is my one occupation."

Millie's report was little better. Sometimes the girl had a little picture sold. She had a few pupils. But there was no incentive. Life for her, too, was a dull struggle for existence.

The third boarder was a widow of nineteen, without a penny and without a friend, Mrs. Gussey Gore, whose husband had run through his money and lost his health in twelve months, leaving her after a short year of wild expenditure, which the young couple mistook for happiness, alone in the world. Twelve hours a day Gussey Gore plied her needle to the order of the "Ladies' Work Association," and of Buckland and Joshua's in Bourke Street. She managed to pay for her board. The future she dared not anticipate.

The evening hour was the bright spot of their existence, when the friends returned and books were read and talked about, and pictures discussed. Then the lonely three lifted themselves above their depressing surroundings, and revelled in a world open to all who possess the entrée to spheres of art, literature, and science.

Each of the trio contributed from their respective connections, small commissions that enabled Gwyneth to pay for her board. Pennie dispatched her to a garden-party to report for her paper, The Solar System. Millie managed to dispose of one or two of the studies with which Gwyneth occupied her spare hours; while thin delicate Gussey Gore was glad, when orders came in apace, to share her labour and slender reward with the new arrival.

Gwyneth discovered, however, that she had been incapacitated, by sojourn in the country under such different surroundings, for the hard life of the city. She pined for the freedom and pure air of the Valley. The close foul atmosphere of the narrow streets sickened her. The ruthless competition, in which all about her were involved, seemed like the scramble of wild beasts, half-starved, compared with the Arcadian simplicity she had discarded.

Poor Mrs. Strivens poured the tale of her woe into the girl's ear. She had been making a bare livelihood. Forthwith a large shop, with much wealth of paint and window-gilding, had opened across the way. Having some little means, the new-comers were able to undersell their rival, although Mrs. Strivens' margin of profits was already a vanishing factor, despite the fact that she purchased goods at the earliest market, and little Johnnie wheeled them home. Her husband, a printer, since his second son apprenticed to the firm could do his father's work for nothing, had lost the situation held for twenty years. The old man, who felt his life-work slipping from his hands, bitterly upbraided poor Charlie for "taking the bread out of his sisters' mouths" and "cutting his own father out." What could the youth do but weep when sore pressed? Was he not "bound" for years to come yet? Had he not to do what he was bid? The eldest son was a saddler just "out of his time," but gentlefolk were "putting down" their horses, and after five years' application there was no demand for the saddles William had studied to make.

"If I'd only learnt to plough with the horses, instead of to harness them," the young man complained, "I could go on the land to-morrow—that's always there—and make something grow, if it was only 'Turks' heads' for mother's window."

Their straitened circumstances and Gwyneth's account of the new system that was establishing itself beside the lake, set the four girls thinking and talking. Why should they not transfer the scene of their labours to such a favoured locality? Might not a party of homeless girls win a living there, and spend spare hours in writing, sewing, and painting, with other delights, as their tastes and acquirements suggested?

"One fact alone is significant," remarked Gwyneth. "Here it costs us one pound a week to live, or starve, whichever you care to call it; there, a number of us could exist, in comparative affluence, for two shillings a week each. Though far from town, we ought to be able to earn with our hands and our brains as much as that, and a great deal more."

The girls revelled in the idea. At the Work Association, Academy, and Salon, they canvassed and expanded it. The proposal was enthusiastically entertained by scores of girls struggling disconsolately for a living. The idea of homes and gardens, cows and fowls of their own, with Art as a pastime, presented itself to their youthful imagination as a possibility almost too good to be realized.

Travers had sought out Gwyneth, and endeavoured by all means to converse with her. She steadily avoided him. Her heart, however, was breaking; the freshness was departing from her spirit. She was restless; felt she must have change and fuller occupation.

Her father wrote begging her to return. She replied that she could not settle down again to the old life; but would he, she asked, let her know whether she and some of her friends could establish themselves on the southern end of the lake? Eventually a scheme was formulated whereby five hundred acres should be ploughed and prepared, fifty cottages built, and a site laid out for the proposed novel colony.

Ill at ease himself, fearful of his daughter's dissatisfaction with the part he had lately played, Elms was glad to facilitate Gwyneth's return to the neighbourhood, though not to his home.

As to the domestic arrangements other designs were in his mind. The White House, the natural centre, must be his. It ought not to be a difficult matter for a man of his parts to win the widow of the deceased doctor. Meanwhile Gwyneth was just as well out of the way at the other end of the lake. If she must go into retirement, better there than to a convent.

The perfected scheme was laid by Gwyneth before a special meeting of "the Salon of the South," and Artistic and Literary Club for Ladies, that Pennie Scribblings had done much to promote.

With a beating heart Gwyneth ascended the lift and laid aside her shawl and hat in the ante-room. The spacious L-shaped Salon was filled with ladies of all and every class and attainment.

Many were young and prepossessing, personally attractive still to the eye of the outer world—some few plain but powerful—many long since escaped from the tender simplicity of "sweet seventeen." From every eye, however, intelligence gleamed; on many a face genius was stamped; on each high brow force was written.

Here and there a few much-overshadowed men were bestowed on corners of couches and edges of chairs. Sub-editors, not yet quite "case"-hardened to the charms of fair women, young doctors who had been prevailed upon to "read a paper," with art critics whose wives thought them safe ensconced at the Club!

Gwyneth's paper created, even in this august company, quite a sensation. The proposal was welcomed with acclaim. Why should not daughters of Eve return to the Garden of Eden, the Graces be ensconced beside the streams, and nymphs explore the woods again?

So it was that Amazona was founded.

Fifty of the fair, whose duties were of such a character that they could be performed at a distance, set forth for the home beside the lake. For each five a cottage had been erected.

A light breakfast and lunch each household prepared as best they could, but dinner, which was veritably "a feast of reason and flow of soul," was partaken of in common in the large weatherboard mess-room, that served also as concert-hall, reading-room, and theatre.

Four cows, a crate of fowls, five acres of land for garden purposes, already ploughed, were apportioned to each party; seeds were supplied, directions given, technical papers read. From the common store each party received their weekly provisions. The product of farmyard and field was disposed of in connection with agencies already in existence at Mimosa Vale.

Millie's pictures, painted under brighter auspices, fetched double the price she used to command. Pennie's paper had to exist without her, while she gave herself in spare hours to completing the volume that ere long, with others, brought her fame and fortune.

None but those who know from experience, could conjecture the reason why a freshness and pungency, lacking in earlier efforts, pervaded her subsequent works. Many of Millie's students followed her. Once a month Gussey Gore dispatched to the Work Association a small parcel that now readily commanded purchasers. One or two hours' work with her needle per day sufficed to keep her in credit on the books. As time wore on it was discovered that the cows and the poultry of each fair settler yielded them return at the rate of fifty pounds a year. The garden of cut-flowers for the market, the perfume-farm and apiary, silk- worm grove later, with a dozen other natural industries for which feminine hands were adapted, yielded profits that brought wealth to the promoters, and prompted daily applications for admission to the ever-extending garden-community of Amazona.

On the lake, after work on the soil, the maidens developed their muscles and cleared their brains after study or sedentary occupation. At the annual regatta their yacht distanced all male-manned competitors! A score strong, the Amazons would ride forth, after cows had been milked, and gardens cared for, to hunt the kangaroo in outlying portions of the station. The maidens became sure of eye, as fleet of foot, and came to handle rifle and revolver with a readiness calculated to deter any—had there been such—who would invade their retreat.

One of the most successful of all the associated settlements was the fair and famed Amazona. For a month, or a longer term, those who could not entirely tear themselves from the city were permitted to sojourn at the settlement. Largely it helped to solve the question, "What shall we do with our girls?"

When, shortly, a direct line of rail connected the settlement with the metropolis, many nurses and seamstresses, writers and others, worked about their garden homes, when no special duty called them away, while at other times they spent a few hours, or days, profitably in the city By degrees, not, it must be supposed, because of their comparative wealth, but by reason of their womanliness and aptitude, the maidens of Amazona were largely sought after, and shortly the synonym for a good housewife and worthy woman of mind was "a Daughter of the Lake." All were free to wed or wander as they Willed. But only those approved at the monthly parliament could join the sisterhood and settle at Amazona.

Any ceasing to reside could retain their garden farm—cultivated at their expense—and share in the quarterly dividends.

For Mrs. Strivens and her family a corner at Kokiana was found where, with none to compete, but all to help as they were helped, she flourished.

Only, as is often the case, the promoter of the fairyland was unhappy.

Gwyneth could not but grieve over the change that had come over her father, and ponder in her mind by what dreadful devices Malduke and he had gained control at Mimosa Vale. For Travers, too, she pined, always, despite her anger, haunted by the thought that some terrible mistake had parted them, and made him appear in such despicable light.

And so, with the burden of responsibility pressing upon her, the young creature worked and worried on, fading and failing, as her friends feared, from day to day, finding chief consolation in visiting the pale consumptives at Hygeia, taking them out in her yacht on the lake, and striving to impart to others' lives a brightness and joy that had vanished from her own.