O gaily sings the bird! and the wattle-boughs are stirred,
And rustled by the scented breath of spring.
Oh the weary, wistful longing! Oh the faces that are thronging!
Oh the voices that are vaguely whispering. "—A. L. Gordon.
There's a strange something, which without a brain
Fools feel, and which e'en wise men can't explain.
Planted in.man, to bind him to that earth,
In dearest ties, from whence he drew his birth."
Churchill, The Farewell.
"If ever there was an earthly paradise, it is here, my child."
"You're very fond of the place, father," remarked a girl whose sixteen summers had dyed her rounded cheeks olive and red; her large eyes were hazel, hair golden-brown; a picture of beautiful youth she looked, as she sat at the old man's feet plying her needle.
The cottage stood on a slight eminence. Far away to the right stretched a smiling valley, on either side of it sloped pine-dotted hills, with here and there a huge granite boulder indicating rich soil beneath. A sinuous line of wattle, golden with blossom, marked the winding of the creek, seeming to convert the plain into a series of gigantic primrose-beds. Two miles away, the streak of gold lost itself in a sheet of silver and red, as the creek flowed into a lake, some three miles below. The rays of the setting sun were illuminating its glittering surface. The hills, that there rose sharper from the lake than further up the valley, presented a dark line of smooth sward broken by boulders, pines, and oaks, against the glowing sunset sky.
"That valley," cried the old man, stretching his clay pipe towards it, "might sustain its thousands. Look at the depth of the soil, fourteen feet there on that bank of the creek."
"It's very sticky after rain, I know," objected the maiden. "I'd rather drive Peter over a dozen miles of the clean iron-stone in the ranges, than two miles on the plain. Yesterday after that sudden shower it stuck to the wheels of the old buggy till it creaked again. I had to stop at length and try to poke the black soil off with a stick. In a hundred yards it was as bad as ever again. I often wish your black soil further, dad."
"You should not say that, my girl; God is good to give us a country like this."
"But what's the use of it? just to fatten so many more sheep for old Mr. Leicester."
Thirty years before, Mr. Leicester, the adjoining squatter, had camped beside the creek with the few sheep he had brought out into the wilderness. He had climbed to the top of this very knoll and claimed, as he told his black shepherd, "all he could see between the hills." It was a fairly "large order"—some thirty thousand acres—but in a few months, in consideration of some imaginary services rendered to the Government, a land grant made it his. A reserve along the stream had been retained by the State. Ten years before the date of this story, this had been put up to auction.
Mr. Dowling was the purchaser. Leicester was absent in England. Dick Dowling was one of an ill-fated party of English gentlefolk who "migrated" to Adelaide in its earliest days. Their patrimony they invested in frame-houses, outfit of an elaborate nature, land and stock purchased in the colony. Dowling was a lawyer; his wife was connected with some of the best county families. Their eldest daughter, the belle of Fenshire, was delicate as she was beautiful. The move broke Grace Dowling's heart. She pined for the conditions and companionship of earlier days, and could see no beauties in eucalyptus and mimosa.
A tree beside the first homestead marks the spot where Grace was laid to rest at last. The grief-stricken parents with their remaining daughter moved on, with sadly shrunken means, to the neighbouring colony.
Dowling arrived in Melbourne just in time to purchase the reserve, to which a friend at the club had directed his attention. The frame-house was again set up, the hundred and twenty acres fenced, some stock procured; then the unfortunate lawyer's last penny was expended. None knew how the trio existed.
Did he never regret relinquishing the little country practice, as he ploughed his own lands, laid out his garden, killed his sheep, took his produce in the spring-cart to Gumford railway-station? Did he not repent his folly, as his daughter swept the dust from ornaments and furniture that had known better days, from portraits of ancestors who seemed to be ever wondering how they came amongst their present surroundings, from the old clock that had stood centuries "on the stairs" at home and seemed never quite reconciled to the house that was all ground-floor?
As the old man saw his daughter milking, even driving the reaping-machine, while he sat and rattled his bones over the clods; as he saw his beautiful old wife making up the butter with her snowy, tapering fingers, trimming the lamps, and bearing the week's produce into Gum ford in the rattling American wagon, did he not repent his folly?
No, he never regretted it. He revelled in the life of the country. "Health we have, if not wealth," he used to say. "Peace, if not prosperity. We live our own life, and like it."
Mrs. Dowling was happy in her husband's satisfaction. It seemed to her strange that such as he, refined, intellectual, admired, should have voluntarily exiled himself for a struggle for existence such as this.
"What would the old country and its influence be, good wife," he used to say, "if her sons had not been possessed, so often, of a desire to seek a fuller life abroad, to escape from the deadly conventionalities of an effete society, and to extend all that is best in the national life beyond every sea? What would England be save for her soldiers and sailors and settlers, who could not rest and rust at home?
"I know I have failed," he would sometimes admit, with momentary bitterness. "The greater fortune I dreamed of has never come. The little one I brought has vanished. But cheer up, wife, we'll never give in. None shall call us poor. Have I not my books and a little sphere in which, as Carlyle says, 'to create and to rule and be free'? You are happy, my darling. Perhaps we are of more use here in this uncouth, uncultivated land, where we may leave some fragrance of English fields and tastes behind us, than in dear, but dreamy, Fenshire."
The old man, in his shirt-sleeves, with slouched hat and rough buckskin gaiters, looked still as much the true gentleman as when with shining velveteen he followed the hounds at home, or received the Queen when her Majesty visited the provincial town to open the park presented by his elder brother.
"She's as much a lady as ever," he would muse with pride as the good wife with skirts tucked around, her husband's brown cabbage-tree hat on her comely, well-set head, goloshes on her dainty feet, went the round of her fowl-yard, fed the butting calf and leggy lamb, and appeared shortly in the parlour as neat and trim as ever.
"Why should life's plainest, simplest duties be considered menial," he would say, "and the best of its work be delegated to menials?"
"You had better come in," said Mrs. Dowling, appearing at the open French window. "You cannot see any more of your beloved valley to-night, Richard."
"But I can scent its fragrance. Isn't the perfume of the wattle and acacia, borne on the moist airs of night, sweet? And I can hear the music of the vale. Hark to that wailing crescendo of the curlew! The one thing here that evidently has a history—and a pathetic one too. Or does it mourn that the land should lie desolate? Now that 'More Pork,' or cuckoo as we ought to call him, is lonely too, but he is jolly as a sand-boy about it."
"The laughing jackass is my favourite," suggested Eva. "The last one has just giggled itself to sleep. Always so delighted with himself and the day's doings, as it chuckles over the thought of how vainly the six-foot snake tried to bite as he whisked it hundreds of feet in the air, and how green the centipede got in the face when he ferreted it out from our fire-wood stack and gobbled it, and so he croons himself to sleep to dream of children not bitten owing to its protecting care."
"The magpie I claim," said the mother; "all day long as we work it whistles so gleefully, as if to cheer us on our way, while the locust tribe keep up the running accompaniment."
"And the frogs in the lagoon-—" began Eva.
"Now that will do, coma in at once," insisted Mrs. Bowling; "sit down and sing to us, my child."
Ere long the old settler, oblivious of the labours of the day, was absorbed in Lyell's Geology; the maiden was singing sweet ballads of England; the old lady sitting erect, with spotless cap on her silvery hair, was busy with her patch-work quilt, thinking of the by-gone scenes associated with each remnant of "better days."
"I hope I am not superstitious," she remarked, as her husband laid down his book to fill his pipe, "but do you know, Richard, as I arrange these patches I collected before we came out, I often see my sisters who wore the dresses, and the old housekeeper who assorted the remnants—you remember her—the rooms in which the curtains were hung, and the couches from which the covers were cut. I could describe the old house not from memory, but actually as it is now. My patches, when I am weary, not only reanimate the past, but reveal the present."
"Perhaps you are clairvoyant, Mary," suggested her husband with a laugh. "You have heard of the principles of 'trace.'"
"No; what is that?"
"It is claimed that an impress left on certain articles by former associations enables some persons to trace back the history of the object, and, far away, to view their present surroundings."
"Very fanciful; but I really do believe there are times when these bits of remnants make me dream until I see the present condition of those who wore them. I do not like the idea. Of course it is a silly one. I shall do no more to-night."
At this juncture a loud knocking was heard at the back-door. A shrill female voice was calling, "For heaven's sake let me in; he's dying!"