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THIS Australian Idyll is largely based on reminiscences of a year (1878) spent as school teacher at the spot described. The haunting memories of that unique year in my life still pursued me, on my return to London, amid medical studies at St. Thomas’s Hospital. I attempted at intervals to throw those memories into a fictional form, and my friend Oliver Schreiner, interested in my experiment, encouraged me to pursue it. This was round about the year 1886, some eight years after leaving the real Sparkes Creek, but while my memories of the life there were still vivid and precise. The only critical judgment to which I submitted the Idyll was that of my friend Arthur Symons who was pleased to find it of the same class as Flaubert’s Contes. But I put it aside, making no attempt at publication. Apart from the fact that it was far removed from the field of my choosen work in life, I suspected that if the book ever wandered into the real Kanga Creek it might give offence to people for whom I cherished only friendly feelings.
It was not until many years later (in 1922), when I supposed that the people who came into my story must be nearly all dead, that I arranged for its publication with the Golden Cockerel Tress. The little book was soon out of print. So I have welcomed the proposal of Mr. Joseph Ishill to bring out an American edition at his Oriole Press, from which so many books of interest have issued.
I hasten to point that while the Idyll on the whole presents a faithful picture of the Sparkes Creek I knew, it is not to be taken as autobiographical. The routine of my outward life and various slight mental traits were those of the youthful schoolmaster. But of the deep inner development which made that year the most memorable of my life in formative spiritual growth this Idyll gives no smallest hint. Indeed, even as an Idyll, it is purely imaginary.
In some minor points of realistic detail I have deliberately diverged from the facts. The town of “Ayr” is really Scone and situated in the district of the Liverpool Range, some two hundred miles north of Sydney. But the route from Sydney I have described, in order to mislead the reader, would never reach Scone, but more likely Carcoar in another region of New South Wales, also familiar to me but a hundred miles south of Scone. There is, again, no lagoon near Sparkes Creek, and this also, with the manna-gum tree and some of the fauna, I borrowed from the Carcoar neighbourhood.
On the whole, however, I have been told, I have exactly reproduced the atmosphere of that Creek, even as it exists today. There has been little change. The population has scarcely grown or has even diminished for a school is no longer needed, and my schoolhouse, save for a few bricks from the chimney, has disappeared. The two families whom I call the Carrolls and the Quicks still flourish and monopolise the neighbourhood, though those who were once my school children are now old. After an interval of fifty years I have come into touch with theses families again, partly by direct contact and partly through my friend by correspondence in Sydney, Miss Marjorie Ross who, first drawn to the spot by my Idyll, has since been there on many holiday visits, entered into friendly relation with the people, and learnt to love the place almost as much as I do. She has taken many photographs there, including all the spots that meant most to me, even the identical boulder which I described.
THE CREEK was little more than a string of silent pools; the black roots of the sombre shea-oaks along its edge were distinct in the moonlight as they seemed to twist among the stones down to the water. A few scattered red gum-trees went up to the soft-far-away sky and a faint dream-like mist bathed the large outlines of the hills around. It was very still. The small vacant school-house stood on a flat a hundred yards from the Creek, with its little verandah and its rough fence. Everything seemed asleep after the scorching January days of drought, and no wind swept down that night through the gorge at the head of the valley or tumbled like an ocean among the hills. No other human habitation could be seen. There were few signs of life; nothing but a distant curlew’s melancholy long-drawn cry. Once a native cat climbed the chimney and made his way noisily down inside. Then nothing more might be heard save now and again the awkward flight of a great moth. The strong bright moon sailed across the clear sky and sank behind the western range, leaving a last kiss on the summit of the tallest gum-trees. After that the valley was left to the stars.
In the evening the English youth had entered a saloon carriage at Sidney station; he was about 18 years old and fair; his face was of a slow meditative East–Anglian cast. He carried a small black bag fromwhich he at once drew out a book and began to read. In his pocket were several large official documents, including one which appointed him Teacher of the Half–Time Schools at Kanga Creek and Blair’s Creek.
Now and again the young traveller looked out; he saw nothing but an immense series of dim vast slopes, and feeling the cool night air he buttoned up his coat and tried to go to sleep. As the hours passed on the train stopped occasionally at some small station. At these moments a profound silence could be felt. There seemed to the youth something heroic and pathetic in the energy that had perched these rough little emblems of civilization on the mountain ledges. Humanity appeared as a huge Don Quixote.
At last they reached the end of the line and the young Englishman followed the other passengers, hastening to fill the little omnibus which carried them into the town. At the Club House he was among those who stood for hours shivering at the entrance, waiting for the Ayr Coach; it was cold, even in January, at early morning on these high tablelands. At last it came, a ricketty, uncomfortable little yellow vehicle which was to carry fourteen persons, including a young woman who arrived late and found a resting place on the knees of an outside passenger. Gold had lately been found near Ayr and there was just then a new rush in that direction. There was still a further pause of half-an-hour outside the post-office while the mail bags were served out to the various coaches. A grey light was in the sky as the heavily-laden coach jolted fiercely along the rough and silent road between the never-ending rows of ring-barked gum-trees. Once or twice it stopped for a few moments at a wayside inn or post-office to deliver the mails, and a hastily dressed figure appeared in the dim light and exchanged a few words with the driver. At one inn most of the men got down and entered. The young Englishman remained seated. By and by a clergyman who had been seated beside him and who appeared to know everyone on the road came back to the coach and pressed him to have some whisky; he refused. Now and then, in ascending a hill, it was necessary to walk. The young Englishman was faint and weary with the unaccustomed motion of the coach, but he was ashamed not to follow the example of the others and he toiled on with body bent forward and eyes fixed on the bushes at his feet, too tired to think of anything but the next step forward.
Now the road became smooth and the coach no longer flung the heads of its occupants against the roof. Here and there a farm lay back from the road and into many homes that coach as it wound among the hills brought a daily ray of life from the outside world. How many people were there in it? Who was driving it? Were they bay horses or grey? But the young Englishman knew little of these things; he had a vague sense that he was being carried into a new and strange world and he was too weary yet to be more than bewildered.
In a few hours they stopped for breakfast at the half-way house. It was a little silent and solitary inn, with a bench in front, standing back and up from the roadside. Nothing could be seen around save scattered gum-trees and rough fences. The men went inside the house; the women stayed in the coach; the young Englishman after he had had some brandy and water came outside and stood in front of the bench looking at the silent scene. The air was soft and luminous; there was no sound but the chattering of a magpie; nothing stirred save when a young woman got out of the coach below and disappeared momentarily down a curve in the road.
“Well, young man, off to the diggings?” The Englishman felt a smart slap on the back and turning swiftly round faced the carelessly good-natured countenance of the man who had undertaken to nurse the supernumerary passenger.