by Barbara Baynton
A short story, the first in the collection, Bush studies (1902).
A swirl of wet leaves from the night-hidden trees decorating the little station beat against the closed doors of the carriages. The porter hurried along holding his blear-eyed lantern to the different windows, and calling the name of the township in language peculiar to porters. There was only one ticket to collect.
Passengers from far up-country towns have importance from their rarity. He turned his lantern full on this one, as he took her ticket. She looked at him too, and listened to the sound of his voice, as he spoke to the guard. Once she had known every hand at the station. The porter knew everyone in the district. This traveller was a stranger to him.
If her letter had been received, someone would have been waiting with a buggy. She passed through the station. She saw nothing but an ownerless dog, huddled, wet and shivering, in a corner. More for sound she turned to look up the straggling street of the township. Among the sheoaks, bordering the river she knew so well, the wind made ghostly music, unheeded by the sleeping town. There was no other sound, and she turned to the dog with a feeling of kinship. But perhaps the porter had a message! She went back to the platform. He was locking the office door, but paused as though expecting her to speak.
“Wet night!” he said at length, breaking the silence. Her question resolved itself into a request for the time, though this she already knew. She hastily left him.
She drew her cloak tightly round her. The wind made her umbrella useless for shelter. Wind and rain and darkness lay before her on the walk of three bush miles to her mother’s home. Still it was the home of her girlhood, and she knew every inch of the way.
As she passed along the sleeping street, she saw no sign of life till near the end. A light burned in a small shop, and the sound of swift tapping came to her. They work late tonight, she thought, and, remembering their gruesome task, hesitated, half-minded to ask these night workers, for whom they laboured. Was it someone she had known? The long dark walk—she could not—and hastened to lose the sound.
The zigzag course of the railway brought the train again near to her, and this wayfarer stood and watched it tunnelling in the teeth of the wind. Whoof! whoof! its steaming breath hissed at her. She saw the rain spitting viciously at its red mouth. Its speed, as it passed, made her realize the tedious difficulties of her journey, and she quickened her pace. There was the silent tenseness that precedes a storm. From the branch of a tree overhead she heard a watchful mother-bird’s warning call, and the twitter of the disturbed nestlings. The tender care of this bird-mother awoke memories of her childhood. What mattered the lonely darkness, when it led to mother. Her forebodings fled, and she faced the old track unheedingly, and ever and ever she smiled, as she foretasted their meeting.
She could feel loving arms around her, and a mother’s sacred kisses. She thrilled, and in her impatience ran, but the wind was angry and took her breath. Then the child near her heart stirred for the first time. The instincts of motherhood awakened in her. Her elated body quivered, she fell on her knees, lifted her hands, and turned her face to God. A vivid flash of lightning flamed above her head. It dulled her rapture. The lightning was very near.
She went on, then paused. Was she on the right track? Back, near the bird’s nest, were two roads. One led to home, the other was the old bullock-dray road that the railway had almost usurped. When she should have been careful in her choice, she had been absorbed. It was a long way back to the cross-roads, and she dug in her mind for land marks. Foremost she recalled the “Bendy Tree”, then the “Sisters”, whose entwined arms talked, when the wind was from the south. The apple-trees on the creek—split flat, where the cows and calves were always to be found. The wrong track, being nearer the river, had clumps of sheoaks and groups of pines in places. An angled line of lightning illuminated everything, but the violence of the thunder distracted her.
She stood in uncertainty, near-sighted, with all the horror of the unknown that this infirmity could bring. Irresolute, she waited for another flash. It served to convince her she was wrong. Through the bush she turned.
The sky seemed to crack with the lightning; the thunder’s suddenness shook her. Among some tall pines she stood awed, while the storm raged.
Then again that indefinite fear struck at her. Restlessly she pushed on till she stumbled, and, with hands outstretched, met some object that moved beneath them as she fell. The lightning showed a group of terrified cattle. Tripping and falling, she ran, she knew not where, but keeping her eyes turned towards the cattle. Aimlessly she pushed on, and unconsciously retraced her steps.
She struck the track she was on when her first doubt came. If this were the right way, the wheel-ruts would show. She groped, but the rain had levelled them. There was nothing to guide her. Suddenly she remembered that the little clump of pines, where the cattle were, lay between the two roads. She had gathered mistletoe berries there in the old days.
She believed, she hoped, she prayed, that she was right. If so, a little further on, she would come to the “Bendy Tree”. There long ago a runaway horse had crushed its drunken rider against the bent, distorted trunk. She could recall how in her young years that tree had ever after had a weird fascination for her.
She saw its crooked body in the lightning’s glare. She was on the right track, yet dreaded to go on. Her childhood’s fear came back. In a transient flash she thought she saw a horseman galloping furiously towards her. She placed both her hands protectingly over her heart, and waited. In the dark interval, above the shriek of the wind, she thought she heard a cry, then crash came the thunder, drowning her call of warning. In the next flash she saw nothing but the tree. “Oh, God, protect me!” she prayed, and diverging, with a shrinking heart passed on.
The road dipped to the creek. Louder and louder came the roar of its flooded waters. Even little Dog-trap Gully was proudly foaming itself hoarse. It emptied below where she must cross. But there were others that swelled it above.
The noise of the rushing creek was borne to her by the wind, still fierce, though the rain had lessened. Perhaps there would be someone to meet her at the bank! Last time she had come, the night had been fine, and though she had been met at the station by a neighbour’s son, mother had come to the creek with a lantern and waited for her.
She looked eagerly, but there was no light.
The creek was a banker, but the track led to a plank, which, lashed to the willows on either bank, was usually above flood-level. A churning sound showed that the water was over the plank, and she must wade alongShe turned to the sullen sky. There was no gleam of light save in her resolute, white face.
Her mouth grew tender, as she thought of the husband she loved, and of their child. Must she dare! She thought of the grey-haired mother, who was waiting on the other side This dwarfed every tie that had parted them. There was atonement in these difficulties and dangers.
Again her face turned heavenward! “Bless, pardon, protect and guide, strengthen and comfort!” Her mother’s prayer.
Steadying herself by the long willow branches, ankle-deep she began. With every step the water deepened.
Malignantly the wind fought her, driving her back, or snapping the brittle stems from her skinned hands. The water was knee-deep now, and every step more hazardous.
She held with her teeth to a thin limb, while she unfastened her hat and gave it to the greedy wind. From the cloak, a greater danger, she could not in her haste free herself; her numbed fingers had lost their cunning.
Soon the water would be deeper, and the support from the branches less secure. Even if they did reach across, she could not hope for much support from their wind-driven, fragile ends.
Still she would not go back. Though the roar of that rushing water was making her giddy, though the deafening wind fought her for every inch, she would not turn back.
Long ago she should have come to her old mother, and her heart gave a bound of savage rapture in thus giving the sweat of her body for the sin of her soul.
Midway the current strengthened. Perhaps if she, deprived of the willows, were swept down, her clothes would keep her afloat. She took firm hold and drew a deep breath to call her child-cry, “Mother!”
The water was deeper and swifter, and from the sparsity of the branches she knew she was nearing the middle. The wind unopposed by the willows was more powerful. Strain as she would, she could reach only the tips of the opposite trees, not hold them.
Despair shook her. With one hand she gripped those that had served her so far, and cautiously drew as many as she could grasp with the other. The wind savagely snapped them, and they lashed her unprotected face. Round and round her bare neck they coiled their stripped fingers. Her mother had planted these willows, and she herself had watched them grow. How could they be so hostile to her!
The creek deepened with every moment she waited. But more dreadful than the giddying water was the distracting noise of the mighty wind, nurtured by the hollows.
The frail twigs of the opposite tree snapped again and again in her hands. She must release her hold of those behind her. If she could make two steps independently, the thicker branches would then be her stay.
“Will you?” yelled the wind. A sudden gust caught her, and, hurling her backwards, swept her down the stream with her cloak for a sail.
She battled instinctively, and her first thought was of the letter-kiss she had left for the husband she loved. Was it to be his last?
She clutched a floating branch, and was swept down with it. Vainly she fought for either bank. She opened her lips to call. The wind made a funnel of her mouth and throat, and a wave of muddy water choked her cry. She struggled desperately, but after a few mouthfuls she ceased. The weird cry from the “Bendy Tree” pierced and conquered the deep-throated wind. Then a sweet dream-voice whispered “Little woman!”
Soft, strong arms carried her on. Weakness aroused the melting idea that all had been a mistake, and she had been fighting with friends. The wind even crooned a lullaby. Above the angry waters her face rose untroubled.
A giant tree’s fallen body said, “Thus far!” and in vain the athletic furious water rushed and strove to throw her over the barrier. Driven back, it tried to take her with it. But a jagged arm of the tree snagged her cloak and held her.
Bruised and half-conscious she was left to her deliverer, and the back-broken water crept tamed under its old foe. The hammer of hope awoke her heart. Along the friendly back of the tree she crawled, and among its bared roots rested. But it was only to get her breath, for this was mother’s side.
She breasted the rise. Then every horror was of the past and forgotten, for there in the hollow was home.
And there was the light shining its welcome to her.
She quickened her pace, but did not run—motherhood is instinct in woman. The rain had come again, and the wind buffeted her. To breathe was a battle, yet she went on swiftly, for at the sight of the light her nameless fear had left her.
She would tell mother how she had heard her call in the night, and mother would smile a grave smile and stroke her wet hair, call her “Little woman! My little woman!” and tell her she had been dreaming, just dreaming. Ah, but mother herself was a dreamer!
The gate was swollen with rain and difficult to open. It had been opened by mother last time. But plainly her letter had not reached home. Perhaps the bad weather had delayed the mail-boy.
There was the light. She was not daunted when the bark of the old dog brought no one to the door. It might not be heard inside, for there was such a torrent of water falling somewhere close. Mechanically her mind located it. The tank near the house, fed by the spouts, was running over, cutting channels through the flower beds, and flooding the paths. Why had not mother diverted the spout to the other tank!
Something indefinite held her. Her mind went back to the many times long ago when she had kept alive the light while mother fixed the spout to save the water that the dry summer months made precious. It was not like mother, for such carelessness meant carrying from the creek.
Suddenly she grew cold and her heart trembled. After she had seen mother, she would come out and fix it, but just now she could not wait.
She tapped gently, and called, “Mother!”
While she waited she tried to make friends with the dog. Her heart smote her, in that there had been so long an interval since she saw her old home that the dog had forgotten her voice.
Her teeth chattered as she again tapped softly. The sudden light dazzled her when a stranger opened the door for her. Steadying herself by the wall, with wild eyes she looked around. Another strange woman stood by the fire, and a child slept on the couch. The child’s mother raised it, and the other led the now panting creature to the child’s bed. Not a word was spoken, and the movements of these women were like those who fear to awaken a sleeper.
Something warm was held to her lips, for through it all she was conscious of everything, even that the numbing horror in her eyes met answering awe in theirs.
In the light the dog knew her and gave her welcome. But she had none for him now.
When she rose one of the women lighted a candle. She noticed how, if the blazing wood cracked, the women started nervously, how the disturbed child pointed to her bruised face, and whispered softly to its mother, how she who lighted the candle did not strike the match but held it to the fire, and how the light-bearer led the way so noiselessly.
She reached her mother’s room. Aloft the woman held the candle and turned away her head.
The daughter parted the curtains, and the light fell on the face of the sleeper who would dream no dreams that night.
Barbara Baynton, “A dreamer”, in Bush studies (Project Gutenberg, 2001); accessed 11/07/23: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks01/0100141.txt