Previous: October 21st
Sunday, the twenty-second day of October, 1922.
The dull dawn of a listless Sunday morning broke over the stony, arid landscape, looking drab and almost colourless in the dust haze under lowering banks of clouds. After breakfast Stolz held a brief devotional outdoor service for the Hermannsburg party. This service was attended also by Mrs Elliot and most of the dark population. It was an event of unusual interest in the lives of the latter; for it was the first church service of any kind that had ever been arranged for them at Horseshoe Bend.
After the service Mrs Elliot served morning tea under the verandah. She was determined that Mrs Strehlow should be drawn into the company of the tea party at least as a listener, so that her mind would be taken off her overwhelming sense of loss. She mentioned how her two half-caste kitchen women, Victoria and Lill, had often told her stories about Hermannsburg, and spoken with deep affection not only of the Reverend Strehlow but also of his wife. From these tales it had become evident that if Strehlow had come to be accepted as the great aboriginal father figure at Hermannsburg, then his wife had long since come to fill the role of the great mother at his side. A shy flush of joy came over Mrs Strehlow's wan and care-lined face. She had met both Victoria and Lill during her stay at Horseshoe Bend ten years earlier and had always taken a keen interest in their doings. Since the mail-man who came to Hermannsburg started his mail run at Horseshoe Bend, the Hermannsburg folk had always been kept well supplied with all the news - and all the gossip too - relating to Horseshoe Bend and to its folk, white and dark.
In this way Mrs Strehlow had learned about the struggles that Mrs Elliot herself had faced when she first arrived at Horseshoe Bend as Gus Elliot's girl bride. Lill, the gentle and kindly, soft-eyed woman who had borne Gus three sons and a daughter, had been most indignant at being displaced from her honoured position in the Elliot household by the arrival of the young "white kwiai", who had, in addition, insisted that Lill's children - some of whom were much the same age as the new Mrs Elliot - should change their surname from that of their father to that of their mother. The fiery-tempered and straight-speaking Victoria had taken Lill's part with rebellious vigour; and the dark stockmen had sullenly refused for a considerable time to accept the change in the names of their lighter-coloured mates from Bert, Sonny, and Jimmy Elliot to Bert, Sonny, and Jimmy Swan. But in the end Mrs Elliot had become accepted as the new white mistress of Horseshoe Bend; and both Victoria and Lill had been so won over by her kindness to the whole dark population that they had not only dropped their enmity towards her, but had come to treat her as a daughter who had to be helped and protected in the harsh land where she had made her new home. Both Victoria and Lill had had their three-quarter white daughters taken from them and sent south for their education. Victoria had in this way lost her two daughters Dolly and Florrie, and Lill her daughter Millie; and neither mother had ever become completely reconciled to her bereavement. Both women still hoped that the time might come when they should at least be able to set their eyes once more on their grown-up daughters. In the meantime the "young white kwiai" had become a kind of daughter-substitute. The bond of affection that now existed between Mrs Elliot, Victoria, and Lill had a strength that was as admirable as it was touching: perhaps it was only Central Australia that could have united in such perfect accord three women whom social forces and influences in the more civilized South would have turned into lifelong antagonists.
When Stolz commented on the quiet efficiency with which Lill and Victoria were doing their work at the tea party and in the kitchen, Mrs Elliot replied, "Yes, they're both dears. I don't know what I would have done without them all these years. When Sheila was born, no one could've been more proud of the baby than they were - they treated her like their own child, and they couldn't fuss enough around me.
"They took me out after rains and taught me all about bush foods - the berries, the yalka, the yams; and whenever any native game was brought in, they always came along with some cooked meat for me too. And I got to like it in the end.
"But I appreciated their help most of all when I first came to The Bend. I was just a young city girl from Melbourne - a real newchum girl, frightened of centipedes, spiders, scorpions, and snakes; and there are plenty of those around here in summer, particularly after good rains.
"I remember one afternoon, some months after I'd come up, having a bath in the rickety old bathroom off this verandah - just some posts stuck in the ground and old packing-case boards nailed to them. The door was made of boards too, and wouldn't shut properly. Just as I was standing up reaching for the towel hanging on the door, I saw a big black snake wriggling underneath it. I can't tell you what a fright I got - I'd never seen a live snake in my life before. I just stood there in the bath and screamed my head off. As soon as I started yelling, the men came rushing out from the hotel. But when the first man pushed open the door, he stopped in his tracks as though that snake had bitten him; and he went back for his life. No one else would come near me. In the end Vic heard me screaming. One of the men told her what was going on. I can still see her coming in at the door, carrying a big waddy. She knocked that snake cold in a jiffy.
Then she took the towel off the door, put it around me, and gave me a good old scolding, 'Missy, you no gottem shame? Standin' dere and callin' out like that till all dem men come along, and see you standin' dere naked in the barss! Why you no sing out longa me first time? Me bin feelum proper shame longa you!' But she wasn't really mad with me - just thought that the missus shouldn't be seen like that by any of the hotel customers. She was really sorry for me."
When the laughter had died down, Stolz asked, "Do you have many snakes about here in summer?"
"Do we!" replied Mrs Elliot: "I'll say we have! And the trouble is they can slip in under most of the doors in the hotel, the kitchen, and the dining-room. On a hot night you've got to take a light wherever you go or you might step on one of the blighters in the dark. Some of the men around here mightn't mind, but I do. And so do all the women. Tell you another snake yarn: do you remember old Fred Freer?" she asked, turning to Mrs Strehlow.
"Yes, I do," the latter replied. "He brought up our mail for quite a while. "
"That's right," agreed Mrs Elliot. "And in between the mail runs he was working here as the station cook. Well you know what old Fred was like. He hardly ever opened his mouth, and nothing could shift him before he was ready.
About the slowest thing I ever saw in these parts, and that's saying something. But he was a good cook, and he used to bake the loveliest bread I ever tasted. Now Fred was a married man - rare thing in this country - and he'd brought his wife up with him. She hated the place and the bush and the folk up here, and in the end old Fred had to get back south, though he didn't want to leave The Bend. Mrs Freer used to spend most of the day gossiping, and at night she'd sit up reading in bed with a kerosene lamp alongside of her. One night she was reading in bed as usual, when she saw a snake crawling in under the door. 'Fred!' she called out, 'Fred! Come here! Quick! Fred!' Old Fred was out in the kitchen kneading the dough, his arms stuck in it right up to the elbows; and old Fred wasn't going to be disturbed. He was proud of his bread, and wasn't going to shift for anyone. Mrs Freer kept on yelling, 'Fred! Quick! Come here, Fred, I want you!' In the end even old Fred couldn't stand all that yelling any longer. 'I can't come,' he calls back, 'I'm just setting the bread. What is it?' Mrs Freer yells back, 'Fred, come here quickly, there's a snake in the room.' 'I can't come now,' he grumbles in that slow old way of his; 'the snake will keep. Better still, it might go out. I'll come in a minute.' Mrs Freer keeps quiet a few minutes. Then she starts yelling for Fred again. 'What's the matter now?' he calls back. 'Fred, come quickly, the snake's still in the room - I can see it going under the washstand.' 'Well, put the light out, and you won't see it!' he yells back. After that he finished kneading the dough, tucked it up in the dish with a blanket, and put it next to the stove for the night. After he'd done everything as slowly as he could, he went and picked up a stick. The old snake was still crawling around in the room, and Fred knocked it over first hit. Mrs Freer was just about having hysterics by then; but Fred didn't mind. Nothing could upset him. If I'd been Mrs Freer, I tell you I'd've crowned him, good and hard!"
"What a man he must have been," Stolz remarked, laughing heartily. "Fancy being able to get away with a thing like that! Not many married men would ever try it out on their wives."
"There was no one who could shift Fred, as I told you before," countered Mrs Elliot, "neither man nor woman. He just wasn't natural. But he was a darn good cook, and we were all sorry when she made him leave the country. She was a match for him in one respect at least - he couldn't get away from her."
"I'm surprised to hear you have so many snakes around here in summer," commented Stolz, looking at the arid landscape. "You've got only barren hills near the station, and the Finke over there hasn't many big gums in it. Where do all the snakes come from?"
"From the Finke mainly," Mrs Elliot replied. "And the Finke's never looked so poor as regards gums till that last big flood came down in it, beginning of last year. When I first came here, I often used to look at the beautiful big gums behind the yard, and on the other side of the river at the road crossing. And then the big rains came, late in nineteen-twenty. The Finke started running, and so did the Hugh, and so did the Palmer, and so did all the creeks on the Horseshoe Bend run. They all run into the Finke above The Bend, and the Finke ran past the station for more than six months. I'd never seen so much water rushing past me all my life. The first flood got down here about a month before Christmas, nineteen-twenty, and it wasn't till late last year that the last trickles stopped running between some of the waterholes. That was after the heat-waves'd set in. The biggest flood came down in March last year. I remember standing out in front of the hotel. It had been pouring rain all night, and all creeks and gutters on the run were running into the Finke, and the flood reached from near the top of the bank behind the stockyard up to the box gum flats on the other side - about half a mile wide. All of a sudden we could hear something come roaring down from the west like a real tornado. It kept coming closer, and all the people in the camp and everyone in the hotel rushed out to see what it was. And then we saw it coming - it was a shock wave of water, about ten feet higher than the level of the flood. When it reached the station, the water went right through the yard and came up within half a chain of the hotel. On the other side it spread right out as far as the sandhills. The Finke must've been about a mile and a half or two miles wide at this stage. Down went all the big gums, on both sides of the main channel. At sundown the only big trees still standing were what was left on the flood flats. That's why there aren't any big gums left all along that horseshoe bend along the eastern side of the Finke where the cliff walls are. All you can see now are a few young gums growing up out of the sand; but it will take twenty or thirty years before the Finke is going to look nice again at The Bend. I don't think I'll still be here to see it."
Loud shouts from the camp interrupted the conversation. "Boss comin' back," excitedly announced Victoria. "Dat's de buggy comin' down de hill now."
Gus Elliot had left Charlotte Waters on Friday night, soon after hearing of Strehlow's death. He had camped the first night at the Nine Mile, a flat between Charlotte Waters and New Crown Point, where there was plenty of feed for his team. This had been a "dry camp" for his horses, and he had paused at the Goyder soakage next day in order to give them a drink. After calling in at Old Crown Point, he had spent Saturday night in a grassy patch near Cunningham's Gap to give his horses a chance to have a good feed. For the country around Old Crown Point was, as usual, a powdered-up dustbowl, where hundreds of cattle, milling round the station well, had eaten the open country completely bare of its grasses and trampled down for square miles the once luxuriant cover of "old-man" saltbush found in the box gum flood flats.
It was still only ten thirty in the morning when Elliot returned. His horses were weary, but Elliot himself looked surprisingly fit after his rushed hundred-and-sixty-mile round trip made in the scorching weather. He would not listen to any suggestions of taking even a short rest after his return. He was full of eagerness to learn all the details of Strehlow's last day and the funeral. His main regret was that he had not been able to pay his personal respects at the grave-side to the man with whom he had been acquainted for twenty eight years. When his wife told him about Strehlow's final request to have his bush friends rewarded after his death, Elliot declared energetically, "Ruby, I'll get those bottles up to old Allan and Bob with the next mail. Now about the men here: I'm going to put aside a whole case of free whisky. Anybody that's here now, and anybody that comes within the next fortnight, is going to get a free drink at the bar. I'll tell them that all the grog came from Mr Strehlow, but I'm only going to put a few bottles on his account. It was a real fine gesture from the old boy to think of us like that. Of course, it's just the sort of thing one might have expected from him. But I'm not going to take all that money from his widow - she'll need every penny she can hang on to. The mission staff never got paid much - it's a bloody shame how little the old fellow got all his life. But that's none of my business. Horseshoe Bend can stand a case of grog easier than the poor old boy's estate."
Elliot, feeling completely desiccated after his long, hot drive back from Charlotte Waters, wasted no time in getting to the bar to relieve his own thirst. Then all white station hands and visitors were called in so that Elliot and the other white men present could drink a toast to the memory of the departed, according to the time-honoured traditions of the bush. When all had assembled at the bar, Elliot poured out liberal double-whiskies into the waiting array of glasses and said, "Well, mates, here's to Mr Strehlow - a man's man like the rest of us! " After the toast had been honoured with great fervour, he continued, "And that drink's not on the house either: the old boy specially wanted us all to remember him after his death the same way as we've always remembered our own mates after they've gone. He left a will that a case of whisky should be donated at his own expense so that we could celebrate things the right way, as is proper in the bush. We'll have three rounds this morning. After that anybody that comes here during the next fortnight is going to be included in the shout."
"Well, I'll be damned!" exclaimed Hughes. "Who'd've thought a bloody parson would've left any money behind for blokes like us to wet our whistles with? All the ones I've ever struck've been a mean lot of bloody wowsers - like Mack said yesterday, they'd start sniffing you up and down like dogs with runny noses as soon as you started shaking hands with 'em."
"This one was different," interposed Elliot with firm conviction. "He was the absolute boss on that station of his - make no mistake about that; and yet all the niggers in the country trusted him and would do anything for him. And, parson or no parson, the bush people, too, grew to respect him - funny bloody thing, come to think of it! But he was honest. He was dinkum. He was a white man. He'd make any bush bloke welcome on the station. This is a man's country. Every white man on his station is the king of all he surveys, as the saying goes; and the old boy was a man's man. Everyone in this country agrees on that."
After the three rounds of free drinks the bar was shut; for Elliot had many other details to attend to in the store before Stolz could leave Horseshoe Bend and continue on his way to Hermannsburg.
According to the new arrangements, Mrs Strehlow and her son, accompanied by Heinrich, were to resume their journey to Oodnadatta on the following morning in the van with fresh horses borrowed from Horseshoe Bend. Hesekiel was to be the driver of the van, while Titus would be in charge of the loose horses. Since a hurried dash would be necessary in order to cover the remaining two hundred and thirty miles to Oodnadatta in eight days, the Charlotte Waters telegraph station and the cattle stations lying on the travel route had to be contacted by telephone; for it was clear that additional fresh horses would have to be borrowed at each station further down the track to take the place of those that were unable to continue. This quick dash over the gibber country was necessary if the travellers were to stand any chance of catching the fortnightly train which would be leaving Oodnadatta on the last day of October.
Horseshoe Bend was the only station along this track that had a store stocking the full range of provisions and general road requirements needed by Central Australian travellers; and Elliot, with the assistance of Heinrich, carefully got ready all the goods needed on the two Hermannsburg vehicles during their separate journeys - both for the van which was continuing south to Oodnadatta and for the buggy which was returning north to Hermannsburg.
The latter was fitted out first, since Stolz was due to leave immediately after an early midday meal. Stolz spent over an hour after Elliot's return with Mrs Strehlow discussing her future and that of her son. He made it abundantly clear that her best plan would be to remain in Australia for the present and to send her son to the new secondary school that the Church was due to open in Adelaide at the beginning of the following year. While Stolz could not give any definite financial undertakings, he promised to do his best to obtain the necessary assistance from the Church both for Mrs Strehlow and her son for at least the whole of the following year. Theo, when called in and told of the new plans for his education, accepted them with pleasure; for they meant that he would not have to leave his homeland after all.
This conversation was interrupted by a telephone call from Alice Springs for Mrs Strehlow. Mrs Stott, the wife of Sergeant Stott, had rung to express her sympathy. "Dear Mrs Strehlow," she said, "I just felt I had to ring you even though my husband and I had already sent you that wire last Friday evening. We still can't grasp what's happened - your dear husband's death has thrown such a sadness into the police station, and we don't seem to be able to throw it off. To think that that was the end of the huge sacrifice of life that the dear Reverend Mr Strehlow made! I suppose it's the will of God - certainly beyond my understanding. My husband and I cannot get over nor understand we will close the curtains on one of the best men in the country - most conscientious in his work and life, and respected by all." Mrs Strehlow was too overwhelmed by the obvious sincerity of this tribute to do more than stammer out a few broken words of thanks. She apologized for her inability to carry on a more coherent conversation.
"Don't worry, dear Mrs Strehlow," replied Mrs Stott, and her voice was full of warm sympathy. "There's just one more thing that my husband wants me to tell you about. It's about the half-castes here at The Bungalow. You know what a problem Mrs Standley and we are having with them. The Government certainly doesn't know what to do with them. That is why my husband and Mr Urquhart called on Mr Strehlow last July when he was so ill. Your husband didn't see how he could take the half-castes off our hands - we feel now that he was too ill to listen to our plans. But we hope to see the Reverend Mr Stolz at The Alice, and we still hope The Mission Station will take them all. They do no good here. At the Mission Station they would at least learn to fear God and learn the higher ideals of life. We trust that The Mission will be pleased to take these poor foundlings - the surroundings here are against them."
Mrs Strehlow, who was well acquainted with Urquhart's and Stott's plan, remembered how alarmed her husband had been about it. He had felt obliged to oppose it because he could not see how Hermannsburg could house two different sets of people in one small area - a legally underprivileged and segregated aboriginal population and a privileged half-caste school population that was to be trained for absorption into the white community. Ever since that evening in July he had been worrying lest the Government, offended by his refusal, should use the burden of the debt that was lying on Hermannsburg as an excuse for taking over the mission and turning it into a governmental half-caste settlement. It was a relief to Mrs Strehlow to learn that Urquhart's and Stott's plan had been based on genuine high regard for her husband as an educator, and on admiration for his standing among the aboriginal and part-aboriginal population of the Centre.
She thanked Mrs Stott for the tribute the latter had paid her deceased husband.
"Please don't thank me," replied Mrs Stott. "I'm only sorry your husband won't be at Hermannsburg if Mr Stolz does accept the Government's plan. It will be a long time before Hermannsburg will see another man like Mr Strehlow."
Sergeant Stott added a few personal words of tribute to those of his wife; and then the conversation ended. The "uncrowned king of Central Australia" had paid his last respects to the man for whom he had come to feel the highest admiration towards the end of his long career at Hermannsburg. Other tributes were to come later to Strehlow from men holding higher public positions; but Stott's remarks set the official Central Australian seal of approval on one of Central Australia's outstanding men.
It did not take long to harness the Henbury donkeys to the buggy after a rushed midday meal. Njitiaka and Lornie were to take Stolz back to Henbury, with Jakobus bringing up the loose donkeys behind them. From Henbury Stolz hoped to complete his trip to Hermannsburg with horses borrowed from Bob Buck. In any case, he knew that there would be the mission horses available which had been left behind at Henbury on the way down.
When the buggy was ready to leave, Njitiaka and Lornie said a sad goodbye to Mrs Strehlow and her son. After that it was Jakobus's turn to say farewell. He came up slowly, leading his horse by the bridle. Always a taciturn man, Jakobus did not make a long speech about his feelings; but his few short words were vibrant with emotion and unaffected in their sincerity. First he shook Mrs Strehlow warmly by the hand and assured her that neither he nor the rest of the Hermannsburg folk would ever forget their dead ingkata. Then he turned to Theo and appealed to him never to forget his own homeland and his own Aranda folk. "Your father now rests with us, here in the land of the Aranda people, and you too must return to us and to your own home of Ntarea after you have finished your schooling. Always remember us as we shall remember you - don't leave your own folk forever. " He shook Theo's hand with honest, deep, heartfelt affection.
Then he turned, mounted his horse, and rode slowly to the yard to round up the loose donkeys. Njitiaka and Lornie called out to their team. Loud shouts of farewell rose from the circle of watchers, and the buggy moved forward, with Stolz waving a vigorous goodbye to Horseshoe Bend. The empty easy-chair which was being taken back on the buggy as a gift to Bob Buck was a poignant reminder of Strehlow's death journey. With plodding but resolute steps the donkeys moved down into the Finke and across the white river bed into the cane grass flats on the other side.
The white and the dark watchers dispersed and went back to their rooms and wurleys. Only Theo remained behind.
Shading his eyes with his right hand, he kept looking after the buggy till it had vanished from his sight in the distant box gum flats. A strong emotional reaction now began to set in in his mind; for the departing vehicle reminded him of the sudden and tragic end of the journey that had been undertaken with such great faith and courage to save his father's life. The vanished vehicle had suddenly come to seem to him like a token of the vanity of man's hopes - a symbol of the utter futility of all human endeavours when they matched themselves against a higher force that was outside human control. Many men and women had rallied to the assistance of his father after he had been stricken down by his last illness at Hermannsburg. Hesekiel's marathon walk to Alice Springs, Mrs Elliot's courageous ride to Idracowra, Gus Elliot's determined dash to Charlotte Waters: all of these had been, in a very real sense, heroic feats, taxing to the utmost the determination and the physical stamina of the persons who had in these exploits hurled themselves recklessly into this grim battle to save a human life. Wurst had not hesitated to risk his new car for the same unselfish purpose. Buck, Butler, and Breaden had offered whatever means there had been in their power to supply. The population of the Centre, both dark and white, had been ready to rise to his sick father's assistance without any holding back of their private resources or stinting of their strength. And yet, all these high hopes had been blighted, and all this rugged energy and boundless enthusiasm had proved to be of no avail. The two cars sent north from Oodnadatta had both been stopped by the Alberga - the first by its sand and the second by its floodwaters; and most of the men and women who had heard of these events had accepted them in a spirit of fatalism as proofs that his father's hour of death had been fixed irrevocably. Stolz and Mrs Strehlow had seen in these events the intervention of God, Who was summoning His tired servant to His side. The bush folk had been convinced that these happenings revealed the existence of something that could best be described as a blind Force akin to Fate. "When the game was up", men had to die. Or, as the men who had returned from the recent World War had expressed it, "No man can escape a bullet that's got his number written on it." Even Strehlow's death on a Friday fitted in with the old bush beliefs; for all the "old hands" in the country knew that Friday was a day of ill, a day of bad luck, a day of grim accidents, and certainly a day on which no new task should ever be started since it would be dogged by misfortune from the beginning to the end. Theo was too confused to be able to reason or argue clearly in his mind about these matters. He felt completely overwhelmed by a chaotic turmoil of conflicting thoughts, doubts, and anxieties. The only thing about which he felt certain was that his father had died because he had been meant to die by a higher Power. But why should his death have had to happen now, and at this desolate spot? Why at Horseshoe Bend?
Now that the buggy had vanished from his sight, he was suddenly experiencing an overpowering sense of loss: his father was lying buried at Horseshoe Bend, the buggy with the familiar donkeys and three of his friends was returning to Hermannsburg without him, and an uncertain future lay menacingly before him. His mind began to be overcome by deep distrust for the new, white, southern world into which he would soon be making his entry: would he find in it such things as friendship, kindness, decency, or loyalty? His reading of books and magazines had given him no definite reassurances on these matters. During the war years many of the Adelaide newspapers and periodicals had conveyed to him a terrifying impression of the unreasoning popular hatred felt towards the Lutheran Mission at Hermannsburg. Again, the Lutheran Church itself and even its ministers had, he felt, let his father down badly during his last illness; and even the late efforts made by Stolz and Wurst had not done much to dispel this unfavourable impression. But even stronger than these well-based feelings of anxiety was the natural fear of entry into a new and totally strange human environment. Up to this point in his life Theo had been a bush kid who had had to fight his battles in a completely isolated white bush community. The only playmates he had ever known had been dark boys and girls; and in all his relations with them he had been compelled to conform to the aboriginal norms of behaviour, since he had been the only white child among scores of Aranda youngsters. What would life be like in that distant coastal "South", about which his dark friends knew nothing and to which the white population of the Centre referred mainly in depreciatory, resentful, or sneering terms?
The white bush folk, who thought of themselves as strong, tough, honest, and virile types, had far too often referred to the "Southerners" as self-seeking, unfriendly, and hypocritical types in Theo's hearing; and their derogatory remarks had left a strong effect on the mind of the sensitive boy who could not correct these criticisms by any personal observations.
Theo felt that he could not return to the hotel - not just yet, anyway. He wanted to be alone. And yet not alone - merely out in the open, somewhere by himself in the Finke bed, looking upon its colourful bordering cliffs for the last time, undisturbed and unobserved. The Finke constituted the last link with his lost boyhood home. It was the ancient Lira Beinta, the greatest of all the sleeping Aranda rivers, famed and celebrated in the mythology of the Western and Southern Aranda regions. It came down from the distant MacDonnell Ranges, from the vast rocky slopes of Rutjubma and Ltarkalibaka; it swept past Ntarea to the very base of the red mountain mass of Lalkintinerama; and it rushed from there into its thirty-five-mile gorge south of Hermannsburg, on its winding way to Irbmangkara. Rutjubma, Ltarkalibaka, and Lalkintinerama - or as they were known to the white population, Mt Sonder, Mt Giles, and Mt Hermannsburg: these were the three great mountains that had greeted his eyes at Hermannsburg every day that he could remember; and Ntarea was his own home - the birthplace that bestowed upon him his Aranda citizenship rights which no man could ever take away from him. The high mountain of Lalkintinerama, over whose red, pine-studded dome the baby Twins of Ntarea had wandered after leaving their birthplace in Palm Valley, the two desert oaks in the sandhills north of Hermannsburg which indicated the furthest point of their wanderings, the second pair of desert oaks on the southern bank of the Finke which marked the place where they had paused before diving into the deep pool of Ntarea, the rounded hill of Alkumbadora which had come into being when the frantic mother of the Twins threw away her pitchi upon seeing the foam flakes rising on the disturbed waters of Ntarea after her babies had leapt into it: all these sites were familiar to Theo, and the traditions connected with them were his birthright, though so far he knew the myth only in its barest outline and had not yet heard the sacred verses. The Lira Beinta was his own river: no matter what the future might bring, he would never cease to regard himself as one of the children of the Finke River.
He quickened his steps as he walked rapidly past the stockyard because the stench of stale blood and decomposing manure outside the killing pen was nauseating him. A flock of ragged, squawking crows abused him from the top beam of the gallows as he passed by. He did not heed them, but plunged down into the soft, clean sand of the Finke and plodded upward in the river bed for several hundred yards till the station was out of sight, shut out by the high cliff bank of Pot'Arugutja. From this position Theo could look northward to the high red-and-white mass of Inggodna and southward to the bold cliff faces of Tnondakngara, Ndaterkaterka, and Gula. Though the sky was full of heavy clouds, the rich colours of these cliffs were unblurred by any dust haze. Their broad slopes of red, white, and yellow gave an air of rich and ageless beauty to this part of the Finke Valley - a beauty completely at variance with the drab barrenness of the rocky expanse on which the hotel and the station buildings were standing. These were the Painted Cliffs of Horseshoe Bend: Theo knew that he would never forget them. Their haunting beauty would mingle forever in his memory with the rough grave-mound on the slopes of the bare ridge north of the station. To whatever lands life might take him, the vision of these Painted Cliffs would accompany his steps, and their heavy shadows would fall across his path.
Theo lay in the warm, white sand for well over an hour, watching, reflecting, and dreaming, before he felt calm enough to turn back to the station. He would gladly have stayed longer; but he knew that if he did so he would be missed at the station; and then men would be sent to search for him. He rose and shook the loose sand from his clothes.
Then he looked at his watch, realized with a start that it was three o'clock, and began hurrying back towards the hotel. He had not gone many yards before a distant roll of thunder came to his ears. Within seconds a violent north-westerly gale came sweeping down the Finke Valley from the direction of Mborawatna, and the box gum and cane grass flats that lay across its course rapidly disappeared under huge clouds of grey-and-brown dust. The thunderclaps became more frequent, and their heavy rolling drew closer with menacing rapidity. It was as though the rain ancestresses of Mborawatna had become roused from their long sleep once more. Accompanied by a vast retinue of stormclouds and rain-clouds, they were bearing down upon Horseshoe Bend, with columns of red-brown dust whirling and billowing under them on the ground below. Attended by the terrifying fury of a rain-gale, the ancestresses were once more visiting the parched and suffering land lying south-east of their mythical home, affording it a welcome relief from the fiery heat that normally slumbered under its arid surface. The whole scene looked like a re-enactment of the original progress of the rain ancestresses at the beginning of time, as described in the ancient Rain Song of Mborawatna:
Let the stormclouds wander over the land!
Let the fury of the dust-storm wander over the land!
Let the stormclouds wander over the land!
Swelling rapidly, let them wander over the land!
Swelling rapidly, let them wander over the land!
Swelling rapidly, let their foreheads gleam white!
Swelling rapidly, let them wander over the land!
Swelling rapidly, let rain pour from them like water from pitchis!
Hardly had Theo reached the shelter of the hotel verandah, when the unnatural darkness that had fallen over the scorched and heat-baked landscape was rent by a heavy flash of lightning immediately overhead. A deafening roll of thunder shook the building, and all its iron sheets resounded as though some huge, invisible boulder had rolled down upon them from the cliff walls east of the station. The heavy echoes of this clap of thunder reverberated in titanic cascades of sound that made the very ground under the whole station area quiver and quake before the deafening noise finally died down into a long series of low, eddying rumbles, many of which were still loud enough to make the hotel windows rattle. Even as the thunder was fading away into silence, the first heavy drops of rain began to pelt down upon the iron roof of the hotel. The unbearable tension in the air that had been raised by slow degrees to an almost unnatural level over a long series of days of fierce heat and sandstorms and nights of cloud-choked heaviness, seemed to have found its sudden release in that titanic crash. A wild rain-gale suddenly burst upon Horseshoe Bend in unbridled primal fury. As it hit the yard and the station buildings, the last crows flew screaming off their high perch on the central beam of the stockyard gallows. They flapped their way clumsily to the shelter of the Painted Cliffs, wildly tossed about by the mad gusts of the dust-laden hurricane, like black pieces of driftwood carried downstream by the roaring red-brown waves of a storm-flood at its first mad onrush.
And now the noise of a second thunderstorm could be heard exploding into life over the table mountain country south of Horseshoe Bend, where other huge stormclouds had been building up above the fire mountain of Mbalka. Within minutes the two thunderstorms seemed to have joined their separate forces, and brilliant flashes of lightning began to writhe over Uralirbuka as well. The landscape on all sides vanished behind dense white veils of pouring rain. It was as though the whole country around Horseshoe Bend was passing again through that mythical deluge of rain which had quenched the bushfires of Mbalka at the beginning of time.
When the mischievous crow ancestor of Mbalka had awakened in the middle of the night, he had discovered that the two rain ancestors of Erea - a rain grandsire and his grandson - had succeeded in surprising him in his fiery lair at the foot of his mountain:
Grandsire and grandson: lo, they are covered in darkest
Grandsire and grandson: lo, they are covered with rain-drop eyes!
As soon as he had caught sight of his enemies, the wily crow ancestor had tried to escape from them by taking to his wings; but the torrents of water that burst in a deluge over Mbalka from their multi-tiered rain-clouds had soon put out his raging conflagrations and drowned him in a lake of hissing water at the foot of his own fire mountain.
Horseshoe Bend station seemed to be experiencing a similar downpour. The thunder above Inggodna was answered by the thunder above Uralirbuka and by the thunder above Mbalka. The clouded sky was ablaze with forked lightning. The ground, scorched and baked by a week of broiling, merciless sunshine, had its smouldering heat cooled down by broad sheets of water that quickly spread out over it everywhere. The whole air was resounding with the deafening noises of wind, rain, and thunder; and in every pool of water the multitudinous rain-drop eyes stirred up eddies which continued to widen out in great concentric ripples.
The first wild fury of the triumphant rainstorm lasted for about half an hour. Then the terrifying madness of the gale began to ease, the day-bright lightning flashes stopped, and the reverberating claps of thunder lessened in violence and finally faded away. Only the sweet music of the quickening rain remained. The heavy drops still fell in steady showers which the thirsty land drank up greedily. The rich scent of the rain-soaked earth floated up from the cooled ground, and a delicious freshness spread through the fragrant air.
The whole hillside north of the station was now glistening with water. This barren rise represented the mythical windbreak of the two ntjira sisters of Pot'Arugutja, which they had left behind when they went east to Jitutna. As they departed, tufts of ntjira grass in full seed had sprouted from their hair, so that each of them appeared to be wearing a headgear of fire-red black-cockatoo tail-feathers. On the inner side of this deserted mythical windbreak lay the boulders that symbolized the bodies of the unfaithful fire ancestors from Rubuntja, who had here succumbed to their fatal draught; and on its outer side, facing the station, were located the graves of the two white men who had died and been buried at Horseshoe Bend. Gleaming rivulets of water running down this hillside now circled around the grave of Sargeant and the new earth-mound cast up over Strehlow two days before.
As the dusk descended on the rain-drenched Finke Valley and the smell of the sodden brown earth filled the purified air, a sudden wave of joyful hope surged through Theo who stood on the hotel verandah, still gazing on the rapidly darkening cliffs and dune crests around him. No longer did he have to dread a lifelong exile in that far-away, foreign land from which his father had come. He felt certain that some day he would return to his own homeland and to those dark friends whose loyalty had brightened his whole boyhood.
From these pleasant considerations about himself his thoughts went back to the remark addressed to him earlier that afternoon by Jakobus, that his father would sleep forever in Central Australia. The more Theo reflected on those words, the more he became reconciled to the events of the past few days. His father had wanted to go back to the foreign country where he had been born, and had desired to be buried in a Christian cemetery. But was not his grave at Horseshoe Bend sited in much more appropriate surroundings? Instead of being taken out of the land to which he had given all his best years and instead of lying in isolation in a foreign cemetery, separated in death from the people with whom he had spent the whole period of his active life, he was now resting next to a pioneering cattleman, in open country unconfined by cemetery walls yet sheltered by the windbreak ridge of the ntjira sisters of Pot'Arugutja: through his unexpected and tragic death he had been united forever with the people for whom he had come to be a loved father figure.
In the white men's countries the dead had always been neatly buried in trim and tidy plots of ground, set apart completely from the cities, towns, villages, and dwellings of the living. In the Aranda country the dead shared the land of the living and the company of their supernatural beings, and their last resting places were to be found scattered throughout the timeless soil of Central Australia. Though Theo possessed only a vague knowledge of Aranda mythology, he was fully aware that every hill and mountain, every river and creek, every spring, rockhole, and waterhole, every plain and clay-pan, and all the highest dune crests in the sandhill areas, bore names of their own, and that they derived these names from the sacred myths and songs of the Aranda people. Theo also knew that every man, woman, and child, including himself, was linked indivisibly with one special site in the country of his birth. He knew that his father had preserved many of the Aranda sacred myths and songs in his scientific writings; and, curiously enough, the most southern of the Aranda traditions he had recorded - that of the two Ntjikantja brothers - had belonged to the Horseshoe Bend area. Theo himself had been allowed to view earlier that year, in deep secrecy, a large number of waninggas and tjurunga objects which had been brought to his father by the older men of Hermannsburg at the end of March and the beginning of April. Now that he no longer had to go overseas, he could at least entertain the hope that some day he might return to his own Aranda country and steep himself in its ancient traditions. The Aranda folk of Central Australia had always lived and died secure in the belief that their immortal totemic ancestors, too, were living and sleeping in their very midst in this Eternal Land whose geographical features they had created at the beginning of time. To the Aranda, Central Australia had been the Land of Altjira, the Land of Eternity. As the dusk grew deeper, Theo knew that this storied land would provide a far finer last resting place for his father than he could ever have found in some conventional cemetery in that distant country from where he had first come. At Horseshoe Bend he was not sleeping alone: here he had joined forever the great company and congregation of the countless thousands of Aranda men, women, and children, who had lived and died in this Eternal Land for hundreds, and perhaps for thousands, of years past. Yet this Eternal Land was in no sense a cemetery: the Aranda had never considered their land to be the land of death but rather the land of life. Even such an accursed site as the Land of Death at Uralterinja had always been regarded only as a tiny island in the vast land of life; and there had been men born in the Uralterinja region who had been regarded as the living reincarnations of the two Ntjikantja brothers, since these had left behind a part of their living essence in the two serpents that could not be finally destroyed. Men, animals, and plants might indeed die and turn into dust; but the earth which absorbed their dust yielded new grasses and flowers, new trees and shrubs, fresh food for men and all other living creatures; and, according to Aranda belief, the second souls of all unborn children, too, emanated from the sacred soil of Central Australia. The existence and the continual re-creation of all these forms of life depended on the fertilizing and quickening power of rain. The long droughts, the devastating bushfires, and the spells of grim and deadly heat which periodically ravaged this tough and unconquerable land could never wholly destroy its plants, animals, or human beings; for heat, fire, and drought lost their menace and their power once the clouds poured down their life-giving showers on the tortured and apparently dying landscape below. Rain had hence come to be regarded as the visible symbol of life in Central Australia; for it was after its quickening showers that the earth grew green, that the insects multiplied, and that the land suddenly became filled with birds and animals as though by the mysterious processes of magical increase.
And now came the darkness of a dying day. The rain was still falling down from the heavy clouds, but its music had become gentle and soothing, like a song sung by a mother to put to sleep her unquiet child. Theo gazed calmly at the hillside where his father's earth-mound was beginning to fade out into the featureless blackness of a rain-wet night. Could death ever do more than destroy the temporary embodiments and manifestations of life? Plants, animals, and men all transmitted their life to their own seeds, their own young, and their own posterity before death came to claim them.
Though death kept on stalking over the earth, the world of plants, animals, and men remained vigorously and gloriously alive. And to what limitations was the spirit of man subject? Was not man superior to all other living things only because of his spirit - because of his power of speech and thought that enabled him to probe deeply into the mysteries of the universe and the enigma of his own existence? Did man's personality survive death? His father had implicitly believed in the truth of the ancient words of the Preacher about the nature of death: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God Who gave it." Since the age of thirteen Theo had often been troubled by secret doubts about the absolute truth of many of the beliefs that had been inculcated into him by his parents from the earliest days of his childhood. The events of the past six weeks had shaken and shattered his faith to its very foundations. And yet he felt strangely reassured as he peered out into the deepening, wet gloom outside. In a few days from now green shoots of grass and herbage would be peeping out from the clay soil between the broken stones of the mound under which his father was sleeping his last sleep.
To the boy the rain that was falling on his father's grave had come to represent the symbol of life, the promise of life, the assurance of life, and the certainty of life. Life could not be finally conquered by death; for the power of life was greater than the destructiveness of death. Life was from eternity to eternity.
Previous: October 21st