Grapes from a thorn [short story by Agnes L. Storrie, 15 October 1887]

[Editor: This short story by Agnes L. Storrie was published in The Adelaide Observer, 15 October 1887.]

The story-teller.

Grapes from a thorn.

A short story.

[By “Ayea” — Agnes L. Storrie, Glenelg.]

Being the First-prize Novelette at the S. A. Literary Societies’ Union Competition, September 22,1887.

[Published by permission of the Executive Committee of the Union.]

It was the hottest day of an exceptionally hot summer. All day long a fierce north wind had been blowing, while overhead the great hot sun hung in a brazen sky and poured down his scorching rays till the whole world seemed palpitating with intense heat, and the atmosphere was thick and stifling. Even in the scrub where the trees were dense and the undergrowth luxuriant there seemed to be no shade, and the walls of a large farmhouse, which nestled with its gardens around it in the very heart of the bush, shone with a white and shadowless glare. It was a pretty old place; built on an ample clearing in the wild scrub, it stood, with its huge, well-stocked gardens, and numerous outhouses, like a little piece of civilization dropped inadvertently in the midst of the primeval forest. For close up on all sides was the scrub, with tall gums interlacing their branches overhead and a tangled growth of bushes and high bracken fern beneath, and here and there a sentinel grasstree or a flame of scarlet-runner on the ground. Here in the mornings an orchestra of voices arose, a great cawing of crows and laughing of “Jacks,” and chattering of magpies, to the low sweet accompaniment of the bubbling creek. But on this day of which I am speaking there was no sound of birds or ripple of running water, for the heat was too intense even for the garrulous Australian birds, and save for a few waterholes the creek was dry. Indeed, there was an oppressive silence everywhere. The green shutters of the house were closed, and there was no sound of voices, for, with the exception of two women, the house was empty. Miss Ada Barrington was sitting in the dark and shady drawing-room, alternately fanning herself and idly fingering the keys of the piano. It was too hot to give one’s attention seriously to anything but taking life as easily as possible. The French windows, which faced south, were open, for it was necessary, Ada thought, to have some air, even if it was witheringly hot. Presently the door opened, and Susan, the one female servant of the establishment, appeared.

“I’m going now, miss, to Bowen’s to borrow a little yeast; mine has all turned sour. I won’t be gone long; if you’d be so good as to give an eye now and then to the cakes in the oven?” she said.

“Going now,” said Ada. “Oh, why not wait till the evening, Susan. It is so terribly hot now, and it’s such a long walk?”

Susan shook her head. “Well,” she said, “it ain’t exactly what you might call cool, but I can’t wait till evening. I’ll be wanting to set the bread as soon as the milking’s over, and I don’t mind the heat — Lor! I’m used to it, but you won’t forget the cakes, miss?”

“I can’t promise,” Ada replied, with a smile, “It’s too hot to remember anything, but I’ll try.”

“Well, good-by, miss,” and Susan was off, and presently disappeared in the mazes of the scrub.

Ada thus left alone returned to her waltzes. She was a slight, fair-haired girl of about 20, with earnest brown eyes and a quick and pleasant smile. She and her brother Alfred, who was about five years her senior, were the only children of their mother, who was a widow. Her husband had died suddenly, leaving her with the two young children, a small income, and the small but compact estate. Being “a woman of faculty” she had managed things wonderfully well, educating her children, cultivating the fields, and keeping the whole place in splendid order. Of late years, however, her son Alfred — a fine, stalwart young fellow — had taken almost entire charge of the place. Mrs. Barrington had been away for a week or so, and Alfred had driven that day to bring her home. Ada expected them by the evening, and it was in honour of her mistress’s return that Susan had indulged in an extensive baking despite the excessive heat. Both the young Barringtons were deeply attached to the old house. They had played about in the scrub as children, climbed every tree in the extensive garden, caught crayfish in the creek, and gone “’possuming” on moonlight nights; and although as they grew older and mixed more in society they saw many finer and more luxurious homes, there was never a one in their opinion to compare with the rambling old house set in the midst of the wild bush lands.

Ada was thinking, as she sat playing, that if only it were not so outrageously hot (so she phrased it) she would go down the garden and get some raspberries; perhaps it might be a little cooler under the apple-trees, where one could crouch down among the tall raspberry-canes and solace oneself with the ripe, juicy fruit; but after all it was too hot! She turned over the music on the stand, and coming across an old Scotch ballad which was a favourite of her mother’s she began to sing softly, “I’m wearing awa’, Jean, like snaw wraiths in thaw, Jean.” There is something very pathetic in the simple words and quaint wailing air, and Ada’s voice, which was sweet and flexible, insensibly caught the spirit of it. As she played the last chords a strange feeling thrilled through her. She felt rather than saw she was not alone. She lifted her eyes and her heart gave one wild bound, then suddenly stood still. For there, standing in the open doorway was a man, booted and spurred, with some strange head-gear wholly concealing his face, and in his right hand a revolver, which, as he advanced towards her, he pointed deliberately at her heart. She did not cry or make any sound; all power of speech seemed to have left her.

The bushranger seized hold of her wrist, and said rapidly, “I’m Jack Morgan, you’ve no doubt heard of me! Now, go and bring me every cent of money you’ve got in the house, and all your jewellery. It’s no use to scream or make a noise, for you are completely in my power. There’s no one within miles, and I’ve got two of my fellows outside, so you’d better be quick and waste no time. I’ve no intention of hurting you,” he added after a moment, almost kindly, for the girl’s white face and trembling limbs might have moved the stoniest heart, “but look sharp.”

Ada walked away with a queer feeling, as if it was all some grotesque nightmare from which she would presently awake, and the bushranger, who was a finely built man about the age of her own brother, followed her closely. As she passed from room to room Morgan stepped forward and held the door open with a grave politeness, strangely incongruous with his unholy errand. He received the money and valuables she handed him with a bow, and stowed them securely away on his person.

“I’m sorry to have troubled you, miss,” he said with a mocking laugh, “but business is business, you know.” He opened the door and was stepping out into the fierce glare of the sunlight when suddenly he refrained, and said, speaking hesitatingly and as if ashamed, “What was that you were singing? Sing it again.” He leant up against the piano, and motioned to the girl to resume her seat. It seemed to her an utter impossibility to sing with that grim figure at her elbow, and her fingers trembled so that she could with difficulty find the notes, but she dared not disobey. “I’m wearing awa’” she began in low tremulous tones, while she watched every motion of that sinister form, and started violently did he but move his hand. And somehow, she never quite knew how, she got through it, and then without a word of explanation the man laid his masked head on his arms, and if it had not been so utterly improbable she would have thought he was crying. Then she suddenly remembered what she had heard of this man’s history; how though he was well educated, and well connected, he had been implicated in some extensive fraud, and had been found guilty, and heavily punished, although subsequent evidence had proved that he was innocent. How he had sworn defiance to a law that could blunder so egregiously, and had gone from one villainy to another until he had developed into the daring and successful bushranger whose name rang throughout the whole colony. All this flashed across her memory as she stood watching him, and an inspiration, such as comes sometimes to the weakest in the hour of need, prompted her to lay her small white hand on his arm in spite of that terrible revolver that lay beside it. He lifted his face to her, surprised at the gentle touch.

“My mother used to sing it,” he said coarsely. “Oh, God! my mother!”

The passionate remorse of his voice touched the girl’s tender heart, and her beautiful brown eyes filled with tears. “Oh! my poor fellow,” she said earnestly, her voice full of that divine compassion that springs in every true woman’s heart at the first faint mea culpa of humanity. “What is this dreadful thing you are doing. You are so young, and your life might be so noble and true! And your mother! perhaps in the old days, when you were a little child in her arms, and she was so proud of you, and prayed every night that you might grow up a good and upright man” ——

“Don’t!” he cried passionately, shaking her hand off roughly; but his voice was uncertain, and he did not lift his head; and Ada continued gently —

“Oh! wont you try again and redeem the past? You have been wronged, I know, and that is bitter; but, oh! remember that some day we must all stand before God, and must we not try and keep our lives as white and pure for Him as we can?”

Just then a short sharp whistle from outside startled them both. The man raised his head, and, lifting the small entreating hand from his arm gently, as if it were too fair a thing for him to touch, said almost inaudibly, “God bless you! it is too late now; but God bless you!” and then he was gone.

Ada scarcely had time to recover her breath and wonder still if it were not all a dream, when he rushed into the room again.

“Come outside,” he cried, excitedly. “Quick! quick!”

Ada ran out with him, and, turning the corner of the house, a fearful sight met her gaze. A huge cloud of smoke rolled majestically from earth to sky, long lurid tongues of flame darted here and there, while on the hot wind came a heavy, stifling smell. There could be no doubt of it. The bush was on fire!

Ada gave a low cry of terror. “Alfred! Mother! Oh, what shall I do?” she cried. She seem paralysed with fear, and stood with wide, distended eyes and clasped hands, gazing at this fearful thing that came striding through the heavily timbered land with a dull roar, and now and then a sharp crash of falling trees. “The dear old house,” she cried, and her eyes were dry and tearless, and her breath came heavily; “it will be burned and gone for ever. Oh, it is terrible. Is there nothing we can do?” turning suddenly to Morgan, who stood close beside her. In her terror and excitement she had forgotten his existence, and was reminded of it by hearing him address his two companions who had mounted their horses, and were evidently impatient to be off.

“I don’t care if it does cost me my life,” he said with a deep oath that made the girl shudder. “I’ll do it, and you may go or stay as you please.”

By this time he had taken off his mask, and revealed a face undoubtedly handsome, with regular features and keen dark eyes, but so tanned and browned by exposure, so reckless and defiant in expression as to be anything but attractive.

“Get as many sacks as you can find and dip them in water,” he said, turning to Ada, then strode of in the direction of the fire. He began by firing the short, dry, grass in a circle round the house, while Ada stood by with wet sacks, and beat it out whenever it threatened to get beyond their control.

The heat was stifling, and the setting sun glowed like a blood-red ball through the thick and heavy air. Before long a crowd of men arrived, and set to work with a will to check the progress of the flames. They formed a chain from the well, and passed buckets of water from hand to hand; they burned and dug a bare circle round the house; they beat the flames back with thick green branches; and did everything in their power to conquer the fire.

By the time Mrs. Barrington and her son arrived it was raging close up to the farm-building, and the men fighting it inch by inch with scorched hands and singed garments seemed to be losing heart. Without wasting a moment in vain repinings Mrs. Barrington joined her daughter and the terrified Susan in the kitchen, where they were making pails of tea to carry out to the gallant, but exhausted workers, while Alfred rushed headlong into the heart of the fray, and fought with all his eager young strength against this ravenous foe that was surging and roaring up into the troubled heavens and licking along the ground in long lithe tongues of flame. And he was conscious through it all that where the flame was fiercest, the smoke most suffocating, there was a tall, dark, silent, figure, with face blackened, and clothes torn and scorched out of all recognition, wrestling like a very giant, undismayed by the frightful heat, the blinding smoke, and the occasional showers of sparks that came raining down from some falling branch. Ada, too, watched it with a sort of fascination, and ever after the scene was graven deep on her memory. The wild flames leaping from a bed of deep glowing red, and casting a lurid glare on all the distant horizon, a cloud of dense smoke obscuring the very heavens, cloven by sudden arrows of flame that darted out like fiery serpents exulting in their freedom — the figures of the men, thrown out clear against the flaming background, and seeming like pigmies in their puny stature before the awful majesty of the fire.

At last, when hope seemed vain, and the men were almost giving in, the thing they had been hoping and longing for for hours occurred — the wind changed. There was observable an uncertainty and fluctuation in the movements of this great, red monster — he paused in his furious racing — he leaped high into the air, then turning in baffled rage licked his own black desolate pathway; and before long Alfred went up to where his mother and sister were standing, and told them with a sigh of unspeakable relief that all danger was over. His face was black, his beard scorched and ragged, and his clothes saturated with water hung in tatters round him.

“Thank God it’s over now, mother, and the dear old home is saved; the men are dispersing, a few have volunteered to watch all night; they have worked splendidly. There is one fellow — I wonder who he is? — has worked like a tiger. I never saw anything like it. He spoke to no one, and seemed utterly reckless of danger. He never paused, though I was beaten back a hundred times, but he’s been the saving of the place. Why, once when — See, there he is, mother, passing by that burning tree. What a fool he is to go so close; the tree must fall, it’s tottering now. Good God!”

Strong man as he was he hid his face, and even his lips were blanched, for as he spoke the tree, a giant gum, now an upright column of glowing embers and hissing flame fell with a crash, scattering its red ashes far around. And a tall dark figure that had been standing looking with weary dark eyes over the black and smouldering land was buried beneath it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ah! fair and sweet shone the morning sunlight over the earth, a cool soft wind blew from the south, and all the frightened birds took heart, and sang again, in the leafy depths of the garden. A few burning logs, a puff of smoke here and there, and to the north as far as the eye could reach, a landscape of black ashes and charred timber was all that was left of the living monster of the night before. And in the house, with its closed blinds and reverent hushed footsteps, in spite of a great thankfulness, there was a deep and abiding sorrow.

And now, if you go there, down in the shady hollow, where round the grey rocks cling the crisp green ferns, and where a slender stem of heath lifts white, pure bells to the gentle wind, Ada will show you a grass-grown grave, with a spray of scarlet runner clustering round the plain white cross at its head. Only a wild bush flower, with brilliant uncultivated blossoms, yet it clings lovingly round the words engraved thereon —

“He died for us.”

The Adelaide Observer (Adelaide, SA), 15 October 1887, p. 42

Also published in:
The Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA), 15 October 1887, p. 2

Editor’s notes:
Jack = kookaburra (a bird also known as a “laughing jackass”, due to the sound of its call)

[Editor: Changed “its tottering” to “it’s tottering”; “a giant gum now,” to “a giant gum, now”.]

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