[Editor: A short story published in the South Bourke & Mornington Journal, 12 December 1888.]
Australia’s Father Christmas.
By Charles Rhoades.
It was Christmas Eve, and the red sun dipped suddenly out of sight in a bath of purple mist, causing a grunt of satisfaction to issue from the dry throat of a solitary traveller on the Great Western Road.
Anyone watching the man as he tramped along would have been surprised at his erratic manner. Sometimes he would steadily progress for a mile or more, then suddenly break into a sharp run, as if some powerful influence was irresistibly drawing him to his destination.
It was very hot, and the dust had worked into little balls at the corner of his eyes. Mosquitoes buzzed around his head and feasted on his bare neck. He was weary and thirsty, yet he trudged on doggedly, unmindful of these minor evils, with his eyes and heart fixed upon the glowing west.
Four years before, the prim little town of Shooters had been temporarily thrown off its moral equilibrium by the ignominy and disgrace attending the arrest of its town clerk for embezzlement. The news came as a shock to the pious community, for no man could want money less, as he had a good salary, also a comfortable home, loving wife, and two beautiful children — everything to keep a man in the straight road.
There had certainly been much profound held-shaking by the wiser, older inhabitants over Turner’s changed conduct, from the respectable church-going citizen to the gay, life-enjoying man of the world. An old college friend had found him out, and, with the selfishness of bachelorhood, had robbed the wife of his company by taking him after business hours to questionable places, giving him a taste of those old pleasures that ill-suited a married man and a father. So the elders of the town gossiped over their tea cups and prognosticated woe.
At last the crash came. Money was missing from the municipal funds. Turner was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
Francis Lyons — till this unfortunate moment his bosom friend — vanished suddenly from the town, and the heart-broken wife had to fight against sorrow, and with her needle provide a scanty living for herself and little ones. Friends rallied round her, and secured employment for the bereaved woman, and, by many considerate and generous acts, assisted to alleviate her trouble.
Four years in Pentridge are not conducive to the elevation of a man’s moral character, so it was not surprising Turner left that hospital of crime inoculated with the disease of sin. He came out a worse man than when he entered. Instead of going home to his wife and children, he sank still lower in the social scale by associating with some of his old gaol companions, till want of money drove him into the country for employment. A bitter hatred of the friend to whom he owed his present degradation filled his heart, and when he met the once gay Lyons upon the Great Western, sunk as low as himself, a common station hand, he vented the accumulated venom of four years’ “solitary” brooding on the head of that gentleman by cursing and upbraiding him for leading him into folly. Lyons was so broken that he had not sufficient spirit left in him to recriminate, so only sullenly answered his fiery accuser:
“You liked to be led — curse you! Look at me, Turner! Don’t kick a man when he’s down!”
So Lyons and Turner — once bosom friends and gay companions — met and scowled and cursed.
Periodically — a welcome relief to the monotonous station life — a gaunt, half-frenzied officer of the Salvation Army came round to hold meetings in the shearing-shed. He was a terribly earnest man, and often spoke so eloquently that his rough hearers were partially imbued with his fervent spirit.
One night, a week before Christmas, the self-sacrificing missionary stood before his audience for the last time, the shearing being over and most of the hands having been paid off that day, as the harvest was almost gathered in.
Turner had persistently held aloof from the meetings, sullenly shutting himself in his hut, but this night, out of curiosity, and feeling the necessity for a reverie, he lounged against the door-post and scowled at the speaker.
The earnest voice rolled through the old shed like a trumpet, stirring up many old memories in the hearts of his hearers, till several hoary-headed old sinners, veterans in crime, had faint qualms of repentance stealing uneasily into their minds.
As the enthusiast warmed up with his subject — praying, exhorting, warning — his ugly, homely face looked transfigured into sublimity, and his fiery words moved the rough congregation into a vague terror, raising the thoughts of some of them to higher aims and nobler impulses. Gradually the scales were falling from the eyes of Turner, clearing his vision, and enabling him to see himself. There is a time in the life of the most hardened and sin-saturated man when a faint glimmering of repentance, of dissatisfaction at the life he has been leading, steals wedge-like into his heart. It only requires some one to drive home the wedge, to split up the old habits and evil inclinations. Unfortunately wedge-drivers are scarce.
Extraneous aids to conversion are very good, but not effective. A man can be hysterically worked up into repentance by an eloquent preacher; but, to be lasting, the desire must spring from within — from the heart.
Such a moment had come to Turner, and every word of the earnest speaker drove the repentant wedge further into his heart.
“My brothers,” cried the enthusiast in conclusion, “this is a time of the year when old feuds should be healed — a time of peace on earth, good-will to all. If you have wrongs to forgive — forgive them! Restitution to make — make it! We are drawing to the end of this old year. Start the new one with a clean sheet — turn over a fresh page — reform — begin anew! The past never comes back to us! Look ahead.
“My brothers, you are like ringed trees. Some of you are dead — dead! Others partially rung — partially dead — with many promising branches withered, but still with life enough to burst out greenly. Top off your dead branches. Give over your evil habits. Repent — live cleanly!”
“Go home with your cheques — straight home. Give them to your wives and mothers. Drink water till they are safely placed away.
“Remember, when you are howling in front of an hotel bar with your cheques stuck up at the counter, you will one day stand at another bar, when this will be checked off against you to your eternal damnation.
“Brothers, go straight home. Live cleanly.
“If I have wandered from my subject, I pray earnestly that I have wandered to your hearts, and that these feeble words have fallen on fruitful ground.
“Peace be with you!
“May good-will reign among you!”
Turner thought the words were meant for him solely, and they sank deeply into his softened heart. “Go straight home — live cleanly. May good-will reign among you!” These words raced through his brain with persistent iteration.
It may seem strange to the reader — ignorant of colonial life — that a man like Francis Lyons could have fallen so low. It is the inevitable fate of men of his stamp. Educated and thriftless, with no trade or profession, he had been sent out from the old country to shift for himself; the average British father having an idea firmly rooted in his brain that his son has only to get to the colonies, for once there, fortune is assured. He should see the fortune-hunter twelve months after landing.
Lyons went along swimmingly while his money lasted, but getting short of funds, he looked up some old country friends, and billetted himself upon them until they tired of him.
Through his extravagance, he had induced the weak Turner to overstep his usual expenditure, and, in the hope of refunding, that unfortunate man had used for his own purposes money placed in his charge. After losing his last banker, Lyons lived as best he could — principally upon the strengths of promises given to credulous landladies. The lives of men of his class in the colonies can be summed up in one word — vicissitude. One day fat, another day lean!
At last he fell so low that, much to his disgust, he was compelled to work, and had been located some time as station hand on the Great Western. He was disliked by the other hands for his unsociability, as he lived in the hut some little distance from the others — a solitary misanthrope.
The night of the preaching in the shearing shed, while Turner sat in his hut happy and repentant, Lyons was lying on his bunk in ecstasy, holding a bottle of liquor before his candle, and lovingly watching the bubbles floating on the fiery spirit. He had stolen a bottle of gin from the store and was indulging in the pleasure of secret inebriation. “We’re going to keep up Chrishmas,” said Lyons confidentially to the bottle; “you and I, all alone! Never mind, old friend, about that surly Turner. He’s no gentleman — can’t even be ruined gentlemanly — went to prison — low cad! Here’s your good health! Ha! ha! ha! ha! Christmas time! Wunner what they’re doing at home? Skating, perhaps, or sleighing on the cold snow — while here it’s hell! Grand country, old friend, everything topsy-turvey — Chrishmas-time hot ’stead of cold, and Lyons, Esquire, gentleman, working — working for his bread. Grand country, no mistake!”
Through long abstinence from intoxicants, the liquor soon overpowered him, and, sinking into a troubled sleep, he dropped the bottle, and, restlessly turning, knocked the candle on the floor.
Suddenly a yell of agony brought the hands quickly from their bunks, and the horrible sight of a burning hut, with an imprisoned howling human being met the terrified gaze.
Momentarily paralysed at the sight, the men stared stupidly at the fire; then, rousing, hurried for water to quell the devouring flames.
Turner gazed at his burning enemy with mingled feelings, the fiendish joy of satisfied revenge temporarily ruling in his mind; but suddenly, vigorously shaking the devil out of him, he rushed, with a cry of “Goodwill to all!” into the burning hut, and with the sudden strength — with which a noble impulse endows the weakest — dragged the completely-sobered and partially-roasted Lyons from out the flames.
“Coals of fire, Turner!” groaned Lyons.
“Goodwill to all!” returned Turner gently, pressing his enemy’s hand.
* * * * *
Turner was the man this Christmas Eve tramping along the Great Western Road with his cheque safely stowed in his pocket, and a resolve safely fixed in his head — a determination to go straight home — to live cleanly, and to practice goodwill to all.
A cool breeze now sprang up in place of the hot wind, and the golden moon lit the traveller on his way. He walked on, past clumps of tall blue-gums, through patches of graceful, feathery sheoaks, and by many a sturdy box.
Then, as he neared the mining district of Shooters, the road led through old alluvial workings, where the spreading eucalypti jealously endeavored to hide the broken ground, where mounds of white and red clay stared coldly between the dark green leaves, and many a gaunt skeleton of a poppet-head stalked grimly over some worked-out shaft.
Turner trudged manfully on with his eyes to the starry west.
On Christmas morning the sun peeped over the ring of hills that encircled the town of Shooters, and roused the sleeping townsfolk from their beds.
At the door of a pretty Virginia creeper-covered cottage, near the top of the main street, a woman was standing shading her eyes from the ray of the inquisitive god with a small white hand, and eagerly, with a great yearning in her dark blue eyes, looked down the white and dusty road.
Every morning for the last six months the faithful wife had been looking for the face that never came, and listening for the well-known step.
Little feet came pattering up the passage, and a round, dimpled face, with a pair of staring blue eyes, looked out from beside the mother.
“Isn’t Tismas coming yet, mama?”
“Not yet, darling — not our Christmas yet!”
“Papa’s a long time bringing it, isn’t he, mama?”
Poor Mrs. Turner smiled sadly at the little questioner, then lifted her in her arms and entered the cottage.
The years had scarcely altered the beautiful woman — only given a more subdued expression to the once bright, mobile face. Her life had passed serenely, uneventfully — devoted to her two children, with the ever present hope of one day welcoming her repentant husband. The patronage willingly given by her kind townsfolk had relieved her of any monetary anxiety, as she had gradually worked up a respectable connection, and the click of scissors and the whirr of sewing machines could be heard from morn till night in the long workroom.
It is astonishing to see what a woman can do if she is only compelled. No one who knew Mary Turner in her brighter days would have imagined that the indolent, elegant, fashionable young lady would develop into a shrewd business woman. If a woman has someone to work for her and depend upon, she accepts all that is given as her right, and hesitates to soil her dainty fingers; but let her suddenly find herself without anyone to keep her, without means, and with others dependent upon her, then she is compelled to strike out for herself, and, as a rule, succeeds gloriously.
Her children, through their playmates at the public school, had some faint idea that their father had “done something,” but Mrs. Turner jealously kept from them the story of their father’s disgrace, telling them that he had gone on a long journey, and on some Christmas Day would return.
It was during a Christmas week Turner was arrested, and at this present only the four years of his incarceration would expire. Through good conduct, nine months were remitted from his sentence, but the poor wife knew nothing of this, or her sorrow would have been greater, though grieving over his whereabouts and wondering in what company he was associated. This fresh sorrow was spared her.
Seated at the breakfast-table, helping himself liberally to jam, was her other child, a boy of seven, bright and intelligent-looking, with clear, grey eyes and open countenance.
“Well, mama; no Christmas this year?”
“It is early in the morning yet, and there is plenty of time for papa to bring it,” answered the poor mother, who, though feeling her own heart ready to burst at the mention of her husband, smiled brightly on the children, not wishing to spoil their Christmas Day.
“You don’t eat any breakfast, mama.”
“No, darling; I am not hungry.”
“Well, tell us about Father Tismas,” said the little girl.
“Where I was born, miles and miles away, far over the sea, Christmas is quite different to our Christmas here. There it is cold, with ice and snow, and people sit round their fires and tell stories and drink nice hot things!”
“That’s fine!” said the boy.
“Father Christmas is very, very old. He has a jolly red face, and a pair of laughing blue eyes. His hair and long beard is snow white, and sparkles with frost — while his great coat and furry cap is covered with snow. He carries a Christmas tree covered with presents for good children. That is England’s Father Christmas!”
“Now, tell us what papa is like, so that we shall know him when he comes,” said the boy.
“Oh! your papa is tall and strong, with a beautiful face. His eyes are like yours, large and grey, and they look at you straight in the face, for they fear no one!”
At the door, looking hungrily in upon the peaceful scene, was a dirty, dusty tramp, smelling strongly of sheep, with ragged clothes and cracked boots. His eyes were bloodshot, his beard a month old, his back was bent, and a feverish color flushed his grimy face.
The boy saw the figure, and, shouting in glee — “Hurrah! there’s Australia’s Father Christmas!” pointed him out to the mother.
She started up in feverish haste, and, with a gurgling, hysterical cry, to the wide-eyed wonderment of the two children, threw herself in loving abandonment upon her husband’s breast.
South Bourke & Mornington Journal (Dandenong, Vic.), 12 December 1888, p. 1 of the “Holiday Supplement to the South Bourke & Mornington Journal”
Also published in:
The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong, and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser (Gundagai, NSW), 25 December 1888, p. 1 of the “Holliday Supplement to the Gundagai Times”
[Editor: Corrected “gossipped” to “gossiped”; “innoculated” to “inoculated”; “ersistent” to “persistent”; “ecstacy” to “ecstasy”.]