An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Speculation, Charity, And A Book

In the meantime my family history went on. My nephew was sent to the Northern Territory to take over the branch of the English and Scottish Bank at Palmerston, and he took his sister from school to go with him and stay three months in the tropics. He was only 21 at the time. Four years after he went to inspect the branch, and took his sister with him again. I think she loved Port Darwin more than he did, and she always stood up for the climate. South Australia did a great work in building, unaided by any other Australian State, the telegraph line from Port Darwin to Adelaide. and at one time it was believed that rich goldfields were to be opened in this great empty land, which the British Government had handed over to South Australia, because Stuart had been the first to cross the island continent, and the handful of South Australian colonists bad connected telegraphically the north and the south. The telegraph building had been contracted for by Darwent and Dalwood, and my brother, through the South Australian Bank, was helping to finance them. That was in 1876-7. This was the first, but not the last by any means, of enterprises which contractors were not able to carry out in this State, either from taking a big enterprise at too low a rate or from lack of financial backing. The Government, as in the recent cases of the Pinnaroo Railway and the Outer Harbour, had to complete the halfdone work as the direct employer of labour and the direct purchaser of materials. A great furore for goldmining in the Northern Territory arose, and people in England bought city allotments in Palmerston, which was expected to become the queen city of North Australia, Port Darwin is no whit behind Sydney Harbour in beauty and capacity. The navies of the world could ride safely in its waters. A railway of 150 miles in length, the first section of the great transcontinental line, which was to extend from Palmerston to Port Augusta, was built to connect Pine Creek, where there was gold to be found, with the seaboard. South Australia was more than ever a misnomer for this State. Victoria lay more to the south than our province, and now that we stretched far inside the tropics the name seemed ridiculous. My friend Miss Sinnett suggested Centralia as the appropriate name for the State, which by this gift was really the central State; but in the present crisis, when South Australia finds the task of keeping the Northern Territory white too arduous and too costly, and is offering it on handsome terms to the Commonwealth, Centralia might not continue to be appropriate. Our northern possession has cost South Australia much. The sums of money sunk in prospecting for gold and other metals have been enormous, and at present there are more Chinese there than Europeans. In the early days, when the Wrens were there, Eleanor was surprised when their wonderful Chinese cook came to her and said, "Missie, I go along a gaol to-morrow. You take Ah Kei. He do all light till I go out!" The cook had been tried and condemned for larceny, but he was allowed to retain his situation till the last hour. Instead of being kept in gaol pending his trial he earned his wages and did his work. He had no desire to escape. He liked Palmerston and the bank, and he went back to the latter when released. He was an incorrigible thief, and got into trouble again; but as a cook he was superlative.

That decade of the eighties was a most speculative time all over Australia and New Zealand. I was glad that leaving the English and Scottish Bank enabled my brother to go into political and official life, but it also allowed him to speculate far beyond what he could have done if he had been manager of a bank. Everybody speculated--in mines, in land, and in leases. I was earning by my pen a very decent income, and I spent it, sometimes wisely and sometimes foolishly. I could be liberal to church and to good causes. I was able to keep a dear little State child at school for two years after the regulation age, and I was amply repaid by seeing her afterwards an honoured wife and mother, able to assist her children and their companions with their lessons. I helped some lame dogs over the stile. One among them was a young American of brilliant scholastic attainments, who was the victim of hereditary alcoholism. His mother, a saintly and noble prohibitionist worker, whom I afterwards met in America, had heard of me, and wrote asking me to keep a watchful eye on her boy. This I did for about 12 months, and found him employment. He held a science degree, and was an authority on mineralogy, metallurgy, and kindred subjects. During this speculative period he persuaded me to plunge (rather wildly for me) in mining shares. I plunged to the extent of 500 pounds, and I owe it to the good sense and practical ability of my nephew that I lost no more heavily than I did, for he paid 100 pounds to let me off my bargain.

My protege continued to visit me weekly, and we wrote to one another once a week or oftener. The books I lent to him I know to this day by their colour and the smell of tobacco. I wrote to his mother regularly, and consulted with his good friend, Mr. Waterhouse, over what was best to be done. One bad outburst he had when he had got some money through me to pay off liabilities. I recollect his penitent, despairing confession, with the reference to Edwin Arnold's poem

He who died at Azun gave This to those who dug his grave.

The time came when I felt I could hold him no longer, although that escapade was forgiven, and I determined to send him to his mother--not without misgivings about what she might have still to suffer. He wrote to me occasionally. His health was never good, and I attribute the craving for drink and excitement a good deal to physical causes; but at the same time I am sure that he could have withstood it by a more resolute will. The will is the character--it is the real man. When people say that the first thing in education is to break the will, they make a radical mistake. Train the will to work according to the dictates of an enlightened conscience, for it is all we have to trust to for the stability of character. My poor lad called me his Australian mother. When I saw his real mother, I wondered more and more what sort of a husband she had, or what atavism Edward drew from to produce a character so unlike hers. I heard nothing from herself of what she went through, but from her friends I gathered that he had several outbreaks, and cost her far more than she could afford. She paid everything that he owed in Adelaide, except her debt to me, but that I was repaid after her death in 1905, and she always felt that I had been a true friend to her wayward son. I recollect one day my friend coming on his weekly visit with a face of woe to tell me he had seen a man in dirt and rags, with half a shirt, who had been well acquainted with Charles Dickens and other notables in London. My friend had fed him and clothed him, but he wanted to return to England to rich friends. I wrote to a few good folk, and we raised the money and sent the wastrel to the old country. How grateful he appeared to be, especially to the kind people who had taken him in; but he never wrote a line. We never heard from him again. Years afterwards I wrote to his brother-in-law, asking where the object of our charity now was, if he were still alive. The reply was that his ingratitude did not surprise the writer--that he was a hopeless drunkard, a remittance man, whom the family had to ship off as soon as possible when our ill-judged kindness sent him to England. At that time he was in Canada, but it was not worth while to give any address. When Mr. Bowyear started the Charity Organization Society in Adelaide, he said I was no good as a visitor; I was too credulous, and had not half enough of the detective in me. But I had not much faith in this remittance man.

I have been strongly tempted to omit altogether the next book which I wrote; but, as this is to be a sincere narrative of my life and its work, I must pierce the veil of anonymity and own up to "An Agnostic's Progress." I had been impressed with the very different difficulties the soul of man has to encounter nowadays from those so triumphantly overcome by Christian in the great work of John Bunyan in the first part of "The Pilgrim's Progress." He cannot now get out of the Slough of Despond by planting his foot on the stepping stones of the Promises. He cannot, like Hopeful, pluck from his bosom the Key of Promise which opens every lock in Doubting Castle when the two pilgrims are shut in it by Giant Despair, when they are caught trespassing on his grounds. Even assured Christians, we know, may occasionally trespass on these grounds of doubt; but the weapons of modern warfare are not of the seventeenth century. The Interpreter's House in the old allegory dealt only with things found in the Bible, the only channel of revelation to John Bunyan. To the modern pilgrim God reveals Himself in Nature, in art, in literature, and in history. The Interpreter's Hand had to do with all these things. Vanity Fair is not a place through which all pilgrims must pass as quickly as possible, shutting their eyes and stopping their ears so that they should neither see nor hear the wicked things that are done and said there. Vanity Fair is the world in which we all have to live and do our work well, or neglect it. Pope and Pagan are not the old giants who used to devour pilgrims, but who can now only gnash their teeth at them in impotent rage. They are live forces, quite active, and with agents and supporters alert to capture souls. Of all the influences which affected for evil my young life I perhaps resented most Mrs. Sherwood's "Infant's Progress." There were three children in it going from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City by the route laid down by John Bunyan; but they were handicapped even more severely than the good Christian himself with his heavy burden-for that fell off his back at the first sight of the Cross and Him who was nailed to it, accepted by the eye of Faith as the one Sacrifice for the sins of the world--for the three little ones, Humble Mind, Playful, and Peace, were accompanied always and everywhere by an imp called Inbred Sin, who never ceased to tempt them to evil.

The doctrine of innate human depravity is one of the most paralysing dogmas that human fear invented or priestcraft encouraged. I did not think of publishing "An Agnostic's Progress" at first. I wrote it to relieve my own mind. I wanted to satisfy myself that reverent agnostics were by no means materialists; that man's nature might or might not be consciously immortal, but it was spiritual; that in the duties which lay before each of us towards ourselves and towards our fellow-creatures, there was scope for spiritual energy and spiritual emotion. I was penetrated by Browning's great idea expressed over and over again--the expansion of Paul's dictum that faith is not certainty, but a belief without sufficient proof, a belief which leads to right action and to self-sacrifice. Of the 70 years of life which one might hope to live and work in, I had no mean idea. I asked in the newspaper, "Is life so short?" and answered. "No." I expanded and spiritualized the idea in a sermon. and I again answered emphatically "No." I saw the continuation and the expansion of true ideas by succeeding generations. To the question put sometimes peevishly, "Is life worth living?" I replied with equal emphasis, "Yes." My mother told me of old times. I recalled half a century of progress, and I hoped the forward movement would continue. I read the manuscript of "An Agnostic's Progress" to Mr. and Mrs. Barr Smith, and they thought so well of it that they offered to take it to England on one of their many visits to the old country, where they had no doubt it would find a publisher. Trubner's reader reported most favourably of the book, and we thought there was an immediate prospect of its publication; but Mr. Trubner died, and the matter was not taken up by his successor, and my friends did what I had expressly said they were not to do, and had it printed and published at their own expense. There were many printer's errors in it, but it was on the whole well reviewed, though it did not sell well. The Spectator joined issue with me on the point that it is only through the wicket gate of Doubt that we can come to any faith that is of value; but I am satisfied that I took the right stand there. My mother was in no way disquieted or disturbed by my writing the book, and few of my friends read it or knew about it. I still appeared so engrossed with work on The Register and The Observer that my time was quite well enough accounted for. I tried for a prize of 100 pounds offered by The Sydney Mail with a novel called "Handfasted," but was not successful, for the judge feared that it was calculated to loosen the marriage tie--it was too socialistic and consequently dangerous.