An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

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Sorrow And Change

In the long and cheerful life of my dear mother there at last came a change. At 94 she fell and broke her wrist. The local doctor (a stranger), who was called in, not knowing her wonderful constitution, was averse from setting the wrist, and said that she would never be able to use the hand. But I insisted, and in six, weeks she was able to resume her knitting, and never felt any ill effects. At 95 she had a fall, apparently without cause, and was never able to stand again. She had to stay in bed for the last 13 months of her life, with a gradual decay of the faculties which had previously been so keen. My mother wanted me with her always. Her talk was all of times far back in her life--not of Melrose, where she had lived for 25 years, but of Scoryhall (pronounced Scole), where she had lived as a girl. I had been shown through the house by my aunt Handyside in 1865, and I could follow her mind wanderings and answer her questions. As she suffered so little pain it was difficult for my mother to realize the seriousness of her illness; and, tiring of her bedroom, she begged to be taken to the study, where, with her reading and knitting, she had spent so many happy hours while I did my writing. Delighted though she was at the change, a return to her bed--as to all invalids--was a comfort, and she never left it again. Miss Goodham--an English nurse and a charming woman, who has since remained a friend and correspondent of the family--was sent to help us for a few days at the last. Another sorrow came to us at this time in the loss of my ward's husband, and Rose Hood
-nee Duval--returned to live near me with her three small children. Her commercial training enabled her to take a position as clerk in the State Children's Department, which she retained until her death. The little ones were very sweet and good, but the supervision of them during the day added a somewhat heavy responsibility to our already overburdened household. In these days, when one hears so much of the worthlessness of servants, it is a joy to remember how our faithful maid--we kept only one for that large house--at her own request, did all the laundry work for the family of five, and all through the three years of Eleanor's illness waited on her with untiring devotion.

An amusing episode which would have delighted the heart of my dear friend Judge Lindsay occurred about this time. The fruit from our orange trees which grew along the wall bordering an adjoining paddock was an irresistible temptation to wandering juveniles, and many and grievous were the depredations. Patience, long drawn out, at last gave way, and when the milkman caught two delinquents one Saturday afternoon with bulging blouses of forbidden fruit it became necessary to make an example of some one. The trouble was to devise a fitting punishment. A Police Court, I had always maintained, was no place for children; corporal punishment was out of the question; and the culprits stood tremblingly awaiting their fate till a young doctor present suggested a dose of Gregory's powder. His lawyer friend acquiesced, and Gregory's powder it was. A moment's hesitation and the nauseous draught was swallowed to the accompaniment of openly expressed sympathy, one dear old lady remarking, "Poor children and not so much as a taste of sugar." Probably, however, the unkindest cut of all was the carrying away by the milkman of the stolen fruit! The cure was swift and effective; and ever after the youth of the district, like the Pharisee of old, passed by on the other side.
My dear mother died about 8 o'clock on the evening of December 8, 1887, quietly and painlessly. With her death, which was an exceedingly great loss to me, practically ended my quiet life of literary work. Henceforth I was free to devote my efforts to the fuller public work for which I had so often longed, but which my mother's devotion to and dependence on me rendered impossible. But I missed her untiring sympathy, for with all her love for the old days and the old friends there was no movement for the advancement of her adopted land that did not claim her devoted attention. But though I was now free to take up public work, the long strain of my mother's illness and death had affected my usually robust health, and I took things quietly. I had been asked by the University Shakspeare Society to give a lecture on Donnelly's book, "The Great Cryptogram;" or "Who Wrote Shakspeare's Plays?" and it was prepared during this period, and has frequently been delivered since. October of the year following my mothers death found me again in Melbourne, where I rejoiced in the renewal of a friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Walker, the former of whom had been connected with the construction of the overland railway. They were delightful literary people, and I had met them at the hospitable house of the Barr-Smiths, and been introduced as "a literary lady." "Then perhaps," said Mr. Walker, "you can give us the information we have long sought in vain
-who wrote 'Clara Morrison?'" Their surprise at my "I did" was equalled by the pleasure I felt at their kind appreciation of my book, and that meeting was the foundation of a lifelong friendship. Before my visit closed I was summoned to Gippsland through the death by accident of my dear sister Jessie--the widow of Andrew Murray, once editor of The Argus--and the year 1888 ended as sadly for me as the previous one had done. The following year saw the marriage of my nephew, Charles Wren of the E.S. and A. Bank, to Miss Hall, of Melbourne. On his deciding to live on in the old home, I, with Ellen Gregory, whom I had brought out in 1867 to reside with relations, but who has remained to be the prop and mainstay of my old age--and Mrs. Hood and her three children, moved to a smaller and more suitable house I had in another part of East Adelaide. A placid flowing of the river of life for a year or two led on to my being elected, in 1892, President of the Girls' Literary Society. This position I filled with joy to myself and, I hope, with advantage to others, until some years later the society ceased to exist.

Crowded and interesting as my life had been hitherto, the best was yet to be. My realization of Browning's beautiful line from "Rabbi Ben Ezra"--"The last of life, for which the first was made," came when I saw opening before me possibilities for public service undreamed of in my earlier years. For the advancement of effective voting I had so far confined my efforts to the newspapers. My brother John had suggested the change of name from proportional representation to effective voting as one more likely to catch the popular ear, and I had proposed a modification of Hare's original plan of having one huge electorate, and suggested instead the adoption of six-member districts. The State as one electorate returning 42 members for the Assembly may be magnificent, and may also be the pure essence of democracy, but it is neither commonsense nor practicable. "Why not take effective voting to the people?" was suggested to me. No sooner said than done. I had ballot papers prepared and leaflets printed, and I began the public campaign which has gone on ever since. During a visit to Melbourne as a member of a charities conference it was first discovered that I had some of the gifts of a public speaker. My friend, the Rev. Charles Strong, had invited me to lecture before his working men's club at Collingwood, and I chose as my subject "Effective Voting."

When on my return Mr. Barr Smith, who had long grasped the principle of justice underlying effective voting, and was eager for its adoption, offered to finance a lecturing tour through the State, I jumped at the offer. There was the opportunity for which I had been waiting for years. I got up at unearthly hours to catch trains, and sometimes succeeded only through the timely lifts of kindly drivers. Once I went in a carrier's van, because I had missed the early morning cars. I travelled thousands of miles in all weathers to carry to the people the gospel of electoral reform. Disappointments were frequent, and sometimes disheartening; but the silver lining of every cloud turned up somewhere, and I look back on that first lecturing tour as a time of the sowing of good seed, the harvest of which is now beginning to ripen. I had no advance agents to announce my arrival, and at one town in the north I found nobody at the station to meet me. I spent the most miserable two and a half hours of my life waiting Micawber-like for something to turn up; and it turned up in the person of the village blacksmith. I spoke to him, and explained my mission to the town. He had heard nothing of any meeting. Incidentally I discovered that my correspondent was in Adelaide, and had evidently forgotten all about my coming. "Well," I said to the blacksmith, "if you can get together a dozen intelligent men I will explain effective voting to them." He looked at me with a dumbfounded air, and then burst out, "Good G--, madam, there are not three intelligent men in the town." But the old order has changed, and in 1909 Mrs. Young addressed an enthusiastic audience of 150 in the same town and on the same subject. The town, moreover, is in a Parliamentary district, in which every candidate at the recent general election--and there were seven of them--supported effective voting. Far down in the south I went to a little village containing seven churches, which accounted (said the local doctor) for the extreme backwardness of its inhabitants. "They have so many church affairs to attend to that there is no time to think of anything else." At the close of this lecturing tour The Register undertook the public count through its columns, which did so much to bring the reform before the people of South Australia. Public interest was well aroused on the matter before my long projected trip to America took shape. "Come and teach us how to vote," my American friends had been writing to me for years; but I felt that it was a big order for a little woman of 68 to undertake the conversion to electoral reform of 60 millions of the most conceited people in the world. Still I went. I left Adelaide bound for America on April 4, 1893, as a Government Commissioner and delegate to the Great World's Fair Congresses in Chicago.

In Melbourne and Sydney on my way to the boat for San Francisco I found work to do. Melbourne was in the throes of the great financial panic, when bank after bank closed its doors; but the people went to church as usual. I preached in the Unitarian Church on the Sunday, and lectured in Dr. Strong's Australian Church on Monday. In Sydney Miss Rose Scott had arranged a drawing-room meeting for a lecture on effective voting. A strong convert I made on that occasion was Mr. (afterwards Sr.) Walker. A few delightful hours I spent at his charming house on the harbour with his family, and was taken by them to see many beauty spots. Those last delightful days in Sydney left me with pleasant Australian memories to carry over the Pacific. When the boat sailed on April 17, the rain came down in torrents. Some interesting missionaries were on board. One of them, the venerable Dr. Brown, who had been for 30 years labouring in the Pacific, introduced me to Sir John Thurston. Mr. Newell was returning to Samoa after a two years' holiday in England. He talked much, and well about his work. He had 104 students to whom he was returning. He explained that they became missionaries to other more benighted and less civilized islands, where their knowledge of the traditions and customs of South Sea Islanders made them invaluable as propagandists. The writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, had prepared me to find in the Samoans a handsome and stalwart race, with many amiable traits, and I was not disappointed. The beauty of the scenery appealed to me strongly, and I doubt whether "the light that never was on sea or land" could have rivalled the magic charm of the one sunrise we saw at Samoa. During the voyage I managed to get in one lecture, and many talks on effective voting. Had I been superstitious my arrival in San Francisco on Friday, May 12, might have boded ill for the success of my mission, but I was no sooner ashore than my friend Alfred Cridge took me in charge, and the first few days were a whirl of meetings, addresses and interviews.