Cookson, 01 09 1911 1
1 September 1911
THE FIGHT AT THE HOTEL
DESCRIBED BY OLD MRS JONES
A NIGHT OF DREADFUL ANGUISH "That is the cottage-that one next to the bush with the yellow flowers-you can't miss it." It is even so.
A light knock on the door brings an elderly woman to the threshold.
"No; she is in bed. Will you come in?"
The door opens into a neat sitting-room. A partition doorway gives access to a front bedroom. Breathing painfully in a large bed is an old woman of a type that has often been drawn by Cruichshank for Dickens. Stout of figure, drawn of countenance-doubtless through severe and chronic sickness-the occupant of the bed presented a spectacle not often seen in a new country-or in an old one this last 50 years. One is puzzled to find the reason for the appearance of antiquity that the bed
fashioned nightcap is realised, and the thing and its burden present. Then the huge old-is explained. Sarah Gamp might have worn that nightcap. In good sooth we feel somewhat as Mr Peckaniff must have felt on the occasion of his famous visit to the Gamp abode. Only he viewed the nightcap from the outside-not from the interior of the sanctum. But here is the nightcap, and a patchwork quilt that might be a hundred years old, and here are other old and long-forgotten institutions that impel one to the preposterous fantasy that one has by some strange freak of magic stumbled into a long-dead world, and is confronted with one of its late inmates in the flesh.
One looks around for the rushlight in its dish of water in the middle of the floor for safety, but it is not there.
This much, at least, of the ensemble is missing. The attendant places a seat at the beside and introduces the visitor.
"From Sydney?" repeats the aged woman in the bed, querulously.
The answer being in the affirmative, she evinces much interest in the stranger. "Ah," she exclaims in the wheezy tones of the chronically asthmatic, "You're an Englishman; anyone can see that! You are, aren't you? Yes! I knew it. Oh, I'm old, and very ill, and I have not long to live. But let me shake an Englishman's hand once more! Ah! That is good . . . . Good! It is not so long, now . . . You see, I am by myself. The woman who let you in is hired. She just came yesterday, I think. . . . I cannot remember. . . . . I can hardly remember anything now. . . . It seems-"
Here a fit of coughing intervened that took some overcoming, and left the patient weak and out of breath. Wheezing painfully-in fact, every breath seemed to be drawn with pain-she went on:
"It seems that my memory stopped thirty years ago-when . . . .Oh, that awful night! Oh, my poor innocent children! My God! Oh sir, if you knew what Australia and Australians had done for me and mine you would pity me from the bottom of your heart-you would understand why I wanted to clasp an Englishman's hand once more before I left this accursed place! But don't ask me to talk about it! I can't-and yet sometimes it eases my mind. But, no; the memory of it makes me miserable unto death-after all these years."
Here, plainly, is another life wrecked. How many more?
The sick women clutches the old-fashioned coverlet with one trembling hand and mops the moist brow under the great nightcap with the other. The nightcap protrudes itself objectionably as a grotesque incongruity, a stupid, banal outcry in the Valley of Death, whither this aged pilgrim is passing. If she would but exorcise the thing with wholesome fire, and brush the matted silvered locks cleanly from the forehead, she might look less dreadful. But she will not. Progress with her, no doubt, stopped with her memory thirty years ago.
But after awhile, as the sick woman, between fits of coughing, gives her story of the events of that awful night when her house was destroyed and her children shot, the quiet, and the nightcap, and all the old world surroundings of the place are forgotten-lost sight of in the horror of the narrative, intermittent. It is true, and disconnected in parts, but still inexpressibly shocking.
But first she tells her earlier history:
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