Friday, the twentieth day of October, 1922

An ominous, leaden Friday morning dawned after an oppressively hot night. It had been a night when the thermometer had not fallen below ninety degrees; a night when sleepers had tossed off all blankets and spent most of the snail-paced hours perspiring lightly even when lying on top of their bed sheets or camp sheets; a night when the easing of the hot north-west gale that had roared, raged, and rampaged during the day had served only to increase the breathless closeness of the overheated and stifling atmosphere; a night when even those sleepers who had moved their beds into the illusory freedom of the open air had still felt oppressed by a sky that seemed to shut in as with a blanket the heat reflected against it during the day by the sun-scorched ground; a night in which sleepers had tossed, turned, complained, groaned, sworn, and cursed loudly, debilitated by almost intolerable and completely enervating discomfort.

Mrs Elliot had been disturbed at three o’clock in the morning by a knock on her door. Victoria, one of her half-caste kitchen women, had roused her with the news that the camel-mail team had returned, and that in addition to the mailman there was a passenger waiting outside who required accommodation in the hotel. This passenger was Pastor Stolz, and it was at his urgent pleading that the mailman had agreed to do a special night-stage to Horseshoe Bend. Normally the southern-stage mail-driver, after leaving Oodnadatta on the Saturday following the arrival of the fortnightly train from Adelaide, would reach Old Crown Point, some two hundred miles away, late on the following Thursday afternoon. Here he would meet the northern-stage mail-driver, who had come down from Alice Springs via Horseshoe Bend with the down-mail both from Alice Springs and from the Finke River stations. Both men would leave their tired camels at Old Crown Point, and exchange their mailbags. Next morning they would set out on their separate return journeys. In view of Strehlow’s desperate state of health Stolz had pleaded with the Alice Springs mail-driver to have his fresh camels saddled up as soon as possible after the Oodnadatta mailman had reached Old Crown Point, and to return to Horseshoe Bend that very night. The Alice Springs mail-driver agreed without hesitation; for camels, like donkeys, kept to pads and trails, and could hence be used in safety for travelling at night.

Worn out by his marathon ride from Oodnadatta, Stolz slept in till the Friday morning breakfast session was over. Strehlow, who had been awakened from his laudanum-drugged sleep by throbbing pains in his chest long before sunrise, was even more restless than he had been on the previous day. The moment of death was clearly drawing nearer. It might be even closer than he had thought only yesterday. Was he in a fit and prepared state to meet God? In his sermons he had often stressed the fact that believers resembled living stones that were being shaped by a master hand so that they could be built into a spiritual house of worship, erected on the eternal foundation stone of Christ Himself. But the shaping of these stones had to go on all through the lives of the believers. God’s chiselling away of man’s imperfections did not end till the moment of death. It was only after death that man could become a perfectly fitting stone in the eternal temple of God. Hence Strehlow had preached more than one funeral sermon based on the Old Testament verse describing how all the stones from which skilful masons had built Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem had been cut and shaped in the quarries from which they had been taken: already perfect in shape, they had merely been fitted together on the temple site – “And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” Strehlow grew more and more restless with pain-inspired self-questionings – had God’s hammer-blows succeeded in shaping him into a stone fit for the edifice of that new Jerusalem in which he believed with unbroken firmness of faith, or were there still left in him rough, untrimmed edges that had to be chiselled away before death?

Finally he asked his wife to call Heinrich into the sick-room. Since the day when he had read the bitter attack made on him by Heinrich in the letter written to the Munchenbergs, he had felt deeply resentful towards the young teacher who had, in his opinion, talked about him in such treacherous terms. But with the hour of his own death approaching fast, Strehlow began to feel that the time had come when he would have to face his Maker with a heart free from all vindictiveness and resentment. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”: this injunction from the Lord’s Prayer had never before appeared as necessary to him as it appeared now. He asked that Heinrich should be invited to come into the sickroom. When Heinrich came in, he asked him to sit down on the chair opposite to him and to join him and Mrs Strehlow in singing a hymn.

Heinrich and Mrs Strehlow did most of the singing, with the sick man coming in whenever his difficulty of breathing permitted it. The verses sung were the first few stanzas of the German hymn Wer sind die vor Gottes Throne:

Who are these like stars appearing,
These, before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing,
Who are all this glorious band?
Hallelujah!, hark, they sing,
Praising loud their heavenly King.

These are they who have contended
For their Saviour’s honour long;
Wrestling on till life was ended,
Following not the sinful throng;
These, who well the fight sustained,
Triumph through the Lamb have gained.

But the singing of this hymn and the prayers offered by his wife and by Heinrich could not bring complete calm to Strehlow’s troubled mind. Soon, too soon, he knew that he would have to face Stolz himself in this room. It could be a trying meeting, and one that he would gladly have avoided in his present state of helplessness. But it was clearly God’s will that he should fully compose his differences with Stolz before he stood face to face with his Master.

For many weeks previously Strehlow had discussed with his wife what he would say to Stolz when they finally talked together confidentially. He had known Stolz most of his life, having first met him at Killalpaninna thirty years previously.

Stolz had been a son of Mrs Reuther, the Killalpaninna Mission Superintendent’s wife, by her first marriage to the deceased Pastor J. M. Stolz; and Strehlow, who had been only a few years older than the younger Stolz at the time, had been his tutor in Latin and Greek during his stay at Killalpaninna. He had therefore always felt that he was standing in a privileged position towards the new chairman of the Hermannsburg Mission Board. Stolz, in his turn, had always held Strehlow in pleasant memory as the kindhearted and cheerful tutor who had given him his grounding in the two classical languages required for his theological studies.

Strehlow had often rehearsed with himself what he would say to Stolz when the latter came into his sickroom. He would reproach Stolz in a fatherly way for his failure to come to Hermannsburg on an inspection visit despite repeated requests in former years. For how could anyone be an effective chairman of a mission board if he had never set eyes on the station that he was helping to administer? He would remind Stolz of the Finke River Mission Board’s ingratitude for not taking any vigorous steps to save his life while there had been time to do so, and he would compare the indifference of Stolz and his clerical colleagues with the humanity, the sympathy, and above all, the practical helpfulness of the churchless bush people. He would quote Christ’s own injunctions to Stolz; for Christ himself had taught in his sermons, and shown in his parables and stories, that practical love towards one’s neighbours came second only to the love due to God Himself. He would further stress that even St Paul, whose clear statement that man was justified by faith without the deeds of the law had always been regarded as a cardinal element of Lutheran doctrine, had also rated love as being greater than hope and greater than faith in that magnificent thirteenth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians. It was the failure of the Lutheran clergy to give due weight to the God-established supremacy of love that had constituted such a grave weakness in the doctrinal soundness of much of their preaching.

But now that Stolz had arrived at Horseshoe Bend, Strehlow lacked both the physical strength and the mental calmness for indulging in any hard and intellectual theological arguments. Within hours he himself would be standing before his Master and be called upon to give an account of his stewardship in this life. A man who deeply needed God’s forgiveness for himself could not call any of his fellow men to account for any apparent neglect of duties or responsibilities. He would have to forgive all, just as he hoped to be forgiven all, for Christ’s sake.

It was still in the early part of Friday forenoon when the two men met. Physically, no greater contrast could have been imagined than that which existed between them. Strehlow, even in sickness, was a large, heavily built, clean-shaven man.

Stolz, on the other hand, was slight and short of stature, and wore a dark, pointed beard. Again, whereas Strehlow’s manner of speech was measured, resolute, and authoritative, Stolz’s speech habits and movements, particularly in moments of excitement, had something of the mercurial nature of quicksilver about them. After the preliminary greetings Stolz expressed his deep sympathy for Strehlow’s condition. He had come prepared to see a very sick man; but his first glimpse of Strehlow obviously shocked him almost beyond words. He could scarcely believe the testimony of his own eyes.

“Brother Stolz,” said Strehlow slowly, “I have been waiting for you for many years. You have come at last, but it is too late.” Stolz was about to break into a voluble account of the many excellent reasons he had for the lateness of his visit; but Strehlow cut him short with a tired wave of his hand. “I am too weak to say more than a few words to you today. I have been disappointed and very bitter during these last few weeks; but there must be no words of anger between us. We are both standing here in the sight of God. Let us do what He wants us to do.” He paused, for one of his spasms of difficult breathing was beginning to come upon him.

When it had eased once more, he continued, “Brother Stolz, for twenty eight years I have tried to be a faithful shepherd to God’s congregation at Hermannsburg. I have had to abandon the people entrusted to my care. I have not been able to install anyone else to take my place. Please see to it that a successor is appointed who will guard my congregation faithfully. Remember that it is God who jealously watches over all work that is done in His mission field. Don’t let Hermannsburg die as Bethesda has died! ”

Stolz had involuntarily started at the mention of Bethesda – the official Church name of the Killalpaninna Mission Station. Though he had not personally been involved either in its long decline or in its final and utter ruin during the war years, its destinies had for years been guided by his stepfather. The final abandonment of Bethesda had been preceded by many dark and tragic events which had enabled the tough-skinned cattlemen on the surrounding stations to point fingers of scorn and disgust at this long-established Lutheran mission station. Strehlow had blushed when hearing some of the worst stories that came to his ears, and so had many other loyal supporters of Bethesda. For the unsavoury pages in the annals of a Church can do far greater damage to its reputation than any of the unfounded slanders of its worst enemies.

“Brother Strehlow,” Stolz replied earnestly, and there could be no doubt about his deep sincerity and whole-hearted determination, “the Finke River Mission Board knows that it is responsible to God for what happens to Hermannsburg; and I give you my full and loyal assurance that I, as the chairman of the Board, will never allow the Church to abandon Hermannsburg, so far as this lies in my power.”

Strehlow, who had not taken his searching gaze off Stolz’s face while he was making this declaration, relaxed visibly and said, “May God grant it!” Stolz grasped Strehlow’s tired hand lightly. “I make this promise before God. And now may God bless you for the loyalty you have shown to His cause during those twenty eight years in the heart of Australia; and may He be your help today and your comfort in the illness that has stricken you down.”

Strehlow returned the pressure of Stolz’s hand, and then Stolz said a short prayer and slowly moved out of the sick-room. He had suddenly become a shaken and a strangely quiet man. After he had gone, Strehlow sat in his chair with closed eyes. Now that he had composed all his affairs, and said all the things that still had to be said, he could afford to withdraw wholly within himself. Only eternity now remained to be faced. Whatever he had done in the merciless rush of his active years still had to await the final test posed by eternity.

In past years his eyes had often turned to a large ornamental wooden plaque hanging in his study at Hermannsburg, whose inscription reminded him in moments of acute stress and deep despondency of that final judgment of a man’s worth that could be passed upon him and his works only after death. This plaque had borne the simple words:

Pour thy light
On Time’s night,
Bright Eternity!
Show us small things in their meanness,
Sharpen great things to full keenness,
Blest Eternity!

Like St Paul, he felt that he could say of himself that he had finished his course and was now ready to be offered. The only question that remained was whether the Lord, the righteous Judge, had laid up for him that crown of righteousness after which he had striven during his long, hard years in Central Australia.

Because of the hot night it had not taken the thermometer long to pass the century mark that morning; and from then on the temperature kept on rising steadily, hour after hour.

In contrast to the previous days of howling sandstorms, Friday was a relatively calm day, with only occasional slight northerly gusts. By two o’clock in the afternoon the thermometer was registering a hundred and ten degrees in the shade of the verandah, and the galvanized iron sheets of the hotel roof crackled loudly as the curved flutes pressed and strained against their holding screws, expanded to their fullest extent by the merciless blaze from above. Even the tin ceiling sheets in the rooms creaked noisily at times, and the lining wall sheets of the hotel rooms grew noticeably hot to the touch of a hand. All outdoor work had stopped long before midday. Men, women, and children snatched what relief they could in the shade of the few trees and the iron buildings. Thirst could no longer be quenched, no matter how much liquid was consumed. Neither tea nor water was able to slake the thirst of any man for more than an hour. The hotel customers had given up consuming beer several days ago, for no bottles that depended for coolness on their being wrapped in damp bags lying in the draught on the hotel floor could be expected to yield a liquid that was fit for drinking. Only brandy, whisky, and rum still afforded a pleasurable kick to the tough throats of the hardened bush hotel guests. But on this hot afternoon the heavy drinking of spirituous liquors served only to increase the thirsts of the customers; and all water funnelled into pannikins from the large canvas waterbags hanging under the verandahs tasted lukewarm and insipid: the pace of consumption allowed insufficient time for the water to be cooled by evaporation to any significant extent.

In the stifling, suffocating heat of his room Strehlow was groaning with racking pains in his chest. Huge liquid beads, which he was too weak to wipe off, kept on emerging from his forehead, his face, his neck, and his chest; and from there they united and tumbled down in rivulets, soaking the lower part of his body in a stream of sweat which no amount of hot air could dry.

These physical sufferings were matched by the intensity of that other battle which was going on in his mind. No prayers were bringing him any relief from the torments of his body. On the contrary, he felt that God was increasing the unbearable load of his afflictions to the very breaking point – the point where these trials would shatter and overwhelm his strength, and utterly crush the last reserves of his courage, his endurance, and his faith. He felt that he was being extended and stretched out to his physical and spiritual limits, like a tough piece of steel wire clamped in a laboratory testing device that had been designed to measure the amount of strain that it would stand before breaking. Like an experimenter intent on ascertaining the breaking point of the material tested by him, God had been heaping pain upon pain and disappointment upon disappointment on him, one week after the other, during the past three and a half months. And now He had permitted an unseasonal heat-wave to add its fires to his torments. Cool changes, even cloudbursts that brought sharp downpours of rain, were common features of October weather in Central Australia: why would not God permit at least a cool breath of air to fan his tortured body? Instead the very atmosphere above the barren cliff tops beyond the hotel could be seen quivering and simmering in the summer heat.

Strehlow’s thoughts had frequently returned to the scene of Christ’s mental struggle in Gethsemane, as he tried to repeat “Thy will be done” in the spirit in which Christ had uttered these words during his agony in the garden. But on this Friday afternoon Strehlow’s restless searchings for a fuller understanding of God’s purposes led him to meditate more and more deeply on Christ’s last day of suffering – on Good Friday and on the final events of Calvary. In his Lenten services he had often stressed the physical pains endured by Christ on Good Friday; but he was now beginning to appreciate even more the mental agony suffered by Christ on that grim day when all faith which he had kindled among men during the three years of his ministry had died like a flickering candle flame, unable to withstand the unexpected gale that had burst upon it. Christ’s physical tortures had been many: his head had been lacerated by a crown of thorns, his back had been turned into raw flesh by the metal pieces knotted into the many-tailed scourge used for flogging him, and his hands and feet had been gashed by the cruel nails driven through his flesh and bones. But his most terrible torment had resulted, not from the thoughts, words, and deeds of his enemies, but from the disloyalty and the silence of his friends and disciples. One of the latter had betrayed him, a second had publicly denied on solemn oath that he had ever known him. All the rest had fled in fear and shame and despair. Of all those who had been nearest to him only four persons had dared to stand close to his cross on Calvary, – a man and three women. The man had been his favourite disciple, who up to the previous evening would have proudly proclaimed him to be the Son of God. This man had been present at his trial in the high priest’s palace, and had gathered up sufficient courage to come in order to express his mute farewell to him. But no longer had this last loyal disciple held any faith in Christ. His heart had been wrenched with sorrow for his dying master; but he had also been convinced that all the things he had believed in for three years had been only a dream and a myth, and that this dream and this myth would end with the death of his master on the cross. His deeply revered master had proved to be only a human being after all – and all his faith in Christ as the promised Messiah had already been dead while he was gazing at the figure nailed to the cross.

One of the three women had been Christ’s own mother – she who as a young and deeply pious girl had seen a vision in her home at Nazareth of the angel Gabriel, and had heard him calling her the blessed one among women. On that grim afternoon at Calvary she had stood at the foot of her son’s cross, heavy with unbearable sorrow, feeling as though a sword was piercing through her soul. Christ’s mother would have had a mother’s uncontestable right to proclaim her faith in him before the whole seething, muttering multitude. But she had not said a single word. Was it because she too had been torn and tormented by doubts whether all that she had ever experienced or believed in might only have been the result of a grim series of hallucinations? Scores of thousands of Christians in later decades, from one century to the next, had dared to proclaim their faith in Christ at their own places of execution, finding strength through their belief in his divinity to face death in all its forms, even the most horrible.

Yet on Good Friday no confession of faith had been made at the foot of Christ’s cross: for when a god dies, all faith placed in him must needs die too. Immortality and eternity are inseparable from the notion of the divine. In the end Christ had said to the silent woman and to the silent man, “Woman, look, there is your son”, and, “Son, look, there is your mother.” Even though death was fast approaching him, he had not addressed the silent woman as “mother”. After that darkness had fallen upon Calvary and the whole surrounding country for three hours, during which Christ had, obedient to the will of his Father, tasted to the full all those spiritual torments through which men and women have to pass when they are no longer able to believe that there is any one, either in heaven or on earth, who cares for them, who loves them, or who will help them. After three hours of this torment in the black abyss of lost and forlorn loneliness Christ himself had startled the dense crowd that was gazing up at his cross by repeating from the twenty-second psalm that grimmest of all cries of despair that can be uttered by any man who has trusted in God all his life: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And when the Son of Man, who had so often spoken of himself as being one with the Father, had shouted that sentence of seemingly utter and absolute despair over the hill of Calvary, probably even the last waverers in the watching crowd around him had become convinced beyond any doubts that he had always been a fraud, and that it was his own fear of his impending hour of death which was now forcing him to admit publicly the full and complete falsity of his sacrilegious claim.

And thus all faith in Christ had died on Good Friday. All faith? Not quite. Two men had expressed their belief in Christ on the Roman execution hill for criminals. One of these had been a criminal who had been crucified at the side of Christ, the other the Roman centurion who had watched him dying. The criminal had been clubbed to death before sunset; but he had died with the promise of Christ ringing in his ears, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise”. It was this criminal who had been the first of a long line of witnesses who had died affirming their faith in the divinity of Christ. But the voices of these two men had been the only two voices raised on Good Friday that had publicly professed their belief in Christ in spite of his death; and one of these voices had been silenced for ever at sundown on that same day. After his death none of the terror-stricken men who had been his disciples had dared to be present at his burial.

Joseph of Arimathaea alone, a wealthy and powerful member of the Jewish Establishment, had possessed the almost foolhardy courage to ask the tired and angry Roman governor for leave to take Christ’s body down from the cross and bury it in his own newly-hewn rock grave. He had been helped at the burial by Nicodemus, a highly educated man of deep religious learning, who had risked the anger of his authoritarian church leaders by supplying the costly resins intended for the later embalming of the body. When Christ’s body had been laid to rest, all faith once placed in him by his friends had been buried too. Good Friday had witnessed not merely the death of Christ but the extinction of his message to the world as well: the powers of darkness, death, and hate had prevailed over the Lord of light and life and love. It had needed the miracle of Easter to rekindle the quenched flames of belief in Christ.

If Christ himself, after he had chosen to experience for himself the temptations and the sufferings of mortal men, and while he was identifying himself in all respects with mortal men at the will of the Father, had been forced to call out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”, then it was clear that there were dark moments in human suffering which could crush the faith of even the strongest of men.

Not that these men would, even in such moments, doubt the existence of God. Far from it. Paradoxical though it might sound, – their overwhelming despair would spring from the unshakeable strength of their belief in the existence of God.

Their anguish would stem from their conviction that, although God existed beyond any doubt, He was deliberately refusing to listen to their prayers and that He had deliberately broken off all links between Himself and them. As the hours slowly dragged on in the sickroom at Horseshoe Bend, Strehlow was coming to dread more and more that he, too, was going to be one of those men whose rocklike faith in God was going to be put to the final, crushing trial. Or that, like steel wire stretched taut in a laboratory testing device, it would have weight upon weight added to it till it snapped. While the corrugated iron building around him groaned and creaked in the fierce sun, he was fighting for his very breath, as his life was being slowly choked out of him, gasp by strangled gasp. He felt as though the clutch of giant hands was crushing his chest till his lungs could no longer take in sufficient quantities of life-giving air.

At four o’clock, as a last desperate measure, he was given a draught of medicine prepared by a chemist in Quorn for the relief of “asthma due to a dropsical condition”. It had been procured by Stolz to alleviate Strehlow’s breathing troubles. No one knew what the medicine consisted of, and no one had much faith in its efficacy. Unfortunately, this drug did not lessen Strehlow’s breathing difficulties: if anything, his gasps grew even worse, till the last reserves of his strength were being consumed in the effort of getting air into his choked lungs. When Pastor Stolz left the room, after watching the tortured victim writhing in his chair for almost an hour, Mrs Strehlow, who had been sitting nearby in helpless fear, moved closer to her husband. To comfort him, she began to sing one of his old favourite hymns that gave expression to a believer’s trust in God in situations like the present. It was the hymn Sollt es gleich bisweilen scheinen, whose first two stanzas ran as follows:

Should dark doubts sometimes awaken
That God’s folk are left forsaken,
Then in faith I know for sure:
God helps those who long endure.

Help He has today suspended
He has not forever ended
Though at times in vain we plead,
Help He gives in deepest need.

At this point the sick man interrupted his wife’s singing. “Don’t sing that hymn any more, Frieda,” he begged, in a strangely dull and strangled voice: “God doesn’t help! ”

“O darling, please don’t talk like that,” she pleaded tearfully, slipping down on her knees before him. “God will help when His time has come. You have always said so. Perhaps His hour has come now. ”

The sick man did not reply. His body shook, his lips quivered, the swollen veins in his purple face pulsed heavily; but he remained silent. He had, at long last, spoken what he knew to be the full truth – that his hour of death was at hand and that any further pleas to God were futile. God had said a final “no” to all prayers – the communication line between God and the two people in the sickroom had been severed inexorably.

The clock in the next room struck five. Mrs Strehlow persisted bravely in pouring out her words of comfort, but it was doubtful whether the sick man was even capable of listening to them any longer. He had clearly come to the end of his strength. After some minutes he closed his eyes, still without uttering a word; and Mrs Strehlow rose to her feet and sat down on the chair opposite, patiently watching him.

Stolz came in quietly for a few moments, and then went out on tiptoe so as not to disturb the sick man’s rest; for he seemed to have fallen asleep at last.

It was as though Strehlow’s final remark had greatly helped to ease his mind. He had ceased pretending to his wife that even a rock-like faith could sway the Almighty.

What he had said represented, in a way, a free version of the psalmist’s despairing cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”. He had been completely honest at last with himself, with the wife who still believed that he would live, and with God. And now his restlessness slowly disappeared. His breathing, too, became less strained and more regular, as though great physical relief had come to him at last.

Strehlow slept for a little longer than half an hour, during which time his wife watched him with lessening anxiety.

Then he suddenly gave a gasp, followed by a deep sigh. His breathing stopped for a few moments. Mrs Strehlow sat up, startled and suddenly apprehensive. There was a second deep sigh. After that the sleeper’s body slumped against the back of the chair, and lay there motionless. The great swollen veins that had stood out so clearly in the wasted throat pulsed convulsively a few times. Then all movements stopped in the body, and a bluish tinge began to spread over the face.

It was a quarter to six in the evening.

With a cry of cold fear Mrs Strehlow leapt from her chair.

“O my God, he’s dead!” she sobbed wildly and collapsed before the moveless body that lay before her, slumped in the high-backed easy-chair.

Soft swift footsteps behind her made her turn her head back. It was Mrs Elliot, who had been standing outside the door, whispering with Pastor Stolz about the sick man. “O Mrs Elliot,” she sobbed, “he’s dead – my Carl is dead. And I didn’t even know that he was dying . . .” She broke down in a spasm of convulsive sobs. The young woman put her arms around her and raised her to her feet. “Dear Mrs Strehlow,” she said in a voice almost choked by tears, “your husband doesn’t have to suffer any more. He is at peace at last. You must come away from here with me. I’ve got a new room ready for you for tonight.”

Mrs Strehlow stopped sobbing. “But I don’t want to leave my Carl yet,” she whispered. “He has always been so good to me. Oh, what will I do without him? Please let me stay with him a little longer!”

“Please, my dear, you must come with me now,” insisted Mrs Elliot, gently but firmly. “There are lots of things that still have to be done for your husband. We must get him out of the chair onto the bed and wash his body before it grows rigid. But there are others who’ll help me – it’s better that you shouldn’t be there when we do these things. You’d only be upset, and you’re completely worn out already. You’ve nursed him all on your own for two months already, and you need a break. Please do come with me now – you can look at him again, once everything is over and he is lying on the bed.”

Mrs Strehlow offered no further resistance, and Mrs Elliot took her into the adjoining room, where two beds had already been made up. “The second bed is for Theo,” Mrs Elliot explained. “I thought you might like to have somebody to talk to tonight in case you can’t go to sleep in this heat.”

As Mrs Elliot turned to leave the room, Pastor Stolz entered. “Sister Strehlow,” he said in a low-pitched yet resonant voice, “I have come to express to you my deepest sympathy. In this grave hour I can do no more than commit you to the care of the Lord, Who has promised to be the protector of the widows and the orphans. He will comfort you and care for you.”

“Pastor Stolz,” replied Mrs Strehlow, bravely trying to speak coherently in spite of her tears, “I just cannot understand it. I did not know that my Carl was dying. It was just as though my eyes were being held shut so that I could not see anything. And now he has gone – I did not even tell him before he went how much I loved him. The last words I said to him were spoken when I was so very upset, and he did not reply to me.”

She broke down and buried her face in her hands. Stolz’s voice was calm as he comforted her. “Sister Strehlow, you have done the impossible for your husband for many weeks. Don’t blame yourself now for anything that you didn’t do. I am sure that God Himself in His mercy shut your eyes so that you could carry on as you did till this very hour.”

When Mrs Strehlow had calmed down a little, Stolz continued, “And now let me tell you what Mrs Elliot and I were whispering about just outside the door as your husband died. She had received only a few moments earlier a telephone call from Charlotte Waters, telling her that Breaden’s car which was to bring the doctor up from Oodnadatta had been held up by an unexpected flood in the Alberga. It could not hope to get through for several days, perhaps even for a week, depending on how quickly the Alberga went down. Gus had rung to ask her about your husband’s condition. He wanted to know, should he wait at Charlotte Waters for that time or not. When Mrs Elliot told me this, I knew that it was God’s wish to call unto Himself the soul of His weary servant and to give him his reward for his faithfulness unto death. That was why all our little human efforts to intervene had to fail. What has happened has been the will of the Lord of life and death. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!”

“I shall try to accept God’s will without arguing against Him,” whispered Mrs Strehlow, battling in vain to stop her tears. “Only I still cannot grasp it – O my Carl, I did not even know that you were dying. Why did you not take me with you? O my God, what is to become of me?”

“The Church will not let you down,” Stolz promised. “It will mean your staying in Australia for the time being. But I will talk to you about that tomorrow, when you have had time to rest. And now, here’s your son – I will leave you together and go.” And he closed the door on their grief.

Theo had been told the news of his father’s death while he was sitting with his friends in the aboriginal camp. It had been relayed by the half-caste kitchen women by shouts and sign language, and had been received in the camp with loud cries of grief. The women immediately began their customary wailing for the dead man who had long since become accepted as an Aranda father figure even at places as far removed from Hermannsburg as Horseshoe Bend, Alice Springs, and the stations located on the Hugh River. Theo had run to the hotel as soon as he had heard the news.

Though shocked by the final suddenness of his father’s death, he reacted with outward calmness; and when he was left alone in the room with his mother, he tried to reassure her as much as any teenage boy could. Nor was he afraid of the future – it might be harsh and difficult, but he would face up to it, come what might. Other boys had come through similar and even much worse tragedies. He had always believed that life in the white world would be a hard battle for a bush boy who had never known any white playmates.

Whether that struggle would have to be fought out in Germany or in Australia did not really matter to him. The cheerful little freckle-faced boy who had ten years earlier walked many miles with his mother on the journey from Oodnadatta to Hermannsburg had long since acquired the sturdy independent attitudes of a “bush kid” to a degree that his mother had not yet comprehended.

At about seven in the evening Mrs Elliot knocked at the door and told Mrs Strehlow that she could come and take her last look at her late husband. The sickroom had been completely tidied up. The dead man lay on the bed with all perspiration washed off him, covered by a clean white sheet.

His body was lying stretched out fully for the first time for over a month. With his arms folded across his chest, he was reclining in an attitude of perfect peace. All signs of strain had vanished from his slightly bluish face: once more it looked powerful, manly, and resolute. Mrs Strehlow looked at him for some minutes and then turned to go, saying, “I only wish he had taken me with him to that peace that he has been granted at last.” Theo, who had not been able to take his eyes off his dead father, was certain that his father’s face was not merely peaceful but that it bore the look of someone who had known the joy of final triumph at the moment of death. He followed his mother out with a new sense of determination to face the challenge of life in the indomitable spirit of his father.

Mrs Strehlow slept little during the night. It seemed to her that her life had lost its whole meaning and purpose with the death of the husband with whom she had hoped to go home at last to her own country. She reflected that her span of years had been a long series of tragedies and bitter hardships. She had been born at Geroldsgruen in Bavaria as one of the two children of a Franconian mine owner, whose family had been able to trace their descent – and their mine-ownership at Geroldsgruen – back to the first half of the sixteenth century. Her father had been the last of this long line of mine owners. The ore had given out when he was still a young man, and he had soon been plunged into heavy debts.

Before she had turned four, her father had died. Soon after her tenth birthday the death of her mother and the loss of the old family estate, which had been left to her stepfather, had forced her to leave her home. She had been fortunate in being taken into the care of relatives. But except for a short period in a technical college at Neuendettelsau she had been forced to earn her keep by serving in a clerical household. She had met her future husband briefly only during the Easter week-end before his departure to Australia. Though she had been only sixteen and a half years old at the time, she had fallen in love with him, and had followed him out to Australia three years later. She had always missed her homeland with its evergreen meadows, pine forests, and running brooks since her arrival in Australia. And now she was being forced to turn back alone and to leave her husband behind among the barren cliffs of Horseshoe Bend. She had looked forward for years to a quiet life in Germany in a manse with her husband upon his departure from Hermannsburg. That dream would never come true now; and she knew also that she would never again be the mistress of a home of her own.

Was this to be God’s reward for her many years of heartache and loneliness at Hermannsburg?

It was long after midnight before she was able to recall without bitterness the words of Loehe’s motto for deaconesses which she had treasured ever since her brief period in the technical college at Neuendettelsau. She had had it framed and had often looked at it in the dining-room of her home at Hermannsburg. She had never stood in greater need than now of the plain-spoken exhortations which it contained for all those women who purposed to dedicate their lives to God’s service: What do I want? I want to serve.

Whom do I want to serve? The Lord, in His poor and needy.

And what is my reward?

I serve neither for reward nor for thanks, but out of gratitude and love: my reward is that I may serve . . .

When the darkness eased in the eastern sky, she had at last been able to regain control over herself and her emotions.

Her faith had stood the test.

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