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Little Memoirs of the Nineteenth Century by George Paston

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Lake Torrens, a land of parched deserts, dry-water-courses, and
soda-springs, whose waters effervesced tartaric acid; and had opened
up for the Victorian Government the mountainous district of Gippsland,
with the famous gold-field of the Crooked River. In 1861 he had been
employed to head the relief-party that went in search of the
discoverer, Robert O'Hara Burke, and his companions, and a year later
he brought back the remains of the ill-fated explorers to Melbourne
for public burial. Later in life he was successfully employed in
various Government enterprises, and published, in collaboration with a
friend, a learned work on the aborigines of Australia.

Charlton Howitt, the younger son, after five years' uncongenial work
in a London office, emigrated to Australia in 1860. His quality was
quickly recognised by the Provincial Government, which, in 1862,
appointed him to command an expedition to examine the rivers in the
province of Canterbury, with a view to ascertaining whether they
contained gold. So admirably was the work accomplished that, on his
return to Christchurch, he was intrusted with the task of opening up
communications between the Canterbury plains and the newly-discovered
gold and coal district on the west coast. 'This duty was faithfully
performed, under constant hardships and discouragement,' relates his
mother. 'But a few miles of road remained to be cut, when, at the end
of June, 1863, after personally rescuing other pioneers and wanderers
from drowning and starvation in that watery, inhospitable forest
region, Charlton, with two of his men, went down in the deep waters of
Lake Brunner; a fatal accident which deprived the Government of a
valued servant, and saddened the hearts of all who knew him.'

After four peaceful years at Esher, the _Wanderlust_, that gipsy
spirit, which not even the burden of years could tame, took possession
of William and Mary once more, and they suddenly decided that they
must see Italy before they died. In May, 1870, they let the Orchard,
and, aged seventy-seven and seventy-one respectively, set out on their
last long flight into the world. The summer was spent on the Lake of
Lucerne, where the old-world couple came across that modern of the
moderns, Richard Wagner, and his family. By way of the Italian Lakes
and Venice they travelled, in leisurely fashion, to Rome, where they
celebrated their golden wedding in April, 1871. The Eternal City threw
its glamour around these ancient pilgrims, who found both life and
climate exactly suited to the needs of old age. 'I prized in Rome,'
writes Mrs. Howitt, 'the many kind and sympathetic friends that were
given to us, the ease of social existence, the poetry, the classic
grace, the peculiar and deep pathos diffused around; above all, the
stirring and affecting historic memories.... From the period of
arrival in Rome, I may truly say that the promise in Scripture, "At
evening time there shall be light," was, in our case, fulfilled.'

The simple, homely life of the aged couple continued unbroken amid
their new surroundings. William interested himself in the planting of
Eucalyptus in the Campagna, as a preventive against malaria, and had
seeds of different varieties sent over from Australia, which he
presented to the Trappist monks of the Tre Fontani. He helped to
establish a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and
struck up a friendship with the gardeners and custodians of the
Pincio, to whom he gave expert advice on the subject of the creatures
under their charge. The summer months were always spent in the Tyrol,
where the Howitts had permanent quarters in an old mansion near
Bruneck, called Mayr-am-Hof. Here William was able to indulge in his
favourite occupation of gardening. He dug indefatigably in a field
allotment with his English spade, a unique instrument in that land of
clumsy husbandry, and was amazed at the growth of the New Zealand
spinach, the widespread rhubarb, the exuberant tomatoes, and towering
spikes of Indian corn. Thanks to the four great doctors before
mentioned, he remained hale and hearty up to December, 1878, in which
month he celebrated his eighty-seventh birthday. A few weeks later he
was attacked by bronchitis, which, owing to an unsuspected weakness of
the heart, he was unable to throw off. He died in his house on the Via
Sistina, close to his favourite Pincio, on March 3, 1879.

Mrs. Howitt now finally gave up the idea of returning to end her days
in England. Her husband and companion of more than fifty years was
buried in the Protestant Cemetery at Home, and when her time came, she
desired to be laid by his side. The grant of a small pension added to
the comfort of her last years, and was a source of much innocent pride
and gratification, for, as she tells her daughter Anna, 'It was so
readily given, so kindly, so graciously, for my literary merits, by
Lord Beaconsfield, without the solicitation or interference of any
friend or well-wisher.' In May, 1880, she writes to a friend from
Meran about 'a project, which seems to have grown up in a wonderful
way by itself, or as if invisible hands had been arranging it; that we
should have a little home of our own _im heiligen Land Tirol_.
This really is a very great mercy, seeing that the Tyrol is so
beautiful, the climate so beneficial to health, and the people, taken
as a whole, so very honest and devout. Our little nest of love, which
we shall call "Marienruhe," will be perched on a hill with beautiful
views, surrounded by a small garden.' On September 29, 1881, Mrs.
Howitt and her daughter, Margaret, slept, for the first time, in their
romantically-situated new home near Meran.

At Marienruhe, the greater portion of the last seven years of Mary
Howitt's life was spent in peace and contentment. Here she amused
herself with writing her 'Reminiscences' for _Good Words_, which
were afterwards incorporated in her _Autobiography_. Age had no
power to blunt her interest in the events of the day, political or
literary, and at eighty-seven we find her reading with keen enjoyment
Froude's _Oceana_ and Besant's _All Sorts and Conditions of
Men_, books that dealt with questions which she and her husband had
had at heart for the best part of a lifetime, and for which they had
worked with untiring zeal. Of the first she writes to a friend: 'We
much approve of his (Froude's) very strong desire that our colonies
should, like good, faithful, well-trained children, be staunch in love
and service to old Mother England. How deeply we feel on this subject
I cannot tell you; and I hope and trust that you join strongly in this
truly English sentiment.' Of the second she writes to Mrs. Leigh
Smith: 'I am more interested than I can tell you in _All Sorts and
Conditions of Men_. It affects me like the perfected fruit of some
glorious tree which my dear husband and I had a dim dream of planting
more than thirty years ago, and which we did, in our ignorance and
incapacity, attempt to plant in soil not properly prepared, and far
too early in the season. I cannot tell you how it has recalled the
hopes and dreams of a time which, by the overruling Providence of God,
was so disastrous to us. It is a beautiful essay on the dignity of

The last few years of Mary Howitt's life were saddened by the deaths
of her beloved sister, Anna, and her elder daughter, Mrs. Watts, but
such blows are softened for aged persons by the consciousness that
their own race is nearly run. Mary had, moreover, one great spiritual
consolation in her conversion, at the age of eighty-three, to the
doctrines of Roman Catholicism In spite of her oft-repeated
protestations against the likelihood of her 'going over,' in spite of
her declaration, openly expressed as late as 1871, that she firmly
believed in the anti-Christianity of the Papacy, and that she and her
husband were watching with interest the progress of events which, they
trusted, would bring about its downfall, Mrs. Howitt was baptized into
the Roman Church in May, 1882. Her new faith was a source of intense
happiness to the naturally religious woman, who had found no refuge in
any sectarian fold since her renunciation of her childish creed. In
1888, the year of the Papal Jubilee, though her strength was already
failing, she was well enough to join the deputation of English
pilgrims, who, on January 10, were presented to the Pope by the Duke
of Norfolk. In describing the scene, the last public ceremony in which
she took part, she writes: 'A serene happiness, almost joy, filled my
whole being as I found myself on my knees before the Vicar of Christ.
My wish was to kiss his foot, but it was withdrawn, and his hand given
to me. You may think with what fervour I kissed the ring. In the
meantime he had been told my age and my late conversion. His hands
were laid on my shoulders, and, again and again, his right hand in
blessing on my head, whilst he spoke to me of Paradise.'

Having thus achieved her heart's desire, it seemed as if the last tie
which bound the aged convert to earth was broken. A few days later she
was attacked by bronchitis, and, after a short illness, passed away in
her sleep on January 30, 1888, having nearly completed her
eighty-ninth year. To the last, we are told, Mary Howitt's sympathy
was as warm, her intelligence as keen as in the full vigour of life,
while her rare physical strength and pliant temper preserved her in
unabated enjoyment of existence to the verge of ninety. Although many
of her books were out of print at the time of her death, it was said
that if every copy had been destroyed, most of her ballads and minor
poems could have been collected from the memories of her admirers, who
had them--very literally--by heart.

William and Mary Howitt, it may be observed in conclusion, though not
leaders, were brave soldiers in the army of workers for humanity, and
if now they seem likely to share the common lot of the rank and
file--oblivion--it must be remembered that they were among those
favoured of the gods who are crowned with gratitude, love, and
admiration by their contemporaries. To them, asleep in their Roman
grave, the neglect of posterity brings no more pain than the homage of
modern critics brings triumph to the slighted poet who shares their
last resting-place.

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