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Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 16563

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"ISLE OF BEAUTY, FARE THEE WELL!"

I knew nothing whatever of Australia when I rashly consented to marry a young man who had irrevocably bound himself to go and live there, and, moreover, to go within three months of the day on which the wild idea occurred to me. During the seven weeks or thereabouts of a bewildering engagement, the while I got together my modest trousseau, we hunted for information in local libraries, and from more or less instructed friends. The books were mostly old ones, the tales the same. Geoffrey Hamlyn was my sheet anchor, but did not seem to be supported by the scraps of prosaic history obtainable; we could not verify those charming homes and social customs. On the other hand, cannibal blacks and convict bushrangers appeared to be grim facts. As for the physical characteristics of the country, there were but the scentless flowers, the songless birds, the cherries with their stones outside (none of which, actually, is the rule, and I have found nothing to resemble the description of the latter), and the kangaroo that carries its family in a breast-pocket, which we felt able to take for granted. These things we did believe in, because all our authorities mentioned them. G. had a letter from a college friend who had preceded him to Australia, reporting the place not wild at all, but quite like home. He instanced an episcopal dinner-party that he had attended, and a church dignitary's "three sweetly pretty daughters," who had come in the evening, and with whom he had sung duets. But at time of writing he had got no further than Melbourne-knew no more than we of the mysterious Bush, which I thought of as a vast shrubbery, with occasional spears hurtling through it. When we had assimilated all the information available, our theory of the life before us was still shapeless. However, we were young and trusting, and prepared to take things as they came.

G. was an English curate for a few weeks, and an English rector for a few more. It was just enough to give us an everlasting regret that the conditions could not have remained permanent. Doubtless, if we had settled in an English parish, we should have bewailed our narrow lot, should have had everlasting regrets for missing the chance of breaking away into the wide world; but since we did exile ourselves, and could not help it, we have been homesick practically all the time-good as Australia has been to us. At any moment of these thirty odd years we would have made for our native land like homing pigeons, could we have found the means; it was only the lack of the necessary "sinews" that prevented us. Such a severe form of nostalgia is, however, uncommon here, and would be cured, I am told, by a twelve months' trip. Certainly, in nine cases out of ten, where I have known the remedy tried, it has seemed infallible. The home-goers come back perfectly satisfied to come back. It is when they stay at home for more than twelve months that they want to stay altogether.

G.'s brief curacy synchronised with our brief engagement. I was a district visitor in the parish which he served, and in which he was born. He became a rector on the wedding day. The charming rectory was placed at our disposal for the honeymoon by the real incumbent, our mutual friend, he and his good wife taking the opportunity to pay visits until we had done with it. We drove thither in the afternoon, and heard the bells ringing as we entered the village, and found the rectory-gate set wide and the white-satin-ribboned maids awaiting us on the doorstep of the beflowered house. We had two maids and a man servant; we had a brougham; we had a tiny hamlet of a parish in which (compared with what we have known of parishes) there was nothing to do-two services on Sunday, and a little business of coal and clothing clubs during the week-and where our parishioners dropped curtseys to us on the road, and felt honoured beyond measure when we went to see them. No wonder that, under the too totally opposite circumstances of clerical life as we have lived it here, we have looked back to that haven of dignified peace and ease with the wish-the stupid wish-that we could have had it always.

Nothing could have suited us better while we did have it. We were but four miles from our homes, and could see our people, who were to lose us in a month, while still ostensibly in bridal seclusion. A sister from whom I was separated for the whole of the thirty years, but who is with me now, to gossip, as we are always doing, of those old days, used to walk out before breakfast. We would have a quiet sewing morning, getting forward with the preparations still so far from completed; then we would perhaps drive her home in the afternoon, and get an hour with my mother, who surpassed all the mothers I ever knew in her unselfish passion for her children, and for whom my heart bleeds to this day when I think of what my going cost her-for I know more of mothers' sufferings in that way than I did then. She would be working her dear fingers to the bone over something to add to the array of zinc-lined boxes which were being fed by instalments in my deserted room, and I see now the flash of tearful joy that lit her fair, fine-featured face when I came with my poor crumb of comfort for her hungry heart. Intimate girl companions walked over to lunch or to play a game of croquet, or to make better use of the little time remaining to us; and we walked half-way back with them on the lonely road and through the leafy lanes. It was April and May, and, as far as I can remember, all fine weather-a last impression of English springtime that has lived with me like a beautiful portrait, an idealised portrait, of a dead and longed-for friend. "Oh to be in England now that April's there!" has been the yearly aspiration of my homesick soul, which takes no account of east winds and leaden skies, but only of chaffinches and apple boughs, just as Browning's did. My birds are the skylarks above those fen-meadows, and the flower I think of first my favourite lily-of-the-valley, of which I carried a great bunch, with the dew still on it, to the cathedral on my wedding-morning. And those golden May evenings, when we wandered back along the empty road, after setting our friends on their homeward way-I see them in some of Leader's pictures, which, if I were rich, I would buy to live with me, for that reason only. The friends could dine with us at the then usual hour, and still get home before the slow twilight passed into night-a thing impossible in this country. They were the last hours that we spent together-all young things then, but now grey and elderly, though I cannot realise it; three of them widows, most of them grandmothers, but never old to me, nor I to them. For more than thirty years we have not met, and there have been long gaps in our correspondence; but friendship has survived all, unchanged. They still write to ask when they are to see me, and I still write back to make provisional appointments which I can by no effort contrive to keep.

I was married on the 25th of April 1870. On the same date of the following month I left them all, never-as now seems only too probable-to return. We buoyed ourselves up through the anguish of the last farewells with a promise, made in all good faith, that I should come back in five years. My husband promised to bring me. "We must save up," we said to each other, "and have a holiday then." It was an easy thing to plan, but proved too difficult to carry out. After we became a family, going anywhere meant going as a family, and taking all the roots of its support and livelihood with it. Theoretically, I could have run home alone, if not in five years, in eight or ten-we could have afforded that-but practically it was as impossible as that we should all go, which we could never afford. So here we are still, and my poor mother, who lived to the last on the hope that we had given her, has long been in her grave. There is no trace of an English home to go back to now.

We went alone to London for two or three busy days. Friends of G.'s, whom I had never seen before, adopted us for the time, and fathers and mothers could not have done more for us. They furnished our cabin in the docks, and attended to our lu

ggage-we saw neither until we went on board at Plymouth-and pressed help and comfort of every kind upon us. The ship's regulation against private liquors was set at naught by a great box that stood in our cabin throughout the voyage, placed there by the order of one of these friends. The box was a complete wine-cellar, containing, in addition to wines of the best and dozens of soda water, an assortment of choice cordials and liqueurs, the like of some of which we have not tasted since. There was a particular ginger-brandy-administered to me in the cold, wild weather of which we had so much-that we have tried to get at various times in vain. What we get is as moonlight unto sunlight compared with that ginger-brandy of the ship. I may say that the donor was a London wine merchant in extensive business. Not we only, but many a sick and shivering fellow-passenger had cause to bless his generous heart and hand.

Our last sight of this gentleman and his family was on Paddington platform, whither they had driven us after a festive farewell dinner, at which our healths were drunk and good fortune invoked upon our journey. We sat in the train, and they piled their parting presents on our laps. One of them brought me a fine pair of field-glasses to look at flying-fish and porpoises with-I use them now, daily, to watch the approach of family and visitors coming across Hobson's Bay; another rushed to the bookstall that had already supplied us with all its papers, bought a complete set of Dickens' novels, and tumbled them in armfuls upon the carriage seat beside us, just as the train was moving off. Australian hospitality cannot surpass that of those kind people, to whom I had been a perfect stranger two days before.

Most of the night, as we travelled down to Plymouth, I talked with paper and pencil to my beloved ones at home. For change of position, and to get better light, I knelt on the carriage seat for a time, spreading my sheet on the leather of the back. Our one fellow-traveller, a stout clergyman, dozing since we started in his distant corner, woke up to see what I was doing, and remonstrated with me. "Don't you think," said he, "that you had better try to sleep a little now, and write your letters in the morning?" In the fulness of my heart, I told him that I did not know how much of the morning might be left me, and the pressing reasons that there were for making the most of my time. Then he informed us that he too was to sail for Australia to-morrow, and by the same ship; and it immediately transpired that he was the person for whose sake that ship had been chosen for us. We had arranged a later start by one of Green's line, when a venerable archdeacon, visiting us at our rectory, urged us to change to one of Money Wigrams', because he knew of a Melbourne clergyman who was going in her. The clergyman had his wife with him, which our archdeacon thought would be so nice for me. With great difficulty we transferred ourselves, anticipating advantages that we did not get. The Melbourne clergyman-here revealed-was a good man, but an uncongenial companion at close quarters; his wife-she was his second, and had been the servant of his first-was more so, and a terrible stirrer-up of strife amongst the other lady passengers. She had embarked in London.

I remember the look of Devonshire in the early May dawn. My grandmother had died at Ottery St. Mary, and I loved the pleasant county and for years had wanted to explore it. But this was all I ever saw of its beautiful face-Ivy Bridge (was that the name?), one scene that has not faded, and the place where the railway ran close beside the sea. We reached Plymouth at a ghastly hour before anybody was up. At the hotel recommended to us by our latest friend we were shown into a room where the dirty glasses and tobacco ashes of the night before still defiled the air and the tablecloth. Here we sat until a bedroom was ready for us, when we went to bed-which seemed a most useless proceeding-until there was a fair chance of getting breakfast. A bath and a good meal pulled us together, and then we went out for our last walk on English ground. A charming walk it was, exploring that old town-I would give something to be able to repeat it-and a sweet conclusion to our home life. We returned to our hotel for a bite of lunch, hired an old man and a barrow to trundle our few things (the heavy baggage having been put on board in London) to the waterside, and after him a waterman and a boat, and got out to our ship lying in the Sound-the first we saw of her-at a little before noon, which was her advertised sailing hour. The newspapers called her a "fine powerful clipper ship of 1150 tons," and boasted that her saloon, which was "a very spacious apartment," could "accommodate forty passengers with ease." We were thirty-two and a baby, which seemed just to fill it comfortably. Such were the mammoth liners of those days. As we were rowed up to her gangway, bashful under the eyes of a number of keenly-interested spectators, whose heads hung over the bulwark, we thought her wonderful.

The wife of our latest acquaintance received us on deck, but all she wanted of us was information as to where her husband was and what he was doing. We could not tell her; we had not seen him since our arrival in the town. She could do nothing but watch for him, fuming; and we went to our quarters and our discoveries of the comforts there provided for us by the thoughtfulness of our London friends. We had one of the only two large cabins on the ship; the other was the captain's; the rudder clanked between us and him, behind the bulkhead at the end of our wide curved sofa, where the pillow, tucked into a bright rug, was a full-sized feather bed, a wedding present that at first we did not know what to do with, but which soon proved the most valuable of them all, as it still is, in the form of plenty of soft, fat cushions all over the house. I spent a large part of my days at sea reclining upon this downy mass, which began below my shoulder-blades and sloped upward nearly to the ceiling; as I lay I could look out of and down from the row of stern windows that made one side of my couch, and watch the following birds and fishes-sometimes a shark beguiled with a piece of pork-without lifting my head. It was an envied place in the tropics, when the air swept free to the main deck through open doors; but in rough weather-and it was nearly all rough weather-the swing of the sea-saw was killing. It used to fling me out of bed over a high bunk board until I was black and blue with my falls, and it kept me sea-sick the whole voyage.

We "settled up" our room according to our inexperienced notions, and at four o'clock we sat down to dinner in the "cuddy," still in port. Excellent dinners we had at that odd hour for dining, which was the regular hour, and really a very suitable one under the circumstances of sea life, breaking up the long day of which most of us were tired by the time the first dressing-bell rang at half-past three. The function practically occupied the afternoon, and, as I said, was carried out to the satisfaction of all save those who would never have been satisfied with anything. That the company could feed us so well, and lodge and carry us, for less than ten shillings a day argued good management, but I think they must have relied on the dead cargo for their profits. We were in Plymouth Sound on Sunday morning. On Sunday evening a party of passengers went ashore to attend church. "Mind," said the captain, "if a wind gets up while you are away, I shall not wait for you." But no wind stirred that night, nor all the next day, nor the next. Our clergyman friend (without his wife) darted to and fro, for he was confident that no ship would venture to leave a person of his importance behind, but we dared not risk it. We spent our time leaning over the poop-rail, gazing at the dear land, so near and yet so far, and thinking of our mourning relatives, with whom we might have been if we had known. When I was not doing that, I was writing to them. On Wednesday morning, the 1st of June-we had embarked on Saturday-the post-bag was closed for the pilot, and I looked my last on England through a grey sheet of rain.

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