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Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 19779

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


AUSTRALIA FELIX

The story of a sea-voyage thirty years ago, if it could properly be included in this chronicle, might interest the young reader, born since the era of the sailing ship, and to whom therefore the true romance of ocean travel is unknown. To me, who, if I could cross the world to-morrow, would choose the most civilised steamer I could afford, the memory of the Hampshire on her maiden trip brings regret for beauty vanishing from the world, as the Pink Terraces of New Zealand have vanished, or the big bird-thronged hedges of rural England in my nutting and blackberrying childhood. All such losses have been amply compensated for, no doubt-I am not of those who, having outlived them, insist that the old times were better than the new-but they are losses, notwithstanding. The fine old sailing sailor-men and their noble seamanship, and the almost sentient responsiveness of the "powerful clipper" of a thousand tons or so in their hands-the spectacle of her with all her tiers of sails full, leaning to the breeze, or fighting storms, bare-poled, by sheer brain sense and the inspiration of the divinest unconscious courage that human history can show-there is nothing in the splendid new régime to touch the heart and the imagination as these did. I forget the hard-bottomed and treacherous bunks, the soon-carpetless, soaked floors, the dancing table that shot fowls and legs of mutton into our laps out of dish and fiddle, the cold that one could find no shelter from except in bed, the terrible gales, the incurable sea-sickness, the petty feuds of the lady passengers; that is, I think of them as not worth thinking of, with the feeling that it was finer to rough it a bit as we did than to be pampered at every turn as sea-travellers are now, and in recognition of the fact that my sufferings brought me many pleasures that otherwise I should have been deprived of. The captain wanted to-only I would not let him-give me his own swinging cot. The head steward used to smuggle in mysterious parcels, which, when unwrapped, disclosed little dainties, specially prepared and hot from the cooking-stove, to tempt her who was said to be "the most sea-sick lady they had ever carried." The other ladies, when not immersed in their little social broils, from which my physical state and geographical position detached me, were kindness itself. One of them gave me that nearly extinct article, a hair net-it was the day of chignons, the manufacture of which was beyond me-and seldom have I received a more useful gift. With my hair tucked into this bag, dressing-gowned and shawled, I used to go up after nightfall to a couch on the skylight; there I would enjoy myself, feeling fairly well until I moved to go down again-amused with the little comedies going on around me, and enraptured with the picture of the winged vessel as I looked up through her labyrinth of rigging to the mastheads and the sky, and then down and around at the sea and the night through which she moved so majestically. Pictures of her sweeping through a dream-like world of moonlight and mystery are indelible in my mind. Sometimes the moonlight was so bright that we played chess and card games by it on the skylight and about the deck. At other times we lay becalmed, and I had my chance to dress myself and enjoy the evening dance or concert, or whatever was going on. But at the worst of times-even in the tremendous storms, when the ship lay poop-rail under, all but flat on her beam ends (drowning the fowls and pigs on that side), or plunged and wallowed under swamping cross-seas that pounded down through smashed skylights upon us tumbling about helplessly in the dark-even in these crises of known danger and physical misery there was something exhilarating and uplifting-a sense of finely-lived if not heroic life, that may come to the coddled steamer passenger when the machinery breaks down, but which I cannot associate with him and his "floating hotel" under any circumstances short of impending shipwreck.

We sighted Cape Otway on the 16th of August. Seventy-seven days! Yet the Melbourne newspapers of the 19th called it smart work, considering the sensational weather we had passed through. More than forty ships were reported overdue when we arrived-a curious thing to think of now, with the steamers crowding every port keeping time like clockwork. The pilots that bring them up the bay can rarely enjoy the popularity and prestige of their predecessors of the last generation. The sensation caused by the knowledge that ours was on board, with his month-and-a-half-old letters and newspapers, filled with information of the happenings in the world from which we had been totally cut off for nearly a quarter of a year, must have been delightful to him. We came out to breakfast to find him there, crowded about by the young men, the honoured guest of the company, one and all of whom hung upon his every word-particularly the gamblers who had had to wait till now for the name of the Derby winner. I remember that this item of news was considered the most important; next to it was the news that Dickens was dead.

Although we sighted land on the 16th, it was not until the 19th that we set foot upon it, so leisurely did we do things in those days. Contrary winds kept us hovering about the Heads for some hours. The pilot who came on board before breakfast saw us well into our afternoon dinner before he decided to tack through the Rip against them; we shortened the meal which it was our custom to make the most of in order to watch the man?uvre, which was very pretty. The captain was charmed with it, although there was one awful moment when the vessel was but her own length from one of the reefs-the noise of the wind had caused one of the yelled orders to be misunderstood-and it was amusing to note his joyous excitement as he marched about, rubbing his hands. "She's a yacht, sir," he bawled to the sympathetic pilot; "you can do anything with her." "You can that," the pilot answered, as he made his delicate zig-zags through that formidable gateway in the teeth of the wind-a feat in seamanship that the dullest landlubber could not but admire and marvel at.

And so we came to shelter and calm water at last. We anchored off Queenscliff and signalled for the doctor, who did not immediately put out to us, as he should have done. We had had such hopes of getting to a shore bed that night that most of us had stripped our cabins-the furniture of which had to be of our own providing-and packed everything up; now we had to unpack again, to get out bedding for another night and find a candle by which to see to take off the smart shore clothes in which we had sat all day, eyeing each other's costumes, which for the first time seemed to reveal us in our true characters. We were ungratefully disheartened by this trivial disappointment, and retired to rest all grumbling at the Providence which had brought us through so many perils unharmed.

Next morning the ship seethed with indignation because the doctor still made no sign. What happened to him afterwards I don't know, but the penalties he was threatened with for being off duty at the wrong time were heavy. He detained us so long that again our confident expectation of a shore bed was frustrated; for yet another night we had to camp in our dismantled cabin. The pair of tugs that dragged us from the Heads to Hobson's Bay, making their best pace, could not get us home until black night had fallen and it was considered too late to go up to the pier.

I suppose it was about nine o'clock when we dropped anchor. All we could see of the near city was a three-quarter ring of lights dividing dark water from dark sky-just what I see now every night when I come upstairs to bed, before I draw the blinds down. We watched them, fascinated, and-still more fascinating-the boats that presently found their way to us, bringing welcoming friends and relatives to those passengers who possessed them. We, strangers in a strange land, sat apart and watched these favoured ones-listened to their callings back and forth over the ship's side, beheld their embraces at the gangway, their excited interviews in the cuddy, their gay departures into the night and the unknown, which in nearly every case swallowed them for ever as far as we were concerned. Three only of the whole company have we set eyes on since-excepting the friend who became our brother-and one of these three renewed acquaintance with us but a year or two ago. Another I saw once across a hotel dinner-table. The third was the clergyman who had been so kindly foisted on us-or we on him-before we left England; and it was enough for us to see him afar off at such few diocesan functions as we afterwards attended together; we dropped closer relations as soon as there was room to drop them. However, he was a useful and respected member of his profession, and much valued by his own parish, from which death removed him many a year ago. Quite a deputation of church members came off to welcome him on that night of his return from his English holiday, and to tell him of the things his locum tenens had been doing in his absence. He was furious at learning that this person-at the present moment the head of the Church of England in this state-had had the presumption to replace an old organ-his old organ-with a new one. In the deputation were ladies with votive bouquets for his wife; the perfume of spring violets in the saloon deepened the sense of exile and solitude that crept upon us when their boat and the rest had vanished from view, leaving but the few friendless ones to the hospitality of the ship for a last night's lodging.

However, in the morning, we had our turn. It was the loveliest morning, a sample of the really matchless climate (which we had been informed was exactly like that of the palm-houses at K

ew), clear as crystal, full of sunshine and freshness; and when we awoke amid strange noises, and looked out of our port-hole, we saw that not sea but wooden planks lay under it-Port Melbourne railway pier, exactly as it is now, only that its name was then Sandridge and its old piles thirty years stouter where salt water and barnacles gnawed them.

With what joy as well as confidence did we don our best clerical coat and our best purple petticoat and immaculate black gown (the skirt pulled up out of harm's way through a stout elastic waist-cord, over which it hung behind in a soft, unobtrusive bag, for street wear), and lay out our Peter Robinson jacket and bonnet, and gloves from the hermetically sealed bottle, upon the bare bunk! And the breakfast we then went to is a memory to gloat upon-the succulent steak, the fresh butter and cream, the shore-baked rolls, the piled fruits and salads; nothing ever surpassed it except the mid-day meal following, with its juicy sirloin and such spring vegetables as I had never seen. This also I battened on, with my splendidly prepared appetite, though G. did not. The bishop's representative-our first Australian friend, whose fine and kindly face is little changed in all these years, and which I never look upon without recalling that moment, my first and just impression of it and him-appeared in our cabin doorway early in the morning; and it was deemed expedient that G. should go with him to report himself at headquarters, and return for me when that business was done. So I spent some hours alone, watching the railway station at the head of the pier through my strong glasses. In the afternoon I too landed, and was driven to lodgings that had been secured for us in East Melbourne, where we at once dressed for dinner at the house of our newest friend, and for one of the most charming social evenings that I ever spent. The feature of it that I best remember was a vivid literary discussion based upon Lothair, which was the new book of the hour, and from which our host read excruciating extracts. How brightly every detail of those first hours in Australia stands out in the mind's records of the past-the refined little dinner (I could name every dish on the dainty table), the beautiful and adored invalid hostess, who died not long afterwards, and whom those who knew her still speak of as "too good for this world"; the refreshment of intellectual talk after the banalities of the ship; the warm kindness of everybody, even our landlady, who was really a lady, and like a mother to me; the comfort of the sweet and clean shore life-I shall never cease to glow at the recollection of these things. The beautiful weather enhanced the charm of all, and-still more-the fact that, although at first I staggered with the weakness left by such long sea-sickness, I not only recovered as soon as my foot touched land, but enjoyed the best health of my life for a full year afterwards.

The second day was a Saturday, and we were taken out to see the sights. No description that we had read or heard of, even from our fellow-passengers whose homes were there, had prepared us for the wonder that Melbourne was to us. As I remember our metropolis then, and see it now, I am not conscious of any striking general change, although, of course, the changes in detail are innumerable. It was a greater city for its age thirty years ago than it is to-day, great as it is to-day. I lately read in some English magazine the statement that tree-stumps-likewise, if I mistake not, kangaroos-were features of Collins Street "twenty-five years ago." I can answer for it that in 1870 it was excellently paved and macadamised, thronged with its waggonette-cabs, omnibuses, and private carriages-a perfectly good and proper street, except for its open drainage gutters. The nearest kangaroo hopped in the Zoological Gardens at Royal Park. In 1870, also-although the theatrical proceedings of the Kelly gang took place later-bushranging was virtually a thing of the past. So was the Bret Harte mining-camp. We are credited still, I believe, with those romantic institutions, and our local story-writers love to pander to the delusion of some folks that Australia is made up of them; I can only say-and I ought to know-that in Victoria, at any rate, they have not existed in my time. Had they existed in the other colonies, I must have heard of it. The last real bushranger came to his inevitable bad end shortly before we arrived. The cowardly Kellys, murderers, and brigands as they were, and costlier than all their predecessors to hunt down, always seemed to me but imitation bushrangers. Mining has been a sober pursuit, weighted with expensive machinery. Indeed, we have been quite steady and respectable, so far as I know. In the way of public rowdyism I can recall nothing worth mentioning-unless it be the great strike of 1890.

We went to see the Town Hall-the present one, lacking only its present portico; and the splendid Public Library, as it was until a few years ago, when a wing was added; and the Melbourne Hospital, as it stands to-day; and the University, housed as it is now, and beginning to gather its family of colleges about it. We were taken a-walking in the Fitzroy Gardens-saw the same fern gully, the same plaster statues, that still adorn it; and to the Botanical Gardens, already furnished with their lakes and swans, and rustic bridges, and all the rest of it. And how beautiful we thought it all! As I have said, it was springtime, and the weather glorious. There had been excessive rains, and were soon to be more-rains which caused 1870 to be marked in history as "the year of the great floods"-but the loveliness of the weather as we first knew it I shall never forget.

We finished the week in the suburban parish that included Pentridge, the great prison of the State-an awesome pile of dressed granite then as now. The incumbent was not well, and G. was sent to help him with his Sunday duty. The first early function was at the gaol, from which they brought back an exquisitely-designed programme of the music and order of service, which I still keep amongst my mementoes of those days. It was done by a prisoner, who supplied one, and always a different one, to the chaplain each Sunday.

At his house-where again we were surprised to find all the refinements we had supposed ourselves to have left in England, for he and his wife were exceptionally cultivated persons-we slept on the ground floor for the first time in our lives, all mixed up with drawing-room and garden, which felt very strange and public, and almost improper. Now I prefer the bungalow arrangement to any other; I like to feel the house all round me, close and cosy, and to be able to slip from my bed into the open air when I like, and not to be cut off from folks when I am ill. For more than twenty years I was accustomed to it, sleeping with open windows and unlocked doors, like any Bedouin in his tent, unmolested in the loneliest localities by night-prowling man or beast. I miss this now, when I live in town and have to climb stairs and isolate myself-or sleep with shut windows (which I never will) in a ground-floor fortress, made burglar-proof at every point.

Bishop and Mrs. Perry had a dinner-party for us on Monday. That day was otherwise given to our particular ship friend (of whom I shall say more presently); with him, a stranger in the land like ourselves, we had adventures and excursions "on our own," eluding the many kind folk who would have liked to play courier. We lunched plentifully at an excellent restaurant-I cannot identify it now, but it fixed our impression that we had indeed come to a land of milk and honey-and then rambled at large. The evening was very pleasant. Whether as host or guest, the first Bishop of Melbourne was always perfect, and we met some interesting people at his board. Others came in after dinner, amongst them two of the "sweetly pretty daughters," of whom we had heard in England, and who did not quite come up to our expectations. They are hoary-headed maiden ladies now-the youngest as white as the muslin of the frock she wore that night.

We did many things during the remainder of the week, which was full of business, pleasure, and hospitalities, very little of our time being spent in privacy. The shops were surprisingly well furnished and tempting, and we acted upon our supposition that we should find none to speak of in the Bush. We made careful little purchases from day to day. The very first of them, I think, was Professor Halford's snake-bite cure. We had an idea that, once out of the city, our lives would not be safe without it for a day. It was a hypodermic syringe and bottle of stuff, done up in a neat pocket-case. That case did cumber pockets for a time, but it was never opened, and eventually went astray and was no more seen-or missed. Yet snakes were quite common objects of the country then. I used to get weary of the monotony of sitting my horse and holding G.'s, while at every mile or so he stopped to kill one, during our Bush-rides in warm weather. English readers should know that in the Bush it has ever been a point of honour, by no means to be evaded, to kill every snake you see, if possible, no matter how difficult the job, nor how great your impatience to be after other jobs. That probably is why they are so infrequent now that any chance appearance of the creature is chronicled in the papers as news.

Another early purchase was a couple of large pine-apples, at threepence a-piece. We each ate one (surreptitiously, in a retired spot), and realised one of the ambitions of our lives-to get enough of that delicacy for once.

On Saturday the 24th, the eighth day from our arrival, we turned our backs upon all this wild dissipation and our faces towards stern duty. We left Melbourne for the Bush.

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