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Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 18603

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


THE BUSH

It was not quite bush, to start with, because we travelled by railway to our immediate destination, and that was a substantial township set amongst substantial farms and stations, intersected by made roads. But on the way we had samples of typical country, between one stopping-place and another. First, there were the ugly, stony plains, with their far-apart stone fences, formed by simply piling the brown boulders, bound together by their own weight only, into walls of the required height. This dreary country represented valuable estates, and remains of the same aspect and in the hands of the same families, I believe, still. Gradually these stone-strewn levels merged into greener and softer country, which grew the gum-trees we had heard so much of; and presently we came to closely-folded, densely-forested hills, the "Dividing Range"-a locality to be afterwards associated with many charming memories-where snow and cloud-mists enwrapped one in winter, and from which the distant panorama of the low-lying capital and the sea was lovely on a clear day. But it was like eating one's first olive, that first acquaintance with Bush scenery; we had not got the taste of it. I cannot remember that we admired anything. Rather, an impression remains-the only one that does remain-of a cheerless effect upon our minds. Perhaps the weather had changed.

There was no lack of cheer in the welcome awaiting us at our journey's end. Our clergyman-host met us on the railway platform with the face of a father greeting children home from school. There was a cab waiting, into which our traps were thrown, but we preferred to walk up to the parsonage through the streets of the clean little town, that we might study its unexpected points and see how enterprising and civilised the Bush could be. The parson's wife, aged twenty-one and four years married, received us on the doorstep of the cheerful house, and at once we were as perfectly at home in it as in our own. That was the way with all Australian houses, we found.

Sunday was certainly wet. The two parsons drove out to a Bush service in the afternoon, and we their wives had a bad quarter of an hour listening to the bell ringing for the evening one, while yet there was no sign of their return who had promised to be back for tea; the boggy roads and swollen water-courses so delayed them that it was on the stroke of church time ere they turned up. But next day the sun shone again, and we were taken for a drive over macadamised roads and shown things that corrected our opinion of Bush scenery. And that day, neighbouring clergymen, Sunday off their minds, came to make our acquaintance, all full of information and advice for us, all eager themselves for news from the "Old Country." Mrs C. gave them shakedowns on sofas and floor, to which they repaired at disgraceful hours of the night, because they could not stop talking. Where is that party now?-the merriest clerical party I was ever in. The host, our friend from that day, and godfather to one of our sons, was made a bishop, and died but a few months ago; his merry wife is a broken-hearted widow, crippled with neuritis. One of the guests, in after years still more intimately dear, became an archdeacon, and is now dead also. Two others are past work, resting in retirement until the end comes. We, the youngest of the group, bar one, are beginning to realise that the evening for us also is drawing on.

It was here, by the way, that we had news of the commencement of the war between France and Prussia. It came by the monthly mail-boat, which was our one channel of communication with the world. This budget gave texts for the discussions that are so memorable for their vivacity and charm. A great day was mail-day in those times. Looking back, I cannot remember that we fretted much over our four blank weeks, during which the most awful and personally serious things might happen without our knowing it; but I do remember that when we got the cable many of us grumbled because it took away the interest of mail-day, which became to us as a novel of which we know the ending before we begin to read it.

Holiday travels ended on the last day of August. That night we started for the up-country post to which G. had been appointed, and where he was expected to begin his duties on the following Sunday. August 31st was a Wednesday, and therefore ample time seemed to have been allowed for a journey from Melbourne which the daily coach accomplished in less than a couple of days (and which is now done by the Sydney express in four hours). However, "the year of the great flood" was already making its reputation. Bridges and culverts had been washed away, and the coach-road was reported impassable for ladies. Men could wade and swim, assist to push the vehicle and extricate it from bogs-they were expected to do so-but the authorities in Melbourne advised my husband that the conditions were too rough for me. Consequently we took a round-about route, whereby it was still reckoned that we should get to our destination before Sunday.

The C.'s saw us off during the afternoon-not back to town, but on by the railway which ended at the Murray. We were passed on from friend to friend until a group of kind men-whom I never saw before or since, but shall never forget-established us on board the little Murray streamer which was to be our home till Saturday. It was the mild spring night of that part of the colony, which embraces so many climates; and I can see now, in my mind's eye, the swirl of the brimming river that so soon after overflowed the town; the lights of the wharf and the boat, which spangled the dark sky and water with sparks from its wood-fed furnace; the generally romantic picturesqueness of a scene-one of a sensational series-which indelibly impressed itself upon me, an imaginative young person seeing the world for the first time.

I can only with an effort remember how uncomfortable that boat was; when I think of it at all, my mind fills with recollections of the deeply interesting experiences that came to me by its means. On that flooded river-so flooded that its bed, for the greater part of the way, was marked by no banks, but only its bordering trees-I saw blacks in native costume, the now rare kangaroo and emu in flocks; black swans, white ibises, grey cranes; the iguana running up a tree, the dear laughing jackass in his glory; all the notorious characteristics of the country, and many more undreamed of. Most distinctly do I remember, the unceasing chorus of the frogs, and the solemn-sounding echo of the steamer's puffs and pants through the solitary gum-forests, especially at night. But we soon had to leave off travelling at night, on account of the many foreign bodies that the flood was whirling down-the débris of houses and bridges, trees, stacks, all sorts of things. Indeed, even in daylight the navigation of the turbulent stream was a most risky business.

Consternation fell upon us when Saturday morning came, and we were informed that there was small chance of completing the passage that day. This meant being stranded in a strange township, at some possibly low public-house, on Sunday, when the coach of our last stage would not be running, and the breaking of an engagement that was considered of immense importance.

"What shall we do?" we asked ourselves, and the question was overheard by fellow-passengers, anxious, as everybody was, to help us.

"It's a pity you can't cut across," said one. "From here to W-- is no distance as the crow flies."

Compared with the bow-loop we were making, it was no distance-a few hours' drive, with normal roads and weather; and just then the steamer stopped to take in cargo from a lonely shed, near which we perceived a cart, a grazing horse, and a man, evidently belonging to each other, and on the right (Victorian) side of the stream.

"Would it be possible," one of us suggested, "to hire that cart and cut across?"

G. went to try, while I leaned over the boat's rail and anxiously watched the negotiations. They were successful, and we hurriedly collected our wraps and bags, our heavy luggage was put ashore, and the steamer passed on and vanished round the next bend of the river, which was all bends, leaving us on the bank-in the real Bush for the first time, and delighted with the situation. The man with the cart had guaranteed to get us home before nightfall.

We climbed over our boxes, which filled the body of the vehicle, settled ourselves upon them as comfortably as their angles permitted, and started merrily on our way. It was the morning of the day, of the season, of the Australian year, of our two lives; and I could never lose the memory of my sensations in that vernal hour. I can sniff now the delicious air, rain-washed to more than even its accustomed purity, the scents of gum and wattle and fresh-springing grass, the atmosphere of untainted Nature and the free wilds. I can see the vast flocks of screaming cockatoos and parrots of all colours that darted about our path-how wonderful and romantic I thought them! And what years it is since the wild parrot has shown himself to me in any number or variety! Like the once ubiquitous 'possum, he seems a vanishing race-at any rate, in this state.

I suppose they still have sanctuary in the larger and less settled ones. I hope so.

However, we were not far on this promising journey when troubles began. The rain returned, and settled to a solid downpour, that increased to a deluge as the day wore on. The Bush track became softer and softer, stickier and stickier, the dreadful bogs of its deeper parts more and more difficult of negotiation by the poor overweighted, willing horse, whose strength, as we soon saw, was unequal to the task before him. He got on fairly well until after the noonday halt, when he was rubbed down and fed-when we also were fed by a poor selector's wife at whose hut (in the absence of hotels) we solicited food, and who gave us all she had, bread and cream, as much as we could eat, and then refused to take a penny for it. But starting again, with rain heavier than before, the poor beast's struggles to do his hopeless best became more than I could bear. When I had seen him scramble through three or four bogs that sucked him down like quicksands, and it seemed that he must burst his heart in the effort to get out of them, I stopped the cart and said I would walk. My weight might not be much, but such as it was he should be relieved of it. G. also walked, but as he was needed to help the driver I left him and was soon far ahead, intending to give this negative aid to the expedition as long as I could find my way.

I had been told to "follow the track," and I followed it for miles. The Bush was drowned in rain, so that I had to jump pools, and climb logs and branches, and get round swamps, in such a way that I felt it every minute more impossible to retrace my steps. I carried an umbrella, but I was wet to the skin. I was quite composed, however, except for my distress on account of the poor horse, whose master's voice and whip I could hear in the distance behind me from time to time; and I was not at all alarmed. I had prepared myself for the savageness of a savage country. I imagined that this was the sort of thing I should have to get accustomed to. Now and then I sat down to recover breath and to wring my sopping skirts, and to wait for the sound of the cart advancing, after the frequent silences that betokened bogs.

By the way, I hear nothing nowadays of those bogs which, in their various forms, made our winter drives so exciting-the "glue-pots," the "rotten grounds," the "spue-holes," worst of all, indicated by a little bubble-up of clayey mud that you could cover with a handkerchief, but which, if a horse stepped on it, would take his leg to the knee, or to any depth that it would go without breaking. "Made" roads and drainage-works seem to have done away with them this long time, for the other day I met a resident of the locality who did not know, until I told him, what a spue-hole was.

At last it was all silence. I waited for the cart, and it did not come. I called-there was no answer. At the end of an hour-it may have been two or three hours-the situation was the same. What had happened was that the horse was at last in a bog that he could not get out of, and that bog was miles away. I could not go back to see what had happened. I did not know where I was. I conjectured that I had turned off the track somewhere, and that my husband was travelling away from me; that I was lost in the Bush, where I might never be found again-where I should have to spend the night alone, at any rate, in the horrible solitude and darkness and the drenching rain.

Appropriately, in this extremity, and just as dusk was closing in, I heard a splashing and a crashing, and my knight appeared-one of those fine, burly, bearded squatter-men who were not only the backbone of their young country, but everything else that was sound and strong. He drew rein in amazement; I rose from my log and stood before him in the deepest confusion. Finally I explained my plight, and in two minutes all trouble was over. Bidding me stay where I was for a short time longer, he galloped away, and presently returned in a buggy loaded with rugs and wraps, and bore me off to his house somewhere near, telling me that he would return again for my husband, and had sent men to the rescue of the cart and horse, now so buried in the bog that not much more than his head and neck were visible.

Ah, those dear Bush-houses-so homely, so cosy, so hospitable, so picturesque-and now so rare! At least a dozen present themselves to my mind when I try to recall a perfect type, and this one amongst the first, although I never was in it after that night. They were always a nest of buildings that had grown one at a time, the house-father having been his own architect, with no design but to make his family comfortable, and to increase their comfort as his means allowed. And this must have been the golden prime of the squatter class in Victoria, for the free selector had but lately been let loose upon his lands, and the consequent ruin that he prognosticated had not visibly touched him. In the early stages of home-making, his home-life had been rough enough; but there was no roughness in it now, although there was plenty of work, and although the refinements about him were all in keeping with his hardy manliness, his simplicity, and sincerity of character. I used to be much struck by the contrast of his cherished "imported" furniture with its homely setting-the cheval glass and the mahogany wardrobe on the perhaps bare, dark-grey hardwood floor-incongruities of that sort, which somehow always seemed in taste. Never have I known greater luxury of toilet appointments than in some of those hut-like dwellings. In the humblest of them the bed stood always ready for the casual guest, a clean brush and comb on the dressing-table, and easy house-slippers under it. And then the paper-covered canvas walls used to belly out and in with the wind that puffed behind them; opossums used to get in under the roof and run over the canvas ceilings, which sagged under their weight, showing the impression of their little feet and of the round of their bodies where they sat down.

The country-houses become more and more Europeanised, year by year. The inward ordering matches the outward architecture, and, although Australian hospitality has survived the homes that were its birthplaces, one hesitates to present one's self as an uninvited guest at the door with the electric bell and the white-capped maid, who asks, "What name, sir?" when you inquire if the family are at home. There is an off-chance that you may be unwelcome, or, at any rate inopportune, whereas it was impossible to imagine such a thing in what we now lovingly call "the old days."

I came in, an utter stranger, out of the dark night and that wet and boggy wilderness, weary and without a dry stitch on me, to such a scene, such a welcome, as I could not forget in a dozen lifetimes. The door had been flung wide on the approach of the buggy, and I was lifted down into the light that poured from it, and passed straight into what appeared to be the living room of the family, possibly their only one. The glorious log fire of the country-the most beautiful piece of house-furniture in the world-blazed on the snowy white-washed hearth, filling every nook with warmth and comfort; and the young mistress, a new-made mother just up from her bed, in a smart loose garment that would now be called a tea-gown, came forward from her armchair to greet me as if I had been her sister, at the least. The table was spread for the dinner, to which the husband had been riding home when I encountered and delayed him; and what a feature of the charming picture it was! I remember the delicious boiled chicken and mutton curry that were presently set upon it, and how I enjoyed them. But first I was taken into an inner bedroom, to another glowing fire, around which were grouped a warm bath ready to step into, soft hot towels, sponge and soap, and a complete set of my hostess's best clothes, from a handsome black silk dress to shoes and stockings and a pocket-handkerchief. In these I dined, and, retiring early, as she had to do, found a smart nightgown, dressing-gown, and slippers toasting by my fire. And I sank to rest between fine linen sheets, and slept like a top until crowing cocks, within a few feet of me, proclaimed the break of day.

That day was Sunday, and G. had to preach at morning service some eight or nine miles away. So we were early seated at a good breakfast, and a light buggy and a pair of strong, fast horses were brought round, to take us in good time to our destination. Our host himself drove us, and incidentally taught us what Bush driving meant. I remember how we made new roads for ourselves on the spur of the moment to avoid bogs, and how gamely we battled through those that were unavoidable; how we flew over the treacherous green levels that the expert eye recognised as "rotten," where, had the horses been allowed to pause for a moment, they would have sunk and stuck; and how finally we dashed in style into the township and up to the parsonage-gate, where a venerable archdeacon was anxiously looking for the curate whom he had almost given up for lost. The church-bell had not yet begun to ring. In fact, the family were still at breakfast when we arrived.

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