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   Chapter 4 IVToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 20828

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


We had to wait in lodgings for a few weeks, during which time we made acquaintance with the place and people.

Our lodgings were very comfortable. Sitting-room and bedroom, with a door between, our other door opening upon a big plot of virgin bush, alive with magpies, whose exquisite carolling in the early hours of the day is the thing that I remember best. There is no bird-song in the world so fresh and cheery. I seldom hear it now, but when I do I am back again, in imagination, at breakfast near that open door, drinking in the sweetness of the lovely September mornings which were the morning of my life. Never had I known such air and sunshine, or such health to enjoy them; and never do I feel so much an Australian as when I go to the Bush again and am welcomed by that fluty note. The spirit of happy youth is in it, and of those "good old times" which we old colonists have so many reasons to regret to-day. No song of English nightingale could strike deeper to my heart.

Speaking of breakfast reminds me of the luxury we lived in, in respect of food. Never was such a land of plenty as this was then, when no one dreamed of butter and beef at what is their market rate this day. We had young appetites, in fine order after the sea-voyage, and the more we ate the better was our landlady pleased. It hurt her as a hostess and housewife to have any dish neglected. And she simply stuffed us with good things; the meal prepared for us two might have served half-a-dozen, and given bilious attacks to all. One mistake only did she make in the arrangement of her bill of fare-she gave us too many quinces; apparently they were a superfluity in her garden, as they have since been in nearly all of ours. At first they were a novel and welcome delicacy, but when we had had them at every meal for weeks-in jam, jelly, tart, pudding, and pie, with cream, with custard, with bread and butter, and inlaid in sandwich cake-we were so thoroughly sickened of them that neither of us have wanted to look at a quince since. We have given the fruit away in sacksful to our neighbours, season after season, all these thirty years, and not cooked one; just lately-tempted by a brilliant carbuncle-hued jelly presented to me by a gifted little cook in my family-I have suddenly re-acquired a taste for it (which G. says will never happen to him), and now for the first time we have no quinces in the garden. That is to say, we have quinces-as also pears and almonds and other fruits-but the thieving little town-boys that live around us steal everything before it is fit to pluck. And I may here add, in regard to this sad fact, that when we came to our town-house we found a notice-board up in the orchard-paddock at the back, offering a reward of £5 for the apprehension of "trespassers upon these premises." While it remained up, there was always a policeman outside the fence. It was the joy of our own school-boys to bamboozle him by scaling the fence at night or in some surreptitious manner, pretending to be trespassers, and only when they had given him all the trouble and satisfaction of apprehending them, revealing their identity as sons of the house. But I could not bear this board-such an anomaly in the colony, as I had known it; I thought it horrible in any case, but on a clergyman's land quite scandalous; and I did not rest until it was taken down. Now I understand the meaning of it. No sooner was it gone than the policeman disappeared for ever. And the thieving boys took, and keep, possession of the place-at any rate, of the fruit; and of the flowers when they fancy them, as occasionally they do. The fowls are locked up in their house at night, and could defend themselves with audible squawks in day-time. The back gate is also locked. But those young villains make their own gates; they breach the defences by simply tearing down a few palings, and pass through the hole. We mend it up, or hire a man to mend it-more than the £5 of the reward must have gone in this way-and next night they break it open again, or make another in an easier place. Then quite calmly, and boldly they come in and out, sit in the rifled and broken tree or on the top of the fence to munch their spoil and "cheek" the poor maid who goes out to expostulate; and, the once zealous policeman steadily holding aloof (he has been appealed to for succour a dozen times in vain), we have no redress, except when we take the law into our own hands, which is an unprofitable proceeding. One of my ex-schoolboys administers justice occasionally, in a fashion to bring irate parents, and threats of summonses for assault about his ears, but he cannot be in two places at once, and his long absences from this place are calculated upon. As for Bob, the current house-dog, a fox-terrier of some intelligence, he behaves like a perfect idiot in this case. He will bark furiously at the boys when ordered to do so, but will neither initiate the chase nor follow it up with effective action. My idea is that he takes them for permanent members of the establishment. Or "boys will be boys," he thinks. Or he has seen me bribe them to come and ask for fruit, instead of stealing it. Anyway the result is that we have no fruit for ourselves. Year after year we see our trees blossom and the young crop set and swell, knowing we shall gather no harvest beyond a few hard, half-grown pears, which can be stewed soft. If I want to make quince jelly, as now I do, I must buy the quinces.

But in the country there were no thieves-no locks and bars in use-no need for the policeman. The only raiders of the orchards were the birds, who had the right to tax us.

That town of W--, where we spent the first year of our Australian life, was a typical country-town of the better class, and at that period very lively and prosperous. The railway afterwards drained it of much of its local importance, which has only revived again in quite recent times-since the fat lands about it have become studded with dairy-farms and butter and tobacco factories, industries and population which have contrived to hold their own here and there against the crushing discouragements to which both are subjected. Within the last few months it has been made the seat of a bishopric.

We found a highly-civilised society. The police magistrate at the head of it-always a P.M. was at the head in those days, in the country-towns big enough to have one, and not only by virtue of his official standing, but by every right of personal character and culture, as a rule-was a (to me) surprisingly well bred as well as kindly gentleman; and his wife was as nice as he. They gave bright evening-parties, at which he played the flute with a delicate skill, and he read largely and liked to talk of what he read; also he was an exemplary husband and father. In the group of pleasant households his was one of the most serenely pleasant, and so we felt it deeply when one morning, a few months after our arrival, the news of his sudden death was brought to us. He had risen that morning apparently in his usual health, and was in his dressing-room, making his toilet and chatting with his wife through the open door between them-she with a baby a week or so old-when she heard him fall; he did not answer her call to know what was the matter, and when she went to see she found him dead upon the floor. The catastrophe left her with six little ones to provide for, and next to nothing to do it with. The good husband and father, taken without warning in his prime (of unsuspected heart disease), had begun to make provision for the rainy day, but not completed the task. However, with pupils and boarders and what not, she made a splendid fight of it. The baby son did not long survive his father, but the five daughters grew up to testify to her good mothering and to reward her for it. They are now good mothers in their turn, sharing her society between them.

Next to the P.M. in the social scale came the doctors. There were two, English gentlemen both. One had emigrated for adventure and the goldfields, and spent good years seeking his fortune by short cuts, but had been glad at last to return to his profession for a living. He was courting a girl of exactly half his age when we came upon the scene, and their wedding was the first smart function that we attended. The other doctor and his wife were new arrivals from home, like ourselves; they had landed but a month or two before us; and they were our special and best-beloved companions and friends. Alas! he too-one of the most delightful of men-died suddenly and dreadfully, shortly before the death of the P.M., also leaving six mere babies and a wife to whom he was perfectly devoted, as she to him. She came to stay with me after the funeral, and the almost simultaneous birth of my first child-the latter event hastened, it was thought, by the shock and grief that I had shared with her. She was the most uncommon woman I ever met, as she was one of the most adorable. Superficially, both in face and figure, with the exception of her beautiful hands, she was quite plain, and absolutely without trace of conscious fascination or coquetry-the only instance I have known of a woman of that sort being irresistible to every man she came across. The story of her engagement, as told me by her husband, was exactly appropriate to them both. He was leaving England for a foreign appointment, with but a few days to spare, when a friend or relative-a high church dignitary-wrote to beg a farewell visit, mentioning by way of special inducement that a charming girl was staying in the house. The doctor responded by falling in love with her on sight, in such a desperate and successful manner that she married him within those few spare days and accompanied him to his foreign appointment. Perfect love and bliss had been their portion ever since; it was an ideal union. They had the habit of driving up to our door, just as we were finishing dinner, and calling us, one or both, to come out with them. The country was new to us all, and we spent many of the evenings of our first summer exploring it together. We made common cause as new chums, although they were such citizens of the world as to feel at home anywhere. Even the little ones in the nursery could put us to shame in respect of their cosmopolitan experience. It filled me with envy to hear them chattering th

eir pretty baby French to their Swiss nurse. The mother married again some years afterwards. And not a man of her acquaintance but felt and said-as my own husband did-that the not-too-well-off bachelor who saddled himself with the almost penniless widow and her six children did by that act the best day's work for himself that he had ever done or was likely to do. He, we have been told (for it is many a year since she drifted out of our reach), followed the example of his predecessor in marital behaviour-waiting on her hand and foot, writing her letters and packing her trunks to save her trouble, and generally worshipping the ground she walked on. That also is considered matter of course. But I wonder how it is with her now? She is living still, I hear. And she is considerably older than I am.

Next to the doctors, the bankers-i.e., the officials of the four or five banks which have branches in every town of any importance. The managers are handsomely housed, and live in the best Bush-town style; they are really the backbone of country society, it being to the interest of their employers that they should be popular with their constituents, as well as to a man's own interest to make life pleasant in a place where he may be settled for many years. The smart young bank clerks are the natural complement of the young Bush-town ladies, whose brothers always go away; the clerks will be managers in time, and meanwhile are essential to the upkeep of tennis clubs and the success of balls and picnics. In W--, in 1870-1, the bank people were of very good quality-one household in particular, the heads of which belonged to two substantial colonial families of high repute (which they still enjoy); the lady here was a charming woman and hostess, famous in local circles for her pleasant parties, for which I frequently needed the evening dresses that I had supposed would be superfluous. Indeed, with one thing and another, I was gayer in that first year of "missionary" life than I had ever been in England.

There were bazaars and church teas and such things-quite as exciting as the private functions-at which our circle of friends and acquaintances was augmented by the leading tradesfolk, between whose class and that conventionally supposed to be above them the line of demarcation is always very thin, sometimes scarcely perceptible-and properly so, in these isolated communities. I keep in affectionate remembrance the wife of a stationer who was like a mother to me, the wife of a general storekeeper who often sat with me when I was lonely and needed looking after, and the wife of a chemist with whom I was in particular sympathy at the time. We sewed baby-clothes together, she and I, and the wearers of them arrived in this world within an hour of each other. My beloved first-born died at five years old; his birth-mate at about twelve, I think. The gate by which he went seemed awful enough, but the passing of the poor little girl was too dreadful for words. She was coming home from a visit one day in the charge of a friend: the creeks were flooded that they had to cross, and one of them swept away horse and buggy, and drowned the driver. He hooked his little companion to a branch or snag sticking out of the swirl, before leaving her, as it was supposed, to swim ashore for help; there she clung through the whole of the long night, from early evening to daylight next morning, and was then found-warm, the breath just gone, not more, the doctor said, than a few minutes too late. And there were people living about the spot who testified that they had heard her crying in the night, without knowing what the sound meant!

And as for the cottage people-the marked thing about them was that they were not "the poor." There was none with whom a clergyman or his wife could safely take the liberties so customary at home. When a sister-in-law, once my fellow district-visitor, came out to be our guest for awhile, and started to make herself useful by teaching our parishioners their duty on the traditional lines and by bestowing doles of old clothes and kitchen scraps upon them, she got some tremendous surprises-"insolence" that simply staggered her. No, what they loved was to bring us little presents of new-laid eggs or poultry or what not, and to charge us less than they charged the laity for what they did for us in the way of business. The whole attitude of parishes and lay people in this country towards their spiritual pastors is benevolent to a degree. The parental spirit, tolerant, indulgent, making allowances (in more senses than one), is here on their side. The schools teach their children for half fees; the doctors doctor them for no fees at all; the very shipping companies-some, at least-make special fares for them. And so long as they accept this r?le of the lame dog that needs helping over the stile, so long will there be that tinge of contempt and patronage which embitters these favours to some of us who receive them.

Coming straight from our dignified Cathedral life, with its high and mighty Church-and-State traditions, into this democratic Salem-Chapel-like atmosphere, we still found nothing to disagree with us-only one circumstance excepted, for which neither the country nor the parish was to blame. Pure loving-kindness and open-armed hospitality to strangers surrounded us on all sides but one, and the unexpected welcome went to our young hearts. The single disappointment came from a quarter whence it was least expected. But, as to that, bygones may be bygones at this time of day. I shall not tell tales.

The absorbing joy, to start with, was the making of the first home. The town was so well filled that it was a difficult matter to find a house; we took the first possible one that offered, after waiting several weeks for it.

A large railway station now stands, and for many years has stood, upon the site. Walking about the Bush in the vicinity, we used to find here and there in the ground small pegs which we were informed were the surveyors' marks for the line-the line which now runs all the way to Sydney, and thence to Brisbane, but which was then but beginning to be made.

The spot was quite on the outskirts of the township, and we passed from our premises straight into the Bush behind the house, which faced some open waste ground, analogous to an English common of unusual size, which divided us from streets and church. House, do I call it! Three tiny rooms, opening one into the other, the first into the outer air, a lean-to at the back, and a detached kitchen-that was all. We paid one pound a week for it, which certainly was an excessive rent for such a place. Excessive also were the wages we gave our first servant, an amiable but inefficient Irish girl-fifteen shillings a week. We were told that these were the ruling rates; if they were, they did not long remain so.

The landlord papered the front rooms for us-for those to be occupied in day-time we chose from a local store an appropriate pattern of brown fleur-de-lys on a green ground; we papered the back ourselves. I made the drugget and matting floor-coverings, the chintz curtains, the dimity bed-furniture-made everything, in fact, that was sewable, for, fortunately, I come of a long line of good needle-women. When I remember the time-honoured theory that a writing person is no good for anything else, I feel obliged, at the risk of appearing a braggart, to parade the above fact. I take pride in announcing that I never hired a sewing-woman-that, having made all my own clothes as a girl, even to the wedding-gown, I made all my children's, until the boys grew beyond their sailor suits, and the girl put her hair up. In fact, housework has all along been the business of life; novels have been squeezed into the odd times. It was many a long year before I had a dress-maker's dress, or went to such lengths of luxury and extravagance as to order carpets or curtains to be made for me. I have even manufactured sofas, with G.'s assistance, he making the very solid hardwood frames. We once had two beautiful ones, regular Chesterfields, entirely home-made, in one of the several auction sales that the distance between one home and the next have forced upon us; there was quite a rush to buy them. Only when the purchasers attempted to take them away, it was found almost impossible to lift them from the ground. The feather bed that had cradled me on board ship-we had two really, but the smaller one cradled servants for awhile-now took its permanent place amongst the never-failing comforts of the house; I broke it up into pillows and cushions, a few of which covered, like charity, all the sins of amateur workmanship in our springless couches.

The room of our cottage that had the front door in it was the sitting-room, of course. Here we dined in full view of the street-had there been one-when summer evenings gave light enough; our doctor and his wife, pulling up their horses before the house, could see for themselves whether we were at the end of our meal or in the middle; I would go out with an offer of pudding or coffee sometimes, but as a rule I left everything and flew for hat and gloves. The room at the other end was our bedroom. The little cubicle between combined dressing-room and study. There was not space to swing a cat in any of them, had we wanted to swing a cat. There certainly was no room to swing the cradle, when that article of furniture was introduced; fortunately, we did not want to swing that either. We did not believe in rockers, and made a great virtue of necessity when we took them off.

But after all, humble as it was, it was a sweet little place when we had fixed it up. Bishop and Mrs Perry, paying us their first call, were enthusiastic about it. They had been making a long tour from country parsonage to country parsonage, which, notwithstanding the benevolence of parishioners, are as a rule struggling homes, "shabby genteel," in their appointments; and this bright, simple, tidy (though I say it that shouldn't) little toy dwelling was, to use their own word, an "oasis" amongst them. One truth that I have learned from my manifold domestic vicissitudes is that you can make a nice home out of anything, if you choose to try. You do not really want all the things that you are brought up to think you want. Sometimes it is even a relief to be without them.

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