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Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 26656

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


All my recollections of the first home, and the one succeeding it, embrace the figure of a friend who was virtually of the family while we lived in them. He has so long been dead that I may with propriety refer to him more fully than I can speak of his contemporaries yet living, and it is a particular pleasure to do so in view of his nationality and of the times in which I write. For he was a Dutchman-and everything, almost, that a man should be. If he did no good for himself in Australia-his birth and training were against that-he did much for his country within the compass of his little sphere. He gave some of us a faith in and a respect for it that nothing in the South African struggle has been able to impair. I have been British throughout the war to the marrow of my bones, but in the worst of times have had to bear in mind that our veldt foe comes of the stock which produced that perfect gentleman. I have not otherwise compared them, but I can never think meanly of any Dutchman after knowing him.

He joined our ship in London, and during the voyage we noticed that he was a lonely traveller, silent and sitting by himself. We therefore made little overtures, thinking to cheer him for the moment, and not foreseeing what they would lead to. G. played chess with him a good deal; when I was well enough to join them I undertook the difficult but interesting task of drawing him out of his shell, where his thoughts were. Although we learned from him that a knowledge of the English language was imperative in Holland amongst cultured people, it needed friendship to cast out of him the fear of making himself ridiculous by his manner of speaking it, which certainly was quaint. Without protestations on either side, friendship was established, and then he talked, and did not mind our laughing at him. We instructed him in our idioms and customs, and he us in his; some of the Dutch names for things that we learned from him are in domestic use to this day. I cannot remember that he overcame his sensitive reserve in respect of any other passenger, unless in the case of a childless married lady who was accompanied by her pet cat and dog. Pussy lived with her and her husband in their cabin, where the arrangements for its accommodation, and the cat's own intelligent adaptation to them, were so wonderful that it caused no annoyance either to them or us; the dog, for whom a high passage fare had been paid, spent his nights somewhere under the care of the butcher, but his days with his devoted mistress. Dogs were a passion with our friend, and there was soon an affectionate understanding between him and this one. He got permission to give it lessons, and at stated times went off with it under his arm to his own cabin, where they would be closeted together for an hour or two. Not a sound would we hear of what went on, but at intervals there was a public performance by the pupil, which, eye to eye with its teacher, would go through tricks and evolutions that a circus dog might envy. This was the only instance I can recall of social intercourse on his part with anyone on board, save us.

He was intensely proud, with a temper behind his pride that could never be safely played with, even by his familiar housemates; life itself was a trifle compared with any point of honour in his code-to be given in its defence, if need were, without an instant's hesitation; but there was not a trace of false pride in the whole warp and woof of him. This, however, goes without saying, since I have already said that he was at all points a gentleman.

And, back of his reserve and pride, which wore so cold and stolid an air, was a heart like a shut furnace. Rarely did the flame shine through his grave eyes, but it did when the moment of threatened parting came. "Tell me where you live," he said, as if asking for his life; "I must live there."

As soon as we knew, we told him, and a week after our arrival at W-- he turned up, together with a pair of beautiful (and very expensive) dogs. He boarded at the hotel, and came to us every day. And, so far as Australia was concerned, we were his family, and our house his home, thenceforth.

His name was Diederik, which we shortened to Dik. His other name was not undistinguished in his own country, as we learned from his family photographs and the casual but complete evidence provided by the conditions of our joint domestic life-not by direct statement from him, the most modest of men. The picture of his home in Leyden showed a beautiful old house on a tree-bordered canal; in this house, it seemed, each member of the large family had his or her suite of rooms and separate personal servant. "This is a brother of me," he would say, as we turned over his album; and questions would elicit the fact that the person indicated held a court appointment at the Hague. Another "brother of me" filled an important post in the Dutch East Indies; he was governor-kontroleur 1st klasse-of Riouw. Dik was a younger son, born with that bent for wandering which is not confined to any class or nation. And his equipment for the enterprise to which he had committed himself was almost ludicrously elaborate. He had a perfect arsenal of deadly weapons-for the native savages and wild beasts, I suppose. Guns and small arms of all sorts and sizes, the finest of their kind, with tons of ammunition to match, enough to furnish forth a small regiment. I still have a stumpy little six-chambered revolver, which he insisted on my keeping by me, in case I should be molested while alone in the house; and I ought to have also a beautiful inlaid hair-trigger pistol, which was the instrument with which he taught me the art of self-defence. Daily he would call me from my sewing or cooking to shoot bottles off the yard fence, until my execution upon ounce phials satisfied him that I was able to protect myself from the marauding black or bushranger. He had a tool-chest which contained every tool, and large sets of most of them, that handicraftsman could need under any circumstances-even to a turning-lathe, with which, and a great hunk of ivory tusk, he used to make me buttons and sleeve-studs. As for "hempjes" and such things, they were in dozens upon dozens. And all that costly outfit to be so soon disintegrated and dispersed!

The first thing he did at W-- was to help us into our cottage, himself inheriting our lodgings and the quinces from us. How useful he was! Until I had a maid-the last piece of furniture procured-he was up o' mornings to chop wood, draw water, boil kettles, and so on; and all day he was on the look-out for a job, the more menial the better. Tears, even now, are not far from my eyes when I open my old diary upon such items as these:-"October 31st. Dik beginning to make a garden for me." ... "December 7th. Dik up in the dark to catch fish for breakfast." ... "December 8th. Dik up early again to get me fish." Whenever he was at home this sort of thing went on, and all without the slightest fuss or gush, and with a frown for thanks. When there came the prospect of a most important domestic event, we had every reason to flatter ourselves that he had not the dimmest notion of it, from first to last. I made every scrap of baby-clothes myself, and he, being so constantly with us, must have seen me doing it; in fact, I abandoned the usual precautions just because he seemed too utterly dense to notice anything. He was nothing of the sort. It was part of his perfect gentlemanliness not by word or sign to show that he knew, even in his private talks with my husband, otherwise the talk of brothers. One evening he left for his lodgings, as usual, and the great business was comfortably disposed of before the hour of his return in the morning. G. and I, in the midst of our excitements, found a moment to laugh together over the tremendous shock of surprise that we were going to give him. But lo! when he came he manifested no surprise-only quite broke down in trying to express his thankfulness that it was safely over. He was brought in to peep at the new arrival, and I felt like a scoffer at sacred things to have met with a jest that smileless and speechless emotion. On leaving my room, he dashed for his horse, tied to the front gate, and galloped off towards the town; thence in a few minutes he returned, bearing as his offering to the new master of the house a wicker cradle on the saddle before him! He must have looked a ridiculous object, but was lifted above all care for the opinion of the street. That was the cradle I had to wedge into such a tight place that rockers were no use to it. Later it was his joy to nurse the little one, to watch his first movements of intelligence, and speculate as to what period "his nose would come downstairs."

I ought to mention here that his attitude towards women was one of austerest respect and dignity. I shall never forget the blackness of his brow and mood when we returned one night from a day's outing, having left him to keep house for us. It appeared that our Irish maid had taken advantage of the opportunity to make tender overtures to him. She had come behind him as he was reading and smoking, stroked his hair, and addressed him as a "poor feller." I was not supposed to know anything of this, but got the tale from G., and was thus able to take steps to prevent such assaults in future. To me, for whom he had so deep a regard, Dik was a brother, without ever using a brother's familiarities. No man ever treated me with such absolute reverence and respect.

Between the 30th of that first October, when he was making me a road through the "common" that the continued rains had turned into a swamp, and the 7th of December, when he went a-fishing for my breakfast, he made a start upon his own Australian career-the bright beginning that declined to so sad an end. By no fault of his, poor boy! unless his breeding was his fault. He was young and strong-immensely strong-the typical big-limbed, burly Dutchman, eager to work and to rough it, afraid of nothing; he simply failed as I have seen dozens of young men of good family fail-as they all do, if I may judge by my own experience-who come out to make their fortunes under the same conditions. Had he been a skilled mechanic, he would have found his luck immediately; had he been prepared to pay his premium as a "jackaroo"-i.e. an apprentice to the run-holder, who charged £100 a year or so for imparting "colonial experience"-he would have been taken into one of those delightful Bush-houses that I have mentioned, and might have risen (without capital) to be a station manager. But as an amateur who did not know the ropes, his ideas of the situation gathered from books or evolved from his inner consciousness, Dik fared as I shall describe. I give his case because, in its way, it is so distinctly characteristic of the country, and as such may be instructive to the English reader.

Having received ourselves such extraordinary kindness and attentions from the squatter families of our parish (hundreds of miles in area), we thought it an easy thing to make interest for our friend; and so it proved-to a certain extent, which did not go beyond the rough regulations of the Bush, not yet grasped by such new chums as we. An old squatter accepted our guarantee for Dik, and told us to send him along. It was the busy shearing-season, when odd hands were required. Joyfully we took home our news. Hopefully we borrowed a buggy, and ourselves drove him to the house of that old squatter, nursing-father that we imagined him. It was so far that we stayed the night, and we thought it odd to lose sight of Dik as soon as we arrived, and not to see him again to say good-bye; but we came away under the impression that, when not out on the run, he would be treated by the house as it treated us.

He left W-- on the 10th of November. On the night of the 19th he rode back, departing at dawn on the 21st, which means that he spent Sunday, his free day, with us. He was invisible for a time, while G. got him a bath and clean linen, and when he appeared he was taciturn and depressed, loth to talk of his experiences, which had evidently been a shock to him. Of course he had been sent to live at the "men's hut" amongst the all-sorts that at shearing season crowd that unsavoury abode. It was his place, but he had not known it; nor had we; and I for one was furious at the outrage, as I considered it, that had been put upon him. He had had fights, it appeared, with the lowest of the low-possibly decent work fellows, who had not understood him; he had come through personal foulnesses not to be mentioned in ladies' company. G. told me all about it afterwards.

On the 26th that job was done. He returned to us like a released convict, and we made much of him for a time. This would not do, however, and again he sought for employment. One night, in a fit of desperation at the delay in finding it, he took a sudden resolution to go out into the Bush, with a swag on his saddle, and ask for work from station to station, resigned to the men's hut-to anything. I remember my feelings as I saw him start in the moonlight, just before I went to my own comfortable bed. He was going to ride all the cool night, and take his rest in the fiery day; for it was December now,

and horses and dogs were as children to Dik. By the way, he left his dogs with us while on these expeditions. Their puppy exuberance got us into many scrapes, although I do not believe that all the tattered fowls brought to us by our neighbours, with hints that we should make their excessive value good, came by their deaths as we were told they did. Otherwise the keep of the playful creatures cost little or nothing, because they were fed mainly upon opossums. Nightly, after dinner, the gun or guns were taken out, and I don't know which enjoyed the expedition most, the sportsmen or the dogs. There were 'possums in every tree in those days, and Dik and G. were both good marksmen. When too dark to distinguish 'possum or gun-barrel, they tied a white handkerchief round the muzzle of the latter and located the former (already approximately located by the dogs) with the stable-lantern usually held up by me. An artificial light not only fascinates but paralyses the little animal, draws him like a magnet, and then holds him rigid, his large, liquid eyes fixed upon it, so that he is as steady to shoot at as a target at the butts. Under those circumstances he seems completely indifferent to his shrieking enemies at the foot of the tree, ready to tear him in pieces the moment his limp body thuds down to them. Although our valuable pair flourished upon it, I am horrified now to think of feeding dogs upon such meat. Well, we could not do it now, if we wanted to. At that time 'possums were vermin to the white man, pests of the fruit garden (though we never found them eating fruit, but only leaves), like the parrots and minahs, from whom nothing was sacred. Not that they could have troubled us, for all the fruit we had was a double row of peach trees down one side of our back paddock. We had peaches of the finest quality literally in tons-and nothing else. In their season I would peel the flannel jackets from half a dozen before breakfast, and go on eating them at intervals all day (whereby I destroyed my taste for peaches, as it had already been destroyed for quinces, for the rest of my life); and the ground was so cumbered with them that we were grateful to the neighbours who came with buckets and wheelbarrows to get them for their pigs. The railway absorbed the peach trees with the cottage, and I buy peaches at the door to-day at a shilling the plateful. And the opossum seems in a fair way to become extinct-at any rate, in this state.

I still go, almost yearly, to rest from town life a a station in the neighbourhood of W--. The house-one of the first English-style houses in the district-is the same that it was thirty years ago, except that its red walls are mellower and its girdle of choice trees more grown and beautiful; and the dear family is the same, only the young ones now the elders, and a new generation in their place. On a late visit they drove me to W--, some eighteen or twenty miles distant; strange to say, it was the first time I had been into the town since those early days of which I am talking, although I had passed it many times on the railway; and we started on our journey home in a soft twilight, prelude to a clear, faintly-moonlit night-such a night as, thirty years earlier, would have shown us an opossum in nearly every tree we drove by. It was country road or bush-track all the way, and "Now, surely," I said, "I shall have the long-desired pleasure of seeing a 'possum again." I settled down into my front seat of the waggonette, laid my head back, and watched and watched for little ears sticking up, and bushy tails hanging down, which I should have been so quick to distinguish if they had been there. Not a hair-not a sign that a 'possum had ever lived in the land-all those lonely miles!

But a few nights afterwards I had my wish in rather a strange way. Being sleepless, I lit a candle at twelve or one o'clock, and tried to tranquillise myself with a book. The candle made a little halo about the bed, but left the rest of the room dim. One window was wide open, as I always had it; an armchair, with a cushion in its back, stood near the window. I heard no sound, but suddenly had that curious feeling of fright which precedes the discovery of the thing that frightens you; and, looking up, I saw two eyes, terrifyingly intense in their expression, glowing and glaring at me from the armchair. The thing crouched upon the top of the cushion, quite still, as if it had been there for hours. I thought it was a cat, and shooed and slapped my book; when it made no response to these manifestations, I knew it was an oppossum. The candle-light outside had lured him to its source, and he now sat lost in contemplation of the magic flame. I got out of bed and ran window-wards, in the greatest haste to be rid of the creature I had so long wished to see; he crawled cringingly an inch or two, but I had to push him with the edge of my book off the cushion and the window-sill and out into the night. I could not imagine how he had got in, for my room was in an upper storey of the tall old house, the roof of the verandah some distance below; but, looking out in the morning, I saw that a course of brickwork, just about wide enough for a mouse, ran along the face of the wall, not far from the window, and that a great white cedar tree stood close to one end of it. I boasted at breakfast that I had seen a 'possum at last, but I am careful now, when I sleep in that room, not to burn a midnight candle with the window open.

To return to Dik. On the 18th he came back to tell us he had found a job. I do not remember what it was, but it is recorded in my diary that we had a gala dinner in honour of it. He returned again before breakfast on Christmas Day. G. had distant country services afternoon and evening, and the three of us went together and made a picnic of it, keeping our domestic festival for Boxing Day, in the night of which Dik left us, while we slept. But on the 28th of January that job also came to an end-not from any fault of his, but just because it was a little one and he had finished it. The neighbourhood was searched again, and he went work-hunting into New South Wales with no success. He had long ago sold his horse, and now he began to sell his other things-guns, tool-chest, lathe, non-essential clothes-throwing them away one after the other, for a mere song, in spite of our remonstrances. He left his lodgings for cheaper ones; later on we persuaded him to exchange these for a shakedown with us; but he was too proud to owe us bed and board, and only stayed in the brief intervals between his futile tramps, when he knew we should be cut to the heart if he did not. It came to broken boots and ever-increasing shabbiness, to the shunning and slighting of him by persons who were not worthy to be named in the same breath with him, to his growing gaunt for want of sufficient food. "This in your hospitable Australia!" the reader may exclaim. Yes, indeed; and he is not the only one I have seen thus circumstanced, by many-only the others were mostly getting their deserts, which he was not.

One night a mysterious message was brought to G., who slipped out of the house in answer to it. It transpired later that Dik was lurking in the vicinity wanting to know if there were any letters for him. He had sent word secretly to G., not wishing me to know, because he was "not fit to see her any more." Of course, I was not going to stand that. We dragged him in, gave him a bath and clothes, fed him and talked to him-scolded him well, indeed, for his obstinate refusal to write to his father, a course that we had urged upon him until we were tired of the hopeless conflict with his preposterous pride.

However, he melted at last-that very night, I think. His confession was made and posted, and all we had to do was to hold on until the answer arrived. As it chanced, the only serious accident that I can remember happening to a P. and O. steamer on the Australian line (prior to the wreck of the China) happened to the one that had his money on board. Her letters were recovered from the sea-bed, but not in time to be of use to us; so there was yet another long delay. But eventually all came right. His empty pockets were filled once more, and a new career provided for him. He was to go to his brother in the Dutch East Indies, and become a planter of something.

The change was so great and sudden that he did not all at once "know how he had it with himself," to use his own phrase. He wrote to us from Melbourne before he sailed (April 20th, 1872):-"You know me enough for being a bad hand in making speeches. What I want to let you feel is"-and he made a very touching one upon the subject of our friendship for him. Then he mentioned his state of mind. "The time passes quick away. At day-time I have plenty to do, and in the evening I am in the opera, what makes me a little jolly, but yet there is a kind of stupidity about me. I don't know what it is." From Galle he wrote at length, and with his old ease, describing his voyage in detail, and his fellow-passengers, of whom one was a wholesome annoyance to him. "When you are talking with somebody he always will put his nose between it, and the rest of the day he whistle tunes out of operas." In Ceylon he made a sporting expedition into the country, and "after you have seen so long the miserable Bush of Australia is this beautiful." He had some delightful shooting, in spite of the fact that, in consequence of having cut his feet against a "coral riff" while swimming, "the only way I could go shooting was on a pair of slippers." Then, with the Dutch mail from Singapore to Batavia:-"it was very pleasant for me, as you understand, to hear the Dutch again. Everything was so as it was at home, no more puddings on table, but delicious vegetables, and the bitterjes like the home ones." And he had once more that first thing necessary to a happy life, his dog; not one of those mentioned, which remained with us, but a new one. On landing at Batavia, "I give my hondtje a walk. This is a beautiful creature, and came all the way good over. From Melbourne to Singapore was it expensive. I had to pay five pounds for him." Here he met Leyden friends, with whom he "passed the time jolly," and who led him to a place where he "had to get a ticket to be able to stop in this country;" and "the last days," he writes, "I feel me quite different, more as I was at home, surely in better spirits as on our road to Melbourne."

His brother shepherded him for a short time-took him to a place or two, from which, when they left, were "fired from shore canons"-but, unfortunately, the resident was ordered home by his doctor, and Dik was left once more to his own guidance. He presently reported himself from Deli, where he was learning the business of a "nutmace" planter. But his teacher, he was sorry to say, had turned out an "offel snob," and he (Dik) had "little to make with him. I have my room and everything I want and pay him monthly, and when he is in a bad humour he can go his way and don't talk to him." When this gentleman "used one of his rough expressions to me," wrote Dik, "I got offel angry"-I can imagine it!-"and told him if he did so again he would know me better. You understand a fellow who stand that in his own house what he is. So you see I am not all right yet. But I am practising patience, fine thing, but offel tiresome." Incidentally he remarks, "I see you think I am sitting on Java, but am a good distance away from there;" and he gives much interesting information about Dutch colonial government and customs, which I have not space to reproduce. He wishes he had an Australian horse again. "These little things I am tired of; they are very pretty, but I am too heavy for them." He promises me a tiger skin, and mentions the ever-to-be-regretted fact that he had found "no occasion" to have his likeness taken.

The next letter (Deli, March 20th, 1873) was all unclouded joy. He had left "that fellow" and was now "as jolly as possible," settled down in partnership with four other gentlemen of his own class, one Dutch and three English-"so you see there is no fear I will forget my English the first time." They had 250 "culies." "I have a field where 100 are working, and go there and see them work every day, with Victor my dog, named after Victoria ... so you see at last I come to a good place, and hope to stick to this ... if I don't get along will be my own fault."

Glad indeed were we to read those words! We wrote to tell him so. And the letter containing our congratulations came back to us long months afterwards, with this message scrawled across the envelope:-"Dead. Mr van K-- died in Deli."

The last document of the little bundle from which these extracts are taken is as graceful a piece of composition as was ever penned. The handwriting is Dutch, but the words are English, and I have never read an English letter that was more faultlessly expressed. It is his family's acknowledgment of what we did-little enough, but made much of in his home letters-for their beloved son, "to support his energies in his days of trial." From this we learned that he had been "seized with typhus fever, to which he succumbed on the 4th of June 1873, after ten or twelve days' illness."

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