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   Chapter 6 VIToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 23528

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


On the 26th of July 1871 we moved into our second home-not more than a mile or so from the first-Dik again helping us. The chance to get a little more breathing-space and elbow-room, much needed since we had become a family, fell to us through the death of our friend the police magistrate. That sad event left his widow with means too small to permit of her retaining her pretty home for a day after she was able to leave it. We took it from her, and lived in it for about four months-until G. was appointed to his first parish; after which our house was provided for us, with no rent to pay any more.

Distance lends enchantment to it, of course, but it is impossible that "Como" could have been other than charming, with its then surroundings. It had been the dwelling of two police magistrates, and the first and longest occupier had made the place, while his wife had been a gardener. My journal reeks of that garden. In the prime of the spring season (October 12th) there is an entry which credits it with "innumerable varieties of everything," including, naturally, "roses all over the house" and "our own asparagus for dinner every other day." The (even then) old house, masked with shrubs and hedges, surrounded by beds and borders full of sweets, turned its face upon a wooded paddock, through which a path led out to the road; the ground behind fell steeply to the "lake" so ambitiously named-a large backwater of the river, preserved by the landlord (who allowed only himself and his tenant to shoot over it), and therefore the sanctuary of native aquatic fowl.

That lake was the region of romance to me. The sunrises out of its mists and shimmers, the moonbeams on its breast at night, that I used to step out upon the terrace-like verandah to feast upon-they are pictures of memory that can never fade. Flocks of black swans used to sail past the kitchen door within reach not of a stone, but of a potatoe peeling; early and late the air was full of the quick beat and rush of wings-wild duck in hundreds and thousands going out or coming home. They quacked and scuffled in the thick reeds at night, as we walked near them. The two sportsmen could not resist the temptation to shoot more than we could eat. I have it down in my diary that on the 28th of July 1871 G. killed three teal with one shot. I saw it done, and it was no great feat, seeing that the little birds were so thick that their flight at the moment was like the flutter of silver cloth. In that watery time the lake was generally brimming. One night we were called up by the bellowing of the cow, and Dik and G. rode naked into the inclosure where her calf had been submerged to its nose by a sudden rise; they were only just in time to save it. We had a roomy boat, in almost constant use. A friend or two would come out to dine, and after dinner we would paddle them about in the moonlight-explore the "North-West Passage," which reminded me of a "fleet" in the Broads at home. We fished sometimes for next day's breakfast; I believe they were catfish and other coarse things, but we seem to have eaten them contentedly; I remember how we used to light a candle to see to bait our hooks. And it was, of course, a very paradise for 'possums. So near the water they swarmed-water being no less attractive to trees, which crowd upon it wherever they can find footing. Under the trees around Como we and the dogs enjoyed such 'possum hunts as we never had elsewhere. It was mostly dark, and on warm nights dangerous-though we never thought of that-snakes being as partial to the water-side as 'possums and trees; many an one did we encounter when looking for something else, and we have seen them undulating in mid-stream like miniature sea-serpents.

But a greater danger than snakes attended these expeditions, as we discovered on a certain night (August 28th). The sportsmen were too well trained to be careless with firearms, but when you carry them in the dark through a thicket of saplings and stumps and prostrate logs, accidents are liable to happen. On this night we were proceeding Indian file, Dik leading, I next, G. protecting my rear, when Dik's gun, carried muzzle down, touched an invisible snag, which jerked it from his arm. In falling forward the trigger was struck or jagged with sufficient force to explode the charge. I saw down the barrel as the flame leaped out, apparently at my breast; and then we all stood still for some seconds, expecting horrors. When nothing more happened, and each was proved unhurt, we returned home very soberly, Dik himself much shaken. I then went to my room, took off the thick shawl in which I had wrapped myself against the night air, and held it up before a light. It was riddled with little holes. I took it back to the sitting-room, and spread it between Dik's eyes and the lamp, and made some joke about his having tried to kill me. I never joked that way again. He could not have felt it more deeply if he had really injured me and done so on purpose. I don't think he ever got over it.

It was at Como that I had my first private snake adventure. I was giving my baby an airing in the garden when a call from the maid-of-all-work sent me hurrying into the backyard. A deadly six-footer (carefully measured afterwards) sat upon a few rings of its tail near the wall of the little dairy-a most enticing place to snakes-the rest of its body upreared to about the level of my waist, its head, with the flickering tongue, distractedly darting to and fro. I often worried about snakes when I could not see them; having this one in the open before me, I was not in the least afraid of it.

"You keep it there," said the girl-for there was no man on the place at the time-"while I go and get the clothes' prop."

For some minutes I stood within a few feet of it, the baby in my arms, cutting it off from its lakeside lair; and it must have been my formidable calmness which kept it from flinging itself upon me, as I have seen other snakes do when thus desperately at bay, although they will always wriggle out of a difficulty if a loop-hole is left to them. We killed it with the clothes' prop and put it under an inverted wash-tub, whence I proudly drew it in the evening when the doctor came to dinner. I gave him the history of the execution, and he read me a serious lecture. I promised him never to "hold up" a cornered snake again.

But if I let myself go with snake stories I shall not know where to stop, so I will only tell one more, which has some features out of the common. This snake lived in the church of G.'s first parish. Its hole was visible to the congregation, and it used to show its head to them in service time (during the sermon, probably) and make them nervous. So it was sought to entice it to its destruction with saucers of milk. The parson used to lay the bait over-night, and go to look for results in the morning. Always the saucer was found empty, but for a long time the snake was not found. At last he saw it coiled asleep upon the white cloth laid over the chancel carpet, where the sun from the east window poured warmly down upon it. So he hewed it in pieces before the altar, as Samuel hewed Agag.

What alarmed me much more, though with less cause, than snakes were the blacks, which at that time wandered into one's life as they never did afterwards. Some remnants of the river tribes remained about their old haunts, apparently in their old state of independence. I had seen them from the deck of the steamer, squatting on the banks in their 'possum skins, or fishing naked from a boat that was simply a sheet of bark as torn from the tree; in W-- they trailed about the streets in some of the garments of civilisation, grinning amiably at the white residents, on the look-out for any trifles of tobacco or coppers that a kindly eye might give hope of. They are hideous creatures, poor things, and their attempts at European costume did not improve their appearance. The most extraordinary human figure that I ever saw was a black gin in a bird-cage crinoline. She had something else on, but not much-only what would drape a small part of the lattice-work of steels and tapes, through which her broad-footed spindle legs were visible, strutting proudly. When I, being alone in the house, saw a black fellow evidently making for it, I used to think of all the horrible tales I had read in missionary magazines as a child, and wonder where Dik's revolver was. He only wanted bacca, or an old rag of clothes, or a penny, or a bit of meat-bacca first, always; and there was nothing savage about him except his looks. Some of the stations in that district made a point of protecting and showing kindness to the blacks. On these they made their camps, and swarmed like the dogs about the homesteads, bringing offerings of fish, and receiving all sorts of indulgences in return. I visited at the one of those places which was most notoriously benevolent in this direction. The gins whose husbands had used the waddy to them used to come to the house to have their wounds plastered; the nursing mothers got milk and other privileges; some of the least lazy and dirty young ones were put into the family's cast-off clothes and taken into a sort of service-given little jobs of dish-washing and wood-chopping, for which they were overpaid in such luxuries as they most valued. I was deeply interested in seeing them at such close quarters, and studying their strange habits and customs; it was a valuable and picturesque experience. But there was not a lock or bolt on any door, and a half-witted black woman who was a particular pet used to roam into my bedroom in the middle of the night, to examine me, my baby, my clothes, my trinkets on the dressing-table-which was too much of a good thing. When I hinted as much to the hospitable family, they used to say easily, "Oh, she's quite harmless." But I never could get used to it. After leaving W-- I saw little more of these disinherited ones, until many years later a few visited us in the Western District. These were refugees or escapees from a neighbouring Mission Settlement. Theirs was a tale of tyranny and injustice to melt a heart of stone. They had been compelled to sing and pray without getting any remuneration for it. "Not a farden!" said one black man, solemnly, with a dramatic lift and fall of the hands. "Not a farden!" I remember wondering how he had come by the phrase, since I do not recollect ever seeing a farthing in this country. The Australian despises a coin so petty. He treats it as though it were not in the currency. To be sure, the tradesman charges elevenpence three-farthings for many things, but an odd farthing on the total of his bill always becomes a halfpenny.

It was while living at Como that I "went to town" for the first and last time in many years. There is a gap in my diary where the happenings of November and December (1871) should have included this, but memory easily retains the correct impression of such a sharply-cut event.

We made the trip in a ramshackle little open buggy, consisting of a floor and two movable seats-a most useful country vehicle, upon which you could cart firewood or potatoes, when it was not wanted to cart human beings. We took a girl friend with us (the baby was left with the visiting sister-in-law), and our three portmanteaux; and one poor horse managed the journey in four or five days. We jogged along easily, as near the making railway as we could get, because the scrub had been cleared from that track more or less; camping in the shade at mid-day to lunch and rest the horse, and putting up for the night in a convenient township, taking our chances in the way of hotel accommodation, which was of all sorts. Rarely c

ould we bring ourselves to make full use of the beds provided for us; we slept, as a rule, outside of them, in blankets of our own improvising.

When not far from Melbourne we fell in, towards evening, with the most ferocious thunder-storm of my experience-and that is saying a great deal. All we could do was to get ourselves and the horse away from the trees and the buggy, over the tyres and metal work of which the lightning ran like lighted spirit, and then stand doggedly-the horse with head and tail between his legs, we three tightly clasped together, our faces turned inward and hidden-and silently endure until the fury of the elements was past. When it was passed, and we drove drenched and dripping to the nearest hotel, which fussed over us with fires and hot drinks, it was found that my little portmanteau (frocks folded close in those days) had been put into the buggy that morning wrong side up. The deluging rain, running inside the flap, had saturated all my best clothes! My wedding-dress was done for; my next best gory all over with the dye from cerise ribbons that had lain next it; muslins and laces a flimsy pulp. And the ruin was irremediable, except in the case of the latter (I sent the two silks to be dyed black, and they were returned after some months stiff and crackly, so obviously dyed that they were no use as frocks again). Literally, I had not a stitch to wear. My companion lent me clothes while my travelling things were drying, and when I got to Melbourne I could hardly put my nose out of doors. Instead of enjoying myself with my friends, I had to scheme to hide myself from them-the only thing to be done, since I could not afford to repair my losses on the spot. As soon as G. had done his necessary business, we turned round and came home again.

We brought back with us the widow of that police magistrate who had dropped dead in his dressing-room at Como, and her baby. And we had the hottest of midsummer weather, and the fiercest of north winds. The tracks were deep in dust like sea-shore sand; our faces were skinned with the sun; we wilted on the hard buggy seats under our useless umbrellas; the poor horse gave up, and had to be left by the way. But all our concern was for the unfortunate infant. Whenever we came to sheltered water we used to get down and lay him in; we carried bottles of it with us to pour over him as we drove. We spent one night in a red-hot corrugated-iron hotel, and his mother and I sat up through the whole of it, taking turns at sponging him. He came through safely, although she lost him afterwards-her only son.

That abortive expedition was, as I have said, the last I made to Melbourne for a very long time. The Bush "township" became my world. When I speak of the Bush, it is understood that I do not mean a place of bushes. The term, with us, is equivalent to "the country"-the country generally, though particularly and originally its uncultivated parts. "The miserable Bush of Australia," poor Dik called it, and it has that character with many, I know; but-save, perhaps, at the first glance-it never struck me that way. In the exquisite lights, the clear distances, the fine atmosphere of this climate, Nature has to be beautiful, whatever she wears. I love her in this grey-green gown-and I have been a bushwoman for twenty-three years in all. The trouble is, of course, that man, who does not live by bread alone, lives still less on scenery.

We did not really settle down in W--. Life there was difficult and worrying on the professional side, and with every passing week we longed more to extricate ourselves from a position that we had seen at the beginning to be without promise of comfort or success. But on the social, the secular, side, we had nothing to complain of. We had not begun to miss the things we were cut off from, and the new experiences were delightful. So also with the domestic conditions. It was here that I mastered the rudiments of Bush housekeeping, and no lessons were ever more interesting.

I may say, at once, of my Bush life that, from the housekeeper's point of view, it has been full of comfort-always. This is, I suppose, chiefly because I have never had that servant trouble which seems to keep families in general in constant distress and turmoil. The Irish girl who took liberties with Dik was otherwise a willing and likeable person; the vinegary widow who followed her, and who, being the mother of a boy of twelve, made me put her down in the census paper as aged twenty-five, would have been considered an excellent servant in the most proper English household; and so would her successor, a smart lady who went to church o' Sundays in silks and velvets, and drank all our spirituous liquors that she could lay her hands on. And these were the slight, very slight, mistakes at the beginning. Since then I have had virtually unbroken peace. I have never had to "look for a girl," never been to a registry office, never wanted for the best. And I have never yet met the missus who could say the same. I have my own opinions on this servant question. They may be heterodox, but they work out all right, which is the main thing. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. At the same time I know that I have had exceptional luck. The dear servants and friends who did so much to make my life happy were born good.

One devoted nurse who was with me for many years postponed a fixed wedding-day three times, rather than leave me when she thought I needed her more than usual. "No," she said, inexorably, when I remonstrated with her on behalf of her poor young man, "I am going to see you better first." On the last occasion it was:-"I am not going to let you have the trouble of moving with only strangers to help you. I shall see you settled first." She married from the house at last, so collapsed with grief over the parting that she could not touch the wedding-breakfast we had prepared. The bridegroom sat about forlornly, while I struggled to rally her with brandy and water and (when I dared not give her more of that) tea; and she drove away with the cake whole in her box, drowned in tears. She was a strong-minded woman too, who as a rule never "gave way," whatever the rest of us did.

Another long-service paragon, an Irish woman with a warm temper, could not get on with the lady-helps-sub-housekeepers during the years that I had no health to speak of. "No, ma'am," she said, when their disputes were brought before me, "I'll do anything for you, but I won't take orders from a person who's no better than I am." Although servants like her were precious rarities, and lady-helps a drug in the market, I felt bound to stand by my representative-the intermediary whose position is always difficult; and so the result would be that the other got a week's notice there and then. It made no difference. She stayed on just the same, although I did not ask her. They all stayed on-only leaving us to be married, or owing to family circumstances over which they had no control. The present incumbent of the kitchen has occupied it for nearly nine years.

Living, i.e., feeding, in Australia is proverbially good, although the cooking is often unworthy of the material. Few in the land are, perhaps I should say were, they who do (or did) not sit down to a meat meal three times a day. Fruit that in England was nursed in orchard-houses and counted on south walls we could batten on now; a few pence would heap the sideboard with grapes or apricots, but all was so plentiful that it generally cost us nothing. Wine was not what it is now, and we could not at once break ourselves of our English beer; but it was not long before we learned to prefer the product of the local vineyards, to which we shall remain faithful to our lives' end. We got it, as we do still, in large stone jars, at less than the price of Bass or Guinness. With a poultry yard and a cow, and John Chinaman's vegetables, even a poor parson could live like a prince.

Two or three times a week, regular as clockwork, "John" came to the back door with his loaded baskets of the vegetables in season, fresh and good, various and cheap. Europeans had not the patience to grow them where they had so many enemies; it did not pay to do it, while he did it for us on such terms; it has been so all these years, and is so still. You will hardly find a private kitchen garden, except on the isolated stations, where the gardener is nearly always a Chinaman. Every little township depends, for the food it can least afford to do without, on the industry of this man who, of all others, is the most despised in the community, and of all others-tradesmen, at any rate-is the most reliable. I never was cheated, or in any way "let in," by a Chinaman, and never found him discourteous or disobliging. Those who clamour for his extinction from amongst us do not realise what country folk would miss if he were gone.

Poor John Chinaman! so industrious, so frugal, so inoffensive and law-abiding-an example to the white citizen of his class-if ever I feel ashamed of Australia it is on his account. Its treatment of him, who seems to have no friend amongst the nations, is indeed a strange satire upon the traditions of the British race. One can see a certain reasonableness in the poll tax of £50, hard as it seems that one only of the various aliens amongst us should be thus penalised (and for his industry too); it is, doubtless, advisable that we should prevent ourselves from being over-run (seeing that the earth is not for all); but the law which constitutes one Chinaman a factory is worthy of the Dark Ages, simply. Here is a sample of the sort of thing that Englishmen, with the Union Jack over their heads, can read in their newspapers of a morning as calmly as they read reports on the weather:-

"Hop Lee, who keeps a laundry in Gertrude Street, was charged at the Fitzroy Police Court this morning with having worked after hours on Saturday, the 26th January, contrary to the provisions of the Shops and Factories Act. Constable P-- deposed that about 5.30 P.M. on the day named he went into defendant's premises and found him ironing collars. In September 1899 the defendant was fined for a similar offence. As £5 is the minimum penalty for a second conviction, Hop Lee was mulcted in that amount and ordered to pay £1, 1s. costs.

"Sam Pittee, who also keeps a laundry in Gertrude Street, was then charged with a similar offence, also on the afternoon of the 26th January. The defendant having pleaded guilty, the Bench inflicted a fine of £1, with £1, 1s. costs."

These are not men employing hands, but poor cottage workers "on their own"; and the police-who cannot take them up for brawling, or thieving, or woman-beating-because they don't do such things-watch and spy, as perhaps is their duty, to see that they sit with their hands before them through all the cool hours, while the wash that customers may be clamouring for lies about them undone. One poor Chinaman was arrested and fined for-according to his defence in court, which it appeared was not listened to-ironing his own shirt out of factory hours. And when candidates for the Federal Senate and House of Representatives were making their stump speeches, a "Reverend" gentleman amongst them, now a M.H.R., shouted these words to his electors (to be quoted almost without comment in the papers next morning):-"Chinese should be either pole-axed or poll-taxed in such a manner as would make the country too hot for them."

Ah, poor country! By the mouths of dozens of her most patriotic children I have heard her sigh for the old days (before my time) when a deputy of the Crown and a few soldiers and policemen were all her Government. And no wonder.

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