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   Chapter 8 VIIIToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 29729

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


This parish, although sparsely populated, was enormous in size; it stretched out in one direction more than a hundred miles as the crow flies. And when G. went that way he rode with a fat valise on the saddle and did not return under a fortnight, during which time we were unable to communicate with each other. It was the nearest thing to being a missionary that he ever came to. There are roads and thriving townships along that route now; in our time it was the wildest Bush-track, about which lay the homesteads of the pioneer squatters, at a day's journey one from another. These good men used to welcome warmly the infrequent parson, round up their hands for service in dining-room or wool-shed, fetch in the babies born since the last visitation, and any candidates for matrimony anxious to seize a golden chance. In the case of the latter it was not unusual for the whole process of proposal, engagement, and marriage to take place during the few hours that the clergyman was available.

We called this expedition "the Murray Journey," and once I took it with him. It was soon after we arrived in the district-the 24th of March. That morning his horse, with the long-distance bolster on its back, was saddled and he in his Bush riding costume of short coat, tough trousers, and leather leggings, ready to set forth in the usual way. But I was ill just then, and when it came to saying good-bye he felt unable to leave me. At the same time, placards posted on trees and fences and school-house doors had made engagements for him which he could do nothing to cancel.

"Suppose you come too?" he suggested, as the best way out of the difficulty. "The change of air and the outing may be just what you need."

It seemed a good idea, and was acted upon at once. With a hopeful effort I prepared a portmanteau for myself, and another for my little boy, whom we proposed to leave at a friend's house (the sister-in-law having left us) until our return; and G. went down to the township to find a buggy. We had not yet provided ourselves with a vehicle of our own, although we owned a horse. Practically we owned dozens of horses, because the squatters were always pressing loans of them upon us, exchanging fresh for stale, paddocking any that needed to be turned out; and on this occasion the doctor, whom I have already spoken of, hearing of our enterprise and approving it, made an offer of a good animal which G. accepted. It was understood that relays, if needed, would not be wanting on the road. The buggy he hired at hotel stables for £5 the trip.

We started after luncheon, and in the evening reached a place where we were very much at home. It was one of the newer two-storey brick houses, with a double girdle of wide verandahs outside, and any amount of solid British furniture within-an imposing mansion for the times. It had enormous willow trees about it, which the owner had planted-he white-haired and a grandfather, but Australian born, as also was his wife. They were the oldest of old families, their history interwoven with the very foundations of the State. Her father was killed by bushrangers, his father was almost killed by them, or by blacks-I forget which; and he showed me dinted gun-barrels and other trophies that implied a battle for existence on his own part in the stirring days gone by. He was one of the finest men I ever met. The never-ending-unless South African battle-fields have ended it-argument that the British type of physique degenerates in her colonial-born sons was made short work of in his neighbourhood. "Look at Mr B." the defender of his country would remark, and the abashed opponent was left without a word to say.

I had a day's rest under his wide, warm roof, which it was hoped would recuperate my strength for further efforts. On the 26th we started again, leaving behind us our little son and his nurse-leaving also the doctor's horse, which Mr B. pronounced inadequate. He had the shafts removed from our buggy, and a pole substituted, and gave us a pair of strong, staunch, sweet-tempered horses, which I have no doubt saved our lives on one occasion, if not on two. There was no discussion about it. They were simply ordered, and brought round when we were ready. And I do not remember that my mortal hatred of debts and favours stood in the way at all. The idea of being "under an obligation" to these men did not occur to one, somehow. The pleasure was theirs.

At 9 A.M. we set out, calculating to make the next stage by nightfall. The autumnal days were such that I could not describe them without rhapsodising, but the nights were dark, and closed in at about seven o'clock. Mrs B. stuffed luncheon basket and invalid comforts under the buggy seat. Everybody did that when seeing us off. It was a pity I could not do justice to the good things we turned out upon the grass when we made our noontide halts. If I had been well, what feasts I should have had, in that wholesome, hungry air. A normal picnic always finds me ravenous. As it was, my main support was milk, with a dash of brandy in it. Nothing heavier would "stay."

Now began the struggles which I know were so painful at the time, but which were so amply paid for. Our track was through the wild Bush, sparely bisected by the primitive bush-fence-two or three a day, perhaps-brush, dog-leg, chock-and-log, the post-and-rail reserved for the stockyards and home enclosures; and it soon began to climb rough hills and fall into abrupt ravines such as no sane driver would attempt to negotiate nowadays. Not we, at any rate. The hills crowded upon the river, and to get past them you either had to make a long and uninteresting detour inland or clamber over the shoulders that sloped sheer into the swiftly-running stream. We chose this left-hand route, and thus put the splendid mettle of our horses to full proof for the first time. Some of those "sidings" were so steep that while the staunch creatures clung to the track, digging their toes in at every step, the buggy hung at right angles to them down the hill; the least jib would have run us plump into the water beneath. I walked while I had the strength to do so; at the sharpest pinches we both walked; but there was too much of it. I had to mount when I could crawl no more, and tucking myself under the seat and covering my eyes, give myself up into the hands of fate. "Tell me when it is all over," I said to G.

G. had the good character in the Bush of being "so unlike a parson," which meant he could ride and drive (accomplishments acquired at home, fortunately), and go anywhere without losing himself. In those endless miles of wilderness, faintly scratched with crossing and re-crossing bridle-tracks, nothing to guide him that was visible to me, he was, from the first, as good a Bushman as those to the manner born, as sure of his course as a sailor on the sea. Nevertheless, we fell into the disgrace (to an Australian Jehu) of being "bushed" that night.

In mere miles it was a long day's journey; the difficult country made it a slow one, and it was necessary to "out span" for an hour in the middle of it, to feed and rest the horses. We started in the afternoon, watch in hand. "We shall do it," said G.; and then, "We shall just do it;" and then, "We've got our work cut out to do it." We counted minutes, and watched the glooming sky. The horses raced in and out amongst the trees and scrub while any shadow of trunk or stump could be discerned by the straining eye; then they slackened, checked, stumbled; branches broke under their feet and in the buggy wheels and swished our hands and faces; and we had to recognise that we were off the track, and that the darkest of dark nights had untimely caught us. We were not lost, because we could hear the dogs barking at the homestead that was our goal, but we were as good as lost-"bushed" for the night, although for some time we would not acknowledge it. If the reader asks what carriage-lamps were made for, I reply, not for Bushmen in those days. People living in and about the towns used them, in obedience to by-laws, and the coaches travelled at night with grand hoods of light around their faces, top and sides; but country-folks despised such artificial aids, such enervating luxuries. They used to say they could see better without lamps than with, and we, being Bush persons, thought so too. On any ordinary night and fairly open track, we could manage to get along, but this night was not only moonless but starless, and thick with gathering rain. "Black as a wolf's mouth" well describes it. And we were in riverside scrub, which is always dense and confusing, traversing it, moreover (since it was not G.'s riding route, a still rougher one) for the first time.

G. got down and hunted with lighted matches for the lost track. When he thought he had discovered it he backed the horses and ran the buggy into a worse fix than before. This man?uvre was repeated several times. While I held the reins, he made little excursions by himself, and with the greatest difficulty found me again. The horses stood quiet and patient, just snuffing and jingling a little, and we tied them up and crept around the immediate neighbourhood together, hand in hand, until they in turn were lost-lost for many agonising minutes. Reminding ourselves of our responsibility for their welfare, and that we should have to pay goodness only knew what for the buggy if harm came to it, we decided, when reunited once more, not to part again. Bushed we were, and had to make up our minds to it.

So we unharnessed the gentle animals and haltered them, and let them graze and rustle round within safe reach and the limit of their tether, and we did what we could to ease the situation for ourselves. I was deadly sick and tired, and had to lie down somewhere. The floor of the buggy being too short for a bed, we were driven to seek rest on the bosom of Mother Earth. We spread our one rug thereon, and covered ourselves with the shawl that had Dik's shot-holes in it. That shawl-a wedding present-was a dream of a shawl for softness, thickness, cosiness, a family treasure for ever so many years. Babies were rolled in it, and little invalids sitting up, and anybody who was shivery or ailing (disease germs and such things not being in fashion then); nothing was ever woven that gave so much comfort to so many people. It was in constant demand-"the grey shawl"-as the last safeguard against damps and chills, and so, as a matter of course, I took it with me on the Murray Journey. But it was wofully insufficient for the requirements of that cold March night.

A mouthful from G.'s pocket-flask warmed me for a while, and there was a romantic hour during which I lay and listened to the strange undertones of the Bush, charmed to have fallen in with so interesting an experience. It was, by the way, the only time that I ever "camped out," although I have wished ever since to do it again, when well in health and otherwise properly equipped. About two years ago I returned (for the first time since '73) to that neighbourhood, and arrangements were made for me and another enterprising matron to camp out with a party of engineers surveying a proposed road through a wild jumble of hills and glens, at what would have been an ideal spot. They were taking tents and beds, and nice things to cook at the glorious fire they would keep us warm with; nothing they could think of to enhance our enjoyment had been forgotten. Alas! the rain came, and extinguished that project and my joy. On the afternoon of the expected happy night, a host-that-should-have-been drove me over one of the old-time break-neck roads-but a real road now-and showed me the scene of the camp that never was. Peeping from the mackintoshes that he had heaped over me, I saw, through the driving rain and across a thickly-wooded gorge, a high, dim hill. There it was, more than half-way up-the loneliest eyrie. What a place to look down from at nightfall, at daybreak, and in the dead waste and middle of the dark! And not only the camp fire to make magic of it, but a moon!

On the occasion of our involuntary camp-out in '73 there was neither. I fancy we had used all our matches, but if not, we dared not have made a fire. Grass and dead leaves were still tinder to a spark, and a Bushman knows when he must respect that state of things. A Bush fire is more easily started than put out. So we lay and listened to the trampling and munching of the invisible horses, the scratchings and runnings and snoring growls of the opossums, and those imaginary footsteps that, to ears at the ground, were more distinct than either, until we ached with the hardness of our bed and our teeth chattered with cold. And then it began to rain.

We sought the shelter of the buggy, and covered ourselves with the rug and the grey shawl. We sat in the vehicle, where there was no room to lie down, leaning one against the other, dropping this way and that, sighing from our very boots, watching for a glint of dawn. It seemed a thousand hours before it came. As soon as we could find our way we went to the river to wash. How starvingly raw and cold that early morning was! And to this day I am sorry for myself when I remember how I felt, after the sleepless, supperless, wet, sick night. I would have been glad to lie down and die, rather than face a pack of strangers. However, we harnessed up, and set out for the house for which we were bound. We seemed to have hardly started before we got there-a good "Cooee" might have rescued us over-night-and nobody was stirring, except a servant beginning to sweep.

A new baby had recently arrived-it appears to me, looking back, that in those days there was always a new baby in every house-so that the mistress was invisible for a time; but I was soon in kind hands of some sort, which helped me to tumble straightway into bed. For it was useless to attempt to observe any of the usages of polite society, under the circumstances. Daily, through that trip, I arrived in this condition, more or less, at some new strange house-an uninvited guest, too ill to talk to anyone, thrown at once upon the charity of the family, and of course filled with the shame of so ignominious a position; but I should have lost much more than I did lose if I had been well.

I slept till noon, while G. mended what he could of his broken engagements (there should have been a service over-night, and now the congregation had dispersed to its work); and after an early lunch we took the road again. I was firm in insisting upon keeping a tight hold of my husband, though I should die for it, rather than be left behind to be nursed, which he and everyone deemed the proper thing to do with me.

In the evening we came to the place that, of all places visited at this time, is the o

ne I remember best and with most pleasure. A fine day, after the rain, was closing with a finer sunset when we saw the house, so effectively situated on a hill-side sloping to the river, its pretty garden dropping down before, its neat vineyard and orchard climbing behind, that as a picture I hung it "on the line," there and then, and the gallery of memory holds nothing of the same age that has worn so well. It was a bachelor establishment-an awkward circumstance, at the first blush, but soon perceived to lack no advantage on that account. One young partner was away; the one at home came forth to receive us, with his nice, frank, gentlemanly air, that made such an impression upon me. I don't know who he was; I never saw or heard of him again; I have forgotten his name; but him I shall never forget.

He had made the most careful and graceful preparations for us. A dinner-party had been arranged, the guests to meet us being a squatter and his wife, of the same good class as himself, from the New South Wales side of the river, which they crossed in their private boat-evidently a voyage often taken-at the due hour. Sad to relate, I could not join that party, much to the host's concern and my own disappointment. The housekeeper bore me off to bed, and coddled me with arrowroot or beef-tea or something, while at the same time she supervised the serving of a meal which was described to me afterwards in tantalising terms. I was glad that my bedroom was close to the dining-room-probably opened out of it, like so many guest-chambers of the period. I could hear the pleasant, cultivated voices, the bright chat, broken by little silences during which the master of the house waited to hear how I was, and whether I could fancy this or that; and later in the evening I could follow the whole course of the service that was held in the same apartment, and for which he had diligently gathered in every stray sheep within his reach.

As soon as dinner was over the other lady guest came in to sit with me, and stayed with me until it was time for her to re-cross the dark river to her own home and bed. We talked of our children, in low tones, not to disturb the adjacent worshippers. She, too, I never saw before or since-it was indeed a case of ships that pass in the night-but I have loved her always, and thought of her as a life-long friend. We promised to meet again. If she is alive now, I am sure she regrets, as I do, that Fate declined to give us another chance.

Refreshed by a night's rest, I rose early, and enjoyed my host's companionship for perhaps half an hour. He took me for a gentle stroll about the garden while breakfast was preparing, and I was sorry the half hour could not be lengthened to a day-or a week. But the exigencies of G.'s time-table drove us on. We had another day-long journey before us to the next port of call, and it was necessary to start betimes if we were not to be bushed again.

We travelled beside the river for some hours, and my recollections are of particularly lovely views. Doubtless the radiant morning gave them much of their charm-Australian scenery is really a matter of light and atmosphere-and allowance must be made for that enchantment which distance lends; still, it was a pretty country. The Murray wriggles through its two colonies like a length of waved dress braid, and here it curved between hilly banks and woods whose fringes dipped into the stream. Primeval forest it was, too (except for that daily rarer brush fence), the free home of beautiful birds that may now be sought in vain within the boundaries of the state; and a stream still populous with wild-fowl of many kinds. By noon we must have worked a little inland, for my journal says it was a creek we camped by for lunch; and in the afternoon, during which we skirted a little hamlet that is now a considerable town, we descended to country called "Plains" in the title of its presiding station-the house we reached safely just as night closed in. Here there was the usual new baby (which G. christened next day), and no hostess immediately visible; the governess received me-in the inevitable condition-and put me to bed.

Speaking of those Bush babies, I would point out that medical attendance was in the category of non-essential luxuries that are now necessaries of life in every class. When it cost a little fortune and the waste of days to get a doctor, the struggling Bushman's wife, as a rule, took her chance without him. Occasionally she was conveyed to a township which possessed one, and there awaited in lodgings the opportunity to profit by his services; but the majority of Bush women preferred to stay at home and make shift with the peripatetic Gamp, old and unscientific as she always was. There was no fuss made over these affairs. The wives took after their husbands, who could drive without gig-lamps in the darkest night. I remember, however, that the mistress of this last house had all but lost her life in her recent confinement. She was a beautiful woman, delicate in every way-not of the ordinary type of squatter's wife.

With her I rested for a day, while G. made business excursions on horseback, and we spent a second night under that roof. This brought us to Sunday-a typical Bush Sunday.

A large family party loaded the waggonette which took us to morning service some miles distant. The place of worship, as usual in such parts, was the district school-house, called the Common School (the title "State" was substituted for "Common" when the Compulsory Education Act came into force, after which these buildings, enormously multiplied, were not so readily obtainable for what are called "sectarian" purposes). The school-house was utilised by the denominations in turn, all having been placed on the same footing by the withdrawal of State aid from the originally established (English) church, only the Roman Catholics standing out from the miscellaneous company. This seemed a sad "come-down" to us at first, with our hereditary reserve and exclusiveness in relation to "dissenters"-a word long eliminated from our vocabulary. The miner who, being invited to church, replied affably, "Ay, ay, I'll give ye all a turn," showed us our place in the colonial scheme of things, and we did not like it a bit. But we soon adapted ourselves. And G. and the current Presbyterian parson of the parish, that he could not call his own, used to study their mutual convenience in arranging country services, and give each other a lift when on the road together. A pity it was that the "dissidence of dissent" could not have been further modified-a pity it is, and must continue to be-for the existence of half a score of little conventicles struggling one against the other for the suffrages of one poor little town-the money question in each case dominating and determining every other-is not good for their common cause.

In the simple seventies and these remote outskirts of the world, one could still cherish the ideals of that English prelate who said of Disestablishment that "it will nearly drown us, but at least it will kill the fleas," one could survey the Church purified, before the new vermin hatched. It was charming to see the country carts gathered round the lowly wooden building, the horses unharnessed, feeding under the trees; they had brought worshippers from many miles away, their sincerity as such proved by the trouble they had taken to reach the rendezvous, and by the heartiness of their demeanour while service was going on. The school forms, made for children, would bend, and sometimes break, under the heavy men, close-packed along them; the mothers peacefully suckled their babes as they listened to the sermon; the dogs strolled in, and up and down. Sometimes a dog had a difference with another dog and disturbed the proceedings, but unless this happened no one thought of driving the dear creatures out. They were the sheep and cattle dogs of the congregation, each inseparable from his master.

This sort of function it was that I attended on the morning of the one Sunday of that Murray Journey. A family present then convoyed us to their home-another solitary station-whence, after a good meal, they drove us to the second service of the day, similar to the first. We then drove ourselves to a third station (a delightful place, G.'s favourite camping-ground on every Murray trip), where, of course, I went at once to bed, G. "having church" for the last time in the evening, in the dining-room of the house.

Monday was a rest-day here. On Tuesday morning we made the necessary early departure, and a few hours later met with the first of our two serious adventures.

It was soon after our picnic lunch, early in the afternoon. We were trundling through the eternal solitude, refreshed and content, enjoying our conversation and the brilliant weather, when we saw a Bush fire far ahead. Since we were not responsible for starting it, we hailed it as a welcome variation in the monotony of our drive. We hoped to skirt it near enough to see what it was doing. Bush fires were pleasing novelties in those days; now the faintest distant scent of them gives me a "turn" like a qualm of sickness. I shall explain why later on. This incident does not explain it, although it well might.

As we advanced, the area of conflagration opened out. It was an extensive fire, and in thick country. Not grass, but trees were roaring to the sky. Our anxiety to get close to it gradually gave place to a wish that it were further away. Misgivings deepened as we drew near; alarm supervened. "It is right across the track," said G. at last; and so it was, and far to right and left.

The last thing we wanted to do was to turn back, and indeed the wings of flame curved in behind us even as we drew rein to discuss our chances-not until we had driven quite up to the blazing wall, in the hope of seeing through to the other side, and finding a crossing-place. To go into the unburnt scrub on either hand would have been madness, for nothing could have saved us had the fire caught us there. Every inch of earth provided fuel for it, except the narrow, dusty buggy track. To that we knew we must stick at all hazards, and a very hurried survey of our unpleasant position showed us that there was nothing for it but to go on-to plunge into the flaming belt, and get out as best we could.

A few yards, we hopefully reckoned it: it turned out nearer half a mile. It might have been midnight, for all the daylight or sunlight that we saw during that dreadful passage: we were like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the burning fiery furnace, enveloped in a glare as of the infernal regions. The tree-torches over our heads dropped blazing leaves on us (the useful grey shawl again intervening): the grass-blades caught and curled up at the very tires of the wheels; the buggy sides blistered like our hands and cheeks. Not a word did we speak, except to urge on the horses, on which our lives depended, and which we are convinced they saved.

They shivered and jumped and snorted a little when the flames came very near, or they were touched by a spark, but never for a moment gave way to the panic which would have been natural, and which would have destroyed us all. Digging their heads into their chests, obeying voice, whip, and rein, they strained along doggedly, keeping the track as they had done on the steep sidings, until they brought us out at last into light and safety. Such nerve and courage I never saw or heard of in horses, which can stand almost anything better than fire at close quarters. But this pair were unmatchable.

We staggered into port, and tried, with our parched tongues, to tell the tale. Never shall I forget the shock I received from the behaviour of the person interviewed. The thin veneer of his sympathy for us was as glass over his solid and shining satisfaction at hearing how his waste land was getting cleared-at no expense to him. I thought I had never met a more heartless man.

Then, after a night in the humble chalet of two young fellows, just starting squatting for themselves in a romantic nook of the hills-who ought not to have been asked to entertain a lady, but did it most hospitably with the best at their command, we passed on to our next adventure.

It was another lovely morning, and the usual bottle of new milk and private spirit-flask compensated somewhat for the chops I had not been able to eat at breakfast. It was a beautiful if rough drive down the hills to the river-flats and another little hamlet that is now a full-grown town, with a railway to it. On the way we stopped to watch the evolutions of an eagle-hawk, which had caught up an opossum (stupid as an owl in daylight), and was sailing through the ether with it, fiercely chased by all the other birds of the neighbourhood. They call these great creatures eagle-hawks, but they are wholly eagles, to all intents and purposes. I have seen one swoop over a terrified flock, claw up a good-sized lamb, and soar away with it as if it were a mouse.

Leaving the township, we came presently to a river-the Mitta, in flood. And here our incomparable horses, which had saved us from a fiery, saved us from a watery, grave-possibly. G., it is true, was a good swimmer, but I was not, and the worst might have happened. Drownings of venturesome travellers, under the same circumstances, were frequently reported in those days.

That river had to be crossed. There was no bridge, of course, and not a soul within miles of whom to make inquiries as to the fording-place. The only thing to do, therefore, was to take the last one known, while anticipating-rightly as it proved-that it would be found washed out and gone. "Oh, you can't cross there now," they told us, after we had done it.

I and all our belongings were gathered upon the buggy seat, skirts tucked round me, railing and portmanteau tightly clutched; G. knelt on the cushion of the driver's seat, and we plunged in. Deeper, deeper, deeper, until we swayed and rocked and swung round upon our axis, and the current took the horses off their feet and began to drift them down. But their heads still pointed to the old landing-place: with all their strength they held back against the stream; and swimming steadily, got us ashore without an upset, and, with a tremendous spurt and scramble, up a bank that would have tried the mettle of a South African bullock team.

It was the last "pinch." By noon we reached the wide-spreading roofs of a house which was simply a free hotel for every passer-by-that house where even the blacks were made welcome, one of them having the run of visitors' bedrooms in the night. There G. left me, returning after a few hours with our little boy and his nurse and the doctor's horse. And the following day we were at home.

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