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   Chapter 9 IXToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 24698

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


LOCAL COLOUR

I often wonder what G. would have done if he had been a weakly man or an indifferent rider. There were lengthy periods during which he practically lived in the saddle, getting out of it merely for meals and sleep. For a time we kept records of the totals of miles covered per week or per year, but, these matters ceasing to be notable, we lost them long ago. And it is better not to trust even to his memory to reproduce them, for I am certain that no figure near the truth would be credited by the English reader.

The following is the programme for a monthly Sunday in W--, where the breaking-in began:-Up at 4 A.M. Breakfast at a station twenty-five miles distant. Morning service five miles further distant (in an open shed, the congregation sitting on wheat-sacks or what not). Dinner near by, and ride of twelve miles to afternoon service. Tea, and ride of five miles to evening service. Ride of seventeen miles home. Of course he could have started on Saturday and returned on Monday, but he never spent a night away from his own house unless absolutely compelled. I used to wake from my first sleep at the sound of the cantering hoofs, pop on my dressing-gown, and go and hold the lantern for him while he made his horse comfortable, and then join him at his well-earned supper. He was always fresh at the end of this tremendous day, or, at anyrate, not more than pleasantly tired-generally more disposed to sit up and gossip than to go to bed. The horse, too, which had carried him all day, though glad to reach his journey's end, was undistressed. It was by no means an exceptional day's work for an Australian horse.

Only once do I remember seeing G., at the end of one of these Bush excursions, thoroughly knocked up. That was in furnace-hot midsummer weather, when he had been out all day in a north wind. He had been sent for to take a burial service, and was first driven twenty-five miles to the station where the body was lying. Hence the funeral party, on horseback and in black clothes and hats, proceeded at a slow foot-pace another twenty-five miles to the station where the family burying-ground was situated. Here, at the grave, one mourner fell, sun-struck; the rest were more or less prostrated. G. rode those terrible twenty-five miles, and the same distance back to the first station; there he had a meal and a short rest, and then rode home in the night, which was pitchy dark. The temperature was still over 100° and the wind in the north, and the whole thing proved too much even for his strength. He was really tired out, for once. But that was the only time that I remember him being so (from riding) in all the years that I have known him.

I may mention another funeral with some old-time features about it. The summons came one evening, from a long distance, and the man bringing it left directions for G. to follow in riding to the appointed spot next day-for he had but just arrived in the district, which was all unknown land to him. The man promised to meet him at a certain swamp of some miles in extent; the funeral would have to skirt round this swamp, but there was a track through it, known to the initiated, by which a rider could save much distance; he had, however, to be a good rider, on a good horse, because it was a quicksandy sort of ground, and a guide was necessary. G. managed to find this place and duly met his guide, who upbraided him for not being there earlier. The man then led the way through the swamp, at a pace as near to flying as possible, to avoid being sucked in; if a horse rested his weight on the ground for a moment, he began to sink. They were awful places, those. I once saw G. (I was riding behind him) caught by one unawares. The instant he knew it he rolled off the saddle and back to terra firma like a streak of lightning, and eventually he got his horse out too; but it gave me cold shivers to think what might have happened. Though, as I never heard of anyone being engulfed entirely, I suppose there were bottoms somewhere.

On this occasion the guide tore along at the pace I have mentioned, kicking up the sticky stuff behind him; G., obliged to ride in his tracks and close at his heels, was smothered in the shower, and when he joined the funeral procession was a cake of black mud from head to foot. Arrived at the cemetery, it was found that the grave had not been dug-not begun to be dug-and the party had to sit around for three hours while this necessary business was transacted. A hospitable soul amongst the mourners took G. to his neighbouring shanty, cleaned him down a bit, and gave him eggs and chops and tea and all the usual kindness. Word was brought to them when the grave was ready, and they returned to finish the proceedings.

This cemetery, although remote and small, was a public one; that of the other funeral was private. I have known several of these family burying-places, made in the first instance for the pioneers who "took up" the land-crown land, become freehold and virtually entailed-now occupied by their descendants; some of them are used still. Only a short time ago I was visiting one of the old homes, a wealthy station, administered by the third generation of its possessors; and, walking about the grounds after luncheon, I was shown the cemetery, with its rows of head-stones and monuments and its fence and gate, like a section cut out of any well kept municipal burial-ground; only this lay amongst garden-beds and orange-groves, in full view of the windows on one side of the house. Hither had been brought back the daughters who had married and gone away. "And here," said my white-haired host, "we," indicating the family group of which he was the centre, "shall all come, I hope." I trust there will be no law made to prevent it. Technically unconsecrated, as I suppose they are, these little family burying-places have a peculiar sacredness, to my thinking, not belonging to the common gathering-places of the dead; the difference is as between a bed at home and a bed in a hotel.

One friend of ours, bachelor-owner of one of the finest properties in the wealthy Western District, ordered that he should be interred on the top of a hill on his estate, and that no monument was to be erected over him. His wishes were carried out. G. read the burial service at the lonely grave, which is marked only by a cairn of stones.

Some of the Bush weddings of those early times were as unconventional as the Bush funerals. Our verger and odd man about the church at Y-- (we took him over from our predecessor) could not read. G. called upon him one day to say the responses at a marriage service, there being no other congregation, and he pleaded this disability. "Well, at least," said G., "you can say 'Amen' can't you?" Oh, yes, he could do that. And he did-with a vengeance. Every time G. paused to take a breath, no matter where, a loud "Amen!" was shot into the breach. Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?-"Amen!" There was nothing for it but to race through the ceremony, and "Old Jimmy" was not required to officiate again.

G. was often nonplussed in this way, by finding ignorance where he expected knowledge as a matter of course. Once he started to read the Litany in a strange place for the first time. Dead silence followed the opening sentence. In a low voice he directed the congregation what to do, but nothing would make them do it; evidently they had never had the Litany before, and did not know what to make of it. In the end he had to read the whole alone. I myself came upon a crowded class of Sunday-school children who did not know who Noah was. I was trying to stuff them with that legend of a submerged world, and I put the question encouragingly: "Now, who was the good man whom God spared when all the rest were drowned?" Rows and rows, dozens and dozens (they filled that flower-stand-like arrangement of stair-seats running up the wall, which the village school provides for the infant scholars) of blank little faces were interrogated one by one. "Can't you tell me? Can't you?" No, none of them could. At last one bright little boy spoke up. "I know, teacher!" "Ah, then you tell these other little boys and girls. Who was it?" He shouted triumphantly, "Robinson Crusoe!"

There was a Bush wedding that would have made quite a romantic story, if I had thought to write it. G. was on the Murray Journey, and it was one of his engagements for the outward route. Cantering along through the Bush, he was met and accosted by a drunken old man, who asked him whether he was not the parson and on the way to marry So-and-so. G. informed him that he was. "Well, don't you do it," said the man. "I'm the girl's father, and she's under age, and she can't marry without my consent, and I won't give it." G. rode on, and at the appointed rendezvous met the young couple, a nice modest girl and a respectable-looking young man. Documents were produced for filling up and signing, and G. asked for that necessary one which he feared would not be forthcoming. It was not. The bridegroom-elect pretended that it had been mislaid-"bluffed" all he knew, poor fellow-but he could not produce it, and without it there could be no marriage. The bride, being in her teens, must have her father's written consent, and this father had refused it. They tried to persuade G. to marry them without it, but, as he told them, it was more than his place was worth; the law was plain and had to be obeyed. They retired for a while to discuss the unhappy situation, and then the bride came back alone, weeping, to renew the useless appeal. She had a wretched life with her drunken father, who ill-used her, and her lover had prepared for her a good and happy home, and oh, couldn't G., for once and in consideration of the hard circumstances, stretch a point? He was sorry enough that he could not. All he could do was to promise to see them again on his homeward journey, and to marry them then if in the meantime they had been able to soften the father's heart. But when he returned he found the situation unchanged; the old ruffian's heart was flint. The end of it all was that the poor young things, using the legal knowledge acquired from G., went off to another colony and another clergyman who knew them not, to whom the bride gave her age as over twenty-one. G., when he heard of this, did not make it his business to denounce the desperate young criminals.

He celebrated another Bush wedding-and there was a wedding party to it-in the destined home of the happy pair. It was a bark hut, with a mud floor and as yet without a shred of furniture in it. The papers were filled up and signed on an up-ended cask. At another marriage feast all the guests were drunk to start with. They offered him a glass of neat brandy in which to drink the health of the contracting parties. In all sorts of places, and at all hours of the day and night, he has been called upon to weld the bands of holy matrimony; the evening-after dark-is the time preferred by those casual couples who do not bother about wedding garments and the other conventional displays.

I once got a pathetic glimpse of one of these belated functions; it was performed for G. by a locum tenens in one of our country parishes. "Why," said he to me, before going into church, "why do these people make a point of being married in the vestry and not before the altar?" They had pressed this point with such earnestness that he had yielded to it. His idea was that they did not feel themselves smart enough for the usual observances, although there were to be no spectators; but even to him it seemed an absurd one. We knew them well-that the mother, authorising the marriage as the only surviving parent, was a highly-respected lady, and the bridegroom a steady young man, long a member of her establishment; the bride, who was very young, was her only child. The hour and the place chosen, and the secrecy of the whole affair, puzzled us, though we might easily have guessed their meaning. I happened to see the vestry door open on the conclusion of the ceremony. In the bright patch of light suddenly flung upon the screen of darkness stood mother and daughter, locked in each other's arms, apparently weeping bitterly. "Tell me," said the officiating minister, when he came in, "tell me how this busine

ss turns out," and he left us next day for his home in Melbourne. The first thing I heard was the news that the girl had been married, all unbeknown to her friends and at some distant church, several months before the date on which I knew she had been married; everybody told me this, and of course I did not contradict the statement. Four or five months later I met her in a railway carriage, and she had a bouncing baby in her arms. The strict moralist would have been horrified to see how proud of it she was, and how blooming and happy and satisfied she looked.

Strange to say, evening weddings are de rigueur in the upper circles of the place where I now live-the only place thus distinguished, so far as I know. Soon after we came here a particularly "swell" wedding took place-that may have set the fashion-the hour of which was fixed at 8 P.M. The bridal robe, with its court train, had been sent from London, the gift of a wealthy sister; it was a wonderful white brocade shot with silver threads, and certainly shimmered in the gaslight as it could not have done by day. The gorgeous costumes of the guests also "lit up" with great effectiveness, as did the elaborate decorations of the church. It was really a dramatic spectacle. And the church was almost pulled to pieces by the crowd who went to see it.

And so now all the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers have their weddings at night. Business is over, and they can revel thoroughly while they are about it. And outsiders, being also free to enjoy themselves, come in shoals to see the fun. Gates have to be locked and defended by brute force like barricades against besiegers, and the police are welcome when they deign to grace the scene. We hate this custom, which for several reasons is not nice to think of, but cannot alter it. Fashion is always irresistible when there is no law to the contrary, and canonical hours are ignored in this country. In the Bush, in the old days, persons got married at night only because they were ashamed to do so by day, or because they had no choice.

Another more purely social function of the Church had its Australian peculiarities, so marked at times as to obscure the lines of the original model, followed with such religious care. I allude to the time-honoured tea-meeting. I shall never forget how the first one that I attended on this side of the world astonished me.

It was while we were at W--, and the occasion was the laying of the foundation stone of a church at a mining township some twelve miles off. A large party of us, headed by our archdeacon, had a pleasant drive to the spot during the afternoon; on arrival our buggies were variously disposed of amongst the local residents, who, after the business ceremony, welcomed us to the hall or schoolroom where the festive tables were spread. I had seen the festive tables at home-bread and butter, substantial whitish cake, currant buns-and expected some approximation to that immemorial bill of fare, which to me was all one with the Rubrics.

I did not know-though I soon learnt-that the poorest Sunday-school child would not look at it. For the Sunday-school treat-just so much on a lower plane than a tea-meeting as boys and girls are inferior to men and women-you must have nothing plainer than ham-sandwich; that is the basis on which to build the rich edifice of sweets. Ham it must be, and no meaner substitute. So, at least, it was when I took active part in such affairs; for I know that once, when we thought to economise with beef, an irate mother came to ask us what we meant by it. The children never had been put off with beef, and she considered it a burning shame. One year, when the "treat" food was provided, as usual, by the ladies of the congregation, each cooking to outvie the rest, I took upon myself to remonstrate with them for their cruelty-in stuffing the poor children with unlimited cream-cakes and meringues. Yes, actually meringues, on my word of honour. But that, I must admit, was an exceptional circumstance.

Nowadays, as I am informed, things are not quite the same. For instance, the current Sunday-school attached to this establishment makes its annual sandwiches of ham, beef, and German sausage, in about equal parts, and I do not hear of any complaints. It is a large Sunday-school, and therefore not so much all one family as those little ones of the past: and ham is something like a shilling a pound; and town ways are not as Bush ways. In town it is a common thing to employ a caterer at so much per head. So that we may say the times have changed. But the children, wherever they are and whoever makes it for them, still pack rich puff pastry on the top of their sandwiches, and rich plum cake on the top of that, and miscellaneous "lollies" on the top of all, until there is no room for a crumb more; and what happens to them next day, and the day after, is a question that yearly agitates my mind. Quite unnecessarily, I suppose. Their little stomachs are hardened to it.

So the aspect of my Bush feast-the tea-meeting tea-may be inferred. Chickens and turkeys, hams and tongues, pies and sucking-pigs, jellies and trifles-in short, all the features of an old-fashioned wedding breakfast or a ball supper were there, except the wine. You had, naturally, to drink tea at a tea-meeting-if you wanted to drink anything with such oceans of whipped cream. But the tea is the only remaining link between the Australian tea-meeting and the English one, unless the English one has changed greatly since my time.

A purely social function, did I call it? It had, of course, its raison d'être if only to "draw the people together," which is its last excuse (the first always "goes without saying"). On one occasion a tea-meeting was attached to a movement for getting some parochial work done, of which part of the parish approved and part did not. Speeches for and against were made when the tables had been cleared, and G. spoke for the side that he personally espoused. The local paper, which was on the opposite side, reported his speech in the following ingenious manner: "The reverend gentleman was understood to say" so and so (substantially what he actually did say), "but what he meant to say was" so and so (what the local paper and its party thought he ought to have said).

The great tea-meeting of all is what is called the Diocesan Festival. It is held annually, at the time of the sitting of the Church Assembly, which is our House of Convocation; and all the leading (English) Churchmen of the diocese, lay and clerical, take their part in "running the show." The Melbourne Town Hall is filled with tea-tables, individually donated by parishes or private families; Church of England people, and many besides, flock thither and pack the place to suffocation before six o'clock, at which hour they sit down to eat and drink, having paid eighteen pence per head for the privilege. When tea is over there is a great struggle for room to remove the tables and their furnishings, but it is done somehow, and only benches and chairs left for the evening assembly, augmented by many not present at the tea. During this interval the cathedral organist gives selections on the great instrument that was the city's pride in the seventies and eighties, but now needs more money than City fathers care to give (for mere artistic purposes) to bring it up to the requirements of these times and of a self-respecting performer; then, when all is ready, the orchestra platform fills with big-wigs-governor, bishops, "special attractions" bespoken long before-and stirring speeches fill the rest of the bill. It is a great carnival for pious folk, and not without interest for mere ordinary beings like myself; and the substantial profit resulting from it is one of the mainstays of the "Bishop of Melbourne's Fund," which is the general fund in aid of general diocesan distress.

Substantial profit, it is needless to remark, is the first object of the promoters of all these entertainments, so many and various-tea-meetings, bazaars, "sales of gifts," Bruce auctions, cake fairs, concerts, etc., etc.-and has to be so while the voluntary system and poor human nature exist together. Each event is contrived "for the benefit of the Church," a term well understood by all its members, who will contribute pounds of money and endless time and trouble to such affairs sooner than lay an extra shilling or two in the offertory plate. Every parish is running its little money-making enterprise at short intervals, the other denominations, whose parish it is also, doing the same. Sometimes there is an unfriendly competition between the churches, smart dodges to take the wind out of a rival's sails; more often they have a tacit fraternal arrangement to aid each other, or at anyrate not get into each other's way. You will hear it said at a ladies' working party, "What a shame of the Catholics to take our conversazione night for their concert!" Or, "The Presbyterians sent a lot of things to our bazaar, so it is only right we should help them with theirs."

The concert is the commonest of these events. It costs, in money, time, and trouble, less to get up than the others. Domestically, this is a musical country, and local performers are never hard to find. My natural impulse is to stay at home when the miscellaneous amateur is abroad, but sometimes, when I have steeled myself to endure him or her, I have been rewarded beyond my expectations or deserts. One thing stands out from my experiences in this line that is worthy of note-the high average of excellence in the quality of the amateur voice. I am convinced there are as good fish in the sea as the Melbas and Crossleys that have come out of it, judging by the number of little girls, hardly past childhood, whom I have seen come upon the stage in parish schoolrooms and rural shire-halls, and proceed to give forth full, ringing notes that, for power, would do justice to the Albert Hall or the Crystal Palace, and with the right training (as I think) might do anything. I believe it is the climate that accounts for it-the air that throat and lungs have grown on; and if so, this is the place for the speculator in such wares to come to. Expert fossicking might reveal a new Kimberley to the world.

Still, in spite of these occasional surprises, the parish concert-after so many of them-is apt to pall upon the too-accustomed ear. One looks to the human interest for entertainment, rather than to art. In what I believe was the very first parish concert that I went to, this element largely predominated.

It was held at a hamlet some eight or ten miles from head-quarters, and we drove to it in a party, taking several of the performers with us. Before business began, our prima donna, a young married lady, confessed to not feeling very well; she said she had been eating fruit, which had disagreed with her. However, she went through the two hours' programme unflinchingly, and so acquitted herself as to rouse no suspicion of the fact that she herself was perfectly aware of. She was a tall, handsome, resolute sort of woman, who, finding herself in a horrible dilemma, determined to brave it out. "I had to do it," she said to us afterwards, "or else upset everything and make a disgraceful exhibition of myself. And I thought there would be plenty of time." But she had miscalculated in this respect, as it is so easy to do, and the situation had grown desperate before she was nearly through with her last number; I noted her damp brow and deeply flushed face, and wondered at the unsmiling look in her eyes when they met mine; her accompanist also was put about a little here and there; nevertheless, she made a finish of her song before she bowed to our applause and bowed herself off the stage. Then a word went round amongst the matrons which filled us with dismay and concern. The doctor's horses were put to his buggy, and the doctor and his wife and Mrs T. were gone ere "God Save the Queen" was finished. When the rest of us got home afterwards, it was to hear that our prima donna had become a mother rather less than two minutes after gaining the shelter of her own house.

I think that was the most interesting concert I was ever at. Others who were there, remembering it with equal vividness, say the same.

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