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   Chapter 11 XIToC

Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 29752

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


We left B-- in 1877. The diocese of Ballarat had been carved out of that of Melbourne, hitherto bounded by the boundaries of the colony; and the knife had lopped off a portion of our parish, leaving only enough to support a "reader," who is supposed not to want anything to live on.

We passed then into the new diocese. And, to begin with, we did a stupid thing-possibly two stupid things. G., after consultation with his bishop, accepted a living without seeing it. A charming photograph of the parsonage, and the knowledge that it was situated in a pleasant district, within a short drive of our then metropolis, Ballarat, seemed to make a preliminary inspection unnecessary, especially as the financial soundness of the parish was guaranteed. We had dismantled our house at B-- and packed our furniture for L-- before personally making acquaintance with the latter place. Then-for I was fretting to see and rummage over my new home with a measuring tape in my hands-we arranged to drive over. It was on a Saturday that we started, in very wintry weather; and all our subsequent lives might have been different if only it had been summer or a fine day.

We spent the night in Ballarat, and after breakfast drove to L--, timing ourselves to get there for morning service, G. having taken duty for the day. It teemed. There was hardly any congregation in consequence, and the church was dark, cold, and dismal. Amongst the absentees was the organist, and I was called upon to play the selected music, without preparation, to a few watchful critics. They gave us a kindly welcome after service, and invitations to dinner and tea; after which we were able to inspect the parsonage in privacy. It had been empty for some weeks, and rain had rained on it for days. The picturesqueness of the photograph had been wholly washed away. We should have made allowances for all this, but when we found one room with the paper peeling from the wall, and another showing a wet patch, and when we sniffed the fusty, mouldy, shut-up air, we exclaimed to each other, "A damp house!" and there and then determined that it was impossible for us to go into it. We had lost two children; nothing should induce us to imperil the safety of the third.

At dinner, and again at tea, our entertainers apologised for the exceptional weather, and assured us that all was quite otherwise as a rule. The parsonage needed fires for a few days, perhaps a patch on the roof, possibly the clearing of leaves and birds' nests from the water-pipes. They answered for it that, when in order, it was a perfectly healthy house. I daresay they were right, for we never heard that the family of the clergyman who subsequently jumped at it took any harm while living there. But the possibility of its being damp was enough for us; we dared not risk it.

It was with some difficulty, and not without unpleasantness, that we backed out of the engagement we had deliberately made. It was our unexpected luck not to suffer more than we did. In the end, instead of declining upon a lower level in the matter of the next appointment, it fell to our lot to be promoted to what I think was considered at the time the most important country parish in the diocese.

Here, at anyrate, there was no fault to find with the parsonage house, unless one objected to its lonely situation-which we did not. As a parsonage house it was unique in Victoria, and I believe in Australia. The wayfaring stranger might have taken it for but another station homestead, on a smaller scale than most; as a fact, he frequently did, in the person of the professional sundowner.

We did not go there at once on leaving B--. Our first welcome was to one of the "mansions" in its neighbourhood-the seat, as it might be called, of the new squire of the parish-and such was the treatment we received in it that we remained there as visitors for nearly half a year. The lady of the house was young, and we became friends. She said, "Why should I be here by myself, while you are over there by yourself? Let us keep each other company." Never did I live in such utter ease and luxury. Men and maid-servants to wait on one at every turn, and to pet the year-old baby so that even her nurse found her place a sinecure; a dear old housekeeper continually pursuing me with "nourishment"; daily drives with my hostess, alone or with a cavalcade of more ephemeral guests-so numerous that we seemed to have a dinner-party every night; no domestic cares; no parish work-the conditions were not only pleasant, but most beneficial to my health. Meanwhile G. worked the parish from this base, using the horses and buggies of the establishment as if they were his own.

From July 25th, 1877, to January 8th of the following year, we lived this feather-bed life. Then our friends set us gently down upon our own premises-there had been a doubt as to whether they were to be our own, up to this time, which partly accounted for the delay-and started us in life again on our own base. A Brussels carpet from one, a set of tea-things from another-it was like the going to housekeeping of the newly-married. The buggy that finally took us to our fifth home was found on arrival packed with toothsome tokens of affection which the housekeeper had stuffed in at the last moment.

That fifth home was a survival of the old, old times-quite the beginnings of the colony. In those old times, before townships were, the princely pioneer squatters (our late host the chief), wishing to have their church represented amongst them, made a first gift for the purpose of one hundred acres of their fat lands and a house-the nucleus of this house. It was an inalienable endowment, not to any parish-for there was none-but to the incumbent for the time being; so that afterwards, when it came to belong to a parish, whose centre of town and church was six miles off, the vestry could not turn it into money, as they desired, so as to bring their parson to headquarters.

The first incumbent-a D.D. eminent in the Church and in the history of the Western District, a pioneer himself, whose name is now perpetuated in a Trinity College scholarship-began his long ministry as a missionary at large. He saw all the changes that turned that fertile wilderness into the garden of Victoria, studded with wealthy homesteads and prosperous towns, while sitting, as Dik would say, upon his own valuable bit of it, living the same pastoral life as the squatters around him. The reader will remember that the term "squatter," with us, means roughly the landed gentry; in its original sense the word has no meaning now.

In his old age Dr R. went "home" for a holiday, leaving two curates in charge. Shortly before he was expected back, came the news of his death, and, after a sorrowful time of inaction on the part of the mourning parish, G. was selected to take his place. It was always impressed upon us that it was to take his place, not to fill it, which nobody could do.

For six years we lived as he lived. Then the authorities six miles off decided to put an end to the old régime. Incumbent No. 3 had to be brought into line with other incumbents somehow. His property could not be sold, but apparently (with his consent, I presume) it could be let; for let it was, as soon as we had vacated it. Tenants of a class to suit the house needed more than a hundred acres of land with it, so it was let to a farmer, an ex-free-selector, whose selection adjoined. He took up his abode in what we called the "old part"-the original house (our kitchens, store-rooms, etc.), to which, according to Bush custom, another and better had been attached, the two being connected by a planked, bark-roofed, trellis-walled passage; and he used my drawing-room and our other living-rooms to stack his produce in. And the parson went to live in the town, beside his church-in a corrugated iron house that was run up for him.

I am glad it was he-not his predecessor. There is no ill-nature in this, seeing that he doubtless congratulated himself also. For he could get daily letters and newspapers, immediate access to the stores, the schools, the church, the doctor, and next-door neighbours; whereas we were often in straits owing to our six miles' distance from them. Between us and the road lay a (to us) bridgeless river-it is called a river-which it was necessary to pass to get to church and back, and at the best of times its banks at the crossing-place were so steep down and up again that I dreaded the spot on a dark night, after going through it in safety hundreds of times, and after all the breaking-in to such things that I had had. Its flood-water used to overflow into what we called our "lane," the unavoidable approach to the house, covering the fences on either side in the lower parts, which between-whiles were either soft bogs or rough ruts and ridges like those of a frosted ploughed field. Owing to these lions in the path, we had few visitors in winter. In summer there were Bush fires-of which I will say more presently.

Then there were long waits for the doctor in dire emergencies, and per-mile fees (if the doctor were non-Church-of-England, or you could successfully save yourself from taking charity) for his tardy attendance. Our groom nearly killed a pair of horses one night-when a commonplace domestic event was impending-trying to make them do twelve miles in time that would but comfortably cover four. One day my nurse and I found a white speck on the throat of the youngest baby, when no man or buggy or even wood-cart was at home. While I looked at my devoted colleague in despair she began briskly to gather and tie on our respective hats. "We have to get him to the doctor somehow," said she. And off we started, and carried him (he was then twenty-one months old), turn and turn about, the whole six miles, all up-hill, since there was practically no alternative. As it chanced, the doctor, when we got to him-dead beat as ever women were-laughed at the baby's throat; but the incident illustrates some of the drawbacks of our isolated life which were not suffered by our successors.

Household supplies had to be laid in wholesale-sacks of sugar and flour, chests of tea, boxes of kerosene and candles. We had to make our own bread, and our own yeast for it; we had to kill our own mutton and dress it; gather our own firewood and chop it. This meant keeping a man (for the first time); beside whom we had a general servant, a nurse, and a young lady companion.

The kitchen party were not at all lonely in these wilds. They had friends on the neighbouring stations and farms, with whom they foregathered in their leisure hours; they had many picnics and excursions to the town; they gave a ball every Christmas (which rather scandalised a section of the parish, although the rigid etiquette observed at them might have been copied with advantage in higher circles), and were tendered balls in return. At ordinary times they seemed sufficient for themselves. Sitting in my detached house of an evening, I would hear cheerful sounds from the other building, and, being mysteriously summoned thither, would find the groom, with his concertina, playing reels and jigs for the little ones to dance to, the dancing-mistresses standing by to enjoy the achievements of their pupils and the surprise they had prepared for me.

A new member was added to the household in a singular manner. The selectors with families needed a school. To get a school, Government had to be assured that so many children-twenty-five or thereabouts-were entitled to it; and the parents came to ask if we would aid them to make up the number. Our three were babies, and we certainly did not mean to foist them on the State for their education, but we somehow reconciled it with our consciences to sign the requisition on our poorer neighbours' behalf. Thus they got their school-a tiny white wooden building, and one teacher. The building, consisting of schoolroom and teacher's quarters, was set up on the public highway, just outside our outer gate, on the bank of the so-called river (where the bridge was), a night camping-place of all the teamsters and drovers on the road; and the teacher appointed to live there, beyond call of any other house, was a good-looking young woman.

She came to us one day in great distress-perplexity, rather, for she was far too sensible to make a fuss. She could not, under the circumstances, live alone in her school quarters, and she had tried in vain to find lodgings in the farmers' cottages: they were all too small and full. What should she do?

She was an extremely nice girl, and, finding we could solve her difficulty in no other way, we took her in ourselves. Strange to say, the experiment answered admirably. In the servants' house there was a large spare room, which had once been Dr R.'s study. We put a screen across the middle of it, made a bedroom behind and a simple sitting-room in front, and there installed her. She attended to her own little housework, and the servants took her in her meals from the adjacent kitchen-a job to which they had no objection in the world; and she used to sit in her basket-chair on their common verandah and pass the time of day with them when so inclined, and adjusted herself to the position generally with perfect taste, just as they did. To us personally she made no difference whatever, except in her services to the children. She paid us the trifle that covered the cost of her board, and as a further return for hospitality took the two older little ones to school with her once a day, taught and specially shepherded them while there, and brought them back again. So, by accident, we kept faith with the Government after all; and anything like the rapidity and thoroughness with which all the drudgery of the three R's was got through in that little school-house I never saw. I used to walk over the paddock of an afternoon to see the process. We made a new track across the paddock with our goings and comings, the home-returning before nursery tea being usually a family procession, led by the baby's perambulator. We were amused one wet winter to find Miss C. and her charges making a bridge of a bullock's carcase that conveniently spanned a muddy rift. They went over it, they said, until the ribs bent too much and threatened to "let them through."

Besides the milking cows of the establishment, we always had a herd of bullocks on the place. We bought them as "store," intending to sell them as "fats"-intending, indeed, to make our fortunes as land-owners and cattle-dealers. Our hundred acres were notoriously one of the rich patches of the district, coveted by our wealthy neighbours as badly as ever Ahab coveted Naboth's vineyard; anything could be made of it-on paper.

Alas! the usual fate of the amateur farmer befell

us. Perhaps we were not there long enough. Certainly we had the worst of luck in the matter of seasons. It was one long series of droughts, punctuated by those floods already alluded to, which came at the wrong time to benefit the grass. The store cattle would not make fat, on which we could make profit; the precious "water-frontage," when it became a rope of sand threaded with water-holes, unfenced one side of the property, allowing the stock to stray at large. The stock, also, by degrees became largely composed of unproductive horses, those happening to be G.'s special weakness and temptation. He had an assortment, continually being added to, for his own riding, and we had two concurrent pairs for the buggy; the groom had one or two for his constant journeys to the post, and there was one for the wood-cart. They were for ever going to be shod, or they met with accidents and had to be replaced. The most valuable that we ever possessed was pricked in the haunch with a point of fencing wire-a wound almost invisible to the naked eye-and died of lockjaw from it.

Finally, we let fifty acres to a real farmer at £1 per acre. He strongly fenced this off, and grew lovely crops of corn on it. And I think that was about all the "increment" we enjoyed.

Here we learned something of what Bush settlers have to suffer in our frequent years of drought. We had a large underground rain tank, with a pump to it, but there were times when it seemed a perfect sin to wash. Our selector neighbours had only their zinc tanks and the river-muddy, and fouled by creatures alive and dead; and the nurse and children used to make it an object of their summer evening walks to carry little cans of water to their friends, to make at least one nice cup of tea with. It was regarded as a handsome present. Hydatids raged over the country-side. Two of our servants (who married each other, and went to live at the school-house by the river, in Miss C.'s empty quarters) were crippled with the disease.

"The reservoiring of rain-water is the greatest economic question in South Africa," says the Subaltern in those charming Letters to His Wife. "At present little or nothing is done to combat drought." The same here, to the very word and letter. Another thing he says:-"After all, it is the atmospheric conditions that make the veldt, and give their character to its children." That applies as exactly to the Australian Bush.

A young soldier of ours came home from the war the other day. He had been in seventy-five engagements, and might reasonably have felt a little sick of South Africa. But no. "When it is all over, I am going back there to settle," said he. "The climate and the country-somehow they just suit me."

Those hills around us, in formation like bread-dough turned out upon the board and just beginning to sink-low and softly wavy, like the Sussex Downs-were as good as tropical seas for the sun to set on, and better. Such lights! Such tints! Such purity! Apply to them the Subaltern's description of the uplands of the Orange River Colony-of the sunset that he saw as he rode to Bloemfontein-and there you are. I need not add a word.

We were very close to Nature at this place. The wild things lived with us even more intimately than at Como. Opossums did not keep to the river; they loved the fruity old garden, and stuck to it in spite of dogs and guns. Driving home o' nights we used to see them sitting on the house roofs, silhouetted against the sky, and they used to keep us awake with their talk to each other in a tree near our bedroom window. On one occasion we were roused by the nurse calling to us that a 'possum had come down the chimney, and was flying round the nursery and smashing everything. A candle and a stick soon ended the career of that enterprising little animal.

We had all the birds of the country flighting over us in the grey dawns and the golden twilights. The lovely gabble of the cranes and the wild swans comes back to me whenever I think of the place. My diary records that on one occasion we had a young native companion, "roast, with forcemeat," for dinner, and that it was "delicious." Also that, two days later, we experimented upon a swan, and found it "not so good." The gun, of course, went out for duck and snipe and quail in their season, to vary the too-constant mutton. They were not easy to get, for this is no true game country, but those huge sheep stations, with their lonely dams, were practically wild country for them.

In the elbow of the river at the corner of our paddock we used to watch for the platypus, which had a home there, under the broken banks. Four of these precious rarities were shot in the six years-we are sorry for that now, but were proud of it at the time-and the house smelt horribly while their dense, oily coats were being stripped off and dressed. The same river provided a beautiful set of furs for my friend at M--; they were made of the golden-brown skins of water-rats, caught and cured for her by her butler. There, too, we used to sit amid the evening mosquitoes, and angle for black-fish and "yabbies." It was a corner much beloved by school-boys of our acquaintance with Saturday afternoons or long twilights upon their hands. One young fellow, the son of a lawyer in the town, spent many patient hours there, all alone; but we, prolonging his enjoyment by the offer of a meal or a bed, would sometimes look on at his tranquil sport, amused by his methods. When he needed to bait a hook, he bent the crown of his head earthward and took off his cap gingerly, afterwards combing his rough locks with his grubby paw. He kept his worms there, between his cap lining and his hair; it saved the trouble of a bait-can. When he caught a fish, he slipped it into his pocket, where it tangled itself with his handkerchief and oddments in its dying throes. We were somewhat nicer in our proceedings. Neat little blobs of meat at the end of strings were let down into the water, and when the tiny cray-fish fastened upon them they were lifted delicately into the air, the whole art consisting in not frightening them into dropping off until the bank was under them. Nothing messy or murderous or offensive to the sensibilities of women and children-until the black creatures were boiled red for tea or breakfast, and that was done by the cook in private, and we tried not to know anything about it. A few dozens of them, warm from the pot, with bread and butter, made a delicious meal.

But Nature took toll of us in return for what she gave. Eagle-hawks, that hankered after the lambs, and their lesser brethren that were interested in the poultry, hares that loved young vegetables with the morning dew upon them, nocturnal wildcats, and the tame cats gone wild that were far worse than they-for them, too, the gun was kept in readiness, and, alas! I grieve to say, the trap. Once we had an extraordinary visitation of caterpillars; a dense, enormous mass, marching straight in one direction, taking everything as it came. We were in its path, and, until it had disentangled itself from the premises, were simply overwhelmed. We barricaded all doors and windows; we tried, like so many Mrs Partingtons, to sweep back the living waves with brooms-in vain; those little, soft, green things were as irresistible as the sea. We ran about, shuddering and in tears, while they crawled up legs and arms, and down necks, and amongst our hair; we went into the dairy to find them lining roofs and walls and drowning all over the cream in every milk-pan-went to bed to find sheets and pillows thick with them. No plague of Egypt could have been more agonising while it lasted, which, fortunately, was not long. They did not even stay to eat the garden up, as the grasshoppers did when similarly out on a big march. Some end they had in view and pursued relentlessly, without a pause. It was a phenomenon never, in my experience, repeated or explained.

But the terror of terrors was-fire. The land was rich, the years were droughty, and we the innocent victims of a systematic incendiarism directed against somebody else. The somebody else was like the Russian Government, all palace and diamonds at the top and all black bread and taxes at the bottom; or like the Government that we here groan under, which acts upon the theory that the more you cut down trade the more money you will get out of it. A station that "marched" with our Naboth's vineyard had a black mark against it.

Why does the Australian pastoralist provide free board and lodging for every loafer that comes for them, instead of kicking him out and telling him to go to work? Because he knows how easily and safely the loafer could avenge himself if sent empty away-and how well the loafer knows that he knows it. There is a tacit understanding between them. The wise blackmailer is easy in his demands-the regulation allowance and no more-and the blackmailed is glad to purchase valuable good-will at no greater cost. It is one of the oldest institutions of the country, which even we upon our hundred acres would not have dared to flout. Our wealthy but frugal neighbour did, as we were told, and reaped the consequences-which would not have mattered much if the undeserving poor had not stood in the path of the reaper. Thus, for weeks together, G. and his man never put up their horses at night until they had circled round and round the place, looking for little trails of dead sticks and straw carefully led into a fat paddock that was not ours, as a fuse to a mine. One Sunday night, on the way home from church, without looking for them-because they were all alight, though refusing to burn effectively without a wind-he found three.

This was in what we call the "fire year." That summer we had ten in almost ten consecutive days, each of which menaced the mass of old sun-dried woodwork in which we lived. Two horses stood ready to mount at the first signal, every homestead around being similarly prepared. We slept with blinds up and windows open, and anyone waking would at once jump up and go out and look into the night for the dreaded flare. No matter where it was, or when, the men were off to it with the speed of professional firemen; and if it was near, or the wind towards us, we women started to make bucketsful of tea to send out to them. Helpless with a new-born baby, I used to lie and smell the smoke and listen to the flap of the bags, and wonder what was happening, and nearly died from want of rest. One morning one of us unluckily remarked that "actually here was breakfast nearly over, and no fire!" Scarcely were the words uttered before the groom appeared with his "Fire, sir!" and the next instant both were galloping across the downs, to join other horsemen converging from all points of the compass upon the same spot. It was Saturday morning, and that battle lasted into Sunday, when we could have walked, we were told, ten miles in a straight line from our back door without going off burnt ground. One other morning, when I was well enough for a drive and wanted to do some shopping, and it seemed safe to leave home for an hour or two, G. took me to the township. We were hurrying through our business in the street when a man came up and said to G., "There's a fire over your way, sir." We had a pair of very fast horses, and we flew down those hills in record time. Reaching home, we found our good neighbours pouring water over the charred posts of the garden fence.

Of course, this was not all incendiarism. Even the aggrieved sundowner is not so bad as that. Under suitable conditions, nothing is easier than to start a blaze that flies out of your hand before you see the spark. A castaway bottle, a little ash knocked out of a pipe, will do it. My own eyes have proved to me from what a small cause a great conflagration may result. A cavalcade of vehicles from M--, while we were staying there, was on the road to church; it was a well-used, fenced Bush road, all dust and wild peppermint weed-a fire-break in itself, one would have thought. But I, in the second buggy, saw a flicker under the wheel of the first; it ran from one scrap of tinder to another and was away over the country before one could draw breath. "Like wildfire" is the best image for speed that I know. It used to pour over those grassy rises just as released water does, a spreading black stream with a scintillating yellow edge; not a menace to life as in forest country, but sickening to the heart of one who knows his home to windward of it, and knows the frailty of the most carefully-prepared "break." The buggies were stopped, the men in their Sunday coats out and after it on the instant, but there was no church that day for any male of the party except the parson. An examination of the spot where the fire started showed that the buggy wheel had passed over a wax match. The unwritten law of the Bush is that no matches must come into it, at these times, except the wooden ones guaranteed to strike on the box only.

The "fire year"-or the fire summer rather (1879-80)-is literally burnt into my memory. Now, when I smell Bush smoke I feel as I would at the sudden sight of blood in large quantities. All those old scenes come back, and the old terror of the nerves, which were strained so long that the effect upon me was something like what in pre-scientific days was called going into a decline. My strength refused to return after the birth of the child that arrived in the middle of the ordeal, so that at last I had to be sent away out of sight, sound, and smell of the place, to give me a chance to recover. But the worst was over before I went. We were sitting at tea one night-evening dinners, by the way, had early been given up-when there suddenly fell upon our ears the sound of rain pattering. We nearly jumped from our chairs; we looked at each other, beyond speech; and then I burst into a fit of hysterical tears-some of the happiest I ever shed.

In the evening a neighbour rode over-for the first time, as he remarked, without his sack on the saddle, and for the first time on any errand unconnected with its use. We had all been keeping guard of our homes for weeks that had seemed years, friends meeting only on the field of battle-as heroic a field of battle as those that our "contingenters" went to, and better than the playing-fields of Eton as a preparation for them; but we were free at last. And we could hardly realise it. All the evening we sat, almost in silence, inanely smirking at each other and listening to the rain. It was too sweet a sound to drown with talk.

The "old parsonage" was (allowing again for the enchantment that distance lends) a charming home; but it had that against it. I have been glad ever since to live where there is nothing more to do than turn the gas off at the meter when one goes to bed.

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