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Thirty Years in Australia By Ada Cambridge Characters: 27531

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


My experiences of life in Australia, long in time, have been narrow in space. Of the thirty years of this chronicle, not six months were spent outside Victoria.

In earlier times I paid little visits to Albury, just over the border. We drove from Y-- in our first buggy, which was bought there, taking the babies to a house that was full of playmates for them, and where a couple more or less added nothing to the family cares. Looking out of my window one morning I realised why this was so. In a back-yard below, on a kitchen chair, sat the hostess's young widowed sister-in-law, who lived with her and was the mother of two; these two, my two, and the dozen or thereabouts of the family proper, sat or stood round her like a class in school, and from a huge basin on her lap she fed the lot, each in turn, a spoonful at a time, round and round, until the supplies were exhausted. The serious faces of the little ones as they opened their mouths wide one after the other showed they were not at games, but performing a duty they were accustomed to. When I went down to breakfast I was quietly informed that the children had had theirs and gone out to play. But I think my clearest memory of Albury is of the splendid Fallon vineyards and cellars, in which one morning a hospitable proprietor offered us tastes of his famous brands in innumerable little glasses, which politeness constrained me to "sample" at all costs. Taking but a sip of each, I reckoned that I must have swallowed a quantity fully equal to my daily allowance for a fortnight; and we drove home in the sun directly afterwards. I am proud to say that, although not a seasoned vessel, I passed the ordeal undisgraced even by a headache-my late host had confidently predicted it-otherwise I should not tell this tale.

Then I once went to Tasmania-for four hours. This was not very long ago, and I have ever since been awaiting opportunities to extend my acquaintance with that charming place-so green, so cool, so rich in the quality of its earth and all that springs from it, rightly entitled to its name of the "garden island" as far as my skimming eye could judge. Being out of health, I had taken one of those sudden longings for the sea which come over me at such times, an instinctive animal craving after the natural remedy for my complaint; and I had a friend in the captain of a smart steamer plying to Tasmanian ports. An invitation to a trip, as a privileged passenger, was too tempting to be refused. Thus I found myself one morning, tucked up in pillows and a 'possum rug in a long chair on the bridge, eating my breakfast of fried fish and coffee while I gazed at the Tasmanian shore, which we skirted between ports for several hours. We were near enough to discern the little farmhouses in the nooks of the hills, the little figures of milkers and carters, and housewives hanging the wash on the clothes line; and there was a beautiful coach-road running up and down and round the corners amongst the trees that I shall never be satisfied until I have driven over. I have spoken of it to those who have, and they tell me that imagination cannot conceive of it as more beautiful than it really is, given the right season and weather.

By-and-by we turned a corner ourselves and steered into a channel that presently opened out into a little inland bay, a little port, connected by a toy railway with Launceston. Its little town and wharves, where other ships were loading and unloading, occupied a section of the wooded hills enclosing it; elsewhere the green basin-rim was dotted with nestling homes, and their orchards and gardens. It was towards noon, and I was called to an early lunch, after which the captain appeared in mufti to take me for a walk. We were through the streets in a few minutes, and on a quiet road lined with great holly-hedges, a mighty tree of which, one blaze of scarlet, stood in a garden where the earliest spring flowers were sprouting from rich brown earth such as I had never seen on this side of the world. We followed the course of the bay as it narrowed in amongst the hills until it became a mere woodland brook burrowing under the bushes. The grass was lush and dewy, and the colour of the soil, where the path revealed it, as delightful to English eyes as the colour of flowers. It was too early for more than a sprinkling of these, but I filled my hands with ferns and other vernal treasures that told me what a Paradise the land would be in a few weeks if that was a fair sample of it. We "hustlers" of the mainland think it a fine place to visit in the hot weather, but far too dull and behind-the-times to live in; but to those who love Nature and a quiet home, and find their intellectual resources in themselves, what an ideal environment! "Here," said I to the captain, as we strolled back to the ship, "is where I should like to spend my last days-to rest when work is done." The idea obscured for a time the settled plan of my life, which is to get "Home" somehow before the final event. We sailed in the afternoon, and from the bridge I watched the fading of the green land as I had watched its unfolding, but feeling now that it was my friend for life. Now and then you look into a face which gives you the masonic sign of a natural affinity, absent in fifty faces that ought to be more dear; thus it was with Tasmania, which captured my heart at the first glance.

The furthest and the chiefest of my few jaunts abroad was to the mother-city of the mother-state-Sydney. And there is no place like Sydney. I am firm on that point, although I am a Victorian, in whom such an admission is rank heresy; and a son of mine who has spent several Long Vacs. there-in summer, when I would not go near it-is even more decidedly of the same mind. It was in the year following that of my illness in hospital, and while I was enjoying my fresh lease of life, that I took the journey after several false starts.

The captain-an intimate friend in private life-of an Orient liner telegraphed to me his arrival in port, the hour of his departure for Sydney, and the information that cabins had been reserved for me. Two of them, I found when I got on board. As I did not travel with a maid I took but one, which afforded twice the accommodation that I had paid for; even that I only occupied for a night. It was a stormy night, and at daybreak the captain and stewardess surveyed from the doorway a wretched object in the lower bunk, and it was ordered that I be brought upstairs to the commander's quarters. His cabin on deck had been my drawing-room the evening before; it now became my lodging altogether until we reached port. In the fresh air blowing through it, and after a light meal of champagne and biscuits, I recovered my equilibrium, and was able to thoroughly enjoy myself all day. Then the captain betook himself to the chart-room, where he had a bed that the weather did not allow him to use, and his servant wedged me in with pillows as I lay, still wearing the becoming and comfortable dressing-gown of semi-public life. I had promised not to undress, in view of his intention to fetch me up to the bridge when the little world below had done with us, that I might be gratified by the sight of a storm at sea under circumstances quite outside the common experience and never likely to occur again in mine. It was officially a "full" gale, and the newspapers of the next morning reported the velocity of the wind to have been up to eighty miles an hour. It was, moreover, the depth of winter and the dead of night. The turmoil of the sea was tremendous, but it did not upset me now; I was quite well and happy, swinging to the heavy roll and pitch of the ship in the soft but tight clasp of my wedging pillows, thankful that no feeling of sleepiness came to waste the time that was storing such romantic impressions. Presently the skipper called at the half-open door. He had oilskins and a woollen scarf, into which I was buttoned and tied; he dragged me out into the storm, and somehow we staggered and struggled over the swimming deck and up the stairs to the bridge and the chart-room, where I spent half of the most wonderful night of my life, with him and the helmsman and the spirits of the Deep. The picture of that midnight sea could not fade from my memory in a thousand years. Looking down from our high platform in the air at the bulk of the vessel under us, big mail steamer that she was, the thought of her as man's work, effectually defying, as it seemed, the whole weight of the Universe, was more inspiring than words can say. Still more wonderful was the fortitude and vitality of two ships that passed us, fighting against the furious wind and not being hurtled along before it as we were. I was sure they were foundering, but not a bit of it-they were only going to be late at their destination.

We were early at ours, passing through Sydney Heads at daybreak before pilots expected us. When I went down to my cabin to dress I found my belongings stowed on the upper bunk and the rest of the room wet from the deluging seas that had swept us through the night. It was raw and grey now, but calm within the harbour, the loveliness of which did not reveal itself to me immediately. I was too rushed to get my hair done and my shore clothes on to have time to look for it. Here we have three hours of smooth water on which to make landing toilets; Sydney has but a few minutes. When I returned, cloaked and bonneted, to my late host, his successor was with him, awaiting me; and I was soon at breakfast on shore, making the acquaintance of what I believed to be the most charming city in the southern hemisphere. Well, at anyrate, it is incomparably charming to me. Of course, if I had gone there as a friendless woman, to struggle for a living in cheap lodgings, I might have pronounced it ordinary-even horrid, a term that I once actually heard applied to it by a mole-eyed person to whom it had never given a good time. Or if I had gone again, to get second impressions. Or if the weather-that arbitrary dispenser of joy and beauty-had not been as heavenly-sweet as it was for all the three weeks of my sojourn there. My letters from home reported rain, snow, dull skies, bad colds, a thorough winter of discontent; I was out every day in sunshine tempered with cool sea winds, an exhilarating freshness that made a bit of fur and an evening fire comfortable; and the wild flowers of spring were beginning to speckle the hills-cascades of something like white foam surrounded a rocky lunching camp on a memorable occasion-although it was only July.

I cannot recall one hour that does not bring pleasant thoughts to mind. Even at night I lay with the gleaming harbour under my eyes whenever I liked to open them to look, and I loved the strange experience of having my room flooded as with a search-light by the revolving beam of the great South Head Light. As an early riser I habitually wake at dawn, and then I watched the moving ships-a pastime I could never weary of-until called to my bath. They curved in and right up to the thresholds of our doors-that is one of the features of this harbour which few others can match. The masts seem to grow out of the streets, and you can step from the deck of a great liner to your cab as easily as from one room to the next.

At breakfast the programme for the day was submitted, and always it had been carefully compiled so as to comprise as much variety of pleasure as possible. I was taken on a cursory tour over the city the first day-round the Domain and through the main streets and beauty-places, to get that first good impression which has so much to do with the after ones. I was enchanted with Sydney-even with the narrow and twisted thoroughfares that are the mock of all good Melbournites; they give "bits" of architectural composition delightful to the uncommercial eye. In the evening we went to the theatre, and afterwards to Parliament House, where the debaters came between whiles to speak to us, and where I enjoyed a quite new and intensely interesting experience up to one o'clock in the morning. Next day I was at the Prorogation, and members entertained us with champagne in private rooms, and I was shown parliamentary life behind the scenes. I remember Lord Brassey was there, a visiting yachts-man, whom we did not then anticipate would be anything more to us. As the hero of The Voyage of the Sunbeam-then lying in Farm Cove, open to sightseers-I looked at him a great deal, and also at the author of that book, who at the ceremony sat just before me with her little daughters. She was having her last taste of travel and of life.

The afternoon of the same day brought quite a change of scene. That very nice man, the current American Consul, came to fetch us to a function that was after my own heart-the "send-off" of a popular American actress by the San Francisco mail. I cared nothing who the honoured person was; to assist at the departure of a ship was enough for me. In a carriage piled with flowers we drove to the quay, and there took tender for the Zealandia, lying in Lavender Bay. Before the arrival of the heroine of the occasion I investigated the ship that was to carry her-wondering if the day would ever come when such an one would carry me. Then the crowd gathered until all one's wits were needed to avoid being crushed in alley-ways and corners. The distinguished traveller did not impair the effect by arriving too early; her company preceded her, also her humble husband, hugging her jewel-box to his breast as he hunted for the purser to take it from him and deposit it in the strong-room, and while still unrelieved of his responsibility naming to us and the general public the

enormous sum that it was worth. When at last she came-such a small and ordinary-looking, every-day woman compared with the glittering stage vision of the previous night-she was nursing and guarding a strange bundle of her own, which, when opened in her cabin, disclosed a little native bear that she was taking home to make a pet of. The wallet that was to be its travelling house was lined with fur and had been carefully constructed for the purpose, and a consignment of the animal's natural foods was amongst her luggage. We crowded into her room, where more champagne flowed, not always into the right receptacles; bouquets were presented-they heaped her bed-and speeches made. Then visitors were rung off the ship, and sat round in their various small boats to cheer and wave handkerchiefs while the Zealandia got under way, and then chased the stately liner as long as they could keep up with her. Our golden-haired friend was kind enough to stand where we could see her, and was still hugging the fur bag with the little bear in it as we looked our last. When we regained the Consul's carriage he took us a drive round the Domain for the balance of the afternoon, that loveliest hour when Sydney glows pink in the setting sun and the whole scene is steeped in a dream-like haze that I never saw in any other place. I suppose the smoke and other breathings of the city, blending perhaps with exhalations of the sea, weave that wonderful veil. It is certain that the paintings of a sinking sun upon distant ranges in the country are never so beautiful as when there is a Bush fire about.

Next morning to Lane Cove-the first of the unforgetable series of excursions about that harbour which indeed the wildest boasts of its shore-dwellers could never do justice to. In the bright winter weather, which to all intents and purposes was spring-the mean temperature of Sydney, by the way, is two degrees above that of Nice, and roses are never out of flower the whole year round-I suppose I saw it at its best. We landed from the steamer on a bosky and solitary shore, and basked awhile on beach boulders encrusted with oysters, before climbing the steep paths to look at views. My son tells me that when he goes on these excursions with his young parties they take bread and butter and their pocket-knives with them, so that they can sit down to a meal of oysters at any place or time. There was another charming drive in the afternoon; in the evening theatre again, and a midnight visit to a great newspaper office, where I was initiated into the mysteries of newspaper production by all the modern processes, including that of photographing by electric light.

Next day to Coogee-an ocean shore, with great breakers thundering on it. Here lived a literary wife and painter husband in a little wooden house perched high upon the cliffs, where I think we lunched. A Saturday night party of authors, artists, and press-men-my host was a distinguished member of the latter clan-completed another day in the most brilliant manner. Talk of good company! I smile when I compare that party with any Society party that I ever attended. But no comparison is possible.

It is one of my delightful memories of Sydney, that it had this intellectual kernel at its heart. I might not have found it in a lifetime had I entered the social life of the place by any other door, and so I hardly like to say that we have nothing of the kind in Melbourne, where my opportunities of search are limited. But friends of my own profession, who know the resources of both capitals, agree in the opinion that there really is nothing like it here. The number of representatives of letters and the arts, to whom mind and not money is the essential thing, may be as great, but there is no cohesion amongst them. They are lost in the general crowd. The little guild in Sydney was a compact and living body, and carried out its objects in uniting together with a sincerity rarely to be met with in the history of clubs. Subscriptions were not the first consideration-nor the second, nor the third; the question of its outward appearance was of the least importance. No gilding, no formality, no ?sthetics-liberty and ease, any sort of a chair, a pipe and the right companionship-that was the idea; and it was good indeed to see the traditions of the intellectual life respected in that way.

I was its guest at a conversazione on the Wednesday following the Saturday supper-party. The intervening time was filled with fresh and bright sensations-more harbour trips, alternating with rambles about the old quarters of the town, the "Rocks," Argyle Cut, the Observatory, those blind streets and steep stairs from one tier to another, which struck me as so romantic and un-Australian; and the Arts Club's entertainment made the best possible contrast and relief to these. We did not dress too much. I was advised that my skirt must clear the ground, and for the rest a modest fichu and elbow sleeves seemed the most that good taste permitted. We set forth on foot in the cool darkness, comfortably untrammelled, and on arrival were received by our friends of the previous Saturday and many more, who piloted us through a series of little rooms, which were soon packed to the point where a dress-train would have rendered its wearer altogether immovable. We squeezed from place to place, a step at a time, ever meeting somebody or something to make us positively enjoy the heat and crush. Chairs and necessary tables, a piano, a blackboard, a raised platform or two, comprised the furniture of the homely suite; its ornaments were sketches pinned all over the walls, and the scientific and artistic things that covered the tables, outspread for the ladies' amusement. The mural decorations were fine. Phil May was a leading light of the society, and the grimy and bedaubed plaster laughed with his conceits at every turn. Amongst them was a portrait of the then Governor of New South Wales, Lord Carington, as an utterly disreputable vagabond. With no name to it, it was such a speaking likeness of him, as he would have been if he could have metamorphosed himself into such a character, that no one mistook the subject for an instant. It was a focus of mirth the evening through. I wonder what became of it? It might have been disrespectful, but it was a work of art, and I think he who had inspired it would have valued it as much as anybody. When, amongst other entertainments, this gifted artist-and his equally (I used to think more) gifted colleague, "Hop" of the Bulletin, who, still remaining with us, has not shared his comrade's fame-drew "lightning sketches" on the blackboard with a lump of chalk, we saw pictures that it was indeed a wicked waste to destroy for ever a few seconds after they were made. Consummate artfulness as well as art was employed, for the strokes were so put in that we could not make head or tail of them until only the crowning one or two were needed; then suddenly the multitude roared as with one throat, and someone in the audience sat up in confused astonishment, while everybody else turned to look and laugh at him. The last touch of the chalk had given us his portrait to the life, with a shade of caricature more or less, but unmistakable. I have always looked back to those lightning sketches, so witty, so good-natured, so extremely clever, as the most refined form of entertainment that I ever enjoyed, and certainly the most generous. In other rooms were music, recitations, microscopes, and such things; and everywhere kindred spirits were intermingling and intercommuning. The ungarnished supper was carried on trays over our heads-coffee and sandwiches, and cakes and tarts from the pastry-cook's-and distributed to hands and mouths with much difficulty and various mishaps; and at last we broke up and broke away, and trotted home through the beautiful fresh night, still exhilarated with all the mental champagne we had imbibed, leaving our hosts, as we were secretly informed, to make a night of it on their own account over pipes and whisky.

There was yet another Saturday party-the party of them all. We started out to it in the sweetest weather to be found on earth, sunny and fresh, the living light of the sky the colour of nemophilas and the sea like liquid diamonds under it-poor similes both for the glory of that spring-like winter morning. On foot from Pott's Point to the Quay, by boat to Mosman's, up the ferny sandstone hills to breezy heights where I stood enraptured to look upon the Sound and the Heads and the Pacific outspread below, and down a crooked woodland path to a sequestered beach, we took our way: and if there had been nothing to get to at the end, the walk alone would have been a joy for ever. But on that lonely bit of shore, backed by the steep hills, fronted by the open gateway of the Heads, stood "the Camp"-the camp, if I may be allowed to remind the reader (with apologies, owed twice over, to the camp's proprietors), which I sketched in my novel, A Marked Man, written while the impressions of the place were fresh in my mind. The proprietors were two members of the Arts Club-men with homes and families in the city-who made this their private resting-place and holiday resort. They had gathered a choice assortment of their fellow-members on this occasion; they were "giving a party." But no woman had been allowed to take any hand in the affair; their wives were as much guests as I was; their cook was their old sailor caretaker, whose huge blocks of cold roast and boiled, hot potatoes and plum duff, bread and cake from his own camp oven, required no kickshaws to supplement them. It was a banquet for the gods, with that sauce of sea air to it. The permanent tent, combined sitting- and bedroom, was the drawing-room of groups of us in turn; we crowded on the covered-up truckle beds and the floor (of pine boards, well raised from the sand) for afternoon tea; at lunch we sat on planks under an awning, at long plank tables, like children at a school feast. It was a perfect "spree," but at the back of the merry trifling was that deep intellectual enjoyment of cultivated minds rubbing together which is so rare in social gatherings. We strolled in twos and threes along the lovely little beach, and sprawled under the bushes, and talked, talked; a few games had been provided, but there were no blanks to fill with them after lunch had crystallised us. The walk back to the boat was the best of all. The sun was setting as we climbed out of the glen of the camp, and, looking back from points of vantage as we rose, we saw the moon swim up over the North Head-black as ebony above the pale glitter of the water, while all other visible land was wrapped in that beautiful rosy haze which so glorified every feature of it. Then the great South Head Light began its revolutions, pouring over us and the darkening path at intervals of a minute. I do not know how far that long ray reaches, but I know that it is brilliant in the eyes of the homing traveller for hours before his steamer makes the Heads.

It was on the following morning that we took boat for Watson's Bay, and stood near the lighthouse to look down the sheer wall at the foot of which the Dunbar was wrecked, one only of her living freight surviving to tell the tale. It was awful to think of that event with the scene under one's eyes-the jagged cliff face going down and down, the thundering whirlpool raging at the bottom of it; and this was a sunny Sunday morning, and that was pitch-black night, so thick with rain and storm that a careful navigator accustomed to the port could not see the beacon lit for him. But it was not, I think, the present light; it could not have been.

Those out-door excursions and intellectual entertainments-and I have not named the half of them-come first in my memories of this time; they are the pictures "on the line"; but around them were packed many social incidents of a less special but still interesting kind. We went to men-o'-war parties, which are always charming-the German Bismarck in particular was splendidly hospitable-and the American Consul took pleasure in giving us dinner-theatre evenings. Between whiles we gave parties at home, and filled the interstices with drives. And so every day was a full holiday, and I was always well, and the sky was always blue and the sun shining. And so, when people ask me what I think of Sydney, I tell them that it is an earthly Paradise. Nothing will shake that conviction-until I go again.

I returned home overland, rather than descend to the status of an ordinary passenger on a steamboat to whose captain I was unknown, and I left my glass slipper on the Redfern platform. "Would you," implored a strange lady at my carriage window, as the express was about to start, "oh, would you mind taking charge of this little girl, who is travelling to Melbourne alone?" She handed up a child, and what could I do? I said I was not accustomed to taking charge of myself, that I had never made the journey before, and was not going as far as Melbourne; but she was sure it would be all right. What a night I had, with no sleeping berth available! And in the dark of the raw morning, when we were bundled out at Albury and into the hands of the Customs' officers, while looking after the child's luggage I lost my own, and did not recover it for months afterwards. And then I landed at W--, chilled to the bone and exhausted with my fatigues, and had to wait many hours for the B-- branch train; and finally reached home to find winter again and all kinds of arrears of work awaiting me. I sat down to mend the stockings, and two days later there was snow upon the ground.

After all, that was the best part of it.

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