Australian Tales

by Marcus Clarke

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Learning "Colonial Experience"

There were three of us, Dougald McAlister, Jack Thwaites, and myself. The place was called in the grandiloquent language of the bush, "The Dinkledoodledum Station" (I like these old native names), because it was situated in the Dinkledoodledum Creek. Dinkledoodledum--as any philologist can guess by the sound of it--means the Valley of the Rippling Streamlets; but alas! never a rippling streamlet did our eyes behold during our stay in the inhospitable valley.

The station had just been purchased by Thwaites' brothers--is not his name now synonymous with gold, from the Great Glimmera to the Adelaide Desert?--and had been overstocked by its former proprietor. Along the Glimmera banks, where jovial but family-burdened Boschman kept his boundaryriding habitation, the ground was as bare as a billiard-table, and the travelling sheep that called the Great Glimmera their "feeding track," were only too glad to escape beyond the Dinkledoodledum boundary into the pleasant paths of Whistlebinkie. Let it not, however, be imagined that our station was always in this condition. On the contrary, it had been renowned as a place flowing with milk and honey. It was reported that Clibborn had made his fortune out of it; that Wallum had retired to independence and hot grog after twelve months of it; and that Thwaites was in a fair way to do exceedingly well if he could but "hold on" to it.

Unluckily, what with the former proprietor's mania for feeding two sheep to every three acres (one sheep to every five acres was about the Dinkledoodledum standard) and a succession of bad seasons, the "holding on" was hard work. Economy was absolutely needful, and McAlister, Jack and I practised it healthily. Mutton and damper all the week, and damper and mutton on Sundays, was the order of the day, and we carried it out to the letter. No epicurean feasts of beef or of pork disgraced the frugality of our board. Never to our table came the feeble fowl or the enervating kitchen-garden vegetable. We had no milk, for our dairy cattle were starving; no eggs, for our poultry refused to lay; no pumpkin pie, for our soil was too poor to grow even that harmless esculent. Yet on Spartan fare we led Spartan lives, and were happy.

Oh, that bark hut! Never shall I forget the first day when I, a slim and somewhat effeminate youth, with London smoke not yet cleared from my throat, beheld its dilapidated walls. "You will sleep here," said Jack, pointing to a skillion which seemed to have been used as a sheep-pen, so marked was the "spoor" of those beasts. "With all my heart," said I, as that organ sank within me--down, down, down, until I could feel it palpitating in the very tips of my riding-boots. But I did not regret my acquiescence. How many nights in that humble shelter have I listened to the skirr of the wild cats, and watched the one bright star that pertinaciously peeped through the chinks of the bark sheets. How many nights have I lighted my lonely pipe, and wrestled alone with my own particular angel, even as Jacob wrestled at Pennel. Happy Jacob! would I owned thy cunning of wrist and elbow. How many nights have I trimmed the reed in the pannikin of tallow, and read the half-dozen books I possessed until I could read no more. How many nights have I slept the unutterably sweet slumber of virtuous weariness, until my Jack, bursting in with clanking spurs, would rouse me with his "All aboard!" Aye, old skillion, I have had some happy hours in thee; so peace to thy ashes, for, sooth to say, thou art now but fit for burning.

It is proper to boast of the Australian summer. Those who have lived in tents, camped by rocky waterholes, kept dew-sprinkled watch beneath the yellow moon, and ridden through fiery noons hard upon the tails of the head-long herd, can with justice boast of the wild intoxication of that burning ether. I have known it, I! Not the draught which the great spirit gave to eager Faust maddens so gloriously. Australian summer, dost thou say? I am with thee. With open shirt ballooned behind thee, with streaming hair and bloody spurs, urge, urge the straining steed across the level plain! No tree mars the prospect of immensity. In front, the flying emu, and behind--naught but the whistling air! The grey grass spins, the grey plain reels, the cloudless sky glows molten brass above. It comes--the hot wind of the desert! Bitter--fierce from the sand--hills of the scorching north, it sweeps upon thee! Ride! Ride!

There are fifty miles of grass before thee, and the blood of an Emperor's battle steed beats beneath thy saddle-flaps. What are fears, griefs, loves? Throned upon the rocking saddles of our stretching barbs, we laugh at fate. Stand in thy stirrups now, and shout! Ha! ha! Tell me what draught of love or wine compares with this--the champagne nectar of a hot-wind gallop!

But the time to enjoy our hut was in the winter--the wild, wet winter that lashed the groaning gums, and scoured to white rage the risen river. All the hot summer wooed us to the air. Through parching noons and dewy nights we rode and revelled. Then camped the cattle by the shrinking swamp, and the wild horses came down to drink at the famished springs. Then we went expeditions in the balmy moonlight, and roused the drowsy township with the clattering echoes of our hurrying hoofs. Then came Harry of the Gap, Tom of the Scano, and Dare-devil Dick, of Mostyn's Folly, to "foregather" with us. Then were Homeric days, musical with chanted melody, and fierce with the recklessness of horsetaming youth. Then were our hearts great within us, and in that glowing atmosphere, beneath that burning sun, our bright blood bounded, and we lived!

But in gray, chill winter the bark hut, so long deserted, repaid our ingratitude by generous kindness. Creeping, all wet, and weary with travel, splashed with mire, and torn by prickly scrub, to its friendly shelter, it glowed warm welcome, its rough but honest sides laughing in the beams of the roaring logs till they were nigh to crack again. How cheery were those evenings. How we ate the ewe mutton, and laughed at the mishaps of the day; how we smoked, and toasted our toes and "yarned;" three sworn comrades, singing the songs of our native Britain to the accompaniment of the whistling Austral wind.

The hut was not commodious. When duly camped within it, indeed, we had but scant room. When McAlister had flung his lazy length upon the lounging chair (a wool bale stretched upon the racktoothed iron skeleton of some long-forgotten patent) and I had usurped the cane-bottomed American importation, there was but one place for Thwaites, and that the table top. Thwaites would roost there, like some intelligent bird, and chant the lays of his native country. We called him the "Little Warbler." Thwaites was a young man of military tendencies. He had belonged in the old country to the Diggleshire Yeomanry Cavalry (who received the thanks of their Lord-Lieutenant and county, you may remember, for their conduct in the great insurrection of the cider-sellers against the patent bottling process), and in our excursions into the bush he was perpetually waving a brass-headed whip which he affected, and with wild cries of "St. George and Diggleshire!" charging the brush fences. Paddy, his big-boned horse, put him down badly one afternoon, and he gave up this method of exhilaration. McAlister, who owned that sense of dry humour which is a fungoid growth peculiar to Scotland, would artfully excite Thwaites to wrath by the assumption of anti-Hanoverian tendencies, and induce in him a violent outburst of loyalty, and frequent reference to a lady of whom he habitually spoke as "My gracious sovereign, whom God preserve." McAlister himself was not without his prejudices, for on one occasion I distinctly remember that we removed the table, and fought over the merits of poor Mary Queen of Scots. I had ventured to hint that her conduct in the matter of Bothwell was not quite incapable of impeachment, and McAlister challenged me to trial by battle. In justice to the soundness of a reasoning which has sent so many honest men to Hades, I will presume that my cause was a bad one, for I received a very sound and cornplete drubbing.

One of poor Thwaites's duties was to "keep the books," and once a week he would labour painfully, but religiously at his task. The, "books" could not have been very difficult to "keep," I think, but somehow or other we never could keep them. I am now inclined to think that our system was too comprehensive, for, as we put everything down in a volume called a day-book, (lucus a non lucendo, I suppose, for we never wrote anything in it until night), and transferred it bodily to a ledger, our accounts were pretty mixed. After I had been there a month, Thwaites mounted his horse solemnly and mysteriously one morning, and rode off one hundred and twenty miles to his brother. Two days afterwards he returned, dusty but calm, and big with intelligence of importance. After supper, he said to me gravely, "you have been in a bank, haven't you?" I replied that I had for a month or so, until my ravages among the well kept books were presumed to have permanently affected the brain of Napoleon Smith, the manager. "Then," said Jack, "since you've been used to banking, my boy, my brother thinks that you can keep the books." I was ready for any hazardous experiment in those days, and I consented. I think on the whole I did pretty well, though three rams (half-bred Leicesters, and as strong as bullocks), got into Derwent Joe's account, and could not be got out again by any financial operation I could devise, while I was always dropping boots and things in "carrying over." Jack would endeavour sometimes to see how I was getting on, but he told me one day that he couldn't understand why I should keep four plugs of Barrett's twist in the Long Swamp Paddock, and put our married couple's wages to the debit of Weathers and Weaners. I really don't think he understood much about it.

In the Long Swamp Paddock, by the way, lived one Long Tom, who was an oddity. He was nearly seven feet high and thin as a harpoon. He had been a sailor, digger, explorer, stockman, everything but a quiet stop-at-home. For the last ten years, however, he had rested in the hut by the Long Swamp, and the place was known as Long Tom's Waterhole; indeed, Long Tom and his dog were better known at the stations round about, than the name of the Chief Secretary of the Colony. His dog was one of the biggest impostors--for a dog--that I have ever met. He was called Old Moke, and was supposed to be of marvellous sagacity; he was a stumpy-tailed, long-bodied, shambling beast, who worked just when he chose, and as he chose. Long Tom, when riding to muster, would remark that if we didn't get the sheep soon, he would have to put "Old Moke on 'em," as though the act was equivalent to working a miracle, or dissolving Parliament. By-and-by Old Moke was "put on." "Moke!" Tom would remark in tones of conscious superiority, "get away forward!" We would hear a howl, and see a streak of white lightning slip out from under the belly of Tom's horse. Moke had obeyed the summons. By-and-by, in the depths of the forest, faint barks would be heard, and Tom would grow uneasy. He would whistle. Still the barking would continue, and presently, with a rushing sound, a flock of ewes would fly past us bewilderedly. Tom would shift in his saddle, and we would grin.

Presently McAlister gallops up, raging. "Call off your cursed dog, Tom!" he shouts. "Hi, Moke!" roars Tom. "Moke! Moke! Sink, and burn, and-and-and----the dog. Moke! Hi! Moke!" Then would Long Tom, vomiting fury, gallop madly into the bush, some agonised howls would be heard, and old Moke would be seen no more until supper, when he would meet us at the hut wagging his delusive stump defiantly. Yet everybody around believed in the beast. Old Moke was a sort of religion at the Dinkledoodledum, and to express doubt of his immense value would be heresy of the deepest dye. One would meet stockmen going home with puppies, squeaking at their heels. "Any good?" one would ask, nodding at the black and white mass. "Good! I believe you. That's one of old Moke's," would be the proud reply. Alas! old Moke--honest impostor, thou and thy crack-brained master are both gone! Gone, let us hope, old dog, to a place where the faults of both of ye will be as lightly dealt with as in the pleasant days of old.

When Thwaites had gone to bed in the corner--he was a most determined sleeper--McAlister and I would pitch another log on the fire and prepare for enjoyment. Carefully filling our pipes, we placed the grease-pannikin on a mark made exactly in the centre of the table, and "yarned." By "yarning," dear reader, I don't mean mere trivial conversation, but hard, solid talk. McAlister was a man of more than ordinary natural talents, and had he been placed in other circumstances, would have cut a figure. It was not easy to argue with him, and some of our discussions lasted until cock-crow. The arguments not unfrequently merged into story-telling, and in that department my memory served me in good stead. I had been a sickly brat in my infancy, and having unfettered access to the library of a man who owned few prejudices for moral fig-leaves, had, with the avidity for recondite knowledge which sickly brats always evince, read many strange books. I boiled down my recollections for McAlister, and constituted myself a sort of Scherezade for his peculiar benefit. He would smoke and I would fix my eyes on a long strip of bark which hung serpentwise from the ridge pole, and relate. I think if that strip of bark had been removed, my power of narration would have been removed with it. In this fashion we got through a good deal of Brantome, several of the plays--or rather plots of the plays--of Wycherley, Massinger, and Farquahar, and most of Byron. We rambled over the Continent with Gil Blas, discussed the Alchemists, strolled up and down Rome with Horace, and investigated the miracles of the early Saxon churchmen in company of a lot of queer fellows who lived somewhere about the time of the Venerable Bede. We talked Candide and Dr. Lardner's Encyclopædia; we saw Hogarth with Ireland's descriptions; we quarrelled bitterly over Tom Paine's Age of Reason, and made friends again over the pathetic adventures of one Moll Flanders, a friend of Daniel Defoe.

Oh, cheery bark hut, despite all miseries of rough ways and rougher weather, despite all hideousness of lamb-cutting and sheep-slaughtering, despite the figs of tobacco that would get mixed up with my record of maiden-ewes and two-toothed wethers, despite rain, storm, and tough mutton, I recall thy memory with unfeigned regret. Thither "never came the trader, never waved a European flag;" no smiling bill-discounters ever invaded thy sacred precincts; no severe duns, rightly claiming that which is, alas! their own, and that which I am unable to pay them, ever darkened thy hospitable doorway; no folio documents, demanding instant official attention, were ever brought by the merry black-boy to thy rude letter-box; no monstrous civilisation with its luxurious necessities overshadowed, Upas-like, thy imperfect roof. A glorious barbarism was thine, a jovial freedom born the cares of the morrow was the charter of thy liberties. I disliked thee once, and grumblingly did abuse thy hospitable shelter, but I have since found other roofs less pleasant than thine, have since--pent within stucco and inurned in marble mockery of grandeur--yearned for the careless fortune of thy uncultured surroundings, cried often in vain amid the uncomfortable comfort of the city.

"Give me again my hollow tree, my crust of bread and liberty."

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