The Main Road was stark under the sun, brooding on its memories. Bullock-drays went lurching through before the century reached two figures. Broad blunt masses of red-and-white flesh and creaking wheels hauling straight up and down hills through ancient raffle of rotting timber and lushly choked creeks. Foul language on the startled air, it had known, and foul doings, for those early convict bullockies came out of foul ships with the women who had been their companions the whole long hideous voyage through. Half-naked wild-haired witches these, whose dreams within their ruined souls found vent in God alone (and the Road) knows what travesties of nature, of love.
They were long gone, those blind experiments of the earliest stage of all. And gone the woolly-haired blacks daubed with soot and grease and dragging extra spears between their supple big toes. The Government had put them all away on Flinders Island, where they died fast of homesickness for the Road and the bush which had already grown in on their camp-fires and forgotten them as everything is forgotten, so very soon.
Before the Road was surfaced King William's troops patrolled it; unhappy ramrods buttoned and burdened under a blazing sun; bright marks for black and bush-ranger; loosing their long Brown Besses helplessly into thick symmetrical native cherry and page 43impenetrable tea tree; lunging with heavy cutlasses at the bullets which spat out of the night. Butts of Empire, the Road took them to be, remembering many such.
Shakoed and stiffened and sweating soldiers had come again to guard the convicts who built the Road as it stood now. That was in the early 'thirties when they tore the bowels from the soil after the Roman manner, and laid stone and wood, mixing it with sweat and blood from the ready lash. Like beasts they dragged their hand-carts from the brownstone quarries. Like beasts they herded together of nights between tall sod walls. Of what they spoke then the Road remembered a little. And that was the kind of talk beasts would have.
Heavy balls rolled on the new face of the road, chained between the legs of the special-punishment men. The road would yet recognize the Cain's mark of that straddled gait on a ticket-of-leaver, although it might be twenty years since. There had been much colour on the Road then. Scarlet troops and raw blades of broads words controlling the gangs of "canaries," or yellow-clad life-sentence men; of "magpies," or the parti-coloured clothes of the lesser terms.
Now civilization was over all the land, although yet somewhat timid. The crowded stone gaols of Oatlands and other small towns stood on the sites of many a camp-fire, many a bloody battle. Across the relics of a thousand corroboree feasts settlers had ploughed; at first no more than a scrape of the rich soil, a harrowing with gum boughs to produce a crop, but now in an orderly way with shares and Percheron teams. Step by step this ancient unknown earth grudgingly acknowledged its new masters. Now a chaise cart emblazoned with the royal arms had followed the pony-post, and soon a mail-coach running from Hobart Town to Launceston in a swift twenty hours. Man, grasping by tooth and claw, was holding on.
Through the hot hours Ellen, avid for that love she could not find, fulfilled her need with thoughts of the convict Robert Snow. Madam, upright in her corner, kept off the threat of the interminable bush stretches as she had always done, and defied possibility with her plans for Jenny. And Oliver whistled and rode silently, thinking his thoughts that placed no great value on page 44anything. For he had tasted here and there, and now there was not much left but to marry well.
Beggars, scratching the vermin from their clothes, ran beside the great folk, sending prayers or searing curses after Oliver according as he chose idly to toss them a coin or not. A half-naked girl with wild eyes held to him the child in her breast. In some strange way her soiled and trampled maidenhood was so beautiful that he turned in the saddle to look back at her in the golden light. A Madonna who had drunk of the witches' brew.
Now he smelt the bush-burning on distant hills and heard the hunting owls calling their mates. And robins called, and frogs among the maidenhair down in the gullies. A good earth this, if England would leave it alone.