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Philosopher Dick

"14th September

"14th September.

"I have missed an entry in my diary—not that it matters, for I have nothing to record, but the resolution I had made to jot down a few stray thoughts every evening has been broken. Last Saturday I was nearly stuck up for a light, but yesterday evening I found myself in a worse predicament, for I had run out of bread. I could make light of the want of light, but we cannot manage without the 'necessaries,' from emperors down to philosophers; and although I am imbued with procrastination to the very marrow, and make it a rule never to do to-day whatever by any means can be put off till to-morrow, I knew there was no shirking this imperative duty.

"Now there is one thing I always declaim against, conceit; but I must confess that I do rather fancy myself as a baker. I have studied the art, I have reduced it from first principles to practice, and, last but not least, I have succeeded.

"It has been no easy task, no light achievement. I will not say that the art of baking is like that of page 224poetry, or even comparable to the inborn genius for roasting: 'on est né rôtisseur.' Nevertheless it needs for its acquirement much patience and careful observation, and 'a knack' into the bargain. The first two requisites are within the reach of all, but 'a knack' is a thing not to be picked up anyhow or anywhere.

"My first attempts at baking a 'damper' were failures, a lamentable fiasco, and yet I had watched several bushmen at the job, and carefully noted every feature of the process. I had taken it all in, and had even gone so far as to criticise the performances of others. Well, I kneaded it, slapped it, patted it into shape, and buried it in hot ashes. I admit to have been somewhat negligent of the firing, having indulged in a few winks during that tedious baking time. However, the damper came out looking the right thing, only rather pale in colour. I was careful not to cut into it while hot, but next morning I sliced it into halves with great gusto.

"It was just like dividing a lump of putty, and to have put one's teeth into the glutinous substance might have brought about lockjaw. Nothing dismayed, I tried again. This time the firing was not neglected; in addition to a shovel full of red hot embers I threw a handful of dry sticks on to the page 225heap to keep up a blaze, and I also gave the damper an extra half-hour in the fire, to make sure that it should not be under-done. It came out as brown as a berry, and so hot that there was no handling it, and I had to kick it about the floor as a cooling process. Next day I tried in vain to cut a slice; the knife would not scratch it. I tried the tomahawk, but that was too light to make an impression. Determined not to be beat, I took it outside, placed it carefully in position on the chopping block, then swung high in air the American axe, and delivered a terrific cut which nearly cut my leg off, for the blade glanced off the loaf and came back upon me. As for the damper, it shot down the gully, madly pursued by Mop, and it was afterwards picked up near the creek. I found that the stroke of the axe had made an indentation, which enabled me by means of the mawl and wedges to effect an opening. This process, however, was so tedious, and kept breakfast waiting so long, that I gave it up, and took to frying pancakes, most indigestible stuff, from which I suffered all the pangs of dyspepsia.

"These were early trials; now I can bake a damper against any man; but I prefer the camp oven, with a little baking soda and acid, just enough to make the bread rise without discolouring it.

page 226

"I think the greatest bother I ever had over any out-station job was my first attempt at skinning a sheep. Killing the animal I never would do, and should I be driven by actual necessity to slaughter, I think that I would bring out my gun to it. To seize upon one of these poor, wild, helpless brutes, throw it down, tie its legs, kneel on its head, and deliberately cut its throat, is too cold-blooded a performance for my nerves. I have such an aversion to the idea that I get my meat sent to me with the other rations.

"Once upon a time, when I was a 'new chum,' and only just settled at the hut, Malcolm consented to bring in a mob of sheep and kill a wether, provided I did my share of the work in skinning the animal and cooking the dinner. Agreed.

"I was left at home with the dead sheep strung up in position, and, armed with a butcher's knife, I proceeded to business.

"I had often watched sheep being skinned before, but had never tried my hand at it. It appeared a very simple process. The hind legs were soon bared, but when I came to the trunk I made one unfortunate omission, for I quite forgot to slit the skin down the middle of the animal; I tried to take it off whole. I soon experienced a difficulty; instead page 227of peeling off so easily I found it stuck fast. I tugged and tugged until I was fagged out. At each desperate pull the hide would give a little bit, but it was an endless business. Then I would try to loosen the skin with the point of the knife, and resume the tugging. There was progress to report, but it was very slight. For the life of me I could not make out what was wrong. I was bathed in perspiration and besmeared with sheep's blood. I had managed, after heroic exertions, to drag the skin off as far as the shoulders; there it stuck fast. No amount of force or persuasion availed any further. It was getting late, and I was dead beat. At that moment Malcolm returned. He had been away three hours, and was expecting his dinner. To his dismay he found the hut empty and the fire not even lit. He ran to the sheep-yard, wondering what had happened, when the sight of the desperate struggle going on there was too much for even a Scotchman's composure. He went off into a fit and roared out—

"'Hech, mon! D'ye ken yon beastie is nae a rabbit?'"