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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter I

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Chapter I.

What a host of associations start up at the mention of Home, especially in connection with my last view of it, in the sunny month of June; with its garments of green and purple on mountain and valley; its green waving woods and bright glistening water; the evening skies fringed with golden and purple clouds; the noon-day sun, with its golden beams, lighting up hill, wood, and water, with a dazzling brightness that seems now truly the light of other days. For, in all my wanderings since, in sultrier climes, what sun has shone so brightly, or what landscape looked so truly lovely, as those scenes of my childhood amongst the hills of Argyleshire, and by the shores of Loclifyne?

Wordsworth has some beautiful, though fanciful, lines written on the scenes of his childhood, in which, adopting the Platonic theory of a previous existence, he accounts for the golden associations of childhood's years, by the idea that an infant's soul is filled with memories of its former blissful state, and that these memories grow more faint as the child's years increase. Be that as it may, I can readily imagine of those endowed with the poetic faculty that the season of their unconscious, inarticulate childhood, is the true period of their espousal by the muse. I am not now referring to those robust geniuses who, even in their tender years, show the bent of their irrepressible natures, but only to those whose gifts are of a weaker growth; and who do not discover their talent till years have matured their powers. Such I would advise to return in thought to the habit of their youthful ideas, when everything appeared earnest; when the melody of birds, the humming of bees, the very shape of the summer clouds, the daisies and primroses, had a meaning, a purpose, an existence to them, and were fraught with an exquisite sense of harmony, which page 2 they implicitly accepted, and never dreamt of analysing. It is as we grow older, and have to deal with stern realities, when the ideal faculty becomes hampered in its scope by the encroachment of practical necessities, that we learn to smile at these undefined crudities that were once sources of such intense enjoyment to us.

Yet so strangely constituted a being is man, to whom always “Distance lends enchantment to the view,” that, as the child grows up to manhood, his ideas of happiness become simply inverted. For, as now we look back to the season of our youth as the time of our purest happiness, then, though richly enjoying that season, we ever looked forward to manhood's golden future—when, freed from the shackles of school, the foreground was teeming with wealth.

Such, at least, were my ideas, when, a raw youth of eighteen, I prepared to start for Australia to join a wealthy, “squatocratic” relative, to whose friendly offices, with all the confidence of youth, I doubted not that I might leave the sole responsibility of my future advancement in life. With such golden prospects before me, it was with a light heart that I shook hands with my aged mother at Granton pier, and stepped on board the steamer that was to take me to London, en route for Australia. My noble, Roman spirited mother, how little did we then think, either of us, that we had taken our last look at each other on earth, and that I, who so lightly and carelessly bade thee adieu, was then being shot forth by the strong bow of destiny, across the far rolling ocean, thenceforth to be joined to an order of things, that the decrees of fate had determined should be ever separated from thine ! May peace be with thy spirit, for this world now knows thee no more, though surely thou art at rest, and hast thy reward.

In the latter end of June in the year 1850, the same that witnessed the first discovery of gold in Australia, I sailed from the East India Docks in the good ship “Sussex”. After a prosperous voyage, and what was then regarded as a moderately quick one, of something over a hundred days, we sighted land, and shortly after dropped anchor inside the Philip Heads. How bright still seem all those days in retrospect. I remember with what exultation I hailed the sight of that land, that to me seemed stored with so many golden prospects. It was a cloudless, sultry October morning, and after my first delightful gaze at the blue headland, my overflowing feelings suddenly found vent in the words of a song that had been popular during the passage—

“Hurrah for the fields of Australia,” etc.

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I enthusiastically led the chorus, energetically marking the time with my feet as I paced along the deck.

Everything seemed bright and wonderful to me then—even the crew of the quarantine doctor's boat that presently came alongside excited my admiration, as I remarked their bronzed faces, which gave them a kind of foreign appearance in my eyes.

Melbourne was at that time only just emerging out of its chrysalis state. The habitations still chiefly consisted of huts and tents run up at the time when this land of promise was only known in connection with its pastoral interests. But, with the sudden discovery of untold treasures, large and more pretentious buildings, chiefly hotels and stores, were everywhere seen starting into existence. All was commotion and confusion, and diggers, maddened with excitement, scattered their easily-won money around them in handfuls, till the stories told of their frenzied extravagance made one marvel.

But I waited in Melbourne only until the first steamer started for Geelong, for to a merchant of that town I had a letter of introduction. Furnished by this gentleman with directions for my guidance, I started next day on foot across a vast plain, the timber land on the other side of which I entered late on the same afternoon. Mistaking my road, I there made my first acquaintance with Australian bush life by passing the night in the forest and being almost devoured by mosquitoes, until in sheer desperation I, long before dawn, started up and resumed my journey. After blundering a while amid the dark forest, I fortunately made up to the homestead I was in search of.

The men's cook, who had but lately risen, and had a fire blazing in the hut on my entrance, made me heartily welcome to a substantial breakfast. Directed by him anew, I once more started off through the forest, and after contriving to lose myself only twice again, I came across some bullock drivers who were driving their teams in the same direction, and who safely deposited me at night at the hospitable abode of a neighbouring squatter, from whose place on the ensuing day, after a short journey of four or five miles, I finally reached the home station of my kinsman.

He received me courteously, but himself had no need for my services, and accordingly, as he was then about to despatch a bullock team with goods up to another station owned by him in the Wimmera district, some hundred and twenty miles further up country, I was after a few days sent on to this station by this means.

Mr. M‘Elwain, my kinsman, was a gentleman of rather pleasing appearance. He was of a slight but wiry build, well page 4 formed, and with a rather dark complexion, and hair and whiskers of a dark brown colour. Courteous and affable in manner, he was nevertheless keen in business, and a man who looked to a full return for all his payments. Owing his own considerable fortune solely to his habits of perseverance and frugality, in his ideas of the proper regimen for young men in husbanding their resources, he combined almost meanness with abstemiousness, so that, although he could prove himself a fast friend to those who secured his confidence, yet he was not a man likely to run much risk by too rashly furthering the interests of anyone of whose prudence and thrift he was not perfectly satisfied. With him the great end of life was to make money, not indeed to hoard it, but as a necessary means of making life enjoyable, and to those who, by habits of carelessness or wantonness, dissipated means which might have been husbanded for this end, he could give no sympathy.

I mention these particulars now, as they may help to explain the reasons for the sudden collapse of my expectations from the good offices of a man for whom I nevertheless continued to entertain sentiments of sincere respect. He was then over forty-five years of age, though only recently married.

My journey with the bullock dray occupied about a fortnight. During that time the only incident worth recording was a slight fracas betwixt myself and the bullock driver. He was a young man rather older than myself, who, in view of his four years' residence, laid claim to all the privileges of colonialism, the which implied, in his opinion, a decided superiority over me. He proceeded accordingly, under this belief, to hector and domineer over me, until at last, in a fit of exasperation, I vindicated my Highland blood, and “New Chum” spirit, by heartily cuffing him. With the exception of this trifling matter, the journey to me afforded a source of continual pleasure. It was bright summer weather, though extremely sultry. For a considerable distance, the road wound chiefly through the primeval forest, whose deep glades fairly echoed to the loud cracks of the bullock whip, as, with its cruel lash often applied in mere wantonness, the driver urged on his slow team, whilst the flocks of green and crimson plumaged parroquets fluttering from tree to tree, or clamorous cockatoos filling the air with their discordant cries, were things that, together with the novelty of my situation, were to me a continuous feast of pleasure. But travelling over the vast, treeless plains that, later on, spread for miles along our route, was not quite so enjoyable, save in the evening camp by some cool watering place. It was then that the “billy” brewed tea, the ash baked damper, the fried chops, were discussed with that keen relish which page 5 only a youth of healthy appetite and bounding spirits could fully appreciate.

At length, situated in a forest of box, gum, and oak, through which we had been journeying for some hours previously, I saw a paddock fence, and knew we had reached our destination, and that I should travel no further, for some time, at least. I mean, of course, that we had reached Mr. M‘Elwain's upper station.

The buildings of the homestead were few and simple. The chief one was a moderate-sized wooden building, containing about four rooms, erected by Mr. M‘Elwain with his own hands, for he had formerly resided there himself. Its walls inside were done up with lath and plaster. In front was a verandah, into which one room opened, whilst to the rear its dimensions were extended by what, in New Zealand, is known as a “lean-to,” the whole being roofed in with wooden shingles. Adjacent to it was another hut that served as a kitchen, and, irregularly scattered in front of these two, were several more wooden huts, some built of split slabs, others merely of logs, answering respectively as stores and shearers' hut, whilst one was occupied by the weekly station hands. Outside the paddock fence, about a quarter of a mile off in the open forest, was an immense building, whose rafters appeared to fairly bend beneath the superincumbent weight of bark and logs, by which it was roofed in, and the roof secured. This was the woolshed, in front of which were erected high posts to support the lever that then formed the primitive method of compressing the wool in the frames that were fixed inside the building. Besides these, the woolshed was almost surrounded by necessary yards for the management of the sheep in driving them into the shed, branding, etc. This brief summary completes the description of the buildings of a station whose wool returns represented ten thousand sheep, and which had, in addition to that stock, a few hundred head of cattle. I, immediately on my arrival, introduced myself to Mr. M'Lean, the overseer, and presented my credentials; the result was that I found myself forthwith attached to the regular staff in the capacity of store-keeper. This situation I accepted contentedly enough, hoping that it would be merely the first rung of the ladder, the last of which my aspiring ambition fondly pictured, would at no distant date be the chief managership of that very station. I may as well say here that in this situation I remained for about two years, at the end of which time Mr. M‘Elwain suddenly disposed of his station by sale. This circumstance occasioned a sudden collapse to all the pleasant little airy structures I was continually in fancy erecting regarding my rapid page 6 success in life. Mr. M‘Elwain, who really had no further occasion for my services, now kindly, but with his usual caution as to committing himself, offered to find me a situation with a neighbouring squatter. But, from the well-known sordid disposition of the latter, my further trial of station life would have been so uncongenial, and the remuneration that he offered so slight in comparison to what I deemed my merits deserved, that I declined the offer in disgust. Upon this, my kinsman, no doubt regarding me as being altogether too high minded, after giving me some excellent advice for the regulation of my future movements, and with many expressions of good-will for my welfare, bade me farewell.

Although the daily events of my two years in this station were too flat and commonplace to interest a general reader, yet it was here that I made the acquaintance of Selim, the old horse, a sudden sight of whose grave, by flooding my mind with old memories, suddenly inspired me with the idea of recounting them all in a written narrative. But, as all the circumstances connected with that event form a somewhat lengthy episode, I will reserve the account of them for another chapter.