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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVI.

While on my way down to the river I was suddenly warned by the clamorous barking of the dogs of the approach of a stranger, who, to my excessive surprise and chagrin, proved to be no other than Marsden. At once the cause of Miss Rolleston's apparent anxiety and expectant manner the whole night before flashed upon my mind. Evidently she had known by some secret source of communication that this gentleman would be here.

“Your servant, Mr. Farquharson,” remarked Marsden, as he rode up, with a slight inclination of the head (while I fancied that I observed a sarcastic smile flit along his thin lips), “you did not expect to see me here this morning. I dare say; but having determined to make one of your Christmas party, on my return from Melbourne to the Murray finding that the ladies had already left for here I instantly followed them.”

“You surely must have been early on your road to arrive at this hour of the morning,” I replied in some surprise. With the same slightly sarcastic smile quietly playing on his lips he answered: “I am not in the habit of regulating my movements by the hours of the day, when on my travels, my dear sir”. I could not help regarding him with some curiosity not wholly unmixed with admiration, as, with his powerfully built figure and daring look he sat his horse, a fine looking animal of a dapple grey colour, with an erect, military bearing.

Indicating to him where to put up his horse, he rode up to page 108 the house, while I pursued my way across the river to Lilly, with whom I held some consultation with reference to the day's arrangements. A black fellow was at once despatched to fetch up the horses that were grazing about a couple of miles down the bank of the river, and then I returned to the house.

On entering the breakfast room I found all the ladies assembled and in high spirits, particularly Miss Rolleston, who was blooming, and perfectly radiant at the prospect of the fine day before her, the pleasure of which was doubtless now enhanced by the presence of him who was evidently in her eyes “the fairest among ten thousand”.

As I watched her attentive bearing, her delighted manner, and her head continually turning towards him as he either addressed his remarks to her personally or to the company in general, the conviction that there was a secret understanding between them, and that his arrival that morning had been to her a matter of no surprise, but was the result of correspondence between them, and was, in fact, the event which she had been anticipating with such anxiety the preceding evening, was now firmly impressed upon my mind. What the effect of this on my mind was, the reader may judge for himself, and will feel no surprise when I say that I felt my sinking heart proclaiming the utter futility of all my hopes.

However, a truce to such fancies; here comes the black fellow, with all the mob of horses in front of him, tearing at full gallop towards the stockyard.

We found that Mavourneen, a pretty black mare, quiet and suitable for a lady, had, along with a few other horses, got separated from the mob. Now, as all the horses on the station that could be depended on for carrying ladies were no more in number than the number of the ladies themselves, exclusive of Mrs. Campbell and Tiny, who both preferred to remain at home, this mare's defection was unfortunate, and the unpleasant alternative threatened, that either one of the ladies must remain behind, or else the expedition be postponed till the missing mare was hunted up, and thereby considerable time lost.

A better expedient, however, suddenly suggested itself to me than either of these, in the shape of my own horse Selim, who was as quiet and docile as a lamb. I could let one of the ladies ride him, and take a young half-broken colt myself, that Lilly had lately been handling.

This colt was certainly far from quiet, but then I was not a very timid rider, and as Mary was not a very bold one, why, Selim would suit her exactly.

I proposed this, and so it was arranged. Already about a page 109 dozen black fellows had been despatched to the Lake, some bearing provisions and others the crockery for the picnic. These were all carefully directed by Lilly to the place of our proposed encampment, about eight miles off. At about ten o'clock our party started, the ladies now all in high glee and satisfactorily mounted, their side-saddles and bridles having been brought with them from the Murray. The horses first being made to swim the river, the whole party with their saddles were ferried across in the canoe.

Miss Brydone being a very inexperienced rider, was provided with a very sedate old horse that did not seem disposed to hurry, so at first she had ample employment with a switch to make it keep up with the others.

Both Miss Rolleston and Miss Campbell on the other hand, being spirited riders, were mounted on active steeds, and right merry they seemed as they dashed along laughing like a pair of madcaps, as undoubtedly they were, in front of the rest. Mr. Marsden, mounted on a strong and fiery station horse (for his own was too tired after its late journey to be saddled again so soon), of course closely attended on Miss Rolleston, even amid the frequent spurts that she, in concert with Miss Campbell, took ahead of the party.

For myself, I kept close beside my sweet young friend Mary, with whom I chatted pleasantly as I rode along, and saw with pride the motions of my own steed, that, although chafing under his rearward position in the party, yet acknowledged the slightest pressure of his gentle rider's bridle hand.

Lilly was there on his own frisky dapple grey charger, Coleena. He said but little, though I noticed him keenly observing Marsden's motions, as I had likewise noticed him critically observing that gentleman's dapple charger that morning, as it stood in the paddock.

On seeing the lake with its broad expanse of blue water glistening brightly in the sunshine, with the luxuriant herbage around, though it was beginning to fade before the scorching effects of the summer's heat, the ladies fairly shouted with delight. The view was all the more striking because dotted over with mobs of cattle whose various colours added to the picturesqueness of the scene.

On all sides the plain was traversed with belts of timber, in whose deep shadows the recumbent cattle were at intervals seen, enjoying the relief they there found from the glaring rays of the sun.

By Lilly's strict orders, we avoided going near the cattle, as the unusual appearance of the ladies with skirts streaming behind them would have driven them in terror across the plain, page 110 but, as we approached the place where the blue smoke from fires kindled by the black fellows showed the spot chosen for our fěte champětre, all at once a loud cry from Miss Campbell in front directed all eyes to about half-a-dozen emus that were visible some distance off, with outstretched necks scudding across the plain. “A gallop! a gallop!” cried both Miss Rolleston and Miss Campbell excitedly, suiting the action to the word and whipping up their steeds after the birds. But against this proceeding Lilly loudly protested, crying out that they would only knock their horses up, and that the birds were too far away anyhow. After a race of a few hundred yards this was so apparent to the young madcaps themselves, as they saw the birds disappear into a belt of timber, that they reined up their panting horses, and, accompanied by the inseparable Marsden, returned flushed and laughing to the rest of the party.

On dismounting, we found, under the deep shade of some gum trees, a bucket for making tea suspended over a blazing fire, and, after committing the horses to the care of the black fellows, Lilly unpacked the provisions from their coverings and bags, and spreading out a large tablecloth on the ground, arranged a substantial cold collation, his own damper being in the place of honour in the middle; here was an apple-pie and there stood a plum-duff as large, and almost as dark, as one of the black fellows' heads. By their sides stood equally tempting viands of a more substantial character, such as cold roast mutton in various shapes, with a tempting looking round of beef and several brace of cold roast wild ducks. As Lilly emphatically remarked, “as jolly a feed as ever a white man need sit down to”.

The tea, with milk in it for the ladies, was served out to them and the two town gentlemen in cups and saucers; but Lilly and I could find no way of drinking this pleasant beverage so suitable as from pannikins, where milk seemed strange and unaccustomed. “Where,” demanded Lilly, “can you get tea equal to that made in a billy?”

“Well, young fellow,” said he, addressing Mr. Brown, “what do you think about the damper now?” when he had handed round ample slices to all the party.

“By jove,” said Mr. Brown, after tasting some of it with great relish, and hastily applying himself to the slice again, and speaking with his mouth full, “it is prime; really this is the best bread that ever I tasted—baker's bread is nothing to it.” And Mr. Brown only spoke the truth, for Lilly's damper was simply excellent; and in spite of the closeness of its texture, it looked as white and as thoroughly cooked, and seemed so sweet and agreeable to the taste that really one scarcely knew when to page 111 have done with it. One slice but incited a craving for another, so that even the ladies, with their more delicate appetites, and wholly unaccustomed to such fare, declared it was actually delicious. Doubtless, too, the keen, healthy zest imparted to their appetites by the late exercise in the open, sunny air, contributed not a little to such thorough appreciation of the damper's genuine excellence.

Having all regaled ourselves to our entire satisfaction we rose, and withdrawing from our table on the ground and resuming the care of our horses, next amused ourselves by watching how our sable retainers attacked the provisions that were now entirely given up to them.

Short work did they make of them, as, each dressed in a white shirt and a pair of moleskin trousers, they squatted round the white cloth. The huge plum-pudding was first devoted to destruction, and then the other sweets. Next came the meat, some men sitting with an entire duck in their fists, others with large junks of mutton and beef and equally substantial pieces of bread (the remainder of Lilly's damper, however, was reserved as a special luxury for our own evening's tea) till finally they had stuffed themselves so that it was precious little that they reserved for further consumption at night in their camp.

At length we all were again mounted, but previous to this Lilly, with one of the blacks who was retained on the station as a stockrider, had ridden over to where the cattle were; and circling round an appropriate mob, was facing them in the direction of the station when we all rode up and joined him.

Marvellous was the effect of the unwonted appearance of these novel riders on the startled nerves of the cattle. On our near approach all the herd turned their heads round — some their bodies, too—to look at the ladies, then, sniffing fiercely, attempted to break past Lilly and his companion. It was only by the most desperate galloping and free use of the resounding stockwhips by Lilly and his man that the unruly animals could be kept in hand at all, and even then the close approach of any of the ladies (for neither Miss Rolleston nor Miss Campbell could be restrained by anything that Lilly could say from scampering at the top of their speed round the excited cattle), was the signal for a general stampede in the opposite direction.

The colt I was riding being comparatively unbroken, and therefore not sufficiently under control, was of so little service in enabling me to assist in managing the cattle that I could not help regretting my surrender of Selim to Mary, whilst, though evidently a good rider, Marsden was also of little service, being unprovided with a whip. He, however, had been unaccustomed to driving stock anyhow. Lilly, exasperated at the frantic page 112 efforts of the cattle to break away from him, seemed annoyed at the poor service he received from such a party of “greenhorns,” as I heard him irreverently muttering. Mr. Green, however, burning to distinguish himself on this occasion in the eyes of Miss Campbell, made a gallant attempt to do something, and, spurring his horse, rode after a large red bullock, with wide spreading horns, that was threatening to break off on his side; whereupon the incensed animal suddenly wheeled short round on his pursuer, an event so unlooked for on the part of the latter that, halting abruptly in his stirrups, one of the leathers gave way from the strain of such a sudden pressure, and the gallant stockrider was precipitated over his horse's head and almost under the enraged bullock's nose, that, approaching and shaking his head menacingly, seemed as if it contemplated tossing the unfortunate youth into the air; but, made agile by terror, he sprang to his feet, and still clutching hold of the bridle that he had managed to retain in his fall, he sought protection on the other side of the horse, when the animal, as if in contempt of such a novice, took no further notice of him, and held on his original course. Lilly, roaring with laughter at Mr. Green's inglorious mishap, put a period to the bullock's farther career by a crack of his well wielded stockwhip, from the stinging effects of which the runaway was fain to seek shelter among the herd.

The appearance of Mr. Green darting for protection round his horse, was indeed so comic that all the party, including the ladies, notwithstanding the extreme danger in which he stood, joined in a loud peal of laughter, which so disconcerted the poor fellow that he attempted no more deeds of daring for the rest of the day.

Mr. Brown's efforts as a stockman were scarcely more auspicious. Being mounted on a good stock horse, but being an indifferent rider, in bravely galloping to turn in a wing of the cattle, a second laugh was raised when his horse suiting his action to the movements of the cattle, suddenly wheeled as if on a pivot, in one direction, whilst Mr. Brown, arms foremost, flew off in an opposite one, though, as it fortunately happened, without sustaining any ill effects from his fall. This occurred shortly after Mr. Green's catastrophe, and Mr. Brown retired disconcerted likewise.

But, in spite of these several mishaps, the cattle, gradually urged towards the yard, had now entered the deep belt of gum trees that from a distance, always, more or less distinctly, indicate the Darling's course; in spite of all Lilly's injunctions, however, nothing would induce Miss Rolleston to avoid pressing close on the herd. Even Miss Campbell, after witnessing Mr. page 113 Green's rencounter with the red bullock, was inclined to keep at a respectful distance, especially as the same animal frequently wheeled round as if to threaten his pursuers. But Rachel Rolleston, with flushed cheeks, flashing eyes, and streaming ringlets, rode fearlessly on the heels of the cattle, menacing the refractory with her slender riding-whip, shouting and triumphant, but at all times closely attended by her cavalier, who never left her side for an instant.

Amid the mingled din and confusion of the lowing of cattle, cracking of whips, shouting, and a perfect cloud of dust, the cattle, now in a close body, were being driven towards the yard, whose friendly wings were seen stretching out on either side beyond us.

Until now, as my horse was but half broken, and unfitted for wearing stock, I had contented myself with keeping by Mary's side. I was moved thereto by fears for Selim, who, when stock were being driven about him, was apt to blaze up in a fever of excitement, and I wanted to be near at hand to seize his rein if he got uncontrollable under the weaker command of his inexperienced rider. But now, having got the cattle so far, when the tug of war in driving them into the yard was likely to commence in earnest, I requested the ladies who were near me, with Mary, to rein in their horses, whilst I used my best endeavours to assist in yarding the cattle. It was useless to ask Miss Rolleston, who was ahead and strenuously urging on the cattle, to remain behind, but an accident, that had almost proved fatal, was like to have made her pay dearly for her rashness.

Having such an inefficient mount for stock-driving, I had not provided myself with a stockwhip, as I deemed it would be but an incumbrance, the colt not yet being broken to the use of it. Therefore, on leaving home, I had contented myself, by way of carrying something, with the handle of a heavy hunting whip. The red bullock, by this time fairly infuriated by the clamour and the close quarters into which he was being driven, was now seen rushing through the herd towards the rear.

Lashed by Lilly, he turned aside, but still facing outwards, he was confronted by the black fellow, from whom he again received a stinging cut that only had the effect of making him incline a little further off and make a furious attempt at another point, where Marsden and his fair companion were riding and laughing. What followed only took a minute. Charging madly forwards, the red bullock made at Marsden, who, observing his purpose, had resolutely interposed his horse betwixt the threatened danger and Miss Rolleston, although, being himself unprovided with a whip, he was utterly defenceless against the page 114 bullock's charge. The animal rushed straight at him, and placing his long horns beneath the horse's belly, instantly overthrew both him and his rider; but singularly enough, without inflicting any further damage on either. Seeing Miss Rolleston's position of deadly peril, I galloped towards her, and knowing my horse was valueless for further service against the bullock, I had just time to fling myself off the saddle, and get between him and Miss Rolleston's horse, as the bullock recovering from his collision with Marsden's animal, again sprang forward with a fierce sniff. Grasping the lash end of my loaded whip with desperate energy and with both hands, and stepping quickly aside as the raging animal came blindly forwards, I dealt him a blow as he passed, with the hammer end of my whip, near the root of his horn, and sent him staggering on for several yards. It was lucky for me that the blow sickened him, as, had he renewed his attack, I was utterly defenceless. Like the Bruce at Bannockburn, I had broken off the head of my weapon by the violence of my blow.

But the bullock, seeing his way now open, made off towards the plains, passing on his way close by the place where the ladies who had stayed behind were assembled; but he only greeted them by another indignant sniff, without seeking their further acquaintance. But now another accident was like to have occurred, and that, too, on the very point that I had been so sedulously guarding against all day.

Selim, whose temperament with reference to stock driving I have already mentioned, had been for some time sorely chafing at the restraint imposed on him. He, seeing a single bullock darting past him, appeared to consider this slight upon his spirit as the last point of endurance that even his good nature could submit to, and, therefore, paying no regard to the desperate tugs on the rein made by his terrified rider, he, with a fierce snort, gave instant chase, and in a few strides had overtaken and headed the red bullock. The latter at this paused a moment, as if considering what he had to do with this new enemy, while Selim, suddenly wheeling round on the opposite tack, again confronted the bullock, which acknowledged his attention by instantly charging at him.

With a wild shriek, Jessie Campbell made us aware of the imminent peril in which she saw her sister placed.

The poor girl herself, almost beside herself with terror, dropped the reins and instinctively clutched hold of the horse's mane.

This proved her salvation.

It was not in vain that George Laycock had boasted to me of Selim's qualifications. Among many useful lessons that he page 115 had taught him was one for which Mary's involuntary action was the signal. As the bullock came rushing towards them with head lowered for the charge, Selim, on feeling Mary's hand touch his mane, wheeled like lightning, and with his two heels dealt blow upon blow full on the broad forehead of the astonished bullock, who was sent reeling half stunned on to his haunches from their effects; on recovering he seemed to consider that discretion was the better part of valour, and once more made off for the plains.

Not so, however, thought Lilly, who now arrived with his foaming steed, his long lash playing around his head till the forest echoes rang again as it fell on the bullock's flank, forcing him back again in spite of the frantic animal's desperate charges; and, ably assisted by the black fellow, Lilly eventually succeeded in securing him with the rest of the cattle in the yard.

“It is the last time I'll ever allow women to go stockriding with me,” I heard him mutter as he was fastening up the rails of the stockyard with the wooden pegs that were attached by hide strings to the posts for the purpose.