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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter V

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Chapter V.

The buildings of the homestead were of the usual description of station residences—the huts simple and rude, with woolshed conterminous. Dismounting to let myself through the gateway panels, I rode up to the house that was to be my future abode. It was constructed of sawn slabs of short lengths laid horizontally in grooves into strong squared posts, also sawn, and contained about four rooms, with a kitchen attached.

As I approached the house, a tall, thin, but muscular looking man, came to the door in answer to the loud barking of the dogs that had instantly saluted my appearance.

He was dressed in a tartan jumper, with tight breeches and knee-boots. His brawny, sunburnt throat was bare, and a cabbage-tree hat completed the attire of a man whom it needed no second glance to assure one was an old colonial. He might have been about thirty years of age. His eyes were keen and searching; but when he smiled an expression of dry humour lurked about the deep lines, or crow's feet, that radiated from their corners. His face was deeply bronzed, as if from long exposure to the Australian sun, and slightly fringed with a beard and moustache that, like his hair, were coal black; his eyes, too, were of a dark brown colour. In a word, I at once knew that I stood in the presence of that same Mr. Benjamin Lilly whose good graces I had been so strictly cautioned by Mr. Rolleston to endeavour to secure.

His appearance altogether was bold and independent. His regularly formed features wore more of a sarcastic than any other habitual expression. His independent bearing was not belied by his manner and the bluntness with which he addressed me in return to my salutation as I rode up to the door. “I s'pose you're the boss,” he briefly demanded. I replied that I had come up with the purpose of taking charge of the station. “Good job,” he replied shortly, “I'll go back now to my own quarters.” And after coolly directing me to where I could put up my horse, which was simply to let him loose where he was, and without another word my rather unceremonious friend stalked down to the river's edge, and there jumping into a canoe paddled across the water.

By this time the man who acted as cook had come out of the kitchen-hut, and understanding the quality of the stranger to be that of his future “boss,” relieved me of the task of ungirthing Selim and letting him loose to graze, for a stable here was an unheard of luxury in those days.

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Entering my new home, I first glanced around and took note of its appearance and contents. I found myself in a comfortable enough sitting-room, or rather, I should say, a room that answered to the several requirements of several rooms in a fashionable house, being parlour, dining-room, and library all in one. There were besides, three other rooms used as sleeping apartments, with one or two small closets for odds and ends.

All were plainly but conveniently furnished, and a small stock of useful and entertaining books promised me the means of mental recreation during my hours of leisure.

On the station several men were employed throughout the year—a bullock driver, two bushmen, and the home-station shepherd, besides a cook attendant upon them—occupied a hut that I had already passed about two hundred yards from my own house.

These details I then took no immediate steps to acquaint myself with; of course my attention was at first more agreeably engaged in the contemplation of the supper which the cook had set on the table shortly after my arrival. This I discussed with such appetite after my long day's ride that I never noticed the entire absence of vegetables from the meal.

Supper over, after a little time spent in examining the contents of the books on the shelves, that comprised, as I was delighted to find, the works of several of my own favourite authors, and that were of an imaginative, discursive, and historical character. I retired to rest, and so soundly did I sleep that it was eight o'clock on the following day ere I awakened.

After breakfast I at once set out to make a formal inspection of the various features and requirements of my charge and the immediate occupations of the station employees, etc.

This indeed did not occupy much time, for the hands were but few, and their duties of the simplest description, mending fences or splitting timber for new ones, etc. After speaking a few words to the men whom I met leaving the hut on their way to their work, I went into the shed and spent some time there in making a particular survey of its general qualifications for the various purposes for which it was designed.

Like almost all inland buildings of a similar class erected at that period these qualifications were mediocre enough. Having finished my observations there, I next entered the men's hut to see what arrangements were there provided for the comfort of the station hands. This, as a bush hut, where the chief conditions looked for were, security from rain and wind, I found on the whole to be fairly satisfactory. The simple furniture of table and forms and the goodly array of bunks in view of the page 31 vastly increased demand for accommodation at the sheep-shearing season were, if rudely, yet substantially constructed.

The cook had by this time completed the clearing up of the breakfast dishes, and had set his hut in order for the day, and I saw at a glance, from the general look of order and cleanliness in the place where the pannikins on the wall fairly shone with polish, that he was master of his profession. He was a thin, under-sized man, with flaxen hair, very upright in his carriage, high in his opinion of himself, and exceedingly talkative.

His manner was amusing, nor was he in the least embarrassed at the presence of his new “Boss,” but being evidently of the opinion that Jack is as good as his master, especially when Jack knew his work, he at once bluntly engaged me in a conversation that quickly merged into a mere narration of his own personal experiences. Judging by results as detailed by himself at least, Charles Knight (such was his name) was evidently a person who always rose superior to every situation. The interest which he strove to arouse in one's mind, by a minute account of all the details of some circumstance that was sure to have a triumphant issue in his own favour, was not a little increased by his singular manner of telling how, in every dilemma, he debated the case with “Self,” as though “Self” were some second party standing beside him.

This habit, which I soon understood to be an inveterate one, very naturally gave rise to his receiving the nickname of “Self”—a thing, however, that did not disconcert Knight in the least, so powerfully was he sustained by a knowledge of “Self's” intrinsic merits. Thus, whenever he had occasion to go outside for anything, and he happened to pass along where some of the men were at work, their general style of salutation would be—not, however, in any sneering tone, for Charley's abilities as a cook were too much respected for him to be made a laughing-stock—“Oh, here comes Self, and pray how is Mr. Self?” To which Charley, passing with his upright carriage and stately walk, would, with the most placid equanimity, reply, “Self is well. Self is very much at your service.”

On the present occasion, the description he gave me of his difficulty in having to make shift in baking bread without a camp oven, on his first entering upon his duties as cook in the time of my predecessor, is a fair sample of the general style of his conversation.

“When I came on to the station first, sir, there was no camp oven for the men's hut. The cook had broke it, and there was not another one on the station, except the one in the kitchen, and, of course, the cook there could not do without it; page 32 anyway, he wouldn't. So that the men's cook just had to muddle away with dampers in the ashes, for the men's meals. Now, a damper is all very well once in a way, but, as a general thing, I don't believe in dampers myself—the bread is too close grained, and aint so easy digested as light bread. Not but what I can bake a damper, with here and there a man, myself, but I always go in for light bread myself, which, I think, is the most wholesome bread for men. However, when I came here, I saw there was no light bread, and no oven to bake it in neither, and I was told that Old John in the kitchen would only growl if I were to ask a loan of his. Now, here was a fix, but fixed, I was resolved, I would not be. ‘Now, Self, old man,’ I says, ‘here's a go for you; are you going to let your invention get bested now, Self? You won't give in without a struggle, my boy, will you? No, by the hokey, Self, you won't.’ With that I just looks round the hut, and I very soon spies one of the pots they boil the meat and duffs in; and, at once, an idea flashes through my mind—‘Bravo, Self, my boy,’ I said, ‘I thought you would not be easily bested, as far as ingenuity could get you out of a difficulty’. Now, sir, I says nothing to the men, but I goes straight away up to Old John, and asks him for some hops. ‘What do you want with hops?’ says he; ‘you have no camp oven, and I can't let you have mine, you know.’ ‘Never you mind,’ I says, ‘what I want with them; I won't trouble you about your camp oven, any way.’

“So I makes yeast and says nothing to the chaps, and they didn't ask me what I was doing either. But when my dough was ready I made up as much of it as would fill the bottom of one of these tin plates, and I put that on the hot coals and turns the pot over it, and put an iron hoop round the feet of the pot so that it could hold a good supply of coals to bake the bread with, and it did bake most beautiful. Well, sir, you'd have laughed to see how astonished the men looked when they came home to their supper that night and saw my pot loaves. They were so tired of the dampers the last cook had been baking them—and sods of dampers some of them were I believe—that they were quite delighted, and, by Jove, they polished off my three loaves I had ready for them that night before they went to bed, and I had to keep baking on till twelve o'clock that night for a fresh start in the morning, when I worked away with the pot, and kept the men in light bread till the train went down to the Junction and brought me up this camp oven. Now, of course I can do the baking with more ease to myself, but the bread is no better than what I baked under the pot for all that. Here, sir, just taste that bread. That's the kind of bread I always bake for the men; how do you like it, sir?”

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“The bread is very good, and I am very glad to see the men so well provided with a cook as they seem to be in you, and I have no doubt while you do as well as you seem to be doing now we shall all get on very well together. As long as I see that a cook is not wasteful with the stores, I never care to limit the working hands to regulation rations, so if you only let me know when you run short of anything in the way of common stores or supplies for puddings I will always see that you have a fresh supply.” With these words I left the hut.

This preliminary survey being so far satisfactorily completed, I next, with the hope of ascertaining by a study of his manner in conversation what prospects of co-operation in the duties of my new position I might count upon with my rather cavalier acquaintance of the night before, directed my steps to the river's bank, and cooing on one of the black fellows—who were camped on the further side—I was by him quickly paddled across in a bark canoe.

Lilly's hut was cosily situated close by, in a bend of the river, thickly sheltered with a dense belt of shady gum trees. On my way to the hut I passed by a substantial stockyard, fitted up with every improvement for the management of cattle. I took notice particularly of the neat manner in which all the buildings about this yard were completed. They were so altogether different to the rough joinery incidental to mere bush carpentry, as to almost merit the character of ornateness. I saw that all the tenons were exactly fitted into their corresponding mortices, and everything bore the impress of no ordinary workman.

I found Lilly out side the hut door plaiting a stock whip. I may mention here that Lilly had a cook for himself, and he was the only other person with him in the hut.

Evidently Mr. Lilly regarded my movements with a jealous eye. He doubtless thought that I was there with some interfering purpose on hand, which he was determined to resent forthwith as an encroachment on his proper domain. His plan of campaign evidently was to simply preserve a respectful distance between us. In this spirit his reply to my morning's salutation, though civil, was brief.

But what a strange creature man is, and what little things will at times instantly revolutionise his most steadfast purpose!

Here was Benjamin Lilly, for instance, firmly resolved on keeping me at a jealous distance, as a man from whom he apprehended only annoyance to himself. Yet, by a few simple and wholly unpreconcerted remarks on my part, not only was that feeling of suspicion removed, but in less than half-an-hour Lilly and I were on a footing of most amicable friendship with each other.

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As I spoke, I inadvertently glanced at the hut and noticed the same superior workmanship there as I had already admired in the yard. It was a simple affair: built like my own house of short sawn slabs, laid horizontally in grooved posts. Yet, in this slight matter, there was displayed a compactness, a finish, I had almost said a taste, not often displayed in the construction of a stock-keeper's hut.

“You appear to have had a rare workman here, Mr. Lilly,” I remarked. “Was it the same carpenter who built the house across there who built your hut?”

“No, I guess not,” replied Lilly, with a slightly supercilious smile.

“No,” I said. “For the matter of that I might have known it, for the house by no means shows the marks of good workmanship that this hut does. He must have been a rare workman who built this. I suppose it was the same man who built your stockyard? I took particular notice of it as I came along. Now, the fact is, I have had some considerable experience with stockyard requirements, and I believe I never have seen a yard more handily arranged or showing such good work in its construction as this one does.”

I noticed that Lilly's features at this relaxed into a rather pleased expression. “I suppose that you, at least, know the man who built them. Is he still about here?”

“Well, I believe he aint very far off,” he quietly replied.

“Mister,” here interrupted the cook who had been passing in and out of the hut during this dialogue, “Lilly built the yard and the hut hisself.”

“Indeed,” I answered in genuine surprise. “Are you a carpenter then, Mr. Lilly?”

“I never spent a day in a carpenter's shop in my life,” he replied.

I now took notice of the whip on which he was engaged. “You seem to be as good at plaiting whips as you are at carpentry,” I said. And in truth the plaiting and general form of the whip, so far as he had gone, seemed to be as well executed as if it had been done by a professional whip-maker.

As a further proof of this man's ingenuity, the cook now presented for my inspection a stockwhip handle, beautifully carved and embossed with pin heads, that filled me with admiration as I gazed on its curious workmanship.

“Well, Lilly, without the least bit of flattery, I must tell you that this article, for beauty and finish, exceeds anything of the kind that I ever came across in my life; it must have cost you immense pains and patience to have put so much work into it.”

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Lilly's reserve, that had been gradually thawing under the compliments that I really could not help paying him, and the genuineness of whose quality the simple earnestness of my manner must have at once attested, now completely gave way, and he became quite communicative. For Lilly was not only an ingenious workman, but it was a matter of pride to him to be thought so; and if there was one weak point on which, in colonial parlance, Lilly could be got at, it was his vanity over his own ingenuity.

But I soon found out that what I had already seen were only a few samples of Lilly's mechanical abilities. Indeed, it would have been hard to state what thing connected with the work on a station or anything connected with the necessaries of life Lilly did not do equally well, and was not almost equally proud of.

His cabbage-tree hat was solely his own manufacture, save in the preparation of the material; when he chose he could make his own trousers and mend his own shoes, whilst in his own particular sphere as a stockrider or horseman he was acknowledged to be without his equal on the Darling. He also, when the shearing season came round, and there was no particular call for his services with the cattle, went on to the shearing-board, and here his superior skill was again completely manifested, for not only did his tallies of 170, 180, and even 190 place him beyond the reach of the keenest competitor, but the quality of his work was far above that of any other shearer in the shed, and, indeed, it was apparent to anyone that were Lilly pushed by a rival of more equal power, or were he to put on a slightly rougher cut, even 200 itself would not always measure the quantity of his day's tally.

I have not yet exhausted the category of all of this ingenious man's talents, for on emergency Lilly could also act the part of cook, when he would turn out a “feed” that would make the mouth of an epicure water. No pastry-cook could beat him in that special department, and, above all other things, he excelled in baking a damper.

I have said that Lilly was vain on the point of his ingenuity. But were I to name the particular accomplishment of which he felt positively proud, I should certainly say it was in baking a damper. Next to the damper came his shearing; this afforded him a constant source of triumph, as he was always able to keep the lead in the shed against all comers, and for it, too, his name was known throughout the colony. As regarded the dampers, he was not at all inclined to make himself cheap, for it was no small difficulty to get Lilly to undertake to bake one at all, and it was, indeed, only under the pressure of very page 36 special circumstances that he could be persuaded to do so. When he did consent, it was with such elaborate preparations, such minute attention to details, such certain anticipations of triumphant success, that—but I shall weary my reader. One other characteristic trait and accomplishment I must, however, mention, and that is his penchant for bullock-driving. Like all other work that he turned his hand to, in this also he excelled. But having ideas of his own as to how these animals should be driven (he contended that not one in a hundred calling themselves bullock-drivers knew their work) he had, by careful selection from the stock on the run during several years, gradually acquired a noble team that he himself had broken into yoke, and would suffer no man but himself to drive. So determined was he on this point, that he had been more than once on the point of leaving the station because of my predecessor's wish to have these bullocks used for the general work of the station, at his pleasure.

In finding names for his bullocks, too, Lilly was original, always asserting that the names of bullocks should correspond with their places in the team. For instance, he said that as leaders were adapted by mental rather than physical qualities for their positions, so for them he chose names corresponding to the moral positions that they both held. Thus the strikingly appropriate names of “Dauntless” and “Fearless” respectively distinguished the near and off leader of this model team; both of these were red-spotted, spreading-horned, fine young bullocks. “Dainty” and “Davy,” the next pair, were both as remarkable as their leaders for their comeliness and activity: “Dainty,” black spotted, with curling horns and white forehead; “Davy,” strawberry coloured. But as the team strengthened towards the pole, the more portentous names of “Roderick” and “Bauldy” represented two wide-girthed, strong-ribbed animals, both sure and unfailing in the yoke. “Roderick” was black, and Bauldy darkly brindled. In the pole bullocks the perfection of strength was fairly represented. Two noble-looking animals they were; both vast in size, and well proportioned as they were vast; deep chested and straight chined, no common names could be borne by these impersonations of strength.

It seemed that among the few books that Lilly had found patience to peruse (for he was no great reader) Miss Jane Porter's Scottish Chiefs was a notable one. From the time of reading it Lilly became a most enthusiastic admirer of Scotland's mightiest champion, although he himself was an Irishman. He firmly believed Sir William Wallace to have been one of the greatest men who ever page 37 lived; and of his hero's strength he had an almost fabulous conception.

In the truth of the book Lilly firmly believed, and anyone who ventured to speak disparagingly of its facts, or hinted at their being embellished with fiction, he regarded with the utmost contempt. For his favourite pole bullock then, a noble animal, with large red spots and upturned horns of proportionate size, Lilly found the appropriate name of “Wallace,” but for the off pole bullock, an animal even more massive, if possible, than the other, Lilly could find only one name—a scriptural one. Of course, all these particulars of Lilly's idiosyncrasies and characteristic traits I learned afterwards. I am now stating them here by way of anticipation, to present Lilly's character at once to the reader, to avoid having to continually recur to it in the course of our further acquaintance with each other. Meanwhile I had suddenly advanced so much in Lilly's estimation, that seeing me still admiring the stockwhip handle (it was of the beautiful variegated myalwood, one side being like mahogany and the other of an orange colour), he volunteered to make another like it for me. Of course I was right well pleased at the offer, and thanked him accordingly.

We then talked about station matters in general, and after some conversation, it was agreed that on the following day he should accompany me on a tour through both runs. I then left him, not a little pleased at the unexpected turn matters had taken, and the sudden breaking down of the barriers of jealous suspicion that at first sight appeared to bar the way in any approaches I might venture to make towards the confidence of my new acquaintance. Nor was my satisfaction lessened on account of the sterling character that lay behind this rough independence of manner. All strained relations were thus obviated between us. I spent the remainder of the day in a general survey of matters around the homestead, which for a station, appeared to have been fairly well attended to.