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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter VI

Chapter VI.

It was a beautiful morning in the mildest season in Australia—the fall of the year—when Lilly and I sallied forth on our tour of inspection over all the run. The sun shone brightly without the excessive heat of summer. Altogether it was a day that made it a pleasure to live, and the feeling of exhilaration page 38 inspired by the prospect of a ride over wide plains, through pathless woods, and dense scrubs, was indescribable. This feeling is greatly enhanced by the sensations of being borne along by a noble animal that seems to share in its rider's pleasure, needing neither whip nor spur, and snorting and tossing its head as if in proud consciousness of its power, a word or even a motion of the bridle being enough to increase its pace to a trot, canter, or a gallop at its rider's pleasure.

It was in this mood that I gazed around in admiration at the fine pastoral country through which we rode—large plains interspersed with belts of timber or sand-hills, now green with verdure, whilst in the back-ground the far off mountain ranges loomed blue in the distance.

My companion evidently had a taste for horseflesh, for sometime after starting I noticed that he keenly scanned Selim's various points, appearances, and paces. He made no remark however. He himself was well mounted on a dapple grey mare that went along at a quick amble that Selim's longer stride nevertheless kept even pace with.

Our tour over the sheep run, with its frontage of fifty miles of the river upwards, counting from the home-station that was situated ten miles within the lower boundary of the run, was a greater distance than could be satisfactorily covered in one day's ride. Consequently, after calling at the huts and viewing the shepherds' flocks on the run, as night was coming on we put up on our way back at an out-station that was in charge of an under-overseer named Bellamy, whose duty it was to keep an eye on the sheep at that end, besides seeing that the huts were kept duly supplied with monthly rations.

Here I had an opportunity of verifying the wonderful truthfulness to nature of Charles Dickens' seemingly improbable characters.

In one particular of Mrs. Bellamy's manner I saw a living embodiment of the widely-famed Sairey Gamp in that worthy's inveterate custom of exalting her importance and respectability in the eyes of her acquaintances by continual references to her bosom friend, the immaculate Mrs. Harris. In a certain Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Bellamy also had a bosom friend, to whom, in all recitations of her past experiences, and these were constant, she continually referred as to some oracle. Indeed the amount of moral obligation she seemed to be under to this estimable person must have been simply incalculable, as in all the changing complications of her life—whether in grief or pleasure, in times of trial or times of triumph—this same infallible Mrs. Williams seemed to have been ever at hand to sustain or to sympathise with her, to advise or to rejoice.

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The resemblance to Mrs. Gamp, however, held good only in this single point, for fresh, tidy, and by no means ill-looking, Mrs. Bellamy was otherwise a very estimable person. But she was one of the most incessant talkers to whom I ever listened, and whilst listening to her continual references to her friend Mrs. Williams, I could not help wondering whether she had ever come across the great humourist's famous character, or whether she would really recognise her own failing if she were to read it.

However, in blankets provided by the station for such emergencies, I was made exceedingly comfortable by Mrs. Bellamy for the night, whilst Lilly in a possum rug that he had carried strapped on to his saddle, passed the night with equal satisfaction and comfort in one of the empty bunks.

The following day we returned home, deferring the inspection of some back country to another time.

On the morning following we rode out to see the cattle run. The country there I found to be somewhat similar in appearance to that set aside for the sheep, only that here there appeared to be more grass country than on my run, which was chiefly covered with the salt bush. Here, too, there was a fine lake of water, around which the grass seemed as luxuriant as in an English meadow.

The cattle appeared to be quiet and in fine condition, and at the crack of Lilly's stockwhip rounded up as we passed along.

Crossing over one of the plains studded over with several small mobs of cattle, Selim, checking himself in his usual steady pace, suddenly snorted, and lowering his head with an impatient jerk, as if to free himself from the restraint of a bridle, betrayed signs that long acquaintance with his habits enabled me at once to interpret as a desire to pursue some object that had then just caught his eye. It was not the cattle, for, unless urged on, of them he took no heed.

“My horse must see something,” I remarked to my companion. “I can tell by his manner there is something he doesn't like.”

“It may be a snake,” said Lilly, glancing keenly round. “Horse are all skeered at these varmint; but see there! that dingo ahead there! he is sitting down in front of that cow and calf, beside the bush yonder.” Being an old colonist, like too many of his class Lilly's expressions had frequently a sanguinary flavour that I cannot venture to transcribe here, but looking in the direction indicated, I descried a yellow dingo, or native dog, about three hundred yards ahead of us, seated as described by Lilly. As the wind was blowing towards us, he, absorbed in the contemplation of a newly page 40 dropped calf, evidently had not as yet noticed our approach.

This at once accounted for Selim's sudden emotion, as many a chase had I had on his back after similar quarry. Advancing quietly, although with difficulty restraining my curveting steed, we managed to approach within about a hundred and fifty yards ere the dingo detected us, when it instantly started off at a surprising pace across the plain. It only needed the slackening of the bridle and a “hist on, Selim,” to send my brave horse off like a shot on his track, while Lilly's, with equal mettle, darted along for a while with even pace.

For several miles we kept on thus, Selim gaining slowly but surely on his canine quarry, whilst Lilly's plucky, but less bottomed mare, was left a length or so astern. At length Selim came like to trample on the dingo's quarters. Knowing what would occur, I accordingly strengthened myself in the saddle for the event. In a chase such as this, the management of which might be freely committed to Selim's own discretion, I had only to concern myself with the preservation of my own seat in the saddle. Almost simultaneously with my precaution came the need for it, as the dog, to avoid his impending doom, suddenly wheeled round beneath Selim's belly. Arresting his onward course by planting his fore legs with a shock on the ground, that would most certainly have sent an unguarded rider over his head, Selim, seeming as if he had thrown himself round on his hind legs, wheeled almost as suddenly as the dog had done.

Lilly now checked the dog, that again dashed past Selim, and again, as if on a pivot, Selim wheeled after him. But it would be impossible to give a detailed account of this exciting chase for the next half-hour, during which our active quarry kept us in pursuit; doubling back under the belly of either horse alternately as each one overtook him. Suffice it to say that Lilly at length, coming close upon him, as he was exhausted with his exertions, and sweeping his whip, handle foremost, round his head, caught the dog with it over the skull and felled him, and instantly dismounting, dispatched him with his stirrup iron, that he had for that purpose dragged off the saddle as he threw himself from his horse.

“By ——, Mr. Farquharson,” he exclaimed, as we both stood looking at the dead dingo, our horses panting heavily the while, “that's a sweeping horse of yours; I used to think that as a stock horse there were not many like Coleena in the colony, but now I fairly give your horse best over her.”

I smiled at the well merited compliment to Selim's qualities, but remarked:—

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“You need not, however, Lilly, lose conceit of your mare in being beaten by my horse; knowing what he is, I think it no small thing in her favour that she was able to stick to him so close as she did in the chase.”

“Where did you get your horse, might I ask? where was he bred?” he asked.

“In the scrub,” I replied, “and out of the scrub, when he was little more than a three year old colt I helped to run him.” I then detailed to him the circumstances that the reader is already acquainted with, regarding the manner of Selim's capture.

“George Laycock,” mused Lilly, “I think I ought to know that name. Yes, I remember. When I was a bit of a stripling a man of that name was with me on a station on the Darling Downs; he was a grand stockman.”

“I believe that must have been the same, as I heard that he had come from that part of the country,” and I then told him the report I had heard of Laycock's death.

I should here remark by way of apology for Lilly's inveterate habit of swearing, that not only had he spent all his manhood and a great part of his youth in the colony at a time when such language as seems simply shocking to refined ears was the general custom then, and deemed to be actually harmless, but also that he had been sent out to the colony a convict.

To lessen the effect of such a stain upon his character in the reader's eyes it must be added that it was for no breach of the moral law that he had been so punished, unless the seemingly venial one of transgressing on the preserves of some wealthy landowner may be regarded as such. At a time when offences of this kind were most stringently dealt with, this had constituted the crime for which at the age of fifteen he had been condemned to take his place among social criminals by a Christian legislature.

Fortunately for Lilly, however, he was not long left to the contaminating influences of mere felons. After the manner of those days he, shortly after his arrival in the colony, was hired out by a neighbouring squatter, a man of integrity, though of blunt and unpolished manners, and in his service he remained until his seven years of penal probation had expired. Consequently, although Lilly's manners and sense of propriety had been considerably blunted by the unavoidable influences of his surroundings, still his moral principles remained uncorrupted, chiefly through the example of his worthy employer. Therefore, though a careless enough manager with his own affairs, yet in situations of trust he had been proved to be so reliable and faithful that the stain of his former transgression was now rarely, if ever, remembered against him.

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Though occasionally he would allow a coarse enough expression to fall from his lips, yet the mere habitual use of foul language he eschewed, while sheer blasphemy he strongly reprobated. Of his views on this point a story fits in here of how he once chastised a bullying sort of fellow whose language disgusted him. The story is worth telling if only as an indication of what poor Lilly's semi-enlightened mind deemed the utmost limit of immorality in language. This man was working the bullocks, a task he was manifestly unfitted for. Laying the cause of the slow progress he was making to the account of the poor animals instead of to his own want of skill in guiding them, he was, whilst shouting to them in strains that were horrible for their filth and blasphemy, flogging them in an equally brutal and altogether needless manner—a proceeding which always stirred up Lilly's anger. Watching the fellow for a short time, until he at last fairly paused for breath in the midst of a torrent of foul expressions, Lilly remarked quietly:—

“Well, old man, feel any better after that?”

“What! You go to h—l” was the savage rejoinder.

“Oh, never mind me” (in the same tone of quiet sarcasm as before) “but don't you think you'll sweat yourself too much if you use the whip as you are doing?”

“I'll d—— soon lay the d—— whip over you, you etc., etc., etc., if you don't clear out of my way.”

“Or, suppose you lay down the whip altogether,” was the now stern reply—as Lilly suddenly stepped back and slipped the jumper over his head, which while speaking, he had been quietly unbuttoning; a signal that the bullock-driver, who was a sort of fighting man in his way, quickly acknowledged by dropping his whip and squaring up to Lilly. But he soon found himself in the hands of a man who was as much his superior in the science of fisticuffs as he was with the bullock-whip. After three or four rounds, in the course of which he found himself—in the phraseology of the ring—each time sent to grass in a very summary fashion, he was glad to slink off to the hut, carrying with him a bloody nose and bunged-up eye, as some token of Lilly's prowess. While by way of enunciating to his discomfited opponent the moral principle whose infraction had cost him such a condign castigation, Lilly, while replacing his jumper, emphatically remarked, “I'll teach you to swear like another d—— Christian”. Equally characteristic was his sarcastic remark to another ruffian who was actually cursing the Deity, and whom Lilly recommended to challenge his Maker down to fight.

In Lilly's eyes it was evident that swearing could be only deemed offensive when it assumed the character of blasphemy. page 43 Language that included only such words as damn he reckoned was simply harmless, nay, on occasions even manly, with the exception of that one word whose use he looked upon as foolish. But I am sorry to say that among the list of harmless expressions, he freely admitted that of his Maker's name. Yet, with singular inconsistency, the name of both the second and third persons in the Trinity could not be used without blasphemy.

Lilly's reverence for the Deity manifested itself also in another peculiar fashion of his own, in his sense of obligation for the mercies of food. Most people, even those of a semi-religious profession seem to be horrified at the idea, when in a company of strangers, of returning audible thanks to their bountiful Maker in providing so liberally and continuously for their wants. To such people, poor unenlightened Benjamin Lilly, who otherwise on religious subjects was almost entirely ignorant, would have acted as a fine rebuke by his blunt mode of acknowledgment for such mercies on these occasions. Not that Lilly believed in, much less attempted to speak, a formal prayer. With him in this particular, brevity was certainly the soul of wit. Yet if brief, I question if it was any less heartfelt than the most solemn utterance of Christian professor or Rev. Dr. of theology. Lilly's manner of acknowledging his sense of God's mercies to him then was simply thus. On the conclusion of every meal he first placed both hands on the table, and actually looking upward, emphatically said, “Thank God for a good feed”.

When it is borne in mind that Lilly was a man of strong force of character, and therefore of strong influence over most of the men with whom he came in contact, it may be well questioned if the repetition in such a manner of this simple, and even uncouth form of praise (for praise in a sense it really was), had not some moral effect on his rough associates. “For why,” as Lilly remarked in reference to this practice of his, “if a man ain't ashamed to thank another man for giving him a five pound note—and far less than that, too—should he be ashamed to thank God for giving him both food and appetite to eat it, without which all the five pounds in the world would be of no value to him?”

There is some philosophy there, reader, and that too of a kind that might well tend to shame men much more enlightened and educated than was strong, common-sense Benjamin Lilly: men who, while professing to believe in a God, yet by their irreligious and thankless lives practically ignore him.