An Australian Parsonage/Chapter IV
Description of Parsonage House—Multiplicity of doors—Verandahs the only passage from room to room—Difficulty in procuring necessary fittings—First visit to a country store—Beauty of native mahogany flooring if properly kept—Pensioners and wives—Convict depôts in country districts—Depôt at Barladong—Clocks and cocks—Climate in summer—Favourite riding-horse—Visits from the natives—Appearance and character of Khourabene—Difficulties as to dress—Habits of exchanging all things with each other—Native's duties towards strangers—Love of dogs among the natives—Behaviour to the women—Matrimonial quarrel near Parsonage—"Bollia" men, or conjurors—Cruel custom of avenging a death—Native grave—Natives very trustworthy as messengers—Ned sent to carry letter—His behaviour to his wife—Pepper-tea and sham poisoning—Use of grease and fat on the skin—Old Isaac's amusement at a lady's riding-hat—Red earth or Wilghee used as ornament—Native dandy dressing himself for a dance—Khourabene's suit of mourning.
After a good night's rest we commenced a thorough examination of our new premises, in order that we might arrange the house in the most comfortable manner. It would at first seem that, as we had but four rooms to puzzle over, it ought not to have given us much trouble to decide which should be kitchen, which parlour, and which sleeping apartments. Matters, however, are not so simple as might naturally be expected when the interior arrangements of a rough colonial house are in question, since so many points must be considered which could never occur in England. First, the floors; are they wood, mud, or brick? In our house we had specimens of all three kinds. Next comes the question of aspect; will the afternoon sun find too much entrance, so as to make the room overpoweringly hot? Then as to the number of doors in the room; if it is to be a bed-room, will it be a necessary passage room to any of the others? All these things must be carefully considered before coming to a decision, or else perpetual discomfort will be sure to follow.
Our four rooms all opened into one another, and into the verandah also, as I have already noticed, and there were no passages whatever inside the house. The kitchen was paved roughly with brick, and we were at first much puzzled to conceive what good purpose could be served by a strange red-brick enclosure, about seven feet square, and open at top, which filled up one of its comers. On inquiry we discovered that it was meant for a maid-servant's bed-room.
At the opposite end of the house there was one good-sized room, which had always been used as the sitting-room, and between it and the kitchen were two narrow rooms opening into each other, and into the verandah as well, so that in one of them there were three, and in the other four doors, though some of them were glass doors doing duty for windows. It was thus not an easy matter to decide whether it would be better to sacrifice appearance to comfort by taking the one large room for our bedroom, and contriving two little sitting-rooms out of what were in reality narrow thoroughfares, or whether we should follow the example of our predecessors by retaining the spacious apartment for our parlour, and making shift with one of the uncomfortable rooms for our dormitory. We decided upon the former plan, which secured to us a most cheerful and pleasant sleeping-room, and we also managed, by means of a few alterations, to make a pretty little sitting-room out of the chamber next the kitchen, though its brick floor was always a nuisance, as it cut our Indian matting to pieces almost as fast as it was laid down.As the rooms all faced east and west, we were exposed to the full blaze of the afternoon sun, as soon as it was low enough for its beams to pass under the verandah, which was at about three o'clock. Blinds were therefore articles of immediate necessity, and I resolved to lose no time in going to one of the stores to procure them. The stores lay on the side of the river which was opposite to us; but during the dry season we were under no necessity of crossing the bridge. Our nearest way at that time of year was over the bed of the Avon, which even when dry has its own peculiar beauties, though they differ from those of river scenery at home. There are nooks shaded by the paper bark, and wide grassy spots, with permanent water holes intervening, around which the cattle love to congregate during the mid-day heat. Some of the pools are mere duck-ponds; others are fine stretches of water, half a mile in length and very deep, and these are generally contained between steep banks covered with brushwood and topped by high trees, which cast the reflections of their long arms over the smooth placid water beneath. Again perhaps the river bed will widen, and its banks will become lower, and you may come to large sandy tracts which, a few months before, were covered by the winter floods, but are now so dry and bare that cricketers select them as convenient spots for the purpose of playing out a match.
The store which we now entered was the first which I had seen "over the hills," and was a good average specimen of similar emporiums in the country districts. On one side of the shop, where the grocery was sold, there stood a heavy weighing-machine and a tub of salt fish; crockery, gown-pieces, paraffin lamps, and woollen goods were ranged on the shelves; boots, reaping-hooks, coats, kettles, hanks of twine, and common tin-ware dangled from the rafters; camp-ovens and iron saucepans lumbered the floor; and under a glass-case was a dowdy little collection of millinery and fancy goods, the last worthy of their name only from the prices which were attached to them, whilst as to the millinery, I may here say in parenthesis, that I never saw any, even in the best colonial stores, which looked as if it could have come from any quarter more fashionable than the Edgware Road.
Of books there was a shelf containing eleven copies of M. Thiers' 'History of the French Revolution,' bought by the store-keeper in a "job lot," and originally published at ten shillings, but now offered for sale at one guinea apiece. This, however, might have inspired us with the encouraging thought that the colonists were so fond of reading that they were ready to pay any price for books; but we were damped by finding that whereas M. Thiers' works were only ticketed at twice their value, the cost of many necessary articles of daily use was fixed at a still higher rate.
But the mysteries of stores and store-keeping in Western Australia were not to be fathomed in a single visit; they were such as could only be revealed by time accompanied with dear-bought experience. I found that it was an easier matter to purchase my blinds than to decide in what manner they could be hung up with advantage. Of course my natural instincts led me to hope for wooden rollers and side cords, but I soon found that I must moderate my desires, and content myself with such contrivances as could be devised by my own ingenuity. Some of my neighbours nailed the blinds to the window frame, pinning them up when not in use; others suspended them curtain-wise upon a string; but rollers and cord were luxuries as seldom seen "over the hills" as gates, and it was the same with other kinds of "house fittings."
Lord Mansfield, who objected to bells on the ground that it was a servant's duty "to wait," would have found no bells to object to, nor any servants with leisure to stand expectant; casements were fastened with wooden buttons, for bolts were not furnished by the stores, and in the poorer sort of houses the windows were not glazed, but consisted simply of a wooden frame on which was stretched strong calico. All these little roughnesses were, however, more than compensated by the superb beauty of the climate, which, taken together with the primitive appearance of our carpetless dwelling, conveyed the impression to the mind of perpetually living in a garden-house for the summer season.
I found that those residences, of which the superiority was attested by a good entrance-gate, were generally dignified in addition by containing one carpeted room, but carpets were less in keeping with the summer's heat than matting, and oil-cloth was better than either in the wet season, when people were apt to bring in the mud of the roads upon their boots. There is, however, no question that the native mahogany, with which rooms are always boarded in Swan River, if they are so fortunate as to be boarded at all, would be the handsomest flooring of any, provided that it was kept bright with constant rubbing. The colonists would probably take fright at the idea of the labour involved in keeping up a polished floor, but if the French fashion of fastening brushes to the feet of the floor cleaner was adopted, all difficulties would be obviated.
On one of our floors we pursued the plan of polishing the mahogany with beeswax, and the effect resembled that of the finest old dark oak. I soon discovered that the practice was unusual, by observing the extreme interest with which one of my visitors regarded its results; and her explanation that the polished boards "reminded her of Windsor Castle," sounded to us as the best instance that we had ever heard of lucus a non lucendo. But absurd as it seemed to us, there was reason for what she said. As a child she had lived in the town of Windsor, and until that moment she had never seen a bright floor since certain well-remembered peeps that she had had of the apartments in the Castle, in virtue of the employment that her father had held as one of George the Third's domestics. Windsor traditions were still dear to her, and one of her Australian-born children had been christened Amelia, in memory of the old king's favourite daughter.
We had now taken sufficient time to "turn ourselves round," as the old phrase goes, within doors, and we next proceeded to apply the same gyratory process to our outward premises, though what connection self- rotation should have with the endeavour to settle down in a new home, I could never understand, in spite of the antiquity of the expression. The garden was naturally our first object of interest, and I found that it was much indebted to its original clerical possessor, who had planted it with a number of pomegranates and fig-trees. Also, no doubt in the laudable desire of planting the British flag upon a foreign shore, he had planned the beds and walks of his flower garden in the form of a Union Jack; but though I trust that I am not a bad subject, I must own that I felt less obliged to him for the flower beds than for the fruit trees, as the national ensign took up a much larger space of ground than my own pair of hands could ever hope to keep neat.
Our vineyard had been, most unfortunately, placed on a bit of the stiffest clay which the garden afforded, whilst plenty of sand, in which vines would have flourished, lay comparatively idle in our glebe-field close adjoining. As to out-buildings, we were very badly off. There was neither pig-stye, cow-house, nor poultry-yard, and the only apology for a stable was a remnant of an old shed open to every shower which might fall. It was clear that we should have to supply all these deficiencies at our own cost, but before commencing operations we determined that we would give a look at our neighbours premises, and learn in what manner farm-buildings might be inexpensively erected. The nearest models in our immediate vicinity were found in the little farm-yards belonging to some of the pensioners to whom I have already referred. These men have been employed as guards in the convict ships, and, on their arrival, have received grants of land and other advantages; but it is well known that soldiers are not famous as colonists, and amongst the many pensioners who lived near us, only two or three, whose wives were exceptional patterns of industry and thrift, could give us any counsel in our farming, or had been able to make any profit out of their own. The younger and still able-bodied pensioners who compose what is called the "Force," are envied by the older and less useful men on account of the extra pay which they receive whilst thus enrolled. In return for this additional stipend, the members of the "Force" must hold themselves in readiness to assist in all emergencies, such as extinguishing fires upon Government property, re-capturing runaway prisoners, mounting guard at the several gaols, and the like services. Between pensioners and convicts existed a very rancorous feeling, originating no doubt in the relative positions occupied by the two classes on board ship; the convicts protesting that the pensioners were quite as bad as themselves, only that they had not been found out, an assertion no ways weakened by the drunken habits in which some of the old soldiers were apt to indulge, and by the very low character of the women that many of them had married.
The convict depôt from which our little town derived its chief importance, was situated in the close vicinity of the pensioners' houses. At irregular intervals throughout the colony depôts of this kind are scattered, to which convicts are drafted after serving a portion of their sentence in the Fremantle gaol. On being thus transferred from the gaol to the depot, convicts, who are then "probation prisoners," are distributed in gangs to work upon the roads of the district in which the depôt is situated. Beside furnishing menders of the highway, the depôts supply the place of "mops" or "statutes" for the hiring of farm labourers, and also serve as register offices for servants and tutors, according to the exigencies of the colonists, and the professed capacity of those prisoners who are entitled to their ticket-of-leave.
No one would have supposed from the exterior of our convict depôt at Barladong, that its inmates were under any sort of restraint, and, contrary to ordinary precedent in Government work, the architect appeared to have been strongly imbued with the idea of saving space and husbanding brick and mortar. Low white railings surrounded the enclosure instead of high spiked walls, and an out-house that looked like a large lock-up coach-house, and which stood open in the day, was the convicts' common hall and dormitory. The warders' quarters were as miserably cramped as if the bit of desert on which they stood had been rated at a London ground-rent, and the discovery that a district hospital was wanted had resulted in the appropriation for that purpose of an old kitchen, in which apartment both bond and free alike received benefit, but in less degree than would have been conferred on them by larger space and better ventilation. The depôt bell, however, was a public boon without alloy. It swung from a tall slender gallows in the middle of the white-railed yard, and being rung several times a day at stated hours, was as good as a church clock to those who heard it, few of whom had any other way of reckoning time.
Clocks were not only scarce, but in no great request; those which were supplied by the colonial stores soon ceasing to "go," and subsiding with such rapidity into their secondary purpose of chimney ornaments, that I sometimes doubted whether the clockmakers had not regarded it as the primary one. Thus it came about that on Sundays those people in the bush who lived beyond hearing of the depôt bell, not unfrequently found themselves either half an hour too late or too early for church, as the case might be, and for a child to "know the clock" was rather a mark of superior intelligence.
A grown-up girl once called at our door to ask the time; I referred her to our clock for her own satisfaction, at which she cast a glance as hopeless as that with which she might have regarded some mysterious mathematical instrument, and professed herself in no way the better informed. The inconvenience that resulted from the dearth or the decrepitude of timepieces appeared to have been taken into consideration by the cocks, for they crowed vociferously precisely one hour before midnight, and again at two in the morning; on the last occasion without any reference to dawn in the sky, for the sun did not rise till nearly five o'clock upon the longest day. This peculiarity of the domestic fowl is mentioned in most descriptions of Australia, but in none that I have ever read has any notice been taken of the extreme regularity with which the crowing occurs at certain fixed hours.
I must now beg the reader to suppose us comfortably settled in our new home, or at least as comfortably as it was possible for us to make ourselves in a district where so many of the minor conveniences of life were unprocurable. We had erected three wooden buildings, to serve as stable, pig-stye, and hen-roost, and had thatched them with rushes which a neighbour allowed us to cut from the "blackboys" on his run. Our horse and cow were bought, and we had been presented with two pigs, and a cock and hen. We had also obtained some insight into the condition and habits of the neighbourhood, so that we felt ourselves at home and at our ease, and able to form a fairly just opinion as to all that went on around us.
As this little sketch does not pretend to be a journal, or to be written in chronological order, but merely to give an account of such things as would be likely to interest those whose home has always been in England, I shall make no apology for the somewhat desultory nature of the following pages, in which I prefer to give the results of our entire experience of the colony, rather than to detail the gradual process by which our acquaintance with West Australia and its inhabitants was ultimately obtained. Perhaps some account of our intercourse with the natives may be of interest to those who have never met with the wild man in his own land; and I may be pardoned if I give a somewhat diffuse history of our earlier intercourse with the tribe belonging to our immediate district, as we met them either in our rides about the bush, or when they paid us a visit at our own home.
At first we had thought that it would be impossible for us to ride or drive during the full heat of the day, and we had marvelled at the impunity with which our more distant neighbours were able to brave the sun when they rode up to our door at two or three o'clock in the afternoon. A very short experience, however, was sufficient to teach us that the clear dry air and exhilarating breezes, which are the almost invariable adjuncts of the summer of Western Australia, temper the fierce sunbeams so greatly, to anyone in rapid motion, as to render a ride through the bush, even when the glass is at 90° in the shade, by no means disagreeable. A young friend most kindly lent me her favourite riding-horse; it was a lovely grey mare named 'Mercy,' and many a charming forest ride did I enjoy upon her back. When quite a young foal the poor little creature's dam had been killed by an accident, upon which my friend's brother had expressed the opinion that "it would be a mercy to shoot the poor thing." His sister, however, thought that it would be a greater mercy if she could manage to keep it alive, and in spite of fraternal sarcasms she proceeded, like Mr. Chick in 'Dombey and Son,' to try whether "something temporary could not be done with a teapot" to supply immediate wants, whilst trusting to the hope that care and kindness would eventually succeed in rearing the young animal. Whether its kind nurse "took it from the month," or whether more than four weeks had elapsed since its birth, I know not; at all events her pains were well rewarded, for the singularly named 'Mercy' grew up into one of the most delightful lady's horses possible, full of spirit and life, and yet not too eager, and as smooth as a rocking-horse in all its paces.
I have been often asked, since returning to England, whether the Australian native is not the lowest member of the human family—its shabbiest and least creditable relation; and my questioners generally seemed to have made up their minds beforehand that such was certainly the case, let my answer be what it might. Even the quickness of the poor native's senses is often brought forward against him, as though he were something less than a man, because his acuteness of observation and keenness of sight reach a perfection that we are accustomed to consider as the birthright of the inferior animals alone. Born, however, in a country that is devoid of indigenous fruits or grains fit for man's use, the native's existence has depended not on the cultivation of the soil, but on that of his five senses; and that he should see like a hawk and track like a bloodhound, or should resemble the bee in his power of steering a direct course through pathless forests, are the natural results of that cultivation, just as the excessive delicacy of touch possessed by the hands of blind persons results from the constant exercise of their sense of feeling. But granting that the lowest condition of mankind is to be found on the great island-continent, I can yet assure Europeans that they have no reason to feel ashamed of owning affinity with the savages of Australia West, either in respect of mental qualities or that of manly appearance. The kangaroo mantle, nearly reaching the knee, hangs gracefully over their fine figures; the uncovered head is carried loftily, and a dignity is added to the high, well-shaped forehead by the binding of a fillet round the hair and brow, after the fashion of an antique bust.
The curiosity that is felt with regard to "natives" dates, probably, with most persons, from their first reading of Robinson Crusoe; and Mr. Darwin, who, from what he says in his 'Naturalist's Voyage,' appears to have been by no means a good sailor, considers the opportunity of seeing man in his savage state as a complete counterbalance to the trials and inconveniences of sea sickness. We, on the other hand, had looked forward to the sight of wild men as the very crowning point of a much-enjoyed voyage; nor did the objects of our curiosity keep us long in suspense, being apparently as anxious to see what we were like, as we were to make their acquaintance.
After we had been settled at Barladong about a fortnight the natives began to pay us frequent visits. We had learned the names of several individuals, but had formed no especial friendships, when one morning a shadow fell across our window, and on looking up to ascertain the cause, we saw a stranger standing in a calm, easy attitude, surveying us from two brilliant eyes, with an expression of pleasure mingled with curiosity. His jet-black hair was bound with a fillet in the mode that I have described, and his features were somewhat of the Malay type; his complexion decidedly black, but not the sooty hue of the negro. Cast over his left shoulder, and brought beneath the opposite arm, hung his mantle of kangaroo skin, the fur worn inside, securely fastened with a long wooden pin like a skewer, whilst in one of his hands, which were small and well-shaped, he held lightly a bundle of slender spears six or seven feet in length. A twisted string of opossum fur, in which was stuck his tobacco pipe, was wound several times round the upper part of his bare muscular arm, and his cheeks were painted with a red earth, as a lady puts on rouge. It seemed that he was come to make a call of ceremony upon us as his new neighbours, and not being furnished with a card to send in first, he affably became his own introducer, saying, "I Mister Khourabene—you gentleman fellow—I gentleman fellow—I come see you." Perhaps what struck us most in his manner was the complete taking for granted that he and ourselves were upon precisely the same social level; an idea which we were fain to accept in a complimentary sense, such being evidently the intention of our visitor. He appeared to find us congenial, for after this introduction, his visits to us were constantly repeated whenever he was in the neighbourhood, and as the liking was mutual, and experience had proved him to be thoroughly trustworthy, we habitually employed him about our house in preference to any of his relations.
The native figure and complexion are much set off by dress, and as Khourabene often frequented the parsonage for weeks together, we wished to give him the benefit of bright-coloured clothes which should do justice to his lithe well-knit shape. My husband therefore dressed him in a dark-blue jersey and a pair of white trousers, and Khourabene was delighted with the effect; but at the end of two days both trousers and jersey had disappeared, and a grave silence was all that we could extract from our friend on the subject. We dressed him again, but without more permanent results; in fact, he seemed to wear our livery no longer than until an opportunity should occur for exchanging or giving it away. In his native kangaroo mantle he looked the gentleman savage; in shirt and trousers he had the air of a neat trim black servant; but when left to himself, and allowed to exchange his good clothes for the old rags in which the first native he might meet happened to be arrayed (an exchange which their habits forbade him to decline), he looked as if got up for a scare-crow. Bottled beer had no doubt something to do with the disappearance of the jersey, which was quite good enough to have excited a white man's envy; but we found that the natives have a law amongst themselves, so stringently compelling them to share their individual possessions with each other, that no one appears long to retain personal ownership of any present that has been made to him.
It is scarcely possible to imagine a stronger exemplification of that community of goods which distinguished the early Christian church, when "neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own," than exists amongst these savages, only with this difference, that the self-abnegation instead of being voluntary is produced by compulsion. If, for instance, we gave food to a native whilst others of his tribe were hanging about the house, he considered that we doubled the favour by contriving an opportunity for him to eat unseen, as otherwise he must of necessity share his dinner with the lookers-on. This law is especially binding with respect to strangers of another tribe, with whom, if friendliness is to be maintained, a native is bound to make an exchange of property however greatly to his own disadvantage. The same article, therefore, is at different times owned by a great variety of persons, as a proof of which I may mention that during our residence in the colony an exploring party found a tin, which had once contained preserved meat, in possession of some natives who had never before seen a white man.
All the better class of colonists in the bush have their favourite natives, who, in return for old clothes and food, which principally consists of flour, will consent to act as cleaners of pots and pans, as well as hewers of wood and drawers of water. More commonly still, the natives are employed in minding the sheep and lambs, an office for which they are no less fitted by their extraordinary habits of observation than by their quiet gentle manners and their inborn kindness to animals; and when thus employed in the continuous care of a flock these qualities receive recognition in the shape of regular wages, though not in the same proportion as are paid to white men. Sometimes a number of natives will remain many weeks near a homestead, assisting on the farm, and then, as if tired of being any longer in one spot, they will assume the important air of persons whose presence is required at a distance on urgent private affairs, and the whole party will disappear for a longer or shorter period.
It is not to be supposed that people who have neither furniture nor wardrobe to speak of can be much troubled with luggage in flitting, but of such as there is the ladies are compelled to be the porters; and what with bundles of flour and supernumerary fur mantles, one often meets the poor women bent almost double with their burdens, which they always carry on their backs. At all times an opossum-skin wallet between the shoulders, or under one arm, is an indispensable female appendage, where sits the baby if there is one, peeping out of the fur lining. The other children, generally quite naked, run beside the mother; whilst the father of the family, his head thrown slightly back, and a few spears in his hand, paces leisurely along in front of the party with all the dignity of a king. A child is sometimes carried astride on its parent's shoulders. I once saw a youngster sitting thus, who steadied himself by clutching his mother's hair tightly with one hand whilst the other held a bone which he was very diligently gnawing.
The rear of the wayfarers is often brought up by several dogs, whose lean and bony appearance gives little token of the strong affection with which their masters really regard them. The Australian dotes upon his dogs, and never destroys a puppy; but, nevertheless, he will not insult the high intelligence of his four-footed friends, by supposing that they are not equal to the task of finding their own living. The dogs are careful not to disappoint his good opinion of them, and prowl about at night like jackals, robbing all insecure larders, and even the vineyards when grapes are in season. In hopes of abating this nuisance, the colonial authorities have established a dog-tax, which the white population pays, and which the natives for the most part elude altogether.
No native ever encamps unless within easy reach of water, and if huts are wanted the women must build them. They are made of boughs, the roofs round-shaped, too low to stand upright in, with the entrance carefully turned away from the wind; and if the wind shifts in the night some one, again a lady I should presume, has to get up to alter the position of the doorway. In front of each hut a fire is lighted, so that the feet of those who are sleeping within shall be kept warm; and if a relation's death has lately occurred, an additional and solitary fire is lighted at a little distance from the huts, where the ghost of the deceased may sit and warm itself without disturbing the family hearth. Warmth is, in fact, so great a necessity to the native, that he seems to think that the dead can only by degrees become accustomed to the want of it, and the airing of a grave by kindling a fire within it is a very important ceremony at a funeral. The same love of warmth creates an aversion to early rising, and natives are seldom seen abroad until the sun has been one or two hours above the horizon.
In wet weather it is usual to carry in the hand, beneath the kangaroo skin, a piece of smouldering wood, which compensates in some sort for the want of a flannel waistcoat, and enables them to light a fire at a moment's notice. Khourabene also had a plan on cold nights of lying down, rolled up in his furs, upon the ashes of a raked-out fire. He explained to my husband, who once very nearly fell over him outside our house where he had tucked himself up in this manner for the night, that the advantage of thus going to bed was twofold, being no less good for warmth than for concealment, especially when passing the night in a strange place, where the keeping up of a fire after dark might attract the notice of unfriendly natives. Each tribe possesses a territory of its own, and each family of the tribe has its own especial tract of land within that territory, together with the springs of water thereupon; here he can light his fire and build his hut without fear of molestation; it is in fact his paternal estate, so that the word "fire" conveys to an Australian the same meaning of fatherland or birthplace as the European idiom of "hearth," and is used by the aborigines in the same sense.
The Australian women are less good-looking than the men, partly perhaps because amongst a thick-lipped race the possession of beard and moustaches is useful in concealing homely features, and also because the state of extreme subjection in which the women are kept by their husbands does not tend to beautify them. The poor drudges are severely beaten for the slightest fault, not to mention that they are sometimes, as a native expressed it to me, "little bit speared"; but this I fancy is always with a view to reformation, as in case of capital offences it becomes the husband's duty to spear his wife so that death ensues. However, in a matrimonial quarrel that occurred close to our house, Khourabene, as third party, persuaded the husband to act in a manner both philosophical and conciliatory. A violent altercation had sprung up one night amongst a party of natives that were encamped near us, the dispute being followed with screams and yells such as only black women's lungs seem to have the secret of producing; and as these sounds were plainly accompanied by others that resembled the breaking of a stick, I called to Khourabene, who was eating his supper in the kitchen, and dispatched him in the direction of the uproar, with a message from ourselves that the discipline must be suspended. He started off at a run, supper and beer in his hands (the tin pannikin, be it observed, was deep, and not over full), and the yells soon gave place to a loud talking, as if each individual in the company was giving a different version of the affair at one and the same moment. To this Babel succeeded a dead stillness, followed by the re-appearance of my ambassador, evidently much pleased with the result of his interference and the superior judgment which he had displayed. "Womany drunk," he said with an air of careless dignity; "I tell him let her wonga (i. e. talk)—"morning all right."
Of religion the natives appear to possess but the merest rudiments, and no forms of worship whatever—unless their manner of propitiating the bad spirit Jingy can be considered such—though a &int type of a priesthood may be found in the Bollia men, as those persons are called who pretend to know Jingy's manoeuvres on given occasions, and are continually ready to steal a march upon him. Khourabene had been a Bollia man, and for that very reason appeared to believe as little as might be in the manifestations of Jingy as reported by the natives in general, such as frightening people in the bush as a bogy,—laying claim to the gum on certain trees which were pointed out to us, and knocking loudly in the night on the huts of natives who gathered it,—appearing in the likeness of a bird with long legs and a snout to a girl who went to drink at a pond after dark, whereby the said girl "berry near have a fit,"—and so on; but on one point, where Jingy throws off the mask, and shows himself in his true colours as the "murderer from the beginning," the faith of our poor savage friend was implicit.
A week after a native's death, his grave is visited by the Bollia men, to discern whether Jingy's track can be found anywhere near it or on it; and, in case it is pronounced visible, the nearest male relative of the dead must then wander away in search of a person of another tribe, whom he is necessitated to kill, that the departed soul may find rest. The chief mourner is restless and ill at ease till this supposedly pious duty has been fulfilled; after which, things drop into their ordinary course, and the name of the dead is never more alluded to. It can therefore be easily conceived what distrust and suspicion is excited in the minds of the natives if a stranger is known to be hovering about their tribe. Khourabene described to me how, when his mother died, his father provided him and his little brothers with plenty of kangaroo meat, and then took his spears and "far away walk" to look for a woman to kill. To this cruel superstition we attributed the deaths of two native children within a short distance of our own house, who, on different occasions, were speared by strangers who instantly afterwards took flight. The possibility of a like fate being in store for a little native girl named Binnahan, whom we took under our care on her loss of her mother, made us at all times feel that her life was more precarious than that of a white child. The custom of thus pacifying one soul by sending another to keep it company is believed by most persons to have originated in a desire to preserve an even balance of population amongst the tribes; I have sometimes wondered whether it had a deeper root, and had sprung from the universal tradition of the necessity of sacrifices.
A friend once took me to see a native's grave; it was made in somewhat of a semicircular form, and on the day of the funeral had been covered, she said, with swansdown, of which when I visited the spot the wind had left no vestige. Green boughs are generally arched hutwise over the burial-place, which give it a pretty appearance whilst the leaves continue fresh; and even when the twigs and foliage are withered, the deserted mound impresses the mind of the beholder less painfully than does the solitary grave of a Christian in unconsecrated ground. More melancholy objects of the kind can scarcely be imagined than two such graves which I have seen in different parts of the colony, each standing alone in a field, protected, it is true, with a railing, from being trodden on by cattle, or disturbed by the plough, but without any sacred emblem that should relieve the secular character of the desolation.
Though the natives often plagued us, lying about in the verandahs and asking us for all sorts of things which we did not choose to give them, yet, when we had seen none of them for any length of time, we missed their fun and frolic, and felt somewhat as people do whose children are gone to school. Especially we regretted the loss of their willing feet, since they were always ready to act as messengers, and carriers of letters or "paper talk," as such missives are styled by the natives, in the safe conveyance of which they show great fidelity. I never heard of letters being lost by any native to whom they had been entrusted, and if it should occur that a native with letters in his charge is prevented from continuing his journey, he invariably passes them on to another of his tribe, who transmits them safely to the hands of the persons for whom they were intended. The value of such trustworthiness can be easily understood in a country thinly peopled, where the nearest post-office is often very far away.
One morning of excessive heat it so happened that I commissioned a nephew of Khourabene's, named Ned, to carry a letter to the house of a colonist who lived eleven miles from Barladong. My courier was accompanied by his wife, and I was much struck, when they set out, with the different styles of costume which the two had adopted for the journey. Ned was dressed very jauntily in nothing but a shirt drawn tightly to the waist with a belt, whereas the wife's attire might rather have befitted an expedition towards the South pole. She was quite weighed down with a garment of new opossum fur, reaching from her shoulders to her feet, and her spirits seemed as heavy as her clothing. The next day we had a thunderstorm, with pouring rain that lasted till the evening, when just after dark there came a tap at the window, accompanied by a very lamentable voice, which I recognized as belonging to Ned, He and his wife had brought me back an answer to my letter in spite of the bad weather, though she alone had any particular reason to complain of it, and of her, poor thing, one could hardly say that she was wet to the skin, as she had so very little on her excepting her skin to be wetted. Ned had changed clothes with her when the weather changed, by which I do not mean that he had given her his shirt, but rather that he had taken her fur; and I could not help suspecting that his original motive in making her his travelling companion had been that she might act as a clothes-horse. Being invited into the kitchen, they forthwith sat down upon the hearth in front of the fire, and some pepper having accidentally been mixed with the tea which our servant made for them, Ned seized the occasion to raise his wife's spirits by feigning death in consequence. That such an event should be regarded by her with complacency, after his recent behaviour about the fur, was possibly a suggestion of his own , and accordingly he fell back in a good stage attitude, crying out, "Pepper tea! I die! I poison!" On this the poor half-drowned wife burst into a laugh, which was echoed by the defunct, and the two immediately became as merry as a couple of children.
I took some pains to learn the native vocabulary, and was much interested at finding that the word "me-ul," signifying "an eye," which figures in the little list of words written down by Captain Cook from the lips of the savages that he met in New South Wales, was used in the same sense by our friends of Western Australia. I did not, however, attain to much proficiency in the study, and beyond an ostentatious display to Khourabene of any new word or phrase which I had picked up, was obliged to content myself with the conventional jargon which is universally adopted in speaking to the natives by all who are not really conversant with their language. This sort of hotch-potch is composed of native words largely mingled with English, and is better understood by the natives than plain English; it consists also in getting rid of all prepositions, driving the verbs to the end of the sentence, and tacking on to them the syllable "um" as an ornamental finish wherever it sounds euphonious. Thus I heard Khourabene calling out one day, "Dog hollarum, water wantum "; implying that he thought our house-dog was whining with thirst. A large quantity of anything is expressed by the words "big-fellow," as "big-fellow-rain," "big-fellow fond of," but in showing pity or condolence "poor old fellow" is the received form, and is of such universal application that it is quite as suitable to a baby cutting its teeth, as to the moon suffering from eclipse, a misfortune which is laid at Jingy's door, who is supposed to have put out the light maliciously by carrying off the moon's fat. "Quiet fellow" and "sulky fellow" have an almost equally wide range, the first signifying any conceivable degree of amiability, either in man or beast, and the latter ferocity to a like extent. The words "get down," have been chosen as a synonym of the verb "to be," and the first question of a friendly native would be "Mamman all right get down?" meaning "is father quite well?" for strange to say Mamman is the native word for "father," whilst N-angan or Oongan stands for "mother." The cry which is used by the natives to attract the attention of persons at a distance is expressed by the two syllables coo-ee, the sound of which, when long drawn out at a high pitch, is carried so far, that the early Dutch navigator who asserted that Tasman's Land was solely inhabited by "howling evil spirits," probably formed his opinion from hearing one native coo-ee to another on beholding the unusual apparition of a ship. However, if on this fact alone was based the old sailor's conclusion, a return in the flesh to take another coasting survey might result in his pronouncing the same opinion of the whole Australian continent, for the colonists have universally adopted the natives' coo-ee whenever they desire to communicate with anyone at a distance, and have no means of doing so but by the voice. People who are lost in the bush, coo-ee for help, and their friends who are looking for them coo-ee for the chance of a reply. I have been even told of a man having brought home to London a colonial wife who, alarmed at being separated from her husband by a crowd in Fleet Street, successfully hazarded a coo-ee to let him know in what part of that thoroughfare she was bewildered.
The natives sing continually, but the use of musical instruments seemed unknown amongst them, and I observed that their songs were always in the minor key. Khourabene's songs were of a surprising length, considering that he drew a deep breath at starting, and neither replenished his lungs nor brought his ditty to a conclusion until the original stock of wind was thoroughly exhausted. There was one especial song which he crooned so often that at last I asked him to translate it for me; but the words were not precisely of a sort to meet the approbation of the Society for the Preservation of Aboriginal Races, neither did they tally with the experience of the African traveller who wrote sentimental verses in praise of the kindness of women to the forlorn foreigner. Khourabene's song described the approach of a stranger, and the chorus was an urgent entreaty from the women that the men would lose no time in killing him.
It must not be supposed that the natives are without a belief in personal cleanliness, but their notions on such matters are rather different to white people's opinions on the same subject. We were now and then asked for a piece of soap to wash an old cotton shirt which a native might have received as a present from a colonist; but for the face and hands oil or grease is much preferred as a cleansing medium, and, on all occasions when full dress is indispensable, a native never thinks himself thoroughly comme il faut unless his whole body shines with oil from head to foot. A neighbour of ours told me of two natives who presented themselves at her door to beg for grease, and who accounted for the dried-up condition of their legs, to which they ruefully pointed, by saying "in jail no grease get down"; the poor fellows having just been liberated from prison, where the authorities had failed to recognize unguents as a substitute for soap. I once found Khourabene sitting on the kitchen floor with his legs as far apart as those of the Colossus of Rhodes, while between them stood our black three-legged iron pot full of the cooling liquor from which a boiled ham had been lately lifted, the surface of which, with an indescribable twinkle of satisfaction, he was employed in skimming for the purposes of pomatum. It was a less objectionable application for the hair than that which was selected by a little native girl, who, having been neatly dressed on her installation as baby-carrier to a colonist's wife, emptied the contents of the lamp over her head immediately afterwards.
There was an old fellow named Isaac whom the other natives treated with a good deal of deference as chief of the tribe, and whom I amused myself with fancying that Friday's father had perhaps resembled, whose legs, when he had bestowed a little polishing on them, looked like dark old Spanish mahogany. My first acquaintance with Isaac was at a neighbouring farm-house, where he had been busy all day in carrying water to the washing copper. I was amused to see how much he enjoyed the mug of tea which he was drinking beside the kitchen hearth, and I noticed also the splendour with which his legs had been polished up, as the plentiful supply of grease to be met with at such an abode had induced him to make his toilet directly his work was over. But the laugh was not all on my side. At sight of me he burst into a loud guffaw, the cause of which was explained by his mistress, who said that I was the only woman whom Isaac had ever seen in a black beaver riding-hat, of the shape commonly called in the colony a "bell topper." Isaac was evidently an old beau, for his hair was freshly curled, and every ringlet shone with oil. Wrapped up to the chin in a very handsome new fur mantle, he continued to stare at me and my hat over the top of his saucer, and to chuckle merrily to himself while his mistress expatiated to us on his many merits, but especially on the fact of his being wifeless, emphatically impressing upon us the great superiority of unmarried natives as servants over those who had wives. The reason of this preference for celibate savages is that the native women are less patient of remaining long in any one spot than their lords, and, considering the circumstances of their lives, I confess that I do not wonder that they crave for frequent change of place. With no settled habitations to develop a love of home, and with no idea of laying up money for their children or for old age, it seems to me that only idiots or philosophers could long endure the sight of the same scenery, and not confess to a feeling of being "bored."
One of the chief purposes for which the natives covet oil is that they may mix it with a red earth called wilghee, which they use in painting themselves. The effect of this wilghee when applied to the cheeks alone, is far from unbecoming; but wilghee, which enjoys the same favour as the blue woad once so fashionable in Britain, is not confined to the face, but is frequently worn as a complete costume, and even the old shirts which are begged from the colonists are often smeared with it.
Not long after I had afforded Isaac so much amusement I found a young dandy seated on the dry sand of the river bed, holding a little gilt-framed looking-glass the size of a crown-piece in one hand, whilst with the other he was putting the finishing touches to a general wilghee toilet, being then employed upon his face. A flask of salad oil stood beside him in the sand, and also a small box, like a pretence for a dressing-case, containing the red earth, with which he had so bedaubed himself from head to foot that his eyes alone retained their natural hue. To the extent permitted by his tiny mirror he appeared to be surveying himself as a work of art, which in a certain sense he was, for his hair was so thickly plastered with the red pigment, that every lock stood distinct and separate like the curls of a clay model.When a native family is "placed in mourning," as newspapers would say, wilghee is inadmissible, and the face must be either chalked or blackened. Khourabene being invited to attend the funeral of a cousin, came into our kitchen to dress for the occasion, and first oiling his hands well, proceeded to rub them on the back of the chimney, and then to rub his face with his hands. By this means he paid the deceased a kinsman's tribute of respect, and at the same time produced in his own appearance a change so startling and complete that it might have misled the keenest observer. In which sooty mask we will leave Khourabene for the present, and pass on to the consideration of other subjects.
- I am indebted for this information to Bishop Salvado's 'Memorie Storiche dell' Australia.'