Dot and the Kangaroo/Chapter II
"That is a nice song of yours," said the Kangaroo, "and I like it very much, but please stop singing now, as we are getting near the water-hole, for it's not etiquette to make a noise near water at sundown."
Dot would have asked why everything must be so quiet; but as she peeped out, she saw that the Kangaroo was making a very dangerous descent, and she did not like to trouble her friend with questions just then. They seemed to be going down to a great deep gully that looked almost like a hole in the earth, the depth was so great, and the hills around came so closely together. The way the Kangaroo was hopping was like going down the side of a wall. Huge rocks were tumbled about here and there. Some looked as if they would come rolling down upon them; and others appeared as if a little jolt would send them crashing and tumbling into the darkness below. Where the Kangaroo found room to land on its feet after each bound puzzled Dot, for there seemed no foothold anywhere. It all looked so dangerous to the little girl that she shut her eyes, so as not to see the terrible places they bounded over, or rested on: she felt sure that the Kangaroo must lose her balance, or hop just a little too far or a little too near, and that they would fall together over the side of that terrible wild cliff. At last she said:
"Oh, Kangaroo, shall we get safely to the bottom do you think?"
"I never think," said the Kangaroo, "but I know we shall. This is the easiest way. If I went through the thick bush on the other side, I should stand a chance of running my head against a tree at every leap, unless I got a stiff neck with holding my head on one side looking out of one eye all the time. My nose gets in the way when I look straight in front," she explained. "Don't be afraid," she continued. "I know every jump of the way. We kangaroos have gone this way ever since Australia began to have kangaroos. Look here!" she said, pausing on a big boulder that hung right over the gully, "we have made a history book for ourselves out of these rocks; and so long as these rocks last, long, long after the time when there will be no more kangaroos, and no more humans, the sun, and the moon, and the stars will look down upon what we have traced on these stones."
Dot peered out from her little refuge in the Kangaroo's pouch, and saw the glow of the twilight sky reflected on the top of the boulder. The rough surface of the stone shone with a beautiful polish like a looking-glass, for the rock had been rubbed for thousands of years by the soft feet and tails of millions of kangaroos; kangaroos that had hopped down that way to get water. When Dot saw that, she didn't know why it all seemed solemn, or why she felt such a very little girl. She was a little sad, and the Kangaroo, after a short sigh, continued her way.
As they neared the bottom of the gully the Kangaroo became extremely cautious. She no longer hopped in the open, but made her way with little leaps through the thick scrub. She peeped out carefully before each movement. Her long, soft ears kept moving to catch every sound, and her black sensitive little nose was constantly lifted, sniffing the air. Every now and then she gave little backward starts, as if she were going to retreat by the way she had come, and Dot, with her face pressed against the Kangaroo's soft furry coat, could hear her heart beating so fast that she knew she was very frightened.
They were not alone. Dot could hear whispers from unseen little creatures everywhere in the scrub, and from birds in the trees. High up in the branches were numbers of pigeons—sweet little Bronze-Wings; and above all the other sounds she could hear their plaintive voices crying, "We're so frightened! we're so frightened! so thirsty and so frightened! so thirsty and so frightened!"
"Why don't they drink at the water-hole?" whispered Dot.
"Because they're frightened," was the answer.
"Frightened of what?" asked Dot.
"Humans!" said the Kangaroo, in frightened tones; and as she spoke she reared up upon her long legs and tail, so that she stood at least six feet high, and peeped over the bushes; her nose working all round, and her ears wagging.
"I think it's safe," she said, as she squatted down again.
"Friend Kangaroo," said a Bronze-Wing that had sidled out to the end of a neighbouring branch, "you are so courageous, will you go first to the water, and let us know if it is all safe? We haven't tasted a drop of water for two days," she said, sadly, "and we're dying of thirst. Last night, when we had waited for hours, to make certain there were no cruel Humans about, we flew down for a drink—and we wanted, oh! so little, just three little sips; but the terrible Humans, with their 'bang-bangs,' murdered numbers of us. Then we flew back, and some were hurt and bleeding, and died of their wounds, and none of us have dared to get a drink since." Dot could see that the poor pigeon was suffering great thirst, for its wings were drooping, and its poor dry beak was open.
The Kangaroo was very distressed at hearing the pigeon's story. "It is dreadful for you pigeons," she said, "because you can only drink at evening; we sometimes can quench our thirst in the day, I wish we could do without water! The Humans know all the water-holes, and sooner or later we all get murdered, or die of thirst. How cruel they are!"
Still the pigeons cried on, "we're so thirsty and so frightened;" and the Bronze-Wing asked the Kangaroo to try again, if she could either smell or hear a Human near the water-hole.
"I think we are safe," said the Kangaroo, having sniffed and listened as before; "I will now try a nearer view."
The news soon spread that the Kangaroo was going to venture near the water, to see if all was safe. The light was very dim, and there was a general whisper that the attempt to get a drink of water should not be left later; as some feared such foes as dingoes and night birds, should they venture into the open space at night. As the Kangaroo moved stealthily forward, pushing aside the branches of the scrub, or standing erect to peep here and there, there was absolute silence in the bush. Even the pigeons ceased to say they were afraid, but hopped silently from bough to bough, following the movements of the Kangaroo with eager little eyes. The Brush Turkey and the Mound-Builder left their heaped-up nests and joined the other thirsty creatures, and only by the crackling of the dry scrub, or the falling of a few leaves, could one tell that so many live creatures were together in that wild place.
Presently the Kangaroo had reached the last bushes of the scrub, behind which she crouched.
"There's not a smell or a sound," she said. "Get out, Dot, and wait here until I return, and the Bronze-Wings have had their drink; for, did they see you, they would be too frightened to come down, and would have to wait another night and day."
Dot got out of the pouch, and she was very sorry when she saw how terrified her friend looked. She could see the fur on the Kangaroo's chest moving with the frightened beating of her heart; and her beautiful brown eyes looked wild and strange with fear.
Instantly, the Kangaroo leaped into the open. For a second she paused erect, sniffing and listening, and then she hastened to the water. As she stooped to drink, Dot heard a "whrr, whrr, whrr," and, like falling leaves, down swept the Bronze-Wings. It was a wonderful sight. The water-hole shone in the dim light, with the great black darkness of the trees surrounding it, and from all parts came the thirsty creatures of the bush. The Bronze-Wings were all together. Hundred of little heads bobbed by the edge of the pool, as the little bills were filled, and the precious water was swallowed; then, together, a minute afterwards, "whrr, whrr, whrr," up they flew, and in one great sweeping circle they regained their tree-tops. Like the bush creatures, Dot also was frightened, and running to the water, hurriedly drank, and fled back to the shelter of the bush, where the Kangaroo was waiting for her.
"Jump in!" said the Kangaroo, "It's never safe by the water," and, a minute after, Dot was again in the cosy pouch, and was hurrying away, like all the others from the water where men are wont to camp, and kill with their guns the poor creatures that come to drink.
That evening the Kangaroo tried to persuade Dot to eat some grass, but as Dot said she had never eaten grass, it got some roots from a friendly Bandicoot, which the little girl ate because she was hungry; but she thought she wouldn't like to be a Bandicoot always to eat such food. Then in a nice dry cave she nestled into the fur of the gentle Kangaroo, and was so tired that she slept immediately.
She only woke up once. She had been dreaming that she was at home, and was playing with the new little Calf that had come the day before she was lost, and she couldn't remember, at first waking, what had happened, or where she was. It was dark in the cave, and outside the bushes and trees looked quite black—for there was but little light in that place from the starry sky. It seemed terribly lonesome and wild. When the Kangaroo spoke she remembered everything, and they both sat up and talked a little.
"Mo-poke! mo-poke!" sang the Nightjar in the distance. "I wish the Nightjar wouldn't make that noise when one wants to sleep," said the Kangaroo. "It hasn't got any voice to speak of, and the tune is stupid. It gives me the jim-jams, for it reminds me I've lost my baby kangaroo. There is something wrong about some birds that think themselves musical," she continued: "they are well behaved and considerate enough in the day, but as soon as it is a nice, quiet, calm night, or a bit of a moon is in the sky, they make night hideous to everyone within earshot—'Mo-poke! mo-poke!' Oh! it gives me the blues!"
As the Kangaroo spoke she hopped to the front of the cave.
"I say, Nightjar," she said, "I'm a little sad to-night, please go and sing elsewhere."
"Ah!" said the Nightjar, "I'm so glad I've given you deliciously dismal thoughts with my song! I'm a great artist, and can touch all hearts. That is my mission in the world: when all the bush is quiet, and everyone has time to be miserable, I make them more so—isn't it lovely to be like that?"
"I'd rather you sang something cheerful," said the Kangaroo to herself, but out loud she said, "I find it really too beautiful, it is more than I can bear. Please go a little farther off."
"Mo-poke! mo-poke!" croaked the Nightjar, farther and farther in the distance, as it flew away.
"What a pity!" said the Kangaroo, as she returned to the cave, "the 'possum made that unlucky joke of telling the Nightjar it has a touching voice, and can sing: everyone has to suffer for that joke of the 'possum's. It doesn't matter to him, for he is awake all night, but it is too bad for his neighbours who want to sleep."
Just then there arose from the bush a shrill wailing and shrieking that made Dot's heart stop with fear. It sounded terrible, as if something was wailing in great pain and suffering.
"O Kangaroo!" she cried, "what is the matter?" "That," said the Kangaroo, as she laid herself down to rest, "is the sound of the Curlew enjoying itself. They are sociable birds, and entertain a great deal. There is a party to-night, I suppose, and that is the expression of their enjoyment. I believe," she continued, with a suppressed yawn, "it's not so painful as it sounds. Willy Wagtail, who goes a great deal amongst Humans, says they do that sort of thing also; he has often heard them when he lived near the town."
Dot had never been in the town, but she was certain she had never heard anything like the Curlew's wailing in her home; and she wondered what Willy Wagtail meant, but she was too sleepy to ask; so she nestled a little closer to the Kangaroo, and with the shrieking of the Curlews, and the mournful note of the distant mo-poke in her ears, she fell asleep again.