Life and Adventures of William Buckley/Chapter VI

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CHAPTER VI.

FISHING HUT ON THE KARAAF RIVER.—GREAT SUCCESS.—THE WOMBAT.—DOMESTIC CEREMONIES OF THE NATIVES.—GREY HAIR.—ANOTHER MURDER.—CANNIBALISM.—MY MARRIAGE.—MY WIFE ELOPES, AND LEAVES ME VERY DISCONSOLATE!—HER FATE.—MONSTER SNAKE.—BLIND BOY.—RETURN TO MY HOME ON THE KARAAF RIVER.

"The breeze came gently o'er me from the West,
   Where the last sunbeams linger e'er they part;
Along the beach I lay, to sleep, and rest
   My wearied limbs, and still more wearied heart."


At length I was compelled to leave my quarters and move to the Karaaf River again, where I built a more substantial hut, the locality being full of roots. Unfortunately I had no dog to hunt the kangaroo, so my dependence was chiefly upon the fish, which sometimes however, were very scarce. Before I made this change of quarters the winter had set in very tempestuously and I suffered very much from the cold weather and continued rains. One day, whilst watching the fish, I saw a great shoal of bream come into the mouth of the river, making their way up a long distance, to a bend where it branches off, and where it is of considerable depth. When the tide turned, they came down with it again, and it occurred to me that if I could by any means stop them in their retreat by a sort of wear, I should have a great supply of food, thus placed at my command, as it would seem, by Providence; so I turned my thoughts to this all that day, and all night long. After examining the river, I found a spot suited to the purpose, where the tide did not rise above two feet, and here I resolved on making the attempt. With this view, I set to work making faggots with rushes and boughs of trees,— carrying them down to the bank of the river; and, at the same time, preparing long stakes, sharpened at one end, to make them fast in the sand. At length I had a sufficient number together to commence operations, and taking advantage of the tide when it receded, I set about my undertaking, and completed a wear, working incessantly; so that when the fish came down with the stream in thousands, they found themselves intercepted, and being apparently confounded at this, they turned tail up again, and then down, and so on; but by that time the top of my wear was above the surface, and they were obliged to surrender at discretion. I caught in this way, considerable numbers, and consequently was in great delight; for with them, and the roots growing thereabout, I had food in abundance. I gathered—or rather caught, I should say—heaps of them, and employed myself in drying and preserving them—many of these fish weighing three pounds each and more,—being also of very delicious flavour. With feelings of comparative content, I set about improving my habitation, making it more substantial and comfortable, by getting some logs, and making the roof better able to resist the cold and rains. The branches of trees and their supporters I covered with turf, making the sides of that material, forming a chimney of the same; so that after a few days' labour, I found myself more at home in my solitary abode, having from the door-way a long view over the plain, and out to sea.

It was necessary, I found, to consult the moon, so as to judge of the ebbing and flowing of the tides; for the fish, I ascertained came and went accordingly; and therefore, in order to prevent a scarcity, it was proper I should dry them in the sun, by spreading them about on the trees, and on the roof of my hut, taking them inside on every appearance of rain, or other unfavourable weather. There was another sort of food very useful to me; this was a particular kind of root the natives call Murning—in shape, and size, and flavour, very much resembling the radish.

Whilst employed with my fish one day, I heard voices near me. One said "Amadeat," meaning, white man. The first thing to be done was to conceal myself; but presently I saw two men, and two women, with several children. One of them called out, in their language, "It is me," meaning by that, they were friends, and that I need not be alarmed. I soon found they belonged to the tribe of my old friend: my tribe, I may say. On seeing me, the women began to cry with joy at finding me safe. It was more than a year, perhaps nearly two, since I had met them, or any human being; and they supposed me to have been killed long since. One of the men took a leg of kangaroo out of his basket, and some of the roots and gum they had, and gave them to me; and in return, I took them to my hut and offered them fish, of which food I showed them my great abundance, and told them my adventures since we parted; at which they expressed much delight, singing and capering about in a most wild and extravagant manner.

When I explained my plan of entrapping the fish, they could not contain themselves for joy, patting me on the back, and saying I deserved three or four wives for my invention. For some cause or other they then told their women to go away; they, however, would not, but began stamping and beating the ground, expressive of their dissatisfaction. After a time the men went off to spear fish, and on their return they set up their huts near mine, and so made themselves comfortable for many days. After a time they persuaded me to accompany them to a salt lake, called Nellemengobeet, about five miles off, which lake is only separated from the sea by a narrow belt, or sand-bank. Near it was a well of very good water, and there we encamped, our object being to gather gum and roots.

When the moon was again at the full we returned to the Karaaf—my old fishing quarters; where our success was so great, that one of the party went away to fetch the remainder of the tribe, to share with us in kindness our abundant supplies. They soon joined us, bringing with them a quantity of kangaroo; and seeing we were so comfortable, they pitched their huts beside our party.

Having heard of the massacre of my friends, they vowed vengeance against the murderers; but the resources of food I had provided by means of the wears, being so ample, they remained content for a long time, heaping upon me all the civilities possible, for having put them in the way of procuring fish for themselves and families so easily.

After some time, we all went away together in search of the kangaroo, of which we killed a great many, as also of the norngnor—an animal about the size of a small pig. It is the creature the English call the wombat. They live in holes in the earth, of about twenty feet long and from ten to twenty deep, in an oblique direction, burrowing in them like the mole. When well cooked, they are good eating. The mouth of this creature is furnished with large teeth, their ears scarcely discernable, their legs being very short and armed with long claws; the skin is very tough, with short hair upon it, but they are without tails. The wombats feed on grass chiefly, only venturing out after dark, or on moonlight nights, returning to their burrows at day-break. The natives take these creatures by sending a boy or girl into their burrows, which they enter feet first, creeping in backwards until they touch the animal. Having discovered the lair, they call out as loud as they can, beating the ground over head, whilst those above are carefully listening,—their ears being pressed close to the earth. By this plan of operations, they are enabled to tell with great precision the spot where they are. A perpendicular hole is then made, so as to strike the extremity of the burrow: and having done this, they dig away with sharp sticks, lifting the mould out in baskets. The poor things are easily killed, for they offer no resistance to these intrusions on their haunts. There is, however, a good deal of difficulty in making these holes, and in getting down so deep to them—so that it is a sort of hunting for food, of which the natives are not very fond. Except when the wombat has young, it is seldom that more than one is found in a hole. The animal is generally roasted whole, after having had the entrails taken out, which is all the preparation—the fire doing all the rest. And whilst alluding to this method of cookery, I may as well state, that in summer fire is very easily obtained by rubbing together two sticks of the wood they call Dealwark. They sometimes carry these unlighted fire-sticks about with them, wrapped up in a sort of covering made of opossum hair. In the winter months they are often very much distressed for fire, and suffer greatly from hunger and cold; their only covering being skin rugs, sown together with sinews—using as needles fine bones of the kangaroo. These rugs serve them also to lay upon. Considering how they are exposed to the weather, it is wonderful how little they suffer from idleness; for, excepting a sort of erysipelas, or scurvy, with which they are sometimes afflicted, they are in general very healthy. I never observed any European contagious disease prevalent, in the least degree; and this I thought strange. There was at one time however, I now recollect, a complaint which spread through the country, occasioning the loss of many lives, attacking generally the healthiest and strongest, whom it appeared to fix upon in preference to the more weakly. It was a dreadful swelling of the feet, so that they were unable to move about, being also afflicted with ulcers of a very painful kind.

I may as well here also mention a curious custom they have relative to their domestic affairs—if such a term can be applied to such a people. In many instances, a girl, almost as soon as she is born, is given to a man. After this promise, the mother of the child never again voluntarily speaks to the intended husband before he takes her to himself, nor to any of his brothers, if he has any; on the contrary she shuns them in the most careful manner. If the future son-in-law, or either of his brothers, should visit the tribe, she is always previously informed of his coming, so that she may have time to get out of the way; and if by chance she meets them, she covers her head over with her skin cloak. If any present is sent to her, such as opossum or kangaroo, and such like food, the receivers rub their faces and hands over with charcoal before it is taken and tasted. When again, a present of a skin cloak is made by the intended son-in-law, the mother gives it to her husband to wear for some time before it is favoured with her acceptance. This practice is adhered to on both sides, for the son-in-law may see his proposed father, but will not on any account see the mother; their notions on these matters being, that when their children are married the parents become much older, and if the girl's mother happens to see the proposed husband it will cause her hair to turn grey immediately.

To return to my narrative. We remained for a very long time at this place, and were ultimately joined by two tribes, one being called the Putnaroo, the other the Warwaroo, who usually inhabited the opposite side of the bay, a long way off, and on this occasion had left their women and children behind them. Having erected their bark huts near ours, they remained peaceable enough for several days, hunting and enjoying themselves; at length, the Putnaroos suddenly surrounded our people, and without any previous altercation speared a young man about twenty years of age. The cause stated to be was, that the murdered man had been promised a girl who his assailant wanted for himself. Poor fellow, when he was speared, he ran only a very few paces, and then dropped down dead. Our tribe expostulated with the others against this assault, but were answered by the threat, that if they said much about it they would serve us in a similar manner; so we, being by far the weaker party, were obliged to appear to be satisfied.

This affair broke up our encampment, and I was sent to inform the friends of the deceased of what had happened, and also to watch the movements of the Putnaroos. Having found all this out, namely, where the enemy were, and the young man's parents, I made the latter acquainted with the circumstances connected with his death; telling them at the same time, that his remains had been deposited in the branch of a tree; which news gladdened them much, for in the first place they imagined the savages had taken his body away. When they had consoled themselves a little, the father summoned all the tribe and other friends he could muster; they came in considerable force, and having pipe-clayed and ochered themselves all over, they set off, prepared for battle. This however was evaded, as the Putnaroo invaders had taken to their heels, on seeing the great numbers to which they were opposed.

We now took up our quarters at a place they called Nullemungobeed, situated in the centre of a very extensive plain, with wells of good water handy. When we had settled ourselves down there, some of the men went to the spot where we had left the young man's remains hanging in the tree, and brought away the lower part of the body, leaving the upper quarters and head where they found it suspended. The usual uproar commenced amongst the women on the arrival of the part of the corpse, lamentation succeeding lamentation, burning with fire-sticks, and all the rest of it, until at length the mangled remains were roasted between heated stones, shared out, and greedily devoured by these savages. Again I was pressed to join in this horrid repast; but I hope I need not say, that I refused, with indignation and disgust.

Strange as all these cannibal ceremonies may appear, it is proper to explain, that many are performed out of what they consider respect for the deceased; the cap bones of whose knees, in this instance, after being carefully cleaned, were tied up in a sort of net of hair and twisted bark. Under such circumstances, these relics are carried by the mothers, tied round their necks by day, and placed under their heads by night, as affectionate remembrancers of the dead.

Being again thoroughly disgusted with these inhuman scenes, I went away alone, back to my old hut at the Karaaf River, where I fished as before by means of my wear, and lived, for many months, daily expecting a visit from some of the tribes; but, by their absence, they all appeared to have deserted me. One day, however, a friendly party visited my solitary abode, and settled themselves down. In this way we all lived on for several months more, having plenty of fish and roots.

And now, reader, I come to a very important period of my life, which was a decision arrived at by my friends that I should take unto myself a wife. I was not in any way consulted, being considered a sort of instrument in their hands to do with as they might think proper.—My wife was a young widow, about twenty years of age, tolerably good-looking, after a fashion, and apparently very mild tempered. The marriage feast, the ring, the fees for the ceremony, the bride's dress, my own, and all the rest of it, did not cost much. I was not obliged to run in debt, or fork out every shilling, or pay fifty per cent. for discounting a bill to pay the piper—nothing of the kind; so I took her to myself, to my turf and bark hunting and fishing hut, on the banks of the Karaaf River.—I should here mention, that although previously married, my wife did not present me, on the day of our union, with any tender little remembrances of her first husband, my predecessor in her affections. Affections!—we shall see more about that presently; but, perhaps I may as well say at once, that my dearly beloved played me most abominably false, for at the end of our honeymoon, (perhaps it might have been a few months after that moon had gone down,) one evening when we were alone in our hut, enjoying our domestic felicity, several men came in, and took her away from me by force; she, however, going very willingly. The next day—as I had no Supreme Court to go to for damages—I went over to the tribe the intruders belonged to, and told them how I had been treated. I confess I did not make a very great fuss about my loss—if it was one—but endeavoured to whistle it down the wind gaily. Several of the friendly natives were anxious I should take the usual revenge upon her and the man she had left me to live with, but I refused, and in the end, she was speared by another man, with whom she had been coqueting, and to whom she had also played falsely. Mixed up by relationship, as all these parties were, after a great number of altercations about her having run away from me, and the circumstances of her death, there was another fight, in which many heads were broken. I, however, took no part in these, excepting assuming the defensive, and threatening them with punishment if they interfered with me, being now, and having been for a long time past, quite as expert as any of them with the spear, and boomerang. After a great deal of talk and noise, all became reconciled, and there was another Corrobberree on a large scale. A little before this affair, I had taken charge of a little blind boy, and a girl, children of my supposed brother-in-law, who were very much attached to me, and went with me in my hunting and fishing excursions.

I should here observe, that the natives sometimes, and when the wind is favourable, hunt round a kind of circle, into which they force every kind of animal and reptile to be found; they then fire the boundary, and so kill them for food; it matters not what they are, whether kangaroo, wombats, opossum, or black snakes; they are to them, with the exception of the last named, all alike; as are also lizards, toads, rats, mice, and wild dogs; they cook and eat them all. On one of these burning excursions, I remember a monster snake was killed, having two distinct heads, separating about two inches from the body, black on the back, with a brownish yellow belly, and red spots all over. It had been about nine feet long, but the fire had burnt the body in two, and being such an unnatural looking monster, the natives were terribly frightened at its appearance. Of the poisonous snakes generally, they are not the least afraid, for they eat them, after cutting off the heads, and roasting them in the usual manner.

With my adopted children, and two families only, I now went to a place they called Bearrock, where there was a chain of water holes, full of excellent eels, and roots, on which we subsisted for a long time. One night one of the women—just as we were laying down to sleep—heard a rustling in the bushes, as if people were approaching. Her, and her husband, came immediately, saying we must all run for our lives, and thus dreadfully alarming the little girl, and her blind brother for they had all been present at the murder of their father. After a minute's thought, we all resolved to be off, in order to conceal ourselves. Being quite at a loss what to do, we remained silent, if possible to ascertain from whence the noise proceeded, and who the strangers were. After a time, our two men, who had gone out to reconnoitre, came back, saying they had seen a fire, with several men standing round about it, which very much increased the alarm, and particularly of my poor little boy and girl. For their protection and support, I put some fire into one of our native buckets, covering it over with turf, and then moved off to a more concealed place, the natives called Banor, on the top of a small hill in the shape of a sugar-loaf, and close to the sea side, from whence, at day light, I knew I should be able to see all around me to a great distance.

In the morning, on looking anxiously around, I observed, about a mile off, some people coming in my direction, and in consequence of their approach, I concealed myself, with my charge. However, I soon saw they were our friends, who we had left the night before. We then held a consultation as to the direction we should take for their safety, and differing in opinion, we separated, they going one way inland, and I, with my charge, another; mine being toward a place they called Kirkedullim, near the sea side. So we kept wandering along for several days, until we made a lengthy halt at Mangowak where we lived on shell fish, and a sort of wild grape which grows in great abundance thereabout. It being the height of summer, we did not suffer much privation; for, as far as I was concerned, I had now been many years accustomed to all the habits of my extraordinary life.

Moving on again, we at length arrived at the Karaaf River, my favourite spot, where I found the hut just as I had left it months before. I know not the cause, but the natives had not visited it, or if they had, they had not in any way interfered with the arrangements I had made for my comfort. Here I again made fast my wear; and although for several days and nights we were very unsuccessful, in consequence of the tide and weather being unfavourable, ultimately a great lot of fish was taken, and we lived in abundance on bream, and roots. I had now become very anxious for the safety of my charge, particularly on account of the poor blind boy, who could in no way assist himself by getting out of danger, should any savage tribe attack us in the night, as I have already described is often their custom. I was at length relieved in part from this responsibility by the arrival of a man, with his wife and family, who I knew to be friendly to us, and who settled himself down close to our locality.