Old Melbourne Memories/Chapter 16

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Old Melbourne Memories by Rolf Boldrewood
Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI


THE ROMANCE OF A FREEHOLD


In a recent advertisement in the Australasian I observed public notice to be given that "the rich agricultural lands of the Kangatong estate, near Port Fairy, would be subdivided at an early date, and sold in farms to suit purchasers." What changes time doth bring! When I first saw the ground referred to, then known as "Cox's Heifer Station," how could one divine the transformation it was fated to undergo? As little in 1 844 was prevision possible of the separate sale notices in which it would figure as the years rolled on. It epitomises the history of the district, perhaps of the colony.

First of all, "that well-known fattening station known as Kangatong, with choice herd of cattle, stock -horses given in," etc. Then, "that fully improved, fenced, and subdivided sheep property, of which the wool is so favourably known to Melbourne buyers." Again, "that valuable pastoral estate of Kangatong, comprising 35,000 (let us say) acres of freehold"; and now, lastly, "those rich agricultural lands, divided into farms to suit purchasers."

All these progressive wonders were to be evolved from the lone primeval waste upon which a solitary horseman then gazed in the autumn of 1844. And the wand of the squatter-sorcerer was to do it all. I might then have seen lakelets glittering in the sun, orchards and cornfields, barns and stables, mansion and offices, a village in itself, the spacious wool-shed and the scientific wash-pen, had I possessed the prophetic eye. But Fate held her secrets closely then as now. Only the vast eucalyptus forest, stretching unbroken to the horizon, waved its sombre banners before me. Only the scarce-trodden meadows of the waste lay unfed, untouched around me. I beheld a pastoral paradise without so much as a first inhabitant, and at which the very beasts of the field had hardly arrived. It was a spectacle sufficiently solemn to have awed a democrat, to have imbued even the Arch-Anti ——, well, Anti- Capitalist, with some respectful consideration for pioneers, whether in toil or triumph. How I appeared on the scene at this particular juncture came about in this wise.

When I first arrived in Port Fairy, the "Heifer Station" was what would be called in mining parlance "an abandoned claim," and possibly "jumpable," to use another effective expression with which the gold-fields have enriched the Australian vernacular. Mr. John Cox of Werrongourt had reconsidered his first intention of segregating the immature females of his herd—probably as too expensive—had withdrawn them and their herdsmen, leaving hut and yards untenanted, the run unoccupied. This last was now for sale with "improvements." I really can't recall the date of that comprehensive euphemism, which included everything, from a watch-box to a wool-shed, from a brush-yard to a family mansion. Perhaps about the time when the children of married servants advertised for were feelingly referred to as "encumbrances."

However, improvements and encumbrances notwithstanding, we must get on with our "Heifer Station" history. Here it was for sale, with one hut, one log-yard, and the right to 40,000 acres, more or less, of first-class pasture—for how much? Would I could get the offer again! Thirty pounds! This was the price—everybody knew it. Mr. Cox wanted to sell—had plenty of country at Werrongourt—couldn't be bothered with it. The best thing I could do was to go and see it, or close for it at once. Mr. Cox was in Tasmania just at present, but had, of course, left instructions. Thus far the friendly public. I thought I would go and see. So I mounted Clifton, the grandson of Skeleton, and turned my face to the setting sun. Making my way to Tarrone, where at that time Mr. Chamberlain lived, I explained to him the object of my tourist wandering. I was most hospitably received. It turned out afterwards that he had had a hint that I wanted to "sit down" somewhere in his neighbourhood. The runs at that time were, as may be imagined, very sparsely stocked. If the Commissioner of Crown Lands was in a bad temper, he had the power to "give away" to the interloper a seriously appreciable portion of any pastoral area, however long established and secure the occupant might fancy himself to be.

So, as he afterwards told one of the neighbours, he determined to show me every courtesy; after which, appealing to all chivalrous feelings in my nature, he felt that I could not, in common decency, annex any portion of his (Mr. Chamberlain's) run. This was a shade of diplomacy sometimes roughly described as characteristic of "the old soldier." If so, my host's military experiences, as on another historical occasion, served him well. When I left Tarrone that morning, with a guide, towards the Heifer Station, I would have driven on to Western Australia—a pastoral Vanderdecken—rather than infringe on the tolerably liberal boundaries which he claimed for Tarrone.

I rode along and passed the great Tarrone Marsh, with its well-defined wooded banks and its miles upon miles of mournful reeds, wild-duck and bittern haunted. My guide pointed out to me a place where, riding one day a mare that he described as "touchy," by the edge of the marsh, suddenly a blackfellow jumped out from behind a tree—"a salvage man accoutred proper." The touchy mare gave so sudden a prop, accompanied by a desperate plunge, that he was thrown almost at the feet of the "Injun." Others appeared—like Roderick Dhu's clansmen—from every bush and "stony rise," which had till this moment sheltered them. He raised himself doubtfully, much expectant of evil; relations had certainly been strained of late between the races. However, they did not (apparently) kill him, he being there to relate the story. I forget what trifle prevented them.

Then he proceeded to sketch the "lay of the country." Told me (of course) that "I couldn't miss the place if I followed the swamp round for two or three miles, then made for the east a bit, till I came to some thickish country, then to look out for a ti-tree crick as would lead down to the main crick. I'd cut the tracks where they had been tailing the heifers. Then I'd see the hut and yard." He then went on his way, having "to run in a beast to kill," and I saw him no more. No track, no road, no bridle-path was there, no known thoroughfare; while, after you left the great Tarrone Marsh, there was not a landmark to speak of within twenty miles, not a bit of open country the size of a corn-patch. A long, solitary, unsatisfactory day lay before me. Sometimes I was pretty sure I was on the "run"; at other times I was confident that I was off it. I found the creek a minute but permanent-looking rivulet, with occasional water-holes. The hut and yards were on this watercourse; both inexpensive structures. I saw, however, that the whole country-side was covered with a sward of kangaroo grass two or three feet high, and as thick as a field of barley. No doubt it was good fattening country, but I did not take to it somehow. It was a "blind" place, in stock-riders' phrase—no open country, no contrasts, no romance about it in fact. "Toujours gumtree," as Sir Edward Deas Thomson said when he drove Sir Charles Fitzroy and Colonel Mundy—somewhere about that time—with a four-in-hand drag to Coombing, near Carcoar. I didn't fancy it altogether, good though the grass undoubtedly was. I managed to make my way back to Tarrone that night, where I recruited after the toils of the day. I informed my gallant and politic host that I thought I should go farther west. We parted on the morrow—to his relief, doubtless—with feelings of high mutual consideration.

Years afterwards we had many a laugh about the fright I gave him; and when I was safely settled at Squattlesea Mere, less than twenty miles to the westward, I nearly concluded an agreement with him to rent Tarrone for five years, with the option of purchase, while he went to England. This was a year or two before the gold. The rental asked for run, herd (the same numbers, ages, and sexes to be returned), and homestead was calculated upon the fat cattle prices of the period—£2: 10s. for cows, £3 for fat bullocks; so was the purchase money. I often thought how awfully sold my friend and neighbour would have been, as a shrewd man of business, not wholly unmindful of the main chance, had I closed with his offer. I finally declined it on the ground of the run being fully stocked up—our bête noir in those deliciously simple days, when we thought it took ten acres, more or less, to fatten a bullock.

But though it was not considered good form to settle down too close to a man's horse paddock, it would never have done to have taken the first occupier's word for what was his lawful right of run. By his own account there was never any permanent water "out back." All the decent land within twenty miles was his; the best thing the intending pastoralist could do was to go clean out of the district. Had the Dunmore people listened thus dutifully to Mr. Hunter of Eumeralla, they would never have taken up Dunmore, which, in the future, turned out a more valuable property than Eumeralla.

Nor would the Messrs. Aplin have got St. Kitts, the runs of Yambuk and Tarrone being popularly supposed to absorb all the available country between their boundaries. Mr. Lemann, however, managed to insert himself and his belongings, wedge-fashion, between Tarrone and Kangatong, on the border of the Tarrone Marsh. Though small of stature, and not stalwart, he held his own, and fattened a decent average of his herd of 1000 or 1200 head annually until he sold out to Mr. Smith. Mr. Lemann had formerly been a kind of neighbour of ours, having fed his herd previously in the vicinity of a creek running into the Upper Yarra, near a flat which, if I mistake not, is known as "Lemann's Swamp" to this day.

He was a well-informed man, who took a great interest in liberal politics. I well recollect his being filled with righteous wrath at the high-handed act of Rajah Brooke in making a clean sweep of a fleet of pirates. I said then, and have since been confirmed in my opinion, that the gallant ruler of Sarawak knew his business better than his Exeter Hall critics.

Mr. Lemann had for working overseer and general stand-between him and personal exertion a country Englishman named Tom Cook, who with his wife managed everything that his stock-rider Hugh was not responsible for. I took some interest in the family, as we had hired Thomas aforesaid from the emigrant vessel as ploughman, and he had been in our service in that capacity at Heidelberg. From the fair-haired, fresh-coloured English farm labourer that he was then, I watched his development through various stages of colonial experience—into dairyman, knock-about-man, bullock-driver, and finally stock-rider at Kangatong. I rather think he had his smock-frock when he came to us, with English rustic tongue and gait. When I afterwards saw him at Mr. Smith's muster (I had sold Mr. Gibb, the dealer, who was lifting the fat cattle there, an additional drove, just started for Melbourne, at £8 all round, cash) he was quite the stock-rider of the period, with neat boots and seat to match, a sharp eye for calves, and, alas! a colonially-acquired taste for grog, and a fight afterwards, if possible.

However, such were only occasional recreations, between which he was a first-rate worker and most worthy fellow. He and his good wife reared a family of Australian-born East Saxons; his eldest son—a tall fellow with a team of his own, grown a carrier—took away the first load of wool I ever sent from Squattlesea Mere, in 1862 or thereabouts.

Among other things in which Cook showed his power of adaptation was the building of a stone cottage and dairy for Mr. Lemann. The country being of volcanic formation, stone to any amount was on hand, and he principally built the walls, nearly two feet in thickness, of a very snug bachelor establishment—a vast improvement, both in summer and winter, upon the ordinary slab architecture.

After deciding not to buy Mr. Cox's heifer station, I happened to be staying at Grasmere, when I met, one evening, two strange gentlemen, a mile or two from the place, coming along rather travel-worn as to their steeds. These were my worthy friends James Dawson, now of Camperdown, and his friend and partner Mr. Selby. They, like Mr. Lemann, had been trying to make cattle pay on the Upper Yarra ranges—had, like him, concluded to start for the west country, then reported to be the best grass going, and not all taken up. They speedily heard of Mr. Cox having a station for sale, and he soon after returning from Tasmania, Mr. Dawson closed with him for the £30 or thereabouts. Messrs. Dawson and Selby shortly afterwards brought up their cattle, and, with their belongings, occupied the run. I always suspected Mr. Dawson, who was philologically inclined, to have extracted the name Kangatong from the aborigines subsequently, and christened the run after his arrival. It was among the things not generally known before his advent. Gradually and judiciously, as time passed on, Kangatong was improved, and so successfully managed that it took rank as one of the best paying stations in the district. Mr. Dawson and his family showed exceptional kindness towards the blacks who lived near them. Kangatong was just outside of the "tauri," or hereditary district of "the Children of the Rocks," or matters might not have continued so pacific, my old friend being of a temper singularly intolerant of injustice. But his tribelet had long mingled with the whalers of the Port, from which they were distant less than twenty miles. I doubt Port Fairy Campbell and his merry men had "civilised" them previously—i.e. shot a few of the more troublesome individuals. However, Mr. Dawson succeeded in making a valuable collection of data, from which he was enabled to publish his late work upon the manners, language, and religious customs of certain Australian aboriginals, which has received favourable mention from the Saturday and other leading reviews.