The New Arcadia/Chapter 23

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CHAPTER XXIII.

AN OASIS IN THE DESERT.

The little smiling cottage, warm embowered;
The little smiling cottage, where at eve
He meets his rosy children at the door,
Prattling their welcomes, and his honest wife
With good brown cake and bacon slice, intent
To cheer his hunger after labour hard."—Dyer.

"The heavens were as brass, the earth as iron," desolation reigned beyond the confines of the little land of Goshen, where everything flourished the more as the air became drier and sun hotter. Elsewhere "the seven lean kine," seven months' drought, ate up, as so often is the case, the "seven fat kine" of prosperous years. After every spell of excessive heat, the thunder-storm, threatening all afternoon, broke with much noise and glare, sweeping of dust, and rolling onward of majestic cloud-cumuli, but, though every available tub and bath about each homestead was set to catch them, only a few drops of rain fell. Another day, wild stranger-cloud's, laden with precious water, rolled themselves upward from the Southern Ocean, only to carry the watery store, for which man and beast and land were thirsting, to deluge oft-favoured zones with tropical rainfall.

Again the outlying "Cockie" must harness his emaciated beast to travel ten, fifteen, twenty miles for a barrel of water, to last the sad, unwashed household for another week! In vain might the thirsty traveller crave one half-bucket of that far-fetched fluid for his pinched-up beast! With grudging does the otherwise hospitable selector grant him a pannikin-full for himself. The wheat that had rejoiced in the spring sunshine has lost heart. It will make the best of a bad job, hastily form at the top of each stinted stalk a miserable apology for an ear, and await, bolt upright, the advent of the stripper.

Four bushels to the acre, the fair promise of spring yields to the sorrowing farmer, who must subsist on that starveling harvest for many a weary month. Burnt wheat his coffee, infused in water already the colour of the future decoction, his best beverage. Boiled wheat, baked wheat, fried wheat, his only food, and that of his children, for months to come, save for the occasional luxury of 'possum baked whole in clay, wallaby soup, or dainty snake pie!

What of his live stock and crops? The carcases of the few cows and sheep he possessed are lying beneath the shade of wire fences, bogged fast in the lignum swamp, or covering the gaping clay bottom of the long-exhausted "tank." Of other crops he has none. He is a man of one idea, and that is wheat. If that succeeds he settles his score with the storekeeper and bank; if that fails, he is lost. No tree has he planted, no shed built, no garden sought to form. Nor could he! Alone, unaided, the State has encouraged him to venture, void of capital or experience, "on to the land." Half the year through waters have flowed, not so far away, unused to the sea.

A few simple wood-and-earth works, and the frogs might be merrily croaking all the summer through, down that winding lignum-lined creek, and across the miles of caked lake-bed; but that would have implied foresight and system with respect to settlement, not to be expected of a country where few look beyond their nose, or wider than the lobbies of Parliament House.

Nay, some water-works there may be near the thirsting selector. Of these, however, a few "boss-cockies" are the virtually self-appointed trustees. Their own wide wheat-fields they drown in ignorant endeavour to irrigate. Every care at least they take that no water passes them down the baked channels—run, by the way, beneath the surface instead of above it. The wheat-fed selector has the satisfaction of knowing that hundreds of thousands of pounds have been expended by an enterprising State on "colossal irrigation works." He may know that the overgrown farmer who represents him in Parliament has enough water and to spare. Strange to say, such reflections impart not extra relish to the baked-wheat coffee and 'possum puddings of his Sunday's repast. He is an unreasonable man.

Be it remembered, not every year, by a great many, brings a drought. Thousands of yeomen have overcome a score of the disabilities outlined in these pages, and by dint of sheer pluck have established themselves on the broad acres they own. Within the favoured Vale of Mimosa "the sound of many waters" was ever in the ear.

Clear and cool, clear and cool,
Lave in it, bathe in it,
Mother and child,"

the settler is singing. His wife is watching her rosy-cheeked two-year-old paddle amongst the sedges. Along the wide channels maidens are propelling their dingeys. The village hand is angling for "a bit of a fish to take home to the missus."

Along the valley for miles rolled the flowing sea of green—sorghum and maize, broom-corn and wheat. In the meadow, the well-watered lucern half hides the cattle that have strayed into it, while orangery, orchard, and vineyard streak with diagonals of green the red soil of the sloping hill-sides.

"I could not believe it was the same world," exclaimed a bronzed, unbarbered selector, as he leaned over the boundary-wire beside the topmost channel.

Twelve miles he had driven his jaded beast, to the music of the rattling, empty barrel and staggering, spoke-shrunken wheels. One who had never seen that plain of his before, could not imagine it as it had been in spring-time, knee-deep with prairie-growth of grass. Now, the very stalks of the last blade are blown away, the north wind finding but driven sand to sweep in its spiral sirocco-course; this, heaped high in the kangaroo grass—alone of all green things remaining—suggests the "desert" once supposed to spread from coast range to centre of continent. All, for hundreds and thousands of miles, fertile and smiling all the year round, if only water be conserved.

"Just you go and stand in that maize," suggests a settler, cutting watercress beneath the willows. "Creep in that there row and hold up your whip, and you ben't able to top the corn, I'll lay you."

No more he could. Burly Starveling with bushy beard disappears into the ocean of green, and only the rustling and laughing of the yellow beards far above his head indicate the position of the dusty man of the plains.

"Blowed if it ain't like a hot-house!" he exclaimed, as he emerged from the jungle. "It's clammy as cow's breath in th' mornin'. No wonder the stuff grows."

"It's all the water as does it," replied Smith, the settler. "The Land of Canaan, what flowed 'milk and honey' pure,—leastways, which growed grass and flowers—was nigh all watered like this. Parson Brown, he says. That's why it reads so cool and fresh-like in th' Old Book. Now that the Turks, and the Rummuns afore 'em, has let all the water run off, Canaan's dry as a bone again, and dusty as your darned plain. It's all the water as does it. I reckon," continued Smith, eyeing the visitor critically, "you have not eaten a house down, exactly, this mornin'."

"Boiled wheat and 'possum," replied the selector, shortly.

"You come along of me. We're just in time for grub. See them herbs there," remarked Smith, as he conducted his guest along the winding path in front of his cottage. "I made nigh forty pound, few months back, from a bed no bigger nor that. The girls chops it up and puts it into old salt bottles. Here, Betsy Jane"—to a damsel busy, with her sister, chopping and bottling the dried herbs, "tell your mother a gen'leman from the plains is a goin' to have tucker with us."

"What do you say to that?" as he led the bewildered "Cockie" to the garden at the rear. "You can have that melon to make jam on, if you can lift it—there now."

The stout selector essayed to grasp and raise the shining dappled monster, only succeeding in rolling it a few feet, so as to expose the white circle on which it rested.

"Never mind, covey, we'll get a couple of rails and roll it into the cart afore you go. You needn't bust yoursel' now."

"This be a cool place," remarked the visitor, as he stood in the porch, covered, as was half the roof of the cottage, with clambering creepers. "There's not a green leaf a mile of our hut," he continued. "Thistles is the only thing thrives there, and they looks sick-like, and stands far off one from t'other, as if they'd squabbled."

"Don't stint the butter, mister," urged the good wife, as she observed her guest applying the slightest streak to his bread. "There's a plenty where it comed from. That brown bread's cooked this mornin'. Try them scones Sar' Ann's just made."

"I've not seed butter nor milk sin' spring," exclaimed the man. "No wonder your children looks fat. It's two shillin's a poun' at Grogham's shanty."

"We sends tons away every week," replied Smith, proudly. "Doctor says we gets top price, 'cause no other coves has butter comin' in. 'It's an ill wind blows no one any good,' says Mike Milligan, next door, when the north wind's on. Leastways it makes a market for we."

"Now, my good man," urges Mrs. Smith again, "try this 'ere strawberry and cream."

"Bless you, I've not tasted the like," replies the guest, "since I comed on these blessed plains."

"Well, eat your fill; there's miles of strawberries and raspberries on Mimosa Vale. At same time, this comed out of our own garding. We wants nothing from the store now," she continued, "but a bit of groceries of Saturday nights. You come over on Sunday, and we'll give you a taste of somethin' good—sucking-pig."

"Yes," interjected Sar' Ann, "as Mr. Milligan says, we knows what appetite means here. 'When I'm eatin', I'm 'appy; when I'm full, I'm tite.'"

"Sar' Ann," remonstrated the laughing mother, "don't you repeat Mr. Milligan's rude sayin's."

"Bless you, he means no harm," she added, apologetically, "only he allers tries to be funny. And why shouldn't he? He's nothin' to trouble hisself about. No more's the rest on us, for that matter."

"I wish I hadn't," exclaimed the surfeited selector, as he stuck the haft of his knife and fork on the table—the signal that "he'd done," and "a child could play with him"—and he looked out of the open, paneless window, across the valley, and thought of the howling, poverty-stricken wilderness, not twelve miles away, with soil as good as this, but parched for lack of water; and his eyes filled with tears, at thought of the contrast suggested.