Station Life in New Zealand
Letter I. Two Months at Sea. Melbourne
Letter I. Two Months at Sea. Melbourne
Port Phillip Hotel, Melbourne,
September 22d, 1865
.... Now I must give you an account of our voyage: it has been a very quick one for the immense distance traversed, sometimes under canvas, but generally steaming. We saw no land between the Lizard and Cape Otway light—that is, for fifty-seven days: and oh, the monotony of that time!—the monotony of it! Our decks were so crowded that we divided our walking hours, in order that each set of passengers might have space to move about; for if every one had taken it into their heads to exercise themselves at the same time, we could hardly have exceeded the fisherman’s definition of a walk, “two steps and overboard.” I am ashamed to say I was more or less ill all the way, but, fortunately, F—— was not, and I rejoiced at this from the most selfish motives, as he was page 2 able to take care of me. I find that sea-sickness develops the worst part of one’s character with startling rapidity, and, as far as I am concerned, I look back with self-abasement upon my callous indifference to the sufferings of others, and apathetic absorption in my individual misery.
Until we had fairly embarked, the well-meaning but ignorant among our friends constantly assured us, with an air of conviction as to the truth and wisdom of their words, that we were going at the very best season of the year; but as soon as we could gather the opinions of those in authority on board, it gradually leaked out that we really had fallen upon quite a wrong time for such a voyage, for we very soon found ourselves in the tropics during their hottest month (early in August), and after having been nearly roasted for three weeks, we plunged abruptly into mid-winter, or at all events very early spring, off the Cape of Good Hope, and went through a season of bitterly cold weather, with three heavy gales. I pitied the poor sailors from the bottom of my heart, at their work all night on decks slippery with ice, and pulling at ropes so frozen that it was almost impossible to bend them; but, thank God, there were no casualties among the men. The last gale was the most severe; they said it was the tail of a cyclone. One is apt on land to regard such phrases as the “shriek of the storm,“ or “the roar of the waves,” as poetical hyperboles; whereas they are very literal and expressive renderings of the sounds of horror incessant through_ page 3 out a gale at sea. Our cabin, though very nice and comfortable in other respects, possessed an extraordinary attraction for any stray wave which might be wandering about the saloon: once or twice I have been in the cuddy when a sea found its way down the companion, and I have watched with horrible anxiety a ton or so of water hesitating which cabin it should enter and deluge, and it always seemed to choose ours. All these miseries appear now, after even a few days of the blessed land, to belong to a distant past; but I feel inclined to lay my pen down and have a hearty laugh at the recollection of one cold night, when a heavy “thud“ burst open our cabin door, and washed out all the stray parcels, boots, etc., from the corners in which the rolling of the ship had previously bestowed them. I was high and dry in the top berth, but poor F—— in the lower recess was awakened by the douche, and no words of mine can convey to you the utter absurdity of his appearance, as he nimbly mounted on the top of a chest of drawers close by, and crouched there, wet and shivering, handing me up a most miscellaneous assortment of goods to take care of in my little dry nest.
Some of our fellow-passengers were very good-natured, and devoted themselves to cheering and enlivening us by getting up concerts, little burlesques and other amusements; and very grateful we were for their efforts: they say that “anything is fun in the country,” but on board ship a little wit goes a page 4 very long way indeed, for all are only too ready and anxious to be amused. The whole dramatic strength of the company was called into force for the performance of “The Rivals,“ which was given a week or so before the end of the voyage. It went off wonderfully well; but I confess I enjoyed the preparations more than the play itself: the ingenuity displayed was very amusing at the time. You on shore cannot imagine how difficult it was to find a snuff-box for “Sir Anthony Absolute,” or with what joy and admiration we welcomed a clever substitute for it in the shape of a match-box covered with the lead out of a tea-chest most ingeniously modelled into an embossed wreath round the lid, with a bunch of leaves and buds in the centre, the whole being brightly burnished: at the performance the effect of this little “property“ was really excellent. Then, at the last moment, poor “Bob Acres” had to give in, and acknowledge that he could not speak for coughing; he had been suffering from bronchitis for some days past, but had gallantly striven to make himself heard at rehearsals; so on the day of the play F—— had the part forced on him. There was no time to learn his “words,“ so he wrote out all of them in large letters on slips of paper and fastened them on the beams. This device was invisible to the audience, but he was obliged to go through his scenes with his head as high up as if he had on a martingale; however, we were all so indulgent that at any little contretemps, such as one of the actresses forgetting her part or page 5 being seized by stage-fright, the applause was much greater than when things went smoothly.
I can hardly believe that it is only two days since we steamed into Hobson’s Bay, on a lovely bright spring morning. At dinner, the evening before, our dear old captain had said that we should see the revolving light on the nearest headland about eight o’clock that evening, and so we did. You will not think me childish, if I acknowledge that my eyes were so full of tears I could hardly see it after the first glimpse; it is impossible to express in a letter all the joy and thankfulness of such a moment. Feelings like these are forgotten only too quickly in the jar and bustle of daily life, and we are always ready to take as a matter of course those mercies which are new every morning; but when I realized that all the tosses and tumbles of so many weary days and nights were over, and that at last we had reached the haven where we would be, my first thought was one of deep gratitude. It was easy to see that it was a good moment with everyone; squabbles were made up with surprising quickness; shy people grew suddenly sociable; some who had comfortable homes to go to on landing gave kind and welcome invitations to others, who felt themselves sadly strange in a new country; and it was with really a lingering feeling of regret that we all separated at last, though a very short time before we should have thought it quite impossible to be anything but delighted to leave the ship.page 6
We have not seen much of Melbourne yet, as there has been a great deal to do in looking after the luggage, and at first one is capable of nothing but a delightful idleness. The keenest enjoyment is a fresh-water bath, and next to that is the new and agreeable luxury of the ample space for dressing; and then it is so pleasant to suffer no anxiety as to the brushes and combs tumbling about. I should think that even the vainest woman in the world would find her toilet and its duties a daily trouble and a sorrow at sea, on account of the unsteadiness of all things. The next delight is standing at the window, and seeing horses, and trees, and dogs—in fact, all the “treasures of the land;” as for flowers—beautiful as they are at all times—you cannot learn to appreciate them enough until you have been deprived of them for two months.
You know that I have travelled a good deal in various parts of the world, but I have never seen. anything at all like Melbourne. In other countries, it is generally the antiquity of the cities, and their historical reminiscences, which appeal to the imagination; but here, the interest is as great from exactly the opposite cause. It is most wonderful to walk through a splendid town, with magnificent public buildings, churches, shops, clubs, theatres, with the streets well paved and lighted, and to think that less than forty years ago it was a desolate swamp without even a hut upon it. How little an English country town progresses in forty years, and here is a splendid page 7 city created in that time! I have no hesitation in saying, that any fashionable novelty which comes out in either London or Paris finds its way to Melbourne by the next steamer; for instance, I broke my parasol on board ship, and the first thing I did on landing was to go to one of the best shops in Collins Street to replace it. On learning what I wanted, the shopman showed me some of those new parasols which had just come out in London before I sailed, and which I had vainly tried to procure in S——, only four hours from London.
The only public place we have yet visited is the Acclimatization Garden; which is very beautifully laid out, and full of aviaries, though it looks strange to see common English birds treated as distinguished visitors and sumptuously lodged and cared for. Naturally, the Australian ones interest me most, and they are certainly prettier than yours at home, though they do not sing. I have been already to a shop where they sell skins of birds, and have half ruined myself in purchases for hats. You are to have a “diamond sparrow,“ a dear little fellow with reddish brown plumage, and white spots over its body (in this respect a miniature copy of the Argus pheasant I brought from India), and a triangular patch of bright yellow under its throat. I saw some of them alive in a cage in the market with many other kinds of small birds, and several pairs of those pretty grass or zebra paroquets, which are called here by the very inharmonious name of “budgerighars.” I admired the page 8 blue wren so much—a tiny birdeen with tail and body of dust-coloured feathers, and head and throat of a most lovely turquoise blue; it has also a little wattle of these blue feathers standing straight out on each side of its head, which gives it a very pert appearance. Then there is the emu-wren, all sad-coloured, but quaint, with the tail-feathers sticking up on end, and exactly like those of an emu; on the very smallest scale, even to the peculiarity of two feathers growing out of the same little quill. I was much amused by the varieties of cockatoos, parrots, and lories of every kind and colour, shrieking and jabbering in the part of the market devoted to them; but I am told that I have seen very few of the varieties of birds, as it is early in the spring, and the young ones have not yet been brought in: they appear to sell as fast as they can be procured. But before I end my letter I must tell you about the cockatoo belonging to this hotel. It is a famous bird in its way, having had its portrait taken several times, descriptions written for newspapers of its talents, and its owner boasts of enormous sums offered and refused for it. Knowing my fondness for pets, F—— took me downstairs to see it very soon after our arrival. I thought it hideous: it belongs to a kind not very well known in England, of a dirtyish white colour, a very ugly-shaped head and bill, and large bluish rings round the eyes; the beak is huge and curved. If it knew of this last objection on my part, it would probably answer, like the wolf in page 9 Red Riding Hood’s story, “the better to talk with, my dear“—for it is a weird and knowing bird. At first it flatly refused to show off any of its accomplishments, but one of the hotel servants good-naturedly came forward, and Cocky condescended to go through his performances. I cannot possibly-tell you of all its antics: it pretended to have a violent toothache, and nursed its beak in its claw, rocking itself backwards and forwards as if in the greatest agony, and in answer to all the remedies which were proposed, croaking out, “Oh, it ain’t a bit of good,” and finally sidling up, to the edge of its perch, and saying in hoarse but confidential whisper, “Give us a drop of whisky, do.“ Its voice was extraordinarily distinct, and when it sang several snatches of songs the words were capitally given, with the most absurdly comic intonation, all the roulades being executed in perfect tune. I liked its sewing performance so much—to see it hold a little piece of stuff underneath the claw which rested on the perch, and pretend to sew with the other, getting into difficulties with its thread, and finally setting up a loud song in praise of sewing-machines just as if it were an advertisement.
By the next time I write I shall have seen more of Melbourne; there will, however, be no time for another letter by this mail; but I will leave one to be posted after we sail for New Zealand.