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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVII.

Great was our thankfulness in the providential escape of all parties in the late danger, and especially of Mary.

“Well, Miss Mary, you certainly owe Selim a debt of gratitude; this is the second time that he has been instrumental in saving your life, although in the present instance the old rascal was himself the cause of bringing you into the danger that he saved you from,” was my remark to Mary after the cattle had all been yarded, as I helped her off her saddle preparatory to her getting into the canoe.

“Dear old Selim, I indeed owe him much,” replied the girl, patting Selim's forehead, and he frankly acknowledged the attention by rubbing it against her hand, as if soliciting as much more of such patting as she would bestow upon him.

To Miss Rolleston I made no remark; but from her, nevertheless, I received a glance so full and even so compassionate that I felt myself amply rewarded for the service I had been so providentially enabled to render her. As for Marsden, who, as my successful rival, together with the unsatisfactory mysteriousness of his character, I could not avoid regarding with annoyance and suspicion, the manner in which he expressed his sense of my late action I could not but admire. As if conscious of page 116 my antipathy to him, he avoided all demonstrative congratulations on the subject. Neither did he show any jealousy at the signal service I had been enabled to render to the object of our mutual admiration, as, if small minded, he might have done towards a rival who had thus borne off the palm in an action in which he had received such a signal overthrow.

“Mr. Farquharson,” he bluntly remarked, “you are a brave man, and I may yet have an opportunity of testifying to you how much I can estimate the spirit you have shown to-day.”

“Thanks, Mr. Marsden,” I replied shortly and almost sternly, “I have only done what any man would be expected to do for any lady, and especially for such a lady as Miss Rolleston.”

“Right, Mr. Farquharson, right; for a lady like Miss Rolleston such a service needs no eulogy. Yet such service as you have just rendered her requires more nerve than ordinary men possess,” and with this remark he abruptly turned his horse's head and regained Miss Rolleston's side, which he had just left to speak to me. This occurred as the whole party were riding down from the yard towards the river's bank.

We soon were ferried across the river, one at a time, in a canoe, a black fellow paddling. I had already, during the same operation in the morning, jokingly reminded the ladies of their former exploit, or rather misadventure, in such another craft on the Murray, and particularly cautioned Miss Rolleston against indulging a like dangerous curiosity, as on that occasion, about the motions of codfish. They laughed merrily at the recollection, Miss Rolleston promising to be more cautious in future, when voyaging in canoes. They were not nervous in venturing into a canoe again after their former narrow escape, nor was I on their account, as the present one was a particularly good canoe of the kind, being, from the natural curvature of the sheet of bark out of which it was fashioned, well turned up from the water both fore and aft, and otherwise perfectly trustworthy under the most ordinary precautions on the part of the passengers.

Mrs. Campbell turned pale when she heard the danger that had again so closely menaced her daughter and Miss Rolleston, and, although she made but few remarks on the subject, I could see by her manner that I again had risen wonderfully in her estimation for the fortunate conduct I had been enabled to display on the occasion.

“There must surely be some correspondence in the destinies of you three,” she said after a while, “that you seem so mysteriously attracted to each other in the hour of peril and danger.”

“Yes, mother,” said Miss Campbell, laughing, “a marriage page 117 destiny perhaps. I see it plainly: it is bridegroom, bride, and bridesmaid; so, whichever of these ladies is to be the bride, the other will be the bridesmaid.” At this lively sally, Miss Rolleston coloured a little, but readily answered, “Then Mary is bound to be the bride, for Mr. Farquharson would never have me, for he knows that I am too giddy for him, and that I have set my heart on marrying some bold bushranger”

Mr. Marsden, who, while this lively dialogue was carried on, had been absorbed in thought, at the last word looked suddenly up, and, as I thought, with an almost startled expression, while he darted one of those swift uneasy glances at Miss Rolleston, that I had on my first meeting him so frequently noticed crossing and clouding his face, though, since his arrival here, they had been absent. The look was but momentary and, scarcely observed, before it was replaced by that expression of careless daring, usually characteristic of him.

“A bushranger, Miss Rolleston!” he answered laughing, “surely that is a wild thought of yours. Ah! I see you have been reading about Robin Hood and Maid Marian; very picturesque, no doubt, but I fear such a life is hardly so couleur de rose in reality. Nay,” he continued gaily, “a gentleman of fortune and rank would suit you better. Your true sphere in life— instead of that of a poor Maid Marian, catching rheumatism in some damp cave— is that of a titled lady, admired for her beauty and revered for her goodness.”

“Thank you, Mr. Marsden, for the flattering prospect you open before me, but I fear it is as far beyond my deserts as are the silken restraints of high life distasteful to me; I think I shall have to come down to the bold bushranger or daring adventurer, forcing his own independent way and bursting the manacles of conventional forms that bar his path to glory.”

“And mated to one like you, Miss Rolleston, to inspire him with your spirited sentiments, what would not such an adventurer dare?” replied Marsden, with a flash in his eyes and a look of pride dilating his nostrils.

“Oh come! this is mere romancing nonsense; you are up in the clouds, while we poor prosaic people are obliged to stick to the earth,” interrupted Miss Campbell, rather petulantly. “We shall lose sight of you altogether if you go on at this rate much longer.”

“We will come down again,” replied Miss Rolleston smiling; “let us see, where were we? Oh! I remember; I was saying that Mr. Farquharson would never have me, so it is you, Mary, that the thread of destiny is to connect with Mr. Farquharson as bride, and I as bridesmaid.”

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“Well, I at least shall be well content with destiny for giving me such a wife as Miss Mary,” was my quiet answer, with a smile at Mary. She blushed rather shyly, but her livelier sister came at once to her rescue. “Two dispositions of the same nature never get on well together; happiness can only be reached by blending two opposites—the grave with the gay. Now, Mary and Mr. Farquharson are both sober-sides. Why! they would never be able to keep one another awake: so the grave Mr. Farquharson and the gay Miss Rolleston make just the sort of blend that is wanted for married happiness.”

I was beginning to feel rather awkward at these sallies of Miss Campbell's, the more so, that I suspected she had penetrated the secret of my passion for Miss Rolleston, and was now speaking by design, either from mischief or from sympathy.

To her last remark, however, Miss Rolleston retorted maliciously, “If gayness of spirits are essential for Mr. Farquharson, then, who so gay as Miss Campbell? And who more fitted to be Mr. Farquharson's help-meet?”

“Nay,” replied the other, demurely, “to my sorrow, I am out of it altogether; your first acquaintance with Mr. Farquharson has given me no chance. It is plain that you are the first love.”

“That's it,” replied her quick-witted companion, turning the point of the other's fancied hit suddenly against herself; “but first love soon dies: it is always the second love that lasts. The love that I first awakened in Mr. Farquharson's heart has doubtless vanished now that he has had experience of my utterly impracticable disposition. At this most opportune moment, Miss Campbell, witty, affectionate, and above all, heart-free, enters upon the scene: Mr. Farquharson, disappointed in his former ideal, again feels his heart moved. This time the power that attracts him is permanent: thus I am cut out, and feel quite jealous of you. But see that you use him well, for I know that Mr. Farquharson deserves a good wife, and I believe you would make him a good one.”

The laugh was now clearly against Jessie, whose rising colour was beginning to mark her confusion at the tables being thus so suddenly turned against her, when Mrs. Campbell interrupted any further badinage of this kind with

“You must certainly be losing your heads entirely, both of you. Whatever must these gentlemen think of you, when you talk so foolishly?”

“I crave the good gentlemen's indulgence,” her eldest daughter replied with mock gravity, “and as for Rachel's disposal of me, I certainly ought to feel honoured, whatever Mr. Farquharson may feel on the subject.”

“Nay, Miss Campbell, need you ask? but I fear there is a page 119 young gentleman here,” I said, glancing towards Mr. Green, “who may feel disposed to enter a protest against this mode of disposing of you.”

“Indeed and that I will, and most strenuously,” stoutly replied Mr. Green, amid a peal of merry laughter, in which even Mr. Marsden joined, though usually almost contemptuously reserved with either of the young Melbourne gentlemen.

“Oh, Mr. Green,” said the laughing girl, “after the manner in which you let yourself be overthrown by the red bullock to-day, I could never think of allowing you to put in a claim for me again.”

“Never mind her, Mr. Green, she is only jesting; she is very rude,” said Mrs. Campbell.

“Indeed I am, mother,” replied her daughter quickly, apparently fearful lest she might have wounded the young fellow's feelings too much, as he looked sadly abashed at the general laugh raised against him. “Mr. Green knows that I was only jesting, for I was very sorry to see him meet with his accident, and I know that it was through no fault of his that it occurred.”

“How did you enjoy yourself, Mr. Marsden?” Mrs. Campbell now demanded of that gentleman.

“Oh, excellently, madam,” he replied, rousing himself from one of those reveries into which he occasionally fell when his attention was not directly engaged by Miss Rolleston.

It seemed as if that young lady alone possessed the charm of rousing this man's genial mood. Therefore, when her attention was diverted from him, as if he considered the others unworthy of his deliberate attention, he immediately relapsed into silence, only rousing himself when, as on the present occasion, he was directly addressed by Mrs. Campbell. Then his conversation for a few minutes, though studiously polite, seemed to be as forced and unnatural as his previous silence had been oppressive.

“Excellently, madam, excellently; indeed, how could it have been otherwise with the charming companionship of so many young ladies? I could, indeed, envy the life of a stockman if this day is to be reckoned a sample of their general experience.”

“Stockmen are not always so favoured I can assure you, Mr. Marsden,” replied Miss Rolleston with a smile.

“Nay, I would not be so avaricious as to expect to be regaled with such a continual feast of enjoyment. A hut in the forest with any one of these fairies to brighten it with her smile could still make a stockrider's life preferable to that of the uneasy state of a king.”

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All this conversation— in which neither Mary nor Miss Brydone took any direct part, save in joining merrily in the girls' general laugh raised by the lively sallies of the other two — was being carried on during the discussion of an ample supper, that the day's stockriding and excitement had prepared most of us to enjoy.

Whilst the supper things were being cleared away, our attention was attracted to some wild sounds proceeding from the black fellows' camp. Upon enquiry we found that they proceeded from a grand “corroboree” that the natives were celebrating on the strength of the ample quantity of provisions they had been provided with at the store as a Christmas treat, together with such tit-bits as had been saved from the pic-nic.

At the suggestion of the ladies, we all adjourned to the scene of action, but as I feared as to whether the blacks would consider European ideas of propriety binding upon them within the limits of their own camp, I delayed the party whilst I stepped out to the kitchen to see Lilly about the matter, for ever since the advent of our Christmas visitors he seemed to have established himself there, merely going home to sleep. Doubtless the pleasure that he seemed to derive in conversing with Tiny, who was constantly passing to and fro between the house and kitchen, explained this sudden fancy of Lilly's to take his meals with old John. Communicating to Lilly the intention of the company inside and my suspicions of the unpreparedness of these primitive revellers in the matter of costume for the reception of such visitors, he at once strode away, and shortly afterwards a cooey from Lilly signalled to me that I could let the ladies come down to the camp without having their sensibilities shocked.

Upon this we all went down and witnessed one of those wild yet harmless scenes of savage revelry with which people located in the interior of Australia are so familiar, but with this exception. Instead of the wildness of the scene being enhanced by the sight of their nude bodies streaked and tatooed all over with pipeclay, as is customary on such occasions, they were now, by Lilly's peremptory orders, all covered with a shirt, only their faces and bare limbs being visibly hideous from the pipeclay as they leapt and grinned and quivered in the clear moonlight, men and women together, in the performance of some hobgoblin sort of dance. The music for this dance was an indescribable kind of chant, the variations of which seemed to be caused by the singer striking one hand on the pit of his stomach, while with the other, in the way of accompaniment, he kept beating a piece of folded 'possum rug with a club. Certainly a more rudimentary idea of music it would be impossible to imagine. Compared page 121 to this it must have been a civilised improvement when, as the song says,

“Tubal in his oxter squeezes
The blether of a sheep”.

After surveying this wild scene for nearly an hour we all returned to the house, laughing and making merry at the ridiculous figures and extraordinary capers of these savage revellers. On their part they were so flattered and delighted at their performance being witnessed by such a distinguished audience that they appeared fairly to excel themselves, laughing and mouthing and gibbering like so many animated ghouls, and, indeed, no civilised merry-makers could ever have marked time more enthusiastically to the more refined strains of violin or castanet than did the untutored children of Nature to such primitive and truly barbarous instruments of music.