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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter III

Chapter III.

On returning me my colt, thoroughly docile and educated in all his proper paces, Laycock volunteered a short characteristic piece of advice regarding the treatment that I was to pursue with him.

“Look here, Mr. Farquharson, a horse like this is what a man can only hope to get once in a lifetime. There are indeed very few men who ever get hold of a real good horse, and there are still fewer who, after they have got a good horse, are able to keep him good. Most people when they do get hold of one are bound to get showing off what he can do, and the more willing a horse is, the faster they will take what is in him out of him; for a horse's wind and limbs can only stand a certain amount of wear, and the rougher that wear is, the sooner he breaks down. But you use this horse properly, and only force page 17 him when you have need to do it, and above all never lend him to anyone, and he may serve you well for twenty years to come. See this old horse of mine, you would not think from the way he galloped that day after the mare that he was twelve years old; but he is. I broke him in myself, and I always looked after him properly. When you are going on a journey, and want to canter or trot (it is all one to Selim, he can go the one pace as well as the other), just keep on at that pace till you see his hair getting wet, then check him, and walk him till he is dry again; and you will always, in this way, get over the longest journey with the least stress to your horse. Remember that galloping up a hill is hard on a horse's wind; but galloping down a hill is just as bad on his limbs. So, unless you are pushed, never go up or down a hill, even if only a little one, at anything but a walk. When using the horse for hard work for days together, mustering, never run him down; when you see him begin to look fagged, get another horse if you can, so as to give him a spell. Look after him, feed him well—keep him always in good working order, and you will never be sorry for it.” And with this shrewd advice the friendly old fellow shook hands with me and rode off.

As I never met George Laycock again, I may as well state here what little I heard of his subsequent career, and of his celebrated mare. Almost immediately after taking the mare home, he was offered by a neighbouring squatter of sporting proclivities three hundred guineas for her; this offer George refused, as, having a taste for horse-racing himself, he determined to use her as a stud mare for the turf. As it may seem strange that George should have been able to retain such a valuable animal unchallenged by her former owner, it is as well to mention here, that Major Firebrace had long before left the country, and had, before he left, resigned the right of the mare, in the event of her capture, to Laycock, who had formerly been for a long time in his employment, and for whom, as a man, he had some regard.

The two younger offspring of the mare, I was afterwards informed, George had disposed of for sixty guineas apiece, but his hope of success on the turf he was fated never to realise. In little more than twelve months after the mare came into his possession, poor Laycock died at Melbourne, and the mare then passed into other hands.

But to return to my own affairs. The period of my employment on Mr. M‘Elwain's station, that, as I have already stated, covered about two years, terminated in a few months after Laycock delivered Selim into my keeping.

The excitement due to the extraordinary gold discoveries page 18 was now at its height, and as I was casting about in my mind for some future employment, it may cause surprise to some of my more adventurous readers that I did not at once embrace this opportunity of securing a ready-made fortune in some of the rich mines of Bendigo or Ballarat, etc. But, apart from my natural bias in favour of country pursuits, I never had any kind of speculative turn in my nature or love for games of chance. Besides, never having been accustomed to manual labour, I felt repelled by the idea of the severe exactions of pick-and-shovel work that such a style of life necessarily demanded. So, being now so well provided with horse-flesh, and hearing that such work was well paid, I resolved, in preference, to try and get employment at either sheep or cattle driving from some of the numerous dealers who were constantly on the roads taking stock to the markets; and work of this kind I soon found.

I must now ask my readers to pass with me in silence over the eight uneventful years which followed upon my leaving my kinsman's station.

A chief part of this interval was employed in driving cattle and sheep to the city and digging markets, or store stock from distant inland localities. In this way I traversed extensive tracts of country, both in Victoria and the neighbouring Colonies, until, finding myself in possession of no inconsiderable capital, I, in concert with another man, took up a small run in the Upper Murray.

This investment proved unfortunate. In the first place, my partner contracted dissipated habits, and squandered large sums in racing; and, finally, a fell disease (catarrh) made such havoc among our sheep—thousands dying in the course of a few weeks—that, with the heavy loss caused by my partner's debts in addition, matters came to such a pass, in two years, that I was glad to come out of the concern, with little more than £100 in my pocket. And thus, at one fell sweep, vanished almost all my savings, the fruits of years of toilsome driving on the roads in all kinds of weather. All my hopes of affluence and comfort were, for the time being, dashed to the ground, and I was now no nearer the object of my ambition than when I left Mr. M‘Elwain's station eight long years before, with the added disadvantage of being that much older, too!

Yet, in all the vicissitudes of my calling, I never forgot George Laycock's advice with reference to the usage of my horse.

The result of this was, that after eight years' continual service, saving, of course, intervals of necessary rest—old Selim was still as hale a horse, and as free from splints and strains, page 19 as on the day when he careered before me and Latrobe with his dam.

After the disposal of my station affairs, and pending my decisions as to my next move, I had ridden down to Melbourne. That city was now making prodigious strides commercially, and was extending on all sides.

A few days after my arrival there, I was sitting in the reading room of Mack's hotel, when I suddenly attracted the attention of an elderly gentleman of respectable appearance, who, with gold-rimmed spectacles on nose, had been engaged in reading one of the daily papers, on my entrance. Happening to look up from his paper, this gentleman gazed earnestly at me for a moment, then, rising from his seat, he advanced straight towards me, just as a flash of memory revealed to me the features of my kinsman and quondam employer, Mr. M‘Elwain, now slightly worn by Time, that had silvered his whiskers, and thinned his hair.

Shaking my hand heartily, he enquired after my welfare, and the nature of my pursuits since I had last parted with him, expressing surprise that I had not thought fit to communicate with him in the interval. I accordingly gave him a brief account of my experiences that, promising and flourishing, for a few years, had had such a disastrous consummation, in the loss of my sheep, and ruin of my credit, through the wasteful extravagance of my partner.

Mr. M‘Elwain listened very attentively to all I had to tell.

“This is a bad business,” he remarked, “after so many years of careful industry on your part. It is a pity,” he continued, “that you should have been so careless in allowing Wilson so much scope with your affairs, without keeping a watchful check upon him.”

“I had no idea of anything being amiss,” I replied. “He always appeared to be so plausible, and in the details of banking accounts, he had so much more business knowledge than I had, that I left it all to him, until it was too late to avert the ruin that had overtaken us, so that, with the loss of the sheep, I found there was scarcely anything left to meet the overdrafts on our funds.”

“Yes,” replied Mr. M‘Elwain, speaking with his wonted plainness of manner, “but that was where you were very wrong; you should not trust to any man, no, not even to your own brother, the oversight of your private business. Every man should always know for himself how his bank account stands.”

With this evident truism I freely concurred, adding rather page 20 bitterly, that the error I had committed was now made sufficiently apparent to myself by the penalty I had paid.

This experience, indeed, exposes a weakness in my character that almost unfitted me for purely business details. Fond of physical exercise to a degree, when indoors my inveterate habits of reading yet rendered the duties attendant on book-keeping a bore that I was always only too willing to relegate to any one on whose ability, I presumed, I could depend. Contented with a general knowledge of the condition of the stock before my eye, and with the rough estimate of value that I formed thereon, the congenial companionship of Scott, Byron, Campbell, Moore, Goldsmith, Burns, Macaulay, and Addison were to me a source of delight, to which those attendant upon casting up bank accounts or studying the possibilities of overdrafts were as nothing.

It was to this well-known habit of mine that Mr. M‘Elwain's strictures mainly pointed. After a pause of calm reflection he again remarked:—

“I have just been thinking of a situation that should suit you. There is a gentleman, at present residing in this hotel, a squatter on the Lower Murray, who this morning told me that he wanted to find a trustworthy man who could undertake the management of a considerable station he owns on the Darling River. If you think that this situation would suit you for the present I make no doubt but Mr. Rolleston would take you upon my recommendation. That recommendation, I think,” he added with a smile, “I may safely venture to give; perhaps in a year or so you may be able to start on a run of your own again.”

To this very kind proposal I, of course, gladly acceded, thanking Mr. M‘Elwain for his thoughtfulness on my behalf.

Shortly after this conversation Mr. Rolleston himself entered the room, and to him I was accordingly introduced by Mr. M‘Elwain. He was a respectable, elderly looking person, with fair or almost yellow hair and whiskers, now slightly grizzled, and blue eyes, and rather well formed features. He was beneath middle height, with a quiet expression of countenance, combined, however, with a strong interest in worldly matters which had left its mark in the shrewd lines about his eyes.

On Mr. M‘Elwain mentioning my capabilities to him as being sufficient for the post at his disposal, his conversation with me instantly assumed a business turn. He informed me that the station he wished me to take charge of carried about 20,000 sheep. It was situated, as I had already been told, on the bank of the Darling, about 180 miles from the confluence of that river with the Murray. Besides this sheep-run he also informed me he had another run on the opposite side of the river solely page 21 devoted to cattle purposes, on which there might be somewhat more than 1,000 head depastured. This run was under the immediate control of a stock keeper, who was sufficient for all the practical management of the place, but, as his education was very limited, I was, with regard to the pure business department, to have the supreme charge of both runs.

“But in dealing with this man I fear you will have need of some tact to avoid a difficulty,” remarked Mr. Rolleston, who, unlike most people of a speculative turn, seemed of a contented mind and unwilling to make innovations on any established order of things. “You see,” he continued, “he is a most trustworthy and excellent man, and as true as steel, and in all matters connected with the management and working of cattle a most efficient servant; but, like most old hands, he is very impatient of control, and will brook no interference from any one, not even from myself, in his own arrangements with the stock. With my last manager he was continually at loggerheads, and on several occasions I had great difficulty in persuading him not to leave me altogether. This would grieve me, and I am persuaded that by a little conciliation and leaving him to his own measures with the stock (which I have hitherto found to be uniformly excellent) a manager would find a pleasant man and a useful ally in Benjamin Lilly in working both the runs.”

To this I made answer:—

“With such a man as you describe Lilly to be it only requires a little sense and judgment to get along very well. With such men the rule should always be, to deal with them in a common-sense manner; and, as their jealousy at the interference of others is usually associated with ideas of incompetence on the part of the meddling party, by showing them that for what you do you have a good reason, and by sometimes deferring to them they will come to respect you and then—unless they are really capricious or jealous-minded fellows—once the confidence of such men is gained you may reckon on them as on those on whose sympathy and aid you may rely.”

After some more preliminaries had been satisfactorily discussed, it was finally agreed that I should at once proceed to take charge of Mr. Rolleston's station, at the liberal salary of £300 per annum; terms, that after my late gloomy prospects, seemed by no neans an unpropitious commencement for a fresh start in life.

Next morning, accordingly, after again shaking hands with Mr. M‘Elwain, and bidding farewell to my new employer, I started off on my journey to the Murray. Traversing a country rich in plain, and magnificent forest land, and page 22 passing through Bendigo and Castlemaine (whose gutters and tunnelled gullies, still resounding with the rocking of the diggers' cradles, bore witness that eight years of incessant toil had left unexhausted their golden treasures), and many a minor township and exploded rush, I at length struck the Lodden, a tributary of the Murray, and journeying along its banks for some hours, first sighted the larger stream at Swan Hill; I had travelled a good two hundred miles, but with Selim's splendid walk and sweeping canter, I easily accomplished it in three days.

At Swan Hill, the Murray, one of the most navigable of Australian rivers (none are remarkable for their size), is about eighty or more yards wide. It is a noble looking stream, flowing steadily in one deep, stately current, in a westerly direction, and marks the boundary betwixt Victoria and New South Wales. Turning my course down the river, the country that had hitherto presented a rich, grassy appearance, now assumed a more barren look, being covered with timber and scrub, and showing a sandy soil. In about another hundred miles, I made Mr. Rolleston's station. Riding into the yard, I dismounted, and leading my horse towards the stable (an unwonted luxury at a station), I delivered him over to the charge of the man who fulfilled the duties of groom, and finding my way to the house, I was duly ushered in by a tall, blooming, and rather nice looking damsel, with fair curling hair, into the interior of Mr. Rolleston's house.