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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter IV

Chapter IV.

The appearance of the station buildings I will forego describing. Like the homesteads of most squatters in those days, they were chiefly constructed out of the primitive materials of split slabs or round logs and bark. There was the inevitable woolshed seen in the distance with its surrounding yards and fences. Even the house of the owner was of the most unpretending appearance, with about half a dozen rooms or so, and chiefly distinguished in structure from the other buildings, not so much by its size, as by the fact that the slabs with which it was built were sawn instead of split, and that it was shingle roofed, all the other buildings being simply covered in with bark. Almost attached to this was a smaller building, in which, as I subsequently learned, the overseer, Mr. Campbell, resided, whose wife indeed also acted as page 23 housekeeper to Mr. Rolleston, Mr. Rolleston himself being a widower.

On entering the house, the interior of which I discovered to be much more pretentiously furnished than the exterior gave promise of, I found myself in the presence of three ladies in a rather tasteful looking sitting-room, arranged with almost fashionable fastidiousness.

The elder of these ladies might have been a little over forty years of age; plainly, but neatly dressed, there was that look of calm and easy self-possession in her manner, that always denotes the presence of a superior mind. Her complexion was pale, and she had dark hair, and in person she was tall and graceful. This was Mrs. Campbell, the overseer's wife. Beside her was a girl, evidently about seventeen, her daughter, as I was given to understand. Unlike her mother, her hair resting in curls on her shoulders, were of a rich golden colour. Her face was at once sweet and attractive. Her eyes were blue, her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. Her figure, though well formed, yet scarcely promised to reach her mother's stately height. Altogether her expression was at once engaging and innocent.

But my attention was chiefly engaged by the appearance of the third lady, who more nearly approached my ideal standard of beauty than anyone whom I had hitherto met.

Of middle height and slight figure, with dark brown hair, crimped and waving on either side of her brow, over which it was evenly parted and allowed to fall down in soft, glossy ringlets behind her neck, a slight though well-formed forehead, with brows as neatly outlined as if drawn there with a pencil; brown eyes, and a rich, yet softly toned complexion; a small and straight nose, and lips that, parting with the arch humour that constantly animated her intelligent face, seemed formed (as I mentally noted in a glow of poetic enthusiasm) for loving and kissing; while two rows of dazzling teeth completed the outlines of this very pleasant picture.

In the presence of this attractive company I at first experienced considerable embarrassment.

After my long residence in the bush, where I was deprived of the advantages of intercourse with ladies during the early period of manhood, when one is more amenable to their refining influence, I felt that in the polite usages of society I was deficient and rustic.

But rallying my energies for the occasion, I at once introduced myself to them, mentioning my name, and stating my business.

Thereupon the elder lady rose, and with quiet self-possession page 24 at once mentioned who she was, and introduced me to the other ladies, the dark beauty being Miss Rolleston, the only daughter, and, indeed, child, of my employer; and the fair one her own daughter, Mary. Then, expressing a kind concern for my fatigue, she showed me into the room I was to occupy for the night, and on my return to the parlour gave me a cordial invitation to draw up my chair near to the fire; to which, as the evening was a chilly one, I immediately responded.

Making an effort to overcome my rather clownish diffidence, which I felt that a bashful silence would only render more conspicuous, I endeavoured to put myself at my ease by some commonplace remarks in the way of opening a conversation with my fair companions. My efforts would have been crowned with but little success, however, but for the vivacious manners and natural frankness of Miss Rolleston, that soon relieved me of any responsibility in supporting the conversation between us. Miss Mary occasionally chimed in, but with a quiet grace, in which, however, was mingled a vein of such clever humour, that I felt myself quite affectionately impelled towards her.

After all the inevitable topics of the varied phases of the weather, both past, present, and to come, had been discussed with all the deep interest due to matters fraught with most important consequences to us all, the scope of our remarks gradually widened, as, like an inexperienced swimmer, who, after the first few spasmodic strokes, gains courage, and learns to strike out more steadily, so I gained self-assurance in the course of these commonplaces, and was buoyed up in venturing into the deeper waters of a more interesting conversation. After the weather, we discussed surrounding objects: the garden flowers, visible from the window, and the books in the library bookcase. When it came to the turn of the books, Miss Rolleston revealed the bent of her literary taste, that chiefly inclined to works of poetry and romance, Sir Walter Scott being her idol in both departments.

At that time photography was still in its infancy, and the photograph album was not so conspicuous in every drawing and sitting-room as in these days, when it proves such a stereotyped theme of interest for the recreation of visitors, and by whose means even a bashful man can sustain his part by simply showing some sign of interest as the various photographs are being turned over and descanted upon, with the names and histories of their originals. There were, indeed, a few daguerrotypes, as such works were then termed, framed in morocco cases, of a few of the town friends of the Rollestons, besides some of Miss Rolleston and her father, that were handed to me page 25 for inspection; but to me both of these seemed to be tawdry, washed-out presentments.

By this time I felt so perfectly at home, that I ventured the remark, “Do you, Miss Rolleston, prefer staying in the bush here to living in the town? I should think that to a young lady so much isolation from society and the constant sameness and tameness of everyday life in a wilderness like this, must be very irksome in comparison to the pleasure and gaiety of life in town.”

“Psha,” replied the laughing girl, “I am glad to get away from all those tiresome amusements at times; when in town there is nothing else, night after night, but some party or play to go to, till I am glad to get a spell in the bush again, for I am a child of nature, and it is amongst nature's charms that I enjoy myself most.”

“You appear to be romantic,” I remarked, with a smile.

“Oh, quite so. Mary and I, during our walks down the glades of the forest, as we listen to the magpies' songs and watch the bright-winged parroquets fluttering from bush to bush, and tree to tree, often declare that we could stay here all our lives.”

“That is as much as to confess that you both intend to marry squatters?” Mary at this simpered a little, but her livelier friend instantly retorted, “Not a bit of it; I love living in the bush, but a squatter whose ideas never soar above the contemplation of his flocks and birds, or the returns of his wool, would never win my heart, nor Mary's either, I hope”.

“In fact, like all young ladies, the idea of marriage is the very last thing that either of you ever contemplates?”

“Just so, for my part if ever I do marry any one, it will be some dashing bushranger, with whom I can roam through the bush and live in some romantic cave like Maid Marian with Robin Hood.”

“A strange idea for a wealthy squatter's daughter,” I replied, and jestingly added, “What a pity Captain Melville's career was so soon stopped, for as far as bravery and dash went, I should think, Miss Rolleston, he might have suited you?”

“Indeed!” she replied, “I fairly dote upon the character of Captain Melville, he was just my ideal of a bushranger—handsome, brave, and chivalrous—and I think it was a cruel shame he was dealt with as he was at last.”

“He certainly extorted people's admiration,” I answered, “by the almost heroic attempt he made, at the head of the other prisoners, to break away from the warders in the hulks—nor was this admiration a bit lessened by the spirited defence of himself that he subsequently made at his trial, but, Miss Rolleston, dashing highwaymen are very well to read of page 26 in romances, but in actual life the best of them are but dangerous pests, and the more quickly their careers are stopped the better for all honest folk.”

“But you must allow, Mr. Farquharson, in view of Captain Melville's many redeeming points, that he was very harshly dealt with when condemned to that hopeless term of thirty-two years—a sentence, which, it is supposed, caused that brave man, in a fit of desperation, to put an end to his own life.”

I quietly replied, “You simply regard this man from a purely romantic, and hence sympathetic point of view, Miss Rolleston; but the real pith of the matter is, does a handsome figure, and dash, and bravery, entitle one man to take away the property of another? I have indeed myself but little sympathy with lawlessness in any form, and a good deal of the daring and courage generally associated with the actions of these gentry, I greatly suspect, if the truth were known would resolve themselves into little more than bluster and bravado; for I always consider that there is far more true manhood in facing life's legitimate hardships, with their generally slow rewards, than by shunning the former in order to expedite the latter by lawlessness.”

“I am glad to hear you speak so sensibly to the madcap,” here chimed in Mrs. Campbell with a smile. “I am sure with all the high-flown, romantic ideas that she gets from the silly novels that she will persist in reading, she is getting into the habit of regarding everything through such exaggerated colouring, that I really begin to fear that her notions of social propriety are getting quite perverted.”

At this grave fear Miss Rolleston simply laughed merrily.

“And you, Miss Campbell,” I remarked, “are you such a lover of the bush that you too would prefer to marry some dashing bushranger?”

At this remark she simply smiled at first, and then made reply quietly; “I love the country, but I like to get down to town occasionally, especially when mother can come too”.

“Oh, Mary is but an old fashioned little goose,” exclaimed her lively companion. “She would be content to go poring all day over some book; unless I were here to rouse her up I don't know what would become of her; but I am going to take her down to Adelaide with me next month, when I intend introducing her to all the dashing young gentlemen of my acquaintance, whose flattering attentions will cause her to assume such a conceited air, that you will not know her to be the same girl when she comes back.”

“That is to say if you can spare any of their attentions from yourself,” replied Mary slyly, her cheeks dimpling.

“Oh, you sly little puss,” exclaimed Miss Rolleston laughing, page 27 “who would think that there was so much mischief in you. Your sister Jessie could hardly be more teasing!”

“Miss Mary's sister is in town then now, I presume?” I here remarked.

“Yes, she has been in Adelaide for about two months with a friend. When you meet with her, Mr. Farquharson, you will not be dull, I can tell you, but I warn you to see to your heart; Miss Campbell makes conquests wherever she goes.”

“Thank you, Miss Rolleston,” I replied laughing, “I will not forget your cautions if ever I have the pleasure of meeting Miss Campbell, although if she bears any sort of likeness to the family here I should certainly consider myself flattered by any notice from her.”

At this designed compliment, Mary bashfully simpered, whilst her mother acknowledged her sense of it with a pleasant smile.

In the meantime supper had been prepared, and I hardly required the kind and hospitable attentions of Mrs. Campbell to do ample justice to her homely but substantial fare. While discussing this meal, Mr. Campbell, who till then had been absent taking a ride through the run, suddenly joined us at table. He seemed a person of a quiet, practical appearance, low in stature, but with rather well-formed features, and hair and whiskers of a reddish brown, slightly sprinkled with grey.

Supper over, Mr. Campbell and I had a long conversation on various topics connected with station management; stock, their proper usage, breeding and feeding coming in for a chief share in the discussion. In this conversation, coming as it did within my own proper provinces, I could of course hold my own. Yet, I confess that I was not sorry, when, after a while, on Mr. Campbell's being obliged to go out to give some directions to the men concerning the morrow's duties, I was again left to sustain a more diffident part in conversation with the ladies. But now, so much had the frankness of their manners put me on a footing of confidence with them and dissipated my natural backwardness in female society, I found the task to be a comparatively trifling one. Thus the conversation, chiefly carried on in a tone of light pleasantry, was sustained with great spirit for some time, until, to my great contentment, Miss Rolleston seated herself at the piano, and, almost unsolicited, began to play.

I am naturally fond of music and especially devoted to the plaintive strains of the ballad minstrelsy, with which my country is so eminently associated. It was therefore with something like rapture that I now listened to Miss Rolleston's exquisite rendering of songs that she herself accompanied on the page 28 piano with great sweetness and art; and as she next rattled off with spirit some stirring strathspey I felt my feet involuntarily moving an active accompaniment to the tune.

Miss Rolleston's mother had been Scotch and had also been her daughter's sole musical teacher.

The evening at last came to an end, and my interest in the sociable household, whose acquaintance I had now made, was nothing lessened, when at its close family worship was conducted by Mr. Campbell—a custom that I now witnessed for the first time since my departure from Scotland.

After solacing myself, and refreshing my horse with another day's rest at this pleasant establishment, and after receiving many expressions of hope for my speedy return, accompanied by warm pressure of hands at parting, I at length started for my new home, situated nearly two hundred miles up the Darling.

I will refrain from any further description of my journey, simply remarking that bush and plain alternated throughout the way, the chief feature in the landscape however being the salt bush that served in lieu of grass, that, save on the sand hills in the spring, is here scarcely to be seen. This salt bush is found to be very nutritious for both sheep and cattle. The leaves have a sharp, salt flavour, but otherwise are not disagreeable to the taste, and can be easily masticated without becoming reduced to that stringy pulp that necessitates the spitting out of the masticated parts of other shrubs. Indeed, I have known instances where, on the failure of the supply of ordinary salt, shepherds have been prevented from suffering any great inconvenience by the use of this plant, simply eating the leaves of the salt bush with their meat. But a stranger, accustomed only to grass country and unacquainted with the nutritious properties of the salt bush, would be puzzled to know how the sheep contrive to live at all, on gazing around him upon nothing in the way of herbage but these shrubs, in size and shape like heather, and, in the summer, by the road side usually bare of leaves.

Accommodating my stages to the situation of the various home-stations along my route that offered opportunities for convenient breaks in my journey, I reached the end of it on the fourth eve after my departure from the Murray, when I rode into the home-station where I was for a time to be ruler supreme.