Geoffrey Hamlyn, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 18

The First Puff of the South Wind.

A new heaven and a new earth! Tier beyond tier, height above height, the great wooded ranges go rolling away westward, till on the lofty sky-line they are crowned with a gleam of everlasting snow. To the eastward they sink down, breaking into isolated forests, fringed peaks, and rock-crowned eminences, till with rapidly straightening lines they disappear gradually into broad grey plains, beyond which the Southern Ocean is visible by the white reflection cast upon the sky.

All creation is new and strange. The trees, surpassing in size the largest English oaks, are of a species we have never seen before. The graceful shrubs, the bright-coloured flowers, ay, the very grass itself, are of species unknown in Europe; while flaming lories and brilliant parroquets fly whistling, not unmusically, through the gloomy forest, and over head in the higher fields of air, still lit up by the last rays of the sun, countless cockatoos wheel and scream in noisy joy, as we may see the gulls do about an English headland.

To the northward a great glen, sinking suddenly from the saddle on which we stand, stretches away in long vista, until it joins a broader valley, through which we can dimly see a full-fed river winding along in gleaming reaches, through level meadow land, interspersed with clumps of timber.

We are in Australia. Three hundred and fifty miles south of Sydney, on the great watershed which divides the Belloury from the Maryburnong, since better known as the Snowy-river of Gipps-land.

As the sun was going down on the scene I have been describing, James Stockbridge and I, Geoffry Hamlyn, reined up our horses on the ridge above-mentioned, and gazed down the long gully which lay stretched at our feet. Only the tallest trees stood with their higher boughs glowing with the gold of the departing day, and we stood undetermined which route to pursue, and half inclined to camp at the next waterhole we should see. We had lost some cattle, and among others a valuable imported bull, which we were very anxious to recover. For five days we had been passing on from run to run, making inquiries without success, and were now fifty long miles from home in a southerly direction. We were beyond the bounds of all settlement; the last station we had been at was twenty miles to the north of us, and the occupiers of it, as they had told us the night before, had only taken up their country about ten weeks, and were as yet the furthest pioneers to the southward.

At this time Stockbridge and I had been settled in our new home about two years, and were beginning to get comfortable and contented. We had had but little trouble with the blacks, and, having taken possession of a fine piece of country, were flourishing and well to do.

We had never heard from home but once, and that was from Tom Troubridge, soon after our departure, telling us that if we succeeded he should follow, for that the old place seemed changed now we were gone. We had neither of us left any near relations behind us, and already we began to think that we were cut off for ever from old acquaintances and associations, and were beginning to be resigned to it.

Let us return to where he and I were standing alone in the forest. I dismounted to set right some strap or another, and, instead of getting on my horse again at once, stood leaning against him, looking at the prospect, glad to ease my legs for a time, for they were cramped with many hours’ riding.

Stockbridge sat in his saddle immoveable and silent as a statue, and when I looked in his face I saw that his heart had travelled further than his eye could reach, and that he was looking far beyond the horizon that bounded his earthly vision, away to the pleasant old home which was home to us no longer.

“Jim,” said I, “I wonder what is going on at Drumston now?”

“I wonder,” he said softly.

A pause.

Below us, in the valley, a mob of jackasses were shouting and laughing uproariously, and a magpie was chanting his noble vesper hymn from a lofty tree.

“Jim,” I began again, “do you ever think of poor little Mary now?”

“Yes, old boy, I do,” he replied; “I can’t help it; I was thinking of her then — I am always thinking of her, and, what’s more, I always shall be. Don’t think me a fool, old friend, but I love that girl as well now as ever I did. I wonder if she has married that fellow Hawker?”

“I fear there is but little doubt of it,” I said; “try to forget her, James. Get in a rage with her, and be proud about it; you’ll make all your life unhappy if you don’t.”

He laughed. “That’s all very well, Jeff, but it’s easier said than done. — Do you hear that? There are cattle down the gully.”

There was some noise in the air, beside the evening rustle of the south wind among the tree-tops. Now it sounded like a far-off hubbub of waters, now swelled up harmonious, like the booming of cathedral bells across some rich old English valley on a still summer’s afternoon.

“There are cattle down there, certainly,” I said, “and a very large number of them; they are not ours, depend upon it: there are men with them, too, or they would not make so much noise. Can it be the blacks driving them off from the strangers we stayed with last night, do you think? If so, we had best look out for ourselves.”

“Blacks could hardly manage such a large mob as there are there,” said James. “I’ll tell you what I think it is, old Jeff; it’s some new chums going to cross the watershed, and look for new country to the south. If so, let us go down and meet them: they will camp down by the river yonder.”

James was right. All doubt about what the new comers were was solved before we reached the river, for we could hear the rapid detonation of the stock-whips loud above the lowing of the cattle; so we sat and watched them debouche from the forest into the broad river meadows in the gathering gloom: saw the scene so venerable and ancient, so seldom seen in the Old World — the patriarchs moving into the desert with all their wealth, to find new pasture-ground. A simple primitive action, the first and simplest act of colonization, yet producing such great results on the history of the world, as did the parting of Lot and Abraham in times gone by.

First came the cattle lowing loudly, some trying to stop and graze on the rich pasture after their long day’s travel, some heading noisily towards the river, now beginning to steam with the rising evening mist. Now a lordly bull, followed closely by two favourite heifers, would try to take matters into his own hands, and cut out a route for himself, but is soon driven ignominiously back in a lumbering gallop by a quick-eyed stockman. Now a silly calf takes it into his head to go for a small excursion up the range, followed, of course, by his doting mother, and has to be headed in again, not without muttered wrath and lowerings of the head from madame. Behind the cattle came horsemen, some six or seven in number, and last, four drays, bearing the household gods, came crawling up the pass.

We had time to notice that there were women on the foremost dray, when it became evident that the party intended camping in a turn of the river just below. One man kicked his feet out of the stirrups, and, sitting loosely in his saddle, prepared to watch the cattle for the first few hours till he was relieved. Another lit a fire against a fallen tree, and while the bullock-drivers were busy unyoking their beasts, and the women were clambering from the dray, two of the horsemen separated from the others, and came forward to meet us.

Both of them I saw were men of vast stature. One rode upright, with a military seat, while his companion had his feet out of his stirrups, and rode loosely, as if tired with his journey. Further than this, I could distinguish nothing in the darkening twilight; but, looking at James, I saw that he was eagerly scanning the strangers, with elevated eyebrow and opened lips. Ere I could speak to him, he had dashed forward with a shout, and when I came up with him, wondering, I found myself shaking hands, talking and laughing, everything in fact short of crying, with Major Buckley and Thomas Troubridge.

“Range up alongside here, Jeff, you rascal,” said Tom, “and let me get a fair hug at you. What do you think of this for a lark; eh? — to meet you out here, all promiscuous, in the forest, like Prince Arthur! We could not go out of our way to see you, though we knew where you were located, for we must hurry on and get a piece of country we have been told of on the next river. We are going to settle down close by you, you see. We’ll make a new Drumston in the wilderness.”

“This is a happy meeting, indeed, old Tom,” I said, as we rode towards the drays, after the Major and James. “We shall have happy times, now we have got some of our old friends round us. Who is come with you? How is Mrs. Buckley?”

“Mrs. Buckley is as well as ever, and as handsome. My pretty little cousin, Mary Hawker, and old Miss Thornton, are with us; the poor old Vicar is dead.”

“Mary Hawker with you?” I said. “And her husband, Tom?”

“Hardly, old friend. We travel in better company,” said he. “George Hawker is transported for life.”

“Alas! poor Mary,” I answered. “And what for?”

“Coining,” he answered. “I’ll tell you the story another time. To-night let us rejoice.”

I could not but watch James, who was riding before us, to see how he would take this news. The Major, I saw, was telling him all about it, but James seemed to take it quite quietly, only nodding his head as the other went on. I knew how he would feel for his old love, and I turned and said to Troubridge —

“Jim will be very sorry to hear of this. I wish she had married him.”

“That’s what we all say,” said Tom. “I am sorry for poor Jim. He is about the best man I know, take him all in all. If that fellow were to die, she might have him yet, Hamlyn.”

We reached the drays. There sat Mrs. Buckley on a log, a noble, happy matron, laughing at her son as he toddled about, busy gathering sticks for the fire. Beside her was Mary, paler and older-looking than when we had seen her last, with her child upon her lap, looking sad and worn. But a sadder sight for me was old Miss Thornton, silent and frightened, glancing uneasily round, as though expecting some new horror. No child for her to cling to and strive for. No husband to watch for and anticipate every wish. A poor, timid, nervous old maid, thrown adrift in her old age upon a strange sea of anomalous wonders. Every old favourite prejudice torn up by the roots. All old formulas of life scattered to the winds!

She told me in confidence that evening that she had been in sad trouble all day. At dinner-time, some naked blacks had come up to the dray, and had frightened and shocked her. Then the dray had been nearly upset, and her hat crushed among the trees. A favourite and precious bag, which never left her, had been dropped in the water; and her Prayer-book, a parting gift from Lady Kate, had been utterly spoiled. A hundred petty annoyances and griefs, which Mary barely remarked, and which brave Mrs. Buckley, in her strong determination of following her lord to the ends of the earth, and of being as much help and as little incumbrance to him as she could, had laughed at, were to her great misfortunes. Why, the very fact, as she told me, of sitting on the top of a swinging jolting dray was enough to keep her in a continual state of agony and terror, so that when she alit at night, and sat down, she could not help weeping silently, dreading lest any one should see her.

Suddenly, Mary was by her side, kneeling down.

“Aunt,” she said, “dearest aunt, don’t break down. It is all my wicked fault. You will break my heart, auntie dear, if you cry like that. Why did ever I bring you on this hideous journey?”

“How could I leave you in your trouble, my love?” said Miss Thornton. “You did right to come, my love. We are among old friends. We have come too far for trouble to reach us. We shall soon have a happy home again now, and all will be well.”

So she, who needed so much comforting herself, courageously dried her tears and comforted Mary. And when we reached the drays, she was sitting with her hands folded before her in serene misery.

“Mary,” said the Major, “here are two old friends.”

He had no time to say more, for she, recognising Jim, sprang up, and, running to him, burst into hysterical weeping.

“Oh, my good old friend!” she cried; “oh, my dear old friend! Oh, to meet you here in this lonely wilderness! Oh, James, my kind old brother!”

I saw how his big heart yearned to comfort his old sweetheart in her distress. Not a selfish thought found place with him. He could only see his old love injured and abandoned, and nought more.

“Mary,” he said, “what happiness to see you among all your old friends come to live among us again! It is almost too good to believe in. Believe me, you will get to like this country as well as old Devon soon, though it looks so strange just now. And what a noble boy, too! We will make him the best bushman in the country when he is old enough.”

So he took the child of his rival to his bosom, and when the innocent little face looked into his, he would see no likeness to George Hawker there. He only saw the mother’s countenance as he knew her as a child years gone by.

“Is nobody going to notice me or my boy, I wonder?” said Mrs. Buckley. “Come here immediately, Mr. Stockbridge, before we quarrel.”

In a very short time all our party were restored to their equanimity, and were laying down plans for pleasant meetings hereafter. And long after the women had gone to bed in the drays, and the moon was riding high in the heavens, James and myself, Troubridge and the Major, sat before the fire; and we heard, for the first time, of all that had gone on since we left England, and of all poor Mary’s troubles. Then each man rolled himself in his blanket, and slept soundly under the rustling forest-boughs.

In the bright cool morning, ere the sun was up, and the belated opossum had run back to his home in the hollow log, James and I were afoot, looking after our horses. We walked silently side by side for a few minutes, until he turned and said:—

“Jeff, old fellow, of course you will go on with them, and stay until they are settled?”

“Jim, old fellow,” I replied, “of course you will go on with them, and stay till they are settled?”

He pondered a few moments, and then said, “Well, why not? I suppose she can be to me still what she always was? Yes, I will go with them.”

When we returned to the dray we found them all astir, preparing for a start. Mrs. Buckley, with her gown tucked up, was preparing breakfast, as if she had been used to the thing all her life. She had an imperial sort of way of manoeuvring a frying-pan, which did one good to see. It is my belief, that if that woman had been called upon to groom a horse, she’d have done it in a ladylike way.

While James went among the party to announce his intention of going on with them, I had an opportunity of looking at the son and heir of all the Buckleys. He was a sturdy, handsome child about five years old, and was now standing apart from the others, watching a bullock-driver yoking-up his beast. I am very fond of children, and take great interest in studying their characters; so I stood, not unamused, behind this youngster, as he stood looking with awe and astonishment at the man, as he managed the great, formidable beasts, and brought each one into his place; not, however, without more oaths than one would care to repeat. Suddenly, the child, turning and seeing me behind him, came back, and took my hand.

“Why is he so angry with them?” the child asked at once. “Why does he talk to them like that?”

“He is swearing at them,” I said, “to make them stand in their places.”

“But they don’t understand him,” said the boy. “That black and white one would have gone where he wanted it in a minute; but it couldn’t understand, you know; so he hit it over the nose. Why don’t he find out how they talk to one another? Then he’d manage them much better. He is very cruel.”

“He does not know any better,” I said. “Come with me and get some flowers.”

“Will you take me up?” he said; “I musn’t run about for fear of snakes.”

I took him up, and we went to gather flowers.

“Your name is Samuel Buckley, I think,” said I.

“How did you know that?”

“I remember you when you were a baby,” I said. “I hope you may grow to be as good a man as your father, my lad. See, there is mamma calling for us.”

“And how far south are you going, Major?” I asked at breakfast.

“No further than we can help,” said the Major. “I stayed a night with my old friend Captain Brentwood, by the way; and there I found a man who knew of some unoccupied country down here, which he had seen in some bush expedition. We found the ground he mentioned taken up; but he says there is equally good on the next river. I have bought him and his information.”

“We saw good country away to the south yesterday,” I said. “But are you wise to trust this man? Do you know anything about him?”

“Brentwood has known him these ten years, and trusts him entirely; though, I believe, he has been a convict. If you are determined to come with us, Stockbridge, I will call him up and examine him about the route. William Lee, just step here a moment.”

A swarthy and very powerfully built man came up. No other than the man I have spoken of under that name before. He was quite unknown either to James or myself, although, as he told us afterwards, he had recognised us at once, but kept out of our sight as much as possible, till by the Major’s summons he was forced to come forward.

“What route today, William?” asked the Major.

“South and by east across the range. We ought to get down to the river by night if we’re lucky.”

So, while the drays were getting under way, the Major, Tom, James, and myself rode up to the saddle where we had stood the night before, and gazed southeast across the broad prospect, in the direction that the wanderers were to go.

“That,” said the Major, “to the right there must be the great glen out of which the river comes; and there, please God, we will rest our weary bodies and build our house. Odd, isn’t it, that I should have been saved from shot and shell when so many better men were put away in the trench, to come and end my days in a place like this? Well, I think we shall have a pleasant life of it, watching the cattle spread further across the plains year after year, and seeing the boy grow up to be a good man. At all events, for weal or woe, I have said good bye to old England, for ever and a day.”

The cattle were past, and the drays had arrived at where we stood. With many a hearty farewell, having given a promise to come over and spend Christmas-day with them, I turned my horse’s head homewards and went on my solitary way.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44