Geoffrey Hamlyn, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 20

A Warm Christmas Day.

All through November and part of December, I and our Scotch overseer, Georgy Kyle, were busy as bees among the sheep. Shearers were very scarce, and the poor sheep got fearfully “tomahawked” by the new hands, who had been a very short time from the barracks. Dick, however, my new acquaintance, turned out a valuable ally, getting through more sheep and taking off his fleece better than any man in the shed. The prisoners, of course, would not work effectually without extra wages, and thus gave a deal of trouble; knowing that there was no fear of my sending them to the magistrate (fifty miles off) during such a busy time. However, all evils must come to an end some time or another, and so did shearing, though it was nearly Christmas before our wool was pressed and ready for the drays.

Then came a breathing time. So I determined, having heard nothing of James, to go over and spend my Christmas with the Buckleys, and see how they were getting on at their new station; and about noon on the day before Boxing-day, having followed the track made by their drays from the place I had last parted with them, I reined up on the cliffs above a noble river, and could see their new huts, scarce a quarter of a mile off, on the other side of the stream.

They say that Christmas-day is the hottest day in the year in those countries, but some days in January are, I think, generally hotter. To-day, however, was as hot as a salamander could wish. All the vast extent of yellow plain to the eastward quivered beneath a fiery sky, and every little eminence stood like an island in a lake of mirage. Used as I had got to this phenomenon, I was often tempted that morning to turn a few hundred yards from my route, and give my horse a drink at one of the broad glassy pools that seemed to lie right and left. Once the faint track I was following headed straight towards one of these apparent sheets of water, and I was even meditating a bathe, but, lo! when I was a hundred yards or so off, it began to dwindle and disappear, and I found nothing but the same endless stretch of grass, burnt up by the midsummer sun.

For many miles I had distinguished the new huts, placed at the apex of a great cape of the continent of timber which ran down from the mountains into the plains. I thought they had chosen a strange place for their habitation, as there appeared no signs of a watercourse near it. It was not till I pulled up within a quarter of a mile of my destination, that I heard a hoarse roar as if from the bowels of the earth, and found that I was standing on the edge of a glen about four hundred feet deep, through which a magnificent snow-fed river poured ceaselessly, here flashing bright among bars of rock, there lying in dark, deep reaches, under tall, white-stemmed trees.

The scene was so beautiful and novel that I paused and gazed at it. Across the glen, behind the houses, rolled up a dark mass of timbered ranges, getting higher and steeper as far as the eye could reach, while to the north-east the river’s course might be traced by the timber that fringed the water’s edge, and sometimes feathered some tributary gully almost to the level of the flat lofty table-land. On either side of it, down behind, down folded one over the other, and, bordered by great forests, led the eye towards the river’s source, till the course of the valley could no longer be distinguished, lost among the distant ranges; but above where it had disappeared, rose a tall blue peak with streaks of snow.

I rode down a steep pathway, and crossed a broad gravelly ford. As my horse stopped to drink, I looked delighted up the vista which opened on my sight. The river, partly over-shadowed by tall trees, was hurrying and spouting through upright columns of basalt, which stood in groups everywhere like the pillars of a ruined city; in some places solitary, in others, clustered together like fantastic buildings, while a hundred yards above was an island, dividing the stream, on which, towering above the variety of low green shrubs which covered it, three noble fern trees held their plumes aloft, shaking with the concussion of the falling water.

I crossed the river. A gully, deep at first, but getting rapidly shallower, led up by a steep ascent to the tableland above, and as I reached the summit I found myself at Major Buckley’s front door. They had, with good taste, left such trees as stood near the house — a few deep-shadowed light-woods and black wattles, which formed pretty groups in what I could see was marked out for a garden. Behind, the land began to rise, at first, in park-like timbered forest glades, and further back, closing into dense deep woodlands.

“What a lovely place they will make of this in time!” I said to myself; but I had not much time for cogitation. A loud, cheerful voice shouted: “Hamlyn, you are welcome to Baroona!” and close to me I saw the Major, carrying his son and heir in his arms, advancing to meet me from the house-door.

“You are welcome to Baroona!” echoed the boy; “and a merry Christmas and a happy New-year to you!”

I went into the house and was delighted to find what a change a few weeks of busy, quiet, and HOME had made in the somewhat draggle-tailed and disconsolate troop that I had parted with on their road. Miss Thornton, with her black mittens, white apron, and spectacles, had found herself a cool corner by the empty fire-place, and was stitching away happily at baby linen. Mrs. Buckley, in the character of a duchess, was picking raisins, and Mary was helping her; and, as I entered, laughing loudly, they greeted me kindly with all the old sacred good wishes of the season.

“I very much pity you, Mr. Hamlyn,” said Mrs. Buckley, “at having outlived the novelty of being scorched to death on Christmas-day. My dear husband, please refresh me with reading the thermometer!”

“One hundred and nine in the shade,” replied the Major, with a chuckle.

“Ah, dear!” said Mrs. Buckley, “If the dear old rheumatic creatures from the alms-house at Clere could only spend tomorrow with us, how it would warm their old bones! Fancy how they are crouching before their little pinched grates just now!”

“Hardly that, Mrs. Buckley,” I said laughing; “they are all snug in bed now. It is three o’clock in the morning, or thereabouts, at home, you must remember. Miss Thornton, I hope you have got over your journey.”

“Yes, and I can laugh at all my mishaps now,” she replied; “I have just got homely and comfortable here, but we must make one more move, and that will be the last for me. Mary and Mr. Troubridge have taken up their country to the south-west, and as soon as he has got our house built, we are going to live there.”

“It is not far, I hope,” said I.

“A trifle: not more than ten miles,” said Miss Thornton; “they call the place Toonarbin. Mary’s run joins the Major’s on two sides, and beyond again, we already have neighbours, the Mayfords. They are on the river again; but we are on a small creek towards the ranges. I should like to have been on the river, but they say we are very lucky.”

“I am so glad to see you,” said Mary; “James Stockbridge said you would be sure to come; otherwise, we should have sent over for you. What do you think of my boy?”

She produced him from an inner room. He was certainly a beautiful child, though very small, and with a certain painful likeness to his father, which even I could see, and I could not help comparing him unfavourably, in my own mind, with that noble six-year-old Sam Buckley, who had come to my knee where I sat, and was looking in my face as if to make a request.

“What is it, my prince?” I asked.

He blushed, and turned his handsome gray eyes to a silver-handled riding-whip that I had in my hand “I’ll take such care of it,” he whispered, and, having got it, was soon astride of a stick, full gallop for Banbury Cross.

James and Troubridge came in. To the former I had much to tell that was highly satisfactory about our shearing; and from the latter I had much to hear about the state of both the new stations, and the adventures of a journey he had had back towards Sydney to fetch up his sheep. But these particulars will be but little interesting to an English reader, and perhaps still less so to an Australian. I am writing a history of the people themselves, not of their property. I will only say, once for all, that the Major’s run contained very little short of 60,000 acres of splendidly grassed plain-land, which he took up originally with merely a few cattle, and about 3,000 sheep; but which, in a few years, carried 28,000 sheep comfortably. Mrs. Hawker and Troubridge had quite as large a run; but a great deal of it was rather worthless forest, badly grassed; which Tom, in his wisdom, like a great many other new chums, had thought superior to the bleak plains on account of the shelter. Yet, notwithstanding this disadvantage, they were never, after a year or two, with less than 15,000 sheep, and a tolerable head of cattle. In short, in a very few years, both the Major and Troubridge, by mere power of accumulation, became very wealthy people.

Christmas morn rose bright; but ere the sun had time to wreak his fury upon us every soul in the household was abroad, under the shade of the lightwood trees, to hear the Major read the Litany.

A strange group we were. The Major stood with his back against a tree-stem, and all his congregation were ranged around him. To his right stood Miss Thornton, her arms folded placidly before her; and with her, Mary and Mrs. Buckley, in front of whom sat the two boys: Sam, the elder, trying to keep Charles, the younger, quiet. Next, going round the circle, stood the old housekeeper, servant of the Buckleys for thirty years; who now looked askance off her Prayer-book to see that the two convict women under her charge were behaving with decorum. Next, and exactly opposite the Major, were two free servants: one a broad, brawny, athleticlooking man, with, I thought, not a bad countenance; and the other a tall, handsome, foolish-looking Devonshire lad. The round was completed by five convict man-servants, standing vacantly looking about them; and Tom, James, and myself, who were next the Major.

The service, which he read in a clear manly voice, was soon over, and we returned to the house in groups. I threw myself in the way of the two free servants, and asked —

“Pray, which of you is William Lee?”— for I had forgotten him.

The short thickset man I had noticed before touched his hat and said that he was. That touching of the hat is a very rare piece of courtesy from working men in Australia. The convicts are forced to do it, and so the free men make it a point of honour not to do so.

“Oh!” said I, “I have got a groom who calls himself Dick. I found him sorefooted in the bush the day I met the Major. He was trying to pick you up. He asked me to tell you that he was afraid to cross the range alone on account of the blacks, or he would have come up with you. He seemed anxious lest you should think it was his fault.”

“Poor chap!” said Lee. “What a faithful little fellow it is! Would it be asking a liberty if you would take back a letter for me, sir?”

I said, “No; certainly not.”

“I am much obliged to you, sir,” he said. “I am glad Dick has got with A GENTLEMAN.”

That letter was of some importance to me, though I did not know it till after, but I may as well say why now. Lee had been a favourite servant of my father’s, and when he got into trouble my father had paid a counsel to defend him. Lee never forgot this, and this letter to Dick was shortly to the effect that I was one of the RIGHT SORT, and was to be taken care of, which injunction Dick obeyed to the very letter, doing me services for pure good will, which could not have been bought for a thousand a-year.

After breakfast arose the question, “What is to be done?” Which Troubridge replied to by saying: “What could any sensible man do such weather as this, but get into the water and stop there?”

“Shall it be, ‘All hands to bathe,’ then?” said the Major.

“You won’t be without company,” said Mrs. Buckley, “for the black fellows are camped in the bend, and they spend most of their time in the water such a day as this.”

So James and Troubridge started for the river with their towels, the Major and I promising to follow them immediately, for I wanted to look at my horse, and the Major had also something to do in the paddock. So we walked together.

“Major,” said I, when we had gone a little way, “do you never feel anxious about Mary Hawker’s husband appearing and giving trouble?”

“Oh, no!” said he. “The man is safe in Van Diemen’s Land. Besides, what could he gain? I, for one, without consulting her, should find means to pack him off again. There is no fear.”

“By the bye, Major,” I said, “have you heard from our friend Doctor Mulhaus since your arrival? I suppose he is at Drumston still?”

“Oh dear, no!” said he. “He is gone back to Germany. He is going to settle there again. He was so sickened of England when all his friends left, that he determined to go home. I understood that he had some sort of patrimony there, on which he will end his days. Wherever he goes, God go with him, for he is a noble fellow!”

“Amen,” I answered. And soon after, having got towels, we proceeded to the river; making for a long reach a little below where I had crossed the night before.

“Look there!” said the Major. “There’s a bit for one of your painters! I wish Wilkie or Martin were here.”

I agreed with him. Had Etty been on the spot he would have got a hint for one of his finest pictures; though I can give but little idea of it in writing, however, let me try. Before us was a long reach of deep, still water, unbroken by a ripple, so hemmed in on all sides by walls of deep green black wattle, tea-tree, and delicate silver acacia, that the water seemed to flow in a deep shoreless rift of the forest, above which the taller forest trees towered up two hundred feet, hiding the lofty cliffs, which had here receded a little back from the river.

The picture had a centre, and a strange one. A little ledge of rock ran out into deep water, and upon it, rising from a heap of light-coloured clothing, like a white pillar, in the midst of the sombre green foliage, rose the naked carcass of Thomas Troubridge, Esq., preparing for a header, while at his feet were grouped three or four black fellows, one of whom as we watched slid off the rock like an otter. The reach was covered with black heads belonging to the savages, who were swimming in all directions, while groups of all ages and both sexes stood about on the bank in Mother Nature’s full dress.

We had a glorious bathe, and then sat on the rock, smoking, talking, and watching the various manoeuvres of the blacks. An old lady, apparently about eighty, with a head as white as snow, topping her black body (a flourbag cobbler, as her tribe would call her), was punting a canoe along in the shallow water on the opposite side of the river. She was entirely without clothes, and in spite of her decrepitude stood upright in the cockleshell, handling it with great dexterity. When she was a little above us, she made way on her barque, and shot into the deep water in the middle of the stream, evidently with the intention of speaking us. As, however, she was just half-way across, floating helplessly, unable to reach the bottom with the spear she had used as a puntpole in the shallower water, a mischievous black imp canted her over, and souse she went into the river. It was amazing to see how boldly and well the old woman struck out for the shore, keeping her white head well out of the water; and, having reached dry land once more, sat down on her haunches, and began scolding with a volubility and power which would soon have silenced the loudest tongue in old Billingsgate.

Her anger, so far from wearing out, grew on what fed it; so that her long-drawn yells, which seemed like parentheses in her jabbering discourse, were getting each minute more and more acute, and we were just thinking about moving homewards, when a voice behind us sang out —

“Hallo, Major! Having a little music, eh? What a sweet song that old girl is singing! I must write it down from dictation, and translate it, as Walter Scott used to do with the old wives’ ballads in Scotland.”

“I have no doubt it would be quite Ossianic — equal to any of the abusive scenes in Homer. But, my dear Harding, how are you? You are come to eat your Christmas dinner with us, I hope?”

“That same thing, Major,” answered the new comer. “Troubridge and Stockbridge, how are you? This, I presume, is your partner, Hamlyn?”

We went back to the house. Harding, I found, was half-owner of a station to the north-east, an Oxford man, a great hand at skylarking, and an inveterate writer of songs. He was good-looking too, and gentlemanlike, in fact, a very pleasant companion in every way.

Dinner was to be at six o’clock, in imitation of home hours; but we did not find the day hang heavy on our hands, there was so much to be spoken of by all of us. And when that important meal was over we gathered in the open air in front of the house, bent upon making Christmas cheer.

“What is your last new song, eh, Harding?” said the Major; “now is the time to ventilate it.”

“I’ve been too busy shearing for song-writing, Major.”

Soon after this we went in, and there we sat till nearly ten o’clock, laughing, joking, singing, and drinking punch. Mary sat between James Stockbridge and Tom, and they three spoke together so exclusively and so low, that the rest of us were quite forgotten. Mary was smiling and laughing, first at one and then at the other, in her old way, and now and then as I glanced at her I could hardly help sighing. But I soon remembered certain resolutions I had made, and tried not to notice the trio, but to make myself agreeable to the others. Still my eyes wandered towards them again intuitively. I thought Mary had never looked so beautiful before. Her complexion was very full, as though she were blushing at something one of them had said to her, and while I watched I saw James rise and go to a jug of flowers, and bring back a wreath of scarlet Kennedia, saying:—

“Do us a favour on Christmas night, Mary; twine this in your hair.”

She blushed deeper than before, but she did it, and Tom helped her. There was no harm in that, you say, for was he not her cousin? But still I could not help saying to myself, “Oh Mary, Mary, if you were a widow, how long would you stay so?”

“What a gathering it is, to be sure!” said Mrs. Buckley! —“all the old Drumstonians who are alive collected under one roof.”

“Except the Doctor,” said the Major.

“Ah, yes, dear Doctor Mulhaus. I am so sad sometimes to think that we shall never see him again.”

“I miss him more than any one,” said the Major. “I have no one to contradict me now.”

“I shall have to take that duty upon me, then,” said his wife. “Hark! there is Lee come back from the sheep station. Yes, that must be his horse. Call him in and give him a glass of grog. I was sorry to send him out today.”

“He is coming to make his report,” said Mrs. Buckley; “there is his heavy tramp outside the door.”

The door was opened, and the new comer advanced to where the glare of the candles fell full upon his face.

Had the Gentleman in Black himself advanced out of the darkness at that moment, with his blue bag on his arm and his bundle of documents in his hand, we should not have leapt to our feet and cried out more suddenly than we did then. For Doctor Mulhaus stood in the middle of the room, looking around him with a bland smile.

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