Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 13

These are thy blessings: Industry, rough power,

Whom labour still attends, and sweat, and pain.

As Rashleigh wsas returning from work one morning shortly after the memorable “bespeak”, in company with one of the pseudo-performers, he had to cross the highway road leading to Bathurst over Emu Plains. It chanced that just as they did so, a mounted traveller accosted them, who by his appointments had evidently been no long time in the Colony, and who was struck, as it would seem, with their appearance. The winter’s supply of clothing having been recently issued, each had on a frock and trousers which were nearly new. These garments were somewhat uncouth to look at, being merely the natural colour of the wool as it was cut in the fleece, put together in a truly antediluvian style which would have positively horrified the soul of a Stultz if he could have only caught a glimpse of them, and rendered much more conspicuous by the characters “P-B-E-P” each about six inches long, stamped with glaring red paint in no less than eight different places, before and behind each wearer. These letters were meant to represent “Prisoners’ Barracks Emu Plains”; but from the colour of the cloth, the utter shapelessness of the clothes, and the brilliant contrast afforded by the hue of the stamps, each person who wore this primitive garb resembled some strange monster in a state of transition, scarce half man but more than half sheep, branded, as it might appear — having been newly shorn — with the initials of its owner’s name.

So at least seemed to think the stranger, who checked his horse and sat motionless in the saddle, gazing with dilated eyes and gaping with open mouth at the long file of convicts as they passed. Ralph and his companion being last, he addressed them as if he were anxious to ascertain whether this were an unreal mockery of his vision or whether they were palpable living men possessed of the usual organs of speech.

“Halloo,” he said, “what are you?”

“We belong to the camp yonder,” was the reply.

“Oh,” returned the stranger, “and pray, what sort of dress is that you wear?”

“Our Government supply,” replied Rashleigh.

“Indeed; and now, if I may ask, what are the meanings of all those letters sprinkled over it?”

“Why sir,” answered Ralph’s companion, who was the small wit of Emu Plains, “they mean ‘Poor Beggar — Eternal Punishment’.”

“Dear me!” exclaimed the horseman. “I’m very sorry for you!” And he threw them a handful of silver, which they gathered with great goodwill. And the stranger departed.

Eighteen months had now elapsed since Ralph Rashleigh first joined the agricultural establishment at Emu Plains, during which period he had experienced full many an aching heart arid full many an empty stomach. By far the greater part of that time he had neither shirt nor shoes to wear. In fact, his only garments consisted of a tattered frock of the kind just described and scarcely three parts of a pair of unmentionables, so much patched that, like the celebrated stockings of Sir John Cutler, hardly a particle of the original material remained. The nether extremities of these scanty apologies for decency looked as if his constant nightly companions, the rats — who maintained almost an equal right to his wretched bed of corn husks with himself — had nibbled them away piecemeal, until at last they had encroached upon those regions which ought to have covered the knees.

But the worst and most trying deprivation of all, to him, was the lack of shoes. For in the fields the sharply angular masses of clay, indurated almost to the hardness of flints by the arid sky, produced painful stone bruises, while on the “burning-off” ground or in the bush the frequent fires, having consumed all the inflammable portions of the grass, left nothing behind but the short stems, stiffened by flame, and as sharp as pointed stakes, which pierced, cut and tore the soles of his feet, until it was absolutely painful to him in the least degree even to stand erect upon them. If he walked at all it was necessarily at the rate of a snail’s gallop, which procured for him a double portion of abuse from his overseers and the expressive but neither euphonious nor honourable appellation of a crawler.

In the winter time, too, the torment produced by the hoar-frost, which agonised his very soul whenever his lacerated feet came in contact with it, produced many a bitter pang. But time enabled him at last to find a remedy for even these evils. He invented a sort of sandal similar to those of the Romans of old, the bottoms of which were formed of light wood, having a complicated arrangement of buckling straps to secure them. He also fabricated a kind of stockings from old woollen rags, which served the double purpose of warmth and security against thorns and briary vines which had so cruelly mangled him before. Besides, and better than all this, he was now getting so much inured to work that he no longer dreaded it, nor had his hours of rest broken by frightful dreams of cruelties perpetrated by the tyrannical overseers, as was too frequently the case at first.

In addition to all these causes of self-gratulation afforded to our exile, the drought which had so long oppressed the Colony broke up in the ensuing spring, arid copious rains again blessed the earth with their fertilising effects, dressing the surrounding plains with nature’s gayest livery — instead of the arid appearance they had so long presented — and affording promise of an abundant harvest to gladden the long depressed hearts of the starving settlers. Besides, Rashleigh was now wealthy, his store having been increased by the unexpected liberality of the stranger to the sum of nearly two pounds — an amount which promised, with due economy, to afford him a moderate supply of extra food, sufficient to last him until the crops were ripe, when he hoped to earn a further supply.

Time now coursed rapidly on, until the month of November, when wheat reaping commenced. In compliance with an annual custom, instituted in order to afford the free settlers opportunities of acquiring additional labour to gather in their grain, which, in the then very limited population of New South Wales, would otherwise have been quite inaccessible, the superintendent of Emu Plains granted passes to such of the men under him as he thought deserving, each week upon Thursday evening; which documents entitled the holders thereof to be absent from camp and to work for themselves in the neighbourhood until the ensuing Sunday night — an indulgence which was so highly appreciated that all hands strained their nerves to the utmost to obtain it.

Ralph was among the fortunates, and having gotten his “pass”, with a merry heart and full of joyful anticipations he hied across the river in search of work to do, being accompanied by one of his hut-mates. About ten o’clock that night they reached a part of the Nepean bank which was thickly occupied by small settlers, and where he had learned the wheat was now nearly ripe. The yellow lustre of the harvest moon illumined all the surrounding scenery with its mild radiance, and the hum of many voices told that the settlers were busy.

Upon going nearer, the travellers soon found this to be the case in good earnest, for it was a favourite as well as beneficial practice with the Australian farmers of that day to perform the greater part of their agricultural labours either by night or early each morning, so that during the middle hours of the day, when the sun was in its greatest altitude, they slept or amused themselves in their dwellings. To do this with the greater advantage they carefully studied the phases of the moon, being rather guided in their hours of labour during the summer by that luminary than by the too ardent god of day. Thus, when Rashleigh neared their settlement, which stood upon the estate of Regentville and was named “Irish Corner” after the nation of its chief occupants, the greater part of the population were actively employed. Men and women, boys and girls, all had sickles, reaping away with the greatest energy, while ever and anon the jocund laugh, the shouted jest and the merry response told that all were engaged in an occupation they highly enjoyed.

The travellers, on reaching the first wheat field, waited at the fence until the reapers came up, when they saluted the leader with a good-night. He had not observed them, being absorbed in his work; but he now stood up and returned their salute in kind, asking them if they’d far to travel.

Rashleigh responded “that it depended on circumstances, as they were looking for work”.

“By my sowl, thin,” said the other, “you’ve come to the right place to find it! Praise be to the Vargin! But maybe, though it’s looking for work youse are, yees don’t want to do any yourselves?”

Indeed we do,” said Ralph, “if we can get anybody to employ us!”

“Employ yees? Gerrah, thin, why not?” returned the reaper. “I suppose youse are all right? Not crappies (bushrangers), I mean.”

“Oh no,” replied Rashleigh. “I and my mate here are men on pass from the Plains till Sunday. Here’s our passes if you like to look at them.”

“Is id me look at ’em?” responded the other. “Bedad thin, there ud be little good in that, anyway; be the same token that I don’t know big A from a bud’s foot!” And he laughed most heartily at this highly delightful idea. “But if id’s raally raping you want, I’ll give you a pound an acre for all you’ll cut of this saam whate. And if you’ll take that, jusht sthick in, and say no more about id.” And the old man again set to work, twisting the wheat down with surprising vigour.

Ralph remarked, however, that this was a strong heavy crop and worth more than that.

“Don’t be boddering us,” said the owner. “Sure I can cut an acre a day of id flankin’, and I’m sure hearty young min like the pair of youse ought to knock down a dale more nor that.”

Well,” rejoined Rashleigh, we’ll look about a bit among your neighbours, and if we can’t get any higher offer we’ll come and set on along with you.”

“By this and by that thin, you won’t,” said the choleric old chap. “If you go sthreeling about looking for more wages, you shan’t touch a sthraw of Jack Canavan’s whate, see that now!”

“Very well, no harm done,” returned the other, and passed on a little farther.

In the next field they reached, there were five individuals reaping, towards whom they went and found an elderly man somewhat ahead of the others. Hard-favoured, long-sided, and still unbent by age, the reaper raised himself up and said, “Good morrow, boys. Is id me you want?”

“Aye,” was the reply. “We want to know if you can give us work with you.”

“Bedad thin,” rejoined the old man, “I cud do that saam, but what ud you be axing?”

“Oh, we don’t know what’s going; but we’ll take the same as others get,” replied the travellers.

“Musha now,” said the senior. “I’ll tell you at a word what I’ll do. If you’ll work along wid us here, and work as we work, I’ll pay you a pound for every day you sthop; bekase, you see, my whate is rip’ing all in patches and I must rape wherever id’s wanted to be cut firsht and id ‘udn’t be convanient to mizzure.”

“What about our mess?” said Ralph.

“Arrah thin, I forgot that. Why, if you plaze me, I’ll not charge you a traneen for all you’ll ate of the besht of good living, such as I’ve got myself!”

On these terms a bargain was struck, and as by this time the other reapers had worked up to the foremost, they were directed to “side over” into the standing wheat, and each of the new-comers being provided with a sickle, to it they went right earnestly, the old man keeping the lead, Ralph’s mate nearest to him, then one of the others, and next Ralph himself.

The reapers on either side of Rashleigh were slim and agile in figure, the only dresses they wore apparently being shirts, made very long certainly, and hats. Neither of them — not excepting the old man — had shoes on, yet they swept along over the clods and stubble with a celerity that compelled Ralph, to use a colonial phrase, “to hit out from the muscle”, that he might not be left behind. For two hours they wrought in silence, till at length, observing a cessation among his preceding partners, the former looked up and saw the old man leaning over the fence apparently in a deep yarn with his mate. In a few minutes Ralph had also cut up to the fence, when he stood erect, to take breath and wipe the perspiration from his face.

The old man, now noticing him, said, “Bedad, my lad, you and your mate done well. We’ll soon cut all that’s ready at this rate.”

The remainder of the field (persons reaping) having now come up to the fence, the old man observed to Ralph’s amazement, “Now, gals, you and these two young men had better bind up what’s cut while the dew’s on it and lave it laying there. We’ll put it together in the daylight, and I’ll go and help the old woman get something ready for breqquest.”

Ralph now looked closely at the person who was standing next him, and though there were few feminine charms in her countenance, he could see enough to convince him that this hard-working reaper who had made him use such expedition to keep up with her was really nothing but a girl of at most thirteen, but even at that age nearly as tall as himself. The old man turned away as he spoke, and Ralph, with his companions, began to bind the sheaves where they lay, each going down the rows they had cut during the night. This, not being a very arduous task, admitted of conversation, and presently they were as intimate as if they had known each other for years.

There was no affected squeamishness or reserve among these unsophisticated children of nature. In reply to queries from their male companions, the latter discovered they were working for a man known on the river as “Big Mick”, who had a family of six daughters and no son, all his male children having died in infancy. It was said that soon after the birth of Mick’s third daughter he was lamenting to his wife their want of a son to help him in his labours on the “farrum”, when his strong-minded helpmate interrupted him by saying, “Gerrah, why, what are you boddering about? If I don’t make my darters better min than one half the crathurs I see crawling about the counthry-side, by the Jakus, I’ll ate ’em every one.”

In conformity with this resolution, from their earliest infancy each member of the family was employed to do whatever her strength would permit. The very youngest of all was set to mind the pigs, that they came not near the cultivation to do mischief, then promoted to pull suckers from corn or tobacco. As they advanced in years they took to the tools of manual labour nearly as soon as they could lift them.

The effects of this course of education were now to be observed upon all of them, for either of the girls could cut down the largest tree in the bush with an axe as readily as most men, or do a man’s share at breaking up new ground with the hoe, driving a team of bullocks, threshing wheat or maize, reaping, or in short any other agricultural occupation. Nor was Mick’s family a solitary instance of this. Many others at that early period, when labour was so very scarce in the Colony, bred their female children in the same way. When there were several daughters, as in the present case, one usually remained at home, alternately, to assist the mother in her necessary domestic duties; which was, in fact, all the chance they had of learning aught that would be serviceable to them when they got married and had houses of their own to mind. As it was, though they might, each and all, be able to sew, so as to mend their own clothes or those of their male relations, and bake a damper in the ashes — the usual method of preparing bread in the interior of Australia-or make ready the humble meals of the family, yet it was far more common to meet a young woman — in other parts besides Irish Corner — who could reap her acre of wheat a day than one who could make a shirt.

Thus masculine in their labours, their persons were scarcely less so. Though their features, in numberless instances, might be considered positively handsome, as are in fact the general race of fair Australians, yet exposure to the sun and wind completely tanned them and gave them a weatherbeaten tinge in their youth; while their forms, unrepressed by any confinement of clothing, acquired all those ungainly attributes which characterise the clown. But the chief marvel of all was the astonishing size of their feet, for never using shoes in their childhood, and being always in motion, those extremities obtained a most portentous development, a fact which may be guessed at from the following trivial circumstance.

Ralph one day subsequently was asked by the old man to fetch him his shoes. He went to the hut for this purpose and returned with a pair he had found on the floor which were much larger than his own. As he had not seen any other member of the family adopt such encumbrances he naturally concluded they were the right articles. But on reaching the threshing-floor, which as usual stood in the open air, and where all the family were then employed, he soon found out he had made a mistake, for Mick burst out into a horse-laugh and Said, “Arrah now, by my sowl, if that don’t bate Banagher! And all the world knows Banagher bates the Divil. If he hasn’t brought me Nancy’s little brogueens (small shoes) instead of my own.”

Rashleigh stared at Nancy, who was a girl about eleven years of age, and she came over laughing to claim her shoes.

“Bother you,” said her sire good-humouredly, “how foolish and fashionable you get! Must be claning your brogueens every week now! I’ll engage you are looking out for some sweetheart or other to put the come ‘ether over wid your capers and clane shoes.”

This sally over, he directed the girl to go and try could she find the right brogues; and as Nancy tripped off on her errand, Rashleigh had lots of opportunities to observe that large as the shoes were, they were likely by no means to be a loose fit for her feet.

Then, too, their out-of-door life rendered them excessively rude and boisterous, of which Ralph heard a laughable instance some time after.

A person with whom Big Mick had a dealing, after the business was concluded, produced a case-bottle of rum from his saddle-pack, vowing that they’d have a dram together to wet the bargain, and down they sat very seriously to discuss the drink. Now the stranger was a person of some little means and a shrewd, keen chap withal, who had got a few cattle and a couple of good brood mares, which were then quite a fortune. So Mick, after a few balls had opened his heart and his temper, began to think it would be no bad spec. to interest his guest in one of his daughters. Could he persuade him to take one as a wife, why, she would be, in his own expression, “a made girl for ever”.

Urged by this idea, he began a long eulogium upon the beauty and numberless good qualities of his girls. After a time, getting warmed by the theme, and a little piqued, it may be also, at the stoicism of his companion, who only opened his oracular jaws to emit the smoke of his dhudeen, he said that he could afford a smart penny to portion each of the gals, so that it would by no means be a bad chance for anybody “that ud know how to trate a dacent wife” when they got her. Still this did not produce the wished-for effect upon the insensible mind of Mick’s companion, and at last the old man broadly hinted to him, “Sure, it’s a shame for you that you don’t look out for some good little crathur to be keeping house for you, and not be living all your days like a solunthary bacheleer.” And he wound up by saying that his guest should see the darlin’s and judge for himself.

Upon this they adjourned to the outside of the dwelling, where the old man gave a loud cooay as a signal for his daughters to return home from their work. Both the men now gazed in the direction from which they expected the girls to appear, when lo! shouting, laughing, and tearing obstreperously along, the six beauteous and dutiful damsels came racing towards them. Disconcerted at this novel mode of introducing a bride-elect, no sooner did the stranger see this troop of Bacchantes sweeping over the newly ploughed ground at this rate, than he bolted to his horse and cried, “Goodbye, Mick! I might as well marry a whirlwind as one of thim wild divils. Why, the fastest mare I’ve got ud never be able to catch her!” And he rode off at speed, pursued by loud shouts of “Ahoo! Ahoo!” from the young ladies and peals of laughter from the merry old man.

After Ralph and his companions had finished tying up the sheaves that lay cut on the ground, they adjourned to Mick’s dwelling, which originally consisted only of two small apartments, with sundry additions made to it at various times, abutting from one or the other side in divers singularly ugly excrescences, with lean-to roofs resting against that of the parent edifice. All these structures were composed of the then unvarying materials of Australian architecture in the interior — slabs or thin pieces split off by means of mauls and wedges from logs, the roof covered with forest box or stringy-bark, which was stripped from the living trees in sheets of about six feet long and from two to four feet wide, laid upon rafters composed of small sapling poles just as they came from being cut in the bush. The sheets of bark, having holes pierced through each in pairs, were then tied on the rafters with cords twisted of the inner rind of the kurrajong tree. The whole framing of the roof was secured as it was needed by wooden pins in order to save the expense of nails, which were then both too scarce and too dear to be used by the lower order of settlers.

Indeed, all kinds of ironwork were equally inaccessible, and instead of hinges to tie doors or window shutters, those appurtenances were all made to revolve on wooden pivots in holes, bored a short distance into the corresponding parts of the frames.

Thus the materials of Mick’s habitation were pretty much the same as those of the prisoners’ huts on Emu Plains; but the chinks in the slab walls of the former were well stopped up with plaster made of cow dung and sand. A bark ceiling also was laid over the tie-beams which, while it prevented the dust from pouring down in such torrents through the interstices of the roof, also afforded a convenient loft for the storage of pumpkins and many other articles of domestic consumption. Besides these indications of comfort, the whole of the inside had been newly whitewashed — that is, only the Christmas before, though in the eleven months which had intervened the volumes of smoke which continually rolled through every cranny of the place had somewhat tarnished the virgin purity of its hue, converting it at length into a whity-brown yellow; yet even that colour was better than none.

As usual, the fireplace occupied nearly the whole of one end of the hut, and being composed entirely of wood, the danger of its igniting had been diminished by hard dried clods of clay built up about a couple of feet high round its interior and laid in a sort of mortar also composed of clay tempered with water to a semi-liquid consistency. On the sides of the ample fireplace were constructed rough seats for the winter nights, above which might be seen store of pieces of salted beef and pork, pigs’ heads, bags of cabbage and pumpkin seeds, and a multitude of other articles which required to be kept dry, this being by courtesy considered the most secure part of the dwelling from the incursions of rain. There was no possibility of any leakage, except from the top, which was not more than two feet square, and left quite open in the fond hope of persuading or enticing the smoke to go out there instead of continually struggling for passage through the crevices of the bark roof or pouring out in volumes at the ever open doors and windows. But such was the perversity of this obstinate element that it too generally preferred any illicit vent to the legal one and very frequently asserted its supremacy in such a manner as effectually to drive the inmates out of doors altogether, for sheer lack of breath to continue the contest any longer. As this generally took place in very wet weather, when a fire could not be maintained out of doors, as was the usual summer custom, and besides, the chilliness rendering it acceptable in the house for its warmth, it may be conceived that the piety of the inmates, at no time very conspicuous, was not vastly enhanced by their having to stand in the rain, perforce, in order to escape suffocation, until it pleased the vaporous enemy to allow them a short respite by retiring to the loft or any other part of the premises, except the chimney of course, which it appeared most of all places to shun.

The furniture was truly of a primitive cast. A number of tin pint pots and dishes, half a dozen three-legged cast-iron boilers of various sizes, a long-handled frying-pan, a few rough stools, mostly fixed on stumps sunk in the floor, two or three short round blocks of wood cut off trees with a cross-cut saw to serve as movable seats, and two stationary tables made of unplaned slabs, one fixed in the centre and the other on one side, completed the accommodation of the outer apartment.

When the doors of any of the sleeping-rooms admitted a view of their contents, it did not appear that luxury was by any means the besetting sin of either Big Mick or his family. The sleeping-berths were all fixtures, made of slabs and sheets of bark, only the one belonging to the father and mother being furnished with any attempt at curtains, which for economy’s sake were confined to the foot of the bed and one side. The berth being fixed in a corner, all was thus enclosed, partly by the slabs and partly by the curtain, which exactly answered the description given by Pope of those “in the worst inn’s worst room”, being tied with tape and never meant to draw; instead of which, the blue striped shirting of which it was composed was secured back by loops and buttons which hung them partly aside and exposed to view a tattered patchwork quilt, apparently innocent of the washing-tub since its formation.

The effeminacy of sheets was unknown to any of the inmates. Though they obtained abundance of feathers, which when plucked from the birds on which they grew, were suffered to lie on the spot where they fell until dispersed by the winds, when they sailed about in all directions, a positive nuisance, yet each of the family slept on beds of chaff contained in rough ticks, many of which, being the worse for wear, suffered their contents to escape through their numberless orifices, when it littered the earthen floor. Being scattered thence into unknown corners, where brooms never penetrated, the rubbish proved fruitful nurseries of “flaas”, to the extreme annoyance of the good matron of the house, who strove in vain to abate it by repeated libations of water, until mud was by no means a scarce article, either within or without the domicile.

To this habitation Rashleigh and his mate now received a “kindly welcome” from both the old man and the woman, and a plentiful supply of salt beef, damper bread and pumpkins being spread on the table, they all fed most heartily, washing down the feast with bumpers of tea out of the tin pots before named. When they had done, a short interval being allowed them to smoke a pipe each, they again sallied forth to work.

It was now dawn, and they continued to reap until about nine o’clock, when they returned to the hut, partook of another meal like the former, and then all retired to rest. Ralph and his companion, having obtained a couple of blankets and directions to a corner of the loft where lay a large heap of corn husks, slept soundly until about four o’clock, and then to work again.

In this way, making about fifteen hours at work out of each twenty-four, they both completed three and a half working days of ten hours each by Sunday night, when, having received their money and thanks from Big Mick, with pressing requests to come again whenever they could get leave, the reapers returned to Emu Plains and gave up their passes to the camp constable, after which they retired to rest, to prepare for another week’s work for Government.

In this way the harvest passed over. Twice more did Rashleigh obtain a pass, and each time was employed by his old patron Big Mick.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05