Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 15

He goes to a tint and he spends his half-crown;

He mates wid a frind and for loveKnocks him down.

It was a glorious spring morning when Ralph Rashleigh turned his back upon the scene of his late sufferings with a light heart. The charms of nature tended to delight him, and the soothing anticipations of hope promised him, at least, a much more comfortable home than the one he had quitted; and he plodded gaily on, albeit his whole stock of earthly chattels, besides the clothes he wore, were contained in a very small cotton handkerchief. Still, he considered himself positively comfortable for a convict, as he had a stout pair of boots, a whole pair of trousers, a new straw hat, and the magnificent stock of four shirts, besides a black silk handkerchief on his neck, and a tidy blue jacket to his back. He was also possessed of four pounds and upwards in currency money, and this sum in his present circumstances appeared a mint of treasure.

After he had passed the river and its clustering settlers, he journeyed through bypaths across the bush and was soon deeply immersed in the almost twilight gloom of an Australian forest, where the deepest silence ever prevails. No warbling choristers here greet the merry morn with jocund flights of song. No lowing of herds or bleating of flocks awakes the slumbering echoes. The feathered tribes are here entirely mute or only utter either discordant screams or brief harsh twittering. The solitary bellbird chiefly, whose voice may he heard sometimes, disturbs the primeval solitude with its single sharp note, which resounds through the grove with so great a resemblance to a sheep bell that it requires a practised ear to detect the difference between the bird and the reality.

Animated nature here appears to slumber, for not a single living thing can be seen, except at rare intervals, when a gaudily-marbled goanna of great size may perhaps hurry on his spiral route up a tree to avoid the approaching foot of man, or perchance, a snake may glide hastily across his path, the glittering colours of its skin, in its convolutions, chiefly attracting the eye by their brilliant contrast with the faded dull brown herbage or the dead leaves among which it rustics in its sinuous way. No kangaroo, emu or other larger fowl or animal may be seen; ’tis too near the busy haunts of man, while on the other hand, the domesticated quadrupeds are not found, because this forms part of a large settler’s grant. He has got no stock in this neighbourhood; yet will he not allow his poorer neighbour’s single cow to subsist upon the grass, which annually springs, comes to maturity, is parched to dust by the winds of summer and blown away by the breath of autumn.

Over such a forest tract as this Ralph pursued his way until noon, when, arriving at a pond of water and feeling both tired and hungry, he halted, procured fire by means of his tinder-box, made some tea by boiling it in a quart pot he carried with him, and ate some food he had provided. He next prepared his pipe and lay in luxurious ease upon the grass enjoying the dolce far niente until he fell asleep; and when he again awoke, by the altered position of the sun he thought it must be after three o’clock in the afternoon. He now started up and re-pursued his journey, still alone.

Since he had left the settlement on the banks of the Nepean he had not seen a single human being, nor could he be certain that he was following the right path. Still, from the slight knowledge he possessed of Australian geography, he was assured he must ultimately reach the road leading to the southern settlements by keeping the now declining sun upon his right hand. While these thoughts yet occupied his mind, he saw at some trifling distance before him a man who had seemingly joined the path he was upon from another, which came from towards the east. Rashleigh quickened his steps and called to the stranger, who stopped until he came up, when, after the customary salutations, the former enquired if he were going in the right direction for Liverpool. The other, who was a slim youthful-looking person, replied in a very sweet voice that he believed so, but was himself almost a stranger to that part of the country. Rashleigh now asked from whence the youth came, to which the reply was made that he had lately been in Parramatta, but was now making his way from South Creek to Liverpool.

Rashleigh, on his part, acquainted his new-found companion that he had belonged to Emu Plains, and they beguiled the way by talking over the various topics of interest that had lately occurred in the Colony within the knowledge of either of them until they reached a high-road, which the youngster pronounced to be the one they sought, leading from Sydney southward by Liverpool to Campbelltown, Airds, Appin, etc. After pursuing this for about half an hour, they overtook a cart drawn by a single bullock, who was plodding steadily along, though no driver could be seen. When the travellers came up, however, they perceived an old woman lying down in the bottom of the cart, fast asleep. She, apparently relying on the sagacity of the beast, had resigned herself to the arms of Morpheus, being no doubt stimulated thereto by deep draughts from a small keg, which even in slumber she still enfolded in a most ardently loving embrace.

The cart contained various articles of property of those kinds that generally constitute the bulk of a settler’s swag. There wore pipes, tobacco, the keg above named, a quantity of tea and sugar, two or three coarse cotton striped shirts, and a pair or two of duck trousers.

Rashleigh thought it best to awaken the old lady, fearing if she were robbed it might be discovered they had passed her on the road, and they be blamed and perhaps punished for it; so, after shouting a good many times in vain, he seized the occupant of the cart by the leg. She, arousing herself, stared at both the travellers alternately for a second or two, and then burst out with, “Wirrah! Wirrah! Shpare my life! Shpare my life!” To which our wayfarers, overpowered by her ridiculous attitude and the dolorous gravity of her address, only responded by a loud peal of laughter; and the poor old soul, who, by the by, still clung to the keg with the tenacious grip of desperation, resumed her lament: “For the love of the blissed Vargen, don’t murder me. Take what you want, and go your way!”

Ralph now assured her that they had not the slightest intention, either to injure or rob her, adding that if such had been their purpose, they needed not have aroused her.

“Arrah thin, what du ye want?” demanded the ancient dame.

“Nothing at all; only your company to Liverpool,” returned Rashleigh.

“By the powers thin, my shild, you shall have all that same,” replied the old woman. “Git up and ride in the cart, the pair of yees.” And she now addressed the bullock, saying, “Wo, Nobby! Woa!!”

The poor beast, unconscious of his mistress’s alarm, had still been creeping on at his own discretion, but now obeyed the well-known voice, which he also acknowledged by half turning his head toward the cart and giving it what seemed a deprecatory shake or two on perceiving the proposed addition to his burden. The travellers got up and were most cordially welcomed by its mistress, who supplied them with some empty sacks, upon which her own august person had been reposing, directing them to sit down and handing them the keg when they had done so, inviting them to drink after she had herself sanctified the bunghole by the application thereto of her own sweet lips.

Rashleigh received this vessel, and putting it hastily to his mouth, did not inhale the powerful odour which it emitted; nor was it until — in his own opinion, at least — he had swallowed an ocean of liquid fire that he discovered the contents to consist of very powerful raw rum from Bengal. When he had made this discovery, he hastily set down the keg again, gasping for breath, and testifying his discomfiture by sundry diabolical grins, which elicited great mirth from the old lady, who demanded if he’d never drunk a “drap o’ rum” before.

“Not like that, nor out of such a droll drinking-cup,” was our adventurer’s answer.

“Bother!” rejoined the old girl. “I s’pose you’re of the silver-spoon sort . . . want a chrishthial tumbler to dhrink out of. . . . Here, young man, will you have a taast?” And the youngster, to Rashleigh’s great amazement, put the keg to his head and took a hearty swig.

“Ah, now!” said its mistress. “That’s something like! But by the Jakus, it’s a’ most sundown. Come Nobby, pull foot. You’ll he late at home else! Nobby! Nobby!!”

The old bullock, who at the first mention of his name, had only cocked up his ears and whisked his tail, manifestly mended his pace the second time it was spoken, and absolutely quickened it into a run on the third repetition. Thus rolling and, tumbling one over another through the roughness of the road — while ever and anon some clumsier jump than common would cause uproarious mirth to the merry old dame, who made them ever the apology for another swig at the keg — they jolted into Liverpool, just as it was becoming dusk in the evening.

Liverpool is a town about twenty-one miles from Sydney, on the Great Southern Road of the Colony. It was founded by Governor Macquarie who, in selecting that name for it, seems to have expected it would become an important mart of manufacturing industry or of commercial enterprise. With this view he built an excellent hospital of great extent, a gaol, a barrack and many other public buildings. But alas, His Excellency could neither improve the quality of the soil around it nor supply the deficiency of water; for although a stream called George s river, navigable! — for shell boats — quite up to the town, runs in from Botany Bay to the interior, passing very near Liverpool, yet it flows with salt water, and the only method the inhabitants found, in after times, to obviate this pressing deficiency, was by building a dam across the river’s bed and thus repressing the influence of the tides.

When the old convict system fell to decay and the government establishments were withdrawn, Liverpool sank at once to its proper grade of a village, and that too, one of the very dullest in all the Australian colonies, since from the causes we have named above, it is not nor ever will be the centre of any overabundant agricultural population; while its want of water effectually precludes its becoming a manufacturing town of any note. ’Tis true, if the trifling sum of a few millions were expended in deepening the channel of George’s river, and in removing the impediments it presents to navigation, such as trees drifted by the stream, rocks as large as churches, etc., it might then become a port, though for what trade as yet appears an insoluble mystery.

In the days, of which we write, however, there were 1,500 convicts employed by Government there, and a new church was also erecting by contract, which gave the place quite a bustling and lively appearance as Rashleigh and his companions entered the town, though it was just getting night; for all the workpeople were now returning to their homes, and the prisoners to barracks.

The travellers went on, unheeding the jocular observations made on them by the loiterers, many of whom hailed the old lady in the cart with various quaint kinds of salutation; but she only replied to them by laughing, until a person called out to her in a strong Hibernian tone, “Gerrah, Biddy! Who’s thim in the cart wid you?”

“My governmint min, to be shure, you shpalpeen!” returned Biddy, winking at Ralph, and meaning that they were convicts assigned to her service.

“Asy now wid your jokin’. Shure, id ain’t in airnest she is, young man, is id?” said the querist, appealing to Rashleigh.

“Oh yes,” asserted the latter, to keep up the joke. “We’re this lady’s government men.” And the young lad also joined in this harmless deceit, which appeared highly to delight its object; for, swallowing the story, he roared out, “Whoo! Success, Biddy! Shure, yous’ll all be getting on now, like a house a-fire at both ends!” And they rattled on, leaving him in the midst of apparently earnest congratulations on this stroke of good luck that had fallen to the lot of his old acquaintance Biddy.

As they jolted on their way, this ancient dame kept stimulating the old bullock by repeated cries of “Nobby! Nobby!!” uttered reproachfully whenever that discreet animal showed any symptom of relaxing in his run. And as this continually occurred, so great an expenditure of breath involved a necessity for stimulating herself also with the contents of the keg, an operation at which the old lady was amazingly au fait; for she took such hearty swigs as quite surprised Rashleigh, who frequently wondered with what kind of uninflammable composition her throat must be lined, to enable her to gulp down this liquid lava.

The old dame offered both of her companions in the cart a sup as often as she drank from the keg, and finding Ralph did not avail himself of this invitation, she at last insisted on his doing so, saying, “Gerrah, ye wake-barred crathur! Take some of the native . . . Shure, it’ll keep the cowld out of your stummick this raw night.”

At last, when every bone in Rashleigh’s body ached by reason of the sore bumps he received at the rate of two or three in every second, the ancient crone observed, “Praise be to the Vargen, I see our lights yonder. We’ll soon be at home now, Nobby.”

In a few moments afterwards the old ox turned off the road towards a cluster of huts situated in the centre of a large clearing. The noise of their approach, through the rumbling of the cart and the jingling of the harness, quickly alarmed the canine inhabitants at any rate, so that a right noisy salute now welcomed Biddy’s return; and to judge from the uproar, at least fifty dogs surrounded their vehicle, barking, yelling, jumping and snapping around poor old Nobby the bullock, who however seemed not at all to be disturbed in his equanimity by the vain clamour.

Presently a group of bare-legged urchins, bearing torches formed of filaments stripped from stringy-bark, came racing out, with loud cries of “Here’s Granny. Welcome home, Granny!”

The old woman stopped Nobby with some difficulty, for that sapient beast began to smell his usual place of repose, and two or three of the least that were roaring for a ride were placed in the cart, and once more they were set in motion. The distance was but very short, and the ancient bullock stopped at the door of a large rambling hut of the usual kind, in which were six or seven demi-savage-looking mortals, both men and women apparently, moving busily about by the light of the fire. The old woman now got out first and the “childher, God bless ’em,” after her. The precious keg was next received into her loving arms, having been handed to her by Rashleigh; and the old dame, when she had thus secured all she apparently thought of any value among the miscellaneous contents of the cart, left the remainder of her purchases to be brought in by the young fry, and entered the hut, bearing with her the burden of that dear native, as she called it, which seemed to be the object of her most ardent affection.

“Welcome home, Mother!” said, or shouted, all the group. “How are you after your journey? And how did the corn sell?”

“Why thin, acushla,” replied the old lady, “I’m most bate down wid fatague and wore out wid sore thravelling; but id’s all no odds now . . . Shure, I’m safe at home wanst more! I sowld die corn raking, and I’ve brought you lashins of tobacky, tay and shuger, and a dhrop of the crathur! Bud, by the Jakus, I’m aforgettin’ . . . Here’s two poor thravellers, childher, I fell in wid by the road; and they’ll sthop wid us to-night.”

Cead mille falteagh! Welcome, kindly welcome!” said all the inmates in a breath. “Dra’ forret to the fire. Supper’s been ready this hour, Granny, and awaitin’ for you.”

“Wen thin, alanna, and now I’m reddy for id . . . But where’s my owld man?” enquired Biddy.

“Faix thin,” returned one of the juniors, “he got tired and wint to bed an hour ago.”

“Did he thin, poor owld sowl!” observed the considerate dame. “Bud shure, I’ll take him a dhrop of the shtuff. 1 know he won’t mind being awakened for that!”

In the mean time some tin pots had been wiped out and a “small taast”, as the ancient granny called it, consisting of about a gill of the fiery spirit, was poured into each. But when all the vessels in the house had been mustered, they were not found enough to afford one to each person; so that they were fain to do as well as they could with one pot to two of their own family. The strangers, however, were scrupulously attended to, and received a cup apiece.

When all were thus accommodated, the “ould woman” cried out. “Now bys and gals, as ye are! I’m going to give you a sintimint . . . And bad loock to the wan that don’t dhrink id wid all the veins of their hart!! Here’s success to ould Ireland, for ever and ever, Amin!”

Rashleigh dared not refuse due honour to a toast like that, so he drank off his liquor — an example which was followed by all the others, repeating at the very top of their voices, “Success to ould Ireland! Whoo!!”

In the mean time “Granny” had gone to an inner apartment, and presently returned divested of her travelling dress, which, it should have been stated, was simply an old horseman’s coat. Bonnet she had none, but an ample night-cap and two or three dirty handkerchiefs did duty in place of it, to keep out cold.

The whole party now sat down to supper, which consisted of pork fried, damper bread, and tea, with abundance of eggs and a very small piece of butter. The meat, as usual, was all put into a dish, which stood in the centre of the table. Plates, knives, forks, or tablecloth were apparently superfluous encumbrances which were utterly unknown to these good folks, each of whom, however, was provided with a pocket-knife, with which he, or she, first cut a slice of the cake, then, selecting a morsel of pork to their fancy, placed the meat on the bread, and sawed away as hard as they liked. The whole family pressed our travellers to help themselves and not to be any ways “sthrange”, but make themselves at home, the old lady taking the lead in these hospitable solicitations. In fact, she would fain have persuaded the strangers to devour enough at least for six meals, telling them that “people on the road ought always to lay in a good foundashun, whin they cud, seein’ that none cud tell how soon they might be short taken, and ded bate for a male of vittles in the wild bush.”

The supper did not pass over without a feeling lament from the ancient dame that “there wor no shpuds (potatoes) to be got in this thieving cullony, bekase they wouldn’t grow in id”: an idea, which, strange as it may now seem, was very prevalent about thirty years since in Australia; for whether it was owing to the want of proper culture or suitable seed or some other cause, it was exceedingly rare to see these well-known roots in any part of New South Wales; or, when they were found after many trials to grow, they scarcely attained the size of hen eggs, even the largest of them, while by far the greater portion were only about as large as musket bullets.

Supper being at length over, the “equipage” was soon removed and the fragments were equitably shared among two or three pet pigs, which enjoyed the privilege of the entrée into this Australian dining-room, where, indeed, if certain indubitable symptoms on the floor might be credited, they felt themselves, if anything, rather more at home than the inmates; for the human inhabitants of this choice domicile, though they were sufficiently indifferent to filth, yet did not go the length of defiling the room to quite so great an extent as the four-footed denizens.

The philanthropic tenderness of this primitive family was not confined to the progeny of the sty only, but was extended to a sick calf that was nursed in one corner and a favourite mare whose accouchement had taken place in another. The latter, indeed, seemed to fancy her temporary quarters so well that although she had now occupied them more than three months, she still made her way to the accustomed place at nightfall, where she behaved herself with due and befitting gravity, as might be expected from an animal of advanced age. Her foal, on the other hand, appeared a perfect imp of playful mischief, for during the meal, he could scarcely he restrained from mounting on the supper table altogether; and he played various tricks by stealing bread from the juniors, then turning round to kick at them, thus adding with all the levity of youth — in every case — insult to injury, but which only elicited shouts of laughter and applause from the admiring witnesses of his frolics, the younger fry of whom enjoyed his tricks in an uproarious manner, as he formed a most befitting playmate and jovial companion for them. Beside the quadrupeds, who shared the floor, a host of fowls roosted among the timbers of the open roof, whose loud cackling at times testified their unqualified alarm when the mirth of the family became too obstreperous.

As soon as the table was cleared, a bucket was placed upon it, to serve as a stand for the rum-keg, which was presently hoisted into its place surrounded by all the tin pots they could find. A supply of the tobacco brought by the old lady from Sydney was next distributed to those who required it, and a few neighbours dropping in, they seemed bent on enjoying themselves, for two or three shapeless fragments of drinking-vessels having been filled up with grease and provided with twisted rags inserted in each to act instead of lamps in illuminating a space which had been cleared from obstacles, half a dozen of the youngsters, both male and female, stood up to dance, an amusement which one or other kept up with great zest for many hours, although their only music was a large and ardent tin dish, beaten after the manner of a tambourine, by a person who really seemed to consider it a labour of love, at least if one might judge by the awful intensity of the thumps he bestowed upon his instrument from time to time.

The seniors, in the mean time, sat on either hand, enveloped in the vapour raised by their dhudeens, which soared in mist above their heads until it joined the main body of smoke arising from the fireplace, which, according to established Australian usage, eschewed the meanness of sneaking off by the regular vent, but rather seemed to prefer struggling to get out through the interstices of the roof.

The grave sages who sat around on such seats as chance provided, among which buckets and tubs turned upside down appeared to be the favourites, from time to time emitted their admiration of the performers on the “light fantastic toe” by loud shouts, such as, “Hurra, Paddy!” “Now go it, Mick!” “You’re the gal. Biddy!” “That’s the darlin’, Norry!” and turned from time to time to each other, criticising upon the excellencies or defects which the style of either exhibited. The ardent founder of the feast, in the mean time, was not at all idle, either in partaking of the consolation derivable from the contents of the keg or in dispensing it to the guests. So, about midnight, there was as pretty a chaos of dancing, drinking, roaring, shouting, singing, love-making, kissing and fighting as Rashleigh had ever borne witness to in all his days.

He kept as sober as he could without affording serious offence to the hospitable intentions of his hostess, who many a time and oft replenished his tin when he would fain have been excused. He also contrived to remain neutral in a corner, pleading his fatigue as a reason for not dancing, and was by this means considered fair game by an old fellow, who had been transported to New South Wales for participating in the Irish rebellion of ‘98. This senior posted himself at Rashleigh’s side and began a long detail, in most prosaic style and execrable English, of his wonderful feats at Vinegar Hill and Enniscorthy, at last favouring him with a song of interminable length in the Irish language relating to the same, a musical treat which our adventurer most willingly would have dispensed with, as he knew as much of Sanscrit as of the language in question.

But the prosy old chap persisted in his monotonous chant, until a loud and apparently excited voice having roared out, “Whoo, Shanavest!” at the end of the hut, the ancient songster ceased his ditty, jumped up, and ran to the spot, which now appeared the scene of a regular scrimmage, or “hurra” fight.

The only sounds at all distinguishable by Rashleigh’s ears were “Whoo, Shanavest!”, “Whoo, Carawot!” which ever and anon pealed high above the din of conflict, being apparently used as battle-cries of contending parties, whose strife now raged fierce and fell. Old and young, males and females were mingled in the MÊLÉE, wielding sticks, buckets, broken stools, or whatever else came to hand, kicking, cuffing, cursing, swearing, raging and tearing, the men fighting hand to hand with cruel oaths, the women engaged in more distant combat, swelling the din with their shrill screams. The children roared, the dogs growled and bayed fiercely, finally tearing one another with tooth and claw in ambitious emulation of their masters, the pigs squeaked and the fowls lent their shrill cackling to augment the uproar, which seemed of duration as interminable as the confusion was appalling. In all the row, however, the two strangers were strictly regarded as neutrals, nor did any of the combatants approach them, their only danger being from the many missiles that flew about in all directions.

At length, the belligerents were carried outside by “the fierce current of the heady fight”, and the interior of the dwelling was left in the deep repose of silence for a short time; after which, the inmates began to straggle back, one by one, to vent their maudlin grief at the scene of utter dilapidation presented by their household appurtenances, but pouring out the fulness of their sorrow in pathetic jeremiads over the prostrate rum-keg, which had been overthrown early in the conflict, so that a great portion of its precious contents had escaped on the floor, where part of it lay in puddles, mingled with the other abominations of this unsavoury apartment.

But old Granny herself, who lay prone in a corner, soon attracted the attention of her dutiful offspring, one of whom staggered towards her; and after twice or thrice falling down himself in vain attempts to lift up his fallen parent, he at length gave up this mode of succour as being unattainable under present circumstances, and after his last tumble, having gained a sitting position, he edged closer to his mother and taking her head in his lap, found to his horror that it was covered with blood. He instantly broke out into a sort of prolonged howl, that might have almost awakened the dead, saying at last, “Ochone! Ochone! Mother darlint, can’t you tell your own Tady who’s afther killing you, and by the Jakus, I’ll make him smell hell, so I will! Och, wirrah, wirrah! What’ll we doe”

By and by the pulling and dragging the old dame got from her sympathising and sorrowful sons and daughters actually restored her to life; for it appeared she was not dead through the flight of her immortal spirit, but through the quantity, amounting to a superabundance, of spirits which she had poured down her throat. In other and plainer terms, she was dead drunk! But now, slowly opening her eyes, she gazed around in most ludicrous amazement, and heaving a deep sigh, exclaimed, “Wirrah! Wirrah! Where am I? Sure it’s losht, and disthroyed, kilt, and murdered I am, in the ind ov my days!”

All the rest, as with one accord, roared out to know “who bate her”. And the old lady was about to reply when her eyes rested on the rum-keg.

Springing on her feet, she leaped towards this cherished darling of her heart’s warmest affection with an agility that quickly set the minds of the bystanders at ease as to her having received any very serious injury. But on finding out the diminished state of the contents of that valued receptacle, the old lady burst into a fresh storm of passionate exclamations, until at last her mouth having approached the bunghole, the fading echoes of her voice were lost in the reverberating cavity of the keg. Everyone present now followed the old dame’s example, and this genial refresher having apparently cured all their complaints, they retired to rest, the travellers being accommodated with a shake-down of straw on a sheet of bark before the fire.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tucker/james/1952/chapter15.html

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