Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 30

A sweet but solitary beam,

An emanation from above,

Glimmers o’er life’s uncertain dream.

We hail that ray, and call it — Love.

The aborigines of Australia erect no dwellings of any kind. In wet weather or when a storm appears to be approaching they strip a few sheets of some kind of bark, which they rear up on the side towards the wind, supporting them by a sort of ridge-pole placed on two forked sticks driven into the earth. On the lee side of this they light their fire and then, creeping under the bark, lie both warm and dry enough, never seeking or wishing for any better habitation, as appears from the fact that those blacks who haunt the sea-coast, at any rate, might always find caverns and places sheltered by overhanging cliffs sufficient to lodge them most comfortably, but will not make any use of them whatever.

Whether it was owing to the previous seasoning Rashleigh had received in his life of hardship, or to the robust nature of his constitution, this rude mode of life, so different from any led by white men, even of the most abject poverty, did not do him the least injury; and our adventurer, recollecting the sufferings he had lately undergone, felt tolerably at ease even in the life of a savage. And knowing that he might expect death if he should fall again into the hands of his countrymen, he prepared to end his days with the blacks.

But about four years and a half after Rashleigh’s captivity, the ancient carandjie, his foster-father, died. He had been gradually getting more and more decrepit until for some time prior to his decease he had sunk into such a state of absolute torpor that his breathing could scarcely be discerned. During his last illness the whole tribe were most unremitting in their attentions, offering him portions of everything they procured as food; and when at length it became certain that he had ceased to exist such a peal of cries and yells of lamentations burst from all present, warriors as well as gins, as Rashleigh had never deemed possible for human throats to utter. He was somewhat shocked at one portion of the proceedings that followed, however; for a lusty black, who was ambitious of filling in the tribe the place that the deceased had so long occupied, now threw himself at full length upon the inanimate remains and applied his mouth to the dead man’s lips, appearing to inhale something very strongly for several moments. Shortly after this one of the gins, suddenly and as if by stealth, cut an incision with a sharp-pointed stone into gin, from which she hastily drew forth the kidneys, and throwing them upon the breast of the corpse, ran off, several of the other gins pursuing her, with loud cries and bitter reproaches, for a short distance; but all this seemed to be assumed anger, as the gin who had performed this operation returned in a few moments to the others, whom she mixed with, and they took no angry notice of her.

In the mean time the carandjie-elect took up the kidneys and very quickly stripped them of the small portion of shrivelled and yellow fat that disease had left appertaining to them. They were then replaced in the dead man’s intestines, the orifice being sewn up by Lorra with a length of kangaroo sinew and one of their bone needles. Gin was now rubbed all over with gum of the same kind as that which the blacks use instead of pitch for their canoes or weapons, and the head was decorated with parti-coloured feathers, stuck on the skull with the same adhesive material. After this the corpse was wrapped up in a new rug, or cloak, made of opossum skins, the fur being inside and the part that was exposed fancifully daubed with rude designs in coloured earths. A kind of stage or rude table being formed of green boughs, the deceased was laid upon it, a great number of little fires being made at a short distance upon every side in two rows, between which walked four warriors without arms, but bearing green boughs that they continued to wave over and around the body, at times running a few feet as if in pursuit of some imaginary object, and chanting a monotonous doleful sound. These watchers, or mourners, were occasionally relieved by others, who followed their example in all things; and this ceremonial was continued until the funeral, which was fixed for the next morning, as usual, at sunrise.

Several of the men now departed with the wooden paddles used by the gins, for the purpose of digging the grave. All that night the tribe were in commotion. None lay down to sleep. Nor was anything to be eaten until the conclusion of the obsequies from the death of the carandjie; but the fires being well maintained, some parties occasionally yelled forth their wild lament, while others danced or leaped, as it were in accompaniment to these rude sounds. The sable sextons having returned at dawn of day to announce that the grave was prepared, as soon as it became light the whole tribe were assembled. They were all unarmed, but frightfully smeared over their whole bodies with colours, of which white and red predominated; and all carried in one hand a shell, and in the other a green bough.

The body was now raised upon the stage, which was borne along by eight blacks, and Rashleigh could not help remarking as a singular coincidence that they also carry their dead feet first to the grave, which evidently was not accidental, as the corpse originally lay reversed; but the bearers, on taking it up, went round backwards until they had at length attained the proper position.

The instant that the march commenced, all the assembly, even the gins aNd children, began to cut, or at least to scratch, themselves with the shells they carried; and before they reached the grave the greater part of them were streaming with gore, as they seemed to vie with each other in the eagerness with which they inflicted these wounds in testimonial of their grief for the loss the tribe had sustained.

When the melancholy cavalcade arrived at their burial-place, which, like their council ground, commanded a view of the sea, Rashleigh perceived that it was a tract of open land very lightly timbered. The graves all appeared to be made near some tree, and there were several round a few of the largest. But what struck him as curious was that he had not observed the place before, though he must have passed either through it or at least very near it, and the more so because upon the nearest tree to each grave a portion of bark about two feet high and one foot wide had been removed, leaving the bare white trunk, on which the rude figure of a kangaroo, bandicoot, snake or bird of some kind had been carved, those trees that lay near more graves than one having a considerable portion of their rind stripped off and a corresponding number of emblems cut upon them.

The body was now laid upon the ground and a green bough placed in the right hand of the inanimate carandjie, which was drawn across his breast. Then every individual of the tribe, man, woman and child, walked round the corpse, making, as it seemed, a farewell obeisance to the departed ruler, repeating as they did so their wailings and gashes of sorrow. The pit, or grave, was about five feet square and eight feet deep. in its bottom four stout stakes had been set upright, and two poles leaned after the manner of skids on one side. When all the tribe had passed in review, the corpse was rested on the upper part of the skids, being held there by Rashleigh and the new carandjie. Exactly at sunrise they let go the arms of the body, which then slid gently down into its final resting-place. Sheets of bark were now fixed inside the upright stakes, the corpse being placed on its feet within the latter, leaning against one of the sides with its face turned towards the ocean; and many paddles being employed, the loose earth was quickly thrown in between the bark and the bank, which was trodden heavily in until it reached the level of the dead man’s head. All his customary weapons were now placed in the square pit that encompassed him, and it was covered up with another piece of bark, so that the corpse was, as it were, enclosed in a sort of cavity formed of the thick outer coat of the eucalyptus tree, which did not permit the earth to touch, much less to press it. A sufficient quantity of soil was now thrown on and over the whole so as to form a neat mound nearly three feet in height, which was beaten smooth with their paddles; and the whole ceremony was completed by the rude figure of a fish-hawk carved on the nearest tree, that being the emblem apparently suggested by the name of the deceased, which might be translated “the swooping warrior”.

Ralph Rashleigh viewed this whole ceremony with much the same degree of melancholy feelings that are apt to impress themselves on the minds of men when they are bereaved of some such humble friend as a dog or horse they value; for in spite of the service rendered to him by the old carandjie, who doubtless had saved his life, yet the form of this disgusting specimen of antiquity was so very revolting that our exile had much ado to consider him as being at all human. And yet it was no very long time before Rashleigh found that in him he had sustained the loss of a most powerful friend, who had hitherto controlled the savage humours of the males belonging to the tribe, who of themselves would have been now ready enough to mark their hatred of one every way so much superior to any of them by treacherously depriving him of life, if they could have divested themselves of the superstitious belief that haunted their minds, of the spirit of the departed carandjie being ever watchful and ready to avenge any injury which might be inflicted on his adopted white son.

A month had not elapsed from the funeral before these impressions seemed to be weakened, for Rashleigh was one day informed by the new chief, Terrawelo, that he must either resign the dead man’s two gins to him or fight for liberty to retain them. Now our exile had no desire to keep all three of the females; but the latter, having been treated very well by him, dreaded the idea of going to any of the blacks. Besides, the manner of the claimant indicated a kind of contemptuous superiority which Ralph had no notion of, seeing that he well knew his own muscular strength was greater than that of any warrior in the tribe. In fact, he had in sport wrestled with two of them at once, whom he overcame without much difficulty, because, though they look large in many instances, yet the aborigines of Australia are physically very weak.

Rashleigh told the chief at once that he intended to fight, according to the usage of these savages, which prescribes that if a man have two or more wives, any other who proves himself to be stronger or more expert at the use of their weapons than he may take all his gins away from him but one. The answer given by Terrawelo to this intimation was an attempted blow from his nullah nullah at Ralph’s head; but the latter, having been carefully watching the eyes of his opponent, dodged the threatened part on one side, and then, thrusting his head between Terrawelo’s legs, by that means threw the chief violently over his back to the ground; then, snatching up his fallen weapon, dealt the prostrate warrior such a blow that on its alighting on the black’s arm, which was held up to save his head, the limb was broken. Rashleigh was about to repeat tile stroke, but recovering from his fit of passion, he threw away the waddy and called out for the wounded man’s gin to help him away. Tumba here came up, and saying something about the chief being killed, attempted to secure the white man, who, after telling him in vain to keep off, struck him senseless to the earth and then went quietly away to his own fire, where neither Tumba nor the chief thought fit to molest him any more during the day, though ever after this all the blacks appeared both to fear and hate him. His gins dared not go with the others to fish or dig roots, because the latter never failed to beat them. In fact, the whole tribe seemed not only to shun but also to be bent upon playing all kinds of malevolent tricks towards him and them when they could do so with secrecy.

One night, about a week after this occurrence, Lorra appeared to be unusually silent and depressed. Prior to this period she used to be fond of chattering, generally enquiring about the manners, customs and dresses of white women, not one of whom she had ever seen, and she vented many childish exclamations of surprise at Rashleigh’s account of the costumes of ladies in his country as well as at the manner in which they passed their lives. Upon this evening, however, she scarcely spoke, but often glanced fearfully around. Ralph enquired what ailed her, but her only reply was a mute caress. At length they lay down side by side and our exile quickly went to sleep, but in a short time, as it appeared to him, was awakened by a piercing cry from his gin. On starting up, he found Lorra struggling with her old enemy Tumba. He was about to rush to her assistance, but she cried out, “Look behind you, Yaff; never mind Lorra.”

When he turned his head he saw the chief Terrawelo, who, it seems, taught by former experience to dread the white man’s strength, feared to come too close and was now shipping, or fixing, his second spear in his woomera, having already discharged one at his enemy, who, however, did not give him time to throw, for drawing the spent spear out of the earth in which it stood quivering, he rushed upon the black and pierced him in the abdomen with it, thrusting the weapon clean through his body and out beside his spine.

The cries of Lorra, which had hitherto been most terrific, were now subsiding into low moans; and Rashleigh, looking round, saw that Tumba was beating her, as she lay on the earth, with a nullah nullah which had a knob at its end, weighing at least ten pounds. Rashleigh stooped not to pick up a weapon, though many lay around, but darted at the cowardly miscreant, leaping as he got close so that his two feet alit in the centre of his opponent’s back, whom they of course drove head first to the ground, his club flying out of his hand as he fell. With a single blow of this, Ralph crushed the blackfellow’s skull into a shapeless mass and hastened to raise up the poor gin, who had just sufficient life remaining to endeavour to caress him before she breathed her last.

Our exile was so much enraged at this piteous sight that he absolutely became transported with fury; and seizing the club that still lay embedded in the brains of Tumba, who had not stirred from the moment he received the blow, Ralph now rushed like a raging maniac upon Terrawelo, who was by this time surrounded by his friends, who were deliberating on the propriety of withdrawing the spear from his wounds. But Rashleigh, unheeding a piercing cry from the fallen chief, at one blow of his heavy weapon dashed out his brains. Then, turning upon a warrior who had endeavoured to oppose his intention, he felled him also to the earth; nor was it until two others had shared the same fate that the enraged white man’s weapon, striking against the impending bough of a tree, hampered his exertions so that he was at length disarmed and secured.

Next morning he was brought as a prisoner for trial before the assembled tribe, the dead bodies of Terrawelo and Tumba being also laid before them, surrounded by their wailing gins and connexions. Rashleigh was asked why he had killed the two warriors.

He said, “There were three dead bodies last night. Why are there but two this morning?”

One of the warriors leaped up in a fury and cried, “The white man means, brothers, where is the body of his gin, as if he meant to say he had killed our chief and Tumba to revenge her death. Let my black brothers teach the pale stranger that they do not so far worship weak women as to hold that her fate could be any excuse for the fall of two brave warriors.”

Ralph then rejoined, “It is true. I killed Tumba and Terrawelo because they killed Lorra; but they had also tried to kill myself, which they would have done had not the poor gin lost her life to save mine.”

His opponent shouted scornfully, “You had better cry for your gin like a child. I should like to see the tears of a white man!”

“That you may do,” replied the object of this sarcasm, “provided you can make them flow. Unbind my hands, give me a nullah nullah, and try. . . . You will not? No! You are afraid! For you know well I would quickly make you weaker than a woman!”

An aged black here interposed to stop the progress of this scolding match, whispering something to the other, who appeared to acquiesce, and sat down. The senior next went round to all the older warriors, with whom he held a short parley in suppressed tones.

At last he returned to his seat, and after resting awhile, arose and said, “Pale stranger, you were once thrown out of the sea upon our fishing-ground. A wise man, who is not, but who had been a mighty warrior in his younger days, saw in your face the likeness of a son that had passed away. He saved your life. He made you into a warrior. For these things, which were very good, you have brought evil upon our tribe. Two stout men, who yesterday could have helped to defend us from our foes, have fallen by your hand . . . For all this, justice forbids us to take your life, because those that are gone endeavoured first to kill you before your club was lifted against them. But you may not stay here longer, lest the angry spirits of the departed take vengeance on the tribe for allowing you to live unpunished. Go then! Take your women, your dogs and your weapons. The land is wide. Dwell where you think fit, but come no more near our hunting-grounds . . . I have spoken. Do I say well, my brothers?”

The usual acquiescent grunt was given by all around, and the old man then went on, “Will you go then in peace and leave us?”

Rashleigh replied he would, adding sarcastically, “The sun is as hot and the fish are as fat in other parts as they are here!”

A sign was now made by the ancient orator, and Rashleigh’s bonds were loosened.

The old man, looking round, said, “If any of our black brethren do not like the decision of the old men, now that the pale stranger is free, let them attack him in the face of all the tribe and take better vengeance for the fallen on fair and equal terms.”

Two warriors jumped up at once, but the one who had taunted our adventurer claiming the precedence, it was agreed they should fight out their quarrel at noon, pending which Rashleigh retired to the fires of the surviving gins, whom he found wailing and cutting themselves over the body of poor Lorra, which they had laid out as well as they could without help, ready for interment.

Our exile resolved that he would not bury her lifeless remains near the tribe after what had passed, so he contrived a kind of hand-barrow; and placing the corpse upon it, he directed the two survivors to carry it northwards along the beach until they should arrive at an inlet which was generally looked on as the boundary of the fishing-ground belonging to this tribe. There they were to await his arrival, having also taken with them the dogs, their trifling stock of implements, as fishing-lines, etc., leaving nothing to our exile but his weapons, with which he grimly waited the appointed hour.

The shadows of the trees were at their feet when all the tribe assembled on their council ground, where the fight instantly began by Rashleigh’s opponent, as usual, offering his head to receive a blow of the white man’s weapon. But the latter sternly cried. “Have done with your foolery, for if you put your head in my way again, you will need no second blow.”

The black now began to make several feints of attack, while Ralph, offering at his head, struck him a violent blow upon his knee that was left unguarded, which felled him to the earth. The white man, observing that none came to aid the prostrate black, but rather seemed to expect that he should kill him, cried out, “Take the warrior away. I will not deprive your tribe of any more,” and left the spot for ever.

Our adventurer now pursued the path he had pointed out to his gins, whom he soon overtook, and giving them his weapons, relieved them of their melancholy burden, which he continued to carry the whole day in his arms, never stopping until night. His two sable companions at first expressed their grief by loud cries after the manner of their country, until Rashleigh at last bade them to be silent, in so stern a tone that they did not breathe another whisper until they halted in the evening, when Ralph told them to prepare a fire, and they departed chattering about their usual tasks. Enee went to fish, and very soon returned with a huge bonito which she had killed in a shoal place where it had been left by the receding tide. Some slices of this were prepared and the gins eagerly besought Rashleigh to eat; but his mind was too much oppressed by his recent loss, and he only begged of them to get their own suppers and go to sleep as quickly as possible.

Our adventurer spent a most melancholy night watching the lifeless remains of her who had loved him so truly through that portion of their life during which they had been acquainted that the intensity of her affection, as expressed by every gesture and even glance, might be more fitly compared to that which the olden pagans felt for their divinities than that which is known among mere mortals for each other. That she had at last fallen a victim to her love was also plain enough, for had Rashleigh first attacked Tumba, he might have been speared, but she would undoubtedly have been saved, and yet with generous self-devotion she hindered him from doing so, lest he should be pierced by Terrawelo’s weapon. “Alas, poor girl!” was Rashleigh’s involuntary exclamation, as he took his last glance of her next morning. “Though your skin was black as ebony, yet your heart was pure and true!”

A deep grave after the fashion of his native land, wrought with much labour by Rashleigh’s toil for many hours, received the cold body of poor Lorra, to which our exile mournfully paid all the last offices with his own hands, wrapping her in his best skin cloak and finally depositing her corpse upon an ample couch of silky grass within her narrow resting-place, which lay beside a murmuring rivulet at the foot of a pendant acacia that even now weeps the dews of heaven upon her last bed. And never were tears dropped of more sincere sorrow than those which our exile shed to the memory of this true and affectionate, though ignorant and artless being. He lay beside the grave all that day and night, and the next morning resumed his march along the beach, often looking back upon that spot where he felt that he had left all that was dear to him upon earth, the only female to whom himself was ever dear, except his sister and his mother.

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