Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 16

There woman reigns: The mother, daughter, wife

Strews with fresh flowers the narrow way of life.

Around her knees domestic duties wait,

And fireside pleasures gambol at her feet.

The next morning Rashleigh and his companion were first stirring. The latter, somewhat to Ralph’s surprise, made a fire, swept up the earthen floor, and put the débris of the last night’s battle into as tidy a state as he could, for which both received the warmest thanks of their hosts when they arose. A breakfast, ample in quantity though rude in quality, being soon after paraded and discussed, the wayfarers departed, having been first obliged to take a “taast of the native” just as old Biddy said, “to wash away the cobwebs out of their heads, afther lasht night”., and to this was added a hearty invitation, if ever either of them “passed the door”, a threatened curse if he did so without calling in being implied, of course.

The route of the travellers now lay along the high-road between Liverpool and Campbelltown, at which latter place Rashleigh’s companion intimated his journey would end. There were at that time no ponds and but few houses near the highway in this part, and they suffered a good deal from thirst as the clay was very warm. They had, however, no remedy save that of using greater speed, and they accordingly reached the few scattered huts then dignified by the name of Campbelltown soon after midday. They went into the first public-house to solace their thirst, and Ralph observed that the young man, before he would enter, went to a window that commanded a view of the single public apartment as if he were anxious to ascertain who was inside; after taking this survey they went in and quenched their drought with copious draughts of cider.

Rashleigh proposed to remain awhile to rest and invited his companion to dine at his expense; but the latter refused, urgently requesting instead that our adventurer would accompany him to his sister’s, whither he was himself bound, and which was at no great distance, adding that he was sure Ralph would be most welcome for his sake. This being at last agreed to, our exile purchased a bottle of rum, unknown to the other, which he designed to carry with him as he had observed enough of colonial society to he certain that this stimulus was always an acceptable adjunct to a settler’s meal, and that the bringer of any was sure of being doubly welcome.

Having put the liquor up in his bundle, he followed his companion, who was conversing outside with some female, from whom he parted when joined by Rashleigh. They both proceeded on their way, which led them off the high-road, past the church along a narrow lane bordered by fields of green maize, through which they walked for nearly a mile, until at the edge of a piece of standing timber, they saw a pretty little hut with more of an English appearance about it than any other Rashleigh had yet seen in Australia. Although it was formed of the ordinary bush materials, the frame being of split timber and its roof barked, yet the walls had been coated externally with mud, after the manner of rough casting — colonially called “daubing”— and this when dry had been well whitewashed. There was also a verandah ranging along the whole front, around the rough untrimmed wooden pillars of which a few parasitical plants had been trained; and before the dwelling — what was a most uncommon rarity in those days to see-there was actually a plot of flowers.

Small, indeed, was the extent of that little parterre, and very very common were its plants; yet, from its extreme rarity, it breathed the balmy breath of old England’s cherished homes around the travellers as sweetly as if it had contained many acres and had been appended to a palace.

“This is my sister’s,” said Rashleigh’s companion, and Ralph fancied there was some exultation in the tone; at any rate, he thought a little pride in so neat a relative would not he unbecoming. The front door was shut, and the travellers went round to the rear of the house, where they saw a spacious yard, well enclosed by a high fence made of cornstalks set upright and kept in their places by rails of split timber on each side of them. Through the gate of the enclosure might be seen a number of fowls and a few pigs; and there was a stockyard visible, with milking sheds and pens for calves, from which a woman was now approaching, who quickened her steps at the sight of strangers.

Rashleigh’s companion spoke not, though it was plain he was subjected to a very earnest scrutiny by her who now came towards them, and who at last, to Ralph’s extreme surprise, cried out, “What, Jane! My dear girl! Is that you?” And the two sisters, for such they were, were presently enfolded in a warm embrace. After a few hasty enquiries they entered the house, our adventurer being invited to accompany them. The females soon withdrew into an inner apartment, and their visitor had time to comment upon the very different appearance of this hut from that of most belonging to the lower classes in the Colony.

The floor, ’tis true, was only made of cow dung and ashes trod into a solid and firm mass, but then, it was level and clean-swept. The stools and tables, though all of the coarsest make, being apparently the handiwork of the settler himself, were scoured until they were perfectly white. The tin pots and dishes all shone with the resplendence of new-minted silver, and the whole of the interior was whitewashed to almost a degree of fastidious purity. The walls, in place of pictures or any other production of art, were decorated and relieved by suspended bunches of fresh-gathered and sweetly-scented flowering shrubs, the most choice indigenous produce of the neighbouring bush.

Rashleigh was musing upon the wide difference between this hut and the one in which he had spent the previous night, though it had been occupied by persons of the same rank in life and having the same means of improvement with his present hosts, when the door of the bedroom opened and the mistress of the house made her reappearance. After a few commonplace remarks she busied herself to set out the dinner. She was a woman apparently of twenty-five, who, though no great beauty, had a very pleasing countenance. Her dress was of the simplest form, the only parts in view being a kind of dimity jacket tied dose up to the throat in front, and extending a short distance below the hips, with short sleeves, which left bare the arm from the elbow, and a blue dungaree petticoat with a checked apron. A pair of slippers, apparently made by the wearer, completed her costume, for she wore no cap, her hair being neatly, although very plainly, arranged.

In a few minutes Ralph’s late travelling companion made her appearance, dressed in a very neat and becoming style as a female; and now our adventurer began to wonder how it was he had not made the discovery of her sex during the many miles they had journeyed together. This idea perhaps his countenance betrayed, for his former companion, after shaking his hand, laughed and said, “I suppose you had no idea your fellow-traveller was a woman, had you?”

The comical look which accompanied Rashleigh’s acknowledgement how well she had sustained the part of a man so as completely to deceive him, caused great mirth to both the sisters, and they enjoyed it very heartily, after which the matron went to the back of the house, and ascending on a stump, gave a very loud and shrill cooee for her husband to cease labour and come to dinner.

Presently the “good man” entered, accompanied by a little troop of children, who, after washing themselves and welcoming their relative and the stranger, sat down to their meal, which, though consisting of only salt pork, pumpkins and bread, with tea as usual to drink, was far better prepared than is general, the meat having been soaked to deprive it of a portion of the salt; and the pumpkins, besides having been pared before they were boiled, were steamed after they were done, which made them dry and mealy instead of being, to use a colonial phrase, “all of a squash” when they were served up, which is generally the case. The bread was leavened and baked in a huge loaf under an inverted iron pot, which nude it much lighter and more palatable as well as more enticing in appearance than the ordinary damper simply cooked in the ashes of a wood fire.

The appearance of both father and children told that the hand which thus laboured for their creature comforts also extended its attention to their personal wants. Rashleigh noticed as they came in that the children washed themselves in water set ready near the back door, even to their feet; and those who were too little to do this properly for themselves were cleaned up by the elder ones. Their clothing was certainly simple enough, each and all wearing only a kind of pinafore or smock frock reaching from the neck to the ankle and made of very coarse osnaburg, but kept as clean and whole as the nature of their employment allowed. Besides this single garment, each youngster was equipped with a coarse straw hat, but of shoes they had none among them, for probably, like nearly all Australian children, they looked on them as useless encumbrances.

The father’s striped shirt, sleeved waistcoat and duck trousers were all clean and carefully mended; nay, his very boots, though patched in all directions, had evidently been well greased only the night before. in short, cleanliness and care appeared to be the chief attributes of all belonging to this house, which formed a complete contrast to the dwellings of Australian farmers in general.

The husband, who was addressed by the very unpretending appellation of Bob, welcomed his sister-in-law with great cordiality, but during dinner he enquired whether there had not come two men down the lane. On being told that Jane was one of them, he laughed and asked how far she had come in that dress. She replied all the way from Parramatta, and the reason she had adopted it was because she thought it a good deal safer to travel as a man than a woman, especially on foot and alone. Bob observed, “I don’t know how anybody could he deceived in your baby face. I am sure I should find you out in any dress for a woman.”

Dinner soon being ended, Rashleigh apologized for taking such a liberty and produced his bottle of rum. The host at first declined taking any, but at length, his sister-in-law joining our adventurer in pressing him, he agreed, upon condition that his eldest boy should be sent into Campbelltown for some more liquor, so that they should not be altogether drinking at the stranger’s expense. This being complied with, and the rest of the youngsters dispatched to their several occupations, the four seniors sat down to drink their grog and play at cards for a couple of hours, when the females pleaded fatigue and retired to lie down, while our hero and his new-found friend stuck to the sport a while longer, until, upon Rashleigh’s stating that he would like to look at the farm, they set out together for a stroll.

The portion of land cultivated by Bob did not exceed fifty acres, but it was all good soil, well cleared and carefully tilled. The fences were nearly new, and maintained in good order; in short, all the arrangements bespoke as much care out of doors as the aspect of their domestic management proved to reign within the walls of their humble home.

Bob told his companion in the course of their walk that he had been free about two years, having spent all the period of his sentence in the service of a rich settler near Campbelltown, to whom he had acted as working overseer for about four years. When he had married he had held a ticket of leave, but preferred remaining with his old master until he became free altogether, because he well knew that a ticket was at best but a very fragile indulgence, liable to be lost at the will of any great man who might wish to injure the holder.

When he received his certificate, finding that the savings of himself and his wife would amount to a pretty fair beginning, he had looked about him awhile, and having discovered that the land he now occupied was unused and remained in a state of nature, he made enquiries respecting the owner, whom he at last discovered to be a military officer abroad with his regiment, and that a merchant in Sydney acted as his agent.

To this gentleman, therefore, Bob went, and after a little bargaining, obtained from him a lease of the whole farm for seven years, on condition of his clearing fifty acres out of the 1,280 of which the grant consisted, and giving it up in a well-fenced and cultivable state at the end of the lease if required to do so. Only a little while before Rashleigh’s visit, Bob had been to Sydney, where he chanced to see the merchant in question, who told him Colonel Cornewell — the owner — had written lately to him, stating that if the tenant liked to clear and fence another fifty acres, he might occupy the whole of the grant for fourteen years instead of seven. To this proposal the farmer had agreed. A fresh lease on these terms had therefore been executed, so that the land was now his for twelve years more, certain; and they hoped, if they had success during that term, to be able to purchase a piece of land of their own at the expiration of their occupancy.

Of course, both Bob and his wife had worked very hard, both day and night occasionally, in falling, stumping and burning off the land, and Rashleigh found that this truly industrious woman had always shared her husband’s toils, from the first. She helped him cross-cut the trees, roll them together, mend the fires, put up the fences; indeed, she was, as Bob observed, better to him than any government man or even free hired servant would probably be, for she worked with greater zeal, knowing that herself and her children reaped all the benefit of her labour. Even at that time she still wrought as occasion required the same as a man; for her husband’s old master always lending him oxen to yoke their plough, Mary drove the bullocks while Bob held the stilts, so that the tedious operation of breaking up the land with a hoe was avoided.

While they thus talked they came to a piece of rich low land which was under tobacco; and here were the young ones, busily engaged with diminutive hoes, chipping between the rows to kill the weeds. Their father praised their industry, and Ralph taking one of their tools, Bob took another and worked awhile, to give the children a spell.

They were thus engaged when one of the youngsters cried out, “Look, daddy! There’s a gentleman at the fence.”

On turning to observe him, they perceived a person making towards them dressed in a clean grey shooting-coat, white trousers, black hat — in fact, a very decent-looking man. Coming up, he saluted both the men and enquired if one Robert Marshall lived thereabout, to which Bob replied, “I am the person.”

“Oh!” replied the other. “Then Mr Hammell of Campbelltown told me you’d got some fat pigs to sell, and I am buying pigs.”

“Why,” answered Bob; “I did think of selling some pigs, but I think I’ll require the meat myself now. How many do you want?”

“I want to buy a score or two, if I can,” said the stranger, at the same time rather ostentatiously rattling some dollars in his trousers pocket.

Ralph continued to eye this new arrival, for he thought he knew the slim form and pale, youthful, rather pretty-looking face again. He was just going to burst out laughing, but a glance checked him as his eye met that of the stranger; and all three turned to go towards the house, conversing as they went about the weather, the state of the crops, and the prospects of the settlers generally. When they had got up to the dwelling, Marshall called out his wife, who quickly made her appearance, and they both walked a short distance apart to converse together.

In the mean time Rashleigh said, “Aha, Mistress Jane, I knew it was you,” though in truth, he was not very sure of it.

But the stranger smiled archly and replied, “Hush! We’re going to have a bit of fun with Bob.”

The others now returned; but Ralph observed that Mary shunned to meet her sister’s eye and also kept a corner of her apron crammed in her month as if to stifle her inclination to laugh. Marshall and his customer went to the pigsty together, where the animals he was willing to sell were pointed out, most eloquently descanted upon by him, and knowingly examined by the pretended pig dealer, who, after a good deal of chaffering, finally struck a bargain, and the contracting parties adjourned to the house to pay for them and take a receipt.

Writing materials being procured, the stranger sat down, and made a great parade of looking out the cash. Rashleigh, having been requested to draw up the necessary document, enquired the purchaser’s name.

“My name?” returned the soi-disant pig merchant, with an arch look at Marshall, “why, my name is Jane Bates.” At which Marshall jumped up and making a playful blow at his sister-in-law’s head, knocked her hat off, and then her luxuriant hair, bursting its fastenings, tumbled all over her face, amid the laughter of Jane and Rashleigh, and to the discomfiture of Bob, who was forced at length to own, not only that he did not detect his sister’s disguise, but what was more strange, that he did not know his own best clothes and hat which she had got on. But, as he observed, the latter after all was not so much of a wonder, because he had only worn them about twice, for he very seldom dressed himself up, having something else to do.

By this time the lowing of cattle announced that the cows had come home, and the men went out to put up the calves in their pen for the night. The stockyard, though small, was strong and compact, formed of four horizontal rails and a cap, making in all a fence about seven feet high. The bails for milking and the calf pen were both roofed with bark and floored with slabs. The herd comprised only eight milkers; but, as Marshall remarked, eight good ones were worth fifty wild brutes that no one could get near, and every one of these had cost him £20 apiece. They had got some fine heifers and steers running with them; four of the latter Marshall intended breaking in the next year, so he hoped soon to have a team of his own.

At sunset the children all came in to supper, and Jane, having by that time changed her dress, once more assisted their mother in washing them and getting ready for their evening meal, which seemed, by the extent of the preparations, to be considered the chief one of the day. Indeed, Bob observed that was the case, as a farmer could then take his time and enjoy himself after his day’s work. Accordingly, the viands included short cakes, light bread, good fresh butter, cream with the tea, a couple of young fowls broiled, and plenty of eggs, to which ample justice was done by all.

After supper, the young fry being dismissed to play for an hour in the stockyard, the seniors drew their chairs around the fire, each with a little hot grog, to converse together, Marshall having asked Jane how she had been getting on lately. Rashleigh discovered she had only just become free out of the Female Factory at Parramatta — the place where all the female convicts not in assigned service are kept at labour. It appeared that Jane had been a kind of overseer, or monitress there, until she had lately become free. And by her accounts, the inmates of that choice establishment for reclaiming the dissolute members of the tender sex were little less than incarnate furies, as the following relation, made by the young woman in question, will show.

Only a short time prior to this period a kind of food called hominy had been issued to the convicts of both sexes in the Colony as part of their rations, which was new to them, it being a sort of porridge made from boiled Indian corn meal. This issue, being a substitution for other and more palatable food, had caused serious discontent among all the prisoners, the carriage of the Governor upon the Race Course at Sydney having, as a mark of their displeasure, been placarded by stealth with a paper bearing the marvellously ill-written and worse-spelt inscription of

“Thiss year his ommani toms drag — lord send itt ma drag im to ell.”

At which the Australasian representative of royalty was so grievously irate that he offered a reward of £50 to discover the daring scoundrel who wished to send him such a long journey to a place having so hot a climate; but though the author of this insult was never discovered, yet the exertions made by the authorities upon the occasion, and the distribution of a few thousand lashes among the grumblers effectually prevented any worse consequences from the male convicts.

The gentle dames at the Female Factory, however, openly rebelled the first morning the hominy was offered to them, and most positively as well as disdainfully refused to receive it. On this emergency one of the most active members of the magistracy that formed the governing committee of the institution was sent for, and the revd gentleman, who was very short and very fat, came bustling in, much out of breath with his haste. The cause of the uproar having been stated to him, he declared that he was perfectly surprised at their conduct — this would appear rather a premature declaration, seeing what followed — and attempted to reason with the exasperated fair ones, winding up an eloquent oration in praise of hominy by stating that he frequently ate it himself and liked it very well. One of the hardiest of the Amazons now exclaimed with many expletives that if he had been always obliged to live upon it he’d never have possessed such a paunch as he then could boast of; but, added she, turning to her companions, “As he’s so fond of it, in the devil’s name let him have plenty of it.” And she suited the action to the word by snatching a small kit or piggin of the much-lauded condiment from one of the bystanders, who had brought it for the magistrate’s inspection. That revd gentleman, overpowered by the heat of the day and the fervour of his eloquence, had removed his hat and was wiping away the perspiration from his rubicund face, when the last words of the virago were spoken, and ere he could avert the infliction by any means, she inverted the little kit on his head, driving the vessel down with her fist.

Fortunately, the hominy had got a little cool pending the dispute, or the consequences might have been serious. Still the mess — which much resembled hasty pudding in consistency — was hot enough to be very painful. Besides, the little kit fitted his head so tightly as to defy his hurried efforts to remove it; but at last His Reverence escaped, nearly suffocated by this novel poultice, and pursued by inextinguishable merriment from the mob of women.

In the mean time, a violent onslaught had been made upon the body of insurgent Amazons by the matron, or female superintendent, at the head of a sort of bodyguard of monitresses and other she-official toadies, who wished to rescue His Reverence from the sacrilegious claws of his enemies; but alas, the daughters of Belial were too strong for them. These well-meaning personages — matron and all — were overpowered, and every one compelled, under the direst threats of punishment, to swallow each the allowance dispensed for six women, which in good truth was nearly enough to burst them; and then, as a parting salute, the rebels shaved every particle of hair from the scalps both of the superior and of her satellites, finally letting them go as bald as Capuchin friars — a mode of treatment, by the way, which the prisoners might have considered in some degree to partake of the nature of retributive justice, as shaving the heads of incorrigibles had been recently recommended by the Matron and adopted by the assembled committee to be put in force as a punishment for misbehaviour by the confines.

This second revolt of the Harem was not quelled until after the escape of many of the ringleaders, which was vainly endeavoured to be prevented by calling in the aid of a company of soldiers. But these gallant militaires, who belonged to an Irish regiment recently arrived from the “isle of saints”, swore they’d “rather kiss the darlin’s than charge them”. So they grounded their arms and allowed the Amazons to escape without opposition, after which order was at length restored among those who chose to remain.

In talk of this kind the evening passed sociably away, and at a late hour the party separated. Rashleigh was accommodated with a comfortable bed and the luxury of a clean pair of sheets for the first time since he had left Sydney. After a luxurious repose, for the enjoyment of which the night seemed much too short, our hero arose, and declining to wait for breakfast, took leave of his hospitable entertainers and departed, amid reciprocal good wishes, with a cordial invitation from Marshall to come and see them as soon as he could obtain liberty from his new master.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00