It was wonderful how fast this piece of intelligence circulated among the scattered aboriginals of the district. Whether the fiery cross was borne around in the shape of a rum bottle, or the picture-writing of the Aztecs resorted to, cannot be known. It was curious to observe, however, on the day preceding the supposed royal birthday, how many of Her Majesty’s sable subjects were seen making, by the shortest routes known, by hill and dale, by wood and wold, towards the Oxley township.
Not that the Australian indigène, dark of hue and strongly suspected in these free-thinking evolutionary days of pre-Adamite proclivities, has been found invariably incapable of the humanities. More than one philanthropist has tested the question of pan-genesis, so ordering that the swart son of the waste should receive his due allowance of Eton, Latin grammar, and Euclid, in company with the children of the White Conquest.
Indeed, the tale is told of a newly-arrived European wayfarer, sore troubled about a variety of tracks where ‘you can’t miss the road,’ coming unexpectedly upon a black fellow lying under a shady tree, wrapped in a blanket, and engaged in the perusal of one of Sir Walter Scott’s novels.
The white man stared, then said—
‘I say, which of these three is the proper road to Mildool station?’
The ‘savage’ rose, bowed courteously, and thus delivered himself—Medio tutissimus ibis.
‘What?’ shouted the Englishman.
‘Don’t you understand?’ said the congener of the Scholar Gipsy, pointing to the middle path—
‘The middle is the safest way.|
Take it, and rest ere close of day.’
The amazed Anglo-Saxon put spurs to his horse, and, arriving at the station barely with the light, gasped out that he had met the Devil under a tree in the forest, who had quoted Latin and talked poetry to him.
‘To be sure,’ quoted the Scottish host, as he sent the stranger’s hack to the stable.
‘The De’il or else an outler quey|
Gat up and gae a croon.’
‘It was either Old Nick or Bungaree—I did not know he was back.’
‘And who the deuce is Bungaree?’
‘He was a smart little black boy enough twenty years ago, when the idea occurred to old Moxon to send him with his own sons to the Normal Institution in Sydney, Dr. Lang’s pet school. There Bungaree learned to read and write—moreover, Latin and Greek, with all other sophistications of the human animal, bringing home (for he was highly intelligent) more than his share of prizes. His success gratified all the good people mightily until he approached manhood.’
‘Why, then, the wolf cub growled and broke his chain, took to the bush, blankets, and a wild life among his peers, learned to love the fire-water and to hate work and settled abiding places. It was he whom you saw to-day.’
During each forenoon Ruth was uncommonly busy, and visited so many shops that I inquired whether she was going to load a vessel with soft goods souvenirs of the Oxley; but I could not extract any satisfactory explanation, and was therefore fain to leave things to find their own level. I also discovered her deep in colloquy with Mr. Bright and Mr. Bagstock, and made no doubt but that with the assistance of these worthy gentlemen she was concocting some scheme by which the guests at the approaching school feast, or members of the aboriginal tribe, would profit.
Mr. Bright, with his usual munificence, had invited all the school children within a radius of ten miles to partake of his bounty, and had arranged that, in addition to a substantial lunch, with cakes and oranges and ginger-beer at discretion, suitable presents should be allotted to all the girls over ten years old. This was the department Ruth wished to supplement.
When the fateful day arrived, Ruth could hardly eat her breakfast for excitement, and immediately after that important meal I was dragged into the Police Camp Reserve, where the remnant of the once powerful and numerous tribe of the Oxley (long feared of the pioneer settler) had bestowed themselves.
It was a strange and perhaps a piteous sight. War and disease, the fire-water of the white man, and the curses which ever accompany civilisation, had pretty well cleared out the ‘braves’ of the tribe. The men who had slain stockriders and speared cattle, killed shepherds, and caused stations to be abandoned a score of years agone, were chiefly absent. They lay on lonely sandhills or beside marshy lagoons, whither they had fled in vain hope of escaping the vengeance of the white man. A few stalwart survivors, sullen of aspect, showed in their bloodshot eyes and sodden countenances that they had found a panacea for all evils in the debasing habits which they had copied from the whites. Only the gray-beards of the tribe exhibited dignity and the true stately savage unconsciousness.
Each sat on the earth awaiting his turn of distribution; and yet betrayed no eagerness to receive the gift to which they attributed so much value. They understood but little English and disdained all the arts by which a largess is stimulated.
The women and children predominated as to numbers, and these were the objects of Ruth’s deepest interest and sympathy. Some of the half-caste children were exceedingly good-looking, and it was all I could do to prevent Ruth burdening herself with a pretty saucy five-year-old, whose mother offered to sell her in so many words for twenty shillings sterling. Though the woes of civilisation had worked much evil upon most of the women of the tribe, some of the younger gins, especially those whose complexions were ‘dishonestly fair,’ were lithe of form and pleasant to look upon. On these Ruth gazed with the deepest sympathy and unfeigned tenderness of pity.
‘Poor things,’ she said, ‘what a lot theirs must be! How I wish I could help them, could shape their lives into what charity and thoughtfulness might make of them. I feel quite sad that I shall go away and never see these strange, half-childish, fawn-like faces again. In their natural wistful expression I can fancy I see the half-formed forest creature we read of, not wholly human, yet all graceful and redolent of the old classical myths.
‘My dear Ruth,’ I remonstrate, ‘you really seem to discover so many wonder-treasures in my country that you will never consent to return to your own. You ought to have married Bishop Selwyn, or some other evangeliser of the heathen instead of plain Hereward Pole.’
‘I cannot imagine a more grand and ennobling manner of wearing out one’s life,’ she said, ‘and you are not to laugh at me on such subjects, sir, or I shall think that the fire of trial has left some dross behind. Ask Mr. Bagstock when he is going to begin.’
That worthy and decisive official here advanced and saluted Ruth with flowing courtesy. With him were the Commissioner and Mr. Merlin. These gentlemen had been most assiduous in their attention to Ruth and the Squire since their arrival at the Oxley.
Considerably less than twenty-four hours, indeed, had been suffered to elapse before the higher officials from the camp presented themselves and duly left their cards upon the new arrivals, taking the opportunity of congratulating me cordially upon my return under such favourable auspices. The pleasure derived from the introduction appeared to be mutual. Ruth professed herself perfectly charmed with the Commissioner, whose air and bearing, she alleged, possessed a distinct flavour of chivalry hardly ever seen in these degenerate days. Mr. Merlin’s flawless courtesy and carefully veiled satire created a natural astonishment in the Squire’s mind that such a perfect and entire chrysolite, socially speaking, could be found in the wilds of Australia, while Mr. Bagstock’s truly English appearance prepossessed him at once in favour of that gentleman, more especially when he discovered that his family lived in an adjoining county to Allerton Court.
Ruth had, very properly, though partly at my instigation, not attired herself in what some people consider to be suitable travelling raiment, which means their oldest and plainest garments. She had not set out with the notion that she was never to meet with any more ladies and gentlemen, or that, such being the case, it did not matter how unbecomingly she was dressed. On the contrary, she wore her last consignment of costumes, not very long from Paris, the freshness and fashion of which caused her to be regarded with a much deeper interest than would otherwise have been the case. Her manner being gracious, and her conversation original and piquant, she fulfilled thus all the conditions of popularity.
The sergeant and a brace of picked troopers attended in charge of the coveted blankets, as well to dispense one by one those useful articles as to moderate any excessive eagerness which might be displayed by the wilder denizens of the forest.
As they approached—the old men coming first in order—each was asked his name, which was formally entered in a book by the clerk, when his woollen donation was delivered and duly debited to him. After the graybeards came the weird and awful beldames of the race. Savage women, after youth and middle age have passed by, are certainly the most unpleasing, not to say revolting specimens of humanity the traveller is called upon to view. Ruth shuddered as the chattering scolding crones came up, whining and entreating for a double allowance of blanket, always trying to smuggle an additional one for some fabulous grandchild, whose existence they were utterly unable to prove.
Gradually the ranks thinned. The fortunate recipients enveloped themselves in their prizes, or, folding them, sat down in majestic serenity upon them. Then came the boys—shy or bold, shamefaced or impudent—with roving hawk-like glances, rivalling those of the forest dwellers in piercing acuteness and wandering restlessness of vision. Lastly, the shy timidly-stepping girl children, with great gleaming dark eyes and dazzling white teeth, half-unclosed in wonder and half in terror.
When all, even to the tiniest elf, were supplied, Mr. Bright called one of the troopers to roll over another great package, and, opening it, commanded all the women to stand in a row. Then Ruth took my arm and walked over to it, producing a bright, coloured print dress and a warm garment fitted for winter wear. This she delivered to the oldest ‘gin’ with her own fair hands and in most genuine expression of goodwill. The poor old thing looked with perfect amazement at the fair and gentle benefactress for an instant, and then, realising the astounding fact, threw herself on her knees before her and kissed the delicate hand of the giver.
Then were handed out to the delighted foresters similar presents all down the line, until each one of the women and girls was made proud and happy by the same thoughtful gift. The men, indeed, looked jealous and awkward as not deemed worthy to partake of the bounty of this celestial visitant, as they appeared to deem her, but upon Mr. Bright saying a few mysterious words in their own tongue all discontent vanished and a pleasant anticipatory expression pervaded the party.
Finally, Mr. Bagstock called for three cheers for Her Majesty Queen Victoria, upon which a tremendous long-drawn cry, swelling and increasing in volume rose to the heavens, all eyes being turned to Ruth, as if with a conviction that Her Majesty had personally deigned to honour them with her presence; but upon Mr. Bright making another short speech in the aboriginal tongue, which he had learned in his early outpost days, a deeper gratitude expressed itself in a gathering round of the whole tribe as if disposed to kiss Ruth’s shoe latchet in reverent worship. Tears of joy and gratitude rolling down the faces of the younger women and girls showed that the darker complexion of these children of nature denoted no essential difference in the emotional qualities of the sex.
A portion of the tribe subsequently adjourned to the ground wherein the sports of the children’s picnic were to be arranged, and gazed on the relaxation of the white man with edifying gravity. But, in the interests of truth, it must be related that the greater number of the adults betook themselves later on to the lower sort of public-houses, where they in too many cases sold the Queen’s bounty for grog. Mr. Bagstock narrowly escaped holding a coroner’s inquest upon one of the younger ‘gins,’ who had excited the wrath of her sable spouse, and was supposed to be lying at the bottom of a deep pool in the Oxley. Indeed that gentleman, at the first bruit of the affair, picked up a worn copy of Shakespeare in his hurry upon which to swear the jury, and was only prevented from completing his preparations by the return of the supposed corpse, but little the worse for blows and immersion.
There was ample time, owing to the early hour at which the ceremony had been initiated, for the completion of this preliminary performance before Mr. Bright’s clientèle arrived.
This they presently commenced to do in great force, the rendezvous being the paddock of a friendly farmer, who granted the privilege of strewing his grounds with countless fragments of paper parcels and other debris of lunch to all such companies and associates as desired to make merry in the vicinity of the Oxley.
The spot selected was within a mile of the township. One of those natural forest parks peculiar to Australia, where green turf under the century-old trees and a moderately level surface permitted foot races, dancing on the green, kiss-in-the-ring, and other time-honoured rustic pastimes.
Mr. Bright, whose hospitable tendencies were unlimited, had made it understood that though the children were specially invited their relatives and friends were also expected, and would be equally welcome.
The day was of course fine. It was also moderately cool and breezy, so nothing could be more appropriate. Buggies and carriages were in attendance—a general holiday had been proclaimed by the Commissioner, by whom alone miners could be allowed to be legally absent from their claims. We all drove to the spot.
There stupendous preparations had been made and were still being made under the orders of Mr. Bright, who had preceded us and stood in the midst like a General of Division, ordering autocratically and issuing commands for fresh supplies, as if he was going to banquet the southern district en musse.
‘I like to see things well done when one is about it,’ said the Squire, as band after band of happy school children marched in, carrying banners and insignia, perfectly wild with happiness and youth—synonymous mostly. ‘But, what a spread it will have to be; there must be a thousand children at least.’
‘What a beautiful sight,’ said Ruth in a tone of the deepest sincerity. ‘I certainly never saw so fine an array of nice looking intelligent children before. So well dressed and well cared for, as they all look. Such bright intelligent faces, too. There is also a distinct refinement and high mental development which I don’t think I ever observed among village children before.’
‘I’ll back the youngsters of this district, Miss Allerton,’ said Bright effusively, ‘against those of any part of Australia. I’ve been all over it, and I never saw anything to compare with them, I assure you.’
‘It’s a theory of mine,’ said Olivera, who had joined our party, looking as if he had just quitted a London club, ‘that the fusion of the different branches of the Aryan family, more than usually feasible in the concourse of a goldfield’s population, is favourable to a high standard of mental and bodily excellence.’
‘I don’t doubt but you’re right,’ said the Squire. ‘A border population is always a vigorous one, chiefly superior to the races of which it is compounded. It is to be hoped that you colonists will educate these youngsters thoroughly. There will be nothing commonplace about them, for good or for evil.’
‘Miss Allerton shall examine them by and by,’ said Bright. ‘You should hear them sing, too. Most Australian children are musical, and all our schools attend to their chorus singing.’
‘I am so pleased we were able to wait for this delightful spectacle,’ said Ruth. ‘I suspect you did it partly to please me, Mr. Bright. It was very kind of you, I could not have enjoyed anything more.’
‘I don’t suspect it at all,’ I said. ‘Bright’s quite unable to resist any new lady visitor. It’s a good thing you’re going back to Sydney, there’s no end to the extravagances he is capable of committing.’
‘I hope he will never do anything that he will regret more. When we get back I must take this for a pattern for my school feasts at the Leys. But oh! if we could only be sure of such lovely weather.’
‘There’s where they have the advantage of us,’ said the Squire. ‘But I hope to see Mr. Bright and our other good friends there some day. Old England has its good points, and we must try if we can’t show them something in return for all their kindness. When do you expect to see England again, Captain Blake?’
‘Some of these fine days,’ said the Commissioner, ‘if my old uncle does the right thing by my brother Jack and myself, I hope to be able to keep a dog and enjoy a little hunting before I get too old, if I ever do. You can’t get it good out of England.’
‘Have to fall back upon coursing Chinamen, eh, Blake?’ said Mr. Merlin, who had now joined us, looking refreshingly cool and as innocent as if there was not a criminal within a hundred miles. ‘I am certain Miss Allerton would not have countenanced a chase we witnessed one morning, eh Pole?’
‘Purely accidental, I assure you,’ said Blake, turning graciously to Ruth, whose face became shaded over at this untoward allusion. ‘Fact is, my poor dogs got demoralised by living in the camp with police and other man-hunters. Had to send them into the country, I assure you, to rub off the effects. But here’s a movement along the whole line of infantry.’
The luncheon hour being imminent, a decided convergence had taken place towards the tents, of which every available one had been secured by Mr. Bright and his emissaries that the neighbourhood afforded. Besides this, large booths, walled and roofed with boughs and decorated with great fern fronds and tapering slender pine trees, had been erected.
Within these a generous supply of eatables and cautiously composed concoctions for assuaging thirst had been provided. The simple needs of childhood were amply gratified, while their proud happy parents and friends did justice to the good cheer, and inwardly chaunted the praises of their generous entertainer.
‘I think the last spread we had was a dejecuner at Hennessy’s to that distinguished novelist, Anthony Towers, wasn’t it, Pole?’ said Bright; ‘only it was attended by children of a larger growth.’
‘Yes, I remember,’ said the Major. ‘Cuisine very fair and Heidsieck’s dry monopole to wash it down. The old Turk gratefully acknowledged it in his book on Australia by a faint allusion and a statement that the cookery was better than the speeches.’
‘Comes of trying to give honour where honour is due,’ said Bright, ‘but he did mention the oysters we had that night.’
‘Yes; confound him! You will go down to posterity with the Bishop and Mrs. Proudie, and all that lot, as the munificent banker who provided them.’
‘What was it he said to you, Jack?’ inquired Mr. Merlin, with suspicious softness of manner, ‘when you asked him confidentially if he would have taken you for a native?’
Bright hesitated for an instant, and then answered—
‘“Not for an aboriginal certainly.” What the deuce did he mean by that?’
We all shouted again. And Ruth ‘came nearer,’ as an American friend would say, to a hearty laugh than I had seen her for many a day.
The day wore on. Though warm, the atmosphere was so tempered by the sighing breeze, which ever and anon came whispering through the forest trees and over the sun-glinted hill tops, that the most delicately constituted organisation could not have felt oppressed.
The sports were nearing their close; the little ones had eaten and quaffed and romped and played and raced to their hearts’ content. Mr. Bright had made them a speech, praising their proficiency at the various schools, on the Board of Management of which he was a sort of perpetual chairman, complimenting their parents and guardians upon their robust appearance and polite manners, and winding up by formally inviting them all to a similar picnic to take place, if he were well and at the Oxley, on that day twelve months. If he was prevented from attending, he was sure his friend Mr. Merlin would be happy to take his place, knowing his warm interest in the education question, and his proverbial liking for children.
This address, whatever might have been its rhetorical merit, was sufficiently telling to ‘bring down the house,’ being specially adapted to the audience, and boasting a peroration more attractive than are many more ambitious efforts.
After this was over, one of the head teachers made a short reply thanking their friend Mr. Bright, whose goodwill and kindness were proverbial from one end of Australia to the other, and calling for cheers for the lady from England whom they were all so glad to see among them and for Mr. Allerton.
Then a little voice which I fancied I knew called for three cheers for Harry Pole, a suggestion which apparently met with general approbation, and with a terrific storm of cheers for Mr. Bright the great array of happy children formed into their original ranks and companies and moved away to their respective homes.
Just then a trooper came galloping up, and saluted his officer.
‘Mr. Merlin, a gentleman wishes to see you.’
‘Indeed,’ replied Mr. Merlin, in somewhat acidulated tones. ‘Lead on at once. I very seldom see one.’
With this Parthian shaft, and his lowest, most courtcous bow, Mr. Merlin departed, leaving us with a sensation of sic transit gloria mundi, and a disposition to move slowly homeward.
For my part, I thought that Ruth had undergone rather much fatigue and excitement for one day, and I was not sorry when our comfortable rooms at Hennessy’s received us, and all further exertion was relegated to the indulgent future.