Our new selection was a piece of magnificent country, twelve hundred acres, all rich black soil ten to fifteen feet deep, permanent water, and a government well outside the fence; a wide fringe of heavy timber at the back; plain in front, and grass!—we used to lose the horses in it.
The house was new, a stately palace, after Shingle Hut; five rooms in it; weather-boarded, floor-boarded, iron-roofed; lock and key to every door; kitchen, and a thousand-gallon tank. And such water! We had never known the taste of real water before. No charcoal, no ashes, no traces of a drought, no doubtful flavour of any kind about it, and no scum to scrape off whenever we boiled some.
And Dad was proud of the selection. He was pleased with our prospects altogether, and talked of the progress the district was making.
Saddletop was a rising place. A branch railway line was coming to it—had been coming for twenty-two years. Farmers from South Australia were there—men who, ’twas said, knew how to farm, who understood all about soils and silos, and worked on scientific principles. They were settled along a deserted gully where nothing but burr and thistle and nut-grass grew, and whenever it rained hard they would retreat in disorder to high land, with their wives in barrows and their beds and things on their backs.
There was one farmer from Victoria. He knew something about selecting. He came and rooted the trees out of his land and put in wheat, and watched it grow for a while, then went away one morning and never came back.
A number of old pioneers were there, just beginning to do well after thirty years of toil and struggle—their difficulties and dangers and innumerable hardships but faintly comprehended.
Up dry gullies and blind gullies, hidden away behind ranges and rocks, were selectors who hoed holes in the long grass and dropped pumpkin seed into them, then went away somewhere and came back with a horse at the end of a long rope, which they handled and broke for somebody while the pumpkin was growing.
There were a few of a species who, in wet weather, stood all day long in their doorway with a wet bag on their shoulders, gazing out philosophically on the pelting rain, and when it wasn’t raining, went away with a blanket and looked for shearing.
A weird, silent “hatter” was there, whose hair penetrated his hat, and who stitched patches on his pants with a packing needle and string—the strange man who lived under the range away from everybody, in a bark hut propped up on the downhill side by a stick; the man who avoided all human society—whose hut contained harness, flung on the floor, and scraps of greenhide, and a greasy table with sapling legs driven into the ground; who sat anywhere on the floor, and took his dinner off a tin plate placed on his knees, and asked questions of his watchful dog, and told it things while the birds of the bush came round the open door and hopped in and out unmolested; the man who never grumbled, whose happiness was the silence and solitude of his surroundings, whose God was Nature and whose only hell the toothache.
The selector of regular movements was there—the methodical man who caught the same old horse each morning by gladdening the steed’s heart with the sound of the same few handfuls of corn rattled in a dish, and who always went somewhere. His form was known in the district miles off. He was a clock to those working in the fields. They told the time of day by him as he passed along.
There were people from the town there, too—broken-down swells who professed hatred for the bush and were always going back to the city, but never started; polite people who wouldn’t drink tea out of a saucer, who loved flower-gardens—and grew one geranium in a tin; whose daughters declared all the young men around rough because they neglected to lift their hats, and who came out in holland riding habits because they were cheap, and said they were all the fashion in town.
There was one man who regularly employed men—who possessed everything necessary about a farm and stored his hay in sheds, and drew cheques. He was the squire of the district. He always travelled to town by train, first class, and never said “Good-day” to the neighbours, except in moments of absent-mindedness. He might have been worth a thousand pounds. People often called him a millionaire and it never worried him; it made him less absent-minded. He met ministerial parties and influential visitors to the district at the railway station and drove them in a buggy to his house, and entertained them, and showed them over the farm, and filled the “special correspondent” with inspirations of his (the squire’s) own enterprise, and ideas about “prosperous selectors”, and “a district with a future”.
Scattered about in remote places were average selectors—the plodders; men who poked along leisurely and reared large families and took reverses as cheerfully as they took pills—men who placed large stones and heavy fencing material on the roof to keep it from flying off when there was any wind (the roof kept the stones from falling through and shattering the dinner table when there was no wind); men who reckoned they could make money and save, if only the seasons could be relied on and they had no interest to meet.
And, some distance from each other, a small school, surrounded by gumtrees, and two unpainted churches of battered, warlike appearance, raised their heads. The school children battered them. They frequently quarrelled over religion on the way from school, and, since there was no one to read the Riot Act to them, wrecked each other’s church with stones.
We had not been long at Saddletop when we became acquainted with these people. Many of them came to welcome us to the district—some to borrow things.
Miss Wilkins and Miss Mulrooney were among the first to come. They came one bright afternoon when the air was fresh and the sky was blue—when the birds were singing and the butterflies fluttering—when Dad and Cranky Jack were trenching for fruit-trees and Dave and Joe ploughing on the plain.
They slid off their horses at the fence surrounding the house and laughed. The laugh was to attract attention. They stepped onto the veranda and curtseyed and said it was a “lovely day”. Mother invited them in. They hesitated as though time were precious, and Miss Wilkins said, “We can only stay just a minute, Mrs. Rudd.” Then they sat down and poked out the toes of their boots from under their habits, and looked through the corners of their eyes at everything in the room, and didn’t go away till dusk.
Miss Wilkins was a stout person, fat and flabby, and owned to being five-and-twenty. She had owned to five-and-twenty for sixteen years. She laced tight, too, and fancied herself thin and shapely. Polly Palethorpe and Annie Hayes (both jammed into one wouldn’t equal her size) were objects of astonishment to her.
Miss Mulrooney had a figure and was only twenty-eight. She had seen some town life, too, and was one of those who wore a holland habit. There were hints of vanished finery about her—she was hard up, in fact, and strove to conceal her poverty by putting on airs.
She sat and drank tea and ate scones and fresh butter with much gusto, praised the provender every time she reached for more, and asked Mother if she made the scones herself—as if she would call in a traveller or get Dad to bake them!
Miss Wilkins talked to Sal about a dance that was at the Rise, and Jim Murphy courting Norah Fahey, and old Fahey chasing Jim with a gun—punctuating her conversation with loud cheerful shrieks. And Miss Mulrooney told Mother in tired tones how hard it was on them all to have to rough it in the bush after being so well off in town, used to their carriage and servants. (Her father, the story went, had been employed by a lawyer in Brisbane as confidential clerk. He used to open the “private” door whenever a client came, which was nearly once a month, and inquire in a respectful tone of the empty chair if he were engaged; then he would hand the client another chair without making a noise and steal out into the street to find the lawyer and drag him in by a back way.) She assured Mother (and Mother, good soul, believed her and felt deeply for the family) that she didn’t know how they would live at all only for the little money papa was still receiving from the business in town, as there was nothing at all to be got out of farming.
And as they talked and drank more tea the schoolmaster’s wife and Mary O’Reilly and Miss Perkins approached the house. Miss Wilkins saw them through the window and whispered to Miss Mulrooney. Miss Mulrooney fidgeted and was uneasy, but, recognizing the horses fastened to the fence, the schoolmaster’s wife and Mary O’Reilly and Miss Perkins turned their heads away and rode past. They weren’t speaking to Miss Wilkins or Miss Mulrooney.
Gray (the “squire” of the district) came one morning. He merely looked in because he happened to be passing. But he wouldn’t come inside—that would be making himself cheap. He stayed in the yard and talked with an air of superior knowledge to Dad.
“What do you want with a thing like that?” he said, pointing to a new three-furrow plough. (He was a stale conservative who wouldn’t see, and regarded everything new with contempt.)
“To plough with, and save time and labour,” Dad answered.
“Save your grandmother!” Gray said. “I’ve a couple of single-furrows over there,” he went on, indicating his farm, “and I guarantee any of my men’ll turn over as much land in a day with any one of them as you will with that.”
“Well,” said Dad, “send a man along with one, an’ we’ll see.”
“And plough your land for you?” Gray went away.
And Sam Evans came, and stood on the veranda, bashfully turning an old hat round and round in his hands, and wouldn’t step inside because the place was clean. But Barney Ballantyne would. He said it was “cheaper sittin’ than standin’”, and he sat down on Sarah’s hat that had been left on a chair, and told Dad lies about wheat crops, and chewed tobacco, and spat squares and circles till they evolved into carpet patterns on the cleanly scrubbed floor.
Many others called and in due course we returned their visits. We mixed with them in their homes, mingled with them abroad, shared their successes, their prejudices and sympathies, joined with them in song and sorrow in these new surroundings, and among new friends and true friends we faced the vagaries of fortune afresh and commenced a new life.