When Goldsmith began to write his 'History of Animated Nature,' Johnson foretold of the work that it would prove "as interesting as a Persian tale," but the same great authority has also said, in the epitaph written for his tomb, that Goldsmith had the magic art of "adorning every subject that he touched." In the absence of such gifted hands wherewith to array natural history, there are many persons to whom its study offers small attraction, and I would warn such readers, who may have followed me thus far, that they had better skip the present chapter and the next also, both of which will contain little more than a descriptive list of a few of those birds, beasts, reptiles, and insects which flourished in our Australian house and garden, or which came under our immediate notice in our short excursions in the neighbourhood.
To begin therefore—on our arrival at the parsonage we found no less than six cats already in possession. It is true that the garrison wore a look of great starvation, but when we considered that possession was nine points of the law, and that each cat was proprietor of an equal number of lives, and that all seemed determined to hold the premises against us to the last gasp, we thought that the odds were heavy against us, the new-comers. The cats followed up their advantages with great spirit, carrying our provisions by assault, and baffling us by their superior local information, which enabled them to effect an entrance, all six together, in the middle of the night, through two unglazed panes of a bed-room window which had escaped our notice.
The ringleader, whose many scars and almost total loss of ears seemed to betoken the champion of his clan, met an honourable death from the gun, and a native named Nyiddel happening to call upon us just then with one of his wives, we encouraged him to capture the cat which was second in command, and to carry it away as his prey, natives esteeming cats as good eating, though shy of saying so for fear of being laughed at by the "white fellows."
One we kept as a favourite, and the fortunes of the other three I forget; but my carelessness as to their fate is a proof of the alteration that a few years can effect in the value of property, for cats in the first settling of the colony were worth ten shillings each, and not to be lightly parted with. Kittens, however, appeared to be allowed to spring up in unlimited numbers in the lone houses in the bush, owing perhaps to the scarcity of any other sort of children's playthings in such localities; and I remember seeing a little only daughter in a solitary home in the forest, who in respect of mates was as badly off as Wordsworth's "Lucy Fell" on her "wide moor," amusing herself with three generations of cats for her sole toys, the numerical strength of the party amounting to eight.
The privileged pussy that we retained brought to us a few days afterwards, as if pleased to show us a natural curiosity, a bright yellow lizard beautifully marked with small patches of black, and to the best of my recollection, twenty-two inches in length. We never saw another exactly like it, though I afterwards espied one in the bush that seemed of a similar length and shape, but of a dull drab colour like that of the decayed leaves over which it was running.
The snout of both creatures was long and slender, presenting a striking contrast to that of the lizard which the colonists call the "bob-tailed" guana, or in colonial pronunciation "gew-anna," whose head and snout form an obtuse oval, whilst the tail looks as if amputated by some accident, giving the animal a most singular and quaint appearance. These bob-tailed lizards are covered with large armour-like scales, so much the colour of ironstone gravel as readily to escape observation; indeed the only one that I am aware of having seen, excepting in a stuffed condition, was trodden upon by my husband's horse, which had set its foot upon the head of the poor animal evidently without having distinguished it from the pebbles of the road.
In an excursion that we once made, towards the end of the rainy season, we were fortunate enough to come upon two specimens together of a lizard of exactly the same shape as that of the "bob-tails," but of much brighter colours, sunning themselves in a sandy spot where they barely left us room to pass without driving over one of them. These must have been fully a foot long, with large heads and stumpy tails, their backs broad and of a bright green, the whole under-part of the body being a sort of rose colour. In fact they had a great variety of tint, for on my husband jumping down and clasping one of the pair round the middle to give a good look at it, the offended party opened a mouth like a blue cavern. Our little native Binnahan told me that such a lizard had once bitten her mother through the thumb-nail, but my husband's examination of the mouth made him doubt the fact, since he could discover no teeth whatever.The next curiosity which the cat brought me was of a less innocent description. I found her on her hind legs one morning in a kind of waltz with something that she held up in her fore paws, and, as at first I mistook her plaything for a branch of pale green brier, I was not a little startled when I found it to be a snake which she had just killed. This was the only snake I ever saw in our house, in fact there were so many lizards about us that we always felt easy on the score of snakes, as the two will not live in company.
The snake is a deadly enemy of the lizard, and though I did not particularly like to find even the pretty little bronze lizard amongst my clean clothes, nor hidden away in boxes through which I was accidentally searching, nor on my hair, nor holding tight with its delicate fingers on the nap of a coat, nor sticking upon the opposite wall to confront our eyes on first opening them in the morning; in each and all of which places I have found or seen the lizards, yet, knowing that they and we had one grand common antipathy, I made the best of their undesired familiarity. It may be, also, that in selecting a residence the lizard takes care to avoid such as are frequented by scorpions; at all events during five years a solitary specimen that we killed upon our sofa was the only scorpion that we ever saw.But if even a bronze lizard could look uncanny when it came upon me unexpectedly, what can be said of its cousin the "Mountain Devil," whose name science has by no means softened, as ugly creatures have a right to expect, but has actually gone out of her way to make worse, changing its common appellation to "Moloch horridus!" This ill-used creature possesses, both in the position of the thumbs on its fore paws and also in changing its colours when out of health, somewhat of the character of a true cameleon; and now that I speak of character it is right to add that, excepting in its appearance, the bad name it has received is wholly undeserved, for it is a meek inoffensive little lizard; and has the one grace of the toad, a pair of pretty eyes, with a further resemblance to that last-named reptile in the wide shape of its stomach.
The "Mountain Devil" is about five or six inches long, often not quite so much, and its head, back, legs, and tail, in fact the whole of its body, are covered with prickly spines like the thorns of a rose bush. It looks very much as if it had two heads, or rather perhaps like a lady with a large chignon; and to make this resemblance the more perfect the false head, which is placed behind the real one, is much the biggest of the two; seeming (so my husband thought) to have been intended as a defence to the head proper: since he found that when the creature was alarmed by bringing a stick or a rod close to its eyes it instinctively placed its real head between its fore legs, and brought the false one down to the former position of the real one; thus retroverting the formidable spines with which both are armed, and presenting an object which its great enemy the snake could scarcely attempt to swallow.
The colour of the creature is a rich yellow varied with spots of deep vandyke-brown; these are large upon the head and body, and diminish gradually as they approach the tail until they become no larger than pepper corns. The spots seem intended to imitate the lichens upon the red granite rocks amongst which the lizard lives and seeks its prey, chiefly ants and flies; and the resemblance is much increased by the fact that at different seasons of the year the brown patches change into green and reddish hues, in accordance with the varying age and appearance of the lichens, so that the insects upon which the lizard feeds are completely deceived, and lulled into a false security which proves fatal to them.
I forget how we became possessed of it, but at all events a "Mountain Devil" heads the list of all our Australian pets. His tail (for a domestic animal acquires a personality that rises above the neuter gender) being so rough with thorns afforded a capital holding-place for the string by which we tethered him in the garden, choosing a sandy spot where he could find plenty of ants for food; but we soon found that we must protect him by a wire dish-cover, as the cat was remarkably fond of sitting near him and examining him, and we thought that her curiosity was not altogether of a disinterested sort. I confess that I always avoided any care of him that involved personal contact, though so well convinced of his harmlessness, and when evening came and our pet had to be untethered and put to sleep in a basket lined with wool, like a child in its cot, it was my husband and not myself who carried him to his bed.
It did not seem right to have a pet without a name, or, what was as bad, with a name unfit for daily use owing to its diabolical character; so my husband pitched upon "Timothy" as an improvement; not that we ever expected him to come at call, but to satisfy our feeling of what was due to a creature now established as one of the family circle. I must own that the undemonstrative tone of Timothy's disposition was a hindrance to intimacy on my part, especially as I did not share in my husband's desire to learn as much as possible about the animal's habits. He would lie placidly on the palm of a familiar hand, showing no wish to get away; he would stand upon the table most obligingly whilst coloured sketches were taken of him; but nothing ever seemed to make him especially glad or sorry, and we could not determine whether his tranquillity resulted from contentment with his circumstances or resignation to fate.
My husband, however, acquired a strange regard for his pet, and one afternoon as I was returning from a walk he met me with a face so melancholy that I saw immediately that something had gone wrong. "Timothy is lost," he said. It appeared that he had fallen asleep on the sofa with Timothy lying beside him in his open basket, and when he woke up the cradle was empty. We felt sure that the cat knew all about it, but that did not make the matter any better, and, after hunting for him all over the garden with no success, we gave Timothy up as lost for ever. But the next evening a smiling boy walked up to our front door with the question, "Had we lost our Mountain Devil?" and behold, Timothy lay in his hand.
The boy had found him creeping through a fence, taking a direct course for Mount Douraking and his native granite; and as, when recaptured, he was blind of one eye, we felt more than ever confirmed in our suspicions that the cat was responsible for his abduction from his basket, and that she had dropped him on finding that his thorns made him an awkward mouthful.
We again gave him his bed of wool, and tethered him once more to feed on the ants in the garden, and I cannot say that the loss of his eye seemed to weigh much on his spirits as he had never appeared to have any; but in a day or two afterwards we noticed that his colours appeared unnatural in hue, and on examining him closely, we found that our poor Timothy was dead. A plain grave in the garden was, we thought, below the merits of one who might have claimed a niche in a chamber of scientific horrors, and we should at least have liked to have given him the honours of a glass case; but we could not do so for want of arsenical soap to preserve his skin, and we therefore buried Timothy just as he was.
In our next pet we advanced a few steps in the order of creation, for we tried to tame a Noombat or "banded Myrmicobius," which a native had brought us as a present; it was a little quadruped of the ant-eater species, about the size of a small cat, the fur marked in rings round the body in colours of brown and buff. But being unfortunately full grown he did not care, as a younger Noombat might have done, for making fresh acquaintances, was suspicious of bread and milk—in fact would eat nothing that we offered him, and every now and then made a noise which, without exaggeration, was very like the roaring of a bull. Altogether he was a disappointment, and when he died, after a few days spent in the attempt to tame him, we were only saved from feelings of remorse by the recollection that we had never asked the native to bring him.
But this is a digression for which I must ask pardon as there yet remains another saurian to be mentioned. Between forty and fifty miles in a south-easterly direction from our residence some young ladies of our acquaintance saw one morning what they imagined to be a pig amongst the cabbages in their father's garden. The dogs were immediately called to drive out the intruder, which, instead of taking to its heels as was expected, faced round ferociously, and disclosed in so doing the limbs and lineaments of no pig but of an enormous lizard-shaped creature above five feet long, and apparently much disposed to resent all interference.
The screams of the frightened ladies brought out a brother armed with his gun, who immediately shot the lizard, and, with exultation more natural than scientific, chopped off its head and laid the carcass across the threshold of the house to astonish those whom the dinner-hour should bring in from the field. On hearing this story from one of the actors in it, a few years after the occurrence, the point on which we felt most curiosity was to discover whether the head of the reptile had terminated in a sharp snout like the crocodile, or in a blunt rounded form like the iguana: but the head having been unfortunately thrown away at the time of the decapitation, and an attempt to preserve the skin having proved ineffectual for want of proper means and appliances, we lost all opportunity of deciding upon the animal's true character.
That it lived "to the eastward," that the natives called it by the name of Bunny-ar, and said that it was "sulky fellow" and that they would climb trees to avoid it, were the only distinct answers that we ever obtained to our inquiries amongst them upon the subject. Khourabene seemed to retain a clear recollection of having, when quite a child, seen his father engaged in fighting with such a creature: but his notions as to the exact shape and appearance were too misty to be depended upon, and though he drew a rough outline of it upon the ground at my husband's request, which had the sharp crocodile head, we did not consider ourselves justified in coming to any definite opinion upon the question from such vague reminiscences. That it exists at the present day in the wild country to the eastward seems to be certain, as traces which proved its presence were seen by one of the latest exploring parties; but that it was very rarely to be met with we were convinced by the fact of our never procuring a specimen, though my husband offered a reward of five pounds to any person who would bring him an unmutilated skin and head. The existence, however, of so large a lizard in the district sufficiently accounted to us for the prevalence of a tradition, to which we otherwise attached no importance, of "an alligator" having once been seen in the dry sandy bed of the river at Barladong.
The reptile most dreaded where we lived was the black snake, which attains at its full growth a length of rather more than five feet, and whose bite is certain death within a few hours, if the wounded part cannot be immediately cut out. As this creature mostly haunted swampy places it was wise to be cautious in approaching any well at dusk, lest a snake should already be there, like an evil genius, to dispute possession of the water.
We learned from the sad experience of one of our neighbours to be doubly careful when approaching any water in close proximity to vines or fig-trees when the fruit was ripe. The landlord of the inn whose dogs gave me such a noisy reception on my journey to Barladong, had a spring of this secluded kind in his garden; and here, as he stood unsuspiciously one evening speculating upon his crop of grapes, two white fangs were darted at his thumb. In the dim light he mistook them for the horns of a grasshopper, but the thrill of pain which instantly afterwards ran through his whole body dispelled the momentary illusion. There was no time for trifling, so, having first tied a piece of string tightly above the bite, he manfully cut away the flesh around with his razor, and then rode about twenty miles to seek the aid of the nearest surgeon, no doubt thus saving his life by his own courage and presence of mind.A spot which a snake has once frequented may always be expected to be visited by others of the fraternity; and the only live black snake which I ever saw was also at this same inn where the landlord had been bitten. We had gone there for two days' change of air and for the pleasure of wandering in the bush, and had taken Binnahan with us, who was of course in the highest spirits—playing with the many cats of the establishment—making believe to help our landlady in washing tumblers and teacups—and, every quarter of an hour at least, breaking off from all pretence of work in order to bring us offerings of ripe figs from a tree in the vineyard and to take toll of the fruit for herself. Suddenly she came flying into our little parlour, with her eyes half a size larger than usual, and panted out the words, "Master! black snake in fig-tree!" We speedily repaired to the yard and found a little knot of people eagerly gazing at a respectful distance into the said tree, upon a branch of which lay stretched the object of general attention, flattening its body to secure a good hold, and eating the fruit that grew on the farthermost twig with a composure that offered a strong contrast to our excitement.
As we stood looking at the dangerous creature our chief feeling was that of wonder that Binnahan had not been bitten, for she had been a dozen times in and out of the tree that morning. A large pile of firewood, however, was stacked near the fig-tree, and the supposition that the snake had but lately glided out of it to look for its breakfast appeared the most probable solution of the poor child's merciful escape. I did not exactly see how the enemy was to be persuaded to "come and be killed" without endangering the bystanders, but the ostler soon settled that point by a blow from a long pole, knocking from the tree both branch and snake together; and the mistress of the house, remembering her brother's narrow escape, would depute to none the office of executioner, but revenged all family injuries past and present by herself beheading the outlaw as soon as it reached the ground.
A hair-breadth escape was related to me by a poor neighbour who, in putting her hand to the bottom of a basket in the dark, touched "something that felt like a bunch of black-puddings," which proved to be a sleeping snake. On another occasion the same woman observed the head of a black snake wriggling its way into her wooden hut through a knot hole in one of the boards. She rushed out and killed it at once, thus saving her baby, whose cradle was close to the aperture, so that the snake would most probably have curled itself up by the sleeping infant, for the sake of the warmth, had not the mother providentially noticed its attempted entrance.
I used sometimes to fancy that I had found the track of a snake upon the sandy path that led to our house, but my thinking so only proved my ignorance of the impression which a snake's movements would leave behind him, for what I had noticed were in reality the traces of a march of Palmer-worms, of which we now and then saw a prodigious number.
On one especial occasion we descried laid across the road at a little distance, what we supposed to be a string of twisted opossum fur, such as is made by the natives; but on nearer approach we found it to be a party of these same Palmers on a pilgrimage, the head of one touching the tail of another, and all of them dressed as for penance in the hair-cloth which has been given them by nature.
In a clayey bank in our field a good many of the curious trap-door spiders had taken up their abode, These singular insects form a circular tube in the ground, which is lined with smooth hangings of silk, and closed at the top by a tightly-fitting door, furnished with a spring hinge which is also lined on the inside with silk. The upper surface of this trap-door is made of pellets of earth so fashioned and arranged as exactly to match the surface of the ground into which the shaft is sunk, even to the extent of being covered with shreds of moss should the bank be a mossy one.
One scarcely knows which to admire most, the skilful rounding of the shaft, the perfectly adjusted hinge to the door, or the talent for concealment which renders this spider's dwelling so difficult to discover. Although constructed on the surface of the bare ground the trap-door is so well masked that, if Binnahan had not shown us the exact spot where it might be found, we should probably have never been aware that we had these interesting insects for our neighbours. To elude her quick senses, however, or indeed those of any native, a coat of darkness alone could have sufficed, and not even that unless its wearer left no impression of his footsteps.
The manner in which Nature teaches all her creatures to provide for their own concealment and safety, is a most interesting study to any observant person; while in some cases she herself has rendered such instincts unnecessary by so framing the outside appearance of her protégés as to be of itself an all-sufficient disguise, as in the rose-caterpillar in England which the most quick-sighted observer can scarcely distinguish from the short stumps of the bush on which it feeds. But in some foreign countries, Australia amongst others, Nature seems fairly to frolic and revel in imitation, and to keep as loose a rein upon her fancy as the writer of a fairy tale. Thus to meet with a dead leaf quietly walking across a footpath, or a piece of dead stick sauntering along on its own account, reminds one of the travelling pin and needle whom the cock and hen overtook upon their journey as related by Grimm.
I never, to my knowledge, saw more than one "walking-stick insect," but the race was not uncommon around Barladong, and the creature's resemblance to a twig is so exact that one might easily pass it unnoticed, even if beneath one's very eyes. A friend brought me a specimen to look at, and set it down in our verandah, where its movements, corresponding with its appearance, were those of a little broken branch gently fluttered over the ground by the wind.
Walking-stick insects (Bacteria trophinus) are not exclusively confined to Australia, but if Mr. Woods is correct in saying that they are only found in the hottest parts of the earth, his assertion confirms our experience of the extreme heat of a Western Australian summer in latitude 32° south.
I cannot dismiss this subject without relating an anecdote not quite irrelevant to the familiar name of these animated twigs. We had been sitting one evening at twilight in the verandah of a lady whose caution with regard to reptiles verged somewhat on excess. We had wished her good night and returned towards our own home when, shortly after our departure, she became aware that a snake was hanging by its under jaw upon the outer ledge of her casement, and curiously peering through the window into the room where she sat. With a steady voice, and her eyes fixed upon the foe, she called her maid and bade her run to the nearest cottage to request the first man that could be found to lose no time in coming to kill the snake, over which she herself would undertake to keep watch.
The maid, well pleased to get out of harm's way, flew off on her errand, leaving her mistress to mesmerize the serpent by the fixity of her gaze; which she did with such effect that, beyond a slight pendulous movement, it never so much as winked or stirred during her solitary vigil. At length the girl returned, accompanied by our own day-labourer, and a consultation as to the best method of destroying the venomous beast was held. As it was evident that the snake could not be done to death in the dark a kitchen candle was quickly brought upon the scene of action, when, as if by the stroke of enchantment, the reptile vanished, or rather was changed into a walking-stick carved to imitate a dog's head, with two white beads for eyes, which the intended dragon-slayer instantly recognized as the property of his master.
The demise of the Noombat had left a vacancy in our ménagerie which, thanks to the unsolicited interposition of our neighbours, was of no long duration. Possibly we had gained the reputation of people to whom no sort of pets could come amiss.
We had heard the name of Lennard in the colony, but had never seen its owner; nevertheless one morning a boy appeared at our door, hugging in his arms a bag very full of something, and with the words, "Mr. Lennard's compliments, and he has sent you a kangaroo," the boy put his bag on the ground and let out its contents.
"Jacky," as we named the gift of our unknown benefactor, must have been at that time from four to five months old, and was as tame as are all marsupial animals that have been caught and petted when quite young. If, for instance, anyone walking through the bush happens to pick up a young kangaroo rat, and carries it in his pocket for an hour or two, the rat, when set down upon the ground again, will come hopping after the man, or rather perhaps alter the coat-pocket which has no doubt brought back to the little creature's mind its reminiscences of the maternal pouch.
Jacky's fore paws were extremely small, even fragile-looking, and when he boxed our cat's ears, as he soon learned to do for any fancied affront, I did not think that the blow seemed to hurt her. But there is a vast difference between the fore leg of a kangaroo full grown and that of a stripling like Jacky, who could only command a comfortable view of our dinner-table by raising himself on his hind legs and tail. At full growth the fore paws of a kangaroo are quite as large as those of a mastiff, though of another shape, and a tall old Booma, as the natives call the male kangaroo, can bring his head on a level with the face of a man on horseback, so as to use his "hands" with effect.
Jacky's hind feet were much like those of a deer, only that the hoof was far more pointed, and young as he was, one could imagine that they had the power to inflict terrible blows. A kangaroo's feet are, in fact, his weapons of defence with which, when he is brought to bay, he tears his antagonists the dogs most dreadfully, and instances are not wanting of even men having been killed by a large old male. No doubt this peculiar method of disposing of his enemies has earned for him the name of Booma, which in the native language signifies to strike.
Jacky was of a very sociable turn, and fond of following us from room to room, in doing which his hind feet sounded on the boarded floors as if somebody in thick boots was hopping about on one leg. In the garden he would lie well stretched out, looking the oddest compound of a long-legged bird joined on to something that was neither sheep nor deer and yet resembled both; if he sat up and looked about him his attitude was suggestive of a tripod, for in taking a range of the horizon he rested upon his tail as on a third leg. At meal-times he was a particularly dangerous guest, as he had a way of laying his nose upon the edge of the table and then turning his head from side to side in an inquiring fashion, as if anxious to make his choice amongst the dishes. Consequently when I afterwards heard of his having "broken all the cups and saucers" at his last place, I thought that the statement bore probability on the face of it, and that the fact of his haying done so might have suggested to his former owner the idea that a change of masters would be gratifying to all parties.
New society sometimes develops new faculties, and Jacky now showed a strong propensity to experiments upon the properties of sugar-beer. We had a cask with a leaky tap standing in one of the verandahs, beneath which a saucer was always placed to catch the overflow; Jacky one day thought fit to taste its contents, and found them so much to his mind that he quickly repeated his visit. By degrees he acquired sufficient boldness to empty the saucer at one bout, after which, with a nice calculation not to have been expected from his sheep-like cranium, he would lie down to sleep away the time that must elapse before it could again be filled by the leakage, at which period he would wake up and return to the barrel for another draught, always choosing some shady spot in the vineyard in which to sleep off the effects of the potations. I cannot say that I saw any particular harm in all this, but my husband often remonstrated with me on keeping a tipsy kangaroo.
We had taken care on Jacky's account to warn the natives against bringing their dogs with them when visiting the parsonage, but one day we saw a large kangaroo dog coming towards the house with a queer little old native who, from having lost his heels in a fire, and being in consequence obliged to walk on tiptoes, was commonly called Jingy—I suppose because the tracks that he left were like nothing human, just as the prints of bullocks and of men wearing boots were pronounced by the natives, when seen for the first time, to be " Jingy," i.e. "devil," tracks. No sooner did the dog perceive Jacky than the chace began, and the noise which was made by the lookers-on, in trying to call back the dog, brought us into the garden imagining that nothing less could cause such shouting than the house having taken fire.
Pursued by the dog, Jacky went flying like the wind three times round the outside fence, then made a diversion and took his course up a rising ground; but sugar-beer being bad for training, and Jacky therefore out of condition, the dog gained so much on him here that we held our breath, expecting that a few moments more would end his days miserably. At that instant a girl appeared, who was on her way to fetch water, and carrying two empty buckets on a hoop. She stopped as if in astonishment, waiting for the hunt to come up to her: the kangaroo passed her, the dog only a yard or two behind, when the girl met him, and flinging up her hoop under his jaw, gave poor Jacky time to turn through a little gate and find security in a garden. There he lay crouching until our man, who had done his best to follow in the race, lifted him up in his arms and carried him back in a very winded plight, perfectly knocked up, but able to lap a little beer when he was set down in the kitchen. The poor old native dared not show his face for many a long day after.
But as the winter advanced and the green crops came on Jacky began to show another inclination which he had not before manifested, one less foreign to his nature it is true than the beer, but even more injurious to his reputation as a harmless domestic kangaroo, one in feet fatal both to our peace and to his own. We were now continually disgraced by the accounts which were brought us of his having spent whole nights in grazing in our neighbours' gardens and cornfields, reports which were sadly strengthened by his often appearing at breakfast with no appetite whatever, and with his coat whitened over with hoar frost; and yet we could not bear to follow the suggestion which was freely offered to us that it would be the best plan to keep him imprisoned in a little yard, with a chain round his waist like a monkey, until the harvest was ripened and got in. We determined instead to send him to some people living in the bush who had no crops to be injured, and who promised that he should be well looked after until he could return to us and the stubble-fields. Poor Jacky never lived to see either again; he pined away when parted from his old friends, and I am afraid that his end was hastened by being deprived of beer, and that he sank a victim to an artificial want.Eating the neighbours' corn, however, is not the only cause that I have known alleged for dismissing a kangaroo. In a settler's family at the distance of a few miles from Barladong a strange freak was played by a petted kangaroo, as if in emulation of that traditional monkey which, according to one version, carried off Oliver Cromwell from his nurse, and by another account of the legend is stated to have stolen a young Fitzgerald.
The house stood on an eminence above the river, and one day the kangaroo picked up the baby out of its cradle, and, with the child in his arms, went hopping down the bank. His intentions were good, no doubt, for he permitted himself to be overtaken and deprived of his charge, but the poor mother had in the meanwhile received such a fright that the would-be nursemaid was "given warning" on the spot.
At the time of the first settling of the colony English-bred greyhounds were used for hunting the kangaroo and emu, and I have been told that in those days the value of a really good brace of dogs was fifty pounds. Since then cross-breeds between mastiff and greyhound, or better still between fox-hound and Scottish deer-hound, have been introduced, and are known under the name of kangaroo dogs. It was long before sheep were sufficiently plentiful to admit of being freely eaten, and those persons who were so fortunate as to possess good dogs lived as much as possible on kangaroo venison, which still retains an honoured place at all tables even though the sauce of necessity is wanting.
The usual price of the meat whilst in season is twopence-halfpenny the pound, and the hind quarters and tail alone are cooked, the other parts of the animal falling to the share of the dogs. Being very dry meat it requires as much basting as a hare, and is generally eaten with the accompaniment of fat pork. A larded loin of kangaroo is a real dainty, but the larding was our own idea, and I fancied that our larding-needle was unique in the colony. The tail makes a splendid soup which is very nutritious, and also capital stews and pasties; in fact it is far superior to ox-tail for all culinary purposes. To see two people skinning a kangaroo's tail is like watching the game that children call "French and English"; one cannot help wondering which of the pair will first tumble backwards, so great is the strength with which the skin adheres to the sinews, which are, owing to their toughness, used by the natives in place of thread in the seams of their fur mantles. If kangaroo is dressed like jugged hare the deception is complete, and the plan also answers well of salting a piece of the loin and then hanging it up the chimney to dry in the smoke until it becomes hard enough to be grated like Hamburg beef.
There is a much smaller kind of animal called the rock kangaroo, of which I employed Khourabene to bring me skins enough to make a large hearth-rug. The fur is softer and longer than that of the large kangaroo, and prettier also, but far inferior in durability. Rosa rather deplored my fancy for the Australian furs, since she had seen them so constantly used as coverings for the beds in the poorer sort of colonial houses, that she could not reconcile herself to my adoption of the same custom in our own. She failed, however, to talk me out of my predilections, for the nights were cold in winter, and foot-mats of kangaroo skins, or counterpanes of opossum fur rendered us less sensible of the fact that our house was by no means impervious to wind and weather. A very moderate degree of cold, too, seemed to us severe indeed after the intense heats of summer, and when the rain has been accompanied by cold wind we have found ourselves chilly indoors, even though the thermometer in the verandah might be standing above 60°. Another animal with which the bush swarms is the kangaroo rat, or, I should perhaps rather say the "boody," though there is but a very slight difference between the two creatures, except that the "boody" is a burrower and makes its habitation underground, while the kangaroo rat usually forms its nest in an old hollow tree. There is also a distinction between them in the colour of the tail.
These rats or "boodies" are of much the same size as their English cousins, and resemble them in the shape of the head and ears, though the body is rather larger than that of the old black rat, being fully as big as that of a well grown Hanoverian. The long hind legs, however, which are quite of the kangaroo type, diminish this resemblance to the rat which is given by the shape of the head and ears, so that I have often thought that "Australian Jerboa" would be the more fitting name for the animal; but the likeness between it and the English rat was strong enough to mislead Binnahan, who, on finding a picture in 'Punch' of rats dressed in coats and trousers, exclaimed, "Look at the boodies, missis! they have all got on comfortable clothes."
Should a number of these creatures be established in the vicinity nothing is safe,—flour, sugar, pork, candles, and soap, all seem to suit their tastes, and they burrow with as much ease and rapidity as the rats with which we are familiar at home. A servant once employed by us, who had been a bush sawyer for some years, used to complain bitterly of the trouble that a colony of boodies had caused him before he could succeed in frightening them away from his hut. Bishop Salvado also, in his account of the Benedictine settlement at New Norcia, mentions the very great annoyance caused by these animals in the earlier days of the Mission, and speaks with gratitude of a poor Irish servant who endeavoured to lessen the nuisance by making him a present of a cat.
A pair of kangaroo rats were brought to me late one evening as a gift, and though I saw my dog looking at them sideways in a manner which was inhospitable to say the least of it, yet, as she had always bestowed similar glances on all the other pets that we had ever possessed, I forgot what her sense of duty in this particular case might be, and carelessly left the rats that night in the kitchen. As might have been expected both were found next morning very neatly shaken to death, the terrier's ideas of strict justice being quite above making scientific distinctions between rats with pouches and rats without. The next rat that was given to me I introduced to the dog with a solemn injunction that the new-comer should be allowed an unmolested existence. But the rat repaid the dog's sufferance by giving himself great airs, behaving as though he was master of the house, and resenting with truculent kicks from his long hind legs the slightest difference of opinion between himself and any one of us. He was fond of hiding himself in the beds and there sleeping through the day, waking up at night exceedingly fresh and lively, and ready to follow us about the garden in a series of hops that resembled the bounding of an india-rubber ball. We ventured out with him one night beyond our fence, he hopping after us, and on returning to the house we found that our tyrant had given us the slip; at all events, we never saw him again. The announcement that he was nowhere visible on the premises seemed to lift a load off the mind of the dog, who had been living for some time in a state of preternatural self-restraint, and even the whole household owned to a feeling of relief.
The kangaroo is one of the supporters of the arms of Australia, his fellow-helper on the opposite side of the shield being an emu, light-heeled creatures both of them, to which the motto "Advance Australia" seems thoroughly suitable.
The emu is a bird very easily tamed, but we would not enrol one of the race amongst our favourites, on account of the rooted idea prevalent amongst these birds that everything which they can see about a house is an article of provender. Back-combs, tobacco-pipes, two-inch nails, screws, and screw-drivers are swallowed by him between his regular meals as light restoratives, which sort of fillip his constitution appears to require so often that he is soon held responsible for all disappearances whatsoever upon the premises, and thus becomes a far worse domestic scourge than any landlady's cat that ever was fabled. Nevertheless he fattens on the diet, and emu grease is held in great esteem by both colonists and natives as a cure for bruises and rheumatism. The flesh seems to be generally considered a sort of cross between bird and beast, as I have heard it compared to beef, pork, and goose.
The emu's eggs and feathers bear no resemblance to those of the ostrich, the eggs being coloured of a deep green with a beautiful roughened surface, and the feathers (of which a singular peculiarity is that two plumes spring from each quill) are crisp and curly, so that when they are worn upon the head as an ornament by the natives, and mingle with the natural hair, the effect is perplexing at first sight to a stranger. A very handsome "apron" for a fire-place in summer is made by hanging the skin of a large emu at the back of the open hearth.
In a wild state neither emus nor kangaroos will approach within five or six miles of the colonial towns, excepting under great pressure of thirst; but the opossum, who is assisted by his small person no less than his nocturnal habits in escaping observation, frequents every place where there are tall trees to climb, or fruit-gardens to be robbed.
The Australian opossum, or koomal, as the natives call it, differs in many respects from that of other countries. A description of it under the name of Vulpine Phalangist occurs in Mr. Woods' 'Illustrated Natural History,' but his information that it is a "slow animal" can have been furnished him only by those persons who never saw an Australian opossum in its wild state. Dash, dart, spring, and scamper are the words which properly characterise its movements, and the nearest approach that it ever makes to a walk is a measured trot with a strange kind of swag, owing to its shoulders being so much lower than the hind quarters. When full grown an opossum is of the size and weight of a wild rabbit, the fur exquisitely soft and thick, mostly of a grey colour, but frequently dark brown tinged with yellow. We only once saw an opossum that was snow-white, and the kind was so uncommon that the old lady who brought it to our door for sale, asked us no more than we considered to be about twice its worth, in proposing that we should "give her a pound for it."
It is very common to see children with a young opossum for a plaything, but less so to find parents who will long permit the toy to be retained. Its excessive liveliness at night destroys not only the sleep of the household, but also all its crockery, for the creature plays such antics when it is shut up within four walls, that nothing of a brittle nature is safe which can be thrown down, or broken by articles upset upon it from above; in fact, I am disposed to think that a bull would prove himself but mild and inoffensive in a china shop, compared with what could be effected by two good active opossums. Also when Bishop Salvado says, in his description of Australian animals, that he has had many tame opossums at the Mission-house, and that they play without doing any harm—"senza ledere"—the unavoidable inference of readers who know the sports most in favour with domesticated opossums is that the Benedictines either had no plates at all, or were restricted by their rule to the use of wooden trenchers only.
The first opossums that I ever saw were two young ones which had just been given to some children, who had placed them in an advantageous position in a little tree at the back door of their father's house, and then stood surveying their new property with great pride. The opossums, meanwhile, dazzled by the broad daylight, were looking as sleepy as owls, and as incapable of voluntary movement as clothes hung upon a bush to dry. A few days afterwards I met the father setting out on a long walk, with a basket on his arm containing the identical opossums, which he was intending to let loose at the farthest point of his destination. Had he taken the apparently obvious course of turning them out of doors near his home, the cat-like attachment of the opossum to familiar walls would have ensured the return of his tormentors the same night.
However, in spite of our neighbour's experience, I was not unwilling to accept as a present an opossum which was brought to me by a poor fellow who had captured it whilst he was at work in the bush. It is a pity that in giving the opossum its name, zoologists should have chosen one so ill according with the English language as to render certain its wrong pronunciation by all but well-educated persons; nevertheless as pet names, whether of children or domestic animals, are always allowed to undergo unphilosophical changes, we hoped that in styling our opossum "Possie," we might be pardoned for dropping the awkward first syllable. A Spaniard who was steward of the ship in which we returned to England, and who was bringing home an opossum, not only modified its name to suit his own tongue, but went a step farther, and, with the courtliness of his nation, added to it a title, dubbing the creature El Señor Posimo.
I have compared the kangaroo to a booted man hopping about the house on one leg, but the movements of the opossum suggest, on the contrary, those of a person who has taken his boots off for the purpose of making as little disturbance as possible. This impression is strengthened by the manner in which the fur on the legs terminates in a sort of frill just above the little bare white paws, giving them the look of tiny feet with socks on, or of hands covered with soft gloves.
The long sweeping tail, rich in fur on the upper side, is seamed underneath with a narrow strip of skin immensely strong and thick, which gives it purchase when hanging on the boughs, and causes, to those who handle it for the first time, a sensation as of something odd and unexpected. The fore paws of the opossum are slight and fragile, somewhat like those of the kangaroo, as might be expected to be the case since both animals use them as hands, and convey their food to the mouth with them, but between the hind feet of the two animals there is no similarity. An opossum's hind foot reminds one in a certain degree of the foot of a cockatoo, both creatures being climbers, and their feet framed in such a manner as shall secure a firm hold upon the boughs of the trees in which they live. A curious supernumerary little claw upon the opossum's hind foot serves him as a pocket-comb, but neither the claw nor the use that he makes of it is mentioned in any account that I have read of him, nor have I seen it recorded that, like hares and cats, he follows the praiseworthy custom of frequently washing his face.
At the time of our becoming possessed of Possie she was so young as to be incapable of doing much mischief, and for the first fortnight she fixed upon no settled place of abode, but was always causing excitement by turning up in out-of-the-way unexpected places, where she lay fast asleep, and was only discovered when search for other missing articles was made, thus fulfilling what seems an universal law of nature, that if people look for one thing, they generally find another.
We at first thought that her choice of dormitories was indiscriminate, but she proved to be simply experimenting on their different merits until she should have found a hiding-place completely suited to all her requirements. This standard being eventually reached by her discovery of the bottom of an old carpet-bag, we resigned all prior right to it in her favour, and hung up the bag on a nail in a little empty chamber which we gave up to her as "Possie's room" thenceforward, thinking that if we could not tone down her bump of destructiveness our next best course was to take from her all chance of employing it.
I lifted her out of the bag every morning and gave her a breakfast of milk, which she would drink most eagerly, diving her head deep into the jug, but as she grew older she weaned herself, and chose tea in preference. In course of time she would either jump upon my shoulder at breakfast and curl her tail round my throat, or would sit beside me on the table holding bread in her fore paws like a squirrel; showing no signs of native wildness unless we gave her something that she thought especially nice, such as cake or apricots, when, seeming to fear that the possession of such dainties might be disputed, she would instantly scamper across the floor with the prize in her mouth, and dashing up a flight of shelves would sit on the topmost one to enjoy her feast in leisurely security.
The time at which she slept most heavily appeared to be about four o'clock in the afternoon, but in the earlier part of the day she was easily awakened; and if I held a bunch of flowers at the mouth of the carpet-bag they would be gently drawn inwards, and sometimes a little pink nose would rise above the opening, but this was only when the flowers were of a sort that Possie best liked, as roses or raspberry-jam blossoms. Sugar and preserves she also ate very greedily, and seemed in all respects so delicate a feeder that for a long while I doubted whether people spoke truly in telling me that opossums were in the habit of eating small birds. Possie, however, shook my scepticism by one day getting hold of a plume of feathers and tearing them to pieces with her fore paws, as viciously as a cat might have done; and, on our voyage home, the titled opossum belonging to the Spaniard dispersed all my doubts on the subject by devouring a Java sparrow before my eyes, though happily for the sparrow it had died prior to being eaten.
This love of devouring birds has helped, I suppose, to earn for poor Possie's race the name of "vulpine," though I do not see the reason of bestowing it especially on the Australian opossum. It does not rob poultry-yards like the opossum of Virginia, nor is its personal resemblance to a fox particularly striking, though no doubt its large eyes, broad forehead, and keen-looking nose are, to a certain extent, vulpine characteristics. Neither had Possie any gifts of dissimulation, whereas in Virginia "'possuming" means much the same as "foxing" in England.
She did not always choose to return to the carpet-bag after breakfast, but would sometimes hide under our eider-down quilt, and there sleep the whole day through, waking up, if I caressed her, to lick my hand with the affection of a dog. At sundown in summer-time we used to take her into the garden, and whilst twilight lasted she would follow us about quietly; but as soon as night closed in she would come to a halt, and with back erect, head raised, and ears stretched forward, assume a listening attitude; then of a sudden, as if she had distinguished a familiar voice calling to her from a distance, she would spring away and disappear in the darkness. The first time that she acted thus we imagined that she was irretrievably lost, and returned out of spirits to the house; about two in the morning, however, a gentle spring against the door of our bed-room aroused us from our sleep, and I went to open it, letting in as I did so a flood of moonlight as well as the truant, who entered boldly, like one permitted to return late from the play or from some other kind of evening entertainment, and evidently very anxious for supper.
There seemed to be for Possie a magical attraction in any dark hole, and not long after this ramble she discovered an opening in the calico ceiling of our room, by which she could run to a corner amongst the rafters, a sleeping-place apparently far more to her mind than either the carpet-bag or the eider-down quilt. Her reasons for preferring the roof were precisely those that made us object to it. We had wished to try the possibility of inducing her to be less nocturnal in her habits, but from this new abode there were no means of enticing her before her own time for waking, which was generally after dark; when, if we were not on the watch, she would creep down and escape to spend the night in the open air, returning, it is true, with such regularity to knock at the door that, if I knew she was gone out, I always, as a last act on retiring to rest, set out her supper, to which she betook herself in a most orderly and methodical manner immediately on admission.
If the doors stood open on account of the heat she would awaken me with springing on the bed to let me know that she was come in, and once I was startled out of my sleep with the noise that she made in trying to lift off the lid of the sugar basin, with which she was well acquainted, by sticking her sharp-pointed nose through the handle. In winter-time when the doors were not open at all hours of the twenty-four, she did not so easily get out without leave; and it was by no means unusual, if I went from one room to another in the dark, to find her drop upon me suddenly from the roof, alighting on my shoulder or my head, like a soft heavy bundle, and steadying herself by wrapping her tail round my face or my throat.
Through close observation of her habits we were enabled, to a great extent, to falsify our neighbours' predictions that we should rue the day that ever we petted an opossum. To do the good folks justice they had not been sparing of their prophecies, and, with a solemn look at our chimney ornaments, had foretold the breaking of "every mortal one of them." But we found that Possie's spirits rapidly increased with the later hours of night, and that for a little while after dark she was not one whit more dangerous amongst nick-nacks than a lively kitten. In playing about a room, at this early stage of the night, she gave offence to no one but our little dog, who persisted in regarding her as an interloper, and often looked appealingly at me when molested or disturbed, as if asking that the affront, which she herself was not permitted to notice, might be resented by her mistress.
There was one temptation, however, which Possie could never resist,—if a nosegay was within reach she would always try to get at it, and I sometimes found her sitting bolt upright before one that had been arranged with care and trouble, snatching out flower after flower, and eagerly transferring them to her mouth, her large round eyes full of wilfulness, and her figure reminding me of the "Bear and Ragged Staff," as she sat erect holding a flower-stalk in her fore paws. This delinquency proved, no doubt, a solace to the dog, since the rival had then come to the end of her tether, and was banished forthwith to her own quarters for the remainder of the night.
We always did our best to keep her at home on moonlight nights, opossum hunting being then a favourite amusement of men and boys accompanied by dogs. These latter, when once trained to the sport, frequently follow it alone and on their own account, and will often molest the whole neighbourhood for hours together, by pertinaciously barking beneath a tree where some unlucky fugitive has taken refuge.
When our fruit was ripe we had yet other reasons for wishing Possie to content herself with her own spare room and carpet-bag. Opossums are said to scent apricots from a long distance, and their way of eating them is to taste a piece out of each apricot on a tree, but to finish none; and as they pursue the same method with all kinds of fruit, they quickly ruin the entire produce of a garden.
Possie had been our playfellow for about two years when we began to notice that her pouch contained a tenant. This was especially perceptible whenever she ran up and down a long bamboo rod that served as a staircase to her favourite hole in the roof; and the matter was placed beyond doubt, one day, by the appearance of a little hind leg, which she put back again in a great hurry. Some time afterwards, in the month of August, in rainy, gloomy weather, I found her very comfortably established behind a curtain with her young one sitting in front of her; and whereas the little leg that I had seen at first was as bare of covering as is a new-born rat or rabbit, its whole little person was now dressed in a beautiful fur coat. I put mother and child into the carpet-bag, and for nearly two days Possie never left it, seeming meanwhile scarcely to care for eating or drinking, and giving a little low hiss if I touched her.
After a time she came out to be fed as usual, but returned quickly to the bag without loitering over her meals, showing no desire to leave the little one, for whose sake she even abandoned her nightly "constitutional." When we had at length succeeded in decoying both of them out of the carpet-bag, Possie judged it expedient to change the scene by a removal to the hole in the roof; performing the journey thither as usual by means of the bamboo, up which she made a dash with an air of vast importance, the young one being seated on her back, and its tail lashed tight round her body. It was very pretty to see the two at feeding-time, sitting side by side, and eating like squirrels, the young one snatching the mother's portion from her paws, and the theft amiably submitted to. People came to look at the pair as at a most unusual sight, and old colonists told me that they had never before heard of an opossum breeding in captivity; but it would have been nearer to the truth to compare Possie's position rather to that of a highly-favoured prisoner on parole.
By the time that her fur had grown quite shabby with the effects of the long-continued game of pickaback up and down the bamboo, she appeared to think it fitting to introduce her daughter into society; accordingly the two left home together one night in order to see the world. The chaperon knocked at our door on her return very late and alone, leading us to suppose that she had lost her young charge; we were therefore somewhat surprised next morning to find near the house, in the branches of a peach-tree, the poor débutante, looking very miserable, drenched with dew and half-blinded with the rising sun. I handed back to Possie her progeny, which she seemed not a little pleased to dry and comfort; but the next time that she took it out she lost it altogether.
She had now acquired such a taste for dissipation that she could not be content unless spending every evening abroad, and our endeavours to keep her within doors on moonlight nights were frustrated by her biting a hole in the thatch of her own apartment. This act was soon supplemented by her choosing for herself a more distant sleeping-place, which we could never discover, and for about a year she paid us visits nearly every night, knocking as usual at our door to be let in to supper, but maintaining a strict reserve as to where she lodged, a fatal secrecy that eventually caused us to lose her.Whilst she had occupied the little room and the carpet-bag we had always been able, on leaving home for a few days, to commit the charge of her to Rosa; not that the arrangement pleased either party, for Rosa revenged on all opossums a bite through her thumb-nail which she had once received from a wild one, and Possie, having wit enough to feel herself disliked, lost no chance of retaliating, and would even run at Rosa like a cross dog. But when Possie insisted on a separate establishment, it was difficult to have her cared for in our accidental absence, and so at last, on returning home from a fortnight's visit in another district, there was no Possie to welcome us, nor did she ever reappear. Probably she had knocked many times at our door during the fortnight, and being as often disappointed, had finally joined her own people. Our friendship had been not only very close for above three years, but uninterrupted by a single disagreement, and in the recollections that rise up, as our thoughts look back to Western Australia, little Possie and her pretty ways have a very prominent place.
- Perhaps the name of Bunny-ar would afford some clue to the nature of the mysterious creature called Bunny-ip by the natives of New South Wales, the existence of which is supposed by many persons to be merely chimerical.
- 'Illustrated Natural History,' vol. iii., p. 485. Rev. J. G. Woods. Routledge, &c.
- See vol. i., pp. 466, 467.