An Australian Parsonage/Chapter V

CHAPTER V.

A new servant—Make-shifts in cooking—Kaolin—Camp-ovens—A native "batch"—Variety of out-door premises—Nature of the Australian hard woods as fuel—Alarm of fire—Sandalwood and "stink-wood" as fuel—Trade in sandalwood—Licence for cutting wood in bush—Bush-fires—Sudden deafness caused by fright—Infant burnt—Beauty of bush-flowers, and want of any useful food—Great scarcity of edible roots in bush—Promise of dried fruits from vine, apricot, and other introduced trees—Oranges and lemons—Potatoes—Curious objection of settlers to eat spinach—Name of spinach growing wild—Dubbeltje—Origin of name—Pig-melons for apple-pies—Sugar-beer—Native brewing—Ned's fear of bad Spirit soothed by sugar-beer.

The domestic who had accompanied us from England having left us a few months after our arrival, we thought ourselves fortunate in obtaining the services of a rosy smiling girl, the daughter of a free settler in our own district, whose sweetness of temper and quickness of wit soon disposed us to believe either that colonial servants were much better than they had been represented, or else that we had happened to alight upon the exception that proved the rule as to their inefficiency.

Together with some amusing seafaring expressions which she had picked up from her father, who had been in the marines, Rosa had inherited a sailor's aptness at contrivances and a happy dexterity, which would have gained her much applause even within easy reach of all the conveniences of life, but which were qualities of priceless value in a country where to contrive and to "make shift" seemed the order of the day. The prospects, for instance, of being able to cook a dinner for "all hands," as Rosa styled the family, had appeared to me, I must own, exceedingly dismal on the day that I first surveyed our colonial kitchen range. But Rosa made light of all difficulties, and under her tuition I soon acquired the habit of making our meagre stock of kitchen utensils supply all our wants. The range consisted simply of three long iron bars set in two short ones, the whole supported upon four legs, which were no higher than just to leave room for logs of wood underneath. There was neither oven nor boiler, and the being compelled to trust to kettles and pans alone for all one's hot water, after having been accustomed to a good Leamington range at home, seemed like a coming down in life. Rosa, however, soon proved to me that where there was a will there was always a way, and that by "capsizing" kettle after kettle into a large wooden tub even a warm bath might soon be obtained. Of fire-irons a little shovel was the only representative, tongs being of no use in lifting logs cut in four-foot lengths; whilst the handle of a worn-out besom proved an efficient substitute for the time-honoured kitchen poker where there was nothing but wood embers to stir. The hearth and the sides of the wide open fireplace were composed of bricks, very roughly set, which Rosa kept scrupulously white with what she was pleased to call pipeclay, sometimes indulging her pictorial tastes by an after-embellishment of the snowy surface with a trellis-pattern traced in blue. Rosa's white pigment, of which she used to persuade Khourabene to bring her large lumps from time to time from the bush, would have fetched a high price in England, being in fact the finest kaolin that a manufacturer of porcelain could desire. The use of such a valuable article of commerce for a purpose for which lime would have answered equally well, seemed to us rather inconsistent with the meanness of our kitchen furniture; but a shilling bestowed upon a native would always ensure us a plentiful supply of kaolin, whilst lime was so utterly wanting in a circle of many miles around, that the Government had offered a reward of forty pounds for its discovery.

We used to roast our meat in a Dutch oven set upon the hearth, and our pies and bread were baked upon the bars of the grate in camp-ovens, which are round flat-bottomed pots standing on three short legs, and with lids so contrived as to retain the hot embers with which they are heaped. When the cookery within requires inspection the lid and the embers have to be lifted off simultaneously, which is done by pushing a stick through the handle at the top, for of course there is no possibility of touching the lid with one's fingers. These iron contrivances being heavy to lift up and down, and a woman's skirts being exposed to much danger from fire when moving them, are used only in default of brick or clay ovens, which most people possess, and which are generally placed outside the house at a little distance. In one of these large brick ovens, belonging to a neighbour of ours, a native woman was found one morning snugly coiled up and fast asleep, having evidently passed the night there. I need not say, that on the discovery of this unexpected "batch" the oven was very speedily "drawn," but as it was less easy to deprive the intruder of the good night's rest that she had already enjoyed than it was to dislodge her, she walked off to a certain extent victorious. It was not only the ovens that were usually placed apart from the dwelling; more often than not the kitchen itself was an isolated building, called a cooking-house; and this had been, I fancy, in some cases the original tenement, retained for culinary purposes alone as the family increased and its circumstances improved. In such cases it was easier to build an entirely new house than to add on to the first structure, though the arrangement reminded one of the plan which was adopted by the travelling showman and his wife, who when their caravan, in the form of a teapot on wheels, became too small for their increasing family, but admitted of no enlargement, supplemented it by a second caravan shaped like a coffee-pot, and thus secured a fresh feature of attraction for their show, as well as sufficient accommodation.

The best instance of this adding of house to house that we ever saw was in the dwelling-place belonging to a friend of ours, whose home looked like the nucleus of a small town. His entrance-hall, parlour, and best bed-room were in one house, the family slept in another, and their meals were cooked in a third. In many households it is a common practice to keep a convict as cook, and for the ladies to do the housemaid's work, yet the evils of fatigue and heat appeared to me more endurable than the presence of a convict as an indoor servant in our small establishment; for however well such a man may cook, and however good his behaviour in general may be, he is certain to get drunk occasionally, and, if granted a holiday, is probably being led to the lock-up at the hour when he ought to have been returning home again at night. There was one man whom we found so handy about a house that we had half a mind to make an exception in his favour, and, as a sort of preparatory trial, we employed him for a fortnight's digging in the garden, but in the middle of the work, and just as the ground was in good condition after the rains, he took himself off on a drinking bout for three days, during which the sun's heat greatly increased in strength and so dried up the soil that the proper time for gardening was in great part lost. I asked him, when he was sober, how he could behave so foolishly, upon which he first favoured me with a few moral reflections upon want of strength of mind, and concluded with telling me, almost in so many words, that if he did not get drunk sometimes he should lose his own identity.

Through my ignorance of the qualities of the hard woods of Australia, I had anticipated much trouble and annoyance from being obliged to cook without coal; but when I had once learned the right manner of using the great logs of close, hard-grained timber, I gave them the preference over all other sorts of fuel. The heat thrown out is tremendous, and the logs, especially those from the tree known as the York gum, will be found alight on the under side hours after the fire is supposed to have been extinguished. Long hollow pieces of wood are often brought in for the fire, and these it is as well to handle cautiously, as snakes are now and then discovered inside them. We, however, were never so unfortunate as thus to meet with a snake, though in stripping off rough bark from the logs I have brought to light very large centipedes. There is a good deal of danger in leaving these hollow logs on the hearth after the household has gone to bed, for they burn pertinaciously in consequence of their chimney-like character, and my husband once found the kitchen quite lighted up in the middle of the night by the flames that were bursting from each end of one of them, on which, before retiring to rest, I had poured a quantity of water, and thus left it, as I supposed, in a state incapable of mischief.

Our house was thatched with the rushes of the Xanthorrhœa, or blackboy, which are so inflammable, owing to the resin which they contain, that the greatest precautions against any risk of fire must be taken in all cases where they are thus used, especially during the great heat of the summer. Roofs of this resinous description will burn with extreme rapidity, and in the event of a fire breaking out beneath them, it is useless to attempt to save anything but life. The frequent sweeping of all chimneys is therefore absolutely requisite, and in consequence of our having not only neglected this precaution, but also piled up an unusually large fire on one chilly evening, we were suddenly roused from our books by a loud roaring noise, of which it was impossible to mistake the meaning. My husband ran out of doors to ascertain the extent of the danger, and finding that the whole garden was visible by the light of the flames from the chimney-top, he at once concluded that our house was doomed. His alarm was but of a few seconds' duration—a column of steam, producing instantaneously a most consolatory darkness, rose upwards from the chimney, and, amazed no less than relieved, he re-entered the sitting-room to find the fire out, and the hearth flooded. The truth was that I, not knowing exactly what to do, but with a general impression that water was good in all cases of fire, had flung the contents of a large pitcher over the burning logs, and had thus, by the sudden production of a cloud of steam, caused the happy and unlooked-for phenomenon. After this fright it is perhaps needless to add that thenceforth our chimneys were swept with the greatest regularity.

To continue my subject of fires and fuel: if a piece of sandalwood is thrown upon the hearth, the perfume is almost overpowering and apt to cause severe headache; and on the other hand, the burning of even a small bit of the tree commonly called "stink-wood" will make the inmates of a room fly out of it, to avoid the terrible odour.

Sandalwood is, as I have already said, one of the chief exports of the colony, and it is often the practice to store the logs in large heaps in the forest until a convenient opportunity for carting it to Perth or Guildford shall occur. An accumulation of this kind belonging to one of our friends, which had reached the value of a hundred pounds, was entirely consumed in a bush-fire shortly before we left Western Australia. Anyone is at liberty to carry away fuel from the bush, provided it be dead or fallen wood; but to cut growing timber requires a licence of ten shillings per month. The quantities of dead trees scattered all over the bush are enormous, and when allowed, as is sometimes the case, to lie on the ground near a habitation of the better class, they are very disfiguring to an English eye, though, generally speaking, the colonists leave no trees, living or dead, standing in immediate proximity to their houses. This custom, which at first I deplored as involving a wilful disregard of the picturesque, I soon learned to be a sad necessity, on account of the prevalence of bush-fires. Through these many a man has been burned out of house and home, whilst the dwellings of other individuals have been only saved by a providential changing of the wind just as all hope had appeared lost.

An anecdote which was told me, in connection with a bush-fire, may be interesting to physiologists. A lady happening to be alone in the house with her young children, became alarmed at finding that a bush-fire was making rapid strides in the direction of her homestead. The plan which is ordinarily pursued on such occasions is to beat out the fire with branches of trees, as it advances along the low grass, and to continue doing so in spite of fatigue, as long as there is a chance of extinguishing the flames. To do this with any hope of success a large body of men is required, but a woman, single-handed, could effect nothing, and the danger appeared imminent, when two gentlemen, who had seen the approach of the fire and were aware of her lonely condition, rode up, and rescued her and her family. Being released from her anxiety, she found herself almost stone deaf, and has so continued ever since.

Bush-fires are variously accounted for by different people, some inclining to the idea that the sun, striking upon the thick glass at the bottom of some of the many broken bottles which lie about the bush, acts upon them as if they were burning-glasses and sets the grass alight; other persons, who probably do not smoke, assert that many fires are caused by those who do; and as a third theory, it has been suggested that the friction of two boughs, chafing against each other in the wind during extremely hot weather, will evolve sufficient heat to produce flame. A fourth, and perhaps the most common cause of these conflagrations, may be found in those fires which every one, black or white, lights if he happens to rest for a few hours, or for the night, in the bush. It is, indeed, forbidden, under a penalty, to leave such fires burning when resuming the journey, but the law is very often disobeyed, and great mischief sometimes follows such neglect, especially in the summer. The sight of a traveller's fire, forsaken but still smouldering, would often set me thinking of the poor old people whom we had known in far-off English villages, shivering for want of fuel, whilst here lay such an abundance of it going to waste. As a set-off to my regrets on this account, there was nothing uncommon in our being asked to help poor families who had lost everything that they possessed through the destruction of their huts by bush-fires.

On one occasion, shortly before we came to the colony, a woman had gone to the well at a little distance from her hut to fetch water for ordinary household purposes; leaving her baby, which had been baptized that very morning, sleeping quietly in its cradle, whilst no one else was in the house. Having filled her pails she returned towards her home, and, on coming within sight of it, beheld the thatched roof in a blaze, and not a hope left of saving the poor little innocent, which was destroyed in a few moments.

A recent bush-fire imparts a peculiarly sombre look to the iron-rust colour of the red gum and mahogany trees, but, as time passes on, the gloomy appearance of their stems disappears, and the scene becomes one of romantic wildness. The exterior of those hollow trees from which the bark has been burnt off for years looks almost white in contrast to their blackened interiors scooped out by the flames; and I have seen a tall, pale stem, denuded of branches and standing like a gigantic stake, to which the fire had given so fine a point as to suggest the notion that to drop upon it from a balloon would be anything but desirable.

But amidst scenery in which the eye finds so much of interest and attraction one looks in vain for any fruit-bearing trees, or indeed for anything that is eatable. The land is essentially a land of flowers, and myriads of lovely plants overrun the ground which are the ornaments of our conservatories at home. To mention two species familiar to all gardeners: we have gathered all kinds of blue lobelias, and also a plant closely resembling the scarlet variety as well, and we have seen the sloping sides of the water-courses thickly covered with the favourite acacia armata in full bloom; but such useless beauty mocks hungry people who have lost themselves in the bush, and I well remember the disgust with which a poor woman spoke of having seen "nothing but great yellow flowers" during several hours that she had spent in walking up and down trying to regain the beaten track from which she had wandered. The only wild fruit that I ever heard of was the native cherry; a fruit almost entirely composed of a hard kernel the size of a marble, with a thin outside rind that has an acid taste, and of which the colonists make a sweetmeat in default of anything better. The stone is buff-coloured, and much corrugated, and when a good many of them are strung together, and alternated with the nuts of the sandalwood tree, they make a pretty row of beads, a purpose for which nature seems to have intended them.

The scarlet seed-pods of the Zamia plants are decidedly poisonous unless buried underground for a fortnight, by which means they become harmless eating, and, as such, are then consumed by the natives; but the process would little benefit a starving person to whom the necessity of burying his dinner for fourteen days before he could eat it might be only too suggestive of what he himself would be fit for by the time his meal was ready. Our little native girl Binnahan once dug up for me a root about two inches long which did not taste amiss, and at another time she brought me a stalk which she begged me to try, recommending it with the words "black fellow eatum—big-fellow glad findum," but she seemed rather injured at the faint praise that I bestowed on its insipid though not nauseous flavour. A colonial lady also showed me a plant with a glutinous leaf somewhat resembling the half-hardy annual called mezembryanthemum, of which she told me she had sometimes made puddings, but that they were not very tempting. With the exception of the acacia seeds, which the natives were in the habit of pounding into meal before they learned to prefer flour, I have now named every indigenous esculent brought to my notice, and I do not think that the table which the whole of them could "furnish forth" would be considered by a vegetarian as an inducement to emigrate.

If due attention, however, is paid to situation and to soil, imported fruits and vegetables appear to find Western Australia as congenial as the lands to which they severally belong. Vines will grow well wherever they are planted, and the wine which they produce, though as yet neither cheap nor particularly good, is far more agreeable and wholesome than most of the liquid that is sold in the colony under the name of port or sherry. There is, therefore, no doubt that the quality of the colonial wines will improve at the same pace as the experience and education of the vine-growers.

It was usual to see raisins laid to dry upon the roofs of the houses, or upon tables set out of doors, for the multitude of birds prevented the adoption of the better plan of leaving the fruit to dry upon the trees, after first twisting the stalk of each bunch so as to hinder the passing of the sap. It seems reasonable to suppose that, at some future day, both currants and raisins will be exported from Western Australia, but before that comes to pass, their price in the colony must have diminished considerably. The price of raisins in the Barladong stores was a shilling the pound, and currants were only twopence cheaper. Oranges and lemons came to great perfection in the swampy and fine alluvial soils around Perth and Guildford, but no amount of cultivation could induce them to bear fruit on our side of the Darling Range, and at Barladong the price of oranges, when in season, was threepence each, a mortifying contrast, for the buyer, to their English value.

The same frosts which prevented the ripening of oranges with us, were destructive to any early crops of the potato. The early spring potatoes were always nipped, and the hot weather returned too soon to leave time for the growth of a second crop. Whilst our neighbours on the sea-coast were rejoicing in vegetables of all kinds, we of the ultramontane districts sometimes paid sixteen shillings the bag for potatoes so diminutive that at home they would have been picked out to boil for pigs. In one of our rides we came across a poor man who had established a potato ground in a bit of swamp, and who succeeded in securing a good early crop for sale, by ingeniously lighting large fires at night on the windward side of his garden. The experiment was facilitated by the loneliness of the situation, which might have rejoiced the heart of a hermit, but a warming apparatus of this kind could not of course become one of universal application.

We were, however, much elated by discovering that the finest kind of prickly-seeded spinach grew spontaneously as a weed in our glebe, and in most of the fields around us, during a few weeks of the winter. Our pleasure at finding the spinach was equalled by the surprise which we felt at the ignorance that prevailed amongst our neighbours respecting its qualities as a vegetable, one only amongst them seeming to be aware of its excellence. Neither, with exception of this enlightened person, did anyone appear to know the name of spinach as an Australian product, and the plant was spoken of with opprobrium as "that horrid double gee." When we asked how it came into the colony we were told that it was a Cape plant, and the riddle of its seemingly unmeaning name was solved to our satisfaction by my husband accidentally reading of a Dutch coin called Dubbeltje,[1] having an edge so very sharply indented that quarrelsome Dutchmen sometimes gave one another very awkward wounds with it. Whether the plant had received its name at the Cape, or had carried it there from Holland, I know not, but it appeared to have been brought into Swan River with no other appellation; and the dislike with which the colonists regarded it was not quite without foundation, as the extreme sharpness of its seeds was troublesome in a country where to go barefoot is a common practice. I remember seeing a poor barefooted child, who had but lately come to Barladong, and who had been sent to our house on an errand, standing midway in our field, crying with all her might, and refusing to stir another step forwards "because of the double gees." The rapid and wide diffusion of the plant has been no doubt due to the manner in which the spines of the seeds stick to the fleeces of the sheep, like burrs which they much resemble. We did our best to persuade our neighbours to give the spinach a place on their tables, but, with the exception of a very few persons, the prejudice against it as a troublesome weed was too old and deep to be exploded by our example.

Though neither oranges nor potatoes took kindly to the climate of Barladong its apricots were unrivalled, and the fruit upon our standard trees was far finer than any that we had ever seen produced even by scientific care on garden walls in England. Apricots were less cultivated than they deserved, for the reason, perhaps, that few persons knew much more of the right method of pruning them than one of our friends did, who carefully cut out all the bearing wood, and then wondered that he had no fruit. Standard peach-trees were much in favour, but as a rule their fruit was not so good as that which is produced from wall-trained peach-trees in England. In one colonial garden we found a fruit that was new to us, in which, though two kinds were united, yet each was in perfection—to wit, a completely-formed sweet almond, covered outwardly not with its own insipid green rind, but with the ripened pulp of a full-flavoured peach. The tree that bore this dual crop was a solitary specimen. As to the seasons when our different fruits came in,—the figs ripened in the end of November, apricots at Christmas, grapes in January, and peaches in February. The grapes lasted until the end of February, and as the peaches were then over also, there followed a fast from fruit through many months, during which the common English jams were much prized, and expensive in proportion. I soon ceased to feel surprised that the colonial ladies should expend time and sugar in producing such a poor preserve as that made from green grapes.

The composition of a pudding was so vexed a question in the dearth of materials, that a neighbour who deprecated my contempt for grape jam did "nothing exaggerate" in asserting as a good reason for making it, that "half the year round one scarcely knew what to set upon the dinner-table," that is, as second course. Under these circumstances we had recourse to a large field-melon, called the pig or cattle melon, which, in spite of its natural insipidity, produced, when largely helped out with vinegar and sugar and baked under a crust, an imitation by no means despicable of apple-pie.

An immigrant girl who had been telling me that her admirer was "crazed for her at first sight," adduced in proof of his condition that her acquaintance with him had begun by his throwing a pig-melon at her, and that he continued to throw more melons whenever she entered the field where he was at work. As a missive expressive of affection I should have thought a cannon-ball had been quite as sentimental; but the girl's experiences of courtship showed me that the throwing of cucumbers and vegetable marrows over the garden wall by Mrs. Nickleby's insane lover was more true to nature than I had supposed.

I believe that when Englishmen are totally deprived of beer their friends will readily admit the case to be one that excuses grumbling and demands condolence; in order therefore to avoid both, we now set about brewing a supply of beer with coarse sugar. Not that we should not greatly have preferred malt, if we could have had it, but, with a view perhaps of keeping up the prices of bottled beer, which in the country stores is commonly sold at twenty-four shillings the dozen, malt is not generally made in the colony, and if beer is brewed in private houses at all, it is of sugar, mostly of the very cheap sort procured from India. I did indeed hear of one colonist who had, in very early days, manufactured malt for his own use, but as he had also gone the lengths of making a tank to collect the rain-water, and, further, of drawing it up by means of an iron pump, he was then too much in advance of his age to find imitators.

As a substitute for malt we found that good Lisbon sugar answered better than the coarser kinds, which not only spoil the flavour of the beer, but throw up such a quantity of scum as to make the use of them no economy. The method of brewing is to put the sugar into boiling water in the proportion of a pound to a gallon, and when the scum has well risen and has been thoroughly cleared off, to throw in as many ounces of hops as there are pounds of sugar, and then to boil the whole for a full hour longer. The liquor is afterwards poured into coolers, and should be worked with yeast according to the good old rule "when the brewer can see distinctly the reflection of his own face in the wort." Like its prototype small beer, sugar-beer ought to "see a Sunday," but in hot weather it is often drunk at the end of four days, whether Sunday has intervened or not. The natives are so fond of anything sweet, that they consider an empty sugar bag a valuable prize, and, when fortunate enough to obtain one, they soak it in a tub of water, and all sit round the tub drinking the mixture in great sociability: they are not, however, lucky enough to get such a prize often, for so much sugar adheres to the matting of which the bags are made that some saving people always boil the bag up with the mash when they brew, by which process I can hardly imagine that they improve the taste of their beer.

Rosa used often to enlist Khourabene's services in brewing, on which occasions he always lighted a fire out of doors, and, making an extempore little grate of bricks, with two pieces of iron hooping laid across them as bars for the copper to rest upon, he would diligently skim the sugar, and constantly stir the hops that they should not boil over. The fact of thus helping to brew seemed, as he thought, to give him a vested interest in afterwards drinking the beer, and he seldom appeared in the kitchen without reminding us of his assistance. I was lying down one day, bathing my head which was aching, when Khourabene, whose bare feet never at any time gave notice of his approach, put his head in at my window, and resting his arms on the sill, said in a voice of great condolence, "Poor old mother—poor old mother"; then with a slight change of tone added, "I cleanum fowl-house—I wheelum barrow—I givum horses hay—little bit of beer, if you please." On another occasion Ned, who was leaving our house in the dusk of the evening, expressed himself as troubled with apprehensions of "Jingy." I could not at first make out what it was that he professed to dread, and, not altogether understanding what he was talking about, I told him to go. Upon this he explained; "Devil frighten, missis—give me beer, and then I anywhere walk!" I laughed at his fears and told him that I had no dread of Jingy or of any other walker of the night, but he treated my assumption of courage with great contempt, reminding me that I was safe at home, whereas he was obliged to go out into the darkness.

There is no doubt that in this case Ned exaggerated his fears in the hope that he might be allowed to drown them in beer, but for all that, it is a real and fixed article of belief in the native mind that Jingy walks the bush at night. Even the most intelligent of the aborigines will assert that at some time or other of their lives they have seen him, but as each apparition of Jingy of which we heard wore a different form, he either was the Australian Proteus, or depended solely on the imagination of his beholders for his bodily shape.

  1. On referring to a Dutch dictionary we found Dubbeltje given as an old word for a twopenny-piece, the modern name of which is Dubbelde stuyver.