An Australian Parsonage/Chapter X

CHAPTER X.

WHEREIN NATURAL HISTORY MERGES INTO AN ACCOUNT OF SCARCITY OF WATER.

Parroquets—Twenty-eights—Rosella parroquets in pomegranate-tree—Native brings Rosella nestling—Love of pancakes—Wild Rosellas decoy away my tame one—Supposed single specimen of parrot—Crows—Silver Tongue—Wagtails and swallows—Bell-bird—Cockatoos—Swans—Cockatoo broth—Startled in the dark—A thankless offer—Kylies used in killing birds—Painting a kylie—Bronze-winged pigeons—Ngowa—Method in which Ngowa prepares nest—Rare birds driven into inhabited districts by want of water—We lose turkey—Painted snipe—Cat's tribute to fidelity of artist—Cinnamon-coloured heron—Moths and other marauders—Fish called Coblers—Snappers and mullet—Crawfish—Fresh-water turtles—Frying turtle-eggs proves a bad experiment—Affectionate disposition of aborigines—Wild ducks—Khourabene's complacency at a well-filled bag—Game laws—"Father and mother, I must hook it away!"—Strong feeling of ownership with respect to land on part of natives—Metempsychosis—Forest laws less severe amongst Australians than amongst ancient Normans—Accumulation of water in consequence of felling timber—Amends made by white man—Corobberies—Mortality and early deaths amongst natives—Bishop Salvado's way of dispersing combatants—His remonstrances produce no effect with native husbands—Drought—Want of tanks—Floods—Swollen river renders farm-yard impassable—Washing on river bank—Inconvenience of distant wells—Temptations to gossip at wells—Anecdote of encamping at night without water—Enthusiastic welcome of boy and pony—Custom capable of sweetening brackish water.

The birds most common in our vicinity were various kinds of parroquets. One variety was coloured green and blue faced with yellow, reminding one of a footman's livery; these would skim across a cornfield in little flocks like a flash of green light, but met with no greater consideration than other robbers of grain whose feathers are more homely. The name by which these parroquets are usually known is Twenty-eight, on account of their cry resembling a repetition of those two numerals. As cage birds they are much valued, are soon tamed, and easily taught to whistle; I have heard a Twenty-eight that could even manage a few bars of the "Prairie flower."

Bright as the Twenty-eights are their plumage is but plain compared with that of another parroquet called the Rosella, which, like the former, is barely so large as an English blackbird, excepting for the greater length of tail. Of these last parroquets, the breast and throat are of a deep brilliant red, the cheeks yellow, and the back and wings of green mingled with dark blue. A pomegranate-tree with half-a-dozen Rosellas perched amongst its shining leaves, and ripening fruit, looks like an illuminated initial vignette in an old missal. I had often seen these gay little creatures in our garden; nay, I am sorry to say that they had formed a part of the many natural curiosities brought in by our cat, for whom very highly-coloured prey seemed to have an especial attraction; but my first intimate acquaintance with the Rosellas commenced with one that a native brought me, freshly taken from the nest. I had never before had the care of a half-fledged orphan bird, and for the sake of keeping it warm I often carried it in my gown-pocket, and allowed it to sleep in the same receptacle when the dress was hung up at night. Thus I saved my bird's life, and lengthened my own by the habits of early rising which the chirps of my nestling forced upon me, making sleep impossible after the sun was risen.

In a very short time the Rosella was sufficiently advanced to be put in possession of a cage, which he did not take to very kindly; when I let him loose in the morning he would show his pleasure by dancing up and down upon my hand, twittering his little song close to my face, and fluttering his wings with the most evident delight.

On account of his fondness for society, and his love of seeing all that went on, his cage was usually hung in the most frequented of our verandahs, where no sooner did he see Rosa passing backwards and forwards with preparations for laying the cloth for dinner, than he would begin jumping on and off his perch to attest his approval of her punctuality, knowing that when the first course was disposed of, it would be her duty to bring him in upon a tray, together with the dishes of the second. He then hopped upon the table with a bold expectation of welcome, which, together with his bright red breast, often recalled to us an English robin; and, if the bill of fare comprised a dish of pancakes, he would pounce upon them with more eagerness than on any other dainty, picking at the crisp edges, and now and then giving little rapid chirps, as if to notify that he approved of the cookery but could not afford time to say much. However pancakes are one thing and freedom is another, and all my bird's affection for his favourite food could not enable him to resist the blandishments of his wild neighbours, when he once obtained the chance of getting away. His wing had at first been kept clipped, but I fancied that the sight of the scissors, when the feathers were to be cut, made the little creature frightened and unhappy, so that I had lately trusted to his great tameness alone to retain him about the house. "Dicky," as we called him, did not sufficiently appreciate this sacrifice to friendship, and after having lived with us long enough to have become, in his way, quite a little celebrity, he watched his opportunity and flew off irrecoverably.

It might have been supposed that a land so abundant in parroquets would have also been prolific in parrots, but a delicate little race of grass-green birds not larger than a hen linnet, represented, I believe, the only kind of true parrot in Western Australia. In a cage these diminutive parrots, (for which the native name is Kower,) are very difficult to rear, but, as they seem to be of the love-bird species, it is possible that the unsuccessful attempt which we made to bring up a single specimen might have had a different result had we experimented on a pair. There were not wanting birds of a soberer hue that reminded us of feathered friends at home. Plenty of sooty-backed crows contrasted with the gay colours of the parroquets, and the pretty little Silver Tongue, which made havoc with our ripe pomegranates and pecked out the seeds with its long slender bill, was not unlike a small thrush.

But the two kinds of birds about whose identity there could be no dispute were the wagtails and swallows; the former bird being known by his provincial English name of "dish-washer," as if he had been a poor relation of the genteel wagtails at home. This bird's short song, consisting of the words, "Pretty creature, pretty creature," pronounced with the greatest distinctness, was repeated by him all day long from the first peep of dawn, as if he were absorbed in perpetual admiration of his little mate.

The nests which the swallows built under our eaves were made with an entrance shaped something like the neck of a bottle, and this peculiarity of architecture, together with the shortness of the bird's tail, were the only distinctions that we ever observed between the swallows of England and those of the southern hemisphere.

I have already mentioned the perplexity into which we were thrown by the ventriloquism of the frog, and the Bell-bird also seemed possessed with the same wish to conceal its individuality. The note of this bird was so exactly like the sound of the click of the capstan pawl in drawing up the anchor of a little yacht, that it not only made one long to set sail, but brought the sea-shore tantalizingly before the mind's eye, in the midst of the dry hot forest.

Often a loud screaming in the air would announce a flock of cockatoos, either white or black, flying overhead, and flights of wild fowl also would sometimes pass over the house, but amongst these last we could not enumerate the well-known black swan more than once or twice. The sable plumage of the Australian swan does not extend to the breast, which is covered with soft white down; but this is not a handsome contrast of colours, and gives the bird rather a magpie look, very different from the brilliant appearance afforded by the scarlet tail feathers of the black cockatoo when set off by the jetty hues of the body and breast. The white cockatoo lives chiefly upon roots, which Nature has enabled the bird to dig for in the driest weather, by furnishing him with a large bill shaped exactly like a pick-axe. A flock of these busy delvers hard at work turning up the ground in search of grain just sown, their eyes surrounded by the curious broad blue rim peculiar to white cockatoos making them look like a gang of navvies in spectacles, is an object of such especial disgust to the farmer, that it is no wonder that he tries every plan to keep his cook in a good supply of them, more particularly as they make capital broth.

I was sitting alone one winter's night, with no light but that of the fire, when I was startled by the apparition of Khourabene, or rather by the sudden gleam of the whites of his eyes and the white wings of a cockatoo dangling from his hand—these being the first objects that I could distinguish in the darkened room, which he had entered without any previous knocking at the door. The purpose of his visit was explained by his offering me the cockatoo as an equivalent for "baccy," which I could not give him, as there happened to be no tobacco in the house. I told him, therefore, that he should have some tea instead, but the offer of tea to a tobaccoless man, and one moreover who, by his own account, had been wandering in the bush for two days without smoking, fell as flat as did the district visitor's present of flannel to those children in Thomas Hood's tale who were crying for a Christmas pudding. Grievously disappointed at the failure he snatched his useless pipe from his arm-band, saying very sulkily, "I kill my pipe," and deliberately broke it in two.

The flat curved wooden weapon, called a kylie, which the natives have invented for the purpose of killing several birds out of a flock at one throw, looks not unlike a bird itself as it whizzes (or walks as natives say) through the air in its circular and ascending flight; and in a crowded fight it is a very formidable missile, owing to the difficulty of avoiding its apparently ubiquitous and hap-hazard course. "Too much kylie walk" was the description given us of a native fight by one who had been prevented from joining the affray by an attack of illness, which he defined as "too much cough."

The natives take great pains in the manufacture and finish of their kylies, and I found Binnahan and a black uncle one day very busy adorning his stock of them in a fanciful pattern of emerald green and vermilion, from the contents of a shilling colour box which we had given her. These weapons are by no means to be despised as a means of supplying the table with game when in the hands of a clever native, and when the birds at which they are thrown are of a gregarious nature, (as cockatoos or wild fowl,) though of course the kylie is no match for the gun as far as filling the larder is concerned.

But the use of a fowling-piece seems to come as naturally to the natives as that of their ruder arms, and it is a frequent practice with the colonists to employ one of them as a sort of hunter, or game procurer, especially when the bronze-winged pigeon is in season. These lovely birds have often been described, but no words can picture the beauty of the quickly changing hues of the neck and breast, upon which the light glances and flashes as it does on the plumage of the humming birds. The pigeon when in full feather requires to be aimed at either on the wing, or from behind if taken sitting, as otherwise the thick plumage of the breast prevents the shot from penetrating. When cooked these birds are a very dainty dish, but their predilection for the "berry poison" renders great care necessary in preparing them for the table, and also in preventing dogs and cats from eating the entrails.

There is, however, amongst edible birds none that can at all compare with the one known to natives as the Ngowa, and to naturalists as the Leipoa, which is one species of those birds that have gained a front rank amongst feathered celebrities, by practising a system of artificial incubation. It lays its eggs in a mound of grass and leaves, which it heaps together to the size of twenty or thirty feet in circumference, and two or three in height, and then keeps watch in a thicket nigh at hand for the moment when the chicks are ready to leave the shell.

The Ngowa is larger than a pheasant, which in taste it exactly resembles, but it has not the pheasant's tail, and its shape is rather that of the blackcock; the feathers are beautifully dappled white and brown, the latter inclining to red. A person once told us that he had heard of Ngowa's eggs being hatched by a barn-door fowl, and that a cross-breed had been obtained between these tame Ngowas and common poultry; but, though we saw no reason to think the story improbable, it was one that we were never able positively to substantiate.

Many birds existed in the colony which were so rarely seen near the settled districts that, in spite of Khourabene's sportsmanship, we should never have become acquainted with them had not one winter been so unusually dry as to compel them to venture from the wild eastward sand plains to our district in search of water. That the Ngowa was one of these we had a proof in the curiosity and wonder expressed at sight of it by a settler of many years' residence in the colony, who happened to be calling at our house when Khourabene returned after a successful day's shooting, and laid four at my feet.

We lost the only wild turkey that we ever saw through the excessive flurry of delight into which Khourabene was thrown by catching sight of it passing over our house towards the river; his hands shook so much in his haste to load the gun that he could not put in a proper charge, and our expected feast flew away from a flash in the pan scarcely so loud as the laughter of us the bystanders, leaving Khourabene's feelings in a very damaged state, but itself quite uninjured.

This same winter a wisp of seven of the painted or pictured snipe, a bird never before seen in Western Australia, paid a visit to Barladong. They were all either shot or snared, and the remembrance of them is associated in our minds with an unlucky and provoking accident. The young colonist who first discovered them had brought one to my husband, who was very anxious to preserve it, and had taken the greatest pains to prevent the long bill from being injured while skinning the neck and body, which was rather a difficult task. He had succeeded quite to his own satisfaction, and had also stuffed the bird preparatory to mounting it properly. The cat, however, thought it looked so lifelike that she pounced upon it, and tore it to pieces ruthlessly, doubtless a great compliment to the artist, but one with which he could willingly have dispensed.

Amongst all rarities, however, we saw none that delighted us more than a beautiful cinnamon-coloured heron, with its long white crest no thicker than a wheat straw. A skin of this bird was brought to me, by the same lucky young sportsman who had given us the snipe, which I added to the collection of curiosities that I was making in the hope of gratifying my friends on my return home with many a scarce and graceful gift. But in so warm a climate the frequent airing and turning over of either curiosities or clothes is very burdensome, and if this is neglected the pitiless moths not only have it all their own way, but much of what they leave untouched is riddled by an insect called the silver fish.

Nor does even this last devourer close the list of the marauders upon our goods and chattels. We had a great many plants of the minor bamboo in our garden, which reaches the height of sixteen feet or so, and is much in request with children who want a fishing-rod. There were some little fellows who often came to beg bamboos, and the request being one day accompanied by another for some fish-hooks, my husband, in searching for them, chanced to open the book which had contained his rather expensive collection of trout and salmon flies; but it seemed that they had been as attractive to the skin beetles as he had once hoped that they would prove to the fish, and each parchment-leaf contained a naked hook and nothing more.

The fish called coblers, which the boys hoped to catch, resembled eels somewhat, and were not ill tasted, but were more remarkable for the severely poisonous nature of their sharp-pointed back and side fins than for any merit that they possessed as food. These disadvantages considered, we should have wondered at the pains which were taken by many persons to catch coblers, had they not been, crawfish excepted, almost the only kind of river fish that was procurable at Barladong.

At Fremantle fishermen were rewarded by finding good snapper and mullet, which were excellent when dried and salted, and seldom made their appearance in our town in any other condition, being hawked for sale by a lively youth, who never failed to recommend his ware by biting pieces off the specimen fish which he carried in his hand as a sample.

Besides crawfish and coblers, our river boasted of freshwater turtles, which looked so hideous, with their snakelike necks longer than their shell-clad bodies, that I was content to take on trust all that had been told me of the goodness of turtle broth, without wishing to test its merits personally.

The eggs which this creature lays are white, and very long in proportion to their breadth. Binnahan once brought in an apronful of turtles' eggs that she had found beside the river, but instead of sucking them raw, as I had expected her to do, she begged that she might be allowed to fry them, being apparently under the impression that one sort of egg was as fit to cook as another. The frying-pan was accordingly placed at her disposal, but I did not inspect the cookery, and I noticed that she never repeated the experiment.

We soon found that a native, if treated with kindness and consideration, would become much attached to his employers and give proof of a most affectionate disposition, an experience confirmed by others who had spent their whole lives in the colony. Khourabene had become fond of my husband very soon after his first acquaintance with us, and when on one occasion he found that his master during a period of illness could fancy no food so much as wild ducks, he would scour the bush far and wide in order to procure them for him. If our good savage had heard of ducks being seen on a pool within a few miles of our house, he would make his appearance in a breathless state of excitement, begging us to give him the gun, with which he would hurry away to secure the prize. His complacency at success found vent in little patronizing observations addressed to the birds themselves, whilst he sat on his own especial log of wood by the fire-side, and picked his share of their bones in the kitchen.

These happy days were brought to an end by our making the unlooked-for discovery that savages, equally with civilized people, have their game laws, and that by these Khourabene was prohibited from shooting for us any longer. He surprised us one evening by entering the room with tears streaming down his face, and repeatedly sobbing out the words, "Father and mother, I must hook it away!" he explained, in his strange mixture of Australian and cockney dialects, that the other natives had had an indignation-meeting to discuss his audacity in daring to bring us game off their land (Khourabene's "settlement" in the parochial phraseology of home being in another district), and that they had threatened to spear him if he continued to do so. We tried to comfort him, and in our ignorance of native customs treated the matter lightly, but he continued to cry bitterly, and bidding us good-bye he disappeared.

At first we were disposed to fancy that he had been a little drunk, but, on making inquiries of those persons who best knew the natives, we learned that any native who, without permission, kills wild animals upon land belonging to a tribe of which he is not a member, incurs the penalty of death. The feelings of the natives are very strong with respect to ownership in the soil, and some of them will still point to certain spots as theirs which have long been cleared and occupied by Englishmen.

The first colonists who took possession of the country were supposed by the poor savages to be the souls of their dead compatriots, who had returned with white faces. In some of the new-comers such strong personal resemblance to deceased native individuals was thought to be detected, that the surviving relations gave the strangers the names of the departed, and would even assert that upon their bodies would still be found the mark of the spear wounds which had caused the deaths of their prototypes. As these ideas still prevailed to a certain extent, my husband came in for his share of metempsychosis, and was known amongst the older natives by the name of an aboriginal gentleman who had been speared in the back at some bygone battle.

But to return to the early days of the colony: when the supposed ghosts began to make a fresh distribution of the land, regardless of the real owners' lien upon it, and to infringe their game laws, the original proprietors became "very troublesome," as the phrase goes for native behaviour under such circumstances. They continued to oppose the appropriation of the land until cowed into submission, and seemed disposed to treat the invaders with as little hospitality as our own ancestors showed towards Julius Caesar, for whose ill reception by their forefathers modern Britons are not in the habit of expressing much remorse.

The sort of punishment which, even 1200 years after the Roman invasion, would have been legally inflicted upon anyone who had dared to drive off or kill the deer and fill the royal or baronial chases with sheep and horses, or to plough up large portions of the land, may be inferred from the spirit of our ancient forest statutes; and the revenge taken by the natives of Australia upon those who seemed to them to be guilty of similar infractions of the laws and customs of their country, has certainly been far less severe than was the judicial severity of our Norman and Saxon ancestors.

In the case, too, of the poor Australian, it was not only his land and the wild animals upon it of which he feared to be deprived by the entrance of the white man: the symbol of submission, that was offered in old times by a weak nation to its stronger neighbour, included water as well as earth, and there can be no doubt that the jealous feeling of proprietorship with which each different tribe guarded its scanty supplies of water helped much to strengthen the opposition towards the interlopers.

In respect to water, however, even the natives themselves are ready to acknowledge that some amends has been made by their conquerors, since the cutting down of the trees, which had for ages absorbed the moisture in the soil, causes the water, which is not now required for the nourishment of those great masses of vegetation, first to accumulate in the earth, and then to break forth as a spring. The same deficiency of rain that, in the dry winter of which I have been speaking, brought us rare birds from such great distances, also caused our neighbourhood to be filled with an unusual number of natives, who constantly made the nights noisy with their merriment.

Two "corobberies," as the native dances are called, I especially recollect, when a most disturbing and oft-recurring hubbub was kept up all night by the whole company, who beat and stamped upon the ground in unison, producing an amount of noise that was perfectly astounding, their bare feet and the hardness of the soil being taken into consideration. The piece, which would probably otherwise have had an indefinite run, was in its third rehearsal, when the police interrupted the performance in mercy to the white people, who had been unable to sleep during the two previous nights. We never again saw so many natives collected together at any one time, nor was it merely that they dispersed on the ceasing of the drought which had caused them to congregate around us.

During the five years which we spent in the colony, we remarked a sensible diminution by death of those natives who had been our friends, and we noticed that the fatal cases occurred amongst the young and middle-aged rather than the old. More than twenty years before, when Bishop Salvado (from whose work I have already quoted) had parted a little mob of fighting viragoes by laying his cane soundly on the shoulders of the strongest, the men, whom he reproached for standing by whilst their women were killing each other, excused themselves by saying "that there were plenty more"; other reasons would have been required for the men's neutrality at the time of our landing in Western Australia, and still more so when we left it.

Slight as was the drought of 1865 in that country compared with what was suffered in South Australia from the same cause, yet it was felt severely. Horses perished in the bush, and ewes were too much weakened by insufficient food to survive the lambing season; whilst on many a poor man's field, that had been sown to feed a family of children, pigs were the only reapers of the stunted stalks which, from want of rain, had never ripened into ears of corn.

I always felt it a matter for surprise that, with so many prisoners who needed employment, the Government had not set the example of making large tanks for husbanding the rain-water, of which, in an ordinary winter, there is a greater fall during the rainy season than occurs in England throughout the year.

Floods are almost as characteristic of Australia as droughts, and two years before we went there rain fell to an excess which will be matter of tradition at Barladong so long, at least, as anyone remains to remember going to school in a boat instead of by the footpath in that wet winter. I heard an anecdote of that sloppy period from a family with whom we became intimate, who told me that their farm-yard was divided by a narrow river pool, on one side of which stood the house, and on the other the stables, with a little wooden foot-bridge between. In the course of one day the water increased so much in height and strength, that the sons who had been since the morning on that side of the stream which was nearest to the stables were unable to cross it at eventide, although within speaking distance of their family, and near enough for their sisters to throw them over provisions. After waiting two days or so, the waters showing no diminution, the flood-bound party made the best of their way on horseback to a bridge, and reached home by a circuit of some thirty miles.

Incidents of this kind were a strange contrast to those of 1865, when we knew of people being obliged to send eight miles for water every washing day. When a river pool is within reasonable distance it is customary, in ordinary seasons, to convey the clothes to the water rather than the water to the clothes. A fire is then lighted on the water's edge, and a booth of green boughs erected for the washerwoman, beneath which she stands at her tubs, securely screened from the sun.

The inconvenience of occupying a residence where there was not only no water on the premises, but where the nearest well was quite two hundred yards distant, appeared overwhelming to us when we first took up our abode at Barladong. When I learned, however, that many of our poorer neighbours lived at a much greater distance than ourselves from a well, I found that the comfort of our position exceeded theirs in as great a degree as the conveniences of our own house were surpassed by those of an English one, where water is "laid-on" upon every floor.

The labour and loss of time in fetching and carrying water are not the only evils involved in distant wells. The much-frequented spring is, as Goethe well knew, the fountain-head of half the gossip in the neighbourhood, and the fact of the poet having been able (in his 'Faust') to transmute the chatter of village maidens into an immortal scene, gives no consolation to an unfortunate housewife distracted with waiting for her servant, who has been sent for a bucket of water and remains at the well talking idly with the girls whom she finds congregated there. There is no doubt, also, that the games of marbles, with which the small fry of male water-carriers occupy themselves till the claims of first-comers to the well have been satisfied, are protracted to a much greater length than any outsiders would consider necessary.

A curious anecdote, that illustrated both the scarcity of water and the distance that people sometimes walk to fetch it, was told me by a friend. In making a long journey, to a remote part of the colony, night had overtaken her party before reaching any watering-place that was known to them, and, with the prospect of many hours of thirst, more wearisome to bear because shared with her by her child, she was sitting sadly in her tent door when there suddenly emerged from the trees a woman and girl carrying each a bucket. My friend had come so far without meeting a living soul that this unexpected apparition, in the dim light, of two persons going about their ordinary business made her scream with surprise, and perhaps she mentally compared the incident to that of an angel's visit when the strangers showed her a spring at no great distance, whither they were on their way to fetch water, having already walked two miles from their own home.

It is not always the absolute non-existence of water near a person's own dwelling that necessitates so much labour, since often, in digging a well for the supply of the house, only salt springs are found at first, and in this case drinking water, at all events, has to be procured from elsewhere, either in perpetuity or until better luck attends the well-sinker.

One of my friends told me that for some time she and the rest of her family had no water to drink but such as was daily brought in a keg by a boy, who fetched it from three miles distance on a pony, pony and boy being met on their return by every child, dog, and fowl belonging to the homestead, all racing out to obtain a taste of the contents of the keg. Nevertheless custom, which can reconcile us to so many things, causes even a moderate quantity of salt to be forgotten, and a colonist, who once paid us a visit, accounted for his horse appearing but little to relish the water of our pool by the fact of the animal having been so long used to a brackish well in his own field as to prefer it to water which was quite fresh.