In Bad Company, and other Stories/Bendemeer
That bower and its music I never forget,
But oft when alone, in the bloom of the year,
I think—Is the nightingale singing there yet?
Do the roses still bloom by the calm Bendemeer?
The æsthetic pioneer who bestowed this romantic name upon the New England village between Tamworth and Uralla probably realised a hazy similarity. Yet roses must have been few and far between, eminently suitable as are soil and climate; and the nightingale awaits the millennium of acclimatisers. The sparrow—wastrel of Europe that he is—doth first appear. The clear stream of the Macdonald, winding through the green hill-encircled valley, renders the comparison faintly apposite. On the whole, the name of Bendemeer will sound as well to our federal successors as Curra-wohbo-lah or Murra-munga-myne; and if it sets young Australia to reading Lalla Rookh, it may act as a counterpoise to overmuch devotion to wool and horse-racing may even tend to the cult which emollit mores.
These slight incongruities notwithstanding, I would counsel any Australian Beckford, in want of a site for the antipodean Fonthill, to realise the poet's dream in the vale of Bendemeer (Great Northern Railway line, New South Wales), and so immortalise himself in the minds of generations of grateful compatriots.
As I stand in front of the little hostelry in the sweet moonrise of this summer night and gaze around, my heart sympathises with the unknown sentimental sponsor. I feel constrained to admit that he had the true poetic insight, piercing the measureless spaces of the future—
Far as human eye can see,
It is the last month of the year, in the hour for a 'mid-summer night's dream (antipodean); the fervent noonday glare has given place to the fresh, delicious temperature which in this elevated region succeeds sunset; the heavens are cloudless. As the moon's orb is slowly lifted, the grand mountain-chain which lies beyond the head waters of the river shows clearly defined in majestic gloom and ebon shades.
On the hills which enclose this fair green valley, each tree-stem, bough, and frond is traced with pre-Raphaelite distinctness. Fronting the inn, on the river-terrace, hang the pendent branches of an aged willow-tree, the umbrageous spread of which has caused its utilisation as a shade for the horses of customers and wayfarers. A round dozen of these have just been released from durance, as their owners, warned of the closing hour, ride off into the night. The equestrian habit principally differentiates the tavern of the new country from that of the old. Otherwise, in the matter of civility, cleanliness, and quietude, this particular inn and some others I affect in my rambles closely resemble the snug roadside retreats of Old England.
As I pace slowly over the thick green sward which carpets the river-meadow, the thought pursues me of what changes the future Lord of Bendemeer would find requisite. Aided by the Genius of Capital, they could not be wholly impracticable. And what a delicious Palace of Summer Delights, a charmed refuge from the world's woe and the clamorous chatter of society, might he rear amidst these cloistered shades! Important alterations, not in accordance with latter-day legislation, would be first effected. The acquisition of the freehold for leagues around, the disestablishment of stores, telegraph- and post-offices—pernicious contrivances these last for bringing unrest into remotest solitudes; the closing of schools and churches; the abrogation of the utilities; the suppression of trade; the exile of industry; I include with regret the old-fashioned, reposeful hostelry. Happy thought! It would probably be spared until the army of workmen required for the erection of the palace had been disbanded; as also, for similar reasons, the police-barrack which dominates the district, whence issues the man-at-arms of the period, 'native and to the manner born,' but soldierly and erect of bearing—a sleuth-hound in pursuit of horse-thieves and highwaymen, mounted and accoutred proper upon the good steed which he alone can rein.
The railway-line has been averted by good genii or through the laissez aller tone of thought which characterises the inhabitants of the vale. It clangs and thunders through a gorge on the head waters of the river, thus avoiding desecration by scrambling tourists and irreverent sons of commerce; but a huge, white, staring wooden bridge, the financial goal and triumph of the local tradesfolk, disfigures the rippling moonlit water. At a wave of the magic wand it disappears. A fairy-like structure arises in its place, delicate with marble tracery of pillars and arches, where the elves may flit love-whispering through the long sweet nights, may beckon to the Lorelei as she combs her tresses and warbles the fateful song on the rock which guards the mid-stream above the shimmering whirlpool.
The passes are guarded; the river-course on either side securely barricaded against the conditional purchaser and the drover—sole survivors they of the raider and moss-trooper, which a too considerate civilisation permits. Deer alone are permitted to crop the herbage of the park-like slopes; under the heavy shadows of the mountain, the leaping trout and lordly salmon, the ancient carp with silver- gleaming sides, would flash through stream and pool (this last no visionary image) as the shadows lengthened and the twilight stole tremulously forward. When the day was done, on such a full-orbed night as this, 'the harp, the lute, the viol's cry' should awaken the echoes as a most fair company (for would not all gallant knights and gracieuses, dames and damsels—whether summoned from afar or dwelling near at hand—with attendant poets and troubadours, be free of right to the enchanted vale?) flee the hours with song and dance till bright Cynthia paled at the approaching dawn, or, wandering through cedarn alleys and rose-thickets, listen to the nightingale's song as it blended with the murmur of silver- plashing fountains. The gnomes that dwell in the mountain passes, where they pile undreamed-of heaps of ore, steal forth to watch the enchanted revels. The river elves and fays float through mazy measures in fairy rings, or recline, 'neath starry fragrant blossoms, on rose-leaf couches, Even the unseen genius of the Austral wild—no malign, amorphous terror, but a benignant sylvan deity—might peer through the forest leaves and smile wonderingly at the fantasies of the 'coming race.'
Hark! Is that the grey owl? With strange, unmelodious cry he stirs the stillness. I turn to watch him, is he swims the night air with moveless wing—dropping, like the emissary of an evil witch, on the willow branch between me and the moon. Bird of ill omen, thou hast shattered my dream! The Palace has disappeared, the lutes are silent, the fair company dispersed; the nightingale, that sang of 'love, and love's sharp woe,' is mute for another century. Only the faint plash of the river, rippling over its sand-bars; only the mountain shadows beneath the waning, gibbous moon; only the unbroken silence of the Austral woodland, brooding, majestic, as of one watching through the eternities for the birth of a nation. 'The light that never was on sea or land' fades rapidly, and with the sigh that greets the evanishing of the undersoul's fair fantasies I seek my couch.
An early réveille comes Duty, with reason-compelling Circumstance; a deputation demanding answers to questions, of which due notice has been given. 'Enterprises of great pith and moment are imminent.' We must to horse and away, not betaking ourselves to pilgrim's staff, as is customary with us; time permits not. What bard—was it the sweet singer of a Brisbane Reverie, 'The Complaint of the Doves,' the laureate of Royalty (black), the minstrel of the desert steed, that in a lighter hour proclaimed—
For I am bound to Stanthorpe town,
And time with me is tin?
We are not journeying quite so far as the stanniferous stronghold; yet is our errand not unconnected with the metal that the Silures and Phœnicians delved for in Cornwall long before Julius Cæsar, without reference to the susceptibilities of king, kaiser, or chancellor, established his protectorate of Britain.
The stern Roman, the world's master, has vanished from among the tribes of men. His descendant, an ignoble fainéant, a stolid peasant, or a hired model, sells the right to mould the heroic form which has survived the heroic soul. The wide-ranging, sea-roving Anglo-Saxon, descendant of the fiercer races, has succeeded to his heritage of universal empire.
But can it be that the mother of nations is sinking into senile decrepitude, with selfish querulousness evading responsibility, only to lapse into deserved decay of power, and well-merited insignificance in the council halls of the world?
Oh for one hour of Wallace wight,
Or well-skilled Bruce to rule the fight!
sang Scotland's bard, in the lament for the fortunes of the field which sealed his country's fate. May not the modern Briton make the application, and in mingled wrath and despair regret the lost leader, who trod firmly, if warily, who drifted not, irresolutely weak, from peril to disasters, and delayed not the call to arms until the foe was at the gate of the citadel?
But this savours of the digressive. Where are we? Whither is this plaguey, many-sided, chiefly unnecessary, or wholly superfluous, mental apparatus, as some hold (being rarely serviceable in the muck-rake or money-storing business), leading us? To fairyland but yesternight; anon to Albion, Germany, Rome, amid Liberal Ministers even, to their Austral countrymen all too illiberal, stepfatherly, stern, repressive. Prose and the present to the rescue! So we fare on, the trooper and I, along the course of the Macdonald, in the fresh purity of this New England summer morn. How blithe and gladsome are all things! Hard is it to believe that disease, death, and unforeseen disaster can exist in so fair a world! The river ripples merrily onward, or sleeps in deep pools under o'erhanging oaks, whence the shy wild-duck floats out with dusky brood, or the heron rises from the reedy marge and sweeps along the winding stream. Masses of granite overhang the water. The everlasting hills rear themselves, scarped and terraced, at dizzy altitudes on either side. The late rains have lent a velvet, emerald tinge to the thick-growing matted sward. Marguerites, dandelions, white and yellow immortelles, the crimson bunches of hakea, fringed violets, with bright purple masses of swainsonia, diversify mead and upland. Tiny rills and springheads show a well-watered country—'a land that drinks the rain of Heaven at will.' Ever and anon the willow, with foliage of vivid tender green, contrasts with the sombre filaments of the river oak.
My companion is an active, intelligent young fellow—a native-born Australian, whose fair hair and steadfast grey-blue eyes show that the Anglo-Saxon type is not likely to alter materially in Southern Britain.
He and his horse are well suited—the latter a well-bred bay, fast at a finish, and ready to stay for ever. He has done a hundred miles on end before now, and been ridden twenty hours out of the twenty-four. In more than one skirmish, when revolvers were out, he has proved steady under fire, and is the very model, in appearance, in condition, and pace, of what a charger should be in a troop of Irregular Horse. As he stretches along with smooth, fast, easy stride, he looks as quiet as a lamb, and what superficial critics call 'properly broken in.' None the less will he refuse to let a stranger bridle, much less ride him; he would in such case snort and plunge like an unbacked colt.
I have had no experience of the metropolitan police, against whom it is occasionally the wont of a section of the press to say hard things. These may be true or false, for what I know, though I am disposed to believe the latter. But for the last twenty years I have had much knowledge of the mounted portion of the New South Wales force in the towns and districts of the interior, and I willingly record my testimony—not being in official relations with them at present—that a more efficient, well-disciplined, well-behaved body of men—smart, serviceable, and self-respecting—does not exist in any part of the world. In old days they were sometimes at a disadvantage against outlaws, who could ride and track like Comanchee Indians, the police being chiefly of British birth and rearing. But the mounted troopers are now largely recruited from natives of the colony, or men who have lived here from their youth. In one of these, as in my guide of to-day, the cattle-thief or other criminal has a pursuer to contend with as well mounted as himself, and fully his match in all the arcana of bushcraft.
But good as the white Australian may be at following a track, his sable compatriot is a degree better. A tamed pre-adamite, either borrowed for the occasion from a squatter, or attached by pay and cast-off uniform to a police-barrack, makes a matchless sleuth-hound. Such a one, I am told, helped to run down a notorious party of horse-thieves in these very mountains, following with astonishing accuracy the marauders, who travelled only by night, using every artifice as well to blind tracks and divert pursuers.
We cross the river once more, and note an island, upon which in floodtime a leading pastoral proprietor was washed down and nearly drowned. Another mile discovers a picturesquely-situated homestead, overlooking the river, where, winding round a granite promontory, it turns westward on its way to the great plain beyond the 'divide.' The roses proclaim their vicinity to the famed Bendemeer, the decomposed granite having a special chemical affinity; while the violets, large of leaf and profuse of bloom, seem as if prepared to found a new variety, so widely do they differ from the ordinary floweret.
For half a century or more has the venerable pioneer dwelt hard by the river-brim, where now, handsomely lodged, garden-surrounded, he dispenses hospitality, with all the concomitants of successful pastoral life around him, save and excepting only the wife and bairns, the stalwart sons and bright-eyed daughters, with which so worthy and energetic a colonist should have strengthened the State. But 'non cuivis contingit adire Corinthum'; it is not every man's lot thus to wind up life's tale. And it may be conceded that he who at an advanced age, retaining every faculty unimpaired, is permitted to view the work of his hands, conducted from the stage of the untamed wild to smiling prosperity, who can look forward cheerfully to end his days among a population entirely composed of friends and well-wishers, has secured a large proportion of the good which is permissible to mortal man.
Onward, still onward, ride we, for many a mile must be passed ere sunset. Onward through rugged denies and rock-strewn passes, over which the sure-footed steeds are constrained to clamber like chamois. Indeed we are nearly blocked in consequence of adopting one very tempting 'cut,'—by the way, in bush parlance, the old English predicate has been eliminated, and with reason; one does not speak of a 'long cut,'—for we find ourselves in the centre of a rock labyrinth locally termed a 'gaol.' The path, however, amid the huge boulders eventually conducts us to a grand granite-floored terrace, apparently constructed by one of the Kings of Bashan. Here we have a wide, extended view of the varied landscape, 'valley and mountain and woodland,' but it does not otherwise serve our purpose.
Speedily recovering lost ground, we strike the creek and the tin mines thereon located, which had been the cause of the exploration. The sanguine, undaunted prospectors are as usual delving and ditching, felling the forest, constructing dams, and generally committing assault and robbery upon patient mother Hertha.
We see the stream tin being washed out everywhere, like dark-coloured pebbly gravel. We note where the same rivulet has been formerly ravaged by the wandering mining hordes. We thread the gorges which lead into a rock-walled alpine valley, not inaptly named the 'Giant's Den,' and there meet with tin—more tin—toujours tin. For this fastness of the Titans has been turned into the Grand United Sluicing Company—no liability, let us say—and for the ten thousandth time, more or less, we admire the indomitable pluck and sanguine confidence of the miner proper. Here steam engines, pumping machinery, iron piping by the mile, dams, houses, men and material, are all found, in different stages of adaptation to an end. Evidently the shareholders, some of whom are practical men of transcolonial experience, have faith in the venture. The energetic Victorian captain beguiles us into a long, hot, pedestrian tour of inspection. He, always in advance, shovel on shoulder, prospects from time to time, and 'pans out,' with invariable success, the stanniferous gravel. Sooth to say, we have reached at length the mystic region where there is no 'want of tin.' It occurs everywhere in abundance—in new ground, in old workings, in mullock, in trenches, in each and every conceivable place. At the end of our bit of training, which mentally places us on a footing with Weston and other 'peds' of fame, we express our opinion that, with a steady supply of water for ground-sluicing, the Company should pay handsome dividends for years to come. The energetic captain, 'bred and born in a briar patch,' that is, on a gold-field, so that he is a 'legitimate miner' in every sense of the word, smiles appreciatively. We thankfully resume the saddle, and bid farewell to the 'Giant's Den.' 'It may be for years; it may be for ever.'
- Written in 1884.