Chapter 7

One Sunday early in the New Year Magdalen and William were walking along a track leading west along the river. It was still hot and dry, but the Blacks said the rain would come soon and the sawyers waited for the floods. The track went up river from Phillips store with their own hut nearby, past Price's store where a creek joined the Big River. Magdalen had never been further than this on foot. Further on they came to the hut of Mr Irwin the bird stuffer.

Mr Irwin welcomed them eagerly and immediately put the kettle on for tea.
"How is your sons arm? Not badly scared I hope"
"No, thanks to you Mrs Yabsley. Look how clean it's healed."
"Come and see the birds my husband is stuffing. He's working even on the Sabbath, but you will excuse him I'm sure. He caught such a lot of parrots in his nets yesterday and he has to preserve them quickly in this climate."

Mr Irwin showed them how he had carefully taken the skins and feathers off the parrots, after measuring them and examining them in detail, making notes and accurate drawings. Then the skins were preserved using a special arsenical soap.

"Tomorrow I'll start on making models of the birds using wire, shredded wood and clay. Plaster or paper mache can be used too. I have to use what I can get and make them as near as I can to the shape of the birds. Then I put the skins on the models and sew them very carefully."
"What beautiful birds. So colourful," said Magdalen studying some finished examples. "They flash past in the trees I've never been able to see them clearly. I didn't realise how brilliant they are. I'm amazed."
"I'm amazed myself. There seems to be no end to the number of new species. And they are so much in demand I can sell all I can trap - lyre birds, bower birds, riffle birds."
"Your work is so neat they look real they might all fly out of the door if you're not careful."

After drinking their tea and chatting for a while, the visitors walked on. Only small clearings were made around the huts, and there was dense cedar brush for five hundred yards all along the river bank. Through a break in the scrub they could see the river which was also five hundred yards wide, and Susan Island in the middle.

"I suppose the island got its name from the ship 'Susan' which belongs to Mr Small," explained William. "You remember he was building her at Kissing Point when Richard Craig told him about the Big River where he had lived with the aborigines. So Mr Small brought up a party of sawyers some time before I left the 'Beagle'. As far as I know Mr Small never came up the river, but his party cut cedar and ran stock on Woodford Island near the heads. Mr Girard arrived on the 'Taree' about the same time, and also Mr Phillips and Mr Cole, but I believe the 'Susan' was the first to enter the river."
"Mr Wilson also has a daughter Susan. Perhaps he named the island after her?"

Within the forest it was dim. The canopy of vines and branches completely hid the blue sky and prevented the rays of the sun ever reaching the mat of decaying vegetation on the forest floor. There was a feeling of breathless awe, an eeriness about the place which made Magdalen uneasy. The primitive forest seemed unfriendly, the vines scratched and the fallen leaves covered hidden holes. It seemed to belong more to the primitive black men who might be watching them even now, and who blended with it and didn't change it. It was the home of possums, bandicoots, marsupial mice.

There were a few young cedars in shady recesses beside the stony creek. Further up stood one cedar, interwoven with vines and creepers, tall and straight with a spreading crown.

red cedarA young red cedar (Toona australis)

"That's not a full grown tree," William pointed out. "Full grown they are ninety feet high before they throw out a single branch. It's the only deciduous native I know of. They lose their leaves in winter or early spring."
"It's a really handsome tree. Pity it will eventually be cut down. Especially as they're getting rare."
"In a few years it will come down. They are too valuable. They're all gone in the south."

Nearby a stand of trees had been cut, and the vines and creepers had come down with the trees leaving a clearing. Magdalen and William stepped out of the forest into the blinding heat of the afternoon. The fierce heat hit them like a blast.

"This is as far as I will take you. It isn't sensible to go further on our own."

Returning from the Sabbath walk, they talked about the aborigines and the increase in aggression since the Governor's Appeasement Policies. At first very little had been done for the Blacks even by the missionaries. Governor Gipps wanted to change this by setting up Protectorates. The Protectors were mostly clergy men who were towns-people and untrained in bush life and knew nothing about the Blacks in their native state. Free rations were an attraction to the Blacks, but not religion without food. Some worked spasmodically on the runs, but most of them were not interested in white man's work for the white man's wages, although they would sell their gins for spirits and tobacco.

Governor Gipps believed that the squatters were mostly the aggressors, despoiling aboriginal hunting grounds and tribal sacred places, and he refused to believe that the natives would kill or steal unprovoked. To him Blacks were innocent children of nature, and he saw himself as their revered White Father. He decreed that every native who died should have the same form of inquest as a white man in Sydney. This was extremely difficult in the wilderness where both black and white could easily vanish, the black more easily than the white. There was a multitude of outrages but only ten natives were found guilty of crimes seven of these of murder, and the natives became unbearably impudent to the white settlers. It was easy to say that the Governor's policy was a failure, but difficult to suggest an effective solution.

"If they had been treated right by everyone there would be no problem. But as it is, it would be foolish to go too far from the settlement in case of meeting someone with a grudge."

Magdalen walked about half a pace behind and beside William, as the track was too narrow for them to walk side by side, and she was very interested in her husband's views on the problem.

Suddenly William stopped and put out his arm to stop Magdalen, but she was caught in mid-step, one foot raised above a large snake, half dozing among the leaves on the track. As she tried to turn her other foot slipped and she was lying full length in the dirt. The snake disappeared with haste.

"Are you alright? Where are you hurt?"
"Only my hip. I fell on a stone."

William helped her to a rock where she sat for a moment, after checking to see that there were not more snakes in the vicinity.

"It's amazing that very few people are bitten, considering the number of snakes there are," observed William for something to say.
"I think they're more scared than we are if that's possible."
"Look at those shoes Marley. They're nearly worn out. They're dangerous, especially now you're in the family way."

She hadn't told him the news, but he had seen the signs often enough now not to need to be told.

"Mm they're the best shoes I have now. I know this sort of gymnastics is not good for the baby. William I am so worried I don't want to lose this baby. I know it's early days yet and I don't think I've shaken the baby too much, but I couldn't bear to lose another one."
"I'll try to mend these shoes for you. I've been doing my own ever since I got here. I was reading an article in one of those newspapers you brought..."
"And of course you have to try it for yourself."

She recovered from the fright and from the fall, she dusted her clothes and they walked on, watching more carefully.

"Sarah Cooper says one can order shoes by drawing round one's foot and sending to Sydney, but my instep is so high lots of shoes are not comfortable at all."
"There's a boot maker at 'Ramornie' among the assigned servants. They arranged for a supply of tools and leather to be dispatched to Phillips depot. I saw it when it arrived. I know he's been busy making boots for the whole party, because they wore out just about everything on the way down from Guyra. He has to make four pairs of Cossacks or bluchers a week and after that he can make a bonus for himself. He's an industrious sort of chap so he'll probably be glad to make you some. In the mean time I'll have to patch these up with green hide."
"Well if you don't have enough to do with making furniture and fixing the hut and this and that."
"I don't want any more accident."

They approached their home standing in a cleared area, with a yard made of saplings for the calf, another garden bed added, and a second room almost finished with an indoor fireplace and chimney at one end. They were already using the room, while William found the time to finish the windows and bark shutters to keep out the weather. Magdalen felt a glow of pride.

William took the bucket to fetch water, while Magdalen stirred up the fire and added some kindling to the glowing embers. She took off her hat to fan it gentle and when it burst into life she hung her hat on its peg near the door. Slipping off her worn shoes she took them to the other room and put them in her cupboard made from boxes.

There was now a double bed made from saplings covered in bags and bark, so that the skins and blankets were now several inches above the dirt floor.

When the water arrived, Magdalen put on the kettle for tea and William took up a piece of cutlery he was making – a set of knives with wooden handles and blades from broken saw blades, wooden spoons, forks with wooden handles and twisted wire prongs. After years of solitary life moving from one cedar stand to another he was very content to stay in one place and make it home... at least for the present.


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