Chapter 8

Mr Phillips wanted some special timber for fitting out his ship, so he sent William to cut it. Magdalen begged to be allowed to go and see the trees felled, as it was nearby. The stand had not been cut before because it was hidden by a particularly thick tangle of vines and undergrowth in a narrow gully. A large tree at the open end of the gully had been felled a few days before, bringing down with it a mass of foliage and exposing the smaller trees. Within the gully everything was dripping, the floor was covered with rotting bark, leaves, orange fungus clinging to fallen timber, rocks covered in moss and lichen. There were several gigantic ferns and stag horns, and some huge vines entangling all the trees.

Magdalen sat on the stump of the large tree trying to take it all in. Near the huge stump was the saw-pit, six feet deep with strong logs placed across, on which the timber was rolled to be sawn into suitable lengths, generally about twelve feet. The logs had been left on the banks of Christopher Creek, branded on the pithy end, waiting for rain.

They watched a number of birds flying among the trees and lizards among the fallen material.

"It's a shame for all the little creatures," said Magdalen, knowing that sentimentality was pointless. "Why is this stump so high it must make the felling more difficult?"
"Logs have to be an even size all along. They must start cutting above the butt, which of course is wider than the main trunk. Snigging the log to the saw-pit is the most dangerous part of the work. Logs are squared by cutting flitches, so they won't roll around in the ships, or else they're sawn into planks. One sawyer goes down into the pit and his mate stays on top. The one on top passes the end of the saw down and away they go. The man in the pit gets all the saw-dust and usually fixes a bag over his head to keep it out of his eyes and nose."
"Someone told me about a sawyer without a mate who had to tie a bag full of stones to the lower end."
"That's really hard work. I tried it once or twice."
"It looks bigger than a whip saw, this stump."
"Mm. The log would have to be halved by splitting before it could be sawn with a whip-saw. Splitting a tree sixty feet high and ten feet in diameter is a tedious job. They nearly had an accident with that tree. One of the men, a new chum, knocked out the iron dogs before his mate was ready. One of the halves of the log fell into the pit. A log can weigh up to three tonnes."
"There wouldn't be much left if that came on top of someone in a pit."

William took his newly sharpened axe and saw and studied the tree he was about to fell. Spitting on his hands he said, "You'd better sit over there on that rock. I'll bring it down this way."

Magdalen gazed up at the trees seventy and ninety feet high without a limb. She sat on a rock above the little gully and watched her husband. The trees were so bound together with vines he had some trouble clearing enough room to swing his axe. In the gully not a sunray ever reached the ground which even in this dry season was wet and covered with rotting foliage.

He swung his axe first from the right then from the left until he had made a wedge-shaped cut. He then began on the other side with his saw. The tree soon began to creak, William withdrew his saw and stood aside while the tree, at first slowly, then with a rush, thudded to the ground exactly where required.

"Beautiful," said Magdalen.

The other trees came down as expertly as the first, and the branches were removed. William and Magdalen returned to the Settlement, Magdalen to her house work and William to collect ropes and men to bring the timber in, along Christopher Creek which flowed into the Big River adjacent to Mr Phillips' shipyard.

When William came home that evening he remarked that the creek had been very low but they had managed to bring the timber down with some persuasion and they would start seasoning it tomorrow.

That evening it began to rain. It poured steadily and after several hours the rain began to find the weak spots in the roof of the original hut. The bark had baked in the summer heat for months and small splits had appeared. William got up and built up the fire which had as usual been damped down by covering with ashes. He brought in more firewood to keep a good supply out of the rain in case it should be set in, then by the light of a burning stick he observed where the worst leaks were, intending to renew the bark next day. In the summer heat the rain was welcome, to cool the air, water the garden, freshen the grass and lay the dust. Magdalen lay listening to the steady sound of the leaves drinking rain.

The next day it was raining too hard for the men to work. They sat in their huts all along the Clarence and discussed the drought and the anticipated flood. It had been unusually dry for three years, especially in the South. The Clarence had had its normal wet season two years ago, although a mild one, but last year had been quite dry. Along every creek course the cedar-getters had stacked their logs. Some of them had worked for two years and lived on credit at the depot because much of the timber could not be got out until the creeks flooded.

Excitement now ran high. The cedar-getters who were in the vicinity of the Settlement stocked up with flour and tea and were ready to go as soon as the rain eased. They would return to the stacks of logs and would roll them into the creeks as soon as the flow was sufficient to carry them down stream. At the chain across the Clarence they would claim their logs, deliver them in rafts to the depot, settle their accounts and celebrate with a keg of rum and an orgy.

Many of the men spent the day repairing their clothes and tools, drinking pannikins of tea, smoking endless pipes, and spending their cheques in imagination. William worked on some repairs to the hut. The roof of the original hut needed attention, luckily not above the bed. He patched the worst parts and would replace the sheets of bark as soon as he had collected his timber.

By the third day the rain had stopped but the skies were still overcast. The sawyers set off up-river to their pulling boats with supplies for a week or two. They passed the end of the old ships cable through the metal rings on dozens of logs which floated on the river when the cable was pulled across to the opposite bank and firmly attached to a strong tree. Then they continued up-river and built bark lean-to's or used previous huts where these were still available.

Meanwhile Magdalen alone again found the waiting very hard. She opened the doors and shutters to air the hut, attended to the household chores and waited.

That night the rain began again and continued non-stop for days. Would the skies ever be blue again? The whole floor was wet and the rain had found more weaknesses in the roof and walls. The fire was kept blazing all day and every evening plenty of wood was brought in to dry. Steam rose from the damp wood as it dried by the fireplace. Every night when Magdalen went to bed she lay hoping that William was safe and dry, feeling unsettled, counting the days on the new almanac for 1841 that Mr Price had given her.

One evening she was sleeping fitfully when she was awakened by a noise outside. It was the sound of men shouting, but she could make out no words. She reached for William's axe which lay as a precaution at the head of the bed. Half asleep still she felt something cold but it was not hard metal. It was water lapping around the bed.
The men were now at the door shouting her name.

"Come in," she called as she struggled to put her frock on over her night dress and slip into her shoes without stockings. As she came out from the bedroom she found the men putting things up, having hastily lit a touch from the embers of the fire. Someone gathered her bedding rolling it into a bundles skin side out. It was already wet at the edges where it had hung over the low bed. It was wedged firmly into the rafters. Someone else stuffed things into the trunk, hoisted it to his shoulder and put it on the rafters. "My chickens and the calf" said Magdalen putting on her hat and coat. She made sure she had her precious tinder-box, a cylinder about an inch in diameter by three inches with a tightly fitting cover attached by a small chain. She had recently persuaded Captain Freeburn to bring her half a dozen chickens in spite of all the advice she had had against such an undertaking. Now she knew why none of the other women allowed themselves to be encumbered with anything unnecessary. The chickens were huddled in their box in the hut where Magdalen had put them out of the rain. One of the men picked up the box, threw a sheet of bark of over it as they went out. The water was ankle deep in the hut and had already begun to fizzle as it touched the slightly elevated fireplace. Magdalen hurried out to untie the calf and they all made their way up to Wilson's Hill. It was raining as if it had forgotten how to stop.

"How can there be so much rain up there?" wondered Magdalen who had not until now experience a tropical wet season.

The people from the Settlement had all reached Wilson's Hill. Some men put a few sheets of bark against a huge tree for an emergency shelter. Sarah was trying to light a tiny fire with her tinder-box, using pieces of bark she pulled off the tree and tore to shreds. Magdalen tied up her calf and put the chicken box among the huge roots on the dry side of the tree. The men went back to Price's store to help him put his stock up out of the reach of the flood. Mrs Irwin and her children were there, as well as other families from a little further up-river.

"Did you expect anything like this?" asked Magdalen.
"No this is the worst we've 'ad. Last flood was in 'thirty nine and not near as 'igh as this. It was before we arrived but I've been shown how 'igh it reached. Are you cold luv? I'll soon 'ave a fire 'oing." Sarah Cooper puffed on a whisp of smoke and fed the bark in gently. Soon there was a little smouldering fire and she put on twigs which sizzled and finally burst into flame. Joey brought in an arm full of very wet firewood, and one or two pieces which he had broken off dead branches which were not so wet. Soon there was a cheerful fire at one end of the shelter and billy-cans were put on for tea.

When the men came back they bought tea and sugar and gathered around the shelter of the tree and drank mugs of strong sweet tea. The children huddled in the lean-to, were also given a drink of tea to warm them. Mr Wilson whose hut was nearby came over as soon as he realised that the river had flooded and that the settlers had taken refuge on the hill. All the children were taken into his hut where his young wife herself expecting a baby soon, kept them company.

"The Blacks call this hill 'Youloumba' which means a place a safety from floods. I think that's a jolly good name for the place," she said.

Most of the women remained at the lean-to to save crowding the little hut.
"I'm glad it isn't really cold," said Magdalen. "But what happens to those who aren't near high ground?"
"They may 'ave to climb a tree for a day or two. They'll be alright Mrs Yabsley, don't worry. It's bin rainin' for ten days now and 'as to stop soon. You'll see. Mr Yabsley knows what to do."

For the rest of that night they sat together and gave each other encouragement. Before dawn the rain eased and stopped. At daylight they went outside to stretch their legs.

"Women left. Men right," Sarah Cooper was not too coy to make a plain statement about their major need.

Mrs Wilson and the children were out soon afterwards.
"The children 'ave been very good considerin' what an uncomfortable night they've all 'ad."

From Wilson's Hill through the trees they looked at a sea of water. The 'Clarence' still lay at anchor in front of the shipyard, which was half under water. They could see the top of several buildings. Magdalen could not see where her hut would be, it was hidden by trees, but she knew her garden would be completely underwater, and wondered how long it would take for the water to recede. But her main fear was for William. Where was he when the water rose? Where was he now? Had he seen the approaching danger?

"Mrs Yabsley," called Sarah who saw her gazing at the stretch of muddy turbulent water, and bitting her lip. "Will you 'elp me with some breakfast for the 'ungry 'ords?" she knew the best antidotes to worry for the women who had to wait was to keep busy.

"Come now my dear, sit beside the fire and stir the porridge for me. I want to dry some of the children's clothes. Joey, take off those wet things and wrap yourself in my coat. Annie, bring more wood and build the fire up."

As Magdalen stirred the porridge, she noticed "We'll need more water for tea. Where do we get it?"
"It doesn't make much difference it's all that muddy, but it won't be salty to be sure."

The men had gone back to the ship yard and the huts to check if there was anything which needed urgent attention. They put onto the roofs of the huts various things which were floating around in the rooms, and collected more food, cooking utensils, plates, and pannikins. As they came back to Wilson's Hill the sun suddenly began to shine and it seems impossible that anything terrible could have happened. The sawyers must be safe.

Within a short time everyone was eating, drinking tea, expressing amazement at the suddenness and severity of the flood, and speculating on the time it would take to recede. The ground on the hill was already steaming. People began to take off their outer clothing and allow their damp things to dry.

"It looks like the steam laundry where I worked in England," laughed Sarah Cooper. "Now let's get cleared up."
"The water has reached its peak" said Mr Phillips. "I marked the water level at first light this morning, and the peg is now an inch or two above the water." The next hours passed very slowly. There was nothing the women could do except gather plenty of firewood and be prepared in case of further rain. And wait. The children kept running to the pegs put to mark the water level. They made boats out of bark and played, enjoying the excitement of a break of routine. They seemed unaware that their mothers were looking anxiously at the bright skies, in case any stray clouds should appear, or that their fathers were absent and overdue.

Death by drowning was the worst fate that Magdalen could imagine. She was becoming obsessed with fears about William being drowned. While fitfully dozing she dreamed about it.

Suddenly through the trees the children heard the dipping oars of a pulling boat and shouted to their mothers that a boat was coming to the hill. It did seem incongruous to see a boat dodging branches and tree trunks. As soon as the boat came clearly into view, they could see the backs of William and Joe and three other men... William stocky and powerful and to Magdalen unmistakeable even in his shapeless waterproof. Each woman whose husband had gone up-river had eyes only for her man. The relief was so strong that it hurt.

The boat was left in eighteen inches of water, the rope thrown over the branch of a tree. After the men had eaten and drunk some strong tea, the water level had fallen and the boat had to be pulled to deeper water. Magdalen and William returned to their hut, Sarah and Joe Cooper to theirs, Mr and Mrs Irwin to theirs, to see how high the water had risen in the huts and if there was anything to be done. The flood line was marked by a line of mud on the walls. Things had floated around inside and many of them had ended up in one corner, in William's hut it was the fireplace. The old part of the hut needed repair and no doubt some things had been washed away, but on the whole the hut was intact, the main posts having been driven well into the ground. Magdalen collected chicken feed and food for themselves, and they returned to Wilson's Hill to sit it out for another twenty-four hours, pulling the boat further downhill every few hours until darkness fell. At dusk William and Joe looked at the sky, decided there would be no more rain, so pulled the boat to the normal river channel, where they secured it and splashed back towards the Hill.

They lit a roaring bon fire near Mr Wilson's hut, even though the evening was quite warm and the moonlight was splendid, so intensely bright. To discourage the mosquitoes they threw cow dung on the fire. The brightness was cheerful. The logs crackled and sent sparks flying upward into the smoke, to join the brilliant stars in the sky. It was a night for star-gazing, and William pointed out to Magdalen the ones he recognised. All bushmen knew the stars, because they spent many long evenings with no light but the campfire and the stars and moon. During his year at sea, William had learnt to find direction by the stars, for the first few months the northern stars, and then during the exploration of Australia's west coast he had become familiar with a new set of stars and was fascinated by then. He had studied the almanac and remembered the details of the stars, planets, moonrise, and without the clock or watch could calculate the time and direction on any starry night.

There was a great strength in William. His knowledge gave confidence because he was known not to say anything he was not sure of. If William said something it was so. Idle talk and chit-chat passed him by, but anything of practical interest he absorbed avidly, and liked to pass the knowledge onto anyone who would listen. Magdalen leaned against him as they sat by the fire and felt reassured by his presence.

"I dare say we 'ave lost some of the timber," Joe was saying. "'specially what we put into the creeks before the second deluge. But we still 'ave a good deal. Tomorrow we clean up the 'uts and get back to work."

The surveyors, the Wilson Brothers, talked about the progress they had made with the survey. Mr Price was glad that most of his stock had not been damaged. Mr Irwin had lost a lot of partly finished birds and would have to start collecting more specimens as soon as possible. Mr Phillips said he wanted to continue rigging his ship when William had cleaned and repaired his hut.

Out came the concertina and for a while there was singing with everyone joining in the choruses. The children were falling asleep after an exciting day and little sleep the night before. They were lying beside the fire, so the adults built up the fire and lay down too.

The Wilson's returned to their huts. "Don't hesitate to come and disturb us in the night if anyone needs anything."

When anyone stirred during the night, he threw a little more wood on the fire. Apart from that they slept well, exhausted and at peace.

At first light Magdalen and William returned to their hut. They surveyed the garden which was covered in inches of mud, and the hut which was full of mud, leaves, dead insects and even a few small birds and animals. William brought bucket after bucket of water from the still swirling river, while Magdalen washed everything in sight, aired the bedding and retrieved objects from the fireplace. William shovelled out buckets of rubbish, and apart from the smell, it was nearly back to normal. A few sheets of bark would have to be replaced. The garden however looked finished. Corn which had been over their heads was now flattened and rotting in the mud.

"I can see why people don't bother about gardens. We haven't had much out of it for all the hard work. But I suppose I have learnt something, and it's kept me busy."

At the end of the day Magdalen was exhausted and there was still the dinner to cook while William fixed the bed.

"You look tired Marley. Any problems?"
"Not especially. Just worn out."

* * *

One evening a few weeks later Magdalen was making soap. She had put the ashes from the fire in a barrel with small cracks in the bottom. William was working on the cutlery set he had begun before the flood.

"Captain Freeburn arrived today. I've been talking to him about taking you to Sydney Town."

She raised her eyes and looked at him, puzzled, then said as she poured water over the ashes "What do you mean? Taking me to Sydney Town?" the water seeped through the ashes in the barrel and collected in a shallow dish underneath.

"I've been thinking it would be better for you to go to Stonequarry to have the baby. We don't want any problems this time. You can bring Jane back when you come."

She took a deep breath, a thousand thoughts rushing in her mind. She had often wondered how it had been during Mrs Lardner's confinement when her son James was born at 'Copmanhurst' just after Christmas. Automatically she poured the water from the dish over the ashes again.

"What about my calf and the chickens and garden? You have no time for things like that, the hours you are working now at the shipyard. And I wonder how Jane would take to living here...floods and heat and everything." She wondered how she would take to it again, if once she was away.

"Mrs Cooper says that young Joey can come each day to see to the animals. I'll check on them. Don't plant anything else in the garden for the present, except maybe pumpkins. The sooner Jane comes the sooner she can start getting used to it."

Magdalen absent-mindedly repeated the process of pouring the water over the ashes.
"You've not mentioned a word to me."
"I've been thinking about it. You can go about June and spend a couple of months down south. Before you come back you can do some shopping."

Magdalen could think of a thousand useful and pretty things she could get for the household, for the baby, for Jane and William and herself.

"I'll stock up on store soap, so that I won't have to make my own," she laughed a little hysterically. William took out writing materials and began to write to Stonequarry.
"You can bring me back some bootmaker's tools," he was saying. "I want to make a last of your foot."
"A what?"
"A last. I've been quite pleased with my progress at boot repairs I think I could learn to make our boots. Perhaps you can find me a book on it. Then we won't have to wait for Dr Dobie's man to be available."
"I'll see what I can find. And it will be a good chance to buy cloth for clothes. My dresses will be no use to me after the baby is born. I've remade all of them, and they are nearly worn out anyway. I was wearing by best one in the flood. It will never be the same again. And things for you and Jane and the baby." She tried to put aside a growing distaste for life on the treacherous Big River, as she mixed the lye water with fat collected from their dinners, and put it on the fire to boil.
William was saying "I will make a cradle with scraps at the yard. There are some good pieces of red cedar... beautiful wood, easy to work and light to carry. Polishes well too."
"I saw a picture of a cradle in a catalogue. It was carved so that the air could pass through. That would be better in this climate than the solid type we had for Jane." Magdalen stirred her putty-coloured soap mixture.
"I know what you mean. I'll start as soon as I finish this cutlery. You can bring me back some polish."
"All the things to buy. Can we really afford for me to go to Stonequarry? I'll spend half your timber cheque. I know you want to save the money to buy land."
"That's for the future. I want a bullock team first. There is a lot of money to be made in hauling timber. And a great need for bullocks now that the timber near the creeks is nearly all cut. More reliable than waiting for the floods too, and less dangerous. But the bullocks can wait. The baby won't."


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