Chapter 3

From long habit William awoke at daylight with the noisy currawongs. As a concession to his reunion with his wife, he did not immediately wash and dress. They lay together, her head on his arm. He had already told his mate Joe Cooper that he might go back to ship-building with Mr Phillips, and that Joe should find another partner. Joe had said that he thought of going to Port Macquarie and perhaps open a store. Firstly for William was the task of making the hut more comfortable with some primitive furniture, a kitchen chimney for an inside fireplace, and an outside camp oven.

"I wish Jane and my mother were here," said Magdalen. "But I know mother would never come. She could never leave her homeland or adapt to such a different life. Imagine her going behind a tree when nature calls, or eating bread made from weevilly flour," she laughed, but her laugh died suddenly. "I think I'll never see Mother again."
William pressed her shoulder and there was a little silence.
"In a few years you'll be able to go back for a holiday, you'll see. I mean to make something of myself in this country."
"You probably will. You mostly manage to do what you set out to. But Mother was ailing when I left and I don't think she'll live too long. Anyway, only the rich make their fortunes."

She looked up at the bare hut with nothing but a water bucket, a tin dish, a cooking pot, a few old blankets they were lying on, their hats on pegs by the door, bags of food hanging from the rafters, William's tools, saws, axes, branding iron and her travelling trunk as the only other item.

William went on. "If labouring classes could buy small parcels of land, they could do something with their money instead of spending it on rum. That's what keeps them poor. But if a man makes plans he can rise above this. Some do."
"We must be careful not to try to rise above our proper station in life, but I think a house and garden are not too much to ask. I believe the banks lend money readily. Uncle William got credit to buy stock when he got that grant of land at Stonequarry. Picton it is now."
"There has been plenty of credit until now. But in a dry season like this it's risky and I think a lot of people will end up in debt. Uncle William would have been better advised not to borrow heavily. He was in the army for twenty years and should have planned this undertaking for some time. It takes planning and foresight and will-power to save."

They got up and washed in the tin dish with water from the bucket. All William's clothes were dirty, so he selected the cleanest. Once dressed he walked around the hut contemplating its possibilities. Suddenly he pointed to a flock of the galahs flying overhead, the individual birds making an ever-changing pattern, until with perfect timing the whole flock made a sudden change of direction. Then William pointed out some nearby trees, a brush box, and fig tree.

"How much more garden will you want?" he asked as they strolled around.
"I hoped you would dig up some ground for me, and I'll try and grow all we need. This tree is a nuisance because it casts too much shadow and the roots are in the way."

William helped her to water the pumpkin vines and corn, at the same time studying the tree from all angles. A kookaburra in the branches laughed briefly and flew away. Taking the bucket, William walked to Phillips' waterhole to collect fresh water. Magdalen followed. He was saying "Don't make your garden too obvious. Strictly it isn't legal to cultivate Crown Land. My cedar-getter's licence gives only a kind of permissive occupancy, nothing more. But don't worry. The Commissioner from Port Macquarie doesn't come here too often. Well, I'll start on that tree straight after breakfast."
"Take the tree down? It might fall on the hut. It isn't much of a hut, but it is all we have. At least let me get my things out first."
He gave her a playful jab in the ribs.
"By now I can bring a tree down within feet of where I want it. It's a matter of observing which way the heavy branches lean and taking off any that would bring it down the wrong way. There aren't any on the same side as the hut. So I'll chop a V on the other side and then cut through from here with the saw."
"Why the V?"
"It directs the fall of the tree and takes the pressure off the saw-cut. Otherwise the weight would jam the saw."
"I'll get the porridge and make the tea and then you can demonstrate what you've been learning out in the wilderness." She took his arm and they walked back to the hut. Magdalen raked the ashes off the fire, exposing a red glow, then added leaves and twigs and fanned it with her hat. Meanwhile William sharpened his axe and touched up his saw with a file.

"How many saws do you have?"
"I could use more if I had them. I have the carpenter's saws which I brought from the 'Beagle' and have had to buy a cross-cut saw and a whip-saw for timber-getting."

After breakfast William set to work on the tree, first nicking the trunk on the side opposite the hut, working equally well right or left handed. As it was only a slim eucalypt it soon came down neatly just where William had planned. The thickest part was the right size for two solid stools which they rolled to the hut. William mopped his brow and Magdalen brought out pannikins of cold water. Sitting on the stools in front of the hut, Magdalen asked William if he ever thought of Home.

"I used to. Not much now. I'm too busy most of the time. I don't miss the smoke and undrained streets of Plymouth. We may have only one room here the same as in Plymouth, but we don't have to wash and dry clothes and everything else indoors. The children play outdoors even in winter. When Jane is here this will be Home."

Logic told Magdalen that she too would come to accept this as Home. But as yet homesickness was a big problem. To distract her William pointed to the top of the giant fig tree where a number of crested flock pigeons were enjoying the fruit.

Magdalen collected William's dirty clothes and took them to the creek where she threw them into a pool, much to the annoyance of the wildfowl. Tucking her skirt under her knees, she sat on a large stone, slipped off her shoes and began to pound and rub the clothes. Extra dirty spots needed a handful of river gravel to help loosen the grime. She had a constant feeling of being watched. Many times before when she came here she had an uneasy feeling of curious or antagonistic eyes watching her movements. There were also snakes, Blacks, convicts. Every sound warned of potential danger until identified, perhaps the greatest danger being the many cedar-getters who were desperate ruffians on the run, mostly without a woman, not even a lubra.

At last she straightened her back, quickly dried her feet on her skirt, put on her shoes, and gathering up her washing, hurried to the hut. Around the hut she felt safe, as no-one had ever been molested in the Settlement. The washing was soon set to dry on bushes and branches. Then she began to make the midday meal. She had wanted to cook a dinner, although Sarah Cooper had warned her that men working in the bush had only a light meal at midday of damper and tea. William had assured her that he would prefer an evening meal. As she had run out of flour and there was no more at the store, Magdalen cooked some simple oat-cakes. They sat on their newly cut stools to eat.

"I am so keen to have Jane with us, but there are only one or two children in the Settlement and there are so many dangers. At Stonequarry she has several playmates and may even be able to go to school. I taught her what I could on the ship, but of course that wasn't much."
"When we get established the first thing I want to do is arrange for schooling for our children. I've found that I've often been at an advantage over men who can't read and write. The Governor is very keen on education and gives assistance in establishing Provisional Schools. Of course not outside the Settled District."
"That reminds me. I brought with me all the newspapers and periodicals I could beg borrow or steal."
"Marley, you think of everything. We get very little news. This afternoon while I'm working on the tree, you can make some candles so that I can read this evening."

Magdalen was glad she had watched Sarah Cooper making candles from fat in a little clay dish, or by dripping strands of yarn in melted fat, allowing it to cool and repeating until the candle was thick enough. The biggest problem was obtaining something for the wicks. Since her arrival she had spent a lot of time tending her tiny garden, carrying water during the rainless weeks and talking to her friends and neighbours to learn everything she could about coping with existence, without having to depend on the unreliable trading vessels. Improvisation was a way of life and water was the only thing they could find no substitute for.

While William expertly trimmed the tree, and a stacked the unusable parts near the hut for firewood, Magdalen did her chores, punctuated with frequent trips to tell William something she had just thought of, to discuss their plans to add another room and fetch Jane, to ask endless questions about the years apart, to discuss conditions they would have to accept in their chosen life in the Outback.

William was now clearing the scrub around the stump making enough room for a small garden.

"I'll burn the stump out when it dries".
"William there's one thing I've been most anxious to see but most of the people in the Settlement are very reluctant to go out of sight of the huts. I want to see some of the forest away from here, the sort of place where you've been cutting. Coming up the river in the 'Bessie' we could see it along the banks and overhanging the water, but I want to be in it and see one of those red cedars they talk of."
"We'd have to walk some distance to the real wilderness. I'm just trying to think where the nearest red cedar would be. They're so valuable they're sought out and cut as soon as the first sawyers arrive, at least those near the creeks and rivers. There are some young ones left but they are pink rather than red."
"Where were you working until now? By the way, did you come back to the Settlement for supplies or what?"
"About twenty miles up-river. A couple of sawyers that I helped a little while back, thought I'd like to know you'd arrived, so they went out of their way to find me. We were nearly ready to leave in another few days. I left my mate Joe Cooper and the other two men to finish that stand and snig them to the creek. They mark them and leave them on the bank for the next flood."
"How do you stop them sailing off out to sea?"
"Just a little up-river, they put a ship's cable across the river for that purpose. I can take you there some Sunday. Some timber does sail out to sea of course. It's not a very efficient method. Bullocks are better, but there's no team in the district yet."
"How do you know your own logs?"
William showed her his branding iron which had WY on it.
"A hundred or more logs are formed into a raft by passing a chain through the 'eyes' of log spikes called 'dogs' and tightening them to keep them from spreading and rocking. Sometimes a rafter lays planks across the logs and stretches a tarpaulin across a ridge pole, and sleeps on bark and grass, and cooks his food over a fire laid on about a foot of earth."
"Damper and black tea I suppose?"
"And corned junk - corned beef - just like in the bush."
"What's the real bush like? Along the river it looks so tangled, and so many vines, I wonder how you find your way through. Where the trees have been cleared the undergrowth and vines seems to disappear."
"The virgin forest is so dense that no sunbeam can penetrate, summer or winter. The undergrowth depends on the canopy of trees, and I'm inclined to think that the seedlings of many of the trees may need the undergrowth to protect them. In the South all the cedar stands have disappeared and aren't growing again after many years."
"There is so much wilderness I don't suppose it really matters. The squatters around here are in urgent need of good grazing land for their increasing flocks, and more squatters are arriving all the time looking for unclaimed land. That reminds me, I want to get a young calf if I can, perhaps one too weak to travel."
"I'll make enquiries. Well I'm going now to see if Mr Phillips will employ me for a while."

* * *

Mr Phillips was glad to employ William who understood his trade, could read plans and calculate sizes and curves. That evening by the light of the fat candles Magdalen had made, William began to thumb through the newspapers, looking first for the items which would interest his wife because he knew that most of them were beyond her limited reading ability.

"It says here that the population of New South Wales is nine men to one woman and thirty-eight to one in remote districts. They are talking about organising ships just for female immigrants. Women would make an enormous difference to life in the Colony, but of course they would never come to these parts."

They discussed the end of Transportation during the previous year and the growing labour shortage; the exploration of the Kosciusko area by Strezlecki and the naming of Gippsland after the Governor; the issue of Penny Black stamp in England; Queen Victoria's marriage.

"Here's something about an explorer George Grey. He sailed on the 'Beagle' with me, and left the ship to explore the north-west of Australia. Apparently he has achieved something and they are about to make him the Governor of South Australia.
"And listen to this 'Since 1838 there has been unbounded credit and extravagant speculation and spending in the Colony. Auctioneers put on champagne and chicken for all who attend their sales. Bollock drivers have boasted of drinking champagne from buckets. Land is 12/– an acre within official boundaries, but there are millions of acres of dream land outside. There are five million acres within the Nineteen Counties for 70,000 people, believed to be all the land that could reasonably be required. But the thick line which Governor Darling drew on the map as the border has been crossed in all directions. The settlers ask nothing from the government. Recently the Governor has come to acquiesce in something he cannot prevent and is issuing licences to sawyers and squatters."
"How does he get the licence money from the squatters and cedar-getters in the outback?"
"It's the Commissioner's job. The nearest one to us is at Port Macquarie. He also has real powers to deal with local affairs, and he has a force of mounted police to support him. The Governor wants to end the trouble between the Blacks and the squatters, and the Commissioner has control there too."
"What's he like, the Governor?"
"I believe all the other Governors have been men of high rank. Governor Gipps was a Major of Her Majesty's Engineers, with no money or high connections. He's a bit of an idealist."

William was careful to omit any items which were considered offensive to women, such as sanitation in the streets of Sydney, but because of Magdalen's enormous common-sense he felt that some public questions were not beyond her. She realised that many men did not think it appropriate for their women folk to discuss such matters, and accepted the unspoken compliment.

The smoky candle flickered out. In darkness they undressed and crawled into bed, lying close together.

"William, what does one do here at Christmas? I just can't conceive of it."
"Some drink themselves into a stupor. Some just have a day's rest. Some just ignore it altogether."
"Whatever we do it won't seem like Christmas. We can't celebrate as we did at home, with church and carols and holly and the family paying calls. Will you help me to write to Mother? I miss her very much and she must be anxious for news of us. I haven't written to her for months, soon after I arrived in Sydney Town."
"Have you any writing paper?"
"No. I'll try and get some at Price's store tomorrow, and tell Mother what it's like in New South Wales at Christmas time and give her an address so that she can send us an answer. All our celebrations will be in the summer in this topsy-turvy place… your birthday on 2nd January, Jane's on 3rd February and mine at the end of February, even if it only comes every fourth year… which makes me about seven instead of twenty-eight."
"I'll let you celebrate your birthday on the first day of autumn, which is still quite warm in these parts."

He had of course forgotten about such things as birthday dates.
"Thank you very much! I think we should develop some traditions of our own suitable to the climate," she went on thoughtfully. "There won't be much this year without Jane and of course no church service. It won't be more than a special dinner. I think I'll feel terribly homesick. How long until Christmas?"

William showed her his almanac and with a piece of charcoal from the fire, crossed off the last two days.

"I forgot to mark it last night," he admitted. "Just about four weeks to go. You can hang this up somewhere and mark it each day. Do it at the same time or you are likely to forget."
"You forgot last night," she teased.
"You came interrupting my regular daily routine so you have to take the blame." He held her tight with one arm and gave her a playful smack.


NEXT    >>