It was a Sunday forenoon, a few weeks after Magdalen and William had been reunited. They were sitting on their block-stools in front of the hut, watching the little fire on which their oat-cake lunch was cooking, and listening to the screech of the cicadas in the trees. William had been unusually talkative during the early weeks. After months of isolation with the same partner, the men had begun to find there was little to talk to each other about. Everything had been said, and said more than once. When Magdalen had arrived, his tongue was loosened, like a run-down clock that had been wound up again after long neglect. But as the weeks passed, he lapsed into his usual economy with words.
After work and on Sundays he was building another room with a chimney, on the end of the hut, so that Magdalen would be able to cook indoors. He had made a table consisting of four posts driven into the earth, covered by a sheet of bark, flattened by the weight of stones at each corner, then attached to the legs with wooden pegs for nails. Such undertakings occupied all his free time and he seemed quite content to have Magdalen's company without the need for conversation.
Meal-times were occasions to communicate and Magdalen made the most of every opportunity. She asked William about his work.
"Mr Phillips seems quite glad to have me back. He hopes to have his ship launched before Christmas. He appreciates that I understand the trade and can read plans and calculate sizes."
"You can be glad that you got a thorough training in Plymouth. That will always be handy, even if it's only for temporary employment."
"There's more money in timber-getting of course, but also more risk. While Mr Phillips has work for me, I'll stay with him."
"Why does Mr Phillips have a run? He seems only interested in the timber industry, the ship he's building for the trade, and his store?"
"Legally he has to have a squatter's licence or a timber-getters licence. The squatter's licence gives him more freedom, and the chance later to buy some of the run when it's surveyed. Of course if he does buy, he'll choose the area where his ship and store are, and include the waterhole. The rest of the run would be no use to anyone without water, so he would virtually have the whole station for whatever enterprise he might choose. In the meantime the law provides he must stock the run."
"When will the survey be finished?"
"The surveyors were sent over a year ago to map this side of the river and divide it into blocks full of one square mile. We haven't seen much progress, but when they finish eventually I want to buy us a block and perhaps take up ship-building on my own account."
"I've sometimes seen Mrs Wilson at the store, their sister who is their housekeeper, and I once saw Mr Wilson on 'Waterview', near that huge fig tree. Mr Girard wouldn't be too pleased to have his run cut up for Settlement."
"The Frenchman? He'd have known the risk when he took the lease. He's hardly ever here, and no loss by all accounts."
"Why is that? I hear he has a lot of other interests."
"He once had the Government contract to supply bread in Sydney Town, but was often fined because of the poor quality. There was even a riot once and the soldiers threw his own loaves at his house and broke his windows. Later he bought a ship and became a dealer. They say his schooner the 'Taree' was the second to sail up the river, and he opened the second depot at Tynedale just about opposite Small's depot on Woodford Island. Then he took up the run here, the first on the river and the best spot, but no doubt one enterprise less wouldn't matter to him if he did lose it. He would have the choice of buying some blocks if he wanted them or taking up a run somewhere else."
"I hear that some of the squatters have put a lot of improvements on their stations and feel that the land should belong to them. Mr Girard hasn't done much of course, but he sounds so intriguing I'd like to meet him if he ever comes to the Settlement. The only squatter I've seen apart from Mr Phillips, was Mr Grose when he came to the depot once. He has quite a long way to come to and from the Settlement for stores."
William was standing up after drinking his tea and eating his oat-cakes, there being no flour for damper or bread. He had sat still long enough. Magdalen tried to keep him in conversation a little longer.
"They said his sheep were at 'Copmanhurst' before any runs were taken up."
"Yes. He brought his sheep up from the south during the drought. It was his idea to bring some of his friends and get them interested in investment here, he was so impressed by the country. He organised an expedition on his steamer 'King William' and a lot of the runs were taken up as a result."
"And I believe he has now sent to Valparaiso for flour."
William was already moving off. Magdalen gathered up the pan, plates and pannikins. Her housework was quickly done. After cooking the breakfast, she had put the porridge pot to soak, raked up the fire and added enough wood to keep it burning. She had taken the tin dish from its peg, washed the few utensils, swept the earth floor with a broom made of twigs, hung their bedding out of doors to air, straightened the few items on the walls, and the house was tidy.
William had carried up several buckets of water from the waterhole, one for the house, the rest for the garden. Now he was pre-occupied with his own plans, so Magdalen washed the lunch things and went to look at her garden. She pulled out a few weeds, dug around the plants with a strong stick and carefully examined each one. As a complete amateur she was very proud of her success. She had had no contact with gardens in Plymouth. Her only knowledge came from watching and listening to others. Most of the settlers were very free with advice and encouragement. Sarah Cooper grew potatoes but nothing else. To her, it was not worth the effort of carrying water so far. Following Sarah's example, Magdalen had set aside any potatoes with 'eyes' and she now had a number of plants. Watching her garden had kept Magdalen optimistic while waiting for William's return. Every day of his absence had given her more time to find out by trial and error what was unsuitable, with the unconscious purpose of showing him what a good settler's wife she was. She had looked at the plants half a dozen times every day. Of course she had not expected him to say much. A nod of approval and a wink had had to content her.
At first she had had much more difficulty with catching and preparing fish or meat, and often unlisted young Joey's aid. Gradually she was becoming used to doing it herself. Using a piece of raw meat on a string she had even learned to catch yabbies in the waterhole, scooping them out with the pannikin, and then boiling them for twenty minutes until they were red. Grasshopper was the best bait for perch, and kangaroo steak for cod. If one of the men killed a kangaroo, it was shared with the neighbours. If the meat began to smell before it was all eaten, it was called 'Whistling steak'. The Aborigines had discovered that food soaked in water lost any poison, and so the settlers learned to soak meat that had 'gone off'. There was nothing else to do.
Aware that there would be another baby next year, she thought of the three babies buried in Plymouth, the fear of losing another baby in this wilderness without even a midwife within call, the thought of Jane waiting in Stonequarry, all combined to depress her and she sat trying to mend a shirt which was clearly beyond repair. It was a futile task and she did it for want of anything else to occupy her time.
"Good afternoon Mrs Yabsley. How are you?"
The friendly voice of neighbours out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. Mr Irwin and his family from further up-river.
Magdalen automatically stirred up the fire and put on water for tea.
"We've never been as far as this," observed Mrs Irwin. It looks as if Mr Phillips' ship is coming along well. Would you children like to have a closer look?"
"Mr Yabsley might show it to you properly if you like. He's not far away, busy on some project as usual."
William heard the voices and came to greet the visitors. He and Mr Irwin and the barefoot children went over to the shipyard, while the women talked and made the tea.
"I believe your husband collects birds for museums?" Magdalen asked Mrs Irwin.
"Yes. Our place is full of stuffed birds of all sorts. If you are interested you must get your husband to bring you to see them. There are a lot of beautiful birds around here which he preserves and stuffs and mounts. They send them all over the world."
One of the children came rushing back with a gash on his arm, bleeding profusely. Mrs Irwin threw up her arms. Magdalen found herself binding up the arm tightly. Although she had never had to deal with anything but minor injuries before, she was surprised at how detached and calm she was.
"I'm afraid he'll have a scar there. It should be seen by a doctor. Lie on our bed and rest," and she led the boy indoors.
"You are so calm," said Mrs Irwin.
"I think the patient suffers less shock if one doesn't get excited. Well come and have your tea."
While drinking their tea, they all talked about the rare birds, adventures in trapping them, the ones that 'got away'. Magdalen showed interest in every detail of their lives, which she recorded in her memory for future reference. As with everyone she met she listened avidly to tales of their first arrival, their misadventures, how they coped with problems, illness, accidents, homesickness, depression. People interested her, and here was a wealth of humanity, people of all types and classes, dependent on each other because of their isolation from civilisation. For a while her own problems were put aside. The longing for Jane was briefly forgotten.
"If that arm gives any more trouble bring the boy back and I'll see what I can do," Magdalen said as they left.
* * *
As Magdalen wanted to buy something for William for Christmas, she went for a short walk up-river to Mr Price's store, although they now usually dealt at Mr Phillips' depot. There they bought their everyday supplies, tea, sugar, simple clothing, essential tools and utensils, and flour when it was available. Because of drought there was no flour in the Settlement. Mr Grose had sent to Valparaiso but the arrival of the ships was uncertain because no commercial transactions had been entered into with South America. In the meantime the Colony was desperately short of flour. There was virtually no money on the river, and all purchases were on credit against the cheques the men would receive for their timber. Credit was readily available and there was no other way. William's credit was now with his employer, although there was money still owing to him for timber.
As Magdalen entered the coolness of the slab building and as soon as her eyes became used to the dimmer light, she began to study the articles displayed on shelves or hanging from the rafters. Mr Price had a big selection of goods by comparison with Phillips' depot. There was food, tools, blankets, medicines, pannikins, pots and a few books. During the past three months his store had become the centre of social activity. It was where the locals met the newcomers and the men from the more distant stations, the sawyers and the sundowners, the ships' captains and the squatters and the dozen or so women. Mr Price was a friend of the Mylne Brothers, whose names were on everyone's lips. Arthur Price had come overland with them the previous June, and by September he was setting up a store. When Magdalen had arrived the small building had seemed cluttered, now he had much more to offer in the same space, a greater variety of everyday requirements, and as Christmas approached even some luxuries.
Mr Price came in from his living quarters. "Can I help you Mrs Yabsley?"
"Will you add some items to our account. My husband will settle when the timber cheque comes in."
"Surely, Mrs Yabsley. What can I get you?" He found the page in his book with her name in it. "I have recently been in touch with a hawker from Sydney Town and bought a range of things from him."
"I want a gift for my husband for Christmas. And I need some sewing needles and cloth."
"Pins are a penny, needle are threepence and darners a shilling," he said, getting down a box of haberdashery.
Sarah Cooper entered the store and Magdalen and Mr Price said "Good morning. How are you?"
"I will look around for something for my husband," said Magdalen. "You can attend to Mrs Cooper."
"I believe flour has just arrived," said Sarah Cooper. "We are so tired of corn and really looking forward to some damper and bread."
"It looks very fine and probably not much good for damper but better than nothing."
Magdalen came over to inspect the sack of flour.
"I'll get some too please."
While Mr Price measured the flour, Magdalen looked at the books. She knew William had plans for his wages and would not want her to buy anything but essentials. She thumbed through the books, but they were beyond her reading ability. One had illustrations, parts of the human body both inside and out, with bandages and splints.
"'Pickwick Papers' is all the rage at the moment," said Mr Price.
"Is it a novel? My husband doesn't read stories, only newspapers and articles about things he finds useful and interesting."
"Then the 'Home Doctor'?"
Magdalen took down the thick volume with the illustrations.
"That could be useful. Mr Price would you not let my husband know I have bought it? It's a surprise for Christmas."
"Leave that to me Mrs Yabsley."
They talked about the hot weather as Christmas approached and how impossible it was to believe it was the festive season at all and how they would miss various family traditions. Sarah walked back with Magdalen to have a cup of tea with her.
Magdalen hid the book at the bottom of her trunk and as she did so found an article which she knew was not there before. New white cloth. Suddenly she realised that William had already done his Christmas shopping. With a glowing feeling she replaced the clothing, mostly winter things, which she kept in the trunk.
"Mrs Cooper," she said as she stirred up the fire, "When we were in Mr Price's store he was talking about 'Pickwick Papers'. I've heard it mentioned before."
"It's a famous book. The Mylne Brothers are very keen on it. Someone was reading it there once, and 'e was told to stop reading until everyone was invited to enjoy the treat. 'E had to read aloud 'alf the night till the candles gave out. The Mylne Brothers are known for their lively 'ospitality. They are always glad to see anybody. It's open 'ouse with plenty to eat and drink. Well on this occasion they was entertained with readings of 'Pickwick Papers'. If the reader could've read all night the audience would've sat there. Well in this story there is a place called "Eat and Swill" where there was plenty to eat and swill to catch votes. So they called their run 'Eatonswill'. One of them also thought of the name 'Copmanhurst' for Mr Grose from another famous book. Never read them meself. Can't read you know."
Magdalen made the tea and got the pannikins from the hut. The women sat on the stools by the fire to drink their tea. "I can't read much either. William can though. I think most of the squatters knew each other before they came here?"
"Yes. Mr Grose 'ad some sheep 'ere because of the drought down south. When he saw the country, he organised his steamer to come up and bring his friends. Doctor Dobie of 'Ramornie' was another one. And the Mylne boys, John and James. I don't rightly know which is which. One was a subaltern in the Indian Army, and 'e is said to be very steady. The other was in the navy and is s'posed to be a bit wild."
"When do you plan to start for Port Macquarie?"
"Nothin' definite while there's still timber 'ere."
The women finished their tea. The afternoon wore on as they talked and it was time for them to think of their evening meals. Sarah took her leave to walk back to her hut. Magdalen stirred the stew which had been simmering in the pot for several hours. She was feeling tired after a hot day, her dress was beginning to feel uncomfortably tight. She had not eaten much all day because of slight morning sickness which made her appetite disappear until the evening. Tonight, thinking of a mysterious white article at the bottom of the trunk, she added an extra bouquet of herbs to the stew.
When William came home she asked him about the runs, and the squatters.
"The name 'Eatonswill' comes from a book by Charles Dickens. It was a rotten borough in 'Pickwick Papers'. 'Copmanhurst' comes from 'Ivanhoe' by Sir Walter Scott. It was apparently a ruined chapel where he was visited by Robin Hood. The names were chosen by one of the Mylne Boys. Most of the squatters knew each other before they came here, because they belong to an elite club, Australian Club Circle or some such name."
William noticed a kookaburra standing perfectly still near the garden listening.
"He can hear a worm wriggling in its hole," he said.
Suddenly the bird struck its strong beak deep into the damp soil and pulled out a worm which it swallowed.
"I once watched a kookaburra catch six worms with six attempts. Not a miss. But leave our garden worms alone Old Boy. Go and catch a snake. And what's for our dinner? Smells really good."