Chapter 6

Christmas Day was a momentous occasion. Magdalen had expected to be very homesick, but instead found it hard to believe it really was Christmas. In a way the season no longer existed. Rather it was an occasion for the whole Settlement to gather in one place and celebrate the launching of Mr Phillip' ship. As well as locals, squatters, overseers, children all headed for the Settlement with their baskets full of food. Only skeleton staff remained on the runs. Although most of the squatters worked alongside the men on the properties, mustering, branding, drafting, carrying rations to shepherds, they remained apart on social occasions. It was the duty of the lower orders to observe the difference and not take advantage of the situation.

Many had set out at first light to row down the river, some whom Magdalen had never met. Some of the cedar-getters and the women who lived with them had not been near the Settlement for months. This was the first time they were all together. For one day it was gaiety and laughter, encouragement and support. Many had come with nothing else in mine except to get drunk and forget their troubles for Christmas; they remained unclean and unshaven. They would end up brawling. Others had heard rumours of the intended launching, and recognised this as an event of importance to the community, to be shared by all.

The women talked non-stop, to make up for all the months they had not seen another woman, to say everything they could before the day ended, fill their minds with thoughts, ideas, and feeling of companionship which must last for weeks or months.

A baby would soon be born to the overseer's wife at 'Copmanhurst' the first white baby on the river. Magdalen had not mentioned her expected baby, nor her fears of losing another one. She listened to the women's discussion with secret worry.

Some of the men took longer to warm up. Some cedar-getters spent weeks at a time with only one mate and perhaps an escaped convict as labourer, and had exhausted all topics of conversation many months ago. Now many of them found it difficult to think of anything to talk about. They seemed to have lost their desire and power to converse. They were so used to quietness that noise was disturbing.

Some boats of sawyers had arrived the afternoon before, and the men had gone to the store and had taken possession of kegs of rum they had ordered, and had begun their celebrations. One or two were already past awareness of what day it was and why they were celebrating. Others were argumentative and tried to force everyone around them to join their revels. The women and children gathered at a distance so as not to have their ears offended by the bawdy language. The children began to organise hide-and-seek while their mothers talked, swapped ideas and admired each other's cooking efforts. Magdalen had decided to cook pies and pastries in her new camp oven and felt very pleased with her success.

Sarah Cooper told Magdalen "You're almost an old 'and already. I'm very proud of you."
"That's because I've had you to run to with all my problems," replied Magdalen.
"I'm glad I've had you for company."

Mr Phillips had slaughtered several beasts and these were roasting on fires nearby. By mid-day the meat was cooked, and food was set out on tarpaulins on the grass under shady trees. The men gathered around, sitting on their haunches or standing nearby. The children sat together in one group, the women in another, passing pigeon pies, smoke-cured hams, yabbies, hollowed-out pumpkins filled with possum and roasted, pastries, fruits, nuts, dried fruit and other delicacies which they had been able to order and save for this occasion. Everyone was given a share whether they had contributed or not. Slices of beef came from Mr Phillips' sharp knife and were stacked on tin dishes which were passed around. It was eaten without the aid of knives and forks with only a little coarse salt sprinkled on it. It was juicy and full of flavour.

Then followed Christmas pudding in the traditional style with flaming sauce all around. These had come from 'Ramornie' where Mary Bawden and the other women had been requested to make them. It was the only moment that really felt at all like Christmas.

The conversation had lapsed somewhat, the desperate pace of talking had subsided. There was a feeling of repletion and well-being. The children were quieter. The men were discussing important matters such as the price of timber and the likelihood of rain. Some younger men were taking part in contests and gymnastics. Some of the more reserved men had now found their tongues and began to spin yarns and tall stories to hide their feelings of pessimism, often approaching despair, to deny the monotony of the past and future.

Magdalen sat with Sarah Cooper and Mary Bawden, the two women she found most in common with. There had been an immediate rapport when Magdalen had been introduced to them. They were interested in their surroundings and wanted to make the best life possible for their families, whereas some of the other women and even more men simply existed from day to day with little thought or care for the future or for their environment.

Mr Phillips announced that the launching was about to take place.
"She's a fine looking vessel," people murmured as they gathered down at the slip-way. "Do you know what she's to be named?"
"Ladies and gentlemen you have all come to-day to celebrate Christmas and help commemorate a great event in the Settlement, the launching of the first ship built on the Big River. I am going to rig her as a brig and send her to Sydney Town to be equipped as a whaler. The Governor has named our river the Clarence and I think that is an appropriate name for my ship."

Magdalen thought of Governor Gipps in his grand house in Sydney Town naming their river which he had never seen, after some official they have never heard of. To her it could be nothing but the Big River.

Mr Phillips went on: "One of the most valued assistants in this enterprise, a man with a thorough knowledge of marine architecture, and skill in the execution has been Mr Yabsley, whose wife has recently come to the Settlement. Mrs Yabsley would you kindly do me the honour of launching my ship?"

Superstition forbad the launching of vessels by a man, so in the absence of any women of social standing, Magdalen although nervous, was glad to pull the cord which released the bottle of spirits, so that it swung, hit the hull of the vessel, splashing it. "I name this ship 'Clarence'."

William and the other men knocked away the chocks and the ship slipped neatly on the well-greased ways into the water, amid cheers from the crowd. Cigars were passed around to all the men and young Tommy Bawden accepted one as the box passed him. The men regarded this as a source of amusement and lit it for him using twigs held in the fire until they glowed. The boy, feeling very proud and grown-up, suddenly found himself choking while the men roared with laughter.

"He won't accept another cigar in a hurry." Said Mary Bawden.

The work of three years lay proudly at anchor in the river, a vessel of one hundred and twenty ton burthen.

"Beautiful," said William Bawden. "I remember seeing the frame under construction when we came up in the 'King William' in '39. Phillips and Cole were the only ones here then. Who would have thought the Settlement would progress so much in eighteen months?"

The end of the day was approaching. The women were hastily exchanging recipes and prescriptions.
"The best poultice for neuralgia or ear-ache," someone was saying, "is to cut up young gum leaves with a tobacco knife and mix it with fat or water. Boil for a few minutes and pour into a handkerchief or clean woollen sock, and put it on the pain. You'll get relief in a minute."
"Do you know that the gum from Bloodwood trees is very good for diarrhoea... much too effective my husband says."

The conversation took on a kind of urgency as evening approached. It was time for the squatters and men to return if they wanted to be home before nightfall. It was twenty-five miles to 'Copmanhurst' so Mr Grose and his men planned to stay at 'Eatonswill' overnight and be home in time for work in the morning. Those who had shorter distances to travel lingered, knowing that tomorrow and for the next months they would see no-one but their employer's men. Most of the cedar-getters waited until the next morning, as the timber would wait whereas the stock would not. Some of them needed another night to sleep off the effects of their orgy. Apart from Magdalen and Sarah only three women remained as darkness came.

Someone brought out an accordion and played quietly while the women spread out what remained of the food, for the evening meal. Everyone was subdued or nostalgic and after a quiet meal they sang songs of their homelands, mostly England and Ireland. Magdalen thought of her mother alone on Christmas Day, and of Jane far away from her parents. She fought with her tears, knowing that everyone present had loved ones they might never see again, and that it was forbidden to make others unhappy with one's personal grief. Everyone knew that every other person was fighting with silent longing for loved ones. On this hot night in the bush it did not seem like Christmas, but in another place far away it was frosty and they were singing carols and their families missed them.

The accordionist broke into a rollicking tune and with shouts and loud clapping they drowned their suffering. Some men began arguing and brawling and were sent away.
William and Magdalen decided to leave the group when the other women and children went back to their huts. It really was a beautiful night with the stars twinkling in the clear open sky and a bright moon.

William and Magdalen had not yet exchanged their gifts. Magdalen had put William's book by his plate at breakfast, but he had put it aside after glancing at the name on the binding.

"I haven't got any broken bones or toothache at the moment and I promised Mr Phillips I'd be with him first thing to start the roasting fires," he had said. "Father Christmas might come tonight if he can find a present for you."

He was a tease at times. If Magdalen had not seen that he had already hidden something for her, she would have felt disappointed. "Happy Christmas Marley," he said as he left.

After the exhausting but exhilarating day, Magdalen had actually forgotten about Christmas presents. They felt their way into the hut in the darkness. Magdalen put her hand over the ashes of the fire but it was quick cold.

"We can get undressed in the dark," she said. "The fire's out."
Lighting the smoky fat lamp from the tinder-box was more trouble than the poor light was worth. As she felt for her night-dress, her fingers found something new and soft in place of her old coarse night-dress.
"What's this?"
"Looks like Father Christmas found you even in the wilderness."


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