AUSTRALIAN SEARCH PARTY
CHARLES HENRY EDEN
A RECORD OF
DISCOVERY, GEOGRAPHY, AND ADVENTURE.
ASSISTANT-SECRETARY OF THE ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY.
AN AUSTRALIAN SEARCH PARTY—I.
BY CHARLES H. EDEN.
IN a former narrative, published in the preceding volume of the ILLUSTRATED TRAVELS, I gave an account of a terrible cyclone which visited the north-eastern coast of Queensland in the autumn of 1866, nearly destroying the small settlements of Cardwell and Townsville, and doing an infinity of damage by uprooting heavy timber, blocking up the bush roads, etc. Amongst other calamities attendant on this visitation was the loss of a small coasting schooner, named the 'Eva', bound from Cleveland to Rockingham Bay, with cargo and passengers. Only those who have visited Australia can picture to themselves the full horror of a captivity amongst the degraded blacks with whom this unexplored district abounds; and a report of white men having been seen amongst the wild tribes in the neighbourhood of the Herbert River induced the inhabitants of Cardwell to institute a search party to rescue the crew of the unhappy schooner, should they still be alive; or to gain some certain clue to their fate, should they have perished.
In my former narrative I described our exploration of the Herbert River, lying at the south end of Rockingham Channel, with its fruitless issue; and I now take up the thread of my story from that point, thinking it can hardly fail to be of interest to the reader, not only as regards the wild nature of the country traversed, but also as showing the anxiety manifested by the inhabitants of these remote districts to clear up the fate of their unhappy brethren. I may also here mention, for the information of such of my readers as may not have read the preceding portions of the narrative, that Cardwell is the name of a small township situated on the shores of Rockingham Bay; and that Townsville is a settlement some hundred miles further south, known also as Cleveland Bay.
HOW WE EXPLORED GOULD AND GARDEN ISLANDS.
We were all much pleased at a piece of intelligence brought up by the 'Daylight', to the effect that a party of volunteers had been assembled at Cleveland Bay, and intended coming up in a small steamer to the south end of Hinchinbrook, to assist in the search for the missing crew. As it would be of the utmost importance that both parties should co-operate, I sent my boat down to the mouth of the channel, with a note to the leader of the expedition announcing our intention of landing on the north end of the island and working towards the centre; and requesting them to scour their end, and then push northward, when we should most probably meet in the middle of the island. The boat had orders to wait at the bar until the arrival of the steamer, and then to return with all speed. In the meanwhile, the 'Daylight' was discharging her cargo, and we were making preparations for what we well knew would prove a most arduous undertaking; the sequel will show that we did not overrate the difficulties before us.
At the risk of being tedious, I must explain to the reader some of the peculiarities of Hinchinbrook Island. Its length is a little short of forty miles, and its shape a rude triangle, the apex of which is at the south, and the north side forming the southern portion of Rockingham Bay. Now this north side is by no means straight, but is curved out into two or three bays of considerable extent, and in one of them stand two islands named Gould and Garden Islands. The latter of these was our favourite resort for picnics, for the dense foliage afforded good shade, and, when the tide was low, we were enabled to gather most delicious oysters from some detached rocks. Gould Island is considerably larger; but, rising in a pyramid from the sea, and being covered with loose boulders, it was most tedious climbing. From the township we could, with our glasses, see canoes constantly passing and repassing between these two islands; and as the 'Daylight' had a particularly heavy cargo this trip, and would not be clear for the next two days, we made up our minds to search the islands, and drive the blacks on to Hinchinbrook, so that one of our parties must stumble across them when we swept it. This may seem to the reader unnecessary trouble, but most of our party were conversant with the habits of the blacks and their limited method of reasoning; and we judged it probable that the Herbert River gins would have at once acquainted the Hinchinbrook blacks with our unceremonious visit, and warned them that we should probably soon look them up also. Now on the receipt of this unwelcome intelligence, the first thing that would strike the blacks would be the facilities for concealment afforded by Gould or Garden Islands, more particularly had they any captives; and they would say to themselves that we should certainly overlook these two out-of-the-way little spots; and when we were busy on Hinchinbrook, they could easily paddle themselves and their prisoners to some of the more distant chain of islands, where they could lie by until all fear of pursuit was past. Such was the opinion both of the troopers and of the experienced bushmen; and as we were fully resolved to leave them no loophole for escape, we jumped into our boat and pulled gently over to Garden Island.
It was about seven o'clock in the morning when we started, six strong—four whites, and Cato, and Ferdinand—well armed, and with a good supply of provisions. The sun was already very hot, and the water smooth as glass, save where the prow of the boat broke the still surface into a tiny ripple, which continued plainly visible half a mile astern. I find it difficult to bring before the reader the thousand curious objects that met us on our way. The sullen crocodile basking in the sun, sank noiselessly; a splash would be heard, and a four feet albicore would fling himself madly into the air, striving vainly to elude the ominous black triangle that cut the water like a knife close in his rear. Small chance for the poor fugitive, with the ravenous shark following silent and inexorable. We lay on our oars and watched the result. The hunted fish doubles, springs aloft, and dives down, but all in vain; the black fin is not to be thrown off, double as he may. Anon the springs become more feeble, the pursuer's tail partly appears as he pushes forward with redoubled vigour, a faint splash is heard, the waters curl into an eddy, and the monster sinks noiselessly to enjoy his breakfast in the cooler depths beneath. And now we come to a sand bank running out some miles or so into the bay, and on which the water is less than three fathoms. Here the surface is broken by huge black objects, coming clumsily to the top, shooting out a jet of spray, and again disappearing. We let the boat glide gently along until she rests motionless above the bank, and stooping over the side with our faces close to the water, and sheltered by our hands, we can peer down into the placid depths, and see the huge animals grazing on the submarine vegetation with which their favourite feeding-place is thickly overgrown. But what animal is he talking about? the reader will ask. It is the dugong ('Halicore Australis'), or sea-cow, from whence is extracted an oil equal to the cod-liver as regards its medicinal qualities, and far superior to it in one great essential, for instead of a nauseous disagreeable flavour, it tastes quite pleasantly. It frequents the whole of the north-eastern coast of Australia, and when the qualities of the oil first became known, it was eagerly sought after by invalids who could not overcome their repugnance to the cod-liver nastiness. The fishermen, however, spoilt their own market, for greed induced them to adulterate the new medicine with shark oil, and all kinds of other abominations, so that the faculty were never quite certain what they were pouring down the throats of their unhappy patients. Thus the oil lost its good name, though I am convinced from personal observation that fresh, pure dugong is quite equal, if not superior, in nourishing qualities to cod-liver oil, and do not doubt that a time will come when it will enter largely into the Pharmacopoeia. The animal itself is so peculiar, that a brief description of it may not be here amiss. Its favourite haunts are bays into which streams empty themselves, and where the water is from two to five fathoms in depth, feeding on the 'Algae' of the submerged banks, for which purpose the upper lip is very large, thick, and as it turns down suddenly at right angles with the head, it much resembles an elephant's trunk shorn off at the mouth. Its length averages from eight to fourteen feet; there is no dorsal fin, and the tail is horizontal; colour blue, and white beneath. Its means of propulsion are two paddles, with which it also crawls along the bottom, and beneath which are situated the udders, with teats exactly like a cow's. Its flesh is far from bad, resembling lean beef in appearance, though hardly so good to the taste, and the skin can be manufactured into gelatine. I have often wondered that this most useful animal was not oftener captured. A fishing establishment with a good boat, a trained crew, and proper appliances for extracting the oil, could not fail to return a large profit to the proprietors, and every now and then they could kill a whale, one or more of which could be frequently seen disporting themselves in the waters of the bay.
By ten o'clock we had reached Garden Island, and beached the boat on a long sandy spit that stretched into the sea. Leaving one man as boat-keeper, we spread ourselves into line, and regularly beat the little island from end to end, but without finding a single black; we could, however, see their smoke-signals arising from Gould Island, and observed several heavily-laden canoes making the best of their way towards Hinchinbrook. Our search having been unsuccessful, we hurried down to the boat, with the intention of cutting the fugitives off, but found to our disgust that the tide had fallen so low during our absence that our united strength was insufficient to move the boat, so we were perforce compelled to remain until the return of the water. This did not in reality so much signify, indeed, some of the party were rather averse to our plan of intercepting the canoes, arguing that if closely pressed, the blacks might make an end of their captives. However this might be, there was no help for it, we were stuck fast until the afternoon, so had to summon such philosophy as we possessed, and while away the time as best we could. The boat's sail, spread under the shade of a tree, kept the intense heat a little at bay until after dinner, and this most essential part of the day's programme have been done ample justice to, and the pipes lighted and smoked out, we wandered about the long space left bare by the tide, amusing ourselves by collecting oysters, cowrie shells, and periwinkles.
The way we captured the two latter was by turning over the rocks, to the under sides of which we found them adhering in great numbers, sticking on like snails to a garden wall. Some of the cowries were very beautiful, particularly those of a deep brown colour approaching to black. This kind, however, were rather rare, and the lucky finder of a large one excited some envy. These beautiful little shells are of all sizes, from half an inch to two inches in length. When the stone is first turned over, the fish is almost out of its home, and the bright colour of the shell is hidden by a fleshy integument, but a few seconds suffice for it to withdraw within doors, and then the mottled pattern is seen in its full beauty. The best way to get the shell without injury to its gloss, is to keep the fish alive in a bucket of salt water, until you reach home, and then to dig a hole a couple of feet deep, and bury them. In a month or so, they may be taken up, and will be found quite clean, free from smell, and as bright in hue as during life. I have tried boiling them, heaping them in the sun, and various other methods, but this is undoubtedly the best.
Should it ever fall to the lot of any of my readers to have to cook periwinkles—and there are many worse things, when you are certain of their freshness—let them remember that they should be boiled in 'salt water'. This is to give them toughness; if fresh water is used, however expert the operator may be with his pin, he will fail to extract more than a moiety of the curly delicacy. These little facts, though extraneous to our subject, are always worth knowing.
At one end of Garden Island, and distant from it about 200 yards, stands a very singular rock, of a whitish hue, and when struck at a certain angle by the sun, so much resembling the canvas of a vessel, that it was named the "Sail Rock." At low tide this could be reached by wading, the water being little more than knee-deep. Its base was literally covered with oysters of the finest quality. The mere task of getting there was one of considerable difficulty, for the rock was as slippery as glass, and whenever you got a fall—which happened on an average every five minutes—bleeding hands and jagged knees bore testimony to a couch of growing bivalves being anything but as soft as a feather bed; also the oysters cling so fast that they might be taken for component parts of the rock, and only a cold chisel and mallet will induce them to relinquish their firm embrace. Three or four of the party had ventured out, and we had secured a large sackful, after which we all retired to the tent, except one of our number, who, having a lady-love in Cardwell with an inordinate affection for shell-fish, lingered to fill a haversack for his 'inamorata'. We were comfortably smoking our pipes and watching with satisfaction the tide rising higher and higher, when a faint "coo-eh" from the direction of the rock reached us, followed by another and another and another, each one more shrill than the last.
"By Jove, Wordsworth's in some trouble!" exclaimed one of our party, and, snatching up our carbines, we hurried to the end of the island at which stood the Sail Rock. The tide had now risen considerably, and the water between the rock and ourselves was over four feet deep, and increasing in depth each moment. We saw poor Wordsworth clinging on to the slippery wall, as high up as the smooth mass afforded hand-hold.
"Come along, old fellow!" we shouted; "it's not up to your neck yet."
"He turned his head over his shoulder—even at the distance we were, its pallor was quite visible—and slowly and cautiously releasing one hand, he pointed to the water between himself and the island.
"By Jove!" cried the pilot, "he's bailed up by a shark, look at his sprit-sail!" and following his finger we saw an enormous black fin sailing gently to and fro, as regularly and methodically as a veteran sentry paces the limits of his post.
"Stick tight, old man! we'll bring the boat," and leaving the pilot to keep up a fusillade at the monster with the carbines, we darted back. I shall never forget the efforts we made to launch the boat, but she was immovable, and every moment the tide was rising, the little ripples expending themselves in bubbly foam against the thirsty sand. We strained, we tugged, we prised with levers, but unavailingly, the boat seemed as if she had taken root there and would not budge an inch. A happy thought struck me all of a sudden, as a reminiscence of a similar case that I had seen in years gone by came back in full vigour.
"Give me a tomahawk," I said.
One was produced in a minute from under the stern-sheets. Meanwhile I had got out a couple of the oars.
"Now, Jim, you're the best axeman, off with them here!"
Half a dozen strokes to each, and the blades were severed from the looms.
"Now boys, lay aft and lift her stern."
It was done, and one of the oars placed under as a roller.
"Now, launch together."
"Heave with a will."
"Again so. Keep her going."
"Hurrah!" and a loud cheer broke forth, as, through the medium of the friendly rollers, the heavy boat trundled into the water.
The pull was long, at least it seemed to us long, for we had to round the sandy spit before we could head towards the rock, and nearly got on shore in trying to make too close a shave. We could hear the crack of the pilot's carbine every few minutes, borne down to us by the freshening breeze, and the agonising "coo-ehs" of poor Wordsworth, whose ankles were already hidden by the advancing waters; added to this, we had only two oars, and the wind, now pretty strong, was dead in our teeth. I was steering, and Jim was standing up in the bows with his carbine for a shot, if the shark offered such an opportunity. As we neared the rock we could distinctly see the black fin within six feet of the narrow ledge on which the poor fellow was standing, and only when we approached to within a couple of boats' lengths, did the ferocious brute sail sullenly out to sea, pursued by a harmless bullet from Jim's rifle. Poor Wordsworth dropped into the boat fainting from terror, exhaustion, and loss of blood, for, although he was unconscious of it all the time, in his convulsive grip, the sharp oyster-shells had cut his hands to the very bone. A good glass of grog and some hot tea—the bushman's infallible remedy—soon brought him round, but the scars on his hands and knees will accompany him to his grave. He afterwards described the glances that the shark threw at him as perfectly diabolical, and confessed that he it not been for the cheery hails of the pilot, he should most certainly have relinquished his hold, and met with a death too horrible to contemplate.
It was now about three o'clock in the afternoon, and the boat being launched, we resolved to reach Gould Island before dark. The tent was soon struck, the provisions stowed away, the priming of the carbines looked to afresh, and in a few minutes we were sweeping across the small belt of water that separated the two islands. We approached the shore with caution, for, as I mentioned before, the sides of Gould Island are everywhere very steep, and hostile blacks, by simply dislodging some of the loose masses of rock, could easily have smashed the boat and its crew to pieces without exposing themselves to the slightest danger. Noiselessly, and with every faculty painfully alert, we closed the land, sprang on to the rocks, and at once set about the tedious task of breasting the hill. Hill climbing, under the vertical sun of North Australia, is by no means an enjoyable undertaking, more particularly when the loose shale and rock gives way at every stride, bringing down an avalanche of rubbish on the heads of the rearmost of the party. Encumbered with our carbines, we made but slow progress, and it was nearly six o'clock before we attained the summit, from whence we saw several canoes making their way with full speed towards Hinchinbrook.
"So far then, so good," we said; "we have made certain that none of the rascals are lurking about the two islands, and we are sure to get them now, when we sweep Hinchinbrook."
We had now done everything that was possible until the 'Daylight' had finished unloading, and so spread ourselves out about the island to see if the blacks had left any of their curious implements behind them. We were in no hurry to get back to the township, so purposed having supper where we were, and pulling back in the cool of the evening, by the light of the moon, which was just then in full glory. We found plenty of traces of the blacks, the embers of their fires even still glowing, but they had carried off everything with them, and no trophies crowned our search of Gould Island; and yet I am wrong, for I got one memento, which I have by me still, and which is so curious to lovers of natural history that I am tempted to describe it. In rummaging about, I came to a place strewed with old bones, shells, parrots' feathers, etc., close to which stood a platform of interwoven sticks. I was terribly puzzled at first to account for the presence of this miniature rag and bone depot, and my astonishment culminated when Ferdinand informed me that—
"Bird been make it that fellow; plenty d—d thief that fellow, steal like it pipe, like it anything."
It then flashed across me that I had fallen in with the "run" of the bower-bird, of which I had so often heard, and had so often sought for without success.
The satin bower-bird ('Ptilonorhynchus holosericus') belongs to the family of starlings, and though tolerably common in New South Wales, is but a rare visitor to the hotter climate of Northern Queensland. The plumage of the adult male is of a glossy satin-like purple, appearing almost black, whilst the females and the young are all of an olive-greenish colour. The peculiarity for which this bird is generally known, is its habit of constructing a sort of arbour of dry twigs, to act as a playground. These bowers are usually made in some secluded place in the bush—not infrequently under the shady boughs of a large tree—and vary considerably in size, according to the number of birds resorting to them, for they seem to be joint-stock affairs, and are not limited to one pair. The bower itself is somewhat difficult to describe, and a better idea can be formed from the engraving, or by visiting the British Museum, where several are shown, than I can ever hope to set before the reader in words. A number of sticks, most artistically woven together, form the base, from the centre of which the walls of the structure arise. These walls are made of lighter twigs, and considerable pains must be taken in their selection, for they all have an inward curve, which in some "runs" cause the sides almost to meet at the top. The degree of forethought that these self-taught architects possess is strikingly exemplified in the fact that, whilst building the walls, any forks or inequalities are turned 'outwards', so as to offer no impediment to their free passage when skylarking (if it is not an Irishism, using such an expression with regard to a starling) and chasing each other through and through the bower, to which innocent recreations, according to the testimony of Messrs. Cato and Ferdinand, they devote the major part of their time. Their love of finery and gaudy colours is also most remarkable. Interwoven amongst the twigs of which the bower is composed, and scattered about the ground in its vicinity, are found bleached bones, broken oyster, snail, and cowrie shells, and not unfrequently, in the more civilised districts, pieces of coloured rag, and fragments of ribbon pilfered from some neighbouring station, for, in search of attractive objects to decorate his playground, the bower-bird entirely ignores the eighth commandment, and, I fear, justifies the somewhat strong expression of "d—d thief" which Ferdinand bestowed on him. Indeed, so well are his filching propensities known to the natives, that they make a practice of searching the runs whenever any small article of value is missing, and often succeed in recovering the lost object.
I find that I have been using the pronoun 'he' hitherto, whilst describing this insatiable love of finery, but on reflection I cannot but think that I am utterly wrong, and that when more is known of the domestic arrangements of the bower-bird, it will be found that the lady alone is responsible for this meretricious taste, and that the poor 'he', whom I have so unblushingly accused, is in reality gathering berries and fruit for the little ones, guiltless of the slightest inclination towards picking and stealing.
These birds live and thrive in confinement, and busy themselves immensely in the construction of runs, but they never multiply whilst captive. Indeed, the place and manner of their breeding is as yet a mystery, for, so skilful are they in concealment, that even the lynx-eyed blacks have failed to discover their next.
We found the descent to the boat incomparably preferable to the tedious climb of two hours previous, and, thanks to the promise of a "nobbler of rum each," Cato and Ferdinand transported my precious "run" in safety to the stern-sheets; the sun having then sunk in crimson beauty behind the coast-range, and the breeze having fallen to the faintest whisper, we shoved off, and pulled leisurely over the calm bay to Cardwell, arriving about ten o'clock, to hear the welcome news that the 'Daylight' would be ready for us on the following afternoon.
HOW WE EXPLORED HINCHINBROOK ISLAND.
The sun was just showing above the distant sea-line, and the bay was lying motionless as a mirror, with a rosy hue thrown across its placid surface, when I awoke on the following morning, stiff from the clamber of the preceding day. The short half-hour before the rays of the sun have attained an unpleasant fierceness is most enjoyable in Australia, particularly in a wild region such as Cardwell, where birds, beasts, and fishes pursue their daily avocations, heedless of the presence of man. My house was situated at the extreme north end of the township, and far apart from the nearest dwelling—so much so, in fact, that it was only by a stretch of the imagination that I could say I was included within the village boundary. On the side farthest from the settlement lay the virgin bush, whilst outside the garden at the back, all was wild and rude as Nature had left it, except a small clearing I had made for the growth of maize, sweet potatoes, etc. Now this clearing had many enemies, and of many species, ranging from feathered and furred to biped. The cockatoos came down in such clouds as almost to whiten the ground, and made short work of the maize; the bandicoots and the township pigs dug up and devoured the sweet potatoes, just as they were becoming large enough for use—commend me to your half-starved pig to find out in a moment where the juiciest and finest esculent lies buried—and the chattering little opossums stripped the peach-trees of their wealth, in which labour of love they were eagerly assisted by the flying-foxes during the night, whilst any that had escaped these nocturnal depredators became the spoil of two or three idle boys, who loafed about all day, seeking mischief, and, as always happens, succeeding in finding it, even in this sequestered region. From this it will be seen that my efforts in the direction of husbandry were attended with some difficulty, and, despite a real liking for the animal world, I had imbibed a holy hatred of that particular section of its society which insisted on devouring my substance under my very nose, only retreating to the nearest tree until my back was turned, and then resuming operations with unblushing effrontery. By way of a mild vengeance, I had got into the habit of coming out every morning directly I awoke, with my gun, and easing off both barrels amongst the cockatoos, wallabies, or whatever particular class of robbers happened to be afield at the moment—a practice which served as a safety-valve for my injured feelings, whilst at the same time it provided me with a cockatoo pie, or a good bowl of kangaroo-tail soup.
Once, in my indignation at finding my palings broken down, and some sugar-cane, that I had been most carefully rearing, rooted up and destroyed, while the author of the mischief, a huge sow, innocent of the restraining ring (I would have hung the ring of the 'Devastation's' best bower-anchor to her snout, had I been allowed to follow out my wishes), stood gloating over the havoc she had caused. Then, in my wrath, I had hastily loaded a carbine with a handful of salt, and prematurely converted a portion of my enemy's flank into bacon; but even this just act of retribution was not to be accomplished without further loss to myself, for on receipt of my hint to move on, her sowship dashed straight ahead, and brought down a whole panel of my fence about her ears, owing to which the village cows, which I had often observed throwing longing glances over the paling at my bananas, doubtless apprised of their opportunity by the evil-minded and malicious sow, took a mean advantage of the weakness of my defences, and on the same night devoured everything in the garden that they thought worthy of their attention.
Though I had now become hardened to the many injuries thus heaped upon me, and had almost discontinued all attempts at cultivation, I still retained the habit of stepping out into the verandah every morning with my gun, but more with an eye to the pot than for any other reason.
Beautiful as the scene always was, it struck me that day as being of unusual splendour. The tall gum-trees, with their naked stems, and curious hanging leaves that exasperate the heated traveller by throwing the scantiest of shadows, glistened dew-beaded in the rising sun. The laughing jackass, perched upon a bare limb, was awaking the forest echoes with his insane fits of laughter, alternating from a good-humoured chuckle to the frenzied ravings of a despairing maniac. Suddenly ceasing, he would dart down upon some hapless lizard, too early astir for its own safety, and, with his writhing prey in his bill, would fly to some other branch, and after swallowing his captive, burst forth into a yell of self-gratulation even-more fiendish than before. The delicate little "paddy melon," a small species of kangaroo, turned his gracefully-formed little head, beautiful as a fawn's, and, startled at the strange figure in the verandah, stood hesitatingly for a few seconds, and then, bending forward, bounded into the scrub, the noise caused by the flapping of its tail being audible long after the little animal itself was lost to sight. The white cockatoos, alarmed by the outcry of the sentry—for, like the English rooks, they always tell off some of their number to keep a look-out—who with sulphur-coloured crest, erect and outstretched neck, kept up a constant cry of warning, rose from the maize patch, the spotless white of their plumage glancing in the sun, and forming a beautiful contrast to the pale straw-colour of the under portion of their extended pinions. With discordant screams they circle about, as if a little undetermined, and then perch upon the topmost branches of the tallest trees, where they screech, flap their wings, and engage in a series of either imaginary combats, or affectionate caresses, until, the coast being clear, they are again enabled to continue their repast.
A curious and indescribable wailing cry is heard in the air, singularly depressing in its effect, and a string of some dozen black cockatoos flit from tree to tree, the brilliant scarlet band on the tail of the male flashing as he alternately expands and contracts it, to keep his balance whilst extracting the sweets from the flowers of the 'Eucalypti'. Few things present so great a contrast as the cries of these two birds—of the same family, and so alike in everything but colour—and yet both are disagreeable: that of the white variety from its piercing harshness, and that of the black from an indefinable sensation of the approach of coming evil it carries with it—at least, such is the effect it always has upon me. On strolling to the paling and looking into the clearing—for although my gun is in my hand, it is loaded with ball cartridge, and I do not fire—the nimble little bandicoot scuttled away towards his hollow log, looking so uncommonly like a well-fattened rat, that I mentally wonder how I could ever have had the courage to eat one, and a flight of rainbow-hued Blue Mountain parrots, who have held their ground to the last, whirr up with a prodigious flapping of wings, and, alighting on a gum-tree, can be seen hanging about the blossoms, head downwards, sucking out the honey with their uncouth beaks and awkward little tongues, which seem but badly adapted to such a delicate task. But I find I am digressing terribly, and the gloomy winter days of England, which make the recollection of a bright tropical morning so agreeable a task to contemplate, must be my excuse.
After breakfast, I hurried down to the beach to see if Tom Frewin, the skipper of the little cutter, 'Daylight', would be likely to keep his promise, and have the vessel ready to start by noon. I found him busily engaged with his not over-numerous crew—for it consisted only of a man and a boy, besides himself, though Mrs. Tom, who also lived in the tiny craft, ought to be counted as no inconsiderable addition to the vessel's complement, for she did the cooking, and on occasions could take the tiller and steer as cunningly as the gallant Tom himself. I found him hard at work hurrying the cargo over the side, assisted by the townspeople, who all showed the greatest anxiety that no time should be lost in setting out for the relief of the shipwrecked men. Everything thus pointing to the probability of our getting away that afternoon, the provision question had to be next considered, for the party would be numerous, and the exact time our expedition would take could scarcely be correctly estimated. We knew Government would refund us for any reasonable outlay, and so determined our search should not be cut short by any scarcity of food, and our fears of overshooting the mark and laying in more than we could consume, were allayed by Mr. McB—, the store-keeper who generously offered to supply us, and to take back, without charge, anything that remained at the expiration of the trip. All difficulties being thus disposed of, we were left at liberty to make our own private arrangements, until one o'clock, by which time the 'Daylight' would have laid in her water, etc., and be ready to start.
But I must now say something of the party itself, which we were compelled to limit to ten men, inclusive of the native police. These consisted of the pilot and his crew of two men, Mr. Dunmore, the officer in command of the police, with the two troopers, Ferdinand and Cato, three volunteers, and myself. Where all were anxious and willing to aid in the good task, it would have been invidious to select, and the volunteers drew lots from a bag in which all were blanks but three, the gainers of these lucky numbers becoming members of the party.
One other addition we had, and right yeoman's service she did, for it was a 'she', reader as the sequel will prove. About eighteen months before, the troopers had visited Hinchinbrook Island, to recover stolen property, and in one of the native camps had found an exceedingly pretty gin of some fourteen summers. The personal charms of this coy nymph of the forest had proved too much for the susceptible heart of Ferdinand, who, regarding her as his lawful prize, had borne her, irate and struggling, to the boat, from whence she was in due course transported to the police camp (mounted on the pommel of the saddle in front of the adventurous swain), where, in a very short time she became perfectly at home, and under the name of Lizzie, made Ferdinand a remarkably pleasant wife.
Certainly the blacks are a curious race, the like of which was never before seen under the sun. For two days after Lizzie's arrival in camp, she refused to speak or eat; for the next two days she ate everything she could lay her hands on, but still kept an unbroken silence; and for another two days, whenever she was not eating, she "yabbered" so much and so fast that the other gins looked on aghast, unable to get a word in edgewise, so continuous was the flow of Hinchinbrook vituperation. On the seventh day, as if by magic, she brought her tirade to a close, went down to the creek with the other gins to fetch water, cooked her husband's supper, appeared perfectly reconciled to her change of life, and henceforth, from her sharpness, the aptitude with which she picked up the broken English in which the officers communicate with the troopers, and her great knowledge of the surrounding country, she became a most useful acquisition to the camp, and Dunmore used frequently to say that Lizzie was worth three extra troopers. One of the most extraordinary things about her—and she was not unique, for all the Australian blacks are alike constituted in this respect—was the facility with which she seemed to rupture all the natural ties of kinship and affection. Her own tribe—her father, mother, sisters, all were apparently wiped from her mind as completely as writing is removed from a slate by a sponge; or, if ever remembered, it was never with any mark of regret.
AN AUSTRALIAN SEARCH PARTY—II.
BY CHARLES H. EDEN.
BETWEEN one and two o'clock, the report of a little swivel gun, with which the taffrail of the 'Daylight' was armed, echoed over the bay, and announced to the party that all was in readiness. In a very few minutes we were all mustered on the beach, looking, I must confess, remarkably like brigands, in our slouching and high-crowned Californian hats, coatless, and with shirt-sleeves either tucked up or cut off above the elbow, which, with the carbine that each man carried in his hand, and the revolvers, knives, etc., stuck into the waist-belts, made our 'tout ensemble' such, that I am convinced no honest citizen, with a plethoric purse, who saw us thus for the first time, would have felt quite at his ease in our company. With a ringing cheer from the townspeople assembled on the beach, under the shade of the big trees, we shoved off, and, manned by willing hands, the cable rattled in, in a fashion that must have astonished the old windlass, accustomed to the leisurely proceedings that usually obtained on board the 'Daylight'. The sail was soon clapped on, the little vessel heeled over to the sea-breeze now setting in pretty stiffly, and ten minutes after quitting the shore we were down in the hold, the captain and his lady occupying the cabin. Making our preparations for the night, which consisted, I may mention, mainly of spreading out our blankets, whilst the 'Daylight', with the Government whale-boat towing astern, was beating up against the adverse wind for the north end of Hinchinbrook, where we purposed anchoring for the night, and commencing our search on the following morning.
What with a contrary wind and tide, it was not until past ten o'clock that we glided into the little bay, and, shortening sail as noiselessly as possible, let down the anchor by hand to avoid the rattling of the chain through the hawsehole, which, in the stillness of the night, would have certainly reached the keen ears of the blacks, were there any in the neighbourhood, and caused them to shift their quarters. The little inlet or creek in which we now found ourselves, was entirely new to us, and we were indebted to Lizzie for the discovery of such a quiet retreat. With straining eyes, our novel pilotess stood at the heel of the bowsprit, extending an arm in the direction she wished the vessel to go, and, her task completed, she wrapped her blanket round her active little body, scarcely shrouded in the striped twill shirt that constituted her sole attire, and, sinking down in the waterways under the lee of the gunwale, was soon sound asleep—a sensible proceeding, which, as soon as everything was secured, we hastened to imitate.
We had arranged our plans for the morrow in the following manner. Before dawn, the whale-boat was to land all the party, including Lizzie, with the exception of the pilot and his two men. He was to return to the 'Daylight' after having put us ashore, and, getting under weigh as soon as the wind was strong enough, was to take her round to a small inlet on the island, some distance down Rockingham Channel, and there await either our arrival or further instructions. Our expedition was to join him there in two or three days at the farthest, perhaps sooner; but, whatever happened, he was to remain with the cutter at the rendezvous, and on no account, nor under any inducement, was he to quit until he either saw or heard from us, however long the time might be. During the daytime the whale-boat was to be kept hauled up alongside the cutter, with the carbines belonging to the crew loaded and triced up under the thwarts, ready for immediate service, and a bright look-out was to be kept on the channel, in both directions. If the natives attempted the smallest communication with the mainland, the whale-boat was to give chase immediately, and either intercept and capture the canoes, or compel them to return to Hinchinbrook Island.
Such was the rough plan we sketched out for the guidance of the 'Daylight'. With regard to ourselves, we could make no standing rule, for the country was comparatively unknown to us, and we must, Micawber-like, trust to something turning up and, in the pursuit of this happy event, must follow whithersoever fortune and Miss Lizzie thought fit to lead us.
At least an hour before dawn we were astir, and swallowing the scalding tea that the man on watch had prepared: this done, and a snack of damper and cold meat eaten, we got quietly into the boat and were pulled ashore. Until daylight, we were unable to make our way, for paths there were none, and the ground was dangerous from the quantity of stones, etc., so we were compelled to sit down quietly and smoke our pipes until we could see to pick our way. In the tropics there is but little dawn; the sun springs up without heralding his approach by a lengthened gradation from darkness to night, as obtains in more temperate climes, and but little patience was requisite to enable us to commence our search. As many of our readers are doubtless aware that in Australia no journey is ever undertaken on foot; that the real bushman would think himself sunk to the depths of abject poverty, if he had not at least 'one' horse of his own; and that a man will wander about for a couple of hours looking for a horse to carry him half a mile, when he might have gone to his destination and back half a dozen times, in the interval wasted in searching for his steed. Knowing this, they will doubtless wonder why we did not bring our mounts with us, and perform the journey comfortably, in place of the tedious method we now adopted. It must not for a moment be imagined that the great assistance horses would have afforded us had not been duly weighted and considered, and our reasons for leaving them behind were as follows:—From the little we knew of Hinchinbrook, and from the description Lizzie gave of the country, they would have been rather in our way than otherwise. The whole island is a mass of lofty volcanic mountains; and the passes through the gorges so strewn with huge boulders, debris, and shale, that we should have been compelled to lead our nags, and thus they would have only proved an encumbrance. This was one reason, and apparently a very good one, but I doubt if it would have had much effect upon our party, who could hardly contemplate any undertaking without the agency of horseflesh, had not a more cogent argument been forthcoming, to which they were compelled to give in their adherence.
"The 'Daylight' is quite big enough to carry them all, for such a short distance, if they're properly stowed," said Jack Clark, the roughrider, who was a zealous advocate for the conveyance of his pet quadrupeds.
"Of course she can," said another; "and we shall get the work over as quickly again."
"How will you land them?" I ventured to suggest; "for the cutter can never go near enough to the shore to walk them out."
"She can't get within a quarter of a mile," said the pilot; for at this time none of us knew of the little inlet, into which Lizzie so deftly guided us.
"Pitch them overboard, of course," cried Jack; "they'll pretty soon make for the land; and I'll send my mare Gossamer first; she'll give them a lead, I'll bet. Cunning old devil!"
The impetuosity of Jack was fast gaining converts, when Cato pulled Dunmore quietly by the sleeve, and said—
"Marmy, baal you take 'em yarroman like 'it Hinchinbrook; my word, plenty of alligator sit down along of water. He been parter that fellow like 'it damper."
"By Jove! Cato's right," said Dunmore; "we forget about the alligators and sharks. I won't let the boys take their horses, and shall not take my own. I lost one horse from an alligator last year, on the Pioneer River, and Government wanted to make me pay for it, and I'll take care I don't risk losing 'three'. Bring Gossamer, if you like, Clark, but, take my word for it, you'll never see her again."
This unexpected contingency; the prophesied fate of Gossamer, which was as the apple of Jack's eye; and the point-blank and sensible refusal of Dunmore to hazard the Government horses, completely turned the tables. After a little inward grumbling, Jack consoled himself, saying—
"Well, at all events, I can 'think' of riding!"
And thus it came to pass that we landed on Hinchinbrook, with no means of locomotion beyond those with which nature had endowed us.
And now, headed by Lizzie, and walking in single file and in silence, we struck out for the interior of the island. The path—if path it could be called, for it consisted only of a dim track beaten by the naked feet of the blacks—wound in and out among the long grass, which, as we approached the foot of the mountain range, became exchanged for boulders and loose shale, which rendered walking most tedious, and played the very mischief with our boots. Here even this track seemed, to our eyes, to die out; but Lizzie led the way confidently, and evidently with a thorough knowledge of what she was about. We had now been walking for more than three hours, and had apparently only got half way up a kind of gorge in the mountains, which seemed to become gradually narrower and narrower, and from all appearances afforded every prospect of terminating in a 'cul-de-sac'. A watercourse must at some period have run down this ravine, for the boulders were rounded; but it was now quite dry. As the sides of the mountains drew nearer, our path led along this watercourse, and the walking became dreadfully fatiguing. The boulders were sometimes so close as to render walking between impossible, and then it became necessary to clamber over them, which, loaded as we were, was very painful. If, on the other hand, we attempted to journey on the 'top' of the boulders, they were not only of unequal heights, but sometimes so wide apart, that a good spring was requisite to get from one to the other. Lizzie was the only one of the party who appeared thoroughly at home; her light figure bounded from rock to rock with the greatest ease and rapidity. Even Cato and Ferdinand, barefooted as they were, seemed to be a long way from enjoying themselves, and for us wretched Europeans, with our thick boots, that obtained scarcely any foothold, we slipped about from the rounded shoulders of the rocks, in a way that was anything but pleasant.
Thus we scrambled along for another hour, at the expiration of which we could only see a blank wall of mountain before us, up which it would have been both impossible and useless to climb. Wondering where the deuce Lizzie was leading us, we blundered along until we arrived at the base of the perpendicular cliff, and saw that by some convulsion of nature the ravine now branched off at a right angle to the left, and gradually widened out into a beautiful and gently declining stretch of country, perfectly shut in by hills, and into which a pretty little bay extended, with several canoes on its placid surface. We were distant from the beach about three miles, and could see clearly the smoke of several fires; while with binocular glasses we could make out the figures of the blacks fishing, and of the piccaninnies and gins romping in the sand.
Lizzie was a sight to see, as she pointed triumphantly to the unconscious savages, and, trembling with eagerness, tapped the butt of Dunmore's carbine, as she whispered—
"Those fellow sit down there, brother belonging to me, plenty you shoot 'em, Marmy."
"You take us close up along of those fellow, Lizzie?" said Dunmore.
"Your Marmy, plenty close, you been shoot 'em all mine think," replied our amiable little guide, who, enjoining the strictest silence, at once put herself in motion, bidding us, by a sign, to follow her.
For more than an hour and a half we crept cautiously along, sometimes crawling on all fours where the country was open, and frequently stopping, while Lizzie went noiselessly forward and reconnoitred, before beckoning to us to advance again. The direction in which she led us lay at the base of the hills, which on one side bounded the little plain and its bay, and though we could form but a crude idea of where we were going, owing to the thickness of the undergrowth, yet it was sufficiently evident that the young lady was one of nature's tacticians, and meditated a flank blow at her unfortunate relatives. Proceeding, we came at last within a stone's throw of the beach, and could hear the mimic waves rolling on the sand, at no great distance, on our right hand. Lizzie now pointed to a small belt of vine shrub that lay in front of us, and indicated that immediately outside it were the 'gunyahs', or huts; and, "plenty you shoot," she added showing her white teeth as she grinned with glee at the thoughts of the cheerful surprise she had prepared for her old companions. We were not thoroughly on the 'qui vive', for we thought this unknown bay would be the very spot in which the blacks were likely to seclude any prisoners from the 'Eva', and accordingly willingly followed the lithe figure of our little guide, as she wound her way through the tangled brake, like a black snake, and with a facility that we in vain attempted to imitate. The troopers—who had reduced their clothing to a minimum, for their sole vestment consisted of a forage-cap and cartridge-belt—wound along as noiselessly as Lizzie; but we poor whites—with our flannel shirts and other complicated paraphernalia that custom would not permit us to dispense with in the matter-of-fact way they were laid aside by our sable allies—were getting into continual trouble; now hitched up helplessly by a lawyer vine, whose sharp prickles, like inverted fish-hooks, rent the skin; now crawling unsuspiciously against a tree-ants' nest, an indiscretion that the fierce little insects visited with immediate and most painful punishment; or else, becoming aware, by unmistakable symptoms, that we were trying to force a passage through a stinging tree-shrub. Whenever we thus came to grief, Lizzie would stop, turn round, and wave her arms about like a semaphore, indicative of impatience, contempt mingled with pity and warning.
Luckily for us, the belt of scrub was not of great extent; Lizzie had already reached its edge, and was peering cautiously through, and we were struggling along, each after his own fashion, when bang went a carbine, the bullet of which we distinctly heard whistle over our heads, and turning round we got a glimpse of Jack, the roughrider, hung up in a vine, one of whose tendrils had fired off his weapon; and had just time to hear him exclaim, "If I'd only been mounted, this wouldn't have happened," before we broke cover, and all further concealment being now unnecessary, rushed recklessly on to the encampment.
But we were too late to capture any of the men, for I need hardly tell the reader that never had we intended to make use of the curt arguments that Lizzie had relied upon for cutting off the abrupt exit of her quondam friends; it would be quite time enough to commence a system of reprisals when it was ascertained that the blacks had actually been guilty of any atrocity. At present it was mere surmise on our part, and putting altogether on one side the natural reluctance to shed blood, an aggressive policy would have been an unwise one, engendering, as it infallibly would, a bad feeling against any other luckless mariners whom the winds and the waves might in time to come cast upon the inhospitable shores of Hinchinbrook Island.
The sudden report of Jack's carbine, which occasioned a momentary halt, and the few seconds required to burst through the scrub, afforded sufficient time for the male portion of the encampment to make their escape at speed, in different directions, some taking to the water, where they were picked up by the fishermen in the canoes; others diving into the nearest cover, and being lost to sight without hope of recovery. The women and children followed the tactics usual on such occasions, and flung themselves into a heap, similar in colour and contour to that described in a previous chapter, when we searched the Herbert River. The same thing took place again exactly; we sat down in a circle round them, waiting for the deafening "yabbering" to die away, which "yabbering" burst forth in all its pristine discord, whenever one of the party made the slightest movement. Time and patience, however, had the desired effect, restoring tone to their not over sensitive systems, and at the expiration of half an hour, we could distinguish sharp, bead-like black eyes peering at us out of the mass, which had now sunk into silence, but burst out again louder than ever, when Lizzie made her appearance from one of the gunyahs—perhaps the paternal roof, who knows?—where she had retired, swelling with indignation, and as sulky as a whole team of mules. Finding that no one took any notice of her, and half an hour's reflection having, I suppose, convinced her, that if she wanted to make a display before her relations, now was the time, her ladyship came slowly up to the circle, and commenced an attack on poor Dunmore, as she knew him best. To transcribe her words would be impossible, for she put in a native sentence whenever she found herself at a loss for an English one, but the burden of her plaint was this:—
"Plenty d—d fooly fellow, white fellow"—a string of Hinchinbrook vernacular—"Baal you been shoot 'em like 'it dingo"—more Hinchinbrook, but evidently, from the accompanying gestures, indicative of intense disgust—"Baal mine take any more along of black fellow camp"—half sobs—"Baal mine care suppose you fellow all go like 'it—"
And she summarily consigned us to the bottomless pit, as the only place at all suited for such stupid idiots who could refrain from shooting blacks when so grand an opportunity presented itself. Her eyes flashed fire as she delivered herself of her woes, and at the concluding sentence she stamped her little foot, and flinging a short waddy she held, with remarkable dexterity and no mean force, into the midst of the sable mass, she turned round to depart with the dignity of a tragedy queen, when Dunmore jumped up, caught her, and holding her wrist, walked off a little way from us.
"You like 'it one fine fellow red shirt, Lizzie? Mine give you one with 'plenty long tail'. Baal any other gin along of camp have shirt like 'it you; and when piccaninny sit down" (for there was a prospect of her presenting Ferdinand with a little pledge of affection), "mine give that fellow two budgeree flour-bag shirts, suppose only you good fellow girl Lizzie."
Evidently, Dunmore knew the way to the young lady's heart—we nicknamed him "Faust" afterwards—for at the mention of the red shirt, with the lengthy tails, her eyes lost their fierceness, and the allusion to the piccaninny completed his victory, and changing at once from one extreme to the other, as only a black or a child can, Miss Lizzie took her seat in the circle, lighted her pipe, commenced nodding to, and chatting most affably with, her relatives, and looking so kind, that it seemed impossible to believe that an intense longing for bloodshed and cruelty had so shortly before lurked in the breast of the pretty, smiling little savage who was now beside us.
During the task of pacifying Lizzie, the "heap" had again sunk into comparative silence, and only a confused murmur was audible from its depths. Allowing no time to be lost, Dunmore said to Lizzie—who was puffing out huge mouthfuls of smoke, greatly to the astonishment of the other gins, who looked as if they expected to see her suddenly blaze up—
"Lizzie, you ask, suppose they been see any white fellow on island? White fellow in plenty big canoe. That fellow canoe been come like 'it shore. You tell them, 'Baal white fellow hurt you, suppose you been show, where brother belonging to him sit down.' You tell them that, Lizzie."
Lizzie proceeded with the greatest gravity, and evidently with an overwhelming sense of self-importance, to put the required questions, whilst we anxiously awaited her replies.
"Well, what they been say?" exclaimed Dunmore at last, when there was a momentary break in the conversation.
I should imagine that the vernacular of the Hinchinbrook Islanders was not pre-eminently adapted for the noble intricacies of diplomatic intrigue. In the first place it contains but few words, and none representing any number higher than five, so that even the courtly nobleman now presiding over Foreign Affairs, would find the smooth flow of his amenities subjected to rude shocks; and as for expressing any large number either in words or figures—say, for instance, the Alabama indemnity of three millions—to do so, would tax to the utmost the genius of the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lizzie, in her first flash of pride, as representing a plenipotentiary armed with extraordinary powers, had commenced negotiations with the dignity and slowness of speech adapted to so exalted a personage. But the shrill chorus which emanated from the audience was decidedly antagonistic to grave deliberation, and the anxious curiosity of the woman superseding the self imposed role of the diplomatist, our envoy lost the pompous tone she had first adopted, and a volley of queries and replies was exchanged so rapidly, and with such appalling shrillness, that we onlookers ran a great risk of being either deafened, or driven out of our senses. At the first slackening of the wordy warfare, Dunmore put his questions, and then Lizzie said—
"Baal there been any white fellow along of here."
"You been sure, Lizzie, ask suppose they been see any big fellow canoe."
Again the same hideous noise now took place, but I will not tire my readers with too minute a description of a scene with which they must now be pretty conversant, suffice it to say, that what with the real or pretended stupidity of the gins, and the imperfect English of our interpreter, we were more puzzled at the conclusion of the debate than we had been at its commencement.
"Had they seen a vessel?"
"Oh yes, big fellow, with wings like 'it bird."
"How long ago?"
"Plenty long time ago."
"One moon ago?"
"Yes, one moon ago."
"Sure it was one moon?"
"No, thought it must be one day ago, and plenty smoke sit down along of big canoe."
Altogether the skein was too tangled for us to attempt to unravel it. They had seen vessels evidently, both sailing ships and steamers, but whether it was yesterday, or ten years back, there were no means of ascertaining; but to make certain that we were not being deceived, we instituted a strict overhaul of the gunyahs, in hopes of finding something that might give us a clue to the fate of the missing men. When we broke up our circle for this purpose, the component parts of the "heap" assumed an upright posture, and it was remarkable to witness the awe with which they regarded Lizzie. At first they seemed afraid to approach her, and stood some five yards distant, watching her whilst she puffed out the smoke from her relighted pipe, and posed herself in an attitude of becoming superiority, for she saw clearly enough that the happy moment for making an impression had arrived. Gradually they drew closer and closer, and at last, three of the eldest gins going down on all fours, crept slowly up until close in front of her, when they stopped, and buried their withered old faces in the sand at her feet. After enjoying their humiliation for a few seconds, she condescended to speak to them, and very shortly they were all chattering away on the most amicable terms.
Meanwhile the gunyahs or native huts, and the camp, had been thoroughly searched, but without bringing to light anything European, except a few bottles, and a pint pot which had been accidentally left behind by one of the party on the occasion of Lizzie's abduction. The gunyahs were better constructed than usual, and consisted of saplings bent in an arch and covered with tea-tree bark, a great improvement on all the native dwellings we had hitherto seen, which were generally little better than a rude screen against the wind. But our time was precious, for we carried but little provision; and we could not afford to loiter about, even in so pleasant a spot as this little bay; so, after dispatching a hasty dinner, we started off afresh, to the immense relief of the gins, and got out of the valley by another pass, which Lizzie showed us. I must not forget to mention one ludicrous circumstance, which convulsed us with laughter. The gins showed such curiosity about Lizzie's pipe, that she handed it round and made them each take a puff. Their expressions, when the pungent smoke caused them either to sneeze, cough, or choke, were most laughable; and I have no doubt that it is still a matter of wonder to them, and a fruitful source of debate over the camp-fires, what pleasure the white man can find in filling his mouth with smoke, apparently with no better object than to puff it out again as soon as possible. Our course now lay due south, and the travelling was much the same as in the morning, that is to say, as bad and as fatiguing as it well could be. Lizzie said she could take us to another bay, where there were sure to be more blacks; and so we trudged patiently along under her guidance, with the sun blazing down so fiercely that the carbine-barrels became quite heated. Our new path was very similar to the last one, seeming to come to an abrupt termination, but really shooting off at an angle, and leading down to a bay, which opened out to our view about five o'clock, and did not present nearly so pretty an appearance as the one we had just left, for the ground seemed swampy, and the beach was a nasty muddy mangrove-flat. We were also disappointed in not finding any blacks; but as there is nothing so bad that it has not some redeeming quality, so this dreary-looking swamp had its advantages, for the trees were loaded with Torres Straits' pigeons, and sea-crabs were abundant. This would enable us to lay in an extra day's provisions, and to extend our search, if necessary, before visiting the 'Daylight', from which vessel we were now separated by more than twenty miles of unknown country, inclusive of a mountainous range. We determined not to shoot any pigeons that night, for they would only keep the less time; and having lit our fire by the side of a small creek, we had supper, and were soon sleeping the sleep of the weary, the watch having instructions to call us at an early hour for the purpose of replenishing our larder before the birds took their departure for the mainland.
A pint pot of tea swallowed—what a blessing it is that this glorious beverage is so portable that abundance can always be carried—three of us sallied forth with our carbines, from which we had extracted the bullets and substituted shot, each taking a different direction, the troopers guaranteeing a crab breakfast, and Lizzie cutting and peeling wooden skewers to roast the game on; for in this climate nothing will keep beyond a few hours, unless partially cooked. I struck away towards the left with the intention of making the mangroves as soon as possible, where I knew I should find plenty of birds. The walk of the day previous had made me a little stiff; but I felt lightly clad, without the heavy blanket, which I had left in camp; and, by way of getting rid of the stiffness, I started off at a run and soon reached my destination, where I sat down until there was sufficient daylight to enable me to see the game. As I rested on the root of a tree, perfectly motionless, I saw something large moving among the mangroves; but the dawn was as yet so uncertain that I could not distinguish whether it was a human being or not.
"If that is a black fellow," I thought, "he's worth all the pigeons put together, and I'll wait quietly to try and capture him," for the object I saw was moving in the direction my companions had taken; and if it were a native, he would be certain to return by the road he had come, when he heard the firing. Sitting still, waiting for anything or anybody, when waited on yourself by hungry mosquitoes, may be agreeable enough to Mr. Fenimore Cooper's typical Red Indian, but I can safely say that it is anything but pleasant work to a thin-skinned Englishman. Daylight had now fully come, and I was beginning to hesitate as to whether I had not better bag some of the birds that were fluttering over my head, and get out of the swamp as fast as I could, when I heard the distant report of a gun, and said to myself, "Well, I'll give the nondescript five minutes more, and if it doesn't turn up by then, I'll blaze away at the pigeons." Half the allotted time had barely elapsed, when another report broke the stillness of the morning, and immediately afterwards I heard a rustling among the mangrove-leaves, and a slight crackling, as though some heavy weight were passing over the arched roots. I stayed quiet, almost breathless, as the noise came nearer and nearer, and, turning my head, I peered through the bush behind which I had taken up my quarters, and saw a fine-looking black gliding cautiously from one to another of the interlaced mangroves. He was evidently quite unsuspicious of any danger in front, and kept all his faculties concentrated on the direction in which he had heard the carbine-shots, which now followed each other rapidly, as the two gunners fired at the birds as fast as they could load.
"Now," thought I, "if I can only cut you off so as to keep you between me and them, I am pretty certain to capture you, my friend;" and, judging my time, I rushed from behind my bush, and was within ten yards of him before he saw me. In his amazement he dropped the long fish-spear with which he was armed, stood one moment undetermined, and then made his way, with the greatest agility, from tree to tree, not back towards my friends, as I had fondly hoped, but straight for the bay. I followed as fast as I could, but he went two paces to my one. I confess I felt sorely tempted to handicap him with a charge of small shot, lodged somewhere about the calves of those lean legs that were carrying him over the roots with such provoking rapidity, and have often wondered since why I refrained; but I did, and continued to scuttle after him, now slipping down and barking my shins, now nearly losing my carbine, and often compelled to sprawl on all fours. He was now forty or fifty yards ahead of me, and I was nearly giving up the useless chase, when an unforeseen accident turned the tables in my favour, and caused me to push on with redoubled vigour. As we approached the bay, the whole of the roots and lower portions of the mangroves became thickly studded with oysters, whose shells, sharp as razors, cut the bare feet of the fugitive; while, on the contrary, they proved of assistance to me by preventing my thick boots from slipping off the treacherous roots. I now gained ground as fast as I had previously lost it, and made certain of capturing my prisoner on arriving at the end of the mangroves, through which I could already catch glimpses of the sea. Animated by the thoughts of bringing a captive into camp, from whom we should probably gain valuable information, I jumped from tree to tree in hot pursuit, and when the bay opened out clearly, I was only a short distance in the rear.
"Now I've got you," I muttered, as the black fellow jumped on to the last stool of roots, and as I was eagerly following, holding my breath for a tussle; when, to my intense mortification, he plunged headlong into the sea, leaving me disconsolate and out of wind, to get back as best I could. I waited until his head reappeared, which was not until he had put a good thirty yards between us, and, pointing my carbine, shouted to him to return or I would fire. It was quite useless. He went quietly out seaward, and at the last, when I turned unwillingly to retrace my steps, I saw his black head bobbing about on the calm surface. When, after a series of involuntary feats on the mangrove rope, I again stood on 'terra firma', all the pigeons had left; and I was compelled to make my way back to camp, empty-handed, muddy, cut about the shins, and with my boots almost in tatters. "So much," thought I, "for trying to catch a black fellow single-handed."
My companions had shot plenty of pigeons, after roasting which we started for the interior of the island, and without meeting with anything beyond the ordinary routine of bad bush and mountain travelling; certainly encountering nothing that would justify me in inflicting a prolix description upon the reader—we arrived late on the following evening at the rendezvous, found the 'Daylight' safely at anchor, and thus completed one portion of our search, without having obtained the faintest clue to an elucidation of the mystery of the 'Eva'.
The pilot reported that, to the best of his belief, no blacks had succeeded in making their escape to the mainland; several canoes had attempted to cross, but they had been seen and intercepted, though none of their occupants had been captured. One canoe he had taken possession of, and now showed us, which was, I think, the most primitive piece of naval architecture any of us had seen. Canoe it could hardly be called, for it was only a sheet of bark curled up by the action of fire; the bow and stern formed by folding the extremities, and passing a tree-nail, or, rather, a large skewer, through the plaits. When placed in the water, the portion amidships, which represented the gunwale, was not four inches above the surface, and so frail that no European could have got into it without a capsize, though the black fellows are so naturally endued with the laws of equilibrium that they can stand upright in these tiny craft, and even spear and haul on board large fish.
We slept in the hold of the 'Daylight' that night, after making all arrangements for a start at early dawn. We trusted that the Cleveland Bay party would have performed their portion of the task, and thoroughly overhauled the southern part of the island, and fully expected to fall in with them on the following day.
Our road lay through most abominable country—stony, precipitous, and in places covered with dense vegetation. The traces of blacks were abundant, and we could travel but a short distance without falling in with some of the numerous camping-places. In many of these, the fires were still smouldering, but the inhabitants had cleared out, most probably warned by those whom the whale-boat had intercepted. Each camp was subjected to a rigid scrutiny, but without revealing anything European, except fragments of bottles, to which we attached no importance, for they were probably flung over-board by some passing vessel, and carried ashore by the tide. These are highly valued by the blacks, who do not use them for carrying water, but break them, and scrape down their spears with the fragments.
To make a spear must be a work of many weeks' duration, when the imperfect implements at the natives' disposal are taken into consideration. In the first place, his missile must be perfectly straight, and of the hardest wood; and no bough, however large, would fulfil these requirements, so it must be cut out bodily from the stem of an iron-bark tree, and the nearer the heart he can manage to get, the better will be his weapon. His sole tool with which to attack a giant iron-bark is a miserable tomahawk, or hatchet, made of stone, but little superior to the rude Celtic flint axe-heads, that may be seen in any antiquarian's collection. These are of a very hard stone, frequently of a greenish hue, and resembling jade; and, having been rubbed smooth, are fitted with a handle on the same principle that a blacksmith in England twists a hazel wand round a cold chisel. The head, and the portion of the handle which embraces it, then receive a plentiful coating of bees'-wax, and the weapon is ready for use. Fancy having to chop out a solid piece of wood, nine feet long, and of considerable depth, from a standing tree, with an instrument such as I have described, which can never, by any possibility be brought to take an edge! I have frequently examined the trees from which spears have been thus excised, and the smallness of the chips testified to the length of the tedious operation; indeed, it would be more correct to say the segment had been bruised out than excised. Having so far achieved his task, there is still a great deal before the black can boast of a complete spear, for the bar is several inches in diameter, and has to be fitted down to less than one inch. Of the use of wedges he knows nothing, so is compelled to work away with the tomahawk, and to call in the aid of fire; and when he has managed to reduce the spear to something approaching its proper size, he gets a lot of oyster-shells, and with them completes the scraping, and puts on the finishing touches. It may easily be imagined what a boon glass must be to the savage, enabling him to do the latter part of the operation in a tithe of the time.
I am afraid that it is often the habit with us Australians to either destroy or carry away as curiosities, the weapons and other little things that the blacks manufacture, utterly regardless of the loss we thus inflict upon them; for without his weapons the wretched native is not only defenceless against neighbouring tribes, who would not scruple to attack him when unarmed, but he is also literally deprived of the means of subsistence. Without his spear, he is unable to transfix the kangaroos and wallabies on which he so much depends for his daily food, and, robbed of his boomerangs and nullah-nullahs, the wild duck can pass him scatheless, and the cockatoo can scream defiance from the lofty trees. I know that this practice of returning laden with native spoil is more frequently the result of thoughtlessness or curiosity than anything else. The implements appear so trumpery, that the European thinks they can be of little use to anybody, but the bad blood thus engendered between the aborigines and the settlers is greater than would be easily credited. Another reason, I would venture to submit, in opposition to this custom is, that in the case of the blacks doing any mischief, no method of punishing them can possibly be devised equal in severity to the destruction of their weapons. A tribe is rendered more helpless and more innocuous by this than by shooting down half the males, and I am sure that if they once found that only in case of mischief was this punishment resorted to, we should hear infinitely less of cattle-spearing and shepherd-murdering than at present obtains. I mention this, not from any good-will towards the blacks, who have been causes of much sorrow to me and mine, but because I am sure that a discontinuance of this idle habit would tend to lessen the existing causes of friction between the two races.
In one of the camps we found a blanket—not, O reader, made of the finest wool, deftly woven at the looms of Witney, but a blanket of Dame Nature's own contrivance, stripped by the aboriginal from the bark of the Australian tea-tree ('Melaleuca squarrosa'), no small shrub, but a noble fellow standing from 150 to 200 feet high, and generally found in the neighbourhood of fresh water, or in the beds of creeks. The bark of this tree is of great thickness, and composed of a series of layers, each of which can be easily separated from its neighbours, and, in fact, much resembling a new book, just issued from the hot-press of the binder. From a portion of this—the inner skins, I imagine—the blacks manage to make a flexible, though not over warm, covering for the winter nights, or for the newly-born piccaninnies. The whole of the process I am not acquainted with, but from all I could gather from Lizzie, the bark is stripped in a large sheet at the end of the rainy season, the inner cuticle of several leaves carefully separated from the remainder, and placed in fresh water, weighted with heavy stones to retain it in its position. After the lapse of a certain time, known only to the initiated, it is taken out, hung up to dry, and at a peculiar stage, before all the moisture has evaporated, it is laid on a flat rock, and cautiously beaten with smooth round stones, which operation opens out the web sufficiently to make it quite pliant, after which it is allowed to dry thoroughly, and is then ready for use. These vegetable blankets are very strong, and must be a great protection to the naked savages, but, despite the ease with which they can be obtained, and the small time and labour occupied in their preparation, but few of the gins have them, and none of the men.
We also found several fish-hooks of a most peculiar shape, and made out of a curious material. In shape they were like a circular key-ring, with a segment of exactly one-third cut out. One end was ground sharp, and to the other was attached the line, cleverly spun from the tea-tree bark. Now, of all shapes to drive a Limerick hook-maker to despair, none, one would think, could have been invented better than this, for the odds are certainly ten to one against its penetrating any portion of a fish, even though he should have gorged it. The material of which these quaint hooks are made is tortoise or turtle shell, for both tortoises and turtles abound on this coast, the former frequenting the fresh-water creeks and lagoons, and the latter the sea. Whether they were cut out of the solid, or whether a strip was soaked, bent, and then dried in the sun until it became firmly set in the required shape, I never could ascertain, but most probably the former plan was adopted.
The whole island seemed to teem with game, and had we been able to fire, we should speedily have made a good bag, but this we dared not do, so I made a mental resolve to return at some future time and make amends for this enforced restraint. At nearly every step, we put up some bird or beast strange to European eyes.
I have no doubt it is known to most of my readers that Australia is destitute of 'Ferae' proper, and that elephants, lions, tigers, etc., are unknown. They will also know that the kangaroos are marsupial animals; that is to say, the females have a peculiar pouch for their young, which are born in a far less advanced state than the young of other animals. But perhaps it is not so generally known that, with two or three exceptions, such as the dingo or native dog, the platypus, and several species of bats, the 'whole' of the animals on the continent are marsupial. The brains of this species are very small, and they sadly lack intelligence, in which respect they exhibit a wonderful affinity to the aboriginals who live by their capture.
Of kangaroos there are more than thirty different kinds, but the English are now so well acquainted with this curious animal that it needs no description. There are two things about it, however, that I may with propriety here point out—viz., the use of the pouch, and the various ways in which the kangaroo is serviceable to the settler. The average size of the ordinary female kangaroo is about six feet, counting from the nose to the tip of the tail; and, marvellous though it may appear, the young kangaroo, at its birth, is but little over an inch in length, having a vague kind of shape, certainly, but otherwise soft, semi-transparent, and completely helpless. Now the pouch comes into use. The little creature is conveyed there by the mother's lips, and immediately attaches itself to one of the nipples, which are retractile, and capable of being drawn out to a considerable length. Thus constantly attached to its parent, it waxes bigger daily. From two to eight months of age it still continues an inhabitant of its curious cradle, but now often protrudes its little head to take an observation of the world at large, and to nibble the grass amongst which its mother is feeding. Sometimes it has a little run by itself, but seeks the maternal bosom at the slightest intimation of danger. It quits the pouch for good when it can crop the herbage freely; but even now it will often poke its head into its early home and get a little refreshment on the sly, even though a new-comer may have succeeded to its place.
AN AUSTRALIAN SEARCH PARTY—III.
BY CHARLES H. EDEN.
A FULL-GROWN "paddy melon," a small and beautiful species of kangaroo, bearing the same resemblance to the "boomer" that a Cingalese mouse-deer does to an elk, was once given to me as a pet, and we became great friends. Whenever I went into the room and opened my shirt or coat, the little fellow would bound in and coil himself snugly away for hours, if permitted; thus showing, I think that he still retained a recollection of the snug abode of his childhood. Like most pets, he came to an untimely end—in fact, met with the fate that ultimately befalls all the members of his tribe who are domesticated and allowed to run about the bush huts in Australia. The fireplaces are large recesses in the wall, and on the same level as the floor. Wood only is burnt, and large heaps of glowing ashes accumulate, for the fire never really goes out, by night or day. As long as it is blazing, the pet kangaroo will keep his distance, but when it has sunk down to living coals, his foolish curiosity is sure to impel him, sooner or later, to jump right into the thick of it; and then—and here his want of brains is painfully shown—instead of jumping out again at once, he commences fighting and spurring the burning embers with his hind feet, and, as a natural sequence, is either found half roasted, or so injured that his death is inevitable.
The uses to which the settler puts this animal are many. He has to take the place of the stag when any hunting is going on (as the dingo has to act for the fox); and most remarkably good sport an "old man" or "boomer"—as the full-grown males are called—will afford; and most kangaroo dogs bear witness, by cruel scars, how keen a gash he can inflict with his sharp hind claw when brought to bay. From ten to twelve miles is by no means an unusual run, and when thoroughly exhausted he makes a stand, either with his back against a tree, or in the water. In both of these positions he is no despicable adversary, and will do much damage to a pack of hounds, by grasping them in his short fore arms and ripping them open, if on land; or by seizing and holding them under, if in the water. Instances are on record of a despairing kangaroo dashing through the dogs on the approach of a dismounted hunter, and severely wounding him. The common practice when the animal is brought to bay is to ride up and pistol him. But, however he may be killed, his useful qualities have by no means departed with his breath. His skin, properly cured, will make good door-mats, boots, saddle-cloths, stock-whips, gaiters, and numberless other useful articles. His long and heavy tail is much valued for the soup it yields; and the hams can be cured, and, thus preserved, find many admirers. The hind-quarters of a large "boomer" will run little short of seventy pounds; and, with the tail, form the only parts commonly eaten by Europeans.
The birds that we encountered were of every form and size; pigeons, some coloured like parrots, others diminutive as sparrows, and of the same sombre hue: pheasants, quail, every kind of feathered fowl that could gladden the heart of the sportsman, were found in abundance, and amongst these the scrub turkey and its nest. This latter bird is so little known, that I am tempted to give a short account of it.
The Australian scrub turkey ('Tallegalla Lathami') is common in all the thick jungles in the north of Queensland, and, though smaller than the domestic bird, is sufficiently like it to be easily recognised, having the same wattle, and neck denuded of feathers. The most remarkable feature about this turkey is its nest, which is composed of sand, leaves, and sticks, piled up into a great mound three feet or so in height, and ten or more in diameter. This enormous mass is not the unaided work of one pair, but of a whole colony, and the material is got together by the bird grasping a quantity in its foot, and throwing it behind him; the ground in the immediate vicinity of the mound is thus entirely stripped of every blade of grass, or fallen leaf. In process of time, the heap partially decomposes, and when the female judges that enough heat has been engendered to serve her purpose, she proceeds to lay her eggs. These are enormous when compared with the size of the bird, and are not simply deposited and covered over, but buried at a depth of eighteen or twenty inches, each egg nearly a foot from its neighbour, and standing on end, with the larger half uppermost. Thus they remain until hatched, though how the bird manages to plant them with such dexterity has, I believe, never been ascertained; no one yet having been sufficiently lucky to witness the proceeding. Directly the little birds chip the shell, they run about with the greatest agility, and their capture is exceedingly difficult. A nest with freshly-laid eggs is a glorious find, for several dozen are frequently extracted, and are most delicious eating.
The evening was fast approaching, when we camped for the night by the side of a nice clear water-hole in a sequestered valley, and, after bathing and having tea, we tried our luck at fishing, for these holes are sometimes full of eels. We prospered, and soon had several fine fellows on the bank, from whence they were speedily transferred to the hot ashes, and roasted in their integrity; they were thus spared the skinning, to which, it is averred, custom has habituated them. Ferdinand and Cato were collecting firewood for the night, for, in the position we had selected, we were not afraid of making a good blaze, and we were sitting and lounging round the fire, conjecturing what had become of all the blacks, and how soon we should fall in with the other party, when Lizzie—who had accompanied the troopers—came rushing back, and said:—
"One fellow snake been bit 'em Cato; plenty that fellow go bong (dead) by-and-by, mine believe."
We all jumped up, and sure enough, poor Cato came slowly towards us, looking the ashy-grey colour to which fear turns the black, and followed by Ferdinand, who dragged after him a large black snake, the author of the mischief.
If Australia is exempt from wild beasts, the number of venomous reptiles with which it is cursed make it as dangerous to the traveller as other tropical countries in which ferocious animals abound. Hardly a tree or a shrub can be found that does not contain or conceal some stinging abomination. The whole of these are not, of course, deadly, but a tarantula bite, or a centipede sting, will cripple a strong man for weeks, while a feeble constitution stands a fair chance of succumbing. But of all these pests, none can equal the snakes, which not only swarm, but seem to have no fear of man, selecting dwellings by choice for an abode. These horrible reptiles are of all sizes, from the large carpet snake of twenty feet, to the little rock viper of scarcely half a dozen inches. The great majority of these are venomous, and are of too many different kinds for me to attempt their enumeration here. The most common with us were the brown, black, and whip snakes, and the death-adder, all poisonous; and the carpet-snake, harmless. The brown and black snakes run from two to eight feet in length, frequent the long grass, chiefly in the neighbourhood of swamps, and from the snug way in which they coil up, and their disinclination to move, are highly dangerous. The latter is very handsome, the back of a brilliant black, and the under portion of a sea-shell pink. Their skin is sometimes used by bushmen as a cover to their waistbelts, which are much beautified thereby. The whip-snakes are of all sizes and of all colours; in fact, under this name the colonists include all the slender climbing snakes, so many of which inhabit Australia. In my opinion, these are the worst; for they come boldly into your room in search of warmth, and may be found stowed away in a boot, or under the pillow, or in any place where they are least expected. Last and worst of our venomous snakes comes the death, or deaf, adder, for it is called indiscriminately by both names, and amply justifies either prefix. The hideous reptile is very thick and stumpy in proportion to its length, which rarely exceeds two feet, whilst its circumference may be put down at one-fifth of its total measurement. The tail is terminated by a small curved spike, which is commonly regarded as the sting; but though when touched it doubles up, and strikes with this horn, as well as bites, I do not think the tail does any material damage, but this opinion one would find it difficult to make a bushman credit. I once saw a man take a death-adder up—quite unintentionally, you may be sure—between two shingles, and it immediately struck backwards with both head and tail, the two extremities luckily meeting above his hand. From the sluggish habits of this reptile, it is popularly accounted deaf, and it seems quite unalarmed even by the report of a gun. You may walk over it a dozen times, as it lies basking in the sun, usually in the most frequented part of the road, and it will take not the slightest notice, but if touched, however gently, it bites at once.
When I first went to Cardwell, I was talking about death-adders, and the naive remark made by one of the inhabitants amused and at the same time rather terrified me, for the perfect knowledge he exhibited of the reptiles showed plainly how common they were there.