― 179 ―

The Mission to Dingo Creek.

An Apostolical Sketch.

‘Bad work, this!’ exclaimed the Bishop of B—— to one of a recent consignment of curates. ‘Bad work this, in the North!’ That part of the diocese evidently wants looking to again. Nice trip for you, Greenwell. Give you some idea of the country, too,’ continued the Bishop. ‘Yes, decidedly; the very man! Let me see; steamer to R——, then overland. Of course, you may have to rough it a little; but that will only add a zest to the change.’

The ‘bad work’ that his lordship alluded to was the substance of some reports that had just arrived from one of the new gold rushes, situated in the extreme north of his immense diocese, reports of a terrible state of immorality, drunkenness, and general godlessness existing there amongst far-off members of his flock—to wit, rough diggers and bushmen, together with a sprinkling of nondescripts, characterless vagrants, defaulters, horse-thieves, and worse, who had flocked there from the neighbouring colonies as to an Alsatia, where they

  ― 180 ―
could remain, at least, for the time being, secure from even the far-reaching arm of the law.

On such material as this had the good Bishop, shortly after his arrival in his new see, from his snug English vicarage, essayed the power of his eloquence on his only visit to that part of his charge: a visit, be it whispered, he was not in the least anxious to repeat.

The Reverend Spicer Greenwell fairly shuddered at the thought of trusting his precious person amongst such a set of savages as his imagination at once conjured up. But all his excuses and demurrings were without avail, his superior having, by some curious mischance, got it into his head that his senior curate was the very man qualified for such a mission to the heathen.

Though getting well on towards middle age, Mr Greenwell was a failure. He had completely mistaken his vocation; but he did not think so, and nobody had, as yet, been rude enough to tell him so.

Mrs Jellyby's mission was, if we remember aright, to cultivate coffee and the natives of Borioboola-Gha. Mr Greenwell's was to cultivate teas—afternoon ones—and at the same time to, if possible, capture a fair ‘Native,’ rich in those goods of this world, in which he himself was so unhappily deficient.

For the rest, he was a gaunt, waxen-visaged man, who always wore the highest waistcoats, longest coats, and whitest neckties obtainable; was never seen without a large diamond ring on his little finger; and seldom deigned to consort or even converse with the other clergymen of the district, unless brought into direct

  ― 181 ―
communication with them by his position—into which he had partly thrust himself, partly had conferred upon him through home influence — of the Bishop's chargé d'affaires. He had, he flattered himself, before this untoward affair happened, been making rapid progress with the damsels of the Banana city; and, indeed, amongst some of the more elderly spinsters of the congregation of St Jude's, he was voted as ‘quite too nice.’

Imagine then, if you can, the horror and disgust of such a man at being chosen for such an errand. But the Bishop was adamant; and I have many a time thought since that he purposely hardened his heart, and that, whilst dilating on his curate's especial fitness for the work, his energy and push—as already illustrated in parish matters—his suave and polished manners, alone a vast handicap in his favour amongst the rude and illiterate people he was about to visit, the good prelate privately hoped within himself that if the shepherd he was sending forth did little benefit to the flock, yet, that the latter might possibly succeed in some unforeseen way in toning down the self-sufficiency, egoism and vanity of the pastor.

Seeing, at length, that there was no help for it, and that go he must, the luckless curate, taking a mournful and solemn farewell of his lady friends, went forth to preach the Gospel to the heathen of the Dingo Creek diggings.

Things went well enough with our traveller till he reached R——, the nearest township of any size to Dingo Creek, which last place lay still further ahead

  ― 182 ―
nearly ninety miles through rough and lonely country. At intervals on his route he had held services and preached sermons—little marrowless exhortations that he had long known by heart, and that, if they did no harm, assuredly did little good. From R——, whence he set out on horseback, a road led sixty miles to a bush public-house, where he was told he could be accommodated with a buggy, and, perhaps, a guide to his destination.

Duly arriving, sore and jaded, at the sign of the ‘Jolly Bushman,’ he found the host an obliging sort of a fellow enough, who said he would himself have driven the gentleman to Dingo Creek, but that his wife was ill. However, his buggy should be at his disposal the next morning; and also the publican promised Cooronga Billy should go as guide, and, if necessary, bring both buggy and parson back again. Early on the following morning the buggy and a pair of good-looking ponies put in an appearance at the door of the ‘Jolly Bushman’; so did Cooronga Billy.

But now we must for a while drop the thread of the story, and go back to the time when, as a baby, Billy lay sound asleep in his black mother's arms under the shadow of the far-away Cooronga ranges——back to that fearful morning whose earliest dawn heralded the pitiless swoop of the native troopers on to the quiet camp. His tribe ‘dispersed,’ baby Billy, the sole survivor, was brought to B——, sent, in due course, to the best schools, and received a special education, with a view to fitting him for the ministry, and a sphere of what, it was fervently hoped by many good men, would

  ― 183 ―
prove congenial and profitable labour amongst his own benighted countrymen.

As he grew towards man's estate, Billy became quite one of the lions of B——, and was proudly exhibited and put through his paces before distinguished strangers, as a splendid specimen of ‘what can be done with our aborigines.’

Suddenly, and just when all this gratulation was at its height, William Cooronga Morris—he was indebted to the white officer who had commanded the ‘dispersers’ of his tribe for the first and last of these names, duly received at the font of St Jude's—disappeared totally, turning up months afterwards, clad in his native skins, armed with his native weapons, at one of the far-out townships; and had ever since loafed around the outskirts of Northern Settlement, a degrading example of what over-civilisation can do for a black-fellow.

Periodical visits would Billy make far out in the Bush towards the wild Coorongas—for some strange instinct had led him at his first departure towards the land of his birth—and there, instead of, as had been so fondly expected, bending his energies towards the cure of souls amongst his dark brethren, it was freely reported that Mr W. C. Morris constituted himself their leader in many a fat - cattle spearing expedition, if nothing worse.

Billy, at the moment we have chosen to introduce him to the reader, had just returned from one of those forays, and a terrible figure he appeared to the Reverend Spicer.

  ― 184 ―

Nearly naked, with the exception of a short 'possum cloak, his skin plentifully covered with red and white ochre, and his hair decorated with cockatoo feathers; whilst across one side of his face ran a long, gaping scar, a relic of some recent corrobboree—what wonder that the reverend gentleman gazed more than doubt fully at the person introduced to him by the publican as his guide. The landlord observed his hesitation and the cause of it.

‘Never mind, sir,’ said he, ‘he's as quiet as a sheep. Dessay his 'ed's sore, though. Have a nobbler, Cooronga? It'll make him lively like, you see,’ he concluded, addressing the curate, who evidently thought that Billy looked quite lively enough.

At length they started, Billy driving, sulky and taciturn, answering questions as shortly as possible, and in the vilest of pigeon English.

Nearly three parts of the journey was accomplished —for Billy drove like a very Jehu — when the curate began to feel hungry. So, as they came to a deep gully where the rain-water lay in pools amongst the rocks, he made his guide pull up, and prepared to comfort the inner man.

Taking no notice of his companion, he sat down by the edge of the water, and began with immense gusto to demolish a roast fowl and other materials for a very fair repast.

At R—— the reverend gentleman had provided himself with two bottles of port, a wine which he had been told was a first-class specific in cases of bush-fever and

  ― 185 ―
dysentery. The bottles were by this gone; but out of the last one he had filled a large travelling flask, which now producing, along with a tumbler, he proceeded— first qualifying his liquor with a modicum of water— to wash down his lunch.

Billy's eyes sparkled. He at once recognised the smell and colour, but would have preferred rum.

However, little of anything, solid or fluid, seemed likely to fall to his share, for the weather was hot, and our curate thirsty.

Presently, addressing Cooronga, the Reverend Spicer, who had no idea of entering the scene of his ministrations, with such a figure as Billy for his charioteer, said,—

‘How many miles did you say it was from here to Dingo Creek?’

‘Lebn,’ grunted Billy.

‘Is the road as plain all the way as it is here?’

‘Ess,’ again grunted the tantalised Cooronga.

‘Very well, then,’ replied the curate, you can walk on. I will follow with the buggy when it gets a little cooler.’

But this was out of Billy's programme altogether. Pointing to the capacious flask, to which the thirsty divine was paying repeated attention, he said abruptly,—

‘You gib it Cooronga. Him dry too!’

‘That is medicine, my friend,’ was the reply, ‘and it would do you no good. If, as you seem to imply, you are thirsty, there lies water in abundance.’

  ― 186 ―

Billy's first impulse was to drive his spear through the curate. But, restraining himself with a sigh, another idea entered into his mischievous head. A large stump stood close by, overlooking the unsuspecting Spicer and the débris of his meal. Upon this stump, with a bound, Billy sprung, and, letting fall his cloak, disclosing to view his whole body, hideously chalked, skeleton-wise, he began, in a tone and with an enunciation far superior to that of the reverend gentleman himself, to declaim, with pointed spear,—

Who hath woe? Who hath sorrow? Who hath contentions? Who hath babbling? Who hath wounds without cause? Who hath redness of eyes?

They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine.

Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth its colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.

At the last—’

But here, poor Spicer, who had risen to his feet, and stood horror-stricken at hearing himself, as he imagined, reproved and threatened for his bibbing propensities through the mouth of a fiend, or even, as his staring eyes took in Billy's tout ensemble, it might be the Arch Enemy of mankind himself, uttered a shriek and fled, terror lending unwonted speed to his legs, down the gully; whilst Billy, with a wild whoop, descending from his perch, took the flask and what remained of the provisions to the buggy, and drove off into the Bush.

  ― 187 ―

Late that night, a weary, footsore traveller entered the principal public-house in Dingo Creek, and began to ask incoherent questions about a buggy and a black-fellow, the latter, he averred, an emissary of Satan, who had led him into the wilderness, and there deserted him—a story that the rough host and his equally rough customers could make neither head nor tail of.

‘It's a rum go altogether,’ said the former to one of his digger friends, after poor Spicer had retired, nearly dead beat, to his rough-slabbed room, whence he could hear all that went on in the bar.

‘The rummest thing I've heard on for some time,’ assented the other. ‘He looks somethin' like as a parson should look, right enough. But either he's just off of a rather heavy spree, or else he's more'n a shingle short. Sez he seen Ole Nick back there in the Bush, an' the old 'un shook his buggy.’

‘Bin on the bust, down at the “Jolly Bushman's,” I 'spects,’ put in another. ‘You fellers knows as some do see the old chap arter a 'ard bust. As for me, I takes it out in snakes mostly. But there's my mate, Bill, he allus has cats. I seen him one time a-huntin' 'em round the tent all night long, arter bein' on the spree for a week.’

Confidence in the Reverend Spicer was, however, a little restored, when, next morning, the buggy was found intact in the public-house yard; and his confused appearance and rambling statements of the previous night were

  ― 188 ―
charitably ascribed by the majority to ‘a touch of the sun.’

During the day it was announced throughout the place that the Reverend gentleman would address the inhabitants in the ‘dance-room’ of the public-house, as being the only one available for such a purpose. Figure to yourself a long, low room, on the earthen floor of which tree stumps still stood. At the far end, behind a sort of bar formed by sheets of galvanised iron, supported on trestles, waits, manuscript in hand, still in a rather unsettled state of mind, the Reverend Spicer. The place is dimly lit by flaring candles and slush lamps, and is crowded by an assembly of as mixed nationalities, customs and creeds, as could be found out of, say, Alexandria or Singapore. A strong smell of stale spirits and tobacco smoke pervades everything. All the men, as our curate sees, are armed with a sheath-knife and revolver; and, as he looks, he trembles and handles the address as gingerly as if it were a parcel of dynamite, and liable to explode at any moment, for it is not one of his own pithless compositions, but the work of the Bishop himself, a powerful and emphatic remonstrance—penned in his quiet study at Bishopstowe—against the sinful and dissolute lives of the Dingo Creekers. But, had the frightened curate only known it, the mob, mixed and uncontrolled as it was, would have as soon thought of illtreating a grasshopper as himself. And, all roughened and uncivilised as were the best of them, there were still men amongst them in whom the mere sight of a clergyman awoke memories long forgotten and buried

  ― 189 ―
under the combats and toils of life—men who had once ‘looked on better days,’ and whom Sabbath-bells had once ‘knoll'd to church,’ and this portion it was who, after awhile, obtained silence, and set the example of doffing their hats and putting away their pipes.

Very picturesque was the scene, with the lights flickering—now on the bronzed features of some stalwart European, now on the dark face of a negro, or the yellow expressionless countenance of a Chinaman—as the motley audience stood or squatted silent and attentive, whilst our curate quavered and stammered through the opening sentences of the address. And favourable, beyond all hope, would have seemed the opportunity to a true soldier of the Cross for softening the hearts of the poor heathen of Dingo Creek.

But never, perhaps, since the days when William C. Morris, arrayed in black broadcloth, was qualifying as an evangelist, has anyone felt himself more of a square peg in a round hole than did poor Spicer Greenwell, as he droned away, presently, amidst exclamations of disgust and disapproval from his curious congregation.

‘Give it lip, man!’ shouted a gigantic digger, whose beard reached almost to his waist. ‘Give it lip, an' let's hear what it's all about.’ Then, turning to the publican: ‘Give him a nobbler, Jimmy; it'll keep his pecker up. He's mighty scared o' somethin'.’ Declining the offered half-tumblerful of rum with a gesture of disgust, the curate, intent only on getting to the end of his task, resumed his reading.

  ― 190 ―

At this moment Cooronga Billy, who had passed the day in the adjacent black's camp, entered, and was at once warmly greeted by the crowd, to all of whom he was well known, and to whom he proceeded, amidst shouts of laughter, to relate the story of his escapade at the gully.

The curate, disturbed by the noise, lifted up his head, and, seeing Billy now standing just in front of him, he dropped his papers, and pointing to the grinning black fellow, shouted,—

‘Men! men! Satan himself is amongst you!’

The truth of the affair, helped out by Billy's story, now broke on all hands, and roars of unrestrained laughter, accompanied by wild impromptu dancing and cheers for ‘Cooronga,’ put an end, for the time at least, to any hopes that the Reverend Spicer might have once entertained as to his being instrumental to even a slight degree in the regeneration of Dingo Creek, the dust of which, a sadder and a wiser man, he shook without the least delay from off his feet.

Cooronga Billy has long since rejoined his tribe in the happy hunting grounds; but stories, many and wonderful, of the effect produced by the exercise of his perverted abilities are still told by the pioneers of the region in which he flourished.

The Reverend Spicer Greenwell still exists; but, should the reader feel inclined to seek him, his quest must lie well within the precincts of the highest civilisation to be found in our colonies, and he must be careful that no reference, be it ever so remote, to the

  ― 191 ―
adventure herein described, pass his lips; for, though his life has ‘fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf,’ still is the reverend gentleman strangely susceptible to any allusion to that episode of his earlier Australian experience.