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Chapter XXII. A Country Life.

‘WELL, old fellow, I shall soon be leaving you.’

This was said by Mr Roberts on an evening call upon his Indian friend.

‘What's up now with your restless soul?’

‘All this,’ was the reply. ‘I am sick of the restraints of human civilization, and am resolved to cultivate the association of the Magpie, Laughing Jackass, and the Wallaby.’

‘And have you not all those close to town?’

‘They are about here, but sadly affected by human contact. With my knowledge of real country life, I have more than a suspicion that the Magpie has learned a little extra craft, and is by no means so early a riser as his bush mate. The Laughing Jackass gets low in spirits, and has nothing like the joyous note he rings out in the forest wild. The poor melancholy specimens of the Kangaroo about here are piteous to behold. I suffer the same way. I am getting moody, miserable, and unnatural through hanging about town.’

‘Then you must have caught its duplicity, Roberts, as the Magpie had; for everybody takes you to be the most natural and most jolly man about town.’

‘That want of perception arises from the chimney smoke.’

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‘Which,’ added the other, ‘soon mounts the mountain or drifts down the channel.’

‘Or, again, to other observation, climbs up the clouds, or twists itself round the South Pole. But I may attempt some such thing myself, or an equal absurdity, if I don't throw down my grey goose quill,—no, that is poetical, but not true,—my rigid, rusty steel pen,—that will do, correct, though not poetical,—and take a flight from the busy hum of men.’

‘Then you really mean to bury yourself in the bush.’

‘To be sure I do. I am only a lone bachelor, and it will cost less than the entombment of wife and a baker's dozen of children.’

‘But what can you do on a farm, Roberts, more than I could?’

‘I'll tell you. I am longer, thinner, tougher, and stronger than you. I could leap a fence easier with or without a nag. I can hold a plough as well as follow it. I know a beanstalk from a gooseberry bush. I am not too woolly-headed to tell a sheep's tail from calf's-foot jelly. In fact, I was made for a farmer, only they stuck a pen in my hand instead of a reaping hook.’

Captain Douglas had a laugh at the narrative, though expressing his regret at the prospect of parting. He tried to wean the other from his purpose.

‘Now, why should you leave such a nice circle of

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friends, Roberts? Everybody likes you, you have an easy billet, you are not poor, and you might have about the best girl in the place if you would only settle down a Benedict.’

‘As you love me, Hal, pray don't talk such rubbish. You want me to drop down into a gouty, whining old fellow. You want me to rust out my days in easy sloth. And then, to crown all, you would promise me a halter. No—no—old boy. Jack has kept out of that noose so far, and is not to be caught now.’

‘But why, my dear friend,’ asked Mrs Douglas, ‘have you such a prejudice against my sex?’

‘Not at all, my dear madam. I am ready this very moment to bargain with Mr Douglas for an exchange into his regiment, quarters and chum included.’

The lady was a little shocked, and blushed, but returned to the charge.

‘Don't poke fun, but do tell us why you never married. There might have been an excuse for you in Calcutta, but can be none here with so many pretty Tasmanian girls.’

‘Alas! you don't know me, my dear Mrs Douglas. In India the fervour of the sun would never allow Cupid's flame to burn in my heart. It seemed to put it out. Then, too, I was anxious to keep entire, and I saw my married friends reduced to the very moiety of themselves; for half would be flitting to Europe, or turning an angel. To be half in heaven and half on

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earth, or half in India and half in London, seemed to me worse than having one leg in the grave.’

‘For shame! to talk in that way.’

‘Well, there was a real reason. I had always a great horror of being comfortable, and never, as you know, indulged in a hookah or took a siesta. Was I the man to submit to all the enervating pleasures of matrimony? I should be condemned to ride instead of walking, to sit an hour at table instead of twenty minutes, to eat indigestible things because my wife liked them, to sit out insipid parties, to be droned by my wife's lady friends, to be kept late in bed of a morning, to be worried into excessive propriety, to be my-deared into the sacrifice of private opinion, to become an inert mass of oleaginous indulgence, to be the father of sons who would plague me, and the husband of a wife who might tire of me, if I did not tire of her.’

‘Hold! hold! for mercy's sake,’ exclaimed the lady. ‘You well deserve to be an old bachelor. Go and establish your bachelor's hall in the bush.’

‘But where are you going to set up your camp, Roberts?’ inquired his old friend.

‘I have been halting between three opinions. I have cash enough to buy out a fellow from a thorough good farm in full work, having apples stuck on ready for me, the roosters provided a season in advance, the curry-combed cows accustomed to buttering, the fields without stick or stone, the hop fields laden with

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pockets; and I could then sit down with a moral dignity, twirling thumbs in contented ease.’

‘Not the worst circumstances of life.’

‘That may or may not be, but a vast deal too slow for me. I did fancy I would be lord of a waste, and ride forth each morn to one of the out-station huts some twenty miles from the homestead to inspect a flock, or make inquiries about the lowing herd. It would have a grand sound that of reigning over five hundred thousand acres, although sharing the dominion with black fellows and kangaroos. How it would flourish in a letter, and astonish the Browns! I might not be required to say that I only paid a sort of pepper-corn rent, that I accepted on those easy terms what others had rejected, and that my sheep were mortgaged over their ear marks. To be a lordly squatter was an awful temptation.’

‘How could you resist it?’

‘By remembering that man was not made to live on mutton alone. I could not relish that charming Queensland, the human melting pot. I never could be a warrior, and so disliked being a target for native spears. I should be wearied to death living where a man rode for a week before getting off a treeless plain. I didn't want the Moreton Bay rot. I didn't want to lose the cash I have saved, nor the life that has stuck to me so long.’

‘And now for the third fortune soliciting your acceptance.’

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‘Yes, and for the last time of asking. My third is a dive into the bush, but where there is a limit somewhere in the shape of a mountain, a river, or the sea. It was to be a real native wilderness. I wanted trees unlopped, rivers undammed, land without fences, soil unsoiled with rubbishy manure,—in short, a place where nothing had been done by man,—but where everything was waiting for me.’

‘Bravo!’ cried the captain, ‘Who would ever have thought you were such a Robinson Crusoe in embryo? But how do you propose managing to get such an Eden of repose?’

‘No, no—not an Eden, that would never suit me. There was a wife there, and a serpent. Both were very troublesome things to the original inhabitant. An Eden of repose would be unbearable. Nothing to do!—nothing to do! That would be worse than arson, bigamy, and petty larceny.’

‘Now, just compose your feelings, my dear man, and tell an ignorant soldier like me about the land-system here.’

‘I will, Douglas, with the methodical precision of a paid colonial agent, though without his sanguine temperament,—alias, his doubtful tongue. In the dear, good primitive days, when land was worth nothing, it was generously given away here. A grant was made upon the grantee declaring his intention to clear one acre in twenty within five years. Up to 1810 only a hundred acres were thus bestowed upon a

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single person, and that grant was subject to the payment of a quit-rent to the Crown of a nominal sum, seldom paid, and never exacted.”

‘Well, no one could complain of these terms, Roberts.’

‘Don't interrupt my lecture. For a dozen years after 1810 the quit-rent was made less, and the grants were made more.’

‘That was for county land; but how,’ enquired the captain, ‘did they manage for town lots?’

‘These were leased for twenty-one years, at the dreadful rental of thirty shillings a-year. In 1822, convicts having come in sharper than expected, as crime had riz at home, the benevolent colonial authorities said to new comers, who could be free selectors, “Here, take a hundred acres of the best land you can pick, and all we ask you to pay is the keep of a man; give him his jacket and tucker, without any wages, and get all the work you can out of him for yourself.” ’

‘That benevolence arose, I suspect, Roberts, from a desire to shift a commissariat difficulty.’

‘You are right there. Rations had riz in the colony, as crime had in Europe. In 1826, as folks growled so about the ever-changing quit-rent, the Governor fixed it at five per cent. on the value of the land granted. This produced a small revolution among holders, which ultimately terminated in the settlers getting quit of their quit-rents.’

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‘And a very good riddance, too.”

‘Why, Douglas! you a Queen's man, and to talk such radicalism. But I turn from you to my story. In 1828 any fellow who could show a bag of five hundred sovereigns, and swear they were his own, could add to his resources the grant of a square mile of land. This was a glorious scheme. Conscientious gentlemen availed themselves one after another of the same bag of gold—for a consideration. It was a credit and debtor account.’

‘That was a severe trial of the Aristides principle.’

‘I admit it. The paternals in Great Britain, ever jealous for the virtues of their people, thought the new system placed angelic natures in jeopardy, and closed the door against the bag.’

‘What was the next move?”

‘They submitted waste lands to public tender, the highest bidder paid half cash, and was allowed a twelve years' mortgage at five per cent. for the rest. This was found to be subject to a charge of favouritism, and cooked tenders. They, therefore, went in at last for the fair thing, putting up blocks to auction competition, at an upset of five shillings an acre. This was in 1831. The rate was advanced to twelve shillings in 1838. Then, because a lot of fools and madmen over in Port Phillip wanted to swallow any amount of pasture there, the government in 1842 jerked up the upset to twenty shillings.’

‘Thanks, my worthy lecturer,’ said Captain

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Douglas. ‘And can your excellency discourse upon what changes have since been made in this colony?’

‘So long as land sold, and cash came pleasantly in to the Treasury, the 1842 proceedings were maintained. But when our neighbours in Victoria took to raising corn and hay for themselves, and even split their own rails, nobody wanted to buy Tasmanian acres. So the soft-sawder was brought to bear on coy purchasers. In 1863 the Legislature said, “Go and select 320 acres. Pay twelve pounds for survey fees, and the payment for the land at a pound an acre can be eased off. Put down one-fifth cash, and let the balance be thrown over eight years, adding to the amount one-fifth of the cost as interest.” That was not a bad scheme.’

‘I should think not, Roberts.’

‘Then there came a growl from the little men who sought only a hundred acres. To accommodate these, a credit running over fourteen years was allowed. But some cried for lease, and not for purchase. Anxious for the honest penny, the State agreed that they should have the land for twenty years at a rent of sixpence an acre for the first few years, then a shilling, and afterwards two shillings.’

‘That was no great catch,’ exclaimed the Captain.

‘They would only have paid at the rate of nearly two pounds an acre, and the improvements and land go to the Government at the end of the term. But the transfer of land for passage money was the system to

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draw new comers from Europe. You know that plan.’

‘Yes: any one paying his own passage to Tasmania would receive thirty acres for himself, twenty for his wife, and ten for each child.’

‘But, you must add, that to secure a bona fide settlement, the grant would not be given till the parties had lived five years on the soil.’

‘Perfectly right. But is there any land to be got?’

‘My dear fellow, there are over a dozen millions of acres ready for selection. I must confess that the chap who made his choice to the westward ran a good chance of securing a marsh, a scrub, a rock, or a mountain; though some capital patches wait for choice.’

‘Then on which suit are you going, Roberts?’

‘Not the hundred acre one. In my misanthropic spleen, I don't want another fellow rubbing against my elbow. I am in for a thousand acres.’

‘What on earth do you want with all that, when just now you were finding fault with Squatter's wide domains?’

‘I might not like a fortune of a million, but be very pleased with ten thousand pounds. Now a thousand acres in Tasmania is a very pretty estate. I don't expect it all garden mould, though I think I have learned where to find a decent slice.’

‘But you will have to go far, far back to get it. You will be cut off from market, as well as civilization.’

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‘Not quite. The regulations are these: if a man pays a thousand pounds for a thousand acres, the Government guarantees to spend five hundred in making the land valuable, by placing it in road communication with the external world.’

‘That alters the story. Go, and my blessing be with thee, Jack!’

‘And I'll be bound,’ called out Mrs Douglas, ‘that you will be so miserable there in that lonely, desolate forest, that, in sheer desperation, you will marry a shrew to give you some excitement.’

‘Which may the gods forfend!’ exclaimed the merry bachelor, with becoming solemnity.