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  ― 111 ―

Up a Northern River.

IT is early autumn—the season when the cart-horse bard of the Australian plains dodders in smothered verse about the leaves that are not getting brown, and the songful goat which stamps on the bank of the muddy river, as the saddle-coloured current staggers feebly towards the distant sea, and lifts up his voice concerning the bugs and tight boots of his beloved motherland, likewise the snakes and the ague, the stumps on the highway, the wattle, the wild pigs, the distemper, and other cognate themes. The bare gaunt claws of Nature are spreading out over the earth, and through the crisp night air come strange mixed sounds—the “awk-awk-awk” of some undistinguishable reptile, the “z-z-z-z-z-z” of some flying insect with a red-hot tail, and, above all, the accursed, soul-destroying “toot” of that passing steamer which plods in and out of the remoter seaports bearing exasperation on its wings, and spreading human demoralisation wherever it goes.

What Australian is there who does not know that deceptive little craft—the broken-down, one-horse vessel which steals alongside the wharf just after the expectant traveller has given up all hope and gone to bed, and then


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creeps away again before he is awake, and leaves him hopelessly behind, a lost atom with a portmanteau blaspheming in a fifth-rate public-house—the flat-bottomed steam failure with an agonising shriek, which is supposed to call twice a week in the dead waste and wilderness of the night, and which is twenty miles away before the morning resurrection? The places which this vessel most loves to haunt are the weary, mouldering, prematurely-old, bush-grown little ports of the Northern rivers, and it comes out of its lair to lie off these spots and toot its aggravating whistle, and then it slides away into outer darkness, and leaves its intending passengers to walk. As a rule the belated traveller who intends trusting his body to this means of conveyance arrives by land a day ahead, with his heart full of hope and his shirts in a capacious bag, and hunts up the dismal, tangled clerk, who represents the local shipping interests in a dismantled fortress beside the wharf. There is a certain tired, shock-headed race of clerks who appear to grow for this especial branch of industry, and the representative of this outcast race is generally found keeping his weary watch in company with a dog-eared ledger and a three-legged stool which was made out of an ancient Egyptian coffin. He is an individual who knows nothing, and knows it worse than any other man on earth, and he doesn't even know enough to know that he knows nothing, but booms along with a serenity which is little short of sublime.

Still he is in a position to report that the steamer will most likely come along some time, if she doesn't die on the way. She calls in every three days, except when she is a month and a-half overdue, and then she calls in twice a week every day except Sunday, and that day she calls every alternate fortnight and three-quarters only. At present, however, there is a hitch in the time-table arrangements, and consequently she only arrives semi-occasionally, and sometimes not so often as that by a good deal, but she


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will probably be along about the middle of the night, or from that to the early part of the week after next. Then you probably inquire if this miserable Flying Dutchman hasn't been signalled from somewhere or other along the coast, and he explains, with a pitying smile, that there is no telegraph in these parts; but an orphan boy, who was up on the top of an adjacent hill, about the centre of yesterday, saw some smoke on the horizon, which might have been the steamer, or, on the other hand again, it mightn't. It further transpires that the witness in this case died early the same morning, so that he can't be further questioned on the subject; but, by way of corroborative evidence, it is mentioned that a subscription is now being got up to buy his mother a mangle—“and can I put you down for a trifle, sir?” At all events, the shock-headed commercial youth has got a bill of lading for 187 bananas duly made out, and he trusts that the vessel may come along shortly and remove that festering luggage out of sight.

After this you can wander up the dreamy grass-grown thoroughfare and muse in the sweltering sun, and have dinner at the licensed sepulchre in the next street, and await the course of events. Sometimes, in the tangled wilds of the afternoon it may be, an unhappy native floats along, and you can curse him with you acquaintance and gnaw his soul with your personal friendship till he withers away and becomes a hollow-minded and mysterious wreck, and then you can spread your moral infection around until it appears to be time to move your soul back to the silent wharf and inquire some more about the steamer.

Generally this second visit breaks up the shock-headed clerk, and he informs you sorrowfully that he believes the company has made arrangements to avoid this particular port in future as if it were a serpent. They tell a tale to this day about a clerk on one of the northern rivers who was in the act of explaining something like this to a


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demoniacal traveller, and the latter in bitter irony propounded to him a mysterious conundrum, which was meant to be a sarcasm upon his common sense, about certain circumstances under which a door got tired of being a door and became something else, and asked him if he thought this fact should be taken three times a day in a glass of water, and the clerk considered about it till he died and was buried in a leafy spot under a spreading tree, but the circumstance is not sufficiently substantiated. Towards six o'clock, however, the inky menial generally brightens up, and if he is struck about that hour, the inquirer may possibly be supplied with some fresh ignorance, and may acquire a disjointed paragraph to the effect that the expected steamer may possibly show in the river about ten o'clock, upside down, with the captain swimming alongside and carrying the boiler on his head. Sometimes the tangleheaded one adds that he will call up at the hotel and advise you when the cough of the asthmatic monster is heard upon the bosom of the deep; but this is merely a premonitory sign that he is going out of town at once and won't be back for three days, and is not by any means to be relied upon.

By this time the tea and flies are ready at your mausoleum, and two clump-soled men, who live by prodding the paunchy bullock to his doom at the butcher's shop, are blaspheming at the table; and then the evening drags wearily along while you smoke and wait and drink and swear and pray. By eight o'clock the local liquors have eaten away your vitals; by ten you have smoked till you are a hollow mummy, caked all over on the inside with soot; by eleven there isn't any sign of the steamer, and nobody in the place has ever heard of such a means of conveyance in his life. At midnight you wander down to the collection of ancient tea-chests, where the shipping cannibal is generally on view; but all is silent and deserted,


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and the loafer who hangs about outside is quite sure that the place is only a potato-store. The tide is falling in the river, and where water used to be there are only the footprints of an alligator on the long, slimy sand-banks; and, finally, you drift back to bed with a conviction that a raft may possibly come along about the back part of the Day of Judgment, but till then business is suspended.

Shade of the great original alligator! Is that the whistle of a steam-boat after all? The belated stranger comes out of bed with a crash, and hurriedly gets into his portmanteau under the impression that it is his clothes. An iron-clad insect, with eight legs and four horns, is walking across the floor, and a horror, the size of a dinner-plate, is roosting on the curtains. Something with long feelers and a tail is sitting on the traveller's hat, and while escaping it he squashes a general sort of reptile which seems to be there for no particular purpose except to look mysterious like and fill the bill. There is only one chair in the room, and he falls over it unto seventy times seven; but at last, by the exercise of a patient sagacity which is half bloodhound and half Job, he disentangles himself from this weapon for sitting down upon, and splits down the street with one pair of socks in his hand and the rest of his baggage left behind in the darkness. There are more whistlings on the river, more insects, the shadow of something that looks like a kangaroo spreads across the road, somebody is yelling at the top of his voice on the wharf, somebody else——

There is a mud-barge aground on the shore, and the shade of a half-grown tug-steamer is trying to get it off and is blowing an unearthly toot about twice in five minutes. The steamer came in and left again half an hour ago. Somebody had stuffed a cork in the whistle, so that it had to leave without saying anything. It won't be back for a month, and the other steamer which travels that way went


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ashore last night, and won't be fit for work for eight weeks. There is just a faint possibility that a ketch, laden with bone-dust and condemned fish, may put in about two o'clock in the morning next Tuesday fortnight, but this point is uncertain because the captain has gone mad and the mate recently hanged himself. Anyhow, you better not stand on them bannaners for the captain wouldn't take them on account of there bein' a lot of scorpions about them, and if you wouldn't mind givin' a haul on this rope we'll have this 'ere mud-barge off in two jiffs.

Bless the man who invented the steam-boat system on Australia's Northern rivers!

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