previous
next



  ― 162 ―
view facsimile

CHAPTER X.

ANATIVE ENCAMPMENT—CONFERENCE WITH MUSQUEETO—A SAVAGE HAS A SOUL—THE LOST CHILD RECOVERED—HOW TO CATCH AN OPOSSUM—A KANGAROO HUNT BY THE NATIVES—THE APPARITION OF SPEARS AND WADDIES EXCITES DISAGREEABLE SUSPICIONS.

THE Sydney black preceded us about twenty yards in advance, and as soon as he arrived within easy speaking distance of the natives, we pulled up, and with much anxiety waited for the issue of his conference. He had previously resumed his clothes, but it was easy for the natives to perceive by his colour and his features that he was allied to their general race. To our extreme surprise—although the aborigines of Van Diemen's Land have a strong antipathy to the natives of the continental island—our messenger was allowed to approach their fires without exciting the slightest visible sensation. Their simulated unconcern might


  ― 163 ―
view facsimile

have been produced, perhaps, by the sight of our party on horseback; but the strangeness of this unexpected apathy on the part of Musqueeto and his companions made us fear some treachery, and we looked round to try if we could perceive any appearance of an ambuscade; but we could detect nothing to excite suspicion. I have often had occasion to observe the dull, listless, and almost idiotic appearance of the natives of Van Diemen's Land, when not excited by hunger or some passionate desire. It has struck me, that in this respect they much resemble the unthinking beasts of the field, so inanimate and log-like is their usual manner. The women will sometimes chatter a little, for it seems nature makes them all alike as to that matter, but the men have the most reserved and taciturn habit of any race of savages that I have known or read of. The strange contrast of their silence and immobility with the yells and wildness for which we were prepared, filled us with a vague sort of superstitious fear, which was heightened by the chilly stillness of the vast wilderness in which we were now enclosed.

In the meantime a monosyllabic “corrobara”


  ― 164 ―
view facsimile

had taken place between our guide and the chief of the sable community, the meaning of which Tom concentrated in the following brief communication.

“Musqueeto say, you come.”

“Why, what is the meaning of this?” said the magistrate. “They don't show any signs of fear, nor do they look as if they thought of fighting! Is there some stratagem in this? what do you think of it, Thornley?”

“Upon my word,” I replied, “this takes me so much by surprise, I don't know what to think of it. Sanders, you know their ways, do you see any of their waddies or spears about?”

“One can never tell, Sir,” said Sanders, “what those treacherous savages are at; they're always hatching some devilry or other. You see, Sir, I take it, we have come on one of their places for encamping, if you can call those bits of break-winds camps. But Musqueeto can be civil enough, sometimes. Scroggs, you've often come across Musqueeto, what is he after now?”

“He's always after some wickedness,” responded Scroggs; “but I think the natives are going to have a feast. Don't you see that string


  ― 165 ―
view facsimile

of opossums yonder, by the blue gum-tree? and there's something hanging up inside the bushes;—the Lord have mercy on us, it must be the child! and the black devils are going to cook it for their dinner!”

“The child!” exclaimed the magistrate, “no! impossible! Tom saw the child alive a quarter of an hour ago! Go, Tom, ask Musqueeto if he has got the white man's piccaninny.”

Tom made the inquiry accordingly, and presently returned with a reply.

“Musqueeto say, white man kill piccaninny; Musqueeto kill white man. Piccaninny in piccaninny house—there.”

“This is very extraordinary,” said the magistrate; “the most extraordinary thing that has occurred to me in all my adventures in the colony. What can be Musqueeto's object in this? However, as they seem quietly disposed, let us advance close to them, and try to get possession of the poor child by peaceable means.”

“Better let two of us stand on guard, in case of any attack,” suggested the constable; “no need, Sir, for us all to be sacrificed.”

“That is a very prudent precaution, Sanders;


  ― 166 ―
view facsimile

do you and Scroggs remain here in charge of the horses, and I and Mr. Thornley will go to them on foot—that is, if Mr. Thornley has no objection.”

“None in the least,” said I; “the best way with savages, and all animals in general, is to show that you have no fear of them.”

“Better take my bottle of rum,” suggested Scroggs, in the exuberance of his generosity; “let Musqueeto have a sup at it, and perhaps that will put him in good humour.”

“No, no,” said the magistrate, “keep the rum till we want it. A savage is awkward enough to deal with when he is sober, but with a little rum in him he is worse than a madman. Now, Thornley, let us go among them boldly.”

Accordingly, we went up to Musqueeto, who was standing by one of the fires in front of the little wigwam in which we had been given to understand the little girl of whom we were in search was secreted. He had, I thought, the same stupid and sullen look which I had remarked on other occasions, as he stood in the listless and dozing attitude which was usual with him when not engaged in any hunting or predatory expedition. A close investigation, however,


  ― 167 ―
view facsimile

might detect in his half-shut but ever restless eyes, a watchfulness that allowed nothing to escape his observation. I confess it was not without a little nervous apprehension, and some slight bumping in the region of my left side, that I approached the formidable savage in his lair. He raised up his eyes and glanced at us, but gave no sign of recognition, or of being affected by our presence.

We remained for a brief space in this unpleasant position, with the awkward feeling of having intruded on a gentleman's privacy without an invitation. Neither of us spoke—my friend being under the same difficulty as myself to hit upon an appropriate topic by which to commence a conversation with this chief of a band of savages, and the usual salutation of a "very fine day" seeming to me, under the circumstances, inappropriate to the individual and the occasion; but I was relieved by the magistrate breaking silence.

“Much kangaroo, Musqueeto, in this part of the country?”

“Boomah—there,” replied Musqueeto, pointing out an immense kangaroo in the bushes,


  ― 168 ―
view facsimile

which had attracted the attention of the horrified Scroggs.

My excellent friend presuming, I suppose, that eating and drinking among friends facilitated conversation, and being stimulated besides by certain internal promptings that his fast had continued for more than a reasonable time, immediately intimated to his new acquaintance his inclination for a steak.

Musqueeto uttered a few words to one of his retinue, and without further ceremony, some pieces of the kangaroo were brought to us; we motioned to them to put the venison on the fire, which they did with a readiness to oblige which inspired us with some confidence in their present sincerity.

When the meat was cooked, we sat down on the ground, on which Musqueeto also squatted down opposite. Some of his companions stood at a little distance, eyeing us with much curiosity, but without rudeness; and in this way, with a charming absence of all ceremony, we partook of a sociable meal with our new acquaintance, but in perfect silence.

Thinking the occasion favourable, I suggested


  ― 169 ―
view facsimile

to my friend the expediency of propitiating our host by a glass of rum, as an appropriate introduction to the object of our journey. The magistrate agreed with me, and called quietly to Scroggs to bring the bottle and a pannikin.

I observed that Musqueeto gave a flash with his eye at the magistrate's call, and gathered up his legs under him ready for a spring, upon which I instantly called to Scroggs,

“Show the bottle of rum!”

Scroggs raised on high his long-cherished bottle, at the view of which, I saw that Musqueeto's eyes resumed their usual expression, and he quietly returned to his former position of repose. Meanwhile the disappointed Scroggs, with his mouth watering at the sight of a repast in which he did not share, and his eyes becoming tearful at the prospect of the total consumption of his beloved rum, approached with slow and reluctant steps to resign his treasure.

“These savages, Sir,” said he, in an insinuating way, to the magistrate, “are very suspicious—very. If you like, Sir, I will taste a little of the rum first that—he may see it is all right, and


  ― 170 ―
view facsimile

that we mean no harm to him. Allow me to take out the cork?”

“Make haste back,” said the magistrate, “and mount your horse, that you may be ready to act in case of need. This rum may be of service to us, and we don't want it for our own drinking; we can get plenty more when we go home.”

So saying, my friend took summary possession of the bottle, which the disconsolate Scroggs relinquished with a pitiable sigh, and the salt and savour of life having now departed from him, he resumed his seat lugubriously on the back of his horse with his hapless body, leaving his soul behind him in the bottle.

The magistrate poured into the pannikin a portion of the rum with the same seriousness with which it might be supposed he would have offered a libation to the infernal gods, and proffering it to the presiding deity of the spot, that condescending personage turned it down with an off-handed dexterity which would have done honour to an inhabitant of the far-famed St. Giles in the mother country, and with a gusto


  ― 171 ―
view facsimile

which overcame the habitual reserve of a native. He evinced his delectation at the imbibing of the liquor by a grim smile, which made me involuntarily grasp my fowling-piece a little closer, and slapping his breast he held out the pannikin for a fresh supply. But we thought this a fit opportunity to enter into some sort of treaty for the restoration of the child.

“Musqueeto kill white man?” said the magistrate; “why Musqueeto kill white man?”

“White man great rascal,” replied Musqueeto, “try kill piccaninny—Musqueeto kill him.”

“Why Musqueeto take piccaninny?” pursued my friend; “Musqueeto want to keep piccaninny and make her gin to black man?”

Musqueeto shook his head, and it seemed to me if he had known how he would have laughed at this inquiry.

“Piccaninny white!” said he; “not good for black man.”

“Why take piccaninny?” persisted my friend; “why save her from bad white man?”

It seemed that Musqueeto suddenly understood what the magistrate was driving at, for his


  ― 172 ―
view facsimile

countenance assumed an appearance almost of intelligence, and he immediately replied: —

“Gypsey's piccaninny; Gypsey die; Gypsey good to Musqueeto—he Musqueeto's brother; Musqueeto not let bad white man kill Gypsey's piccaninny.”

My friend and I gazed at each other with astonishment at these words, and reading each other's thoughts, we could not but admire the strange concatenation of events which had preserved the life of the bushranger's daughter from such imminent perils! But as I had been constituted guardian of that deceased character's child, I considered that there was a means of easy understanding if I could make the native comprehend the nature of my legal and social position in respect to his temporary ward.

“Gypsey,” said I, “Musqueeto's brother.”

“Gypsey, Musqueeto's brother,” repeated the black chief.

Thought I to myself, the Gypsey's family would not consider themselves very much flattered by this unexpected claim on their relationship by my black friend here, but at any rate


  ― 173 ―
view facsimile

he has done one good action to atone for his multitude of crimes, and so I will not flinch from claiming my right to be considered as a member of the family.

“Musqueeto,” said I, “you know me?” He had been more than once at my house with his mob, and had been regaled with damper and boiling hot tea plentifully sweetened with brown sugar, not forgetting an occasional glass of rum.

“You, Mister Thornley?” said Musqueeto.

“Yes,” said I; “and I Gypsey's brother!”

Musqueeto gave me a quick look, which none but a savage could give, in which was expressed the blended wonder and suspicion which my assumption of relationship with the Gypsey had excited, and I continued —

“Gypsey Musqueeto's brother; Gypsey Thornley's brother; Thornley Musqueeto's brother.”

I wished to lead the savage by this ingenious process of ratiocination, as my friend the magistrate called it in his jocose way, to consider me as an intimate friend and relation, for my object was to get possession of the child, with his concurrence, so as to avoid bloodshed. Musqueeto


  ― 174 ―
view facsimile

mused, I observed, for a while, on these words, and then, with the caution of the savage, he asked —

“Why you Gypsey's brother?”

“The Gypsey,” said I, “when bad white man kill him, say to me—‘Give bread and meat to my piccaninny—little—so big’—said I, describing the size of a child of six or seven years of age. I say to Gypsey, Thornley Gypsey's brother.”

Musqueeto rose from his sitting position when I had said this, and spoke to one of his people, who disappeared, and presently returned with a tall and slender young lady of a bright black colour, who, from her air and pretensions we immediately concluded was the favourite gin of the grim Musqueeto. A soldier's old jacket, without buttons, and which, with a graceful negligence remained open in front, formed an airy spencer suitable for summer or for winter wear, and a red cotton handkerchief tied round her woolly black poll gave her a superior air, which distinguished her from her less favoured associates of the seraglio. No other article of dress than that of which we have made modest mention, prevented


  ― 175 ―
view facsimile

the free exercise of her supple and well-formed limbs. As an honest historian I am obliged to record that her nose was very broad and very flat, but her eyes were large and bright. Various coquettish devices depicted in a mixture of resinous gum and red ochre formed a striking relief to the monotonous hue of her sable skin, and a fish-bone stuck through her nose added a finish to the splendour of her personal appearance.

To this amiable divinity Musqueeto gave some brief directions, and the lady retiring, quickly re-appeared, leading by the hand the timid and shrinking form of the Gypsey's daughter. I have often thought that when her fancy recalls in after life the romantic scenes of her early youth, the recollection of this memorable day must form a curious contrast with her present fortunes. She raised up her large black eyes, which instantly reminded me of the last wild look of the Gypsey bushranger, and sought among us for some familiar face; but meeting only with the countenances of strangers, she cast them down again in disappointment and sadness, as if doubtful whether to regard the white strangers as friends or foes.


  ― 176 ―
view facsimile

“Georgiana,” said I, softly.

The little thing started at the secret name, and clasping her tiny hands, she stood with one foot advanced, trembling and irresolute, while she searched me with her lustrous eyes, to discover in me some trace of a former friend.

I think I never saw so beautiful a child; she was the very picture of loveliness, and possessing that indefinable and irresistible charm with which infancy and innocence never fail to move the coldest human heart. Struck with the desolate condition of the child, and possessed with the sacred nature of the trust that I had taken on me, I held out my arms, and said to her in tones which touched her little heart —

“Come to me, my poor little orphan girl; you shall be a daughter among my children, and I will be a friend and a father to you.”

The child screamed with sudden joy: bursting into tears she bounded into my arms, and with passionate sobs hid her little face in my bosom.

The very savages were affected by the scene. The women gathered round us, gazing with earnest interest, and the harsher lineaments of


  ― 177 ―
view facsimile

the faces of the men became softened at the touch of nature, which makes the whole world kin.

“Look out, Sir!” cried Sanders, who with Scroggs had approached in this moment of excitement close to the mingled group; “take care, they don't take you at a disadvantage. You never know when to trust a native.”

“You've dropped the bottle,” whined Scroggs; “there it is under your legs, and in another moment it will be broken, and all the rum will be lost.”

“And now,” said the magistrate to me, “let us get back to some place of settlement without loss of time, while we are all in good humour. We can easily carry the child with us on horse-back. Now, my men,” he continued to the constables, “keep your eyes about you; home's the word!”

“I've had no dinner,” said Scroggs, with woeful face. “I declare I feel as if my two sides would come together, I'm so empty! I've taken in my handkerchief round my middle twice; the next tie I shall come quite in two!”

“It will not do,” said I, “to attempt going


  ― 178 ―
view facsimile

back without a supply of provisions; and we have no dogs with us to pull a kangaroo. That was a sad mistake; you should never go into the bush without kangaroo dogs; they are at once sentinels and purveyors.”

“Let us try the natives,” said the magistrate; “perhaps they can help us to some provisions.”

“Musqueeto, can you get some kangaroo for us?”

“Kangaroo? Yees.”

He gave some directions to his followers, who entered into the project with much alacrity, and they immediately commenced their preparations, sharpening up their spears and getting ready their waddies.

It is remarkable that the natives of Van Diemen's Land, like the natives of the Continental Island, have not invented the bow and arrow, although they have more than one sort of wood well adapted from its toughness and its straightness for both purposes. The long and tough sinews of the kangaroo are well fitted for bow-strings, and the Van Diemen's Land natives have contrived to fabricate from the fibres of the bark


  ― 179 ―
view facsimile

of a tree, to which the name of stringy-bark tree has been given by the settlers, a sort of rough net in which they deposit the edible gum which they collect in their journeys; but they have not applied the sinews of the kangaroo to the uses which might easily be made of them. Their only weapons are the spear and the waddy, and the crescent-shaped womera which they hurl at their enemies in battle, and at the kangaroo in hunting.

The women understanding that we wanted meat for the piccaninny, one of them approached us with a small axe made of sharpened stone in her hand, and laughing and smiling and using an abundance of words, which we could not understand, invited us by gestures to witness her operations. We accompanied her accordingly, the constables, to whom we had distributed the remainder of our kangaroo dinner, still remaining on guard, with the difference only, that we thought they might venture to tether out our horses in a nook where there was a tolerable show of native grass.

We followed the black woman to the margin of a forest of stringy-bark trees at a little distance.


  ― 180 ―
view facsimile

After snuffing about for a short time like a hungry spectator at the window of a savory cooks-shop, she fixed on a tree in which, her olfactory organs informed her, opossums dwelt. As she was unencumbered by any article of apparel, she had no occasion to take off her clothes to perform her dangerous exploit, which we presently understood was to ascend the naked stem of the tall tree after an opossum. The woman first made an incision on the bark of the tree not much more than sufficient to receive her great toe, at about two or three feet from the ground. Placing her toe in the gap, she raised herself up, sustaining her weight on that single member of her foot aided by a sort of clinging to the tree, which was far too thick to be embraced, with one hand and arm; with her other arm she made a second incision with her native axe, and repeating the operation at the necessary intervals, she rapidly ascended the tree to a height of at least fifty feet before she reached its spreading branches. In the fork of the trunk in a little hollow was an opossum, which she quickly pulled out and killed. Holding the animal in one of her hands, she descended


  ― 181 ―
view facsimile

the tree with an agility which excited our admiration, and with a rapidity and apparent carelessness that made us tremble. I had often heard talk of the natives performing this feat, but I had never witnessed it before, and it was with the most lively curiosity, therefore, that I watched the operation. I felt quite relieved when she placed her foot safe on the ground, although she did not seem aware that she had done anything extraordinary. Holding the dead opossum by one ear, she gave it laughing to my little charge, and with nods and laughter retired. I was at a loss how to reward this act of unaffected kindness, when luckily, recollecting that I had a purple silk handkerchief in my pocket, I presented it to our sable benefactor; and I had the satisfaction to observe from the deference, mixed I thought with a little female envy, which was paid to her by her less fortunate companions, and from their eager examination and lively admiration of the finery, that I had conferred on her a gift of no trifling importance. She immediately tied it round her waist, and casting a triumphant glance at the sultana with the red cotton handkerchief, much in the same way as a


  ― 182 ―
view facsimile

young lady in the old country, in the conscious superiority of a new bonnet of the latest fashion, regards an humiliated rival in an old one, she took a seat on the log of a fallen gum-tree in an attitude of easy dignity—not courting but submitting to the admiration which she excited.

In the meantime the preparations for the chase of the kangaroo, after the fashion of the natives, were completed, and Musqueeto summoning the united strength of his establishment, male and female, old and young, we sallied forth from the encampment, leaving the constables to guard the horses. Holding the little Georgiana by her hand, for she would not quit me for an instant, I and the magistrate accompanied the mob, which consisted of five and twenty persons, two or three of the females remaining behind to take care of the children, half a dozen of which had emerged from some back recesses on the occasion of this general activity.

I did not much like the distribution of a bundle of spears among the men who all had waddies, which they held in their hands with their spears.

“I hope,” said I to the magistrate, “that all will go on well; if these savages should become


  ― 183 ―
view facsimile

excited by the hunt, they might try a spear on us.”

“Especially,” replied my friend, “if Musqueeto, or one of his fellows, should recognise you as the hero who gave them those disagreeable doses of swan-shot from the hut among the hills some time since.”

“Oh!” said I, “I had a beard of ten days' growth then, and my dress was entirely different.”

“That may be; but these savages have sharp eyes, and they never betray their emotions till the opportunity arrives for action. Those spears and waddies make one feel very disagreeable. Heaven grant that this hunting may not prove as disastrous as the Chevy Chase in times of yore.”

With these doubts and fears we should have been glad to back out of this ticklish expedition, but it was too late.

previous
next