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The Creek

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Sketch on page 58 of 'The Creek'

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WHATEVER goes, I shall never forget the old creek; it had many voices; said many things to give one in looking back the long, long thoughts of youth. Not that we knew it was making backward-reaching thoughts for us; that there was a life-long rune in its pacific murmurs, in its flood-angry roars when now and again the waters came in an avalanche down from the mountains.

There was always an air of romance about that creek; it had in it irresistible powers of appeal. It was so much our familiar, the while it always kept in reserve a store of mystery. In the cool shades of the ferny banks and their grottos, under the fragrance of its beautiful wattles and young blue-gums, with the “love-in-a-mist” hue still about their tips, how many an hour have I lain and dreamed or drifted in that state, half-thought, half-feeling, which is as truly a time of growth as are the hours spent in toil or study. It was in those hours that I most belonged to her, and she to me; that whispering creek of many voices. You could bathe childlike, in the shallows, fish in the deeper pools, picnic amongst the grots, ramble along the cobblestone strands; the every mood of childhood was met; her invitations were continual; her hospitality inexhaustible.

At first, when we were very tiny, the bend nearest home was enough for us. Exploring was forbidden, too; the creek was shallow there, safe, and to that spot we came often, a little daring, wondering that we did not now and then encounter an alligator or a rhinoceros or some other terrible creature of the story-books. We used to go over the scrubby flats, along the track where the water-sledge drew daily the barrels of water, the clear sparkling gift of the ranges. Bark

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roofs give a good shelter, but a poor water-supply as regards quality, unless one favours an amber fluid, like milkless tea in appearance, and with the tang of an astringent. It was a great blessing that the old creek had cut its course through that valley. Even before King Billy's traditions began it had wormed itself there between the hills. Man and beast had it for practical blessing; but for us children it had, I know, a myriad unmaterial benefits as well.

When my mind goes back, I see Claribel and myself, two venturesome mites, gathering from amongst the larger stones that scattered its beach, the chalky, many-tinted, slaty stones that came with every freshet from somewhere—just where they came from was part of the delightful mystery. There were none about locally, yet the creek had sown her bed with them always. We scribbled with these soft stones in forbidden places, on barn-doors, on doors nearer, on fences, everywhere, putting with those natural crayons our hieroglyphs, our totems, if you will, the sign manual of our uncivilised youth. They brought us joy, if they brought us also trouble, these riverbed artistries.

The white gravel and the golden gravel (for, like Tennyson's brook, our creek had golden gravel in profusion) we brought laboriously up the sloping banks where the track for the water-sledge went down. We made with it a gleaming surface on the paths of our own little garden, setting larger white stones for borders. The graves, in the cemetery where reposed, as we fondly believed, till the sound of Gabriel's trump, such of our pets as had died naturally or mysteriously, were all marked out with these same pebbles, brought to our hands by the hurrying waters of this creek of many moods. She, too, furnished, from a place jutting from the bank, the uncouth pieces of slate, whereon we carved the fond obituaries for this same plot. There was Dick's dog, resting, as a special sign that death heals enmity, over beside our veteran tabby, who finally joined the many superfluous members of the generations of her kittens that had come there from time to time in batches. In life, enemies: the hunter and the hunted; they now lay reconciled with the self-same forget-me-nots

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about them, and with level-handed pangyeric in their epitaphs. There was a genius of fervour and sincerity in these elegies, though it may be that under the cold tests of literary criticism they fell short in some of the qualities of good poetry.

I caught my first fish in the old creek; where else for a little inlander to drop a bent pin on a piece of string? I have always been grateful in looking back to that most obliging fish. None that I caught later, when I was promoted to real hooks, gave me quite the same thrill. It was a mountain trout, speckled and plump, and it must have put itself deliberately on my bent pin, in unselfish sympathy with youthful aspirations. There were good fish there, though not always to be caught; we often went a-fishing on warm summer nights in the succeeding years, and many a morning fry we got. But that was incidental; it was the fun of catching the fish that was the thing; the jolly brushwood fire on the strand, the bobbing corks on the water, the eager faces in the firelight, the chatter, the mosquito fighting, the sudden plump, plump of a water iguana taking to his element.

Once there was, I recollect, an exciting “catch”. It was Fred who brought ashore on his line a platypus, and it was Dick who fell into the water to his armpits in his excitement. It was the acme of romance, the catching of that duckbill. Did it not prove that the fictions of our extreme infancy had something in them? The creek was after all peopled with the strange creatures of our imaginations and the myths of the grown-ups' tales. It could not have been a more wonderful thing if we had drawn up a bunyip, or even a mermaid. We trailed the poor thing home, I remember, with the unsuspecting cruelty of children (before the era of nature study in the schools), and he died under an inverted bucket in a back shed next day, for Dick had discoursed learnedly and convincingly on his supernatural powers of spitting poison.

There came a time and a day when the exploring spirit entered into us, and would not be denied. We would follow the creek away toward its source, we imagined, getting right to its beginnings; we thought of springs bubbling and leaping from a quaggy plain between high barren ranges. Something

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of a small Canaan in a wilderness—a vale in the land of Moab. Our imaginings always took a Scriptural colour in those days of family Bible reading. We never reached the source, then or later, and my geography to this day has not supplied its locality. But we went a long way from human haunts that day, the four boys and the four girls of us, with all the fierce joy of pioneers. We walked in the dry parts of the creek-bed where we could, and when we could not do that we took to the hillsides. We had food as for a siege, with an exaggerated idea of the difficulties of our adventure.

“We mustn't be like Burke and Wills,” said Dick, slinging on his back a basket that made him urge a meal to lighten it ere long. It was a wonderful walk, or leaping over rocks, that, and we found delight enough, even if the mystery of the source still remained to the mountains. It was in flora and fauna another world, all just three or four miles from where we lived. And when night came (prematurely, in that dark hill-hugged ravine) there was a fine smack of danger, even unlawfulness, in our enterprise, and the stars were out before, with bruised shins and draggled clothes, we emerged to the known again.

Later we sometimes fished and picnicked high up the stream; once we camped all night, and caught fish such as never came to the familiar places. There never were such possibilities surely; for adventures to be achieved as in scrambling over fallen logs, such fun as in banqueting with one's appetite for sauce in the glare and gloom of a campfire; such unexpected thing as a sudden eye of mystery glowing out from the dark, which, when one threw a lighted brand became a scuttling up the bark of a tree. One knew it was something furry, but we did not know, then or later, if the swift, slim thing that sped suddenly from a dark log near the fire across Claribel's foot were that which spoiled an earlier Eden.

Never in the world was there such clematis as grew along that creek embracing the light-woods and wattles, before folk got too busy clearing the banks to the water's edge, destroying tree and climber alike. What festoons of the

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climber would we wear when the decking mood was upon us! We loved it well in bloom, but best of all, I think, when the fluffy seed-pod stage was upon it. “Supple Jack” we called it, and supple it was, as once my aching hands found in obstinate endeavour to break a trailer of the clematis in a game where unbinding a captive was the climax.

I like the old names; there was a shrub that massed along the creek bank bearing purple flowers; we called it simply “purple bell.” The shrub had a pungent odour; my mother thought it as disagreeable as dogwood, but we children loved the flower, and used to bind branches of it about the big verandah posts of the old house at Christmas time. Clematis, too, made bold festoons for the season's decorations, and the delightful “Christmas blossom” that never forgot the flowering time. There were kangaroo apple shrubs about those creek-banks, too; Claribel once slipped into a wombat's hole in straining for a ripe “apple.” I know not if her adventures would have been as remarkable as those of Alice when she went down the rabbit's hole, but Claribel emerged too quickly to have had many adventures, though she declared that the wombat had grunted at her, a terrible grunt which thereafter it became part of a game to imitate. We used to eat kangaroo apples; they fascinated us, though we didn't really like them. Wild raspberries, too, grew along the creek-banks; when they were ripe, skinned and thorn-scratched knees were chronic with us. And many adventures with snakes we had, and shocks from quick-darting lizards that scared us, and which sometimes, I fear, in the telling became snakes. The raspberries were worth risks, especially when by a back route to the dairy we were able to add cream to the feast.

I almost learned to swim in a pool in that old creek, where in one of its meanderings it lodged quiet and still, a fine lake in a log-sheltered bend by the potato paddock. The boys had risked their lives many a time wading into Speary's lagoon for “bottle-washer” rushes. Each of us always had a bundle of these light, corky things under our chin to help to keep us afloat. Cold, clear mountain stream! There was little buoyancy in your waters, and I always too greatly feared

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their iciness about my ears. Others became swimmers bold enough, but me you always sent shivering quickly to my dressing-bower.

There was a time when the Deluge came again. Day and night a fury of rain, and though the old house stood on the highest point of the valley we began to think of overflow. Year by year the winter floods had caused the creek to nibble, nibble at the soft edges of the banks to force a wider passage-way for the urgent waters. But always they merely nibbled, and ran on. This time it was different; it was a cataclysm of rain; and on the fourth evening of the downpour the cattle were driven to the higher land for what might happen. I remember listening in the dark, after we were abed, to the thunderous roar of the aroused creek above the noise of the rain on the roof, till at last we drifted from gulfs of water into gulfs of dream.

But long had we lain awake, Claribel and I, in our little skillion bedroom, planning what we should do if the house began to float. She was for sitting on the chimney; but I was for the roof as safer. In the morning the creek was a sea, a grey, wild, hurrying sea, far as we could discern, where flotsam whirled and swirled. Trees fell with a sharp boom over the dull roar, and here and there domestic animals, swimming wildly or drifting helplessly, came hurrying past. Some came crowded on piles of débris, or floating dead. We saw it all from our higher spot, for the old house justified its stout timbers and stood firm, though we had to wade about the floors or keep to beds and tables.

It was a wonderful adventure; like something out of a book. I fancy the old creek may have been puzzled as to what it could do that it had not yet done. It had broken out into wickedness through sheer ennui of well-doing, as mortals sometimes do, to discover for themselves what wildness may be in their nature. It was audacious, thrilling; we loved the bold prank, while our elders looked askance at the intruding, muddy waters that were licking late household sanctities. We speculated, wide-eyed, as to what would next flow down the stream? How were the Murphys faring

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in their low flat up the bend, where the waters would be deepest? There went Milligan's fowls, perched still in their house, and there went two pigs, looking philosophic enough on the butt of an old stack. It was the creek's joke; her comedy mood; no tragedy at all.

Here were we, the water subsiding, safe in our house, with plenty to eat, and dry enough if we kept off the floors. Adventure had come to us, actually oozing in at every seam and chink. But it was neither comedy nor malevolence. I close my eyes to the days of subsidence and sedge, and open them a month later, to early September and bounding exuberance. Plenty was over the valley; billows of greenness; the grass knotting to the knees. It had been the old creek's dramatic way of pouring opulence upon us. And, perhaps, we had become too familiar with her ways; we had thought that by long acquaintance we had discovered the ultimates of her nature. She had given us another facet of her power and mystery. Then she went back to her crystal murmurings and placid normal days; she was become again the winsome, lisping, familiar, yet ever magical, streamlet of my early childhood.