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Chapter I.

HOW I STARTED FOR MUSWELLBROOK AND ONLY GOT TO MAITLAND.

“Not there, not there, my child.”—
MRS. HEMANS.

UP and down the steep, dimly-lighted streets that lie between Wynyard-square and the water, my cab goes blundering like a huge humble,—or, as I would rather write it, Bumble-bee—that beadle amongst insects. Cabmen are generally supposed to be well acquainted with the ins and outs of Sydney—some of them, unfortunately, are too well acquainted with the inns, and my driver is one of this description. In a glorious state of topographical uncertainty, hither and thither he jerks and lashes his horses; not infrequently bumping his pole against dead walls in vain attempts to find previously undiscovered passages to the wharf through culs-de-sac.

I begin to fancy that I shall have to pass the night in wandering along rows of houses that seem as fast asleep as their owners (their closed shutters reminding one of eye-lids sealed),—in watching dissipated cats out upon the loose, and wearing the half stealthy and ashamed, half swaggering and independent air that marks their human congeners, young gentlemen with latch-keys; homeless dogs, hungry and fierce, foraging for garbage; hulking fellows as fierce and ravenous, without the dogs' excuse of homelessness and hunger; and the slow-footed Erinnyes in shiny hats, great coats, and oilskin capes, who have not their eyes upon these scoundrels,—when, suddenly inspired, my jarvie pulls up at a dark archway.

A lazzaroni-horde of ragged porterkins issue from the gloom, and squabble for my carpet-bag like a swarm of demons for the soul of a Don Juan who has craftily made a separate bargain with each individual imp. Guided by their howls, I follow the young devils through the darkness, reach the boat, and recover my baggage.

I like to leave Sydney at night, having a taste for the Dantesque. All cities, when viewed en masse, have then so hellish an aspect.




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Rattle along the Greenwich Railway when the red-hot cinders light up the murky air and strew the road with smouldering scoriœ, as they whiz from the funnel or fall from the ash-box; and when the gas-lit rails seem glowing ploughshares on which, in horrible ordeal, the locomotives, with glaring eyes and shrieks of anguish, are doomed to rush along for ever. Look down upon the myriads of chimneys right and left, belching forth their hateful smoke into the already overburdened atmosphere—upon that wide-spread, gloom-canopied plain of brick-and-mortar: of what text does the whole scene remind you?

Sydney to-night looks scarcely less infernal. Its smoke goes up to heaven, the sprinkled lamps serve but to intensify the circumambient blackness, the Gas Works jet forth their sultry column of lurid light, dark figures flit, blaspheming, before the cresset-fires upon the wharf.

And yonder gloomy, silent bush seems a dreary Hades, peopled with ghosts condemned, awaiting, within sight of hell, Dies irœ, dies illa, when, in Mephistopheles's fiendishly graphic phrase, they shall come shuddering up to judgment!

Judex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet adparebit
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus?
Cum vix justus sit securus.

The squalls of Sussex-street pigs in torment dispel these moody thoughts. It is on no Inferno, but merely a porcine purgatory, that I look.

Let me paint more minutely my surroundings.

The bull's eyes in the deck twinkle knowingly when I tread upon them, as if they saw that my boots, so swellish in their upper leathers, stand sadly in need of soleing, and chuckled over the discovery. The wheel— its brazen centre just revealed by the glow of these impertinently inquisitive little lights—gazes at the binnacle with its queer bell-crowned hat, like Polypheme ogling Mother Hubbard by mistake for Galatea, and— marvelling that Galatea should have all at once become so passee—contenting himself with gazing. The quarter boats creak lazily upon the davits. The funnels, with their cauliflower-heads of rising steam, look like gigantic pots of foaming beer.

Figure-heads of neighbouring vessels peer in upon me: bowsprits point at me, as if festered fingers extended from the noses of the said figure-heads in contemptuous “sight.” Like the very spectres of ships— craft such as that which crossed the Ancient Mariner's track on his wild,


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lonely voyage—lie the more distant vessels, with shadowy hulls and dimly towering spars. Warehouses, commonplace enough by day, mere prosaic receptacles for “produce,” loom through the murk awful as haunted castles. The crane looks fearsome as the tenanted gibbet upon a “barren moor,” beneath which a benighted wayfarer suddenly finds himself—“drearily withering” around him.

———the undescribëd sounds
That come a-swooning over hollow grounds.

Here and there a glimmering lamp pries into the secrets of the black waters, with light all trembling as if it fell upon a corpse's face,—the putrefying features and stony-staring eyeballs of a murdered man.

A cable rattles, like a cart-load of cannon-balls, through the hawse-holes of yonder anchoring brig; and a voice cooeys, but cooeys long in vain, for a shore-boat. The watermen—choice spirits that they are—are in the public-house, and will not come until they have finished their grog, however loudly, my pea-jacketed Glendower, you may be pleased to call for them. At length, a boat shoves off, and, at each stroke of the oars, the the silent water gives forth a phosphorescent gleam, like the glance of anger from a dumb man's eye. A wake of golden-white foam marks the swift wherry's course. Far away sounds the “melancholy-merry song” of mariners pumping at the patent-windlass: click—click—click sobs the “camel of the sea,” as she pulls at her tether-pin. Ship-bells, in every key from deepest bass to shrillest treble, remind each other of the passing hours.

Presently a bell rings with impatient clamour, and all in a fret and fuss, with hissing steam, panting machinery, and splashing paddles—angry, as it were, at having been detained, and fearing that she will find no one up to welcome her—a belated Wollongong packet works her way up the harbour. Her red light turns its waters into wine, her flapping floats churn them into cream: thus mixing a beautiful syllabub—beautiful, but fit only for Barmecide banquets. With as much ado as the biggest mail-boat would make, the little vixen bustles into her berth, disembarks her draggletailed, cheese-complexioned passengers, and then snores herself off to dreamless slumber—i. e., blows off her steam.

The moon—long waited for by her patient handmaidens, the silvery stars—arises in full-faced beauty, paving the waters with a road of trembling gold. A less romantic arrival is contemporaneous with hers. Going below, I find that the mail-bags have just been brought on board,—the official who brings them looking very sulky when he beholds upon the cabin-table the luggage of a fellow-clerk, who—he for the first time learns


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—has obtained a few days' leave of absence, which, I presume, will double grim official's duties. Grim official, however, solaces himself by demanding a cigar of the civil black sub-steward, for which, in his perturbation of spirit, grim official forgets to pay; but, lighting it at the wrong end, stalks stiffly up the companion-staircase, crushing his hat with an appalling smash—as men wrapped up in their own wrongs are apt to do, when passing through low archways—ere he emerges in indignant majesty upon the deck. Civil black sub-steward loses his civility; an inebriate consigner of cargo persisting in looking for it in the steward's pantry. The Ethiop, provoked beyond endurance, calls him a “half-gentleman,” and bids him hold his jaw. “Lucky for you that you're not in the States, my fine fellow,” I think within myself. At the same time I feel proud that here all men are “free and equal;” one can put up with a little free-and-easiness to be able to boast that blessing. The dapper obliging little steward— what a peculiar, pale-faced people, zealous (for a consideration) of good works, are the whole tribe of stewards—and the dainty obliging little stewardess flit about like Cock Robin and Jenny Wren amongst a lot of rooks; for gruff croaking is the dominant tone amongst the passengers who now are pouring in,—lost parcels and pre-occupied berths being the grounds of their complaints.

Attendant friends, having imbibed valedictory nobblers, rush on deck at the cry of “Who's for the shore?” and I follow them. The boat is cleared of all but crew and passengers, the moorings are cast off, the gangway is drawn back with a jerking pull upon the wharf, and away we go:—past huge, anchored ships, with lights blinking drowsily alow, and brighter lights aloft, making their gaffs seem Aaron's rods bursting forth in golden blossom,—past bobbing buoys that look, with their long streaming locks of dripping tangle, heads of sea-monsters (submerged during day), come up to dry their manes, and breathe the cool night-air,—past Dawes's Battery, stronghold of infantry and pretty nursemaids,—past Fort Macquarie, shimmering ghostly-white in the moonlight,—past Woolloomooloo's avalanche of hovels,—past villa-gardens, where the moonbeams glint from lustrous banana-leaves like love-glances from Spanish eyes, and make the pale-blue aloes doubly pale—the very ghosts of Agavœ, and shadow morning-hours upon the solitary lichen-spotted sundials, as old men are visited in dreams by memories of youth,—past Rose Bay's reach of milkwhite sand,—past the Lighthouse, winking to itself as if it knew a thing or two that the Ocean wanted to do in the wrecking line, but didn't mean to let him,—past the dazzling Lightship,—past the Heads, looking over at each other sadly stern, recalling Coleridge's sweet lines on


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sundered friends,—out into the black, white-crested, surging, hissing waves, coming on, on, on, for ever and ever, and swept over by that lonely, homeless sea-breeze—half mournful and half fierce—that always makes me think of the wasted girls with hopeless eyes one sees in London-streets at night, hurrying along wind-like—none knows whence, none cares whither.

Swaying from side to side like a sea-bird, the Illalong skims along the billows. From each funnel flutters a smoke-streamer spangled with glowing sparks. Far behind stretches a line of seething, creamy foam. Contrasted with the wild welter of the waters, how peaceful seems the pearly sky! And yet, in that calm heaven, a radiant rushing is really going on, that makes man's fastest, machinery-aided speed far, far less in comparison, than, beside that, appears the slowest snail's pace. Where we see only the fin-poised repose of sleeping goldfish, mighty masses are thundering through Space with more than a hurricane's impetus. So much for the “silent stars.”

The moonbeams fall upon a passing vessel's swelling sail. White as Alpine snow it glistens in their tranquil light, and carries my thoughts back to that far-off night upon a distant sea when we were boarded by the ruthless pirate, Death—who cometh without nail, selects his victim, and then, unmarked, goes over the side again, in quest of other prey on the wide ocean.

We were becalmed in the tropics. The reef-points pattered on the idle sails like rain, as the ship, frosted with silver by the gorgeous moonlight —deck, canvas, cordage, spars, one blaze of lovely light—lazily rose and fell upon the heaving billows. But in that beauteous sea, round and round the ship, like a sullen sentinel, a grim shark kept his watch. I went below to the “hospital berth.” A flickering lamp cast its sickly gleam on the sick man's pale and clammy brow, as he tossed in his narrow bunk; talking delirously of scenes and faces far away, and petulantly asking why they should chain him there—when would the ship move on? A breeze sprang up a little after midnight; on went the ship, and the shark followed her. At sunrise, gasping forth some message to his mother—fated never to reach her, for none on board knew aught of her or him—the sick man died. Wrapt in the Union Jack, we laid him on the long-boat; and at evening, when the setting sun was tipping the foaming waves with crests of fire, the solemn words were read; the sails shivered as the ship was luffed up into the wind; there was a leaden plunge: a snowy sea-bird flew off to the horizon, like a liberated soul; the sails filled again; the ship went swiftly on, and far astern the moonbeams played above the stranger's lonely grave.




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But it is time to turn in. A boisterous gentleman opposed my purpose, when I descend to carry it into execution; inviting me to partake of brandy and water with him instead, and asserting with swaggering emphasis that he is “Ocean's child,” and considers “the delightful motion of the boat to be the rocking of his natural cradle.” I observe, however, that “Ocean's child” cannot eat the ham sandwiches he orders. He soon grows very white about the gills, and disinclined to talk; and, at length, makes a precipitate retreat to his berth, beside which the black substeward (whom he has been chaffing), exulting at his discomfiture, hangs one of those queer little buckets like birdseed holders, and, grinning, leaves him to be lulled to sleep by the “rocking of his natural cradle.”

Unfortunates, in various stages of the mal de mer, startle the night with moans and hideous uproar. Being pretty well sea-seasoned myself, of course, I am disgusted at their conduct. By-the-bye, is not this the way in which most of us treat a certain moral infirmity, also? Happening, from difference of temperament, to be proof against the particular temptation —perchance, preserved by strength of constitution from exhibiting the ordinary symptoms of having yielded to it—how we cry out against our peccant brother who has both eaten of the forbidden fruit, and manifestly has the stomach-ache in consequence! It costs many men nothing to be teetotallers, and yet they plume themselves upon their abstinence as though it were a sunbright virtue. Others again, who have each drunk as much in a night as the object of their scorn would drink in a fortnight, turn up their noses at a poor weak-headed fellow who succumbs to a glass or two, in most ethical disdain. It is edifying to listen to their lectures upon sottishness.

When I wake the next day—a cool and showery Sunday—we have passed Newcastle, and are steaming up the river. This, then, is the farfamed Hunter—muddy as the Thames, with banks as flat as Essex marshes! True, there are some pretty hills in the distance just before you come to Hexham, but, as a whole, the lower part of the Lower Hunter appears to me about as lovely as a plate of soup.

Apropos of hills—I am going to manufacture a parenthetical period, because really I can find nothing at present to describe, except those tall, white, leafless, barkless trees, looking, in the dim morning light, like bands of spectres that ought to have been back in Hades a good hour ago,—and those, you see, are described already—apropos of hills.

I know nothing inanimate more changeful in its expression, than a distant range. I say inanimate, because that




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———varium et mutabile semper,
Fœmina,———

Woman the fair, “but not so fair as fickle”—now sunny as Sicily with golden smiles, anon sombre as a pine-fringed tarn with frowns, and running from one extreme to the other through all intervening modulations of countenance with the speed of thought, or rather of her own quick feeling —stands, of course, unrivalled in nature in the copious phase, the rapid play of feature.

But it is of hills that we are talking now. How brilliantly beautiful— freshly beaming as though just born from Chaos—do they look when they blushingly waken into life again beneath the morning kiss of the summer sunlight; the silvery tissue of their veil of mist transmitted by their lovers's fingers, as he lifts it, into gauze of gold. Sweet lavender, or gorgeous purple, is their hue by day; those in what painters call the “second distance,” more and more cloud-like till they melt into the sky—a very dream of hills. The setting sun, with its westering rays and lengthening shadows, plays strange masquerading pranks with my mountain-range, arraying it in motley garbs that alter as you gaze. It runs through the whole gamut of colours. Like a Titanic red-hot saw the sierra glows in the last light of day, embossed upon the heavens—cools into gloomy grey —and then its summits loom ghost-like in the uncertain twilight, speedily to rise again beatified in the hushed and holy radiance of the moon.

When Thor is abroad, with what solemn sternness, wrapt in their dusky robes, dark-blue as the leaden sky above, do the everlasting hills await his coming. He flings his white-hot hammer, cleaving through the murky air a track of blinding light. The awful rumble of his unseen chariotwheels is heard, and with a proud defiance the mountains echo back the roll. Down comes the rain in one thick, fibrous mass, and the clouds drop upon the hills, steal down their sides, and hide them from the view; but ever and anon the curtain shifts, and like the gods seen by the Trojan amid the tumult of that fearful night when “sacred Ilion” fell, huge masses, lofty peaks, look out for a moment on the rush and roar, and then as silently go back in the gloom.

The sun ascends, and with it rises “Ocean's child”—intensely nautical once more, now that his “natural cradle” no longer rocks him. Yonder sulks a youngster going back to school, and there lies a little girl fast going home, as her pale, sunken cheeks, pinched features, and violet veins too plainly show. That party of foul-mouthed old settlers might surely read in her a “lesson proper for the day”, but the sight affects them not. Within earshot of the dying child, they talk their loathsome smut.




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However, I must not be censorious; for I shall soon need charity myself. It is well that I treated topers so tenderly a while ago. Seductive Wine! Like Nereid in crystal cave thou smilest in the glass—who can refuse to kiss that ruby lip? But alas! alas! for the “sermons and sodawater the day after.”

I land at Morpeth, and proceed to Maitland, intending to go on at once by the mail to Singleton. At the inn from which the machine starts, I fall in with a friend. The sinner enticeth me, and I consent.

I wake next morning to find that my friend is gone, my money, too: an inconvenient state of things, since I remember enough of my pridian experiences to be aware that latterly I imbibed on tick, that my friend was impecunious, and that, consequently, an hotel-bill remains unsettled.

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