― 194 ―

Chapter X. A Native Village.

IT is necessary now to return to the adventures of the Major, who had set out in search of his lost daughter on the morning after the departure of Trevor and the corporal from the cave.

He was well equipped for the bush with all the stores and appliances which the two soldiers who accompanied him could conveniently carry: but he had forgotten the bush-traveller's companion, a “compass;” neither had his worthy mate, little thinking that so important a part of a ship's furniture could be wanted on shore, thought of reminding him to provide himself with that indispensable article. As the Major

  ― 195 ―
as well as the two soldiers were totally inexperienced in the bush, it will presently be seen to what grave inconveniences the want of that most useful instrument exposed him.

But in the mean time the party strode on confidently, till they espied the native of whom mention has been already made. The apparition of the black man caused the Major to make a halt for a few minutes, to consider of the best course to be pursued under the circumstances.

Bearing in mind that it was the object of the bushranger to escape from the island, which he could only effect by prevailing on some vessel to take him on board, or by seizing on some boat fit for his purpose, the Major had concluded in his own mind that Brandon would keep near the sea; and it was in that direction, therefore, that he had bent his steps; keeping a good look-out, however, and bidding his soldiers to do the same, for any tracks or signs which might indicate the course of the fugitives.

The appearance of the native was an unexpected

  ― 196 ―
incident, but it did not deter him from persevering in his original intention of making his way towards the sea coast.

In coming to this resolution, the Major was little aware of the difficulties which would beset his path, as the sea coast on that part of the island, exposed as it is to the whole force of the Southern Ocean, is rocky and precipitous, and travelling is rendered so difficult as to be almost impossible near the shore. But there was another difficulty to contend against of a more formidable nature; and that was, the hostile tribe of natives, who had fixed on that district as their present locality, seeking it as a place of refuge from the attacks of the tribes by which they had been driven from their own hunting-grounds in the interior.

Of the presence of this tribe the Major soon became sensible, for he had not proceeded far before he came upon a native encampment, which was formed in a little grove of Mimosa trees, and near a spring of water flowing from the crevice of a rock. But although

  ― 197 ―
the fires were still burning, the camp was deserted.

This refusal of the natives to communicate with strangers was a circumstance, as the Major was aware, from the descriptions which he had read of them, that indicated danger. He proceeded therefore to examine these, the most rude of all temporary dwelling-places, with much curiosity, not unmixed with anxiety. The two soldiers who accompanied him did not conceal their apprehension, which they stated respectfully, of an immediate attack, and they kept vigilant watch therefore while their commander pursued his investigations.

The wretched make-shifts which the Major viewed were mere receptacles for the creatures to lie down under, for they could not be called huts, inasmuch as the largest of them was not more than four feet high. He counted nine of them nearly in a row, and almost close together. They were formed of bark in huge slices, with their smooth sides inwards, and fronting the fires which were burning about nine or ten feet from them. The slices of bark had been peeled

  ― 198 ―
in lengths of four to six feet, and from a foot to eighteen inches wide, and were set on their edges and rudely fastened together. It was under the shelter of these breakwinds that the natives crouched themselves at night, and sometimes in the day, without any covering to their bodies, or any shelter from the rain, more than the scanty bark walls afforded. There was no appearance of food or of weapons about the place; a circumstance which led him to conclude that the possessors of this native village, if village it could be called, had retired leisurely, and had taken away with them all their goods and chattels.

He discovered some heads of fishes, however, and some bones of animals, which were mostly small, and which he conjectured had belonged to the opossums and bandicoots, on which the natives are glad to feed when they cannot kill a kangaroo; and indeed of the opossum they are very fond, as they admire the high flavour of that strongly seasoned animal, which, as it feeds principally on the leaves of the peppermint tree, is always ready stuffed for table, although

  ― 199 ―
neither its taste nor its odour is by any means pleasing to strangers.

But the Major was not permitted to continue his scientific observations unmolested. As he shook one of the planks of bark to ascertain its solidity and texture, a spear from a neighbouring thicket, about sixty yards distant, warned him that he was intruding on the domestic arrangements of the proprietors. The soldiers immediately pointed their guns in the direction of the aggression, and made ready to fire. But the Major restrained them mildly but firmly:—

“Stop,” he said, “we do not come to kill the poor natives of this country with our superior weapons. We are intruders here; and it is not surprising that we have excited their suspicions. Let us endeavour to leave this place without shedding blood, it is our duty to endeavour to conciliate the native inhabitants of the country by kind treatment, and by showing that we are come to do them good, and not harm. We will retire.”

Saying this, he hastily sought for some article about his person which he might leave behind

  ― 200 ―
him as a sign of his amicable intentions; and fortunately finding that he had two knives, one of which was provided with a strong hack blade and a saw, he raised it aloft, and then placing it in a conspicuous place on the top of one of the break-winds, slowly retired.

When he had got to a little distance he stopped, and by gestures invited the natives, whom he could not see, but who, he had no doubt, saw him, to advance; but no one appeared. Another spear, however, which was projected from the same thicket and which fell short, was a very significant expression on their part of their desire to decline the pleasure of his company. He retired therefore to a still further distance, and then faced about again.

But the natives, who viewed his retreat as an evidence of fear, and who were emboldened by his seeming desire to avoid their spears, now issued in a black swarm from behind the bushes and rocks; the men, with waddies in their hands, heading the advance: some of the women closely following them with spears, while a few of the same sex remained further in the

  ― 201 ―
rear, one or two carrying infants, while various little black faces might be seen here and there peeping from behind the rocks and bushes.

Seeing this general assemblage, the Major made a few steps in advance towards them, being desirous of cultivating amicable relations with the natives, not only for general politic reasons, but for the purpose also of availing himself of their assistance in tracking the bushrangers and recovering his daughter; but he was assailed with a universal yell of men, women, and children, which would have appalled a heart less stout than the old soldier's; and at the same time a flight of spears came whistling towards him, one or two of which nearly reached his feet.

He endeavoured by all sorts of signs to make them understand that he wished to speak with them; but as every advance on his part only increased their frightful shrieks, and as the men continued to hurl the spears with which the women assiduously supplied them, and to brandish their waddies with frantic leapings and contortions at the strangers, he thought it most

  ― 202 ―
prudent to abandon his design for the present, as it seemed plain that further attempts would only lead to an exasperation of the savages, which would most likely end in the bloodshed he was so desirous to avoid.

His two soldiers, although they were both of them brave men and stout fellows, were by no means disinclined to retire from the scene, and they were soon out of sight of the savages; but it was some time before they ceased to hear their yells and screechings, which, as one of the men remarked, “was more like the howling of wild beasts than anything human;” and the Major again paused to consider which way to direct his course in pursuit of his daughter.

It seemed clear to him that the bushranger could not have fled in that direction. He made a considerable detour, therefore, to avoid coming into collision with the natives, and again endeavoured to penetrate the country towards the coast. But he found his path so obstructed by rocks and ravines that he began to despair at last of making any profitable progress, the more especially as he had no

  ― 203 ―
clue to the course of the bushrangers; and he determined, therefore, to return to his cave, and endeavour to find the track of the fugitives, if track there was, from that starting point. But the Major had now to learn how easy it was for a stranger to the country to be lost in the intricate mazes of the bush.

In endeavouring to find his way back, he soon became confused by the hills, mounds, rocks, and trees, all so much alike, that he found it impossible to recognise those which he had before passed; and this difficulty is partly to be accounted for by the circumstance that the traveller in the bush, in going, views objects on one of their sides, and in coming back views them on their reverse sides, which are usually very unlike the appearance which they present on their first aspect.

So it was with the Major; and his followers, though very good soldiers at drill or in the field, were quite incompetent to assist him in finding his way through an unknown country. In this way he crossed the bushranger's track without being aware of it, for he neither

  ― 204 ―
knew where he was nor which way he was going.

He endeavoured to guide his course by the sun, and frequently thought he had hit on the right direction; but unforeseen obstacles rose in his way, and unknown and unexpected objects puzzled and baffled him; so that at last, bewildered and weary, he sat down under a shady blue gum tree, utterly at a loss which way to direct his steps.

As they were well supplied with provisions, the two soldiers, at a hint from their superior, quickly produced their stores; and if the anxiety of the Major had affected his appetite, it was clear, from the alarming inroads which his followers made in their stock of provisions, that they were not restrained in satisfying their bodily wants by their mental sensibilities.

But towards the close of their refection, they came to a sudden pause; for as they were pretty well stuffed to their throats, they found themselves in urgent want of some fluid to clear their passages for a fresh supply. They intimated their distressing state to their commander,

  ― 205 ―
who, feeling the same want, rose from the grass and accompanied them in their search for water.

But, as is frequently the case with that important article—whose value is never estimated properly until the want of it is felt, as in the present instance—the water which they looked for was not so easy to be found; and although they descended, at the cost of much time and labour, into several promising dells and hollows, they could discover no indication of a spring.

Exhausted with fatigue, and parched with thirst, which the sup of brandy which they had had recourse to heightened to a painful degree, the party again sat down among some rocks between two hills which nearly met, and while the soldiers stretched themselves on the ground uneasily, the Major, borne down by the fatigue of travelling in the bush, and by the weight of affliction which preyed upon him at the uncertain fate of his daughter, rested his head on his arm, and became plunged in melancholy thought.

  ― 206 ―

In this position they remained for a considerable time, when the stillness of their solitude was interrupted by a sight which powerfully excited their curiosity.