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Chapter XVII. The Natives at Home.

WHILE these preparations were being made for the recovery of Helen from the natives, who it was conjectured had carried her away with them;—although many contended that she had certainly been murdered by the savages long before this time,—the poor girl remained in captivity with the tribe which inhabited the extreme verge of the western coast of the island.

No personal violence had hitherto been offered to her; but the intentions of the black chief were most decidedly expressed with respect to her being included among the number


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of his wives, while a similar honour, as was most significantly expressed by the old woman, was destined on her part for Mr. Silliman. That fascinating person was determined to have another husband, and as she could not get a black one, was content to have a white one.

Being the daughter of the old chief, and exercising, in his name, the patriarchal influence which he enjoyed, and which, from habit, his tribe continued to pay to him, although he had lost the physical strength which had raised him to that eminence, she had no difficulty in obtaining the consent of the fraternity to admit the white man into the tribe; and, in accordance with her directions, preparations were made for performing on him the ceremonies customary on such occasions.

These ceremonies were not many, nor very important; but the solemnity with which the priest or conjuror of the tribe entered on the inauguration of the new member, and the mystery in which the preparations were enveloped was by no means calculated to remove


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the dread with which the unfortunate Jeremiah was inspired at being made the victim of their barbarous rites.

If it had not been for his reluctance to leave Helen unprotected amongst the savages, he would have endeavoured to effect his escape alone into the bush, and encounter all the wild animals, snakes, and bushrangers, on the island, rather than face the terrible old woman for whom he was to be duly qualified as a husband. Helen was so absorbed in the contemplation of her own wretched fate, that she could scarcely bestow any commiseration on that of her companion in misfortune. Compared with her threatened union with the old black fellow, Jerry's matrimonial alliance with the lady seemed nothing!

In the mean time, the conjuror painted himself, in a mystic manner, with red ochre and chalk, and summoned Jerry to the ordeal.

It is to be observed that the natives of Van Diemen's Land differ from the natives of the large continental island, forming, pre-eminently,


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the Australian portion of the globe, in language, and in some customs.

The continental natives build better huts in the winter season; clothe themselves partially with the skin of the kangaroo; make use of better weapons; and are subjected, wild and savage as they are, to certain forms and religious ceremonies unknown to the aboriginals of Van Diemen's Land. But, in some points, the practices are similar, and it was to these that Mr. Silliman was now summoned to submit himself.

The first of these was more disagreeable than dangerous. As it was impossible for the natives to communicate with their neophyte by speech, they were obliged to leave the discovery of the object of their ceremonies to his unassisted ingenuity. Jerry conjectured rightly when he supposed that the first act of initiation was to prepare his mind, by solitude and reflection, for a due estimation of the importance of the ceremonies which were to come.

But it was his ignorance of what those ceremonies


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would be, that puzzled and frightened poor Jerry; however, there was no retreat. He had been made to understand that there was no alternative between entire submission and being roasted alive at an enormous log-fire which had been kindled for the occasion. With a most rueful expression of countenance, therefore, he quitted Helen, and the women of the tribe, as it was an essential part of the ceremony that no female eye should witness the mysterious rite of male initiation, and accompanied the black fellows to a place at a little distance from the encampment.

The priest, if it can be permitted to apply such a name to such a person, and who differed in nothing from his fellows so far as Jerry could observe, except his being the fattest and the sleekest of the lot, first stripped Jerry with great gravity, and placed his clothes aside; he then proceeded to mark the white man's body with a piece of red ochre, in various curious devices, symbolical, no doubt, of his state of probation.




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This being done, and Jerry, in buff, being transformed into a sort of illuminated edition of a white man, the priest led him into a place in the bush apart, which had been previously consecrated in some way known only to the priest himself, where he was left alone to silence and meditation. Jerry peeped out and saw the black fellows about thirty yards off, in a circle, watching the sacred spot.

In this way they passed the night, no one stirring; and as Jerry was too cold to sleep, he had ample leisure for reflection on the mutability of human affairs in this world, and on the hope of a world to come. He had a strong suspicion of the great wood fire which he had passed on his way to his present resting-place, and he had an indefinable dread that the world to come was to be opened to him that way; a conjecture which increased still more his general disinclination to depart from this; and the ceremony of the next day was by no means calculated to lesson his apprehensions.

Shortly after the dawn, the priest visited


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him, and examined him attentively. As Jerry did not know what to say, he very wisely held his tongue; and as it happened this was the very thing which was expected of him. The priest rewarded his tractability with a grim smile, and hastily leaving him, returned with a piece of roasted kangaroo's flesh, which Jerry devoured with much appetite. This also, seemed to please the priest, who pinched his loins and shoulders much in the same way as a butcher feels a sheep to see if he is fat enough to be killed: a ceremony which Jerry considered was of a dubious character; especially as the priest grinned with his teeth approvingly, an expression of satisfaction, which caused poor Jerry to conceive very disagreeable anticipations of the cannibalistic propensities of the black rascal. The priest then left him.

In about half an hour the priest returned, carrying with him the materials for the new member's next probation.

With a dexterity which surprised Jeremiah, the old gentleman proceeded to dress him up


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in the guise of a kangaroo. He placed on his head and over his body the skin of that animal with its fur on as natural as life; he wrapped the skin round him, and secured it with strings made of the strips of the stringy bark tree.

The tail of the animal stuffed with grass projected behind, and the priest was pleased to teach Jerry to wag it with the hand in an easy and graceful manner, intimating to him at the same time, that he would presently be called on to hop in imitation of the creature which he represented.

Jerry thought there was no great harm in that, provided they did not carry on the allegory too far, and kill and eat him to make the resemblance more complete. He began hopping therefore, with much pains, about the small space in which he was enclosed, and his performance seemed to the priest so excellent, and Jeremiah in his new dress was such an admirable likeness of a kangaroo, that the master of the ceremonies hastened to give


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notice to his companions that the sport was ready to begin.

Jerry sat on his haunches, his ears pricked up, and his kangaroo head erect in anxious expectation. Presently he saw the natives in a body, advancing on tip-toe to the place where he was ensconced, and acting the part of looking about for a kangaroo. They examined the ground, smelled to it, snuffed the air, and tried to penetrate with their eyes into the bushes where Jerry lay; but all in the utmost silence.

Presently one pretended on a sudden to discover the kangaroo; he communicated the information by signs to his fellows, who now advanced with quick steps to the bush, brandishing their spears and waddies in a threatening manner. Jerry did not like the looks of them; he began to doubt whether they were in jest or earnest, they acted their parts so well. While he was deliberating a spear passed a little way over his head. This was too bad! and Jerry making a desperate spring, cleared one side


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of the bush fence, and appeared in the open space beyond.

A loud shout from the natives proclaimed their admiration of the feat; and they followed him with joyful cries, throwing their spears at him occasionally, which hit him with hard bumps, but their ends being blunted they did him no farther injury. The frequency of their occurrence, however, so alarmed Jerry, that without more hesitation, breaking out into a brisk run, he endeavoured to avoid the repetition of such native compliments.

And now the chase grew fast and furious; Jerry bounded along, his tail thumping the ground in the most natural manner imaginable, and the natives following after shouting, screaming, yelling, and performing all sorts of antics as they pursued him round and round the encampment. Helen's curiosity was roused by the general excitement, and as this was a part of the ceremony which females were allowed to look upon, for the reason perhaps that it could not easily be prevented, the whole


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collection of gins old and young assembled to witness the performance, greeting Jerry as he passed them in his circular career with vociferous screams of delight and laughter.

Even Helen, as Jerry passed her at full speed, with his enormous tail wagging behind him, in spite of the anxious thoughts which oppressed her with regard to her own fate, could not forbear from smiling at the ludicrous figure which Mr. Silliman cut in his extraordinary costume! He had only time, as he shot by her, to ejaculate “Oh, miss!” when he was lost among the bushes, and Helen, to avoid the mob of savages who were in pursuit, retired behind the women.

As the natives adroitly hemmed in Jerry during the chase, within a certain circle, and as he soon became fatigued with the exertion, he was glad to take refuge again in the retreat from which he had set out, where his tormentors left him unmolested; and, shortly afterwards, the priest visited him, and said something to him with a severe countenance


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and in an angry tone, which Jerry could not fail to interpret as a reproof for some breach of etiquette which he had unwittingly committed.

And, in truth, poor Jerry had offended against the practice of that august ceremonial in a way which gave rise to sinister observations among the savages. Instead of hopping like a kangaroo during the last ceremony, he had used his legs like a man, an offence which went far to vitiate the whole proceeding, and which exposed them to the ridicule of the women who had assembled to admire that popular part of the entertainment.

From what followed, however, it would seem that, at the intercession with the priest of the daughter of the chief, Jerry's misbehaviour was overlooked, on the condition that next day he would abide firmly by the further test which he was to be exposed to.

Jerry passed that night as he had done the first, with the exception that the kangaroo-skin served to keep him a little warmer; and


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as the air was mild and continued remarkably dry for that season of the year, he contrived to get a little sleep. This time the priest brought him a grilled opossum, which, although it stunk abominably of the peppermint tree, Jerry was compelled to eat to satisfy his hunger.

He judged from this change of food that he should be obliged to climb trees like an opossum; but he was mistaken. His next ordeal was of a very different nature; it was called in the native language “the trial of spears.”

On the morning of this concluding ceremony, the priest stripped the half-adopted brother of his kangaroo appurtenances, and having touched him up under the eyes and on the forehead with some masterly strokes of red ochre, he led him forth into a large clear space, where all the men of the tribe were assembled to take part in the exhibition. The old chief, from his infirmities, was merely a spectator of the trial.

Ten spears were now given to Jeremiah,


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and he was placed about sixty yards from a particular spot in front of the natives, who all had spears in their hands. Jerry observed that those given to him were sharp, and he concluded that the spears in the hands of the black fellows were sharp also. This circumstance troubled him not a little; and when he found himself standing alone, with all the savages congregated opposite, he began to fear that a principal part of the ceremony was to make a cock-shy of him for the others to cast their spears at! Nor was he far mistaken in that conjecture.

Jerry being thus posted, and the priest in a loud voice having made an exhortation to his flock, which from the significant gestures used Jerry conceived was an urgent admonition on his part to the others to take good aim and stick their spears into the mark, the sport began.

First one native came up to the appointed distance, and threw his spear at Jerry; it went wide of the mark.




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Then another came on and tried his skill.

If Jerry had not turned this second spear aside with the bundle of similar weapons which he held in his hand it would have inflicted an ugly wound. Jerry's dexterity in defence elicited a warm shout of approbation from the savages; but whether the expression of it was in favour of the marksman or of the target, seemed to Jerry doubtful.

One by one each of the natives discharged his spear; and it was an evidence of the general harmless nature of the ceremony, though as savage in its practice as the wild people who invented it, but on this occasion the object of their practice escaped unhurt.

It was now Jerry's turn to try his skill; and the priest having harangued him singly in a strain similar to his first speech to the natives, resumed his place by the side of the chief.

A native now advanced with a spear in his hand and took his place on the spot from which each had cast a spear.

Jerry considered this as an invitation to


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have a shot at him, but in his inexperience he threw his spear sideways, and his clumsiness was received with a shout of derisive laughter by the others.

Another native succeeded, and Jerry threw a second spear at him. This was better. He now tried his luck at a third, and this time the spear nearly reached its mark. The fourth seeing the very narrow escape of the last, held his own spear in an attitude of defence to ward off the coming missile.

But this cast was a decided failure, and it was owing perhaps to the contempt with which the natives regarded their new brother's want of skill, that the tenth man disdaining to avail himself of his spear of defence which he threw on the ground, was hit by Jerry's last spear which entered the native's right arm.

Nothing could have been more fortunate for Jerry than the success of this last exploit, as it established him on the spot in the good opinion of his sable brethren; and far from


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exhibiting any ill-will at the event, they treated him with extraordinary respect, and escorted him in a body to the daughter of their chief, to whom they presented him as one worthy of her distinguished preference.

Jerry was now in the high road to preferment; but thinking that he might turn the favourable opinion of the natives towards him to good account, and judging that they would now have confidence in him and be less strict in watching his motions, he intimated to them by signs that it was necessary for him and the white woman to perform certain ceremonies of their own in private. He pointed to the sun which was declining, and endeavoured to make them understand that the rites which he was about to perform were in deference to that luminary.

The old woman seemed inclined at first to dispense with more formalities, but the priest, who was curious to know what the white man would do, pronounced an authoritative opinion, as Jerry conjectured from his manner, in favour


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of their new brother's proposal; and Jerry, taking advantage of the opportunity, lost no time in putting the design which he had conceived into execution.

Accordingly he dressed himself again in his clothes, and taking the old black woman by the hand to disarm suspicion, and with the priest on his other side, followed by the chief and the rest of the male tribe, he advanced to the quarter of the women, where Helen was, sitting on the ground.

Taking a hint from the priest's proceedings, he harangued Helen in a loud voice, pointing to the sun, and marching round her in a circle. His speech which, of course, was not understood by the natives, was to inform her of the plan which he had formed for their escape that night, and to explain to her the part which she was to act. He took care frequently to point to the sun during this manœuvre, the better to impress on the spectators the reality and sincerity of the white man's ceremony.

Telling Helen to rise, he instructed her to


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walk before him, and intimating to the men by signs that they were not to follow, he directed her to proceed to a certain spot, in an easterly direction, where a clump of fern trees would serve effectually to screen her from observation.

Accompanied by the chief and the priest, they marched solemnly to the appointed spot; and, having placed her within the recess, Jerry drew a line around her with a bough of a geranium which he plucked as he proceeded: and then having placed four similar boughs in the ground, at the four corners of her retreat, he retired with the conjuror and the priest in the same solemn manner as before!

The sun now began to sink below the horizon, and Jerry returned to the spot in the bush in which he had been placed by the priest during the ceremony of his own initiation; and making his two companions understand that he desired to be left alone, they retired.

The ingenious Jerry, whose wits were sharpened by danger and necessity, now pretended


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to busy himself with various mysterious preparations in order to deceive the conjuror or any other inquisitive savage who might be observing him. He then laid himself down on his back as if to watch the stars as, one after another, they rose to view in the heavens; but listening to the slightest noise of what was going on at the native fires.

In this state he waited, in a state of most anxious suspense, until the natives should be buried in sleep, which would afford him the opportunity of carrying his bold resolution of escape into effect.

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