― 45 ―

Chapter IV. A Native Bivouac.

THE natives had divided before reaching their resting place for the night, into two bodies; one of them proceeding towards the north, and the other body, by whom Helen and Jeremiah were detained, continuing their course in a westerly direction. The latter party consisted of about twenty males and nearly the same number of females, but there were no children, which made Helen conjecture that they had not yet arrived at their place of ultimate destination.

The spot which they had fixed on for their encampment was a deep dell, shut in by high hills on either side, partially covered with

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wood. There was a spring of water near the bottom, at which the natives drank copiously, and Helen and her fellow-prisoner, following their example, did the same, their captors not seeming to take much heed how they disposed of themselves. This apparent neglect seemed to favour Helen's project to escape.

The men now busied themselves in erecting their breakwinds from the bark of the trees which were at hand; but they made them, as Helen remarked, of very scanty dimensions, and they were insecurely put together. The women set themselves about collecting dry wood for fires, of which they made eight or nine heaps opposite the breakwinds. Their next labour was to kindle a fire, for the two lighted sticks, always carried cross-ways by one of the party, had been extinguished in the confusion consequent on the fight, and it was necessary to raise a flame in the manner practised by the natives on such occasions.

Two or three of the party searched for a piece of dry wood suited to their purpose,

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which one of them soon found. This was placed on the ground and held firmly, while one or two more stood round ready to aliment the flame, when kindled, with dry leaves and bark, scraped into very thin shavings.

In the mean time, another native had prepared a pointed piece of wood about eighteen inches long, and a inch or an inch and a half in diameter. This piece of wood he took care to select from a dead branch, choosing, in preference, a piece of the stringy bark tree.

A hole was now indented in the first piece of wood with a hard stone, and the end of the second piece, previously pointed with a stone axe, inserted in it. One of the natives now took the piece of pointed wood between his hands, and with a rapid motion turned the point inserted in the cavity of the other piece of wood backwards and forwards as if he was trying to bore a hole. This manœuvre he continued for nearly a minute, and when his hands began to get weary, another native relieved him, and then the second was relieved

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by a third, and so on, never allowing the friction of the two pieces of wood to cool down, till at last they elicited fire.

As soon as this took place, the dry leaves and bark shavings were pressed around the point of contact, the natives assisting the nascent conflagration with their breath, lying down on their bellies to blow the fire into flame.

By this ingenious process, in the course of about half an hour they procured a light, with which they ignited the dry heaps of wood previously collected, and in a few minutes the dell was illuminated with the light of their numerous fires.

While this was going forward, Helen thought that, the whole of the party being so busily occupied, now was the time to escape. She communicated her intention in a few words to her companion, and directed him to ascend the steep hill on one side, while she did the same on the other, and to join her at the entrance of the glen, about half a mile distant.

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Jeremiah readily acquiesced, although he had little hope of escaping from so many enemies; and they immediately began to carry their plan into effect.

Helen sauntered leisurely up the hill on her side, while Jeremiah did the same on his, looking about them in the dusk as if they were examining objects here and there from curiosity. In this way Jerry had nearly reached the appointed opening, when on turning a bushy mimosa tree he beheld to his horror two great eyes which, from the contrast with the black face, seemed to him preternaturally white, staring at him from the other side.

He had sufficient presence of mind not to call out, but he endeavoured to catch sight of Helen, which he presently did; and he observed at the same time that a dark form followed her, which was visible to him as he surveyed her progress sideways, but which to her, doubtless, had been concealed. He guessed at once that he had been dogged by a native, as he saw Helen was followed; but

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as it was incumbent on him to endeavour to join her at all events, he stepped on boldly, taking no notice of the spy by whom he had himself been watched.

“Courage,” said Helen, in a low voice, as soon as she became conscious of his approach, “we may yet be saved!”

“You are followed by one of the natives,” replied Jerry, in the same low tone, “and so am I. We are discovered.”

“Could you not catch hold of the one behind you and secure him?” said Helen with desperation.

“It would be folly, miss; the two would only set up a howl which would bring down the whole gang on us. Better go back as we came.”

“We cannot help it,” said Helen, after a short pause; “but it is hard to surrender ourselves again to the mercy of the savages: but, as it must be so, our best course is to go quietly back again……”

“It would be better to go back together,”

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interposed Jerry; “it will seem more natural—as if we had been looking for each other.”

“Perhaps so;—and it may remove any suspicion that they may have of our meditating an escape, so that we shall have the better chance another time. Come, we must return.”

They returned therefore, together, the two natives following them closely, but without making any attempt at concealing themselves, as they had done previously. Jeremiah, wishing to take a survey of them, perceived by the light of the moon that one of them was a man, and that the other was the same old woman who had interfered in his behalf before. As he had no idea of her having any other design on him than to eat him, the present evidence of her inclination in keeping him so pertinaciously in view, aggravated his painful anticipations.

During their departure, the natives had succeeded in catching some opossums, generally to be found in great abundance scampering about the trees on moonlight nights, and which were now scorching on the various fires. The women

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also contributed their store of gum, which they had been diligent in collecting during the march, and which they had gathered from the acacia trees as they passed, bit by bit; each woman sticking the whole of her fragments together as she proceeded, so as to make a round mass as big as a cricket-ball which she placed in a little net about as large as a small landing-net, made from the flexible fibres of the stringy-bark tree, and which she carried suspended round her neck.

Of these balls of gum, some big and some little, they produced nearly twenty, most of which they threw on the fires to simmer. The old lady who had taken Jerry under her particular protection, brought part of a singed opossum and a small ball of hot gum to the prisoners, as they sat, side by side, on the grass. Helen received the edibles with signs of thanks; but the opossum had a disagreeable smell, and the gum was boiling hot, so that the delicacies remained untouched.

Jerry now reminded Helen that he had a

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store of provisions more congenial to their tastes in the knapsack of the bushranger, besides a variety of articles which might be useful in propitiating the natives. They discussed for some time the propriety of opening their wares, not a little surprised that the savages had not already laid violent hands on them; but there was a reason for that as they discovered afterwards.

It was agreed, however, that they should make use of the biscuit and the tea and sugar, of which Jerry was the bearer; and he began to unfasten the knapsack for that purpose. But he no sooner manifested his intention “to break bulk,” as the nautical term is, than the same old woman came briskly up to them, for they were sitting by themselves—in the centre of the black groups indeed, but unmolested by their masters. The old woman seemed at first inclined to forbid the opening of the knapsack, but curiosity most likely prevailing, she suffered the white man to proceed.

Jerry therefore produced from the reservoir some biscuit and some tea, and white loaf-sugar.

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The old woman gazed at these articles very earnestly, but did not offer to touch them.

He then unpacked from his stores two pannikins, and a small tin tea-kettle. These articles also the old lady regarded with much admiration, and she waited to see their uses.

Jerry made signs to her to signify that he wanted the kettle filled with water. This the woman readily comprehended, and she called out in a loud voice to the women who were grouped together at a fire behind those where the men were assembled. At the sound of her voice a tall female native immediately came forth, and stood before her.

The old woman said something to her in a tone of command, which the other promptly obeyed; for taking up the kettle, she proceeded to the spring and filled it with water, with which she returned, lifting up her legs on high, and with a very grave aspect.

This command, and the ready obedience which followed it, made Helen and Jeremiah surmise, that the old lady was some person

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possessing authority; but what the nature of her rank or power was, they could not understand.

Jerry now poured some of the water from the tea-kettle on to the ground, an act which the old woman beheld with much surprise, as she could not comprehend the reason of his wasting water, which had been fetched at the cost of some trouble; and when Jerry put into the remaining water half a handful of tea, and placed the tea-kettle on the fire, the old woman's surprise increased; for she expected, of course, that the strange thing, for of metal she had no idea, would be burnt. But when the kettle boiled, and steam issued from the spout, the native could not restrain her astonishment, and she uttered a sound difficult to express in writing, but nearly resembling the neighing of a horse. This exclamation quickly brought around her the whole body of the natives, both men and women, who gazed at the phenomenon of the boiling water, with the most lively expressions of wonder.

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Jerry now offered the canvass-bag containing the white sugar to Helen, together with a pannikin. Helen selected a small lump, which she put in her pannikin, and Jerry poured on it some of the boiling tea from the kettle. As the water was ejected from the spout, the crowd shouted with admiration, but they did not fail to observe that it was changed in colour, a circumstance which seemed to give rise to much comment among them. One of the men who was standing close to them, seized the bag of sugar which he was about to dispose of in some way, when the old woman snatched it away from him, giving him at the same time a sound rating, in which she seemed to be a great proficient, for the man hung down his head and slunk back behind the others. She then restored the bag to Jerry.

Jerry wondered who this important old lady could be, who seemed to exercise so powerful a control over the tribe; and as he judged it was of importance to propitiate so dignified a personage, although she was as little encumbered

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with robes of royalty or any other robes as the rest of the black community, he took from the bag a tolerably big lump of sugar, and presented it to her with much ceremony.

The old lady hesitated for a moment or two before she took it; but when she had it in her hand she viewed it with much indifference, mistaking it for a piece of chalk, of which there is plenty to be found in some parts of the island. In order to satisfy herself on this point, she called to her one of the men, who stooped down, and on whose back she attempted to make a white mark with the stuff. But as the sugar was hard and serrated, and as the old woman's hand was vigorous, instead of producing the pigmental effect which she expected, it only excoriated the black man's back, who uttered a loud roar from the smart, which was greeted with the general merriment of his brethren.

The old lady smelled at the white stuff, but that gave her no information. She then handed it to the native who stood near her, and he

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smelled it, and handed it to the next, who passed it on to the others, and so they all smelled it, but no one of them could make anything of it; and the white stuff was returned to Jerry.

Jerry then took another little bit, which he put into his mouth and ate, making signs to the old woman to do the same, but she shook her head, and declined to make the experiment.

While this examination of the lump of sugar was going on, Helen had been sipping her tea from the pannikin, and soaking her biscuit in the hot liquid, in which refection she was accompanied by Jeremiah. As soon as he had finished his pannikin of drink, Jerry put into it the piece of sugar which had been submitted to the examination of the natives, and poured on it some of the boiling tea from the kettle. He then handed it to the old woman.

The old woman took it; but as she took hold of it by the rim and not by the handle, she burnt her fingers, and let it fall to the ground, the hot liquid scalding the legs of several besides her own, as it was scattered about.

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Jerry, however, poured her out another cup; but as she would not take hold of it a second time, he placed it on the ground close by her side. She popped her finger into it, but soon took it out again, uttering a cry of pain!

Then all the natives would put their fingers into it to try the experiment, those who tried it first urging on the others to try it also, and taunting the backward ones, especially the women, for their timidity; much in the same way as children who have experienced an electric shock, endeavour to persuade others to feel the same sensation.

When the mirth which the hot tea had given rise to had subsided, the natives turned their attention to the biscuit which the white people were eating; and Jerry offered some of it to the native who was nearest to him.

The native took it, and as usual, first smelled it, and passed it round to the others, by all of whom it was smelled in turn; but not one of them would taste it. They exhibited a strong desire, however, to examine the contents of

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Jerry's knapsack; but this was authoritatively refused by the old lady, who rose from her sitting posture, and spoke some words to the assembled crowd, pointing to the west, which had an immediate effect upon them; and they forthwith retired to their separate fires crouching behind their breakwinds.

Helen and Jerry also, on their parts, seeing that there was no present harm intended to them, and that the fate of themselves and their valuables were postponed for some reason which they could not divine, were inclined to rest; and Helen endeavoured to make the old woman understand that she was desirous of retiring to the sleeping place of the women which she observed was arranged by a fire apart, and at some distance from the fires of the men.

The old lady at last understood her signs, and prepared to conduct her to the female department of the encampment; but first, she called out to the men, and one of them having appeared, she said something to him, the meaning of which was evident from his behaviour;

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for the native at once established himself in the immediate vicinity of Jeremiah, and lying down on his belly, watched him as an intelligent dog does an article of property that he has been set to guard.

The looks of the black fellow were by no means agreeable to Mr. Silliman, but fatigue soon weighed him down so heavily that he forgot natives and bushrangers and all, and slept on the bare earth as if on a bed of down. Helen also courted sleep for the sake of the strength which it would restore to her, and in a short time the whole of the party with the exception of the two who kept watch over the captives, were fast asleep. For many hours the two prisoners slept profoundly, nor thought, nor dreamed of the new adventures which the morrow was to bring forth.