― 62 ―

Chapter V. The Passage of the River.

AT the first dawn of day the natives were on the stir, and as they had no toilet duties to perform, and no portmanteaus or carpet bags to pack, they were ready to start as soon as they had got on their legs; an absence of ceremony which gave them a decided advantage in travelling. Before they set out, however, Helen made another attempt to leave them, and she beckoned to Mr. Silliman to accompany her; but they had no sooner made a few steps towards the entrance of the glen, than they found themselves followed by the same old woman

  ― 63 ―
and the same man who had watched them the night before.

Abandoning an attempt, therefore, which it was plainly useless to persevere in, Helen thought that she might be able to purchase their release by voluntarily presenting the natives with the stores and articles carried by her companion; but on their attempting to unpack the goods, they were immediately checked by the old woman, who gave them to understand that the articles were not to be touched at that time; an intimation with which they were obliged to comply.

Sorrowfully, therefore, and, as Jerry complained, without any breakfast but dry biscuit and cold water, they accompanied the natives on their journey, which Helen conjectured was homewards, as the movements of the natives were in one determined direction, and as they seemed to have no other thought than to reach the place of their destination.

In this way, and without stopping, they travelled the whole of the day, in a slow and

  ― 64 ―
sauntering manner; the women employed in collecting gum, and the men occasionally ascending a tree to capture an opossum, the presence of which animal, as Helen remarked, they were able to detect by its scent, their organs of smelling being remarkably acute, and, in that respect, bearing a strong resemblance to those of the inferior animal creation.

They saw plenty of kangaroos in their route, but the natives did not exert themselves to chase them; but they caught many kangaroo-rats and bandicoots. The old woman presented one of the latter to Helen, who was surprised to find the furry coat of the creature, which was about as large as a small badger, come off as she handled it, as if there was no power of cohesion between the hair and the skin.

The old woman endeavoured to make her understand that it was very good to eat, and Helen expressed her thanks in the best way she could; but she was by no means in the humour to study objects of natural history, and her uneasiness increased at every step which she

  ― 65 ―
made further in the interior, as it augmented the difficulties of her escape. She was at a loss also to imagine what it was that the natives intended to do with her. They offered her no violence, and all the restraint that they put on her was to prevent her from quitting them. But whether she was reserved to be put to death in some solemn manner, or in accordance with some religious ceremony, she could only conjecture; and such a conjecture was by no means calculated to enliven the tediousness of the way.

As for poor Jeremiah, he had made up his mind, with a sort of desperate resignation, as to what his fate would be, and he could not refrain from expressing his lamentations in the most disconsolate terms to the more strong-minded Helen. He had read in some book of travels that it was the practice with all savages either to eat the enemies whom they had taken in battle on the spot, or to offer them up to their gods as victims of sacrifice; and as he could not possibly conceive what other use they could

  ― 66 ―
make of him, he had no doubt that such was the honour reserved for his especial glorification.

Helen endeavoured to restore the courage of her fellow-captive, by remarking that there was no appearance of any religious ceremony being in use among the tribe of natives with whom they were travelling; that they did not pay any sort of worship to any being, visible or invisible; nor did she observe any one of them with any appearance of being a minister of religion.

But her arguments failed to convince Jerry; he was sure, he said, that it was intended that he should be sacrificed; and as to the gum which they were so officious in offering to him, it was only to fatten him up for the grand occasion; and the old woman looked, as he averred, as if she could eat him at any time, without salt or pepper.

“But before they shall do that,” added Jerry, valorously, “I will have a fight for it!—But my greatest trouble is about you, miss; I don't suppose they will eat you; for they must see that you are not one to fight them—and a

  ― 67 ―
woman they say, is respected, even by savages. At any rate I will fight for you, miss, if I only had a weapon—a gun or a pistol—till I died!—I would, indeed! and I wouldn't mind death, unpleasant as it is under any circumstances, if I could only save your life!”

Helen thanked the kind-hearted Jeremiah for his generous intentions, and in this interchange of sentiments which, after all, had a certain charm for Jerry, for he had never been in such close communion with the beautiful Miss Horton before, they beguiled their journey; passing over a variegated country of hill and dale, till they arrived at the bank of a broad and rapid river a few miles from the dell which they had left, and which was the same which the bushranger had discovered from the top of the sugar-loaf hill.

The natives did not seem at all embarrassed at this obstacle; but an immense deal of jabbering took place in making preparations for passing it. It was about twenty yards broad, flowing in a southerly direction in a plain of

  ― 68 ―
luxuriant but coarse grass, bearing the marks of being periodically flooded. The women, on this occasion, sat down on the turf by the margin of the water, taking no part in the work—which was performed exclusively by the men; but they endeavoured to forward the undertaking, it seemed, by much gratuitous advice, all talking together with considerable vehemence and great gesticulation.

The men, meanwhile, set about constructing two bark canoes, but as they had only a stone axe to work with, the incision of the bark in the first instance was an operation of much difficulty, as the bark of nearly all the trees in Van Diemen's land is very thick and tough. Jerry, observing the operose nature of their work, and thinking that this was a favourable opportunity for being useful, made his way to them, and requesting them by signs to stand back, drew out an axe, which was one of the articles of which he was the bearer, but which had been concealed under his coat. He soon made manifest the superiority of the white man's tool;

  ― 69 ―
but his interference was interrupted by the eternal old woman, who made signs to him to discontinue his assistance, as, for some reason which he could not comprehend, his axe was forbidden to be made use of.

This restriction puzzled Jeremiah exceedingly. But the men were not so submissive to the mysterious authority of the aged female as before. One of them took the axe from Jerry's hand, very unceremoniously, and examined it attentively, admiring the sharp edge, and wondering at the hardness of the metal. He passed it round to his fellows, who, although they saw plainly enough that it was an instrument made to cut with, could not make out of what stuff it was made, as they were entirely unacquainted with the use of iron.

An immense quantity of talk ensued, and one who seemed to have some previous knowledge of the instrument, harangued the others at great length, as it seemed, in explanation of the white man's axe. The native who had

  ― 70 ―
taken it from Jerry, and who seemed to exercise the chief authority over the tribe next to the old woman, then proceeded to use it, which he did with great dexterity; and as the keen edge penetrated into the bark and effected at one stroke an incision which it took many repeated blows of the rude stone instrument of the natives to perform, the black fellows set up a shout of admiration and capered round the tree in excessive delight.

The necessary planks of bark, by means of this effective auxiliary, were quickly separated from two trees fit for the purpose, and the two ends of each being tied up so as to fashion the pieces of bark into the shape of two canoes, they were pushed into the water. But a bright thought now seized Jerry, who, seeing the success of his first essay at pleasing the natives, was prompted to a fresh display of his ingenuity.

He was furnished with more than a hundred yards of whale line, which the forethought of the bushranger had provided, and which was

  ― 71 ―
now found particularly useful, so that Jerry in his glee remarked to Helen “that the burthen which had so long plagued him would turn out after all the best load he had ever carried; and,” as he philosophically observed, “that there was no knowing what was best for us in this world, for that which seemed most burthensome often turned out most useful in the end.”

Jeremiah now assumed an air and attitude of authority, in which he was supported by his ally, the old woman, who seemed curious to know what were his intentions. He made signs to the natives to remove to the edge of the river several pieces of dead timber, which he fastened together with a part of his cord so as form a tolerably large and secure raft, capable of bearing a dozen persons, and which, by the united strength of the whole party, was launched into the water and held fast. He then divided his whale line into two lengths, and tied one of the cords to one end of the raft and one to the other. The natives regarded all

  ― 72 ―
these preparations in silence, but with great attention.

He then, by signs, directed a “black fellow” to take hold of the end of one of the lines and transport himself with it in a bark canoe to the other side of the stream.—He had some difficulty in making him understand what he wanted him to do; but at last the native comprehended his meaning, and he and another, having provided themselves with a long pole each, by way of an oar or punt-stick, stepped lightly into the fragile boat, and one sitting at either end of it, they quickly pushed themselves over to the other side.

When both of the men were in the canoe, Helen observed that it was nearly under water, so that it was impossible for more than two to be conveyed in the same boat at a time, and the slightest motion seemed to endanger its being overturned; but the two natives balanced themselves and managed their extempore craft with wonderful dexterity, and showed no signs of fear at such a ticklish mode of water-carriage.

  ― 73 ―

In the mean time, Jerry intimated, by signs, that two more natives were to cross over, which they did. He then got on the raft with Helen, first putting the end of the other rope into the hand of another native on the bank, in order that the raft might be hauled back for the conveyance of more passengers.

He endeavoured to prevail on some of the women to accompany them, but they all hung back and refused to try the experiment;—they could not make out why the cords were tied to the wood on the water.

The men on the other side now readily comprehended that their part was to pull the raft over the stream, which they did easily, the rapidity of the current assisting them; and Jerry and Helen were safely landed on the other side. A wild scream of admiration sprung from the assembled blacks as they beheld the success of this manœuvre; and those on the side which the raft had left, now seeing the reason of the two cords, quickly pulled the raft back, and by this means the

  ― 74 ―
whole party passed over quickly, and without accident.

Jeremiah, vastly pleased with his exploit, and trusting that, if the natives found his services useful, they would refrain from devouring him, or, at any rate, that they would postpone that ceremony for some time which would give him the chance of escaping, now untied the cords from the raft, and as they were wet and uncomfortable for him to carry, he parted them off into coils, which he placed round a young native's neck, who permitted him to do so without resistance, and on the contrary, seemed rather pleased to be selected for the honourable distinction.

Helen now conceived hopes, from the pacific treatment which they had already received from the natives, and from their present demeanour, that she should be able to induce them to conduct her to some settlement; but she perceived that there was some particular reason for their taking her with them; and she guessed that there was some native of higher authority before

  ― 75 ―
whom she was to appear, and on whose decision her fate rested. In the mean time, she resolved to bear her present lot with all the fortitude that she could bring to her aid; and she determined to avail herself of the opportunity to observe the manners and customs of her new associates closely, as well for her general information, as to enable her to take advantage of any good trait in their dispositions, or of their inclination to possess themselves of the mechanical tools of the white people, for the purpose of effecting her release. And she flattered herself, that she should be able to find the means of communicating to them the promise of a great reward of axes, nails, and various useful articles on the condition of being restored to her friends.

Mr. Silliman being of the same opinion, and being considerably elated at his own readiness of invention, and great cleverness and ingenuity in respect to the construction of the raft, they became less depressed. They were inclined almost to be cheerful at the prospect of the

  ― 76 ―
speedy liberation which they promised themselves, and the remainder of their journey was performed with less anxiety than at first.

They had to cross two more small streams before they stopped; one of them they passed by means of a natural bridge formed of a tree which had fallen conveniently across the water; the other they waded through. Jerry could not avoid remarking on the inconvenience of having clothes on in the latter case; and in this respect, he said, he was bound to concede the superiority to the natives; wondering at the same time, “if their masters would oblige him and Miss Horton to adopt the national custom in that respect, which he observed would be very chilly to one not used to it.”

Helen had her own misgivings on that point, but she said nothing, as indeed it was an awkward subject to converse on; but it is due to Mr. Silliman to record that he practised the most gentlemanly reserve towards his companion in captivity, being actuated as much by his own kindness of heart, as by habitual

  ― 77 ―
respect for Miss Horton; so that the poor girl was saved from much that was disagreeable by the unobtrusive assiduousness of his attentions.

They had now proceeded about twenty miles, and the sun had for more than two hours declined in its course. It was very hot, and Helen was much fatigued; Jerry, too, was tired with his journey. The old woman observed they walked with difficulty, and raising her voice, she caused the whole party to halt, and the natives assembled around her.

She spoke to them a few words, and by her pointing to the north-west, Helen guessed that she was giving some directions in respect to that quarter. And her anticipation was presently confirmed; for after a little consultation among themselves, nearly all the natives continued their march, leaving behind them only the old woman, who had taken special charge of the captives, and another young girl, with three of the men, among whom was the one bearing round his neck the coils of whale line placed there by Jeremiah.

  ― 78 ―

This arrangement having been effected, the old lady intimated to her prisoners, that they might rest where they were, which happened to be in a pleasant clump of cedar trees on a platform of sandy land, raised about six or eight feet above a grassy plain, on the edge of which they were reposing. Under their feet, and at the bottom of the bank which was extended like a wall for some distance right and left, ran a shallow brook of water not more than two or three inches in depth. Towards the west there was a ridge of continuous hills of considerable height, and at a distance on their left were to be seen the craggy summits of lofty mountains.

Helen endeavoured to ascertain how much further they had to go; but although it appeared that the old woman understood the meaning of the signs which she made, Helen could not understand what the black lady said in reply, although the native, in order to make herself more intelligible, repeated her words several times, and pronounced with great earnestness the syllables “Walloo-wombee.” But what this

  ― 79 ―
“walloo-wombee” was, whether it was the name of a place or of a person, neither Helen nor Jeremiah could make out. It seemed, however, that on this “walloo-wombee!” depended in some manner their future destiny.

As they could not help themselves, however, they determined to make the best of circumstances, and Jerry set the natives to cut down boughs and to place them so as to form a tolerable bush-hut for Helen, and another for himself at a little distance. His tea-kettle also was again put in requisition, and Helen was able to enjoy that which is considered in the bush as the greatest luxury. One of the native men caught a kangaroo rat, which he gave to the prisoners, and Jerry after dissecting it with his knife, roasted it at the fire which had been kindled, and tasted it. Finding it to resemble very much a wild rabbit, though much tougher and more sinewy and fibrous, he encouraged Helen to partake of it, which she did, after a little reluctance, with much satisfaction.

The night was now passed with less of discomfort

  ― 80 ―
than Helen had experienced since her life in the bush; and the next morning they were invited, as soon as daylight appeared, to continue their journey. The weather still continued fine and without rain, which was unusual at this season of the year, it being September, and the early part of spring, during which the periodical rains take place. They journeyed on that day about a dozen miles more, most of the country being flat, and only one or two high hills occurring during the whole of this route. In the afternoon, they came to a part of the country abounding in rocks and ravines, wild and barren, and seemingly unfitted for the habitation of anything but wild beasts.

They toiled through half a mile of this rugged district, when, on surmounting a low green hill, they suddenly found themselves within sight of the sea, while to their right stretched a sheltered dell of the most picturesque description, and which they observed was sheltered from the sea, which they judged was not more than a mile distant, by a high

  ― 81 ―
ridge forming a natural barrier to the vale within.

Having been allowed to enjoy the pleasure of this view for some minutes, their conductor urged them forward, giving them to understand by signs that they had arrived at the end of their journey. Both Helen and Jeremiah were now seized with much anxiety and fear; for the moment had arrived when their fate—for good or ill—was to be decided.