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Poenamo
Book the First - Chapter VI.
I Forswear the Great Convict Land


As the mail-cart drew up at the little inn of Bathurst the clock struck the midnight hour, and the new year of 1840 was ushered in to me to the tune of a discordant fiddle, danced to by assigned convicts, who shuffled and scraped vile steps on the kitchen-floor to an audience whose well-marked countenances of the true convict stamp were new to me. I well remember going to bed with a disagreeable twinge passing through me, resulting from the question put in confidence to myself whether I was quite sure that I had done the right thing in having exchanged my prospects in India for those in the land in which I now found myself. But in turning my back on the Palmyra I had finally disconnected myself with physic, and for ever barred the possibility of being ignominiously advertised in company with a cow! My future practice was never to be more than amateur, so to speak, only acting the good Samaritan when other doctors were not to be had. But that night I was far more ill with my profession than with sheep, and almost wished I had never heard of such a thing as a "run in Australia". I really think the scraping of that fiddle and shuffling of those heavy feet, and the hoarse laugh which found its way to my bedroom throughout the night, created a feeling in me repugnant to casting my lot in life in a land where such an element as I had seen disporting itself downstairs existed.

Before morning my imagination in the half-sleeping, half-waking state i which I lay—I had conjured up a new and appropriate accompaniment to the fiddle—the clanking of the convicts in chains—but it was imagination only. The ''chained gangs" I had seen working on roads when crossing the Blue Mountains were not permitted to dance the new year in. That was a privilege only to be obtained when the chains no longer fettered them.

The morning of this New Year's day was my first introduction to the day being ushered in with the bright sun of a midsummer's morning; but many and many more were in store for me in the future.

As I stepped forth from the little Inn I looked on the Plains or Bathurst already basking in the hot sun. The convict element had disappeared—all was quiet. Last night's scene? had it only been a disagreeable dream or a painful reality?

A bullock-team at this moment stopped at the inn-door, the driver entered, and from his face my eye instinctively went to his ankle. No, there was no chain there; but—last night's scene had not been a dream!

After breakfast I presented a letter of introduction to a gentleman in the neighbourhood, a retired military officer, He did not ask if they lithographed these things now at home, but took possession of me there and then, installed me in his house, and sent off to the inn for my light baggage. Under his hospitable roof I took my first lesson in "dumping wool," for he was busy "baling his clip" to send down to Sydney for shipment home.

I had an opportunity also of studying the convict element of the colony—of the population which supplied labourers for the settlers, for as yet the immigration which had taken place consisted mostly of capitalists who were employers of labour.

After a short sojourn with my kind friends I heard of a party of gentlemen who were going towards the Lachlan River, and I made arrangements to join them.

At that juncture it was prudent to travel in numbers, as the country was infested by a gang of bushrangers who had been attacking the isolated homesteads of the settlers. Their mode of proceeding was something after this fashion: on arriving they collected all the inmates of the house, put them into one room, and placed a sentry with a loaded gun over them, with the instructions to shoot, without compunction, any recreant individual who dared to stir "an inch," in delicate language employed. This was termed "baling up."

This ceremony completed, the gang then made free with the house and everything in it—took what they fancied and could carry away, which really was only money and jewels. They sat down and regaled themselves with the best to eat and drink in the house, and on taking their leave, whatever was better than what they arrived with, in the shape of horseflesh and saddlery, they took away—on the principle that a fair exchange was no robbery, the fairness not taken into account. The gang had been making quite a long and pleasant excursion, undisturbed by mounted or any other police, and were in full swing at that time. On journey to the Lachlan River we had travelled just a day in advance of the gang, as they arrived at two of the inns in we had stopped just the day after we had passed on.

I reached in due course of time, not the Lachlan river, but the river course, for the river itself had not been running for two years. The whole country was just recovering from a drought of unprecedented and alarming continuance—so that when at length rain fell, Parents remarked to each other, "What. will the two-year-olds think of this?" for offspring had been born and lived to that age without ever having seen a drop of rain! On our journey we had convincing proofs of what the drought had been. We passed dried-up water-holes with circles of skeletons all around. Cattle and sheep had gone to drink, had stuck in the mud, and, without strength to extricate themselves, had there died. At the time of which I write, after rain had fallen, we had ridden for half a day at a time, looking forward to a drink of water at some customary watering-place, but on arriving at it found nothing more liquid than thick mud. We carried in our saddle-bags as many peaches as we could eat, and after eating one we kept sucking the stone to keep moisture in our mouths, the one peach and peach-stone keeping us going until we arrived at the stage where it was safe to indulge in another; calculating very nicely, however, the distance which so many hours' sucking each fresh peach-stone would carry us along on our journey until we reached our camping-ground of secured water supply. It was sometimes a shepherd's station-hut, or the canopy of heaven, the latter time preferable of the two: sometimes a settler's comfortable homestead. From the Lachlan River I made another long tour, and in all spent three months travelling through the country, which gave me a perfect idea of that part of Australia, and of the description of life that had to be led and the social intercourse that existed. And the conclusion that my sapient youthdom arrived at was that the whole thing would not do for me.

I concluded that if I turned squatter and kept sheep with my nearest civilised neighbour fifty miles off, and with only my fellow-men of the released chain-gang kind to look at, the chances would be that I should soon lose the half-memory with which I had been born, and become little better than the sheep I had intended to own. And there was a still more cogent reason, and of a pecuniary kind—that most peremptory of all reasons—for my determining not to turn squatter—the price of stock was at such an exorbitant rate, some eight to nine pounds a head for cattle, and forty shillings for "maiden ewes," that my small capital was nowhere. Add to this, moreover, that at this epoch of Australia's history the assignment system was done away with, so that the hitherto cheap free convict labour, which had been no inconsiderable element in the profits of wool-growing, had now to be replaced by free very dear labour.

My young mind, verdant as it most undoubtedly was could not see through these disadvantages which it conjured up, wisely as the future history of the colony proved. But the fact was that all this time there was an undercurrent at work. I had been harbouring one very strong predilection, one prevailing idea that the thing to do was to go to a nww place and a new settlement, and rise with it.

My five hundred pounds would do nothing in sheep and cattle and farming in the existing state of matters in Australia. It might do a very great deal elsewhere in some other way in some other place.

I think if the real truth were known I had never got over or shaken off that first night's dream of shuffling convicts' feet and chained gangs, and unrecognised there still vibrated in my ears the discordant sounds of that vilely-scraped fiddle. And as I now knew of fresh fields and pastures new, where I could go and be a first settler, the slow but sure fever was at work which was to carry the day.

I determined to try my fortunes in the new land now proclaimed as pertaining to the Crown of England—a land where the taint of convictism was unknown, a land which the Imperial Government guaranteed should remain and be held intact from it, and to that land I determined to go.

And that fair land was Poenamo.


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