A Celebration of Women Writers

"Book II, Chapter 12." by Rosa Praed (1851-1935)
From: Lady Bridget in the Never-Never Land. (1915) by Rosa Praed.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

CHAPTER 12

Lady Bridget made as dignified a retreat as was possible in the circumstances. She could have slain Mrs Hensor at that moment. She took the blacks to the veranda of the old Humpey and went to look in the office for antiseptics, lint and bandages. Chen Sing, the Chinese cook, came at her call, and rendered assistance with the bland phlegm of his race. The spear had been pulled out of Oola's arm by the time Lady Bridget came back with the dressings. In her spasms of East End philanthropy she had learned the first principles of surgical aid. When Oola's arm and Wombo's gashed head had been washed and bandaged, the trouble was to know what to do with the pair.

Now that they were comfortable and out of pain, fed and given tobacco to smoke and a tot of rum apiece, they had time to remember superstitious fears kept at bay while they had been running for their life. Both were afraid to show themselves in the open. On one hand, there was the terror of McKeith; on the other, of Oola's husband. Lady Bridget gathered that Oola's husband was a medicine man, and that he had 'pointed a bone at his faithless wife and her lover.' To 'point a bone' at an enemy – the bone having first been smeared with human blood, and subjected to magical incantations – is the worst spell that one aboriginal can cast upon another. It means death or the direst misfortune. All that the afflicted one can do is to fly – to hide himself beyond the sorcerer's ken and the reach of pursuit. For this reason, Wombo and Oola had fled back to Moongarr. No outside black dared venture within range of McKeith's gun. Now Wombo and Oola besought Bridget to hide them from the vengeful furies. There was that slab and bark hut at the end of the kitchen and store wing. Nobody was likely at present to want to go into it. The door had a padlock, and it was used as a store-house for the hides of beasts that had been killed for the sake of the skins when in the last stage of pleuro. The key was always kept hung up in McKeith's office.

Here Lady Bridget installed Wombo and Oola. She brought them cooked meat, bread and a ration of tea and sugar, provided them with a pair of blankets, and found for Wombo some old moleskins, a shirt, and a pair of boots, while Oola almost forgot the medicine man's evil spell in her puzzled delight over a lacey undergarment and a discarded kimono dressing-grown, which had been part of Lady Bridget's trousseau. That excitement over, the lonely mistress of Moongarr went back to her own habitation. She ate her solitary dinner and paced the veranda till darkness fell and the haunted loneliness became an almost unbearable oppression. Vast plains, distant ranges, gidia scrub and the far horizon melted into an illimitable shadow. The world seemed boundless as the starry sky – and yet she was in prison! She had longed for the freedom of the wild, and her life was more circumscribed than ever. A phrase in an Australian poem, that had struck her when she had read it not long ago came back upon her with poignant meaning. 'Eucalyptic cloisterdom' – that was the phrase, and it was this to which she had condemned herself. The gum trees enclosed for her one immense cell and she had become utterly weary of her mental and her spiritual incarceration. Oh! for the sting of love's strong emotion to break the monotony. The most sordid sights and sounds of London streets, the most inane babble of a fashionable crowd would be more stimulating to her brain, sweeter in her ears than the arid expanse, the weird bush noises – howl of dingoes, wail of curlews, lowing of cattle – that a year ago had seemed so eerily fascinating.

Even her marriage! The romance of it had faded, as it were, into the dull drab of withered gum leaves. The charm of primal conditions had been overpowered by their discomfort. Nature had never intended her for the wife of a backwoodsman. At times she felt an almost unendurable craving for the ordinary luxuries of civilisation. The bathing appliances here – or rather, the lack of them – were often positive torture to her. She hated the food – continual coarse beef varied by stringy goats' flesh or game from the lagoon. She had come to loathe wild duck – when the men had time to shoot it. She could never bring herself to destroy harmless creatures, and was a rank coward over firearms. Talk of the simple life! Why, it was only since they had got Fo Wung that there had been any vegetables. And the climate – though the short winter had been pleasant enough as a whole – was abominable. The long summer heat, the flies and the mosquitoes! What had she not suffered the first summer after her marriage! And now the hot weather was coming again. That was not the root of the trouble, however – Bridget was honest enough to confess it. The root lay in herself – in her own instability of purpose, her mercurial temperament. She had been born with that temperament. All the O'Haras loved change – hungered after strong sensation. She was spoiling now for emotional excitement.

Well, the little human drama of the Blacks' camp had taken her out of herself for an hour or two. It had been so funny to see Oola stroking the lace frills of Lady Bridget's old petticoat and looking up at Wombo with frank coquetry as she mimicked the 'White Mary's' gestures and gait. Lady Bridget meant to stand by the savage lovers. She would not allow Colin to treat them badly when he came back.

Ninnis, the overseer, broke upon her restless meditations. He was a rough specimen, originally raised in Texas, who, after knocking about in his youth as a cow-boy in the two Americas, had come to Australia about fifteen years previously, had 'free-selected' disastrously, and, during the last five years, had been in McKeith's employ. He was devoted to his master, but he looked upon McKeith's marriage as a pernicious investment. His republican upbringing could not stomach the 'Ladyship,' and he persisted in calling Lady Bridget Mrs McKeith. He considered her flighty and extravagant in her ideas, and was always divided between unwilling fascination and grumpy disapproval. To-night he was in the latter mood and this incensed Lady Bridget.

'I've been writing up the log,' he began in a surly, aggressive tone, 'and I thought I'd better make a note of Wombo and that gin having come to the head-station, in case of there being trouble with the Blacks.'

'Why should there be trouble with the Blacks?' she asked, in manner equally unconciliatory.

'Well, ye know – though, I daresay, it wouldn't seem of much consequence to you – Wombo's gone agen the laws of the tribe, and that's a serious matter. If they know he's skulking here under protection, they'll be spearing the cattle, and the Boss won't like that.'

'I'll explain to Mr McKeith,' said Lady Bridget haughtily.

'Well, I reckon it's best not to keep them on the head-station against the Boss's orders,' persisted Ninnis.

Lady Bridget set her little white teeth. 'Naturally, Mr McKeith's orders don't apply to me – as I had to tell Mrs Hensor.'

'Mrs Hensor knows the Boss better than most people,' said Ninnis, at which Lady Bridget flashed out.

'We need not discuss that question, Mr Ninnis.'

Ninnis' jaw stiffened underneath his shaggy goatee.

'Well, I guess you know your own business, Mrs McKeith, and it's up to you to square things with the Boss.'

Lady Bridget reared her small form and bent her head with great stateliness.

'But I'll just say, though,' went on Ninnis, 'that I hear Harris of the police is coming along. And what Harris doesn't think he knows about the heel of the law being kept on Blacks – and every other darned unit in the creation scheme' – muttered Ninnis in parenthesis – 'ain't entered in the Almighty's Log-book.'

Ninnis expectorated over the veranda railings – a habit of his that jarred on Lady Bridget.

'Well, what about Harris?'

'He's had his eye on Wombo and would be glad of an opportunity to best him – on account of a little affair about a colt Wombo rode for him at the last Tunumburra races – and lost the stakes – out of spite, Harris declares.'

'Oh, I know about that – and I told Mr Harris what I thought about his treatment of the Blacks. But he can't punish Wombo if I choose to have him here. I don't think Mr McKeith would bring Harris to Moongarr – he knows I can't bear him.'

'Well, I reckon that's up to you to square with the Boss,' repeated Ninnis surlily. 'I'm told Harris is on the look-out for desperate characters going along the Leura – these unionist organisers – dropping in at stations on pretence of getting rations and spying out the land, and calling on the men to join them. There was a boundary rider from Breeza Downs to-day – caught us up with the tailing mob and fetched back their new chum and Zack Duppo, leaving us awful short-handed – so that if Joe Casey doesn't fetch in the milkers so early to-morrow you'll know it's because I've had to send him out herding. They're doing their shearing early at Breeza Downs with shearers Windeatt has imported from the south, and he wants police protection for them and himself.'

Lady Bridget laughed.

'Harris and his two constables will have enough to do if they are to protect the district.'

'That's just what Windeatt has been clamouring about. Now the Government have sent up a military patrol, I believe. But they say it isn't strong enough, and all the able-bodied men on the Leura are enrolling as specials. No doubt, that's what been keeping the Boss. You may be sure if there's fighting to be done – black or white – he'll be in it.'

Lady Bridget angered Ninnis by her apparent indifference, and he bade her a cross good-night. Had it been anybody else she would have encouraged him to stay and talk. As it was, she resumed her lonely pacing, and did not go to her room till the whole station was abed.

When at last she went to sleep she dreamed again vividly of Willoughby Maule.

[Chapter 13]

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Anne Kosvanec.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom