Chapter Seventeen: The Swamp

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Anne had not failed to notice the flashing looks from Captain Cadell as the Lady Augusta tackled the lake, but she was determined to ignore him. In fact, with her son beside her, and after several hours of assisting ill passengers, the attention did not sit well with her. A sense of indignation began to grow.

Under no circumstances, she told herself, would she allow herself to be the subject of a shipboard obsession. As if to punctuate this emotion she glared from her position on the promenade deck to the wheelhouse, where Captain Cadell stood with his captains and happened to be looking back her way. Anne’s glance caught him by surprise, and he turned sharply.

Travers placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned into the view of Pomanda Island. It was a strange but picturesque little place, surrounded by reeds and thickly colonised with shrubs. ‘May I cross to the Eureka to help Captain Robertson?’ he asked.

‘Not in these conditions,’ said Anne patiently. ‘It might be dangerous. Soon enough we’ll enter the river and things will calm down.’ The lake had already begun to narrow as they approached the river entrance.

‘So, I can go across when we enter the river?’ he asked, as if determined to extract a formal promise.

‘For sure you can,’ she agreed, and reached up to touch his hand, just as Mr Mason, the South Australian ‘Protector of Aborigines’ came alongside. He was a man of medium height, with chocolate brown eyes and a fondness, Anne had earlier decided, for the sound of his own voice.

‘Young Travers,’ the gentleman said. ‘You should be thankful we don’t land at Point Pomond, for it is infested with snakes. There are hordes of the damned things.’

Anne shivered theatrically. ‘Snakes? Well it’s a good thing we’re not stopping.’

‘What kind are they?’ asked Travers, his interest piqued. ‘Blacks, tigers or browns?’

‘Black snakes mostly, but some brown fellows as well. I’ve shot twenty of the vile creatures in a day.’

‘You live near here, don’t you Mr Mason?’

‘Yes, not far ahead, on the reserve of course. Come with me to the other side and we’ll be able to watch  it coming up.’

Anne and Travers dutifully followed their guide to the starboard rail, which was already lined with spectators. Their height above the water provided a tremendous view on either side, and to Anne’s eye the eastern bank appeared as flat meadows peppered with stately pines. The grass was very green near the river, with scattered cattle grazing.

‘That land to starboard,’ Mason went on, ‘is Portalloch Station – belongs to a Scot called Neil Malcolm, and a good fellow he is too. The white house there is his, and that’s him waving now.’

The lake was less than half a mile across by then, growing calmer by the mile, and ahead they saw the entrance to the Murray River itself, a moment of excitement for all the passengers. It was surprisingly narrow there, and murky with the earth of inland flood plains., Anne now gave Travers leave to skip over to the Eureka.

‘Be careful,’ she said, but he was already gone.

A mile inside the river, Mason pointed out a heap of cut wood stacked on the right-hand bank, next to a new jetty made of red gum piles and planked with the same timber. ‘This is the Reserve coming up now,’ he said. ‘Our sable brethren have been cutting wood for some days for fuel. Rather excited about the whole thing they were, I must say.’

‘You get on well with them, don’t you?’ Anne asked.

‘I do. I’ve lived in the area now for nigh on two decades – I was a policeman at Wellington, so I’m pleased to say that I have their respect, and they get nothing but fair dealing from me. They are not all the same – being from different groups, with similar but discrete languages, but most of them identify as Ngarrindjeri.’

‘Stand by all,’ came the booming voice of Captain Cadell. ‘We will stop and load fuel here. You may step ashore briefly if you wish.’

The engines surged, belching smoke that filtered the sun brown as they swung into the new jetty. The chief steward supervised the lowering of a gangplank, then shepherded those ladies and gentlemen who wished to go ashore. A swarm of black men, bearded and agile, appeared and began the work of loading the boat. Most wore ill-fitting European clothing, with a smattering of furs and more traditional garb. Members of their families were on the shore: mothers with babes, and small children running and smiling.

Travers appeared again, hurrying back from the Eureka to this new source of excitement, full of limitless energy. ‘May I help with the loading, Mother?’  

‘I suppose it won’t hurt,’ she said, and nearly burst with pride as she watched him run over to join in the work, loading his sturdy arms as full as any grown man and bantering with the labouring Ngarrindjeri.

 ‘He’s a fine lad,’ said Mason.

‘Thank you. Boyle and I are quite proud of him of course.’ She pointed across at a stone house in the distance. ‘That’s your house, is it?’

Mason nodded, he was the Protector of Aborigines, and this was the main reserve in this part of the Province. ‘Yes, I can see my wife coming along now. I’d best go and meet her.’

‘You’ve done a good job here. These … Ngarrindjeri look healthy.’

‘Thank you. The work of civilising and bringing Christianity to them is proceeding beyond expectations.’

Mason walked to the ladder, descended, and left the Lady Augusta via the gang plank. Anne saw how some of the labouring men called to him as he went, smiling and laughing. The Protector of Aborigines was popular with his charges, it seemed.

*****

It was mid-afternoon when they reached Wellington. A crowd had gathered out front of the Inn, shouting out their huzzah’s as the Lady Augusta hove into view. At that moment also, the government ferry had almost reached the Western bank, loaded down with men, horses and equipment, all setting out for the goldfields.

Of most interest to the passengers on the Lady Augusta, the escort bringing gold from the Victorian fields to Adelaide was also on board, the distinctive armoured coach guarded by grim police with rifles, taking no part in the hard work of hand-winching the ferry across.

Ashore, too, the gold-seekers were lined up waiting to board when the ferry had disgorged its passengers, or were camping nearby, a few desperate returnees calling out the foolishness of those setting off.

‘It aren’t like what you think,’ one dishevelled digger called. ‘Don’t believe what you hear – there aren’t no nuggets layin’ around waitin’ to be picked up, and the likely ground is all pegged. If you don’t ‘ave capital don’t bother.’ A huddle formed around him, some incredulous, others downright aggressive towards him.

With some hours to kill, Travers first prevailed on Anne to buy him some shot and caps for the small calibre revolver his father had allowed him to bring on the journey. Then, back on the steamer he disappeared again, weaving through the crowds of Wellington locals taking the opportunity to step aboard the ‘first “real” paddle steamer on the Murray.’

A short time later he was back, his face shining with excitement, gripping Anne’s hand excitedly, ‘Mother, there’s an interesting swamp across the river – full of water birds. Lillie Younghusband wants to go for a row, and Captain Cadell gave me permission to take one of the small boats. Can I please?’

Anne smiled, ‘I don’t think it’s seemly for you to head off on the river alone with Lillie.’

‘Then you can come too, can’t you?’

Anne had been looking forward to sitting down with her novel – she had lately been reading a book that all her friends were talking about – a spooky tale called Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Yet, Travers was almost impossible to say no to – and that was part of what worried her about letting him get away from adult eyes and across the river somewhere.

‘Of course I can,’ she said. ‘Let me get my coat.’

*****

Lillie Younghusband was such a lively young thing, dressed in a spotted dress and white bonnet, that Anne couldn’t help getting caught up in the spirit of this adventure. Travers rowed like a man across the current and still had the wind to talk constantly. Anne remained in the background, occupying the bow seat, enjoying the excursion very much.

Across the river was the entrance to the swamp, and it was true that the surface was alive with birds. Pelicans, ducks, black swans and a dozen other species, breaking into noisy flight as the rowboat approached.

There were vast armies of reeds, and shallow places where the water was no more than waist deep, the tips of dying grasses still visible, having been inundated by the rising waters. Red gums and paper barks grew on islands and banks, often partially draped with green creepers. The trunks and limbs of dead trees rose in eerie grey shafts from the water.

For some thirty minutes Travers rowed, laughed and sky-larked, the two youngsters leaning over to splash each other or pointing to a blooming lily-flower and once, a black snake shimmying across the water surface. Anne, however, was growing conscious of the passing time.

‘We really need to go,’ she said. ‘Captain Cadell will be wanting to leave.’

‘Can I have a quick swim first?’ Travers said.

Lillie burst into laughter, ‘You’re mad Travers, it’s the middle of winter.’

Anne inclined her head reluctantly, and Travers stood, stripped off his shirt, and dived over the side, surfacing a stone’s throw sway from the boat, bursting through the surface and blowing a raspberry. ‘It’s cold alright,’ he said, but made no move towards the boat. Instead he duck-dived down, returning with a handful of swamp detritus that he threw in Lillie’s direction. It fell short, but it was enough to send her into fits of giggles.

Again Travers dived, and Anne waited for him to surface, but seconds ticked past. Her heart started to hammer uncomfortably. ‘Travers?’ she called.

A moment later the Lady Augusta’s steam whistle blew distantly. It was a recall. Anne looked around desperately. Travers had still not surfaced. Even Lillie had stopped laughing, but was looking desperately around them.

 Anne stood up, heedless of the now rocking boat. Her voice rose in pitch and cracked out across the water. ‘Travers, you get back here right now!’

Again the steam whistle sounded, and Lillie too was standing, peering around in the water. All the humour and fun had gone from the day. Anne’s voice thinned with the strain, and she saw that Lillie close to tears. The mood had changed, just like that, and Anne tried to reason out how many seconds had passed since her son had gone under. The pain in her chest was like a knife, as again the whistle sounded.

A moment later Travers burst from the water, laughing. ‘I bet I had you worried,’ he gasped.

Anne’s temper had always been quick to rise, and even with the relief that came flooding into her, she turned on him. ‘You stupid boy. Get in this boat right now. Captain Cadell has been blowing the recall and if we are late I will die of embarrassment.’

Anne fitted the oars to the rowlocks while he sulkily climbed over the transom, and sat, shivering, his skin pale and raised in goose-bumps. He raised himself to change places into the rowing position, but she was already beginning the first stroke.

‘I’ll row, you just get yourself warm,’ she snapped.

‘I didn’t even know you could row,’ he said miserably.

‘I can do a lot of things you don’t know about,’ she said, and it was true, for she had grown up within a stone’s throw of the River Bhrosnach, on a bend as it wound through Mullingar. Her childhood had been filled with boats and skipping stones and tickling trout from the water on river bends.

It was a good distance back to the Lady Augusta, but she rowed skillfully, and finally, when they came up to the steamer she was blowing off steam and all other passengers had boarded. Captain Cadell said nothing as he watched Tom Nevin help them aboard, preparing to lift the rowboat up onto the davit, but his face was thunderous, and there were no more admiring glances that evening.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

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