by Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958)
To complement Michelle Scott Tucker’s essay on Mary Grant Bruce’s iconic Billabong books, we present Chapter 1 of A little bush maid, the initial book in the series. (As Michelle warns, the series contains outdated values and offensive racial stereotypes.)
Norah’s home was on a big station in the north of Victoria—so large that you could almost, in her own phrase, “ride all day and never see any one you didn’t want to see”; which was a great advantage in Norah’s eyes. Not that Billabong Station ever seemed to the little girl a place that you needed to praise in any way. It occupied so very modest a position as the loveliest part of the world!
The homestead was built on a gentle rise that sloped gradually away on every side; in front to the wide plain, dotted with huge gum trees and great grey box groves, and at the back, after you had passed through the well-kept vegetable garden and orchard, to a long lagoon, bordered with trees and fringed with tall bulrushes and waving reeds.
The house itself was old and quaint and rambling, part of the old wattle and dab walls yet remaining in some of the outhouses, as well as the grey shingle roof. There was a more modern part, for the house had been added to from time to time by different owners, though no additions had been made since Norah’s father brought home his young wife, fifteen years before this story opens. Then he had built a large new wing with wide and lofty rooms, and round all had put a very broad, tiled verandah. The creepers had had time to twine round the massive posts in those fifteen years, and some even lay in great masses on the verandah roof; tecoma, pink and salmon-coloured; purple bougainvillea, and the snowy mandevillea clusters. Hard-headed people said this was not good for the building—but Norah’s mother had planted them, and because she had loved them they were never touched.
There was a huge front garden, not at all a proper kind of garden, but a great stretch of smooth buffalo grass, dotted with all kinds of trees, amongst which flower beds cropped up in most unexpected and unlikely places, just as if some giant had flung them out on the grass like a handful of pebbles that scattered as they flew. They were always trim and tidy, and the gardener, Hogg, was terribly strict, and woe betide the author of any small footmarks that he found on one of the freshly raked surfaces. Nothing annoyed him more than the odd bulbs that used to come up in the midst of his precious buffalo grass; impertinent crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths, that certainly had no right there. “Blest if I know how they ever gets there!” Hogg would say, scratching his head. Whereat Norah was wont to retire behind a pyramid tree for purposes of mirth.
Hogg’s sworn foe was Lee Wing, the Chinese gardener, who reigned supreme in the orchard and the kingdom of vegetables—not quite the same thing as the vegetable kingdom, by the way! Lee Wing was very fat, his broad, yellow face generally wearing a cheerful grin—unless he happened to catch sight of Hogg. His long pigtail was always concealed under his flapping straw hat. Once Jim, who was Norah’s big brother, had found him asleep in his hut with the pigtail drooping over the edge of the bunk. Jim thought the opportunity too good to lose and, with such deftness that the Celestial never stirred, he tied the end of the pigtail to the back of a chair—with rather startling results when Lee Wing awoke with a sudden sense of being late, and made a spring from the bunk. The chair of course followed him, and the loud yell of fear and pain raised by the victim brought half the homestead to the scene of the catastrophe. Jim was the only one who did not wait for developments. He found business at the lagoon.
The queerest part of it was that Lee Wing firmly believed Hogg to be the author of his woe. Nothing moved him from this view, not even when Jim, finding how matters stood, owned up like a man. “You allee same goo’ boy,” said the pigtailed one, proffering him a succulent raw turnip. “Me know. You tellee fine large crammee. Hogg, he tellee crammee, too. So dly up!” And Jim, finding expostulation useless, “dried up” accordingly and ate the turnip, which was better than the leek.
To the right of the homestead at Billabong a clump of box trees sheltered the stables that were the unspoken pride of Mr. Linton’s heart.
Before his time the stables had been a conglomerate mass, bark-roofed, slab-sided, falling to decay; added to as each successive owner had thought fit, with a final mixture of old and new that was neither convenient nor beautiful. Mr. Linton had apologised to his horses during his first week of occupancy and, in the second, turning them out to grass with less apology, had pulled down the rickety old sheds, replacing them with a compact and handsome building of red brick, with room for half a dozen buggies, men’s quarters, harness and feed rooms, many loose boxes and a loft where a ball could have been held—and where, indeed, many a one was held, when all the young farmers and stockmen and shearers from far and near brought each his lass and tripped it from early night to early dawn, to the strains of old Andy Ferguson’s fiddle and young Dave Boone’s concertina. Norah had been allowed to look on at one or two of these gatherings. She thought them the height of human bliss, and was only sorry that sheer inability to dance prevented her from “taking the floor” with Mick Shanahan, the horse breaker, who had paid her the compliment of asking her first. It was a great compliment, too, Norah felt, seeing what a man of agility and splendid accomplishments was Mick—and that she was only nine at the time.
There was one loose box which was Norah’s very own property, and without her permission no horse was ever put in it except its rightful occupant—Bobs, whose name was proudly displayed over the door in Jim’s best carving.
Bobs had always belonged to Norah, He had been given to her as a foal, when Norah used to ride a round little black sheltie, as easy to fall off as to mount. He was a beauty even then, Norah thought; and her father had looked approvingly at the long-legged baby, with his fine, well-bred head. “You will have something worth riding when that fellow is fit to break in, my girlie,” he had said, and his prophecy had been amply fulfilled. Mick Shanahan said he’d never put a leg over a finer pony. Norah knew there never had been a finer anywhere. He was a big pony, very dark bay in colour, and “as handsome as paint,” and with the kindest disposition; full of life and “go,” but without the smallest particle of vice. It was an even question which loved the other best, Bobs or Norah. No one ever rode him except his little mistress. The pair were hard to beat—so the men said.
To Norah the stables were the heart of Billabong. The house was all very well—of course she loved it; and she loved her own little room, with its red carpet and dainty white furniture, and the two long windows that looked out over the green plain. That was all right; so were the garden and the big orchard, especially in summer time! The only part that was not “all right” was the drawing-room—an apartment of gloomy, seldom-used splendour that Norah hated with her whole heart.
But the stables were an abiding refuge. She was never dull there. Apart from the never-failing welcome in Bobs’ loose box, there was the dim, fragrant loft, where the sunbeams only managed to send dusty rays of light across the gloom. Here Norah used to lie on the sweet hay and think tremendous thoughts; here also she laid deep plans for catching rats—and caught scores in traps of her own devising. Norah hated rats, but nothing could induce her to wage war against the mice. “Poor little chaps!” she said; “they’re so little—and—and soft!” And she was quite saddened if by chance she found a stray mouse in any of her shrewdly-designed traps for the benefit of the larger game which infested the stables and had even the hardihood to annoy Bobs!
Norah had never known her mother. She was only a tiny baby when that gay little mother died—a sudden, terrible blow, that changed her father in a night from a young man to an old one. It was nearly twelve years ago, now, but no one ever dared to speak to David Linton of his wife. Sometimes Norah used to ask Jim about mother—for Jim was fifteen, and could remember just a little; but his memories were so vague and misty that his information was unsatisfactory. And, after all, Norah did not trouble much. She had always been so happy that she could not imagine that to have had a mother would have made any particular difference to her happiness. You see, she did not know.
She had grown just as the bush wild flowers grow—hardy, unchecked, almost untended; for, though old nurse had always been there, her nurseling had gone her own way from the time she could toddle. She was everybody’s pet and plaything; the only being who had power to make her stern, silent father smile—almost the only one who ever saw the softer side of his character. He was fond and proud of Jim—glad that the boy was growing up straight and strong and manly, able to make his way in the world. But Norah was his heart’s desire.
Of course she was spoilt—if spoiling consists in rarely checking an impulse. All her life Norah had done pretty well whatever she wanted—which meant that she had lived out of doors, followed in Jim’s footsteps wherever practicable (and in a good many ways most people would have thought distinctly impracticable), and spent about two-thirds of her waking time on horseback. But the spoiling was not of a very harmful kind. Her chosen pursuits brought her under the unspoken discipline of the work of the station, wherein ordinary instinct taught her to do as others did, and conform to their ways. She had all the dread of being thought “silly” that marks the girl who imitates boyish ways. Jim’s rare growl, “Have a little sense!” went farther home than a whole volume of admonitions of a more ordinarily genuine feminine type.
She had no little girl friends, for none was nearer than the nearest township—Cunjee, seventeen miles away. Moreover, little girls bored Norah frightfully. They seemed a species quite distinct from herself. They prattled of dolls; they loved to skip, to dress up and “play ladies”; and when Norah spoke of the superior joys of cutting out cattle or coursing hares over the Long Plain, they stared at her with blank lack of understanding. With boys she got on much better. Jim and she were tremendous chums, and she had moped sadly when he went to Melbourne to school. Holidays then became the shining events of the year, and the boys whom Jim brought home with him, at first prone to look down on the small girl with lofty condescension, generally ended by voting her “no end of a jolly kid,” and according her the respect due to a person who could teach them more of bush life than they had dreamed of.
But Norah’s principal mate was her father. Day after day they were together, riding over the run, working the cattle, walking through the thick scrub of the backwater, driving young, half-broken horses in the high dog-cart to Cunjee—they were rarely apart. David Linton seldom made a plan that did not naturally include Norah. She was a wise little companion, too; ready enough to chatter like a magpie if her father were in the mood, but quick to note if he were not, and then quite content to be silently beside him, perhaps for hours. They understood each other perfectly. Norah never could make out the people who pitied her for having no friends of her own age. How could she possibly be bothered with children, she reflected, when she had Daddy?
As for Norah’s education, that was of the kind best defined as a minus quantity.
“I won’t have her bothered with books too early,” Mr. Linton had said when nurse hinted, on Norah’s eight birthday, that it was time she began the rudiments of learning. “Time enough yet—we don’t want to make a bookworm of her!”
Whereat nurse smiled demurely, knowing that that was the last thing to be afraid of in connexion with her child. But she worried in her responsible old soul all the same; and when a wet day or the occasional absence of Mr. Linton left Norah without occupation, she induced her to begin a few elementary lessons. The child was quick enough, and soon learned to read fairly well and to write laboriously; but there nurse’s teaching from books ended.
Of other and practical teaching, however, she had a greater store. Mr. Linton had a strong leaning towards the old-fashioned virtues, and it was at a word from him that Norah had gone to the kitchen and asked Mrs. Brown to teach her to cook. Mrs. Brown—fat, good-natured and adoring—was all acquiescence, and by the time Norah was eleven she knew more of cooking and general housekeeping than many girls grown up and fancying themselves ready to undertake houses of their own. Moreover, she could sew rather well, though she frankly detested the accomplishment. The one form of work she cared for was knitting, and it was her boast that her father wore only the socks she manufactured for him.
Norah’s one gentle passion was music. Never taught, she inherited from her mother a natural instinct and an absolutely true ear, and before she was seven she could strum on the old piano in a way very satisfying to herself and awe-inspiring to the admiring nurse. Her talent increased yearly, and at ten she could play anything she heard—from ear, for she had never been taught a note of music. It was, indeed, her growing capabilities in this respect that forced upon her father the need for proper tuition for the child. However, a stopgap was found in the person of the book-keeper, a young Englishman, who knew more of music than accounts. He readily undertook Norah’s instruction, and the lessons bore moderately good effect—the moderation being due to a not unnatural disinclination on the pupil’s part to walk where she had been accustomed to run, and to a fixed loathing to practice. As the latter necessary, if uninteresting, pursuit was left entirely to her own discretion—for no one ever dreamed of ordering Norah to the piano—it is small wonder if it suffered beside the superior attractions of riding Bobs, rat trapping, “shinning up” trees, fishing in the lagoon and generally disporting herself as a maiden may whom conventional restrictions have never trammelled.
It follows that the music lessons, twice a week, were times of woe for Mr. Groom, the teacher. He was an earnest young man, with a sincere desire for his pupil’s improvement, and it was certainly disheartening to find on Friday that the words of Tuesday had apparently gone in at one ear and out at the other simultaneously. Sometimes he would remonstrate.
“You haven’t got on with that piece a bit!”
“What’s the good?” the pupil would remark, twisting round on the music stool; “I can play nearly all of it from ear!”
“That’s not the same”—severely—“that’s only frivolling. I’m not here to teach you to strum.”
“No” Norah would agree abstractedly. “Mr. Groom, you know that poley bullock down in the far end paddock—”
“No, I don’t,” severely. “This is a music lesson, Norah; you’re not after cattle now!”
“Wish I were!” sighed the pupil. “Well, will you come out with the dogs this afternoon?”
“Can’t; I’m wanted in the office. Now, Norah—”
“But if I asked father to spare you?”
“Oh, I’d like to right enough.” Mr. Groom was young, and the temptress, if younger, was skilled in wiles.
“But your father—”
“Oh, I can manage Dad. I’ll go and see him now.” She would be at the door before her teacher perceived that his opportunity was vanishing.
“Norah, come back! If I’m to go out, you must play this first—and get it right.”
Mr. Groom could be firm on occasions. “Come along, you little shirker!” and Norah would unwillingly return to the music stool, and worry laboriously though a page of the hated Czerny.
Mary Grant Bruce, A little bush maid (1910); extract taken from Project Gutenburg, accessed 10/08/23: https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8730/pg8730-images.html