Authors: Peter Watt
Beside her walked a tall young man dressed in the garb of the Australian stockman: flannel shirt and long mole-skin trousers tucked into knee-length, calf skin boots. Each was deep in thought as they walked. The young man was barely fifteen years of age but on the frontier, in the hard and sometimes dangerous world of mustering the white man’s cattle, he was already considered a man.
Sean Duffy’s face reflected the mixed blood of his ancestry: part Aboriginal, part Irish, part Chinese. It was a handsome face in any land and his mother, who walked with him, had also been pretty in her youth. But more than a decade of toil, working long, arduous hours as a station domestic, had drained her beauty. She carried
a hessian sack containing a few of the staples of frontier life for both blacks and whites: sugar, tea, tobacco and flour.
The sun over the vast, seemingly endless dry plain was losing its punishing sting when they finally reached their destination. They had set out from the Glen View homestead early that morning. The woman, known by the white man’s name of Matilda, now stopped to re-acquaint herself with the landmarks that had become familiar to her over periodic visits. Yes, there was the lonely old gum tree in the clearing. And the piled rocks amongst the grasses!
Her son also knew the place. He had first visited the clearing as a chubby baby, holding his mother’s hand and toddling beside her. But now he stopped, using the back of his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his face and brushing idly at the persistent cloud of bush flies that clung to the salty sweat of his body. Without a word, he strode towards the small clusters of stones that marked the final resting place of three men – two of his blood – and gazed down upon them. His mother remained at the edge of the clearing with the sack of precious supplies intended for the living, watching her son pay his respects to his paternal great-grandfather, the big Irishman Tom Duffy, slain by the Native Mounted Police forty years earlier. He then turned his attention to the grave of his father, Peter Duffy, also killed fifteen years earlier by an officer of the Native Mounted Police not far from where he now lay. Sean scarcely gave the third grave a glance, for it contained the bones of an old Aborigine from a place far to the south. His spirit was the concern of his own people of the Murray River area.
‘We will go now,’ his mother said quietly when Sean turned to walk back to her. ‘He is waiting for you at the sacred place.’
She spoke the words in an almost forgotten dialect. It was the language of a people brutally dispersed forty years earlier when the Mounted Police came to kill them, considering them as no more than vermin competing with precious flocks of sheep. Matilda had learned the language over the years from an old man who knew the sacred ways of the Nerambura clan of the Darambal people. The old man was the last full-blooded survivor of those terrible times and his name was still spoken with awe – and sometimes fear – amongst the station employees, Aboriginal, Chinese or European. Old Aboriginal nannies would frighten children out of the dark with threats that the spirit of Wallarie would come and snatch them away if they did not come inside to bed. White governesses would warn the same children that if they strayed too far from the homestead the old warrior would spear them.
But Sean Duffy did not fear the terrible bogy man of his childhood companions, for his mother had told him other stories about the legendary Darambal warrior who had once ridden with Sean’s own father as well as with his grandfather, the bushranger of Burkesland, Tom Duffy.
No more words were needed as they continued their trek to the low range of hills that dominated the vast red plains of central Queensland. Sean Duffy was about to meet the man whose name had for so long dominated the tales his mother told him. As the sun began its descent towards the western horizon they reached the craggy, most conspicuous hill in the ancient range, which itself resembled the protruding backbone of the earth.
Following a well-worn trail first used by the hunters and warriors of the Dreaming, they struggled up the hill until they came to a rock overhang which concealed a large cavern, the very heart of the Nerambura people.
Matilda passed the sack to her son and gestured for him to go inside. He could see his mother’s fear and knew that it was justified – no woman should ever step inside the sacred place of the men. Taking the sack, Sean hoped his mother could not see his own fear, for was it not said by all at Glen View that this was a cursed place?
Taking a deep breath, Sean brushed aside a tangle of exposed roots growing down the rock face. Inside he could see a fire burning and suddenly felt a wave of strange and overpowering fear such as he had never experienced before. There was a presence here that transcended all that he had ever known in the living world. The young man stood petrified, as still as the stones of the hill itself. He would go no further.
‘Your white blood causes you the fear,’ said a voice that seemed to come from the flickering fire itself at the centre of the dark place. ‘But you are also Nerambura and you belong here.’ As his eyes adjusted to the dim light Sean could see that the voice did not come from the fire but from a dark figure, sitting with his legs crossed. ‘Come sit with me.’
The young man obeyed. Drawing near, he could see the shadows of firelight flickering on the face of an old man with a long, grey beard. This was not the man he imagined from the stories told by the other station children. Wallarie did not have razor sharp teeth or horns growing from his head. Nor were his eyes blood red and burning. The face was that of a man who had seen much
tragedy but it was also a gentle face, reconciled with the cruelty of mankind.
‘You have brought tobacco?’ the old man asked in the Nerambura dialect.
Sean nodded and rummaged in the flour sack for the twist of tarry leaves. He passed it to Wallarie who sighed as he fingered the precious leaf.
With deft fingers the Aboriginal bushranger – as he had once been labelled by the white man’s law-makers – curled off a piece and tamped it into the old clay pipe he produced from his lap. With a burning twig from the fire he lit the leaf and puffed until it smouldered with a bright glow. Dragging on the pipe, he again sighed with pleasure.
Sean watched the ritual and wondered at this very European habit of the old Nerambura man. As if reading his thoughts Wallarie confided, ‘Your grandfather taught me to smoke when we were young men together. That was when he taught me the killing ways of the white man.’
Sean nodded dutifully. He was less afraid now but understood that he should not speak unless asked to by the old man squatting on the other side of the fire. A long silence followed as Wallarie continued to puff on his pipe and stare with dreamy eyes into the flickering flames. When he finally spoke it was almost as if Sean was not present. Many of the Nerambura words he used were unknown to Sean with his limited knowledge of the dialect of his ancestors. Wallarie spoke of many things of great importance, telling the stories that the old men once told in the shade of the bumbil tree by the side of the creek that flowed gently as the blood of the land. He spoke of things that were sacred and should be remembered forever. He spoke through the night and the
possums in their trees came to listen as the dingo, wild dog of the plains, howled mournfully. The moon rose and set over an endless sea of grey scrub and the curlews cried to each other the song of lost souls.
Outside Matilda shivered as she crouched amongst the rocks in this place of Dreaming, wondering at what might be happening in the sacred place of the men. Finally she fell asleep. When the sun came to touch her face, waking too the rock wallaby from its rest and warming the goanna, she was aware of her son squatting beside her, staring across the dry and sunburnt scrub.
‘It is done?’ she asked as she sat up.
Sean nodded and placed his head on his folded arms. He remained still for some moments before rising and Matilda could see in her son’s face a terrible burden. She knew then that the old man, to whom she had for so many years brought the occasional supply of white man’s food, had initiated her son into the blood of his father. Perhaps not in the traditional ways of the Darambal people but in another way, born of the necessity of the times. She also knew that she could never ask her son what he now knew. This was not the way of his Darambal customs.
When he rose to his feet Sean cast a long look back at the entrance to the cave. Had the old Nerambura warrior flown from the sacred place on the wings of the giant wedge-tailed eagle, he wondered, as the Kalkadoon had once believed after the terrible battle that decimated their people. Sean had been reborn of his people and he must never forget all that he had been told. He tried to understand as best as he could. From now on he had a new name granted to him by the old man of the cave. He was to be known by all as Nerambura Duffy. A man of two worlds.
he silent people on the street seemed to be running rather than walking. Horse-drawn carriages and drays were weaving in and out of the milling crowds at a breakneck speed. The grainy black and white images flickered to the accompaniment of a rhythmic clattering interspersed with gasps of wonder from those watching. The film spread its magic throughout the room.
‘Oh look, Father! I can see the David Jones building,’ Fenella exclaimed in awe. ‘It’s so real!’
Patrick Duffy smiled at his fourteen-year-old daughter’s child-like wonder. She was not as grown up as she would like all to think. The demonstration of this new device they called a moving film projector by his old military colleague of the Sudan campaign, Arthur Thorncroft, could entrance his daughter and take her back to a time when dolls
were more important than her debut into Sydney’s colonial society.
‘Yes, the images do look real,’ Patrick agreed. ‘But then they were real when Mr Thorncroft filmed them.’
The short film clattered to an end and Patrick’s two boys, George aged fifteen and Alexander aged twelve, both moaned in unison that the magic lantern had nothing else to offer – they had wanted it to go on forever!
Arthur Thorncroft turned to the young man who had assisted him and nodded his approval. In his late thirties but with the receding hairline of an older man, he looked small next to Patrick Duffy. Though they were of a similar age, Patrick’s hair was still thick and curling despite a distinctive dash of grey peppered through it. With his clean shaven face dominated by startling emerald green eyes, Patrick stood tall and broad-shouldered, still bearing the ramrod posture of the military officer he had once been when fighting Her Majesty’s colonial wars in Africa. His was not the finely chiselled, handsome face of an English aristocrat but that of the Irish rebels of his father’s ancestry. Although perhaps not fashionably handsome, his rugged presence nonetheless turned the head of any lady in a room, although it was not a power he seemed conscious of.
Patrick glanced across at his three children, still glued to the deep leather chairs of the Macintosh library. Arthur pulled aside the long, heavy curtains, allowing the sunlight to flood the room. The delicate beauty of the two eldest children, George and
Fenella, was revealed. They reflected their mother’s aristocratic looks, but when the Australian sun shone on Alexander, it revealed his remarkable likeness to his father. Physical similarities to their parents aside, it was the very different personalities of the three children that often enough would puzzle Patrick. Fenella may be the mirror of her mother in appearance and mannerisms, but there was also a snobbishness that was not hers alone. Alexander was reserved to the point of being timid; not unlike his cousin Daniel, he was an easy target for George to bully – which the latter did with an unhealthy enthusiasm. Patrick secretly hoped that his youngest son would, in time, learn to stand up for himself.
Then there was George himself, a strangely sullen boy with a tendency to cruelty and deceit. Patrick shuddered at the thought that passed through his mind with the haunting presence of a rotting corpse. He did not want to compare his eldest son with a man who had been so instrumental in bringing misery to two families for so many years, a man who was dead but whose evil legacy still echoed down the corridors of time. Was it possible that people could inherit characteristics from those who had gone before? Was it possible that George displayed some likeness to a young Granville White? Patrick reflected on this with his inborn Celtic superstition for the unexplainable. Even Lady Enid Macintosh, Patrick’s maternal grandmother, had remarked to him once that the boy had an uncanny similarity to Granville.
‘It’s the future, Patrick.’ Arthur’s words cut across Patrick’s brooding thoughts. ‘A means of unlimited
possibilities. Imagine: we could record events as they happen and then take those moving pictures to any place in Australia to show people the closest thing to being there. Or record on film someone as famous as Miss Deborah Cohen performing her arias before royalty. All Australians – even those in the most remote areas – could then share the splendour of her fame.’
‘Miss Cohen is renowned for her voice,’ Patrick countered quietly. ‘How would your moving pictures have any meaning with just an image and not her voice?’
The dapper little man thrust his hands in his pocket and glanced across at his assistant. Patrick followed his look and wondered if the young man was another of Arthur’s many lovers. It was something that he would never dare ask; some things were better ignored between friends.
‘Ralph has thought about that for some time and come up with the answer,’ Arthur replied. ‘You explain to Mr Duffy, Ralph,’ he said with a triumphant smile.
The young man coughed nervously and shifted his feet. ‘We use a gramophone in conjunction with Miss Cohen’s image on the screen, Mr Duffy,’ he replied softly. ‘All we have to do is synchronise voice and film. A bit tricky, we concede, but it can be done by trained projectionists.’
Ralph looked visibly relieved as Patrick nodded his head approvingly at the young man’s answer. ‘On that matter you have answered my question, Arthur. But I can assure you that I will probably have many more questions after I discuss the question
of incorporating your moving pictures into the Macintosh companies with Lady Macintosh.’