PRELUDE. A PRINCESS (Australian Legends) by C. W. Peck
In a little settlement for aborigines not far from Sydney lives the last full-blooded person of the once-powerful Cammary Tribe. She lives in the past. The present has no lure for her, and very little interest.
She has to eat and she has to sleep and she has to dress.
She looks for no pleasure, but she finds pleasure in the thoughts she has of her earliest childhood, and the knowledge she has of the real South Coast aborigine.
She is a princess, and she is also the sister-in-law of the man who was the last king of his group.
Both groups were of the one tribe, and each group had its king.
She has the true aboriginal cast of countenance, and she speaks most fluently to those who can understand or only partly understand the language of her people.
And her people are of two groups, for she said to the writer, “My mother was of the North; my father was of the South; I speak between the two!”
And her English is of a pleasing kind, for it is not in any sense “pidgin.” It is soft in accent and musical in tone.
She does not know her age, for, as she puts it, “I did not go to school.”
She knew many beautiful legends.
But they have nearly all gone from her, for she never told them. She heard them and forgets nearly all. She hears no more, for they are seldom spoken of by the remnant of her race.
Time was when the story-teller was an honoured man, when he dressed for his part, when the young people were educated in the lore of the land and the law of the land, by means of legend.
But there is so much white blood in the people that practically none wish to bear the stories of the “Alcheringa,” and so the stories have faded.
But not all.
And the religious beliefs!
They are still very real to this “Last of Her Tribe.”
Just as real as ours are to us.
“Don’t think that the white man told us about God,” said Ellen.
“My people always knew about Him. Their fathers told them. Our God was never a wooden idol, nor a thing carved by human hands. He was always up in the Heavens where He lived, and from where He looked down upon all the world, and sought out the evil doers and punished them in many ways. From His throne He caused by His will the food to come upon the trees and the game to add to the larder. And He made the rain to fall, and He shook the earth with His thunder, and He threatened with the lightning! And there were good men who could see Him and get Him to move!”
So said Ellen.
To pray to Him was the most natural thing for the people to do, and there were those whose principal mission it was to do that. They were the good men-the Clergymen, the Priests.
He made it the duty, too, of the people to inflict punishment upon the wrong doers that were caught and proved to be malefactors. Therefore it was, that men were sometimes stood up and speared, and women were beaten with nullahs.
There were the doctors, also. These men gave much time to the study and practice of the healing art, and sorcery and witchery did not escape their especial notice-just as the white people have their crystal readers and fortune-tellers to-day right in all our capital cities.
The doctors knew much of the effect of the eating of herbs and the drinking of water in which herbs had been steeped. They provided the leaves and the bark that were thrown into the water-holes in order to stupefy fish, as well as the medicines for the cure of the ills of the people. In their sorcery they played upon the emotions just as our mesmerists and evangelists do.
All this the old Princess of the aboriginal settlement tells, but not to everyone. Only to those who have a sympathy and an understanding, and a readable wish to learn the deeper things of the aboriginal mind.
There is, in a gully near Appin, a place that was sacred for, possibly, many thousands of years.
The gully is deep, and the head of it is a big round water-hole with precipitous sides, ever one of which the water pours in a roaring, tumbling, spraying fall.
The fall is governed now by the gates and spillways of the Cataract Dam, but until that was built it was governed only by the rains that fell and the winds that blew.
And the way down to the pool was always difficult.
None but the priest ever descended there, and when he did he carried with him the flint rod that served as the bell in the church steeple of the white man does-to call-but with the difference that the bell calls the people, and the flint called the gods or the spirits.
Tap, tap, tap, tap went the flint on the sandstone, and ages of tapping wore a hole that is not even seen by the great majority that clamber there now, much less understood.
My Black Princess heard of that Sacred Place when she was a tiny child.
She has never been to Appin, but her father and other great men of her group have been there and they told of the Sacred Spot when they returned to the coast.
It was a church, and nothing else, yet built, not with hands, but by the will of the God that the aborigines knew.
Our name for the Princess is Ellen, and Ellen’s eyes glowed when she told the writer of her God.
And how they glowed when the writer told Ellen of the Sacred Spot near Appin, and when he showed that he knew the meaning of the worn hole and the ages of tapping!
“The place is ‘kulkul,'” said Ellen, “and ‘kurringaline,’ and yet it is not ‘pourangiling.’ No ‘kurru’ are there!”
A ROYAL VISIT
My office was very small, and very stuffy, though under the floor covering whenever I lifted it up, it was damp and mildewed.
The day was hot and steamy, and before me on the desk was a loose-leaf ledger that simply bristled and screamed with figures.
The headings were such as this: “30 x 5.77 Covers, 710 x 90 Covers, 30 x 31 B.E. Covers, many-figured Tubes,” etc., etc., and the columns were serial numbers of tyres containing as many as nine figures.
One figure denoted the year in which the tyres were manufactured, another the month, and intervening figures accounted for wealth of fabric or cord, and other details of tyre-building.
For we were distributors of motor-tyres.
The little half-door between me and the shop gave me a view of the counter; and the shelves, packed with little red bags, were heavy with their goods.
In the little red bags were the inner tubes.
Men came in and went out.
Some took price-lists. Some asked questions only, and then retired.
Some made a purchase and haggled about the discount, and some wanted to see the Chief.
My eyes ached and my head was not altogether free from a feeling like neuralgia.
The mildew, the heat, the figures-all were contributing factors.
Then I heard a voice that made me drop my pen and peer out towards that end of the counter near the door, and just out of my view as I remained seated and at ease.
As near to the outside door as she could stand while yet within the shop-that is the position taken up by the owner of the voice.
And such a voice! Smooth and soft and cushioned!
As velvet is soft to the touch, so this voice is soft to the ear. Perhaps not everyone’s ear, but certainly to mine.
My twisting office-chair creaked as I stood up. Stood up to attention as rigidly-hatless and coatless as I was-just as I sprang to it with a click when the General addressed me away over in Palestine.
“Nungurra ilukka,” I said.
The owner of the voice-a lady-shy, timid, reserved, refined-turned to me.
“That is the language of my people,” she said.
“Come here, please, and speak to me,” I said.
Now I have heard some people snigger at the walk of those to whom this lady belonged.
It is certainly as different from that of most Sydney people, or any other white people, as the step of a peacock is from the tramp of a camel. It has the qualities of the peacock.
It is soft. It is noiseless. It is dainty.
It takes up its full share of the floor. Every toe finds its level, and the heel is planted as firmly as the supports of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
As I said before, it is noiseless.
When I had found the lady a seat, and had resumed mine, I asked, “In what part of your country were you born?”
She answered evasively.
It is as natural for her and her people to be evasive as it is for the most shrewd of us to refrain from telling the whole truth when we want to sell a secondhand car or a groggy horse.
“My father,” she said, “came from the South and my mother from the North. His language was not the same as my mother’s. I speak between the two. My words are both his and hers. Yours are neither. You speak like the people of far, far away. I do not understand you. But I know your words are of my country.”
Then she leaned forward and put a hand as soft as her footfall and as soft as her voice, on my shoulder.
She peered into my face and searched me as if she expected to see something she would be afraid of.
But she was not afraid.
“Excuse me putting my hand on your shoulder,” she said. “Perhaps I have no right to do it. But I know now you do not mind, and you will understand.”
Then her lips quivered and her eyes filled.
She leaned forward.
“You know my people?”
She questioned me.
Yet it was not really a question. It was a statement of fact.
“Yes,” I said, “I know your people!”
Then she overflowed.
“And aren’t they GOOD people?”
It was an unburdening! It was a cry!
“Yes,” I said. “They ARE good people!”
Then she removed her hat.
Her hair is white and old.
“My father was a King. I am a Princess. My blood is royal!”
“And where was your father a King?”
“He was a King of his people, and they lived around Wollongong. I am a native of the Wollongong district-born at Unanderra!”
“Was your father ever crowned?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “when I was a grown girl-a young woman-he was crowned by the white people at a Wollongong Show. They gave him the title of ‘King Mickey!'”
Then I saw a picture of my tiny boyhood.
In the Show ring, just after the high-jumping contest was decided, a black man was taken by the hand by a Wollongong dignitary and led to a small dais.
Some ceremony was enacted, but I was too small and too young to understand.
I saw that black man invested with something, and the people cheered and the black man shouted and waved his hands, and he had a string round his neck, and a brass crescent hung over his broad hairy chest.
“I saw your father crowned,” I said, “and since then I have seen many of your people. They are GOOD people.”
I bowed my royal visitor out.
She carried an inscribed copy of a little book about her folk.
“My grandchildren will read it to me,” she said, “and I will come back one day, and I will tell you some more of our stories-stories we do not tell excepting to our own people. But I will tell them to you!”
“This,” I said, “is a Royal visit.”
“Your people came here and took our country,” she said very quietly, “but just a few of you understand us. I go now to Wollongong.” My Royal visitor has been back to my office.