Back to the Index Page
 
 
 

Music a Terror by John Lang

 

MY recollections of Australia relate to some years back, long before the colony had a legislative assembly or a free press; long before emigration had carried to its shores shoals of men and women "unconnected with the crown;" long before gold was discovered in the district of Bathurst, or Sir Thomas Mitchell had explored that vast tract of country called by him "Australia Felix." I write, indeed, of those times still spoken of by some as "those good old times," when the assignment system prevailed, and Government were glad to get rid of their convicts to masters who would feed, clothe, and work them; when "summary punishments" were the order of the day, and every gentleman was his own magistrate; when the quartern loaf sold for half-a-crown, and beef and mutton for three-halfpence a pound; when the value of a hogshead of rum was £200, and an acre of land five shillings; when money could not be borrowed, even upon good security, for less than thirty per cent. per annum.

In those good old times, I had, in partnership with a gentleman who managed it, a cattle station about 120 miles from Sydney, at a place called Bong-Bong. My partner had formerly held an ensign's commission in the 73rd regiment of his late Majesty George III.; but shortly after his arrival in the colony he had fallen in love with a very handsome girl of humble birth, whom he married, and then retired from the army, took a grant of land, and "settled" permanently in New South Wales.

My friend and partner, Mr. Romer, was blessed with a numerous offspring--seven sons and four daughters. The eldest was a boy of fourteen, and the youngest a baby "in arms." They were all remarkably fine children, strong, healthy, and intelligent; but they were uncultivated, of course--like the wilds in the midst of which they had been born and bred. The only white people whom they had ever seen were their parents, the convict servants (some twenty in number), and sundry stray visitors and stockmen who happened occasionally to pass the station and require shelter for the night. Nor had their children ever seen any buildings beyond the mud and slab house in which they lived, and the bark huts occupied by the servants. Nor had they seen pictures or prints save those to be found in the old-fashioned spelling-books, by the aid of which Mrs. Romer, in her few leisure moments, had taught the elder children to read. The only music they had ever heard was that which a very rude fife discoursed, when played upon by a hut-keeper; and the only airs that he could compass were "God Save the King," "Rule Britannia," and "Poor Mary Anne." Neither Romer nor his wife had much "ear" for melody, and never did more than hum the words of some old song.

It was my wont to visit the cattle station once a year, and upon every occasion I used to take with me a variety of presents for my young friends in the bush. Toys, such as tin-barrelled guns, brass watches, Dutch dolls, various wooden animals in deal boxes, &c.: of these they had grown tired, and it, now became with me a matter of great difficulty to get anything likely to please and amuse them. One morning while walking up George Street, Sydney [the houses in George Street were in those days all detached residences, standing in their own grounds], I observed an unusually large crowd in front of the auction mart. Curiosity prompted me to ascertain what was the object of attraction. It was nothing short of "A piano--to be sold by auction to the highest bidder. Terms, cash; or an approved bill at three months, bearing interest at 25 per cent."

There was not at that time more than five pianos in the colony, and this piano was considered by far the best, inasmuch as it had once belonged to Mrs. Macquarie, the wife of Major-General Lauchlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales and its dependencies. At the sale of the general's effects, when he was going home, it had been purchased by the provost--marshal, whose necessities subsequently compelled him to part with it to a Jew, who exchanged it with an officer who particularly desired it for an allotment of land containing eleven acres on the Surrey hills, near the old race-course, a part of which allotment of land has since realized upwards of £20,000. To trace the old piano through the different hands into which it afterwards fell would be no easy matter. Let it suffice that is was now the property of a butcher, with whom I had frequent dealings, and who bought periodically the fat bullocks which we reared at the cattle station under Captain Romer's superintendence [I say Captain, because every one called him Captain Romer].

It may be as well to describe the instrument now about to be submitted to public competition. It was three feet two inches long, and two feet wide. Its mahogany case had become almost black, and its once white keys were now as yellow as the claws of a kite. The legs were rather rickety; and constant use and frequent removal had greatly impaired and weakened the tone, which, in the infancy of the instrument, had never been very powerful. However, it was a piano, nevertheless; and there was "all Sydney" waiting to see it sold, and half of those present ready to bid for it.

An auction-room--like love and death--levels all ranks; and on that day were to be seen government officials, merchants who had come out "free," merchants who had originally come out "bond" [emancipist], traders, wealthy farmers, Jews, et hoc genus omne, straining and jostling to get a sight of, and close to, this (in the words of the auctioneer) "eligible opportunity of introducing 'armony in the buzzim of a family circle."

Amongst the crowd was a Frenchman, whose ignorance of the English law relating to chattels (he had "taken" some valuables belonging to another person) had led to his being furnished with a passage to Botany Bay. This Frenchman had been a teacher of music in London, and, at the request of the auctioneer, he "favoured the company" with a few pieces of music, and thus spared the auctioneer--so he said--the trouble of "hewlogizing the instrument--since it could speak for itself." Had pianos been common in New South Wales, silence on the part of this one would have been more prudent, so far as the interests of the owner were concerned.

No sooner did I witness the delight which the cracked tones of that old piano afforded to so many of the bystanders, than I made up my mind--was determined--to become its purchaser. I was certain that I should be vehemently opposed on all sides; but I did not care about that, especially as I knew that my friend, the butcher, would have no objection to be paid in cattle instead of coin. I need scarcely say that it was not for myself that I wanted the old piano, although I could play a little; it was for the children of my friend and partner, Romer--whose surprise I longed to witness, when they saw me touch the keys and produce a sound--that I craved for the ownership of that antique instrument.

After a brief while, when the Frenchman had ceased to edify the throng, the bidding commenced. "What shall we say gentlemen, for this elegant instrument?" the auctioneer enquired. "Start it at what you please; £150 if you like."

"Fifty!" said a voice in the crowd.

A roar of laughter followed this ridiculous appreciation of an instrument--a piano--that once belonged to Mrs. Macquarie, while the auctioneer, with an expression of face which plainly betokened how deeply his feelings had been hurt, remarked, very solemnly: "Those people who come here to joke had better wait till the sale's over, and not interrupt business." Eventually, it was "started" at £100, but it was very soon run up to £130. Here it stopped for a while, and I nodded my head. "£140--£140!" cried the auctioneer, who refused to take any bid under £10. A very brisk competition now ensued between several individuals, and I remained silent, though unshaken in my resolve.

The piano was now "going for £175.--going for £175,--once--twice--third, and the--." I nodded my head.

"£185--£185!" said the auctioneer.

There was "no advance" for some minutes, and I was in hopes that I should get it for that last bid of mine, but I was mistaken. A gentleman known as Billy Hatcherson--an expatriated highwayman--a very wealthy man, wanted it for one of his daughters, who was about to be married, and he roared out, in a very defiant manner, "£200--there!" and confident that it would be his, he left the room triumphantly, and went "over the way" to refresh himself with a glass of grog.

Another spirited competition now took place, and eventually the piano became my property at £250.

I was quite right in my conjecture that the butcher would be glad to take cattle in payment, and, before leaving the auction, we concluded a bargain. I was to deliver to him within three months from that date, seventy fat oxen, such as I had previously sold to him.

In the days of which I am writing there were no post-offices in New South Wales, much less public carriers, and I had to wait several weeks before I could find a dray going to any station within forty miles of Captain Romer's abode (settlers usually accommodated each other by carrying packages to and from the interior), and it was not until after I had myself arrived at the station, that Romer received the news of "a large box for him at the station of Major Belrington," another retired officer who had settled in the wilds of Australia.

The despatch of the piano I had kept a secret, and when Romer heard of this "large box," he could not comprehend it, for he had ordered nothing, and expected nothing, from Sydney. He sent off, however, a cart drawn by a pair of bullocks, and on the third day the large box arrived. "With great care," was painted on the lid; and with very great care it was removed from the cart and placed in the verandah.

The advent of a package, and the opening thereof, was always a great event at the station, even when it was expected. There would be seen Romer, with a mallet and chisel in his hands, ready to break into it, no matter whether it was a cask of sugar, a chest of tea, or a case full of slop clothing for the men, while Mrs. Romer, with the youngest child in her arms, might be seen dividing her anxiety touching the condition of the stores with her fears for the children's safety--for they would all flock round their father, and frequently go much too close to the implements in his hands. But here was a special case--a most mysterious box. Romer said he had dreamt that some of his relations in England had sent him an assortment of saddlery, which would have been particularly acceptable; and he was hoping in his heart that "saddlery," it would turn out. Mrs. Romer had also a dream--that her father had sent a large box of clothing for herself and the children, and she was hoping for the realization of her dream. It would be in vain to attempt a description of the surprise and disgust of Romer and his excellent wife when they beheld the old piano.

"Such a useless thing!" said Romer.

"Who could have sent it?" said his wife.

While they were thus expressing themselves, the whole of their children, each in a different key, were shouting out--

"Papa! Ma! What's a piano? what's a piano?"

I laughed so heartily at the scene, that both Romer and his wife were perfectly satisfied that I had something to do with "the joke"--for as such they regarded the appearance of a piano in that Australian wilderness; and at last I confessed to them that I had bought the instrument for the amusement and instruction of their young ones.

The piano, which was locked and the key in my waistcoat pocket, had withstood all the attempts of the children to open it, in order to see what was inside; and Romer and myself carefully carried it into the room wherein the family were accustomed to dine. (It may be needless, perhaps, to inform the reader that in those remote regions where Captain Romer resided "drawing-rooms" were dispensed with.)

I was just as impatient to witness the effect of music (such as the old piano was capable of) upon the children as were the children to see "What's inside!" I therefore hastily unlocked it, and, placing my foot upon the pedal, swept the chords as vigorously as was prudent, considering the shaky state of the piano.

Alas! instead of delighting the children, I terrfied them. Some ran out of the room, shrieking, "It's alive! it's alive!" others stood aghast with their mouths wide open. One of the little boys fancied the keys were a row of huge teeth, which would bite me if I continued to touch them; whilst a little girl of four years of age begged of her mamma not to let the baby go near it. The eldest girl, observing that the instrument was perfectly harmless, was approaching my side, but was violently pulled back by two of her brothers. Presently, those who had run away returned to the door, and finding that there was no real danger, re-entered the room. By degrees the whole of them were not only reconciled to the belief that the piano was inanimate, but vastly pleased with the tunes which I played upon it. Ere long they became both bold and familiar, and, approaching the old instrument, they dealt it several blows with their clenched fists, which, had they been repeated, would soon have silenced it for ever.


When the children had gone to bed--and it was a rather difficult matter to prevail upon them to retire, so maddened had they become with the sound of the music--I played several airs which in former days had been very familiar to the ears of Romer and his wife, but which they had not heard for upwards of sixteen years. Amongst others was "The Girl I left behind me," an air which the band of Romer's old regiment, the 73rd, used to play constantly on parade, when the regiment was marching past the colours.

When I had finished playing the air, I turned round, and said to Romer, "You remember that, don't you?"

What was my astonishment to find my friend in tears. The large drops were rolling down his sunburnt cheeks.

"What is the matter?" I inquired of him.

"Ah, sir!" he replied, "you have brought back to me the morning when I embarked for this country and, when, for the last time, I saw my mother and sisters. That old piano makes it seem as though it were only yesterday that I parted from them."

And Mrs. Romer was crying. Why?--Because when she knew that Charley really loved her, and they were engaged to be married, she used to go every morning to see the old 73rd paraded, and kept her eyes upon the colours, which Charley, as junior ensign, used to carry when the regiment marched past them and played that old tune "The Girl I left behind me." And a very happy air it was, and sweet to her ears; for shortly after it had ceased, Charley and herself had their morning meeting, and used to walk round the spot which was called "the Government domain." The tears that were shed by Romer and his wife were not tears of unhappiness; for, although they were not musical, their domestic life had never known a single discord.

"Play it again!" said Romer and his wife simultaneously--the latter now sitting on her husband's knees, her arm encircling his neck--"oh! play it again. Do, please!"

I obeyed them, but was soon interrupted by the children, who rushed from their beds to the dining-room, and began to dance, or rather to "jump about," in imitation of the gestures of the aborigines in the act of choral exercises. The boys were clothed only in their night-shirts; the girls in their bed-gowns; and to the best of their ability they followed the air I was playing with their voices. Such a scene! Had the old piano cost me double the number of the fat oxen I had contracted to give for it, I could not have grudged the price.

One of the house-dogs began to bark fiercely, and Romer went to the door, whence he saw the whole of the servants, attracted by the sound of the pianoforte, drawn up in line, and listening most attentively to the music. Romer, who was one of the most kind--hearted men that the world ever produced, entered completely into their feelings, and invited them to sit down in the verandah; and he sent them out two bottles of rum and several ounces of tobacco, where with to regale themselves, while the music was gladdening their souls, and carrying them back to scenes in the land which, in all probability, they would never again behold.

It was long after eleven o'clock before we retired to rest that night; and even then the children were frantic for "more noise," as they called it.


The next morning, soon after daylight, Romer came into my apartment, and, with a smile upon his face, said, "This old piano, it occurs to me, may be turned to very profitable account."

"How?" I inquired.

"We may make it an instrument of terror to the blacks. Of late they have become awfully troublesome in the matter of spearing the cattle, merely for the fat wherewith to grease themselves, and only last week we lost in this way a very valuable cow. I will send for some of the tribe and frighten them, or rather you must, by playing on the bass keys."

I liked the idea vastly. Besides, I was very curious to see the expression of a savage's face when, for the first time, he heard music.

The encampment of the blacks was only three or four miles distant, and a stockman was sent to bring several of them; and at noon, about eight or nine of them, in all their nudity, made their appearance. Mrs. Romer had a strong objection to admit them in or near the house, and so Romer and I carried the old piano out into the open space in front of the dwelling.

The aboriginal native of New Holland--just like the native of India--cannot help touching and examining everything that is strange to him; and no sooner did "the blacks" whom we summoned observe the old piano, than they moved towards and examined it very attentively. One of them at last opened the instrument, and touched the keys rather heavily, and (like, Fear in the "Ode to the Passions"), terrified at the sound he had produced, recoiled backwards, his spear poised ready to be thrown, and his brilliant black eye firmly fixed on the demon, for as such he regarded the old piano. His companions also poised their long spears, and retreated cautiously step by step.

Romer now begged of them not to be alarmed, and with some little difficulty brought them back to the piano, where he represented to them that inside was a fearful demon, who would eat up the whole of their tribe if he wore told to do so; but that, if they did nothing to offend or annoy him [Romer], they had nothing whatever to fear.

I corroborated this statement by nodding my head; and, advancing to the instrument, I touched the keys and began to play as loudly as possible. Who shall describe their faces and their attitudes? Some of them grasped their boomerangs, others poised their spears ready to repel any sudden attack that the demon might make upon them. It was a scene such as I would not have missed on any account.

When I had ceased playing, Romer explained to them that I had been telling the demon what he was to do, on the next occasion of a bullock, a cow, or a calf being speared on the run; and they must have believed every word he said, for from that day forward the nuisance abated, and the tribe very rarely came near the forest where our cattle used to graze; so that the old piano, after all, was by no means dear at the price I paid for it, to say nothing of the amusement which it afforded to Romer's children.

The old piano is still extant. Not long ago I had a letter from Romer, who is now both old and rich, in which he said: "There are thousands of pianos in the colony now, of all sorts, sizes, and prices, from £25 up to £100; but not for any one of them would we exchange our old friend here, which has a place of honour in one of our drawing-rooms, and reposes its tottering legs on a Turkey carpet."

End.

 
 
 
Back to the Index Page