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4-398 (Raw)

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author,female,Praed, Rosa,48 addressee
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Webby, 1989
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"Is that all?' said a pretty sick girl on our steamer, who had had her chair brought close to the bulwarks, that she might not miss the first sight of Sydney Harbour. "Oh, I don't call it much more than just pretty. Seems somehow as if the mountains had been forgotten."
She expressed it exactly. One does feel as if the Creator had forgotten the mountains. And yet, indeed, how beautiful Sydney Harbour is, though one begins to wonder whether it is as beautiful as the harbour of Nagasaki, or of Hong Kong, or even of Algiers, or of many other places one has heard less about. There is always the want of the background.
Strangely enough, I didn't seem to be steaming gently into Sydney Harbour in this big Orient boat, on this summer afternoon, but to have gone back - oh, ever so many years - to a certain wild morning, when the sea was all grey and dirty-white, heaving and growling after a great storm, in which a little brig - she was called The Briton's Queen I remember - had gallantly held her own, though the English mail steamer was in peril of her life, and more than one ship went down off the coast that night. Brave little Briton's Queen! I can scent now in my nostrils the briny freshness of that squally morning, and oh, the delight of it after a day and a night with hatches down in a cabin half full of water, and a smell - an unforgettable and intolerable smell - of decaying apples. The Briton's Queen was freighted with fruit, and we had been a fortnight in making the voyage from Tasmania. Nothing of that voyage remains in my memory but the smell of the apples, the gale, and the feeling of intense exhilaration, as our little ship, with her sails set, scudded over the waves on that tempestuous morning and passed between Sydney Heads into balmy peace. [297]
There it was again - the break in the grey-blue line of cliff, the two huge profiles of rock - the boldest with a lighthouse upon it, and the ocean roaring against its iron rampart. A little boat with a reddish sail raced the big steamer round the North Head and won the race. And now we were in perfectly smooth water, a blue basin with sandy-beached bays curving in and out, and a flotilla of boats - it was Saturday afternoon - dancing about the points.
There flashed into my memory another entry into Sydney Harbour - this a night one - after a second voyage from Tasmania; and the thrill of hearing out of the darkness, as a boat pulled up to the steamer, the news that the Duke of Edinburgh had been shot by Farrell, the Fenian. Then, next day, the mingled excitement and horror of seeing Sydney placarded with posters offering "L 1,000 reward for the accomplices of Farrell."
It is all confusing, terribly confusing; and the two lightning streaks of impressions are dead trees and hats. Were there always so many dead trees, and did Australians always wear such a bewildering variety of hats?
There are hard felt and soft felt, broad-brimmed and narrow-brimmed, sailor, Panama, Buffalo Bill, Jim Crow, cowboy, and cavalier; hats puggareed, hats bare, and even the white "Derby" chimney-pots. It is a nightmare of hats.
And the dead trees! They, too, have become half a nightmare, half a fascination. These are not the few scattered clumps of "rung" gums, which used to show here and there round a head-station or stockman's hut, in picturesque contrast with the mass of grey-green foliage. All along the railway line there are miles and miles, paddocks full, whole tracts of these livid corpses of trees, which stand bolt upright, stretching forth long naked arms, that twist up and down and interlace each other in weirdly human fashion. At first their deadness seems a mystery, and then one remembers that it is the Free Selector now and not the Squatter who rules the land; and that because of him is its greyness. For it is all grey, all the same dull, dead monotony of colouring - grey two-railed fences, brown-grey grass, green-grey leaves - where there are leaves - yellow-grey sawnwood houses; grey shingles, grey skeletons, grey ashes, where the skeletons have been burned and the soil made ready for crops of corn and vines and millet and cotton, and all the other good things which the Selector eventually produces. But it takes a long time first to dispossess the gum-trees, which are the inheritors of the ground. [298]
Oh the heat and glare of that railway journey between the skeleton-trees and the two-railed fences! Only here and there, a little township of weatherboard houses, bare and straight, with oblongs of windows, like the houses in toy boxes, and their zinc roofs blazing piteously in the scorching sun. It is a relief to see near the townships, beyond the aggressive newness of their stores and public-houses, some survival of an old slab-and-bark homestead, with its patch of pumpkin vines and a few willows and mulberries, and perhaps an orange-tree. That is on the higher land, near the border, where the air has cooled a little.
Here, in a certain region, the skeletons give place to queer grey boulders - everything is always grey - scattered anyhow, in shape of crouching beasts and altar-stones, and fat monoliths. Now, as we descend, steamy rain falls, and the heat is a clammy misery and a prickly aggravation. Night comes. At the different wayside stations friendly hands are stretched forth, and there's a ghostly feeling in the sight of familiar-strange faces - the faces of children grown to manhood and womanhood, and of the middle-aged become old and grey-haired. It is midnight, when at last the thirty hours' train journey is over, and I step into the clammy stove-house atmosphere, and know that, after twenty years, I am once again in mine own land, amidst mine own people.
Familiar-strange, too, those bush boys on unkempt bush horses, and with the real bush seat, an easy, slouching oneness with the beast beneath, who are waiting in a clearing of the scrub for the mail to be thrown out as the train passes.
Where are the old landmarks? Twenty years ago it took a good three days getting from the township to Murrum, and extra horses had to be sent along to pull the buggy through Doondin Scrub. Now it is a question of being three or four hours in a railway carriage, and of a fifteen-mile drive over the range. But how much more exciting it used to be! The plunge into the gloom of the scrub, the toiling on foot down leafy gullies and up steep muddy pinches, the jibbing of the horses, the shoutings of the blackboys, and all the buggy-breakings and mendings, and the uncertainty as to ultimate possibilities! Very little remains of the scrub, only a few belts of glossy green, and some of the old bottle trees, which are like historic monuments of some strange order of architecture. So that one might fancy Lemurian builders had raised pillars of a grotesque topsy-turviness, with bulging middle, base tapering inwards and over-loaded capitals. All the way are selectors' homesteads, set in gardens and orangeries, and where once was dense forest, homely German settlements with schoolhouses, stores, and plantations of maize, cotton, arrowroot, and even tobacco.
The Selectors in these parts have long passed the skeleton and grey stage; and all over the hills and on the plains where the scrub used to be, are vivid patches of green and yellow and the red-brown of millet. [299] The clearing of the forest has brought the mountains into view, and it is such a satisfaction to find that years have not dwarfed their outlines, nor imagination magnified their beauty. They are all just as memory painted them - tiers of blue peaks - the border range in the far distance, and the Jerra Crag, with its encircling precipice and turret top, rising between the Murrum hump and twin-peaked Kumbal - as real and good to look at as the Southern Cross and many other things that were of old.
There is with us a little English artist girl, who has lived all her life in London, and an English boy called Rothwell, going to do "colonial experience" at Murrum. The three "M's", Meg (that is the English girl), Marge, and Mena, make as charming a nosegay of maids as could be seen. And there is Cousin William, outrider to the buggy just then, a miner by profession, and self-appointed instructor-general to Meg on things Australian. And there are Terry, Fulvia, and the doctor.
"He's a young one," Terry said, apologetically, as the near horse shied at a stump and tilted Meg almost into the Flagstone Creek. "Only tackled this summer. Never had a better puller. . . . But this won't do. Must attend to my business and not talk. Look out! Here we are coming to a bit of corduroy."
And we found out that "corduroy" meant a road made of little gum trees, and that it jolted exceedingly.
Two men with their blankets rolled into swags were boiling their billy of tea in a gully by the roadside.
"They're humping bluey," explained Cousin William.
"What does that mean?' asked the artist girl.
'They're on the Wallabi track," further explained Cousin William.
Meg asked no more, but later on she made a sketch of "Humping Bluey".
Meg has the air of one to whom no surprising experience can now be a novelty. She has been given tea for breakfast, luncheon, and dinner, at five o'clock and also at eleven a.m. A monstrous frog stared at her out of her washing basin this morning, and she was shown a corrugated black fellow in a ragged shirt and abbreviated trousers, with a brass plate - symbol of sovereignty - on his tattooed breast, and told that he is a king.
We stopped on the shoulder of the dividing range - not the great Border range, but a little one between Cuchin and Murrum. Below stretched the Cuchin plain with its water-hole, the Crag beyond, and the head station on a green promontory jutting out into the sea of tall grey-green grass. Now it is "eucalyptic cloisterdom" once more; and we seem as we descend, to be passing through interminable aisles of red-gum trunks and fretwork of bough. Locusts whirr intermittently. [300] 
Never was such rich grass as grows in the furrows of the hills. Meg takes her revenge on Cousin William by drawing his attention to the fine blot of colour which a herd of red cattle make on the grey-green. She wishes him to understand that if he can talk Australese, she can talk Art jargon!
Some of the gums have grotesque protuberances - these are what the shepherds and stockmen used to make coolimans out of in the old Bush days; and there are grass trees with spears and tufts, and great brown ant-heaps like queer shaped tombstones.
Then comes a splash through the river at Cuchin crossing, which is close by Murrum stockyard; and - is it the cornshed of memories?. . - The paddock is clearer than it used to be, and the river fringe of ti-tree and she-oak has been broken, and there's a grand new Selector's homestead that was not there long ago. The dogs run out barking, Fulvia, young Marge, and Mena, and the St Bernard, and the cockatoo are at the garden fence - how the lagerstromia and the creepers have grown! - and three peacocks give screeches from the roof of the kitchen gangway. They are moulting, poor things, and terribly ashamed of their draggled tails, but a sense of family obligation and of the dignity of the occasion does not permit them to retire altogether as, for the next week or so, they consistently do.
It is a funny little cluster of wooden cottages, Murrum head station, joined together by gangways which are covered with bougainvillea, bignonia, rinkasporum and ever so many other creepers. There are bowery nooks between the verandas filled in with plants set in stumps and with stag-horn and bird's nest ferns growing upon walls and posts. Here Mena makes a pretty picture in the mornings, learning her lessons, with the St Bernard panting in the heat at her feet. Inside, the walls are of cedar - it isn't the old drawing-room, but a new room altogether, with windows at the end giving peeps of the Jerra Crag, and the Kumbal peaks, and showing the old mandarin orange tree and quince orchard and the prickly pear hedge. Outside there is a veranda like the deck of a ship, where everybody lounges in cane chairs and the hammock, and eats grapes and water melons, and where we spend the long hot evenings looking on the dim semicircle of mountains and watching the Southern Cross mount from behind Mount Murrum.
Alas! It is the time of the rains, and for five days and nights the heavens have poured forth water. A blanket of steam has covered the mountains. The air is a vaporous oppression, and over all broods a clammy stillness, broken by the crashing downpour upon a zinc roof, and the spattering upon the window-panes and rebound upon the floor of the veranda. Mena's bower is no longer inviting. The ground is strewn with sodden bougainvillea petals, and the fern tongues drop wetness. [301] The grey stumps in which a little while ago colcas and calladium plants flourished joyously, are now black with moisture, and all the slender stalks are bowed and the downy leaves torn to shreds and drooping and flabby. Mena's magpie is taking a bath in one of the stumps. Now he perches on the hedge, spluttering and spreading his wings with his head cocked on one side, and a wicked look in his little eyes. The Galah parrot toddles up and down disconsolately. There is a soft swish of rivulets blending with the hushed murmur of insects. At night, the frogs and crickets are deafening and the roar of the river grows deeper.
The nasty creeping things come out. A fat tarantula crawls up the curtains, and there's a hundred-legged spider between Meg's blankets; and ants run about in myriads, and get into the jam and sugar, and drop their wings uncannily on the tablecloth. We have no joy now in the veranda though we draw the cane chairs close to the wall to avoid driving drops and the doctor and the man from the next station and Cousin William tell grim stones of the bush The fruit is sodden the beast which has been killed has gone bad the wood is too damp to burn in the kitchen Fulvia enters tragically in her arms a bundle of fine damask black with mildew and a snake is killed in the bush house.
That evening the doctor the man from the next station and Cousin William tell snake stones and Meg dreams evil dreams.
The man from the next station has only nine fingers When he was a little boy he and his brother went out into the bush with their tomahawks to play at finding possums As he moved a bit of dead wood a black snake bit his forefinger The man from the next station put his finger straight out on a stump and told his brother to chop it off low down with the tomahawk that very moment The boy chopped and then they sucked the sound and that's how he comes to have only nine fingers
The doctor too had his snake experience One night he camped in a newly built but deserted hut. A sheet of bark was on the ground he spread his blanket over it and laid him down to sleep Several times during the night he fancied that the bark heaved beneath him but he was too tired to take any serious notice In the morning when he had rolled up his blanket again, he kicked away the piece of bark and saw a great black snake coiled under it.
Cousin William knows a man on the diggings whose nerve broke after the gruesome adventure of one night. The man was travelling alone and that evening he had camped in the open under a gum tree It was bright moonlight Suddenly in the very small hours he awoke feeling something moving over his chest - he was lying on his back barely covered with his blanket, for the night was hot. As he awoke, he saw that a brown snake had coiled itself upon his chest. Now, a brown snake is deadly; and the man had no brandy nor ammonia, nor anything which would save him if he were bitten. [302] For long hours he lay watching. He dared not move, he scarcely dared to breathe. He nursed the loathsome Thing, a thin shirt only between him and its fang. Cousin William related how the man described the stillness of the night; his horror of a puff of wind, of a falling leaf or twig, and his dread of the approach of animal or bird which might startle the Thing. Then the breaking at dawn, and the twitterings and callings, and all the rousing of the bush. He was afraid lest his horse should come and sniff, and yet longed that it might come, as perhaps the noise might frighten the Thing away. And as the light grew he saw that there were soldier ants close by, and knew that if they crawled on him he must let himself be stung till it should please the Thing to move. He studied the flat head of the Thing and its triangular markings, and thought he must go mad. At last, when the sun was high the snake uncoiled itself and crawled away. And the man got up, shaking as if with palsy. "And Lord," added Cousin William, "you wouldn't have known that chap when he got to the diggings next day. He was trembling all over and couldn't sleep for weeks. And as for his nerve, which was like iron before, it clean broke into little bits."
"It's only some magisterial business," says Terry, getting up. "I'll be back in five minutes," and presently he is heard calling, "Bring me a Bible, dear," and young Marge runs off with the Bible, remarking, "Some of the Free Selectors come to swear."
When they had "sworn" and gone, Terry explained the matter. "You see, the conditions of their being allowed to own their 160 acres - or less, according to what they take up - are that they must reside on the selection for five years, but most of them after they have put up a hut, leave their wives and children to fulfil the residence condition, and hire themselves out on the job. Then they must pay sixpence a year - five sixpences in all - and must make improvements up to the value of ten shillings an acre, and at the end of the five years they have got to bring along two witnesses and swear before a magistrate to the residence and the improvements, after which they can get a free title. That's what those fellows were doing."
"Seems an easy way of becoming a landed proprietor," said Rothwell, the English boy.
"If they want to become bigger landed proprietors still," says Terry, "they can lease extra land up to two thousand acres, at a rent of threepence per acre; only, to fulfil the residence conditions, it must be within fifteen miles of the original selection. They must put a fence round the extra bit within four years, and when that's over, they can buy it at a price fixed by the Land Boad."
Fulvia came along the veranda carrying a silver tray and the teapot, Marge and Mena following with cakes and grapes. [303] The lace frills of Fulvia's pretty blouse were tucked up towards her shoulders.
"Please forgive my bare arms. They've been up to the elbows in flour. I'm making bread." Fulvia was very hot, and very tired, though she contrived to look remarkably dainty in her white cooking apron.
Three days ago Fulvia's cook and parlourmaid had found themselves in bad health and requested to be driven to the Doondin terminus. Then it was suggested that the three Ms should forage among the Selections and see if they could find anyone willing to make the bread and wash for Murrum station.
They make quite a colony, the Selectors, along this side of the river, and slab cottages climb up the slope where scrub used to be. All the wilderness of the river is gone. There are millet and lucerne and Indian-corn patches by each bank, and men were ploughing as we passed. The ti-trees have lost their beauty. Of the two great cedars on the Mulgam flat under which we used to boil our afternoon tea, one has been felled and the other is naked and dead; and there are deep wheel tracks down to the arum pool where the Selectors' water-carts go to be filled. The settlement having got the number of children required by administrative powers, and having built the schoolhouse with the cracked bell, which is planted lower down among the gums, the government provides at a stipend of £80 a year, a schoolmaster, who lives in a weatherboard hut on the border of the scrub. The debating club sits too in the schoolhouse; there the balls take place, and the Sunday services, when a clergyman comes along; and there the election meetings are held. On the whole, the community seem to have a pretty lively time.
Mr Hindmarsh, whose wife Fulvia considered a hopeful resource in emergency, was at work among his crops by the creek.
"And how are you getting on with your maize, Mr Hindmarsh"
"Bad, bad," answered Hindmarsh, mournfully. "Three hundred bags."
"Done well?' asked the doctor. 'Tenpence halfpenny, eh?
"Elevenpence," returned Mr Hindmarsh. "Times are wretched. It ain't only the squatters that has got cause to complain. What the country's coming to I dun-'now."
- "It's bimetalism that's at the root of everything," said the man from the next station, "and until silver is acknowledged payment again, and forty shillings instead of twenty given to the pound, the country will never come to any good."
Mr Hindmarsh couldn't see how that could make a difference, and another Selector called Bascomb, who seems a serious person, and is, I hear, chief spokesman at the debating-society meetings, disagreed with him.
"You see, it's this way," said Mr Bascomb. "If all the produce in the world was put on this side" (prodding the ground with the butt of his bullock whip), "and all the gold in the world was put on the other side, why, there wouldn't be gold enough to buy the produce. [304] For those that have the gold it don't matter; and for those who haven't it's a bad job."
"That's about it," said the man from the next station.
Mr Hindmarsh changed the conversation. "My word! it's been terrible hot today. . . . The missus did you say? I dun-'now. Most like you'll find her up yon'." His long upper lips puckered down over his teeth; and he jerked his thumb in the direction of a slab house with a veranda, set in a garden of stumps and some pumpkin vines, on the side of the hill.
Fulvia felt a delicacy in pressing enquiries. Hindmarsh was known as "a quiet man but given to sulks, and awful bad to put up with". His neighbour Garstin, who was helping him, was loud and masterful, and only that morning Garstin, up at the station on business, had related how the Hindmarshes had had a difference, and had given it as his opinion that a chap "mum in his tantrums" like Hindmarsh was more aggravating to a female than the most raging of devils, and that, therefore, Mrs Hindmarsh might not be unwilling to distract her thoughts by a day's baking. "But Lord! I says to Hindmarsh," continued Garstin. "You doan't know how to take the women, Hind-marsh. Why, you mun give 'en a kick and knock 'en down, and they'll coom all right after a time or two. Doan't crush 'en with silence"; which became a family saying at Murrum, and when anyone nursed his grievance in dignified aloofness it was customary to remark, "Doan't crush 'en with silence."
Mrs Hindmarsh, who is a big woman with great black eyes and crinkly hair, did not look in the least crushed, as she came up from the pumpkin patch with a huge pumpkin under one arm and a baby under the other. She had got a batch of bread coming out of the oven that very minute, she said, and if we liked we could take it over.
"I am ashamed to ask you into such a dirty place. I've been cleaning after the rains. The bread don't look as nice as it might, for it's baked in a camp oven; if there's a cake-tin or two to spare at the station I'd make the loaves a better shape for the table. . . - No, I wouldn't come to do the washing at the station, you'd best get someone else - there's Mrs Garstin perhaps - but I don't know. . . . You've had a deal of trouble I hear in the kitchen. If you want your moleskins washed, Mr Rothwell - or the doctor - tell him I'll do 'em if you send 'em over. There's funny things goes on in the kitchen with them girls, ain't there, Mr Rothwell"
"There's plenty of funny things in Australia, seems to me, Mrs Hindmarsh."
"Yes, they're queer, those servant girls. They objected to the moleskins. I heard the word; you send them over, Mr Rothwell." [305]
"Well, if you've time, Mrs Hindmarsh."
"Oh, I'll make time - at threepence the pair So Hindmarsh is going to take a job with the cart up at the station?'
Mrs Hindmarsh was informed that such was the arrangement.
"Hindmarsh hadn't always come down to going out on the job. We were in South Brisbane once, in a house of our own; it's the bad times has brought us low. He has lost £800, Mrs Hindmarsh." And Mrs Hindmarsh announced the fact as cheerfully as though she were putting forward a claim to distinction.
We made a little round of calls that afternoon. Rothwell and Meg had already established friendly relations with the Selections, and had brought a camera, which hung on the pommel of Meg's saddle.
"We've got two plates left, Mrs Garstin, and Mr Garstin says he'd like you and the little girl to be taken; and we'd like to photograph the house if we may."
"Garstin said as he'd like the two children done," said Mrs Garstin. "It's seventeen year now since I was took - didn't like to, somehow. But I'd be pleased to have the children. Garstin, he wanted to have little 'Liza done last year, but I said (with a smile at the infant), wait a bit and get in two of 'em."
Mrs Garstin was the mother of a large family. The doctor joined us while the photographing was going on, and Mrs Garstin had much domestic intelligence to communicate.
"Jimmy was nearly dead, doctor, since you was here last. Johnny come down from the scrub and says, 'Mother I want some eucalypt stuff.' 'What for? I says. 'Jimmy's had a hurt,' says he; and sure enough there was Jimmy lying insensible.  - But I'm that used to their getting hurts, I don't feel frightened. There was Jo broke his leg, and I pulled the bones together, and bandaged it, and set it in splints; and the doctor there told me he couldn't have done it better himself. . . . Lift up yer trouser, Jo, and show the doctor and the ladies your leg. . . . And there was Harry as chopped off his fingers
- two of 'em hanging by a bit of skin; and Garstin says, 'Give us a pair of scissors, and have done with 'em.' But I says, 'No, I ain't going to have my boy short of fingers if I can help it.' So I sets the fingers back again, and binds them up; and they're as good as the others this day. Show the doctor your fingers, Harry. And I had to go to Murrum station for sticking plaister and hump him all the way; and Lor'! I don't know how I done it!"
After the rains came a great freshness. Higher up the Ubi is a gorge where in old days we always rode after rains to see the spring swollen into a waterfall. There was a question whether the river would be crossable - it was still a brown, turbid torrent. "I don't think we can manage it," said the man from the next station. [306]
Cousin William spurred his horse on. "Keep up," cried Terry.
But Cousin William got through all right, and the rest followed even to little Mena in her holland knickerbockers, riding man-fashion. The horses swayed unsteadily with the current. The little one couldn't guide hers, and he went down slantways with the stream.
"Baby, keep up," screamed Fulvia. 'Keep up, baby." Then Cousin William dashed back and took hold of Mina's bridle, turning her upstream.
"You should never shout to anyone in a flooded creek," said the doctor. "It makes a fellow lose his head - like the mailman on the Jerra the other day, who was as near as possible carried down. They kept calling out from the bank, 'Keep up! keep up!' till the chap trembled and turned white, and at last got so confused that he let the reins drop helplessly and said, 'Which is up? I can't tell.'"
We follow a creeklet fringed by she-oaks, and bordered on each side by stony ridges. On the top of the ridge, the dark, distinctive line of scrub stands up like a wall from the blady grass and bracken. By-and-by the ridges swell into high hills and come close, blocking the foreground as the valley narrows. The she-oaks thicken, and the whispering among their needle points sounds fuller. There is a great side cleft in the hill, and a white torrent comes foaming down among the grey-black boulders which are scarred and patched with lichen. Terry and Cousin William drag logs and make a bridge over the torrent, the horses are hitched up, and the glen swallows those of us who walk foremost.
It is just a chasm torn out of the mountain side. The grey walls of rock overhang it, making jagged ledges, from which drop ferns and rock lilies - I remember the lilies' feathery plumes in spring, but they are not in bloom now - and there are thick withes of hoya festooning the cliff. High on the top, native bears and opossums and wallabis have their unmolested dwellings. Slanting outward from the cliff are slim trees of the red-barked mahogany, and of mountain ash, as well as a fleshy-leaved shrub giving out an aromatic perfume. Down in the bed, the torrent roars along the channel it has cut, over worn stones and between great grey rocks. It rushes out of a deep pool, dark, mysterious, and still, except where another stream, falling from a gully at a higher level churns the pool into brown foam.
This is not much of a waterfall. The children climb up the rock ledges close to the fall, and are wetted by its spray. And then there is a rare clamber to the upper ravine, sacred to the memories of twenty years back; and young Marge comes down presently, her arms full of native geranium and red berries off those same plants from which we elder ones used to gather them long ago.
So we went back to the old scenes - went back to the old scenes!
Do we ever, indeed, get away from the old scenes?