Of all the flowers in our Austra one which was most revered by the blacks (in fact the only one so far as we know) was the watarah. No other flower was ever sufficiently noticed by them to be plucked and given, or shown, to whites, with a sense of gratitude for a good done to them.
There was a time, say the natives of the Burragorang Valley, when the waratah was not as we see it to-day. The pistils were soft and downy, and when the wind blew they fell off and floated away like the thistledown.
It all happened at a corroboree.
Wantaba and Wirrawaa were rivals for a maiden. Both men knew that he who sprang the highest in play, he who wielded the longest spear, and above all, he who went out alone into the dark and brought back the finest 'possum or the prettiest flower plucked in the dark of night, would win the girl.
The hated and feared tribe that came over the hills from the swampy country at the base of the great unscalable mountain had twice been seen trespassing on the Burragorang side of the waterfall, and two corroborees had been held so that the young men who had never had a fight might be shown how to hurl a spear and how to crouch, and how to wield the millah, and dodge a blow, and also how to feign death if the enemy hit hard enough and proved to be too strong.
The warriors, old and new, sallied out, and climbed to the top of the Dividing Range. There they sat around little pools of rain water that the tiny basins in the rocks held, and rubbed and rubbed their stone axes and spearheads, and chanted song after song, deriding the wrongdoers of the other tribe, until at last one of them yelled to know what all the din was about.
The answer was a hurled spear. Wantaba was anxious to show what he could do, and he threw the spear that had taken him many days to fashion. Wirrawaa was more cautious. Plucking a waratah, which was then only a soft cluster of pollen like a wattle, he held it before his face while he took a careful aim at the seeming valiant enemy. He moved carefully forward, crouching the while just as old Wollayabba had done at the corroboree in which he was the teacher of the warlike arts, and knowing that by the time he was near enough to be sure of killing the foe and recovering, too, the spear that he would soon fling, many others of the opposing force would be collected at the spot.
He drew nearer the edge of the ridge, step by step, and then came a puff of wind. The fluff of the flower blew back into his eyes, and just then came a spear from the throwing stick of one of the foes.
Crack! It caught Wirrawaa fairly on the forehead, and down be went like a stone.
That was the signal for a rush. Fighting men of both sides had clustered in rear of their companions, and now came the deciding clash.
Down below on the sides of the ridge and on the top of another the women and children waited and watched and listened. Some could see the battle, some were too frightened to look, and some were not allowed to see what was going on. They could all know by the nearness of the noise which side was giving way, and the Burragorang women grew much afraid. They gathered up their mats and bags, for the sound of the fighting grew ever louder.
Their men were being fought back. There were some bark shields lying handy, and two or three of the girls who had lovers fighting up on the hill grabbed them and rushed nearer to the fray. Wantaba, who had thrown the first spear was still in the battle line. Just as the girls with the shields came in sight, Wantaba received a mighty blow from a kurri, as the knobbed fighting-club was called.
He turned and fled. Catching sight of the young woman for whom he and the fallen Wirrawaa strove he saw that she was holding out a bark shield for him, and he sped to her.
But she asked for Wirrawaa. Wantaba pointed to his own head and then to a point in the midst of the struggling warriors and returned to the fray. The girl was afraid now that he would be killed like Wirrawaa, so calling to Wantaba she too rushed into the fight, and just in time.
Many of her people had thrown down their clubs. Most of them were either killed or badly injured.
But when the survivors saw a woman laying about her with an old stick, and warding off blows with a man's huge bark shield, they picked up their weapons again and fought more determinedly than ever.
They won, and the trespassing blacks were driven far into their own territory.
Upon the return of the pursuers to the scene of the fight a procession was formed in which were a few young women, and this was an unprecedented thing. There was a triumphal march back to the camp and the place was cleared for another corroboree.
Wantaba was asked to tell his story and, dressed for the part in his proper war colours, he acted it and pointed out the girl who had fought and acclaimed her the real conqueror.
Then at the end of this recital and this portrayal the women were all sent into thick scrub, and Wantaba was inducted into the mysteries of the marriage state.
But the ceremony had to be postponed for the girl was not to be found. She had disappeared and no one had seen her going. When daylight came the whole tribe engaged in the search, for it was believed that she could not possibly have gone far, and it was feared that she had received some hurt.
She had entered again into the domain of man, for she had communed with the god of her totem. She had asked that Wirrawaa be allowed to come back from the spirit world to her. She had taken a waratah and had shown how the fluffy bloom had succumbed to the blowing of the wind and had proved no protection to a fighting man. And her prayer was answered. Wirrawaa came back, though a much changed man. His skin was white and the eyes that before were nearly black were now sightless and blue.
And he had a strange power. He could alter the form of trees and change their flowers. As a protection to any other fighting men who might pluck a flower or a plant when going into battle, he caused spikes and thorns to grow upon many trees and he changed many soft flowers into hard ones. The waratah became the firmest of all.
The prickly hakea now prevents any one from pushing through it. Smilax and many other vines produced such thorns and prickles that they were a sufficient guard to any lands.
For a long time it was believed that no spear would go through a waratah flower, and many blacks would ask white men to put one up and let someone hurl a dart or a spear and it would not go through. So much faith was placed in that, that many men would not go into battle without a waratah if they were in flower at the time of the quarrel.