The big white English swan, escaped from captivity, found himself swimming in an Australian waterhole fringed with giant gum trees. In one of the lower forks of a gum tree sat a placid round-eyed elderly gentleman apparently thinking of nothing whatever - in other words, a native bear.
"Excuse me, sir," said the swan, "can you tell me where I am?"
"Why, you're here," said the bear.
"I know I'm here," said the swan, thinking his new acquaintance was dull-witted; "but where is 'here'? You see, I'm an English swan -"
"Excuse me," said the bear, "swans are black, I've seen thousands of 'em".
"They're black in this country," said the swan, "just the same as the Aboriginals are black; but they are white in England, just the same as the people there are white. I don't like mentioning it, but our family are very highly regarded in England - one of the oldest families. We came to England from Cyprus with Richard Coeur-de-Lion."
"I'm a bit in that line myself," said the bear. Did you ever hear of the Flood, when Noah took the animals in the Ark? Well, my people wouldn't go in the Ark. They didn't see any chance of getting fresh gum leaves every day, and they heard that this Noah was not too reliable. A capable chap - he must have been a capable chap to organise that outfit - but inclined to drink. So our people climbed trees and lived on gum leaves till the water went down. They say the Flood wasn't as high here as it was in other places, but I've never seen a flood but what somebody would tell you it was higher at his place than at yours. Have you any friends here?"
"I'm afraid not," said the swan, "but you never know. I'll give a call."
So he put up his head and sent a call echoing through the bush like the clang of a great brazen gong. Twice he repeated it, but no answer came. "No luck," said the bear. "Anyone within two miles would be deaf if he didn't hear that. I'm pretty good, myself, at making people hear me. We got a lot of practice in the Flood, shouting to each other from the trees, and when we saw old Noah drifting on to a sandbank, we'd give him a hail. Listen to me."
And throwing his head back he emitted the weirdest and most unmusical noise you ever heard. It sounded like an empty train running over an iron bridge.
"I could have had good money to go on the stage," he said, "but of course in my position I couldn't consider it. What would people think?"
"I suppose you have a lot of friends," said the swan.
"Well, not exactly friends," said the bear. "You see, we of the old families have to be a bit particular. We can't associate with these nouveaux riches and Johnny-come-lately people that you see about. Now, there's the 'possums - people that pretend to be relations of mine, but they're not. I saw one of them hanging upside down by the tail from a limb one night. Most undignified. Thank goodness, no matter what has happened to us, we have never grown tails. The Platypus family is as old as we are, but they live in the water, and I have never touched water, inside or outside, in my life; so we don't see anything of them."
"Do they date back to the Flood?" said the swan, who was thinking that after all Coeur-de-Lion seemed quite modern compared to these people.
"Oh, yes," said the bear. "They wouldn't go in the Ark either. Couldn't see any hope of getting their regular food, and there was a first-class chance of getting trodden on by the elephant. So they took to the water and they had the time of their lives. Plenty of food, and they drifted about on floating logs and fence posts all day long. Didn't even have to swim. That was a gentleman's life, if you like."
"What is there up this creek?" said the swan. "Do you travel about much?"
"Me travel!" said the bear. "Do I look like it? Why should I? They say there are better trees up the creek, but what was good enough for my fathers is good enough for me. One of our people went wandering all over the place, half a mile up the creek, and he climbed a tree with a bee's nest in it and they stung him till his nose swelled up like an elephant's trunk. That's what he got for being one of those revolutionary chaps. Served him right."
"Well," said the swan, "I'm glad to have met you and I think I'd better be moving on."
"Not a bit of it," said the bear, "not a bit of it. Never move on when you're lost. If people that are lost would sit still they'd be all right; but they will keep moving about and they die before people can catch up with them. Stay where you are and someone's sure to hear of you and they'll come here to look for you."
While they were talking, the surface of the waterhole below them was as smooth as glass. Then, without a splash or a ripple, a lithe brown creature rose to the surface and drifted there soundlessly, looking up at them with bright little eyes.
"Good-day, Mr Platypus," said the bear. "This," he went on, indicating the swan with a wave of his hand, "is an English friend of mine. I want you to take him where he can get a good feed of lily roots and frogs, and then fetch him back here. We'll boil the billy and make a night of it. He can tell us about Richard Coeur-de-Lion, and we can tell him about these neighbours of ours."
And it is from what the native bear and the platypus said that night that this book is written.