A Romance of Canvas Town And Other Stories

A Romance of Canvas Town

Rolf Boldrewood

DWELLERS in Melbourne during 1851 and the immediately succeeding years of the golden age in Australia will remember Canvas Town. Good cause, doubtless, have certain prosperous citizens to recall the strange suburb of Melbourne across the river, in which they, with hundreds of strangers and pilgrims, were fain to abide, pending suitable lodgings or employment. It arose mushroom-like from the bare trampled clay, a town of tents and calico, at no great distance from Prince’s-bridge, shouldering the road which then led to the fashionable suburb of South Yarra.

Its raison d’être was briefly this. When tidings of the wondrous yields of Ballarat and Forest Creek—of gold dust and ingots, so profuse, so easily won—reached Europe, fleets of vessels bearing armies of adventurers set sail for Eldorado. When the flotilla anchored in Hobson’s Bay, disembarking in crowds, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the delicately nurtured with the rudely reared, there was simply no place to put them, nowhere for them to go.

For in Melbourne, houses and cottages, huts and hotels were alike full, more than full, with legitimate occupants. The verandahs and even the back yards were utilised as dormitories. A list of the extraordinary makeshifts for bedrooms then in common use would read like a chapter from The Hunting of the Snark or kindred literature. Only with this difference, that the nonsense would all be true,—terribly true.

What, then, was to be done? Filled with auriferous fancies and fables, it was yet impossible for all of these inexperienced, untravelled innocents to march at once for the diggings. Many had imagined that they could ‘step over,’ on arrival, to the golden fields, and commence the colonial industry of nugget gathering without loss of time.

To fathers of families—some of near kin to Mr. Micawber—to raw lads, to the feeble, the sick, the penniless—there were many of these last—it may easily be imagined how terrible was the first experience of the strange, inhospitable, and apparently savage land in which they found themselves.

Landed at Sandridge or on the wharves of Melbourne, in the midst of rude, jostling crowds, what misery must many of them have undergone! I fear me that the complacent colonists, thriving and experienced, fully aware of the fact that all property, whether of stock, land, stations, or houses, had become enormously enhanced in value, must have seemed to the forlorn emigrants hard and unfeeling. There was a savour of selfishness, surely, about the way in which the herd of helpless strangers—gentle and simple, good, bad, or indifferent—was permitted to go its own road, to sink or swim, with but little aid or counsel from their countrymen in Victoria.

The deadly wharf-struggle over, it became a vital question with the houseless horde where to go and how to shelter themselves. There, indeed, was the rub! Melbourne, as before stated, was crammed full. They could not camp in the streets. They were unprepared for the bush. They knew not which way to turn. Whether, in some semi-official way, directed to locate themselves upon the site, long famous and memorable, or, whether as being within reach of the Yarra, of the town, and apparently unoccupied, and unowned, the bright idea of “pegging out” struck some smart pilgrim, and the rest followed suit, cannot be known. But almost in a night Canvas Town arose, and became a localised, tangible fact.

About that time there lived in the pastoral region of Victoria, occasionally visiting Melbourne like his brethren, when a decent excuse offered, a squatter named Evan Cameron. This young person had lately brought a draft of fat cattle from his station near the mouth of the Glenelg. The season being that of winter, the weather bad, and his assistant strictly unreliable, he had been sorely tried and endured hardship. But, as he had sold the drove at an unprecedentedly high price, and was even now enjoying a well-earned holiday, the memory of his privations was becoming faint and obscure.

One of his recreations during his season of idlesse was to ride a handsome blood mare of his own breeding, which he had brought down with some such intention, around the suburbs where his visiting acquaintances and friends abode. Carmen was a grand, upstanding, hunter—looking animal, and when thus mounted, and by no means badly dressed, Mr. Cameron judged that he was not unlikely to produce a favourable impression upon any stray princess or other feminine personage whom he might encounter.

This curious hamlet in the track to South Yarra and St. Kilda fascinated him. He used to ride quietly through its chief thoroughfares, observing the manners and customs of the variously differentiated dwellers therein. It was with no unkindly feeling that he did this. More than a barren spirit of curiosity and idle questioning actuated him. With regard to newly-arrived people—the men, of course—he had been in the habit of asserting that no one need fare badly in this country who chose to work. That they could always find well-paid employment. That there was no such thing as bad luck; and so on. Some of which dogmatic utterances he found occasion in the after-time to modify considerably.

‘What a curious sight,’ he used to say to himself, ‘is this!’ as the big, bright-skinned mare went lounging down the narrow paths, snorting occasionally, and pretending to be afraid of the people and things she saw. For they performed most of their household offices in front of their dwellings. Misery and hard usage had made them callous. Whether they thought no one could possibly recognise them, or because nearly all of us are creatures of circumstance, some who plainly had seen better days and far other surroundings were singularly careless as to appearances. ‘Don’t be affected,’ he said one day to Carmen, who was turning up her nose, so to speak, at a piebald horse in a baker’s cart standing across the way.

The baker stood talking to a stout young fellow in a fur cap, who had ‘Seven Dials’ legibly imprinted on his visage. He was sitting on a wheel-barrow, while a pale woman was washing in a tub placed upon two buckets on the side of the road. ‘Why, I thought you was off to the diggings, Towney!’ said the baker.

‘Not if I knows it,’ answered the Londoner. ‘The missus here’s getting twelve shillin’ a dozen for washin’. That’ll keep us until I can get some light work about the town. I’m not agoin’ to kill myself at the diggins, don’t you believe it. I’m on for a beer-shop, or somethink in that line, as soon as we can rise it.’

Evan Cameron listened to this statement with deep disgust, noticing at the same time that two tents immediately above in the row were closed, as if the occupants were out, or did not wish to be seen. As he moved away, knitting his brows and cursing this nefarious burly costermonger living upon his wife’s hard earnings, longing also to knock him head first into his own barrow, a young girl came from the direction of the town towards the two men, who were directly across her path. She was plainly but not poorly dressed, and was followed by a handsome retriever. Her whole air was of the deepest despondency, and as she walked slowly and falteringly along, Mr. Cameron thought, looking at her slight figure and downcast, drooping countenance, that no painter could have fallen upon a finer model for hopeless misery and despair.

As she approached the baker’s cart she looked up suddenly, thereby exhibiting, as Evan thought, an exceedingly pleasing, refined cast of countenance; also large, plaintive brown eyes, with a startled, deerlike expression. What with the men and the wheel-barrow, the washing-tub and the baker’s cart, the thoroughfare was completely blocked. The men looked at her in a way which increased her confusion but did not offer to stir. The girl had stopped and commenced a detour, but the retriever, anxious to make a short cut, walked between the two men. As he did so the man called Towney gave the poor brute a savage kick. At the dog’s sharp cry in agony the girl turned hastily, and confronted the man. ‘Oh, don’t hurt Friend, don’t, pray! He is my poor sick brother’s dog.’ Here sobs prevented further speech, but as she stood with upraised, tearful countenance, forgetful of her natural timidity, Evan thought that the enterprising painter above referred to would have found an equally good model for another successful sketch, ‘Innocence defending the helpless.’

As he dismounted hastily, leaving Carmen to her own devices, he was just in time to hear the rough growl out, ‘You be hanged and your brother too; you’re too fine to pal in with my missus; for two pins I’d sarve you as I did the dawg.’

‘Not while there’s a man within reach, you scoundrel!’ shouted Evan, giving the grinning baker a shove, which sent him staggering against his cart, and the next minute administering a scientific ‘taste of the upper cut’ to Mr. Towney, which sent him down with such emphasis that the back of his head knocked against one of his wife’s buckets.

‘You had better walk towards your tent, I think,’ Evan said to the young lady, offering his arm politely. ‘I will guarantee that you are not further molested. Did I understand you to say that your brother was ill? I may perhaps be of some slight service.’

The girl looked doubtfully in the stranger’s face, and then, perhaps reassured by the honest expression of Evan’s gray eyes, answered, ‘I have just been to see him at the hospital. He is worse to-day; and oh, I am afraid he is dying! What shall I do, what shall I do in this strange country, alone and friendless that I am?’ Here she burst into a passion of sobs and tears, and for a few minutes was unable to speak.

At that moment the flap of the other closed tent was pushed open and a tall man appeared. His face was ashen pale, the gloom of despairing sorrow lay over it like a pall.

‘What is wrong, Miss Melton?’ said he, in a half-absent manner, with his eyes fixed on vacancy. ‘You must pardon my inattention. Is there anything that I can do for you?’

‘I am selfishly forgetting others in my own distress,’ she said, hastily drying her eyes. ‘I was annoyed by that rude man next door; but this gentleman came kindly to my assistance. How is your poor wife?’

‘She is dead. Dead!’ he gasped out. ‘Gone for ever! My love could not keep her here. How could she leave me? You see the most wretched of living men; Isora, O my beloved! But I shall not live long after you.’ Here the miserable man made as though he would cast himself upon the earth, wailing and lamenting in passionate abandonment. ‘O God, why hast Thou suffered this? Was she not angelically patient, sweet, humble, fearing Thee, keeping Thy laws, in charity with all? and Thou hast permitted her to die. Her! In pain too, and dire wretchedness! Is there a God of justice, or are all the creeds but mockeries of the Fiend?’

‘Hush, Mr. Montfort,’ said the young lady softly. ‘Oh, do not rave so wildly. She would not have suffered it. You will think of her soft pleadings now, will you not? How good and patient she always was.’

‘She was an angel!’ cried the mourner, striking his forehead. ‘What is Alan Montfort that he should have been the love of her youth, the husband of her choice? If he had been a man, with the instinctive sense of the humblest labourer, her life would have been saved. You will come, Alice, and look on her now? She loved you in life—ah, so well!’

Together they turned towards the opening in the tent, when Evan Cameron, who had looked pityingly on, awe-stricken in the presence of the stranger’s irreparable sorrow, tied Carmen to a fortunately placed stake, and came forward to make adieu, being no longer necessary in any capacity that he could imagine.

The young lady halted, and cordially thanked him for his timely aid. Her face was grave, but her eyes conveyed the idea to Evan’s mind that but for the sadness of her present surroundings her gratitude would have been more feelingly expressed.

Suddenly the stranger, whom she had called Mr. Montfort, after gazing at him with widely-opened, rayless eyes, exclaimed, ‘Your face is familiar, as of one whom I knew in youth. My boyhood was spent in Australia. Surely you are Evan Cameron?’

‘As certainly as you are my old schoolfellow Alan Montfort. Great God, what a meeting! What would I not have given to have known of you being here these weeks that I have been in town?’

‘It matters not. Nothing matters now in this world, Evan! But you are an old friend; come into this wretched hovel with this dear girl who loved her—cherished her—and see my beloved while still her beauty is untouched.’

With a groan Montfort walked forward, followed by Miss Melton; bareheaded and reverently Evan Cameron also entered, then stood silent and heart-thrilled, while the wretched husband sank upon a rude seat and covered his face with his hands. The sobs which shook his whole frame told the depth of his agonised grief.

On a meanly-draped but scrupulously neat bed lay the corpse of a supremely beautiful woman. Her long black hair, drawn back from her ivory forehead, lay in silken masses upon the pillow; her large dark eyes were open; the delicately-pencilled eyebrows, the long-fringed eyelashes, all, as in life, perfect and unchanged. Her slightly-parted lips seemed but modelled for a smile, almost could one fancy that she was recovering from a faint, and would commence to live and love afresh.

‘Surely she is not dead? Oh, can there be hope?’ exclaimed the girl, stepping to her side, and pressing her lips to her forehead. Cold, alas, was the pearly brow, rigid the lovely lips, rayless with fixed regard the wondrous eyes, that never more would look on him she loved too well—loved better than home and friends, than the world’s honours and gifts, the favour of Royalty, the adoration of the great.

All these had Isora Delmar quitted to follow her love to a far-off, unknown land. To live for months in a hovel such as her father’s hinds had never entered. To pine and waste silently for lack of needful things, nay, of the common necessaries of life. And at length, patient, hopeful, loving to the last, to lie dead on a miserable pallet in this hamlet of outcasts, in a strange land, with but one friend of her own sex, and she, alas! oh bitter fate! forced to be absent when she drew her latest breath.

The girl threw herself on her knees by the bed-side, and taking the wasted hand of the dead woman in hers, kissed it, weeping bitterly. Evan Cameron’s heart ached, as he could not but observe in the mean abode the painful evidences of the gradual tightening of the grasp of poverty. The man’s costly outfit had been sold long before; her trinkets, and indeed less superfluous possessions had, no doubt, gone gradually. These piteous sales of the goods of the strangers—too literally sacrifices—were then matters of such everyday occurrence in Melbourne as to call forth no remark. With the exception of a few cooking utensils, the smallest assortment of crockery, a table, a rude sofa, two wooden chairs and a portmanteau, there was nothing more to be seen in that bare tenement, in which these two well-born, misguided victims had lived for months.

It may be asked, How could such things be in Melbourne in 1852? Was not the place running over with money? Was there not work for any man with strong arms and a willing heart? Had this Mr. Montfort a tongue in his head? Had he not friends who would have helped him? We refuse to believe it.

It is hard to persuade the prosperous people of the world—whether that world be old or new—that persons in want of money or the necessaries of life are not culpable, if not criminal. If the true history of that terrible time were written it would be abundantly proved that many of the poor, innocent, inexperienced souls who came here ‘in the fifties’ in all good faith to seek their fortunes, underwent deadly dangers and sad privations—were often reduced to depths of utter despair ere good fortune or ‘colonial experience’ came to their aid.

What were they to do? let me ask, in their interest, as amicus curiae. They had miscalculated their means, they had shrunk from going straight to the diggings, and if with sisters, wife, or children, what wonder? The money began to run short. What next? Try to get work? It was not so easy; few people were inclined to take as groom or gardener, cook, or waiter, a man obviously unused to such employments, and without references. I am thinking of the gentlefolk who, sick at heart, day by day, wandered about, fruitlessly trying to comprehend Australia. Pinched with hunger in a land of gold, amid millions of beeves; starving in the most plenteous food-producing country under the sun! Too proud to beg or to apply to relatives! Small wonder that in the very midst of our careless, hard-judging, hastily-gilded era, tragedies like the one I have sketched were almost of weekly occurrence.

‘You had better both go, now,’ the girl said gently. ‘I will close her eyes—dear, lovely, lost Isora! Take him with you,’ she whispered to Evan; ‘you are old friends, it seems. It will relieve him to tell all his mind to you. When he returns I shall have dressed her in her last robes.’

‘Allow me to call to-morrow,’ said Mr. Cameron. ‘You may trust me for all aid and counsel in his affairs—and your own,’ he added. ‘No! you must really not deny me the pleasure of helping you. Our meeting was providential.’

With a warm pressure of the hand the newlymade friends and fellow-workers parted. He drew Montfort away, and listened to the sad recital, mingled with bursts of passionate grief, in which he told the tale of their hurried marriage, and his illjudged determination to quit his regiment and sail for the land of gold.

‘But I will never leave her,’ he cried aloud in conclusion. ‘She shall stay with me until her fair body is committed to the earth, and then I will die on her grave rather than quit the place where she lies.’

On the morrow Evan Cameron arranged with a disposer of the dead to perform his mournful office, and privately gave directions for an inner coffin of lead to be provided as well as the more ornate casket in which the jewel of Alan Montfort’s existence would be deposited. Yet, mindful of the claims of the living, in whom he had commenced to feel a strong and increasing interest, he betook himself to the Melbourne Hospital. There, gaining audience of the resident surgeon, to whom he was fortunately known, he requested information concerning one Arthur Melton.

‘Fever ward, No. 3; new arrival; very low yesterday,’ answered that gentleman, with professional brevity. ‘Sister, nice girl; will be here directly. Report better to-day; taken a turn towards recovery, I think. See what the escort brought down this week?’

No! Mr. Cameron had not seen it, and didn’t care if every rascally digger was kicked out of the country again. The gold epidemic was a kind of cholera or yellow fever (no pun intended). The country was going to the devil, fast. But he was glad to hear the poor young fellow was better.

‘How about the price of bullocks, Mr. Squatter?’ said the doctor, laughing. ‘Besides, the gold brings nice people to the colony, relatives of patients, and so on! Well, if this young fellow rallies—and I think he will—a little country air will do him good and the young lady too. Ah, sly dog! Now goodbye! Patients don’t like waiting.’

Mr. Cameron rattled Carmen along Swanston Street, and across the Yarra bridge, much faster than he generally did over metal. In consequence of which imprudence, he met Alice Melton coming along towards the Yarra, on her way to the hospital. It was only natural that he should dismount and offer to walk beside her, while he communicated the welcome news of her brother’s improvement in health. Carmen led well too, having perhaps had previous practice.

The girl’s face lit up with an expression of joy and gratitude, which Evan thought perfectly heavenly, as she exclaimed, ‘Oh, how kind of you! How shall I ever be able to thank you sufficiently?’

Evan thought it might be managed, but was too wise to say so. Then he told her of his arrangement as to poor Mrs. Montfort’s burial, of which she expressed approval.

‘I am afraid she must have suffered much,’ he said. ‘Poor Alan! when we were boys together, how little could we foresee a meeting like this!’

‘No one knows what she went through,’ said the girl. ‘Bravely, and so sweetly, she bore everything. Mr. Montfort did what he could, but he is one of those helpless men who either do things wrongly or not at all. They must have nearly starved often. My brother was so different before the wretched fever took him. He used to chop wood and draw water for people, catch fish, and shoot ducks, that poor Friend used to swim in for; kept up his spirits too, and said he was sure he could save enough to get a nice little cottage for us both before long. He liked the country from the beginning.’

‘And then?’ queried Evan.

‘Then he took ill after a long hard day’s work in some back lane in Melbourne. We spent nearly all our money before he was removed to the hospital. He was at his lowest the day I saw you, and I was then the most wretched despairing girl in the world, I really believe.’

‘But now you begin to hope?’

‘Yes, really I do,’ she said, smiling in spite of herself (she had beautiful teeth, certainly, thought Evan), ‘and, but for poor Mrs. Montfort’s death, and his misery, poor fellow, I could feel almost happy.’

‘Evidently of a cheerful disposition,’ he reflected; ‘sensitive and sympathetic, but easily recalled to her original sunshine.’

Miss Melton came out from the hospital much cheered and comforted by her visit to her brother, in whose face she saw tokens of certain recovery. She insisted upon returning at once to Canvas Town, however, for the purpose of attending to the despairing Montfort, who, she said, sat gazing at his dead wife for hours. She was really afraid he would destroy himself. It was her duty to remain with him. It relieved his mind at intervals to talk to her of his lost Isora.

When Evan Cameron rode next day to Canvas Town, another phase of the tragedy with which he had come to be so strangely mixed up, was presented. Miss Melton issued from Montfort’s tent, and motioning to him hastily to enter, went into her own dwelling.

He pushed aside the canvas and, to his great surprise, saw another man, whom he recognised as Alan Montfort’s elder brother. He greeted Cameron warmly, and appeared much gratified at meeting him. The dead woman lay in her coffin, her pale, calm beauty still unchanged, while near her stood her husband, gazing with the same rapt, intense earnestness, apparently still unable to divest himself of a feeling that her case was not past hope.

Leaving him unchanged in posture, the two men walked out and stood for some seconds gazing silently at the busy scene beyond the river.

‘What an extraordinary chance,’ said Charles Montfort, at length, ‘that you should have discovered my unfortunate brother here. You of all people! When we were schoolfellows together who could have dreamt that we three should meet thus?’

‘That young lady who has just gone out and the dog, Friend, were the principal agents,’ replied Cameron. ‘How I wish we had met a month earlier—and it might so easily have been. Hard that all came so late!’

‘Hard indeed. That girl is an angel, poor Alan says. Nursed his wife and her brother till her own life was nearly the forfeit. But we have no time to lose. It is the saddest fate. Alan, it seems, eloped with his wife. Her friends, wealthy and aristocratic, would not hear of their marriage. He had only his commission and was in debt. But you know his headstrong, reckless nature. Handsome and attractive to women always, Isora Delmar fell in love with him. Their flight and voyage to this country followed—most unhappily for all.’

‘He intended, I suppose, to go to the goldfields?’

‘Yes, of course. On reaching Melbourne he found it inexpedient to take his wife there. His money came to an end. We had paid his debts twice before, and he was unwilling to apply to his family again. Buoyed up with the hope of finding employment, official or otherwise, he deferred writing home until it was too late. Too late! Last week I got his first and only letter, and came at once by the steamer from Adelaide. She returns to-morrow. I must take him back there if I can only persuade him.’

‘Time may change the nature of his grief,’ said Cameron. ‘But is he unwilling to go?’

‘He declares that he will not leave his Isora. We must take the body with us. And here, now, is the difficulty. He refuses to allow the coffin lid to be nailed down. He insists upon a daily visit from a medical man. He believes that she will revive.’

‘A young doctor at my hotel told me that he wanted to get to Adelaide. Bob Wilson is a very clever fellow. I will find him out to-night. For the rest, the lid of the coffin can be rendered movable at will. The man that made it can manage that. Poor Alan! Poor fellow! Let us go in and talk to him.’

After long argument the unhappy man seemed dimly to comprehend the necessity of the step proposed. To Cameron he appeared grateful, and eventually promised to go with him. After nightfall a vehicle was procured, in which the friends conveyed the corpse of the ill-fated Isora Montfort to the steamer Admella—herself a fated ship—under the still-continued jealous watchfulness of her husband. They reached in due course the Montfort estate in South Australia, and in a secluded dell, where others of the household slept their long sleep, all that was mortal of that incarnation of grace, beauty, and virtue which men once called Isora Delmar was laid. Here could Alan Montfort wander and muse—outwatch the midnight hour! Here he chafed at the slowly passing days of a ruined life. Here he prayed for the hastening of that hour when the Death Angel should unlock the gates of the spirit world and relume their immortal love.

For Evan Cameron, the strangely-initiated adventure bore a far different termination. Lodgings for Miss Melton and her brother were procured with a lady of his acquaintance, who had herself known bereavement in the land of light and shadow. He sent for Arthur to his station, when able to travel by easy stages, the doctor having advocated removal to the pure air of the country. ‘A manly, plucky young Englishman, really a splendid fellow,’ Evan told every one. Arthur Melton took to bush life from the first. As men were scarce in those disturbed days, he soon became useful, then valuable, on the station. He wrote such delightful accounts of life at Barrawonga to his sister that, backed up by ‘proper representation’ on the proprietor’s part, Alice Melton was induced to make trial of it, and indeed, in due time, as Mrs. Evan Cameron, to take up her permanent residence there. They all agreed in the aftertime, that it was a fortunate hour in which Evan rode the unwilling Carmen through the narrow, uninviting main street of Canvas Town.

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