In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

JIM was the first off the Francis Cadman on the Monday afternoon when she drew alongside the rough Yarra wharf just under Bateman’s Hill, and when he set his foot on Australian soil he planted one tendril of his heart there. He let fall his bag, and looked about him. The arrival of the ship had occasioned no interest that he could discover. Perhaps the news was not yet common property. A dusty road along the banks of the river on his right led to the town; there were a few scattered houses of dark stone and primitive design on the hill before him, beside which the lawless gum-trees flourished. The day was intensely hot; a wind that might have breathed o’er the infernal regions whipped up clouds of dust, and spun them into fantastic shapes, filling eyes and lungs, but no discomfort could dull the joy he felt on coming into his kingdom. He had turned his back to the wind to wait the passing of a sirocco of sand, when a double-seated American waggon, drawn by two steaming horses, flashed on him out of the storm, driving him headlong to the ground, and coming to a standstill within a few feet. The bag had served as a buffer, and the deeply-ploughed roadway made a soft bed, so that no bones were broken; but Done arose with all his fighting instincts aflame, and turned upon the driver.

‘You murderous ruffian!’ he cried. ‘I’ve a mind to break—’

He stopped short, one foot upon the step, one hand grasping the ironwork of the seat, staring at the driver, suddenly disarmed. The man on the seat was a grizzled, malformed creature of about fifty, with a deeply-wrinkled small face, burnt a dark tan, and almost covered with a tangle of short, crisp, iron-gray whiskers. The suggestion of a rough-haired terrier was so strong that Done expected the brute to bark at him. The small eyes in the protecting shade of tufted brows, like miniature overhanging horns, were keen and shrewd. This extraordinary head was supported by a small and shapeless body, the legs of which were much too long and extremely thin, as were the arms also; but the wrists and hands, strained to hold the restive horses, were hard, corded, and hairy, suggesting a gorilla-like vitality in the curious man. Done let himself down to the roadway again. One could not fight with so miserable a cripple.

‘You drive like a madman, mister,’ he said in a milder tone.

‘Maybe yer off the ship just now?’ said the ape like driver, quite ignoring Done’s grievance and his words. ‘So bein’, you can tell we if there’s a Mistress Macdougal aboard her.’

The man kept his eyes on his horses; his heels were firmly set on the footboard. It needed all the strength of his iron wrists to restrain the beasts—tall, lean bays, with a certain piratical rakishness about them, long-maned and long-tailed, effective weapons against the voracious flies that swarmed over their rumps. Their powerful frames showed through clean, healthy hides, and their blood in the proud carriage of their heads and their hot impatience under restraint. A half-caste aboriginal boy, dressed apparently in his master’s old clothes—and the master’s own clothes were none too new—sprawled on the bottom of the vehicle, and grinned at Done in a friendly way over the tailboard. Jim resented the cripple’s contempt for his wrongs, and ignored the question put to him. He was taking up his belongings again, when Mrs. Macdougal herself fluttered by.

‘Why, Mack!’ she cried.

The driver’s eyes left his horses’ ears for a moment, and rested on the lady. They displayed no particular feeling.

‘Hello, missus!’ he said casually, adding, after a pause: ‘Best jump up. Nags a bit fresh.’

Jim walked on. So this was Donald Macdougal, J.P., of Boobyalla. The young man’s annoyance fell from him. He thought of the devoted husband’s greeting after their long parting, and laughed aloud. Macdougal of Boobyalla was no demonstrative lover. A few minutes later the waggon dashed past Done; the bays were being driven at a gallop, and the vehicle fairly jumped on the broken road. The young man caught a glimpse of Lucy clinging desperately to her seat, and then waggon and horses were buried in a dust-cloud of their own making, which was whirled away at a terrific pace, and spun out of his view round a distant corner.

Done plodded along with his bag upon his shoulder. He had no definite plan of action. He thought now of looking about him for a day or two before leaving for the fields. No doubt it would be an easy matter to get accommodation at some hotel or lodging-house. After that he would move with the throng, and his future actions would depend upon such knowledge as he might be able to gather from the experienced people with whom he came in contact. He presently had ample proof that the driving of Macdougal of Boobyalla was nothing extraordinary here. Three horsemen passed him at a racing speed, and with much shouting and cracking of whips, and a wild, bewhiskered Bushman, driving two horses in a light, giglike vehicle, charged through the dust at a pace implying some business of life or death; but a little further on Jim came upon the steaming pair tethered to a post outside a rough structure labelled the ‘Miner’s Rest,’ and at the bar stood the driver toying lazily with a nobbler of brandy. He passed groups of men lounging against the building and sitting in the street, all smoking, none showing particular concern about anything. Their lethargy surprised him. He had expected to find the town mad with excitement, to behold here the gold fever blazing without restraint; but wherever there was a post to lean against a man was leaning against it, exactly as if there were nothing doing, and the world had not just run demented over the richness of their Victorian fields. It remained for him to learn that this very excitement provoked a corresponding lassitude, and that when the Australian diggers were not indulging in the extreme of frenzied exertion or boisterous recreation their inertia surpassed that of their own koala, the native sloth.

Ere he reached the busier part of the town, Jim made the disconcerting discovery that he was a marked man, an object of public contumely. He had heard calls of derision at various points along the road, and was convinced now that for some reason or another he was exciting the laughter and badinage of the men. This was a painful shock to Done’s happiness. The situation recalled Chisley, and something of the old Ishmael stirred within him. He set his teeth and hurried on. ‘Pea-souper!’ was the epithet most in favour amongst his tormentors. Why ‘Pea-souper!’ Jim could not understand. He could see no aptness in its application to him, and yet it was certainly a term of mockery. ‘Pea-souper!’ The taunt had an ignominious flavour. It hurt because it recalled so much of what he had travelled halfway round the world to escape.

He plunged into Elizabeth Street as if seeking cover. Here the crowd was thick, and one man might pass unheeded. Elizabeth Street was the busiest thoroughfare of Melbourne—a miserable, unformed street, the buildings of which were perched on either side of a gully. Pedestrians who were not sober ran serious risks of falling from the footpaths into the roadway below, a rather serious fall in places. Plunged is the right word; the road was churned into a dust-pit, on the footpath the dust lay ankle-deep, and people on foot had the appearance of wading through shallow water. Occasional gusts of the hot north wind seemed to lift the Street like a blanket, and shake its yellow, insinuating dust in the faces of the people.

Here Done found the characteristic lassitude of the unemployed digger and the surging life of a town suddenly thronged with the adventurous men of the earth blended in a strange medley. Men were lounging everywhere, talking and smoking, or merely sunk in a state of abstraction. The talk was all of digging. The miners were exchanging news, rumour and opinions, and lying about their past takings, or the fabulous patches they had just missed—lying patiently and pertinaciously. Many faces were marked and discoloured from recent debauches. Lowly inebriates slept peacefully in the dust, one with his head affectionately pillowed on a dog that snarled and snapped at anyone coming within three feet of its master.

There was little variety in the dress worn. Even the man who had not been two miles from Melbourne affected the manner of the digger, and donned his uniform. Cabbage-tree hats or billycocks were on every head, and for the rest a gray or blue jumper tucked into Clay-stained trousers and Wellington boots satisfied the majority. A few swells and ‘flash’ diggers exhibited a lively fancy in puggaries and silk sashes and velvet corduroys and natty patent-leather leggings, but anything more pretentious was received with unmistakable manifestations of popular disfavour. A large bullock-team hauling a waggon load of bales blundered slowly along the road, the weary cattle swinging from side to side under the lash of the bullocky, who yelled hoarse profanity with the volubility of an auctioneer and the vocabulary of a Yankee skipper unchecked by authority. A little further on another team, drawn up before a hotel, lay sprawling, half buried, the patient bullocks twisted into painful angles by reason of their yokes, quietly chewing the cud. Riders and drivers conformed to no rule of the road, and maintained a headlong pace implying a great contempt for horseflesh, and no more respect for their own limbs than for the neck of the merest stranger. From the bars, which were frequent, came a babel of laughter and shouting. To the ‘Pea-souper’ every thing was new and wonderful.

A squalid aboriginal swathed in an old tablecloth fresh from some breakfast started from a corner, pointing a long, dirty finger at Done, and grinning a wide grin.

‘Yah! dam new chum!’ he said. Then he laughed as only an Australian black can, with a glitter of seemingly endless white teeth, and a strident roar that might have been heard a mile off.

‘New chum!’ This appellation had been thrown at Done a dozen times.

‘Pea-souper!’ trumpeted a horseman through his hands. There were sarcastic references to ‘limejuice,’ and Jim was asked by several strangers, with a show of much concern, if his mother knew he was out. ‘Does your mother know you’re out?’ was then a new and popular street gag, and the query implied a childlike incapability of taking care of himself on the part of the person addressed, and was generally accepted as a choice piece of humour. Jim heard so many references to the ‘new chum’s bundle’ that he was presently satisfied he owed all these unpleasant little attentions to the burden he carried, and he determined to rid himself of it at the first opportunity. Turning into Bourke Street, he eventually found a hotel where there was comparative peace. Entering, he called for a drink.

‘New chum?’ queried the barman, after serving him.

‘I suppose I am,’ replied Jim. ‘Look here, would you mind telling me what in the devil’s name a new chum is?’

‘A new chum is a man fresh from home.’

‘From England?’

‘Scotland, Ireland, anywhere else, if he’s green and inexperienced. Miners from the Californian fields don’t rank as new chums.’

‘And how am I known as a new chum?’

The barman grinned. ‘That’ll tell on you all over the place,’ he said, indicating the bag. ‘That’s a true new chum’s bundle. No Australian would expatriate himself by carrying his goods in that fashion. He makes them up in a roll, straps them, and carries them in a sling on his back. His bundle is then a swag. The swag is the Australian’s national badge.’

‘Well, I’m hanged if that isn’t a little thing to make a row about. Do you reckon it shameful to be a new chum, then?’

‘Not exactly. No offence is intended; the men jeer out of mere harmless devilment. The new churn’s got so much to learn here, he can’t help looking a born fool as a general thing.’

‘And pea-souper and lime-juicer?’

‘They’ve been hazing you properly, mate. Pea-soupers and lime-juicers are strangers off shipboard. They’d never have spotted you, though, without the bundle. There’s no raw-meat tint about you; you’re tanned like a native. Buy a blue jumper and get a cabbage-tree up in place of that cap, and you’d pass muster as a Sydney-sider born and bred.’

‘A cabbage-tree?’

‘Hat—straw. Get a second-hand one if you can: they’re more appreciated. Usually a man likes to colour his own hat as he colours his own pipe; but you’re eager to meet the Australian prejudice against newness. Another bit of advice,’ continued the bar-man, who was glad of the chance to turn his vast antipodean experience to some account. ‘If you happen to be anybody in particular, as you love your peace of mind and your bodily comfort, don’t speak of it.’

‘Luckily, I’m nobody in particular.’

‘That’s all right. I was idiot enough to let it be known that I was afflicted with an aristocratic name, and I had to hold this job against banter enough to drive a cow daft. Now my name’s Smith.’

‘Are you a new chum, then?’

‘Lord no! I’ve been out seven weeks.’

It was Jim’s turn to laugh. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if a man can qualify as a representative Australian in seven weeks, I’m not going to complain.’

The barman provided much more valuable information. Bed and board could not be had at that establishment for love or money, and, furthermore, it was unlikely Jim would be able to find lodgings anywhere in Melbourne.

‘I suppose you can take care of yourself—you look a likely man,’ he said. ‘Well, the nights are so warm no man needs a dwelling. When you’re tired of knocking round to-night, take your traps down by the river, roll yourself in your blanket in the lee of a gum-tree, and sleep there. Did it myself for a week, and only had to put up one fight all the time. Sleeping out’s no hardship here. Meanwhile, in exchange for the latest news from down under, I’ll dump your swag, and keep an eye on her till you call again.’

The young fellow’s ready friendship was most grateful to Done, and he remained in the bar till a run of business rendered further conversation impossible, picking up useful knowledge by the way, and presently discovering the barman to be a gentleman with an expensive polish, whose most earnest desire was to hide his gentility and disguise the contingent gloss under a brave assumption of the manners and speech peculiar to the people of the rough young democracy.

Tea that evening was the most expensive meal Jim Done had ever eaten, and far from being the best; but his appetite was equal to anything, and the fare on the Francis Cadman had not been so dainty as to give him any epicurean prejudices. It was night when Jim came from the primitive restaurant, darkness having come down with a suddenness surprising to a new chum accustomed to long twilights. Jim had taken tea in a tent near Paddy’s Market. Here scores of tents of all sorts and sizes were huddled together. All cooking was done out of doors. Fires were everywhere, their glow, reflected brightly on the canvas of the ‘flies,’ giving a fantastic brilliance to the scene. Life stirred around him, jubilant, bounteous, pulsing life. The levity of the people was without limit. Their childishness astonished Done, but he lived to find this a characteristic of the diggers in all parts; even the roughest men in the roughest camps exhibited a schoolboy’s love of horseplay and a great capacity for primitive happiness. It was as if the people, having thrown off the more galling restraints of civilization and order, felt their limbs and spirits free for the first time, and exercised both with the freedom and, the austere critic may say, the foolishness of mountain goats.

Jim’s whole being was infected with the spirit of the place, his blood danced. He had discarded his cap for a well-seasoned cabbage-tree, and wore a blue jumper under his coat, and now passed unheeded, excepting when a jovial digger, flown with brandy and success, roared a ‘Good luck, mate!’ or commanded him in to drink. Social restraints were gone; equality ruled the road; all men were brothers, and friendships of ten minutes’ standing were as sacred as the ties of kinship.

The night was young, but already turbulent. The hot wind had passed, and the air was sweet and free from dust. As he moved along the street, Done’s ear caught the squeak and the twang of fiddle and banjo coming through the confusion of voices. Step-dancing and singing were the most popular delights. The ability to sing a comic song badly was passport enough in digger society. The streets were lit with kerosene. Here and there a slush lamp or a torch blazed before an establishment seeking notoriety, shedding a note of lurid colour upon the faces of the bearded men thronging the footpath. If there were laws controlling all these elements, Jim failed to discover a sign of them; neither did he see sign of the flagrant lawlessness he had been led to expect. The absence of arms surprised him most of all. He looked to find knives and revolvers in every belt, but saw no display of weapons, and noting the bluff, lumbering kindliness animating the crowd, he thought of his own small but carefully selected arsenal with some contempt.

Jim Done walked about the streets for two hours, interested in everything, disappointed with nothing. All this satisfied the craving that had driven him from home. Here he was one of the people, a man amongst men, accepted at his face and physical value by fellow-creatures who respected most the fearless eye and the strong arm. Moreover, there were no signs of those hated forces, respectability, piety, conventionality, all of which had seemed to range themselves automatically on the side of his enemies.

He came to a large wooden hall with a row of lamps blazing along its front and a foreign sign over the door. From within floated strains of music and the beating of many feet. Jim entered. The place was crowded with hairy diggers—mostly successful, he learned presently. The atmosphere was heavy with smoke. A wild dance was going on, and several sets held the floor. Half a dozen of the most fortunate of the men had female partners, the others danced ‘bucks,’ man and man, and the pounding of their heavy boots and the yells of laughter provoked by their clumsy movements quite drowned the music of the feeble orchestra, crowded away in the far corner of the room. Along one end ran an unplaned wooden counter, where two or three barmen were kept busy serving gin, brandy, and rum to the parched dancers. When the dance was ended there was a rush for the bar, and Jim found now that dancing did not go by favour, the hands of the fair being bestowed upon the highest bidders. One tall, lack-haired, laughing girl, with the figure and face of a Bacchante, sprang upon a chair, shaking aloft a yellow scarf, and was auctioned for the next dance amidst a storm of bidding and a hurricane of merriment. She was borne down the room in the arms of the triumphant digger, who had paid thirty ‘weights’ for his bouncing partner—six pounds for ten minutes’ dancing, and the proud purchaser couldn’t dance a step!

Jim watched the women curiously; they were a new type to him—young, virile, red-lipped, flushed with wine, shameless in the face of the crowd, their faces kindled with laughter. They led the men in their wild revel—pagans absolute. One in particular attracted Done; she was tall, dark-eyed, and black-haired. This, in conjunction with the bold combination of red and black in her costume, gave him the belief that she was Spanish. There was about her some suggestion of character and strength that pleased him. She romped like a child; her merriment was clean and unforced. He saw nothing of the corruption that Vice is supposed to stamp upon the faces of her votaries. These women, despite the feeble kerosene lights, the tobacco-smoke, and the bare, ugly walls, might have been participants in the revels of Dionysus.

Several times, passing him in the dance, the eyes of the Spaniard flashed into his own, and she smiled. When the dance was ended she confronted him.

‘Sure, you’re goin’ to dance wid me, ain’t ye now?’ she said in the most mellifluous brogue.

Done shook his head and laughed with diffidence.

‘No, thanks,’ he said. ‘I’m not a rich digger. Only a poor new chum,’ he added, hoping to carry conviction.

‘Straight from the Ould Country, is it?’ asked the girl eagerly. ‘Have ye the word of ould Ireland, an’ how does she stand? The dance is yours for the shmallest token.’

‘I’m sorry I don’t know Ireland,’ said Jim.

‘Then I’ll give you the dance fer natural love an’ affection.’

Done protested that he could not dance, but the laughing girl dragged him into the thick of it.

‘Come along!’ she cried, dropping the brogue. ‘I’m a patriot, and I love you for the green in your eye.’

Jim danced. He was literally forced into it, and presently found himself getting along quite decently in a barbaric sort of polka. When the music ceased he followed the custom of the country, and shouted for his partner. She drank sherry. He left the hall a few minutes later, with the girl’s kiss, lightly given, tingling on his lips, and walked away quickly, treading on air. Presently he began to question himself. Why this growing exuberance? Was it drink? Never before had he felt its influence. He pulled himself together. He was crowding his sensation: it was time to cry a halt.

The young man returned to the hotel where he had left his belongings. The long bar was crowded with men. The hotel was little more than a large tent with a pretentious wooden front. It was illumined by a single lamp suspended above the counter. This lamp lit up the faces of the men gathered under it, but beyond the countenances of the customers faded into a mist of tobacco-smoke, deepening into darkness in the corners.

Done leant against the bar, watching the scene, still curious, content to wait till the busy barman had leisure to attend to him. After a few moments he found himself an object of most marked interest to a tall, thin digger, perched on an up-ended barrel, drinking porter. The man was watching him narrowly, and at length, as if to leave no doubt of his attentions, he stepped down, and, standing squarely in front of Done, looked him closely in the face. Jim returned the stare, finding curiosity deepen into surprise, and surprise into conviction, in the countenance confronting him.

‘Solo!’ cried the man. ‘Solo, by all that’s holy!’ As he spoke he sprang between Jim and the door way, as if to cut off escape. ‘Bail up!’ he said; ‘we’ve got you tight this trip.’

‘You’re making a mistake, I think, mate,’ said Jim. ‘Anyhow, my name is not Solo.’

‘That’s a bluff! I know you too damn well! Boys,’ continued the miner, addressing the crowd, ‘it’s Solo. I’ll wager my soul on it. Get at him! There’s five hundred cold guineas on his head!’

‘I tell you you’re wrong!’ blurted Done.

The tall man waited for no further argument, but jumped at Done, and they closed. There was a short struggle, and Jim put his opponent down with an old Cousin-Jack trick that he had often tried on better men.

‘The man’s drunk!’ said Jim, as the crowd narrowed in on him. He set his back against the counter, prepared to make a good fight.

A raw-boned, brown-faced native of about twenty-six grappled with him, but only as a pretence, as Done speedily found.

‘Bolt, or you’re a done man!’ whispered the Australian at his ear. ‘When I smash the lamp, over the counter and under the tent, and skedaddle for your life!’

This young fellow allowed himself to be thrown off, and backed into the crowd. The long man, who had recovered his wind, turned to address the men.

‘It’s Solo, mates,’ he said, ‘and there’s five hundred waiting for us if we take him.’

The men moved forward in a body, but just then a pewter crashed into the lamp, and there was darkness. Acting on his new friend’s advice, Done cleared the counter at a bound, and dived under the canvas. Picking himself up, he ran into the darkness. He heard footsteps following him, and increased his pace, stumbling on the strange ground. But a voice assured him.

‘Keep to the right! Make for cover!’ panted his pursuer.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     VII

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