In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

IN the four days and a half of their first week on the field Burton and Done cleared close upon seven hundred pounds. By the end of the second week they had worked out their first mine, and Jim possessed eight hundred pounds. They tried another claim, and bottomed on the pipeclay. The hole was a duffer. They tried a third, and cut the wash once more. This claim was not nearly so rich as their first, but rich enough to pay handsomely, and Mike, young as he was, was too old a miner to abandon a good claim on the chance of finding a better. By this time Jim was feeling himself quite an experienced digger; he could sink a straight shaft, knock down wash-dirt with the best, and pan off a prospect as neatly and with as workmanlike a flourish as any man on the field. He was rapidly coming into close touch with the life about him, adopting the manners of his associates, and slowly wearing down that diffidence which still clung to him in the society of strangers. He was reticent, but there remained no suspicion, no animosity towards his kind. Looking back a year, he could hardly recognise himself; the Jim Done of Chisley seemed an old man by comparison. Already Jim of Forest Creek could laugh at Jim o’ Mill End, but the consciousness of an escape from a horror remained. How serious he had been in those days! How he had permitted himself to suffer! Thank God, it was all gone!

Going into the tent on the afternoon of the second Sunday, Jim found his mate asleep on one of the bunks. In the hollow of his out-thrown hand lay a cheap lacquered frame containing a daguerreotype of a girl’s face. A sudden contrition smote Jim; he turned anxiously to his bunk, throwing the clothes left and right. The vest he had worn when he left the Francis Cadman lay under the pillow. He dived his finger into the watch-pocket, and heaved a sigh of relief. Yes, it was there, safe and sound. He held Lucy Woodrow’s miniature, gazing on it, suffused with chastened emotions. Heavens! how beautiful she was, and so gentle and generous! What an ass he had been! He kissed the picture very tenderly, and with a bit of twine secured it in the pocket of his jumper in dangerous proximity to his heart.

Jim Done had now seen much of the fanciful night life of the camps. A populous lead presented a picturesque appearance by night. The illuminated tents and the flaring camp-fires dotted the field thickly, and where the tents of the business people were drawn in line and something like a main street formed, slush lights and kerosene torches flamed and swinging oil-lamps lit up the scene. Here the wilder spirits assembled and drank square gin, and gambled in the canvas shanty bars, or danced with fine frenzy to music provided by some enterprising German Fräulein stolidly grinding a hurdy-gurdy. There were numerous sly grog-shops amongst the tents, and most of the storekeepers sold illicit drink with open impudence. These places were often centres of roaring, ribald life after nightfall; but the majority of the diggers lay in groups about their camp-fires, chatting quietly or reading the most recent papers available, and were peaceably inclined, easy-going citizens.

It was the fiercer side of existence on the fields that appealed most directly to Jim; he loved the strong colour, the exultant animation, the devil-may-care character, that marked the gatherings in the bars and the gambling-saloons. He took little active part in the playing and the drinking, but the feverish energy of the men and the stirring scenes provided such vivid contrast to what he had hitherto known and seen of life that his soul was greedy for it all. To Mike these scenes were all familiar; his attitude towards them was one of quiet indifference, and he regarded Jim’s rapture with the amused tolerance a sedate, elderly gentleman feels for the enthusiasm of a little boy.

The mates had shifted their tent to a convenient position near the claim they were now working, and were camped within two hundred yards of the establishment of Mrs. Ben Kyley, laundress and baker. Mrs. Kyley was a big-limbed, fresh-coloured, dimpled woman, whose native canniness did not, militate in the least against an amazonian joviality that made her hail-fellow-well-met with half the diggers on the field. Her voice was the loudest amid the clamouring tongues in her large tent at night, and her guffaw overbore everything; it was one of the wonders of Forest Creek. Many a time its echoes, rebounding from Boulder Hill, had set all Diamond Gully grinning in sympathy. It was not known whether Mrs. Kyley and Ben were married or merely mates, but popular opinion tended to the latter belief, legal unions being incompatible with a nice adjustment of forces at the rushes. The exigencies of life on the diggings made sudden changes of scene necessary to the men, and a woman like Mrs. Kyley couldn’t be expected to abandon her business for the sake of a husband, seeing that it was so much easier to set up another husband than another establishment. But the most important branch of the business, that of sly grog-selling, made a man who could handle the riotous and evil-disposed quite essential. Ben Kyley’s appearance, broad, thickly-set, solid as a gum-butt, broken-nosed and heavy-handed, and his reputation as the man who was beaten by Bendigo only after an hour’s hard fighting, marked him as the fittest man on the field for the position he held. For the rest, Ben was a quiet, mild man, whose voice was seldom heard, and whose subjugation to Mrs. Ben was almost comical. Ben worked on his claim by day, and at night he officiated as ‘chucker-out’ in Mrs. Kyley’s bar—for a bar it was, to all intents and purposes. Ben’s duty was not to suppress disorder, but merely to see that the common disorder did not develop into licentiousness, to the danger of Mrs. Kyley’s property or the detriment of her trade.

Mrs. Ben Kyley made bread because bread-baking at three shillings a loaf was an exceedingly profitable business. For the same reason she washed shirts at twelve shillings the half-dozen. But selling rum at a shilling a nobbler to ‘flash’ diggers who despised change was much more profitable still. The industrious woman, who washed and baked all day, was kept busy for the greater part of the night retailing rum to insatiable diggers, and the mystery was that, although nobody could see rum in the bottle or in bulk anywhere about the place, it was rare that the supply ran short.

Jim had visited the tent on one or two occasions, walking from the other side of the gully; he went again on the Saturday afternoon following their removal to buy bread. Mrs. Kyley’s big camp-ovens were nestled in the fires outside the tent, three of them in a row; Mrs. Kyley herself, half smothered in suds, was washing with the rapidity and the indefatigability of a machine.

‘Aurora will attend to you, my boy,’ blared Mrs. Kyley, blowing a storm of suds out of her mop of hair.

Aurora! Jim entered the tent wondering, and found three or four men at the counter, conversing with a young woman, twenty-three perhaps, tall, black-haired, dark-eyed, flushed with colour, happy in temperament, free in manner, a striking representative of a not uncommon type of the time, meeting men on a mutual footing, asking no concessions and making none—Jim’s ‘Spaniard’ of the Melbourne dance saloon. She recognised him immediately.

‘Hello!’ she cried. ‘Look now! if it ain’t the boy wid the blushes, an’ there’s the blush to prove it agin’ him.’

Jim was blushing; his rebellious blood gave the lie to his assumption of easy indifference.

‘How are you?’ he said. ‘I knew you at once.’

‘To be sure. ’Twould be indacent to forgit, seem’ it’s my debtor ye are, for the price of a dance.’

‘Which you gave me for natural love and affection.’

‘’Deed, then ’twas because you were poor an’ motherless in a strange land, but now the gold’s a worry to you, I doubt.’

Jim laughed and shook his head. ‘I want a loaf,’ he said. ‘My mate is hungry and waiting.’

‘Heigho!’ sighed Aurora; ‘devil a scrap of gallantry have these slips of boys, Quigley! You wouldn’t leave me for all the mates on earth, would you, now?’

The big bearded digger banged his fist on the counter, and swore a firm, fluent oath that he would not.

‘Worse luck,’ added Aurora, with a twinkling eye. ‘Here’s yer bread, Teddy-was-me-darlin’, an’ ye’d have it fer love if ’twas me own to give.’

Aurora assumed and dropped the musical brogue according to her whim. Ordinarily her English was as pure as Mrs. Kyley’s, and Mrs. Kyley had the reputation of being a lady of vast attainments.

‘There’s the money,’ said Jim, ‘and will you take this for the dance?’ He offered her a nugget he had picked from the week’s yield, a flat, heart-shaped slug, curiously embossed.

‘’Deed, an’ it’s mighty fine,’ said the girl, ‘but I’d rather have ye me debtor for life.’

‘Take it for natural love and affection, then.’

‘Ah, if it’s the heart you’re givin’ me, I’ll be uncommon greedy, so I will.’ She kissed the nugget, and slipped it into her breast.

Jim went away, glowing with the satisfaction a very young fellow feels in having provoked the admiration of a woman and the jealousy of a man. Aurora’s of interest was open and unabashed. Quigley’s jealous passion was just as artless and free from disguise. Done had intended to send that nugget as a natural curiosity to Lucy Woodrow. He put the shade of regret the recollection provoked hastily out of his mind. Mike had heard a good deal of talk about the new girl at Mrs. Kyley’s, now Jim swelled the chorus of admiration. Both young men spent that evening at the washerwoman’s tent.

The Kyley establishment consisted of a tent some fifty feet long, divided into two compartments with a canvas partition. This screen ran just behind the counter, and through it Mrs. Kyley dived to replenish her jug of rum; but that room at the back represented the sanctity of the Kyley home-life, and to it the diggers never penetrated. The public portion was furnished with two long deal tables, at which the men sat on the Bush stools and diced and drank, or played monotonous, if noisy, games of euchre and forty-fives.

That night Aurora—surnamed Australis by a facetious digger—was particularly attentive to Done. Jim was flattered by her open preference, dazzled by her bright eyes and glowing cheeks, and piqued by her bantering manner, for she still implied that he might be allowed indulgences because of his beardless, boyish face and his seeming ingenuousness. As a protest against this attitude, Done was impelled to drink rather more rum than was good for him, and under the influence of the fiery spirit he lost some thing of his habitual reserve, and a fight with Quigley was only averted by the tactful intervention of Burton.

‘Didn’t like interferin’, Jim,’ said Mike next morning, ‘but Quigley’s a hard nut and an ugly fighter. He’d have eaten you if you’d taken him on as you stood.’

‘I’m much obliged, old man,’ answered Done mournfully. ‘I suppose I made an outrageous ass of myself.’

But he went back to Mrs. Kyley’s bar again on the Monday evening, and there got good advice from Aurora.

‘You don’t like this rubbish, Jimmy,’ she said, serving him with the drink he had asked for. The remark was made with an air of positive assurance. They were alone.

‘Well, no, I don’t particularly,’ he admitted.

‘Then, don’t be a fool. Don’t gammon you do. You need not drink it. I don’t want you to. See here, Jimmy,’ she continued gravely, ‘Quigley doesn’t like you; he is looking for a chance to do you a mischief, and he would have had his chance the other night if I hadn’t overlooked you like a mothering hen, and sold you good creek water at a shilling the nip.’

‘I did act the fool, I admit.’

‘Never a bit; but don’t give Quigley his chance by numbing your good sense with Mary Kyley’s rum. Sure,’ said Aurora, dropping into her honied brogue, ‘it’s fer the love of me ye’re comin’, not for the dthrop o’ drink. Murther! would ye kill me wid denyin’ it?’ She was sitting on the counter; she pressed her fingers on his lips, and laughed in his face with happy impudence, her large handsome mouth full of pearls, her eyes flashing a challenge. Jim’s arm stole to her waist of its own initiative.

Then Mrs. Ben Kyley came roaring into the tent. ‘Inveigling my girl away!’ she cried. ‘Get out, you kidnapper! Where’s your taste, anyhow, philandering with a slip of a girl when there’s a fine woman about with a heart as empty as a big sieve?’ And the bouncing washerwoman bore down upon him, and bombarded him out of the place with gusts of laughter.

As yet, Done had seen little of the trials and tribulations of the diggers. Diamond Gully was a prosperous rush, and the impositions under which the Victorian miners complained so bitterly had not come home to many on this field; but he had heard a great deal. The political and social wrongs of the diggers were the staples of conversation about the camp-fires. To Jim’s great surprise, he found these men, surrounded with the exciting conditions of their peculiar life, allowing their minds to be occupied with aspirations after political freedom. The failure of Chartism in England had driven thousands of hot-blooded champions of popular rights to Australia, and these were the leaven that leavened the whole lump. They talked of people’s parliaments, manhood suffrage, and payment of members in a country governed by a pack of British nominees who had no knowledge of the bulk of the people and no sympathy with their aspirations. The ideas stirred the miners; they found a lodgment in every breast, and already men spoke of an Australian Republic south of the Murray, governed on the liberal principles enunciated by Fergus O’Connor.

Jim had supposed the tolerance of man towards man, the absence of petty prejudices, and the large appreciation of individual liberty that belonged to the character of a brave, self population to be manifestations of an absolute freedom; he found the men fired with a passionate aspiration for liberty, just as the masses in England had been five years earlier, and possessed of even more substantial reasons for revolt. The idea of the young republic delighted him; he was already prepared to shed his blood in establishing that glorious ideal. Stories he had heard of the indignities to which the miners were subjected by an insolent bureaucracy, of men being hunted down like dingoes and beaten with the drawn swords of the troopers because of their failure to comply with the outrageous licensing decrees, bred in him a hatred akin to that felt by the diggers who had suffered in person.

But Done’s first experience of a license-hunt was largely farcical. Mr. Commissioner McPhee had chosen a sweltering hot day for his hunt. Most of the diggers on Diamond Gully were below, sheltered from the mordant rays of a sun that blazed in the cloudless sky, so close to earth that its heat struck the face like a licking flame. Jim had just brought some picks from the smithy, when he saw the troopers, headed by the magnate on a fine chestnut, descend upon the gully, their glazed cap-peaks and their swords flashing gaily in the sun. The mounted men divided at the head of the gully, and came down on each side of the lead; the foot police followed Commissioner McPhee, head Serang and cock of the walk from Sawpit Gully to Castlemaine. The duty of the foot police was to rouse the diggers out of their drives, and enforce the orders of the high and mighty McPhee. On Diamond Gully the wash was so shallow that the police had no difficulty in getting the men to the surface, and the inrush of the troopers was the signal for a swarming. The men poured from the crowded claims, and in a few seconds the gully was awakened to violent action, and given over to tumult.

The air resounded with the yells of the miners, raised in warning and derision. ‘Jo!—Jo!—Jo!’ The cries travelled the whole length of the lead, like a salute of musketry. Mike came up the rope, hand over hand.

‘A license-hunt,’ he said. ‘Now you’ll see how these gaol warders amuse themselves.’

‘What are we supposed to do?’

‘Have your license handy. Show it to Huntsman McPhee, and keep your hands off his hounds.’

Mr. Commissioner was not having much trouble; he came through the claims like a monarch demanding obeisance and tribute, and the shouts of the miners followed him. ‘Jo!—Jo!—Jo!’ The men made a sort of chorus of the jibe. A fistful of wet pipe-clay thrown from the cover of a tip struck the sergeant of troopers in the face, and he spurred his horse furiously towards the spot. There was a rush of police and diggers, and a bit of a melee resulted, but Sergeant Wallis received no satisfaction. Four or five unlicensed diggers had been captured, luckless workers for whom Fortune had spread no favours, and these were handed over to the mounted police, who guarded them with drawn swords, accelerating their movements with blows of the blade and not infrequent prickings, for the hatred in which the diggers held the troopers was not more fierce than the troopers’ hatred for the men.

Done and Burton stood on the little hillock of mulluck about their shaft, watching the course of events, when the Grand Serang rode at them. He was a fine stamp of a man, and loved an effect in which he was the central figure. It was becoming in a mere digger to make way for the horse of Mr. Commissioner. Burton, however, stood his ground, the flush burning through his tan, and, rather than give way an inch or be run down, raised his hand and struck the noble nag of the big official on the nose with his palm, with the result that the chestnut went up on his hind-legs, pawing the air, and rattled down the tip on his heels, while the crowding diggers, to whom any indignity inflicted upon a commissioner, however trivial, was a joy and a solace, set up a shout of scornful laughter.

‘What the devil, sir, do you mean by striking my horse?’ thundered the irascible McPhee.

‘I don’t care to be ridden down like a thieving dingo’ replied Mike.

‘Sergeant, search this impudent jackanapes, and if his license isn’t O.K., jam the beggar into the logs!’

At this point another handful of white clay was thrown from the back of the crowd, and this time McPhee was the target. The clay struck hint in the breast, and clung to his black cloth. Again there was a rush of indignant and amazed under-strappers, and the Commissioner, crimson with wrath, raised himself in his stirrups and shouted orders, the execution of which it was beyond even his great power to enforce. They enjoined the immediate precipitation of the offenders into the Bottomless Pit.

A diversion was created by the sudden appearance of a new quarry. A slim youth had darted from behind one of the piles of mullock, and was running at full speed up the lead towards the head of the gully, followed by three foot police.

‘After him!’ shouted McPhee.

A couple of troopers and two more foot police joined in the chase, but the youngster was a good runner and very cunning. He kept to the mined ground, where the troopers would certainly have broken their necks had they put their horses after him, and springing like a wallaby he cleared the holes, and darted in and out amongst the tips, to the utter confusion of the lubberly and ill-conditioned pursuers. Straight up the lead he ran, and now all the foot police were hunting him, while the troopers rode along the right and the left of the gully to keep him from breaking for the tents, or for Boulder Hill, where there were hiding places amongst the big rocks and in the wombat-holes under them.

‘Run him down!’ shouted McPhee, furious after the indignities that had been put upon his high office. ‘Five pounds to the man who nabs him!’

The diggers shouted a grand chorus of encouragement to the lad, and added a cry of contempt for Mr. Commissioner and all his horde. A number of the men joined in the chase, to add to the confusion of the police. The rest, crowded on the higher ground, formed a large audience, and a more enthusiastic audience, or a more vociferous one for its size, had never witnessed a sporting event in wide Australia. The excitement grew with every successful trick of the runaway, and now he was leading his hunters in and out amongst the claims at the gully’s head, apparently quite indifferent to the heat of the day or the stress of the chase. The miners were giving the youth all the assistance they could by devising hindrances for the police. Barrows, picks, shovels, buckets, and hide-bags found their way under the legs of the pursuers, windlass-ropes were stretched to trip them up, and preoccupied miners jostled them at every turn, and endeavoured to detain them in argument.

Presently the prisoners, in the charge of three troopers, finding attention diverted from them, seized the opportunity to make a bolt for the hunted digger’s haven of refuge, Boulder Hill, and the confusion of tongues swelled to one rapturous howl at the sight. The unlicensed diggers spread, running their best, and dodging smartly to avoid the horses. One poor devil went down under the hoofs of a big roan, and there arose another roar of different portent.

The youngster was being hemmed in amongst a few claims on the extreme left. The troopers had stationed themselves beyond, and the police were closing in on him, while the crowd yelled encouragement and advice. With a rush and a reckless spring from a mullock-heap, the youth cleared his enemies again, and came racing up the gully once more, the baffled police and a number of miners following pell-mell, the troopers cantering on the wings of the hunt. If the boy could reach the crowd where it was thickest there was a chance for him, but he was running straight at Commissioner McPhee, who sat upon his horse watching the chase, and relieving his official feelings with a flow of elegant objurgation.

On came the young digger, the cheers swelling as he advanced. The men of Diamond Gully had never so thoroughly enjoyed anything in the nature of a chase. It seemed that the race was to be to the swift. The crowd parted to take the runner to its heart, when Sergeant Wallis threw himself from his horse, and the young digger simply sank panting into his arms. Wallis put on a grip that had reduced many a recalcitrant convict to order, and looked inquiringly at McPhee, who had ridden to the spot. The crowd closed round, overlooking the scene from mullock-heaps and windlass-stands.

‘Produce your license, you rascal!’ roared the Commissioner.

The youth was too short of breath to speak, and remained panting under Wallis’s hand.

‘He has no license, sergeant. Run him in!’ said McPhee.

‘Sure, Commissioner dear, what’d I be doin’ wid a license whin I’m only a woman?’ The captive plucked the billycock from her head, and a mass of black hair fell over her shoulders.

Done, who had pressed to the front, recognised Aurora. That section of the crowd which saw and understood sent up a shout of surprise and jubilation. Wallis retained his grip on the girl, and the sight of his hands upon her stirred a savage resentment in Jim. He made a rush at the sergeant, but Mike was beside him and held him.

‘Don’t be a fool, Jim. Don’t give them a chance,’ he said. ‘She’s right as rain. McPhee can do nothing to her; he’ll lumber you if you only open your mouth!’

‘What’ll I do with him—her, sir?’ asked Wallis.

‘A pretty chase you’ve led us, you vixen!’ blurted the Serang. ‘For two pins I’d chain you to the nearest log, and give the flies a treat.’

‘Would hairpins do, Mack dear?’ panted Aurora, thrusting an impertinent, flushed, handsome face up at the Serang, and feeling amongst her tangled hair.

There had been an expectant hush upon the men for the last few moments. On this broke a great bovine roar of merriment from the opulent lungs of Mrs. Ben Kyley, who stood foremost in the ring surrounding McPhee, the sergeant, and the girl, her strong white hands, suspiciously pipeclayed, supporting her shaking sides. The familiar guffaw was infectious; the diggers caught it up, and, laughing like madmen, closed in on Wallis, snatched his prisoner from his hands, and, hoisting her shoulder high, bore her off in triumph.

Commissioner McPhee, surrounded by his minions, rode from Diamond Gully that afternoon with one prisoner—the man who had been run down, and the crowd that ushered him out bore Aurora Griffiths aloft, and sang a long chant of derision, which, keenly as he felt it, the Serang did not dare resent.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     X

Back    |    Words Home    |    Edward Dyson Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback