In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

THE MINERS pressed about the victor, eager to shake hands with him, and invitations to drink were showered upon him. Aurora clamoured on the out skirts of this crowd, trying to fight her way through, still half delirious with excitement and exultation, calling Jim’s name. Her rapture was uncouth, half savage; she had many of the instincts of the primitive woman. But Mike dragged Done’s shirt over his head and led his mate away. Burton prepared a hot tub for Jim that night, and after nine hours’ sleep the hero awakened on Sunday morning with only a bruise or two, a lump on his forehead, and a stiff and battered feeling about the ribs, to remind him of his fight with Quigley.

It was a pleasant morning, the winter was already well advanced; but only an improved water-supply, an occasional wetting at the windlass, and the need of a rug on the bunk, marked the change of season, so far as Jim could see. There was no place for verdure on Diamond Gully; the whole field turned upside down, littered with the debris of the mines, washed with yellow slurry, and strewn in places with white boulders and the gravel tailings sluiced clean by the gold-seekers. The creek, recently a limpid rivulet, was now a sluggish, muddy stream, winding about its tumbled bed; but a bright sky was over all, and a benignant sun smiled upon the gully, scintillating among the tailings and burnishing the muddy stream to silver. The tents looked white and clean, and the smoke from the camp-fires rose straight and high in the peaceful atmosphere. A strange quiet was upon the lead; it needed only the chastened clanging of a church-bell to complete the suggestion of an English Sabbath.

Jim was sitting on the foot of his bunk reading. Mike had gone up the creek on a prospecting expedition. Presently a magpie in a dead tree at a little distance burst into full-throated melody. Done dropped his book to listen. That clarion of jubilation always delighted him. It seemed to him that if the young Australian republic men were talking of ever came into being its anthem must ring with the wild, free notes of its bravest singing-bird.

‘So the bold hayro was not kilt intoirely?’ Aurora was smiling in at him, her eyes full of sunshine, her cheeks suffused with more than their wonted colour. ‘Are ye axin’ me in? Thank ye, kind sir.’ She slipped into the tent, and, placing a hand upon each shoulder, examined him critically, while he smiled back into her face, and wondered why she brought with her suggestions of a bounteous rose-garden. ‘Ah, Jimmy, I thought I’d hardly know ye!

‘“Where are your eyes that looked so mild?
        Hurroo! Hurroo!
Where are your eyes that looked so mild
        Hurroo! Hurroo!
Where are your eyes that looked so mild,
When my poor heart you first beguiled?”

She sang no more, but sank upon his knee, and her arms were about his neck. Her accent was mischievious, but there was the fire of rubies in her eyes.

‘They’re both there fast enough,’ laughed Jim.

‘An’ niver a black one among them. The big fellow didn’t spoil your picture, then? Ah, Jim, it was fine! fine! fine! It maddened me with delight to see you beating him. You—you sprig of a fighting devil, I love you for it!’

Jim’s heart took fire at hers. He strained her to him, and his lips sank upon her handsome, eager mouth in a long kiss that transported him.

‘Dearest, you have kissed my heart,’ she whispered. ‘You fought him for the love of me, didn’t you?’

Only twice in his life had he kissed a woman, and as if greedy from long fasting he kissed her now, lips, cheeks, eyes, and neck. His lips searched the deep corners of her mouth.

‘But you don’t say you love me, ma bouchal!’ Aurora murmured, and her arms tightened about his neck.

‘You are beautiful! You are beautiful!’ he said fiercely.

‘But you don’t say you love me!’

‘I love you! I love you! I love you!’ There was not now in the young man’s mind any self-questioning; there was no probing for logical reasons, no doubting, no examining emotions in a suspicious, pessimistic spirit. Done abandon himself to the delicious intoxication of the moment, and Aurora was transfigured under his caresses her aggressiveness, her bonhomie, her bold independence of spirit, were all gone; she developed a clinging and almost infantile tenderness, and breathed about him a cloud of ecstasy.

When Burton returned in two hours’ time, Done said nothing about Aurora’s visit, but Mike did not fail to mark his mate’s demeanour, which was unusually thoughtful.

‘Not feelin’ too bright, old man?’ asked Mike

‘Nonsense, Mike; I’m all right.’

‘Thought p’r’aps those rib-benders o’ Quigley’s were pullin’ you up.’

‘Not a bit of it. I haven’t a thought to spare for Quigley.’

Burton understood better later in the evening, when he saw Jim and Aurora sitting together at Kyley’s in the dim corner furthest from the wide fireplace, and the Geordie touched him on the arm and jerked his thumb in their direction.

‘She was down to your tent to see after her champion this mornin’,’ he said.

‘Spoils to the victor!’ said the Prodigal.

Mike’s eyes drifted towards Jim and Aurora several times during the evening, and he thumbed his chin in a troubled way. He had been thinking it was almost time to try fresh fields; but it was not going to be so easy a matter to shift as he had imagined.

A few nights later, seizing the opportunity when he was alone in the tent, Jim cut the stitches that secured the locket containing Lucy Woodrow’s portrait in the breast pocket of his jumper, convenient to his heart; and drawing from under his pillow the tin box that held his mother’s brooch and picture, and the few papers and heirlooms he cherished, he placed Lucy’s gift somewhat reverently amongst his treasures, and hastily stowed the box away again. He had formulated no definite reason for doing this, and experienced some contrition in performing the act, and a sense of relief when it was done.

The young man’s complete victory over Quigley made his reputation throughout Diamond Gully. Pete Quigley had two or three hard-won battles to his credit, and it was thought there was no man on the field so hard to handle, with the exception of Ben Kyley, whose showing against a professional of Bendigo’s calibre set him on a plane above the mere amateur. Pete confessed himself beaten without equivocation.

‘I ain’t got any patience with this blanky new fangled style o’ fightin’,’ he said. ‘A man ought to toe the scratch an’ take his gruel like a man. With those Johnnie-jump-ups it’s all cut an’ run, an’ I admit it licks me. I ain’t neither a foot-racer nor a acrobat, an’ Done gave me as much as I cared about.’

Indeed, Quigley looked it. The fact was patent on the face of him, and he would not be in a condition to dispute the thoroughness of his trouncing for three weeks at least.

Jim was regarded as a celebrity. Strangers even went to him, and gravely asked to be permitted to shake hands with him as such. He was pointed out to newcomers, and observed on all hands with a serious respect that had all the comedy of piquant burlesque.

‘’Pon my soul, Mike!’ said Jim, ‘if your republic comes while my popularity lasts, I shall be first President.’

‘Well,’ answered Mike soberly, ‘if you could talk as well as you fight, I’d like your chances.’

Done’s opportunity of increasing his popularity came on the following Saturday. The Saturday afternoon off was strictly observed on the rushes. The miners were nearly all batchers—that is, bachelors keeping house for themselves—and the tidy men amongst them needed one half-day for washing and cleaning and putting their tents in order. Only the more prodigal spirits cared to pay Mrs. Kyley’s exorbitant rates for laundry work, and for the others who cherished a respect for cleanliness—the nearest the ordinary digger came to Godliness—Saturday afternoon was washing day, and scores might have been seen after crib outside their tents performing the laundress’s office, usually astride a log, on which ‘the wash’ was spread to be alternately splashed and soaped and rubbed. Saturday was the great ‘settling day,’ too. If there were any differences to be fought out, or any disputes requiring the nice adjustment of the prize-ring, they were almost in variably made fixtures for Saturday afternoon.

For a month past Aurora had forcibly taken over the mates’ washing, and as they were well-disciplined batchers who performed their domestic duties effectually from day to day, for them Saturday afternoon was really a holiday; and on this particular afternoon they were sitting in the open, sunning themselves, and talking with the Prodigal of the latest news from Ballarat, where the leaders of the diggers’ cause were agitating resolutely for alterations in the mining laws and reform of the Constitution, when a party of about twenty men approached them from the direction of Forest Creek. The party halted at a distance of about fifty yards, and after a short conference two of the men came on.

‘Hello!’ said Mike, ‘here’s trouble.’

‘Five ounces to a bone button they are looking for fight,’ added the Prodigal.

‘Good day, mates!’ The foremost of the two strangers greeted them with marked civility, and the friends replied in kind. ‘One of you is the man that beat Pete Quigley, we’re told.’

‘This is Jim Done,’ said Mike, giving an informal introduction, indicating Jim with the toss of a pebble.

‘Glad to know you,’ the other said, with some show of deference. ‘Fact is, we’ve got a man here who’s willing to fight you for anything you care to mention up to fifty pounds.’

‘What!’ cried Done in amazement.

‘Oh, quite friendly, and all that. He hasn’t anything against you.’

‘Confound his cheek! Does he—do you think I’ve nothing better to do than to offer myself to be thumped by every blackguardly bruiser who comes along?’

‘Softly, mate; no need for hard names. We come here as sportsmen, making you a fair offer, thinking, perhaps, you’d be glad of a bit of a rough-up this fine day.’

‘Then you can go to the devil!’ said Jim, laughing in spite of himself.

‘You won’t fight?’

‘I will not. I’m no fighting man. I only fight when forced, and then with a bad grace, I can assure you.’

The two men looked quite pathetic in their disappointment as they turned to rejoin their companions.

‘Well, of all the outrageous—’ gasped Jim.

‘Price of fame! said the Prodigal.

Mike grinned. ‘Don’t be selfish, Jim. I’ve got nothing to do this afternoon, an’ would just as soon watch a good scrap. Why not oblige the kind gentleman?’

‘You and the kind gentleman can go hang!’

‘They’ve got Brummy the Nut there,’ the Prodigal said. ‘Brummy is a lag who had all the sensibilities battered out of him in the quarries. He has no science, but hits like the kick of a cart-horse, and is humbly grateful for punishment that would knock the hide off an old man hippopotamus.’

‘Look here, you won’t disappoint poor Brummy the Nut,’ pleaded Mike, with mock gravity.

The deputation of two returned after another conference.

‘How would you take it,’ asked the first speaker—‘mind, we’re just asking, being anxious to bring about a friendly meeting—how would you take it if our man gave you a bit of a clip over the ear?’

This was put as a reasonable possibility, and as a simple and pleasant method of establishing a casus belli that might satisfy Done’s ridiculous punctilio.

‘I’d take it very badly,’ said Jim warmly, ‘and probably knock your man’s confounded head off his shoulders with this pick-handle.’

‘’Twouldn’t be done unfriendly,’ said the second man in a hurt tone.

‘Why doesn’t your man show himself?’

‘They guessed his beauty would prejudice you,’ said the Prodigal. ‘You might have conscientious scruples, and refuse to do anything to mar so perfect a specimen of Nature’s handiwork.’

One of the strangers beckoned, and his party advanced with their champion. Done gazed wonderingly at the man they brought against him. Brummy the Nut was perhaps five feet nine inches in height, but walked in the stooping attitude of a person under a burden, his long arms swinging in a manner that strengthened the hint of gorilla in his broad, battered face; he dragged his feet as if the ball and chain were still at his heels, and, despite the enormous strength suggested by his massive limbs and great trunk, bore himself with a childish meekness in ludicrous contrast with his sinister appearance. All that long years in a convict hell could do to rob a man of the grace of humanity and harden him to pain and labour had been done for Brummy the Nut. The Nut favoured Jim, Mike, and the Prodigal each with a duck of the head and a movement of his hand towards the forehead.

‘This is our man, Brummy the Nut,’ said the party’s spokesman.

‘Well, Brummy, I won’t fight you,’ replied Done. Brummy ducked his head again, and muttered something in a husky voice about being ‘proud to hey a fr’en’ly go with any gent ez is a gent.’

‘He’s a gentleman amateur like yourself,’ said the spokesman persuasively ‘and a fairer fighter never stripped.’

‘Oh, make tracks!’ retorted Burton with some impatience. ‘We’re tired. Set your man-eater at a red-gum butt or a bull—something in his class.’

‘It’s very disappointing after coming so far to oblige you.’

‘You didn’t receive a pressing invitation from any body here,’ said Jim.

‘Any other day,’ ventured the Nut deferentially in his small, hoarse voice, intelligible only at intervals. ‘Way o’ friendship—no ill-feelin’s—gent ez is a gent—no ’arm did.’

‘I’ll not fight you at any time,’ Done replied.

‘You see, Brummy, my friend hesitates to raise false hopes in your heart,’ said the Prodigal. ‘He might promise to punch the hair and hide off you at some future date, and then disappoint all your tender, joyful anticipations; but he’s not a man of that sort: he tells you straight he wouldn’t attempt to ’spoil beauty like yours for all the gilt in the Gravel Pits.’

‘Gent don’t wanter fight,’ whispered Brummy; ‘tha’s all right—no ’arm did.’ Brummy was the only man of his party who betrayed no feeling whatever in the matter.

There was a further conference, and the spokesman turned to Jim again.

‘Brummy claims the championship of Diamond Gully,’ he said.

‘That’s no business of mine. He’s welcome to claim anything he takes a fancy to for me,’ replied Jim.

‘No ill-feelin’s——way o’ frien’ship,’ said the husky champion; and he made his curious salutation again, and went shuffling off with his keepers, who had the airs of sorely ill-used citizens.

‘Well,’ gasped Jim, ‘if this is what a man brings down on himself by waging a casual battle in his own defence, I’ll be careful to keep out of fights in the future.’

However, Jim Done was not again called upon to do battle while he remained on Diamond Gully. The reputation he had won was a guarantee against further molestation and Aurora’s open and unabashed devotion prevented any approach to serious rivalry. The girl still preserved her manner of a boon companion in the presence of Mrs. Ben Kyley’s customers, but no man of them was given occasion for the ghost of a hope of supplanting Jim in her tempestuous heart. She now assumed towards Done an attitude of happy submission; the quizzical insistence on his boyishness was abandoned: she acknowledged her master with an exuberant rapture that had not the faintest suspicion of coyness, and although Jim often blushed under it, and experienced a great uneasiness in the course of a public demonstration, Aurora showed a barbaric disregard for contemporary opinion. She felt no shame in the presence of her emotions, and consequently had no impulse to hide them. She beguiled Jim from his work to take long rambles; she devoted herself to him, to the neglect of Mrs. Ben Kyley’s patrons.

Mike Burton was often lonely in his tent, and often Mrs. Kyley stormed at Jim, highly vociferous and wildly pantomimic, but good-natured and sympathetic at bottom, for there was a vagabondish harmony between the two women that made them fast friends, and caused Mary Kyley to feel a share in Aurora’s happiness.

The writing of the letter to Lucy Woodrow was now indefinitely postponed, and Jim found himself reluctant to open the box containing Lucy’s locket. When his hand fell upon it by chance he put it by hastily, as if it were just possible that the face in the trinket might force itself upon his attention. He never lived to understand this fugitive idea, for the thoughts were cast aside just as hastily, and with an absurd touch of impatience.

The young man had given himself up to Aurora’s influence. The plenitude and the ardour of her love carried him along; he felt at times like a twig in a torrent, but the sensation was luxurious, and another joy of life was with him. He opened wide arms to it. Once again he saw the world with new eyes, and for having despised and mistrusted it so found it the more adorable. He squared his shoulders and experienced a curious sensation of physical growth and accrued manhood. Two years ago he might have weighed his feelings for Aurora and hers for him, and sought out motives; to-day he went along the flow of life, unresisting, with a leaping heart, and had he been questioned would have said that not he but the world had changed.

Mike Burton watched the development of events in a judicial way, without offering any comment. There had not been a waste month in his life for as long as he could remember. In spite of his busy days and his Bush breeding, he had been much in touch with the humanities, and he knew men and women well enough to expect no startling surprises from them; but Jim was a curiosity. With a certain robustness of character, no little knowledge, and considerable worldly wisdom in abstract matters, the younger man yet seemed to bring a boy’s mind to bear upon actualities, and excited himself absurdly over matters which, from Mike’s patriarchal point of view, were merely the expected events of existence—the things that happen to all men, and about which no man need distress himself. He had seen a good deal of the women of the camps, and thought he knew the types well. He summed up Aurora to his own satisfaction: ‘Like an eel—easy to catch, but hard to hold!’ Amongst other pleasant qualities, Mike had the comfortable human one of often being wrong in his estimates of men and women and things. He expected the girl’s infatuation to wear itself out quickly, and meanwhile possessed his soul with patience, prospected here and there, tried new claims, and found a few payable and one rich before the summer came again; but he wanted to try the other rushes, and the winter passed without his having broached the matter to Done.

Jim was quite ignorant of the fact that he was making unfair demands upon his mate’s loyalty. They were doing well on the whole; the life on Diamond Gully had lost none of its attractiveness—it was still vigorous and eventful. There had been a riot in Forest Creek during May, providing a stirring week, and many alarms and excursions on the part of the miners and the license-hunters. Solo had visited Diamond Gully again, and neatly victimized Cootmeyer—a gold-buyer at one of the stores—gagging his victim with his own bacon-knife, and imprisoning him in a salt-pork barrel. The revolutionary feeling in the hearts of the men had increased in intensity, and the talk about the camp-fires stirred the bad blood to fever-heat. To Done time had gone on wings so swift that he could not mark its flight. Burton, a nomad in blood and breeding, thirsted for change, and in ordinary circumstances would have rolled his swag and gone on alone long ago; but the liking he had for Jim was the strongest emotion that had crept into his stolid soul, excepting only the affection he bore for a certain black-browed boss-cockie’s daughter on the Sydney side, and be found it hard to break away. But Aurora’s hold on Jim had not weakened so far as he could judge, and the time came at length when his restless spirit drove him on. He broke the news to Jim one night as they lay in their bunks, he smoking, Jim reading.

‘I’m full o’ this, old man,’ he said abruptly.

‘Of what?’

‘Oh, of Diamond Gully! I reckon it’s played out or thereabouts.’

‘And we got twelve ounces a man for the last week’s work.’

‘Not enough, Jimmy. Not more ’n wages, an’ men like you ’n me should be in the thickest an’ richest of it. I’m gettin’ along to-morrow.’

‘You mean to say you are going?’ Done jerked himself on to his elbow and stared across the tent at his mate.

‘Um—m. Mean to try a new rush.’

‘Anything wrong, Mike? Have I been getting on your raw lately? You want to break up this partner ship of ours.’

‘My oath, no!’ Mike had raised himself eagerly, and was looking at Jim.

‘Then you reckoned on having me along?’

‘No; I thought maybe you wouldn’t care to pad out from here jes’ yet awhile.

‘If it rests with me, mate, where you go I go. You’ve given me a bit of a jolt, old man.’

‘You’ll come, then?’ cried Mike.

‘Why, yes! What should keep me?’

The two men gripped hands, and a few minutes of, silence followed, during which Mike’s pipe went out and Jim’s book fell to the floor. Both were more moved than they cared to show.

‘This makes things much more comfortable,’ said Burton presently.

‘Where do we go?’

‘To Jim Crow, an’ from there we may make tracks to Ballarat.’

‘To Ballarat!’ The name epitomized all that Done knew of mining life and the aspirations of the diggers.

‘Yes, Jim. If there’s goin’ to be fightin’, we must be in it.’

‘Mike,’ said Jim, breaking the thoughtful silence that followed, ‘what put into your head the mad idea that I would want to break with you? God, man, I’d be a desolate, helpless wastrel without you!’

‘Aurora!’ said Mike sententiously.

‘Aurora!’ Jim sat up abruptly, and then sank slowly back upon his pillow again. It was very curious, but till this moment no thought of Aurora had occurred to him.

Mike blew out the candle, and it was quite half an hour later when he said, speaking as if the conversation had just been dropped: ‘You’ll go all the same, Jimmy?’

‘Yes,’ said Jim, with the emphasis of a man making a resolution.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     XII

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