In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

PEERING through the darkness, Done discovered the shadowy figures of two men. The figures were rigid upon the ground. There was no further sound. The young man approached closely and stood by Ryder, dropping his hand upon his shoulder. There was just light enough for him to see a revolver snatched from the belt, or a movement of such suggestiveness, but he fastened on that right arm with a grip to which it succumbed instantly.

‘It is I, Jim Done!’ he said.

‘Save me! Save me!’ cried Stony in accents of supreme terror.

‘Why do you interfere?’ asked Ryder with a ring of anger. ‘What interest can you have in this hound?’

‘None,’ replied Jim. ‘I followed from the shanty, guessing something would happen. I’m shamefully curious.’

‘You are a fool! It might have cost you your life.’

‘You certainly do not show any particular respect for human life.’ Jim released the other’s arm.

‘For Christ’s sake don’t leave me!’ moaned Stony. ‘He means murder!’

‘I have told you I value this man’s life. I tell you again I have no intention of killing him, but I hate him so that the ravenous desire to crush the soul out of him is hard to resist. There is a story he must tell me; when that is told he may go. If he refuses to tell there is no power on God’s earth to keep me from my vengeance. But he shall tell—the craven shall tell! There’ll be no further mischief done, I promise you. Leave us.’

‘For the love of Heaven!’ pleaded Stony. ‘He’ll kill! He’ll kill!’

‘I have your word,’ said Jim.

‘My word of honour,’ answered Ryder.

‘If it’s broken, I swear to help you to your hanging.’

‘I tell you, I want this man alive.’


‘Help!’ screamed Stony; but the other’s hand was at his throat again.

‘Listen, you foul cur!’ Ryder said. ‘I mean to spare you, but you must tell—tell all!’

Jim Done turned and walked away, leaving the enemies alone. Next morning he saw Stony moving about his tent, and experienced a feeling of relief. He had been unable to divest himself of a sense of responsibility for the safety of the miserable hatter.

By this time quite a strong friendship had grown up between the three Peetrees and Done and Burton. Joshua Peetree, whom the twins called Josh, with a friendly absence of formalities, was found in his sober moments to share the moral qualities of his sons, and had the same quiet, deliberative manner of speech, as if every sentence, even those of the most insignificant character, were subjected to two or three successive processes of investigation internally before delivery. Indeed, the men spoke so little en famille that they might have lost ordinary power of easy articulation. Speech was hardly necessary between the three; they understood each other by something very like telepathic divination. At least, so it appeared to Done, who was puzzled again and again to see the ideas of one brother anticipated by the other, and his wishes met without any communication, audible or visible, to the third person. Men who have lived together in the Bush for the better part of their lives, cut off from other society and outside interest, often develop this quaint instinct of mutual apprehension. The Peetrees were not unsociable, but with them conversation was not essential to human intercourse. They were content to sit on a log, or spread themselves on the dry grass in company with friendly diggers, smoking composedly through a whole evening, without contributing more than an approving ‘My word!’ or ‘My colonial!’ to the night’s debate. Mike was in full sympathy with their neighbours. Like him, they were deeply imbued with the spirit of revolt stirring in the land, and they were as eager to participate in the struggle that was to overthrow the rule of the nominees of Downing Street and strangle the hydra of official tyranny; but Done, although his sentiments were just as strongly on the side of the miners, was too profoundly concerned with the actions and interests of the moment to content himself with the society of the Peetrees and the discussion of possibilities. He liked them; they were amusing elements in the varied life around him, but he wanted to see and to hear. His blood ran too hotly for camp-fire argument. When the time for fighting came, well and good: none would be more eager than he; but meanwhile love and laughter, play and strife, invited a man, and Jim responded with the impetuosity of an impish boy just escaped from parental control.

The mates continued to do well at Jim Crow, and Jim Done found himself growing tolerably rich without any marked gratification. He could not see what more gold could confer upon him. He was now a nightly visitor at Mrs. Ben Kyley’s tent, but gambled with rather more spirit of late, and, finding himself a much less easy victim to Mary’s rum, drank more than formerly. A certain stage of intoxication—an intoxication of the blood rather than the senses—threw a roseate glamour over the gaieties of the shanty, and robbed him of that remaining reticence of manner and speech that would have kept him an observer rather than a participant.

Police supervision was fitful and weak at Jim Crow, and there were wild nights at Mary Kyley’s. Aurora appeared in a new character—that of popular musician. Seated with her heels tucked under her on the end of the shanty bar, she rattled off lively dance-music on an old violin; or, mounted on an inverted tub, she sang songs of rebellion and devilment to a crowd of diggers warm with rum and rampant with animal spirits. Mary Kyley, whose gay heart responded readily to the conviviality of her guests, danced at these times, contesting in breathless jigs and reels, displaying amazing agility and a sort of barbaric frenzy, while the men yelled encouragement and applause, the pannikins circulated, and the smoke gathered in a cloud along the ridge-pole. Sitting above the crowd in a gay gown, with a splash of artificial red roses in her mass of black hair, flushed with animation, her eyes beaded with fire, Aurora was a striking queen of the revels, and Done exulted over her, and called her Joy. It was the new name he had given her, Aurora sounding too formidable for a lover’s lips.

One such night Aurora played them ‘The Wearing of the Green,’ breaking in upon a moment of exuberant merriment with the quaint melancholy of the music. She wrung from the strings a pathetic appeal, and played the crowd into a sudden reverent silence. They were rebel hearts there to a man, and many exiles from Erin were in the company. The simple tune went right home to them all. The men sat still, gazing into their pannikins, and big bearded diggers had a chastened pensiveness that might have been comic had there been any there to laugh at them. Just as suddenly the girl swung into a rollicking dance-step, abandoning her tender mood with a burst of happy laughter; but Tim Carrol, a young new chum; fresh from ‘the most distressful country,’ sprang to the counter beside her, and, clasping Aurora and her fiddle in a generous hug, kissed the girl on the cheek.

‘Shtop!’ he cried. ‘Niver another word will ye play till the hold iv that’s gone from us!’

Done, who was standing near, saw the action, saw Aurora laughing in the man’s arms, and experienced a revulsion of feeling that turned him giddy, and blurred the lights and the figures about him. He sprang at Carrol savagely. It seemed to him that what followed occurred in darkness. A few blows, a scuffle, and then he was torn away. The next moment he found himself in Kyley’s hands, and Aurora before him, her eyes flashing anger, her white teeth bared, her hands clenched—exactly the termagant she had appeared on the night she confronted Quigley in her wrath; but to-night her fury was directed against him.

‘How dare you interfere?’ she said. ‘How dare you meddle with my affairs?’ She struck herself upon the breast. She blazed with passion.

‘He kissed you!’ said Jim. ‘I couldn’t stand that!’

‘And what of me? If I do not object, what then?’


‘Am I my own mistress? Are my inclinations to count for something?’

Jim had recovered himself. He felt cold, sobered. He shook the hands off him, ‘Your inclinations count for everything!’ he said with composure. ‘I acted on impulse. I beg your pardon, Aurora. I’ll apologize to Carrol if he wishes it. I’ve had too much rum, Tim; I acted like a fool.’

‘Tush, man, ’twas nothin’! You didn’t hit me,’ said the Irishman cheerfully. ‘Don’t shpake iv it. I disarved what I didn’t get fer kissin’ your sweet, heart, any-how.’

Aurora’s anger fell from her suddenly, and she moved away. She played no more that night, and was markedly subdued in her manner, turning an anxious eye upon Done every now and again, and Jim, to carry off the situation, was much too free with the liquor and uncommonly friendly with everybody.

‘You took my temper like a gentleman, Jimmy dear,’ said Aurora, coming behind him when he sat alone. She was bidding for reconciliation.

‘I ought to have known better, Joy,’ he answered. ‘I was an idiot!’

‘No, dear, you were jealous, and that is an easy thing for a woman to forgive.’

‘I don’t think I was even jealous.’

‘Then you should have been!’ she said, with a flash of anger.

‘Then, if I should have been, I was jealous—furiously, murderously jealous!’

‘Sure, how could you blame the poor boy,’ she murmured, winding an arm about his neck, ‘wid the love of the dear ould sod hot in the heart iv him? ’Twasn’t a lover’s kiss he gave me, darlin’, but a patriot’s.’

‘This is a lover’s, Joy!’ He kissed her softly.

All the same, flushed with liquor though he was, he was conscious that his attack on Carrol had been prompted by a meaner impulse than jealousy, and was more a manifestation of the rum-flown arrogance of a man fighting for a prize in the possession of which he felt a large conceit. He was conscious, too, that there was little of a true lover’s ardour in the kiss he gave her. But men are deceivers ever, and never so cunning in deceit as when love has slipped from their hearts. To be sure, Jim had the grace to be ashamed of all this in certain moods, but acknowledgment of the sin was not followed by renunciation. Aurora’s flash of passion was probably due to the instinct that warned her of the fading of Done’s love for her.

Mike took his mate home that night, and had to help him into his bunk, and Jim awoke in the morning with feelings of mistrust and bitterness, a craven consciousness of having been untrue to himself. For a moment there was a belief that his new life was nothing but a dream. He stepped out into the sunshine with a childish fear upon him, and looked about him, breathing deeply, and relief came, but there remained a consciousness of loss of power. Drink was not for him: he was a hale man, full of vitality; in his normal state his sensibilities were capable of drawing the most generous emotions from the events of existence; excess of liquor gave him, in place of that natural gratification, a set of feverish and unreal sensations. He could understand others, from whom Nature withheld the joy of life, finding in intoxication a pale substitute, but for him it was a sacrifice of self, a sacrifice he could not afford, for it was only the other day that self had become sweet to him. How could he exchange his rich reality for the pale, misty, groping unreality he had become last night—give up the exhilaration he derived from the stir of life and friendly contact with men for the fantastic, fleeting emotions of the reveller in drink, emotions that fly through the darkened brain like shooting stars, the stir of a blatant egotism, the prickly heat of tiny, aimless joys that never penetrate below the skin! He determined to be content with sobriety for the future.

This very excellent and virtuous resolution did not keep Done from Mary Kyley’s tent, however, and he retained his relish for the revels there: the boisterous horseplay of the diggers, the dancing, the gay spirits of Aurora, her beauty and her music. He believed Aurora still loved him, but the recollection of her appearance that night, and the fury with which she had repudiated his right to interfere, contrasted with her attitude on the occasion when he championed her cause against Quigley, gave him moments of dubious reflection. Coming up from their claim one evening at sundown after a particularly hard day, the mates found Aurora busy at the fire preparing their tea. They hailed her with shouts of thankfulness and welcome. She was bare-armed and bare-headed; a snowy-white apron of Mrs. Kyley’s covered her frock, and was, if anything, an additional adornment to her trim figure. The tea was made, and the big billy stood by the embers, while Aurora attended to the grilling of the steak. She made a charming picture, with the firelight on her face and gleaming in her hair, and the men watched her for some minutes in quiet admiration, Josh Peetree being particularly moved by the glamour of domesticity her presence threw over the camp, and throughout the evening ejaculated a fervent ‘My colonial!’ every time his eyes encountered the girl.

‘Hello!’ said Aurora. ‘I’ve invited myself to tea, boys.’

‘’Pon my soul, you’re good to see,’ cried Burton feelingly.

‘That’s mighty kind for a man who doesn’t waste much breath in compliments.’

‘This is magnificent!’ said Jim. ‘Why have you never thought of it before?’

‘Hear him! Little he knows I’m just here to convince him what a model wife I’d make. Would you believe it, boys, all the time I’ve known the villain it never occurred to him to ask me?’

‘I’d ask yer quick enough, b’gosh!’ blurted Con.

Jim blushed. ‘She wouldn’t have me,’ he cried in self-defence.

‘At laste ye might have given a poor girl the refusal.’

‘Take me, then,’ said Jim through the soapsuds. He was washing over a bucket.

‘I will not. You know you’re safe, anyhow, when there’s not priest or parson to be got for love or money. Come, hurry up, there’s enough for all, and my contribution is an armful of Mary Kyley’s hot scones.’

The butt of a tree lying a few yards from the fire served the diggers as table and on to this Jim lifted Aurora.

‘That’s your place,’ he said, ‘at the head of the board.’

‘No, no!’ cried the girl, slipping to the ground again. ‘I am mistress. I mean to attend at table.’ She served the men with the manners of a kindly hostess. ‘There’s milk for the tea!’ she cried.

‘Milk! I haven’t seen the colour of it in Australia. Who work the miracle?’ said Jim.

‘Mary sent to a station out there by the ranges. She got a quart, and I cabbaged half for my tea-party.’

‘You’re an angel, Aurora!’

‘There!’ she laughed; ‘and the trouble I’ve taken to keep it dark.’

‘We’ll be the envy of the whole field,’ said Mike; and Con uttered a corroborative ‘My colonial oath!’ that was eloquent of a grateful heart.

Aurora poured out the tea and buttered the scones, and then, sitting on a gin-case with her plate in her lap, ate a good meal in cheeriest fellowship, adding to the felicity of the party with gay badinage and happy laughter. Aurora’s laugh was a delightful thing to hear; it had never ceased to give Done a peculiar stir of joyance, whilst awakening something of surprise. It was the laugh of a merry child; its mirth was strangely infectious, strangely suggestive of an unsullied soul. Hearing it, Jim turned to her wonderingly, but he had long since acquitted her of the suspicion of dissimulation. She was the least self-conscious creature living, the least calculating. If she had really set herself the task of displaying to the best advantage the more gentle and womanly side of her nature, she would certainly not have succeeded as well as she did this evening, moved by one of the thousand vagrant impulses that lent such varying colour to her character. Her humour was more subdued, her gaiety was restrained within the limits of an almost conventional decorum. She helped the men with a graciousness that was wholly effeminate, and the diggers responded to its influence.

‘Blast me if it don’t make a cove feel religious!’ was Harry Peetree’s sober comment, after he had lit his pipe and settled his back comfortably against the log.

The night came while they were still at their meal, and sticks were thrown on the fire to provide light. Other diggers, attracted by the glow and the cheerful atmosphere of the party, sauntered up, and modestly disposed themselves in the shadows, where they lay smoking. Women of any kind were few on Jim Crow, and a scene like this was sufficient to stir the deeper feelings of many of the miners, particularly those in whose hearts long absence from hearth and home had served to invest domesticity with a reverent sentimentality.

Aurora insisted on washing up, but Josh dried the dishes, while the others lit their pipes, and, lying on their backs, with knees drawn up and hands clasped under their heads, gave themselves over to quiet enjoyment of the night. A big moon was stealing through the tree-tops; the denuded gully still lay in the lower gloom, dotted with camp-fires and illumined tents. But Aurora threw aside her domestic mood with her apron, and reappeared as the enemy of reflection and repose. Throned on her gin-case, where the ruddy light of the wood-fire glowed upon her, she chattered in her delectable brogue for an hour or more, the picture of animation. Then came Mary Kyley storming upon the scene.

‘Do I pay a girl the wages of a princess to run a temperance meeting among my customers?’ she cried.

‘Go away, Mother Kyley, an’ work yer own ould shebang,’ replied Aurora, ‘or else bring me fiddle wid ye, an’ give us a step on the turf!’

‘Not a step will I.’

‘Then I’ll lave divil a man in the shanty, dthrunk or dthry!’

Aurora sprang upon her box, and began to sing a rousing nonsensical song of the moment. The chorus was caught up, and swelled in the shadows. Waving her scarf as she had done in the dance-room in Melbourne on the night when Done first saw her, she sang again, and her clear soprano rang in the gullies like the call of a bird, and brought the miners from their tents and their arguments. When the song ended half the diggers on Jim Crow were gathered about Burton’s camp-fire, and the loudest roar of applause came from Mary Kyley! Presently somebody out in the crowd commenced to play a flute, and slid from a few bars of ‘Home, Sweet Home!’ into a rollicking jig. Half a dozen strong hands—Jim’s first—were laid upon Mrs. Ben, and she was dragged to the front.

‘Dance, alauna machree!’ cried Aurora.

The flute piped higher, a hundred voices took up the cry, and Mary was conquered. Gathering a bunch of skirts in either hand, the big woman commenced a step. Aurora enlivened it with quaint, melodious Irish cries, the men roared encouragement, and presently Mary Kyley was dancing with heart and soul and every ounce of energy. Dancing was a passion with Mrs. Ben; she experienced a sort of delirium of movement once the swing of the melody took hold of her, and at such moments, despite her uncommon size, the woman became animated with a wild dignity and grace. Now, with head thrown back and face uplifted, her crimson petticoat flashing in the firelight, she danced like something wild, till she could dance no more, and Done took her in his arms and half carried her to the log, where he fanned her gallantly with his cabbage-tree, while the audience cheered again and again.

Aurora found a partner for a reel in Tim Carrol, and the fun grew warmer, a liberal digger having contributed a keg of rum, which was rolled from Kyley’s shanty into the illumined circle. But at this point a man stepped forward from the crowd, and stood where the light fell full upon him, a strongly-built digger of about five foot nine, not yet thirty years of age, with a powerful face, not handsome, but uncommonly attractive in its blend of kindliness and rugged force. Done recognised Alfred Lambert, a voice of the disaffected—one of the little band of men who, animated with that ardent love of freedom which is bred of tyranny and fed on oppression, were ever busy fanning the embers of discontent, and striving to work the diggers up to the point at which it would be impossible for the Government to withhold from the vast majority of the people their liberties and civil rights. Lambert held up his hand to impose silence.

‘I have a great bit of news, men,’ he said. ‘The day before yesterday, at five in the afternoon, the M’Ivor escort was stuck up on the corduroy road in the Black Forest, and the gang got away with all the gold.’

This information was greeted with a yell of amazement, in which Jim thought he detected no little exultation. It was the greatest coup executed by the gangs since the opening of the goldfields; its magnitude astounded everybody.

‘The robbers came on the escort suddenly, shot their horses under them, and carried off the whole swag,’ Lambert continued.

‘Whose gang?’ ‘Who ’re suspected?’ A score of voices shouted questions.

‘It is believed that the raid was headed by Solo!’

‘No, no; Solo goes alone!’ cried a foremost miner with absolute conviction.

‘He has always worked alone before, but it is pretty certain that this raid was planned and carried out by Solo, and that he had behind him a gang of the coolest and most daring robbers in the colony He outwitted the troopers at every point; they had no more chance with him than so many sheep. The fools had their carbines strapped behind them, as usual. Before they could fire a shot they were at the mercy of the thieves.’ The crowd yelled again—a yell of derision. The discomfiture of the troopers was a source of grim satisfaction. Lambert held up his hand once more.

‘This Solo is a ruffian and a robber. When we say that he stops short of murder we say the best we can for him; but the Government that denies to citizens the rights of men, and enforces laws the people have no voice in making through a vicious and brutal constabulary, cannot look to citizens to respect those laws or feel any sympathy with its officers.’

‘You’re right, old man!’ The crowd took advantage of the pause that followed to raise a clamour of fierce words.

‘I have more news for you,’ said the orator. ‘The cause of liberty is spreading, deepening, strengthening. We are on the verge of civil war. Latest information from Ballarat, Bendigo, and all the large centres shows that the hour of strenuous resistance, of resistance to the death, has almost come. Even now it may have struck. As I speak, the men of Ballarat may be shedding their blood to rescue our adopted country from the foul and foolish rule of that pitiful handful of nominees in Melbourne, the despicable instruments of a far-off power that is as ignorant of our needs as it is careless of our sufferings. We are commanded to stand ready—commanded by God, I believe with all my soul—and those of us who have the aspirations of men and the spirit of true Britons must look to our arms. The commissioners of the various fields have been particularly venomous in their treatment of the poorer diggers of late. On all the fields license-hunting has been pushed to such an extremity of oppression that only dingoes and Chinamen could bear it. We must fight! Men, no human creature detests bloodshed more than I, but what else can your leaders ask of you but to fight? Every channel of peaceful progression is closed to you. You are a great population of strong men, the adventurous spirits of the world, and you are held under the lash by a stupid minority so weak that one free movement of your limbs may dash them to perdition. You are asked to confine yourselves to peaceful and legal forms in conducting this agitation, while those who ask you deny you a breath of power, an iota of right, and manifest their goodwill by riding you down like wallabies, or rounding you up like scrub-cattle, and tearing from you the scandalous taxes that go to pay the expenses of a robber Government that represents only your enemies.’

The spirit of the crowd had undergone a surprising revolution; the gaiety of a few minutes since had fled from every heart, and Lambert confronted a great crowd, the faces of which glowed whitely in the moonlight, a crowd that broke into vehement cheering and a babel of oaths and yells at every pause.

The quoted words were the opening sentences of a speech that lasted nearly an hour, and held the diggers by their heart-strings every second of the time. Done felt himself strongly moved—the vehemence, the lusty eloquence, and the unquestionable honesty of the speaker possessed him. He was filled with a longing for strife; the fighting spirit strong within him was up in arms. Like many another in the crowd, he was ready to carve out a republic with a pick-handle, even though a score came to resist him with rifles.

Lambert spoke of the simple rights of manhood, of the demands of the new democracy in the Old World, and the growing belief in the sacred right of a people to govern themselves according to their light, and finished with an impassioned description of a recent digger-hunt on Forest Creek, in the course of which a man had been killed. The crowd was slow to depart when the speech was ended, and broke into knots, the men feverishly discussing the great news of the robbery and the possibility of a riot extending over the whole of the rushes. Whilst sitting on the log thinking of what he had heard, Jim saw Aurora approach Lambert. She was visibly excited, and offered him an eager hand.

‘Did I do well?’ she asked.

Lambert seized her hand and pressed it warmly. ‘Splendidly, my girl,’ he said. ‘A man couldn’t want a better audience. Like a true Irishwoman, you’re the twin sister of Liberty, Miss Aurora.’

Done drew Aurora to his side a few minutes later. ‘So,’ he said lightly, ‘my Joy is a conspiratress.’

‘It’s the hard name, me darlin’,’ she answered, taking his hand between hers. ‘I just promised Lambert to have the half of Jim Crow here to hear him an’ I’m afther keepin’ me word.’

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