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Title: A Backblocker's Pleasure Trip Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1401641h.html Language: English Date first posted: April 2014 Most recent update: April 2014 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chapter I. An Early Start—A Milkmaid of the Interior—A Digger's House.>
Chapter II. On an Old Diggings.
Chapter III. A Lost Coach—The Mail Girl—"Returning Exiles."
Chapter IV. Social Life in the Backblocks.
Chapter V. The Home of the Duststorm—The Northwest Plains—"Looking for Thunderstorms:—Some Notable Waterholes.
Chapter VI. The Advent of the Overseer—Yarns by the Way.
Chapter VII. The Land of Tanks.
Chapter VIII.Women of the West.
Chapter IX. Glimpses of Lonely Lives.
Chapter X. The Carrier's Wife.
Chapter XI. Wayfarers—looking for Pyzer—"Bail Up!"—On the Road to Menindie.
Chapter XII. Holidaying on the Darling—The River of Rest.
Chapter XIII. Boogeying in the Bush.
Chapter XIV. Shopping in Town and Country.
Chapter XV. Broken Hill.
Chapter XVI. Seeing the Country—Lively Company—A Chap From Farrell's Flat.
Chapter XVII. The Romance of the Old Squattage Homesteads.
Chapter XVIII. The Altered Bush.
Chapter XIX. Through the Wheat Areas—The Farm Home—Gossip Along the Line.
Chapter XX. When the Bushman Visits the City.
Chapter XXI. The Suburbanite's Little Garden.
Chapter XXII. Going Down to Build the Federal Capital—Heroes of the Camp Fires.
Chapter XXIII. Tall Fishing on the Murray.
Chapter XXIV. The Overseer Tries to Have Forty Winks—No Respect for Luggage—Rural Charm—The Tent-Dwellers of Ballarat.
Chapter XXV. In Canvas Houses.
Chapter XXVI. In the Smoker.
Chapter XXVII. A Good Hand at Cards—Melbourne—Seeing the Duke.
Chapter XXVIII. Hawkers.
Chapter XXIX. An Unpleasant Attachment—Armed and Feathered Women.
Chapter XXX. Giant Trees—A Day on a New Selection—Glenrowan and Wodonga.
Chapter XXXI. Settler's Homes.
Chapter XXXII. On the Track.
Chapter XXXIII. Refreshment Stalls—Business Cards and Signs.
Chapter XXXIV. Women and the Gun—The Australian Girl.
Chapter XXXV. The City Girl and the Country Girl.
Chapter XXXVI. Women in the Saddle.
Chapter XXXVII."Sydney, the Beautiful."
Chapter XXXVIII. The Rock and Fence-Rail Artist.
Chapter XXXIX. The Alderman and the Cow.
Chapter XL. Picnickers.
Chapter XLI. The Best Place to Live in When Hard Up.
Chapter XLII."Our Avenue."
The "Catholic Press" has secured the rights of another Australian story, by E. S. Sorensen, the best living writer of bush stories. No man knows the secrets of the bush better than Sorensen. In his day he has been a bush carpenter, a publican, a drover, a shearer and a station hand. He was born on the Northern Rivers, and educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph. He has travelled from one end of Australia to the other. He is the author of many books.
In "A Backblocker's Pleasure Trip" he relates the experiences and adventures of a party of backblock excursionists at the time of the visit of the Duke of York, the itinerary being from the interior to Sydney, via Mount Browne, Menindie, Broken Hill, Adelaide and Melbourne. The narrative is interspersed with bush and town sketches, humorous incidents and yarns by the way. It forms a sequel to "The Swagman's Diary," which was published in the "Catholic Press" some months back, but the treatment is different.
The first instalment of this delightful narrative will be published in the "Press" next week.
Editor's Note: In this advertisment a week before the serial started, the Catholic Press spelled the author's name Sorensen instead of Sorenson.
At certain seasons our several Governments combine to run excursion trains from Broken Hill to Sydney (and vice-versa), via Adelaide and Melbourne. I sampled the excursion at the time the Duke of York was visiting Australia. A lot of people were going east then to see Royalty. I had no appointment with him myself; in fact, I wasn't going down to see the Duke at all—nor even the Duchess. The prolonged drought of that period, with its heat and flies and thirst and duststorms, was getting monotonous, and the cheap excursion decided me that I wanted a change of climate.
Being at Tibooburra, 200 miles from the railway station, I had to start early to catch the express. I started three weeks before hand. This was to allow time to recover from the awful coach trip before beginning the long train journey.
It was not a mere holiday trip with me; I was going for good. There was nothing about Tibooburra to hold the affections of one who had known the regions of great forests and perennial streams. It was a small town, with only one street; but there were three hotels in it, and it seemed to do a fairly good business for a far inland town that was surrounded with endless miles of emptiness. It was a picturesque little spot, in what the coastal people call the Land of Sunset, noticeable particularly for the numerous huge cone-shaped piles of stones or gibbers around it, and for the immense flocks of goats that dotted the immediate landscape.
Turn where you would, Billy and Nanny and the kids were always in evidence. They mooched through the street, and they slept on the footpath, indifferent to passers-by. On a dark night the passer-by sometimes passed over a prostrate form into the mud. They could be seen like mere specks on the distant flat, and posed in all manner of attitudes on the rocky hillsides, with one here and there silhouetted against the sky line, standing like a living statue on the topmost rock of a lofty pinnacle. It was the home of the goat; for there were no other animals to be seen, excepting an odd horse and a stray dog here and there. The sparse herbage and the rugged nature of the local pasture did not support cows. Goat milk, goat meat and even goat butter were common items in the family bill of fare.
Here the milkmaid was a familiar figure in the street. Where nearly everybody who had time to attend to the animals kept goats, there was only room for one in the dairying business. She was about 16, the main support of a widowed mother. She did her round on foot, carrying a quart measure and a billycan; but a bare-legged boy accompanied her with a home-made goat-cart, on which the bulk of the milk was carried. Her principal customers were the hotels and stores; and there were a few houses outside the "main street" which the little milk-cart visited regularly, rattling over the broken ground and among the rock heaps on a narrow track of its own. She was truly a picture of the great, dry, central region, this little milkmaid. Her turn out brought a smile from visitors; but nobody else seemed to notice anything unusual about it. Casual customers met the milk cart with their jugs, and toddlers looked for a noggin when she came along.
At milking time you saw her and the mother and two small boys in the midst of a flock, going busily from one goat to another with their cans. They milked them anywhere in the yard, and when the work was over the herd was turned loose among the gibbers. Now and again one was kept back to be killed for meat, a task in which the girl was again the chief actor. Mustering the flock was an interesting process. They mingled with a thousand other goats, most of which bore a very striking resemblance to each other to a stranger. There would be a score of juveniles goat-hunting at once, running along the narrow valleys, climbing up and down the piled-up rocks, searching every nook, and roaming over the broken flats, calling their pets, and drafting them out of the mixed mobs. They all had names for their goats; and they all knew them individually. The little dairymaid owned about 300. In her little world the goat was not only the family sustenance, but took the place of the cow in all the other homes of the neighbourhood.
I carried away with me one other vivid picture of that place, the home of a digger's wife; for here I picked up John Jovius Muggs, a shrewd battler, who was also going "down below." He was some distant relation of hers; and he called me over to help to recover a poddy foal that had slipped into an old shaft.
The dwelling, like many another around it, was a patchwork structure, built into an indentation in a huge pile of rocks. In this position it had to conform somewhat to the natural outline of the limited site. It was neither square, oblong, nor round, and the visitor had no idea of its dimensions until he got inside. You had to stoop to enter, but inside you could straighten yourself out and admire the craftsmanship of the architect. The walls were partly of immovable rock and partly of hessian; the floor was a mixture of soft granite and natural cement; and in front, some distance from the verandah, was a high wind-break of cane grass. The kitchen was in a wide angle, at the side, the spacious fireplace being also in part built by nature, and in part by the digger with rough stones and pug.
Nearly all the furniture was home-made. Packing-cases were transformed into tables, easy chairs, chests of drawers, cupboards, dressers, shelves and beds. The sofa or lounge, covered with cretonne, was fashioned of the same rough material, padded with horsehair. The cooking was done much in the same way as in a camp or a bushman's hut; but there was no floor-scrubbing and no window cleaning.
Sometimes in the afternoon the woman visited a neighbour's place, planted among other piles of rocks, and invisible until you got near it. Sometimes she took the children along the little flats and gullies, prospecting in the alluvial. In these rambles, especially after rain, they picked up many specks of gold, and sometimes discovered a payable claim for the old man. At night "mother" sat at the table, blowing the black sand from the gold that "father" had obtained during the day, before bottling it and putting it away for Saturday.
A little, oblong-shaped hole near the house showed the source of their water supply. It was only a few feet deep, and the water in it looked only enough to last a day or two. But it never gave out. Close by each of the neighbours' places was a similar soakage. Besides being used for household purposes, the water was run in little channels through a cultivated plot; in another angle of the rock-heap, which supplied them with vegetables and fruit. The rock-heap was their own little mountain, over which their goats climbed and browsed, and in the nooks and corners of which their fowls scratched and planted their nests. It was a home suited to the hot, dusty, western clime, where people live under different conditions from those of other parts of the State. It was the typical digger's home in the region known as Mount Browne.
When I was called over by Mr. Muggs, the woman was assisting to hoist the foal from the shaft, which was about 12ft. deep. A tripod and blocking tackle were fixed up over it; and having fastened a rope round the foal, we hauled it up. Then, while the woman and I hung on to the rope, Mr. Muggs got behind the foal to shove it clear of the shaft. He had no sooner put his hands against it than the suspended animal struggled violently, and kicked him backwards into the shaft. We couldn't run to his assistance, or to inquire if he had sustained any damage. We had to hang on all we could; and meanwhile Mr. Muggs watched the struggling beast from below, dreading every moment that we would let it drop on top of him.
Luckily, the digger came home for his lunch, and in a moment or two we were relieved of the poddy. Then we hauled up Mr. Muggs, who was mainly suffering from the terror that had hung over him; after which we had just time to get lunch before boarding the coach for the long road.
Coaching through the lonely back country is not exhilarating. You travel all day, all night, all next day, all that night, and all the following day, by which time you are feeling rather tired of it. You are also feeling drowsy. You stop only for meals—which are sometimes 18 hours apart, to change horses, and at the sandhills.
Our first halt was at Warratta, a wayside pub, where we washed down some of the dust we had collected in climbing up and down many stony, saltbush hills; and our next the little town of Milparinka, which after more substantial refreshments and a ramble, we left at dusk.
Like Tibooburra, our starting point, Mount Browne, Warratta and Milparinka were all goldfields that had known better days in the long past, and still supported a good number of puddlers, dryblowers, fossickers and others.
A queer lot of human derelicts one meets on some of the old alluvial diggings. What answers to the description of good fossicking ground is the last haven of the inveterate digger when old age creeps upon him. Down the long river of life he has known many vicissitudes; like a coracle he has drifted through the rushes and whirls of the golden course, tearing wildly over rapids and tumbling over falls; buffeted among the rocks, and stranded awhile in the shallows to float again into calm waters, through little eddies and ripples, and at last to drift out of the running stream into a by-wash and a dead end. That is the fossicking ground as the old men know it, where all the excitement of a rushing digger's life is gone and done with. There remains only the necessity of scratching around for an existence, with the faint hope, which really never entirely dies in any digger, of striking a stray nugget or a rich pocket.
Some of them have handled fortunes in their time; in stirring days when life was young, and money was not valued, and was parted with as quickly as it came. In the neighbourhood of Mount Browne was one who was known as Bendigo. He was very nearly a centenarian; bent, wrinkled, and toothless, but still with energy and independence enough to potter about with pick and shovel. He got his nickname from the fact that his conversation usually bristled with references to the big Victorian field. He made his first pile on Bendigo, and he made many a good rise afterwards, at one time being possessed of £12,000.
When I first saw him he stood at the corner of the street, carefully searching the pockets of his patched clothes, and wearing a deeply thoughtful expression, as if he were trying to recollect what he had done with his last sixpence. The pockets turning out all duffers, he shuffled resignedly back to his camp, which happened then to be a hessian hut, the home of a man who worked at anything in the district, and did a bit of mining when there was nothing else to do. Bendigo had no abiding place that he could call his own. There were several men who had small dwellings on the field, and who were much of the year working away from it, at shearing sheds and elsewhere. There were others, too, who could not work their claims during the long, dry spells for want of water. They were not content, like the old chaps, to get a couple of pennyweights a week until rain came, and they left home to seek other employment.
As one of these went out, Bendigo walked in, taking possession of the hut and utensils, and sometimes any tools that were there. Bendigo did not always possess a working kit. He couldn't obtain necessaries on trust; and when hard up he had to sell his kit or leave it as security. He had no mining claim either. He wandered about, working wherever he could find shelter, and especially where there chanced to be a deserted soakage. When the owner of the hut returned and temporarily inconvenienced him by turning him out, he looked for some reward for having acted as caretaker.
In the same locality was a hatter, who was popularly known as Dirty Peter. He was a dryblower, and no local evidence was adducible that he had ever washed either himself or his clothes. His name certainly suited his appearance. I often noticed his humpy, for it was one that had some eye arresting peculiarities about it. It was partly a dugout, with a patchwork roof like a Chinaman's hovel, and a chimney some yards in the rear composed of a pile of rough stones, topped with a broken drainpipe. He descended into the dungeon by means of an arrangement that was partly a ladder and partly a staircase. A wall of stones and bushes enclosed the premises on three sides; the front was open, and the ground thickly pitted right up to the door with old shafts. A little track, a couple of feet wide, zigzagged among the gaping holes to the entrance of Pete's happy home. The shafts had been there since the days of the rush, and it was believed that Peter left them unfilled as a deterrent to evening visitors. He was a hard worker. Early and late he was at it, picking, shovelling, and blowing the dry soil on the flat, always about the same place, year after year, and every day's end he was seen zigzagging home with a log of wood on his shoulder. What he made nobody knew. He never hung about town, even at race time or election time. There was one thing about Peter that made him talked about among the old brigade—he always had money, but he always looked and pretended to be hard up.
Then there was "Old Ned," an old age pensioner. He had a neat little hut, kept scrupulously clean, the path to which was also hemmed with shafts. He, too, was something of a recluse. All day he kept to his hut, for he had given up mining, and at night he emerged to prowl about the vicinage. He liked to keep a fire burning, where he sat and smoked, or absorbed any interesting literature he chanced to pick up; and as it was a long way to the mulga ridges, he visited the unguarded woodheaps at the back of the business places. If he heard anyone approaching from the opposite direction while making home with the fuel, he dropped it down a shaft, and returned for it later. His path was a short cut from town across the flat, and sometimes he had several interruptions in getting a log home. One night a digger came almost on to him as he was busy hauling a heavy piece out of a hole. Ned let it slip back quickly, and commenced to feel along the path with his hands. "Hulloa, there!" said the digger, "what's up." "I've lost my pipe," said Ned, continuing the search. The digger produced a box of matches, and was about to strike one to help, when Ned hurriedly interrupted: "It's all right, I've got it!" and straightening up, he thrust a short, knobby stick between his teeth, and made a pretence of drawing through it.
Another curious character was Windyne, who was commonly known as Windy the Fossicker, and to some as Cranky Windy. He dwelt alone in a little slab hut that he had built in the centre of a square plot of ground, containing about five acres. He earned his nickname from the fact that he spent all his days fossicking about that selection. It was broken up from side to side and from end to end, hardly a vestige anywhere being left untouched. It had never panned out a colour, but that didn't discourage Windy. When he wasn't digging, or measuring with a tape, he was seen mooching about with a pick and shovel in one hand and a tattered map in the other. How many years he had been thus unprofitably employed nobody could recollect.
He was a very old man when I knew him, bald-headed, wrinkled, and watery eyed. He lived on a small remittance, which he said, would be paid to him by his loving relatives as long as he stayed away from them. I took refuge under his humble roof one rainy day, and whilst we sat over the fire he told me his story.
He and a mate had been digging together, and being on a good run of dribbling gold, which kept them going comfortably, they invested some of their spare cash in a Tattersall's sweep, and drew a winner. The sum was about £10,000, according to Windy. The storekeeper collected the money, and handed it over to Windy's mate, who stowed it away in their tent. That night, Windy, celebrating his elevation to fortune, was treating everybody he met in town, and wound up by assaulting the constable. Ordinarily Windy was the most peaceful of citizens. His lapse cost him a month in the local lockup. He had been cooling his heels there about three weeks when he heard that his mate had been found dead in the tent. The only money that could be found was a couple of one pound notes in his pocket and some loose cash in a chamois bag under his pillow.
"He must have known he was dyin'," said Windy, "for he left me a rough chart—this old map 'ere that I've studied for ages and ages. There's one word underneath—'Buried'—with the last letter only half formed, as if he had a spasm or something just there, an' never went back to finish what he'd meant to write.
"After I got out I spent six months searchin' and diggin' in vain for the buried money. Then—for fear somebody else might start prospectin' in the locality—I took up this homestead selection. It's no good for anything, an' my good neighbors are convinced that I'm stark starin' mad for selectin' such a plot; but the map says the gold's hidden inside its boundaries. Lord knows, I've done a power o' diggin', but I haven't struck the colour of it yet. Sometimes I think I've put the house on it. If that's the case the house will have to shift. But there's a few little virgin spots on the estate I must try first. Likely enough it's in one of them; if it's not it's under the house; and if it's not under the house—well, then, I must have put the fence up wrong, an' left the fortune out in the bush. . . . It must be somewhere, that's sure. Blast old Bill; he couldn't take it with him, could he? It's not my way to say anything against the dead, but old Bill was always a fool of a feller with money. An' to snuff out like that without finishin' the d—— map, that's what gets over me! . . . Anyhow"—concluding with a gleam of cheerful philosophy—"if I don't soon find it I won't want it."
When you are shut up at night in a rocking, rolling, rattling coach, packed for hour after hour in the form of a zigzag, even the heavy sandhill can be a welcome variation to the tedium of travel. On coming to one or the latter the horses pulled up of their own accord, and the driver peremptorily ordered all hands to get out. We got out and walked, and now and again we shoved and spoked the wheels, and otherwise worked our passage over the bars. We paid £6 each for this privilege.
We didn't mind walking over the sand. It was better to have it underfoot than to meet it whirling through the atmosphere in dense clouds. The scenery was like the weather—monotonous; and these little breaks were a relief. We did not grumble either when the coachdriver got lost at night, and we had to do some exploring with lamps and matches. It might delay us a few minutes, or a few hours—what matter? We were quite animated when we took our seats again. We exhibited scratches and bruises as proof that we found trees and other vegetation without the assistance of a guide; and we related how we discovered numerous small gullies, without injury and without breaking or losing the coach lamp.
We did lose the coach on one occasion. Everybody had gone road-hunting, and when the thoroughfare was located and all hands had been summoned to the spot, we found that we had mislaid the conveyance. No light had been left to guide us, and the horses wouldn't answer a coo-ee like a lost passenger. They wouldn't make any sound at all. On that lone, benighted plain no team ever stood so still. So things looked serious for a while.
When we set out to recover it, it was surprising what a lot of things could look like a coach and horses. A small mulga tree and a colossal hill equally resembled it. One, in his eagerness to be the saviour of the party, would call out. "Here it is" and cause the rest to concentrate there before he ascertained that his discovery was a straggling shrub or a heap of roly polies. This circumstance was treated jocularly at first, but its repetition became exasperating.
I believe we found everything in the neighbourhood, including rabbit burrows, before we struck the vehicle. This happy event was brought about by a man falling over a clump of saltbush; he bumped so hard that the horses jumped and the rattle of the traces directed another man to the place.
The driver came in for some abuse—in asides—that night. Not for losing the road, but for leaving the team. The road across many level expanses was often invisible in daytime; it had been buried in a duststorm or blown away into the next State. A 20 mile plain, bare as a claypan, and showing no sign of a wheel mark, had to be crossed by dead reckoning. I like a wide road, but one that is 20 miles wide is a little too extensive.
On these far tracks the traveller noticed here and there a candle box or a biscuit tin nailed to a tree. There might be no habitation visible from the road, but somebody lived not far away, somewhere through the timber or over the hills; and that receptacle, placed convenient for the coach driver, was the family mailbox, in which letters and papers were posted and delivered. Much else at times was deposited there besides mail matter. Mrs. Smith, for instance, sent along a sample of her birthday cake, or a jar or two of some jam she had made, to a distant friend. It was the custom, too, among settlers that when one killed a beast a fresh joint was sent to the nearest neighbour. Fresh meat was rare, for a beast, even half a beast, lasted an ordinary family a long while. So a joint from time to time was appreciated.
On some of the long stretches between boxes there were spots well known to the coach driver, which were marked only with a little bridle track running off at right angles to the coach road. Here the mail girl was met with. Sometimes she was riding, sometimes she drove down in a sulky or a single buggy. Almost invariably she was waiting at the spot when the coach arrived, either sitting on a horse, her hat tied down over her ears, or sitting on a log or by the road side. Here and there two mail girls met at the same spot, arriving from opposite directions. Sometimes a little romance was interwoven in those trips for the mail—when the party from the opposite way chanced to be a young man. The trips were longer then, perhaps, and longer, too, seemed the intervals between the Coach days.
"The returning exiles!" Said a passenger, in allusion to himself and companions, as the coach extended the dull, grey miles behind us, and the veil of haze was drawn over the austere face of Tongowoko and its neighbouring counties.
The people of the eastern, southern and northern regions were wont to style that part the Gates of Purgatory, and term its inhabitants the exiles of Outback. But the speaker was not as happy as a stranger to that land of suprises would have expected; and one of the returning exiles, a lady, was crying—crying because she was leaving for ever the pregnant, brooding spaces where the sun goes down. They had gone to that corner to make money, with the intention of getting out of it again as speedily as possible; and subtly, unconsciously, the place had gripped them. Not with joy, but with a pang of regret, they saw the glinting rock-caps at Mount Browne disappear behind the obscuring curtain.
A more striking contrast to the cold, green isles beyond the Atlantic could hardly be imagined; yet English, Irish and Scots were scattered all over it, a great many of them in a position to purchase an estate in their native land, and to live well on the interest of their money for the rest of their days. But you couldn't drag them out of it. Australians, too, who had tasted the sweets of the coastal climbs, turned back, in spite of all the disadvantages, to that siren with the austere countenance, and burning tresses.
We said as much to the man who had called us "the returning exiles," and he closed the argument by saying they were mad. Two years afterwards he was carrying between Wilcannia and Warri Warri—the extreme corner; and carrying out there was about the most trying occupation he could have engaged in.
As a rule, the settler is a stickler for home. Many a one of middle age has never seen a train or a ship; many a one who has grown up and reared a family has never been 50 miles away from the selection where he was born; and there are old men in plenty in the heart of Australia, and nearer, who have never looked upon the sea. Though there are roving spirits among them, the average, even when in search of work, keep within certain limits like their native crows. When they go droving, on a journey of several hundred miles, they make straight for their old haunts on being paid off. At the same time there may be nothing to call them back but familiar squattages where they have worked, or a few mates they had worked with; no fixed home and no kindred, and never a pair of bright eyes to induce them to "turn their greys once more to the south"—or the west.
If you are nobody in the social world, and want to rise from obscurity now and again for a change, live in the backblocks—live at Milparinka, the place that has become a synonym in New South Wales for the outermost limit.
In big towns only people of distinction, people in high positions, and those who have gained renown by accident, influence or merit, are deemed worthy of mention in the social columns of the big newspapers. The doings of our leading society women, of the butterflies of fashion, are chronicled, however insignificant; and mostly they pertain to weddings, engagements, receptions, dog parties, and flitting from place to place. When Mr. Smith-Jones retires from duty, or departs for a new field of activity, he receives a eulogistic notice; and particulars of his send-off and the select circle who took part in it, or were among those present, are duly published; also Mrs. Smith-Jones' dress is described to the minutest detail when she graces the ballroom or the lawn at Randwick. Her housemaid may be more attractive; but that obscure young person is only noticed when she falls down stairs with extra violence, or narrowly escapes drowning while surf bathing. Neither is the engagement of Bill, the boundary rider, to the cook at Wild Dog Hotel referred to in print. He receives no flattering publicity, even when he marries the girl, though a bush wedding is often a highly interesting function. Bill is only mentioned when he breaks his neck, or does something equally disastrous to himself or to somebody else. If, however, Bill came into a fortune, eloped with an heiress, or discovered a gold mine, the amount of advertisement he would receive all at once would make him blush.
In the country town distinctions are less rigidly drawn. An outbreak of snobbery only brings humiliation on the snob. Everybody's weddings are noticed in the local paper, and every bride, whatever her station in life, looks charming. The only difference is that the squatter's daughter gets more space than is allotted to pretty little Mary whose father helps to keep the roads in repair. An old resident of any decree is worthy of half a column or more when he dies. If he dies in an uncommon or sensational fashion, the editor rejoices, and spreads himself on the lamented demise. Even the dairyman gets a sympathetic paragraph when he loses Strawberry, though Strawberry may not have been any thing like a prize cow. There also Constable X. is a highly-esteemed citizen, whose movements are recorded with a laudatory pen. If, further, it becomes necessary to refer frequently to the lapses of the town drunk, it is done more in sorrow than in anger. The lives of the people are closely intermingled, and as the population to the square mile grows less the inhabitants merge more on a plane of equality.
The social life in these primeval parts is not a joy to those who have been used to the mad whirl and gaiety of cities. At first some aspects of it are amusing and entertaining; there is a freshness, novelty and picturesqueness about it all that pleases and thrills; but that soon wears off, and leaves behind it an atmosphere of deadly dullness. The bushman and the bush maid are not conscious of any dullness; they haven't time, and their lives are too busy to know the meaning of ennui. In their natural element there is much to exercise the mind that is meaningless to the visitor.
The main events in the way of public entertainments are the grass-fed races, the hospital ball, and the cricket match. Some times there is a blackfellows' corroboree. For the rest, home resourcefulness and neighbourly cooperation keep the ball rolling in a spasmodic fashion. In a widely scattered community, afternoon tea parties are hardly possible. When one family visits another they set out early in the morning, and return late in the evening. At squattages visitors arrive at any time between midday and midnight, and stay till next morning; sometimes they stay a week. Among humbler folk, horses and vehicles are the means of locomotion, though many walk. They walk five or six miles for a few hours' gossip, or to attend a dance; they often walk miles after a horse before they start on their day's trip. Almost every gathering or function that eventuates demands a long walk.
What great walkers were the old bush mothers—the mothers we knew on the rivers where the big scrubs grew, when settlers were hewing daylight into the tangled vegetation and making initial clearances in the dense forests! What few horses the settlements boasted of were generally in the use of the men, and there was seldom a vehicle in their possession other than a heavy dray, which was mostly wanted for more necessary purposes than pleasure driving. Many farmers at the beginning had to be content with a slide. This at times was used as the family carriage, on which they glided over the landscape to town or to a neighbour's place; but, as a rule, when paying calls the women walked.
When, one decided to go visiting, she started away after breakfast, with all the children in tow. There was an odd one who got lost, and another who tramped for hours up and down hills and gullies in search of the friend's house. Here and there they had to take their boots off to get over a wet patch and to ford a running stream. By-and-bye those streams were spanned by a log. The visitors made themselves presentable when near the friend's house, and arrived in time for lunch. Soon after lunch it was time to start back. A strenuous visiting day like that was not a weekly event.
The bush dance is one of the most frequent socials in far-out parts. It is a cheerful factor in the introduction of young couples, in the development of acquaintances, and the ripening of friendships. Nearly all the dances are distant outback, except to one or two families. If the girl doesn't possess a horse and saddle, it is the young man's duty to bring the necessary outfit with him when he calls for her. She will ride 20 miles to a dance after doing a hard day's work; and after dancing all night ride home in the shivering dawn and go straight to work again. She will also walk a good many miles under similar conditions when a horse is not available, over gullies and ridges, here and there through mud and water, carrying her precious ball dress and her dancing shoes in her hands.
The occasions for such communal gatherings are many and varied. It may be somebody's birthday, somebody's golden wedding, or an old resident may be leaving the district; there is a dance when a young couple gets married, and a house-warming when their home is built. The housewarming is a custom that introduces newcomers at once to everybody in the neighbourhood. Sometimes a christening is seized upon as an excuse for a dance; and always when a long-absent member of a family returns, when a school is erected, and when someone comes in for a modest fortune, there is a gathering of the clans. Then there is the "harvest home;" and when nothing at all is happening in the locality a dance is held to relieve the monotony.
Where houses are far apart, and a young man, who has been casually attracted by a pair of bright eyes, hasn't excuses for calling at her place frequently, the bush dance is a happy medium. Not that excuses are scarce. He calls on all sorts of pretences by way of cultivating a desirable acquaintance. One day he has lost his dog which he has taken the precaution to tie up in the scrub; another day he reports that some of her father's cattle are out (he probably let the sliprails down the night before); but his favourite trick is borrowing things he doesn't want, the returning of which provides with a legitimate excuse for calling again.
A good example of the intrepid swain who would see his girl at any cost was Captain John Slyney, one of the old coastal identities, who knew the north-eastern rivers in the romantic days of the fifties. In his youth he was a farmer, and farmers' hours were from daylight till dark. On Sundays he had to mind cockatoos and hunt wallabies. For all that, he got some recreation. "Girls were very scarce then," he would remark reminiscently, "and it was nothing for a young fellow to walk 25 or 30 miles to see one of them." There were no bicycles or motor launches for rapid transit then; so he and a youthful neighbour took turn about with the wallabies and cockatoos so that they would have time alternately to go courting.
Another strenuous courtship was that of a young boatbuilder on the Richmond River . He built a little boat for himself, and in this he used to pull 10 miles after he knocked off work on Saturday to see his girl. Then he had to take her for a row. The return journey commenced on Sunday night, and, bar accidents, he got back in time to begin work on Monday morning. This continued for two years; then a rival, who settled within easy reach of the girl, carried off the prize.
The backblocker has at least an advantage in the cost of his courting. In the cities courting is expensive. In the backblocks it can be carried on to any length of time without overtaxing the means of the poorest. Bill's sweetheart expects to be taken to sports and entertainments; but these don't make much of a gap in the year's income. He can buy her a saddle, which will be a useful asset after marriage, for the same amount as the cityite expends on a couple of motor rides, and that sums up all his travelling expenses. He doesn't travel anyway extensively; most times he is quite content to sit on a log with his arms round her lissome waist, both sharing the mutual feeling that their life is as one blissful Eden.
A lady visitor to a backblock squattage is apt to get a slight shock at first. No strict formalities are observed; there is an unconventional air about everything, and a confidential good fellowship existing between mistress and servants, between boss and men. The evenings are devoted to indoor games, private theatricals, music and singing; and if Jim the stockman has a good voice he will probably add something to the success of the entertainment. In her wanderings about the homestead, or farther afield, every man she meets will speak to her, and he will be grievously offended if she does not return the greeting, though they may never have seen each other before. The good comradeship that prevails among all classes soon infects her, and thaws the icy reserve that she arrives with. She enters into the enjoyment of quite a new social world, the freshness and freedom of which make some amends for what it lacks in frequency of entertaining incidents.
Her first introduction to the tennis court will be among her liveliest recollections. One that occurs vividly to me was a court near the border, which had wire-netting stretched permanently across the centre. It was a Saturday afternoon, and players were drawn impartially from house and hut. Among the lady players were two young gins, both dressed in pink prints, their hair tied with blue ribbon; and among the gentlemen were a half-caste and a full blooded aborigine, both attired in spotless white. These two stockmen were the smartest and most expert players on the ground.
The picnic party is a common form of enjoyment, and it is much the same old picnic that we see everywhere. Barke's Hole, on Koopa Creek, where the explorers died is a favourite picnicking ground, where families gather periodically from many miles around. The night picnic used in be a great joy to me when I was a boy. That was down on the eastern side. Our house and the next stood about three miles apart. Midway between them was a small lagoon, where the two families met about sunset, the men to fish, the women to talk, the children to play. This kind of social gathering, combining business with pleasure, took place occasionally on bright summer nights, when indoors was uncomfortably hot, while outside was fresh and cool and fragrant.
On a carpet of soft couch grass by the lagoon, the parties set their baskets. The men got to work at once with their lines, whilst the elder children were put to gathering a pile of wood. A fire was made where the women sat minding the toddlers. The day birds had disappeared by this, and from somewhere in the darkening distance came the haunting cry of the mopoke. Beetles came aeroplaning into the firelight, and huge moths dropped with singed wings, to be eagerly pounced on by youngsters squatting near the blazing sticks.
I was one of the wood-gatherers then, and I remember that camp most for the cheery chirp of the crickets in the grass, the scent of flowering rushes, and the howls of dingoes that came at long intervals with weird and lonely cadence from beyond a spotted gum ridge.
For awhile there was darkness, until the moon rose above the trees. Then the youngsters left the fireside to chase 'possums. Now and again their hunting and playing were interrupted by a splash and a thud at the lagoon edge, and they dashed down to see what sort of a marine prize "father" had captured. Sometimes the splash was made by waterfowl. Ducks and other night wanderers came swooping down into the water, to fly off again in sudden alarm on discovering the intruders.
About 10 o'clock the billies were boiled. Then wood was heaped on the fire, and all sat down to supper on the grass. Here the men told about the big ones they had lost, and of pleasant nights in other places which the scene recalled.
That picnic had more charm for us than a picnic in the day, when the summer heat only made one wish to get into the lagoon and stop there. There was a beauty and an alluring glamour also in the bush summer night that was irresistible. There was, besides, a touch of the camp life which children love, and which their elders had recourse to as a wholesome change from the everlasting house.
From The Corner to Broken Hill, from Yulpunga to Bourke this great triangle, the Cinderella of the State, is the home of the duststorm, the place where the monsoon revels in all its might and glory. Samples of real estate are blown up from these western plains, and distributed over the continent, and rained into two oceans. Red sand that has been swept up hereabouts and from farther out, after being borne a thousand miles overland, has fallen on ships many leagues away from land. The country is mostly flat, thinly grassed in dry summers, and the loose surface soil is torn away and lifted to form the immeasurable clouds that wreck havoc and misery where they rain, leaving the ground scarred and swept as though it had been washed by a strong flood.
Sometimes the storms are gathering for days, and you see the sky overcast with a muggy or reddish glare, and secretly dread the coming blast. Yet as it appears here, it is a magnificent sight. The enormous banks of dust come whirling and whizzing across the country, like rolling folds upon folds of storm clouds bowling over the landscape and seeming to touch the very heavens in the mighty wall that obscures everything. Before this wall the air is quite clear; there are no leaders, whiffs or puffs to indicate that the splendid, convulsive columns are formed of dust. It is at times appalling in its magnitude and fearful grandeur. Suddenly your world is plunged into darkness; you see nothing; feel only the sting of the driving sand against your hands and face. Your nostrils and eyes are filled; you are blinded and suffocated, and tears stream from your eyes. Your horse turns from the blast, and cattle turn and drive you before them. You are helpless; you can only lie down flat, in a deep gully if possible, and let it sweep over you. It is gone in a few minutes.
Three of us were one afternoon holding a mob of sheep on a plain when a dust storm came on to us. It was not a very heavy one, but blinding. We continued to ride round what we supposed to be the sheep, shouting at intervals, and thanking our stars that they were giving so little trouble. When the storm had passed we found that we had two old, partially-blind ewes; the mob had disappeared into the timber two miles across the plain.
On another occasion we were caught near an excavated tank. The latter was deep, and had but little water in it. The cloud looked like a colossal mountain being removed bodily, reaching as far as we could see east and west, its top lost in limitless space. As it swept towards us, in countless spinning folds like living monsters gambolling and rolling over each other, we left our horses, and rushed down into the tank, where we lay under a rain of sand until the desert demon had passed.
The now-defunct "Sturt Recorder," of Milparinka, gave the experience of a couple of men in that same storm. "For half an hour it was darker than the darkest night," said one. "I was holding a grey horse by the bit, and could not see him. After he got away from me I lay flat down on the batter of a tank, and tried several times to see my hand only a few inches from my face, but could discern nothing." The other man related: "My mate and I took shelter in a tent, and lit a candle, but for a minute or two we could not even see the light, and for some time, were unable to see each other, notwithstanding the candle was still burning.'
Almost anywhere west of Broken Hill you would find trees standing on the ends of their roots, the soil having been swept from under them. Here and there you saw a few inches of the tops of a fence that had been buried, and the boundary rider told you that there was a second fence under it, and sometimes another under that, the three fences having been erected one on top of the other, and successively buried by drifting sand. On many runs men were following fences with shovels, occasionally with teams and scoops, all through the summer, breaking up the hard banks and scattering the stuff through the wires, so that the wind would carry it on. It was remarkable, considering the penetrating propensity of this fine sand, that a single wire a foot or even two feet off the ground would cause a bank of sand to gather till the wire was covered. Netting fences were buried very quickly.
In other places, instead of fences being buried, we found the ground cut away from under the posts till they toppled over. I have seen a couple of chains of fencing lying flat at a stretch, from 18 to 20 inches of earth being carried away to get under the posts. Where the ground was very hard the earth round the uprights had been whisked out by strong winds, leaving them toppling in all directions. It was rather a difficult task to erect a permanent fence in such localities.
Ploughs and scoops had to be used round some of the houses to prevent the doors and windows being blocked up. Sand brakes were built at tanks, wells and troughs, and some of the homesteads were walled in. A strong wire fence was first run round, then brush or cane-grass was woven among the wires so as to form a substantial wall eight or ten feet high. It was far cheaper in the long run to thus fortify your house against the besieging dry storms than to be eternally removing the sandhills they dropped down at your doors. At Morney Plains Q. L. a new drafting yard that cost £500 was entirely buried at the end of 1901. That was the sultry year we left the north west .
Conaulpie Downs, near the Queensland border, was a typical western homestead. It had a retaining wall on the northern side, and clumps of trees to protect it on the other sides. It was a fairly substantial wooden building with iron roof, the ceiling and walls being lined with hessian, and papered. After a big storm nothing in those rooms could be seen for dust. It could be gathered in handfuls off tables and beds, and shaken in showers from curtains. One visitation during my stay there was so severe that men had to shovel the dust off the floors into barrows and wheel it away. During the same summer the ceilings of two rooms broke down with the weight of dust that had collected above them.
In other houses one noticed bulges in the canvas ceilings, showing where little hillocks of sand had gathered on top. Where the ceilings were painted or whitewashed, sewn-up slits in the canvas were noticeable, showing where a knife had been thrust in to run off the sand. Wooden ceilings gathered sufficient weight in time to render them dangerous if not relieved of the pressure. No building was free from the penetrating dust. It got into every crevice and corner. Wherever air could enter it carried the nuisance with it. Imagine then the cleaning up after a big blow—and big blows happened along frequently through the summer.
I rode up to a tank one day immediately after a storm, and found about a hundred rabbits groping blindly about near the water. They had been caught there while drinking, and were unable to get away. They blinked helplessly at me, their eyes being dammed up with a circular ridge of wet sand, moistened with their own tears. In the same way sheep were blinded, and before they could recover, ravens pounced on them, clinging to their necks, and pecked their eyes out. I have seen stockmen, boundary-riders and travellers wash their horses' eyes with water from their canvas bags, and when no water was at hand they wiped the animals' eyes with their handkerchiefs.
The maps showed numerous watercourses over this area, but like a good many of the lakes shown in other parts, they were merely depressions in the landscape. A heavy fall of rain would cause a roaring flood in any of them. Often the water spread over the flat country in an unbroken sheet for 30 miles or more; but in a week it had all vanished. The winding dark lines of timber looming across the plains looked promising, but a man might perish of thirst following the courses in search of a pothole. There was plenty of water underground, but a reservoir that had to be tapped with a boring plant wasn't much good to a thirsty traveller
"Looking for thunderstorms" was a common phrase out west. Stockmen rode out day after day (when weather conditions had been favourable), looking for tracks of wet storms, and following them across the runs. When any holes or tanks on a storm's course had received a few days' supply sheep were at once shifted on to them, only to be removed on to the track of another storm, perhaps many miles away, a week later. The tracks of these storms, were often not more than half a mile wide, and it was one of the most tantalising experiences of western squatting to see storm after storm cross the parched runs and miss every hole and tank upon them, while filling a long chain of claypans between. These claypans next day presented the surface of miniature lakes, and a couple of days after, the bare depressions showed hard and white under a blistering sun. An alluring mirage hovered over each one, like a body of water, until the horseman drew near; then it lifted, to appear again at the next.
Cattle, viewed through the everlasting haze of the plains, looked like giraffes, elongated monstrosities that seemed to hover on a shadowy surface several feet above the earth. Sheep assumed the proportions of oxen, and the whole atmosphere appeared to be filled with films of dancing, shimmering silk. Distances were hard to gauge; horsemen disappeared at no great distance on open plains. You saw something coming towards you, but until quite close you could not tell whether it was a footman or a camel, an emu or a bullock team; for all objects seemed to float, sometimes to within speaking distance, till the haze flitted beyond them when they resumed their normal shape and dimensions.
Almost the only natural hole of water that had any claim to permanency in the extreme north-west was that known as Depot Glen, in Evelyn Creek. It was also called Sturts' Waterhole. Fish were fairly plentiful in this water, consequently it was a great camping ground of the aborigines. This was the place that Captain Sturt had the good fortune to strike in the summer of 1844, when the whole country was sun-scorched, barren and gaping, and where Surveyor Poole, the second in command, left his bones. Sheltering the grave was a tree bearing the inscription, "J.P., 1845," which was cut by a member of the party. A pyramidal headstone, erected by Mr. Lang, of Mount Poole, also marked the resting-place of the first white man buried in that corner of the State. The place where Sturt had his underground dwelling was shown by an indentation a few yards from it. Rocky Glen, half a mile away, was a beautiful spot. Mount Poole was marked on the summit by a pyramidal cairn, which was built by the explorers.
Sturt had expected to find here a vast inland sea, and the remains of the boat he brought with him to sail across it were still treasured at the homestead. Had he crossed Mount Poole in the rainy season, and seen in place of the endless stony plains an expanse of brown water extending away to the horizon, he would have thought for awhile that he had really found the sea; he would have sailed upon it, only to find the water disappear from under him in a few hours. Nevertheless, scientific men who examined the country were convinced that a turbulent, permanent sea once actually existed there, Sturt was only a thousand years or so too late with his boat.
Delalah and Yantarn counties have several small lakes, as Gultamuleha, Balwarry, Yantara, and the Salt Lake ; while Bulloo Lake, the largest in that region, is only a short distance from the latter. It is the headquarters and the great breeding-place of the western waterfowl. Boulka Lake and Cobham Lake look well on the map, dotted right in the north-west comer of New South Wales, where a lake is a greater desidera than a gold mine. The "Corner" is an auriferous field, which has borne a goodly population of dryblowers and fossickers for many decades; with a lasting wet lake ever throwing white caps to the shimmering haze, little Tibooburra and Milparinka might blossom info fine cities.
I had heard a lot of talk of Cobham Lake. To people along the western border of Queensland, hundreds of miles away, the name was as familiar as Broken Hill. Naturally I expected to find something special in the way of lakes. I was disappointed. The lake was there, but it had no water in it.
The oldest inhabitant said it was the first time it had ever been known to go dry. He said it sorrowfully, bitterly, seeming to regard it as an old friend who had gone back on him. He had so long crowed over his fellow-patriarchs of Depot Glen; he had often said: "Pooh! Look at Cobham!" when the other fossils had praised his own pond, that he felt disgraced and humiliated. His dignity was injured; his pride was wounded; his prestige was ruined; his spirit was broken. Cobham had fallen from its grand eminence to a second-rate waterhole. It might rise to greater magnificence than ever in the next wet season, but it could never recover its good name. It wasn't permanent. Depot Glen had beaten it; and henceforth for all time Depot Glen was the boss waterhole. Worse than that, the ancient resident of the place wrote to inquire how the fish were biting in his claypan. he wished he had died before such ignominy had come upon him.
We picked up a squattage overseer at Wonnaminta, which was another celebrated waterhole, and before we had been long in his company we wished that he had died too.
Learning that we were bound south and east, he asked: "Going to see the Duke?"
Our acquaintances all down the road had asked us that question. We had been told the pedigree and history of the whole royal family before we started; and we were rather tired of the Duke. Besides, this person was a Londoner, loyally enthusiastic, and we scented a long harangue on the subject. No one was more weary of it than John Jovius Muggs, and it was John Jovius who took up the cudgels on behalf of the company.
"Is that what they call him?" asked Mr. Muggs.
"Of course! What else would you call him?"
"Dunno. Mostly heard them called Jumbo."
"Why—what are you talking about?"
"The new elephant."
The overseer roared. He thought that a great joke.
"My dear fellow," he said, in a superior condescending sort of manner, "I'm speaking of the Duke of York."
The overseer laughed again, but not so much. John Jovius never relaxed a muscle.
"The Prince of Wales' son," the overseer explained. "Haven't you heard of his visit."
"Where's he from?"
"From England! Where in the name of heaven are you from?"
The overseer was getting exasperated. John Jovius kept an unwavering eye on him all the time.
"Relation of yours?"
"Relation be dashed! Don't I say—"
"Well, what are you going down to see him for?"
"Ain't everybody going to see him! Why, they're paying £20 for a balcony view of the show—the procession!"
"Is he a freak?"
Oh, d---- it! . . . .He was becoming apopletic. "God bless my soul—what could put that silly notion into your head?"
"You say they're showing him at £20 a balcony?"
The overseer collapsed. He was red, perspiring, and choking, and when we laughed he thrust his head through the window and studied the scenery. But we hadn't heard the last of the overseer yet. We got on to a bit of heavy road where a recent storm had passed, and this reminded John Jovius of an incident on the Richmond River.
"A storm caught me in the bush, and I was riding along in heavy rain when I came upon a man sitting on a log, stark naked, and holding a horse with no saddle on it. 'What are you up to?' I says, to him. 'Havin' a shower bath.' he says, grinning. 'Where's your clothes?' He tapped the log. 'In there.' 'What did you put them in there for.' 'Cause there wasn't room for me to get in, an' it's only a fool's game, gettin' 'em wet in a shower; so I peeled off. See.' When the rain was over he dressed and saddled up, and rode away as dry as a bone. I was drenched to the skin."
This revived the overseer. He could cap that yarn. He opened his shoulders at once, and narrated:
"I was out horse hunting one day, when a storm came on, and I crawled into a hollow log for shelter. My cattle-pup came after me, and coiled up on my legs. The storm lasted a good while, and I fell asleep. While I was that way a carpet snake came in and swallowed the pup. In searching for a warm place for a nap it took a couple of coils round my legs. At this point there came in a wet and dripping bandicoot. The snake promptly seized and swallowed him, too. Now, these animals made a considerable bulge at each end of that snake, and as the intervening portion of its body was round my legs; it could go neither forward nor backward, and the effort to get the bandicoot down to the pup resulted in my legs being bound tightly together. In this predicament I woke, and though I risked being bitten, I was too tightly jambed by the coil and the protuberances to force a way out. Not having a knife if seemed evident that I must lie there until either the pup or the bandicoot digested.
"But I hadn't seen the worst of things yet. Towards noon a goanna crawled in and swallowed my right foot and part of the leg; and by-and-bye its mate came along and swallowed the other foot and leg. Having strong boots on, the only inconvenience I experienced was a feeling of tightness. But the question presented itself: Would my feet digest in the goannas before the pup or bandicoot was assimilated in the snake?
"I was debating that point when there came a sound of chopping, and half an hour later a big tree soused down on the head end of my log, splitting it from end to end. I escaped with sundry bruises, several small cuts, and much shock. Two axemen stood by the stump. When they saw me suddenly arise from the debris, girdled with a bulged snake and goanna extremities, they belted for their lives. I shook the snake off without any trouble: but to get free of the goannas I had to tie their tails to a sapling and run backwards."
There was a dead silence for live minutes after the overseer concluded. Then a quiet man, who had been dozing in a corner, sat up and remarked drily that the yarn wasn't rounded off properly. The overseer looked at him disapprovingly.
"Those goannas should have untied themselves and swallowed the snake, one from each end," said the quiet man; "and when they met in the middle they should have had a fight and swallowed each other. That would have been a clean finish." The overseer turned to the window again, and became absorbed in the grey embankments of a huge excavated tank.
When you travel over the great western country, with the solitary question of water in your mind (and you don't want a piece of string tied round your finger to keep it slipping from your memory), you realise the grim, dogged fight that has been made by the men who have settled there. Thousands of creeks and gullies vein this region, just the same as in other parts; but they are treacherous affairs to the stranger, who is lured by the promising lines and clumps of timber to search for potholes, such as his "inside" experience leads him to expect. There are rivers, too, draining vast areas of one State, and moistening hundreds of miles of another. They start far north with a roaring flood, and are exhausted and lost in the immensity of their travels, or they end their long journey with a brown trickle that creeps into the Darling or Murray. When settlers along the upper reaches of eastern rivers are flooded, warning is sent to those far down to prepare for the coming rush; but the people at the lower end of the outback waterways only hear casually that a big flood has happened above them. Though it may sweep grandly for a couple of hundred miles, only now and again do they expect it to run in their part of the course. The great plain awaits it with parched lips. Thirstily, greedily, it drinks up the river.
The great bulk of the inland drainage courses underground, down the ever flowing subterranean channels. When you look at the surface courses after a dry storm, you cannot but think that any other kind of river is impossible without some gigantic scheme of afforestation. To the small settler, who wants to wet his whistle in a hurry, the underground river is hopeless. Still, he goes out, and prospers. One whom I knew well, after working for some years on the roads with a team, took up a dry selection in the Corner, starting with a few sheep. He passed in his checks in 1909, leaving to his widow and children a well watered estate and £32,000 in cash. He was a canny Scot. All he did to make his pile was to put down a couple of tanks in the midst of timber. Most western graziers made their tanks in the sun-baked, windswept open, so that the sheep, after drinking, wouldn't camp round the tank. Both sheep and tank suffered in consequence.
"Death's Corner" and "Hell's Gate" were not terms applied to the Big Basin by thirst-tortured travellers from inside. The great, deceiving distances, the sun-glitter on the stones, the mocking mirages, and the apparent barrenness of everything around, are heart-breaking to the peddler and the swagman. But they get a grip of the immense possibilities of that territory when they know that, after years of drought, fat sheep have been obtained there when they could not be got anywhere else. The main stays of the land are mulga and saltbush. In fair seasons Mitchell grass grows like wheat. Cut and stored, it is as good as oaten hay. It is better, for the haymaker has not to plough or sow—he merely reaps. When the grass is in ear, he drives his machine across the plain, and within a few hours the "cut" is ready to stack. The hay has been found to be sweet and fattening after being stacked for 20 years. There is no trouble about feed. The great problem is water. You daren't ride a few miles out on the run without taking a bag of it with you, or the chances are there will be a funeral, and you'll be in it.
When the "insider" goes on the land, the first thing he does is to put up a hut; but when the westerner goes on to his block the first thing he has to do is to make a water hole. That is the most important and the most valuable improvement he can make. His wealth is reckoned and his status in the community determined by the number of waterholes he has. In putting down his first he has to choose his time; when rain has left a pothole within reach to supply him and his teams with liquid refreshment. Then it is a race between the sinking of the tank and the sinking of the water. When the hole is completed he goes away, to wait till the next rain comes and fills it. Then he may return and build his home. It is a big undertaking for the small man, but once he has amassed waterholes he can sit back and live comfortably on the interest.
Most of the work while we were there was done by contract. In earlier days tank sinkers reaped a rich harvest, getting a shilling a yard for excavation which was now being done for as low as 4d. The landowner found the plant—horses, ploughs, scoops and harness. Bullocks were sometimes used for ploughing, but as a rule they were considered too slow, and unwieldy. Horses were worked three and four abreast to save time in turning, and to prevent unnecessary climbing and consequent damage to the batters. Close by the work was a sapling yard, with grindstones, water tanks on drays, and a small forge for pointing shares and picks and shoeing horses. The men lived in tents or canvas huts, walled in with bushes; and there was a long shed, walled and roofed with boughs or cane grass for eating and cooking in, while out in front was a fireplace, enclosed in a semi-circular wall of stones to protect it from the wind. Round the fire, in this roofless enclosure, the men sat and smoked their pipes and swapped yarns after tea. Occasionally on moonlight nights they worked an hour or two at the forge, repairing damaged swingle-bars or mounting new ones, and making horseshoes and scoop-handles. He had to be a handy man, the tank-sinker. On Sunday morning a tank or two of water was carted, and a load of dry mulgar or gidgee for camp use. Besides all this, there were broken chains to mend with split links, and horse collars and other harness ware to attend to. The tank sinker made hay while the sun shone, working from daylight till dark. Then the horses were driven away to water and feed, a sheep was killed by starlight, and now and again a bag of grass was cut and carried home on the pommel of the saddle for the hack, which was kept in the yard all night for running up the draught horses in the morning.
Some contractors kept a bullock team constantly drawing water so as to save the plough and scoop horses by watering them in troughs, where they work.
Hard years of experience taught the flock owners many economic points in the excavating of tanks. The open-fronted tanks, into which everything poured unchecked, and played havoc with the batters, were no longer made: nor was the partially banked variety with a catch-tank in front, from which the force of the overflow cut huge gutters through the intervening space, carrying the silt into the main bank, or else it ploughed through the light-wings and cut gutters down the outside of the bank. The later tanks were banked high all round with earth scooped out of the excavation. You saw these grey banks every now and again from the coach. The Darling Downs, as I remember them, was a land of wells and windmills. A part of Southern Queensland specialised in substantially constructed overflows. In other parts, as the northern area of South Australia, where water has a habit of running away at short notice, the ordinary cheap variety of dam was the common reservoir. But the north-west of New South Wales was the land of tanks.
Some of the tanks were so large that you could spend hours round them shooting ducks. A few contained yellow-belly (golden perch), and in most of them youngsters caught crayfish or yabbies with scoop nets or traps. A small catch-tank was made at the top end, from which fluming was laid through the banked-up earth, having a self-acting valve on the inside, and from this a race made of galvanised iron, posts and rails, ran down to the bottom of the main tank. These tanks held well if a foot of water was first run in, and the bottom and sides were then puddled and trampled by putting a mob of sheep in and driving them round. The great bulk of the shifting sand was checked by the earth walls, but still a lot got over, tons of dust being deposited during every dry storm. The evaporation was very considerable. Roly-polies did a great amount of damage. These huge, white balls of grass and burrs, from two to three feet in diameter, rolled mile after mile across the plains, banking up against fences, and completely smothering them, and bowling down into unprotected tanks.
Here and there stub walls were built as a partial protection; but these were soon buried under sand, and the roley poley took a flying leap over them, and went gambolling on in triumph. A hundred rolies racing across a plain in the moonlight was a weird sight; a few score bogged in the silt round the edges of a tank meant a big fall in the value of the reservoir.
Dams were made in some of the creeks. Many of them were constructed at considerable expense, only to be swept away by the first flood that came down. After heavy rains the water rushed down from the rocky hills in foaming torrents, sometimes several miles wide, levelling fences, yards, and all such structures before it. At these times half that "desert" country presented the aspect of a vast inland sea; yet in a little while a man might perish of thirst in the creek beds. All that enormous bulk of water has run to waste, and the four winds began to gather up the dust again. Only the tanks, the salvation of Outback, remained.
One heard a lady passenger remark on the loneliness of the aspect as the coach passed some hut or Cottage standing back from the little-frequented road. "If I had to live in a place like that I'd die," she declared.
The loneliness didn't trouble the settler much, though the want of communion with other women made it a little hard for his wife. Still the country bred woman found the noisy city much more distasteful. There are people who cannot be happy away from the bustle of city streets; there are others who can find happiness only in the quiet of the bush. So the lone cottage is not always planted where it is because the people cannot afford to live in closer contact with their kind. City people, judging their country cousins by their own ideals, waste a lot of sympathy in this respect.
Sydney women, despite all the comforts and conveniences that surrounded them, and the beauty and delights of their environment, found no end of things to grumble about and to worry over. The thorn in the rosy path of Mrs. Potts Point was the difficulty of getting good and reliable and inexpensive servants to do her work for her. It was a worry to ring up the registry office every week or two, and to find the maid not quite up to the high standard of proficiency required when she arrived, and when the house was temporarily maidless, to have to get one's own dinner—though it could be purchased ready cooked, to make the family bed, and look after the intrusive baby.
While, the mental eye dwelt on this good lady, fuming impatiently at her telephone, our moving picture show, the mail couch, introduced Madame Merino, who was preeminent among the women of the west. Her husband was a squatter; she was therefore comparatively free to have what she liked, provided the finances were healthy, which depended on the seasons. Yet she was going down for a change of sea air for the first time in five years.
"At last!" she said smilingly to the driver as she met the coach, and the driver understood. The expression was eloquent. She had promised herself that trip year after year, and "at last" she was under weigh.
There were some, she told you, who made an annual pilgrimage for the Show or the Melbourne Cup, and there were others who never left the west. Those lived anywhere from 10 to 50 miles from a small town; and once in a couple of moons or so they drove in for a short visit.
The town was little different from the squattage. You saw a few more people: you saw an occasional dog fight, when the outside dog met the town dog; you heard the scant news of the countryside; you could "Come and have a drink," but the only other attractions were the grass fed races and a ball once or twice a year, when the little town woke up for a couple of days and a couple of nights.
Madame Merino lived 200 miles from a railway terminus. The house was built of wood and iron, with papered walls and ceilings. There were stables and yards and huts scattered about; but away from the homestead there were no habitations for many miles. Except in the morning and evening, when there were men bustling around, the place seemed in sleep. Now and again drovers went by, and teams passed along the distant road. Occasionally there were visitors, who arrived at any hour between daylight and midnight. They might be a neighbouring squatter and his family, who require board and lodgings at a moments notice; and not infrequently they dropped in when she had no help. and was up to her eyes in work. There were no regular "at home" days there; people called when it suited them. Swagmen called between times, and in the absence of the boss these sought "the missus" for rations.
She had a "maid and general" and a man cook. Sometimes she had a governess or lady's help as well. Her nearest supply depot was the town, 10 miles away, which supplied an odd demand at long intervals. As a rule, she had to write to Broken Hill, or to Adelaide, or Sydney. The first named was the cheapest for passage money had to be guaranteed both ways. The single coach fare from Broken Hill was £6. The usual term of engagement was six months. If the servant left before that she had to pay the return fare out of her own pocket. With a 200 mile coach journey to face, and a 10 mile drive, in a buggy in addition, to be "bottled in the bush" for months, girls who had been used to a town life were very chary of taking such a situation.
Mrs. Potts Point had the privilege of inspecting and catechizing her maid before engaging her; but Madame Merino knew nothing about hers until she arrived at the door with her trunk and hatbox. Generally speaking, she was a good girl; the industrious sort, who had a savings bank account, and who knew that the best place to swell that account was the backblock squattage, where wages were higher, opportunities of spending almost nil, and dress requirements considerably diminished. Many put in a whole year without drawing a penny of their wages. Another attraction was the scarcity of marriageable women.
"I prefer plain girls," said Madame, "for when I get a good looking one I know the moment she arrives that I am spending £12 to provide somebody with a wife. And she has to be uncommonly plain if some lovelorn swain doesn't fall down and worship her before her half year is up."
Then marriageable woman remained scarce, for the dull-greyness of the general outlook more than counterbalanced the advantages. This, too, left the way open for the domestic who was unable to keep town places; and no matter how incompetent or now lazy she was, she couldn't be sacked except on payment of six months' wages and her fare both ways. It was no use quarrelling with a maid of that sort; she could hit back with impunity: so Madame Merino had to put up with whims and caprices and a lack of capacity that Mrs. Potts Point would not tolerate for a day.
In the old days the aboriginal woman helped to smooth many a rugged path. She made life in lonely places easier and more pleasant to the white women. Only those who had to rely on her industry and bush knowledge know how important a part she played, once she was properly civilised, in the settlement of the hinterlands. Some there were who did not care to have blacks about the place; others would not employ an aborigine, as it frequently meant a camp following that required something like a boarding-house to feed. But there were a great many places, apart from squattage homesteads, that always had a blacks' camp in the vicinity; and everybody who desired, rich and poor alike, had aboriginal servants.
The aboriginal servant was cheap—except to feed. She carried away in her dilly-bag all she could get. She was never selfish; if she belonged to a camp in the neighbourhood she remembered everybody in it when there was tucker about. As a set-off against this, she was useful in obtaining wild game, fish and honey for her white mistress. For 5s a week and meals, supplemented with any old clothes—whether a frock or a pair of trousers didn't matter to her—and a bit of tobacco, she would do anything required of her. But she was a rigid stickler for the eight hour principle. She could not be persuaded to get up early—except to go to the races. She arrived at the kitchen about breakfast time, and required her breakfast—partaken of at the woodheap—before she commenced work; then she liked to get back to camp before dark. Always she returned with a miscellaneous collection of titbits in her vade mecum, the dilly-bag.
She did the washing and scrubbing; she looked after the younger children, being a gentle and attentive nurse; and she carried water, balancing the bucket on her head; and she carried wood also, which she picked up with her toes. Finally she chopped up the sticks with her tomahawk, a task which she always sat down to. She was handy in running messages, hunting up the horses and cows, and finding stolen nests in grass and scrub when eggs were wanted. She instructed the white women in bushcraft, especially in turning to use whatever nature had provided in the locality. Often she was her mistress' only female companion, and a comradeship existed between them that was hardly understandable among later generations.
To any good girl, Madame Merino was comrade and friend. She told of a time when she reached home with one just after a duststorm. They had experienced the blinding fury of it on the road, which was misery enough in one dose; but the sight that met her at the homestead filled her with dismay. Men were in the room with barrows and shovels, cleaning out the sand. Mistress and maid worked till midnight, dusting and sweeping; and at daylight they started again, washing and scrubbing. When they had got all nicely clean along came another duststorm, and everything was smothered again. They sat down and cried, but the experience cemented a friendship that was never forgotten.
It was a dry summer. In the midst of it the water gave out at the homestead, and they shifted to an excavated tank 10 miles away. Here they had a hessian hut, tents and bough shed, experiencing much of the normal conditions under which the poorer class have to live; their water carried in buckets or in an iron tank; their fire in the open, baking done in a camp-oven, all structures and fittings rough and temporary; no fruit nor vegetables, no milk or butter.
Not far away was a selector's hut. The selector was weatherbound down country with a team, waiting for rain to get home. His wife and daughters were drawing water and cutting scrub for stock. In the evening they met for friendly gossip; these hard working women and Madame Merino and her girls; and they talked of the country life they had known in other parts, in the great, fruitful regions of the east and the north and the south.
In the homes of her city friends the gas stove, the water laid on, the fixed tubs and copper, with a tap over each, particularly appealed to Madame Merino. She had stood so often over the washtub herself; that tub that has to be carried away and emptied, and filled with the aid of buckets. There were conveniences for cooking that were unknown in the west, though the west had double the cooking to do. There all the baking was done at home. She did most of her own sewing also. Yet, when she looked around her, she considered herself fortunate in the possession of a sewing machine. Her neighbours of the tank did all their sewing by hand, making their own wearing apparel, sheets and pillow-slips, and the men's shirts. Much of their furniture was made out of packing-cases, draped with cretonne. There wasn't much in their home, but the collection represented a prodigious amount of home-work.
They did not complain, these patient women of the west, though they lived under hard conditions, buffering the torments of flies and ants and dust and heat through the long summers, with no trains or trams to run them away at week-ends—or month ends or year-ends—to the seaside or to the mountains. Theirs was a combination of the simple life and the strenuous life, but it had its compensations. With the passing of the summer day they drifted into Elysium; and the east, with its more humid climate, could show nothing comparable to the starry brilliance of the western night.
There are many lonely lives spent in the back country; none more so than those of the mail-change groom, the shepherd, the hut-keeper, road-mender, boundary-rider, prospector, and the mounted police stationed alone on the outposts of civilisation. In some such cases the billets are chosen by men who have a predilection for a hatter's existence; but the majority are forced by necessity to take them. The prospector is drawn into the wildest parts by the charm of fortune. There he lives in a world of his own, with the environment of the savage. He comes into town once a month, or once in three months, to sell his gleanings and to obtain fresh supplies. Between times no one may know anything of his whereabouts, for the veteran prospector doesn't want the locale of his operation made public.
The post of the mail-change groom is about the least lonely of the lot. His home is a small hut or tent by the roadside; his only companions a dog and the coach horses. The horses run in the open bush, and his work is to look after them, groom and feed them, and have them ready in the sapling yard when the coach arrives. At half the places it arrives during the night time. He helps with the changing, afterwards rubbing down the sweat-covered animals that have been left. The coach passes once or twice a week, staying only just long enough to change the horses. Between times a traveller may call while passing along the road, and is generally welcome to a night's rest there. It is the groom’s only chance of a yarn. The rouseabout gives him the news from up and down the road, and he is a greedy man for news, too.
One, whom our driver called Peter, came 50 yards down the road to meet the coach. He was short and stout, almost as broad as he was long; his fat face three parts covered with thick, black stubble. He was short winded; in his eyes the light of eagerness and excitement. We thought there had been some extraordinary happening at the camp. We leaned out to listen.
"What won." asked Peter, breathlessly.
The driver named three horses that had won first, second and third in a Mulga handicap back at the border.
"Where did Streaker come?"
Peter took off his hat, and slapped it against his leg.
"I knew it," he cried ecstatically. "Didn't I tell him so? Why, the dashed cow couldn't gallop as fast as I could kick me hat."
From the Mulga Handicap Peter drifted to people and places along the road. He knew everybody for a hundred miles either way. As the wheels began to revolve again he fired after us: "Did Andy Payne find his bullock?"
The most trivial items interested the groom. But the driver's time was limited. It was always limited; and every trip he left Peter unsatisfied. However, he brought him week-old papers, and now and again a dog-eared book, which were perused with a relish only known to isolated beings.
The mender of the coach roads was some what similarly situated, except that his work required him to be more actively about in wet weather than in dry times. For this reason the regulations required him to provide himself with oilskins and watertight boots. Peter had to be out in all weathers, and nobody cared whether he had waterproof clothing or only a bathing suit.
The boundary-rider, whether posted on the rabbit-proof fence along the State borders or on the outskirts of pastoral properties to look after the stock, to watch the watering-places, and keep the fences in repair, is a more energetic person. Sometimes he has a hut to live in; more often only a light tent, which keeps him dry so long as it does not rain too hard. It is mostly pitched in a lonely belt of gidgee or mulga trees, where firewood and water are close at hand, and away from all roads, so that he won't be interrupted by tourists. When his water dries up, unless he happens to be camped at a permanent tank, he shifts his residence to the next most convenient supply. He has no mate to share his lot, except when scrub has to be cut for sheep, and when there is extra work at the tanks pulling out the bogged, skinning the dead, and generally attending to weak animals. From living so much alone he is sometimes a trifle eccentric and particular about little things.
The mounted police who patrol the great emptiness on the fringe of settlement have a better time, though there is nothing in their vicinity to become wildly hilarious over. The force is recruited from experienced bushmen. One depot was at Turn Off Lagoon. The troopers batched there for months at a time, doing their own washing and mending. They worked a fairly large garden in their spare time, and they had so much spare time that one year they grew two tons of potatoes. They were glad to see anybody. The shakiest old swagman, if one ever went so far astray, was hospitably received. The only excitement that came their way was when a horse thief or a cattle stealer attempted to get away to the back camps, as those of buffalo shooters. Rogues who knew the ropes made for those places when pursuit got too hot, returning to civilisation when the hue and cry had long died out. The border police had to look for them; and at times they took pack horses, riding hundreds of miles, and camping out at night. They were in dead earnest in their pursuit. They seldom had the opportunity of getting a prisoner. When, they did, they not only had his company for a time at the depot, but one of them had the pleasure of a trip with him to a more civilised quarter. Occasionally in their wanderings, they spent a night in a hunters camp, and once in a while they met overlanders from the north and west. The garden told eloquently how time dragged when they were at home; and a kangaroo skin here and there indicated that other chases were sometimes substituted when there were no law breakers to run down.
The great advantage of these lonely places lay in their roominess. As an overlander remarked, "A man's got plenty of room there to swing his whip." And saith the hatter: "When I feel like I want to yell I can yell without wakin' the baby."
The hut-keeper has only a lonely hut to look after—and that is about the quietest and least troublesome thing a man can be set to look after. It is such a tame, silent, monotonous charge that only a lazy man would take it in hand. The salary is not munificent, though quite commensurate with the labour involved. The hut stands in a locality where it is occasionally necessary; it may be connected with an expensive shearing-shed, or it may be a dummy selection, or one taken over by a squatter. Anyhow, travellers pass that way, and there is some danger of leaving it without a caretaker between times. Of course, there may be cattle or horses or sheep in the paddock adjoining; but these require no attention. He may walk round the fence once a week if he feels in want of exercise. The only time he has to put on a little steam is when the owner calls; for the owner wants lunch, and his horses have to be taken out, and put in again when they have had a spell. This unwonted labour exhausts the caretaker for an hour or two, and he stretches out on his bunk and smokes, feeling the satisfaction of a man who has done his duty. He spends much time on that bunk. He has a collection of old books, and keeps up a reading supply by swopping with travellers. He has cards, too, which while away an hour or two when a player drops in. He is not the loneliest mortal on earth. His existence is about on a par with that of the aborigine, only the aborigine has to bestir himself a lot more in pursuit of a nimble dinner. The hutkeeper's billet was designed for tired people.
Once, traveling from Sydney to Brisbane by boat, we passed Solitary Island in the gloom of approaching night. The picture so affected me that I could not have felt more depressed if I had just lost all my ancestors; but afterwards, in lonely spots outback; the thought of it always made me feel cheerful. To a landsman there is no isolation so utterly dreary. The lighthouse keeper is usually a married man, and is often provided with an assistant. Still, there is not much excitement in his neighbourhood apart from the wind-lashed waves at his basement. When his home is on the mainland he has many advantages that seldom obtain on a rocky islet. The great bush lies behind him, possessing a thousand interests to a nature lover, and supplying him with much that a man needs. For this is a case where even the untrodden wilderness is something to be thankful for. It is a relief from the sea-washed rocks and the smell of seaweed. It allows of unlimited wanderings, of rides and drives. If there is a settler within reach he can call there occasionally, and receive a call in return. His visits and visitors are limited to these. Being perched on a jutting headland, no roads pass near him that would bring even an odd swagman to his door. He contrives to make some sort of a garden, though, as a rule, there is not much growing soil in such situations. He has a few fowls, a couple of cows or goats and perhaps a pig or two. There is not a lot for those on an island such as Solitary Island.
Lone and exiled as ever was Robinson Crusoe is he who guards the safety of passing ships. His work is in the loneliest night hours, when, perched above the smashing breakers, he hears the wailing of ghostly mariners in the gale. Solitary Island is really three huge rocks. Two of them are all but submerged; the other carries the lighthouse, presenting rugged shelving and precipitous facets to an ever restless sea. Seen from the distant deck of a coastal steamer, there is a gloom and dreariness about that spot that gives one the blues to look at. In its eloquent silence it seems to appeal to fleeting, glimpsed humanity. It stands far out at sea, vessels passing between it and the mainland. At long intervals a boat sails with supplies and mails. Sometimes in bad weather the call is delayed, and supplies run short. There is only the encircling sea and the fishing line to rely upon in such an emergency. When sickness comes or an accident happens there is no way of getting a doctor. The risks that the lighthouse keeper takes for the safety of others are manifold; and when death comes to such places it is in its most pathetic aspect.
At one lighthouse, where two families lived, the women had a quarrel, and did not speak to one another for two years. At another place there were three families, and these were not "playing speaks" either.
A lighthouse on a green isle, with sandy beaches, cocoanut palms, and banana groves, would be quite a pleasant place, however isolated, lending itself to languorous ease and the free and careless life of primitive races. But the beacon lights are reared on some of the bleakest and dreariest spots in the ocean and on the coasts, for danger, and not beauty, is the deciding factor in the place of its abode.
After visiting a lighthouse one feels inclined to tell the shepherd that he has nothing to complain about. He is usually an old man, unfitted for hard or active work. His only assistant is a dog, to whom he talks as to a human being. He also talks to himself, and has got so used to doing so that he sometimes lapses into self-confidences and solo arguments when in the presence of others. His knowledge goes back into the dimness of ages. His experiences cover half the earth, and encompass a multitude of trades and callings, for, as likely us not, he has been well launched from a big university, has been boss and lackey by turns, school teacher, soldier, and sailor, too. With a stick in one hand and a water bag in the other, he follows his flock all day, returning with them to camp at sundown. It is in unfenced, dingo-haunted country that he shepherds. A dingo raid provides about the only excitement that comes his way. In the evening he meditates over an open fire, and smokes the pipe of peace. He is a great man to meditate, and the peace is profound and everlasting.
Another who knows the loneliness of outback roads is the carrier's wife. Whether she accompanies the teams or abides in some centre where she sees her husband at intervals of months, her life is not one that would be envied by those who have been used to the ordinary customs and comforts of home.
Domiciled in some country town, she is very much in the position of the sailor's wife, counting the days and watching for the coming of the team, as the other waits and watches for the return of the ship. But, while the sailor's wife resides at some sea port where there is animation and something of daily interest, the other dwells where there is little movement; where there is nothing to see but the long road on which for days only the "willy-willy" stirs up the dust; where the days are dull and long and lonely. A town habitat, however small and dead the town, is not as bad as a selection hut, standing back from the road, and miles away from its nearest neighbour. Such a situation is generally necessary for the teamster, who must have paddocks in which to spell his weary brutes when he reaches home, and wherein to keep them in slack times when the roads are impassable.
While he is absent, for months at a time, the wife is general manager and caretaker of the estate as well as of the home. When the heap of wood gives out, before the teams return, she has to gather her supplies from the paddock; and, when the cask or iron tank runs dry, she has to carry water daily from the creek. She has to keep an eye on what stock there may be running there, and now and again she has to repair fences, and pull out a beast that has got bogged. Fires sometimes break out, which keep her in the fighting line, perhaps for hours into the night. She bears the responsibilities and anxieties that commonly fall to the lot of the men in addition to all that are inseparably woman's. Once a week or so she may have a visitor, and occasionally she sees a horseman passing along the road—the road that ever attracts her eyes like some irresistible magnet, that she watches in leisure hours, sitting on the verandah, as though all she hoped for could come to her by no other way. As the dusk deepens she fastens the doors and windows, and sitting in the lamplight or by the fire, listens, as a dog listens, to the night voices and sounds outside.
It is these conditions that often cause the carrier's wife to forego the doubtful joys of a home and travel up and down the road with a house on wheels, furnished with all that is necessary for their convenience and comfort, in which there is no packing up and unpacking at the daily camp, and everything is always handy. One trip in this travelling home just for a holiday is enjoyable, providing the roads, are good, but it soon becomes wearisome on far-western roads.
Generally she travels in a tilted cart, driving along behind the team, unless she knows the camping places, in which case she will drive on after lunch and have the camp in order and the tea ready by the time her husband reaches his days end. She is seldom without family, sometimes there are four or five children, who share the joys and adventures of the parents on the roads. The younger ones ride with the mother in the cart; the others make themselves useful in various ways. The oldest perhaps will be his father's help or offsider; another will be in charge of the spare team horses or bullocks, whilst a third will be a budding drover, whose work is to look after a flock of goats, which supplies the family with milk and meat, and takes them from camp to camp. They carry also a coop of fowls slung under the waggon. These are let out for a run where the team stops, and they roost on a perch usually provided near their moving residence. So accustomed do the moving poultry become to the daily routine that they are easily got back into their coop when it is time to move on.
Once on the Ward River I met a party of four families, who mustered about 15 children. Their itinerary extended from Charleville, on the Warrego—then the terminus of the south-western railway and a great rendevous of teamsters—to places far beyond the Barcoo, towards Blackall and down Koopa Creek. They went out laden with stores and returned with wool. They were going into camp in the bend of a big lagoon—a quiet spot where they customarily spelled for a few days. There was good fishing and plenty of waterfowl in the lagoon, and fine grassy downs spreading away to westward where the stock could be seen for miles when the haze was off the plains.
First to arrive were two little girls and a boy, driving goats and spare horses. Then came the women and younger children in tilted carts. They took their own horses out, and unpacked utensils and bedding by the side of a big log, whilst the youngsters gathered wood and carried water. Soon fires were blazing and cooking was in full swing. The teams drew up a little before sundown, and what with unharnessing, belling and hobbling horses, erecting tents, milking goats, and spreading tea things and tucker about on bags, it was a busy scene for an hour or two after dark. The children romped joyously about among the trees, but the women were tired, and welcomed the respite of a few days' camp by the lagoon.
There are many other men whose calling keep them a good deal of their time away from home, and whose womenfolk lead lonely lives. With no help within miles of their doors, they are called upon to perform many an arduous task and to undertake emergency duties that would appall one who had never been used to the trials of the bush. You have only to picture one with a child seriously ill; with fires raging around and threatening the house on a scorching summer day; when flood waters are gradually covering the near landscape and lapping around the rise where she lives; to understand the fears and worries that come to her intermittently when there is no one to counsel, to help and protect. They are among the heroines of the bush, these brave women who help to tame the wild places and smooth the rough tracks for the multitude.
A journey from the Corner gives you a fine contrast to the travelling in coastal latitudes. For much of the way the coach grinds over tracks of its own making, with a few chains of macadamised road here and there; over ruts and dunes, and crooks and gullies that rock the passengers till their bones ache; over wind-swept plains that suggest the dead end of the world. Over the eastern ranges, on the northern watershed, and down by the southern sea, you have at least the charm of scenic changes, the thrill of steep grades and sharply winding mountain tracks; but out at the back of Bourke the way is as monotonous as the rattle of wheels and the clinking of chains. Dinner time is occasionally an exciting event, especially after a fast of 18 hours, which was our experience at one stage. We had to walk a mile off the road to a lonely hut where a robust selector, in mud-splattered clothes, just as he had come in from a tank-sinking job, presided at table. It being hot weather, the refreshments were provided in a bough shed, on a long plank table, with planks for seats.
Through the door of the coach we obtained glimpses of the traffic of the western roads. The ladies on the box seat had a big advantage in this respect. They could see it coming in the far distance, and they could look back at it till it disappeared over the horizon behind. Did we pass a hawker's van, slowly plodding on its day's journey to the next house, or a teamster's waggon laden with stores or wool, the insiders leaned forward to view it as eagerly as though it were a procession—which showed the extent of the traffic.
A mob of cattle on the way to Bourke and the Afghan's camel team, filing westward, were items of special interest. The hardy old battler, humping his swag to Farther-out, gave a fillip to the conversation, and made us feel more comfortable in our cramped position; the bullock team, strenuously dragging over a sandhill, or blocking the crossing of a creek, was a spectacle that enlivened everybody; while a camel camp alongside the road was quite an absorbing thing.
We came upon it in the early morning, while the Afghans were still wrapped in their blankets. The driver cracked his whip, and the insides yelled at them to get up and pay for their beds. One remembered suddenly that he had a message for the coach. He leaped out in a hurry, but ere he had taken three steps in our direction the shriek of the box-seat reminded him that he had only a shirt on. He rushed back to bed again, and covered his head up.
Cases and bales of merchandise lay about in heaps as they had been dropped from the camels' backs, and here and there the desert beasts were feeding on the mulga trees. None of them were near the road; but the smell was there, and that was quite enough for the coach horses. Tired though they were, they became excited, and threatened to bolt.
That was a good beginning for the day; it shook the drowsiness from our eyes, and set us watching out quite cheerfully for the next sight. It was a long time coming, but proved the most diverting of all when it eventually intersected us. It was a two wheeled bullock-dray, drawn by six bullocks, with two women and several youngsters on board. Obviously they were going visiting.
The conveyance was emblematic of the Land of Lots of Time, and reminiscent of old days down east, when our native river was young and romantic. Same battered dray, same explosive driver, same old Brindle and Rattler; we could follow the turn out from start to finish with our eyes shut; we knew the delirious joy there had been among the young ones when their best things had been got out of the box and placed on the table and chairs in readiness for morning.
Bill was out before daylight, mustering the bullocks, greasing the dray, and yoking up. In the meantime mother bathed the youngsters, combed their hair, and put on their Sunday clothes. They set out soon after sunrise, Bill walking and driving; the family squatted about the dray, their teeth chattering in sympathy with the jolting of the concern, and some already squabbling for lever places where there were no protruding bolts. The huge wheels were conspicuous as the only part of the turnout that was in anything like good condition. Half the decking had vanished, and the youthful passengers plucked at the saltbush and Mitchell grass through the gaps; the loosened railing swung from side to side, adding to the din made by the bumping of loose planks and the rattling of bolts that had lost their legitimate occupation by the shedding of the first decking. The pace was not hair-raising, except when the carriage dropped into a gully, when everybody bounced and grabbed at their hats.
The arrival at the neighbour's house was announced by a stentorian "Whey!" The whip was leaned carefully against a stump, and the human cargo climbed out over the wheels or dropped down behind. Bill produced his smoking paraphernalia from a huge leather pouch at his belt, and approached the house filling his pipe. He sat on the verandah with his friend, and yarned while the women gossiped inside, and the children careered about the paddock like howling lunatics. Now and again the babble was momentarily checked by a peremptory "Whey!" as the waiting oxen became impatient. Dinner was interrupted intermittently by similar admonitions. They departed early, the juvenile members of the combined families loading the dray to its utmost capacity, and the women walking ahead for a mile or so, when they sat on a log for a final gossip till the express caught up.
But the coach was rolling on.
Miles farther down, the road we passed a horse and cart also laden with a family in holiday attire. They had been shopping, as we inferred from the fact that "mother" was trying new boots on the second eldest, and looking at the number. As a means of enjoying a drive, the turnout wasn't a howling success; but it got along with more celerity than the other, and there was less risk of a passenger dropping through the floor, or rolling out through the dilapidated railings and getting lost.
Towards evening we met the up-coach. On the box seat sat a thin, bedraggled, ferocious looking female. She gave the order to pull up, at the same time signalling with a folded gingham to our driver to do the same.
"Have you seen him?" she asked the latter.
"Heard anything of him?"
"Not a word."
"Did you inquire?"
"Did you keep a lookout?"
"Have you any men inside?"
"I'll have a look at them. 'Tisn't as I doubt yer word, but I don't feel so satisfied if I let a man go by without inspectin' him."
She climbed down, and, shuffling across to our conveyance, thrust her head in, and subjected each of us in turn to a close scrutiny. Then she said in a loud, harsh voice;
"Excuse me; do any of you gentlemen 'appen to know a man be the name of George Pyzer?"
None of us had the honour of his acquaintance.
"You haven't heard of him?"
"I hope I'm not on the wrong track," she mused, as she returned disappointedly to her seat. "If I am, 'twill be all the worse for Pyzer when I do get hold of him."
We elicited from our driver at the next gate that Mr. Pyzer was her "lawful wedded 'usband," who had left her two years ago for the shearing sheds. Advertisements to the effect that information concerning his whereabouts would be gladly received by his anxious wife being unfruitful, she had set out to find him, travelling by coach or other vehicle when she could get a lift, and determinedly tramping when nothing else availed.
Night had fallen, and we rocked and dozed in the coach as it lumbered on towards the next "change." Only the rattling of the wheels and chains, the voice of the driver and the swish of his whip broke the silence of the great western plains. Suddenly the coach pulled up, and simultaneously the blaze of a camp fire flashed upon us. We thrust our heads out eagerly to investigate.
Around the fire, on tucker boxes and other campware, sat two women and a couple of youths. Behind them were two tilted carts, and on either side of the fire two or three beds spread out on the grass. In the latter were several children, some of them sitting up and rubbing their eyes; the others sleeping on undisturbed by the noise of our arrival. They were two families the heads of which met the coach as it drew up and received some mail from the driver.
"Have a drink of tea." said one of the men.
The driver accepted the invitation; and as he stood by the fire regaling himself with tea and brownie, we slipped out of the coach and walked on to stretch our legs. We had covered half a mile before the coach overtook us.
"You see me take a rise out of Paddy," said the overseer.
He picked up a stick, and stepping forward as the coach swung round the bend, where we waited, yelled out: "Bail up!"
The result was startling. Instead of pulling up, Paddy snatched out a revolver and fired, then flogged his horses into a gallop, and disappeared with a great clatter round a scrubby ridge.
The overseer had dropped with fright. We thought he was shot. When we picked him up and ascertained that he was unhurt, we said earnestly it was a great pity he wasn't shot.
We rushed down the road, cooeeing our hardest. But it was no use; Paddy was making all speed away from the desperadoes. The mail-change was two miles ahead, and our only hope of getting on board again was to overtake the coach before it left that place. We had to stretch our legs now to some purpose. When we kicked against a root, or dropped unexpectedly into a hole, we stretched our whole bodies along the road. Here and there we lost valuable minutes looking for our hats. Still we found time to say a lot to the overseer.
"You fellows are never satisfied," he growled. "When you were in the coach you were grumbling about the monotony."
"This is getting infernally monotonous, anyway," Mr. Muggs panted as he stumbled and lost his hat again. "How far have we come?"
"One mile. I should reckon."
"Is that all. I thought we'd come nine."
A few minutes later we saw lights ahead. We kept our eyes on two small red discs that stood close together a little way from the white lights, all ready to give a concerted yell if they moved. They were the rear lights of our coach.
However, it was a refreshment place, so we had plenty of time. But we were too late for refreshments. Paddy and the groom were putting the horses in.
"Hulloa!" said the former, innocently, "where have you fellows been?"
"Walking the blinded road we paid you to carry us over," Mr. Muggs replied, with feeling. "What did you drive away for?"
"I didn't know you'd got out," said the driver.
"Did you see the bushrangers?" asked our of the box seat lady passengers.
The ladies were still excited.
"This is the bushranger," said Mr. Muggs, pointing to the crestfallen overseer. "Better put him in fetters; he might break out again."
Paddy eyed the culprit up and down, while the ladies stepped back with indignant looks.
"You mean to tell me," said Paddy, "that it was this man who tried to hold up the coach to-night?"
"Hold up your grandmother!" sneered the overseer. "I held up a stick and called out to you to pull up so we could get aboard again." He turned with a flourish of his arms to the bystanders. "And what does he do?" he continued, dramatically. "Hauls out his revolver and fires at me! Then drives off as if Old Nick were after him."
Having turned the laugh against the driver, he added tragically:
"Might 'a shot me."
"Twould have served you right if I had," Paddy retorted. "I could have you arrested for that caper."
"We'll fine him drinks all round, and let it go at that," Mr. Muggs interposed.
"Hurry up, then," said Paddy.
As we went into the bar the other men wanted to know more about the sticking up, but the overseer sidestepped that incident at once.
"What do you call that lot back at the fire?" he asked the driver.
"Fossickers from the Corner," Paddy replied. "Goin' to Menindie."
"I see," said the overseer. "Case of breaking up the happy home and starting afresh in distant fields."
"No," said Paddy. "They're going down for a swim."
"For—a—swim!" the overseer exclaimed, incredulously.
"With a bit of boatin' and fishin'," the driver added.
The overseer was still incredulous.
"They've come over a hundred miles, and they've got another hundred to do," he said musingly. "Pretty long step to go fishin' and swimmin', isn't it."
"It's a long drag all right." Paddy admitted. "But it's about the nearest point the Corner people have for a waterside holiday. Picnicking alongside a tank or water hole isn't the same thing as alongside a navigable river. The Darling is a new world to a lot of those people. The youngsters, at least, have never seen a rowing boat, let alone a steamer. Of course, they don't go down for a mere day or two; they'll spend a couple of months there while they're at it."
"Providin' they don't get stuck up by a bushranger," added Mr. Muggs, which unkind remark raised a general laugh against the overseer just when he was beginning to feel well again.
The coach driver saved him from further humiliation.
"Now, then, all aboard!"
Seasiders, with their alluring wave lapped beaches, were accustomed to consider such places as Boarke and Hay and Booligal as synonymous with heat and dust and flies; to think of the Darling as an unreliable stream that wound along for thousands of miles through monotonous plains; to picture the country as dreary and lifeless, especially in mid-summer, when the haze played weird tricks with all animate and inanimate objects, and mirages mocked the traveller.
Yet scores of families spent their Christmas vacation on the banks of that historic stream. They hailed from farther out—from Tongowoko, Delalah, Thouleanna, Yantara, Marara, Mootwingee, Yungnulgra, Yancowinna, and other western counties. It was only in wet seasons that boating any where in that corner was possible; in fact, a boat of any kind there was a curiosity; while a swim was a luxury to most.
The only public watering place for these far inlanders was the Darling River. Some of them had to travel more than 500 miles to reach it. As the journey had to be accomplished on horseback, in the mail coach, in a shanghai or other vehicle, the trip was not made every year; a great many only knew one such trip in a lifetime, and not a few of them never got there at all. The floating population, such as shearers, were up and down frequently; and squattage hands and others who had no family cares made light of the journey. Families from town and squattage, seeking change from the far western atmosphere, usually went to Broken Hill, and thence by train to Adelaide. That meant, roughly, another 350 miles' travelling. To people of small means the Darling River offered far more advantages.
Crowds went from the Silver City for a camp on its banks in preference to the southern capital. Being much nearer, they travelled in drays, vans, tilted carts, and any other vehicle available; the mail coach, trip after trip, was packed inside and out; whilst numbers of the miners lightheartedly shouldered tent and blanket, and tramped the distance. The majority used the quicker motor car service, which considerably shortened the journey; for, whereas the coach trip occupied about 14 hours, the motor car travelled across in about five hours.
To all of them it was a glorious change. The old, dull road was enlivened by joyous excursionists, particularly where many clustered at the night camps by some well known waterhole, the big camps at times being reminiscent of the gold rushes. In these country places everybody knew everybody else, and they knew people from hundreds of miles back in consequence of miners in slack times going out shearing, and bush workers joining the miners when nothing else was available. In the festive season mates and families arranged to start away at the same time, so that there was jovial company on the road and merriment in the night camps. There was plenty of music, and dancing under the trees in the moonlight was a not uncommon diversion. Songs were sung by men and women, while the intervals were filled by gossip and yarns and the merry gambolling of children.
Everybody was up early, for eager, excited children, together with the chatter of birds, didn't permit much sleep in the daylight hours. Most of them slept in the open, for on warm, fine nights there was no need for any covering. Some of the elders used a tent or fly; the majority were content to spread out behind a temporary screen, so that it was necessary to "awake and arise" as soon as there was a stir in the camp. While one lot was hunting up and harnessing horses, another was making fires and boiling billies, the youngsters cheerfully running about, and gathering wood; a third contingent was rolling up the tents and beds and preparing for breakfast. Through it all there was frolic and fun, for it was wholly a company of travellers on pleasure bent, to many of whom the life on the road was novel. Then on the move again, numbers of them walking and playing along the way until the sun got too hot and legs began to tire. An early halt was made for lunch, and they rested through the hottest part of the day to save the horses. When they reached the river they were met by others who had preceded them; here, too, they met old friends and mates from other parts of the State, who, around the camp fires at night and in the shade of the trees by day, talked over their days on the diggings, in the mines and the sheds, on the runs and the overland. They pitched their tents near the water; in a good grassy bend, there would at time be a fair sized calico township.
The Darling River always struck me as being the River of Rest. No other stream in N.S.W. was so much treasured by the floating population as a camping place. Besides the occasional holiday-makers and the swagmen and workmen who spent part of the summer in the bends, there were whalers and old men who lived always there. These latter shifted up and down, though a few, if wood held out, stuck to the same spot. They didn't like to see their old river turned into a pleasure resort. The coming of crowds, growing bigger and bigger each season, marked a change of great purport to them. It had been their quiet abiding place for years; a peaceful retreat where they could keep themselves comfortably and do as they pleased. The holiday crowd changed the whole aspect of the old home, bringing modernity suddenly into the heart of the wilds. They hunted and fished on what the old whaler had come to regard as his preserves; they used up in a week the firewood that he had estimated would last him a year.
There was plenty of room along the Darling; but the old hands were not used to town allotments, or even small paddocks; they had been used to ten-mile blocks at least. If they could see the next house above them, or the next tent below them, they began to feel crowded. Taking into account the whole of the great waterway, part of which is called the Murray, part the Darling, part the Macintyre, and part the Dumaresq; it is one of the four longest rivers in the world, so that the pleasure-seekers from the north-west corner did not use a very great portion of its vast length. If the entire population of the Corner had spread itself along the banks of the Darling section the old whaler would still have had room to swing his rod without knocking the next man's hat off. But he was looking into the future, when trains would run from Menindie to Broken Hill; from Bourke to Hungerford; from Cobar to Wilcannia; then excursionists would be conveyed there in thousands from districts on both sides of the stream. There were 35,000 people in Broken Hill alone; railways, locks, and irrigation schemes would plant settlers as thickly on the rich western lands, as irrigation had planted them at Mildura, Renmark, and other places lower down the Murray—areas that were once regarded as hopeless, and which were now the great fruit-producing centres of South Australia. The land in the northwest would grow anything, the greater part of it being among the richest in Australia; it only wanted water, and the River of Rest would one day supply it, and at the same time become the busiest pleasure resort away from the coast. The old whaler sighed when he thought of that time, for the stream that harboured the black bream and fat cod would then no longer be the River of Rest.
The spots most frequented lay along the western shore between Wilcannia and Menindie, centralising about the latter place—the nearest river town to Broken Hill. To western children it was paradise regained. Many of them on arrival there saw a river for the first time; the majority of them had no experience of angling. They were all equipped with tackle, for cod, bream and other fish could be caught there in abundance in all seasons; and their amateurish attempts at first at casting and landing provoked snorts of disgust from the old whaler, whilst their ecstasy on landing the first few fish provided the ancients with a fund of new jokes. The visitors partly kept themselves in food with their lines during their holiday. They fished for that purpose, and for the pleasure of it; and many carried away with them to their far-back homes enough smoked, salted and pickled fish to last them for months afterwards.
The guns were not idle either, for there were ducks, pigeons, parrots, and plain turkeys to be had. There the galahs and corellas and the dainty little quarrians gathered in screeching flocks, their pinks, and greys and whites flashing in the light of the setting sun as they swooped and wheeled over the water and across the plains, forming a delightful picture. In fair seasons those plains were covered with flagrant flowers, miles upon miles of beautiful blooms, where the children revelled, and from which they gathered armsful to decorate their tent and cubby houses.
Two floral notables that were at home thereabouts were the Desert Peas and the Darling Pea. The latter, despite its attractiveness, was regarded as a pest by stockowners on account of the maddening effect it was said to have on horses that ate it. "Darling pea" was a colloquialism outback for madness. It was applied to any eccentric person, to one who was something of a fool, or was weak in the intellect, or "barmy." The superstition left the flower alone, for there was a saying that anyone who picked it would not get away from the river for seven years. The Darling Lily was another distinguished flower. From the bulbs of this plant an excellent arrowroot was obtained, the product being readily sold in Wileannia and thereabout in times of stress. When carriage in bad seasons made flour expensive, or delivery of supplies was delayed, the Darling Lily was valuable, and in much request.
Morning and evening the visitors swam in the river, while rowing-boats, house-boats and motor launches assisted in making the days enjoyable. Steamers and barges passed up and down, and these, too, were availed of by many of the campers for a trip up or down the river—when there was an opportunity of getting back by another steamer in the time desired by the camper. The steamers travelled on for days, generally tying up at night; so that one could put in his whole vacation on the river trip if he wished.
Old Bill Hodge, who made a bit of money on White Cliffs opal fields, built himself a boat out of an old punt. It was half-decked, had lockers, oars and a sail, and was roofed with canvas for three parts of its length. His wife had often remarked in a vague way that she would like a trip. She never said where to, or what sort of a trip; but when this notion took shape, and he announced that they would go lazing down the river for a change, it suited her and the three youngsters better than anything. They took in a supply of provisions, shooting requisites and fishing tackle, and one early morning they embarked, to drift and row and sail for a week for rest and pleasure and adventure.
Theirs was not a proper houseboat. There was room enough for all to loll about in while the boat was under weigh; but there was no room for beds or for a table. That didn't matter; only on a wet day did they find the shortcomings of the craft inconvenient. Some firewood was stowed on board on the approach of rain, and a fire to boil the billy was made in an oil drum stood on a shovelful of sand. The wet they encountered was merely fleeting storms, which were more welcome than otherwise; only the banks and the bush were damped with rain. The elder children fished from the stern, the mother sat under the awning sewing or reading, while father rowed or sailed, with a gun ready beside him for game. When negotiating some of the long bends in the late afternoon the children went ashore, and played and hunted about the bush till the boat came round. Across the necks of some of those bights it was only a few minutes' walk, while it was miles round by water. Sometimes the mother went with them, strolling through a pleasant and fragrant forest, where flocks of parrots made merry among the boughs.
At night they tied up and made their beds on shore. The beds had merely to be thrown down and spread, and in the morning rolled up and stowed on board again. A big campfire was made, and here father initiated them into the bush art of making damper and brownie, items in themselves which made a relishable change from ordinary diet. Fish and game figured on the menu as often as they desired, which helped to cheapen their picnic trip. It was a continuous picnic, never wearisome nor monotonous. Steamers passed up now and again, heavily laden for the far interior, and barges went twisting downstream piled with wool. Smiling homesteads scattered along the shores; little townships now and again, with woodmen's depots and whalers' camps between, and the ever changing scenery of plain and forest and scrub and hill, with hunting and fishing and little adventures on the way, kept them interested.
The Corner people knew their river's history, though they saw it seldom; and many of the spots where they camped have an interest or account of their association with some important event in the long past. Many are remembered in connection with Captain Sturt; and there are old camps of other explorers and of early overlanders. From Menindie the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition set out for the Gulf. Their camel driver, who died there, was buried on the outskirts of the town. Menindie was then an hotel and a store on the river bank. Burke and party spelled there for six months, waiting for rain to carry them to Koopa Creek. They left on October 19, 1860, with 12 camels and a local guide, who accompanied them for 200 miles. They were well-provisioned, yet died miserably of starvation on Koopa Creek in June, 1861. It was told by old blacks on the Koopa that a camel which was carrying the explorers' rifles and blankets broke away from them between the Depot and Lake Coongee, and was lost. This would explain how the party came to perish in a district where game has always been very plentiful, parrots and pigeons especially being found there in myriads, for Burke, Wills and King knew about as much bushcraft as a new arrival, and without firearms they would be stranded. Six years later, W. Maiden, of Menindie, with two mates, rode over almost the same track to within 180 miles of the Gulf, when they turned off to the Cape River diggings. Over one stage of 400 miles they had only their three horses and their guns, and they got through quite comfortably, living on what the wilds provided.
Most of those people who lived where only an occasional bogey in a waterhole or tank could be indulged in were fair swimmers. In that region the ability to swim might seem an unnecessary accomplishment; but there were times when dwellers and travellers there found themselves surrounded by miles of water, from which the only possible way of escape was by alternately wading and swimming. Travellers were often caught by sudden floods, and if they were in a low position they had to swim to higher ground, which might be far enough away to occupy them the best part of a day. Trees afforded them rest, and not infrequently they were forced to spend a night in one. A person who was unable to swim might be imprisoned on a small island for days or weeks. Besides being faced with starvation, he had the unwelcome company of innumerable insects and reptiles that sought refuge there from the flood.
In those parts floods were usually crossed on horseback. Men who could not swim did not hesitate to put their horses into fairly wide streams. Women and girls also crossed flooded creeks in this way. Drovers in wet weather were frequently intercepted by floods, through which they had to swim, and stockmen when mustering on some runs, especially when shifting stock in rainy seasons, had much swimming to do. A good waterman, when the water was wide and the current strong, would slip out of the saddle and hang on either by the horse's main or by its tail to give the animal a better chance. There were times also when the traveller, on turning out in the morning, found his horses cut off from his camp by a wide stretch of deep water, and if he was unable to swim he had to run the risk of losing them altogether.
On the mid-eastern tidal rivers, when we knew them in their natural glory, it was hard to find any among the native-born who could not swim. Bogeying was one of the principal delights of both men and women. The passenger on the river steamer saw many groups enjoying themselves every day in the week. Some of the men had a horse to add to the amusement, three or four mounting it bareback and riding it in; some had a buoyant leg, a springboard or other accessories. At public schools that were close to a river, or near lagoons and creeks the boys bogeyed in the dinner hour. They loved the water wherever they were; and in the far inlands they would go out into the rain to revel in a shower bath from the clouds.
It is strange that a man who has not been taught to swim has not even the dog's instinct to paddle. Throw a dog into water, and though it has never been wet before it will quite easily swim ashore. It holds its nose too high, and makes a great splash with its front paws at first, but it soon gets out of that. It uses its feet in the same way as it does on land, and if a man who had not learnt the art of swimming were to kick a "paw" in similar fashion, he, too, could save himself in the majority of cases. Fear of the water and the want of a little presence of mind accounts for most drownings. It almost amounts to fatalism, for man is about the only animal on earth that sinks when he falls in. Considering that the uninitiated human has more reasoning powers than a cow or a horse, one might reasonably expect him to do at least as well as either of those animals at the first attempt. But the quadrupeds simply leave him nowhere. A cow, driven into river or sea, will swim miles at the first asking, and no one can say that she is better fitted by nature for aquatic exercises than man is.
Many of the newchums learnt to swim, and many of the early settlers who could not swim themselves taught their children the art, in a way that showed how much fear had to do with drowning. The teacher remained safely on good solid bank, where there was no danger of his slipping in. A rope was fastened round under the arms of the pupil, and the latter, knowing that he could be quickly hauled ashore at any moment, jumped boldly in and put up a really good performance. He kept afloat some of the time, and even made progress in the water; whereas, without the confidence that rope gave him, he would have sunk and drowned. The aborigines thereabouts taught their piccaninnies to swim by throwing them into the water, and leaving them struggling awhile before going after them. A lubra, too, swam with a child on her back, now and again diving from under it or shaking it off.
The man who taught me to swim couldn't swim a stroke himself, and he had such a dread of deep water that nothing could induce him to make an attempt. He was successful us a teacher, though the pupil wasn't enthusiastic over his first experiments. He obtained two bladders from the butcher, each when blown up about the size of a regulation football, one of which he fastened to each of my ankles. He assured me that these balloons would keep me afloat. I was only about 10 years old then, and on being told to jump, I jumped with confidence. When those windbags struck the water they bounced, and I dived involuntarily and precipitately. Nor could I get my head up again, for my feet were buoyed in the surface. The teacher had told me to call out "pull" when I wanted to get out. I wanted to get out very badly, but I could only make distress signals with my heels. Instead of being life-savers, those floaters were an impediment—they were suicidal. When he did pull I was too nearly asphyxiated to take any further lessons on that day.
Still he was not satisfied that the floaters were a failure. He next fastened them under my arms with several yards of twine. When I jumped the twine broke in several places, and the floaters slapped me hard against the ears. They bobbed around in the way all the time, an aggravating nuisance. On being hauled out and relieved of them, I cheerfully agreed to go in anywhere with only the rope on. These floaters held more terrors for me than the river did. I also resolved to get rid of the teacher as early as possible. I did not meditate drowning him; but after three more lessons I swam that river to and fro without any assistance. It was a hard task; I would sooner have walked a long way round; but as I scrambled breathlessly to the bank he said, "You'll do." and retired.
There was a little shopping to do as an occasional diversion. Most of the visitors to the townships found more pleasure in spending their surplus cash than they had known in making it. They had saved it up to spend, and in spending it they enjoyed themselves.
In little country towns the centres of interest are the pub and the store. Most travellers and holiday-makers have some business to do at one or both, especially after a long journey; and very often the pub and the store depend largely for custom on the moving population. While the old man sometimes has a lot of business to engage him at the pub, his wife has a jamboree among the laces and ribbons and the new season's hats at the "general store."
Shopping in these remote parts is not the pleasant recreation and a sort of fancy show that the city woman makes of it. The latter can spend half a day buying a reel of cotton and a scrubbing-brush, which she instructs the perspiring shopman she wants delivered at her address next day without fail. She has an enjoyable run in tram or boat, has a look round other shops, pricing a lot of things she has no intention of buying: has afternoon tea, meets a friend or two, and has an interesting gossip about a thousand things of no importance; all incidental to the purchasing of the cotton and the scrubbing-brush. And when she gets home she discovers that she wanted a packet of hairpins as well. That, of course, makes another shopping-day. The outing invariably includes a growl at the Tramway Commissioners, since there is not a continuous stream of trams to obviate the annoyance of a couple of minutes' waiting; a denunciation of the municipal authorities for not having the footpaths like billiard tables; and complaints about the weather, which is too dry or too wet or too cold or too hot.
In the lonesome regions we had been travelling the women did things differently, and took their roads and their weather more philosophically. One could note their ways conveniently in towns of the dimensions of Menindie. The surrounding residents usually came in to do their shopping on a Saturday. Not every Saturday; perhaps once a month, perhaps once only in three months. They wanted things between times, but unless it was something very urgent they managed without them "till they went to town" at about the regular period.
You would see a family vehicle drive in; it might be a buggy, a waggonette, a spring cart, or a heavy horse dray; and in it an old couple and half a dozen, children. They drove to the hotel, where they had dinner. Afterwards they repaired in a body to the store. It was always called a store, not a shop. There the whole family, from the youngest to the eldest, were fitted with boots and hats, and provided with new Sunday suits. They had lots of things to buy for house and field, and the missus was still buying while the old man fetched the vehicle round and commenced to load up. But they were not hard to please, and in a couple of hours they had got all they wanted. Besides the load in the dray, nearly everybody was carrying something; every pocket in their clothes was crammed, and the children, immensely proud with all their new possessions, and enjoying themselves miserably in a strange place and among strange faces, were eating lollies and biscuits. They started for home about mid-afternoon, and when you were told they had a dozen or twenty miles to go you knew they would be driving till long after dark.
Another visitor was a woman on horseback. She did not go to the hotel but rode into a little yard at the back of the store, where the storekeeper, if he wasn't attending to a customer at the time, met her and acted as groom. When she had done shopping he strapped her bundle on to the saddle, stuffed sundry small articles into the saddle-pouch, helped her on, and handed up several more parcels, which she carried in her hands. She had a good load from the store, and sometimes she had a baby to carry in front of her as well. She had a long ride, in the course of which she had to open and shut two or three gates, and dismount three or four times at sliprails. At these places she hung her loose parcels on a post before she got off, and gathered them up after she had mounted again. Sliprails on bush tracks were seldom light and handy, and often there was an ugly puddle hole where they were let down. The equestrienne was naturally dead tired after her day's shopping.
Other women came in singly, driving in a buggy or sulky, which pulled up in front of the store. The driver did her shopping, the storekeeper packed her purchases in the vehicle, and the customer drove away down the winding road, and disappeared among the trees. From the same direction came a woman on foot, accompanied by a couple of children. They had walked four or five miles, and bye-and-bye, all loaded up with parcels, you saw them set out from the store on the return journey. The mother enjoined this one and that one to mind they didn't drop anything, and now and again they sat down on a log for a spell. There were stops also to do up parcels that had come undone, and waitings for the youngest, who dropped farther and farther in the rear as the last weary miles were covered. There was not much pleasure in shopping for those people; all the joy was in the store, and when the parcels were opened at home. The trip itself was too laborious to go into raptures over. The exertion of shopping left no craving for an early repetition of the experience.
There was a spice of novelty, if there was less convenience, in the shopping by the riverside, where the floating store, trading up and down the river, tied up to the bank for a day or an afternoon to do business with people living in the vicinity. This store naturally found most customers away from towns, so it moored at regular intervals at places that were convenient to a few scattered settlers. A farmhouse, a squattage homestead, a timber-getter's or wood cutters' camp, and a wayside hotel, were usual depots. There was seldom a wharf at any of these places. The steamer was tied to a tree, a plank was thrown down, and customers filed on board to do their shopping. The captain stood behind the counter where general merchandise was served out; his wife or daughter attended to the women in the drapery department, and the mate acted as general rouseabout. He got the kerosene and the potatoes and onions. The floating store saved a lot of travelling for a scattered public and brought distant neighbours together, which gave a zest to shopping.
Whether you arrived by day or night, in rain or shine, you heard Broken Hill before you saw it. Its vital organs, the batteries and mills at the mines, were always thumping. Though the city, which was clustered on two flats, separated and hidden one from the other by the big silver hill, had a population of 35,000, you could hear its heart-beats when you had left it all behind. If its battering throbs stopped for a night, the people couldn't sleep. They missed the noise. Likewise, the whole business of their lives was regulated by the shift whistle. They got up by it, they had their meals by it and they went to bed by it. It was their time-keeper.
It was Paddy Green, of Menindie, who made the first discovery of silver lead ore on the Harrier. That was in 1876, in the vicinity of Thackaringa. Seven years later Charlie Rasp, who was employed as a boundary rider on Mount Gipps, struck the first colour at Broken Hill, then part of Mount Gipps run. He had the veteran prospector's eye for likely places, and by means of his inveterate habit of fossicking here and there while on his lonely rides among the rocky, mulga covered ridges, the world's greatest silver mine was located. From these inhospitable looking hills, with bleak and barren surroundings, millions of ounces of silver were exported annually to India, China and Japan, besides large quantities of lead and zinc concentrates to England and Europe. Copper, gold, antimony and other minerals were also obtained from the same sources, but the principal wealth of the mines was in silver and lead. It was practically the output of this one rich field that placed Australia fourth on the list of the world's pig-lead producers.
For a big place the Silver City was as dull at ditch-water. Its, streets were nearly always empty; when half the miners were at work the other half were asleep; but on Saturday nights everybody got up, when the main business part of Argent-street became thronged with sturdy, good-natured, fellows who looked more like "gentlemen of means" than hard-working miners. Working much of their time underground, their complexions were unspoilt, their eyes unaffected by hot sun and wind whirling dust. The bachelors, who stayed at hotels, went out in the morning as though they were going to see their best girls; they came back near sundown looking as though they were expecting company for tea: and the stranger wouldn't have guessed that they had been toiling in the mines in the interval. Before going to bed they put their boots outside the door to be polished for them to go to work in.
Though unattractive to the visitor in its calm moments, when the male population was divided between bed and mine, Broken Hill was never dead. It was a revolutionary town that woke up every now and again and did things that gave Capital the nightmare. It was a world leader, with its co-operative stores, co-operative bakeries, co-operative bootshops, and other cooperative concerns, whose object was to give the workers the full results of their industry. It was the only place where the people had struck against the price of bread being lowered. When we arrived one of the hotels was being boycotted because it had lowered the price of beer. The property had depreciated in value; grim ruin was hovering about the doorstep, for the thirstiest pedestrian wouldn't be seen going in there. The beer was too cheap. Ere long the price was raised again, and business returned. It was a union town. If you were struck on a Broken Hill girl, you had to show that you were a financial unionist before you would have any hope of getting her. Girls had struck work, and walked out of the hotels when the licensees permitted non-unionists to remain on the premises. Here a Mayor of the municipality has presided at strike meetings, and municipal officials have marched through the streets with the strikers.
It was the most democratic city in existence, the capital of a big territory that was peopled with men and women of the all Australian principle. Having the borders of three States at their doors, and passing to and fro for shearing, droving, mining, and bush work, they recognised no divisions. Officially and territorially they were New South Walers; commercially and in their local sympathies they were South Australians. That was natural, since Adelaide was their nearest seaport, being distant only 344 miles by rail, whereas Sydney was 725 miles away in a straight line, and twice that distance by rail. Most of the mining trade went to Pirie; that South Australian town, in fact, was almost wholly supported by the mines. The bulk of the vegetables consumed by the miners was gown in the same State; and in drought time they also got their water supply from that quarter, the precious liquid being conveyed by train, and carted from the railway station in tanks, and casks, and carried in tubs and buckets.
During these rare periods, washing day supplied a striking lesson in economy. The Sydney or Melbourne woman would think, after the family washing had been put through a tub of water, that there was no further use for the resultant dirty suds, except to pour at the root of a tree in the garden. But the Broken Hill woman did not throw them away. She cleared them with copi which could be picked up here and there all over the north west corner; or with permanganate of potash; and the cleared water was used again, perhaps several times over. Copi was also used for clearing muddy water, obtained from small pools and dams, for drinking and cooking purposes. Even in times of plenty Broken Hill water presented difficulties not met with elsewhere. The sand blown from the dumps was laden with acids and particles of lead, and had a peculiar effect on water caught near the mines. Soap would only dissolve in it when it was cold. If any soap got into the copper, even through insufficient rinsing, as soon as the water got hot the soap formed into tough, rubber-like lumps that stuck tenaciously to clothes and copper. When the blue-bag was used in the ordinary way, the blue went straight to the bottom, leaving the water unchanged. To overcome this difficulty soap extract and blue were dissolved together in a little unmineralised water, which was then stirred into the tub.
The original name of the Hill was Willyama; the name given to the ugly hump where the ores came from has replaced it by popular usage. In its street nomenclature it set an excellent example for the little aldermen who have a habit of naming thoroughfares and places after persons whom most people know nothing about, and nobody but their intimate friends want to remember; burdening often a place of beauty and interest with an uncouth name that a conscientious man wouldn't give to his dog. Broken Hill got a long start of the little aldermen, and thus its streets are named Carbon, Argent, Cobalt, Garnet, Oxide, Bromide, Chloride, Sulphide, Iodide, Crystal, Slag, Beryl, Graphite, Kaolin, Talc, Gossan, Gypsum, Blendo, Mica, Nickel, Wolfram, Bismuth, Galona, &c.
The bulk of the population being mine workers, their homes, which are mostly built on leases, are not imposing; and they come and go and shift about with more frequency than in other places. When one was leaving, his house and furniture were sold, but not the ground. The purchaser, having a block of his own, removed the house. Sometimes a man removed from a distant block to one nearer the mines, in which case he took his residence with him. A good many put up huts near the foot of the mines, which were in the centre of the city, and as the dump encroached on their allotments, they had to shift too. People were used to seeing cottages travelling about there, leaving gaps in one street and filling vacancies in another. Buildings were also drawn up to the auction mart and sold. I saw three standing side by side on trucks at one auction mart, each large enough to accommodate an average family. People were climbing up and passing through them, examining the rooms. Two of them were sold, and were delivered to the purchasers when required like any other goods.
There was also a distraint for rent sale. The A. M. A. had previously carried a resolution "That members be notified and asked to be present for the purpose of trying to prevent any person purchasing goods and chattels." About 200 people rolled up, a majority of whom were women. The sale lasted about 10 minutes, and realised about 10s; nothing that was put up, from a clock to a suite of furniture, bringing more a shilling. The monotonous "bob" bid came from one man, who subsequently handed the goods and chattels back to the original owners.
Accommodation was not easy to get. The hotel upon which we conferred our valuable patronage let its rooms by the week to miners. The rooms were always occupied, the night shifts sleeping there through the day, and the day shifts at night. This was not a convenience to the casual lodger; in fact, the casual lodger wasn't wanted at our hotel. We were admitted only on giving a solemn promise, so that we wouldn't stay long; and we were permitted to have our meals there on the same understanding, and as a great personal favour. All but three of the regular lodgers got their meals at the restaurants. I don't know how the trio obtained this tremendous consideration, unless they were related to the family, or intended to be. "Apartments to let and grog to sell" summed up the whole business of hotel keeping. Any expansion was undertaken grudgingly, boarders being particularly objectionable. They disturbed the sleeping miners. We felt like intruders. We were unwelcome guests. Even the buoyant overseer who could adapt himself to most circumstances, slunk in and out; and Mr. Muggs, who always made friends with the girls wherever he went, never got beyond a deferential "good morning" here. He made a valiant attempt once or twice at the beginning, but the girl's eyes seemed to say, "You are making unnecessary work for me by staying here; why don't you buy a house?" And he froze. They went about with a mind-you-don't-wake-the-baby air, those girls. We got into that habit, too. We tiptoed in and out of our room; we talked in whispers, and when we took our boots off we put them down as though they were glass. If we were out late we took them off at the bottom of the stairs, and sneaked up in our socks, each cautioning the other to "be careful, baby's asleep."
"I can't make this out," said the overseer one morning. "There's something incongruous about it. All that infernal clatter at the mines day and night doesn't disturb these fellows a bit; yet if we only walk about near their rooms they complain. Can't sleep for the row. 'Struth!"
"It's, second nature," Mr. Muggs replied. "The sound of the stampers and crushers is as the droning of waters to them, and any noise that doesn't happen regularly is out of harmony. If you fell downstairs, for instance, say, once a week, the bump you'd make would be a discord; but if you went falling down continuously that noise would come to harmonise with the other, and pretty soon they wouldn't sleep unless you were bumping."
The show piece of the place was the unsightly pile known as the Big Mine, and its two principal features of interest to us were the open cut and the registered crowd. When you saw the landslides and rocks hurtling down the broken sides every now and then, and the men dropping their tools and running for safety, those far up the slopes sliding away, spider-like, on hands and feet, the Open Cut struck you as a fine place to keep out of. All the same, we went down, and when we had got to the bottom the overseer remarked: "What a fine tank it would make!" Several big rocks just then broke loose near the top and came whizzing down. "But," he added, starting to run, "it looks better from the top."
The registered crowd were those who were waiting for a job. Their names, together with the kind of work they wanted, were listed in the company's books, and when new hands were wanted the names were called over from the office verandah until the required number of men had answered. The names of absentees, unless someone else answered for them, were separated out and re-entered at the bottom of the list. Twice only was this done with each name; the third time it was struck of the register. Generally the roll was called when the shifts were changing; but there were so many accidents and other emergencies that it was likely to be called at any time in the day or night. So there was always a crowd waiting about. Some brought their lunches; some brought their blankets, especially when they knew their names were near the top of the list. One old fellow, whom we found lunching among the rocks, said he had been waiting three weeks; but the "call" might come at any minute now. His name was "top." We saw him again a couple of hours later, when he was walking moodily homeward.
"My name was called to-day, as I expected," he told us, "an' hang me if I wasn't dead asleep."
"That was hard luck after waiting three days."
"An' keepin' awake all the time," he rejoined. "We're like a pack o' cards—always being shuffled. I was trumps this mornin', an' now I'm at the bottom of the pack. I've a good mind to go shearin'."
Broken Hill was the end of the first section for us. Our travel southward halted there for some weeks, during which time we sampled the Mendindie trip and before returning to the Silver City lazed awhile on the River of Rest.
It was something to have seen the biggest silver mine on earth; but there was nothing else to see in Broken Hill—no parks or gardens, no lakes or streams, only a dull, dusty town, with an environment of bleak hills. We left it cheerfully; we did not even look back from the windows for a last glimpse at its myriad lights as we rolled out on a Sunday night. We thought only of making things comfortable for the 344 mile run to Adelaide, and training our voices back to their natural pitch. It was a relief to trip over the carpet and not feel called upon to apologise for the noise your head made against the wall, and to be able to draw a cork without considering the pop of it.
When you have sampled many ways and means of getting elsewhere in the great spaces of the interior, including rides on donkey back and camel back, in shanghais, sulkies and waggonettes, in mail coaches, carts and bullock-drays, per boot and per bike, you can appreciate a railway car much more than when you come off a sea voyage, or have been used to motoring on civilised roads. It is the most satisfactory way of travelling when you have to cover long distances—but as a means of seeing the country it is a dead failure.
Most oversea visitors whose object is a book on Australia stick to the comfortable railroad, which accounts for the preponderance of false impressions. The main scenery on a railway line is embankments, interspersed with tunnels and long lines of heavy fences, the bleached rails whereof invite you to try Killem's pills and to drink Hogg's whisky.
From the seat of a vehicle you have a broad panorama spread around you most of the time. On horseback you get in closer touch with it. Travelling on a bike you see little but the track in front of you; like the donkey, familiar to South Australian back-country roads, the wheel required too much attention. The camel affords you a fine, lofty view—well shaken as you take it. Perched among the elaborate trappings with which the Centralian fits his riding camel, and enjoying a fragrant cheroot, you might imagine yourself an Asiatic potentate, especially when you find a little place called Jericho on your northern track. But the best way of all to see the country and to absorb the scenery, and all the local features and peculiarities, and to learn the habits and character of the inhabitants, is per boot. There is no one living who knows Australia more intimately than the swag man.
The express is different from an ordinary train. It is always in a hurry, begrudging you five minutes to swallow a cup of tea: and people rush it so that you are uncomfortably crowded. Furthermore, when you leave your seats for refreshments, with no one in charge, you find them jumped on your return, and you have to crush in somewhere else.
An experience of this sort introduced us to lively company about midnight. Two volunteers bound for South Africa, and a long, dark-bearded man in leggings were making merry on their way to Melbourne. They had a bottle on board, besides which they had been nipping at every hotel we touched at. They played cards for money on the seat, "refreshed" between games,. disagreed about what was trumps, talked louder and louder and more disrespectfully to each other, and at last the long one in leggings and one of the khaki men got to blows. They tumbled all over the rest of us, who soon mounted the seats, and they pounded each other from one side of the carriage to the other—which wasn't far. I think the carriage got the worst of the fight, which was ended by a portmanteau, falling off the rack on to the long one, and flattening him out. We helped him on to the platform at the next station, and did the same kind action for his mates. Everyone in the compartment seemed to be actuated by the one generous impulse; while half of them assisted the disturbers to alight, the other half carried their coats and bags out for them. They were quite overcome by so much civility and kindness. Nobody assisted them in again.
We were far into the mid-State then, for Cockburn, where the border is crossed, is only a short run from the Silver City. This place was important, for border customs had not been abolished then. Travelling from the north-west of New South Wales to the south-east of the same State by train, you had to pass through three of them—at Cockburn, Serviceton, and Albury, though the through passenger, by bonding all luggage "not wanted on the voyage," had no bother anywhere. But he had more anxiety when there was a break in the journey as at Adelaide and Melbourne, for he wasn't allowed possession of his trunks unless he went through the official formula.
This line stood over all for ticket-clipping. You began to wonder, as puncture after puncture was made in your bit of cardboard, if there would be enough of it to carry you through. The overseer made a study of it. He counted the perforations each time to make sure that it had really acquired a fresh brand, or had been merely struck in an old puncture; and he would carefully spread out the ruin and estimate how many more earmarks could be got on to it.
A simple old chap from Farrell's Flat used to slip his ticket inside the top of his long boot for safety. When the marker came round he had to take off his boot to get it; and as his memory was not very good he mostly took the wrong one off first; and sometimes it got inside his socks, which necessitated taking them off also. He was several times threatened with violent expulsion; but he would meet the official's impatient remonstrance's with a bland smile and a confident shake of his head.
"Just hold on a bit, sonny." he would say; "it's about one o' me feet somewhere, an' we'll round him up directly, you take it from me."
When he did round him up the official clipped it with a vengeful snap, and banged the door afterwards with extra force.
The country was uninteresting, being for the most part low, stony hills, covered with stunted growth, and great lonely, grey plains, sprinkled with sheep and goats, and where kangaroos stood and watched the passing train.
Right down to the busy junction town of Petersburg you traversed a big belt of territory so densely populated that everybody's wells and everybody's dams were marked on the map. More than half the places were dams. We were in the Land of Dams. It was a good way of filling a map. Queenslanders did the same; every squattage homestead, and many of the outcamps—often only a boundary rider's humpy—were marked in their proper latitudinal and longitudinal positions. It gave the territories an appearance of being settled. The traveller heard frequent allusions to The Corners by people living hundreds of miles away in four States; and when he arrived there he found only a solitary post standing in a wilderness of mulga. There was a similarly lonely mark on the south-east coast which some people went into rapture over. It was only a cairn of stones, marking the boundary of New South Wales and Victoria: but there the coaster could be in both States at once. You could be in more than that at The Corners; you could sleep in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory at one and the same time, by coiling up against the corner post. It was the only spot in Australia where you could be in so many places at once.
In most parts of Australia the chief squattage residences are the oldest country homes. In the long stretches we were travelling, many of them had stood as the only places for as long as the oldest inhabitant could remember. So it was also in other parts. The buildings themselves, in all cases, were not old; but the homesteads were, and many relics remained of the earliest times, even when the main dwellings had been replaced with new. Wrapped around every one was a story full of incident and adventure, scraps of which were told from time to time as the big runs were cut up for closer settlement. Old hands dipped then into the half-forgotten history, recalling scenes and episodes that were strange and romantic to the new generation; and their reminiscences went back to the exciting days when the squattage was formed; how they rode forth into the unknown west, in search of grazing country, up and down creeks and rivers, and over hills and mountains, making their fires at sunset, and quietly moving on for a mile or two after tea to camp. This was done to dodge the blacks, who, attracted by the blaze, would sometimes gather round with, perhaps, hostile intentions to the invaders.
When the exploring was completed, and the new run decided upon, a line was blazed for the guidance of teams taking out stores and tools, and of the men going out with the first mobs of cattle. These had to be tailed until they settled down on the new run, for watercourses and mountains were the only boundaries; afterwards they had to be watched to guard against disturbance by the blacks, who for ages had been accustomed to kill what they liked in their own towri. They had to be taught that the invaders had superior rights. Armed men rode about the runs then on the lookout for cattle-spearing. The manager of Wooroowoalgoh, on the Richmond River, while riding along a rise one morning, chanced to look up as he drew close to a broad-topped wild apple tree. The fine shadow it cast had taken his eye; but what he saw aloft was disconcerting. Perched like birds among the limbs were a score of naked blacks. All were armed, some sitting and some standing, and everyone was as still and quiet as an ebon statue. What their object was he did not stop to inquire. He rode straight home and gave an order for the immediate ring barking of several hundred acres around the homestead.
A few of the pioneers took timber with them for building; but when hundreds of miles of trackless bush had to be covered, the distance being increased by deviations in quest of crossings over water and passages through rugged ranges, the majority preferred to produce all their material on the spot. For a few months, therefore, they lived in tents and bark humpies. Residences of split slabs and bark roof followed, though some were well built with sawn timber, which was cut in sawpits. Yulgilbar home, on the upper part of the Clarence River, is a castle—the only one in Australia. Built in a wild and rocky region in the days when settlements were few and far between, it was an imposing structure.
In the central parts of the country stone and mud were much used for building purposes. In Western Queensland are still found at this time a main residence here and there constructed of mud and straw, whilst many owners and managers were domiciled in slab and bark structures. Currawilla, in the neighborhood of Windorah, had a wall eight feet high and eight feet thick all round it, made of earth and tallow. This was to keep back the flood waters that come down Farrar's Creek and spread over miles of the surrounding country. In flood time the homestead was a unique sight, lying low and dry in the midst of a swirling brown sea. The floors of the dwellings were also made of earth and tallow. The owner of this place, W. H. Watson, was a crack shot with a rifle, used to consider it a trifling performance to put bullet through a matchbox stood on a blackfellow's head; and on one occasion he got two blacks to hold a matchbox between their noses, then he cut it away with a bullet.
However humble a lot of these places might be, they were marked on the map; whilst selection houses in the same regions were not. As a rule, the selector didn't give his place a name. The squattages were the principal marks in the wide spaces out back, and the names were as well known as the names of towns. Many of them were respectable villages; a commodious residence nestling in a cluster of ornamental trees, with broad lawns and beds of flowers around it; and nearby stables, stores, smithy, carpenter's shop, and numerous huts and sheds. At a little distance the big cattle yards and branding shed, or sheep yards and shearing shed, as the case might be; and the gallows and haystacks were conspicuous.
Crows, hawks and magpies were always about then; every homestead had its individual flocks. In the noontide of a hot day, when all other life was still, the crows that gave greeting to the traveller suggested a dead place. When travelling once through lonely country, a near-sighted stockman, who was with me used to ask, when he thought it time for the next place to be getting near: "See any crows ahead?"
The magpies gathered there for the sake of the broad clearings. They seemed to have a fondness for the neighbourhood of houses; but the squattage homestead was favoured more than any other. Hundreds of the birds were often to be seen there; distributed about the spaces between the buildings, in the yards and gardens, and on the fences and trees. They took no active notice of anybody, and treated dogs with scorn.
Planted here and there, like an oasis in a desert, the average homestead looked comfortable, and made an attractive picture. It had not the architectural finish and ornamentation of city houses; it was low and spreading with broad verandahs, coolness and utility being of more importance than elegance. On the dry, western plains coolness was the main consideration, Built usually in a commanding position, and in the most favoured and convenient part of the run, the natural beauties of the environment made it attractive to the eye, and the white walls and gleaming roof showed boldly in the far distance. There were some that you came upon suddenly, where there was no suggestiveness of a homestead, until you were almost within stone-throw of the door.
In the rich districts, where the aborigines were numerically strong, nearly every homestead had its history of sieges, of raids and robberies, murders and dispersals. Here and there the graves of murdered men and women were pointed on to the visitor; at some places, like Hornet Bank, on the Dawson River, there was a little cemetery. "And what happened," asked the visitor, "after the murders?" A long mound heaped over with dead wood was shown him. It was the grave of slaughtered blacks. I was shown one near Killarney, on the Warengo, where 57 had been buried—all thrown into one big trench.
Tomki, on the Richmond River, had stone steps at the back facing the river. The floor was about three feet from the ground. A man stepped out there one night to get a drink of water, and a black fellow, who had been crouched against the wall, cut him down with a tomahawk. After awhile another man went out to see what was keeping the first, and he too was struck down. By-and-bye a third followed to see what had become of the others. He, however, paused on the step, and by so doing narrowly escaped the same fate.
About this homestead were many huge boilers—which told another tale. Woram, near by, had the ruins of an overhead truck way at one side of the cattle yards, leading from a slaughter-house to rows of these boilers, all set like massive coppers. In the early days of these squattages meat became so cheap that the graziers boiled their cattle down for tallow. About this time there were boiling-down works near Sydney, and similar works were erected here and there to within a short distance of the northern border. Woran was one of the largest.
A hutkeeper, years after the works had fallen into disuse, while walking along the high rails, slipped and fell into one of the boilers, where he was imprisoned for two days before his cries were heard.
The boiling-down was a busy scene in its days of activity. Large mobs of cattle were ever pouring into it, and in addition to the band of stockmen and yardmen there were butchers, stokers, woodcutters and carters, and men who looked after the boiling and the tallow. Excepting the huts and tents connected with the works, there was not a habitation of any kind within miles of this hive of industry. It was a picturesque scene in a wild spot, just a little back from the bank of the river.
Cattle that would in the nourishing days of squatting that were to come be worth £10 to £20 a head, were boiled down there for their fat, and the meat was thrown out to the crows. When cattle improved in price, only the culls were boiled down. Gradually this slackened until killing for tallow was discontinued, and the extensive plant was left to rot and rust.
Numerous homesteads were famed as the scenes of stirring episodes in the bushranging days, and there were a few that dated back to the earliest times, around which clung some ugly memories. Segenhoe, on the Hunter, was a fortified place, flanked by cannon; and standing brazenly in an open space was a triangle, where unruly servants were tied and flogged. It was abandoned by the pioneers; who they were was unknown. When it was rediscovered there was only a jabbering imbecile—an ex-convict—on the premises. The new owner of the squattage worked it with convict labour. A special herd of prize cattle were kept to provide milk for his wife to bath in, the milk being afterwards served out to the convicts. This lady at a later period became a leading beauty in London. The run was afterwards cut up into small holdings, and only the homestead and its memories remained.
Once or twice in those wide stretches we saw a motor car whizzing over the weary miles, where only the shortcomings of the bush road imposed a limit to speed; and the presence of that vehicle there had more significance to us who had long lived out back than it could have had to coastal dwellers.
It may be said that modern inventions, more than the spread and increase of settlement, had altered the aspect of life in the bush within recent years. Among the most potent factors in this change must be reckoned the motor car and the telephone. They had shortened distances, brought once remote places near to populous centres; and that alone had enveloped the outposts with a different atmosphere to what was formerly experienced. They took away the feeling of isolation, so that the settler no longer considered himself an exile as he once did. Nor was he an age behind the times in his ideas and methods, or individualised in a world of his own, as he used to be, for he was as much in touch with the hub of the universe as the rest of his kind. These two mediums of comparatively rapid connection had removed forever a phase of Australian life that had its charm and its romance, but was invested in no small degree with peril and hardship. No matter where the new settlements were formed in these later days, even in the virgin tracts of the Northern Territory, the exact circumstances of the former periods did not prevail, and so far as communities, however scattered, were concerned, could never return.
To the dusky inhabitants of the far lands, the motor was a terror at first, when it tripped tentatively into the heart of the primitive. It astonished them even more than did the first camel they saw. They ran from it as from a smoke-snorting debil-debil. They understood horse and camel drawn vehicles; but this thing that whizzed across the country without any apparent aid was an uncanny mystery. And the goggle-eyed being it carried added to its alarming aspect. The medicine-man, who concocted tales of the wahwee and the bunyin, had never imagined anything like that. When it flashed its huge, glaring white eyes in the dusk, and showed a red eye right behind, he gasped with amazement and ran for his natural life.
Though both the car and the telephone were yet the privileges of the rich in the outback where homesteads were widely separated, the selector, the lonely boundary rider, and even the swagman on the road, were benefited by their introduction. There might be but one or two in the district owned by a couple of squatters, but they crept unconsciously into the services and lives of everybody. This was best exemplified in the matter of mails and news. When there was no means of rapid transit, mails were delivered by horse-mailmen along a main route about once a month, the squattage homesteads being the principal depots. There were many homesteads in the parts of the States we had passed through that were 50 miles or more back from the mailman's track. To get the periodical mail meant a long ride each way. On some places a boy was kept for this purpose, who acted as private mail carrier for everybody in the neighbourhood. At other places the manager drove in to the depot in a buggy. In either case two or more days were occupied, which, with the motor car, was reduced to a morning run in and an afternoon run out.
Earlier still the mails drifted to the out posts about once in three months; often they were brought out only by teams carrying supplies. Newspapers came in big bundles, the acumulation of weeks, and were leisurely digested in the long interim before the next mail day. Those were leisurely times, but they bred independent men and women, people who had to rely on their own resources and who abided by the law of common sense. Today the motor is taking the place of the mail coach, and making a daily mail possible where a weekly service was considered good.
What was to the pioneer a long wearisome journey, occupying a week or more with relays of horses, was merely a few hours' run in the new era. The ogre of ever-threatening death from thirst had been banished from the dry tracks. A hundred-mile stage without water! It was a serious undertaking for a horseman, laden though he was at the start with waterbags; for the man in the motor car it was only a brief exhilarating spin between drinks.
The car broke down at times, or refused to go, and in the midst of a semi-desert region that was apt to be attended with very serious consequences. Still, with the amount of liquid refreshment it could carry, the risk was not as great as with knocked-up horses. The dangerous period of motor overlanding was passed, and with improvements ever being made there was no part of the untracked interior that could not be brought into quick touch with commercial centres. The Never Never was no more, and the horrors of outback life for womenkind disappeared. In old squatting days it was no small difficulty to get women to brave the distances. The squatter's wife had to be content with lubras for servants and companions; most of the men lived bachelor lives, but once a woman ventured into their homes she stayed there. The miles were too many, travelling too slow and difficult, for tripping to town, and so only an odd one could be persuaded to journey out and share their exile.
The exiles of outback they were called, those pioneers, who thinly peopled the wide spaces. Exiles they were for a hundred years, but quick transit made a wonderful change. It made the farthest places accessible and endurable to women, and where the women went, settlement progressed.
It was when sickness called, when some serious accident happened, that the isolation told hardest on women and children. In the early annals of the bush we find many trials of endurance, many a deed of heroism; we read of long hard rides for a doctor, occupying all day and all night, and not infrequently undertaken by girls and women. In such cases the journey back, accompanied by the doctor, was harder still. There was no way of sending a telegram without an equally long ride, and when a patient had to be taken in he was subjected to a slow, rough trip that endangered his chances of recovering.
Nowadays, the motor car was available in such emergencies. It might be a few hours' ride to the nearest owner, but in serious cases it was always ready, and it made short work of what would be an all night ride on horseback. It enabled the mother to nurse her sick child on the journey in comparative comfort, whereas formerly the child was carried in front of a desperate horseman.
Here, too, the telephone was a factor in calling for aid, in the saving of time and labour and horseflesh. On big runs the homesteads were connected by telephone with the boundary-riders' huts and out camps, and with the townships. The wires about the run were usually carried on the fences. Until this innovation cheapened and facilitated the control of runs, the boundary-rider was a lonely person who rarely saw a human being between mustering times and the fortnightly or monthly occasions when he was visited by the ration carrier. He might be thrown or injured, or be seized with sickness, and lie helpless in his camp until some casual visitor happened to look in. Now he could ring up headquarters or a neighbouring camp. He was in communication with his boss and fellows almost daily. Also, those camps were handy to surrounding settlers, and the service of the telephone saved many a long ride and many a life. In conjunction with the motor car it had stripped the lone places of half their terrors, and made the outposts more habitable to women and children.
From Petersburg down we got glimpses of pretty valleys and grassy slopes, picturesque homesteads and villages, and big wheat fields. But the giant timber, the grandeur of mount and gorge that flashed past on the line from Melbourne to Albury and from Albury to Sydney were wanting. The enthusiasm of Broken Hillites and Centralians when the scent of burning bush and grass came to them, and the smoke of small bush fires floated over us, was a joke to Victorians and East Coasters. Nobody got burnt out in Centralia. Perhaps they would not either in the eastern regions if they could run sheep instead of cattle. A blackfellow, finding his native game disappearing, observed of the mooching merino: "No good that pfella. All day feed; all night walk about. Turkey can't lay um egg; emu can't sit—him ruin in the country."
Through the wheat areas farmers watched the passing train with anxiety, not only because it belched sparks, but because careless travellers had a way of unburdening themselves of their superfluous glassware as they passed along. Numbers of passengers carried bottles on long journeys, the contents of which might be milk, or ginger beer, or lime juice; and as these were emptied they were pitched through the windows, regardless of the fact that gangers were always working somewhere on the line, and children were often standing in unexpected places watching the train go by. The offenders rarely knew where they were when they cast the dead marine, nor did they know from a moving train where it would land. Many a bush fire has been started by a bottle or a piece of broken glass, lying among dry quick-kindling stuff with a hot sun shining on it. For this reason the wheat-growers gathered them up and threw them into creeks, or stood them on stumps. When a bottle-disgorging train passed every second day or so this was no joke.
In these parts the wax match was taboo, and anybody seen carrying a firestick would be chased as a lunatic, or arrested by the nearest trooper for imperilling life and property. Nearly everybody used safety matches, and no one was allowed to smoke an uncovered pipe in the august presence of a wheatfield.
When the grass was long and the wheat was maturing, the settlers formed themselves into amateur fire brigades, and each man was pledged to look carefully around himself every five minutes for smoke, and to keep a telescopic eye and blunderbuss trained on any chance swagman who obtruded on the horizon. New handles were wedged into tomahawks; the wood axe was ground in readiness for chopping bushes, and a supply of bags, tied on the ends of sticks, was kept on hand. Instructions were given to station masters to transmit telegraphic and telephonic messages free of cost, so that when Jones dropped a match, or a spark from his pipe, he could ring up Smith, Brown and Robinson to come and put their conjoint foot on it and prevent a national disaster.
We had an argument about matches along here, and the conclusion arrived at was that those farmers were protecting the safety match manufacturers more than themselves. Fires did not result, except in rare cases, from carelessly dropping matches about where a hot sun would cause combustion; but from throwing them down after they had been struck by smokers, and there was nothing about the safety to preclude its being thrown down in a similar way and doing just as much damage.
The overseer said he had seen fires started by horses striking sparks from stones with their shod hooves. From this it was deduced that a man wearing hobnails or protectors in his boots was also a menace to the community; and we resolved that when we became farmers that it should be penal to wear boots at all in dry weather, and any man with a glass eye was to be shifted off the premises with the greatest despatch.
On one occasion, in New South Wales, several months after bush fires had swept Albury district, the police presented a report as to the causes of 36 of the outbreaks. Phosphorus (laid for rabbits) was credited with 12 disasters; wax matches (dropped accidentally), 2; sun's rays, through glass, 1; persons wilfully setting fire to grass, 3; careless use of fire, 3; machinery bearings becoming heated, 1; lightning, 1; sparks from railway engines, 2. In the other cases the causes were not ascertainable. To a smart officer who could track up a wax match, dropped accidentally, and consumed in the conflaguation a long time previously, any cause at all should have been ascertainable.
Here and. there we passed a cosy farm house, which took the eyes of such of our lady travellers who had lived only in congested areas. There were some things which the farm wife had which they envied; there were other things which "would never suit them." They envied the roominess of the country home and its environment, and the plenitude of necessaries which their rustic sister enjoyed, and which cost so much in town. There was no call to pay bills every day in the week; there were none of the rates and taxes that the town dweller knew—though the conveniences begotten of such were also absent; and living and dressing were comparatively cheap. Dresses and hats lasted longer, for farm life was more unconventional than city life. There was an abundance of wood in the paddock, and plenty of water in the creek. The farm supplied milk fresh and pure; butter, eggs, poultry, bacon, and other meat in wholesale quantities, and fruit and vegetables in any variety. There was also fish, which they could catch for themselves. Horses and vehicles suggested pleasant rides and drives, where the outlook promised entrancing country views, and where little adventures and incidents enlivened the way. Above all, there was a wholesome atmosphere, freedom from contaminating ills, an air of supreme ownership, complete privacy, and a home that was more really home, more comforting and more satisfying in itself.
That was the bright side; but, alack, for the dreamer of rural simplicity, there was a seamy side as well. In the view of most city women the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. The farm wife gets up with the hens. She bustles through her housework in the morning, does a turn in the dairy, washes a pile of cans and dishes, takes tea and scones down to the men about 10.30, then cooks dinner. No butcher or baker calls; there is no ham and beef shop, nor any other shop, to run to in emergencies; she must prepare everything herself. In the afternoon, besides taking crib to the men and getting tea ready, she found time to hunt for eggs, to make and mend. After tea, when all the washing-up was done, she sat darning and knitting, or sewing, or perhaps helped for an hour or two in the barn. Washing day was her busy day; harvesting was her busiest time of all. Often she lent a hand at some light work in the field, but she managed to keep cheerful through it all, and look after several young children at the same time. She didn't want a neighbour to gossip with over the garden fence. Neither did she look for trams and busses on the quiet, grey road, nor yearn for the shows and entertainments, the gaiety and pleasures of the town. But these were things the visitor found hardest to cut adrift from. She saw dullness in their stead, and that with the long hours and the extra work made her shake her head doubtfully, and deny herself and her children the benefit of the farm home.
It was interesting to note the leading topics of conversation on the sections of a long line. Leaving the Silver City, and until you got to Petersburg, whence the line branched to Port Pirie, where the Broken Hill ores were treated, everyone was interested in mining, and discussed the fluctuations in the price of lead and silver; you heard of the perils of tunnelling, the dangers of the open cut, of men being leaded, of odd ones being roasted in boiling slag, of creeps in Block 10, and of falls of earth in the Big Mine. You could hear the whole history of the Barrier if you cared to keep awake; and when you reached the Burra you heard something about copper; but on nearing Gawler, and until the lights of Port Adelaide blazed across the flat to the rightward, you found that all newcomers were concerned about the price of wheat, and the state of the weather, and they stripped and threshed and harvested over the whole hundred and thirty odd miles. Thence on to Adelaide the topic was—the City of Churches.
So, too, on the run to Melbourne. From Adelaide to the Murray, and to Glenorchy, on the Wimmera River, it was dried fruits, vineyards and wine, timber and agriculture; while from Stawell, one of the prettiest of Victorian towns, right down to Bacchus Marsh, it was of gold—gold and Eureka! Indeed, you could not help talking of gold, and resuscitating the golden tales of old; for on nearing Ararat, and thence onward till you passed Ballarat, you saw the miners' tents gleaming whitely through the suckers on either side, and you passed along between thousands of mining shafts, with little heaps of dirt dotting hill and flat for miles. Here generations after generations had chased the golden speck; it had been a diggings of world-wide fame from the earliest times, and would continue so for generations hence. Its glory would never die.
But we are ahead of our train. A rest in Adelaide to stretch our legs in the broad parks and gardens, to see the animals in the Zoo, and for a row on the Torrens, floating under graceful willow trees, is a good tonic before we go rushing across Victoria.
Adelaide, designated the City of Churches, and the City of Light, was the best laid-out of all the capital cities, thanks to Colonel Light, its founder. It was sweet and clean, and delighted one with its straight, wide streets, its grassy squares and spacious parks, and its beautiful background of billowy hills.
The centre of attraction outside was Mt. Gambler, with its wonderful Blue Lake and the underground river. One could sail a long distance down the subterranean stream, which flowed seawards through a great, cave-like channel. The Blue Lake, the banks of which were 300ft. high, almost sheer, and the water 240ft. deep in the centre, with its sister lakes, the Middle and the Valley, had for their basins the craters of extinct volcanoes that had made the vicinity very sultry in their day of active eruption. The unpleasantnesses had been extinct for many thousands of years. But the overseer said you could never trust a volcano. Though it might be apparently dead for ages, it was always liable to spring up again without warning and overwhelm the trusting inhabitants. To make an abiding place on an old crater was tempting Fate. He much preferred the other end of the continent for a residential site.
The central State had many peculiar features that were sometimes grimly fascinating to the traveller, notably the bottomless, natural wells, from a yard to three yards wide in diameter, and going down as straight as a gun barrell, how far no one had ever been able to determine. Biscuit Flat, which was thickly strewn with biscuit like stones, as novel as the skull hills on Whittabranah Creek, in the Corner, which were strewn with stones resembling petrified human skulls cut off just below the neck; Dismal Swamp, a vast marsh, 80 miles in circumference, and dotted with green islets; and "The Monster," a huge granite rock, from which oozed a spring of crystal clear water. The latter centralised, and was the only natural water in the great Mallee scrub, several thousand square miles in area, known as the Ninety-Mile Desert. It was a gloomy-looking land, seen from the top of "The Monster," and that appeared to be the only reason why the term desert was applied to it, for it was entirely covered with almost impenetrable scrub. This Mallee territory was pioneered by Edward Harewood Lascelles, of Lake Coorong squattage, and subsequently through his lead and encouragement settled by farmers.
Some folks are never contented away from home; they like to be always amid their own familiar surroundings. But the typical Australian likes to move about, especially in his young days. The wanderlust is in most of those who never travel; want of opportunity or lack of freedom keeping them continuously in the place they were born in; and there are few who do not desire to see the State's capital city.
To the people outback, Adelaide or Melbourne or Sydney is a wonderland; they picture it as something immensely more attractive than what it really is. The first visit is often a delusion—if not a snare. The bushman who has hitherto been used to a homely hotel in a quiet little country town feels lost and out of place at once, no matter what quarters he gets into. The friendliness and comradeship that exists even among strangers outback is totally wanting here. In the country every man trusts his neighbour, whether he knows him or not; he is taken to be worthy and honest until he proves himself otherwise; in the city any stranger who is disposed to be friendly is treated with suspicion until his honesty is assured.
That is the first shock that the bushman receives; he is lost and lone in the midst of crowds. No one takes any friendly notice of him on the road or in the street; whereas, if he passed a wayfarer on a country road without some kind of greeting, that party would feel slighted.
He gets another shock when he finds himself temporarily out of tobacco or matches, and asks the nearest smoker to accommodate him, as he has been used to doing in his own district. The nearest smoker is almost certain to be out of the needful himself, and he accompanies the information with a look that is usually bestowed on the park loafer. The bushman tries one or two more, but he is not very long in the city before he drops that country habit.
On the other hand, he is a good mark for the spongers and sharpers in the city. They pick him out at sight. Though he may dress like the men around him; though he may walk along as they do, with all the unconcern he can muster, and showing no unusual interest in the shop windows, he still fails utterly to conceal the fact that he is not a townsman, that he hails from the realm of the gums and the gidgees.
It is mainly the way he carries himself, and especially his hands, that gives him away. His fellows in the bush have told him not to stare about him, or stand looking at the shops; but he observes that most cityites do both, and no notice is taken of them—except by the traffic constable, while everybody notices him, though he affects the greatest indifference to everything around him. He has an air about him as he moves along that distinguishes him easily from the frequenters of the pavements.
The undesirable class who prowl around in search of the guileless stranger take him down in some way or other, however careful he is, and in spite of all the good advice he has received. Good-natured and trusting at first, he gives freely to the hardened cadgers who ask him for the price of a bed or a meal; and when he grows suspicious of that appeal, the plausible tale of hardship and suffering, of poverty and misfortune, that is readily poured out by the accomplished dead-beat still penetrates to his pocket.
Occasionally he discovers that his cash has evaporated, and his watch and chain have likewise disappeared; for he is shepherded by men and women who spin no pitiful tales, but deftly help themselves in moments when he has struck something of absorbing interest, or become wedged in a crowd.
There is another party who meets him boldly, and calls him by name; he knows all about the district Bushy comes from, having possibly ascertained certain facts previously at his hotel, or from labels on his luggage when he arrived; and he is surprised that Bushy doesn't remember him. They have a drink, and from that drink any one of a dozen humiliating adventures may happen. It may lead to a game of cards, to a visit to a shady saloon or a gambling den, to an introduction to two or three associates of the "confidence" class. Whatever course is shaped, one thing is certain—he will come out of it with empty pockets. Even the rich uncle in Fiji at times still makes a little haul at his expense.
The first man who sets out to exploit him on his arrival is the runner at the hotel. This person receives commission in several lines of business, principally from tailors, tobacconists, secret betting shops, and small vendors of hats and boots. He tells Bushy that he can show him where to get a good suit dirt cheap; a suit that was made to order for a man of his build who did not call for it, and so it was left on the tailor's hands. The price was four guineas; but as the man who ordered it paid a guinea deposit, he can have it for the balance. Thinking he is getting a bargain, Bushy accompanies the runner to the shop, and it doesn't matter whether the suit fits him or not, they mostly sell him something before he goes out.
Other tailors and shopkeepers have men posted on the footpath to watch for the party who has just come down. They accost any likely-looking person who might be persuaded into buying something he doesn't want; but the man from outback is the best mark. It is easier to get his attention than that of the cityite, who gazes straight ahead with eyes that see everything but appear to see nothing; he is more easily inveigled into the shop, and once there it is pretty certain he won't come out without a parcel.
The city at first bewilders him. Though he can travel unerringly through trackless bush, and strike straight for home from any point, in the city he will possibly get lost if he only turns a couple of corners. In the strange environment he looks a dull, stupid sort of person; while in the bush he is probably one of the smartest of men. The cityite, however, is far more conspicuous when dumped down in the bush; he is much more of a laughing-stock there than the bushman is in the city. The latter gets used to his new surroundings in a few weeks; but the new chum from town takes years to become a smart, practical bushman.
Again, the man from wayback can ride full gallop on a dark night through thick timber to stem the rush of frightened cattle, and never make a blunder, or for a moment lose his presence of mind; yet a few trams and motor cars passing and repassing in a city street confuse him, and he hesitates or runs when a city woman will walk serenely across, leading a child by the hand.
When we had to cross a busy street the overseer acted as if he wanted somebody to take his hand. He saw people jumping off trams before the trams had stopped. He had done more wonderful things than that; he had jumped off bucking horses, and he had sprung clear from animals falling over logs and fences; so with every confidence he too stepped off the moving tram, and when he struck the ground with the back of his head he wondered how it had happened.
That was the first shock we got, for he professed to be a travelled man, used to big towns. He acted as leader. The first place he struck for was the waxworks. Then the Zoo, the Gardens, the Museum, the Art Gallery, and the racecourse followed in order. At the last place he won £5, in consequence of which he acquired a somewhat lordly air on the way home; but when he put his hand in his pocket to pay his fare there was nothing in it. He was skinned out. We had to lend him half a crown to take him home.
Our boarding-house had a narrow side verandah, which was so crowded with plants in pots and tubs and tins that there was barely room for a person to walk along the edge of it. You brushed the staghorn fern going into the dining-room; the herring-bone fern threatened to go with you into your bedroom; and "mind the magnolias, please," was the sweet injunction of the old lady when two or three of us stepped outside together.
That pathetic little garden directed our attention to a host of similar plots else where.
There is in the most prosaic and town-ridden person some inkling love for Dame Nature. Though born and bred in the cramped environment of endless rows of jerry-built houses, abutting on the pavement in front and with a backyard that could be covered with an ordinary table cloth, the love and yearning still persists within him, as is shown by his desperate efforts to make something grow. In the most sordid surroundings, in the most cramped positions, you will find some evidence, however trifling, of the old love struggling to assert itself. It may be merely a staghorn fern nailed to the wall, a pot of ferns on the front window-sill, a creeper trained up the post, or an array of old tins and flower-pots on a stand, whose architecture is crude and amateurish. Still, the old instinct of the gardener is there.
It is said that no man or woman can be really bad who has an infatuation for gardening. The tending of a delicate plant, watching it growing from day to day, and budding, blooming and seeding, with the studies of the secrets and mysteries of inanimate life, while it improves the mind, must have some influence for good on the character; and there is no physical occupation that is healthier than the ancient one of tickling the soil to make it bear fruit. The gardener lives and works in close communion with Nature, especially if his field of operations is in country parts, where he can swing his hoe without hitting the clothes-line. It is here that the inherent savage of the enthusiast is suggested, harking back to the days when our ancestors sat on the grass and cracked nuts; for these two characteristics, the tendency to run wild like an unguarded plant, and the desire to scratch around and grow nuts, only want the time and place and opportunity to assert themselves. Some people maintain that it is essentially modern, and an illustration of the highly-civilised state of our home-life, to surround our dwellings with flowers and trees and cabbages; but it is merely the old instinct at work, the influence of the prehistoric forest that can't be shaken off; the call of the wild that the ages will never silence.
Parts of Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane are noted for their beautiful gardens, and fine houses almost hidden in a wilderness of trees—as they should be; but the average urban and suburban garden, which would take an active caterpillar nearly half an hour to cross, is a mixture of the humorous and the pathetic. Though the inclination is strong, the knowledge of the art hasn't been inherited, while the soil is not always up to requirements. In Sydney it is a hungry, thirsty soil that supplies all necessary exercise to the muscles to keep it in order. Some of the more enthusiastic have shifted the surface-strata of their backyards on to the vacant allotment, and replaced it with promising-looking soil from elsewhere, carrying it in buckets and bags. Gardening is an arduous task that requires this beginning, particularly when it has to be done in the evening, after the day's "work" is over, or in the morning before breakfast is ready. Poor people, one might so conclude, who want to grow a few vegetables to eke out the weekly wage? No; they want to grow geraniums or a massed bed of cosmos. They are lovers of flowers.
Properly, the flower garden should be in the foreground, and here and there you see a few blooms gracing the front of the limited dwelling. The plants may be common, but they receive no less attention for that. Both husband and wife take an interest in them; they admire them, and talk about them more than they do of the finest blossom in the Botanic Gardens. The plot may be six feet wide and quite three yards long, but the care of it has its annoyances. Children pluck the flowers within reach as they pass, and when no one is about they climb the fence and strip the garden. "You can't keep a thing from them," the women tell you. That is why you so often see the flowers in the backyard, and the front plot covered with buffalo grass—which is the lawn—with perhaps a palm in the corner.
Flowers naturally appeal to a woman's artistic taste; she is in her natural setting, in her proper element, among flowers. What she knows and what she doesn't know about them is a marvellous mixture. She can tell man their names and their colours off hand, when they come in and when they go out, and the proper time of the year to plant them—matters which he is always uncertain about; but he has to show her how to plant them and how to look after them. She works with toy tools—ladies' sets. "Hen-scratching," he calls it. In dry weather she uses a toy watering can, which gently sprinkles the plant and leaves the roots dry. There is nothing she loves better than treading among the beds with a pair of scissors in her hand. Snipping with a scissors is a morning recreation she enjoys. She doesn't cut the hidden blooms and those at the bottom; she darts for the best and biggest, which are usually at the top, thus spoiling the plant. When she undertakes the task of thinning, trimming and pruning, the ruination is complete.
For one who is painstaking, skilled and natty in a house, in various arts and crafts, her awkwardness and want of efficiency in horticultural pursuits is surprising. It is a field of labour eminently suited to her—a field which she leaves to the old man. That is, she leaves all the work to him, while she potters around in his way, telling him what to do. She regards the flower garden as part of her own domain—where she is boss and hubby is the underdog. At the same time hundreds of young women waste their energies with dumbells and other physical drill. The best developers are garden tools, and the most robust health is obtained in the sunshine, among the flowers.
There was one man a few doors from our boarding house who grew all his flowers in pots, and, having nowhere else to put them, he stood them along on the bottom rail of the divisional fence. He thought this a secure and satisfactory place for his favourites; but it wasn't. His next-door neighbour had purchased a rooster for a Sunday treat, and not being experienced in slaughtering poultry, and having no one to hold it for him, he hung it by the hind legs to the top of the palings. Then he got the wood axe, and measuring his distance, aimed a terrific blow at its neck—and missed. He had been unaware of the horticultural exhibition on the other side; but when he heard the crash and the smashing of pottery, followed immediately by hurried footsteps through the other house, he dropped the axe and fled indoors.
For 20 minutes or so he listened to the caustic remarks of the injured party, and not until all was quiet again did he step out to complete the butchering. Being a little unnerved by the result of his first effort, and in a hurry to get the job over, his aim this time was even more erratic; but the crash on the other side was greater than before. The horticulturist had replanted the flowers and rearranged the collection during the interim, a fact which the chook-slayer had not suspected. He fled again; and though presently he was invited in a loud voice to come out and explain what he meant by it, he remained squatting behind the door in the scullery. Not till long after the commotion had ceased did he venture to look out. Then he saw his fowl lying in the yard, and its head was off. The injured flower-grower had decapitated it with neatness and determination.
This man, who had no open space for his flowers, used all the spare land he had at the back of his premises for growing vegetables. When a strip was taken out of it for a path to the back gate its area was not extensive. Then the clothes-line hung across it diagonally, and every washing-day left its stamp on that plot. Sheets and such things flapped against the tomatoes, and when the prop slipped, which it did with monotonous regularity, it mostly fell on the beans. His eye could detect, too, where his wife's little foot had trodden his new beds, though her careful hands had brushed over the surface soil to hide the imprint. But he was a patient soul, and could overlook little things like that. What annoyed him was the street urchins' football, which would thump down into the lettuce and bounce off them into the beet-root; and their cricket ball, which bowled over the asparagus, and threw out the young squashes every half-hour or so. Should none of the occupants of the house be about to recover the balls, the boys climbed over the fence and got them themselves; and going out they unbolted the gate and left it open, thereby tempting the small fry to look on the strawberries when they're red. At night the cats made the plot a common meeting-place. It was a nice change from asphalt and road metal, and the softer he kept it the more they scratched and rolled around. They also settled their differences there, fighting gory battles over the onions, and smashing down the cabbages.
Despite all drawbacks he persevered. Home-grown vegetables, he would tell you, were so much nicer than what you buy. They were a long way from perfection when matured, but they were fresh, and free from certain ugly suspicions that hang about the Chinaman's garden. Neither were they cheap, for, no matter what he planted, some persistent pest came along to live on it, and required all manner of directions and solutions to keep under. He spent tedious hours day after day in killing small grubs and caterpillars and aphis, and in gathering up snails and slugs. The snail was comparatively easy to hunt down and exterminate, but the slug had to be pursued at night with a lantern. When other men were taking their proper rest after tea, and smoking the pipe of peace, this suburbanite was spearing slugs with a pin-pointed skewer. When he found them in a bunch he vanquished them with salt. In the dusk, too, as well as early morning, the clatter of his watering-cans could be heard. Gallons upon gallons of water he emptied upon that plot, which kept the plants alive between showers.
The study of his neighbours' gardens was sometimes fruitful, for here he saw a dozen experiments at once, and could adopt the most successful without paying anything for the idea. Not that the gardeners were scientists, or the experiments deliberate. Smith sowed his beans in dense clusters like stools of cane, each cluster a yard apart, because he thought that the proper way. Jones planted his in a circle like a circus ring, with a pelargonium in the centre, either for the same reason, or because there was no other way of doing it in the space available. Brown grew pumpkins and cucumbers in barrels and cases and tubs, standing on the asphalt, and trained the vines along the fences. Robinson sowed corn and peas together, so that the peas would run up the cornstalks and save sticks.
An observant man could not fail to pick up points about gardening where so many experiments were going on. In one little plot there was no room for experiments, but when there were many little plots, and the owner of each had his own ideas about agriculture, they answered the purpose just as well. Especially were they serviceable in showing the most suitable time for planting, for rain decided with many when to put in the crop. Nor were their methods of working devoid of interest. The sight of a man or woman breaking up the plantation with a tomahawk or an axe would arrest anyone's attention. The butcher's knife and the carving forks were other handy tools in use. The spade, which cut the roots of everything growing, was the common tool; and in the handling of that simple implement the awkwardness of the suburbanite was notorious. If you want to know if an applicant for a gardening job has had experience in that department gave him a spade, and the matter will be clear in two minutes. To a man who has been used to digging post holes or trenches the spade will be familiar; but digging post holes and digging garden-beds level are widely different things.
The little gardens were not without their value to the municipality. Some of them required an awful lot of nourishment. So, early and late, Smith, Jones, Brown and Robinson were seen wandering about the streets and back lanes, each with a bucket in one hand and a fire-shovel or coal-scuttle in the other, collecting manure. By this means they saved the street-sweepers a lot of work, besides keeping the neighbourhood clean. Sometimes there was a one-horse stable in the vicinity, and the only trouble the owner had was in trying to oblige so many with the pleasure of clearing his stable litter away for him.
The little garden was also a fine object lesson for the children. The suburbanite was delighted to see his little boy interested in turnips, and he explained to him the mysteries of the beetroot, which neither of them understood. The boy sowed seeds all over the premises, and by-and-bye the miscellaneous crop became a source of wonder to his elders. At this stage of the garden's perplexities the boy knew more than the man. He watched his father put out tomato plants; next day he carefully lifted each one to see if it had taken root. The bee in the flower also attracted him; but when he had caught his first one he learnt all he wanted to know about bees in two seconds.
The suburbanite's little garden was a convenience—especially to the next-door neighbour, whose greengrocer never seemed to have any parsley or sage or mint or marjoram, when these herbs were growing alongside. Suburbanite didn't begrudge trifles of this sort, only it appeared to affect next-door's greengrocer, who became even more remiss. When the crop of five cabbages and nine turnips were ready for harvesting, a head popped over the fence, and the owner, after explaining that the old man would soon be home, and that she was behind with dinner through the hawker and the shop not having the greens she required, said in a most ingratiating tone of voice: "Would you mind lending me a cabbage and three turnips till Saturday?" Suburbanite wouldn't have minded that either, but the cabbage and the turnips became even as the mystery of the good ship Waratah. Nothing more was ever heard about them.
We left Adelaide late in the afternoon, and so much of the daylight was spent in going through long, dark tunnels and narrow cuttings, numerous in the Mount Barker and Mount Lofty country, that it might as well have been night. There was nothing to be seen in a tunnel, and the cutting was a device that shut out all the countryside.
We were locked in like prisoners before starting, and only released at places where there was at least three minutes' interval between the arrival and departure of the train. Then we were locked up again for safe custody. On the Melbourne end of the line we enjoyed more freedom. A passenger could lean out through the open window without fear of having his thinking end dashed against a junk of rock, or something equally unpleasant; and he might break his journey if he felt that way inclined by taking a dive on to the swimming ballast without hindrance. There were people who did that sort of thing, and it was a thoughtful Government that ukased that railway passengers should be kept securely under lock and key. It was necessary for their own well-being and the good of the country.
The bulk of our luggage, which we had not removed from the station at Adelaide, was now travelling in bond; and as we did not remove it from the Melbourne station either, it remained in that happy condition until we got back into New South Wales. We didn't have any contraband about us that I know of; still, this not-wanted-on-the-voyage method saved us a lot of inconvenience with Customs officials. Travelling by the ordinary train, which stopped overnight at Serviceton, on the Victorian border, you had another Customs house to negotiate; and there was still another at Albury on the N.S.W. border; and yet another at Cockburn, on the S.A. border.
These matters naturally turned one's attention to Federation. We had some people from the back country on board, who, anticipating a rush of work and good wages when the building of the Federal capital was started, were going down in a hurry to get a pick of the choice jobs. When I look back to that time, nearly 20 years ago, and recollect that our statesmen were still wrangling over the capital, it seems to me that those people would not have missed much if they had waited for the next train.
When the subject of the city was first seriously introduced the estimate was that it would be built and everything in full swing in three years. More than that time was exhausted in the squabble of the territory. Then commenced the long series of picnics in connection with the choosing of the site, and the disputes and debates concerning it, that made it a laughing stock throughout Australia. Almost every representative in Parliament after Parliament deemed it necessary to make a personal inspection of the place. There were so many picnics thereabouts in the course of years that the local inhabitants could hardy find footroom for bottles and tins. These not only covered the landscape, but threatened to choke up the famous Cotton River. When it all ended and the boldest Parliamentarian was ashamed to go near it any more, it was expected that there would really be some push and progress. Word came from time to time that surveyors were at work; they were at work a very long while; but it seemed that their surveys and delineations were for the information of architects all over the universe, who might engage in competition for the prizes offered for town plans. Then the debate about the name piled up sheaves of volubility before Canberra was decided upon. When the grand buildings began tardily to rear their domes and minarets to the sky, the site of the noble city was very old and familiar to the surviving debaters, who were able to point out to their great-grandchildren the historic spots where they camped and picnicked in their youth.
The passengers on our train who were going down to build this city were men who worked at many occupations, from mining to bush-carpentering, from shearing to farming; and hour after hour they talked of these and kindred professions, and discussed the heroes of the camp fires.
Every shearing season city people heard a good deal about champion shearers and the big tallies that were cut in various sheds. The big tally somehow interested all classes of people, and so the champion shearer was a subject that never died. No name was better known throughout Australia for the time being than that of the man who could take off more fleeces in a day than anybody else. Who was not familiar, for instance, with the names of Jacky Howe and Jimmy Power, who held the records in their time for hand and machine work respectively? There were 50 others whose names were almost as well known to newspaper readers, and who attracted crowds from many miles away to the sheds where they worked.
The champion buckjump rider was another who had become familiar to the cities; so also had the skilled axemen and the stockwhip expert. Cattle drafting on horseback in the open, as was done everywhere on the big runs; lassooing and throwing beasts, and throwing them without ropes, were other items that brought a few of the cracks together at times to display their skill on the showgrounds. But the bush held many giants who never came on to the public stage. The bush man took a pride in his work, no matter what the work might be. Though he laboured in many capacities he usually excelled in one. That was his speciality, and in that it was his ambition to beat his rivals.
Every calling—in every district—had its best man, who was known to everybody else and whose feats were discussed around the campfires. To those who worked among timber the champion oarsman or the champion runner was of less importance than the man who could split the most palings in a day, or cut out the greatest number of sleepers. In the days when shingle-roof houses were fashionable there were many proud wielders of the "throw" who established phenomenal records in turning out shingles; and more than one match had taken place between rival claimants of the championship. The same rivalry existed among the pit-sawyers about the same time in many a cedar scrub and rich forest.
The aspirant to fencing honours had several tall marks to aim for—the record number of postholes sunk in a day, the greatest quantity of posts mortised for rails, the highest total bored for wire, and the best tally in erecting one or two-rail fencing. By way of encouraging him he was told that one man put up such a lot in a day that it took him two days to walk back to his starting point. He was also enlightened as to the tricks of the unscrupulous—for there were tricks in all trades. There were men. who sunk their posts only a few inches in the ground, splitting them short, or cutting the bottom end off where the ground was hard; and there was the party who took a contract of boring several miles of posts, and who merely entered the bit on each side of the posts to give them the appearance of being bored.
The adze and the squaring axe were tools that had their noted wielders in the same region. They were dangerous implements in the hands of a newchum; but the expert could take either and with it chip the stubbles from a man's chin as neatly as a barber could shave it off with a razor. The squarer worked among heavy bridge timber, piles and heavy logs, which were squared before being trucked away to the mill. Barns and sheds were largely built of rough timber, which the adze and the squaring axe had to lick into shape; and many a bush hut was constructed of split timber, including the floor, doors and shutters, all trimmed and levelled by the adept use of the same tools.
To make a name on a farm required the ability to pull more corn, to husk more cobs, to dig more spuds or milk more cows than anybody else. Sowing up bags of wheat and baling wool had their experts, whose deeds were occasionally reported in the newspapers; so had tossing sheaves on the hayfields; so had the loading and stacking of hay. It was not every agricultural worker who could build a stack, even a small one. Properly constructed, the immense pile would stand in the open for years, impervious to weather. It resembled a hobble-skirt, with squared extremities and gable top, being narrowed at the feet, bulged out at the waist, and topped like the roof of a house. Every big harvest field had its specials whose functions was to pile up hay artistically.
A couple of unprofessionals took on a stacking job once on a Hunter River farm. It was only a small one, and they had barely finished when a windstorm arrived. As forking hay in the wind only loaded the air with flying straws, the farmer sat under the stack to smoke till the blow was over. A strong gust suddenly toppled the heap over on top of him, and before the builders could fork him out the lighted pipe had set fire to it. When last seen in that vicinity the two rescuers were making a bee-line for the high road in a frenzied condition.
Before the days of labour-saving machinery the expert wielder of the scythe was a person of considerable renown. An acre a day of thick oats or barley was quite an ordinary task. It was said of one flyer on the Hunter that it was dangerous to employ him on a dry crop, as he whizzed through it so rapidly that the heat generated in his blade sometimes set fire to the field. The scrub farmer who planted with a hoe was also in the habit of sailing after records. His object was to plant more rows than any other man on the river; but to gain the belt he would start hours before daylight and work till long after dark. The ploughing championship was decided on the sports ground on gala days, and carried a substantial money prize.
The smartness of cattle men, apart from riding and driving, was tested in the branding yard. To throw 200 nuggety calves in three hours before breakfast might be considered a good morning's work; but when the cracks got going with the object of throwing and branding more than the velocipedes on another squattage there was seldom enough calves yarded to fill in the time. And the branding was merely a preliminary to the day's work. From breakfast time till late in the afternoon they were mustering more cattle on the run, and the remainder of the day was put in with strenuous drafting in the yards. As nearly every second horse that was mounted gave the rider a bit of lively exercise to begin with—by way of shaking his breakfast down—and he did six or seven hours hard riding in the brush before starting the yard work, his records could not be said to be put up under the most favourable conditions.
There were champion cane cutters, cane strippers, kangaroo shooters, rabbit trappers, buffalo hunters, drovers, pearl divers, and even bullock drivers. Every calling, however humble, had its leading lights, and you were never long among any group before you knew their whereabouts, who and what they were, and all about them, for no men talked "shop" more than these enthusiasts. And it was worth while being a leader too, if it was only at breaking stones, for such a one could get a job anywhere, and he got better wages than his fellows.
Murray Bridge, 60 miles from Adelaide, brought everybody to the windows, and the sight of Australia's boss river, which we cross but a few miles above where it empties into Lake Alexandrina, awoke some enthusiasm in the overseer. He had to connect some personal experience with that river or burst something. He posed as a travelled man.
"Great river for fish," he remarked, after a little reflection. "Many a glorious hour I've spent on its banks. We used to have fishing competitions along between Gol Gol and Morquong. I was on a station thereabouts at the time, and belonged to the Gol Gol Cod Club. There were 20 members, and each one had a boy to look after his fire and keep his brands hot—"
"Brands. Every member had an iron brand. You see, we caught so many fish that it was impossible to use a fraction percentage of 'em; so each member used to put his brand on the big ones he caught, and return them to the water. If any of them were caught again they didn't count, as the man whose brand was on it claimed it. All told, my Murray River stock must number about 9000, I should say. You'll know if ever you catch any o' them—G7 on the near rump."
" 'Tis a great pity you didn't have yards an' paddocks to put 'em in, as I see they do along be the rivers with oysters," said Brogan, a big Irishman, we had picked up at Balhannah. "Then you could have rounded them up and sold off the fat ones when you had buyers. An' you'd have had all the progeny, too."
"We thought of that," the overseer declared, "but it wasn't practicable. It takes a lot to keep a Murray cod, though it eats pretty near anything. It will make a breakfast off old boots quite cheerfully, if nothing else is available, and it can sleep well after a late supper of shark-bones and kerosene tins. I'll tell you a strange thing. I was crossing the Murray one time with cattle for Wodonga, when I lost a gold chronometer. Two days later, after delivering the cattle, I was fishing a couple of miles below the spot, and succeeded in hooking a 2cwt. cod. Pulled it out by tying the line to my horse's tail, and flogging him up the bank. Inside it was a 1cwt. cod, and inside it again was one of 50lb. in weight. That one contained a 20-pounder, and out of it I got one of 10lb. The latter had a fair-sized perch, and a tin of sardines on board, and out of the perch I cut another of the same species. Terrible cannibals, fish are. When I opened the last one, I'm blest if there wasn't my watch—still ticking!"
"Ah-h!" said Progan. "You caught him just in the nick of time."
"If he had dilly-dallied a bit longer, now, it's ten to one the watch would a got into them sardines."
"But the sardines were in a tin," Mr. Muggs reminded him.
"Oh, aye," said Brogan; "but what's a bit of a tin to a watch like that! 'Twould a got in all right, an' 'twouldn't a lost a kick of its tickin', either. It would have ticked more so with the good oil about it."
The overseer maintained an unruffled dignified aspect. He was watching out for Tailem Bend, where we skimmed the Murray bank again. " 'Tis a great wonder to me," Brogan went on, "when them fish fit into one another so convenient, that there's any but the old governor-general left alive. But I suppose the tickin' of the gold watches they pick up keeps their minds off their relations, an' that gives the poor devils a chance to grow."
Here the overseer turned a disapproving eye on him.
"I don't think you've had much to do with watches—or with fish either," he remarked.
"Well, now, you ask me a question," said Bogan reflectively, "an' I'll tell you, square an' all. I've got a watch of me own that I bought when Micky 'ere was on the bottle."
Micky was a lanky, bashful youth, sitting beside him.
"That's many a year ago, as you can see by the boy, an' it's going yet. 'Tis a nickel-plated chronometer. I paid three an' six for it, I did. I left it home so 's the old woman would know when to go to bed an' when to get up again. She do be lonely an' lost without the ticker. An' I've got lines, too, as good as there is in Balhannah. Mind that."
"Ever catch anything with them?" the overseer asked with sarcasm.
"I do then. I catch ducks with them; I catch 'possums with them; I catch hawks with them; an' when I've a mind I catch fish with them. I remember one day I went fishing in the Severn—up be Texas, d'yer mind. I was after cod, but 'twas meself I caught. That's true as you're sittin' there. I was doing a bit of a camp by the lagoon at the time, an' a fellow who didn't seem to have anything to do but dispense information to travellers tells me there's plenty o' cod to be had in the stream just contiguous. 'Good luck to it,' says I. 'It's myself will have one.' "
"Of course, the first thing I wants is bait. So I pokes about in the grass, shufflin' me feet so; an' what do I find but a whopper of a frog. Says I, 'You're the identical creature I'm after;' an' with that I overtakes him; and I sticks the hook through his bottom lip. Then I whizzed an' whizzed an' whizzed him round to give him a good hoist, an' jerked him well out into the river, kickin' like the very devil. He had the power in the leg, he had. You mind it. Micky?"
Micky merely looked abashed on being appealed to.
"I sat down then on the bag I had, and lights the dudeen. 'Tis a fine smoke you can have when the fish ain't biting. I smoked and I waited, and I waited and I smoked, for I don't know how long; and the devil a bite did I get at all. Several times the line tugged, like something nibbling, you understand, and every time I pulled up hand over me fist, and it was only the frog' was biting. 'The cod take you,' I says, and I hoists him out again.
"Then I lays on me back, and drops off to sleep unintentional. 'Tis easy to doze off when you're fishin'. But I was roused mighty sudden by-and-bye, I can tell you. I had the line tied to me left leg, and the same was bein' tugged fit to dislocate it. 'Sure, there must be a fish on the frog end of it,' says I; and with that I starts pullin' in as smart as make haste.
"Then me other leg starts rearin' up in the atmosphere. At that I stops and takes a general squint about the premises. Then I sees two varmints of boys laughin' fit to bust up on top of the bank. You mind it well, Micky? And there was me line hangin' over the limb of a tree. The frog had swum ashore, you see, and nothing less must do him but he must get up the tree; and he walks along the first limb on his belly and falls off the wrong side, so he has the line hanging over the limb. You under stand? 'Twas then the two squint-essences of mischief gets hold of the line and sticks the hook through the bottom of me pants—of the right leg, mind you. And what do they do next but pull on the frog end and have it so that I'd think the fish was bitin'. I thought so sure; and that was the way I caught myself."
He knocked the ashes from his pipe, and made some lightning changes in his toilet, substituting a woollen cap for his hardhitter, and rolling three yards of comforter round his neck. Then he yawned cavernously, and lolled back as far as the limited space would allow, using Micky for a pillow. The overseer likewise went into evening dress. He did more. He spread his rug along the aisle, got down on it with apologies, covered himself with his overcoat, said "good-night," and went to sleep. Being used to droving, he could sleep anywhere. He was a nuisance at first, but once he was fairly off he came handy to put our feet on. He was warmer and softer than the floor; and whenever he started to snore we had only to put some pressure on sharply to regulate him. Still we envied him. It was a long night. We got too tired to talk; we dozed and woke and nodded and swayed, being mostly jerked in to the perpendicular and wakefulness by somebody's elbow. We began to resent the overseer's monopoly of the bed; we felt that we could get along much better if he was up and there was no bed at our feet. It was like being at a wake with the corpse not dead yet, and no whisky on tap.
When the whistle blew, Mr. Muggs laid violent hands on him, and bellowed in his ear:
"Hey, mate! Wake up!"
The overseer sprang into a sitting position, and looked at us with rounded eyes like a startled bullock.
"You're missing all the sites. This is Coonalbyn," Mr. Muggs informed him.
"Precious lot that is to wake a man up for!" the overseer grumbled, and muffled up again in a determined manner.
That was grand. It banished sleep from our eyes, and made us cheerful.
He was well asleep when Brogan touched him. "Hi! Now, then!"
"We're at Tintinara now."
"On, go to the devil!"
Beautiful! We were all smiles again.
After a while Brogan nudged me with his elbow. I took him gently. I drew the coat back from his head, and inquired softly if he was asleep.
"Slee-eep!" he snorted, glowering at me.
"We've just passed the bore. Thought you might like to—"
"Passed one," mumbled the overseer. "I thought all the infernal bores were on this train."
Excellent! Half the company were acting as if they were trying to ward off a fit.
By-and-bye Mr. Muggs charged down on him with both feet.
"What is it?" sharply.
"This is Wirrega; we'll be at Border Town directly—"
"D—— pity you weren't buried there!" grunted the overseer, covering his head up with vengeful tugs.
But peace was denied him, for Brogan pounced on him again shortly.
"Up with you! We're crossin' the border now," he shouted. "Bet you a bob yer chronometer's wrong."
"Oh, let's have five minutes' sleep, can't you? God bless my soul—"
He shut off, and buried his head once more.
Then we drew up at Serviceton, 196 miles from Adelaide, and as soon as the door was opened a bare-legged urchin, with a bundle of papers tucked under his arm, thrust his head in and bellowed at him: "Ere y' are! Latest edition! All about the duke!"
The audible smile this evoked from his companions only annoyed him slightly; but when the girls on the platform saw him getting out of bed, the resultant shrieks made him blush, and he hurried out to efface himself in the crowd. Having refreshed, he looked at his chronometer, glanced up at the clock, paused in surprise, held the ticker to his ear, and looked again. It was wrong. Thence onward he was interested in clocks. He compared notes whenever he saw one, but they all showed the same discrepancy. Still doubtful, he asked a man at Horsham who carried a watch what the time was, and it was then explained to him that Victorian time was 30 minutes in advance of South Australian time.
We changed trains at Serviceton, and while waiting we learn why passengers' luggage got more knocked about on trains than on any other conveyance under the sun. Porters rushed in, grabbed anything handy, tore it out, and banged it into the next van. They always tore at the bottom things, and pretty soon the top lot, toppling over, hit the floor with a resounding crash. My trunk started brand-new from Broken Hill. It reached Melbourne with the clasp and one hinge broken, while the bottom was the only part of it where there was room for another dint.
We had breakfast at Horsham and lunch at Ballarat. The places were 130 miles apart by rail, and when a person puts that space between his meals he doesn't digest much of what he sees, however well he might digest what he eats.
The traveller was frequently tempted to break his journey through this part of Victoria. Besides the numerous diggings, with their early-time associations, their cradle-echo of the roaring days, there were many fine lakes, as Lake Manna, near Horsham, and Lake Windermere, or Windouree. To people from the dry interior, who were wont to admire the broad, rippling bosom of an excavated tank, the sight of those sea-like expanses was exhilarating. These lakes were respectable; they were reliable; they didn't shame the old inhabitants by drying up in summer, and exasperate them by flooding them out in winter.
To the nature lover one of the most alluring parts of the bush is the large, ready swamp, set like an emerald basin in the midst of a deep forest, and backed by low, girdling hills. There is invariably a broad pool of clear water, partly screened by a bed of buoyant rushes, and surrounded by a wide expanse that is studded with green reeds, soft, trailing grasses, and beautiful flowering lilies. With here and there a clump of sweet-blossoming tee-tree, where myriads of bees keep up an incessant hum; with the gaudy-winged dragon flies hovering over the scented broom and the tasselling rushes; with its teeming bird life, its wild voices of day and night; its morning fragrance, and its mysterious evening whispers—it has a charm that grows on those who dwell near it, and that calls, ever calls, to them through all the after years.
Ballarat, one of the oldest and most historic goldfields in Australia, still rewarded the patient diggers with rich lumps of gold from time to time. Though it had grown into a big town—a pretty one, with numerous statues in memory of the heroes who fell on the little battleground of Eureka: the heroes who struck the first blow for freedom on Australian soil—there had always been a canvas township attached to it right down from the exciting days of the golden era. For over 50 years the diggers' tents had gleamed whitely along hill and valley; and though men had searched and dug through all that time, there were still good prizes for the patient and persevering.
Among the inhabitants of Canvas Town were many old men who made fortunes in the long-ago rushes and lost them; who had wandered from field to field, from State to State, and drifted back finally to the old ground. A big section of diggers pottered about old fields in preference to prospecting for new finds. In the case of some, they knew the ground was too hurriedly worked of yore for every ounce of gold to be taken from it; and the low weight of the dish that paid the fossicker now was considered too poor to be worth bothering about then. Thousands had gone over old grounds for that reason in the intervening years; but still the digger ever thought that there must be some gold remaining yet; he couldn't believe that all the place contained had been discovered as though the searchers had been directed by a magnet. There must be some slugs left yet, some rich pockets remaining. That was what the digger said to-day; his successors a hundred years hence will be saying the same.
They managed to keep themselves from year to year, some of them by working the old tailings; and when they occasionally struck a pocket or a small nugget they were rich. Abandoned shafts had also a strong attraction for these fossickers. They picked around the sides, and sank a foot or two deeper; and many a fortune has been made with no more labour than that.
The tent-dwellers who clustered near Ballarat—and also at Ararat—were not those who were here to-day and gone to-morrow; they were always there. Some of them had names on their tents, as other people had on their houses; and all were known to the grocer, to the baker, the butcher, and other tradesmen, whose carts called regularly, and had marked out for them their roads and streets. Even the woodman called at lots of the tents, though tall eucalypts were still plentiful where the majority were pitched. The occupants were mostly men who had no family cares. The train ran partly through their field of operations, miles upon miles of little earth heaps showing on either side.
This canvas village in an old and populous centre was novel to most; but it was not unique in Australia. Other goldfield towns had their canvas suburbs—the canvas having clung perpetually from the long-ago days of the rush. And when one of the veteran diggers who inhabited them struck it rich the chances were he would establish himself more permanently and comfortably on the same spot; he would buy a new tent.
Properly the canvas house belonged to the dry, inland regions. In the coastal belt there was seldom any necessity for it, for timber and bark were plentiful in almost any locality where one's avocation required him to make a temporary residence. The more humid atmosphere, the colder climate, and long spells of wet weather, made the light dwelling of the interior plains unsuitable.
A man could be comfortable anywhere in a tent; but for a family it was inconvenient and cheerless, however big it was. Many families managed in tents in places where their stay was only for a brief period. For all that they had to make a place of bark or iron for cooking in. Even then the conditions were unpleasant for a woman with children. In wet weather she was half her time plodding through mud, and everything in the cramped domicile was damp.
In those timbered regions the common material of the temporary habitation was bark. It did not take long to strip enough sheets for a commodious hut, and its erection was merely a matter of a few days. This hut was all bark. The more permanent structures—the "Old Bark Hut" of our early history—had slab walls. Out west iron was used; but it was hot, and altogether unsuitable to people whose abiding places were never permanent. There was no bark there that could be used for this purpose. Over vast areas of the interior there was no timber. Carting material for a fresh residence whenever one shifted, or removing the old residence to a new site, was a laborious and expensive proceeding—something light, and portable, with the roominess of an ordinary dwelling, was required. At first the largest sized tent was adapted to suit this purpose. It was erected on a high ridge pole, and the walls were lengthened with canvas or common bagging. This was comfortable enough for a married couple; but still it was only one small room, and when they had three or four children its limitations were impressed on everybody at every turn. It was common on far-back mining fields that did not peter out in a month or two, and from it the canvas house was evolved.
This house was deliciously cool in the hot summers of the western plains of N.S.W.; the winters were too short to be taken into account. It was neat and clean, roomy and snug; and in that latitude it was one of the very healthiest kinds of habitations one could live in. It was not a place where you had to mind the paint and the polish and be careful of muddy boots on the floor. The floor took care of itself. Neither had you to tiptoe about when the baby was asleep. Everything was simplified—and it was a refreshing simplicity. The house and all its contents, together with much outside paraphernalia, could be packed into one heavy dray. Yet a man and his wife, and half-a-dozen children might live in it, and enjoy every comfort and convenience of a bush home.
The canvas house was much in favour by wandering bush workers and contractors. A few light pieces of pine wood, well fitted and bolted together, served for the frame, which could be put up while the dinner was cooking. The rest, including doors and windows, was canvas or hessian. The house was generally long and narrow, divided into three rooms. The living room was in the centre; the fireplace was outside, well away from the inflammable material with which the place was constructed. This dwelling imposed the minimum of housekeeping work on the women. There were no windows to clean, no floors to scrub—nothing to spoil. I have seen such a place, standing alone in a wide dry paddock, with "water laid on." This was accomplished by means of a three feet length of pipe, with a tap on the end of it, being screwed into an iron tank standing on a dray outside the back wall. The furniture was mostly in keeping with the building—folding canvas chairs and beds, boxes that made chests of drawers when stacked in the bedroom, and benches that stood on trestles.
The canvas building with its appropriate fittings, or with ordinary furniture, formed the first home of many a new selector and his family. The cheap material lasted a long while, and when repairs or complete renovation was necessary, it was easily effected. The householder did not need to call in a carpenter, paper-hanger, painter or plumber; he could do it all himself, and complete the job in a day. It was an economical residence all round, was the canvas house.
Bore contractors and tanksinkers lived in canvas houses, for both must reside alongside their work, which was usually in some lonely open space. Both were employers of labour. The boss and family lived in the house which contained a dining-room big enough to accommodate all hands, the men. in bough-screened tents scattered around it. Putting down an artesian bore was a long contract. The boring machinery worked all through the night, as well as all day. It was always a busy scene; always was the throb of life in it like the unceasing thump-thump of the Broken Hill mines. One that was put down at the Warri Warri, near the Queensland border, took over two years. The contractor's house had a wide skillion, which was chiefly occupied by the cook. His bedroom was at one end, a wide fireplace at the other, and in between was a long plank table. The furniture of the residence included a piano, pictures, bookcase and books, and other furnishings of an ordinary well-to-do home. There was also a verandah in front, a mere awning of canvas, under which the canvas chairs, set on the bare ground, were inviting in the afternoon to a hot traveller. Here the men sprawled and smoked after their midday meal; here, too, the family spread their beds, and slept on hot nights.
The tanksinker's contract lasted from three to six months, according to the size of the tank, and the hardness of the ground. His house was built by the side of the excavation, water for domestic purposes having to be carted to it in iron tanks. It was partly surrounded with a bush or canegrass break. There were horse yards, cart and harness sheds, sheep pens, a forge and work shop, the whole suggesting a selector's homestead, especially when one saw children playing merrily about it, and heard the familiar cackle of laying hens. But when the tank was finished the house and all the busy life that was about it suddenly disappeared.
An advantage of the canvas house was that it could be erected anywhere like a tent, and however much you shifted about you were always in the same old familiar home. You only changed your neighbourhood and scenery. For the new selector or farmer who wasn't overburdened with capital, and wanted to get to work at once on his land, it was the cheapest and most convenient form of residence. He could take his wife and children with him, when he went on to his block; and they would be comfortably domiciled and settled down to their housekeeping within 24 hours. It was the lightning process of home-making.
The whole stretch of country traversed from the Murray River to Ballarat was pleasing to the eye. Victoria has innumerable beauty spots, with no repelling background like N.S.W., South Australia, and West Australia. Nearly every inch of her territory, like that of Queensland (excepting where the beastly imported prickly pear had formed choking wildernesses), was inviting to the settler.
But we had a grievance now. Our accommodation had deteriorated, whereas, considering the tedium of a long journey, it should have improved with successive trains. The cars were full enough before; now they almost bulged at the sides. Some of the passengers were full, too. A comatose bulk or a half-drunken wight, lolling and bumping against you on one side; a portly, straight-laced old dame, surrounded with parcels and baskets, on the other, and two or three youngsters sleeping among a bundle of shawls and pillows and feeding bottles on the floor, was a proposition that could only be taken seriously. I have been tightly sandwiched at times among nice girls, and didn't find it uncomfortable a bit. A vagrant tress, playing teasingly across one's face, and twining amorously around one's neck, in such circumstances imparted only delectable thrills. This company was too mixed and too old and too fat to make sandwiches with, while its hair only irritated. Neither could you enjoy a pipe there, for the portly old dame objected to smoking; and, though it was a smoking carriage, you were expected to consider the license suspended while she was present.
A wrinkle-faced man with a sour expression wanted to know why women who didn't smoke frequented the smoking compartments of trains and trams. He knew plenty of women who indulged in private—and made grimaces at tobacco smoke in public; but all manner of women seemed to seek the company of smokers, without wanting the smoke. What did they want? Was it merely woman's perversity?
There were women whose lips were never polluted with nicotine, yet who confessed to a liking for tobacco and cigar smoke; and there were many, on the other hand, who looked daggers at a man who dared to blow a whiff in their vicinity, who made audible remarks that put the offender's pipe out with the chill atmosphere engendered around him. These invaded the weed-lover's compartment: in greater numbers than the others. When their own compartment was full there was a justifiable excuse for the intrusion; but how often did we find them wedged among the men when there was plenty of room on the seats specifically reserved for them. Some rude people applied the opprobrious term "cats" to women, because, like the feline race, they seldom agreed together. Did these latter then prefer the smoke atmosphere because of animosity to their own sex?
One female complainant said that "women appreciate the feeling which prompts a man to rise and offer his seat." This prompts half a dozen queries, while directing investigation in quite a different channel. It was the feminine nature to crave admiration, sympathy, praise, attention and so forth; but when one went out of her way to force such little courtesies as surrendering a seat from the male person, he might be excused for the assumption that she was a poor, neglected being, whose life was empty of all that panders to woman's vanity, and adds to woman's pleasure, whose heart was lonely, and whose soul was hungry. But why rebel against tobacco in tobacco's realm?
One might reasonably expect that a young lady—or an old one, for that matter—who was looking for courtesies would be magnanimous enough to condone a little adulteration. Still, it being a discourtesy on a man's part not to remove his pipe in her august presence, she might reasonably consider that the one counteracted the other, while woman's beautiful inconsistency did not permit of an argument about proper places.
Then, again, man was a much shyer animal now than formerly, and hard to hook, with the most alluring baits; and maybe in place of being chased by him she had taken to chasing him. It was much easier to corner him in trains and trams than to overtake him in the open; and as the brute was a necessary adjunct he had to be accepted with his pernicious habits; at least, he must be courted in the malodorous atmosphere with which he surrounded himself, and any amelioration that could be accomplished in respect to that was, in her opinion, to be commended.
But this theory, too, must go overboard, The intruders were not all young maids; the majority were married women—mothers and grandmothers. This reduces one to the Chinaman's comprehensive protest, "Whaffor?" One thing was indisputable; they caused no end of annoyance by encroaching on man's preserves and objecting to what he did there. Men wouldn't mind the presence of women; they rather like their society; but when her ladyship says, tacitly or otherwise, that a man mustn't smoke in a compartment specially provided for him to smoke in when she chose to plant herself there instead of in her own quarter, she became an objectionable quantity that called for suppression. It was an occasion when the lord of creation might be pardoned for getting up in a hurry and slamming the door.
In a general way, women were indiscriminate and inconsiderate. In the rush and confusion at the platform they plunged in wherever they saw a vacant seat, irrespective of what the carriage might be. Often a man entered a smoking carriage to enjoy the luxury of a pipe or two on the way, and his wife or daughters or other female attaches, rather than be separated, elected to share the compartment with him; and this they did to the inconvenience of other male passengers. Their presence also attracted other women, and it was no uncommon thing to find the smoker almost entirely filled with women. Under such circumstances the man who entered it in the first place to smoke had to forego the pleasure or suffer the withering looks and inuendoes of the petticoated fraternity around him.
On one occasion a soldier, who had been imbibing rather freely, entered our compartment, and, taking the pipe from his mouth, said:
"Any of you ladies object to smoking"
The ladies glared at him, but no one answered.
"Cause if you do," he continued, "there's carriages reserved specially for non-smokers. This is mine." And down he sat, and puffed huge, curling clouds to the ceiling.
At Nhill, the little town that the big cyclone played skittles with years ago, we had lost all our ladies but an 18st. dame from Border Town, who looked immaculate in a sheeny black silk dress, bedecked with shimmering black beads, and in a quaint little toque skewered to the bundled thatch at the back of her cranium. A roughly dressed, bluff old farmer, who had been ousted from somewhere else by the aforesaid ladies, got in "for a bit of a run to Ballarat," and edged towards the little vacant space beside her. He took out his pipe, but before he lit it he turned to the old lady in silk.
"Do you smoke, ma'am?" he asked politely. The old lady started, and peered at him from under knitted brows.
"I do not!" she snapped.
"You're in the smoker, ma'am," continued the irrepressible farmer.
"That needn't stop you from smoking," she returned. "Though I don't smoke myself," she added more graciously, "I have no objection to tobacco smoke."
"All right, old woman," said the farmer, and a grin ploughed round to his ears, as he winked at us.
Then we all drew out our pipes and lit up, and therewith the scenery on each side of us improved wonderfully.
The overseer had purchased a pack of cards at Ballarat to relieve the tedium of travel. Just before the train started again we were joined by a well-conditioned clergyman. The overseer, who had been directing our attention to the joker, dropped some cards in his hurry to conceal them. The clergyman smiled. The overseer blushed, and when he had awkwardly gathered up the cards he put them in his pocket. Then said the new-comer: "Don't let me interrupt you, gentlemen. I rather like a game of cards myself." in two shakes whist was elected, and the cards dealt out.
The clergyman whispered, with a roguish twinkle in his eye: "I'm only a novice, but I'm a good loser. We'll make it a shilling a head if you like, just to give a little zest to the game."
We liked nothing better. We played while the train roared along; we played on our best behaviour, feeling the fascination of the gambler and the influence of the Church. The clergyman won.
We were pleased at his success. We had secretly engineered the game to that end. Now we played our best, each one endeavouring to scoop the pool for himself. We considered one victory an hour would be sufficient tonic for the good shepherd. It was more exciting than the first game, but less satisfactory. The clergyman won.
We were a little chagrined on starting again. We were also less honest, and tried to work points on the good man by telegraphing to one another. But we were a scratch team, and didn't understand one another's cheat code. Play became still more absorbing. The scenery was forgotten. Even conversation dropped in our desperate efforts. Every mind was keenly concentrated on the business in hand, till the final card was played. The clergyman won.
I never did see a novice play so well against old hands. His luck was wonderful. When he at last departed hence with his bag and brolly in his hands, a jovial smile on his face, and a valedictory "God bless you," we were the most flabbergasted crowd in the train. We had played ten games by that time. The clergyman had won them all!
From Stawell into Melbourne the view was replete with scenic beauty, and you passed many historic spots that would never be erased from the memory of Australians. The gold towns were fairly big places, and pretty enough to attract a painter's eye. One of the loveliest spots was Bacchus Marsh, viewed at sunset as you traversed its long girdling hills.
It was late when we reached Melbourne. It was raining, too, and bitterly cold at that. Cramped, worn out and sleepy, we were glad to take the first accommodation that was offered. This was an alleged boarding-house kept by two persons named McGregor. We met McGregor pere at the station, acting as "runner" for himself. He had fiery-red whiskers, worn monkey fashion, and there was a country air about him that appealed to us. It transpired that he had made money with pigs, and had lately embarked in business in town. He said we were lucky to drop on to his establishment, as he believed it was the only one that had a vacancy left in Melbourne just then. Before we had been there many hours we understood why it had vacancies. Melbourne was overcrowded with visitors at the time, and it was the worst kind of recommendation for any place to have vacancies begging to be filled. Besides the visit of the Duke, it was the season of the Eight Hour festival, and the whole city was beflagged and ablaze—at night time—with coloured lights. We had arrived at a time to see Melbourne at its best, but the multitude that arrived contemporaneously made it the worst time to see anything. Still, we saw the Zoo and the Museum before the rush set in for the sights.
We stayed three days at McGregor's, then restored the vacancy, having in the meantime discovered a furnished room to let in a quiet street near the railway station. The menu for breakfast at McGregor's (the only meal we partook of on the premises) never altered—fried steak and onions, cold and greasy. Our host carved the bread against his shirt with a butcher's knife. Slices half-loaf size and an inch thick. He also waited at table. He had the old bog habit of stealing round on tiptoe, and breathing confidentially in one's ear, when he thought anything was wanted. Whatever he had been among pigs, he was a misfit in a boarding house. The duke wasn't staying there.
The price of meals had risen 150 per cent, since the city had been exalted by the presence of a real live member of the nobility. We breathed his name with great fervour each time we parted up. All the restaurants were crowded to the doors. Our plan was to note who was eating pudding—the last course—and mortgage his chair by standing over it till he was finished, and then fight for it if necessary. Once a Bendigo soldier (you couldn't look twice in two places without seeing three soldiers these regal days) had mortgaged the next chair to mine, and caused much indignation to a fat old gentleman by the simple remark: "I'd rather keep this fellow a week than a fortnight; he must have lost his appetite and found a horse's." The old party rose with his mouth full of hot jam roll, and told us that he was opposed to jingoism since, soldiers stood over civilians in cafes and placed restrictions on their appetites. After which he had some more jam roll.
On Melbourne's gala day we mingled with the dense crowd that lined the muddy street. It was a damp day, and a long wait didn't help to make it brighter. The crowd grew weary and impatient, but still it stood there, craning its hydra-neck forward and upward. Then a sanitary cart came crawling along the living avenue. Somebody shouted, "Here it comes!" and a few of the more boisterous cheered. It was the signal for an ovation. Both lines took it up, and clapped and hoorayed with enthusiasm. The astonished driver, who had been indulging in a quiet smoke, sprang up quickly, and looked back towards Prince Bridge. Nothing was coming that way. He looked towards the Exhibition Buildings, and nothing appeared in that direction either. The crowd cheered encouragingly. He was puzzled. He directed his gaze at the balconies and roofs, scanned his vehicle, and finally glanced along the rows of smiling faces. All eyes were fixed on him—thousands of them. He dropped into his seat, limp, blushful, and cowed; and, gathering the reins up, he struck the tired horse sharply with the ends. Thunderous applause! If he only shook the reins they applauded it; if he said "Get up!" they encored him vociferously. His pipe had gone out; in fact, he had sneaked it away into his pouch; and, glancing left and right, he answers the applauding multitude with sickly grins. So much popularity unnerved him; he had never dreamed he was so popular in Melbourne. It was a lengthy avenue of people, and all along it they hailed him with clamorous voices, with hand-clapping, with waving hats and agitated handkerchiefs. They overwhelmed him with applause. He shrank up visibly. I believe, if the cart had not been full, he would have crawled under the covering and hid there till he was out of sight.
When the cheering had ceased, Mr. Muggs touched the overseer on the arm, and asked:
"Was that him?"
"Duke—be—hanged!" with pitying scorn.
"Eh?" said Mr. Muggs, pretending not to hear. "Is that the procession?"
"Pro—God bless my soul—Why—?" Words failed him; he turned away with a sniff, craning to see "if it was coming."
Of course, we saw the grand pageant, and the fireworks, and all the rest of it later; but that municipal cart was better than anything in the whole show.
Every big town has its complement of hawkers. Melbourne had a plague of them, their raucous voices compelling notice day and night. To lovers of quiet and peace they were a nuisance; especially in those hours when there was a hush over all mundane things. The rattle of carts and the clutter of driven quadrupeds, combined with the musical tones of grumptious bipeds, struck one as an outrage on nature when they were raised under the soft light of peaceful stars. An old maxim impresses upon all sluggards that the early bird catches the worm; but it omits to add that birds have the grace to wait for daylight, and the worm which is thus caught owes its downfall to dilatory habits.
Another old-time adage instructs us that "early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." If all humanity acted upon that there would at least be a reasonable span of calm occurring regularly in every 24 hours. But the busy man goes to bed late and gets up early. In any case, the old adage is a fool. I tried it when I couldn't help it, and can speak from personal experience. In the bush we got up early to start on a journey. To begin with, horse hunting in the dark occupied ten times longer than would have sufficed in daylight, to say nothing of stubbing one's toes, falling over logs, stumbling into ruts and gullies, and damaging one's eyes against twigs and branches. You run the same risk in riding, besides the risk of losing the road, and every now and again you are smothered in the great yellow, viscous net of the forest spider. Once I fell in the river through getting up early, and I have suffered numerous inconveniences, besides losing much valuable time fiddling around, through being too previous. Certainly the habit made me wiser; it taught me the wisdom of staying in bed till the sun got up; but I am quite positive it never made me wealthy.
The most noticeable early risers in town are milkmen, bakers, and newsvendors. They beat the daylight-saving cocky farmer every day in the week. We all like our papers early, but we don't like their arrival announced with a yell that wakes the baby, and a clamorous tattoo on the door. Some distributors make a tight roll of the paper, so as to shy it across the front garden, and it bangs against a reposeful residence like a battering-ram.
It is also necessary for the milkman to be starlight early at some places to complete his round before breakfast; though one might reasonably expect him to deliver the cow product with much less uproar. Whether jugs are waiting or not, he wakes the neighbourhood with his welkin-splitting "Milk-o-o!" and the clatter of his cans, intermingled with door-knocking and a frequent stentorian "Whey-whoa-back." I have never known an early milkman's horse that didn't require admonitions of this sort every five minutes. He seems to drive an unusually restive breed of animal. It appears to be obstinate also, for the milkman has to shout "Get up" loudly and often to get him going again. The younger the milkman the more cyclonic he is with the cans; the more anxious to let everybody know he's up, and the more obstreperous the horse he drives.
As for the early baker, new bread being bad for the digestion, there was no need to work with the owls and go roaring round like a tornado with it before day had properly begun. These, people, too, have horses that require a lot of talking to, and they throw the bread at the doorstep, ring the bell with emphasis, and bang the gate in a manner that vibrates through the suburb. Then more "whey," more "whoa-back," more "gee-up," and more bang and clatter all down the thoroughfare.
Between breakfast and tea a motley crowd of the peddling fraternity waits on both ends of the premises. "Scissors to grind and umbrellas to mend" is exclusively a town product. Sometimes he has a special light vehicle carrying a grindstone, worked with a treadle; more often he plods around on foot, with a bundle of wrecked ginghams as the sign of his trade. The hawkers of stale cabbages and inferior fruit parade in great variety, the handcart and wheelbarrow forming links between the greengrocer's horse and cart and Quong Fat's pendulous baskets. "Tripe-cow-heel," "Photo to enlarge free of charge" (the frame of which subsequently costs you 21s), "Rabbit-O, clothes props, brushware, scrubbing mats, door rolls, bottle-o, taffy for treacle tins, plants for the garden, all growing, all blowing; hokey-pokey, penny a lump; fish-o, all alive-o, and fresh eggs (when they were laid), and garden honey, among other canvassers, are essentially urban identities; whilst the insurance agent, sewing machines, pianos, books, tinware, and pots to mend, and chairs and couches to repair, are familiar in town and country. Some accept your refusal to buy in a polite manner; others drop curses at your front gate as they go out—and they invite curses on their own heads by leaving the gate open.
In the greengrocery line there are many specialties and grades. There is the man who tramps round with a basket of salad vegetables, another with watercress, a third with rhubarb and celery, others with tomatoes, lettuce and radish, lemons, and so forth. When one tots up the contents value of any of these baskets, and deducts the outlay, and takes into consideration the time lost in waiting at each door, about one call in a dozen being profitable, he wonders what sort of a dividend shoe-leather will have when tucker has finished with the profits. They represent a class whose labour the community would never miss.
Some of these peddling wares are some times mere cloaks, adopted by Burlgar Bill to spy out the land, note likely cribs to crack, ascertain the habits and position of the residents, and map out the premises. One of the brethren called at my address one morning, hawking a few diseased oranges. He stood on the verandah, eyeing a pair of newly-pressed pants that were airing on a chair. I had been reading in the bedroom with the door shut, pending the airing process; and was now watching through the window curtains. There being no answer to his knock, he glanced round, then snatched up the pants, and was rolling them up smartly, when a man, who was fully dressed for going out, except that he had no pants on, rushed frantically to the rescue. He would have caught the thief, too, only for the distracting disturbance the landlady made in the hall. She had been coming on slippered feet to say lunch was ready but instead she threw up her arms with a wild scream and fainted.
The swe-e-ep, with his brooms and brushes, his midnight countenance and sooty garments, is one who fills a long-felt want next door; wood and coal is a wandering worker of like utility; and rags and bags, and old bedsteads and old iron are a convenience at times; but a robust fellow hawking round a few bootlaces and buttons seems to be a misapplication of energy; while jewellery, new music, notepaper and postcards, pictures to frame, matches—two a penny, and the like, invoke the householder to shoo them off the premises with more dispatch than civility.
Just when night is setting in there is a great disturbance at the back gate. The lady (all women are ladies to these itinerant callers), going out, finds a seedy-looking individual contemplating a melancholy moke, which is attached to a wheeled relic of ye olden times, and lamenting his misfortunes. He has a barrowful of wood in the cart, the tailboard is down, and some of the firing material is spilled on the road.
He has a pitiful tale to tell, this man, and he tells it better than Bland Holt. The wood was intended for a party two blocks away; but his horse was knocked up, and he wanted to get home, so he will sell her the lot dirt cheap.
"It's real good dry box, lady. Look at it!" He almost shoves some of it into her arms. "I'm losing on it, lady, honour bright," he adds; while there is a pathetic, appealing look in his eyes. "If it wasn't that 'm fair done in an' the horse is dead beat, an' won't pull it another yard, I wouldn't sell it. As I said, I've a customer waitin' for it."
She hesitates for a moment; then remembers that she has been taken in before in after-dark wood-dealing, and tells him that she has just bought some from his brother. As the gate closes he straightens up his outfit, takes hold of the reins, and the knocked-up horse walks straight away. He is a by-product, this sundown woodman, for it's sundown before he starts out, and his object is to trade on people's sympathy.
"He reminds me of the yarn of two scheming Back-o'-Bourke aborigines. The pair appeared one day at a squatter's homestead, carrying a lubra on an improvised stretcher. They were taking her to the hospital, they said, as she was very sick. None of them had anything to eat that day, and they would be "cobbon much obliged" if Mr. and Mrs. Squatter could give them some tucker and tobacco and a drop of brandy for Maggie; also some clothes for her to go into the hospital in. The only sympathy they got was a curt order to clear out. A little while afterwards Maggie was seen to rise from the stretcher, which the bearers threw away in disgust, and load herself with the blankets. "Thought you were sick?" remarked a man as she strode off. "Ugh!" she answered. "No ploomin' good bein' sick when nobody gib it anyting." So, in the same way, it was no use of the woodmans' horse being knocked up when he couldn't sell the wood.
The latest disturber in the vicinity of our Melbourne lodgings raised a loud voice about the time the average household was retiring for the night. You heard him in the distance, too far away to distinguish his cry; but as he drew nearer. "Hot pies and saveloy-y-ys" came hurtling through your bedroom window. This person's blatant call was with you an hour from the time you first heard it till it died away in other streets. Sometimes he had a bell, so as to leave you with no excuse for not hearing him; and now and again he circulated in a cart, which seemed to crunch more gravel to the mile than any ten carts could in daytime. He was first cousin by a former marriage to the ice-creamer, who drifted up and down with his foreign yell of "I-scream-a-wafer," and the blast of his abominable trumpet.
But there is one hawker who dispenses a little sunshine as he goes, the one who leaves sample tins and packets of useful commodities at one's door. Sometimes, however, he calls back in a day or two to ascertain if you liked the goods, and if so, would you give him an order? When he boomerangs like that he makes himself unwelcome.
By the time we started on our final stage, from Melbourne to Sydney, the overseer had become such a confirmed rusher that there was no steadying him anywhere. He had been elbowed aside, and knocked down so much and left behind so often in the rush for trams and boats and buses, in the struggle for seats and the crush at theatres, that he became desperate.
He was familiar with rushing cattle and scurrying sheep; but the stampeding human animal was a new departure. It was no use saying "Whey!" to him. It was equally useless to crack a whip at him; you could only stop him with a gatling gun.
The overseer wasn't slow. He was a big man, with long legs, and when he stampeded he was a holy terror in himself. He got off scratch with celerity. If a mob intervened, and it was too solid to plough a lane through with his shoulders, he dived under its coat-tails. He worked through or charged through as the occasion required.
During the first day or two he would stand aside for the ladies to enter a bus or tram first; now he drove himself through and mounted like a leaping gorilla over the wheel of the 'bus or the step of the tram. He got so confirmed in this habit that it was difficult to restrain him from rushing an empty cab that nobody else wanted, He simply couldn't go anywhere without being in a tearing hurry.
I encountered another velocipede at the railway station. We were seeing our luggage on board when I was suddenly hooked up by a young woman, and dragged away by main force. She wore a straw hat, which just bristled with murderous pins, the sharp points protruding all round. As she dived into the crowd one of these ploughed into the back of my hand, and jerked it along after her. I said, "Excuse me, that's my hand you've got." But she didn't take any notice. Didn't pause or look back, though she must have had a glimmering of an idea that she had something hanging to her head.
She was a bull-necked female, and took long strides, with her head well forward, as though she had been used to hauling logs. I took long strides, too, and stirred up the bile in a dozen people in half as many seconds. Couldn't help bumping them and shoving them rudely aside, and knocking their hats off and treading on their toes. Had to follow my hand if I knocked the duke down. I endeavoured to inform her that I wasn't the proper thing to wear in a hat; that I hadn't come into fashion yet as an ornament. She didn't hear. I shouted to her that her hat was getting damaged, but she still reefed on.
A man and a woman were darting along in front of her, and I saw now that she was frantically trying to keep them in sight.
I grabbed her by the lace work round her neck, and steadied her somewhat until I tore my bleeding hand free of the dagger. Even then she didn't look back. I think she must have come from the solitudes of Mallee.
I delivered some remarks very feelingly on feminine headgear, as I wiped the blood off and returned to my companions. "Friend of yours?" asked Mr. Muggs.
"What were you running after her for?"
"Because I was attached to her."
"Ah! So I thought."
The overseer was hurrying to catch the train, which wouldn't start for half an hour yet, and Mr. Muggs, quite satisfied with his own solution, went after him before I could explain.
I set myself in a safe corner, and watched the armoured women, and the feathered women, as they filed in to their seats. In the street a man takes little notice of how a woman is dressed. He might talk to her for an hour, or walk with her for half a day, and not be able to tell five minutes later what was the colour of her dress. A married man might be expected to take a little more notice of such things than the bachelor, as he hears so much about fashions and materials from his wife; but when he mentions that he met a lady friend, or was talking to Mrs. So-and-So, and she asks the perennial question: "How was she dressed?" he hasn't the slightest idea.
A woman notices the entire garb at a glance. If she merely passes another woman in the street, she will give a full description of the fabric and style of the costume and the decorations distributed about it, the trimmings of the hat, the colour of the gloves, and the sort of bag she carried. Fashion fancies form the greatest interest in the average woman's life. Other things come and go, engaging her or delighting her for the time being; but interest in feminine fashions goes on for ever.
At Flemington or Randwick, and at the Agricultural Show, it is the chief attraction; the racing and the exhibits merely distract attention from it for fleeting moments. In the church even it is not forgotten.
In the thousand and one things that interest a man dress comes nowhere. If it were not for the influence of women he would not care a pin what he put on, providing it was something warm in winter and something light and cool in summer. It is only the exceptional garb, something very much out of the common, that he notices. The hobble skirt at first took his eyes, and the scarem skirt tickled his fancy immensely. For all that, in most cases he would fail to describe the shade and material when they had passed beyond his purview.
There are two items, however, in a woman's outfit that no man fails to take particular notice of—her cartwheel hat and the menacing daggers with which it is skewered on. He knows these intimately because there is no escaping them. They demand his attention, with deadly threats every day of his life, in the throng on the pavement, at election meetings, in the theatres and on the sports grounds; above all, in the crowded trams, trains, 'buses, and ferry boats. In the morning and evening crushes, when everybody is hurrying to and from business, the hatpin is always a troublesome item, much more so when it protrudes its long point through the top of the cartwheel hat. The latter is so outrageous that the wearer in getting in and out of trams has to twist and manoeuvre like a long horned cow getting into a bail; and it takes up the room of three persons; while the pins, standing out all round like the spines of a porcupine, keep the eyes of those nearest nervously riveted on them.
When she stands in a packed passageway, swaying to the jolting of the tram, and in diving in and out, screwing her headpiece at various angles, they are a positive danger to everybody. Mere man has reason to welcome the change whereby she economises with material in the bottom part of her dress; if she wore the old crinoline in addition to the cartwheel hat and yard-long stabbers, she would want a tram compartment to herself.
The leathered woman offends with her bloodstained millinery by the shameful practice of decorating her hat with the skins and plumes of the loveliest and rarest birds. Over and over again the cruelty has been pointed out; how the harmless egret is shot in her nest, and in the act of feeding her tender babes, which are left to die of starvation, for the sake of its fatal plume; how the exquisite lyre bird is ruthlessly dealt with while performing its marvellous mimicry and pleasant coquetry on its dancing ground; but it has all failed to touch the heart of the "gentle" sex. What matters the suffering, the destruction and waste, to woman, if she can have their fine feathers to put in her hat.
It has been explained time and again that the birds are nature's police, with a most important part to fulfil in maintaining the balance of nature; and with their decrease there follows a proportionate increase in insect life; that, if all the birds were exterminated, the insects would eat up every living thing on the earth in two and a half years; but still she has remained unmoved. Her new hat, especially with a feather cocked up in it, is more important than the fate of worlds. She has been appealed to on behalf of posterity, for the sake of her children and her children's children, to preserve for them their God-given heritage; and she has only looked enviously at another woman's hat, and decided that her own wanted new feathers. It has been clearly shown that it is a disgrace for any woman, a discredit to her sex, to sport the plumes of innocent birds that have been murdered for decoration; but her vanity has survived the shock. In spite of everything, the feathered woman refuses to be plucked of her murderous millinery; and while wearing it she pleads, on humane grounds, for homes for stray dogs, and seriously holds meetings and collects money for such purpose!
It is in the theatre that man takes the most particular notice of woman's headgear. He can't help it. It is part of the scenery. It is often the whole show. Whether we are in Germany, America, England or Australia, the theatre hat is the same old source of annoyance; it is always with us—that is—always in front of us—go where we may. It has been anathematised in all languages; it has caused quarrels and undying enmity. Women's good sense and better reasoning have been continuously appealed to all over the universe; she has been railed at, caricatured, ridiculed, and abused; she has been assailed with orange peel, peanut shells, and banana skins; but she has stuck tenaciously to her hat all through.
The theatre hat is not a necessity; there is no excuse for wearing it; and every woman knows what an unmitigated nuisance it is to those sitting behind her. The majority of our own fair sex have a consideration for others. At theatres and picture shows they either wear caps or remove their hats as soon as the entertainment begins; but there is a minority who keep their hats on, and stubbornly refuse to remove them, though repeatedly and politely requested to do so. They take offence at any such suggestion. Their hats are a yard wide, more or less; or they have an elevation like a church steeple, with something resembling a poultry yard after a cockfight, or a miniature botanic garden, as a top-storey decoration. As specimens of headgear they are doubtless interesting to a milliner, but even a milliner doesn't go to such places to see hats.
Having paid her money to see the play, she is apt to become exasperated when she finds herself seated directly behind a big commonplace hat that blocks her view of the stage or the screen. And how she hates that kind of hat ever afterwards! It gets on her nerves, becomes an eyesore; she wouldn't be found dead in such a contraction. If the wearer's neck is not clean, or she has big ears, the hat exasperates all the more. When several of the massive adornments get together, what a fine view the back row doesn't have! Many a good temper and many a kind nature are spoilt by the nuisance so frequently met with in places of entertainment. The opportunity of enjoying a delightful evening is destroyed, and good humour is turned into disappointment and vexation of spirit. A male victim at a picture show remarked that a woman who removes her hat unasked has usually a kindly nature; one who removes the obstruction when requested is "courteous and obliging;" one who apologises in addition is "a good sort, but thoughtless;" and the one who declines to uncover, or is offended when it is gently intimated to her that her roof is not made of glass, is a person to be shunned. She is obviously ignorant and ill-mannered, and if she is not one of nature's mistakes she is a female who has been badly brought up. If she is married, her husband is deserving of sympathy; if she is a maid—well, pity the poor unfortunate who gets her. What a vitriolic termagant she will be at 40!
Going from Melbourne to Sydney was like travelling through another world. It was a world of giant trees, of vast wildernesses, deep gorges and towering mountains. This was the paradise of timber-getters and bark-strippers, and the haunt of bullock teams. You caught glimpses of bush homes high up on the hillsides or nestling deep down in a far-off valley, and here and there you saw late settlers erecting a future home in the heart of the timber, or grubbing and burning off a strip of land for cultivation. For miles and miles there was scarcely room anywhere to pitch a tent without shifting a few gums, messmates or supplejacks. They took some shifting, too, and wanted a lot of room to fall, particularly in Gippsland. The only trees in the world that could challenge these for height and girth were the redwoods of California. School children showed for a moment and disappeared into the forest of trees, following various bridle tracks away to hidden homes. The tall, wooden telegraph posts (straight as gun barrels) contrasted markedly with the low metal posts that carried the wires across the north-west corner of N.S.W. and through the interior of South Australia.
"Talking of giant trees," said the over seer, "reminds me of two uncles of mine. They started one Monday morning to chop down a big tree in Gippsland, and when they knocked off at dinner time on Saturday—"
"Monday," corrected Mr. Muggs.
"Saturday," the overseer repeated. "Didn't I say they started on Monday?"
"What were they doing all the rest of the week"
"Chopping. When they knocked off at dinner time they reckoned they must be half-way through. To make sure, they took a stroll round in the afternoon—"
"I thought they would," Mr. Muggs interrupted again. "I met a lot of the gladiators who wrestled with that stick, and they all did that."
"If you know so much about it, let's hear you finish the yarn," said the overseer irascably.
"When they got to the back," Mr. Muggs proceeded, "they met two other timber warriors who had been belting in for a fortnight on that side of her."
"No, they didn't."
"Thought you knew all about it!"
"Can't be the same sapling."
"Can't be." He folded his arms and meditated.
"Well, what happened?"
"Eh?" asked the overseer, looking up in surprise. "Happened! What?" He had evidently forgotten all about it.
"Oh, when your uncle's aunt's sister's grandmother sat on the porcupine," Mr. Muggs answered impatiently.
"Your uncles were having a walk round the vegetable to see how much more they had to cut," another exasperated passenger reminded him.
"Ah! Yes, I remember now. Well—lend's a match." He took quite a minute to light his pipe, and drew slowly and attentively at it for another minute. Everybody was watching him, the attitude and expressions of some indicating that he was running a risk of being chucked out of the train.
"It's so long ago I almost forget it," he said at last. "Let's see. Uncle Mart's been dead these five and twenty years, and Uncle Jesse—"
"Didn't they cut the tree down before the funeral?" the man in front of him asked fiercely.
"They never cut it down."
"There was a big hollow on the other side, walled up, and a selector and his family living in it. The woman opened the door just as they got round, and she asked them if they had called before that morning. 'I could have sworn,' she said, 'I heard somebody knocking on the back wall before dinner."
"One of those uncles died, you say," remarked Mr. Muggs. "The other uncle must be the old identity that's in Fiji."
Some women at work in one of the many new clearings among the densely-timbered hills recalled to mind a day on a new selection farther north.
The house stood near the creek, but it was a long, steep climb to the top of the bank. It was the family's first year on the selection, and they had not yet got out of the roughing stage of humping water for household use. I arrived there on washing day—and it was the "washing day," that particularly impressed me in regard to that selection. The woman, wearing an old felt hat and a pair of heavy boots of her husband's for the occasion, was at work down near the water. Her tub stood on a slab bench under a red bean tree, which was covered with beautiful yellow flowers and huge green beans. Clothes were boiling near by in a big boiler standing on two stones. One of the girls was carrying wood, and looking after the fire. She helped to lift the boiler off with a potstick, and to lift the tub when it wanted emptying. The younger carried the soiled clothes down from the house, and between whiles amused herself paddling and swimming in the creek. They washed there every week instead of carrying water to the house.
"It saves such a drag," she explained. The clothes when washed were carried up in a tub, and hung out on a line stretched between two trees. At first they had spread them on the grass, and one day the grass caught alight, and some of them were burnt. Once she picked up a snake while taking in the dry clothes, and another time she slipped in the creek, and was nearly drowned. Again, she told, on climbing up the bank with a tub of clothes, she found a cow making a meal of some pillow-slips which she had spread out to dry an hour before.
"The fence wasn't up then," she said, "and we had to keep the cows away when we had clothes out."
A little lower down from the shady tree, which served her for a washhouse, two black gins were washing for a neighbour, whose house stood nearly a mile back from the creek. They carried the things to and fro in buckets on their heads, and they washed most of them in the creek from a half-sunken log. Half a dozen piccaninnies disported in the water meanwhile, and on the bank by the boiler squatted an old lubra, smoking her pipe.
"I could get the gins to wash my clothes, too," said my selector friend. "But I'd have to find meals for a dozen of them, and they use too much soap. Well, it isn't altogether what they use; they gammon they use it, and they take it to camp to wash their own clothes. Anyhow, I don't mind washing as long as I've got plenty of water, and the bank isn't slippery or boggy. Sometimes it's both, and when you slip down in the mud with your washed things, and have to wash them all over again—as I've had to do more than once—then washing-day isn't your happiest day in the week, I can tell you."
The picture of that cheerful soul, singing softly over her tub under the bean tree, comes to me often when I hear Mrs. Sudds of Suburbia grumbling over her task as she draws a plug to let the dirty water into the sink, then turns on a tap to fill the tub again.
But to return to our train—which wasn't allowing much time even for visual explorations. The towns on this line were not an interesting feature. One felt disappointed on finding such widely known places as Glenrowan—famed as the scene where the careers of the Kellys ended—and Wodonga—the Mecca of northern and western cattlemen—were small and commonplace. The ambition of every drover was to make the trip to Wodonga. To them there was more magic in the name than there was in "marvellous Melbourne" or "Sydney the Beautiful."
You didn't hear so much of Homebush; the New South Wales terminal for western drovers was generally Bourke. There was nothing romantic or attractive about these; but Wodonga was famous, alluring—it was always calling. The backblocker who had been through with stock to those yards was some considerable shucks of a person when he got back to his own cattle camp. Yet Albury, on the opposite side of the Murray, could hold its head high, and put on airs when it looked across at the little place with a big name, and Wagga Wagga, Yass, and Goulburn, on the same line, were more interesting to look at than Albury.
The overseer dismissed it with the off hand remark: "I've seen some merry times here, finishing up long trips from the Gulf, and with wild cattle from the Mooni."
He was too busy chasing Ned Kelly and other notorious acquaintances around Glenrowan and Benalla at the time. He spoke quite familiarly of Ned and Dan. He was stockriding at Benalla in those days, and on one occasion was mistaken for a detective, and greeted with a broadside from the ironclad.
"Were you killed?" asked the man in front of him, leaning eagerly forward.
The overseer regarded him ferociously for a moment; then he turned to the window, and devoted his talents to the study of landscapes. He never told another yarn. He was silenced. He was killed
The region of log timber was always a fascinating study to me; but the homes of the settlers, standing in the small clearings, were rarely remarkable for beauty. They were generally commodious and fairly comfortable; but they were not elegant. With the space the settler has—miles of it all around him—and the abundant material at hand, this fact was surprising to the traveller, especially in situations where the natural features appealed strongly to the artistic taste. Instead of improving these features, or designing in harmony with them, the settler almost invariably went to work in a way that destroyed their beauty. To the artist in search of striking material the house was picturesque; but to the average man from town it was positively ugly, uninviting, cheerless.
Only here and there, as the train rolled on over hundreds of miles, did one notice a place, in some smiling green valley, or perched on a low hill, that pleased the eye, and struck one as a snug-looking home. Most of the houses were rough, ramshackle places; with glistening iron roofs that suggested an oven in summer time. Particularly was this so in the northern and western parts of the country. A globe-trotter, sweltering in our inland heat, and gazing on the burning iron roofs "out at the back o' Bourne," might well question the sanity of the people who lived there. There was nothing about them that was artistic; there was nothing that deceived the eye—they were just as drab, rugged and bare in front as at the back. Farm houses were notorious for their bleak and ugly exteriors. There was an occasional home that was pretty and graceful, but the ideal home was a rare place.
From the comfort point of view, the squatters homes were the most uniformly satisfying among bush dwellings. They were seldom neat or ornamental, being low, spreading places, with little architectural finish about them; but they were roomy, fairly cosy, convenient, set in a broad garden of trees and flowers, and had a wide, cool verandah on two or three sides; some times all round. From the near-distant road they looked attractive, inviting; and that was how every country home should look. Whether a small place or a big place, with the bountiful assistance that nature lent throughout the coastal regions, it could be made beautiful and snug with little trouble and expense; and a home that was beautiful and snug was more loved by mother and children than one that looked no better than a shed.
A flower garden in front, a few shrubs and ornamental trees, or a small orchard, would relieve the repelling bareness of the humblest homestead. A few peach trees alone, when covered with blossom, have a pleasant effect. But too often the country residence stood bare of all decoration, like a boundary rider's hut, looking directly out on a big paddock. No garden railings being in front, the cows fed up to the door, and sometimes on cold nights one or two camped on the verandah. Townspeople usually endeavoured to grow something to make their places look nicer, even when the places were only rented. Perhaps a familiarity with the luxuriance of nature's garden had bred contempt in most bushmen. To them the grandest trees in the forest were merely so much building and fencing material; all that they had no immediate use for were in the way. The drudgery of splitting and clearing, together with the commonness of the article, had brought about this purely commercial aspect of the situation.
The settler had an infinite variety of trees and shrubs at hand that could be utilised for beautifying purposes, and which in the course of years would have a high commercial value. Such trees as pines, cedars, tulip, maple, beech, rosewood, maiden's blush, bean, myrtle, mountain ash, coachwood, walnut, butter-bush, wild cherry, lillipilli, silky oak, marara, kedgy kedgy, wilga, belar, borea, yarran, myall, koko-minni, (beef wood), kurrajong, bottle tree, bauhinia, quondong, Christmas tree, layunya, bingum (flame tree), and wattles, were both ornamental and useful. If planted, a few now and again on slack days, around his boundaries, and along his main roads, they would give the selection a very pleasing appearance. Every tree so planted would add to the value of his homestead, and every year would add to the value of the trees. But instead of planting he destroyed, for he reckoned every inch of ground as so many blades of grass.
When he first goes on his selection he, is not blind to the natural beauties about him, but foremost in his mind is, not how he is going to make the most of them, and build up an attractive home that his wife could take a pride in, but to select a site, nearest the spot where water is most easily obtained. That is where the tent is pitched during the time he is splitting timber, and naturally when he is ready to build, the material is dumped down near it. The rough timber requires a lot of trimming, and it is, of course, an advantage to him to be camped close at hand while doing this, and during the time the house is being erected. Thus the situation is decided. Whatever of an attractive nature happens to be thereabouts is sacrificed, while all timber is cut where it is handiest to house and fences, no matter what the effect may be, or how much damage a falling tree may do in the immediate neighbourhood. He completes the ruin by ringbarking almost everything except an odd tree here and there that will be useful for splitting. Always he is on the lookout for splitting trees, and if a saw mill is within reach for milling timber; but never is a thought given to the ornamental.
Coming from the comparatively timberless interior, it was positively painful to us to see the waste of timber-wealth in the rich coastal regions. On most of the old places the timber that was wantonly destroyed would now be a veritable gold mine to the possessors. Land that was not intended for agriculture was all ringbarked, not even a few of the majestic gums being left for future home use. As the trees died they were burnt off, so that when towns sprang up in the vicinity what might still have been a valuable asset in the form of firewood was a missing quantity. When poles, girders, and railway sleepers were wanted, these people who once had plenty at their doors, had to go miles away into forests that had not yet been selected to get them. Thousands on the land have to buy timber to make repairs or additions to their homes who had scarcely house room between the standing trees when they first built and fenced. Many fine trees were destroyed for the sake of a few sheets of bark, and saplings were cut down for birds' nests, and to get a 'possum or a koala to kill. Timber is logically a national asset, of which unborn generations have as much right to a share as the current population.
The bushman is a handy person, but he is improvident in many ways, and he doesn't spend much time on anything that is not of some immediate practical use to him. He will work quite happily in the rain to grow vegetables, whereas he would not devote a leisured half-hour to the cultivation of flowers. He can't eat flowers; nor does anybody want to buy them in his neighbourhood. In the planning and building of his house the same spirit is displayed—weather proof, and containing just as much room as is necessary—those are his requirements. He is his own architect. The plan is drawn on the ground with a stick. Perhaps it is drawn only to give his wife an idea what the mansion will be like, to show the position of the big fireplace that take up more than half one end; and where the doors and windows will be. For himself, the plan is fixed in his mind, he makes no elaborate measurements when laying out the building, depending greatly on his eye and his stepping. Considering that he uses very few tools, dispensing with levels, squares, planes, and even chisels, he makes a very good job with the material. Many a substantial hut is built with only a fencer's kit. Others are constructed from ground to roof without the use of a nail or a screw. Economy is studied from beginning to end. Following no rigid specifications, the construction has to conform a good deal to the demands of the material, whilst the little details are planned as he goes along. In populous districts 80 per cent of the houses are constructed of sawn timber, brick and stone; but these are the work of skilled tradesmen. Bush carpenters work mostly in rough timber, getting what they need from the trees around them. But, however rough the home may be, it could still be attractive if the settler made good use of the natural wealth about him, instead of destroying it.
Beautiful surroundings mean a more contented and happier home life, and induces those enjoying them to take greater interest in their locality. What is more pleasant than to come into a country town that is green with trees, and radiant with flowers, and where the approaching roads are lined with native foliage, and the air is sweet with the fragrance of native blossom.
Such a place is attractive in all seasons; and what a painful contrast is presented by the town that is a mere conglomeration of bare houses dumped on a plain! There are many such in all the States, and the traveller at first sight of any of them remarks to his neighbour that he would not care to live in such a dreary hole as that. Yet the dreariest hole can be made inviting by a few trees and flower gardens. Most of the N.S.W. country towns have a repelling influence: they drive people away—or to drink, instead of enticing people into them. We found the Victorian towns generally much more attractive, and probably that was one of the reasons why the population was more evenly distributed over the southern State than it was in New South Wales.
One of the passengers was an old drover, whose talking apparatus was set going by the scenes around Wodonga and Albury, and for a long stretch he entertained us with reminiscences of the overland.
"In my 25 years' experience on the overland," he said, 'I've had to do with a good many kinds of marketable stock, an' there's no two kinds that can be managed an' drove the same way. If I was asked which was the worst and which was the best to travel with, I'd say pigs an' mules.
"You mostly find me with cattle, because they're driven more than anything else, an' the trips are longer. I'm more used to 'em an' after all I prefer them. They're cheerier, livelier sort of company. They keep you interested, no matter how long you're with them, supplyin' a thrill an' a spice of danger every now an' again that keeps you alive. It's the little sensations occurrin' when you least expect them that brings you through a lonely six-months' journey as lively as a cricket. You haven't time to get dull an' mopy; an' I'll guarantee there's nothing will wake a man up quicker, when he's dozin' in his saddle on night watch than a sudden stampede. It electrifies him; his first shout to 'em is so spontaneous that it startles himself. Nor does anything sharpen his wits so much. At the first rumble of hoofs on a dark night he doesn't know which direction they're takin', but he knows they're not particular whether they run over him or not to save themselves from bein' run over by the crush behind. He's got to think an' act pretty quick, especially when he's caught in an awkward position.
"I remember one night we were camped close to a big lagoon. I had to ride along it on watch, because there was a shallow neck where they could cross. It was a very frosty night in midwinter. I was well wrapped up, but that dead sleepy I could scarcely keep my eyes open. We'd been doin' some shoppin' in a township the evenin' before. All at once, as I was dozin' along by the water, they sprang up, and before I knew where I was they were almost on top of me, an' that was enough; I wheeled a sharp round an' plunged straight in. That scamper an' the plunge into the icy water woke me up so completely that I could 'ave watched all night then without gettin' sleepy.
"Cattle are the most dangerous to travel with, 'specially bullocks that have never been worked much on their native runs. It's in the wild rides they set you through thick timber on dark nights, an' without notice, that the risk lies. You have to trust your horse to clear logs an' holes, an' the trunks of trees, an' you want the eyes of an owl to save your head from being bashed against limbs. Bullocks are always liable to rush, even when they come from the quietest herds. Cows are less timid, but they are restless; while the most troublesome of horny mobs is a mixed lot. The best is a mob of bulls. Nothing scares those chaps. They won't be bustled on the way, an, exceptin' that they want to interview every strange beast they see, they are well-behaved; and when they go to camp you could have a corroboree around 'em without disturbin' them.
"Sheep are tame things, but tiresome. They're, the most stupid animals you can handle, an' on a dry track about the most stubborn. Whether you're mounted or on foot, an' even when you've got a good dog to do most of the roundin' up and runnin' about, you put in a good hard day's work coverin' the average six-miles stage. Sheep won't go without a leader; and when the leader sees anything unusual he stops an' stares at it, an' the whole mob stops an' stares, too. When you've got a flock of several thousands it's no easy matter getting 'em all movin' again. Maybe the front lot will turn back an' make a packed bunch in the centre. You have that trouble at every gate an' at every little creek an' gully that has to be crossed. To avoid bein' delayed while they stand starin' at the strange scenery, you have to rush a few through, or drag a few over, an' then the others will follow. When you come to a river or creek that they can't get over without swimmin', you have to pitch camp an' build a bridge—which might take anything from a day to a fortnight. No simple makeshift of a bridge will do. It has to have a low wall of bushes along the sides, an' strong enough to keep them from goin' through, for if one happened to take it into his head to jump over into the river, the others would follow him, one after the other. The decking has to be covered with bags, an ' the bags in turn covered with earth or sand. Then you carry two or three over to the other side as decoys, an' after a lot of shoutin' an' dancin' an' rushin' about, you get them stringin' across.
"One good point about them, they're not much trouble at night. With calico hurdles run round them, you can sit an' watch them from the camp fire. Without hurdles, you stroll round on foot, or just up and down on one side. A few beasts might go off a cattle camp at a time, but when one sheep goes it's almost a certainty all the others will go after him. So as long as you can see a few woollies in front of you, you're pretty sure they're all there. They rush sometimes, an' I've seen 'em flatten out a wire fence more than once. One night a mob rushed over me. They'd been feedin' down a slope, and I was crowdin' 'em back, when a dingo makes a big stir among them at the top. I stumbled over one just as the whole flock started full rip down the hill. A sheep hasn't got very big feet, and it isn't very heavy; but I tell you it ain't a bed of roses bein' run over by a lot of 'em all close together. However, after about a dozen had stumbled over me there came a bit of a break, which allowed the next one to see the obstruction in front of him. He jumped, an' thereafter everyone on the same track, whether it saw me or not, made a bound at the same place—excepting a couple at the tail end, which jumped too soon, and landed on top of me.
"They're aggravatin' things, is sheep. All the same, nobody in his proper senses would chuck up a billet 'of drovin' them to take on turkeys. I've seen odd flocks of geese bein' drove short journeys, an' I think they're about the limit. One lot I had under observation was in charge of a boy and a girl. They reminded me of sheep in some ways. Anything at all uncommon would pull them up; they travelled dead slow, with their heads all the while on the swing—studyin' the landscape, but they didn't jib when they saw water; they let out a joyous cackle, an' set sail for it. Musterin' 'em up out of a boggy swamp, or gettin' 'em out of a small lake, was not as easy as ketchin' 'em in a paddock. They had no dog, as the boy said they couldn't do anything with the poultry while there was a dog about; so he had to do all the splashing and swimming himself whenever the flock made a stampede for water.
"However, gobblers was as far as I got down to on the overland. I was spellin' the mokes on a selection at the time, an' the selector's wife asked me would I mind goin' with young Tommy into town with a flock. There were about 10 of them, male an' female, an' we had to overland them on foot, two comfortable days' journey with fair travelling. I thought it would be dead easy, as they seemed quite tractable about their own yard. The family gave us a start, and we got on fine until the road cut through a patch of thick scrub. Keepin' them out of that scrub was the deuce's own job, an' it was a tangle of lawyer vines an' stingin' trees that gave us fits every time we had to plunge into it; an' every time we got them back on the track we had to count them carefully to make sure we hadn't missed any. 'Twasn't more 'an a mile from side to side, but we were two solid hours gettin' through it.
"Towards evenin' we came on to a bit of grass that was inhabited by a thick, strong-winged variety of grasshopper. Those gobblers had been partly reared on grasshoppers, an' they were pretty hungry just them. A couple would fly up, an' half the mob would go after one, an' the rest of them after the other. We'd get them together again, after a lot of running and shooing, and they'd be goin' along fine, when several 'hoppers would be flushed at once, an' away would go the whole lot of them, scattering towards all the points of the compass, some racin' away back behind us. There's no mistake they had us fairly flogged out by the time we got to our night camp. Then we had to get them into trees to roost out of harm's way, an' you know what cantankerous things they can be when it comes to gettin' them on to strange roosts. The only good point about 'em was they didn't want watchin' once they settled down.
"I thought pigs couldn't be worse than them, but I was mistaken. If you take the bad travellin' points of the turkey an' the goose an' mix 'em together, the pig can still go one worse. You can't lead or drive a mob of pigs like any other animals. They go along gruntin' an' rootin' an' foragin' all the time; you've got to work every yard of the way to keep them movin' on the right track. Stop a minute, an' they'll stop; try to bustle them an' they'll split in all directions an' say 'Whugh.' An' when they come to a bog or a waterhole they'll plough in an' lie there. You can shout yourself hoarse, an' caper around an' pelt 'em till you're knocked up, an' all you'll get from them is a grunt. They don't take much notice of dogs either; they stand an' smack their chops at a dog, or run backwards an' say "Whugh.' You've got to go in an' root them out; if it's a hot day, an' they're a bit tired, you've got to pretty well drag them out. An' they're not animals that keep any regular hours. They don't stampede at night time, but they get up at any hour to go rootin' about for something to eat. A black pig is hard to see in the dark, an' he goes moochin' off so quietly that it's the simplest thing out to lose him off camp.
"On long trips you've got to take one or two waggons piled full of pumpkins or corn. You camp at a good watering place, an' after a feed of pumpkin or corn they'll' settle down fairly well for the night. In the morning, when they've got used to the track, they'll be nosin' an' gruntin' around the waggons for breakfast an' makin' trouble with the cook. They're always ready for tucker time; you can make 'em finish a hard day well by going ahead an' ringin' the dinner bell.
"I carried a big football on one trip. When they were extra cantankerous I'd get away in front, call out 'Pig, pig, pig,' an' start bouncin' the ball hard. At the second thump I'd hear 'em cheering, an' then they'd come along with their ears flappin', as if there was nothin' they enjoyed so much as brisk trottin' exercise on the overland. They thought I was breakin' up pumpkins.
"The best on the track, as I said, is the mule. Horses are good; with one man riding in front an' one at the tail, you go along serenely all day. They don't jib at gates or crossings, but at night, when you let them go, they have a habit of wanderin' an' scatterin', an' making back. Donkeys are' fairly good, too, an' goats are not bad. But the mule takes the palm for good conduct on the track. I travelled six weeks with a mob, an' after the first week all I had to do when startin' away from camp was to sing out 'Hee-haw,' like one of themselves, an' every one would answer, an' then trot together an' follow after me like so many foals. The mule is a stubborn animal in some ways, but on the droving track I respect him.'
One thing which struck the traveller on these various lines was the manner, of catering at the refreshment stalls. In South Australia, from Mannahill to Adelaide, and thence to Murray Bridge, the waiters gave one the impression of being all new hands; they bustled about a great deal without appearing to get much done. They were not particular whether you paid your 3d or 4d when you got your cup of tea or when you brought back the cup. Either they were too flurried or else they had marvelious faith in the honesty of travellers. If the latter, their confidence was sadly misplaced in some instances. The tea was always boiling hot, and a three or five minutes' stay didn't always suffice to drink it. Women mostly kept their seats, and men carried cups of tea in to them. They sat sipping till the train started on—and the crockery was carried away. And the breakage was tremendous. Five cups were broken at one carriage door at Gawlor, and altogether 30 were broken along the train through careless or hurried handling in passing from one to another. At some places boys and girls ran along the platform to receive cups and saucers from passengers before the train started, and even then a good many departed for tables new.
Through Victoria and on the New South Wales side the stallkeepers were more wary, and did more service with less show. You paid for the cup as well as for your tea, the cup money being refunded when you returned the vessel. It was remarkable how much quicker the ladies got through their tea under this system, while the breakages were scarcely worth mentioning. At one place in Victoria we had to return empty-handed to our protegees, and inform them they must come and get their own tea, as all the cups were on chains, and could only be carried away in pieces. We were glad. This style enabled us to get a drink ourselves, whereas our only refreshment hitherto was the steam from the cups as we carried them out.
At one place two merry girls presented us with cards, on the backs of which these set rules were printed for the guidance of travellers:
"Federal Railway Rooms. Board, 6d per foot. Breakfast at 5 a.m., dinner at 6 a.m., supper at 7 a.m. Guests wishing to get up without being called can have self raising flour for supper. Guests are requested not to speak to the dumb waiter—he is deaf. Guests wishing to do a little driving will be supplied with hammer and nails on application. The rooms are convenient to three cemeteries; hearses to hire at 1s 11½d per day. If you are fond of athletics, and like good jumping, lift the mattress and see the bed spring. If the room gets too warm, open the window and see the fire escape. If your lamp goes out, take a feather out of the pillow—that's light enough for anyone. Anybody troubled with nightmare will find a halter on the bedpost. Don't worry about paying the bill; the house is supported by its foundations."
A card picked up further back was more to the point. It contained this:
"Boarders taken by the day, week, or month. Those who do not pay promptly, taken by the neck.
Another place, called the Beehive Hotel, had the following scrap of verse written under a representation of a beehive:
Now, in this hive, we're all alive;
We're all as sweet as honey;
And if you want a drink step in,
But don't forget the money.
These lines were inscribed on a slab of a wayside pub near Bright, Gippsland:
One swallow does not make a spring,
If you believe that story; come
With me into the bar, and try
One swallow of this fellow's rum.
Then you are sting and acid proof
If you don't spring clean through the roof.
The Green Gate Inn, at Orange, used to display the sign of a green painted gate with the couplet:
This gate hangs well, and hinges none.
Refresh and pay, and travel on.
From Albury to Sydney was the best span of all for scenery. It was everchanging and ever-beautiful. The other sections were dotted with beauty spots; but along here they crowded on top of one another. They were all beauty spots; mountain, valley, town and river; orchards, gorges, hamlets and waterfalls, swam past the watching eyes. And there was a succession of names familiar to every Australia school boy. Wagga Wagga and the Murrumbidgee River recalled two old friends to John Jovius Muggs—Wagga rugs and Murrumbidgee blankets. The latter was a bare bag, split open. The former was also a bag, likewise split, with an old woollen' blanket that had become too thin to keep out cold, sewn on for lining. It was common on farms and selections, and scores of travellers with horses and vehicles carried it, also shearers, drovers, and squattage hands used it. This river, too, was the happy hunting ground of the Murrumbidgee whaler and his brother the sundowner. There were some whalers still in the bends, and perhaps always would be; but the sundowners sundowned no more.
We watched the boards now with the growing interest of homing exiles, like long absent members going back to the old homestead, and seeing a story in every landmark.
Cootamundra—Binalong—Yass—Goulburn, "the cathedral city of the south," a grand place for a summer holiday. Besides the Wollondilly River and the Mulwarree Ponds at your feet, you have in proximity Lake Bathurst, Lake George, the Wombeyan Caves, and the Look Down on the Shoalhaven River.
Along here we had a glimpse of a fair Australian girl striding nonchalantly through the bush with a gun on her shoulder, and an alert eye directed towards the treetops.
Those among the passengers who lived in cities craned their necks and stared as though she was the latest thing in freaks. The bush men had a better knowledge of their big country; they looked at her with soft eyes, remembering days when they had rambled with her prototypes in far-off forests.
Most Australian girls and women living in the bush could shoot. They used light, single-barrel guns. Many of the girls accompanied their brothers when shooting pigeons and wallabies along the edges of scrubs near their homes, and not a few of them could bring down a bird on the wing or a wallaby in full flight, just as well as their male companions. They shot 'possums also when the animals came on to the roof at night, on the sheds, or into the neighbouring trees. Shooting was an accomplishment that came useful at some time or other to nearly every woman in the bush, and the more lonely or isolated her home the more necessary was it for her to be able to handle a gun.
The first women on the north-eastern farms and selections could tell many a laughable tale of their early experiences with a gun. The men were much away from home, and in their absence many occasions arose when it was necessary for the women to arm themselves. The blacks were generally cheeky and hard to get rid of if there were no men about; but a little demonstration with the "shooting stick" altered their demeanour. It wasn't necessary for a woman to threaten them; all she had to do was to shoot a hawk or a crow in their presence, or show them how she could hit a small tree, and thereafter she was safe.
But the use of the gun was principally for protection against bird and animal pests. A man would usually teach his wife first to load and fire light blank charges, mainly to frighten parrots and cockatoos from the crops, and ravens and hawks from the poultry run. Gradually she became accustomed to the weapon, and by degrees learned to shoot well.
A woman on the Orara River, who had received no instruction at all, one day when alone was horrified to discover a big snake, stretched along between the ridge-pole and the capping of her house. She tried at first to poke it out with a clothes-prop, but could not get at it; and as it shifted along the ridge she dreaded that it would slide down and get under the floor, when she would be terrified with the thoughts of it all night.
Looking about, her eye lit on the gun—a heavy, double-barrelled muzzleloader—hanging on the wall. She took it down and loaded it in the way she had seen her husband do. Then, tremblingly, she held it under her arm, and, pointing it towards the roof, shut her eyes, and fired. When the smoke had cleared away, and she had got her breath back, she looked eagerly for the result.
The snake had not moved, and there wasn't the mark of a shot anywhere. This puzzled her. She was sure she could not have missed the house, for the door was shut, and she had stood near the centre of the room with the windows directly behind her. However, she loaded again, with a heavier charge, and this time she put the gun to her shoulder. She aimed as carefully as her shaking hands would permit, then shut her eyes tight, and pulled the trigger. There followed a thunderous report, a frantic scream, a heavy fall, mingled with the noise of breaking glass.
She had held the gun loosely, and with the heavy charge of shot she had put in it the "kick" had knocked her backwards. It took her some seconds to realise that she wasn't shot. Then she looked about timidly for the remains of the snake. But it was still on the ridge-pole, moving away uninjured; while a picture of her grandmother, hanging half-way up on the wall, was shattered to pieces.
However, she triumphed in the end. The snake slid down the wall outside, when she despatched it with a handy waddy. It was only after her husband's return, when he found a charge of shot in one of the barrels, that the mystery of her first effort was explained. She had put the powder in one barrel and the shot in the other.
The incident in the pretty Goulburn valley started a general conversation on the Australian girl. She was discussed from all points, in all her phases. After due comparison with other girls she carried the vote of the compartment. The well-seasoned globe-wanderer, who had inspected the beauties of many lands, agreed that, looked at in any way you liked, she was a plum.
She presented to you an attractive face, whether you found her on the farm or in the factory, on a backblock squattage or in a city home; in domestic service, or in the Governor's drawing-room. With her facial beauty and sparkling, mischievous eyes, she combined a graceful carriage, a charming personality, and a rare beauty of form. Like a gay butterfly in the sunshine—of sprightly but sympathetic nature, warm, vivacious, athletic and courageous; but, at all times, delightfully womanly, handy and industrious.
One of her most admirable traits was that she worked with a good will all day if need be; worked without grumbling, making a trouble of nothing; singing cheerily the day through, always with a smile on her lips and a pleasantry for those about her.
Like her brother, she was not a one-job girl; she could turn her hands to a hundred things; and when times were bad for the town-bred her busy fingers still enabled her to make ends meet. Not only was she generally useful indoors; but outside she could apply her energies readily to many things. She was not exclusively domestic, though mostly trained in all domestic arts. Her sturdy health and sprightliness owed much to the admixture that made up the life of every bush girl. Her heroism, too, stood out as one of the most admirable features of Australian settlement. Through all the periods of history, in the perils and dangers that threatened communities, the brightest gleams were the heroism and endurance of our bush girls and women. Whether menaced by flood or fire, or greater calamities, they played their part nobly. In emergencies they tackled the hard tasks of men as readily as they mounted a horse in times of sudden sickness, and rode long night journeys through the bush.
The Australienne showed creditably in many branches of sport that required agility, skill and stamina. In a land ever bright and cheery, it would be surprising if they were not of a buoyant nature; and to their general smartness, their neatness and their athletics they owed, in a large measure, their fine physique. Old grandmother smiled and thought of her prime girlhood, as she saw the 20th century lasses gambolling on the grass, climbing hills and rocky gorges after flowers, rivalling man on the tennis court, playing hockey and cricket; she saw the ghosts of prude matrons peer with shocked faces through the veil of the past at young women rowing and running races in public, and spinning along the streets on bicycles.
There were some who held that the women of to-day were going beyond their sphere in recreation and avocation, that her proper place was in her home. But a woman who was always in her home did not live naturally or make home happy. The medical profession recognised—demanded—that in girlhood, at, least, latitude in vigorous out door exercise was necessary for her health and development. We laughed to-day at what was considered ladylike 50 years ago, and the people of next century would be laughing at us; for the whole tribe of us—men included—were but fashion's tools, and the slaves of convention, after all.
Moss Yale—the last refreshment room. We had our money's worth at this place Here we began to meet with Sydney excursionists, for hereabouts was one of the beauty spots of Australia—a wild, luxuriant, romantic belt, in which were gorges a thousand feet deep, and numerous droning waterfalls. We were getting home—and the subject of conversation had drifted to the city and country girl. We had a long argument about them, and while agreeing that both were charming, the argument crystallised into the fact that they weren't the same girl. One of the most noticeable differences between them was to be observed in their home life. One moved in an atmosphere of placid domesticity; the other in a continuous social whirl. Home training, as the country girl understood it, was a negligible quantity with the average city girl. On the same parable she could hardly be said to have any love of home. Her interests day and evening were out of doors—outside the family doors, that is; which does not necessarily mean in the open air, for anybody else's house, if there were congenial spirits there, was preferred to her own in leisure hours. She loved to gad about in fine clothes, to air them by the seaside, in public parks and gardens; to fly around in trains and trams and vehicles; to go boating with young fellows on rivers and harbours. Theatres, concerts, picture shows, and sports of various kinds helped to make up the continual round of entertainments that became to her an important part of existence. She led a butterfly kind of life, fluttering from one attraction to another; and she suggested the moth also—chasing the gleams of brightness in the night hours. She no sooner returned from one amusement than she was thinking of where or what she could go to next. Rarely did a thought occur of what she could do at home.
This gay butterfly, who was smart and charming in a social way, did not throw many compliments to her rustic sister, whom she regarded as being behind the times. But the country girl on changing places soon adapted herself to city ways. On the other hand, it took the city girl a long while to adapt herself to country life, and to succeed in that sphere. The secret was in the home training.
The country girl was brought up amid the old and admirable institutions associated with the home. In her environment, there was not so much to distract from the family circle, and brothers and sisters found the greatest and constant companionship amongst themselves. The old home was endeared to her, and by her early life habits and the childhood memories that clung to them she became for ever a lover of home. To her there was no place like it, however humble it might be; to her "home" was a love word, meaning almost everything that was precious. Sports and dances and other amusements came her way from time to time; but no matter how enthusiastic she might be over them she was always "glad to get home." Every member of the family made for the door like homing pigeons as night came on, and they gathered round the table or round the fire, reading books and papers, playing indoor games, chatting and telling stories. Those homely customs in childhood make all the difference in after life. Instead of spending her girlhood in continuous pleasure-seeking, she learned all the duties of home, and by the time she married was as efficient as her handy and resourceful mother.
One might say that almost from her tender years the country girl learnt to be useful. Her mother's home was an industrial school, in which all the domestic arts were ever actively under her notice. The mother had to make and fashion for herself many things which city women had made and fashioned for them by others. To be able to prepare an appetising meal with very little material was a great advantage to a young wife, for much of the happiness of married life rested on the table, and on efficient household management. The country home was lacking in many of the conveniences that lightened work in a city house, and initiative and resourcefulness were the results.
The city girl hadn't much need to think and contrive for herself. She was the product of an attractive environment, whose home was made dull by the countless allurements around it, and the license to follow her own bent at the impressionable period of her life. The winter hearth, around which clung so many fond associations for her grandmother, was cold and meaningless to her. Rather than sit moping there, she could go out in the forest and rain in search of a new thrill. She must have thrills, frequent doses of little sensational shocks, or life became a boredom. When she had to earn her own living, she preferred the factory to domestic service for that reason. As a factory hand she had more time to herself, more company, and more tram rides. Naturally, her knowledge of housekeeping was limited to the masculine degree. Nor did she want very much to learn; she would go to a restaurant rather than bother about cooking her own dinner.
Very often she had to begin to teach herself after marriage what she should have learned from her mother. Her early experiences, too, with plenty of freedom and pocket money, and opportunities for going about and enjoying all kinds of amusements, did not incline her later to stick contentedly at home, to be careful and saving. Nor had she always a love of children in the same sense as her country sister, not infrequently regarding such as encumbrances.
It was the homeliness, the home-loving nature, domestic proficiency and cheerful industry of the country-bred girl that made her eminently successful as a wife and mother. Because home had been her world in infancy, she moved in almost perpetual calm, looking on life with quiet and softened eyes.
Bowral Mittagong, of the chalybeate spring; the home of the waratah, and the locale of the State Cottage Homes for invalid Children. Bowral to Mittagong was an interesting three miles, passing under "The Gib," through a tunnel 716 feet long. In this neighbourhood was the old town of Berrima. It was a small place for its age, and unique in that it owed its prominence to a gaol. Terrible Berrima Gaol, once a name to conjure with, and immortalised in "Robbery Under Arms."
In this scenic stretch, a couple of equestriennes, riding astride, struck a new note in the advancement of the Australian girl. It was a note that sent a thrill of pride and satisfaction through the overseer and myself. Both being horsemen, we admired the horsewoman when we saw her riding in the only sensible style that was suited to her and the horse.
The side-saddle was disappearing from the bush without regrets. At one time almost every woman had a riding habit in her wardrobe, and a side-saddle in the harness room. Women rode a lot then, and if the bifurcated style had been in vogue they would have ridden still more, and with less trouble. Riding would probably have continued in universal favour among women instead of giving way for a long period to driving. The horse was the principal means of locomotion in the country. Distances were far between places, with no roads or merely bush tracks to travel on. So when "the missus" went visiting she had to ride, often carrying a baby on her knee. Shopping entailed long journeys. Sometimes she went alone, starting away at daylight, and returning after dark. There were sliprails to put down on the way, and after dismounting at these she would remount by means of a log or stump. If no such friendly aid was at hand, she led her horse alongside the fence, and sprang into the saddle from the bottom rail. This was not a simple accomplishment when she had parcels strapped in front, and at the side of the saddle, and, perhaps a bag or basket in her hand. When hubby was working far from home she carried his dinner to him on horseback, and sickness in the family sent her galloping many a journey by day and night. How or why she stuck so long to the side-saddle was a mystery and a marvel.
A woman sitting comparatively on one side of the horse hadn't the same advantage to follow its movements as the other had who sat equilaterally and centrally over the animal, whilst the lop-sided burden was harder on the horse. Some women had long held that it was one of their rights to ride as a man did. Mrs. Alex. Tweedie, writing in the "Lady's Magazine," advised the cross-saddle for her sex. "Practical ways and means," she wrote, "always receive recognition in the end, however much Mrs. Grundy may growl. Cross-riding will come. The bicycle was an innovation, and as women could not possibly ride sideways, and there was no conservative party accustomed to a side-saddle to shriek at the suggestion of a cross one, cycling became general, and women among its chief devotees. Society, says: "The side-saddle is the right thing; it has been here since it was introduced into England by Anne, of Bohemia, the wife of Richard II., and being here, it is, of course, quite right and proper that it should remain." They forget that the good dame used the side-saddle to show off her gorgeous robes and as velvets, satins and embroideries were more important than hard riding, the pommelled, chair-like seat suited the purpose. Gradually evolution has dropped these flowing robes and embroideries, because women ride in earnest nowadays, and no longer amble out on a palfrey, merely for show."
The clumsy and cumbersome gear was following into the limbo of discarded things. The ugliness and awkwardness of the side-saddle was marked in contrast with the neatness of the new style. Nothing could be more graceful on horseback than these country girls riding astride. When properly groomed, their seat in the saddle, with the lithe forms following rythmically the movements of the horse, were attractive to the eye.
Riding and hunting were common under many flags, but in this field the Australienne stood easily first, though she mounted last. Her only serious rival was the American cow-girl, who had shown her skill on bucking bronchos on show grounds. She rode in a saddle that the bush girl considered dead easy. The latter was at home in all saddles. To know her at her best, one must see her in the wide spaces, where she rode hard through thick timber, over mountainous country, hunting and mustering; where she swam her horse fearlessly over flooded streams, and undertook journeys of a thousand miles and more across unsettled territory.
Women were not given to riding after records, unless there was something more substantial than vain glory at the end of the trip. For all that, many a long journey was made in the cross-saddle of which little was heard outside the local districts. The daughter of the house might be the only one available to carry an urgent message, or to obtain something of immediate importance, and when the mail coach was not due for a couple of days there was nothing for it but saddle up and ride. The most pathetic case I have heard of was that of a Milparinka girl, who rode to a distant place on a burning summer day to get a bag of rain water for her father, who was sick. In that dry locality, people depended for water on soakages, dams and excavated tanks. The heat was so severe that endeavours were made to persuade her not to go. She went, however, and she got the precious water; but she was swaying in her saddle as she returned to her home, and she died shortly after they had lifted her down.
I think the best overland journey for women was that accomplished by two daughters of Mr. Sid Kidman, the Cattle King, who rode from their home in South Australia, to Cunnamulla, in Queensland. The journey was over a thousand miles, a good deal of it across trackless country. Both girls used the cross-saddle. They were accompanied only by a blackboy guide, and some days covered as much as 60 miles. They camped out at night, for there was nothing else but the tent and the camp-fire for them on long stretches of their way. They were bound for Brisbane, and their shortest way was via Cunnamulla, from which place they took the train.
The boards were swimming past. Picton—Campbelltown (which flowed with milk and wine)—Liverpool (the portmanteaux and ginghams, were hauled down from the racks, coats were folded and strapped, and miscellaneous property collected from divers places and stowed away)—Granville (the women put their gloves on and asked each other if their hats were straight)—Sydney, the Queen of Australian cities—and a general scatter.
This congested centre, which contained within its boundaries about three-parts of the population of the State, was called "Sydney the Beautiful" and "The City of the Beautiful Harbour." With its notorious bottle-neck railway system, its narrow, crooked streets and their numerous dead ends, and the hoardings that everywhere met the eye, and its thousands of jerry built houses, we found it beautiful only in spots. Nor was it as clean as Adelaide and Melbourne. The council's idea of cleaning the city was to sweep up the backyard and dump the smellful refuse in the front garden. The rubbish was punted a few miles out to sea, whence a good deal of it was shortly washed back and strewn along the beaches, where thousands of people gathered on holidays for fresh air and surf bathing. They went there on Saturday afternoons and Sundays to recuperate after a week in a packed, stuffy city. Particularly did they resort to these places for their children's sake, and when the beaches and the water were polluted by the dirty methods of civic housekeepers, what should be a health resort and magnificent recreation ground became a positive danger to them.
In Sydney we saw the ludicrous spectacle of uniformed patrolmen watching for the unwary citizen who dropped a tram ticket, the same being calculated to make the city look untidy. To throw down a piece of paper or a cigar butt or an empty matchbox in the streets was an offence punishable under the city by-laws. There were placards posted up in the trams and in conspicuous places about the main thoroughfares, requesting the careless citizen to "keep the city clean." And all the while the council, whose business it was to look after the health of the people, to keep its own domain respectable and sanitary, and show a good example to suburban aldermen, was turning the "beautiful harbour" into pollution, and making the littoral offensive to residents and disgusting to visitors.
We thought on seeing so many hoardings that the council was deriving a good income from the unsightly things. We discovered later that the license fees from this source aggregated only £80 a year, which wasn't half the salary of the officer employed to supervise hoardings. Besides being objectionable in the aesthetic sense, they were costing the ratepayers about a hundred pounds a year.
To the proprietors they were more remunerative, in some instances, than shops and houses. One little space in a good locality was worth over £100 per annum to the owner. It had previously been occupied by a shop, which returned only about £60 in rent. The shop was burnt down. In this way hoardings hindered progress. Hundred's of vacant blocks in Sydney were used solely for poster purposes. One alderman, whose name was tacked up on a central thoroughfare, said he was always in favour of pictorial hoardings; he contended that the hoardings were covered by works of art. In his estimation they transformed uninteresting thoroughfares in beautiful open-air art galleries, where the thirsty Domainite could see the virtues of Hogg's whisky pictorially displayed.
A long-suffering public entered a protest now and again to the effect that if their civic representatives must have these decorations about them, they should at least see that the ratepayers were not made to pay for them.
After which they went on paying.
The rock and fence-rail artist was almost ubiquitous; but he seemed to flourish more exuberantly about Sydney and its environs than anywhere else. His work made an impression on the visitor because there was no escaping it. One of the first things to catch the eyes of passengers on the incoming mailboats was "Drink Hogg's Whisky." The artist did some Alpine climbing to emblazon that motto on the city's front gate. Beside it, pigmenting the rugged grandeur of the towering cliffs, he saw the imperative notice, "Get your hair cut at McShaver's." It flashed across his vision like a jackal-of-trade yelling at him as he approached.
He saw a prominent point ahead, with a bold inscription across its nose. Some historic landmark, probably. With the interest of an observant sea-rover he raised his glasses, and read: "Fang and Molar. Teeth extracted while U wait." The boat passed the next point quite close. It was a picturesque spot, with a small bay and a semicircular sandy beach in perspective. He took a snapshot of it with the camera. Later, when he examined the result, he found himself being asked a number of impertinent questions: "Do you suffer with cold feet?" "How's your appetite?" "Do you sleep well? If not, take Stiffner's Paralyser before going to bed."
The scenery was obscured, if not obliterated, by the brush-prints of the rock and fence-rail artist. As the passenger proceeded to the Quay he learnt quite a heap about women's wear, of figure improvers and remodellers, intermixed with Scab's ointment for sore legs, and Scratcher's powder for bugs and fleas. These things hung in his memory as the scenic, features of Port Jackson. The sordid commercialism of the place hit him in the eye wherever he looked.
The rock and fence-rail artist was an industrious wanderer, whose masterpieces you came upon in the most unexpected places. A fence rail was eminently suitable for his impressionist work, providing it was where everybody could see it, or where it was likely to stamp itself on the memory. His was an art that required some cunning and imagination, however much it might be maligned by people of artistic tastes. He roamed abroad, picking out the places that were certain to catch the eye of the picnicker, the tourist, and the ordinary traveller.
He missed no prominent spot that he could operate upon without getting into trouble. Not merely on fences along the public highway; not only on the cliff faces of bays and rivers, and the rock outcrops on vacant allotments, but deep among the gorges and tangled shrubbery that holiday-makers explored for wild flowers, he imprinted imperishably the virtues of Sudd's Gorilla Soap. The scenic resorts were spotted with his handiwork; the hills and valleys were made to efface themselves and speak in loud capitals of "Quack's Rejuvenator for dead people;" the flowers but bloomed to form decorations for "Lazey's infallible remedy for tired husbands."
There was nothing so pleasing to the eye as ever-changing landscapes; but the nature lover, however keen he might be on variety, did not like his scenery to be mixed up with "Towser's Dog Tablets." He embraced the promised peace and unsullied charm of rural hills and deep ravines; and spectre-like in a lonely glen a rock suddenly appeared before him, and warned him in huge, sprawling letters, to "Beware of that cough!" A sister rock sought to calm his fears by advising him to "Take Killem's mixture for influenza."
He followed a narrow track that wound through dense vegetation over a farther hill, which he began to imagine was still the abode of the bounding wallaby, for the spot was remote and unfrequented; and by-and-bye he came to a two-rail fence, the only sign of civilisation, and on the top rail he read: "Wear Tyle's hats." It gave him a bit of a shock in such a retired spot. In desperation he left the track, and plunged farther and farther into the bush; and when he thought he had at last got away from the peregrinating artist, he came upon a big, white log, upon which he discovered this cheering inscription: "Go to Diggam's for funerals. Your relatives buried promptly and cheaply. Mourners supplied at lowest rates."
The rock and fence-rail artist was not a man with soul so dead that the natural beauties of his surroundings did not appeal to him; he had a keen eye for nature's beauty spots. See how he picked them out. Here was a point where trailing hardenbergia adorned a rough rock with purple blooms, and at one side, grew a fine Christmas bush that would blossom generously in the gayest holiday season. He discerned at once that the eye of everyone who passed along there would be attracted to that particular point. So down went his tools, and he searched about for a prominent surface to work upon. So pleased was he with the prospect that he took observations from many points of view. Perhaps he would do some pruning to improve on nature. Then he set to work with paint pot and brushes; and thereafter visitors found the pretty floral corner labelled, "Bunion's plaster for aching corns." The spot was ruined; the desecration made the nature lover yearn to consign Bunion and his disgusting plaster to the bottom of the deep sea.
But the artist smiled serenely, and went on his way. Here was a peculiar rock formation, a wonderful pile heaped up by nature in one of her most fantastic moods, that must certainly attract the studious attention of all visitors. He spent the day at a notable landmark like that, and when he had gone, it was a disfigured monument to "Bilge's distilled lightning for biliousness." When he came upon a bit of wet road, or a patch of swampy ground, he judged it a good place to make an impression; and therefore every traveller who trudged through was mocked with the legend, "Leatherhead's Watertight Boots" on either side of him.
Meanwhile, the artist had gone to fresh fields. He was a diligent explorer. He missed no opportunity. So the fisherman, no matter where he went, by sea, river, or lake, was bound to see "Wriggler's Potted Worms for Bait" at his elbow; and in juxtaposition "Use Hooker's Crooked Hooks." One of that ilk, who was something of a sarcastic humorist, came upon an old black horse grazing upon a quiet flat. The horse was very poor, and no doubt the artist realised that the animal's days of active work were over. Anyhow, he painted on one side of the derelict, in blue letters, "Use Knagg's Horse-Rugs," and across his opposite ribs, in white, "Bald head Hair Restorer."
The fathers of Vaucluse, in a day gone by, made a valiant attempt to suppress the wandering painter. They thought no end of their little suburb, and as zealously guarded its rights as a doting mother did her first child. Parsley Bay, which is its shipping port, so to speak, used to be a place where the Sydneyite could bathe all day long without being in fancy dress; but the time came when he could scarcely cough in that neighbourhood without being asked if he had got a license to do so. The council contemporaneously put its conjoint feet down heavily on the rock and fence-rail artist. The man who wanted to advertise the merits of "Pickled Pills for Boiled People" or direct public attention to "Sprouter's Moustache Invigorator," or "Slapdab's Patent Complexions," per aid of red and blue paint and the suburb's natural resources, were shoo'd off the premises with noise and despatch. When the despoiler did his fancy work by night, the council followed in the morning, and with a smile wrinkling round its cigar, drowned the glaring advertisements with more paint. Unluckily, the method left a big splash here, and a great smudge there, so that the suburb looked as if it had been on a spree in a pigment factory.
All the same, it won public approbation by the effort it made to jump on the rock and fence-rail artist. As the common desire was that nature should wear her own complexion, that elusive person was not one who could be conscientiously regarded as a benefactor to mankind.
Coming from the backblocks, we expected to find the metropolis of the oldest State something better than a promiscuous cattle ranch. We thought that stockriding, droving, and browsing herds were unknown there; that Sydneyites had long ago lost sight of that phase of Australian life. We were disillusioned.
It was soon forced upon our notice that several stock routes traversed the residential centres. Sydenham road, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the populous suburb of Marrickville, was one. This we knew as the Long-Grey-road. Mobs of sheep passed along almost every night. They travelled late, and down the road they were heralded by a clatter on each side as windows were banged down to keep out the dust they raised; whilst the shouting of the drovers and the yapping of dogs woke up everybody who had got to sleep. If the mob passed before 10 p.m., a crowd of street urchins joyfully apprenticed themselves to the droving profession, and raised more row and more dust than a gang of rouseabouts in a drafting yard at shearing time. Sometimes the stock passings were recorded in the small hours, when the reposing residents would be wakened long before it was time to get up. In the bush the drover was a quiet workman; but in the city droving seemed to be impossible without the accompaniment of a tremendous lot of noise. The cattle route exacted more than the mere sheep road. The cattleman's motto seemed to be: "We're awake; let's wake everybody else."
The overseer knew Sydney fairly well, so we trusted to his leadership whenever we wandered beyond the city lights. To show us how well acquainted he was with the various suburbs, he took short cuts across vacant allotments and through dark lanes to whatever parts we particularly wanted him to go to. The short cuts proved tiresomely long at times, and it caused the overseer to wear an anxious expression, and to look about more sharply than usual, as though he didn't want to miss anything that might be going on: but he never admitted that he was lost.
In the course of these night rambles we became closely acquainted with various herbiverous quadrupeds that formed a considerable portion of the inhabitants of Sydney, and came to memorise many un-notable places on the patchwork run. Visitors from the city were wont to make humorous remarks about the livestock that were allowed to stray on the footpaths and streets in country towns; but the country town, we discovered, was not singular in that respect. The docile cow and the overworked horse did not browse in the streets in the city itself—that is, for a radius of a mile or so round the G.P.O.; but in the suburbs the straying animal was as rampant a nuisance as in any country town that could be mentioned.
In unlighted and dimly-lighted thoroughfares one had to pick his steps carefully, or take the risk of falling over a recumbent beast, which gave no warning of its presence until the collision happened, then leaped up with a suddenness that helped the biped to execute an unpremeditated somersault. The overseer, being in front, and looking about for familiar landmarks, collided more frequently than anybody else; he kissed the pavement with so much violence once or twice that his friends were ashamed to be seen with him for a day or two afterwards.
Even the aldermen fell over the strays, and when an alderman fell over a cow on the footpath, one would imagine that he would take the earliest opportunity of having the bovine removed. But, as the nuisance persisted, he evidently regarded falling over cows on his way home from council meetings as a fine joke. A Bexley alderman declared at one council meeting that he had bumped a cow at night tethered to a picket fence. The animal was stretched across the footpath.
"A friend of mine," he added, "going home one night, ran into a young steer that showed fight. My friend tried to frighten the animal from the footpath, but it charged. Had he not been armed with a bottle of stout, there is no telling what may have happened. As it was, he had to defend himself with the bottle, and in the conflict broke it, but probably saved his life."
A suspicious member of the council interjected something about not being able to steer straight, and that remark indicated the attitude of the average alderman towards the nuisance. The incident, recalled an aldermanic discussion on a similar subject in another municipality, in the course of which the following letter, written by a Frenchman, was read—which showed that there were some aldermen who shifted stock from the secrets at least, if the animals died or threatened to die:
"Your chairman he did instruct me to remove and burn one old mare with cancer that had been lying on the road for two days near the river crossing. I did walk four miles, and find the mare as specified. She was nearly dead, but not yet. I have a kind heart, which has caused me to lose much moneys in my life. I did not like to burn the poor old creature while some little wind was left in its insides, so I did hit him first, when, presot! the old villain did stagger up on its front legs, and after sitting up some time like a dog, did by-and-bye get up altogether and walk away, and escape me, and I did lose my 15s. Now, gentlemen, would you look kindly on the situation; my whole day did lose, walk I did eight miles, my stick blow did remove the horse as per instructed, but burn the old thing I could not. I could not catch him."
Some suburbs, as on the northern side of the harbour, had a partiality for goats. Large herds of them were spread over the vacant spaces; you met them everywhere, either feeding on the paths and the allotments or having a comfortable camp where you least expected an obstacle. Some of them were so tame that they had to be shoved out of the way, if there was no room to go round. The black ones, lying prone on a grassy slope, were not easy to see at night; and a man who speared headlong over one when jogging down hill with an armful of groceries, might at least plead provocation for the subsequent violence he displayed.
The goat was an intrusive quadruped. It pried round fences, squeezing in or underneath wherever there was room to do so, and slipping into the garden when the gate was left open for five minutes, destroying the work of months before it was discovered. If it got into the backyard it would make a meal of the baby's nightdress, and the householder's white shirt just as readily as it would crop the succulent herbage.
Other suburbs, like Enmore, Marrickville, and Dulwich Hill were covered with cows. There were numerous dairies in these places, each with enough cows to stock a selection. Nearly all of them were pastured on the streets and vacant allotments. On rainy nights, and when the flats were wet and muddy, they lay under the paling fences and on the footpaths, because it was warmer and drier there. An old lady in Marrickville was going home one night, holding a gingham in front of her against a driving mist, when she stumbled over somebody's over-quiet milker, and dived into the open gingham on the other side of it. The gingham was wrecked, her best hat was ruined, and her clothes covered with mud. She had no redress, because she couldn't swear to the cow. Another lady in the same neighbourhood, who had been enjoying a gossip round the corner, on returning to her own house, discovered an old cart-horse in her bedroom. She had left the front gate and the front door open; and being used to stables, Bowler had mooched in, looking for a feed. Luckily it was daytime; the discovery of a monster like that in the bedroom at night would have been startling.
As a rule, the horses had better manners than cows and goats; they didn't go to bed on the footpath; and if they happened to be standing or feeding there when any one came along, they moved away with heavy treads that could be heard to the end of the block. But they reached over the front railings and clipped down the hedges, ornamental trees, or whatever might be growing within reach. One horse could do a tremendous amount of damage in a night in this way. It was exasperating to see a man who had been trying to make his home attractive to find one morning that his careful work of months had been destroyed or seriously damaged by a straying horse. This was not a matter to joke about, though to the ratepayer there was a lot of humour in the spectacle of a policeman or a fat alderman falling over a recumbent cow. It was only in that way that the average alderman was brought to realise that animals straying in the streets were apt to get in people's way.
It would be hard to find another place that possessed as many picnic baskets, in proportion to population, as the city of Sydney. Picnicking was a common way of holidaying all over the continent; even in Centralia, when an outing was arranged among neighbours, it merely took the form of a picnic by some waterhole, with games and dancing on the grass for the young, and fishing and gossip for those who were past the age of participation in active amusements; but nowhere did you see such unanimity as in Sydney.
Despite the variety of entertainments provided, the picnic basket was a conspicuous object on every holiday. You met it under all manner of conditions, in the streets and on the less-frequented roads; you found it dotting the greensward in parks and gardens; you bumped it in trams and trains, in 'buses and boats; wherever the eye wandered on holiday morning it encountered a hurrying troop; and in that troop there was at least one who was burdened with the bulging basket. The Sydney home that did not possess one was an exception, and few were the inmates, whether rich or poor, who did not wander forth with it in the sweet time when the buds were bursting. In fact, it did not matter much what the season was; they sallied forth in midwinter just the same as in spring and summer; on dull, threatening days, as well as when the skies were blue and the air was sweet and warm; they went out in the rain gaily, trusting that it would clear up by-and-bye; and they trudged through mud and water, and picnicked under any old cover available. Even when the morning promised a flood, if the forecast in the paper was "fine," they pinned their faith to that, and out they went, with the beloved basket, though ultimately, for want of a dry spot, they might have to sit on it under an umbrella. To them the call of the open was always in the atmosphere.
The amount of exertion that was cheerfully expended in this pleasure was prodigious. An onlooker, observing a perspiring person struggling through a crowd with a weighty hamper, lugging it in and out of impatient trams and trains; humping it to the top of 'buses and down again, and looking after his following at the same time, might imagine that one such experience would be quite enough for any man in his right senses, especially as he was never rid of the burden until he had carried it right home again. Doubtless he called that basket lots of names that would not look well in print; but he never seemed to swear off it altogether. The family vote would be against him if he did.
This picnicking habit enabled hundreds of people to make a very fair income by selling water. Every regular picnic resort had at least one establishment where hot water was dispensed at about 3d a quart, and billycans and teapots were loaned at their full value. They sold water day and night, winter and summer; they sold it when it was raining.
The streaming picnickers was one of the sights of suburban Sydney to those whose turn it was to stay at home. They watched from front windows and balconies as the crowds hurried along to the trams and to railway stations; young couples with a little basket, which said plainly that two's company; parties of young fellows and merry girls, with fun and romance wrapped up in their bulging loads; older couples with half a dozen youngsters in tow, like steps and stairs; and companies of several families who were going to picnic together. Men with baskets on their shoulders, in their hands, and under their arms; and an odd one with the hamper on his head, or slung on his back, marched strenuously with the jovial precession; women and girls, flush faced and breathless, bustled laboriously along with the universal luggage, carrying it alone or in pairs, and putting it down frequently for a spell, but picking it up again in a moment as though the missing of a certain locomotive and having to wait for the next would be a calamitous affair. Of course, it was annoying to the parties to have to wait half an hour "after busting ourselves hurrying," but that was one of the humours of picnicking.
Everybody was gay; everybody was in good humour, and bubbling over with benevolence and generosity. Old men felt quite young again, and cheerfully helped strange girls with their loads; others carried toddlers along for women they had never seen before. Gallantry characterised the whole male section; they helped the ladies into tram and train; they gave up their seats to them, and found enjoyment in standing; and if they slightly bumped one another in the crush, or stepped on one another's toes, they apologised most politely. If one asked for a match, half a dozen were eager to oblige him. Someone said, "Have a cigar?" Another, seeing a man alongside about to fill his pipe, handed out his tobacco pouch, and said: "Try some of this." Nobody was inconvenienced by being jambed in the crowd like a compressed sardine; they laughed and cracked jokes about it.
The same spirit pervaded the children. They were excited and joyous; they were so energetic and good-natured that they must really carry something, and made brave attempts to carry burdens twice too heavy for their years; they were so full of life and merriment that they were racing and playing all the while their hands were empty; and they were so eager to get to their destination that the parents had frequently to call them back and admonish them for going too far ahead. Above all, they were prettily dressed, spotless, neat, bright and proud. That was in the morning.
In the evening the watchers, who were now sitting on the front verandahs or standing by the garden gates, saw quite a different picture. It was the same stream of picnickers who went out so merrily when the day was young, and yet the stream was different. All the vivacity, gaiety and sprightliness was gone. There was discontentment and insubordination in the ranks; nobody wanted to carry the awful basket; and there were frequent complaints that it was somebody else's turn.
"Father" was grumbling, too. He didn't know what "mother" wanted to take crockery and tablecloths for when they went picnicking—making a beast of burden of a man when there was no necessity for it. She reminded him that she had consulted him concerning what should be taken, and he had said: "Take what you like; it won't be much to carry;" and now, lessened by the weight of victuals and bottles, "It is as heavy to carry home as it was to carry out." And he was dead weary, more tired than he had felt at any time through the week after a hard day's work.
Children who had raced ahead in the morning were straggling far behind, and there were frequent requests to "Come on!" and "Hurry up!" intermingled with dark threats of "Wait till I get you home!" Many were crying, some were squabbling, odd ones were getting cuffed and shaken and scolded; while clothes and hats spoke eloquently of the fine time the wearers had been having.
The erstwhile gallantry and good humour had also suffered. The man who gave up his seat to the old lady going out now made a scramble to get there before her; and only reluctantly did he surrender it, even to a woman with a child in her arms. If somebody bumped against him he was apt to make disagreeable remarks; whilst he was only tempted to assist the prettiest and most engaging girls on their way home with their baskets. If one tried to borrow a match he met only with sour looks. Some times he overheard somebody mumble, "Go and buy matches." The least crushing was exasperating; the slightest hitch in the tram service roused a general desire to lynch the Commissioner. The roads were a disgrace to the council. The weather was beastly. The movement and bearing of everybody bore testimony to the strenuousness of the holiday.
But there was one section who returned as fresh and as merry and as happy as they went out. These were the lovers, to whom picnicking was a joy for ever; for whom the day sped all too swiftly, and the way home was far too short.
Is it better to be hard up in the city or hard up in the country?
The question occurred when John Jovius Muggs began to read the "wanted" columns of the daily papers, and the overseer showed an interest in the cards in the windows of the registry offices. The end of their holiday was being determined by financial considerations.
No one would willingly be hard up anywhere; but as there are more hard-up people than millionaires knocking around, it is a question that exercises the minds of a good many at one time and another, and it may be a satisfaction to some of them to have it definitely settled. Often a man who is frying in the pan of poverty remarks that he would shift his address if he could be sure that he wasn't going to step out into the fire. There is a degree of respectable poverty which the luckless one who bottoms it considers the limit; he says to himself that things can't be worse, no matter where he goes. There is another degree of poverty known as the lowest ebb, as exemplified by the chronic dosser in Sydney Domain and the sundowner in the bush. They never improve, and they can't get worse—unless they change places. If the Domain dosser were dumped down in a far back locality, where, the population has so much room to breathe in that one house is lost sight of long before the next comes into view, he would think he was faced with bitter times indeed, in comparison with which the Domain, with its seething life surroundings, would seem a place of joyous comfort; whilst the sundowner, missing the hospitality and freedom of his whilom haunts, would soon discover that he had not known before what it was to be hard up. Neither of these persons has any ambition beyond scraping up enough day by day to live on, and the query propounded at the beginning of this dissertation has no bearing on anybody who has no ambition.
It particularly concerns the married man who has a young family, and who wants to do his best for them. Two such persons, we'll say, are Theophilus Smith and Solomon Jones. Both are industrious, but through no fault of their own have drifted into bad times. It is so very easy to be come hard up—about the easiest thing I know—that no plans and specifications are needed to show the way. Smith belongs to the country, and the only time he would ever think of visiting the city would be when he had plenty of money in his pocket.
He uses no sweet adjectives in his description of the bush, and is blind to the sublime beauties of all that is rural, when his financial statement shows a deficit and there is no immediate prospect of making an improvement. He promises himself all his life through that when his fortune ship by some miraculous means arrives at his door he will transplant himself in town, where he can see something and enjoy life.
Meantime he considers the town the worst place on earth to be hard up in. Nor does he speak without experience. He has sampled it in past pleasure jaunts, when he invaded it in the Christmas and Show seasons, and once, when he lost his money in the company of some new acquaintances who had formerly resided in his district and knew his father (grand old man his father was, too, when those chaps knew him), he made the alarming discovery that meals and beds weren't sold on the time payment system; nobody wanted to associate with him if he hinted that he was "broke;" and whenever he answered an advertisement for an able-bodied man of his qualifications he found 49 other able-bodied men there before him. He went to the registry offices, but none of them had a job for an impecunious person. The humblest position demanded references and a 5s deposit, besides a guarantee that the first week's wages he earned would be paid over to the agent. And Smith only wanted a temporary job to earn enough to pay his fare back to the rustic charms of the old homestead and the green splendours of the everlasting bush. Those wide, lone spaces were alluring then; he saw them as in a vision splendid; whilst the endless rows of brick piles and the rushing traffic depressed him. He was an outcast in a crowd, an exile in his own capital; lost and lonesome in the hub of a continent. And that was a more hopeless feeling than ever came to him in the most solitary parts of an unpeopled interior.
At last he exchanged his holiday clothes, including hat and boots, for an old rig-out and a blanket, and with a fruit tin for a billycan, a transformed Theophilus Smith set out for home on foot. He had no dinner to start with, and no idea when it would be ready. That only put him in a greater hurry to get out of town; to hit the road where houses dwindle into mile posts; to propel himself into the wide spaces where people are less plentiful and more thought of. Scattered settlers at first did not rush forth and embrace him; nobody showed any great pleasure at seeing him. The boosted hospitality of a generous land wore a peculiar complexion in urban and suburban areas; it was reserved for the well-to-do. Hospitality in the bush is the real thing without trimmings; it takes no account of the wayfarer's condition. Far on the outward track he came upon a teamster's camp, and the teamsters greeted him cheerily: "Good day, mate. Come and have a feed." By-and-bye he reached a settler's hut, and the settler said: "There's not much doin' just now; but I can give you a week's grubbin', if you care to tackle that." He had arrived; and thenceforth he had no fear of to-morrow.
Though Theophilus Smith has now a modest hut of his own, which rears its unpretentious roof in the centre of a small selection, he is still hard up, but under what he reckons much better circumstances. The selection, being untilled and remote from butter factories and saw mills, produces nothing that can be turned into money; but it produces a lot that saves money. He has only to pick up his wood and cart it home from the paddock, so that the homely fire burns on, however bad the times are, and strikes in the coal mines or on the wharves never worry him. If he has to cart his water also, or even carry it in buckets from the creek, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has no water rates to pay, and can use as much of the precious liquid as he feels inclined to carry. Milk, butter, honey, jam, eggs, poultry, bacon, vegetables, fruit, wild fowl and other game the small selection provides him with. In the creek or lagoon he can catch fish; and in very bad seasons, when ordinary meat goes up to famine prices, he can fall back on a wallaby or a kangaroo. At a pinch he can kill old Strawberry. Of timber he has more than he requires; he can burn his own bricks, if he wants bricks; and he can roof his sheds with bark. If he's out of work for a year at a stretch he won't starve, whilst there is always plenty to do about the premises to keep him in healthy exercise. Flour he has to buy always, unless he is extra energetic and economical, when he may even grow, thrash and grind that for himself. As the country storekeeper gives him at least three months' credit, he prefers to buy flour, together with what little clothes and sundries he requires in the leanest days that come his way. His wife has to make her own bread and her own pies and puddings and tarts; but, living in a clean atmosphere, with trees and grass all around, instead of dusty streets and grime belching chimney stacks, for this labour there is compensation in the comparatively light house-cleaning.
Smith makes his 200lb. bag of flour hang out as long as possible. Being an honest, law-abiding citizen, he reflects that he ought to pay what he owes before running up another big account, and to keep down expenses he draws freely on the selection's natural resources. Its productiveness is merely a matter of will; the fruition of Smith's activity. Potatoes, pumpkins, maize-meal, arrowroot, and other homemade foods lengthen the life of the flour bag, not only in season, but throughout the year, for they are comestibles easily grown, easily made, and easily stored.
Though Smith lacks many of the conveniences that Jones considers necessary to a comfortable existence, he has conveniences in other ways that Jones is a stranger to. Jones belongs to the city. The first upsetting knock he gets when hard times come is the landlord's. The landlord comes on Monday morning; he comes every Monday morning, and his face grows longer and longer as Jones continues to find a new explanation as to why he hasn't got the rent. Jones's resourcefulness in that respect is wonderful; but there are no other resources about the premises—except the furniture and that is not negotiable while the rent is unpaid. The backyard grows only clothes lines, and the front flower-pot develops nothing eatable.
Jones has to depend wholly on tradesmen, and the tradesmen can't depend on Jones, so a deadlock is reached before his meditations on the scarcity of jobs has got half way to an idea. The baker wants his money, or he is apt to forget in three days where Jones lives; the milkman presents his bill, and if it isn't promptly paid he will be sure to run short of milk next day, and remain so indefinitely; and the woodman must be remunerated on the spot or the fire will go out. In desperation Jones might steal some of his own fence, or boil the kettle with a picture-frame, or a superfluous door. He can't shoulder his axe and go down the street for a load of wood when he wants it. He can't do a hundred things that are commonplaces to his friend Smith. Where it is an advantage to the latter to be well known to business people, it is some times a great disadvantage to Jones. The shopkeepers know when he is out of work, and they know that he has nothing to fall back on, and no securities. Credit is soon stopped everywhere. Perhaps the first to stop his credit is the landlord, who gives him short notice to find a new home. That is nearly as difficult as finding a billet, and when he has succeeded in discovering a tenement in keeping with his reduced circumstances he can't get a carrier to remove what is left of his movable property without cash, and in the end he has to do some heavy lumping in the starlight. In a week or two the new landlord begins to look askance on his new tenant, and Jones in consequence becomes addicted to moonlight flitting. Smith, on the other hand, should he find himself turned out of house and home, could shift on to an unsettled part of the creek, and stick up a bark humpy to shelter the family until he had time to look around.
Jones has not had the experience of the country that Smith has of the city. If he had, he would find some means of getting on to the land. With a little taste of it he would soon come to think with Smith that it is better to be hard up in the bush than hard up in the city.
Both Mr. Muggs and the overseer came to that conclusion eventually. The registry office, when it came to be sampled, proved to be a delusion and a snare. Good jobs were not plentiful, and they went to the clients who could buy them. The man who hadn't a bean, though he might have a big family, had no chance of getting on the track of a crust through that medium. In desperation he had often to tie himself to the pawnbroker before he could open negotiations with the registry office.
For a pleasant billet at a wage of £3 a week, and warranted to last, as much as £10 would be demanded; but hard work, coupled with irregular hours, and carrying a minimum wage, could be had at bargain rates. An assortment of such engagements were always in stock; but prime work, like prime fruit, was scarce and expensive. The character the boss had also much to do with prices—often affecting rates more than the class of work or its locality. An exacting boss was worth very little; a mean, hard-driving boss, who was always on the watch, in the estimation of would-be employees, wasn't worth picking up, but the good-natured, fair-minded and considerate boss was rushed, and in consequence of the spirited competition he always brought a high figure. In most cases, however, the buyer was given no information about the nature or quality of the goods until after he had bought and paid for them. One victim paid £3 10s for a job worth £4 10s a week—which was considered a cheap lot. Another paid £1 for a billet worth £1 a week—and which only ran to one week. A £200 a year occupation for a married couple ("without encumbrance") changed hands for £7. Most job-hunters had to pay a registration fee of 5s before their applications for any vacancy were considered; then they had to buy the job in a bag, as it were, since they were not enlightened as to its whereabouts or the identity of the employer until the pride had been handed over, or an agreement signed that the first week or fortnight or month's earnings were to be paid to the office. Subsequently the purchaser might find that his purchase was 300 miles away, and he had no means of connecting with it.
In the end Mr. Muggs and the overseer shaped their course for Bourke, in company with a couple of droving pals they had met, who were making back for the wide lands they knew, where no man was asked to buy work, and where Jack was as good as his boss.
Sydney was the terminus of my pleasure trip. In the beginning of my acquaintance with the city I became temporarily domiciled in an unpretentious tenement in a narrow street in the vicinity of Hyde Park. All narrow streets may not be the same; but a casual inspection of a few others failed to discern any striking difference. They are usually the foundation on which slum areas are built. The narrower and more crooked the streets are the quicker the place becomes a slum area.
The women called it 'Our Avenue,' because that sounded genteel. I was told it was a quiet place, and that I would find life very dull there. However, I found it quite exciting.
The front doors opened directly off the footpaths, and the backyards were about the area covered by a whaler's tent. There was generally a dilapidated paling fence between (when a previous tenant hadn't used it for firewood), over the top of which the gossip of the neighbourhood was ventilated. Dirty-looking, ill-built places they were; damp and mouldy, rat-haunted and mouse haunted, and clothed with cockroaches as with a garment. Beside them, the average bush hut, which the town person sneered at, was almost luxurious in its comforts. When there was not much room inside there was plenty outside—miles of it; but in the narrow street of Sydney there was little room inside and none outside. And winter nights called back the ghosts of big bush fireplaces and blazing logs, the circle of healthy, sun-browned faces, the chatter and the yarning; while washing day brought visions of long wire lines stretched between trees, where the sheets flapped in the wind like thunderclaps. Then there were the hunting and shooting and sugar-bagging—Ah, well! we couldn't expect to find those things in "Our Avenue."
In the mornings the women swept the footpaths, and did battle with the short frocked sisters that chalked out hop-scotch grounds there. The short-frocked sisters did it often for devilment. In the case of an extra-irascible female, or one with whom they were "not friends," they chalked her door also, and smeared her window—after watching her clean it; and now and again they knocked and ran round the corner. At night time they tied cotton to the knocker, and, seated on the opposite side, rap-tapped gently every few minutes. They looked little dreams of innocence when Mother Firelight came out and glanced up and down with murder in her eye. Perhaps she would open the door three or four times before she discovered the ruse. Then there was a shriek and a stampede, followed by much vituperative language and fist-shaking on the woman's part, and hilarious laughter from the miscreants.
Between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning, when bed-making was in progress, a row of heads protruded from upstairs windows on each side, and the owners talked in loud voices to their opposite neighbours. The smallest items at any time brought these heads into view—a tin whistle, a dog fight, the arrival of a piece of furniture, and the removal of a tenant were matters of special interest. They discussed one another and one another's business freely; quizzed comers and goers and passers-by, and passed remarks about them; and personal and sensational bits and scandal items were caught up quickly and bandied from mouth to mouth to the end of 'Our Avenue."
Each one knew what the other one had in her house, and how she kept it, without going in. They watched the rent man on Monday mornings, and noted who paid regularly and who was short; heads popped out when a cart stopped at anyone's door, and the purchase was noted and commented upon, if it was only a penn 'orth of apples or a mouldy banana; they knew the carts from the time-payment shops, and likewise the men who called from those places. The fact that Mrs. Smith got her furniture in this way was a relishable item to Mrs. Brown, who paid cash; and the information was enthusiastically circulated, to Mrs. Smith 's disparagement. When one bought a new hat or a new blouse it was known almost immediately by the street, and all inspected and criticised it (caustically) when the owner sported it for the first time, while everyone endeavoured to find out what it cost. If they could discover the shop where it was bought, several of them would go there for no other reason than to price the hats or the blouses; and if the lines were cheap the sneers of some of them would trip up an elephant. They were a motley collection of people, who minded everybody's business but their own.
The street was divided into cliques, and when a new tenant arrived there was a keen competition for the favour of her smiles. She was warned against "that dreadful woman" applied to nearly everybody. If she was wise she lay low until she knew the ropes. She soon learnt everybody's pedigree over the back fences from the women on each side of her. When she had become recognised as belonging to any one set, she at once became taboo with all the others. Friendships were quickly formed, and as quickly turned to hatred. One's neighbour might be a borrowing sort, who never had anything; and if Next-door made an excuse when asked for the washing-board or a few pegs or a saucepan, she was described behind her back in language which would be an exaggeration if applied to L. Borgia. The pair left off speaking, and passed each other in the street in silent scorn. The feud was shared by the whole family down to the baby, which poked its tongue out at the other baby.
"Our Avenue" could not have been eloquent if steam trains rushed through it, and the German band and the blue-metal roller lived there. The baby learned to crawl in its gutters, the youth made love there; and day and night betweens of both sexes were in noisy evidence, racing and howling, playing marbles and rounders, and other games that seemed to demand incessant shouting and argument. Cricket, with somebody's rubbish tin for wicket, held possession in season; football was beloved by the adolescent and the small boy, so the blown leather in its turn boomed delightfully morning and evening, on moonlight nights, and all day on Sunday. They followed the Bear-cum-Monkey war, too. They built forts in mid-street with cases and tins, and bombarded each other with stones, meat cans, and decayed boots, charged with brooms and gridirons, and tore wildly round with flags made of dungarees, red shirts and the dishcloth.
The thoroughfare was the common play ground. The children pretty well lived there, and kept the women at daggers drawn with each other. One youngster hit another, or tore its hat or its pinny; then the mothers interfered, and embellished each other's names with an assortment of choice adjectives; and occasionally the males were drawn in, and "The Avenue" brought its collective baby out to see the fun. Generally the tired head of the family was only seen after tea, when he sat and smoked on the doorstep—barefooted.
Saturday nights saw "The Avenue" at its best. Pushes gathered here and there with "constant screamers" and mouth organs and tin whistles, and jubilated till midnight. Late hawkers, who "wanted to sell out cheap and get home," went rapping and bawling from door to door; and after bedtime, when the community wanted to sleep, a couple of drunks staggering home from the corner pub, would stop under the window and argue about Rozhdestvensky and Togo, or the merits of the best cricket teams, until something wet dropped down and drowned the barney. Then a woman's shrieks broke out suddenly, mingled with cries of "murder!" There was breaking of glass and furniture, bad language, and a banging and thumping like a lost earthquake going downstairs. A crowd gathered, and as a white-faced female got on to the roof through the back window, they smashed more glass, and broke the door in. Then the police appeared, and summary justice was tripped up on the threshold.
But the street, was never very quiet, and it broke out violently when least expected. Towards dawn, when the bushman's environment is blissfully still, "Our Avenue's" cats fought in wild spasms about the premises; the pup next door woke up and howled with renewed vigour, cocks crowed enthusiastically in all direction, and the man who had to go to work early started chopping wood, falling over tubs and tins, banging things at large, and talking loudly to nobody in particular. Then three or four different milkmen began "knocking the doors down" and bawling out "Milk-o;" and ere long the endless string of hawkers began their noisy round again.
On New Year's Eve the whole population turned out into the street, the youths lit bonfires in the roadway, and around them the crowd saw the Old Year out and the New Year in, to the tooting and screeching of trumpets, bugles,, whistles, mouth organs, and other instruments of torture. The police scattered the fire, and the crowd hooted them; when they departed the fire was made up again. Sometimes the police made a dart after a ringleader, and the crowd pretended to help by rushing in front to point him out, and got so tangled up around the arm of the law that the culprit escaped. So they could only look on until "Our Avenue" exhausted its enthusiasm around the dying embers of its annual blaze. And I looked on, too—for only a dead man could sleep—and thought of old campfires in the great and glorious bush.
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