Australian Tales



Marcus Clarke

BULLOCKTOWN is situated, like all up-country townships, on the banks of something that is flood in winter and a mud-hole in summer. For general purposes the inhabitants of the city, called the something a river, and those intelligent land surveyors that mark “agricultural areas” on the tops of lofty mountains, had given the river a very grand name indeed.

The Pollywog Creek, or as it was marked on the maps, the Great Glimmera, took its rise somewhere about Bowlby’s Gap, and after constructing a natural sheepwash for Bowlby, terminated in a swamp, which was courteously termed Lake Landowne. No man had ever seen Lake Landowne but once, and that was during a flood, but Lake Landowne the place was called, and Lake Landowne it remained; reeds, tussocks, and brindled bullocks’ backs to the contrary notwithstanding. There was a legend afloat in Bullocktown, that an unhappy new-comer from Little Britain had once purchased Lake Landowne from the Government, with the intention of building a summer residence on its banks, and becoming a landed proprietor. The first view of his estate, however, as seen from the hood of a partially submerged buggy, diverted his ambition to brandy and water, and having drunk hard for a week at the “Three Posts,” he returned into his original obscurity by the first Cobb’s coach driver that could be prevailed upon to receive him.

I do not vouch for the truth of the story, I only know that a peculiarly soapy part on the edge of the “lake” was known as “Smuggins’ Hole,” by reason of Smuggins, the landed proprietor, having been fished therefrom at an early period of his aforesaid landed proprietorship.

However, any impartial observer in the summer months could see Spot and Toby and Punch, and the rest of the station bullocks, feeding hard in the middle of the lake, and if, after that, he chose to make observations, nobody minded him. Mr. Rapersole, the bootmaker, and correspondent of the Quartzborough Chronicle, had a map in his back parlour, with Lake Landowne in the biggest of possible print on it, and that was quite enough for Bullocktown. Impertinent strangers are locally speaking the ruin of a township.

There was a church in Bullocktown, and there were also three public-houses. It is not for me to make unpleasant comments, but I know for a fact that the minister vowed that the place wasn’t worth buggyhire, and that the publicans were making fortunes. Perhaps this was owing to the unsettled state of the district—in up-country townships most evils (including floods) are said to arise from this cause—and could in time have been remedied. I am afraid that religion, as an art, was not cultivated much in Bullocktown. The seed sown there was a little mixed in character. One week you had a Primitive Methodist, and the next a Hardshell Baptist,—and the next an Irvingite or a Southcottian. To do the inhabitants justice, they endeavoured very hard to learn the ins and outs of the business, but I do not believe that they ever succeeded. As Wallaby Dick observed one day, “When you run a lot of paddocked sheep into a race, what’s the good o’ sticking half-a-dozen fellers at the gate? The poor beggars don’t know which way, to run!” The township being on a main road, and not owning a resident parson, all sorts of strange preachers set up their tents there. It was considered a point of honour for all travelling clergymen (“bush parsons,” the Bullocktownians called them) to give an evening at the “brick edifice.” Indeed, Tom the publican (who owned the land on which the “edifice” was built), said that it was “only fair to take turn about, one down t’other come on, a clear stage and no favour,” but, then, Tom was a heathen, and had been a prize-fighter. I think that of all the many “preachments” the inhabitants suffered, the teetotal abstinence was received with the greatest favour. The “edifice” was crowded, and Trowbridge, vowing that the teetotaler was a trump, and had during, the two hours he had been in his house drunk ginger-beer enough to burst a gasometer, occupied the front pew in all the heroic agony of a clean shirt and collar. The lecture was most impressive. Tom wept with mingled remorse and whisky, and they say that the carouse which took place in his back-bar after the pledge was signed was the biggest that had been known in Bullocktown since the diggings. The lecturer invited everybody to sign, and I believe that everybody did. “Roll up, you poor lost lambs,” he cried, “and seal your blessed souls to abstinence!” He did not explain what “abstinence” meant, and I have reason to believe that the majority, of his hearers thought it a peculiar sort of peppermint bitters, invigorating and stimulating beyond the average of such concoctions.

The effect, however, was immense. The lambs signed to a wether, and where they could not sign, made their marks. The display of ignorance of the miserable art of writing nearly rivalled that shown at a general election. As the lecturer said afterwards, over a pint of warm orange-water in the barparlour, “It was a blessed time,” and Mrs. Mumford, of the Pound, volunteered to take her “dying oath” (whatever that might be) that Jerry had never been so “loving drunk” in all his life before. Billy, the blackfellow, came up to the homestead two days afterwards, gaping like a black earthquake, and informed us that he had taken “blackfellow pledge, big one square-bottle that feller,” and felt “berry bad.” McKillop, the overseer, gave him three packets of Epsom salts, and sent him down to the creek with a pannikin. Strange to say, he recovered.

It was not often that we had amusement of this sort in Bullocktown. Except at shearing time, when the “hands” knocked down their cheques (and never picked them up again), gaiety was scarce. Steady drinking at the “Royal Cobb,” and a dance at “Trowbridge’s” were the two excitements. The latter soon palled upon the palate, for, at the time of which I write, there were but five women in the township, three of whom were aged, or as Wallaby said, “broken-mouthed crawlers, not worth the trouble of culling.” The other two were daughters of old Trowbridge, and could cut out a refractory bullock with the best stockman on the plains. But what were two among so many? I have seen fifteen couples stand up in “Trowbridge’s” to the “Cruiskeen Lawn,” and dance a mild polka, gyrating round each other like intelligent weathercocks.

The stationary dance of the bush-hand is a fearful and wonderful thing. Two sheepish, blushing stockmen grip each other’s elbows, and solemnly twirl to the music of their loose spurs. They don’t “dance,” they simply twirl, with a rocking motion like that of an intoxicated teetotum, and occasionally shout to relieve their feelings. If the “Cruiskeen Lawn” had been the “Old Hundredth,” they could not have looked more melancholy. Moreover, I think that to treat a hornpipe as a religious ceremony is a mistake. The entertainment was varied with a free fight for the hands of the Misses Trowbridge. One of these liberal measures was passed every ten minutes or so, Trowbridge standing in the background, waiting to pick up the man with the most money. As a study of human nature the scene was interesting, as a provocative to reckless hilarity it was not eminently successful.

The other public-houses were much of the same stamp. The township was a sort of rule of three sum in alcohol. As the “Royal Cobb” was to “Trowbridge’s,” so was “Trowbridge’s” to the “Three Posts,” or you work it the other way. As the “Three Posts”, was to “Trowbridge’s” so was “Trowbridge’s” to the “Royal Cobb.” The result was always the same—a shilling a nobbler. True, that “Trowbridge’s” did not “lamb down” so well as the “Three Posts,” but then the “Three Posts” put fig tobacco in its brandy casks, and “Trowbridge’s” did not do that. True, that the coach stopped at the “Royal Cobb,” but then the “Royal Cobb” had no daughters, and some passengers preferred to take their cut off the joint at “Trownbridge’s.” Providence mindful of Mr. Emerson’s doctrine of compensation—equalised conditions even in Bullocktown.

The “Royal Cobb” was perhaps the best house. Before Coppinger bought the place, it was kept by Mr. Longbow, a tall, thin, one-eyed, and eminently genteel man, who was always smoking. He was a capital host, a shrewd man of the world, and a handy shot with a duck gun. No one knew what he had been, and no one could with any certainty, predict what he might be. He shot birds, stuffed beasts, discovered mines, set legs, played the violin, and was “up” in the Land Act. He was a universal genius, in fact, and had but one fault. His veracity was too small for his imagination.

It was useless to argue with Longbow. He was “all there,” no matter where you might be. The Derby! He had lost fifty thou. in Musjid’s year. The interior of Africa! He had lived there for months, and spoke gorillese like a native. Dr. Livingstone! They had slept all night with but an ant-hill between them. The Duke of Wellington! He had been his most intimate friend, and called him “Arthur” for years. I shall never forget one pathetic evening, when, after much unlimited loo, and some considerably hot whisky, Longbow told me of his troubles. “Beastly colony!” he said, “beastly! Why, my dear boy, when I was leaving;—but there, never mind, Buckingham and Chandos was right. Never mind what they may say, Sir, Buckingham and Chandos was right as the mail.” I replied that from the reports I had read of Buckingham and Chandos, I had no doubt whatever that he was all that could be desired by the most fastidious. Upon which Longbow favoured me with a history of B. and C. lending him £20,000 on his note of hand, and borrowing his dress waistcoat to dance at Rosherville Gardens. Before I left he volunteered to produce—some day when I wasn’t busy—the Duke of Wellington’s autograph letter, containing the celebrated recipe for devilled mushrooms, with a plan of the lines of Torres Vedras drawn on the back of it, and he would not allow me to leave him until he told me how Her Majesty had said, “Longbow, old man, sorry to lose you, but Australia’s a fine place. Go in and win, my boy, and chance the ducks!” This last story was quite impressive, more especially as Longbow acted the scene between himself and Her Majesty, and making the whisky-bottle take the place of the Duchess of Sutherland—alternated parts with himself as poor Jack Longbow, and himself as the first lord-inwaiting, crying, “Damme, Jack, come out o’ that; she’s going to cry, you villain!” I listened with approving patience, and never smiled until the very end of the story, where Longbow rushed frantically from the Presence, and knocked A. Saxe Gotha head over heels into the brand new coal-scuttle on the landing! “Oh! those were the days! D——the colony, and pass the whisky!”

Opposite the “Royal Cobb” was the schoolhouse. It had four scholars, and the master was paid by results. He used to drink a large quantity of rum (to settle any symptoms of indigestion, arising from his plethora of funds, I suppose), and was always appealed to on matters of quotation. He was a very old man with a very red nose, and “had been a gentleman.” There was never an up-country township yet that had not some such melancholy waif and stray in it.

When the schoolmaster got very drunk indeed, he would quote Aristophanes, and on one memorable occasion put Flash Harry’s song—

“Oh Sally, she went up the stairs, and I went up to find her;
And as she stooped to buckle her shoe, I tumbled down behind her.”

into Horatian alcaics. He quarrelled with the Visiting Inspector because he (the V.I.) said that wigs were not worn by the ancients and our broken-down gentleman put him into his purgation with the case of Astyages as given by Xenophon. He confessed afterwards that setting your superiors right on matters of quotation is not politic, and that he wished he had let it alone. He was from Dublin University. How is it that the wittiest talkers, the most brilliant classics, and the most irreclaimable drunkards, all used to come from Dublin University?

There was a Post-office in Bullocktown, kept, if a post-office can be kept, by Mr. Rapersole aforesaid, who was regarded as quite a literary genius by the bullock-drivers. Mr. R. “corresponded for the paper”—the paper—and would loftily crush anybody who gave him cause of offence. If Rapersole lost a chicken or missed a pig, the world was sure to hear of it in the Paper. Rapersole, however, did not affect writing so much as speaking. “The platform for me!” he would say, as though the platform were a sort of untamed fiery steed, and he a rough-rider. However, nobody came forward with the article, and he did not “show.” It was generally believed in Bullocktown, however, that if Rapersole once got his platform, the universe might consider itself reformed without further trouble.

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