Australian Tales

Grumbler’s Gully

Marcus Clarke

THE MINING township of Grumbler’s Gully is situated about twelve miles from Bullocktown.

There are various ways of approaching Grumbler’s Gully. If you happen to be a commercial traveller, for instance, in the employment of Messrs. Gin and Bitters, and temporary owner of a glittering buggy and trotting mare, you would most likely take a tour by way of Killarney, Jerusalem, Kenilworth, Blair Athole, St Petersburg, Maimaitoora, Lucky Woman’s, and Rowdy Flat, thus swooping upon Grumbler’s Gully by way of Breakyleg, Spicersville, Bangatoora, and Bullocktown. If you were a squatter residing at Glengelder, The Rocks, or Vancluse, you would ride across the Lonely Plains, down by Melancholy Swamp and Murderer’s Flat, until you reach Jack-a-dandy, where, as everyone knows, the track forks to Milford Haven and St. Omeo.

If you were a Ballarat sharebroker, and wanted to have a look at the reefs on the road, you would turn off at Hell’s Hole, and making for Old Moke’s, borrow a horse, and ride on to the Hanging Rock, midway between Kororoot and Jefferson’s Lead, this course taking you into the heart of the reefing country. You could jog easily from Salted Claim to Ballyrafferty, Dufferstown, and Moonlight Reefs, calling at the Great Eastern, and entering Grumbler’s Gully from the north by way of the Good-morning-Bob Ranges and Schnilflehaustein.

The first impression of Grumbler’s Gully is, I confess, not a cheering one. I think it was Mr. Caxton who replied when asked what he though of his new-born infant, “it is very red, ma’am.” The same remark would apply to Grumbler’s Gully. It is very red. Long before you get to it you are covered with dust that looks and feels like finely-powdered bricks. The haggard gum-trees by the roadside—if you can call it rightly a roadside—are covered with this red powder. The white near leader seems stained with bloody sweat, and the slices of bark that, as you approach the town, fringe the track, look as though they were lumps of red putty, drying and crumbling in the sun. On turning the corner, Grumbler’s Gully is below as a long straggling street, under a red hill that overlooks a red expanse of mud flecked with pools of red water, and bristling with mounds, shaft-sheds, and wooden engine-houses. The sun is sinking behind yonder mighty range, under whose brow stretches that belt of scrub and marsh, and crag that meets the mallee wilderness, and minor mountains rise up all around us. Grumbler’s Gully is shaped like a shoe with a lump in the middle of it, or rather perhaps, like one of those cock-boats that children make with folded paper. It is a ridge of quartz rising in the midst of a long valley surrounded by mountains.

The place is underlined with “sinkings,” and the inhabitants burrow like moles beneath the surface of the earth. It is no disgrace—quite the reverse—in Grumbler’s Gully to wear moleskin trousers stained with the everlasting red clay. There is, indeed, a story afloat there to the effect that a leading townsman presided at a public dinner in those garments, and was not a whit less respectable than usual. In getting into the bar of the “Golden Tribute Hotel,” you become conscious that the well-dressed and intelligent gentleman, who, in the whitest of shirt sleeves, handed you “Otard” (the brand then in fashion in the Gully), and bid you help yourself, was a shareholder in a rich claim, and could topically speaking, buy and sell you over again if he like without inconvenience. In drinking the said “Otard” you become conscious of a thumping vibration going on somewhere, as if a giant with accelerated action of the heart was imprisoned under the flooring; and getting out into the back yard, where Mr. Merryjingle’s pair horse and buggy is waiting for Mr. Merryjingle to finish his twentieth last glass, you see a big red mound surmounting the stable, and know that the engine is pumping night and day in the Golden Tribute Reef.

But all the hotel-keepers of Grumbler’s Gully are not as elegant as Mr. Bilbery. There is Polwheal, for example, the gigantic Cornishman, who lives in the big red building opposite the Court-house. Polwheal considers his hotel a better one than the “Golden Tribute,” and swears largely when visitors of note stop at Bilberry’s.

For Polwheal’s hotel is of brick, and being built in the “good old times” cost something like a shilling a brick to erect, whereas Bilberry’s is but a wooden structure, and not very substantial at that. The inmate of Bilberry’s can hear his right-hand neighbour clean his teeth and can trace the various stages of his left-hand neighbour going to bed—commencing with the scratching of a safety match, and ending with the clatter of hastily deposited boots. When the Country Court sits at Grumbler’s Gully, and the Judge, Crown prosecutor, and others put up there, it is notorious that Bilberrry is driven politely frantic by his efforts to put Mr. Mountain, who snores like the action of a circular saw, in some room where his slumber will not be the cause of wakefulness of others. It is even reported that a distinguished barrister, after plugging his ears in vain, was compelled one sultry night to take his blankets and “coil” on the wood heap in order to escape from the roaring of Mr Mountain’s fitful diapason. I, myself, tossing in agony three rooms off, have been enabled to accurately follow the breathing of that worthy man, and to trace how the grunt swells into a rumble, the rumble reaches a harsh, grating sound, which broadens into the circular saw movement, until glasses ring, roofs shake, and the terrified listener, convinced that in another instant Mountain must either suffocate or burst, hears with relief the terrific blast softened to a strangled whistle, and finally dies away into a soothing murmur, full of deceitful promises of silence.

Now at Polwheal’s you have none of this annoyance, but then Polwheal’s liquor is not so good, and his table is not so well kept. Now, often with the thermometer at 100, have I shuddered at a smoking red lump of boiled beef, with Polwheal in a violent perspiration looming above in a cloud of greasy steam! But Polwheal has his patrons, and many a jorum of whisky hot has been consumed in that big parlour, where the Quartzborough Chronicle of the week before last lies perpetually on the table. Then there is “Bosk-eyed Harry’s” where the “boys” dance, and where a young lady, known to fame as the “Chestnut Filly,” was wont to dispense the wine cup. Also Mr. Corkison’s, called “Boss” Corkison, who dressed elaborately in what he imagined to be the height of Melbourne fashion, owned half the Antelope Reef, and couldn’t write his own name. “Boss” was an ingenious fellow, however, and wishing to draw a cheque would say to any respectable stranger, “Morning, sir! A warm day! Have a drink, sir! Me name’s Corkison! Phillip, a little hard stuff! Me hand shakes, sir! Up last night with a few roaring dogs drinking hot whisky. Hot whisky is the devil sir!” Upon the stranger drinking, and strangers were not often backward in accepting hospitality, “Boss” would pull from his fashionable pocket-book a fat cheque-book, and would insinuatingly say, “Sir, shall be obliged if you will draw a chick, for me (he always spoke of chicks) for £10, sir. Jeremiah Corkison. I will touch the pen. Sir, I am obliged to you.” If the stranger was deceived by the subterfuge, “Boss” would waylay him for days, with the “chicks” getting bigger and bigger, and his hand getting shakier and more shaky, I may mention Tom Puff’s store, where one drank Hennessy in tin tots, and played loo in the back parlour: and the great Irish house, where you got nothing but Irish whisky and patriotism. I have no time to do more than allude to the “Morning Star,” the “Reefer’s Joy,” the “Rough and Ready,” or the twenty other places of resort.

Leaving hotels for awhile, let us walk down Main Street. Society in Grumbler’s Gully is very mixed. I suppose that the rich squatters who live around about consider themselves at the top of the tree, while the resident police-magistrate, the resident barrister, the Church of England clergyman, and the Roman Catholic priest, and the managers of the banks sit on the big limbs—leaving the solicitors, rich storekeepers, and owners of claims to roost on the lower branches, and the working miners, &c, to creep into the holes in the bare ground. Of course the place is eaten up with scandal, and saturated with petty jealousy. The Church of England clergyman will not speak to the Presbyterian minister, and both have sworn eternal enmity to the Roman Catholic priest. The wife of the resident magistrate, and wives of the bank managers, don’t recognise the wives of the solicitors. If you call on Mrs. M’Kirkincroft she will tell you—after you have heard how difficult it is to get servants, and that there had been no water in the tank for two days—that shocking story, though remember, only a rumour, of Mrs. Partridge and Mr. Quail from Melbourne, and how Mrs. Partridge threw a glass of brandy-and-water over Mr.Quail, and how Mr. Quail went into Mr. Pounce’s office and cried like a child, with his head on a bundle of mining leases.

If you call on Mrs. Pontifex, she will inform you—after you have heard that there has been now water in the tank for two days, and how difficult it is to get servants—that Mrs. M’Kirkincroft’s papa was a butcher at Rowdy Flat, and that M’Kirkincroft himself made his money by keeping a public-house on the road to Bendigo. Mrs. Partridge has a very pretty history of Mrs. Pontifex’s aunt, who came out in the same ship with Mr. Partridges’ cousin, who was quite notorious for her flirtations during the voyage; and Mrs. Partidge who is a vicious, thin-lipped, little dark woman, pronounces the word “flirtation” as if it included the breaking of the seventh commandment seventy times over. You hear how Tom Twotooth ran away with Bessie Brokenmouth, and how old Brokenmouth took his entire horse, Alexander the Great, out of the stable in the middle of the night and galloped to the “Great Eastern,” only to find the floods down below Proud’s ferry, and the roads impassable. You hear how Jack Bragford lost over £600 to Dr. Splint, and how Jack drew a bill which was duly dishonoured, thereby compelling poor Sugman Sotomayordesoto, the wine and spirit merchant (who is as generous as becomes a man in whose veins runs the blood of old Castile), to impoverish himself in order to pay the money. There are current in Grumbler’s Gully marvellous scandals respecting the parson, the priest, and the police magistrate—scandals which, though they are visible lies, are nevertheless eagerly credited by dwellers round about. There are strong flavoured stories—old jokes such as our grandfathers chuckled at—told concerning the publican, the miners, and the borough councillors: and a resident of Grumbler’s Gully would be quite indignant if you hint to him that you had “heard that story before.”

But come back to Main Street. The architecture is decidedly irregular. A bank shoulders a public-house, a wooden shanty nestles under the lee of a brick and iron store. Everything is desperately new. The bricks even look but a few days baked, and the iron roof of the Grumbler’s Gully Emporium and Quartzborough Magazin des Modes has not as yet lost its virgin whiteness. The red dust is everywhere flying in blinding clouds. The white silk coat of “Boss” Corkison looking for the stranger is powdered with it: and the black hat, vest, trousers and boots of Jabez Hick—Jabez P. Hick he insists on signing himself—are marked with red smudges.

Mr. Hick is a very smart Yankee (there are one or two in Grumbler’s Gully), and is the proprietor of the Emporium. He has also a share in the General Washington United, and has been down to the dam this afternoon to look at the small amount of water which yet remains there. The dust lies thickly on the hood of Mr. Salthide’s buggy, standing at the door of Copperas, the ironmonger, and ruins the latest Melbourne toilets of Mrs. Partridge and Mrs. Pontifex, who continue to think Main Street Collins Street, and make believe to shop there daily from three to five. The peculiarity of Main Street is it incongruous newness. Around are solemn, purple hills, with their hidden mysteries of swamp and wilderness; and here, on the backbone of this quartz ridge in the midst of a dirty, dusty, unsightly mudpatch punched with holes, and disfigured with staring, yellow mounds, are fifty or sixty straggling wooden, iron and brick buildings, in which live people of all ranks of society, of all nations, of all opinions, but every one surrounded with his or her particular aureole of civilisation, and playing the latest music, drinking the most fashionable brand of brandy, reading the latest novels, and taking the most lively interest in the election for president, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Spanish question, the Prussion war, and the appalling fact that oysters in London are positively three shilling a dozen! A coach thundering and tattling at the heels of four smoking horses drops upon them twice a day out of the bush, and the coachman delivers his mails, skims a local paper, has a liquor, retails the latest joke (made in Melbourne, perhaps, twenty-four hours before,) and then thunders and tattles away again through the lonely gum-tree forest, until he drops upon just such another place, with just such another population, at the next quartz out-cropping fifty miles away. Amidst all this there is not nationality. The Frenchman, German, and Englishman all talk confidently about “going home,” and if by any chance some old man with married daughters thinks he will die in the colony, he never by chance expresses a wish to leave his bones in the horribly utilitarian cemetery at Grumbler’s Gully.

A word about this Grumbler’s Gully Cemetery. It is close to the hospital, a fine building containing fifty beds, and supported by voluntary contributions: and the patients can see the grave of a man who died yesterday quite readily. Grumbler’s Gully can see no reason why they should not see it. Sick people must die sometimes, of course. In the same spirit has the cemetery been built. It is a square patch of ground surrounded by a neat iron railing. Everything spick and span new, the railing not even rusted, to the sordid red mounds not even overgrown with grass. No tenderness, no beauty, no association, no admirable place to hold the loathly corpses that were once human beings: a most useful graveyard and nothing more. Nothing more: save that near these ugly mounds, unpolitical, untaught, ill-dressed man and woman will sometimes linger, sparing an hour from the common toil of practical place to foolishly weep, thinking on the friends that are gone. The hideously excellent cemetery of Grumbler’s Gully always seemed to me to realise the life of the colony—the stern, practical, laborious, unleisured life of a young country, a life in which one has no time to think of others until they have left us and gone Home.

Close beside the hospital is the church and over against the church the chapel, and glaring viciously at both of them in an underbred way is the meeting-house. Religion, or rather difference of religion, is a noted feature in Grumbler’s Gully. Formerly the inhabitants might have been divided into two classes, teetotalers and whiskey-hot men. There was a club called the “Whisky Hot Club” at Polwheal’s each member of which was pledged to drink ten whiskeys hot “Per noctem,” the qualification for membership being three fits of “delirium tremens”—but of late these broad distinctions have been broken down, and the town now boasts five sects, each of which devoutly believes in the ultimate condemnation of the other four. There is a Band of Hope at Grumbler’s Gully, likewise a Tent of Rechab. The last has fallen into some disrepute since it was discovered by a wandering analytical chemist that Binks Brothers, who were affiliated Jonadabers in the third degree, and who supplied the camp with teetootal liquids, habitually put forty per cent. of proof spirit into the Hallelujah Cordial. There was quite a run upon Hallelujah Cordial for a few days after this discovery. The moving religious element, however, in Grumbler’s Gully is a Mr. Jack. Jack was a cabinet maker when in darkness and did not get “called” until he had been twice insolvent. He was so near fraudulency the second time that it is supposed that his imminent danger converted him. Jack is a short, squat, yellow-faced, blacktoothed, greasy-fingered fellow, with a tremendous power of adjective. When he prays he turns up his eyes until nothing but a thin rim of white is visible, over which the eyelids quiver with agonizing fervour. When he prays he is very abusive to his fellow-creatures, and seems to find intense consolation in thinking everybody around him deceitful, wicked, and hard-hearted. To hear him denounce this miserable world, you would think that, did he suddenly discover that some people were very hopeful and happy in it, he would suffer intense pain. He travels about the country “preaching the Word,” which means, I’m afraid, sponging on the squatter, and has written a diary, “Jacks’ Diary, published by subscription,” which sets forth his wanderings and adventures. Passages like this occur in that Christian work:—

“Nov.28th.—My horse fell with me at Roaring Megs (a claim to be understood, not a lady), and I could not get him to rise. After poking him with sharp sticks for some time in vain, I bethought me of lighting a fire beneath the beast: this roused him, and I lifted up my heart in prayer,—Isaiah xix. 22.”

“Nov. 29.—Came to Bachelor Plains, and put up at home station. The overseer, an intelligent young man, put my horse into the stable and gave him some oats, the which he has not tasted for many months. In the evening, after an excellent repast, I ventured to commune in prayer, but the overseer pulled out a pipe, and began to play euker with a friend. I felt it my duty to tell them of the awful position in which they stood, and upon their still continuing to gamble, to curse them both solemnly in the name of the Lord.”

It will be seen by this that Jack is not averse to a little blasphemy. He is a self seeking, cunning dog, who is fit for nothing but the vocation he follows, vis.:—that of “entering widows’ houses, and for a pittance making long prayers.” Yet he has a large following, and crowds the chapel when he preaches. The result is that all the rationalistic-going men in the township, and there are some half-adozen, disgusted with the hypocrisy and vulgarity of this untaught preacher, have come to consider all clergymen knaves or fools, and to despise all religion.

These enlightened persons hold meetings at the “Morning Star Hotel,” and settle the universe quite comfortably. They are especially great at such trifling subjects as “The Cause of Poverty,” “Our Social Relations,” “The Origin of Species,” “Is Polygamy or Polyandry best calculated to insure the Happiness of the Human Race.” “Whence do we come,” “Whither do we go,” and so on. Indeed, Grumbler’s Gully was at one time denounced by the opposition (Baker’s Flat) journal as having dangerous tendencies to pure Buddhism. The local paper, however, retorted with some ingenuity, that the Baker’s Flats were already far gone in the pernicious doctrines of Fo, and that it was well known that Hang Fat, the Chinese interpreter, held nightly séances in order to expound the teaching of Confucius.

A word about the local literature. The Quartzborough Chronicle and Grumbler’s Gully Gazette is like all other country newspapers—whatever its editor chooses to make it. Local news is scarce. Arrival of telegrams, a borough council riot, or two police-court cases, will not make a paper, and the leading article on alluvial diggings, Mr. Pagrag’s speech on the Budget, Mr. Bobtail’s proposition for levelling the Gippsland Ranges to fill up the Sandridge lagoon, or what not, or a written “cuttings” become things of necessity, and Daw, the editor, “cuts” remarkably well.

Daw is a capital amateur actor, and a smart journalist. His leaders can be good if he likes to put his heart into his work, and every now and then a quaint original sketch or pathetic story gives Grumbler’s Gully a fill-up. Daw writes about four columns a day, and is paid £250 a year. His friends say he ought to be in Melbourne, but he is afraid to give up a certainty, so he stays, editing his paper and narrowing his mind, yearning for some intellectual intercourse with his fellow-creatures. To those who have not lived in a mining township the utter dullness of Daw’s life is incomprehensible. There is a complete lack of anything like cultivated mental companionship, and the three or four intellects who are above the dead level do their best to reduce their exuberant acuteness by excess of whisky-and-water. The club, the reading-room, the parliament, the audience that testifies approval and appreciation are all found in one place—the public-house bar. To obtain a criticism or a suggestion one is compelled to drink a nobbler of brandy. The life of an up-country editor is the life of Sisyphus—the higher up the hill he rolls his stone, with more violence does it tumble back upon him. “You want an editor?” said a hopeful new-chum to the lucky job printer who owned the Blanket Flat Mercury. “I have the best testimonials, and have written largely to the English Press.” The man of advertisments scanned the proffered paper. “Clever! sober! industrious! My good sir, you won’t do for me. I want a man as is blazing drunk half his time, and who can just knock off a smart thing when I tell him.” “But who edits the paper?” then said the applicant. “Who?” returned the proprietor, flourishing his scissors over his head in indignant astonishment, “Why, I do! All you have to do is to correct the spellin’, and put in the personalities!” It is remarkable that in this free colony, where everybody is so tremendously equal, the tyranny of cash is carried to a greater extent than in any other country on the face of the earth. Men come to Australia to get rich, and if they don’t get rich they go to the wall. In Melbourne one can in a measure escape the offensive patronage of the uneducated wealthy, but in a mining township, where life is nothing but a daring speculation, the brutal force of money is triumphant.

But it is time to “have a drink”—the chief amusement of the place. If we cannot imitate these jolly dogs of reef-owners, who start from Polwheals’s at 10 a.m., and drink their way to Bilberry’s by 2 p.m., working back again to unlimited loo and whisky-hot by sundown, it is perhaps better for us, but we must at all events conform to the manners and customs.

To sum up the jollity of Grumbler’s Gully in two words—“What’s yours?”

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