Australian Tales

Squatters Past and Present

Marcus Clarke

YESTERDAY afternoon, when reading the remarks of our latest critic, Mr. Anthony Trollope, upon Australian life and manners, I received almost simultaneously a letter from my old friend, Robin Ruff, of the Murrumbidgee, and a visit from my young acquaintance, Dudley Smooth (nephew to Lord Lytton’s friend), of “Scott’s Hotel.” Both were squatters, both about equally wealthy, both good fellows in their way, both occupied nearly the same position in society, both were alike—and yet how widely different!

Robin Ruff, writing in a shaky hand, with honest independence of spelling, and hearty contempt for necessary doubling of consonants, sent a message to his grandson, and would I see Wether and Weaners’ people about “them yowes.” Robin Ruff is an old man. He is nearer seventy than sixty I should say; but he is as erect as a dart, and can ride a long day’s journey, or do a hard day’s work, with many a younger man. He is six feet high, his hands are knotted and brown—mottled with sun, and hardened with labour. His shoulders are broad, his head well set on, his eye confident. His head is white, and his beard is white also, save that brown patch round the mouth that looks as if snuff had been spilt on it. In appearance he is not elegant. His coat is too big for him, and his hat is not of the fashionable mould. His boots are clumsy, and have thick soles, which creak as he walks. He carries a big oak stick, and wears a big silver watch. He looks very fierce indeed, and not at all a “lady’s man;” but people who know him well like him, and little children run to him at first sight.

Robin Ruff came to this colony in 1836, the year before Mr. Latrobe was made Superintendent. He had been squatting in Sydney before that, but hearing much of the “new colony,” came over to better his fortunes. Old Ruff—long since put away comfortably in the kirkyard—had kept a little shop in a little Scotch town, and had saved a bit of money, but Robin, adventurous lad, wearied of the big grey hills and the quiet old straggling street, and sowing, and reaping, determined to seek his fortune. The old father advised, and the old mother wept beneath her horn spectacles, but Robin would go. Wise bodies at market assembled, predicted “nae guid” of the lad—(he rebuilt the market-hall the other day, with good Aberdeen granite)—and it was generally prophesied that he would bring his parents’ grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.

For the first ten years of his Australian struggles he seemed likely enough to fulfil the worst of their prophecies. It was a hard fight, and little to get for it. But by steadiness and industry he got a little money together at last. The marvellous virtue that lies in sheer hard work brought him through after ten years, and made him independent. Arrived in the Port Phillip wilderness, up the country he went. Land was to be had easily enough in those days, and being his own bullock-driver and stockrider, and shepherd, and farmer and cook, Robin Ruff soon made a home for himself. He began to be looked upon as a “warm” man. Jolly boys carousing in Melbourne town, at the foundation of Prince’s Bridge, spoke of Ruft’s luck and cursed their own in genial fashion. By-and-by the great crash came. Sheep and cattle were worth nothing, and Ruff’s luck seemed gone. But it turned again. He had bought land with his saved money, and when the “diggings broke out” (like an eruption, one would think), had recovered his losses.

He is an old man now, and people ask him why he doesn’t “go Home and live;” but he knows better. His daughter is married here, and his grandchildren are here too. He has his station to occupy his mind, his trips to Melbourne, his rubber, his pipe, his club, and his chats with other jolly old boys. How the old fellows chuckle as some quaint nickname, springing up in the conversation, recalls some hearty piece of jollity in the “old days!” He did go home once, but he didn’t like it. London was so lonely. He didn’t like to pull out his old clay pipe in his dapper nephew’s smoking-room, and when his niece talked French to him, and asked his opinion of the mise en scéne at the opera he felt uncomfortable. He went to his native town, but his father and mother were dead, and he could remember nobody. A railway bridge spanned the burn where he paddled in his boyish days, and the Telegraph Office had been built where stood the tree on which he cut little Jeanie’s name with his clasp-knife forty years before. He gave money to the local charities, and rebuilt the market-house, and for that the Town Council got at him and gave him a dinner, and a fat cheesemonger, with a turn for oratory, made speeches at him all the evening. Sickened, tired, and disappointed, he took his passage for Melbourne, and, smoking his pipe in the “Port Phillip Club,” on the night of his arrival, with the old faces round him, inwardly vowed he would go home no more. He is not a brilliant fellow to talk to; he is not aristocratic, nor even deistical; but he is a fine, honest, kind-hearted old man, and has not been without his use in this brand-new go-ahead colony of ours.

As I looked up from his letter, I saw Mr. Smooth in the doorway. He was a very different stamp. Mr. Smooth was a very young gentleman. His hands were brown but well-kept, and his whiskers were of a fine yellow floss-silk order, like the down on a duckline. He had but lately come down from his station, but was arrayed in the most fashionable of fashionable garments. His trousers were so tight, that his legs looked as if they had been patented by some mono-manaic player on the flute, as cleaning machines for that instrument of music. His waistcoat yawned like a whited sepulchre. He wore half-a-yard of black satin tied round his neck, or rather his shirt collar. His feet were encased in shoes of that high-heeled class affected by step dancers, and the suddenly expanded trouser-ends flapped around his ankles—entwined like two barber’s poles, by the red stripes of his silk stockings. In addition to a gold hawser that swung heavily from buttonhole to pocket, and fluttered—so to speak—with lockets and charms, as though it were a clothesline on which such trinkets had been hung out to dry, he was spotted generally with jewellery. His manly breast was like nothing so much as Biddy’s canvas-covered trunk studded with brass nails, and at his throat, and on his wrists, gleamed gigantic plates encircled with his name and date—I mean his crest and bearings. The crest of the Smooths is two flat-irons rampant, and from every available portion of my young friend’s body gleamed golden repetitions of those time-honoured weapons. He wore a hat which seemed to have been made by an eccentric hatter, who in the midst of an attempt to imitate the head-covering of a sporting coal-heaver, had been stricken with remorse, and finished his handiwork with a haunting sense of the beauty of the episcopal broad-brim. His manner was affable and easy, he smoked a very strong cigar, and cursed only to that extent necessary and becoming in a man of fashion.

“Well, you melancholy old cuss,” exclaimed this Arcadian youth, “how are you? Got any soda and B.? I was so dooced cut last night! Went knocking round with Swizzleford and Rattlebrain. C’sino, and V’rites. Such a lark! Stole two Red Boots and a Brass Hat. Knocked down thirteen notes, and went to bed as tight as a fly!”

This and more he tells me—sitting the while on the end of my sofa, swinging his flute-cleaning legs, and puffing with his cigar, at an angle of forty-five degrees. His language is ornate and redundant of adjectives. Anything he doesn’t like is “Beastly” or “Loathsome;” anything he does like is “Festive,” “Sportive,” “Ripping.” he calls his father “a cheerful swell,” or a “festive cuss,” and when he goes to the theatre with his family, he has heard to allude periphrastically to his mother as a “square party in the boxes.”

Mr. Smooth’s papa—Dudley has been named after his uncle, for whom the family entertain a profound respect, as a man moving in good society,—came out here fifteen years ago and made his fortune by lucky speculation in land. He owns several stations, has a house in the hottest and most uncomfortable part of South Yarra, and is a most respectable person, with a stake in the country, and a tendency to stomach. He has placed Dudley on the Murriowooloomoolooneriangtrotolong station—he likes the fine old native names,—and that young gentleman is “managing” it at a fine rate.

Dudley is a great man on the Murrio, &c. He is called the “——boss,” and lives in the “house,” in contradistinction to the “hut.” He also keeps his horses habitually in the stable, and feeds them on “oats”—tremendous achievement! He has a buggy and a trotting mare. Nobody says anything to him if he “coils” in the front parlour all the afternoon, and when he rides over to the little public-house and is condescendingly blasphemous towards the publican, the best brandy—without the Barret’s twist at the bottom of the cask—is brought out in his honour. At mustering time he is in his glory—for, to do him justice, he can ride hard enough—and when he gets drunk at night, his stories are voted exceedingly humorous. He is, in his way, a sort of Epicurean. He despises the vanity which prompts honest John Strong of the Plains to jump over a hurdle with a fat wether under each arm; but he is very particular about the brightness of his stirrups, and is the only man on the station who has his boots cleaned every morning.

When he comes down from the country, he makes, as it were, a foray into an enemy’s country. He does not enjoy himself during the day—the time hangs heavily. Having paid a visit to his father and mother, if they are in town, he “looks up a friend,” and the two loaf aimlessly about the town. They may be seen “knocking the balls about” at “Scott’s” or the “Port Phillip,” or drinking “soda and b.,” or “sherry and bitters,” at any decent bar in town. If it is a “selling” day, you can meet them at Kirk’s Horse Bazaar, lounging against the wall as though they owned so many blood-horses themselves that the sight of anything on four legs was wearisome. But it is at night when they enjoy life. What with the theatre and the café they feel quite like old roués by midnight, and stroll down to the Varieties or the Casino like a twinned Alcibiades in the Agora,—only they have never heard of the Alcibiades. There they drink, and smoke, and bask in the smiles of beauty. By two o’clock it is time to “knock round,” and having supped at Cleal’s, and the night Hansom having been duly chartered, Dudley and his friend take a tour in the provinces. It is possible that in the course of their peregrinations they meet Swizzleford and Rattlebrain, and then it is, ho, for the breakage of lamps, the carrying away of signs, the pretty larceny of gilt hats and wooden boots! Dudley is under the impression that his dancing society is much sought after by ladies, and behaves to those poor creatures in a tyrannically fascinating way, putting his name into their programmes with a tender violence that is quite affecting. He dances a little wildly, but with much vigour and height of action. He doesn’t sing, but he can eat a great deal, and is fully alive to the fact that a tip to the waiter will secure a cool bottle of champagne for himself and friends, long after finding none. He plays billiards fairly, and is proud of his skill at pool. He makes a book on the races, and is almost as fond of losing as of winning. This promising young gentleman is two-and-twenty, and intends soon to go home and see the old country. He is quite complacent about it, and talks of “doing Europe” as he would of doing “Collins Street.”

Let me, in conclusion, add only that Mr. Smooth has not a very strong sense of moral responsibility; for though he would not willingly do a dishonourable action, he is so impressed with the virtue of success, that a “smart” scoundrel is, in his eyes, a far more worthy being than an honest dunderhead. He is making money, however, and has no reason to be otherwise just now than honest. His station is fitted with the latest improvements. His prize cattle are fattened on prize principles. His sheep are washed with hot water, and his paddocks are sown with English grass. He has not arrived at the glory of his next neighbour, the Hon. Tom Holles Street, younger son of the Marquis of Portman Square, who was educated at Oxford and Cirensester, and has taken up squatting on scientific principles. The Hon. Tom washes sheep in an American dip at the rate of two hundred a minute, drafts cattle in lavender gloves, has nearly perfected a shearing machine, quotes Æschylus to his overseer, prohobits all swearing, except on Sundays, and has named his working-bullocks after the most distinguished of the early Christians. The Hon. Tom belongs to a later phase of development, and our young friend is far behind him in civilisation; but Dudley Smooth stands out in alarming contrast to poor, honest, simpleminded Robin Ruff.

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