A Romance of Lake Wakatipu
Social Usages on the Goldfields.
The more important duty disposed of, Bill Fox rose to take his departure.
"You'll be gaun to tak' a shak'-doun," said the lawyer, "at the Arrow Arms; I'll just step out with you, and we'll hae a nichtcap."
At a later stage of the proceedings we will see what the lawyer's nichtcap consisted of.
Bill, nothing loth to the proposal, took his friend in tow, and, arm in arm, they reached the Arrow Arms. That establishment, like so many of its contemporaries of the day, was erected on the most economical plan as regards space and accommodation. Every square inch had its use and behoof, and in some instances the allotted space had to do duty for more than one purpose. The dining-room, for instance, opening direct from the bar, was lined on each side with small cribs, yclept bed-rooms. For day-work a kind of portable table was improvised—plain boards laid on temporary supports, extending from one end of the apartment to the other, and flanked on all sides with forms. Besides the door opening into the bar, there were two or three loop-holes for the bar-attendants to shoot liquor-supplies through at the beck and call of thirsty customers. In that way long-sleevers, gin-slings, brandy-smashes, and other decoctions by which the rosy god allures his victims, found their way, by a short cut, to the dining-room.
It was at night, however, the dining-room put on its great attractions. The table being removed, and the forms planted round the walls, the whole affair was metamorphosed into the page 20goldfields dance-room. To provide partners, and otherwise assist in driving trade, a whole bevy of girls were engaged, nominally as barmaids. Indeed, it was no uncommon thing for an establishment of this kind to have a dozen such girls so employed. Their real duty was to dance with the diggers, and, in goldfields parlance, string them on to the drink. Besides nominal salaries, these girls were paid by results. Each girl supplied the liquor she had strung her partner on to, or the consumption whereof she might otherwise have superinduced. Supplied with a card, the amount handed in at the bar was duly registered on the particular girl's card. At the end of the week her takings were reckoned up, and a percentage paid thereon. Stimulated in that way, it is easy to understand every possible allurement and strategy were employed to promote drinking, and thereby increase the gains.
The announcement of a new barmaid, or the arrival of a fresh batch of barmaids at a particular hotel, was looked upon as a novelty or attraction similar to that of the star whose arrival is announced at a metropolitan theatre.
The girls themselves showed no small aptitude in their devices. Their birthday dodge, as it was called, came to be reckoned one of the big draws. A girl who had become popular would discover her birthday occurred at a particular time, and, in anticipation thereof, issue unlimited invitations to her male acquaintances, soliciting their presence at its celebration. The thing, however, came to be overdone. So long as a girl had not a birthday oftener than once a month it took pretty well, but when they exceeded that number the thing became stale.
It was upon one of these select gatherings Bill and the lawyer obtruded in search of the conventional nichtcap. The central figure of the affair was a girl named Maggie, and, as our two friends learned she had not had a birthday for the last two months, the patronage was good. The lady herself was togged out, as Bill remarked, to kill. She flaunted about, dispensing smiles and welcomes on all sides with strict impartiality.
Bill and the lawyer being amongst the latest arrivals, she literally flew at them, encircling them in her arms, and, page 21almost by main force, bore them away to a seat at the upper end of the room. "I was quite sure you two sly codgers would turn up," she said. "Why, what keeps you so late? I have been looking out for you the whole night. What a charming pair of mashers you are, to be sure" So saying, she flopped down on the seat between them; and, with an arm around each of their necks, began twirling at their whiskers. A supply of liquor followed, not forgetting Maggie's own particular tipple, after which she hurried away to welcome other arrivals, and repeat the same protestations and performance with them.
Then another and another of the female troupe fastened on to Bill and the lawyer in a similar way, and, by similar endearing phrases, fresh "shouts" were exacted by each relay. Indeed, it was considered a point of honour—questionable as the honour may seem—to give each of the girls a turn.
It was now getting late, and the bulk of the outsiders had gone. Our two friends, now tolerably well primed with liquor, being constant customers, and looked upon to some extent as privileged guests, were allowed to remain behind.
With more leisure on hand, Maggie, laying aside her professional aims, sat demurely down alongside of them.
"Well, Maggie," said the lawyer, "how will the tally-card tell up to-night?"
"No good," replied Maggie, with a drooping air, "birthdays are worked out. The boys have not got the sugar, or, if they have, it will take some other draw to get it out of them."
"Why, then," said the lawyer, "not get up a new draw? If a birthday won't do, why not get up a wake?"
"Not a bad idea," said Maggie, looking at the matter seriously; "but then, Dad, there is the corpse;" and, after ruminating on that point for a moment, she seemed on the eve of giving it up, not apparently being able to recall any of her friends who would be at all likely to oblige her in the way of providing the corpse.
Maggie, however, was a lady of expedients, and all of a sudden a bright idea struck her. "How do you think, Daddy," she asked, "would it do to wake the cat? Dip her in the river, and then lay out the body in state. Then, out with your invites all round: 'Poor puss; a lady's favourite cat; suddenly page 22departed this life; deeply regretted; will be consigned to its last resting-place, &c.' How would that take for a draw, Dad?" asked the unsophisticated Maggie.
The lawyer, thus appealed to, fully indorsed the idea; but whether it was ever acted upon or not we have no means of ascertaining.
Poor Maggie, like many other fragments of goldfields life a quarter of a century ago, has become a thing of the past, and all that can be said is that, if she was no better than some of her confreres of the present day, most assuredly she was no worse.