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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter VII

page 44

Chapter VII.

The time at the station glided smoothly by, and soon overseer and men got into the easy relations of crank and eccentric towards each other; that is, we were at home with one another's ways, and I knew what each one's capabilities were, and what reliance I could place on them, and they on their side understood what measure of work I required from them. As I had taken over the work at the close of the shearing season, and matters there had subsided into their wonted groove, life on the sheep station was monotonous enough, only occasionally enlivened by some stir on Lilly's side of the river, as the requirements of branding calves or other work incidental to the management of cattle necessitated a muster among the stock.

It might have been a little over two months since my arrival on the station, when, more for the sake of enjoying the exercise than from any demand of duty, I mounted Selim, and spent the major part of a sultry day in riding over Lilly's run, and observing how his cattle were looking. Tired with my ride, on returning to the river, instead of sending Selim across, and getting a black fellow to paddle me over, or paddling myself over in Lilly's canoe, I dismounted and entered Lilly's hut. The apartment into which I first entered was that set aside for his cook. Although there were voices in Lilly's end of the building, feeling languid and weary, I simply stretched myself on a bench that was fitted up with scoured sheepskins as a sort of primitive couch. The cook evidently had gone across the river to enjoy a confab with one of his professional brethren of either the men's hut or the house kitchen. The voices that I heard at the other end of the house, and whose utterances I could easily follow, came from Lilly and a poor traveller whom he had been lately entertaining: in this particular, Lilly was left solely to his own discretion, and not only was his hospitality at all times liberally extended to all passing wayfarers, but, by choice, he either entertained a friend, or a chance traveller whose necessity interested him, or to whom he was attracted, for days together. But as Lily at no time encouraged waste, idleness, or as the colonial term expresses it—“loafing”—it was well understood in these occasional instances of extended hospitality that either the peculiar necessities (such as sickness or weakness) of the person, or some other circumstance, justified his action. Anyhow, Mr. Rolleston's expenditure was in no way augmented by Lilly's profuseness with the station's rations, beyond the usual proportions entailed by the prescriptive page 45 exercise of station hospitality. And, indeed, his carefulness in deprecating anything that savoured of waste was a prominent trait in this intelligent man's character. Be it observed, however, that in those days, almost on every station, the claims of hospitality were so freely acknowledged that the consumption of rations by passing travellers was just reckoned among the necessary expenses of the station. Yet how much such a tax must have added to the expenses of the station's rations may be judged, when it is remembered that scarcely a night passed without two or more callers, and, towards the shearing time, this number was frequently increased to about a dozen every evening.

The stranger in question, whose voice I was now listening to as he spoke to Lilly, was a poor traveller whom I had observed about the latter's hut for some days before, and who had excited his consideration by his utterly forlorn appearance when he called at his place one evening and asked for a job, and, failing that, a night's shelter. The poor fellow seemed to be utterly dispirited and done up with that particular day's tramp. He had travelled a distance of three and twenty miles, a great part of it without water, and the day had been extremely sultry.

Together with the natural fatigue from such a journey, his difficulty had been not a little increased by the fact that his boots were almost falling from his feet, and when he arrived at the hut he was limping painfully. Altogether, from his ragged appearance and utter exhaustion, he looked a most utterly woe-begone object.

He was a tall young man of a rather simple yet interesting appearance, with blue eyes and fair hair. He had only left home a few months before and had come to try and make his fortune in the diggings, but was like to have found a famine there instead. To make matters worse, he belonged to that class of pretentious respectability that looks upon the idea of self-support by mechanical, much more by mere manual labour, with feelings of repugnance. But ruin of his people's financial position at home had compelled him to attempt doing something for himself, and now, by his entire loss at the diggings of what little means he had brought out with him, he seemed to be as wholly prostrated in spirit as he was exhausted in body. Not being quick and energetic, or, as it is more happily expressed in the Scotch phrase—“Guid at the uptak,” in his efforts to secure some sort of employment his green, unhandy appearance had hitherto either procured him a prompt rebuff where some work might have been found for a more workmanlike applicant, or, if taken on at hazard, a contemptuous dismissal page 46 after a few days' experience of his utter inability to handle any tool that he was set to work with. Yet, as it afterwards turned out, he was by no means unwilling to be taught, or above learning any kind of work he was set to do.

Thus, penniless, and almost bootless, and seedy-looking in every way, the poor fellow continued to wander on until, after many weeks of weary travelling, he had penetrated thus far into the interior of Australia.

This was, indeed, a case for the exercise of Lilly's compassion, for, underneath a rough, sarcastic exterior, that worthy fellow had no small stock of that precious commodity at hand. I have already mentioned that amongst his other accomplishments, Lilly could mend his own boots. But the task of repairing this young man's boots, which, the day after his arrival, he actually attempted, was beyond even Lilly's mechanical ingenuity. Throwing aside this hopeless task, he did something infinitely better, for he procured him a new pair from the store slops. This gift he afterwards followed up with the presentation of an entire new rig-out; not even excepting a pair of comfortable blankets. This, however, was done on the understanding that if the young man found employment he was afterwards to recoup Lilly for this outlay. Such employment, he told him, he thought he could induce me to find for him until the lambing season came in, when there would be plenty of work for all. However, he was to stay where he was until fully recovered from his fatigue; and if there could be no work found for him on the station, he might at some future time repay Lilly for his clothes. So far this arrangement had been satisfactorily agreed to by the traveller.

Dressed up in his new rig, and fully recovered from his fatigue and depression, William Lampiere—for such was the young man's name—had rather a pleasant look, and Lilly seemed to conceive quite a friendship for him. He was evidently greatly amused at his frank simplicity, to which was apparently joined a perfect truthfulness of manner. If anyone delighted in a spirit of truth, it was Benjamin Lilly, and the habit of exaggeration, or in colonial parlance “blowing,” was his special aversion. “What is a man if you can't believe what he says?” was his usual strong expression of contempt with reference to the slightest indications in any one of this habit—a habit that is, indeed, only too common in the colonies.

But to return to Lilly and his new friend, whose voices I have already stated were audible to me where I was then languidly reclining. From the tenor of their remarks, it was not long ere I was aware that Mr. Lilly was engaged in his favourite occupation of “stuffing”—a habit that seems inconsistent page 47 with Lilly's love of truth, but which was notwithstanding an inveterate one with him whenever he found a favourable opportunity for indulging in it. In the present instance, in the confiding simplicity and charming inexperience of his new friend, he had an opportunity of indulging this propensity to the very “top of his bent,” and I must certainly allow that he seemed to be then making the most of his opportunity.

I have already referred to the light in which Lilly viewed the almost incessant use in colonial phraseology of the adjective “damn”.

With this knowledge of Lilly's true view of the use of this word the reader may be able to appreciate from the following conversation the exquisite, though strange, humour he was then enjoying at the expense of his guileless companion.

When their conversation first became intelligible to my ear Lilly was remarking: “Do you know how to cook? but of course how can a new chum like you know anything about such work!”

“No, I know nothing except what I saw at the diggings. My mates swore at me very much when I tried my hand at a damper once—and indeed no wonder, for I just spoiled it. Then they would not let me do any more of the baking, and what meat was to be roasted one of them did at night, for he seemed to be handy at cooking. All I did was to attend to any boiling meat that was being done, besides always boiling the billy.”

“Ah! I thought so; well, never mind, while you are here I will get Jack to put you up to the proper way of cooking all that needs to be done on a station. Now you watch him with all your eyes, for cooking is a handy thing to know at all times, and I'll show you how to make a damper properly, and if you take up my lessons anything like at all, you will be able to bake a cake of bread that will be fit to be set before the governor. If there is no work for you after I have done with you at a small job I have on hand, that we will start at in a few days, when you are well spelled after your long tramp, I may get the Coni* to give you a job at hut keeping. There is not much wages at it, but it will be a fine and easy job for you, and will do anyhow till you see a chance of shepherding: there will be better wages at that job. But mind,” continued Lilly impressively, “when you start cooking, whatever you do, keep yourself clean, and always wash your hands before you handle meat, or start baking, for if there is anything that I can't bear more than another, it is a dirty, lazy cook.” (Lilly had a most

* Bush term for the employer.

page 48 religious faith in the maxim, that cleanliness is next to godliness.) He continued in the same impressive tone, “Another thing I want you always to remember is, to be good to travellers”.

“Oh, certainly,” assented Lampiere readily, “I hope I shall always be careful on that point, when I remember for how much I have been indebted as a traveller myself.”

“Yes,” remarked Lilly bluntly, “but it is very often the case that men who have loafed over half the country when out of a job, when they have got a billet as a cook themselves have been the very first to kick against cooking for poor swaggers, and it is often such dogs as these that have given stations a hungry name, for when the squatters themselves have been willing enough to allow rations, these wretches have kicked up a row about cooking them. That is how the pannikin of flour system started in most places.”

“What kind of system is that?” enquired Lampiere.

“Why,” replied Lilly, “on stations like these that have been spoilt with dogs of cooks who refuse to cook for swagsmen, the Coni just gives them a pannikin of flour, and some tea and sugar, and sends them up to an empty hut to cook for themselves—a hungry, slovenly and wasteful fashion it is. But you, when you see a traveller in sight, mind, whatever you're doing, just drop it, and fly about setting your tucker ready for him at once. If the billy happens to be empty, pick it up and run to the creek, break your d—— neck, but what you will let the traveller see, be he common swagger, or ‘sujee swell,’* that you are glad to make him welcome. What is there to blow about in giving a poor traveller a feed? There is in my eyes nothing so degrading as one man letting another feel under a sense of obligation to him for a meal. It seems to me to be much the same as one man feeling under an obligation to another in being permitted to live so much longer on the earth. As you said you have done some clerking at home,” he here abruptly asked, “why didn't you fall back on that trade again, instead of trying to get a job at hard work?”

“Well, you see,” his companion replied reasonably enough, “I wasn't known in the town, or indeed in the country for that matter, and although I did try and get a situation on Arrarat, and called at several offices where they were advertising for clerks, I couldn't get on. Then I had no money left, so I couldn't stop there without money, and I didn't know what to do. At last I thought I would just do the same as I saw others do, who went travelling through the place with

* A bush expression of contempt for a person of more flashy appearance.

page 49 their blankets strapped up and hung over their shoulders, and once started I just kept on travelling ahead: that is now six weeks ago.”

“Well, sure enough, that was better than loafing about town, and shows you have some spirit of independence about you, anyhow. How much money had you when you started digging?”

“A little over £50—all that remained of what I had when I left town, after paying passage money and expenses till I reached Arrarat, which I did from Melbourne by coach. Don't the money melt away quick from a fellow out in these Colonies! I found it did anyhow, and I didn't spend any in foolishness either.”

“How came you to fall in with your two mates?”

“Well, you see, on the day after I reached Arrarat, I was walking out through the diggings, and came up to where two men were having dinner, and as I stopped to look at them one asked of me if I had any tobacco. I said no, that I did not use it, on which he remarked, “What! a swell like you and can't afford to smoke!” I just laughed a little and said nothing. Then, as both of them kept passing some jeering remarks on the swell who could not afford to buy tobacco, I was about to turn away and leave them, when one of them said, “Well, swell, don't you think that we diggers are very vulgar, eh? how would you like to be a digger?” I answered very quietly, “That is just what I want to be, and I am now looking about to find any digger who would like to take in a partner”.

“Why,” the same man answered, “have you any ‘hoot’ to start with?” “Any what?” I said, for I did not understand what he meant by “hoot”. They both laughed at this and said I was precious green, and then asked me if I had any money to start digging with, on which I told them I had about £50. Then after some whispering together, the first man said to me, if I liked to take my luck with them I could. They were running short of money themselves, and although £50 was not much of a capital, still it might do as things were, and I should have a third share when the claim was bottomed; that they expected would be in a fortnight more from then, when they were sure there would be a small “pile” for each of us.

“And what then?” enquired Lilly.

“Well, I didn't like these men at all; they wanted me to play cards for money on the first night that I joined them. This, however, I refused to do. Then they told me that I should have to give them what money I had, to pay for what expenses they had already incurred in working the claim, and page 50 also for rations to keep them going. And then they often swore at me because I was so unhandy with the tools, although I wrought till my hands were full of blisters and did everything they told me. They even made me wash their clothes for them, for they said it was the rule in the diggings that greenhorns had always to do that for the experienced hands. That had to be done, too, on Sundays. But as I would rather not break the Sabbath, I sat up late at night when washing time came round. Well, I believe I was very glad when the claim was bottomed, although after washing-up my mates told me it was a ‘duffer,’ and didn't yield enough to pay their salt.”

“But were you there to see for yourself when they were washing up?” said Lilly.

“No. I was kept at other work. I went over and saw them sometimes at the cradle, but I could never see anything like gold in it. But I do believe they cheated me for all that, for, while waiting about the township for several days looking after a situation, I could see them drinking and shouting all the time, and quarrelling and fighting most brutally, while I had not as much money as would pay for a loaf of bread, and I was two days at last with only one meal, till I started on the road and got a good one at the first station I came to.”

“Ah, my lad, the d—— wretches had you properly; they must have been sods of men to take advantage of you like that. Why, they just swindled you right and left. They saw you were a greenhorn, and they were no men anyhow. I guessed as much so soon as I heard you tell about them trying to cadge tobacco and then joking you about it as they did. Fancy diggers cadging tobacco! Of course there are such men, but they are only low-lived curs who would do such a thing as that, though there are no more straightforward independent men in the country than diggers as a rule; but you fell into the hands of sharks that time, my lad.”

“Won't the overseer be angry if he sees me stopping about here so long?” Lampiere enquired.

“The overseer? no; why should he? He never interferes with what I do,” replied Lilly.

“What sort of a man is he? is he a nice person to speak to?”

(The reply expressing Lilly's opinion of me, to which I was now an involuntary eavesdropper, was too interesting to me for me at this point to offer any interruption to it, as I was curious to hear Lilly's frank opinion of me behind my back. Perhaps I might not have been quite so curious, knowing Lilly's bluntness of manner, had I not been fully convinced that his opinion of my merits was not an unfavourable one.)

“He is a very nice sort of a man,” replied Lilly decidedly. page 51 (You see I was not disappointed about his opinion.) “A man who understands his work, and although he is very quiet he'll take no nonsense from any one. While a man is able for his work he'll get on very well with Mr. Farquharson.”

“What sort of a man is he in appearance?”

“Why, didn't you see him over at the stockyard with me the day after you came here?”

“I saw somebody; but I am rather near-sighted, and indeed I did not look much, as I was reading at the time.”

“Faith, he saw you quick enough then, for he asked who you were. What sort of a looking man is he? Well, he's a tallish, smart made, and not at all a bad-looking man, a little browned with the sun, with blue eyes and darkish hair, but very quiet and thoughtful in his manner. He doesn't speak much, but what he does say is to the point; just such a man as I like to deal with.”

“But if he is sharp in noticing about a man's work, I am afraid I shall never be able to please him, as I have not learnt to do any kind of work, and it seems to come so awkward to me when I try; although I should be most willing to learn if any one would just have a little patience with me at first.”

“Never you fear for Mr. Farquharson, if he is able to give you a job: he always knows when a man is trying to do what he can, and when he sees that, he never says anything to him. But I am going to start a little bit of post and railing about the place and build a cow shed, and you'll be my mate, and I will soon put you in the way of using tools in a handy way, so that if you keep your eyes open you may be soon able to use an axe or adze, saw or spade, with some of the flash bushmen. Of course you'll not be up to doing much work of any kind at first, but after a few days, when you begin to get seasoned, I'll make you keep out of my way, and teach you to look spry.”

“I am sure I shall be most willing to learn, and will thankfully, for a month or more, do what I can, just for my food.”

“Well, never mind about that at present; it will be a week or more before I am ready to begin. You can just cut firewood for the cook in the meanwhile. I will show you how to sling the axe about—you can always be learning.”

“I will indeed, and I am very much obliged to you for such kind thoughtfulness on my account.”

“Oh, bother obligations. You must learn to be a little more rough and ready in this country. Just take as much as you can get, and instead of being very thankful for what you get, try and be bounceable for more.”

“Yes?” (apparently uttered in surprise).

“You see, when you fell across these digging swindlers, if page 52 instead of always thanking them, which I suppose you did, when they were only codding you, you had at once told them to go to h—— when they first began taking a rise out of you about the tobacco, they would have looked upon you as a man of spirit, instead of which they simply looked upon you as a fool, and so just treated you like one.”

“I would rather not swear.”

“Well, I must allow that useless swearing is a very silly thing, but then sometimes it is necessary to make people keep their distance. Why, there are plenty of such chaps as them digging friends of yours who, if they thought a man had no spirit in him, would just jump on him. But just give them a good swearing and they see at once they have to deal with a man who will stand no nonsense from them.”

“Does the overseer swear?”

“Well, no, I can't say as I ever heard him slip an oath since he came here. I have heard him speak pretty sternly too on one or two occasions to men who were not shaping well at their work. In fact, they were right down loafing, but he cleared them out pretty quick. But as you don't like to swear, and you must say something you know or you won't have the life of a dog with some men, I'll tell you how to manage, and that will do just as well. For instance, there's the word ‘damn’: there is no harm saying that word any more than when you cut your finger to speak about your bloody finger. Well then, although hell is a swearing word, yet there's no harm in saying ‘blazes,’ is there?”

In response to Lilly's question Lampiere admitted that in these single words he could see no immorality.

“Well,” continued Lilly, pressing his point with all the ardour of a Jesuitical casuist in making as simple an admission open the way to an equally doubtful conclusion. “If you don't want to say ‘What the d—— h—1?’ which is certainly swearing, and good Colonial swearing too, there can be no harm in saying “What the d—— blazes?. That simply means nothing, and yet sounds as strong as the other.”

To this plausible induction again Lampiere gave his assent as to the seeming innocuousness of the phrase. The question being thus settled, Lilly next proceeded to impress on his friend some useful advice for his future guidance.

“Now then, you be always sure and remember when you see any one attempting to bounce or in any way to crow over you to say, ‘What the d —— blazes do you mean?’—will you?”

“Well, yes, if I see any real occasion for it I will.”

“Is that all the attention you intend to pay to my advice and me trying to colonise and make a man of you?” asked Lilly page 53 in a reproachful tone; “do it on all occasions, I tell you, if it is only in a common argument. If you don't, everyone will look upon you as just a milksop or common Johnnie Raw and bounce you as they like. But if you do what I am telling you, any person who might be setting you down as a greenhorn will very soon draw in his horns and say to the other chaps, ‘My word, I thought I could do as I liked with that young fellow, but I was near putting my foot in it! By the way he expresses himself I see he has some spirit in him. Still waters run deep. I'll have to mind my p's and q's and not rouse him up. My word, I'll keep civil to him.’

“If it is only in a common argument, I say, and you see the other man is inclined to lift up his voice authoritatively as if giving you to understand that his way of putting it is to be the only way, just get up on your feet (Lilly apparently suiting the action to the word) look straight at him, and pull your hat over your brows in this fashion—it gives one a more determined look—and then say distinctly, ‘What the d—— blazes do you know about it?’ He will have to be a pretty bounceable customer if that won't put him down.”

At this stage I regret to say that the moral effect of this rather singular lesson on the mind of this simple-minded pupil, with its accompanying illustration, was entirely destroyed by my involuntary interruption of it; for my sense of humour was so exquisitely tickled while listening to this singularly original advice, heightened by my mental picture of Lilly's appearance while giving it—the whole being, I felt sure, from my now familiar experience of his habits, a piece of wilful burlesquing on his part—that it now fairly mastered all my endeavours to restrain it, and first finding vent in a silent but continuous giggle, it soon broadened in volume into a loud, side-aching guffaw, which at once apprised Lilly that it was not the cook that he had as an audience to his lecture. As to the cook indeed, he was too well accustomed to similar freaks of manner for it to have concerned Lilly to know that he had heard every word he had spoken.

But with the immediate consciousness of the ridiculousness of his position in my eyes, when he caught my eye as he threw open the door to see who it was who had laughed, for the first and only time I saw Benjamin Lilly's countenance fairly put to the worse. But it was only for a moment.

Recovering instantly from his confusion, the more quickly as he seemed to read from my manner my perfect sense of the burlesque he had been enacting, he remarked:—

“Ton see, this young man is such a green new chum that I have been trying to put him up to a wrinkle or two in colonial ways”.

page 54

“Quite right, Lilly,” I made ready answer, “and I make no doubt but that if he is attentive to your instructions he will be so thoroughly initiated in these ways that he will be able to hold his own in any company. Well, young man, as Lilly has been giving you his idea of my character, that, I think, upon the whole is pretty near the mark, and for which I am certainly obliged to him, you will know what to expect from me as an employer. As Lilly proposes to take you in hand for a short time, I advise you to pay attention to all he tells you, for you may consider yourself lucky in getting such a teacher as Lilly to instruct you as he proposes to do. After he is done with you I daresay I shall be able to find you some kind of job; that is, of course, if Lilly, after trial of you, is able to speak promisingly of your work.”

For this Lampiere gratefully thanked me in an earnest way that convinced me that there was something really genuine about him.