Robbery Under Arms, by Rolph Boldrewood

Chapter 27

This meeting with Kate Morrison put the stuns upon me and Jim, and no mistake. We never expected to see her up at the Turon, and it all depended which way the fit took her now whether it would be a fit place for us to live in any longer. Up to this time we had done capital well. We had been planted as close as if we had been at the Hollow. We’d had lots of work, and company, and luck. It began to look as if our luck would be dead out. Anyhow, we were at the mercy of a tiger-cat of a woman who might let loose her temper at any time and lay the police on to us, without thinking twice about it. We didn’t think she knew Starlight was there, but she was knowing enough for anything. She could put two and two together, and wait and watch, too. It gave me a fit of the shivers every time I thought of it. This was the last place I ever expected to see her at. However, you never can tell what’ll turn up in this world. She might have got over her tantrums.

Of course we went over to the Prospectors’ Arms that night, as the new hotel was called, and found quite a warm welcome. Mrs. Mullockson had turned into quite a fashionable lady since the Melbourne days; dressed very grand, and talked and chaffed with the commissioner, the police inspectors, and goldfield officers from the camp as if she’d been brought up to it. People lived fast in those goldfields days; it don’t take long to pick up that sort of learning.

The Prospectors’ Arms became quite the go, and all the swell miners and quartz reefers began to meet there as a matter of course. There was Dandy Green, the Lincolnshire man from Beevor, that used to wear no end of boots and spend pounds and pounds in blacking. He used to turn out with everything clean on every morning, fit to go to a ball, as he walked on to the brace. There was Ballersdorf, the old Prussian soldier, that had fought against Boney, and owned half-a-dozen crushing machines and a sixth share in the Great Wattle Flat Company; Dan Robinson, the man that picked up the 70 pound nugget; Sam Dawson, of White Hills, and Peter Paul, the Canadian, with a lot of others, all known men, went there regular. Some of them didn’t mind spending fifty or a hundred pounds in a night if the fit took them. The house began to do a tremendous trade, and no mistake.

Old Mullockson was a quiet, red-faced old chap, who seemed to do all Kate told him, and never bothered himself about the business, except when he had to buy fresh supplies in the wine and spirit line. There he was first chop. You couldn’t lick him for quality. And so the place got a name.

But where was Jeanie all this time? That was what Jim put me up to ask the first night we came. ‘Oh! Jeanie, poor girl, she was stopping with her aunt in Melbourne.’ But Kate had written to her, and she was coming up in a few weeks. This put Jim into great heart. What with the regular work and the doing well in the gold line, and Jeanie coming up, poor old Jim looked that happy that he was a different man. No wonder the police didn’t know him. He had grown out of his old looks and ways; and though they rubbed shoulders with us every day, no one had eyes sharp enough to see that James Henderson and his brother Dick — mates with the best men on the field — were escaped prisoners, and had a big reward on them besides.

Nobody knew it, and that was pretty nigh as good as if it wasn’t true. So we held on, and made money hand over fist. We used to go up to the hotel whenever we’d an evening to spare, but that wasn’t often. We intended to keep our money this time, and no publican was to be any the better for our hard work.

As for Kate, I couldn’t make her out. Most times she’d be that pleasant and jolly no one could help liking her. She had a way of talking to me and telling me everything that happened, because I was an old friend she said — that pretty nigh knocked me over, I tell you. Other times she was that savage and violent no one would go near her. She didn’t care who it was — servants or customers, they all gave her a wide berth when she was in her tantrums. As for old Mullockson, he used to take a drive to Sawpit Gully or Ten–Mile as soon as ever he saw what o’clock it was — and glad to clear out, too. She never dropped on to me, somehow. Perhaps she thought she’d get as good as she gave; I wasn’t over good to lead, and couldn’t be drove at the best of times. No! not by no woman that ever stepped.

One evening Starlight and his two swell friends comes in, quite accidental like. They sat down at a small table by themselves and ordered a couple of bottles of foreign wine. There was plenty of that if you liked to pay a guinea a bottle. I remember when common brandy was that price at first, and I’ve seen it fetched out of a doctor’s tent as medicine. It paid him better than his salts and rhubarb. That was before the hotels opened, and while all the grog was sold on the sly. They marched in, dressed up as if they’d been in George Street, though everybody knew one of ’em had been at the windlass all day with the wages man, and the other two below, working up to their knees in water; for they’d come on a drift in their claim, and were puddling back. However, that says nothing; we were all in good clothes and fancy shirts and ties. Miners don’t go about in their working suits. The two Honourables walked over to the bar first of all, and said a word or two to Kate, who was all smiles and as pleasant as you please. It was one of her good days. Starlight put up his eyeglass and stared round as if we were all a lot of queer animals out of a caravan. Then he sat down and took up the ‘Turon Star’. Kate hardly looked at him, she was so taken up with his two friends, and, woman-like, bent on drawing them on, knowing them to be big swells in their own country. We never looked his way, except on the sly, and no one could have thought we’d ever slept under one tree together, or seen the things we had.

When the waiter was opening their wine one of the camp officers comes in that they had letters to. So they asked him to join them, and Starlight sends for another bottle of Moselle — something like that, he called it.

‘The last time I drank wine as good as this,’ says Starlight, ‘was at the Caffy Troy, something or other, in Paris. I wouldn’t mind being there again, with the Variety Theatre to follow. Would you, Clifford?’

‘Well, I don’t know,’ says the other swell. ‘I find this amazing good fun for a bit. I never was in such grand condition since I left Oxford. This eight-hours’ shift business is just the right thing for training. I feel fit to go for a man’s life. Just feel this, Despard,’ and he holds out his arm to the camp swell. ‘There’s muscle for you!’

‘Plenty of muscle,’ said Mr. Despard, looking round. He was a swell that didn’t work, and wouldn’t work, and thought it fine to treat the diggers like dogs. Most of the commissioners and magistrates were gentlemen and acted as such; but there were a few young fools like this one, and they did the Government a deal of harm with the diggers more than they knew. ‘Plenty of muscle,’ says he, ‘but devilish little society.’

‘I don’t agree with you,’ says the other Honourable. ‘It’s the most amusing and in a way instructive place for a man who wants to know his fellow-creatures I was ever in. I never pass a day without meeting some fresh variety of the human race, man or woman; and their experiences are well worth knowing, I can tell you. Not that they’re in a hurry to impart them; for that there’s more natural, unaffected good manners on a digging than in any society I ever mingled in I shall never doubt. But when they see you don’t want to patronise, and are content to be a simple man among men, there’s nothing they won’t do for you or tell you.’

‘Oh, d — n one’s fellow-creatures; present company excepted,’ says Mr. Despard, filling his glass, ‘and the man that grew this “tipple”. They’re useful to me now and then and one has to put up with this crowd; but I never could take much interest in them.’

‘All the worse for you, Despard,’ says Clifford. ‘You’re wasting your chances — golden opportunities in every sense of the word. You’ll never see such a spectacle as this, perhaps, again as long as you live. It’s a fancy dress ball with real characters.’

‘Dashed bad characters, if we only knew,’ says Despard, yawning. ‘What do you say, Haughton?’ looking at Starlight, who was playing with his glass and not listening much by the look of him.

‘I say, let’s go into the little parlour and have a game of picquet, unless you’ll take some more wine. No? Then we’ll move. Bad characters, you were saying? Well, you camp fellows ought to be able to give an opinion.’

They sauntered through the big room, which was just then crowded with a curious company, as Clifford said. I suppose there was every kind of man and miner under the sun. Not many women, but what there was not a little out of the way in looks and manners. We kept on working away all the time. It helped to stop us from thinking, and every week we had a bigger deposit-receipt in the bank where we used to sell our gold. People may say what they like, but there’s nothing like a nest egg; seeing it grow bigger keeps many a fellow straight, and he gets to like adding to it, and feels the pull of being careful with his money, which a poor man that never has anything worth saving doesn’t. Poor men are the most extravagant, I’ve always found. They spend all they have, which middling kind of people just above them don’t. They screw and pinch to bring up their children, and what not; and dress shabby and go without a lot which the working man never thinks of stinting himself in. But there’s the parson here to do that kind of thing. I’m not the proper sort of cove to preach. I’d better leave it to him. So we didn’t spend our money foolish, like most part of the diggers that had a bit of luck; but we had to do a fair thing. We got through a lot of money every week, I expect. Talking of foolish things, I saw one man that had his horse shod with gold, regular pure gold shoes. The blacksmith made ’em — good solid ones, and all regular. He rode into the main street one holiday, and no end of people stopped him and lifted up his horse’s feet to see. They weighed 7 oz. 4 dwt. each. Rainbow ought to have been shod that way. If ever a horse deserved it he did. But Starlight didn’t go in for that kind of thing. Now and then some of the old colonial hands, when they were regularly ‘on the burst’, would empty a dozen of champagne into a bucket or light their pipes with a ten-pound note. But these were not everyday larks, and were laughed at by the diggers themselves as much as anybody.

But of course some allowance had to be made for men not making much above wages when they came suddenly on a biggish stone, and sticking the pick into it found it to be a gigantic nugget worth a small fortune. Most men would go a bit mad over a stroke of luck like that, and they did happen now and then. There was the Boennair nugget, dug at Louisa Creek by an Irishman, that weighed 364 oz. 11 dwt. It was sold in Sydney for 1156 Pounds. There was the King of Meroo nugget, weighing 157 oz.; and another one that only scaled 71 oz. seemed hardly worth picking up after the others, only 250 Pounds worth or so. But there was a bigger one yet on the grass if we’d only known, and many a digger, and shepherd too, had sat down on it and lit his pipe, thinking it no better than other lumps of blind white quartz that lay piled up all along the crown of the ride.

Mostly after we’d done our day’s work and turned out clean and comfortable after supper, smoking our pipes, we walked up the street for an hour or two. Jim and I used to laugh a bit in a queer way over the change it was from our old bush life at Rocky Flat when we were boys, before we had any thoughts beyond doing our regular day’s work and milking the cows and chopping wood enough to last mother all day. The little creek, that sounded so clear in the still night when we woke up, rippling and gurgling over the stones, the silent, dark forest all round on every side; and on moonlight nights the moon shining over Nulla Mountain, dark and overhanging all the valley, as if it had been sailing in the clear sky over it ever since the beginning of the world. We didn’t smoke then, and we used to sit in the verandah, and Aileen would talk to us till it was time to go to bed.

Even when we went into Bargo, or some of the other country towns, they did not seem so much brighter. Sleepy-looking, steady-going places they all were, with people crawling about them like a lot of old working bullocks. Just about as sensible, many of ’em. What a change all this was! Main Street at the Turon! Just as bright as day at twelve o’clock at night. Crowds walking up and down, bars lighted up, theatres going on, dance-houses in full swing, billiard-tables where you could hear the balls clicking away till daylight; miners walking down to their night shifts, others turning out after sleeping all the afternoon quite fresh and lively; half-a-dozen troopers clanking down the street, back from escort duty. Everybody just as fresh at midnight as at breakfast time — more so, perhaps. It was a new world.

One thing’s certain; Jim and I would never have had the chance of seeing as many different kinds of people in a hundred years if it hadn’t been for the gold. No wonder some of the young fellows kicked over the traces for a change — a change from sheep, cattle, and horses, ploughing and reaping, shearing and bullock-driving; the same old thing every day; the same chaps to talk to about the same things. It does seem a dead-and-live kind of life after all we’ve seen and done since. However, we’d a deal better have kept to the bulldog’s motter, ‘Hang on’, and stick to it, even if it was a shade slow and stupid. We’d have come out right in the end, as all coves do that hold fast to the right thing and stick to the straight course, fair weather or foul. I can see that now, and many things else.

But to see the big room at the Prospectors’ Arms at night — the hall, they called it — was a sight worth talking about — as Jim and I walked up and down, or sat at one of the small tables smoking our pipes, with good liquor before us. It was like a fairy-tale come true to chaps like us, though we had seen a little life in Sydney and Melbourne.

What made it so different from any other place we’d ever seen or thought of before was the strange mixture of every kind and sort of man and woman; to hear them all jabbering away together in different languages, or trying to speak English, used to knock us altogether. The American diggers that we took up with had met a lot of foreigners in California and other places. They could speak a little Spanish and French, and got on with them. But Jim and I could only stare and stand open-mouthed when a Spanish–American chap would come up with his red sash and his big sheath-knife, while they’d yabber away quite comfortable.

It made us feel like children, and we began to think what a fine thing it would be to clear out by Honolulu, and so on to San Francisco, as Starlight was always talking about. It would make men of us, at any rate, and give us something to think about in the days to come.

If we could clear out what a heaven it would be! I could send over for Gracey to come to me. I knew she’d do that, if I was only once across the sea, ready and willing to lead a new life, and with something honest-earned and hard-worked-for to buy a farm with. Nobody need know. Nobody would even inquire in the far West where we’d come from or what we’d done. We should live close handy to one another — Jim and Jeanie, Gracey and I— and when dad went under, mother and Aileen could come out to us; and there would still be a little happiness left us, for all that was come and gone. Ah! if things would only work out that way.

Well, more unlikely things happen every day. And still the big room gets fuller. There’s a band strikes up in the next room and the dancing begins. This is a ball night. Kate has started that game. She’s a great hand at dancing herself, and she manages to get a few girls to come up; wherever they come from nobody knows, for there’s none to be seen in the daytime. But they turn out wonderfully well-dressed, and some of them mighty good-looking; and the young swells from the camp come down, and the diggers that have been lucky and begin to fancy themselves. And there’s no end of fun and flirting and nonsense, such as there always is when men and women get together in a place where they’re not obliged to be over-particular. Not that there was any rowdiness or bad behaviour allowed. A goldfield is the wrong shop for that. Any one that didn’t behave himself would have pretty soon found himself on his head in the street, and lucky if he came out of it with whole bones.

I once tried to count the different breeds and languages of the men in the big room one night. I stopped at thirty. There were Germans, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Russians, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Maltese, Mexicans, Negroes, Indians, Chinamen, New Zealanders, English, Irish, Scotch, Welsh, Australians, Americans, Canadians, Creoles, gentle and simple, farmers and labourers, squatters and shepherds, lawyers and doctors. They were all alike for a bit, all pretty rich; none poor, or likely to be; all workers and comrades; nobody wearing much better clothes or trying to make out he was higher than anybody else. Everybody was free with his money. If a fellow was sick or out of luck, or his family was down with fever, the notes came freely — as many as were wanted, and more when that was done. There was no room for small faults and vices; everything and everybody was worked on a high scale. It was a grand time — better than ever was in our country before or since. Jim and I always said we felt better men while the flash time lasted, and hadn’t a thought of harm or evil about us. We worked hard enough, too, as I said before; but we had good call to do so. Every week when we washed up we found ourselves a lot forrarder, and could see that if it held on like this for a few months more we should have made our ‘pile’, as the diggers called it, and be able to get clear off without much bother.

Because it wasn’t now as it was in the old times, when Government could afford to keep watch upon every vessel, big and little, that left the harbour. Now there was no end of trouble in getting sailors to man the ships, and we could have worked our passage easy enough; they’d have taken us and welcome, though we’d never handled a rope in our lives before. Besides that, there were hundreds of strangers starting for Europe and America by every vessel that left. Men who had come out to the colony expecting to pick up gold in the streets, and had gone home disgusted; lucky men, too, like ourselves, who had sworn to start for home the very moment they had made a fair thing. How were any police in the world to keep the run of a few men that had been in trouble before among such a mixed-up mob?

Now and then we managed to get a talk with Starlight on the sly. He used to meet us at a safe place by night, and talk it all over. He and his mates were doing well, and expected to be ready for a start in a few months, when we might meet in Melbourne and clear out together. He believed it would be easy, and said that our greatest danger of being recognised was now over — that we had altered so much by living and working among the diggers that we could pass for diggers anywhere.

‘Why, we were all dining at the Commissioner’s yesterday,’ he said, ‘when who should walk in but our old friend Goring. He’s been made inspector now; and, of course, he’s a great swell and a general favourite. The Commissioner knew his family at home, and makes no end of fuss about him. He left for the Southern district, I am glad to say. I felt queer, I must say; but, of course, I didn’t show it. We were formally introduced. He caught me with that sudden glance of his — devilish sharp eyes, he has — and looks me full in the face.

‘“I don’t remember your name, Mr. Haughton,” said he; “but your face seems familiar to me somehow. I can’t think where I’ve met you before.”

‘“Must have been at the Melbourne Club,” says I, pulling my moustache. “Met a heap of Sydney people there.”

‘“Perhaps so,” says he. “I used to go and lunch there a good deal. I had a month’s leave last month, just after I got my step. Curious it seems, too,” says he; “I can’t get over it.”

‘“Fill your glass and pass the claret,” says the Commissioner. “Faces are very puzzling things met in a different state of existence. I don’t suppose Haughton’s wanted, eh, Goring?”

‘This was held to be a capital joke, and I laughed too in a way that would have made my fortune on the stage. Goring laughed too, and seemed to fear he’d wounded my feelings, for he was most polite all the rest of the evening.’

‘Well, if HE didn’t smoke you,’ says Jim, ‘we’re right till the Day of Judgment. There’s no one else here that’s half a ghost of a chance to swear to us.’

‘Except,’ says I——

‘Oh! Kate?’ says Jim; ‘never mind her. Jeanie’s coming up to be married to me next month, and Kate’s getting so fond of you again that there’s no fear of her letting the cat out.’

‘That’s the very reason. I never cared two straws about her, and now I hate the sight of her. She’s a revengeful devil, and if she takes it into her head she’ll turn on us some fine day as sure as we’re alive.’

‘Don’t you believe it,’ says Jim; ‘women are not so bad as all that.’ (‘Are they not?’ says Starlight.) ‘I’ll go bail we’ll be snug and safe here till Christmas, and then we’ll give out, say we’re going to Melbourne for a spree, and clear straight out.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31