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from Temple Bar, vol. 105
FOR appealing to varying and contradictory emotions, at one time to one's sense of the picturesque, at another to one's sense of contempt yet too curiously interesting to be looked upon with loathing, though all the incentives to loathing are there the tramps of Australia hold the first place. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere a class of human beings showing more varied character or wider distinctions. They comprise men formerly of every social degree, of every profession and calling, the majority of them banded together in one common bond the fatal dower of heredity, or of whatever force it is which brings about that strange obliquity of character that causes men of a certain stamp to make loafing a fine art.
Titled lords, baronets, parsons, lawyers, captains, architects, clerks all these are to be met with on the roads. They can be divided into two broad classes viz., those who are looking for work and those who are seeking to avoid it. The former consist of a fine set of men of all ages, ready and willing to undergo the hardships of a weary tramp of hundreds of miles, along which they push forward hopefully to find the work which is generally to be had by those who are willing to search for it. Their "swag" is generally made up of a pair of blankets and a pair of trousers, a spare coat, two or three shirts and pairs of socks, a brush and comb, towel, needle and thread, etc. For stores they carry bread of flour, sugar, tea, carbonate of soda for making damper, a billy pannikin, knife and fork. This is a fair average swag, though it will often be supplemented by sundry little additional luxuries according to the individual idiosyncrasy of the owner.
The great variation in climate between the different divisions of Australia enables sheep-shearing to be carried on nearly all the year through. In the far north they shear as early as August, in the south not till January; thus there is a constant stream of shearers meandering from north to south and vice versâ. These are as a rule very mixed and consisted formerly of farmers and tradesmen who travelled annually to and from regular stations for the purpose of increasing their incomes. Nowadays the regular travelling shearer has for the most part degenerated into a wild lawless young fellow, commonly called the "bush-larrikin."
Since the commencement of Unionist troubles the older hands are gradually giving up the sheds, and these youngsters taking their place. They generally travel on horseback in companies, and are only to be met with in camps; but as they are a noisy and, if interfered with, a troublesome class, the loafing tramp is careful to avoid a shearer's camp where he would be the butt of many an unwelcome practical joke. Next to the shearers are the mining class, who are frequently to be encountered on the road leading to a new rush. They are generally all good workmen and experienced prospectors, travelling on horseback with their own tools, etc. Runaway sailors too are often met with. They are a handy set of men, who can help themselves, and are not often unsuccessful in procuring work.
All these classes push on and do not loaf about the stations and towns en route. If there is no work to be had in one district, they go forward to another until they find it. It is the misfortune of excellence to be proportionately uninteresting. One does not look for the carious, the picturesque, the bizarre amongst people who do their duty in this state of life. It is to the second division those who tramp to avoid work that one must go to find these qualities. Colloquially they are known as "Sundowners" that is, those who turn up at a camp at sundown, when all preparations are made and work is over and the time for a meal and repose has come. They are men in whom all sense of dignity in its highest sense is lost and has been replaced by a ludicrous distortion, which can only be offended by the one suggestion that they should work for their bread. They are both educated and uneducated, and it is strange that the former category predominates, and that the better the education and previous position of the sundowner, the greater is his capacity for low cunning. There is no fusion or association between the two. Low principles and low habits of mind are perhaps natural to the uneducated loafer; to the educated they appear in the light of new qualities to be acquired proficiently, and in which it is their keen desire to excel. The line of demarcation between them is strongly defined, for among the latter will be found men of superior intellectual abilities, derelicts of the learned professions; while the ranks of the latter are recruited from gaol-birds, drunkards, sham unemployed, and other undesirable characters.
If we follow the sundowner's career from the town to the bush and look at a typical narrative picture, drawn from personal experience, of a camp where several living specimens of sundowners meet as the grudgingly accepted guests of the traveller, a more vivid realisation of their peculiar characteristics can be obtained. The town loafer, who dwells in our memory, is a tall, thin, sleek individual well past middle age, with a weak, hesitating carefully-cultivated gentleness of manner, contrasting strangely with his rough appearance. If jostled he humbly stands aside and begs your pardon with the resigned air of being struck on one cheek and offering the other for similar chastisement. There is a furtive glance in his pleading eyes, a glance of fear lest you should recommend him to work.
In conversation at a public-house over a glass of the universal lubricator of tongues he will preach in a mealy deprecating voice with no trace of aggressiveness, and in an obtrusively unobtrusive manner, about the degradation of work. He will tell you in a hurt voice, too mild to be classed as indignant, how he never felt so humbled in his life when on one occasion he was told by a bullying cook at a station to chop firewood if he wished for a meal.
He outstays his welcome in a town and is brought under the eye of the law, which gives to vagrants a short shrift. An amusing little police-court scene then ensues. The magistrate is a squatter of the old school, self-educated, self-made, and now, under the exigencies of the now social life of the colony, taking upon himself novel and burdensome responsibilities for the sake of acquiring a position for his children in "society."* He has invited the visitors staying, with him to attend the court, and is in consequence the more anxious to display his powers. Our deprecating tramp is brought before him, condemned to listen to a short homily on the righteousness of work and the iniquity of loafing, and an eloquent peroration is brought to an emphatic close with a Latin tag goodness knows where or when the worthy magistrate picked it up over which he stumbles, and which he mispronounces. In his best apologetic voice, the tone of deprecation just sufficiently overdone to throw the laugh against his approver and give no cause for charging him with impertinence, the occupant of the dock leans forward and murmurs:--
"Your worship will excuse me, I am rare. I am willing to be fined, even sent to gaol without complaining, but I cannot listen without protest to a misquotation of the author who soothes my weary moments. The phrase runs, your worship, Cum labor extuderit fastidia."
The position of the worthy squatter can be imagined, and he hastily, gives his unwelcome prisoner a few hours' notice to leave the town.
Neither is the tramp's boast unfounded. His acquaintance with Horatian satire is thorough, and though rough, dirty and repulsive, he is a riper scholar than many a holder of a professorial chair. The incurable disease of loafing is no respecter of persons.
Let us follow our seedy hero on the march. He has had his orders to move on. His chief resort in the daytime is of course the public-house, when he has not left the town too far behind him and houses of entertainment are fairly frequent. When a traveller drives up, he may be found either strolling slowly about or lounging in the doorway. After the traveller's horse is tied up never till then he will offer with a badly-assumed air of eagerness to hold it. The stranger enters the house, and in the usual free Australian fashion invites everyone present to join him in drinking. Thus our hero comes in for his share, and so long as his presence may be useful towards procuring the publican an extra shilling it is encouraged. When it ceases to be remunerative he is again ordered to move on, but as long as it is tolerated he has a halcyon time, and revels in his favourite beverage beer.
Sometimes he will carry a bottle in each pocket, and then will stealthily watch the drinks go round, and as each new supply is ordered he will quietly empty his pot into one or other of them, and is thus provided with a supply to assist him in passing the night.
These are mere episodes by the way: it is inevitable that he should continue his onward journey towards the bush, and it is, there that all his faculties of low cunning are brought into play. Should a buggy overtake him he immediately walks lame dragging one foot after the other with a weary gait, hoping by these means to obtain a lift, with its accompaniment of a good meal at the journey's end, from the charitable traveller.
Should it be the dry season, he knows the situation of the water-holes, and these he knows must be camping grounds; so he watches in hiding in their neighbourhood until sundown, waiting quietly till your tent has been pitched, your horses watered, and your supper prepared. Then he will slowly and painfully approach with the air of one overcome with exhaustion, and advancing tremulously, will seize upon any convenient excuse for introduction: either he will pick up something lying about and ask if you have dropped it; or he will tell you he knows of better water, feeling sure you will not shift your quarters; or he will ask if you need assistance, when he is equally certain you have finished all the work yourself. Should you show no signs of encouragement, he will then ask for a handful of corn from your horse's bag, whining that he is in a dying condition, and has not tasted food for two days. This is an appeal the most stony-hearted cannot resist, and you invite him to join your meal, to which he does excellent justice. That over, he produces a clay pipe and asks with the same humble air if he may be allowed to dry the tea-leaves and smoke them. The result of this cunning move is obvious, and some of your choice tobacco changes hands.
But you are not destined to be left alone with your undesirable companion. Within the fire-lit circle of your camp another figure appears. It is that of a small gray-headed. man, whose long straggling hair and whiskers frame a face on which appears the accumulation of a week's dirt, for no greater offence can be offered him than to be asked to wash. His clothing is peculiar if not extensive. The coat is a study in patches: in one place a piece of canvas, in another a piece of sacking, in a third a piece of dirty green baize. His trousers probably begged, perhaps stolen are made for a man of larger build than the wearer. His shirt, in common with his face, undoubtedly undergoes a cleansing process at intervals few and far between. On one foot is a lace boot, on the other an elastic-sided covering, with the sole tied on with string, and offering the occasional appearance of a toe, only visible, however, to a close observer, for it is the colour of the soil.
He is followed by two others, both of whom deserve description. The one is tall and of sickly appearance, with the inevitable blood-shot eyes. He is chiefly remarkable for a strikingly noble frontal development, and though his condition is as dirty as his fellows, and he is an equal adept at their usual "capers," you will notice him at times returning unconsciously to gentlemanly instincts: he will absently pare his nails, even spread a dirty red handkerchief across his besmeared and filthy trousers to keep off the crumbs, or perform some other trivial act incongruous with external appearance, that speaks of the influences of the past. His companion is a short, thick-set man, with a loud-sounding voice and melodramatic and bombastic manner, which is liable to become hectoring and domineering when the cadger is satisfied and the man appears. His face is clean-shaven, and on further acquaintance with him you will find this to be his one personal vanity. He carries a tiny mirror and the necessary shaving apparatus in his "swag," and religiously performs this duty every day.
Soon you will have these four ill-assorted guests seated round your camp-fire, regaling themselves at your expense and enjoying the fumes of your tobacco. At first the conversation languishes: it is confined to monosyllabic comments on the state of the roads, the frequency of water-holes, and other kindred subjects. Our melodramatic friend seizes the opportunity to descant with you aside on his personal virtues. He is a "bush philosopher," he tells you in his deep resounding voice. He takes elaborate pains to explain to you that he does not beg from you, nor drink at your expense, because he is your inferior, or because he feels himself in any way dependent on your bounty, but solely because you can afford to entertain and he cannot, therefore it is his inalienable right to sponge upon you. And he tersely sums up his argument with this trenchant phrase "he who has, has duties; he who has not, has rights." So eloquently does he enforce this view of the case that unconsciously you find yourself feeling honoured at this chance which has been given you of entertaining an angel unawares. You envy the condition of mind that can see everything of doubtful dignity from a philosophic point of view, but at the same time you have an uneasy feeling that your estimate of cadging has been a mistaken one all along; that it is possible after all you have been in the wrong, and you wonder vaguely if some apology for your mental attitude is not due.
However, a diversion from these questions of casuistry is caused by our acquaintance of the police-court, who produces a dog's-eared and dirty volume, and lounging on his elbow, sets himself quietly to read by the light of the fire. This rouses the bush philosopher's curiosity, and he leans over him and ejaculates, "Ah, an old friend of mine!" The book is a copy of Horace, and to us who associate the lyric poet of Rome with letter and cultured leisure, as the companion of the man of the whose subtle sense of humour enables him to appreciate the nuances of life, this testimony to his companionship, so out of harmony with the sordid surroundings, comes as a shock, for it argues at least a fine taste. A turn is then given to the discussion which makes it deeply interesting to the student of bush character. The poet's allusion to the daring of the human rites in overriding the difficulties of Nature happens to be the passage which strikes his eye, and soon the bush philosopher is lost in a fiery denunciation of the human race, its degradation, its devotion to low ideals, its want of appreciation of genius, etc.
The unlucky approach of two Chinamen, also on the tramp, sets him off anew on the path of anathema; and the state of society that permits a low Chinaman to drink from the same water-hole as a man of his calibre is execrated in vigorous terms. During a lull in this tirade the conversation takes a lower level by a quaint inquiry from the individual clothed in patches, if any one can tell him what the cook at the next station is like. "He's no softy; you won't get much from him," is the fierce rply, and then follows a dissertation, plentifully besprinkled with scornful epithets from the idiomatic language of the bush, on the iniquity of these "hirelings of the kitchen," who refuse to dispense hospitality except for a quid pro quo in the shape of work.
Verily our companions are specimens of the genus of curious interest; but as if to heighten the contrast another individual is attracted by the camp-fire and joins our ranks. Without asking permission a proceeding that is resented by an indignant snort from the bush philosopher he flings himself down by the fire and looks round him in a defiant way. This is less agreeable to on than the thinly-disguised excuses the others have made. You have less objection to dispensing hospitality when it is logically proved to you that thereby you are fulfilling a human duty, unsound though you may feel the logic to be; but you do resent the attitude that takes such hospitality for granted, and offers not even a plausible excuse. It may be human weakness, but it is so nevertheless.
The thick-set, slouching figure of the stranger, his hang-dog air, repulsive face, and attitude of vulgar swagger repel you, and by no means inspire the same good-humoured tolerance with which you look upon the others. His close-cropped hair and stubbly beard of a few days' growth, stamp his character at once; and be throws himself beside the fire with a curt "Good day, chaps. Got a bit of grub left?" Experience has taught you that it is as well to give a customer of this description some bread and meat or he may become troublesome, and you accordingly smother your inward feelings of disgust. Not so the other tramps. They look upon the intruder with withering scorn, and move further away to continue their conversation, in which he ventures to join.
At first they disregard his overtures, but when, nothing daunted, he forces his conversation upon them, it is curious to note how each backs his fellow up in placing the talk upon a higher plane completely above his comprehension. Then the subtle difference between the two classes of tramps, the educated and the uneducated, begins to force itself upon you. In the one there is an echo of the exigencies of social life; the capacity of behaviour is latent; the sense of tact, induced by some deep-rooted sense of shame, that encourages an apologetic habit, is strong if distorted. In the other it is simply non- existent. Differences are marked in each tiny action how they smoke, drink, talk, etc. In the one the aggressive habit is undisguised and apparent. In the other it is felt, not seen.
Meanwhile the silent antagonism becomes more marked and the argument more heated, and you, wise in your generation, take the simplest yet most effective means of bringing peace. With affected carelessness you ostentatiously produce a flask of whiskey, and the result is magical. Every voice is still and every eye is upon you. Horace, cooks, Chinamen; the human race, its needs and shortcomings; all are forgotten. The intensity and eagerness of desire which stamps each face baffles description. The moment of suspense when you are filling your own glass has the appearance of a torture, and instinctively you help your guests yourself, lest the realisation of their expectation should prove too much for them and tempt them to risk any consequences by emptying the bottle. The experience of these few seconds is a revelation. It sounds puerile in description, but one must have seen it in order to fully understand. At last, when darkness falls and the noisy tongues are still; when the fire dies down and silence reigns in the camp; when everything is hushed beneath the blue-black canopy of night, flecked with its myriad gems; then the contrast which before was humorous, becomes almost terrible. Under the influence of the impressive stillness of the night as you contemplate the ludicrous seriousness of all this human falsity, the vileness of man strikes you forcibly. Around you lies Nature's calm and impassive serenity. At your feet is what is it? Nature's humour or Nature's irony?
Such are the typical sundowners! There are of course other bush characters which deserve a passing mention. Where they are respectable but "green," they become the legitimate prey of the parasite sundowner. Especially is this the case with the "new chum." The latter, with a large stock of clothes, youth and hopefulness, become an easy mark for the exercise of their fleecing qualities. Their vast stores of colonial information and experienece are put at the disposal of the new-comers so long as generous and free entertainment is given in exchange.
It is pointed out to them how useless half their stock of clothes is, and they are advised to throw some away: an advice frequently followed, and thereupon a pal is warned to pick them up. Beyond this, and affording information as to the road to each other, there is little freemasonry amongst sundowners nowadays. Each jealously guards his own individual interests and does not merge them in those of a class. Occasionally when the owner or the cook of a station makes his abhorrence of tramps unpleasantly conspicuous by the use of the stock-whip, the sufferer will warn his mates by blazing a large B on a neighbouring tree or post, and this is sufficient indication to an old hand that he must do his utmost to put a safe distance between himself and that station.
Yet in the face of the following facts it is difficult to think there exists no recognised means of communication between them. Otherwise, like the faculty vultures possess for smelling out carrion, they must have a specialised sense for discovering that common feature of the bush, the station-hand who has received his cheque and is prepared for a heavy burst. The station-hand in the bush has a strange and notable habit of working hard in the back-blocks for eighteen months or two years at a stretch, his pay remaining in his employer's hands. Then a day comes when a passion similar in intensity to that of the reindeer for the sea seizes him, and he applies for his cheque with the avowed intention going on the spree. His modus operandi is to make for the nearest public-house and hand his cheque to the publican, with the request that the latter will warn him when it is spent, which means free drinks for himself and the crowd. A tough score is kept, and when about a third is expended he is told it is all gone. With that he betakes himself back to his work, and the history is repeated da capo. It is true there are laws to put down this practice, but they are rendered inoperative owing to the bush-hand's fixed determination when he receives his cheque to "blew it," as he expressively terms it.
We met one of these characters who had saved a cheque for eighty-four pounds, and after a week's spree was told it was all spent. He thereupon begged a bottle of brandy from the publican to take away with him. His request being refused roused his ire, and he applied to the nearest magistrate, with the result that after investigation the publican was ordered to restore his money less seven pounds fairly spent. That bottle of brandy cost the rascally publican seventy-seven pounds. Nothing would induce the man to invest his money. He clung obstinately to his old habit of going on the spree, and travelling to another place died before the spree was over. It is to men of this stamp that the sundowner's attention is always drawn seemingly by instinct. They shadow the bushman on his route, and the crowd of shadowers increases as he nears his goal. Arrived there, be finds them ready to fawn upon and flatter him. One fills his pipe, another lights it, a third pushes him to a comfortable seat, and then all prepare for it carouse at his expense.
Rudely practical methods of ridding themselves of the importunity of tramps are frequently devised by squatters. They are attacked on their weakest side their dislike for work. At one station for instance are two heaps of stones about twenty yards apart, and the unwary tramp who applies for a meal is promised, one when he has carried all the stones from one heap to the other; or he is set to swing a gate for a certain time in order to show his willingness to work. This of course sickens him. A bucking horse is kept to check the importunity of the new chum. He applies for employment, and is requested to show he can ride. The result is disastrous to the luckless aspirant.
Among the many and heterogeneous characters we have met in the bush, three dwell specially in our memory. One is an Irishman close upon eighty years of age, forty of which he had spent on the tramp. He had an intense dislike to sleeping under cover, and we have seen him lying out in al fierce storm, not sleeping peacefully, but snoring with uproarious content, his clothes folded carefully beneath him to keep them dry, and be himself clad in the historic costume of Mark Twain's Indian -- nothing but a smile.
The second is the bush poet, and his was an interesting personality. He was of medium stature and heavy build, and wore a thick moustache. Around his throat was a collar familiar to us in caricatures of Mr. Gladstone. In Australian parlance, he was described as having a "shingle short," the counterpart of our English slang expression a "tile loose." We were privileged to read his poems, and found his muse inspired by three subjects Mr. Gladstone, the kangaroo, and the birds of the bush. As the latter are generally the crow, the magpie and the eagle-hawk, it is clear his poetic insight must gaze into depths impenetrable to the eyes of mortals of ordinary calibre. He was an ex-schoolmaster, and "for the benefit of future generations" (we quote his own words) he lived in the bush and the scrub, finding the highest forms of inspiration in the kangaroo, the highest poetry in their motion, and springs of the loftiest motives in their actions. "Kangarooish" was an epithet of the finest significance in his vocabulary. It is a matter of regret that the opening stanzas only of two of his poetical effusions remain in our memory. In one he apostrophised himself in the following fashion:--
A second has a ring of pathos, but the sublime and the ridiculous are very close:--
Lastly is the pathetic figure of a delightfully simple old man whom we discovered in diligent perusal of his Bible, and who invariably camped by himself and did not encourage intruders on his privacy. When we broke through his reserve he gave us the following strange history of his manner of working. "I only work at two places all the year," he said. "One is at a station up here, where I do the wool-picking; that is always a two months' job. Then I go back to Richmond River in New South Wales for cane-cutting; that is a four months' job. The remaining six months I spend in travelling to and fro, as these two stations are eight hundred miles apart, and it takes me three months to do the journey. I have been doing this for twenty years, and shall continue to do it as long as I live." He flatly refused an offer of a lift, for to alter his habits would make him miserable. "I always turn up to the day, for, see, here is my plan drawn out," and he showed us a rough chart of each day's route marked out like a ship's course. "I shall go on like this till I can do so no longer. They will wait a week for me up at the station, and if I don't turn up, then the boys will come out and put up a cross for me, for they'll know I have gone home for good and all. Good-bye."
We waved him an adieu, and we often wonder now if "the boys" have had to turn out yet.