Australia Felix/Part I/Chapter II
With the passing of a cooler air the sleeper wakened and rubbed his eyes. Letting his injured leg lie undisturbed, he drew up the other knee and buckled his hands round it. In this position he sat and talked.
He was a dark, fresh-coloured young man, of middle height, and broadly built. He had large white teeth of a kind to crack nuts with, and the full, wide, flexible mouth that denotes the generous talker.
"What a wind-bag it is, to be sure!" thought his companion, as he smoked and listened, in a gently ironic silence, to abuse of the Government. He knew--or thought he knew--young Purdy inside out.
But behind all the froth of the boy's talk there lurked, it seemed, a purpose. No sooner was a meal of cold chop and tea over than Purdy declared his intention of being present at a meeting of malcontent diggers. Nor would he even wait to wash himself clean of mud.
His friend reluctantly agreed to lend him an arm. But he could not refrain from taking the lad to task for getting entangled in the political imbroglio. "When, as you know, it's just a kind of sport to you."
Purdy sulked for a few paces, then burst out: "If only you weren't so damned detached, Dick Mahony!"
"You're restless, and want excitement, my boy--that's the root of the trouble."
"Well, I'm jiggered! If ever I knew a restless mortal, it's yourself."
The two men picked their steps across the Flat and up the opposite hillside, young Purdy Smith limping and leaning heavy, his lame foot thrust into an old slipper. He was at all times hail-fellow-well-met with the world. Now, in addition, his plucky exploit of the afternoon blazed its way through the settlement; and blarney and bravos rained upon him. "Golly for you, Purdy, old 'oss!" "Showed 'em the diggers' flag, 'e did!" "What'll you take, me buck? Come on in for a drop o' the real strip-me-down-naked!" Even a weary old strumpet, propping herself against the doorway of a dancing-saloon, waved a tipsy hand and cried: "Arrah, an' is it yerrself, Purrdy, me bhoy? Shure an' it's bussin' ye I'd be afther--if me legs would carry me!" And Purdy laughed, and relished the honey, and had an answer pat for everybody especially the women. His companion on the other hand was greeted with a glibness that had something perfunctory in it, and no touch of familiarity.
The big canvas tent on Bakery Hill, where the meeting was to be held, was already lighted; and at the tinkle of a bell the diggers, who till then had stood cracking and hobnobbing outside, began to push for the entrance. The bulk of them belonged to the race that is quickest to resent injustice--were Irish. After them in number came the Germans, swaggering and voluble; and the inflammable French, English, Scotch and Americans formed a smaller and cooler, but very dogged group.
At the end of the tent a rough platform had been erected, on which stood a row of cane seats. In the body of the hall, the benches were formed of boards, laid from one upturned keg or tub to another. The chair was taken by a local auctioneer, a cadaverous-looking man, with never a twinkle in his eye, who, in a lengthy discourse and with the single monotonous gesture of beating the palm of one hand with the back of the other, strove to bring home to his audience the degradation of their present political status. The diggers chewed and spat, and listened to his periods with sang-froid: the shame of their state did not greatly move them. They followed, too, with composure, the rehearsal of their general grievances. As they were aware, said the speaker, the Legislative Council of Victoria was made up largely of Crown nominees; in the election of members the gold-seeking population had no voice whatsoever. This was a scandalous thing; for the digging constituent outnumbered all the rest of the population put together, thus forming what he would call the backbone and mainstay of the colony. The labour of THEIR hands had raised the colony to its present pitch of prosperity. And yet these same bold and hardy pioneers were held incapable of deciding jot or tittle in the public affairs of their adopted home. Still unmoved, the diggers listened to this recital of their virtues. But when one man, growing weary of the speaker's unctuous wordiness, discharged a fierce: "Why the hell don't yer git on to the bloody licence-tax?" the audience was fire and flame in an instant. A riotous noise ensued; rough throats rang changes on the question. Order restored, it was evident that the speech was over. Thrown violently out of his concept, the auctioneer struck and struck at his palm--in vain; nothing would come. So, making the best of a bad job, he irately sat down in favour of his successor on the programme.
This speaker did not fare much better. The assemblage, roused now, jolly and merciless, was not disposed to give quarter; and his obtuseness in dawdling over such high-flown notions as that population, not property, formed the basis of representative government, reaped him a harvest of boos and groans. This was not what the diggers had come out to hear. And they were as direct as children in their demand for the gist of the matter.
"A reg-lar ol' shicer!" was the unanimous opinion, expressed without scruple. While from the back of the hall came the curt request to him to shut his "tater-trap."
Next on the list was a German, a ruddy-faced man with mutton-chop whiskers and prominent, watery eyes. He could not manage the letter "r." In the body of a word where it was negligible, he rolled it out as though it stood three deep. Did he tackle it as an initial, on the other hand, his tongue seemed to cleave to his palate, and to yield only an "l." This quaint defect caused some merriment at the start, but was soon eclipsed by a more striking oddity. The speaker had the habit of, as it were, creaking with his nose. After each few sentences he paused, to give himself time to produce something between a creak and a snore--an abortive attempt to get at a mucus that was plainly out of reach.
The diggers were beside themselves with mirth.
"'E's forgot 'is 'ankey!"
"'Ere, boys, look slippy!--a 'ankey for ol' sausage!"
But the German was not sensitive to ridicule. He had something to say, and he was there to say it. Fixing his fish-like eyes on a spot high up the tent wall, he kept them pinned to it, while he mouthed out blood-and-thunder invectives. He was, it seemed, a red-hot revolutionist; a fierce denouncer of British rule. He declared the British monarchy to be an effete institution; the fetish of British freedom to have been "exbloded" long ago. What they needed, in this grand young country of theirs, was a "republic"; they must rid themselves of those shackles that had been forged in the days when men were slaves. It was his sound conviction that before many weeks had passed, the Union Jack would have been hauled down for ever, and the glorious Southern Cross would wave in its stead, over a free Australia. The day on which this happened would be a never-to-be-forgotten date in the annals of the country. For what, he would like to know, had the British flag ever done for freedom, at any time in the world's history? They should read in their school-books, and there they would learn that wherever a people had risen against their tyrants, the Union Jack had waved, not over them, but over the British troops sent to stamp the rising out.
This was more than Mahony could stomach. Flashing up from his seat, he strove to assert himself above the hum of agreement that mounted from the foreign contingent, and the doubtful sort of grumble by which the Britisher signifies his disapproval.
"Mr. Chairman! Gentlemen!" he cried in a loud voice. "I call upon those loyal subjects of her Majesty who are present here, to join with me in giving three cheers for the British flag. Hip, hip, hurrah! And, again, hip, hip, hurrah! And, once more, hip, hip, hurrah!"
His compatriots followed him, though flabbily; and he continued to make himself heard above the shouts of "Order!" and the bimming of the chairman's bell.
"Mr. Chairman! I appeal to you. Are we Britons to sit still and hear our country's flag reviled?--that flag which has ensured us the very liberty we are enjoying this evening. The gentleman who has been pleased to slander it is not, I believe, a British citizen. Now, I put it to him: is there another country on the face of the earth, that would allow people of all nations to flock into a gold-bearing colony on terms of perfect equality with its own subjects?--to flock in, take all they can get, and then make off with it?" a point of view that elicited forcible grunts of assent, which held their own against hoots and hisses. Unfortunately the speaker did not stop here, but went on: "Gentlemen! Do not, I implore you, allow yourselves to be led astray by a handful of ungrateful foreigners, who have received nothing but benefits from our Crown. What you need, gentlemen, is not revolution, but reform; not strife and bloodshed, but a liberty consistent with law and order. And this, gentlemen,----"
("You'll never get 'em like that, Dick," muttered Purdy.)
"Not so much gentlemening, if YOU please!" said a sinister-looking man, who might have been a Vandemonian in his day. "MEN'S what we are--that's good enough for us."
Mahony was nettled. The foreigners, too, were pressing him.
"Am I then to believe, sir, what I frequently hear asserted, that there are no gentlemen left on the diggings?"
("Oh lor, Dick!" said Purdy. He was sitting with his elbows on his knees, clutching his cheeks as though he had the toothache.)
"Oh, stow yer blatherskite!"
"Believe what yer bloody well like!" retorted the Vandemonian fiercely. "But don't come 'ere and interrupt our pleasant and h'orderly meetings with YOUR blamed jaw."
Mahony lost his temper. "I not interrupt?--when I see you great hulks of men--"
("Oh, lor!" groaned Purdy again.)
"--who call yourselves British subjects, letting yourselves be led by the nose, like the sheep you are, by a pack of foreigners who are basely accepting this country's hospital'ty?"
"Here, let me," said Purdy. And pushing his way along the bench he hobbled to the platform, where several arms hoisted him up.
There he stood, fronting the violent commotion that had ensued on his friend's last words; stood bedraggled, mud-stained, bandaged, his cabbage-tree hat in his hand. And Mahony, still on his feet, angrily erect, thought he understood why the boy had refused to wash himself clean, or to change his dress: he had no doubt foreseen the possibility of some such dramatic appearance.
Purdy waited for the hubbub to die down. As if by chance he had rested his hand on the bell; its provoking tinkle ceased. Now he broke into one of the frank and hearty smiles that never fail to conciliate.
The strongly spoken words induced an abrupt lull. The audience turned to him, still thorny and sulky it was true, but yet they turned; and one among them demanded a hearing for the youngster.
"Brother diggers! We are met here to-night with a single purpose in view. Brother diggers! We are not met here to throw mud at our dear old country's flag! Nor will we have a word said against her most gracious Majesty, the Queen. Not us! We're men first, whose business it is to stand up for a gallant little woman, and diggers with a grievance afterwards. Are you with me, boys?--Very well, then.--Now we didn't come here to-night to confab about getting votes, or having a hand in public affairs--much as we want 'em both and mean to have 'em, when the time comes. No, to-night there's only one thing that matters to us, and that's the repeal of the accursed tax!" Here, such a tempest of applause broke out that he was unable to proceed. "Yes, I say it again," he went on, when they would let him speak; "the instant repeal! When that's been done, this curse taken off us, then it'll be time enough to parlez-vous about the colour of the flag we mean to have, and about going shares in the Government. But let me make one thing clear to you. We're neither traitors to the Crown, nor common rebels. We're true-blue Britons, who have been goaded to rebellion by one of the vilest pieces of tyranny that ever saw the light. Spies and informers are everywhere about us. Mr. Commissioner Sleuth and his hounds may cry tally-ho every day, if 'tis their pleasure to! To put it shortly, boys, we're living under semi-martial law. To such a state have we free-born men, men who came out but to see the elephant, been reduced, by the asinine stupidity of the Government, by the impudence and knavishness of its officials. Brother diggers! When you leave the hall this evening, look over at the hill on which the Camp stands! What will you see? You will see a blaze of light, and hear the sounds of revelry by night. There, boys, hidden from our mortal view, but visible to our mind's eye, sit Charley Joe's minions, carousing at our expense, washing down each mouthful with good fizz bought with our hard-earned gold. Licence-pickings, boys, and tips from new grog-shops, and the blasted farce of the Commissariat! We're supposed--"
But here Mahony gave a loud click of the tongue--in the general howl of execration it passed unheard--and, pushing his way out of the tent, let the flap-door fall to behind him.