The Moving Finger (Mary Gaunt)/A Digger's Christmas
A DIGGER'S CHRISTMAS
It was on the Tinpot Gully diggings, now known to fame by a far more euphonious title, that early in the fifties I spent my first Christmas in Australia. There were all sorts and conditions of men there, men from every nation and every class. Englishmen and Italians, Russians and Portuguese, Persians, Chinamen, and negroes, sons of peers and London pickpockets, all rubbed shoulders on the Tinpot Gully diggings. But they came naturally enough to me in those days. At one and twenty nothing astonishes one, and I took things as I found them, and questioned not, and barely wondered at the mixed company in which I found myself.
Very peaceful looked the scene as I stood at my tent door, or rather curtain, and surveyed it thus early in the morning. All the camp was sleeping. Most of the diggers had made a night of it the night before in anticipation of the holiday, and now were sleeping off the effects, so that I had it all to myself, and spite of the havoc wrought by the diggers, the gully was pretty still. We were all camped on the flat that bordered the banks of the creek, and away beyond on all sides stretched the hills, standing out clearly now in the brilliant morning sunlight, range upon range, in a series of blue ridges, till they faded away in the bluer distance. The Union Jack—emblem of authority-floated from the staff in front of the Commissioner's tent, and from my outlook I could see the sunlight gleaming on the carbines of the troopers who stood sentry over the gold tent, and digger as I was, and sworn foe to all troopers, the sunbeams on those carbine barrels gave me a comfortable sense of security, for (for the first time in our diggings' experience) my mate and I had lodged a little chamois leather bag full of gold dust and small nuggets—part of the fortune which we trusted in days to come was to take us back to the old land—with the Commissioner, and I was glad to feel in those wild times that he was fully alive to the nature of his trust. Having satisfied myself as to the safety of my property, I re-entered the tent and roused out my mate.
"Rouse out, Dick, old man! Merry Christmas to you, my boy! Merry Christmas, and many of 'em!"
Dick turned over sleepily, rubbed his eyes, and went through exactly the same performance I had done, before he could rouse himself sufficiently to accompany me across the hills to another creek, where, the bottom being of bed rock, the crystal water was still pure and unsullied by the digger's desecrating hand. Our dip was refreshing; we could only find time for it on Sundays and holidays such as this, and probably we appreciated it all the more for its rarity. Our toilet was simplicity itself. We each arrayed ourselves in a red flannel shirt and moleskin trousers, clean to-day in honour of Christmas, tucked into our high boots, while a slouch hat and a revolver in the belt completed the costume. On our return I proceeded to prepare breakfast, while Dick looked after the sick boy. Breakfast was not sumptuous; all my energies were reserved for dinner, and Dick had to make out as best he might on damper left from the night before, and the cold remains of a nondescript joint of mutton. He came back just as I had got the rough meal ready, reporting poor Wilson as a little better and awfully hungry. Then he tipped the tea—post and rails we used to call it—into our tin pannikins, and proceeded to boil part of a cabbage in the billy for the invalid. I laugh now when I think that in those days we counted a common cabbage a luxury fit to tempt a sick man's appetite; but, indeed, luxuries of all kinds were scarce, and as for that cabbage it had been procured with infinite pains and at great cost; and the odour that rose from the pot—the very offensive odour of boiled cabbage, as I now think it—appeared to us most appetising.
I went with Dick to give poor Bob Wilson his breakfast. It was a very thin, white, pinched face that looked out from among the rough bedclothes, and a skeleton hand that grasped mine.
He appreciated the cabbage, however. I have been told since that it ought to have killed him, but it didn't.
"By Jove!" he said, "it's splendid, splendid. It must have cost a lot to get it. You fellows are good to me. If it hadn't been for you two, I'd have died like a dog,"—not quite true, for if we hadn't looked after him someone else would—"and before the next year's out I 'll try and show you how grateful I am."
And before the next year was out the poor boy was dead—murdered by some miscreant for the handful of gold in his possession, down in the lonely bush about Reedy Creek.
Wilson's wants being attended to, Dick and I began our preparations for the all important dinner. This was to consist of roast scrub turkey and plum pudding, washed down by Battle axe brandy. And here the good old cookery-book adage came into play, for as yet our bird was running wild in the scrub, and it was a case of first catch your turkey. The morning was hot, but not too hot, with just a pleasant breeze stirring in the bush, and I rather desired to go on the shooting expedition. I ventured to suggest mildly that Dick was a better hand at pudding than I was, but he saw through my little game. Pudding was not an absolute necessary of life, he said, which the turkey really was, and as I was a bad shot—there was no denying the fact, I was a very bad shot—he had better go while I stopped at home and manipulated the pudding.
Dick always had his own way in the end, and I watched him enviously as he tramped up the opposite hill-side until he was lost to view, and then I set to work on the pudding.
The whole camp was astir by now—some busy preparing their morning meal, some like me, beginning on dinner, and many too sick and seedy to think of anything but more brandy, while one or two were good enough to come and favour me with their views on the pudding. We had laid in all the necessaries at least a week before, and then I set to work to stone raisins for the first, and I trust, the last time in my life. It is laborious work. I'd rather use a pick and shovel any day, but I knew it ought to be done, I had heard my mother say so many a time; so I stuck to it gallantly, and with sticky and aching fingers worked through that pile of raisins. Everything comes to an end at length, and at last I came to the end of those raisins, and poured them into the bucket, where the flour and currants, and sugar and candied peel were already reposing. To these I added a billy of water from the creek, and stirred the lot together with a big stick. My wife informs me that a good plum pudding can't be made without a certain proportion of suet, some spice, and six or seven eggs, but I assure you that was a very excellent pudding, and we never even thought of such things. I don't suppose we could have got them if we had, so it was just as well. After I had mixed my pudding I had one moment of deepest despair. There it lay, a yellow-looking mass at the bottom of the bucket. So far all was well, but how was that yellow mass to be turned into the orthodox jolly-looking plum-pudding? I was cudgelling my brains over this enigma as I lighted up the fire, when one of the admiring crowd round—I suppose he must have, been a past-master in the art of cooking—solved the difficulty for me.
"Ain't you got a pudden-cloth?" he asked.
"By Jingo!" I thought, "of course." But I am thankful to say I did not betray my ignorance.
"A pudding-cloth," I said, as if I had known all about it all along. "No, I haven't a pudding-cloth; I'm going to use a shirt."
Thereupon I retired to the tent, and procured a red flannel shirt—one of Dick's—which, with the top cut off, answered admirably.
"Don't ye, don't ye now tie it too tight, else it won't 'ave room to swell," implored my self-constituted adviser, and I followed his advice—was only too thankful for it, in fact—and by the time my mate returned with the turkey, the pudding was bubbling away in the bucket which did duty as saucepan as jolly as possible.
Our Christmas dinner was a decided success. The turkey was splendid, and the pudding, bar a slight grittiness, occasioned by my not having washed the currants, which I am told should always be done, was also good, and our guests—we had three besides Bob Wilson (guests who brought their own tin plates and knives and forks)—thoroughly appreciated it.
Nowadays I can't eat wild turkey until it has been hung a certain time, and unless it is served up with gravy, port wine, red currant jelly, and piquante sauce, but then—well, that was an excellent fellow we had for dinner that Christmas Day; I shall never look upon his like again. After dinner, Battle-axe brandy and other drinks, varying only in degrees of strength, being plentiful, the camp became somewhat rowdy, and we quieter spirits therefore retired to a shady nook a little way up the creek, where, flat on our backs among the grass and ferns, we spent the early part of the afternoon yarning over other Christmas Days, spent in far different fashion in a far distant land. We too had Battle-axe brandy as a sort of afternoon tea, and this roused Dick up to such an extent that he burst forth into song. Unfortunately he chose for his theme, "The Old Folks at Home," and as we joined with his clear tenor in the chorus of the pathetic old song, there was a lump in more throats than mine as we thought of our old homes, and the very small chance the most of us had of seeing the dear old folks again. When the song was done, there was a dead pause, which no one seemed inclined to break, till Left-handed Bob astonished us by singing at the top of his voice, "Christians, Awake." We were mightily taken back and astonished, but somehow the grand Christmas hymn harmonized well with the surroundings,—the green grass, and ferns, and creepers, the trickling water, and the deep blue cloudless sky, and the murmur of sounds, softened by distance, which came up from the camp below made a splendid accompaniment.
As the afternoon wore away, and the shadows grew longer, some one suggested we should go up and visit old Father Maguire, whose labours, we opined, would probably be over for the day by this time. The holy father lived about a mile up the steep hillside in a small one-roomed hut, more than half hidden by great rocks and boulders, which in primeval ages some volcanic upheaval had scattered around. It was not very easy to find the father's hut at all; he might have been a priest of Reformation days, so hidden and secluded was his dwelling, and after partaking of the old man's hospitality, it was well-nigh impossible to find your way out of the maze again. As we approached, the volume of smoke that poured out of the chimney assured us our friend was holding high revel, and sure enough, when we opened the door, the atmosphere that rushed out was like that of an oven, for the place was barely fifteen feet square, and in the fireplace was a roaring fire, large enough to roast a bullock. In the middle of the room, on a small table on which were spread the remnants of a somewhat meagre feast, sat the owner of the cabin in his shirt sleeves, while beads of perspiration trickled down his jolly red face. His right hand grasped a pannikin, and his left beat time on the table to the strains of the "Shan Van Voght," which he was shouting at the top of his voice. Father Maguire was a kindly, jolly old soul, who loved not to mortify the flesh. The weekly Friday fasts were a sore trial to him; and it was rumoured, with what truth I know not, that he went down to the camp at Deadman's Creek, there to hold mass, and afterwards invariably called upon the Commissioner, who was not one of the faithful. That young gentleman was glad enough to entertain the jolly old priest, and always invited him to dinner, an invitation always cheerfully accepted, for the host was a man of taste, and his dinners, besides being abundant, had a refinement and a variety about them which most other dinners at that time lacked.
"By me sowl," Father Maguire would say, as he rose from the table, "by me sowl, but it's Friday, and it's meself has forgot that same." And as long as those dinners lasted the father continued to eat them, and invariably made the same remark afterwards. Peace be to his ashes—he has long since been gathered to his fathers. He was a jovial, merry old soul, fulfilling to the letter the Pauline behest, "to think no evil." and if he did eat some few more dinners than the rules of his Church allowed, good dinners did not often come in his way, and I trust he will not be hardly judged for them.
The moment he saw us he dropped the pannikin, and rose to greet us, a funny round tub of a man, with his braces dangling behind him.
"Och, sure, an' it's the bhoys! Come yez in, an' a merry Christmas to yez. Come yez in, an' I 'll brew yez some scaltheen in honor av the day."
Scaltheen was what Father Maguire was famous for, and exactly what we had come for. It was, in truth, rather a potent drink, consisting as it did of whisky, sugar, butter, and water, all boiled together in the little black kettle now singing away on the hob, and assisted materially in raising fresh difficulties round that already difficult path through the rocks.
As the old gentleman bustled round mixing his scaltheen, we became aware of another occupant of the cabin, a tall, thin, dark-haired, cadaverous-looking young priest, just fresh from All Hallows'. He sat there solemnly on an upturned brandy case in the corner, and glared disapprovingly out of his hollow black eyes at the revel going on round him. Father Maguire remembered his existence after a bit and introduced him.
"Sure an' it's Father Mahoney, bhoys, jist out from ould Ireland. Faix an' he's falin' a bit lonesome. Sure, now, Father dear, sing, sing—it 'll do yez good. The 'Wearin' o' the Green,' Father, or 'Garry-owen.' Come now. His voice it's jist beautiful, bhoys; och, but ye should jist hear him," and the poor old father nodded confidentially at us, fell back in his chair, his eyes gradually closed, the pannikin dropped out of his hands, and the whiskey trickled down on to the earthen floor.
Father Mahoney evidently felt that the time had now come for him to speak or for ever after hold his peace, as the marriage service has it. He rose from his seat, and stalked across the room, a tall thin figure in his long black coat, and stood over his prostrate brother.
"Father Maguire," he said in the broadest of Cork brogues, without the ghost of a smile on his grave Irish face, "is it a song yez wantin'? Well, thin, it's just a jeremiad I'd be singin' yez, an' not another song at all, at all."
Then, without deigning to take any notice of us, he flung open both door and window—the atmosphere stood greatly in need of a little freshening, I must admit—and went out on to the hillside, leaving us irreverent youngsters convulsed with laughter. The fun was over now as far as we were concerned, for Father Maguire, overcome by his own magic brew, was calmly sleeping, and no efforts of ours could elicit more than a grumpy, "Arrah, thin—be still now—will yez?"
So as the shadows were growing longer and longer, and Christmas Day was rapidly drawing to a close, we turned towards the camp again. Bob Wilson had spent rather a dreary afternoon all by himself, but we cheered him with a graphic account of our visit to the two priests, got him some tea, and then when the sun had set behind the hills, adjourned to the public house, the Eldorado Hotel as it was called, there to take part in one of those festive entertainments, known as a "Bull-dance"; that is to say, a dance at which women were conspicuous by their absence. In this case, though, we were in luck, for there were actually four women among about a hundred men, namely, the landlord's wife, a buxom matron of fifty, weighing about fourteen stone, but "game yet," as she herself said, "to shake a leg with the youngest;" his two daughters, fair, freckled, sandy-haired damsels, who were the objects of far greater attention than their very moderate charms appeared to sanction; and pretty Lizzie, the barmaid. We always called her "Pretty Lizzie," and if she had any other name I never heard it. She was a dainty little dark thing, with soft dark eyes and bright pink cheeks, and seemed somehow above her station. What adverse fate had drifted her into the service of old Long Potter I 'm sure I don't know, for she had bewitching ways, and a gentle voice that won all hearts. I don't think it was the absence of all feminine society that made us find "Pretty Lizzie" so specially charming. I even think, looking back now with all the accumulated wisdom of more than thirty years, that there was something wonderfully sweet about her. Anyhow, I, along with some hundred others, was very much in love with Lizzie, and, like them, had the pain of knowing—it was really a very keen pain in those days—that my love was unrequited.
The Eldorado was but a shanty, part calico tent, part corrugated iron. The room we danced in had only a hardwood floor, and for all furniture had a counter running across one end, on which were arrayed glasses, pannikins, and bottles, Behind this, Long Potter stood, dispensing refreshments to his guests, for which they paid in coin of the realm or gold dust. The music was provided by an old sailor with a fiddle and two concertinas, and if the guttering tallow candles and evil-smelling oil lamps did not provide light enough, outside was the glorious moon, now at the full, a round yellow disc poised in the dark, velvety sky. They were a rough crowd, those diggers, rowdy and foul-mouthed, and they squabbled not a little over their partners. First and foremost each man wanted to dance with Pretty Lizzie; Long Potter's two daughters came next, and failing them their buxom mother proved a bone of contention; the non-successful ones, and their name was legion, having to dance with each other.
And dance they did with a will. Never before or since have I seen such energetic dancing as we used to have at those bull-dances of diggings days. As the evening advanced and the liquor began to take effect, disputes became more frequent, disputes that were as a rule, promptly settled outside by a round of fisticuffs; but perhaps the best hated man there was the trooper, who came in about nine o'clock, and monopolized Pretty Lizzie. He was a big, fair man, this trooper—a gentleman evidently, down on his luck, as many a gentleman was in those days, and as evidently he was in love with Lizzie and she was in love with him. Oh, the adoring glances she cast at him as they went down the room together at a mad gallop. He got drunk as night advanced, and before I left I was dimly conscious of a dark corner where a sobbing woman was putting a pillow beneath the head of her insensible lover. Poor Pretty Lizzie, spite of it all, she married him; and ten years later I saw her again, the weary looking, draggle-tailed landlady of a wayside shanty, with half a dozen small children hanging on to her skirts and a drunken husband lolling in the bar. Poor Pretty Lizzie, she was worthy of a better fate.
I'm afraid I must confess I don't remember much about the close of the evening. I wanted to dance with Lizzie, and when she would have none of me I consoled myself with the flowing bowl to such an extent that when by-and-by Dick, suggesting we should go home, took me by the arm and led me into the open air, I found the ground was rising up to meet me, and I remarked to my mate I thought that the moon must be getting old, she was so remarkably unsteady on her legs. I retired to my tent to wake up next morning with a splitting headache, as a pleasing reminiscence of the revel of the night before.
I am not a digger now. Long since I abandoned the pick and shovel for more lucrative employment—so long since that it is only occasionally I look back on my early days in the colony and my first Christmas on the diggings.