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4-235 (Raw)

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author,female,Gaunt, Mary,29 addressee
Narrative Discourse
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Public Written
Webby, 1989
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4-235-raw.txt — 17 KB

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It is curious that, with the river so close, boating is not one of the chief amusements at Deniliquin; but there are few boats, and still fewer people ever go on the water. About September the fishing season begins, and then Murray cod are fairly plentiful. These fish, if taken from the running water, and not from the muddy lagoons, are very palatable; and one fish is, as a rule, ample reward for the angler, for they weigh generally from seven to seventy and one hundred pounds, while even monsters that turn the scale at two hundred pounds are not unknown. The disciple of Isaak Walton certainly requires some little encouragement, for the mosquitoes down by the river are so numerous, so aggressive, and so voracious that life is only bearable to the most enthusiastic and devoted of fishermen.
The streets of Deniliquin, as we have said, are usually quiet even to wearisomeness. Occasionally a bullock-team toils patiently down the load, dragging some squatter's clip bound for Victoria, or stores for his station far out on the plains. Now the little mail-coach from Balranald or Jerilderie dashes up to the post-office with as much bustle and importance as if it were built to carry twenty or thirty people instead of six. A covered wagon, driven by a Chinaman, comes lumbering through the street; his household goods are behind him; his white wife, arrayed in a cotton gown and a sun-bonnet, is at his side; while the yellow faces of their numerous progeny peep over their shoulders and through the cracks and rents in the wagon-cover. John, too, is bound for some station out on the plains where he will be employed as a rabbiter. [290] He is a well-to-do man, and probably has a snug little account at the bank, for the Chinaman has established himself as firmly in these towns far inland as on the coast. At Deniliquin is a Chinese camp on a small scale, and the Chinamen pursue their avocations as market-gardeners and rag-pickers.
About five o'clock in the afternoon the sleepy old town begins to show more signs of life, for the event of the day now takes place, namely, the arrival of the evening train from Melbourne. Then, apparently, the greater part of the population may be seen wending their way to the railway station, there to assemble on the platform to gaze upon the iron monster as if they had never seen a railway train before, and feared they might never have the chance again.
Once a year, however, the town wakes from its lethargy in real earnest, and holds high revel. This is in the middle of July, the depth of winter, though the term winter hardly conveys the right impression. Then are held the races and the sheep show, and from all the stations and towns around, with that blissful disregard of distance which characterises the Australian squatter, strangers pour into the town, till it is full to overflowing. The tradespeople reap their annual harvest from the pleasure-seekers, and the hotels are full; bar, passages, billiard-room, and dining-room - every corner that can hold a lodger who is not particular as to his personal comfort for a day or two is pressed into the service.
For a week the town is given over to pleasure; and balls, races, and picnics are the order of the day. The sheep show brings in squatters from the farthest back blocks on the Darling, and for one whole week the streets are full, busy, and bustling; then the strangers return to their distant homes, carnival week is over, and Deniliquin drops to its normal state of quiet.
After the arrival of the Melbourne train, the next daily event of any importance in Deniliquin is the setting-out of the Hay coach, which six nights out of the seven crosses the eighty miles of plain that lie between this town and Hay. Punctually every evening at seven o'clock the coach, with its five horses, leaves the "Royal Hotel", stops for one moment at the post-office for Her Majesty's mails, and then dashes on again (sometimes crowded with passengers and luggage, sometimes with but the driver and another man) down the road, across the bridge, and out on the trackless plains, to travel there all night till the morning's dawn shall bring into sight the river-belt of the Murrumbidgee, on the other side of which is Hay.
Road on the plains there is none; the stock-route is over a mile wide, and the crisp salt-bush crackles beneath the horses' hoofs as they swing along at an even, steady pace, the heavy coach swinging on its leather springs backwards and forwards with a troublous. uncomfortable motion, strongly calculated to produce sea-sickness in the uninitiated. It is a weary journey. One mile of plain by day is remarkably like another, and by night there is nothing to mark the passing of the hours and to break the monotony save the stoppages for fresh horses, which are changed every ten or twelve miles. [291] There is something weird and strange in the notion of receiving one's mails and almost all the news of the outside world at dead of night, as the inhabitants of these lonely public-houses, miles distant from other habitations, do. By day an occasional drover, riding slowly behind his flocks, or a traveller who prefers to journey by day, are their only visitors; but regularly as clockwork every night come the coaches. A sound of wheels is heard from the distance, and the whole household is alert and ready; fresh horses stand waiting, the door is open, and a ruddy light streams out, the landlord stands hospitably in the glow, and the one or two women the shanty contains peep round the doorpost or fidget over the table roughly laid for tea - for is not the event of the day, or rather night, about to take place? The sound of wheels comes nearer and is plainly heard on the dry, still air, the five great lamps are visible, and then the lumbering form of the heavy coach itself looms out On the darkness. The steaming horses stop suddenly in the lamp-light, and willing hands rush forward to unhitch them, "the driver never relinquishing the reins till every strap and buckle is free. Then perhaps, if he is in a condescending mood (for the driver of Cobb's coach is an important personage on the road), he steps down from his lofty perch, strolls carelessly through the open door, warms himself before the glowing fire (for the nights in winter are often chilly on the plains), retails gossip in an affable manner to the admiring women-folk, patronises the obsequious landlord, deigns perhaps to partake of a cup of tea or a little "something hot", takes charge of a letter, and then - time is up - the great man strolls out again, climbs to his perch once more, gathers the reins in his skilful hands, gives a few directions to the lanky stable-helps standing round open-mouthed and envious - a shout of "All aboard", a crack of the whip, and the coach is off again for another ten-mile stage.
These little stopping-places on the plains all bear a strong family resemblance to one another. At "Pretty Pine", the first after leaving Deniliquin, there is a native pine-tree carefully fenced, from which The little inn takes its name. By night, of course, its beauties are not perceptible, nor do they appear specially remarkable by day, for to the ordinary observer the "pretty pine" appears a very common-place tree indeed - that is, if he come from forest lands. A dweller on the plains would probably be more lenient in his judgment. Wonganilla, on the Billabong Creek, the next stopping-place, is the only place between Deniliquin and Hay that can even be dignified by the name of hamlet. Here there are two public-houses, a store, and a blacksmith's shop; but, spite of this magnificence, the Pine Ridge, or Booroorban, as it is but seldom called, thirty miles from Hay, is the principal stopping-place. Here the coaches stay nearly half an hour, and passengers and driver of the Hay coach make a late supper, while those from Deniliquin have an exceedingly early breakfast - somewhere about three o'clock in the morning. [292] There is no such levelling process as coach-travelling. No one, of course - not even the Governor of the Colony - could object to sitting down to supper with the driver; an ordinary individual feels it rather an honour than otherwise. He is far the most important personage for miles around. There is no second class - all must pay the same (and pay highly, too) for the privilege of riding in the coach, and all alike must sit at the same table, partake of the same fare, use the same black-handled knives, and drink from the same coarse white cups - be it dainty, fastidious Englishman, just fresh from the comforts of the Old Land, or lean, yellow Chinaman going to join his "cousin" somewhere out on the plains far beyond Hay.
Between Wonganilla and Pine Ridge the event of the journey ought to take place, for at "Trotting Cob" resides an Australian ghost. Every night, at twelve of the clock, a ghastly figure (its bloody head under its arm) may be seen trotting slowly round the little inn, mounted on a snow-white cobby horse. It is not on record that any of the passengers by the mail-coach have as yet seen this figure. That the ghost is there is, of course, an undoubted fact - for has not the place been named after it? And the driver, if he be in a communicative mood, will tell a long story of the cruel wrong and murder which led to the place being haunted. Unfortunately, it is out of our power to give the true story of this most authentic ghost, for it varies with the different drivers (sometimes even with the moods of the same driver), and, consequently, the history of "Trotting Cob" is lost in the mist of many journeys to and fro and much whisky and water.
After leaving Pine Ridge the coach crosses a portion of the Old Man Plain. It is well on in the small hours now, and the interest with which the passengers began their journey has given way to an overpowering desire for sleep. Perhaps this is as well, for here are no points of interest whatever. Wonderfully silent have they all become. Inside some are dozing in various uncomfortable attitudes. One has betaken himself to the boot, and is sleeping the sleep of the just in somewhat uneasy fashion on the mail-bags and luggage, while on the roof already more than one man has nodded so perceptibly that the driver feels constrained to call out a solemn warning that "only last week a gent as fell asleep on top of the coach fell off, and was picked up a stiff 'un". Very slowly the time seems to pass, and to every anxious question as to where we are now comes the same laconic answer, "Old Man Plain"; but at length the Sixteen Mile Gums are reached, the last stage is begun, morning dawns in the east, and there before the eyes of the travellers lies the dark winding river-belt of the Murrumbidgee bounding the horizon to the north, and the coach has very nearly reached its destination. [293] Sleepily the passengers rouse themselves and compare notes, the driver puts on an extra spurt, the coach thunders across the bridge, dashes up the street (wakening with its clatter the sleepy town), and finally draws up at Cobb's Coach Office.
Hay in all its features remarkably resembles Deniliquin, and the description of the one town would do almost equally well for the other. And yet there are radical points of difference. Deniliquin, the terminus of the Victorian Railway, is essentially a Victorian town, having Melbourne for its capital, while Hay, on the other hand, belongs entirely to its own colony, is the terminus of its railway, and owns Sydney for its capital. Here, too, dwells the Anglican bishop, who, though he be Bishop of Riverina, makes Hay his headquarters; and, greatest difference of all, while Deniliquin is on the decline (or, at least, at a standstill), Hay, though as yet its population is but little over 2,000, is a rising town, destined, its people declare, to be the future capital of Riverina. The little town is due north of Melbourne, and a line drawn from Sydney to Adelaide not only passes through it, but is nearly bisected by it. It is situated in one of the most picturesque bends of the unpicturesque Murrumbidgee, and is a neat, tidy little place. Its streets are wide, and planted with trees - quaint currajongs, a species of eucalyptus (very like in form to the stiff wooden trees we have all played with in childish days); bright green pepper-trees, with their coral berries; and graceful grevilleas, which in the spring are gorgeous with orange-coloured blossoms, and promise to add greatly to the beauty of the town when they shall have grown to their full size in the years to come.
Hay nestles close to the river, hugging the waterside, while the railway station is half a mile away, surrounded by the bare blocks and pegged-out streets of the surveyed town, which as yet but few people have settled upon. There are some two-storeyed buildings in the town, but generally, as in Deniliquin, the houses are seldom more than one storey high, are built in cottage form with broad verandas, and are usually set in the midst of gardens - hardly trim English gardens (labour is too expensive and water too scarce for that), but pretty gardens, nevertheless, full of semi-tropical plants and fruits that require the warm sun of Riverina to bring them to perfection. The streets are lighted by gas, and so are most of the public buildings, but as yet it is so expensive that but few private persons indulge in the luxury. Water, as in Deniliquin, is pumped into a high waterlower (in this case an iron one), and is thence laid onto the town. The river here is navigable in the spring and early summer, when the snows have melted on the far-distant ranges where the Murrumbidgee has its sources; and the little steamers come up far beyond the town, carrying stores to the distant stations out on the plains, and returning again with the squatters' clip in closely-packed bales before the river has fallen to its summer level. [294] The traffic on the river is always a source of excitement for the Hay people, a diversion which Deniliquin lacks, for the Edward is not navigable, being far too full of snags (fallen trees) and sand-banks. At Hay the state of the river is a constant topic of conversation. It is very low, it is rising, it is running a banker, and then the first steamer of the season has made her appearance - a little steamer, whose cabins and deck-houses apparently make her somewhat top-heavy, with a big paddle-wheel in the stern, and behind her she tows three or four barges destined to carry the wool. Eagerly is she watched as she comes puffing and panting to the long bridge, which seems at first to present an impassable barrier, but as she approaches the whole of the centre is swung slowly out on a pivot until it stands lengthwise in mid-stream, and there is ample room for her to pass on either side. Her crew consists of three or four men - namely, the skipper, his mate, and perhaps two deck-hands, who may be seen lounging over the railing, idly scanning the view as they pass.
A river-sailor's life can scarcely be counted a hard one. As long as the river is high enough its navigation presents little difficulty, and at night almost invariably - always, in fact, unless the moonlight is very brilliant - the little steamer is drawn close to the bank and firmly held there by a rope thrown round the nearest tree-trunk. Twenty years ago, when very few railways were open, the river-steamers were extensively used by passengers, especially by women and children, who dreaded, not unnaturally, the long and weary coach-journeys. In point of time, of course, the steamer took longer, for one hundred miles by river may mean but three by land; and this, with the nightly stoppages, made a journey in a cramped and crowded vessel one not to be lightly undertaken, more especially as the provisions were humble, not to say coarse, while the cookery was of an exceedingly primitive order.
Seldom - we might almost say never - do passengers travel by steamer now. The coach is generally preferred, even to reach the towns on the Darling in the far west, and the steamers, owing probably to the uncertain state of the rivers, are wholly given up to carrying cargo. There is no doubt that they carry an immense quantity of goods, principally station stores - flour and tea, kerosene and tobacco, blankets and leather, and, above all, pain-killer. The amount of this medicament consumed "out back" must be enormous. The bushman regards it as a sovereign remedy - the panacea which, whether applied outwardly or inwardly, cures all the ills that flesh is heir to. Far out, too, where, when the whisky has run out it is impossible to procure either that or any other stimulant at a moment's notice, there will sometimes come over a man a longing and craving for strong drink, which he appeases as best he may, and he will even toss off kerosene and water with great gusto. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that pain-killer, spite of its fiery nature, or perhaps on account of it, ranks high as a stimulating drink. [295] The story is told out on the back blocks of a traveller who, arriving at a wayside shanty where they were out of liquor, called for a nobbler. He was promptly presented with a glass of pain-killer and water. "Surely," said he wonderingly, sipping at the milky-white liquid - "surely it's painkiller." "Shut up, you fool," cried the landlord, holding up a warning finger - "shut up! Why, man, they're drinking Farmer's Friend in the parlour." And, really, he should have been satisfied, for Farmer's Friend, seeing that it is only used for dressing wounds on horses and cattle, must be considered much lower down in the scale of drinks.