This section is from the book "Robbery Under Arms; A Story Of Life And Adventure In The Bush And In The Australian Goldfields", by Rolf Boldrewood. Also available from Amazon: Robbery under Arms; a story of life and adventure in the bush and in the Australian goldfields.
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.'