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Traits of the Township.

An Up-Country Sketch.

THERE can be nothing more misleading than the sort of bird's-eye view which the casual traveller obtains of the “inner life” of colonial country townships, when, with some passing object of business or pleasure, he quits for a while his haunts in the city, and ensconces himself for a day or two in what, by a figure of speech, is called rural quietude. Little he recks, as from the door of his hotel he surveys the one street with its long range of low-built edifices, that here in an almost added degree are experienced the “fret and the fever,” the competition and the contriving, which, from his superficial standpoint, he has been accustomed to regard as appertaining to large populated centres only. A reasonable degree of personal intimacy, or a fair course of business dealing with the fancied Arcadians amongst whom he for the first time finds himself, will, however, soon dissipate his pretty theories, and leave him, it is to be hoped, not a poorer,

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but at any rate a wiser and almost certainly a disappointed man. It is an admitted axiom in the domain of physics, that the more limited the space for expansion, the more deadly does the explosion become. It is so in life. Amidst the freer flow and wider sphere of cities the force of people's aims and passions becomes wholesomely distributed and diluted, whilst in narrower circles and more restricted centres the same forces, exerted within a less extended sphere, operate with an increased intensity, not always beneficial either to the individual or the community.

It would demand a combination of the descriptive humour of a Dickens with the satiric cynicism of a Thackeray, to accurately hit off the exceedingly fine lines of demarcation by which the social amenities of Australian bush “communities” are regulated; whilst, in regard to their business relations, the lucidity of a Gladstone would be lost in the task of reducing them to a system. I propose, however, to skim lightly over both topics, and shall hope to give a characteristic if not by any means complete view of each.

Dealing first with the incidence of trade in these interesting localities, it may be remarked that what the inhabitants consider business really resolves itself into an all-round system of barter. Everything in the shape of consumable commodities is plentiful except cash. The miner and the selector negotiate their produce for goods, the storekeeper, on the other hand, getting gold,

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agricultural produce, land, stock—everything, in fact, except current coin of the realm—as a quid pro quo for his wares. Under this system, the bush shopkeeper is in the barest sense a mere intermediary for putting money into the pockets of the metropolitan merchant, whom he pays by disposing of the produce which comes into his hands. To the rural toiler there sometimes returns a small margin of profit; but the result of his labours is more generally represented by a debit entry in the books of the local trader. To secure the deficiency thus caused and certain microscopical advances of ready cash the bill of the producer is taken, and subsequently, when he has sufficiently improved it, his land follows suit. Bad seasons accrue, and an additional indebtedness is contracted. Then, after many renewals and re-mortgages, the storekeeper mops up the land, with the fee of which a paternal Government parts so lightly, and which he, in his turn, has probably to hand over to the bank, that great ocean into which the river of country trade perennially flows, and on which the storekeeper is generally dependent for carrying on his complicated but not always equally profitable operations. If the numerous properties which the storekeeper assimilates in the course of his trade go up in value, he may, as he somewhat dubiously phrases it, “come out right.” A rush, or a railway, may also enable him to sell out to advantage, and thus hand on his worry and his liabilities to

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a succession of victims as sanguine as himself; but, as a rule, a good living, accompanied by a heavy burden of daily financing, is about as much as the ordinary country storekeeper can reasonably look forward to. It would be a godsend to both selectors and storekeepers if a local sale in the open market and payment in cash could be more readily obtained by the farmer for the produce of his labours, as the present system really hampers the storekeeper whilst it confines the choice of the producer, who pays more for his necessaries, with, probably, in the end, less profit to the vendor. The existence of the inevitable “general store” accrues from the fact that the man to whom the selector elects to give his security must cater for all his requirements, as if the different businesses were divided and the selector pledged his lease to the draper, the grocer would naturally decline to give him credit, the morale of this worthy's reply being: “Get your goods where you give your security.”

Just as the literary failure develops into the literary critic, so does the countryman who cannot manage his own business hold himself out as the best medium for the transaction of other people's. This renders the agents who swarm on every bush township not only a great commercial fact, but an interesting feature in colonial natural history. Of course there is a large proportion of sound and solvent men amongst them, but certainly in the first start of townships the origin of most of

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them is what I have described. It may be said in their extenuation that the majority of them bring to the aid of their clients the experiences of a chequered career, which, having been bought so dearly, certainly ought to be worth paying for at a proportionate rate. The bush agent is thus generally a buried genius, whose proficiency in the arts of finesse and financing would win him fortune and fame in a wider arena. There is no question in the casuistry of dummyismnote for which he has not a complete and sufficient answer, and his knowledge of the Land Act is only equalled by the facility with which he helps all classes to evade its provisions. It comes, as a matter of course, from the financial straits in which the selector usually finds himself, that as he follows the plough his thoughts are, not of the beauties of nature or Burns's daisy, but of the exigencies of his credit and how his next bill is to be met. In the midst of his perturbation he turns to the agent, who readily sets to work to break this poor camel's back with the last straw of his commission. The agent, whether he is so or not, represents himself as an all-powerful intermediary between his “unfortunate client” and the local banker or capitalist, who is threatening to cut short his career of indebtedness. If such pretensions prove too hollow he talks mysteriously

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of the Melbourne Rothschild, who is prepared to honour his recommendation for advances of millions. If the latter assertion has any foundation at all, it exists in the fact that he is the local representative of one of the great money-lending, produce-buying corporations who are fast monopolizing the business of the colonies, and who make their main hauls in these outposts of civilization.

The bank manager—unless habits of dissipation or drinking, forced on him as a refuge from the narrow monotony of his limited location, have rendered him above or below mercenary considerations—very often swells his slender stipend by acting as a sort of jackal for some friendly agent. In addition to dividing commissions with the auctioneer who disposes of the properties of customers on whom the bank in the exercise of its tender mercies has foreclosed, he has a peculiarly ingenious modus operandi of bringing grist to the mutual mill. Let a selector come to the bank with a landed security in the hope of getting assistance at a more reasonable rate than he can obtain it of the local usurers, and the reply is, after the embarrassed man has stated his case: “Very sorry, Mr. Blank, but the bank would not look at it. They totally object to these chronic advances.” Or sometimes a more delicate method is pursued, and a submission to the decision of the head office is suggested. This results, after stringing the poor victim on, in the prearranged negative which is to put money into the pocket

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of the manager. Just as the despairing debtor is leaving the sweating-room, with the additional death sentence that he must make it convenient to pay off the little overdraft which has been so long standing in the course of a week or so, the manager insinuates: “So far as the bank is concerned, I can hold out no hope; but if you ask my advice, as a friend, there is Mr. So-and-so, who lends money on securities of the unsatisfactory nature of yours. I strongly advise you to try him; but no doubt you will have to pay high for the accommodation.” The drowning man, of course, catches at the straw, and after a little well-feigned reluctance, worth an additional per cent. or so on the transaction, on the part of the agent, his bill, endorsed by the latter, and accompanied by the deposit of his deeds, is discounted by the very bank which just before refused his security, whilst the manager and the wily Mr. So-and-so rejoice over the division of a handsome bonus, and the prospect of a continuing income, consisting of the difference between the bank rate of discount and the interest, generally at least double, paid by the borrower for the accommodation extended him.

In addition to landmongering, the agent is generally the representative of an insurance company; but these companies are now become so numerous that most of the insurers have set up as agents themselves, so as to pocket the commission on their own lives. In this quarter, therefore, our bush Othellos find their occupation almost gone.

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The hotel-keeper is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, force in bush life. Every bargain must be sealed by a nobbler, and from a sermon to a settling day, a burial to a birthday celebration, “all thoughts, all passions, all delights” that stir the frame of the bushman are made to minister to the publican's revenue. From the inveterate snobbishness of the “upper ten” in these confined localities, and the primitive style in which the agricultural classes live, there is very little interchange of what can be called private hospitality. The only outward and visible sign of amity which one man can display towards another is to “shout” for him. Thus everything that is good and everything that is ignoble in bush life gravitates towards the public-house. From the influence which mine host acquires over his customers, his good word goes for a great deal, and the result is that the professional residents of the township, who otherwise might not darken his doors, pay him the frequent tribute of their presence in order not to be shut out from Boniface's patronage, and, more important still, that of his connection. Besides the usual “draws” of races and raffles, the bush publican baits his hooks with all the ingenuity of a piscatorial connoisseur. He lays himself out to “get in with” the reigning clique, or to identify himself with the ruling interest, whether at the moment it be pastoral, mining, or political. With this view his talk is of bullocks, or he “babbles of green fields,” or of the prospects of mining, or

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the downfall of the popular prime minister, just as suits the drift of the hour or the whim of the customer. To the horsey he is horsey, and, in fact, altogether he is about the best imaginable exemplar of the apostolic maxim to be “all things to all men.” By a system of cheap “board” he lures into his clutches the young lions of the civil service and banking aristocracy, who in turn invest him with the patronage of their respective coteries, or of the sporting associations of which they form the leading lights. The flowing bowl is really the one excitement of bush life, and most of these young sparks plunge wildly into the vortex. It is therefore the great aim of the publican to get the most popular man and best “swiper” of the fraternity located under his roof. When this is accomplished, so long as the young Crichton and his associates pay for their liquors, their board accounts are allowed to run on sometimes for years, the landlord consoling himself for his risk by the reflection that even if he loses the lot, the speculation on the whole has been a paying one. Besides, the publican is seldom “let in” in the long run, as there are generally soft-hearted friends on whom to work in case of the principal's inability to cash up, and the interest is well secured by mythical charges for unconsumed meals and non-existent horse-feed. If all fails, and the young Lothario is leaving, there is always the last resort of the parting testimonial, the publican heading the list and pocketing the

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proceeds. Woe betide the unfortunate Crichton who loses his billet and his popularity, and has to still linger on in the arena of his departed glory. The publican who fattened on his ruin is the first to call him a loafer, and to open for public inspection the page of his ledger on which is inscribed his former paragon's unpaid score.

I could multiply “experiences,” but I think I have said enough to show that the bush township is but a miniature presentment of the life of large cities, whether in the colonies or elsewhere. The English village presents points which differentiate it altogether from the bustling atmosphere of the busy town even in the old land. In the former, the inhabitants display a clumsiness of body and a lethargy of mind, which has no counterpart amongst the go-ahead “up-country” denizens of Australia. The reasons of the distinction are not far to seek. The men who have the energy and élan to emigrate are naturally superior in “go” of body and push of mind to the, perhaps happier, stay-at-homes, who vegetate through a tranquil existence in the rustic hamlets of the old country. And even amongst the emigrants, the man who faces the bush with a view to winning sustenance from the fertilization of the wilds is, at least, as strong a character as the man whose penchant for city life induces him when he lands in Australia to settle down in the nearest capital to the seaboard. In fact, the pioneer of the outposts is likely to be the stronger

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and braver individuality of the two, as the supercilious citizen of Melbourne or Sydney too often finds to his cost when he enters into business relations with the untutored inhabitant of the bush. These frontier posts or back-block settlements (in whichever light the observer chooses to regard them) are, in fact, but detachments of the great main army which in Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane is ever on the qui vive to make money, by hard work (if needs be), but preferably by speculative enterprize and the exercise of superior smartness. There is hardly a financial coup or fiscal expedient with which the Australian rustic is not quite equally au fait with his town-dwelling fellow-colonist; and indeed he goes about with the proud belief that he can teach the former “a trick or two.” Nor is the boast in vain; and, perhaps, the wide-awake spirit of the bush townships may prove a compensatory makeweight to the tendency to aggregation in the capitals which is so marked a feature of Colonial life. The latter may absorb the mass of the population, but they do not monopolize the brain and initiative of the colonies. “When things get more settled down,” to use a cant phrase, perhaps we may see realized in the bush townships, some of the traits of which I have tried to sketch, more of the repose without the vacuity of that English country life, which is fast becoming as much a thing of the past as the New Zealand moa or the New Guinea tailed man.