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  ― 142 ―

Bess o' the Rivers

“ONE—two—three—four—five—tally!” And through the five coils was passed the rope-sling.

Truck H72 was being unloaded. It was a box-truck, and the red seals of the Customs-house clinging in fragments to the parted doors showed that its contents were “in bond.” And therefore the complete variety of tally-clerks were in attendance.

Her Majesty's Customs department in Victoria was represented; so was the Customs department of that (to Victoria) foreign state and disguised enemy, New South Wales; so was the Victorian Railway department; so were the forwarding and shipping agents; so was “the boat.” Four clerks and a mate—these constituted the company of “tallyers,” which supervised the transfer of a few tons of fencing-wire from the railway-truck to the barge of the Tooronga.

It is a way we have “in the colonies” of fettering


  ― 143 ―
every branch of industry and department of social activities with shackles, in order that some Civil servant may be paid to take them off. The advantages of this system are obvious—to the owners of property in the capital cities, to the politicians, and to the Civil servants. It is not so apparent to the men who have to employ bone and sinew to make the earth yield its riches and to smile with harvests, or who are seeking to build homes and coin fortunes out of their own energies. But then, this latter class is of no importance compared with the gentlemen who are privileged to levy toll on their fellows. This has nothing to do with the story—and yet has everything to do with it.

For Archie Black, the Tooronga's mate, thought in this way, and being of the elder race of river-men who, having an idea, were accustomed to fling it out in vigorous speech, in scorn of consequence, he took the opportunity of the stevedore's “Spell O!” to declare as much.

“I say,” he said to nobody in particular, but to the group of tally-clerks in general, “this wire's for M’Farlane, of Nap-Nap. I wonder what old Tommy thinks he's payin' for the stuff?”

“What d'yer mean, Archie?” asked Banks, of


  ― 144 ―
the Victorian Customs. “Of course he knows what he's payin'! Nine pounds a ton, I s’pose, in Melbourne in bond. Any donkey can add rail-carriage, duty, steamer freight, and agency charges to that!”

“Jest so, jest so!” said Black. “That's all right so far as it goes, but it don't go far enough. Those are what you may call the straightforward charges. What I mean is what you can't call the straightforward charges. Look at all you Customs chaps —half-a-dozen o' you in Melbourne to see as nobody carries out o' bond in his w’estcoat pocket a ton or two o' yer wire, and so diddle Her Most Gracious out of a few quid; an' then another half-dozen o' you at this en' to pass the coils from the truck, an' see Her Most Gracious ain't robbed here. Why, all you coves’ screws are to be paid out o' Nappy Mac's pockets, an' the pockets o' such-like fools.”

“We do our day's work for our day's pay,” growled Banks. “We didn't make the work!”

“I didn't say as you did, did I?” pursued Black. “I don't blame you. But I do say as all this Customs business is all red-tape and rot. The squatters are bled, an' the selectors are bled, and the boat-owners are bled—all to put gold-lace an' frills on you Government


  ― 145 ―
chaps. What——nonsense it is that we can't carry a few coils o' wire from one side o' the river to t'other for a man's fence an' help him to pertect his prop'ty, but we've to pay shippin' dues, an' wharfage, an' tide-waiters’ fees, an' transfer fees, an' clearin' fees, an' all th' rest o' th'——humbug.”

Black said this with the perfect good-humour characteristic of him. He was always amiable, was Archie, except when, once a month, he “used to get the drink in him.” If, however, his temper was not ruffled by the warmth of the controversy he had excited, that of the Civil servants was.

The stevedore's signal for the resumption of work was allowed to pass unnoticed in the bitterness and heat of the discussion which ensued. The number and scope of the “charges” of the several public departments concerned with the Riverine trade were, at this period, a constant irritant to the legitimate workers, and the men who profited by them, feeling their position insecure and ever assailed by the adverse opinion of their paymasters, clung the more tenaciously to their brief authority and their fees. Archie's attack was accordingly resented with virulence, and the immediate work at hand was neglected for a time. But the stevedore, to whom time


  ― 146 ―
was money, did not care to submit to loss in order that the corruption or the uselessness of the Government officials might be exposed. He was at the winch himself, and as the five coils were already slung waiting for the hoist he “let her go” without, however, the customary shout of caution. The dispute distracted him.

As though the steam had gathered a new fierceness during the short “spell” time, it beat the valves and roared and rushed through the cylinders in a spasm of revolt against the cogs and ratchets that tried to conquer and regulate it. The stevedore lost, for one fatal moment, his grip and his nerve, and as the barrel madly revolved, the great bundle of half-rusted iron was caught up—swung defiantly out of the grasp of the lumper who sought to guide its course, and paused for so long as a child might breathe, then flung itself over the barge that lay beneath the cranes. With a cracking and a creaking that blistered the ears with repellent sound the tense chains fell through the sheaves of the crane-jib and hurled the coils to the bottom of the barge-hold. The craft quivered with the shock from stern-post to stem, and had it not been that something came between the coils and the planking and dulled the impact, the wire would, in all


  ― 147 ―
probability, have started a plank and sunk the Tooronga's barge where she lay. But the— something—served as an effective fender.

When the winch was mastered, and with slow revolutions hauled up the chains and rope again, the sling did not come up slack and empty. It seemed a brutal way of sending the thing up, but it was the most expeditious way. From the river-level to the decking of Echuca wharf the ascent was by narrow and tortuous steps up which it would have been a gruesome and arduous labour to have carried a corpse. So the lumpers in the hold tied the body of Geordie Allen, late steers-man of the Tooronga's barge, into the sling and sent it up. An infinitesimal experience of paralysis—and then, death.

Between the tallying of five coils and the tallying of ten, and all because of an off-hand remark in which there was more joke than earnest, a soul had gone to its account. Of such accidents life everywhere is copious enough, but on the rivers, in the early seventies, it was more than copious—it was prolific. Next to the indifference of the rich, Death finds his most successful ally in the thoughtlessness of the poor.




  ― 148 ―

So, again, thought Archie Black, when, next day after the inquest, the river-men in port followed Geordie Allen to the little cemetery on the hill. And so thinking, he spoke to the crowd which, not ignoring the time-honoured fashion of a river-man's funeral, gathered the same night in the long-room of the Esplanade Hotel.

“Boys,” he said, in the pause that followed the first gulpings of “she-oak” and “brown-sherry,” —rum was still a favourite drink on the Murray — “ 'tain't no manner o' use blamin' the boss stev'dore an' the owners for accidents like Geordie's. Geordie's ‘gone inside’ because chaps as ought to a’ been doin' their dooty was chin-waggin'. I'm not goin' to shirk my whack o' the blame. I set the ball a-rollin', an', now I thinks of it, pretty near ev’ry accident that has happened in my time is just because some fellow has been doin' the same thing. ’Taint the bosses always. If we chaps as has to do the graftin' were a little more mindful o' one another, we wouldn't have to fork out for the widders and orphins so often.”

“ ’Ear, ’ear!” in respectful, subdued tones from several places in the apartment. The Esplanade's patrons were not garrulous and noisy to-night. The shadow of the inscrutable “inside” was


  ― 149 ―
over them. And—which of them would be the next?

“An' so I says, boys, I'm chiefly 'sponsible for the puttin' ’way o' poor Geordie Allen. If I hadn't gone for a dig at the Civil Service coves, I'm quite sure that Geordie, instead o' bein' a stiff ’un, would ha’ been here takin' of his liquor, like a man, an'——”

“Beg parding for interruptin', Mr. Black,” said solemnly a red-gum sawyer. “Wot's—I mean as wot was Geordie's fav’rit' p’ison?”

A youngster “roustabout”—river-men never would say “rouseabout”—laughed inquiringly. It was his first “relief” meeting, and the incongruity of the question struck him, but the only explanation tendered him was a cuff on the ear, and a “Shut up, younker!”

“Geordie's poison, boys,” answered Mate Black, “was rum hot!” And, checking himself in his speech, he prepared for that ceremony which inaugurated every relief meeting.

“Shillin' in, boys, an' winner pays for rum hots round. Balance starts the fund.”

There was no applause, nor dissent. This was the expected—the “regular thing.” The shillings were thrown down—some modestly, others with a touch of display, like the method of the land-boomer


  ― 150 ―
of a later day as he dropped his five-pound note into the collection-plate, still others with an element of grudgingness about them. Forty-three shillings and forty-three rums hot.

While the drinks were being prepared in the bar, the mate took up the thread of his address.

“As I was sayin', chaps, we ain't half careful enough of one another. An' so as to put the brake on this sort o' thing, I puts it to you as we must 'stablish a new custom on the rivers. Whenever one chap is directly or indirectly the cause o' another's goin' inside, it's to be understood as he starts the fund with a month's screw——”

“I thought the shillin' in was to start it!” exclaimed the “younker,” irrepressible in his flashy ignorance.

“That was the old rule. We makes a new one to-night if you're agreeable. An'——”

“Are you willin' to begin the custom in this ’ere case of Geordie's?” persisted the boy. “You takes the blame, yer ses. Are yer a-willin' ter come down now with yer month's screw?”

“If that whipper-snapper an' cheeky sapling ’ud hold his tongue for another minute, he'd ha’ heard me say that very thing. The coves wot know me on the rivers know I ain't a chap to ask others to do what I daren't do myself——”




  ― 151 ―

“ ’Ear, ’ear!” in deep-chested chorus. The mate had the reputation he claimed. He did not order merely—he was wont to do.

“An' so whether you falls in with my 'dea or not, I shall plank down my screw for this month into the hand of the cove you selects for treasurer —twelve-thirteen-four!”

“ ’Ear, ’ear!” again. And so barring forty-four sixpences, the relief-fund for “Bess o' the Rivers” was started, and a new river custom established.

The rums were brought in, and Pippy Taylor, the landlord, threw his shilling down also for his chance. And then they counted round to see who should take the pool, pay for the drinks, and head the list—£1 2s.

Mate Black, presiding, began the call.

“One!” he said. And so the numbers went round—now gruffly, now shrilly, now in bass, and now in treble, now grunted, now sung, till seventy-seven was reached. That was the winning number. A fireman of the Cumberoona was “seventy-seven,” and his face was good to look upon as he gathered in the coins, paid half to the landlord, and handed the other moiety to the chairman. Generosity invariably blesses the giver—especially when he is giving what others have subscribed.




  ― 152 ―

“Fred Jones—Cumberoona, Mr. Black—twenty-two bob,” he called.

And his name went down on the list, and beneath it: “Archibald Black, Tooronga—twelve-thirteen-four.”

Black rose with his steaming glass in his hand. And those of the throng who had seats followed his example, till all stood.

“Boys,” said Black, “here's luck to the woman Geordie's left.” And Geordie's tipple was drunk to the future of the woman Geordie left. There was always a woman. And what better compliment to the dead than to drink his favourite “p’ison” to his dear one's luck?

“Wife or mother?” questioned one, when the glasses were down again.

It was curious how, after a fatality, relief meetings were frequently convened before any precise information was to hand as to the position of the bereaved. And it was as pathetic as it was curious, for it proved the existence of a belief that the man who “went inside sudden” generally bequeathed no other legacy than the distress which is more poignant because accentuated with pennilessness.

Black answered—




  ― 153 ―

“Neither, I think—nor sister—but a sweet-heart.”

“In 'Chuca?”

“No—town. An' I've got his last letters to her from his bunk—I can't find any o' hers, an' he ain't finished—but he'd got the envelope written, an' I guess she's neither mother, nor sister, nor wife, but his girl!”

“Wot's her name?” asked a deck-hand of the Riverina. But the look the “chair” gave him, and the sibilant hiss from the crowd, made him wish he had not spoken. They didn't mention women's names lightly in the river-workers’ meeting. They left that to the fine gentlemen of the Millewa Club, who were the élite of the aristocracy of the Riverine.

“Never mind her name,” said Black. “At least all of it. Her first name is Elizabeth—poor Geordie calls her ‘Bess’—an' that's enough for ev’ry one as ain't on the committee. It ain't like as if she was his own kin—then you could call this fund straight out ‘Mrs. Allen's Fund,’ or ‘Miss Allen's Fund.’ But you can't call this by her name. You can tell pals here she's his girl—but you can't stick it up, as it were, all over the country.”

“ ’Ear, ’ear!” said most. But one exclaimed—

“You must have a name for the fund!”




  ― 154 ―

“Yes!” responded Archie, “so I moves as we calls it ‘Bess’ Fund—Bess o' the Rivers.’ That's like takin' her under our pertection.” And to these honest souls the words contained no double entendre.

“I second the proposishun!” said a burly engineer from Mackintosh's mill.

And the “Ayes!” had it—deeply and sympathetically, but not unanimously.

Then a sub-committee was formed, with Black as chairman and treasurer, and the subscriptions were recorded. From “fivers” to “five-bobs”— the latter sum from the “younker,” who was just “on wages”—were noted. When the cash was not forthcoming, orders were drawn on the boat-skippers and mill-foremen. And at monthly pay they would be duly honoured.

All subscribed but three or four. And they, not because they did not regret Allen's death, or were unsympathetic, but from another reason, declined: “They did not see why they should furnish the house for another chap!” said one—and he spoke for the other dissentients. The reason had some force, and for a few moments the proceedings were stayed. At last—

“The Committee have decided to read Geordie's


  ― 155 ―
unfinished letter,” said Archie. “They're goin' to take the sense o' the meetin' as to whether the girl to whom Geordie—as clear-headed and as good-hearted a chap as ever breathed—writes like this can't be trusted to do what's right with money given to her because we liked him. An' them as don't think so needn't subscribe. An' now I'll read the letter. The chap that interrupts or laughs will be chucked out. There, that's straight!”

The caution was needless. There was no desire to laugh—the “younker” even, with his youthful lack of sentimentality, looked and felt interested.

“Dearest Bessie,” the letter began—the reading was halting—

“I hope this will find you well as it leaves me at present. I have asked the skipper to tell the agents’ Melbourne office to give you my pay this month—I don't want none, and, dear Bessie, I know it's better with you than with me, for you know, dear Bessie, I would go on the tear a bit if I had the cash. You say I am not to come down soon so as to save all the more for our marriage——”

Black paused. More than one brown and blistered hand fumbled with pipes here. The blessed things wouldn't draw!




  ― 156 ―

The reader went on—

“I thought as you was a bit hard at first, but now I've considered it over, you are right as you always are, dear Bessie. I know you wants to see me as bad as I wants to see you, and it's a——”

“There's a blot here!” said Black. “He forgot he was writin' to his girl.”

“It's a good thing as your pretty little head is screwed on right——”

From among the intent and breathless audience, the fireman of a timber craft jumped to his feet.

“Look here, chaps!” a generous passion conquering his reluctance to speak, “we've heard enough!”

“ ’Ear, ’ear!” from most.

“None of us would like the words we write to our girls to be seen, would we?”

“No—no!”

“Then stash the readin', I say. The girl's all right. And we're poor God-damned sort of creatures if we can't trust the girl to make good use of what Geordie's left her. For that's jest what 'tis, chaps. ’Tis really Geordie's legacy to her—what we gave him for old-times’ sake.”

Again the resonant “Hear, hear!” shook the room. Mate Black refolded the blotted, ill-scrawled sheet of paper with a calm, judicial—




  ― 157 ―

“I knew you'd say that, boys!”

And then the dissentients fell in with the views of the majority. What with cash and “orders” the subscription was sixty pounds odd. That meant, by the time the boats then running trips, and the river township's “pubs” and the Customs-houses had been canvassed, a full hundred pounds. The girl might want it or she might not—they really could not say. But, as Black remarked, “The chances are she does. Bargemen's girls don't roll in wealth. An', besides, it was a d——d good opportunity for 'stablishin' a custom o' makin' us pay for one ’nother's deaths when 'tis our fault.”

And the girl—for whom these rough fellows were so solicitous? Was she worth the rude chivalry of their protection?

The morning after the meeting, Archie had to sail for Hay. But the machinery of charity organization was ever ready on the rivers. The much-derided Civil Service fellows knew how to get the lists out, and how to get them in again. Charity was red-hot among the boating interests, for, to tell the whole truth, the river men were huge drinkers, and the pub-keepers who cashed pay-orders in advance had a nasty


  ― 158 ―
habit of getting them lodged at the agents’ offices in readiness for pay-day. When a boat-hand was on the “tear” he was apt to forget both his friends’ woes and the orders he had given to alleviate them. And so the Civil servants who were supposed to attend to the clerical work of the subscription-funds—and a lot of work it entailed one way and another—used to circulate the lists quickly, and get them in as speedily. By the time Archie came back from Hay, there was the hundred pounds and a few pounds over.

As the Tooronga's skipper entered at the Victorian Customs, Banks said to him—

“There's that money for Bess o' the Rivers— Geordie Allen's girl. Can you let Archie run to town about it? Francis, the station-master, has promised a free pass if you will.”

The skipper promised, and Archie Black travelled at the Government expense to “fix up the fund.” He took with him a Bank of Victoria draft.

In four days he was back. And the draft was uncashed in his pocket-book.

He had gone to the address given on Geordie Allen's envelope, and found it a small shop in Lonsdale Street.




  ― 159 ―

“Can I see Miss Russel?” he asked timorously of the sodden-featured drab behind the counter. The mate had tackled a crowd of drunken deck-hands fearlessly, but he became a coward, he felt, in approaching the bereaved woman who was dead Geordie's love.

“Russel—Miss Russel? I don't know no girl of that name!” grumbled the drab, who had anticipated a customer.

“No! Not Miss Bessie—Miss Elizabeth Russel?”

A sudden gleam of interest flashed into the filmy eyes of the shop-keeper. She stood and faced him.

“Where’r you from?” she asked.

“Echuca!”

“Oh, oh! you're Sal's chap, are yer? You're her chap, Allen—I told her I'd give her away. Look here, you —— fool——”

Black raised his hand.

“No!” he said, “I'm not Allen—he's dead. I'm a friend of his!”

“Dead!” was the brutal rejoinder, “and a d——d good job for him, too! he'd ha’ been dead soon enough had Sal married him. What a —— fool he must ha’ been to ha’ been taken in by her!”




  ― 160 ―

“Where is she? Isn't her name Bessie Russel?”

“Bessie Russel—my eye an' Betty Martin—I know'd he wrote her under that name to here; but she an' me's fallen out, an' I won't have no more to do wi’ her. She's Sal Gordon—the worst girl on Melbourne streets.”

“Where is she?”

“You'll find her in Romeo Lane—an'—look ’ere!”

“Well?”

“Take a bobby wi’ yer, if yer goin' there!”

In a small room that was furnished with scarce aught else than the memories of a thousand lecheries he found Geordie Allen's love. The “Bess o' the Rivers” fund was merged into the next local charity subscription.

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