In Bad Company, and other Stories/Bush Hospitality
In the pioneer period of the pastoral industry, which has since known such phenomenal development and, alas! no less phenomenal declension, the hospitality of the dwellers in the wilderness was proverbially free and unchallenged. But even then there were ‘metes and bounds.’ Like Colonial society—though apparently ‘a free and a fetterless thing’—there were lines of demarcation. These, though unsubstantial and shadowy to superficial observers, were nevertheless discovered by experiment to be strangely hard and fast.
In those Arcadian days the stranger, on arriving at the homestead of a man whom he had never seen, and whose name possibly he had scarcely heard, was warranted by custom, on riding up to the door, in proposing to stay all night. It was the rule of the period. If there was no inn within a dozen miles, it became an unquestioned right.
The owner or manager of the station, if at home, welcomed the stranger with more or less courtesy, according to his disposition, assisting the guest, whom Allah had sent him, to take off his saddle and place it in the verandah of the cottage, to turn out his horse in the paddock, or, in default of that “improvement,” to hobble or tether the trusty steed on good pasture.
If the personages referred to were absent, the traveller, unless he happened to be abnormally diffident, informed the cook, hut-keeper, or any station hand whom he might chance to encounter, that he had come to stay all night, turned his horse out, and entering the plainly-furnished abode, made himself as comfortable as circumstances would admit of.
If his host delayed his coming, supper was served. The stranger foraged about among the books and newspapers, and with the aid of tobacco, managed to spend the evening, retiring to rest in the apartment indicated, with perfect cheerfulness and self-possession.
If, as chiefly happened, the hard-worked colonist returned from the quest of lost sheep or strayed cattle before bed-time, he usually expressed himself much gratified by the unexpected companionship, and after a cheery confab about the latest news, politics, prospects (pastoral), and a parting smoke, both retired to the couches where unbroken slumbers were the rule. It was a mutual benefit. The monotonous life of the squatter was cheered by the advent of a fresh face, fresh news and ideas. The weary traveller found frank entertainment for man and beast, company and a guide, possibly, for the morrow’s journey.
In these strictly equestrian days (for gentlefolk) no man could carry more than a limited change of apparel in the leather valise strapped to the fore-part of the saddle. Saddle-bags were occasionally used, but they were held to be cumbrous. The journeys were rough and protracted. Clean linen has ever been unwillingly dispensed with by the Briton. In that barbaric epoch, Crimean shirts could not be, the quarrel with the Sultan about the mythical keys not having arisen. Paper collars, much more celluloids, were in the future. The only recognised departure from the full-dress white raiment, the ‘biled shirt’ of the American humorist to come, was the check or ‘regatta’ shirt.
Now this was a garment of compromise, not disreputably soiled after a couple of days’ use. Still its existence as a respectable article of apparel had a limit. When that was reached, the stranger was permitted to levy on the host’s wardrobe, if a bachelor, to the extent of one coloured shirt, leaving his own in lieu. This was held to be fair exchange—the alien vestment, when washed, being, if of ordinary texture and age, of equal average value to the one taken; the host doing likewise when on his travels. The chief and perhaps only undesirable result was, that every proprietor on a frequented line of road had a collection of the most varied and cosmopolitan autographs in marking ink, on his shirts, probably ever noticed in one gentleman’s wardrobe.
Now this was all very well in the days when Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith were in the free and independent condition of bachelors. They could smoke their pipe unconcernedly with Jackson the cattle-dealer, or Tomkins the working overseer from an out-station, or Binks, who was nobody in particular, or Jinks, who was a cheeky sort of a fellow, but with no harm in him. But all this was changed when Jones or Smith took unto himself a wife. He then desired to have his evenings to himself; and though a gentleman or an agreeable stranger was always welcome, he by no means cared about entertaining half-and-half people, or being bothered with making talk for uncongenial persons all the evening. Yet he did not quite like to send all wayfarers whom he did not know or care about to the ‘men’s hut.’ Some of them doubtless were more at home there, or managed to pass the evening without complaint; still, mistakes were occasionally made. Therefore some kind of intermediate arrangement came to be needed.
When an inn was within a mile or two, the difficulty was removed. No stranger could desire to be entertained at the house of a man he did not know, merely because it was cheaper. If he were mean enough to make the attempt, he received a rebuff—possibly no more than his due. Still, in some instances, the squatter, even if unmarried, dreaded the hotel as the nucleus of a township, and bore the enforced intrusion rather than risk the invasion of his Run.
It became thus one of the unwritten laws of Bushland that, though a bachelor station was fair game, and introductions might be dispensed with, more circumspection must be exercised in the case of the homestead which contained a lady. Even if the hospitality was unrestricted as of yore, the restraint was felt by the more homely of the wayfarers, and a sensible lowering of the average of visitors took place.
And even when there was no such adequate reason, the resident proprietor was occasionally, by nature or on principle, opposed to the indiscriminate entertainment of chance-comers, and cast about for some method of ensuring privacy. The late Mr. Charles Ebden discovered that ‘Carlsruhe,’ named after a continental reminiscence of travel, was by no means likely to be the ‘Charles’ Rest’ which the name promised. So he made a bold innovation, the fame of which went through the length and breadth of the land: he established a ‘visitors’ hut.’
There appeared to be no great harm in this—merely a comfortable cottage, wherein the visitor was supplied with an evening meal, bed, and breakfast, all comfortably arranged. His horse would of course be cared for, paddocked, and brought up in the morning. One would fancy this gratuitous entertainment would have been voted sufficient. But the roving pastoralists were dissatisfied. They did not want merely meat and drink—they wanted a welcome: to have speech also with the master of the house. He was suspected of considering himself too good for his surroundings. And so ‘Carlsruhe’ was gradually avoided—not that the perhaps too fastidious ‘Count’ Ebden cared a jot.
An amusing contretemps with respect to this novel disposal of guests was that related of the late Sir James Hawthorn. The good old gentleman arrived late one evening at ‘Carlsruhe,’ naturally concluding that he would receive special consideration. It did not so chance, however, whether from non-recognition—he was not a knight then, but a doctor—or some other cause. Before leaving the visitors’ hut in the morning, he left a formal note of thanks for his night’s lodging, and enclosed a cheque for a guinea as payment.
But the Colonial Treasurer of the future was equal to the occasion. He made answer by post, in a carefully-worded epistle, acknowledging ‘a most extraordinary communication, containing a cheque, for which he was totally unable to conceive any reasonable explanation, and had forwarded to Secretary of the Lunatic Asylum.’
After the changes which turned the homesteads of the larger stations into small villages, the ‘big house,’ as it came to be called, was no longer expected to accommodate the proprietor, the overseer, and the young gentleman learning Colonial experience, in addition to every wanderer that turned up. The overseer generally had a commodious if, perhaps, plainly-furnished cottage allotted to him. This came to be known as the ‘barracks,’ and to be used as a convenient abode for strangers and pilgrims, as well as for the storekeeper, the working overseers, and the young gentlemen. Here, in summer, they could sleep on the verandah, smoke and yarn on the same, or, in winter, around the cheerful fire, without danger of disturbing the squatter’s domestic arrangements. This of course without prejudice to personal friends or strangers of distinction.
As to the pilgrims, they might be described as ‘human warious.’ There was first the squatter proper, young, middle-aged, or elderly, on his way from one station to the other, returning from new country or from a journey with fat cattle or sheep. He was of course welcome, being, presumably, ready and willing to repay the accommodation in kind. Then there were overseers and managers, cattle and sheep buyers, agents and drovers. These were pastoral personages, and, of course, to be considered. The dealers, even when roughish in manner, were a power in the land, capable too of drawing cheques to an amount which secured respect. They could not in any case be sent to the men’s hut. Tourists, bona-fide travellers, and globe-trotters, having business of some sort, others without any particular aim or destination,—these gentry in the ‘barracks’ were evidently the ‘right men in the right place.’
It must be surmised also that adventurers travelled about among the stations as a pleasant way of seeing the country and spending a few months at free quarters. A man of prepossessing appearance and agreeable manners, ‘who wanted to buy a station—a real first-class property, you know,’ made his appearance in a certain district just ‘after the gold.’ He was courteously treated, and shown a variety of stations. He passed a whole summer in the leisurely inspection of sheep and cattle properties, none of which quite suited his taste. He became quite a well-known inhabitant. Many people believed at last that he had so invested, and accepted him as a recognised identity. But he never did buy a station or any stock—eventually contenting himself with a Government billet of a moderate description, under circumstances which proved the presumption of his being a capitalist to have been erroneous.
As a general rule it may be stated that the farther back, the more distant the station, the more liberal and invariable the hospitality. When men went seldom to town, when books and newspapers were scarce, the lonely squatter was well disposed towards any kind of stranger guest above the level of shepherd or stock-rider. He was a change, an animated evening newspaper, and as such intrinsically valuable. His visit, besides, was of a transitory or fleeting nature, so that only his good qualities were apparent.
Even this form of enjoyment was subject to abatement. There was the pilgrim now and then who declined to proceed on his pilgrimage, especially when he fell upon a comfortable bachelor abode, with cuisine, library, and liquor reasonably up to date. Not infrequently the pilgrim’s steed would stray, which the owner would search for in such a perfunctory manner that it seemed as if years might roll on before he was run in. One really most agreeable and gifted person—he afterwards became Premier in a neighbouring colony—was celebrated as protracting his visits by this device. One morning there appeared in a provincial paper the startling announcement, ‘Mr. Blank’s horse is found.’ It was the making of him. The laughter was so general that he left that colony, and attained in another to political eminence and material prosperity.
Not always, however, was even the bona-fide squatter on his travels made welcome. A friend of mine arrived at a station late in the evening. ‘I am Mr. Blake,’ he said, ‘of Kilrush’—a name well known throughout his own and other districts for generous, unstinted hospitality. The proprietor stood at his door, but offered no welcome.
‘How far is it to the next place?’ inquired the traveller.
‘Sixteen miles; you can’t miss the road.’
‘Thanks; much obliged.’ So he put spurs to his weary steed—he had come far since sunrise—and departed, reaching the station, so obligingly referred to, long after dark on a cold night.
In the following year the same squatter arrived at Kilrush. He was cordially received—invited to stay a day and rest his horse. ‘I killed him with kindness,’ were my friend’s words—relating the affair to me years afterwards—’and when he rode away, did everything possible, short of holding his stirrup for him.
‘”Mr. Blake,” said he, “you’ve behaved to me like a gentleman! I am afraid I didn’t give you that idea when you called at Bareacres. I feel ashamed of myself, I assure you.”
‘”So you ought to be,” I said, looking him straight in the face. He muttered something and rode away.’