THE “SUNDOWNER.” The sundowner is the Australian tramp. So-called because he so divides his months of tramping as to reach some homestead at nightfall ; not exactly now, as of yore, wdth the idea of claiming a night’s lodging, but for the simple consideration that if he arrives earlier, the storekeeper —friend or enemy as the gods allow — will probably be out on the run of (whisper it !) asleep on the sofa in the bachelors’ quarters, or, worst of all, playing tennis with the manager’s daughters, and therefore the pint of flour and the handful of sugar wd! 1 not be forthcoming.
A time-honoured custom this of ancient origin in days when the labourer took his labour to the squatter’s door—hawked himself round, so to say—and the squatter, if not in need of labour, passed him on wdth a pint of flour and a blessing—or something else -bo the next station. And now the man who cannot get work, or ’does not want to get work, in the big towns, wanders round as of yore, a superannuated nuisance on an antediluvian precedent.
But lot us look upon the tramp as something- more than a drab-coloured do w n-at-t h e-heel necessity—-the Ausl- - sundowner has a heart. Take the genuine honest working man who has tramped the grey streets day after day, day after hopeless day, trying- to get work of any sort, wodlv that means money to the wan, heartbroken wife and the two tiny girls in the shabby cottage at Ashfield. He has shouldered his blue blanket and his change of linen, the whole wrapped neatly in brown oilcloth, over the chill Blue Mountains and the blazing- Bathurst Plains, and he is footsore with trudging over the hard metal, and heart-sore with many a curt suspicious refusal of his offered services, though he asked but little wage in return, and he is sad and hungry in bitter turn, for under his rough blue cotton shirt beatp the heart of a man. That man. who, comfortably clothed, and smoking good tobacco, loaning over the stub fence of his selection, just now spoke rudely to him with a gibe at his white hands and colourless face, saw only in the dejected traveller before him a useless new-L-hum ■ “townie,” but the traveller, this dusty ragged creature with a man’s heart and feeling, had seen in the arrotg-ant farmer what decent clothes and a haughty carriage could never conceal —the overweening pride and ignorance of one who, favoured of fortune more than most men, had won to a place for which Nature had never fitted him, and which he filled with little credit.
Again, there is the bush-artisan ; the carpenter, the bricklayer, or'the labourer in his varied character of wool-roller, dam-maker, burr-cutter, fencer, and so on ; this is the man who works long-hours in a broiling sun, toils week in week out to build the cheque that is to win one wild week o? spree, of grim, joyous, unbridled, licentious spree at bush-town or shanty—careless of blame or exhortation, working only for himself and the publican. And this tramp, too, has a heart. Often the ne’er-do-weel son of some great family, a 'Varsity man, a Rugby hero, or an Eaton oar, ground down under the iron heel of the demon of drink, he too has his moments given to a half forgotten pride, when the old smoth-
ered manliness in him leaps chokingly t'o his throat as some careless, over-dressed upstart of a storekeeper speaks the taunt to him that no man will pass him unchallenged. The old reckless pride comes to aid him, and he tells the squatter’s menial to keep the squatter’s- flour, and the storekeeper wonders at his sudden blaze of wrath, and is gla<s to see him leave without further violence ; and the dust-covered figure with the man’s heart goes down to his disappointed mates and his hungry camk in the river bend because there are limits and the worm will turn.
Then there is the sundowner proper ; the old grey warrior of the Wallaby Track who is content to nurse the dry bones of a hopeless wasted life down the bends of the Western Rivers from years end to year's end, till some day he is found stark and stiff by his rolled swag in a clump of sandal, or beside a dry water hole, a victim of remorse that kills, or of the world that will never forgive. And he, too, has a heart. Where do they come from, these gaunt, grey, wiry men, that might have lived two hundred years upon the river roads? TBurnt till the scorching sun can leave no brand on them, dust-browned, so that if they are dirty one never notices' it. ; grim, gaunt Napoleons on a Moscow march to death, singly for the-nnost part—men Who have left their battalions with their beaten hopes and gone on alone—so sadly, hopless-ly alone to a gaol they only know in dreams. Drunkards among them, but some who have never tasted strong drink—men whose stories will never be known till St. Peter takes the swag from the worn shoulders aucl passes them through the last boundary gate —and these men have hearts too, hidden away for no men to jeer at ; they have heard the sneer and the cruel word, but they do not speak ; the silence of the Great Bush is upon them, and -they take their rations and lie down under the stars contented, for are they not nearer by a ten-mile stage to the last big camp of all ? But now and atgain a stat ion child playing down by the road has stumbled across some such Rip Van Winkle of the West, and has called him back by her rippling laugh to a land where he was once young and full of hope and unburdened by the galling sw a g of sorrow. And he has taken -her in his arms and talked to her and shown her how his dog will drink out of the crown of his mouldy hat—if it has a crown in it—has plaited her a whip-lash out of Jkian-(garoo-grass, and laughed with her and been young again till some one has called from the house to come homo or “the bad gwagmau” will get her, and the sun has gone down, and a tear has fallen on the rough, torn shirt, a,s it might be on- the altar of a dead life, for the loafer of the river-bends is derided, despised, but after all is a man.—W.H.O., in the St. .James’s Gazette.
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Sketcher., Southern Cross, Volume 14, Issue 50, 16 February 1907
Sketcher. Southern Cross, Volume 14, Issue 50, 16 February 1907
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