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2-343 (Raw)

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The prevalence of intoxication is hardly less universal [than swearing]; a drunkard in the interior of New South Wales cannot, like those among the labouring classes in England, spend his wages in daily or weekly visits to the ale-house, but, after the manner of a buccaneer of old, or a sailor at the end of a long cruise, having been debarred by circumstances from his favourite dissipation, he makes amends by plunging deeper into it when he has it within his reach. After living perhaps at a distance of many days' journey from the possibility of indulgence in this vice, he finds himself, at the expiration of six or twelve months, master of a good sum of money, perhaps (with the exception of a trifle spent upon clothes) the whole of his yearly wages; after receiving which he repairs alone, or with one or two congenial spirits, to the nearest public house or 'grog-shop', where, in the course of a few days, he often dissipates the whole earnings of the past year.
Many of these men have a custom of placing their whole stock of money in the publican's hands from the very commencement of their visit, with the intention of drinking as much as they think sufficient, and receiving the balance. They are apt to consider this a highly prudent plan, as it prevents the possibility of their pockets being rifled by their companions while they are in a happy state of unconsciousness; they too often find that they have only fallen from Scylla into Charybdis, and literally 'reckoned without their host', whose hands, which readily closed upon their money, cannot easily be induced to relax their grasp.
Some of these road-side 'grog-shops' are the curse of the neighbourhood, and are particularly dreaded by the sheep-owners whose stations are adjacent, and who are obliged to be constantly on the alert to prevent the neglect and loss of their flocks from the effects of tippling among their shepherds. The proprietors of these houses are frequently men of very indifferent character, whose sole object is so make money and decamp as soon at possible; and, not contented with getting the unfortunate labouring man's money in the proper, or rather improper, course of business, they have been detected in making great additions so his account while he is in a state of insensibility, trusting that when he recovers he will be entirely unable to dispute the items. [323]
A strong instance of absolute slavery to this habit was afforded by a man in our neighbourhood, who had repeatedly started for the purpose of visiting his relations in the vicinity of Sydney, but who had not succeeded in reaching them during a space of several years, being unable to guard his pockets against the Siren influence of the roadside inns, from one of which he would constantly retrace his steps with exhausted means, to toil again, like a modem Sisyphus, for an end that he was never to attain.
I was once riding alone through the bush, on my way to Sydney, and as I approached one of these roadside inns I became sensible of an indescribable sort of scuffling sound, which gradually increased as I came to the entrance, where, like Petruchio, I found 'no attendance, no regard, no duty'; but as both man and horse were hungry, I walked in, and soon penetrated the mystery. In an inner apartment some eight or ten men, the whole of the visible inmates of the house, were deeply engaged in a pugilistic melee, apparently without there being any private quarrel in the case, for each individual, without any invidious distinction, was, in sporting phraseology, 'pitching into' his nearest neighbour. The owner of the house, upon seeing me, extricated himself from the fray, and tried to accomplish an apology; but I saw that there was little prospect of the restoration of order for sometime, so I resumed my journey, speculating whether returning sobriety, or the total extinction of the combatants, would first occur to bring matters to a conclusion.
However slight, and even ludicrous an impression such scenes as these may make at the time, they must painfully recur to the mind in moments of reflection, and cause us to fear that if proper steps are not taken by those who have the power, by Government as far as it can act, and by individuals each in his own sphere, to check the progress of vice in an infant colony, retribution may one day fall heavily on those who have been guilty of this neglect. If, upon the approach of the white man, these majestic forests are to echo to the uncontrolled sound of riot and debauchery, it would have been better that their deep silence had remained unbroken for ever.
In one of the southern districts a fine soda spring was discovered, and on the strength of this a bush inn had been erected in its vicinity, its owner speculating on the probability of its bringing him a quick sale of spirits, by admixture of its water with acid and alcohol. In this he was not disappointed, for it soon became a favourite beverage among his customers, until the following characteristic incident took place. It entered the heads of a party of carousers at the inn that a great deal of time and trouble would be saved by converting the whole well into one large effervescing draught, and for this purpose they collected a great quantity of spirit, sugar, and acid, and having showered them down into the water and stirred it about with a pole, they awaited the mighty result: this, the story goes on to say, proved unsatisfactory: little besides mud came to the top, and the spring never recovered the outrage. [324]
At these inns in the interior little else is drunk but raw spirits, for a mixture with water is commonly considered equivalent to spoiling both. It is terrible to see the state to which a man is sometimes reduced who, in a warm climate like that of Australia, has been drinking new and bad liquor for several days, during which he has eaten little or nothing. He suddenly awakes out of a drunken sleep and finds that his money is all gone, and with it his best means of recovery, which, in such cases, is to take smaller quantities of liquor, diminishing them by degrees till he recovers his strength: as he is unable to do this, his nerves are suddenly relaxed, and he is attacked by delirium tremens, the severe penalty of his excesses.
At a township on the eastern coast of Australia I saw a most salutary method put into practice for keeping order among a set of these hard drinkers: there was a large empty room at one end of the inn, into which its owner, who was a very powerful man, used to thrust his customers as soon as ever they grew noisy; and thus one might see them 'quoited down' by couples, and locked in, until soberness again dawned upon them.
There is no arguing with men confirmed in this habit. I have frequently done so, and cannot boast of ever having made a convert, even to the theory of temperance. The conversation on such occasions was pretty much as follows:
'Now, my man, you've worked hard during the last twelve months, and let me recommend you to give up your old practices, and lay by your money.' 'Well, so I would, Sir, if it was a good round sum, but where's the use of hoarding up a few pounds? it's better to "be happy" while it lasts.' 'But what will you do when you grow old and can't work, if you go on in this way?' 'Oh! I don't know, Sir; if it comes to the worst I must get some one to knock me on the head.' It was useless to remonstrate with such an arguer: he would sooner die in poverty than deny himself the gratification of 'drinking his wages'.
This prevailing habit is in fact the chief cause that prevents servants, such as stock-keepers and persons of that description, from speedily realizing a sum sufficient to enable them to become stockowners on their own account. Thus, were the habits of the working classes more temperate, labour would be far dearer and scarcer than it is, for no steady or sober man need pass many years of his life as a servant.
It is satisfactory to know that, prevalent as this vice still is, it has certainly decreased in the interior, since the pecuniary difficulties under which the colony laboured a few years ago, and from which it is now but just recovering, taught all classes a severe practical lesson.
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