The Spectral Balladist
Mount Gambier is a small city squatting on the slopes of a dormant volcano within which are crater lakes. Strangers who find it by travelling the National Highway call it a pretty, old-fashioned place; we who live here and call it home don’t think it old-fashioned. Quaint maybe, because our minds have taken the shape of the volcano and the bowl-like craters, I suppose. Anyway we never feel comfortable away from the Mount.
Of course the visitors from the big cities with their huge houses and noisy streets full of traffic, can call us quaint and old fashioned if they choose, but for all that, Mount Gambier is a better place to live than Adelaide or Melbourne. My friend, the local doctor, says that when he goes to Melbourne his mind is battered and bruised with the bulk of the place, and he was born there. Now he knows better and enjoys the provincial rustic lifestyle amongst us, who have known it all along. Yes, you readers may laugh, but it seems to me that his professional opinion is worth heeding.
Well, you might find us dull, but I assure you that I’ve listened to a lot of tourists passing through, and what they tell has absolutely nothing to compare with the things that happen at the Mount. It is because of our way of thinking and of minding our own business. We believe in live and let live, even if the spirits of departed souls come in broad daylight. Why, I swear I’ve seen the apparitions shadow each other in the early dawn down at Vansittart Park where they keep their nightly tryst. We never mind them, and take my word for it; ghosts know when they are well off as much as human beings! The Mount caters for everybody.
Still, I must confess that the events I am now to recount were quite queer even for Mount Gambier, where ghostly Boandik Tribesmen do their corroboree under full moons, and long departed pioneers clippity-clop on long-dead horses down Commercial Street in the early hours of Sunday mornings. Now that’s a thing that wouldn’t happen in the big cities with their bright streetlights glaring all night; too much interference and too much noise for any self respecting spectre. But here in the Mount we shut up shop early and leave the nights to ghosts.
The Aborigines made such a hullabaloo one time that Guy, the publican, got up from his bed at the Gambier Hotel and admonished them, whilst standing in the middle of the main street intersection in his underwear. The traffic lights changed to green several times before the tribesmen and lubras decided that the competition was too great to remain, and left to reappear at Frew Park, where they continued the dancing. Guy found several clap-sticks and carved boomerangs next morning, left for him as an apology. He proudly displays them in the front bar. But let’s get on with the story; if I start telling you about every queer happening at the Mount I’ll never stop.
It all came of my liking for port-wine. I remember it very well, because I had found a full bottle in my painting studio that was very likeable, I liked it more and more. I hoarded bottles as props to use in still-life composition work when teaching art, and had forgotten about the port. Later I told Guy, the publican, and he suggested that the cellar at Molony’s Brewery stored lots of props to use in my composition painting. I then made arrangements with the brewery manager, who said, “Sure, take whatever you require, although I don’t know what is down in the cellars. No-one goes down there.”
I was surprised at that until he explained that the Ghosts who kept nightly vigil in Vansittart Park enter the cellars at dawn and partied down there. As it would be impolite to disturb them it was thought best to bolt the cellar-doors to outsiders, that way everybody got along. Mind you, sometimes the rowdy behaviour did cause the bottlers to retire early for the Park Hotel next door. The boys respected spectral tenants, especially those who tied on a heavy session and became boisterous in the bargain.
I reckon that alcohol plays havoc with our ghost population; it didn’t do much for the Aboriginals, that’s for sure. They keep on doing the corroboree, but on some occasions their music is downright tuneless with much hiccupping. Sometimes it sounds as if they are squeezing a thousand cats all at once, just as if imitating bagpipes. For days afterwards you wouldn’t see a cat in the city and the neighbourhood dogs would be hoarse and silent after barking and baying all night. What with one thing and another, I know alcoholism amongst the spirits strains relations a little bit with us living citizens of Mount Gambier.
Down the concrete ramp I walked to unbolt the door to the Molony Brewery cellars. These cellars reach far beneath the floor of the brewery and extend into limestone caverns that are unexplored, but reputedly run under the city. I flicked a light-switch at the open door and a soft glow lit the front part to the cellars. The walls were stacked with wicker-demijohns, right up to the ceiling, and further on several hogsheads barrels lined the floor. Boxes of wine bottles littered the floor and old tavern furniture set the scene to a party-room, ready for a roaring trade. No one seemed to be about, though.
What was most curious about the cellar, as I look back and remember my first glimpse, was the tidiness of the room. Along the walls were boxes, bottles and many barrels hooped in rusty iron. Everything around the periphery of the cellar-room was draped and screened with spider webs; but the tables were set up ready to do business, awaiting customers. Some barrels on their ends, even sported clean tablecloths. Unlit candles had been placed on the tables and chairs finished off the setting.
Very strange, this tavern without any patrons in the cellar of the Molony’s Brewery.
I set to work removing the wicker-cane demijohns that, along with barrels, lined the walls. Most were beyond repair and empty, but at the bottom of the stack were some in quite good condition. When I lifted those, I discovered that one demijohn-bottle was still corked and full. Dragging it to the first table I dusted it quickly and broke the wax-seal, pulling the large cork out. The rich smell of port filled the room. A nearby carton contained wineglasses, and taking one out I filled it to the rim with a thick, musty red brew. It tasted like nectar from distant Portugal; “a viscous molasses,” I thought.
The best I had ever drunk.
“That’ll be one and sixpence, kindly pay for the drink,” a voice said beside me. I just about ran there and then, and would have if the heady liquid hadn’t already clouded my brain.
“Who are you?” I asked.
The figure attired as an innkeeper in an apron frowned. “Kindly pay for the drink, dear sir. It’ll be one and sixpence, which you’ll agree is very reasonable for a glass of my finest.”
He scowled as I gaped in astonishment. “But we turned metric, in 1966; it’s only decimal currency these days,” I blurted out while handing over a ten-dollar note.
“I don’t give change on such,” he replied, but pocketed the note anyway. “Publicans will never change,” I thought.
“Who are you?” I asked again, watching the innkeeper lighting candles.
“The boys’ll be in soon,” he muttered.
Just then I heard a noise from the rear of the tavern-cellar. Several gentlemen entered and boisterously demanded service.
“Rum, if you’ll please, Seymour,” they shouted. The table near mine became rowdy as the liquor hit the spot. The candles flickered further down the room as more customers appeared from nowhere. Soon bottles littered the many tables and those barrels with tablecloths. Everybody smoked pipes and carried on as if there were no more days ahead. I drank quite a few ports observing the revelry. Considering that I am from Mount Gambier and used to queer comings and goings, the party was interesting; but what followed next scared the living daylights out of me, greying me prematurely. In fact, the carrying-on of that night upset me for quite a while.
There was hardly a man among all the ghosts at Molony’s Brewery who by the early hours of the morning was not the worse for liquor and singing outrageous songs. Suddenly the cellar doors burst open and riders on horseback boldly entered. Several simply materialized through the wall, but the leaders observed propriety by stepping inside through the doors.
“Ride! Ride to the rescue of the Admella!” yelled the gentlemen on their tall steeds. “Ride to the wreck!”
Well, it came as a surprise to me that I was swiftly placed on the back of a large black horse and followed the riders up the ramp and outside. I hung on for dear life as the troop galloped down Commercial Street to join the mounted gathering mustering at the city Post Office. More ghostly riders arrived. Then began the terrifying rush to the wreck of the Admella, and I, tipsy on syrupy port and nearly a wreck myself, certainly in no condition to rescue anyone!
As I clung desperately to my ghostly black horse, the wreck of the Admella whirled past me, as my sloshed memory recollected the facts. For Heaven’s sake, I thought, that disaster occurred in 1859, over one hundred and thirty years ago! Back then, survivors had clung to floating wreckage, tossed about mercilessly for seven days in turbulent seas; and here I am reliving the famous rescue ride on the back of a ghost horse, swiftly galloping in a mad dash across dark land, riding among spectres boozed to their proverbial eyeballs. I must be mad! Worse than that, the rider beside me was a tall and lanky fellow who kept on reciting poetry:
“Black Bolingbroke snorted, and stood on the brink
One instant, then deep in the dark sluggish swirl
Plunged headlong, I saw the horse suddenly sink
Till round the man’s armpits the waves seemed to curl.”
I recalled the Adam Lindsay Gordon poem and looked again at the rider just as we jumped the shell-grit banks at Lake Bonney and splashed across to the Mia Mia Point. “It is him!” I thought.
Our reckless dash from the Mount Gambier Post Office had taken the riders over the Lake Terrace Cemetery where many others joined. Apparitions popped up all over the place and hovered gaily above the swift galloping ghosts on horseback. I’m unsure how many came to the wreck that night. They must have numbered hundreds. Some horses bore more than one ghost and when I glanced backwards I saw Seymour, the innkeeper, driving a team and gig loaded with barrels and casks of rum. He handled a frisky team four abreast, going at full speed down Benara Road. His whip lashed loudly with resounding echoes. “Yahoo!” He yelled repeatedly as his apron flapped and the barrels bounced in the gig. “Yahoo!” “Crack!” All the way to the rescue of the Admella.
The Cape Banks Lighthouse flashed its light rhythmically on the proceedings at the Admella Beach. Tables appeared and were set to fit everyone. Late arrivals without a place grabbed their tankards of fiery rum and stood around blazing campfires, or hovered about the dunes. Being a guest of honour, my place was set at the head of the table where fortunately I could hear the balladist Adam Lindsay Gordon himself. He was master of ceremonies and welcomed the large gathering right properly introducing the poor souls lost that fateful day so long ago. I clearly heard the breakers as a toast was proposed and heartily drunk. I drank a lot that night from a pewter tankard that never emptied.
On the beach by the flickering lights I watched in fascination as the Poet cast his arms tragically up to the heavens as witness and embarked on his recital. He handed his glass out again as if requiring sustenance before proceeding.
There was a deathly silence as he started ‘The Sick Stockrider’:
Hold hard, Ned! Lift me down once more, and lay me in the shade.
Old man, you’ve had your work cut out to guide
Both horses, and to hold me in the saddle when I sway’d,
All through the hot, slow, sleepy, silent ride.
The dawn at “Moorabinda” was a mist-rack dull and dense,
The sunrise was a sullen, sluggish lamp;
I was dozing in the gateway at Arbuthnot’s bound’ry fence,
I was dreaming on the Limestone cattle camp.
We crossed the creek at Carricksford, and sharply through the haze,
And suddenly the sun shot flaming forth;
To southward lay “Katawa”, with the sandpeaks all ablaze,
And the flush’d fields of Glen Lomond lay to north.
Now westward winds the bridle path that leads to Lindisfarm,
And yonder looms the double-headed Bluff;
From the far side of the first hill, when the skies are clear and calm,
You can see Sylvester’s woolshed fair enough.
Five miles we used to call it from our homestead to the place
Where the big tree spans the roadway like an arch;
‘Twas here we ran the dingo down that gave us such a chase
Eight years ago – or was it nine? – last March.
‘Twas merry in the glowing morn, among the gleaming grass,
To wander as we’ve wander’d many a mile,
And blow the cool tobacco cloud, and watch the white wreaths pass,
Sitting loosely in the saddle all the while.
‘Twas merry ‘mid the blackwoods, when we spied the station roofs,
To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard,
With a running fire of stockwhips and a fiery run of hoofs;
Oh! the hardest day was never then too hard!
Aye! we had a glorious gallop after “Starlight” and his gang,
When they bolted from Sylvester’s on the flat;
How the sun-dried reed-beds crackled, how the flint-strewn ranges rang
To the strokes of “Mountaineer” and “Acrobat”.
Hard behind them in the timber, harder still across the heath.
Close beside them through the tea-tree scrub we dash’d;
And the golden-tinted fern leaves, how they rustled underneath!
And the honeysuckle osiers, how they crash’d!
We led the hunt throughout, Ned, on the chestnut and the grey,
And the troopers were three hundred yards behind,
While we emptied our six-shooters on the bushrangers at bay,
In the creek with stunted box-tree for a blind!
There you grappled with the leader, man to man and horse to horse,
And you roll’d together when the chestnut rear’d;
He blazed away and missed you in that shallow watercourse
A narrow shave – his powder singed your beard!
In these hours when life is ebbing, how those days when life was young
Come back to us; how clearly I recall
Even the yarns Jack Hall invented, and the songs Jem Roper sung;
And where are now Jem Roper and Jack Hall?
Aye! nearly all our comrades of the old colonial school,
Our ancient boon companions, Ned, are gone;
Hard livers for the most part, somewhat reckless as a rule;
It seems that you and I are left alone.
There was Hughes, who got in trouble through that business with the cards.
It matters little what became of him;
But a steer ripp’d up MacPherson in the Cooraminta yards,
and Sullivan was drown’d at Sink-or-swim;
And Mostyn – poor Frank Mostyn – died at last a fearful wreck,
In the “horrors”, at the Upper Wandinong;
And Carisbrooke, the rider, at the Horsefall broke his neck,
Faith! the wonder was he saved his neck so long!
Ah! those days and nights we squandered at the Logans’ in the glen
The Logans, man and wife, have long been dead.
Elsie’s tallest girl seems taller than your little Elsie then;
And Ethel is a woman grown and wed.
I’ve had my share of pastime, and I’ve done my share of toil,
And life is short – the longest life a span;
I care not now to tarry for the corn or for the oil,
Or the wine that maketh glad the heart of man.
For good undone and gifts misspent and resolutions vain,
‘Tis somewhat late to trouble. This I know –
I should live the same life over, if I had to live again;
And the chances are I go where most men go.
The deep blue skies wax dusty, and the tall green trees grow dim,
The sward beneath me seems to heave and fall;
And sickly, smoky shadows through the sleepy sunlight swim,
And on the very sun’s face weave their pall.
Let me slumber in the hollow where the wattle blossoms wave,
With never stone or rail to fence my bed;
Should the sturdy station children pull the bush flowers on my grave,
I may chance to hear them romping overhead.
The solemn silence affected everyone there and men tore at their beards and hair, threw their arms up in the air appealing to the Holy Virgin, and some swore that they were ruined. The bard cleared his throat and quaffed his full glass in one swift throw. Then began a rousing rendition of his ballad “From the Wreck”:
Turn out, boys’ – ‘What’s up with our super tonight?
The man’s mad – Two hours to daybreak I’d swear –
Stark mad – why, there isn’t a glimmer of light.’
‘Take Bolingbroke, Alec, give Jack the young mare;
Look sharp. A large vessel lies jamm’d on the reef,
And many on board still, and some wash’d on shore.
Ride straight with the news – they may send some relief
From the township; and we – we can do little more.
You, Alec, you know the near cuts; you can cross
“The Sugarloaf” ford with a scramble, I think;
Don’t spare the blood filly, nor yet the black horse;
Should the wind rise, God help them! the ship will soon sink.
Old Peter’s away down the paddock, to drive
The nags to the stockyard as fast as he can –
A life and death matter; so, lads, look alive.’
Half-dressed, in the dark to the stockyard we ran.
There was bridling with hurry, and saddling with haste,
Confusion and cursing for lack of a moon;
‘Be quick with these buckles, we’ve no time to waste’;
‘Mind the mare, she can use her hind legs to some tune’.
‘Make sure of the crossing-place; strike the old track,
They’ve fenced off the new one; look out for the holes
On the wombat hills.”Down with the slip rails; stand back.’
‘And ride, boys, the pair of you, ride for your souls.’
In the low branches heavily laden with dew,
In the long grasses spoiling with deadwood that day,
Where the blackwood, the box, and the bastard oak grew,
Between the tall gum-trees we gallop’d away –
We crashed through a brush fence, we splash’d through a swamp
We steered for the north near ‘The Eaglehawk’s Nest’ –
We bore to the left, just beyond ‘The Red Camp’,
And round the black tea-tree belt wheel’d to the west –
We cross’d a low range sickly scented with musk
From wattle-tree blossom – we skirted a marsh –
Then the dawn faintly dappled with orange the dusk,
And peal’d overhead the jay’s laughter note harsh,
And shot the first sunstreak behind us, and soon
The dim dewy uplands were dreamy with light;
And full on our left flash’d ‘The Reedy Lagoon’,
And sharply ‘The sugarloaf’ rear’d on our right.
A smother’d curse broke through the bushman’s brown beard,
He turn’d in his saddle, his brick-colour’d cheek
Flush’d feebly with sundawn, said, ‘Just what I fear’d;
Last fortnight’s late rainfall has flooded the creek’.
Black Bolingbroke snorted, and stood on the brink
One instant, then deep in the dark sluggish swirl
Plunged headlong. I saw the horse suddenly sink,
Till round the man’s armpits the waves seemed to curl.
We follow’d, – one cold shock, and deeper we sank
Than they did, and twice tried the landing in vain;
The third struggle won it; straight up the steep bank
We stager’d, then out on the skirts of the plain.
The stockrider, Alec, at starting had got
The lead, and had kept it throughout; ’twas his boast
That through thickest of scrub he could steer like a shot,
And the black horse was counted the best on the coast.
The mare had been awkward enough in the dark,
She was eager and headstrong, and barely half broke;
She had had me too close to a big stringy-bark,
And had made a near thing of a crooked sheoak.
But now on the open, lit up by the morn,
She flung the white foam-flakes from nostril to neck,
And chased him – I hatless, with shirt-sleeves all torn
(For he may ride ragged who rides from a wreck)-
And faster and faster across the wide heath
We rode till we raced. Then I gave her her head,
And she – stretching out with the bit in her teeth –
She caught him, outpaced him, and passed him, and led.
We neared the new fence; we were wide of the track;
I look’d right and left – she had never been tried
At a stiff leap. ‘Twas little he cared on the black.
‘You’re more than a mile from the gateway’, he cried.
I hung to her head, touched her flank with the spurs
(In the red streak of rail not the ghost of a gap);
She shortened her long stroke, she pricked her sharp ears,
She flung it behind her with hardly a rap –
I saw the post quiver where Bolingbroke struck,
And guessed that the pace we had come the last mile
Had blown him a bit (he could jump like a buck).
We galloped more steadily then a while.
The heath was soon pass’d, in the dim distance lay
The mountain. The sun was just clearing the tips
Of the ranges to eastwards. The mare – could she stay?
She was bred very nearly as clean as Eclipse;
She led, and as oft as he came to her side,
She took the bit free and untiring as yet;
Her neck was arched double, her nostrils were wide,
And the tips of her tapering ears nearly met –
‘You’re lighter than I am’, said Alec at last,
‘The horse is dead beat and the mare isn’t blown.
She must be a good one – ride on and ride fast,
You know your way now’. So I rode on alone.
Still galloping forward we pass’d the two flocks
At McIntyre’s hut and McAllister’s hill –
She was galloping strong at the Warrigal Rocks –
On the Wallaby Range she was galloping still –
And over the wasteland and under the wood,
By down and by dale, and by fell and by flat,
She gallop’d, and here in the stirrups I stood
To ease her, and there in the saddle I sat
To steer her. We suddenly struck the red loam
Of the track near the troughs – then she reeled on the rise
From her crest to her croup covered over with foam,
And blood-red her nostrils, and bloodshot her eyes,
A dip in the dell where the wattle fire bloomed –
A bend round a bank that had shut out the view –
Large framed in the mild light the mountain had loomed,
With a tall, purple peak bursting out from the blue.
I pull’d her together, I press’d her, and she
Shot down the decline to the Company’s yard,
And on by the paddocks, yet under my knee
I could feel her heart thumping the saddle-flaps hard.
Yet a mile and another, and now we were near
The goal, and the fields and the farms flitted past;
And ‘twixt the two fences I turned with a cheer,
For a green grass-fed mare ’twas a far thing and fast;
And labourers, roused by her galloping hoofs,
Saw bare-headed rider and foam-sheeted steed;
And shone the white walls and the slate-covered roofs
Of the township. I steadied her then – I had need –
Where stood the old chapel (where stands the new church –
Since chapels to churches have changed in that town).
A short, sidelong stagger, a long, forward lurch,
A slight, choking sob, and the mare had gone down.
I slipp’d off the bridle, I slackened the girth,
I ran on and left her and told them my news;
I saw her soon afterwards. What was she worth?
How much for her hide? She had never worn shoes.
A surf-fisher shook me and I awoke damp and cold, lying on the sand beneath the Cape Banks Lighthouse. I felt sick and very ordinary and looked around at the sweeping immensity of an empty, lonely beach.
“How’re you going?” he asked.
“Awful,” I answered truthfully. “Where’s everyone?”
“No-one about here,” he said.
“Oh,” I replied.
“You tied on a beauty last night?”
“Yes, a beauty.” I groaned. “What day is this?”
“August 7th,” he replied. “Where are you from?”
“Ah,” he said, walking away to try for jack-salmon. “That explains everything. They’re weird up there.”
The Admella tragedy had happened one hundred and thirty five years ago, on the 6th of August, 1859. I entered the brewery cellars on the same date years later and accompanied those reckless riders…
I’ve sworn off drink for life!
That is my story, believe it, as you like.
1994 – edited 2019