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Short Stories/One Christmas in Melbourne

 

One Christmas Day In
Melbourne

Poverty—do I know what poverty means? I set out from England with my heart full of hope and youth for the "Golden South"—Australia—and landed with another "new chum," as the colonists contemptuously call all fresh arrivals from home, thinking to find the place paved with gold and the gutters running with water in which gold dust sparkles.

I had read much about the country—all those fairy tales which are so attractive to the susceptible school-boy, which drive him to the gold fields as surely as Marryat's sea stories drive him to sea.

Well, we landed at Sandridge Pier, cleared from the old ship which had been our home for a completely happy ninety-six days, and started off together to seek our fortunes. My chum had about fifty pounds; I had in all fifteen, but we were young, and these seemed a fortune to us. Melbourne, mavelous Melbourne as it is called, was before us, and we never gave a thought to the morrow.

It was not until our fortunes had dwindled to within an inappreciable distance of zero that we sat one night in solemn conclave over our pipes to discuss the momentous question, What was to be done?

We had to get to work, but what and how? Then came the tug. We presented our letters of introduction and everyone was charmed to see us, asked us to luncheon, to dinner, to supper, to race-meetings, to theatres, everywhere; but the moment we suggested that we were on the lookout for work we became less and less welcome. By degrees we came to have no further use for our dress suits, and they went the way of so many dress suits in the colonies—to our "uncle."

The rest of our store of clothes followed piece by piece, then all our little knicknacks, our shirt studs, our sleeve links, our silk hats, our swagger boots. Why should we burden ourselves with umbrellas and greatcoats? It never rained, and it was hot as hot could be. At length we were left with nothing except what we stood up in, and, on being turned out of lodgings, we parted in the streets of Melbourne.

My mate and I had tossed up to decide which should stop in the city, which take to the bush. He had won the toss and started up country. I was left alone, fourteen thousand miles from home. It was awful to have no friends; as I got shabbier and shabbier my acquaintances dropped me, and I avoided the streets where I might meet them. I felt my poverty was a reproach to myself, and hated to allow anyone to witness it. Gradually I had fallen until I was one of the forlorn band of waifs that every big city possesses—houseless, hungry and hopeless, whose beds at night are in the streets or on the grass under a tree in some public park.

In Melbourne this didn't matter much, for the weather was intensely hot. It was the hunger that was unbearable. Sometimes I earned a few pennies carrying portmanteaux to the station or holding a horse, but frequently for days I earned nothing. I grew miserably thin and hollow-eyed. Try where I would I could get no work.

I was lying one night alongside a man under a tree in the Treasury Gardens. He was as hungry and miserable as I.

"Say, mate, were you ever in jail?" he asked me suddenly.

"No. Why?"

"You can go to jail here for fourteen days, if you like. I've been. It isn't so bad; they feed you well and you only have to crack stones for the roads."

"How can one get there?" I asked.

"I've got a chum at the police station. He'll put us down as vagrants. You don't have to steal anything.

I was horribly hungry. "All right, come on," I said.

It was Christmas Eve. We stood by the gates of the Gardens in the moonlight. We heard the town clock in the distance striking midnight, and as the last stroke died away the bells of St. Patrick's Cathedral pealed out, and down the deserted street came the chant through the open doors proclaiming God's promise of "Peace on earth, good will to men."

I thought of my own dear England, of home, of my dear father and sisters so many miles away, and the tears welled up in my eyes.

"My God, I can't stand this!" said my mate, and he fled down the street into the quiet of the night.

The river shone like a silver streak in the moonlight, and I knew what he meant. I walked to the great steps of the Cathedral, and through the doors I saw the lights of the great high altar and the priests chanting the mass. Everything seemed to be swimming around me. I remember the voices, the heavy perfume of the incense. I heard the "Gloria in Excelsis Deos," and then I remember no more.

When I came to I found myself in a small room with an old priest kneeling by my side. God bless him, wherever he is? He is one I shall never forget, for he started me fair on my road in life. From that day to this when I feel dismayed and weak the tender voice and kindly smile of this dear old man come back to me, and with them the memory of that Christmas Day in Melbourne when St. Patrick's bells rang out the welcome "Peace on earth, good will to men!"