A Colonial Love Story – The Maid of the Inn

“The good old days of the colony!” is an expression I have frequently heard old hands exultantly make use of; and, I have no doubt, they had some show of excuse for the partiality. If they were times prolific of gross vices, they were also times characterized by a wide-spread spirit of hospitality and friendly devotion, that is now rapidly dying out, and that in another generation will probably become extinct. In our days, of “higher civilization,” and semi-rabid speculation, our hands and brains are too busy to allow us to bestow a thought on our suffering brother; and while we have discarded the better traits of the early settlers, we have not altogether abandoned their immoralities. It is not my desire to draw an invidious distinction between the present and past generations; but I cannot help giving expression to my belief, that the worse of the penal times of this colony cannot furnish a parallel to the dreadful outrages and the cold-blooded murders that have lately stunned our records — to say nothing of the gross, brazen, unblushing vice that parades our thoroughfares, and spreads its pestilential influence into every section of society.

In those “good old days” it was not safe in all companies for a man to exhibit a plethoric purse or to make a display of bijouterie [jewellery or trinkets] on his person; but the criminals were then old hardened offenders — a marked and well-known class, and the crimes that they perpetrated were not often marked by exceptional atrocity, or the cool, calculating, business-like features that have of late characterised crimes committed in our midst.

With this much, by way of introduction, I shall proceed with the following narrative, communicated to me some two years ago, by an aged, white-haired shepherd, the hero of the story. He was then a venerable looking old fellow, exhibiting even in his decay, a good deal of the well-bred man long accustomed to the amenities of civilized life. His hut was situated in a lonely dingle on the banks of the Bland Creek, and for months at a stretch his only companions were his flock and his dumb but faithful collie, Connor, one of the finest specimens of the sheep-dog I have ever seen. In his primitive-looking dwelling, with Connor and me for his audience, the old shepherd gave the following reminiscence of his colonial life. 

“It is so seldom,” he began, ” that I see a white-man’s face — excepting that of the ration-carrier — in this sequestered place, that, however equivocal, or unfriendly the assertion may appear to you, I am selfish enough to feel thankful to the fog by which you lost your way, and to which I am indebted for your company to-night. I am now in my 73rd year — fifty of which have been spent in this colony. Fifty years! ‘Tis a long time, my son, and yet here I am shepherding a flock of jumbucks, when I should be enjoying the rest which men of my age require. Well, well, it matters not much now. It is too late to spare when all is spent. Upon my arrival in the colony, I was in possession of health, strength, and about £200 in money. Few of the industries that have since contributed to the colonization and enrichment of New South Wales were then developed, or even thought of Sydney was a mere hamlet, composed of huts covered with sheets of bark.”

“I am told it is now a fine city, adorned with some splendid public buildings, and containing something like 500 public houses, many of them palaces. I know it when it could boast but of half-a-dozen shanties. For nine years I resided with a relation of mine at the Cowpasture, and, even in that short period, it was astonishing what a change had taken place in the appearance of Sydney. When I visited the town again, regular streets had been made, and establishments formed for the maintenance of order and the repression of crime. I had, as upon my first arrival, all my money (now augmented to £600) upon my person, I was determined to leave by the next vessel for Europe, as the heat of the summer months had been, latterly, proving rather trying and distressing to me. As I was strolling down George-street, one evening, seeking a comfortable inn to put up at during my short stay in Sydney, a sign-board caught my eye: it was a representation of an aboriginal in the act of throwing a boomerang, the head of the dusky figure being encircled by the words Boomerang Tavern, while beneath the feet of the naked savage might be read, “By Will Smedley.” After my nine years’ colonial experience, I was as unacquainted with the ways of Sydney as on the day I landed; and I kept gazing at the picture of the aboriginal as earnestly as if it had been real flesh and blood, and wondering to myself what sort of landlord Bill Smedley was.”

“Whatever doubts I may have entertained on the latter head, were quickly dissipated by the appearance of the landlord himself at the door. He was a stout undersized, bald-headed man, about 60 years old, neatly dressed; his grog-blossomed features apparently betokened at once a love for strong potations and a generous disposition. He wore small clothes, as was the case with many persons then, and his legs were encased in stockings, and his whole appearance was that of a respectable, well-to-do landlord, somewhat given to high living.”

“He saluted me heartily, as if he had known me for years, and invited me, under the title of ‘mate,’ into the shade of his tap-room. Upon what a trifling incident does the destiny of a life sometimes depend! My stopping on that November evening to gaze idly at the sign-board of the Boomerang Tavern, in Lower George-street, Sydney, was the occasion of a change in my plans and circumstances, and of many subsequent vicissitudes in life. But I was never much of a moraliser, and I don’t suppose I am going to become so now. I stepped into the cool tap-room, which had a look of serene coziness that made me take up my quarters with Mr Smedley, at least for the night. In a few minutes after I had entered the landlord and myself were seriously discussing the merits of his liquor, and the most advisable season to sail for the old country. So entirely had the landlord’s jolly physique and kindly demeanour imposed on me, that the little reserve I had at first thought it prudent to manifest towards him, gradually thawed in the genial atmosphere that seemed to surround him, and I unhesitatingly laid bare to him my intentions, and the state of my finances. But if I then behaved imprudently, under the influence of a generous beverage, God willed that I should suffer for my folly.”

“His wife, a large, coarse-featured woman, showed herself only rarely in the public part of the house. This circumstance the husband, with a sly wink at me, commented on as being favourable to out present companionable occupation, winding up with the remark that, for a publican’s wife, she had a remarkable dislike of drink and drinkers. For my part, if I were to judge from appearances, I should certainly say that her face flatly belied the virtuous assertions of her obese partner. The barmaid was an Irishwoman, apparently in the first bloom of womanhood. Her features exercised a strange fascination over me whenever our eyes met, which was the more unaccountable from the fact that she was not beautiful, nor even pretty, in the ordinary sense. Her name was Ellen Molloy, a name that has ever since remained engraven on the tablets of my heart, and that will be obliterated from them only by death.”

“After some time spent in friendly chat, Mr Smedley became demonstratively generous, and as night advanced insisted on treating me to a ‘ night-cap,’ as he called it. We sat in the parlour adjoining my intended bed-room, and although we discoursed upon divers topics, my landlord had by far the greater part of the talk to himself.”

“‘You haven’t been further from Sydney, you say, than the Cowpasture,’ he said, after a short pause in our chat. ‘Ah, you should go further to get colonized. I have been up some hundreds of miles in the bush, amongst some of the wildest tribes of natives. You see this dent in my forehead — put your finger there — so, — well, I got that from the waddy of one of the wretches. You see, I went from curiosity to see a couple of score of them perform a corroboree. My presence wasn’t desirable, and I was chased by two of the cursed crew for about five miles through scrub and brake, over hill and valley, and fallen timber, until my limbs refused to carry me farther. Exhausted, and well-nigh dead with fear, I attempted to seek safety by climbing a tree, but the foremost of my pursuers anticipated my intention, and before I could put my design into execution, he levelled me with a blow of his nulla-nulla, and had his weapon elevated to deal me the finishing stroke, when his companion in the chase came up, and split his skull with his boomerang. Thus, unaccountably to me, a blackfellow I had never before seen, became my deliverer; and when I returned to Sydney I was accompanied by the faithful Yarry, who lived with me until death took him away a few years ago. To commemorate my preservation from a horrid death, I got his portrait painted on my sign-board, in in the act of throwing his boomerang, just as you may have observed it outside there. My house is called the Boomerang Tavern, in compliment to the weapon, the immediate instrument of my salvation.”

“Towards the conclusion of the host’s recital, I felt an unconquerable inclination to drowsiness stealing over me. How long he continued talking I have no idea whatever, neither do I know, from actual experience, how I passed that ‘strange eventful’ night. When my consciousness returned, I found myself to my surprise, in a sort of cellar, my head racked by a horrid confusion of ideas, and an indescribable sensation of pain. But I had a companion in my under-ground chamber. My aching head was laying in the lap of my noble country woman, Ellen Molloy, who kept stroking my hair with her hand, by no means white or delicate, and, anon, wiping away the moisture from my agonized temples. Whenever I attempted to speak, she prevented me by placing her handkerchief upon my mouth; and thus a quarter of an hour may have passed, when I relapsed into insensibility.”

“Glorious, beautiful sun! When I awoke again from my lethargic sleep, his rays were streaming into my chamber — not an underground one now. I was in a nicely-curtained bed, undressed, the aching sensation in my head had nearly gone. I was even more perplexed than on my coming to life in the cellar. Everything was inexplicable to me. How did I get to the dungeon? How came I here? Where was Ellen Molloy? and where was Mr Smedley, the friend of Yarry? That the landlord of the Boomerang Tavern was somehow connected with my present position, and the mysteries of the night. I had a presentiment of which I could not divest my mind; and my presentiment in this instance, turned out to be correct.”

“About ten o’clock that day two peace officers visited me, and enlightened me upon some matters that had before appeared to me to be all confusion and darkness. I had doubtless been drugged by Smedley, and then laid upon my bed, which was so placed that I could easily, in my unconscious state, be lowered into the cellar below through a trap door. But the lynx-eyes of Ellen Molloy were watching my worthy host, and she witnessed through the keyhole the taking of my money by the old scoundrel, and anticipating what was likely to follow, she, instead of going to bed, when the time came, crept down to the cellar, and like an angel of mercy ministered to me in my unconscious condition. Before she came to me she had intimated her suspicious to a policeman, and instructed him how to act in the event of his not seeing or hearing from her towards morning. This was the man that liberated us from the mysterious cellar and afterwards arrested the jolly host of the Boomerang Tavern.”

“That worthy was brought before the police magistrate a few hours afterwards. I fancy the scene that occurred is before my eyes even now, although the occurrence took place so long ago. The first examination was a private one, for Smedley was a man of considerable means and some influence. It was in the library of the magistrate’s house, a rather luxurious apartment for those days. Ellen Molloy and the bloated Mrs Smedley occupied the back-ground, while my would-be-destroyer, trembling between two policemen, stood right in front of the magistrate.”

” ‘Did you ever see this before?’ said Major ———, addressing the culprit, and holding between his fingers the seal that but the day before had depended from my watch-chain. More enlightenment for me! Ellen Molloy’s grey eyes had evidently been given her for other purposes than ogling customers. Smedley was silent, gazing intently upon the seal, while an expression of abject terror settled on his massive features. The result was that he made a clean breast of it, but while so doing, glanced from time to time at Ellen Molloy with such a ferocious expression as to make everyone in the room feel uncomfortable, except the person to whom they were directed. He then retired in charge of his custodians, and shortly after reappeared, bearing a little canvas bag containing my watch and money. How the seal had made its way into the hands of the magistrate puzzled him greatly at first, but I found out afterwards that Smedley had hid it in the sofa-cushion. But he was not aware that a pair of grey eyes was watching him. At the next criminal sittings he was sent to cool his heels for ten years on the public roads of the colony. The license of the house was cancelled; and what became of his wife I never rightly knew. Ellen became my wife, for I gave up, under the influence of those fascinating eyes of hers, all intention of leaving the colony, and for fifteen years afterwards we lived very happily on the banks of the Hawkesbury, where I had purchased a homestead, and where my noble wife died. Floods and other misfortunes followed, until I was ruined. I then sold the place and returned to Sydney, having previously planted a young willow to mark the resting place of Ellen Molloy, the Maid of the Inn.”

“I never prospered after her death. May be drink had something to do with my downfall. Anyway here I am now — a poor old shepherd!”

Source:  Colonial Reminiscences (1872, November 23). Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 – 1907), p. 24.

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