Stingaree, by E. W. Hornung

The Purification of Mulfera

Mulfera Station, N.S.W., was not only an uttermost end of the earth, but an exceedingly loose end, and that again in more senses than one. There were no ladies on Mulfera, and this wrought inevitable deterioration in the young men who made a bachelors’ barracks of the homestead. Not that they ever turned it into the perfect pandemonium you might suppose; but it was unnecessary either to wear a collar or to repress an oath at table; and this sort of disregard does not usually stop at the elementary decencies. It is true that on Mulfera the bark of the bachelor was something worse than his bite, and his tongue no fair criterion to the rest of him. Nevertheless, the place became a byword, even in the back-blocks; and when at last the good Bishop Methuen had the hardihood to include it in an episcopal itinerary, there were admirers of that dear divine who roundly condemned his folly, and enemies who no longer denied his heroism.

The Lord Bishop of the Back–Blocks had at that time been a twelvemonth or more in charge of what he himself described playfully as his “oceanic see”; but his long neglect of Mulfera was due less to its remoteness than to the notorious fact that they wanted no adjectival and alliterative bishops there. An obvious way of repulse happened to be open to the blaspheming squatter, though there is no other instance of its employment. On these up-country visitations the Bishop was dependent for his mobility upon the horseflesh of his hospitable hosts; thus it became the custom to send to fetch him from one station to another; and as a rule the owner or the manager came himself, with four horses and the big trap. The manager of Mulfera said his horses had something else to do, and his neighbors backed him up with some discreet encouragement on their own account. It was felt that a slur would be left upon the whole district if his lordship actually met with the only sort of reception which was predicted for him on Mulfera. Bishop Methuen, however, was one of the last men on earth to shirk a plague-spot; and on this one, warning was eventually received that the Bishop and his chaplain would arrive on horseback the following Sunday morning, to conduct divine service, if quite convenient, at eleven o’clock.

The language of the manager was something inconceivable upon the receipt of this cool advice. He was a man named Carmichael, and quite a different type from the neighbors who held up horny hands when the Bishop decided on his raid. Carmichael was not “a native of this colony,” or of the next, but he was that distressing spectacle, the public-school man who is no credit to his public school. Worse than this, he was a man of brains; worst of all, he had promised very differently as a boy. A younger man who had been at school with him, having come out for his health, travelled some hundreds of miles to see Carmichael, whose conversation struck him absolutely dumb. “He was captain of our house,” the visitor explained to Carmichael’s subordinates, “and you daren’t say dash in dormitory — not even dash!”

In appearance this redoubtable person was chiefly remarkable for the intellectual cast of his still occasionally clean-shaven countenance, and for his double eye-glasses, or rather the way he wore them. They were very strong and very common, without any rims, and Carmichael bought them by the box. He would not wear them with a cord, and in the heat they were continually slipping off his nose; when they did not slip right off they hung at such an angle that Carmichael had to throw his whole body and head backward in order to see anything through them except the ground. And when they fell, someone else had to find them while Carmichael cursed, for his naked eye was as blind as a bat’s.

“Let’s go mustering on Sunday,” suggested the overseer —“every blessed man! Let him find the whole place deserted, homestead and hut!”

“Or let’s get blind for the occasion,” was the bookkeeper’s idea —“every mother’s son!”

“That would do,” agreed the overseer, “if we got just blind enough. And we might get the blacks from Poonee Creek to come and join the dance.”

The overseer was a dapper Victorian with a golden mustache twisted rakishly up and down at either end respectively, like an overturned letter S. He lived up to the name of Smart. The bookkeeper was a servile echo with a character and a face of putty. He had once perpetrated an opprobrious ode to the overseer, and had answered to the name of Chaucer ever since.

Carmichael leaned back to look from one of these worthies to the other, and his spectacled eyes flamed with mordant scorn.

“I suppose you think you’re funny, you fellows,” said he, and without the oath which was a sign of his good-will, except when he lost his temper with the sheep. “If so, I wish you’d get outside to entertain each other. Since the fellow’s coming we shall have to let him come, and the thing is how to choke him off ever coming again without open insult, which I won’t allow. A service of some sort we shall have to have, this once.”

“I’m on to guy it,” declared the indiscreet Chaucer.

“If you do I’ll rehearse the men,” the overseer promised.

“You idiots!” thundered Carmichael, whose temper was as short as his sight. “Can’t you see I weaken on the prospect as much as the two of you stuck together? But the beggar’s certain to be a public-school and ‘Varsity man: and I won’t have him treated as though he’d been dragged up in one of these God-forsaken Colonies!”

Now — most properly — you cannot talk like this in the bush unless you are also capable of confirming the insult with your fists. But Carmichael could; and he was much too blind to fight without his glasses. He was, in fact, the same strenuous character who had set his dogmatic face against the most harmless expletives in dormitory at school, and set it successfully, because Carmichael was a mighty man, whose influence was not to be withstood. His standard alone was changed. Or he was playing on the other side. Yet he had brought a prayer-book with him to the back-blocks. And he was seen studying it on the eve of the episcopal descent.

“He may have his say,” observed Carmichael, darkly, “and then I’ll have mine.”

“Going to heckle him?” inquired Smart, in a nasal voice full of hope and encouragement.

“Not at the function, you fool,” replied Carmichael, sweetly. “But when it’s all over I should like to take him on about the Athanasian Creed and the Thirty-nine Articles.” Only both substantives were qualified by the epithet of the country, for Carmichael had put himself in excellent temper for the day of battle.

That day dawned blood-red and beautiful, but in a little it was a blinding blue from pole to pole, and the thermometer in the veranda reached three figures before breakfast. It was a hot-wind day, and even Carmichael’s subordinates pitied Dr. Methuen and his chaplain, who were riding from the south in the teeth of that Promethean blast. But Carmichael himself drew his own line with unswerving rigidity; and though the deep veranda was prepared as a place for worship, and covered in with canvas which was kept saturated with water, he would not permit an escort to sally even to the boundary fence to meet the uninvited prelate.

Not long after breakfast the two horsemen jogged into view, ambling over the sand-hills whose red-hot edge met a shimmering sky some little distance beyond the station pines. Both wore pith helmets and fluttering buff dust-coats, but both had hot black legs, the pair in gaiters being remarkable for their length. The homestead trio, their red necks chafed by the unaccustomed collar, gathered grimly at the open end of the veranda, where they exchanged impressions while the religious raiders bore down upon them.

“They can ride a bit, too, I’m bothered if they can’t,” exclaimed the overseer, in considerable astonishment.

“And do you suppose, my good fool,” inquired Carmichael, with the usual unregenerate embroidery —“do you in your innocence suppose that’s an accomplishment confined to these precious provinces?”

“They’re as brown as my sugar,” said the keeper of books and stores.

“The Bishop looks as though he’d been out here all his life.”

Carmichael did not quarrel with this observation of his overseer, but colorless eyebrows were raised above the cheap glasses as he stepped into the yard to shake hands with the visitors. The bearded Bishop returned his greeting in a grave silence. The chaplain, on the other hand, seemed the victim of a nervous volubility, and unduly anxious to atone for his chief’s taciturnity, which he essayed to explain to Carmichael on the first opportunity.

“His lordship feels the heat so much more than I do, who have had so many years of it; and to tell you the truth, he is still a little hurt at not being met, for the first time since he has been out here.”

“Then why did he come?” demanded Carmichael, bluntly. “I never asked him, did I?”

“No, no, but — ah, well! We won’t go into it,” said the chaplain. “I am glad to see your preparations, Mr. Carmichael; that I consider very magnanimous in you, under all the circumstances; and so will his lordship when he has had a rest. You won’t mind his retiring until it’s time for the little service, Mr. Carmichael?”

“Not I,” returned Carmichael, promptly. But the worst paddock on Mulfera, in its worst season, was not more dry than the manager’s tone.

Shortly before eleven the bell was rung which roused the men on week-day mornings, and they began trooping over from their hut, while the trio foregathered on the veranda as before. The open end was the one looking east but the sun was too near the zenith to enter many inches, and with equal thoroughness and tact Carmichael had placed the table, the water-bag, and the tumbler, at the open end. They were all that he could do in the way of pulpit, desk, and lectern.

The men tramped in and filled the chairs, forms, tin trunks, and packing-cases which had been pressed into the service of this makeshift sanctuary. The trio sat in front. The bell ceased, the ringer entering and taking his place. There was some delay, if not some hitch. Then came the chaplain with an anxious face.

“His lordship wishes to know if all hands are here,” he whispered across the desk.

Carmichael looked behind him for several seconds. “Every man Jack,” he replied. “And damn his lordship’s cheek!” he added for his equals’ benefit, as the chaplain disappeared.

“Rum cove, that chaplain,” whispered Chaucer, in the guarded manner of one whose frequent portion is the snub brutal.

“How so?” inquired Carmichael, with a duly withering glance.

Chaucer told in whispers of a word which he had overheard through the weather-board wall of the room in which the Bishop had sought repose. It was, in fact, the monosyllable of which Carmichael had just made use. He, however, was the first to heap discredit on the book-keeper’s story, which he laughed to scorn with as much of his usual arrogance as could be assumed below the breath.

“If you heard it at all,” said Carmichael, “which I don’t for a moment believe, you heard it in the strictly Biblical sense. You can’t be expected to know what that is, Chaucer, but as a matter of fact it means lost and done for, like our noble selves. And it was probably applied to us, if there’s the least truth in what you say.”

“Truth!” he began, but was not suffered to add another word.

“Shut up,” snarled Carmichael. “Can’t you hear them coming?”

And the tramp of the shooting-boots, which Dr. Methuen was still new chum enough to wear, followed by the chaplain’s lighter step, drew noisily nearer upon the unseen part of the veranda that encircled the whole house.

“Stand up, you cripples!” cried Carmichael over his shoulder, in a stage whisper. And they all came to their feet as the two ecclesiastics appeared behind the table at the open end of the tabernacle.

Carmichael felt inclined to disperse the congregation on the spot.

There was the Bishop still in his gaiters and his yellow dust-coat; even the chaplain had not taken the trouble to don his surplice. So anything was good enough for Mulfera! Carmichael had lunged forward with a jutting jaw when an authoritative voice rang out across the table.

“Sit down!”

The Bishop had not opened his hairy mouth. It was the smart young chaplain who spoke. And all obeyed except Carmichael.

“I beg your lordship’s pardon,” he was beginning, with sarcastic emphasis, when the manager of Mulfera was cut as short as he was himself in the habit of cutting his inferiors.

“If you will kindly sit down,” cried the chaplain, “like everybody else, I shall at once explain the apparent irregularity upon which you were doubtless about to comment.”

Carmichael glowered through his glasses for a few seconds, and then resumed his seat with a shrug and a murmur, happily inaudible to all but his two immediate neighbors.

“On his way here this morning,” the chaplain went on, “his lordship met with a misadventure from which he has not yet recovered sufficiently to address you as he fully hoped and intended to do today.” At this all eyes sped to the Bishop, who stood certainly in a drooping attitude at the chaplain’s side, his episcopal hands behind his back. “Something happened,” the glib spokesman continued with stern eyes, “something that you do not often hear of in these days. His lordship was accosted, beset, and, like the poor man in the Scriptures, despitefully entreated, not many miles beyond your own boundary, by a pair of armed ruffians!”

“Stuck up!” cried one or two, and “Bushrangers!” one or two more.

“I thank you for both words,” said the chaplain, bowing. “He was stuck up by the bushranger who is once more abroad in the land. Really, Mr. Carmichael ——”

But the manager of Mulfera rose to his full height, and, leaning back to get the speaker into focus, stuck his arms akimbo in a way that he had in his most aggressive moments.

“And what were you doing?” he demanded fiercely of the chaplain.

“It was I who stuck him up,” answered the soi-disant chaplain, whipping a single glass into his eye to meet the double ones. “My name is Stingaree!”

And in the instant’s hush which followed he plucked a revolver from his breast, while the hands of the sham bishop shot out from behind his back, with one in each.

The scene of the instant after that defies ordinary description. It was made the more hideous by the frightful imprecations of Carmichael, and the short, sharp threat of Stingaree to shoot him dead unless he instantly sat down. Carmichael bade him do so with a gallant oath, at which the men immediately behind him joined with his two companions in pulling him back into his chair and there holding him by main force. Thereafter the manager appeared to realize the futility of resistance, and was unhanded on his undertaking to sit quiet, which he did with the exception of one speech to those behind.

“If any of you happen to be armed,” he shouted over his shoulder, “shoot him down like a dog. But if you’re all as fairly had as I am, let’s hear what the beggar’s got to say.”

“Thank you, Mr. Carmichael,” said the bushranger, still from the far side of the table, as a comparative silence fell at last. “You are a man after my own heart, sir, and I would as lief have you on my side as the simple ruffian on my right. Not a bad bishop to look at,” continued Stingaree, with a jerk of the head toward his mate with the two revolvers. “But if I had let him open his mouth! Now, if I’d had you, Mr. Carmichael — but I have my doubts about your vocabulary, too!”

The point appealed to all present, and there was a laugh, in which, however, Carmichael did not join.

“I suppose you didn’t come here simply to give us a funny entertainment,” said he. “I happen to be the boss, or have been hitherto, and if you will condescend to tell me what you want I shall consider whether it is worth while to supply you or to be shot by you. I shall be sorry to meet my death at the hands of a thieving blackguard, but one can’t pick and choose in that matter. Before it comes to choosing, however, is it any good asking what you’ve done with the real bishop and the real chaplain? If you’ve murdered them, as I——”

Stingaree had listened thus far with more than patience, in fact with something akin to approval, to the captive who was still his master with the tongue. With all his villainy, the bushranger was man enough to appreciate another man when he met him; but Carmichael’s last word flicked him on a bare nerve.

“Don’t you dare to talk to me about murder,” he rapped out. “I’ve never committed one yet, but you’re going the right way to make me begin! As for Bishop Methuen, I have more respect for him than for any man in Australia; but his horse was worth two of my mate’s, and that’s all I troubled him for. I didn’t even tie him up as I would any other man. We just relieved the two of them of their boots and clothes, which was quite as good as tying up, with your roads as red-hot as they are — though my mate here doesn’t agree with me.”

The man with the beard very emphatically shook a matted head, now relieved of the stolen helmet, and observed that the quicker they were the better it would be. He was as taciturn a bushranger as he had been a bishop, but Stingaree was perfectly right. Even these few words would have destroyed all chance of illusion in the case of his mate.

“The very clothes, which become us so well,” continued the prince of personators, who happened to be without hair upon his face at this period, and who looked every inch his part; “their very boots, we have only borrowed! I will tell you presently where we dropped the rest of their kit. We left them a suit of pyjamas apiece, and not another stitch, and we blindfolded and drove ’em into the scrub as a last precaution. But before we go I shall also tell you where a search-party is likely to pick up their tracks. Meanwhile you will all stay exactly where you are, with the exception of the store-keeper, who will kindly accompany me to the store. I shall naturally require to see the inside of the safe, but otherwise our wants are very simple.”

The outlaw ceased. There was no word in answer; a curious hush had fallen on the captive congregation.

“If there is a store-keeper,” suggested Stingaree, “he’d better stand up.”

But the accomplished Chaucer sat stark and staring.

“Up with you,” whispered Carmichael, in terrible tones, “or we’re done!”

And even as the book-keeper rose tremulously to his feet, a strange and stealthy figure, the cynosure of all eyes but the bushrangers’ for a long minute, reached the open end of the veranda; and with a final spring, a tall man in silk pyjamas, his gray beard flying over either shoulder, hurled himself upon both bushrangers at once. With outspread fingers he clutched the scruff of each neck at the self-same second, crash came the two heads together, and over went the table with the three men over it.

Shots were fired in the struggle on the ground, happily without effect. Stingaree had his shooting hand mangled by one blow with a chair whirled from a height. Carmichael got his heel with a venomous stamp upon the neck of Howie; and, in fewer seconds than it would take to write their names, the rascals were defeated and disarmed. Howie had his neck half broken, and his face was darkening before Carmichael could be induced to lift his foot.

“The cockroach!” bawled the manager, drunk with battle. “I’d hoof his soul out for two pins!”

A moment later he was groping for his glasses, which had slipped and fallen from his perspiring nose, and making use of such expressions withal as to compel a panting protest from the tall man in the silken stripes.

“My name is Methuen,” said he. “I know it’s a special moment, but — do you mind?”

Carmichael found his glasses at that instant, adjusted them, stood up, and leant back to view the Bishop; and his next words were the apology of the gentleman he should have been.

“My dear fellow,” cried the other, “I quite understand. What are they doing with the ruffians? Have you any handcuffs? Is it far to the nearest police barracks?”

But the next act of this moving melodrama was not the least characteristic of the chief performance; for when Stingaree and partner had been not only handcuffed but lashed hand and foot, and incarcerated in separate log-huts, with a guard apiece; and when a mounted messenger had been despatched to the barracks at Clare Corner, and the remnant raised a cheer for Bishop Methuen; it was then that the fine fellow showed them the still finer stuff of which he was also made. He invited all present to step back for a few minutes into the place of worship which had been so charmingly prepared, so scandalously misused, and where he hoped to see them all yet again in the evening, if it would not bore them to give him a further and more formal hearing then.

“I won’t keep them five minutes now,” he whispered to Carmichael, as the men went ahead to pick up the chairs and take their places, while the Bishop hobbled after, still in his pyjamas, and with terribly inflamed and swollen feet. “And then,” he added, “I must ask you to send a buggy at once for my poor chaplain. He did his gallant best, poor fellow, but I had to leave him fallen by the way. I am an old miler, you know; it came easier to me; but the cinder-path and running-shoes are a different story from hot sand and naked feet! And now, if you please, I will strike one little blow while our hearts are still warm.”

But how shrewdly he struck it, how straight from the shoulder, how simply, how honestly, there is perhaps no need to tell even those who have no previous knowledge of back-block Bishop Methuen and his manly ways.

What afterward happened to Stingaree is another matter, to be set forth faithfully in the sequel. This is the story of the Purification of Mulfera Station, N.S.W., in which the bushrangers played but an indirect and a most inglorious part.

The Bishop and his chaplain (a good man of no present account) stayed to see the police arrive that night, and the romantic ruffians taken thence next morning in unromantic bonds. Comparatively little attention was paid to their departure — partly on account of the truculent attitude of the police — partly because the Episcopal pair were making an equally early start in another direction. No one accompanied the armed men and the bound. But every man on the place, from homestead, men’s hut, rabbiter’s tent, and boundary-rider’s camp — every single man who could be mustered for the nonce had a horse run up for him — escorted Dr. Methuen in close cavalcade to the Mulfera boundary, where the final cheering took place, led by Carmichael, who, of course, was font and origin of the display. And Carmichael rode by himself on the way back; he had been much with the Bishop during his lordship’s stay; and he was too morose for profanity during the remainder of that day.

But it was no better when the manager’s mood lifted, and the life on Mulfera slipped back into the old blinding and perspiring groove.

Then one night, a night of the very week thus sensationally begun, the ingenious Chaucer began one of the old, old stories, on the moonlit veranda, and Carmichael stopped him while that particular old story was still quite young in the telling. There was an awkward pause until Carmichael laughed.

“I don’t care twopence what you fellows think of me,” said he, “and never did. I saw a lot of the Bishop,” he went on, less aggressively, after a pause.

“So we saw,” assented Smart.

“You bet!” added Chaucer.

For they were two to one.

“He ran the mile for Oxford,” continued Carmichael. “Two years he ran it — and won both times. You may not appreciate quite what that means.”

And, with a patience foreign to his character as they knew it, Carmichael proceeded to explain.

“But,” he added, “that was nothing to his performance last Sunday, in getting here from beyond the boundary in the time he did it in-barefoot! It would have been good enough in shoes. But don’t you forget his feet. I can see them — and feel them — still.”

“Oh, he’s a grand chap,” the overseer allowed.

“We never said he wasn’t,” his ally chimed in.

Carmichael took no notice of a tone which the youth with the putty face had never employed toward him before.

“He was also in his school eleven,” continued Carmichael, still in a reflective fashion.

“Was it a public school?” inquired Smart.

“Yes.”

The public school?” added Chaucer.

“Not mine, if that’s what you mean,” returned Carmichael, with just a touch of his earlier manner. “But — he knew my old Head Master — he was quite a pal of the dear Old Man! . . . We had such lots in common,” added the manager, more to himself than to the other two.

The overseer’s comment is of no consequence. What the book-keeper was emboldened to add matters even less. Suffice it that between them they brought the old Carmichael to his feet, his glasses flaming in the moonshine, his body thrown pugilistically backward, his jaw jutting like a crag — the old Carmichael in deed — but not in word.

“I told you just now I didn’t care twopence what either of you thought of me,” he roared, “though there wasn’t the least necessity to tell you, because you knew! So I needn’t repeat myself; but just listen a moment, and try not to be greater fools than God made you. You saw a real man last Sunday, and so did I. I had almost forgotten what they were like — that quality. Well, we had a lot of talk, and he told me what they are doing on some of the other stations. They are holding services, something like what he held here, every Sunday night for themselves. Now, it isn’t in human nature to fly from one extreme to the other: but we are going to have a try to keep up our Sunday end with the other stations; at least I am, and you two are going to back me up.”

He paused. Not a syllable from the pair.

“Do you hear me?” thundered Carmichael, as he had thundered in the dormitory at school, now after twenty years in the same good cause once more. “Whether you like it or not, you fellows are going to back me up!”

And Carmichael was a mighty man, whose influence was not to be withstood.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hornung/ew/stingaree/chapter7.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 20:51