Now what would your novelist rede you from that record, if he had possession of my diary? Something mysterious and momentous, no doubt, and probably connected with buried treasure. Yet it is only the abstract and brief chronicle of a fair average day; a day happy in having no history worth mentioning; merely a drowsy morning, an idle mid-day, and a stirring afternoon. Life is largely composed of such uneventful days; and these are therefore most worthy of careful analysis.
How easy it is to recall the scene! The Lachlan river, filled by summer rains far away among the mountains, to a width of something like thirty yards, flowing silently past, and going to waste. Irregular areas of lignum, hundreds of acres in extent, and eight or ten feet in height, representing swamps; and long, serpentine reaches of the same, but higher in growth, indicating billabongs of the river. The river itself fringed, and the adjacent low ground dotted, with swamp box, river coolibah, and red-gum — the latter small and stunted in comparison with the giants of its species on the Murray and Lower Goulburn. On both sides of the river, far as the eye can command, extend the level plains of black or light-red soil, broken here and there by clumps and belts of swamp box, now cut off from the line of the horizon by the quivering, glassy stratum of the lower atmosphere.
And where the boundary fence of Mondunbarra and Avondale crosses the plain, is seen a fair example of the mirage — that phenomenon so vaguely apprehended in regions outside its domain, and so little noticed where repetition has made it familiar. But there it is; no smoky-looking film on the plain, no shimmering distortion of objects in middle-distance, but, to all appearance, a fine sheet of silvery water, two hundred yards distant, about the same in average width, and half-a-mile in length from right to left. Both banks are clearly defined; irregular promontories jut far out into the smooth water from each side; and the boundary fence crosses it, post after post, in diminishing perspective, like any fence standing in shallow, sunlit water. The most critical and deliberate examination can no more detect evidence of phantasy in the unreal water than in the real fence.
The mirage is one of Nature’s obscure and cheerless jokes; and in this instance, as in some few others, she is beyond Art. She even assists the illusion by a very slight depression of the plain in the right place. In fact, an artist’s picture of a mirage would be his picture of a level-brimmed, unruffled lake; also, the most skilful word-painter, in attempting to contrast the appearance of water with that of its fac-simile, would become as confused and hazy as any clergyman taxed to differentiate his creed from that of the mollah running the opposition. And Nature, in taking this mirthless rise out of the spectator, never repeats herself in the particulars of distance, area or configuration of her simulacre; it may be a mere stripe across the road — the brown, sinuous track disappearing beneath its surface, to re-appear on the opposing shore — it may be no larger than a good gilgie; or it may be the counterfeit presentment of a sheet of water, miles in extent, though this last is rare.
A hot day is not an imperative condition of the true mirage; but the ground must be open plain, or nearly so; the atmosphere must be clear, and the ground thoroughly dry. It is worthy of notice that horses and cattle are entirely insusceptible to the illusion. Another fact, not so noteworthy in view of the general perversity of inanimate things, is, that you never see a mirage when you are watching for it to decide an argument. It always presents itself when you have no interest in it. In this quality of irredeemable cussedness it resembles the emu’s nest. No one ever found that when he was looking for it; no one ever found it except he was in a raging hurry, with a long stage to go, and no likelihood of coming back by the same route.
To complete the picture — which I want you to carry in your mind’s eye — you will imagine Cleopatra and Bunyip standing under a coolibah — standing heads and points, after the manner of equine mates; each switching the flies and mosquitos off his comrade’s face, and shivering them off such parts of his own body as possessed the requisite faculty. And in the centre of a clear place, a couple of hundred yards away, you may notice a bullock-wagon, apparently deserted; the heavy wool-tarpaulin, dark with dust and grease, thrown across the arched jigger, forming a tent on the body, and falling over the wheels nearly to the ground, yet displaying the outline of the Sydney pattern — which, as every schoolgirl knows, differs from that of Riverina.
In the foreground of this picture, you may fancy the present annalist lying — or, as lying is an ill phrase, and peculiarly inapplicable just here — we’ll say, reclining, pipe in mouth, on a patch of pennyroyal, trying to re-peruse one of Ouida’s novels, and thinking (ah! your worship’s a wanton) what a sweet, spicy, piquant thing it must be to be lured to destruction by a tawny-haired tigress with slumbrous dark eyes. No such romance for the annalist, poor man.
Such, then, was my benevolent and creditable allotment, such my unworthy vagary, at the time this record opens. I had camped in the Dead Man’s Bend late on the previous evening, had wakened-up a little after sunrise, and turned out a little after eleven. Then a dip in the river, to clear away the cobwebs, and a breakfast which, if not high-toned in its accessories, was at least enjoyed at a fashionable hour, had made me feel as if I wanted a quiet smoke out of the gigantic meerschaum which I unpack only on special occasions, and something demoralising to read.
But the austere pipe resented this unworthy alliance so strongly that, for peace sake, I had to lay aside the literary Dead–Sea-apple. Then I remembered the official letter I had received on the previous day. I had merely glanced over it before acting on the orders it contained; now I re-opened the document, and pharisaically contemplated the child-like penmanship and Chaucer-like orthography of my superior officer:—
Mr T Collins
Dr sir Haveing got 3 months leave of Abscence you are hereby requested to be extra atentive to the Interests of the Dept not haveing me to reffer to in Cases of difeculty or to recieve instructions from me which is not practicacable on account of me being in the other Colonys. I write this principaly to aquaint you Communication from Mr Donaldson Mr Strong Mr Jeffrey representives will meet you at Poondoo on monday 10 prox re matter in dispute. Keep this apointment without fail comunnicate with central Office pending further Orders from me.
I was now on my way to keep the “apointment.” I was still about twenty miles from Poondoo; and the next day would be “monday 10 prox.” I intended to start again at about two o’clock; so I had still a couple of hours to spend in what civilians call rest, and soldiers, fatigue; whilst studying such problems as might present themselves for solution. Pup was safe by my side, and I had nothing to trouble myself about. A thought of the transitoriness and uncertainty of life did occur to me, as it has done to thinkers and non-thinkers of all ages; but I deftly applied the reflection to my superior officer, and so turned everything to commodity.
The unfortunate young fellow, I thought, is a confirmed invalid, sure enough. A trip round the colonies may liven him up a bit, or, on the other hand, it may not; and, if he returns, it is to be hoped that kind hands will soothe his pillow, and so forth; and when, with dirges due, in sad array, they have performed the last melancholy offices, I trust that some one will be found to dress, with simple hands, his rural tomb. I would do it myself, for, as the poet says, “Ah, surely nothing dies but something mourns.” A sweet fancy, but not so filling as the cognate reflection ——
Somebody calling from the other side of the river; probably some forlorn and shipwreck’d brother, looking for his mates — The cognate reflection, namely, that nothing withdraws but it leaves room for a successor. And this successor — thus favoured by a Providence which has kindly supervised the fall of the antecedent sparrow — will be entitled to live in a four-roomed weatherboard house, with the water laid-on, and a flower-garden up to the footpath, and a few silver-pencilled Hamburgs in the back yard, and everything comfortable. Ah, me! it is the thought of the dove ——
Peace! peace! Orestes — like, I breathe this prayer. Thy comrades are sleeping; go sleep thou with them. —— The thought of the dove that has suggested this fairy picture of the dovecote. And something tells me that Jim Quarterman is not likely to forget a certain cavalier who called one day about a dog. Doubtless her memory holds him enshrined as a person of scientific attainments and courtly address; offering a contrast, I trust, to the uninteresting hayseeds who have come under her purview. And will he not come again? Yea, Jim, mystery and revelation as thou art! he will come again, to lay at thy shapely and substantial feet the trophy of an ——
Ay, lay thee down and roar — Of an Assistant–Sub-Inspectorship. Ah, Jim! tentatively beloved (so to speak) by this solitary, but by no means desolate, heart! — setting aside the rises I would take out of thy artlessness, and the way I would whip thy simplicity with my fine wit till thou wert as crestfallen as a dried pear — I confess a spontaneous thought associated with the mental carte-de-visite of thy wholesome avoirdupois. No less, indeed, than the psychological recognition of an angel-influence ——
In vain! in vain! strike other chords! You can call spirits from the vasty deep; but will they come when you do call for them? — An angel-influence, tangible, visible, audible, which would make Jordan the easiest of all roads to travel by thy side. Peerless Jim! crowning triumph of Darwinian Evolution from the inert mineral, through countless hairy and uninviting types! how precious the inexplicable vital spark which, nevertheless, robs thy sculptured form of all cash Gallery-value; and how easy to read in that gentle personality a satisfying comment on the concluding lines of Faust:
The Woman–Soul leadeth us
Upward and on.
A double meaning there, by my faith! Alas! poor little Jim! go thy ways, die when thou wilt; for Maud Beaudesart comes ——
“H a-a — a-a-a-a-a y!”
Rest, rest, perturbed spirit. By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, now wherefore stop’st thou me? — For Maud Beaudesart comes o’er my memory as doth the raven o’er the infected house. Get thee to a nunnery, Jim. The chalk-mark is on my door; for Mrs. B. has no less than three consecutive husbands in heaven — so potently has her woman-soul proved its capacity for leading people upward and on. Methinks I perceive a new and sinister meaning in the Shakespearean love-song:—
Come away, come away, death;
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair, cruel maid.
Nicely put, no doubt; but the importance of a departure depends very much on the ——
No appearance, your worship. Call for Enobarbus; he will not hear thee, or, from Caesar’s camp, say ‘I am none of thine.’—— On the value of the departed. For instance, when a man of property departs, he leaves his possessions behind — a fact noticed by many poets — and the man himself is replaced without cost. When a well-salaried official departs — such as a Royal Falconer, or a Master of the Buckhounds, or an Assistant–Sub-Inspector he perforce leaves his billet behind; and we wish him bon voyage to whichever port he may be bound. But when a philosopher departs in this untimely fashion, he leaves nothing ——
And echo answers, ‘Ha-a-a-a-ay!’ Authority melts from you, apparently. — Leaves nothing but a few rudimentary theories, of no use to anyone except the owner, inasmuch as no one else can develop them properly; just a few evanescent footprints on the sands of Time, which would require only a certain combination of age and facilities for cohesion to mature into Mammoth-tracks on the sandstone of Progress. All on the debit side of Civilisation’s ledger, you observe. Consequently, he doesn’t long to leave these fading scenes, that glide so quickly by. And when the poet holds it truth that men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things, he is simply talking when he ought to be sleeping it off in seclusion. I understand how a man may rise on the stepping-stone of his defunct superior officer to higher things; but his dead self — it won’t do, Alfred; it won’t do. But hark! that heavy sound breaks in once more, as if the clouds its echo would repeat. ——
Who is he whose grief bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow makes the very lignum quiver in sympathy? It may not be amiss to look round and see.
So I turned my head, and saw, on the opposite side of the river, about eighty yards away, a man on a grey horse. I rose, and advanced toward the bank.
“Why, Mosey,” said I, “is that you? How does your honour for this many a day? Where are you camped?”
“Across here. Tell Warrigal Alf his carrion’s on the road for Yoongoolee yards, horse an’ all; an’ from there they’ll go to Booligal pound if he ain’t smart. I met them just now.”
“Where shall I find Alf?”
“Ain’t his wagon bitin’ you — there in the clear? You ain’t a bad hand at sleepin’— no, I ‘m beggared if you are. I bin bellerin’ at you for two hours, dash near.”
“Who has got the bullocks, Mosey?”
“Couldn’t you get them from him yourself?”
“I did n’t try. I was glad to see them goin’; on’y I begun to think after, thinks I, it ‘s a pity o’ the poor misforchunate carrion walkin’ all that way, free gracious for nothin’; an’ p’r’aps a trip to Booligal pound on top of it; an’ them none too fat. But I ‘m glad for Alf. I hate that beggar. I would n’t len’ him my knife to cut up a pipe o’ tobacker, not if his tongue was stickin’ out as long as yer arm. I was n’t goin’ to demean myself to tell him about his carrion, nyther; on’y I knowed your horses when I seen them; an’ by-‘n’-by I spotted you where you was layin’ down, sleepin’ fit to break yer neck; an’ I bin hollerin’ at you till I ‘m black in the face. I begun to think you was drunk, or dead, or somethin’— bust you.” And with this address, which I give in bowdlerised form, the young fellow turned his horse, and disappeared through a belt of lignum.
I walked across to the bullock-wagon. The camp had a strangely desolate and deserted appearance. Three yokes lay around, with the bows and keys scattered about; and there was no sign of a camp-fire. Under the wagon lay a saddle and bridle, and beside them the swollen and distorted body of Alf’s black cattle-dog — probably the only thing on earth that had loved the gloomy misanthrope. I lifted the edge of the hot, greasy tarpaulin, and looked on the flooring of the wagon, partly covered with heavy coils of wool-rope, and the spare yokes and chains.
“A drink of water, for God’s sake!” said a scarcely intelligible whisper, from the suffocating gloom of the almost air-tight tent.
I threw the tarpaulin back off the end of the wagon, and ran to the river for a billy of water. Then, vaulting on the platform, I saw Alf lying on his blankets, apparently helpless, and breathing heavily, his face drawn and haggard with pain. I raised his head, and held the billy to his lips; but, being in too great a hurry, I let his head slip off my hand, and most of the water spilled over his throat and chest. He shrank and shivered as the cool deluge seemed to fizz on his burning skin, but drank what was left, to the last drop.
“Now turn me over on the other side, or I’ll go mad,” he whispered.
He shuddered and groaned as I touched him, but, with one hand under his shoulders, and the other under his bent and rigid knees, I slowly turned him on the other side.
“Would n’t you like to lie on your back for a change?” I asked.
“No, no,” he whispered excitedly; “my heels might slip, and straighten my knees. Another drink of water, please.”
I brought a second billy of water, but he turned from it with disgust.
“If you could make a sort of an effort, Alf,” I suggested.
He treated me to a half-angry, half-reproachful look, and turned away his face. I rose to my feet, and rolled back the tarpaulin half-way along the jigger, for the heat was still suffocating.
“Is there anything more I can do for you just now, Alf?” I asked presently.
“More water.” I gave him a drink out of a pannikin; and, as I laid his head down again, he continued, in the same painful whisper, and with frequent pauses, “Have you any idea where my bullocks are? — I was trying to keep them here — in this corner of Mondunbarra — and they’re reasonably safe unless — unless the Chinaman knows the state I’m in — but if they cross the boundary into Avondale — Tommy will hunt them over the river, and — Sollicker will get them.”
It must be remembered that Alf was camped at the junction of three runs; Yoongoolee lay along the opposite side of the river, whilst on our side, Mondunbarra and Avondale were separated by a boundary fence which ran into the water a few yards beyond where the wagon stood. The fence, much damaged by floods, was repaired merely to the sheep-proof standard. The wagon was in Mondunbarra.
“They’re across the river now, Alf. Mosey Price told me so, not twenty minutes ago.”
“Across the river!” hissed Alf, half-rising and then falling heavily back, whilst a low moan mingled with the furious grinding of his teeth. “They ‘ve got into Avondale, and Tommy has hunted them across! May the holy”—&c., &c. “Never mind. Let them go. I’ve had enough of it. If other people are satisfied, I’m sure I am.”
“Who is she?” I thought; and I was just lapsing into my Hamlet-mood ——
“Would you be kind enough to lift my dog into the wagon? I have n’t been able to call him lately, but he won’t be far off.”
“Bad news for you, Alf. The poor fellow got a bait somewhere, and came home to die. He ‘s lying under the wagon, beside your saddle.”
The outlaw turned away his face. ‘Short of being Swift,’ says Taine; ‘one must love something.’ (Ay, and short of being too morally slow to catch grubs, one must hate something. See, then, that you hate prayerfully and judiciously).
While I was thinking that every minute’s delay would make my journey after the bullocks a little longer, Alf suddenly looked round.
“You need n’t stay here,” said he sharply — thin blades of articulation shooting here and there through his laboured whisper, as the water he had drunk took effect on his swollen tongue. “If you would come again in an hour, and give me another turn-over, you would be doing more for me than I would do for you. What day is this?”
“Sunday, December the ninth.”
He pondered awhile. “I ‘ve lost count of the days. What time is it?”
“Between one and two, I should think. My watch is at the bottom of the Murray.”
“Afternoon, of course. I think I ought to be dead by this time to-morrow. What’s keeping you here? I want to be alone.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Alf. I’ll pull you through, if I can only hit the complaint. Have you any symptoms?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I was gradually getting worse and worse for a week, or more; but still able to yoke up a few quiet bullocks to shift the wagon every day; till at last, one night, I just managed to climb in here, to get away from the mosquitos. I don’t know what night it was, or how the time has passed since then. Just look at my arms, if you have any curiosity; but don’t dare to prescribe for me. I had enough of your doctoring at the Yellow Tank — blast you!”
Without heeding his reminiscence, which has no connection with the present memoir, I untied an old boot-lace which fastened one of his wristbands, and drew up the sleeve. The long, sinewy arm, now wet and clammy from the effect of the water he had drunk, was helpless and shapeless, round and rigid; the elbow-joint set at a right-angle, and extremely sensitive to pain.
“There,” said he, with a quivering groan; “the other arm is just the same, and so are my knees and ankles; and my head’s fit to burst; and I’m one mass of pains all over. It’s all up with me, Collins. Now I only ask one favour of you — and that is to get out of my sight.”
“I’ll be back in two or three hours, Alf,” said I, rising. “Keep your mind as easy as possible, and see if you can doze off to sleep.”
So I returned to my own camp, and, with all speed, caught and equipped Cleopatra. Then, after chaining Pup in a shady place, I stowed some smoking-tackle in the crown of the soft hat I wore; then shed apparel till I was like the photo. of some champion athlete; finally, I stuck the spare clothes, with the rest of my riches, among the branches of a coolibah, out of the way of the wild pigs. The next moment, I was in the saddle, and Cleopatra, after perfunctorily illustrating Demosthenes’ three rules of oratory:— the first, Action; the second, ditto, the third, ibid. — turned obediently toward the river, and was soon breasting the cool current, while, with one arm across the saddle, I steered him for the most promising landing-place on the opposite bank.
(Let me remark here, that the man who knows no better than to remain in the saddle after his horse has lost bottom, ought never to go out of sight of a bridge. He is the sort of adventurer that is brought to light, a week afterward, per medium of a grappling-hook in the hollow of his eye. Perhaps the best plan of all — though no hero of romance could do such a thing — is to hang on to the horse’s tail. Also, never wait for an emergency to make sure that your mount can swim. Many a man has lost his life through the helpless floundering of a horse bewildered by first and sudden experience of deep water).
My landing-place happened to be none of the best. After clearing the water, it required all Cleopatra’s strength and activity to climb the bank. Having slipped into the saddle as he regained footing, I was lying flat against the side of his neck, to help his centre of gravity and give him a hold with his front feet, when he brushed under a low coolibah, and the spur of a broken branch or something started at the neck of the undergarment which I cannot bring myself to name, and ripped it to the very tail, nearly dragging me off the saddle. When we reached level ground, the vestment alluded to was hanging, wet and sticky, on my arms, like a child’s pinny unfastened behind, or, to use a more elegant simile, like the front half of a herald’s tabard. What I should have done was to have reversed the thing, and put it on like a jacket; but, being in a desperate hurry, and slightly annoyed by the accident, and not feeling the sun after just leaving the water, I whipped the rag off altogether, and threw it aside. In two seconds more, Cleopatra was stretching away, with his long, eager, untiring stride, towards Yoongoolee home-station, distant about sixteen miles.
Slackening speed now and then to cross creeks and rough places, I found myself following a pad, and noticed the fresh tracks of the bullocks, mile after mile. At last I heard across the lignum the jangle of a brass bell, and the ‘plock, plock’ of an iron frog, and presently my quarry appeared in sight a couple of hundred yards ahead.
To do the boundary-rider justice, he was driving the cattle quietly and considerately. He looked round on hearing the clatter of horse’s feet, but my Mazeppa aspect seemed neither to surprise nor disconcert him. He was n’t altogether a stranger to me. For several years I had known him by sight as a solid, phlegmatic man, on a solid, phlegmatic cob; and I suppose he had his own crude estimate of me, though we had never had occasion to exchange civilities.
But now, after a five miles’ chase, the sight of the man acted on my moral nature as vinegar is erroneously supposed to act on nitre. I reined-up beside him. The Irresistible was about to encounter the Immovable; and, even in the excitement of the time, I awaited the result with scientific interest. When a collision of this kind takes place, it sometimes happens that the Irresistible bounces off in a more or less damaged state; at other times, the Immovable is scattered to the four winds of heaven in the form of scrap, while the Irresistible, slightly checked, perhaps, in speed, sails on its way. But you can never tell.
“Where are you taking these bullocks?” I demanded in a tone which, I am sorry to say, reflected as little credit on my politeness as on my philosophy.
“Steation yaads,” he replied indifferently, and with a strong English accent.
“Did you take them off purchased land?” I asked, eyeing him keenly.
“Oi teuk ‘e (animals) horf of ‘e run,” he remarked, rather than replied, without condescending to look at me.
“Do you know what day this is?” I inquired magisterially.
“Zabbath,” he replied kindly.
“And do you know there’s a new act passed —‘Parkes’s Act,’ they call it — that makes the removing of working-bullocks from pastoral leasehold, on Sundays, a misdemeanour, punishable by a term of imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, with or without hard labour?”
“Granny!” he remarked.
Driven back in disorder, I hurried up my second line. ——
“Do you know who these bullocks belong to?” I inquired ominously.
Something akin to a smile flickered round the shaven lips of the descendant of Hengist as, contemplating the lop ears of his horse, he observedly contentedly,
“Ees, shure; an’ ‘hat’s f’r w’y Oi be a-teakin’ of ’em.”
“Well, Alf’s laid-up; not able to look after them”——
“Oi ‘ve ‘eard ‘at yaan afoor.”
——“so I’ve come to take them back, and leave them at his camp on Mondunbarra.”
“Horrite. Oi wants wun-an’-twenty bob horf o’ you afoor ’em (bullocks) tehns reaoun’.”
“Will you have it now, or wait till you get it?” I asked, betrayed by the annoyance of the moment into a species of vulgarity unbecoming an officer and gentleman. “I don’t mind paying you the money, provided it clears the bullocks for the future — not otherwise. In the meantime I’m going to take them back-pay or no pay.”
“Be ‘e a-gwean to resky ’em?” he inquired, slightly reining his hippopotamus, and looking me frankly in the face, whilst an almost merry twinkle animated his small blue eyes.
“By no means,” I replied suavely; and we rode together for a few minutes in silence.
I had wakened the wrong man. The Immovable had scored, simply because he was a person of one idea, and that idea panoplied in impenetrable ignorance. A compound idea, by the way: namely, that Alf’s bullocks were going to the station yards, and that he, Fitz–Hengist, was taking them there. All this was apparent to me as I regarded him out of the comer of my eye.
“Foak bea n’t a-gwean ter walk on hutheh foak,” he remarked calmly.
“A gentleman against the world for bull-headedness,” I sneered, aiming, in desperation, at the heel by which mother Nature had held him during his baptism in the thick, slab bath of undiluted oxy-obstinacy (scientific symbol, Jn Bl).
“Hordehs is hordehs,” he argued, as the good arrow-point penetrated his epidermis, fair in the vulnerable spot.
I laughed contemptuously. “Fat lot you care for orders! A man in your position talking about orders! Get out!”
“Wot’s a (person) to diew?” The point was forcing its way through the sensitive second-skin, or cutis.
“Do!” I repeated, with increasing scorn. “Strikes me, you can do pretty well as you like on this station.”
“Bea n’t Oi a-diewin’ my diewty?” he asked in wavering expostulation — the point now settling in the vascular tissues.
“It’s in the blood, right enough,” I retorted, with insolent frankness, and still regarding him out of the comer of my eye. “I believe you’re Viscount Canterbury’s brother, on the wrong side of the blanket.”
“Keep ‘e tempeh; keep ‘e tempeh,” said he deprecatingly, as the poison filtered through his system. “Zpeak ‘e moind feear atwixt man an’ man. Bea n’t Oi a-diewin’ wot Oi be a-peead f’r diewin’? Coomh!”
“Well, you are a rum character,” I remarked, judiciously assisting the action of the virus. “I’m surprised at a gentleman in your position making excuses like that. Do you know”— and my tones became soft and confidential —“something struck me that you were an Englishman.” (Even this was n’t too strong). “I wish you were, both for my sake and your own. However, that can’t be helped. Now, for the future, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you had your own way, and that you walked a man’s bullocks off to the yard while he was helpless. Yes, sir; I ‘m glad you’re not an Englishman. But the sun’s too hot for my bare skin, so I must be getting back; and if I’ve said anything to offend you, I ‘m sorry for it, and I beg your pardon.” Then, still regarding him out of the comer of my eye, I turned Cleopatra slowly round.
“‘Ole ‘aad!” he snorted. “Oi calls ‘e a (adj.) feul!”
With this sop to his own dignity, the boundary man slapped his Episcopalian charger round the barrel — not round the flank, for the animal had none — with his doubled cart-whip, and turned off the track at a right-angle, beckoning me to follow. When he had gone twenty yards, he pulled steadily on one rein and, so to speak, wore his ship of the plains round till we faced the cattle again — for I had simultaneously pirouetted Cleopatra on one hind foot.
“Fetch ’em back, Jack,” said he authoritatively. “Put ’em weare ‘e got ’em, an’ leab’m boide. Iggerant (people) we be; dunno nuffik; carnt diew noffik roight.”
The black collie was sitting where he had stopped on the instant that we had turned off; sitting with his head slightly canted to one side; one ear limp and pendant, the other partly erect, and with something like a smile on his expectant face. On hearing the order, he made a wide circuit round the cattle, and quietly turned them back along the track, where he followed them as before. Meanwhile, Sollicker sullenly slipped off his linen coat, and handed it to me with a low growl. I thanked him with great sincerity, and put it on.
But his glance at me as we fell-in behind the cattle seemed to demand further appreciation; and I was not slow to respond — partly from a sense of obligation, but principally from a broadening hope of extended concession. I had already selected him as a singularly eligible guardian for Alf’s bullocks; and I knew that if I could once get him to accept the trust, nothing short of dynamite would shift him. But the seduction of a direct-action, single-cylinder purpose is a contract not to be taken by any of your mushroom mental firms; and this was a large order. Of course, the diplomatic flunkey-touch of nature has served as a letter of introduction to the man; now I would follow up the national phase of this delicate point of contact.
“No use,” I remarked doggedly. “I give it up. I can’t find words. This is not a personal favour. It’s an evidence of the principle that makes an Englishman respected all over the world. All over the world, sir; for, you know, the sun follows the English drum-beat right round the earth. Now, I can’t flatter you; I’d see you in the bottomless pit first; I’m above anything of that kind; it sort of sticks in my throat; but I can assure you that, in all my experience”——
“‘Ees, ‘ees; ‘at ‘s horrite; ‘at ‘s horrite. What d’y’ think o’ thet (collie) f’r a dorg?”
There was impatience in the first half of the speech, and arrogance in the last. I eased off, and took the branch track.
“He just knocks spots off any dog I’ve seen working cattle!” I burst-out. “But you can’t beat the Scotch collie”——
“Scotch coolie be dang! Doan’ ‘e know a Smiffiel’ coolie? Chork an’ cheese, Oi calls ’em.”
“Smithfield collie, of course! Did I say Scotch collie? Of course, the Smithfield collie has been in good hands for hundreds of years; and when you get the pure breed — Just look at that dog! How did you get such a dog as that? Bred him yourself, I suppose?”
“Noa,” he replied good-naturedly. “Oi g’e ‘e foor moor troys. Coomh!”
“Bought him a pup?”
“Got him a present?”
“Not dezackly. Troy ageean.”
I shook my head hopelessly, though I could have suggested another title to the ownership of dogs — a very common one, too, and good enough till the proper person comes interfering. Boys’ dogs are generally held under this tenure. My companion, seeing me at fault, remarked with elephantine waggishness,
“‘At (dog) coomed deaoun t’ me f’m ebm!”
I assumed the look of a man who conceals staggering bewilderment under the transparent disguise of incredulity; and Sollicker, looking, like Thurlow, wiser than any man ever was, enjoyed my discomfiture as much as he was capable of enjoying anything. Then he proceeded with great deliberation to interpret his oracular utterance; but first, with a powerful facial exertion, he wrenched his mouth and nose to one side, inhaling vigorously through the lee nostril, then cleared his throat with the sound of a strongly-driven wood-rasp catching on an old nail, and sent the result whirling from his mouth at a butterfly on a stem of lignum — sent it with such accurate calculation of the distance of his object, the trajectory of his missile, and the pace of his horse, that the mucous disc smote the ornamental insect fair on the back, laying it out, never to rise again. This was but a ceremonious prologue, intended to deepen the impression of the coming revelation.
“Useter ‘ev a ‘oss Oi’d ketch hanyweares. ‘Wo, Bob! ‘n’ ‘ud stan’ loike a statoot t’ Oi’d ketch ‘e (animal), ‘n’ git onter ’im ‘n’ shove me hutheh ‘osses in ‘e yaad, ‘n’ ketch wich (one) Oi want. B’t ‘e doid hautumn afoor las’— leas’ways, ‘e got ‘ees ‘oine leg deaoun a crack, an’ cou’n’t recoverate, loike; f’r ‘e (beast) wur moo’n twenty y’r ole, ‘n’ stun blin’, ‘e wur. Ahterwahs, by gully! Oi got pepper-follerin’ ahteh me ‘osses hevery mo’nin’ afoot. Wet ‘n’ droy; day hin, day heaout; tiew, three, foor heaours runnin’; ‘n’ ‘ey (horses) spankin’ abeaout, kickin’ oop ‘er ‘eels loike wun o’clock. ‘Ed ter wark ’em deaoun afoot, loike.”
“But why did n’t you hobble them?”
His face reddened slightly. “Me ‘obble my ‘osses! Tell ‘e wot, lad: ‘at ‘s f’r w’y ‘e C’lonian ‘osses bea n’t no good, aside o’ Hinglish ‘osses. Ain’t got n’ moor g-ts ‘n a snoipe. G-ts shooked outen ’em a-gallerpin’ in ‘obbles. Tell ‘e, Oi seed my (horses) a-gallerpin’ foor good heaours, ‘n’ me ahteh ’em all ‘e toime. Noo ‘osses ‘ud dure sich gallerpin’ in ‘obbles. Doan’ ‘e preach ‘obbles ter me, lad. Oi got good ‘osses; noo man betteh; ‘osses fit f’r a gentleman; on’y C’lonian ‘osses ‘es C’lonian fau’ts — ahd ter ketch —‘ell ter ketch. Fifteen monce — hevery day on it — wet ‘n’ droy; day hin, day heaout; tiew, three, foor heaours runnin’; ‘n’ ‘ey (horses) spankin’ abeaout, kickin’ oop ‘er ‘eels loike wun o’clock, ‘n’ gittin’ wuss ‘n’ wuss, steed o’ betteh ‘n’ betteh. Toimes, Oi see me a’moos’ losin’ tempeh.”
I turned away my face to conceal my emotion. Sollicker went on ——
“Accohdbl’, wun mo’nin’ las’ winteh, heaout Oi goos, o’ course; ‘n’ my ‘osses ‘ed n’t n’ moo ‘rn stahted trampin’ loike; ‘n’ heverythink quiet ‘s zabbath, ‘n’ nubbody abeout f’r moiles; ‘n’ horf goos ’em ‘osses loike billy-o; horf ‘ey goos ‘arf-ways reaoun’ ‘he paddick, ‘n’ inter ‘e stockyaad ‘n’ ’ere ‘ey boides; ‘n’ ‘at dorg a-settin’ in ‘e panel, a-watchin’ of ’em, loike Neaow, ‘ow d’ye ceaount f’r ‘at, lad? Doan’ ‘at nonpulse ‘e? Coomh!”
“It does, indeed! You did n’t put him on the horses?”
“Noa, s’elp me bob. Neveh clapped heyes honter ’im, not t’ Oi seed ’im hahteh my ‘osses, a-yaadin’ of ’em f’r me. My Missus, she ‘lows a hangel fetched ‘e (dog) deaown f’m ebm! At ‘s w’y Oi calls ‘m ‘Jack’.”
“I see!” said I admiringly. Which, the censorious reader will not fail to notice, marked a slight deflection from my moral code. “And he stayed with you, sir?”
“Follered hahteh me ‘oss’s ‘eels heveh since. (Dog) dews heverythink loike a Christian — heverythink b’t tork. Hevery mo’nin’, hit ‘s ‘Cyows, Jack; we’s y’ cyows?’ An’ horf goos Jack, ‘ees hown self, ‘n’ fetches ‘e cyows. Hahteh breakfas’ hit ‘s ”Osses, Jack; fetch y’ ‘osses’. An’ horf trots Jack, ‘n’ presinkly ‘e ‘osses be in ‘e yaad, ‘n’ ‘e (dog) a-settin’ in ‘e panel, a-watchin’ of ’em.”
“Beats all!” I murmured, thinking how the Munchausens run in all shapes; then, desiring to minister occasion to this somewhat clumsy practitioner, I continued, “I suppose you drop across some whoppers of snakes in your rounds, sir?”
“Sceace none. Hain’t seed b’t wun f’r tiew year pas’; ‘n’ ‘e (reptile) wah n’t noo biggeh ‘n me w’ip-an’l.”
“Grand horse you’re riding,” I remarked, after a pause.
This neatly-placed comment opened afresh Solicker’s well of English undefiled; and another hour passed pleasantly enough, except that Alf’s bullocks preyed on my mind, and I wanted them to prey on Yoongoolee instead. I therefore modestly opened my mouth in parable, recounting some half-dozen noteworthy reminiscences, as they occurred to my imagination, and always slightly or scornfully referring to the magnanimous and indomitable hero of my yarn as ‘one of these open-hearted English fools,’ or as ‘an ass of a John Bull that had n’t sense enough to mind his own business.’ These apologues all seemed to point toward chivalrous succour of the helpless and afflicted as a conspicuous weakness of the English character; and Sollicker listened with a stolid approbation unfortunately altogether objective in character.
I never dealt better since I was a man. No one has dealt better since Antony harangued the Sollickers of his day on dead Caesar’s behalf; but I differed from Antony so largely in result that the comparison is seriously disturbed. There was no more spring in my auditor than in a bag of sand. The honest fellow’s double-breasted ignorance stood solidly in the way, rendering prevarication or quibble, or any form of subterfuge unnecessary on his part. He merely formed himself into a hollow square and casually glanced at the impossibility of those particular bullocks loafing on his paddock. If they came across the river again, he would hunt them back into Mondunbarra — he would do that much — but Muster M’Intyre’s orders were orders. Two bullock drivers (here a truculent look came over the retainer’s face) had selected in sight of the very wool-shed; and now all working bullocks found loafing on the run were to be yarded at the station — this lot being specially noticed, for Muster M’Intyre had a bit of a derry on Alf.
By way of changing the subject, Sollicker became confidential. He had been in his present employ ever since his arrival in the country, ten years before, and had never set foot outside the run during that time. He was married, three years ago come Boxing Day, to the station bullockdriver’s daughter; a girl who had been in service at the house, but could n’t hit it with the missus. Muster M’Intyre wanted to see him settled down, and had fetched the parson a-purpose to do the job. He had only one of a family; a little boy, called Roderick, in honour of Muster M’Intyre. His own name (true to the 9th rule of the Higher Nomenology) was Edward Stanley Vivian — not Zedekiah Backband, as the novel-devouring reader might be prone to imagine — and his age was forty-four. If I knew anyone in straits for a bit of ready cash, I was to send that afflicted person to him for relief. He liked to oblige people; and his tariff was fifteen per cent. per annum; but the security must be unexceptionable.
I gave him some details of Alf’s sickness, and asked whether he had any medicine at home — Pain-killer, by preference. I have great faith in this specific; and I’ll tell you the reason.
A few years before the date of these events, it had been my fortune to be associated, in arduous and unhealthy work, with fifteen or twenty fellow-representatives of the order of society which Daniel O’Connell was accustomed to refer to as ‘that highly important and respectable class, the men of no property’— true makers of history, if the fools only knew, or could be taught, their power and responsibility. Occasionally one of these potential rulers and practical slaves would come to me with white lips and unsteady pace ——
“I say, Tom; I ain’t a man to jack-up while I got a sanguinary leg to stan’ on; but I’m gone in the inside, some road. I jist bin slingin’ up every insect-infected sanguinary thing I’ve et for the last month; an’ I ‘m as weak as a sanguinary cat. I must ding it. Mebbe I’ll be right to-morrow, if I jist step over to the pub., an’ git”——
Here I would stop him, and endeavour to establish a diagnosis. But a man with the vocabulary of a Stratford wool-comber (whatever a woolcomber may be) of the 16th century — a vocabulary of about two hundred and fifty words, mostly obscene — is placed at a grave disadvantage when confronted by scientific terminology; and my patient, casting symptomatic precision to the winds, and roughly averaging his malady, would succinctly describe himself as sanguinary bad. That was all that was wrong with him. Nevertheless, having a little theory of my own respecting sickness, I always undertook to grapple with the complaint. I had noticed as a singular feature in Pain-killer, that the more it is diluted, the more unspeakably nauseous and suffocating it becomes; wherefore, my medicine chest consisted merely of a couple of bottles of this rousing drug. My practice was to exhibit half-a-dozen tablespoonfuls of the panacea in a quart of oxide of hydrogen (vulgarly known as water). When my patient had swallowed that lot, I caused him to lie down in some shady place till the internal conflagration produced by the potent long-sleever had subsided to cherry-red; and then sent him back to his work like a giant refreshed with new wine. I never knew one of those potentates to be sick the second time.
Sollicker did n’t know whether his wife had any medicine, but we could see. Accordingly, when the twenty bullocks and the horse had landed themselves on Mondunbarra, close to Alf’s camp, we started at a canter, and, after riding a couple of miles, pulled up at a comfortable two-roomed cottage, half-concealed by the drooping, silvery foliage of a clump of myall. Sollicker turned his moke loose in the paddock; I tied my horse to the fence; and we entered the house. A tall, slight, sunburnt, and decidedly handsome young woman, with a brown moustache, was replenishing the fire.
“Theas (gentleman) ‘e be a-wantin’ zoom zorter vizik f’r a zick man,” remarked the boundary rider, taking a seat.
“D——d if I know whether I got any,” replied his wife, with kindly concern, and with an easy mastery of expression seldom attained by her sex. “I’ll fine out in about two twinklin’s of a goat’s tail. Sit down an’ rest your weary bones, as the sayin’ is. I shoved the kettle on when I seen you comin’.” She opened a box, and produced a small, octagonal blue bottle, which she held up to the light. “Chlorodyne,” she explained; “an there’s some left, better luck. Good thing to keep about the house, but it ain’t equal to Pain-killer for straightenin’ a person up.” She handed me the bottle, and proceeded to lay the table. I endeavoured to make friends with Roddy, but he was very shy, as bush children usually are.
“He’s a fine little fellow, ma’am,” I remarked. “How old is he?”
“He was two years an’ seven months on last Friday week,” she replied, with ill-concealed vainglory.
“No, no,” said I petulantly. “What is his age, really and truly?”
“Jist what I told you!” she replied, with a sunny laugh. “Think I was tryin’ to git the loan o’ you? Well, so help me God! There!”
“Helenar!” murmured her husband sadly. And, as he spoke, an inch of Helenar’s tongue shot momentarily into view as she turned her comely face, overflowing with merriment, toward me.
“My ole man was cut out for a archdeacon,” she remarked. “I tell him it’s all in the way a person takes a thing. But it’s better to be that way nor the other way; an’ he ain’t a bad ole sort — give the divil his due. Anyway, that’s Roddy’s age, wrote in his Dad’s Bible.”
I laid my hand on the boundary rider’s shoulder. “Look here, sir,” said I impressively: “you’re an Englishman, and you’re proud of your country; but I tell you we’re going to have a race of people in these provinces such as the world has never seen before.” And, as I looked at the child, I drifted into a labyrinth of insoluble enigmas and perplexing hypotheses — no new thing with me, as the sympathetic reader is by this time well aware.
The boundary rider shook his head. “Noa,” he replied dogmatically. “Climate plays ole Goozeb’ry wi’ heverythink hout ’ere. C’lonians bea n’t got noo chest, n’ mo’n a greyhound.” And he placed his hand on his own abdomen to emphasise his teaching. “W’y leuk at ‘er; leuk at ‘ee ze’f; leuk at ‘e ‘oss, ev’n. Ees, zhure; an’ Roddy’ll be jis’ sich anutheh. Pore leetle (weed)!”
He took the child on his knee with an air of hopeless pity, and awkwardly but tenderly wiped the little fellow’s nose. I was still lost in thought. We are the merest tyros in Ethnology. Nothing is easier than to build Nankin palaces of porcelain theory, which will fall in splinters before the first cannon-shot of unparleying fact. What authority had the boundary man or I to dogmatise on the Coming Australian? Just the same authority as Marcus Clarke, or Trollope, or Froude, or Francis Adams — and that is exactly none. Deductive reasoning of this kind is seldom safe. Who, for instance, could have deduced, from certain subtly interlaced conditions of food, atmosphere, association, and what not, the development of those silky honours which grace the upper lip of the Australienne? No doubt there are certain occult laws which govern these things; but we have n’t even mastered the laws themselves, and how are we going to forecast their operation? Here was an example: Vivian was a type Englishman, of his particular sub-species; his wife was a type Australienne, of the station-bullock-driver species; and their little boy was almost comically Scottish in features, expression, and bearing. Where are your theories now? Atavism is inadmissible; and fright is the thinnest and most unscientific subterfuge extant. The coming Australian is a problem.
Mrs. Vivian overwhelmed me with instructions concerning Alf, and frankly urged me to hurry back to his assistance. I paid little heed to her advice, for I knew he would soon come round; and in the meantime, my mind was fully occupied with his team. After drinking a cup of tea, I shook hands with her, and lingered at the door, looking at her husband, as he amused himself with Roddy.
“I’ll leave your coat on the fence, Mr. Vivian,” said I at length.
“You want to be as lively as God’ll let you,” said the excellent woman, accompanying me to my horse. “I won’t be satisfied till I see you off.”
Very well, thought I; on your own head be it. So I took off the linen coat, and handed it to her.
“You should ‘a’ kep’ on a inside shirt,” she remarked kindly. “Them shoulders o’ yours’ll give you particular hell to morrow. Why, you’re like a boiled crawfish now. Hides like that o’ yours,” she added, testing with her finger and thumb the integument on my near flank, as I hastily placed my bare foot in the stirrup, “ain’t worth a tinker’s dam for standin’ the sun.” (For the information of people whose education may unhappily have been neglected, it will be right to mention that the little morsel of chewed bread which a tin-smith of the old school places on his seam to check the inconvenient flow of the solder, is technically and appropriately termed a ‘tinker’s dam.’ It is the conceivable minimum of commercial value).
The sun was still above the trees when I unsaddled Cleopatra at my camp, and resumed my clothes. The bullock-bells were ringing among the lignum, as the animals exerted themselves to make up for lost time.
“And how are we now?” said I, assuming a cheerful professional air, as I swung myself on the platform of the wagon. “I’ve secured a drop of one of our most valuable antiphlogistics, which is precisely what you require, as the trouble is distinctly anthrodymic. You’ll be right in a couple of days.”
“No, Collins,” replied Alf gently: “I’ll never be right — in the sense you mean. I won’t take any medicine. I’ve done with everything. Help me to turn over again, please, and give me another drink of water. I want to tell you something.”
After giving him a turn over, I took the billy and replenished it at the river. Before getting into the wagon again, I emptied the contents of Mrs. Vivian’s bottle into half a pannikin-full of the oxide of hydrogen, and stirred the potion thoroughly with a stick. Then returning to my patient, I raised his head, and held the pannikin to his lips. He finished the draught, unconscious of its medicinal virtues; and I refolded the old overcoat which served as a pillow, and laid him down as gently as possible.
“The water seems to have a peculiar taste,” he murmured. “I don’t notice my sight failing yet, but my hearing is all deranged. I hear your voice through a ringing of bells, and a sound like a distant waterfall. I’m just on the border-land, Collins. I’ve very little more to suffer; and why should I come back, to begin it all again? How long is it since you left me?”
“From four to five hours, I think. I put your bullocks together; they re close by.”
“Well, now, I would n’t have the slightest idea whether it was one hour or twelve. I’ve been in the spirit-world since then, or a spirit has visited me here. I heard, plain and clear, the voice of a woman singing old familiar songs; and that voice has been silent in death for ten years — silent to me for three years before that. Thirteen years! That may not seem much to you; but what an age it seems to me! It was no dream, Collins; I saw everything as I see now, but I heard her glorious voice as I used to hear it in our happy days; and I felt that her spirit was bringing forgiveness at last. I’m not a religious man, Collins; I don’t know what will become of me after death; but God does, and that’s sufficient for me. I never believed on Him so devoutly as I do now that He has vindicated His justice upon me. I praise him for avenging an act of the blindest folly and heartlessness; and I thank Him that my punishment is over at last. There! Listen! No, it’s nothing. But it was a favourite song of hers; and while you were away I heard her sing it, with new meaning in every syllable. My poor love!”
“Alf, Alf,” I remonstrated; “compose yourself, and go to sleep if you can.” The tears of feebleness had accumulated in the hollows of his sunken eyes, and, not having the use of his hands, he was throwing his head from side to side to clear them away.
“Did you ever make a terrible mistake in life, Collins?” he asked, at length. Before I could reply, he resumed absently, “When I was a boy, away on the Queensland border, I knew a squatter — as fine a fellow as ever lived — and this man married some young lady in Sydney, and brought her to live on the station. A few months afterward, he came home unexpectedly at about two o’clock one morning, and found his place occupied by an intimate friend of his own — a young barrister, who was staying at the station as a guest. He managed to conceal his discovery; and, within the next few days, he got his friend to draw out a new will, by which he left everything, without reservation, to his wife. A day or two after completing the will, he took his gun and went out alone, turkey-shooting. He didn’t come home that night; and next day one of the station hands found him at a wire fence, shot straight through the heart. Accidentally, of course. But we knew better.”
“It might have been accidental, Alf,” I suggested. “There’s a lot of supposition in the story.”
“None, Collins. Before going out with his gun, he wrote a letter to my father, and sent it by a trustworthy blackfellow. My father got the letter about ten o’clock at night; and he had a horse run-in at once, and started off for the station through a raging thunderstorm, arriving next day only in time to see his friend’s body before it was moved to the house. My father was terribly cut-up about it. He was manager of an adjoining station at the time.
“Now let me tell you another true story,” pursued Alf dreamily. “Five years ago, I knew a man on the Maroo, a tank-sinker, with a wife and two children. The wife got soft on a young fellow at the camp; and everybody, except the husband, saw how things stood. Presently the husband began to circulate the report that he was going to New Zealand. In the meantime, he sent the two children to a boarding-school in Wagga. He was in no hurry. Afterward, he sold his plant to the station, and bade good-bye, in the most friendly way, to all hands, including the Don Juan. Then he started across the country to Wagga, alone with his wife, in a wagonette. Are you listening?”
“Attentively, Alf. But suppose I boil your billy, and”——
“Two years afterward, a flock was sold off the station I was speaking of, for Western Queensland; and one of the station men went with the drover’s party, to see the sheep delivered. Curious coincidence: he met on the new station his old acquaintance, the tank-sinker, with his two children and a second wife. The tank-sinker told him that his first wife had died soon after leaving the Maroo, and that he had changed his mind about going to New Zealand. Am I making myself clear?”
“Yes; so far. You know the man you’re speaking of?”
“Slightly. I delivered goods to him once on the Maroo, and casually heard the scandal that was in the air. Well, the shearing came round on the Maroo just as the station man got back from Queensland; and while the adjoining station was mustering for the shed, a boundary man found, in the centre of one of the paddocks — in the loneliest, barrenest hole of a place in New South Wales — he found where a big fire had been made, and some bones burnt into white cinders and smashed small with a stick. He kicked the ashes over, and found the steel part of a woman’s stays, and the charred heel of a woman’s boot, and even a thimble and a few shillings that had probably been in her pocket. I was on the station at the time, waiting for wool, and saw the relics when the boundary man brought them in. There are queer things done when every man is a law unto himself.”
“Supposition, Alf; and strained supposition at that. But why should you trouble your mind about these things?”
“There was no supposition on the station where the things were found, nor on the station the tank-sinker had left, when they compared notes. The things were found three or four miles off a bit of a track that led to Wagga; and there was a pine of a year and a half old growing in the ashes. But we’ll pass that story. I want you to listen to another.”
“Some other time, Alf. I’ll make you a drink of tea, and”——
“When I was young,” continued Alf doggedly, “I was very intimate with an American, a man of high principle and fine education. Best-informed man I ever knew. This poor fellow was a drunkard, occasional, but incorrigible. Misfortune had driven him to it. His wife was dead; his children had died in infancy; and at forty-five he was a hopeless wreck. He worked at my father’s farm on the Hawkesbury for two or three years, and died at our place when I was about twenty-five, immediately before I left home”——
“I don’t like to correct you, Alf,” I interposed; “but I understood you to say that your father was a station-manager, on the Queensland border.
“Up to the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two. Then he bought a place on the Hawkesbury, intending, poor man! to spend the evening of his life indulging his hobby of chemistry, while I took the care of the place off his hands — for though I have two sisters, I was his only son. His great ambition was to bequeath some chemical discovery to future generations. But I demolished his castles in the air along with my own. It’s no odds about myself; but my poor father deserved better, after all his work and worry. Ah, my God! we parted in anger; and now I don’t know whether he’s alive or dead!” The prodigal paused, and sighed bitterly.
“And your mother?” I suggested experimentally.
“She was an invalid for several years before I left home,” replied Alf, his tone fulfilling my anticipation.
(Have you ever noticed that the prodigal son of real life, in nineteen cases out of twenty, speaks spontaneously and feelingly of his father, with, perhaps, a dash of reverent humour; whereas, to quote Menenius, he no more remembers his mother than an eight-year-old horse? This is cruel beyond measure, and unjust beyond comment; but, sad to say, it is true; and the platitudinous tract-liar, for the sake of verisimilitude, as well as of novelty, should make a memo. of it. Amongst all the hard-cases of my acquaintance, I can only think of one whose mother’s unseen presence is a power, and her memory a holy beacon, shining, by-the-way, with a decidedly intermittent light. Unfortunately, a glance along the three 9ths yet to come shows me that this nobly spurious type of prodigal-Jack the Shellback, vassal of Runnymede Station — will not come within the scope of these memoirs).
Alf dreamily resumed his inconsequent story: “However, this Charley Cross, or Yankee Charley, was an old Victorian digger. About twelve years before his death, he was working on Inglewood, with a mate that he would have trusted, and did trust, to any extent, and in any way. But it was the old, old story. He got a friendly hint, and watched, and watched, for weeks, without betraying any suspicion. At last he was satisfied. Then he carefully laid down his line of action, and followed it to the end. One day, his mate, sitting on the edge of the shaft, ready to put his foot in the rope, suddenly overbalanced, and went down head-foremost. Of course, Cross was close beside him at the time, and no one else was in sight. Cross gave the alarm, and, in the meantime, went hand-under-hand down the rope, intending, like Bruce, to ‘mak sicker’; for the shaft was only about forty feet deep. But it happened that the man’s neck was broken in the fall. Cross forgave his wife, and never breathed a word of his discovery or his vengeance; but in spite of this, the woman seemed to live in fear and horror. During the next couple of years, luck favoured him, and he made an independence. He invested his money judiciously; but there’s no guarantee for domestic happiness — in fact, there’s no guarantee for anything. First, his two surviving children died of diphtheria; then his wife followed, dying, Cross assured me, of a broken heart. He sorrowed for her more deeply, perhaps, because she had cost him so dear; and this, no doubt, was what drove him to drink.”
“Very probably,” I replied. “But, Alf, this taxing of your mind is about as good for you just now as footballing or boxing. Are you a smoker?”
“That’s what I feared. Now, take my advice, and give yourself absolute rest, while I boil”——
“One more story, Collins, as well authenticated as any of the three I have told. I knew a young fellow of between twenty-five and thirty”——
“This won’t do,” I interposed firmly, for he had become restless and excited. “Why should you allow your mind to dwell so exclusively on the manifestations of one particular phase of moral aberration, and, to do bare justice to womanhood, an exceedingly rare one — except among the very highest and the very lowest classes? Unless you handle such questions in a scientific spirit, you’ll find them — or unfortunately, you won’t find them — envelop your reasoning faculties in a most unwholesome atmosphere. The perpetual brooding over any one evil, however fatal that evil may be, naturally side-blinds the mind into a narrow fanaticism which is apt to condone ten times as much wrong as it condemns; and you drift into the position of the man who strains at the moderate drinker, and swallows the usurer. We see this in the Good Templar, the Social Purity person, the Trades Unionist, and the moral faddist generally. Musonius Rufus sternly reminded Epictetus that there were other crimes besides setting the Capitol on fire.”
“Have you done? “ asked Alf, coldly but gently. “Let me tell you one more story while I’m able. I’ll soon be silent enough. —— The man I’m thinking of was a saw-mill owner. He had been married a couple of years, and had one child. I could n’t say that he actually loved his wife; in fact, she was n’t a woman to inspire love, though she was certainly good-looking. At her very best, there was nothing in her; at her worst, she was ignorant, and vain, and utterly unprincipled — no, not exactly unprincipled, but non-principled. She was essentially low — if you understand my meaning — low in her tastes and aspirations, low in her likes and dislikes, low in her thoughts and her language, low in everything. She may not have been what is called a bad woman, but — that miserable want of self-reverence — I can’t understand how —— Would you give me another drink, please?”
He drank very little this time. He had been speaking with an effort, and a haggard, hopeless look was intensifying in his face. I began to suspect a temporary delirium. The presentiment of impending death was unreasonable, though not ominous; so also with the determination to narrate irrelevant stories; but the incongruity of the two associated notions set me speculating in a sympathetic way.
“Alf,” said I gravely; “it’s foolish to tax your memory for anecdotes now. Try if you can settle yourself to sleep. I’m sure I’ll have great pleasure in exchanging yarns with you at some future time, when you’re more fit.”
“Listen, Collins,” he replied sullenly. “Our saw-mill owner got the inevitable glimpse of the truth. He was blind before; now he was incredulous. He condescended to play the spy, and he was soon satisfied. This time it was a Government official-clerk of the local Court — a blackleg vagabond, with interest at head-quarters — about the vilest rat, and certainly the vilest-looking rat, that ever breathed the breath of life. Our hero took no further notice of him than to terrify him into confession, and drive him into laying the blame on his paramour. And the amusing feature of the case was, that she, finding herself fairly run to earth, thought she had nothing to do but to turn from the evil of her ways, and take her husband’s part against the other fellow. But no, no. Our hero, after thinking the matter over, took her into his confidence, without giving her any voice in the new arrangement. He sold-out to the best advantage, and divided the proceeds with her; reserving to himself enough to start him in a line of life that he could follow without the annoyance of being associated with anyone. All that he earned afterward, beyond bare expenses, he forwarded to her, to save or squander as she pleased; the only condition being that she should acknowledge each remittance, and answer, as briefly as possible, such questions as he chose to ask. She humbly assented to all this, evidently looking forward to forgiveness and reconciliation, somewhere in-time or eternity. But, by God! she mistook her mark!” He laughed harshly, paused half-a-minute, and resumed,
“One restraint upon our hero was the thought of his little boy, only old enough to creep about, and incredibly fond of him; though this never softened him towards the worthless, cursed mother. Anyway, after about three years, the little boy died; and his heart was turned to stone. Still, through mere bitterness and obstinacy he followed the course he had adopted; meeting with a run of success that surprised himself. The very curse that was on him seemed to protect him from the mishaps that befell other men in his line of work; and he found life worth living for the sake of hating and despising the whole human race, including himself. There’s no pleasure like the pleasure of being a devil, when you feel yourself master of the situation, and — Now I’ve done, Collins.”
“That’s right. I’ve been thinking how to fix things for you till you’re able to”——
“First, I have one question to ask you,” persisted Alf. “You notice that all these men acted differently. Which of them acted right? — or did any of them? You know, there are two other courses open: to appeal to the law, or to pass the matter over quietly, for fear of scandal. Is either of these right? One course must be right, and all the others must be wrong.”
By this time, I had made up my mind to humour him. “Well,” I replied; “it happens that I have given the subject some thought, as I intend, if I can find time, to write a few words on the varied manifestations of jealousy in the so-called Shakespear Plays. You’re familiar with the plays, of course?”
“I’ve read bits of them.”
“Possibly you remember, then, that Posthumus, in Cymbeline, on receiving proofs of his wife’s infidelity (we know her to be loyal, but that does n’t affect his proofs) harbours not one thought of revenge toward the man who has supplanted him. Indeed, as an artistic illustration of Iachimo’s immunity from retribution, Posthumus is afterward represented as disarming and sparing him in battle — a concession he would n’t have made to an ordinary enemy. He looks to Imogen alone. Nothing but the sacrifice of her life will satisfy him. On the eve of the same battle, we find him, though seeking for death himself, still gloating over the handkerchief supposed to be stained with her life-blood. Very well. Now Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, is a man very much resembling Posthumus in temperament — brave, resolute, truthful, unsuspicious, and more liberally endowed with muscle than brains”——
“But this has nothing to do with it,” interrupted Alf. “I was asking your opinion as to which of the four acted rightly? — or did any of them?”
“Yes, Alf; I’m coming to that. I was going to remark that, though the temperamental conditions of Posthumus and Troilus are apparently so similar — apparently, mind — and their position as betrayed husbands so identical, we find them acting in directly opposite ways. Troilus entertains no thought of revenge upon his faithless wife; he gives his whole attention to the co-respondent. Now let us glance at Othello. Here is a man who, allowing for his maturer age, is much like the Briton and the Trojan in temperament, even to the extent of being more liberally endowed with muscle than”——
“But you’re not answering my question,” moaned Alf. “Which of the four acted right?”
“Well,” I replied; “I’m afraid my conclusions won’t have the rounded completeness we value so much in moral inferences unless I’m allowed to empanel Leontes, in the Winter’s Tale, as well as Othello, and thus work from a solid foundation. But we’ll see. I’ll put my answer in this way: A casual thinker might pronounce it impossible to lay down any hard-and-fast rule of conduct here, on account of necessary diversity in conditions. He would, perhaps, argue that, though abstract Right is absolute and unchangeable, the alternative Wrong, though never shading down into Right, varies immeasurably in degree of turpitude; so that the action which is intrinsically wrong may be more excusable in one man than in another, or under certain conditions than under others. Now, I’m not going to deny that it lies within our province, as rational beings, to classify wrongs, provided we do so from a purely objective stand-point. I shall endeavour to deal with that issue by-and-by. I merely notice”——
“Stop! stop!” interrupted Alf, rolling his head from side to side. “Answer my question!”
“Well, if you must have it like a half-raw potato, I give my vote in favour of Potiphar the Fourth, the saw-mill man. I don’t see what better he could have done. It was n’t the most romantic course, perhaps; but I’m not a romantic person — rather the reverse — and it meets my approval.”
“And your deliberate conviction is that he acted rightly — rightly, mind?”
“Assuredly he did. That is what I was driving at; but now you have to take my conclusion as an ipse dixit, rather than as a theorem. The misanthropy of the gentleman’s after-life is another question, and one which would lead us into a different, and much wider, region of philosophy. But I think we’ll find it interesting to trace, step by step, from its genesis to its culmination, the involuntary process of thought which led each of your Potiphars, separately, to his independent action. We can’t embark on this inquiry just now, Alf, for we shall have to grapple with the most minute and subtle shades of psychical distinction, and we shall have to deal largely in postulates; for though”——
“I want to tell you something, Collins,” interrupted Alf, in a tone now free from all trace of the distraction and constraint which made it painful to listen to him. “Like poor Cross, I feel impelled to place my tragedy on record, but in one man’s memory only. I trust entirely to your discretion. Did you know I was a married man?”
“No; I certainly did n’t,” I replied, recalling myself; for I had been half-listening to a sound in the lignum. But as he spoke there flashed across my mental vision the picture of his wife — a tawny-haired tigress, with slumbrous dark eyes; a Circe, whose glorious voice had been silent in death for ten years, and lost to him for three years longer. Hence, by some sequence worth tracing, the voluntary exile, the Ishmaelite occupation; the morbid, malevolent interest in the Messalinas at large; and the generally pervading smell of husks. This, let me tell you, is what comes of meddling with tawny-haired tigresses, who harass a man out of individuality, and then die or abscond, leaving him like the last cactus of summer.
“No young fellow could have started in life with a fairer prospect than I had,” continued Alf, in a grave, composed tone. “But I was guilty of one deliberately fiendish and heartless action, and following upon that action, I made a mistake that nothing but death can absolve. I married a woman, who, I believe, was divinely assigned to me as a punishment. I’ll tell you the whole story”——
“Wait, Alf,” said I hastily. “I must leave you for a few minutes. Do you want anything before I go?”
“Nothing, thank you. Don’t stay long.”
“You may be sure I won’t. Try if you can go to sleep.”
I jumped off the wagon. There was no time to lose. During the last few minutes, a peculiar cadence in the sound of Alf’s bells had told me, just as surely as words could have done, that the bullocks were mustered, and travelling away. My horses were not far off; and, to save time, I took Alf’s saddle and bridle from under his wagon. As I did so, I heard his voice, low and monotonous. I paused involuntarily. ——
“O Molly! Molly, my girl! — my poor love! — my darling!”——
I hurried away, and put the saddle and bridle on Bunyip. Body o’ me! I thought — can a tawny-haired tigress be called Molly? This must be seen into when I have time.
In a couple of minutes Bunyip had settled down to that flying trot which would have been an independence to anyone except myself. After clearing the lignum, I got a back elevation of the bullocks, half-a-mile out on the plain; and, rapidly overhauling them, I perceived that I should have to pit myself against the Chinese boundary rider this time. Consequently I felt, like Cassius, fresh of spirit and resolved to meet all perils very constantly.
“Out of my way, you Manchurian leper, or I’ll run over you!” I shouted gaily, as I swung round the cattle, turning them back.
“Muck-a-hi-lo! sen-ling, ay-ya; ilo-ilo!” remonstrated the unbeliever, drawing his horse aside to let them pass.
“You savvy, John,” said I, suiting my language to his comprehension, while from my eye the Gladiator broke —“bale you snavel-um that peller bullock. Me fetch-um you ole-man lick under butt of um lug; me gib-it you big one dressum down. Compranny pah, John?” The Chinaman had turned back with me, and, as if he had been hired for the work, was stolidly assisting to return the cattle to the spot whence he had taken them.
“Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” I asked, thanklessly quoting from the familiar hexameter, and lighting my pipe as I spoke.
“Eulopean dam logue,” responded the heathen in his blindness.
“In contradistinction to the Asiatic and the Australian, who are scrupulously honest,” I observed pleasantly. “You savvy who own-um that peller bullock, John?”
“Walligal Alp,” replied the pagan promptly. “Me collal him bullock two-tlee time to-molla, all li; two-tlee time nex day, all li.”
“All li, John — you collar-um that peller bullock one more time, me manhandle you; pull-um off you dud; tie-um you on ant-bed, allee same spread-eagle; cut-um off you eye-lid; likee do long-a China; bimeby sun jump up, roast-um you eye two-tlee day; bull-dog ant comballee, eat-um you meat, pick-um you bone; bimeby you tumble-down-die; go like-it dibil-dibil; budgeree fire long-a that peller. You savvy, John?”
“Me tellee Missa Smyte you lescue,” replied John doggedly. “All li; you name Collin; you b’long-a Gullamen Clown; all li; you killee me bimeby; all li.” With this the discomfited Mongol turned his horse in the direction of Mondunbarra homestead, and, like a driver starting an engine when there is danger of the belt flying off, gradually worked up his pace to a canter, leaving me in possession of the field.
But in cases of this kind, there is only one thing worse than victory. I was fairly in a fix with Alf’s bullocks. You must understand that these beasts had no legal right to be anywhere except travelling along the track, or floating down the river. If they scattered off the track — not being attended by some capable person — their owner would, there and then, and as often as this occurred, be liable for trespass; twenty times a day, if you like, and a shilling per head each time. If I wished to remove them across a five or ten-mile paddock, the only way I could legally do so would be by means of a balloon. The thousands of homeless bullocks and horses which carry on the land-transport trade had to live and work, or starve and work, on squatters’ grass, year after year. So the right to live, being in the nature of a boon or benefaction, went largely by favour — like the slobbery salute imagined by poets — and poor Alf was no favourite with anyone.
The managers of all these three stations were out of reach; and besides, there was no great hope in appealing to any of them.
Yoongoolee homestead, across the river, was about sixteen miles distant; and Hungry M’Intyre, from what I knew of him, was little likely to make concessions to any member of the guild whose representatives had selected within sight of his wool-shed. Yoongoolee was avoided by all the floating population of the country, and particularly by those who could n’t afford to be independent, forasmuch as there was nothing there but Highland pride, and Highland eczema and hunger. Most squatters have titles; M’Intyre had two, which were used indifferently; one of these was derived from the hunger, the other from the eczema.
And, of all Alf’s enemies, perhaps the most inveterate was the Chinaman’s boss, Mr. Smythe, managing partner of Mondunbarra. This gentleman, whose exclusiveness took the very usual form of excluding all considerations not tending to his own profit, and whose refinement manifested itself to the vulgar eye chiefly in cutting things fine about the station, had, a couple of years previously, taken Alf in the very act of running one of his own bullocks out of the station cattle. An altercation had ensued, followed by a summons; and Alf had been mulcted in five shillings trespass, with six guineas costs, besides having to travel seventy or eighty miles to Court, and the same distance back to his wagon. This was trying enough to a man of Alf’s avaricious and irascible bent. It had caused him to speak a word in private to Mr. Smythe; and, from that time forward, the squatter hated the bullock driver considerably more than he hated sin, and feared him more than he feared his reputed Maker.
Poor Smythe! the remembrance of him wrings my soul with pity, even now. He was parsimonious, cunning, pusillanimous, fastidious, and hysterically excitable. He was cruelly sat-on by his inexorable partner, M’Gregor; contemned by his social equals; hated by his inferiors, and popularly known as the Marquis of Canton. His only friend was his brother Bert, a quiet youth, who attended him with Montholon-fidelity; and his appreciation of the cheap and reliable Asiatic was passively recognised by a station staff of Joss-devotees.
There was no use in my appealing to this gentleman, for, though most men in his place would have accepted the opportunity of laying Alf under an obligation, I knew his unhappy moral organisation well enough to be certain that neither policy nor magnanimity could intervene on behalf of a prostrate enemy. And to make matters more hopeless, Confucius would be just ahead of me, with his story of forcible rescue, coupled with personal threats of the gravest character.
Avondale remained. This station belonged to that grand old colonist, Captain Royce, who governed the seigneury from his Toorak mansion, like Von Moltke commanding an army from his telegraph-office. The large-hearted patriarchal traditions of early days were still current on the station; but that property had to pay, and pay well, at the manager’s peril. To illustrate this: Captain Royce, in responding to ‘Our Pastoral Interests,’ never failed to remark that no working beast had ever been impounded from Avondale. This, of course, conveyed the impression that it was a run flowing with grass and water for distressed teams; but the unhappy manager, watched and reported always by at least one narangy, and ground, as you see, between the upper mill-stone of Royce the munificent and the nether and much harder one of Royce the businessman, had to transmute every blade of grass, or twig of cotton-bush, into a filament of wool, or let somebody else have a try. Consequently, the boundary riders of Avondale had strict orders to hunt all strays and trespassers across the frontiers of stations that did impound; so the fine old squatter-king got there just the same — also the carriers’ teams and the drovers’ horses.
One characteristic of Avondale was that the rank and file of the station were always treated with fatherly benevolence, and were never discharged. They gradually got useless by reason of mere antiquity, and, without actually dying, slowly mummified, and were duly interred in the cemetery at the homestead.
In view of the rigorous usages specified, it was no marvel that a deficiency in the Avondale clip of ‘83 had led to the resignation of Mr. Angus Cameron, and the installation of a new manager, a few weeks before the date of these incidents. But the appointment of a strange boundary rider to the paddock adjoining Alf’s camp — an event which had taken place three or four months before the same date — seemed like a sudden angle and break in the corridor of Time.
Avondale home-station was nine miles distant. I had never met the new manager; but his name was Wentworth St. John Ffrench; and, by all accounts, he acted up to it. Popular rumour likened him to the man with the whole pound of tobacco, who had sworn against borrowing or lending. Mr. Ffrench could afford to be independent of such men as Alf, but couldn’t afford to establish a precedent for invalided carriers loafing on the run. Of course, you would n’t look at the thing in that light; but then, your name is not Wentworth St. John Ffrench, and you would n’t do for a manager of Avondale. You would have the run swarming with a most tenacious type of trespassers before you knew what you were doing. Moreover, the moral responsibility (if any) of the matter rested on Mondunbarra, not on Avondale.
Neither had I ever seen the new Avondale boundary man; but I was prejudiced against him also. It required no deep dive into the mysteries of Nomenology to augur ill from the nickname of ‘Terrible Tommy.’ The title was, of course, satirical; the man an imbecile and fickle windbag. Still, this name was better than the manager’s.
Evidently, my only chance was to deal directly with some one of the boundary men. I had already failed to melt the musing Briton’s eyes; and though I had, in a sense, prevailed over the Mongol, I could make no use of him; so I found myself hanging, as you might say, by one strand, that strand being Terrible Tommy.
I must enlist this man, I mentally concluded, as a willing accomplice; and, by my faith, I’ll do so before I leave him. I care not an he be the devil; give me faith, say I.
By this time, the sun was just setting. I left the bullocks near the boundary fence, turned Bunyip adrift, and placed the saddle and bridle where I could find them again. Then crossing into Avondale, I picked my way through a belt of tall lignum, sloppy with warm water, and alive with mosquitos; then on through scattered timber until, a mile from the fence, appeared the one-roomed abode of the man I wanted. I knew where to find the place, having stayed there one night when Bendigo Bill was in charge of the paddock. But now, nearing the house, how I wished I had that frank, good-hearted old Eureka rebel to deal with instead of the hard-featured, sandy-complexioned man whom I saw carrying home a couple of buckets of water on a wooden hoop. Our old friends, the Irresistible and the Immovable were about to encounter once more.
“Evening, sir,” I cooed, with an urbanity born of the conditions already set down.
“Gude evenin’ (Squire Western’s expression!) Ye maun gang fairther, ye ken; fir fient haet o’ sipper ye’se hae frae me the nicht. De’il tak’ ye, ye lang-leggit, lazy loun, flichterin’ roun’ wi’ yir ‘Gude evenin’ sir!’ an’ a’ sic’ clishmaclaver. Awa’ wi ye! dinna come fleechin’ tae me! The kintra’s I-sy wi’ sic’ haverils, comin’ sundoonin’ on puir folk ‘at henna mickle mair nir eneugh fir thir ain sel’s. Tak’ aff yir coat an’ wark, ye glaikit-De’il tak’ ye; wha’ fir ye girnin’ at?”
“Gude save’s!” I snarled; “wha’gar ye mak’ sic’ a splore? Hoo daur ye tak’ on ye till misca’ a body sae sair’s ye dae, ye bletherin’ coof? Hae ye gat oot the wrang side yir bed the morn?-ir d’ye tak’ me fir a rief-randy? — ir wha’ the de’il fashes ye the noo? Ye ken, A was compit doon ayont the boondary, an’ A thocht A wad dauner owre an’ hae a wee bit crack wi’ ye the nicht. A wantit tae ken wha’ like mon yir new maunager micht be, an’ tae speer twa-three ither things firbye; bit sin’ yir sae skrunty, ye maun tak’ yir domd sipper till yir ain bethankit ava, an’ A’ll gang awa’ bock till ma ain comp. Heh!” And I turned away with unconcealed resentment and contempt.
“Haud a wee,” said the boundary rider, setting down his buckets, and slapping the back of his neck. “Ye ken, A’m sae owrecam wi’ thir awfu’ mustikies that whiles A canna-Bit cam awa’ tae the biggin; cam awa’ tae the biggin, an’ rest yirsel’.” The Irresistible had scored this time. Such is life.
I helped Tommy out of his embarrassment by an occasional ‘Ay, mun,’ interjected into his apologetic and cordial monologue; and so we reached the hut, where, after directing me to a seat, he filled a billy with some of the water he had brought, and hung it on the crook.
“An’ wha’ dae they ca’ ye?” he asked, turning his back to the fire, and surveying me with a kindly interest which made me feel as uneasy as if I had been sleeping in a fowl-house.
“Tam Collins,” I replied readily, though interrupted by a fit of coughing as I pronounced my surname.
“Ye’ll no be yin o’ the M’Callums o’ Auchtermauchtie?” he inquired eagerly. “A kent them weel.”
I shook my head. “An’ wha’ dae they ca’ yirsel’?” I asked.
“Tam Airmstrang-anither Tam, ye ken. An’ whaur ye frae? Wha’ pairt o’ the kintra was ye born in syne?” A boggy-looking place for a man to carry his integrity safely across; however, I replied,
“Ye’se aiblins be acquent wi’ yon auld sang:—
Braw, braw lads on Yarrow braff,
That wander through the bloomin’ heather.
Aweel, A was born on the braes o’ Yarra. Ye ken, the time’s gane lang wi’ me sin’ A rin aboot the braes, an’ pu’d the gowans fine. Ay, mun!”
“A-y-y, mun!” rejoined my companion, echoing my home-sick sigh. “D’ye ken-A wadna’ thocht ye was a Selkirksheer mon. A wad hae thocht ye was frae Lanarksheer, ir aiblins frae”—
“Whaur micht ye be frae yirsel’?” I interrupted desperately.
He seemed about to reply, but checked himself, and looked at me absently; then he turned to the fire, took his canister from the shelf, and mechanically measured out a handful of tea. He stood gazing into the fire till recalled to himself by the boiling of the billy; then a triumphant smile invaded his stern features; he took the billy off the crook, threw the tea into it, clapped both hands on my shoulders, and quoted with fine effect that lucid passage from Burns:—
Bye attour, ma gutcher has
A heigh hoose an’ a leigh
A’ firbye ma bony sel’,
The lad o’ Ecclefechan!
“Ha-ha-ha! The lad o’ Ecclefechan, ye ken-no the lass o’ Ecclefechan! Losh! A hae whiles laffit mysen gey near daft at yon! The lad o’ Ecclefechan!” He gave way to another burst of hilarity, in which I sincerely joined. “A henna’ thocht aboot yon a towmond syne,” he continued, wiping the dew of merriment from his eyes; “bit ye hae brocht it bock the nicht. The lad o’ Ecclefechan! ha-ha-ha! Ay, mun; A’m frae Ecclefechan, an’ ma feyther afore me. Syne, A hae been a’ ip an’ doon Ayrsheer, frae yin fair till anither wi’ nowte. Brawly dae A ken Mossgeil, an’ Mauchline, an’ Loughlea, an’ the auld Brig o’ Doon, firbye a wheen ither spotes ye ‘se aiblins hear tell o’.”
“Ye’ll hae seen Alloway Kirk?” I conjectured.
“Seen’t! ay,” he replied magnificently. “A thocht naethin’ o“t!”
“Ye what?” I retorted, in the mere wantonness of power. “Ye hae seen yon auld hauntet kirk, whaur witches an’ warlocks Hang an’ loupit, an’ Auld Nick himsel’ screwt his pipes an’ gart them skirl, till roof an’ rafters a’ did dirl! ye hae keekit intil yon eerie auld ruin! — an’ syne ye daunert awa’, an’ thocht naethin’ o’ ‘t! Be ma saul, Bobbie Birns didna’ think naethin’ o’ ‘t! Heh!”
Tommy was now laying the table. He made no reply to my rebuke, but the forced and deprecating smile which struggled to his face showed that the Irresistible had scored again.
But one of the most unpleasant experiences I can now recall to mind was the sitting down with that unsuspecting fellow-mortal to his soda-bread and cold mutton, while I smiled, and smiled, and was a Scotchman. The easy victory, tested by that moral straight-edge we all carry, made me feel as mean as a liveried servant; and when Tommy requested me to ask a blessing, and sat with his elbow on the table and his face reverently veiled by his hand, whilst I wove a protracted and incoherent grace from the Lowland vocabulary, I seemed to sink to the level of a prince’s equerry. In fact, I would almost as soon make one of a crowd to hurrah for a Governor as go through such an ordeal again. My truthfulness — perhaps the only quality in which I attain an insulting pre-eminence — seemed outraged to the limit of endurance as I looked forward to the inevitable detection, soon or late, of the impromptu deception which, in spite of me, was expanding and developing like a snake-lie, or an election squabble.
However, I contented myself with directing the stream of conversation, and leaving the rest to Tommy. It transpired that he had been four months in his present situation, and only nine in the country altogether. He had got employment on Avondale by a lucky chance; and, though engaged only for six months, entertained hopes that he might be baptised into the billet, to the permanent exclusion of Bendigo Bill.
For menial employment on Avondale was like membership in a Church, only that, to the carnal mind, there was more in it; moreover, the initiation was attended with greater ceremony, and the possibility of expulsion was kept further in the background. Once admitted into Avondale fellowship, the communicant might turn out a white sheep or a black one; but he was still a sheep, whilst all outside the fold, white or black, as the case might be, were goats. This may be illustrated by the incident which had just given Tommy the footing of an unbaptised believer, provisionally admitted amongst the elect. He gave me the account, so far as it affected himself; and Bendigo Bill, sitting on the same kerosene-case, long afterward narrated the episode fully.
Two years before the date of this record, Bendigo Bill’s mind, such as it was, had been disturbed by the discovery of gold at Mount Brown. As time went on, the occasional sight of northward-bound drays and pack-horses revived the old lunacy in its most malignant form, till the demoniac at last gave formal notice of his intention to leave the station, and push his fortune on the diggings. His resignation was in due course forwarded to Captain Royce; whereupon that potentate sent him a peremptory order to mind his paddock, and not make an infernal exhibition of himself. The demon quaked and collapsed for the time, and Bill, in his proper person, acquiesced with the humility customarily manifested by Avondale people when Captain Royce was conducting the other side of the argument. But the evil spirit was scotched, not killed; and Bill became a harmless melancholic, dwelling on old time memories of the diggings, and gradually lying himself into the conviction that, if he had gone to Mount Brown, he could have told by the lay of the country, unerringly, and at the first glance, where the gold was.
Things being in this posture, there reached Avondale, in the winter of ‘83, a vague, intangible bruit of somebody expecting to hit it on Mount Brown; and, shortly afterward, Bill, in a vision of the night, found himself paddocking a bit of four-foot ground for a free, lively, six-inch wash, running something like ten ounces to the dish-rough, shotty, water-worn gold. Next night the dream was repeated, but with this addition, that the dreamer bent the point of his pick whilst hooking out of a sort of pocket in the pipeclay a flat, damper-shaped nugget that he could hardly lift. The third night found the ground richer than ever; but Bill, knowing it to be a dream, and having no way of permanently retaining the gold he might get under such conditions, very wisely contented himself with taking accurate observations of his landmarks, so that he might know the place again when he saw it by daylight. Whilst so engaged, his attention was attracted by two emus, which resolved themselves, respectively, into Captain Royce and Mick Magee — the latter being an old mate of his own, accidentally killed on the Jim Crow, about fifteen years before. This made the assurance of the thrice-repeated dream triply sure; for the emu is one of the luckiest things a person can dream about; and its identification with Captain Royce was as good as an old boot thrown by that awesome magnate; whilst its association with Mick Magee made the cup of blessing overslop in all directions — Mick having been, in the days of his vanity, a man that brought luck with him wherever he went, particularly in shallow ground.
So Bill wiped from the tablet of his memory everything except the picture of a place where two gullies met, after the fashion of a Y, and formed a bit of a blind creek, running between low ranges broken here and there by the outcrop of a hungry white quartz. His dream intuitively conveyed the further knowledge that the surrounding country had been prospected for a few floaters, and the creek, lower down, rooted-up for bare tucker, while this little spur of made ground, between the prongs of the Y, remained intact — and there was the jeweller’s shop.
Again Bill, emboldened by the unholy afflatus caught from his earlier life, gave notice to the manager; this time following up his action by buying a horse and spring-cart from a tank-sinker, and conditionally selling his own two horses. Then came Captain Royce’s ukase, to the effect that no man must be allowed to swag the country, ragged and homeless, with the story in his mouth that he had been boundary riding on Avondale for ten years. Therefore, Bill’s notice was passed over with the contempt it merited. But something must be done; so a six months’ leave of absence was granted; and the manager was instructed to employ, for that time only, the first likely-looking stranger who presented himself — the latter being clearly given to understand that he was only in the loosest sense of the word an Avondale employe. If Bill returned on the expiration of his furlough, he should be reinstated, and all would be forgiven; if he failed to return, such default would be taken as evidence of contumacy; excommunication would promptly follow, and the station would thereby be acquitted of all responsibility touching any destitute old bummer who might swag the country with the yarn that he had been boundary riding on Avondale for ten years. Captain Royce could be stern enough when he let himself out.
The emu-section of the dream being thus partly fulfilled, Bill clutched at a release in any form; and it happened that, simultaneously with the arrival of Captain Royce’s mandate, came Tom Armstrong and his mate, Andrew Glover, from a job of ringing on the Yanko. The manager, being named Angus Cochrane, plumped Tom into the vacancy, and supplied him with a couple of old station horses. Bill remained a few days longer, teaching Tom the routine of his work; then the manager slacked-off, and Bill harnessed his horse and fled northward — not because he disliked Avondale, but because he liked it so well that he was impatient to make Captain Royce such a bid for the property as that nabob could n’t think of refusing, with any hope of luck afterward.
On my mentioning Alf’s bullocks, Tom told me that he had heard bells among the lignum in the corner of Mondunbana, a few nights before, and had next morning found twenty bullocks and a bay horse on the Avondale side of the fence. He knew that the Chow had passed them on to him to save trouble, so he immediately passed them back to the Chow. Next evening, his neighbour had re-delivered them to Avondale f.o.b., and in the morning, Tom returned them to Mondunbarra c.o.d. Next night, the untiring Asiatic had them back on Avondale o.r.; and in the morning, Tom did what he should have done at first — put them across the river on to the station from whose bourne no trespasser returned. The ensuing adventures of the bullocks you already know.
Tom had acquired, without any severe wrench of his finer feelings, the boundary man’s hostility to the bullock driver, and was cultivating the same with all the energy of his race. His title, after all, was no more quizzical in its application than that of Ivan the Terrible; and to understand how nasty a station vassal can sometimes make himself, you must know a little concerning the manners none and customs beastly of the time and place wherein our scene is laid.
And, to my unspeakable disgust, I found that though Tom had never met Alf personally, the unfortunate outlaw was his Doctor Fell too. And the very spirit of Leviticus breathed in his tone as he informed me that gin he had umquhile kent the nowte belangit tae yon ill-hairtet raff, he wad hae whummelt them owre the burn (the Lachlan a burn! O, my country) lang syne, an’ no fashit himsel’ wi’ ony sic’ fiddle-fyke.
Nothing but extreme caution would do here. The brutal truth of my unwarranted solicitude for the sick man would certainly cause friction, and might spoil all. So, in a few well-chosen words, I informed Tom that there was a trifle between Alf and me; and he was sick, just when I wanted to keep him on his feet for a while. Would Tom (and my patois became so hideously homely that, for the reader’s sake, I have to paraphrase it)— would Tom, as a personal favour to me, call round at Alf’s camp, morning and evening, for a few days, and in the meantime keep his bullocks safe?
No answer. The silken bond of our nationality would n’t stand such a strain. Then I slowly drew out my pocket-book, and, with the stifled sigh of a thrifty man, handed my compatriot one of the four one-pound notes which excluded me from the state of grace enjoyed by Lazarus; remarking, half-sullenly, that he could n’t be expected to take all this trouble for nothing; and though I was a poor man like himself, it would pay me to get Alf at work again. And, considering that a bullock driver often has it in his power to do a good turn for a boundary man, would n’t it be better, I suggested, for Tom to do all this on his own account, without a whisper concerning my interposition?
I had known better than to make such a proposition to Sollicker. That impracticable animal — who would have uncovered his head to receive backsheesh, as backsheesh, from a ‘gentleman’— would have spurned my lubricant as an unholy thing; and woe to Alf’s bullocks if he had caught them again! But I was n’t surprised to find my modus vivendi accepted by this passive product of a social code fabricated and compiled in the nethermost pit — a code which, under the heading of Thrift, frankly teaches the poor to grind each other without scruple, whilst religiously avoiding all inquiry into the claims of the rich — a code, in fact, which makes the greasing of the fat pig a work holy unto the Lord. The keen selfishness of my proposal touched a kindred chord in poor Tom’s bosom; the mettlesome casting of my sprat upon the waters, in sure hope of finding a mackerel after many days, awoke his admiration; whilst an immediate and prospective advantage to himself stood out through it all. Yet, under this crust of clannishness, cunning, and money-hunger, there lay a fine manhood. I saw the latter come to the surface a few months afterward. But that is another episode; and I must confine myself to the case before the Court.
Tom knew of an island among the lignum, where the bullocks would be safe; and he would put them there in the morning, after he had visited Alf. But I must take the bells off first. I thanked him with a sincerity out of all keeping with my accent, and shortly afterward drew the intolerable conference gently to a close. Upon the whole, I had impressed my host as a shrewd, well-informed person, too much taken-up with the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches to dwell upon personal memories of the auld kintra. I was touched to notice a certain disappointment and forlornness in his manner as he accompanied me to the boundary fence, where we shook hands, and parted — each looking forward to the probability of meeting again, but with different degrees of longing.
And now, thought I, as I recovered Alf’s saddle and bridle, heaven grant that that parting may be a Kathleen Mavourneen one; and let me have some other class of difficulty to deal with next time.
Thus, in the best of spirits, owing to the prospect of some smooth travelling on my main trunk line, after having traversed the steep and crooked section to which I had been committed by one touch of the switch two hours before, I made my way through the lignum to Alf’s camp; guided partly by the instinct which we share unequally with the lower creation, and partly by the smell of the dead dog, zephyr-borne on the night air. After dragging the poor animal’s body a little distance away, I vaulted into the wagon, and spoke cheerily to Alf.
No reply. I struck a match, and saw him sleeping the peaceful, dreamless sleep of a tired child. I lit a bit of candle I had noticed in the daytime, and sat down to note his progress in a professional way. His pulse was right, as I found by timing it with my own; and the hard swelling of the elbows seemed to have relaxed a little. The backs of his hands were pretty bad with the external scurvy known as ‘Barcoo rot’— produced by unsuitable food and extreme hardship — but that had nothing to do with the complaint which had so strangely overtaken him. His breathing was gentle and regular, though his face was covered with gorged mosquitos. The healthy moistness of the skin showed that my prescription had operated as a sudorific, no less than as a soporific. Altogether, there was a marked diminution of what we call febrile symptoms; and, better still, he had managed to turn himself over since I left him.
I lit my pipe, and contemplated the unconscious outlaw. Without being aggressively handsome, like Dixon or Willoughby, Alf, in his normal state, was a decidedly noble-looking man, of the so-called Anglo–Saxon type, modified hy sixty or eighty years of Australian deterioration. His grandfather had probably been something like Sollicker; and the apprehensions of that discomfortable cousin were being fulfilled only too ruthlessly. The climate had played Old Gooseberry with the fine primordial stock. Physically, the Suffolk Punch had degenerated into the steeplechaser; psychologically, the chasm between the stolid English peasant and the saturnine, sensitive Australian had been spanned with that facilis which marks the descensus Averni.
But the question of racial degeneracy, past, present, or to come, troubled its victim very little as he lay there. Indeed, it had never troubled him much. He was one of those men who cannot learn to think systematically, but who make up their deficiency by feeling the more intensely. And now that the unseen Guide had given His beloved sleep, and the stern, defiant blue eyes were veiled, and the habitual frown smoothed from the fine forehead, I found something pathetic in the worn repose of the sleeper’s face.
Presently, drifting into a philosophic mood, I placed my propositions in order, and, by the inductive system applicable in such cases, read his history like a book, right back to the time when, according to a popular, though rather tough, assumption, he had lain helpless and imbecile on his mother’s knee, clad in a white garment about four feet long, and with a pulsating soft place on the top of the bald head which wobbled on his insufficient neck like a rain-laden rose on a weak stalk. Little dreamed that mother, poor mortal! when with tireless iteration she ticked off his extremities; —‘This pig went to market; this pig stayed at home’— little did she dream, when she wiped the perpetual dribble from his mouth; when she poured all manner of unintelligible tommy-rot into his inattentive and conspicuous ears — little did she then dream that the blind evolution of events would transform her inexplicably valued baby into a scrap of floating wreckage on a sea of trouble; scarcely amounting to a circumstance in the vast and endless procession of his fellow-waifs.
Doubtless, he would soon be on his feet again, but to what end? Merely to resume the old persecuted life, still achieving, still pursuing, that strictly congruous penalty which waits upon the man whose life is one protracted challenge to a world wherein no person except the systematic and successful hypocrite has too many friends, or too good a character. Any fool can get himself hated, if he goes the right way to work; but the game was never yet worth a rap, for a rational man to play. This in clear view of the fact that most people lose more by their friends than by their enemies. But there are few sins more odious than ill-nature; and there’s nothing blessed about the persecution you undergo on that account. Your position is not heroic; at best, it is only pitiable; at worst, it is detestable. Athanasius contra mundum is grand only in cases where the snag is right, and the mundus wrong. Then persecution becomes the second-highest form of blessedness — the highest form, of course, being the ability to turn round and flatten-out the persecutor. Now, if Alf could open the windows of his understanding —— But then, one of the gravest disabilities in the leopard of thirty-five, or thereabout, is connected with the changing of his spots. Such is life.
With these reflections, I extinguished the candle, and left the wagon. The bullocks happened to be close by. After the manner of workers, they had collected themselves on a piece of open ground; some folded asleep, head to flank, while others lay chewing meditatively, reviewing the events of the day, and wondering what the morrow might bring forth. Amidst the reposing group stood the hardy bay horse, the world forgetting, by the world forgot; for, contrary to popular supposition, the horse has not half the innate sagacity of the ox, though he is to a much greater extent the creature of habit, and therefore appears more teachable.
By the light of a good half-moon, now declining in the west, I got the two bells off without much trouble, and threw them under the wagon. Then, in case the Confucian might be an earlier bird than the lad o’ Ecclefechan, I put the bullocks and horse across the boundary fence, carefully replacing the brush I had removed for their passage. From there I struck across to the sound of Cleopatra’s bell, and brought my two most useful friends to where the most valuable was still chained-up. In ten minutes, I had packed my share of the things that make death bitter, and in another half-hour I had left Mondunbarra behind, and was well into Avondale, working out in my own mind an abstruse ethical problem, which would have no interest for the shallow-pated reader. And so ends the day.
But not the narrative. I am mindful of my promise. As hour after hour passed, the insecurity of Alf’s situation grew upon me, till I could think of nothing else. Philosopher-seer, I might say — as it has pleased heaven to fashion me, I confess I could arrive at no definite forecast of the order which the outlaw’s affairs would assume at the next turn of the kaleidoscope. But I knew that it was in the nature of the kaleidoscope to turn.
In due time, the stars dimmed and disappeared; the deep-blue of the south-eastern sky paled to a greenish tint, like the under side of a melon, changing slowly to an opaline hue; then imperceptibly succeeded a blush of shell-pink, presently shot with radial bars of dusky red; and now every object above the horizon stood vividly revealed through the limpid air — soon to be blurred, distorted, or entirely withdrawn from view. In the favourable interval of ten or fifteen minutes, I saw Poondoo homestead, six or eight miles ahead. In the intermediate distance appeared a moving dot, which, as I was travelling at a walk, brought my field-glass into use. Only an iron-grey man, in a pith hat, driving a pair of chestnuts in a buggy. No business of mine, I thought, in my human short-sightedness; and I was lowering the glass, when the figure of another traveller crossed its field. This last was a person bearing a startling resemblance to Mungo Park, inasmuch as he was evidently a poor white man, with no mother to bring him milk, no wife to grind his corn. The solitude of the place made the contrast between the two travellers impressive. I replaced the glass, thinking, with sorrow rather than conceit, that I could make a better world myself, with my eyes shut. There was no irreverence in the thought; the irreverence is on the part of any profane reader who forges the Creator’s endorsement to that good old rule and simple plan which was, is, and ever shall be, the outcome of Individualism. But the good old rule, as you shall perceive, worked happily in this instance. Now try to imagine a writer of fiction deliberately inventing an incident which seems to strike at the very root of his own argument. Then you will have some idea of the annalist’s stern veracity as opposed to the mere expediency of the novelist.
I was within a quarter of a mile of the swagman when the buggy overtook him. The driver drew up to a walk, apparently yarning with Mungo; and I nearly tumbled off my horse when I saw him stop on the off lock, and wait whilst the swagman deposited bluey on the foot-board and himself on the seat. Then the chestnuts tossed their heads, and the buggy resumed its way, surging across the crab-holes like a canoe on rough water. My soul went forth in a paean of joy, for, exactly as the perfect circle of a flying scrawl bespoke Giotto, this action bespoke Stewart of Kooltopa, now masquerading under a pair of strange horses. Here was my opportunity. Figuratively, I would put Alf in a basket, with a note pinned to his bib, and leave him on Stewart’s door-step.
Those whose knowledge of the pastoral regions is drawn from a course of novels of the Geoffrey Hamlyn class, cannot fail to hold a most erroneous notion of the squatter. Of course, we use the term ‘squatter’ indifferently to denote a station-owner, a managing partner, or a salaried manager. Lacking generations of development, there is no typical squatter. Or, if you like, there are a thousand types. Hungry M’Intyre is one type; Smythe — petty, genteel, and parsimonious — is another; patriarchal Royce is another; Montgomery-kind, yet haughty and imperious — is another; Stewart is another. My diary might, just as likely as not, have compelled me to introduce, instead of these, a few of the remaining nine-hundred and ninety-five types-any type conceivable, in fact, except the slender-witted, virgin-souled, overgrown schoolboys who fill Henry Kingsley’s exceedingly trashy and misleading novel with their insufferable twaddle. There was a squatter of the Sam Buckley type, but he, in the strictest sense of the word, went to beggary; and, being too plump of body and exalted of soul for barrow-work, and too comprehensively witless for anything else, he was shifted by the angels to a better world — a world where the Christian gentleman is duly recognised, and where Socialistic carpenters, vulgar fishermen, and all manner of undesirable people, do the washing-up.
Stewart, it must be admitted, was no gentleman. Starting with a generous handicap, as the younger son of a wealthy and aristocratic Scottish laird, he had, during a Colonial race of forty years, daily committed himself by actions which shut him out from the fine old title. He was in the gall of altruism, and in the bond of democracy. Amiable demeanour, unmeasured magnanimity, and spotless integrity, could never carry off the unpardonable sin in which this lost sheep-owner wallowed — the taint, namely, of isocratic principle. When a member of the classes takes to his bosom that unclean thing, in its naked reality, he thereby forfeits the title of ‘gentleman,’ and becomes a mere man. For there is no such thing as a democratic gentleman; the adjective and noun are hyphenated by a drawn sword. If the said unclean thing eats into its victim to the same extent that the wolf did into Baron Munchausen’s sleigh-horse, the metamorphosed subject comes perilously near being what the Orientals call a dog of a Christian. For there is no such thing as a Christian gentleman, except as loosely distinguished from the Buddhist, Parsee, or Mahometan gentleman. Try the transposition: gentleman-Christian. And why not, since you have the gentleman-this-or-that? Taking the shifty, insidious title in its go-to-meeting sense, every Christian is prima facie a gentleman; taking it in its every-day sense, no ‘gentleman’ can be a Christian; for Christianity postulates initial equality, and recognises no gradation except in usefulness.
So Stewart was never, even by inadvertence, spoken of as a gentleman — always as a Christian. Three-score years of wise choice in the perpetually-recurring alternatives of life, had made the Golden Rule his spontaneous impulse; and now, though according to the shapen-in-iniquity theory, he must have had faults, no one in Riverina, below the degree of squatter, had proved sharp enough to detect them. It was considered bad form to express approval of anything he did. ‘Stewart! Oh, he’s a (adj.) Christian!’ That was all. He had reached a certain standard, and was expected to live up to it. Such is life.
By a notable coincidence, Stewart was rich. Not owing to his Christianity, bear in mind; but partly to a faculty for knowing by the look of a sheep, as it raced past, whether the animal was worth six-and-tenpence or seven shillings; partly to his being able to tell, by what was happening in some other quarter of the globe, how the wool-market was going to move; partly to his being connected with a thing that paid; partly to his knowing when he was well off, and leaving the reflected meat to the inverted dog in the water; partly to a stubborn crotchet which made him hold the giver of usury, as well as the taker, to be beyond the pale of mercy; partly to a fine administrative ability; partly to the avoidance of expensive habits — partly to all these combined, but chiefly to the fact that his mana never failed.
Anyway, he could afford to impart, in judicious assistance to deserving and undeserving people, more than the average squatter spends in usury and extravagance put together, and be better off all the while. An illustration may not be amiss here. I’ll tell you what I saw in the Miamia Paddock, on Kooltopa, during the autumn and winter of ‘83 — that is, from six to nine months before the date of this discursive, yet faithful, record.
‘83 was a bad year. The scanty growth of the ‘82 spring had been eaten off nearly as fast as it grew, and afterward the millions of stock had to live — like the Melbourne unemployed of later times — on the glorious sunshine. Then when the winter came, it brought nothing but frost; and the last state of the country was worse than the first. The mile-wide stockroute from Wilcannia to Hay was strewn with carcases of travelling sheep along the whole two hundred and fifty miles. On one part of the route, some frivolous person had stooked the dried mummies (they were lying so thick) in order that drovers and boundary men might have the pleasure of cantering on ahead to run the little mobs out of the way. And as human nature, thus sold, never grudges to others participation in the sell, the stooks improved in size and life-likeness for weeks and months. I remember noticing once, in passing along the fifty-mile stretch of that route which bisects the One Tree Plain, that, taking no account of sheep, I never was out of sight of dying cattle and horses — let alone the dead ones. The famine was sore in the land. To use the expression of men deeply interested in the matter, you could flog a flea from the Murrumbidgee to the Darling. Or, to put it in another way: the life of stock in Riverina was as cheap as the life of the common person in the novels of R. L. Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and some other modern classics.
Kooltopa, being the best of land, and lightly stocked, was an exception; and thither flocked nearly all the uncircumcised of Riverina, with their homeless bullocks and horses. Stewart was n’t the man to order them off, while ordering would have been of any use; and in affairs of this nature, the squatter who hesitates is lost. The time comes when grass-loafers will stand a lot of ordering off; in extreme cases, such as the one under review, they are about equal in tenacity to the Scythians or the Cimbri of olden times.
There was no end to them. Week after week, month after month, they came stringing-in from seven-syllabled localities on all points of the compass; some with sunburnt wives, and graduated sets of supple-jointed keen-sighted children — the latter, I grieve to admit, distinctly affirming that disquieting theory which assumes evolution of immigrating races toward the aboriginal type.
There was plenty of rough feed in the Mia-mia Paddock, and there the tribes congregated to hold their protracted Feast of Tabernacles, their vast camp-meeting, which they by no means conducted on religious lines. For the easy profanity, unconscious obscenity, and august slang of the back country scented the air like myall; whilst the aggregate repertory of bonâ fide anecdote and reminiscence was something worth while. No young fellow in that great rendezvous dared to embellish his narrative in the slightest degree, on pain of being posted as a double-adjective blatherskite; for his audience was sure to include a couple of critical, cynical, iron-grey cyclopedias of everything Australian — everything, at least, untainted by the spurious and blue-moulded civilisation of the littoral.
An evangelist, collecting money for the support of an Aboriginal mission, went fifty miles out of his way to give these unregenerate brethren a word of exhortation. This good man — he probably never had a sovereign which he regarded as his own; and, rest his soul! he needs no money now — this good man afterward told me, with tears of gratitude and sorrow in his eyes, that he got a fine collection in the Mia-mia, but no souls; and both clauses of his statement seemed to have the ring of truth.
Stewart sullenly avoided this gathering of the clans. He knew he was n’t wanted there; and, as the paddock consisted chiefly of purchased land, he felt that the conventionalities were, in a sense, violated. But what could the people do? It was a miserable business altogether.
At last, moved by the report of the Mia-mia boundary rider, he drove slowly along the river frontage, and saw five miles of wagons, wagonettes, spring-carts, buggies, tents, women, children, dogs, cooking-utensils, and masculine laundry. He saw fellows patching tarpaulins, mending harness making yokes, platting whips, fishing, pig-hunting, reading Ouida, yarning round fires, or trying to invent some new form of gambling; but he only saw their backs, and they did n’t see him at all. He took a tour round the paddock, and found a racecourse duly laid out in a suitable place, with a few fellows training their bits of stuff for a coming event. Others were duck-shooting in the swamps, and others after turkeys on the plains, whilst a few diverted themselves by coursing rabbits on the sand-hills. And as for bullocks and horses — why, they were as grasshoppers for multitude.
A closer examination brought to light his own sheep. Wild and shy, as paddocked merinos always are, these had withdrawn to the quietest places they could find, and were there making the best of a bad job. Stewart lost his temper, for once; and he that is without similar sin among the readers of this simple memoir is hereby authorised to cast the first stone.
He allowed the sun to go down upon his wrath. Next morning, he rallied up all his station hands; mustered the Mia-mia Paddock; distributed the sheep elsewhere over the run; and thus washed his hands of all responsibility touching the welfare of his guests.
Toward spring, he drove round the camps again, pausing here and there to give the trespassers a bit of his mind: ‘Now, boys; I must get you to shift. Lots of perishing teams not able to get down out of the back country till now, and all making for this paddock. Must leave a bit of grass for them when they come.’ And more to the same effect. So the settlement gradually broke-up, and things returned to their normal monotony.
But not altogether so. Some of the nomads wanted land, and had means to back their desire. Rambling leisurely over the station paddocks, with the county map for reference, these people saw where the most eligible allotments were, and presently picked the eyes out of the run; in some cases, shifting straight from their camps to their selections. Such is life.
Saint Peter, I should imagine, had narrowly watched the squatter’s attitude when the Assyrian came down like a person flying from perdition. Afterward, he had noted with approval that the new selectors were treated with the same forbearance and benevolence they had formerly experienced as refugees. But not until he saw Stewart pounce on the incident of the mammoth surprise-party as a clinching argument against land-monopoly, did that austere janitor hang his keys on his thumb, to hunt-up, far back in his book, the page reserved in case of rich men. And still the metaphor of the camel and the needle’s eye stands unimpaired. The difficulties vanish only when you attain some conception of what the Kingdom of God is — how much more to the purpose than pearly gates or jasper seas; how accordant with the Ormuzd in man; how premeditated in design; how indomitable in patience; and how needfully and inexorably guarded by the diminutive portal above referred to.
“Good morning, Collins.”
“Good morning, Mr. Stewart. An early stirrer, by the rood.”
“Yes; I have a (sheol) of a long stage before me to-day. Been travelling all night?”
“Only since about twelve. I camped yesterday in the Dead Man’s Bend, on Mondunbarra. I’ve been kept on the move since dinner-time, or so. Tell you how it came. I was lying in the shade of a tree, having a smoke, and thinking about one thing or another, when I heard some one calling from the other side of the river. It was Mosey Price; and he told me” &c., &c.
Stewart sighed, glanced toward the south-east, produced a cigar-case, took thence three cigars, handed one to me and another to Mungo Park lit the third himself, then smoked listlessly and mechanically.
“Good,” he remarked, throwing away the inch-long stump of his cigar, and gathering his reins. “What’s your name?” he continued, turning to the swagman.
“Bob Stirling,” replied the African explorer. “I worked on Kooltopa, many years ago, but I don’t suppose you remember me.”
“I’m not sure. However, I’ll find a nice comfortable week’s work for you, at all events. Collins, I give you credit. You should have gone into politics. You’d have made a d —— d good diplomatist.”
“I’m glad you think so, Mr. Stewart. But the main body of the story has to come. You see, I was, in a sense, no farther forward than at first. Alf’s bullocks were only respited, and briefly at that. So, as I was telling you, I left them against the boundary fence, and walked across to interview this Terrible Tommy. He was my last resource. I just met him carrying home a couple of buckets of water from the lagoon. ‘Evening, sir,’ says I, as sweet as sugar” &c., &c.
Stewart glanced at the blazing orb, now slowly climbing the coppery sky, sighed again, lit another cigar, and smoked impassively.
“D——d if I approve of your action in that instance, Collins,” he remarked gravely, throwing away his second stump, and groping for something under the buggy-seat.
“Indeed, Mr. Stewart, I don’t defend the action. I only endeavour to palliate it on the plea of necessity. And, if Adam fell in the days of innocency, what should poor Tom Collins do in the days of villainy?”
“Shakespear,” observed the squatter approvingly, as he drew a bottle and glass from a candle-box under the seat. “Misquoted, though, unless my memory betrays me. But I look at the thing in this way —— The Poondoo people put a couple of bottles of Albury into the buggy; and I think we can do one of them now, early as it is. When shall we three meet again? Eh? How is that for aptness? A Roland for your (adj.) Oliver. — I look at the thing in this way, Collins — But you mustn’t take anything on an empty stomach. I have some sandwiches here.” He handed a couple to me, a couple to Bob, and reserved a couple for himself. —“I look at the thing in this way. I put myself in Tommy’s place. Now, if any man presumed to play such a trick on me — why, d — n me, I should take it very ill. Now, Collins”——
“O, stop, please! don’t fill that glass for me! I’m very sensible of your disapproval, Mr. Stewart. I’m more sorry than I can express — not in the way of penitence, certainly, but that I should be unfortunate enough to have incurred your displeasure. I wish you could put yourself in my place, instead of Tommy’s. — Well, long life to you, Mr. Stewart, both for your own sake and the sake of the public.”
“Thanks for the good wish, Collins, and to (sheol) with the flattery. I may tell you that I do put myself in your place, as well as in Tommy’s. But, d —— n it, you don’t seem to be alive to the principle of the thing. —— You’re not a blue-ribboner, I suppose?” And he tendered the replenished glass to Bob. “Bad hand you’ve got, poor fellow. Severe accident apparently?”
“Sepoy bullet at Lucknow, sir. I was a lad of nineteen then; just joined.”
“You’ve been a soldier?”
“Yes, sir; I was an ensign in the Queen’s 64th. We formed part of Havelock’s column of relief.” The placid, unassertive, incapable face told the rest of the poor fellow’s story.
“You don’t seem to be alive to the principle of the thing,” repeated Stewart, turning again to me. “Your cosmopolitanism is a d —— d big mistake. Every man has a nationality, remember; and though you’ll find many most excellent fellows of all races, yet, if you want the real thing, you must look”——
“May God bless you, Mr. Stewart!” murmured Stirling of Ours, raising the glass to his lips.
“Thank you, my friend. —— You must look to Scotland for it. And, d —— n it, man, this is the very nationality you have been fleering at. Of course, I don’t dwell on the subject because I happen to be a Scotsman myself; only, I must say I should never have expected — But what do you think is the matter with Alf Morris?”
“Difficult to say. Some sort of arthrodynic complaint, I fancy; at all events, he’s badly gone in most of his joints.”
“Poor devil!” soliloquised the squatter, filling the glass for himself. “He’s a bad lot — a d —— n bad lot — a d —— nation bad lot. Bitter, vindictive sort of man. You’re familiar, like myself, with Shakespear; now, Morris reminds me of Titus Andronicus. — Better luck, boys.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stewart.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stewart.”
“This Titus, as you may remember, was expelled from Athens by the people, after they had elected him consul. They could n’t stand his d —— d pride. He took up his abode in a cave, and, for the rest of his life, met every overture of friendship with taunts and insults. Even in his epitaph, written by himself:—
Here rests his head upon the lap of earth ——
“Now, d —— n it, I committed those lines to memory — ay, forty-five years ago. I wish I could recall them.”
“I think I can repeat the passage, Mr. Stewart,” said I modestly:—
Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft;
Seek not his name. A plague consume you wicked catiffs left.
Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.
Pass on, and curse thy fill, but pass, and stay not here thy gait.
“Good,” replied the squatter — all his hurry forgotten in the fascination of profitless gossip. “Now there you have Morris to the very life. Hopeless d —— d case!”
“But the misanthropy of the Shakespearean hero was not without cause, Mr. Stewart,” I urged. “Given certain rigorous circumstances, acting on a given temperament, and you have a practically inevitable sequence — perhaps a pious faith; perhaps a philosophic calm; perhaps an intensified selfishness; perhaps a sullen despair — in fact, the variety of possible results corresponds exactly with the variety of possible circumstances and temperaments. In the case of the Greek misanthrope, the factor of temperament is first carefully stated; then the factor of circumstances is brought into operation; then the genius of the dramatist supplies the resultant revolution of moral being, in such a manner as to excite sympathy rather than reprobation. Reasoning from cause to effect, we see the inevitableness of the issue. But in Morris’s case, we must reason from effect to cause. We see a certain outcome”——
“D——d unmistakably,” muttered the squatter.
——“And it rests with us to account for this from prior conditions of temperament and circumstances. Then we shall have, so to speak, the second and third terms; and from these it won’t be difficult, I think, to calculate the term which should antecede them, namely, temperament. Morris is a widower. His wife was a magnificent singer, and, in a general way, one of those tawny-haired tigresses who leave their mark on a man’s life, and are much better left alone”——
“Has he any children?” asked Stewart.
“Well, no; these tawny-haired tigresses don’t have children. Anyway, she died some ten years ago; but at the time of her death they had been separated for about three years.”
“They could n’t have been living long together; or else he married young,” suggested Stewart.
“No, they were n’t long together: but Alf is a man of peculiar moral constitution; he frets a lot over her memory; loves and hates her at the same time. Secondary to this, is a misunderstanding with his father, which caused Alf to clear off, leaving the old man to mind everything himself. Of course, I’m only giving you the heads; and my information is derived from no random hearsay, but is obtained by an intransmissible power of induction, rare in our times.”
“Thought as much!” muttered Stewart.
“It remains, then,” I continued, “to determine the temperament which, acted upon by these circumstances, has given the result which is already before us. Now, I think that that temperament, though, perhaps, tending to the volcanic, must have been a sensitive and an amiable one; however it may have soured and hardened into misanthropy and avarice. We can’t all be philosophers, Mr. Stewart.”
“If there’s one thing I hate like (sheol)” replied the squatter gravely, “it is the quoting of Scripture as against my fellow-creature; but, d — n it, we are told that ‘when the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity all the days of his vanity which God giveth him under the sun, he shall be likened unto a foolish man that built his house upon the sand.’ You know the rest. If we take upon us to judge Morris at all, we must judge him as he is. Your judgment is generous, but nonsensical; mine is rational, but churlish — d ——— d churlish.” He paused, in evident discomfort, flicked a roley-poley with his whip, and continued. “You know, I had him on Kooltopa for a couple of months, bringing in pine logs, when Barker’s sawing-plant was there. Well, without going into details —— Capable fellow, too; fine combination of a cultivated man and an experienced rough-and-ready bushman. Strictly honest, also, I think — only for his d — nable disposition.”
“Doctor Johnson liked a good hater,” I suggested sadly, for it was evident that my unfortunate protégé had already, in his own peculiar way, recommended himself to Stewart.
You can imagine, by that circumstance alone, what a strong tincture of venom was held in solution by this feeble tenant of an hour. Indeed, if the matter had rested with the squatters, they would have starved him out of Riverina by industrial boycott. But the in-transport of wool, and the out-transport of goods, are cares that, as a rule, fall to the lot of the forwarding firms; and these resemble George IV., in having no predilections (though, let us hope, the similarity ceases here). Hence, the jolly good soul of a carrier, with lots of spring in him — the man who seldom buys any groceries, whose breath often smells like broached grog-cargo, and who makes a joke of camping for a few weeks with a load on his wagon — is very naturally passed over in favour of the misanthrope who neither asks nor gives quarter. And the personal popularity of the latter with his own guild is not enhanced by this preference.
“Doctor Johnson be d —— d!” replied the squatter warmly. “What is his dictum worth? What the (sheol) entitled him, for instance, to sneer at the very element of population that has made Britain a nation? You know what I allude to? Now, speaking with strict impartiality, it strikes me d ——— d forcibly that the finest prospect England ever saw is the road that leads from Scotland.” He checked himself, and continued in a gentler tone. “That just reminds me of a very able article I read some time ago — I think it was in Blackwood’s. The writer proves that your Shakespear must have imbibed his genius, to a great extent, in Scotland. He grounds his argument partly — and I think, justly — on the fact that the best play in the collection is a purely Scottish one. He makes a d ——— d strong point, I remember, of the expression, ‘blasted heath.’ ‘Say from whence, upon this blasted heath you stop our way, making night hideous?’—— and so forth.”
“Yes,” I replied mechanically. And then, avoiding the eye of the grand old saint, and hating myself as a buffoon, I continued, “My own conjecture is that something must have occurred to irritate the dramatist whilst he was writing that passage, and the expression slipped from his pen unawares.”
“Never!” replied Stewart. “No man under the influence of petty irritation ever wrote anything like the passage where that expression occurs. Criticism is not your forte, Collins. The writer I’m speaking of sees a landscape photographed in those two words. Pardon me for saying that your talent seems to run more in the line of low-comedy acting. I don’t like referring to it again, but d — n it all, my interest in you personally makes me feel very strongly over your interview with this Tom Armstrong.”
“Indeed, Mr. Stewart, I can’t tell you how sorry I am to have fallen in your estimation. But you were speaking of Alf Morris when I unfortunately drew you from the subject.”
“Ay. To return to Morris. Do you know how he came to leave the Bland country, some five or six years ago?”
“Well, yes,” I replied reluctantly; “rates are a lot higher here than there.”
“Did you ever hear that he shot anyone? A boundary rider, for instance?”
“The kernel of truth in that report, Mr. Stewart, is that he spoke of a certain boundary rider as a man that deserved shooting.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, in the first place, I’m only allowing for fair average growth in the report; and in the second place, when a person shoots a boundary man, he’s not allowed to just change his district, and go his way in peace.”
“Sometimes he is. I’ll tell you how it happened with Morris.” And the man who had a profanely long stage before him settled into an easy position, his heels on top of the splash-board, and his arms behind the back of the seat, whilst Bob held the reins. “It was on Mirrabooka. O’Grady Brothers had owned the place for a few years; but they were careless and intemperate, great lovers of racehorses, and d — d extravagant all round”——
“Familiar faults with people named O’Grady,” I remarked.
“You’re perfectly right. They got involved, and had to sell the place. Prescott bought it; and it was about a month after he had taken possession that the thing occurred. During the O’Grady’s time, the bullock drivers had made a d —— d thoroughfare of the run, zigzagging from one tank to another, and passing close to the home station. Prescott determined to put a stop to this. He locked all the gates on the track, and secured the tanks with cattle-proof fences, and kept his men foxing the teams day and night; and along with all this, he prosecuted right and left. D——d hard on the bullockies, of course, and far from generous on Prescott’s part; but it acted as a check; and in a couple of months the track was closed for good. However, just in the thick of the trouble, Morris crossed the run, and, of course, fared neither better nor worse than the rest. One evening he was seen taking down a fence and camping at a new tank, a couple of miles from the homestead; and at nine or ten o’clock that night he rode up to the station, and asked to see Mr. Prescott. When Prescott appeared, Morris drew him aside and told him, as cool as a d ——— d cucumber, that he wanted to make a deposition before him, as a magistrate, to the effect that he had just shot a man for attempting to remove his bullocks. Prescott refused to take the deposition just then; but he had a pair of horses put in a wagonette, and took the storekeeper with him, to accompany Morris to where the thing had happened. When they got there, d — n the sign of a body could they find; but Morris showed them the spot, and strictly charged them to note it well. Then he refused to have anything more to do with the d — d business, and went after his bells, while Prescott and the other fellow returned to the station, cooeeing and listening as they went. They overtook the man on the way, with a revolver bullet-hole through his arm, and the bullet lodged in his side. Of course, he was one of the station men — I forget his name at the present moment, but it’s no matter. When they got the chap home, and found there was nothing dangerous, Prescott had his horse saddled at once, and followed the track till he came to Morris’s wagon; from there he went to the bells, and found Morris minding his bullocks. They had a long conference, and Prescott went home. Next morning, Morris continued his journey; and when he unloaded — about sixty miles this side of Mirrabooka — he came right on to Riverina. Now, Collins; you put a d —— d big value on your acumen, and your sagacity, and your penetration, and all the rest of it — What do you make of that story? Mind, I vouch for the truth of it.”
“There’s a hitch somewhere, Mr. Stewart.”
“Confess you’re at fault, d — n you!”
“I am at fault — for once.”
“Good,” replied the squatter complacently. “Now I’ll give you the key. When the O’Gradys sold the station, there was a £200 tank nearly finished, but not paid for; and somehow (d —— d if I know how people can make such blunders!)— somehow this tank was overlooked in the valuation. Prescott considered that the terms of sale included the tank, the liability being still on the O’Gradys; while they imagined that the whole transaction was taken off their hands. If the truth must be told, Prescott tried to do a sharp thing, under the cloak of an oversight; and the O’Gradys checkmated him with a d —— d sight sharper thing. In this way. Their last action, while the station remained in their power, was to transfer the tank to the Department, on condition that a section of land should be reserved round it. The Department accepted it on these terms, and struck the section off the Mirrabooka assessment; but Prescott got wind of the thing before it was gazetted, and was moving heaven and earth to secure the reserve, just at the time Morris camped there. How Morris came by this information beats the devil; but, of course, all he had to say to Prescott was, ‘I caught some d —— d scoundrel stealing my bullocks by night off the Government reserve close by here. I tried without effect to get them from him peaceably; and I was compelled to stop him by force. I was careful to ask him if he was a Government official; but, d — n it, he gave me an insulting answer; then, knowing him to be a cattle-thief at large, I shot him in the act of felony.’ It did n’t suit Prescott to stir-up the question of the reserve just at that time-so what the (sheol) could he do? And, in any case, Morris was within his legal rights; the reserve was as free to him as to Prescott; and, d — n it all, stock must be protected. Curious case altogether. Of course, Prescott afterward got the land secured quietly. But just think of the cold-blooded calculation and d —— d unscrupulousness of Morris. He’s a man to be avoided, Collins.”
“Well,” I replied, baffled and hopeless, “I’ve nothing more to say, except that, generally speaking, the man who ought to be avoided is just the sort of person that my own refractory nature clings to with the fellow-feeling which makes us wondrous kind. Therefore I’ll go away sorrowful — not because I have great possessions, for I certainly have n’t — but because my last hope for Alf was that you might interest yourself in his present difficulty.”
A half-inquiring, half-incredulous look crossed the frank face of the fine old believer, followed by one of his evanescent frowns.
“Why, d — n it, man, have n’t I arranged that already with Bob here?” said he, resuming a normal position on the seat, and taking the reins from his companion’s hand. “We’re going straight to the Dead Man’s Bend. Never you fear; I’ll see Morris through.”
“I’ll never forget your kindness, Mr. Stewart.”
“Nonsense. But is n’t it a most remarkable thing — what we’re too apt to call a mere coincidence? Here I find Bob footsore, through walking in bad boots; and while I’m wondering what in the devil’s name to do with him, you tell me of Morris; and I see immediately why Bob was placed in my way. It’s the legislation of an unsleeping Providence, Collins-nothing short of it. We meet with these Divine adjustments of circumstances every day of our lives, if we only choose to recognise them. Thinking over these things makes me feel devilish small in my own eyes, but all the more confident, knowing that not a sparrow falls to the ground without —— Oh, d — n it! look where the sun has got to! Good-bye! I mightn’t see you again. I’ve sold Kooltopa.”
“Ay. Crowded-out. Going to Queensland. They’ll tell you about it at Poondoo. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Mr. Stewart.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54