Not much in that bill of fare, you think? Perhaps not. Nor was Count Federigo degli Alberighi’s falcon much of a banquet for the Lady Giovanna, though that meagre catering cost a considerable jar to the sensibilities of the impoverished aristocrat — accurately represented, in this instance, by the writer of these memoirs. Of course, I am committed to any narration imposed by my random election of dates; but just notice that perversity, that untowardness, that cussedness in the affairs of men, which brings me back to Runnymede, above all places in the spacious south-western quarter of the Mother Province. The unforeseen sequences of that original option are masters of the situation, till they run their course — and most tyrannical masters they are. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, but, bear-like, I must fight the course. Ay! your first-person-singular novelist delights in relating his love-story, simply because he can invent something to pamper his own romantic notions; whereas, a similar undertaking makes the faithful chronicler squirm inasmuch as Oh! —— you’ll find out soon enough.
Five days before the date of this entry, I had received orders to proceed at once to Runnymede, and there to complete an M-form, which would in the meantime be forwarded from our Central Office to Mr. Montgomery. Twelve hours’ riding had brought me to the station, but the document had not arrived, so there was nothing for it but to wait till the next mail came in. That would be on the 9th.
Being a little too exalted for the men’s hut, and a great deal too vile for the boss’s house, I was quartered in the narangies’ barracks.
Social status, apart from all consideration of mind, manners, or even money, is more accurately weighed on a right-thinking Australian station than anywhere else in the world.
The folk-lore of Riverina is rich in variations of a mythus, pointing to the David-and-Goliath combat between a quiet wage-slave and a domineering squatter, in the brave days of old. With one solitary exception, each station from the Murray to the Darling claims and holds this legend as its own. On Kooltopa alone, the tables are turned, and the amiable Stewart makes a holy show of the truculent rouse-about. But on no station, not even on Kooltopa, has imagination bodied forth, or tradition handed down, any such vagary as might imply that a wage-slave saw the inside of the house or the barracks. And a narangy will always avoid your eye as he relates how, on some momentous occasion, the boss invited him to step in and take a seat. In the accurately-graded society of a proper station, you have a reproduction of the Temple economy under the old Jewish ritual. The manager’s house is a Sanctum Sanctorum, wherein no one but the high priest enters; the barracks is an Inner Court, accessible to the priests only; the men’s hut is an Outer Court, for the accommodation of lay worshippers; and the nearest pine-ridge, or perhaps one of the empty huts at the wool-shed, is the Court of the Gentiles. And the restrictions of the Temple were never more rigid than those of a self-respecting station. This usage, of course, bears fruit after its kind.
It was more than a mere custom with the mediaeval baron — it was a large part of the religion which guided his rascally life — to wolf his half-raw pork in fellowship with his rouse-abouts; hence he could bash the latter about at pleasure; and they, in return, were prepared to die in his service. A good solid social system, in its own brutal and non-progressive way. The squatter, of course, cannot get back to the long table with the dogs underneath; but he ought to think-out some practicable equivalent to the baron’s crude and lop-sided camaraderie — this having been a necessary condition of vassal loyalty in olden time. Without vassal loyalty, or abject vassal fear, the monopolist’s sleep can never be secure. Domination, to be unassailable, must have overwhelming force in reserve — moral force, as in the feudal system, or physical force, as in our police system. The labour-leader, of accredited integrity and capability, though (so to speak) ducally weedy, has moral force in reserve; and we all know how he controls the many-headed. Also, the man glaringly destitute of integrity or capacity, but noticed as having a bullet-head, a square jaw, countersunk eyes, and the rest in proportion, is suspected of having the other kind of force in reserve; and we know how he escapes anything like wanton personal indignity in his intercourse with gentle or simple. Now, the only reserve-force adherent to station aristocracy resides in the manager’s power to “sack.”
The squatter of half-a-century ago dominated his immigrant servants by moral force — no difficult matter, with a ‘gentleman’ on one side and a squad of hereditary grovellers on the other. He dominated his convict servants by physical force — an equally easy task. But now the old squatter has gone to the mansions above; the immigrant and old hand to the kitchen below; and between the self-valuation of the latter-day squatter and that of his contemporary wage-slave, there is very little to choose. Hence the toe of the blucher treads on the heel of the tan boot, and galls its stitches. The average share of that knowledge which is power is undoubtedly in favour of the tan boot; but the preponderant moiety is just as surely held by the blucher. In our democracy, the sum of cultivated intelligence, and corresponding sensitiveness to affront, is dangerously high, and becoming higher. On the other hand, the squatter, even if pliant by disposition, cannot spring to the strain; social usage being territorial rather than personal; so here, you see, we have the two factors which should blend together in harmony — namely, the stubborn tradition of the soil, and the elastic genius of the ‘masses’— divorced by an ever-widening breach. There are two remedies, and only two, available; failing one of these, something must, soon or later, give way with a crash. Either the anachronistic tradition must make suicidal concessions, or the better-class people must drown all plebeian Australian males in infancy, and fill the vacancy with Asiatics.
My acquaintance with Runnymede dated from about seven years before. Tracking three stray steers, I had reached the station at sunset. I had come more than sixty miles — nearly all unstocked country — in two days, and with only one chance meal. My horse was provokingly fagged. I was ragged by reason of the scrub, and dirty for lack of water: whilst an ill-spelled and ungrammatical order on Naylor of Koolybooka, for £28, was the nearest approach to money in my possession. I had left my cattle-tracks, and was approaching the home-station, when I met Mr. Montgomery himself. I told him my story. ‘Oh, well; go to the store and get your rations,’ said he disgustedly. ‘And, see — if those steers of yours are on the run, get them off as quick as possible. Fence-breakers, no doubt. Come! hurry-up, or the store will be closed!’ The storekeeper measured me out a pannikin of dust into a newspaper, and directed me to the left-hand corner of the ram-paddock, as the best place for my horse. There, in the spacious Court of the Gentiles, I made a fire, worked up my johnny-cake on the flat top of the corner post, ate it hot off the coals, then lay down in swino-philosophic contentment, and read the newspaper till I could smell my hair scorching, and so to sleep.
My next visit to Runnymede took place about three years later. I had timed myself to draw-up to the station on a Saturday afternoon, with five-ton-seventeen of wire. Montgomery met me, as before. ‘You’re Collins, aren’t you? I’ve got the duplicate. We won’t disturb your load till Monday. Shove your trespassers in the ration-paddock, and go and stop in the hut.’ I was rising in the world.
Next time I called at Runnymede, it was to inspect and verify the register which Montgomery was supposed to keep for my Department. Being now worthy of the Inner Court, I was told-off to sleep in the spare bed in Moriarty’s room, and to sit at meat with the narangies, where we were waited on by a menial. If my social evolution had continued — if I had expanded, for instance, into a literary tourist, of sound Conservative principles — I would have seen the inside of the boss’s house before I had done. But, as it happened, I withered and contracted from that point — simultaneously, mind you, with a perceptible diminution of my inherent ignorance and correlative uselessness. Such, however, is life.
But on the present occasion I had been quartered in the barracks for four whole days, as idle as a freshly-painted ship upon an ocean made iridescent by the unavoidable dripping and sprinkling of the pigment used. (A clumsy metaphor, but happily not my own). This lethargy was inexcusable. I had three note-books filled with valuable memoranda for a Series of Shakespearean Studies; and O, how I longed for a few days’ untroubled leisure, just to break ground on the work. Those notes had been written in noisy huts, or by flickering firelight, or on horseback — written in eager activity of mind, and in hope of such an opportunity for amplification as I was now letting slip. But I have one besetting sin; and this Delilah, scissors in hand, had dogged me to Runnymede, and polled me by the skull. Nor could I plead inadvertence when I gravitated into the old familiar vice; but I left the consequences for an after-consideration. The opportunity was there, like an uncorked bottle under a dipsomaniac’s nose, and that was enough. ‘One more,’ I kept saying to myself; ‘one more, and that’s the last; so sweet was ne’er so fatal.’
According to the unhappy custom of besetting sins, this evil thing came upon me the moment I woke on the morning of the 9th. I slipped into my clothes, and started off along the horse-paddock fence toward a natural hollow, a mile from the station. Here twelve or fifteen years’ continuous trampling by the worst-smelling of ruminants (bar the billygoat) on ground theretofore untrodden except by blackfellows, birds, and marsupials, had developed a pond, sometimes a couple of acres in area, and eight feet deep in the middle, and sometimes dry. Full or dry, fresh or rotten, the pond was known as the ‘swimming-hole.’ At the time I speak of, the water was about half-gone, in both senses, and evaporating at the rate of an inch a day.
With a good supple stem of old-man saltbush I dispersed three snakes that lay around the margin, waiting for frogs; then I noticed my empty clothes lying on the bank, and found myself sliding through the lukewarm water, recklessly and wickedly discounting the prospective virility of another day; and there I remained till I thought it was time to go to breakfast.
Nothing but that integrity which springs from the certainty of being ultimately found-out, prompts me to the foregoing confession — a confession which I cannot but regard as damaging, from the literary, as well as from the moral, point of view. And for this reason.
During the last twenty or thirty years, the foremost humorist of our language has, from time to time, casually touched on the removal of natural and acquired dirt by means of bathing; but however lightly and racily this subject might leave his pen, it has been degraded into repulsiveness by the clumsy handling of imitators. Some things look best when merely implied in the dim background, and recent literature certainly proves this to be one of them. There is nothing dainty or picturesque in the presentment of a naked character washing himself; yet how few of our later novels or notes of travel are without that bit of description; generally set-off by an ungainly reflection on the dirt of some other person, class, or community. The noxious affectation is everywhere. Even the Salvation officer cannot now write his contribution to the War Cry without a detailed account of the bath he took on this or that occasion — a thing which has no interest whatever for anyone but himself. It would be much more becoming to wash our dirty skins, as well as our dirty calico, in private.
We might advantageously copy women-writers here. Woman, in the nature of things, must accumulate dirt, as we do; and she must now and then wash that dirt off, or it would be there still. (Like St. Paul, I speak as a man.) But the scribess never parades her ablutions on the printed page. If, for instance, you could prevail upon the whole galaxy of Australian authoresses and pen-women to attend a Northern Victoria Agricultural Show, in their literary capacity, you would see proof of this. Each would write her catalogue of aristocratic visitors, her unfavourable impressions re quality of refreshments, her sarcastic notice of other women’s attire, and her fragmentary observations on the floral exhibits; but not one would wind-up her memoir with an account of the ‘tubbing’ she gave herself in the seclusion of her lodgings when the turmoil was over. Woman must be more than figuratively a poem if she can promenade a dusty show-yard for a long, hot afternoon without increasing in weight by exogenous accretion; but her soulfulness, however powerless to disallow dirt, silently asserts itself when that dirt comes to be shifted.
However, mere fidelity to fact brings me into the swim — in the figurative sense, as well as in the literal — and the sad consciousness of fellowship with men who ‘tub’ themselves on paper is added to the humiliation of the disclosure itself. In a word, just as I lost my vigour in the swimming-hole, I lose my individuality in the confession. But I don’t lose my discrimination, nor my veracity. I don’t call my evil good. In Physical Science, or in Pure Ethics — whoop! I am Antony yet!
Nature, by a kind of Monroe Doctrine, has allotted the dry land to man, and various other animals; the water to fish, leeches, etc.; the air to birds, bats, flies, etc.; the fire to salamanders, imps, unbaptised babies, etc.; and she strictly penalises the trespass of each class on the domain of any other. Naturally then, about sixteen raids, within four days, on an alien element, had stewed every atom of vigour out of my system, and quenched every spark of heroism.
Consider the child. He is the creature of instinct; and instinct — according to my late relative, Wilkie Collins — never errs, though reason often does so, as we know to our cost. Now, the picaninny knows what is good for him. Place him in promixity to a dust-hole or an ash-heap, and observe what takes place. He approaches it with that droll, yet pathetic, method of locomotion peculiar to his period of life — travelling on both hands and one knee, whilst with the big toe of the other hind-foot he propels himself along. In the very centre of the dirt, he deftly whirls into a sitting position, and proceeds to redeem the time, maintaining, meanwhile, that silence which is the perfectest herald of joy. Ormuzd the Good has inspired him with this inclination. But the Minister of Ahriman the Evil is not far off. The able-bodied mother seizes the mite of a bambino by the wrist, and carries him at arm’s-length to the kitchen. It is to no purpose that he becomes alternately rigid and flaccid, lifting up his voice in clamorous protest, and making himself as heavy as a bag of shot. That misguided woman denudes him, washes him, rubs soap into his eyes, spanks him, re-arrays him, and sets him in a clean place, giving him a teaspoon to play with. Then she resumes her household work; whereupon Ormuzd whispers in the pledge’s projecting ear, and that heaven-directed bimbo straightway turns his head toward the dust-hole, and, again illustrating the first clause of the Sphynx’s not very complicated riddle, keeps the strictly noiseless tenor of his way, till Ahriman’s priestess looks round to see the metaphors fulfilled, of the pup turning again to his ashheap, and the papoose that was washed wallowing in the dust-hole. And so the pull-devil-pull-baker strife goes on to the last syllable of recorded time — not between mother and child, as you are prone to imagine, but between the two great principles of Good and Evil, so widely allegorised and personified, yet so uncertainly grasped, and so loosely defined. The result is sad enough: physically, not one in ten of us is what the doctor ordered, and, of course, brought; mentally, we are mostly fools; morally, we are, in a sense, little better than we ought to be. And such is life.
At breakfast, I remember, there occurred a slight misunderstanding between Mrs. Beaudesart, the housekeeper, and Ida, the white trash whose vocation was to wait on the narangies.
Mrs. Beaudesart was well-born. Don’t study that expression too closely, or you’ll get puzzled. Her father, Hungry Buckley, of Baroona — a gentleman addicted to high living and extremely plain thinking — had been snuffed-out by apoplexy, and abundantly filled a premature grave, some time in the early ‘sixties, after seeing Baroona pass, by foreclosure, into the hands of a brainy and nosey financier. People who had known the poor gentleman when he was very emphatically in the flesh, and had listened to his palaver, and noticed his feckless way of going about things, were not surprised at the misfortune that had struck Buckley. Mrs. B. had then taken a small villa, near Sydney, where, in course of time, her son and daughter took positions of vantage, such as their circumstances allowed; each being prepared to stake his or her gentility (an objectionable word, but it has no synonym; and nasty things have nasty names) against any amount of filth that could be planked down by an aspiring representative of the opposite sex.
But young Mr. Buckley, who was something indefinite in a bank, presently ventured on a bit of blacksmith work, and being, by reason of hopeless impecuniosity, not worth lenient treatment, got a tenner hard. About the same time, Miss Buckley — then a singularly handsome young lady — became a veritable heroine of romance. A German prince, whose name I forget at the present moment, visited these provinces; and our Beatrix Esmond —— Well, perhaps a reflected greatness is better than no greatness at all.
So, at all events, thought Mr. Lionel Fysshe–Jhonson, who married Miss Buckley on the strength of her celebrity. This young man in less than two years went to his reward; and his widow, after a seemly interval, reinforced her financial position by accepting the hand and heart of old Mr. Tidy, an aitchless property-owner, whose hobby was to collect his own rents. Bottoming on gold this time, she buried the old man within eighteen months, and paid probate duty on £25,000. After three years of something like life, she accepted the addresses of the Hon. Henry Beaudesart, a social refugee from Belgravia (wherever that may be). This was a gentleman of such refined tastes that it took over £10,000 a year to satisfy his soul-yearnings; so, when she buried him, after two years’ trial it was in the sure and certain hope that he would stay where he was put. This brought her to about the year ‘78. And the tide had turned.
For the next two years, the poor gentlewoman hung round the scene of her former glories, wearing garments that were out of fashion, and otherwise drinking to its very dregs the cup of bitterness which a heartless society holds to the lips of its deposed queen. The elegancies of life were necessities to her; but those elegancies would cost — to put it tangibly — the balance of profit accruing from the continuous labour of at least fifty average industrious women. And when the industrious women were not to the fore, where were the elegancies to come from? Where, indeed! It is a question which has broken many a gentler heart than Maud Beaudesart’s, and will break many more. It is a cruel question; but not to put it would be more cruel still. For while this or that gentlewoman is in danger, no gentlewoman is safe. And the basest type of mind is that which gloats on the adversity of the world’s spoiled child; the next basest is that which concentrates its sympathy on the same adversity; the least base, I think, is that which, goaded by a human compassion for all human distress, longs to get a lever under the order of things which necessitates the spoiling of any particular child.
Two or three years before the date of this record, Mrs. Montgomery, a distant relation and boarding-school friend of Mrs. Beaudesart, had met the latter in Sydney, and had brought her out to Runnymede. Montgomery, viewing the tenacious widow as a fixture, had insisted upon her having some definite status on the place, and she was therefore installed as housekeeper. Little wonder that the poor gentlewoman, remembering her own departed greatness, and chafing under the mild yoke of Mrs. Montgomery, used to make the handmaidens of the household wish themselves in Gehenna. Dionysius the Younger, shifted from his throne, opened a school, so that he might take it out of the boys. Such is life.
Levites, tribesmen, and Gentiles alike, used to poke fun at me over Mrs. Beaudesart; but the fact that they thought they knew my real standing, whereas they did n’t, seemed to weigh so much in my favour as to make their banter anything but provoking. Yet my relations with the gentlewoman were painful enough. I’ll tell you exactly how we stood.
On my first official visit to Runnymede, whilst Montgomery and I stood talking in front of the store, Mrs. Beaudesart passed by. He detained her a moment to speak of my sleeping-accommodation, but first, with grave courtliness, introduced me to her as the last lineal descendant of Commander David Collins, R.N. Situated as I was, what could I say? — what would you have said? I had to fall in with the thing at the time; and having done so, of course, I had to live up to it; moreover this meant a good deal when I had to beat time with a woman like Maud. In spite of my chivalrous disinclination to flaunt superior descent in the face of a lady, our shuddersome intimacy deepened; and the necessity for keeping up my accompaniment seemed to grow more imperative as it became more difficult. But even at this distance of time, it soothes me to remember that I went through the ordeal without any sacrifice of veracity — partly by modest reticence touching my forbears, and the rest by a little diplomacy. For instance, in remarking that my grandfather, Sir Timothy Collins, had been well known in connection with the turf, I omitted to explain that he was allowed to obtain it only from a specified bog, and that his custom was to sell it at the stump for so much per donkey-load, to be taken out in spuds or oatmeal. Altogether, I got on better than you might expect. Meanwhile, some unhappy hitch in the Order of Things, as well as that strange fascination which accompanies danger of detection, kept dragging me to Runnymede on every pretext.
Another thing. Mrs. Beaudesart possessed a vast store of Debrett — information touching those early gentlemen-colonists whose enterprise is hymned by loftier harps than mine, but whose sordid greed and unspeakable arrogance has yet to be said or sung. Socially, she knew something fie-fie about most of our old nobility; and her class-sympathy, supported by the quasi-sacredness which invests aristocratic giddiness, lent tenderness of colour and accuracy of detail to some queer revelations. She could make me fancy myself in ancient Corinth.
And such was her hypnotic power, or my adaptability, that in the atmosphere of Runnymede I became a Conservative of the good old type, and actually enjoyed the communion of soul necessarily subsisting between a pedigreed lady and a pedigreed gentleman. We habitually spoke of the Montgomerys as of the wealthy lower orders, people of yesterday, and so forth; and because we took especial care to let nobody hear us, the jealousy of our inferiors manifested itself in that badinage so dear to the middle-class mind. ‘Inferiors,’ I say advisedly, for there was an indescribable something about us two when we got together, a something too subtle for expression in the vulgar tongue, which made us feel the station aristocracy to be a mere bourgeoisie, and ourselves the real Mackay. Of course, Montgomery had forgotten my high descent as soon as the words of introduction were out of his mouth; and I had begged the lady to conceal my gentilesse for the present; family pride causing me to be extremely sensitive on the subject of my low position. This was the only witchcraft I had used.
Ida, the handmaid of the barracks, was a common person. She certainly belonged to the same mammiferous division of vertebrata as Mrs. Beaudesart, but there the affinity ended with a jerk. In a word, she was the low-born daughter of a late poverty-stricken Victorian selector. Her father, after twelve years’ manful struggle with a bad selection, had hanged himself in the stable; whereupon the storekeeper had sold the movables, and the mortgagee the farm. Runnymede was Ida’s first situation. Her wages, month by month, went to the support of her broken-down mother, then living frugally in a country township, taking care of Ida’s remaining brother, who had been knocked out of shape through getting run-over, in a painfully protracted way, by a heavy set of harrows. Her other brother had unfortunately sat down to eat his lunch on the wrong side of a partly grubbed tree.
Altogether, poor Ida had very little to be thankful for. Personally, she was, without any exception, the ugliest white girl I ever saw. She measured about twice as long from the chin to Self–Esteem as from Benevolence to Amativeness; not one feature of her face was even middling; her skin was of a neutral creamy tint; and she had a straggly goatee of dirty white, with woolly side-boards of the same colour, in lieu of the short, silky moustache which is the piquant trade-mark of our country-women. Besides this, she was lame, on account of the back-sinew of one of her ankles having been cut through by a reaping-machine; and in addition to all this, the fingers of her left hand had been snipped to a uniform length, through getting into the feed of a chaff-cutter. Montgomery had picked her purposely for the barracks — so, at least, he told Mrs. Montgomery; so she told Mrs. Beaudesart, and so the latter told me. For myself, I often felt an impulse to marry the poor mortal; partly from compassion; partly from the idea that such an action would redound largely to my honour; and partly from the impression that such an unattractive woman would idolise a fellow like me.
The daughter of an unlucky selector is not taught to spare herself; and Ida was an untiring and conscientious worker. For the rest, she was a generous, patient, self-denying girl, transparently honest in word and deed; the gentle soul shining through its homely mask, like a candle in a bottle. Upon the whole, ugly, illiterate — and, above all, ill-starred, lowly, and defenceless — as she was, she would have made an admirable butt for the flea-power of your illustrated comic journal.
Mrs. Beaudesart abhorred Ida for her ugliness, for her vulgarity, for her simplicity, but chiefly for her name. (I can sympathise with the gentlewoman here — remembering how rancorously I once hated another boy because he came from the Isle of Wight.) Yet the two mammals’ chronic state of friction was partly chargeable on Ida, who would answer back, in her own milk-and-water way. And, to add to the aggravation, she could n’t answer back without crying.
Something had gone wrong, as usual, this morning; and Mrs. Beaudesart remained in the narangies’ breakfast-room, mildly glowering into Ida’s tear-stained face, and noting with polite deprecation the convulsive sobs which the sensitive girl vainly tried to repress before the young fellows. Beauty in distress is a favorite theme of your shallow romancists; but, to the philosophic mind, its pathos is nothing to that of ugliness in distress. At the best of times, poor Ida was heart-breaking; her sunniest smile wrung my soul with commiseration; and when the sympathy naturally accorded to helpless anguish was superimposed upon that which she claimed as her birthright, the pressure became intolerable. It had always been my consolation to think that she would yet be a bright and beautiful angel; and now I fell back for solace upon that thought — though how the thing was to be accomplished seemed a problem too vast for the grasp of a water-worn and partially dissolved understanding like mine.
“Remember, Mary, I reprimand you for your own good,” murmured the lady. “Of course, brought up as you have been, you can’t be expected to have the manners we look for in the servants of a well-conducted household; so when I consider it my duty to instruct you in the decencies of life, you mustn’t take it ill. People have to suffer for their ignorance, Mary, as well as for their faults. I know how you must feel it; but parents in the position that yours were in should send their children to service before they are too old for the necessary training.”
“My parents done the best they could to keep their home together,” protested the girl, in a choking voice.
“Speak grammatically, my dear. No doubt your parents did as you say, but my point is, that they forgot their position. Instead of accepting the fair wages and abundant food which society offers to their class, they joined the hungry horde that has cut up those fine Victorian stations. Part of the retribution justly falls on their children; part, of course, on themselves. Your father, I venture to say, often envied the life of the domestic animals on the station where he had selected. But he aimed at independence — independence! A fine word, Mary, but a poor reality. This idea of independence is much too common amongst people who, however poorly they may fare, are nevertheless better fed than taught. I’m afraid you wilfully overlook the religious side of the question, Mary; the divine command to do our duty in that state of life in which it has pleased God to call us. Service is honourable”——
Here Ida sobbed out something that sounded like a rejoinder; and there was a harder ring in the lady’s voice as she continued, without pausing:
“Yes, my dear; if your parents had known themselves, and had cheerfully remained in the position for which their birth and education fitted them, you would have been spared many humiliations, and it would have been better for your father, both in time and in eternity.”
“O, can’t you let him rest in his grave?” sobbed the girl.
“I have no wish to condemn him, Mary,” replied the lady soothingly. “I assure you it is dreadful to me to realise the fate of that poor man, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. I was only wishing to show you what a tempting of Providence it is for people of the lower classes to have notions above what their Maker intends for them. And you know how prone you are to forget your place — as you did this morning. Susan has the same fault, I’m sorry to say; but I condone it to some extent in her. She has the advantage of good looks, and naturally expects to better her condition by marriage; but surely, Mary, one glance at yourself in the glass ought to show you the impropriety of counting upon any endowment of nature.”
“Indeed, I know I’m no beauty,” blubbered Ida; and her tears rained hot and fast on the back of my neck, as she replaced my coffee-cup.
“Of course, you didn’t make yourself,” pursued the lady blandly; “but in view of your lack of personal attractions, you should endeavour to cultivate the modest and respectful demeanour which befits a sphere of life that you are likely to occupy permanently. No doubt it was good policy to transport yourself to a locality where the males of your own class are in such large majority; but the movement is still attended by certain disadvantages. A female whose looks approach repulsiveness should, at least, have a character beyond suspicion; and for any woman to run away from the neighbourhood where her doings are known, is not the way to inspire confidence. And though it has pleased God, for your own good, to remove the snare of beauty far from you, yet —— Well, we must believe what we hear on good authority. Your master, before engaging you, should have made some inquiry regarding your antecedents, and not have left these things to leak-out. I wish I could hold you guiltless, Mary. Ask your own conscience whether you were justified in obtaining entry to an establishment like this. It places me in a very difficult”——
Here Ida turned, and, with blazing, tearless eyes, fearlessly fronted her fellow-mammal. The latter faltered, and paused. She had gone a step too far, and had trod on the lion’s tail.
“What’s that you say, you wicked woman?” demanded Ida, in a calm voice, yet breathing heavily. “Ain’t I miserable enough without you lyin’ away my character? I’ll make you prove your words, as sure as you’re standin’ there.”
“You’re forgetting yourself!” replied the housekeeper haughtily, though still quailing before the girl’s terrible plainness of speech and person.
“Am I, indeed? Well, we’ll both go straight to Mrs. Montgomery — she’s your missus as well as mine, she is — an’ we’ll git her to write to a dozen people that knows me since I wasn’t as high as that windy-sill. I’ll make it hot for you, Mrs. Bodyzart, so I will.”
“What impertinence!” ejaculated the lady, moistening her lips. “Leave the apartment, this instant, Mary; and send”——
“How dare you call me out o’ my name? — for two pins, I’d slap your face!” replied Ida, her voice rising to a hysterical scream. “You know what my proper name is, so you do! An’ I won’t leave the apartment to please you, so I won’t! Think God made me for the likes o’ you to wipe your feet on? Think I bin behavin’ myself decent all my life, for you to put a slur on me? If I wanted to bemean myself, could n’t I cast up somethin’ you would n’t like to be minded of? Ain’t you ashamed o’ yourself, you ole she-devil?”
“Gentlemen, I must apologise for my servant,” said the housekeeper, with quiet dignity. “She seems to have taken leave of her senses. I trust you will overlook her rudeness. She knows no better.”
“They can’t help doin’ me justice; an’ that’s all I ask from anybody,” rejoined Ida, looking appealingly round the table. “An’ look here, Mrs. Bodyzart: I bin full up o’ your nag-nag ever since I come to this house: an’ I put up with it for the sake o’ other people; but now you’ve put a slur on my character; an’ it’s me an’ you for it. I ain’t goin’ to let this drop.”
“I must withdraw, gentlemen,” said the lady forbearingly. “Pray forget the unhappy scene you have been forced to witness; and let me beg of you, for this poor woman’s sake, to leave all further pursuit of the matter entirely in my hands. Whilst she remains in this establishment, I must continue to shield her from the penalties to which she insists upon exposing herself. Come, Mary; dry your eyes, and attend to your duties. The time is coming when you will thank me for the discipline to which you are now subjected.” And Mrs. Beaudesart retired, greater in defeat than in victory.
“I never expected anybody to put a slur on me,” faltered Ida apologetically, after a minute’s silence.
“Haud yir toang, lassie, fir Gode-sak,” snarled the sheep-overseer, who was the senior of our company. “Be ma saul, an A hid ony say intil’t, A’d whang the de’il oot o’ ye baith wi’ a stokewhup.”
“By George! you better not include Mrs. Beaudesart in your goodwill,” remarked young Mooney gravely. “You’ll have Collins in your wool.”
“Keep your temper, Collins,” murmured Nelson. “I can imagine your feelings; but M’Murdo didn’t think of you being here when he spoke.”
“The de’il haet A care fir Collins, ony mair nir A dae fir yir ain sel’, Nelson!” replied Mac defiantly. “Od! air ye no din greetin’ the yet, lassie?” he continued, turning to Ida. “No anither pegh oot o’ yir heed, ir bagode A’ll tak’ ye in han’.”
Ida dried her eyes, and with the more alacrity forasmuch as an approaching step crunched the gravel outside. It was Priestley, a bullock driver who had drawn up to the store on the previous-evening; a decent sort of vulgarian, but altogether too industrious to get any further forward than the extreme tail-end of his profession.
Some carriers never learn the great lesson, that to everything there is a time and a season — a time for work, and a time for repose — hence you find the industrious man’s inveterately leg-weary set of frames in hopeless competition with the judiciously lazy man’s string of daisies. The contrast is sickening. Moreover, the same rule holds fairly well throughout the whole region of industry. But the Scotch-navigator can’t see it. He is too furiously busy for eighteen hours out of the twenty-four to notice that, even in the most literal sense, loafing has a more intimate connection with bread-winning than working can possibly have. Such a man finds himself born unto trouble, as the sparks fly in all directions; but he is merely aware of undergoing a chastening process, just as the tethered calf is aware that he always turns a flying somersault when he impetuously charges in any direction away from his peg; and this simply because the man knows as much about the Order of Things as the calf knows about Euclid’s definition of a radial line. The fact is, that the Order of Things — rightly understood — is not susceptible of any coercion whatever, and must be humoured in every possible way. In the race of life, my son, you must run cunning, reserving your sprint for the tactical moment. Priestley ran bull-headed. In consequence of being always at work, he could get very little work done; and, being pursuantly in a chronic state of debt and destitution, he got only the work that intermittently slothful men would n’t take at the price. It is scarcely necessary to add that he had a wife and about thirteen small children, mostly girls.
“Mornin’, chaps,” said this plebeian, standing between the wind and our nobility, with a hand on each door-post. “Hope you’re enjoyin’ yourselves. Say, Moriarty; I’m waitin’ to git that bit o’ loadin’ off.”
“I’ll be with you in two minutes,” replied the young storekeeper. “I know you always want to get away.”
“Say, chaps,” continued the bullock driver, advancing into the room, and glancing confidentially round the table, “think there’s any use o’ me stickin’ up the boss for leaf to take the buggy-track to Nalrookar? See, I could make the Fog-a-bolla Tank to-night; an’ there’s boun’ to be a bit o’ blue-bush, if not crows-foot, on them sand-hills. Then I’d fetch Nalrookar to-morrow, easy. I got two-ton-five for there; an’ I’m thinkin’ I’ll have a job to deliver it, if I can’t git through your run. What do you think, chaps?”
“Why didn’t you take this into consideration when you loaded?” demanded young Arblaster.
“Well, beggars ain’t choosers,” replied the apostle of brute force and ignorance. “Fact was, Arblaster, I bethought me what a lot o’ work I’d done for Magomery, one time or another, an’ what good friends me an’ him always was; an’ I says to myself, ‘Well, I’ll chance her — make a spoon, or spoil a horn.’ That’s the way I reasoned it out. See, if I got to turn roun’, an’ foller the main track back agen to the Cane-grass Swamp, an’ take the Nalrookar track from there, I won’t fetch the station much short o’ fifty mile; an’ there ain’t a middlin’ camp the whole road. Everythin’ et right into the ground. Starve a locust. ‘Sides, I’m jubious about the Convincer Sand-hill, even with half a load. Bullocks too weak.”
“Well, it’s hardly likely the boss would let you cross the run,” replied Arblaster. “He’d be a d —— d fool if he did.”
“I’m afraid there’s no use asking him, Priestley,” added Nelson. “He won’t make a thoroughfare of the run, at any price. For instance, when Baxter and Donovan delivered that well-timber in the Quondong Paddock, the other day, they were n’t five mile from the main road — and a gate to go through — but he made them come right back by the station; thirty mile of a roundabout; and their cheques were n’t forthcoming till they did it. No, Priestley; to ask Montgomery is simply to get a refusal; and to argue with him is simply to get insulted.”
“Well, I s’pose I must worry through, some road,” said the bullock driver resignedly, as he turned and went out.
“Fifty miles instead of twenty-two,” remarked Mooney. “Hard enough case.”
“And yet it’s necessary, in a sense,” replied Nelson. “Same time, anybody except the like of Montgomery would spring a bit in a season like this. I couldn’t crush a poor, decent, hard-working devil like that. I’d give him a thorough good blackguarding for calculating upon crossing the run; and then, as a matter of form, I’d send a man with him, to see him across. Well, I suppose we must go and get our mot d’ ordre, boys.”
So we left the breakfast-room to Ida. The four narangies, with the practical M’Murdo, went to the veranda of the boss’s house for their day’s orders; Moriarty, with a ring of keys in his hand, sauntered across to the store; and I managed to drag myself out to a seat built against the south side of the barracks, whence I torpidly surveyed the scene around, whilst listening to my vitality whistling out through four million yawning pores.
In an open shed, near the store — where two tribesmen were now assisting Priestley to unload — a travelling saddler and Salvationist, named (without a word of a lie) Joey Possum, was at work on the horse-furniture of the station; his tilted wagonette, blazoned with his name and title, JOSEPH PAWSOME, SADDLER, standing close by. Watching these lewd fellows of the baser sort at their sordid toil, my mind reverted to certain incidents of the preceding night, and so drifted into a speculation on the peculiar kind of difficulties which at certain times beset certain sojourners on the rind of this third primary orb. The incidents, of course, have nothing to do with my story.
But as the mere mention of them may have whetted the reader’s curiosity, I suppose it is only fair to satisfy him.
The night in question seemed, from an astrological point of view, to be peculiarly favourable to the ascendancy of baleful influences. The moon hung above the western horizon, in her most formidable phase — just past the semicircle, with her gibbous edge malignantly feathered. Being now in the House of Taurus, she had overborne the benignant sway of Aldebaran, and was pressing hard on Castor and Pollux (in the House of Gemini). Also, her horizontal attitude was so full of menace that Rigel and Betelgeux (in Orion) seemed to wilt under her sinister supremacy. Sirius (in Canis Major), strongest and most malevolent of the astral powers, hung southwest of the zenith, reinforcing the evil bias of the time, and thus, from his commanding position, overruling the guardianship of Canopus (in Argo), south-west of the same point. Lower still, toward the south, Achernar seemed to reserve his gracious prestige, whilst, across the invisible Pole, the beneficent constellations of Crux and Centaurus exhibited the very paralysis of hopelessness. Worst of all, Jupiter and Mars both held aloof, whilst ascendant Saturn mourned in the House of Cancer.
Such was the wretched aspect of the heavens to my debilitated intelligence, as I slunk home from the swimming-hole, toward midnight. I was somewhat comforted to observe in Procyon a firmness which I attributed to the evident support of Regulus (in the House of Leo); but the most reassuring element in an extremely baleful horoscope was Spica (in the House of Virgo), scarcely affected by the moon’s interference, and now ascending confidently from the eastern horizon.
Still, to my washed-out mind, there was something so hopeless in the lunar and stellar outlook that, for comfort, I turned my eyes toward the station cemetery, which was dimly in view.
There several shapeless forms, some white, and others of neutral hue, seemed to be moving slowly and silently amongst the dwellings of the dead, as if holding what you could scarcely call a carnival, in their own sombre way. The time, the place, the supermundane conditions, acting together on a half-drowned mind, gave to the whole scene a weird reality which writing cannot convey; so, after pinching myself to make sure I was awake, and doing a small sum in mental arithmetic to verify my sanity, I advanced toward the perturbed spirits, got them against the sky, and identified them as cattle, greedily stevedoring the long, dry grass.
It seemed a pity to turn the poor hungry animals out; yet I knew that somebody would have to suffer for it if Montgomery knew of anything trespassing here. But how had they got in, through seven wires — the upper one barbed — with rabbit-netting along the bottom? ——
“Evening, Priestley. Working the oracle?”
“Inclinin’ that road. Dangerous — ain’t it? Good job it’s on’y you. Nobody else stirrin’?”
“Not a soul. They ‘re as regular as clockwork on this station. How did you get in?”
“Took the hinges off o’ the gate with my monkey-wrench. I’ll leave that all straight. Course, they’ll see the tracks by-‘n’-by, an’ know who to blame; but I’ll be clear by that time; an’ I must guard agen comin’ in contract with Runnymede till the st-nk blows off o’ this transaction. Natural enough, Magomery’ll buck; but the ration-paddick’s as bare as a stockyard; an’ I can’t ast the bullocks to die o’ starvation.
“Certainly not, Priestley. Mind, it’s only four hours till daylight. Good night.”
“Good night, ole man.”
My way led me past a small, isolated stable, used exclusively for the boss’s buggy-horses. Nearing this building, I heard a suppressed commotion inside, followed by soothing gibberish, in a very low voice. This was bad. Priestley’s bullocks were within easy view; and Jerry, the groom, was a notorious master’s man. I must have a friendly yarn with him.
“What’s up with you this hour of the night, Jerry?” I asked, looking through the latticed upper-wall. “Uneasy conscience, I bet.” Whilst speaking the last words, I distinguished Montgomery’s pair of greys, tied, one in each back corner of the stable, whilst Pawsome’s horses — a white and a piebald — were occupying the two stalls, and voraciously tearing down mouthfuls of good Victorian hay from the rack above the manger. Pawsome, silently caressing one of the greys, moved to the lattice on hearing my voice. “Sleight-of-hand work?” I suggested, in a whisper.
“Sort of attempt,” replied the wizard, in the same key. “You gev me a start. All the lights was out two hours ago, an’ I med sure everybody was safe.”
“So they are. I’ve only been down for a swim. Good-night, Possum.”
“I say, Collins — don’t split!”
“Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?”
“Second Kings,” whispered the poor necromancer, in eager fellowship, and displaying a knowledge of the Bible rare amongst his sect. “God bless you, Collins! may we meet in a better world!”
“It won’t be difficult to do that,” I replied dejectedly, as I withdrew to enjoy my unearned slumber.
Now the night, replete with such sphere-music, was past, and the cares that infest the day had returned to everyone on the station, except myself and two or three equally clean, useless, and aristocratic loafers in the boss’s house. Toby, the half-caste, was cantering away toward Clarke’s, for the weekly mail. Priestley, at his wagon, was bullocking even more desperately than usual, with a view to getting out of sight of the station as soon as possible. Pawsome, repairing a side-saddle, on his extemporised bench, was softly crooning a familiar hymn, the sentiment of which seemed appropriate to himself, whilst the language breathed the very aroma of his social atmosphere:—
Must I be carried to the skies On flowery beds of ease, While others fought to gain the prize, And sail’d through (adj.) seas?
In the veranda of the house, Mr. Folkestone, a young English gentleman of not less than two hundred-weight, lolled on a hammock, smoking a chibouque, and reading a magazine; while straight between us two aristocratic loafers, Vandemonian Jack, aged about a century, was mechanically sawing firewood in the hot, sickly sunshine. This is one of the jobs that it takes a man of four or five score years to perform ungrudgingly; and, to any illuminated mind, the secret of these old fellows’ greatness is very plain. Bathing, though an ancient heresy, has been of strictly local prevalence, and, for the best of reasons, of transient continuance. Our relapse belongs to the present generation. Though our better-class grandsires understood no science unconnected with the gloves, a marvellous instinct taught them the unwholesomeness of sluicing away that panoply of dirt which is Nature’s own defence against the microbe of imbecility, and which, indeed, was the only armour worn by the formidable Berserkers, from whom some of them claimed descent. We have done it however (at least, we say so), whilst our social inferiors have held on to the old-time religion (at least, we say so, here again); wherefore ——
“I say, Mr. Collins,” faltered Ida, breaking in on my reflections, “I picked up this little buckle aside o’ your b-d; it’s come off o’ the back o’ your tr —— rs. I’ll sew it on for you any time, for I notice you’re bothered with them slippin’ down. O, Mr. Collins!”— and the poor unlovely face was suddenly distorted with anguish and wet with tears —“ain’t Mrs. Bodyzart wicked to put a slur on me like that? There ain’t one word o’ truth in it; I’d say the same if I was to die to-night; an’ you may believe me or believe me not, but I’m tellin’ the truth. Far be it, indeed!”
“Hush! Stop crying, Ida! Don’t look round — Mrs. Beaudesart’s watching you from the window, over there. You poor thing! you should n’t trouble yourself over what anybody says. Did you feed Pup this morning?”
“I give him a whole milk-dish full o’ scraps; but if people tells the truth, there’s nobody in the world can say black is the white o’ my eye; an’ you may believe me or believe me not”——
“You’ll need to give Pup a drink, Ida.”
“He ‘s got a dish o’ good rain-water aside him; but if people would on’y consider”——
“True — very true. Now go away, dear, and don’t come fooling about me, or you’ll give her liberty to talk.”
The girl limped back to the scene of her unromantic martyrdom, and I made a feeble effort to shake the dew-drops from my mane, and, so to speak, look myself in the face. I must give this life over, I thought; and I will give it over; an I do not, I am a villain. After all, there are not two sides to this question; there is only one; and you may trust an overclean man to be an authority on the evil effects of bathing, upon mind, body, and estate; just as the grogbibber is our highest authority on headaches, fantods, and bankruptcy.
The Spartans (so ran my reflections) were as much addicted to dirt as the Sybarites to cleanliness; and just compare the two communities. The conquering races of later ages — Goths, Huns, Vandals, Longobards, &c. — were no less celebrated for one kind of grit than for the other. It is the Turkish bath that has made the once-formidable Ottoman Empire the sick man of Europe. Latifundia perdidere Italian (Large estates ruined Italy). Yes. Blame it on the large estates. Would a large estate ruin you? Bathing did the business for Italy, as it does the business for all its victims. If Rome had left to the soft Capuan his baths and his perfumes, she would have pulled-through. But think of the polished Roman debating the question of survival with the superlatively dirty barbarian of the North! Polished is good, for, in the ruins of the fatal Roman baths, the innumerable strigulae, used by the bathers to polish their skins, bear sad testimony to the suicidal cleanliness of that doomed race. And just compare your strigula-polished Roman, morally and physically, with his contemporary, the filth-encrusted anchorite of the Thebaid — the former flickering briefly in a puerile, semi-vital way, and going out with a sulphurous smell; the latter, on a ration of six dates per week, attaining an interminable longevity, and possessing the power of striking scoffers dead, or blind, or paralytic, at pleasure.
And, talking of hermits — do you think Peter of Picardy could have launched the muscular Christianity of Western Europe against the less muscular, because cleaner, Islamism of Western Asia, but for his well-advertised vow, never to change his clothes, nor wash himself, till his contract should be completed? Prouder in his rags than the Emperor in his purple! and justly too, for he achieved the very apotheosis of dirt — animate, no doubt, as well as inanimate. Or take the first Teutonic Emperor of Rome — conqueror, arbitrator, legislator, and what not. In those middle ages, you know, it was the custom to name monarchs from some peculiarity of person or habitude — and I put it to any reasonable soul; Was this mere Yarman Brince likely to have become the central figure of the 10th century, but for such rigid abstinence from external application of water as is implied in the significant name of Otto the Great?
Indeed, the most sweepingly appropriate bestowal of the title, ‘Great,’ is made when we refer to the adherents of the dirt-cult, collectively, as the Great Unwashed. Again, Dr. Johnson’s biographies lovingly preserve the personal habits of most of the loftiest and sweetest poets that ever trod English soil; and think what a large percentage of those Muse-invokers, according to their historian, carried a fair quantity of that soil perennially on their hides. And speaking of the Diogenes of Fleet Street himself, we know, on good authority, that his antipathy to the Order of the Bath caused him to appeal to more senses than one. He was another Otto the Great. The original Diogenes, by the way, revelled in dirt, as well as in wisdom. And the mighty scholar, Porson, as you may remember, never needed to wash, because he never perspired.
Yet in spite of this cloud of witness, and in the face of our own experience, we will entice external leakage of such incipient greatness as we have — soaking ourselves in water, as if we were possums, and our virility a eucalyptus flavour that we sought to dissipate. Look at myself — now a king; now thus! Thunder-and-turf! have I fallen so low? And yet I was once like our Otto and Co.!
Before touching the forbidden thing, I felt as if I wanted to pursue an inspiring, if purposeless, journey up uncomfortable Alpine heights, with my Excelsior-banner in my hand, and a tear in my solitary bright blue eye; now, the maiden’s invitation seems to be the only part of the enterprise that has any pith in it. Then, I gloried in the fiendish adage of, ‘Two hours’ sleep for a man, three for a woman, and four for a fool’; now, my livelist ambition is to gaze my fill on yon calm deep, then, like an infant, sink asleep on this form, and so remain till dinner-time — lunch-time, I should say; belonging, as I do, to the better classes. Then, I was like Hotspur on his crop-eared roan; now, I merely wish the desert were my dwelling-place, with one fair Spirit for my minister. To confess the truth, I note a certain weak glimmer of self-righteousness investing the thought that I would be content with one fair Spirit. Got to, go to! By virtue, thou enforcest laughter.
“I wish I was as happy as you,” murmured Ida, who had again silently approached. “Here’s two newspapers; they done with them in the house. O, Mr. Collins!”— and the girl’s tears broke forth afresh, whilst ungovernable sobs shook her from head to foot —“I can’t git it off o’ my mind what Mrs. Bodyzart said.”
“Ida! Ida!” I remonstrated; “you’re making your nose red.” The information acted like a charm; her crying was over, though she still persisted in chewing her grievance.
“I can prove there ain’t one word o’ truth in it,” she continued pertinaciously.
“What’s your idea of proof, Ida?”
“I can prove it on the Bible,” she replied eagerly.
“That settles the matter beyond controversy — considering that you rightly belong to the Middle Ages.”
“Indeed I don’t!” she replied, with a flash of resentment. “I was twenty-seven last birthday; an’ I don’t care who knows it — on the third of July, it was — an’ I would n’t care tuppence if her ladyship snoke roun’ tellin’ people I was forty. But to put a slur on me like that! I leave it to your own self, Mr. Collins — was it right?”
“Right? I repeated wearily. “In heaven’s name, girl, what does it signify to you whether it was right or otherwise? That’s Mrs. Beaudesart’s own business, not yours. Why, if she charged me with stooping to folly, I would merely say, ‘Sorry to undeceive you, ma’am; but I’ve been too much given to letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,” like the poor bandicoot i’ the adage.’ But I certainly shouldn’t concern myself with a question lying entirely between herself and Saint Peter.”
“Ah! but you’re different,” replied the girl sadly.
“Simply because I’m a philosopher, Ida. I’ve held communion with the Unfathomable, and watched the exfoliation of the Inscrutable; and, you know, these things are altogether beyond the orbit of the girl-mind. Now clear off, like a good fellow, and let me read the papers.”
But I was too far gone to take any interest in either of the loathsome contemporanes; too much afflicted even to drift down to the swimming-hole again, much as I desired to do so. I also longed for the opinion of my mighty pipe on the dirt-question; but that faithful ally was packed among my things, forty feet away, and it might as well have been forty miles. So I just lay on the seat, clean, frail, and inert, as a recumbent statue, moulded in blanc-mange; whilst the ancient t’other-sider oscillated his frame — saw, and the pious Pawsome lightened his toil with selections from Sankey, and the perspiring Priestley hurried up his bullocks from the ration-paddock, and Sling Muck, the gardener, used his hoe among the callots and cabbagee, with the automatic stroke of a man brought up to one holiday per annum, and no Sunday. Meanwhile, the unreturning sands of Life dribbled through the unheeded isthmus of the Present Moment; and the fixed cone of the Past expanded; and the dimple deepened in the diminished and hurrying Future.
Nevertheless, I collected the wreckage of what had been very fair faculties, and attempted to grapple with an idea which Ida’s conversation had suggested. Finding this impossible, I made a mental memo. of the inspiration — and by the same token, I neatly utilised it within the next few hours. Your attention will be drawn to the circumstance in due season.
At mid-day, the bell sounded from the hut. Pawsome and the tribesmen quitted their work, and went to dinner. Priestley had started an hour before, bound for Nalrooka, with the remaining half of his load.
All the Levites, except Moriarty, were out on the run, but Martin, the head boundary rider, had timed himself for lunch. This man’s status was a vexed question. He certainly rated — but did he rate high enough for the barracks? As head boundary man, decidedly not; but as recent proprietor of a small station absorbed by Runnymede, he was not destitute of pretensions. Out in the open air, he was, of course, as good as any Levite, but —— Well, though we rather resented his presence in the Inner Court, we yielded him the benefit of the doubt; and he took that benefit, just as if he had been born in the purple, like ourselves.
Martin was an Orangeman of rank. He had attained the Black Degree. It was whispered that he held all the loyal brethren of Riverina under the whip, by reason of his being the only man in the region beyond the Murrumbidgee who could confer the Purple Degree. For, owing to an inherent haziness in the theses and aims of Orangeism, there are Orders in the Society as hard to attain as those German university degrees which no man ever took and had his eyesight perfect afterward; though, to be sure, there is a certain difference in the relative value of the two species of attainment.
Moriarty — whose front name was Felix — was, if anything, a Catholic; and, partly on this account, partly on account of his being a young fellow, and partly on account of Miss King, the governess, Martin set him. Now, there was just one man within a hundred miles who knew less of Irish History than Martin, and that man was Moriarty; consequently, the two jostled each other as they rushed into that branch of learning where scholars fear to tread — each repeatedly appealing to me for confirmation of his outlandish myths and clumsy fabrications. I listlessly confirmed anything and everything. Having lost all mental, as well as physical, energy where King John lost his regalia, namely, in the Wash, the line of least resistance was the line for me.
After a hearty lunch, I made my way back to the seat against the wall, while Moriarty lounged across to the store, and Martin went to speak to the High Priest at the door of the Sanctum Sanctorum. Then Martin mounted his horse, and rode away; and presently the tribesman, Jerry, brought a buggy and pair to the front door. Montgomery and Folkestone — the latter in knickerbockers — took their seats in the buggy, and whirled away down the horse-paddock fence. Then all was still, save for the faint pling-plong of a piano in the Holy of Holies.
Whom have we here? Moriarty to disturb me. Let him come. It is meat and drink to me to see a clown; by my faith, we that have good wits have much to answer for; we shall be flouting; we cannot hold. ——
The young Levite, closing the door of the store behind him, advanced with the indescribably weary step of a station man when the day is warm and the boss absent, and seated himself by my side.
“Why ain’t you in the barracks having one of your quiet palavers with Mrs Beaudesart?” he asked.
“Prithee be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk,” I murmured.
“Something I wanted to ask you, Collins,” he resumed; “but I’m beggared if I can think what it is. Slipped away like a snake, while you’re looking round for a stick. Singular how a person can’t remember a thing for the life of them, when once they forget it; and suddenly it crops up of its own accord when you’re not thinking of it.”
“Parse that,” said I, listlessly.
“Parse your granny!” he retorted. “I don’t believe you could parse it yourself, as clever as you think you are. Beggar conceitedness; beggar everything. I wish I was about forty.”
“And know as much as you do now?” I barely articulated.
“Yes — and know as much as I do now,” he repeated doggedly. “In fact, I never met anyone that knows as much as I do; but people won’t pay any attention to a young fellow, no matter if he was Solomon. That Martin wants a lift under the ear.”
“Does he?” I asked faintly. “I did n’t hear him express the desire.”
“Gosh! you’ve been on the turkey; you’ll be cutting yourself some of these times. I wish Toby was back with the mail. I hope he’ll forget to ask for your letters.”
“Now the Lord lighten thee; thou art a great fool,” I sighed. “What time does Toby generally get back?”
“Any time between two in the afternoon and sunrise next morning, according to the state of the mailman’s horses. Beggar such a life as this. At it, early and late; working through accounts, and serving-out rations, and one thing or another; and no more chance of distinguishing myself than if I was in jail. I can’t stand it much longer, and what’s more, I won’t. I wish the mail was in. I’ve got a presentiment of something good this time. If you don’t speculate, you won’t accumulate, as the saying is; and if a man can’t make a rise by some sort of gambling, he may as well lie down and die, straight-off. But the first rise is the difficulty; and, of course, you’ve got to take the risk.”
“What do you do with the rise when you get it?” I asked, drowsily.
“Why, distinguish yourself, of course — what else? There’s a great future sticking out for a fellow, if he’s got his head screwed on right.”
“So there is. Well, what shall it be? Mechanics? Fine opening for an inventive genius there — but you must be up and doing, as the poet says.”
“You had all the chances when you were my age,” replied Moriarty bitterly. “I’m too late arriving. Everything’s invented now.”
“True,” I observed. “I hadn’t thought of that objection. Then why not take up some interesting study, and work it out from post to finish? Political Economy, for instance?”
“Anybody could do that,” replied the young fellow contemptuously. “I want to distinguish myself.”
“Then I’ll tell you what you’ll do, Moriarty. Take a narrow branch of some scientific study, and restrict yourself to that. Say you devote your life to some special division of the Formicae?”
“Formicae. The name is plural. It embraces all the different species of ants.”
“Why, there’s only about three species of ants altogether; and there’s nothing to learn about them except that they make different kinds of hills, and give different kinds of bites. That sort of study would about suit you. Fat lot of distinction a person could get out of ants.”
“Still, every avenue to distinction is not closed,” I urged. “We’re knocking at the gates of Futurity for the Australian pioneer of poetry — fiction — philosophy — what not? You’ve got all the working plant ready in your office. There you are!”
“No use, Collins,” he replied hopelessly. “I’ve got the talent, right enough, but I haven’t got the patience. In fact, I’m too dash lazy.”
“Charge it on the swimming-hole, brother,” I sighed.
“No; I can’t very well do that. I haven’t been there for the last month. I’d go to-night if I had a horse.”
“Heavens above!” I murmured; “what would he be like if he was clean? He would distinguish himself in one direction. The material is there.”
“Jealousy, jealousy,” replied Moriarty disgustedly. “Never mind. I’ll make things hum yet. Do you know — I stand to win twenty-four notes on the regatta, besides my chance of the station sweep on the big Flemington, let alone private bets. We’ll get news of both events to-day; and I have a presentiment of something good. Gosh! I wish Toby was here!”
“And how much do you stand to lose, if your mozzle is out?” I asked. “By-the-way, didn’t I incidentally hear that you were playing cards all last Sunday?”
“I don’t believe that has anything to do with it,” replied Moriarty, in an altered tone. “But, to tell you the truth, I dare n’t count up how much I’ll lose if things go crooked. I’ve plunged too heavy — there’s no doubt about that — but I did it with the best intention. I made sure of scooping; and, for that matter, I make sure of it still. But whatever you do, don’t begin to preach about the evils of gambling — not now, Collins; not till after we get news of these events. Doesn’t everybody gamble, from the Governor downward — bar you, and a couple or three more sanctimonious old hypocrites, with one foot in the grave, and the other in the devil’s mouth? Why, Nosey Alf is the only fellow on this station that has no interest in the sweep, besides no end of private bets.”
“Is n’t that Toby?” I asked, indicating a horseman, half-a-mile away.
“Gosh, yes!” replied Moriarty nervously. “I wonder what brings him from that direction? Come, Collins — will you give me five to one he has letters for you? I’ll take it at that.”
“Indeed you won’t, sonny.”
“Well, let’s have some wager before he gets any nearer,” persisted Moriarty, with an unpleasant laugh. The suspense was beginning to tell upon a mind not originally cast in the Stoic mould. So much so, that I felt inclined to lose a trifle to him, even as a teetotaller would administer a nip to a man who was beginning to see things. “Come!” he continued recklessly; “I’ll give you two to one he has letters for you; twenty to one he has letters for the station”—— And so he gabbled on, whilst, drifting into my Hamlet-mood, I charted the poor fellow’s mind for my own edification.
“Hold on, Moriarty,” I interrupted, recalling myself. “Let’s hear that fifty-to-one offer again. Am I to understand that if Toby has letters for the station and none for me, you win; if he has letters for me and none for the station, I win; and, failing the fulfilment of either double, the wager is off?”
“That’s it. Are you on?”
“Make it a hundred to one.”
“Done! at a hundred to one — in what?”
“Half-sovereigns,” I replied, feeling for the purse which, vulgar as it is, bushmen even of aristocratic lineage are compelled to carry. I placed the little coin — about one-tenth of my total wealth — in Moriarty’s hand. He shrank from the touch.
“What do you mean?” he asked petulantly. “I might n’t win it, after all. Don’t be more disagreeable than you can help.”
“You intend to get it without giving an equivalent — don’t you? You know it’s yours. Are n’t you betting on a certainty? Lay it on the window-sill, if you like, and pick it up when you can read your title clear. If you don’t speculate, you won’t accumulate; and I suppose you’ve no objection to looking into the morality of your speculation”——
I had cleared my throat for a disquisition which would have been intolerable to the unprincipled reader, when a very curious thing arrested the attention both of Moriarty and myself — the strangest coincidence, perhaps, within the personal experience of either of us — a conjuncture, in fact, which for a moment threw us both staggering back on the theology of childhood. At the present time, I feel too meek to attempt any unravelment, and too haughty to offer any apology other than that such is life.
The half-caste had cantered up to the horse-paddock gate, had dismounted, had divested his horse of the saddle and bridle, and had given the animal a slap with the latter. Now he was depositing those equipments in the shed. Now he approached us, taking two letters and a newspaper from the tail-pocket of what had once been an expensive dress-coat of Montgomery’s.
“Yours, Collins,” said he. “Don’t say I never gave you nothing. Nix for you, Mr. (adj.) Moriarty.”
“You’re very laconic,” observed the storekeeper in a hollow voice, yet eyeing the prince sternly; “very laconic, indeed, I must say. If I was you, I would n’t be quite so laconic. How the (sheol) comes it that you did n’t fetch the mail?”
“Need n’t look in that paper for the Flemington, Collins,” said the heir-apparent; “she’s a day too soon. I took a squint at her, comin’ along.”
“I was asking how the (adj. sheol) you managed to come without the mail?” repeated Moriarty, with dignity.
“I heard you, right enough. I ain’t deaf. Well, I come on a moke. Think I padded it? Fact was, Moriarty, I met Magomery at Bailey’s Tank, an’ he told me to go like blazes to Scandalous Sandy’s hut, on Nalrooka, an’ tell him a lot o’ his sheep was boxed with ours in the Boree Paddick. ‘I’ll fetch the mail home myself,’ says he. There now.”
“And why didn’t you go to Scandalous Sandy’s?” nagged Moriarty.
“Well, considerin’ you’re boss o’ this station, an’ my bit o’ filthy lucre comes out o’ your pocket, I got great pleasure informin’ you I met ole Gladstone, comin’ to tell us the same yarn. Anything else you want to know?”
“Did you hear which crew won the regatta?” asked Moriarty, almost civilly.
“Sydney,” replied the prince. “Think you Port Phillipers could lick us?”
“That’s a lie!” exclaimed Moriarty, catching his breath.
“Right. It’s a lie, if you like. I got no stuff on it. See what Collins’ paper says. An’ now I feel like as if I could do a bit o’ dinner — unless you got any objections?”
He stalked away toward the hut, whilst I opened what turned out to be a love-letter — evidently intended for some other member of our diffusive clan, for I could make neither head nor tail of it; nothing, indeed, but heart, and such heart as it has never been my luck to capture. Meanwhile, Moriarty had cut the string of the newspaper, and was running his eye over its columns.
“My mozzle is out, Collins.” said he, with an effort. “I’ll never clear myself — never in the creation of cats. It’s all up!”
“Yes; you suffer by comparison with the sanctimonious old hypocrites now,” I replied, in a fatherly tone, as I took the half-sovereign from the window-sill. “Feel something like an overproof idiot — don’t you? We’ll talk about that presently. But see what I’ve got here.”
My second letter ran:—
K3769 No. 256473 Central Office of Unconsidered Trifles, Sydney, February 1, 1884.
Mr. T. Collins.
Sir — I am directed to inform you that the Deputy–Commissioner purposes visiting Nyngan on the I7th prox. You are required to attend the Office of the Department in that township at 11 a.m. on the day above mentioned, to furnish any information which he may require.
I am, Sir
“Not a whisper about the M-form,” I remarked. “Perhaps it’s in your mail. No odds. Montgomery can complete it, and send it on, just as well as if I had n’t been near the place at all. But here’s something like two hundred and thirty miles to be done in seven days — and the country in such a state. This is the balsam that the usuring senate pours into captains’ wounds. Never mind The time is only too near, when I’ll sit in my sumptuous office, retaliating all this on some future Deputy–Assistant-Sub–Inspector. And, in the meantime, this long dusty ride will make a man of me once more. I must start at once; and I could do with some money. Moriarty, you’re owing me fifty notes.”
“I know I am,” replied the storekeeper, in a quivering voice. He was as punctiliously honourable in some ways as he was perfidious in others — being amiably asinine in each extreme.
“Now, including your little liability to me, how much are you out, even if the Flemington gamble goes in your favour?” I asked.
“Only sixty-eight notes,” he faltered. “I’ll clear it, right enough, if I’m not rushed, and if I don’t get the sack off the station.”
“But, by every rule of analogy, you’re also badly left on the Flemington,” I continued serenely. “How much does that leave you out?”
“Ninety-seven notes, and my rifle,” he replied, steadying his voice by an effort. “Mad-mad-mad! I wish I were dead!”
“Will you swear of gambling altogether till my claim is discharged? On that condition, I can extend the time — say to the Greek Kalends.”
“If you think I could raise the money by that time,” replied the poor fellow dubiously. “Anyway, I give you my solemn promise. But, I say,” he continued, with seeming irrelevance —“when do you expect promotion?”
“At any moment. My presentiments, being based on the deepest inductions of science, and the subtlest intuitions of the higher philosophy, are a trifle more trustworthy than yours; and I have a presentiment that the thing is impending. But you need n’t congratulate me yet. Think about yourself.”
“That’s just what I’m doing. If you tell her about this wager, I’ll suicide, or clear.”
“Well, upon my word! Do you think I’d condescend to undermine you, you storekeeper? Look out for Martin; never mind me.”
“I don’t mean her,” mumbled the young fool; “I mean Mrs. Beaudesart. You’re going to marry her when you get your promotion — ain’t you?”
There was such evident sincerity in his tone that I maintained a stern and stony silence, whilst his eyes met mine with a doubtful, deprecating look; then he remarked doggedly,
“Well, that’s what she told Mrs. Montgomery, last Sunday; and she said it seriously. Miss King was present at the time; and she told Butler, and Mooney, and me, across the gate of the flower-garden, the same evening. Mrs. Beaudesart takes it for granted, and so does everybody else. She says she accepted you some time ago.”
“You lying dog!” I remarked wearily.
“I hope I may never stir alive off this seat if I’m not telling you the exact truth. Ask Mooney or Butler.”
“If I do sleep, would all my wealth would wake me,” I murmured, half-unconsciously.
“You don’t want to marry her, then, after all?”
“How long do you suppose I would last?”
“Well, don’t marry her.”
“Does it occur to you,” I asked, with some bitterness, “that there are some things a person can do, and some things he can’t do? If the head of my Department orders me to Nyngan, I can reply by letter, telling him to mind his own business, and not concern himself about me; but if Mrs. Beaudesart assumes — if she merely takes for granted — that I’m going to marry her, I must do it, to keep her in countenance. How, in the fiend’s name, can I slink out of it, now that I’m accepted? Can I tell her I’ve examined my heart, and I find I can only love her as a sister? Now, would n’t that sound well? No, no; I’m a done man. Of course, she had no business to accept me unawares; but as she has done so, I must help her to keep up the grisly fraud of feminine reluctance; for, as the abbot sings, so must the sacristan respond. It is kismet. This is how all these unaccountable marriages are brought about; though, to be sure, I have the dubious satisfaction of knowing that the enterprise brings me a good many days’ march nearer home.”
The expression of heavenly beatitude on Moriarty’s face goaded my mind to activity. Sweeping, with one glance, the whole horizon of expediency and possibility, I caught sight of the idea glanced at in a former page, and suggested, you will remember, by my dialogue with Ida.
“By the way, Moriarty,” said I; “respecting that trifling debt of honour — there’s another condition that I didn’t think of. As a sort of payment on account, you must privately and insidiously circulate a very grave scandal for me.”
“Well, I won’t!” exclaimed the young fellow, after a moment’s pause. “I don’t mind telling a lie when I’m driven to it; but a woman’s a woman. Do your own dirty work!”
“Then, by Jove, I’ll post you!”
If anyone had used this threat to me, I would have asked how the posting was usually done, and what results might be expected to follow; but Moriarty’s lip quivered under the threat.
“Do your worst,” said he, swallowing the lump in his throat.
“You may depend on that,” I replied quietly. “However, the scandal was only about myself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll enlighten you. I was going to ask you to take Nelson, or Mooney, or both of them, into your confidence. Then you would arrange that Mrs. Beaudesart should overhear you discussing some horrible scandal in connection with me. And mind, she would have to believe it, or you would be a ruined man for the rest of your life — you would be a defaulting gambler, a byword, a hissing, an astonishment, with the curse of Cain upon your brow. Then she would spurn me with contumely, and I would be my own man again. I would be in sanctuary, so to speak; inviolable by reason of my disgrace. Metaphorically, you could lay the blast, and fire it at your leisure, in my absence. I would leave all details to your own judgment, only holding you responsible for quality of fuse, and quantity of powder. I’d stand the explosion.”
“I’m on!” exclaimed Moriarty, brightening up. “Gosh! I’ll give you a character to rights! Mind, it’ll make you look small.”
“The smaller the better. I have a small aperture to crawl through, and no other means of escape. Of course, being innocent all the time, the scandal won’t even fizz on my inner consciousness. In fact, I’ll feel myself taking a rise out of everyone that believes the yarn; and I’ll live it down in good time. Now lay your plans carefully, Moriarty, and make a clean job of it, for your own sake.”
This being definitely settled, I soon demonstrated to the young fellow that his case, as regarded other liabilities, was by no means desperate; and his elastic temperament asserted itself at once. I may add, in passing, that he has never broken his anti-gambling pledge; also, that my £50 remains unpaid to this day.
“Now I must go and catch my horses,” said I. “Can you come?”
“Hold on,” replied Moriarty; “here comes Toby; we’ll send him.”
As the half-caste lounged out of the front door of the hut, the cook went out by the back door, and gathered an armful of firewood. Toby turned, and glided back into the hut, and, a moment later, the cook also re-entered, at the opposite side. Then the prince bounded out through the front door, with a triumphant grin on his brown face, and an enormous cockroach of black sugar in his hand. The next moment, a piece of firewood whizzed through the open door, smote H.R.H. full on Love of Approbation, ricochetted from his gun-metal skull, and banged against the weatherboard wall of an out-house.
“Will yo ever go home, I dunno?” laughed the prince, picking up his hat, while the baffled cook recovered his stick, and returned to the hut.
“Now what’s the use of arguing that a blackfellow belongs to the human race?” queried Moriarty — the last ripple of trouble having vanished from the serene shallowness of his mind. “That welt would have laid one of us out. And did you ever notice that a blackfellow or a half-caste can always clear himself when his horse comes down? The first thing a whitefellow thinks about, when he feels his horse gone, is to get out of the way of what’s coming; but it’s an even wager that he’s pinned. Never so with the inferior race. Now, last Boxing Day, when we had races here, we could see that the main event rested between Admiral Rodney — a big chestnut, belonging to a cove on a visit to the boss — with Toby in the saddle; and that grey of M’Murdo’s, Admiral Crichton, with”——
“Repeat that last name, please?”
“Admiral Cry-ton. That slews you! Did n’t I tell you you’d be cutting yourself? It’s M’Murdo’s own pronunciation; and if he doesn’t know the proper twang, I’m dash well sure you don’t; for he owns the horse. But wasn’t it a curious coincidence of name — considering that neither the owners nor the horses had ever met before? Well, Young Jack was to ride Admiral Crichton; and I had such faith in the horse, with Jack up, that I plunged thundering heavy on him. So did Nelson. But, by jingo, the more we saw of Admiral Rodney, the more frightened we got — in fact, we could see there was nothing for it but to stiffen Toby. Toby was to get a note if he won the big event, and nothing if he lost; but it paid us to give him two notes to run cronk”——
“One moment,” I interrupted —“just oblige me with the name and address of that horse’s owner?”
“Shut-up. It’s blown over now. But as I was telling you, the chestnut had been a few times round the course, under the owner’s eye, and he knew the road; and to make matters better, you might break the reins, but you could n’t get a give out of his mouth; and he could travel like a rifle-bullet; so when Toby tried to get him inside the posts, he pulled and reefed like fury, and bolted altogether; and came flying into the straight, a dozen lengths to the good. Of course, losing the race made a difference of a note to Toby; so he caught the horse’s shoulder with his spur, and turned him upside down, going at that bat. Then, to keep himself out of a row, he gammoned dead till we poured a pint of beer down his throat; and he lay groaning for two solid hours, winking now and then at Nelson and me. But that’ll just tell you the difference. Neither you nor I would be game to do a thing like that; we could n’t be trained to it; simply because we belong to a superior race. I say, Toby!”— for the half-caste had seated himself near Pawsome’s bench, and was there enjoying his cockroach — “off you go, like a good chap, and fetch Collins’s horses.
“Impidence ain’t worth a d — n, if it ain’t properly carried out,” replied the inferior creation. “Think you git a note a week jist for eatin’ your (adj.) tucker an’ orderin’ people about? I done my day’s work. Fork over that plug o’ tobacker you’re owin’ me about the lenth o’ that snake. Otherways, shut up. We ain’t on equal terms while that stick o’ tobacker’s between us.”
“I’ll straighten you some of these times,” replied Moriarty darkly. “It’s coming, Toby!”
“No catchee, no havee, ole son!” laughed the prince. “The divil resave ye, Paddy! Macushla, mavourneen, tare-an’-ouns! whirroo! Bloody ind to the Pope!”
“Toby,” said Moriarty, with a calmness intended to seem ominous; “if I had a gun in my hand, I’d shoot you like a wild-dog. But I suppose I’d get into trouble for it,” he continued scornfully.
“Jist the same’s for layin’ out a whitefeller,” assented the prince, still rasping at his cockroach, like Ugolini at the living skull of Ruggieri, in Dante’s airy conception of the place where wrongs are rectified. (That unhappy mannerism again, you see).
“Permit me to suggest,” said Moriarty, after a pause, “that if you contemplated your own origin and antecedents, it would assist you to approximate your relative position on this station. Don’t you think a trifle of subordination would be appropriate to”——
“A servile and halting imitation of Mrs. B.; and imitation is the sincerest flattery,” I commented. “I’ll tell Miss K.”
“Manners, please! — Appropriate, I was saying, to a blasted varmin like you? Permit me to remind you that Mrs. Montgomery, senior, gave a blanket for you when you were little.”
“I know she did,” replied the prince, with just a suspicion of vain-glory. “Nobody would be fool enough to give a blanket for you when you was little. Soolim!”
“Come on, Moriarty,” said I, rising; “I must take a bit off the near end of my journey to-night.”
“Howld your howlt, chaps,” interposed the good-natured half-caste “I’ll run up your horses for you. I was on’y takin’ a rise out o’ Mr. Mori —(adj.)— arty, Esquire; jist to learn him not to be quite so suddent.” And in another minute, he was striding down the paddock, with his bridle and stockwhip.
Half an hour later, my horses were equipped; and, all the Levites being absent, four or five tribesmen slowly collected under Pawsome’s shed, waiting to see what would happen. Cleopatra was not without reputation.
“Tell you what you better do,” said Moriarty to me —“better hang your socks on Nosey Alf’s crook to-night. His place is fifteen mile from here, and very little out of your way. Ill-natured, cranky beggar, Alf is — been on the pea — but there’s no end of grass in his paddock. And I say — get him to give you a tune or two on his fiddle. Something splendid I believe. He’s always getting music by post from Sydney. Montgomery had heard him sing and play, some time or other; and when old Mooney was here, just before last shearing, he sent Toby to tell Alf to come to the house in the evening, and bring his fiddle; and Alf came, very much against his grain. Young Mooney was asked into the house, on account of his dad being there; and he swears he never heard anything like Alf’s style; though the stubborn devil would n’t sing a word; nothing but play. And he was just as good on the piano as on the fiddle, though his hand must have been badly out. Mooney thinks he jibbed on singing because the women were there. Alf’s a mis-mis-mis-dash it”——
“Mischief-maker?” I suggested.
“No. — mis — mis”——
“No, no. — mis — mis”——
“Try a synonym.”
“Is that it? I think it is. Well Alf’s a misasynonym — womanhater — among other things. When he comes to the station, he dodges the women like a criminal. And the unsociable dog begged of Montgomery not to ask him to perform again. One night, Nelson was going past his place, and heard a concert going on, so he left his horse, and sneaked up to the wall; but the music suddenly stopped, and before Nelson knew, Nosey’s dog had the seat out of his pants. Nosey came out and apologised for the dog, and brought Nelson in to have some supper; and Nelson stayed till about twelve; but devil a squeak of the fiddle, or a line of a song, could he get out of Alf. But, as the boss says, Alf’s only mad enough to know the difference between an eagle-hawk and a saw — foolish expression, it seems to me. Best boundary man on the station, Alf is. Been in the Round Swamp Paddock five years now; and he’s likely a fixture for life. Boundary riding for some years in the Bland country before he came here. Now I’ll show you how you’ll fetch his place”— Moriarty began drawing a diagram on the ground with a stick —“You go through the Red Gate — we’ll call this the gate. The track branches there; and you follow this branch. It’s the Nalrooka track; and it takes you along here — mind, you’re going due east now”——
“Wait, Moriarty,” I interrupted —“don’t you see that you’re reversing everything? A man would have to stand on his head to understand that map. There is the north, and here is the south.”
“Don’t matter a beggar which is the real north and south. I’m showing you the way you’ve got to go. We’ll start afresh to please you. Through here — along here — and follow the same line from end to end of the pine-ridge, with the fence on your right all the way”——
“Hold on, hold on,” I again interrupted —“you’re at right angles now. Don’t you see that your line’s north and south? — and did you ever see a pine-ridge running north and south? Begin again. Say the Red Gate is here; and I turn along here. Now go ahead.”
“No, I’m dashed if I do! I’m no hand at directing; but, by gosh, you’re all there at understanding.”
“Jack,” said I, turning to the primeval t’other-sider —“can you direct me to Nosey Alf’s?”
“I’ll try,” replied the veteran; and he slowly drew a diagram, true to the points of the compass. “‘Ere’s the Red Gate — mind you shet it — then along ’ere, arf a mile. Through this gate — an’ mind ‘ow you leave ‘er, f’r the wire hinclines to slip hover. Then straight along ’ere, through the pine-ridge, f’m hend to hend. You’re hon the Nalrookar track, mind, t’ wot time you see a gate hin the fence as you’re a-kerryin’ hon yer right shoulder. Gate’s sebm mile f’m ’ere. Nalrookar track goes through that gate; b’t neb’ you mind; you keep straight ahead pas’ the gate, hon a pad you’ll ‘ar’ly see; han jist hat the fur hend o’ the pine-ridge you’ll strike hanuther gate; an’ you mus’ be very p’tic’lar shettin’ ‘er. Then take a hangle o’ fo’ty-five, with the pine-ridge hon yer back; an’ hin fo’ mile you’ll strike yer las’ gate —’ere, hin the co’ner. Take this fence hon yer right shoulder, an’ run ‘er down. B’t you’ll spot Half’s place, fur ahead, w’en you git to the gate, ef it ain’t night.”
“Thank you, Jack, I replied, and then imprudently continued —“It would suit some of these young pups to take a lesson from you.”
“You hain’t fur wrong,” replied the good old chronicle, that had so long walked hand in hand with Time. “Las’ year, hit war hall the cry, ‘Ole hon t’ we gits a holt o’ Cunnigarn’s mongreals!’—‘Ole hon t’ we gits a holt o’ Thompson’s mongreals!’—‘We’ll make hit ‘ot f’r ’em!’ Han wot war the hupshot? ‘Stiddy!’ ses Hi —‘w’e ‘s y’ proofs?’ ‘Proof be dam!’ ses they —‘don’t we know?’ They know a ‘ell of a lot! Has the sayin’ his:—‘Onct boys was boys, an’ men was men; but now boys his men, an’ men’s”—(I did n’t catch the rest of the sentence). “Han what were the hupshot? W’y, fact was Cunnigam an’ Thompson ‘ad bin workin’ hon hour ram-paddick wun night; an’ six Wogger steers got away, an’ a stag amongst ’em; makin’ f’r home; an’ they left a whaler mindin’ the wagons; an’ the two o’ them hover’auled the steers way down hin hour Sedan Paddick. Well, heverybody — Muster Magomery his self, no less — heverybody ses, ‘Ole hon t’ we gits a holt of ’em fellers’ mongreals! — bin leavin’ three o’ hour gates hopen; an’ the yowes an’ weaners is boxed; an’ puttin’ a file through Nosey Half’s ‘oss-paddick, an’ workin’ hon it with ‘er steers!’ ‘Stiddy!’ ses Hi —‘w’e’s y’r proofs?’ Way it war, Collings; ’ere come a dose o’ rain jis’ harter, an’ yer could n’t track. Well, wot war the hupshot? W’y, Warrigal Half war hunloadin’ hat Boottara; an’ a yaller bullick ‘e ‘d got, Pilot by name”——
“Yes,” I gently interposed. “Well, I’ll have to be”——
“‘Is Pilot starts by night f’m Boottara ration-paddick, an’ does ‘is thirty mile to hour ‘oss-paddick; an’ the hull menagerie tailin’ harter. ‘Shove ’em in ‘e yaad, Toby,’ ses Muster Magomery. Presinkly, up comes Half, an ‘is ‘oss hall of a lather. ‘Take yer dem mongreals,’ ses Muster Magomery; ‘an’ don’ hoversleep y’self agin.’ Think Half war goin’ ter flog ‘is hanimals thirty mile back? Not ’im”——
“It would hardly be right,” I agreed. “Well, I must be jogging”—
“Not ’im,” pursued Jack. “‘E turns horf o’ the main track t’ other side the ram-paddick; through the Patagoniar; leaves hall gates hopen; fetches Nosey’s place harter dark; houts file, an’ hin with ‘is mob, an’ gives ‘m a g-tful. Course, ‘e clears befo’ mo’nin’; an’ through hour Sedan Paddick, an’ back to Boottara that road. ‘Ow do Hi know hall this? — ses you?”
“Ah!” said I wisely. “Well, I must be”——
“No; you’re in for it,” chuckled Moriarty.
“Tole me ‘is hown self, not three weeks agone. Camped hat hour ram-paddick, shiftin’ Stewart’s things to Queensland. An’ wot war the hupshot? ‘Stiddy, now,’ ses Hi —‘w’e ‘s y’ proofs?’ ‘Some o’ these young pups horter take a lessing horf o’ you, Jack,’ ses you, jist now. You’re right, Collings. Did n’ Hi say, las’ lambin’— did n’ Hi say we war a-gwain ter hev sich anuther year as sixty-hate? Mostly kettle wot we hed then, afore the wool rose; an’ wild dogs bein’ plentiful them times; an’ we’d a sort o’ ‘ead stock-keeper, name o’ Bob Selkirk; an’ this feller ‘e started f’m ’ere with hate ‘underd an’ fo’ty sebm ‘ead”——
“And he would have his work cut out for him,” I remarked, in cordial assent. “You’ve seen some changes on this station, Jack. Well, I must be going.”
Leaving the old fellow talking, I threw the reins over Cleopatra’s head, and drew the near one a little the tightest. He stood motionless as a statue, and beautiful as a poet’s dream.
“Would n’t think that horse had a devil in him as big as a bulldog,” observed the horse-driver. “Shake the soul-bolt out of a man, s’posen you do stick to him.”
“And yet Collins can’t ride worth a cuss,” contributed Moriarty confidentially. “He’s just dropped to this fellow’s style. Boss wanted to see him on our Satan, but Collins knew a thundering sight better.”
A slight, loose-built lad, with a spur trailing at his right heel, advanced from the group.
“Would you mind lettin’ me take the feather-edge off o’ this feller?” he asked modestly. “If he slings me, you can git on-to him while he’s warm, an’ no harm done. I’d like to try that saddle,” he added, by way of excuse. “Minds me o’ one I got shook, five months ago, with a redheaded galoot I’d bin treatin’ like a brother, on account of him bein’ fly-blowed, an’ the both of us travellin’ the same road. Best shape saddle I ever had a leg over, that was. Will I have a try?”
“Not worth while, Jack,” I replied. “He might prop a little, certainly; but it’s only playfulness.” So I swung into the deep seat of the stolen saddle, and lightly touched the lotus-loving Memphian with both spurs.
First, a reeling, dancing, uncertain panorama of buildings, fences, and spectators; then a mechanical response to the surging, jerking, concussive saddle, and a guarded strain on the dragging reins. Also a tranquil cognisance of favourable comment, exchanged by competent judges — no excitement, no admiration, remember; not a trace of new-chum interest, but a certain dignified and judicious approbation, honourable alike to critic and artist. Fools admire, but men of wit approve.
“You see, it’s — only playfulness — I remarked indifferently; the words being punctuated by necessity, rather than by choice. Magnificent, but — not war. There’s not a-shadow of vice in his com-position. As the poet says:—
This is mere — madness, And thus awhile the — fit will work — on him. Anon as patient as the female — dove, When that her — golden couplets have dis — closed, His silence will — sit drooping.
There you are!” And Cleopatra stood still; slightly panting, it is true, but with lamb-like guilelessness in his madonna face.
Then, as the toilers of the station slowly dispersed to see about getting up an appetite for supper, Moriarty advanced, and laid both hands on Cleopatra’s mane.
“Collins!” he exclaimed; “I’m better pleased than if I had won ten bob. What do you think? — that verse you quoted from Shakespear brought the question to my mind like a shot of a gun; the very question I wanted to ask you a couple of hours ago. I know it’s been asked before; in fact, I met with it in an English magazine, where the writer uses the very words you quoted just now. I thought perhaps you had never met with the question, and it might interest you — Was Hamlet mad?”
Of some few amiable qualities with which it has pleased heaven to endow me beyond the majority of my fellows, a Marlborough-temper is by no means the least in importance. I looked down in the ingenuous face of the searcher after wisdom, quenching, like Malvolio, my familiar smile with an austere regard of control.
“Semper felix,” I observed hopelessly. “You’re right in saying that the question has been asked before. It has been asked. But daylight in the morning is the right time to enter on that inquiry. For the present, we must leave the world-wearied prince to rest in his ancestral vault, where he was laid by the pious hands of Horatio and Fortinbras — where, each in his narrow cell for ever laid, the rude forefathers of The Hamlet sleep.”
“Quotation — ain’t it?” suggested Moriarty critically.
“No.” I sighed.
“Well then, I’m beggared if I can see anything in that sort of an answer,” remarked the young fellow resentfully.
“Dear boy,” I replied; “I never imagined that you could. I would you had but the wit; ’twere better than your dukedom. By-the-way-what is Jack’s other name?”
“Which Jack? Old Jack, or Young Jack, or Jack the Shellback, or Fog-a-bolla Jack?”
“Young Jack; the chap that offered to ride Cleopatra.”
“Right. Good-bye. And remember our arrangement.”
“Good-bye, ole man. Depend your life on my straightness.”
Then I whistled to Pup, noticed that Bunyip had n’t got on the wrong side of the fence, and turned Cleopatra’s head toward the Bogan.
G. P. R. James rightly remarks that nothing is more promotive of thought than the walking pace of a horse. We may add that nothing on earth can soothe and purify like the canter; nothing strengthen and exhilarate like the gallop. The trot is passed over with such contempt as it deserves. So, for the first mile I was soothed and purified; for the next half-mile I busied myself on a metaphysical problem; and so on for about five miles.
The metaphysical difficulty (if you care about knowing) arose in connection with the singular issue of that preposterous wager. Whence came such an elaborate dispensation? If from above, it was plainly addressed to Moriarty, as a salutary check on his growing propensity; if from beneath, it must have been a last desperate attempt to decoy into evil ways one who was, perhaps, better worth enlisting than the average fat-head. To which of these sources would you trace the movement? Mind you, our grandfathers — to come no closer — would have piously taken the event on its face value of £50, as a blessing to the Prodistan, and a chastisement to the Papish. But we move. And, by my faith, we have need.
Presently I entered on the narrow pine-ridge; and now, carrying a line of fence on my right shoulder, I followed the pleasant track, winding through pine, wilga, needle-bush, quondong, and so forth. Two miles of this; then on my right appeared the white gate, through which ran the Nalrooka track. Up to this time, I had been following the route which a harsh usage of the country had interdicted to Priestley.
Montgomery and Folkestone, returning from their drive, had just come through this gate; the buggy, turned toward home, was on the track in front of me, and Montgomery was resuming his seat, after shutting the gate. The station mail-bag, loosely tied, was lying on the foot-board.
I had just done explaining where I was bound for, and on what business, and where I intended staying that night, when I nearly tumbled off my horse with a sort of white horror.
For straight behind the buggy, and less than eighty yards away, Priestley’s fourteen-bullock team came crawling along the fence, with the evident purpose of catching the Nalrooka track at the gate. Priestley had chanced it. Knowing every gate on the run, he had merely gone round the ration-paddock, and had already made a seven-mile stage in ten miles’ travelling — that is, losing three miles in the detour. Once through this gate, the track would be lovely, the wagon would chase the bullocks; evening would soon be on; he would fetch feed and water at the Faugh-a-ballagh Tank, in the quiet moonlight; moreover, if he met a boundary man, he could easily say he had permission from the boss; in any case, it would soon be not worth while to order him back; and he would be off the run some time to-morrow forenoon. I could read his thoughts as I looked at him across Montgomery’s shoulder. Concealed from distant observation by the timber of the pine-ridge, he had dismissed all apprehension, and allowed his mind to drift to a bend of the Murrumbidgee, a couple of miles above Hay. There were his young barbarians all at play; there was their dacent mother; he, their sire, looking blissfully forward to superhuman work, and plenty of it.
Straight into the lion’s mouth! Heaven help — but does heaven help the Scotch-navigator? I question it. Half an hour’s loafing, at any time during the day, would have timed his arrival so as not only to obviate the present danger, but to spare him the disquieting consciousness of narrow escape. And heaven helps those who help themselves
He knew the gate was near; and, with the automatic restlessness of an impatient dog tied under a travelling dray, he walked back and forward, backward and forward beside his weary team; often looking back to see the wagon clear the trees, but never, by any chance, looking forward against the blaze of the declining sun intently enough to notice the back of the buggy, partly concealed, as it was, by an umbrageous wilga. As I watched him, I wished, with Balaam, that there were a sword in mine hand, that I might slay the ass.
I dare n’t ride past the buggy, for fear of Montgomery looking round to say something. I half-heard him tell me that the Sydney crew had won the regatta, and that Jupiter was starting a hot favourite for the Flemington. And all this time, the unconscious son of perdition was crawling nearer; not a jolt nor a click-clock came from his wagon as it pressed the yielding soil; and the faint creaking of the tackle was drowned in the rustle of a hot wind through the foliage.
“I’m sorry to see you starting so late in the day, and Saturday too,” continued the squatter courteously. “The barracks will be lively to-night over these sporting events.”
I bowed. I would have licked the dust to see him stand not upon the order of his going, but go at once. “Well, I must be moving,” I mumbled hastily, glancing behind me at the sun, and backing Cleopatra into the scrub, to let the buggy pass — noting also that Priestley was n’t forty yards away.
“Now, confess the truth, Collins — you’ve been having a tiff with Mrs. Beaudesart?” continued Montgomery. “Lovers’ quarrel? That’s nothing. I did n’t think you were so pettish as to run away like this.”
“Indeed, Mr. Montgomery,” said I earnestly; “I assure you I’m only going at the call of duty. I’ll show”—— here it struck me that the production of my letter would delay things worse, and ——
“By the way, there’s a parcel for Alf Jones in the mail-bag,” continued the squatter, with hideous dilatoriness. “I see it’s a roll of music. Better take it. And his newspaper. Get him to give you a tune on his violin, if you can. It will be something to remember.”
“Thank you for the suggestion, sir,” I continued slavishly, whilst backing Cleopatra a little further into the scrub, and clearing my throat with a sharp, pentrating sound, as if I had swallowed a fly.
Just then, the bullocks stopped of their own accord, within ten yards of the buggy; and Priestley, pre-occupied in laying out fresh work for himself, was roused by my loud r-r-rehm! and took in the situation.
Montgomery seemed amused at my tribulation. “Why, your manner betrays you, Collins! Never mind. You’ll grow out of that in good time. When is it coming off?” He crossed his knees, and held the reins jammed between them, whilst deliberately filling and lighting his pipe. Meanwhile, Priestley, in silent communion with his Maker, stood by his team as if waiting to be photographed. The buggy was in a cool, pleasant shade; and Montgomery would maintain this flagitious procrastination of his managerial duties while I remained a butt for his ill-timed chaff. Critical is no name for the state of affairs.
But an angel seemed to whisper me soul to soul. I responded to the inspiration.
“Well, I’ll show you the letter, Mr. Montgomery,” said I, with a petulance tempered by sycophancy. I first felt, then slapped, my pockets —“By japers! I’ve left my pocket-book on the seat in front of the barracks!” I continued hurriedly, as I turned Cleopatra back toward the station, and bounded off at a canter. I had n’t gone five strides, when, flick! went the buggy-whip; the vehicle started after me; and Priestley was saved. But there is no such thing as permanent safety in this world. The first rattle of the wheels was followed by a loud, pompous, bank-director cough from one of the bullocks.
“Hullo! what the (sheol) have we here?” It was Montgomery’s voice, no longer jocular. I turned and rode back, as he swung his buggy round on the lock, skilfully threading the trees and scrub, till he resumed his old position, but now facing the bullock team. “And what, in the devil’s name, brings you round this quarter?” he demanded sternly. “This is a bad job!”
“You’re right, Mr. Magomery,” assented the bullock driver, with emphasis; “it is a bad job; it’s a (adj.) bad job. Way it comes: you see, I got a bit o’ loadin’ for Nalrookar”——
“Two-ton-five. I know all about that, though I’m not interested in the transaction,” retorted Montgomery. “I asked you what the (sheol) brings you here?”
“Well, that’s just what I was goin’ to explain when you took the word out o’ my mouth. You see, Mr. Magomery, the proper road for me would ‘a’ been back along the main track to the Cane-grass Swamp, an’ from there along the reg’lar Nalrookar track; but I was frightened o’ the Convincer, so I thought I’d just cut across”——
“Great God! You thought you’d just cut across! Do you own this run?
“Well, no, Mr. Magomery, I don’t; that’s (adj.) certain. But if I’d ‘a’ thought you’d any objection, I’d ‘a’ ast leaf.”
“That’s what you should have done. You’ve acted like a d —— d fool.”
“You’d ‘a’ give me leaf?” suggested the bullock driver, in a tone full of unspoken entreaty.
“I’d have seen you in (sheol) first. I decline to make a thoroughfare of the run. But by condescending to ask me, you’d have saved yourself some travelling. The nearest way to the main road is past the station. Here! rouse up your d —— d mongrels, and make a start along this track. I’ll see that you’re escorted. If you loose-out before you reach the main road, I shall certainly prosecute you. Once there, I’ll take care you don’t trespass again during this trip. Come! move yourself!”
Priestley had never been taught to order himself lowly and reverently to all his betters; yet there was deeper pathos in the rude dignity of his reply than could have attended servility.
“It s this way, Mr. Magomery — I don’t deny I got here in a sneakin’ way. I feel it, Mr. Magomery; by (sheol) I do. Still, I’m here now. Well, if I tackle this track out to the main road, there’s three o’ them bullocks’ll drop in yoke before I fetch the station. Would you like to see the bones layin’ aside this track, every time you drive past? I bet you what you like, you’d be sorry when your temper is over. Then we’ll say I’m out on the main road — how ‘m I goin’ to fetch Nalrooka? Not possible, the way I’m fixed. I would n’t do it to you, Mr. Magomery.”
I had ridden to the side of the buggy. “Mr. Montgomery,” said I; “I wish to heaven that you were under one-tenth of the obligation to me that I am under to you, so that I might venture to speak in this case. But the remembrance of so much consideration at your hands m the past, encourages me. There’s a great deal in what Priestley says; my own experience in bullock driving brings it home to me; and I sympathise with him, rather than with you. Of course the matter rests entirely in your hands; but to me it appears in the light of a responsibility. It is noble to have a squatter’s strength, but tyrannous to use it like a squatter.”
Something like a smile struggled to Montgomery’s sunburnt face; and I could see that the battle was over.
But another was impending. It was now half-an-hour since I had met the buggy. Folkestone had calmly ignored me from the first. When the trouble supervened, his haughty immobility had still sustained him at such an altitude as to render Priestley, as well as myself, invisible even to bird’s eye view. But the small soul, rattling about loose in the large, well-fed body, could n’t let it pass at that. On my interposing, he placed a gold-mounted glass in his eye, and, with a degress of rudeness which I have never seen equalled in a navvies’ camp, stared straight in my face till I had done speaking. Then the lens dropped from his eye, and he turned to his companion.
“Who is this person, Montgomery?” he asked.
The squatter looked plainly displeased. He was as proud as his guest, but in a different way. Folkestone, being a gentleman per se, was distinguished from the ordinary image of God by caste and culture; and to these he added a fatal self-consciousness. Don’t take me as saying that caste and culture could possibly have made him a boor; take me as saying that these had been powerless to avert the misfortune. He was a gentleman by the grace of God and the flunkeyism of man. Montgomery was also a gentleman, but only by virtue of his position. So that, for instance, Priestley’s personal fac-simile, appearing as a well-to-do squatter, would have been received on equal terms by Montgomery; whereas, Folkestone’s disdain would have been scarcely lessened. The relative manliness of the two types of ‘gentleman’ is a question which each student will judge according to his own fallen nature.
“Pardon me for saying that you Australians have queer ways of maintaining authority,” continued the European, lazily raising his eyebrows, and speaking with the accent — or rather, absence of accent — which, in an Englishman, denotes first-class education. “A vagrant, by appearance, and probably not overburdened with honesty, is found trespassing on your property; then this individual — by Gad, I feel curious to know who our learned brother for the defence is — bandies words with you on the other fellow’s behalf. I confess I rather like his style. I expected to hear him address you as ‘old boy,’ or ‘my dear fellow,’ or by some such affectionate title. Pardon my warmth, I say, Montgomery! but this phase of colonial life is new to me. Placed in your position (if my opinion, as a landlord, be worth anything), I should make an example of the trespassing scoundrel; partly as a tonic to himself, and partly as a lesson to this cad. If I rightly understand, you have the power to punish, by fine or imprisonment, any trespass on your sheep-walks. You don’t exercise your prerogative, you say? By Gad, you’ll have to exercise it, or, let me assure you, you will be sowing thorns for your children to reap. Here, I should imagine, is an excellent opportunity for vindication of your rights as a land owner.”
This reasoning would n’t have affected Montgomery’s foregone decision to suspend his own rights in the current case, had not Priestley been too industrious to notice the opening avenue of escape. But to the bullock driver’s troubled mind it appeared that he had managed to wander inside the wings of the stockyard of Fate, and that Folkestone was lending a willing hand to hurroo him into the crush. Moreover, the rough magnanimity of the man’s nature was outraged by some supposed insult sustained by me on his behalf.
Just three words of comment here. Built into the moral structure of each earthly probationer is a thermometer, graduated independently; and it is never safe to heat the individual to the boiling-point of his register. You never know how far up the scale this point is, unless you are very familiar with the particular thermometer under experiment. Romeo, for instance, pacific by nature, and self-schooled to forbearance by the second-strongest of inspirations, meets deadly public insult by the softest of answers —‘calm, dishonourable, vile submission,’ his friend calls it. But the slaying of that friend touches Romeo’s 212°Fahrenheit — then! ‘Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!’ Whereupon, Tybalt, the tamperer, is scalded to death. In Ida, as we have seen, the insinuated aspersion of unchastity touched 100°Centigrade; and the experimentalist was glad to retreat, with damaged dignity, from the escaping steam. So, in Priestley, the wanton hostility of Folkestone touched 80°Reaumur; and the billy boiled over, wasting the water, and smothering the owner with ashes.
One moment more, please. Nations, kindreds, and peoples are individuals in mass; and here the existence of an overlooked boiling-point is the one thing that makes history interesting. Cowper puts on paper a fine breezy English contempt for the submissiveness and ultra-royalism of the pre-Revolutionary French — and lives to wonder at the course of events. Macaulay’s diction rolls like the swelling of Jordan, as he expatiates on the absolute subserviency, the settled incapacity for resistance, of the Bengalee — till presently the Mutiny (a near thing, in two widely different senses, and confined to the Bengalee troops) shakes his credit. So it has ever been, and ever shall be. But for that ingrained endowment of resilience, Man would long ago have ceased to inhabit this planet.
When Priestley came to the boil, all considerations of expediency, all natural love of peace and fear of the wrath to come, all solicitude for wife and children, vanished from his mind, leaving him fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. I must suppress about half the language in which he clothed his one remaining thought.
“An’ who are you?” he thundered, advancing toward the buggy. “A loafer! — no better! — an’ you must shove in your lip! I don’t blame Magomery for bein’ nasty; he’s got a right to blaggard me, the way things is; an’ I give him credit. But you! Cr-r-ripes! if I had you a couple o’ hundred mile furder back, I’d learn you manners! I’d make you spring off o’ your tail!”
Folkestone, his head canted to a listening angle, noted with a half-amused, half-tired smile the outlaw’s tirade. Then he rose, drew off his light coat, and laid it across the back of the buggy seat.
“I will thump this fellow, Montgomery,” said he, and he certainly meant it. Priestley was a man of nine stone.
By your favour, once more, and only once. The Englishman proper is the pugilist of the world. The Australian or American maxima may be as brutal, or even more so, but the average efficiency in smiting with the fist of wickedness is, beyond all question, on the English side. ‘English fair play’ is a fine expression. It justifies the bashing of the puny drapers’ assistant by the big, hairy blacksmith; and this to the perfect satisfaction of both parties, if they are worthy the name of Englishmen. Also, the English gentleman may take off his coat to the potsherd of the earth; and so excellent is his discrimination that the combat will surely end even as your novelist describes; simply because no worshipper can make headway against his god, when the divinity hits back. At the same time, no insubordinate Englishman, named Crooked-nosed Yorkey, and made in proportion, ever did, or ever will, suffer manual mauling at the hands of an English gentleman — or any other gentleman, for that matter. What a fool the gentleman would be! No; Crooked-nosed Yorkey is always given in charge; and it takes three policemen to run him in.
English fair-play! Varnhagen von Ense tells us how Continental gentlemen envied the social usage which permitted Lord Castlereagh, in 1815, to show off his bruising ability at the expense of a Viennese cabman — probably some consumptive feather-weight, and certainly a man who had never seen a scrapping-match in his life. But English fair-play doesn’t stand transplantation to Australia, except in patches of suitable soil. For instance, when bar-loafer meets pimp, at £1 a side, then comes the raw-meat business. The back-country man, though saturnine, is very rarely quarrelsome, and almost never a pugilist; nevertheless, his foot on his native salt-bush, it is not advisable to assault him with any feebler weapon than rifle-and-bayonet. There is a radical difference, without a verbal distinction, between his and the Englishman’s notions of fair-play. Each is willing to content himself with the weapons provided by nature; but the Southern barbarian prefers a natural product about three feet long, and the thickness of your wrist at the butt — his conception of fair-play being qualified by a fixed resolution to prove himself the better counterfeit.
So Priestley, with a sinister glitter in his patient eyes, had reversed his whipstick, pliant end downward, and bent along the ground. He knew the nature of seasoned pine. A sharp jerk, and the whipstick would snap, supplying a nilla-nilla which would make him an over-match for a dozen Folkestones in rotation. My hand was on Cleopatra’s mane, and my off-foot clear of the stirrup; it would be a Christian act to save Foikestone from the father of a batin’, and Priestley from that sterner father, namely, old father antic, the law. But imminent as the collision seemed, it did n’t come-off.
“Sit down, Folkestone,” said Montgomery, holding his companion’s sleeve with a firm grip, whilst gazing steadily northward through the narrow fringe of timber. Following his eye, I saw a horseman, a mile and a half distant, heading for the homestead at a walk.
“Is that Arblaster, Collins?” demanded the squatter.
I brought my binocular to bear on the horseman. “Nelson,” I replied.
“Better still. Signal him.”
I galloped out into the plain, wheeled broadside on, and waved my hat. The equestrian profile changed to a narrow line, and I returned to the buggy, followed, at a decent interval, by Nelson. I was glad to see Priestley in the act of driving through the gate.
“Come, here, Priestley,” said Montgomery quietly. “You have my permission to follow this track to the Nalrooka boundary”——
“I hope I’ll git some slant to do as much”——
“Silence! — But if you trespass on my feed or water, by God I’ll prosecute you. Another thing. Never in future load anything for me, or come to this station expecting wool. And I may as well warn you that every boundary man in my employ will be on the look-out for you from this time forward. Nelson; you ride behind his wagon to the boundary, and see that he keeps the track.”— A frown gathered on the young fellow’s face, reinforced by a burning blush as Montgomery went on —“Perhaps you scarcely expected me to concur in your opinion, that one ought to spring a bit in a season like this; yet I have no intention of crushing a poor, decent, hard-working devil — that is, if he can add nine miles more to to-day’s stage, without unyoking. I have already given him a thorough good blackguarding for calculating upon crossing the run. If he trespasses on feed or water — if he does n’t go straight on with his team, wagon or no wagon — you and I may quarrel.” Who was the spy? Ah! who is the ubiquitous station spy?
“Good-bye, Mr. Montgomery,” said I abjectly.
“Are n’t you coming back to the station for your pocket-book?” he asked, with a glance out of the corner of his eye.
“I find I’ve got it here all the time — wonder how I came to overlook it.”
“Thinking too much about Mrs. Beaudesart,” suggested the squatter. “She won’t be at all displeased to hear of it. Good-bye, Collins. Safe Joumey.”
I raised my wideawake to Folkestone, who again placed his glass in his eye, and stared at me wonderingly till we tore ourselves apart.
Another mile, and I cleared the pine-ridge. Looking back to the right, I could see Priestley and his guard of honour crawling toward the Faugh-a-ballagh Sand-hills, which lay two miles from the gate where we had parted. They would reach the tank as twilight merged into moonlight. Then Nelson would say, ‘I’m going to have a drink of tea at Jack’s hut. I’ll be back in three or four hours. Pity you’re not allowed to loose-out, for there’s a grand bit of crow’s-foot round that pine tree in the hollow. Don’t kindle a fire, unless you want to get lagged.’ And Priestley would get to the boundary by ten o’clock on the morrow, without the loss of a beast; thanking heaven that he had n’t been escorted by Arblaster or Butler, and racking his invention to provide for the coming night. Also, Montgomery would, within a week, know all the details of the trip (station-spy again), but, being a white man, he would silently condone Nelson’s disobedience.
One more little incident enlivened the monotony of my journey to Alf’s hut. Whilst giving my horses a half-mile walk, I took out the newspaper Toby had brought. I did n’t look for any marginal marks, having recognised Jeff Rigby’s handwriting in the address. Rigby is a man who never writes except on his own account. His way of acknowledging a letter is to pick up a newspaper, of perhaps a month old, tie a string round it, stamp and address it, and drop it in the nearest letter-box. This paper, however, happened to be the latest available issue of a Melbourne daily, and contained a copious account of the regatta, followed by the coarsely-executed portrait of a young man, with the neck and shoulders — and, by one of Nature’s sad, yet just, compensations, also the face and head — of the average athlete. Rude as the engraving was, the subject of it at once suggested what the Life–Assurance canvassers call an ‘excellent risk’; and underneath ran the title: Mr. RUDOLPH WINTERBOTTOM— STROKE OF THE WINNING CREW. An ensuing paragraph briefly sketched the hero’s history, habits, and physical excellencies. He was twenty-two years of age; had a good position in the N.S.W. Civil Service; and was now on leave of absence. He was a non-smoker, a life-abstainer, and in a word, was distinguished in almost every branch of those gambol faculties which show a weak mind and an able body. It gave me quite a turn. Sic transit, thought I, with a sigh. Such is life.
The cranky boundary rider’s little weatherboard hut, standing just inside his horse-paddock fence, was neater than the average. The moonlight showed that a radius of five or six yards from the door had been swept with a broom; while some kerosene-tins, containing garden-flowers, occupied the angle formed by the chimney and the wall. The galvanised bucket and basin on the bench by the door were conspicuously clean; and the lamp-light showed through a green blind on the window.
A black-and-tan collie gave a few perfunctory barks as I drew near, whereupon Alf, with sleeves rolled up, and hands freshly blooded to the wrists, appeared at the door, and drew back on seeing me. I brought my horses through the gate, and he met me outside the hut; his hands washed, and his shirt-sleeves buttoned. He stood by, scarcely speaking, whilst I introduced myself, gave him his parcel and newspaper, and unsaddled my horses. Then I followed him into the hut, and he cleared away from the table the anatomy of a fine turkey, shot during the day. Sullenly he replenished the kettle, and put the fire together; then washed the table, and laid it for one.
But the newspaper revelation, in giving me a turn, had turned me philosophic-side-upward; and I cared little for Alf’s sullenness, provided he listened with attention to my discourse on the mutability of things. By the time he had poured out my tea, he was a vanquished man. He filled a cup for himself, to keep me company, and guardedly commented on the news I brought from the station and the Pine-ridge Gate. Still I was touched to observe that he kept his disfigured face averted as much as possible.
Did you ever reflect upon how much you have to be thankful for in the matter of noses? Your nose, in all probability, is your dram of eale — your club foot — your Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate — but you would look very queer without it. In your morbid hypercriticalness, you may wish this indocile, undisguisable, and most unsheltered feature had been made a little longer, or a little shorter, or a little wider, or not quite so wide. Or perhaps you wish the isthmus between your eyes a little higher or the ridge of the peninsula a little straighter, or the south cape a little more, or less, obtuse. Or possibly you wish that the front elevation (elevation is good) did not admit, through the natural grottoes above your moustache, so clear a perspective of the interior of Ambition’s airy hall — forcing upon you the conviction that your own early disregard of your mother’s repeated admonitions against wiping upward, had come home to you at last, and had come to stay. Check that rebellious spirit, I charge you. Your nose is good enough; better, probably, than you deserve; be thankful that you have one of any design at all.
This poor boundary man had none to speak of. And it seemed such a pity. More beautiful, otherwise, than a man’s face is justified in being, it was (apart from sex) as if Pygmalion’s masterpiece had fallen heavily, face downward, and then sprung into life, minus the feature which will least bear tampering with. The upper half of his nose was represented by an irregular scar, running off toward the left eye, which was dull and opaque; the other was splendid, soft, and luminous. And as he sat in the full light of the lamp, with his elbow on the table, in order to shade with his hand the middle part of his face, the combination of fine frontal development with exquisite and vigorous contour of mouth and chin was so striking that I involuntarily glanced round the hut for the book-shelf.
His lithe, graceful movements had at first led me to mark him down as a mere lad; but now the lamp-light showed a maze of incipient wrinkles on the sunburnt neck, and a few silver threads in the thick, strong, coalblack hair. Moreover, owing to inadvertence or ignorance on the part of people who should have known better, he had been christened in immediate succession to a girl. It is well and widely known that this oversight, small as it looks, will free a man for life from any rude inquiry as to when he is going to burn off the scrub. Alf had no scrub to burn off, except a faint moustache, unnoticeable but for its dark colour. For the rest, he was slightly above medium height and by no means a good stamp of a man — tapering the wrong way, if I might so put it without shocking the double-refined reader. And, from stiff serge jumper to German-silver spur, he (Alf, of course) was unbecomingly clean for Saturday. The somewhat wearisome minuteness of this description is owing to his being, at least in my estimation, the most interesting character within the scope of these scranny memoirs.
I looked round for the book-shelf. It was a bookcase this time; a flat packing-case, nailed to the wall, fitted with shelves, and curtained on the front. I rose and inspected the collection: fifty or sixty volumes altogether — poetry, drama, popular theology, reference, and a few miscellaneous works; history meagrely represented, science and yellow-back fiction not at all.
“You don’t find many people of my name in the country?” remarked the boundary man trivially, after a pause.
“Not many,” I replied, wondering whether he referred to his nickname or to the inexpensive, but lasting, gift of his godfathers and godmothers, at the time of their annoying mistake.
“I suppose you hardly know one,” he persisted.
“Not that I can think of,” I replied. “Have you any swapping-books?”
“Yes, you’ll find ‘Elsie Venne ‘ lying on top of the upper shelf.”
“I’ve read it years ago, but we’ll change,” I replied. “When I first got my swapping-book, it was by Hannah More; now it’s by Zola, and smutty enough at that; it has undergone about twenty intermediate metamorphoses, and it’s still going remarkably strong — in both senses of the word. Therefore I can recommend it.”
“I don’t think it does a person any good to read Zola,” remarked the boundary man gravely.
“Not the slightest, Alf — that is, in the works by which he is represented amongst us. But do you think it does a person any good to read Holmes? Zola has several phases; one of them, I admit, blue as heaven’s own tinct; but Holmes has only one phase, namely, pharisaism. Zola, even as we know him here in Riverina, has this advantage, that he gives you no rest for the sole of your foot — or rather, for the foot of your soul; whilst Holmes serenely seduces you to his own pinchbeck standard. Zola is honest; he never calls evil, good; whilst Holmes is spurious all through. Mind you, each has a genuine literary merit of his own.
“But don’t you like Holmes’s poetry?” asked Alf.
“Well, his poems fill a little volume that the world would be sorry to lose; but why did n’t he write one verse — just one — for the Abolitionists to quote?”
“Because it’s not in his nature to denounce things,” objected Alf.
“Neither was it in Longfellow’s nature; yet Longfellow’s poems on Slavery are judged worthy to form a separate section of his works. But Holmes can denounce most valiantly. He denounces witch-burning and Inquisition-persecution, like the chivalrous soul that he is. He has achieved the distinction of being the only American poet of note who blandly ignores Slavery, and takes part with the aristocrat, as against the lowly. The same spirit runs through all his writings. He has a range of about three notes: a flunkeyish koo-tooing to soap-bubble eminence; a tawdry sympathy with aristocratic woe; and a drivelling contempt for angular Poor Relations, in bombazine gowns. Bombazine, by-the-way, is a cheap, carpetty-looking fabric, built of shoddy, and generally used for home-made quilts”——
“No, it’s not! “ broke in Alf, with a rippling laugh; “it’s a very good dress-material; silk one way, and wool the other; and it’s mostly black, or maroon, or”—— he stopped with a gasp. “Why don’t you sit down?” he continued, in an altered tone. “And that reminds me, my day’s work’s not done yet.”
He cleared the table, and placed upon it his half-dissected turkey, in a milk-dish. I had the conversation to myself till he finished his work and took the turkey outside to hang it on the meat-pole. This was a sapling of fifteen or twenty feet high, with a fork at the top, through which ran a piece of clothes-line. I followed him to the door, discoursing on literature, whilst he attached one end of the clothes-line to the turkey’s legs, hauled it up to the fork, and hitched the fall of the rope to the pole. But just as the turkey reached its place, he had dropped his head with a movement of pain; and, after securing the rope, he groped his way into the hut, holding his hand over his right eye.
“Bit of bark, or something, dropped nght into my eye,” he muttered. “It does n’t suit me to have anything wrong with the one I have left.”
By the bright lamp-light, I soon relieved him of what proved to be a small ant; then he went out to the washing-bench, and I heard the dabbling of water.
“I got a grass-seed in my eye the New Year’s Day before last,” he remarked, in a sort of sullen self-commiseration, after we had sat in silence for a minute. “I could n’t see to catch a horse; and it took me about six hours to grope my way along the fences to Dick Templeton’s hut. I thought I’d have gone mad.”
“Ah!” said I sympathetically, “that reminds me of an incident that came under my own notice on the very day you speak of. I’ll tell you how it happened.” By this time, Alf had lit a meek and lowly meerschaum, whilst a large grey cat had jumped on his knees, and settled itself for repose. “You asked me awhile ago whether I knew anyone of your name in this part of the country. I forgot at the moment that one of my most profitable studies is a namesake of yours — Warrigal Alf, a carrier on these roads.”
“What’s his other name?” asked the boundary man, in a suppressed voice.
“Why don’t you call him so, then? I hate nicknames.”
Poor fellow, thought I, and I continued, “I was coming down from Cobar, with a single horse; and on the New Year’s Day before last, I reached the Yellow Tank — about forty miles from here, isn’t it? I left my saddle and things at the tank, and was taking my horse out to a place where there’s always a bit of grass, when I noticed a wagon in the scrub, and identified it as Alf’s”——
“Did you know him before?” murmured the boundary man.
“Is he a married man?”
“Widower?” repeated Alf, almost in a whisper. “Did you know his wife””
“Personally, no; inductively, yes. She was one of those indefinably dangerous women who sing men to destruction — one of those tawny-haired tigresses, with slumbrous dark eyes — name, Iolanthe.”
“Iolanthe de Vavasour,” I replied good-humouredly. “More appropriate than Molly — isn’t it?”
The boundary man, after picking up his pipe, which had fallen on the slumbering cat, fixed his Zitska eye on my face with a puzzled, shrinking, defiant look, whilst drawing his seat a little further away. Ah! years of solitary life, with the haunting consciousness of frightful disfigurement, had told on his mind. Moriarty was right. And I remembered that the moon was approaching the full.
“Alf was sitting under a hop-bush,” I continued, “with his hand across his eyes.
“‘What’s the matter, Alf?’ says I.
“‘Is that you, Collins?’ says he, trying to look up. ‘You’re just in time to do more for me than I would care about doing for you. I’ve met with an accident. I was lying on my back under the wagon this morning, tightening some nuts, when a bit of rust, or something, fell straight into my eye. Frightful pain; and it’s affecting the other eye already; giving me a foretaste of hell. No doubt it’s a good thing; but I don’t want a monopoly of it; I wish I could pass it round.’ This was Alf’s style of philosophy. Our friend, Iolanthe, is largely, though perhaps indirectly, responsible for it.”
“Yes — go on,” said the boundary man nervously.
“Well, as I was telling you, it was after sunset, and there was no time to lose, so I whittled a bit of wood to a point, and essayed the task in which I claim a certain eminence, namely, the extraction of a mote from my brother’s eye.
“‘You’re right, Alf,’ says I; ‘it’s a flake of rust, about the size of a fish’s scale, lodged on the coloured part, which we term the iris — or, strictly speaking, on that part of the cornea which covers the iris. But I can’t shift it with this appliance. Must get something sharper.’
“So I took a pin out of my coat, and grubbed the mote as well as I could by the deficient light. I don’t know what Alf thought of it at the time, but I considered it a lovely operation. When it was over, Alf signified to me that I wasn’t wanted any longer, so I went about my business.
“Next morning, as I was going toward my horse-bell, I gave my patient a purely professional call, and found his eye worse than ever. I subjected him to another examination; and, this time having the advantage of full daylight, I discovered that the cause of his trouble wasn’t a flake of rust, after all; but a small, barbed speck of clean iron, embedded in the white of the eye. I discovered something else. Alf’s eyes are as blue as those of Zola’s Nana; and in the iris of the affected one there is, or rather was, a brown spot. I had often noticed this before; but, in the defective light, and the hurry of the operation, I had never thought of the thing and had wasted time and skill on it, as I tell you. I have often laughed to remember
“You were badly off for something to laugh at!” Again I recalled Monarty’s remark; for the boundary man’s voice trembled as he spoke, and his splendid eye blazed with sudden resentment. But the fit passed away instantly, and he asked, in his usual subdued tone, “When did you see this — this Alf Morris last?”
“About two months ago,” I replied. “He was camped at that time in the Dead Man’s Bend, at the junction of Avondale and Mondunbarra.”
“When are you likely to see him again?” asked the boundary man. “But, of course, you can’t tell. It’s a foolish question. I don’t know what’s come over me to-night.”
Ignorance is bliss, in that instance, poor fellow! thought I, glancing out at the weirdly beautiful moonlight; and I replied, “Most likely I’ll never see him again. These wool-tracks, that knew him so well, will know him no more again for ever. He’s gone to a warmer climate.”
“That decides it!” muttered the lunatic, swaying on his seat, whilst he clutched the edge of the table.
“Alf! Alf!” I remonstrated; laying my hand on his shoulder. He shrank from the touch, and immediately recovered himself. “Let me explain, I continued soothingly. “He has gone four or five months’ journey due north, in charge of three teams loaded with lares and penates and tools, and cooking utensils, and rations, and other things too numerous to particularise, belonging once to Kooltopa, but now to a new station in South-western Queensland. Hence I say he’s gone to a warmer climate. Not much of a joke, I admit.”
“And what’s — what’s become of Kooltopa?” asked the boundary man, panting under his effort at self-control.
“Old times are changed, old manners gone; a stranger fills the Stewart’s throne,” I replied, with real sadness. “Kooltopa’s sold to a Melbourne company, and is going to be worked for all it’s worth. And I’m thinking of the carrier, coming down with the survivors of a severe trip, and the penniless pedestrian, striking the station at the eleventh hour. These people will miss Stewart badly.
For the guest flies the hall, and the vassal from labour, Since his turban was cleft by the infidel’s sabre.”
“Whose turban?” asked Alf, with a puzzled look.
“Stewart’s. I spake but by a metaphor. As with Antony, ’tis one of those odd tricks that sorrow shoots out of the mind.”
There was a few minutes’ silence. I was thinking of the Christian squatter, and so, no doubt, was many another wanderer at the same moment.
“But he’ll come back to Riverina when he delivers the loading?” suggested the boundary man.
“This — Alf Morris.”
“I don’t think so. I know he does n’t intend it.”
Another pause. Glancing at my companion, as he sat with his elbows on the table, and one hand, as usual, across the middle of his face, I noticed his chest heaving unnaturally, and his shapely lips losing their deep colour.
“Are you sick, Alf?”
“Yes — a little,” he whispered.
I filled a cup at the water-bag, and set it before him. He drank part of it.
“Quakers’ meeting!” he remarked at length, with a slight laugh. “Why don’t you say something? I’m not much of a talker myself, but I’m a good listener. Tell us some yarn to pass the time. Anything you like. Tell us all about that camp on the Lachlan, and what passed between you and your friend, Morris.”
Upon this hint I spake. I recounted consecutively the incidents which form the subject of an earlier chapter, whilst an occasional inquiry, or an appreciative nod, proved my eccentric auditor in touch with me from first to last.
“Three or four weeks afterward,” I continued, “I met this Bob Stirling in Mossgeil. He had a bit of a head on him at the time, having just got through five notes — three from Stewart, and two from Alf. I got a bob’s worth of brandy to straighten him up; and we had a drink of tea together, while my horses went through a small feed of bad chaff at sixpence a pound.
“His account was, that Stewart, after parting from me, drove straight to Alf’s camp, and deposited him there to look after things. Stewart himself only stayed a few minutes, and then drove to Avondale, to see Mr. Wentworth St. John Ffrench, Terrible Tommy’s boss. Next morning, a wagonette came from Avondale, with a few parcels of eatables, and a few bottles of drinkables, and other sinful lusts of the flesh. Four days after that, again, Stewart drove round on his way back to Kooltopa. By this time, Alf was able to crawl about, trying his best to be civil to Bob, and succeeding fairly well for a non-smoker.
“However, when Stewart called, he got into a yarn with Alf, and had a drink of tea while Bob held the horses. Presently, according to Bob’s account, the conversation grew closer; and, after an hour or so, Stewart told Bob to unharness the horses, and hobble them out where they could get a bite of grass. Altogether, Stewart stayed about half a day. In a few days more, Alf was able to yoke and unyoke a few quiet bullocks; then he and Bob started for Kooltopa together. Arrived at their destination, Stewart and Alf each paid Bob, as already hinted; and Bob, having urgent business in Mossgeil, hurried away to transact it. He had just completed the deal when I met him.”
Here I paused to light my pipe.
“And what makes you think he has left Riverina for good?” asked the boundary man absently.
“Catch him leaving Riverina. He knows he has a good character as a quiet, decent, innoffensive sundowner — nobody’s enemy but his own — and experience has taught him that any kind of tolerable reputation is better than no reputation at all.”
“I don’t mean him,” said the boundary man constrainedly.
“Of course not. I beg your pardon. Well, I heard it from himself. I met him about three weeks ago — that would be about three weeks after my interview with Bob Stirling. He’s fairly in love with what he saw of Queensland, before last shearing; and, between bad seasons and selectors — not to mention his own presentiment of a rabbit-plague — he’s full-up of Riverina. But that reminds me that I have n’t brought Alf Morris’s story to a proper conclusion. I heard the rest of it from Stewart, on the occasion I speak of. Stewart has bought his plant, and engaged him permanently. His first business is to take Stewart’s teams to their destination — no easy matter at this time of the year, and such a year as this; but if any man can do it, that man is Alf. He started some weeks ago, a little shaky after his sickness, but recovering fast. Entirely changed in disposition, Stewart tells me; and those who know him will agree that a change would n’t be out of place. But Stewart speaks of him as one of the noblest-minded men he ever knew. He says he just wants a man like Alf, and he does n’t intend to part with him. I fancy our love of paradox makes us prone to associate noble-mindedness with cantankerousness — at all events, nobody ever called me noble-minded. But such is life.”
“Then this new situation is a permanent thing for him?” suggested the boundary man.
“For Alf? No; I’m sorry to say, it’s not.”
“Because Stewart’s about sixty, and Alf’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of thirty-seven. The Carlisle-tables would give Stewart an actuarial expectation of ten or fifteen years, and Alf one of twenty-five or thirty. And there will be old-man changes in the personnel of the station staff when the grand old Christian sleeps with his fathers, and his dirty-flash son reigns in his stead. Such, again, is life. But this won’t affect Alf’s interests to any ruinous extent. He has a stockingful of his own. It’s a well-known fact that few carriers of Riverina cleared as much money as he did, and probably not one spent less. Stewart gave him £200 for his plant, and he never broke the cheque; posted it whole; Stewart himself took charge of it, as he told me in his gossiping way. Let Alf alone. He knows how to come in out of the wet; in fact, the rainy day is his strong point. Such, for the third and last time, is life.”
Whilst I spoke, my unfortunate companion was persistently trying to light his empty pipe, his hands trembling, and his breath quickening. The Maroo fly was at him again. I tried to divert his attention.
“By the way,” said I; “did n’t you blame Thompson and Cunningham for duffing in your horse-paddock, ten or twelve months ago?”
“I didn’t make any song about it,” replied the boundary rider half-resentfully.
“Of course not. Still you owe them an apology — which I shall be happy to convey, if you wish it. Alf Morris was the depredator. He was hovering about your hut that night like a guardian angel, while his twenty bullocks had their knife-bars going double-speed on your grass, and you slept the sleep of the unsuspecting. Ask old Jack; he’ll give you chapter and verse, without much pressing. He told me about it this afternoon.”
But the fit came on, after all. The boundary man stared at me with a wild, shrinking look, and the same paling of the lips I had noticed before; then he drank the remaining water out of the cup, and, rising from his seat, walked slowly to his bed, and lay down with his face toward the wall.
Far gone, i’ faith, thought I. Presently I went to the door, and, shoring up one of the posts with my shoulder, looked out upon the cool, white moonlight, flooding the level landscape.
Strange phenomena follow the footsteps of Night. It has long been observed that avalanches and landslips occur most frequently about midnight, and especially on moonless midnights, when the sun and moon are in conjunction at the nadir. This is the time when mines cave in; when loose bark falls from trees; when limbs crash down from old, dead timber; when snow-laden branches break; when all ponderable bodies, of relatively slight restraint, are most apt to lose their hold. This may be definitely and satisfactorily accounted for by the mere operation of Newton’s Law. At the time, and under the conditions, specified, the conjoined attraction of sun and moon — an attraction sufficient to sway millions of tons of water, in the spring tides — is superadded to the centric gravity of the earth, the triple force, at the moment of midnight, tending toward the nadir, or downward. So that, when these midnight phenomena are most observable at one point of the globe, they will be least likely to make mid-day manifestation at the antipodes to that point.
And, though changes of the moon — as copiously proved by meteorological statistics — have no relation whatever to rainfall, the illuminated moon, on rising, will rarely fail to clear a clouded sky. This singular influence is exercised solely by the cold light of that dead satellite producing an effect which the sunlight, though two hundred times as intense1, is altogether powerless to rival in kind. When we can explain the nature of this force adherent to moonlight, and to no other light, we may inquire why, in all ages and in all lands, the verdict of experience points to moonlight as a factor in the production and aggravation of lunacy. An empirical hypothesis, of course; but in the better sense, as well as in the worse. For the perturbing influence of moonlight, if it be a myth, is about the most tenacious one on earth. This anomalous form of Force may or may not be observable in asylums, where the patients are not directly subjected to it; but anyone who has lived in the back country, camping out with all sorts and conditions of oddities, need not be accounted credulous if he holds the word ‘lunatic’ to rest on a sounder derivation than ‘ill-starred,’ or ‘disastrous.’
1 NOTE— The proportional intensity of sunlight to moonlight is subject to fluctuations, from many causes, and is therefore variously stated. The highest accepted ratio is 600,000 to 1.; the lowest 200,000 to 1. A constutional repugnance to anything savouring of effect prompted me to indicate the lower proportion. The error in the text unfortunately escaped observation. — T.C.)
But the sub-tropical moonlight — strong, chaste, and beautiful as its ideal queen — soothes and elevates the well-balanced mind. I took from my pack-saddle the double-tongued jews-harp I always carry; and, sitting on the floor with my back against the door-post, unbound the instrument from its square stick, and began to play. It is not the highest class of music, I am well aware; and this paragraph is dictated by no shallow impulse of self-glorification. But I never had opportunity to master any more complicated instrument; and even if I had, it would n’t be much use, for I know only about three tunes, and these by no means perfectly.
So I played softly and voluptuously, till my scanty repertory was exhausted, and then drifted into a tender capriccio. I noticed Alf move uneasily on his bed; but, knowing the effect of music on my own mind, and remembering Moriarty’s and Montgomery’s independent panegyrics on the boundary man’s skill, I felt put on my mettle, and performed with a power and feeling which surprised myself.
“Do you like music?” asked Alf, at length.
“Like it!” I repeated. “I would give one-fourth of the residue of my life to be a good singer and musician. As it is, I’m not much of a player, and still less of a vocalist; but I’ll give you a song if you like. How sweetly everything sounds to-night?” Bee-o-buoy-bee-o-buoy-bee-o-buoy ——
“Do you like jews-harp music?” interrupted Alf, sitting up on the bed.
“Not if I could play any better instrument — such as the violin, or the concertina; though I should in any case avoid the piano, for fear of flattening the ends of my fingers. Still, the jews-harp is a jews-harp; and this is the very best I could find in the market. Humble as it looks, and humble as it undeniably is, it has sounded in every nook and corner of Riverina. Last time I took it out, it was to give a poor, consumptive old blackfellow a treat, and now, you see, I tune, to please a peasant’s ear, the harp a king had loved to bear.” Bee-o-buoy-bee-o-buoy-bee-o-bee-o-bee-o-buoy ——
“I’ll give you a tune on the violin, if you like,” exclaimed my companion, rising to his feet.
I carefully re-packed my simple instrument, while the boundary man took from its case a dusky, dark-brown violin. Then he turned down the lamp till a mere bead of flame showed above the burner, resumed his seat by the table, and, after some preliminary screwing and testing, began to play.
Query: If the relation of moonlight to insanity is a thing to be derided, what shall we say of the influence of music on the normal mind? Is it not equally unaccountable in operation, however indisputable in effect? Contemplate music from a scientific standpoint — that is, merely as a succession of sound-waves, conveyed from the instrument to the ear by pulsations of the atmosphere, or of some other intervening medium. Music is thus reduced to a series of definite vibrations, a certain number of which constitute a note. Each separate note has three distinct properties, or attributes. First, its intensity, or loudness, which is governed by the height, depth, amplitude — for these amount to the same thing — of the waves produced in the medium. Second, the timbre, or quality, which is regulated by the shape, or outline, of these waves. Third the pitch, high or low, which is controlled by the distance from crest to crest of the sound-waves — or, as we say, from node to node of the vibrations.
To the most sensitive human ear, the highest limit of audibleness is reached by sound-waves estimated at twenty-eight-hundredths of an inch from node to node — equal to 48,000 vibrations per second. The extreme of lowness to which our sense of hearing is susceptible, has been placed at 75 feet from node to node — or 15 vibrations per second. This total range of audibleness covers 12 octaves; running, of course, far above and far below the domain of music. The extreme highness and lowness of sounds which convey musical impression are represented, respectively, by 2,000 and by 30 vibrations per second — or by sound — waves, in the former case, of 6 1/2 inches, and in the latter, of 37 1/2 feet.
Therefore, there are not only sounds which by reason of highness or lowness are unmusical, but, beyond these, others to which the tympanum of the human ear is insensible. Nature is alive with such sounds, each carrying its three distinct properties of intensity, timbre and pitch; but whilst this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close us in, we can no more hear them than we can hear the ‘music of the spheres’— apt term for that celestial harmony of motion which guides the myriad orbs of the Universe in their career through Space. But, to take an illustration from the visual faculty: any sound beyond the highest limit of audibleness would resemble a surface lined so minutely and closely as to appear perfectly plain; whilst a sound too low in pitch to be heard would be represented by superficial undulations of land or water so vast in extent that the idea of unevenness would not occur. We have fairly trustworthy evidence that whales communicate with each other by notes so low in pitch — by sound-vibrations so long in range, so few per second — that no human ear can detect them. Bats, on the other hand, utter calls so high-producing such rapid pulsations — as to be equally inaudible to us
Unison of musical notes is attained when the respective numbers of pulsations per second admit a low common-divisor. For instance, the note produced by 60 vibrations per second will chord with one produced by 120 — each node of the former coinciding with each alternate node of the latter. 60 and 90 will also chord; 60 and 70 will produce discord; 60 and 65, worse discord. And so on. The science of musical composition lies in the management of sound-pulsation, and is governed by certain rigid mathematical laws — which laws the composer need not understand.
Air-movement may, of course, take place without sound-vibration, for air is only incidentally a sound-conductor. Earth, metal, water, and especially wood (along the grain), are better media than the atmosphere, for the transmission of sound. But sound may be transmitted without vibration of intervening sound-media. The electric current, passing along the telephone wire, picks up the sound waves at one end, and instantaneously deposits them, in good order and condition, at the other end — say, a couple of hundred miles away.
So that the brilliant pianist of the concert hall; the cornet-player of the “Army” ring; the blind fiddler at the corner; the mother, singing her angel-donation to sleep; Clancy, thundering forth something concerning his broken heart, whilst tailing up the stringing cattle; the canary in its cage; the magpie on the fence — are each setting in motion the complex machinery of music, and with about equal scientific knowledge of what they are doing. To the philosophic mind, however, they are not playing or singing; they are producing and controlling sound-vibrations, arbitrarily varied in duration and quality; a series of such pulsations constituting a note; a series of notes constituting an air. These vibrations are diffused from the instrument or the lips, at a speed varying with temperature, media, and other conditions; they ripple, spread, percolate, everywhere; they penetrate and saturate all solids and gases, yet are palpable corporeally only to the tympanum of the ear, and mechanically (as yet) only to the diaphragm of the phonograph.
Such, however, is the scientific analysis of music. Spoken language appeals by the same process, but with very different effect. No one can understand a language which he has not previously learned, word by word; and the verbal appeal, however imaginative or spiritual, comes in concrete form — that is, in the nature of information. Spoken words inform the emotional side of our nature, through the intellectual; whereas music, operating outwardly in the same manner, speaks over the head of intellect to an inborn sense which ceases not to receive as a little child. And herein lies its mystery.
For the music thus impassively anatomised by Science is a voice from the Unseen, pregnant with meaning beyond translation. A mere ripple of sound-vibration, called into existence by human touch; a creation, vanishing from its birth, elusive, irreclaimable as a departing soul, yet strong to sway heart and hand as the tornado sways the pliant pine. It is a language peculiar to no period, race, or caste. Ageless and universal, it raises to highest daring, or suffuses with tenderness, to-day and here, as once on Argo’s deck, or in the halls of Persepolis. Purely material in origin and analysis, easily explicable in mere physical operation, its influence is one of the things that are not dreamt of in the philosophy of Science. Why should a certain psychological effect ensue upon certain untranslatable sounds being placed in a given relation to each other, and not when the same sounds are placed in another relation? — and why should that effect be always upward? Why should the composer be perforce a prophet of the sphere above earth’s murky horizon — the musician his interpreter — charged with embassy of peace, and fortitude, and new-born ardour, to the troubled, and weary, and heavy-laden? Has ingenuity never distilled from music any spirit of evil?
None. Euterpe alone of the Muses defies seduction. Harmony is intrinsically chaste. There is no secular music; all music is sacred. Whatever the song the Sirens sang, its music was pure; and no less pure were the notes which breathed from Nero’s lute, whilst the blaze of ten thousand homes glutted his Imperial lust for spectacle. Divorce the unworthy song, stay the voluptuous dance, and the music suffers no clinging defilement; the redeemed melodies, stainless as fresh-fallen snow, may be wedded to songs of gallant aspiration or angelic sympathy, which shall raise the soul awhile above earth’s sordid infection, disclosing the inextinguishable affinity of the divine part of man’s dual nature with the dream-like possibility of Eden — purity, and fearless faith, and love unspeakable.
The story of the Thracian lyre soothing the horrors of the underworld, and melting to relentment its gloomy king — the story of the shepherd-minstrel’s harp chasing the shapeless penumbra of looming insanity from the first Hebrew brow crowned in Jehovah’s despite — the story of the mighty prophet Elisha, fettered to earth by wrath and scorn till, at his own command, the music swelled, and his enfranchised spirit rose on its viewless wings to behold the veiled Future already woven from the tangled skein of the troubled Present — the thousand-fold story of music’s magic and mystery, stretches back into the forgotten Past, and onward into the imagined Future.
Onward into the fathomless eternity; for though ‘the heaven of each is but what each desires’— though the Aryan heaven be a place of gradation and precedence, a realm to reign in — though the heaven of the Jewish apostle-seer burn with the gold and sparkle with the gems dear to his race — though the paradise of the sun-scorched Arab be dark with shade of evergreen trees, and cool with ripple of never-failing streams — yet is the universal art so intertwined with ideal bliss that no heaven of conscious enjoyment has been pictured by belated humanity but music rings for ever there. For alas! what else of mundane achievement can fancy conceive as reproduced in regions of eternal perfection, or transplanted thither? Science is of the earth; ever bearing sad penalty, in toil of mind and body — and what art, save music, has man dedicated to Deity-worship, without disappointment and loss? Doubtfully, Architecture; and for such consecration we have found no more expressive name than ‘frozen music.’
This unknown anchorite’s playing was both a mystery and a revelation. I had never before heard anything to compare with it, nor do I expect ever to hear the like again. Talent, taste, feeling, were there, all in superlative degree, and disclosed with the unassuming confidence of power; whilst long and loving practice in solitude had averted a certain artificiality which, in the judgment of the uninitiated, generally accompanies musical skill. His was no triumphant mastery of a complicated and perplexing score; he was a sympathetic interpreter, a life-breathing, magic-lending exponent of his composer’s revelations, now his own. Solitary practice, with no one but himself to please, would unavoidably give a distinct character to his performance, and this character was evident from the first; it was melancholy — a weary, wistful melancholy, beyond repining or tears, beyond impatience or passion; it was the involuntary record of a gentle heart breaking slowly under discipline untempered by one ray of earthly hope.
My own incompetence to identify by name a tune which I spiritually recognise is, perhaps, the most disgraceful manifestation of my neglected musical education — at all events, it is the one which causes me most uneasiness. Experience has warned me never to ask a player for the ‘Marseillaise,’ or ‘Croppies Lie Down,’ or what not; for he is pretty sure to say, ‘Why, that’s just what I’ve been giving you,’ or words to similar effect. Alf at last grew tired of my non-committal remarks and replies, and, with a tact which impressed me more afterward than at the time, named each tune before and after playing it. For instance, the yearning tenderness of an exquisitely rendered air would seem to bring back some lost consciousness of an earlier and happier existence, suffusing my whole being with a pensive sadness not to be exchanged for any joy. I would feel the notes familiar, but whether of five years or five million years before, or whether in the body or out of the body, I could n’t tell. Alf, on concluding, would simply murmur, “Home, Sweet Home,” and all would be explained. Then, perhaps, he would say, “The Last Rose of Summer”; and I would be able to follow him intelligently right through.
But he did n’t confine himself to the comfortable vulgarity of popular airs. He played selections from Handel, Mozart, Wagner, and I don’t know whom; while the time passed unnoticed by both of us. At length he laid the violin across his knees, and, after a pause, his voice rose in one of the sweetest songs ever woven from words. And such a voice! — rich, soft, transcendent, yet suggesting ungauged resources of enchantment unconsciously held in reserve. I sat entranced as verse after verse flowed slowly on, every syllable clear and distinct as in speech; the subtle tyranny of vocal harmony admitting no intruding thought beyond a regretful sense that the song must end.
But sorrow’s sel’ wears past, Jean, And joy’s a-comin’ fast, Jean, The joy that’s aye to last, I’ the land o’ the leal.
A’ our freens are gane, Jean, We’ve lang been left alane, Jean. We’ll a’ meet again I’ the land o’ the leal.
“How happy Jean Armour must have been to be with poor Burns, while this cold world seemed to slip away from his feet, and leave him to rest with his forgiving Saviour,” murmured the boundary man, laying his violin on the table, whilst he gazed absently into the expiring fire. “That song was composed by Burns, on his death-bed. Is n’t it beautiful?”
“It is one of the most beautiful songs in the language,” I replied; “but Burns is not the author. The song was composed by a woman — Baroness Nairne. It is not for men to write in that strain. As for Jean Armour — well, she had a good deal to forgive, too.”
“Ah! do you think a woman loves less because she has much to forgive?” returned Alf sadly, and then added, with sudden interest, “But what difference do you notice between the poetry of men and women? What is the mark of women’s work?”
“Sincerity,” I replied. “Notwithstanding Mrs. Hemans, and others, you will find that, as a rule, men’s poetry is superior to women’s, not only in vigour, but in grace. This is not strange, for grace is, after all, a display of force, an aspect of strength. But in the quality of sincerity, woman is a good first. Take an illustration, while I think of it: Compare the verses of my ancestor, Collins, ‘On the Grave of Thompson,’ with Eliza Cook’s verses, ‘On the Grave of Good’"——
“But Collins was never married,” interposed Alf.
“True,” I replied pleasantly. “But our family is aristocratic, and a baton-sinister only sets us off. However, in the two poems I was speaking of, the subject matter is similar; the pieces are about the same length and the writers have adopted the same iambic octo-syllable, with alternate rhymes. Now, my ancestor’s poem is not excelled in grace by anything within the range of our literature; but there’s nothing else in it whatever. Eliza Cook’s versification is, in a measure, forced and imperfect, her language occasionally homely and rugged, but the strong beating of a sincere, sympathetic heart is audible in every line.”
“But your ancestor is the most artificial writer of an artificial school, and Eliza Cook is the most spontaneous writer of a spontaneous school,” replied Alf, with the contradictive impulse which amusingly accompanied his teachableness. “Of course,” he added deprecatingly, “I would n’t presume to criticise such a poet as Collins; but you said, yourself”——
“Oh, that’s all right,” said I generously. “However, though your argument blunts the force of my illustration, it does n’t weaken my contention. You’ll find the distinction I’ve pointed-out hold good in a greater or less degree throughout literature; you’ll find examples by the thousand, and of course, exceptions by the dozen. But sing again, Alf, please. Every minute you’re silent, is a minute wasted. Sing anything you like — only sing.”
“I wanted to have a talk,” remonstrated Alf. “You were speaking of the difference between men and women in their literary work. I believe you’re right, though it never struck me before. Now there’s another question that might be worth comparing notes upon. Your remark just brought it into my mind. Here it is”— he hesitated a moment, then went on, with a certain constraint in his voice; the constraint we are apt to feel when forced to plump out the word ‘love,’ in its narrower sense —“When women love, they don’t know why they love; they just love because they do — so they say, and we’re bound to believe them. But when we love women, why do we love them? Being more logical, we ought to know. Do we love a woman for her beauty? — or for her virtues? — or for her accomplishments? — or for what? I fancy, if we understood ourselves, we should be able to say we loved her for some particular quality; and the others are — as you might say — Oh, you know! What quality is it, then, that we love a woman for? There’s a problem for you!”
“I can solve it with mathematical certainty, Alf — that is to say, in such a manner as to convey the impossibility of the solution being otherwise than according to my finding. When I’m allowed to work-out these things in my own circuitous way — which is seldom the case — there are few questions in moral or psychological philosophy which the commission of my years and art can to no issue of true honour bring. But you have to sing six songs first. I’ll leave the choice of them to yourself.”
“Very well,” replied Alf readily. “I’ll sing the songs as they come to my mind. Remember your promise, now.”
Then, rich, soft, and sweet, rose that exquisite voice in easy volume, flooding with new and vivid meaning old familiar verses. Here was my opportunity. I was interested in this boundary man, and resolved to know his history. Rejecting Alf Jones as an assumed name, Nomenology would be at fault here; yet knowing already, by a kind of incommunicable intuition, that he was a Sydney-sider, and had been in some way connected with the drapery-business, I expected to have my knowledge so supplemented by the character of his songs, that — counting reasonably on a little further information, to be gathered before my departure — I should be able to work-out his biography at least as correctly as biographies are generally worked-out.
For the esoteric side of his history, I counted much on his spontaneous choice of songs. Man is but a lyre (in both senses of the phonetically-taken word, unfortunately); and some salient experience, some fire-graven thought, some clinging hope, is the plectrum which strikes the passive chords. An old truism will bear expansion here, till it embraces the rule that, whatever else a man may sing, he always sings himself. But you must know how to interpret.
I have said that melancholy was the key-note of Alf’s playing. Fused with this, and deeply coloured by it, the tendency of his songs was toward love, and love alone — chaste, supersensuous, but purely human and exclusive love. No suggestion of national inspiration; no broad human sympathies; no echo of the oppressed ones’ cry; no stern challenge of wrong; only a hopeless, undying love, and an unspeakable self-pity. He wasn’t even a lyre; he was a pipe for Fortune’s finger to sound what stop she pleased; and, judging from the tone of his playing, and the selection of his songs, it had pleased that irresponsible goddess to attune the chords of his being to a love, pure as heaven, sad as earth, and hopeless as the other place.
Who is she? thought I.
Silence again sank on the faint yellow lamplight of the hut, as the last syllables of the sixth song died mournfully away —‘She is far from the Land where Her Young Hero Sleeps.’ Then the boundary rider lit his pipe, and slightly moved his seat, placing himself in an easy listening attitude, with his elbow on the table, and his hand across his face.
“Alf,” said I impressively; “you’ll certainly find yourself shot into outer darkness, if you don’t alter your hand. You’re recklessly transgressing the lesson set forth in the parable of the Talents. Don’t you know it’s wrong to bury yourself here, eating your own life away with melancholia, seeing that you’re gifted as you are? Maestros, and highclass critics, and other unwholesomely cultured people, might possibly sit on you, or damn you with faint praise; but you could afford to take chance of that, for beyond all doubt, the million would idolise you. I’m not looking at the business aspect of the thing; I’m thinking of the humanising influence you would exercise, and the happiness you would confer, and, altogether, of the unmixed good that would lie to your credit, if you made the intended use of your Lord’s money. And here you are, burying it in the earth.”
“O, I would n’t be here, I suppose, only for the disfigurement of my face,” he replied, swallowing a sob.
“That’s nothing,” I interjected, deeply pained by his allusion, and inwardly soliciting forgiveness without repentance whilst I spoke. “Did the British think less of Nelson — Did Lady Hamilton think less of him, if it comes to that — for the loss of his arm and his eye? Why, even the conceited German students value scars on the face more than academic honours. Believe me, Alf, while a man merely conducts himself as a man, his scars need n’t cost him a thought; but if he’s an artist, as you are, what might otherwise be a disfigurement becomes the highest claim to respect and sympathy. It’s pure effeminancy to brood over such things, for that’s just where we have the advantage of women. ‘A woman’s first duty,’ says the proverb, ‘is to be beautiful.’ If Lady Hamilton had been minus an eye and an arm, she would scarcely have attained her unfortunate celebrity.”
The boundary man laid down his pipe, rested his forehead on his arm upon the table, and for a minute or two sobbed like a child. It was dreadful to see him. He was worse than Ida, in an argument with Mrs. Beaudesart; he was as bad as an Australian judge, passing mitigated sentence on some well-connected criminal.
Presently he rose, and walked unsteadily to the other end of the hut; his dog, with a low, pathetic whine, following him. Perceiving that he was off again, I turned up the flame of the lamp, with a view to neutralising the effect of the moonlight.
“Are you not well, Alf? ”
No answer. He was lying on his back on the bed, one arm across his face, and the other hanging down; whilst his dog, crouched at the bedside, was silently licking the brown fingers. Then my eye happened to fall on the American clock over the fire-place. Not that time, surely! But my watch had beaten the clock by ten minutes.
“I say, Alf; I don’t know how to apologise for keeping you up till this time. It’s half-past eleven.”
Still no answer. I brought in my possum-rug, and began to spread it on the floor. Alf had risen, and rolled his blankets back off the bed. He now took out the mattress of dried grass, and laid it on the floor, then re-arranged his blankets.
“But I certainly won’t rob you of your tick,” said I. “One characteristic of childhood I still retain is the ability to sleep anywhere, like a dog.”
“You must take it, if you sleep in this hut,” he replied curtly. “Take that too.” He handed me his feather pillow.
“Do you shut your door at nights?” I asked. “Because, if you do, I’ll chain Pup to the fence. He likes to go in and out at his own pleasure; and, if he found himself shut-out, he might get lost.”
“It can stay open to-night,” replied Alf.
“Right,” said I; and I began to disrobe, as I always do when circumstances permit. Sleeping with your clothes on is slovenly; sleeping with your spurs on is, in addition, ruinously destructive to even the strongest bed-clothes.
“By-the-way, Alf,” I remarked, as I pulled off my socks; “I was forgetting your problem. The solution is clear enough to me, but the inquiry opens out no end of side-issues, each of which must be followed out to its re-intersection with the main line of argument, if we wish to leave our conclusion unassailable at any point. The question, then, is: Do we love a woman for her beauty, for her virtues, or for her accomplishments? Now let us make sure of our terminology.” I paused, but Alf maintained silence.
“In the first place,” I continued, kicking off the garment which it is unlawful even to name, “we must inquire what the personal beauty of woman is, and wherein it consists. It consists in approximation to a given ideal; and this ideal is not absolute; it is elastic in respect of races and civilisations, though each type may be regarded as more or less rigid within its own domain. Passing over such racial ideals as the Hottentot Venus, and waiving comparison between the Riverine ideal of fifty years ago and that of to-day, we have the typical Eve of Flanders as one ideal, and the typical Eve of Italy as another.” Again I paused, but Alf remained silent.
“Moreover,” I continued, settling myself down into the comfortable mattress — “if no specimen of classic art had survived the dark ages, I question whether we would implicitly accept as our present ideal the chiselled profile, in which physiognomists fail to find any special indications of moral or intellectual excellence. But when we based our modern civilisation on the relics of classic Greece — directly, or through Rome — we naturally accepted the ideal of beauty then and there current. Attila or Abderrahman might have deflected the European standard of beauty into a widely different ideal, but it was not to be. And we’re too prone to accept our classic ideal as being identified with civilisation and refinement. We should remember that the flat features of the Coptic ideal looked out on high attainments in art and science when our Hellenic archetypes, in spite of their chiselled profiles, were drifting across from the Hindo–Koosh, in the blanket-and-tomahawk stage of civilisation. Also, the slant-eyed ideal of China has a decent record. Further still, the German is facially coarser, and mentally higher, than the Circassian.” Again I paused.
“Are n’t you sleepy?” asked Alf, gently but significantly.
“I ought to be,” I replied, humouring his present caprice, though grieved to withhold the solution which he had so earnestly desired an hour before. “Just as the secondary use of the bee is to make honey, and his primary one to teach us habits of industry, so the secondary use of the hen is to lay eggs, and her primary one to teach us proper hours. But, unfortunately, we don’t avail ourselves of the lessons written for us in the Book of Nature; we simply eat the honey and the eggs, allowing our capability and god-like reason to fust in us, unused. Such is life, Alf.” And in thirty seconds I was asleep.
On awaking, as usual, to listen for bells, I became conscious of something between a sigh and a groan, outside the hut. This was repeated again and again, until, actuated by compassion rather than curiosity, I crept to the door, and looked out. Six or eight yards away, Alf was kneeling at the fence, his arms on one of the wires, and the poor, disfigured face, wet with tears, turned westward to the pitiless moon, now just setting.
Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd, thought I; and it then occurred to me that my own acute, philosophic temperament was one of the things I ought to be thankful for. But I couldn’t feel thankful; I could only feel powerless and half-resentful in the presence of a distress which seemed proof against palliative, let alone antidote. At length the moon disappeared; then the boundary man’s forehead sank on his arms, a calm came over him, and I knew that his shapeless vagaries had taken form in prayer. So I withdrew to my possum-rug, speculating on the mysterious effect of a ray of lunar light on grey matter protected by various plies of apparently well-arranged natural armour.
When I woke again, the early sunlight was streaming through the open door, and Alf, with a short veil of crape concealing the middle of his face, was frying chops at the fire. The fit had passed away, and he was perfectly sane and cheerful.
My first solicitude was for Pup, but I soon saw that he was more than merely safe. He was lying at the foot of the meat-pole, gorged like a boa-constrictor, while a pair of half-chewed feet, still attached to the loosened rope, were all that remained of the turkey. Probably he had stood on his hind-feet, scratching at the rope, till the hitch, hurriedly secured in the first place, had come undone. I was too well accustomed to such things to feel any embarrassment; and as for Alf, I couldn’t help thinking that the loss of his turkey enhanced the cordiality of his manner.
“Grandest dog I’ve seen for years,” he remarked, as he set the table. “Do you get many kangaroos with him?”
“Oh, no,” I replied; “I never get one, and don’t intend to. I never let him go after anything. It’s quite enough, and sometimes more than enough, for him to do his regular travelling. The hot weather comes very severe on him; in fact, some days I have to give him a drink every hour, or oftener. Then he has the hard ground to contend with; and when the rain comes, the dirt sticks between his toes, and annoys him. Windy weather is bad for him, too; and frost puts a set on him altogether. Then he’s always swarming with fleas, and in addition to that, the flies have a particular fancy for him. And, seeing that one half of the population is always plotting to steal him, and the other half trying to poison him, while, for his own part, he has a confirmed habit of getting lost, you may be sure we have plenty to occupy our minds, without thinking about kangaroos. He’s considerably more trouble to me than all my money, but he’s worth it. As you say, he’s a fine dog. I don’t know what I should do without him.”
“I don’t know what I should do without my dog, either,” replied Alf. And he related some marvellous stories of the animal’s sagacity; to which, of course, I could n’t respond on Pup’s behalf.
Then, whilst we saddled-up and rode off together at a walk, the conversation naturally drifted to horses, until about ten o’clock, when we stopped at a little wicket-gate in the north-east corner of Alf’s ten-by-five paddock.
“You’re in the Patagonia Paddock now,” said he, as I passed through the gate. “You’ll strike the track in six miles. Can I do anything for you at the station?” he added, after a pause. “Any message, or anything?”
“By-the-way, yes, Alf, if you’ll be so good. When will you be going across?”
“To-day,” he replied. “I’m not going round the paddock.”
I drew my writing-case from Bunyip’s pack; and this was the note I pencilled:—
Wallaby Track, l0/ 2/‘84
When you remarked, yesterday, that the saddle on my horse was very like one that a red-headed galoot had stolen from you, you displayed a creditable acuteness, combined with a still more creditable unsuspiciousness. It was your saddle once, but it is yours no longer. It is mine.
Demand not how the prize I hold;
It was not given, nor lent, nor sold
You will find three one-pound notes in this letter. Please accept the same as compensation for loss of the article in question. This is all you are likely to get; for though the saddle is honestly worth about twice that amount, my conscience now acquits me in the matter; moreover, my official salary is so judiciously proportioned to my frugal requirements that I can afford no more. If you duly receive this money, and at the same time feel hopelessly mystified concerning the saddle, a double purpose will be fulfilled.
Yours, in a manner of speaking,
“I’ll put this into Jack’s hand, if I live,” said the boundary man, with amusing solemnity, as he buttoned his jumper-pocket over the letter.
“Thank you, Alf. And now,” I continued, retaining for a moment the hand he extended in farewell —“take my advice, and, while you’re at the station, give Montgomery notice. Let some more capable boundary man take your place. You’re not worth your damper at this work; for no man’s ability is comprehensive enough to cover musical proficiency such as yours, and leave the narrowest flap available for anything else. I can see through you like glass. I could write your biography. And, believe me, you’re no more fitted for this life than you are to preside over a school of Stoic Philosophy. You’re a reed, shaken by the wind. Be a man, Alf. Turn your face eastward or southward, and challenge Fortune with your violin and your voice.”
He made no reply, but below the edge of the crape mask I saw his lips move, as he bent his head in unconscious acquiescence.
A quarter of an hour afterward, I looked back to see him and his history a shapeless speck, far away along the diminishing perspective of the line of fence. There was something impressive in the recollection that, during the whole of our companionship, he had never uttered one objectionable or uncharitable word, nor attempted any witticism respecting Mrs. Beaudesart.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54