Just a fortnight before Christmas, 1871, a young man, twenty-four years of age, returned home to his dinner about eight o’clock in the evening. He was married, and with him and his wife lived his wife’s sister. At that somewhat late hour he walked in among the two young women, and another much older woman who was preparing the table for dinner. The wife and the wife’s sister each had a child in her lap, the elder having seen some fifteen months of its existence, and the younger three months. “He has been out since seven, and I don’t think he’s had a mouthful,” the wife had just said. “Oh, Harry, you must be half starved,” she exclaimed, jumping up to greet him, and throwing her arm round his bare neck.
“I’m about whole melted,” he said, as he kissed her. “In the name of charity give me a nobbler. I did get a bit of damper and a pannikin of tea up at the German’s hut; but I never was so hot or so thirsty in my life. We’re going to have it in earnest this time. Old Bates says that when the gum leaves crackle, as they do now, before Christmas, there won’t be a blade of grass by the end of February.”
“I hate Old Bates,” said the wife. “He always prophesies evil, and complains about his rations.”
“He knows more about sheep than any man this side of the Mary,” said her husband. From all this I trust the reader will understand that the Christmas to which he is introduced is not the Christmas with which he is intimate on this side of the equator — a Christmas of blazing fires indoors, and of sleet arid snow and frost outside — but the Christmas of Australia, in which happy land the Christmas fires are apt to be lighted — or to light themselves — when they are by no means needed.
The young man who had just returned home had on a flannel shirt, a pair of mole-skin trowsers, and an old straw hat, battered nearly out of all shape. He had no coat, no waistcoat, no braces, and nothing round his neck. Round his waist there was a strap or belt, from the front of which hung a small pouch, and, behind, a knife in a case. And stuck into a loop in the belt, made for the purpose, there was a small brier-wood pipe. As he dashed his hat off, wiped his brow, and threw himself into a rocking-chair, he certainly was rough to look at, but by all who understood Australian life he would have been taken to be a gentleman. He was a young squatter, well known west of the Mary River, in Queensland. Harry Heathcote of Gangoil, who owned 30,000 sheep of his own, was a magistrate in those parts, and able to hold his own among his neighbors, whether rough or gentle; and some neighbors he had, very rough, who made it almost necessary that a man should be able to be rough also, on occasions, if he desired to live among them without injury. Heathcote of Gangoil could do all that. Men said of him that he was too imperious, too masterful, too much inclined to think that all things should be made to go as he would have them. Young as he was, he had been altogether his own master since he was of age — and not only his own master, but the master also of all with whom he was brought into contact from day to day. In his life he conversed but seldom with any but those who were dependent on him, nor had he done so for the last three years. At an age at which young men at home are still subject to pastors and masters, he had sprung at once into patriarchal power, and, being a man determined to thrive, had become laborious and thoughtful beyond his years.
Harry Heathcote had been left an orphan, with a small fortune in money, when he was fourteen. For two years after that he had consented to remain quietly at school, but at sixteen he declared his purpose of emigrating. Boys less than himself in stature got above him at school, and he had not liked it. For a twelvemonth he was opposed by his guardian; but at the end of the year he was fitted forth for the colony. The guardian was not sorry to be quit of him, but prophesied that he would be home again before a year was over. The lad had not returned, and it was now a settled conviction among all who knew him that he would make or mar his fortune in the new land that he had chosen.
He was a tall, well-made young fellow, with fair hair and a good-humored smile, but ever carrying in his countenance marks of what his enemies called pig-headedness, his acquaintances obstinacy, and those who loved him firmness. His acquaintances were, perhaps, right, for he certainly was obstinate. He would take no man’s advice, he would submit himself to no man, and in the conduct of his own business preferred to trust to his own insight than to the experience of others. It would sometimes occur that he had to pay heavily for his obstinacy. But, on the other hand, the lessons which he learned he learned thoroughly. And he was kept right in his trade by his own indefatigable industry. That trade was the growth of wool. He was a breeder of sheep on a Queensland sheep-run, and his flocks ran far afield over a vast territory of which he was the only lord. His house was near the river Mary, and beyond the river his domain did not extend; but around him on his own side of the river he could ride for ten miles in each direction without getting off his own pastures. He was master, as far as his mastership went, of 120,000 acres — almost an English county — and it was the pride of his heart to put his foot off his own territory as seldom as possible. He sent his wool annually down to Brisbane, and received his stores, tea and sugar, flour and brandy, boots, clothes, tobacco, etc., once or twice a year from thence. But the traffic did not require his own presence at the city. So self-contained was the working of the establishment that he was never called away by his business, unless he went to see some lot of highly bred sheep which he might feel disposed to buy; and as for pleasure, it had come to be altogether beyond the purpose of his life to go in quest of that. When the work of the day was over, he would lie at his length upon rugs in the veranda, with a pipe in his mouth, while his wife sat over him reading a play of Shakspeare or the last novel that had come to them from England.
He had married a fair girl, the orphan daughter of a bankrupt squatter whom be had met in Sydney, and had brought her and her sister into the Queensland bush with him. His wife idolized him. His sister-inlaw, Kate Daly, loved him dearly — as she had cause to do, for he had proved himself to be a very brother to her; but she feared him also somewhat. The people about the Mary said that she was fairer and sweeter to look at even than the elder sister. Mrs. Heathcote was the taller of the two, and the larger-featured. She certainly was the higher in intellect, and the fittest to be the mistress of such an establishment as that at Gangoil.
When he had washed his hands and face, and had swallowed the very copious but weak allowance of brandy-and-water which his wife mixed for him, he took the eldest boy on his lap and fondled him. “By George!” he said, “old fellow, you sha’n’t be a squatter.”
“Why not, Harry?” asked his wife.
“Because I don’t want him to break his heart every day of his life.”
“Are you always breaking yours? I thought your heart was pretty well hardened now.”
“When a man talks of his heart, you and Kate are thinking of loves and doves, of course.”
“I wasn’t thinking of loves and doves, Harry,” said Kate.” I was thinking how very hot it must have been today. We could only bear it in the veranda by keeping the blinds always wet. I don’t wonder that you were troubled.”
“That comes from heaven or Providence, or from something that one knows to be unassailable, and therefore one can put up with it. Even if one gets a sun-stroke one does not complain. The sun has a right to be there, and is no interloper, like a free-selector. I can’t understand why free-selectors and mosquitoes should have been introduced into the arrangements of the world.”
“I s’pose the poor must live somewheres, and ‘squiters too,” said Mrs. Growler, the old maid-servant, as she put a boiled leg of mutton on the table. “Now, Mr. Harry, if you’re hungered, there’s something for you to eat in spite of the free-selectors.”
“Mrs. Growler,” said the master, “excuse me for saying that you jump to conclusions.”
“My jumping is pretty well-nigh done,” said the old woman.
“By no means. I find that old people can jump quite as briskly as young. You have rebuked me under the impression that I was grudging something to the poor. Let me explain to you that a free-selector may be, and very often is, a rich man. He whom I had in my mind is not a poor man. though I won’t swear but what he will be before a year is over.”
“I know who you mean, Mr. Harry; you mean the Medlicots. A very nice gentleman is Mr. Medlicot, and a very nice old lady is Mrs. Medlicot. And a deal of good they’re going to do, by all accounts.”
“Now, Mrs. Growler, that will do,” said the wife.
The dinner consisted of a boiled leg of mutton, a large piece of roast beef, potatoes, onions, and an immense pot of tea. No glasses were even put upon the table. The two ladies had dressed for dinner, and were bright and pretty as they would have been in a country house at home; but Harry Heathcote had sat down just as he had entered the room.
“I know you are tired to death,” said his wife, “when I see you eat your dinner like that.”
“It isn’t being tired, Mary; I’m not particularly tired. But I must be off again in about an hour.”
“Out again to-night?”
“How else? Old Bates and Mickey are in their saddles still. I don’t want to have my fences burned as soon as they’re put up. It’s a ticklish thing to think that a spark of fire any where about the place might ruin me, and to know at the same time that every man about the run and every swagsman that passes along have matches in their pocket. There isn’t a pipe lighted on Gangoil this time of the year that mightn’t make a beggar of you and me. That’s another reason why I wouldn’t have the young un a squatter.”
“— I declare I think that squatters have more trouble than any people in the world,” said Kate Daly.
“— Free-selectors have their own troubles too, Kate,” said he.
It must be explained as we go on that Heathcote felt that he had received a great and peculiar grievance from the hands of one Medlicot, a stranger who had lately settled near him, and that this last remark referred to a somewhat favorable opinion which had been expressed about this stranger by the two ladies. It was a little unfair, as having been addressed specially to Kate, intending as it did to imply that Kate had better consider the matter well before she allowed her opinion of the stranger to become dangerously favorable; for in truth she had said no more than her sister.
“The Medlicots’ troubles will never trouble me, Harry,” she said.
“I hope not, Kate; nor mine either more than we can help.”
“But they do,” said Mary. “They trouble me, and her too, very much.”
“A man’s back should be broad enough to bear all that for himself,” said Harry. “I get ashamed of myself when I grumble, and yet one seems to be surly if one doesn’t say what one’s thinking.”
“I hope you’ll always tell me what you’re thinking, dear.”
“Well, I suppose I shall — till this fellow is old enough to be talked to, and to be made to bear the burden of his father’s care.”
“By that time, Harry, you will have got rich, and we shall all be in England, sha’n’t we?”
“I don’t know about being rich, but we shall have been free-selected off Gangoil. — Now, Mrs. Growler, we’ve done dinner, and I’ll have a pipe before I make another start. Is Jacko in the kitchen? Send him through to me on to the veranda.”
Gangoil was decidedly in the bush — according to common Australian parlance, all sheep stations are in the bush, even though there should not be a tree or shrub within sight. They who live away from the towns live a “bush life.” Small towns, as they grow up, are called bush towns, as we talk of country towns. The “bush,” indeed, is the country generally. But the Heathcotes lived absolutely and actually in the bush. There are Australian pastures which consist of plains on which not a tree is to be seen for miles; but others are forests, so far extending that their limits are almost unknown. Gangoil was surrounded by forest, in some places so close as to be impervious to men and almost to animals in which the undergrowth was thick and tortuous and almost platted, through which no path could be made without an axe, but of which the greater portions were open, without any under-wood, between which the sheep could wander at their will, and men could ride, with a sparse surface of coarse grass, which after rain would be luxuriant, but in hot weather would be scorched down to the ground. At such times — and those times were by far the more common — a stranger would wonder where the sheep would find their feed. Immediately round the house, or station, as it was called, about one hundred acres had been cleared, or nearly cleared, with a few trees left here and there for ornament or shade. Further afield, but still round the home quarters, the trees had been destroyed, the run of the sap having been stopped by “ringing” the bark; but they still stood like troops of skeletons, and would stand, very ugly to look at, till they fell, in the course of nature, by reason of their own rottenness. There was a man always at work about the place — Boscobel he was called — whose sole business was to destroy the timber after this fashion, so that the air might get through to the grasses, and that the soil might be relieved from the burden of nurturing the forest trees.
For miles around the domain was divided into paddocks, as they were there called; but these were so large that a stranger might wander in one of them for a day and never discover that he was inclosed. There were five or six paddocks on the Gangoil run, each of which comprised over ten thousand acres, and as all the land was undulating, and as the timber was around you every where, one paddock was exactly like another. The scenery in itself was fine, for the trees were often large, and here and there rocky knolls would crop up, and there were broken crevices in the ground; but it was all alike. A stranger would wonder that any one straying from the house should find his way back to it. There were sundry bush houses here and there, and the so-called road to the coast from the wide pastoral districts further west passed across the run; but these roads and tracks would travel hither and thither, new tracks being opened from time to time by the heavy wool drays and store wagons, as in wet weather the ruts on the old tracks would become insurmountable.
The station itself was certainly very pretty. It consisted of a cluster of cottages, each of which possessed a ground-floor only. No such luxury as stairs was known at Gangoil. It stood about half a mile from the Mary River, on the edge of a creek which ran into it. The principal edifice, that in which the Heathcotes lived, contained only one sitting-room, and a bedroom on each side of it; but in truth there was another room, very spacious, in which the family really passed their time; and this was the veranda which ran along the front and two ends of the house. It was twelve feet broad, and, of course, of great length. Here was clustered the rocking-chairs, and sofas, and work-tables, and very often the cradle of the family. Here stood Mrs. Heathcote’s sewing-machine, and here the master would sprawl at his length, while his wife, or his wife’s sister, read to him. It was here, in fact, that they lived, having a parlor simply for their meals. Behind the main edifice there stood, each apart, various buildings, forming an irregular quadrangle. The kitchen came first, with a small adjacent chamber in which slept the Chinese man-cook, Sing Sing, as he had come to be called; then the cottage, consisting also of three rooms and a small veranda, in which lived Harry’s superintendent, commonly known as Old Bates, a man who had been a squatter once himself, and having lost his all in bad times, now worked for a small salary. In the cottage two of the rooms were devoted to hospitality when, as was not unusual, guests, known or unknown, came that way; and here Harry himself would sleep, if the entertainment of other ladies crowded the best apartments. Then at the back of the quadrangle was the store, perhaps of all the buildings the most important. In here was kept a kind of shop, which was supposed, according to an obsolete rule, to be open for custom for half a day twice a week. The exigencies of the station did not allow of this regularity; but after some fashion the shop was maintained. Tea was to be bought there, and sugar, tobacco, and pickles, jam, nails, boots, hats, flannel shirrs, and mole-skin trowsers. Any body who came might buy, but the intention was to provide the station hands, who would otherwise have had to go or send thirty miles for the supply of their wants. Very little money was taken here, generally none. But the quantity of pickles, jam, and tobacco sold was great. The men would consume large quantities of these bush delicacies, and the cost would be deducted from their wages. The tea and sugar, and flour also, were given out weekly, as rations — so much a week — and meat was supplied to them after the same fashion. For it was the duty of this young autocratic patriarch to find provisions for all who were employed around him. For such luxuries as jam and tobacco the men paid themselves.
On the fourth side of the quadrangle was a rough coach-house, and rougher stables. The carriage part of the establishment consisted of two “buggies”— so called always in the bush — open carriages on four wheels, one of which was intended to hold two and the other four sitters. A Londoner looking at them would have declared them to be hopeless ruins; but Harry Heathcote still made wonderful journeys in them, taking care generally that the wheels were sound, and using ropes for the repair of dilapidations. The stables were almost unnecessary, as the horses, of which the supply at Gangoil was very large, roamed in the horse paddock, a comparatively small inclosure containing not above three or four hundred acres, and were driven up as they were wanted. One horse was always kept close at home with which to catch the others; but this horse, for handiness, was generally hitched to a post outside the kitchen door. Harry was proud of his horses, and was sometimes heard to say that few men in England had a lot of thirty at hand as he had, out of which so many would be able to carry a man eighty miles in eight hours at a moment’s notice. But his stable arrangements would not have commanded respect in the “Shires.” The animals were never groomed, never fed, and many of them never shod. They lived upon grass, and, Harry always said, “cut their own bread-and-butter for themselves.”
Gangoil was certainly very pretty. The veranda was covered in with striped blinds, so that when the sun shone hot, or when the rains fell heavily, or when the mosquitoes were more than usually troublesome, there might be something of the protection of an inclosed room. Up all the posts there were flowering creepers, which covered the front with greenery even when the flowers were wanting. From the front of the house down to the creek there was a pleasant failing garden — heart-breaking, indeed, in regard to vegetables, for the opossums always came first, and they who followed the opossums got but little. But the garden gave a pleasant home-like look to the place, and was very dear to Harry, who was, perhaps, indifferent in regard to pease and tomatoes. Harry Heathcote was very proud of the place, for he had made it all himself, having pulled down a wretched barrack that he had found there. But he was far prouder of his wool-shed, which he had also built, and which he regarded as first and foremost among wool-sheds in those parts. By-and-by we shall be called on to visit the wool-shed. Though Heathcote had done all this for Gangoil, it must be understood that the vast extent of territory over which his sheep ran was by no means his own property. He was simply the tenant of the Crown, paying a rent computed at so much a sheep. He had, indeed, purchased the ground on which his house stood, but this he had done simply to guard himself against other purchasers. These other purchasers were the bane of his existence, the one great sorrow which, as he said, broke his heart.
While he was speaking, a rough-looking lad, about sixteen years of age, came through the parlor to the veranda, dressed very much like his master, but unwashed, uncombed, and with that wild look which falls upon those who wander about the Australian plains, living a nomad life. This was Jacko — so called, and no one knew him by any other name — a lad whom Heathcote had picked up about six months since, and who had become a favorite. “The old woman says as you was wanting me?” suggested Jacko. “Going to be fine to-night, Jacko?”
Jacko went to the edge of the veranda and looked up to the sky. “My word! little squall a-coming,” he said.
“I wish it would come from ten thousand buckets,” said the master.
“No buckets at all,” said Jacko. “Want the horses, master?”
“Of course. I want the horses, and I want you to come with me. There are two horses saddled there; I’ll ride Hamlet.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01