ON THE TRACK
by Henry Lawson
Author of "While the Billy Boils", and "When the World was Wide"
[Note on text: Italicized words or phrases are CAPITALISED. Some obvious errors have been corrected after being confirmed.]
Of the stories in this volume many have already appeared in (various periodicals), while several now appear in print for the first time.
H. L. Sydney, March 17th, 1900.
The Songs They used to Sing A Vision of Sandy Blight Andy Page's Rival The Iron-Bark Chip "Middleton's Peter" The Mystery of Dave Regan Mitchell on Matrimony Mitchell on Women No Place for a Woman Mitchell's Jobs Bill, the Ventriloquial Rooster Bush Cats Meeting Old Mates Two Larrikins Mr. Smellingscheck "A Rough Shed" Payable Gold An Oversight of Steelman's How Steelman told his Story
ON THE TRACK
The Songs They used to Sing
On the diggings up to twenty odd years ago—and as far back as I can remember—on Lambing Flat, the Pipe Clays, Gulgong, Home Rule, and so through the roaring list; in bark huts, tents, public-houses, sly grog shanties, and—well, the most glorious voice of all belonged to a bad girl. We were only children and didn't know why she was bad, but we weren't allowed to play near or go near the hut she lived in, and we were trained to believe firmly that something awful would happen to us if we stayed to answer a word, and didn't run away as fast as our legs could carry us, if she attempted to speak to us. We had before us the dread example of one urchin, who got an awful hiding and went on bread and water for twenty-four hours for allowing her to kiss him and give him lollies. She didn't look bad—she looked to us like a grand and beautiful lady-girl—but we got instilled into us the idea that she was an awful bad woman, something more terrible even than a drunken man, and one whose presence was to be feared and fled from. There were two other girls in the hut with her, also a pretty little girl, who called her "Auntie", and with whom we were not allowed to play—for they were all bad; which puzzled us as much as child-minds can be puzzled. We couldn't make out how everybody in one house could be bad. We used to wonder why these bad people weren't hunted away or put in gaol if they were so bad. And another thing puzzled us. Slipping out after dark, when the bad girls happened to be singing in their house, we'd sometimes run against men hanging round the hut by ones and twos and threes, listening. They seemed mysterious. They were mostly good men, and we concluded they were listening and watching the bad women's house to see that they didn't kill anyone, or steal and run away with any bad little boys—ourselves, for instance—who ran out after dark; which, as we were informed, those bad people were always on the lookout for a chance to do.
We were told in after years that old Peter McKenzie (a respectable, married, hard-working digger) would sometimes steal up opposite the bad door in the dark, and throw in money done up in a piece of paper, and listen round until the bad girl had sung the "Bonnie Hills of Scotland" two or three times. Then he'd go and get drunk, and stay drunk two or three days at a time. And his wife caught him throwing the money in one night, and there was a terrible row, and she left him; and people always said it was all a mistake. But we couldn't see the mistake then.
But I can hear that girl's voice through the night, twenty years ago:
Oh! the bloomin' heath, and the pale blue bell, In my bonnet then I wore; And memory knows no brighter theme Than those happy days of yore. Scotland! Land of chief and song! Oh, what charms to thee belong!
And I am old enough to understand why poor Peter McKenzie—who was married to a Saxon, and a Tartar—went and got drunk when the bad girl sang "The Bonnie Hills of Scotland."
His anxious eye might look in vain For some loved form it knew!
. . . . .
And yet another thing puzzled us greatly at the time. Next door to the bad girl's house there lived a very respectable family—a family of good girls with whom we were allowed to play, and from whom we got lollies (those hard old red-and-white "fish lollies" that grocers sent home with parcels of groceries and receipted bills). Now one washing day, they being as glad to get rid of us at home as we were to get out, we went over to the good house and found no one at home except the grown-up daughter, who used to sing for us, and read "Robinson Crusoe" of nights, "out loud", and give us more lollies than any of the rest—and with whom we were passionately in love, notwithstanding the fact that she was engaged to a "grown-up man"—(we reckoned he'd be dead and out of the way by the time we were old enough to marry her). She was washing. She had carried the stool and tub over against the stick fence which separated her house from the bad house; and, to our astonishment and dismay, the bad girl had brought HER tub over against her side of the fence. They stood and worked with their shoulders to the fence between them, and heads bent down close to it. The bad girl would sing a few words, and the good girl after her, over and over again. They sang very low, we thought. Presently the good grown-up girl turned her head and caught sight of us. She jumped, and her face went flaming red; she laid hold of the stool and carried it, tub and all, away from that fence in a hurry. And the bad grown-up girl took her tub back to her house. The good grown-up girl made us promise never to tell what we saw—that she'd been talking to a bad girl—else she would never, never marry us.
She told me, in after years, when she'd grown up to be a grandmother, that the bad girl was surreptitiously teaching her to sing "Madeline" that day.
I remember a dreadful story of a digger who went and shot himself one night after hearing that bad girl sing. We thought then what a frightfully bad woman she must be. The incident terrified us; and thereafter we kept carefully and fearfully out of reach of her voice, lest we should go and do what the digger did.
. . . . .
I have a dreamy recollection of a circus on Gulgong in the roaring days, more than twenty years ago, and a woman (to my child-fancy a being from another world) standing in the middle of the ring, singing:
Out in the cold world—out in the street— Asking a penny from each one I meet; Cheerless I wander about all the day, Wearing my young life in sorrow away!
That last line haunted me for many years. I remember being frightened by women sobbing (and one or two great grown-up diggers also) that night in that circus.
"Father, Dear Father, Come Home with Me Now", was a sacred song then, not a peg for vulgar parodies and more vulgar "business" for fourth-rate clowns and corner-men. Then there was "The Prairie Flower". "Out on the Prairie, in an Early Day"—I can hear the digger's wife yet: she was the prettiest girl on the field. They married on the sly and crept into camp after dark; but the diggers got wind of it and rolled up with gold-dishes, shovels, &c., &c., and gave them a real good tinkettling in the old-fashioned style, and a nugget or two to start housekeeping on. She had a very sweet voice.
Fair as a lily, joyous and free, Light of the prairie home was she.
She's a "granny" now, no doubt—or dead.
And I remember a poor, brutally ill-used little wife, wearing a black eye mostly, and singing "Love Amongst the Roses" at her work. And they sang the "Blue Tail Fly", and all the first and best coon songs—in the days when old John Brown sank a duffer on the hill.
. . . . .
The great bark kitchen of Granny Mathews' "Redclay Inn". A fresh back-log thrown behind the fire, which lights the room fitfully. Company settled down to pipes, subdued yarning, and reverie.
Flash Jack—red sash, cabbage-tree hat on back of head with nothing in it, glossy black curls bunched up in front of brim. Flash Jack volunteers, without invitation, preparation, or warning, and through his nose:
Hoh!— There was a wild kerlonial youth, John Dowlin was his name! He bountied on his parients, Who lived in Castlemaine!
and so on to—
He took a pistol from his breast And waved that lit—tle toy—
"Little toy" with an enthusiastic flourish and great unction on Flash Jack's part—
"I'll fight, but I won't surrender!" said The wild Kerlonial Boy.
Even this fails to rouse the company's enthusiasm. "Give us a song, Abe! Give us the 'Lowlands'!" Abe Mathews, bearded and grizzled, is lying on the broad of his back on a bench, with his hands clasped under his head—his favourite position for smoking, reverie, yarning, or singing. He had a strong, deep voice, which used to thrill me through and through, from hair to toenails, as a child.
They bother Abe till he takes his pipe out of his mouth and puts it behind his head on the end of the stool:
The ship was built in Glasgow; 'Twas the "Golden Vanitee"— Lines have dropped out of my memory during the thirty years gone between—
And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!
The public-house people and more diggers drop into the kitchen, as all do within hearing, when Abe sings.
"Now then, boys:
And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!
"Now, all together!
The Low Lands! The Low Lands! And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!"
Toe and heel and flat of foot begin to stamp the clay floor, and horny hands to slap patched knees in accompaniment.
"Oh! save me, lads!" he cried, "I'm drifting with the current, And I'm drifting with the tide! And I'm sinking in the Low Lands, Low!
The Low Lands! The Low Lands!"—
The old bark kitchen is a-going now. Heels drumming on gin-cases under stools; hands, knuckles, pipe-bowls, and pannikins keeping time on the table.
And we sewed him in his hammock, And we slipped him o'er the side, And we sunk him in the Low Lands, Low! The Low Lands! The Low Lands! And we sunk him in the Low Lands, Low!
Old Boozer Smith—a dirty gin-sodden bundle of rags on the floor in the corner with its head on a candle box, and covered by a horse rug—old Boozer Smith is supposed to have been dead to the universe for hours past, but the chorus must have disturbed his torpor; for, with a suddenness and unexpectedness that makes the next man jump, there comes a bellow from under the horse rug:
Wot though!—I wear!—a rag!—ged coat! I'll wear it like a man!
and ceases as suddenly as it commenced. He struggles to bring his ruined head and bloated face above the surface, glares round; then, no one questioning his manhood, he sinks back and dies to creation; and subsequent proceedings are only interrupted by a snore, as far as he is concerned.
Little Jimmy Nowlett, the bullock-driver, is inspired. "Go on, Jimmy! Give us a song!"
In the days when we were hard up For want of wood and wire— Jimmy always blunders; it should have been "food and fire"—
We used to tie our boots up With lit—tle bits—er wire;
I'm sitting in my lit—tle room, It measures six by six; The work-house wall is opposite, I've counted all the bricks!
"Give us a chorus, Jimmy!"
Jimmy does, giving his head a short, jerky nod for nearly every word, and describing a circle round his crown—as if he were stirring a pint of hot tea—with his forefinger, at the end of every line:
Hall!—Round!—Me—Hat! I wore a weepin' willer!
Jimmy is a Cockney.
"Now then, boys!"
How many old diggers remember it?
A butcher, and a baker, and a quiet-looking quaker, All a-courting pretty Jessie at the Railway Bar.
I used to wonder as a child what the "railway bar" meant.
I would, I would, I would in vain That I were single once again! But ah, alas, that will not be Till apples grow on the willow tree.
A drunken gambler's young wife used to sing that song—to herself.
A stir at the kitchen door, and a cry of "Pinter," and old Poynton, Ballarat digger, appears and is shoved in; he has several drinks aboard, and they proceed to "git Pinter on the singin' lay," and at last talk him round. He has a good voice, but no "theory", and blunders worse than Jimmy Nowlett with the words. He starts with a howl—
Hoh! Way down in Covent Gar-ar-r-dings A-strolling I did go, To see the sweetest flow-ow-wers That e'er in gardings grow.
He saw the rose and lily—the red and white and blue—and he saw the sweetest flow-ow-ers that e'er in gardings grew; for he saw two lovely maidens (Pinter calls 'em "virgings") underneath (he must have meant on top of) "a garding chair", sings Pinter.
And one was lovely Jessie, With the jet black eyes and hair,
And the other was a vir-ir-ging, I solemn-lye declare!
"Maiden, Pinter!" interjects Mr. Nowlett.
"Well, it's all the same," retorts Pinter. "A maiden IS a virging, Jimmy. If you're singing, Jimmy, and not me, I'll leave off!" Chorus of "Order! Shut up, Jimmy!"
I quicklye step-ped up to her, And unto her did sa-a-y: Do you belong to any young man, Hoh, tell me that, I pra-a-y?
Her answer, according to Pinter, was surprisingly prompt and unconventional; also full and concise:
No; I belong to no young man— I solemnlye declare! I mean to live a virging And still my laurels wear!
Jimmy Nowlett attempts to move an amendment in favour of "maiden", but is promptly suppressed. It seems that Pinter's suit has a happy termination, for he is supposed to sing in the character of a "Sailor Bold", and as he turns to pursue his stroll in "Covent Gar-ar-dings":
"Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!" she cried, "I love a Sailor Bold!"
"Hong-kore, Pinter! Give us the 'Golden Glove', Pinter!"
Thus warmed up, Pinter starts with an explanatory "spoken" to the effect that the song he is about to sing illustrates some of the little ways of woman, and how, no matter what you say or do, she is bound to have her own way in the end; also how, in one instance, she set about getting it.
Now, it's of a young squoire near Timworth did dwell, Who courted a nobleman's daughter so well—
The song has little or nothing to do with the "squire", except so far as "all friends and relations had given consent," and—
The troo-soo was ordered—appointed the day, And a farmer were appointed for to give her away—
which last seemed a most unusual proceeding, considering the wedding was a toney affair; but perhaps there were personal interests—the nobleman might have been hard up, and the farmer backing him. But there was an extraordinary scene in the church, and things got mixed.
For as soon as this maiding this farmer espied: "Hoh, my heart! Hoh, my heart! Hoh, my heart!" then she cried.
Hysterics? Anyway, instead of being wed—
This maiden took sick and she went to her bed.
(N.B.—Pinter sticks to 'virging'.)
Whereupon friends and relations and guests left the house in a body (a strange but perhaps a wise proceeding, after all—maybe they smelt a rat) and left her to recover alone, which she did promptly. And then:
Shirt, breeches, and waistcoat this maiding put on, And a-hunting she went with her dog and her gun; She hunted all round where this farmier did dwell, Because in her own heart she love-ed him well.
The cat's out of the bag now:
And often she fired, but no game she killed—
which was not surprising—
Till at last the young farmier came into the field—
No wonder. She put it to him straight:
"Oh, why are you not at the wedding?" she cried, "For to wait on the squoire, and to give him his bride."
He was as prompt and as delightfully unconventional in his reply as the young lady in Covent Gardings:
"Oh, no! and oh, no! For the truth I must sa-a-y, I love her too well for to give her a-w-a-a-y!"
which was satisfactory to the disguised "virging".
".... and I'd take sword in hand, And by honour I'd win her if she would command."
Which was still more satisfactory.
Now this virging, being— (Jimmy Nowlett: "Maiden, Pinter—" Jim is thrown on a stool and sat on by several diggers.)
Now this maiding, being please-ed to see him so bold, She gave him her glove that was flowered with gold,
and explained that she found it in his field while hunting around with her dog and her gun. It is understood that he promised to look up the owner. Then she went home and put an advertisement in the local 'Herald'; and that ad. must have caused considerable sensation. She stated that she had lost her golden glove, and
The young man that finds it and brings it to me, Hoh! that very young man my husband shall be!
She had a saving clause in case the young farmer mislaid the glove before he saw the ad., and an OLD bloke got holt of it and fetched it along. But everything went all right. The young farmer turned up with the glove. He was a very respectable young farmer, and expressed his gratitude to her for having "honour-ed him with her love." They were married, and the song ends with a picture of the young farmeress milking the cow, and the young farmer going whistling to plough. The fact that they lived and grafted on the selection proves that I hit the right nail on the head when I guessed, in the first place, that the old nobleman was "stony".
In after years,
... she told him of the fun, How she hunted him up with her dog and her gun.
But whether he was pleased or otherwise to hear it, after years of matrimonial experiences, the old song doesn't say, for it ends there.
Flash Jack is more successful with "Saint Patrick's Day".
I come to the river, I jumped it quite clever! Me wife tumbled in, and I lost her for ever, St. Patrick's own day in the mornin'!
This is greatly appreciated by Jimmy Nowlett, who is suspected, especially by his wife, of being more cheerful when on the roads than when at home.
. . . . .
"Sam Holt" was a great favourite with Jimmy Nowlett in after years.
Oh, do you remember Black Alice, Sam Holt? Black Alice so dirty and dark— Who'd a nose on her face—I forget how it goes— And teeth like a Moreton Bay shark.
Sam Holt must have been very hard up for tucker as well as beauty then, for
Do you remember the 'possums and grubs She baked for you down by the creek?
Sam Holt was, apparently, a hardened flash Jack.
You were not quite the cleanly potato, Sam Holt.
Reference is made to his "manner of holding a flush", and he is asked to remember several things which he, no doubt, would rather forget, including
... the hiding you got from the boys.
The song is decidedly personal.
But Sam Holt makes a pile and goes home, leaving many a better and worse man to pad the hoof Out Back. And—Jim Nowlett sang this with so much feeling as to make it appear a personal affair between him and the absent Holt—
And, don't you remember the fiver, Sam Holt, You borrowed so careless and free? I reckon I'll whistle a good many tunes
(with increasing feeling)
Ere you think of that fiver and me.
For the chances will be that Sam Holt's old mate
Will be humping his drum on the Hughenden Road To the end of the chapter of fate.
. . . . .
An echo from "The Old Bark Hut", sung in the opposition camp across the gully:
You may leave the door ajar, but if you keep it shut, There's no need of suffocation in the Ould Barrk Hut.
. . . . .
The tucker's in the gin-case, but you'd better keep it shut— For the flies will canther round it in the Ould Bark Hut.
What's out of sight is out of mind, in the Ould Bark Hut.
. . . . .
We washed our greasy moleskins On the banks of the Condamine.—
Somebody tackling the "Old Bullock Dray"; it must be over fifty verses now. I saw a bushman at a country dance start to sing that song; he'd get up to ten or fifteen verses, break down, and start afresh. At last he sat down on his heel to it, in the centre of the clear floor, resting his wrist on his knee, and keeping time with an index finger. It was very funny, but the thing was taken seriously all through.
Irreverent echo from the old Lambing Flat trouble, from camp across the gully:
Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! No more Chinamen will enter Noo South Wales!
Yankee Doodle came to town On a little pony— Stick a feather in his cap, And call him Maccaroni!
All the camps seem to be singing to-night:
Ring the bell, watchman! Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring, for the good news Is now on the wing!
Good lines, the introduction:
High on the belfry the old sexton stands, Grasping the rope with his thin bony hands!... Bon-fires are blazing throughout the land... Glorious and blessed tidings! Ring! Ring the bell!
. . . . .
Granny Mathews fails to coax her niece into the kitchen, but persuades her to sing inside. She is the girl who learnt 'sub rosa' from the bad girl who sang "Madeline". Such as have them on instinctively take their hats off. Diggers, &c., strolling past, halt at the first notes of the girl's voice, and stand like statues in the moonlight:
Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel feet have trod? The beautiful—the beautiful river That flows by the throne of God!—
Diggers wanted to send that girl "Home", but Granny Mathews had the old-fashioned horror of any of her children becoming "public"—
Gather with the saints at the river, That flows by the throne of God!
. . . . .
But it grows late, or rather, early. The "Eyetalians" go by in the frosty moonlight, from their last shift in the claim (for it is Saturday night), singing a litany.
"Get up on one end, Abe!—stand up all!" Hands are clasped across the kitchen table. Redclay, one of the last of the alluvial fields, has petered out, and the Roaring Days are dying.... The grand old song that is known all over the world; yet how many in ten thousand know more than one verse and the chorus? Let Peter McKenzie lead:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to min'?
And hearts echo from far back in the past and across wide, wide seas:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And days o' lang syne?
Now boys! all together!
For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne, We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes, And pu'd the gowans fine; But we've wandered mony a weary foot, Sin' auld lang syne.
The world was wide then.
We twa hae paidl't i' the burn, Frae mornin' sun till dine:
the log fire seems to grow watery, for in wide, lonely Australia— But seas between us braid hae roar'd, Sin' auld lang syne.
The kitchen grows dimmer, and the forms of the digger-singers seemed suddenly vague and unsubstantial, fading back rapidly through a misty veil. But the words ring strong and defiant through hard years:
And here's a hand, my trusty frien', And gie's a grup o' thine; And we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
. . . . .
And the nettles have been growing for over twenty years on the spot where Granny Mathews' big bark kitchen stood.
A Vision of Sandy Blight
I'd been humping my back, and crouching and groaning for an hour or so in the darkest corner of the travellers' hut, tortured by the demon of sandy blight. It was too hot to travel, and there was no one there except ourselves and Mitchell's cattle pup. We were waiting till after sundown, for I couldn't have travelled in the daylight, anyway. Mitchell had tied a wet towel round my eyes, and led me for the last mile or two by another towel—one end fastened to his belt behind, and the other in my hand as I walked in his tracks. And oh! but this was a relief! It was out of the dust and glare, and the flies didn't come into the dark hut, and I could hump and stick my knees in my eyes and groan in comfort. I didn't want a thousand a year, or anything; I only wanted relief for my eyes—that was all I prayed for in this world. When the sun got down a bit, Mitchell started poking round, and presently he found amongst the rubbish a dirty-looking medicine bottle, corked tight; when he rubbed the dirt off a piece of notepaper that was pasted on, he saw "eye-water" written on it. He drew the cork with his teeth, smelt the water, stuck his little finger in, turned the bottle upside down, tasted the top of his finger, and reckoned the stuff was all right.
"Here! Wake up, Joe!" he shouted. "Here's a bottle of tears."
"A bottler wot?" I groaned.
"Eye-water," said Mitchell.
"Are you sure it's all right?" I didn't want to be poisoned or have my eyes burnt out by mistake; perhaps some burning acid had got into that bottle, or the label had been put on, or left on, in mistake or carelessness.
"I dunno," said Mitchell, "but there's no harm in tryin'."
I chanced it. I lay down on my back in a bunk, and Mitchell dragged my lids up and spilt half a bottle of eye-water over my eye-balls.
The relief was almost instantaneous. I never experienced such a quick cure in my life. I carried the bottle in my swag for a long time afterwards, with an idea of getting it analysed, but left it behind at last in a camp.
Mitchell scratched his head thoughtfully, and watched me for a while.
"I think I'll wait a bit longer," he said at last, "and if it doesn't blind you I'll put some in my eyes. I'm getting a touch of blight myself now. That's the fault of travelling with a mate who's always catching something that's no good to him."
As it grew dark outside we talked of sandy-blight and fly-bite, and sand-flies up north, and ordinary flies, and branched off to Barcoo rot, and struck the track again at bees and bee stings. When we got to bees, Mitchell sat smoking for a while and looking dreamily backwards along tracks and branch tracks, and round corners and circles he had travelled, right back to the short, narrow, innocent bit of track that ends in a vague, misty point—like the end of a long, straight, cleared road in the moonlight—as far back as we can remember.
. . . . .
"I had about fourteen hives," said Mitchell—"we used to call them 'swarms', no matter whether they were flying or in the box—when I left home first time. I kept them behind the shed, in the shade, on tables of galvanised iron cases turned down on stakes; but I had to make legs later on, and stand them in pans of water, on account of the ants. When the bees swarmed—and some hives sent out the Lord knows how many swarms in a year, it seemed to me—we'd tin-kettle 'em, and throw water on 'em, to make 'em believe the biggest thunderstorm was coming to drown the oldest inhabitant; and, if they didn't get the start of us and rise, they'd settle on a branch—generally on one of the scraggy fruit trees. It was rough on the bees—come to think of it; their instinct told them it was going to be fine, and the noise and water told them it was raining. They must have thought that nature was mad, drunk, or gone ratty, or the end of the world had come. We'd rig up a table, with a box upside down, under the branch, cover our face with a piece of mosquito net, have rags burning round, and then give the branch a sudden jerk, turn the box down, and run. If we got most of the bees in, the rest that were hanging to the bough or flying round would follow, and then we reckoned we'd shook the queen in. If the bees in the box came out and joined the others, we'd reckon we hadn't shook the queen in, and go for them again. When a hive was full of honey we'd turn the box upside down, turn the empty box mouth down on top of it, and drum and hammer on the lower box with a stick till all the bees went up into the top box. I suppose it made their heads ache, and they went up on that account.
"I suppose things are done differently on proper bee-farms. I've heard that a bee-farmer will part a hanging swarm with his fingers, take out the queen bee and arrange matters with her; but our ways suited us, and there was a lot of expectation and running and excitement in it, especially when a swarm took us by surprise. The yell of 'Bees swarmin'!' was as good to us as the yell of 'Fight!' is now, or 'Bolt!' in town, or 'Fire' or 'Man overboard!' at sea.
"There was tons of honey. The bees used to go to the vineyards at wine-making and get honey from the heaps of crushed grape-skins thrown out in the sun, and get so drunk sometimes that they wobbled in their bee-lines home. They'd fill all the boxes, and then build in between and under the bark, and board, and tin covers. They never seemed to get the idea out of their heads that this wasn't an evergreen country, and it wasn't going to snow all winter. My younger brother Joe used to put pieces of meat on the tables near the boxes, and in front of the holes where the bees went in and out, for the dogs to grab at. But one old dog, 'Black Bill', was a match for him; if it was worth Bill's while, he'd camp there, and keep Joe and the other dogs from touching the meat—once it was put down—till the bees turned in for the night. And Joe would get the other kids round there, and when they weren't looking or thinking, he'd brush the bees with a stick and run. I'd lam him when I caught him at it. He was an awful young devil, was Joe, and he grew up steady, and respectable, and respected—and I went to the bad. I never trust a good boy now.... Ah, well!
"I remember the first swarm we got. We'd been talking of getting a few swarms for a long time. That was what was the matter with us English and Irish and English-Irish Australian farmers: we used to talk so much about doing things while the Germans and Scotch did them. And we even talked in a lazy, easy-going sort of way.
"Well, one blazing hot day I saw father coming along the road, home to dinner (we had it in the middle of the day), with his axe over his shoulder. I noticed the axe particularly because father was bringing it home to grind, and Joe and I had to turn the stone; but, when I noticed Joe dragging along home in the dust about fifty yards behind father, I felt easier in my mind. Suddenly father dropped the axe and started to run back along the road towards Joe, who, as soon as he saw father coming, shied for the fence and got through. He thought he was going to catch it for something he'd done—or hadn't done. Joe used to do so many things and leave so many things not done that he could never be sure of father. Besides, father had a way of starting to hammer us unexpectedly—when the idea struck him. But father pulled himself up in about thirty yards and started to grab up handfuls of dust and sand and throw them into the air. My idea, in the first flash, was to get hold of the axe, for I thought it was sun-stroke, and father might take it into his head to start chopping up the family before I could persuade him to put it (his head, I mean) in a bucket of water. But Joe came running like mad, yelling:
"'Swarmer—bees! Swawmmer—bee—ee—es! Bring—a—tin—dish—and—a—dippera—wa-a-ter!'
"I ran with a bucket of water and an old frying-pan, and pretty soon the rest of the family were on the spot, throwing dust and water, and banging everything, tin or iron, they could get hold of. The only bullock bell in the district (if it was in the district) was on the old poley cow, and she'd been lost for a fortnight. Mother brought up the rear—but soon worked to the front—with a baking-dish and a big spoon. The old lady—she wasn't old then—had a deep-rooted prejudice that she could do everything better than anybody else, and that the selection and all on it would go to the dogs if she wasn't there to look after it. There was no jolting that idea out of her. She not only believed that she could do anything better than anybody, and hers was the only right or possible way, and that we'd do everything upside down if she wasn't there to do it or show us how—but she'd try to do things herself or insist on making us do them her way, and that led to messes and rows. She was excited now, and took command at once. She wasn't tongue-tied, and had no impediment in her speech.
"'Don't throw up dust!—Stop throwing up dust!—Do you want to smother 'em?—Don't throw up so much water!—Only throw up a pannikin at a time!—D'yer want to drown 'em? Bang! Keep on banging, Joe!—Look at that child! Run, someone!—run! you, Jack!—D'yer want the child to be stung to death?—Take her inside!... Dy' hear me?... Stop throwing up dust, Tom! (To father.) You're scaring 'em away! Can't you see they want to settle?' [Father was getting mad and yelping: 'For Godsake shettup and go inside.'] 'Throw up water, Jack! Throw up—Tom! Take that bucket from him and don't make such a fool of yourself before the children! Throw up water! Throw—keep on banging, children! Keep on banging!' [Mother put her faith in banging.] 'There!—they're off! You've lost 'em! I knew you would! I told yer—keep on bang—!'
"A bee struck her in the eye, and she grabbed at it!
"Mother went home—and inside.
"Father was good at bees—could manage them like sheep when he got to know their ideas. When the swarm settled, he sent us for the old washing stool, boxes, bags, and so on; and the whole time he was fixing the bees I noticed that whenever his back was turned to us his shoulders would jerk up as if he was cold, and he seemed to shudder from inside, and now and then I'd hear a grunting sort of whimper like a boy that was just starting to blubber. But father wasn't weeping, and bees weren't stinging him; it was the bee that stung mother that was tickling father. When he went into the house, mother's other eye had bunged for sympathy. Father was always gentle and kind in sickness, and he bathed mother's eyes and rubbed mud on, but every now and then he'd catch inside, and jerk and shudder, and grunt and cough. Mother got wild, but presently the humour of it struck her, and she had to laugh, and a rum laugh it was, with both eyes bunged up. Then she got hysterical, and started to cry, and father put his arm round her shoulder and ordered us out of the house.
"They were very fond of each other, the old people were, under it all—right up to the end.... Ah, well!"
Mitchell pulled the swags out of a bunk, and started to fasten the nose-bags on.
Andy Page's Rival
Tall and freckled and sandy, Face of a country lout; That was the picture of Andy— Middleton's rouseabout. On Middleton's wide dominions Plied the stock-whip and shears; Hadn't any opinions———
And he hadn't any "ideers"—at least, he said so himself—except as regarded anything that looked to him like what he called "funny business", under which heading he catalogued tyranny, treachery, interference with the liberty of the subject by the subject, "blanky" lies, or swindles—all things, in short, that seemed to his slow understanding dishonest, mean or paltry; most especially, and above all, treachery to a mate. THAT he could never forget. Andy was uncomfortably "straight". His mind worked slowly and his decisions were, as a rule, right and just; and when he once came to a conclusion concerning any man or matter, or decided upon a course of action, nothing short of an earthquake or a Nevertire cyclone could move him back an inch—unless a conviction were severely shaken, and then he would require as much time to "back" to his starting point as he did to come to the decision.
Andy had come to a conclusion with regard to a selector's daughter—name, Lizzie Porter—who lived (and slaved) on her father's selection, near the township corner of the run on which Andy was a general "hand". He had been in the habit for several years of calling casually at the selector's house, as he rode to and fro between the station and the town, to get a drink of water and exchange the time of day with old Porter and his "missus". The conversation concerned the drought, and the likelihood or otherwise of their ever going to get a little rain; or about Porter's cattle, with an occasional enquiry concerning, or reference to, a stray cow belonging to the selection, but preferring the run; a little, plump, saucy, white cow, by-the-way, practically pure white, but referred to by Andy—who had eyes like a blackfellow—as "old Speckledy". No one else could detect a spot or speckle on her at a casual glance. Then after a long bovine silence, which would have been painfully embarrassing in any other society, and a tilting of his cabbage-tree hat forward, which came of tickling and scratching the sun-blotched nape of his neck with his little finger, Andy would slowly say: "Ah, well. I must be gettin'. So-long, Mr. Porter. So-long, Mrs. Porter." And, if SHE were in evidence—as she generally was on such occasions—"So-long, Lizzie." And they'd shout: "So-long, Andy," as he galloped off from the jump. Strange that those shy, quiet, gentle-voiced bushmen seem the hardest and most reckless riders.
But of late his horse had been seen hanging up outside Porter's for an hour or so after sunset. He smoked, talked over the results of the last drought (if it happened to rain), and the possibilities of the next one, and played cards with old Porter; who took to winking, automatically, at his "old woman", and nudging, and jerking his thumb in the direction of Lizzie when her back was turned, and Andy was scratching the nape of his neck and staring at the cards.
Lizzie told a lady friend of mine, years afterwards, how Andy popped the question; told it in her quiet way—you know Lizzie's quiet way (something of the old, privileged house-cat about her); never a sign in expression or tone to show whether she herself saw or appreciated the humour of anything she was telling, no matter how comical it might be. She had witnessed two tragedies, and had found a dead man in the bush, and related the incidents as though they were common-place.
It happened one day—after Andy had been coming two or three times a week for about a year—that she found herself sitting with him on a log of the woodheap, in the cool of the evening, enjoying the sunset breeze. Andy's arm had got round her—just as it might have gone round a post he happened to be leaning against. They hadn't been talking about anything in particular. Andy said he wouldn't be surprised if they had a thunderstorm before mornin'—it had been so smotherin' hot all day.
Lizzie said, "Very likely."
Andy smoked a good while, then he said: "Ah, well! It's a weary world."
Lizzie didn't say anything.
By-and-bye Andy said: "Ah, well; it's a lonely world, Lizzie."
"Do you feel lonely, Andy?" asked Lizzie, after a while.
"Yes, Lizzie; I do."
Lizzie let herself settle, a little, against him, without either seeming to notice it, and after another while she said, softly: "So do I, Andy."
Andy knocked the ashes from his pipe very slowly and deliberately, and put it away; then he seemed to brighten suddenly, and said briskly: "Well, Lizzie! Are you satisfied!"
"Yes, Andy; I'm satisfied."
"Quite sure, now?"
"Yes; I'm quite sure, Andy. I'm perfectly satisfied."
"Well, then, Lizzie—it's settled!"
. . . . .
But to-day—a couple of months after the proposal described above—Andy had trouble on his mind, and the trouble was connected with Lizzie Porter. He was putting up a two-rail fence along the old log-paddock on the frontage, and working like a man in trouble, trying to work it off his mind; and evidently not succeeding—for the last two panels were out of line. He was ramming a post—Andy rammed honestly, from the bottom of the hole, not the last few shovelfuls below the surface, as some do. He was ramming the last layer of clay when a cloud of white dust came along the road, paused, and drifted or poured off into the scrub, leaving long Dave Bentley, the horse-breaker, on his last victim.
"'Ello, Andy! Graftin'?"
"I want to speak to you, Dave," said Andy, in a strange voice.
"All—all right!" said Dave, rather puzzled. He got down, wondering what was up, and hung his horse to the last post but one.
Dave was Andy's opposite in one respect: he jumped to conclusions, as women do; but, unlike women, he was mostly wrong. He was an old chum and mate of Andy's who had always liked, admired, and trusted him. But now, to his helpless surprise, Andy went on scraping the earth from the surface with his long-handled shovel, and heaping it conscientiously round the butt of the post, his face like a block of wood, and his lips set grimly. Dave broke out first (with bush oaths):
"What's the matter with you? Spit it out! What have I been doin' to you? What's yer got yer rag out about, anyway?"
Andy faced him suddenly, with hatred for "funny business" flashing in his eyes.
"What did you say to my sister Mary about Lizzie Porter?"
Dave started; then he whistled long and low. "Spit it all out, Andy!" he advised.
"You said she was travellin' with a feller!"
"Well, what's the harm in that? Everybody knows that—"
"If any crawler says a word about Lizzie Porter—look here, me and you's got to fight, Dave Bentley!" Then, with still greater vehemence, as though he had a share in the garment: "Take off that coat!"
"Not if I know it!" said Dave, with the sudden quietness that comes to brave but headstrong and impulsive men at a critical moment: "Me and you ain't goin' to fight, Andy; and" (with sudden energy) "if you try it on I'll knock you into jim-rags!"
Then, stepping close to Andy and taking him by the arm: "Andy, this thing will have to be fixed up. Come here; I want to talk to you." And he led him some paces aside, inside the boundary line, which seemed a ludicrously unnecessary precaution, seeing that there was no one within sight or hearing save Dave's horse.
"Now, look here, Andy; let's have it over. What's the matter with you and Lizzie Porter?"
"I'M travellin' with her, that's all; and we're going to get married in two years!"
Dave gave vent to another long, low whistle. He seemed to think and make up his mind.
"Now, look here, Andy: we're old mates, ain't we?"
"Yes; I know that."
"And do you think I'd tell you a blanky lie, or crawl behind your back? Do you? Spit it out!"
"N—no, I don't!"
"I've always stuck up for you, Andy, and—why, I've fought for you behind your back!"
"I know that, Dave."
"There's my hand on it!"
Andy took his friend's hand mechanically, but gripped it hard.
"Now, Andy, I'll tell you straight: It's Gorstruth about Lizzie Porter!"
They stood as they were for a full minute, hands clasped; Andy with his jaw dropped and staring in a dazed sort of way at Dave. He raised his disengaged hand helplessly to his thatch, gulped suspiciously, and asked in a broken voice:
"How—how do you know it, Dave?"
"Know it? Andy, I SEEN 'EM MESELF!"
"You did, Dave?" in a tone that suggested sorrow more than anger at Dave's part in the seeing of them.
. . . . .
"Tell me, Dave, who was the feller? That's all I want to know."
"I can't tell you that. I only seen them when I was canterin' past in the dusk."
"Then how'd you know it was a man at all?"
"It wore trousers, anyway, and was as big as you; so it couldn't have been a girl. I'm pretty safe to swear it was Mick Kelly. I saw his horse hangin' up at Porter's once or twice. But I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll find out for you, Andy. And, what's more, I'll job him for you if I catch him!"
Andy said nothing; his hands clenched and his chest heaved. Dave laid a friendly hand on his shoulder.
"It's red hot, Andy, I know. Anybody else but you and I wouldn't have cared. But don't be a fool; there's any Gorsquantity of girls knockin' round. You just give it to her straight and chuck her, and have done with it. You must be bad off to bother about her. Gorstruth! she ain't much to look at anyway! I've got to ride like blazes to catch the coach. Don't knock off till I come back; I won't be above an hour. I'm goin' to give you some points in case you've got to fight Mick; and I'll have to be there to back you!" And, thus taking the right moment instinctively, he jumped on his horse and galloped on towards the town.
His dust-cloud had scarcely disappeared round a corner of the paddocks when Andy was aware of another one coming towards him. He had a dazed idea that it was Dave coming back, but went on digging another post-hole, mechanically, until a spring-cart rattled up, and stopped opposite him. Then he lifted his head. It was Lizzie herself, driving home from town. She turned towards him with her usual faint smile. Her small features were "washed out" and rather haggard.
But, at the sight of her, all his hatred of "funny business"—intensified, perhaps, by a sense of personal injury—came to a head, and he exploded:
"Look here, Lizzie Porter! I know all about you. You needn't think you're goin' to cotton on with me any more after this! I wouldn't be seen in a paddock with yer! I'm satisfied about you! Get on out of this!"
The girl stared at him for a moment thunderstruck; then she lammed into the old horse with a stick she carried in place of a whip.
She cried, and wondered what she'd done, and trembled so that she could scarcely unharness the horse, and wondered if Andy had got a touch of the sun, and went in and sat down and cried again; and pride came to her aid and she hated Andy; thought of her big brother, away droving, and made a cup of tea. She shed tears over the tea, and went through it all again.
Meanwhile Andy was suffering a reaction. He started to fill the hole before he put the post in; then to ram the post before the rails were in position. Dubbing off the ends of the rails, he was in danger of amputating a toe or a foot with every stroke of the adze. And, at last, trying to squint along the little lumps of clay which he had placed in the centre of the top of each post for several panels back—to assist him to take a line—he found that they swam and doubled, and ran off in watery angles, for his eyes were too moist to see straight and single.
Then he threw down the tools hopelessly, and was standing helplessly undecided whether to go home or go down to the creek and drown himself, when Dave turned up again.
"Seen her?" asked Dave.
"Yes," said Andy.
"Did you chuck her?"
"Look here, Dave; are you sure the feller was Mick Kelly?"
"I never said I was. How was I to know? It was dark. You don't expect I'd 'fox' a feller I see doing a bit of a bear-up to a girl, do you? It might have been you, for all I knowed. I suppose she's been talking you round?"
"No, she ain't," said Andy. "But, look here, Dave; I was properly gone on that girl, I was, and—and I want to be sure I'm right."
The business was getting altogether too psychological for Dave Bentley. "You might as well," he rapped out, "call me a liar at once!"
"'Taint that at all, Dave. I want to get at who the feller is; that's what I want to get at now. Where did you see them, and when?"
"I seen them Anniversary night, along the road, near Ross' farm; and I seen 'em Sunday night afore that—in the trees near the old culvert—near Porter's sliprails; and I seen 'em one night outside Porter's, on a log near the woodheap. They was thick that time, and bearin' up proper, and no mistake. So I can swear to her. Now, are you satisfied about her?"
But Andy was wildly pitchforking his thatch under his hat with all ten fingers and staring at Dave, who began to regard him uneasily; then there came to Andy's eyes an awful glare, which caused Dave to step back hastily.
"Good God, Andy! Are yer goin' ratty?"
"No!" cried Andy, wildly.
"Then what the blazes is the matter with you? You'll have rats if you don't look out!"
"JIMMINY FROTH!—It was ME all the time!"
"It was me that was with her all them nights. It was me that you seen. WHY, I POPPED ON THE WOODHEAP!"
Dave was taken too suddenly to whistle this time.
"And you went for her just now?"
"Yes!" yelled Andy.
"Well—you've done it!"
"Yes," said Andy, hopelessly; "I've done it!"
Dave whistled now—a very long, low whistle. "Well, you're a bloomin' goat, Andy, after this. But this thing'll have to be fixed up!" and he cantered away. Poor Andy was too badly knocked to notice the abruptness of Dave's departure, or to see that he turned through the sliprails on to the track that led to Porter's.
. . . . .
Half an hour later Andy appeared at Porter's back door, with an expression on his face as though the funeral was to start in ten minutes. In a tone befitting such an occasion, he wanted to see Lizzie.
Dave had been there with the laudable determination of fixing the business up, and had, of course, succeeded in making it much worse than it was before. But Andy made it all right.
The Iron-Bark Chip
Dave Regan and party—bush-fencers, tank-sinkers, rough carpenters, &c.—were finishing the third and last culvert of their contract on the last section of the new railway line, and had already sent in their vouchers for the completed contract, so that there might be no excuse for extra delay in connection with the cheque.
Now it had been expressly stipulated in the plans and specifications that the timber for certain beams and girders was to be iron-bark and no other, and Government inspectors were authorised to order the removal from the ground of any timber or material they might deem inferior, or not in accordance with the stipulations. The railway contractor's foreman and inspector of sub-contractors was a practical man and a bushman, but he had been a timber-getter himself; his sympathies were bushy, and he was on winking terms with Dave Regan. Besides, extended time was expiring, and the contractors were in a hurry to complete the line. But the Government inspector was a reserved man who poked round on his independent own and appeared in lonely spots at unexpected times—with apparently no definite object in life—like a grey kangaroo bothered by a new wire fence, but unsuspicious of the presence of humans. He wore a grey suit, rode, or mostly led, an ashen-grey horse; the grass was long and grey, so he was seldom spotted until he was well within the horizon and bearing leisurely down on a party of sub-contractors, leading his horse.
Now iron-bark was scarce and distant on those ridges, and another timber, similar in appearance, but much inferior in grain and "standing" quality, was plentiful and close at hand. Dave and party were "about full of" the job and place, and wanted to get their cheque and be gone to another "spec" they had in view. So they came to reckon they'd get the last girder from a handy tree, and have it squared, in place, and carefully and conscientiously tarred before the inspector happened along, if he did. But they didn't. They got it squared, and ready to be lifted into its place; the kindly darkness of tar was ready to cover a fraud that took four strong men with crowbars and levers to shift; and now (such is the regular cussedness of things) as the fraudulent piece of timber lay its last hour on the ground, looking and smelling, to their guilty imaginations like anything but iron-bark, they were aware of the Government inspector drifting down upon them obliquely, with something of the atmosphere of a casual Bill or Jim who had dropped out of his easy-going track to see how they were getting on, and borrow a match. They had more than half hoped that, as he had visited them pretty frequently during the progress of the work, and knew how near it was to completion, he wouldn't bother coming any more. But it's the way with the Government. You might move heaven and earth in vain endeavour to get the "Guvermunt" to flutter an eyelash over something of the most momentous importance to yourself and mates and the district—even to the country; but just when you are leaving authority severely alone, and have strong reasons for not wanting to worry or interrupt it, and not desiring it to worry about you, it will take a fancy into its head to come along and bother.
"It's always the way!" muttered Dave to his mates. "I knew the beggar would turn up!... And the only cronk log we've had, too!" he added, in an injured tone. "If this had 'a' been the only blessed iron-bark in the whole contract, it would have been all right.... Good-day, sir!" (to the inspector). "It's hot?"
The inspector nodded. He was not of an impulsive nature. He got down from his horse and looked at the girder in an abstracted way; and presently there came into his eyes a dreamy, far-away, sad sort of expression, as if there had been a very sad and painful occurrence in his family, way back in the past, and that piece of timber in some way reminded him of it and brought the old sorrow home to him. He blinked three times, and asked, in a subdued tone:
"Is that iron-bark?"
Jack Bentley, the fluent liar of the party, caught his breath with a jerk and coughed, to cover the gasp and gain time. "I—iron-bark? Of course it is! I thought you would know iron-bark, mister." (Mister was silent.) "What else d'yer think it is?"
The dreamy, abstracted expression was back. The inspector, by-the-way, didn't know much about timber, but he had a great deal of instinct, and went by it when in doubt.
"L—look here, mister!" put in Dave Regan, in a tone of innocent puzzlement and with a blank bucolic face. "B—but don't the plans and specifications say iron-bark? Ours does, anyway. I—I'll git the papers from the tent and show yer, if yer like."
It was not necessary. The inspector admitted the fact slowly. He stooped, and with an absent air picked up a chip. He looked at it abstractedly for a moment, blinked his threefold blink; then, seeming to recollect an appointment, he woke up suddenly and asked briskly:
"Did this chip come off that girder?"
Blank silence. The inspector blinked six times, divided in threes, rapidly, mounted his horse, said "Day," and rode off.
Regan and party stared at each other.
"Wha—what did he do that for?" asked Andy Page, the third in the party.
"Do what for, you fool?" enquired Dave.
"Ta—take that chip for?"
"He's taking it to the office!" snarled Jack Bentley.
"What—what for? What does he want to do that for?"
"To get it blanky well analysed! You ass! Now are yer satisfied?" And Jack sat down hard on the timber, jerked out his pipe, and said to Dave, in a sharp, toothache tone:
"We—well! what are we to do now?" enquired Andy, who was the hardest grafter, but altogether helpless, hopeless, and useless in a crisis like this.
"Grain and varnish the bloomin' culvert!" snapped Bentley.
But Dave's eyes, that had been ruefully following the inspector, suddenly dilated. The inspector had ridden a short distance along the line, dismounted, thrown the bridle over a post, laid the chip (which was too big to go in his pocket) on top of it, got through the fence, and was now walking back at an angle across the line in the direction of the fencing party, who had worked up on the other side, a little more than opposite the culvert.
Dave took in the lay of the country at a glance and thought rapidly.
"Gimme an iron-bark chip!" he said suddenly.
Bentley, who was quick-witted when the track was shown him, as is a kangaroo dog (Jack ran by sight, not scent), glanced in the line of Dave's eyes, jumped up, and got a chip about the same size as that which the inspector had taken.
Now the "lay of the country" sloped generally to the line from both sides, and the angle between the inspector's horse, the fencing party, and the culvert was well within a clear concave space; but a couple of hundred yards back from the line and parallel to it (on the side on which Dave's party worked their timber) a fringe of scrub ran to within a few yards of a point which would be about in line with a single tree on the cleared slope, the horse, and the fencing party.
Dave took the iron-bark chip, ran along the bed of the water-course into the scrub, raced up the siding behind the bushes, got safely, though without breathing, across the exposed space, and brought the tree into line between him and the inspector, who was talking to the fencers. Then he began to work quickly down the slope towards the tree (which was a thin one), keeping it in line, his arms close to his sides, and working, as it were, down the trunk of the tree, as if the fencing party were kangaroos and Dave was trying to get a shot at them. The inspector, by-the-bye, had a habit of glancing now and then in the direction of his horse, as though under the impression that it was flighty and restless and inclined to bolt on opportunity. It was an anxious moment for all parties concerned—except the inspector. They didn't want HIM to be perturbed. And, just as Dave reached the foot of the tree, the inspector finished what he had to say to the fencers, turned, and started to walk briskly back to his horse. There was a thunderstorm coming. Now was the critical moment—there were certain prearranged signals between Dave's party and the fencers which might have interested the inspector, but none to meet a case like this.
Jack Bentley gasped, and started forward with an idea of intercepting the inspector and holding him for a few minutes in bogus conversation. Inspirations come to one at a critical moment, and it flashed on Jack's mind to send Andy instead. Andy looked as innocent and guileless as he was, but was uncomfortable in the vicinity of "funny business", and must have an honest excuse. "Not that that mattered," commented Jack afterwards; "it would have taken the inspector ten minutes to get at what Andy was driving at, whatever it was."
"Run, Andy! Tell him there's a heavy thunderstorm coming and he'd better stay in our humpy till it's over. Run! Don't stand staring like a blanky fool. He'll be gone!"
Andy started. But just then, as luck would have it, one of the fencers started after the inspector, hailing him as "Hi, mister!" He wanted to be set right about the survey or something—or to pretend to want to be set right—from motives of policy which I haven't time to explain here.
That fencer explained afterwards to Dave's party that he "seen what you coves was up to," and that's why he called the inspector back. But he told them that after they had told their yarn—which was a mistake.
"Come back, Andy!" cried Jack Bentley.
Dave Regan slipped round the tree, down on his hands and knees, and made quick time through the grass which, luckily, grew pretty tall on the thirty or forty yards of slope between the tree and the horse. Close to the horse, a thought struck Dave that pulled him up, and sent a shiver along his spine and a hungry feeling under it. The horse would break away and bolt! But the case was desperate. Dave ventured an interrogatory "Cope, cope, cope?" The horse turned its head wearily and regarded him with a mild eye, as if he'd expected him to come, and come on all fours, and wondered what had kept him so long; then he went on thinking. Dave reached the foot of the post; the horse obligingly leaning over on the other leg. Dave reared head and shoulders cautiously behind the post, like a snake; his hand went up twice, swiftly—the first time he grabbed the inspector's chip, and the second time he put the iron-bark one in its place. He drew down and back, and scuttled off for the tree like a gigantic tailless "goanna".
A few minutes later he walked up to the culvert from along the creek, smoking hard to settle his nerves.
The sky seemed to darken suddenly; the first great drops of the thunderstorm came pelting down. The inspector hurried to his horse, and cantered off along the line in the direction of the fettlers' camp.
He had forgotten all about the chip, and left it on top of the post!
Dave Regan sat down on the beam in the rain and swore comprehensively.
The First Born
The struggling squatter is to be found in Australia as well as the "struggling farmer". The Australian squatter is not always the mighty wool king that English and American authors and other uninformed people apparently imagine him to be. Squatting, at the best, is but a game of chance. It depends mainly on the weather, and that, in New South Wales at least, depends on nothing.
Joe Middleton was a struggling squatter, with a station some distance to the westward of the furthest line reached by the ordinary "new chum". His run, at the time of our story, was only about six miles square, and his stock was limited in proportion. The hands on Joe's run consisted of his brother Dave, a middle-aged man known only as "Middleton's Peter" (who had been in the service of the Middleton family ever since Joe Middleton could remember), and an old black shepherd, with his gin and two boys.
It was in the first year of Joe's marriage. He had married a very ordinary girl, as far as Australian girls go, but in his eyes she was an angel. He really worshipped her.
One sultry afternoon in midsummer all the station hands, with the exception of Dave Middleton, were congregated about the homestead door, and it was evident from their solemn faces that something unusual was the matter. They appeared to be watching for something or someone across the flat, and the old black shepherd, who had been listening intently with bent head, suddenly straightened himself up and cried:
"I can hear the cart. I can see it!"
You must bear in mind that our blackfellows do not always talk the gibberish with which they are credited by story writers.
It was not until some time after Black Bill had spoken that the white—or, rather, the brown—portion of the party could see or even hear the approaching vehicle. At last, far out through the trunks of the native apple-trees, the cart was seen approaching; and as it came nearer it was evident that it was being driven at a break-neck pace, the horses cantering all the way, while the motion of the cart, as first one wheel and then the other sprang from a root or a rut, bore a striking resemblance to the Highland Fling. There were two persons in the cart. One was Mother Palmer, a stout, middle-aged party (who sometimes did the duties of a midwife), and the other was Dave Middleton, Joe's brother.
The cart was driven right up to the door with scarcely any abatement of speed, and was stopped so suddenly that Mrs. Palmer was sent sprawling on to the horse's rump. She was quickly helped down, and, as soon as she had recovered sufficient breath, she followed Black Mary into the bedroom where young Mrs. Middleton was lying, looking very pale and frightened. The horse which had been driven so cruelly had not done blowing before another cart appeared, also driven very fast. It contained old Mr. and Mrs. Middleton, who lived comfortably on a small farm not far from Palmer's place.
As soon as he had dumped Mrs. Palmer, Dave Middleton left the cart and, mounting a fresh horse which stood ready saddled in the yard, galloped off through the scrub in a different direction.
Half an hour afterwards Joe Middleton came home on a horse that had been almost ridden to death. His mother came out at the sound of his arrival, and he anxiously asked her:
"How is she?"
"Did you find Doc. Wild?" asked the mother.
"No, confound him!" exclaimed Joe bitterly. "He promised me faithfully to come over on Wednesday and stay until Maggie was right again. Now he has left Dean's and gone—Lord knows where. I suppose he is drinking again. How is Maggie?"
"It's all over now—the child is born. It's a boy; but she is very weak. Dave got Mrs. Palmer here just in time. I had better tell you at once that Mrs. Palmer says if we don't get a doctor here to-night poor Maggie won't live."
"Good God! and what am I to do?" cried Joe desperately.
"Is there any other doctor within reach?"
"No; there is only the one at B——; that's forty miles away, and he is laid up with the broken leg he got in the buggy accident. Where's Dave?"
"Gone to Black's shanty. One of Mrs. Palmer's sons thought he remembered someone saying that Doc. Wild was there last week. That's fifteen miles away."
"But it is our only hope," said Joe dejectedly. "I wish to God that I had taken Maggie to some civilised place a month ago."
Doc. Wild was a well-known character among the bushmen of New South Wales, and although the profession did not recognise him, and denounced him as an empiric, his skill was undoubted. Bushmen had great faith in him, and would often ride incredible distances in order to bring him to the bedside of a sick friend. He drank fearfully, but was seldom incapable of treating a patient; he would, however, sometimes be found in an obstinate mood and refuse to travel to the side of a sick person, and then the devil himself could not make the doctor budge. But for all this he was very generous—a fact that could, no doubt, be testified to by many a grateful sojourner in the lonely bush.
The Only Hope
Night came on, and still there was no change in the condition of the young wife, and no sign of the doctor. Several stockmen from the neighbouring stations, hearing that there was trouble at Joe Middleton's, had ridden over, and had galloped off on long, hopeless rides in search of a doctor. Being generally free from sickness themselves, these bushmen look upon it as a serious business even in its mildest form; what is more, their sympathy is always practical where it is possible for it to be so. One day, while out on the run after an "outlaw", Joe Middleton was badly thrown from his horse, and the break-neck riding that was done on that occasion from the time the horse came home with empty saddle until the rider was safe in bed and attended by a doctor was something extraordinary, even for the bush.
Before the time arrived when Dave Middleton might reasonably have been expected to return, the station people were anxiously watching for him, all except the old blackfellow and the two boys, who had gone to yard the sheep.
The party had been increased by Jimmy Nowlett, the bullocky, who had just arrived with a load of fencing wire and provisions for Middleton. Jimmy was standing in the moonlight, whip in hand, looking as anxious as the husband himself, and endeavouring to calculate by mental arithmetic the exact time it ought to take Dave to complete his double journey, taking into consideration the distance, the obstacles in the way, and the chances of horse-flesh.
But the time which Jimmy fixed for the arrival came without Dave.
Old Peter (as he was generally called, though he was not really old) stood aside in his usual sullen manner, his hat drawn down over his brow and eyes, and nothing visible but a thick and very horizontal black beard, from the depth of which emerged large clouds of very strong tobacco smoke, the product of a short, black, clay pipe.
They had almost given up all hope of seeing Dave return that night, when Peter slowly and deliberately removed his pipe and grunted:
He then replaced the pipe, and smoked on as before.
All listened, but not one of them could hear a sound.
"Yer ears must be pretty sharp for yer age, Peter. We can't hear him," remarked Jimmy Nowlett.
"His dog ken," said Peter.
The pipe was again removed and its abbreviated stem pointed in the direction of Dave's cattle dog, who had risen beside his kennel with pointed ears, and was looking eagerly in the direction from which his master was expected to come.
Presently the sound of horse's hoofs was distinctly heard.
"I can hear two horses," cried Jimmy Nowlett excitedly.
"There's only one," said old Peter quietly.
A few moments passed, and a single horseman appeared on the far side of the flat.
"It's Doc. Wild on Dave's horse," cried Jimmy Nowlett. "Dave don't ride like that."
"It's Dave," said Peter, replacing his pipe and looking more unsociable than ever.
Dave rode up and, throwing himself wearily from the saddle, stood ominously silent by the side of his horse.
Joe Middleton said nothing, but stood aside with an expression of utter hopelessness on his face.
"Not there?" asked Jimmy Nowlett at last, addressing Dave.
"Yes, he's there," answered Dave, impatiently.
This was not the answer they expected, but nobody seemed surprised.
"Drunk?" asked Jimmy.
Here old Peter removed his pipe, and pronounced the one word—"How?"
"What the hell do you mean by that?" muttered Dave, whose patience had evidently been severely tried by the clever but intemperate bush doctor.
"How drunk?" explained Peter, with great equanimity.
"Stubborn drunk, blind drunk, beastly drunk, dead drunk, and damned well drunk, if that's what you want to know!"
"What did Doc. say?" asked Jimmy.
"Said he was sick—had lumbago—wouldn't come for the Queen of England; said he wanted a course of treatment himself. Curse him! I have no patience to talk about him."
"I'd give him a course of treatment," muttered Jimmy viciously, trailing the long lash of his bullock-whip through the grass and spitting spitefully at the ground.
Dave turned away and joined Joe, who was talking earnestly to his mother by the kitchen door. He told them that he had spent an hour trying to persuade Doc. Wild to come, and, that before he had left the shanty, Black had promised him faithfully to bring the doctor over as soon as his obstinate mood wore off.
Just then a low moan was heard from the sick room, followed by the sound of Mother Palmer's voice calling old Mrs. Middleton, who went inside immediately.
No one had noticed the disappearance of Peter, and when he presently returned from the stockyard, leading the only fresh horse that remained, Jimmy Nowlett began to regard him with some interest. Peter transferred the saddle from Dave's horse to the other, and then went into a small room off the kitchen, which served him as a bedroom; from it he soon returned with a formidable-looking revolver, the chambers of which he examined in the moonlight in full view of all the company. They thought for a moment the man had gone mad. Old Middleton leaped quickly behind Nowlett, and Black Mary, who had come out to the cask at the corner for a dipper of water, dropped the dipper and was inside like a shot. One of the black boys came softly up at that moment; as soon as his sharp eye "spotted" the weapon, he disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him.
"What the mischief are yer goin' ter do, Peter?" asked Jimmy.
"Goin' to fetch him," said Peter, and, after carefully emptying his pipe and replacing it in a leather pouch at his belt, he mounted and rode off at an easy canter.
Jimmy watched the horse until it disappeared at the edge of the flat, and then after coiling up the long lash of his bullock-whip in the dust until it looked like a sleeping snake, he prodded the small end of the long pine handle into the middle of the coil, as though driving home a point, and said in a tone of intense conviction:
"He'll fetch him."
Peter gradually increased his horse's speed along the rough bush track until he was riding at a good pace. It was ten miles to the main road, and five from there to the shanty kept by Black.
For some time before Peter started the atmosphere had been very close and oppressive. The great black edge of a storm-cloud had risen in the east, and everything indicated the approach of a thunderstorm. It was not long coming. Before Peter had completed six miles of his journey, the clouds rolled over, obscuring the moon, and an Australian thunderstorm came on with its mighty downpour, its blinding lightning, and its earth-shaking thunder. Peter rode steadily on, only pausing now and then until a flash revealed the track in front of him.
Black's shanty—or, rather, as the sign had it, "Post Office and General Store"—was, as we have said, five miles along the main road from the point where Middleton's track joined it. The building was of the usual style of bush architecture. About two hundred yards nearer the creek, which crossed the road further on, stood a large bark and slab stable, large enough to have met the requirements of a legitimate bush "public".
The reader may doubt that a "sly grog shop" could openly carry on business on a main Government road along which mounted troopers were continually passing. But then, you see, mounted troopers get thirsty like other men; moreover, they could always get their thirst quenched 'gratis' at these places; so the reader will be prepared to hear that on this very night two troopers' horses were stowed snugly away in the stable, and two troopers were stowed snugly away in the back room of the shanty, sleeping off the effects of their cheap but strong potations.
There were two rooms, of a sort, attached to the stables—one at each end. One was occupied by a man who was "generally useful", and the other was the surgery, office, and bedroom 'pro tem.' of Doc. Wild.
Doc. Wild was a tall man, of spare proportions. He had a cadaverous face, black hair, bushy black eyebrows, eagle nose, and eagle eyes. He never slept while he was drinking. On this occasion he sat in front of the fire on a low three-legged stool. His knees were drawn up, his toes hooked round the front legs of the stool, one hand resting on one knee, and one elbow (the hand supporting the chin) resting on the other. He was staring intently into the fire, on which an old black saucepan was boiling and sending forth a pungent odour of herbs. There seemed something uncanny about the doctor as the red light of the fire fell on his hawk-like face and gleaming eyes. He might have been Mephistopheles watching some infernal brew.
He had sat there some time without stirring a finger, when the door suddenly burst open and Middleton's Peter stood within, dripping wet. The doctor turned his black, piercing eyes upon the intruder (who regarded him silently) for a moment, and then asked quietly:
"What the hell do you want?"
"I want you," said Peter.
"And what do you want me for?"
"I want you to come to Joe Middleton's wife. She's bad," said Peter calmly.
"I won't come," shouted the doctor. "I've brought enough horse-stealers into the world already. If any more want to come they can go to blazes for me. Now, you get out of this!"
"Don't get yer rag out," said Peter quietly. "The hoss-stealer's come, an' nearly killed his mother ter begin with; an' if yer don't get yer physic-box an' come wi' me, by the great God I'll——"
Here the revolver was produced and pointed at Doc. Wild's head. The sight of the weapon had a sobering effect upon the doctor. He rose, looked at Peter critically for a moment, knocked the weapon out of his hand, and said slowly and deliberately:
"Wall, ef the case es as serious as that, I (hic) reckon I'd better come."
Peter was still of the same opinion, so Doc. Wild proceeded to get his medicine chest ready. He explained afterwards, in one of his softer moments, that the shooter didn't frighten him so much as it touched his memory—"sorter put him in mind of the old days in California, and made him think of the man he might have been," he'd say,—"kinder touched his heart and slid the durned old panorama in front of him like a flash; made him think of the time when he slipped three leaden pills into 'Blue Shirt' for winking at a new chum behind his (the Doc.'s) back when he was telling a truthful yarn, and charged the said 'Blue Shirt' a hundred dollars for extracting the said pills."
Joe Middleton's wife is a grandmother now.
Peter passed after the manner of his sort; he was found dead in his bunk.
Poor Doc. Wild died in a shepherd's hut at the Dry Creeks. The shepherds (white men) found him, "naked as he was born and with the hide half burned off him with the sun," rounding up imaginary snakes on a dusty clearing, one blazing hot day. The hut-keeper had some "quare" (queer) experiences with the doctor during the next three days and used, in after years, to tell of them, between the puffs of his pipe, calmly and solemnly and as if the story was rather to the doctor's credit than otherwise. The shepherds sent for the police and a doctor, and sent word to Joe Middleton. Doc. Wild was sensible towards the end. His interview with the other doctor was characteristic. "And, now you see how far I am," he said in conclusion—"have you brought the brandy?" The other doctor had. Joe Middleton came with his waggonette, and in it the softest mattress and pillows the station afforded. He also, in his innocence, brought a dozen of soda-water. Doc. Wild took Joe's hand feebly, and, a little later, he "passed out" (as he would have said) murmuring "something that sounded like poetry", in an unknown tongue. Joe took the body to the home station. "Who's the boss bringin'?" asked the shearers, seeing the waggonette coming very slowly and the boss walking by the horses' heads. "Doc. Wild," said a station hand. "Take yer hats off."
They buried him with bush honours, and chiselled his name on a slab of bluegum—a wood that lasts.
The Mystery of Dave Regan
"And then there was Dave Regan," said the traveller. "Dave used to die oftener than any other bushman I knew. He was always being reported dead and turnin' up again. He seemed to like it—except once, when his brother drew his money and drank it all to drown his grief at what he called Dave's 'untimely end'. Well, Dave went up to Queensland once with cattle, and was away three years and reported dead, as usual. He was drowned in the Bogan this time while tryin' to swim his horse acrost a flood—and his sweetheart hurried up and got spliced to a worse man before Dave got back.
"Well, one day I was out in the bush lookin' for timber, when the biggest storm ever knowed in that place come on. There was hail in it, too, as big as bullets, and if I hadn't got behind a stump and crouched down in time I'd have been riddled like a—like a bushranger. As it was, I got soakin' wet. The storm was over in a few minutes, the water run off down the gullies, and the sun come out and the scrub steamed—and stunk like a new pair of moleskin trousers. I went on along the track, and presently I seen a long, lanky chap get on to a long, lanky horse and ride out of a bush yard at the edge of a clearin'. I knowed it was Dave d'reckly I set eyes on him.
"Dave used to ride a tall, holler-backed thoroughbred with a body and limbs like a kangaroo dog, and it would circle around you and sidle away as if it was frightened you was goin' to jab a knife into it.
"''Ello! Dave!' said I, as he came spurrin' up. 'How are yer!'
"''Ello, Jim!' says he. 'How are you?'
"'All right!' says I. 'How are yer gettin' on?'
"But, before we could say any more, that horse shied away and broke off through the scrub to the right. I waited, because I knowed Dave would come back again if I waited long enough; and in about ten minutes he came sidlin' in from the scrub to the left.
"'Oh, I'm all right,' says he, spurrin' up sideways; 'How are you?'
"'Right!' says I. 'How's the old people?'
"'Oh, I ain't been home yet,' says he, holdin' out his hand; but, afore I could grip it, the cussed horse sidled off to the south end of the clearin' and broke away again through the scrub.
"I heard Dave swearin' about the country for twenty minutes or so, and then he came spurrin' and cursin' in from the other end of the clearin'.
"'Where have you been all this time?' I said, as the horse came curvin' up like a boomerang.
"'Gulf country,' said Dave.
"'That was a storm, Dave,' said I.
"'My oath!' says Dave.
"'Get caught in it?'
"'Got to shelter?'
"'But you're as dry's a bone, Dave!'
"Dave grinned. '———and———and———the————!' he yelled.
"He said that to the horse as it boomeranged off again and broke away through the scrub. I waited; but he didn't come back, and I reckoned he'd got so far away before he could pull up that he didn't think it worth while comin' back; so I went on. By-and-bye I got thinkin'. Dave was as dry as a bone, and I knowed that he hadn't had time to get to shelter, for there wasn't a shed within twelve miles. He wasn't only dry, but his coat was creased and dusty too—same as if he'd been sleepin' in a holler log; and when I come to think of it, his face seemed thinner and whiter than it used ter, and so did his hands and wrists, which always stuck a long way out of his coat-sleeves; and there was blood on his face—but I thought he'd got scratched with a twig. (Dave used to wear a coat three or four sizes too small for him, with sleeves that didn't come much below his elbows and a tail that scarcely reached his waist behind.) And his hair seemed dark and lank, instead of bein' sandy and stickin' out like an old fibre brush, as it used ter. And then I thought his voice sounded different, too. And, when I enquired next day, there was no one heard of Dave, and the chaps reckoned I must have been drunk, or seen his ghost.
"It didn't seem all right at all—it worried me a lot. I couldn't make out how Dave kept dry; and the horse and saddle and saddle-cloth was wet. I told the chaps how he talked to me and what he said, and how he swore at the horse; but they only said it was Dave's ghost and nobody else's. I told 'em about him bein' dry as a bone after gettin' caught in that storm; but they only laughed and said it was a dry place where Dave went to. I talked and argued about it until the chaps began to tap their foreheads and wink—then I left off talking. But I didn't leave off thinkin'—I always hated a mystery. Even Dave's father told me that Dave couldn't be alive or else his ghost wouldn't be round—he said he knew Dave better than that. One or two fellers did turn up afterwards that had seen Dave about the time that I did—and then the chaps said they was sure that Dave was dead.
"But one fine day, as a lot of us chaps was playin' pitch and toss at the shanty, one of the fellers yelled out:
"'By Gee! Here comes Dave Regan!'
"And I looked up and saw Dave himself, sidlin' out of a cloud of dust on a long lanky horse. He rode into the stockyard, got down, hung his horse up to a post, put up the rails, and then come slopin' towards us with a half-acre grin on his face. Dave had long, thin bow-legs, and when he was on the ground he moved as if he was on roller skates.
"''El-lo, Dave!' says I. 'How are yer?'
"''Ello, Jim!' said he. 'How the blazes are you?'
"'All right!' says I, shakin' hands. 'How are yer?'
"'Oh! I'm all right!' he says. 'How are yer poppin' up!'
"Well, when we'd got all that settled, and the other chaps had asked how he was, he said: 'Ah, well! Let's have a drink.'
"And all the other chaps crawfished up and flung themselves round the corner and sidled into the bar after Dave. We had a lot of talk, and he told us that he'd been down before, but had gone away without seein' any of us, except me, because he'd suddenly heard of a mob of cattle at a station two hundred miles away; and after a while I took him aside and said:
"'Look here, Dave! Do you remember the day I met you after the storm?'
"He scratched his head.
"'Why, yes,' he says.
"'Did you get under shelter that day?'
"'Then how the blazes didn't yer get wet?'
"Dave grinned; then he says:
"'Why, when I seen the storm coming I took off me clothes and stuck 'em in a holler log till the rain was over.'
"'Yes,' he says, after the other coves had done laughin', but before I'd done thinking; 'I kept my clothes dry and got a good refreshin' shower-bath into the bargain.'
"Then he scratched the back of his neck with his little finger, and dropped his jaw, and thought a bit; then he rubbed the top of his head and his shoulder, reflective-like, and then he said:
"'But I didn't reckon for them there blanky hailstones.'"
Mitchell on Matrimony
"I suppose your wife will be glad to see you," said Mitchell to his mate in their camp by the dam at Hungerford. They were overhauling their swags, and throwing away the blankets, and calico, and old clothes, and rubbish they didn't want—everything, in fact, except their pocket-books and letters and portraits, things which men carry about with them always, that are found on them when they die, and sent to their relations if possible. Otherwise they are taken in charge by the constable who officiates at the inquest, and forwarded to the Minister of Justice along with the depositions.
It was the end of the shearing season. Mitchell and his mate had been lucky enough to get two good sheds in succession, and were going to take the coach from Hungerford to Bourke on their way to Sydney. The morning stars were bright yet, and they sat down to a final billy of tea, two dusty Johnny-cakes, and a scrag of salt mutton.
"Yes," said Mitchell's mate, "and I'll be glad to see her too."
"I suppose you will," said Mitchell. He placed his pint-pot between his feet, rested his arm against his knee, and stirred the tea meditatively with the handle of his pocket-knife. It was vaguely understood that Mitchell had been married at one period of his chequered career.
"I don't think we ever understood women properly," he said, as he took a cautious sip to see if his tea was cool and sweet enough, for his lips were sore; "I don't think we ever will—we never took the trouble to try, and if we did it would be only wasted brain power that might just as well be spent on the blackfellow's lingo; because by the time you've learnt it they'll be extinct, and woman 'll be extinct before you've learnt her.... The morning star looks bright, doesn't it?"
"Ah, well," said Mitchell after a while, "there's many little things we might try to understand women in. I read in a piece of newspaper the other day about how a man changes after he's married; how he gets short, and impatient, and bored (which is only natural), and sticks up a wall of newspaper between himself and his wife when he's at home; and how it comes like a cold shock to her, and all her air-castles vanish, and in the end she often thinks about taking the baby and the clothes she stands in, and going home for sympathy and comfort to mother.
"Perhaps she never got a word of sympathy from her mother in her life, nor a day's comfort at home before she was married; but that doesn't make the slightest difference. It doesn't make any difference in your case either, if you haven't been acting like a dutiful son-in-law.
"Somebody wrote that a woman's love is her whole existence, while a man's love is only part of his—which is true, and only natural and reasonable, all things considered. But women never consider as a rule. A man can't go on talking lovey-dovey talk for ever, and listening to his young wife's prattle when he's got to think about making a living, and nursing her and answering her childish questions and telling her he loves his little ownest every minute in the day, while the bills are running up, and rent mornings begin to fly round and hustle and crowd him.
"He's got her and he's satisfied; and if the truth is known he loves her really more than he did when they were engaged, only she won't be satisfied about it unless he tells her so every hour in the day. At least that's how it is for the first few months.
"But a woman doesn't understand these things—she never will, she can't—and it would be just as well for us to try and understand that she doesn't and can't understand them."
Mitchell knocked the tea-leaves out of his pannikin against his boot, and reached for the billy.
"There's many little things we might do that seem mere trifles and nonsense to us, but mean a lot to her; that wouldn't be any trouble or sacrifice to us, but might help to make her life happy. It's just because we never think about these little things—don't think them worth thinking about, in fact—they never enter our intellectual foreheads.
"For instance, when you're going out in the morning you might put your arms round her and give her a hug and a kiss, without her having to remind you. You may forget about it and never think any more of it—but she will.
"It wouldn't be any trouble to you, and would only take a couple of seconds, and would give her something to be happy about when you're gone, and make her sing to herself for hours while she bustles about her work and thinks up what she'll get you for dinner."
Mitchell's mate sighed, and shifted the sugar-bag over towards Mitchell. He seemed touched and bothered over something.
"Then again," said Mitchell, "it mightn't be convenient for you to go home to dinner—something might turn up during the morning—you might have some important business to do, or meet some chaps and get invited to lunch and not be very well able to refuse, when it's too late, or you haven't a chance to send a message to your wife. But then again, chaps and business seem very big things to you, and only little things to the wife; just as lovey-dovey talk is important to her and nonsense to you. And when you come to analyse it, one is not so big, nor the other so small, after all; especially when you come to think that chaps can always wait, and business is only an inspiration in your mind, nine cases out of ten.
"Think of the trouble she takes to get you a good dinner, and how she keeps it hot between two plates in the oven, and waits hour after hour till the dinner gets dried up, and all her morning's work is wasted. Think how it hurts her, and how anxious she'll be (especially if you're inclined to booze) for fear that something has happened to you. You can't get it out of the heads of some young wives that you're liable to get run over, or knocked down, or assaulted, or robbed, or get into one of the fixes that a woman is likely to get into. But about the dinner waiting. Try and put yourself in her place. Wouldn't you get mad under the same circumstances? I know I would.
"I remember once, only just after I was married, I was invited unexpectedly to a kidney pudding and beans—which was my favourite grub at the time—and I didn't resist, especially as it was washing day and I told the wife not to bother about anything for dinner. I got home an hour or so late, and had a good explanation thought out, when the wife met me with a smile as if we had just been left a thousand pounds. She'd got her washing finished without assistance, though I'd told her to get somebody to help her, and she had a kidney pudding and beans, with a lot of extras thrown in, as a pleasant surprise for me.
"Well, I kissed her, and sat down, and stuffed till I thought every mouthful would choke me. I got through with it somehow, but I've never cared for kidney pudding or beans since."
Mitchell felt for his pipe with a fatherly smile in his eyes.
"And then again," he continued, as he cut up his tobacco, "your wife might put on a new dress and fix herself up and look well, and you might think so and be satisfied with her appearance and be proud to take her out; but you want to tell her so, and tell her so as often as you think about it—and try to think a little oftener than men usually do, too."
. . . . .
"You should have made a good husband, Jack," said his mate, in a softened tone.
"Ah, well, perhaps I should," said Mitchell, rubbing up his tobacco; then he asked abstractedly: "What sort of a husband did you make, Joe?"
"I might have made a better one than I did," said Joe seriously, and rather bitterly, "but I know one thing, I'm going to try and make up for it when I go back this time."
"We all say that," said Mitchell reflectively, filling his pipe. "She loves you, Joe."
"I know she does," said Joe.
Mitchell lit up.
"And so would any man who knew her or had seen her letters to you," he said between the puffs. "She's happy and contented enough, I believe?"
"Yes," said Joe, "at least while I was there. She's never easy when I'm away. I might have made her a good deal more happy and contented without hurting myself much."
Mitchell smoked long, soft, measured puffs.
His mate shifted uneasily and glanced at him a couple of times, and seemed to become impatient, and to make up his mind about something; or perhaps he got an idea that Mitchell had been "having" him, and felt angry over being betrayed into maudlin confidences; for he asked abruptly:
"How is your wife now, Mitchell?"
"I don't know," said Mitchell calmly.
"Don't know?" echoed the mate. "Didn't you treat her well?"
Mitchell removed his pipe and drew a long breath.
"Ah, well, I tried to," he said wearily.
"Well, did you put your theory into practice?"
"I did," said Mitchell very deliberately.
Joe waited, but nothing came.
"Well?" he asked impatiently, "How did it act? Did it work well?"
"I don't know," said Mitchell (puff); "she left me."
Mitchell jerked the half-smoked pipe from his mouth, and rapped the burning tobacco out against the toe of his boot.
"She left me," he said, standing up and stretching himself. Then, with a vicious jerk of his arm, "She left me for—another kind of a fellow!"
He looked east towards the public-house, where they were taking the coach-horses from the stable.
"Why don't you finish your tea, Joe? The billy's getting cold."
Mitchell on Women
"All the same," said Mitchell's mate, continuing an argument by the camp-fire; "all the same, I think that a woman can stand cold water better than a man. Why, when I was staying in a boarding-house in Dunedin, one very cold winter, there was a lady lodger who went down to the shower-bath first thing every morning; never missed one; sometimes went in freezing weather when I wouldn't go into a cold bath for a fiver; and sometimes she'd stay under the shower for ten minutes at a time."
"How'd you know?"
"Why, my room was near the bath-room, and I could hear the shower and tap going, and her floundering about."
"Hear your grandmother!" exclaimed Mitchell, contemptuously. "You don't know women yet. Was this woman married? Did she have a husband there?"
"No; she was a young widow."
"Ah! well, it would have been the same if she was a young girl—or an old one. Were there some passable men-boarders there?"
"I was there."
"Oh, yes! But I mean, were there any there beside you?"
"Oh, yes, there were three or four; there was—a clerk and a——"
"Never mind, as long as there was something with trousers on. Did it ever strike you that she never got into the bath at all?"
"Why, no! What would she want to go there at all for, in that case?"
"To make an impression on the men," replied Mitchell promptly. "She wanted to make out she was nice, and wholesome, and well-washed, and particular. Made an impression on YOU, it seems, or you wouldn't remember it."
"Well, yes, I suppose so; and, now I come to think of it, the bath didn't seem to injure her make-up or wet her hair; but I supposed she held her head from under the shower somehow."
"Did she make-up so early in the morning?" asked Mitchell.
"That's unusual; but it might have been so where there was a lot of boarders. And about the hair—that didn't count for anything, because washing-the-head ain't supposed to be always included in a lady's bath; it's only supposed to be washed once a fortnight, and some don't do it once a month. The hair takes so long to dry; it don't matter so much if the woman's got short, scraggy hair; but if a girl's hair was down to her waist it would take hours to dry."
"Well, how do they manage it without wetting their heads?"
"Oh, that's easy enough. They have a little oilskin cap that fits tight over the forehead, and they put it on, and bunch their hair up in it when they go under the shower. Did you ever see a woman sit in a sunny place with her hair down after having a wash?"
"Yes, I used to see one do that regular where I was staying; but I thought she only did it to show off."
"Not at all—she was drying her hair; though perhaps she was showing off at the same time, for she wouldn't sit where you—or even a Chinaman—could see her, if she didn't think she had a good head of hair. Now, I'LL tell you a yarn about a woman's bath. I was stopping at a shabby-genteel boarding-house in Melbourne once, and one very cold winter, too; and there was a rather good-looking woman there, looking for a husband. She used to go down to the bath every morning, no matter how cold it was, and flounder and splash about as if she enjoyed it, till you'd feel as though you'd like to go and catch hold of her and wrap her in a rug and carry her in to the fire and nurse her till she was warm again."
Mitchell's mate moved uneasily, and crossed the other leg; he seemed greatly interested.
"But she never went into the water at all!" continued Mitchell. "As soon as one or two of the men was up in the morning she'd come down from her room in a dressing-gown. It was a toney dressing-gown, too, and set her off properly. She knew how to dress, anyway; most of that sort of women do. The gown was a kind of green colour, with pink and white flowers all over it, and red lining, and a lot of coffee-coloured lace round the neck and down the front. Well, she'd come tripping downstairs and along the passage, holding up one side of the gown to show her little bare white foot in a slipper; and in the other hand she carried her tooth-brush and bath-brush, and soap—like this—so's we all could see 'em; trying to make out she was too particular to use soap after anyone else. She could afford to buy her own soap, anyhow; it was hardly ever wet.
"Well, she'd go into the bathroom and turn on the tap and shower; when she got about three inches of water in the bath, she'd step in, holding up her gown out of the water, and go slithering and kicking up and down the bath, like this, making a tremendous splashing. Of course she'd turn off the shower first, and screw it off very tight—wouldn't do to let that leak, you know; she might get wet; but she'd leave the other tap on, so as to make all the more noise."
"But how did you come to know all about this?"
"Oh, the servant girl told me. One morning she twigged her through a corner of the bathroom window that the curtain didn't cover."
"You seem to have been pretty thick with servant girls."
"So do you with landladies! But never mind—let me finish the yarn. When she thought she'd splashed enough, she'd get out, wipe her feet, wash her face and hands, and carefully unbutton the two top buttons of her gown; then throw a towel over her head and shoulders, and listen at the door till she thought she heard some of the men moving about. Then she'd start for her room, and, if she met one of the men-boarders in the passage or on the stairs, she'd drop her eyes, and pretend to see for the first time that the top of her dressing-gown wasn't buttoned—and she'd give a little start and grab the gown and scurry off to her room buttoning it up.