OVER THE SLIPRAILS
By Henry Lawson
Author of "While the Billy Boils", "When the World was Wide and Other Verses", "On the Track", "Verses: Popular and Humorous", &c.
[Note on text: Italicized words or phrases are capitalised. Some obvious errors have been corrected.]
Of the stories in this volume many have already appeared in the columns of [various periodicals], while several now appear in print for the first time.
H. L. Sydney, June 9th, 1900.
The Shanty-Keeper's Wife A Gentleman Sharper and Steelman Sharper An Incident at Stiffner's The Hero of Redclay The Darling River A Case for the Oracle A Daughter of Maoriland New Year's Night Black Joe They Wait on the Wharf in Black Seeing the Last of You Two Boys at Grinder Brothers' The Selector's Daughter Mitchell on the "Sex" and Other "Problems" The Master's Mistake The Story of the Oracle
OVER THE SLIPRAILS
The Shanty-Keeper's Wife
There were about a dozen of us jammed into the coach, on the box seat and hanging on to the roof and tailboard as best we could. We were shearers, bagmen, agents, a squatter, a cockatoo, the usual joker—and one or two professional spielers, perhaps. We were tired and stiff and nearly frozen—too cold to talk and too irritable to risk the inevitable argument which an interchange of ideas would have led up to. We had been looking forward for hours, it seemed, to the pub where we were to change horses. For the last hour or two all that our united efforts had been able to get out of the driver was a grunt to the effect that it was "'bout a couple o' miles." Then he said, or grunted, "'Tain't fur now," a couple of times, and refused to commit himself any further; he seemed grumpy about having committed himself that far.
He was one of those men who take everything in dead earnest; who regard any expression of ideas outside their own sphere of life as trivial, or, indeed, if addressed directly to them, as offensive; who, in fact, are darkly suspicious of anything in the shape of a joke or laugh on the part of an outsider in their own particular dust-hole. He seemed to be always thinking, and thinking a lot; when his hands were not both engaged, he would tilt his hat forward and scratch the base of his skull with his little finger, and let his jaw hang. But his intellectual powers were mostly concentrated on a doubtful swingle-tree, a misfitting collar, or that there bay or piebald (on the off or near side) with the sore shoulder.
Casual letters or papers, to be delivered on the road, were matters which troubled him vaguely, but constantly—like the abstract ideas of his passengers.
The joker of our party was a humourist of the dry order, and had been slyly taking rises out of the driver for the last two or three stages. But the driver only brooded. He wasn't the one to tell you straight if you offended him, or if he fancied you offended him, and thus gain your respect, or prevent a misunderstanding which would result in life-long enmity. He might meet you in after years when you had forgotten all about your trespass—if indeed you had ever been conscious of it—and "stoush" you unexpectedly on the ear.
Also you might regard him as your friend, on occasion, and yet he would stand by and hear a perfect stranger tell you the most outrageous lies, to your hurt, and know that the stranger was telling lies, and never put you up to it. It would never enter his head to do so. It wouldn't be any affair of his—only an abstract question.
It grew darker and colder. The rain came as if the frozen south were spitting at your face and neck and hands, and our feet grew as big as camel's, and went dead, and we might as well have stamped the footboards with wooden legs for all the feeling we got into ours. But they were more comfortable that way, for the toes didn't curl up and pain so much, nor did our corns stick out so hard against the leather, and shoot.
We looked out eagerly for some clearing, or fence, or light—some sign of the shanty where we were to change horses—but there was nothing save blackness all round. The long, straight, cleared road was no longer relieved by the ghostly patch of light, far ahead, where the bordering tree-walls came together in perspective and framed the ether. We were down in the bed of the bush.
We pictured a haven of rest with a suspended lamp burning in the frosty air outside and a big log fire in a cosy parlour off the bar, and a long table set for supper. But this is a land of contradictions; wayside shanties turn up unexpectedly and in the most unreasonable places, and are, as likely as not, prepared for a banquet when you are not hungry and can't wait, and as cold and dark as a bushman's grave when you are and can.
Suddenly the driver said: "We're there now." He said this as if he had driven us to the scaffold to be hanged, and was fiercely glad that he'd got us there safely at last. We looked but saw nothing; then a light appeared ahead and seemed to come towards us; and presently we saw that it was a lantern held up by a man in a slouch hat, with a dark bushy beard, and a three-bushel bag around his shoulders. He held up his other hand, and said something to the driver in a tone that might have been used by the leader of a search party who had just found the body. The driver stopped and then went on slowly.
"What's up?" we asked. "What's the trouble?"
"Oh, it's all right," said the driver.
"The publican's wife is sick," somebody said, "and he wants us to come quietly."
The usual little slab and bark shanty was suggested in the gloom, with a big bark stable looming in the background. We climbed down like so many cripples. As soon as we began to feel our legs and be sure we had the right ones and the proper allowance of feet, we helped, as quietly as possible, to take the horses out and round to the stable.
"Is she very bad?" we asked the publican, showing as much concern as we could.
"Yes," he said, in a subdued voice of a rough man who had spent several anxious, sleepless nights by the sick bed of a dear one. "But, God willing, I think we'll pull her through."
Thus encouraged we said, sympathetically: "We're very sorry to trouble you, but I suppose we could manage to get a drink and a bit to eat?"
"Well," he said, "there's nothing to eat in the house, and I've only got rum and milk. You can have that if you like."
One of the pilgrims broke out here.
"Well of all the pubs," he began, "that I've ever—"
"Hush-sh-sh!" said the publican.
The pilgrim scowled and retired to the rear. You can't express your feelings freely when there's a woman dying close handy.
"Well, who says rum and milk?" asked the joker, in a low voice.
"Wait here," said the publican, and disappeared into the little front passage.
Presently a light showed through a window, with a scratched and fly-bitten B and A on two panes, and a mutilated R on the third, which was broken. A door opened, and we sneaked into the bar. It was like having drinks after hours where the police are strict and independent.
When we came out the driver was scratching his head and looking at the harness on the verandah floor.
"You fellows 'll have ter put in the time for an hour or so. The horses is out back somewheres," and he indicated the interior of Australia with a side jerk of his head, "and the boy ain't back with 'em yet."
"But dash it all," said the Pilgrim, "me and my mate——"
"Hush!" said the publican.
"How long are the horses likely to be?" we asked the driver.
"Dunno," he grunted. "Might be three or four hours. It's all accordin'."
"Now, look here," said the Pilgrim, "me and my mate wanter catch the train."
"Hush-sh-sh!" from the publican in a fierce whisper.
"Well, boss," said the joker, "can you let us have beds, then? I don't want to freeze here all night, anyway."
"Yes," said the landlord, "I can do that, but some of you will have to sleep double and some of you'll have to take it out of the sofas, and one or two 'll have to make a shakedown on the floor. There's plenty of bags in the stable, and you've got rugs and coats with you. Fix it up amongst yourselves."
"But look here!" interrupted the Pilgrim, desperately, "we can't afford to wait! We're only 'battlers', me and my mate, pickin' up crumbs by the wayside. We've got to catch the——"
"Hush!" said the publican, savagely. "You fool, didn't I tell you my missus was bad? I won't have any noise."
"But look here," protested the Pilgrim, "we must catch the train at Dead Camel——"
"You'll catch my boot presently," said the publican, with a savage oath, "and go further than Dead Camel. I won't have my missus disturbed for you or any other man! Just you shut up or get out, and take your blooming mate with you."
We lost patience with the Pilgrim and sternly took him aside.
"Now, for God's sake, hold your jaw," we said. "Haven't you got any consideration at all? Can't you see the man's wife is ill—dying perhaps—and he nearly worried off his head?"
The Pilgrim and his mate were scraggy little bipeds of the city push variety, so they were suppressed.
"Well," yawned the joker, "I'm not going to roost on a stump all night. I'm going to turn in."
"It'll be eighteenpence each," hinted the landlord. "You can settle now if you like to save time."
We took the hint, and had another drink. I don't know how we "fixed it up amongst ourselves," but we got settled down somehow. There was a lot of mysterious whispering and scuffling round by the light of a couple of dirty greasy bits of candle. Fortunately we dared not speak loud enough to have a row, though most of us were by this time in the humour to pick a quarrel with a long-lost brother.
The Joker got the best bed, as good-humoured, good-natured chaps generally do, without seeming to try for it. The growler of the party got the floor and chaff bags, as selfish men mostly do—without seeming to try for it either. I took it out of one of the "sofas", or rather that sofa took it out of me. It was short and narrow and down by the head, with a leaning to one corner on the outside, and had more nails and bits of gin-case than original sofa in it.
I had been asleep for three seconds, it seemed, when somebody shook me by the shoulder and said:
"Take yer seats."
When I got out, the driver was on the box, and the others were getting rum and milk inside themselves (and in bottles) before taking their seats.
It was colder and darker than before, and the South Pole seemed nearer, and pretty soon, but for the rum, we should have been in a worse fix than before.
There was a spell of grumbling. Presently someone said:
"I don't believe them horses was lost at all. I was round behind the stable before I went to bed, and seen horses there; and if they wasn't them same horses there, I'll eat 'em raw!"
"Would yer?" said the driver, in a disinterested tone.
"I would," said the passenger. Then, with a sudden ferocity, "and you too!"
The driver said nothing. It was an abstract question which didn't interest him.
We saw that we were on delicate ground, and changed the subject for a while. Then someone else said:
"I wonder where his missus was? I didn't see any signs of her about, or any other woman about the place, and we was pretty well all over it."
"Must have kept her in the stable," suggested the Joker.
"No, she wasn't, for Scotty and that chap on the roof was there after bags."
"She might have been in the loft," reflected the Joker.
"There was no loft," put in a voice from the top of the coach.
"I say, Mister—Mister man," said the Joker suddenly to the driver, "Was his missus sick at all?"
"I dunno," replied the driver. "She might have been. He said so, anyway. I ain't got no call to call a man a liar."
"See here," said the cannibalistic individual to the driver, in the tone of a man who has made up his mind for a row, "has that shanty-keeper got a wife at all?"
"I believe he has."
"And is she living with him?"
"No, she ain't—if yer wanter know."
"Then where is she?"
"I dunno. How am I to know? She left him three or four years ago. She was in Sydney last time I heard of her. It ain't no affair of mine, anyways."
"And is there any woman about the place at all, driver?" inquired a professional wanderer reflectively.
"No—not that I knows on. There useter be a old black gin come pottering round sometimes, but I ain't seen her lately."
"And excuse me, driver, but is there anyone round there at all?" enquired the professional wanderer, with the air of a conscientious writer, collecting material for an Australian novel from life, with an eye to detail.
"Naw," said the driver—and recollecting that he was expected to be civil and obliging to his employers' patrons, he added in surly apology, "Only the boss and the stableman, that I knows of." Then repenting of the apology, he asserted his manhood again, and asked, in a tone calculated to risk a breach of the peace, "Any more questions, gentlemen—while the shop's open?"
There was a long pause.
"Driver," asked the Pilgrim appealingly, "was them horses lost at all?"
"I dunno," said the driver. "He said they was. He's got the looking after them. It was nothing to do with me."
. . . . .
"Twelve drinks at sixpence a drink"—said the Joker, as if calculating to himself—"that's six bob, and, say on an average, four shouts—that's one pound four. Twelve beds at eighteenpence a bed—that's eighteen shillings; and say ten bob in various drinks and the stuff we brought with us, that's two pound twelve. That publican didn't do so bad out of us in two hours."
We wondered how much the driver got out of it, but thought it best not to ask him.
. . . . .
We didn't say much for the rest of the journey. There was the usual man who thought as much and knew all about it from the first, but he wasn't appreciated. We suppressed him. One or two wanted to go back and "stoush" that landlord, and the driver stopped the coach cheerfully at their request; but they said they'd come across him again and allowed themselves to be persuaded out of it. It made us feel bad to think how we had allowed ourselves to be delayed, and robbed, and had sneaked round on tiptoe, and how we had sat on the inoffensive Pilgrim and his mate, and all on account of a sick wife who didn't exist.
The coach arrived at Dead Camel in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust, and we spread ourselves over the train and departed.
A Gentleman Sharper and Steelman Sharper
Steelman and Smith had been staying at the hotel for several days in the dress and character of bushies down for what they considered a spree. The gentleman sharper from the Other Side had been hanging round them for three days now. Steelman was the more sociable, and, to all appearances, the greener of the two bush mates; but seemed rather too much under the influence of Smith, who was reserved, suspicious, self-contained, or sulky. He almost scowled at Gentleman Sharper's "Good-morning!" and "Fine day!", replied in monosyllables and turned half away with an uneasy, sullen, resentful hump of his shoulder and shuffle of his feet.
Steelman took Smith for a stroll on the round, bald tussock hills surrounding the city, and rehearsed him for the last act until after sundown.
Gentleman Sharper was lounging, with a cigar, on the end of the balcony, where he had been contentedly contemplating the beautiful death of day. His calm, classic features began to whiten (and sharpen) in the frosty moonlight.
Steelman and Smith sat on deck-chairs behind a half-screen of ferns on the other end of the balcony, smoked their after-dinner smoke, and talked in subdued tones as befitted the time and the scene—great, softened, misty hills in a semicircle, and the water and harbour lights in moonlight.
The other boarders were loitering over dinner, in their rooms, or gone out; the three were alone on the balcony, which was a rear one.
Gentleman Sharper moved his position, carelessly, noiselessly, yet quickly, until he leaned on the rail close to the ferns and could overhear every word the bushies said. He had dropped his cigar overboard, and his scented handkerchief behind a fern-pot en route.
"But he looks all right, and acts all right, and talks all right—and shouts all right," protested Steelman. "He's not stumped, for I saw twenty or thirty sovereigns when he shouted; and he doesn't seem to care a damn whether we stand in with him or not."
"There you are! That's just where it is!" said Smith, with some logic, but in a tone a wife uses in argument (which tone, by the way, especially if backed by logic or common sense, makes a man wild sooner than anything else in this world of troubles).
Steelman jerked his chair half-round in disgust. "That's you!" he snorted, "always suspicious! Always suspicious of everybody and everything! If I found myself shot into a world where I couldn't trust anybody I'd shoot myself out of it. Life would be worse than not worth living. Smith, you'll never make money, except by hard graft—hard, bullocking, nigger-driving graft like we had on that damned railway section for the last six months, up to our knees in water all winter, and all for a paltry cheque of one-fifty—twenty of that gone already. How do you expect to make money in this country if you won't take anything for granted, except hard cash? I tell you, Smith, there's a thousand pounds lost for every one gained or saved by trusting too little. How did Vanderbilt and——"
Steelman elaborated to a climax, slipping a glance warily, once or twice, out of the tail of his eye through the ferns, low down.
"There never was a fortune made that wasn't made by chancing it."
He nudged Smith to come to the point. Presently Smith asked, sulkily:
"Well, what was he saying?"
"I thought I told you! He says he's behind the scenes in this gold boom, and, if he had a hundred pounds ready cash to-morrow, he'd make three of it before Saturday. He said he could put one-fifty to one-fifty."
"And isn't he worth three hundred?"
"Didn't I tell you," demanded Steelman, with an impatient ring, and speaking rapidly, "that he lost his mail in the wreck of the 'Tasman'? You know she went down the day before yesterday, and the divers haven't got at the mails yet."
"Yes.... But why doesn't he wire to Sydney for some stuff?"
"I'm——! Well, I suppose I'll have to have patience with a born natural. Look here, Smith, the fact of the matter is that he's a sort of black-sheep—sent out on the remittance system, if the truth is known, and with letters of introduction to some big-bugs out here—that explains how he gets to know these wire-pullers behind the boom. His people have probably got the quarterly allowance business fixed hard and tight with a bank or a lawyer in Sydney; and there'll have to be enquiries about the lost 'draft' (as he calls a cheque) and a letter or maybe a cable home to England; and it might take weeks."
"Yes," said Smith, hesitatingly. "That all sounds right enough. But"—with an inspiration—"why don't he go to one of these big-bug boomsters he knows—that he got letters of introduction to—and get him to fix him up?"
"Oh, Lord!" exclaimed Steelman, hopelessly. "Listen to him! Can't you see that they're the last men he wants to let into his game? Why, he wants to use THEM! They're the mugs as far as he is concerned!"
"Oh—I see!" said Smith, after hesitating, and rather slowly—as if he hadn't quite finished seeing yet.
Steelman glanced furtively at the fern-screen, and nudged Smith again.
"He said if he had three hundred, he'd double it by Saturday?"
"That's what he said," replied Steelman, seeming by his tone to be losing interest in the conversation.
"And... well, if he had a hundred he could double that, I suppose."
"Yes. What are you driving at now?"
"If he had twenty——"
"Oh, God! I'm sick of you, Smith. What the——!"
"Hold on. Let me finish. I was only going to say that I'm willing to put up a fiver, and you put up another fiver, and if he doubles that for us then we can talk about standing in with him with a hundred—provided he can show his hundred."
After some snarling Steelman said: "Well, I'll try him! Now are you satisfied?"...
"He's moved off now," he added in a whisper; "but stay here and talk a bit longer."
Passing through the hall they saw Gentleman Sharper standing carelessly by the door of the private bar. He jerked his head in the direction of drinks. Steelman accepted the invitation—Smith passed on. Steelman took the opportunity to whisper to the Sharper—"I've been talking that over with my mate, and——"
"Come for a stroll," suggested the professional.
"I don't mind," said Steelman.
"Have a cigar?" and they passed out.
When they returned Steelman went straight to the room he occupied with Smith.
"How much stuff have we got, Smith?"
"Nine pounds seventeen and threepence."
Steelman gave an exclamation of disapproval with that state of financial affairs. He thought a second. "I know the barman here, and I think he knows me. I'll chew his lug for a bob or may be a quid."
Twenty minutes later he went to Gentleman Sharper's room with ten pounds—in very dirty Bank of New Zealand notes—such as those with which bush contractors pay their men.
Two mornings later the sharper suggested a stroll. Steelman went with him, with a face carefully made up to hear the worst.
After walking a hundred yards in a silence which might have been ominous—and was certainly pregnant—the sharper said:
"Well... I tried the water."
"Yes!" said Steelman in a nervous tone. "And how did you find it?"
"Just as warm as I thought. Warm for a big splash."
"How? Did you lose the ten quid?"
"Lose it! What did you take me for? I put ten to your ten as I told you I would. I landed 50 Pounds——"
"Fifty pounds for twenty?"
"That's the tune of it—and not much of a tune, either. My God! If I'd only had that thousand of mine by me, or even half of it, I'd have made a pile!"
"Fifty pounds for twenty!" cried Steelman excitedly. "Why, that's grand! And to think we chaps have been grafting like niggers all our lives! By God, we'll stand in with you for all we've got!"
"There's my hand on it," as they reached the hotel.
"If you come to my room I'll give you the 25 Pounds now, if you like."
"Oh, that's all right," exclaimed Steelman impulsively; "you mustn't think I don't——"
"That's all right. Don't you say any more about it. You'd best have the stuff to-night to show your mate."
"Perhaps so; he's a suspicious fool, but I made a bargain with him about our last cheque. He can hang on to the stuff, and I can't. If I'd been on my own I'd have blued it a week ago. Tell you what I'll do—we'll call our share (Smith's and mine) twenty quid. You take the odd fiver for your trouble."
"That looks fair enough. We'll call it twenty guineas to you and your mate. We'll want him, you know."
In his own and Smith's room Steelman thoughtfully counted twenty-one sovereigns on the toilet-table cover, and left them there in a pile.
He stretched himself, scratched behind his ear, and blinked at the money abstractedly. Then he asked, as if the thought just occurred to him: "By the way, Smith, do you see those yellow boys?"
Smith saw. He had been sitting on the bed with a studiously vacant expression. It was Smith's policy not to seem, except by request, to take any interest in, or, in fact, to be aware of anything unusual that Steelman might be doing—from patching his pants to reading poetry.
"There's twenty-one sovereigns there!" remarked Steelman casually.
"Ten of 'em's yours."
"Thank yer, Steely."
"And," added Steelman, solemnly and grimly, "if you get taken down for 'em, or lose 'em out of the top-hole in your pocket, or spend so much as a shilling in riotous living, I'll stoush you, Smith."
Smith didn't seem interested. They sat on the beds opposite each other for two or three minutes, in something of the atmosphere that pervades things when conversation has petered out and the dinner-bell is expected to ring. Smith screwed his face and squeezed a pimple on his throat; Steelman absently counted the flies on the wall. Presently Steelman, with a yawning sigh, lay back on the pillow with his hands clasped under his head.
"Better take a few quid, Smith, and get that suit you were looking at the other day. Get a couple of shirts and collars, and some socks; better get a hat while you're at it—yours is a disgrace to your benefactor. And, I say, go to a chemist and get some cough stuff for that churchyarder of yours—we've got no use for it just now, and it makes me sentimental. I'll give you a cough when you want one. Bring me a syphon of soda, some fruit, and a tract."
"A tract. Go on. Start your boots."
While Smith was gone, Steelman paced the room with a strange, worried, haunted expression. He divided the gold that was left—(Smith had taken four pounds)—and put ten sovereigns in a pile on the extreme corner of the table. Then he walked up and down, up and down the room, arms tightly folded, and forehead knitted painfully, pausing abruptly now and then by the table to stare at the gold, until he heard Smith's step. Then his face cleared; he sat down and counted flies.
Smith was undoing and inspecting the parcels, having placed the syphon and fruit on the table. Behind his back Steelman hurriedly opened a leather pocketbook and glanced at the portrait of a woman and child and at the date of a post-office order receipt.
"Smith," said Steelman, "we're two honest, ignorant, green coves; hard-working chaps from the bush."
"It doesn't matter whether we are or not—we are as far as the world is concerned. Now we've grafted like bullocks, in heat and wet, for six months, and made a hundred and fifty, and come down to have a bit of a holiday before going back to bullock for another six months or a year. Isn't that so, Smith?"
"You could take your oath on it?"
"Well, it doesn't matter if it is so or not—it IS so, so far as the world is concerned. Now we've paid our way straight. We've always been pretty straight anyway, even if we are a pair of vagabonds, and I don't half like this new business; but it had to be done. If I hadn't taken down that sharper you'd have lost confidence in me and wouldn't have been able to mask your feelings, and I'd have had to stoush you. We're two hard-working, innocent bushies, down for an innocent spree, and we run against a cold-blooded professional sharper, a paltry sneak and a coward, who's got neither the brains nor the pluck to work in the station of life he togs himself for. He tries to do us out of our hard-earned little hundred and fifty—no matter whether we had it or not—and I'm obliged to take him down. Serve him right for a crawler. You haven't the least idea what I'm driving at, Smith, and that's the best of it. I've driven a nail of my life home, and no pincers ever made will get it out."
"Why, Steely, what's the matter with you?"
Steelman rose, took up the pile of ten sovereigns, and placed it neatly on top of the rest.
"Put the stuff away, Smith."
After breakfast next morning, Gentleman Sharper hung round a bit, and then suggested a stroll. But Steelman thought the weather looked too bad, so they went on the balcony for a smoke. They talked of the weather, wrecks, and things, Steelman leaning with his elbows on the balcony rail, and Sharper sociably and confidently in the same position close beside him. But the professional was evidently growing uneasy in his mind; his side of the conversation grew awkward and disjointed, and he made the blunder of drifting into an embarrassing silence before coming to the point. He took one elbow from the rail, and said, with a bungling attempt at carelessness which was made more transparent by the awkward pause before it:
"Ah, well, I must see to my correspondence. By the way, when could you make it convenient to let me have that hundred? The shares are starting up the last rise now, and we've got no time to lose if we want to double it."
Steelman turned his face to him and winked once—a very hard, tight, cold wink—a wink in which there was no humour: such a wink as Steelman had once winked at a half-drunken bully who was going to have a lark with Smith.
The sharper was one of those men who pull themselves together in a bad cause, as they stagger from the blow. But he wanted to think this time.
Later on he approached Steelman quietly and proposed partnership. But Steelman gave him to understand (as between themselves) that he wasn't taking on any pupils just then.
An Incident at Stiffner's
They called him "Stiffner" because he used, long before, to get a living by poisoning wild dogs near the Queensland border. The name stuck to him closer than misfortune did, for when he rose to the proud and independent position of landlord and sole proprietor of an out-back pub he was Stiffner still, and his place was "Stiffner's"—widely known.
They do say that the name ceased not to be applicable—that it fitted even better than in the old dingo days, but—well, they do say so. All we can say is that when a shearer arrived with a cheque, and had a drink or two, he was almost invariably seized with a desire to camp on the premises for good, spend his cheque in the shortest possible time, and forcibly shout for everything within hail—including the Chinaman cook and Stiffner's disreputable old ram.
The shanty was of the usual kind, and the scenery is as easily disposed of. There was a great grey plain stretching away from the door in front, and a mulga scrub from the rear; and in that scrub, not fifty yards from the kitchen door, were half a dozen nameless graves.
Stiffner was always drunk, and Stiffner's wife—a hard-featured Amazon—was boss. The children were brought up in a detached cottage, under the care of a "governess".
Stiffner had a barmaid as a bait for chequemen. She came from Sydney, they said, and her name was Alice. She was tall, boyishly handsome, and characterless; her figure might be described as "fine" or "strapping", but her face was very cold—nearly colourless. She was one of those selfishly sensual women—thin lips, and hard, almost vacant grey eyes; no thought of anything but her own pleasures, none for the man's. Some shearers would roughly call her "a squatter's girl". But she "drew"; she was handsome where women are scarce—very handsome, thought a tall, melancholy-looking jackeroo, whose evil spirit had drawn him to Stiffner's and the last shilling out of his pocket.
Over the great grey plain, about a fortnight before, had come "Old Danny", a station hand, for his semi-annual spree, and one "Yankee Jack" and his mate, shearers with horses, travelling for grass; and, about a week later, the Sydney jackeroo. There was also a sprinkling of assorted swagmen, who came in through the scrub and went out across the plain, or came in over the plain and went away through the scrub, according to which way their noses led them for the time being.
There was also, for one day, a tall, freckled native (son of a neighbouring "cocky"), without a thought beyond the narrow horizon within which he lived. He had a very big opinion of himself in a very small mind. He swaggered into the breakfast-room and round the table to his place with an expression of ignorant contempt on his phiz, his snub nose in the air and his under lip out. But during the meal he condescended to ask the landlord if he'd noticed that there horse that chap was ridin' yesterday; and Stiffner having intimated that he had, the native entertained the company with his opinion of that horse, and of a certain "youngster" he was breaking in at home, and divers other horses, mostly his or his father's, and of a certain cattle slut, &c.... He spoke at the landlord, but to the company, most of the time. After breakfast he swaggered round some more, but condescended to "shove" his hand into his trousers, "pull" out a "bob" and "chuck" it into the (blanky) hat for a pool. Those words express the thing better than any others we can think of. Finally, he said he must be off; and, there being no opposition to his departure, he chucked his saddle on to his horse, chucked himself into the saddle, said "s'long," and slithered off. And no one missed him.
Danny had been there a fortnight, and consequently his personal appearance was not now worth describing—it was better left alone, for the honour of the bush. His hobby was that he was the "stranger's friend", as he put it. He'd welcome "the stranger" and chum with him, and shout for him to an unlimited extent, and sympathise with him, hear of jobs or a "show" for him, assure him twenty times a day that he was his friend, give him hints and advice more or less worthless, make him drunk if possible, and keep him so while the cheque lasted; in short, Danny would do almost anything for the stranger except lend him a shilling, or give him some rations to carry him on. He'd promise that many times a day, but he'd sooner spend five pounds on drink for a man than give him a farthing.
Danny's cheque was nearly gone, and it was time he was gone too; in fact, he had received, and was still receiving, various hints to that effect, some of them decidedly pointed, especially the more recent ones. But Danny was of late becoming foolishly obstinate in his sprees, and less disposed to "git" when a landlord had done with him. He saw the hints plainly enough, but had evidently made up his mind to be doggedly irresponsive. It is a mistake to think that drink always dulls a man's feelings. Some natures are all the more keenly sensitive when alcoholically poisoned.
Danny was always front man at the shanty while his cheque was fresh—at least, so he was given to understand, and so he apparently understood. He was then allowed to say and do what he liked almost, even to mauling the barmaid about. There was scarcely any limit to the free and easy manner in which you could treat her, so long as your money lasted. She wouldn't be offended; it wasn't business to be so—"didn't pay." But, as soon as your title to the cheque could be decently shelved, you had to treat her like a lady. Danny knew this—none better; but he had been treated with too much latitude, and rushed to his destruction.
It was Sunday afternoon, but that made no difference in things at the shanty. Dinner was just over. The men were in the mean little parlour off the bar, interested in a game of cards, and Alice sat in one corner sewing. Danny was "acting the goat" round the fireplace; as ill-luck would have it, his attention was drawn to a basket of clean linen which stood on the side table, and from it, with sundry winks and grimaces, he gingerly lifted a certain garment of ladies' underwear—to put the matter decently. He held it up between his forefingers and thumbs, and cracked a rough, foolish joke—no matter what it was. The laugh didn't last long. Alice sprang to her feet, flinging her work aside, and struck a stage attitude—her right arm thrown out and the forefinger pointing rigidly, and rather crookedly, towards the door.
"Leave the room!" she snapped at Danny. "Leave the room! How dare you talk like that before me-e-ee!"
Danny made a step and paused irresolutely. He was sober enough to feel the humiliation of his position, and having once been a man of spirit, and having still the remnants of manhood about him, he did feel it. He gave one pitiful, appealing look at her face, but saw no mercy there. She stamped her foot again, jabbed her forefinger at the door, and said, "Go-o-o!" in a tone that startled the majority of the company nearly as much as it did Danny. Then Yankee Jack threw down his cards, rose from the table, laid his strong, shapely right hand—not roughly—on Danny's ragged shoulder, and engineered the drunk gently through the door.
"You's better go out for a while, Danny," he said; "there wasn't much harm in what you said, but your cheque's gone, and that makes all the difference. It's time you went back to the station. You've got to be careful what you say now."
When Jack returned to the parlour the barmaid had a smile for him; but he didn't take it. He went and stood before the fire, with his foot resting on the fender and his elbow on the mantelshelf, and looked blackly at a print against the wall before his face.
"The old beast!" said Alice, referring to Danny. "He ought to be kicked off the place!"
"HE'S AS GOOD AS YOU!"
The voice was Jack's; he flung the stab over his shoulder, and with it a look that carried all the contempt he felt.
She gasped, looked blankly from face to face, and witheringly at the back of Jack's head; but that didn't change colour or curl the least trifle less closely.
"Did you hear that?" she cried, appealing to anyone. "You're a nice lot o' men, you are, to sit there and hear a woman insulted, and not one of you man enough to take her part—cowards!"
The Sydney jackeroo rose impulsively, but Jack glanced at him, and he sat down again. She covered her face with her hands and ran hysterically to her room.
That afternoon another bushman arrived with a cheque, and shouted five times running at a pound a shout, and at intervals during the rest of the day when they weren't fighting or gambling.
Alice had "got over her temper" seemingly, and was even kind to the humble and contrite Danny, who became painfully particular with his "Thanky, Alice"—and afterwards offensive with his unnecessarily frequent threats to smash the first man who insulted her.
But let us draw the curtain close before that Sunday afternoon at Stiffner's, and hold it tight. Behind it the great curse of the West is in evidence, the chief trouble of unionism—drink, in its most selfish, barren, and useless form.
. . . . .
All was quiet at Stiffner's. It was after midnight, and Stiffner lay dead-drunk on the broad of his back on the long moonlit verandah, with all his patrons asleep around him in various grotesque positions. Stiffner's ragged grey head was on a cushion, and a broad maudlin smile on his red, drink-sodden face, the lower half of which was bordered by a dirty grey beard, like that of a frilled lizard. The red handkerchief twisted round his neck had a ghastly effect in the bright moonlight, making him look as if his throat was cut. The smile was the one he went to sleep with when his wife slipped the cushion under his head and thoughtfully removed the loose change from about his person. Near him lay a heap that was Danny, and spread over the bare boards were the others, some with heads pillowed on their swags, and every man about as drunk as his neighbour. Yankee Jack lay across the door of the barmaid's bedroom, with one arm bent under his head, the other lying limp on the doorstep, his handsome face turned out to the bright moonlight. The "family" were sound asleep in the detached cottage, and Alice—the only capable person on the premises—was left to put out the lamps and "shut up" for the night. She extinguished the light in the bar, came out, locked the door, and picked her way among and over the drunkards to the end of the verandah. She clasped her hands behind her head, stretched herself, and yawned, and then stood for a few moments looking out into the night, which softened the ragged line of mulga to right and left, and veiled the awful horizon of that great plain with which the "traveller" commenced, or ended, the thirty-mile "dry stretch". Then she moved towards her own door; before it she halted and stood, with folded arms, looking down at the drunken Adonis at her feet.
She breathed a long breath with a sigh in it, went round to the back, and presently returned with a buggy-cushion, which she slipped under his head—her face close to his—very close. Then she moved his arms gently off the threshold, stepped across him into her room, and locked the door behind her.
There was an uneasy movement in the heap that stood, or lay, for Danny. It stretched out, turned over, struggled to its hands and knees, and became an object. Then it crawled to the wall, against which it slowly and painfully up-ended itself, and stood blinking round for the water-bag, which hung from the verandah rafters in a line with its shapeless red nose. It staggered forward, held on by the cords, felt round the edge of the bag for the tot, and drank about a quart of water. Then it staggered back against the wall, stood for a moment muttering and passing its hand aimlessly over its poor ruined head, and finally collapsed into a shapeless rum-smelling heap and slept once more.
The jackeroo at the end of the verandah had awakened from his drunken sleep, but had not moved. He lay huddled on his side, with his head on the swag; the whole length of the verandah was before him; his eyes were wide open, but his face was in the shade. Now he rose painfully and stood on the ground outside, with his hands in his pockets, and gazed out over the open for a while. He breathed a long breath, too—with a groan in it. Then he lifted his swag quietly from the end of the floor, shouldered it, took up his water-bag and billy, and sneaked over the road, away from the place, like a thief. He struck across the plain, and tramped on, hour after hour, mile after mile, till the bright moon went down with a bright star in attendance and the other bright stars waned, and he entered the timber and tramped through it to the "cleared road", which stretched far and wide for twenty miles before him, with ghostly little dust-clouds at short intervals ahead, where the frightened rabbits crossed it. And still he went doggedly on, with the ghastly daylight on him—like a swagman's ghost out late. And a mongrel followed faithfully all the time unnoticed, and wondering, perhaps, at his master.
"What was yer doin' to that girl yesterday?" asked Danny of Yankee Jack next evening, as they camped on the far side of the plain. "What was you chaps sayin' to Alice? I heerd her cryin' in her room last night."
But they reckoned that he had been too drunk to hear anything except an invitation to come and have another drink; and so it passed.
The Hero of Redclay
The "boss-over-the-board" was leaning with his back to the wall between two shoots, reading a reference handed to him by a green-hand applying for work as picker-up or woolroller—a shed rouseabout. It was terribly hot. I was slipping past to the rolling-tables, carrying three fleeces to save a journey; we were only supposed to carry two. The boss stopped me:
"You've got three fleeces there, young man?"
Notwithstanding the fact that I had just slipped a light ragged fleece into the belly-wool and "bits" basket, I felt deeply injured, and righteously and fiercely indignant at being pulled up. It was a fearfully hot day.
"If I catch you carrying three fleeces again," said the boss quietly, "I'll give you the sack."
"I'll take it now if you like," I said.
He nodded. "You can go on picking-up in this man's place," he said to the jackeroo, whose reference showed him to be a non-union man—a "free-labourer", as the pastoralists had it, or, in plain shed terms, "a blanky scab". He was now in the comfortable position of a non-unionist in a union shed who had jumped into a sacked man's place.
Somehow the lurid sympathy of the men irritated me worse than the boss-over-the-board had done. It must have been on account of the heat, as Mitchell says. I was sick of the shed and the life. It was within a couple of days of cut-out, so I told Mitchell—who was shearing—that I'd camp up the Billabong and wait for him; got my cheque, rolled up my swag, got three days' tucker from the cook, said so-long to him, and tramped while the men were in the shed.
I camped at the head of the Billabong where the track branched, one branch running to Bourke, up the river, and the other out towards the Paroo—and hell.
About ten o'clock the third morning Mitchell came along with his cheque and his swag, and a new sheep-pup, and his quiet grin; and I wasn't too pleased to see that he had a shearer called "the Lachlan" with him.
The Lachlan wasn't popular at the shed. He was a brooding, unsociable sort of man, and it didn't make any difference to the chaps whether he had a union ticket or not. It was pretty well known in the shed—there were three or four chaps from the district he was reared in—that he'd done five years hard for burglary. What surprised me was that Jack Mitchell seemed thick with him; often, when the Lachlan was sitting brooding and smoking by himself outside the hut after sunset, Mitchell would perch on his heels alongside him and yarn. But no one else took notice of anything Mitchell did out of the common.
"Better camp with us till the cool of the evening," said Mitchell to the Lachlan, as they slipped their swags. "Plenty time for you to start after sundown, if you're going to travel to-night."
So the Lachlan was going to travel all night and on a different track. I felt more comfortable, and put the billy on. I did not care so much what he'd been or had done, but I was green and soft yet, and his presence embarrassed me.
They talked shearing, sheds, tracks, and a little unionism—the Lachlan speaking in a quiet voice and with a lot of sound, common sense, it seemed to me. He was tall and gaunt, and might have been thirty, or even well on in the forties. His eyes were dark brown and deep set, and had something of the dead-earnest sad expression you saw in the eyes of union leaders and secretaries—the straight men of the strikes of '90 and '91. I fancied once or twice I saw in his eyes the sudden furtive look of the "bad egg" when a mounted trooper is spotted near the shed; but perhaps this was prejudice. And with it all there was about the Lachlan something of the man who has lost all he had and the chances of all he was ever likely to have, and is past feeling, or caring, or flaring up—past getting mad about anything—something, all the same, that warned men not to make free with him.
He and Mitchell fished along the Billabong all the afternoon; I fished a little, and lay about the camp and read. I had an instinct that the Lachlan saw I didn't cotton on to his camping with us, though he wasn't the sort of man to show what he saw or felt. After tea, and a smoke at sunset, he shouldered his swag, nodded to me as if I was an accidental but respectful stranger at a funeral that belonged to him, and took the outside track. Mitchell walked along the track with him for a mile or so, while I poked round and got some boughs down for a bed, and fed and studied the collie pup that Jack had bought from the shearers' cook.
I saw them stop and shake hands out on the dusty clearing, and they seemed to take a long time about it; then Mitchell started back, and the other began to dwindle down to a black peg and then to a dot on the sandy plain, that had just a hint of dusk and dreamy far-away gloaming on it between the change from glaring day to hard, bare, broad moonlight.
I thought Mitchell was sulky, or had got the blues, when he came back; he lay on his elbow smoking, with his face turned from the camp towards the plain. After a bit I got wild—if Mitchell was going to go on like that he might as well have taken his swag and gone with the Lachlan. I don't know exactly what was the matter with me that day, and at last I made up my mind to bring the thing to a head.
"You seem mighty thick with the Lachlan," I said.
"Well, what's the matter with that?" asked Mitchell. "It ain't the first felon I've been on speaking terms with. I borrowed half-a-caser off a murderer once, when I was in a hole and had no one else to go to; and the murderer hadn't served his time, neither. I've got nothing against the Lachlan, except that he's a white man and bears a faint family resemblance to a certain branch of my tribe."
I rolled out my swag on the boughs, got my pipe, tobacco, and matches handy in the crown of a spare hat, and lay down.
Mitchell got up, re-lit his pipe at the fire, and mooned round for a while, with his hands behind him, kicking sticks out of the road, looking out over the plain, down along the Billabong, and up through the mulga branches at the stars; then he comforted the pup a bit, shoved the fire together with his toe, stood the tea-billy on the coals, and came and squatted on the sand by my head.
"Joe! I'll tell you a yarn."
"All right; fire away! Has it got anything to do with the Lachlan?"
"No. It's got nothing to do with the Lachlan now; but it's about a chap he knew. Don't you ever breathe a word of this to the Lachlan or anyone, or he'll get on to me."
"All right. Go ahead."
"You know I've been a good many things in my time. I did a deal of house-painting at one time; I was a pretty smart brush hand, and made money at it. Well, I had a run of work at a place called Redclay, on the Lachlan side. You know the sort of town—two pubs, a general store, a post office, a blacksmith's shop, a police station, a branch bank, and a dozen private weatherboard boxes on piles, with galvanized-iron tops, besides the humpies. There was a paper there, too, called the 'Redclay Advertiser' (with which was incorporated the 'Geebung Chronicle'), and a Roman Catholic church, a Church of England, and a Wesleyan chapel. Now you see more of private life in the house-painting line than in any other—bar plumbing and gasfitting; but I'll tell you about my house-painting experiences some other time.
"There was a young chap named Jack Drew editing the 'Advertiser' then. He belonged to the district, but had been sent to Sydney to a grammar school when he was a boy. He was between twenty-five and thirty; had knocked round a good deal, and gone the pace in Sydney. He got on as a boy reporter on one of the big dailies; he had brains and could write rings round a good many, but he got in with a crowd that called themselves 'Bohemians', and the drink got a hold on him. The paper stuck to him as long as it could (for the sake of his brains), but they had to sack him at last.
"He went out back, as most of them do, to try and work out their salvation, and knocked round amongst the sheds. He 'picked up' in one shed where I was shearing, and we carried swags together for a couple of months. Then he went back to the Lachlan side, and prospected amongst the old fields round there with his elder brother Tom, who was all there was left of his family. Tom, by the way, broke his heart digging Jack out of a cave in a drive they were working, and died a few minutes after the rescue. [*] But that's another yarn. Jack Drew had a bad spree after that; then he went to Sydney again, got on his old paper, went to the dogs, and a Parliamentary push that owned some city fly-blisters and country papers sent him up to edit the 'Advertiser' at two quid a week. He drank again, and no wonder—you don't know what it is to run a 'Geebung Advocate' or 'Mudgee Budgee Chronicle', and live there. He was about the same build as the Lachlan, but stouter, and had something the same kind of eyes; but he was ordinarily as careless and devil-may-care as the Lachlan is grumpy and quiet.
* See "When the Sun Went Down", in "While the Billy Boils".—
"There was a doctor there, called Dr. Lebinski. They said he was a Polish exile. He was fifty or sixty, a tall man, with the set of an old soldier when he stood straight; but he mostly walked with his hands behind him, studying the ground. Jack Drew caught that trick off him towards the end. They were chums in a gloomy way, and kept to themselves—they were the only two men with brains in that town. They drank and fought the drink together. The Doctor was too gloomy and impatient over little things to be popular. Jack Drew talked too straight in the paper, and in spite of his proprietors—about pub spieling and such things—and was too sarcastic in his progress committee, town council, and toady reception reports. The Doctor had a hawk's nose, pointed grizzled beard and moustache, and steely-grey eyes with a haunted look in them sometimes (especially when he glanced at you sideways), as if he loathed his fellow men, and couldn't always hide it; or as if you were the spirit of morphia or opium, or a dead girl he'd wronged in his youth—or whatever his devil was, beside drink. He was clever, and drink had brought him down to Redclay.
"The bank manager was a heavy snob named Browne. He complained of being a bit dull of hearing in one ear—after you'd yelled at him three or four times; sometimes I've thought he was as deaf as a book-keeper in both. He had a wife and youngsters, but they were away on a visit while I was working in Redclay. His niece—or, rather, his wife's niece—a girl named Ruth Wilson, did the housekeeping. She was an orphan, adopted by her aunt, and was general slavey and scape-goat to the family—especially to the brats, as is often the case. She was rather pretty, and lady-like, and kept to herself. The women and girls called her Miss Wilson, and didn't like her. Most of the single men—and some of the married ones, perhaps—were gone on her, but hadn't the brains or the pluck to bear up and try their luck. I was gone worse than any, I think, but had too much experience or common sense. She was very good to me—used to hand me out cups of tea and plates of sandwiches, or bread and butter, or cake, mornings and afternoons the whole time I was painting the bank. The Doctor had known her people and was very kind to her. She was about the only woman—for she was more woman than girl—that he'd brighten up and talk for. Neither he nor Jack Drew were particularly friendly with Browne or his push.
"The banker, the storekeeper, one of the publicans, the butcher (a popular man with his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his head, and nothing in it), the postmaster, and his toady, the lightning squirter, were the scrub-aristocracy. The rest were crawlers, mostly pub spielers and bush larrikins, and the women were hags and larrikinesses. The town lived on cheque-men from the surrounding bush. It was a nice little place, taking it all round.
"I remember a ball at the local town hall, where the scrub aristocrats took one end of the room to dance in and the ordinary scum the other. It was a saving in music. Some day an Australian writer will come along who'll remind the critics and readers of Dickens, Carlyle, and Thackeray mixed, and he'll do justice to these little customs of ours in the little settled-district towns of Democratic Australia. This sort of thing came to a head one New Year's Night at Redclay, when there was a 'public' ball and peace on earth and good will towards all men—mostly on account of a railway to Redclay being surveyed. We were all there. They'd got the Doc. out of his shell to act as M.C.
"One of the aristocrats was the daughter of the local storekeeper; she belonged to the lawn-tennis clique, and they WERE select. For some reason or other—because she looked upon Miss Wilson as a slavey, or on account of a fancied slight, or the heat working on ignorance, or on account of something that comes over girls and women that no son of sin can account for—this Miss Tea-'n'-sugar tossed her head and refused Miss Wilson's hand in the first set and so broke the ladies' chain and the dance. Then there was a to-do. The Doctor held up his hand to stop the music, and said, very quietly, that he must call upon Miss So-and-so to apologise to Miss Wilson—or resign the chair. After a lot of fuss the girl did apologise in a snappy way that was another insult. Jack Drew gave Miss Wilson his arm and marched her off without a word—I saw she was almost crying. Some one said, 'Oh, let's go on with the dance.' The Doctor flashed round on them, but they were too paltry for him, so he turned on his heel and went out without a word. But I was beneath them again in social standing, so there was nothing to prevent me from making a few well-chosen remarks on things in general—which I did; and broke up that ball, and broke some heads afterwards, and got myself a good deal of hatred and respect, and two sweethearts; and lost all the jobs I was likely to get, except at the bank, the Doctor's, and the Royal.
"One day it was raining—general rain for a week. Rain, rain, rain, over ridge and scrub and galvanised iron and into the dismal creeks. I'd done all my inside work, except a bit under the Doctor's verandah, where he'd been having some patching and altering done round the glass doors of his surgery, where he consulted his patients. I didn't want to lose time. It was a Monday and no day for the Royal, and there was no dust, so it was a good day for varnishing. I took a pot and brush and went along to give the Doctor's doors a coat of varnish. The Doctor and Drew were inside with a fire, drinking whisky and smoking, but I didn't know that when I started work. The rain roared on the iron roof like the sea. All of a sudden it held up for a minute, and I heard their voices. The doctor had been shouting on account of the rain, and forgot to lower his voice. 'Look here, Jack Drew,' he said, 'there are only two things for you to do if you have any regard for that girl; one is to stop this' (the liquor I suppose he meant) 'and pull yourself together; and I don't think you'll do that—I know men. The other is to throw up the 'Advertiser'—it's doing you no good—and clear out.' 'I won't do that,' says Drew. 'Then shoot yourself,' said the Doctor. '(There's another flask in the cupboard). You know what this hole is like.... She's a good true girl—a girl as God made her. I knew her father and mother, and I tell you, Jack, I'd sooner see her dead than....' The roof roared again. I felt a bit delicate about the business and didn't like to disturb them, so I knocked off for the day.
"About a week before that I was down in the bed of the Redclay Creek fishing for 'tailers'. I'd been getting on all right with the housemaid at the 'Royal'—she used to have plates of pudding and hot pie for me on the big gridiron arrangement over the kitchen range; and after the third tuck-out I thought it was good enough to do a bit of a bear-up in that direction. She mentioned one day, yarning, that she liked a stroll by the creek sometimes in the cool of the evening. I thought she'd be off that day, so I said I'd go for a fish after I'd knocked off. I thought I might get a bite. Anyway, I didn't catch Lizzie—tell you about that some other time.
"It was Sunday. I'd been fishing for Lizzie about an hour when I saw a skirt on the bank out of the tail of my eye—and thought I'd got a bite, sure. But I was had. It was Miss Wilson strolling along the bank in the sunset, all by her pretty self. She was a slight girl, not very tall, with reddish frizzled hair, grey eyes, and small, pretty features. She spoke as if she had more brains than the average, and had been better educated. Jack Drew was the only young man in Redclay she could talk to, or who could talk to a girl like her; and that was the whole trouble in a nutshell. The newspaper office was next to the bank, and I'd seen her hand cups of tea and cocoa over the fence to his office window more than once, and sometimes they yarned for a while.
"She said, 'Good morning, Mr. Mitchell.'
"I said, 'Good morning, Miss.'
"There's some girls I can't talk to like I'd talk to other girls. She asked me if I'd caught any fish, and I said, 'No, Miss.' She asked me if it wasn't me down there fishing with Mr. Drew the other evening, and I said, 'Yes—it was me.' Then presently she asked me straight if he was fishing down the creek that afternoon? I guessed they'd been down fishing for each other before. I said, 'No, I thought he was out of town.' I knew he was pretty bad at the Royal. I asked her if she'd like to have a try with my line, but she said No, thanks, she must be going; and she went off up the creek. I reckoned Jack Drew had got a bite and landed her. I felt a bit sorry for her, too.
"The next Saturday evening after the rainy Monday at the Doctor's, I went down to fish for tailers—and Lizzie. I went down under the banks to where there was a big she-oak stump half in the water, going quietly, with an idea of not frightening the fish. I was just unwinding the line from my rod, when I noticed the end of another rod sticking out from the other side of the stump; and while I watched it was dropped into the water. Then I heard a murmur, and craned my neck round the back of the stump to see who it was. I saw the back view of Jack Drew and Miss Wilson; he had his arm round her waist, and her head was on his shoulder. She said, 'I WILL trust you, Jack—I know you'll give up the drink for my sake. And I'll help you, and we'll be so happy!' or words in that direction. A thunderstorm was coming on. The sky had darkened up with a great blue-black storm-cloud rushing over, and they hadn't noticed it. I didn't mind, and the fish bit best in a storm. But just as she said 'happy' came a blinding flash and a crash that shook the ridges, and the first drops came peltering down. They jumped up and climbed the bank, while I perched on the she-oak roots over the water to be out of sight as they passed. Half way to the town I saw them standing in the shelter of an old stone chimney that stood alone. He had his overcoat round her and was sheltering her from the wind...."
"Smoke-oh, Joe. The tea's stewing."
Mitchell got up, stretched himself, and brought the billy and pint-pots to the head of my camp. The moon had grown misty. The plain horizon had closed in. A couple of boughs, hanging from the gnarled and blasted timber over the billabong, were the perfect shapes of two men hanging side by side. Mitchell scratched the back of his neck and looked down at the pup curled like a glob of mud on the sand in the moonlight, and an idea struck him. He got a big old felt hat he had, lifted his pup, nose to tail, fitted it in the hat, shook it down, holding the hat by the brim, and stood the hat near the head of his doss, out of the moonlight. "He might get moonstruck," said Mitchell, "and I don't want that pup to be a genius." The pup seemed perfectly satisfied with this new arrangement.
"Have a smoke," said Mitchell. "You see," he added, with a sly grin, "I've got to make up the yarn as I go along, and it's hard work. It seems to begin to remind me of yarns your grandmother or aunt tells of things that happened when she was a girl—but those yarns are true. You won't have to listen long now; I'm well on into the second volume.
"After the storm I hurried home to the tent—I was batching with a carpenter. I changed my clothes, made a fire in the fire-bucket with shavings and ends of soft wood, boiled the billy, and had a cup of coffee. It was Saturday night. My mate was at the Royal; it was cold and dismal in the tent, and there was nothing to read, so I reckoned I might as well go up to the Royal, too, and put in the time.
"I had to pass the Bank on the way. It was the usual weatherboard box with a galvanised iron top—four rooms and a passage, and a detached kitchen and wash-house at the back; the front room to the right (behind the office) was the family bedroom, and the one opposite it was the living room. The 'Advertiser' office was next door. Jack Drew camped in a skillion room behind his printing office, and had his meals at the Royal. I noticed the storm had taken a sheet of iron off the skillion, and supposed he'd sleep at the Royal that night. Next to the 'Advertiser' office was the police station (still called the Police Camp) and the Courthouse. Next was the Imperial Hotel, where the scrub aristocrats went. There was a vacant allotment on the other side of the Bank, and I took a short cut across this to the Royal.
"They'd forgotten to pull down the blind of the dining-room window, and I happened to glance through and saw she had Jack Drew in there and was giving him a cup of tea. He had a bad cold, I remember, and I suppose his health had got precious to her, poor girl. As I glanced she stepped to the window and pulled down the blind, which put me out of face a bit—though, of course, she hadn't seen me. I was rather surprised at her having Jack in there, till I heard that the banker, the postmaster, the constable, and some others were making a night of it at the Imperial, as they'd been doing pretty often lately—and went on doing till there was a blow-up about it, and the constable got transferred Out Back. I used to drink my share then. We smoked and played cards and yarned and filled 'em up again at the Royal till after one in the morning. Then I started home.
"I'd finished giving the Bank a couple of coats of stone-colour that week, and was cutting in in dark colour round the spouting, doors, and window-frames that Saturday. My head was pretty clear going home, and as I passed the place it struck me that I'd left out the only varnish brush I had. I'd been using it to give the sashes a coat of varnish colour, and remembered that I'd left it on one of the window-sills—the sill of her bedroom window, as it happened. I knew I'd sleep in next day, Sunday, and guessed it would be hot, and I didn't want the varnish tool to get spoiled; so I reckoned I'd slip in through the side gate, get it, and take it home to camp and put it in oil. The window sash was jammed, I remember, and I hadn't been able to get it up more than a couple of inches to paint the runs of the sash. The grass grew up close under the window, and I slipped in quietly. I noticed the sash was still up a couple of inches. Just as I grabbed the brush I heard low voices inside—Ruth Wilson's and Jack Drew's—in her room.
"The surprise sent about a pint of beer up into my throat in a lump. I tip-toed away out of there. Just as I got clear of the gate I saw the banker being helped home by a couple of cronies.
"I went home to the camp and turned in, but I couldn't sleep. I lay think—think—thinking, till I thought all the drink out of my head. I'd brought a bottle of ale home to last over Sunday, and I drank that. It only made matters worse. I didn't know how I felt—I—well, I felt as if I was as good a man as Jack Drew—I—you see I've—you might think it soft—but I loved that girl, not as I've been gone on other girls, but in the old-fashioned, soft, honest, hopeless, far-away sort of way; and now, to tell the straight truth, I thought I might have had her. You lose a thing through being too straight or sentimental, or not having enough cheek; and another man comes along with more brass in his blood and less sentimental rot and takes it up—and the world respects him; and you feel in your heart that you're a weaker man than he is. Why, part of the time I must have felt like a man does when a better man runs away with his wife. But I'd drunk a lot, and was upset and lonely-feeling that night.
"Oh, but Redclay had a tremendous sensation next day! Jack Drew, of all the men in the world, had been caught in the act of robbing the bank. According to Browne's account in court and in the newspapers, he returned home that night at about twelve o'clock (which I knew was a lie, for I saw him being helped home nearer two) and immediately retired to rest (on top of the quilt, boots and all, I suppose). Some time before daybreak he was roused by a fancied noise (I suppose it was his head swelling); he rose, turned up a night lamp (he hadn't lit it, I'll swear), and went through the dining-room passage and office to investigate (for whisky and water). He saw that the doors and windows were secure, returned to bed, and fell asleep again.
"There is something in a deaf person's being roused easily. I know the case of a deaf chap who'd start up at a step or movement in the house when no one else could hear or feel it; keen sense of vibration, I reckon. Well, just at daybreak (to shorten the yarn) the banker woke suddenly, he said, and heard a crack like a shot in the house. There was a loose flooring-board in the passage that went off like a pistol-shot sometimes when you trod on it; and I guess Jack Drew trod on it, sneaking out, and he weighed nearly twelve stone. If the truth were known, he probably heard Browne poking round, tried the window, found the sash jammed, and was slipping through the passage to the back door. Browne got his revolver, opened his door suddenly, and caught Drew standing between the girl's door (which was shut) and the office door, with his coat on his arm and his boots in his hands. Browne covered him with his revolver, swore he'd shoot if he moved, and yelled for help. Drew stood a moment like a man stunned; then he rushed Browne, and in the struggle the revolver went off, and Drew got hit in the arm. Two of the mounted troopers—who'd been up looking to the horses for an early start somewhere—rushed in then, and took Drew. He had nothing to say. What could he say? He couldn't say he was a blackguard who'd taken advantage of a poor unprotected girl because she loved him. They found the back door unlocked, by the way, which was put down to the burglar; of course Browne couldn't explain that he came home too muddled to lock doors after him.
"And the girl? She shrieked and fell when the row started, and they found her like a log on the floor of her room after it was over.
"They found in Jack's overcoat pocket a parcel containing a cold chisel, small screw-wrench, file, and one or two other things that he'd bought that evening to tinker up the old printing press. I knew that, because I'd lent him a hand a few nights before, and he told me he'd have to get the tools. They found some scratches round the key-hole and knob of the office door that I'd made myself, scraping old splashes of paint off the brass and hand-plate so as to make a clean finish. Oh, it taught me the value of circumstantial evidence! If I was judge I wouldn't give a man till the 'risin' av the coort' on it, any more than I would on the bare word of the noblest woman breathing.
"At the preliminary examination Jack Drew said he was guilty. But it seemed that, according to law, he couldn't be guilty until after he was committed. So he was committed for trial at the next Quarter Sessions. The excitement and gabble were worse than the Dean case, or Federation, and sickened me, for they were all on the wrong track. You lose a lot of life through being behind the scenes. But they cooled down presently to wait for the trial.
"They thought it best to take the girl away from the place where she'd got the shock; so the Doctor took her to his house, where he had an old housekeeper who was as deaf as a post—a first class recommendation for a housekeeper anywhere. He got a nurse from Sydney to attend on Ruth Wilson, and no one except he and the nurse were allowed to go near her. She lay like dead, they said, except when she had to be held down raving; brain fever, they said, brought on by the shock of the attempted burglary and pistol shot. Dr. Lebinski had another doctor up from Sydney at his own expense, but nothing could save her—and perhaps it was as well. She might have finished her life in a lunatic asylum. They were going to send her to Sydney, to a brain hospital; but she died a week before the Sessions. She was right-headed for an hour, they said, and asking all the time for Jack. The Doctor told her he was all right and was coming—and, waiting and listening for him, she died.
"The case was black enough against Drew now. I knew he wouldn't have the pluck to tell the truth now, even if he was that sort of a man. I didn't know what to do, so I spoke to the Doctor straight. I caught him coming out of the Royal, and walked along the road with him a bit. I suppose he thought I was going to show cause why his doors ought to have another coat of varnish.
"'Hallo, Mitchell!' he said, 'how's painting?'
"'Doctor!' I said, 'what am I going to do about this business?'
"He looked at me sideways—the swift haunted look. Then he walked on without a word, for half a dozen yards, hands behind, and studying the dust. Then he asked, quite quietly:
"'Do you know the truth?'
"About a dozen yards this time; then he said:
"'I'll see him in the morning, and see you afterwards,' and he shook hands and went on home.
"Next day he came to me where I was doing a job on a step ladder. He leaned his elbow against the steps for a moment, and rubbed his hand over his forehead, as if it ached and he was tired.
"'I've seen him, Mitchell,' he said.
"'You were mates with him, once, Out Back?'
"'You know Drew's hand-writing?'
"'I should think so.'
"He laid a leaf from a pocketbook on top of the steps. I read the message written in pencil:
"'To Jack Mitchell.—We were mates on the track. If you know anything of my affair, don't give it away.—J. D.'
"I tore the leaf and dropped the bits into the paint-pot.
"'That's all right, Doctor,' I said; 'but is there no way?'
"He turned away, wearily. He'd knocked about so much over the world that he was past bothering about explaining things or being surprised at anything. But he seemed to get a new idea about me; he came back to the steps again, and watched my brush for a while, as if he was thinking, in a broody sort of way, of throwing up his practice and going in for house-painting. Then he said, slowly and deliberately:
"'If she—the girl—had lived, we might have tried to fix it up quietly. That's what I was hoping for. I don't see how we can help him now, even if he'd let us. He would never have spoken, anyway. We must let it go on, and after the trial I'll go to Sydney and see what I can do at headquarters. It's too late now. You understand, Mitchell?'
"'Yes. I've thought it out.'
"Then he went away towards the Royal.
"And what could Jack Drew or we do? Study it out whatever way you like. There was only one possible chance to help him, and that was to go to the judge; and the judge that happened to be on that circuit was a man who—even if he did listen to the story and believe it—would have felt inclined to give Jack all the more for what he was charged with. Browne was out of the question. The day before the trial I went for a long walk in the bush, but couldn't hit on anything that the Doctor might have missed.
"I was in the court—I couldn't keep away. The Doctor was there too. There wasn't so much of a change in Jack as I expected, only he had the gaol white in his face already. He stood fingering the rail, as if it was the edge of a table on a platform and he was a tired and bored and sleepy chairman waiting to propose a vote of thanks."
The only well-known man in Australia who reminds me of Mitchell is Bland Holt, the comedian. Mitchell was about as good hearted as Bland Holt, too, under it all; but he was bigger and roughened by the bush. But he seemed to be taking a heavy part to-night, for, towards the end of his yarn, he got up and walked up and down the length of my bed, dropping the sentences as he turned towards me. He'd folded his arms high and tight, and his face in the moonlight was—well, it was very different from his careless tone of voice. He was like—like an actor acting tragedy and talking comedy. Mitchell went on, speaking quickly—his voice seeming to harden:
. . . . .
"The charge was read out—I forget how it went—it sounded like a long hymn being given out. Jack pleaded guilty. Then he straightened up for the first time and looked round the court, with a calm, disinterested look—as if we were all strangers and he was noting the size of the meeting. And—it's a funny world, ain't it?—everyone of us shifted or dropped his eyes, just as if we were the felons and Jack the judge. Everyone except the Doctor; he looked at Jack and Jack looked at him. Then the Doctor smiled—I can't describe it—and Drew smiled back. It struck me afterwards that I should have been in that smile. Then the Doctor did what looked like a strange thing—stood like a soldier with his hands to Attention. I'd noticed that, whenever he'd made up his mind to do a thing, he dropped his hands to his sides: it was a sign that he couldn't be moved. Now he slowly lifted his hand to his forehead, palm out, saluted the prisoner, turned on his heel, and marched from the court-room. 'He's boozin' again,' someone whispered. 'He's got a touch of 'em.' 'My oath, he's ratty!' said someone else. One of the traps said:
"'Arder in the car-rt!'
"The judge gave it to Drew red-hot on account of the burglary being the cause of the girl's death and the sorrow in a respectable family; then he gave him five years' hard.
"It gave me a lot of confidence in myself to see the law of the land barking up the wrong tree, while only I and the Doctor and the prisoner knew it. But I've found out since then that the law is often the only one that knows it's barking up the wrong tree."
. . . . .
Mitchell prepared to turn in.
"And what about Drew," I asked.
"Oh, he did his time, or most of it. The Doctor went to headquarters, but either a drunken doctor from a geebung town wasn't of much account, or they weren't taking any romance just then at headquarters. So the Doctor came back, drank heavily, and one frosty morning they found him on his back on the bank of the creek, with his face like note-paper where the blood hadn't dried on it, and an old pistol in his hand—that he'd used, they said, to shoot Cossacks from horseback when he was a young dude fighting in the bush in Poland."
Mitchell lay silent a good while; then he yawned.
"Ah, well! It's a lonely track the Lachlan's tramping to-night; but I s'pose he's got his ghosts with him."
I'd been puzzling for the last half-hour to think where I'd met or heard of Jack Drew; now it flashed on me that I'd been told that Jack Drew was the Lachlan's real name.
I lay awake thinking a long time, and wished Mitchell had kept his yarn for daytime. I felt—well, I felt as if the Lachlan's story should have been played in the biggest theatre in the world, by the greatest actors, with music for the intervals and situations—deep, strong music, such as thrills and lifts a man from his boot soles. And when I got to sleep I hadn't slept a moment, it seemed to me, when I started wide awake to see those infernal hanging boughs with a sort of nightmare idea that the Lachlan hadn't gone, or had come back, and he and Mitchell had hanged themselves sociably—Mitchell for sympathy and the sake of mateship.
But Mitchell was sleeping peacefully, in spite of a path of moonlight across his face—and so was the pup.
The Darling River
The Darling—which is either a muddy gutter or a second Mississippi—is about six times as long as the distance, in a straight line, from its head to its mouth. The state of the river is vaguely but generally understood to depend on some distant and foreign phenomena to which bushmen refer in an off-hand tone of voice as "the Queenslan' rains", which seem to be held responsible, in a general way, for most of the out-back trouble.
It takes less than a year to go up stream by boat to Walgett or Bourke in a dry season; but after the first three months the passengers generally go ashore and walk. They get sick of being stuck in the same sort of place, in the same old way; they grow weary of seeing the same old "whaler" drop his swag on the bank opposite whenever the boat ties up for wood; they get tired of lending him tobacco, and listening to his ideas, which are limited in number and narrow in conception.
It shortens the journey to get out and walk; but then you will have to wait so long for your luggage—unless you hump it with you.
We heard of a man who determined to stick to a Darling boat and travel the whole length of the river. He was a newspaper man. He started on his voyage of discovery one Easter in flood-time, and a month later the captain got bushed between the Darling and South Australian border. The waters went away before he could find the river again, and left his boat in a scrub. They had a cargo of rations, and the crew stuck to the craft while the tucker lasted; when it gave out they rolled up their swags and went to look for a station, but didn't find one. The captain would study his watch and the sun, rig up dials and make out courses, and follow them without success. They ran short of water, and didn't smell any for weeks; they suffered terrible privations, and lost three of their number, NOT including the newspaper liar. There are even dark hints considering the drawing of lots in connection with something too terrible to mention. They crossed a thirty-mile plain at last, and sighted a black gin. She led them to a boundary rider's hut, where they were taken in and provided with rations and rum.
Later on a syndicate was formed to explore the country and recover the boat; but they found her thirty miles from the river and about eighteen from the nearest waterhole deep enough to float her, so they left her there. She's there still, or else the man that told us about it is the greatest liar Out Back.
. . . . .
Imagine the hull of a North Shore ferry boat, blunted a little at the ends and cut off about a foot below the water-line, and parallel to it, then you will have something shaped somewhat like the hull of a Darling mud-rooter. But the river boat is much stronger. The boat we were on was built and repaired above deck after the different ideas of many bush carpenters, of whom the last seemed by his work to have regarded the original plan with a contempt only equalled by his disgust at the work of the last carpenter but one. The wheel was boxed in, mostly with round sapling-sticks fastened to the frame with bunches of nails and spikes of all shapes and sizes, most of them bent. The general result was decidedly picturesque in its irregularity, but dangerous to the mental welfare of any passenger who was foolish enough to try to comprehend the design; for it seemed as though every carpenter had taken the opportunity to work in a little abstract idea of his own.
The way they "dock" a Darling River boat is beautiful for its simplicity. They choose a place where there are two stout trees about the boat's length apart, and standing on a line parallel to the river. They fix pulley-blocks to the trees, lay sliding planks down into the water, fasten a rope to one end of the steamer, and take the other end through the block attached to the tree and thence back aboard a second steamer; then they carry a rope similarly from the other end through the block on the second tree, and aboard a third boat. At a given signal one boat leaves for Wentworth, and the other starts for the Queensland border. The consequence is that craft number one climbs the bank amid the cheers of the local loafers, who congregate and watch the proceedings with great interest and approval. The crew pitch tents, and set to work on the hull, which looks like a big, rough shallow box.
. . . . .
We once travelled on the Darling for a hundred miles or so on a boat called the 'Mud Turtle'—at least, that's what WE called her. She might reasonably have haunted the Mississippi fifty years ago. She didn't seem particular where she went, or whether she started again or stopped for good after getting stuck. Her machinery sounded like a chapter of accidents and was always out of order, but she got along all the same, provided the steersman kept her off the bank.
Her skipper was a young man, who looked more like a drover than a sailor, and the crew bore a greater resemblance to the unemployed than to any other body we know of, except that they looked a little more independent. They seemed clannish, too, with an unemployed or free-labour sort of isolation. We have an idea that they regarded our personal appearance with contempt.
. . . . .
Above Louth we picked up a "whaler", who came aboard for the sake of society and tobacco. Not that he hoped to shorten his journey; he had no destination. He told us many reckless and unprincipled lies, and gave us a few ornamental facts. One of them took our fancy, and impressed us—with its beautiful simplicity, I suppose. He said: "Some miles above where the Darlin' and the Warrygo runs inter each other, there's a billygong runnin' right across between the two rivers and makin' a sort of tryhangular hyland; 'n' I can tel'yer a funny thing about it." Here he paused to light his pipe. "Now," he continued, impressively, jerking the match overboard, "when the Darlin's up, and the Warrygo's LOW, the billygong runs from the Darlin' into the WARRYGO; AND, when the Warrygo's up 'n' the Darlin's down, the waters runs FROM the Warrygo 'n' inter the Darlin'."
What could be more simple?
The steamer was engaged to go up a billabong for a load of shearers from a shed which was cutting out; and first it was necessary to tie up in the river and discharge the greater portion of the cargo in order that the boat might safely negotiate the shallow waters. A local fisherman, who volunteered to act as pilot, was taken aboard, and after he was outside about a pint of whisky he seemed to have the greatest confidence in his ability to take us to hell, or anywhere else—at least, he said so. A man was sent ashore with blankets and tucker to mind the wool, and we crossed the river, butted into the anabranch, and started out back. Only the Lord and the pilot know how we got there. We travelled over the bush, through its branches sometimes, and sometimes through grass and mud, and every now and then we struck something that felt and sounded like a collision. The boat slid down one hill, and "fetched" a stump at the bottom with a force that made every mother's son bite his tongue or break a tooth.
The shearers came aboard next morning, with their swags and two cartloads of boiled mutton, bread, "brownie", and tea and sugar. They numbered about fifty, including the rouseabouts. This load of sin sank the steamer deeper into the mud; but the passengers crowded over to port, by request of the captain, and the crew poked the bank away with long poles. When we began to move the shearers gave a howl like the yell of a legion of lost souls escaping from down below. They gave three cheers for the rouseabouts' cook, who stayed behind; then they cursed the station with a mighty curse. They cleared a space on deck, had a jig, and afterwards a fight between the shearers' cook and his assistant. They gave a mighty bush whoop for the Darling when the boat swung into that grand old gutter, and in the evening they had a general all-round time. We got back, and the crew had to reload the wool without assistance, for it bore the accursed brand of a "freedom-of-contract" shed.
We slept, or tried to sleep, that night on the ridge of two wool bales laid with the narrow sides up, having first been obliged to get ashore and fight six rounds with a shearer for the privilege of roosting there. The live cinders from the firebox went up the chimney all night, and fell in showers on deck. Every now and again a spark would burn through the "Wagga rug" of a sleeping shearer, and he'd wake suddenly and get up and curse. It was no use shifting round, for the wind was all ways, and the boat steered north, south, east, and west to humour the river. Occasionally a low branch would root three or four passengers off their wool bales, and they'd get up and curse in chorus. The boat started two snags; and towards daylight struck a stump. The accent was on the stump. A wool bale went overboard, and took a swag and a dog with it; then the owner of the swag and dog and the crew of the boat had a swearing match between them. The swagman won.
About daylight we stretched our cramped limbs, extricated one leg from between the wool bales, and found that the steamer was just crayfishing away from a mud island, where she had tied up for more wool. Some of the chaps had been ashore and boiled four or five buckets of tea and coffee. Shortly after the boat had settled down to work again an incident came along. A rouseabout rose late, and, while the others were at breakfast, got an idea into his head that a good "sloosh" would freshen him up; so he mooched round until he found a big wooden bucket with a rope to it. He carried the bucket aft of the wheel. The boat was butting up stream for all she was worth, and the stream was running the other way, of course, and about a hundred times as fast as a train. The jackeroo gave the line a turn round his wrist; before anyone could see him in time to suppress him, he lifted the bucket, swung it to and fro, and dropped it cleverly into the water.