THE RISING OF THE COURT
By Henry Lawson
Note: Only the prose stories are reproduced here, not the poetry.
THE RISING OF THE COURT
Oh, then tell us, Sings and Judges, where our meeting is to be, when the laws of men are nothing, and our spirits all are free when the laws of men are nothing, and no wealth can hold the fort, There'll be thirst for mighty brewers at the Rising of the Court.
The same dingy court room, deep and dim, like a well, with the clock high up on the wall, and the doors low down in it; with the bench, which, with some gilding, might be likened to a gingerbread imitation of a throne; the royal arms above it and the little witness box to one side, where so many honest poor people are bullied, insulted and laughed at by third-rate blackguardly little "lawyers," and so many pitiful, pathetic and noble lies are told by pitiful sinners and disreputable heroes for a little liberty for a lost self, or for the sake of a friend—of a "pal" or a "cobber." The same overworked and underpaid magistrate trying to keep his attention fixed on the same old miserable scene before him; as a weary, overworked and underpaid journalist or author strives to keep his attention fixed on his proofs. The same row of big, strong, healthy, good-natured policemen trying not to grin at times; and the police-court solicitors ("the place stinks with 'em," a sergeant told me) wrangling over some miserable case for a crust, and the "reporters," shabby some of them, eager to get a brutal joke for their papers out of the accumulated mass of misery before them, whether it be at the expense of the deaf, blind, or crippled man, or the alien.
And opposite the bench, the dock, divided by a partition, with the women to the left and the men to the right, as it is on the stairs or the block in polite society. They bring children here no longer. The same shaking, wild-eyed, blood-shot-eyed and blear-eyed drunks and disorderlies, though some of the women have nerves yet; and the same decently dressed, but trembling and conscience-stricken little wretch up for petty larceny or something, whose motor car bosses of a big firm have sent a solicitor, "manager," or some understrapper here to prosecute and give evidence.
But, over there, on a form to one side of the bench-opposite the witness box—and as the one bright spot in this dark, and shameful, and useless scene—and in a patch of sunlight from the skylight as it happens—sit representatives of the Prisoners' Aid Society, Prison Gate and Rescue Brigades, etc. (one or two of the ladies in nurses' uniforms), who are come to help us and to fight for us against the Law of their Land and of ours, God help us!
Mrs Johnson, of Red Rock Lane, is here, and her rival in revolution, One-Eyed Kate, and Cock-Eyed Sal, and one or two of the other aristocrats of the alley. And the weeping bedraggled remains of what was once, and not so long ago, a pretty, slight, fair-haired and blue-eyed Australian girl. She is up for inciting One-Eyed Kate to resist the police. Also, Three-Pea Ginger, Stousher, and Wingy, for some participation in the row amongst the aforementioned ladies. (Wingy, by the way, is a ratty little one-armed man, whose case is usually described in the head-line, as "A 'Armless Case," by one of our great dailies.) And their pals are waiting outside in the vestibule—Frowsy Kate (The Red Streak), Boko Bill, Pincher and his "piece," etc., getting together the stuff for the possible fines, and the ten-bob fee for the lawyer, in one case, and ready to swear to anything, if called upon. And I myself—though I have not yet entered Red Rock Lane Society—on bail, on a charge of "plain drunk." It was "drunk and disorderly" by the way, but a kindly sergeant changed it to plain drunk (though I always thought my drunk was ornamental).
Yet I am not ashamed—only comfortably dulled and a little tired—dully interested and observant, and hopeful for the sunlight presently. We low persons get too great a contempt for things to feel much ashamed at any time; and this very contempt keeps many of us from "reforming." We hear too many lies sworn that we know to be lies, and see too many unjust and brutal things done that we know to be brutal and unjust.
But let us go back a bit, and suppose we are still waiting for the magistrate, and think of Last Night. "Silence!"—but from no human voice this time. The whispering, shuffling, and clicking of the court typewriter ceases, the scene darkens, and the court is blotted out as a scene is blotted out from the sight of a man who has thrown himself into a mesmeric trance. And:
Drink—lurid recollection of being "searched"—clang of iron cell door, and I grope for and crawl on to the slanting plank. Period of oblivion—or the soul is away in some other world. Clang of cell door again, and soul returns in a hurry to take heed of another soul, belonging to a belated drunk on the plank by my side. Other soul says:
So we're not in hell yet.
We fumble and light up. They leave us our pipes, tobacco and matches; presently, one knocks with his pipe on the iron trap of the door and asks for water, which is brought in a tin pint-pot. Then follow intervals of smoking, incoherent mutterings that pass for conversation, borrowings of matches, knockings with the pannikin on the cell door wicket or trap for more water, matches, and bail; false and fitful starts into slumber perhaps—or wild attempts at flight on the part of our souls into that other world that the sober and sane know nothing of; and, gradually, suddenly it seems, reason (if this world is reasonable) comes back.
"What's your trouble!"
"Don't know. Bomb outrage, perhaps."
But presently he is plainly uneasy (and I am getting that way, too, to tell the truth), and, after moving about, and walking up and down in the narrow space as well as we can, he "rings up" another policeman, who happens to be the fat one who is to be in charge all night.
"Wot's up here?"
"What have I been up to?"
"Killin' a Chinaman. Go to sleep."
Policeman peers in at me inquiringly, but I forbear to ask questions.
Blankets are thrown in by a friend of mine in the force, though we are not entitled to them until we are bailed or removed to the "paddock" (the big drunks' dormitory and dining cell at the Central), and we proceed to make ourselves comfortable. My mate wonders whether he asked them to send to his wife to get bail, and hopes he didn't.
They have left our wicket open, seeing, or rather hearing, that we are quiet. But they have seemingly left some other wickets open also, for from a neighbouring cell comes the voice of Mrs Johnson holding forth. The locomotive has apparently just been run into the cleaning sheds, and her fires have not had time to cool. They say that Mrs Johnson was a "lady once," like many of her kind; that she is not a "bad woman"—that is, not a woman of loose character—but gets money sent to her from somewhere—from her "family," or her husband, perhaps. But when she lets herself loose—or, rather, when the beer lets her loose—she is a tornado and a terror in Red Rock Lane, and it is only her fierce, practical kindness to her unfortunate or poverty-stricken sisters in her sober moments that keeps her forgiven in that classic thoroughfare. She can certainly speak "like a lady" when she likes, and like an intelligent, even a clever, woman—not like a "woman of the world," but as a woman who knew and knows the world, and is in hell. But now her language is the language of a rough shearer in a "rough shed" on a blazing hot day.
After a while my mate calls out to her:
"Oh! for God's sake give it a rest!"
Whereupon Mrs Johnson straightway opens on him and his ancestry, and his mental, moral, and physical condition—especially the latter. She accuses him of every crime known to Christian countries and some Asiatic and ancient ones. She wants to know how long he has been out of jail for kicking his wife to pieces that time when she was up as a witness against him, and whether he is in for the same thing again? (She has never set eyes on him, by the way, nor he on her.)
He calls back that she is not a respectable woman, and he knows all about her.
Thereupon she shrieks at him and bangs and kicks at her door, and demands his name and address. It would appear that she is a respectable woman, and hundreds can prove it, and she is going to make him prove it in open court.
He calls back that his name is Percy Reginald Grainger, and his town residence is "The Mansions," Macleay Street, next to Mr Isaacs, the magistrate, and he also gives her the address of his solicitor.
She bangs and shrieks again, and states that she will get his name from the charge sheet in the morning and have him up for criminal libel, and have his cell mate up as a witness—and hers, too. But just here a policeman comes along and closes her wicket with a bang and cuts her off, so that her statements become indistinct, or come only as shrieks from a lost soul in an underground dungeon. He also threatens to cut us off and smother us if we don't shut up. I wonder whether they've got her in the padded cell.
We settle down again, but presently my fellow captive nudges me and says: "Listen!" From another cell comes the voice of a woman singing—the girl who is in for "inciting to resist, your worship," in fact. "Listen!" he says, "that woman could sing once." Her voice is low and sweet and plaintive, as of a woman who had been a singer but had lost her voice. And what do you think it is?
The crowd in accents hushed reply— "Jesus of Nazareth passeth by."
Mrs Johnson's cell is suddenly silent. Then, not mimickingly, mockingly, or scornfully, but as if the girl is a champion of Jesus of Nazareth, and is hurt at the ignorance of the multitude, and pities Him:
Now who is this Jesus of Nazareth, say?
The policeman, coming along the passage, closes the wicket in her door, but softly this time, and not before we catch the plaintive words again.
The crowd in accents hushed reply "Jesus of Nazareth passeth by."
My fellow felon throws the blanket off him impatiently, sits up with a jerk, and gropes for his pipe.
"God!" he says. "But this is red hot! Have you got another match?"
I wonder what the Nazarene would have to say about it.
Sleep for a while. I wonder whether they'll give us time, or we'll be able to sleep some of our sins off in the end, as we sleep our drink off here? Then "The Paddock" and day light; but there's little time for the Paddock here, for we must soon be back in court. The men borrow and lend and divide tobacco, lend even pipes, while some break up hard tobacco and roll cigarettes with bits of newspaper. If it is Sunday morning, even those who have no hope for bail, and have long horrible day and night before them, will sometimes join in a cheer as the more fortunate are bailed. But the others have tea and bread and butter brought to them by one of the Prisoners' Aid Societies, who ask for no religion in return. They come to save bodies, and not to fish for souls. The men walk up and down and to and fro, and cross and recross incessantly, as caged men and animals always do—and as some uncaged men do too.
"Any of you gentlemen want breakfast?" Those who have money and appetites order; some order for the sake of the tea alone; and some "shout" two or three extra breakfasts for those who had nothing on them when they were run in. We low people can be very kind to each other in trouble. But now it's time to call us out by the lists, marshal us up in the passage and draft us into court. Ladies first. But I forgot that I am out on bail, and that the foregoing belongs to another occasion. Or was it only imagination, or hearsay? Journalists have got themselves run in before now, in order to see and hear and feel and smell for themselves—and write.
"Silence! Order in the Court." I come like a shot out of my nightmare, or trance, or what you will, and we all rise as the magistrate takes his seat. None of us noticed him come in, but he's there, and I've a quaint idea that he bowed to his audience. Kindly, humorous Mr Isaacs, whom we have lost, always gave me that idea. And, while he looks over his papers, the women seem to group themselves, unconsciously as it were, with Mrs Johnson as front centre, as though they depended on her in some vague way. She has slept it off and tidied, or been tidied, up, and is as clear-headed as she ever will be. Crouching directly behind her, supported and comforted on one side by One-Eyed Kate, and on the other by Cock-Eyed Sal, is the poor bedraggled little resister of the Law, sobbing convulsively, her breasts and thin shoulders heaving and shaking under her openwork blouse—the girl who seemed to pity Jesus of Nazareth last night in her cell. There's very little inciting to resist about her now. Most women can cry when they like, I know, and many have cried men to jail and the gallows; but here in this place, if a woman's tears can avail her anything, who, save perhaps a police-court solicitor and gentleman-by-Act-of-Parliament, would, or dare, raise a sneer.
I wonder what the Nazarene would have to say about it if He came in to speak for her. But probably they'd send Him to the receiving house as a person of unsound mind, or give Him worse punishment for drunkenness and contempt of court.
His Worship looks up.
Mrs Johnson (from the dock): "Good morning, Mr Isaacs. How do you do? You're looking very well this morning, Mr Isaacs."
His Worship (from the Bench): "Thank you, Mrs Johnson. I'm feeling very well this, morning."
There's a pause, but there is no "laughter." The would-be satellites don't know whom the laugh might be against. His Worship bends over the papers again, and I can see that he is having trouble with that quaintly humorous and kindly smile, or grin, of his. He has as hard a job to control his smile and get it off his face as some magistrates have to get a smile on to theirs. And there's a case coming by and by that he'll have to look a bit serious over. However—
Mrs Johnson is here present, and reminds the Sergeant that she is.
Then begins, or does begin in most courts, the same dreary old drone, like the giving out of a hymn, of the same dreary old charge:
"You—Are—Charged—With—Being—Drunk—And—Disorderly—In—Such—And— Such—A—Street—How—Do—You—Plead—Guilty—Or—Not—Guilty?" But they are less orthodox here. The "disorderly" has dropped out of Mrs Johnson's charge somehow, on the way from the charge room. I don't know what has been going on behind the scenes, but, anyway, it is Christmas- time, and the Sergeant seems anxious to let Mrs Johnson off lightly. It means anything from twenty-four hours or five shillings to three months on the Island for her. The lawyers and the police—especially the lawyers—are secretly afraid of Mrs Johnson.
The Sergeant: "This woman has not been here for six weeks, your Worship."
Mrs Johnson (who has him set and has been waiting for him for a year or so): "It's a damned lie, Mr Isaacs. I was here last Wednesday!" Then, after a horrified pause in the Court: "But I beg your pardon, Mr Isaacs."
His Worship's head goes down again. The "laughter" doesn't come here, either. There is a whispered consultation, and (it being Christmas-time) they compromise with Mrs Johnson for "five shillings or the risin'," and she thanks his Worship and is escorted out, rather more hurriedly than is comportable with her dignity, for she remarks about it.
The members of the Johnsonian sisterhood have reason to be thankful for the "lift" she has given them, for they all get off lightly, and even the awful resister of Law-an'-order is forgiven. Mrs Johnson has money and is waiting outside to stand beers for them; she always shouts for the boys when she has it. And—what good does it all do?
It is very hard to touch the heart of a woman who is down, though they are intensely sympathetic amongst themselves. It is nearly as hard as it is to combat the pride of a hard-working woman in poverty. It was such women as Mrs Johnson, One-Eyed Kate, and their sisters who led Paris to Versailles; and a King and a Queen died for it. It is such women as Mrs Johnson and One-Eyed Kate and their sisters who will lead a greater Paris to a greater Versailles some day, and many "Trust" kings and queens, and their princes and princesses shall die for it. And that reminds me of two reports in a recent great daily:
Miss Angelina De Tapps, the youngest daughter of the well-known great family of brewers, was united in the holy bonds of matrimony to Mr Reginald Wells—(here follows a long account of the smart society wedding). The happy pair leave en route for Europe per the —next Friday.
Jane Johnson, an old offender, again faced the music before Mr Isaacs, S.M., at the Central yesterday morning—(here follows a "humorous" report of the case).
Next time poor Mrs Johnson will leave en route for "Th' Island" and stay there three months.
The sisters join Mrs Johnson, who has some money and takes them to a favourite haunt and shouts for them—as she does for the boys sometimes. Their opinions on civilization are not to be printed.
Ginger and Wingy get off with the option, and, though the fine is heavy, it is paid. They adjourn with Boko Bill, and their politics are lurid.
Squinny Peters (plain drunk—five bob or the risin'), who is peculiar for always paying his fine, elects to take it out this time. It appears that the last time Squinny got five bob or the risin' he ante'd up the splosh like a man, and the court rose immediately, to Squinny's intense disgust. He isn't taking any chances this time.
Wild-Flowers-Charley, who recently did a fortnight, and has been out on bail, has had a few this morning, and, in spite of warnings from and promises to friends, insists on making a statement, though by simply pleading guilty he might get off easily. The statement lasts some ten minutes. Mr Isaacs listens patiently and politely and remarks:
Charley saw the humour of it afterwards, he says.
But what good does it all do?
I had no wish to treat drunkenness frivolously in beginning this sketch; I have seen women in the horrors—that ought to be enough.
"ROLL UP AT TALBRAGAR"
Jack Denver died at Talbragar when Christmas Eve began, And there was sorrow round the place, for Denver was a man; Jack Denver's wife bowed down her head—her daughter's grief was wild, And big Ben Duggan by the bed stood sobbing like a child. But big Ben Duggan saddled up, and galloped fast and far, To raise the longest funeral ever seen on Talbragar.
Both funerals belonged to Big Ben Duggan in a way, though Jack Denver was indirectly the cause of both.
Jack Denver was reckoned the most popular man in the district (outside the principal township)—a white man and a straight man—a white boss and a straight sportsman. He was a squatter, though a small one; a real squatter who lived on his run and worked with his men—no dummy, super, manager for a bank, or swollen cockatoo about Jack Denver. He was on the committees at agricultural shows and sports, great at picnics and dances, beloved by school children at school feasts (I wonder if they call them feasts still), giver of extra or special prizes, mostly sovs. and half-sovs., for foot races, etc.; leading spirit for the scrub district in electioneering campaigns—they went as right as men could go in the politics of those days who watched and went the way Jack Denver went; header of subscription lists for burnt-out, flooded-out, sick, hurt, dead or killed or otherwise knocked-out selectors and others, or their families; barracker and agitator for new provisional schools, assister of his Reverence and little bush chapels, friend of all manner of wanderers—careless, good-hearted scamps in trouble, broken-hearted new chums, wrecks and failures and outcasts of any colour or creed, and especially of old King Jimmy and the swiftly vanishing remnant of his tribe. His big slab-and-shingle and brick-floored kitchen, with its skillions, built on more generous plans and specifications than even the house itself, was the wanderer's goal and home in bad weather. And—yes, owner, on a small scale, of racehorses, and a keen sportsman.
Jack Denver and Big Ben Duggan were boys together on the old selections, and at the new provisional bark school at Pipeclay; they went into the Great North-West together "where all the rovers go"—stock-riding and droving and overlanding, and came back after a few years bronzed and seasoned and with wild yarns.
Jack married and settled down on a small run his father had bought near Talbragar, and his generous family of tall, straight bush boys and tall, straight bush girls grew up and had their sweethearts. But, when Jack married, Big Ben Duggan went back again, up into Queensland and the Great North-West, with a makeshift mate who had also lost his mate through marriage. Ever and again, after one, and two, and three years—the periods of absence lengthening as the years went on—Big Ben Duggan would come back home, and stay a while (till the Great North-West began to call insistently) at Denver's, where he would be welcomed jubilantly by all—even the baby who had never seen him—for there was "something about the man." And, until late on the night of his return, he and Jack would sit by the fire in winter, or outside on the woodheap in summer, and yarn long and fondly about the Wide Places, and strange things they knew and understood.
How sudden things are! Ben was back (just in time for the holidays and the Mudgee races) out of the level lands, where distance dwells in her halls of shimmering haze, after following her for five years.
They were riding home from the races, the women and children in carts and buggies, the men and boys on horseback—of course. They raced each other along the road, across short cuts, through scrub and timber, and back to the slow-coming overloaded vehicles again, some riding wildly and recklessly. Jack Denver was amongst them, his heart warmed with good luck at the races, good whisky to wet it, and the return of his old mate. "We're as good as the best of the young 'uns yet, Ben!" he cried, as they swung through the trees. "Ain't we, you old—?"
And then and there it happened.
A new chum suggested that Jack had more than he thought aboard and was thrown from his horse; but the new chum was repudiated with scorn and bad words and indignation by bushmen and bushwomen alike—as indeed he would be by any bushman who had seen a drunken rider ride.
"I learnt him to ride when he was a kiddy about so high," said old Break-the-News Fosbery, resentfully gasping and gulping, "and Jack wasn't thrown." It was thought at first that his horse had shied and run him against a tree, or under an overhanging branch; but Ben Duggan had seen it, and explained the thing to the doctor with that strange calmness or quietness that comes to men in the midst of a life's grief. Jack was riding loosely, and swung forward just as the filly, a fresh young thing, threw back her head; and it struck him with sledge-hammer force, full in the face.
He was dead, even before they got him to Anderson's Halfway Inn. There was wild racing back to town for doctors, and some accidents; one horse was killed and another ridden to death. Others went as a forlorn hope in search of Doc. Wild, eccentric Yankee bush "quack," who had once saved one of Denver's little girls from diphtheria; others, again, for Peter M'Laughlan, bush missionary, to face the women—for they couldn't.
Big Ben Duggan, blubbering unashamed by the bedside, put his hand on Mrs Denver's shoulder, as she crouched there, wild-eyed, like a hunted thing. "Nev—never mind, Mrs Denver!" he blurted out, with a note as of indignation and defiance—just for all the world as if Jack Denver had done a wrong thing and the district was down on him—"he'll have the longest funeral ever seen in these parts! Leave that to me." Then some of the women took her out to her daughter's. Big Ben Duggan gave terse instructions to some of the young riders about, and then, taking the best and freshest horse, the cross-country scrub swallowed him—west. The young men jumped on their horses and rode, fan-like, east.
They took Jack Denver home. They always took their dead home first, whenever possible, and no matter the distance, before taking them to their last long home; and they do it yet, I suppose. They are not always so particular about it in cities, from what I've seen.
But this was a strange funeral. They had arranged mattress and sheet in the bottom of a four-wheeler, and covered him with sheet, blanket, and quilt, though the weather was warm; and over the body, from side to side of the trap, they had stretched the big dark-green table-cloth from Anderson's dining-room. The long, ghostly, white, cleared government road between the dark walls of timber in the moonlight. The buggies and carts behind, and the dead-white faces and glistening or despairingly staring eyes of the women—wife, daughters, and nieces, and those who had come to help and comfort. The men—sons and brothers, and few mates and chums and sweethearts—riding to right and left like a bodyguard, to comfort and be comforted who needed comfort.
Now and again a brother or son—mostly a brother—riding close to the wheel, would suddenly throw out his arm on the mud splasher, of buggy or cart, and, laying his head on it, sob as he rode, careless of tyre and spokes, till a woman pushed him off gently:
"Take care of the wheel, Jim—mind the wheel."
The eldest son held the most painful position, by his mother's side in the first buggy, supported by an aunt on the other side, while somebody led his horse. In the next buggy, between two daughters, sat a young fellow who was engaged to one of them—they were to be married after the holidays. The poor girls were white and worn out; he had an arm round each, and now and again they rested their heads on his shoulders. The younger girl would sleep by fits and starts, the sleep of exhaustion, and start up half laughing and happy, to be stricken wild-eyed the next moment by terrible reality. Some couldn't realize it at all—and to most of them all things were very dreamy, unreal and far away on that lonely, silent road in the moonlight—silent save for the slow, stumbling hoofs of tired horses, and the deliberate, half-hesitating clack-clack of wheel-boxes on the axles.
Ben Duggan rode hard, as grief-stricken men ride—and walk. At Cooyal he woke up the solitary storekeeper and told him the news; then along that little-used old road for some miles both ways, and back again, rousing prospectors and fossickers, the butcher of the neighbourhood, clearers, fencers, and timber-getters, in hut and tent.
"What's the matter?"
"Ben Duggan! Jack Denver's dead! Killed ridin' home from the races! Funeral's to-morrow. Roll up at Talbragar or the nearest point you can get to on the government road. Tell the neighbours and folks."
"Good God! How did it happen?"
But the hoofs of Ben's horse would be clattering or thudding away into the distance.
He struck through to Dunne's selection—his brother-in-law, who had not been to the races; then to Ross's farm—Old Ross was against racing, but struck a match at once and said something to his auld wife about them black trousers that belonged to the black coat and vest.
Then Ben swung to the left and round behind the spurs to the school at Old Pipeclay, where he told the schoolmaster. Then west again to Morris's and Schneider's lonely farms in the deep estuary of Long Gully, and through the gully to the Mudgee-Gulgong road at New Pipeclay. The long, dark, sullenly-brooding gully through which he had gone to school in the glorious bush sunshine with Jack Denver, and his sweetheart—now but three hours his hopelessly-stricken widow; Bertha Lambert, Ben's sweetheart—married now, and newly a grandmother; Harry Dale—drowned in the Lachlan; Lucy Brown—Harry's school-day and boy-and-girl sweetheart—dead; and—and all the rest of them. Far away, far away—and near away: up in Queensland and out on the wastes of the Never-Never. Riding and camping, hardship and comfort, monotony and adventure, drought, flood, blacks, and fire; sprees and—the rest of it. Long dry stretches on Dead Man's Track. Cutting across the country in No Man's Land where there were no tracks into the Unknown. Chancing it and damning it. Ill luck and good luck. Laughing at it afterwards and joking at it always; he and Jack—always he and Jack—till Jack got married. The children used to say Long Gully was haunted, and always hurried through it after sunset. It was haunted enough now all right.
But, raising the gap at the head of the gully, he woke suddenly and came back from the hazy, lazy plains; the
Level lands where Distance hides in her halls of shimmering haze, And where her toiling dreamers ride towards her all their days;
where "these things" are ever far away, and Distance ever near—and whither he had drifted, the last hour, with Jack Denver, from the old Slab School.
"I wonder whether old Fosbery's got through yet?" he muttered, with nervous anxiety, as he looked down on the cluster of farms and scattered fringe of selections in the broad moonlight. "I wonder if he's got there yet?" Then, as if to reassure himself: "He must have started an hour before me, and the old man can ride yet." He rode down towards a farm on Pipeclay Creek, about the centre of the cluster of farms, vineyards, and orchards.
Old Fosbery—otherwise Break-the-News—was a character round there. If he was handy and no woman to be had, he was always sent to break the news to the wife of a digger or bushman who had met with an accident. He was old, and world-wise, and had great tact—also great experience in such matters. Bad news had been broken to him so many times that he had become hardened to it, and he had broken bad news so often that he had come to take a decided sort of pleasure in it—just as some bushman are great at funerals and will often travel miles to advise, and organize, and comfort, and potter round a burying and are welcomed. They had broken the news to old Fosbery when his boy went wrong and was "taken" ("when they took Jim"). They had broken the news to old Fosbery when his daughter, Rose, went wrong, and bolted with Flash Jack Redmond. They had broken the news to the old man when young Ted was thrown from his horse and killed. They had broken the news to the old man when the unexpected child of his old age and hopes was accidentally burnt to death. So the old man knew how it felt.
The farm was the home of one of Jack Denver's married sisters, and, as there was no woman to go so far in the night they had sent old Fosbery to tell her. Folks were most uneasy and anxious, by the way, when they saw old Fosbery coming unexpectedly, and sometimes some of them got a bad start—but it helped break the news.
"Well, if he ain't there, I suppose I'll have to do it," thought Ben as he passed quietly through the upper sliprails and neared the house. "The old man might have knocked up or got drunk after all. Anyway, no one might come in the morning till it's too late—it always happens that way—and—besides, the women'll want time to look up their black things."
But, turning the corner of the cow-yard, he gave a sigh of relief as he saw old Fosbery's horse tied up. They were up, and the big kitchen lighted; he caught a glimpse of a shock of white hair and bushy white eyebrows that could have belonged to no one except old Break-the-News. They were sitting at the table, the tearful wife pouring out tea, and by the tokens Ben knew that old Fosbery had been very successful. He rode quietly to the lower sliprails, let them down softly, led his horse carefully over them, put them up cautiously, and stood in a main road again. He paused to think, leaning one arm on his saddle and tickling the nape of his neck with his little finger; his jaw dropped, reflecting and grief forgotten in the business on hand, and the horse "gave" to him, thinking he was about to mount. He was tired—weary with that strange energetic weariness that cannot rest. It was five miles from Mudgee and the news was known there and must have spread a bit already; but the bulk of the Gulgong and Gulgong Road race-goers had passed here before the accident. Anyway, he thought he might as well go over and tell old Buckolts, of the big vineyard, across the creek, who was a great admirer of Jack Denver and had been drinking with him at the races that day. Old Buckolts was a man of weight in the district, and was always referred to by all from his old wife down, as "der boss," and by no other term. The old slab farmhouse and skillions and out-houses, and the new square brick house built in front, were all asleep in the moonlight. The dogs woke the old man first (as was generally the case), as Ben opened the big white home gate and passed through without dismounting.
"Who's dat? Who voss die [there]?" shouted the old man as the horse's hoofs crunched on the white creek-bed gravel between the two houses.
"Vot voss der matter?"
"Jack Denver's dead—killed riding home from the races."
"Vot dat you say?"
"Go avay! Go home and go to sleep! You voss shoking—and trunk. Vat for you gum by my house mit a seely cock mit der bull shtory at dis hour of der night?"
"It's only too true, Mr Buckolts," said Ben. "I wish to God it wasn't."
"You've got der yoomps, Pen. Go to der poomp and poomp on your head and den turn in someveers till ter morning. I tells von of der pot's to gif you a nip and show you a poonk. Vy! I trink mit Shack Denver not twelf hour ago!"
But Ben persisted: "I'm not drunk, Mr Buckolts, and I ain't got the horrors—I wish to God I was an' had. Poor Jack was killed near Anderson's, riding home, about six o'clock."
Though Ben couldn't see him, he could feel and hear by his tones, that old Buckolts sat up in bed suddenly.
"Mein Gott! How did it happen, Pen?"
Ben told him.
"Ven and veer voss der funeral?"
Ben told him.
"Frett! Shonny! Villie! Sharley!" shouted the old man at the top of his voice to the boys sleeping in the old house. "Get up and pring all der light horses in from der patticks, and gif dem a goot feet mit plenty corn; and get der double-parrelled puggy ant der sinkle puggy and der three spring carts retty. Dere vill pe peoples vanting lifts to-morrow. Ant get der harnesses and sattles retty. Vake up, olt vomans!" (Mrs Buckolts must have been awake by this time.) "Call der girls ant see to dere plack tresses. Py Gott, ve moost do dis thing in style. Does his poor sister know over dere across the creeks, Pen? Durn out! you lazy, goot-for-noddings, or I will chain you up on an ants' bed mit a rope like a tog; do you not hear that Shack Denver voss dett?"
"I vill sent some of der girls over dere first thing in der morning. Holt on, Pen, ant I vill sent you out some vine."
Ben rode with the news to Lee's farm where Maurice Lee—at feud with Buckolts and a silent man—was, for he had known Denver all his life, and had gone, in his young days, on a long droving trip with him and Ben Duggan.
A little later Ben returned to the main road on a fresh horse. He turned towards Gulgong, and rode hard; past the new bark provisional school and along the sidings. He left the news at Con O'Donnell's lonely tin grocery and sly-grog shop, perched on the hillside—("God forgive us all!" said Con O'Donnell). He left the news at the tumble-down public-house, among the huts and thistles and goats that were left of the Log Paddock Rush. There were goats on the veranda and the place seemed dead; but there were startled replies and inquiries and matches struck. He left the news at Newton's selection, and Old Bones Farm, and at Foley's at the foot of Lowe's Peak, close under the gap between Peak and Granite Ridge. Then he turned west, at right angles to the main road, and took a track that was deserted except for one farm and on every alternate Sunday. He passed the lonely little slab bush "chapel" of the locality, that broke startlingly out of the scrub by the track side as he reached it; and left the news at Southwick's farm at the end of the blind track. At more than one farm he left the bushwoman hurriedly looking up her "black things;" and at more than one, one of the boys getting his bridle to catch his horse and ride elsewhere with the news.
Ben rode back, through the moonlight and the moon-shadow haunted paddocks, and the naked, white, ringbarked trees, along Snakes Creek, parallel with the main road he had recently travelled till he struck Pipeclay Creek again lower down. He turned down the track towards the river, and at the junction left word at Lowe's—one of the old land-grant families. The dogs woke an old handy man (who had been "sent out" in past ages for "knocking a donkey off a hen-roost"-as most of them were) and Ben told him to tell the family.
At Belinfante's Bridge across the Cudgegong Ben struck a big camp of bullock-drivers, some going down with wool and some going back for more.
"Hold on, Ben," cried Jimmy Nowlett, from his hammock under his wagon as Ben was riding off—"Hold on a minute! I want to look at yer."
Jimmy got his head out of his bunk very cautiously and carefully, and his body after it—there were nut ends of bolts, a heavy axle, and extremely hard projections, points, and corners within a very few short inches of his chaff-filled sugar-bag pillow. Slipping cannily on to his hands and knees, he crawled out under the tail-board, dragging his "moles" after him, and stood outside in the moonlight shaking himself into his trousers.
Jimmy was a little man who always wore a large size in moleskins—for some reason best known to himself—or more probably for no reason at all; or because of a habit he'd got into accidentally years ago—or because of the motherly trousers his mother used to build for him when he was a boy. And he always shook himself into his pants after the manner of a woman shaking a pillow into a clean slip; his chin down on his chest and his jaw dropped, as if he'd take himself in his teeth, after the manner of the woman with a pillow, were he not prevented by sound anatomical reasons.
"You look reg'lerly tuckered out, Ben," he said, "an' yer horse could do with a spell too. Git down, man, and have a pint er tea and a bite."
Ben got down wearily and knew at once how knocked up he was. He sat right down on the hard ground, embracing and drawing up his knees, and felt as if he'd like never to get up again: while Jimmy shook some chaff and corn that he carried for his riding hack into a box for the horse, and his travelling mate, Billy Grimshaw, lifted his big namesake half full of cold tea, on to the glowing coals by the burning log—looking just like an orang-outang in a Crimean shirt.
Ben got a fresh horse at Alfred Gentle's farm under the shadow of Granite Ridge, and then on to Canadian (th' Canadian Lead of the roaring days), which had been saved from the usual fate by becoming a farming township. Here he roused and told the storekeeper. Then up the creek to Home Rule, dreariest of deserted diggings.
He struck across the ages-haunted bush, and up Chinaman's Creek, past "the Chinamen's Graves," and through the scrub and over the ridges for the Talbragar Road. For he had to see Jack Denver home from start to finish.
Glaring, hot and dusty, lay the long, white road; coated with dust that felt greasy to the touch and taste. The coffin was in a four-wheeled trap, for the solitary hearse that Mudgee boasted then was to meet them some three miles out of town—at the racecourse, as it happened, by one of those eternal ironies of fate. (Jones, the undertaker, had had another job that morning.) The long string of buggies and carts and horsemen; other buggies and carts and horsemen drawn respectfully back amongst the trees here and there along the route; male hats off and held rigidly vertical with right ears as the coffin passed; and drivers waiting for a chance to draw into the line.
Think of it; up early on the first morning, a long day at the races, a long journey home, awake and up all night with grief and sympathy. Some of the men had ridden till daylight; the women, worn out and exhausted, had perhaps an hour or so of sleep towards morning—yet they were all there, except Ben Duggan, on the long, hot, dusty road back, heads swimming in the heat and faces and hands coated with perspiration and dust—and never, never once breaking out of a slow walk. It would have been the same had it been pouring with rain. I have seen funerals trotting fast in London, and they are trotting more and more in Australian cities, with only "the time" for an excuse. But in the bush I have never seen a funeral faster than the slowest of walks no matter who or what might wait, or what might happen or be lost. They stood by their dead well out there. Maybe some of the big, simple souls had a sort of vague idea that the departed would stand a better show if accompanied as far as possible by the greatest possible number of friends—"barrackers," so to speak.
Here all the shallow and involuntary sham of it, the shirking of a dull and irksome duty—a bore, though the route be only a mile or so. The satisfied undertaker, and the hard-up professional mutes and mourners in seedy, mouldy, greeny-black, and with boozers' faces and noses and a constant craving for beer to help them bear up against their grief and keep their mock solemn faces. Out there you were carried to the hearse or trap from your home, and from the hearse or trap to your grave—and with infinite carefulness and gentleness—on the shoulders of men, and of men who had known and loved you.
There had been wonder and waiting in the morning for Ben Duggan; and the women especially, on the way home, when free from restraint, were greatly indignant against him. To think that he should break out and go on the drunk on this day of all days, when his oldest mate and friend was being carried to his grave. The men, knowing how he had ridden all night, found great excuses; but later on some grew anxious and wondered what could have become of him.
Some, returning home by a short cut, passed over Dead Man's Gap beyond Lowe's Peak.
"Wonder what could have become of Ben Duggan." mused one, as they rode down.
There and then their wonders ceased.
A party of road-clearers had been at work along the bottom, and there was much smoke from the burning-off, which must have made the track dim and vague and uncertain at night. Just at the foot of the gap, clear of the rough going, a newly-fallen tree lay across the track. It was stripped—had been stripped late the previous afternoon, in fact; and, well, you won't know, what a log like that is when the sap is well up until you have stepped casually on to it to take a look round. A confident skip, with your boot soles well greased, on to the ice in a glaciarium for the first time would be nothing to it in its results, I fancy. (I remember we children used to scrape the sap off, and eat it with satisfaction, if not with relish—white box I think the trees were.)
Ben must have broken into a canter as he reached the level, as indeed his horse's tracks showed he did, and the horse must have blundered in the smoke, or jumped too long or too short; anyway, his long slithering shoe marks were in the sap on the log, and he lay there with a broken leg and shoulder. He had struck it near the stump and the sharp edge of an outcrop of rock.
There was more breakneck riding, and they got a cart and some bedding and carried Ben to Anderson's, which was handiest, if not nearest, and there was more wild and reckless riding for the doctor.
One got a gun, and rode back to shoot the horse.
Ben's case was hopeless from the first. He was hurt close to that big heart of his, as well as having a fractured skull. He talked a lot of the selections and old John Tierney, of the old bark school; and the Never-Never country with Jack—and, later on, of the present. "What's Ben sayin' now, Jim?" asked one young bushman as another came out of the room with an awestruck face.
"He's sayin' that Jack Denver's dead, killed ridin' home from the races, an' that the funeral's to-morrow, an' we're to roll up at Talbragar!" answered the other, with wide eyes, a blank face and in an awed voice. "He's thinkin' to-day's yisterday."
But towards the end, under the ministrations of the doctor, Ben became conscious. He rolled his head a little on the pillow after he woke, and then, seeming to remember all that happened up to his stunning fall, he asked quietly:
"What sort of a funeral did Jack have?"
They told him it was the biggest ever seen in the district.
"Muster bin more'n a mile long," said one.
"Watcher talkin' about, Jim?" put in another. "Yer talkin' through yer socks. It was more'n a mile an' a half, Ben, if it was er inch. Some of the chaps timed it an' measured it an' compared notes as well as they could. Why, the head was at the Racecourse when the tail was at Old—"
Ben sank back satisfied and a little later took the track that Jack Denver had taken.
WANTED BY THE POLICE
Could it have been the Soul of Man and none higher that gave spoken and written word to the noblest precepts of human nature? For the deeper you sound it the more noble it seems, in spite of all the wrong, injustice, sin, sorrow, pain, religion, atheism, and cynics in the world. We make (or are supposed to make, or allow others to make) laws for the protection of society, or property, or religion, or what you will; and we pay thousands of men like ourselves to protect those laws and see them carried out; and we build and maintain expensive offices, police stations, court-houses and jails for the protecting and carrying out of those laws, and the punishing of men—like ourselves—who break them. Yet, in our heart of hearts we are antagonistic to most of the laws, and to the Law as a whole (which we regard as an ass), and to the police magistrates and the judges. And we hate lawyers and loathe spies, pimps, and informers of all descriptions and the hangman with all our soul. For the Soul of Man says: Thou shalt not refuse refuge to the outcast, and thou shalt not betray the wanderer.
And those who do it we make outcast.
So we form Prisoners' Aid Societies, and Prisoners' Defence Societies, and subscribe to them and praise them and love them and encourage them to protect or defend men from the very laws that we pay so dearly to maintain. And how many of us, in the case of a crime against property—and though the property be public and ours—would refuse tucker to the hunted man, and a night's shelter from the pouring rain and the scowling, haunting, threatening, and terrifying darkness? Or show the police in the morning the track the poor wretch had taken? I know I couldn't.
The Heart of Man says: Thou shalt not.
At country railway stations, where the trains stop for refreshments, when a prisoner goes up or down in charge of a policeman, a native delicacy prevents the local loafers from seeming to notice him; but at the last moment there is always some hand to thrust in a clay pipe and cake of tobacco, and maybe a bag of sandwiches to the policeman.
And, when a prisoner escapes, in the country at least—unless he be a criminal maniac in for a serious offence, and therefore a real danger to society—we all honestly hope that they won't catch him, and we don't hide it. And, if put in a corner, most of us would help them not to catch him.
The thing came down through the ages and survived through the dark Middle Ages, as all good things come down through the ages and survive through the blackest ages. The hunted man in the tree, or cave, or hole, and strangers creeping to him with food in the darkness, and in fear and trembling; though he was, as often happened, an enemy to their creed, country, or party. For he was outcast, and hungry, and a wanderer whom men sought to kill.
These were mostly poor people or peasants; but it was so with the rich and well-to-do in the bloody Middle Ages. The Catholic country gentleman helping the Protestant refugee to escape disguised as a manservant (or a maidservant), and the Protestant country gentleman doing likewise by a hunted Catholic in his turn, as the battles went. Rebel helping royalist, and royalist helping rebel. And always, here and there, down through those ages, the delicate girl standing with her back to a door and her arms outstretched across it, and facing, with flashing eyes, the soldiers of the king or of the church—or entertaining and bluffing them with beautiful lies—to give some poor hunted devil time to hide or escape, though she a daughter of royalists and the church, and he a rebel to his king and a traitor to his creed. For they sought to kill him.
There was sanctuary in those times, in the monkeries—and the churches, where the soldiers of the king dared not go, for fear of God. There has been sanctuary since, in London and other places, where His or Her Majesty's police dared not go because of the fear of man. The "Rocks" was really sanctuary, even in my time—also Woollomooloo. Now the only sanctuary is the jail.
And, not so far away, my masters! Down close to us in history, and in Merrie England, during Judge Jeffreys's "Bloody Assize," which followed on the Monmouth rebellion and formed the blackest page in English history, "a worthy widow named Elizabeth Gaunt was burned alive at Tyburn, for having sheltered a wretch who himself gave evidence against her. She settled the fuel about herself with her own hands, so that the flames should reach her quickly; and nobly said, with her last breath, that she had obeyed the sacred command of God, to give refuge to the outcast and not to betray the wanderer." (Charles Dickens's History of England.)
Note, I am not speaking of rebel to rebel, or loyalist to loyalist, or comrade to comrade, or clansman to clansman in trouble—that goes without saying—but of man and woman to man and woman in trouble, the highest form of clannishness, the clannishness that embraces the whole of this wicked world—the Clan of Mankind!
French people often helped English prisoners of war to escape to the coast and across the water, and English people did likewise by the French; and none dared raise the cry of "traitors." It was the highest form of patriotism on both sides. And, by the way, it was, is, and shall always be the women who are first to pity and help the rebel refugee or the fallen enemy.
Succour thine enemy.
There must have been a lot of human kindness under the smothering, stifling cloud of the "System" and behind the iron clank and swishing "cat" strokes of brutality—a lot of soul light in the darkness of our dark past—a page that has long since been closed down—when innocent men and women were transported to shame, misery, and horror; when mere boys were sent out on suspicion of stealing a hare from the squire's preserves, and mere girls on suspicion of lifting a riband from the merchant's counter. But the many kindly and self-sacrificing and even noble things that free and honest settlers did, in those days of loneliness and hardship, for wretched runaway convicts and others, are closed down with the pages too. My old grandmother used to tell me tales, but—well, I don't suppose a wanted man (or a man that wasn't wanted, for that matter) ever turned away from her huts, far back in the wild bush, without a quart of coffee and a "feed" inside his hunted carcass, or went short of a bit of bread and meat to see him on, and a gruff but friendly hint, maybe, from the old man himself. And they were a type of the early settlers, she an English lady and the daughter of a clergyman. Ah! well—
Do you ever seem to remember things that you could not possibly remember? Something that happened in your mother's life, maybe, if you are a girl, or your father's, if you are a boy—that happened to your mother or father some years, perhaps, before you were born. I have many such haunting memories—as of having once witnessed a murder, or an attempt at murder, for instance, and once seeing a tree fall on a man—and as a child I had a memory of having been a man myself once before. But here is one of the pictures.
A hut in a dark gully; slab and stringy-bark, two rooms and a detached kitchen with the boys' room roughly partitioned off it. Big clay fire-place with a big log fire in it. The settler, or selector, and his wife; another man who might have been "uncle," and a younger woman who might have been "aunt;" two little boys and the baby. It was raining heavens hard outside, and the night was as black as pitch. The uncle was reading a report in a paper (that seemed to have come, somehow, a long way from somewhere) about two men who were wanted for sheep- and cattle-stealing in the district. I decidedly remember it was during the reign of the squatters in the nearer west. There came a great gust that shook the kitchen and caused the mother to take up the baby out of the rough gin-case cradle. The father took his pipe from his mouth and said: "Ah, well! poor devils." "I hope they're not out in a night like this, poor fellows," said the mother, rocking the child in her arms. "And I hope they'll never catch 'em," snapped her sister. "The squatters has enough."
"I wonder where poor Jim is?" the mother moaned, rocking the baby, and with two of those great, silent tears starting from her haggard eyes.
"Oh don't start about Jim again, Ellen," said her sister impatiently. "He can take care of himself. You were always rushing off to meet trouble half-way—time enough when they come, God knows."
"Now, look here, Ellen," put in Uncle Abe, soothingly, "he was up in Queensland doing well when we last heerd of him. Ain't yer never goin' to be satisfied?"
Jim was evidently another and a younger uncle, whose temperament from boyhood had given his family constant cause for anxiety.
The father sat smoking, resting his elbow on his knee, bunching up his brush of red whiskers, and looking into the fire—and back into his own foreign past in his own foreign land perhaps: and, it may be, thinking in his own language.
Silence and smoke for a while; then the mother suddenly straightened up and lifted a finger:
"Hush! What's that? I thought I heard someone outside."
"Old Poley coughin'," said Uncle Abe, after they'd listened a space. "She must be pretty bad—oughter give her a hot bran mash." (Poley was the best milker.)
"But I fancied I heard horses at the sliprails," said the mother.
"Old Prince," said Uncle Abe. "Oughter let him into the shed."'
"Hush!" said the mother, "there's someone outside." There was a step, as of someone retreating after peeping through a crack in the door, but it was not old Poley's step; then, from farther off, a cough that was like old Poley's cough, but had a rack in it.
"See who it is, Peter," said the mother. Uncle Abe, who was dramatic and an ass, slipped the old double-barrelled muzzle-loader from its leathers on the wall and stood it in the far corner and sat down by it. The mother, who didn't seem to realize anything, frowned at him impatiently. The coughing fit started again. It was a man.
"Who's there? Anyone outside there?" said the settler in a loud voice.
"It's all right. Is the boss there? I want to speak to him," replied a voice with no cough in it. The tone was reassuring, yet rather strained, as if there had been an accident—or it might be a cautious policeman or bushranger reconnoitring.
"Better see what he wants, Peter," said his sister-in-law quietly. "Something's the matter—it may be the police."
Peter threw an empty bag over his shoulders, took the peg from the door, opened it and stepped out. The racking fit of coughing burst forth again, nearer. "That's a church-yarder!" commented Uncle Abe.
The settler came inside and whispered to the others, who started up, interested. The coughing started again outside. When the fit was over the mother said:
"Wait a minute till I get the boys out of the road and then bring them in." The boys were bundled into the end room and told to go to bed at once. They knelt up on the rough bed of slabs and straw mattress, instead, and applied eyes and ears to the cracks in the partition.
The mother called to the father, who had gone outside again.
"Tell them to come inside, Peter."
"Better bring the horses into the yard first and put them under the shed," said the father to the unknown outside in the rain and darkness. Clatter of sliprails let down and tired hoofs over them, and sliprails put up again; then they came in.
Wringing wet and apparently knocked up, a tall man with black curly hair and beard, black eyes and eyebrows that made his face seem the whiter; dressed in tweed coat, too small for him and short at the sleeves, strapped riding-pants, leggings, and lace-up boots, all sodden. The other a mere boy, beardless or clean shaven, figure and face of a native, but lacking in something; dressed like his mate—like drovers or stockmen. Arms and legs of riders, both of them; cabbage-tree hats in left hands—as though the right ones had to be kept ready for something (and looking like it)—pistol butts probably. The young man had a racking cough that seemed to wrench and twist his frame as the settler steered him to a seat on a stool by the fire. (In the intervals of coughing he glared round like a watched and hunted sneak-thief—as if the cough was something serious against the law, and he must try to stop it.)
"Take that wet coat off him at once, Peter," said the settler's wife, "and let me dry it." Then, on second thoughts: "Take this candle and take him into the house and get some dry things on him."
The dark man, who was still standing in the doorway, swung aside to let them pass as the settler steered the young man into the "house;" then swung back again. He stood, drooping rather, with one hand on the door-post; his big, wild, dark eyes kept glancing round and round the room and even at the ceiling, seeming to overlook or be unconscious of the faces after the first keen glance, but always coming back to rest on the door in the partition of the boys' room opposite.
"Won't you sit down by the fire and rest and dry yourself?" asked the settler's wife, rather timidly, after watching him for a moment.
He looked at the door again, abstractedly it seemed, or as if he had not heard her.
Then Uncle Abe (who, by the way, was supposed to know more than he should have been supposed to know) spoke out.
"Set down, man! Set down and dry yerself. There's no one there except the boys—that's the boys' room. Would yer like to look through?"
The man seemed to rouse himself from a reverie. He let his arm and hand fall from the doorpost to his side like dead things. "Thank you, missus," he said, apparently unconscious of Uncle Abe, and went and sat down in front of the fire.
"Hadn't you better take your wet coat off and let me dry it?"
"Thank you." He took off his coat, and, turning the sleeve, inside out, hung it from his knees with the lining to the fire then he leaned forward, with his hands on his knees, and stared at the burning logs and steam. He was unarmed, or, if not, had left his pistols in the saddle-bag outside.
Andy Page, general handy-man (who was there all the time, but has not been mentioned yet, because he didn't mention anything himself which seemed necessary to this dark picture), now remarked to the stranger, with a wooden-face expression but a soft heart, that the rain would be a good thing for the grass, mister, and make it grow; a safe remark to make under the present, or, for the matter of that, under any circumstances.
The stranger said, "Yes; it would."
"It will make it spring up like anything," said Andy.
The stranger admitted that it would.
Uncle Abe joined in, or, rather, slid in, and they talked about the drought and the rain and the state of the country, in monosyllables mostly, with "Jesso," and "So it is," and "You're right there," till the settler came back with the young man dressed in rough and patched, but dry, clothes. He took another stool by his mate's side at the fire, and had another fit of coughing. When it was over, Uncle Abe remarked "That's a regular church-yarder yer got, young feller."
The young fellow, too exhausted to speak, even had he intended doing so, turned his head in a quick, half-terrified way and gave it two short jerky nods.
The settler had brought a bottle out—it was gin they kept for medicine. They gave him some hot, and he took it in his sudden, frightened, half-animal way, like a dog that was used to ill-usage.
"He ought to be in the hospital," said the mother.
"He ought to be in bed right now at once," snapped the sister. "Couldn't you stay till morning, or at least till the rain clears up?" she said to the elder man. "No one ain't likely to come near this place in this weather."
"If we did he'd stand a good chance to get both hospital and a bed pretty soon, and for a long stretch, too," said the dark man grimly. "No, thank you all the same, miss—and missus—I'll get him fixed up all right and safe before morning."
The father came into the end room with a couple of small feed boxes and both boys tumbled under the blankets. The father emptied some chaff, from a bag in the corner, into the boxes, and then dished some corn from another bag into the chaff and mixed it well with his hands. Then he went out with the boxes under his arms, and the boys got up again.
The mother had brought two chairs from the front room (I remember the kind well: black painted hardwood that were always coming to pieces and with apples painted on the backs). She stood them with their backs to the fire and, taking up the young man's wet clothes, which the settler had brought out under his arm and thrown on a stool, arranged them over the backs of chairs and the stool to dry. He lost some of his nervousness or seared manner under the influence of the gin, and answered one or two questions with reference to his complaint.
The baby was in the cradle asleep. The sister drew boiling water from the old-fashioned fountain over one side of the fire and made coffee. The mother laid the coarse brownish cloth and set out the camp-oven bread, salt beef, tin plates, and pintpots. This was always called "setting the table" in the bush. "You'd better have it by the fire," said the bush-wife to the dark man.
"Thank you, missus," he said, as he moved to a bench by the table, "but it's plenty warm enough here. Come on, Jack."
Jack, under the influence of another tot, was in a fit state to sit down to a table something like a Christian, instead of coming to his food like a beaten dog.
The hum of bush common-places went on. One of the boys fell across the bed and into deep slumber; the other watched on awhile, but must have dozed.
When he was next aware, he saw, through the cracks, the taller man putting on his dried coat by the fire; then he went to a rough "sofa" at the side of the kitchen, where the young man was sleeping—with his head and shoulders curled in to the wall and his arm over his face, like a possum hiding from the light—and touched him on the shoulder.
"Come on, Jack," he said, "wake up."
Jack sprang to his feet with a blundering rush, grappled with his mate, and made a break for the door.
"It's all right, Jack," said the other, gently yet firmly, holding and shaking him. "Go in with the boss and get into your own clothes—we've got to make a start." The other came to himself and went inside quietly with the settler. The dark man stretched himself, crossed the kitchen and looked down at the sleeping child; he returned to the fire without comment. The wildness had left his eyes. The bushwoman was busy putting some tucker in a sugar-bag. "There's tea and sugar and salt in these mustard tins, and they won't get wet," she said, "and there's some butter too; but I don't know how you'll manage about the bread—I've wrapped it up, but you'll have to keep it dry as well as you can."
"Thank you, missus, but that'll be all right. I've got a bit of oil-cloth," he said.
They spoke lamely for a while, against time; then the bushwoman touched the spring, and their voices became suddenly low and earnest as they drew together. The stranger spoke as at a funeral, but the funeral was his own.
"I don't care about myself so much," he said, "for I'm tired of it, and—and—for the matter of that I'm tired of everything; but I'd like to see poor Jack right, and I'll try to get clear myself, for his sake. You've seen him. I can't blame myself, for I took him from a life that was worse than jail. You know how much worse than animals some brutes treat their children in the bush. And he was an 'adopted.' You know what that means. He was idiotic with ill-treatment when I got hold of him. He's sensible enough when away with me, and true as steel. He's about the only living human thing I've got to care for, or to care for me, and I want to win out of this hell for his sake."
He paused, and they were all silent. He was measuring time, as his next words proved: "Jack must be nearly ready now." Then he took a packet from some inside pocket of his blue dungaree shirt. It was wrapped in oil-cloth, and he opened it and laid it on the table; there was a small Bible and a packet of letters—and portraits, maybe.
"Now, missus," he said, "you mustn't think me soft, and I'm neither a religious man nor a hypocrite. But that Bible was given to me by my mother, and her hand-writing is in it, so I couldn't chuck it away. Some of the letters are hers and some—someone else's. You can read them if you like. Now, I want you to take care of them for me and dry them if they are a little damp. If I get clear I'll send for them some day, and, if I don't—well, I don't want them to be taken with me. I don't want the police to know who I was, and what I was, and who my relatives are and where they are. You wouldn't have known, if you do know now, only your husband knew me on the diggings, and happened to be in the court when I got off on that first cattle-stealing charge, and recognized me again to-night. I can't thank you enough, but I want you to remember that I'll never forget. Even if I'm taken and have to serve my time I'll never forget it, and I'll live to prove it."
"We—we don't want no thanks, an' we don't want no proofs," said the bushwoman, her voice breaking.
The sister, her eyes suspiciously bright, took up the packet in her sharp, practical way, and put it in a work-box she had in the kitchen.
The settler brought the young fellow out dressed in his own clothes. The elder shook hands quietly all round, or, rather, they shook hands with him. "Now, Jack!" he said. They had fastened an oilskin cape round Jack's shoulders.
Jack came forward and shook hands with a nervous grip that he seemed to have trouble to take off. "I won't forget it," he said; "that's all I can say—I won't forget it." Then they went out with the settler. The rain had held up a little. Clatter of sliprails down and up, but the settler didn't come back.
"Wonder what Peter's doing?" said the wife.
"Showin' 'em down the short cut," said Uncle Abe.
But, presently, clatter of sliprails down again, and cattle driven over them.
"Wonder what he's doing with the cows," said the wife.
They waited in wonder, and with growing anxiety, for some quarter of an hour; then Abe and Andy, going out to see, met the settler coming back.
"What in thunder are you doing with the cows, Peter?" asked Uncle Abe.
"Oh, just driving them out and along a bit over those horse tracks; we might get into trouble," said Peter.
When the boys woke it was morning, and the mother stood by the bed. "You needn't get up yet, and don't say anyone was here last night if you're asked," she whispered, and went out. They were up on their knees at once with their eyes to the cracks, and got the scare of their young lives. Three mounted troopers were steaming their legs at the fire—their bodies had been protected by oilskin capes. The mother was busy about the table and the sister changing the baby. Presently the two younger policemen sat down to bread and bacon and coffee, but their senior (the sergeant) stood with his back to the fire, with a pint-pot of coffee in his hand, eating nothing, but frowning suspiciously round the room.
Said one of the young troopers to Aunt Annie, to break the lowering silence, "You don't remember me?"
"Oh yes, I do; you were at Brown's School at Old Pipeclay—but I was only there a few months."
"You look as if you didn't get much sleep," said the senior-sergeant, bluntly, to the settler's wife, "and your sister too."
"And so would you," said Aunt Annie, sharply, "if you were up with a sick baby all night."
"Sad affair that, about Brown the schoolmaster," said the younger trooper to Aunt Annie.
"Yes," said Aunt Annie, "it was indeed."
The senior-sergeant stood glowering. Presently he said brutally—"The baby don't seem to be very sick; what's the matter with it?"
The young troopers move uneasily, and one impatiently.
"You should have seen her" (the baby) "about twelve o'clock last night," said Aunt Annie, "we never thought she would live till the morning."
"Oh, didn't you?" said the senior-sergeant, in a half-and-half tone.
The mother took the baby and held it so that its face was hidden from the elder policeman.
"What became of Brown's family, miss?" asked the young trooper. "Do you remember Lucy Brown?"
"I really don't know," answered Aunt Annie, "all I know is that they went to Sydney. But I think I heard that Lucy was married."
Just then Uncle Abe and Andy came in to breakfast. Andy sat down in the corner with a wooden face, and Uncle Abe, who was a tall man, took up a position, with his back to the fire, by the side of the senior trooper, and seemed perfectly at home and at ease. He lifted up his coat behind, and his face was a study in bucolic unconsciousness. The settler passed through to the boys' room (which was harness room, feed room, tool house, and several other things), and as he passed out with a shovel the sergeant said, "So you haven't seen anyone along here for three days?"
"No," said the settler.
"Except Jimmy Marshfield that took over Barker's selection in Long Gully," put in Aunt Annie. "He was here yesterday. Do you want him?"
"An' them three fellers on horseback as rode past the corner of the lower paddock the day afore yesterday," mumbled Uncle Abe, "but one of 'em was one of the Coxes' boys, I think."
At the sound of Uncle Abe's voice both women started and paled, and looked as if they'd like to gag him, but he was safe.
"What were they like?" asked the constable.
The women paled again, but Uncle Abe described them. He had imagination, and was only slow where the truth was concerned.
"Which way were they going?" asked the constable. "Towards Mudgee" (the police-station township), said Uncle Abe.
The constable gave his arm an impatient jerk and dropped Uncle Abe.
Uncle Abe looked as if he wanted badly to wink hard at someone, but there was no friendly eye in the line of wink that would be safe.
"Well, it's strange," said the sergeant, "that the men we're after didn't look up an out-of-the-way place like this for tucker, or horse-feed, or news, or something."
"Now, look here," said Aunt Annie, "we're neither cattle duffers nor sympathizers; we're honest, hard-working people, and God knows we're glad enough to see a strange face when it comes to this lonely hole; and if you only want to insult us, you'd better stop it at once. I tell you there's nobody been here but old Jimmy Marshfield for three days, and we haven't seen a stranger for over a fortnight, and that's enough. My sister's delicate and worried enough without you." She had a masculine habit of putting her hand up on something when holding forth, and as it happened it rested on the work-box on the shelf that contained the cattle-stealer's mother's Bible; but if put to it, Aunt Annie would have sworn on the Bible itself.
"Oh well, no offence, no offence," said the constable. "Come on, men, if you've finished, it's no use wasting time round here."
The two young troopers thanked the mother for their breakfast, and strange to say, the one who had spoken to her went up to Aunt Annie and shook hands warmly with her. Then they went out, and mounting, rode back in the direction of Mudgee. Uncle Abe winked long and hard and solemnly at Andy Page, and Andy winked back like a mechanical wooden image. The two women nudged and smiled and seemed quite girlish, not to say skittish, all the morning. Something had come to break the cruel hopeless monotony of their lives. And even the settler became foolishly cheerful.
Five years later: same hut, same yard, and a not much wider clearing in the gully, and a little more fencing—the women rather more haggard and tired looking, the settler rather more horny-handed and silent, and Uncle Abe rather more philosophical. The men had had to go out and work on the stations. With the settler and his wife it was, "If we only had a few pounds to get the farm cleared and fenced, and another good plough horse, and a few more cows." That had been the burden of their song for the five years and more.
Then, one evening, the mail boy left a parcel. It was a small parcel, in cloth-paper, carefully tied and sealed. What could it be? It couldn't be the Christmas number of a weekly they subscribed to, for it never came like that. Aunt Annie cut the discussion short by cutting the string with a table knife and breaking the wax.
And behold, a clean sugar-bag tightly folded and rolled.
And inside a strong whitey-brown envelope.
And on the envelope written or rather printed the words:
"For horse-feed, stabling, and supper."
And underneath, in smaller letters, "Send Bible and portraits to——." (Here a name and address.)
And inside the envelope a roll of notes.
"Count them," said Aunt Annie.
But the settler's horny and knotty hands trembled too much, and so did his wife's withered ones; so Aunt Annie counted them.
"Fifty pounds!" she said.
"Fifty pounds!" mused the settler, scratching his head in a perplexed way.
"Fifty pounds!" gasped his wife.
"Yes," said Aunt Annie sharply, "fifty pounds!"
"Well, you'll get it settled between yer some day!" drawled Uncle Abe.
Later, after thinking comfortably over the matter, he observed:
"Cast yer coffee an' bread an' bacon upon the waters—"
Uncle Abe never hurried himself or anybody else.
The moral should be revived. Therefore, this is a story with a moral. The lower end of Bill Street—otherwise William—overlooks Blue's Point Road, with a vacant wedge-shaped allotment running down from a Scottish church between Bill Street the aforesaid and the road, and a terrace on the other side of the road. A cheap, mean-looking terrace of houses, flush with the pavement, each with two windows upstairs and a large one in the middle downstairs, with a slit on one side of it called a door—looking remarkably skully in ghastly dawns, afterglows, and rainy afternoons and evenings. The slits look as if the owners of the skulls got it there from an upward blow of a sharp tomahawk, from a shorter man—who was no friend of theirs—just about the time they died. The slits open occasionally, and mothers of the nation, mostly holding their garments together at neck or bosom, lean out—at right angles almost—and peer up and down the road, as if they are casually curious as to what is keeping the rent collector so late this morning. Then they shut up till late in the day, when a boy or two comes home from work. The terrace should be called "Jim's Terrace" if the road is not "James's" Road, because no bills ever seem to be paid there as they are in our street—and for other reasons. There are four houses, but seldom more than two of them occupied at one time—often only one. Tenants never shift in, or at least are never seen to, but they get there. The sign is a furtive candle light behind an old table cloth, a skirt, or any rag of dark stuff tacked across the front bedroom window, upstairs, and a shadow suggestive of a woman making up a bed on the floor.
If more than two of the houses are occupied there is almost certain to be an old granny with ragged grey hair, who folded her arms tight under her ragged old breasts, and bends her tough old body, and sticks her ragged grey old head out of the slit called a door, and squints up and down the road, but not in the interests of mischief-making—they are never here long enough—only out of mild, ragged, grey-headed curiosity regarding the health or affairs of the rent collector.
Perhaps there are no bills to be collected in Skull Terrace because no credit is given. No jugs are put out, because there is no place to put them, except on the pavement, or on the narrow window ledges, where they would be in great and constant danger from the feet or elbows of passers-by. There are no tradesmen's entrances to the houses in Skull Terrace.
Tenants and sub-tenants often leave on Friday morning in the full glare of the day. Granny throws down garments from the top window to hurry things, and the wife below ties up much in an old allegedly green or red table-cloth, on the pavement, at the last moment. Van of the "bottle ho" variety. It is all done very quickly, and nobody takes any notice—they are never there long enough. Landlord, landlady, or rent collector—or whatever it is—calls later on; maybe, knocks in a tired, even bored, way; makes inquiries next door, and goes away, leaving the problem to take care of itself—all kind of casual. The business people of North Sydney, especially removers and labourers, are very casual. Down old Blue's Point Road the folk get so casual that they just exist, but don't seem to do so.
One thing I never could make out about Skull Terrace is that when one house becomes vacant from a house agent's point of view—there is a permanent atmosphere of vacancy about the whole terrace—the people of another move into it. And there's not the slightest difference between the houses. It is because the removal is such a small affair, I suppose, and the change is, the main thing. I always do better for awhile in a new house—but then I always did seem to get on better somewhere else.
There are many points, or absence of points, about Skull Terrace that fit in with Jim's casualness as against Bill's character, therefore Blue's Point Road ought to be James's Street.
But just now, in the heat of summer, the terrace happens to be full, and all the blinds are decent—the two new-comers are newly come down to Skull Terrace, and the other blinds are looked up, washed, and fixed up by force of example or from very shame's sake.
All of which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the story, except that the scene is down opposite my balcony as I think and smoke, and it is a blur on one of the most beautiful harbour views in the world.
I had been working hard all day, mending the fence, putting up a fowl-house and some lattice work and wire netting, and limewashing and painting. Labours of love. I'd rather build a fowl-house than a "pome" or story, any day. And when finished—the fowl-house, I mean—I sit and contemplate my handiwork with pure and unadulterated joy. And I take a candle out several times, after dark, to look at it again. I never got such pleasure out of rhyme, story, or first-class London Academy notice. I find it difficult to drag myself from the fowl-house, or whatever it is, to meals, and harder to this work, and I lie awake planning next day's work until I fall asleep in the sleep of utter happy weariness. And I'm up and at it, before washing, at daylight. But I was a carpenter and housepainter first.
Well, it had been a long, close day, and I was very dirty and tired, but with the energy and restlessness of healthy, happy tiredness when work is unfinished. But I was out of two-inch nails, and the shops were shut.
Then it struck me to start up the copper and have a real warm bath after my own heart and ideas. The bathroom is outside, next the wash-house and copper. There were plenty of splinters and ends of softwood that were mine by right of purchase and labour. My landlady is, and always has been, sensitive on the subject of firewood. She'll buy anything else to make the house comfortable and beautiful. She has been known to buy a piano for one of her nieces and burn rubbish in the stove the same day. I knew she was uneasy about the softwood odds and ends, but I couldn't help that—she'd still be sentimental about them if she had a stack of firewood as big as the house. There's at least one thing that most folk hate to buy—mine's boot-laces or bone studs, so long as I can make pins or inked string do.
I put a bucket of water in the copper, started a fire under that sent sparks out of the wash-house flue at an alarming rate, filled the copper to the brim, and, in the absence of a lid, covered it with a piece of flattened galvanized iron I had.
I tacked the side edge of a strip of canvas to the matchboard wall along over the inner edge of the bath, fastened a short piece of gas-pipe to the outer edge, with pieces of string through holes made in it, and let it hang down over the bath, leaving a hole at the head for my head and shoulders. I was going to have a long, comfortable, and utterly lazy and drowsy hot water and steam bath, you know.
I fastened a piece of clothes-line round and over the head of the bath, and twisted an old toilet-table cover and a towel round it where it sagged into the bath, for a head rest-also to be soaped for where I couldn't get at my back with my hands.
I went up to my room for some things, and it struck me to arrange two chairs by the bed—candle and matches and tobacco on one side, and a pile of Jack London, Kipling, and Yankee magazines on the other, with the last Lone Hand and Bulletin on top.
Going down with pyjamas, towel, and soap, it struck me to have a kettle and a saucepan full of water on the stove to use as the water from the copper cooled.
I took a roomy, hard-bottomed kitchen chair into the bathroom; on it I placed a carefully scraped, cleared, and filled pipe, matches, more tobacco, tooth-brush, saucer with a lump of whiting and salt, piece of looking-glass—to see progress of the teeth—and knife for finger and toe nails. And I knocked up a few three-inch iron nails in the wall to hang things on. I placed a clean suit of pyjamas over the back of the chair, and over them the towels.
I arranged with the landlady to have a good cup of coffee made, as she knows how to make it, ready to hand in round the edge of the door when I should be in the bath. There's nothing in that. I've been with her for years, and on account of the canvas it would be just the same as if I were in bed. On second thought I asked her to hand in some toast—or bread and butter and bloater paste—at the same time. I fed the fire with judgment, and the copper boiled just as the last blaze died down. I got a pail and carried the water to the bath, pouring it in through the opening at the head. The last few pints I dipped into the pail with a cup. I covered the opening with a towel to keep the steam and heat in until I was ready. I got the boiling water from the kitchen into the bucket, covered it with another towel, and stood it in a handy corner in the bathroom.
I made an opening, turned on the cold water, and commenced to undress. I hung my clothes on the wall, till morning, for I intended to go straight from the bath to bed in my pyjamas and to lie there reading.
I turned off the cold water tap to be sure, lifted the towel off, and put my good right foot in to feel the temperature—into about three inches of cold water, and that was vanishing.
I'd forgotten to put in the plug.
I'm deaf, you know, and the landlady, hearing the water run, thought I was flushing out the bath (we were new tenants) and wondered vaguely why I was so long at it.
I dressed rather hurriedly in my working clothes, went inside, and spread myself dramatically on the old cane lounge and covered my face with my oldest hat, to show that it was comic and I took it that way. But my landlady was so full of sympathy, condolence, and self-reproach (because she failed to draw my attention to the gurgling) that she let the coffee and toast burn.
I went up and lay on my bed, and was so tired and misty and far away that I went to sleep without undressing, or even washing my face and hands.
How many, in this life, forget the plug!
And how many, ah! how many, who passed through, and are passing through Skull Terrace, commenced life as confidently, carefree, and clear headed, and with such easily exercised, careful, intelligent, practised, and methodical attention to details as I did the bath business arrangements—and forgot to put in the plug.
And many because they were handicapped physically.
INSTINCT GONE WRONG
Old Mac used to sleep in his wagon in fine weather, when he had no load, on his blankets spread out on the feed-bags; but one time he struck Croydon, flush from a lucky and good back trip, and looked in at the (say) Royal Hotel to wet his luck—as some men do with their sorrow—and he "got there all right." Next morning he had breakfast in the dining-room, was waited on as a star boarder, and became thoroughly demoralized; and his mind was made up (independent of himself, as it were) to be a gentleman for once in his life. He went over to the store and bought the sloppiest suit of reach-me-downs of glossiest black, and the stiffest and stickiest white shirt they had to show—also four bone studs, two for the collar and two for the cuffs. Then he gave his worn "larstins" to the stable-boy (with half a crown) to clean, and—proceeded. He put the boots on during the day, one at a time between drinks, gassing all the time, and continued. He concluded about midnight, after a very noisy time and interviews with everyone on sight (slightly interrupted by drinks) concerning "his room." It was show time, you see, and all the rooms were as full as he was—he was too full even to share the parlour or billiard room with others; but he consented at last to a shake-down on the balcony, the barmaid volunteering to spread the couch with her own fair hands.
Towards daylight he woke, for one of the reasons why men do wake. It is well known, to people who know, that old campers-out (and young men new to it, too) will wake once—if in a party, each at different times—to tend to their cattle, or listen for the hobbles of their horses, or simply to rise on their elbows and have a look round—the last, I suppose, from an instinct born in old dangerous times. Mac woke up, and it was dark. He reached out and his hand fell, instinctively, on the rail of the balcony, which was to him (instinctively—and that shows how instinct errs) the rail of the side of his wagon, in which as I have said, he was wont to sleep. So he drew himself up on his knees and to his feet, with the instinctive intention of getting down to (say) put some chaff and corn in the feed-bags stretched across the shafts for the horses; for he intended, by instinct, to make an early start. Which shows how instinct can never be trusted to travel with memory, but will get ahead of it—or behind it. (Say it was instinct mixed with or adulterated by drink.) He got a long, hairy leg over and felt (instinctively) for the hub of the wheel; his foot found and rested on the projecting ledge of the balcony floor outside, and that, to him, was the hub all right. He swung his other leg over and expected to drop lightly on to the grass or dust of the camp; but, being instinctively rigid, he fell heavily some fifteen feet into a kerbed gutter.