WHILE THE BILLY BOILS
By Henry Lawson
[Transcriber's note: In 'A Day on a Selection' a speech is attributed to "Tom"—in first edition as well as recent ones—which clearly belongs to "Corney" alias "neighbour". This has been noted in loc.]
An Old Mate of Your Father's
Settling on the Land
Stiffner and Jim (Thirdly, Bill)
When the Sun Went Down
The Man who Forgot
A Camp-fire Yarn
His Country—After All
A Day on a Selection
That There Dog of Mine
Arvie Aspinall's Alarm Clock
The Union Buries its Dead
On the Edge of a Plain
In a Dry Season
He's Come Back
Another of Mitchell's Plans
Mitchell Doesn't Believe in the Sack
Shooting the Moon
His Father's Mate
An Echo from the Old Bark School
The Shearing of the Cook's Dog
"Dossing Out" and "Camping"
Across the Straits
The Drover's Wife
An Unfinished Love Story
Board and Residence
His Colonial Oath
A Visit of Condolence
In a Wet Season
Mitchell: A Character Sketch
The Bush Undertaker
The Story of Malachi
Two Dogs and a Fence
Bogg of Geebung
She Wouldn't Speak
The Geological Spieler
For Auld Lang Syne
AN OLD MATE OF YOUR FATHER'S
You remember when we hurried home from the old bush school how we were sometimes startled by a bearded apparition, who smiled kindly down on us, and whom our mother introduced, as we raked off our hats, as "An old mate of your father's on the diggings, Johnny." And he would pat our heads and say we were fine boys, or girls—as the case may have been—and that we had our father's nose but our mother's eyes, or the other way about; and say that the baby was the dead spit of its mother, and then added, for father's benefit: "But yet he's like you, Tom." It did seem strange to the children to hear him address the old man by his Christian name—-considering that the mother always referred to him as "Father." She called the old mate Mr So-and-so, and father called him Bill, or something to that effect.
Occasionally the old mate would come dressed in the latest city fashion, and at other times in a new suit of reach-me-downs, and yet again he would turn up in clean white moleskins, washed tweed coat, Crimean shirt, blucher boots, soft felt hat, with a fresh-looking speckled handkerchief round his neck. But his face was mostly round and brown and jolly, his hands were always horny, and his beard grey. Sometimes he might have seemed strange and uncouth to us at first, but the old man never appeared the least surprised at anything he said or did—they understood each other so well—and we would soon take to this relic of our father's past, who would have fruit or lollies for us—strange that he always remembered them—and would surreptitiously slip "shilluns" into our dirty little hands, and tell us stories about the old days, "when me an' yer father was on the diggin's, an' you wasn't thought of, my boy."
Sometimes the old mate would stay over Sunday, and in the forenoon or after dinner he and father would take a walk amongst the deserted shafts of Sapling Gully or along Quartz Ridge, and criticize old ground, and talk of past diggers' mistakes, and second bottoms, and feelers, and dips, and leads—also outcrops—and absently pick up pieces of quartz and slate, rub them on their sleeves, look at them in an abstracted manner, and drop them again; and they would talk of some old lead they had worked on: "Hogan's party was here on one side of us, Macintosh was here on the other, Mac was getting good gold and so was Hogan, and now, why the blanky blank weren't we on gold?" And the mate would always agree that there was "gold in them ridges and gullies yet, if a man only had the money behind him to git at it." And then perhaps the guv'nor would show him a spot where he intended to put down a shaft some day—the old man was always thinking of putting down a shaft. And these two old fifty-niners would mooch round and sit on their heels on the sunny mullock heaps and break clay lumps between their hands, and lay plans for the putting down of shafts, and smoke, till an urchin was sent to "look for his father and Mr So-and-so, and tell 'em to come to their dinner."
And again—mostly in the fresh of the morning—they would hang about the fences on the selection and review the live stock: five dusty skeletons of cows, a hollow-sided calf or two, and one shocking piece of equine scenery—which, by the way, the old mate always praised. But the selector's heart was not in farming nor on selections—it was far away with the last new rush in Western Australia or Queensland, or perhaps buried in the worked-out ground of Tambaroora, Married Man's Creek, or Araluen; and by-and-by the memory of some half-forgotten reef or lead or Last Chance, Nil Desperandum, or Brown Snake claim would take their thoughts far back and away from the dusty patch of sods and struggling sprouts called the crop, or the few discouraged, half-dead slips which comprised the orchard. Then their conversation would be pointed with many Golden Points, Bakery Hill, Deep Creeks, Maitland Bars, Specimen Flats, and Chinamen's Gullies. And so they'd yarn till the youngster came to tell them that "Mother sez the breakfus is gettin' cold," and then the old mate would rouse himself and stretch and say, "Well, we mustn't keep the missus waitin', Tom!"
And, after tea, they would sit on a log of the wood-heap, or the edge of the veranda—that is, in warm weather—and yarn about Ballarat and Bendigo—of the days when we spoke of being on a place oftener than at it: on Ballarat, on Gulgong, on Lambing Flat, on Creswick—and they would use the definite article before the names, as: "on The Turon; The Lachlan; The Home Rule; The Canadian Lead." Then again they'd yarn of old mates, such as Tom Brook, Jack Henright, and poor Martin Ratcliffe—who was killed in his golden hole—and of other men whom they didn't seem to have known much about, and who went by the names of "Adelaide Adolphus," "Corney George," and other names which might have been more or less applicable.
And sometimes they'd get talking, low and mysterious like, about "Th' Eureka Stockade;" and if we didn't understand and asked questions, "what was the Eureka Stockade?" or "what did they do it for?" father'd say: "Now, run away, sonny, and don't bother; me and Mr So-and-so want to talk." Father had the mark of a hole on his leg, which he said he got through a gun accident when a boy, and a scar on his side, that we saw when he was in swimming with us; he said he got that in an accident in a quartz-crushing machine. Mr So-and-so had a big scar on the side of his forehead that was caused by a pick accidentally slipping out of a loop in the rope, and falling down a shaft where he was working. But how was it they talked low, and their eyes brightened up, and they didn't look at each other, but away over sunset, and had to get up and walk about, and take a stroll in the cool of the evening when they talked about Eureka?
And, again they'd talk lower and more mysterious like, and perhaps mother would be passing the wood-heap and catch a word, and asked:
"Who was she, Tom?"
And Tom—father—would say:
"Oh, you didn't know her, Mary; she belonged to a family Bill knew at home."
And Bill would look solemn till mother had gone, and then they would smile a quiet smile, and stretch and say, "Ah, well!" and start something else.
They had yarns for the fireside, too, some of those old mates of our father's, and one of them would often tell how a girl—a queen of the diggings—was married, and had her wedding-ring made out of the gold of that field; and how the diggers weighed their gold with the new wedding-ring—for luck—by hanging the ring on the hook of the scales and attaching their chamois-leather gold bags to it (whereupon she boasted that four hundred ounces of the precious metal passed through her wedding-ring); and how they lowered the young bride, blindfolded, down a golden hole in a big bucket, and got her to point out the drive from which the gold came that her ring was made out of. The point of this story seems to have been lost—or else we forget it—but it was characteristic. Had the girl been lowered down a duffer, and asked to point out the way to the gold, and had she done so successfully, there would have been some sense in it.
And they would talk of King, and Maggie Oliver, and G. V. Brooke, and others, and remember how the diggers went five miles out to meet the coach that brought the girl actress, and took the horses out and brought her in in triumph, and worshipped her, and sent her off in glory, and threw nuggets into her lap. And how she stood upon the box-seat and tore her sailor hat to pieces, and threw the fragments amongst the crowd; and how the diggers fought for the bits and thrust them inside their shirt bosoms; and how she broke down and cried, and could in her turn have worshipped those men—loved them, every one. They were boys all, and gentlemen all. There were college men, artists, poets, musicians, journalists—Bohemians all. Men from all the lands and one. They understood art—and poverty was dead.
And perhaps the old mate would say slyly, but with a sad, quiet smile:
"Have you got that bit of straw yet, Tom?"
Those old mates had each three pasts behind them. The two they told each other when they became mates, and the one they had shared.
And when the visitor had gone by the coach we noticed that the old man would smoke a lot, and think as much, and take great interest in the fire, and be a trifle irritable perhaps.
Those old mates of our father's are getting few and far between, and only happen along once in a way to keep the old man's memory fresh, as it were. We met one to-day, and had a yarn with him, and afterwards we got thinking, and somehow began to wonder whether those ancient friends of ours were, or were not, better and kinder to their mates than we of the rising generation are to our fathers; and the doubt is painfully on the wrong side.
SETTLING ON THE LAND
The worst bore in Australia just now is the man who raves about getting the people on the land, and button-holes you in the street with a little scheme of his own. He generally does not know what he is talking about.
There is in Sydney a man named Tom Hopkins who settled on the land once, and sometimes you can get him to talk about it. He did very well at his trade in the city, years ago, until he began to think that he could do better up-country. Then he arranged with his sweetheart to be true to him and wait whilst he went west and made a home. She drops out of the story at this point.
He selected on a run at Dry Hole Creek, and for months awaited the arrival of the government surveyors to fix his boundaries; but they didn't come, and, as he had no reason to believe they would turn up within the next ten years, he grubbed and fenced at a venture, and started farming operations.
Does the reader know what grubbing means? Tom does. He found the biggest, ugliest, and most useless trees on his particular piece of ground; also the greatest number of adamantine stumps. He started without experience, or with very little, but with plenty of advice from men who knew less about farming than he did. He found a soft place between two roots on one side of the first tree, made a narrow, irregular hole, and burrowed down till he reached a level where the tap-root was somewhat less than four feet in diameter, and not quite as hard as flint: then he found that he hadn't room to swing the axe, so he heaved out another ton or two of earth—and rested. Next day he sank a shaft on the other side of the gum; and after tea, over a pipe, it struck him that it would be a good idea to burn the tree out, and so use up the logs and lighter rubbish lying round. So he widened the excavation, rolled in some logs, and set fire to them—with no better result than to scorch the roots.
Tom persevered. He put the trace harness on his horse, drew in all the logs within half a mile, and piled them on the windward side of that gum; and during the night the fire found a soft place, and the tree burnt off about six feet above the surface, falling on a squatter's boundary fence, and leaving the ugliest kind of stump to occupy the selector's attention; which it did, for a week. He waited till the hole cooled, and then he went to work with pick, shovel, and axe: and even now he gets interested in drawings of machinery, such as are published in the agricultural weeklies, for getting out stumps without graft. He thought he would be able to get some posts and rails out of that tree, but found reason to think that a cast-iron column would split sooner—and straighter. He traced some of the surface roots to the other side of the selection, and broke most of his trace-chains trying to get them out by horse-power—for they had other roots going down from underneath. He cleared a patch in the course of time and for several seasons he broke more ploughshares than he could pay for.
Meanwhile the squatter was not idle. Tom's tent was robbed several times, and his hut burnt down twice. Then he was charged with killing some sheep and a steer on the run, and converting them to his own use, but got off mainly because there was a difference of opinion between the squatter and the other local J.P. concerning politics and religion.
Tom ploughed and sowed wheat, but nothing came up to speak of—the ground was too poor; so he carted stable manure six miles from the nearest town, manured the land, sowed another crop, and prayed for rain. It came. It raised a flood which washed the crop clean off the selection, together with several acres of manure, and a considerable portion of the original surface soil; and the water brought down enough sand to make a beach, and spread it over the field to a depth of six inches. The flood also took half a mile of fencing from along the creek-bank, and landed it in a bend, three miles down, on a dummy selection, where it was confiscated.
Tom didn't give up—he was energetic. He cleared another piece of ground on the siding, and sowed more wheat; it had the rust in it, or the smut—and averaged three shillings per bushel. Then he sowed lucerne and oats, and bought a few cows: he had an idea of starting a dairy. First, the cows' eyes got bad, and he sought the advice of a German cocky, and acted upon it; he blew powdered alum through paper tubes into the bad eyes, and got some of it snorted and butted back into his own. He cured the cows' eyes and got the sandy blight in his own, and for a week or so be couldn't tell one end of a cow from the other, but sat in a dark corner of the hut and groaned, and soaked his glued eyelashes in warm water. Germany stuck to him and nursed him, and saw him through.
Then the milkers got bad udders, and Tom took his life in his hands whenever he milked them. He got them all right presently—and butter fell to fourpence a pound. He and the aforesaid cocky made arrangements to send their butter to a better market; and then the cows contracted a disease which was known in those parts as "plooro permoanyer," but generally referred to as "th' ploorer."
Again Tom sought advice, acting upon which he slit the cows' ears, cut their tails half off to bleed them, and poured pints of "pain killer" into them through their nostrils; but they wouldn't make an effort, except, perhaps, to rise and poke the selector when he tried to tempt their appetites with slices of immature pumpkin. They died peacefully and persistently, until all were gone save a certain dangerous, barren, slab-sided luny bovine with white eyes and much agility in jumping fences, who was known locally as Queen Elizabeth.
Tom shot Queen Elizabeth, and turned his attention to agriculture again. Then his plough horses took bad with some thing the Teuton called "der shtranguls." He submitted them to a course of treatment in accordance with Jacob's advice—and they died.
Even then Tom didn't give in—there was grit in that man. He borrowed a broken-down dray-horse in return for its keep, coupled it with his own old riding hack, and started to finish ploughing. The team wasn't a success. Whenever the draught horse's knees gave way and he stumbled forward, he jerked the lighter horse back into the plough, and something would break. Then Tom would blaspheme till he was refreshed, mend up things with wire and bits of clothes-line, fill his pockets with stones to throw at the team, and start again. Finally he hired a dummy's child to drive the horses. The brat did his best he tugged at the head of the team, prodded it behind, heaved rocks at it, cut a sapling, got up his enthusiasm, and wildly whacked the light horse whenever the other showed signs of moving—but he never succeeded in starting both horses at one and the same time. Moreover the youth was cheeky, and the selector's temper had been soured: he cursed the boy along with the horses, the plough, the selection, the squatter, and Australia. Yes, he cursed Australia. The boy cursed back, was chastised, and immediately went home and brought his father.
Then the dummy's dog tackled the selector's dog and this precipitated things. The dummy would have gone under had his wife not arrived on the scene with the eldest son and the rest of the family. They all fell foul of Tom. The woman was the worst. The selector's dog chawed the other and came to his master's rescue just in time—-or Tom Hopkins would never have lived to become the inmate of a lunatic asylum.
Next year there happened to be good grass on Tom's selection and nowhere else, and he thought it wouldn't be a bad idea—to get a few poor sheep, and fatten them up for market: sheep were selling for about seven-and-sixpence a dozen at that time. Tom got a hundred or two, but the squatter had a man stationed at one side of the selection with dogs to set on the sheep directly they put their noses through the fence (Tom's was not a sheep fence). The dogs chased the sheep across the selection and into the run again on the other side, where another man waited ready to pound them.
Tom's dog did his best; but he fell sick while chawing up the fourth capitalistic canine, and subsequently died. The dummies had robbed that cur with poison before starting it across—that was the only way they could get at Tom's dog.
Tom thought that two might play at the game, and he tried; but his nephew, who happened to be up from the city on a visit, was arrested at the instigation of the squatter for alleged sheep-stealing, and sentenced to two years' hard; during which time the selector himself got six months for assaulting the squatter with intent to do him grievous bodily harm-which, indeed, he more than attempted, if a broken nose, a fractured jaw, and the loss of most of the squatters' teeth amounted to anything. The squatter by this time had made peace with the other local Justice, and had become his father-in-law.
When Tom came out there was little left for him to live for; but he took a job of fencing, got a few pounds together, and prepared to settle on the land some more. He got a "missus" and a few cows during the next year; the missus robbed him and ran away with the dummy, and the cows died in the drought, or were impounded by the squatter while on their way to water. Then Tom rented an orchard up the creek, and a hailstorm destroyed all the fruit. Germany happened to be represented at the time, Jacob having sought shelter at Tom's but on his way home from town. Tom stood leaning against the door post with the hail beating on him through it all. His eyes were very bright and very dry, and every breath was a choking sob. Jacob let him stand there, and sat inside with a dreamy expression on his hard face, thinking of childhood and fatherland, perhaps. When it was over he led Tom to a stool and said, "You waits there, Tom. I must go home for somedings. You sits there still and waits twenty minutes;" then he got on his horse and rode off muttering to himself; "Dot man moost gry, dot man moost gry." He was back inside of twenty minutes with a bottle of wine and a cornet under his overcoat. He poured the wine into two pint-pots, made Tom drink, drank himself, and then took his cornet, stood up at the door, and played a German march into the rain after the retreating storm. The hail had passed over his vineyard and he was a ruined man too. Tom did "gry" and was all right. He was a bit disheartened, but he did another job of fencing, and was just beginning to think about "puttin' in a few vines an' fruit-trees" when the government surveyors—whom he'd forgotten all about—had a resurrection and came and surveyed, and found that the real selection was located amongst some barren ridges across the creek. Tom reckoned it was lucky he didn't plant the orchard, and he set about shifting his home and fences to the new site. But the squatter interfered at this point, entered into possession of the farm and all on it, and took action against the selector for trespass—laying the damages at L2500.
Tom was admitted to the lunatic asylum at Parramatta next year, and the squatter was sent there the following summer, having been ruined by the drought, the rabbits, the banks, and a wool-ring. The two became very friendly, and had many a sociable argument about the feasibility—or otherwise—of blowing open the flood-gates of Heaven in a dry season with dynamite.
Tom was discharged a few years since. He knocks about certain suburbs a good deal. He is seen in daylight seldom, and at night mostly in connection with a dray and a lantern. He says his one great regret is that he wasn't found to be of unsound mind before he went up-country.
The Western train had just arrived at Redfern railway station with a lot of ordinary passengers and one swagman.
He was short, and stout, and bow-legged, and freckled, and sandy. He had red hair and small, twinkling, grey eyes, and—what often goes with such things—the expression of a born comedian. He was dressed in a ragged, well-washed print shirt, an old black waistcoat with a calico back, a pair of cloudy moleskins patched at the knees and held up by a plaited greenhide belt buckled loosely round his hips, a pair of well-worn, fuzzy blucher boots, and a soft felt hat, green with age, and with no brim worth mentioning, and no crown to speak of. He swung a swag on to the platform, shouldered it, pulled out a billy and water-bag, and then went to a dog-box in the brake van.
Five minutes later he appeared on the edge of the cab platform, with an anxious-looking cattle-dog crouching against his legs, and one end of the chain in his hand. He eased down the swag against a post, turned his face to the city, tilted his hat forward, and scratched the well-developed back of his head with a little finger. He seemed undecided what track to take.
The swagman turned slowly and regarded cabby with a quiet grin.
"Now, do I look as if I want a cab?"
"Well, why not? No harm, anyway—I thought you might want a cab."
Swaggy scratched his head, reflectively.
"Well," he said, "you're the first man that has thought so these ten years. What do I want with a cab?"
"To go where you're going, of course."
"Do I look knocked up?"
"I didn't say you did."
"And I didn't say you said I did.... Now, I've been on the track this five years. I've tramped two thousan' miles since last Chris'mas, and I don't see why I can't tramp the last mile. Do you think my old dog wants a cab?"
The dog shivered and whimpered; he seemed to want to get away from the crowd.
"But then, you see, you ain't going to carry that swag through the streets, are you?" asked the cabman.
"Why not? Who'll stop me! There ain't no law agin it, I b'lieve?"
"But then, you see, it don't look well, you know."
"Ah! I thought we'd get to it at last."
The traveller up-ended his bluey against his knee, gave it an affectionate pat, and then straightened himself up and looked fixedly at the cabman.
"Now, look here!" he said, sternly and impressively, "can you see anything wrong with that old swag o' mine?"
It was a stout, dumpy swag, with a red blanket outside, patched with blue, and the edge of a blue blanket showing in the inner rings at the end. The swag might have been newer; it might have been cleaner; it might have been hooped with decent straps, instead of bits of clothes-line and greenhide—but otherwise there was nothing the matter with it, as swags go.
"I've humped that old swag for years," continued the bushman; "I've carried that old swag thousands of miles—as that old dog knows—an' no one ever bothered about the look of it, or of me, or of my old dog, neither; and do you think I'm going to be ashamed of that old swag, for a cabby or anyone else? Do you think I'm going to study anybody's feelings? No one ever studied mine! I'm in two minds to summon you for using insulting language towards me!"
He lifted the swag by the twisted towel which served for a shoulder-strap, swung it into the cab, got in himself and hauled the dog after him.
"You can drive me somewhere where I can leave my swag and dog while I get some decent clothes to see a tailor in," he said to the cabman. "My old dog ain't used to cabs, you see."
Then he added, reflectively: "I drove a cab myself, once, for five years in Sydney."
Stiffner and Jim
We were tramping down in Canterbury, Maoriland, at the time, swagging it—me and Bill—looking for work on the new railway line. Well, one afternoon, after a long, hot tramp, we comes to Stiffner's Hotel—between Christchurch and that other place—I forget the name of it—with throats on us like sunstruck bones, and not the price of a stick of tobacco.
We had to have a drink, anyway, so we chanced it. We walked right into the bar, handed over our swags, put up four drinks, and tried to look as if we'd just drawn our cheques and didn't care a curse for any man. We looked solvent enough, as far as swagmen go. We were dirty and haggard and ragged and tired-looking, and that was all the more reason why we might have our cheques all right.
This Stiffner was a hard customer. He'd been a spieler, fighting man, bush parson, temperance preacher, and a policeman, and a commercial traveller, and everything else that was damnable; he'd been a journalist, and an editor; he'd been a lawyer, too. He was an ugly brute to look at, and uglier to have a row with—about six-foot-six, wide in proportion, and stronger than Donald Dinnie.
He was meaner than a gold-field Chinaman, and sharper than a sewer rat: he wouldn't give his own father a feed, nor lend him a sprat—unless some safe person backed the old man's I.O.U.
We knew that we needn't expect any mercy from Stiffner; but something had to be done, so I said to Bill:
"Something's got to be done, Bill! What do you think of it?"
Bill was mostly a quiet young chap, from Sydney, except when he got drunk—which was seldom—and then he was a customer, from all round. He was cracked on the subject of spielers. He held that the population of the world was divided into two classes—one was spielers and the other was the mugs. He reckoned that he wasn't a mug. At first I thought he was a spieler, and afterwards I thought that he was a mug. He used to say that a man had to do it these times; that he was honest once and a fool, and was robbed and starved in consequences by his friends and relations; but now he intended to take all that he could get. He said that you either had to have or be had; that men were driven to be sharps, and there was no help for it.
"We'll have to sharpen our teeth, that's all, and chew somebody's lug."
"How?" I asked.
There was a lot of navvies at the pub, and I knew one or two by sight, so Bill says:
"You know one or two of these mugs. Bite one of their ears.
"So I took aside a chap that I knowed and bit his ear for ten bob, and gave it to Bill to mind, for I thought it would be safer with him than with me.
"Hang on to that," I says, "and don't lose it for your natural life's sake, or Stiffner'll stiffen us."
We put up about nine bob's worth of drinks that night—me and Bill—and Stiffner didn't squeal: he was too sharp. He shouted once or twice.
By-and-by I left Bill and turned in, and in the morning when I woke up there was Bill sitting alongside of me, and looking about as lively as the fighting kangaroo in London in fog time. He had a black eye and eighteen pence. He'd been taking down some of the mugs.
"Well, what's to be done now?" I asked. "Stiffner can smash us both with one hand, and if we don't pay up he'll pound our swags and cripple us. He's just the man to do it. He loves a fight even more than he hates being had."
"There's only one thing to be done, Jim," says Bill, in a tired, disinterested tone that made me mad.
"Well, what's than" I said.
"Smoke be damned," I snarled, losing my temper.
"You know dashed well that our swags are in the bar, and we can't smoke without them.
"Well, then," says Bill, "I'll toss you to see who's to face the landlord."
"Well, I'll be blessed!" I says. "I'll see you further first. You have got a front. You mugged that stuff away, and you'll have to get us out of the mess."
It made him wild to be called a mug, and we swore and growled at each other for a while; but we daren't speak loud enough to have a fight, so at last I agreed to toss up for it, and I lost.
Bill started to give me some of his points, but I shut him up quick.
"You've had your turn, and made a mess of it," I said. "For God's sake give me a show. Now, I'll go into the bar and ask for the swags, and carry them out on to the veranda, and then go back to settle up. You keep him talking all the time. You dump the two swags together, and smoke like sheol. That's all you've got to do."
I went into the bar, got the swags front the missus, carried them out on to the veranda, and then went back.
Stiffner came in.
"Good morning, sir," says Stiffner.
"It'll be a nice day, I think?"
"Yes, I think so. I suppose you are going on?"
"Yes, we'll have to make a move to-day."
Then I hooked carelessly on to the counter with one elbow, and looked dreamy-like out across the clearing, and presently I gave a sort of sigh and said: "Ah, well! I think I'll have a beer."
"Right you are! Where's your mate?"
"Oh, he's round at the back. He'll be round directly; but he ain't drinking this morning."
Stiffner laughed that nasty empty laugh of his. He thought Bill was whipping the cat.
"What's yours, boss?" I said.
"Thankee!... Here's luck!"
The country was pretty open round there—the nearest timber was better than a mile away, and I wanted to give Bill a good start across the flat before the go-as-you-can commenced; so I talked for a while, and while we were talking I thought I might as well go the whole hog—I might as well die for a pound as a penny, if I had to die; and if I hadn't I'd have the pound to the good, anyway, so to speak. Anyhow, the risk would be about the same, or less, for I might have the spirit to run harder the more I had to run for—the more spirits I had to run for, in fact, as it turned out—so I says:
"I think I'll take one of them there flasks of whisky to last us on the road."
"Right y'are," says Stiffner. "What'll ye have—a small one or a big one?"
"Oh, a big one, I think—if I can get it into my pocket."
"It'll be a tight squeeze," he said, and he laughed.
"I'll try," I said. "Bet you two drinks I'll get it in."
"Done!" he says. "The top inside coat-pocket, and no tearing."
It was a big bottle, and all my pockets were small; but I got it into the pocket he'd betted against. It was a tight squeeze, but I got it in.
Then we both laughed, but his laugh was nastier than usual, because it was meant to be pleasant, and he'd lost two drinks; and my laugh wasn't easy—I was anxious as to which of us would laugh next.
Just then I noticed something, and an idea struck me—about the most up-to-date idea that ever struck me in my life. I noticed that Stiffner was limping on his right foot this morning, so I said to him:
"What's up with your foot?" putting my hand in my pocket. "Oh, it's a crimson nail in my boot," he said. "I thought I got the blanky thing out this morning; but I didn't."
There just happened to be an old bag of shoemaker's tools in the bar, belonging to an old cobbler who was lying dead drunk on the veranda. So I said, taking my hand out of my pocket again:
"Lend us the boot, and I'll fix it in a minute. That's my old trade."
"Oh, so you're a shoemaker," he said. "I'd never have thought it."
He laughs one of his useless laughs that wasn't wanted, and slips off the boot—he hadn't laced it up—and hands it across the bar to me. It was an ugly brute—a great thick, iron-bound, boiler-plated navvy's boot. It made me feel sore when I looked at it.
I got the bag and pretended to fix the nail; but I didn't.
"There's a couple of nails gone from the sole," I said. "I'll put 'em in if I can find any hobnails, and it'll save the sole," and I rooted in the bag and found a good long nail, and shoved it right through the sole on the sly. He'd been a bit of a sprinter in his time, and I thought it might be better for me in the near future if the spikes of his running-shoes were inside.
"There, you'll find that better, I fancy," I said, standing the boot on the bar counter, but keeping my hand on it in an absent-minded kind of way. Presently I yawned and stretched myself, and said in a careless way:
"Ah, well! How's the slate?" He scratched the back of his head and pretended to think.
"Oh, well, we'll call it thirty bob."
Perhaps he thought I'd slap down two quid.
"Well," I says, "and what will you do supposing we don't pay you?"
He looked blank for a moment. Then he fired up and gasped and choked once or twice; and then he cooled down suddenly and laughed his nastiest laugh—he was one of those men who always laugh when they're wild—and said in a nasty, quiet tone:
"You thundering, jumped-up crawlers! If you don't (something) well part up I'll take your swags and (something) well kick your gory pants so you won't be able to sit down for a month—or stand up either!"
"Well, the sooner you begin the better," I said; and I chucked the boot into a corner and bolted.
He jumped the bar counter, got his boot, and came after me. He paused to slip the boot on—but he only made one step, and then gave a howl and slung the boot off and rushed back. When I looked round again he'd got a slipper on, and was coming—and gaining on me, too. I shifted scenery pretty quick the next five minutes. But I was soon pumped. My heart began to beat against the ceiling of my head, and my lungs all choked up in my throat. When I guessed he was getting within kicking distance I glanced round so's to dodge the kick. He let out; but I shied just in time. He missed fire, and the slipper went about twenty feet up in the air and fell in a waterhole.
He was done then, for the ground was stubbly and stony. I seen Bill on ahead pegging out for the horizon, and I took after him and reached for the timber for all I was worth, for I'd seen Stiffner's missus coming with a shovel—to bury the remains, I suppose; and those two were a good match—Stiffner and his missus, I mean.
Bill looked round once, and melted into the bush pretty soon after that. When I caught up he was about done; but I grabbed my swag and we pushed on, for I told Bill that I'd seen Stiffner making for the stables when I'd last looked round; and Bill thought that we'd better get lost in the bush as soon as ever we could, and stay lost, too, for Stiffner was a man that couldn't stand being had.
The first thing that Bill said when we got safe into camp was: "I told you that we'd pull through all right. You need never be frightened when you're travelling with me. Just take my advice and leave things to me, and we'll hang out all right. Now-."
But I shut him up. He made me mad.
"Why, you—! What the sheol did you do?"
"Do?" he says. "I got away with the swags, didn't I? Where'd they be now if it wasn't for me?"
Then I sat on him pretty hard for his pretensions, and paid him out for all the patronage he'd worked off on me, and called him a mug straight, and walked round him, so to speak, and blowed, and told him never to pretend to me again that he was a battler.
Then, when I thought I'd licked him into form, I cooled down and soaped him up a bit; but I never thought that he had three climaxes and a crisis in store for me.
He took it all pretty cool; he let me have my fling, and gave me time to get breath; then he leaned languidly over on his right side, shoved his left hand down into his left trouserpocket, and brought up a boot-lace, a box of matches, and nine-and-six.
As soon as I got the focus of it I gasped:
"Where the deuce did you get that?"
"I had it all along," he said, "but I seen at the pub that you had the show to chew a lug, so I thought we'd save it—nine-and-sixpences ain't picked up every day."
Then he leaned over on his left, went down into the other pocket, and came up with a piece of tobacco and half-a-sovereign.
My eyes bulged out.
"Where the blazes did you get that from?" I yelled.
"That," he said, "was the half-quid you give me last night. Half-quids ain't to be thrown away these times; and, besides, I had a down on Stiffner, and meant to pay him out; I reckoned that if we wasn't sharp enough to take him down we hadn't any business to be supposed to be alive. Anyway, I guessed we'd do it; and so we did—and got a bottle of whisky into the bargain."
Then he leaned back, tired-like, against the log, and dredged his upper left-hand waistcoat-pocket, and brought up a sovereign wrapped in a pound note. Then he waited for me to speak; but I couldn't. I got my mouth open, but couldn't get it shut again.
"I got that out of the mugs last night, but I thought that we'd want it, and might as well keep it. Quids ain't so easily picked up, nowadays; and, besides, we need stuff more'n Stiffner does, and so—"
"And did he know you had the stuff?" I gasped.
"Oh, yes, that's the fun of it. That's what made him so excited. He was in the parlour all the time I was playing. But we might as well have a drink!
"We did. I wanted it."
Bill turned in by-and-by, and looked like a sleeping innocent in the moonlight. I sat up late, and smoked, and thought hard, and watched Bill, and turned in, and thought till near daylight, and then went to sleep, and had a nightmare about it. I dreamed I chased Stiffner forty miles to buy his pub, and that Bill turned out to be his nephew.
Bill divvied up all right, and gave me half a crown over, but I didn't travel with him long after that. He was a decent young fellow as far as chaps go, and a good mate as far as mates go; but he was too far ahead for a peaceful, easy-going chap like me. It would have worn me out in a year to keep up to him.
P.S.—The name of this should have been: 'Bill and Stiffner (thirdly, Jim)'
WHEN THE SUN WENT DOWN
Jack Drew sat on the edge of the shaft, with his foot in the loop and one hand on the rope, ready to descend. His elder brother, Tom, stood at one end of the windlass and the third mate at the other. Jack paused before swinging off, looked up at his brother, and impulsively held out his hand:
"You ain't going to let the sun go down, are you, Tom?"
But Tom kept both hands on the windlass-handle and said nothing.
They lowered him to the bottom, and Tom shouldered his pick in silence and walked off to the tent. He found the tin plate, pint-pot, and things set ready for him on the rough slab table under the bush shed. The tea was made, the cabbage and potatoes strained and placed in a billy near the fire. He found the fried bacon and steak between two plates in the camp-oven. He sat down to the table but he could not eat. He felt mean. The inexperience and hasty temper of his brother had caused the quarrel between them that morning; but then Jack admitted that, and apologized when he first tried to make it up.
Tom moved round uneasily and tried to smoke: he could not get Jack's last appeal out of his ears—"You ain't going to let the sun go down, Tom?"
Tom found himself glancing at the sun. It was less than two hours from sunset. He thought of the words of the old Hebrew—or Chinese—poet; he wasn't religious, and the authorship didn't matter. The old poet's words began to haunt him "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath—Let not the sun go down upon your wrath."
The line contains good, sound advice; for quick-tempered men are often the most sensitive, and when they let the sun go down on the aforesaid wrath that quality is likely to get them down and worry them during the night.
Tom started to go to the claim, but checked himself, and sat down and tried to draw comfort from his pipe. He understood his brother thoroughly, but his brother never understood him—that was where the trouble was. Presently he got thinking how Jack would worry about the quarrel and have no heart for his work. Perhaps he was fretting over it now, all alone by himself, down at the end of the damp, dark drive. Tom had a lot of the old woman about him, in spite of his unsociable ways and brooding temper.
He had almost made up his mind to go below again, on some excuse, when his mate shouted from the top of the shaft:
"Tom! Tom! For Christ's sake come here!"
Tom's heart gave a great thump, and he ran like a kangaroo to the shaft. All the diggers within hearing were soon on the spot. They saw at a glance what had happened. It was madness to sink without timber in such treacherous ground. The sides of the shaft were closing in. Tom sprang forward and shouted through the crevice:
"To the face, Jack! To the face, for your life!"
"The old Workings!" he cried, turning to the diggers. "Bring a fan and tools. We'll dig him out."
A few minutes later a fan was rigged over a deserted shaft close by, where fortunately the windlass had been left for bailing purposes, and men were down in the old drive. Tom knew that he and his mates had driven very close to the old workings.
He knelt in the damp clay before the face and worked like a madman; he refused to take turn about, and only dropped the pick to seize a shovel in his strong hands, and snatch back the loose clay from under his feet; he reckoned that he had six or, perhaps, eight feet to drive, and he knew that the air could not last long in the new drive—even if that had not already fallen in and crushed his brother. Great drops of perspiration stood out on Tom's forehead, and his breath began to come in choking sobs, but he still struck strong, savage blows into the clay before him, and the drive lengthened quickly. Once he paused a moment to listen, and then distinctly heard a sound as of a tool or stone being struck against the end of the new drive. Jack was safe!
Tom dug on until the clay suddenly fell away from his pick and left a hole, about the size of a plate, in the "face" before him. "Thank God!" said a hoarse, strained voice at the other side.
"All right, Jack!"
"Yes, old man; you are just in time; I've hardly got room to stand in, and I'm nearly smothered." He was crouching against the "face" of the new drive.
Tom dropped his pick and fell back against the man behind him.
"Oh, God! my back!" he cried.
Suddenly he struggled to his knees, and then fell forward on his hand and dragged himself close to the hole in the end of the drive.
"Jack!" he gasped, "Jack!"
"Right, old man; what's the matter?"
"I've hurt my heart, Jack!—Put your hand—quick!... The sun's going down."
Jack's hand came out through the hole, Tom gripped it, and then fell with his face in the damp clay.
They half carried, half dragged him from the drive, for the roof was low and they were obliged to stoop. They took him to the shaft and sent him up, lashed to the rope.
A few blows of the pick, and Jack scrambled from his prison and went to the surface, and knelt on the grass by the body of his brother. The diggers gathered round and took off their hats. And the sun went down.
THE MAN WHO FORGOT
"Well, I dunno," said Tom Marshall—known as "The Oracle"—"I've heerd o' sich cases before: they ain't commin, but—I've heerd o' sich cases before," and he screwed up the left side of his face whilst he reflectively scraped his capacious right ear with the large blade of a pocket-knife.
They were sitting at the western end of the rouseabouts' hut, enjoying the breeze that came up when the sun went down, and smoking and yarning. The "case" in question was a wretchedly forlorn-looking specimen of the swag-carrying clan whom a boundary-rider had found wandering about the adjacent plain, and had brought into the station. He was a small, scraggy man, painfully fair, with a big, baby-like head, vacant watery eyes, long thin hairy hands, that felt like pieces of damp seaweed, and an apologetic cringe-and-look-up-at-you manner. He professed to have forgotten who he was and all about himself.
The Oracle was deeply interested in this case, as indeed he was in anything else that "looked curious." He was a big, simple-minded shearer, with more heart than brains, more experience than sense, and more curiosity than either. It was a wonder that he had not profited, even indirectly, by the last characteristic. His heart was filled with a kind of reverential pity for anyone who was fortunate or unfortunate enough to possess an "affliction;" and amongst his mates had been counted a deaf man, a blind man, a poet, and a man who "had rats." Tom had dropped across them individually, when they were down in the world, and had befriended them, and studied them with great interest—especially the poet; and they thought kindly of him, and were grateful—except the individual with the rats, who reckoned Tom had an axe to grind—that he, in fact, wanted to cut his (Rat's) liver out as a bait for Darling cod—and so renounced the mateship.
It was natural, then, for The Oracle to take the present case under his wing. He used his influence with the boss to get the Mystery on "picking up," and studied him in spare time, and did his best to assist the poor hushed memory, which nothing the men could say or do seemed able to push further back than the day on which the stranger "kind o' woke up" on the plain, and found a swag beside him. The swag had been prospected and fossicked for a clue, but yielded none. The chaps were sceptical at first, and inclined to make fun of the Mystery; but Tom interfered, and intimated that if they were skunks enough to chyack or try on any of their "funny business" with a "pore afflicted chap," he (Tom) would be obliged to "perform." Most of the men there had witnessed Tom's performance, and no one seemed ambitious to take a leading part in it. They preferred to be in the audience.
"Yes," reflected The Oracle, "it's a curious case, and I dare say some of them big doctors, like Morell Mackenzie, would be glad to give a thousand or two to get holt on a case like this."
"Done," cried Mitchell, the goat of the shed. "I'll go halves!—or stay, let's form a syndicate and work the Mystery."
Some of the rouseabouts laughed, but the joke fell as flat with Tom as any other joke.
"The worst of it is," said the Mystery himself, in the whine that was natural to him, and with a timid side look up at Tom—"the worst of it is I might be a lord or duke, and don't know anything about it. I might be a rich man, with a lot of houses and money. I might be a lord."
The chaps guffawed.
"Wot'yer laughing at?" asked Mitchell. "I don't see anything unreasonable about it; he might be a lord as far as looks go. I've seen two."
"Yes," reflected Tom, ignoring Mitchell, "there's something in that; but then again, you see, you might be Jack the Ripper. Better let it slide, mate; let the dead past bury its dead. Start fresh with a clean sheet."
"But I don't even know my name, or whether I'm married or not," whined the outcast. "I might have a good wife and little ones."
"Better keep on forgetting, mate," Mitchell said, "and as for a name, that's nothing. I don't know mine, and I've had eight. There's plenty good names knocking round. I knew a man named Jim Smith that died. Take his name, it just suits you, and he ain't likely to call round for it; if he does, you can say you was born with it."
So they called him Smith, and soon began to regard him as a harmless lunatic and to take no notice of his eccentricities. Great interest was taken in the case for a time, and even Mitchell put in his oar and tried all sorts of ways to assist the Mystery in his weak, helpless, and almost pitiful endeavours to recollect who he was. A similar case happened to appear in the papers at this time, and the thing caught on to such an extent that The Oracle was moved to impart some advice from his store of wisdom.
"I wouldn't think too much over it if I was you," said he to Mitchell, "hundreds of sensible men went mad over that there Tichborne case who didn't have anything to do with it, but just through thinking on it; and you're ratty enough already, Jack. Let it alone and trust me to find out who's Smith just as soon as ever we cut out."
Meanwhile Smith ate, worked, and slept, and borrowed tobacco and forgot to return it—which was made a note of. He talked freely about his case when asked, but if he addressed anyone, it was with the air of the timid but good young man, who is fully aware of the extent and power of this world's wickedness, and stands somewhat in awe of it, but yet would beg you to favour a humble worker in the vineyard by kindly accepting a tract, and passing it on to friends after perusal.
One Saturday morning, about a fortnight before cut out, The Oracle came late to his stand, and apparently with something on his mind. Smith hadn't turned up, and the next rouseabout was doing his work, to the mutual dissatisfaction of all parties immediately concerned.
"Did you see anything of Smith?" asked Mitchell of The Oracle. "Seems to have forgot to get up this morning."
Tom looked disheartened and disappointed. "He's forgot again," said he, slowly and impressively.
"Forgot what? We know he's blessed well forgot to come to graft."
"He's forgot again," repeated Tom. "He woke up this morning and wanted to know who he was and where he was." Comments.
"Better give him best, Oracle," said Mitchell presently. "If he can't find out who he is and where he is, the boss'll soon find it out for him."
"No," said Tom, "when I take a thing in hand I see it through."
This was also characteristic of the boss-over-the-board, though in another direction. He went down to the but and inquired for Smith.
"Why ain't you at work?"
"Who am I, sir? Where am I?" whined Smith. "Can you please tell me who I am and where I am?"
The boss drew a long breath and stared blankly at the Mystery; then he erupted.
"Now, look here!" he howled, "I don't know who the gory sheol you are, except that you're a gory lunatic, and what's more, I don't care a damn. But I'll soon show you where you are! You can call up at the store and get your cheque, and soon as you blessed well like; and then take a walk, and don't forget to take your lovely swag with you."
The matter was discussed at the dinner-table. The Oracle swore that it was a cruel, mean way to treat a "pore afflicted chap," and cursed the boss. Tom's admirers cursed in sympathy, and trouble seemed threatening, when the voice of Mitchell was heard to rise in slow, deliberate tones over the clatter of cutlery and tin plates.
"I wonder," said the voice, "I wonder whether Smith forgot his cheque?"
It was ascertained that Smith hadn't.
There was some eating and thinking done. Soon Mitchell's voice was heard again, directed at The Oracle.
It said "Do you keep any vallabels about your bunk, Oracle?"
Tom looked hard at Mitchell. "Why?"
"Oh, nothin': only I think it wouldn't be a bad idea for you to look at your bunk and see whether Smith forgot."
The chaps grew awfully interested. They fixed their eyes on Tom, and he looked with feeling from one face to another; then he pushed his plate back, and slowly extracted his long legs from between the stool and the table. He climbed to his bunk, and carefully reviewed the ingredients of his swag. Smith hadn't forgot.
When The Oracle's face came round again there was in it a strange expression which a close study would have revealed to be more of anger than of sorrow, but that was not all. It was an expression such as a man might wear who is undergoing a terrible operation, without chloroform, but is determined not to let a whimper escape him. Tom didn't swear, and by that token they guessed how mad he was. 'Twas a rough shed, with a free and lurid vocabulary, but had they all sworn in chorus, with One-eyed Bogan as lead, it would not have done justice to Tom's feelings—and they realized this.
The Oracle took down his bridle from its peg, and started for the door amid a respectful and sympathetic silence, which was only partly broken once by the voice of Mitchell, which asked in an awed whisper:
"Going ter ketch yer horse, Tom?" The Oracle nodded, and passed on; he spake no word—he was too full for words.
Five minutes passed, and then the voice of Mitchell was heard again, uninterrupted by the clatter of tinware. It said in impressive tones:
"It would not be a bad idea for some of you chaps that camp in the bunks along there, to have a look at your things. Scotty's bunk is next to Tom's."
Scotty shot out of his place as if a snake had hold of his leg, starting a plank in the table and upsetting three soup plates. He reached for his bunk like a drowning man clutching at a plank, and tore out the bedding. Again, Smith hadn't forgot.
Then followed a general overhaul, and it was found in most cases that Smith had remembered. The pent-up reservoir of blasphemy burst forth.
The Oracle came up with Smith that night at the nearest shanty, and found that he had forgotten again, and in several instances, and was forgetting some more under the influence of rum and of the flattering interest taken in his case by a drunken Bachelor of Arts who happened to be at the pub. Tom came in quietly from the rear, and crooked his finger at the shanty-keeper. They went apart from the rest, and talked together a while very earnestly. Then they secretly examined Smith's swag, the core of which was composed of Tom's and his mate's valuables.
Then The Oracle stirred up Smith's recollections and departed.
Smith was about again in a couple of weeks. He was damaged somewhat physically, but his memory was no longer impaired.
One of the hungriest cleared roads in New South Wales runs to within a couple of miles of Hungerford, and stops there; then you strike through the scrub to the town. There is no distant prospect of Hungerford—you don't see the town till you are quite close to it, and then two or three white-washed galvanized-iron roofs start out of the mulga.
They say that a past Ministry commenced to clear the road from Bourke, under the impression that Hungerford was an important place, and went on, with the blindness peculiar to governments, till they got to within two miles of the town. Then they ran short of rum and rations, and sent a man on to get them, and make inquiries. The member never came back, and two more were sent to find him—or Hungerford. Three days later the two returned in an exhausted condition, and submitted a motion of want-of-confidence, which was lost. Then the whole House went on and was lost also. Strange to relate, that Government was never missed.
However, we found Hungerford and camped there for a day. The town is right on the Queensland border, and an interprovincial rabbit-proof fence—with rabbits on both sides of it—runs across the main street.
This fence is a standing joke with Australian rabbits—about the only joke they have out there, except the memory of Pasteur and poison and inoculation. It is amusing to go a little way out of town, about sunset, and watch them crack Noah's Ark rabbit jokes about that fence, and burrow under and play leap-frog over it till they get tired. One old buck rabbit sat up and nearly laughed his ears off at a joke of his own about that fence. He laughed so much that he couldn't get away when I reached for him. I could hardly eat him for laughing. I never saw a rabbit laugh before; but I've seen a 'possum do it.
Hungerford consists of two houses and a humpy in New South Wales, and five houses in Queensland. Characteristically enough, both the pubs are in Queensland. We got a glass of sour yeast at one and paid sixpence for it—we had asked for English ale.
The post office is in New South Wales, and the police-barracks in Bananaland. The police cannot do anything if there's a row going on across the street in New South Wales, except to send to Brisbane and have an extradition warrant applied for; and they don't do much if there's a row in Queensland. Most of the rows are across the border, where the pubs are.
At least, I believe that's how it is, though the man who told me might have been a liar. Another man said he was a liar, but then he might have been a liar himself—a third person said he was one. I heard that there was a fight over it, but the man who told me about the fight might not have been telling the truth.
One part of the town swears at Brisbane when things go wrong, and the other part curses Sydney.
The country looks as though a great ash-heap had been spread out there, and mulga scrub and firewood planted—and neglected. The country looks just as bad for a hundred miles round Hungerford, and beyond that it gets worse—a blasted, barren wilderness that doesn't even howl. If it howled it would be a relief.
I believe that Bourke and Wills found Hungerford, and it's a pity they did; but, if I ever stand by the graves of the men who first travelled through this country, when there were neither roads nor stations, nor tanks, nor bores, nor pubs, I'll—I'll take my hat off. There were brave men in the land in those days.
It is said that the explorers gave the district its name chiefly because of the hunger they found there, which has remained there ever since. I don't know where the "ford" comes in—there's nothing to ford, except in flood-time. Hungerthirst would have been better. The town is supposed to be situated on the banks of a river called the Paroo, but we saw no water there, except what passed for it in a tank. The goats and sheep and dogs and the rest of the population drink there. It is dangerous to take too much of that water in a raw state.
Except in flood-time you couldn't find the bed of the river without the aid of a spirit-level and a long straight-edge. There is a Custom-house against the fence on the northern side. A pound of tea often costs six shillings on that side, and you can get a common lead pencil for fourpence at the rival store across the street in the mother province. Also, a small loaf of sour bread sells for a shilling at the humpy aforementioned. Only about sixty per cent of the sugar will melt.
We saw one of the storekeepers give a dead-beat swagman five shillings' worth of rations to take him on into Queensland. The storekeepers often do this, and put it down on the loss side of their books. I hope the recording angel listens, and puts it down on the right side of his book.
We camped on the Queensland side of the fence, and after tea had a yarn with an old man who was minding a mixed flock of goats and sheep; and we asked him whether he thought Queensland was better than New South Wales, or the other way about.
He scratched the back of his head, and thought a while, and hesitated like a stranger who is going to do you a favour at some personal inconvenience.
At last, with the bored air of a man who has gone through the same performance too often before, he stepped deliberately up to the fence and spat over it into New South Wales. After which he got leisurely through and spat back on Queensland.
"That's what I think of the blanky colonies!" he said.
He gave us time to become sufficiently impressed; then he said:
"And if I was at the Victorian and South Australian border I'd do the same thing."
He let that soak into our minds, and added: "And the same with West Australia—and—and Tasmania." Then he went away.
The last would have been a long spit—and he forgot Maoriland.
We heard afterwards that his name was Clancy and he had that day been offered a job droving at "twenty-five shillings a week and find your own horse." Also find your own horse feed and tobacco and soap and other luxuries, at station prices. Moreover, if you lost your own horse you would have to find another, and if that died or went astray you would have to find a third—or forfeit your pay and return on foot. The boss drover agreed to provide flour and mutton—when such things were procurable.
Consequently, Clancy's unfavourable opinion of the colonies.
My mate and I sat down on our swags against the fence to talk things over. One of us was very deaf. Presently a black tracker went past and looked at us, and returned to the pub. Then a trooper in Queensland uniform came along and asked us what the trouble was about, and where we came from and were going, and where we camped. We said we were discussing private business, and he explained that he thought it was a row, and came over to see. Then he left us, and later on we saw him sitting with the rest of the population on a bench under the hotel veranda. Next morning we rolled up our swags and left Hungerford to the north-west.
A CAMP-FIRE YARN
"This girl," said Mitchell, continuing a yarn to his mate, "was about the ugliest girl I ever saw, except one, and I'll tell you about her directly. The old man had a carpenter's shop fixed up in a shed at the back of his house, and he used to work there pretty often, and sometimes I'd come over and yarn with him. One day I was sitting on the end of the bench, and the old man was working away, and Mary was standing there too, all three of us yarning—she mostly came poking round where I was if I happened to be on the premises—or at least I thought so—and we got yarning about getting married, and the old cove said he'd get married again if the old woman died.
"'You get married again!' said Mary. 'Why, father, you wouldn't get anyone to marry you—who'd have you?'
"'Well,' he said, 'I bet I'll get someone sooner than you, anyway. You don't seem to be able to get anyone, and it's pretty near time you thought of settlin' down and gettin' married. I wish someone would have you.'
"He hit her pretty hard there, but it served her right. She got as good as she gave. She looked at me and went all colours, and then she went back to her washtub.
"She was mighty quiet at tea-time—she seemed hurt a lot, and I began to feel sorry I'd laughed at the old man's joke, for she was really a good, hard-working girl, and you couldn't help liking her.
"So after tea I went out to her in the kitchen, where she was washing up, to try and cheer her up a bit. She'd scarcely speak at first, except to say 'Yes' or 'No', and kept her face turned away from me; and I could see that she'd been crying. I began to feel sorry for her and mad at the old man, and I started to comfort her. But I didn't go the right way to work about it. I told her that she mustn't take any notice of the old cove, as he didn't mean half he said. But she seemed to take it harder than ever, and at last I got so sorry for her that I told her that I'd have her if she'd have me."
"And what did she say?" asked Mitchell's mate, after a pause.
"She said she wouldn't have me at any price!"
The mate laughed, and Mitchell grinned his quiet grin.
"Well, this set me thinking," he continued. "I always knew I was a dashed ugly cove, and I began to wonder whether any girl would really have me; and I kept on it till at last I made up my mind to find out and settle the matter for good—or bad.
"There was another farmer's daughter living close by, and I met her pretty often coming home from work, and sometimes I had a yarn with her. She was plain, and no mistake: Mary was a Venus alongside of her. She had feet like a Lascar, and hands about ten sizes too large for her, and a face like that camel—only red; she walked like a camel, too. She looked like a ladder with a dress on, and she didn't know a great A from a corner cupboard.
"Well, one evening I met her at the sliprails, and presently I asked her, for a joke, if she'd marry me. Mind you, I never wanted to marry her; I was only curious to know whether any girl would have me.
"She turned away her face and seemed to hesitate, and I was just turning away and beginning to think I was a dashed hopeless case, when all of a sudden she fell up against me and said she'd be my wife.... And it wasn't her fault that she wasn't."
"What did she do?"
"Do! What didn't she do? Next day she went down to our place when I was at work, and hugged and kissed mother and the girls all round, and cried, and told mother that she'd try and be a dutiful daughter to her. Good Lord! You should have seen the old woman and the girls when I came home.
"Then she let everyone know that Bridget Page was engaged to Jack Mitchell, and told her friends that she went down on her knees every night and thanked the Lord for getting the love of a good man. Didn't the fellows chyack me, though! My sisters were raving mad about it, for their chums kept asking them how they liked their new sister, and when it was going to come off, and who'd be bridesmaids and best man, and whether they weren't surprised at their brother Jack's choice; and then I'd gammon at home that it was all true.
"At last the place got too hot for me. I got sick of dodging that girl. I sent a mate of mine to tell her that it was all a joke, and that I was already married in secret; but she didn't see it, then I cleared, and got a job in Newcastle, but had to leave there when my mates sent me the office that she was coming. I wouldn't wonder but what she is humping her swag after me now. In fact, I thought you was her in disguise when I set eyes on you first.... You needn't get mad about it; I don't mean to say that you're quite as ugly as she was, because I never saw a man that was—or a woman either. Anyway, I'll never ask a woman to marry me again unless I'm ready to marry her."
Then Mitchell's mate told a yarn.
"I knew a case once something like the one you were telling me about; the landlady of a hash-house where I was stopping in Albany told me. There was a young carpenter staying there, who'd run away from Sydney from an old maid who wanted to marry him. He'd cleared from the church door, I believe. He was scarcely more'n a boy—about nineteen—and a soft kind of a fellow, something like you, only good-looking—that is, he was passable. Well, as soon as the woman found out where he'd gone, she came after him. She turned up at the boarding-house one Saturday morning when Bobbie was at work; and the first thing she did was to rent a double room from the landlady and buy some cups and saucers to start housekeeping with. When Bobbie came home he just gave her one look and gave up the game.
"'Get your dinner, Bobbie,' she said, after she'd slobbered over him a bit, 'and then get dressed and come with me and get married!'
"She was about three times his age, and had a face like that picture of a lady over Sappho Smith's letters in the Sydney Bulletin.
"Well, Bobbie went with her like a—like a lamb; never gave a kick or tried to clear."
"Hold on," said Mitchell, "did you ever shear lambs?"
"Never mind. Let me finish the yarn. Bobbie was married; but she wouldn't let him out of her sight all that afternoon, and he had to put up with her before them all. About bedtime he sneaked out and started along the passage to his room that he shared with two or three mates. But she'd her eye on him.
"'Bobbie, Bobbie!' she says, 'Where are you going?'
"'I'm going to bed,' said Bobbie. 'Good night!'
"'Bobbie, Bobbie,' she says, sharply. 'That isn't our room; this is our room, Bobbie. Come back at once! What do you mean, Bobbie? Do you hear me, Bobbie?'
"So Bobbie came back, and went in with the scarecrow. Next morning she was first at the breakfast table, in a dressing-gown and curl papers. And when they were all sitting down Bobbie sneaked in, looking awfully sheepish, and sidled for his chair at the other end of the table. But she'd her eyes on him.
"'Bobbie, Bobbie!' she said, 'Come and kiss me, Bobbie!'" And he had to do it in front of them all.
"But I believe she made him a good wife."
HIS COUNTRY-AFTER ALL
The Blenheim coach was descending into the valley of the Avetere River—pronounced Aveterry—from the saddle of Taylor's Pass. Across the river to the right, the grey slopes and flats stretched away to the distant sea from a range of tussock hills. There was no native bush there; but there were several groves of imported timber standing wide apart—-sentinel-like—seeming lonely and striking in their isolation.
"Grand country, New Zealand, eh?" said a stout man with a brown face, grey beard, and grey eyes, who sat between the driver and another passenger on the box.
"You don't call this grand country!" exclaimed the other passenger, who claimed to be, and looked like, a commercial traveller, and might have been a professional spieler—quite possibly both. "Why, it's about the poorest country in New Zealand! You ought to see some of the country in the North Island—Wairarapa and Napier districts, round about Pahiatua. I call this damn poor country."
"Well, I reckon you wouldn't, if you'd ever been in Australia—back in New South Wales. The people here don't seem to know what a grand country they've got. You say this is the worst, eh? Well, this would make an Australian cockatoo's mouth water-the worst of New Zealand would."
"I always thought Australia was all good country," mused the driver—a flax-stick. "I always thought—"
"Good country!" exclaimed the man with the grey beard, in a tone of disgust. "Why, it's only a mongrel desert, except some bits round the coast. The worst dried-up and God-forsaken country I was ever in."
There was a silence, thoughtful on the driver's part, and aggressive on that of the stranger.
"I always thought," said the driver, reflectively, after the pause—"I always thought Australia was a good country," and he placed his foot on the brake.
They let him think. The coach descended the natural terraces above the river bank, and pulled up at the pub.
"So you're a native of Australia?" said the bagman to the grey-beard, as the coach went on again.
"Well, I suppose I am. Anyway, I was born there. That's the main thing I've got against the darned country."
"How long did you stay there?"
"Till I got away," said the stranger. Then, after a think, he added, "I went away first when I was thirty-five—went to the islands. I swore I'd never go back to Australia again; but I did. I thought I had a kind of affection for old Sydney. I knocked about the blasted country for five or six years, and then I cleared out to 'Frisco. I swore I'd never go back again, and I never will."
"But surely you'll take a run over and have a look at old Sydney and those places, before you go back to America, after getting so near?"
"What the blazes do I want to have a look at the blamed country for?" snapped the stranger, who had refreshed considerably. "I've got nothing to thank Australia for—except getting out of it. It's the best country to get out of that I was ever in."
"Oh, well, I only thought you might have had some friends over there," interposed the traveller in an injured tone.
"Friends! That's another reason. I wouldn't go back there for all the friends and relations since Adam. I had more than quite enough of it while I was there. The worst and hardest years of my life were spent in Australia. I might have starved there, and did do it half my time. I worked harder and got less in my own country in five years than I ever did in any other in fifteen"—he was getting mixed—"and I've been in a few since then. No, Australia is the worst country that ever the Lord had the sense to forget. I mean to stick to the country that stuck to me, when I was starved out of my own dear native land—and that country is the United States of America. What's Australia? A big, thirsty, hungry wilderness, with one or two cities for the convenience of foreign speculators, and a few collections of humpies, called towns—also for the convenience of foreign speculators; and populated mostly by mongrel sheep, and partly by fools, who live like European slaves in the towns, and like dingoes in the bush—who drivel about 'democracy,' and yet haven't any more spunk than to graft for a few Cockney dudes that razzle-dazzle most of the time in Paris. Why, the Australians haven't even got the grit to claim enough of their own money to throw a few dams across their watercourses, and so make some of the interior fit to live in. America's bad enough, but it was never so small as that.... Bah! The curse of Australia is sheep, and the Australian war cry is Baa!"
"Well, you're the first man I ever heard talk as you've been doing about his own country," said the bagman, getting tired and impatient of being sat on all the time. "'Lives there a man with a soul so dead, who never said—to—to himself'... I forget the darned thing."
He tried to remember it. The man whose soul was dead cleared his throat for action, and the driver—for whom the bagman had shouted twice as against the stranger's once—took the opportunity to observe that he always thought a man ought to stick up for his own country.
The stranger ignored him and opened fire on the bagman. He proceeded to prove that that was all rot—that patriotism was the greatest curse on earth; that it had been the cause of all war; that it was the false, ignorant sentiment which moved men to slave, starve, and fight for the comfort of their sluggish masters; that it was the enemy of universal brotherhood, the mother of hatred, murder, and slavery, and that the world would never be any better until the deadly poison, called the sentiment of patriotism, had been "educated" out of the stomachs of the people. "Patriotism!" he exclaimed scornfully. "My country! The darned fools; the country never belonged to them, but to the speculators, the absentees, land-boomers, swindlers, gangs of thieves—the men the patriotic fools starve and fight for—their masters. Ba-a!"
The opposition collapsed.
The coach had climbed the terraces on the south side of the river, and was bowling along on a level stretch of road across the elevated flat.
"What trees are those?" asked the stranger, breaking the aggressive silence which followed his unpatriotic argument, and pointing to a grove ahead by the roadside. "They look as if they've been planted there. There ain't been a forest here surely?"
"Oh, they're some trees the Government imported," said the bagman, whose knowledge on the subject was limited. "Our own bush won't grow in this soil."
"But it looks as if anything else would—"
Here the stranger sniffed once by accident, and then several times with interest.
It was a warm morning after rain. He fixed his eyes on those trees.
They didn't look like Australian gums; they tapered to the tops, the branches were pretty regular, and the boughs hung in shipshape fashion. There was not the Australian heat to twist the branches and turn the leaves.
"Why!" exclaimed the stranger, still staring and sniffing hard. "Why, dang me if they ain't (sniff) Australian gums!"
"Yes," said the driver, flicking his horses, "they are."
"Blanky (sniff) blanky old Australian gums!" exclaimed the ex-Australian, with strange enthusiasm.
"They're not old," said the driver; "they're only young trees. But they say they don't grow like that in Australia—'count of the difference in the climate. I always thought—"
But the other did not appear to hear him; he kept staring hard at the trees they were passing. They had been planted in rows and cross-rows, and were coming on grandly.
There was a rabbit trapper's camp amongst those trees; he had made a fire to boil his billy with gum-leaves and twigs, and it was the scent of that fire which interested the exile's nose, and brought a wave of memories with it.
"Good day, mate!" he shouted suddenly to the rabbit trapper, and to the astonishment of his fellow passengers.
"Good day, mate!" The answer came back like an echo—it seemed to him—from the past.
Presently he caught sight of a few trees which had evidently been planted before the others—as an experiment, perhaps—and, somehow, one of them had grown after its own erratic native fashion—gnarled and twisted and ragged, and could not be mistaken for anything else but an Australian gum.
"A thunderin' old blue-gum!" ejaculated the traveller, regarding the tree with great interest.
He screwed his neck to get a last glimpse, and then sat silently smoking and gazing straight ahead, as if the past lay before him—and it was before him.
"Ah, well!" he said, in explanation of a long meditative silence on his part; "ah, well—them saplings—the smell of them gum-leaves set me thinking." And he thought some more.
"Well, for my part," said a tourist in the coach, presently, in a condescending tone, "I can't see much in Australia. The bally colonies are—"
"Oh, that be damned!" snarled the Australian-born—they had finished the second flask of whisky. "What do you Britishers know about Australia? She's as good as England, anyway."
"Well, I suppose you'll go straight back to the States as soon as you've done your business in Christchurch," said the bagman, when near their journey's end they had become confidential.
"Well, I dunno. I reckon I'll just take a run over to Australia first. There's an old mate of mine in business in Sydney, and I'd like to have a yarn with him."
A DAY ON A SELECTION
The scene is a small New South Wales western selection, the holder whereof is native-English. His wife is native-Irish. Time, Sunday, about 8 a.m. A used-up looking woman comes from the slab-and-bark house, turns her face towards the hillside, and shrieks:
No response, and presently she draws a long breath and screams again:
A faint echo comes from far up the siding where Tommy's presence is vaguely indicated by half a dozen cows moving slowly—very slowly—down towards the cow-yard.
The woman retires. Ten minutes later she comes out again and screams:
"Y-e-e-a-a-s-s!" very passionately and shrilly.
"Ain't you goin' to bring those cows down to-day?"
"Y-e-e-a-a-s-s-s!—carn't yer see I'm comin'?"
A boy is seen to run wildly along the siding and hurl a missile at a feeding cow; the cow runs forward a short distance through the trees, and then stops to graze again while the boy stirs up another milker.
An hour goes by.
The rising Australian generation is represented by a thin, lanky youth of about fifteen. He is milking. The cow-yard is next the house, and is mostly ankle-deep in slush. The boy drives a dusty, discouraged-looking cow into the bail, and pins her head there; then he gets tackle on to her right hind leg, hauls it back, and makes it fast to the fence. There are eleven cows, but not one of them can be milked out of the bail—chiefly because their teats are sore. The selector does not know what makes the teats sore, but he has an unquestioning faith in a certain ointment, recommended to him by a man who knows less about cows than he does himself, which he causes to be applied at irregular intervals—leaving the mode of application to the discretion of his son. Meanwhile the teats remain sore.
Having made the cow fast, the youngster cautiously takes hold of the least sore teat, yanks it suddenly, and dodges the cow's hock. When he gets enough milk to dip his dirty hands in, he moistens the teats, and things go on more smoothly. Now and then he relieves the monotony of his occupation by squirting at the eye of a calf which is dozing in the adjacent pen. Other times he milks into his mouth. Every time the cow kicks, a burr or a grass-seed or a bit of something else falls into the milk, and the boy drowns these things with a well-directed stream—on the principle that what's out of sight is out of mind.
Sometimes the boy sticks his head into the cow's side, hangs on by a teat, and dozes, while the bucket, mechanically gripped between his knees, sinks lower and lower till it rests on the ground. Likely as not he'll doze on until his mother's shrill voice startles him with an inquiry as to whether he intends to get that milking done to-day; other times he is roused by the plunging of the cow, or knocked over by a calf which has broken through a defective panel in the pen. In the latter case the youth gets tackle on to the calf, detaches its head from the teat with the heel of his boot, and makes it fast somewhere. Sometimes the cow breaks or loosens the leg-rope and gets her leg into the bucket and then the youth clings desperately to the pail and hopes she'll get her hoof out again without spilling the milk. Sometimes she does, more often she doesn't—it depends on the strength of the boy and the pail and on the strategy of the former. Anyway, the boy will lam the cow down with a jagged yard shovel, let her out, and bail up another.
When he considers that he has finished milking he lets the cows out with their calves and carries the milk down to the dairy, where he has a heated argument with his mother, who—judging from the quantity of milk—has reason to believe that he has slummed some of the milkers. This he indignantly denies, telling her she knows very well the cows are going dry.
The dairy is built of rotten box bark—though there is plenty of good stringy-bark within easy distance—and the structure looks as if it wants to lie down and is only prevented by three crooked props on the leaning side; more props will soon be needed in the rear for the dairy shows signs of going in that direction. The milk is set in dishes made of kerosene-tins, cut in halves, which are placed on bark shelves fitted round against the walls. The shelves are not level and the dishes are brought to a comparatively horizontal position by means of chips and bits of bark, inserted under the lower side. The milk is covered by soiled sheets of old newspapers supported on sticks laid across the dishes. This protection is necessary, because the box bark in the roof has crumbled away and left fringed holes—also because the fowls roost up there. Sometimes the paper sags, and the cream may have to be scraped off an article on dairy farming.
The selector's wife removes the newspapers, and reveals a thick, yellow layer of rich cream, plentifully peppered with dust that has drifted in somehow. She runs a forefinger round the edges of the cream to detach it from the tin, wipes her finger in her mouth, and skims. If the milk and cream are very thick she rolls the cream over like a pancake with her fingers, and lifts it out in sections. The thick milk is poured into a slop-bucket, for the pigs and calves, the dishes are "cleaned"—by the aid of a dipper full of warm water and a rag—and the wife proceeds to set the morning's milk. Tom holds up the doubtful-looking rag that serves as a strainer while his mother pours in the milk. Sometimes the boy's hands get tired and he lets some of the milk run over, and gets into trouble; but it doesn't matter much, for the straining-cloth has several sizable holes in the middle.