Part 2 out of 5
I was scared now. His things were some toys and rubbish he'd brought
from Gulgong, and I remembered, the last time he had convulsions, he took
all his toys and a kitten to bed with him. And `'night-night' and `daddy'
were two-year-old language to Jim. I'd thought he'd forgotten those words --
he seemed to be going back.
`Are you quite warm enough, Jim?'
I started to walk up and down -- I always did this when I was extra worried.
I was frightened now about Jim, though I tried to hide the fact from myself.
Presently he called me again.
`What is it, Jim?'
`Take the blankets off me, fahver -- Jim's sick!' (They'd been teaching him
to say father.)
I was scared now. I remembered a neighbour of ours had a little girl die
(she swallowed a pin), and when she was going she said --
`Take the blankets off me, muvver -- I'm dying.'
And I couldn't get that out of my head.
I threw back a fold of the 'possum rug, and felt Jim's head --
he seemed cool enough.
`Where do you feel bad, sonny?'
No answer for a while; then he said suddenly, but in a voice
as if he were talking in his sleep --
`Put my boots on, please, daddy. I want to go home to muvver!'
I held his hand, and comforted him for a while; then he slept --
in a restless, feverish sort of way.
I got the bucket I used for water for the horses and stood it over the fire;
I ran to the creek with the big kerosene-tin bucket and got it
full of cold water and stood it handy. I got the spade
(we always carried one to dig wheels out of bogs in wet weather)
and turned a corner of the tarpaulin back, dug a hole, and trod the tarpaulin
down into the hole, to serve for a bath, in case of the worst.
I had a tin of mustard, and meant to fight a good round for Jim,
if death came along.
I stooped in under the tail-board of the waggon and felt Jim.
His head was burning hot, and his skin parched and dry as a bone.
Then I lost nerve and started blundering backward and forward
between the waggon and the fire, and repeating what I'd heard Mary say
the last time we fought for Jim: `God! don't take my child!
God! don't take my boy!' I'd never had much faith in doctors,
but, my God! I wanted one then. The nearest was fifteen miles away.
I threw back my head and stared up at the branches, in desperation;
and -- Well, I don't ask you to take much stock in this,
though most old Bushmen will believe anything of the Bush by night;
and -- Now, it might have been that I was all unstrung,
or it might have been a patch of sky outlined in the gently moving branches,
or the blue smoke rising up. But I saw the figure of a woman, all white,
come down, down, nearly to the limbs of the trees, point on up the main road,
and then float up and up and vanish, still pointing. I thought Mary was dead!
Then it flashed on me ----
Four or five miles up the road, over the `saddle', was an old shanty
that had been a half-way inn before the Great Western Line
got round as far as Dubbo and took the coach traffic off those old Bush roads.
A man named Brighten lived there. He was a selector; did a little farming,
and as much sly-grog selling as he could. He was married --
but it wasn't that: I'd thought of them, but she was a childish, worn-out,
spiritless woman, and both were pretty `ratty' from hardship and loneliness --
they weren't likely to be of any use to me. But it was this:
I'd heard talk, among some women in Gulgong, of a sister of Brighten's wife
who'd gone out to live with them lately: she'd been a hospital matron
in the city, they said; and there were yarns about her. Some said
she got the sack for exposing the doctors -- or carrying on with them --
I didn't remember which. The fact of a city woman going out to live
in such a place, with such people, was enough to make talk among women
in a town twenty miles away, but then there must have been something extra
about her, else Bushmen wouldn't have talked and carried her name so far;
and I wanted a woman out of the ordinary now. I even reasoned this way,
thinking like lightning, as I knelt over Jim between the big back wheels
of the waggon.
I had an old racing mare that I used as a riding hack,
following the team. In a minute I had her saddled and bridled;
I tied the end of a half-full chaff-bag, shook the chaff into each end
and dumped it on to the pommel as a cushion or buffer for Jim;
I wrapped him in a blanket, and scrambled into the saddle with him.
The next minute we were stumbling down the steep bank,
clattering and splashing over the crossing, and struggling up
the opposite bank to the level. The mare, as I told you, was an old racer,
but broken-winded -- she must have run without wind after the first half mile.
She had the old racing instinct in her strong, and whenever I rode in company
I'd have to pull her hard else she'd race the other horse or burst.
She ran low fore and aft, and was the easiest horse I ever rode.
She ran like wheels on rails, with a bit of a tremble now and then
-- like a railway carriage -- when she settled down to it.
The chaff-bag had slipped off, in the creek I suppose,
and I let the bridle-rein go and held Jim up to me like a baby the whole way.
Let the strongest man, who isn't used to it, hold a baby in one position
for five minutes -- and Jim was fairly heavy. But I never felt
the ache in my arms that night -- it must have gone before I was in
a fit state of mind to feel it. And at home I'd often growled
about being asked to hold the baby for a few minutes.
I could never brood comfortably and nurse a baby at the same time.
It was a ghostly moonlight night. There's no timber in the world
so ghostly as the Australian Bush in moonlight -- or just about daybreak.
The all-shaped patches of moonlight falling between ragged, twisted boughs;
the ghostly blue-white bark of the `white-box' trees;
a dead naked white ring-barked tree, or dead white stump starting out
here and there, and the ragged patches of shade and light on the road
that made anything, from the shape of a spotted bullock to a naked corpse
laid out stark. Roads and tracks through the Bush made by moonlight --
every one seeming straighter and clearer than the real one:
you have to trust to your horse then. Sometimes the naked white trunk
of a red stringy-bark tree, where a sheet of bark had been taken off,
would start out like a ghost from the dark Bush. And dew or frost
glistening on these things, according to the season. Now and again
a great grey kangaroo, that had been feeding on a green patch
down by the road, would start with a `thump-thump', and away up the siding.
The Bush seemed full of ghosts that night -- all going my way --
and being left behind by the mare. Once I stopped to look at Jim:
I just sat back and the mare `propped' -- she'd been a stock-horse,
and was used to `cutting-out'. I felt Jim's hands and forehead;
he was in a burning fever. I bent forward, and the old mare
settled down to it again. I kept saying out loud -- and Mary and me
often laughed about it (afterwards): `He's limp yet! -- Jim's limp yet!'
(the words seemed jerked out of me by sheer fright) -- `He's limp yet!'
till the mare's feet took it up. Then, just when I thought
she was doing her best and racing her hardest, she suddenly started forward,
like a cable tram gliding along on its own and the grip put on suddenly.
It was just what she'd do when I'd be riding alone and a strange horse
drew up from behind -- the old racing instinct. I FELT the thing too!
I felt as if a strange horse WAS there! And then --
the words just jerked out of me by sheer funk -- I started saying,
`Death is riding to-night! . . . Death is racing to-night! . . .
Death is riding to-night!' till the hoofs took that up.
And I believe the old mare felt the black horse at her side
and was going to beat him or break her heart.
I was mad with anxiety and fright: I remember I kept saying,
`I'll be kinder to Mary after this! I'll take more notice of Jim!'
and the rest of it.
I don't know how the old mare got up the last `pinch'.
She must have slackened pace, but I never noticed it:
I just held Jim up to me and gripped the saddle with my knees --
I remember the saddle jerked from the desperate jumps of her till I thought
the girth would go. We topped the gap and were going down into a gully
they called Dead Man's Hollow, and there, at the back of a ghostly clearing
that opened from the road where there were some black-soil springs,
was a long, low, oblong weatherboard-and-shingle building,
with blind, broken windows in the gable-ends, and a wide steep verandah roof
slanting down almost to the level of the window-sills -- there was something
sinister about it, I thought -- like the hat of a jail-bird
slouched over his eyes. The place looked both deserted and haunted.
I saw no light, but that was because of the moonlight outside.
The mare turned in at the corner of the clearing to take a short cut
to the shanty, and, as she struggled across some marshy ground,
my heart kept jerking out the words, `It's deserted! They've gone away!
It's deserted!' The mare went round to the back and pulled up
between the back door and a big bark-and-slab kitchen. Some one shouted
from inside --
`It's me. Joe Wilson. I want your sister-in-law -- I've got the boy --
he's sick and dying!'
Brighten came out, pulling up his moleskins. `What boy?' he asked.
`Here, take him,' I shouted, `and let me get down.'
`What's the matter with him?' asked Brighten, and he seemed to hang back.
And just as I made to get my leg over the saddle, Jim's head went back
over my arm, he stiffened, and I saw his eyeballs turned up and glistening
in the moonlight.
I felt cold all over then and sick in the stomach -- but CLEAR-HEADED
in a way: strange, wasn't it? I don't know why I didn't get down
and rush into the kitchen to get a bath ready. I only felt as if
the worst had come, and I wished it were over and gone.
I even thought of Mary and the funeral.
Then a woman ran out of the house -- a big, hard-looking woman.
She had on a wrapper of some sort, and her feet were bare.
She laid her hand on Jim, looked at his face, and then snatched him from me
and ran into the kitchen -- and me down and after her.
As great good luck would have it, they had some dirty clothes on to boil
in a kerosene tin -- dish-cloths or something.
Brighten's sister-in-law dragged a tub out from under the table,
wrenched the bucket off the hook, and dumped in the water,
dish-cloths and all, snatched a can of cold water from a corner,
dashed that in, and felt the water with her hand -- holding Jim up to her hip
all the time -- and I won't say how he looked. She stood him in the tub
and started dashing water over him, tearing off his clothes
between the splashes.
`Here, that tin of mustard -- there on the shelf!' she shouted to me.
She knocked the lid off the tin on the edge of the tub,
and went on splashing and spanking Jim.
It seemed an eternity. And I? Why, I never thought clearer in my life.
I felt cold-blooded -- I felt as if I'd like an excuse to go outside
till it was all over. I thought of Mary and the funeral --
and wished that that was past. All this in a flash, as it were.
I felt that it would be a great relief, and only wished the funeral
was months past. I felt -- well, altogether selfish.
I only thought for myself.
Brighten's sister-in-law splashed and spanked him hard -- hard enough
to break his back I thought, and -- after about half an hour it seemed --
the end came: Jim's limbs relaxed, he slipped down into the tub,
and the pupils of his eyes came down. They seemed dull and expressionless,
like the eyes of a new baby, but he was back for the world again.
I dropped on the stool by the table.
`It's all right,' she said. `It's all over now. I wasn't going
to let him die.' I was only thinking, `Well it's over now,
but it will come on again. I wish it was over for good. I'm tired of it.'
She called to her sister, Mrs Brighten, a washed-out, helpless little fool
of a woman, who'd been running in and out and whimpering all the time --
`Here, Jessie! bring the new white blanket off my bed. And you, Brighten,
take some of that wood off the fire, and stuff something in that hole there
to stop the draught.'
Brighten -- he was a nuggety little hairy man with no expression to be seen
for whiskers -- had been running in with sticks and back logs
from the wood-heap. He took the wood out, stuffed up the crack,
and went inside and brought out a black bottle -- got a cup from the shelf,
and put both down near my elbow.
Mrs Brighten started to get some supper or breakfast, or whatever it was,
ready. She had a clean cloth, and set the table tidily. I noticed that
all the tins were polished bright (old coffee- and mustard-tins and the like,
that they used instead of sugar-basins and tea-caddies and salt-cellars),
and the kitchen was kept as clean as possible. She was all right
at little things. I knew a haggard, worked-out Bushwoman
who put her whole soul -- or all she'd got left -- into polishing old tins
till they dazzled your eyes.
I didn't feel inclined for corned beef and damper, and post-and-rail tea.
So I sat and squinted, when I thought she wasn't looking,
at Brighten's sister-in-law. She was a big woman, her hands and feet
were big, but well-shaped and all in proportion -- they fitted her.
She was a handsome woman -- about forty I should think.
She had a square chin, and a straight thin-lipped mouth --
straight save for a hint of a turn down at the corners,
which I fancied (and I have strange fancies) had been a sign of weakness
in the days before she grew hard. There was no sign of weakness now.
She had hard grey eyes and blue-black hair. She hadn't spoken yet.
She didn't ask me how the boy took ill or I got there, or who or what I was --
at least not until the next evening at tea-time.
She sat upright with Jim wrapped in the blanket and laid across her knees,
with one hand under his neck and the other laid lightly on him,
and she just rocked him gently.
She sat looking hard and straight before her, just as I've seen
a tired needlewoman sit with her work in her lap, and look away
back into the past. And Jim might have been the work in her lap,
for all she seemed to think of him. Now and then she knitted her forehead
Suddenly she glanced round and said -- in a tone as if I was her husband
and she didn't think much of me --
`Why don't you eat something?'
I drank some tea, and sneaked another look at her. I was beginning
to feel more natural, and wanted Jim again, now that the colour
was coming back into his face, and he didn't look like an unnaturally
stiff and staring corpse. I felt a lump rising, and wanted to thank her.
I sneaked another look at her.
She was staring straight before her, -- I never saw a woman's face
change so suddenly -- I never saw a woman's eyes so haggard and hopeless.
Then her great chest heaved twice, I heard her draw a long shuddering breath,
like a knocked-out horse, and two great tears dropped from her wide open eyes
down her cheeks like rain-drops on a face of stone. And in the firelight
they seemed tinged with blood.
I looked away quick, feeling full up myself. And presently
(I hadn't seen her look round) she said --
`Go to bed.'
`Beg pardon?' (Her face was the same as before the tears.)
`Go to bed. There's a bed made for you inside on the sofa.'
`But -- the team -- I must ----'
`The team. I left it at the camp. I must look to it.'
`Oh! Well, Brighten will ride down and bring it up in the morning --
or send the half-caste. Now you go to bed, and get a good rest.
The boy will be all right. I'll see to that.'
I went out -- it was a relief to get out -- and looked to the mare.
Brighten had got her some corn* and chaff in a candle-box,
but she couldn't eat yet. She just stood or hung resting one hind-leg
and then the other, with her nose over the box -- and she sobbed.
I put my arms round her neck and my face down on her ragged mane,
and cried for the second time since I was a boy.
* Maize or Indian corn -- wheat is never called corn in Australia.
As I started to go in I heard Brighten's sister-in-law say,
suddenly and sharply --
`Take THAT away, Jessie.'
And presently I saw Mrs Brighten go into the house with the black bottle.
The moon had gone behind the range. I stood for a minute
between the house and the kitchen and peeped in through the kitchen window.
She had moved away from the fire and sat near the table.
She bent over Jim and held him up close to her and rocked herself to and fro.
I went to bed and slept till the next afternoon. I woke just in time to hear
the tail-end of a conversation between Jim and Brighten's sister-in-law.
He was asking her out to our place and she promising to come.
`And now,' says Jim, `I want to go home to "muffer" in "The Same Ol' Fling".'
`Oh! "The Same Old Thing", -- the waggon.'
The rest of the afternoon I poked round the gullies with old Brighten,
looking at some `indications' (of the existence of gold) he had found.
It was no use trying to `pump' him concerning his sister-in-law;
Brighten was an `old hand', and had learned in the old Bush-ranging
and cattle-stealing days to know nothing about other people's business.
And, by the way, I noticed then that the more you talk and listen
to a bad character, the more you lose your dislike for him.
I never saw such a change in a woman as in Brighten's sister-in-law
that evening. She was bright and jolly, and seemed at least
ten years younger. She bustled round and helped her sister to get tea ready.
She rooted out some old china that Mrs Brighten had stowed away somewhere,
and set the table as I seldom saw it set out there. She propped Jim up
with pillows, and laughed and played with him like a great girl.
She described Sydney and Sydney life as I'd never heard it described before;
and she knew as much about the Bush and old digging days as I did.
She kept old Brighten and me listening and laughing till nearly midnight.
And she seemed quick to understand everything when I talked.
If she wanted to explain anything that we hadn't seen, she wouldn't say
that it was `like a -- like a' -- and hesitate (you know what I mean);
she'd hit the right thing on the head at once. A squatter with a very round,
flaming red face and a white cork hat had gone by in the afternoon:
she said it was `like a mushroom on the rising moon.'
She gave me a lot of good hints about children.
But she was quiet again next morning. I harnessed up, and she dressed Jim
and gave him his breakfast, and made a comfortable place for him on the load
with the 'possum rug and a spare pillow. She got up on the wheel
to do it herself. Then was the awkward time. I'd half start to speak to her,
and then turn away and go fixing up round the horses, and then make
another false start to say good-bye. At last she took Jim up in her arms
and kissed him, and lifted him on the wheel; but he put his arms
tight round her neck, and kissed her -- a thing Jim seldom did with anybody,
except his mother, for he wasn't what you'd call an affectionate child, --
he'd never more than offer his cheek to me, in his old-fashioned way.
I'd got up the other side of the load to take him from her.
`Here, take him,' she said.
I saw his mouth twitching as I lifted him. Jim seldom cried nowadays --
no matter how much he was hurt. I gained some time fixing Jim comfortable.
`You'd better make a start,' she said. `You want to get home early
with that boy.'
I got down and went round to where she stood. I held out my hand
and tried to speak, but my voice went like an ungreased waggon wheel,
and I gave it up, and only squeezed her hand.
`That's all right,' she said; then tears came into her eyes,
and she suddenly put her hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek.
`You be off -- you're only a boy yourself. Take care of that boy;
be kind to your wife, and take care of yourself.'
`Will you come to see us?'
`Some day,' she said.
I started the horses, and looked round once more. She was looking up at Jim,
who was waving his hand to her from the top of the load.
And I saw that haggard, hungry, hopeless look come into her eyes
in spite of the tears.
I smoothed over that story and shortened it a lot, when I told it to Mary --
I didn't want to upset her. But, some time after I brought Jim home
from Gulgong, and while I was at home with the team for a few days,
nothing would suit Mary but she must go over to Brighten's shanty
and see Brighten's sister-in-law. So James drove her over one morning
in the spring-cart: it was a long way, and they stayed
at Brighten's overnight and didn't get back till late the next afternoon.
I'd got the place in a pig-muck, as Mary said, `doing for' myself,
and I was having a snooze on the sofa when they got back.
The first thing I remember was some one stroking my head and kissing me,
and I heard Mary saying, `My poor boy! My poor old boy!'
I sat up with a jerk. I thought that Jim had gone off again.
But it seems that Mary was only referring to me. Then she started
to pull grey hairs out of my head and put 'em in an empty match-box --
to see how many she'd get. She used to do this when she felt a bit soft.
I don't know what she said to Brighten's sister-in-law
or what Brighten's sister-in-law said to her, but Mary was extra gentle
for the next few days.
`Water Them Geraniums'.
I. A Lonely Track.
The time Mary and I shifted out into the Bush from Gulgong
to `settle on the land' at Lahey's Creek.
I'd sold the two tip-drays that I used for tank-sinking and dam-making,
and I took the traps out in the waggon on top of a small load
of rations and horse-feed that I was taking to a sheep-station
out that way. Mary drove out in the spring-cart. You remember
we left little Jim with his aunt in Gulgong till we got settled down.
I'd sent James (Mary's brother) out the day before, on horseback,
with two or three cows and some heifers and steers and calves we had,
and I'd told him to clean up a bit, and make the hut
as bright and cheerful as possible before Mary came.
We hadn't much in the way of furniture. There was the four-poster
cedar bedstead that I bought before we were married, and Mary was
rather proud of it: it had `turned' posts and joints that bolted together.
There was a plain hardwood table, that Mary called her `ironing-table',
upside down on top of the load, with the bedding and blankets
between the legs; there were four of those common black kitchen-chairs --
with apples painted on the hard board backs -- that we used for the parlour;
there was a cheap batten sofa with arms at the ends and turned rails
between the uprights of the arms (we were a little proud of the turned rails);
and there was the camp-oven, and the three-legged pot, and pans and buckets,
stuck about the load and hanging under the tail-board of the waggon.
There was the little Wilcox & Gibb's sewing-machine -- my present to Mary
when we were married (and what a present, looking back to it!).
There was a cheap little rocking-chair, and a looking-glass and some pictures
that were presents from Mary's friends and sister. She had her
mantel-shelf ornaments and crockery and nick-nacks packed away,
in the linen and old clothes, in a big tub made of half a cask,
and a box that had been Jim's cradle. The live stock was a cat in one box,
and in another an old rooster, and three hens that formed cliques,
two against one, turn about, as three of the same sex will do
all over the world. I had my old cattle-dog, and of course a pup on the load
-- I always had a pup that I gave away, or sold and didn't get paid for,
or had `touched' (stolen) as soon as it was old enough. James had
his three spidery, sneaking, thieving, cold-blooded kangaroo-dogs with him.
I was taking out three months' provisions in the way of ration-sugar,
tea, flour, and potatoes, &c.
I started early, and Mary caught up to me at Ryan's Crossing on Sandy Creek,
where we boiled the billy and had some dinner.
Mary bustled about the camp and admired the scenery and talked too much,
for her, and was extra cheerful, and kept her face turned from me
as much as possible. I soon saw what was the matter.
She'd been crying to herself coming along the road. I thought it was all
on account of leaving little Jim behind for the first time. She told me
that she couldn't make up her mind till the last moment to leave him,
and that, a mile or two along the road, she'd have turned back for him,
only that she knew her sister would laugh at her. She was always
terribly anxious about the children.
We cheered each other up, and Mary drove with me the rest of the way
to the creek, along the lonely branch track, across native-apple-tree flats.
It was a dreary, hopeless track. There was no horizon,
nothing but the rough ashen trunks of the gnarled and stunted trees
in all directions, little or no undergrowth, and the ground,
save for the coarse, brownish tufts of dead grass, as bare as the road,
for it was a dry season: there had been no rain for months,
and I wondered what I should do with the cattle if there wasn't more grass
on the creek.
In this sort of country a stranger might travel for miles
without seeming to have moved, for all the difference there is in the scenery.
The new tracks were `blazed' -- that is, slices of bark cut off
from both sides of trees, within sight of each other, in a line,
to mark the track until the horses and wheel-marks made it plain.
A smart Bushman, with a sharp tomahawk, can blaze a track as he rides.
But a Bushman a little used to the country soon picks out
differences amongst the trees, half unconsciously as it were,
and so finds his way about.
Mary and I didn't talk much along this track -- we couldn't have
heard each other very well, anyway, for the `clock-clock' of the waggon
and the rattle of the cart over the hard lumpy ground.
And I suppose we both began to feel pretty dismal as the shadows lengthened.
I'd noticed lately that Mary and I had got out of the habit of talking
to each other -- noticed it in a vague sort of way that irritated me
(as vague things will irritate one) when I thought of it. But then I thought,
`It won't last long -- I'll make life brighter for her by-and-by.'
As we went along -- and the track seemed endless -- I got brooding, of course,
back into the past. And I feel now, when it's too late, that Mary
must have been thinking that way too. I thought of my early boyhood,
of the hard life of `grubbin'' and `milkin'' and `fencin'' and `ploughin''
and `ring-barkin'', &c., and all for nothing. The few months
at the little bark-school, with a teacher who couldn't spell.
The cursed ambition or craving that tortured my soul as a boy --
ambition or craving for -- I didn't know what for! For something
better and brighter, anyhow. And I made the life harder by reading at night.
It all passed before me as I followed on in the waggon,
behind Mary in the spring-cart. I thought of these old things
more than I thought of her. She had tried to help me to better things.
And I tried too -- I had the energy of half-a-dozen men when I saw a road
clear before me, but shied at the first check. Then I brooded,
or dreamed of making a home -- that one might call a home -- for Mary --
some day. Ah, well! ----
And what was Mary thinking about, along the lonely, changeless miles?
I never thought of that. Of her kind, careless, gentleman father, perhaps.
Of her girlhood. Of her homes -- not the huts and camps she lived in with me.
Of our future? -- she used to plan a lot, and talk a good deal of our future
-- but not lately. These things didn't strike me at the time -- I was so deep
in my own brooding. Did she think now -- did she begin to feel now
that she had made a great mistake and thrown away her life,
but must make the best of it? This might have roused me, had I thought of it.
But whenever I thought Mary was getting indifferent towards me,
I'd think, `I'll soon win her back. We'll be sweethearts again --
when things brighten up a bit.'
It's an awful thing to me, now I look back to it, to think how far apart
we had grown, what strangers we were to each other. It seems, now,
as though we had been sweethearts long years before, and had parted,
and had never really met since.
The sun was going down when Mary called out --
`There's our place, Joe!'
She hadn't seen it before, and somehow it came new and with a shock to me,
who had been out here several times. Ahead, through the trees to the right,
was a dark green clump of the oaks standing out of the creek,
darker for the dead grey grass and blue-grey bush on the barren ridge
in the background. Across the creek (it was only a deep, narrow gutter --
a water-course with a chain of water-holes after rain),
across on the other bank, stood the hut, on a narrow flat
between the spur and the creek, and a little higher than this side.
The land was much better than on our old selection, and there was good soil
along the creek on both sides: I expected a rush of selectors out here soon.
A few acres round the hut was cleared and fenced in by a light two-rail fence
of timber split from logs and saplings. The man who took up this selection
left it because his wife died here.
It was a small oblong hut built of split slabs, and he had roofed it
with shingles which he split in spare times. There was no verandah,
but I built one later on. At the end of the house was a big
slab-and-bark shed, bigger than the hut itself, with a kitchen,
a skillion for tools, harness, and horse-feed, and a spare bedroom
partitioned off with sheets of bark and old chaff-bags.
The house itself was floored roughly, with cracks between the boards;
there were cracks between the slabs all round -- though he'd nailed
strips of tin, from old kerosene-tins, over some of them;
the partitioned-off bedroom was lined with old chaff-bags
with newspapers pasted over them for wall-paper. There was no ceiling,
calico or otherwise, and we could see the round pine rafters and battens,
and the under ends of the shingles. But ceilings make a hut hot
and harbour insects and reptiles -- snakes sometimes.
There was one small glass window in the `dining-room'
with three panes and a sheet of greased paper, and the rest
were rough wooden shutters. There was a pretty good cow-yard and calf-pen,
and -- that was about all. There was no dam or tank (I made one later on);
there was a water-cask, with the hoops falling off and the staves gaping,
at the corner of the house, and spouting, made of lengths of bent tin,
ran round under the eaves. Water from a new shingle roof is wine-red
for a year or two, and water from a stringy-bark roof is like tan-water
for years. In dry weather the selector had got his house water from a cask
sunk in the gravel at the bottom of the deepest water-hole in the creek.
And the longer the drought lasted, the farther he had to go down the creek
for his water, with a cask on a cart, and take his cows to drink,
if he had any. Four, five, six, or seven miles -- even ten miles to water
is nothing in some places.
James hadn't found himself called upon to do more than milk old `Spot'
(the grandmother cow of our mob), pen the calf at night,
make a fire in the kitchen, and sweep out the house with a bough.
He helped me unharness and water and feed the horses,
and then started to get the furniture off the waggon and into the house.
James wasn't lazy -- so long as one thing didn't last too long;
but he was too uncomfortably practical and matter-of-fact for me.
Mary and I had some tea in the kitchen. The kitchen was permanently furnished
with a table of split slabs, adzed smooth on top, and supported by four stakes
driven into the ground, a three-legged stool and a block of wood,
and two long stools made of half-round slabs (sapling trunks split in halves)
with auger-holes bored in the round side and sticks stuck into them for legs.
The floor was of clay; the chimney of slabs and tin; the fireplace
was about eight feet wide, lined with clay, and with a blackened pole across,
with sooty chains and wire hooks on it for the pots.
Mary didn't seem able to eat. She sat on the three-legged stool
near the fire, though it was warm weather, and kept her face turned from me.
Mary was still pretty, but not the little dumpling she had been:
she was thinner now. She had big dark hazel eyes that shone a little too much
when she was pleased or excited. I thought at times that there was something
very German about her expression; also something aristocratic
about the turn of her nose, which nipped in at the nostrils when she spoke.
There was nothing aristocratic about me. Mary was German in figure and walk.
I used sometimes to call her `Little Duchy' and `Pigeon Toes'.
She had a will of her own, as shown sometimes by the obstinate knit
in her forehead between the eyes.
Mary sat still by the fire, and presently I saw her chin tremble.
`What is it, Mary?'
She turned her face farther from me. I felt tired, disappointed,
and irritated -- suffering from a reaction.
`Now, what is it, Mary?' I asked; `I'm sick of this sort of thing.
Haven't you got everything you wanted? You've had your own way.
What's the matter with you now?'
`You know very well, Joe.'
`But I DON'T know,' I said. I knew too well.
She said nothing.
`Look here, Mary,' I said, putting my hand on her shoulder,
`don't go on like that; tell me what's the matter?'
`It's only this,' she said suddenly, `I can't stand this life here;
it will kill me!'
I had a pannikin of tea in my hand, and I banged it down on the table.
`This is more than a man can stand!' I shouted. `You know very well
that it was you that dragged me out here. You run me on to this!
Why weren't you content to stay in Gulgong?'
`And what sort of a place was Gulgong, Joe?' asked Mary quietly.
(I thought even then in a flash what sort of a place Gulgong was.
A wretched remnant of a town on an abandoned goldfield.
One street, each side of the dusty main road; three or four
one-storey square brick cottages with hip roofs of galvanised iron
that glared in the heat -- four rooms and a passage -- the police-station,
bank-manager and schoolmaster's cottages, &c. Half-a-dozen tumble-down
weather-board shanties -- the three pubs., the two stores,
and the post-office. The town tailing off into weather-board boxes
with tin tops, and old bark huts -- relics of the digging days --
propped up by many rotting poles. The men, when at home,
mostly asleep or droning over their pipes or hanging about
the verandah posts of the pubs., saying, `'Ullo, Bill!' or `'Ullo, Jim!' --
or sometimes drunk. The women, mostly hags, who blackened
each other's and girls' characters with their tongues,
and criticised the aristocracy's washing hung out on the line:
`And the colour of the clothes! Does that woman wash her clothes at all?
or only soak 'em and hang 'em out?' -- that was Gulgong.)
`Well, why didn't you come to Sydney, as I wanted you to?' I asked Mary.
`You know very well, Joe,' said Mary quietly.
(I knew very well, but the knowledge only maddened me.
I had had an idea of getting a billet in one of the big wool-stores
-- I was a fair wool expert -- but Mary was afraid of the drink.
I could keep well away from it so long as I worked hard in the Bush.
I had gone to Sydney twice since I met Mary, once before we were married,
and she forgave me when I came back; and once afterwards.
I got a billet there then, and was going to send for her in a month.
After eight weeks she raised the money somehow and came to Sydney
and brought me home. I got pretty low down that time.)
`But, Mary,' I said, `it would have been different this time.
You would have been with me. I can take a glass now or leave it alone.'
`As long as you take a glass there is danger,' she said.
`Well, what did you want to advise me to come out here for,
if you can't stand it? Why didn't you stay where you were?' I asked.
`Well,' she said, `why weren't you more decided?'
I'd sat down, but I jumped to my feet then.
`Good God!' I shouted, `this is more than any man can stand.
I'll chuck it all up! I'm damned well sick and tired of the whole thing.'
`So am I, Joe,' said Mary wearily.
We quarrelled badly then -- that first hour in our new home.
I know now whose fault it was.
I got my hat and went out and started to walk down the creek.
I didn't feel bitter against Mary -- I had spoken too cruelly to her
to feel that way. Looking back, I could see plainly
that if I had taken her advice all through, instead of now and again,
things would have been all right with me. I had come away and left her
crying in the hut, and James telling her, in a brotherly way,
that it was all her fault. The trouble was that I never liked
to `give in' or go half-way to make it up -- not half-way --
it was all the way or nothing with our natures.
`If I don't make a stand now,' I'd say, `I'll never be master.
I gave up the reins when I got married, and I'll have to get them back again.'
What women some men are! But the time came, and not many years after,
when I stood by the bed where Mary lay, white and still;
and, amongst other things, I kept saying, `I'll give in, Mary --
I'll give in,' and then I'd laugh. They thought that I was raving mad,
and took me from the room. But that time was to come.
As I walked down the creek track in the moonlight the question rang
in my ears again, as it had done when I first caught sight of the house
that evening --
`Why did I bring her here?'
I was not fit to `go on the land'. The place was only fit
for some stolid German, or Scotsman, or even Englishman and his wife,
who had no ambition but to bullock and make a farm of the place.
I had only drifted here through carelessness, brooding, and discontent.
I walked on and on till I was more than half-way to the only neighbours --
a wretched selector's family, about four miles down the creek, --
and I thought I'd go on to the house and see if they had any fresh meat.
A mile or two farther I saw the loom of the bark hut they lived in,
on a patchy clearing in the scrub, and heard the voice
of the selector's wife -- I had seen her several times:
she was a gaunt, haggard Bushwoman, and, I supposed,
the reason why she hadn't gone mad through hardship and loneliness
was that she hadn't either the brains or the memory to go
farther than she could see through the trunks of the `apple-trees'.
`You, An-nay!' (Annie.)
`Ye-es' (from somewhere in the gloom).
`Didn't I tell yer to water them geraniums!'
`Well, didn't I?'
`Don't tell lies or I'll break yer young back!'
`I did, I tell yer -- the water won't soak inter the ashes.'
Geraniums were the only flowers I saw grow in the drought out there.
I remembered this woman had a few dirty grey-green leaves
behind some sticks against the bark wall near the door;
and in spite of the sticks the fowls used to get in and scratch beds
under the geraniums, and scratch dust over them, and ashes were thrown there
-- with an idea of helping the flower, I suppose; and greasy dish-water,
when fresh water was scarce -- till you might as well try to water
a dish of fat.
Then the woman's voice again --
`You, Tom-may!' (Tommy.)
Silence, save for an echo on the ridge.
`Ye-e-s!' shrill shriek from across the creek.
`Didn't I tell you to ride up to them new people and see if they want
any meat or any think?' in one long screech.
`Well -- I karnt find the horse.'
`Well-find-it-first-think-in-the-morning and. And-don't-forgit-
I didn't feel like going to the woman's house that night.
I felt -- and the thought came like a whip-stroke on my heart --
that this was what Mary would come to if I left her here.
I turned and started to walk home, fast. I'd made up my mind.
I'd take Mary straight back to Gulgong in the morning --
I forgot about the load I had to take to the sheep station.
I'd say, `Look here, Girlie' (that's what I used to call her),
`we'll leave this wretched life; we'll leave the Bush for ever!
We'll go to Sydney, and I'll be a man! and work my way up.'
And I'd sell waggon, horses, and all, and go.
When I got to the hut it was lighted up. Mary had the only kerosene lamp,
a slush lamp, and two tallow candles going. She had got
both rooms washed out -- to James's disgust, for he had to move
the furniture and boxes about. She had a lot of things unpacked
on the table; she had laid clean newspapers on the mantel-shelf --
a slab on two pegs over the fireplace -- and put the little wooden clock
in the centre and some of the ornaments on each side, and was tacking
a strip of vandyked American oil-cloth round the rough edge of the slab.
`How does that look, Joe? We'll soon get things ship-shape.'
I kissed her, but she had her mouth full of tacks. I went out in the kitchen,
drank a pint of cold tea, and sat down.
Somehow I didn't feel satisfied with the way things had gone.
II. `Past Carin''.
Next morning things looked a lot brighter. Things always look brighter
in the morning -- more so in the Australian Bush, I should think,
than in most other places. It is when the sun goes down
on the dark bed of the lonely Bush, and the sunset flashes like a sea of fire
and then fades, and then glows out again, like a bank of coals,
and then burns away to ashes -- it is then that old things come home to one.
And strange, new-old things too, that haunt and depress you terribly,
and that you can't understand. I often think how, at sunset,
the past must come home to new-chum blacksheep, sent out to Australia
and drifted into the Bush. I used to think that they couldn't have
much brains, or the loneliness would drive them mad.
I'd decided to let James take the team for a trip or two.
He could drive alright; he was a better business man, and no doubt
would manage better than me -- as long as the novelty lasted;
and I'd stay at home for a week or so, till Mary got used to the place,
or I could get a girl from somewhere to come and stay with her.
The first weeks or few months of loneliness are the worst, as a rule,
I believe, as they say the first weeks in jail are -- I was never there.
I know it's so with tramping or hard graft*: the first day or two
are twice as hard as any of the rest. But, for my part,
I could never get used to loneliness and dulness; the last days
used to be the worst with me: then I'd have to make a move, or drink.
When you've been too much and too long alone in a lonely place,
you begin to do queer things and think queer thoughts -- provided you have
any imagination at all. You'll sometimes sit of an evening
and watch the lonely track, by the hour, for a horseman or a cart or some one
that's never likely to come that way -- some one, or a stranger,
that you can't and don't really expect to see. I think that most men
who have been alone in the Bush for any length of time --
and married couples too -- are more or less mad. With married couples it is
generally the husband who is painfully shy and awkward when strangers come.
The woman seems to stand the loneliness better, and can hold her own
with strangers, as a rule. It's only afterwards, and looking back,
that you see how queer you got. Shepherds and boundary-riders,
who are alone for months, MUST have their periodical spree,
at the nearest shanty, else they'd go raving mad. Drink is the only break
in the awful monotony, and the yearly or half-yearly spree
is the only thing they've got to look forward to: it keeps their minds fixed
on something definite ahead.
* `Graft', work. The term is now applied, in Australia, to all sorts of work,
from bullock-driving to writing poetry.
But Mary kept her head pretty well through the first months of loneliness.
WEEKS, rather, I should say, for it wasn't as bad as it might have been
farther up-country: there was generally some one came of a Sunday afternoon
-- a spring-cart with a couple of women, or maybe a family, --
or a lanky shy Bush native or two on lanky shy horses. On a quiet Sunday,
after I'd brought Jim home, Mary would dress him and herself -- just the same
as if we were in town -- and make me get up on one end and put on a collar
and take her and Jim for a walk along the creek. She said she wanted
to keep me civilised. She tried to make a gentleman of me for years,
but gave it up gradually.
Well. It was the first morning on the creek: I was greasing
the waggon-wheels, and James out after the horse, and Mary
hanging out clothes, in an old print dress and a big ugly white hood,
when I heard her being hailed as `Hi, missus!' from the front slip-rails.
It was a boy on horseback. He was a light-haired, very much freckled boy
of fourteen or fifteen, with a small head, but with limbs,
especially his bare sun-blotched shanks, that might have belonged
to a grown man. He had a good face and frank grey eyes.
An old, nearly black cabbage-tree hat rested on the butts of his ears,
turning them out at right angles from his head, and rather dirty
sprouts they were. He wore a dirty torn Crimean shirt;
and a pair of man's moleskin trousers rolled up above the knees,
with the wide waistband gathered under a greenhide belt.
I noticed, later on, that, even when he wore trousers short enough for him,
he always rolled 'em up above the knees when on horseback,
for some reason of his own: to suggest leggings, perhaps,
for he had them rolled up in all weathers, and he wouldn't have bothered
to save them from the sweat of the horse, even if that horse ever sweated.
He was seated astride a three-bushel bag thrown across the ridge-pole
of a big grey horse, with a coffin-shaped head, and built astern
something after the style of a roughly put up hip-roofed box-bark humpy.*
His colour was like old box-bark, too, a dirty bluish-grey;
and, one time, when I saw his rump looming out of the scrub, I really thought
it was some old shepherd's hut that I hadn't noticed there before.
When he cantered it was like the humpy starting off on its corner-posts.
* `Humpy', a rough hut.
`Are you Mrs Wilson?' asked the boy.
`Yes,' said Mary.
`Well, mother told me to ride acrost and see if you wanted anythink.
We killed lars' night, and I've fetched a piece er cow.'
`Piece of WHAT?' asked Mary.
He grinned, and handed a sugar-bag across the rail with something heavy
in the bottom of it, that nearly jerked Mary's arm out when she took it.
It was a piece of beef, that looked as if it had been cut off with a wood-axe,
but it was fresh and clean.
`Oh, I'm so glad!' cried Mary. She was always impulsive,
save to me sometimes. `I was just wondering where we were going to get
any fresh meat. How kind of your mother! Tell her I'm very much
obliged to her indeed.' And she felt behind her for a poor little purse
she had. `And now -- how much did your mother say it would be?'
The boy blinked at her, and scratched his head.
`How much will it be,' he repeated, puzzled. `Oh -- how much does it weigh
I-s'pose-yer-mean. Well, it ain't been weighed at all -- we ain't got
no scales. A butcher does all that sort of think. We just kills it,
and cooks it, and eats it -- and goes by guess. What won't keep
we salts down in the cask. I reckon it weighs about a ton by the weight of it
if yer wanter know. Mother thought that if she sent any more
it would go bad before you could scoff it. I can't see ----'
`Yes, yes,' said Mary, getting confused. `But what I want to know is,
how do you manage when you sell it?'
He glared at her, and scratched his head. `Sell it?
Why, we only goes halves in a steer with some one, or sells steers
to the butcher -- or maybe some meat to a party of fencers or surveyors,
or tank-sinkers, or them sorter people ----'
`Yes, yes; but what I want to know is, how much am I to send your mother
`How much what?'
`Money, of course, you stupid boy,' said Mary. `You seem a very stupid boy.'
Then he saw what she was driving at. He began to fling his heels convulsively
against the sides of his horse, jerking his body backward and forward
at the same time, as if to wind up and start some clockwork machinery
inside the horse, that made it go, and seemed to need repairing or oiling.
`We ain't that sorter people, missus,' he said. `We don't sell meat
to new people that come to settle here.' Then, jerking his thumb
contemptuously towards the ridges, `Go over ter Wall's if yer wanter buy meat;
they sell meat ter strangers.' (Wall was the big squatter over the ridges.)
`Oh!' said Mary, `I'm SO sorry. Thank your mother for me. She IS kind.'
`Oh, that's nothink. She said to tell yer she'll be up as soon as she can.
She'd have come up yisterday evening -- she thought yer'd feel lonely
comin' new to a place like this -- but she couldn't git up.'
The machinery inside the old horse showed signs of starting.
You almost heard the wooden joints CREAK as he lurched forward,
like an old propped-up humpy when the rotting props give way;
but at the sound of Mary's voice he settled back on his foundations again.
It must have been a very poor selection that couldn't afford
a better spare horse than that.
`Reach me that lump er wood, will yer, missus?' said the boy,
and he pointed to one of my `spreads' (for the team-chains)
that lay inside the fence. `I'll fling it back agin over the fence
when I git this ole cow started.'
`But wait a minute -- I've forgotten your mother's name,' said Mary.
He grabbed at his thatch impatiently. `Me mother -- oh! --
the old woman's name's Mrs Spicer. (Git up, karnt yer!)'
He twisted himself round, and brought the stretcher down
on one of the horse's `points' (and he had many) with a crack
that must have jarred his wrist.
`Do you go to school?' asked Mary. There was a three-days-a-week school
over the ridges at Wall's station.
`No!' he jerked out, keeping his legs going. `Me -- why I'm going on
fur fifteen. The last teacher at Wall's finished me.
I'm going to Queensland next month drovin'.' (Queensland border
was over three hundred miles away.)
`Finished you? How?' asked Mary.
`Me edgercation, of course! How do yer expect me to start this horse
when yer keep talkin'?'
He split the `spread' over the horse's point, threw the pieces over the fence,
and was off, his elbows and legs flinging wildly, and the old saw-stool
lumbering along the road like an old working bullock trying a canter.
That horse wasn't a trotter.
And next month he DID start for Queensland. He was a younger son
and a surplus boy on a wretched, poverty-stricken selection;
and as there was `northin' doin'' in the district, his father
(in a burst of fatherly kindness, I suppose) made him a present
of the old horse and a new pair of Blucher boots, and I gave him
an old saddle and a coat, and he started for the Never-Never Country.
And I'll bet he got there. But I'm doubtful if the old horse did.
Mary gave the boy five shillings, and I don't think he had anything more
except a clean shirt and an extra pair of white cotton socks.
`Spicer's farm' was a big bark humpy on a patchy clearing in the native
apple-tree scrub. The clearing was fenced in by a light `dog-legged' fence
(a fence of sapling poles resting on forks and X-shaped uprights),
and the dusty ground round the house was almost entirely covered
with cattle-dung. There was no attempt at cultivation
when I came to live on the creek; but there were old furrow-marks
amongst the stumps of another shapeless patch in the scrub near the hut.
There was a wretched sapling cow-yard and calf-pen, and a cow-bail
with one sheet of bark over it for shelter. There was no dairy to be seen,
and I suppose the milk was set in one of the two skillion rooms,
or lean-to's behind the hut, -- the other was `the boys' bedroom'.
The Spicers kept a few cows and steers, and had thirty or forty sheep.
Mrs Spicer used to drive down the creek once a-week, in her rickety
old spring-cart, to Cobborah, with butter and eggs. The hut was nearly
as bare inside as it was out -- just a frame of `round-timber'
(sapling poles) covered with bark. The furniture was permanent
(unless you rooted it up), like in our kitchen: a rough slab table
on stakes driven into the ground, and seats made the same way.
Mary told me afterwards that the beds in the bag-and-bark partitioned-off room
(`mother's bedroom') were simply poles laid side by side on cross-pieces
supported by stakes driven into the ground, with straw mattresses
and some worn-out bed-clothes. Mrs Spicer had an old patchwork quilt,
in rags, and the remains of a white one, and Mary said it was pitiful
to see how these things would be spread over the beds --
to hide them as much as possible -- when she went down there.
A packing-case, with something like an old print skirt draped round it,
and a cracked looking-glass (without a frame) on top, was the dressing-table.
There were a couple of gin-cases for a wardrobe. The boys' beds
were three-bushel bags stretched between poles fastened to uprights.
The floor was the original surface, tramped hard, worn uneven
with much sweeping, and with puddles in rainy weather where the roof leaked.
Mrs Spicer used to stand old tins, dishes, and buckets
under as many of the leaks as she could. The saucepans, kettles, and boilers
were old kerosene-tins and billies. They used kerosene-tins, too,
cut longways in halves, for setting the milk in. The plates and cups
were of tin; there were two or three cups without saucers,
and a crockery plate or two -- also two mugs, cracked and without handles,
one with `For a Good Boy' and the other with `For a Good Girl' on it;
but all these were kept on the mantel-shelf for ornament and for company.
They were the only ornaments in the house, save a little wooden clock
that hadn't gone for years. Mrs Spicer had a superstition
that she had `some things packed away from the children.'
The pictures were cut from old copies of the `Illustrated Sydney News'
and pasted on to the bark. I remember this, because I remembered, long ago,
the Spencers, who were our neighbours when I was a boy,
had the walls of their bedroom covered with illustrations
of the American Civil War, cut from illustrated London papers,
and I used to `sneak' into `mother's bedroom' with Fred Spencer
whenever we got the chance, and gloat over the prints.
I gave him a blade of a pocket-knife once, for taking me in there.
I saw very little of Spicer. He was a big, dark, dark-haired
and whiskered man. I had an idea that he wasn't a selector at all,
only a `dummy' for the squatter of the Cobborah run. You see,
selectors were allowed to take up land on runs, or pastoral leases.
The squatters kept them off as much as possible, by all manner of dodges
and paltry persecution. The squatter would get as much freehold
as he could afford, `select' as much land as the law allowed one man
to take up, and then employ dummies (dummy selectors) to take up bits of land
that he fancied about his run, and hold them for him.
Spicer seemed gloomy and unsociable. He was seldom at home.
He was generally supposed to be away shearin', or fencin', or workin'
on somebody's station. It turned out that the last six months he was away
it was on the evidence of a cask of beef and a hide with the brand cut out,
found in his camp on a fencing contract up-country, and which he and his mates
couldn't account for satisfactorily, while the squatter could.
Then the family lived mostly on bread and honey, or bread and treacle,
or bread and dripping, and tea. Every ounce of butter and every egg
was needed for the market, to keep them in flour, tea, and sugar.
Mary found that out, but couldn't help them much -- except by
`stuffing' the children with bread and meat or bread and jam
whenever they came up to our place -- for Mrs Spicer was proud with the pride
that lies down in the end and turns its face to the wall and dies.
Once, when Mary asked Annie, the eldest girl at home, if she was hungry,
she denied it -- but she looked it. A ragged mite she had with her
explained things. The little fellow said --
`Mother told Annie not to say we was hungry if yer asked;
but if yer give us anythink to eat, we was to take it an' say thenk yer,
`I wouldn't 'a' told yer a lie; but I thought Jimmy would split on me,
Mrs Wilson,' said Annie. `Thenk yer, Mrs Wilson.'
She was not a big woman. She was gaunt and flat-chested,
and her face was `burnt to a brick', as they say out there.
She had brown eyes, nearly red, and a little wild-looking at times,
and a sharp face -- ground sharp by hardship -- the cheeks drawn in.
She had an expression like -- well, like a woman who had been
very curious and suspicious at one time, and wanted to know
everybody's business and hear everything, and had lost all her curiosity,
without losing the expression or the quick suspicious movements of the head.
I don't suppose you understand. I can't explain it any other way.
She was not more than forty.
I remember the first morning I saw her. I was going up the creek
to look at the selection for the first time, and called at the hut
to see if she had a bit of fresh mutton, as I had none
and was sick of `corned beef'.
`Yes -- of -- course,' she said, in a sharp nasty tone, as if to say,
`Is there anything more you want while the shop's open?'
I'd met just the same sort of woman years before while I was carrying swag
between the shearing-sheds in the awful scrubs out west of the Darling river,
so I didn't turn on my heels and walk away. I waited for her to speak again.
`Come -- inside,' she said, `and sit down. I see you've got
the waggon outside. I s'pose your name's Wilson, ain't it?
You're thinkin' about takin' on Harry Marshfield's selection up the creek,
so I heard. Wait till I fry you a chop and boil the billy.'
Her voice sounded, more than anything else, like a voice
coming out of a phonograph -- I heard one in Sydney the other day --
and not like a voice coming out of her. But sometimes when she got outside
her everyday life on this selection she spoke in a sort of --
in a sort of lost groping-in-the-dark kind of voice.
She didn't talk much this time -- just spoke in a mechanical way
of the drought, and the hard times, `an' butter 'n' eggs bein' down,
an' her husban' an' eldest son bein' away, an' that makin' it
so hard for her.'
I don't know how many children she had. I never got a chance to count them,
for they were nearly all small, and shy as piccaninnies,
and used to run and hide when anybody came. They were mostly nearly as black
as piccaninnies too. She must have averaged a baby a-year for years --
and God only knows how she got over her confinements! Once, they said,
she only had a black gin with her. She had an elder boy and girl,
but she seldom spoke of them. The girl, `Liza', was `in service in Sydney.'
I'm afraid I knew what that meant. The elder son was `away'.
He had been a bit of a favourite round there, it seemed.
Some one might ask her, `How's your son Jack, Mrs Spicer?'
or, `Heard of Jack lately? and where is he now?'
`Oh, he's somewheres up country,' she'd say in the `groping' voice,
or `He's drovin' in Queenslan',' or `Shearin' on the Darlin' the last time
I heerd from him.' `We ain't had a line from him since -- les' see --
since Chris'mas 'fore last.'
And she'd turn her haggard eyes in a helpless, hopeless sort of way
towards the west -- towards `up-country' and `Out-Back'.*
* `Out-Back' is always west of the Bushman, no matter how far out he be.
The eldest girl at home was nine or ten, with a little old face
and lines across her forehead: she had an older expression than her mother.
Tommy went to Queensland, as I told you. The eldest son at home,
Bill (older than Tommy), was `a bit wild.'
I've passed the place in smothering hot mornings in December,
when the droppings about the cow-yard had crumpled to dust
that rose in the warm, sickly, sunrise wind, and seen that woman at work
in the cow-yard, `bailing up' and leg-roping cows, milking,
or hauling at a rope round the neck of a half-grown calf
that was too strong for her (and she was tough as fencing-wire),
or humping great buckets of sour milk to the pigs or the `poddies'
(hand-fed calves) in the pen. I'd get off the horse and give her
a hand sometimes with a young steer, or a cranky old cow
that wouldn't `bail-up' and threatened her with her horns. She'd say --
`Thenk yer, Mr Wilson. Do yer think we're ever goin' to have any rain?'
I've ridden past the place on bitter black rainy mornings in June or July,
and seen her trudging about the yard -- that was ankle-deep
in black liquid filth -- with an old pair of Blucher boots on,
and an old coat of her husband's, or maybe a three-bushel bag
over her shoulders. I've seen her climbing on the roof
by means of the water-cask at the corner, and trying to stop a leak
by shoving a piece of tin in under the bark. And when I'd fixed the leak --
`Thenk yer, Mr Wilson. This drop of rain's a blessin'!
Come in and have a dry at the fire and I'll make yer a cup of tea.'
And, if I was in a hurry, `Come in, man alive! Come in!
and dry yerself a bit till the rain holds up. Yer can't go home like this!
Yer'll git yer death o' cold.'
I've even seen her, in the terrible drought, climbing she-oaks and apple-trees
by a makeshift ladder, and awkwardly lopping off boughs
to feed the starving cattle.
`Jist tryin' ter keep the milkers alive till the rain comes.'
They said that when the pleuro-pneumonia was in the district
and amongst her cattle she bled and physicked them herself,
and fed those that were down with slices of half-ripe pumpkins
(from a crop that had failed).
`An', one day,' she told Mary, `there was a big barren heifer
(that we called Queen Elizabeth) that was down with the ploorer.
She'd been down for four days and hadn't moved, when one mornin'
I dumped some wheaten chaff -- we had a few bags that Spicer brought home --
I dumped it in front of her nose, an' -- would yer b'lieve me, Mrs Wilson? --
she stumbled onter her feet an' chased me all the way to the house!
I had to pick up me skirts an' run! Wasn't it redic'lus?'
They had a sense of the ridiculous, most of those poor sun-dried Bushwomen.
I fancy that that helped save them from madness.
`We lost nearly all our milkers,' she told Mary. `I remember one day
Tommy came running to the house and screamed: `Marther! [mother]
there's another milker down with the ploorer!' Jist as if it was great news.
Well, Mrs Wilson, I was dead-beat, an' I giv' in. I jist sat down
to have a good cry, and felt for my han'kerchief -- it WAS
a rag of a han'kerchief, full of holes (all me others was in the wash).
Without seein' what I was doin' I put me finger through one hole
in the han'kerchief an' me thumb through the other, and poked me fingers
into me eyes, instead of wipin' them. Then I had to laugh.'
There's a story that once, when the Bush, or rather grass, fires were out
all along the creek on Spicer's side, Wall's station hands
were up above our place, trying to keep the fire back from the boundary,
and towards evening one of the men happened to think of the Spicers:
they saw smoke down that way. Spicer was away from home,
and they had a small crop of wheat, nearly ripe, on the selection.
`My God! that poor devil of a woman will be burnt out, if she ain't already!'
shouted young Billy Wall. `Come along, three or four of you chaps' --
(it was shearing-time, and there were plenty of men on the station).
They raced down the creek to Spicer's, and were just in time
to save the wheat. She had her sleeves tucked up, and was
beating out the burning grass with a bough. She'd been at it for an hour,
and was as black as a gin, they said. She only said when they'd turned
the fire: `Thenk yer! Wait an' I'll make some tea.'
. . . . .
After tea the first Sunday she came to see us, Mary asked --
`Don't you feel lonely, Mrs Spicer, when your husband goes away?'
`Well -- no, Mrs Wilson,' she said in the groping sort of voice.
`I uster, once. I remember, when we lived on the Cudgeegong river --
we lived in a brick house then -- the first time Spicer
had to go away from home I nearly fretted my eyes out.
And he was only goin' shearin' for a month. I muster bin a fool;
but then we were only jist married a little while. He's been away
drovin' in Queenslan' as long as eighteen months at a time since then.
But' (her voice seemed to grope in the dark more than ever) `I don't mind, --
I somehow seem to have got past carin'. Besides -- besides,
Spicer was a very different man then to what he is now.
He's got so moody and gloomy at home, he hardly ever speaks.'
Mary sat silent for a minute thinking. Then Mrs Spicer roused herself --
`Oh, I don't know what I'm talkin' about! You mustn't take any notice of me,
Mrs Wilson, -- I don't often go on like this. I do believe I'm gittin'
a bit ratty at times. It must be the heat and the dulness.'
But once or twice afterwards she referred to a time `when Spicer was
a different man to what he was now.'
I walked home with her a piece along the creek. She said nothing
for a long time, and seemed to be thinking in a puzzled way.
Then she said suddenly --
`What-did-you-bring-her-here-for? She's only a girl.'
`I beg pardon, Mrs Spicer.'
`Oh, I don't know what I'm talkin' about! I b'lieve I'm gittin' ratty.
You mustn't take any notice of me, Mr Wilson.'
She wasn't much company for Mary; and often, when she had a child with her,
she'd start taking notice of the baby while Mary was talking,
which used to exasperate Mary. But poor Mrs Spicer couldn't help it,
and she seemed to hear all the same.
Her great trouble was that she `couldn't git no reg'lar schoolin'
for the children.'
`I learns 'em at home as much as I can. But I don't git a minute
to call me own; an' I'm ginerally that dead-beat at night
that I'm fit for nothink.'
Mary had some of the children up now and then later on,
and taught them a little. When she first offered to do so,
Mrs Spicer laid hold of the handiest youngster and said --
`There -- do you hear that? Mrs Wilson is goin' to teach yer,
an' it's more than yer deserve!' (the youngster had been `cryin''
over something). `Now, go up an' say "Thenk yer, Mrs Wilson."
And if yer ain't good, and don't do as she tells yer, I'll break every bone
in yer young body!'
The poor little devil stammered something, and escaped.
The children were sent by turns over to Wall's to Sunday-school.
When Tommy was at home he had a new pair of elastic-side boots,
and there was no end of rows about them in the family --
for the mother made him lend them to his sister Annie,
to go to Sunday-school in, in her turn. There were only
about three pairs of anyway decent boots in the family,
and these were saved for great occasions. The children were always
as clean and tidy as possible when they came to our place.
And I think the saddest and most pathetic sight on the face of God's earth
is the children of very poor people made to appear well: the broken
worn-out boots polished or greased, the blackened (inked) pieces of string
for laces; the clean patched pinafores over the wretched threadbare frocks.
Behind the little row of children hand-in-hand -- and no matter
where they are -- I always see the worn face of the mother.
Towards the end of the first year on the selection our little girl came.
I'd sent Mary to Gulgong for four months that time, and when she came back
with the baby Mrs Spicer used to come up pretty often.
She came up several times when Mary was ill, to lend a hand.
She wouldn't sit down and condole with Mary, or waste her time
asking questions, or talking about the time when she was ill herself.
She'd take off her hat -- a shapeless little lump of black straw
she wore for visiting -- give her hair a quick brush back
with the palms of her hands, roll up her sleeves, and set to work
to `tidy up'. She seemed to take most pleasure in sorting out
our children's clothes, and dressing them. Perhaps she used to dress her own
like that in the days when Spicer was a different man from what he was now.
She seemed interested in the fashion-plates of some women's journals we had,
and used to study them with an interest that puzzled me, for she was
not likely to go in for fashion. She never talked of her early girlhood;
but Mary, from some things she noticed, was inclined to think that Mrs Spicer
had been fairly well brought up. For instance, Dr Balanfantie,
from Cudgeegong, came out to see Wall's wife, and drove up the creek
to our place on his way back to see how Mary and the baby were getting on.
Mary got out some crockery and some table-napkins that she had packed away
for occasions like this; and she said that the way Mrs Spicer
handled the things, and helped set the table (though she did it
in a mechanical sort of way), convinced her that she had been
used to table-napkins at one time in her life.
Sometimes, after a long pause in the conversation, Mrs Spicer
would say suddenly --
`Oh, I don't think I'll come up next week, Mrs Wilson.'
`Why, Mrs Spicer?'
`Because the visits doesn't do me any good. I git the dismals afterwards.'
`Why, Mrs Spicer? What on earth do you mean?'
`Oh,-I-don't-know-what-I'm-talkin'-about. You mustn't take any notice of me.'
And she'd put on her hat, kiss the children -- and Mary too, sometimes,
as if she mistook her for a child -- and go.
Mary thought her a little mad at times. But I seemed to understand.
Once, when Mrs Spicer was sick, Mary went down to her, and down again
next day. As she was coming away the second time, Mrs Spicer said --
`I wish you wouldn't come down any more till I'm on me feet, Mrs Wilson.
The children can do for me.'
`Why, Mrs Spicer?'
`Well, the place is in such a muck, and it hurts me.'
We were the aristocrats of Lahey's Creek. Whenever we drove down
on Sunday afternoon to see Mrs Spicer, and as soon as we got near enough
for them to hear the rattle of the cart, we'd see the children
running to the house as fast as they could split, and hear them screaming --
`Oh, marther! Here comes Mr and Mrs Wilson in their spring-cart.'
And we'd see her bustle round, and two or three fowls fly out the front door,
and she'd lay hold of a broom (made of a bound bunch of `broom-stuff'
-- coarse reedy grass or bush from the ridges -- with a stick
stuck in it) and flick out the floor, with a flick or two round
in front of the door perhaps. The floor nearly always needed at least
one flick of the broom on account of the fowls. Or she'd catch a youngster
and scrub his face with a wet end of a cloudy towel, or twist the towel
round her finger and dig out his ears -- as if she was anxious
to have him hear every word that was going to be said.
No matter what state the house would be in she'd always say,
`I was jist expectin' yer, Mrs Wilson.' And she was original in that, anyway.
She had an old patched and darned white table-cloth that she used to spread
on the table when we were there, as a matter of course
(`The others is in the wash, so you must excuse this, Mrs Wilson'),
but I saw by the eyes of the children that the cloth was rather
a wonderful thing to them. `I must really git some more knives an' forks
next time I'm in Cobborah,' she'd say. `The children break an' lose 'em
till I'm ashamed to ask Christians ter sit down ter the table.'
She had many Bush yarns, some of them very funny, some of them rather ghastly,
but all interesting, and with a grim sort of humour about them.
But the effect was often spoilt by her screaming at the children
to `Drive out them fowls, karnt yer,' or `Take yer maulies [hands]
outer the sugar,' or `Don't touch Mrs Wilson's baby with them dirty maulies,'
or `Don't stand starin' at Mrs Wilson with yer mouth an' ears
in that vulgar way.'
Poor woman! she seemed everlastingly nagging at the children. It was a habit,
but they didn't seem to mind. Most Bushwomen get the nagging habit.
I remember one, who had the prettiest, dearest, sweetest, most willing,
and affectionate little girl I think I ever saw, and she nagged that child
from daylight till dark -- and after it. Taking it all round,
I think that the nagging habit in a mother is often worse
on ordinary children, and more deadly on sensitive youngsters,
than the drinking habit in a father.
One of the yarns Mrs Spicer told us was about a squatter she knew
who used to go wrong in his head every now and again,
and try to commit suicide. Once, when the station-hand, who was watching him,
had his eye off him for a minute, he hanged himself to a beam in the stable.
The men ran in and found him hanging and kicking. `They let him hang
for a while,' said Mrs Spicer, `till he went black in the face
and stopped kicking. Then they cut him down and threw a bucket of water
`Why! what on earth did they let the man hang for?' asked Mary.
`To give him a good bellyful of it: they thought it would cure him
of tryin' to hang himself again.'
`Well, that's the coolest thing I ever heard of,' said Mary.
`That's jist what the magistrate said, Mrs Wilson,' said Mrs Spicer.
`One morning,' said Mrs Spicer, `Spicer had gone off on his horse somewhere,
and I was alone with the children, when a man came to the door and said --
`"For God's sake, woman, give me a drink!"
`Lord only knows where he came from! He was dressed like a new chum --
his clothes was good, but he looked as if he'd been sleepin' in them
in the Bush for a month. He was very shaky. I had some coffee that mornin',
so I gave him some in a pint pot; he drank it, and then he stood on his head
till he tumbled over, and then he stood up on his feet and said,
"Thenk yer, mum."
`I was so surprised that I didn't know what to say, so I jist said,
"Would you like some more coffee?"
`"Yes, thenk yer," he said -- "about two quarts."
`I nearly filled the pint pot, and he drank it and stood on his head
as long as he could, and when he got right end up he said,
"Thenk yer, mum -- it's a fine day," and then he walked off.
He had two saddle-straps in his hands.'
`Why, what did he stand on his head for?' asked Mary.
`To wash it up and down, I suppose, to get twice as much taste of the coffee.
He had no hat. I sent Tommy across to Wall's to tell them
that there was a man wanderin' about the Bush in the horrors of drink,
and to get some one to ride for the police. But they was too late,
for he hanged himself that night.'
`O Lord!' cried Mary.
`Yes, right close to here, jist down the creek where the track to Wall's
branches off. Tommy found him while he was out after the cows.
Hangin' to the branch of a tree with the two saddle-straps.'
Mary stared at her, speechless.
`Tommy came home yellin' with fright. I sent him over to Wall's at once.
After breakfast, the minute my eyes was off them, the children slipped away
and went down there. They came back screamin' at the tops of their voices.
I did give it to them. I reckon they won't want ter see a dead body again
in a hurry. Every time I'd mention it they'd huddle together,
or ketch hold of me skirts and howl.
`"Yer'll go agen when I tell yer not to," I'd say.
`"Oh no, mother," they'd howl.
`"Yer wanted ter see a man hangin'," I said.
`"Oh, don't, mother! Don't talk about it."
`"Yer wouldn't be satisfied till yer see it," I'd say;
"yer had to see it or burst. Yer satisfied now, ain't yer?"
`"Oh, don't, mother!"
`"Yer run all the way there, I s'pose?"
`"But yer run faster back, didn't yer?"
`"Oh, don't, mother."
`But,' said Mrs Spicer, in conclusion, `I'd been down to see it myself
before they was up.'
`And ain't you afraid to live alone here, after all these horrible things?'
`Well, no; I don't mind. I seem to have got past carin' for anythink now.
I felt it a little when Tommy went away -- the first time I felt anythink
for years. But I'm over that now.'
`Haven't you got any friends in the district, Mrs Spicer?'
`Oh yes. There's me married sister near Cobborah, and a married brother
near Dubbo; he's got a station. They wanted to take me an' the children
between them, or take some of the younger children. But I couldn't
bring my mind to break up the home. I want to keep the children together
as much as possible. There's enough of them gone, God knows.
But it's a comfort to know that there's some one to see to them
if anythink happens to me.'
. . . . .
One day -- I was on my way home with the team that day --
Annie Spicer came running up the creek in terrible trouble.
`Oh, Mrs Wilson! something terribl's happened at home! A trooper'
(mounted policeman -- they called them `mounted troopers' out there),
`a trooper's come and took Billy!' Billy was the eldest son at home.
`It's true, Mrs Wilson.'
`What for? What did the policeman say?'
`He -- he -- he said, "I -- I'm very sorry, Mrs Spicer;
but -- I -- I want William."'
It turned out that William was wanted on account of a horse
missed from Wall's station and sold down-country.
`An' mother took on awful,' sobbed Annie; `an' now she'll only sit stock-still
an' stare in front of her, and won't take no notice of any of us.
Oh! it's awful, Mrs Wilson. The policeman said he'd tell Aunt Emma'
(Mrs Spicer's sister at Cobborah), `and send her out.
But I had to come to you, an' I've run all the way.'
James put the horse to the cart and drove Mary down.
Mary told me all about it when I came home.
`I found her just as Annie said; but she broke down and cried in my arms.
Oh, Joe! it was awful! She didn't cry like a woman. I heard
a man at Haviland cry at his brother's funeral, and it was just like that.
She came round a bit after a while. Her sister's with her now. . . .
Oh, Joe! you must take me away from the Bush.'
Later on Mary said --
`How the oaks are sighing to-night, Joe!'
. . . . .
Next morning I rode across to Wall's station and tackled the old man;
but he was a hard man, and wouldn't listen to me -- in fact,
he ordered me off the station. I was a selector, and that was enough for him.
But young Billy Wall rode after me.
`Look here, Joe!' he said, `it's a blanky shame. All for the sake of a horse!
And as if that poor devil of a woman hasn't got enough to put up with already!
I wouldn't do it for twenty horses. I'LL tackle the boss,
and if he won't listen to me, I'll walk off the run for the last time,
if I have to carry my swag.'
Billy Wall managed it. The charge was withdrawn, and we got
young Billy Spicer off up-country.
But poor Mrs Spicer was never the same after that. She seldom
came up to our place unless Mary dragged her, so to speak;
and then she would talk of nothing but her last trouble, till her visits
were painful to look forward to.
`If it only could have been kep' quiet -- for the sake of the other children;
they are all I think of now. I tried to bring 'em all up decent,
but I s'pose it was my fault, somehow. It's the disgrace that's killin' me --
I can't bear it.'
I was at home one Sunday with Mary and a jolly Bush-girl
named Maggie Charlsworth, who rode over sometimes from Wall's station
(I must tell you about her some other time; James was `shook after her'),
and we got talkin' about Mrs Spicer. Maggie was very warm about old Wall.
`I expected Mrs Spicer up to-day,' said Mary. `She seems better lately.'
`Why!' cried Maggie Charlsworth, `if that ain't Annie coming running up
along the creek. Something's the matter!'
We all jumped up and ran out.
`What is it, Annie?' cried Mary.
`Oh, Mrs Wilson! Mother's asleep, and we can't wake her!'
`It's -- it's the truth, Mrs Wilson.'
`How long has she been asleep?'
`Since lars' night.'
`My God!' cried Mary, `SINCE LAST NIGHT?'
`No, Mrs Wilson, not all the time; she woke wonst, about daylight
this mornin'. She called me and said she didn't feel well,
and I'd have to manage the milkin'.'
`Was that all she said?'
`No. She said not to go for you; and she said to feed the pigs and calves;
and she said to be sure and water them geraniums.'
Mary wanted to go, but I wouldn't let her. James and I saddled our horses
and rode down the creek.
. . . . .
Mrs Spicer looked very little different from what she did
when I last saw her alive. It was some time before we could believe
that she was dead. But she was `past carin'' right enough.
A Double Buggy at Lahey's Creek.
I. Spuds, and a Woman's Obstinacy.
Ever since we were married it had been Mary's great ambition to have a buggy.
The house or furniture didn't matter so much -- out there in the Bush
where we were -- but, where there were no railways or coaches, and the roads
were long, and mostly hot and dusty, a buggy was the great thing.
I had a few pounds when we were married, and was going to get one then;
but new buggies went high, and another party got hold of a second-hand one
that I'd had my eye on, so Mary thought it over and at last she said,
`Never mind the buggy, Joe; get a sewing-machine and I'll be satisfied.
I'll want the machine more than the buggy, for a while.
Wait till we're better off.'
After that, whenever I took a contract -- to put up a fence or wool-shed,
or sink a dam or something -- Mary would say, `You ought to knock a buggy
out of this job, Joe;' but something always turned up --
bad weather or sickness. Once I cut my foot with the adze and was laid up;
and, another time, a dam I was making was washed away by a flood
before I finished it. Then Mary would say, `Ah, well -- never mind, Joe.
Wait till we are better off.' But she felt it hard the time
I built a wool-shed and didn't get paid for it, for we'd as good as settled
about another second-hand buggy then.
I always had a fancy for carpentering, and was handy with tools.
I made a spring-cart -- body and wheels -- in spare time,
out of colonial hardwood, and got Little the blacksmith to do the ironwork;
I painted the cart myself. It wasn't much lighter than one of the tip-drays
I had, but it WAS a spring-cart, and Mary pretended to be satisfied with it:
anyway, I didn't hear any more of the buggy for a while.
I sold that cart, for fourteen pounds, to a Chinese gardener
who wanted a strong cart to carry his vegetables round through the Bush.
It was just before our first youngster came: I told Mary
that I wanted the money in case of extra expense -- and she didn't fret much
at losing that cart. But the fact was, that I was going to make another try
for a buggy, as a present for Mary when the child was born.
I thought of getting the turn-out while she was laid up,
keeping it dark from her till she was on her feet again,
and then showing her the buggy standing in the shed. But she had a bad time,
and I had to have the doctor regularly, and get a proper nurse,
and a lot of things extra; so the buggy idea was knocked on the head.
I was set on it, too: I'd thought of how, when Mary was up
and getting strong, I'd say one morning, `Go round and have a look
in the shed, Mary; I've got a few fowls for you,' or something like that --
and follow her round to watch her eyes when she saw the buggy.
I never told Mary about that -- it wouldn't have done any good.
Later on I got some good timber -- mostly scraps that were given to me --
and made a light body for a spring-cart. Galletly, the coach-builder
at Cudgeegong, had got a dozen pairs of American hickory wheels
up from Sydney, for light spring-carts, and he let me have a pair
for cost price and carriage. I got him to iron the cart,
and he put it through the paint-shop for nothing. He sent it out, too,
at the tail of Tom Tarrant's big van -- to increase the surprise.
We were swells then for a while; I heard no more of a buggy
until after we'd been settled at Lahey's Creek for a couple of years.
I told you how I went into the carrying line, and took up a selection
at Lahey's Creek -- for a run for the horses and to grow a bit of feed --
and shifted Mary and little Jim out there from Gulgong,
with Mary's young scamp of a brother James to keep them company
while I was on the road. The first year I did well enough carrying,
but I never cared for it -- it was too slow; and, besides,
I was always anxious when I was away from home. The game was right enough
for a single man -- or a married one whose wife had got the nagging habit
(as many Bushwomen have -- God help 'em!), and who wanted
peace and quietness sometimes. Besides, other small carriers started
(seeing me getting on); and Tom Tarrant, the coach-driver at Cudgeegong,
had another heavy spring-van built, and put it on the roads,
and he took a lot of the light stuff.
The second year I made a rise -- out of `spuds', of all the things
in the world. It was Mary's idea. Down at the lower end of our selection --
Mary called it `the run' -- was a shallow watercourse called Snake's Creek,
dry most of the year, except for a muddy water-hole or two;
and, just above the junction, where it ran into Lahey's Creek,
was a low piece of good black-soil flat, on our side -- about three acres.
The flat was fairly clear when I came to the selection --
save for a few logs that had been washed up there in some big `old man' flood,
way back in black-fellows' times; and one day, when I had a spell at home,
I got the horses and trace-chains and dragged the logs together --
those that wouldn't split for fencing timber -- and burnt them off.
I had a notion to get the flat ploughed and make a lucern-paddock of it.
There was a good water-hole, under a clump of she-oak in the bend,
and Mary used to take her stools and tubs and boiler down there
in the spring-cart in hot weather, and wash the clothes
under the shade of the trees -- it was cooler, and saved carrying water
to the house. And one evening after she'd done the washing she said to me --
`Look here, Joe; the farmers out here never seem to get a new idea:
they don't seem to me ever to try and find out beforehand
what the market is going to be like -- they just go on farming
the same old way and putting in the same old crops year after year.
They sow wheat, and, if it comes on anything like the thing,
they reap and thresh it; if it doesn't, they mow it for hay --
and some of 'em don't have the brains to do that in time.
Now, I was looking at that bit of flat you cleared, and it struck me
that it wouldn't be a half bad idea to get a bag of seed-potatoes,
and have the land ploughed -- old Corny George would do it cheap --
and get them put in at once. Potatoes have been dear all round
for the last couple of years.'
I told her she was talking nonsense, that the ground was no good for potatoes,
and the whole district was too dry. `Everybody I know has tried it,
one time or another, and made nothing of it,' I said.
`All the more reason why you should try it, Joe,' said Mary.
`Just try one crop. It might rain for weeks, and then you'll be sorry
you didn't take my advice.'
`But I tell you the ground is not potato-ground,' I said.
`How do you know? You haven't sown any there yet.'
`But I've turned up the surface and looked at it. It's not rich enough,
and too dry, I tell you. You need swampy, boggy ground for potatoes.
Do you think I don't know land when I see it?'
`But you haven't TRIED to grow potatoes there yet, Joe.
How do you know ----'
I didn't listen to any more. Mary was obstinate when she got an idea
into her head. It was no use arguing with her. All the time I'd be talking
she'd just knit her forehead and go on thinking straight ahead,
on the track she'd started, -- just as if I wasn't there, --
and it used to make me mad. She'd keep driving at me till I took her advice
or lost my temper, -- I did both at the same time, mostly.
I took my pipe and went out to smoke and cool down.
A couple of days after the potato breeze, I started with the team
down to Cudgeegong for a load of fencing-wire I had to bring out;
and after I'd kissed Mary good-bye, she said --
`Look here, Joe, if you bring out a bag of seed-potatoes,
James and I will slice them, and old Corny George down the creek
would bring his plough up in the dray and plough the ground for very little.
We could put the potatoes in ourselves if the ground were only ploughed.'
I thought she'd forgotten all about it. There was no time to argue --
I'd be sure to lose my temper, and then I'd either have to waste an hour
comforting Mary or go off in a `huff', as the women call it,
and be miserable for the trip. So I said I'd see about it. She gave me
another hug and a kiss. `Don't forget, Joe,' she said as I started.
`Think it over on the road.' I reckon she had the best of it that time.
About five miles along, just as I turned into the main road,
I heard some one galloping after me, and I saw young James on his hack.
I got a start, for I thought that something had gone wrong at home.
I remember, the first day I left Mary on the creek, for the first
five or six miles I was half-a-dozen times on the point of turning back --
only I thought she'd laugh at me.
`What is it, James?' I shouted, before he came up -- but I saw
he was grinning.
`Mary says to tell you not to forget to bring a hoe out with you.'
`You clear off home!' I said, `or I'll lay the whip about your young hide;
and don't come riding after me again as if the run was on fire.'
`Well, you needn't get shirty with me!' he said. `*I* don't want to have
anything to do with a hoe.' And he rode off.
I DID get thinking about those potatoes, though I hadn't meant to.
I knew of an independent man in that district who'd made his money
out of a crop of potatoes; but that was away back in the roaring 'Fifties
-- '54 -- when spuds went up to twenty-eight shillings a hundredweight
(in Sydney), on account of the gold rush. We might get good rain now,
and, anyway, it wouldn't cost much to put the potatoes in.
If they came on well, it would be a few pounds in my pocket;
if the crop was a failure, I'd have a better show with Mary
next time she was struck by an idea outside housekeeping,
and have something to grumble about when I felt grumpy.
I got a couple of bags of potatoes -- we could use those that were left over;
and I got a small iron plough and a harrow that Little the blacksmith
had lying in his yard and let me have cheap -- only about a pound more
than I told Mary I gave for them. When I took advice, I generally made
the mistake of taking more than was offered, or adding notions of my own.
It was vanity, I suppose. If the crop came on well I could claim
the plough-and-harrow part of the idea, anyway. (It didn't strike me
that if the crop failed Mary would have the plough and harrow against me,
for old Corny would plough the ground for ten or fifteen shillings.)
Anyway, I'd want a plough and harrow later on, and I might as well get it now;
it would give James something to do.
I came out by the western road, by Guntawang, and up the creek home;
and the first thing I saw was old Corny George ploughing the flat.
And Mary was down on the bank superintending. She'd got James
with the trace-chains and the spare horses, and had made him clear off
every stick and bush where another furrow might be squeezed in.
Old Corny looked pretty grumpy on it -- he'd broken all his ploughshares
but one, in the roots; and James didn't look much brighter.
Mary had an old felt hat and a new pair of 'lastic-side boots of mine on,
and the boots were covered with clay, for she'd been down hustling James
to get a rotten old stump out of the way by the time Corny came round
with his next furrow.
`I thought I'd make the boots easy for you, Joe,' said Mary.
`It's all right, Mary,' I said. `I'm not going to growl.' Those boots
were a bone of contention between us; but she generally got them off
before I got home.
Her face fell a little when she saw the plough and harrow in the waggon,
but I said that would be all right -- we'd want a plough anyway.
`I thought you wanted old Corny to plough the ground,' she said.
`I never said so.'
`But when I sent Jim after you about the hoe to put the spuds in,
you didn't say you wouldn't bring it,' she said.
I had a few days at home, and entered into the spirit of the thing.
When Corny was done, James and I cross-ploughed the land, and got
a stump or two, a big log, and some scrub out of the way at the upper end
and added nearly an acre, and ploughed that. James was all right
at most Bushwork: he'd bullock so long as the novelty lasted;
he liked ploughing or fencing, or any graft he could make a show at.
He didn't care for grubbing out stumps, or splitting posts and rails.
We sliced the potatoes of an evening -- and there was trouble
between Mary and James over cutting through the `eyes'.
There was no time for the hoe -- and besides it wasn't a novelty to James --
so I just ran furrows and they dropped the spuds in behind me,
and I turned another furrow over them, and ran the harrow over the ground.
I think I hilled those spuds, too, with furrows -- or a crop of Indian corn
I put in later on.
It rained heavens-hard for over a week: we had regular showers all through,
and it was the finest crop of potatoes ever seen in the district.
I believe at first Mary used to slip down at daybreak
to see if the potatoes were up; and she'd write to me about them, on the road.
I forget how many bags I got; but the few who had grown potatoes
in the district sent theirs to Sydney, and spuds went up to
twelve and fifteen shillings a hundredweight in that district.
I made a few quid out of mine -- and saved carriage too,
for I could take them out on the waggon. Then Mary began to hear
(through James) of a buggy that some one had for sale cheap, or a dogcart
that somebody else wanted to get rid of -- and let me know about it,
in an offhand way.
II. Joe Wilson's Luck.
There was good grass on the selection all the year. I'd picked up
a small lot -- about twenty head -- of half-starved steers
for next to nothing, and turned them on the run; they came on wonderfully,
and my brother-in-law (Mary's sister's husband), who was running a butchery
at Gulgong, gave me a good price for them. His carts ran out
twenty or thirty miles, to little bits of gold-rushes that were going on
at th' Home Rule, Happy Valley, Guntawang, Tallawang, and Cooyal,
and those places round there, and he was doing well.
Mary had heard of a light American waggonette, when the steers went --
a tray-body arrangement, and she thought she'd do with that.
`It would be better than the buggy, Joe,' she said --
`there'd be more room for the children, and, besides, I could take
butter and eggs to Gulgong, or Cobborah, when we get a few more cows.'
Then James heard of a small flock of sheep that a selector --
who was about starved off his selection out Talbragar way --
wanted to get rid of. James reckoned he could get them
for less than half-a-crown a-head. We'd had a heavy shower of rain,
that came over the ranges and didn't seem to go beyond our boundaries.
Mary said, `It's a pity to see all that grass going to waste, Joe.
Better get those sheep and try your luck with them. Leave some money with me,
and I'll send James over for them. Never mind about the buggy --
we'll get that when we're on our feet.'
So James rode across to Talbragar and drove a hard bargain
with that unfortunate selector, and brought the sheep home.
There were about two hundred, wethers and ewes, and they were young
and looked a good breed too, but so poor they could scarcely travel;
they soon picked up, though. The drought was blazing all round and Out-Back,
and I think that my corner of the ridges was the only place
where there was any grass to speak of. We had another shower or two,
and the grass held out. Chaps began to talk of `Joe Wilson's luck'.
I would have liked to shear those sheep; but I hadn't time
to get a shed or anything ready -- along towards Christmas
there was a bit of a boom in the carrying line. Wethers in wool were going
as high as thirteen to fifteen shillings at the Homebush yards at Sydney,
so I arranged to truck the sheep down from the river by rail,
with another small lot that was going, and I started James off with them.
He took the west road, and down Guntawang way a big farmer who saw James
with the sheep (and who was speculating, or adding to his stock,
or took a fancy to the wool) offered James as much for them
as he reckoned I'd get in Sydney, after paying the carriage and the agents
and the auctioneer. James put the sheep in a paddock and rode back to me.
He was all there where riding was concerned. I told him to let the sheep go.
James made a Greener shot-gun, and got his saddle done up, out of that job.
I took up a couple more forty-acre blocks -- one in James's name,
to encourage him with the fencing. There was a good slice of land
in an angle between the range and the creek, farther down,
which everybody thought belonged to Wall, the squatter,
but Mary got an idea, and went to the local land office and found out
that it was `unoccupied Crown land', and so I took it up on pastoral lease,
and got a few more sheep -- I'd saved some of the best-looking ewes
from the last lot.
One evening -- I was going down next day for a load of fencing-wire
for myself -- Mary said, --
`Joe! do you know that the Matthews have got a new double buggy?'
The Matthews were a big family of cockatoos, along up the main road,
and I didn't think much of them. The sons were all `bad-eggs',
though the old woman and girls were right enough.
`Well, what of that?' I said. `They're up to their neck in debt,
and camping like black-fellows in a big bark humpy. They do well
to go flashing round in a double buggy.'
`But that isn't what I was going to say,' said Mary. `They want to sell
their old single buggy, James says. I'm sure you could get it
for six or seven pounds; and you could have it done up.'
`I wish James to the devil!' I said. `Can't he find anything better to do
than ride round after cock-and-bull yarns about buggies?'
`Well,' said Mary, `it was James who got the steers and the sheep.'
Well, one word led to another, and we said things we didn't mean --
but couldn't forget in a hurry. I remember I said something about Mary
always dragging me back just when I was getting my head above water
and struggling to make a home for her and the children; and that hurt her,