Part 2 out of 3
except me, because he'd suddenly heard of a mob of cattle at a station
two hundred miles away; and after a while I took him aside and said:
"`Look here, Dave! Do you remember the day I met you after the storm?'
"He scratched his head.
"`Why, yes,' he says.
"`Did you get under shelter that day?'
"`Why -- no.'
"`Then how the blazes didn't yer get wet?'
"Dave grinned; then he says:
"`Why, when I seen the storm coming I took off me clothes
and stuck 'em in a holler log till the rain was over.'
"`Yes,' he says, after the other coves had done laughin',
but before I'd done thinking; `I kept my clothes dry and got
a good refreshin' shower-bath into the bargain.'
"Then he scratched the back of his neck with his little finger,
and dropped his jaw, and thought a bit; then he rubbed
the top of his head and his shoulder, reflective-like, and then he said:
"`But I didn't reckon for them there blanky hailstones.'"
Mitchell on Matrimony
"I suppose your wife will be glad to see you," said Mitchell to his mate
in their camp by the dam at Hungerford. They were overhauling their swags,
and throwing away the blankets, and calico, and old clothes,
and rubbish they didn't want -- everything, in fact,
except their pocket-books and letters and portraits,
things which men carry about with them always, that are found on them
when they die, and sent to their relations if possible.
Otherwise they are taken in charge by the constable who officiates
at the inquest, and forwarded to the Minister of Justice
along with the depositions.
It was the end of the shearing season. Mitchell and his mate
had been lucky enough to get two good sheds in succession,
and were going to take the coach from Hungerford to Bourke
on their way to Sydney. The morning stars were bright yet,
and they sat down to a final billy of tea, two dusty Johnny-cakes,
and a scrag of salt mutton.
"Yes," said Mitchell's mate, "and I'll be glad to see her too."
"I suppose you will," said Mitchell. He placed his pint-pot between his feet,
rested his arm against his knee, and stirred the tea meditatively
with the handle of his pocket-knife. It was vaguely understood
that Mitchell had been married at one period of his chequered career.
"I don't think we ever understood women properly," he said,
as he took a cautious sip to see if his tea was cool and sweet enough,
for his lips were sore; "I don't think we ever will -- we never took
the trouble to try, and if we did it would be only wasted brain power
that might just as well be spent on the blackfellow's lingo;
because by the time you've learnt it they'll be extinct,
and woman 'll be extinct before you've learnt her. . . .
The morning star looks bright, doesn't it?"
"Ah, well," said Mitchell after a while, "there's many little things
we might try to understand women in. I read in a piece of newspaper
the other day about how a man changes after he's married;
how he gets short, and impatient, and bored (which is only natural),
and sticks up a wall of newspaper between himself and his wife
when he's at home; and how it comes like a cold shock to her,
and all her air-castles vanish, and in the end she often thinks
about taking the baby and the clothes she stands in, and going home
for sympathy and comfort to mother.
"Perhaps she never got a word of sympathy from her mother in her life,
nor a day's comfort at home before she was married; but that doesn't make
the slightest difference. It doesn't make any difference in your case either,
if you haven't been acting like a dutiful son-in-law.
"Somebody wrote that a woman's love is her whole existence, while a man's love
is only part of his -- which is true, and only natural and reasonable,
all things considered. But women never consider as a rule. A man can't go on
talking lovey-dovey talk for ever, and listening to his young wife's prattle
when he's got to think about making a living, and nursing her and answering
her childish questions and telling her he loves his little ownest
every minute in the day, while the bills are running up, and rent mornings
begin to fly round and hustle and crowd him.
"He's got her and he's satisfied; and if the truth is known
he loves her really more than he did when they were engaged,
only she won't be satisfied about it unless he tells her so
every hour in the day. At least that's how it is for the first few months.
"But a woman doesn't understand these things -- she never will, she can't --
and it would be just as well for us to try and understand
that she doesn't and can't understand them."
Mitchell knocked the tea-leaves out of his pannikin against his boot,
and reached for the billy.
"There's many little things we might do that seem mere trifles and nonsense
to us, but mean a lot to her; that wouldn't be any trouble or sacrifice to us,
but might help to make her life happy. It's just because we never think about
these little things -- don't think them worth thinking about, in fact --
they never enter our intellectual foreheads.
"For instance, when you're going out in the morning you might
put your arms round her and give her a hug and a kiss, without her having
to remind you. You may forget about it and never think any more of it --
but she will.
"It wouldn't be any trouble to you, and would only take a couple of seconds,
and would give her something to be happy about when you're gone,
and make her sing to herself for hours while she bustles about her work
and thinks up what she'll get you for dinner."
Mitchell's mate sighed, and shifted the sugar-bag over towards Mitchell.
He seemed touched and bothered over something.
"Then again," said Mitchell, "it mightn't be convenient for you
to go home to dinner -- something might turn up during the morning --
you might have some important business to do, or meet some chaps
and get invited to lunch and not be very well able to refuse,
when it's too late, or you haven't a chance to send a message to your wife.
But then again, chaps and business seem very big things to you,
and only little things to the wife; just as lovey-dovey talk
is important to her and nonsense to you. And when you come to analyse it,
one is not so big, nor the other so small, after all;
especially when you come to think that chaps can always wait,
and business is only an inspiration in your mind, nine cases out of ten.
"Think of the trouble she takes to get you a good dinner,
and how she keeps it hot between two plates in the oven,
and waits hour after hour till the dinner gets dried up,
and all her morning's work is wasted. Think how it hurts her,
and how anxious she'll be (especially if you're inclined to booze)
for fear that something has happened to you. You can't get it
out of the heads of some young wives that you're liable to get run over,
or knocked down, or assaulted, or robbed, or get into one of the fixes
that a woman is likely to get into. But about the dinner waiting.
Try and put yourself in her place. Wouldn't you get mad
under the same circumstances? I know I would.
"I remember once, only just after I was married, I was invited unexpectedly
to a kidney pudding and beans -- which was my favourite grub at the time --
and I didn't resist, especially as it was washing day and I told the wife
not to bother about anything for dinner. I got home an hour or so late,
and had a good explanation thought out, when the wife met me with a smile
as if we had just been left a thousand pounds. She'd got her washing finished
without assistance, though I'd told her to get somebody to help her,
and she had a kidney pudding and beans, with a lot of extras thrown in,
as a pleasant surprise for me.
"Well, I kissed her, and sat down, and stuffed till I thought every mouthful
would choke me. I got through with it somehow, but I've never cared
for kidney pudding or beans since."
Mitchell felt for his pipe with a fatherly smile in his eyes.
"And then again," he continued, as he cut up his tobacco,
"your wife might put on a new dress and fix herself up and look well,
and you might think so and be satisfied with her appearance and be proud
to take her out; but you want to tell her so, and tell her so
as often as you think about it -- and try to think a little oftener
than men usually do, too."
. . . . .
"You should have made a good husband, Jack," said his mate,
in a softened tone.
"Ah, well, perhaps I should," said Mitchell, rubbing up his tobacco;
then he asked abstractedly: "What sort of a husband did you make, Joe?"
"I might have made a better one than I did," said Joe seriously,
and rather bitterly, "but I know one thing, I'm going to try
and make up for it when I go back this time."
"We all say that," said Mitchell reflectively, filling his pipe.
"She loves you, Joe."
"I know she does," said Joe.
Mitchell lit up.
"And so would any man who knew her or had seen her letters to you,"
he said between the puffs. "She's happy and contented enough, I believe?"
"Yes," said Joe, "at least while I was there. She's never easy when I'm away.
I might have made her a good deal more happy and contented
without hurting myself much."
Mitchell smoked long, soft, measured puffs.
His mate shifted uneasily and glanced at him a couple of times,
and seemed to become impatient, and to make up his mind about something;
or perhaps he got an idea that Mitchell had been "having" him,
and felt angry over being betrayed into maudlin confidences;
for he asked abruptly:
"How is your wife now, Mitchell?"
"I don't know," said Mitchell calmly.
"Don't know?" echoed the mate. "Didn't you treat her well?"
Mitchell removed his pipe and drew a long breath.
"Ah, well, I tried to," he said wearily.
"Well, did you put your theory into practice?"
"I did," said Mitchell very deliberately.
Joe waited, but nothing came.
"Well?" he asked impatiently, "How did it act? Did it work well?"
"I don't know," said Mitchell (puff); "she left me."
Mitchell jerked the half-smoked pipe from his mouth,
and rapped the burning tobacco out against the toe of his boot.
"She left me," he said, standing up and stretching himself.
Then, with a vicious jerk of his arm, "She left me for --
another kind of a fellow!"
He looked east towards the public-house, where they were taking
the coach-horses from the stable.
"Why don't you finish your tea, Joe? The billy's getting cold."
Mitchell on Women
"All the same," said Mitchell's mate, continuing an argument by the camp-fire;
"all the same, I think that a woman can stand cold water better than a man.
Why, when I was staying in a boarding-house in Dunedin, one very cold winter,
there was a lady lodger who went down to the shower-bath first thing
every morning; never missed one; sometimes went in freezing weather
when I wouldn't go into a cold bath for a fiver; and sometimes
she'd stay under the shower for ten minutes at a time."
"How'd you know?"
"Why, my room was near the bath-room, and I could hear
the shower and tap going, and her floundering about."
"Hear your grandmother!" exclaimed Mitchell, contemptuously.
"You don't know women yet. Was this woman married? Did she have
a husband there?"
"No; she was a young widow."
"Ah! well, it would have been the same if she was a young girl --
or an old one. Were there some passable men-boarders there?"
"_I_ was there."
"Oh, yes! But I mean, were there any there beside you?"
"Oh, yes, there were three or four; there was -- a clerk and a ----"
"Never mind, as long as there was something with trousers on.
Did it ever strike you that she never got into the bath at all?"
"Why, no! What would she want to go there at all for, in that case?"
"To make an impression on the men," replied Mitchell promptly.
"She wanted to make out she was nice, and wholesome, and well-washed,
and particular. Made an impression on YOU, it seems,
or you wouldn't remember it."
"Well, yes, I suppose so; and, now I come to think of it,
the bath didn't seem to injure her make-up or wet her hair;
but I supposed she held her head from under the shower somehow."
"Did she make-up so early in the morning?" asked Mitchell.
"Yes -- I'm sure."
"That's unusual; but it might have been so where there was a lot of boarders.
And about the hair -- that didn't count for anything, because washing-the-head
ain't supposed to be always included in a lady's bath; it's only supposed
to be washed once a fortnight, and some don't do it once a month.
The hair takes so long to dry; it don't matter so much
if the woman's got short, scraggy hair; but if a girl's hair
was down to her waist it would take hours to dry."
"Well, how do they manage it without wetting their heads?"
"Oh, that's easy enough. They have a little oilskin cap that fits tight
over the forehead, and they put it on, and bunch their hair up in it
when they go under the shower. Did you ever see a woman sit in a sunny place
with her hair down after having a wash?"
"Yes, I used to see one do that regular where I was staying;
but I thought she only did it to show off."
"Not at all -- she was drying her hair; though perhaps she was showing off
at the same time, for she wouldn't sit where you -- or even a Chinaman --
could see her, if she didn't think she had a good head of hair.
Now, I'LL tell you a yarn about a woman's bath. I was stopping
at a shabby-genteel boarding-house in Melbourne once, and one
very cold winter, too; and there was a rather good-looking woman there,
looking for a husband. She used to go down to the bath every morning,
no matter how cold it was, and flounder and splash about as if she enjoyed it,
till you'd feel as though you'd like to go and catch hold of her
and wrap her in a rug and carry her in to the fire and nurse her
till she was warm again."
Mitchell's mate moved uneasily, and crossed the other leg;
he seemed greatly interested.
"But she never went into the water at all!" continued Mitchell.
"As soon as one or two of the men was up in the morning she'd come down
from her room in a dressing-gown. It was a toney dressing-gown, too,
and set her off properly. She knew how to dress, anyway;
most of that sort of women do. The gown was a kind of green colour,
with pink and white flowers all over it, and red lining,
and a lot of coffee-coloured lace round the neck and down the front.
Well, she'd come tripping downstairs and along the passage, holding up
one side of the gown to show her little bare white foot in a slipper;
and in the other hand she carried her tooth-brush and bath-brush,
and soap -- like this -- so's we all could see 'em; trying to make out
she was too particular to use soap after anyone else.
She could afford to buy her own soap, anyhow; it was hardly ever wet.
"Well, she'd go into the bathroom and turn on the tap and shower;
when she got about three inches of water in the bath, she'd step in,
holding up her gown out of the water, and go slithering and kicking
up and down the bath, like this, making a tremendous splashing.
Of course she'd turn off the shower first, and screw it off very tight --
wouldn't do to let that leak, you know; she might get wet;
but she'd leave the other tap on, so as to make all the more noise."
"But how did you come to know all about this?"
"Oh, the servant girl told me. One morning she twigged her
through a corner of the bathroom window that the curtain didn't cover."
"You seem to have been pretty thick with servant girls."
"So do you with landladies! But never mind -- let me finish the yarn.
When she thought she'd splashed enough, she'd get out, wipe her feet, wash her
face and hands, and carefully unbutton the two top buttons of her gown;
then throw a towel over her head and shoulders, and listen at the door
till she thought she heard some of the men moving about.
Then she'd start for her room, and, if she met one of the men-boarders
in the passage or on the stairs, she'd drop her eyes, and pretend to see
for the first time that the top of her dressing-gown wasn't buttoned --
and she'd give a little start and grab the gown and scurry off to her room
buttoning it up.
"And sometimes she'd come skipping into the breakfast-room late,
looking awfully sweet in her dressing-gown; and if she saw any of us there,
she'd pretend to be much startled, and say that she thought
all the men had gone out, and make as though she was going to clear;
and someone 'd jump up and give her a chair, while someone else said,
`Come in, Miss Brown! come in! Don't let us frighten you. Come right in,
and have your breakfast before it gets cold.' So she'd flutter a bit
in pretty confusion, and then make a sweet little girly-girly dive
for her chair, and tuck her feet away under the table; and she'd blush, too,
but I don't know how she managed that.
"I know another trick that women have; it's mostly played by private barmaids.
That is, to leave a stocking by accident in the bathroom for the gentlemen
to find. If the barmaid's got a nice foot and ankle, she uses
one of her own stockings; but if she hasn't she gets hold of a stocking
that belongs to a girl that has. Anyway, she'll have one readied up somehow.
The stocking must be worn and nicely darned; one that's been worn
will keep the shape of the leg and foot -- at least till it's washed again.
Well, the barmaid generally knows what time the gentlemen go to bath,
and she'll make it a point of going down just as a gentleman's going.
Of course he'll give her the preference -- let her go first, you know --
and she'll go in and accidentally leave the stocking in a place
where he's sure to see it, and when she comes out he'll go in and find it;
and very likely he'll be a jolly sort of fellow, and when they're all
sitting down to breakfast he'll come in and ask them to guess what he's found,
and then he'll hold up the stocking. The barmaid likes this sort of thing;
but she'll hold down her head, and pretend to be confused, and keep her eyes
on her plate, and there'll be much blushing and all that sort of thing,
and perhaps she'll gammon to be mad at him, and the landlady'll say,
`Oh, Mr. Smith! how can yer? At the breakfast table, too!'
and they'll all laugh and look at the barmaid, and she'll get more embarrassed
than ever, and spill her tea, and make out as though the stocking
didn't belong to her."
No Place for a Woman
He had a selection on a long box-scrub siding of the ridges,
about half a mile back and up from the coach road. There were no neighbours
that I ever heard of, and the nearest "town" was thirty miles away.
He grew wheat among the stumps of his clearing, sold the crop standing
to a Cockie who lived ten miles away, and had some surplus sons;
or, some seasons, he reaped it by hand, had it thrashed
by travelling "steamer" (portable steam engine and machine),
and carried the grain, a few bags at a time, into the mill
on his rickety dray.
He had lived alone for upwards of 15 years, and was known
to those who knew him as "Ratty Howlett".
Trav'lers and strangers failed to see anything uncommonly ratty about him.
It was known, or, at least, it was believed, without question,
that while at work he kept his horse saddled and bridled,
and hung up to the fence, or grazing about, with the saddle on -- or, anyway,
close handy for a moment's notice -- and whenever he caught sight,
over the scrub and through the quarter-mile break in it,
of a traveller on the road, he would jump on his horse and make after him.
If it was a horseman he usually pulled him up inside of a mile.
Stories were told of unsuccessful chases, misunderstandings, and complications
arising out of Howlett's mania for running down and bailing up travellers.
Sometimes he caught one every day for a week, sometimes not one for weeks --
it was a lonely track.
The explanation was simple, sufficient, and perfectly natural --
from a bushman's point of view. Ratty only wanted to have a yarn.
He and the traveller would camp in the shade for half an hour or so
and yarn and smoke. The old man would find out where the traveller came from,
and how long he'd been there, and where he was making for,
and how long he reckoned he'd be away; and ask if there had been any rain
along the traveller's back track, and how the country looked
after the drought; and he'd get the traveller's ideas on abstract questions --
if he had any. If it was a footman (swagman), and he was short of tobacco,
old Howlett always had half a stick ready for him. Sometimes,
but very rarely, he'd invite the swagman back to the hut for a pint of tea,
or a bit of meat, flour, tea, or sugar, to carry him along the track.
And, after the yarn by the road, they said, the old man would ride back,
refreshed, to his lonely selection, and work on into the night
as long as he could see his solitary old plough horse,
or the scoop of his long-handled shovel.
And so it was that I came to make his acquaintance -- or, rather,
that he made mine. I was cantering easily along the track
-- I was making for the north-west with a pack horse -- when about a mile
beyond the track to the selection I heard, "Hi, Mister!" and saw a dust cloud
following me. I had heard of "Old Ratty Howlett" casually,
and so was prepared for him.
A tall gaunt man on a little horse. He was clean-shaven,
except for a frill beard round under his chin, and his long wavy, dark hair
was turning grey; a square, strong-faced man, and reminded me
of one full-faced portrait of Gladstone more than any other face I had seen.
He had large reddish-brown eyes, deep set under heavy eyebrows,
and with something of the blackfellow in them -- the sort of eyes
that will peer at something on the horizon that no one else can see.
He had a way of talking to the horizon, too -- more than to his companion;
and he had a deep vertical wrinkle in his forehead that no smile could lessen.
I got down and got out my pipe, and we sat on a log and yarned awhile
on bush subjects; and then, after a pause, he shifted uneasily,
it seemed to me, and asked rather abruptly, and in an altered tone,
if I was married. A queer question to ask a traveller; more especially
in my case, as I was little more than a boy then.
He talked on again of old things and places where we had both been,
and asked after men he knew, or had known -- drovers and others --
and whether they were living yet. Most of his inquiries went back
before my time; but some of the drovers, one or two overlanders
with whom he had been mates in his time, had grown old into mine,
and I knew them. I notice now, though I didn't then -- and if I had
it would not have seemed strange from a bush point of view --
that he didn't ask for news, nor seem interested in it.
Then after another uneasy pause, during which he scratched crosses in the dust
with a stick, he asked me, in the same queer tone and without
looking at me or looking up, if I happened to know anything about doctoring --
if I'd ever studied it.
I asked him if anyone was sick at his place. He hesitated, and said "No."
Then I wanted to know why he had asked me that question,
and he was so long about answering that I began to think
he was hard of hearing, when, at last, he muttered something about my face
reminding him of a young fellow he knew of who'd gone to Sydney
to "study for a doctor". That might have been, and looked natural enough;
but why didn't he ask me straight out if I was the chap he "knowed of"?
Travellers do not like beating about the bush in conversation.
He sat in silence for a good while, with his arms folded,
and looking absently away over the dead level of the great scrubs
that spread from the foot of the ridge we were on to where
a blue peak or two of a distant range showed above the bush on the horizon.
I stood up and put my pipe away and stretched. Then he seemed to wake up.
"Better come back to the hut and have a bit of dinner," he said.
"The missus will about have it ready, and I'll spare you a handful of hay
for the horses."
The hay decided it. It was a dry season. I was surprised to hear of a wife,
for I thought he was a hatter -- I had always heard so;
but perhaps I had been mistaken, and he had married lately;
or had got a housekeeper. The farm was an irregularly-shaped clearing
in the scrub, with a good many stumps in it, with a broken-down two-rail fence
along the frontage, and logs and "dog-leg" the rest. It was about
as lonely-looking a place as I had seen, and I had seen some out-of-the-way,
God-forgotten holes where men lived alone. The hut was in the top corner,
a two-roomed slab hut, with a shingle roof, which must have been
uncommon round there in the days when that hut was built.
I was used to bush carpentering, and saw that the place had been put up
by a man who had plenty of life and hope in front of him, and for someone else
beside himself. But there were two unfinished skilling rooms
built on to the back of the hut; the posts, sleepers, and wall-plates
had been well put up and fitted, and the slab walls were up,
but the roof had never been put on. There was nothing but burrs and nettles
inside those walls, and an old wooden bullock plough and a couple of yokes
were dry-rotting across the back doorway. The remains of a straw-stack,
some hay under a bark humpy, a small iron plough, and an old stiff
coffin-headed grey draught horse, were all that I saw about the place.
But there was a bit of a surprise for me inside, in the shape of
a clean white tablecloth on the rough slab table which stood on stakes
driven into the ground. The cloth was coarse, but it was a tablecloth
-- not a spare sheet put on in honour of unexpected visitors --
and perfectly clean. The tin plates, pannikins, and jam tins
that served as sugar bowls and salt cellars were polished brightly.
The walls and fireplace were whitewashed, the clay floor swept,
and clean sheets of newspaper laid on the slab mantleshelf
under the row of biscuit tins that held the groceries.
I thought that his wife, or housekeeper, or whatever she was,
was a clean and tidy woman about a house. I saw no woman; but on the sofa
-- a light, wooden, batten one, with runged arms at the ends --
lay a woman's dress on a lot of sheets of old stained and faded newspapers.
He looked at it in a puzzled way, knitting his forehead,
then took it up absently and folded it. I saw then that it was
a riding skirt and jacket. He bundled them into the newspapers
and took them into the bedroom.
"The wife was going on a visit down the creek this afternoon,"
he said rapidly and without looking at me, but stooping as if
to have another look through the door at those distant peaks.
"I suppose she got tired o' waitin', and went and took the daughter with her.
But, never mind, the grub is ready." There was a camp-oven
with a leg of mutton and potatoes sizzling in it on the hearth,
and billies hanging over the fire. I noticed the billies had been scraped,
and the lids polished.
There seemed to be something queer about the whole business,
but then he and his wife might have had a "breeze" during the morning.
I thought so during the meal, when the subject of women came up,
and he said one never knew how to take a woman, etc.;
but there was nothing in what he said that need necessarily
have referred to his wife or to any woman in particular.
For the rest he talked of old bush things, droving, digging,
and old bushranging -- but never about live things and living men,
unless any of the old mates he talked about happened to be alive by accident.
He was very restless in the house, and never took his hat off.
There was a dress and a woman's old hat hanging on the wall near the door,
but they looked as if they might have been hanging there for a lifetime.
There seemed something queer about the whole place -- something wanting;
but then all out-of-the-way bush homes are haunted by that something wanting,
or, more likely, by the spirits of the things that should have been there,
but never had been.
As I rode down the track to the road I looked back and saw old Howlett
hard at work in a hole round a big stump with his long-handled shovel.
I'd noticed that he moved and walked with a slight list to port,
and put his hand once or twice to the small of his back,
and I set it down to lumbago, or something of that sort.
Up in the Never Never I heard from a drover who had known Howlett
that his wife had died in the first year, and so this mysterious woman,
if she was his wife, was, of course, his second wife.
The drover seemed surprised and rather amused at the thought of old Howlett
going in for matrimony again.
. . . . .
I rode back that way five years later, from the Never Never.
It was early in the morning -- I had ridden since midnight.
I didn't think the old man would be up and about; and, besides,
I wanted to get on home, and have a look at the old folk, and the mates
I'd left behind -- and the girl. But I hadn't got far past the point
where Howlett's track joined the road, when I happened to look back,
and saw him on horseback, stumbling down the track. I waited till he came up.
He was riding the old grey draught horse this time, and it looked
very much broken down. I thought it would have come down every step,
and fallen like an old rotten humpy in a gust of wind.
And the old man was not much better off. I saw at once
that he was a very sick man. His face was drawn, and he bent forward
as if he was hurt. He got down stiffly and awkwardly, like a hurt man,
and as soon as his feet touched the ground he grabbed my arm,
or he would have gone down like a man who steps off a train in motion.
He hung towards the bank of the road, feeling blindly, as it were,
for the ground, with his free hand, as I eased him down.
I got my blanket and calico from the pack saddle to make him comfortable.
"Help me with my back agen the tree," he said. "I must sit up --
it's no use lyin' me down."
He sat with his hand gripping his side, and breathed painfully.
"Shall I run up to the hut and get the wife?" I asked.
"No." He spoke painfully. "No!" Then, as if the words
were jerked out of him by a spasm: "She ain't there."
I took it that she had left him.
"How long have you been bad? How long has this been coming on?"
He took no notice of the question. I thought it was
a touch of rheumatic fever, or something of that sort.
"It's gone into my back and sides now -- the pain's worse in me back,"
he said presently.
I had once been mates with a man who died suddenly of heart disease,
while at work. He was washing a dish of dirt in the creek
near a claim we were working; he let the dish slip into the water,
fell back, crying, "O, my back!" and was gone. And now I felt by instinct
that it was poor old Howlett's heart that was wrong. A man's heart
is in his back as well as in his arms and hands.
The old man had turned pale with the pallor of a man who turns faint
in a heat wave, and his arms fell loosely, and his hands rocked helplessly
with the knuckles in the dust. I felt myself turning white, too,
and the sick, cold, empty feeling in my stomach, for I knew the signs.
Bushmen stand in awe of sickness and death.
But after I'd fixed him comfortably and given him a drink from the water bag
the greyness left his face, and he pulled himself together a bit;
he drew up his arms and folded them across his chest.
He let his head rest back against the tree -- his slouch hat had fallen off
revealing a broad, white brow, much higher than I expected.
He seemed to gaze on the azure fin of the range, showing above
the dark blue-green bush on the horizon.
Then he commenced to speak -- taking no notice of me when I asked him
if he felt better now -- to talk in that strange, absent, far-away tone
that awes one. He told his story mechanically, monotonously --
in set words, as I believe now, as he had often told it before;
if not to others, then to the loneliness of the bush.
And he used the names of people and places that I had never heard of --
just as if I knew them as well as he did.
"I didn't want to bring her up the first year. It was no place for a woman.
I wanted her to stay with her people and wait till I'd got the place
a little more ship-shape. The Phippses took a selection down the creek.
I wanted her to wait and come up with them so's she'd have some company --
a woman to talk to. They came afterwards, but they didn't stop.
It was no place for a woman.
"But Mary would come. She wouldn't stop with her people down country.
She wanted to be with me, and look after me, and work and help me."
He repeated himself a great deal -- said the same thing
over and over again sometimes. He was only mad on one track.
He'd tail off and sit silent for a while; then he'd become aware of me
in a hurried, half-scared way, and apologise for putting me
to all that trouble, and thank me. "I'll be all right d'reckly.
Best take the horses up to the hut and have some breakfast;
you'll find it by the fire. I'll foller you, d'reckly.
The wife'll be waitin' an' ----" He would drop off,
and be going again presently on the old track: --
"Her mother was coming up to stay awhile at the end of the year,
but the old man hurt his leg. Then her married sister was coming,
but one of the youngsters got sick and there was trouble at home.
I saw the doctor in the town -- thirty miles from here --
and fixed it up with him. He was a boozer -- I'd 'a shot him afterwards.
I fixed up with a woman in the town to come and stay. I thought Mary
was wrong in her time. She must have been a month or six weeks out.
But I listened to her. . . . Don't argue with a woman.
Don't listen to a woman. Do the right thing. We should have had
a mother woman to talk to us. But it was no place for a woman!"
He rocked his head, as if from some old agony of mind, against the tree-trunk.
"She was took bad suddenly one night, but it passed off. False alarm.
I was going to ride somewhere, but she said to wait till daylight.
Someone was sure to pass. She was a brave and sensible girl,
but she had a terror of being left alone. It was no place for a woman!
"There was a black shepherd three or four miles away. I rode over
while Mary was asleep, and started the black boy into town.
I'd 'a shot him afterwards if I'd 'a caught him. The old black gin was dead
the week before, or Mary would a' bin alright. She was tied up in a bunch
with strips of blanket and greenhide, and put in a hole.
So there wasn't even a gin near the place. It was no place for a woman!
"I was watchin' the road at daylight, and I was watchin' the road at dusk.
I went down in the hollow and stooped down to get the gap agen the sky,
so's I could see if anyone was comin' over. . . . I'd get on the horse
and gallop along towards the town for five miles, but something would
drag me back, and then I'd race for fear she'd die before I got to the hut.
I expected the doctor every five minutes.
"It come on about daylight next morning. I ran back'ards and for'ards
between the hut and the road like a madman. And no one come.
I was running amongst the logs and stumps, and fallin' over them,
when I saw a cloud of dust agen sunrise. It was her mother an' sister
in the spring-cart, an' just catchin' up to them was the doctor in his buggy
with the woman I'd arranged with in town. The mother and sister
was staying at the town for the night, when they heard of the black boy.
It took him a day to ride there. I'd 'a shot him if I'd 'a caught him
ever after. The doctor'd been on the drunk. If I'd had the gun and known
she was gone I'd have shot him in the buggy. They said she was dead.
And the child was dead, too.
"They blamed me, but I didn't want her to come; it was no place for a woman.
I never saw them again after the funeral. I didn't want to see them
He moved his head wearily against the tree, and presently drifted on again
in a softer tone -- his eyes and voice were growing more absent and dreamy
and far away.
"About a month after -- or a year, I lost count of the time long ago --
she came back to me. At first she'd come in the night, then sometimes
when I was at work -- and she had the baby -- it was a girl -- in her arms.
And by-and-bye she came to stay altogether. . . . I didn't blame her
for going away that time -- it was no place for a woman. . . .
She was a good wife to me. She was a jolly girl when I married her.
The little girl grew up like her. I was going to send her down country
to be educated -- it was no place for a girl.
"But a month, or a year, ago, Mary left me, and took the daughter,
and never came back till last night -- this morning, I think it was.
I thought at first it was the girl with her hair done up,
and her mother's skirt on, to surprise her old dad. But it was Mary,
my wife -- as she was when I married her. She said she couldn't stay,
but she'd wait for me on the road; on -- the road. . . ."
His arms fell, and his face went white. I got the water-bag.
"Another turn like that and you'll be gone," I thought, as he came to again.
Then I suddenly thought of a shanty that had been started,
when I came that way last, ten or twelve miles along the road,
towards the town. There was nothing for it but to leave him
and ride on for help, and a cart of some kind.
"You wait here till I come back," I said. "I'm going for the doctor."
He roused himself a little. "Best come up to the hut and get some grub.
The wife'll be waiting. . . ." He was off the track again.
"Will you wait while I take the horse down to the creek?"
"Yes -- I'll wait by the road."
"Look!" I said, "I'll leave the water-bag handy. Don't move
till I come back."
"I won't move -- I'll wait by the road," he said.
I took the packhorse, which was the freshest and best,
threw the pack-saddle and bags into a bush, left the other horse
to take care of itself, and started for the shanty, leaving the old man
with his back to the tree, his arms folded, and his eyes on the horizon.
One of the chaps at the shanty rode on for the doctor at once,
while the other came back with me in a spring-cart. He told me
that old Howlett's wife had died in child-birth the first year
on the selection -- "she was a fine girl he'd heered!" He told me the story
as the old man had told it, and in pretty well the same words,
even to giving it as his opinion that it was no place for a woman.
"And he `hatted' and brooded over it till he went ratty."
I knew the rest. He not only thought that his wife, or the ghost of his wife,
had been with him all those years, but that the child had lived and grown up,
and that the wife did the housework; which, of course,
he must have done himself.
When we reached him his knotted hands had fallen for the last time,
and they were at rest. I only took one quick look at his face,
but could have sworn that he was gazing at the blue fin of the range
on the horizon of the bush.
Up at the hut the table was set as on the first day I saw it,
and breakfast in the camp-oven by the fire.
"I'm going to knock off work and try to make some money," said Mitchell,
as he jerked the tea-leaves out of his pannikin and reached for the billy.
"It's been the great mistake of my life -- if I hadn't wasted
all my time and energy working and looking for work I might have been
an independent man to-day."
"Joe!" he added in a louder voice, condescendingly adapting his language
to my bushed comprehension. "I'm going to sling graft and try and get
some stuff together."
I didn't feel in a responsive humour, but I lit up and settled back
comfortably against the tree, and Jack folded his arms on his knees
and presently continued, reflectively:
"I remember the first time I went to work. I was a youngster then.
Mother used to go round looking for jobs for me. She reckoned, perhaps,
that I was too shy to go in where there was a boy wanted
and barrack for myself properly, and she used to help me and see me through
to the best of her ability. I'm afraid I didn't always feel
as grateful to her as I should have felt. I was a thankless kid
at the best of times -- most kids are -- but otherwise
I was a straight enough little chap as nippers go. Sometimes I almost wish
I hadn't been. My relations would have thought a good deal more of me
and treated me better -- and, besides, it's a comfort, at times,
to sit and watch the sun going down in the bed of the bush,
and think of your wicked childhood and wasted life, and the way
you treated your parents and broke their hearts, and feel just properly
repentant and bitter and remorseful and low-spirited about it
when it's too late.
"Ah, well! . . . I generally did feel a bit backward in going in
when I came to the door of an office or shop where there was a `Strong Lad',
or a `Willing Youth', wanted inside to make himself generally useful.
I was a strong lad and a willing youth enough, in some things,
for that matter; but I didn't like to see it written up on a card
in a shop window, and I didn't want to make myself generally useful
in a close shop in a hot dusty street on mornings when
the weather was fine and the great sunny rollers were coming in grand
on the Bondi Beach and down at Coogee, and I could swim. . . .
I'd give something to be down along there now."
Mitchell looked away out over the sultry sandy plain that we were to tackle
next day, and sighed.
"The first job I got was in a jam factory. They only had `Boy Wanted'
on the card in the window, and I thought it would suit me. They set me
to work to peel peaches, and, as soon as the foreman's back was turned,
I picked out a likely-looking peach and tried it. They soaked those peaches
in salt or acid or something -- it was part of the process --
and I had to spit it out. Then I got an orange from a boy
who was slicing them, but it was bitter, and I couldn't eat it.
I saw that I'd been had properly. I was in a fix, and had to get out of it
the best way I could. I'd left my coat down in the front shop,
and the foreman and boss were there, so I had to work in that place
for two mortal hours. It was about the longest two hours
I'd ever spent in my life. At last the foreman came up,
and I told him I wanted to go down to the back for a minute.
I slipped down, watched my chance till the boss' back was turned,
got my coat, and cleared.
"The next job I got was in a mat factory; at least, Aunt got that for me.
I didn't want to have anything to do with mats or carpets.
The worst of it was the boss didn't seem to want me to go,
and I had a job to get him to sack me, and when he did
he saw some of my people and took me back again next week.
He sacked me finally the next Saturday.
"I got the next job myself. I didn't hurry; I took my time and picked out
a good one. It was in a lolly factory. I thought it would suit me --
and it did, for a while. They put me on stirring up and mixing stuff
in the jujube department; but I got so sick of the smell of it
and so full of jujube and other lollies that I soon wanted a change;
so I had a row with the chief of the jujube department
and the boss gave me the sack.
"I got a job in a grocery then. I thought I'd have more variety there.
But one day the boss was away, sick or something, all the afternoon,
and I sold a lot of things too cheap. I didn't know. When a customer
came in and asked for something I'd just look round in the window
till I saw a card with the price written up on it, and sell the best quality
according to that price; and once or twice I made a mistake
the other way about and lost a couple of good customers.
It was a hot, drowsy afternoon, and by-and-bye I began to feel
dull and sleepy. So I looked round the corner and saw a Chinaman coming.
I got a big tin garden syringe and filled it full of brine
from the butter keg, and, when he came opposite the door,
I let him have the full force of it in the ear.
"That Chinaman put down his baskets and came for me. I was strong for my age,
and thought I could fight, but he gave me a proper mauling.
"It was like running up against a thrashing machine,
and it wouldn't have been well for me if the boss of the shop next door
hadn't interfered. He told my boss, and my boss gave me the sack at once.
"I took a spell of eighteen months or so after that,
and was growing up happy and contented when a married sister of mine
must needs come to live in town and interfere. I didn't like married sisters,
though I always got on grand with my brothers-in-law,
and wished there were more of them. The married sister
comes round and cleans up the place and pulls your things about
and finds your pipe and tobacco and things, and cigarette portraits,
and "Deadwood Dicks", that you've got put away all right,
so's your mother and aunt wouldn't find them in a generation of cats,
"`Mother, why don't you make that boy go to work. It's a scandalous shame
to see a big boy like that growing up idle. He's going to the bad
before your eyes.' And she's always trying to make out that you're a liar,
and trying to make mother believe it, too. My married sister got me a job
with a chemist, whose missus she knew.
"I got on pretty well there, and by-and-bye I was put upstairs
in the grinding and mixing department; but, after a while,
they put another boy that I was chummy with up there with me,
and that was a mistake. I didn't think so at the time,
but I can see it now. We got up to all sorts of tricks. We'd get
mixing together chemicals that weren't related to see how they'd agree,
and we nearly blew up the shop several times, and set it on fire once.
But all the chaps liked us, and fixed things up for us.
One day we got a big black dog -- that we meant to take home that evening --
and sneaked him upstairs and put him on a flat roof outside the laboratory.
He had a touch of the mange and didn't look well, so we gave him
a dose of something; and he scrambled over the parapet and slipped down
a steep iron roof in front, and fell on a respected townsman
that knew my people. We were awfully frightened, and didn't say anything.
Nobody saw it but us. The dog had the presence of mind to leave at once,
and the respected townsman was picked up and taken home in a cab;
and he got it hot from his wife, too, I believe, for being in that drunken,
beastly state in the main street in the middle of the day.
"I don't think he was ever quite sure that he hadn't been drunk
or what had happened, for he had had one or two that morning;
so it didn't matter much. Only we lost the dog.
"One day I went downstairs to the packing-room and saw a lot of phosphorus
in jars of water. I wanted to fix up a ghost for Billy, my mate,
so I nicked a bit and slipped it into my trouser pocket.
"I stood under the tap and let it pour on me. The phosphorus burnt
clean through my pocket and fell on the ground. I was sent home that night
with my leg dressed with lime-water and oil, and a pair of the boss's pants on
that were about half a yard too long for me, and I felt miserable enough, too.
They said it would stop my tricks for a while, and so it did.
I'll carry the mark to my dying day -- and for two or three days after,
for that matter."
. . . . .
I fell asleep at this point, and left Mitchell's cattle pup to hear it out.
Bill, the Ventriloquial Rooster
"When we were up country on the selection, we had a rooster at our place,
named Bill," said Mitchell; "a big mongrel of no particular breed,
though the old lady said he was a `brammer' -- and many an argument
she had with the old man about it too; she was just as stubborn and obstinate
in her opinion as the governor was in his. But, anyway, we called him Bill,
and didn't take any particular notice of him till a cousin of some of us
came from Sydney on a visit to the country, and stayed at our place
because it was cheaper than stopping at a pub. Well, somehow this chap
got interested in Bill, and studied him for two or three days,
and at last he says:
"`Why, that rooster's a ventriloquist!'
"`Go along with yer!'
"`But he is. I've heard of cases like this before; but this is the first
I've come across. Bill's a ventriloquist right enough.'
"Then we remembered that there wasn't another rooster within five miles
-- our only neighbour, an Irishman named Page, didn't have one at the time --
and we'd often heard another cock crow, but didn't think to take
any notice of it. We watched Bill, and sure enough he WAS a ventriloquist.
The `ka-cocka' would come all right, but the `co-ka-koo-oi-oo'
seemed to come from a distance. And sometimes the whole crow would go wrong,
and come back like an echo that had been lost for a year.
Bill would stand on tiptoe, and hold his elbows out, and curve his neck,
and go two or three times as if he was swallowing nest-eggs,
and nearly break his neck and burst his gizzard; and then there'd be
no sound at all where he was -- only a cock crowing in the distance.
"And pretty soon we could see that Bill was in great trouble about it himself.
You see, he didn't know it was himself -- thought it was another rooster
challenging him, and he wanted badly to find that other bird. He would get up
on the wood-heap, and crow and listen -- crow and listen again --
crow and listen, and then he'd go up to the top of the paddock,
and get up on the stack, and crow and listen there. Then down
to the other end of the paddock, and get up on a mullock-heap,
and crow and listen there. Then across to the other side and up on a log
among the saplings, and crow 'n' listen some more. He searched
all over the place for that other rooster, but, of course, couldn't find him.
Sometimes he'd be out all day crowing and listening all over the country,
and then come home dead tired, and rest and cool off in a hole
that the hens had scratched for him in a damp place
under the water-cask sledge.
"Well, one day Page brought home a big white rooster, and when he let it go
it climbed up on Page's stack and crowed, to see if there was
any more roosters round there. Bill had come home tired; it was a hot day,
and he'd rooted out the hens, and was having a spell-oh under the cask
when the white rooster crowed. Bill didn't lose any time getting out
and on to the wood-heap, and then he waited till he heard the crow again;
then he crowed, and the other rooster crowed again, and they crowed
at each other for three days, and called each other all the wretches
they could lay their tongues to, and after that they implored each other
to come out and be made into chicken soup and feather pillows.
But neither'd come. You see, there were THREE crows -- there was
Bill's crow, and the ventriloquist crow, and the white rooster's crow --
and each rooster thought that there was TWO roosters in the opposition camp,
and that he mightn't get fair play, and, consequently, both were afraid
to put up their hands.
"But at last Bill couldn't stand it any longer. He made up his mind
to go and have it out, even if there was a whole agricultural show
of prize and honourable-mention fighting-cocks in Page's yard.
He got down from the wood-heap and started off across the ploughed field,
his head down, his elbows out, and his thick awkward legs
prodding away at the furrows behind for all they were worth.
"I wanted to go down badly and see the fight, and barrack for Bill.
But I daren't, because I'd been coming up the road late the night before
with my brother Joe, and there was about three panels of turkeys roosting
along on the top rail of Page's front fence; and we brushed 'em with a bough,
and they got up such a blessed gobbling fuss about it
that Page came out in his shirt and saw us running away; and I knew
he was laying for us with a bullock whip. Besides, there was friction
between the two families on account of a thoroughbred bull
that Page borrowed and wouldn't lend to us, and that got into our paddock
on account of me mending a panel in the party fence, and carelessly leaving
the top rail down after sundown while our cows was moving round there
in the saplings.
"So there was too much friction for me to go down, but I climbed a tree
as near the fence as I could and watched. Bill reckoned he'd found
that rooster at last. The white rooster wouldn't come down from the stack,
so Bill went up to him, and they fought there till they tumbled down
the other side, and I couldn't see any more. Wasn't I wild?
I'd have given my dog to have seen the rest of the fight.
I went down to the far side of Page's fence and climbed a tree there,
but, of course, I couldn't see anything, so I came home the back way.
Just as I got home Page came round to the front and sung out, `Insoid there!'
And me and Jim went under the house like snakes and looked out round a pile.
But Page was all right -- he had a broad grin on his face,
and Bill safe under his arm. He put Bill down on the ground very carefully,
and says he to the old folks:
"`Yer rooster knocked the stuffin' out of my rooster, but I bear no malice.
'Twas a grand foight.'
"And then the old man and Page had a yarn, and got pretty friendly after that.
And Bill didn't seem to bother about any more ventriloquism;
but the white rooster spent a lot of time looking for that other rooster.
Perhaps he thought he'd have better luck with him. But Page
was on the look-out all the time to get a rooster that would lick ours.
He did nothing else for a month but ride round and enquire about roosters;
and at last he borrowed a game-bird in town, left five pounds deposit on him,
and brought him home. And Page and the old man agreed to have a match --
about the only thing they'd agreed about for five years.
And they fixed it up for a Sunday when the old lady and the girls and kids
were going on a visit to some relations, about fifteen miles away --
to stop all night. The guv'nor made me go with them on horseback;
but I knew what was up, and so my pony went lame about a mile along the road,
and I had to come back and turn him out in the top paddock,
and hide the saddle and bridle in a hollow log, and sneak home and climb up
on the roof of the shed. It was a awful hot day, and I had to keep climbing
backward and forward over the ridge-pole all the morning
to keep out of sight of the old man, for he was moving about a good deal.
"Well, after dinner, the fellows from roundabout began to ride in
and hang up their horses round the place till it looked as if
there was going to be a funeral. Some of the chaps saw me, of course,
but I tipped them the wink, and they gave me the office
whenever the old man happened around.
"Well, Page came along with his game-rooster. Its name was Jim. It wasn't
much to look at, and it seemed a good deal smaller and weaker than Bill.
Some of the chaps were disgusted, and said it wasn't a game-rooster at all;
Bill'd settle it in one lick, and they wouldn't have any fun.
"Well, they brought the game one out and put him down near the wood-heap,
and rousted Bill out from under his cask. He got interested at once.
He looked at Jim, and got up on the wood-heap and crowed and looked
at Jim again. He reckoned THIS at last was the fowl
that had been humbugging him all along. Presently his trouble caught him,
and then he'd crow and take a squint at the game 'un, and crow again,
and have another squint at gamey, and try to crow and keep his eye
on the game-rooster at the same time. But Jim never committed himself,
until at last he happened to gape just after Bill's whole crow went wrong,
and Bill spotted him. He reckoned he'd caught him this time,
and he got down off that wood-heap and went for the foe. But Jim ran away --
and Bill ran after him.
"Round and round the wood-heap they went, and round the shed,
and round the house and under it, and back again, and round the wood-heap
and over it and round the other way, and kept it up for close on an hour.
Bill's bill was just within an inch or so of the game-rooster's tail feathers
most of the time, but he couldn't get any nearer, do how he liked.
And all the time the fellers kept chyackin Page and singing out,
`What price yer game 'un, Page! Go it, Bill! Go it, old cock!'
and all that sort of thing. Well, the game-rooster went
as if it was a go-as-you-please, and he didn't care if it lasted a year.
He didn't seem to take any interest in the business, but Bill got excited,
and by-and-by he got mad. He held his head lower and lower and his wings
further and further out from his sides, and prodded away harder and harder
at the ground behind, but it wasn't any use. Jim seemed to keep ahead
without trying. They stuck to the wood-heap towards the last.
They went round first one way for a while, and then the other for a change,
and now and then they'd go over the top to break the monotony;
and the chaps got more interested in the race than they would have been
in the fight -- and bet on it, too. But Bill was handicapped with his weight.
He was done up at last; he slowed down till he couldn't waddle,
and then, when he was thoroughly knocked up, that game-rooster turned on him,
and gave him the father of a hiding.
"And my father caught me when I'd got down in the excitement,
and wasn't thinking, and HE gave ME the step-father of a hiding.
But he had a lively time with the old lady afterwards, over the cock-fight.
"Bill was so disgusted with himself that he went under the cask and died."
"Domestic cats" we mean -- the descendants of cats who came
from the northern world during the last hundred odd years.
We do not know the name of the vessel in which the first Thomas and his Maria
came out to Australia, but we suppose that it was one of the ships
of the First Fleet. Most likely Maria had kittens on the voyage
-- two lots, perhaps -- the majority of which were buried at sea;
and no doubt the disembarkation caused her much maternal anxiety.
. . . . .
The feline race has not altered much in Australia, from a physical
point of view -- not yet. The rabbit has developed into something
like a cross between a kangaroo and a possum, but the bush has not begun
to develop the common cat. She is just as sedate and motherly
as the mummy cats of Egypt were, but she takes longer strolls of nights,
climbs gum-trees instead of roofs, and hunts stranger vermin
than ever came under the observation of her northern ancestors.
Her views have widened. She is mostly thinner than the English farm cat --
which is, they say, on account of eating lizards.
English rats and English mice -- we say "English" because
everything which isn't Australian in Australia, IS English (or British) --
English rats and English mice are either rare or non-existent in the bush;
but the hut cat has a wider range for game. She is always dragging in things
which are unknown in the halls of zoology; ugly, loathsome, crawling abortions
which have not been classified yet -- and perhaps could not be.
The Australian zoologist ought to rake up some more dead languages,
and then go Out Back with a few bush cats.
The Australian bush cat has a nasty, unpleasant habit of dragging
a long, wriggling, horrid, black snake -- she seems to prefer black snakes --
into a room where there are ladies, proudly laying it down
in a conspicuous place (usually in front of the exit),
and then looking up for approbation. She wonders, perhaps,
why the visitors are in such a hurry to leave.
Pussy doesn't approve of live snakes round the place, especially if
she has kittens; and if she finds a snake in the vicinity of her progeny --
well, it is bad for that particular serpent.
This brings recollections of a neighbour's cat who went out in the scrub,
one midsummer's day, and found a brown snake. Her name
-- the cat's name -- was Mary Ann. She got hold of the snake all right,
just within an inch of its head; but it got the rest of its length
wound round her body and squeezed about eight lives out of her.
She had the presence of mind to keep her hold; but it struck her
that she was in a fix, and that if she wanted to save her ninth life,
it wouldn't be a bad idea to go home for help. So she started home,
snake and all.
The family were at dinner when Mary Ann came in, and, although she stood
on an open part of the floor, no one noticed her for a while.
She couldn't ask for help, for her mouth was too full of snake.
By-and-bye one of the girls glanced round, and then went over the table,
with a shriek, and out of the back door. The room was cleared very quickly.
The eldest boy got a long-handled shovel, and in another second
would have killed more cat than snake; but his father interfered.
The father was a shearer, and Mary Ann was a favourite cat with him.
He got a pair of shears from the shelf and deftly shore off the snake's head,
and one side of Mary Ann's whiskers. She didn't think it safe to let go yet.
She kept her teeth in the neck until the selector snipped
the rest of the snake off her. The bits were carried out on a shovel
to die at sundown. Mary Ann had a good drink of milk,
and then got her tongue out and licked herself back into the proper shape
for a cat; after which she went out to look for that snake's mate.
She found it, too, and dragged it home the same evening.
Cats will kill rabbits and drag them home. We knew a fossicker
whose cat used to bring him a bunny nearly every night.
The fossicker had rabbits for breakfast until he got sick of them,
and then he used to swap them with a butcher for meat.
The cat was named Ingersoll, which indicates his sex and gives an inkling
to his master's religious and political opinions. Ingersoll used to
prospect round in the gloaming until he found some rabbit holes
which showed encouraging indications. He would shepherd one hole
for an hour or so every evening until he found it was a duffer,
or worked it out; then he would shift to another. One day he prospected
a big hollow log with a lot of holes in it, and more going down underneath.
The indications were very good, but Ingersoll had no luck.
The game had too many ways of getting out and in. He found
that he could not work that claim by himself, so he floated it into a company.
He persuaded several cats from a neighbouring selection to take shares,
and they watched the holes together, or in turns -- they worked shifts.
The dividends more than realised even their wildest expectations,
for each cat took home at least one rabbit every night for a week.
A selector started a vegetable garden about the time
when rabbits were beginning to get troublesome up country.
The hare had not shown itself yet. The farmer kept quite a regiment of cats
to protect his garden -- and they protected it. He would shut the cats up
all day with nothing to eat, and let them out about sundown;
then they would mooch off to the turnip patch like farm-labourers
going to work. They would drag the rabbits home to the back door,
and sit there and watch them until the farmer opened the door
and served out the ration of milk. Then the cats would turn in.
He nearly always found a semi-circle of dead rabbits and watchful cats
round the door in the morning. They sold the product of their labour
direct to the farmer for milk. It didn't matter if one cat had been unlucky
-- had not got a rabbit -- each had an equal share in the general result.
They were true socialists, those cats.
One of those cats was a mighty big Tom, named Jack. He was death on rabbits;
he would work hard all night, laying for them and dragging them home.
Some weeks he would graft every night, and at other times every other night,
but he was generally pretty regular. When he reckoned he had done
an extra night's work, he would take the next night off and go three miles
to the nearest neighbour's to see his Maria and take her out for a stroll.
Well, one evening Jack went into the garden and chose a place
where there was good cover, and lay low. He was a bit earlier than usual,
so he thought he would have a doze till rabbit time.
By-and-bye he heard a noise, and slowly, cautiously opening one eye,
he saw two big ears sticking out of the leaves in front of him.
He judged that it was an extra big bunny, so he put some extra style
into his manoeuvres. In about five minutes he made his spring.
He must have thought (if cats think) that it was a whopping, old-man rabbit,
for it was a pioneer hare -- not an ordinary English hare,
but one of those great coarse, lanky things which the bush is breeding.
The selector was attracted by an unusual commotion and a cloud of dust
among his cabbages, and came along with his gun in time to witness the fight.
First Jack would drag the hare, and then the hare would drag Jack;
sometimes they would be down together, and then Jack would use his hind claws
with effect; finally he got his teeth in the right place, and triumphed.
Then he started to drag the corpse home, but he had to give it best
and ask his master to lend a hand. The selector took up the hare,
and Jack followed home, much to the family's surprise. He did not go back
to work that night; he took a spell. He had a drink of milk,
licked the dust off himself, washed it down with another drink,
and sat in front of the fire and thought for a goodish while.
Then he got up, walked over to the corner where the hare was lying,
had a good look at it, came back to the fire, sat down again,
and thought hard. He was still thinking when the family retired.
Meeting Old Mates
You are getting well on in the thirties, and haven't left off
being a fool yet. You have been away in another colony or country
for a year or so, and have now come back again. Most of your chums
have gone away or got married, or, worse still, signed the pledge --
settled down and got steady; and you feel lonely and desolate
and left-behind enough for anything. While drifting aimlessly round town
with an eye out for some chance acquaintance to have a knock round with,
you run against an old chum whom you never dreamt of meeting,
or whom you thought to be in some other part of the country --
or perhaps you knock up against someone who knows the old chum in question,
and he says:
"I suppose you know Tom Smith's in Sydney?"
"Tom Smith! Why, I thought he was in Queensland! I haven't seen him
for more than three years. Where's the old joker hanging out at all?
Why, except you, there's no one in Australia I'd sooner see than Tom Smith.
Here I've been mooning round like an unemployed for three weeks,
looking for someone to have a knock round with, and Tom in Sydney
all the time. I wish I'd known before. Where'll I run against him --
where does he live?"
"Oh, he's living at home."
"But where's his home? I was never there."
"Oh, I'll give you his address. . . . There, I think that's it.
I'm not sure about the number, but you'll soon find out in that street --
most of 'em'll know Tom Smith."
"Thanks! I rather think they will. I'm glad I met you.
I'll hunt Tom up to-day."
So you put a few shillings in your pocket, tell your landlady
that you're going to visit an old aunt of yours or a sick friend,
and mayn't be home that night; and then you start out to hunt up Tom Smith
and have at least one more good night, if you die for it.
. . . . .
This is the first time you have seen Tom at home; you knew of
his home and people in the old days, but only in a vague,
indefinite sort of way. Tom has changed! He is stouter and older-looking;
he seems solemn and settled down. You intended to give him a surprise
and have a good old jolly laugh with him, but somehow things
get suddenly damped at the beginning. He grins and grips your hand
right enough, but there seems something wanting. You can't help
staring at him, and he seems to look at you in a strange, disappointing way;
it doesn't strike you that you also have changed, and perhaps more in his eyes
than he in yours. He introduces you to his mother and sisters and brothers,
and the rest of the family; or to his wife, as the case may be;
and you have to suppress your feelings and be polite and talk common-place.
You hate to be polite and talk common-place. You aren't built that way --
and Tom wasn't either, in the old days. The wife (or the mother and sisters)
receives you kindly, for Tom's sake, and makes much of you;
but they don't know you yet. You want to get Tom outside,
and have a yarn and a drink and a laugh with him -- you are bursting
to tell him all about yourself, and get him to tell you all about himself,
and ask him if he remembers things; and you wonder if he is bursting
the same way, and hope he is. The old lady and sisters (or the wife)
bore you pretty soon, and you wonder if they bore Tom; you almost fancy,
from his looks, that they do. You wonder whether Tom is coming out to-night,
whether he wants to get out, and if he wants to and wants to get out
by himself, whether he'll be able to manage it; but you daren't
broach the subject, it wouldn't be polite. You've got to be polite.
Then you get worried by the thought that Tom is bursting to get out with you
and only wants an excuse; is waiting, in fact, and hoping
for you to ask him in an off-hand sort of way to come out for a stroll.
But you're not quite sure; and besides, if you were,
you wouldn't have the courage. By-and-bye you get tired of it all, thirsty,
and want to get out in the open air. You get tired of saying,
"Do you really, Mrs. Smith?" or "Do you think so, Miss Smith?"
or "You were quite right, Mrs. Smith," and "Well, I think so too, Mrs. Smith,"
or, to the brother, "That's just what I thought, Mr. Smith." You don't want
to "talk pretty" to them, and listen to their wishy-washy nonsense;
you want to get out and have a roaring spree with Tom,
as you had in the old days; you want to make another night of it
with your old mate, Tom Smith; and pretty soon you get the blues badly,
and feel nearly smothered in there, and you've got to get out
and have a beer anyway -- Tom or no Tom; and you begin to feel wild
with Tom himself; and at last you make a bold dash for it and chance Tom.
You get up, look at your hat, and say: "Ah, well, I must be going, Tom;
I've got to meet someone down the street at seven o'clock.
Where'll I meet you in town next week?"
But Tom says:
"Oh, dash it; you ain't going yet. Stay to tea, Joe, stay to tea.
It'll be on the table in a minute. Sit down -- sit down, man!
Here, gimme your hat."
And Tom's sister, or wife, or mother comes in with an apron on
and her hands all over flour, and says:
"Oh, you're not going yet, Mr. Brown? Tea'll be ready in a minute.
Do stay for tea." And if you make excuses, she cross-examines you
about the time you've got to keep that appointment down the street,
and tells you that their clock is twenty minutes fast, and that you have got
plenty of time, and so you have to give in. But you are mightily encouraged
by a winksome expression which you see, or fancy you see,
on your side of Tom's face; also by the fact of his having accidentally
knocked his foot against your shins. So you stay.
One of the females tells you to "Sit there, Mr. Brown,"
and you take your place at the table, and the polite business goes on.
You've got to hold your knife and fork properly, and mind your p's and q's,
and when she says, "Do you take milk and sugar, Mr. Brown?"
you've got to say, "Yes, please, Miss Smith -- thanks -- that's plenty."
And when they press you, as they will, to have more,
you've got to keep on saying, "No, thanks, Mrs. Smith;
no, thanks, Miss Smith; I really couldn't; I've done very well, thank you;
I had a very late dinner, and so on" -- bother such tommy-rot.
And you don't seem to have any appetite, anyway. And you think of the days
out on the track when you and Tom sat on your swags under a mulga at mid-day,
and ate mutton and johnny-cake with clasp-knives, and drank by turns
out of the old, battered, leaky billy.
And after tea you have to sit still while the precious minutes are wasted,
and listen and sympathize, while all the time you are on the fidget
to get out with Tom, and go down to a private bar where you know some girls.
And perhaps by-and-bye the old lady gets confidential,
and seizes an opportunity to tell you what a good steady young fellow Tom is
now that he never touches drink, and belongs to a temperance society
(or the Y.M.C.A.), and never stays out of nights.
Consequently you feel worse than ever, and lonelier, and sorrier
that you wasted your time coming. You are encouraged again
by a glimpse of Tom putting on a clean collar and fixing himself up a bit;
but when you are ready to go, and ask him if he's coming
a bit down the street with you, he says he thinks he will
in such a disinterested, don't-mind-if-I-do sort of tone,
that he makes you mad.
At last, after promising to "drop in again, Mr. Brown,
whenever you're passing," and to "don't forget to call," and thanking them
for their assurance that they'll "be always glad to see you," and telling them
that you've spent a very pleasant evening and enjoyed yourself,
and are awfully sorry you couldn't stay -- you get away with Tom.
You don't say much to each other till you get round the corner
and down the street a bit, and then for a while your conversation
is mostly common-place, such as, "Well, how have you been getting on
all this time, Tom?" "Oh, all right. How have you been getting on?"
and so on.
But presently, and perhaps just as you have made up your mind
to chance the alleged temperance business and ask Tom in to have a drink,
he throws a glance up and down the street, nudges your shoulder,
says "Come on," and disappears sideways into a pub.
. . . . .
"What's yours, Tom?" "What's yours, Joe?" "The same for me."
"Well, here's luck, old man." "Here's luck." You take a drink,
and look over your glass at Tom. Then the old smile spreads over his face,
and it makes you glad -- you could swear to Tom's grin in a hundred years.
Then something tickles him -- your expression, perhaps,
or a recollection of the past -- and he sets down his glass on the bar
and laughs. Then you laugh. Oh, there's no smile like the smile
that old mates favour each other with over the tops of their glasses
when they meet again after years. It is eloquent, because of the memories
that give it birth.
"Here's another. Do you remember ----? Do you remember ----?"
Oh, it all comes back again like a flash. Tom hasn't changed a bit;
just the same good-hearted, jolly idiot he always was. Old times back again!
"It's just like old times," says Tom, after three or four more drinks.
. . . . .
And so you make a night of it and get uproariously jolly.
You get as "glorious" as Bobby Burns did in the part of Tam O'Shanter,
and have a better "time" than any of the times you had in the old days.
And you see Tom as nearly home in the morning as you dare,
and he reckons he'll get it hot from his people -- which no doubt he will --
and he explains that they are very particular up at home
-- church people, you know -- and, of course, especially if he's married,
it's understood between you that you'd better not call for him up at home
after this -- at least, not till things have cooled down a bit.
It's always the way. The friend of the husband always gets the blame
in cases like this. But Tom fixes up a yarn to tell them,
and you aren't to "say anything different" in case you run against
any of them. And he fixes up an appointment with you for next Saturday night,
and he'll get there if he gets divorced for it. But he MIGHT
have to take the wife out shopping, or one of the girls somewhere;
and if you see her with him you've got to lay low, and be careful, and wait
-- at another hour and place, perhaps, all of which is arranged --
for if she sees you she'll smell a rat at once, and he won't be able
to get off at all.
And so, as far as you and Tom are concerned, the "old times" have come back
. . . . .
But, of course (and we almost forgot it), you might chance
to fall in love with one of Tom's sisters, in which case there would be
another and a totally different story to tell.
Things are going well with you. You have escaped from "the track",
so to speak, and are in a snug, comfortable little billet in the city.
Well, while doing the block you run against an old mate of other days
-- VERY other days -- call him Jack Ellis. Things have gone hard with Jack.
He knows you at once, but makes no advance towards a greeting;
he acts as though he thinks you might cut him -- which, of course,
if you are a true mate, you have not the slightest intention of doing.
His coat is yellow and frayed, his hat is battered and green,
his trousers "gone" in various places, his linen very cloudy, and his boots
burst and innocent of polish. You try not to notice these things
-- or rather, not to seem to notice them -- but you cannot help doing so,
and you are afraid he'll notice that you see these things,
and put a wrong construction on it. How men will misunderstand each other!
You greet him with more than the necessary enthusiasm. In your anxiety
to set him at his ease and make him believe that nothing -- not even money --
can make a difference in your friendship, you over-act the business;
and presently you are afraid that he'll notice that too,
and put a wrong construction on it. You wish that your collar
was not so clean, nor your clothes so new. Had you known you would meet him,
you would have put on some old clothes for the occasion.
You are both embarrassed, but it is YOU who feel ashamed --
you are almost afraid to look at him lest he'll think
you are looking at his shabbiness. You ask him in to have a drink,
but he doesn't respond so heartily as you wish, as he did in the old days;
he doesn't like drinking with anybody when he isn't "fixed", as he calls it --
when he can't shout.
It didn't matter in the old days who held the money so long as there was
plenty of "stuff" in the camp. You think of the days when Jack stuck to you
through thick and thin. You would like to give him money now,
but he is so proud; he always was; he makes you mad with his beastly pride.
There wasn't any pride of that sort on the track or in the camp in those days;
but times have changed -- your lives have drifted too widely apart --
you have taken different tracks since then; and Jack, without intending to,
makes you feel that it is so.
You have a drink, but it isn't a success; it falls flat,
as far as Jack is concerned; he won't have another; he doesn't "feel on",
and presently he escapes under plea of an engagement,
and promises to see you again.
And you wish that the time was come when no one could have
more or less to spend than another.
. . . . .
P.S. -- I met an old mate of that description once,
and so successfully persuaded him out of his beastly pride
that he borrowed two pounds off me till Monday. I never got it back since,
and I want it badly at the present time. In future I'll leave old mates
with their pride unimpaired.
"Y'orter do something, Ernie. Yer know how I am. YOU don't seem to care.
Y'orter to do something."
Stowsher slouched at a greater angle to the greasy door-post,
and scowled under his hat-brim. It was a little, low, frowsy room
opening into Jones' Alley. She sat at the table, sewing --
a thin, sallow girl with weak, colourless eyes. She looked as frowsy
as her surroundings.
"Well, why don't you go to some of them women, and get fixed up?"
She flicked the end of the table-cloth over some tiny,
unfinished articles of clothing, and bent to her work.
"But you know very well I haven't got a shilling, Ernie," she said, quietly.
"Where am I to get the money from?"
"Who asked yer to get it?"
She was silent, with the exasperating silence of a woman
who has determined to do a thing in spite of all reasons and arguments
that may be brought against it.
"Well, wot more do yer want?" demanded Stowsher, impatiently.
She bent lower. "Couldn't we keep it, Ernie?"
"Wot next?" asked Stowsher, sulkily -- he had half suspected what was coming.
Then, with an impatient oath, "You must be gettin' ratty."
She brushed the corner of the cloth further over the little clothes.
"It wouldn't cost anything, Ernie. I'd take a pride in him,
and keep him clean, and dress him like a little lord. He'll be different
from all the other youngsters. He wouldn't be like those dirty,
sickly little brats out there. He'd be just like you, Ernie; I know he would.
I'll look after him night and day, and bring him up well and strong.
We'd train his little muscles from the first, Ernie, and he'd be able
to knock 'em all out when he grew up. It wouldn't cost much,
and I'd work hard and be careful if you'd help me. And you'd be proud of him,
too, Ernie -- I know you would."
Stowsher scraped the doorstep with his foot; but whether he was "touched",
or feared hysterics and was wisely silent, was not apparent.
"Do you remember the first day I met you, Ernie?" she asked, presently.
Stowsher regarded her with an uneasy scowl: "Well -- wot o' that?"
"You came into the bar-parlour at the `Cricketers' Arms'
and caught a push of 'em chyacking your old man."
"Well, I altered that."
"I know you did. You done for three of them, one after another,
and two was bigger than you."
"Yes! and when the push come up we done for the rest," said Stowsher,
softening at the recollection.
"And the day you come home and caught the landlord bullying your old mother
like a dog ----"
"Yes; I got three months for that job. But it was worth it!" he reflected.
"Only," he added, "the old woman might have had the knocker
to keep away from the lush while I was in quod. . . . But wot's all this
got to do with it?"
"HE might barrack and fight for you, some day, Ernie," she said softly,
"when you're old and out of form and ain't got no push to back you."
The thing was becoming decidedly embarrassing to Stowsher;
not that he felt any delicacy on the subject, but because he hated
to be drawn into a conversation that might be considered "soft".
"Oh, stow that!" he said, comfortingly. "Git on yer hat,
and I'll take yer for a trot."
She rose quickly, but restrained herself, recollecting that
it was not good policy to betray eagerness in response
to an invitation from Ernie.
"But -- you know -- I don't like to go out like this. You can't --
you wouldn't like to take me out the way I am, Ernie!"
"Why not? Wot rot!"
"The fellows would see me, and -- and ----"
"And . . . wot?"
"They might notice ----"
"Well, wot o' that? I want 'em to. Are yer comin' or are yer ain't?
Fling round now. I can't hang on here all day."
They walked towards Flagstaff Hill.
One or two, slouching round a pub. corner, saluted with "Wotcher, Stowsher!"
"Not too stinkin'," replied Stowsher. "Soak yer heads."
"Stowsher's goin' to stick," said one privately.
"An' so he orter," said another. "Wish I had the chanst."
The two turned up a steep lane.
"Don't walk so fast up hill, Ernie; I can't, you know."
"All right, Liz. I forgot that. Why didn't yer say so before?"
She was contentedly silent most of the way, warned by instinct,
after the manner of women when they have gained their point by words.
Once he glanced over his shoulder with a short laugh. "Gorblime!" he said,
"I nearly thought the little beggar was a-follerin' along behind!"
When he left her at the door he said: "Look here, Liz. 'Ere's half a quid.
Git what yer want. Let her go. I'm goin' to graft again in the mornin',
and I'll come round and see yer to-morrer night."
Still she seemed troubled and uneasy.
"Well. Wot now?"
"S'posin' it's a girl, Ernie."
Stowsher flung himself round impatiently.
"Oh, for God's sake, stow that! Yer always singin' out before yer hurt. . . .
There's somethin' else, ain't there -- while the bloomin' shop's open?"
"No, Ernie. Ain't you going to kiss me? . . . I'm satisfied."
"Satisfied! Yer don't want the kid to be arst 'oo 'is father was, do yer?
Yer'd better come along with me some day this week and git spliced.
Yer don't want to go frettin' or any of that funny business while it's on."
"Oh, Ernie! do you really mean it?" -- and she threw her arms round his neck,
and broke down at last.
. . . . .
"So-long, Liz. No more funny business now -- I've had enough of it.
Keep yer pecker up, old girl. To-morrer night, mind."
Then he added suddenly: "Yer might have known I ain't that sort of a bloke"
-- and left abruptly.
Liz was very happy.
I met him in a sixpenny restaurant -- "All meals, 6d. -- Good beds, 1s."
That was before sixpenny restaurants rose to a third-class position,
and became possibly respectable places to live in, through the establishment,
beneath them, of fourpenny hash-houses (good beds, 6d.),
and, beneath THEM again, of THREE-penny "dining-rooms -- CLEAN beds, 4d."
There were five beds in our apartment, the head of one
against the foot of the next, and so on round the room,
with a space where the door and washstand were. I chose the bed
the head of which was near the foot of his, because he looked like a man
who took his bath regularly. I should like, in the interests of sentiment,
to describe the place as a miserable, filthy, evil-smelling garret;
but I can't -- because it wasn't. The room was large and airy;
the floor was scrubbed and the windows cleaned at least once a week,
and the beds kept fresh and neat, which is more -- a good deal more --
than can be said of many genteel private boarding-houses. The lodgers
were mostly respectable unemployed, and one or two -- fortunate men! --
in work; it was the casual boozer, the professional loafer,
and the occasional spieler -- the one-shilling-bed-men --
who made the place objectionable, not the hard-working people
who paid ten pounds a week for the house; and, but for the one-night lodgers
and the big gilt black-and-red bordered and "shaded" "6d." in the window
-- which made me glance guiltily up and down the street, like a burglar
about to do a job, before I went in -- I was pretty comfortable there.
They called him "Mr. Smellingscheck", and treated him
with a peculiar kind of deference, the reason for which
they themselves were doubtless unable to explain or even understand.
The haggard woman who made the beds called him "Mr. Smell-'is-check".
Poor fellow! I didn't think, by the look of him, that he'd smelt his cheque,
or anyone else's, or that anyone else had smelt his, for many a long day.
He was a fat man, slow and placid. He looked like a typical monopolist
who had unaccountably got into a suit of clothes belonging to
a Domain unemployed, and hadn't noticed, or had entirely forgotten,
the circumstance in his business cares -- if such a word as care
could be connected with such a calm, self-contained nature.
He wore a suit of cheap slops of some kind of shoddy "tweed".
The coat was too small and the trousers too short, and they were drawn up
to meet the waistcoat -- which they did with painful difficulty,
now and then showing, by way of protest, two pairs of brass buttons
and the ends of the brace-straps; and they seemed to blame
the irresponsive waistcoat or the wearer for it all. Yet he never gave way
to assist them. A pair of burst elastic-sides were in full evidence,
and a rim of cloudy sock, with a hole in it, showed at every step.
But he put on his clothes and wore them like -- like a gentleman.
He had two white shirts, and they were both dirty. He'd lay them out
on the bed, turn them over, regard them thoughtfully, choose that
which appeared to his calm understanding to be the cleaner, and put it on,
and wear it until it was unmistakably dirtier than the other;
then he'd wear the other till it was dirtier than the first.
He managed his three collars the same way. His handkerchiefs were washed
in the bathroom, and dried, without the slightest disguise, in the bedroom.
He never hurried in anything. The way he cleaned his teeth, shaved,
and made his toilet almost transformed the place, in my imagination,
into a gentleman's dressing-room.
He talked politics and such things in the abstract -- always in the abstract
-- calmly in the abstract. He was an old-fashioned Conservative
of the Sir Leicester Deadlock style. When he was moved
by an extra shower of aggressive democratic cant -- which was seldom --
he defended Capital, but only as if it needed no defence,
and as if its opponents were merely thoughtless, ignorant children
whom he condescended to set right because of their inexperience
and for their own good. He stuck calmly to his own order -- the order which
had dropped him like a foul thing when the bottom dropped out of his boom,
whatever that was. He never talked of his misfortunes.
He took his meals at the little greasy table in the dark corner downstairs,
just as if he were dining at the Exchange. He had a chop
-- rather well-done -- and a sheet of the `Herald' for breakfast.
He carried two handkerchiefs; he used one for a handkerchief and the other
for a table-napkin, and sometimes folded it absently and laid it on the table.
He rose slowly, putting his chair back, took down his battered old green hat,
and regarded it thoughtfully -- as though it had just occurred to him
in a calm, casual way that he'd drop into his hatter's, if he had time,
on his way down town, and get it blocked, or else send the messenger
round with it during business hours. He'd draw his stick out
from behind the next chair, plant it, and, if you hadn't quite finished
your side of the conversation, stand politely waiting until you were done.
Then he'd look for a suitable reply into his hat, put it on,
give it a twitch to settle it on his head -- as gentlemen do
a "chimney-pot" -- step out into the gangway, turn his face to the door,
and walk slowly out on to the middle of the pavement --
looking more placidly well-to-do than ever. The saying is that clothes
make a man, but HE made his almost respectable just by wearing them.
Then he'd consult his watch -- (he stuck to the watch all through,
and it seemed a good one -- I often wondered why he didn't pawn it);
then he'd turn slowly, right turn, and look down the street.
Then slowly back, left-about turn, and take a cool survey in that direction,
as if calmly undecided whether to take a cab and drive to the Exchange,
or (as it was a very fine morning, and he had half an hour to spare)
walk there and drop in at his club on the way. He'd conclude to walk.
I never saw him go anywhere in particular, but he walked and stood
as if he could.
Coming quietly into the room one day, I surprised him sitting at the table
with his arms lying on it and his face resting on them.
I heard something like a sob. He rose hastily, and gathered up some papers
which were on the table; then he turned round, rubbing his forehead and eyes
with his forefinger and thumb, and told me that he suffered from -- something,
I forget the name of it, but it was a well-to-do ailment.
His manner seemed a bit jolted and hurried for a minute or so,
and then he was himself again. He told me he was leaving for Melbourne
next day. He left while I was out, and left an envelope downstairs for me.
There was nothing in it except a pound note.
I saw him in Brisbane afterwards, well-dressed, getting out of a cab
at the entrance of one of the leading hotels. But his manner
was no more self-contained and well-to-do than it had been
in the old sixpenny days -- because it couldn't be. We had
a well-to-do whisky together, and he talked of things in the abstract.
He seemed just as if he'd met me in the Australia.
"A Rough Shed"
A hot, breathless, blinding sunrise -- the sun having appeared suddenly
above the ragged edge of the barren scrub like a great disc of molten steel.
No hint of a morning breeze before it, no sign on earth or sky
to show that it is morning -- save the position of the sun.
A clearing in the scrub -- bare as though the surface of the earth
were ploughed and harrowed, and dusty as the road. Two oblong huts
-- one for the shearers and one for the rouseabouts --
in about the centre of the clearing (as if even the mongrel scrub
had shrunk away from them) built end-to-end, of weatherboards,
and roofed with galvanised iron. Little ventilation; no verandah;
no attempt to create, artificially, a breath of air through the buildings.
Unpainted, sordid -- hideous. Outside, heaps of ashes still hot and smoking.
Close at hand, "butcher's shop" -- a bush and bag breakwind in the dust,
under a couple of sheets of iron, with offal, grease and clotted blood
blackening the surface of the ground about it. Greasy, stinking sheepskins
hanging everywhere with blood-blotched sides out. Grease inches deep
in great black patches about the fireplace ends of the huts,
where wash-up and "boiling" water is thrown.
Inside, a rough table on supports driven into the black, greasy ground floor,
and formed of flooring boards, running on uneven lines
the length of the hut from within about 6ft. of the fire-place.
Lengths of single six-inch boards or slabs on each side,
supported by the projecting ends of short pieces of timber
nailed across the legs of the table to serve as seats.
On each side of the hut runs a rough framework, like the partitions
in a stable; each compartment battened off to about the size of a manger,
and containing four bunks, one above the other, on each side --
their ends, of course, to the table. Scarcely breathing space
anywhere between. Fireplace, the full width of the hut in one end,
where all the cooking and baking for forty or fifty men is done,
and where flour, sugar, etc., are kept in open bags.
Fire, like a very furnace. Buckets of tea and coffee on roasting beds
of coals and ashes on the hearth. Pile of "brownie" on the bare black boards
at the end of the table. Unspeakable aroma of forty or fifty men
who have little inclination and less opportunity to wash their skins,
and who soak some of the grease out of their clothes
-- in buckets of hot water -- on Saturday afternoons or Sundays.
And clinging to all, and over all, the smell of the dried, stale yolk of wool
-- the stink of rams!
. . . . .
"I am a rouseabout of the rouseabouts. I have fallen so far that it is
beneath me to try to climb to the proud position of `ringer' of the shed.
I had that ambition once, when I was the softest of green hands;
but then I thought I could work out my salvation and go home.
I've got used to hell since then. I only get twenty-five shillings a week
(less station store charges) and tucker here. I have been seven years
west of the Darling and never shore a sheep. Why don't I learn to shear,
and so make money? What should I do with more money?
Get out of this and go home? I would never go home
unless I had enough money to keep me for the rest of my life,
and I'll never make that Out Back. Otherwise, what should I do at home?
And how should I account for the seven years, if I were to go home?
Could I describe shed life to them and explain how I lived. They think
shearing only takes a few days of the year -- at the beginning of summer.
They'd want to know how I lived the rest of the year. Could I explain
that I `jabbed trotters' and was a `tea-and-sugar burglar' between sheds.
They'd think I'd been a tramp and a beggar all the time.
Could I explain ANYTHING so that they'd understand?
I'd have to be lying all the time and would soon be tripped up and found out.
For, whatever else I have been I was never much of a liar.
No, I'll never go home.
"I become momentarily conscious about daylight. The flies on the track
got me into that habit, I think; they start at day-break --
when the mosquitoes give over.
"The cook rings a bullock bell.
"The cook is fire-proof. He is as a fiend from the nethermost sheol
and needs to be. No man sees him sleep, for he makes bread
-- or worse, brownie -- at night, and he rings a bullock bell loudly
at half-past five in the morning to rouse us from our animal torpors.
Others, the sheep-ho's or the engine-drivers at the shed or wool-wash,
call him, if he does sleep. They manage it in shifts, somehow,
and sleep somewhere, sometime. We haven't time to know.
The cook rings the bullock bell and yells the time. It was the same time
five minutes ago -- or a year ago. No time to decide which.
I dash water over my head and face and slap handfuls on my eyelids
-- gummed over aching eyes -- still blighted by the yolk o' wool --
grey, greasy-feeling water from a cut-down kerosene tin
which I sneaked from the cook and hid under my bunk and had the foresight
to refill from the cask last night, under cover of warm, still,
suffocating darkness. Or was it the night before last? Anyhow, it will be
sneaked from me to-day, and from the crawler who will collar it to-morrow,
and `touched' and `lifted' and `collared' and recovered by the cook,
and sneaked back again, and cause foul language, and fights, maybe,
till we `cut-out'.
"No; we didn't have sweet dreams of home and mother, gentle poet --
nor yet of babbling brooks and sweethearts, and love's young dream.
We are too dirty and dog-tired when we tumble down, and have too little time
to sleep it off. We don't want to dream those dreams out here --
they'd only be nightmares for us, and we'd wake to remember.
We MUSTN'T remember here.
"At the edge of the timber a great galvanised-iron shed, nearly all roof,
coming down to within 6ft. 6in. of the `board' over the `shoots'.
Cloud of red dust in the dead timber behind, going up -- noon-day dust.
Fence covered with skins; carcases being burned; blue smoke going straight up
as in noonday. Great glossy (greasy-glossy) black crows `flopping' around.
"The first syren has gone. We hurry in single files
from opposite ends of rouseabouts' and shearers' huts
(as the paths happen to run to the shed) gulping hot tea or coffee
from a pint-pot in one hand and biting at a junk of brownie in the other.
"Shed of forty hands. Shearers rush the pens and yank out sheep
and throw them like demons; grip them with their knees, take up machines,
jerk the strings; and with a rattling whirring roar the great machine-shed
starts for the day.
"`Go it, you ---- tigers!' yells a tar-boy. `Wool away!' `Tar!' `Sheep Ho!'
We rush through with a whirring roar till breakfast time.
"We seize our tin plate from the pile, knife and fork from the candle-box,
and crowd round the camp-oven to jab out lean chops, dry as chips,
boiled in fat. Chops or curry-and-rice. There is some growling and cursing.
We slip into our places without removing our hats. There's no time
to hunt for mislaid hats when the whistle goes. Row of hat brims, level,
drawn over eyes, or thrust back -- according to characters or temperaments.
Thrust back denotes a lucky absence of brains, I fancy. Row of forks
going up, or jabbing, or poised, loaded, waiting for last mouthful
to be bolted.
"We pick up, sweep, tar, sew wounds, catch sheep that break from the pens,
jump down and pick up those that can't rise at the bottom of the shoots,
`bring-my-combs-from-the-grinder-will-yer,' laugh at dirty jokes,
and swear -- and, in short, are the `will-yer' slaves, body and soul,
of seven, six, five, or four shearers, according to the distance
from the rolling tables.
"The shearer on the board at the shed is a demon. He gets so much a hundred;
we, 25s. a week. He is not supposed, by the rules of the shed, the Union,
and humanity, to take a sheep out of the pen AFTER the bell goes
(smoke-ho, meals, or knock-off), but his watch is hanging on the post,
and he times himself to get so many sheep out of the pen BEFORE
the bell goes, and ONE MORE -- the `bell-sheep' -- as it is ringing.
We have to take the last fleece to the table and leave our board clean.
We go through the day of eight hours in runs of about an hour and 20 minutes
between smoke-ho's -- from 6 to 6. If the shearers shore 200 instead of 100,
they'd get 2 Pounds a day instead of 1 Pound, and we'd have twice as much
work to do for our 25s. per week. But the shearers are racing each other
for tallies. And it's no use kicking. There is no God here and no Unionism
(though we all have tickets). But what am I growling about?
I've worked from 6 to 6 with no smoke-ho's for half the wages,
and food we wouldn't give the sheep-ho dog. It's the bush growl,
born of heat, flies, and dust. I'd growl now if I had a thousand a year.
We MUST growl, swear, and some of us drink to d.t.'s, or go mad sober.
"Pants and shirts stiff with grease as though a couple of pounds
of soft black putty were spread on with a painter's knife.
"No, gentle bard! -- we don't sing at our work. Over the whirr and roar
and hum all day long, and with iteration that is childish and irritating
to the intelligent greenhand, float unthinkable adjectives and adverbs,
addressed to jumbucks, jackaroos, and mates indiscriminately. And worse words
for the boss over the board -- behind his back.
"I came of a Good Christian Family -- perhaps that's why I went to the Devil.
When I came out here I'd shrink from the man who used foul language.
In a short time I used it with the worst. I couldn't help it.
"That's the way of it. If I went back to a woman's country again
I wouldn't swear. I'd forget this as I would a nightmare.
That's the way of it. There's something of the larrikin about us.