Part 2 out of 3
There is a yarn along the Darling about a cute Yankee who was invited
up to Bourke to report on a proposed scheme for locking the river.
He arrived towards the end of a long and severe drought,
and was met at the railway station by a deputation of representative bushmen,
who invited him, in the first place, to accompany them to the principal pub --
which he did. He had been observed to study the scenery a good deal
while coming up in the train, but kept his conclusions to himself.
On the way to the pub he had a look at the town, and it was noticed
that he tilted his hat forward very often, and scratched the back of his head
a good deal, and pondered a lot; but he refrained from expressing an opinion
-- even when invited to do so. He guessed that his opinions
wouldn't do much good, anyway, and he calculated that they would keep
till he got back "over our way" -- by which it was reckoned
he meant the States.
When they asked him what he'd have, he said to Watty the publican:
"Wal, I reckon you can build me your national drink. I guess I'll try it."
A long colonial was drawn for him, and he tried it. He seemed
rather startled at first, then he looked curiously at the half-empty glass,
set it down very softly on the bar, and leaned against the same
and fell into a reverie; from which he roused himself after a while,
with a sorrowful jerk of his head.
"Ah, well," he said. "Show me this river of yourn."
They led him to the Darling, and he had a look at it.
"Is this your river?" he asked.
"Yes," they replied, apprehensively.
He tilted his hat forward till the brim nearly touched his nose,
scratched the back of his long neck, shut one eye, and looked at the river
with the other. Then, after spitting half a pint of tobacco juice
into the stream, he turned sadly on his heel and led the way back to the pub.
He invited the boys to "pisen themselves"; after they were served
he ordered out the longest tumbler on the premises, poured a drop into it
from nearly every bottle on the shelf, added a lump of ice,
and drank slowly and steadily.
Then he took pity on the impatient and anxious population, opened his mouth,
"Look here, fellows," he drawled, jerking his arm in the direction
of the river, "I'll tell you what I'll dew. I'll bottle
that damned river of yourn in twenty-four hours!"
Later on he mellowed a bit, under the influence of several drinks
which were carefully and conscientiously "built" from plans and specifications
supplied by himself, and then, among other things, he said:
"If that there river rises as high as you say it dew -- and if this
was the States -- why, we'd have had the Great Eastern up here
twenty years ago" ---- or words to that effect.
Then he added, reflectively:
"When I come over here I calculated that I was going
to make things hum, but now I guess I'll have to change my prospectus.
There's a lot of loose energy laying round over our way,
but I guess that if I wanted to make things move in your country
I'd have to bring over the entire American nation -- also his wife and dawg.
You've got the makings of a glorious nation over here,
but you don't get up early enough!"
. . . . .
The only national work performed by the blacks is on the Darling.
They threw a dam of rocks across the river -- near Brewarrina, we think --
to make a fish trap. It's there yet. But God only knows
where they got the stones from, or how they carried them,
for there isn't a pebble within forty miles.
A Case for the Oracle
The Oracle and I were camped together. The Oracle was a bricklayer by trade,
and had two or three small contracts on hand. I was "doing a bit
of house-painting". There were a plasterer, a carpenter, and a plumber --
we were all T'othersiders, and old mates, and we worked things together.
It was in Westralia -- the Land of T'othersiders -- and, therefore,
we were not surprised when Mitchell turned up early one morning,
with his swag and an atmosphere of salt water about him.
He'd had a rough trip, he said, and would take a spell that day
and take the lay of the land and have something cooked for us
by the time we came home; and go to graft himself next morning.
And next morning he went to work, "labouring" for the Oracle.
The Oracle and his mates, being small contractors and not pressed for time,
had dispensed with the services of a labourer, and had done
their own mixing and hod-carrying in turns. They didn't want a labourer now,
but the Oracle was a vague fatalist, and Mitchell a decided one.
So it passed.
The Oracle had a "Case" right under his nose -- in his own employ, in fact;
but was not aware of the fact until Mitchell drew his attention to it.
The Case went by the name of Alfred O'Briar -- which hinted a mixed parentage.
He was a small, nervous working-man, of no particular colour,
and no decided character, apparently. If he had a soul above bricks,
he never betrayed it. He was not popular on the jobs.
There was something sly about Alf, they said.
The Oracle had taken him on in the first place as a day-labourer,
but afterwards shared the pay with him as with Mitchell.
O'Briar shouted -- judiciously, but on every possible occasion --
for the Oracle; and, as he was an indifferent workman,
the boys said he only did this so that the Oracle might keep him on.
If O'Briar took things easy and did no more than the rest of us,
at least one of us would be sure to get it into his head
that he was loafing on us; and if he grafted harder than we did,
we'd be sure to feel indignant about that too, and reckon that it was done
out of nastiness or crawlsomeness, and feel a contempt for him accordingly.
We found out accidentally that O'Briar was an excellent mimic
and a bit of a ventriloquist, but he never entertained us
with his peculiar gifts; and we set that down to churlishness.
O'Briar kept his own counsel, and his history, if he had one;
and hid his hopes, joys, and sorrows, if he had any, behind a vacant grin,
as Mitchell hid his behind a quizzical one. He never resented alleged satire
-- perhaps he couldn't see it -- and therefore he got the name of being a cur.
As a rule, he was careful with his money, and was called mean --
not, however, by the Oracle, whose philosophy was simple,
and whose sympathy could not realise a limit; nor yet by Mitchell.
. . . . .
O'Briar occupied a small tent by himself, and lived privately of evenings.
When we began to hear two men talking at night in his tent,
we were rather surprised, and wondered in a vague kind of way
how any of the chaps could take sufficient interest in Alf
to go in and yarn with him. In the days when he was supposed to be sociable,
we had voted him a bore; even the Oracle was moved to admit
that he was "a bit slow".
But late one night we distinctly heard a woman's voice in O'Briar's tent.
The Oracle suddenly became hard of hearing, and, though we heard the voice
on several occasions, he remained exasperatingly deaf,
yet aggressively unconscious of the fact. "I have got enough to do
puzzling over me own whys and wherefores," he said. Mitchell began
to take some interest in O'Briar, and treated him with greater respect.
But our camp had the name of being the best-constructed,
the cleanest, and the most respectable in the vicinity.
The health officer and constable in charge had complimented us on the fact,
and we were proud of it. And there were three young married couples in camp,
also a Darby and Joan; therefore, when the voice of a woman began to be heard
frequently and at disreputable hours of the night in O'Briar's tent,
we got uneasy about it. And when the constable who was on night duty
gave us a friendly hint, Mitchell and I agreed that something must be done.
"Av coorse, men will be men," said the constable, as he turned
his horse's head, "but I thought I'd mention it. O'Briar is a dacent man,
and he's one of yer mates. Av coorse. There's a bad lot in that camp
in the scrub over yander, and -- av coorse. Good-day to ye, byes."
. . . . .
Next night we heard the voice in O'Briar's tent again,
and decided to speak to Alf in a friendly way about it in the morning.
We listened outside in the dark, but could not distinguish the words,
though I thought I recognised the voice.
"It's the hussy from the camp over there; she's got holt of that fool,
and she'll clean him out before she's done," I said. "We're Alf's mates,
any way it goes, and we ought to put a stop to it."
"What hussy?" asked Mitchell; "there's three or four there."
"The one with her hair all over her head," I answered.
"Where else should it be?" asked Mitchell. "But I'll just have a peep
and see who it is. There's no harm in that."
He crept up to the tent and cautiously moved the flap. Alf's candle
was alight; he lay on his back in his bunk with his arms under his head,
calmly smoking. We withdrew.
"They must have heard us," said Mitchell; "and she's slipped out
under the tent at the back, and through the fence into the scrub."
Mitchell's respect for Alf increased visibly.
But we began to hear ominous whispers from the young married couples,
and next Saturday night, which was pay-night, we decided to see it through.
We did not care to speak to Alf until we were sure. He stayed in camp,
as he often did, on Saturday evening, while the others went up town.
Mitchell and I returned earlier than usual, and leaned on the fence
at the back of Alf's tent.
We were scarcely there when we were startled by a "rat-tat-tat" as of someone
knocking at a door. Then an old woman's voice INSIDE the tent asked:
"It's me," said Alf's voice from the front, "Mr. O'Briar from Perth."
"Mary, go and open the door!" said the old woman. (Mitchell nudged me
to keep quiet.)
"Come in, Mr. O'Breer," said the old woman. "Come in. How do you do?
When did you get back?"
"Only last night," said Alf.
"Look at that now! Bless us all! And how did you like the country at all?"
"I didn't care much for it," said Alf. We lost the thread of it
until the old woman spoke again.
"Have you had your tea, Mr. O'Breer?"
"Yes, thank you, Mrs. O'Connor."
"Are you quite sure, man?"
"Quite sure, thank you, Mrs. O'Connor." (Mitchell trod on my foot.)
"Will you have a drop of whisky or a glass of beer, Mr. O'Breer?"
"I'll take a glass of beer, thank you, Mrs. O'Connor."
There seemed to be a long pause. Then the old woman said, "Ah, well,
I must get my work done, and Mary will stop here and keep you company,
Mr. O'Breer." The arrangement seemed satisfactory to all parties,
for there was nothing more said for a while. (Mitchell nudged me again,
with emphasis, and I kicked his shin.)
Presently Alf said: "Mary!" And a girl's voice said, "Yes, Alf."
"You remember the night I went away, Mary?"
"Yes, Alf, I do."
"I have travelled long ways since then, Mary; I worked hard and lived close.
I didn't make my fortune, but I managed to rub a note or two together.
It was a hard time and a lonesome time for me, Mary.
The summer's awful over there, and livin's bad and dear.
You couldn't have any idea of it, Mary."
"I didn't come back so well off as I expected."
"But that doesn't matter, Alf."
"I got heart-sick and tired of it, and couldn't stand it any longer, Mary."
"But that's all over now, Alf; you mustn't think of it."
"Your mother wrote to me."
"I know she did" -- (very low and gently).
"And do you know what she put in it, Mary?"
"And did you ask her to put it in?"
"Don't ask me, Alf."
"And it's all true, Mary?"
There was no answer, but the silence seemed satisfactory.
"And be sure you have yourself down here on Sunday, Alf, me son."
("There's the old woman come back!" said Mitchell.)
"An' since the girl's willin' to have ye, and the ould woman's willin' --
there's me hand on it, Alf, me boy. An' God bless ye both."
("The old man's come now," said Mitchell.)
. . . . .
"Come along," said Mitchell, leading the way to the front of the tent.
"But I wouldn't like to intrude on them. It's hardly right, Mitchell, is it?"
"That's all right," said Mitchell. He tapped the tent pole.
"Come in," said Alf. Alf was lying on his bunk as before, with his arms
under his head. His face wore a cheerful, not to say happy, expression.
There was no one else in the tent. I was never more surprised in my life.
"Have you got the paper, Alf?" said Mitchell.
"Yes. You'll find it there at the foot of the bunk. There it is.
Won't you sit down, Mitchell?"
"Not to-night," said Mitchell. "We brought you a bottle of ale.
We're just going to turn in."
And we said "good-night". "Well," I said to Mitchell when we got inside,
"what do you think of it?"
"I don't think of it at all," said Mitchell. "Do you mean to say
you can't see it now?"
"No, I'm dashed if I can," I said. "Some of us must be drunk, I think,
or getting rats. It's not to be wondered at, and the sooner
we get out of this country the better."
"Well, you must be a fool, Joe," said Mitchell. "Can't you see?
ALF THINKS ALOUD."
"Talks to himself. He was thinking about going back to his sweetheart.
Don't you know he's a bit of a ventriloquist?"
Mitchell lay awake a long time, in the position that Alf usually lay in,
and thought. Perhaps he thought on the same lines as Alf did that night.
But Mitchell did his thinking in silence.
We thought it best to tell the Oracle quietly. He was deeply interested,
but not surprised. "I've heerd of such cases before," he said.
But the Oracle was a gentleman. "There's things that a man
wants to keep to himself that ain't his business," he said.
And we understood this remark to be intended for our benefit,
and to indicate a course of action upon which the Oracle had decided,
with respect to this case, and which we, in his opinion,
should do well to follow.
Alf got away a week or so later, and we all took a holiday
and went down to Fremantle to see him off. Perhaps he wondered
why Mitchell gripped his hand so hard and wished him luck so earnestly,
and was surprised when he gave him three cheers.
"Ah, well!" remarked Mitchell, as we turned up the wharf.
"I've heerd of such cases before," said the Oracle, meditatively.
"They ain't common, but I've hear'd of such cases before."
A Daughter of Maoriland
A sketch of poor-class Maoris
The new native-school teacher, who was "green", "soft", and poetical,
and had a literary ambition, called her "August", and fondly hoped
to build a romance on her character. She was down in the school registers
as Sarah Moses, Maori, 16 years and three months. She looked twenty;
but this was nothing, insomuch as the mother of the youngest child
in the school -- a dear little half-caste lady of two or three summers --
had not herself the vaguest idea of the child's age, nor anybody else's,
nor of ages in the abstract. The church register was lost
some six years before, when "Granny", who was a hundred, if a day,
was supposed to be about twenty-five. The teacher had to guess the ages
of all the new pupils.
August was apparently the oldest in the school -- a big, ungainly,
awkward girl, with a heavy negro type of Maori countenance,
and about as much animation, mentally or physically, as a cow.
She was given to brooding; in fact, she brooded all the time.
She brooded all day over her school work, but did it fairly well.
How the previous teachers had taught her all she knew was a mystery
to the new one. There had been a tragedy in August's family
when she was a child, and the affair seemed to have cast a gloom
over the lives of the entire family, for the lowering brooding cloud
was on all their faces. August would take to the bush when things went wrong
at home, and climb a tree and brood till she was found and coaxed home.
Things, according to pa gossip, had gone wrong with her
from the date of the tragedy, when she, a bright little girl,
was taken -- a homeless orphan -- to live with a sister,
and, afterwards, with an aunt-by-marriage. They treated her, 'twas said,
with a brutality which must have been greatly exaggerated by pa-gossip,
seeing that unkindness of this description is, according to all
the best authorities, altogether foreign to Maori nature.
Pa-gossip -- which is less reliable than the ordinary washerwoman kind,
because of a deeper and more vicious ignorance -- had it
that one time when August was punished by a teacher (or beaten
by her sister or aunt-by-marriage) she "took to the bush" for three days,
at the expiration of which time she was found on the ground
in an exhausted condition. She was evidently a true Maori or savage,
and this was one of the reasons why the teacher with the literary ambition
took an interest in her. She had a print of a portrait of a man
in soldier's uniform, taken from a copy of the `Illustrated London News',
pasted over the fireplace in the whare where she lived,
and neatly bordered by vandyked strips of silvered tea-paper.
She had pasted it in the place of honour, or as near as she could get to it.
The place of honour was sacred to framed representations
of the Nativity and Catholic subjects, half-modelled, half-pictured.
The print was a portrait of the last Czar of Russia, of all the men
in the world; and August was reported to have said that she loved that man.
His father had been murdered, so had her mother. This was one of the reasons
why the teacher with the literary ambition thought he could get a romance
out of her.
After the first week she hung round the new schoolmistress, dog-like --
with "dog-like affection", thought the teacher. She came down often
during the holidays, and hung about the verandah and back door
for an hour or so; then, by-and-bye, she'd be gone. Her brooding
seemed less aggressive on such occasions. The teacher reckoned that
she had something on her mind, and wanted to open her heart to "the wife",
but was too ignorant or too shy, poor girl; and he reckoned,
from his theory of Maori character, that it might take her weeks, or months,
to come to the point. One day, after a great deal of encouragement,
she explained that she felt "so awfully lonely, Mrs. Lorrens."
All the other girls were away, and she wished it was school-time.
She was happy and cheerful again, in her brooding way, in the playground.
There was something sadly ludicrous about her great, ungainly figure
slopping round above the children at play. The schoolmistress took her
into the parlour, gave her tea and cake, and was kind to her;
and she took it all with broody cheerfulness.
One Sunday morning she came down to the cottage and sat
on the edge of the verandah, looking as wretchedly miserable as a girl could.
She was in rags -- at least, she had a rag of a dress on --
and was barefooted and bareheaded. She said that her aunt had turned her out,
and she was going to walk down the coast to Whale Bay to her grandmother --
a long day's ride. The teacher was troubled, because he was undecided
what to do. He had to be careful to avoid any unpleasantness
arising out of Maori cliquism. As the teacher he couldn't let her go
in the state she was in; from the depths of his greenness he trusted her,
from the depths of his softness he pitied her; his poetic nature
was fiercely indignant on account of the poor girl's wrongs,
and the wife spoke for her. Then he thought of his unwritten romance,
and regarded August in the light of copy, and that settled it. While he
talked the matter over with his wife, August "hid in the dark of her hair,"
awaiting her doom. The teacher put his hat on, walked up to the pa,
and saw her aunt. She denied that she had turned August out,
but the teacher believed the girl. He explained his position,
in words simplified for Maori comprehension, and the aunt and relations
said they understood, and that he was "perfectly right, Mr. Lorrens."
They were very respectful. The teacher said that if August
would not return home, he was willing to let her stay at the cottage
until such time as her uncle, who was absent, returned, and he (the teacher)
could talk the matter over with him. The relations thought
that that was the very best thing that could be done, and thanked him.
The aunt, two sisters, and as many of the others, including the children,
as were within sight or hail at the time -- most of them
could not by any possible means have had the slightest connection
with the business in hand -- accompanied the teacher to the cottage.
August took to the flax directly she caught sight of her relations,
and was with difficulty induced to return. There was a lot of talk in Maori,
during which the girl and her aunt shuffled and swung round
at the back of each other, and each talked over her shoulder,
and laughed foolishly and awkwardly once or twice; but in the end
the girl was sullenly determined not to return home, so it was decided
that she should stay. The schoolmistress made tea.
August brightened from the first day. She was a different girl altogether.
"I never saw such a change in a girl," said the young schoolmistress,
and one or two others. "I always thought she was a good girl
if taken the right way; all she wanted was a change and kind treatment."
But the stolid old Maori chairman of the school committee
only shrugged his shoulders and said (when the schoolmistress,
woman-like, pressed him for an opinion to agree with her own),
"You can look at it two ways, Mrs. Lorrens." Which, by the way,
was about the only expression of opinion that the teacher was ever able
to get out of him on any subject.
August worked and behaved well. She was wonderfully quick in picking up
English ways and housework. True, she was awkward and not over cleanly
in some things, but her mistress had patience with her.
Who wouldn't have? She "couldn't do enough" for her benefactress;
she hung on her words and sat at her footstool of evenings
in a way that gladdened the teacher's sentimental nature;
she couldn't bear to see him help his wife with a hat-pin or button --
August must do it. She insisted on doing her mistress' hair every night.
In short, she tried in every way to show her gratitude.
The teacher and his wife smiled brightly at each other behind her back,
and thought how cheerful the house was since she came,
and wondered what they'd do without her. It was a settled thing
that they should take her back to the city with them, and have
a faithful and grateful retainer all their lives and a sort of Aunt Chloe
for their children, when they had any. The teacher got yards of copy
out of her for his "Maori Sketches and Characters", worked joyously
at his romance, and felt great already, and was happy. She had a bed
made up temporarily (until the teacher could get a spring mattress for her
from town) on the floor in the dining-room, and when she'd made her bed
she'd squat on it in front of the fire and sing Maori songs in a soft voice.
She'd sing the teacher and his wife, in the next room, to sleep.
Then she'd get up and have a feed, but they never heard her.
Her manners at the table (for she was treated "like one of themselves"
in the broadest sense of the term) were surprisingly good,
considering that the adults of her people were decidedly cow-like
in white society, and scoffed sea-eggs, shell-fish, and mutton-birds at home
with a gallop which was not edifying. Her appetite, it was true,
was painful at times to the poetic side of the teacher's nature;
but he supposed that she'd been half-starved at home, poor girl,
and would get over it. Anyway, the copy he'd get out of her
would repay him for this and other expenses a hundredfold.
Moreover, begging and borrowing had ceased with her advent,
and the teacher set this down to her influence.
The first jar came when she was sent on horseback to the town for groceries,
and didn't get back till late the next day. She explained
that some of her relations got hold of her and made her stay,
and wanted her to go into public-houses with them, but she wouldn't.
She said that SHE wanted to come home. But why didn't she? The teacher
let it pass, and hoped she'd gain strength of character by-and-bye.
He had waited up late the night before with her supper on the hob;
and he and his wife had been anxious for fear something had happened
to the poor girl who was under their care. He had walked
to the treacherous river-ford several times during the evening,
and waited there for her. So perhaps he was tired, and that was why
he didn't write next night.
The sugar-bag, the onion-basket, the potato-bag and the tea-chest
began to "go down" alarmingly, and an occasional pound of candles,
a pigeon, a mutton-bird (plucked and ready for Sunday's cooking),
and other little trifles went, also. August couldn't understand it,
and the teacher believed her, for falsehood and deceit are foreign
to the simple natures of the modern Maoris. There were no cats;
but no score of ordinary cats could have given colour to the cat theory,
had it been raised in this case. The breath of August advertised onions
more than once, but no human stomach could have accounted for the quantity.
She surely could not have eaten the other things raw -- and she had
no opportunities for private cooking, as far as the teacher and his wife
could see. The other Maoris were out of the question;
they were all strictly honest.
Thefts and annoyances of the above description were credited to the "swaggies"
who infested the roads, and had a very bad name down that way;
so the teacher loaded his gun, and told August to rouse him at once,
if she heard a sound in the night. She said she would;
but a heavy-weight "swaggie" could have come in and sat on her and had a smoke
without waking her.
She couldn't be trusted to go a message. She'd take from three to six hours,
and come back with an excuse that sounded genuine from its very simplicity.
Another sister of hers lay ill in an isolated hut, alone and uncared for,
except by the teacher's wife, and occasionally by a poor pa outcast
who had negro blood in her veins, and a love for a white loafer.
God help her! All of which sounds strange, considering that Maoris
are very kind to each other. The schoolmistress sent August one night
to stay with the sick Maori woman and help her as she could,
and gave her strict instructions to come to the cottage
first thing in the morning, and tell her how the sick woman was.
August turned up at lunch-time next day. The teacher gave her
her first lecture, and said plainly that he wasn't to be taken for a fool;
then he stepped aside to get cool, and, when he returned,
the girl was sobbing as if her heart would break, and the wife comforting her.
She had been up all night, poor girl, and was thoroughly worn out.
Somehow the teacher didn't feel uncomfortable about it.
He went down to the whare. August had not touched a dishcloth or broom.
She had slept, as she always did, like a pig, all night,
while her sister lay and tossed in agony; in the morning
she ate everything there was to eat in the house (which, it seemed,
was the Maori way of showing sympathy in sickness and trouble),
after which she brooded by the fire till the children, running out of school,
announced the teacher's lunch hour.
August braced up again for a little while. The master thought of the trouble
they had with Ayacanora in "Westward Ho", and was comforted,
and tackled his romance again. Then the schoolmistress fell sick
and things went wrong. The groceries went down faster than ever,
and the house got very dirty, and began to have a native smell about it.
August grew fat, and lazy, and dirty, and less reliable on washing-days,
or when there was anything special to do in the house.
"The savage blood is strong," thought the teacher, "and she is beginning
to long for her own people and free unconventional life."
One morning -- on a washing-day, too, as it happened -- she called out,
before the teacher and his wife were up, that the Maoris
who supplied them with milk were away, and she had promised
to go up and milk the cow and bring the milk down. The teacher
gave her permission. One of the scholars usually brought the milk early.
Lunch time came and no August, no milk -- strangest of all,
only half the school children. The teacher put on his hat,
and went up to the pa once more. He found August squatted
in the midst of a circle of relations. She was entertaining them
with one of a series of idealistic sketches of the teacher's domestic life,
in which she showed a very vivid imagination, and exhibited
an unaccountable savage sort of pessimism. Her intervals of absence
had been occupied in this way from the first. The astounding slanders
she had circulated concerning the teacher's private life
came back, bit by bit, to his ears for a year afterwards,
and her character sketches of previous teachers, and her own relations
-- for she spared nobody -- would have earned a white woman
a long and well-merited term of imprisonment for criminal libel.
She had cunningly, by straightforward and unscrupulous lying,
prejudiced the principal mother and boss woman of the pa
against the teacher and his wife; as a natural result of which
the old lady, who, like the rest, was very ignorant and ungrateful,
"turned nasty" and kept the children from school. The teacher
lost his temper, so the children were rounded up and hurried
down to school immediately; with them came August and her aunt,
with alleged explanations and excuses, and a shell-fish.
The aunt and sisters said they'd have nothing to do with August.
They didn't want her and wouldn't have her. The teacher said that,
under those circumstances, she'd better go and drown herself;
so she went home with them.
The whole business had been a plot by her nearest relations.
They got rid of the trouble and expense of keeping her,
and the bother of borrowing in person, whenever in need of trifles
in the grocery line. Borrowing recommenced with her dismissal;
but the teacher put a full stop to it, as far as he was concerned.
Then August, egged on by her aunt, sent a blackguardly letter
to the teacher's wife; the sick sister, by the way, who had been
nursed and supplied with food by her all along, was in it, and said
she was glad August sent the letter, and it served the schoolmistress right.
The teacher went up to the pa once more; an hour later, August in person,
accompanied, as usual, by a relation or two, delivered at the cottage
an abject apology in writing, the composition of which would have discouraged
the most enthusiastic advocate of higher education for the lower classes.
Then various petty annoyances were tried. The teacher is firmly convinced
that certain animal-like sounds round the house at night were due
to August's trying to find out whether his wife was as likely to be haunted
as the Maoris were. He didn't dream of such a thing at the time,
for he did not believe that one of them had the pluck to venture out
after dark. But savage superstition must give way to savage hate.
The girl's last "try-on" was to come down to the school fence,
and ostentatiously sharpen a table-knife on the wires,
while she scowled murderously in the direction of the schoolmistress,
who was hanging out her washing. August looked, in her dark, bushy,
Maori hair, a thoroughly wild savage. Her father had murdered her mother
under particularly brutal circumstances, and the daughter
took after her father.
The teacher called her and said: "Now, look here, my lady,
the best thing you can do is to drop that nonsense at once"
(she had dropped the knife in the ferns behind her),
"for we're the wrong sort of people to try it on with.
Now you get out of this and tell your aunt -- she's sneaking there
in the flax -- what I tell you, and that she'd better clear out of this quick,
or I'll have a policeman out and take the whole gang into town in an hour.
Now be off, and shut that gate behind you, carefully, and fasten it."
She did, and went.
The worst of it was that the August romance copy was useless. Her lies
were even less reliable and picturesque than the common Jones Alley hag lie.
Then the teacher thought of the soft fool he'd been, and that made him wild.
He looked like a fool, and was one to a great extent,
but it wasn't good policy to take him for one.
Strange to say, he and others had reason to believe that August respected him,
and liked him rather than otherwise; but she hated his wife,
who had been kind to her, as only a savage can hate. The younger pupils
told the teacher, cheerfully and confidently, that August said
she'd cut Mrs. Lorrens' throat the first chance she got. Next week
the aunt sent down to ask if the teacher could sell her a bar of soap,
and sent the same old shilling; he was tired of seeing it stuck out
in front of him, so he took it, put it in his pocket, and sent the soap.
This must have discouraged them, for the borrowing industry petered out.
He saw the aunt later on, and she told him, cheerfully, that August was going
to live with a half-caste in a certain house in town.
Poor August! For she was only a tool after all. Her "romance"
was briefly as follows: -- She went, per off-hand Maori arrangement,
as `housekeeper' in the hut of a labourer at a neighbouring saw-mill.
She stayed three months, for a wonder; at the expiration of which time
she put on her hat and explained that she was tired of stopping there,
and was going home. He said, `All right, Sarah, wait a while
and I'll take you home.' At the door of her aunt's house he said,
`Well, good-bye, Sarah,' and she said, in her brooding way, `Good-bye, Jim.'
And that was all.
As the last apparent result of August's mischief-making,
her brother or someone one evening rode up to the cottage,
drunk and inclined to bluster. He was accompanied by a friend, also drunk,
who came to see the fun, and was ready to use his influence
on the winning side. The teacher went inside, brought out his gun,
and slipped two cartridges in. "I've had enough of this," he said.
"Now then, be off, you insolent blackguards, or I'll shoot you like rabbits.
Go!" and he snapped his jaw and the breech of his gun together.
As they rode off, the old local hawk happened to soar close over a dead lamb
in the fern at the corner of the garden, and the teacher,
who had been "laying" for him a long time, let fly both barrels at him,
without thinking. When he turned, there was only a cloud of dust
down the track.
. . . . .
The teacher taught that school for three years thereafter, without a hitch.
But he went no more on Universal Brotherhood lines. And, for years
after he had gone, his name was spoken of with great respect by the Maoris.
New Year's Night
It was dark enough for anything in Dead Man's Gap -- a round, warm,
close darkness, in which retreating sounds seemed to be cut off suddenly
at a distance of a hundred yards or so, instead of growing
faint and fainter, and dying away, to strike the ear once or twice again
-- and after minutes, it might seem -- with startling distinctness,
before being finally lost in the distance, as it is on clear, frosty nights.
So with the sounds of horses' hoofs, stumbling on the rough bridle-track
through the "saddle", the clatter of hoof-clipped stones and scrape of gravel
down the hidden "siding", and the low sound of men's voices,
blurred and speaking in monosyllables and at intervals it seemed,
and in hushed, awed tones, as though they carried a corpse.
To practical eyes, grown used to such a darkness, and at the nearest point,
the passing blurrs would have suggested two riders on bush hacks
leading a third with an empty saddle on its back -- a lady's or "side-saddle",
if one could have distinguished the horns. They may have struck
a soft track or level, or rounded the buttress of the hill higher up,
but before they had time to reach or round the foot of the spur,
blurs, whispers, stumble and clatter of hoofs, jingle of bridle rings,
and the occasional clank together of stirrup irons, seemed shut off
as suddenly and completely as though a great sound-proof door
had swung to behind them.
It was dark enough on the glaringest of days down in the lonely hollow
or "pocket", between two spurs, at the head of a blind gully
behind Mount Buckaroo, where there was a more or less dusty patch,
barely defined even in broad daylight by a spidery dog-legged fence
on three sides, and a thin "two-rail" (dignified with
the adjective "split-rail" -- though rails and posts were mostly of saplings
split in halves) running along the frontage. In about the middle of it
a little slab hut, overshadowed by a big stringy-bark shed,
was pointed out as Johnny Mears's Farm.
"Black as -- as charcoal," said Johnny Mears. He had never
seen coal, and was a cautious man, whose ideas came slowly.
He stooped, close by the fence, with his hands on his knees,
to "sky" the loom of his big shed and so get his bearings.
He had been to have a look at the penned calves, and see that all slip-rails
were up and pegged, for the words of John Mears junior,
especially when delivered rapidly and shrilly and in injured tones,
were not to be relied upon in these matters.
"It's hot enough to melt the belly out of my fiddle," said Johnny Mears
to his wife, who sat on a three-legged stool by the rough table
in the little whitewashed "end-room", putting a patch of patches
over the seat of a pair of moleskin knickerbockers. He lit his pipe,
moved a stool to the side of the great empty fireplace, where it looked cooler
-- might have been cooler on account of a possible draught
suggested by the presence of the chimney, and where, therefore,
he felt a breath cooler. He took his fiddle from a convenient shelf,
tuned it slowly and carefully, holding his pipe (in his mouth) well up
and to one side, as if the fiddle were an inquisitive and restless baby.
He played "Little Drops o' Brandy" three times, right through,
without variations, blinking solemnly the while; then he put the violin
carefully back in its box, and started to cut up another pipeful.
"You should have gone, Johnny," said the haggard little woman.
"Rackin' the horse out a night like this," retorted Johnny,
"and startin' ploughin' to-morrow. It ain't worth while.
Let them come for me if they want me. Dance on a night like this!
Why! they'll dance in ----"
"But you promised. It won't do you no good, Johnny."
"It won't do me no harm."
The little woman went on stitching.
"It's smotherin' hot," said Johnny, with an impatient oath.
"I don't know whether I'll turn in, or turn out, under the shed to-night.
It's too d----d hot to roost indoors."
She bent her head lower over the patch. One smoked and the other stitched
in silence for twenty minutes or so, during which time
Johnny might be supposed to have been deliberating listlessly
as to whether he'd camp out on account of the heat, or turn in.
But he broke the silence with a clout at a mosquito on the nape of his neck,
and a bad word.
"I wish you wouldn't swear so much, Johnny," she said wearily --
"at least not to-night."
He looked at her blankly.
"Why -- why to-night? What's the matter with you to-night, Mary?
What's to-night more than any other night to you? I see no harm --
can't a man swear when a mosquito sticks him?"
"I -- I was only thinking of the boys, Johnny."
"The boys! Why, they're both on the hay in the shed." He stared
at her again, shifted uneasily, crossed the other leg tightly, frowned,
blinked, and reached for the matches. "You look a bit off-colour, Mary.
It's the heat that makes us all a bit ratty at times.
Better put that by and have a swill o' oatmeal and water, and turn in."
"It's too hot to go to bed. I couldn't sleep. I'm all right.
I'll -- I'll just finish this. Just reach me a drink from the water-bag --
the pannikin's on the hob there, by your boot."
He scratched his head helplessly, and reached for the drink.
When he sat down again, he felt strangely restless. "Like a hen that
didn't know where to lay," he put it. He couldn't settle down or keep still,
and didn't seem to enjoy his pipe somehow. He rubbed his head again.
"There's a thunderstorm comin'," he said. "That's what it is;
and the sooner it comes the better."
He went to the back door, and stared at the blackness to the east,
and, sure enough, lightning was blinking there.
"It's coming, sure enough; just hang out and keep cool for another hour,
and you'll feel the difference."
He sat down again on the three-legged stool, folded his arms, with his elbows
on his knees, drew a long breath, and blinked at the clay floor for a while;
then he twisted the stool round on one leg, until he faced
the old-fashioned spired wooden clock (the brass disc of the pendulum
moving ghost-like through a scarred and scratched marine scene
-- Margate in England -- on the glass that covered the lower half)
that stood alone on the slab shelf over the fireplace. The hands indicated
half-past two, and Johnny, who had studied that clock and could "hit the time
nigh enough by it," after knitting his brows and blinking at the dial
for a full minute by its own hand, decided "that it must be getting on
toward nine o'clock."
It must have been the heat. Johnny stood up, raking his hair,
turned to the door and back again, and then, after an
impatient gesture, took up his fiddle and raised it to his shoulder.
Then the queer thing happened. He said afterwards, under conditions
favourable to such sentimental confidence, that a cold hand seemed to take
hold of the bow, through his, and -- anyway, before he knew what he was about
he had played the first bars of "When First I Met Sweet Peggy",
a tune he had played often, twenty years before, in his courting days,
and had never happened to play since. He sawed it right through
(the cold hand left after the first bar or two) standing up;
then still stood with fiddle and bow trembling in his hands,
with the queer feeling still on him, and a rush of old thoughts
going through his head, all of which he set down afterwards
to the effect of the heat. He put the fiddle away hastily,
damning the bridge of it at the same time in loud but hurried tones,
with the idea of covering any eccentricity which the wife might have noticed
in his actions. "Must 'a' got a touch o' sun," he muttered to himself.
He sat down, fumbled with knife, pipe, and tobacco, and presently stole
a furtive glance over his shoulder at his wife.
The washed-out little woman was still sewing, but stitching blindly,
for great tears were rolling down her worn cheeks.
Johnny, white-faced on account of the heat, stood close behind her,
one hand on her shoulder and the other clenched on the table;
but the clenched hand shook as badly as the loose one.
"Good God! What is the matter, Mary? You're sick!" (They had had
little or no experience of illness.) "Tell me, Mary -- come now!
Has the boys been up to anything?"
"No, Johnny; it's not that."
"What is it then? You're taken sick! What have you been doing with yourself?
It might be fever. Hold up a minute. You wait here quiet
while I roost out the boys and send 'em for the doctor and someone ----"
"No! no! I'm not sick, John. It's only a turn. I'll be all right
in a minute."
He shifted his hand to her head, which she dropped suddenly,
with a life-weary sigh, against his side.
"Now then!" cried Johnny, wildly, "don't you faint or go
into disterricks, Mary! It'll upset the boys; think of the boys!
It's only the heat -- you're only takin' queer."
"It's not that; you ought to know me better than that. It was -- I -- Johnny,
I was only thinking -- we've been married twenty years to-night
-- an' -- it's New Year's Night!"
"And I've never thought of it!" said Johnny (in the afterwards).
"Shows what a God-forgotten selection will make of a man.
She'd thought of it all the time, and was waiting for it to strike me.
Why! I'd agreed to go and play at a darnce at Old Pipeclay School-house
all night -- that very night -- and leave her at home because she hadn't
asked to come; and it never struck me to ask her -- at home by herself
in that hole -- for twenty-five bob. And I only stopped at home
because I'd got the hump, and knew they'd want me bad at the school."
They sat close together on the long stool by the table,
shy and awkward at first; and she clung to him at opening of thunder,
and they started apart guiltily when the first great drops
sounded like footsteps on the gravel outside, just as they'd done
one night-time before -- twenty years before.
If it was dark before, it was black now. The edge of the awful storm-cloud
rushed up and under the original darkness like the best "drop"
black-brushed over the cheap "lamp" variety, turning it grey by contrast.
The deluge lasted only a quarter of an hour; but it cleared the night,
and did its work. There was hail before it, too -- big as emu eggs,
the boys said -- that lay feet deep in the old diggers' holes on Pipeclay
for days afterwards -- weeks some said.
The two sweethearts of twenty years ago and to-night watched
the retreat of the storm, and, seeing Mount Buckaroo standing clear,
they went to the back door, which opened opposite the end of the shed,
and saw to the east a glorious arch of steel-blue, starry sky,
with the distant peaks showing clear and blue away back under
the far-away stars in the depth of it.
They lingered awhile -- arms round each other's waists --
before she called the boys, just as they had done this time of night
twenty years ago, after the boys' grandmother had called her.
"Awlright, mother!" bawled back the boys, with unfilial independence
of Australian youth. "We're awlright! We'll be in directly!
Wasn't it a pelterer, mother?"
They went in and sat down again. The embarrassment began to wear off.
"We'll get out of this, Mary," said Johnny. "I'll take Mason's offer
for the cattle and things, and take that job of Dawson's, boss or no boss"
-- (Johnny's bad luck was due to his inability in the past
to "get on" with any boss for any reasonable length of time) --
"I can get the boys on, too. They're doing no good here,
and growing up. It ain't doing justice to them; and, what's more,
this life is killin' you, Mary. That settles it! I was blind.
Let the jumpt-up selection go! It's making a wall-eyed bullock of me, Mary --
a dry-rotted rag of a wall-eyed bullock like Jimmy Nowlett's old Strawberry.
And you'll live in town like a lady."
"Somebody coming!" yelled the boys.
There was a clatter of sliprails hurriedly thrown down,
and clipped by horses' hoofs.
"Insoide there! Is that you, Johnny?"
"Yes!" ("I knew they'd come for you," said Mrs. Mears to Johnny.)
"You'll have to come, Johnny. There's no get out of it.
Here's Jim Mason with me, and we've got orders to stun you and pack you
if you show fight. The blessed fiddler from Mudgee didn't turn up.
Dave Regan burst his concertina, and they're in a fix."
"But I can't leave the missus."
"That's all right. We've got the school missus's mare and side-saddle.
She says you ought to be jolly well ashamed of yourself, Johnny Mears,
for not bringing your wife on New Year's Night. And so you ought!"
Johnny did not look shame-faced, for reasons unknown to them.
"The boys couldn't find the horses," put in Mrs. Mears.
"Johnny was just going down the gully again."
He gave her a grateful look, and felt a strange, new thrill of admiration
for his wife.
"And -- there's a bottle of the best put by for you, Johnny,"
added Pat McDurmer, mistaking Johnny's silence; "and we'll call it
thirty bob!" (Johnny's ideas were coming slowly again,
after the recent rush.) "Or -- two quid! -- there you are!"
"I don't want two quid, nor one either, for taking my wife to a dance
on New Year's Night!" said Johnny Mears. "Run and put on
your best bib and tucker, Mary."
And she hurried to dress as eager and excited, and smiling to herself
as girlishly as she had done on such occasions on evenings
before the bright New Year's Night twenty years ago.
For a related story, see "A Bush Dance", in "Joe Wilson and His Mates".
-- A. L., 1998.
They called him Black Joe, and me White Joe, by way of distinction
and for the convenience of his boss (my uncle), and my aunt, and mother;
so, when we heard the cry of "Bla-a-ack Joe!" (the adjective drawn out
until it became a screech, after several repetitions,
and the "Joe" short and sharp) coming across the flat in a woman's voice,
Joe knew that the missus wanted him at the house, to get wood or water,
or mind the baby, and he kept carefully out of sight; he went at once
when uncle called. And when we heard the cry of "Wh-i-i-te Joe!" which we did
with difficulty and after several tries -- though Black Joe's ears
were of the keenest -- we knew that I was overdue at home,
or absent without leave, and was probably in for a warming,
as the old folk called it. On some occasions I postponed the warming
as long as my stomach held out, which was a good while in five-corner,
native-cherry, or yam season -- but the warming was none the cooler
for being postponed.
Sometimes Joe heard the wrong adjective, or led me to believe he did --
and left me for a whole afternoon under the impression that the race of Ham
was in demand at the homestead, when I myself was wanted there,
and maternal wrath was increasing every moment of my absence.
But Joe knew that my conscience was not so elastic as his, and -- well,
you must expect little things like this in all friendships.
Black Joe was somewhere between nine and twelve when I first met him,
on a visit to my uncle's station; I was somewhere in those years too.
He was very black, the darker for being engaged in the interesting
but uncertain occupation of "burning off" in his spare time --
which wasn't particularly limited. He combined shepherding,
'possum and kangaroo hunting, crawfishing, sleeping,
and various other occupations and engagements with that of burning off.
I was very white, being a sickly town boy; but, as I took great interest
in burning off, and was not particularly fond of cold water
-- it was in winter time -- the difference in our complexions
was not so marked at times.
Black Joe's father, old Black Jimmie, lived in a gunyah
on the rise at the back of the sheepyards, and shepherded for my uncle.
He was a gentle, good-humoured, easy-going old fellow with a pleasant smile;
which description applies, I think, to most old blackfellows in civilisation.
I was very partial to the old man, and chummy with him,
and used to slip away from the homestead whenever I could,
and squat by the campfire along with the other piccaninnies,
and think, and yarn socially with Black Jimmie by the hour.
I would give something to remember those conversations now.
Sometimes somebody would be sent to bring me home, when it got too late,
and Black Jimmie would say:
"Piccaninnie alonga possum rug," and there I'd be, sound asleep,
with the other young Australians.
I liked Black Jimmie very much, and would willingly have adopted him
as a father. I should have been quite content to spend my days in the scrub,
enjoying life in dark and savage ways, and my nights "alonga possum rug";
but the family had other plans for my future.
It was a case of two blackfellows and one gin, when Black Jimmie went a-wooing
-- about twelve years before I made his acquaintance -- and he fought
for his bride in the black fashion. It was the last affair of that kind
in the district. My uncle's brother professed to have been present
at the fight, and gave me an alleged description of it.
He said that they drew lots, and Black Jimmie put his hands on his knees
and bent his head, and the other blackfellow hit him a whack on the skull
with a nulla nulla. Then they had a nip of rum all round --
Black Jimmie must have wanted it, for the nulla nulla was knotted, and heavy,
and made in the most approved fashion. Then the other blackfellow
bent his head, and Jimmie took the club and returned the whack with interest.
Then the other fellow hit Jimmie a lick, and took a clout in return.
Then they had another drink, and continued thus until Jimmie's rival
lost all heart and interest in the business. But you couldn't take
everything my uncle's brother said for granted.
Black Mary was a queen by right, and had the reputation of being
the cleanest gin in the district; she was a great favourite
with the squatters' wives round there. Perhaps she hoped
to reclaim Jimmie -- he was royal, too, but held easy views
with regard to religion and the conventionalities of civilisation.
Mary insisted on being married properly by a clergyman,
made the old man build a decent hut, had all her children christened,
and kept him and them clean and tidy up to the time of her death.
Poor Queen Mary was ambitious. She started to educate her children,
and when they got beyond her -- that is when they had learnt their letters --
she was grateful for any assistance from the good-natured bush men and women
of her acquaintance. She had decided to get her eldest boy
into the mounted police, and had plans for the rest,
and she worked hard for them, too. Jimmie offered no opposition,
and gave her no assistance beyond the rations and money he earned shepherding
-- which was as much as could be expected of him.
He did as many husbands do "for the sake of peace and quietness" --
he drifted along in the wake of his wife, and took things as easily
as her schemes of reformation and education would allow him to.
Queen Mary died before her time, respected by all who knew or had heard
of her. The nearest squatter's wife sent a pair of sheets for a shroud,
with instructions to lay Mary out, and arranged (by bush telegraph)
to drive over next morning with her sister-in-law and two other white women
in the vicinity, to see Mary decently buried.
But the remnant of Jimmie's tribe were there beforehand.
They tore the sheets in strips and tied Mary up in a bundle,
with her chin to her knees -- preparing her for burial in their own fashion --
and mourned all night in whitewash and ashes. At least, the gins did.
The white women saw that it was hopeless to attempt to untie
any of the innumerable knots and double knots, even if it had been possible
to lay Mary out afterwards; so they had to let her be buried as she was,
with black and white obsequies. And we've got no interest in believing
that she did not "jump up white woman" long ago.
My uncle and his brother took the two eldest boys. Black Jimmie
shifted away from the hut at once with the rest of his family
-- for the "devil-devil" sat down there -- and Mary's name
was strictly "tabooed" in accordance with aboriginal etiquette.
Jimmie drifted back towards the graves of his fathers
in company with a decreasing flock of sheep day by day
(for the house of my uncle had fallen on times of drought and depression,
and foot-rot and wool rings, and over-drafts and bank owners),
and a few strips of bark, a dying fire, a black pipe,
some greasy 'possum rugs and blankets, a litter of kangaroo tails, etc.,
four neglected piccaninnies, half a score of mangy mongrels,
and, haply, a "lilly drap o' rum", by night.
The four little Australians grew dirtier and more shy and savage,
and ate underdone kangaroo and 'possum and native bear,
with an occasional treat of oak grubs and goanna by preference --
and died out, one by one, as blacks do when brought within
the ever widening circle of civilisation. Jimmie moved promptly
after each death, and left the evil one in possession,
and built another mia-mia -- each one being less pretentious than the last.
Finally he was left, the last of his tribe, to mourn his lot in solitude.
But the devil-devil came and sat down by King Jimmie's side one night,
so he, too, moved out across the Old Man border, and the mia-mia
rotted into the ground and the grass grew there.
. . . . .
I admired Joe; I thought him wiser and cleverer than any white boy
in the world. He could smell out 'possums unerringly,
and I firmly believed he could see yards through the muddiest of dam water;
for once, when I dropped my boat in, and was not sure of the spot,
he fished it out first try. With cotton reels and bits of stick and bark
he would make the model of a station homestead, slaughter-yards,
sheep-yards, and all complete, working in ideas and improvements of his own
which might have been put into practice with advantage.
He was a most original and interesting liar upon all subjects
upon which he was ignorant and which came up incidentally.
He gave me a very interesting account of an interview
between his father and Queen Victoria, and mentioned casually
that his father had walked across the Thames without getting wet.
He also told me how he, Joe, had tied a mounted trooper to a verandah post
and thrashed him with pine saplings until the timber gave out
and he was tired. I questioned Jimmie, but the incidents seemed
to have escaped the old king's memory.
Joe could build bigger woodheaps with less wood than any
black or white tramp or loafer round there. He was a born architect.
He took a world of pains with his wood-heaps -- he built them hollow,
in the shape of a break-wind, with the convex side towards the house
for the benefit of his employers. Joe was easy-going; he had inherited
a love of peace and quietness from his father. Uncle generally came home
after dark, and Joe would have little fires lit at safe distances
all round the house, in order to convey an impression that the burning off
was proceeding satisfactorily.
When the warm weather came, Joe and I got into trouble with an old hag
for bathing in a waterhole in the creek in front of her shanty,
and she impounded portions of our wardrobe. We shouldn't have lost much
if she had taken it all; but our sense of injury was deep,
especially as she used very bad grammar towards us.
Joe addressed her from the safe side of the water. He said, "Look here!
Old leather-face, sugar-eye, plar-bag marmy, I call it you."
"Plar-bag marmy" meant "Mother Flour-bag", and ration sugar
was decidedly muddy in appearance.
She came round the waterhole with a clothes prop, and made good time, too;
but we got across and away with our clothes.
That little incident might have changed the whole course of my existence.
Plar-bag Marmy made a formal complaint to uncle, who happened
to pass there on horseback about an hour later; and the same evening
Joe's latest and most carefully planned wood heap collapsed
while aunt was pulling a stick out of it in the dark, and it gave her
a bad scare, the results of which might have been serious.
So uncle gave us a thrashing, without the slightest regard
for racial distinctions, and sent us to bed without our suppers.
We sought Jimmie's camp, but Joe got neither sympathy nor damper
from his father, and I was sent home with a fatherly lecture
"for going alonga that fella," meaning Joe.
Joe and I discussed existence at a waterhole down the creek next afternoon,
over a billy of crawfish which we had boiled and a piece of gritty damper,
and decided to retire beyond the settled districts -- some five hundred
miles or so -- to a place that Joe said he knew of, where there were
lagoons and billabongs ten miles wide, alive with ducks and fish,
and black cockatoos and kangaroos and wombats, that only waited
to be knocked over with a stick.
I thought I might as well start and be a blackfellow at once, so we got
a rusty pan without a handle, and cooked about a pint of fat yellow oak-grubs;
and I was about to fall to when we were discovered, and the full weight
of combined family influence was brought to bear on the situation.
We had broken a new pair of shears digging out those grubs
from under the bark of the she-oaks, and had each taken a blade
as his own especial property, which we thought was the best thing to do
under the circumstances. Uncle wanted those shears badly, so he received us
with the buggy whip -- and he didn't draw the colour line either.
All that night and next day I wished he had. I was sent home,
and Joe went droving with uncle soon after that, else I might have
lived a life of freedom and content and died out peacefully
with the last of my adopted tribe.
Joe died of consumption on the track. When he was dying uncle asked:
"Is there anything you would like?"
And Joe said: "I'd like a lilly drap o' rum, boss."
Which were his last words, for he drank the rum and died peacefully.
I was the first to hear the news at home, and, being still a youngster,
I ran to the house, crying "Oh, mother! aunt's Joe is dead!"
There were visitors at our place at the time, and, as the eldest child
of the maternal aunt in question had also been christened Joe
-- after a grandfather of our tribe (my tribe, not Black Joe's) --
the news caused a sudden and unpleasant sensation. But cross-examination
explained the mistake, and I retired to the rear of the pig-sty,
as was my custom when things went wrong, with another cause for grief.
They Wait on the Wharf in Black
"Seems to me that honest, hard-working men seem to accumulate
the heaviest swags of trouble in this world." -- Steelman.
Told by Mitchell's Mate.
We were coming back from West Australia, steerage -- Mitchell, the Oracle,
and I. I had gone over saloon, with a few pounds in my pocket.
Mitchell said this was a great mistake -- I should have gone over steerage
with nothing but the clothes I stood upright in, and come back saloon
with a pile. He said it was a very common mistake that men made,
but, as far as his experience went, there always seemed to be
a deep-rooted popular prejudice in favour of going away from home
with a few pounds in one's pocket and coming back stumped;
at least amongst rovers and vagabonds like ourselves -- it wasn't
so generally popular or admired at home, or in the places we came back to,
as it was in the places we went to. Anyway it went, there wasn't
the slightest doubt that our nearest and dearest friends were, as a rule,
in favour of our taking away as little as we could possibly manage with,
and coming back with a pile, whether we came back saloon or not;
and that ought to settle the matter as far as any chap that had
the slightest consideration for his friends or family was concerned.
There was a good deal of misery, underneath, coming home in that steerage.
One man had had his hand crushed and amputated out Coolgardie way,
and the stump had mortified, and he was being sent to Melbourne by his mates.
Some had lost their money, some a couple of years of their life,
some their souls; but none seemed to have lost the heart
to call up the quiet grin that southern rovers, vagabonds,
travellers for "graft" or fortune, and professional wanderers wear
in front of it all. Except one man -- an elderly eastern digger --
he had lost his wife in Sydney while he was away.
They sent him a wire to the Boulder Soak, or somewhere
out back of White Feather, to say that his wife was seriously ill;
but the wire went wrong, somehow, after the manner of telegrams not connected
with mining, on the lines of "the Western". They sent him a wire
to say that his wife was dead, and that reached him all right --
only a week late.
I can imagine it. He got the message at dinner-time,
or when they came back to the camp. His mate wanted him
to sit in the shade, or lie in the tent, while he got the billy boiled.
"You must brace up and pull yourself together, Tom, for the sake
of the youngsters." And Tom for long intervals goes walking up and down,
up and down, by the camp -- under the brassy sky or the gloaming --
under the brilliant star-clusters that hang over the desert plain,
but never raising his eyes to them; kicking a tuft of grass
or a hole in the sand now and then, and seeming to watch
the progress of the track he is tramping out. The wife of twenty years
was with him -- though two thousand miles away -- till that message came.
I can imagine Tome sitting with his mates round the billy,
they talking in quiet, subdued tones about the track,
the departure of coaches, trains and boats -- arranging for
Tom's journey East, and the working of the claim in his absence.
Or Tom lying on his back in his bunk, with his hands under his head
and his eyes fixed on the calico above -- thinking, thinking, thinking.
Thinking, with a touch of his boyhood's faith perhaps;
or wondering what he had done in his long, hard-working married life,
that God should do this thing to him now, of all times.
"You'd best take what money we have in the camp, Tom;
you'll want it all ag'in' the time you get back from Sydney, and we can
fix it up arterwards. . . . There's a couple o' clean shirts o' mine
-- you'd best take 'em -- you'll want 'em on the voyage. . . .
You might as well take them there new pants o' mine, they'll only dry-rot
out here -- and the coat, too, if you like -- it's too small for me, anyway.
You won't have any time in Perth, and you'll want some decent togs
to land with in Sydney."
. . . . .
"I wouldn't 'a' cared so much if I'd 'a' seen the last of her," he said,
in a quiet, patient voice, to us one night by the rail. "I would 'a' liked
to have seen the last of her."
"Have you been long in the West?"
"Over two years. I made up to take a run across last Christmas,
and have a look at 'em. But I couldn't very well get away
when `exemption-time' came. I didn't like to leave the claim."
"Do any good over there?"
"Well, things brightened up a bit the last month or two.
I had a hard pull at first; landed without a penny, and had to send back
every shilling I could rake up to get things straightened up a bit at home.
Then the eldest boy fell ill, and then the baby. I'd reckoned
on bringing 'em over to Perth or Coolgardie when the cool weather came,
and having them somewheres near me, where I could go and have a look at 'em
now and then, and look after them."
"Going back to the West again?"
"Oh, yes. I must go for the sake of the youngsters. But I don't seem
to have much heart in it." He smoked awhile. "Over twenty years
we struggled along together -- the missus and me -- and it seems hard
that I couldn't see the last of her. It's rough on a man."
"The world is damned rough on a man sometimes," said Mitchell,
"most especially when he least deserves it."
The digger crossed his arms on the rail like an old "cocky" at the fence
in the cool of the evening, yarning with an old crony.
"Mor'n twenty years she stuck to me and struggled along by my side.
She never give in. I'll swear she was on her feet till the last,
with her sleeves tucked up -- bustlin' round. . . . And just
when things was brightening and I saw a chance of giving her
a bit of a rest and comfort for the end of her life. . . .
I thought of it all only t'other week when things was clearing up ahead;
and the last `order' I sent over I set to work and wrote her a long letter,
putting all the good news and encouragement I could think of into it.
I thought how that letter would brighten up things at home,
and how she'd read it round. I thought of lots of things that a man
never gets time to think of while his nose is kept to the grindstone.
And she was dead and in her grave, and I never knowed it."
Mitchell dug his elbow into my ribs and made signs for the matches
to light his pipe.
"An' yer never knowed," reflected the Oracle.
"But I always had an idea when there was trouble at home,"
the digger went on presently, in his quiet, patient tone.
"I always knowed; I always had a kind of feeling that way -- I felt it --
no matter how far I was away. When the youngsters was sick I knowed it,
and I expected the letter that come. About a fortnight ago
I had a feeling that way when the wife was ill. The very stars
out there on the desert by the Boulder Soak seemed to say:
`There's trouble at home. Go home. There's trouble at home.'
But I never dreamed what that trouble was. One night I did make up my mind
to start in the morning, but when the morning came I hadn't an excuse,
and was ashamed to tell my mates the truth. They might have thought
I was going ratty, like a good many go out there." Then he broke off
with a sort of laugh, as if it just struck him that we might think
he was a bit off his head, or that his talk was getting uncomfortable for us.
"Curious, ain't it?" he said.
"Reminds me of a case I knowed, ----" commenced the Oracle, after a pause.
I could have pitched him overboard; but that was a mistake.
He and the old digger sat on the for'ard hatch half the night yarning,
mostly about queer starts, and rum go's, and curious cases
the Oracle had knowed, and I think the Oracle did him a lot of good somehow,
for he seemed more cheerful in the morning.
We were overcrowded in the steerage, but Mitchell managed
to give up his berth to the old digger without letting him know it.
Most of the chaps seemed anxious to make a place at the first table
and pass the first helpings of the dishes to the "old cove
that had lost his missus."
They all seemed to forget him as we entered the Heads; they had
their own troubles to attend to. They were in the shadow of the shame
of coming back hard up, and the grins began to grow faint and sickly.
But I didn't forget him. I wish sometimes that I didn't take
so much notice of things.
There was no mistaking them -- the little group that stood apart
near the end of the wharf, dressed in cheap black. There was
the eldest single sister -- thin, pale, and haggard-looking --
that had had all the hard worry in the family till her temper was spoilt,
as you could see by the peevish, irritable lines in her face.
She had to be the mother of them all now, and had never known, perhaps,
what it was to be a girl or a sweetheart. She gave a hard,
mechanical sort of smile when she saw her father, and then stood
looking at the boat in a vacant, hopeless sort of way. There was the baby,
that he saw now for the first time, crowing and jumping
at the sight of the boat coming in; there was the eldest boy,
looking awkward and out of place in his new slop-suit of black,
shifting round uneasily, and looking anywhere but at his father.
But the little girl was the worst, and a pretty little girl she was, too;
she never took her streaming eyes off her father's face the whole time.
You could see that her little heart was bursting, and with pity for him.
They were too far apart to speak to each other as yet. The boat seemed
a cruel long long time swinging alongside -- I wished they'd hurry up.
He'd brought his traps up early, and laid 'em on the deck under the rail;
he stood very quiet with his hands behind him, looking at his children.
He had a strong, square, workman's face, but I could see
his chin and mouth quivering under the stubbly, iron-grey beard,
and the lump working in his throat; and one strong hand
gripped the other very tight behind, but his eyelids never quivered --
only his eyes seemed to grow more and more sad and lonesome.
These are the sort of long, cruel moments when a man sits or stands
very tight and quiet and calm-looking, with his whole past life
going whirling through his brain, year after year, and over and over again.
Just as the digger seemed about to speak to them he met
the brimming eyes of his little girl turned up to his face.
He looked at her for a moment, and then turned suddenly and went below
as if pretending to go down for his things. I noticed that Mitchell
-- who hadn't seemed to be noticing anything in particular --
followed him down. When they came on deck again we were right alongside.
"'Ello, Nell!" said the digger to the eldest daughter.
"'Ello, father!" she said, with a sort of gasp, but trying to smile.
"'Ello, Jack, how are you getting on?"
"All right, father," said the boy, brightening up, and seeming
He looked down at the little girl with a smile that I can't describe,
but didn't speak to her. She still stood with quivering chin and mouth
and great brimming eyes upturned, full of such pity as I never saw before
in a child-face -- pity for him.
"You can get ashore now," said Mitchell; "see, they've got the gangway
Presently I saw Mitchell with the portmanteau in his hand,
and the baby on his arm, steering them away to a quiet corner of the shed
at the top of the wharf. The digger had the little girl in his arms,
and both hers were round his neck, and her face hidden on his shoulder.
When Mitchell came back, he leant on the rail for a while by my side,
as if it was a boundary fence out back, and there was no hurry
to break up camp and make a start.
"What did you follow him below that time for, Mitchell?" I asked presently,
for want of something better to say.
Mitchell looked at me out of the corners of his eyes.
"I wanted to score a drink!" he said. "I thought he wanted one
and wouldn't like to be a Jimmy Woodser."
Seeing the Last of You
"When you're going away by boat," said Mitchell, "you ought to say good-bye
to the women at home, and to the chaps at the last pub.
I hate waiting on the wharf or up on deck when the boat's behind time.
There's no sense in it, and a lot of unnecessary misery.
Your friends wait on the wharf and you are kept at the rail to the bitter end,
just when they and you most want a spell. And why? Some of them hang out
because they love you, and want to see the last of you; some because
they don't like you to see them going away without seeing the last of you;
and you hang out mostly because it would hurt 'em if you went below
and didn't give them a chance of seeing the last of you all the time --
and you curse the boat and wish to God it would start.
And those who love you most -- the women-folk of the family --
and who are making all the fuss and breaking their hearts
about having to see the last of you, and least want to do it --
they hang out the longest, and are the most determined to see it.
Where's the sense in it? What's the good of seeing the last of you?
How do women manage to get consolation out of a thing like that?
"But women get consolation out of queer things sometimes,"
he added reflectively, "and so do men.
"I remember when I was knocking about the coasts, an old aunt of mine
always persisted in coming down to see the last of me,
and bringing the whole family too -- no matter if I was only going away
for a month. I was her favourite. I always turned up again in a few months;
but if I'd come back every next boat it wouldn't have made
the slightest difference to her. She'd say that I mightn't come back
some day, and then she'd never forgive herself nor the family
for not seeing me off. I suppose she'll see the end of me yet
if she lives long enough -- and she's a wiry old lady of the old school.
She was old-fashioned and dressed like a fright, they said at home.
They hated being seen in public with her; to tell the truth,
I felt a bit ashamed, too, at times. I wouldn't be, now.
When I'd get her off on to the wharf I'd be overcome with my feelings,
and have to retire to the privacy of the bar to hide my emotions
till the boat was going. And she'd stand on the end of the pier
and wave her handkerchief and mop her old eyes with it
until she was removed by force.
"God bless her old heart! There wasn't so much affection wasted on me at home
that I felt crowded by hers; and I never lost anything by her seeing
the last of me.
"I do wish the Oracle would stop that confounded fiddle of his --
it makes you think over damned old things."
Two Boys at Grinder Brothers'
Five or six half-grown larrikins sat on the cemented sill of the big window
of Grinder Bros.' Railway Coach Factory waiting for the work bell,
and one of the number was Bill Anderson -- known as "Carstor Hoil" --
a young terror of fourteen or fifteen.
"Here comes Balmy Arvie," exclaimed Bill as a pale,
timid-looking little fellow rounded the corner and stood against the wall
by the door. "How's your parents, Balmy?"
The boy made no answer; he shrank closer to the entrance.
The first bell went.
"What yer got for dinner, Balmy? Bread 'n' treacle?" asked the young ruffian;
then for the edification of his chums he snatched the boy's dinner bag
and emptied its contents on the pavement.
The door opened. Arvie gathered up his lunch, took his time-ticket,
and hurried in.
"Well, Balmy," said one of the smiths as he passed, "what do you think
of the boat race?"
"I think," said the boy, goaded to reply, "that it would be better
if young fellows of this country didn't think so much
about racin' an' fightin'."
The questioner stared blankly for a moment, then laughed suddenly
in the boy's face, and turned away. The rest grinned.
"Arvie's getting balmier than ever," guffawed young Bill.
"Here, Carstor Hoil," cried one of the smiths' strikers,
"how much oil will you take for a chew of terbaccer?"
"All right; let's see the chew, first."
"Oh, you'll get it. What yer frighten' of? . . . Come on, chaps,
'n' see Bill drink oil."
Bill measured out some machine oil and drank it. He got the tobacco,
and the others got what they called "the fun of seein' Bill drink oil!"
The second bell rang, and Bill went up to the other end of the shop,
where Arvie was already at work sweeping shavings from under a bench.
The young terror seated himself on the end of this bench,
drummed his heels against the leg, and whistled. He was in no hurry,
for his foreman had not yet arrived. He amused himself
by lazily tossing chips at Arvie, who made no protest for a while.
"It would be -- better -- for this country," said the young terror,
reflectively and abstractedly, cocking his eye at the whitewashed roof beams
and feeling behind him on the bench for a heavier chip --
"it would be better -- for this country -- if young fellers
didn't think so much about -- about -- racin' -- AND fightin'."
"You let me alone," said Arvie.
"Why, what'll you do?" exclaimed Bill, bringing his eye down
with feigned surprise. Then, in an indignant tone, "I don't mind
takin' a fall out of yer, now, if yer like."
Arvie went on with his work. Bill tossed all the chips within reach,
and then sat carelessly watching some men at work, and whistling
the "Dead March". Presently he asked:
"What's yer name, Balmy?"
"Carn't yer answer a civil question? I'd soon knock the sulks out of yer
if I was yer father."
"My name's Arvie; you know that."
Bill cocked his eye at the roof and thought a while and whistled;
then he said suddenly:
"Say, Balmy, where d'yer live?"
A short, low whistle from Bill. "What house?"
"Garn! What yer giv'nus?"
"I'm telling the truth. What's there funny about it? What do I want
to tell you a lie for?"
"Why, we lived there once, Balmy. Old folks livin'?"
"Mother is; father's dead."
Bill scratched the back of his head, protruded his under lip, and reflected.
"I say, Arvie, what did yer father die of?"
"Heart disease. He dropped down dead at his work."
Long, low, intense whistle from Bill. He wrinkled his forehead
and stared up at the beams as if he expected to see something unusual there.
After a while he said, very impressively: "So did mine."
The coincidence hadn't done striking him yet; he wrestled with it
for nearly a minute longer. Then he said:
"I suppose yer mother goes out washin'?"
"'N' cleans offices?"
"So does mine. Any brothers 'n' sisters?"
"Two -- one brother 'n' one sister."
Bill looked relieved -- for some reason.
"I got nine," he said. "Yours younger'n you?"
"Lot of bother with the landlord?"
"Yes, a good lot."
"Had any bailiffs in yet?"
They compared notes a while longer, and tailed off into a silence
which lasted three minutes and grew awkward towards the end.
Bill fidgeted about on the bench, reached round for a chip,
but recollected himself. Then he cocked his eye at the roof once more
and whistled, twirling a shaving round his fingers the while.
At last he tore the shaving in two, jerked it impatiently from him,
and said abruptly:
"Look here, Arvie! I'm sorry I knocked over yer barrer yesterday."
This knocked Bill out the first round. He rubbed round uneasily on the bench,
fidgeted with the vise, drummed his fingers, whistled, and finally
thrust his hands in his pockets and dropped on his feet.
"Look here, Arvie!" he said in low, hurried tones. "Keep close to me
goin' out to-night, 'n' if any of the other chaps touches yer
or says anything to yer I'll hit 'em!"
Then he swung himself round the corner of a carriage "body" and was gone.
. . . . .
Arvie was late out of the shop that evening. His boss was a sub-contractor
for the coach-painting, and always tried to find twenty minutes' work
for his boys just about five or ten minutes before the bell rang.
He employed boys because they were cheap and he had a lot of rough work,
and they could get under floors and "bogies" with their pots and brushes,
and do all the "priming" and paint the trucks. His name was Collins,
and the boys were called "Collins' Babies". It was a joke in the shop
that he had a "weaning" contract. The boys were all "over fourteen",
of course, because of the Education Act. Some were nine or ten -- wages from
five shillings to ten shillings. It didn't matter to Grinder Brothers
so long as the contracts were completed and the dividends paid.
Collins preached in the park every Sunday. But this has nothing to do
with the story.
When Arvie came out it was beginning to rain and the hands had all gone
except Bill, who stood with his back to a verandah-post,
spitting with very fair success at the ragged toe of one boot. He looked up,
nodded carelessly at Arvie, and then made a dive for a passing lorry,
on the end of which he disappeared round the next corner,
unsuspected by the driver, who sat in front with his pipe in his mouth
and a bag over his shoulders.
Arvie started home with his heart and mind pretty full, and a stronger,
stranger aversion to ever going back to the shop again. This new,
unexpected, and unsought-for friendship embarrassed the poor lonely child.
It wasn't welcome.
But he never went back. He got wet going home, and that night
he was a dying child. He had been ill all the time,
and Collins was one "baby" short next day.
The Selector's Daughter
She rode slowly down the steep siding from the main road to a track
in the bed of the Long Gully, the old grey horse picking his way
zig-zag fashion. She was about seventeen, slight in figure,
and had a pretty freckled face with a pathetically drooping mouth,
and big sad brown eyes. She wore a faded print dress,
with an old black riding skirt drawn over it, and her head was hidden
in one of those ugly, old-fashioned white hoods, which, seen from the rear,
always suggest an old woman. She carried several parcels of groceries
strapped to the front of the dilapidated side-saddle.
The track skirted a chain of rocky waterholes at the foot of the gully,
and the girl glanced nervously at these ghastly, evil-looking pools
as she passed them by. The sun had set, as far as Long Gully was concerned.
The old horse carefully followed a rough bridle track, which ran up the gully
now on one side of the watercourse and now on the other;
the gully grew deeper and darker, and its sullen, scrub-covered sides
rose more steeply as he progressed.
The girl glanced round frequently, as though afraid of someone following her.
Once she drew rein, and listened to some bush sound.
"Kangaroos," she murmured; it was only kangaroos. She crossed
a dimmed little clearing where a farm had been, and entered a thick scrub
of box and stringy-bark saplings. Suddenly with a heavy thud, thud,
an "old man" kangaroo leapt the path in front, startling the girl fearfully,
and went up the siding towards the peak.
"Oh, my God!" she gasped, with her hand on her heart.
She was very nervous this evening; her heart was hurt now,
and she held her hand close to it, while tears started from her eyes
and glistened in the light of the moon, which was rising over the gap ahead.
"Oh, if I could only go away from the bush!" she moaned.
The old horse plodded on, and now and then shook his head
-- sadly, it seemed -- as if he knew her troubles and was sorry.
She passed another clearing, and presently came to a small homestead
in a stringy-bark hollow below a great gap in the ridges -- "Deadman's Gap".
The place was called "Deadman's Hollow", and looked like it.
The "house" -- a low, two-roomed affair, with skillions --
was built of half-round slabs and stringy-bark, and was nearly all roof;
the bark, being darkened from recent rain, gave it a drearier appearance
A big, coarse-looking youth of about twenty was nailing a green kangaroo skin
to the slabs; he was out of temper because he had bruised his thumb.
The girl unstrapped the parcels and carried them in;
as she passed her brother, she said:
"Take the saddle off for me, will you, Jack?"
"Oh, carnt yer take it off yerself?" he snarled; "carnt yer see I'm busy?"
She took off the saddle and bridle, and carried them into a shed,
where she hung them on a beam. The patient old hack shook himself
with an energy that seemed ill-advised, considering his age and condition,
and went off towards the "dam".
An old woman sat in the main room beside a fireplace which took up
almost the entire end of the house. A plank-table, supported on stakes
driven into the ground, stood in the middle of the room,
and two slab benches were fixtures on each side. The floor was clay.
All was clean and poverty-stricken; all that could be whitewashed was white,
and everything that could be washed was scrubbed. The slab shelves
were covered with clean newspapers, on which bright tins, and pannikins,
and fragments of crockery were set to the greatest advantage. The walls,
however, were disfigured by Christmas supplements of illustrated journals.
The girl came in and sat down wearily on a stool opposite to the old woman.
"Are you any better, mother?" she asked.
"Very little, Mary, very little. Have you seen your father?"
"I wonder where he is?"
"You might wonder. What's the use of worrying about it, mother?"
"I suppose he's drinking again."
"Most likely. Worrying yourself to death won't help it!"
The old woman sat and moaned about her troubles, as old women do.
She had plenty to moan about.
"I wonder where your brother Tom is? We haven't heard from him
for a year now. He must be in trouble again; something tells me
he must be in trouble again."
Mary swung her hood off into her lap.
"Why do you worry about it, mother? What's the use?"
"I only wish I knew. I only wish I knew!"
"What good would that do? You know Tom went droving with Fred Dunn,
and Fred will look after him; and, besides, Tom's older now
and got more sense."
"Oh, you don't care -- you don't care! You don't feel it,
but I'm his mother, and ----"
"Oh, for God's sake, don't start that again, mother; it hurts me
more than you think. I'm his sister; I've suffered enough, God knows!
Don't make matters worse than they are!"
"Here comes father!" shouted one of the children outside,
"'n' he's bringing home a steer."
The old woman sat still, and clasped her hands nervously.
Mary tried to look cheerful, and moved the saucepan on the fire.
A big, dark-bearded man, mounted on a small horse, was seen in the twilight
driving a steer towards the cow-yard. A boy ran to let down the slip-rails.
Presently Mary and her mother heard the clatter of rails
let down and put up again, and a minute later a heavy step
like the tread of a horse was heard outside. The selector lumbered in,
threw his hat in a corner, and sat down by the table.
His wife rose and bustled round with simulated cheerfulness.
Presently Mary hazarded --
"Where have you been, father?"
There was a wretched silence, lasting until the old woman took courage
to say timidly:
"So you've brought a steer, Wylie?"
"Yes!" he snapped; the tone seemed defiant.
The old woman's hands trembled, so that she dropped a cup.
Mary turned a shade paler.
"Here, git me some tea. Git me some TEA!" shouted Mr. Wylie.
"I ain't agoin' to sit here all night!"
His wife made what haste her nervousness would allow,
and they soon sat down to tea. Jack, the eldest son, was sulky,
and his father muttered something about knocking the sulks out of him
with an axe.
"What's annoyed you, Jack?" asked his mother, humbly.
He scowled and made no answer.
The younger children -- three boys and a girl -- began quarrelling
as soon as they sat down. Wylie yelled at them now and then,
and grumbled at the cooking, and at his wife for not being able
to keep the children quiet. It was: "Marther! you didn't put no sugar
in my tea." "Mother, Jimmy's got my place; make him move."
"Mawther! do speak to this Fred." "Oh! father, this big brute of a Harry's
kickin' me!" And so on.
When the miserable meal was over, Wylie got a rope and a butcher's knife,
and went out to slaughter the steer; but first there was a row,
because he thought -- or pretended to think -- that somebody
had been using his knife. He lassoed the beast, drew it up to the rails,
and slaughtered it.
Meanwhile, Jack and his next brother took an old gun, let the dogs loose,
and went 'possum shooting.
Presently Wylie came in again, sat down by the fire, and smoked.
The children quarrelled over a boy's book; Mrs. Wylie made weak attempts
to keep the peace, but they took no notice of her. Suddenly her husband
rose with an oath, seized the novel, and threw it behind the fire.
"Git to bed! git to bed!" he roared at the children; "git to bed,
or I'll smash your brains with the axe!"
They got to bed. It was made of saplings and bark, covered with
three bushel-bags full of straw and old pieces of blanket sewn together.
The children quarrelled in bed till their father took off his belt
and "went into" them, according to promise. There was a sudden hush,
followed by a sound like a bird-clapper; then howls; then a peaceful calm
fell upon that happy home.
Wylie went out again, and was absent an hour; on his return
he sat by the fire and smoked sullenly. After a while
he snatched the pipe from his mouth, and looked impatiently at the old woman.
"Oh! for God's sake, git to bed," he snapped, "and don't be asittin' there
like a blarsted funeral! You're enough to give a man the dismals."
Mrs. Wylie gathered up her sewing and retired. Then he said to his daughter:
"You come and hold the candle."
Mary put on her hood and followed her father to the yard.
The carcase lay close to the rails, against which two sheets of bark
had been raised as a break-wind. The beast had been partly skinned,
and a portion of the hide, where a brand might have been,
was carefully turned back. Mary noticed this at once.
Her father went on with his work, and occasionally grumbled at her
for not holding the candle right.
"Where did you buy the steer, father?" she asked.
"Ask no questions and hear no lies." Then he added, "Carn't you see
it's a clear skin?"
She had a keen sense of humour, and the idea of a "`clear skin' steer"
would have amused her at any other time. She didn't smile now.
He turned the carcase over; the loose hide fell back,
and the light shone on a distinct brand. White as a sheet went Mary's face,
and her hand trembled so that she nearly let the candle fall.
"What are you adoin' of now?" shouted her father. "Hold the candle,
carn't you? You're worse than the old woman."
"Father! the beast is branded! See! ---- What does PB stand for?"
"Poor Beggar, like myself. Hold the candle, carn't you? --
and hold your tongue."
Mary was startled again by hearing the tread of a horse,
but it was only the old grey munching round. Her father finished skinning,
and drew the carcase up to a make-shift "gallows". "Now you can go to bed,"
he said, in a gentler tone.
She went to her bedroom -- a small, low, slab skillion,
built on to the end of the house -- and fell on her knees by the bunk.
"God help me! God help us all!" she cried.
She lay down, but could not sleep. She was nervously ill -- nearly mad,
because of the dark, disgraceful cloud of trouble which hung over her home.
Always in trouble -- always in trouble. It started long ago,
when her favourite brother Tom ran away. She was little more
than a child then, intensely sensitive; and when she sat
in the old bark school she fancied that the other children
were thinking or whispering to each other, "Her brother's in prison!
Mary Wylie's brother's in prison! Tom Wylie's in gaol!"
She was thinking of it still. They were ever with her,
those horrible days and nights of the first shadow of shame.
She had the same horror of evil, the same fearful dread of disgrace
that her mother had. She had been ambitious; she had managed to read much,
and had wild dreams of going to the city and rising above the common level,
but that was all past now.
How could she rise when the cruel hand of disgrace was ever ready
to drag her down at any moment. "Ah, God!" she moaned in her misery,
"if we could only be born without kin -- with no one to disgrace us
but ourselves! It's cruel, God, it's cruel to suffer
for the crimes of others!" She was getting selfish in her troubles --
like her mother. "I want to go away from the bush and all I know. . . .
O God, help me to go away from the bush!" Presently she fell asleep
-- if sleep it may be called -- and dreamt of sailing away,
sailing away far out on the sea beyond the horizon of her dread.
Then came a horrible nightmare, in which she and all her family
were arrested for a terrible crime. She woke in a fright,
and saw a reddish glare on the window. Her father was poking round some logs
where they had been "burning-off". A pungent odour came through a broken pane
and turned her sick. He was burning the hide.
Wylie did not go to bed that night; he got his breakfast before daylight,
and rode up through the frosty gap while the stars were still out,
carrying a bag of beef in front of him on the grey horse.
Mary said nothing about the previous night. Her mother wondered
how much "father" had given for the steer, and supposed he had gone
into town to sell the hide; the poor soul tried to believe
that he had come by the steer honestly. Mary fried some meat,
and tried to eat it for her mother's sake, but could manage
only a few mouthfuls. Mrs. Wylie also seemed to have lost her appetite.
Jack and his brother, who had been out all night, made a hearty breakfast.
Then Jimmy started to peg out the 'possum skins, while Jack went
to look for a missing pony. Mary was left to milk all the cows,
and feed the calves and pigs.
Shortly after dinner one of the children ran to the door, and cried:
"Why, mother -- here's three mounted troopers comin' up the gully!"
"Oh, my God!" cried the mother, sinking back in her chair
and trembling like a leaf. The children ran and hid in the scrub.
Mary stood up, terribly calm, and waited. The eldest trooper dismounted,
came to the door, glanced suspiciously at the remains of the meal,