Part 7 out of 9
hung southwest of the zenith, reinforcing the evil bias of the time, and thus,
from his commanding position, overruling the guardianship of Canopus (in Argo),
south-west of the same point. Lower still, toward the south, Achernar seemed
to reserve his gracious prestige, whilst, across the invisible Pole,
the beneficent constellations of Crux and Centaurus exhibited the very
paralysis of hopelessness. Worst of all, Jupiter and Mars both held aloof,
whilst ascendant Saturn mourned in the House of Cancer.
Such was the wretched aspect of the heavens to my debilitated intelligence,
as I slunk home from the swimming-hole, toward midnight. I was somewhat
comforted to observe in Procyon a firmness which I attributed to the evident
support of Regulus (in the House of Leo); but the most reassuring element
in an extremely baleful horoscope was Spica (in the House of Virgo),
scarcely affected by the moon's interference, and now ascending confidently
from the eastern horizon.
Still, to my washed-out mind, there was something so hopeless in the lunar
and stellar outlook that, for comfort, I turned my eyes toward the
station cemetery, which was dimly in view.
There several shapeless forms, some white, and others of neutral hue,
seemed to be moving slowly and silently amongst the dwellings of the dead,
as if holding what you could scarcely call a carnival, in their own sombre way.
The time, the place, the supermundane conditions, acting together on
a half-drowned mind, gave to the whole scene a weird reality which writing
cannot convey; so, after pinching myself to make sure I was awake,
and doing a small sum in mental arithmetic to verify my sanity, I advanced
toward the perturbed spirits, got them against the sky, and identified them
as cattle, greedily stevedoring the long, dry grass.
It seemed a pity to turn the poor hungry animals out; yet I knew that
somebody would have to suffer for it if Montgomery knew of anything
trespassing here. But how had they got in, through seven wires--the upper one
barbed--with rabbit-netting along the bottom?----
"Evening, Priestley. Working the oracle?"
"Inclinin' that road. Dangerous--ain't it? Good job it's on'y you.
Nobody else stirrin'?"
"Not a soul. They 're as regular as clockwork on this station.
How did you get in?"
"Took the hinges off o' the gate with my monkey-wrench. I'll leave that
all straight. Course, they'll see the tracks by-'n'-by, an' know who
to blame; but I'll be clear by that time; an' I must guard agen comin'
in contract with Runnymede till the st-nk blows off o' this transaction.
Natural enough, Magomery'll buck; but the ration-paddick's as bare
as a stockyard; an' I can't ast the bullocks to die o' starvation.
"Certainly not, Priestley. Mind, it's only four hours till daylight.
"Good night, ole man."
My way led me past a small, isolated stable, used exclusively for
the boss's buggy-horses. Nearing this building, I heard a suppressed
commotion inside, followed by soothing gibberish, in a very low voice.
This was bad. Priestley's bullocks were within easy view; and Jerry,
the groom, was a notorious master's man. I must have a friendly yarn with him.
"What's up with you this hour of the night, Jerry?" I asked, looking through
the latticed upper-wall. "Uneasy conscience, I bet." Whilst speaking the last
words, I distinguished Montgomery's pair of greys, tied, one in each
back corner of the stable, whilst Pawsome's horses--a white and a piebald--
were occupying the two stalls, and voraciously tearing down mouthfuls
of good Victorian hay from the rack above the manger. Pawsome, silently
caressing one of the greys, moved to the lattice on hearing my voice.
"Sleight-of-hand work?" I suggested, in a whisper.
"Sort of attempt," replied the wizard, in the same key. "You gev me a start.
All the lights was out two hours ago, an' I med sure everybody was safe."
"So they are. I've only been down for a swim. Good-night, Possum."
"I say, Collins--don't split!"
"Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?"
"Second Kings," whispered the poor necromancer, in eager fellowship,
and displaying a knowledge of the Bible rare amongst his sect. "God bless you,
Collins! may we meet in a better world!"
"It won't be difficult to do that," I replied dejectedly, as I withdrew
to enjoy my unearned slumber.
Now the night, replete with such sphere-music, was past, and the cares
that infest the day had returned to everyone on the station, except myself
and two or three equally clean, useless, and aristocratic loafers in
the boss's house. Toby, the half-caste, was cantering away toward Clarke's,
for the weekly mail. Priestley, at his wagon, was bullocking even more
desperately than usual, with a view to getting out of sight of the station
as soon as possible. Pawsome, repairing a side-saddle, on his extemporised
bench, was softly crooning a familiar hymn, the sentiment of which seemed
appropriate to himself, whilst the language breathed the very aroma
of his social atmosphere:--
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to gain the prize,
And sail'd through (adj.) seas?
In the veranda of the house, Mr. Folkestone, a young English gentleman
of not less than two hundred-weight, lolled on a hammock, smoking a chibouque,
and reading a magazine; while straight between us two aristocratic loafers,
Vandemonian Jack, aged about a century, was mechanically sawing firewood
in the hot, sickly sunshine. This is one of the jobs that it takes a man
of four or five score years to perform ungrudgingly; and, to any illuminated
mind, the secret of these old fellows' greatness is very plain. Bathing,
though an ancient heresy, has been of strictly local prevalence, and,
for the best of reasons, of transient continuance. Our relapse belongs to
the present generation. Though our better-class grandsires understood
no science unconnected with the gloves, a marvellous instinct taught them
the unwholesomeness of sluicing away that panoply of dirt which is
Nature's own defence against the microbe of imbecility, and which, indeed,
was the only armour worn by the formidable Berserkers, from whom some of them
claimed descent. We have done it however (at least, we say so),
whilst our social inferiors have held on to the old-time religion (at least,
we say so, here again); wherefore----
"I say, Mr. Collins," faltered Ida, breaking in on my reflections,
"I picked up this little buckle aside o' your b-d; it's come off o' the back
o' your tr----rs. I'll sew it on for you any time, for I notice you're
bothered with them slippin' down. O, Mr. Collins!"--and the poor unlovely face
was suddenly distorted with anguish and wet with tears--"ain't Mrs. Bodyzart
wicked to put a slur on me like that? There ain't one word o' truth in it;
I'd say the same if I was to die to-night; an' you may believe me or believe
me not, but I'm tellin' the truth. Far be it, indeed!"
"Hush! Stop crying, Ida! Don't look round--Mrs. Beaudesart's watching you
from the window, over there. You poor thing! you should n't trouble yourself
over what anybody says. Did you feed Pup this morning?"
"I give him a whole milk-dish full o' scraps; but if people tells the truth,
there's nobody in the world can say black is the white o' my eye; an' you may
believe me or believe me not"----
"You'll need to give Pup a drink, Ida."
"He 's got a dish o' good rain-water aside him; but if people would
"True--very true. Now go away, dear, and don't come fooling about me,
or you'll give her liberty to talk."
The girl limped back to the scene of her unromantic martyrdom, and I made
a feeble effort to shake the dew-drops from my mane, and, so to speak,
look myself in the face. I must give this life over, I thought; and I will
give it over; an I do not, I am a villain. After all, there are not
two sides to this question; there is only one; and you may trust an overclean
man to be an authority on the evil effects of bathing, upon mind, body,
and estate; just as the grogbibber is our highest authority on headaches,
fantods, and bankruptcy.
The Spartans (so ran my reflections) were as much addicted to dirt
as the Sybarites to cleanliness; and just compare the two communities.
The conquering races of later ages--Goths, Huns, Vandals, Longobards,
&c.--were no less celebrated for one kind of grit than for the other.
It is the Turkish bath that has made the once-formidable Ottoman Empire
the sick man of Europe. Latifundia perdidere Italian (Large estates
ruined Italy). Yes. Blame it on the large estates. Would a large estate
ruin you? Bathing did the business for Italy, as it does the business
for all its victims. If Rome had left to the soft Capuan his baths
and his perfumes, she would have pulled-through. But think of the polished
Roman debating the question of survival with the superlatively dirty barbarian
of the North! Polished is good, for, in the ruins of the fatal Roman baths,
the innumerable strigulae, used by the bathers to polish their skins,
bear sad testimony to the suicidal cleanliness of that doomed race.
And just compare your strigula-polished Roman, morally and physically,
with his contemporary, the filth-encrusted anchorite of the Thebaid--the former
flickering briefly in a puerile, semi-vital way, and going out with
a sulphurous smell; the latter, on a ration of six dates per week,
attaining an interminable longevity, and possessing the power of striking
scoffers dead, or blind, or paralytic, at pleasure.
And, talking of hermits--do you think Peter of Picardy could have launched
the muscular Christianity of Western Europe against the less muscular,
because cleaner, Islamism of Western Asia, but for his well-advertised vow,
never to change his clothes, nor wash himself, till his contract should be
completed? Prouder in his rags than the Emperor in his purple! and justly too,
for he achieved the very apotheosis of dirt--animate, no doubt, as well as
inanimate. Or take the first Teutonic Emperor of Rome--conqueror, arbitrator,
legislator, and what not. In those middle ages, you know, it was the custom
to name monarchs from some peculiarity of person or habitude--and I put it
to any reasonable soul; Was this mere Yarman Brince likely to have become
the central figure of the 10th century, but for such rigid abstinence
from external application of water as is implied in the significant name
of Otto the Great?
Indeed, the most sweepingly appropriate bestowal of the title, 'Great,'
is made when we refer to the adherents of the dirt-cult, collectively,
as the Great Unwashed. Again, Dr. Johnson's biographies lovingly preserve
the personal habits of most of the loftiest and sweetest poets that ever trod
English soil; and think what a large percentage of those Muse-invokers,
according to their historian, carried a fair quantity of that soil perennially
on their hides. And speaking of the Diogenes of Fleet Street himself,
we know, on good authority, that his antipathy to the Order of the Bath
caused him to appeal to more senses than one. He was another Otto the Great.
The original Diogenes, by the way, revelled in dirt, as well as in wisdom.
And the mighty scholar, Porson, as you may remember, never needed to wash,
because he never perspired.
Yet in spite of this cloud of witness, and in the face of our own experience,
we will entice external leakage of such incipient greatness as we have--
soaking ourselves in water, as if we were possums, and our virility
a eucalyptus flavour that we sought to dissipate. Look at myself--now a king;
now thus! Thunder-and-turf! have I fallen so low? And yet I was once
like our Otto and Co.!
Before touching the forbidden thing, I felt as if I wanted to pursue
an inspiring, if purposeless, journey up uncomfortable Alpine heights,
with my Excelsior-banner in my hand, and a tear in my solitary bright blue eye;
now, the maiden's invitation seems to be the only part of the enterprise
that has any pith in it. Then, I gloried in the fiendish adage of,
'Two hours' sleep for a man, three for a woman, and four for a fool';
now, my livelist ambition is to gaze my fill on yon calm deep, then,
like an infant, sink asleep on this form, and so remain till dinner-time--
lunch-time, I should say; belonging, as I do, to the better classes.
Then, I was like Hotspur on his crop-eared roan; now, I merely wish the desert
were my dwelling-place, with one fair Spirit for my minister. To confess
the truth, I note a certain weak glimmer of self-righteousness investing
the thought that I would be content with one fair Spirit. Got to, go to!
By virtue, thou enforcest laughter.
"I wish I was as happy as you," murmured Ida, who had again silently
approached. "Here's two newspapers; they done with them in the house.
O, Mr. Collins!"--and the girl's tears broke forth afresh, whilst ungovernable
sobs shook her from head to foot--"I can't git it off o' my mind
what Mrs. Bodyzart said."
"Ida! Ida!" I remonstrated; "you're making your nose red." The information
acted like a charm; her crying was over, though she still persisted
in chewing her grievance.
"I can prove there ain't one word o' truth in it," she continued
"What's your idea of proof, Ida?"
"I can prove it on the Bible," she replied eagerly.
"That settles the matter beyond controversy--considering that you rightly
belong to the Middle Ages."
"Indeed I don't!" she replied, with a flash of resentment. "I was twenty-seven
last birthday; an' I don't care who knows it--on the third of July,
it was--an' I would n't care tuppence if her ladyship snoke roun' tellin'
people I was forty. But to put a slur on me like that! I leave it to
your own self, Mr. Collins--was it right?"
"Right? I repeated wearily. "In heaven's name, girl, what does it signify
to you whether it was right or otherwise? That's Mrs. Beaudesart's
own business, not yours. Why, if she charged me with stooping to folly,
I would merely say, 'Sorry to undeceive you, ma'am; but I've been
too much given to letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
like the poor bandicoot i' the adage.' But I certainly shouldn't concern myself
with a question lying entirely between herself and Saint Peter."
"Ah! but you're different," replied the girl sadly.
"Simply because I'm a philosopher, Ida. I've held communion with
the Unfathomable, and watched the exfoliation of the Inscrutable; and,
you know, these things are altogether beyond the orbit of the girl-mind.
Now clear off, like a good fellow, and let me read the papers."
But I was too far gone to take any interest in either of the loathsome
contemporanes; too much afflicted even to drift down to the swimming-hole
again, much as I desired to do so. I also longed for the opinion of my mighty
pipe on the dirt-question; but that faithful ally was packed among my things,
forty feet away, and it might as well have been forty miles. So I just lay
on the seat, clean, frail, and inert, as a recumbent statue, moulded
in blanc-mange; whilst the ancient t'other-sider oscillated his frame--saw,
and the pious Pawsome lightened his toil with selections from Sankey,
and the perspiring Priestley hurried up his bullocks from the ration-paddock,
and Sling Muck, the gardener, used his hoe among the callots and cabbagee,
with the automatic stroke of a man brought up to one holiday per annum,
and no Sunday. Meanwhile, the unreturning sands of Life dribbled through
the unheeded isthmus of the Present Moment; and the fixed cone of the Past
expanded; and the dimple deepened in the diminished and hurrying Future.
Nevertheless, I collected the wreckage of what had been very fair faculties,
and attempted to grapple with an idea which Ida's conversation had suggested.
Finding this impossible, I made a mental memo. of the inspiration--and by
the same token, I neatly utilised it within the next few hours. Your attention
will be drawn to the circumstance in due season.
At mid-day, the bell sounded from the hut. Pawsome and the tribesmen
quitted their work, and went to dinner. Priestley had started an hour before,
bound for Nalrooka, with the remaining half of his load.
All the Levites, except Moriarty, were out on the run, but Martin,
the head boundary rider, had timed himself for lunch. This man's status
was a vexed question. He certainly rated--but did he rate high enough
for the barracks? As head boundary man, decidedly not; but as recent
proprietor of a small station absorbed by Runnymede, he was not destitute
of pretensions. Out in the open air, he was, of course, as good as any Levite,
but----Well, though we rather resented his presence in the Inner Court,
we yielded him the benefit of the doubt; and he took that benefit,
just as if he had been born in the purple, like ourselves.
Martin was an Orangeman of rank. He had attained the Black Degree.
It was whispered that he held all the loyal brethren of Riverina under
the whip, by reason of his being the only man in the region beyond
the Murrumbidgee who could confer the Purple Degree. For, owing to
an inherent haziness in the theses and aims of Orangeism, there are Orders
in the Society as hard to attain as those German university degrees
which no man ever took and had his eyesight perfect afterward; though,
to be sure, there is a certain difference in the relative value of the two
species of attainment.
Moriarty--whose front name was Felix--was, if anything, a Catholic; and,
partly on this account, partly on account of his being a young fellow,
and partly on account of Miss King, the governess, Martin set him. Now,
there was just one man within a hundred miles who knew less of Irish History
than Martin, and that man was Moriarty; consequently, the two jostled
each other as they rushed into that branch of learning where scholars fear
to tread--each repeatedly appealing to me for confirmation of his outlandish
myths and clumsy fabrications. I listlessly confirmed anything and everything.
Having lost all mental, as well as physical, energy where King John
lost his regalia, namely, in the Wash, the line of least resistance
was the line for me.
After a hearty lunch, I made my way back to the seat against the wall,
while Moriarty lounged across to the store, and Martin went to speak
to the High Priest at the door of the Sanctum Sanctorum. Then Martin mounted
his horse, and rode away; and presently the tribesman, Jerry, brought a buggy
and pair to the front door. Montgomery and Folkestone--the latter
in knickerbockers--took their seats in the buggy, and whirled away
down the horse-paddock fence. Then all was still, save for the faint
pling-plong of a piano in the Holy of Holies.
Whom have we here? Moriarty to disturb me. Let him come. It is meat
and drink to me to see a clown; by my faith, we that have good wits have much
to answer for; we shall be flouting; we cannot hold.----
The young Levite, closing the door of the store behind him, advanced
with the indescribably weary step of a station man when the day is warm
and the boss absent, and seated himself by my side.
"Why ain't you in the barracks having one of your quiet palavers
with Mrs Beaudesart?" he asked.
"Prithee be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk," I murmured.
"Something I wanted to ask you, Collins," he resumed; "but I'm beggared
if I can think what it is. Slipped away like a snake, while you're looking
round for a stick. Singular how a person can't remember a thing for the life
of them, when once they forget it; and suddenly it crops up of its own accord
when you're not thinking of it."
"Parse that," said I, listlessly.
"Parse your granny!" he retorted. "I don't believe you could parse it
yourself, as clever as you think you are. Beggar conceitedness;
beggar everything. I wish I was about forty."
"And know as much as you do now?" I barely articulated.
"Yes--and know as much as I do now," he repeated doggedly. "In fact,
I never met anyone that knows as much as I do; but people won't pay
any attention to a young fellow, no matter if he was Solomon. That Martin
wants a lift under the ear."
"Does he?" I asked faintly. "I did n't hear him express the desire."
"Gosh! you've been on the turkey; you'll be cutting yourself some of
these times. I wish Toby was back with the mail. I hope he'll forget
to ask for your letters."
"Now the Lord lighten thee; thou art a great fool," I sighed. "What time
does Toby generally get back?"
"Any time between two in the afternoon and sunrise next morning,
according to the state of the mailman's horses. Beggar such a life as this.
At it, early and late; working through accounts, and serving-out rations,
and one thing or another; and no more chance of distinguishing myself
than if I was in jail. I can't stand it much longer, and what's more, I won't.
I wish the mail was in. I've got a presentiment of something good this time.
If you don't speculate, you won't accumulate, as the saying is; and if a man
can't make a rise by some sort of gambling, he may as well lie down and die,
straight-off. But the first rise is the difficulty; and, of course,
you've got to take the risk."
"What do you do with the rise when you get it?" I asked, drowsily.
"Why, distinguish yourself, of course--what else? There's a great future
sticking out for a fellow, if he's got his head screwed on right."
"So there is. Well, what shall it be? Mechanics? Fine opening for
an inventive genius there--but you must be up and doing, as the poet says."
"You had all the chances when you were my age," replied Moriarty bitterly.
"I'm too late arriving. Everything's invented now."
"True," I observed. "I hadn't thought of that objection. Then why not take up
some interesting study, and work it out from post to finish?
Political Economy, for instance?"
"Anybody could do that," replied the young fellow contemptuously.
"I want to distinguish myself."
"Then I'll tell you what you'll do, Moriarty. Take a narrow branch of some
scientific study, and restrict yourself to that. Say you devote your life
to some special division of the Formicae?"
"Formicae. The name is plural. It embraces all the different species
"Why, there's only about three species of ants altogether; and there's nothing
to learn about them except that they make different kinds of hills,
and give different kinds of bites. That sort of study would about suit you.
Fat lot of distinction a person could get out of ants."
"Still, every avenue to distinction is not closed," I urged. "We're knocking
at the gates of Futurity for the Australian pioneer of
poetry--fiction--philosophy--what not? You've got all the working plant
ready in your office. There you are!"
"No use, Collins," he replied hopelessly. "I've got the talent, right enough,
but I haven't got the patience. In fact, I'm too dash lazy."
"Charge it on the swimming-hole, brother," I sighed.
"No; I can't very well do that. I haven't been there for the last month.
I'd go to-night if I had a horse."
"Heavens above!" I murmured; "what would he be like if he was clean?
He would distinguish himself in one direction. The material is there."
"Jealousy, jealousy," replied Moriarty disgustedly. "Never mind. I'll make
things hum yet. Do you know--I stand to win twenty-four notes on the regatta,
besides my chance of the station sweep on the big Flemington, let alone
private bets. We'll get news of both events to-day; and I have a presentiment
of something good. Gosh! I wish Toby was here!"
"And how much do you stand to lose, if your mozzle is out?" I asked.
"By-the-way, didn't I incidentally hear that you were playing cards
all last Sunday?"
"I don't believe that has anything to do with it," replied Moriarty,
in an altered tone. "But, to tell you the truth, I dare n't count up how much
I'll lose if things go crooked. I've plunged too heavy--there's no doubt
about that--but I did it with the best intention. I made sure of scooping;
and, for that matter, I make sure of it still. But whatever you do,
don't begin to preach about the evils of gambling--not now, Collins;
not till after we get news of these events. Doesn't everybody gamble,
from the Governor downward--bar you, and a couple or three more sanctimonious
old hypocrites, with one foot in the grave, and the other in the devil's mouth?
Why, Nosey Alf is the only fellow on this station that has no interest
in the sweep, besides no end of private bets."
"Is n't that Toby?" I asked, indicating a horseman, half-a-mile away.
"Gosh, yes!" replied Moriarty nervously. "I wonder what brings him
from that direction? Come, Collins--will you give me five to one he has
letters for you? I'll take it at that."
"Indeed you won't, sonny."
"Well, let's have some wager before he gets any nearer," persisted Moriarty,
with an unpleasant laugh. The suspense was beginning to tell upon a mind
not originally cast in the Stoic mould. So much so, that I felt inclined
to lose a trifle to him, even as a teetotaller would administer a nip
to a man who was beginning to see things. "Come!" he continued recklessly;
"I'll give you two to one he has letters for you; twenty to one he has letters
for the station"----And so he gabbled on, whilst, drifting into my Hamlet-mood,
I charted the poor fellow's mind for my own edification.
"Hold on, Moriarty," I interrupted, recalling myself. "Let's hear that
fifty-to-one offer again. Am I to understand that if Toby has letters
for the station and none for me, you win; if he has letters for me and none
for the station, I win; and, failing the fulfilment of either double,
the wager is off?"
"That's it. Are you on?"
"Make it a hundred to one."
"Done! at a hundred to one--in what?"
"Half-sovereigns," I replied, feeling for the purse which, vulgar as it is,
bushmen even of aristocratic lineage are compelled to carry. I placed
the little coin--about one-tenth of my total wealth--in Moriarty's hand.
He shrank from the touch.
"What do you mean?" he asked petulantly. "I might n't win it, after all.
Don't be more disagreeable than you can help."
"You intend to get it without giving an equivalent--don't you?
You know it's yours. Are n't you betting on a certainty? Lay it on
the window-sill, if you like, and pick it up when you can read your title
clear. If you don't speculate, you won't accumulate; and I suppose
you've no objection to looking into the morality of your speculation"----
I had cleared my throat for a disquisition which would have been intolerable
to the unprincipled reader, when a very curious thing arrested the attention
both of Moriarty and myself--the strangest coincidence, perhaps, within the
personal experience of either of us--a conjuncture, in fact, which for a moment
threw us both staggering back on the theology of childhood. At the present
time, I feel too meek to attempt any unravelment, and too haughty to offer
any apology other than that such is life.
The half-caste had cantered up to the horse-paddock gate, had dismounted,
had divested his horse of the saddle and bridle, and had given the animal
a slap with the latter. Now he was depositing those equipments in the shed.
Now he approached us, taking two letters and a newspaper from the tail-pocket
of what had once been an expensive dress-coat of Montgomery's.
"Yours, Collins," said he. "Don't say I never gave you nothing. Nix for you,
Mr. (adj.) Moriarty."
"You're very laconic," observed the storekeeper in a hollow voice,
yet eyeing the prince sternly; "very laconic, indeed, I must say.
If I was you, I would n't be quite so laconic. How the (sheol) comes it
that you did n't fetch the mail?"
"Need n't look in that paper for the Flemington, Collins," said the
heir-apparent; "she's a day too soon. I took a squint at her, comin' along."
"I was asking how the (adj. sheol) you managed to come without the mail?"
repeated Moriarty, with dignity.
"I heard you, right enough. I ain't deaf. Well, I come on a moke.
Think I padded it? Fact was, Moriarty, I met Magomery at Bailey's Tank,
an' he told me to go like blazes to Scandalous Sandy's hut, on Nalrooka,
an' tell him a lot o' his sheep was boxed with ours in the Boree Paddick.
'I'll fetch the mail home myself,' says he. There now."
"And why didn't you go to Scandalous Sandy's?" nagged Moriarty.
"Well, considerin' you're boss o' this station, an' my bit o' filthy lucre
comes out o' your pocket, I got great pleasure informin' you I met ole
Gladstone, comin' to tell us the same yarn. Anything else you want to know?"
"Did you hear which crew won the regatta?" asked Moriarty, almost civilly.
"Sydney," replied the prince. "Think you Port Phillipers could lick us?"
"That's a lie!" exclaimed Moriarty, catching his breath.
"Right. It's a lie, if you like. I got no stuff on it. See what Collins'
paper says. An' now I feel like as if I could do a bit o' dinner--unless
you got any objections?"
He stalked away toward the hut, whilst I opened what turned out to be
a love-letter--evidently intended for some other member of our diffusive clan,
for I could make neither head nor tail of it; nothing, indeed, but heart,
and such heart as it has never been my luck to capture. Meanwhile, Moriarty
had cut the string of the newspaper, and was running his eye over its columns.
"My mozzle is out, Collins." said he, with an effort. "I'll never
clear myself--never in the creation of cats. It's all up!"
"Yes; you suffer by comparison with the sanctimonious old hypocrites now,"
I replied, in a fatherly tone, as I took the half-sovereign
from the window-sill. "Feel something like an overproof idiot--don't you?
We'll talk about that presently. But see what I've got here."
My second letter ran:--
Central Office of Unconsidered Trifles,
Sydney, February 1, 1884.
Mr. T. Collins.
Sir,--I am directed to inform you that the Deputy-Commissioner
purposes visiting Nyngan on the I7th prox. You are required
to attend the Office of the Department in that township
at 11 a.m. on the day above mentioned, to furnish any
information which he may require.
I am, Sir
"Not a whisper about the M-form," I remarked. "Perhaps it's in your mail.
No odds. Montgomery can complete it, and send it on, just as well as if
I had n't been near the place at all. But here's something like two hundred
and thirty miles to be done in seven days--and the country in such a state.
This is the balsam that the usuring senate pours into captains' wounds.
Never mind The time is only too near, when I'll sit in my sumptuous office,
retaliating all this on some future Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector. And,
in the meantime, this long dusty ride will make a man of me once more.
I must start at once; and I could do with some money. Moriarty,
you're owing me fifty notes."
"I know I am," replied the storekeeper, in a quivering voice.
He was as punctiliously honourable in some ways as he was perfidious
in others--being amiably asinine in each extreme.
"Now, including your little liability to me, how much are you out,
even if the Flemington gamble goes in your favour?" I asked.
"Only sixty-eight notes," he faltered. "I'll clear it, right enough,
if I'm not rushed, and if I don't get the sack off the station."
"But, by every rule of analogy, you're also badly left on the Flemington,"
I continued serenely. "How much does that leave you out?"
"Ninety-seven notes, and my rifle," he replied, steadying his voice
by an effort. "Mad-mad-mad! I wish I were dead!"
"Will you swear of gambling altogether till my claim is discharged?
On that condition, I can extend the time--say to the Greek Kalends."
"If you think I could raise the money by that time," replied the poor fellow
dubiously. "Anyway, I give you my solemn promise. But, I say," he continued,
with seeming irrelevance--"when do you expect promotion?"
"At any moment. My presentiments, being based on the deepest inductions
of science, and the subtlest intuitions of the higher philosophy,
are a trifle more trustworthy than yours; and I have a presentiment that
the thing is impending. But you need n't congratulate me yet.
Think about yourself."
"That's just what I'm doing. If you tell her about this wager,
I'll suicide, or clear."
"Well, upon my word! Do you think I'd condescend to undermine you,
you storekeeper? Look out for Martin; never mind me."
"I don't mean her," mumbled the young fool; "I mean Mrs. Beaudesart.
You're going to marry her when you get your promotion--ain't you?"
There was such evident sincerity in his tone that I maintained a stern
and stony silence, whilst his eyes met mine with a doubtful, deprecating look;
then he remarked doggedly,
"Well, that's what she told Mrs. Montgomery, last Sunday; and she said it
seriously. Miss King was present at the time; and she told Butler,
and Mooney, and me, across the gate of the flower-garden, the same evening.
Mrs. Beaudesart takes it for granted, and so does everybody else. She says
she accepted you some time ago."
"You lying dog!" I remarked wearily.
"I hope I may never stir alive off this seat if I'm not telling you
the exact truth. Ask Mooney or Butler."
"If I do sleep, would all my wealth would wake me," I murmured,
"You don't want to marry her, then, after all?"
"How long do you suppose I would last?"
"Well, don't marry her."
"Does it occur to you," I asked, with some bitterness, "that there are
some things a person can do, and some things he can't do? If the head
of my Department orders me to Nyngan, I can reply by letter, telling him
to mind his own business, and not concern himself about me; but if
Mrs. Beaudesart assumes--if she merely takes for granted--that I'm going
to marry her, I must do it, to keep her in countenance. How, in the fiend's
name, can I slink out of it, now that I'm accepted? Can I tell her
I've examined my heart, and I find I can only love her as a sister?
Now, would n't that sound well? No, no; I'm a done man. Of course,
she had no business to accept me unawares; but as she has done so,
I must help her to keep up the grisly fraud of feminine reluctance; for,
as the abbot sings, so must the sacristan respond. It is kismet. This is how
all these unaccountable marriages are brought about; though, to be sure,
I have the dubious satisfaction of knowing that the enterprise brings me
a good many days' march nearer home."
The expression of heavenly beatitude on Moriarty's face goaded my mind
to activity. Sweeping, with one glance, the whole horizon of expediency
and possibility, I caught sight of the idea glanced at in a former page,
and suggested, you will remember, by my dialogue with Ida.
"By the way, Moriarty," said I; "respecting that trifling debt of honour--
there's another condition that I didn't think of. As a sort of payment
on account, you must privately and insidiously circulate a very grave
scandal for me."
"Well, I won't!" exclaimed the young fellow, after a moment's pause.
"I don't mind telling a lie when I'm driven to it; but a woman's a woman.
Do your own dirty work!"
"Then, by Jove, I'll post you!"
If anyone had used this threat to me, I would have asked how the posting
was usually done, and what results might be expected to follow; but Moriarty's
lip quivered under the threat.
"Do your worst," said he, swallowing the lump in his throat.
"You may depend on that," I replied quietly. "However, the scandal
was only about myself."
"I don't understand."
"I'll enlighten you. I was going to ask you to take Nelson, or Mooney,
or both of them, into your confidence. Then you would arrange that
Mrs. Beaudesart should overhear you discussing some horrible scandal
in connection with me. And mind, she would have to believe it, or you would
be a ruined man for the rest of your life--you would be a defaulting gambler,
a byword, a hissing, an astonishment, with the curse of Cain upon your brow.
Then she would spurn me with contumely, and I would be my own man again.
I would be in sanctuary, so to speak; inviolable by reason of my disgrace.
Metaphorically, you could lay the blast, and fire it at your leisure,
in my absence. I would leave all details to your own judgment,
only holding you responsible for quality of fuse, and quantity of powder.
I'd stand the explosion."
"I'm on!" exclaimed Moriarty, brightening up. "Gosh! I'll give you
a character to rights! Mind, it'll make you look small."
"The smaller the better. I have a small aperture to crawl through,
and no other means of escape. Of course, being innocent all the time,
the scandal won't even fizz on my inner consciousness. In fact, I'll feel
myself taking a rise out of everyone that believes the yarn; and I'll
live it down in good time. Now lay your plans carefully, Moriarty, and make
a clean job of it, for your own sake."
This being definitely settled, I soon demonstrated to the young fellow
that his case, as regarded other liabilities, was by no means desperate;
and his elastic temperament asserted itself at once. I may add, in passing,
that he has never broken his anti-gambling pledge; also, that my £50
remains unpaid to this day.
"Now I must go and catch my horses," said I. "Can you come?"
"Hold on," replied Moriarty; "here comes Toby; we'll send him."
As the half-caste lounged out of the front door of the hut, the cook went out
by the back door, and gathered an armful of firewood. Toby turned, and glided
back into the hut, and, a moment later, the cook also re-entered, at the
opposite side. Then the prince bounded out through the front door,
with a triumphant grin on his brown face, and an enormous cockroach
of black sugar in his hand. The next moment, a piece of firewood whizzed
through the open door, smote H.R.H. full on Love of Approbation, ricochetted
from his gun-metal skull, and banged against the weatherboard wall
of an out-house.
"Will yo ever go home, I dunno?" laughed the prince, picking up his hat,
while the baffled cook recovered his stick, and returned to the hut.
"Now what's the use of arguing that a blackfellow belongs to the human race?"
queried Moriarty--the last ripple of trouble having vanished from the serene
shallowness of his mind. "That welt would have laid one of us out.
And did you ever notice that a blackfellow or a half-caste can always
clear himself when his horse comes down? The first thing a whitefellow thinks
about, when he feels his horse gone, is to get out of the way of what's coming;
but it's an even wager that he's pinned. Never so with the inferior race.
Now, last Boxing Day, when we had races here, we could see that the main event
rested between Admiral Rodney--a big chestnut, belonging to a cove on a visit
to the boss--with Toby in the saddle; and that grey of M'Murdo's,
Admiral Crichton, with"----
"Repeat that last name, please?"
"Admiral Cry-ton. That slews you! Did n't I tell you you'd be cutting
yourself? It's M'Murdo's own pronunciation; and if he doesn't know
the proper twang, I'm dash well sure you don't; for he owns the horse.
But wasn't it a curious coincidence of name--considering that neither
the owners nor the horses had ever met before? Well, Young Jack was to ride
Admiral Crichton; and I had such faith in the horse, with Jack up,
that I plunged thundering heavy on him. So did Nelson. But, by jingo,
the more we saw of Admiral Rodney, the more frightened we got--in fact,
we could see there was nothing for it but to stiffen Toby. Toby was to get
a note if he won the big event, and nothing if he lost; but it paid us
to give him two notes to run cronk"----
"One moment," I interrupted--"just oblige me with the name and address
of that horse's owner?"
"Shut-up. It's blown over now. But as I was telling you, the chestnut
had been a few times round the course, under the owner's eye, and he knew
the road; and to make matters better, you might break the reins, but
you could n't get a give out of his mouth; and he could travel like
a rifle-bullet; so when Toby tried to get him inside the posts, he pulled
and reefed like fury, and bolted altogether; and came flying into the straight,
a dozen lengths to the good. Of course, losing the race made a difference
of a note to Toby; so he caught the horse's shoulder with his spur,
and turned him upside down, going at that bat. Then, to keep himself out
of a row, he gammoned dead till we poured a pint of beer down his throat;
and he lay groaning for two solid hours, winking now and then at Nelson and me.
But that'll just tell you the difference. Neither you nor I would be game
to do a thing like that; we could n't be trained to it; simply because
we belong to a superior race. I say, Toby!"--for the half-caste had seated
himself near Pawsome's bench, and was there enjoying his cockroach--
"off you go, like a good chap, and fetch Collins's horses.
"Impidence ain't worth a d--n, if it ain't properly carried out," replied
the inferior creation. "Think you git a note a week jist for eatin'
your (adj.) tucker an' orderin' people about? I done my day's work. Fork over
that plug o' tobacker you're owin' me about the lenth o' that snake.
Otherways, shut up. We ain't on equal terms while that stick o' tobacker's
"I'll straighten you some of these times," replied Moriarty darkly.
"It's coming, Toby!"
"No catchee, no havee, ole son!" laughed the prince. "The divil resave ye,
Paddy! Macushla, mavourneen, tare-an'-ouns! whirroo! Bloody ind to the Pope!"
"Toby," said Moriarty, with a calmness intended to seem ominous; "if I had
a gun in my hand, I'd shoot you like a wild-dog. But I suppose I'd get
into trouble for it," he continued scornfully.
"Jist the same's for layin' out a whitefeller," assented the prince,
still rasping at his cockroach, like Ugolini at the living skull of Ruggieri,
in Dante's airy conception of the place where wrongs are rectified.
(That unhappy mannerism again, you see).
"Permit me to suggest," said Moriarty, after a pause, "that if you contemplated
your own origin and antecedents, it would assist you to approximate
your relative position on this station. Don't you think a trifle
of subordination would be appropriate to"----
"A servile and halting imitation of Mrs. B.; and imitation is the sincerest
flattery," I commented. "I'll tell Miss K."
"Manners, please!--Appropriate, I was saying, to a blasted varmin like you?
Permit me to remind you that Mrs. Montgomery, senior, gave a blanket
for you when you were little."
"I know she did," replied the prince, with just a suspicion of vain-glory.
"Nobody would be fool enough to give a blanket for you when you was little.
"Come on, Moriarty," said I, rising; "I must take a bit off the near end
of my journey to-night."
"Howld your howlt, chaps," interposed the good-natured half-caste
"I'll run up your horses for you. I was on'y takin' a rise out o'
Mr. Mori--(adj.)--arty, Esquire; jist to learn him not to be quite so suddent."
And in another minute, he was striding down the paddock, with his bridle
Half an hour later, my horses were equipped; and, all the Levites being absent,
four or five tribesmen slowly collected under Pawsome's shed, waiting to see
what would happen. Cleopatra was not without reputation.
"Tell you what you better do," said Moriarty to me--"better hang your socks
on Nosey Alf's crook to-night. His place is fifteen mile from here,
and very little out of your way. Ill-natured, cranky beggar, Alf is--been on
the pea--but there's no end of grass in his paddock. And I say--get him
to give you a tune or two on his fiddle. Something splendid I believe.
He's always getting music by post from Sydney. Montgomery had heard him sing
and play, some time or other; and when old Mooney was here, just before
last shearing, he sent Toby to tell Alf to come to the house in the evening,
and bring his fiddle; and Alf came, very much against his grain. Young Mooney
was asked into the house, on account of his dad being there; and he swears
he never heard anything like Alf's style; though the stubborn devil
would n't sing a word; nothing but play. And he was just as good on the piano
as on the fiddle, though his hand must have been badly out.
Mooney thinks he jibbed on singing because the women were there.
Alf's a mis-mis-mis-dash it"----
"Mischief-maker?" I suggested.
"Try a synonym."
"Is that it? I think it is. Well Alf's a misasynonym--womanhater--among
other things. When he comes to the station, he dodges the women like
a criminal. And the unsociable dog begged of Montgomery not to ask him
to perform again. One night, Nelson was going past his place, and heard
a concert going on, so he left his horse, and sneaked up to the wall;
but the music suddenly stopped, and before Nelson knew, Nosey's dog had
the seat out of his pants. Nosey came out and apologised for the dog,
and brought Nelson in to have some supper; and Nelson stayed till about
twelve; but devil a squeak of the fiddle, or a line of a song, could he get
out of Alf. But, as the boss says, Alf's only mad enough to know
the difference between an eagle-hawk and a saw--foolish expression,
it seems to me. Best boundary man on the station, Alf is. Been in the
Round Swamp Paddock five years now; and he's likely a fixture for life.
Boundary riding for some years in the Bland country before he came here.
Now I'll show you how you'll fetch his place"--Moriarty began drawing
a diagram on the ground with a stick--"You go through the Red Gate--we'll call
this the gate. The track branches there; and you follow this branch.
It's the Nalrooka track; and it takes you along here--mind, you're going
due east now"----
"Wait, Moriarty," I interrupted--"don't you see that you're reversing
everything? A man would have to stand on his head to understand that map.
There is the north, and here is the south."
"Don't matter a beggar which is the real north and south. I'm showing you
the way you've got to go. We'll start afresh to please you. Through here--
along here--and follow the same line from end to end of the pine-ridge,
with the fence on your right all the way"----
"Hold on, hold on," I again interrupted--"you're at right angles now.
Don't you see that your line's north and south?--and did you ever see
a pine-ridge running north and south? Begin again. Say the Red Gate is here;
and I turn along here. Now go ahead."
"No, I'm dashed if I do! I'm no hand at directing; but, by gosh, you're all
there at understanding."
"Jack," said I, turning to the primeval t'other-sider--"can you direct me
to Nosey Alf's?"
"I'll try," replied the veteran; and he slowly drew a diagram, true to
the points of the compass. "'Ere's the Red Gate--mind you shet it--then along
'ere, arf a mile. Through this gate--an' mind 'ow you leave 'er,
f'r the wire hinclines to slip hover. Then straight along 'ere, through
the pine-ridge, f'm hend to hend. You're hon the Nalrookar track, mind,
t' wot time you see a gate hin the fence as you're a-kerryin' hon yer
right shoulder. Gate's sebm mile f'm 'ere. Nalrookar track goes through
that gate; b't neb' you mind; you keep straight ahead pas' the gate,
hon a pad you'll 'ar'ly see; han jist hat the fur hend o' the pine-ridge
you'll strike hanuther gate; an' you mus' be very p'tic'lar shettin' 'er.
Then take a hangle o' fo'ty-five, with the pine-ridge hon yer back;
an' hin fo' mile you'll strike yer las' gate--'ere, hin the co'ner.
Take this fence hon yer right shoulder, an' run 'er down. B't you'll spot
Half's place, fur ahead, w'en you git to the gate, ef it ain't night."
"Thank you, Jack, I replied, and then imprudently continued--"It would suit
some of these young pups to take a lesson from you."
"You hain't fur wrong," replied the good old chronicle, that had so long
walked hand in hand with Time. "Las' year, hit war hall the cry, 'Ole hon
t' we gits a holt o' Cunnigarn's mongreals!'--'Ole hon t' we gits a holt o'
Thompson's mongreals!'--'We'll make hit 'ot f'r 'em!' Han wot war the hupshot?
'Stiddy!' ses Hi--'w'e 's y' proofs?' 'Proof be dam!' ses they--'don't we
know?' They know a 'ell of a lot! Has the sayin' his:--'Onct boys was boys,
an' men was men; but now boys his men, an' men's"--(I did n't catch the rest
of the sentence). "Han what were the hupshot? W'y, fact was Cunnigam
an' Thompson 'ad bin workin' hon hour ram-paddick wun night; an' six Wogger
steers got away, an' a stag amongst 'em; makin' f'r home; an' they left
a whaler mindin' the wagons; an' the two o' them hover'auled the steers
way down hin hour Sedan Paddick. Well, heverybody--Muster Magomery his self,
no less--heverybody ses, 'Ole hon t' we gits a holt of 'em fellers'
mongreals!--bin leavin' three o' hour gates hopen; an' the yowes an' weaners
is boxed; an' puttin' a file through Nosey Half's 'oss-paddick, an' workin'
hon it with 'er steers!' 'Stiddy!' ses Hi--'w'e's y'r proofs?' Way it war,
Collings; 'ere come a dose o' rain jis' harter, an' yer could n't track.
Well, wot war the hupshot? W'y, Warrigal Half war hunloadin' hat Boottara;
an' a yaller bullick 'e 'd got, Pilot by name"----
"Yes," I gently interposed. "Well, I'll have to be"----
"'Is Pilot starts by night f'm Boottara ration-paddick, an' does 'is
thirty mile to hour 'oss-paddick; an' the hull menagerie tailin' harter.
'Shove 'em in 'e yaad, Toby,' ses Muster Magomery. Presinkly, up comes Half,
an 'is 'oss hall of a lather. 'Take yer dem mongreals,' ses Muster Magomery;
'an' don' hoversleep y'self agin.' Think Half war goin' ter flog 'is hanimals
thirty mile back? Not 'im"----
"It would hardly be right," I agreed. "Well, I must be jogging"--
"Not 'im," pursued Jack. "'E turns horf o' the main track t' other side
the ram-paddick; through the Patagoniar; leaves hall gates hopen;
fetches Nosey's place harter dark; houts file, an' hin with 'is mob,
an' gives 'm a g-tful. Course, 'e clears befo' mo'nin'; an' through hour
Sedan Paddick, an' back to Boottara that road. 'Ow do Hi know
hall this?--ses you?"
"Ah!" said I wisely. "Well, I must be"----
"No; you're in for it," chuckled Moriarty.
"Tole me 'is hown self, not three weeks agone. Camped hat hour ram-paddick,
shiftin' Stewart's things to Queensland. An' wot war the hupshot? 'Stiddy,
now,' ses Hi--'w'e 's y' proofs?' 'Some o' these young pups horter take
a lessing horf o' you, Jack,' ses you, jist now. You're right, Collings.
Did n' Hi say, las' lambin'--did n' Hi say we war a-gwain ter hev sich anuther
year as sixty-hate? Mostly kettle wot we hed then, afore the wool rose;
an' wild dogs bein' plentiful them times; an' we'd a sort o' 'ead stock-keeper,
name o' Bob Selkirk; an' this feller 'e started f'm 'ere with
hate 'underd an' fo'ty sebm 'ead"----
"And he would have his work cut out for him," I remarked, in cordial assent.
"You've seen some changes on this station, Jack. Well, I must be going."
Leaving the old fellow talking, I threw the reins over Cleopatra's head,
and drew the near one a little the tightest. He stood motionless as a statue,
and beautiful as a poet's dream.
"Would n't think that horse had a devil in him as big as a bulldog,"
observed the horse-driver. "Shake the soul-bolt out of a man, s'posen you
do stick to him."
"And yet Collins can't ride worth a cuss," contributed Moriarty confidentially.
"He's just dropped to this fellow's style. Boss wanted to see him on
our Satan, but Collins knew a thundering sight better."
A slight, loose-built lad, with a spur trailing at his right heel,
advanced from the group.
"Would you mind lettin' me take the feather-edge off o' this feller?"
he asked modestly. "If he slings me, you can git on-to him while he's warm,
an' no harm done. I'd like to try that saddle," he added, by way of excuse.
"Minds me o' one I got shook, five months ago, with a redheaded galoot
I'd bin treatin' like a brother, on account of him bein' fly-blowed,
an' the both of us travellin' the same road. Best shape saddle I ever had
a leg over, that was. Will I have a try?"
"Not worth while, Jack," I replied. "He might prop a little, certainly;
but it's only playfulness." So I swung into the deep seat of the stolen saddle,
and lightly touched the lotus-loving Memphian with both spurs.
First, a reeling, dancing, uncertain panorama of buildings, fences,
and spectators; then a mechanical response to the surging, jerking,
concussive saddle, and a guarded strain on the dragging reins. Also
a tranquil cognisance of favourable comment, exchanged by competent judges--
no excitement, no admiration, remember; not a trace of new-chum interest,
but a certain dignified and judicious approbation, honourable alike to critic
and artist. Fools admire, but men of wit approve.
"You see, it's--only playfulness--I remarked indifferently; the words being
punctuated by necessity, rather than by choice. Magnificent, but--not war.
There's not a-shadow of vice in his com-position. As the poet says:--
This is mere--madness,
And thus awhile the--fit will work--on him.
Anon as patient as the female--dove,
When that her--golden couplets have dis--closed,
His silence will--sit drooping.
There you are!" And Cleopatra stood still; slightly panting, it is true,
but with lamb-like guilelessness in his madonna face.
Then, as the toilers of the station slowly dispersed to see about
getting up an appetite for supper, Moriarty advanced, and laid both hands
on Cleopatra's mane.
"Collins!" he exclaimed; "I'm better pleased than if I had won ten bob.
What do you think?--that verse you quoted from Shakespear brought the question
to my mind like a shot of a gun; the very question I wanted to ask you
a couple of hours ago. I know it's been asked before; in fact, I met with it
in an English magazine, where the writer uses the very words you quoted
just now. I thought perhaps you had never met with the question,
and it might interest you--Was Hamlet mad?"
Of some few amiable qualities with which it has pleased heaven to endow me
beyond the majority of my fellows, a Marlborough-temper is by no means
the least in importance. I looked down in the ingenuous face of the searcher
after wisdom, quenching, like Malvolio, my familiar smile with an
austere regard of control.
"Semper felix," I observed hopelessly. "You're right in saying that
the question has been asked before. It has been asked. But daylight
in the morning is the right time to enter on that inquiry. For the present,
we must leave the world-wearied prince to rest in his ancestral vault,
where he was laid by the pious hands of Horatio and Fortinbras--where, each in
his narrow cell for ever laid, the rude forefathers of The Hamlet sleep."
"Quotation--ain't it?" suggested Moriarty critically.
"No." I sighed.
"Well then, I'm beggared if I can see anything in that sort of an answer,"
remarked the young fellow resentfully.
"Dear boy," I replied; "I never imagined that you could. I would you had
but the wit; 'twere better than your dukedom. By-the-way-what is Jack's
"Which Jack? Old Jack, or Young Jack, or Jack the Shellback,
or Fog-a-bolla Jack?"
"Young Jack; the chap that offered to ride Cleopatra."
"Right. Good-bye. And remember our arrangement."
"Good-bye, ole man. Depend your life on my straightness."
Then I whistled to Pup, noticed that Bunyip had n't got on the wrong side
of the fence, and turned Cleopatra's head toward the Bogan.
G. P. R. James rightly remarks that nothing is more promotive of thought
than the walking pace of a horse. We may add that nothing on earth can soothe
and purify like the canter; nothing strengthen and exhilarate like the gallop.
The trot is passed over with such contempt as it deserves. So, for the first
mile I was soothed and purified; for the next half-mile I busied myself
on a metaphysical problem; and so on for about five miles.
The metaphysical difficulty (if you care about knowing) arose in connection
with the singular issue of that preposterous wager. Whence came such
an elaborate dispensation? If from above, it was plainly addressed
to Moriarty, as a salutary check on his growing propensity; if from beneath,
it must have been a last desperate attempt to decoy into evil ways one who was,
perhaps, better worth enlisting than the average fat-head. To which of these
sources would you trace the movement? Mind you, our grandfathers--to come
no closer--would have piously taken the event on its face value of £50,
as a blessing to the Prodistan, and a chastisement to the Papish. But we move.
And, by my faith, we have need.
Presently I entered on the narrow pine-ridge; and now, carrying a line of fence
on my right shoulder, I followed the pleasant track, winding through pine,
wilga, needle-bush, quondong, and so forth. Two miles of this; then
on my right appeared the white gate, through which ran the Nalrooka track.
Up to this time, I had been following the route which a harsh usage
of the country had interdicted to Priestley.
Montgomery and Folkestone, returning from their drive, had just come through
this gate; the buggy, turned toward home, was on the track in front of me,
and Montgomery was resuming his seat, after shutting the gate.
The station mail-bag, loosely tied, was lying on the foot-board.
I had just done explaining where I was bound for, and on what business,
and where I intended staying that night, when I nearly tumbled off my horse
with a sort of white horror.
For straight behind the buggy, and less than eighty yards away, Priestley's
fourteen-bullock team came crawling along the fence, with the evident purpose
of catching the Nalrooka track at the gate. Priestley had chanced it.
Knowing every gate on the run, he had merely gone round the ration-paddock,
and had already made a seven-mile stage in ten miles' travelling--that is,
losing three miles in the detour. Once through this gate, the track would
be lovely, the wagon would chase the bullocks; evening would soon be on;
he would fetch feed and water at the Faugh-a-ballagh Tank, in the quiet
moonlight; moreover, if he met a boundary man, he could easily say he had
permission from the boss; in any case, it would soon be not worth while
to order him back; and he would be off the run some time to-morrow forenoon.
I could read his thoughts as I looked at him across Montgomery's shoulder.
Concealed from distant observation by the timber of the pine-ridge,
he had dismissed all apprehension, and allowed his mind to drift to a bend
of the Murrumbidgee, a couple of miles above Hay. There were his young
barbarians all at play; there was their dacent mother; he, their sire,
looking blissfully forward to superhuman work, and plenty of it.
Straight into the lion's mouth! Heaven help--but does heaven help
the Scotch-navigator? I question it. Half an hour's loafing, at any time
during the day, would have timed his arrival so as not only to obviate
the present danger, but to spare him the disquieting consciousness
of narrow escape. And heaven helps those who help themselves
He knew the gate was near; and, with the automatic restlessness of
an impatient dog tied under a travelling dray, he walked back and forward,
backward and forward beside his weary team; often looking back to see
the wagon clear the trees, but never, by any chance, looking forward
against the blaze of the declining sun intently enough to notice the back
of the buggy, partly concealed, as it was, by an umbrageous wilga.
As I watched him, I wished, with Balaam, that there were a sword in mine hand,
that I might slay the ass.
I dare n't ride past the buggy, for fear of Montgomery looking round
to say something. I half-heard him tell me that the Sydney crew had won
the regatta, and that Jupiter was starting a hot favourite for the Flemington.
And all this time, the unconscious son of perdition was crawling nearer;
not a jolt nor a click-clock came from his wagon as it pressed the yielding
soil; and the faint creaking of the tackle was drowned in the rustle
of a hot wind through the foliage.
"I'm sorry to see you starting so late in the day, and Saturday too,"
continued the squatter courteously. "The barracks will be lively to-night
over these sporting events."
I bowed. I would have licked the dust to see him stand not upon the order
of his going, but go at once. "Well, I must be moving," I mumbled hastily,
glancing behind me at the sun, and backing Cleopatra into the scrub,
to let the buggy pass--noting also that Priestley was n't forty yards away.
"Now, confess the truth, Collins--you've been having a tiff with
Mrs. Beaudesart?" continued Montgomery. "Lovers' quarrel? That's nothing.
I did n't think you were so pettish as to run away like this."
"Indeed, Mr. Montgomery," said I earnestly; "I assure you I'm only going
at the call of duty. I'll show"----here it struck me that the production
of my letter would delay things worse, and----
"By the way, there's a parcel for Alf Jones in the mail-bag," continued
the squatter, with hideous dilatoriness. "I see it's a roll of music.
Better take it. And his newspaper. Get him to give you a tune on his violin,
if you can. It will be something to remember."
"Thank you for the suggestion, sir," I continued slavishly, whilst backing
Cleopatra a little further into the scrub, and clearing my throat with a sharp,
pentrating sound, as if I had swallowed a fly.
Just then, the bullocks stopped of their own accord, within ten yards
of the buggy; and Priestley, pre-occupied in laying out fresh work for himself,
was roused by my loud r-r-rehm! and took in the situation.
Montgomery seemed amused at my tribulation. "Why, your manner betrays you,
Collins! Never mind. You'll grow out of that in good time. When is it
coming off?" He crossed his knees, and held the reins jammed between them,
whilst deliberately filling and lighting his pipe. Meanwhile, Priestley,
in silent communion with his Maker, stood by his team as if waiting
to be photographed. The buggy was in a cool, pleasant shade; and Montgomery
would maintain this flagitious procrastination of his managerial duties
while I remained a butt for his ill-timed chaff. Critical is no name
for the state of affairs.
But an angel seemed to whisper me soul to soul. I responded
to the inspiration.
"Well, I'll show you the letter, Mr. Montgomery," said I, with a petulance
tempered by sycophancy. I first felt, then slapped, my pockets--"By japers!
I've left my pocket-book on the seat in front of the barracks!" I continued
hurriedly, as I turned Cleopatra back toward the station, and bounded off
at a canter. I had n't gone five strides, when, flick! went the buggy-whip;
the vehicle started after me; and Priestley was saved. But there is no such
thing as permanent safety in this world. The first rattle of the wheels
was followed by a loud, pompous, bank-director cough from one of the bullocks.
"Hullo! what the (sheol) have we here?" It was Montgomery's voice,
no longer jocular. I turned and rode back, as he swung his buggy round
on the lock, skilfully threading the trees and scrub, till he resumed
his old position, but now facing the bullock team. "And what,
in the devil's name, brings you round this quarter?" he demanded sternly.
"This is a bad job!"
"You're right, Mr. Magomery," assented the bullock driver, with emphasis;
"it is a bad job; it's a (adj.) bad job. Way it comes: you see, I got a bit
o' loadin' for Nalrookar"----
"Two-ton-five. I know all about that, though I'm not interested in the
transaction," retorted Montgomery. "I asked you what the (sheol)
brings you here?"
"Well, that's just what I was goin' to explain when you took the word
out o' my mouth. You see, Mr. Magomery, the proper road for me would 'a' been
back along the main track to the Cane-grass Swamp, an' from there along
the reg'lar Nalrookar track; but I was frightened o' the Convincer,
so I thought I'd just cut across"----
"Great God! You thought you'd just cut across! Do you own this run?
"Well, no, Mr. Magomery, I don't; that's (adj.) certain. But if I'd 'a'
thought you'd any objection, I'd 'a' ast leaf."
"That's what you should have done. You've acted like a d----d fool."
"You'd 'a' give me leaf?" suggested the bullock driver, in a tone
full of unspoken entreaty.
"I'd have seen you in (sheol) first. I decline to make a thoroughfare
of the run. But by condescending to ask me, you'd have saved yourself
some travelling. The nearest way to the main road is past the station.
Here! rouse up your d----d mongrels, and make a start along this track.
I'll see that you're escorted. If you loose-out before you reach the main
road, I shall certainly prosecute you. Once there, I'll take care you don't
trespass again during this trip. Come! move yourself!"
Priestley had never been taught to order himself lowly and reverently
to all his betters; yet there was deeper pathos in the rude dignity
of his reply than could have attended servility.
"It s this way, Mr. Magomery--I don't deny I got here in a sneakin' way.
I feel it, Mr. Magomery; by (sheol) I do. Still, I'm here now. Well,
if I tackle this track out to the main road, there's three o' them bullocks'll
drop in yoke before I fetch the station. Would you like to see the bones
layin' aside this track, every time you drive past? I bet you what you like,
you'd be sorry when your temper is over. Then we'll say I'm out on the
main road--how 'm I goin' to fetch Nalrooka? Not possible, the way I'm fixed.
I would n't do it to you, Mr. Magomery."
I had ridden to the side of the buggy. "Mr. Montgomery," said I; "I wish
to heaven that you were under one-tenth of the obligation to me that I am
under to you, so that I might venture to speak in this case. But the
remembrance of so much consideration at your hands m the past, encourages me.
There's a great deal in what Priestley says; my own experience in bullock
driving brings it home to me; and I sympathise with him, rather than with you.
Of course the matter rests entirely in your hands; but to me it appears
in the light of a responsibility. It is noble to have a squatter's strength,
but tyrannous to use it like a squatter."
Something like a smile struggled to Montgomery's sunburnt face; and I could see
that the battle was over.
But another was impending. It was now half-an-hour since I had met the buggy.
Folkestone had calmly ignored me from the first. When the trouble supervened,
his haughty immobility had still sustained him at such an altitude
as to render Priestley, as well as myself, invisible even to bird's eye view.
But the small soul, rattling about loose in the large, well-fed body,
could n't let it pass at that. On my interposing, he placed a gold-mounted
glass in his eye, and, with a degress of rudeness which I have never seen
equalled in a navvies' camp, stared straight in my face till I had done
speaking. Then the lens dropped from his eye, and he turned to his companion.
"Who is this person, Montgomery?" he asked.
The squatter looked plainly displeased. He was as proud as his guest,
but in a different way. Folkestone, being a gentleman per se, was
distinguished from the ordinary image of God by caste and culture;
and to these he added a fatal self-consciousness. Don't take me as saying
that caste and culture could possibly have made him a boor; take me as saying
that these had been powerless to avert the misfortune. He was a gentleman
by the grace of God and the flunkeyism of man. Montgomery was also
a gentleman, but only by virtue of his position. So that, for instance,
Priestley's personal fac-simile, appearing as a well-to-do squatter,
would have been received on equal terms by Montgomery; whereas, Folkestone's
disdain would have been scarcely lessened. The relative manliness of the two
types of 'gentleman' is a question which each student will judge according
to his own fallen nature.
"Pardon me for saying that you Australians have queer ways of maintaining
authority," continued the European, lazily raising his eyebrows,
and speaking with the accent--or rather, absence of accent--which,
in an Englishman, denotes first-class education. "A vagrant, by appearance,
and probably not overburdened with honesty, is found trespassing
on your property; then this individual--by Gad, I feel curious to know
who our learned brother for the defence is--bandies words with you
on the other fellow's behalf. I confess I rather like his style. I expected
to hear him address you as 'old boy,' or 'my dear fellow,' or by some such
affectionate title. Pardon my warmth, I say, Montgomery! but this phase
of colonial life is new to me. Placed in your position (if my opinion,
as a landlord, be worth anything), I should make an example of the
trespassing scoundrel; partly as a tonic to himself, and partly as a lesson
to this cad. If I rightly understand, you have the power to punish,
by fine or imprisonment, any trespass on your sheep-walks. You don't exercise
your prerogative, you say? By Gad, you'll have to exercise it, or,
let me assure you, you will be sowing thorns for your children to reap.
Here, I should imagine, is an excellent opportunity for vindication
of your rights as a land owner."
This reasoning would n't have affected Montgomery's foregone decision
to suspend his own rights in the current case, had not Priestley been
too industrious to notice the opening avenue of escape. But to the
bullock driver's troubled mind it appeared that he had managed to wander
inside the wings of the stockyard of Fate, and that Folkestone was lending
a willing hand to hurroo him into the crush. Moreover, the rough magnanimity
of the man's nature was outraged by some supposed insult sustained
by me on his behalf.
Just three words of comment here. Built into the moral structure
of each earthly probationer is a thermometer, graduated independently;
and it is never safe to heat the individual to the boiling-point
of his register. You never know how far up the scale this point is, unless
you are very familiar with the particular thermometer under experiment.
Romeo, for instance, pacific by nature, and self-schooled to forbearance
by the second-strongest of inspirations, meets deadly public insult
by the softest of answers--'calm, dishonourable, vile submission,'
his friend calls it. But the slaying of that friend touches Romeo's
212°Fahrenheit--then! 'Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury
be my conduct now!' Whereupon, Tybalt, the tamperer, is scalded to death.
In Ida, as we have seen, the insinuated aspersion of unchastity touched
100°Centigrade; and the experimentalist was glad to retreat, with damaged
dignity, from the escaping steam. So, in Priestley, the wanton hostility
of Folkestone touched 80°Reaumur; and the billy boiled over, wasting the water,
and smothering the owner with ashes.
One moment more, please. Nations, kindreds, and peoples are individuals
in mass; and here the existence of an overlooked boiling-point is the one thing
that makes history interesting. Cowper puts on paper a fine breezy
English contempt for the submissiveness and ultra-royalism of the
pre-Revolutionary French--and lives to wonder at the course of events.
Macaulay's diction rolls like the swelling of Jordan, as he expatiates
on the absolute subserviency, the settled incapacity for resistance,
of the Bengalee--till presently the Mutiny (a near thing, in two widely
different senses, and confined to the Bengalee troops) shakes his credit.
So it has ever been, and ever shall be. But for that ingrained endowment
of resilience, Man would long ago have ceased to inhabit this planet.
When Priestley came to the boil, all considerations of expediency,
all natural love of peace and fear of the wrath to come, all solicitude
for wife and children, vanished from his mind, leaving him fit for treasons,
stratagems, and spoils. I must suppress about half the language in which
he clothed his one remaining thought.
"An' who are you?" he thundered, advancing toward the buggy. "A loafer!--
no better!--an' you must shove in your lip! I don't blame Magomery
for bein' nasty; he's got a right to blaggard me, the way things is;
an' I give him credit. But you! Cr-r-ripes! if I had you a couple o' hundred
mile furder back, I'd learn you manners! I'd make you spring off o' your tail!"
Folkestone, his head canted to a listening angle, noted with a half-amused,
half-tired smile the outlaw's tirade. Then he rose, drew off his light coat,
and laid it across the back of the buggy seat.
"I will thump this fellow, Montgomery," said he, and he certainly meant it.
Priestley was a man of nine stone.
By your favour, once more, and only once. The Englishman proper is the
pugilist of the world. The Australian or American maxima may be as brutal,
or even more so, but the average efficiency in smiting with the fist
of wickedness is, beyond all question, on the English side.
'English fair play' is a fine expression. It justifies the bashing
of the puny drapers' assistant by the big, hairy blacksmith; and this
to the perfect satisfaction of both parties, if they are worthy the name
of Englishmen. Also, the English gentleman may take off his coat to the
potsherd of the earth; and so excellent is his discrimination that the combat
will surely end even as your novelist describes; simply because no worshipper
can make headway against his god, when the divinity hits back.
At the same time, no insubordinate Englishman, named Crooked-nosed Yorkey,
and made in proportion, ever did, or ever will, suffer manual mauling
at the hands of an English gentleman--or any other gentleman, for that matter.
What a fool the gentleman would be! No; Crooked-nosed Yorkey is always given
in charge; and it takes three policemen to run him in.
English fair-play! Varnhagen von Ense tells us how Continental gentlemen
envied the social usage which permitted Lord Castlereagh, in 1815,
to show off his bruising ability at the expense of a Viennese cabman--probably
some consumptive feather-weight, and certainly a man who had never seen
a scrapping-match in his life. But English fair-play doesn't stand
transplantation to Australia, except in patches of suitable soil.
For instance, when bar-loafer meets pimp, at £1 a side, then comes the raw-meat
business. The back-country man, though saturnine, is very rarely quarrelsome,
and almost never a pugilist; nevertheless, his foot on his native salt-bush,
it is not advisable to assault him with any feebler weapon than
rifle-and-bayonet. There is a radical difference, without a verbal
distinction, between his and the Englishman's notions of fair-play.
Each is willing to content himself with the weapons provided by nature;
but the Southern barbarian prefers a natural product about three feet long,
and the thickness of your wrist at the butt--his conception of fair-play
being qualified by a fixed resolution to prove himself the better counterfeit.
So Priestley, with a sinister glitter in his patient eyes, had reversed
his whipstick, pliant end downward, and bent along the ground. He knew
the nature of seasoned pine. A sharp jerk, and the whipstick would snap,
supplying a nilla-nilla which would make him an over-match for a dozen
Folkestones in rotation. My hand was on Cleopatra's mane, and my off-foot
clear of the stirrup; it would be a Christian act to save Foikestone
from the father of a batin', and Priestley from that sterner father,
namely, old father antic, the law. But imminent as the collision seemed,
it did n't come-off.
"Sit down, Folkestone," said Montgomery, holding his companion's sleeve
with a firm grip, whilst gazing steadily northward through the narrow fringe
of timber. Following his eye, I saw a horseman, a mile and a half distant,
heading for the homestead at a walk.
"Is that Arblaster, Collins?" demanded the squatter.
I brought my binocular to bear on the horseman. "Nelson," I replied.
"Better still. Signal him."
I galloped out into the plain, wheeled broadside on, and waved my hat.
The equestrian profile changed to a narrow line, and I returned to the buggy,
followed, at a decent interval, by Nelson. I was glad to see Priestley
in the act of driving through the gate.
"Come, here, Priestley," said Montgomery quietly. "You have my permission
to follow this track to the Nalrooka boundary"----
"I hope I'll git some slant to do as much"----
"Silence!--But if you trespass on my feed or water, by God I'll prosecute you.
Another thing. Never in future load anything for me, or come to this station
expecting wool. And I may as well warn you that every boundary man
in my employ will be on the look-out for you from this time forward.
Nelson; you ride behind his wagon to the boundary, and see that he keeps
the track."--A frown gathered on the young fellow's face, reinforced by
a burning blush as Montgomery went on--"Perhaps you scarcely expected me
to concur in your opinion, that one ought to spring a bit in a season
like this; yet I have no intention of crushing a poor, decent, hard-working
devil--that is, if he can add nine miles more to to-day's stage,
without unyoking. I have already given him a thorough good blackguarding
for calculating upon crossing the run. If he trespasses on feed or water--
if he does n't go straight on with his team, wagon or no wagon--you and I
may quarrel." Who was the spy? Ah! who is the ubiquitous station spy?
"Good-bye, Mr. Montgomery," said I abjectly.
"Are n't you coming back to the station for your pocket-book?" he asked,
with a glance out of the corner of his eye.
"I find I've got it here all the time--wonder how I came to overlook it."
"Thinking too much about Mrs. Beaudesart," suggested the squatter. "She won't
be at all displeased to hear of it. Good-bye, Collins. Safe Joumey."
I raised my wideawake to Folkestone, who again placed his glass in his eye,
and stared at me wonderingly till we tore ourselves apart.
Another mile, and I cleared the pine-ridge. Looking back to the right,
I could see Priestley and his guard of honour crawling toward the
Faugh-a-ballagh Sand-hills, which lay two miles from the gate where we
had parted. They would reach the tank as twilight merged into moonlight.
Then Nelson would say, 'I'm going to have a drink of tea at Jack's hut.
I'll be back in three or four hours. Pity you're not allowed to loose-out,
for there's a grand bit of crow's-foot round that pine tree in the hollow.
Don't kindle a fire, unless you want to get lagged.' And Priestley would get
to the boundary by ten o'clock on the morrow, without the loss of a beast;
thanking heaven that he had n't been escorted by Arblaster or Butler,
and racking his invention to provide for the coming night. Also,
Montgomery would, within a week, know all the details of the trip
(station-spy again), but, being a white man, he would silently condone
One more little incident enlivened the monotony of my journey to Alf's hut.
Whilst giving my horses a half-mile walk, I took out the newspaper
Toby had brought. I did n't look for any marginal marks, having recognised
Jeff Rigby's handwriting in the address. Rigby is a man who never writes
except on his own account. His way of acknowledging a letter is to pick up
a newspaper, of perhaps a month old, tie a string round it, stamp
and address it, and drop it in the nearest letter-box. This paper, however,
happened to be the latest available issue of a Melbourne daily, and contained
a copious account of the regatta, followed by the coarsely-executed portrait
of a young man, with the neck and shoulders--and, by one of Nature's sad,
yet just, compensations, also the face and head--of the average athlete.
Rude as the engraving was, the subject of it at once suggested what
the Life-Assurance canvassers call an 'excellent risk'; and underneath ran
the title: Mr. RUDOLPH WINTERBOTTOM--STROKE OF THE WINNING CREW.
An ensuing paragraph briefly sketched the hero's history, habits, and physical
excellencies. He was twenty-two years of age; had a good position
in the N.S.W. Civil Service; and was now on leave of absence. He was
a non-smoker, a life-abstainer, and in a word, was distinguished in almost
every branch of those gambol faculties which show a weak mind and an able body.
It gave me quite a turn. Sic transit, thought I, with a sigh. Such is life.
The cranky boundary rider's little weatherboard hut, standing just inside
his horse-paddock fence, was neater than the average. The moonlight showed
that a radius of five or six yards from the door had been swept with a broom;
while some kerosene-tins, containing garden-flowers, occupied the angle
formed by the chimney and the wall. The galvanised bucket and basin
on the bench by the door were conspicuously clean; and the lamp-light showed
through a green blind on the window.
A black-and-tan collie gave a few perfunctory barks as I drew near,
whereupon Alf, with sleeves rolled up, and hands freshly blooded to the wrists,
appeared at the door, and drew back on seeing me. I brought my horses through
the gate, and he met me outside the hut; his hands washed, and his
shirt-sleeves buttoned. He stood by, scarcely speaking, whilst I introduced
myself, gave him his parcel and newspaper, and unsaddled my horses.
Then I followed him into the hut, and he cleared away from the table
the anatomy of a fine turkey, shot during the day. Sullenly he replenished the
kettle, and put the fire together; then washed the table, and laid it for one.
But the newspaper revelation, in giving me a turn, had turned me
philosophic-side-upward; and I cared little for Alf's sullenness, provided
he listened with attention to my discourse on the mutability of things.
By the time he had poured out my tea, he was a vanquished man. He filled
a cup for himself, to keep me company, and guardedly commented on the news
I brought from the station and the Pine-ridge Gate. Still I was touched
to observe that he kept his disfigured face averted as much as possible.
Did you ever reflect upon how much you have to be thankful for in the matter
of noses? Your nose, in all probability, is your dram of eale--your
club foot--your Mordecai sitting at the king's gate--but you would look
very queer without it. In your morbid hypercriticalness, you may wish
this indocile, undisguisable, and most unsheltered feature had been made
a little longer, or a little shorter, or a little wider, or not quite so wide.
Or perhaps you wish the isthmus between your eyes a little higher or the ridge
of the peninsula a little straighter, or the south cape a little more,
or less, obtuse. Or possibly you wish that the front elevation
(elevation is good) did not admit, through the natural grottoes above your
moustache, so clear a perspective of the interior of Ambition's airy hall--
forcing upon you the conviction that your own early disregard of your mother's
repeated admonitions against wiping upward, had come home to you at last,
and had come to stay. Check that rebellious spirit, I charge you. Your nose
is good enough; better, probably, than you deserve; be thankful that you have
one of any design at all.
This poor boundary man had none to speak of. And it seemed such a pity.
More beautiful, otherwise, than a man's face is justified in being, it was
(apart from sex) as if Pygmalion's masterpiece had fallen heavily,
face downward, and then sprung into life, minus the feature which will
least bear tampering with. The upper half of his nose was represented
by an irregular scar, running off toward the left eye, which was dull
and opaque; the other was splendid, soft, and luminous. And as he sat
in the full light of the lamp, with his elbow on the table, in order to shade
with his hand the middle part of his face, the combination of fine frontal
development with exquisite and vigorous contour of mouth and chin was so
striking that I involuntarily glanced round the hut for the book-shelf.
His lithe, graceful movements had at first led me to mark him down as
a mere lad; but now the lamp-light showed a maze of incipient wrinkles
on the sunburnt neck, and a few silver threads in the thick, strong,
coalblack hair. Moreover, owing to inadvertence or ignorance on the part
of people who should have known better, he had been christened in immediate
succession to a girl. It is well and widely known that this oversight,
small as it looks, will free a man for life from any rude inquiry as to when
he is going to burn off the scrub. Alf had no scrub to burn off, except
a faint moustache, unnoticeable but for its dark colour. For the rest,
he was slightly above medium height and by no means a good stamp of a man--
tapering the wrong way, if I might so put it without shocking the
double-refined reader. And, from stiff serge jumper to German-silver spur,
he (Alf, of course) was unbecomingly clean for Saturday. The somewhat
wearisome minuteness of this description is owing to his being, at least
in my estimation, the most interesting character within the scope
of these scranny memoirs.
I looked round for the book-shelf. It was a bookcase this time;
a flat packing-case, nailed to the wall, fitted with shelves, and curtained
on the front. I rose and inspected the collection: fifty or sixty volumes
altogether--poetry, drama, popular theology, reference, and a few
miscellaneous works; history meagrely represented, science and
yellow-back fiction not at all.
"You don't find many people of my name in the country?" remarked the boundary
man trivially, after a pause.
"Not many," I replied, wondering whether he referred to his nickname
or to the inexpensive, but lasting, gift of his godfathers and godmothers,
at the time of their annoying mistake.
"I suppose you hardly know one," he persisted.
"Not that I can think of," I replied. "Have you any swapping-books?"
"Yes, you'll find 'Elsie Venne ' lying on top of the upper shelf."
"I've read it years ago, but we'll change," I replied. "When I first got
my swapping-book, it was by Hannah More; now it's by Zola, and smutty enough
at that; it has undergone about twenty intermediate metamorphoses,
and it's still going remarkably strong--in both senses of the word.
Therefore I can recommend it."
"I don't think it does a person any good to read Zola," remarked
the boundary man gravely.
"Not the slightest, Alf--that is, in the works by which he is represented
amongst us. But do you think it does a person any good to read Holmes?
Zola has several phases; one of them, I admit, blue as heaven's own tinct;
but Holmes has only one phase, namely, pharisaism. Zola, even as we know him
here in Riverina, has this advantage, that he gives you no rest for the sole
of your foot--or rather, for the foot of your soul; whilst Holmes serenely
seduces you to his own pinchbeck standard. Zola is honest; he never
calls evil, good; whilst Holmes is spurious all through. Mind you, each has
a genuine literary merit of his own.
"But don't you like Holmes's poetry?" asked Alf.
"Well, his poems fill a little volume that the world would be sorry to lose;
but why did n't he write one verse--just one--for the Abolitionists to quote?"
"Because it's not in his nature to denounce things," objected Alf.
"Neither was it in Longfellow's nature; yet Longfellow's poems on Slavery
are judged worthy to form a separate section of his works. But Holmes
can denounce most valiantly. He denounces witch-burning and
Inquisition-persecution, like the chivalrous soul that he is. He has achieved
the distinction of being the only American poet of note who blandly ignores
Slavery, and takes part with the aristocrat, as against the lowly.
The same spirit runs through all his writings. He has a range of about
three notes: a flunkeyish koo-tooing to soap-bubble eminence; a tawdry
sympathy with aristocratic woe; and a drivelling contempt for angular
Poor Relations, in bombazine gowns. Bombazine, by-the-way, is a cheap,
carpetty-looking fabric, built of shoddy, and generally used for
"No, it's not! " broke in Alf, with a rippling laugh; "it's a very good
dress-material; silk one way, and wool the other; and it's mostly black,
or maroon, or"----he stopped with a gasp. "Why don't you sit down?"
he continued, in an altered tone. "And that reminds me, my day's work's
not done yet."
He cleared the table, and placed upon it his half-dissected turkey,
in a milk-dish. I had the conversation to myself till he finished his work
and took the turkey outside to hang it on the meat-pole. This was a sapling
of fifteen or twenty feet high, with a fork at the top, through which ran
a piece of clothes-line. I followed him to the door, discoursing on
literature, whilst he attached one end of the clothes-line to the turkey's
legs, hauled it up to the fork, and hitched the fall of the rope to the pole.
But just as the turkey reached its place, he had dropped his head with
a movement of pain; and, after securing the rope, he groped his way into
the hut, holding his hand over his right eye.
"Bit of bark, or something, dropped nght into my eye," he muttered.
"It does n't suit me to have anything wrong with the one I have left."
By the bright lamp-light, I soon relieved him of what proved to be a small ant;
then he went out to the washing-bench, and I heard the dabbling of water.
"I got a grass-seed in my eye the New Year's Day before last," he remarked,
in a sort of sullen self-commiseration, after we had sat in silence
for a minute. "I could n't see to catch a horse; and it took me about
six hours to grope my way along the fences to Dick Templeton's hut. I thought
I'd have gone mad."
"Ah!" said I sympathetically, "that reminds me of an incident that came under
my own notice on the very day you speak of. I'll tell you how it happened."
By this time, Alf had lit a meek and lowly meerschaum, whilst a large grey cat
had jumped on his knees, and settled itself for repose. "You asked me awhile
ago whether I knew anyone of your name in this part of the country. I forgot
at the moment that one of my most profitable studies is a namesake of yours--
Warrigal Alf, a carrier on these roads."
"What's his other name?" asked the boundary man, in a suppressed voice.
"Why don't you call him so, then? I hate nicknames."
Poor fellow, thought I, and I continued, "I was coming down from Cobar,
with a single horse; and on the New Year's Day before last, I reached
the Yellow Tank--about forty miles from here, isn't it? I left my saddle
and things at the tank, and was taking my horse out to a place where
there's always a bit of grass, when I noticed a wagon in the scrub,
and identified it as Alf's"----
"Did you know him before?" murmured the boundary man.
"Is he a married man?"
"Widower?" repeated Alf, almost in a whisper. "Did you know his wife""
"Personally, no; inductively, yes. She was one of those indefinably dangerous
women who sing men to destruction--one of those tawny-haired tigresses,
with slumbrous dark eyes--name, Iolanthe."
"Iolanthe de Vavasour," I replied good-humouredly. "More appropriate
than Molly--isn't it?"
The boundary man, after picking up his pipe, which had fallen on the
slumbering cat, fixed his Zitska eye on my face with a puzzled, shrinking,
defiant look, whilst drawing his seat a little further away. Ah! years
of solitary life, with the haunting consciousness of frightful disfigurement,
had told on his mind. Moriarty was right. And I remembered that the moon
was approaching the full.
"Alf was sitting under a hop-bush," I continued, "with his hand
across his eyes.
"'What's the matter, Alf?' says I.
"'Is that you, Collins?' says he, trying to look up. 'You're just in time
to do more for me than I would care about doing for you. I've met with
an accident. I was lying on my back under the wagon this morning,
tightening some nuts, when a bit of rust, or something, fell straight
into my eye. Frightful pain; and it's affecting the other eye already;
giving me a foretaste of hell. No doubt it's a good thing; but I don't want
a monopoly of it; I wish I could pass it round.' This was Alf's style
of philosophy. Our friend, Iolanthe, is largely, though perhaps indirectly,
responsible for it."
"Yes--go on," said the boundary man nervously.
"Well, as I was telling you, it was after sunset, and there was no time
to lose, so I whittled a bit of wood to a point, and essayed the task
in which I claim a certain eminence, namely, the extraction of a mote
from my brother's eye.
"'You're right, Alf,' says I; 'it's a flake of rust, about the size of
a fish's scale, lodged on the coloured part, which we term the iris--or,
strictly speaking, on that part of the cornea which covers the iris.
But I can't shift it with this appliance. Must get something sharper.'
"So I took a pin out of my coat, and grubbed the mote as well as I could
by the deficient light. I don't know what Alf thought of it at the time,
but I considered it a lovely operation. When it was over, Alf signified
to me that I wasn't wanted any longer, so I went about my business.
"Next morning, as I was going toward my horse-bell, I gave my patient
a purely professional call, and found his eye worse than ever. I subjected him
to another examination; and, this time having the advantage of full daylight,
I discovered that the cause of his trouble wasn't a flake of rust, after all;
but a small, barbed speck of clean iron, embedded in the white of the eye.
I discovered something else. Alf's eyes are as blue as those of Zola's Nana;
and in the iris of the affected one there is, or rather was, a brown spot.
I had often noticed this before; but, in the defective light, and the hurry
of the operation, I had never thought of the thing and had wasted time
and skill on it, as I tell you. I have often laughed to remember
"You were badly off for something to laugh at!" Again I recalled
Monarty's remark; for the boundary man's voice trembled as he spoke,
and his splendid eye blazed with sudden resentment. But the fit passed away
instantly, and he asked, in his usual subdued tone, "When did you see
this--this Alf Morris last?"
"About two months ago," I replied. "He was camped at that time in the
Dead Man's Bend, at the junction of Avondale and Mondunbarra."
"When are you likely to see him again?" asked the boundary man. "But,
of course, you can't tell. It's a foolish question. I don't know what's come
over me to-night."
Ignorance is bliss, in that instance, poor fellow! thought I, glancing out
at the weirdly beautiful moonlight; and I replied, "Most likely I'll never
see him again. These wool-tracks, that knew him so well, will know him no more
again for ever. He's gone to a warmer climate."
"That decides it!" muttered the lunatic, swaying on his seat, whilst
he clutched the edge of the table.
"Alf! Alf!" I remonstrated; laying my hand on his shoulder. He shrank
from the touch, and immediately recovered himself. "Let me explain,
I continued soothingly. "He has gone four or five months' journey due north,
in charge of three teams loaded with lares and penates and tools, and cooking
utensils, and rations, and other things too numerous to particularise,
belonging once to Kooltopa, but now to a new station in South-western
Queensland. Hence I say he's gone to a warmer climate. Not much of a joke,
"And what's--what's become of Kooltopa?" asked the boundary man, panting
under his effort at self-control.
"Old times are changed, old manners gone; a stranger fills the Stewart's
throne," I replied, with real sadness. "Kooltopa's sold to a Melbourne
company, and is going to be worked for all it's worth. And I'm thinking
of the carrier, coming down with the survivors of a severe trip,
and the penniless pedestrian, striking the station at the eleventh hour.
These people will miss Stewart badly.
For the guest flies the hall, and the vassal from labour,
Since his turban was cleft by the infidel's sabre."
"Whose turban?" asked Alf, with a puzzled look.
"Stewart's. I spake but by a metaphor. As with Antony, 'tis one of those
odd tricks that sorrow shoots out of the mind."
There was a few minutes' silence. I was thinking of the Christian squatter,
and so, no doubt, was many another wanderer at the same moment.
"But he'll come back to Riverina when he delivers the loading?"
suggested the boundary man.
"I don't think so. I know he does n't intend it."
Another pause. Glancing at my companion, as he sat with his elbows
on the table, and one hand, as usual, across the middle of his face,
I noticed his chest heaving unnaturally, and his shapely lips losing
their deep colour.
"Are you sick, Alf?"
"Yes--a little," he whispered.
I filled a cup at the water-bag, and set it before him. He drank part of it.
"Quakers' meeting!" he remarked at length, with a slight laugh. "Why don't you
say something? I'm not much of a talker myself, but I'm a good listener.
Tell us some yarn to pass the time. Anything you like. Tell us all about
that camp on the Lachlan, and what passed between you and your friend, Morris."
Upon this hint I spake. I recounted consecutively the incidents which form
the subject of an earlier chapter, whilst an occasional inquiry, or
an appreciative nod, proved my eccentric auditor in touch with me
from first to last.
"Three or four weeks afterward," I continued, "I met this Bob Stirling
in Mossgeil. He had a bit of a head on him at the time, having just
got through five notes--three from Stewart, and two from Alf. I got
a bob's worth of brandy to straighten him up; and we had a drink of tea
together, while my horses went through a small feed of bad chaff at
sixpence a pound.
"His account was, that Stewart, after parting from me, drove straight
to Alf's camp, and deposited him there to look after things. Stewart himself
only stayed a few minutes, and then drove to Avondale, to see
Mr. Wentworth St. John Ffrench, Terrible Tommy's boss. Next morning,
a wagonette came from Avondale, with a few parcels of eatables, and a few
bottles of drinkables, and other sinful lusts of the flesh. Four days
after that, again, Stewart drove round on his way back to Kooltopa.
By this time, Alf was able to crawl about, trying his best to be civil to Bob,
and succeeding fairly well for a non-smoker.
"However, when Stewart called, he got into a yarn with Alf, and had a drink
of tea while Bob held the horses. Presently, according to Bob's account,
the conversation grew closer; and, after an hour or so, Stewart told Bob
to unharness the horses, and hobble them out where they could get a bite
of grass. Altogether, Stewart stayed about half a day. In a few days more,
Alf was able to yoke and unyoke a few quiet bullocks; then he and Bob started
for Kooltopa together. Arrived at their destination, Stewart and Alf each
paid Bob, as already hinted; and Bob, having urgent business in Mossgeil,
hurried away to transact it. He had just completed the deal when I met him."
Here I paused to light my pipe.
"And what makes you think he has left Riverina for good?" asked the
boundary man absently.
"Catch him leaving Riverina. He knows he has a good character as a quiet,
decent, innoffensive sundowner--nobody's enemy but his own--and experience
has taught him that any kind of tolerable reputation is better than
no reputation at all."
"I don't mean him," said the boundary man constrainedly.
"Of course not. I beg your pardon. Well, I heard it from himself. I met him
about three weeks ago--that would be about three weeks after my interview
with Bob Stirling. He's fairly in love with what he saw of Queensland,
before last shearing; and, between bad seasons and selectors--not to mention
his own presentiment of a rabbit-plague--he's full-up of Riverina.
But that reminds me that I have n't brought Alf Morris's story to a proper
conclusion. I heard the rest of it from Stewart, on the occasion I speak of.
Stewart has bought his plant, and engaged him permanently. His first business
is to take Stewart's teams to their destination--no easy matter at this time
of the year, and such a year as this; but if any man can do it, that man
is Alf. He started some weeks ago, a little shaky after his sickness,
but recovering fast. Entirely changed in disposition, Stewart tells me;
and those who know him will agree that a change would n't be out of place.
But Stewart speaks of him as one of the noblest-minded men he ever knew.
He says he just wants a man like Alf, and he does n't intend to part with him.
I fancy our love of paradox makes us prone to associate noble-mindedness
with cantankerousness--at all events, nobody ever called me noble-minded.
But such is life."
"Then this new situation is a permanent thing for him?" suggested
the boundary man.
"For Alf? No; I'm sorry to say, it's not."
"Because Stewart's about sixty, and Alf's somewhere in the neighbourhood
of thirty-seven. The Carlisle-tables would give Stewart an actuarial
expectation of ten or fifteen years, and Alf one of twenty-five or thirty.
And there will be old-man changes in the personnel of the station staff
when the grand old Christian sleeps with his fathers, and his dirty-flash son
reigns in his stead. Such, again, is life. But this won't affect Alf's
interests to any ruinous extent. He has a stockingful of his own.
It's a well-known fact that few carriers of Riverina cleared as much money
as he did, and probably not one spent less. Stewart gave him £200
for his plant, and he never broke the cheque; posted it whole; Stewart himself
took charge of it, as he told me in his gossiping way. Let Alf alone.
He knows how to come in out of the wet; in fact, the rainy day is his
strong point. Such, for the third and last time, is life."
Whilst I spoke, my unfortunate companion was persistently trying to light
his empty pipe, his hands trembling, and his breath quickening.
The Maroo fly was at him again. I tried to divert his attention.
"By the way," said I; "did n't you blame Thompson and Cunningham for duffing
in your horse-paddock, ten or twelve months ago?"
"I didn't make any song about it," replied the boundary rider half-resentfully.
"Of course not. Still you owe them an apology--which I shall be happy
to convey, if you wish it. Alf Morris was the depredator. He was hovering
about your hut that night like a guardian angel, while his twenty bullocks
had their knife-bars going double-speed on your grass, and you slept the sleep
of the unsuspecting. Ask old Jack; he'll give you chapter and verse,
without much pressing. He told me about it this afternoon."
But the fit came on, after all. The boundary man stared at me with a wild,
shrinking look, and the same paling of the lips I had noticed before;
then he drank the remaining water out of the cup, and, rising from his seat,
walked slowly to his bed, and lay down with his face toward the wall.
Far gone, i' faith, thought I. Presently I went to the door, and, shoring up
one of the posts with my shoulder, looked out upon the cool, white moonlight,
flooding the level landscape.
Strange phenomena follow the footsteps of Night. It has long been observed
that avalanches and landslips occur most frequently about midnight,
and especially on moonless midnights, when the sun and moon are in conjunction
at the nadir. This is the time when mines cave in; when loose bark falls
from trees; when limbs crash down from old, dead timber; when
snow-laden branches break; when all ponderable bodies, of relatively slight
restraint, are most apt to lose their hold. This may be definitely
and satisfactorily accounted for by the mere operation of Newton's Law.
At the time, and under the conditions, specified, the conjoined attraction
of sun and moon--an attraction sufficient to sway millions of tons of water,
in the spring tides--is superadded to the centric gravity of the earth,
the triple force, at the moment of midnight, tending toward the nadir,
or downward. So that, when these midnight phenomena are most observable
at one point of the globe, they will be least likely to make mid-day
manifestation at the antipodes to that point.
And, though changes of the moon--as copiously proved by meteorological
statistics--have no relation whatever to rainfall, the illuminated moon,
on rising, will rarely fail to clear a clouded sky. This singular influence
is exercised solely by the cold light of that dead satellite producing
an effect which the sunlight, though two hundred times as intense*,
is altogether powerless to rival in kind. When we can explain the nature
of this force adherent to moonlight, and to no other light, we may inquire why,
in all ages and in all lands, the verdict of experience points to moonlight
as a factor in the production and aggravation of lunacy. An empirical
hypothesis, of course; but in the better sense, as well as in the worse.
For the perturbing influence of moonlight, if it be a myth, is about the most
tenacious one on earth. This anomalous form of Force may or may not be
observable in asylums, where the patients are not directly subjected to it;
but anyone who has lived in the back country, camping out with all sorts
and conditions of oddities, need not be accounted credulous if he holds
the word 'lunatic' to rest on a sounder derivation than 'ill-starred,'
(*NOTE -- appended to the end of the final chapter:--
The proportional intensity of sunlight to moonlight
is subject to fluctuations, from many causes, and is
therefore variously stated. The highest accepted
ratio is 600,000 to 1.; the lowest 200,000 to 1.
A constutional repugnance to anything savouring of
effect prompted me to indicate the lower proportion.
The error in the text unfortunately escaped
observation. -- T.C.)
But the sub-tropical moonlight--strong, chaste, and beautiful as its
ideal queen--soothes and elevates the well-balanced mind. I took from
my pack-saddle the double-tongued jews-harp I always carry; and, sitting
on the floor with my back against the door-post, unbound the instrument
from its square stick, and began to play. It is not the highest class
of music, I am well aware; and this paragraph is dictated by no shallow impulse
of self-glorification. But I never had opportunity to master any more
complicated instrument; and even if I had, it would n't be much use,
for I know only about three tunes, and these by no means perfectly.