Over the Sliprails
Part 3 out of 3
and abruptly asked the dreaded question:
"Mrs. Wylie, where's your husband?"
She dropped the tea-cup, from which she had pretended
to be drinking unconcernedly.
"What? Why, what do you want my husband for?" she asked
in pitiful desperation. SHE looked like the guilty party.
"Oh, you know well enough," he sneered impatiently.
Mary rose and faced him. "How dare you talk to my mother like that?"
she cried. "If my poor brother Tom was only here -- you -- you coward!"
The youngest trooper whispered something to his senior,
and then, stung by a sharp retort, said:
"Well, you needn't be a pig."
His two companions passed through into the spare skillion,
where they found some beef in a cask, and more already salted down
under a bag on the end of a bench; then they went out at the back
and had a look at the cow-yard. The younger trooper lingered behind.
"I'll try and get them up the gully on some excuse," he whispered to Mary.
"You plant the hide before we come back."
"It's too late. Look there!" She pointed through the doorway.
The other two were at the logs where the fire had been; the burning hide
had stuck to the logs in places like glue.
"Wylie's a fool," remarked the old trooper.
Jack disappeared shortly after his father's arrest on a charge
of horse and cattle-stealing, and Tom, the prodigal, turned up unexpectedly.
He was different from his father and eldest brother.
He had an open good-humoured face, and was very kind-hearted;
but was subject to peculiar fits of insanity, during which
he did wild and foolish things for the mere love of notoriety.
He had two natures -- one bright and good, the other sullen and criminal.
A taint of madness ran in the family -- came down from
drunken and unprincipled fathers of dead generations;
under different conditions, it might have developed into genius
in one or two -- in Mary, perhaps.
"Cheer up, old woman!" cried Tom, patting his mother on the back.
"We'll be happy yet. I've been wild and foolish, I know,
and gave you some awful trouble, but that's all done with.
I mean to keep steady, and by-and-bye we'll go away to Sydney or Queensland.
Give us a smile, mother."
He got some "grubbing" to do, and for six months kept the family
in provisions. Then a change came over him. He became moody and sullen --
even brutal. He would sit for hours and grin to himself
without any apparent cause; then he would stay away from home
for days together.
"Tom's going wrong again," wailed Mrs. Wylie. "He'll get into trouble again,
I know he will. We are disgraced enough already, God knows."
"You've done your best, mother," said Mary, "and can do no more.
People will pity us; after all, the thing itself is not so bad
as the everlasting dread of it. This will be a lesson for father
-- he wanted one -- and maybe he'll be a better man."
(She knew better than that.) "YOU did your best, mother."
"Ah, Mary! you don't know what I've gone through these thirty years
in the bush with your father. I've had to go down on my knees and beg people
not to prosecute him -- and the same with your brother Tom;
and this is the end of it."
"Better to have let them go, mother; you should have left father
when you found out what sort of a man he was; it would have been
better for all."
"It was my duty to stick by him, child; he was my husband.
Your father was always a bad man, Mary -- a bad man; I found it out too late.
I could not tell you a quarter of what I have suffered with him. . . .
I was proud, Mary; I wanted my children to be better than others. . . .
It's my fault; it's a judgment. . . . I wanted to make my children
better than others. . . . I was so proud, Mary."
Mary had a sweetheart, a drover, who was supposed to be in Queensland.
He had promised to marry her, and take her and her mother away
when he returned; at least, she had promised to marry him on that condition.
He had now been absent on his latest trip for nearly six months,
and there was no news from him. She got a copy of a country paper
to look for the "stock passings"; but a startling headline caught her eye:
IMPUDENT ATTEMPT AT ROBBERY UNDER ARMS.
"A drover known to the police as Frederick Dunn, alias Drew,
was arrested last week at ----"
She read to the bitter end, and burned the paper. And the shadow of
another trouble, darker and drearier than all the rest, was upon her.
So the little outcast family in Long Gully existed for several months,
seeing no one save a sympathetic old splitter who would come
and smoke his pipe by the fire of nights, and try to convince the old woman
that matters might have been worse, and that she wouldn't worry so much
if she knew the troubles of some of our biggest families,
and that things would come out all right and the lesson would do Wylie good.
Also, that Tom was a different boy altogether, and had more sense
than to go wrong again. "It was nothing," he said, "nothing;
they didn't know what trouble was."
But one day, when Mary and her mother were alone, the troopers came again.
"Mrs. Wylie, where's your son Tom?" they asked.
She sat still. She didn't even cry, "Oh, my God!"
"Don't be frightened, Mrs. Wylie," said one of the troopers, gently.
"It ain't for much anyway, and maybe Tom'll be able to clear himself."
Mary sank on her knees by her mother's side, crying "Speak to me, mother.
Oh, my God, she's dying! Speak for my sake, mother. Don't die, mother;
it's all a mistake. Don't die and leave me here alone."
But the poor old woman was dead.
. . . . .
Wylie came out towards the end of the year, and a few weeks later
he brought home a -- another woman.
Bob Bentley, general hawker, was camping under some rocks by the main road,
near the foot of Long Gully. His mate was fast asleep under the tilted trap.
Bob stood with his back to the fire, his pipe in his mouth, and his hands
clasped behind him. The fire lit up the undersides of the branches above;
a native bear sat in a fork blinking down at it, while the moon above him
showed every hair on his ears. From among the trees
came the pleasant jingle of hobble-chains, the slow tread of hoofs,
and the "crunch, crunch" at the grass, as the horses moved about and grazed,
now in moonlight, now in the soft shadows. "Old Thunder",
a big black dog of no particular breed, gave a meaning look at his master,
and started up the ridge, followed by several smaller dogs. Soon Bob heard
from the hillside the "hy-yi-hi, whomp, whomp, whomp!" of old Thunder,
and the yop-yop-yopping of the smaller fry -- they had tree'd a 'possum.
Bob threw himself on the grass, and pretended to be asleep.
There was a sound as of a sizeable boulder rolling down the hill,
and presently Thunder trotted round the fire to see if his master would come.
Bob snored. The dog looked suspiciously at him, trotted round once or twice,
and as a last resource gave him two great slobbery licks across the face.
Bob got up with a good-natured oath.
"Well, old party," he said to Thunder, "you're a thundering old nuisance;
but I s'pose you won't be satisfied till I come." He got a gun
from the waggonette, loaded it, and started up the ridge;
old Thunder rushing to and fro to show the way -- as if the row
the other dogs were making wasn't enough to guide his master.
When Bob returned with the 'possums he was startled to see
a woman in the camp. She was sitting on a log by the fire,
with her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands.
"Why -- what the dev -- who are you?"
The girl raised a white desperate face to him. It was Mary Wylie.
"My father and -- and the woman -- they're drinking -- they turned me out!
they turned me out."
"Did they now? I'm sorry for that. What can I do for you? . . .
She's mad sure enough," he thought to himself; "I thought it was a ghost."
"I don't know," she wailed, "I don't know. You're a man,
and I'm a helpless girl. They turned me out! My mother's dead,
and my brothers gone away. Look! Look here!" pointing to a bruise
on her forehead. "The woman did that. My own father stood by and saw it done
-- said it served me right! Oh, my God!"
"What woman? Tell me all about it."
"The woman father brought home! . . . I want to go away from the bush!
Oh! for God's sake take me away from the bush! . . . Anything! anything!
-- you know! -- only take me away from the bush!"
Bob and his mate -- who had been roused -- did their best to soothe her;
but suddenly, without a moment's warning, she sprang to her feet
and scrambled to the top of the rock overhanging the camp.
She stood for a moment in the bright moonlight, gazing intently
down the vacant road.
"Here they come!" she cried, pointing down the road. "Here they come --
the troopers! I can see their cap-peaks glistening in the moonlight! . . .
I'm going away! Mother's gone. I'm going now! -- Good-bye! -- Good-bye!
I'm going away from the bush!"
Then she ran through the trees towards the foot of Long Gully.
Bob and his mate followed; but, being unacquainted with the locality,
they lost her.
She ran to the edge of a granite cliff on the higher side
of the deepest of the rocky waterholes. There was a heavy splash,
and three startled kangaroos, who had been drinking, leapt back and sped away,
like three grey ghosts, up the ridge towards the moonlit peak.
Mitchell on the "Sex" and Other "Problems"
"I agree with `T' in last week's `Bulletin'," said Mitchell,
after cogitating some time over the last drop of tea in his pannikin,
held at various angles, "about what they call the `Sex Problem'.
There's no problem, really, except Creation, and that's not our affair;
we can't solve it, and we've no right to make a problem out of it
for ourselves to puzzle over, and waste the little time
that is given us about. It's we that make the problems, not Creation.
We make 'em, and they only smother us; they'll smother the world in the end
if we don't look out. Anything that can be argued, for and against,
from half a dozen different points of view -- and most things
that men argue over can be -- and anything that has been argued about
for thousands of years (as most things have) is worse than profitless;
it wastes the world's time and ours, and often wrecks old mateships.
Seems to me the deeper you read, think, talk, or write about things
that end in ism, the less satisfactory the result; the more likely you are
to get bushed and dissatisfied with the world. And the more you keep
on the surface of plain things, the plainer the sailing --
the more comfortable for you and everybody else. We've always got
to come to the surface to breathe, in the end, in any case;
we're meant to live on the surface, and we might as well
stay there and look after it and ourselves for all the good we do
diving down after fish that aren't there, except in our imagination.
And some of 'em are very dead fish, too -- the `Sex Problem', for instance.
When we fall off the surface of the earth it will be time enough
to make a problem out of the fact that we couldn't stick on.
I'm a Federal Pro-trader in this country; I'm a Federalist because
I think Federation is the plain and natural course for Australia,
and I'm a Free-tectionist because I'm in favour of sinking any question,
or any two things, that enlightened people can argue and fight over,
and try, one after the other, for fifty years without being able to come
to a decision about, or prove which is best for the welfare of the country.
It only wastes a young country's time, and keeps it off the right track.
Federation isn't a problem -- it's a plain fact -- but they make a problem
out of every panel they have to push down in the rotten old boundary fences."
"Personal interests," suggested Joe.
"Of course. It's personal interest of the wrong sort
that makes all the problems. You can trace the sex problem
to people who trade in unhealthy personal interests.
I believe in personal interests of the right sort -- true individualism.
If we all looked after ourselves, and our wives and families
-- if we have any -- in the proper way, the world would be all right.
We waste too much time looking after each other.
"Now, supposing we're travelling and have to get a shed and make a cheque
so's to be able to send a few quid home, as soon as we can,
to the missus, or the old folks, and the next water is twenty miles ahead.
If we sat down and argued over a social problem till doomsday,
we wouldn't get to the tank; we'd die of thirst, and the missus and kids,
or the old folks, would be sold up and turned out into the streets,
and have to fall back on a `home of hope', or wait their turn
at the Benevolent Asylum with bags for broken victuals. I've seen that,
and I don't want anybody belonging to me to have to do it.
"Reminds me that when a poor, deserted girl goes to a `home' they don't make
a problem of her -- they do their best for her and try to get her righted.
And the priests, too: if there's anything in the sex or any other problem
-- anything that hasn't been threshed out -- they're the men that'll know it.
I'm not a Catholic, but I know this: that if a girl that's been left by one
-- no matter what Church she belongs to -- goes to the priest, they'll work
all the points they know (and they know 'em all) to get her righted,
and, if the chap, or his people, won't come up to the scratch,
Father Ryan'll frighten hell out of 'em. I can't say as much
for our own Churches."
"But you're in favour of socialism and democracy?" asked Joe.
"Of course I am. But the world won't do any good arguing over it.
The people will have to get up and walk, and, what's more, stick together
-- and I don't think they'll ever do that -- it ain't in human nature.
Socialism, or democracy, was all right in this country
till it got fashionable and was made a fad or a problem of.
Then it got smothered pretty quick. And a fad or a problem
always breeds a host of parasites or hangers-on. Why, as soon as I saw
the advanced idealist fools -- they're generally the middle-class,
shabby-genteel families that catch Spiritualism and Theosophy
and those sort of complaints, at the end of the epidemic
-- that catch on at the tail-end of things and think they've caught
something brand, shining, new; -- as soon as I saw them,
and the problem spielers and notoriety-hunters of both sexes,
beginning to hang round Australian Unionism, I knew it was doomed.
And so it was. The straight men were disgusted, or driven out.
There are women who hang on for the same reason that a girl
will sometimes go into the dock and swear an innocent man's life away.
But as soon as they see that the cause is dying, they drop it at once,
and wait for another. They come like bloody dingoes round a calf,
and only leave the bones. They're about as democratic as the crows.
And the rotten `sex-problem' sort of thing is the cause of it all;
it poisons weak minds -- and strong ones too sometimes.
"Why, you could make a problem out of Epsom salts. You might argue
as to why human beings want Epsom salts, and try to trace the causes
that led up to it. I don't like the taste of Epsom salts
-- it's nasty in the mouth -- but when I feel that way I take 'em,
and I feel better afterwards; and that's good enough for me.
We might argue that black is white, and white is black,
and neither of 'em is anything, and nothing is everything;
and a woman's a man and a man's a woman, and it's really the man
that has the youngsters, only we imagine it's the woman
because she imagines that she has all the pain and trouble,
and the doctor is under the impression that he's attending to her,
not the man, and the man thinks so too because he imagines he's walking
up and down outside, and slipping into the corner pub now and then
for a nip to keep his courage up, waiting, when it's his wife
that's doing that all the time; we might argue that it's all
force of imagination, and that imagination is an unknown force,
and that the unknown is nothing. But, when we've settled all that
to our own satisfaction, how much further ahead are we?
In the end we'll come to the conclusion that we ain't alive,
and never existed, and then we'll leave off bothering,
and the world will go on just the same."
"What about science?" asked Joe.
"Science ain't `sex problems'; it's facts. . . . Now, I don't mind
Spiritualism and those sort of things; they might help
to break the monotony, and can't do much harm. But the `sex problem',
as it's written about to-day, does; it's dangerous and dirty,
and it's time to settle it with a club. Science and education, if left alone,
will look after sex facts.
"You can't get anything out of the `sex problem', no matter how you argue.
In the old Bible times they had half a dozen wives each,
but we don't know for certain how THEY got on. The Mormons tried it again,
and seemed to get on all right till we interfered. We don't seem to be able
to get on with one wife now -- at least, according to the `sex problem'.
The `sex problem' troubled the Turks so much that they tried three.
Lots of us try to settle it by knocking round promiscuously,
and that leads to actions for maintenance and breach of promise cases,
and all sorts of trouble. Our blacks settle the `sex problem' with a club,
and so far I haven't heard any complaints from them.
. . . . .
"Take hereditary causes and surrounding circumstances, for instance.
In order to understand or judge a man right, you would need to live
under the same roof with him from childhood, and under the same roofs,
or tents, with his parents, right back to Adam, and then you'd be blocked
for want of more ancestors through which to trace the causes
that led to Abel -- I mean Cain -- going on as he did.
What's the use or sense of it? You might argue away in any direction
for a million miles and a million years back into the past,
but you've got to come back to where you are if you wish to do
any good for yourself, or anyone else.
"Sometimes it takes you a long while to get back to where you are --
sometimes you never do it. Why, when those controversies were started
in the `Bulletin' about the kangaroos and other things, I thought I knew
something about the bush. Now I'm damned if I'm sure I could tell
a kangaroo from a wombat.
"Trying to find out things is the cause of all the work and trouble
in this world. It was Eve's fault in the first place -- or Adam's, rather,
because it might be argued that he should have been master.
Some men are too lazy to be masters in their own homes,
and run the show properly; some are too careless, and some too drunk
most of their time, and some too weak. If Adam and Eve
hadn't tried to find out things there'd have been no toil and trouble
in the world to-day; there'd have been no bloated capitalists,
and no horny-handed working men, and no politics, no freetrade and protection
-- and no clothes. The woman next door wouldn't be able to pick holes
in your wife's washing on the line. We'd have been all running about
in a big Garden of Eden with nothing on, and nothing to do except loaf,
and make love, and lark, and laugh, and play practical jokes on each other."
"That would have been glorious. Wouldn't it, Joe? There'd have been
no `sex problem' then."
The Master's Mistake
William Spencer stayed away from school that hot day,
and "went swimming". The master wrote a note to William's father,
and gave it to William's brother Joe to carry home.
"You'll give that to your father to-night, Joseph."
Bill waited for Joe near the gap, and walked home with him.
"I s'pose you've got a note for father."
"Yes," said Joe.
"I s'pose you know what's in it?"
"Ye--yes. Oh, why did you stop away, Bill?"
"You don't mean to say that you're dirty mean enough
to give it to father? Hey?"
"I must, Will. I promised the master."
"He needn't never know."
"Oh, yes, he will. He's coming over to our place on Saturday,
and he's sure to ask me to-morrow."
"Look here, Joe!" said Bill, "I don't want to get a hiding
and go without supper to-night. I promised to go 'possuming
with Johnny Nowlett, and he's going to give me a fire out of his gun.
You can come, too. I don't want to cop out on it to-night --
if I do I'll run away from home again, so there."
Bill walked on a bit in moody, Joe in troubled, silence.
Bill tried again: he threatened, argued, and pleaded, but Joe was firm.
"The master trusted me, Will," he said.
"Joe," said Bill at last, after a long pause, "I wouldn't do it to you."
Joe was troubled.
"I wouldn't do it to you, Joe."
Joe thought how Bill had stood up and fought for him only last week.
"I'd tear the note in bits; I'd tell a hundred lies;
I'd take a dozen hidings first, Joe -- I would."
Joe was greatly troubled. His chest heaved, and the tears came to his eyes.
"I'd do more than that for you, Joe, and you know it."
Joe knew it. They were crossing the old goldfield now.
There was a shaft close to the path; it had fallen in,
funnel-shaped, at the top, but was still thirty or forty feet deep;
some old logs were jammed across about five feet down.
Joe suddenly snatched the note from his pocket and threw it in.
It fluttered to the other side and rested on a piece of the old timber.
Bill saw it, but said nothing, and, seeing their father coming home from work,
they hurried on.
Joe was deep in trouble now. Bill tried to comfort and cheer him,
but it was no use. Bill promised never to run away from home any more,
to go to school every day, and never to fight, or steal, or tell lies.
But Joe had betrayed his trust for the first time in his life,
and wouldn't be comforted.
Some time in the night Bill woke, and found Joe sitting up in bed crying.
"Why, what's the matter, Joe?"
"I never done a mean thing like that before," sobbed Joe. "I wished
I'd chucked meself down the shaft instead. The master trusted me, Will;
an' now, if he asks me to-morrow, I'll have to tell a lie."
"Then tell the truth, Joe, an' take the hidin'; it'll soon be over --
just a couple of cuts with the cane and it'll be all over."
"Oh, no, it won't. He won't never trust me any more. I've never been caned
in that school yet, Will, and if I am I'll never go again.
Oh! why will you run away from home, Will, and play the wag, and steal,
and get us all into such trouble? You don't know how mother takes on about it
-- you don't know how it hurts father! I've deceived the master,
and mother and father to-day, just because you're so -- so selfish,"
and he laid down and cried himself to sleep.
Bill lay awake and thought till daylight; then he got up quietly,
put on his clothes, and stole away from the house and across the flat,
followed by the dog, who thought it was a 'possum-hunting expedition.
Bill wished the dog would not be quite so demonstrative,
at least until they got away from the house. He went straight to the shaft,
let himself down carefully on to one of the old logs,
and stooped to pick up the note, gleaming white in the sickly summer daylight.
Then the rotten timber gave way suddenly, without a moment's warning.
. . . . .
They found him that morning at about nine o'clock. The dog attracted
the attention of an old fossicker passing to his work. The letter was gripped
in Bill's right hand when they brought him up. They took him home,
and the father went for a doctor. Bill came to himself a little
just before the last, and said: "Mother! I wasn't running away, mother
-- tell father that -- I -- I wanted to try and catch a 'possum
on the ground. . . . Where's Joe? I want Joe. Go out, mother, a minute,
and send Joe."
"Here I am, Bill," said Joe, in a choking, terrified voice.
"Has the master been yet?"
"Bend down, Joe. I went for the note, and the logs gave way.
I meant to be back before they was up. I dropped it down inside the bed;
you watch your chance and get it; and say you forgot it last night
-- say you didn't like to give it -- that won't be a lie.
Tell the master I'm -- I'm sorry -- tell the master never to send
no notes no more -- except by girls -- that's all. . . . Mother!
Take the blankets off me -- I'm dyin'."
The Story of the Oracle
"We young fellows," said "Sympathy Joe" to Mitchell, after tea,
in their first camp west the river -- "and you and I ARE young fellows,
comparatively -- think we know the world. There are plenty of young chaps
knocking round in this country who reckon they've been through it all
before they're thirty. I've met cynics and men-o'-the-world,
aged twenty-one or thereabouts, who've never been further than
a trip to Sydney. They talk about `this world' as if they'd knocked around
in half-a-dozen other worlds before they came across here --
and they are just as off-hand about it as older Australians are
when they talk about this colony as compared with the others. They say:
`My oath! -- same here.' `I've been there.' `My oath! -- you're right.'
`Take it from me!' and all that sort of thing. They understand women,
and have a contempt for 'em; and chaps that don't talk as they talk,
or do as they do, or see as they see, are either soft or ratty.
A good many reckon that `life ain't blanky well worth livin'';
sometimes they feel so blanky somehow that they wouldn't give a blank
whether they chucked it or not; but that sort never chuck it.
It's mostly the quiet men that do that, and if they've got any complaints
to make against the world they make 'em at the head station.
Why, I've known healthy, single, young fellows under twenty-five
who drank to drown their troubles -- some because they reckoned the world
didn't understand nor appreciate 'em -- as if it COULD!"
"If the world don't understand or appreciate you," said Mitchell solemnly,
as he reached for a burning stick to light his pipe -- "MAKE it!"
"To drown THEIR troubles!" continued Joe, in a tone of impatient contempt.
"The Oracle must be well on towards the sixties; he can take his glass
with any man, but you never saw him drunk."
"What's the Oracle to do with it?"
"Did you ever hear his history?"
"No. Do you know it?"
"Yes, though I don't think he has any idea that I do. Now, we were talking
about the Oracle a little while ago. We know he's an old ass;
a good many outsiders consider that he's a bit soft or ratty,
and, as we're likely to be mates together for some time
on that fencing contract, if we get it, you might as well know
what sort of a man he is and was, so's you won't get uneasy about him
if he gets deaf for a while when you're talking, or does funny things
with his pipe or pint-pot, or walks up and down by himself
for an hour or so after tea, or sits on a log with his head in his hands,
or leans on the fence in the gloaming and keeps looking
in a blank sort of way, straight ahead, across the clearing.
For he's gazing at something a thousand miles across country, south-east,
and about twenty years back into the past, and no doubt he sees himself
(as a young man), and a Gippsland girl, spooning under the stars
along between the hop-gardens and the Mitchell River.
And, if you get holt of a fiddle or a concertina, don't rasp or swank too much
on old tunes, when he's round, for the Oracle can't stand it.
Play something lively. He'll be down there at that surveyor's camp
yarning till all hours, so we'll have plenty of time for the story --
but don't you ever give him a hint that you know.
"My people knew him well; I got most of the story from them --
mostly from Uncle Bob, who knew him better than any. The rest leaked out
through the women -- you know how things leak out amongst women?"
Mitchell dropped his head and scratched the back of it. HE knew.
"It was on the Cudgegong River. My Uncle Bob was mates with him
on one of those `rushes' along there -- the `Pipeclay', I think it was,
or the `Log Paddock'. The Oracle was a young man then, of course,
and so was Uncle Bob (he was a match for most men). You see the Oracle now,
and you can imagine what he was when he was a young man.
Over six feet, and as straight as a sapling, Uncle Bob said,
clean-limbed, and as fresh as they made men in those days;
carried his hands behind him, as he does now, when he hasn't got the swag --
but his shoulders were back in those days. Of course he wasn't
the Oracle then; he was young Tom Marshall -- but that doesn't matter.
Everybody liked him -- especially women and children.
He was a bit happy-go-lucky and careless, but he didn't know anything
about `this world', and didn't bother about it; he hadn't `been there'.
`And his heart was as good as gold,' my aunt used to say.
He didn't understand women as we young fellows do nowadays,
and therefore he hadn't any contempt for 'em. Perhaps he understood,
and understands, them better than any of us, without knowing it.
Anyway, you know, he's always gentle and kind where a woman or child
is concerned, and doesn't like to hear us talk about women as we do sometimes.
"There was a girl on the goldfields -- a fine lump of a blonde,
and pretty gay. She came from Sydney, I think, with her people,
who kept shanties on the fields. She had a splendid voice,
and used to sing `Madeline'. There might have been one or two bad women
before that, in the Oracle's world, but no cold-blooded, designing ones.
He calls the bad ones `unfortunate'.
"Perhaps it was Tom's looks, or his freshness, or his innocence, or softness
-- or all together -- that attracted her. Anyway, he got mixed up with her
before the goldfield petered out.
"No doubt it took a long while for the facts to work into Tom's head
that a girl might sing like she did and yet be thoroughly unprincipled.
The Oracle was always slow at coming to a decision, but when he does
it's generally the right one. Anyway, you can take that for granted,
for you won't move him.
"I don't know whether he found out that she wasn't all
that she pretented to be to him, or whether they quarrelled,
or whether she chucked him over for a lucky digger. Tom never had any luck
on the goldfields. Anyway, he left and went over to the Victorian side,
where his people were, and went up Gippsland way. It was there
for the first time in his life that he got what you would call
`properly gone on a girl'; he got hard hit -- he met his fate.
"Her name was Bertha Bredt, I remember. Aunt Bob saw her afterwards.
Aunt Bob used to say that she was `a girl as God made her' -- a good,
true, womanly girl -- one of those sort of girls that only love once.
Tom got on with her father, who was packing horses through the ranges
to the new goldfields -- it was rough country and there were no roads;
they had to pack everything there in those days, and there was money in it.
The girl's father took to Tom -- as almost everybody else did --
and, as far as the girl was concerned, I think it was
a case of love at first sight. They only knew each other
for about six months, and were only `courting' (as they called it then)
for three or four months altogether, but she was that sort of girl
that can love a man for six weeks and lose him for ever,
and yet go on loving him to the end of her life -- and die with his name
on her lips.
"Well, things were brightening up every way for Tom, and he and his sweetheart
were beginning to talk about their own little home in future,
when there came a letter from the `Madeline' girl in New South Wales.
"She was in terrible trouble. Her baby was to be born in a month.
Her people had kicked her out, and she was in danger of starving.
She begged and prayed of him to come back and marry her,
if only for his child's sake. He could go then, and be free;
she would never trouble him any more -- only come and marry her
for the child's sake.
"The Oracle doesn't know where he lost that letter, but I do.
It was burnt afterwards by a woman, who was more than a mother to him
in his trouble -- Aunt Bob. She thought he might carry it round
with the rest of his papers, in his swag, for years, and come across it
unexpectedly when he was camped by himself in the bush and feeling dull.
It wouldn't have done him any good then.
"He must have fought the hardest fight in his life when he got that letter.
No doubt he walked to and fro, to and fro, all night, with his hands
behind him, and his eyes on the ground, as he does now sometimes.
Walking up and down helps you to fight a thing out.
"No doubt he thought of things pretty well as he thinks now:
the poor girl's shame on every tongue, and belled round the district
by every hag in the township; and she looked upon by women
as being as bad as any man who ever went to Bathurst in the old days,
handcuffed between two troopers. There is sympathy, a pipe and tobacco,
a cheering word, and, maybe, a whisky now and then, for the criminal
on his journey; but there is no mercy, at least as far as women are concerned,
for the poor foolish girl, who has to sneak out the back way
and round by back streets and lanes after dark, with a cloak on
to hide her figure.
"Tom sent what money he thought he could spare, and next day
he went to the girl he loved and who loved him, and told her the truth,
and showed her the letter. She was only a girl -- but the sort of girl
you COULD go to in a crisis like that. He had made up his mind
to do the right thing, and she loved him all the more for it.
And so they parted.
"When Tom reached `Pipeclay', the girl's relations,
that she was stopping with, had a parson readied up,
and they were married the same day."
"And what happened after that?" asked Mitchell.
"Nothing happened for three or four months; then the child was born.
It wasn't his!"
Mitchell stood up with an oath.
"The girl was thoroughly bad. She'd been carrying on with God knows
how many men, both before and after she trapped Tom."
"And what did he do then?"
"Well, you know how the Oracle argues over things, and I suppose
he was as big an old fool then as he is now. He thinks that,
as most men would deceive women if they could, when one man
gets caught, he's got no call to squeal about it; he's bound,
because of the sins of men in general against women,
to make the best of it. What is one man's wrong counted against
the wrongs of hundreds of unfortunate girls.
"It's an uncommon way of arguing -- like most of the Oracle's ideas --
but it seems to look all right at first sight.
"Perhaps he thought she'd go straight; perhaps she convinced him
that he was the cause of her first fall; anyway he stuck to her
for more than a year, and intended to take her away from that place
as soon as he'd scraped enough money together. It might have gone on
up till now, if the father of the child -- a big black Irishman
named Redmond -- hadn't come sneaking back at the end of a year.
He -- well, he came hanging round Mrs. Marshall while Tom was away at work --
and she encouraged him. And Tom was forced to see it.
"Tom wanted to fight out his own battle without interference, but the chaps
wouldn't let him -- they reckoned that he'd stand very little show
against Redmond, who was a very rough customer and a fighting man.
My uncle Bob, who was there still, fixed it up this way:
The Oracle was to fight Redmond, and if the Oracle got licked
Uncle Bob was to take Redmond on. If Redmond whipped Uncle Bob,
that was to settle it; but if Uncle Bob thrashed Redmond, then he was also
to fight Redmond's mate, another big, rough Paddy named Duigan.
Then the affair would be finished -- no matter which way the last bout went.
You see, Uncle Bob was reckoned more of a match for Redmond
than the Oracle was, so the thing looked fair enough -- at first sight.
"Redmond had his mate, Duigan, and one or two others of the rough gang
that used to terrorise the fields round there in the roaring days of Gulgong.
The Oracle had Uncle Bob, of course, and long Dave Regan, the drover --
a good-hearted, sawny kind of chap that'd break the devil's own buck-jumper,
or smash him, or get smashed himself -- and little Jimmy Nowlett,
the bullocky, and one or two of the old, better-class diggers
that were left on the field.
"There's a clear space among the saplings in Specimen Gully,
where they used to pitch circuses; and here, in the cool of a summer evening,
the two men stood face to face. Redmond was a rough, roaring,
foul-mouthed man; he stripped to his shirt, and roared like a bull,
and swore, and sneered, and wanted to take the whole of Tom's crowd
while he was at it, and make one clean job of 'em. Couldn't waste time
fighting them all one after the other, because he wanted to get away
to the new rush at Cattle Creek next day. The fool had been
"Tom stood up in his clean, white moles and white flannel shirt
-- one of those sort with no sleeves, that give the arms play.
He had a sort of set expression and a look in his eyes
that Uncle Bob -- nor none of them -- had ever seen there before.
`Give us plenty of ---- room!' roared Redmond; `one of us
is going to hell, now! This is going to be a fight to a ---- finish,
and a ---- short one!' And it was!" Joe paused.
"Go on," said Mitchell -- "go on!"
Joe drew a long breath.
"The Oracle never got a mark! He was top-dog right from the start.
Perhaps it was his strength that Redmond had underrated,
or his want of science that puzzled him, or the awful silence of the man
that frightened him (it made even Uncle Bob uneasy). Or, perhaps,
it was Providence (it was a glorious chance for Providence),
but, anyway, as I say, the Oracle never got a mark, except on his knuckles.
After a few rounds Redmond funked and wanted to give in,
but the chaps wouldn't let him -- not even his own mates -- except Duigan.
They made him take it as long as he could stand on his feet.
He even shammed to be knocked out, and roared out something about
having broken his ---- ankle -- but it was no use. And the Oracle!
The chaps that knew thought that he'd refuse to fight,
and never hit a man that had given in. But he did. He just stood there
with that quiet look in his eyes and waited, and, when he did hit,
there wasn't any necessity for Redmond to PRETEND to be knocked down.
You'll see a glint of that old light in the Oracle's eyes even now,
once in a while; and when you do it's a sign that you or someone
are going too far, and had better pull up, for it's a red light on the line,
old as he is.
"Now, Jimmy Nowlett was a nuggety little fellow, hard as cast iron,
good-hearted, but very excitable; and when the bashed Redmond
was being carted off (poor Uncle Bob was always pretty high-strung,
and was sitting on a log sobbing like a great child from the reaction),
Duigan made some sneering remark that only Jimmy Nowlett caught,
and in an instant he was up and at Duigan.
"Perhaps Duigan was demoralised by his mate's defeat,
or by the suddenness of the attack; but, at all events, he got a hiding, too.
Uncle Bob used to say that it was the funniest thing he ever saw in his life.
Jimmy kept yelling: `Let me get at him! By the Lord, let me get at him!'
And nobody was attempting to stop him, he WAS getting at him all the time --
and properly, too; and, when he'd knocked Duigan down,
he'd dance round him and call on him to get up; and every time
he jumped or bounced, he'd squeak like an india-rubber ball, Uncle Bob said,
and he would nearly burst his boiler trying to lug the big man on to his feet
so's he could knock him down again. It took two of Jimmy's mates
all their time to lam him down into a comparatively reasonable state of mind
after the fight was over.
"The Oracle left for Sydney next day, and Uncle Bob went with him.
He stayed at Uncle Bob's place for some time. He got very quiet,
they said, and gentle; he used to play with the children,
and they got mighty fond of him. The old folks thought his heart was broken,
but it went through a deeper sorrow still after that and it ain't broken yet.
It takes a lot to break the heart of a man."
"And his wife," asked Mitchell -- "what became of her?"
"I don't think he ever saw her again. She dropped down pretty low
after he left her -- I've heard she's living somewhere quietly.
The Oracle's been sending someone money ever since I knew him,
and I know it's a woman. I suppose it's she. He isn't the sort of a man
to see a woman starve -- especially a woman he had ever had
anything to do with."
"And the Gippsland girl?" asked Mitchell.
"That's the worst part of it all, I think. The Oracle went
up North somewhere. In the course of a year or two his affair
got over Gippsland way through a mate of his who lived over there,
and at last the story got to the ears of this girl, Bertha Bredt.
She must have written a dozen letters to him, Aunt Bob said.
She knew what was in 'em, but, of course, she'd never tell us.
The Oracle only wrote one in reply. Then, what must the girl do
but clear out from home and make her way over to Sydney --
to Aunt Bob's place, looking for Tom. She never got any further.
She took ill -- brain-fever, or broken heart, or something of that sort.
All the time she was down her cry was -- `I want to see him!
I want to find Tom! I only want to see Tom!'
"When they saw she was dying, Aunt Bob wired to the Oracle to come --
and he came. When the girl saw it was Tom sitting by the bed,
she just gave one long look in his face, put her arms round his neck,
and laid her head on his shoulder -- and died. . . . Here comes
the Oracle now."
Mitchell lifted the tea-billy on to the coals.
[End of original text.]
From the original advertisements (March, 1900), books by the same author:
When the World was Wide & Other Verses
By Henry Lawson, Author of "While the Billy Boils".
Ninth Thousand. With photogravure portrait and vignette title.
Crown 8vo, cloth, gilt top, 5s.; post free, 5s. 5d.
Mr. R. Le Gallienne, in The Idler: "A striking volume of ballad poetry.
A volume to console one for the tantalising postponement of Mr. Kipling's
promised volume of sea ballads."
Weekly Chronicle, Newcastle (Eng.): "Swinging, rhythmic verse."
Sydney Morning Herald: "The verses have natural vigour,
the writer has a rough, true faculty of characterisation,
and the book is racy of the soil from cover to cover."
Melbourne Age: "`In the Days when the World was Wide and Other Verses',
by Henry Lawson, is poetry, and some of it poetry of a very high order."
Otago Witness: "It were well to have such books upon our shelves . . .
they are true History."
New Zealand Herald: "There is a heart-stirring ring about the verses."
Bulletin: "How graphic he is, how natural, how true, how strong."
While the Billy Boils: Australian Stories.
By Henry Lawson.
Author of "In the Days when the World was Wide".
Twelfth Thousand. With eight plates and vignette title by F. P. Mahony.
Crown 8vo, cloth, 3s. 6d.; paper cover, 2s. 6d. (postage, 6d.)
Also in two parts (each complete in itself), in picture covers, at 1s.;
post free, 1s. 3d. each (Commonwealth Series).
The Academy: "A book of honest, direct, sympathetic, humorous writing
about Australia from within is worth a library of travellers' tales.
Mr. Lawson shows us what living in the bush really means.
The result is a real book -- a book in a hundred. His language is terse,
supple, and richly idiomatic."
Mr. A. Patchett Martin, in Literature (London): "A book which
Mrs. Campbell Praed, the Australian novelist, assured me made her feel
that all she had written of bush life was pale and ineffective."
The Spectator: "In these days when short, dramatic stories
are eagerly looked for, it is strange that one we would venture to call
the greatest Australian writer should be practically unknown in England.
Short stories, but biting into the very heart of the bushman's life,
ruthless in truth, extraordinarily dramatic, and pathetically uneven. . . ."
The Times: "A collection of short and vigorous studies and stories
of Australian life and character. A little in Bret Harte's manner,
crossed, perhaps, with that of Guy de Maupassant."
[The Announcements at the end of this section give alternate titles
for two of Lawson's works, to wit: "On the Track" is given as such,
but "Over the Sliprails" is given as "By the Sliprails",
and the combined work "On the Track and Over the Sliprails"
is given as "By Track and Sliprails". Of course, only "On the Track"
had actually been printed at the date of the advertisement,
so it might be theorized that these had been working titles,
afterwards discarded, whose inclusion here was overlooked. -- A. L., 1998.]
About the author:
Henry Lawson was born near Grenfell, New South Wales, Australia
on 17 June 1867. Although he has since become Australia's
most acclaimed writer, in his own lifetime his writing was often
"on the side" -- his "real" work being whatever he could find.
His writing was frequently taken from memories of his childhood,
especially at Pipeclay/Eurunderee. In his autobiography,
he states that many of his characters were taken from
the better class of diggers and bushmen he knew there.
His experiences at this time deeply influenced his work,
for it is interesting to note a number of descriptions and phrases
that are identical in his autobiography and in his stories and poems.
He died at Sydney, 2 September 1922. He is most famous for his short stories.
"On the Track" and "Over the Sliprails" were both published at Sydney in 1900,
the prefaces being dated March and June respectively -- and so,
though printed separately, a combined edition was printed the same year
(the two separate, complete works were simply put together in one binding);
hence they are sometimes referred to as "On the Track and Over the Sliprails".
The opposite occurred with "Joe Wilson and His Mates", which was later divided
into "Joe Wilson" and "Joe Wilson's Mates" (1901). All of these works
are now online, as well as one book of Lawson's verse,
"In the Days When the World was Wide" (1896).
. . . . .
An incomplete glossary of Australian terms and concepts
which may prove helpful to understanding this book:
Billy: Any container used to boil water, especially for tea;
a special container designed for this purpose.
Bunyip: [pronounced bun-yup] A large mythological creature,
said by the Aborigines to inhabit watery places. There may be
some relation to an actual creature that is now extinct.
Lawson uses an obsolete sense of the term, meaning "imposter".
Gin: An aboriginal woman; use of the term is analogous to "squaw"
in N. America. May be considered derogatory in modern usage.
Goanna: Any of various lizards of the genus Varanus (monitor lizards)
native to Australia.
Graft: Work; hard work.
Gunyah: (Aboriginal) A rough or temporary hut or shelter in the bush,
especially one built from bark, branches, and the like.
A humpy, wurley, or mia-mia. Variant: Gunya.
Jackeroo/Jackaroo: At the time Lawson wrote, a Jackaroo was a "new chum"
or newcomer to Australia, who sought work on a station to gain experience.
The term now applies to any young man working as a station hand.
A female station hand is a Jillaroo.
Jimmy Woodser: A person who drinks alone; a drink drunk alone.
Larrikin: A hoodlum.
Lorry: A large, low wagon without sides, used for heavy loads.
Mia-mia: (Aboriginal) A rough or temporary hut or shelter in the bush,
especially one built from bark, branches, and the like.
A humpy, wurley, or gunyah.
Native bear: A koala.
Pa: A Maori village.
'Possum/Possum: In Australia, a class of marsupials that were
originally mistaken for the American animal of the same name.
They are not especially related to the possums of North and South America,
other than being marsupials.
Public/Pub.: The traditional pub. in Australia was a hotel
with a "public" bar -- hence the name. The modern pub has often
(not always) dispensed with the lodging, and concentrated on the bar.
Push: A group of people sharing something in common; Lawson uses the word
in an older and more particular sense, as a gang of violent city hoodlums.
Ratty: Shabby, dilapidated; somewhat eccentric, perhaps even slightly mad.
Selector: A free selector, a farmer who selected and settled land
by lease or license from the government.
Shout: To buy a round of drinks.
Skillion: A lean-to or outbuilding.
Sliprails/slip-rails: movable rails, forming a section of fence,
which can be taken down in lieu of a gate. "Over the Sliprails",
the title of this volume, might be translated as "Through the Gate".
Squatter: A person who first settled on land without government permission,
and later continued by lease or license, generally to raise stock;
a wealthy rural landowner.
Station: A farm or ranch, especially one devoted to cattle or sheep.
Stoush: Violence; to do violence to.
Tea: In addition to the regular meaning, Tea can also mean
a light snack or a meal (i.e., where Tea is served).
In particular, Morning Tea (about 10 AM) and Afternoon Tea (about 3 PM)
are nothing more than a snack, but Evening Tea (about 6 PM) is a meal.
When just "Tea" is used, it usually means the evening meal.
Whare: [pronounced war-ee] A Maori term for a hut or similar dwelling.
Also: a hint with the seasons -- remember that the seasons are reversed
from those in the northern hemisphere, hence June may be hot,
but December is even hotter. Australia is at a lower latitude
than the United States, so the winters are not harsh by US standards,
and are not even mild in the north. In fact, large parts of Australia
are governed more by "dry" versus "wet" than by Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter.
(Alan R. Light, Monroe, North Carolina, April 1998.)
A number of obvious errors were corrected, after being compared
against other editions. The original edition was the primary source.
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