Such is Life
Part 4 out of 9
"What on earth's the matter with you?" asked Archie, addressing the darkness
in my direction.
"I'm clothed in tribulation. Can't explain further. Come on! O, come on!"
"Don't go, I tell you, Archie!" And in the bright light of the off lamp,
I saw her clutch the after part of his coat as he stood on the foot-board.
"I must go, sweetest"----
"Good lad!" I exclaimed.
"I'll be back in a minute. Let go, sweetest."
"Don't leave me, Archie. I'm frightened. Just a few minutes ago,
I saw a white thing gliding past."
"Spectral illusion, most likely. There was a hut-keeper murdered here
by the blacks, thirty years ago, and they say he walks occasionally.
But he can't hurt you, even if he tried. Now let go, sweetest,
and I'll say you're a good girl."
"Archie, you're cruel; and I love you. Don't leave me. Fn-n-n, ehn-n-n,
ehn-n-n!" Sweetest was in tears.
"This is ridiculous!" I exclaimed. "Come on, Archie; I won't keep you
a minute. The mountain can't go to Mahomet; and to state the alternative
would be an insult to your erudition. Come on!"
"O, Archie, let's get away out of this fearful place," sobbed the wretched
obstruction. "Do what I ask you this once, and I'll be like a slave
the rest of my life."
"Well, mind you don't forget when the fright's over," replied Archie,
resuming his seat. "That poor beggar has something on his mind,
whoever he is; but he'll have to pay the penalty of his dignity."
"Too true," said I to myself, as Archie started off at a trot;
"for the dignity is like that of Pompey's statue, 'th' austerest form
of naked majesty'--a dignity I would gladly exchange for what Goldsmith
thoughtlessly calls 'the glaring impotence of dress'."
I followed the buggy at a Chinaman's trot, thinking the thing over,
and switching myself desperately, for the night was getting hotter and darker,
and mosquitos livelier. You will bear in mind that I was now retracing my way.
Keeping on the track which skirted the river timber--the cool, impalpable dust
being grateful to my bare feet--I heard some people on horseback pass along
the parallel track which ran by the fence. Demoralised by the conditions
of my unhappy state, I again paused to eavesdrop. Good! One fellow
was relating an anecdote suited to gentlemen only. Thanking Providence
for the tendency of the yarn, I darted diagonally across the clearing
to intercept these brethren, and was rapidly nearing the party, when Pup,
thinking I was after something, crossed my course in the dark. I tripped
over him, and landed some yards ahead, in one of the five patches of nettles
in the county of Moira. By the time I had cleared myself and recovered
my equanimity, the horsemen had improved their pace, and were out of reach.
A few minutes afterward, I became aware of the footfalls of a single horse,
coming along behind me at a slow trot. I paused to make one more solicitation.
When the horseman was within twenty yards of where I stood, he pulled up
and dismounted. Then he struck a match, and began looking on the ground
for something he had dropped. The horse shied at the light, and refused
to lead; whereupon, after giving the animal a few kicks, he threw the reins
over a post of the fence close by, and continued his search, lighting
fresh matches. Assuming an air of unconcern, so as to avoid taking him
by surprise, I drew nearer, and noted him as a large, fair young man,
"Good evening, sir," said I urbanely.
With that peculiar form of rudeness which provokes me most,
he flashed a match on me, instead of replying to my salutation.
"Are you satisfied?" I asked sardonically, switching myself the while,
and still capering from the effect of the nettles.
He darted towards his horse, but before he reached the bridle my hand
was on his shoulder.
"What do you want?" he gasped.
"I want your ----," I replied sternly. "I'm getting full up of the admiration
of the gods; I want the admiration of my fellow-men. In other words,
I'm replete with the leading trait of Adamic innocence; I want the sartorial
concomitants of Adamic guilt. Come! off with them!" and with that I snapped
the laces of his balmorals; for he had sunk to the ground, and was lying
on his back. "And seeing that I may as well be hanged for a whole suit
as for a pair of ----, I'll just take the complete outer ply while
my hand's in; leaving you whatever may be underneath. Let me impress upon you
that I don't attempt to defend this action on strictly moral grounds,"
I continued, peeling off his coat and waistcoat with the celerity of a skilful
butcher skinning a sheep for a bet. "I think we may regard the transaction
as a pertinent illustration of Pandulph's aphorism--to wit, that 'He who stands
upon a slippery place, makes nice of no vile hold to stay him up.'
When the hurly-burly's done, I must get you to favour me with your address,
so that"---- Here my antagonist suddenly gave tongue.
During an eventful life, I have frequently had occasion to observe
that when woman finds herself in a tight place, her first impulse is to set
the wild echoes flying; whereas, man resists or submits in silence,
except, perhaps, for a few bad words ground out between his teeth.
Therefore, when the legal owner of the ---- which I was in the act
of unfastening, suddenly splintered the firmament with a double-barrelled
screech, the thought flashed on my mind that he was one of those
De Lacy Evanses we often read of in novels; and in two seconds I was
fifty yards away, trying to choose between the opposing anomalies of the case.
A little reflection showed the balance of probability strongly against
a disguise which I have never met with in actual life; but by this time
I heard the clatter of horses' feet approaching rapidly from both sides.
The prospective violation of my incognito by a hap-hazard audience
made my position more and more admirable from a mythological point of view,
so I straightway vaulted over the fence, and lay down among some cockspurs.
Within the next few minutes, several people on horseback came up to the scene
of the late attempted outrage. I can't give the exact number, of course,
as I could only judge by sound, but there might have been half a dozen.
A good deal of animated conversation followed--some of it, I thought,
in a feminine voice--then the whole party went trampling along the fence,
close to my ambush, and away out of hearing.
The mosquitos were worse than ever. I pulled two handfuls of crop to replace
the switches I had thrown away on attempting to cajole the Chevalier d'Eon
out of his ----. My mind was made up. I would solicit this impracticable
generation no longer. I would follow the river road for eight or ten miles,
and then wait in some secluded spot for the first peep of daylight.
I began to blame myself for not having gone straight on when Archie
unconsciously gave me my longitude. To get home in the dark was, of course,
entirely out of the question; all that I could do was to aim
approximately in the right direction.
I was pacing along at the double, when a lighted window, a couple of hundred
yards from the road, attracted my attention. Like Frankenstein's unhappy
Monster, I had a hankering, just then, for human vicinity; though, like It,
I met with nothing but horrified repulse. You will notice that Mrs. Shelley,
with true womanly delicacy, avoids saying, in so many words, that the student
omitted to equip his abnormal creation with a pair of ----.
But Frankenstein's oversight in this matter will, I think, sufficiently account
for that furtive besiegement of human homes, that pathetic fascination
for the neighbourhood of man, which so long refused to accept rebuff.
With ----, man is whole as the marble, founded as the rock, as broad
and general as the casing air. Without ----, unaccommodated man is no more
but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. The ---- standard
is the Labarum of modern civilisation. By this sign shall we conquer.
Since that night by the Murray, methinks each pair of ---- I see hanging
in front of a draper's shop seems to bear aright, IN HOC SIGNO VINCES!
scrolled in haughty blazonry across its widest part. And since that time,
I note and condemn the unworthy satire which makes the somnambulistic
Knight of La Mancha slash the wine skins in nothing but an under garment,
"reaching," says one of our translations, "only down to the small of his back
behind, and shorter still in front; exposing a pair of legs, very long,
and very thin, and very hairy, and very dirty." Strange! to think that man,
noble in reason, infinite in faculty, and so forth, should depend so entirely
for his dignity upon a pair of ----. But such is life.
Approaching the house, I judged by the style of window curtains that the light
was in a bedroom. I made my way to the front door, and knocked.
"Who's there?" inquired a discouraging soprano.
"A most poor man, made tame by Fortune's blows," I replied humbly.
"Is the boss at home?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed, in a hysterical tone.
"Would you be kind enough to tell him I want him?"
"Clear off, or it'll be worse for you!" she screamed.
"It can't be much worse, ma'am. Will you please tell the boss I want him?"
"I'll let the dog loose!--that's what I'll do! I got him here in the room
with me; and he's savage!"
"No more so than yourself, ma'am. Will you please tell the boss I want him?"
"Clear off this minute! There's plenty of your sort knockin' about!"
"Heaven pity them, then," I murmured sorrowfully; and I went round
to the back yard, in hope of finding something on the clothes-line,
but it was only labour lost.
I was on my way back to the road when I saw another lighted window.
The reason I had seen so few lights was simple enough. As a rule,
farmers' families spend their evenings in the back dining room; and the front
of the house remains dark until they are retiring for the night,
when you may see the front bedroom window lighted for a few minutes.
Turning toward the new beacon, I waded through a quarter of a mile
of tall wheat, which occasionally eclipsed the light. When I emerged
from the wheat, the light was gone. However, I found the house, and went
prowling round the back yard till I roused two watch-dogs. These faithful
animals fraternised with Pup, while I prospected the premises thoroughly, but
without finding even an empty corn-sack, or a dry barrel with both ends out.
In making my way back to the road, I noticed, far away in the river timber,
the red light of a camp-fire. This was the best sight I had seen since sunset.
Some swagman's camp, beyond doubt. I could safely count on the occupier's
hospitality for the night, and his help in the morning. If he had any
spare ----, I would borrow them; if not, I would, first thing in the morning,
send him cadging round the neighbourhood for cast-off clothes, while I sought
ease-with-dignity in his blanket. This was not too much to count on;
for I have yet to find the churlish or unfeeling swagman; whereas,
my late experience of the respectable classes had not been satisfactory.
At all events, the fire would give me respite from the mosquitos.
Encouraged by this brightening prospect, I crossed the road and entered
on the heavy timber and broken ground of the river frontage. But all
preceding difficulties, in comparison with those which now confronted me,
were as the Greek Tartarus to the Hebrew Tophet. So intense was the darkness
in the bush that I simply saw nothing except, at irregular intervals,
the spark of red fire, often away to right or left, when I had lost
my dead reckoning through groping round the slimy, rotten margins
of deep lagoons, or creeping like a native bear over fallen timber,
or tacking round clumps of prickly scrub, or tumbling into billabongs.
I could show you the place in daylight, and you would say it was one
of the worst spots on the river.
Still, in pursuance of my custom, I endeavoured to find tongues
in the mosquitos (no difficult matter); books in the patches of cutting-grass;
sermons in the Scotch thistles; and good in everything. Light and
Darkness!--aptest of metaphors! And see how the symbolism permeates
our language, from the loftiest poetry to the most trifling colloquialism.
"There is no darkness but ignorance," says the pleasantest of stage fools;
"in which thou art more puzzled than the Egyptians in their fog."
And what many-languaged millions of passably brave men have sympathised
with Ajax in his prayer--not for courage or strength; he had those already--
not for victory; that was outside the province of his interference--but for
light to see what he was doing.
No obligatory track so rugged but man, if he be any good at all, may travel
it with reasonable safety, in a glimmer of light. And no available track
so easy but man, however capable, will blunder therein, if he walks
in darkness; nay, the more resolute and conscientious he is, the more
certainly will he stub his big toe on a root, and impale his open,
unseeing eye on a dead twig, and tread on nothing, to the kinking
of his neck-bone and the sudden alarm of his mind.
And Light, which ought to spread with precisely the rapidity of thought,
is tardy enough, owing solely to lack of receptivity in its only known medium,
namely, the human subject. But--and here is the old-man fact of the ages--
Light is inherently dynamic, not static; active, not passive: aggressive,
not defensive. Therefore, as twice one is two, the momentum of Light,
having overborne the Conservatism of the Paleolithic, Neolithic,
and other unpronounceable ages, has, in this 19th century, produced a distinct
paling of the stars, with an opaline tint in the east. And, as a penny
for the first nail, twopence for the second, fourpence for the third,
and so on, amounts to something like a million sterling for the set
of horse-shoes, so the faint suggestion of dawn observable in our day
cannot do otherwise than multiply itself into sunshine yet. Meantime,
happy insect is he whose luminosity dispels a modicum of the general darkness,
besides shedding light on his own path as he buzzes along in
philosophic meditation, fancy free----
Here I trod on something about as thick as your wrist--something
round and smooth, which jerked and wriggled as my weight came upon it.
I rose fully three feet into the air without conscious effort,
and thenceforth pursued my difficult way with a subjective discontent which,
I fear, did little honour to my philosophy; thinking, to confess the truth,
what an advantage it would be if man, figuratively a mopoke, could become one
in reality when all the advantage lay in that direction; also, feeling prepared
to wager my official dignity against a pair of ---- that Longfellow
would never have apostrophised the welcome, the thrice-prayed-for,
the most fair, the best-beloved Night, if he had known what it was to work
his passage through pitch-black purgatory, in a state of paradise--nudity,
with the incongruity of the association pressing on his mind.
Ignorance again; but such is life.
It was about three-quarters of a mile from the edge of the timber to the fire;
and I should think it took me an hour to perform the journey. It was
a deserted fire, after all, and nearly burnt out; but I soon raised
a good smoke, and had relief from the mosquitos. The passage from the road
had given me enough of exploring for the time; so I parted the fire
into three lots, and, piling bark and rubbish on each, lay down between them,
to enjoy a good rest, and think the thing over thoroughly.
It may surprise the inexperienced reader to know that I had often before
found myself in a similar state of nature, and in far more prominent
situations. I had repeatedly found myself doing the block, or stalking down
the aisle of a crowded church, mid nodings on, and had wakened up to find
the unsubstantial pageant faded, and my own conspicuousness exchanged
for a happier obscurity. So, throughout the trying incidents of the evening
I have recalled, the hope of waking up had never been entirely absent
from my mind; and now, as I lay drowsing, with Pup beside me,
and not a mosquito within three yards, it occurred to me that if
I did n't get out of the difficulty by waking up, I would get out of it
some other way. Philosophy whispered that all earth-born cares were not only
wrong, but unprofitable. Though I had inadvertently switched my little engine
on to the wrong line when I postponed my intended smoke, and had so lost
the clothes which evidently went so far toward making the man, it would be
true wisdom to accept the consequent kismet, and wait till the clouds
rolled by. The end of the section could n't be far ahead.
Sufficient unto the day---- And I dropped asleep.
Here the record properly ends. I have faithfully recounted the events
of the 9th of November, at what cost to my own sensibilities none but myself
can ever know. But the one foible of my life is amiability; and,
from the first, I had no intention of breaking off abruptly when my promise
was fulfilled, leaving the reader to conclude that I woke up at my camp,
and found the whole thing a dream. The dream expedient is the
mere romancist's transparent shift--and he is fortunate in always having one
at command, though transparency should, of course, be avoided.
The dream-expedient vies in puerility with the hero's rescue of the heroine
from deadly peril--a thing that has actually happened about twice
since the happily-named, and no less happily extinct, Helladotherium
disported itself on the future site of Eden. I am no romancist.
I repudiate shifts, and stand or fall by the naked truth.
Therefore, though legal risk here takes the place of outraged sensibility,
I shall proceed with the record of the next day, till my loco. reaches
the end of the current section. By this large-hearted order of another
herring, the foolish reader will be instructed, the integrity of narrative
preserved, and the linked sacrifice long drawn-out. And if, in the writing
of annotations yet to come, the exigencies of annalism should demand
a repetition of this rather important favour, I may be trusted to grant it
without fishing for compliments, or in any way reminding the recipient
of his moral indebtedness. I can't say anything fairer than that.
It was good daylight when I woke, a little chilled and smarting,
but otherwise nothing the worse. Let me endeavour to describe the scene
which I stealthily, but carefully, surveyed during the next few minutes.
The Victorian river road, running east and west, lay about three-quarters
of a mile to the south. North and west, I could see nothing but heavy timber
and undergrowth. The eastern prospect was more interesting.
Within twenty yards of my lair, a long, deep lagoon lay north and south,
the intervening ground being covered with whipstick scrub. Beyond the lagoon,
a large promontory of red soil, partly cultivated and partly ringed,
projected northward from the road into the State Forest. Beyond this,
still eastward, the river timber again came out to the road.
A roomy homestead, with smoke issuing from one of the chimneys,
stood almost opposite my point of observation, and about a hundred yards
distant, whilst a garden occupied the space between the house and the lagoon.
At the north side of the garden, the lagoon was divided by a dry isthmus.
The nearer boundary fence of the farm, half-buried in whipstick scrub,
ran north and south along the edge of the lagoon, the lower line
of garden-fence forming part of it; and a gate opposite the isthmus
afforded egress to the river frontage.
Again, opposite my fire, but considerably to the right, a deep,
waterworn drain came down from the table land into the lagoon;
and between this drain and the house stood a little, old, sooty-looking
straw-stack, worn away with the Duke-of-Argyle friction of cattle
to the similitude of a monstrous, black-topped mushroom. The stack
was situated close to the drain, something over a hundred yards from the house,
and about the same distance from my camp. The paddock intersected
by the drain was bare fallow--that is, land ploughed in readiness for
the next year's sowing. There were several other old straw-stacks
on different parts of the farm, but they have nothing to do with this record.
Away beyond the farm, two or three miles up the main road, and just
to the right of the river timber, I recognised the F----'s Arms Hotel.
B----'s place lay beyond, and to the right, but shut out of view by a paddock
of green timber. The sight of the pub.--a white speck in the distance--
suggested to my mind an expedient, which, however, I had to dismiss.
We read that Napoleon Bonaparte, on the eve of signing his first abdication,
walked restlessly about, with his hands behind his back, muttering,
"If I only had a hundred thousand men!" Similarly, as I contemplated that pub.,
I muttered, "If I only had a handful of corks!" Ay, if! My prototype
wanted the men to abet him in maintaining his Imperial dignity,
whilst I wanted the corks to assist me in carrying-out an enterprise
attempted by a good many people, from Smerdis to Perkin Warbeck, namely,
the personation of Royalty. Something similar, you see, even apart from
the fact that neither of us found any truth in Touchstone's statement,
that "there is much virtue in an 'if'."
Nice customs curtsey to great kings. Jacky XLVIII, under whose mild sway
I have spent many peaceful years, wears clothes exactly when it suits
his comfort. When his royal pleasure is to emulate the lilies of the field,
he simply goes that way; thus literally excelling Solomon in all his glory.
The Evolution of Intelligence has stripped him of every other prerogative;
but there its stripping-power ends, and his own begins. European monarchs
will do well to paste a memorandum of this inside their diadems, for,
let them paint an inch thick, to this favour they must come at last.
Howevers that is their business. My own Royal master can still do no wrong
in arraying himself in any one of his three changes of attire--the put-on,
the take-off, or the go-naked--and if I could only counterfeit his colour
for a few hours, I would stalk majestically to my camp, caparisoned
in the last-named regalia, and protected by the divinity that doth
hedge a king. But I had no corks.
The homestead was cheerful with voices which reached my ambush clearly,
though unintelligibly, through the still morning air. At last I saw
a woman advance toward the edge of the fallow, and stand for a minute
facing the direction of the old straw-stack; then she looked over her shoulder
toward the house, and called out,
"Can any of you see Jim comin' with that horse? Father'll be ready
in a minute, and then there'll be ructions."
A little boy climbed the garden fence, and stood on the corner post.
"Not comin' yet, Mam."
Mam went back to the house, and the boy followed her. Here was my opportunity.
The topography of the place was so perfectly suited to the simplest plan
of campaign that it may suggest to the suspicious reader a romancist's shift,
diaphanous as the "woven wind" of Dacca. Let me repeat, then, that such
a flimsy thing is entirely out of my line, and would have been so
even at that time.
Availing myself of the abundant cover of whipstick scrub, I made my way down
to the lagoon, swam silently across, darted along the drain in a stooping
position, till I could "moon" the house with the old stack, and finally
took my post in a convenient recess on the side of the stack farthest
from the house. Sure enough, there was a cattle-track across the fallow
and a culvert on the drain close to my refuge. Jim would soon be coming down
that track toward the house. And, as my unhappy condition might appear
more compatible with the nature of an alien than of a Britisher,
I would accost him with a slight foreign accent, state my difficulty,
and ask him, pour l'amour de Dieu, to bring me a pair of his----.
My name would be Frongswaw Bongjoor.
I sat down with my back against the stack to recover breath, for already
Jim was in sight, approaching at an easy gallop, and in two minutes
was within fifty yards. Then hope for a season bade the world farewell,
and a cold shiver ran down my spine. Horror-stricken, but without moving
from my niche, I desperately tore down handfuls of Irish feathers
from the overhanging eave, to form a sort of screen; for "Jim"
was a magnificent young woman, riding barebacked, á la clothes-peg;
the fine contour of her figure displayed with an amazonian audacity
which seemed to make her nearly as horrid as myself. My brow was wet
with honest sweat whilst, from the poor concealment already described,
I watched her swing the horse aside from the culvert, and send him
at the drain: and, with that danger-begotten fascination by trifles which,
in situations like mine, you must often have experienced, I noticed
her pliant waist spring in easy undulation to the horse's flying leap.
And so, with that thick cable of platted hair flapping and surging
down her back, she vanished from the scene. She was a phantom of delight,
when first she gleamed upon my sight; but the revulsion of feeling
was one of the quickest and fullest I ever experienced.
It was some minutes before I became my own philosophic self again.
Then I crept to the corner of the stack, and reconnoitred the homestead.
Near the back-door, Jim had just saddled the horse, and, with the near flap
resting on her head, was taking up the slack of the girth with her teeth,
whilst her left hand, grasping the rein close to the horse's mouth,
prevented the animal from taking a piece out of her. Presently Dad
trotted out of the house and took possession of the horse, while she
stepped back a pace. Then she seemed to say something of great pith
and moment, for Dad paused, evidently questioning her. At last he returned
hastily into the house, leaving the horse again in her charge.
I made an effort to concentrate my remnant of faith on a double event,
namely, that he would n't delay long, and that he would come my way
when he started. He, at least, was a man and a brother.
I would interview him as he passed, and----
Faith scored. He didn't delay long, and he came my way straight.
But he came on foot, and he came with a gun; speaking over his shoulder
to Jim as he bustled past. Even in the distance, I fancied her attitude
was that of a girl who had imprudently set in motion a thing
that she was powerless to stop.
I could n't believe in the reality of the spectacle. But the illusion
was there, palpable enough; and it consisted chiefly of a determined-looking
man hurrying toward the stack, his right hand on the lock of a long duck gun,
his left partly along the barrel, and the cheek of the stock resting
against his hip. Beyond doubt he was after something, and beyond doubt
he meant mischief. I glanced behind me, and round the expanse of bare fallow,
but there was n't even a magpie in sight. At the same time,
the sportsman's general bearing, his depressed head and downward vigilance,
showed that he was stalking ground game, and was n't interested in anything
perched on the stack. This was apparent to me by the time he had got
within thirty or forty yards, and was holding the gun ready
to clap to his shoulder. Also I noticed that several other women
had joined Jim, and were watching his progress. Having now approached
within point-blank range, he deployed to the left, in order to outflank
whatever he was after.
Of course, you would have rushed him; you would have wrenched the gun
from his grasp, and broken it across your knee; you would have despoiled him
of his ----, and cuffed him home with ignominy. Yes, I know. So would I.
What I actually did, however, was to make two kangaroo-rat springs,
which landed me in the bottom of the drain. I called to mind that,
less than half-way down to the lagoon, I had noticed a deep, narrow,
miniature ravine, eaten into one side of the drain by a tributary channel,
and well sheltered by the foliage of large docks, now run up to seed.
In thirty seconds, I was rustling into this friendly cover.
There my confidence speedily returned, and, raising my head among
the seeding stems, I noted the guerilla tactics of that white savage.
Still holding his weapon at the ready, he had circled round the stack
till his view commanded all its recesses. Then he looked up and down
the drain, peered under the culvert, and cast his eye across the fallow
in every direction. Apparently satisfied, he threw the gun on his shoulder,
and started off toward the lower end of the garden. I saw him disappear
in the whipstick scrub, between the garden and the lagoon;
then I backed out into the drain.
But I could gain nothing by staying there, and just as little by going back
to my camp; whereas from the stack I could see any advantage that might offer
itself, either about the house or across the lagoon. And, logically,
the stack ought now to be one of the safest places in the province.
So I returned to my old post, and, almost hopelessly, brought one eye
to bear on the homestead.
I was just in time to catch occasional glimpses of Dad's head above
the foliage of the fruit trees, as he rode down along the farther side
of the garden to the dry crossing in the lagoon; and presently I saw him go up
the opposite bank, and disappear in the scrub. Another instance of erratic
shunting on my part. If I had stayed at my camp, I might have accosted him
on neutral ground, without his gun, and with his mind unpoisoned by any
of Jim's hysterical imaginings. What on earth had she told him about me?
She had certainly told him something.
Just at this moment, the sun, which had risen behind a dense bank of clouds,
suddenly burst forth. The colourless monotony of the scene flashed into
many-tinted loveliness under the magic pencils of golden light; and,
against the sombre background of river timber, a pair of white ----,
hanging, with other drapery, on a line between the house and garden,
leaped out in ravishing chiaro-oscuro!
A lifelong education, directing the inherent loyalty of human nature,
invests anything in the shape of national or associational bunting
with a sacredness difficult to express in words. Loyalty to something
is an ingredient in our moral constitution; and the more vague the object,
the more rabid will be our devotion to the symbol. Any badge is good enough
to adore, provided the worshipper has in some way identified the fetish
with himself--anything, from the standard of St. George to the "forky pennon"
of Lord Marmion; from the Star-spangled Banner to the Three Legs
of the Isle of Man.
Now, with insignia, as with everything else, it is deprivation only
that gives a true sense of value; and, speaking from experience, I maintain
that even the British Flag, which covers fabulous millions of our fellow-worms,
dwindles into parochial insignificance beside that forky pennon
on the farmer's clothes-line, which latter covers, in a far more essential
manner, one-half of civilised humanity. Rightly viewed, I say,
that double-barrelled ensign is the proudest gonfalon ever kissed
by wanton zephyrs. Whoop! Vive Les----! Thou sun, shine on them joyously!
Ye breezes, waft them wide! Our glorious Semper eadem, the banner
of our pride.
There was no time to lose. The bifurcated banner might be taken into the house
at any moment. In the meantime, several sharp-eyed women were
unwittingly maintaining a sort of dog-in-the-manger guard over their
alien flag. The ---- to him who can wear them, thought I. I must give
this garrison an alerte, though I should have to sacrifice the old straw-stack.
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes between the pass
and fell incensed points of mighty opposites: the old straw-stack
is the baser nature; the mighty opposites are the meteor-flag and myself.
Few men, I think, have a healthier hatred of incendiarism than I have.
This hatred dates from my eleventh year, or thereabout; when I was
strongly impressed by a bush-fire which cleaned the grass off half the county.
The origin of that fire still remains a mystery, though all manner
of investigation was made at the time; one of the most dilligent inquirers
being a boy of ten or twelve, who used to lie awake half the night,
wondering what could be done to a person for trying to smoke a bandicoot
out of a hollow log, without thinking of the dead grass.
But now it was a choice between the old straw-stack and my citizenship,
and the former had to go. I am aware, of course, that the Law takes
no cognisance of dilemmas like mine, and has no manly scruple against
raking up old grievances that would be better forgotten; but,
as I said before, Come on with your clue.
Embittered though I was by Abraham's idea of hospitality, I still felt
some lingering scruple as my order of battle unfolded itself in detail.
Every great operation, as well as every small or middle-sized one,
consists of details, as a circle consists of degrees; and the person
responsible for the grand enterprise must unavoidably be responsible
for its most uninviting detail. The details of a death-penalty, for instance,
are revolting enough; and here you must judge not according to the appearance,
but judge righteous judgment. You must perceive that the white hands
of the ultra-respectable judge are the hands which reeve the noose;
which adjust the same round the neck of the man (or woman); which pull down
the night-cap; which manipulate the lever; and which, if necessary,
grip the other person's ankles, and hang on till he is dead-dead-dead and
the Lord has mercy on his soul. It is as unreasonable to despise
M. de Melbourne, or M. de Sydney, for his little share in a scragging
operation as it would be to heap contumely on comp. or devil because of
this somewhat offensive paragraph.
Having, in the present instance, no subordinate to carry out my details,
I realised their unpleasantness, even whilst speciously justifying
the enterprise as a whole. Further provocation was required to overcome
my aversion to the dirty work; and this provocation was forthcoming
in ample measure.
I had withdrawn from the corner of the stack into my nook, to lay a few plans,
and to hastily review the ethics of the matter; now I crept back to feast
my eyes once more on the ----, before making my coup-de-clothesline.
But another object met my sight first; and I nearly fainted.
When I recovered myself, a few minutes later, I was in the lagoon.
I daren't swim across, for I would have been in full view from the stack.
A cluster of leafy reeds, growing in two feet of water, and the same depth
of slimy, bubble-charged mud, was the nearest cover; and in the midst of this
I cowered, hardening my heart against society, and watching Jim herself
as she tripped blithely past the end of the stack, and looked into my recess.
It seemed incredible; and yet, in spite of the cold and misery and difficulty
of the situation, I could n't wake up to find myself in my possum-rug.
I always make a point of believing the best where women are concerned,
and I had been prepossessed in Jim's favour; yet it now seemed to me
that if she had been worthy of her high calling, she would have brought
that pair of white ---- off the line, with, perhaps, a supplementary garment
or so, and modestly left them in the drain, instead of thus seeking further
occasion against me. She looked under the culvert, across the paddock,
and toward the lagoon, as Abraham had done, then walked round the stack,
and finally returned home by the lower end of the garden, even pausing
to look over the picket fence, and scanning right and left as she entered
the whipstick scrub.
Enough, and to spare, thought I. These barbarians have given me the sign
of their Order; now let me respond with the countersign. Not without
practical protest shall I die a nude fugitive on their premises;
and not if I can help it shall the post-mortem people find
the word ---- written on my heart.
The intervening garden and whipstick scrub effectually concealed my movements
from the enemy as I recrossed the lagoon, and made my way with all speed
to the unfurnished lodgings I had occupied on the preceding night.
There I selected a piece of thick bark, about the size of your open hand,
and solid fire for half its length. I swam the lagoon with this in my teeth,
and in a few minutes more had buried it in the broken, half-decayed straw
at the base of the stack. Then I returned along the drain, but instead
of crossing the lagoon, sneaked through the thick fringe of whipstick scrub
to the lower end of the garden, and there waited for something to happen.
I had to wait a good while. The old straw-stack wasn't in sight from my post;
and I began to think I should have to get another piece of bark,
when I heard a youngster's voice squeak out,
"Oo, Mam! th' ole straw-stack's a-fier!"
Then followed sundry little yelps of surprise from the women; and,
after giving them a start of a minute or two, I went loping round
the left-hand side of the garden, and into the back yard. Before the enemy's
vanguard reached the stack, I had captured the flag that braved
a thousand years, and applied it to its proper use. I also made free
with another banner, which I tucked into the former. I was like the man
who wrapped his colours round his breast, on a blood-red field of Spain.
Glancing into the combined kitchen and dining-room, I saw a row of wooden pegs
along the wall, with several coats and hats hanging thereon I appropriated
only an old wide-awake, shaped like a lamp-shade, even to the aperture
at the top; and from three pairs of boots under the sofa, I chose
the shabbiest. Astonished, like Clive, at my own moderation,
I next rummaged all the most likely places in search of a pipe and tobacco,
but without avail. I even extended my researches into the pantry,
and thence into the sacred precincts of the front parlour.
But the tobacco-famine raged equally everywhere. The place was a residence,
but by no stretch of hyperbole could you call it a home.
The side window of the parlour looked toward the conflagration; and there
I counted four women, one half-grown girl, and a little boy. Three
of the women, to judge by their gestures, were laughing and joking,
whilst the fourth, and most matronly, was talking to the others
over her shoulder as she turned her steps toward the house.
Then I bethought myself of Dugald Dalgetty's excellent rule respecting
the provant, and re-entered the kitchen. Early though it was,
the breakfast-things had been cleared away; so I took the lid off the boiler
under the safe, in search of the cake which ought to be kept there.
But the house was afflicted with cake-famine too. However, having no time
to fool-away, and being constitutionally anything but an epicure,
I just helped myself to the major part of a dipper of milk which stood
on the dresser, then secured a scone and a generous section of excellent
potted head from the safe.
Eating these out of my hand, I departed without ostentation; reflecting that
it was better to be at the latter end of a feast than the beginning
of a quarrel; and pervaded by a spirit of thankfulness which can be conceived
only by those who have undergone similar tribulation, and experienced
similar relief. Relief! did I say? The word is much too light
for the bore of the matter.
There is a story--bearing the unmistakable earmark of a lie, and evidently
not a translation from any other language--to the effect that once
a British subject, in a foreign land, was taken out to be shot,
just for being too good. Pinioned and blindfold, he stood with folded arms,
looking with haughty unconcern down twelve rifle-barrels,
all in radial alignment on his heart of oak. Twelve foreign eyes were drawing
beads on the dauntless captive, and twelve foreign fingers were pressing
with increasing force on the triggers, when a majestic form appeared
on the scene, and, with the motion of a woman launching a quilt
across a wide bed, the British Consul draped the prisoner from head to foot
in the Union Jack! That's all. The purpose of the lie is to convey
the impression that it is a grand thing to be covered by the flag of Britain;
but give me the forky pennon before referred to, and keep your Union Jack.
Cardinal Wolsey, you may remember, as a consequence of putting his trust
in princes, found himself at last so badly treed that his robe
and his integrity to heaven were all he dared now call his own. The effect
was a peace above all earthly dignities. So with me, but in larger beatitude.
Having my ---- and my integrity to heaven, I found myself overflowing
with the sunny self-reliance of the man that struck Buckley.
And before you join the hue-and-cry against the "barbarous incendiary"
of the ---- Express, just put yourself in my place, and you won't fail
to realise what a profitable transaction it was to get a puris naturalibus
lunatic clothed and in his right mind by the sacrifice of a mere eyesore
on a farm. The old straw-stack was n't worth eighteen pence,
but I would gladly have purchased its destruction with as many pounds--to be
paid, say in nine monthly instalments. To be sure, it did n't belong to me;
but then, neither did the splitters' bark. So there you are.
Crossing the dry place in the lagoon, I dived into the whipstick scrub
and turned northward, intending to get across the river as soon as possible,
and follow up the New South Wales side to my camp. I should have been--well,
not exactly happy; having taken degrees in philosophy which place me
above a state fit only for girls--I should have been without a ripple
on my mirrored surface, but I was n't. Serenely sufficient as I felt,
and fit for anything, some ingredient seemed lacking in my
fennel-wreathed goblet. There was a vacant chair somewhere in my microcosm.
I knew I was forgetting something--but how could that be, when, in the most
restricted sense of the word, I had nothing to forget?
Thus musing, I had gone through half my provant; now I turned round
to give the rest to ---- Ah! where was Pup? I knew he had followed me
on my first journey up the drain, but I had n't seen him since,
and had been too busy to notice his absence. He would probably be
at the farmhouse. I must get my clothes changed, and look after him.
It was about a mile and a half northward to the river. Before reaching it,
I saw, crossing the flat in the direction of the Victorian river road,
a swagman whom I recognised in the distance as my friend Andy.
In casual surprise--for, as you may remember, I had last seen him
on the New South Wales side, eight or ten miles away, and going
in the opposite direction--I went on without exchange of greeting.
Shortly afterwards, I came plump upon Abraham, sitting on his horse,
and talking to a young fellow with an axe on his shoulder. I respectfully
swerved aside, not wishing, in this particular case, to come under
the provisions of that unsound rule which judges a man by the clothes he wears.
Presently I became aware of the jingle of a horse-bell, and the smoke
of a camp-fire; and, close to the river, I found a tilted spring-cart,
near which an elderly man, with tattooed arms, sat on a log,
enjoying his after-breakfast smoke. Now, if I had only known this
a couple of hours earlier!
After the usual civilities, I reinforced my provant by a pannikin of tea,
some fried fish, and a slice off the edge of a damper which rivalled
the nether millstone in more than one respect; thus assuring myself
that I had attained Carlyle's definition of a man: "An omnivorous biped
that wears ----." Meanwhile, in response to my host's invitation to tell him
what I was lagged for, I explained that I was travelling; my horses were
on the other side of the river; I had come across to see a friend,
had been bushed all night, and wanted to get back.
He could manage the river for me, he said. He followed fishing
and duck-shooting for a living; but there was so many informers about
these times that a man had to keep his weather-eye open if he wanted
to use a net or a punt-gun. People needn't be so particular,
for there was ole Q---- had been warning and threatening him yesterday,
and here was the two young Q----s out this morning at the skreek of daylight,
falling red-gum spars to build a big shed, and the ole (man) out on horseback,
picking the best saplings on the river. Ole Q---- was a J.P. His place
was just across the flat, with a garden reaching down to the lagoon.
Q---- himself was the two ends and the bight of a sanguinary dog.
After breakfast, the old fellow furnished me with smoking-tackle,
and paddled me across the river. During the passage, for want of
something else to say, I mentioned to him that I had seen Andy crossing
the flat, apparently from his camp. He explained that the swagman
had been on his way to a new saw-mill, the day before, but had met
one of the owners, who told him the mill would n't start till after harvest,
and promised him work on the farm in the meantime. So Andy, on his return
journey, had seen the outlaw's fire in the dusk; and, after some
one-sided conversation across the river, the latter had ferried him over,
and entertained him for the night. I mention this merely to show
with what waste of energy the so-called sundowner often hunts for work,
particularly if he happens to be the victim of any physical infirmity.
On reaching the north bank, I reminded the old fellow that I wanted
to return by-and-by to look after a dog I had lost when I was bushed;
and he promised to bring his skiff for me when I would sing-out.
In a couple of hours I was at my camp. In another fifteen minutes
I was arrayed in my best and only. Shortly afterward, my horses were equipped,
and Cleopatra being in fine trim, was bucking furiously in the sand-bed
where I had mounted. In an hour and a half more, I had unsaddled and hobbled
both horses on a patch of good grass, nearly opposite where
the spring-cart stood. My persecuted acquaintance, in response to my coo-ee,
appeared with his skiff, and ferried me over. Then I hurried across the flat,
to the residence of Mr. Q----. A man loses no time when such a dog
as Pup is at stake.
It could n't have been later than half-past-one when I walked up
along the garden fence, and approached the door of the kitchen.
A modest-looking and singularly handsome girl had just filled a bucket
of water at the water-slide, and was hammering the peg into the barrel
with an old pole-pin. I recognised her as Jim, and forgave her on sight.
"Good day to you, ma'am," said I affably. "Sultry weather is n't it?
I'm looking for a big blue kangaroo dog, with a red leather collar.
Answers to the name of 'Pup'."
She hesitated a moment. "You better see my father. He's at dinner.
Will you come this way, please."
I followed her into the parlour. In passing through the kitchen,
I noticed that dinner was over, and a second young woman--apparently
the original owner of my boots--was disposing the crockery on the dresser.
In the parlour, Mr. Q----, a man of overpowering dignity, redolent of
the Bench, and, as I think, his age some fifty, or by'r lady
inclining to threescore, was dining in solitary grandeur, waited on
by young woman number three. Lucullus was dining with Lucullus.
"Good day, sir," said I, with a respectful salaam. "Have I the honour
of addressing Mr. Q----?"
"Your business, sir?" he replied, surveying me from head to foot.
"I'm looking for a dog I lost last night, or this morning;
a big blue kangaroo dog, with a"--
"Are you sure he's your dog?"
"Perfectly sure, Mr. Q----."
"How did you come in possession of him?"
"I bought him eight months ago. Am I right in assuming
that he's on your prem"----
"Steady, my good man. Who are you? What's your name?"
"I must apologise for not having given my name at first. My name is Collins--
of the New South Wales Civil Service. I'm Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspec"----
"And what leads you to imply that I've got your dog?"
"Leave the apartment, Naomi," said the magistrate loftily. "Now, Mr. Collins,"
he continued, pouring out a glass of wine, and holding it between his eye
and the light; "I want to ask you"--he drank half the wine, set the glass
on the table, and leisurely wiped his mouth with his serviette--"I want
to ask you"--he paused again, pursed his lips, and placed his forefinger
against his temple--"I want to ask you how you come to imply that the dog
is here? 'Information received' was your statement. Be precise this time,
Mr. Collins. I'm waiting for your answer."
"I had my information from a man who saw the dog on your premises, Mr. Q----."
"Very good, indeed! At what time did he see the dog? Be punctual,
Mr. Collins. Punctuality implies truth."
"About sunrise, I think."
"You think! Are you sure?"
"Well, yes; I'm sure."
"Describe your informer, please."
"Describe him! If I described him ever so accurately, you would n't know him
from Adam," I replied sharply, and withal truthfully. "Is my dog here,
Mr. Q----? If he is, I'll take him, and go. I don't want to be trying
your patience after this fashion."
"Steady, Mr. Connell. Was your informer a man about my height?"
"I have no idea of your height, Mr. Q----."
"Was he a man about your own height? We'll get at it presently."
"You've got at it first try. I should say you've struck his height
to about a sixteenth of an inch."
"Sunburnt face? Skulking, fugitive appearance generally?"
"Your description's wonderfully correct, Mr. Q----. You might, without libel,
call him a sansculotte."
"I'm seldom far out in these matters. How was he dressed?"
"In a little brief authority, so far as I remember But is my dog----"
"Do you imply a sarcasm?" inquired the J,P. darkly. "I would n't do so
if I was you. I'm not thinking about your dog. You and your dog!
I'm thinking about a valuable stack of hay I had burnt this morning;
and you've give me a clue to the incendiary." He paused, to let his words
filter in. "You done it without your knowledge, Mr. O'Connell,"
he continued pompously, again holding up his glass to the light.
In the silence that ensued, I could hear the murmur of the girls' voices
about the house, and the irregular ticking of two clocks; while there dawned
on my mind an impression that somebody had fallen in the fat.
"I'm sorry to hear of your loss, Mr. Q----," I remarked, at length.
"So far as the loss goes, that gives me no inconvenience, though it might
break a poorer man. I been burnt out, r----p and stump, by an incendiary,
when I was at Ballarat"----
"Ah!" said I sympathetically, but my sympathy was with the other party----
"And then I could afford to offer a hundred notes for the apprehension
of the offender, before the ashes was cold."
"But mightn't this last affair be an accident, Mr. Q----? A horse
treading on a match for instance? I think you ought to make strict inquiries
as to whether any horse, or cow, or anything, passed by the stack
shortly before the fire was noticed."
"I know my own business, Mr. O'Connor," he replied severely.
"I been the instigation of bringing more offenders, and vagabonds,
and that class of people, to justice than anybody else in this district.
If I'd my way, I'd stamp out the lawless elements of society."
"I admire your principles, Mr. Q----; and you may count upon my assistance
in this matter. By-the-way, there are two illicit red-gummers down here"----
"I was talking to you about this stack-burning affair," interposed the beak.
"I'm annoyed over it. I been on the wrong lay, so to speak, all this morning;
but that never lasts long with me. I got the perpetrator in my eye now,
in his naked guilt; and, take my word for it, Mr. Connor,
I'll bring him to book. I'll make an example of him. I'll make him smoke
for it. It was an open question this forenoon; but to show how
circumstantial evidence sort of hems in a suspected party--why, here I can
lay my hand on the very man; and, what's more, he can't get out of it.
I can point out the very mark of his body, where he slep' at a fire
among the whipstick scrub, just across that lagoon. And a party
I'm acquainted with seen him yesterday afternoon, some distance up the river,
on the other side; and I seen him this morning, crossing the flat here,
more or less about the time the fire was noticed. What do you think of that
for circumstantial evidence, Mr. Connelly? And in addition to this,
I can point out his incentive--which I prefer to hold in reserve
for the present. He might think his incentive justifiable; but the Bench
might differ with him." And El Corregidor held me with his glittering eye
while he sipped his wine.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Q----," said I, clearing my throat. "I can't help
taking a certain interest in this matter. Would it be impertinent in me
to ask who the person was that saw the suspected incendiary up the river
on yesterday afternoon?"
"I've no objection to answer your question, Mr. Conway. I quite expect you
to take a strong interest in the matter. In fact, I'll require to know
something of your whereabouts after you leave my premises. I think
you'll be wanted over this affair. The party that seen the incendiary
yesterday was Mr. H----, of H---- Brothers."
"Mr. Charles H----?" I inquired casually.
"No; Mr. Arthur H----. Very respectable man, having personal knowledge
of the incendiary." Again the J.P. sipped his wine; and the girls' voices
murmured, and the clocks ticked, and the hens clucked in the yard; also,
the magpies tootled beyond the lagoon, and a couple of axes sounded
faintly across the flat; and I even heard, through the open window,
the noise of some old back-delivery chattering through a crop of hay
on an adjacent farm. "Give me your address," continued Mephistopheles,
replenishing his glass. "Writing-material on the side table."
I wrote my name and official title, giving our departmental office in Sydney
as a fine loose postal address, and laid the paper on the table
beside the magnate. It reminded me of old times, when my Dad used to send me
to bring him the strap. It was time to shake my faculties together,
for ne'er had Alpine's son such need.
"I've made a study of law, myself, Mr. Q----," I remarked thoughtfully.
(This was perfectly true, though, in the urgency of the moment,
I omitted to add that my researches had been confined to those interesting
laws which govern the manifold operations of Nature). "I've made a special
study of law; and I think you will agree with me that a successful
criminal prosecution is a Pyrrhic victory at best. At worst--that is,
if you fail to prove your case; and, mind you, it's no easy matter to prove
a case against a well-informed man by circumstantial evidence alone--if you
fail to prove your case; then it's his turn, for malicious prosecution;
and you can't expect any mercy from him. When you think your case is complete,
you find the little hitch, the little legal point, that your opponent
has been holding in reserve. Now, you 're a gentleman of substance,
Mr. Q----.You're a perfect target for a man that has studied law."
I paused, for I noticed the Moor already changing with my poison.
"By heaven! I'd like to have a shot at you for a thousand!"
I continued, eyeing him greedily.
"One of the obstacles in a position like mine is the thing you just implied,
Mr. Connellan," responded the waywode, almost deferentially. "Same time,
this case ought to be followed up, for the sake of the public weal. As
valuable as the stack was, I don't give that for it." And he snapped
his finger and thumb.
"You may be morally certain of the identity of the scoundrel, but your proofs
require to be legally impregnable," I continued, pressing home where
he had disclosed weakness of guard. "I know a very respectable man--
a Mr. Johnson--who dropped something over a thousand in a case similar to this.
The scoundrel was a deep subject; and he got at Johnson for false imprisonment.
These roving characters can always get up an alibi, if they're clever.
Excuse my meddling in this case, Mr. Q----, but you've interested me strongly.
You have evidence that this suspected incendiary was seen somewhere
down the river yesterday--or up the river was it?--and you saw him somewhere
here, this morning. Very well. Would the two descriptions of dress
and deportment tally exactly with each other, and with the appearance
of the person whom, independently of that evidence, you know to be
the perpetrator--I mean the scoundrel of the camp-fire? Consider the opening
for an alibi there! You hold the incentive in reserve, I think you said?
Pardon me--is it a sufficient one?"
"It don't take much incentive to be sufficient for a vagabone without a shirt
to his back" replied the ratepayer, suddenly boiling-over.
"True," I conceded; "but, 'Seek whom the crime profits,' says Machiavelli.
What profit would it be to such a scoundrel to do you an injury, Mr. Q----?"
"The propertied classes is at the mercy of the thriftless classes,"
he remarked, with martyr-pride.
"But incendiarism! Mr. Q----," I urged in modest protest. "Why,
the whole country lives by the farmer: and I'm sure"----
"We won't argy the matter, Mr. Collingwood," replied my antagonist,
lowering his point. "Possibly I won't trouble you any further
over this affair. Your business keeps you on the move," he continued,\
looking at the paper beside him; "and it might be difficult to effect service.
You want your dog. Go into the kitchen; inquire for Miss Jemima,
and tell her I authorise her to give you the dog. And a very fine dog he is."
"Thank you, Mr. Q----. Good day."
"Good day," replied the boyard, acknowledging my obeisance
by a wave of his hand.
It was a near thing, but I had scored, after all. You can't beat
the pocket-stroke. Passing through the kitchen, I met the graceful Jim.
"Are you Miss Jemima?" I asked, in the tone you should always use
A dimple stole into each beautiful cheek as she nodded assent.
"Well, Mr. Q---- authorises Miss Jemima to give me the kangaroo-dog."
"Come this way, then, please." There was a slight flush of vexation
on the girl's face now. And, indeed, it was scarcely fair of Dogberry,
when his own soft thing had fallen through, to make Jim cover his dignified
retreat. With deepening colour, she led the way to the stable,
and opened a loose-box, disclosing Pup, crouched, sphynx-like,
with a large bone between his paws. The red collar was gone; and he was
chained to the manger by a hame-strap. Of course, I did n't blame
the franklin, nor do I blame him now; rather the reverse. There seems
something touching and beautiful in the thought that respectability, at best,
is merely poised--never hard home; and that our clay will assert itself
when a dog like Pup throws himself into the other scale. But I could feel
the vicarious crimson spreading over Jim's forehead and ears as I unbuckled
the hame-strap, whilst vainly ransacking my mind for some expression of thanks
that would n't sound ironical. A terrible tie of sympathetic estrangement
bound this sweet scapegoat and me asunder, or divided us together;
and each felt that salvation awaited the one who spoke first,
and to the point--or rather, from the point. All honour to Jim; she paced----
"You call him 'Pup'," observed the girl girlishly. "He's a big pup."
"His proper name is 'The Eton Boy'," replied the wretch wretchedly.
And neither of us could see anything in the other's remark.
But the tension was relaxed; and, leaving the stable together,
we gravely agreed that a thunderstorm seemed to be hanging about.
Still a new embarrassment was growing in the girl's face and voice,
even in the uneasy movement of her hands. At last it broke out--
"I s'pose you haven't had any dinner?"
"Don't let that trouble you, Miss Q----."
"Father's not himself today," she continued hastily. "He blames us
for burning an old straw-stack; and I'm sure we never done it.
Mother's been at him to burn it out of the way this years back,
for it was right between the house and the road; and it was '78 straw,
rotten with rust. But I'm glad we did n't take on us to burn it,
for father's vowing vengeance on whoever done it; and he's awful
at finding out things."
"Mr. Q---- mentioned it to me," I replied, with polite interest.
"But don't you think it seems a most unlikely thing for a stranger to do?
Perhaps some of your own horses or cattle trod on a match that Mr. Q---- had
accidentally dropped there himself?"
"That couldn't be; for father never allows any matches about the place,
only them safety ones that strikes on the box. And he hates smoking.
My brothers has to smoke on the sly."
"Have you many Irish people about here, Miss Q----?"
"None only the Fogartys; and they're the best neighbours we got."
"And was nobody seen near the stack before the fire broke out?"
"Not a soul. I was past there myself, not twenty minutes before we seen
the fire; but I was going middling smart, and I did n't see anybody--nothing
only Morgan's big white pig, curled under the edge of the stack,
that always jumps out of the sty, and comes over here, and breaks into
our garden. Well, father's always threatening to shoot that pig; and me,
never thinking, I told him it was there; and he got his gun and went after it;
and us in a fright for fear he would find it, but he did n't.
Then when we seen him well out of sight, I went over to the stack quietly,
to shoo the pig home, but it was gone; and there was no sign of fire then,
and nobody in sight. Then my sisters and me was just starting out
to the milking-yard, and mother had begun to take the things off the line,
when little Enoch seen the fire. We couldn't make it out at all;
and I examined up and down the drain for boot-marks, but there was none.
And just before you come, I picked up the track of the horse I was riding,
to see if his feet had struck fire on anything; but I was as wise as ever."
"Ah! the horse was shod, Miss Q----?"
"No; he's barefooted all round. Well, he trod on a piece of a brick,
near the corner of the garden; but the fire never travelled from there.
It's very unaccountable."
"Very. I wonder would there have been such a thing as a broken bottle
anywhere about the stack, Miss Q----? The sun came out unusually strong
this morning, I noticed; and it's a well-known scientific fact
that the action of the solar rays, focussed by such a medium as I have
suggested, will produce ignition--provided, of course, that the
inflammable material is in the angle of refraction."
"I don't know, sir," she replied reverently.
"Why, gold has been melted in four seconds, silver in three, and steel in ten,
under the mere influence of the sun's heat-rays, concentrated by a lens"--
she shivered, and I magnanimously withheld my hand. "If this hypothesis
should prove untenable," I continued gently, "we may assume
spontaneous ignition, produced by chemical combination. Nor are we confined
to this supposition. Silex is an element which enters largely into
the composition of wheaten straw; and it is worthy of remark that,
in most cases where fire is purposely generated by the agency
of thermo-dynamics, some form of silex is enlisted--flint, for instance,
or the silicious covering of endogenous plants, such as bamboo, and so forth.
A theory might be built on this."
"It seems very reasonable, sir," she murmured. "Anyway, I'm glad
the old stack's out of the road. The place looks a lot cleaner."
"Well, I won't keep you out in the sun," said I reluctantly.
"Good bye, Miss Q----. And I'm very much obliged to you."
"Oh, don't mention it! I'm sure we're very happy to"---- she hesitated,
"Well, good-bye, Miss Jemima."
"Good-bye," she murmured, half-extending her hand.
"I might see you again, some time," I remarked, almost unconsciously,
as our fingers met.
"I hope so," she faltered.
"Good-bye, Jim," said I, slowly releasing her hand.
"Good-bye." The word sounded like a breath of evening air,
kissing the she-oak foliage.
Then the maiden with the meek brown eyes, and the pathetic evidence
of Australian nationality on her upper lip, returned to her simple duties.
And the remembrance of Mrs. Beaudesart came down on me
like a thousand of bricks. Such is life.
But my difficulties were over for the time being. My loco. had jolted its way
over the rough section, carrying away an obstruction labelled V.R.,
and had reached the next points. I was still two or three days ahead
of my official work; and there had happened to be a stray half-crown
in the pocket of the spare oriflamme I had unfurled at my camp.
Should I push on to Hay on the strength of that half-crown, draw my £8 6s. 8d.,
and send my clothier a guileful letter, containing a money-order for,
say, thirty shillings? This would test his awfulness at finding out things,
besides giving myself, morally, a clean bill of health. Or should I first
walk across to B----'s and get Dick L---- to shift some of my
inborn ignorance re Palestine?
I decided on the latter line of action, and followed it with--Well,
at all events, I have the compensating consciousness of a dignity
uncompromised, and a nonchalance unruffled, in the face of Dick's really
interesting descriptions of South-eastern Tasmania. Concerning my lapse
of engagement on the previous evening, I merely remarked that the default
was caused my circumstances over which &c.
I spent a couple of days, besides Sunday, at B----'s place;
while the fisherman kept an eye on my horses. I helped B---- to work out
a new and rotten idea of a wind-mill pump; Dick handing me things,
and holding the other end. On the first afternoon, a couple of hours
after my arrival, I drove into for some blacksmith work; and, whilst
it was being done, I looked in at the Express office, and had a gossip
with Archimedes on the topics of the day.
And now, whilst duly appreciating the rectitude of soul which has carried me
through this trying disclosure, you will surely condone the obscurity
in which I have been compelled to envelop all names used herein.
SUN. DEC. 9. Dead Man's Bend. Warrigal Alf down. Rescue twice.
Enlisted Terrible Tommy.
Now what would your novelist rede you from that record, if he had possession
of my diary? Something mysterious and momentous, no doubt, and probably
connected with buried treasure. Yet it is only the abstract and brief
chronicle of a fair average day; a day happy in having no history
worth mentioning; merely a drowsy morning, an idle mid-day,
and a stirring afternoon. Life is largely composed of such uneventful days;
and these are therefore most worthy of careful analysis.
How easy it is to recall the scene! The Lachlan river, filled by summer rains
far away among the mountains, to a width of something like thirty yards,
flowing silently past, and going to waste. Irregular areas of lignum,
hundreds of acres in extent, and eight or ten feet in height, representing
swamps; and long, serpentine reaches of the same, but higher in growth,
indicating billabongs of the river. The river itself fringed,
and the adjacent low ground dotted, with swamp box, river coolibah,
and red-gum--the latter small and stunted in comparison with the giants
of its species on the Murray and Lower Goulburn. On both sides of the river,
far as the eye can command, extend the level plains of black or light-red soil,
broken here and there by clumps and belts of swamp box, now cut off
from the line of the horizon by the quivering, glassy stratum
of the lower atmosphere.
And where the boundary fence of Mondunbarra and Avondale crosses the plain,
is seen a fair example of the mirage--that phenomenon so vaguely apprehended
in regions outside its domain, and so little noticed where repetition has made
it familiar. But there it is; no smoky-looking film on the plain,
no shimmering distortion of objects in middle-distance, but, to all appearance,
a fine sheet of silvery water, two hundred yards distant, about the same
in average width, and half-a-mile in length from right to left.
Both banks are clearly defined; irregular promontories jut far out
into the smooth water from each side; and the boundary fence crosses it,
post after post, in diminishing perspective, like any fence standing
in shallow, sunlit water. The most critical and deliberate examination can no
more detect evidence of phantasy in the unreal water than in the real fence.
The mirage is one of Nature's obscure and cheerless jokes;
and in this instance, as in some few others, she is beyond Art.
She even assists the illusion by a very slight depression of the plain
in the right place. In fact, an artist's picture of a mirage would be
his picture of a level-brimmed, unruffled lake; also, the most skilful
word-painter, in attempting to contrast the appearance of water with that
of its fac-simile, would become as confused and hazy as any clergyman taxed
to differentiate his creed from that of the mollah running the opposition.
And Nature, in taking this mirthless rise out of the spectator,
never repeats herself in the particulars of distance, area or configuration
of her simulacre; it may be a mere stripe across the road--the brown,
sinuous track disappearing beneath its surface, to re-appear on
the opposing shore--it may be no larger than a good gilgie; or it may be
the counterfeit presentment of a sheet of water, miles in extent,
though this last is rare.
A hot day is not an imperative condition of the true mirage; but the ground
must be open plain, or nearly so; the atmosphere must be clear,
and the ground thoroughly dry. It is worthy of notice that horses and cattle
are entirely insusceptible to the illusion. Another fact, not so noteworthy
in view of the general perversity of inanimate things, is, that you never see
a mirage when you are watching for it to decide an argument. It always
presents itself when you have no interest in it. In this quality
of irredeemable cussedness it resembles the emu's nest. No one ever found
that when he was looking for it; no one ever found it except he was
in a raging hurry, with a long stage to go, and no likelihood
of coming back by the same route.
To complete the picture--which I want you to carry in your mind's eye--you will
imagine Cleopatra and Bunyip standing under a coolibah--standing heads
and points, after the manner of equine mates; each switching the flies
and mosquitos off his comrade's face, and shivering them off such parts
of his own body as possessed the requisite faculty. And in the centre
of a clear place, a couple of hundred yards away, you may notice
a bullock-wagon, apparently deserted; the heavy wool-tarpaulin,
dark with dust and grease, thrown across the arched jigger, forming a tent
on the body, and falling over the wheels nearly to the ground, yet displaying
the outline of the Sydney pattern--which, as every schoolgirl knows,
differs from that of Riverina.
In the foreground of this picture, you may fancy the present annalist
lying--or, as lying is an ill phrase, and peculiarly inapplicable
just here--we'll say, reclining, pipe in mouth, on a patch of pennyroyal,
trying to re-peruse one of Ouida's novels, and thinking (ah! your worship's
a wanton) what a sweet, spicy, piquant thing it must be to be lured
to destruction by a tawny-haired tigress with slumbrous dark eyes.
No such romance for the annalist, poor man.
Such, then, was my benevolent and creditable allotment, such my unworthy
vagary, at the time this record opens. I had camped in the Dead Man's Bend
late on the previous evening, had wakened-up a little after sunrise,
and turned out a little after eleven. Then a dip in the river, to clear away
the cobwebs, and a breakfast which, if not high-toned in its accessories,
was at least enjoyed at a fashionable hour, had made me feel as if I wanted
a quiet smoke out of the gigantic meerschaum which I unpack only on
special occasions, and something demoralising to read.
But the austere pipe resented this unworthy alliance so strongly that,
for peace sake, I had to lay aside the literary Dead-Sea-apple.
Then I remembered the official letter I had received on the previous day.
I had merely glanced over it before acting on the orders it contained;
now I re-opened the document, and pharisaically contemplated the child-like
penmanship and Chaucer-like orthography of my superior officer:--
Mr T Collins
Haveing got 3 months leave of Abscence you are hereby
requested to be extra atentive to the Interests of the
Dept not haveing me to reffer to in Cases of difeculty
or to recieve instructions from me which is not
practicacable on account of me being in the other Colonys.
I write this principaly to aquaint you Communication
from Mr Donaldson Mr Strong Mr Jeffrey representives
will meet you at Poondoo on monday 10 prox re matter
in dispute. Keep this apointment without fail
comunnicate with central Office pending further Orders from me.
I was now on my way to keep the "apointment." I was still about twenty miles
from Poondoo; and the next day would be "monday 10 prox." I intended to start
again at about two o'clock; so I had still a couple of hours to spend
in what civilians call rest, and soldiers, fatigue; whilst studying
such problems as might present themselves for solution. Pup was safe
by my side, and I had nothing to trouble myself about. A thought
of the transitoriness and uncertainty of life did occur to me, as it has done
to thinkers and non-thinkers of all ages; but I deftly applied the reflection
to my superior officer, and so turned everything to commodity.
The unfortunate young fellow, I thought, is a confirmed invalid, sure enough.
A trip round the colonies may liven him up a bit, or, on the other hand,
it may not; and, if he returns, it is to be hoped that kind hands will soothe
his pillow, and so forth; and when, with dirges due, in sad array,
they have performed the last melancholy offices, I trust that some one will
be found to dress, with simple hands, his rural tomb. I would do it myself,
for, as the poet says, "Ah, surely nothing dies but something mourns."
A sweet fancy, but not so filling as the cognate reflection----
Somebody calling from the other side of the river; probably some forlorn
and shipwreck'd brother, looking for his mates--The cognate reflection,
namely, that nothing withdraws but it leaves room for a successor.
And this successor--thus favoured by a Providence which has kindly supervised
the fall of the antecedent sparrow--will be entitled to live in
a four-roomed weatherboard house, with the water laid-on, and a flower-garden
up to the footpath, and a few silver-pencilled Hamburgs in the back yard,
and everything comfortable. Ah, me! it is the thought of the dove----
Peace! peace! Orestes--like, I breathe this prayer. Thy comrades
are sleeping; go sleep thou with them.----The thought of the dove
that has suggested this fairy picture of the dovecote. And something tells me
that Jim Quarterman is not likely to forget a certain cavalier who called
one day about a dog. Doubtless her memory holds him enshrined as a person
of scientific attainments and courtly address; offering a contrast, I trust,
to the uninteresting hayseeds who have come under her purview.
And will he not come again? Yea, Jim, mystery and revelation as thou art!
he will come again, to lay at thy shapely and substantial feet
the trophy of an----
Ay, lay thee down and roar--Of an Assistant-Sub-Inspectorship. Ah, Jim!
tentatively beloved (so to speak) by this solitary, but by no means desolate,
heart!--setting aside the rises I would take out of thy artlessness,
and the way I would whip thy simplicity with my fine wit till thou wert
as crestfallen as a dried pear--I confess a spontaneous thought associated
with the mental carte-de-visite of thy wholesome avoirdupois. No less,
indeed, than the psychological recognition of an angel-influence----
In vain! in vain! strike other chords! You can call spirits from the vasty
deep; but will they come when you do call for them?--An angel-influence,
tangible, visible, audible, which would make Jordan the easiest of all roads
to travel by thy side. Peerless Jim! crowning triumph of Darwinian Evolution
from the inert mineral, through countless hairy and uninviting types!
how precious the inexplicable vital spark which, nevertheless, robs
thy sculptured form of all cash Gallery-value; and how easy to read in that
gentle personality a satisfying comment on the concluding lines of Faust :
The Woman-Soul leadeth us
Upward and on.
A double meaning there, by my faith! Alas! poor little Jim! go thy ways,
die when thou wilt; for Maud Beaudesart comes----
"H a-a--a-a-a-a-a y!"
Rest, rest, perturbed spirit. By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
now wherefore stop'st thou me?--For Maud Beaudesart comes o'er my memory
as doth the raven o'er the infected house. Get thee to a nunnery, Jim.
The chalk-mark is on my door; for Mrs. B. has no less than three
consecutive husbands in heaven--so potently has her woman-soul proved
its capacity for leading people upward and on. Methinks I perceive a new
and sinister meaning in the Shakespearean love-song:--
Come away, come away, death;
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair, cruel maid.
Nicely put, no doubt; but the importance of a departure depends
very much on the----
No appearance, your worship. Call for Enobarbus; he will not hear thee, or,
from Caesar's camp, say 'I am none of thine.'----On the value of the departed.
For instance, when a man of property departs, he leaves his possessions
behind--a fact noticed by many poets--and the man himself is replaced
without cost. When a well-salaried official departs--such as a Royal Falconer,
or a Master of the Buckhounds, or an Assistant-Sub-Inspector he perforce
leaves his billet behind; and we wish him bon voyage to whichever port
he may be bound. But when a philosopher departs in this untimely fashion,
he leaves nothing----
And echo answers, 'Ha-a-a-a-ay!' Authority melts from you,
apparently.--Leaves nothing but a few rudimentary theories, of no use
to anyone except the owner, inasmuch as no one else can develop them properly;
just a few evanescent footprints on the sands of Time, which would require
only a certain combination of age and facilities for cohesion to mature
into Mammoth-tracks on the sandstone of Progress. All on the debit side
of Civilisation's ledger, you observe. Consequently, he doesn't long
to leave these fading scenes, that glide so quickly by. And when the poet
holds it truth that men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves
to higher things, he is simply talking when he ought to be sleeping it off
in seclusion. I understand how a man may rise on the stepping-stone
of his defunct superior officer to higher things; but his dead self--it won't
do, Alfred; it won't do. But hark! that heavy sound breaks in once more,
as if the clouds its echo would repeat.----
Who is he whose grief bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
makes the very lignum quiver in sympathy? It may not be amiss
to look round and see.
So I turned my head, and saw, on the opposite side of the river, about eighty
yards away, a man on a grey horse. I rose, and advanced toward the bank.
"Why, Mosey," said I, "is that you? How does your honour for this many a day?
Where are you camped?"
"Across here. Tell Warrigal Alf his carrion's on the road for
Yoongoolee yards, horse an' all; an' from there they'll go to Booligal pound
if he ain't smart. I met them just now."
"Where shall I find Alf?"
"Ain't his wagon bitin' you--there in the clear? You ain't a bad hand
at sleepin'--no, I 'm beggared if you are. I bin bellerin' at you
for two hours, dash near."
"Who has got the bullocks, Mosey?"
"Couldn't you get them from him yourself?"
"I did n't try. I was glad to see them goin'; on'y I begun to think after,
thinks I, it 's a pity o' the poor misforchunate carrion walkin' all that way,
free gracious for nothin'; an' p'r'aps a trip to Booligal pound on top of it;
an' them none too fat. But I 'm glad for Alf. I hate that beggar.
I would n't len' him my knife to cut up a pipe o' tobacker, not if his tongue
was stickin' out as long as yer arm. I was n't goin' to demean myself
to tell him about his carrion, nyther; on'y I knowed your horses when I
seen them; an' by-'n'-by I spotted you where you was layin' down,
sleepin' fit to break yer neck; an' I bin hollerin' at you till I 'm black
in the face. I begun to think you was drunk, or dead, or somethin'--bust you."
And with this address, which I give in bowdlerised form, the young fellow
turned his horse, and disappeared through a belt of lignum.
I walked across to the bullock-wagon. The camp had a strangely desolate
and deserted appearance. Three yokes lay around, with the bows and keys
scattered about; and there was no sign of a camp-fire. Under the wagon
lay a saddle and bridle, and beside them the swollen and distorted body
of Alf's black cattle-dog--probably the only thing on earth that had loved
the gloomy misanthrope. I lifted the edge of the hot, greasy tarpaulin,
and looked on the flooring of the wagon, partly covered with heavy coils
of wool-rope, and the spare yokes and chains.
"A drink of water, for God's sake!" said a scarcely intelligible whisper,
from the suffocating gloom of the almost air-tight tent.
I threw the tarpaulin back off the end of the wagon, and ran to the river
for a billy of water. Then, vaulting on the platform, I saw Alf lying
on his blankets, apparently helpless, and breathing heavily,
his face drawn and haggard with pain. I raised his head, and held the billy
to his lips; but, being in too great a hurry, I let his head slip off my hand,
and most of the water spilled over his throat and chest. He shrank
and shivered as the cool deluge seemed to fizz on his burning skin,
but drank what was left, to the last drop.
"Now turn me over on the other side, or I'll go mad," he whispered.
He shuddered and groaned as I touched him, but, with one hand under
his shoulders, and the other under his bent and rigid knees, I slowly
turned him on the other side.
"Would n't you like to lie on your back for a change?" I asked.
"No, no," he whispered excitedly; "my heels might slip, and straighten
my knees. Another drink of water, please."
I brought a second billy of water, but he turned from it with disgust.
"If you could make a sort of an effort, Alf," I suggested.
He treated me to a half-angry, half-reproachful look, and turned away his face.
I rose to my feet, and rolled back the tarpaulin half-way along the jigger,
for the heat was still suffocating.
"Is there anything more I can do for you just now, Alf?" I asked presently.
"More water." I gave him a drink out of a pannikin; and, as I laid his head
down again, he continued, in the same painful whisper, and with frequent
pauses, "Have you any idea where my bullocks are?--I was trying to keep them
here--in this corner of Mondunbarra--and they're reasonably safe
unless--unless the Chinaman knows the state I'm in--but if they cross
the boundary into Avondale--Tommy will hunt them over the river,
and--Sollicker will get them."
It must be remembered that Alf was camped at the junction of three runs;
Yoongoolee lay along the opposite side of the river, whilst on our side,
Mondunbarra and Avondale were separated by a boundary fence which ran
into the water a few yards beyond where the wagon stood. The fence,
much damaged by floods, was repaired merely to the sheep-proof standard.
The wagon was in Mondunbarra.
"They're across the river now, Alf. Mosey Price told me so,
not twenty minutes ago."
"Across the river!" hissed Alf, half-rising and then falling heavily back,
whilst a low moan mingled with the furious grinding of his teeth.
"They 've got into Avondale, and Tommy has hunted them across!
May the holy"--&c., &c. "Never mind. Let them go. I've had enough of it.
If other people are satisfied, I'm sure I am."
"Who is she?" I thought; and I was just lapsing into my Hamlet-mood----
"Would you be kind enough to lift my dog into the wagon? I have n't been able
to call him lately, but he won't be far off."
"Bad news for you, Alf. The poor fellow got a bait somewhere, and came home
to die. He 's lying under the wagon, beside your saddle."
The outlaw turned away his face. 'Short of being Swift,' says Taine;
'one must love something.' (Ay, and short of being too morally slow
to catch grubs, one must hate something. See, then, that you hate
prayerfully and judiciously).
While I was thinking that every minute's delay would make my journey
after the bullocks a little longer, Alf suddenly looked round.
"You need n't stay here," said he sharply--thin blades of articulation
shooting here and there through his laboured whisper, as the water
he had drunk took effect on his swollen tongue. "If you would come again
in an hour, and give me another turn-over, you would be doing more for me
than I would do for you. What day is this?"
"Sunday, December the ninth."
He pondered awhile. "I 've lost count of the days. What time is it?"
"Between one and two, I should think. My watch is at the bottom
of the Murray."
"Afternoon, of course. I think I ought to be dead by this time to-morrow.
What's keeping you here? I want to be alone."
"Don't talk nonsense, Alf. I'll pull you through, if I can only hit
the complaint. Have you any symptoms?"
"I don't know. I don't know. I was gradually getting worse and worse
for a week, or more; but still able to yoke up a few quiet bullocks
to shift the wagon every day; till at last, one night, I just managed
to climb in here, to get away from the mosquitos. I don't know what night
it was, or how the time has passed since then. Just look at my arms,
if you have any curiosity; but don't dare to prescribe for me.
I had enough of your doctoring at the Yellow Tank--blast you!"
Without heeding his reminiscence, which has no connection with the present
memoir, I untied an old boot-lace which fastened one of his wristbands,
and drew up the sleeve. The long, sinewy arm, now wet and clammy from
the effect of the water he had drunk, was helpless and shapeless, round and
rigid; the elbow-joint set at a right-angle, and extremely sensitive to pain.
"There," said he, with a quivering groan; "the other arm is just the same,
and so are my knees and ankles; and my head's fit to burst; and I'm one mass
of pains all over. It's all up with me, Collins. Now I only ask one favour
of you--and that is to get out of my sight."
"I'll be back in two or three hours, Alf," said I, rising. "Keep your mind
as easy as possible, and see if you can doze off to sleep."
So I returned to my own camp, and, with all speed, caught and equipped
Cleopatra. Then, after chaining Pup in a shady place, I stowed some
smoking-tackle in the crown of the soft hat I wore; then shed apparel
till I was like the photo. of some champion athlete; finally, I stuck
the spare clothes, with the rest of my riches, among the branches
of a coolibah, out of the way of the wild pigs. The next moment,
I was in the saddle, and Cleopatra, after perfunctorily illustrating
Demosthenes' three rules of oratory:--the first, Action; the second,
ditto, the third, ibid.--turned obediently toward the river, and was soon
breasting the cool current, while, with one arm across the saddle,
I steered him for the most promising landing-place on the opposite bank.
(Let me remark here, that the man who knows no better than to remain
in the saddle after his horse has lost bottom, ought never to go out of sight
of a bridge. He is the sort of adventurer that is brought to light,
a week afterward, per medium of a grappling-hook in the hollow of his eye.
Perhaps the best plan of all--though no hero of romance could do
such a thing--is to hang on to the horse's tail. Also, never wait
for an emergency to make sure that your mount can swim. Many a man has lost
his life through the helpless floundering of a horse bewildered by first
and sudden experience of deep water).
My landing-place happened to be none of the best. After clearing the water,
it required all Cleopatra's strength and activity to climb the bank.
Having slipped into the saddle as he regained footing, I was lying flat
against the side of his neck, to help his centre of gravity and give him
a hold with his front feet, when he brushed under a low coolibah,
and the spur of a broken branch or something started at the neck
of the undergarment which I cannot bring myself to name, and ripped it
to the very tail, nearly dragging me off the saddle. When we reached
level ground, the vestment alluded to was hanging, wet and sticky, on my arms,
like a child's pinny unfastened behind, or, to use a more elegant simile,
like the front half of a herald's tabard. What I should have done
was to have reversed the thing, and put it on like a jacket; but, being
in a desperate hurry, and slightly annoyed by the accident, and not feeling
the sun after just leaving the water, I whipped the rag off altogether,
and threw it aside. In two seconds more, Cleopatra was stretching away,
with his long, eager, untiring stride, towards Yoongoolee home-station,
distant about sixteen miles.
Slackening speed now and then to cross creeks and rough places,
I found myself following a pad, and noticed the fresh tracks of the bullocks,
mile after mile. At last I heard across the lignum the jangle of a brass bell,
and the 'plock, plock' of an iron frog, and presently my quarry appeared
in sight a couple of hundred yards ahead.
To do the boundary-rider justice, he was driving the cattle quietly
and considerately. He looked round on hearing the clatter of horse's feet,
but my Mazeppa aspect seemed neither to surprise nor disconcert him.
He was n't altogether a stranger to me. For several years I had known him
by sight as a solid, phlegmatic man, on a solid, phlegmatic cob; and I suppose
he had his own crude estimate of me, though we had never had occasion
to exchange civilities.
But now, after a five miles' chase, the sight of the man acted on my moral
nature as vinegar is erroneously supposed to act on nitre. I reined-up
beside him. The Irresistible was about to encounter the Immovable;
and, even in the excitement of the time, I awaited the result with
scientific interest. When a collision of this kind takes place, it sometimes
happens that the Irresistible bounces off in a more or less damaged state;
at other times, the Immovable is scattered to the four winds of heaven
in the form of scrap, while the Irresistible, slightly checked, perhaps,
in speed, sails on its way. But you can never tell.
"Where are you taking these bullocks?" I demanded in a tone which,
I am sorry to say, reflected as little credit on my politeness
as on my philosophy.
"Steation yaads," he replied indifferently, and with a strong English accent.
"Did you take them off purchased land?" I asked, eyeing him keenly.
"Oi teuk 'e (animals) horf of 'e run," he remarked, rather than replied,
without condescending to look at me.
"Do you know what day this is?" I inquired magisterially.
"Zabbath," he replied kindly.
"And do you know there's a new act passed--'Parkes's Act,' they call it--that
makes the removing of working-bullocks from pastoral leasehold, on Sundays,
a misdemeanour, punishable by a term of imprisonment not exceeding
twelve months, with or without hard labour?"
"Granny!" he remarked.
Driven back in disorder, I hurried up my second line.----
"Do you know who these bullocks belong to?" I inquired ominously.
Something akin to a smile flickered round the shaven lips of the descendant
of Hengist as, contemplating the lop ears of his horse, he observedly
"Ees, shure; an' 'hat's f'r w'y Oi be a-teakin' of 'em."
"Well, Alf's laid-up; not able to look after them"----
"Oi 've 'eard 'at yaan afoor."
----"so I've come to take them back, and leave them at his camp
"Horrite. Oi wants wun-an'-twenty bob horf o' you afoor 'em (bullocks)
"Will you have it now, or wait till you get it?" I asked, betrayed
by the annoyance of the moment into a species of vulgarity unbecoming
an officer and gentleman. "I don't mind paying you the money, provided
it clears the bullocks for the future--not otherwise. In the meantime
I'm going to take them back-pay or no pay."
"Be 'e a-gwean to resky 'em?" he inquired, slightly reining his hippopotamus,
and looking me frankly in the face, whilst an almost merry twinkle
animated his small blue eyes.
"By no means," I replied suavely; and we rode together for a few minutes
I had wakened the wrong man. The Immovable had scored, simply because
he was a person of one idea, and that idea panoplied in impenetrable ignorance.
A compound idea, by the way: namely, that Alf's bullocks were going
to the station yards, and that he, Fitz-Hengist, was taking them there.
All this was apparent to me as I regarded him out of the comer of my eye.
"Foak bea n't a-gwean ter walk on hutheh foak," he remarked calmly.
"A gentleman against the world for bull-headedness," I sneered, aiming,
in desperation, at the heel by which mother Nature had held him during
his baptism in the thick, slab bath of undiluted oxy-obstinacy
(scientific symbol, Jn Bl).
"Hordehs is hordehs," he argued, as the good arrow-point penetrated
his epidermis, fair in the vulnerable spot.
I laughed contemptuously. "Fat lot you care for orders! A man in your position
talking about orders! Get out!"
"Wot's a (person) to diew?" The point was forcing its way through
the sensitive second-skin, or cutis.
"Do!" I repeated, with increasing scorn. "Strikes me, you can do pretty well
as you like on this station."
"Bea n't Oi a-diewin' my diewty?" he asked in wavering expostulation--the point
now settling in the vascular tissues.
"It's in the blood, right enough," I retorted, with insolent frankness,
and still regarding him out of the comer of my eye. "I believe you're
Viscount Canterbury's brother, on the wrong side of the blanket."
"Keep 'e tempeh; keep 'e tempeh," said he deprecatingly, as the poison
filtered through his system. "Zpeak 'e moind feear atwixt man an' man.
Bea n't Oi a-diewin' wot Oi be a-peead f'r diewin'? Coomh!"
"Well, you are a rum character," I remarked, judiciously assisting the action
of the virus. "I'm surprised at a gentleman in your position making excuses
like that. Do you know"--and my tones became soft and confidential--"something
struck me that you were an Englishman." (Even this was n't too strong).
"I wish you were, both for my sake and your own. However, that can't
be helped. Now, for the future, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing
that you had your own way, and that you walked a man's bullocks off
to the yard while he was helpless. Yes, sir; I 'm glad you're not
an Englishman. But the sun's too hot for my bare skin, so I must be
getting back; and if I've said anything to offend you, I 'm sorry for it,
and I beg your pardon." Then, still regarding him out of the comer of my eye,
I turned Cleopatra slowly round.
"'Ole 'aad!" he snorted. "Oi calls 'e a (adj.) feul!"
With this sop to his own dignity, the boundary man slapped his Episcopalian
charger round the barrel--not round the flank, for the animal had none--with
his doubled cart-whip, and turned off the track at a right-angle, beckoning me
to follow. When he had gone twenty yards, he pulled steadily on one rein
and, so to speak, wore his ship of the plains round till we faced the cattle
again--for I had simultaneously pirouetted Cleopatra on one hind foot.
"Fetch 'em back, Jack," said he authoritatively. "Put 'em weare 'e got 'em,
an' leab'm boide. Iggerant (people) we be; dunno nuffik; carnt diew
The black collie was sitting where he had stopped on the instant that we had
turned off; sitting with his head slightly canted to one side; one ear limp
and pendant, the other partly erect, and with something like a smile
on his expectant face. On hearing the order, he made a wide circuit round
the cattle, and quietly turned them back along the track, where he followed
them as before. Meanwhile, Sollicker sullenly slipped off his linen coat,
and handed it to me with a low growl. I thanked him with great sincerity,
and put it on.
But his glance at me as we fell-in behind the cattle seemed to demand
further appreciation; and I was not slow to respond--partly from a sense
of obligation, but principally from a broadening hope of extended concession.
I had already selected him as a singularly eligible guardian for Alf's
bullocks; and I knew that if I could once get him to accept the trust,
nothing short of dynamite would shift him. But the seduction of a
direct-action, single-cylinder purpose is a contract not to be taken by any
of your mushroom mental firms; and this was a large order. Of course,
the diplomatic flunkey-touch of nature has served as a letter of introduction
to the man; now I would follow up the national phase of this delicate
point of contact.
"No use," I remarked doggedly. "I give it up. I can't find words.
This is not a personal favour. It's an evidence of the principle that makes
an Englishman respected all over the world. All over the world, sir; for,
you know, the sun follows the English drum-beat right round the earth.
Now, I can't flatter you; I'd see you in the bottomless pit first;
I'm above anything of that kind; it sort of sticks in my throat; but I can
assure you that, in all my experience"----
"'Ees, 'ees; 'at 's horrite; 'at 's horrite. What d'y' think o' thet
(collie) f'r a dorg?"
There was impatience in the first half of the speech, and arrogance
in the last. I eased off, and took the branch track.
"He just knocks spots off any dog I've seen working cattle!" I burst-out.
"But you can't beat the Scotch collie"----
"Scotch coolie be dang! Doan' 'e know a Smiffiel' coolie? Chork an' cheese,
Oi calls 'em."
"Smithfield collie, of course! Did I say Scotch collie? Of course,
the Smithfield collie has been in good hands for hundreds of years;
and when you get the pure breed--Just look at that dog! How did you get such
a dog as that? Bred him yourself, I suppose?"
"Noa," he replied good-naturedly. "Oi g'e 'e foor moor troys. Coomh!"
"Bought him a pup?"
"Got him a present?"
"Not dezackly. Troy ageean."
I shook my head hopelessly, though I could have suggested another title
to the ownership of dogs--a very common one, too, and good enough till
the proper person comes interfering. Boys' dogs are generally held
under this tenure. My companion, seeing me at fault, remarked
with elephantine waggishness,
"'At (dog) coomed deaoun t' me f'm ebm!"
I assumed the look of a man who conceals staggering bewilderment under
the transparent disguise of incredulity; and Sollicker, looking, like Thurlow,
wiser than any man ever was, enjoyed my discomfiture as much as he was capable
of enjoying anything. Then he proceeded with great deliberation to interpret
his oracular utterance; but first, with a powerful facial exertion,
he wrenched his mouth and nose to one side, inhaling vigorously through
the lee nostril, then cleared his throat with the sound of a strongly-driven
wood-rasp catching on an old nail, and sent the result whirling from his mouth
at a butterfly on a stem of lignum--sent it with such accurate calculation
of the distance of his object, the trajectory of his missile, and the pace
of his horse, that the mucous disc smote the ornamental insect fair
on the back, laying it out, never to rise again. This was but a ceremonious
prologue, intended to deepen the impression of the coming revelation.
"Useter 'ev a 'oss Oi'd ketch hanyweares. 'Wo, Bob! 'n' 'ud stan' loike
a statoot t' Oi'd ketch 'e (animal), 'n' git onter 'im 'n' shove me hutheh
'osses in 'e yaad, 'n' ketch wich (one) Oi want. B't 'e doid hautumn afoor
las'--leas'ways, 'e got 'ees 'oine leg deaoun a crack, an' cou'n't recoverate,
loike; f'r 'e (beast) wur moo'n twenty y'r ole, 'n' stun blin', 'e wur.
Ahterwahs, by gully! Oi got pepper-follerin' ahteh me 'osses hevery mo'nin'
afoot. Wet 'n' droy; day hin, day heaout; tiew, three, foor heaours runnin';
'n' 'ey (horses) spankin' abeaout, kickin' oop 'er 'eels loike wun o'clock.
'Ed ter wark 'em deaoun afoot, loike."
"But why did n't you hobble them?"
His face reddened slightly. "Me 'obble my 'osses! Tell 'e wot, lad:
'at 's f'r w'y 'e C'lonian 'osses bea n't no good, aside o' Hinglish 'osses.
Ain't got n' moor g-ts 'n a snoipe. G-ts shooked outen 'em a-gallerpin'
in 'obbles. Tell 'e, Oi seed my (horses) a-gallerpin' foor good heaours,
'n' me ahteh 'em all 'e toime. Noo 'osses 'ud dure sich gallerpin' in 'obbles.
Doan' 'e preach 'obbles ter me, lad. Oi got good 'osses; noo man betteh;
'osses fit f'r a gentleman; on'y C'lonian 'osses 'es C'lonian fau'ts--ahd
ter ketch--'ell ter ketch. Fifteen monce--hevery day on it--wet 'n' droy;
day hin, day heaout; tiew, three, foor heaours runnin'; 'n' 'ey (horses)
spankin' abeaout, kickin' oop 'er 'eels loike wun o'clock, 'n' gittin' wuss 'n'
wuss, steed o' betteh 'n' betteh. Toimes, Oi see me a'moos' losin' tempeh."
I turned away my face to conceal my emotion. Sollicker went on----
"Accohdbl', wun mo'nin' las' winteh, heaout Oi goos, o' course; 'n' my 'osses
'ed n't n' moo 'rn stahted trampin' loike; 'n' heverythink quiet 's zabbath,
'n' nubbody abeout f'r moiles; 'n' horf goos 'em 'osses loike billy-o; horf
'ey goos 'arf-ways reaoun' 'he paddick, 'n' inter 'e stockyaad 'n' 'ere
'ey boides; 'n' 'at dorg a-settin' in 'e panel, a-watchin' of 'em, loike Neaow,
'ow d'ye ceaount f'r 'at, lad? Doan' 'at nonpulse 'e? Coomh!"
"It does, indeed! You did n't put him on the horses?"
"Noa, s'elp me bob. Neveh clapped heyes honter 'im, not t' Oi seed 'im hahteh
my 'osses, a-yaadin' of 'em f'r me. My Missus, she 'lows a hangel fetched 'e
(dog) deaown f'm ebm! At 's w'y Oi calls 'm 'Jack'."
"I see!" said I admiringly. Which, the censorious reader will not fail
to notice, marked a slight deflection from my moral code. "And he stayed
with you, sir?"
"Follered hahteh me 'oss's 'eels heveh since. (Dog) dews heverythink loike
a Christian--heverythink b't tork. Hevery mo'nin', hit 's 'Cyows, Jack;
we's y' cyows?' An' horf goos Jack, 'ees hown self, 'n' fetches 'e cyows.
Hahteh breakfas' hit 's ''Osses, Jack; fetch y' 'osses'. An' horf trots Jack,
'n' presinkly 'e 'osses be in 'e yaad, 'n' 'e (dog) a-settin' in 'e panel,
a-watchin' of 'em."
"Beats all!" I murmured, thinking how the Munchausens run in all shapes;
then, desiring to minister occasion to this somewhat clumsy practitioner,
I continued, "I suppose you drop across some whoppers of snakes
in your rounds, sir?"
"Sceace none. Hain't seed b't wun f'r tiew year pas'; 'n' 'e (reptile)
wah n't noo biggeh 'n me w'ip-an'l."
"Grand horse you're riding," I remarked, after a pause.
This neatly-placed comment opened afresh Solicker's well of English undefiled;
and another hour passed pleasantly enough, except that Alf's bullocks preyed
on my mind, and I wanted them to prey on Yoongoolee instead. I therefore
modestly opened my mouth in parable, recounting some half-dozen noteworthy
reminiscences, as they occurred to my imagination, and always slightly
or scornfully referring to the magnanimous and indomitable hero of my yarn
as 'one of these open-hearted English fools,' or as 'an ass of a John Bull
that had n't sense enough to mind his own business.' These apologues
all seemed to point toward chivalrous succour of the helpless and afflicted
as a conspicuous weakness of the English character; and Sollicker listened
with a stolid approbation unfortunately altogether objective in character.
I never dealt better since I was a man. No one has dealt better since
Antony harangued the Sollickers of his day on dead Caesar's behalf;
but I differed from Antony so largely in result that the comparison
is seriously disturbed. There was no more spring in my auditor than in a bag
of sand. The honest fellow's double-breasted ignorance stood solidly
in the way, rendering prevarication or quibble, or any form of subterfuge
unnecessary on his part. He merely formed himself into a hollow square
and casually glanced at the impossibility of those particular bullocks
loafing on his paddock. If they came across the river again, he would
hunt them back into Mondunbarra--he would do that much--but Muster M'Intyre's
orders were orders. Two bullock drivers (here a truculent look came over
the retainer's face) had selected in sight of the very wool-shed;
and now all working bullocks found loafing on the run were to be yarded
at the station--this lot being specially noticed, for Muster M'Intyre
had a bit of a derry on Alf.
By way of changing the subject, Sollicker became confidential. He had been
in his present employ ever since his arrival in the country, ten years before,
and had never set foot outside the run during that time. He was married,
three years ago come Boxing Day, to the station bullockdriver's daughter;
a girl who had been in service at the house, but could n't hit it
with the missus. Muster M'Intyre wanted to see him settled down,
and had fetched the parson a-purpose to do the job. He had only one
of a family; a little boy, called Roderick, in honour of Muster M'Intyre.
His own name (true to the 9th rule of the Higher Nomenology) was
Edward Stanley Vivian--not Zedekiah Backband, as the novel-devouring reader
might be prone to imagine--and his age was forty-four. If I knew anyone
in straits for a bit of ready cash, I was to send that afflicted person
to him for relief. He liked to oblige people; and his tariff was fifteen
per cent. per annum; but the security must be unexceptionable.
I gave him some details of Alf's sickness, and asked whether he had
any medicine at home--Pain-killer, by preference. I have great faith
in this specific; and I'll tell you the reason.
A few years before the date of these events, it had been my fortune to be
associated, in arduous and unhealthy work, with fifteen or twenty
fellow-representatives of the order of society which Daniel O'Connell
was accustomed to refer to as 'that highly important and respectable class,
the men of no property'--true makers of history, if the fools only knew,
or could be taught, their power and responsibility. Occasionally one of these
potential rulers and practical slaves would come to me with white lips
and unsteady pace----
"I say, Tom; I ain't a man to jack-up while I got a sanguinary leg to stan' on;
but I'm gone in the inside, some road. I jist bin slingin' up every
insect-infected sanguinary thing I've et for the last month; an' I 'm as weak
as a sanguinary cat. I must ding it. Mebbe I'll be right to-morrow,
if I jist step over to the pub., an' git"----
Here I would stop him, and endeavour to establish a diagnosis. But a man
with the vocabulary of a Stratford wool-comber (whatever a woolcomber may be)
of the 16th century--a vocabulary of about two hundred and fifty words,
mostly obscene--is placed at a grave disadvantage when confronted by
scientific terminology; and my patient, casting symptomatic precision
to the winds, and roughly averaging his malady, would succinctly describe
himself as sanguinary bad. That was all that was wrong with him.
Nevertheless, having a little theory of my own respecting sickness,
I always undertook to grapple with the complaint. I had noticed as a singular
feature in Pain-killer, that the more it is diluted, the more unspeakably
nauseous and suffocating it becomes; wherefore, my medicine chest consisted
merely of a couple of bottles of this rousing drug. My practice was to exhibit
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