Such is Life
Part 8 out of 9
So I played softly and voluptuously, till my scanty repertory was exhausted,
and then drifted into a tender capriccio. I noticed Alf move uneasily
on his bed; but, knowing the effect of music on my own mind, and remembering
Moriarty's and Montgomery's independent panegyrics on the boundary man's skill,
I felt put on my mettle, and performed with a power and feeling which
"Do you like music?" asked Alf, at length.
"Like it!" I repeated. "I would give one-fourth of the residue of my life
to be a good singer and musician. As it is, I'm not much of a player,
and still less of a vocalist; but I'll give you a song if you like.
How sweetly everything sounds to-night?" Bee-o-buoy-bee-o-buoy-bee-o-buoy----
"Do you like jews-harp music?" interrupted Alf, sitting up on the bed.
"Not if I could play any better instrument--such as the violin, or the
concertina; though I should in any case avoid the piano, for fear of flattening
the ends of my fingers. Still, the jews-harp is a jews-harp; and this is the
very best I could find in the market. Humble as it looks, and humble as it
undeniably is, it has sounded in every nook and corner of Riverina. Last time
I took it out, it was to give a poor, consumptive old blackfellow a treat, and
now, you see, I tune, to please a peasant's ear, the harp a king had loved
to bear." Bee-o-buoy-bee-o-buoy-bee-o-bee-o-bee-o-buoy----
"I'll give you a tune on the violin, if you like," exclaimed my companion,
rising to his feet.
I carefully re-packed my simple instrument, while the boundary man took
from its case a dusky, dark-brown violin. Then he turned down the lamp
till a mere bead of flame showed above the burner, resumed his seat
by the table, and, after some preliminary screwing and testing, began to play.
Query: If the relation of moonlight to insanity is a thing to be derided,
what shall we say of the influence of music on the normal mind? Is it not
equally unaccountable in operation, however indisputable in effect?
Contemplate music from a scientific standpoint--that is, merely as a succession
of sound-waves, conveyed from the instrument to the ear by pulsations
of the atmosphere, or of some other intervening medium. Music is thus reduced
to a series of definite vibrations, a certain number of which constitute
a note. Each separate note has three distinct properties, or attributes.
First, its intensity, or loudness, which is governed by the height, depth,
amplitude--for these amount to the same thing--of the waves produced
in the medium. Second, the timbre, or quality, which is regulated by
the shape, or outline, of these waves. Third the pitch, high or low, which is
controlled by the distance from crest to crest of the sound-waves--or,
as we say, from node to node of the vibrations.
To the most sensitive human ear, the highest limit of audibleness is reached
by sound-waves estimated at twenty-eight-hundredths of an inch from node
to node--equal to 48,000 vibrations per second. The extreme of lowness
to which our sense of hearing is susceptible, has been placed at 75 feet
from node to node--or 15 vibrations per second. This total range
of audibleness covers 12 octaves; running, of course, far above and far below
the domain of music. The extreme highness and lowness of sounds which convey
musical impression are represented, respectively, by 2,000 and by 30
vibrations per second--or by sound--waves, in the former case, of 6 1/2 inches,
and in the latter, of 37 1/2 feet.
Therefore, there are not only sounds which by reason of highness or lowness
are unmusical, but, beyond these, others to which the tympanum of the human ear
is insensible. Nature is alive with such sounds, each carrying its three
distinct properties of intensity, timbre and pitch; but whilst this
muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close us in, we can no more hear them
than we can hear the 'music of the spheres'--apt term for that celestial
harmony of motion which guides the myriad orbs of the Universe in their career
through Space. But, to take an illustration from the visual faculty:
any sound beyond the highest limit of audibleness would resemble a surface
lined so minutely and closely as to appear perfectly plain; whilst a sound
too low in pitch to be heard would be represented by superficial undulations
of land or water so vast in extent that the idea of unevenness would not occur.
We have fairly trustworthy evidence that whales communicate with each other
by notes so low in pitch--by sound-vibrations so long in range, so few
per second--that no human ear can detect them. Bats, on the other hand,
utter calls so high-producing such rapid pulsations--as to be equally
inaudible to us
Unison of musical notes is attained when the respective numbers of pulsations
per second admit a low common-divisor. For instance, the note produced
by 60 vibrations per second will chord with one produced by 120--each node
of the former coinciding with each alternate node of the latter.
60 and 90 will also chord; 60 and 70 will produce discord; 60 and 65,
worse discord. And so on. The science of musical composition lies
in the management of sound-pulsation, and is governed by certain rigid
mathematical laws--which laws the composer need not understand.
Air-movement may, of course, take place without sound-vibration,
for air is only incidentally a sound-conductor. Earth, metal, water,
and especially wood (along the grain), are better media than the atmosphere,
for the transmission of sound. But sound may be transmitted without vibration
of intervening sound-media. The electric current, passing along the
telephone wire, picks up the sound waves at one end, and instantaneously
deposits them, in good order and condition, at the other end--say, a couple
of hundred miles away.
So that the brilliant pianist of the concert hall; the cornet-player
of the "Army" ring; the blind fiddler at the corner; the mother, singing
her angel-donation to sleep; Clancy, thundering forth something concerning
his broken heart, whilst tailing up the stringing cattle; the canary
in its cage; the magpie on the fence--are each setting in motion the complex
machinery of music, and with about equal scientific knowledge of what
they are doing. To the philosophic mind, however, they are not playing
or singing; they are producing and controlling sound-vibrations, arbitrarily
varied in duration and quality; a series of such pulsations constituting
a note; a series of notes constituting an air. These vibrations are diffused
from the instrument or the lips, at a speed varying with temperature, media,
and other conditions; they ripple, spread, percolate, everywhere;
they penetrate and saturate all solids and gases, yet are palpable corporeally
only to the tympanum of the ear, and mechanically (as yet) only to the
diaphragm of the phonograph.
Such, however, is the scientific analysis of music. Spoken language appeals
by the same process, but with very different effect. No one can understand
a language which he has not previously learned, word by word; and the verbal
appeal, however imaginative or spiritual, comes in concrete form--that is,
in the nature of information. Spoken words inform the emotional side
of our nature, through the intellectual; whereas music, operating outwardly
in the same manner, speaks over the head of intellect to an inborn sense
which ceases not to receive as a little child. And herein lies its mystery.
For the music thus impassively anatomised by Science is a voice from
the Unseen, pregnant with meaning beyond translation. A mere ripple
of sound-vibration, called into existence by human touch; a creation,
vanishing from its birth, elusive, irreclaimable as a departing soul,
yet strong to sway heart and hand as the tornado sways the pliant pine.
It is a language peculiar to no period, race, or caste. Ageless and universal,
it raises to highest daring, or suffuses with tenderness, to-day and here,
as once on Argo's deck, or in the halls of Persepolis. Purely material
in origin and analysis, easily explicable in mere physical operation,
its influence is one of the things that are not dreamt of in the philosophy
of Science. Why should a certain psychological effect ensue upon certain
untranslatable sounds being placed in a given relation to each other,
and not when the same sounds are placed in another relation?--and why should
that effect be always upward? Why should the composer be perforce a prophet
of the sphere above earth's murky horizon--the musician his interpreter--
charged with embassy of peace, and fortitude, and new-born ardour,
to the troubled, and weary, and heavy-laden? Has ingenuity never distilled
from music any spirit of evil?
None. Euterpe alone of the Muses defies seduction. Harmony is intrinsically
chaste. There is no secular music; all music is sacred. Whatever the song
the Sirens sang, its music was pure; and no less pure were the notes
which breathed from Nero's lute, whilst the blaze of ten thousand homes
glutted his Imperial lust for spectacle. Divorce the unworthy song,
stay the voluptuous dance, and the music suffers no clinging defilement;
the redeemed melodies, stainless as fresh-fallen snow, may be wedded to songs
of gallant aspiration or angelic sympathy, which shall raise the soul awhile
above earth's sordid infection, disclosing the inextinguishable affinity
of the divine part of man's dual nature with the dream-like possibility
of Eden--purity, and fearless faith, and love unspeakable.
The story of the Thracian lyre soothing the horrors of the underworld,
and melting to relentment its gloomy king--the story of the shepherd-minstrel's
harp chasing the shapeless penumbra of looming insanity from the first
Hebrew brow crowned in Jehovah's despite--the story of the mighty prophet
Elisha, fettered to earth by wrath and scorn till, at his own command,
the music swelled, and his enfranchised spirit rose on its viewless wings
to behold the veiled Future already woven from the tangled skein of
the troubled Present--the thousand-fold story of music's magic and mystery,
stretches back into the forgotten Past, and onward into the imagined Future.
Onward into the fathomless eternity; for though 'the heaven of each is
but what each desires'--though the Aryan heaven be a place of gradation
and precedence, a realm to reign in--though the heaven of the Jewish
apostle-seer burn with the gold and sparkle with the gems dear to his race--
though the paradise of the sun-scorched Arab be dark with shade of evergreen
trees, and cool with ripple of never-failing streams--yet is the universal art
so intertwined with ideal bliss that no heaven of conscious enjoyment
has been pictured by belated humanity but music rings for ever there.
For alas! what else of mundane achievement can fancy conceive as reproduced
in regions of eternal perfection, or transplanted thither? Science is of
the earth; ever bearing sad penalty, in toil of mind and body--and what art,
save music, has man dedicated to Deity-worship, without disappointment
and loss? Doubtfully, Architecture; and for such consecration we have found
no more expressive name than 'frozen music.'
This unknown anchorite's playing was both a mystery and a revelation.
I had never before heard anything to compare with it, nor do I expect ever
to hear the like again. Talent, taste, feeling, were there, all in
superlative degree, and disclosed with the unassuming confidence of power;
whilst long and loving practice in solitude had averted a certain
artificiality which, in the judgment of the uninitiated, generally accompanies
musical skill. His was no triumphant mastery of a complicated and perplexing
score; he was a sympathetic interpreter, a life-breathing, magic-lending
exponent of his composer's revelations, now his own. Solitary practice,
with no one but himself to please, would unavoidably give a distinct character
to his performance, and this character was evident from the first;
it was melancholy--a weary, wistful melancholy, beyond repining or tears,
beyond impatience or passion; it was the involuntary record of a gentle heart
breaking slowly under discipline untempered by one ray of earthly hope.
My own incompetence to identify by name a tune which I spiritually recognise
is, perhaps, the most disgraceful manifestation of my neglected musical
education--at all events, it is the one which causes me most uneasiness.
Experience has warned me never to ask a player for the 'Marseillaise,'
or 'Croppies Lie Down,' or what not; for he is pretty sure to say,
'Why, that's just what I've been giving you,' or words to similar effect.
Alf at last grew tired of my non-committal remarks and replies, and,
with a tact which impressed me more afterward than at the time, named each tune
before and after playing it. For instance, the yearning tenderness
of an exquisitely rendered air would seem to bring back some lost consciousness
of an earlier and happier existence, suffusing my whole being with a pensive
sadness not to be exchanged for any joy. I would feel the notes familiar,
but whether of five years or five million years before, or whether in the body
or out of the body, I could n't tell. Alf, on concluding, would simply murmur,
"Home, Sweet Home," and all would be explained. Then, perhaps, he would say,
"The Last Rose of Summer"; and I would be able to follow him
intelligently right through.
But he did n't confine himself to the comfortable vulgarity of popular airs.
He played selections from Handel, Mozart, Wagner, and I don't know whom;
while the time passed unnoticed by both of us. At length he laid the violin
across his knees, and, after a pause, his voice rose in one of the sweetest
songs ever woven from words. And such a voice!--rich, soft, transcendent,
yet suggesting ungauged resources of enchantment unconsciously held in reserve.
I sat entranced as verse after verse flowed slowly on, every syllable clear
and distinct as in speech; the subtle tyranny of vocal harmony admitting
no intruding thought beyond a regretful sense that the song must end.
But sorrow's sel' wears past, Jean,
And joy's a-comin' fast, Jean,
The joy that's aye to last,
I' the land o' the leal.
A' our freens are gane, Jean,
We've lang been left alane, Jean.
We'll a' meet again
I' the land o' the leal.
"How happy Jean Armour must have been to be with poor Burns, while this
cold world seemed to slip away from his feet, and leave him to rest with his
forgiving Saviour," murmured the boundary man, laying his violin on the table,
whilst he gazed absently into the expiring fire. "That song was composed
by Burns, on his death-bed. Is n't it beautiful?"
"It is one of the most beautiful songs in the language," I replied;
"but Burns is not the author. The song was composed by a woman--
Baroness Nairne. It is not for men to write in that strain. As for
Jean Armour--well, she had a good deal to forgive, too."
"Ah! do you think a woman loves less because she has much to forgive?"
returned Alf sadly, and then added, with sudden interest, "But what difference
do you notice between the poetry of men and women? What is the mark
of women's work?"
"Sincerity," I replied. "Notwithstanding Mrs. Hemans, and others,
you will find that, as a rule, men's poetry is superior to women's,
not only in vigour, but in grace. This is not strange, for grace is,
after all, a display of force, an aspect of strength. But in the quality
of sincerity, woman is a good first. Take an illustration, while I think
of it: Compare the verses of my ancestor, Collins, 'On the Grave of Thompson,'
with Eliza Cook's verses, 'On the Grave of Good'"----
"But Collins was never married," interposed Alf.
"True," I replied pleasantly. "But our family is aristocratic,
and a baton-sinister only sets us off. However, in the two poems I was
speaking of, the subject matter is similar; the pieces are about the same
length and the writers have adopted the same iambic octo-syllable,
with alternate rhymes. Now, my ancestor's poem is not excelled in grace
by anything within the range of our literature; but there's nothing else
in it whatever. Eliza Cook's versification is, in a measure, forced
and imperfect, her language occasionally homely and rugged, but the strong
beating of a sincere, sympathetic heart is audible in every line."
"But your ancestor is the most artificial writer of an artificial school,
and Eliza Cook is the most spontaneous writer of a spontaneous school,"
replied Alf, with the contradictive impulse which amusingly accompanied
his teachableness. "Of course," he added deprecatingly, "I would n't presume
to criticise such a poet as Collins; but you said, yourself"----
"Oh, that's all right," said I generously. "However, though your argument
blunts the force of my illustration, it does n't weaken my contention.
You'll find the distinction I've pointed-out hold good in a greater or less
degree throughout literature; you'll find examples by the thousand,
and of course, exceptions by the dozen. But sing again, Alf, please.
Every minute you're silent, is a minute wasted. Sing anything you like--
"I wanted to have a talk," remonstrated Alf. "You were speaking of
the difference between men and women in their literary work. I believe
you're right, though it never struck me before. Now there's another question
that might be worth comparing notes upon. Your remark just brought it
into my mind. Here it is"--he hesitated a moment, then went on, with a certain
constraint in his voice; the constraint we are apt to feel when forced
to plump out the word 'love,' in its narrower sense--"When women love,
they don't know why they love; they just love because they do--so they say,
and we're bound to believe them. But when we love women, why do we love them?
Being more logical, we ought to know. Do we love a woman for her beauty?--
or for her virtues?--or for her accomplishments?--or for what? I fancy,
if we understood ourselves, we should be able to say we loved her for some
particular quality; and the others are--as you might say--Oh, you know! What
quality is it, then, that we love a woman for? There's a problem for you!"
"I can solve it with mathematical certainty, Alf--that is to say, in such
a manner as to convey the impossibility of the solution being otherwise
than according to my finding. When I'm allowed to work-out these things in
my own circuitous way--which is seldom the case--there are few questions
in moral or psychological philosophy which the commission of my years
and art can to no issue of true honour bring. But you have to sing six songs
first. I'll leave the choice of them to yourself."
"Very well," replied Alf readily. "I'll sing the songs as they come
to my mind. Remember your promise, now."
Then, rich, soft, and sweet, rose that exquisite voice in easy volume,
flooding with new and vivid meaning old familiar verses. Here was my
opportunity. I was interested in this boundary man, and resolved to know
his history. Rejecting Alf Jones as an assumed name, Nomenology would be
at fault here; yet knowing already, by a kind of incommunicable intuition,
that he was a Sydney-sider, and had been in some way connected with the
drapery-business, I expected to have my knowledge so supplemented by the
character of his songs, that--counting reasonably on a little further
information, to be gathered before my departure--I should be able to work-out
his biography at least as correctly as biographies are generally worked-out.
For the esoteric side of his history, I counted much on his spontaneous choice
of songs. Man is but a lyre (in both senses of the phonetically-taken word,
unfortunately); and some salient experience, some fire-graven thought,
some clinging hope, is the plectrum which strikes the passive chords.
An old truism will bear expansion here, till it embraces the rule that,
whatever else a man may sing, he always sings himself. But you must know
how to interpret.
I have said that melancholy was the key-note of Alf's playing. Fused
with this, and deeply coloured by it, the tendency of his songs was toward
love, and love alone--chaste, supersensuous, but purely human and exclusive
love. No suggestion of national inspiration; no broad human sympathies;
no echo of the oppressed ones' cry; no stern challenge of wrong; only
a hopeless, undying love, and an unspeakable self-pity. He wasn't even a lyre;
he was a pipe for Fortune's finger to sound what stop she pleased; and,
judging from the tone of his playing, and the selection of his songs,
it had pleased that irresponsible goddess to attune the chords of his being
to a love, pure as heaven, sad as earth, and hopeless as the other place.
Who is she? thought I.
Silence again sank on the faint yellow lamplight of the hut, as the last
syllables of the sixth song died mournfully away--'She is far from the Land
where Her Young Hero Sleeps.' Then the boundary rider lit his pipe,
and slightly moved his seat, placing himself in an easy listening attitude,
with his elbow on the table, and his hand across his face.
"Alf," said I impressively; "you'll certainly find yourself shot into outer
darkness, if you don't alter your hand. You're recklessly transgressing
the lesson set forth in the parable of the Talents. Don't you know it's wrong
to bury yourself here, eating your own life away with melancholia,
seeing that you're gifted as you are? Maestros, and highclass critics,
and other unwholesomely cultured people, might possibly sit on you,
or damn you with faint praise; but you could afford to take chance of that,
for beyond all doubt, the million would idolise you. I'm not looking
at the business aspect of the thing; I'm thinking of the humanising influence
you would exercise, and the happiness you would confer, and, altogether,
of the unmixed good that would lie to your credit, if you made the intended
use of your Lord's money. And here you are, burying it in the earth."
"O, I would n't be here, I suppose, only for the disfigurement of my face,"
he replied, swallowing a sob.
"That's nothing," I interjected, deeply pained by his allusion, and inwardly
soliciting forgiveness without repentance whilst I spoke. "Did the British
think less of Nelson--Did Lady Hamilton think less of him, if it comes
to that--for the loss of his arm and his eye? Why, even the conceited German
students value scars on the face more than academic honours. Believe me,
Alf, while a man merely conducts himself as a man, his scars need n't cost him
a thought; but if he's an artist, as you are, what might otherwise be
a disfigurement becomes the highest claim to respect and sympathy.
It's pure effeminancy to brood over such things, for that's just where we have
the advantage of women. 'A woman's first duty,' says the proverb,
'is to be beautiful.' If Lady Hamilton had been minus an eye and an arm,
she would scarcely have attained her unfortunate celebrity."
The boundary man laid down his pipe, rested his forehead on his arm
upon the table, and for a minute or two sobbed like a child. It was dreadful
to see him. He was worse than Ida, in an argument with Mrs. Beaudesart;
he was as bad as an Australian judge, passing mitigated sentence on some
Presently he rose, and walked unsteadily to the other end of the hut;
his dog, with a low, pathetic whine, following him. Perceiving that he was
off again, I turned up the flame of the lamp, with a view to neutralising
the effect of the moonlight.
"Are you not well, Alf? "
No answer. He was lying on his back on the bed, one arm across his face,
and the other hanging down; whilst his dog, crouched at the bedside,
was silently licking the brown fingers. Then my eye happened to fall
on the American clock over the fire-place. Not that time, surely!
But my watch had beaten the clock by ten minutes.
"I say, Alf; I don't know how to apologise for keeping you up till this time.
It's half-past eleven."
Still no answer. I brought in my possum-rug, and began to spread it
on the floor. Alf had risen, and rolled his blankets back off the bed.
He now took out the mattress of dried grass, and laid it on the floor,
then re-arranged his blankets.
"But I certainly won't rob you of your tick," said I. "One characteristic
of childhood I still retain is the ability to sleep anywhere, like a dog."
"You must take it, if you sleep in this hut," he replied curtly.
"Take that too." He handed me his feather pillow.
"Do you shut your door at nights?" I asked. "Because, if you do,
I'll chain Pup to the fence. He likes to go in and out at his own pleasure;
and, if he found himself shut-out, he might get lost."
"It can stay open to-night," replied Alf.
"Right," said I; and I began to disrobe, as I always do when circumstances
permit. Sleeping with your clothes on is slovenly; sleeping with your spurs on
is, in addition, ruinously destructive to even the strongest bed-clothes.
"By-the-way, Alf," I remarked, as I pulled off my socks; "I was forgetting
your problem. The solution is clear enough to me, but the inquiry opens out
no end of side-issues, each of which must be followed out to its
re-intersection with the main line of argument, if we wish to leave
our conclusion unassailable at any point. The question, then, is:
Do we love a woman for her beauty, for her virtues, or for her accomplishments?
Now let us make sure of our terminology." I paused, but Alf maintained silence.
"In the first place," I continued, kicking off the garment which it is unlawful
even to name, "we must inquire what the personal beauty of woman is,
and wherein it consists. It consists in approximation to a given ideal;
and this ideal is not absolute; it is elastic in respect of races and
civilisations, though each type may be regarded as more or less rigid
within its own domain. Passing over such racial ideals as the Hottentot Venus,
and waiving comparison between the Riverine ideal of fifty years ago
and that of to-day, we have the typical Eve of Flanders as one ideal,
and the typical Eve of Italy as another." Again I paused, but Alf
"Moreover," I continued, settling myself down into the comfortable mattress--
"if no specimen of classic art had survived the dark ages, I question whether
we would implicitly accept as our present ideal the chiselled profile,
in which physiognomists fail to find any special indications of moral
or intellectual excellence. But when we based our modern civilisation
on the relics of classic Greece--directly, or through Rome--we naturally
accepted the ideal of beauty then and there current. Attila or Abderrahman
might have deflected the European standard of beauty into a widely different
ideal, but it was not to be. And we're too prone to accept our classic ideal
as being identified with civilisation and refinement. We should remember
that the flat features of the Coptic ideal looked out on high attainments
in art and science when our Hellenic archetypes, in spite of their chiselled
profiles, were drifting across from the Hindo-Koosh, in the
blanket-and-tomahawk stage of civilisation. Also, the slant-eyed ideal
of China has a decent record. Further still, the German is facially coarser,
and mentally higher, than the Circassian." Again I paused.
"Are n't you sleepy?" asked Alf, gently but significantly.
"I ought to be," I replied, humouring his present caprice, though grieved
to withhold the solution which he had so earnestly desired an hour before.
"Just as the secondary use of the bee is to make honey, and his primary one
to teach us habits of industry, so the secondary use of the hen is to lay eggs,
and her primary one to teach us proper hours. But, unfortunately,
we don't avail ourselves of the lessons written for us in the Book of Nature;
we simply eat the honey and the eggs, allowing our capability and god-like
reason to fust in us, unused. Such is life, Alf." And in thirty seconds
I was asleep.
On awaking, as usual, to listen for bells, I became conscious of something
between a sigh and a groan, outside the hut. This was repeated again
and again, until, actuated by compassion rather than curiosity, I crept
to the door, and looked out. Six or eight yards away, Alf was kneeling
at the fence, his arms on one of the wires, and the poor, disfigured face,
wet with tears, turned westward to the pitiless moon, now just setting.
Thou art in a parlous state, shepherd, thought I; and it then occurred to me
that my own acute, philosophic temperament was one of the things I ought to be
thankful for. But I couldn't feel thankful; I could only feel powerless
and half-resentful in the presence of a distress which seemed proof against
palliative, let alone antidote. At length the moon disappeared;
then the boundary man's forehead sank on his arms, a calm came over him,
and I knew that his shapeless vagaries had taken form in prayer.
So I withdrew to my possum-rug, speculating on the mysterious effect
of a ray of lunar light on grey matter protected by various plies of
apparently well-arranged natural armour.
When I woke again, the early sunlight was streaming through the open door,
and Alf, with a short veil of crape concealing the middle of his face,
was frying chops at the fire. The fit had passed away, and he was
perfectly sane and cheerful.
My first solicitude was for Pup, but I soon saw that he was more than
merely safe. He was lying at the foot of the meat-pole, gorged like
a boa-constrictor, while a pair of half-chewed feet, still attached
to the loosened rope, were all that remained of the turkey. Probably he had
stood on his hind-feet, scratching at the rope, till the hitch,
hurriedly secured in the first place, had come undone. I was too well
accustomed to such things to feel any embarrassment; and as for Alf,
I couldn't help thinking that the loss of his turkey enhanced
the cordiality of his manner.
"Grandest dog I've seen for years," he remarked, as he set the table.
"Do you get many kangaroos with him?"
"Oh, no," I replied; "I never get one, and don't intend to. I never let him
go after anything. It's quite enough, and sometimes more than enough,
for him to do his regular travelling. The hot weather comes very severe
on him; in fact, some days I have to give him a drink every hour, or oftener.
Then he has the hard ground to contend with; and when the rain comes,
the dirt sticks between his toes, and annoys him. Windy weather is bad
for him, too; and frost puts a set on him altogether. Then he's always
swarming with fleas, and in addition to that, the flies have a particular fancy
for him. And, seeing that one half of the population is always plotting
to steal him, and the other half trying to poison him, while, for his own part,
he has a confirmed habit of getting lost, you may be sure we have plenty
to occupy our minds, without thinking about kangaroos. He's considerably
more trouble to me than all my money, but he's worth it. As you say,
he's a fine dog. I don't know what I should do without him."
"I don't know what I should do without my dog, either," replied Alf.
And he related some marvellous stories of the animal's sagacity; to which,
of course, I could n't respond on Pup's behalf.
Then, whilst we saddled-up and rode off together at a walk, the conversation
naturally drifted to horses, until about ten o'clock, when we stopped
at a little wicket-gate in the north-east corner of Alf's ten-by-five paddock.
"You're in the Patagonia Paddock now," said he, as I passed through the gate.
"You'll strike the track in six miles. Can I do anything for you
at the station?" he added, after a pause. "Any message, or anything?"
"By-the-way, yes, Alf, if you'll be so good. When will you be going across?"
"To-day," he replied. "I'm not going round the paddock."
I drew my writing-case from Bunyip's pack; and this was the note I pencilled:--
Wallaby Track, l0/ 2/'84
When you remarked, yesterday, that the saddle on my horse
was very like one that a red-headed galoot had stolen
from you, you displayed a creditable acuteness, combined
with a still more creditable unsuspiciousness. It was your
saddle once, but it is yours no longer. It is mine.
Demand not how the prize I hold;
It was not given, nor lent, nor sold
You will find three one-pound notes in this letter.
Please accept the same as compensation for loss of the
article in question. This is all you are likely to get;
for though the saddle is honestly worth about twice that
amount, my conscience now acquits me in the matter;
moreover, my official salary is so judiciously
proportioned to my frugal requirements that I can afford
no more. If you duly receive this money, and at the same
time feel hopelessly mystified concerning the saddle,
a double purpose will be fulfilled.
Yours, in a manner of speaking,
"I'll put this into Jack's hand, if I live," said the boundary man,
with amusing solemnity, as he buttoned his jumper-pocket over the letter.
"Thank you, Alf. And now," I continued, retaining for a moment the hand
he extended in farewell--"take my advice, and, while you're at the station,
give Montgomery notice. Let some more capable boundary man take your place.
You're not worth your damper at this work; for no man's ability is
comprehensive enough to cover musical proficiency such as yours,
and leave the narrowest flap available for anything else. I can see through
you like glass. I could write your biography. And, believe me,
you're no more fitted for this life than you are to preside over a school
of Stoic Philosophy. You're a reed, shaken by the wind. Be a man, Alf.
Turn your face eastward or southward, and challenge Fortune with your violin
and your voice."
He made no reply, but below the edge of the crape mask I saw his lips move,
as he bent his head in unconscious acquiescence.
A quarter of an hour afterward, I looked back to see him and his history
a shapeless speck, far away along the diminishing perspective of the line
of fence. There was something impressive in the recollection that,
during the whole of our companionship, he had never uttered one objectionable
or uncharitable word, nor attempted any witticism respecting Mrs. Beaudesart.
The reader, however unruly under weaker management, is by this time made aware
of a power, beyond his own likes and dislikes, controlling the selection
and treatment of these informal annals. That power, in the nature of things,
resides napoleonically with myself, and has, I trust, been exercised toward
the information and edification of the few who fall under its jurisdiction--
suggesting, as it does, Tom Hood's idea of perfect rule: An angel from heaven,
and a despotism.
Encouraged by this assurance, and prompted, as usual, by a refinement which
some might construe into fastidiousness, I shall once more avail myself
of the prerogative hitherto so profitably sustained. The routine record
of March 9 is not a desirable text. It would merely call forth from
fitting oblivion the lambing-down of two stalwart fencers by a pimply old
shanty-keeper; and you know this sort of thing has been described ad sickenum
by other pens, less proper than mine--described, in fact, till you would think
that, in the back-country, drinking took the place of Conduct, as three-fourths
of life; whilst the remaining fourth consisted of fighting. Whereas,
outside the shearing season, you might travel a hundred miles, calling at
five shanties, without seeing a man the worse for drink; and you would be still
more likely to go a thousand miles, calling at fifty shanties, without seeing
any indication of a fight. Of course, there are some queer tragedies,
and many melancholy farces, enacted at the shanties; but speaking in a broad,
statistical way, the shanty-keeper gets such a miserably small percentage
of the money earned out-back that he usually lives in saint-like indigence,
and dies in the odour of very inferior liquor. Here and there, the exceptional
case of a shanty-keeper retiring on his Congealed Ability goes to show
the fatuity of the curse--hypothesis, rounding us up on the one unassailable
bit of standing-ground, namely, that such is life.
It would do you no good to hear how the old Major (he was an ex-officer
of the Imperial army) fawned on my officialship, and threw himself in rapport
with my gentlemanship--how his haggard, handsome wife leered at me
over his shoulder--how the open-hearted asses of fencers, in weary alternation,
confidentially told me fragmentary and idiotic yarns--how they shook hands
with me till I was tired, and wept over me till I was disgusted--how they
irrelevantly and profusely apologised for anything they might have said,
and abjectly besought me, if I felt anyway nasty, to take it out of their
(adj.) hides--I say, it would do you no good.
So, for this and two other reasons, I shall take as my text the entry of
March 28, and a portion of the following verse. This arbitrary departure
in dates will give you another glimpse of Alf Jones. Also, the peculiar
scythe-sweep of my style of narrative will take in a rencontre with
another person, to whom, in your helpless state as a reader, you have already
been introduced. And if you take it not patiently, the more is your mettle.
FRI. MARCH 28. Wilcannia shower. Jack the Shellback.
SAT. MARCH 29. To Runnymede. Tom Armstrong and mate.
I had spent the night of the 27th at Burke's camp, on Boottara; my horses
faring decently for the season. Burke, the regular station-contractor,
had been off work for a month, keeping his twenty horses and twenty-four
bullocks in the Abbotsford Paddock, and watering them daily at Granger's Tank.
The Abbotsford Paddock, having gone dry in the spring, had fair grass in it,
but, of course, no station stock.
In spite of all the loafing I could do, the season was telling on my horses.
Their hoofs were worn to the similitude of quoits; you could count their ribs
a quarter of a mile off; and they had acquired that crease down the hip
pathetically known as 'the poor man's stripe.' Cleopatra's bucking had become
feeble and mechanical, and so transparently stagey that I used to be ashamed
of it. Still, my aversion to lending the horse, or having him duffed,
compelled me to keep his performance up to the highest standard compatible
with justice to himself.
Runnymede homestead--to which that strange fatality was again driving me--
was thirty miles from Burke's camp; but, by losing a few miles in a
slight detour, I could make a twenty-mile stage to Alf Jones's, and, next day,
a fifteen-mile stage to the station. This rate of travelling, with frequent
holidays, was fast enough for a man without official hopes, or corresponding
fear of the sack. If Alf was gone, so much the better for himself; if he was
still in the old spot, so much the better for me. That was the way
I looked at it.
In view of the soul-destroying ignorance which saturates society,
it may be well to repeat that this central point of the universe,
Riverina Proper, consists of a wide promontory of open and level plain,
coming in from the south-west; broken, of course, by many pine ridges,
clumps of red box, patches of scrub or timber, and the inevitable red gum flats
which fringe the rivers. Eastward, the plain runs out irregularly into
open forests of white box, pine, and other timber. Northward--something over
a couple of hundred miles from the Murray--the tortuous frontier of boundless
scrub meets the plain with the abruptness of a wall. Boottara is half plain
and half scrub; Runnymede is practically all plain.
When I left Burke's camp, heading south-west for Alf's paddock, there was
a strong, dry, and--as it seemed to me then--useless, north-west wind
tearing through the tops of the trees. I thought it might lull before I left
the shelter of the scrub, but it only increased. The willowy foliage
of the scattered myalls on the plain stood out horizontally to leeward;
and an endless supply of lightly-bounding roley-poleys were chasing each other
across the level ground. I lashed my hat on with a handkerchief, one side
of the brim being turned down to keep some of the sand and dust out of
my weather-ear. The horses, with ears flattened backward and muzzles
slanted out to leeward, caught the storm on their polls, and, leaning sideways
against the still-increasing pressure, pushed on gallantly. They remembered
Alf's grass as well as I remembered his music.
About mid-day--having crossed the main track diagonally, without seeing it--
I came upon the portable engine and centrifugal pump belonging to Runnymede,
set up for work at Patagonia Tank.
On a well-managed station, like Runnymede, a tank is, whenever possible,
excavated on the margin of a swamp. The clay extracted is formed into
a strong wall, or enclosing embankment, a couple of yards back from the edge
of the excavation; and under this wall, an iron pipe connects the swamp
with the tank. The swamp being full, and the water in the tank having reached
the same level, the outer end of the pipe is closed, and the portable
pumping plant sent out to fill the space inside the wall, thus doubling
the capacity of the tank.
Three days before the time I speak of, a thunderstorm of a few miles' area
had filled the Patagonia Swamp; and Montgomery, dreading a rainless winter,
had seized the opportunity to secure a supply of water. The pumping plant
had been set-up on the evening before, but not started; and now the wind
had swept all the water to the other end of the swamp. The engine-driver
and his mate had struck their tent to prevent its being blown away, and were
lying in the lee of the tank wall, trying to get a smoke.
Young Mooney had come early from the station, to see how the pump started,
and had been drawn into a controversy with his half-broken colt; the point
in dispute being whether it was safe to go within forty yards of the engine.
Mooney had maintained the affirmative, and the colt, the negative.
The Pure Logic which the colt had opposed to Mooney's Applied Logic had
ultimately prevailed, and the narangy had withdrawn from the argument
on his ear, whilst the colt had disappeared through the rising dust-storm.
Now Mooney was sitting in the lee of the embankment, cursing the day
he elected to be a squatter rather than a clergyman.
I watered my horses and Pup at the tank, condoled with Mooney, joined the two
other chaps in severe criticism on the weather, replenished my water-bag,
and passed on. I may add that the pump was n't started on that occasion
at all; the water being blown clean out of the swamp, and scattered,
fine as dust, through the thirsty atmosphere.
The steady intensity of the shower augmented as I went on. It got under
my hat, and the next moment that product of German industry was flying
across the wilderness, for the good of trade. At last I had to give-in.
The increasing broadside pressure, with the sand and dust, was becoming
too much for the horses; and, in any case, I should have had to stop
on Pup's account. I turned Cleopatra's head to leeward, and began carefully
to dismount. But the wind ballooned the back of my coat and the right branch
of my other garment, and I went three yards through the air, like a bird shot
on the wing. Recovering foothold, I fought my way to Bunyip,
and relieved him of his pack. Then, with Cleopatra's rein over my arm,
I sat down on the ground to see it out. At this low elevation,
the air was thick with skipping crumbs of hard dirt, which rattled on my skull
like hail; in fact, everything not anchored to the ground was at racing speed,
and all in the same direction.
But this strong, thirsty wind, coming from the north-western deserts
with a clear fetch of a thousand miles, was not going to last many hours;
meantime, I set myself to work out scientifically its genesis, operation,
and hidden purpose. The first and second considerations were merely matters
of research and calculation; the third was largely speculative, admitting of
no more definite conclusion than that the time had come when hygienic
necessities required a thorough rousing and ridding-out of microbes, bacteria,
and other pests too minute to be worth particularising. But I was better
enlightened before another day had gone over my head.
Whilst engaged in these not unpleasing studies, I caught a momentary glimpse
of something, ten yards away to the left, which seemed to be moving slowly
against the wind. The volume of flying dust was, of course, far from uniform
in density; and presently I caught sight of the object again. It was a man,
creeping slowly and painfully across the stubbly knobs of cotton-bush
on his hands and knees. I hailed him in a voice that took the skin off
my throat, but another glimpse showed him still travelling; his head bent
almost to the ground. I rose carefully to my feet, facing the shower,
but only to be hurled down on top of the faithful Pup, and savagely snapped at.
Then I went like a quadruped till I reached the wayfarer, and caught him
by the ankle. He looked round; I beckoned, and crept back to my former seat,
whilst he followed close behind. Then a bearded, haggard, resolute face,
framed by an old hat tied down over the ears, confronted me.
"You look like some worn and weary brother, pulling hard against the stream,"
The dry, cracked lips moved without speech, and the bloodshot eyes left my face
to scan the pack-saddle beside me.
"Water?" I suggested.
He nodded. Cleopatra was close behind me, propped against the wind.
I drew myself up by the near stirrup, till I could unbuckle the water-bag
from the cantle. Though filled with half a gallon of water not two hours
before, it was now half-empty. I drew the cork; my visitor clasped the cool,
damp canvas between his trembling hands, and, with fine self-control,
barely wetted his lips again and again. At last he took a moderate drink.
"Making for Patagonia Tank," he hoarsely remarked.
"You were going past it. It 's about a mile and a half straight across there.
I've just come from it."
"Disappointed of water last night," he continued. "It was dark when I struck
the little tank I was making for, and I found her dry; and my throat
like a lime-kiln. Too dog-tired to go any further, so I rested till morning,
and then struck for the Patagonia, with a devil of a headache to help me along.
I knew of another tank nearer, but I would n't trust myself to find her
in the dust. I helped to sink the Patagonia. Fine tank--ain't she?"
"First-class. Have you no swag?"
"I had a very good one a few hours ago, but Lord knows where she is now.
I left her behind when the wind put me on all-fours. Kept pretty well
in the same quarter, I think?"
"About the same."
"That'll be a bit of a guide. You'll be staying here till she slackens-down?'
"There's nothing else I can do."
"Well, I'll stay with you. If you shoot me straight for the swamp I'll be
right. I'll spell to-night at the tank, and then have a try for my swag."
"You'll find two very decent coves camped at the tank, with the engine
and pump. They'll put you on your feet."
"Which way are you travelling?" I asked.
"Any way. Work's scarce; contractors camped for want of water; too late
for burr-cutting; nothing doing. I wish to God the rabbits would come
something worth while."
And so the profitless conversation (conversation is generally profitless)
went on by fits and starts, till the sand and dirt-pellets ceased to drift.
Half-an-hour later, it was an almost perfect calm, though the air was still
charged with dust.
By this time, I had re-packed, and was ready to start. My guest was now
on his feet, but shaky enough. With Bligh-like impartiality, I meted out
half a pint of water to him, the same quantity to Pup, and the remaining
quarter-pint to myself.
"Got a bit of tobacco to spare?" he asked. "Mine's all in my swag."
"Certainly," I replied. "Are you hard-up? Because I can lend you five bob
till we meet again."
"No, thank-you. I 've got a couple or three notes left, and even if I hadn't,
I'd think twice before I touched your money. Money's a peculiar thing."
"Especially in the sense of being peculiar to certain sections of society,"
I replied. "Now strike straight across there, and you'll fetch the tank
in a mile and a half."
"What's your name?" he demanded, as I placed my foot in the stirrup.
My horses went off freely. I struck the wicket-gate with accuracy and
bowled on toward the declining sun, which showed dull and coppery through
suspended dust; till, just at that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman
to prayer, and the no less faithful sundowner to the station store,
I reached my destination.
One glance was enough. Two strange horses were in the paddock;
the kerosene-tins still stood in the sheltered angle by the chimney,
but the flowers were dead; the smooth-trodden radius round the door
was no longer swept except by the winds of heaven, and was becoming a midden
whence antiquaries of future ages might sift out priceless relics
with unpronounceable names. A strange dog came to the door-step, gave a
single bark, and re-entered; then Jack the Shellback appeared, and,
recognising me, got a larger quantity of profanity and indecency into
his cordial welcome than you might think possible. Scarce as water was,
he cursed me into washing the sand out of my hair with two consecutive goes
of the precious liquid, whilst he swore the saddles of my horses,
and obscene-languaged some supper for me. Even before the shower,
the whole area of my mortal shrine, back from high-water mark round neck
and wrists, had been pistol-proof with a thousand samples of dust,
patiently collected over the same number of miles; but that did n't trouble me.
I could get rid of it--along with much moral and mental virtue,
unfortunately--possibly at the Runnymede swimming-hole, or failing that,
at the place where the Lachlan had been.
"Stiff little breeze we had," I remarked, as I sat down to supper.
"Well, no," replied Jack, in reluctant and compassionate negative;
and this was the only part of his long reply fit to place before
the sanctimonious reader. He went on to tell me, in the vulgar tongue,
that if I had ever been at sea, I would think nothing of a whiff like that.
He told me of storms he had weathered--particularly, one off Christiana Cooner,
a solitary island in the south Atlantic--and the effect of his discourse
is that I have ever since been careful, in the company of sailors,
to avoid speaking of the winds I have encountered.
"I'll fix you up for a hat," he continued, in language of matchless force
and piquancy. "Bend her; she'll about fit you. I dropped across her one day
I was in the road-paddock."
'She' was a drab belltopper, in perfect preservation, with a crown
nothing less than a foot and a half high, and a narrow, wavy brim.
She proved a perfect fit when I 'bent' her. I wore her afterward for many
a week, till one night she rolled away from my camp, and I saw her no more,
though I sought her diligently. Take her for all in all, I shall not
look upon her like again.
"Now, if you'd a pair o' skylights athort your cutwater, you'd be set up
for a professor of phrenology, or doxology, or any other ology,"
suggested Jack, with one oath, two unseemly expletives, and two obscenities.
"How is that for high?" I asked, putting on a pair of large, round,
clouded lenses, which my experience of ophthalmia has warned me to carry
continually. Then, without interrupting my good host's torrent of unrepeatable
congratulation, I turned aside and unstrapped a portion of Bunyip's pack.
Presently I advanced and resumed my seat, with the ancestor of all pipes
pendent from my mouth. The hat, glasses, and pipe chorded (if I may use
that expression) so perfectly that Jack's merriment died-away in
a reverent petition to be struck dead.
The pipe has already been referred-to in these annals. It was probably
the most artistic, the most opulent-looking, the most scholarly,
the most imposing, and, from a Darwinian point of view, the most
highly specialised, meerschaum ever seen on earth. It was a pipe such as
no smoker parts with during life, but bequeaths to his best-beloved son--
a pipe such as would make any man wish to have a Benjamin, but for the fear
that the heir-presumptive might be exposed to unfair temptation,
and the old man himself to grave peril.
This nonpareil lies before me now, on an old, cracked dinner-plate,
with my knife and tobacco. Its head, ideally perfect as that goddess
who rose from similar material, carries, in spite of its vast size,
no suggestion of the colossal, but rather of the majestic. Its aspect
would be overpowering but for the soothing and reassuring effect of colour--
as where, at point of contact, the opaque snow of the upper half,
with cirrhus-like edge, overlies rather than meets the indescribable wealth
of lucent and fathomless umber, which soul-satisfying colour intensifies
toward the rounded heel, softening to a paler tint in its serene re-ascent,
till the meerschaum terminates in a heavy, semi-cylindrical collar,
of almost audacious simplicity. Then a thick, flexible, silk-chequered stem
takes up the wondrous tale, in its turn extending, with a most magnanimous
restraint, barely four inches ere transferring its glories to the worthy
keeping of such a piece of Baltic amber as you shall not match in any
democratic community. The slight silver mounting hints a princely concession
to the great pipe family; and the two little red crackers, depending
from the junction of mouthpiece and stem, whilst giving no encouragement
to presumptuous rivalry, soften the austere, unapproachable, super-Phidian
perfection of the whole ongsomble.
Here it occurs to the subtle critic that this is something like what a novelist
would write. A novelist is always able to bring forth out of his imagination
the very thing required by the exigencies of his story--just as he unmasks
the villian at the critical moment, and, for the young hero's benefit,
gently shifts the amiable old potterer to a better land in the very nick
of time. Such is not life. And to avoid any shadow of the imputation
in which that incident-begging novelist wallows, I must now turn aside
for one moment to tell how I came into possession of such a pipe as no other
Australian bushman ever owned. As for the digression--well, I suppose
even the most insubordinate reader is by this time educated up to my style.
Shortly before the previous wool-season, I had found myself, on a rather
chilly night, drawing toward the western boundary of Gunbah, on the track
from Hillston to Hay. A spark of red fire, miles ahead, told of someone
camped at a clump on Illilliwa, just about the spot I had marked out
as my own destination--there being grass anywhere inside the boundary
of Illilliwa, and none in the road-paddocks of Gunbah. As I drew nearer,
the impotent tinkle of one of those hemispherical horse-bells indicated
a new-chum's camp.
I casually noticed a man sitting before the fire, though he vanished before
I arrived, leaving an empty camp-stool. As I unsaddled my horses,
he reappeared out of the darkness--a large, blonde, heavily-moustached
young fellow, with a light rifle in the hollow of his arm, Being too hungry
for conversation, I merely tendered about three words of civil remark
whilst raking out some coals for my quart-pot; and he resumed his seat
in silence, watching me across the fire.
But during my ample repast--the second one of the day--I introduced myself
more fully, and partly won my way through the suspicious reserve of
the strong man armed. By the time my supper-service was re-packed,
and I was stretched in Aboriginal contentment beside the fire, I had noticed,
by the uncertain light, an eight-by-six tent, which seemed to contain
two camp-bedsteads, on one of which lay a sleeping man. Some yards behind
the tent stood a spring-cart.
My new acquaintance, becoming quite frank and cordial, supported his end
of the conversation in rather laboured English, with a slight foreign accent.
Gold-mining was the topic which had risen to the surface; and, as an hour
--two hours--passed, I was fairly abashed by the extent and accuracy
of his information. He talked so confidently, so scientifically, and,
as far as my knowledge went, so veraciously, not only of the principal
Australian gold-fields, but of the different notable claims, that curiosity
broke through ceremony, and I asked him how long he had been out.
Just three weeks, he told me. His name, he added, with an inimitable bow,
was Franz von Swammerbrunck, very much at my service. His friend, Schloss,
and himself, fellow-students, had left Frankfort only three months before.
"Frankfort-on-the-Main, or Frankfort-on-the-Oder?" I asked, veiling a mild
and inoffensive pedantry under the guise of friendly interest.
His courteous reply tailed-off naturally into such a volume of condensed
information as re-impressed on my mind a fact which we are, perhaps,
too prone to lose sight of--namely, the existence of a civilisation
north of Torres Straits. Desiring, of course, to avail myself of some few rays
of this boreal light, I tried to steer the conversation in the direction
of bainting and boetry (for such subjects go well at camp-fires),
but Franz hung so persistently on one rein that I had to give him his head,
and he edged back to gold-mining. Turn the discourse whatever way I would,
that wearisome topic was adroitly made to occur as if of its own accord.
"But don't let me be keeping you out of bed," I remarked, at length.
"Tear Mr. Tongcollin, you haf dot impertinence perpetrate nefer,"
replied my companion earnestly. "Dis schall pe mine period mit der
sentry-vatch. Dot molestation to youzelluf solitary vill pe, unt von apology
ver despicable iss to me reqvire ass der conseqvence. Bot you magnificent
superb garrulity mos peen to der strange-alien-isolate in dot platty dilemma
mit Schloss unt minezelluf, invaluable unt moch velcome. Dot gootdefine
kevartz reef, by instance, vich you loquacious-delineate, mit der visible golt
destitute-by tam! he schall mine eyes from der skleep fly-away mit der
enchantment-glitter! Ach Gott! Nefer py vhite man vitness, you schall say,
pefore fife unt seex yare pass-gone, unt by pushmen diminutive nomber
unt platty few altogedder. Bot der localisation-topography unt der route
you schall py der map mit you gross magnanimity indicate, unt Gott pless!
Tousand pig tank you, Mr. Tongcollin! For von trifle-moment, you ver
He entered the tent, and spoke to the sleeper, with suppressed eagerness
in his voice. The watch below attired himself and came forth; then followed
a formal introduction; and in another couple of hours--such was the clearness
and receptivity of these young men's minds--I had made them acquainted
with all I knew of the geology of Upper Riverina. And not less remarkable
than their infatuation for non-auriferous reefs was their vivid interest
in bushrangers and blackfellows; but whereas they received my crude geological
information with the attention which its frankness certainly merited,
it was plain that their idea of prospecting the back-blocks with the pick
in one hand and the rifle in the other, remained unshaken by my repeated
assurances of peace and safety. That was all right. The topography
of the wilderness was the thing they wanted; they would manage the peace
and safety for themselves. Schloss, in particular, was almost as eager
for the inevitable brush with outlaw or savage as he was for the
no less inevitable golden reef.
In due time, the stars paled to indistinctness, then to invisibility,
and the landscape came into view in the fresh, chilly dawn, showing a strong
grey horse feeding with Fancy and Bunyip, two hundred yards away.
I was in no hurry to start, but my friends were like greyhounds in the leash.
Therefore, whilst I dozed off to sleep, they packed up their elaborate camp,
and harnessed their horse in the spring-cart. They would stop for breakfast
after a few hours' travelling; meantime, they had a cup of coffee.
I roused myself to reiterate the directions I had already given respecting
the locality of half a dozen reefs in the back-blocks; then my friends
stowed away their maps and diagrams, and shook hands with me
so affectionately--so Germanly, in fact--that I called up a certain sardonic
expression of face, as the best safeguard against possible kissing.
Finally, when they were seated side by side under the tilt of the spring-cart,
Swammerbrunck said, whilst his blue eyes twinkled with merriment,
"Vit Mr. Spreenfeldt shall you peen von acquaintance?"
Yes; I was slightly acquainted with Mr. Springfield. He was the landlord
of a hotel in Hay.
"Vill you said, mit you proximate-ensuing interview, dot der two Yarman
moreprogues schall peen ass pig fools ass efer!"
I promised to deliver the message, whereupon the wise men of the north
laughed heartily. Then the three of us raised our hats with aristocratic
gravity; and the vehicle moved away toward the land of Disillusionment.
As I lay down again, I heard the poor fellows burst into unintelligible song;
and, after the spring-cart had jogged a quarter of a mile, one of the
adventurers looked past the edge of the tilt toward me, and waved
his handkerchief. Not having any similar article on me at the time,
I half-rose and returned the farewell with my hat.
As big fools as ever! Between asleep and awake, I pondered on the quantity
and quality of Australian-novel lore which had found utterance there.
The outlawed bushrangers; the lurking blackfellows; the squatter's lovely
Diana-daughter, awaiting the well-bred greenhorn (for even she had cropped-up
in conversation)--how these things recalled my reading! And yet they were
quite as reasonable as the discovery of the rich reef by the soft-handed,
fastidious young gentleman-digger.
I had only wasted time in asseverating that barren reefs are twice as plentiful
as half-tucker reefs; ten times as plentiful as wages reefs; and a hundred
times as plentiful as pile reefs. Both margraves had listened with polite
toleration when I compassionately added that the pile reef is always
discovered by an ungrammatical person, named Old Brummy, or Sydney Bob,
or Squinty-eyed Pete, or something to the same general effect; and this
because few 'gentlemen' can stoop low enough, and long enough,
and doggedly enough, to conquer; whereas Brummy &c., does n't require to stoop
at all--and his show is little better than Buckley's.
Also, the barons had derived keen enjoyment from my honest suggestion,
that the 'gentlemans'' best show is to discover the discoverer,
and prevail upon the latter, per medium of fire-water and blarney,
to affix his illegible signature to some expropriating document. And yet
those visionaries were highly informed men--at least, as far as schools,
lecturerooms, laboratories, museums, and the whole admirable machinery
of modern academic and technical training could take them. This, let me add,
is the record of an actual occurrence. It will just show you how much
the novelist has to answer for; following, as he does, the devices and desires
of his own heart; telling the lies he ought not to have told, and leaving
untold the lies that he ought to have told.
I am not forgetting the pipe. Leaving the camp at about ten in the forenoon,
I noticed, lying among the tussocks where the spring-cart had stood,
something which, at the first glance, I took for the sumptuous holster
of an overgrown navy revolver. I need say no more. It may have been
the landgraves' pipe-case, or, on the other hand, it may not. At all events,
regarding the article as treasure-trove, within the meaning of the Act,
I formally took possession under 6 Hen. III., c. 17, sec. 34;
holding myself prepared at any time to surrender the property to anyone
clever enough to sneak it, and cunning enough to keep it; though a sense
of delicacy might prevent me chasing the Kronprinzes round the country,
as if they had stolen something. When the pipe had eaten its magnificent
head off in tobacco, then, of course, I sold it to pay expenses,
and bought it in myself. So I have it still. And if the censorious reader
has detected here and there in these pages a tendency toward
the Higher Criticism, or a leaning to State Socialism, or any passage
that seemed to indicate a familiarity with cuneiform inscriptions,
or with the history and habits of Pre-Adamite Man, he may be assured that,
at the time of writing such passage, I had been smoking the mighty pipe--
or rather, the mighty pipe had been smoking me--and the unlawful erudition
had effervesced per motion of my scholastic ally.
"I can better that yet," remarked Jack unprintably. "I'll swap you coats.
Yours ain't a bad one, but your arms goes a foot too fur through the sleeves,
an' she 's ridiculous short in the tail. She'll jist about fit my soul-case;
an' I got an alpacar one here, made a-purpose for some clipper built
(individual) like you. I would n't 'a' speculated in her, on'y she was
the last the hawker had left. She's never bin bent." He produced
a slate-coloured alpaca coat, which, when I tried it on, extended down
to my knuckles and knees, trailing clouds of glory where there was none before.
"You'll do a bit o' killin' at the station, in that rig-out," continued
my host, with a lewd reference to some person who shall be nameless.
"By-the-way, what's come of Alf Jones?" I asked, as we resumed our seats.
"Gone to (sheol)," replied his successor tersely. Alf, it appeared,
had left the station six or eight weeks before, bound for no one knew where.
Jack's opinion was that in so doing he had made a slippery-hitch.
I spoke of Alf's singing; and Jack told me how the fellows at the station
had persuaded him to give them a couple or three songs before he left.
"Was n't he something wonderful?" I remarked.
"Well, no," Jack replied, deferentially but positively; "nothing like what
you 'd hear in a fo'c'sl."
In fact, according to Jack's account, he used to be reputed a middling singer
himself. And he straightway rendered a mawkishly sentimental song,
and a couple of extremely unchaste ones, in a voice which made the
tea-embrowned pannikins on the table rattle in sympathy.
I remembered Alf's minstrelsy, and the contrast was painful. Jack noticed
a depression creeping over me, and, with the intuition of true hospitality,
exerted his conversational powers for my entertainment. His discourse ran
exclusively on a topic which, sad to say, furnishes, in all grades
of masculine society, the motif of nearly every joke worth telling.
In this line, Jack was a discriminating anthologist, and, moreover,
a judicious adapter--all his gestes being related in the first-person-singular.
His autobiographical record was a staggerer; but I happened to recognise
amongst his affaires de coeur several very old acquaintances, and made
allowance accordingly. If he had been a truthful man, the floor of the hut
would have opened that night and swallowed him alive; but his vain-glorious
emulation of St. Paul's chief-of-sinners hyperbole covered as with a mantle
his multitude of bonā-fide transgressions, and preserved him for better things.
Yes; better things. For, mind you, beyond this rollicking blackguard
there stood a second Jack, a soft-hearted, self-sacrificing other-phase,
chivalrous to quixotism, yet provokingly reticent touching any act
or sentiment which reflected real credit on himself. Not that every blackguard
is a Bayard, any more than every wife-beater is a coward; but almost all moral
and immoral qualities are in reality independent of each other. And Jack,
for one thing, was eminently religious--as indeed were those greater geniuses
and equally hard cases, Dick Steele and Henry Fielding. Says the First Lord
(neither of the Admiralty nor the Treasury), 'The web of our life is of
a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults
whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished
by our virtues.'
"I always make a bit of a prayer before turnin'-in," remarked Jack,
in appendix to a story which Chaucer or Boccaccio would have rejected
with horror; then the poor fellow laid his pipe on the table, and, kneeling
by his bedside, repeated in a firm, reverent voice an almost unrecognisable
version of the Lord's Prayer, and an unconscious parody on Ken's
Evening Hymn:--'Glory to Thee, my God, this night.'
"See, it's this way with me," he continued, rising from his knees
and re-lighting his pipe--"las' time I seen my pore mother--widow-woman,
she was, for my ole man he 'd shipped bo'sun o' the Raglan, las' time
she weighed--'Jack,' says the ole woman to me, an' the tears rollin' down
her face--it'lI be goin' on five year ago now--'Jack,' says she; 'promise me
you'll always make a bit of a prayer before turnin'-in; for the Lord says
anybody that 's ashamed o' Him, He'll be ashamed o' him at the day
o' judgment.' Awful--ain't it? Course, I promised, but it went in o' one ear,
an' out o' the other, till about two year after, when I got word she was dead.
I was on Runnymede then--for I come straight here when I bolted from the ship--
an' I begun to bethink myself that she could see how I was keepin' my promise;
so I braced-up, an' laid a bit closer. Lord knows, I gev her worry enough
while she was alive, without follerin' her up any furder." I have taken
some trouble in weeding the language of Jack's confession, so as not to destroy
And, co-existing in the worthy fellow's mind with this childlike simplicity,
was a really fine store of the best kind of knowledge, namely, that acquired
from observation and experience. It is surprising how much a landsman,
however well-informed, may gather from a sailor when he listens like
a three-years' child, and the mariner hath his will. I only wish I was
as well posted up in devil-fish, stingarees, krakens, and other marine
commonplaces, as I am--thanks to Jack's information--in the man-o'-war hawk
and the penguin. It came about in this way:
The door was left open for ventilation when we retired to rest,
Jack in his bunk, and I on the floor. We were both asleep, when I became aware
of an icy touch on my face, accompanied by a breath strongly suggesting
to my scientific nose the hydro-carburetted oxy-chloro-phosphate
of dead bullock. Drowsily opening one eye, I saw Pup standing by my side.
He had thought I was dead; but, finding his mistake, he walked away through
the gloom with an injured and dissatisfied air, and began trying to root
the lid off Jack's camp-oven with his pointed nose. One peculiarity
of the kangaroo-dog is, that though he has no faculty of scent at the service
of his master, he can smell food through half-inch boilerplate; and he rivals
Trenck or Monte Cristo in making way through any obstacle which may stand
between him and the object of his desires.
The clattering of the oven-lid roused Jack. He looked up, and then
left his bed.
"Pore creature's hungry," is near enough what he said. He opened a sort
of safe, and took out all the cooked mutton, which he divided into two
unequal portions, then gave the smaller share to his own dog, and the larger
to Pup. "Bit evener on your keel after you've stowed that in your hold,"
he soliloquised profanely.
"Thank-you, Jack!" said I. "Would you just see that everything's safe
from him before you turn-in again. There's always a siege of Jerusalem
going on in his inside. The kangaroo-dog's the hungriest subject
in the animal kingdom."
"Well, no," replied Jack forbearingly, as he returned to his bed;
"he ain't in it with the man-o'-war hawk. That's the hungriest subject goin';
though, strictly speakin', he don't belong to no kingdom in particular;
he belongs to the high seas. If you'd 'a' had a chance to study man-o'-war
hawks, like I've had, you'd never think a kangaroo-dog was half hungry.
Why, he dunno what proper hunger is."
Then he gave me such a description of this afflicted bird as, in the interests
of science, I have great pleasure in laying before the intelligent public.
I must, however, use my own language. Jack's rhetoric, though lucid
and forcible, would look so bad on paper that the police might interfere
with its publication.
The man-o'-war hawk, it appears, utters a thrilling squeal of hunger
the moment his beak emerges from the shell; and this hunger dogs him--
kangaroo-dogs him, you might say--through life. At adult age, he consists
chiefly of wings; but, in addition to these, he has a pair of eager,
sleepless eyes, endowed with a power of something like 200 diameters;
and he has also a perennially empty stomach--the sort of vacuum, by the way,
which Nature particularly abhors. He can eat nothing but fish; and,
since he suffers under the disadvantage of being unable to dive, wade,
or swim, some one else must catch the fish for him. The penguin does this,
and does it with a listless ease which would excite the envy of the man-o'-war
hawk if the unceasing anguish of hunger allowed the latter any respite
The penguin also lives on fish, but there the resemblance happily ends.
In every other respect he presents a pointed antithesis to the man-o'-war hawk;
and that is the only pointed thing about him, for he consists wholly
of a comfortable body, a blunt neb, and a pair of small, sleepy eyes.
He has no neck, for he never requires to look round; no wings, for he never
requires to fly; no feet, for he stands firmly on one end, like a 50lb. bag
of flour, which, indeed, he closely resembles. His life is unadventurous;
some might call it monotonous. He takes his position on a smooth rock,
protected from cold by the beautiful padded surtout which clothes him
from neb to base, and from heat by the cool, limpid wave, softly lap-lapping
against the impenetrable feathers. He feels like a stove in the winter,
and like a water-bag in the summer. When, from a sort of drowsy, felicitous
wantonness--for he never requires to act either on reason or impulse--
he desires to visit an adjacent island, he simply allows the tide to encircle
him to about two-thirds his total altitude; then, by the floatative property
of his peerless physique, and by the mere volition of will, he transports
himself whither he lists.
He has few wants, and no ambition. Dreaming the happy hours away--that is
his idea. He knows barely enough to be aware that with much wisdom cometh
much sorrow; therefore, no Pierian spring, no tree of knowledge, thank you
all the same. He is right enough as he is; the perpetual sabbath of absolute
negation is good enough for him. His motto is, 'Happy the bird that has
no history.' Once a day, he experiences a crisp, triumphant appetite,
which differs from hunger as melody differs from discord; then he slowly
half-unveils his currant-like eyes, and selects from the finny multitudes
swimming around him, such a fish as for size, flavour, and general
applicability, will best administer to his bodily requirements,
and gratify his epicurean taste.
Whilst he is in the act of dipping his neb in the water to help himself
to the fish, a man-o'-war hawk espies him from a distance of, say, five miles.
Emitting a quivering shriek of hunger, the strong-winged sufferer cleaves
the intervening air with the speed of a telegram, and has siezed and swallowed
the fish before his own belated shriek arrives.
The penguin, living in total ignorance of the man-o'-war hawk's existence,
vaguely and half-amusedly apprehends his deprivation. In this way.
You have heard the boarding-house girl rap at your bedroom door,
and tell you that breakfast is on the table. You have thought to yourself:
Now I'm turning out; now I'm putting on my----; now, my socks; now--Why,
I'm in bed still, and no nearer breakfast than at first! Here we have
a reproduction of the penguin's train of thought, plus the slight shock
of surprise which marks your own relatively imperfect organisation.
The whole thing does n't amount to a crumpled rose-leaf beneath
the penguin's base; so he apathetically depresses his dreamy eyes
in casual quest of another fish.
Now if the feathered martyr could only wait one minute, he might obtain
the second morsel on the same terms as the first; but Nature has so
constructed him that, in his estimation, the most important of all economies
is the economy of time; and his Dollond eye has descried another penguin,
seven miles distant, in the very act of dipping for a fish. Can he make
the return trip? He must chance it. He negotiates with lightning speed
the interspace between his tortured stomach and the second penguin's provender,
whilst his own steam-siren screech of famine comes feebly halting after,
and blends with the desolate plop of his prey into the abysmal emptiness
of his ever-yearning epigastrium. Then, wheeling madly round--his Connemara
complaint freshly whetted by what he has taken--he sees the first penguin
dropping asleep as the fish he has just caught slides down head-foremost,
to be assimilated by the simple clockwork of his interior.
Too late, by full fifteen seconds! and the wild despair of lost opportunity
lends a horrid eeriness to the banshee utterance with which the man-o'-war hawk
greets this crushing discovery, barbed, as it is, by the prior knowledge
that every penguin within twenty miles is in Nirvana for the present.
Now he must wait--ah! heavens, wait!--while one with moderate haste might tell
a hundred. By that time, the bird beside him will have caught another fish;
and though it be only--By my faith, he must wait longer; for the penguin,
concluding that his own appetite will be more finely matured by another
half-hour's sleep, is just dozing off. Woe for the man-o'-war hawk!
he must decide on something without delay, and he must do that something
quickly--quickly--quickly--for there will be loafing enough in the grave,
as the great American moralist says.
But, five hundred miles away across the restless, hungry waste of waters
is another rock, where penguins steep themselves in sinless voluptuousness;
and, with one prolonged, ear-splitting yell, wrung from him by the
still-increasing torment of his fell disease, the unhappy bird expands
his Paradise-Lost pinions, and, with the speed of a comet passing its
perihelion, sweeps away to that rock; for, like Louis XVI., he knows geography.
After listening with much interest to the description here loosely paraphrased,
I fell asleep with the half-formed longing to be a penguin, and the liveliest
gratitude that I was not a man-o'-war hawk.
Next morning, whilst I caught and equipped my horses, Jack tailed his own two
into the catching-yard. Every Runnymede boundary man was expected
to find himself in horses; and Jack, on being rated, had purchased
the two quietest and most shapeless mokes on the station--or, indeed, off it.
'Mokes' is good in this connection. But in a week or two, lazy as the
mokes were, Jack could n't grapple either of them, stabbard or port,
in the open paddock; they had learned to await, and even approach him,
starn-on. So he had to pelt them into the little yard, where an ingeniously
devised adjustable crush, formed by one barbed wire, kept them broadside-on
till he caught the one he wanted for the day. Let Jack alone.
Having caught one of his mokes, he caparisoned the--(I forget his own
designation) with what in dearth of adequate superlative, I shall simply call
a second-hand English saddle, of more than ordinary capacity. The barrow-load
f firewood which had once formed the tree was all in splinters,
so that you could fold the saddle in any direction; and the panel had
from time to time been subjected to so much amateur repairing that,
when Jack mounted, he looked like a hen in a nest, so surrounded he was
with exuding tufts of wool, raw horse-hair, emus' feathers, and
the frayed edges of half a dozen plies of old blanket, of various colours.
But when he said it was the softest saddle on the station, though it would be
nothing the worse for a bit of an overhaul, I was bound to admit that
the statement and the reservation were equally reasonable.
We journeyed together as far as the western gate of Jack's paddock; and,
the conversation turning on saddles, he expressed himself in actionably
misdemeanant language on the folly of riding horses like Cleopatra and Satan
without a specially-rigged purchase. His idea of such a purchase was
simple enough--merely the ordinary saddle, with two standing bulkheads of,
say, thirty inches in height by eighteen in width, rigged thortships,
one forrid of the rider, and one aft, and each padded on the inside surface.
A couple or three rope-yarns, rove fore-and-aft on each side, would prevent
the rider listing to stabbard or port, while the vertical pitch would be
provided for by a lashing rove across each shoulder. If the horse reared
and fell back, you would just draw your head in, like a turtle, and let
the bulkheads carry the strain. With such a tackle (pr. tayckle),
Jack would undertake to ride the Evil One himself, let alone his namesake
at the station; whereas, there was Young Jack at work on the (horse)
for the last week, while the (horse) aforesaid, knowing the purchase
he had on his rider, would be a fool to give in. But these young Colonials
had nothing in them; and Jack's spirit was moved within him by reason
of their degeneracy.
After parting from this secret of England's greatness, I detected a certain
spontaneous self-complacency creeping over my soul, and slightly swelling
my head; a certain placid cockiness not to be fully accounted for
by the consciousness of birth, which naturally broadened as I approached
Runnymede. I thereupon resolved myself into a committee of inquiry, and,
applying the analytical system befitting these introspective investigations,
discovered, in the first place, furtively underlying my philosophy,
a latent ambition to be regarded as a final authority on things in general.
Hitherto this aspiration had fallen short, partly owing to the clinging
sediment of my congenital ignorance, but more especially because I lacked,
and knew I lacked, what is known as a 'presence.' Now, however, the high,
drab belltopper and long alpaca coat, happily seconded by large,
round glasses and a vast and scholarly pipe, seemed to get over the latter
and greater difficulty; and, for perhaps the first time in my life,
I enjoyed that experience so dear to some of my fellow-pilgrims--the
consciousness of being well-dressed. This would naturally come as a revelation
to one who had always been satisfied with any attire which kept him out of
the hands of the police. There was something in presenting an
academic-cum-capitalistic appearance even to the sordid sheep,
as they looked up from nibbling their cotton-bush stumps, and to the frivolous
galahs, sweeping in a changeably-tinted cloud over the plain, or studding
the trees of the pine-ridge like large pink and silver-grey blossoms,
set off by the rich green of the foliage. But outside all possible research
or divination lay the occult reason why my bosom's lord sat so lightly
on his throne. This will be explained in its proper place.
In the last sheep-paddock, just after clearing the pine-ridge, I met
Young Jack on Satan. Satan was an ornament to the station;
a magnificently beautiful cream-coloured horse, with silver mane and tail;
but unfortunately spoiled, a couple of years before, in the breaking-in.
Now the shallow, inattentive reader may not grasp all that is implied
in the remark that a specialist, unconscious of his own peculiar and
circumscribed greatness, and cheaply replaceable in case of extinction,
was exercising a seasoned colt, thoroughly spoiled beforehand. Your novelist,
availing himself of his prerogative, fancifully assigns this office
to the well-educated, well-nurtured, and, above all, well-born,
colonial-experiencer, fresh from the English rectory. But I am
a mere annalist, and a blunt, stolid, unimaginative one at that; therefore
not entirely lost to all sense of the fitness of things.
Listen, then: When, after an assiduous and inglorious apprenticeship,
you can wheel a galloping horse round in his own length, without paraboling
over his head, or turning him upside down--when you can take him safely
across any leap he is able to clear--when you can send him at his uttermost,
with perfect safety, through forest or scrub--you are scarcely one step nearer
to the successful riding of an equine artist that has sworn to get you off,
or perish. Scarcely one step nearer than you were at first,
unless you constitutionally possess certain qualifications, and are
at the same time distinguished by a plentiful lack of other gifts
and acquirements, for which, notwithstanding, you are fain to take credit.
This rather obscure apostrophe is written expressly for the benefit of such
imaginative litterateurs and conversational liars as it may concern.
For it should be known that the perfect rider 'nascitur, non fit',
to begin with; that his training must begin in early boyhood, and be
followed up sans intermission; that his system of horse-breaking must be
the Young-Australian, which is, beyond doubt, the most trying in the world;
that his skill is won by grassers innumerable; that, in short, there is
no royal road to the riding of a proper outlaw--a horse that, not with
any view of showing-off before girls, but with the confirmed intention
of flattening out his antagonist, plays such fantastic jigs before high heaven
as make the angels peep.
And yet, to be an ideal rider, man wants but little here below, nor is it
at all likely he will want that little long. He wants--or rather, needs--
a skull of best spring steel; a spinal column of standard Lowmoor;
limbs of gutta-percha; a hide of vulcanised india-rubber; and the less brains
he has, the better. Figuratively speaking, he should have no brains at all;
his thinking faculties should be so placed as to be in direct touch
with the only thing that concerns him, namely, the saddle. Yet his heart
must not be there; he must by no means be what the schoolboys call
a 'frightened beggar.'
Perfect horsemanship is usually the special accomplishment of the man
who is not otherwise worth his salt, by reason of being too lazy for
manual labour, and too slenderly upholstered on the mental side
for anything else. Sir Francis Head, one of the five exceptions to this
rule--Gordon being the second, 'Banjo' the third, 'Glenrowan' the fourth,
and the demurring reader the fifth--says the greatest art in riding
is knowing how to fall. And here we touch the very root of the matter.
It is the moral effect of that generally-fulfilled apprehension which makes
one salient difference between the cultivated, or spurious, rider,
and the ignorant, or true rider. In this case, Ignorance is not only bliss,
but usurps the place of Knowledge, as power.
Edward M. Curr knew as much of the Australian horse and his rider
as any writer ever did; and this is what he says of the back-country natives:--
'They are taciturn, shy, ignorant, and incurious; undemonstrative,
but orderly; hospitable, courageous, cool, and sensible. These men ride
like centaurs,' etc., etc.
Yes, yes--but why? Looking back along that string of well-selected adjectives,
does n't your own inductive faculty at once place its finger on Ignorance
as the key to the enigma? Notice, too, how Curr, being a bit of a sticker
himself, is thereby disqualified from knowing that the centaurs were
better constructed for firing other people over their heads than for
straddling their own backs.
Your true-rider must audibly and sanguineously challenge every unfamiliar
scientific fact; stated in conversation, and be prepared to stake
his rudimentary soul on the truth of anything read aloud from a book.
He must believe, with the ecclesiastics of yesterday, that the earth is flat
and square, like them, he must be a violent supporter of the geocentric theory;
unlike them, his aeschatological hypothesis must be that the fire we wot of
is only a man's own conscience--the wish, in his case, being father
to the thought. Above all, he must have no idea how fearfully and wonderfully
he is made. He must think upon himself as a good strong framework of bones,
cushioned and buffered with meat, and partly tubular for the reception
and retention of food; he must further regard it as a rather grave oversight
in his own architectural design that the calf of his leg is riot in front.
Just consider what advantages such a man enjoys in cultivating the art
of knowing how to fall. Why, a spill that perils neck or limb,
a simple buster is to him, and it is nothing more.
But it is a great deal more to one who has been nourishing a youth sublime
with the curious facts of Science and the thousand-and-one items of general
information necessary to any person who, like the fantastical duke
of dark corners, above all other strifes contends especially to know himself;
and that physically, as well as morally. To him it is a nasty scrunch
of the two hundred and twenty-six bones forming his own admirably designed
osseous structure; a dull, sickening wallop of his exquisitely composed
cellular, muscular, and nervous tissues; a general squash of his
beautifully mapped vascular system; a pitiless stoush of membranes, ligaments,
cartilages, and what not; a beastly squelch of gastric and pancreatic juices
and secretions of all imaginable descriptions--biliary, glandular,
and so forth. And all for what? Why, for the sake of emulating
the Jack Frosts of real life in their own line!
My contention simply is, that the Hamlet-man is only too well seized
of the important fact that his bones cost too much in the breeding
to play at heels-over-tip with them. And I further maintain that, for reasons
above specified, the man of large discourse, looking before an after (ah! that
is where the mischief lies!) never, in spite of his severest self-scrutiny,
knows what a frightened beggar he is till he finds himself placing his foot
in the stirrup, preparatory to mounting a recognised performer.
Just take yourself as an example. You remember the time you were passing
the old cattle-yards in the flat, and saw four fellows of your acquaintance
putting the bridle on a black colt in the crush? You remember how the chaps
inspected your saddle, and, the concurrence of opinion being that it was
the best on the ground, how they asked the loan of it for an hour?
You lent it with pleasure, you will remember, and assisted them to girth it on.
You liked to be at the second backing of a colt--not as the central figure,
of course, but in the capacity of critic and adviser. There was
the probability of some decent riding; also the probability of a catastrophe.
You may, perhaps, further remember that whilst the ceremony of saddling
was in progress, you casually related one of your most ornate and unassailable
anecdotes--how, with that very saddle, you had once backed a roan filly that
on the preceding day had broken a circus man's collar-bone? For reasons of
your own, you located the performance a hundred miles away; and for proof, you
pointed to the saddle itself. Yes; I see you remember it all like yesterday.
The colt, with a handkerchief across his eyes, was led out of the yard
to some nice level ground; then a dead-lock supervened. The chap who had
backed him on the previous evening for a couple of hours, and was to have
ridden him again, did n't like the set of your saddle, now that he saw it
girthed-on. The owner of the colt, speaking for himself, frankly admitted
that he never pretended to be a sticker. The third fellow, whilst modestly
glancing at his own unrivalled record, regretted he was sworn with a book-oath
against backing colts for the current year. The fourth was also out of it.
Owing to a boil, which kept him standing in the stirrups even on his own
old crock, he was compelled to forego the one transcendant joy of his life.
Well, to begin with, there was your own saddle on the colt; secondly,
your conversation had not been that of a man who did n't pretend to be
a sticker; thirdly, the book-oath expedient was simply out of the question;
and fourthly, it was too late in the day to allege a boil. What was the use
of your remarking that the first backing of a colt is nothing--that,
in this case, it is the second step that costs? The four fellows knew
as well as you did--everyone except the tenderfoot novelist knows--that
in nearly every instance, a freshly backed colt is like a fish out of water;
stupid, puzzled, half-sulky, half-docile. It is at the second backing
that he is ready to contest the question of fitness for survival;
he has had time to think the matter over, and to note the one-sidedness
of the alliance. Again, there is a large difference between riding a colt
upon a warm evening, and doing the same thing on a cold, dry, gusty morning,
when his hair inclines to stand on end. But there was your own reminiscence
of the roan filly staring you in the face.
One of the fellows holds the blindfolded colt, whilst another rubs the saddle
all over with a wet handkerchief. The colt stands still and composed,
with one ear warily cocked, the other indifferently slouched; with his back
slightly arched, and--ah! the saints preserve us!--with his tail jammed
hard down. Carelessly humming a little tune, you hang your coat on the fence;
and in the saying of two credos (note the appositeness of
Cervantes' expression here), you are in the saddle--the same saddle,
by the way, with which you took the flashness out of the roan filly
that had broken the circus man's collar-bone. What! have I pinch'd you,
The chap should have let the colt go at once, for, in situations like yours,
a person keeps breaking-up as the moments pass. But no----
"You're sure you're ready?"
"I think he'll buck middlin' hard."
Is there no pity sitting in the clouds, that looks into the bottom of your woe?
We'll see presently. Meantime, console yourself with the recollection
of the roan filly that had broken the circus man's collar-bone.
"You've got the off stirrup all right, Tom?"
"I'm goin' to let the beggar rip."
"Look out now"----
"Right." But your voice is not what it ought to be, and the soles of your boots
are rattling on the flat part of the stirrup-irons.
The chap draws the handkerchief from the colt's eyes, and walks backward.
The colt catches sight of your left foot, and skips three yards to the right.
In doing so, he catches sight of the other foot, and skips to the left.
Then everything disappears from in front of the saddle--the wicked ears,
now laid level backward--the black, tangled mane--the shining neck
with the sweeping curve of a circular saw--the clean, oblique shoulders--they
have all disappeared, and there is nothing in front of the saddle
but a precipice. There is something underneath it, though.
How distinctly you note the grunting of the colt, the thumping of his feet
on the ground, and the gratuitous counsel addressed to you in four
calmly critical voices:--
"Lean back a bit more, Tom, and give with him."
"Don't ride so loose if you can help it, Tom."
"Hold yourself well down with the reins, and stick to him, Tom."
"Stick to him, Tom, whatever you do."
Ay! stick to him! Stick to the lever of a steam hammer, when the ram kicks
the safety-trigger! Stick to the two-man tug-of-war rope, when an Irish
quarryman, named Bamey, has hold of the other end! Stick to him,
quotha! Easier said than done--is it not? And yet you've been riding
all manner of horses, on and off (mark the significance of that expression)
since you were a mere kiddie. However, you have stuck to him for a good solid
sixty seconds; now, one of your knees has slipped over the pad,
and your stirrup is swinging loose. Good night, sweet prince.
And away circles the colt, slapping at the bit with his front feet,
whilst your historic saddle shines in the sun, and the stirrup-irons
occasionally meet high in the air. And away in chase go two of the chaps
on their bits of stuff. Meanwhile, you explain to the other two that the spill
serves you right for riding so carelessly; and that, though your soul lusts
to have it out with the colt, a stringent appointment in the township
will force you to clear as soon as you can get your saddle. Such is life.
Satan approached, carrying his negatively gifted rider, at a free,
flying canter; his gregarious instinct prompting him to join my horses.
His tawny skin was streaked with foam, and his off flank slightly stained
from the repeated puncture of Jack's spur. Ten yards from where
I had pulled up, he suddenly sulked, and stood.
"Good morning, Jack."
"Well, I be dash! Did n't know you from a crow! Reckoned some member
o' Parliament, or bishop, or somebody, had bin swappin' horses with you.
You are comin' out! Oh, I say! Nosey give me the letter,
with the three notes in it; but I couldn't make head or tail of it
about the saddle. No more could n't Moriarty."
"I'll explain all that to you some time. How are you getting on with Satan?"
"Bad," replied Jack humbly. "You can easy enough steady him down, but then,
the swine, he wants a spell; an' when he gits a spell, you jist got to
steady him down agen. Always got some new idear in his head. There!"--
hastily rooting the horse's side with his spur--"he's goin' to laydown,
an' make chips o' the saddle. Up! you swine"--and, lying backward,
he reached down to grip the sensitive membrane connecting the swine's hind-leg
with his body. The maddened beast shot past me like a yellow streak
for another ten yards; then, with a flaring bound and a snort that was
between a whistle and a shriek, spun half-round in the air, and alighted
rigidly on his front feet, his ears between his knees, and his neck and back
describing a vertical semicircle, with the saddle and Jack on the centre
of its forward curve.
"Jist his style," continued Jack dejectedly. "Never be worth a dash
for general"----I lost the next word or two, for the young fellow's face
was buried in the mass of silver mane, as the horse reared rampant
to the balancing point; and the next word, again, was dislocated by a blow
from the crupper buckle, just below the speaker's shoulder-blade.
"An' Magomery wants a person to make a lady's hack out o' sich an outlawr
as him!" he continued, in hopeless protest, whilst the 'outlawr'
exerted his iron muscles to the utmost, and the saddle creaked like a basket.
"Nummin' good horse, too; on'y spoiled with--Jist look at that!" Satan had
suddenly gathered his lithe, powerful limbs, and was tearing across toward
the adjacent pine-ridge, spinning round, every thirty yards, in two or three
terrific bucks. "I don't want to sawr his mouth," shouted Jack
over his shoulder, in polite apology--"I'll see you agen by-'n'-by----
"Away on the evergreen shore, probably," I soliloquised, resuming my journey.
But, turning in the saddle, and pushing up my glasses out of the way,
I watched the receding contest. I saw Jack wrench the horse aside
from the timber; whereupon the animal reared rather too rashly, and just saved
himself from falling backward by dropping on his quarters and flapping down
on one side. When his broadside touched ground, Jack was standing beside him;
and when he leaped to his feet, Jack was in the saddle. Exeunt fighting.
Toby, with his bare feet and brown, good-humoured face, was the only person
visible on the station premises as I rode up.
"Gosh, I didn't know you till I seen you side-on, when you was shuttin'
the Red Gate," he remarked. (The Red Gate was about a mile and a half
distant). "I thought you was somebody comin' to buy the the station.
Magomery, he's buzznackin' roun' the run as usual," he continued, helping me
to unsaddle. "Butler, he's laid up with the bung blight in both eyes.
All the other fellers is out. Mrs. Bodysark"--and his grin deepened--
"she 's all right. Moriarty, of course, he 's loafin' in the store;
lis'n him now, laughin' fit to break his neck at some of his own
gosh foolishness. I'll shove your horses in the paddick. I say!
ain't they fell-away awful?"
"Yes; the season's telling on them. Now will you look after Pup,
like a good chap? Here's his chain. I want to keep him fresh for travelling."
"Right. I don't wish you no harm, Collins; but I would n't mind if you
was in heaven, s'posen you left me that dog."
I went across to the store, and looked in. Moriarty's laughing suddenly
ceased, as his eye fell on me; and he respectfully rose to his feet.
"Wherefore that crackling of thorns under a pot? " I asked sternly,
as I removed my belltopper and placed it on the counter. "Don't you see
the spirits of the wise sitting in the clouds and mocking you?"
"Well, I'll be dashed!" he exclaimed admiringly. "You are coming out
in blossom. Now you only want the upper half of your head shaved, and you
could start a Loan and Discount bank, with a capital of half a million."
"Thanks, worthy peer," I replied, with dignity. "But, talking of finance,
I trust you have n't forgotten the trifle that there is between us,
and the terms of our agreement?"
"I'm not likely to forget. Take that chair. I've got such fun here."
He had sliced some corks into flat discs; into the centre of each disc
he had stuck a slender piece of pine, about two inches in height,
and spatulated at the upper end, like a paddle. Then to the flat part
of each upright he had attached a blow-fly, by means of a touch of gum
on the insect's back, and had placed in the grasp of each fly a piece of pine
an inch long, cut into the shape of a rifle. The walking motion of
the fly's feet twirled and balanced the stick in rather droll burlesque
of musketry drill; and a dozen of these insects-at-arms, disposed
in open order on the counter, were ministering to the young fool's mirth.
"Just you notice the gravity of the beggars," he laughed. "Not a smile
on them. Solemn as Presbyterians. 'Tention! Present! Recover! Not a lazy
bone in their bodies. I say, Collins: a person could make a perpetual motion,
with a fly on a sort of a treadmill? Ah! but then it would n't pass muster
unless it went of its own accord--would it? Perpetual motion's a thing
I've been giving my attention to lately. You remember you advised me
to study mechanics? Well, I 've been thinking of arranging a clock
so as to wind itself up as it went on. That 's one idea. Another
is a little more complicated. It 's a water-wheel, driving a pump that throws
a stream into the race that feeds the water-wheel, so that you use
the same water over and over again, and the whole concern's self-acting.
The idea came into my head like an inspiration. Mind, I'm telling you
in confidence, for there 's a thousand notes hanging on to it."
"Moriarty," said I sadly; "you 're worse than ever. Try something else.
You're not a born mechanician."
"If I'm not, I'd like to know who the devil is?" replied the young fellow
hotly. "Possibly, your own self? Was n't my father a foreman in one
of the largest machine-shops in Victoria, in his day? I know what 's
the matter with you. Jealousy."
"It must be so. Plato, thou reasonest well," said I hopelessly.
"But supposing you are a born mechanician, you have neither the theoretical
nor the practical training. Do you know for instance, the use of
the brass slide you often see on a carpenter's rule?"
"Of course I do! Why I could calculate with that slide before I was
ten years old."
One to Moriarty. I should have remembered that his abnormal breadth
across the temples qualified him to do a sum in his head, in ten seconds,
that I could n't do on a slate in ten hours, nor for that matter, in ten years.
No accounts in Riverina were better kept than those of Runnymede.
"Good, so far," I replied benevolently. "But how much do you know
of prismoidal formulae, or logarithmic secants?--not to speak of segmental
ordinates, or the cycloidal calculus; or even of adiabatic expansion,
or torsional resistance, or the hydrostatic paradox, or the coefficient
of friction? Now, these things are the very A B C of mechanics,
as you'll find to your utter confusion."
Moriarty's countenance fell; but happening to glance at the performing flies,
he laughed himself weak and empty. "Just look at the beggars," he murmured,
wiping his eyes.
"Business first," said I. "How about my scandal?"
"It's going grand!" replied Moriarty, beaming with new pleasure.
"I carried out your suggestions to the letter. First, I took Mooney
and Nelson into my confidence; and we arranged to meet accidentally,
one evening after dusk, under that willow beside her bed-room.
At last we sat down, with our backs against the weatherboard wall,
and talked about"----
"Day, chaps," said a stranger, appearing at the door of the store.
"Got any pickles in stock, Moriarty?"
"Lots. Half-a-crown a bottle."
"Say three bottles," replied the stranger, seating himself on the counter.
"And--let 's see--a pound of tobacco; a dozen of matches; a tin
of baking-powder; and a couple of hobble-chains. I'll make that do
till I get as far as Hay. My chaps are squealing for pickles," he continued,
turning to me. "I did n't know you at the first glance. Your name's
Collins--is n't it? You might remember me passing by you last spring,
a few miles back along the track here, where you 'd been helping
Steve Thompson and a big, gipsy-looking fellow to load up some wool
on a Sydney-pattern wagon? So that chestnut was a stolen horse, after all.
Smart bit of work. Another devil of a season--isn't it? I've been trying
to shift 900 head of forward stores from Mamarool to Vic.; but I advised
the owner to give it best, though it was money out of my pocket,
when I had none in it to begin with. Managed to arrange for them
on Wooloomburra till the winter comes on."
Whilst speaking, he had opened his knife and removed the capsule and cork
from one of the bottles of pickles; then, after drinking some of the vinegar
out of the way, he began harpooning the contents of the bottle,
and eating them with a relish that was pleasant to see.
I made a suitable reply, whilst Moriarty, having made up his order,
noted the items and price on the paper which contained the tobacco.
"I see Alf Jones is gone, Moriarty," I remarked, after a pause--the stranger
being occupied with his pickles. "Wisest thing he could do."
"Foolishest thing he could do," replied the storekeeper. "Nosey was a fixture
on Runnymede; he was one of Montgomery's pets; and if he thinks he can
better that in Australia, he's got a lot to learn. And what a hurry he was in,
to get out of the best billet he'll ever have, poor beggar! with his shyness
and his disfigurement. But he's been on the pea, like a good many more.
Let's see--it was just the day after you went away that he came to Montgomery,
and said he must go. That'll be six or eight weeks ago now. Montgomery went
a lot out of his way to persuade him to stop, but it was no use; he was like
a hen on a hot griddle till he got away. Decent chap, too; and, by gosh!
can't he sing and play! We found afterward that he had given his books
to the station library, with the message that we were to think kindly of him
when he was gone. I felt sort of melancholy to see him drifting away
to beggary, with his fiddle-case across the front of his saddle,
and his spare horse in his hand. He knew no more where he was going
than the man in the moon."
"Don't you believe it," I replied. "These cranky fellows have always
sane spots in their heads; and Alf is particularly lucky in that respect.
There's not above two--or, at the most, three--lobes of that fellow's brain
in bad working order. Just you watch the weekly papers, and you'll get news
of him in his proper sphere. He's gone to Sydney, or perhaps Melbourne,
to do something better than boundary riding."
"No; he's gone to Western Queensland," remarked the stranger,
who had been watching Moriarty's flies, without the trace of a smile
on his saturnine face. "I met him sixty or eighty mile beyond the Darling,
on the Thargomindah track, three weeks ago."
"Not the same fellow, surely?" I suggested.
"Well," replied the stranger tolerantly, "the young chap I'm speaking of
had some disfigurement of the face, so far as I could distinguish
through a short crape veil; and he was carrying a box that he evidently
would n't trust on his pack-horse, but whether it was a violin-case
or a child's coffin, I was n't rude enough to ask. Old-fashioned Manton
single-barrel slung on his back. Good-looking black-and-tan dog.
Brown saddle-horse; small star; WD conjoined, near shoulder; C or G,
near flank. Bay mare, packed; JS, off shoulder; white hind-foot.
Horses in rattling condition; and he was taking his time. He'd been
boundary riding in the Bland country before coming here. Peculiar habit
of giving his head a little toss sometimes when he spoke."
"That's him, right enough," said Moriarty. "Had you a yarn with him?"
"Not much of a yarn certainly," replied the stranger, holding his bottle up
to the light while he speared a gherkin with his knife. "It was coming on
evening when I met him; and, says he, 'I 'm making for the Old-man Gilgie--
haven't you come past it?' So I told him if he wanted to camp on water,
he'd have to turn back five mile, and come with me to where I knew of
a brackish dam. I'd just been disappointed of water, myself,
at the Old-man Gilgie. It had been half-full a few days before, but a dozen
of Elder's camels had called there, carrying tucker to Mount Brown;
and each of them had scoffed the full of a 400-gallon tank. Talk about camels
doing without water!"--Just here, though the stranger's ordinary language
was singularly quotable in character, he digressed into a searching
and comprehensive curse, extending, inclusively, from Sir Thomas Elder
away back along the vanishing vista of Time to the first man who had conceived
the idea of utilising the camel as a beast of burthen.
"So we camped late at night," he resumed, in a relieved tone; "and this friend
of yours cleared-off early in the morning. He was n't interested in anything
but the Diamantina track, and I was nasty over the gilgie,
so we did n't yarn much. However, that chap 's no more off his head than I am.
Bit odd, I daresay; but that's nothing. I often find myself a bit odd--
negligent, and forgetful, and sort of imbecile--but that's a very different
thing from being off your head. Why, just now, I saw your two horses
in the paddock as I came up; and, if I was to be lagged for it,
I could n't think where I had seen them before--in fact, not till I recognised
you. Want of sleep, I blame it on. Well, if I don't shift, there won't be
many pickles left for my chaps. They were to boil the billy at the Balahs.
Better give us another bottle." He handed Moriarty the money for the goods,
and stowed them in a small flour-bag. "So-long, boys--see you again some day."
And the imbecile stranger trailed his four-inch spurs from our presence.
"Do you know him, Moriarty?" I asked.
"I can't say I do," replied the storekeeper. "One day, last winter,
I happened to be out at the main road when he passed with 400 head of fats;
and somehow I knew that his name was Spooner. Never saw him again till now.
But how about Nosey Alf--was n't I right for once?--and were n't you wrong
"So it appears," I replied. "But you haven't told me how you worked
the scandal. You were sitting with your backs against the wall--Go on"----
"Sitting with our backs against the wall," repeated my agent complacently.
"Well, we began to talk about the jealousy there was amongst the station chaps
on account of Jack the Shellback being picked to take Nosey's place;
and from that we got round to gossip about you stopping with Nosey the evening
you left here, and wondering how you got on together, being queer
in different ways. Then the conversation settled down on you; and we even
quoted a remark Mrs. Beaudesart had made about you, only a couple of hours
before. She had said that, though you were such a wonderful talker,
you were surprisingly reticent respecting your own former life,
and your family connections, and the place you came from. We commented on
this remark, and laughed a bit, not at you, but at her. Clever engineering--
was n't it?"
"Not unless she was in her room, with her ear against the wall."
"Trust her," replied my ambassador confidently. "She saw us sitting down
as she went across the yard; and we counted on her. We knew her meanness
in the matter of listening."
"Don't say 'meanness,'" I remonstrated. "I must take her part there.
You can't judge even a high-minded woman by the standard of a moderately mean
man, in this particular phase of character. Our deepest student
of human nature makes his favourite Beatrice, on receiving a hint,
run down the garden like a lapwing, to do a bit of deliberate eavesdropping;
whilst her masculine counterpart, Benedick, has to hear his share
of the disclosure inadvertently and reluctantly. Similarly,
in Love's Labour Lost, when the mis-delivered letter is handed to Lord Boyet
to read, he says:--
This letter is mistook; it importeth none here;
It is writ to Jaquenetta.
That, of course, settles the matter in his mind; but the Princess,
true to her sex, says eagerly, and with a perfectly clear conscience:--
We will read it, I swear;
Break the neck of the wax, and let every one give ear.
"Don't let us judge women by our standard here, for we can't afford
to be judged by their standard in some other"----
"Hear, hear; loud applause; much laughter," interrupted the delegate
flippantly. "Well, we were yarning and laughing over Mrs. Beaudesart's
simplicity; and it came out that Nelson and Mooney knew there was some reason
why you dare n't go back to where you were known; but they had never heard
the story; so I put them on their honour, and told them the whole affair."
"How did the story run?" I asked.
My vicar repeated it. (Which is more than I can do.)
"Well, that ought to drum me out of her esteem," I remarked, with the feeling
of a man respited on the scaffold. "And it hangs together fairly well
for a fabrication. But I'm honestly sorry to have been forced to put
such an office on you, Moriarty. Indeed, I wonder how you could have the nerve
to tell such a yarn in a woman's hearing."
"Friendship, old man," replied my factor wammly. "But it ain't a fabrication.
I found I couldn't invent anything with the proper ring of truth about it;
so, the evening before the disclosure, when Jack the Shellback was in the store
getting some things to take out with him, I asked him what was the most
blackguardly prank he ever got off with; and that was the yarn he told me.
Of course, I altered it a bit to suit you."
"And Mrs. Beaudesart believes it?" I queried hopefully.
"I don't see what else she can do, considering the way the thing came-off.
She would have to be like one of the ancient prophets."
"And you think it has the proper effect?"
"No effect at all," replied the nuncio decidedly. "Her manner's just the same
when she hears you talked about promiscuously; and she does n't take it
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