Such is Life
Part 9 out of 9
any way ill to overhear a quiet joke about the thing that's supposed to be
coming-off some time soon. It's a failure so far as that goes.
Certain as life."
"Well, Moriarty, if dishonour has no effect, we must try disgrace."
"Why, they're the same. You better go back to school, Collins."
"They're entirely independent of each other--if you insist on bringing
me back to school, to waste my time over one barren pupil. Poverty,
for instance, is disgrace without dishonour; Michael-and-Georgeship
is dishonour without disgrace. In cases like mine, the dishonour lies
in the fact, and the disgrace in the publicity. You must set the whole station
commenting on your scandal."
"That's just what the whole station is doing at the present time,"
replied my legate unctuously. "Surprising how these things spread
of themselves, when they 're once fairly started. And everybody believes the
yarn; bar Mooney, and Nelson, and myself; and you can depend your life on us
to keep it jigging. No, I'm wrong; Montgomery's got the inside crook on us."
"Montgomery?" said I inquiringly.
"Yes. I got a fright over that," explained the diplomatist.
"The other morning, I was at some correspondence here, and I heard
a quick step, and when I looked up, who should I see but Montgomery,
as black as thunder.
"'Moriarty!' says he, in a voice that made me jump; 'what is this story
I hear of Collins? Now, no shuffling,' says he; 'I've traced it home to you,
and I want your authority. I always looked upon Collins as a decent
sort of oddity,' says he; 'and I'm determined to sift this matter thoroughly.'
Frightened me out of a year's growth." Moriarty paused, and drew a long breath.
"Well?" said I, hazily; wondering whether this piteous wreckage of plot
was owing to some defect in my own strategy, or to bad lieutenantry
in the working out.
"So I had to make a clean breast of it," continued the plenipotentiary,
in a reluctant and apologetic tone. "No use talking. It was impossible
to stand to the yarn, when Montgomery's eye was on me--let alone being taken
by surprise. It was dragged from me by a sort of hypodermic influence;
and all the fun seemed to have died out of it, till it sounded mean and small
and unmanly. Yes; I had to tell him the fix you were in, and the commission
you had given me, and everything from first to last; bar that infernal wager.
Well, you know, Montgomery never laughs; but I saw his face twitching,
once or twice; and before I had done, he wheeled round and stood looking
out of the door, as if I was n't worth listening to. Then he went away,
coughing fit to break his neck."
"I may thank him for being tree'd, in the first place; and he knows it,"
I remarked, with a sourness which appears pardonable even at this distance
"What had he got to do with it?" asked Moriarty.
"How the tempus does fugit!" I replied. For the mid-day bell was ringing
at the hut.
"Best sound since breakfast-time," said Moriarty, rising. "Come on to lunch."
As we left the store, half-a-dozen representatives of the lower classes
were stringing-in from different directions toward the hut, to attend
to the most ancient and eminent of human institutions--the institution
which predicates and affirms the brotherhood of our race as positively,
and, to the philosophic mind, as touchingly, as death itself; being recognised
and remembered by the aristocrat who forgets his own personal dirt-origin
and dirt-destination; by the woman who forgets the date of her birth;
by the friend who forgets the insulting language he used to you when he was
under the influence; and by the boy who forgets his catechism.
The meal-signal is the real Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame; the Greek invocation
which calls fools into a circle as surely as wise men; for neither folly
nor wisdom is proof against its spell.
Just then, two swagmen on foot came into the yard, and approached Moriarty
and me. I fixed my belltopper, adjusted my specs, and assumed my stately pipe,
whilst my soul went forth in psalms of thanksgiving. Here was the true key
to the Wilcannia shower; here was the under-side of my imagined precaution
against ophthalmia; here was the hidden purpose of that repetitional picking
and sorting of the hawker's stock which had left Jack the Shellback
his Hobson's choice in coats; here was a Wesleyan converging of the whole vast
order of the universe toward the happiest issue. For here was Tom Armstrong
at last; and I stood prepared to force a temporary renewal--albeit for double
the original amount--of the bill, drawn by me on the Royal Inevitable,
and now about to be presented by the legitimate holder.
"Is the bose at hame?" asked the holder briskly, turning first to Moriarty
and then to me. "Losh! it's no Tam M'Callum!"--he swung his swag
to the ground, and extended his hand--"Mony 's the thocht A had o' ye, mun.
Ma certie, A kent weel we wad forgather ir lang. An' hoo're ye farin' syne?"
"Excellent, i' faith--of the chameleon's dish," I replied, with winning
politeness, and a hearty hand-grip, though I felt like a man in the act
of parrying a rifle bullet. "I have a wretched memory for faces,
yet yours seems familiar; and I 'm certain I've heard your voice before.
Pardon me if I ask your name?"
"Tam Airmstrang," replied my creditor, in an altered tone.
"Now, where have we met before?" I pondered. "Armstrong? I know several
of the name in Riverina, and several in Victoria. Wait a moment--Did we meet
at the Caledonian Sports, in Echuca, two years ago, past? No! Well,
perhaps--yes--didn't we have a drink together, at Ivanhoe, three or four
"Od sink 't," muttered the honest fellow, in vexation; "A thocht ye was
yin Tam M'Callum, frae Selkirksheer."
"I'm a Victorian myself, and my people are Irish," I remarked gently.
"But my name's Collins," I continued, brightening up; "and Collins sounds
something like M'Callum."
"Ye 'se no be the mon A thocht ye was," replied Tam decidedly--and the
unconscious double-meaning of his words sank into my heart--"Bit hae ye
onything tae dae wi' Rinnymede?"
"No; I 'm only a caller, like yourself. Moriarty, here, is the storekeeper."
"D' ye want ony han's?" continued Tam, addressing Moriarty.
"I think we do," replied the young fellow, moving toward the barracks.
"The boss was saying there was a few burrs that would have to be looked after
at once. Call again in the evening, and see him."
"Yon wad fit mysen like auld breeks," persisted Tam; "bit A'm takkin' thocht
o' Andraw here. Puir body's sicht's nae fit fir sic wark; an' A mauna pairt
wi' him the noo. An ye henna onythin' firbye birrkittin', we maun
gang fairther ava."
He resumed his swag. I made a sign, perceptible only to Moriarty,
and the latter hesitated a moment.
By virtue of a fine tradition, or unwritten law, handed down from the time
of Montgomery's father, a subaltern officer of Runnymede had power to send
any decent-looking swagman--or a couple of them, for that matter--to the hut
for a feed. Certain conditions, however, had formulated themselves
around this prerogative: first, the stranger must of necessity be
a decent-looking man; second, he must be within the precincts of the homestead
at the ringing of the bell; third, the officer must walk down to the hut
with him, as a testimony; fourth, no particular sub must make a trade of it.
The prerogative was something like one enjoyed by abbots, and other
ecclesiastical dignitaries, in the ages of faith; namely, the right to extend
the jurisdiction and protection of the Church over any secular prisoner
accidentally met on his way to execution--a prerogative, the existence
of which depended on its not being abused. And though Moriarty was only
on the Commissariat, and was therefore unmercifully sat-on by the vulgar
whenever he presumed to give orders, he held this right through a series
of forerunners extending back to the time when Montgomery I. had been
his own storekeeper. Don't you believe the yarns your enthusiast tells
of the squatter's free-and-easy hospitality toward the swagman.
Such things were, and are; but I would n't advise you to count upon
the institution as a neat and easy escape from the Adamic penalty.
You might fall-in. Hence Moriarty's personal reluctance in the matter
was perfectly natural. The meal at the hut, and the pannikin of dust
at the store, are two widely different things. But a faithful
and exhaustive inquiry into the ethics of station hospitality would fill
many pages, for the question has more than one aspect.
"Go down to the hut, and have some dinner," said Moriarty, turning back;
and we preceded the two men on their way. "Can you make room for these chaps,
Matt?" he asked, looking into the hut.
The cook growled assent; and the two strangers took their places at the table.
"Scotty thought he knew you," observed Moriarty, with characteristic
profundity, as we turned again toward the barracks. The remark broke a spell
that was coming over me.
"And I thought I knew his mate, though I can't manage to locate him,"
I replied. "But, as I was telling Scotty, I have the worst memory
in the world for faces."
"Ay, that poor wreck would n't fetch much in the yard," remarked Moriarty,
referring to Tam's mate. "When a fellow comes to his state, he ought to be
turned out for the summer in a swamp paddock, with the leeches on his legs;
then you ought to sell him to Cobb and Co., to get the last kick out of him.
Or else poll-axe the beggar."
"Very good system, Moriarty. Apply it to yourself also. You're not dead yet."
"But I'll never come to that state of affairs."
"Assuredly you will, sonny--just for the remark you've made. But I 'd like
to see that fellow again. Go on to the barracks; I'll be after you
in two minutes."
Confused identity seemed to be in the air. Had I seen that weary looking
figure, and that weather-worn face, before? I could n't determine;
and I can't determine now--but the question has nothing to do with this record.
At all events, impelled partly by a desire to have another look at the man,
and partly, perhaps, by a morbid longing to flaunt myself before Tam,
I grandly dipped my lofty belltopper under the doorway of the hut,
and, without removing it, helped myself to a pannikin of tea from the bucket
by the hearth, and sat down opposite the silent swagman. Farther along
the table, Tam was already breast-deep in the stream of conversation.
In answer to some question, he was replying that he had been only twelve months
in the colonies.
"And what part of the Land o' Cakes are you from?" I asked, wantonly,
"A'm frae Dumfriessheer--frae a spote they ca' Ecchelfechan," he replied
complacently. "Bit, de'il tak't, wha' gar'd ye jalouse A was a Scoatsman?"
"What the (sheol) was the name o' that (adj.) place you come from?"
asked the station bullock driver, with interest.
"Nobody 's got any business to come from a place with sich a (adj.) name"
"An' wha' fir no?" demanded Tam sternly. "Haud tae ye 'se hae ony siccan
a historic name in yir ain domd kintra. D'ye ken wha, firbye mysen,
was boarn in Ecchelfechan syne? Vinna fash yirsel' aboot"--
"I say, Scotty," interposed Toby; "Egglefeggan 's the place where they eat
"A'll haud nae deeskission wi' the produc' o' hauf-a-dizzen generations
o' slavery," replied Tam haughtily. "A dinna attreebute ony blame
tae yir ain sel', laddie; bit ye canna owrecam the kirse o' Canaan."
"Cripes! do you take me for a (adj.) mulatter?" growled the descendant
of a thousand kings. "Why, properly speaking, I own this here (adj.) country,
as fur as the eye can reach."
"Od, ye puir, glaikit, misleart remlet o' a perishin' race," retorted Tam--
"air ye no the mair unsicker? Air ye no feart ye'se aiblins see yon day
gin ye 'se thole waur fare nir a wamefu' o' gude brose? Heh!"
"Oh, speak English, you (adj.) bawbee-hunter!" muttered H.R.H. "Why,
they 're a cut above brose in China--ain't they, Sling?"
"Eatee lice in China," replied the gardener, with national pride.
"Plenty lice--good cookee--welly ni'."
"By gummies! Hi seed the time Hi'd 'a' stopped yer jorrin', Dave!"
said a quavering voice, dominating some argument at the other end of the table.
"Hi seed me fightin' in a sawr-pit f'r tew hewrs an' sebmteen minits,
by the watch; an' fetched 'ome in a barrer. Now wot's the hupshot?
Did 'n' Hi say, 'Look hout! we'll git hit to rights'?"
"But you (adv.) well thought we'd get rain," persisted the old man's
antagonist--an open-mouthed, fresh-faced rouseabout, who was just undergoing
that colonising process so much dreaded by mothers and deplored by the clergy.
"'Ow the (fourfold expletive) do you hundertake to know wot Hi thort?
But wot war the hupshot? 'Look hout!' ses Hi; 'we'll git hit to rights!'
An' did we, hor did we not? Straight, now, Dave?"
"You're like Cassandra, Jack," I observed, to fill up the pause which marked
"That bloke as spoke las', 'e's got more hunder 'is 'at nor a
six-'underd-an'-fo'ty-hacre paddick full o' sich soojee speciments
as you fellers," said the old man impressively. "Wich o' you knows hanythink
about Cassandra? Hin 'twenty-six hit war, an' hit seems like las' week.
Hi druv ole Major Learm'th to them races, Hi did; an' wen the 'osses comes hin,
'e looks roun' an' ses to 'is labour, a-stannin' aside the kerridge,
'Cassandra fust,' ses 'e, 'an' the rest nowheers,' ses 'e.
Now what's the hupshot? Collings'll see the day. Them's ole Jack Goldsmith's
words, an' jis' you mark 'em. Collings'll see the day! Yes, Dave,"
continued the heart of the old man to the Psalmist; "Hi won ten bob
on Cassandra that day; an' ten bob war ten bob them times," &c., &c.
All this while, I had been observing the silent swagman, who seemed to grow
uneasy under my notice.
"I was remarking to a friend just now that I fancied I had seen you before,"
"Well, they ain't actilly sore, so much as sort o' dazzly and dim,"
replied the man, in evident relief. "I been tryin' mostly everything
this last four year, but I got better hopes now nor ever I had before.
A boundary man he give me a little bottle o' stuff the other day; an' it seems
to be about the correct thing. Jist feels like a spoonful o' red-hot ashes
in your eye; an' if a drop falls outside, it tums your skin black.
That ought to cut away the sort o' glassy phlegm off o' the optic nerve?"
"No; you want none of these burning quack remedies; you want three months'
"I ain't denyin' it," interrupted the man, sadly and sullenly. "An' I don't
thank Tom for bein' so fast," he continued, raising his voice in attempted
anger. "He ain't the man I took him for--an' I'm sayin' it to his face."
The general conversation dropped, and Tam, pannikin in hand, rose and advanced
to his mate's side.
"An' wha' is't ye're sayin' till ma face, Andraw?" he asked loudly,
but with gentleness and commiseratiom "Puir body's haird o' hearin',"
he explained to the company.
"I'm sayin' you'd no right to go blurtin' out about a man gittin' a stretch
for a thing o' that sort. Seems like as if there was a job for one of us
on this station, an' you was takin' a mean advantage to collar it.
It ain't like you"----
"Od, whisht! ye puir thrawart body! " interrupted Tam hastily.
"You might 'a' went about it a bit more manly," continued the other,
with the querulousness of a sick child. "I don't deny I done three months;
but so help"----
"Whisht! ye daft"----
"So help me God, I never deserved it. I knowed no more about it nor
the babe unborn, till I got it off o' the bobby that nabbed me."
"But how could you (adj.) well get three months for a thing you (adj.) well
knew nothing about?" asked the catechumen rouseabout. (Henceforth,
the reader will have to supply from his own imagination the clumsy
and misplaced expletive which preceded each verb used by this young fellow.)
"Ye moight foine it dang aisy yeerself, Dave," observed a middle-aged diner
"I been a misfortunate man, there's no denyin'," continued the swagman;
"but I never done a injury to nobody in my life, so fur as I'm aware about."
"What did he get the three months for?" asked Dave, turning to Tam.
"Gin ye speer onythin' frae me," replied Carlyle's townie, after slowly
surveying his questioner from head to foot, "A maun inform ye A ken naethin'
bit gude o' Andraw; an' A hae warkit wi' him mair nir fowr minth. 'Deed,
the puir body taks owre muckle thocht fir ithers, an' disna' spare himsel' ava.
A ken naethin' aboot yon three minth; yon 's atween Andsaw an's Makker;
an' A'll nae jidge onybody, sin' we maun a' be judgit by Ane wha jidgeth
iprightly. Bit as lang's A hae a pickle siller, Andraw'll no want."
And Tam returned to his seat.
"What would I want of burnin' a stack?" remonstrated Andrew, blinking
defiantly round the table. "Tell you how it come. Hold on a minute"--
he went to the bucket, and refilled his pannikin--"It was this way: I was
jist startin' to thatch a new haystack for two ole bosses o' mine,
on the Vic. side o' the Murray, when up comes a trooper.
"'What's your name?' says he.
"'Andrew Glover,' says I.
"'Well, Andrew Glover, you're my prisoner--charged with burnin' a stack,'
says he. 'I must fetch you along,' says he. So he gives me the usual warnin',
an' walks me off to the logs."
"And how did it go?" shouted Dave, who had shifted his pannikin and plate
to Andrew's side.
"Well, the Court day it come roun'; an' when my case was called,
the prosecutor he steps down off the bench, an' gives evidence;
an' I foun' him sayin' somethin' about not wantin' to press the charge;
an' there was a bit of a confab; an' then I foun' the Bench askin' me
if I'd sooner be dealt with summary, or be kep' for the Sessions;
an' I said summary by all means; so they give me three months."
"What was the prosecutor's name? "shouted Dave.
"So called because he opens the carriage-doors," I remarked involuntarily.
"Do you know him, Collins?" persisted Dave.
"I neither know him nor do I feel any aching void in consequence," I replied,
pointedly interpolating, in two places, the quidnunc's flowers of speech.
"How did the evidence go, mate?" asked the young fellow greedily.
"How did the evidence go?"
"Oh yes! Well, I'm a bit hard o' hearin'--I dunno if you notice it on me,
but I am--an' sometimes I'm worse nor other times; so I did n't ketch most
o' what went on; an' the prosecutor he was a good bit off o' me; an' there was
a sort o' echo. But I foun' one o' the magistrates sayin', 'Quite so,
Mr. Waterman--quite so, Mr. Waterman,' every now an' agen; an' I was
on'y too glad to git off with three months. I'd 'a' got twelve,
if I'd bin remanded for a proper trial. The jailer told me after--he told me
this Waterman come out real manly. Seems, he got the charge altered
to Careless Use o' Fire. So I can't help giving him credit, in a manner
o' speakin'. But, so help me God, I never burned no stack."
"Did you know this Waterman?" interrogated Dave. "Was you ever on his place?"
"Well, yes; I was on his place, askin' him for work, as it might be
this mornin'; an' he give me rats for campin' so near his place, as it might be
las' night. Seems, it was nex' mornin' his stack was burnt,
jist after sunrise. But, so help me God, I never done it."
"(Adj.) shaky sort o' yarn," commented the bullock driver, in grave pity.
"Let it drop, Dave."
"Divil a shaky," interposed the hon. member for Tipperary. "Arrah,
fwy wud the chap call on the Daity? Fishper--did ye iver foine justice
in a coort? Be me sowl, Oi'd take the man's wurrd agin all the coorts
in Austhrillia. An' more betoken--divil blasht the blame Oi'd blame him
fur sthrekin a match, whin dhruv to that same."
"Shoosteece iss (adj.) goot, mais revahnsh iss (adj.) bat,"
remarked another foreigner--a contractor's cook, who had come to the homestead
for a supply of rations. "Vhere iss de (adj.) von?--vhere is de (adj.) autre?
All mix--eh? De cohnseerashohn iss--I not know vat you vill call him
ohn Angleesh, mais ve vill call him ohn Frahnsh, (adj.) cohnplecat."
"Much the same in English, Theophile," I observed.
"You vill barn de (adj.) snack," continued Theophile, turning politely to me;
"you vill call him shoosteece; mineself, I vill call him revahnsh.
Mineself, I vill not barn de (adj.) snack; I vill be too (adj.) flash.
I vill go to (sheol)."
"Not for your principles, Theophile," I replied, with a courteous inclination
of my belltopper.
"Course, it's all in a man's lifetime," pursued Andrew resignedly.
"Same time, it seems sort a' hard lines when a man's shoved in the logs
for the best three months in the year for a thing he never done. 'Sides,
I was on for a good long job with two as decent a fellers as you'd meet
in a day's walk. I'd met one o' them ten mile up the river, as it might be
this afternoon; an' the fire it took place as it might be to-morrow mornin'."
"But where was you when the fire broke-out?--that's the question,"
demanded Dave, with a pleasant side-glance round the table.
"You'll be bumpin' up agen a snag some o' these times, young feller,"
muttered the bullock driver.
"I was only askin' him where he was when the fire broke out," protested
Somebody's Darling; then in a louder voice he repeated his question.
"Dunno. Somewhere close handy," replied the swagman hopelessly. "Anyhow,
I never done it. Well, then, I'd jist got well started to work
on Monday mornin', when up comes the bobby, an' grabs me. 'S'pose
you'll have to go,' says the missus--for the bosses was both away at another
place they got. 'S'pose so,' says I. 'Better take my swag with me anyhow.'
Course, by the time my three months was up, things was at the slackest;
an' I could n't go straight back to a decent place, an' me fresh out o' chokey.
Fact, I can't go back to that district no more. But as luck would have it,
I runs butt agen the very man I'd ratherest meet of anybody in the country."
The swagman paused, and slowly turned toward me, in evident trouble of mind--
"He did n't tell you two blokes I was logged for stack-burnin'?"
And the poor fellow's flickering eyes sought my face appealingly.
"Indeed he did n't, mate."
"Why, you let the cat out of the bag yourself!" exclaimed Dave triumphantly.
Then the conversation took a more general turn.
By this time, I had provisionally accounted for my vaguely-fancied recognition
of the man. With the circumspection of a seasoned speculatist,
I had bracketed two independent hypotheses, either of which would supply
a satisfactory solution. One of these simply attributed the whole matter
to unconscious cerebration. But here a question arose: If one half
of my brain had been more alert than its duplicate when the object
first presented itself--so that the observation of the vigilant half
instantaneously appeared as an intangible memory to the judgment
of the apathetic half--it still remained to be determined which of the halves
might be said to be in a normal condition. Was one half unduly
and wastefully excited?--or was the other half unhealthily dormant?
The thing would have to be seen into, at some fitting time.
But this hypothesis of unconscious cerebration seemed scarcely as satisfactory
as the other-namely, that, having at a former time heard Terrible Tommy
mention the name of Andrew Glover, my educated instinct of Nomenology,
rising to the very acme of efficiency, had accurately, though unconsciously,
snap-shotted a corresponding apparition on the retina of my mind's eye.
Then there were lessons to be gathered from Tom Armstrongs's prompt acceptance
of such alibi evidence, touching myself, as would have merely tended
to unfathomable speculations on metempsychosis in an ether-poised Hamlet-mind.
Tom, though crushing for a couple of ounces, was one of your practical,
decided, cocksure men; guided by unweighed, unanalysed phenomena,
and governed by conviction alone--the latter being based simply,
though solidly, upon itself. These men are deaf to the symphony
of the Silences; blind to the horizonless areas of the Unknown;
unresponsive to the touch of the Impalpable; oblivious to the machinery
of the Moral Universe--in a word, indifferent to the mysterious Motive
of Nature's all-pervading Soul. In such mental organisms, opinion,
once deflected tangentially from the central Truth, acquires an independent
and stubborn orbit of its own. But the Absolute Truth is so large,
and human opinion so small, that the latter cannot get away altogether,
however eccentric its course may be; indeed, the more elongated the orbit
of Error, the greater chance of its being swallowed up by the scorching Truth,
on its return trip. In the present instance, my own ready co-operation
with a marvellously conducive Providential legislation had been sufficient
unto the deflection of Tom's opinion; and I was content to let
the still-impending collision take thought for itself, particularly as
Mrs. Beaudesart's conjunction was just about falling due. Then I rose to go.
"Here, mate," said I, fearlessly removing my clouded glasses, and handing them,
with their case, to Andrew; "you'll find the advantage of these."
There was no trace of recognition in Tom's look of gratitude as his eyes
rested on my face. But I sighed to reflect that he was still looking out
for the tracks of that miserable impostor from the braes o' Yarra.
Now I had to enact the Cynic philosopher to Moriarty and Butler,
and the aristocratic man with a 'past' to Mrs. Beaudesart;
with the satisfaction of knowing that each of these was acting a part to me.
Such is life, my fellow-mummers--just like a poor player, that bluffs
and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity.
But let me not hear any small witticism to the further effect that its story
is a tale told by a vulgarian, full of slang and blanky, signifying--nothing.
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