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Title: The Doctor's Drive
Author: Mary Gaunt
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0606941.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

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The Doctor's Drive
Mary Gaunt



A SCRAP OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY

I do not know how other people write short stories, but for myself I
seldom do it unless I come across an incident that interests me deeply
or some scene that cries out to be illustrated. I know I never write a
successful short story unless one of these conditions is fulfilled, so
it comes that in collecting together this book I seem to be going step
by step once again through my own life.

I was a baby of six when the wanderings of my parents took me to
Gippsland in the south of Victoria, and the vivid green of the dense
tea-tree scrub impressed itself on my mind. There I first remember
seeing the Australian aboriginal, and there I first heard, without
comprehending the grim tragedy that lay behind, the story of the brig
that was wrecked on Ninety Mile Beach, and the white woman who lived
with the blacks and des--pairingly traced initials on the forest
trees. My father was a commissioner, then called a warden, of the
goldfields, and he used to tell us tales of the early days and the
strange people he had come across, and how in the wild rush for gold
it often happened that the criminal ended a gentleman and the
gentleman a criminal, and we children in our turn speculated what our
father would have done had an old friend come to him with a price upon
his head. So when I grew older I wrote "A Dilemma."

We grew up, we little band of children, and scattered literally to the
ends of the earth--the boys first, and I remember how I listened
enthralled when one of the sailor boys told me how his boat had been
adrift in December for a whole day and night south of the Horn, how
bitter cold it had been, how the sea rose up round them and the sky
fitted over like a lid, and how they feared the ship would never find
them and dreaded their fate if it did not. Many years later I wrote
"The Mate's Salvage," and he corrected it for me and did the
seamanship. Later on he told me an accident of a little war in which
he was a looker-on, and the tight fit the Americans were in when the
Colt jammed. Of course I wrote that. It was too good to miss, with its
tropical setting; and then to my amusement the Colt people wrote to me
to say that the Colt never jammed. It was impossible, and if I would
visit their warehouse they would demonstrate why. They evidently
thought I was interested in munitions--I who did not know one end of a
gun from another, and shouldn't have recognised a Colt if I had met
it.

I married and went to live in the pretty little town of Warrnambool on
the south coast of Victoria, and there I made the acquaintance of the
gentleman who ran an illicit whisky still. Everybody knew it, and I
remember his offer to my husband, "Sure, Doctor dear, leave the bit
gayrden gate open wan night an' it's jist a keg I'll be lavin' yez on
the verandy. It'll warm, yer heart these could nights, an' not a sowl
the wiser at all, at all." My father, a judge by that time, tried the
case, and laughed at the manners and customs of the folks of my new
home.

And the years, after all not so very many years, went on, and I was a
widow earning my living by my pen. I found nothing inspiring in the
London streets, so of necessity I fell back upon the incidents of my
youth for material, and as I succeeded, and money allowed, I wandered
farther afield.

"Peter Addie and the Ju-ju" reminds me of a weird night I spent alone
on Anum Mountain, and the long trek by night from Ho to Palime in the
heart of that Togo land we have just taken from the Germans. As the
lights my carriers bore flashed on the wet trees, there grew up in me
a little fear and the strong feeling that when I had time I must make
a story with some such setting.

And when I came back from West Africa I went to China--China of the
ages. I remember one summer day drifting down the canal outside the
walls of Peking, my companions "The Woman who did not Care" and a man
who had served the British American Tobacco Company. Together we three
worked out the story, lunching in a grassy graveyard, the people,
courteous and unwashed, who hoped to occupy that graveyard in the
future, sitting round us in a ring waiting patiently for our scraps. I
went farther inland, where no one but a missionary would go, and
living with some American missionaries just outside a walled city, I
met the man who told me the incident of the old gun in the gateway and
the armed men hanging threatening over the city walls. Indeed I did
more, for I went on till I almost reached the city of the story. But
White Wolf, the great robber chief, held the land in terror, and my
men came to me saying that he either held the city Sui Te Chou or
besieged it. I might have acted my own tale had I gone a day's journey
farther, only then I think the end would have been tragedy.

So I turned in my tracks and went north, north to the mighty rivers
and the far eastern shores of Siberia, just wakened to their summer
trade, to the Island of Saghalien which used to seem to me the end of
the earth; and before I turned west again I too had seen lying in the
mouth of the great Amur River the sealing schooners that my brother
had told me of when, years before, together we wrote "North Of 53."

The Graphic published "North Of 53" and "The Good Samaritan," a true
tale of Tasmania, Pearson's Magazine published "A Dilemma" and "When
the Colt Jammed"--all four long before I had realised the value of
copyright; therefore am I much indebted to the editors of these papers
for permission to republish in book form. "Sergeant Mahone" first saw
the light in the Sphere, and neither Mr Shorter nor I can remember the
terms on which I sold it; but whatever they were I have his good
wishes for its success and he has my thanks.

And since I am being grateful to people, in addition to Mrs Lang who
helped me choose the stories, I really think I ought to be grateful to
and indeed dedicate the whole book to the enterprising publisher who
not only helped me to see strange sights but who has the pluck to
bring out a book for me at such a time.

For the doings have been of deepest interest. If my readers get out of
the book a tenth of the interest I have had in collecting the
information and writing the stories, I shall be well paid. A tenth did
I say? A hundredth would more than pay me.

And last but not least--nay greatest of all--when I look over this
record of my life, there comes to me a curious knowledge, a knowledge
that can only come with the passing of years. A tiny girl once watched
the daybreak, the red and gold of the sky barred by the trunks of the
great Gippsland gums that stood up against the skyline, and realised,
possibly for the first time in her life, the beauty of the dawn. The
years passed, years full of joy and sorrow, and a woman, a woman who
had drunk of life's cup, watched another dawn come up across the green
fields and rugged hills of Saghalien, watched the light like arrows of
gold cut through the mists that for ever envelop the island, watched
and saw the beauty of the northern even as the child had seen the
beauty of the subtropical dawn in the faraway south; and then the
woman knew that the mind--the soul--what you will--that received these
impressions belongs to no time, that part of her was not young in the
little child, but it was no older in the woman who felt she had been
to the ends of the earth, even as it will not be old if it be granted
her to fill life's allotted span, it is of no age because it is
eternal.

* * * * *

THE DOCTOR'S DRIVE

"THE Mails has got to go through."


Peter Miles was store-keeper and postmaster at Bilson's, and had been
store-keeper there ever since Bilson's was any place at all, and
postmaster ever since the Government had seen fit to open a post-
office. His motto was, and he stuck to it, "The mails has got to go
through." Rain or sunshine, flood or drought, snow or fire, "the mails
has got to go through." And this January day the wind was howling like
a demon possessed. Down through the narrow gully it tore, a veritable
blast from a fiery furnace-the green things shrivelled up before its
breath, the tall trees, their great branches tossed hither and thither
like twigs, bent and snapped, and every now and then one was rent up
by the roots and, falling, crashed among its fellows, and with its
wide-spreading roots, which left mother earth so reluctantly, brought
away part of the hillside; even above the howling of the wind could be
heard the slow slipping and sliding of the loosened earth as it fell
towards the roadway. No sunshine to-day, no scrap of blue sky, the
heavy clouds hung low, clouds of smoke they were, and the strong smell
of that smoke and the aromatic scent of burning gum leaves was heavy
in the air.

Just in front of the little store stood the mail-coach, and the horses
were being yoked up--only a small coach today, but there were four
horses--four horses that were laying back their ears and kicking and
plunging as if they did not like the job before them. The driver, a
tall, lithe young fellow of five--and-twenty, with a slouch hat drawn
down over his eyes and fastened with a leather thong under his chin,
stood watching the final touches being put to the harness and the mail
bags being brought out and flung into the boot and put on top of the
coach. There were a good many mail bags to-day; usually the big coach
would have taken them through, but the weather was so threatening that
Miles on his own responsibility had decided to send them along in the
little coach he kept for emergencies. "The mails has got to go
through," and the sooner they got through the better on a day like
this.

"No passengers?" asked the driver laconically. "You'd better send a
man along to help then, case of trouble."

Peter Miles looked thoughtfully down the road and rubbed his bald
forehead hard.

"I was thinking--" he began, and then hesitated, and one of the stable
helps, with his hair coming through the broken crown of his straw hat,
laughed ironically.

"Sweet day for a passear," he said; "the hills'll be in a blaze long
before you reach Bethambia."

"Lucky if we reach Bethambia unsinged, eh, old man?" said the coach-
driver grimly, as he gathered up the reins and prepared to mount the
box. "Now which of you fellows is coming along?"

Still Peter Miles shaded his eyes and looked along the road. The
howling of the wind deadened all other sounds, and the thick smoke and
haze made it impossible to see very far; still he looked out
expectantly and delayed the coach yet another five minutes. The
secrets of the telegraph were his, and he could not betray them; but
he knew well enough the contents of that urgent telegram he had sent
along to the doctor an hour ago. There was still time for him to catch
the coach, and he hesitated to let it go without him.

The horses grew more impatient, and so did the driver.

"Come, old man," he said, "give the word. You're risking our lives."

"Hold on, one minute. Here he is! Here he is!"

Through the haze and smoke dashed a man on horseback.

"Here, I say, hold on a minute; I'm coming too."

"Better not, doctor," said the lean coachman, "we're going to have a
hell of a time."

"Must," said Dr. Smith, dropping from his horse and throwing his bag
inside the coach. "Now shall I come up in front?"

The driver nodded.

"Look after my horse, Miles," cried the doctor, scrambling to the box-
seat and settling himself there.

It was lucky he was young and active, for the horses were more
impatient than ever now, and the driver, with a quite unnecessary
crack of his whip, gave them their heads.

"It'll be hell for leather, Mat," cried he of the straw hat, as the
stable helpers jumped aside to let the swaying coach pass, and Mat
nodded his head.

Up the road, straight up the hill, swept the horses right in the teeth
of the wind, and Bilson's was left behind in the gathering haze.

"Where're you goin' to, doctor?" asked Mat as they steadied down to a
trot, for the hill was steep and the wind strong.

"To Coulson's--just this side of Bethambia, isn't it?"

A faint smile stole over Mat Jackson's impassive face.

"Eh, I thought they'd be wantin' you there. It's her first, you see,
and Jim Coulson's mighty set on her. But it's an uncommon awkward time
she's chosen."

"They always do," murmured the other out of the depths of his
experience. "Never mind, they'll take it more coolly next time."

"I'd have ridden through, if I was you," said the driver. "You'd have
done it easier."

But the other shook his head.

"I've been riding all the morning," said he. "And I never got to bed
at all last night. I reckoned on getting some sleep in the coach once
we get through this smother."

"Lordy! we ain't goin' to get through this. All the ranges are on fire
way back there. I reckon we'll be lucky if we get through at all. It's
gettin' worse."

"Ye gods and little fishes! It can't be worse."

"Oh, can't it? just you wait an' see." "I'm bound to get through."

"So's the mails. And once we top this hill it'll be neck or nothing
with us. Say the word, doctor; will you go back?" And the driver
slightly checked his horses.

"Can't we get through?"

He raised his head. The smoke made his eyes smart, and he pulled down
his hat over them, but it was little good, it was all round them,
heavy and dense. On either hand the tree-tops were shut out as by a
pall, and even the leaders were only visible to the men on the box as
through a dense grey haze.

Mat, the driver, took a long breath, then pushed back the flapping
brim of his hat, and, standing up, took a long look round.

Nothing but dense grey smoke and trees swaying and tossing in the wind
seen dimly through it.

"Well, we mout get through. I've seen it worse--only the farther we
go, the less chance of getting back if it's too bad to go on. And it
ain't pleasant, let me tell you, to be roasted alive without any
preliminary preparation. And it's kinder anticipatin'."

The doctor smiled grimly.

"As bad as that?" he said.

"Well," drawled the driver, "it mout be, and it mout not. The wind
mout drop, you know, or it mout shift, or it mout rain, or it moutn't
be as bad as I think. There's a hundred chances agin things goin'
wrong. But if we meet the fire two or three miles on ahead there, I
tell you, doctor, it isn't much I'd give for your chance of seein' Jim
Coulson's wife through her trouble. But then again, we moutn't meet
the fire; but I'm telling you the truth, if I hadn't the mails behind
me it's on the back track I'd be this minute."

"And if the mails can get through, I can," said the doctor. "I reckon
we'll go on, Mat."

"Right you are, boss," and he leaned over and touched the off leader,
who was fretting herself into a foam over the smoke, with his long
whip.

Then the doctor pulled down his straw hat over his eyes again, and in
spite of the discomfort of his seat and his doubts as to the safety of
his situation, fell into an uneasy doze. The heat was overpowering,
the smoke grew denser than ever, and every now and then he was
dreamily aware that his companion was exhorting him to keep awake, to
hold up and look out that he did not fall off. He was rather afraid of
this last accident himself, and grasped the iron rail of the boxseat
with a firm hand, and then kept starting wide awake, thinking he had
lost it. If he could only have wakened himself up thoroughly, he would
have made an effort and gone inside as safer, but dead beat as he was
the smoke and the heat made him drowsier than ever, and he kept
putting it off and putting it off till of a sudden the horses were
pulled to a standstill with a jerk that threw them on to their
haunches.

"God Almighty!" he heard Mat's voice in horror and dread. "We're dead men!"

Then he sat upright in a moment, and rubbed his eyes.

It was darker now much darker, though it was but two o'clock in the
afternoon, the wind was wilder than ever as it tore shrieking through
the trees, and the smoke denser and more choking; but that was not the
worst, for right ahead, directly in their path, was a lurid glare
thrown right on the heavy smoke banks.

The doctor sat up and rubbed his eyes sleepily, for the moment hardly
grasping the gravity of the situation.

"What's the matter, Mat?"

The coach-driver pointed with his whip.

"The fire, right ahead," he said. "Both sides of the track, too. The
scrub's thick and the track's narrow. We're dead men, doctor."

The doctor stood up and looked back; but the driver anticipated his
thought.

"No good, doctor, we can't go back. The fire'd be on us before you
could say Jack Robinson. And it would stop with us all the way. It's
due south is Bilson's, and the wind's dead from the north."

The solitary passenger looked to the right and left, but the scrub was
close and thick; the country was poor enough, but the messmate grew up
thick and bushy, and in between was tea-tree and bracken and twining
creepers and prickly shrubs of which he did not know the names. But it
was close enough; there was no escape that way either for man or
beast.

"It's sorter different when it comes to the point, doctor isn't it?"
said the driver. "All very well to talk o' gettin' the mails through,
neck or nothing, till you have to do it; but to drive into that muck
of smoke an' fire--the Lord ha' mercy upon us."

"Is it the only way?"

"The only way. We're not above three miles from Bethambia." And he
brought down the whip heavily across the horses' backs. "Now then,
fellows, for all you're worth."

The doctor put his hand down and gripped firmly the rail as the coach
plunged forward and rocked from side to side; but he said nothing.
There was nothing left for him to say.

"Let's get it over, in God's name," cried the driver, and he lashed
the horses to a hard gallop. They kicked and plunged and snorted in
terror, for the breath of the fire was upon them now, but the hand
that held them was firm and strong, and the cruel whip came down on
their backs unerringly. There was no turning back for them either.

The hot wind was hotter than ever now: the mouth of the furnace was
open, and it was pouring forth smoke and flame. The reek of it was in
their nostrils, and the doctor pulled his hat down closely over his
face.

"Look out you don't choke and fall off," said the driver grimly. "I
couldn't stop if I wanted to."

"All right," said his companion, and looking out again he noted that
the air was full of burning gum leaves. They fell on the frightened
horses and on the mail bags, and his own coat was already smouldering
in one or two places, and right ahead was the fire. On either side
scrub and bracken and tall trees were all one mass of flame, and
momentarily it came nearer, borne on the fierce wind.

The horses saw it too and stopped dead, plunging and fighting to be
free, and though Mat stood up in his seat and lashed them with a hand
made desperate by stern necessity, they were desperate too, and they
swerved aside and turned from, the track to the right, bringing the
coach sharply against a tree trunk.

"Good Lord!" cried Mat in desperation. "Rats in a hole!"

"We'll have to blindfold them," said the doctor. "Give me that necktie
of yours, they'll never face it as it is--and your handkerchief. Now,
don't leave me behind."

It is hardly an easy matter to blindfold a horse at any time, but
never surely did it take so long as that day, when the minutes were so
precious. Young Willie Smith cursed the fate that had sent him out
from civilisation many times, as he struggled for that plunging off
leader's head, but it was done at last--all four horses were
blindfolded, and he scrambled up to the box again as the driver lashed
them to a gallop.

He wondered if it would be a good move. How could those terrified
horses take the coach along that rough track, now scattered over with
living coals as the burning branches and twigs fell upon it? But it
was their only chance. Mat's hands were firm and strong, and the
horses answered to the guiding rein. The fire was on either hand now,
their faces were blistering under the heat, every piece of wood and
ironwork was too hot to touch, and the horses stumbled every now and
then where a fall would mean certain death. He bowed his head in his
hands. This was the end then. All his high hopes, all his ambition,
and his little sweetheart waiting for him so patiently till he could
make a home for her up here among the mountains. All, all was lost;
this was the end. How long now, how long? Then the driver's voice
broke in on his reverie.

"The mails are afire, doctor. Couldn't you put them out? Take this
waterproof apron."

The waterproof apron had been pulled up to shield their own legs; but
no matter--if Mat were so faithful to his trust, he could not be less
so, and with his pocket-knife he ripped it up, and turning round threw
it across the mail bags. It didn't half cover them, and he had to
crawl half over them and put out the blaze with his fingers. Sometimes
he managed to get the waterproof in between his bare hand and the
fire, but always that was not practicable, and the mails were such
inflammable material, before he got one place out another would be
alight. His hands grew sore and painful but he hardly noticed it, only
the smoke was so choking and the heat so fierce he could only wonder
they held on so long.

First one horse stumbled, then another, but the practised hand of the
driver drew them to their feet again. The off leader was down on her
knees once, and the coach gave such a lurch he gave up all for lost,
while he mechanically laid his arm across the corner of the woodwork
that burst into flame.

"Do that again," said Mat between his teeth, "and it's all up with
us." But the mare, helped by his guiding hand, struggled to her feet
again.

A burning branch fell right across the top of the coach, miraculously
sparing the two men on the box-seat, and the doctor, with a great
effort, flung it off. Another fell right in front of the horses, but
the track luckily was wider here, and Mat managed to draw horses and
coach a little aside. It was only clever hands that did it at that
headlong pace, but it was done, and they were a little nearer the end.

How long? How long?

Eyebrows, eyelashes, hair were all singed by the flames; the curtains
in the coach windows were on fire, and the horses--their scanty
harness was red-hot, and the white handkerchief he had tied round the
eyes of one of the leaders was already smouldering. The end must come
soon now, things could not go on like this any longer.

"Woa, there. Steady, good mare. Hold up, will you?" And the whip came
down with a heavy crack across the backs of the stumbling horses.

Crash! And a tall tree fell close alongside them, and men and coach
and horses received the burst of sparks that flew around them.

"It is the end," cried the doctor, his lips cracked and swollen and
his mouth dry and parched, yet still making one last effort to put out
with his bare, burnt hands the fire that was kindling afresh among the
mails.

"By the living God! no," shouted the driver. "We're through! My God!
we're through!"

Then the other man turned his head and looked through the dense haze
with red-rimmed, smoke-weary eyes, and he saw that his companion spoke
the truth. Behind them, was the fire, behind them the flames dancing
yellow and red and blue in the heavy smoke, and here--here was only
the path of the fire, hot wind, heavy smoke, dense and thick as ever.
The breath of the fire had passed, and every living thing was dead.
The tall trees were blackened, smoking skeletons, in which the red
fire still smouldered, and the air was full of the soft, white,
powdery ash that had once been bark and green leaves. But they were
safe, safe! and in a few more yards Mat drew up the horses, and they
put out the last remnants of the fire that had clung to the coach.

Then they were off again, and in another five minutes were clattering
down the road into the township of Bethambia.

The township had fought for its life, and at the first roadside
cottage they came across a little knot of men armed with branches and
sacks, and looking scarcely less dishevelled than the newcomers
themselves. These had been beating back the fire from the township.

"And it was a mighty close shave," said one of them, stepping forward.
"But, lordy! Mat, whatever brought ye through on a day like this?"

"The mails, Jim Coulson," said Mat, drawing himself up with dignity,
"has got to go through, an' they're through. An' here's the doctor for
your missus."

Then a woman made her appearance in the doorway, winding up her hands
in her long white apron.

"Is it the doctor?" she asked. "Oh, doctor, I'm that sorry, but the
baby was born more than half an hour ago. Just as fine a child as ever
you set eyes on, bless him!"


THE END



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