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Title: Send Round the Hat Author: Henry Lawson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000771h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2020 Most recent update: August 2020 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Send Round the Hat
That Pretty Girl in the Army
The Blindness of One-eyed Brogan
A Sketch of Mateship
On the Tucker Track
A Bush Publican’s Lament
The Shearer’s Dream
The Lost Souls’ Hotel
The Boozers’ Home
The Sex Problem Again
Now this is the creed from the Book of the Bush—
Should be simple and plain to a dunce:
“If a man’s in a hole you must pass round the hat—
Were he jail-bird or gentleman once.”
“Is it any harm to wake yer?”
It was about nine o’clock in the morning, and, though it was Sunday morning, it was no harm to wake me; but the shearer had mistaken me for a deaf jackeroo, who was staying at the shanty and was something like me, and had good-naturedly shouted almost at the top of his voice, and he woke the whole shanty. Anyway he woke three or four others who were sleeping on beds and stretchers, and one on a shake-down on the floor, in the same room. It had been a wet night, and the shanty was full of shearers from Big Billabong Shed which had cut out the day before. My room mates had been drinking and gambling overnight, and they swore luridly at the intruder for disturbing them.
He was six-foot-three or thereabout. He was loosely built, bony, sandy-complexioned and grey eyed. He wore a good-humoured grin at most times, as I noticed later on; he was of a type of bushman that I always liked—the sort that seem to get more good-natured the longer they grow, yet are hardknuckled and would accommodate a man who wanted to fight, or thrash a bully in a good-natured way. The sort that like to carry somebody’s baby round, and cut wood, carry water and do little things for overworked married bushwomen. He wore a saddle-tweed sac suit two sizes too small for him, and his face, neck, great hands and bony wrists were covered with sunblotches and freckles.
“I hope I ain’t disturbin’ yer,” he shouted, as he bent over my bunk, “but there’s a cove——”
“You needn’t shout!” I interrupted, “I’m not deaf.”
“Oh—I beg your pardon!” he shouted. “I didn’t know I was yellin’. I thought you was the deaf feller.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” I said. “What’s the trouble?”
“Wait till them other chaps is done swearin’ and I’ll tell yer,” he said. He spoke with a quiet, good-natured drawl, with something of the nasal twang, but tone and drawl distinctly Australian—altogether apart from that of the Americans.
“Oh, spit it out for Christ’s sake, Long’un!” yelled One-eyed Bogan, who had been the worst swearer in a rough shed, and he fell back on his bunk as if his previous remarks had exhausted him.
“It’s that there sick jackeroo that was pickin’-up at Big Billabong,” said the Giraffe. “He had to knock off the first week, an’ he’s been here ever since. They’re sendin’ him away to the hospital in Sydney by the speeshall train. They’re just goin’ to take him up in the wagonette to the railway station, an’ I thought I might as well go round with the hat an’ get him a few bob. He’s got a missus and kids in Sydney.”
“Yer always goin’ round with yer gory hat!” growled Bogan. “Yer’d blanky well take it round in hell!”
“That’s what he’s doing, Bogan,” muttered Gentleman Once, on the shake-down, with his face to the wall.
The hat was a genuine “cabbage-tree,” one of the sort that “last a lifetime.” It was well coloured, almost black in fact with weather and age, and it had a new strap round the base of the crown. I looked into it and saw a dirty pound note and some silver. I dropped in half a crown, which was more than I could spare, for I had only been a green-hand at Big Billabong.
“Thank yer!” he said. “Now then, you fellers!”
“I wish you’d keep your hat on your head, and your money in your pockets and your sympathy somewhere else,” growled Jack Moonlight as he raised himself painfully on his elbow and felt under his pillow for two half-crowns. “Here,” he said, “here’s two half-carers. Chuck ’em in and let me sleep for God’s sake!”
Gentleman Once, the gambler, rolled round on his shakedown, bringing his good-looking, dissipated face from the wall. He had turned in in his clothes and, with considerable exertion he shoved his hand down into the pocket of his trousers, which were a tight fit. He brought up a roll of pound notes and could find no silver.
“Here,” he said to the Giraffe, “I might as well lay a quid. I’ll chance it anyhow. Chuck it in.”
“You’ve got rats this mornin’, Gentleman Once,” growled the Bogan. “It ain’t a blanky horse race.”
“P’r’aps I have,” said Gentleman Once, and he turned to the wall again with his head on his arm.
“Now, Bogan, yer might as well chuck in somethin’,” said the Giraffe.
“What’s the matter with the jackeroo?” asked the Bogan, tugging his trousers from under the mattress.
Moonlight said something in a low tone.
“The —— he has!” said Bogan. “Well, I pity the ——! Here, I’ll chuck in half a —— quid!” and he dropped half a sovereign into the hat.
The fourth man, who was known to his face as “BarcooRot,” and behind his back as “The Mean Man,” had been drinking all night, and not even Bogan’s stump-splitting adjectives could rouse him. So Bogan got out of bed, and calling on us (as blanky female cattle) to witness what he was about to do, he rolled the drunkard over, prospected his pockets till he made up five shillings (or a “caser” in bush language), and “chucked” them into the hat.
And Barcoo-Rot is probably unconscious to this day that he was ever connected with an act of charity.
The Giraffe struck the deaf jackeroo in the next room. I heard the chaps cursing “Long-’un” for waking them, and “Deaf-’un” for being, as they thought at first, the indirect cause of the disturbance. I heard the Giraffe and his hat being condemned in other rooms and cursed along the veranda where more shearers were sleeping; and after a while I turned out.
The Giraffe was carefully fixing a mattress and pillows on the floor of a wagonette, and presently a man, who looked like a corpse, was carried out and lifted into the trap.
As the wagonette started, the shanty-keeper—a fat, soulless-looking man—put his hand in his pocket and dropped a quid into the hat which was still going round, in the hands of the Giraffe’s mate, little Teddy Thompson, who was as far below medium height as the Giraffe was above it.
The Giraffe took the horse’s head and led him along on the most level parts of the road towards the railway station, and two or three chaps went along to help get the sick man into the train.
The shearing-season was over in that district, but I got a job of house-painting, which was my trade, at the Great Western Hotel (a two-story brick place), and I stayed in Bourke for a couple of months.
The Giraffe was a Victorian native from Bendigo. He was well known in Bourke and to many shearers who came through the great dry scrubs from hundreds of miles round. He was stakeholder, drunkard’s banker, peacemaker where possible, referee or second to oblige the chaps when a fight was on, big brother or uncle to most of the children in town, final court of appeal when the youngsters had a dispute over a foot-race at the school picnic, referee at their fights, and he was the stranger’s friend.
“The feller as knows can battle around for himself,” he’d say. “But I always like to do what I can for a hard-up stranger cove. I was a green-hand jackeroo once meself, and I know what it is.”
“You’re always bothering about other people, Giraffe,” said Tom Hall, the shearers’ union secretary, who was only a couple of inches shorter than the Giraffe. “There’s nothing in it, you can take it from me—I ought to know.”
“Well, what’s a feller to do?” said the Giraffe. “I’m only hangin’ round here till shearin’ starts agen, an’ a cove might as well be doin’ something. Besides, it ain’t as if I was like a cove that had old people or a wife an’ kids to look after. I ain’t got no responsibilities. A feller can’t be doin’ nothin’. Besides, I like to lend a helpin’ hand when I can.”
“Well, all I’ve got to say,” said Tom, most of whose screw went in borrowed quids, etc. “All I’ve got to say is that you’ll get no thanks, and you might blanky well starve in the end.”
“There ain’t no fear of me starvin’ so long as I’ve got me hands about me; an’ I ain’t a cove as wants thanks,” said the Giraffe.
He was always helping some-one or something. Now it was a bit of a “darnce” that we was gettin’ up for the girls; again it was Mrs Smith, the woman whose husban’ was drowned in the flood in the Bogan River lars’ Crismas, or that there poor woman down by the Billabong—her husband cleared out and left her with a lot o’ kids. Or Bill Something, the bullocky, who was run over by his own wagon, while he was drunk, and got his leg broke.
Toward the end of his spree One-eyed Bogan broke loose and smashed nearly all the windows of the Carriers’ Arms, and next morning he was fined heavily at the police court. About dinner-time I encountered the Giraffe and his hat, with two half-crowns in it for a start.
“I’m sorry to trouble yer,” he said, “but One-eyed Bogan carn’t pay his fine, an’ I thought we might fix it up for him. He ain’t half a bad sort of feller when he ain’t drinkin’. It’s only when he gets too much booze in him.”
After shearing, the hat usually started round with the Giraffe’s own dirty crumpled pound note in the bottom of it as a send-off, later on it was half a sovereign, and so on down to half a crown and a shilling, as he got short of stuff; till in the end he would borrow a “few bob”—which he always repaid after next shearing—“just to start the thing goin’.”
There were several yarns about him and his hat. ’Twas said that the hat had belonged to his father, whom he resembled in every respect, and it had been going round for so many years that the crown was worn as thin as paper by the quids, halfquids, casers, half-casers, bobs and tanners or sprats—to say nothing of the scrums—that had been chucked into it in its time and shaken up.
They say that when a new governor visited Bourke the Giraffe happened to be standing on the platform close to the exit, grinning good-humouredly, and the local toady nudged him urgently and said in an awful whisper, “Take off your hat! Why don’t you take off your hat?”
“Why?” drawled the Giraffe, “he ain’t hard up, is he?”
And they fondly cherish an anecdote to the effect that, when the One-Man-One-Vote Bill was passed (or Payment of Members, or when the first Labour Party went in—I forget on which occasion they said it was) the Giraffe was carried away by the general enthusiasm, got a few beers in him, “chucked” a quid into his hat, and sent it round. The boys contributed by force of habit, and contributed largely, because of the victory and the beer. And when the hat came back to the Giraffe, he stood holding it in front of him with both hands and stared blankly into it for a while. Then it dawned on him.
“Blowed if I haven’t bin an’ gone an’ took up a bloomin’ collection for meself!” he said.
He was almost a teetotaller, but he stood his shout in reason. He mostly drank ginger beer.
“I ain’t a feller that boozes, but I ain’t got nothin’ agen chaps enjoyin’ themselves, so long as they don’t go too far.”
It was common for a man on the spree to say to him:
“Here! here’s five quid. Look after it for me, Giraffe, will yer, till I git off the booze.”
His real name was Bob Brothers, and his bush names, “Long-’un,” “The Giraffe,” “Send-round-the-hat,” “Chuck-in-a-bob,” and “Ginger-ale.”
Some years before, camels and Afghan drivers had been imported to the Bourke district; the camels did very well in the dry country, they went right across country and carried everythink from sardines to flooring-boards. And the teamsters loved the Afghans nearly as much as Sydney furniture makers love the cheap Chinese in the same line. They love ’em even as union shearers on strike love blacklegs brought up-country to take their places.
Now the Giraffe was a good, straight unionist, but in cases of sickness or trouble he was as apt to forget his unionism, as all bushmen are, at all times (and for all time), to forget their creed. So, one evening, the Giraffe blundered into the Carriers’ Arms—of all places in the world—when it was full of teamsters; he had his hat in his hand and some small silver and coppers in it.
“I say, you fellers, there’s a poor, sick Afghan in the camp down there along the——”
A big, brawny bullock-driver took him firmly by the shoulders, or, rather by the elbows, and ran him out before any damage was done. The Giraffe took it as he took most things, good-humouredly; but, about dusk, he was seen slipping down towards the Afghan camp with a billy of soup.
“I believe,” remarked Tom Hall, “that when the Giraffe goes to heaven—and he’s the only one of us, as far as I can see, that has a ghost of a show—I believe that when he goes to heaven, the first thing he’ll do will be to take his infernal hat round amongst the angels—getting up a collection for this damned world that he left behind.”
“Well, I don’t think there’s so much to his credit, after all,” said Jack Mitchell, shearer. “You see, the Giraffe is ambitious; he likes public life, and that accounts for him shoving himself forward with his collections. As for bothering about people in trouble, that’s only common curiosity; he’s one of those chaps that are always shoving their noses into other people’s troubles. And, as for looking after sick men—why! there’s nothing the Giraffe likes better than pottering round a sick man, and watching him and studying him. He’s awfully interested in sick men, and they’re pretty scarce out here. I tell you there’s nothing he likes better—except, maybe, it’s pottering round a corpse. I believe he’d ride forty miles to help and sympathize and potter round a funeral. The fact of the matter is that the Giraffe is only enjoying himself with other people’s troubles—that’s all it is. It’s only vulgar curiosity and selfishness. I set it down to his ignorance; the way he was brought up.”
A few days after the Afghan incident the Giraffe and his hat had a run of luck. A German, one of a party who were building a new wooden bridge over the Big Billabong, was helping unload some girders from a truck at the railway station, when a big log slipped on the skids and his leg was smashed badly. They carried him to the Carriers’ Arms, which was the nearest hotel, and into a bedroom behind the bar, and sent for the doctor. The Giraffe was in evidence as usual.
“It vas not that at all,” said German Charlie, when they asked him if he was in much pain. “It vas not that at all. I don’t cares a damn for der bain; but dis is der tird year—und I vas going home dis year—after der gontract—und der gontract yoost commence!”
That was the burden of his song all through, between his groans.
There were a good few chaps sitting quietly about the bar and veranda when the doctor arrived. The Giraffe was sitting at the end of the counter, on which he had laid his hat while he wiped his face, neck, and forehead with a big speckled “sweatrag.” It was a very hot day.
The doctor, a good-hearted young Australian, was heard saying something. Then German Charlie, in a voice that rung with pain:
“Make that leg right, doctor—quick! Dis is der tird pluddy year—und I must go home!”
The doctor asked him if he was in great pain.
“Neffer mind der pluddy bain, doctor! Neffer mind der pluddy bain! Dot vas nossing. Make dat leg well quick, doctor. Dis vas der last gontract, and I vas going home dis year.” Then the words jerked out of him by physical agony: “Der girl vas vaiting dree year, und—by Got! I must go home.”
The publican—Watty Braithwaite, known as “Watty Broadweight,” or, more familiarly, “Watty Bothways”—turned over the Giraffe’s hat in a tired, bored sort of way, dropped a quid into it, and nodded resignedly at the Giraffe.
The Giraffe caught up the hint and the hat with alacrity. The hat went all round town, so to speak; and, as soon as his leg was firm enough not to come loose on the road German Charlie went home.
It was well known that I contributed to the Sydney Bulletin and several other papers. The Giraffe’s bump of reverence was very large, and swelled especially for sick men and poets. He treated me with much more respect than is due from a bushman to a man, and with an odd sort of extra gentleness I sometimes fancied. But one day he rather surprised me.
“I’m sorry to trouble yer,” he said in a shamefaced way. “I don’t know as you go in for sportin’, but One-eyed Bogan an’ Barcoo-Rot is goin’ to have a bit of a scrap down the Billybong this evenin’, an’——”
“A bit of a what?” I asked.
“A bit of fight to a finish,” he said apologetically. “An’ the chaps is tryin’ to fix up a fiver to put some life into the thing. There’s bad blood between One-eyed Bogan and BarcooRot, an’ it won’t do them any harm to have it out.”
It was a great fight, I remember. There must have been a couple of score blood-soaked handkerchiefs (or “sweat-rags”) buried in a hole on the field of battle, and the Giraffe was busy the rest of the evening helping to patch up the principals. Later on he took up a small collection for the loser, who happened to be Barcoo-Rot in spite of the advantage of an eye.
The Salvation Army lassie, who went round with the War Cry, nearly always sold the Giraffe three copies.
A new-chum parson, who wanted a subscription to build or enlarge a chapel, or something, sought the assistance of the Giraffe’s influence with his mates.
“Well,” said the Giraffe, “I ain’t a churchgoer meself. I ain’t what you might call a religious cove, but I’ll be glad to do what I can to help yer. I don’t suppose I can do much. I ain’t been to church since I was a kiddy.”
The parson was shocked, but later on he learned to appreciate the Giraffe and his mates, and to love Australia for the bushman’s sake, and it was he who told me the above anecdote.
The Giraffe helped fix some stalls for a Catholic Church bazaar, and some of the chaps chaffed him about it in the union office.
“You’ll be taking up a collection for a joss-house down in the Chinamen’s camp next,” said Tom Hall in conclusion.
“Well, I ain’t got nothin’ agen the Roming Carflics,” said the Giraffe. “An’ Father O’Donovan’s a very decent sort of cove. He stuck up for the unions all right in the strike anyway.” (“He wouldn’t be Irish if he wasn’t,” someone commented.) “I carried swags once for six months with a feller that was a Carflick, an’ he was a very straight feller. And a girl I knowed turned Carflick to marry a chap that had got her into trouble, an’ she was always jes’ the same to me after as she was before. Besides, I like to help everything that’s goin’ on.”
Tom Hall and one or two others went out hurriedly to have a drink. But we all loved the Giraffe.
He was very innocent and very humorous, especially when he meant to be most serious and philosophical.
“Some of them bush girls is regular tomboys,” he said to me solemnly one day. “Some of them is too cheeky altogether. I remember once I was stoppin’ at a place—they was sort of relations o’ mine—an’ they put me to sleep in a room off the verander, where there was a glass door an’ no blinds. An’ the first mornin’ the girls—they was sort o’ cousins o’ mine—they come gigglin’ and foolin’ round outside the door on the verander, an’ kep’ me in bed till nearly ten o’clock. I had to put me trowsis on under the bed-clothes in the end. But I got back on ’em the next night,” he reflected.
“How did you do that, Bob?” I asked.
“Why, I went to bed in me trowsis!”
One day I was on a plank, painting the ceiling of the bar of the Great Western Hotel. I was anxious to get the job finished. The work had been kept back most of the day by chaps handing up long beers to me, and drawing my attention to the alleged fact that I was putting on the paint wrong side out. I was slapping it on over the last few boards when:
“I’m very sorry to trouble yer; I always seem to be troublin’ yer; but there’s that there woman and them girls——”
I looked down—about the first time I had looked down on him—and there was the Giraffe, with his hat brim up on the plank and two half-crowns in it.
“Oh, that’s all right, Bob,” I said, and I dropped in half a crown.
There were shearers in the bar, and presently there was some barracking. It appeared that that there woman and them girls were strange women, in the local as well as the Biblical sense of the word, who had come from Sydney at the end of the shearing-season, and had taken a cottage on the edge of the scrub on the outskirts of the town. There had been trouble this week in connection with a row at their establishment, and they had been fined, warned off by the police, and turned out by their landlord.
“This is a bit too red-hot, Giraffe,” said one of the shearers. “Them ——s has made enough out of us coves. They’ve got plenty of stuff, don’t you fret. Let ’em go to ——! I’m blanked if I give a sprat.”
“They ain’t got their fares to Sydney,” said the Giraffe. “An’, what’s more, the little ’un is sick, an’ two of them has kids in Sydney.”
“How the —— do you know?”
“Why, one of ’em come to me an’ told me all about it.”
There was an involuntary guffaw.
“Look here, Bob,” said Billy Woods, the rouseabouts’ secretary, kindly. “Don’t you make a fool of yourself. You’ll have all the chaps laughing at you. Those girls are only working you for all you’re worth. I suppose one of ’em came crying and whining to you. Don’t you bother about ’em. You don’t know ’em; they can pump water at a moment’s notice. You haven’t had any experience with women yet, Bob.”
“She didn’t come whinin’ and cryin’ to me,” said the Giraffe, dropping his twanging drawl a little. “She looked me straight in the face an’ told me all about it.”
“I say, Giraffe,” said Box-o’-Tricks, “what have you been doin’? You’ve bin down there on the nod. I’m surprised at yer, Giraffe.”
“An’ he pretends to be so gory soft an’ innocent, too,” growled the Bogan. “We know all about you, Giraffe.”
“Look here, Giraffe,” said Mitchell the shearer. “I’d never have thought it of you. We all thought you were the only virgin youth west the river; I always thought you were a moral young man. You mustn’t think that because your conscience is pricking you everyone else’s is.”
“I ain’t had anythin’ to do with them,” said the Giraffe, drawling again. “I ain’t a cove that goes in for that sort of thing. But other chaps has, and I think they might as well help ’em out of their fix.”
“They’re a rotten crowd,” said Billy Woods. “You don’t know them, Bob. Don’t bother about them—they’re not worth it. Put your money in your pocket. You’ll find a better use for it before next shearing.”
“Better shout, Giraffe,” said Box-o’-Tricks.
Now in spite of the Giraffe’s softness he was the hardest man in Bourke to move when he’d decided on what he thought was “the fair thing to do.” Another peculiarity of his was that on occasion, such for instance as “sayin’ a few words” at a strike meeting, he would straighten himself, drop the twang, and rope in his drawl, so to speak.
“Well, look here, you chaps,” he said now. “I don’t know anything about them women. I s’pose they’re bad, but I don’t suppose they’re worse than men has made them. All I know is that there’s four women turned out, without any stuff, and every woman in Bourke, an’ the police, an’ the law agen ’em. An’ the fact that they is women is agenst ’em most of all. You don’t expect ’em to hump their swags to Sydney! Why, only I ain’t got the stuff I wouldn’t trouble yer. I’d pay their fares meself. Look,” he said, lowering his voice, “there they are now, an’ one of the girls is cryin’. Don’t let ’em see yer lookin’.”
I dropped softly from the plank and peeped out with the rest.
They stood by the fence on the opposite side of the street, a bit up towards the railway station, with their portmanteaux and bundles at their feet. One girl leant with her arms on the fence rail and her face buried in them, another was trying to comfort her. The third girl and the woman stood facing our way. The woman was good-looking; she had a hard face, but it might have been made hard. The third girl seemed half defiant, half inclined to cry. Presently she went to the other side of the girl who was crying on the fence and put her arm round her shoulder. The woman suddenly turned her back on us and stood looking away over the paddocks.
The hat went round. Billy Woods was first, then Box-o’Tricks, and then Mitchell.
Billy contributed with eloquent silence. “I was only jokin’, Giraffe,” said Box-o’-Tricks, dredging his pockets for a couple of shillings. It was some time after the shearing, and most of the chaps were hard up.
“Ah, well,” sighed Mitchell. “There’s no help for it. If the Giraffe would take up a collection to import some decent girls to this God-forgotten hole there might be some sense in it. . . . It’s bad enough for the Giraffe to undermine our religious prejudices, and tempt us to take a morbid interest in sick Chows and Afghans, and blacklegs and widows; but when he starts mixing us up with strange women it’s time to buck.” And he prospected his pockets and contributed two shillings, some odd pennies, and a pinch of tobacco dust.
“I don’t mind helping the girls, but I’m damned if I’ll give a penny to help the old——,” said Tom Hall.
“Well, she was a girl once herself,” drawled the Giraffe.
The Giraffe went round to the other pubs and to the union offices, and when he returned he seemed satisfied with the plate, but troubled about something else.
“I don’t know what to do for them for to-night,” he said. “None of the pubs or boardin’-houses will hear of them, an’ there ain’t no empty houses, an’ the women is all agen ’em.”
“Not all,” said Alice, the big, handsome barmaid from Sydney. “Come here, Bob.” She gave the Giraffe half a sovereign and a look for which some of us would have paid him ten pounds—had we had the money, and had the look been transferable.
“Wait a minute, Bob,” she said, and she went in to speak to the landlord.
“There’s an empty bedroom at the end of the store in the yard,” she said when she came back. “They can camp there for to-night if they behave themselves. You’d better tell ’em, Bob.”
“Thank yer, Alice,” said the Giraffe.
Next day, after work, the Giraffe and I drifted together and down by the river in the cool of the evening, and sat on the edge of the steep, drought-parched bank.
“I heard you saw your lady friends off this morning, Bob,” I said, and was sorry I said it, even before he answered.
“Oh, they ain’t no friends of mine,” he said. “Only four poor devils of women. I thought they mightn’t like to stand waitin’ with the crowd on the platform, so I jest offered to get their tickets an’ told ’em to wait round at the back of the station till the bell rung. . . . An’ what do yer think they did, Harry?” he went on, with an exasperatingly unintelligent grin. “Why, they wanted to kiss me.”
“Yes. An’ they would have done it, too, if I hadn’t been so long. . . . Why, I’m blessed if they didn’t kiss me hands.”
“You don’t say so.”
“God’s truth. Somehow I didn’t like to go on the platform with them after that; besides, they was cryin’, and I can’t stand women cryin’. But some of the chaps put them into an empty carriage.” He thought a moment. Then:
“There’s some terrible good-hearted fellers in the world,” he reflected.
I thought so too.
“Bob,” I said, “you’re a single man. Why don’t you get married and settle down?”
“Well,” he said, “I ain’t got no wife an’ kids, that’s a fact. But it ain’t my fault.”
He may have been right about the wife. But I thought of the look that Alice had given him, and——
“Girls seem to like me right enough,” he said, “but it don’t go no further than that. The trouble is that I’m so long, and I always seem to get shook after little girls. At least there was one little girl in Bendigo that I was properly gone on.”
“And wouldn’t she have you?”
“Well, it seems not.”
“Did you ask her?”
“Oh, yes, I asked her right enough.”
“Well, and what did she say?”
“She said it would be redicilus for her to be seen trotting alongside of a chimbley like me.”
“Perhaps she didn’t mean that. There are any amount of little women who like tall men.”
“I thought of that too—afterwards. P’r’aps she didn’t mean it that way. I s’pose the fact of the matter was that she didn’t cotton on to me, and wanted to let me down easy. She didn’t want to hurt me feelin’s, if yer understand—she was a very good-hearted little girl. There’s some terrible tall fellers where I come from, and I know two as married little girls.”
He seemed a hopeless case.
“Sometimes,” he said, “sometimes I wish that I wasn’t so blessed long.”
“There’s that there deaf jackeroo,” he reflected presently. “He’s something in the same fix about girls as I am. He’s too deaf and I’m too long.”
“How do you make that out?” I asked. “He’s got three girls, to my knowledge, and, as for being deaf, why, he gasses more than any man in the town, and knows more of what’s going on than old Mother Brindle the washerwoman.”
“Well, look at that now!” said the Giraffe, slowly. “Who’d have thought it? He never told me he had three girls, an’ as for hearin’ news, I always tell him anything that’s goin’ on that I think he doesn’t catch. He told me his trouble was that whenever he went out with a girl people could hear what they was sayin’—at least they could hear what she was sayin’ to him, an’ draw their own conclusions, he said. He said he went out one night with a girl, and some of the chaps foxed ’em an’ heard her sayin’ ‘don’t’ to him, an’ put it all round town.”
“What did she say ‘don’t’ for?” I asked.
“He didn’t tell me that, but I s’pose he was kissin’ her or huggin’ her or something.”
“Bob,” I said presently, “didn’t you try the little girl in Bendigo a second time?”
“No,” he said. “What was the use. She was a good little girl, and I wasn’t goin’ to go botherin’ her. I ain’t the sort of cove that goes hangin’ round where he isn’t wanted. But somehow I couldn’t stay about Bendigo after she gave me the hint, so I thought I’d come over an’ have a knock round on this side for a year or two.”
“And you never wrote to her?”
“No. What was the use of goin’ pesterin’ her with letters? I know what trouble letters give me when I have to answer one. She’d have only had to tell me the straight truth in a letter an’ it wouldn’t have done me any good. But I’ve pretty well got over it by this time.”
A few days later I went to Sydney. The Giraffe was the last I shook hands with from the carriage window, and he slipped something in a piece of newspaper into my hand.
“I hope yer won’t be offended,” he drawled, “but some of the chaps thought you mightn’t be too flush of stuff—you’ve been shoutin’ a good deal; so they put a quid or two together. They thought it might help yer to have a bit of a fly round in Sydney.”
I was back in Bourke before next shearing. On the evening of my arrival I ran against the Giraffe; he seemed strangely shaken over something, but he kept his hat on his head.
“Would yer mind takin’ a stroll as fur as the Billerbong?” he said. “I got something I’d like to tell yer.”
His big, brown, sunburnt hands trembled and shook as he took a letter from his pocket and opened it.
“I’ve just got a letter,” he said. “A letter from that little girl at Bendigo. It seems it was all a mistake. I’d like you to read it. Somehow I feel as if I want to talk to a feller, and I’d rather talk to you than any of them other chaps.”
It was a good letter, from a big-hearted little girl. She had been breaking her heart for the great ass all these months. It seemed that he had left Bendigo without saying good-bye to her. “Somehow I couldn’t bring meself to it,” he said, when I taxed him with it. She had never been able to get his address until last week; then she got it from a Bourke man who had gone south. She called him “an awful long fool,” which he was, without the slightest doubt, and she implored him to write, and come back to her.
“And will you go back, Bob?” I asked.
“My oath! I’d take the train to-morrer only I ain’t got the stuff. But I’ve got a stand in Big Billerbong Shed an’ I’ll soon knock a few quid together. I’ll go back as soon as ever shearin’s over. I’m goin’ to write away to her to-night.”
The Giraffe was the “ringer” of Big Billabong Shed that season. His tallies averaged a hundred and twenty a day. He only sent his hat round once during shearing, and it was noticed that he hesitated at first and only contributed half a crown. But then it was a case of a man being taken from the shed by the police for wife desertion.
“It’s always that way,” commented Mitchell. “Those soft, good-hearted fellows always end by getting hard and selfish. The world makes ’em so. It’s the thought of the soft fools they’ve been that finds out sooner or later and makes ’em repent. Like as not the Giraffe will be the meanest man out back before he’s done.”
When Big Billabong cut out, and we got back to Bourke with our dusty swags and dirty cheques, I spoke to Tom Hall:
“Look here, Tom,” I said. “That long fool, the Giraffe, has been breaking his heart for a little girl in Bendigo ever since he’s been out back, and she’s been breaking her heart for him, and the ass didn’t know it till he got a letter from her just before Big Billabong started. He’s going to-morrow morning. “
That evening Tom stole the Giraffe’s hat. “I s’pose it’ll turn up in the mornin’,” said the Giraffe. “I don’t mind a lark,” he added, “but it does seem a bit red hot for the chaps to collar a cove’s hat and a feller goin’ away for good, p’r’aps, in the mornin’.”
Mitchell started the thing going with a quid.
“It’s worth it,” he said, “to get rid of him. We’ll have some peace now. There won’t be so many accidents or women in trouble when the Giraffe and his blessed hat are gone. Anyway, he’s an eyesore in the town, and he’s getting on my nerves for one. . . . Come on, you sinners! Chuck ’em in; we’re only taking quids and half-quids.”
About daylight next morning Tom Hall slipped into the Giraffe’s room at the Carriers’ Arms. The Giraffe was sleeping peacefully. Tom put the hat on a chair by his side. The collection had been a record one, and, besides the packet of money in the crown of the hat, there was a silver-mounted pipe with case—the best that could be bought in Bourke, a gold brooch, and several trifles—besides an ugly valentine of a long man in his shirt walking the room with a twin on each arm.
Tom was about to shake the Giraffe by the shoulder, when he noticed a great foot, with about half a yard of big-boned ankle and shank, sticking out at the bottom of the bed. The temptation was too great. Tom took up the hair-brush, and, with the back of it, he gave a smart rap on the point of an in-growing toe-nail, and slithered.
We heard the Giraffe swearing good-naturedly for a while, and then there was a pregnant silence. He was staring at the hat we supposed.
We were all up at the station to see him off. It was rather a long wait. The Giraffe edged me up to the other end of the platform.
He seemed overcome.
“There’s—there’s some terrible good-hearted fellers in this world,” he said. “You mustn’t forgit ’em, Harry, when you make a big name writin’. I’m—well, I’m blessed if I don’t feel as if I was jist goin’ to blubber!”
I was glad he didn’t. The Giraffe blubberin’ would have been a spectacle. I steered him back to his friends.
“Ain’t you going to kiss me, Bob?” said the Great Western’s big, handsome barmaid, as the bell rang.
“Well, I don’t mind kissin’ you, Alice,” he said, wiping his mouth. “But I’m goin’ to be married, yer know.” And he kissed her fair on the mouth.
“There’s nothin’ like gettin’ into practice,” he said, grinning round.
We thought he was improving wonderfully; but at the last moment something troubled him.
“Look here, you chaps,” he said, hesitatingly, with his hand in his pocket, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this stuff. There’s that there poor washerwoman that scalded her legs liftin’ the boiler of clothes off the fire——”
We shoved him into the carriage. He hung—about half of him—out the window, wildly waving his hat, till the train disappeared in the scrub.
And, as I sit here writing by lamplight at midday, in the midst of a great city of shallow social sham, of hopeless, squalid poverty, of ignorant selfishness, cultured or brutish, and of noble and heroic endeavour frowned down or callously neglected, I am almost aware of a burst of sunshine in the room, and a long form leaning over my chair, and:
“Excuse me for troublin’ yer; I’m always troublin’ yer; but there’s that there poor woman. . . .”
And I wish I could immortalize him!
Now I often sit at Watty’s, when the night is very near,
With a head that’s full of jingles—and the fumes of bottled beer;
For I always have a fancy that, if I am over there
When the Army prays for Watty, I’m included in the prayer.
It would take a lot of praying, lots of thumping on the drum,
To prepare our sinful, straying, erring souls for Kingdom Come.
But I love my fellow-sinners! and I hope, upon the whole,
That the Army gets a hearing when it prays for Watty’s soul.
From - When the World was Wide.
The Salvation Army does good business in some of the outback towns of the great pastoral wastes of Australia. There’s the thoughtless, careless generosity of the bushman, whose pockets don’t go far enough down his trousers (that’s what’s the matter with him), and who contributes to anything that comes along, without troubling to ask questions, like long Bob Brothers of Bourke, who, chancing to be “a Protestant by rights,” unwittingly subscribed towards the erection of a new Catholic church, and, being chaffed for his mistake, said:
“Ah, well, I don’t suppose it’ll matter a hang in the end, anyway it goes. I ain’t got nothink agenst the Roming Carflicks.”
There’s the shearer, fresh with his cheque from a cut-out shed, gloriously drunk and happy, in love with all the world, and ready to subscribe towards any creed and shout for all hands—including Old Nick if he happened to come along. There’s the shearer, half-drunk and inclined to be nasty, who has got the wrong end of all things with a tight grip, and who flings a shilling in the face of out-back conventionality (as he thinks) by chucking a bob into the Salvation Army ring. Then he glares round to see if he can catch anybody winking behind his back. There’s the cynical joker, a queer mixture, who contributes generously and tempts the reformed boozer afterwards. There’s the severe-faced old station-hand—in clean shirt and neckerchief and white moleskins—in for his annual or semiannual spree, who contributes on principle, and then drinks religiously until his cheque is gone and the horrors are come. There’s the shearer, feeling mighty bad after a spree, and in danger of seeing things when he tries to go to sleep. He has dropped ten or twenty pounds over bar counters and at cards, and he now “chucks” a repentant shilling into the ring, with a very private and rather vague sort of feeling that something might come of it. There’s the stout, contented, good-natured publican, who tips the Army as if it were a barrel-organ. And there are others and other reasons—black sheep and ne’er-do-weels—and faint echoes of other times in Salvation Army tunes.
Bourke, the metropolis of the Great Scrubs, on the banks of the Darling River, about five hundred miles from Sydney, was suffering from a long drought when I was there in ninety-two; and the heat may or may not have been another cause contributing to the success, from a business point of view, of the Bourke garrison. There was much beer boozing—and, besides, it was vaguely understood (as most things are vaguely understood out there in the drought-haze) that the place the Army came to save us from was hotter than Bourke. We didn’t hanker to go to a hotter place than Bourke. But that year there was an extraordinary reason for the Army’s great financial success there.
She was a little girl, nineteen or twenty, I should judge, the prettiest girl I ever saw in the Army, and one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen out of it. She had the features of an angel, but her expression was wonderfully human, sweet and sympathetic. Her big grey eyes were sad with sympathy for sufferers and sinners, and her poke bonnet was full of bunchy, red-gold hair. Her first appearance was somewhat dramatic—perhaps the Army arranged it so.
The Army used to pray, and thump the drum, and sing, and take up collections every evening outside Watty Bothways’ Hotel, the Carriers’ Arms. They performed longer and more often outside Watty’s than any other pub in town—perhaps because Watty was considered the most hopeless publican and his customers the hardest crowd of boozers in Bourke. The band generally began to play about dusk. Watty would lean back comfortably in a basket easy-chair on his wide veranda, and clasp his hands, in a calm, contented way, while the Army banged the drum and got steam up, and whilst, perhaps, there was a barney going on in the bar, or a bloodthirsty fight in the backyard. On such occasions there was something like an indulgent or fatherly expression on his fat and usually emotionless face. And by and by he’d move his head gently and doze. The banging and the singing seemed to soothe him, and the praying, which was often very personal, never seemed to disturb him in the least.
Well, it was about dusk one day; it had been a terrible day, a hundred and something startling in the shade, but there came a breeze after sunset. There had been several dozen of buckets of water thrown on the veranda floor and the ground outside. Watty was seated in his accustomed place when the Army arrived. There was no barney in the bar because there was a fight in the backyard, and that claimed the attention of all the customers.
The Army prayed for Watty and his clients; then a reformed drunkard started to testify against publicans and all their works. Watty settled himself comfortably, folded his hands, and leaned back and dozed.
The fight was over, and the chaps began to drop round to the bar. The man who was saved waved his arms, and danced round and howled.
“Ye-es!” he shouted hoarsely. “The publicans, and boozers, and gamblers, and sinners may think that Bourke is hot, but hell is a thousand times hotter! I tell you ”
“Oh, Lord!” said Mitchell, the shearer, and he threw a penny into the ring.
“Ye-es! I tell you that hell is a million times hotter than Bourke! I tell you ”
“Oh, look here,” said a voice from the background, “that won’t wash. Why, don’t you know that when the Bourke people die they send back for their blankets?”
The saved brother glared round.
“I hear a freethinker speaking, my friends,” he said. Then, with sudden inspiration and renewed energy, “I hear the voice of a freethinker. Show me the face of a freethinker,” he yelled, glaring round like a hunted, hungry man. “Show me the face of a freethinker, and I’ll tell you what he is.”
Watty hitched himself into a more comfortable position and clasped his hands on his knee and closed his eyes again.
“Ya-a-a-s!” shrieked the brand. “I tell you, my friends, I can tell a freethinker by his face. Show me the face of a——”
At this point there was an interruption. One-eyed, or Wall-eyed, Bogan, who had a broken nose, and the best side of whose face was reckoned the ugliest and most sinister—One-eyed Bogan thrust his face forward from the ring of darkness into the torchlight of salvation. He had got the worst of a drawn battle; his nose and mouth were bleeding, and his good eye was damaged.
“Look at my face!” he snarled, with dangerous earnestness. “Look at my face! That’s the face of a freethinker, and I don’t care who knows it. Now! what have you got to say against my face, ‘Man-without-a-Shirt?’ “
The brother drew back. He had been known in the northwest in his sinful days as “Man-without-a-Shirt,” alias “Shirty,” or “The Dirty Man,” and was flabbergasted at being recognized in speech. Also, he had been in a shearing-shed and in a shanty orgie with One-eyed Bogan, and knew the man.
Now most of the chaps respected the Army, and, indeed, anything that looked like religion, but the Bogan’s face, as representing free-thought, was a bit too sudden for them. There were sounds on the opposite side of the ring as from men being smitten repeatedly and rapidly below the belt, and long Tom Hall and one or two others got away into the darkness in the background, where Tom rolled helplessly on the grass and sobbed.
It struck me that Bogan’s face was more the result of free speech than anything else.
The Army was about to pray when the Pretty Girl stepped forward, her eyes shining with indignation and enthusiasm. She had arrived by the evening train, and had been standing shrinkingly behind an Army lass of fifty Australian summers, who was about six feet high, flat and broad, and had a square face, and a mouth like a joint in boiler plates.
The Pretty Girl stamped her pretty foot on the gravel, and her eyes flashed in the torchlight.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” she said. “Great big men like you to be going on the way you are. If you were ignorant or poor, as I’ve seen people, there might be some excuse for you. Haven’t you got any mothers, or sisters, or wives to think of? What sort of a life is this you lead? Drinking, and gambling, and fighting, and swearing your lives away! Do you ever think of God and the time when you were children? Why don’t you make homes? Look at that man’s face!” (she pointed suddenly at Bogan, who collapsed and sidled behind his mates out of the light). “Look at that man’s face! Is it a face for a Christian? And you help and encourage him to fight. You’re worse than he is. Oh, it’s brutal. It’s—it’s wicked. Great big men like you, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Long Bob Brothers—about six-foot-four—the longest and most innocent there, shrunk down by the wall and got his inquiring face out of the light. The Pretty Girl fluttered on for a few moments longer, greatly excited, and then stepped back, seemingly much upset, and was taken under the wing of the woman with the boiler-plate mouth.
It was a surprise, and very sudden. Bogan slipped round to the backyard, and was seen bathing his battered features at the pump. The rest wore the expression of men who knew that something unusual has happened, but don’t know what, and are waiting vacantly for developments.—Except Tom Hall, who had recovered and returned. He stood looking over the head of the ring of bushmen, and apparently taking the same critical interest in the girl as he would in a fight—his expression was such as a journalist might wear who is getting exciting copy.
The Army had it all their own way for the rest of the evening, and made a good collection. The Pretty Girl stood smiling round with shining eyes as the bobs and tanners dropped in, and then, being shoved forward by the flat woman, she thanked us sweetly, and said we were good fellows, and that she was sorry for some things she’d said to us. Then she retired, fluttering and very much flushed, and hid herself behind the hard woman—who, by the way, had an excrescence on her upper lip which might have stood for a rivet.
Presently the Pretty Girl came from behind the big woman and stood watching things with glistening eyes. Some of the chaps on the opposite side of the ring moved a little to one side and all were careful not to meet her eye—not to be caught looking at her—lest she should be embarrassed. Watty had roused himself a little at the sound of a strange voice in the Army (and such a clear, sweet voice too!) and had a look; then he settled back peacefully again, but it was noticed that he didn’t snore that evening.
And when the Army prayed, the Pretty Girl knelt down with the rest on the gravel. One or two tall bushmen bowed their heads as if they had to, and One-eyed Bogan, with the blood washed from his face, stood with his hat off, glaring round to see if he could catch anyone sniggering.
Mitchell, the shearer, said afterwards that the whole business made him feel for the moment like he felt sometimes in the days when he used to feel things.
The town discussed the Pretty Girl in the Army that night and for many days thereafter, but no one could find out who she was or where she belonged to—except that she came from Sydney last. She kept her secret, if she had one, very close—or else the other S.-A. women were not to be pumped. She lived in skillion-rooms at the back of the big weather-board Salvation Army barracks with two other “lassies,” who did washing and sewing and nursing, and went shabby, and half starved themselves, and were baked in the heat, like scores of women in the bush, and even as hundreds of women, suffering from religious mania, slave and stint in city slums, and neglect their homes, husbands and children—for the glory of Booth.
The Pretty Girl was referred to as Sister Hannah by the Army people, and came somehow to be known by sinners as “Miss Captain.” I don’t know whether that was her real name or what rank she held in the Army, if indeed she held any.
She sold War Crys, and the circulation doubled in a day. One-eyed Bogan, being bailed up unexpectedly, gave her “half a caser” for a Cry, and ran away without the paper or the change. Jack Mitchell bought a Cry for the first time in his life, and read it. He said he found some of the articles intensely realistic, and many of the statements were very interesting. He said he read one or two things in the Cry that he didn’t know before. Tom Hall, taken unawares, bought three Crys from the Pretty Girl, and blushed to find it fame.
Little Billy Woods, the Labourers’ Union secretary—who had a poetic temperament and more than the average bushman’s reverence for higher things—Little Billy Woods told me in a burst of confidence that he generally had two feelings, one after the other, after encountering that girl. One was that unfathomable far-away feeling of loneliness and longing, that comes at odd times to the best of married men, with the best of wives and children—as Billy had. The other feeling, which came later on, and was a reaction in fact, was the feeling of a man who thinks he’s been twisted round a woman’s little finger for the benefit of somebody else. Billy said that he couldn’t help being reminded by the shy, sweet smile and the shy, sweet “thank you” of the Pretty Girl in the Army, of the shy, sweet smile and the shy, sweet gratitude of a Sydney private barmaid, who had once roped him in, in the days before he was married. Then he’d reckon that the Army lassie had been sent out back to Bourke as a business speculation.
Tom Hall was inclined to reckon so too—but that was after he’d been chaffed for a month about the three War Crys.
The Pretty Girl was discussed from psychological points of view; not forgetting the sex problem. Donald Macdonald—shearer, union leader and labour delegate to other colonies on occasion—Donald Macdonald said that whenever he saw a circle of plain or ugly, dried-up women or girls round a shepherd, evangelist or a Salvation Army drum, he’d say “sexually starved!” They were hungry for love. Religious mania was sexual passion dammed out of its course. Therefore he held that morbidly religious girls were the most easily seduced.
But this couldn’t apply to Pretty Girl in the Army. Mitchell reckoned that she’d either had a great sorrow—a lot of trouble, or a disappointment in love (the “or” is Mitchell’s); but they couldn’t see how a girl like her could possibly be disappointed in love—unless the chap died or got into jail for life. Donald decided that her soul had been starved somehow.
Mitchell suggested that it might be only a craving for notoriety, the same thing that makes women and girls go amongst lepers, and out to the battlefield, and nurse ugly pieces of men back to life again; the same thing that makes some women and girls swear ropes round men’s necks. The Pretty Girl might be the daughter of well-to-do people—even aristocrats, said Mitchell—she was pretty enough and spoke well enough. “Every woman’s a barmaid at heart,” as the Bulletin puts it, said Mitchell.
But not even one of the haggard women of Bourke ever breathed a suspicion of scandal against her. They said she was too good and too pretty to be where she was. You see it was not as in an old settled town where hags blacken God’s world with their tongues. Bourke was just a little camping town in a big land, where free, good-hearted democratic Australians, and the best of black sheep from the old world were constantly passing through; where husband’s were often obliged to be away from home for twelve months, and the storekeepers had to trust the people, and mates trusted each other, and the folks were broad-minded. The mind’s eye had a wide range.
After her maiden speech the Pretty Girl seldom spoke, except to return thanks for collections—and she never testified. She had a sweet voice and used to sing.
Now, if I were writing pure fiction, and were not cursed with an obstinate inclination to write the truth, I might say that, after the advent of the Pretty Girl, the morals of Bourke improved suddenly and wonderfully. That One-eyed Bogan left off gambling and drinking and fighting and swearing, and put on a red coat and testified and fought the devil only; that Mitchell dropped his mask of cynicism; that Donald Macdonald ate no longer of the tree of knowledge and ceased to worry himself with psychological problems, and was happy; and that Tom Hall was no longer a scoffer. That no one sneaked round through the scrub after dusk to certain necessary establishments in weather-board cottages on the outskirts of the town; and that the broad-minded and obliging ladies thereof became Salvation Army lassies.
But none of these things happened. Drunks quieted down or got out of the way if they could when the Pretty Girl appeared on the scene, fights and games of “headin’ ’em” were adjourned, and weak, ordinary language was used for the time being, and that was about all.
Nevertheless, most of the chaps were in love with that Pretty Girl in the Army—all those who didn’t worship her privately. Long Bob Brothers hovered round in hopes, they said, that she’d meet with an accident—get run over by a horse or something—and he’d have to carry her in; he scared the women at the barracks by dropping firewood over the fence after dark. Barcoo-Rot, the meanest man in the back country, was seen to drop a threepenny bit into the ring, and a rumour was industriously circulated (by Tom Hall) to the effect that One-eyed Bogan intended to shave and join the Army disguised as a lassie.
Handsome Jake Boreham (alias Bore-’em), a sentimental shearer from New Zealand, who had read Bret Harte, made an elaborate attempt for the Pretty Girl, by pretending to be going to the dogs headlong, with an idea of first winning her sorrowful interest and sympathy, and then making an apparently hard struggle to straighten up for her sake. He mated his experience with the cheerful and refreshing absence of reserve which was characteristic of him, and is of most bushmen.
“I’d had a few drinks,” he said, “and was having a spell under a gum by the river, when I saw the Pretty Girl and another Army woman coming down along the bank. It was a blazing hot day. I thought of Sandy and the Schoolmistress in Bret Harte, and I thought it would be a good idea to stretch out in the sun and pretend to be helpless; so I threw my hat on the ground and lay down, with my head in the blazing heat, in the most graceful position I could get at, and I tried to put a look of pained regret on my face, as if I was dreaming of my lost boyhood and me mother. I thought, perhaps, the Girl would pity me, and I felt sure she’d stoop and pick up my hat and put it gently over my poor troubled head. Then I was going to become conscious for a moment, and look hopelessly round, and into her eyes, and then start and look sorrowful and ashamed, and stagger to my feet, taking off my hat like the Silver King does to the audience when he makes his first appearance drunk on the stage; and then I was going to reel off, trying to walk as straight as I could. And next day I was going to clean up my teeth and nails and put on a white shirt, and start to be a new man henceforth.
“Well, as I lay there with my eyes shut, I heard the footsteps come up and stop, and heard ’em whisper, and I thought I heard the Pretty Girl say ‘Poor fellow!’ or something that sounded like that; and just then I got a God-almighty poke in the ribs with an umbrella—at least I suppose it was aimed for my ribs; but women are bad shots, and the point of the umbrella caught me in the side, just between the bottom rib and the hip-bone, and I sat up with a click, like the blade of a pocketknife.
“The other lassie was the big square-faced woman. The Pretty Girl looked rather more frightened and disgusted than sentimental, but she had plenty of pluck, and soon pulled herself together. She said I ought to be ashamed of myself, a great big man like me, lying there in the dust like a drunken tramp—an eyesore and a disgrace to all the world. She told me to go to my camp, wherever that was, and sleep myself sober. The square-jawed woman said I looked like a fool sitting there. I did feel ashamed, and I reckon I did look like a fool—a man generally does in a fix like that. I felt like one, anyway. I got up and walked away, and it hurt me so much that I went over to West Bourke and went to the dogs properly for a fortnight, and lost twenty quid on a game of draughts against a blindfold player. Now both those women had umbrellas, but I’m not sure to this day which of ’em it was that gave me the poke. It wouldn’t have mattered much anyway. I haven’t borrowed one of Bret Harte’s books since.”
Jake reflected a while.
“The worst of it was,” he said ruefully, “that I wasn’t sure that the girl or the woman didn’t see through me, and that worried me a bit. You never can tell how much a woman suspects, and that’s the worst of ’em. I found that out after I got married.”
The Pretty Girl in the Army grew pale and thin and bigger-eyed. The women said it was a shame, and that she ought to be sent home to her friends, wherever they were. She was laid up for two or three days, and some of the women cooked delicacies and handed ’em over the barracks fence, and offered to come in and nurse her; but the square woman took washing home and nursed the girl herself.
The Pretty Girl still sold War Crys and took up collections, but in a tired, listless, half shamed-faced way. It was plain that she was tired of the Army, and growing ashamed of the Salvationists. Perhaps she had come to see things too plainly.
You see, the Army does no good out back in Australia—except from a business point of view. It is simply there to collect funds for hungry headquarters. The bushmen are much too intelligent for the Army. There was no poverty in Bourke—as it is understood in the city; there was plenty of food; and camping out and roughing it come natural to the bushmen. In cases of sickness, accident, widows or orphans, the chaps sent round the hat, without banging a drum or testifying, and that was all right. If a chap was hard up he borrowed a couple of quid from his mate. If a strange family arrived without a penny, someone had to fix ’em up, and the storekeepers helped them till the man got work. For the rest, we work out our own salvation, or damnation—as the case is—in the bush, with no one to help us, except a mate, perhaps. The Army can’t help us, but a fellow-sinner can, sometimes, who has been through it all himself. The Army is only a drag on the progress of Democracy, because it attracts many who would otherwise be aggressive Democrats—and for other reasons.
Besides, if we all reformed the Army would get deuced little from us for its city mission.
The Pretty Girl went to service for a while with the stock inspector’s wife, who could get nothing out of her concerning herself or her friends. She still slept at the barracks, stuck to the Army, and attended its meetings.
It was Christmas morning, and there was peace in Bourke and goodwill towards all men. There hadn’t been a fight since yesterday evening, and that had only been a friendly one, to settle an argument concerning the past ownership, and, at the same time, to decide as to the future possession of a dog.
It had been a hot, close night, and it ended in a suffocating sunrise. The free portion of the male population were in the habit of taking their blankets and sleeping out in “the Park,” or town square, in hot weather; the wives and daughters of the town slept, or tried to sleep, with bedroom windows and doors open, while husbands lay outside on the verandas. I camped in a corner of the park that night, and the sun woke me.
As I sat up I caught sight of a swagman coming along the white, dusty road from the direction of the bridge, where the cleared road ran across west and on, a hundred and thirty miles, through the barren, broiling mulga scrubs, to Hungerford, on the border of Sheol. I knew that swagman’s walk. It was John Merrick (Jack Moonlight), one-time Shearers’ Union secretary at Coonamble, and generally “Rep” (shearers’ representative) in any shed where he sheared. He was a “better-class shearer,” one of those quiet, thoughtful men of whom there are generally two or three in the roughest of rough sheds, who have great influence, and give the shed a good name from a Union point of view. Not quiet with the resentful or snobbish reserve of the educated Englishman, but with a sad or subdued sort of quietness that has force in it—as if they fully realized that their intelligence is much higher than the average, that they have suffered more real trouble and heartbreak than the majority of their mates, and that their mates couldn’t possibly understand them if they spoke as they felt and couldn’t see things as they do—yet men who understand and are intensely sympathetic in their loneliness and sensitive reserve.
I had worked in a shed with Jack Moonlight, and had met him in Sydney, and to be mates with a bushman for a few weeks is to know him well—anyway, I found it so. He had taken a trip to Sydney the Christmas before last, and when he came back there was something wanting. He became more silent, he drank more, and sometimes alone, and took to smoking heavily. He dropped his mates, took little or no interest in Union matters, and travelled alone, and at night.
The Australian bushman is born with a mate who sticks to him through life—like a mole. They may be hundreds of miles apart sometimes, and separated for years, yet they are mates for life. A bushman may have many mates in his roving, but there is always one his mate, “my mate;” and it is common to hear a bushman, who is, in every way, a true mate to the man he happens to be travelling with, speak of his mate’s mate—“Jack’s mate”—who might be in Klondyke or South Africa. A bushman has always a mate to comfort him and argue with him, and work and tramp and drink with him, and lend him quids when he’s hard up, and call him a b—— fool, and fight him sometimes; to abuse him to his face and defend his name behind his back; to bear false witness and perjure his soul for his sake; to lie to the girl for him if he’s single, and to his wife if he’s married; to secure a “pen” for him at a shed where he isn’t on the spot, or, if the mate is away in New Zealand or South Africa, to write and tell him if it’s any good coming over this way. And each would take the word of the other against all the world, and each believes that the other is the straightest chap that ever lived—“a white man!” And next best to your old mate is the man you’re tramping, riding, working, or drinking with.
About the first thing the cook asks you when you come along to a shearers’ hut is, “Where’s your mate?” I travelled alone for a while one time, and it seemed to me sometimes, by the tone of the inquiry concerning the whereabouts of my mate, that the bush had an idea that I might have done away with him and that the thing ought to be looked into.
When a man drops mateship altogether and takes to “hatting” in the bush, it’s a step towards a convenient tree and a couple of saddle-straps buckled together.
I had an idea that I, in a measure, took the place of Jack Moonlight’s mate about this time.
“’Ullo, Jack!” I hailed as he reached the corner of the park.
“Good morning, Harry!” said Jack, as if he’d seen me last yesterday evening instead of three months ago. “How are you getting on?”
We walked together towards the Union Office, where I had a camp in the skillion-room at the back. Jack was silent. But there’s no place in the world where a man’s silence is respected so much (within reasonable bounds) as in the Australian bush, where every man has a past more or less sad, and every man a ghost—perhaps from other lands that we know nothing of, and speaking in a foreign tongue. They say in the bush, “Oh, Jack’s only thinking! “ And they let him think. Generally you want to think as much as your mate; and when you’ve been together some time it’s quite natural to travel all day without exchanging a word. In the morning Jim says, “Well, I think I made a bargain with that horse, Bill,” and some time late in the afternoon, say twenty miles farther on, it occurs to Bill to “rejoin,” “Well, I reckon the blank as sold it to you had yer proper!”
I like a good thinking mate, and I believe that thinking in company is a lot more healthy and more comfortable, as well as less risky, than thinking alone.
On the way to the Union Office Jack and I passed the Royal Hotel, and caught a glimpse, through the open door, of a bed room off the veranda, of the landlord’s fresh, fair, young Sydney girl-wife, sleeping prettily behind the mosquito-net, like a sleeping beauty, while the boss lay on a mattress outside on the veranda, across the open door. (He wasn’t necessary for publication, but an evidence of good faith.)
I glanced at Jack for a grin, but didn’t get one. He wore the pained expression of a man who is suddenly hit hard with the thought of something that might have been.
I boiled the billy and fried a pound of steak.
“Been travelling all night, Jack?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Jack. “I camped at Emus yesterday.”
He didn’t eat. I began to reckon that he was brooding too much for his health. He was much thinner than when I saw him last, and pretty haggard, and he had something of the hopeless, haggard look that I’d seen in Tom Hall’s eyes after the last big shearing strike, when Tom had worked day and night to hold his mates up all through the hard, bitter struggle, and the battle was lost.
“Look here, Jack!” I said at last. “What’s up?”
“Nothing’s up, Harry,” said Jack. “What made you think so?”
“Have you got yourself into any fix?” I asked. “What’s the Hungerford track been doing to you?”
“No, Harry,” he said, “I’m all right. How are you?” And he pulled some string and papers and a roll of dusty pound notes from his pocket and threw them on the bunk.
I was hard up just then, so I took a note and the billy to go to the Royal and get some beer. I thought the beer might loosen his mind a bit.
“Better take a couple of quid,” said Jack. “You look as if you want some new shirts and things.” But a pound was enough for me, and I think he had reason to be glad of that later on, as it turned out.
“Anything new in Bourke?” asked Jack as we drank the beer.
“No,” I said, “not a thing—except there’s a pretty girl in the Salvation Army.”
“And it’s about time,” growled Jack.
“Now, look here, Jack,” I said presently, “what’s come over you lately at all? I might be able to help you. It’s not a bit of use telling me that there’s nothing the matter. When a man takes to brooding and travelling alone it’s a bad sign, and it will end in a leaning tree and a bit of clothes-line as likely as not. Tell me what the trouble is. Tell us all about it. There’s a ghost, isn’t there?”
“Well, I suppose so,” said Jack. “We’ve all got our ghosts for that matter. But never you mind, Harry; I’m all right. I don’t go interfering with your ghosts, and I don’t see what call you’ve got to come haunting mine. Why, it’s as bad as kicking a man’s dog.” And he gave the ghost of a grin.
“Tell me, Jack,” I said, “is it a woman?”
“Yes,” said Jack, “it’s a woman. Now, are you satisfied?”
“Is it a girl?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
So there was no more to be said. I’d thought it might have been a lot worse than a girl. I’d thought he might have got married somewhere, sometime, and made a mess of it.
We had dinner at Billy Woods’s place, and a sensible Christmas dinner it was—everything cold, except the vegetables, with the hose going on the veranda in spite of the by-laws, and Billy’s wife and her sister, fresh and cool-looking and jolly, instead of being hot and brown and cross like most Australian women who roast themselves over a blazing fire in a hot kitchen on a broiling day, all the morning, to cook scalding plum pudding and redhot roasts, for no other reason than that their grandmothers used to cook hot Christmas dinners in England.
And in the afternoon we went for a row on the river, pulling easily up the anabranch and floating down with the stream under the shade of the river timber—instead of going to sleep and waking up helpless and soaked in perspiration, to find the women with headaches, as many do on Christmas Day in Australia.
Mrs Woods tried to draw Jack out, but it was no use, and in the evening he commenced drinking, and that made Billy uneasy. “I’m afraid Jack’s on the wrong track,” he said.
After tea most of us collected about Watty’s veranda. Most things that happened in Bourke happened at Watty’s pub, or near it.
If a horse bolted with a buggy or cart, he was generally stopped outside Watty’s, which seemed to suggest, as Mitchell said, that most of the heroes drank at Watty’s—also that the pluckiest men were found amongst the hardest drinkers. (But sometimes the horse fetched up against Watty’s sign and lamppost—which was a stout one of “iron-bark”—and smashed the trap.) Then Watty’s was the Carriers’ Arms, a union pub; and Australian teamsters are mostly hard cases: while there was something in Watty’s beer which made men argue fluently, and the best fights came off in his backyard. Watty’s dogs were the most quarrelsome in town, and there was a dog-fight there every other evening, followed as often as not by a man-fight. If a bushman’s horse ran away with him the chances were that he’d be thrown on to Watty’s veranda, if he wasn’t pitched into the bar; and victims of accidents, and sick, hard-up shearers, were generally carried to Watty’s pub, as being the most convenient and comfortable for them. Mitchell denied that it was generosity or good nature on Watty’s part, he said it was all business—advertisement. Watty knew what he was doing. He was very deep, was Watty. Mitchell further hinted that if he was sick he wouldn’t be carried to Watty’s, for Watty knew what a thirsty business a funeral was. Tom Hall reckoned that Watty bribed the Army on the quiet.
I was sitting on a stool along the veranda wall with Donald Macdonald, Bob Brothers (the Giraffe) and Mitchell, and one or two others, and Jack Moonlight sat on the floor with his back to the wall and his hat well down over his eyes. The Army came along at the usual time, but we didn’t see the Pretty Girl at first—she was a bit late. Mitchell said he liked to be at Watty’s when the Army prayed and the Pretty Girl was there; he had no objection to being prayed for by a girl like that, though he reckoned that nothing short of a real angel could save him now. He said his old grandmother used to pray for him every night of her life and three times on Sunday, with Christmas Day extra when Christmas Day didn’t fall on a Sunday; but Mitchell reckoned that the old lady couldn’t have had much influence because he became more sinful every year, and went deeper in ways of darkness, until finally he embarked on a career of crime.
The Army prayed, and then a thin “ratty” little woman bobbed up in the ring; she’d gone mad on religion as women do on woman’s rights and hundreds of other things. She was so skinny in the face, her jaws so prominent, and her mouth so wide, that when she opened it to speak it was like a ventriloquist’s dummy and you could almost see the cracks open down under her ears.
“They say I’m cracked!” she screamed in a shrill, cracked voice. “But I’m not cracked—I’m only cracked on the Lord Jesus Christ! That’s all I’m cracked on.” And just then the Amen man of the Army—the Army groaner we called him, who was always putting both feet in it—just then he blundered forward, rolled up his eyes, threw his hands up and down as if he were bouncing two balls, and said, with deep feeling:
“Thank the Lord she’s got a crack in the right place!”
Tom Hall doubled up, and most of the other sinners seemed to think there was something very funny about it. And the Army, too, seemed struck with an idea that there was something wrong somewhere, for they started a hymn.
A big American negro, who’d been a night watchman in Sydney, stepped into the ring and waved his arms and kept time, and as he got excited he moved his hands up and down rapidly, as if he was hauling down a rope in a great hurry through a pulley block above, and he kept saying, “Come down, Lord!” all through the hymn, like a bass accompaniment, “Come down, Lord; come down, Lord; come down, Lord; come down, Lord!” and the quicker he said it the faster he hauled. He was as good as a drum. And, when the hymn was over, he started to testify.
“My frens!” he said, “I was once black as der coals in der mined! I was once black as der ink in der ocean of sin! But now—thank an’ bless the Lord!—I am whiter dan der dribben snow!”
Tom Hall sat down on the edge of the veranda and leaned his head against a post and cried. He had contributed a bob this evening, and he was getting his money’s worth.
Then the Pretty Girl arrived and was pushed forward into the ring. She looked thinner and whiter than I’d ever seen her, and there was a feverish brightness in her eyes that I didn’t like.
“Men!” she said, “this is Christmas Day.” I didn’t hear any more for, at the sound of her voice, Jack Moonlight jumped up as if he’d sat on a baby. He started forward, stared at her for a moment as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, and then said, “Hannah!” short and sharp. She started as if she was shot, gave him a wild look, and stumbled forward; the next moment he had her in his arms and was steering for the private parlour.
I heard Mrs Bothways calling for water and smelling-salts; she was as fat as Watty, and very much like him in the face, but she was emotional and sympathetic. Then presently I heard, through the open window, the Pretty Girl say to Jack, “Oh, Jack, Jack! Why did you go away and leave me like that? It was cruel!”
“But you told me to go, Hannah,” said Jack.
“That—that didn’t make any difference. Why didn’t you write?” she sobbed.
“Because you never wrote to me, Hannah,” he said.
“That—that was no excuse!” she said. “It was so k-k-k-cruel of you, Jack.”
Mrs Bothways pulled down the window. A new-comer asked Watty what the trouble was, and he said that the Army girl had only found her chap, or husband, or long-lost brother or something, but the missus was looking after the business; then he dozed again.
And then we adjourned to the Royal and took the Army with us.
“That’s the way of it,” said Donald Macdonald. “With a woman it’s love or religion; with a man it’s love or the devil. “
“Or with a man,” said Mitchell, presently, “it’s love and the devil both, sometimes, Donald.”
I looked at Mitchell hard, but for all his face expressed he might only have said, “I think it’s going to rain.”
They hold him true, who’s true to one,
However false he be.
—The Rouseabout of Rouseabouts.
The Imperial Hotel was rather an unfortunate name for an out-back town pub, for out back is the stronghold of Australian democracy; it was the out-back vote and influence that brought about “One Man One Vote,” “Payment of Members,” and most of the democratic legislation of late years, and from out back came the overwhelming vote in favour of Australian as Imperial Federation.
The name Royal Hotel is as familiar as that of the Railway Hotel, and passes unnoticed and ungrowled at, even by bush republicans. The Royal Hotel at Bourke was kept by an Irishman, one O’Donohoo, who was Union to the backbone, loudly in favour of “Australia for the Australians,” and, of course, against even the democratic New South Wales Government of the time. He went round town all one St Patrick’s morning with a bunch of green ribbon fastened to his coat-tail with a large fish-hook, and wasn’t aware of the fact till he sat down on the point of it. But that’s got nothing to do with it.
The Imperial Hotel at Bourke was unpopular from the first. It was said that the very existence of the house was the result of a swindle. It had been built with money borrowed on certain allotments in the centre of the town and on the understanding that it should be built on the mortgaged land, whereas it was erected on a free allotment. Which fact was discovered, greatly to its surprise, by the building society when it came to foreclose on the allotments some years later. While the building was being erected the Bourke people understood, in a vague way, that it was to be a convent (perhaps the building society thought so, too), and when certain ornaments in brick and cement in the shape of a bishop’s mitre were placed over the corners of the walls the question seemed decided. But when the place was finished a bar was fitted up, and up went the sign, to the disgust of the other publicans, who didn’t know a licence had been taken out—for licensing didn’t go by local option in those days. It was rumoured that the place belonged to, and the whole business was engineered by, a priest. And priests are men of the world.
The Imperial Hotel was patronized by the pastoralists, the civil servants, the bank manager and clerks—all the scrub aristocracy; it was the headquarters of the Pastoralists’ Union in Bourke; a barracks for blacklegs brought up from Sydney to take the place of Union shearers on strike; and the new Governor, on his inevitable visit to Bourke, was banqueted at the Imperial Hotel. The editor of the local “capitalistic rag” stayed there; the pastoralists’ member was elected mostly by dark ways and means devised at the Imperial Hotel, and one of its managers had stood as a dummy candidate to split the Labour vote; the management of the hotel was his reward. In short, it was there that most of the plots were hatched to circumvent Freedom, and put away or deliver into the clutches of law and order certain sons of Light and Liberty who believed in converting blacklegs into jellies by force of fists when bribes, gentle persuasion and pure Australian language failed to convert them to clean Unionism. The Imperial Hotel was called the “Squatters’ Pub,” the “Scabbery,” and other and more expressive names.
The hotel became still more unpopular after Percy Douglas had managed it for a while. He was an avowed enemy of Labour Unionists. He employed Chinese cooks, and that in the height of the anti-Chinese agitation in Australia, and he was known to have kindly feelings towards the Afghans who, with their camels, were running white carriers off the roads. If an excited Unionist called a man a “blackleg” or “scab” in the Imperial bar he was run out—sometimes with great difficulty, and occasionally as far as the lock-up.
Percy Douglas was a fine-looking man, “wid a chest on him an’ well hung—a fine fee-gure of a man,” as O’Donohoo pronounced it. He was tall and erect, he dressed well, wore small side-whiskers, had an eagle nose, and looked like an aristocrat. Like many of his type, who start sometimes as billiard-markers and suddenly become hotel managers in Australia, nothing was known of his past. Jack Mitchell reckoned, by the way he treated his employees and spoke to workmen, that he was the educated son of an English farmer—gone wrong and sent out to Australia. Someone called him “Lord Douglas,” and the nickname caught on.
He made himself well hated. He got One-eyed Bogan “three months’ hard” for taking a bottle of whisky off the Imperial bar counter because he (Bogan) was drunk and thirsty and had knocked down his cheque, and because there was no one minding the bar at the moment.
Lord Douglas dismissed the barmaid, and, as she was leaving, he had her boxes searched and gave her in charge for stealing certain articles belonging to the hotel. The chaps subscribed to defend the case, and subsequently put a few pounds together for the girl. She proved her gratitude by bringing a charge of a baby against one of the chaps—but that was only one of the little ways of the world, as Mitchell said. She joined a Chinese camp later on.
Lord Douglas employed a carpenter to do some work about the hotel, and because the carpenter left before the job was finished, Lord Douglas locked his tools in an outhouse and refused to give them up; and when the carpenter, with the spirit of an Australian workman, broke the padlock and removed his tool-chest, the landlord gave him in charge for breaking and entering. The chaps defended the case and won it, and hated Lord Douglas as much as if he were their elder brother. Mitchell was the only one to put in a word for him.
“I’ve been puzzling it out,” said Mitchell, as he sat nursing his best leg in the Union Office, “and, as far as I can see, it all amounts to this—we’re all mistaken in Lord Douglas. We don’t know the man. He’s all right. We don’t understand him. He’s really a sensitive, good-hearted man who’s been shoved a bit off the track by the world. It’s the world’s fault—he’s not to blame. You see, when he was a youngster he was the most good-natured kid in the school; he was always soft, and, consequently, he was always being imposed upon, and bullied, and knocked about. Whenever he got a penny to buy lollies he’d count ’em out carefully and divide ’em round amongst his schoolmates and brothers and sisters. He was the only one that worked at home, and consequently they all hated him. His father respected him, but didn’t love him, because he wasn’t a younger son, and wasn’t bringing his father’s grey hairs down in sorrow to the grave. If it was in Australia, probably Lord Douglas was an elder son and had to do all the hard graft, and teach himself at night, and sleep in a bark skillion while his younger brothers benefited—they were born in the new brick house and went to boarding-schools. His mother had a contempt for him because he wasn’t a black sheep and a prodigal, and, when the old man died, the rest of the family got all the stuff and Lord Douglas was kicked out because they could do without him now. And the family hated him like poison ever afterwards (especially his mother), and spread lies about him—because they had treated him shamefully and because his mouth was shut—they knew he wouldn’t speak. Then probably he went in for Democracy and worked for Freedom, till Freedom trod on him once too often with her hob-nailed boots. Then the chances are, in the end, he was ruined by a girl or woman, and driven, against his will, to take refuge in pure individualism. He’s all right, only we don’t appreciate him. He’s only fighting against his old ideals—his old self that comes up sometimes—and that’s what makes him sweat his barmaids and servants, and hate us, and run us in; and perhaps when he cuts up extra rough it’s because his conscience kicks him when he thinks of the damned soft fool he used to be. He’s all right—take my word for it. It’s all a mask. Why, he might be one of the kindest-hearted men in Bourke underneath.”
Tom Hall rubbed his head and blinked, as if he was worried by an idea that there might be some facts in Mitchell’s theories.
“You’re allers findin’ excuses for blacklegs an’ scabs, Mitchell,” said Barcoo-Rot, who took Mitchell seriously (and who would have taken a laughing jackass seriously). “Why, you’d find a white spot on a squatter. I wouldn’t be surprised if you blacklegged yourself in the end.”
This was an unpardonable insult, from a Union point of view, and the chaps half-unconsciously made room on the floor for Barcoo-Rot to fall after Jack Mitchell hit him. But Mitchell took the insult philosophically.
“Well, Barcoo-Rot,” he said, nursing the other leg, “for the matter of that, I did find a white spot on a squatter once. He lent me a quid when I was hard up. There’s white spots on the blackest characters if you only drop prejudice and look close enough. I suppose even Jack-the-Ripper’s character was speckled. Why, I can even see spots on your character, some times, Barcoo-Rot. I’ve known white spots to spread on chaps’ characters until they were little short of saints. Sometimes I even fancy I can feel my own wings sprouting. And as for turning blackleg—well, I suppose I’ve got a bit of the crawler in my composition (most of us have), and a man never knows what might happen to his principles.”
“Well,” said Barcoo-Rot, “I beg yer pardon—ain’t that enough?”
“No,” said Mitchell, “you ought to wear a three-bushel bag and ashes for three months, and drink water; but since the police would send you to an asylum if you did that, I think the best thing we can do is to go out and have a drink.”
Lord Douglas married an Australian girl somewhere, somehow, and brought her to Bourke, and there were two little girls—regular little fairies. She was a gentle, kind-hearted little woman, but she didn’t seem to improve him much, save that he was very good to her.
“It’s mostly that way,” commented Mitchell. “When a boss gets married and has children he thinks he’s got a greater right to grind his fellowmen and rob their wives and children. I’d never work for a boss with a big family—it’s hard enough to keep a single boss nowadays in this country.”
After one stormy election, at the end of a long and bitter shearing strike, One-eyed Bogan, his trusty enemy, Barcoo-Rot, and one or two other enthusiastic reformers were charged with rioting, and got from one to three months’ hard. And they had only smashed three windows of the Imperial Hotel and chased the Chinese cook into the river.
“I used to have some hopes for Democracy,” commented Mitchell, “but I’ve got none now. How can you expect Liberty, Equality or Fraternity—how can you expect Freedom and Universal Brotherhood and Equal Rights in a country where Sons of Light get three months’ hard for breaking windows and bashing a Chinaman? It almost makes me long to sail away in a gallant barque.”
There were other cases in connection with the rotten-egging of Capitalistic candidates on the Imperial Hotel balcony, and it was partly on the evidence of Douglas and his friends that certain respectable Labour leaders got heavy terms of imprisonment for rioting and “sedition” and “inciting,” in connection with organized attacks on blacklegs and their escorts.
Retribution, if it was retribution, came suddenly and in a most unexpected manner to Lord Douglas.
It seems he employed a second carpenter for six months to repair and make certain additions to the hotel, and put him off under various pretences until he owed him a hundred pounds or thereabout. At last, immediately after an exciting interview with Lord Douglas, the carpenter died suddenly of heart disease. The widow, a strong-minded bushwoman, put a bailiff in the hotel on a very short notice—and against the advice of her lawyer, who thought the case hopeless—and the Lord Douglas bubble promptly burst. He had somehow come to be regarded as the proprietor of the hotel, but now the real proprietors or proprietor—he was still said to be a priest—turned Douglas out and put in a new manager. The old servants were paid after some trouble. The local storekeepers and one or two firms in Sydney, who had large accounts against the Imperial Hotel (and had trusted it, mainly because it was patronized by Capitalism and Fat), were never paid.
Lord Douglas cleared out to Sydney, leaving his wife and children, for the present, with her brother, a hay-and-corn storekeeper, who also had a large and hopeless account against the hotel; and when the brother went broke and left the district she rented a two-roomed cottage and took in dressmaking.
Dressmaking didn’t pay so well in the bush then as it did in the old diggings days when sewing-machines were scarce and the possession of one meant an independent living to any girl—when diggers paid ten shillings for a strip of “flannen” doubled over and sewn together, with holes for arms and head, and called a shirt. Mrs Douglas had a hard time, with her two little girls, who were still better and more prettily dressed than any other children in Bourke. One grocer still called on her for orders and pretended to be satisfied to wait “till Mr Douglas came back,” and when she would no longer order what he considered sufficient provisions for her and the children, and commenced buying sugar, etc., by the pound, for cash, he one day sent a box of groceries round to her. He pretended it was a mistake.
“However,” he said, “I’d be very much obliged if you could use ’em, Mrs Douglas. I’m overstocked now; haven’t got room for another tin of sardines in the shop. Don’t you worry about bills, Mrs Douglas; I can wait till Douglas comes home. I did well enough out of the Imperial Hotel when your husband had it, and a pound’s worth of groceries won’t hurt me now. I’m only too glad to get rid of some of the stock.”
She cried a little, thought of the children, and kept the groceries.
“I suppose I’ll be sold up soon meself if things don’t git brighter,” said that grocer to a friend, “so it doesn’t matter much.”
The same with Foley the butcher, who had a brogue with a sort of drawling groan in it, and was a cynic of the Mitchell school.
“You see,” he said, “she’s as proud as the devil, but when I send round a bit o’ rawst, or porrk, or the undercut o’ the blade-bawn, she thinks o’ the little gur-r-rls before she thinks o’ sendin’ it back to me. That’s where I’ve got the pull on her.”
The Giraffe borrowed a horse and tip-dray one day at the beginning of winter and cut a load of firewood in the bush, and next morning, at daylight, Mrs Douglas was nearly startled out of her life by a crash at the end of the cottage, which made her think that the chimney had fallen in, or a tree fallen on the house; and when she slipped on a wrapper and looked out, she saw a load of short-cut wood by the chimney, and caught a glimpse of the back view of the Giraffe, who stood in the dray with his legs wide apart and was disappearing into the edge of the scrub; and soon the rapid clock-clock-clock of the wheels died away in the west, as if he were making for West Australia.
The next we heard of Lord Douglas he had got two years’ hard for embezzlement in connection with some canvassing he had taken up. Mrs Douglas fell ill—a touch of brain-fever—and one of the labourers’ wives took care of the children while two others took turns in nursing. While she was recovering, Bob Brothers sent round the hat, and, after a conclave in the Union Office—as mysterious as any meeting ever called with the object of downing bloated Capitalism—it was discovered that one of the chaps—who didn’t wish his name to be mentioned—had borrowed just twenty-five pounds from Lord Douglas in the old days and now wished to return it to Mrs Douglas. So the thing was managed, and if she had any suspicions she kept them to herself. She started a little fancy goods shop and got along fairly comfortable.
Douglas, by the way, was, publicly, supposed, for her sake and because of the little girls, to be away in West Australia on the goldfields.
Time passes without much notice out back, and one hot day, when the sun hung behind the fierce sandstorms from the northwest as dully lurid as he ever showed in a London fog, Lord Douglas got out of the train that had just finished its five-hundred-miles’ run, and not seeing a new-chum porter, who started forward by force of habit to take his bag, he walked stiffly off the platform and down the main street towards his wife’s cottage.
He was very gaunt, and his eyes, to those who passed him closely, seemed to have a furtive, hunted expression. He had let his beard grow, and it had grown grey.
It was within a few days of Christmas—the same Christmas that we lost the Pretty Girl in the Salvation Army. As a rule the big shearing-sheds within a fortnight of Bourke cut out in time for the shearers to reach the town and have their Christmas dinners and sprees—and for some of them to be locked up over Christmas Day—within sound of a church-going bell. Most of the chaps gathered in the Shearers’ Union Office on New Year’s Eve and discussed Douglas amongst other things.
“I vote we kick the cow out of the town!” snarled One-eyed Bogan, viciously.
“We can’t do that,” said Bob Brothers (the Giraffe), speaking more promptly than usual. “There’s his wife and youngsters to consider, yer know.”
“He something well deserted his wife,” snarled Bogan, “an’ now he comes crawlin’ back to her to keep him.”
“Well,” said Mitchell, mildly, “but we ain’t all got as much against him as you have, Bogan.”
“He made a crimson jail-bird of me!” snapped Bogan.
“Well,” said Mitchell, “that didn’t hurt you much, anyway; it rather improved your character if anything. Besides, he made a jail-bird of himself afterwards, so you ought to have a fellow-feeling—a feathered feeling, so to speak. Now you needn’t be offended, Bogan, we’re all jail-birds at heart, only we haven’t all got the pluck.”
“I’m in favour of blanky well tarrin’ an’ featherin’ him an’ kickin’ him out of the town!” shouted Bogan. “It would be a good turn to his wife, too; she’d be well rid of the ——.”
“Perhaps she’s fond of him,” suggested Mitchell; “I’ve known such cases before. I saw them sitting together on the veranda last night when they thought no one was looking.”
“He deserted her,” said One-eyed Bogan, in a climbingdown tone, “and left her to starve.”
“Perhaps the police were to blame for that,” said Mitchell. “You know you deserted all your old mates once for three months, Bogan, and it wasn’t your fault.”
“He seems to be a crimson pet of yours, Jack Mitchell,” said Bogan, firing up.
“Ah, well, all I know,” said Mitchell, standing up and stretching himself wearily, “all I know is that he looked like a gentleman once, and treated us like a gentleman, and cheated us like a gentleman, and ran some of us in like a gentleman, and, as far as I can see, he’s served his time like a gentleman and come back to face us and live himself down like a man. I always had a sneaking regard for a gentleman.”
“Why, Mitchell, I’m beginning to think you are a gentleman yourself,” said Jake Boreham.
“Well,” said Mitchell, “I used to have a suspicion once that I had a drop of blue blood in me somewhere, and it worried me a lot; but I asked my old mother about it one day, and she scalded me—God bless her!—and father chased me with a stockwhip, so I gave up making inquiries.”
“You’ll join the bloomin’ Capitalists next,” sneered Oneeyed Bogan.
“I wish I could, Bogan,” said Mitchell. “I’d take a trip to Paris and see for myself whether the Frenchwomen are as bad as they’re made out to be, or go to Japan. But what are we going to do about Douglas?”
“Kick the skunk out of town, or boycott him!” said one or two. “He ought to be tarred and feathered and hanged.”
“Couldn’t do worse than hang him,” commented Jake Boreham, cheerfully.
“Oh, yes, we could,” said Mitchell, sitting down, resting his elbows on his knees, and marking his points with one forefinger on the other. “For instance, we might boil him slow in tar. We might skin him alive. We might put him in a cage and poke him with sticks, with his wife and children in another cage to look on and enjoy the fun.”
The chaps, who had been sitting quietly listening to Mitchell, and grinning, suddenly became serious and shifted their positions uneasily.
“But I can tell you what would hurt his feelings more than anything else we could do,” said Mitchell.
“Well, what is it, Jack?” said Tom Hall, rather impatiently.
“Send round the hat and take up a collection for him,” said Mitchell, “enough to let him get away with his wife and children and start life again in some less respectable town than Bourke. You needn’t grin, I’m serious about it.”
There was a thoughtful pause, and one or two scratched their heads.
“His wife seems pretty sick,” Mitchell went on in a reflective tone. “I passed the place this morning and saw him scrubbing out the floor. He’s been doing a bit of house-painting for old Heegard to-day. I suppose he learnt it in jail. I saw him at work and touched my hat to him.”
“What!” cried Tom Hall, affecting to shrink from Mitchell in horror.
“Yes,” said Mitchell, “I’m not sure that I didn’t take my hat off. Now I know it’s not bush religion for a man to touch his hat, except to a funeral, or a strange roof or woman sometimes; but when I meet a braver man than myself I salute him. I’ve only met two in my life.”
“And who were they, Jack?” asked Jake Boreham.
“One,” said Mitchell—“one is Douglas, and the other—well, the other was the man I used to be. But that’s got nothing to do with it.”
“But perhaps Douglas thought you were crowing over him when you took off your hat to him—sneerin’ at him, like, Mitchell,” reflected Jake Boreham.
“No, Jake,” said Mitchell, growing serious suddenly. “There are ways of doing things that another man understands. “
They all thought for a while.
“Well,” said Tom Hall, “supposing we do take up a collection for him, he’d be too damned proud to take it.”
“But that’s where we’ve got the pull on him,” said Mitchell, brightening up. “I heard Dr Morgan say that Mrs Douglas wouldn’t live if she wasn’t sent away to a cooler place, and Douglas knows it; and, besides, one of the little girls is sick. We’ve got him in a corner and he’ll have to take the stuff. Besides, two years in jail takes a lot of the pride out of a man.”
“Well, I’m damned if I’ll give a sprat to help the man who tried his best to crush the Unions!” said One-eyed Bogan.
“Damned if I will either!” said Barcoo-Rot.
“Now, look here, One-eyed Bogan,” said Mitchell, “I don’t like to harp on old things, for I know they bore you, but when you returned to public life that time no one talked of kicking you out of the town. In fact, I heard that the chaps put a few pounds together to help you get away for a while till you got over your modesty.”
No one spoke.
“I passed Douglas’s place on my way here from my camp to-night,” Mitchell went on musingly, “and I saw him walking up and down in the yard with his sick child in his arms. You remember that little girl, Bogan? I saw her run and pick up your hat and give it to you one day when you were trying to put it on with your feet. You remember, Bogan? The shock nearly sobered you.”
There was a very awkward pause. The position had become too psychological altogether and had to be ended somehow. The awkward silence had to be broken, and Bogan broke it.
He turned up Bob Brothers’s hat, which was lying on the table, and “chucked” in a “quid,” qualifying the hat and the quid, and disguising his feelings with the national oath of the land.
“We’ve had enough of this gory, maudlin, sentimental tommy-rot,” he said. “Here, Barcoo, stump up or I’ll belt it out of your hide! I’ll—I’ll take yer to pieces!”
But Douglas didn’t leave the town. He sent his wife and children to Sydney until the heat wave was past, built a new room on to the cottage, and started a book and newspaper shop, and a poultry farm in the back paddock, and flourished.
They called him Mr Douglas for a while, then Douglas, then Percy Douglas, and now he is well-known as Old Daddy Douglas, and the Sydney Worker, Truth, and Bulletin, and other democratic rags are on sale at his shop. He is big with schemes for locking the Darling River, and he gets his drink at O’Donohoo’s. He is scarcely yet regarded as a straight-out democrat. He was a gentleman once, Mitchell said, and the old blood was not to be trusted. But, last elections, Douglas worked quietly for Unionism, and gave the leaders certain hints, and put them up to various electioneering dodges which enabled them to return, in the face of Monopoly, a Labour member who is as likely to go straight as long as any other Labour member.
They judge not and they are not judged—’tis their
(There’s something wrong with every ship that sails upon the sea).
—The Ballad of the Rouseabout.
“And what became of One-eyed Bogan?” I asked Tom Hall when I met him and Jack Mitchell down in Sydney with their shearing cheques the Christmas before last.
“You’d better ask Mitchell, Harry,” said Tom. “He can tell you about Bogan better than I can. But first, what about the drink we’re going to have?”
We turned out of Pitt Street into Hunter Street, and across George Street, where a double line of fast electric tramway was running, into Margaret Street and had a drink at Pfahlert’s Hotel, where a counter lunch—as good as many dinners you get for a shilling—was included with a sixpenny drink. “Get a quiet corner,” said Mitchell, “I like to hear myself cackle.” So we took our beer out in the fernery and got a cool place at a little table in a quiet corner amongst the fern boxes.
“Well, One-eyed Bogan was a hard case, Mitchell,” I said. “Wasn’t he!”
“Yes,” said Mitchell, putting down his “long-beer” glass, “he was.”
“Rather a bad egg!”
“Yes, a regular bad egg,” said Mitchell, decidedly.
“I heard he got caught cheating at cards,” I said.
“Did you!” said Mitchell. “Well, I believe he did. Ah, well,” he added reflectively, after another long pull, “One-eyed Bogan won’t cheat at cards any more.”
“Why!” I said. “Is he dead then?”
“No,” said Mitchell, “he’s blind.”
“Good God!” I said, “how did that happen?”
“He lost the other eye,” said Mitchell, and he took another drink. “Ah, well, he won’t cheat at cards any more—unless there’s cards invented for the blind.”
“How did it happen?” I asked.
“Well,” said Mitchell, “you see, Harry, it was this way. Bogan went pretty free in Bourke after the shearing before last, and in the end he got mixed up in a very ugly-looking business: he was accused of doing two new-chum jackeroos out of their stuff by some sort of confidence trick.”
“Confidence trick,” I said. “I’d never have thought that One-eyed Bogan had the brains to go in for that sort of thing.”
“Well, it seems he had, or else he used somebody else’s brains; there’s plenty of broken-down English gentlemen sharpers knocking about out back, you know, and Bogan might have been taking lessons from one. I don’t know the rights of the case, it was hushed up, as you’ll see presently; but, anyway, the jackeroos swore that Bogan had done ’em out of ten quid. They were both Cockneys and I suppose they reckoned themselves smart, but bushmen have more time to think. Besides, Bogan’s one eye was in his favour. You see he always kept his one eye fixed strictly on whatever business he had in hand; if he’d had another eye to rove round and distract his attention and look at things on the outside, the chances are he would never have got into trouble.”
“Never mind that, Jack,” said Tom Hall. “Harry wants to hear the yarn.”
“Well, to make it short, one of the jackeroos went to the police and Bogan cleared out. His character was pretty bad just then, so there was a piece of blue paper out for him. Bogan didn’t seem to think the thing was so serious as it was, for he only went a few miles down the river and camped with his horses on a sort of island inside an anabranch, till the thing should blow over or the new chums leave Bourke.
“Bogan’s old enemy, Constable Campbell, got wind of Bogan’s camp, and started out after him. He rode round the outside track and came in on to the river just below where the anabranch joins it, at the lower end of the island and right opposite Bogan’s camp. You know what those billabongs are dry gullies till the river rises from the Queensland rains and backs them up till the water runs round into the river again and makes anabranches of ’em—places that you thought were hollows you’ll find above water, and you can row over places you thought were hills. There’s no water so treacherous and deceitful as you’ll find in some of those billabongs. A man starts to ride across a place where he thinks the water is just over the grass, and blunders into a deep channel—that wasn’t there before—with a steady undercurrent with the whole weight of the Darling River funnelled into it; and if he can’t swim and his horse isn’t used to it—or sometimes if he can swim—it’s a case with him, and the Darling River cod hold an inquest on him, if they have time, before he’s burried deep in Darling River mud for ever. And somebody advertises in the missing column for Jack Somebody who was last heard of in Australia.”
“Never mind that, Mitchell, go on,” I said.
“Well, Campbell knew the river and saw that there was a stiff current there, so he hailed Bogan.
“‘Good day, Campbell,’ shouted Bogan.
“‘I want you, Bogan,’ said Campbell. ‘Come across and bring your horses.’
“‘I’m damned if I will,’ says Bogan. ‘I’m not going to catch me death o’ cold to save your skin. If you want me you’ll have to bloody well come and git me.’ Bogan was a good strong swimmer, and he had good horses, but he didn’t try to get away—I suppose he reckoned he’d have to face the music one time or another—and one time is as good as another out back.
“Campbell was no swimmer; he had no temptation to risk his life—you see it wasn’t as in war with a lot of comrades watching ready to advertise a man as a coward for staying alive—so he argued with Bogan and tried to get him to listen to reason, and swore at him. ‘I’ll make it damned hot for you, Bogan,’ he said, ‘if I have to come over for you.’
“‘Two can play at that game,’ says Bogan.
“‘Look here, Bogan,” said Campbell, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you give me your word that you’ll come up to the police station to-morrow I’ll go back and say nothing about it. You can say you didn’t know a warrant was out after you. It will be all the better for you in the end. Better give me your word, man.’
“Perhaps Campbell knew Bogan better than any of us.
“‘Now then, Bogan,’ he said, ‘don’t be a fool. Give your word like a sensible man, and I’ll go back. I’ll give you five minutes to make up your mind.’ And he took out his watch.
“But Bogan was nasty and wouldn’t give his word, so there was nothing for it but for Campbell to make a try for him.
“Campbell had plenty of pluck, or obstinacy, which amounts to the same thing. He put his carbine and revolver under a log, out of the rain that was coming on, saw to his handcuffs, and then spurred his horse into the water. Bogan lit his pipe with a stick from his camp-fire—so Campbell said afterwards—and sat down on his heels and puffed away, and waited for him.
“Just as Campbell’s horse floundered into the current Bogan shouted to go back, but Campbell thought it was a threat and kept on. But Bogan had caught sight of a log coming down the stream, end on, with a sharp, splintered end, and before Campbell knew where he was, the sharp end of the log caught the horse in the flank. The horse started to plunge and struggle sideways, with all his legs, and Campbell got free of him as quick as he could. Now, you know, in some of those Darling River reaches the current will seem to run steadily for a while, and then come with a rush. (I was caught in one of those rushes once, when I was in swimming, and would have been drowned if I hadn’t been born to be hanged.) Well, a rush came along just as Campbell got free from his horse, and he went down-stream one side of a snag and his horse the other. Campbell’s pretty stout, you know, and his uniform was tight, and it handicapped him.
“Just as he was being washed past the lower end of the snag he caught hold of a branch that stuck out of the water and held on. He swung round and saw Bogan running down to the point opposite him. Now, you know there was always a lot of low cunning about Bogan, and I suppose he reckoned that if he pulled Campbell out he’d stand a good show of getting clear of his trouble; anyway, if he didn’t save Campbell it might be said that he killed him—besides, Bogan was a good swimmer, so there wasn’t any heroism about it anyhow. Campbell was only a few feet from the bank, but Bogan started to strip—to make the job look as big as possible, I suppose. He shouted to Campbell to say he was coming, and to hold on.
Campbell said afterwards that Bogan seemed an hour undressing. The weight of the current was forcing down the bough that Campbell was hanging on to, and suddenly, he said, he felt a great feeling of helplessness take him by the shoulders. He yelled to Bogan and let go.
“Now, it happened that Jake Boreham and I were passing away the time between shearings, and we were having a sort of fishing and shooting loaf down the river in a boat arrangement that Jake had made out of boards and tarred canvas. We called her the Jolly Coffin. We were just poking up the bank in the slack water, a few hundred yards below the billabong, when Jake said, ‘Why, there’s a horse or something in the river.’ Then he shouted, ‘No, by God, it’s a man,’ and we poked the Coffin out into the stream for all she was worth. ‘Looks like two men fighting in the water,’ Jake shouts presently. ‘Hurry up, or they’ll drown each other.’
“We hailed ’em, and Bogan shouted for help. He was treading water and holding Campbell up in front of him now in real professional style. As soon as he heard us he threw up his arms and splashed a bit—I reckoned he was trying to put as much style as he could into that rescue. But I caught a crab, and, before we could get to them, they were washed past into the top of a tree that stood well below flood-mark. I pulled the boat’s head round and let her stern down between the branches. Bogan had one arm over a limb and was holding Campbell with the other, and trying to lift him higher out of the water. I noticed Bogan’s face was bleeding—there was a dead limb stuck in the tree with nasty sharp points on it, and I reckoned he’d run his face against one of them. Campbell was gasping like a codfish out of water, and he was the whitest man I ever saw (except one, and he’d been drowned for a week). Campbell had the sense to keep still. We asked Bogan if he could hold on, and he said he could, but he couldn’t hold Campbell any longer. So Jake took the oars and I leaned over the stern and caught hold of Campbell, and Jake ran the boat into the bank, and we got him ashore; then we went back for Bogan and landed him.
“We had some whisky and soon brought Campbell round; but Bogan was bleeding like a pig from a nasty cut over his good eye, so we bound wet handkerchiefs round his eyes and led him to a log and he sat down for a while, holding his hand to his eye and groaning. He kept saying, ‘I’m blind, mates, I’m blind! I’ve lost me other eye!’ but we didn’t dream it was so bad as that: we kept giving him whisky. We got some dry boughs and made a big fire. Then Bogan stood up and held his arms stiff down to his sides, opening and shutting his hands as if he was in great pain. And I’ve often thought since what a different man Bogan seemed without his clothes and with the broken bridge of his nose and his eyes covered by the handkerchiefs. He was clean shaven, and his mouth and chin are his best features, and he’s clean limbed and well hung. I often thought afterwards that there was something of a blind god about him as he stood there naked by the fire on the day he saved Campbell’s life—something that reminded me of a statue I saw once in the Art Gallery. (Pity the world isn’t blinder to a man’s worst points.)
“Presently Jake listened and said, ‘By God, that’s lucky!’ and we heard a steamer coming up-river and presently we saw her coming round the point with a couple of wool-barges in tow. We got Bogan aboard and got some clothes on him, and took him ashore at Bourke to the new hospital. The doctors did all they knew, but Bogan was blind for life. He never saw anything again—except ‘a sort of dull white blur,’ as he called it—or his past life sometimes, I suppose. Perhaps he saw that for the first time. Ah, well!
“Bogan’s old enemy, Barcoo-Rot, went to see him in the hospital, and Bogan said, ‘Well, Barcoo, I reckon we’ve had our last fight. I owe you a hiding, but I don’t see how I’m going to pay you.’ ‘Never mind that, Bogan, old man,’ says Barcoo. ‘I’ll take it from anyone yer likes to appoint, if that worries yer; and, look here, Bogan, if I can’t fight you I can fight for you—and don’t you forget it!’ And Barcoo used to lead Bogan round about town in his spare time and tell him all that was going on; and I believe he always had an ear cocked in case someone said a word against Bogan—as if any of the chaps would say a word against a blind man.
“Bogan’s case was hushed up. The police told us to fix it up the best way we could. One of the jackeroos, who reckoned that Bogan had swindled him, was a gentleman, and he was the first to throw a quid in the Giraffe’s hat when it went round for Bogan, but the other jackeroo was a cur: he said he wanted the money that Bogan had robbed him of. There were two witnesses, but we sent ’em away, and Tom Hall, there, scared the jackeroo. You know Tom was always the best hand we had at persuading witnesses in Union cases to go home to see their mothers.”
“How did you scare that jackeroo, Tom?” I asked.
“Tell you about it some other time,” said Tom.
“Well,” said Mitchell, “Bogan was always a good woolsorter, so, next shearing, old Baldy Thompson—(you know Baldy Thompson, Harry, of West-o’-Sunday Station)—Baldy had a talk with some of the chaps, and took Bogan out in his buggy with him to West-o’-Sunday. Bogan would sit at the end of the rolling tables, in the shearing-shed, with a boy to hand him the fleeces, and he’d feel a fleece and tell the boy what bin to throw it into; and by and by he began to learn to throw the fleeces into the bins himself. And sometimes Baldy would have a sheep brought to him and get him to feel the fleece and tell him the quality of it. And then again Baldy would talk, just loud enough for Bogan to overhear, and swear that he’d sooner have Bogan, blind as he was, than half a dozen scientific jackeroo experts with all their eyes about them.
“Of course Bogan wasn’t worth anything much to Baldy, but Baldy gave him two pounds a week out of his own pocket, and another quid that we made up between us; so he made enough to pull him through the rest of the year.
“It was curious to see how soon he learned to find his way about the hut and manage his tea and tucker. It was a rough shed, but everybody was eager to steer Bogan about—and, in fact, two of them had a fight about it one day. Baldy and all of us—and especially visitors when they came—were mighty interested in Bogan; and I reckon we were rather proud of having a blind wool-sorter. I reckon Bogan had thirty or forty pairs of eyes watching out for him in case he’d run against something or fall. It irritated him to be messed round too much—he said a baby would never learn to walk if it was held all the time. He reckoned he’d learn more in a year than a man who’d served a lifetime to blindness; but we didn’t let him wander much—for fear he’d fall into the big rocky waterhole there, by accident.
“And after the shearing-season Bogan’s wife turned up in Bourke——”
“Bogan’s wife!” I exclaimed. “Why, I never knew Bogan was married.”
“Neither did anyone else,” said Mitchell. “But he was. Perhaps that was what accounted for Bogan. Sometimes, in his sober moods, I used to have an idea that there must have been something behind the Bogan to account for him. Perhaps he got trapped—or got married and found out that he’d made a mistake—which is about the worst thing a man can find out ”
“Except that his wife made the mistake, Mitchell,” said Tom Hall.
“Or that both did,” reflected Mitchell. “Ah, well!—never mind—Bogan had been married two or three years. Maybe he got married when he was on the spree—I knew that he used to send money to someone in Sydney and I suppose it was her. Anyway, she turned up after he was blind. She was a hard-looking woman—just the sort that might have kept a third-rate pub or a sly-grog shop. But you can’t judge between husband and wife, unless you’ve lived in the same house with them—and under the same roofs with their parents right back to Adam for that matter. Anyway, she stuck to Bogan all right; she took a little two-roomed cottage and made him comfortable—she’s got a sewing-machine and a mangle and takes in washing and sewing. She brought a carrotty-headed youngster with her, and the first time I saw Bogan sitting on the veranda with that youngster on his knee I thought it was a good thing that he was blind.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the youngster isn’t his,” said Mitchell.
“How do you know that?”
“By the look of it—and by the look on her face, once, when she caught me squinting from the kid’s face to Bogan’s.”
“And whose was it!” I asked, without thinking.
“How am I to know?” said Mitchell. “It might be yours for all I know—it’s ugly enough, and you never had any taste in women. But you mustn’t speak of that in Bourke. But there’s another youngster coming, and I’ll swear that’ll be Bogan’s all right.
“A curious thing about Bogan is that he’s begun to be fidgety about his personal appearance—and you know he wasn’t a dood. He wears a collar now, and polishes his boots; he wears elasticsides, and polishes ’em himself—the only thing is that he blackens over the elastic. He can do many things for himself, and he’s proud of it. He says he can see many things that he couldn’t see when he had his eyes. You seldom hear him swear, save in a friendly way; he seems much gentler, but he reckons he would stand a show with Barcoo-Rot even now, if Barcoo would stand up in front of him and keep yelling——”
“By the way,” I asked, “how did Bogan lose the sight of his other eye?”
“Sleeping out in the rain when he was drunk,” said Mitchell. “He got a cold in his eye.” Then he asked, suddenly:
“Did you ever see a blind man cry?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, I have,” said Mitchell. “You know Bogan wears goggles to hide his eyes—his wife made him do that. The chaps often used to drop round and have a yarn with Bogan and cheer him up, and one evening I was sitting smoking with him, and yarning about old times, when he got very quiet all of a sudden, and I saw a tear drop from under one of his shutters and roll down his cheek. It wasn’t the eye he lost saving Campbell—it was the old wall-eye he used to use in the days before he was called ‘One-eyed Bogan.’ I suppose he thought it was dark and that I couldn’t see his face. (There’s a good many people in this world who think you can’t see because they can’t.) It made me feel like I used to feel sometimes in the days when I felt things——”
“Come on, Mitchell,” said Tom Hall, “you’ve had enough beer.”
“I think I have,” said Mitchell. “Besides, I promised to send a wire to Jake Boreham to tell him that his mother’s dead. Jake’s shearing at West-o’-Sunday; shearing won’t be over for three or four weeks, and Jake wants an excuse to get away without offending old Baldy and come down and have a fly round with us before the holidays are over.”
Down at the telegraph-office Mitchell took a form and filled it in very carefully:—
“Jacob Boreham. West-o’-Sunday Station. Bourke.
Come home at once. Mother is dead. In terrible trouble. Father dying.
“I think that will do,” said Mitchell. “It ought to satisfy Baldy, and it won’t give Jake too much of a shock, because he hasn’t got a sister or sister-in-law, and his father and mother’s been dead over ten years.”
“Now, if I was running a theatre,” said Mitchell, as we left the office, “I’d give five pounds a night for the face Jake’ll have on him when he takes that telegram to Baldy Thompson.”
Sheep stations in Australia are any distance from twenty to a hundred miles apart, to keep well within the boundaries of truth and the great pastoral country. Shearing at any one shed only lasts a few weeks in the year; the number of men employed is according to the size of the shed—from three to five men in the little bough-covered shed of the small “cockatoo,” up to a hundred and fifty or two hundred hands all told in the big corrugated iron machine shed of a pastoral company.
Shearing starts early up in northern Queensland, where you can get a “January shed;” and further south, in February, March or April sheds, and so on down into New South Wales, where shearing often lasts over Christmas. Shearers travel from shed to shed; some go a travel season without getting a pen, and an unlucky shearer might ride or tramp for several seasons and never get hands in wool; and all this explains the existence of the “footman” with his swag and the horseman with his packhorse. They have a rough life, and the Australian shearers are certainly the most democratic and perhaps the most independent, intelligent and generous body of workmen in the world.
Shearers at a shed elect their own cook, pay him so much a head, and they buy their rations in the lump from the station store; and “travellers,” i.e. shearers and rouseabouts travelling for work, are invited, as a matter of course, to sit down to the shearers’ table. Also a certain allowance of tea, sugar, flour or meat is still made to travellers at most Western station stores; so it would be rather surprising if there weren’t some who travelled on the game. The swagman loafer, or “bummer,” times himself, especially in bad weather, to arrive at the shed just about sundown; he is then sure of “tea,” shelter for the night, breakfast, and some tucker from the cook to take him on along the track. Brummy and Swampy were sundowners.
Swampy was a bummer born—and proud of it. Brummy had drifted down to loaferdom, and his nature was soured and his spirit revengeful against the world because of the memory of early years wasted at hard work and in being honest. Both were short and stout, and both had scrubby beards, but Brummy’s beard was a dusty black and Swampy’s fiery red—he indulged in a monkey-shave sometimes, but his lower face was mostly like a patch of coarse stubble with a dying hedge round it. They had travelled together for a long time. They seemed at times to hate each other with a murderous hatred, but they were too lazy to fight. Sometimes they’d tramp side by side and growl at each other by the hour, other times they’d sulk for days; one would push on ahead and the other drop behind until there was a mile or two between them; but one always carried the billy, or the sugar, or something that was necessary to the comfort of the other, so they’d come together at sundown. They had travelled together a long time, and perhaps that was why they hated each other. They often agreed to part and take different tracks, and sometimes they parted—for a while. They agreed in cadging, and cadged in turn. They carried a spare set of tucker-bags, and if, for instance, they were out of sugar and had plenty flour and tea, Brummy or Swampy would go to the store, boundary-rider’s hut, or selector’s, with the sugar-bag in his hand and the other bags in his shirt front on spec. He’d get the sugar first, and then, if it looked good enough, the flour-bag would come out, then the tea-bag. And before he left he’d remark casually that he and his mate hadn’t had a smoke for two days. They never missed a chance. And when they’d cadged more tucker than they could comfortably carry, they’d camp for a day or two and eat it down. Sometimes they’d have as much as a pound of tobacco, all in little “borrowed” bits, cut from the sticks or cakes of honest travellers. They never missed a chance. If a stranger gave Swampy his cake of tobacco with instructions to “cut off a pipeful,” Swampy would cut off as much as he thought judicious, talking to the stranger and watching his eye all the time, and hiding his palm as much as possible—and sometimes, when he knew he’d cut off more than he could cram into his pipe, he’d put his hand in his pocket for the pipe and drop some of the tobacco there. Then he’d hand the plug to his mate, engage the stranger in conversation and try to hold his eye or detract his attention from Brummy so as to give Brummy a chance of cutting off a couple of pipefuls, and, maybe, nicking off a corner of the cake and slipping it into his pocket. I once heard a bushman say that no one but a skunk would be guilty of this tobacco trick—that it is about the meanest trick a man could be capable of—because it spoils the chances of the next hard-up swaggy who asks the victim for tobacco.
When Brummy and Swampy came to a shed where shearing was in full swing, they’d inquire, first thing, and with some show of anxiety, if there was any chance of gettin’ on; if the shed was full-handed they’d growl about hard times, wonder what the country was coming to; talk of their missuses and kids that they’d left in Sydney, curse the squatters and the Government, and, next morning, get a supply of rations from the cook and depart with looks of gloom. If, on the other hand, there was room in the shed for one or both of them, and the boss told them to go to work in the morning, they’d keep it quiet from the cook if possible, and depart, after breakfast, unostentatiously.
Sometimes, at the beginning of a drought, when the tall dead grass was like tinder for hundreds of miles and a carelessly-dropped match would set the whole country on fire, Swampy would strike a hard-faced squatter, manager or overseer with a cold eye, and the conversation would be somewhat as follows
Swampy: “Good day, boss!”
Boss (shortly): “’Day.”
Swampy: “Any chance of a job?”
Boss: “Naw. Got all I want and we don’t start for a fortnight.”
Swampy: “Can I git a bit o’ meat?”
Boss: “Naw! Don’t kill till Saturday.”
Swampy: “Pint o’ flour?”
Boss: “Naw. Short ourselves.”
Swampy: “Bit o’ tea or sugar, boss?”
Boss: “Naw—what next?”
Swampy: “Bit o’ baccer, boss. Ain’t had a smoke for a week.”
Boss: “Naw. Ain’t got enough for meself till the wagon comes out.”
Swampy: “Ah, well! It’s hot, ain’t it, boss?”
Boss: “Yes—it’s hot.”
Swampy: “Country very dry?”
Boss: “Yes. Looks like it.”
Swampy: “A fire ’ud be very bad just now?”
Swampy: “Yes. Now I’m allers very careful with matches an’ fire when I’m on the track.”
Boss: “Are yer?”
Swampy: “Yes. I never lights a fire near the grass—allers in the middle of the track—it’s the safest place yer can get. An’ I allers puts the fire out afore I leaves the camp. If there ain’t no water ter spare I covers the ashes with dirt. An’ some fellers are so careless with matches lightin’ their pipes.” (Reflective pause.)
Boss: “Are they?”
Swampy: “Yes. Now, when I lights me pipe on the track in dry weather I allers rubs the match head up an’ drops it in the dust. I never drops a burnin’ match. But some travellers is so careless. A chap might light his pipe an’ fling the match away without thinkin’ an’ the match might fall in a dry tuft, an’—there yer are!” (with a wave of his arms). “Hundreds of miles o’ grass gone an’ thousands o’ sheep starvin’. Some fellers is so careless—they never thinks. . . . An’ what’s more, they don’t care if they burn the whole country.”
Boss (scratching his head reflectively): “Ah—umph!—You can go up to the store and get a bit of tucker. The storekeeper might let yer have a bit o’ tobacco.”
On one occasion, when they were out of flour and meat; Brummy and Swampy came across two other pilgrims camped on a creek, who were also out of flour and meat. One of them had tried a surveyors’ camp a little further down, but without success. The surveyors’ cook had said that he was short of flour and meat himself. Brummy tried him—no luck. Then Swampy said he’d go and have a try. As luck would have it, the surveyors’ cook was just going to bake; he had got the flour out in the dish, put in the salt and baking powder, mixed it up, and had gone to the creek for a billy of water when Swampy arrived. While the cook was gone Swampy slipped the flour out of the dish into his bag, wiped the dish, set it down again, and planted the bag behind a tree at a little distance. Then he stood waiting, holding a spare empty bag in his hand. When the cook came back he glanced at the dish, lowered the billy of water slowly to the ground, scratched his head, and looked at the dish again in a puzzled way.
“Blanked if I didn’t think I got that flour out!” he said.
“What’s that, mate?” asked Swampy.
“Why! I could have sworn I got the flour out in the dish and mixed it before I went for the water,” said the cook, staring at the dish again. “It’s rum what tricks your memory plays on you sometimes.”
“Yes,” said Swampy, showing interest, while the cook got some more flour out into the dish from a bag in the back of the tent. “It is strange. I’ve done the same thing meself. I suppose it’s the heat that makes us all a bit off at times.”
“Do you cook, then?” asked the surveyors’ cook.
“Well, yes. I’ve done a good bit of it in me time; but it’s about played out. I’m after stragglers now.” (Stragglers are stray sheep missed in the general muster and found about the out paddocks and shorn after the general shearing.)
They had a yarn and Swampy “bit the cook’s ear” for a “bit o’ meat an’ tea an’ sugar,” not forgetting “a handful of flour if yer can spare it.”
“Sorry,” said the cook, “but I can only let you have about a pint. We’re very short ourselves.”
“Oh, that’s all right!” said Swampy, as he put the stuff into his spare bags. “Thank you! Good day!”
“Good day,” said the cook.
The cook went on with his work and Swampy departed, catching up the bag of flour from behind the tree as he passed it, and keeping the clump of timber well between him and the surveyors’ camp, lest the cook should glance round, and, noticing the increased bulk of his load, get some new ideas concerning mental aberration.
Nearly every bushman has at least one superstition, or notion, that lasts his time—as nearly every bushman has at least one dictionary word which lasts him all his life. Brummy had a gloomy notion—Lord knows how he got it!—that he should ’a’ gone on the boards if his people hadn’t been so ignorant. He reckoned that he had the face and cut of an actor, could mimic any man’s voice, and had wonderful control over his features. They came to a notoriously “hungry” station, where there was a Scottish manager and storekeeper. Brummy went up to “government house” in his own proper person, had a talk with the storekeeper, spoke of a sick mate, and got some flour and meat. They camped down the creek, and next morning Brummy started to shave himself.
“Whatever are you a-doin’ of, Brummy?” gasped Swampy in great astonishment.
“Wait and see,” growled Brummy, with awful impressiveness, as if he were going to cut Swampy’s throat after he’d finished shaving. He shaved off his beard and whiskers, put on a hat and coat belonging to Swampy, changed his voice, dropped his shoulders, and went limping up to the station on a game leg. He saw the cook and got some “brownie,” a bit of cooked meat and a packet of baking powder. Then he saw the storekeeper and approached the tobacco question. Sandy looked at him and listened with some slight show of interest, then he said:
“Oh that’s all right now! But ye needn’t ha’ troublt shavin’ yer beard—the cold weather’s comin’ on! An’ yer mate’s duds don’t suit ye—they’re too sma’; an’ yer game leg doesn’t fit ye either—it takes a lot o’ practice. Ha’ ye got ony tea an’ sugar? “
Brummy must have touched something responsive in that old Scot somewhere, but his lack of emotion upset Brummy somewhat, or else an old deep-rooted superstition had been severely shaken. Anyway he let Swampy do the cadging for several days thereafter.
But one bad season they were very hard up indeed—even for Brummy and Swampy. They’d tramped a long hungry track, and had only met a few wretched jackeroos, driven out of the cities by hard times, and tramping hopelessly west. They were out of tobacco, and their trousers were so hopelessly “gone” behind that when they went to cadge at a place where there was a woman they were moved to back and sidle and edge away again—and neither Brummy nor Swampy was over fastidious in matters of dress or personal appearance. It was absolutely necessary to earn a pound or two, so they decided to go to work for a couple of weeks. It wouldn’t hurt them, and then there was the novelty of it.
They struck West-o’-Sunday Station, and the boss happened to want a rouseabout to pick up wool and sweep the floor for the shearers.
“I can put one of you on,” he said. “Fix it up between yourselves and go to work in the morning.”
Brummy and Swampy went apart to talk it over.
“Look here! Brum, old man,” said Swampy, with great heartiness, “we’ve been mates for a long while now, an’ shared an’ shared alike. You’ve allers acted straight to me an’ I want to do the fair thing by you. I don’t want to stand in your light. You take the job an’ I’ll be satisfied with a pair of pants out of it and a bit o’ tobacco now an’ agen. There yer are! I can’t say no fairer than that.”
“Yes,” said Brummy, resentfully, “an’ you’ll always be throwin’ it up to me afterwards that I done you out of a job!”
“I’ll swear I won’t,” said Swampy, hurriedly. “But since you’re so blasted touchy and suspicious about it, you take this job an’ I’ll take the next that turns up. How’ll that suit you?”
Brummy thought resentfully.
“Look here!” he said presently, “let’s settle it and have done with this damned sentimental tommy-rot. I’ll tell you what I’ll do—I’ll give you the job and take my chance. The boss might want another man to-morrow. Now, are you satisfied?”
But Swampy didn’t look grateful or happy.
“Well,” growled Brummy, “of all the —— I ever travelled with you’re the ——. What do you want anyway? What’ll satisfy you? That’s all I want to know. Hey?—can’t yer speak?”
“Let’s toss up for it,” said Swampy, sulkily.
“All right,” said Brummy, with a big oath, and he felt in his pocket for two old pennies he had. But Swampy had got a suspicion somehow that one of those pennies had two heads on it, and he wasn’t sure that the other hadn’t two tails—also, he suspected Brummy of some skill in “palming,” so he picked up a chip from the wood-heap, spat on it, and spun it into the air. “Sing out!” he cried, “wet or dry?”
“Dry,” said Brummy, promptly. He had a theory that the wet side of the chip, being presumably heaviest, was more likely to fall downwards; but this time it was “wet” up three times in succession. Brummy ignored Swampy’s hand thrown out in hearty congratulation; and next morning he went to work in the shed. Swampy camped down the river, and Brummy supplied him with a cheap pair of moleskin trousers, tucker and tobacco. The shed cut out within three weeks and the two sundowners took the track again, Brummy with two pounds odd in his pocket—he having negotiated his cheque at the shed.
But now there was suspicion, envy, and distrust in the hearts of those two wayfarers. Brummy was now a bloated capitalist, and proud, and anxious to get rid of Swampy—at least Swampy thought so. He thought that the least that Brummy might have done was to have shared the “stuff” with him.
“Look here, Brummy,” he said reproachfully, “we’ve shared and shared alike, and——”
“We never shared money,” said Brummy, decidedly.
“Do you think I want yer blasted money?” retorted Swampy, indignantly. “When did I ever ask yer for a sprat? Tell me that!”
“You wouldn’t have got it if you had asked,” said Brummy, uncompromisingly. “Look here!” with vehemence. “Didn’t I keep yer in tobacco and buy yer gory pants? What are you naggin’ about anyway?”
“Well,” said Swampy, “all I was goin’ to say was that yer might let me carry one of them quids in case you lost one—yer know you’re careless and lose things; or in case anything happened to you.”
“I ain’t going to lose it—if that’s all that’s fretting you,” said Brummy, “and there ain’t nothing going to happen to me—and don’t you forget it.”
“That’s all the thanks I get for givin’ yer my gory job,” said Swampy, savagely. “I won’t be sich a soft fool agen, I can tell yer.”
Brummy was silent, and Swampy dropped behind. He brooded darkly, and it’s a bad thing for a man to brood in the bush. He was reg’lar disgusted with Brummy. He’d allers acted straight to him, and Brummy had acted like a “cow.” He’d stand it no longer; but he’d have some satisfaction. He wouldn’t be a fool. If Brummy was mean skunk enough to act to a mate like that, Swampy would be even with him; he would wait till Brummy was asleep, collar the stuff, and clear. It was his job, anyway, and the money was his by rights. He’d have his rights.
Brummy, who carried the billy, gave Swampy a long tramp before he camped and made a fire. They had tea in silence, and smoked moodily apart until Brummy turned in. They usually slept on the ground, with a few leaves under them, or on the sand where there was any, each wrapped in his own blankets, and with their spare clothes, or rags rather, for pillows. Presently Swampy turned in and pretended to sleep, but he lay awake watching, and listening to Brummy’s breathing. When he thought it was safe he moved cautiously and slipped his hand under Brummy’s head, but Brummy’s old pocket-book—in which he carried some dirty old letters in a woman’s handwriting—was not there. All next day Swampy watched Brummy sharply every time he put his hands into his pockets, to try and find out in which pocket he kept his money. Brummy seemed very cheerful and sociable, even considerate, to his mate all day, and Swampy pretended to be happy. They yarned more than they had done for many a day. Brummy was a heavy sleeper, and that night Swampy went over him carefully and felt all his pockets, but without success. Next day Brummy seemed in high spirits—they were nearing Bourke, where they intended to loaf round the pubs for a week or two. On the third night Swampy waited till about midnight, and then searched Brummy, every inch of him he could get at, and tickled him with a straw of grass till he turned over, and ran his hands over the other side of him, and over his feet (Brummy slept with his socks on), and looked in his boots, and in the billy and in the tucker-bags, and felt in every tuft of grass round the camp, and under every bush, and down a hollow stump, and up a hollow log: but there was no pocket-book. Brummy couldn’t have lost the money and kept it dark—he’d have gone back to look for it at once. Perhaps he’d thrown away the book and sewn the money in his clothes somewhere. Swampy crept back to him and felt the lining of his hat, and was running his hand over Brummy’s chest when Brummy suddenly started to snore, and Swampy desisted without loss of time. He crept back to bed, breathing short, and thought hard. It struck him that there was something aggressive about that snore. He began to suspect that Brummy was up to his little game, and it pained him.
Next morning Brummy was decidedly frivolous. At any other time Swampy would have put it down to a “touch o’ the sun,” but now he felt a growing conviction that Brummy knew what he’d been up to the last three nights, and the more he thought of it the more it pained him—till at last he could stand it no longer.
“Look here, Brummy,” he said frankly, “where the hell do you keep that flamin’ stuff o’ yourn? I been tryin’ to git at it ever since we left West-o’-Sunday.”
“I know you have, Swampy,” said Brummy, affectionately—as if he considered that Swampy had done his best in the interests of mateship.
“I knowed yer knowed!” exclaimed Swampy, triumphantly. “But where the blazes did yer put it?”
“Under your head, Swampy, old man,” said Brummy, cheerfully.
Swampy was hurt now. He commented in the language that used to be used by the bullock-punchers of the good days as they pranced up and down by their teams and lammed into the bullocks with saplings and crow-bars, and called on them to lift a heavy load out of a bog in the bed of a muddy creek.
“Never mind, Swampy!” said Brummy, soothingly, as his mate paused and tried to remember worse oaths. “It wasn’t your fault.”
But they parted at Bourke. Swampy had allers acted straight ter Brummy—share ’n’ share alike. He’d do as much for a mate as any other man, an’ put up with as much from a mate. He had put up with a lot from Brummy: he’d picked him up on the track and learned him all he knowed; Brummy—would have starved many a time if it hadn’t been for Swampy; Swampy had learned him how to “battle.” He’d stick to Brummy yet, but he couldn’t stand ingratitude. He hated low cunnin’ an’ suspicion, and when a gory mate got suspicious of his own old mate and wouldn’t trust him, an’ took to plantin’ his crimson money—it was time to leave him.
Bill and Jim, professional shearers, were coming into Bourke from the Queensland side. They were horsemen and had two packhorses. At the last camp before Bourke Jim’s packhorse got disgusted and home-sick during the night and started back for the place where he was foaled. Jim was little more than a new-chum jackeroo; he was no bushman and generally got lost when he went down the next gully. Bill was a bushman, so it was decided that he should go back to look for the horse.
Now Bill was going to sell his packhorse, a well-bred mare, in Bourke, and he was anxious to get her into the yards before the horse sales were over; this was to be the last day of the sales. Jim was the best “barracker” of the two; he had great imagination; he was a very entertaining story-teller and conversationalist in social life, and a glib and a most impressive liar in business, so it was decided that he should hurry on into Bourke with the mare and sell her for Bill. Seven pounds, reserve.
Next day Bill turned up with the missing horse and saw Jim standing against a veranda-post of the Carriers’ Arms, with his hat down over his eyes, and thoughtfully spitting in the dust. Bill rode over to him.
“’Ullo, Bill. I see you got him.”
“Yes, I got him.’’ Pause.
“Where’d yer find him?”
“’Bout ten mile back. Near Ford’s Bridge. He was just feedin’ along.”
Pause. Jim shifted his feet and spat in the dust.
“Well,” said Bill at last. “How did you get on, Jim?”
“Oh, all right,” said Jim. “I sold the mare.”
“That’s right,” said Bill. “How much did she fetch?”
“Eight quid;” then, rousing himself a little and showing some emotion, “An’ I could ’a’ got ten quid for her if I hadn’t been a dam’ fool.”
“Oh, that’s good enough,” said Bill.
“I could ’a’ got ten quid if I’d ’a’ waited.”
“Well, it’s no use cryin’. Eight quid is good enough. Did you get the stuff?”
“Oh, yes. They parted all right. If I hadn’t been such a dam’ fool an’ rushed it, there was a feller that would ’a’ given ten quid for that mare.”
“Well, don’t break yer back about it,” said Bill. “Eight is good enough.”
“Yes. But I could ’a’ got ten,” said Jim, languidly, putting his hand in his pocket.
Pause. Bill sat waiting for him to hand over the money; but Jim withdrew his hand empty, stretched, and said:
“Ah, well, Bill, I done it in. Lend us a couple o’ notes.”
Jim had been drinking and gambling all night and he’d lost the eight pounds as well as his own money.
Bill didn’t explode. What was the use? He should have known that Jim wasn’t to be trusted with money in town. It was he who had been the fool. He sighed and lent Jim a pound, and they went in to have a drink.
Now it strikes me that if this had happened in a civilized country (like England) Bill would have had Jim arrested and jailed for larceny as a bailee, or embezzlement, or whatever it was. And would Bill or Jim or the world have been any better for it?
Steelman and Smith, professional wanderers from New Zealand, took a run over to Australia one year to have a look at the country, and drifted out back, and played cards and “headin’ ’em” at the shearing-sheds (while pretending to be strangers to each other), and sold eye-water and unpatented medicine, and worked the tucker tracks. They struck a streak of bad luck at West-o’-Sunday Station, where they were advised (by the boss and about fifty excited shearers) to go east, and not to stop till they reached the coast. They were tramping along the track towards Bourke; they were very hard up and had to “battle” for tucker and tobacco along the track. They came to a lonely shanty, about two camps west of Bourke.
“We’ll turn off into the scrub and strike the track the other side of the shanty and come back to it,” said Steelman. “You see, if they see us coming into Bourke they’ll say to themselves, ‘Oh, we’re never likely to see these chaps again,’ and they won’t give us anything, or, perhaps, only a pinch of tea or sugar in a big lump of paper. There’s some women that, can never see a tucker-bag, even if you hold it right under their noses. But if they see us going out back they’ll reckon that we’ll get a shed likely as not, and we’ll be sure to call there with our cheques coming back. I hope the old man’s got the lumbago, or sciatica, or something.”
“Why?” asked Smith.
“Because whenever I see an old man poking round the place on a stick I always make for him straight and inquire about his trouble; and no matter what complaint he’s got, my old man suffered from it for years. It’s pretty hard graft listening to an old man with a pet leg, but I find it pays; and I always finish up by advising him to try St Jacob’s oil. Perhaps he’s been trying it for years, but that doesn’t matter; the consultation works out all right all the same, and there’s never been a remedy tried yet but I’ve got another.
“I’ve got a lot of Maori and blackfellow remedies in my mind, and when they fail I can fall back on the Chinese; and if that isn’t enough I’ve got a list of my grandmother’s remedies that she wrote down for me when I was leaving home, and I kept it for a curiosity. It took her three days to write them, and I reckon they’ll fill the bill.
“You don’t want a shave. You look better with that stubble on. You needn’t say anything; just stand by and wear your usual expression, and if they ask me what’s the matter with my mate I’ll fix up a disease for you to have, and get something extra on your account, poor beggar!
“I wish we had a chap with us that could sing a bit and run the gamut on a fiddle or something. With a sickly-looking fish like you to stand by and look interesting and die slowly of consumption all the time, and me to do the talking, we’d be able to travel from one end of the bush to the other and live on the fat of the land. I wouldn’t cure you for a hundred pounds.”
They reached the shanty, and there, sure enough, was an old man pottering round with a list to starboard. He was working with a hoe inside a low paling fence round a sort of garden. Steelman and Smith stopped outside the fence. “Good day, boss!”
So far it was satisfactory.
He was a little man, with a wiry, red beard. He might have been a Scandinavian.
“You seem to be a bit lame,” said Steelman. “Hurt your foot?”
“Naw,” said the old man. “It’s an old thing.”
“Ah!” said Steelman, “lumbago, I suppose? My father suffered cruel from it for years.”
“Naw,” said the old man, moving closer to the fence. “It ain’t in me back; the trouble’s with me leg.”
“Oh!” said Steelman. “One a bit shorter than the other?”
“Well, yes. It seems to be wearin’ a bit shorter. I must see to it. “
“Hip disease, perhaps?” said Steelman. “A brother o’ mine had——”
“Naw, it’s not in the hip,” said the old man. “My leg’s gone at the knee.”
“Oh! stiff joint; I know what that is. Had a touch of it once myself. An uncle of mine was nearly crippled with it. He used to use St Jacob’s oil. Ever try St Jacob’s oil?”
“Naw,” said the old man, “not that I know of. I’ve used linseed oil though.”
“Linseed oil!” said Steelman; “I’ve never heard of that for stiff knee. How do you use it?”
“Use it raw,” said the old man. “Raw linseed oil; I’ve rubbed it in, and I’ve soaked me leg in it.”
“Soaked your leg in it!” said Steelman. “And did it do it any good?”
“Well, it seems to preserve it—keeps it from warping, and it wears better—and it makes it heavier. It seemed a bit too light before.”
Steelman nudged Smith under cover of the palings. The old man was evidently a bit ratty.
“Well I hope your leg will soon be all right, boss,” said Steelman.
“Thank you,” said the old man, “but I don’t think there’s much hope. I suppose you want some tucker?”
“Well, yes,” said Steelman, rather taken aback by the old man’s sudden way of putting it. “We’re hard up.”
“Well, come along to the house and I’ll see if I can get yer something,” said the old man; and they walked along outside the fence, and he hobbled along inside, till he came to a little gate at the corner. He opened the gate and stumped out. He had a wooden leg. He wore his trouser-leg down over it, and the palings had hidden the bottom from Steelman and Smith.
He wanted them to stay to dinner, but Steelman didn’t feel comfortable, and thanked him, and said they’d rather be getting on (Steelman always spoke for Smith); so the old man gave them some cooked meat, bread, and a supply of tea and sugar. Steelman watched his face very close, but he never moved a muscle. But when they looked back he was leaning on his hoe, and seemed to be shaking.
“Took you back a bit, Steely, didn’t it?” suggested Smith.
“How do you make that out?” snorted Steelman, turning on him suddenly. “I knew a carpenter who used to soak his planes in raw linseed oil to preserve them and give them weight. There’s nothing funny about that.”
Smith rubbed his head.
. . . For thirst is long and throats is short
Among the sons o’ men.
I wish I was spifflicated before I ever seen a pub!
You see, it’s this way. Suppose a cove comes along on a blazin’ hot day in the drought—an’ you ought to know how hell-hot it can be out here—an’ he dumps his swag in the corner of the bar; an’ he turns round an’ he ses ter me, “Look here boss, I ain’t got a lonely steever on me, an’ God knows when I’ll git one. I’ve tramped ten mile this mornin’, an’ I’ll have ter tramp another ten afore to-night. I’m expectin’ ter git on shearin’ with of Baldy Thompson at West-o’-Sunday nex’ week. I got a thirst on me like a sun-struck bone, an’, for God sake, put up a couple o’ beers for me an’ my mate, an’ I’ll fix it up with yer when I come back after shearin’.”
An’ what’s a feller ter do? I bin there meself, an’—I put it to you! I’ve known what it is to have a thirst on me.
An’ suppose a poor devil comes along in the jim-jams, with every inch on him jumpin’ an’ a look in his eyes like a man bein’ murdered an’ sent ter hell, an’ a whine in his voice like a whipped cur, an’ the snakes a-chasing of him; an’ he hooks me with his finger ter the far end o’ the bar—as if he was goin’ ter tell me that the world was ended—an’ he hangs over the bar an’ chews me lug, an’ tries to speak, an’ breaks off inter a sort o’ low shriek, like a terrified woman, an’ he says, “For Mother o’ Christ’s sake, giv’ me a drink!” An’ what am I to do? I bin there meself. I knows what the horrors is. He mighter blued his cheque at the last shanty. But what am I ter do? I put it ter you. If I let him go he might hang hisself ter the nex’ leanin’ tree.
What’s a drink? yer might arst—I don’t mind a drink or two; but when it comes to half a dozen in a day it mounts up, I can tell yer. Drinks is sixpence here—I have to pay for it, an’ pay carriage on it. It’s all up ter me in the end. I used sometimes ter think it was lucky I wasn’t west o’ the sixpenny line, where I’d lose a shillin’ on every drink I give away.
An’ supposen a sundowner comes along smokin’ tea-leaves, an’ ses ter me, “Look her, boss! me an’ my mate ain’t had a smoke for three days!” What’s a man ter do? I put it ter you! I’m a heavy smoker meself, an’ I’ve known what it is to be without a smoke on the track. But “nail-rod” is ninepence a stick out here, an’ I have ter pay carriage. It all mounts up, I can tell yer.
An’ supposen Ole King Billy an’ his ole black gin comes round at holiday time and squats on the verander, an’ blarneys an’ wheedles and whines and argues like a hundred Jews an’ ole Irishwomen put tergether, an’ accuses me o’ takin’ his blarsted country from him, an’ makes me an’ the missus laugh; an’ we gives him a bottl’er rum an’ a bag of grub ter get rid of him an’ his rotten ole scarecrow tribe—It all tells up. I was allers soft on the blacks, an’, beside, a ole gin nursed me an’ me mother when I was born, an’ saved me blessed life—not that that mounts to much. But it all tells up, an’ I got me licence ter pay. An’ some bloody skunk goes an’ informs on me for supplyin’ the haboriginalls with intossicatin’ liquor, an’ I have ter pay a fine an’ risk me licence. But what’s a man ter do?
An’ three or four herrin’-gutted jackeroos comes along about dinner-time, when the table’s set and the cookin’ smellin’ from the kichen, with their belts done up three holes, an’ not the price of a feed on ’em. What’s a man ter do? I’ve known what it is ter do a perish on the track meself. It’s not the tucker I think on. I don’t care a damn for that. When the shearers come every one is free to go inter the kitchin an’ forage for hisself when he feels hungry—so long as he pays for his drink. But the jackeroos can’t pay for drinks, an’ I have ter pay carriage on the flour an’ tea an’ sugar an’ groceries—an’ it all tells up by the end o’ the year.
An’ a straight chap that knows me gets a job to take a flock o’ sheep or a mob o’ cattle ter the bloomin’ Gulf, or South Australia, or somewheers—an’ loses one of his horses goin’ out ter take charge, an’ borrers eight quid from me ter buy another. He’ll turn up agen in a year or two an’ most likely want ter make me take twenty quid for that eight—an’ make everybody about the place blind drunk—but I’ve got ter wait, an’ the wine an’ sperit merchants an’ the brewery won’t. They know I can’t do without liquor in the place.
An’ lars’ rains Jimmy Nowlett, the bullick-driver, gets bogged over his axle-trees back there on the Blacksoil Plains between two flooded billerbongs, an’ prays till the country steams an’ his soul’s busted, an’ his throat like a lime-kiln. He taps a keg o’ rum or beer ter keep his throat in workin’ order. I don’t mind that at all, but him an’ his mates git flood-bound for near a week, an’ broach more kegs, an’ go on a howlin’ spree in ther mud, an’ spill mor’n they swipe, an’ leave a tarpaulin off a load, an’ the flour gets wet, an’ the sugar runs out of the bags like syrup, an’— What’s a feller ter do? Do yer expect me to set the law outer Jimmy? I’ve knowed him all my life, an’ he knowed my father afore I was born. He’s been on the roads this forty year, till he’s as thin as a rat, and as poor as a myall black; an’ he’s got a family ter keep back there in Bourke. No, I have ter pay for it in the end, an’ it all mounts up, I can tell yer.
An’ suppose some poor devil of a new-chum black sheep comes along, staggerin’ from one side of the track to the other, and spoutin’ poetry; dyin’ o’ heat or fever, or heartbreak an’ home-sickness, or a life o’ disserpation he’d led in England, an’ without a sprat on him, an’ no claim on the bush; an’ I ketches him in me arms as he stumbles inter the bar, an’ he wants me ter hold him up while he turns English inter Greek for me. An’ I put him ter bed, an’ he gits worse, an’ I have ter send the buggy twenty mile for a doctor—an’ pay him. An’ the jackeroo gits worse, an’ has ter be watched an’ nursed an’ held down sometimes; an’ he raves about his home an’ mother in England, an’ the blarsted University that he was eddicated at—an’ a woman—an’ somethin’ that sounds like poetry in French; an’ he upsets my missus a lot, an’ makes her blubber. An’ he dies, an’ I have ter pay a man ter bury him (an’ knock up a sort o’ fence round the grave arterwards ter keep the stock out), an’ send the buggy agen for a parson, an’—Well, what’s a man ter do? I couldn’t let him wander away an’ die like a dog in the scrub, an’ be shoved underground like a dog, too, if his body was ever found. The Government might pay ter bury him, but there ain’t never been a pauper funeral from my house yet, an’ there won’t be one if I can help it—except it be meself.
An’ then there’s the bother goin’ through his papers to try an’ find out who he was an’ where his friends is. An’ I have ter get the missus to write a letter to his people, an’ we have ter make up lies about how he died ter make it easier for ’em. An’ goin’ through his letters, the missus comes across a portrait an’ a locket of hair, an’ letters from his mother an’ sisters an’ girl; an’ they upset her, an’ she blubbers agin, an’ gits sentimental-like she useter long ago when we was first married.
There was one bit of poetry—I forgit it now—that that there jackeroo kep’ sayin’ over an’ over agen till it buzzed in me head; an’, weeks after, I’d ketch the missus mutterin’ it to herself in the kitchen till I thought she was goin’ ratty.
An’ we gets a letter from the jackeroo’s friends that puts us to a lot more bother. I hate havin’ anythin’ to do with letters. An’ someone’s sure to say he was lambed down an’ cleaned out an’ poisoned with bad bush liquor at my place. It’s almost enough ter make a man wish there was a recorin’ angel.
An’ what’s the end of it? I got the blazin’ bailiff in the place now! I can’t shot him out because he’s a decent, hard-up, poor devil from Bourke, with consumption or somethin’, an’ he’s been talkin’ to the missus about his missus an’ kids; an’ I see no chance of gittin’ rid of him, unless the shearers come along with their cheques from West-o’-Sunday nex’ week and act straight by me. Like as not I’ll have ter roll up me swag an’ take the track meself in the end. They say publicans are damned, an’ I think so, too; an’ I wish I’d bin operated on before ever I seen a pub.
Mitchell and I rolled up our swags after New Year and started to tramp west. It had been a very bad season after a long drought. Old Baldy Thompson had only shorn a few bales of grass-seed and burrs, so he said, and thought of taking the track himself; but we hoped to get on shearing stragglers at West-o’-Sunday or one of the stations of the Hungerford track.
It was very hot weather, so we started after sunset, intending to travel all night. We crossed the big billabong, and were ploughing through the dust and sand towards West Bourke, when a buggy full of city girls and swells passed by. They were part of a theatrical company on tour in the Back-Blocks, and some local Johnnies. They’d been driven out to see an artesian bore, or wool-shed, or something. The horses swerved, and jerked a little squawk out of one of the girls. Then another said:
“Ow-w! Two old swaggies. He! he! he!”
I glanced at Mitchell to see if he was hit, and caught his head down; but he pulled himself up and pretended to hitch his swag into an easier position.
About a hundred yards further on he gave me a side look and said:
“Did that touch you, Harry?”
“No,” I said, and I laughed.
“You see,” reflected Mitchell, “they’re more to be pitied than blamed. It’s their ignorance. In the first place, we’re not two old tramps, as they think. We are professional shearers; and the Australian shearers are about the most independent and intelligent class of men in the world. We’ve got more genius in one of our little fingers than there is in the whole of that wagonette-load of diddle-daddle and fiddle-faddle and giggles. Their intellects are on a level with the rotten dramas they travel with, and their lives about as false. They are slaves to the public, and their home is the pub-parlour, with sickly, senseless Johnnies to shout suppers and drink for them and lend their men money. If one of those girls is above the average, how she must despise those Johnnies—and the life! She must feel a greater contempt for them than the private-barmaid does for the boozer she cleans out. He gets his drink and some enjoyment, anyhow. And how she must loathe the life she leads! And what’s the end of it as often as not? I remember once, when I was a boy, I was walking out with two aunts of mine—they’re both dead now. God rest their fussy, innocent old souls!—and one of ’em said suddenly, ‘Look! Quick, Jack! There’s Maggie So-and-So, the great actress.’ And I looked and saw a woman training vines in a porch. It seemed like seeing an angel to me, and I never forgot her as she was then. The diggers used to go miles out of town to meet the coach that brought her, and take the horses out and drag it in, and throw gold in her lap, and worship her.
“The last time I was in Sydney I saw her sitting in the back parlour of a third-rate pub. She was dying of dropsy and couldn’t move from her chair. She showed me a portrait of herself as I remembered her, and talked quite seriously about going on the stage again.
“Now, our home is about two thousand miles wide, and the world’s our stage. If the worst comes to the worst we can always get tucker and wood and water for nothing. If we’re camping at a job in a tent there’s no house-cleaning to bother us. All we’ve got to do when the camp gets too dirty is to shift the tent to a fresh place. We’ve got time to think and we’re free.
“But then, agen,” he reflected, “there’s the world’s point of view to be considered. Some day I might be flashing past in a buggy or saloon-carriage—or, the chances are it will be you—and you might look out the window and see an old swaggy tramping along in the dust, or camped under a strip of calico in the rain in the scrub. (And it might be me—old Mitchell—that really wrote your books, only the world won’t know it.) And then you’ll realize what a wretched, miserable life it was. We never realize the miseries of life till we look back—the mistakes and miseries that had to be and couldn’t be helped. It’s all luck—luck and chance.”
But those girls seemed to have gravelled Mitchell, and he didn’t seem able to talk himself round. He tramped on, brooding for a while, and then suddenly he said:
“Look here, Harry! Those girls are giving a dance to-night, and if I liked to go back to Bourke and tog up and go to the dance I could pick out the prettiest, dance with her all the evening, and take her for a stroll afterwards, old tramp as they thought me. I’ve lived—but it wouldn’t be worth my while now.”
I’d seen Jack in a mood like this before, and thought it best to say nothing. Perhaps the terrible heat had affected him a little. We walked on in silence until we came to the next billabong. “Best boil the billy here, Harry,” said Mitchell, “and have some tea before we go any further.”
I got some sticks together and made a fire and put the billy on. The country looked wretched—like the ghost of a burnt-out land—in the moonlight. The banks of the creek were like ashes, the thin, gnarled gum-bush seemed dry-rotting fast, and in many places the surface of the ground was cracked in squares where it had shrunk in the drought. In the bed of the creek was a narrow gutter of water that looked like bad milk.
Mitchell sat on his swag, with his pint of tea on the ground by his foot, and chewed his pipe.
“What’s up, Jack?” I asked. “Have you got the blues?”
“Well, yes, Harry,” he said. “I’m generally dull the first day on the track. The first day is generally the worst, anywhere or anytime—except, perhaps, when you’re married. . . . I got—well, I got thinking of the time when a woman’s word could have hurt me.”
Just then one of the “travellers” who were camped a bit up the creek suddenly commenced to sing. It was a song called “The Shearer’s Dream,” and I suppose the buggy of girls, or the conversation they started, reminded him of it. He started his verses and most of his lines with a howl; and there were unexpected howls all through the song, and it wailed off, just as unexpectedly, in places where there was no pathos that I could see:
“Oh, I dreamt I shore in a shearer’s shed, and
it was a dream of joy,
For every one of the rouseabouts was a girl dressed up as a boy—
Dressed up like a page in a pantomime, and the prettiest ever seen—
They had flaxen hair, they had coal-black hair—and every shade between.”
“Every” with sudden and great energy, a long drop on to “shade,” and a wail of intense sadness and regret running on into “between,” the dirge reaching its wailsomest in the “tween” in every case.
“The shed was cooled by electric fans that was over every “shoot”;
The pens was of polished ma-ho-gany, and ev’rything else to suit;
The huts was fixed with spring-mattresses, and the tucker was simply grand,
And every Right by the biller-bong we darnced to a German band.”
“There was short, plump girls, there was tall, slim girls,
and the handsomest ever seen—
They was four-foot-five, they was six-foot high, and hevery size between.
“Our pay was the wool on the jumbucks’ backs, so
we shore till all was blue—
The sheep was washed afore they was shore (and the rams was scented too);
And we all of us cried when the shed cut out, in spite of the long, hot days,
For hevery hour them girls waltzed in with whisky and beer on tr-a-a-a-ys!”
“Chorus! you ——!”
“They had kind grey eyes, they had coal-black eyes, and
the grandest ever seen—
They had plump pink hands, they had slim white hands, and hevery shape be-tw-e-e-n.
“There was three of them girls to every chap, and as jealous as they could be—“
“Ow! you ——”
The singer’s voice or memory seemed suddenly to have failed him at this point, but whether his mates hit him on the back of the head with a tomahawk, or only choked him, I do not know. Mitchell was inclined to think, from the sound of it, that they choked him.
Hungerford road, February. One hundred and thirty miles of heavy reddish sand, bordered by dry, hot scrubs. Dense cloud of hot dust. Four wool-teams passing through a gate in a “rabbit proof” fence which crosses the road. Clock, clock, clock of wheels and rattle and clink of chains, crack of whips and explosions of Australian language. Bales and every thing else coated with dust. Stink of old axle-grease and tarpaulins. Tyres hot enough to fry chops on: bows and chains so hot that it’s a wonder they do not burn through the bullock’s hides. Water lukewarm in blistered kegs slung behind the wagons. Bullocks dragging along as only bullocks do. Wheels ploughing through the deep sand, and the load lurching from side to side. Half-way on a “dry-stretch” of seventeen miles. Big “tank” full of good water through the scrub to the right, but it is a private tank and a boundary-rider is shepherding it. Mulga scrub and sparse, spiky undergrowth.
The carriers camp for dinner and boil their billies while the bullocks droop under their yokes in the blazing heat; one or two lie down and the leaders drag and twist themselves round under a dead tree, under the impression that there is shade there. The carriers look like Red Indians, with the masks of red dust “bound” with sweat on their faces, but there is an unhealthy-looking, whitish space round their eyes, caused by wiping away the blinding dust, sweat, and flies. The dry sticks burn with a pale flame and an almost invisible thin pale blue smoke. The sun’s heat dancing and dazzling across every white fence-post, sandhill, or light-coloured object in the distance.
One man takes off his boot and sock, empties half a pint of sand out of them, and pulls up his trouser-leg. His leg is sheathed to the knee in dust and sweat; he absently scrapes it with his knife, and presently he amuses himself by moistening a strip with his forefinger and shaving it, as if he were vaguely curious to see if he is still a white man.
The Hungerford coach ploughs past in a dense cloud of dust.
The teams drag on again like a “wounded snake that dies at sundown,” if a wounded snake that dies at sundown could revive sufficiently next morning to drag on again until another sun goes down.
Hopeless-looking swagmen are met with during the afternoon, and one carrier—he of the sanded leg—lends them tobacco; his mates contribute “bits o’” tea, flour, and sugar.
Sundown and the bullocks done up. The teamsters unyoke them and drive them on to the next water—five miles—having previously sent a mate to reconnoitre and see that boundary rider is not round, otherwise, to make terms with him, for it is a squatter’s bore. They hurry the bullocks down to the water and back in the twilight, and then, under cover of darkness, turn them into a clearing in the scrub off the road, where a sign of grass might be seen—if you look close. But the “bullockies” are better off than the horse-teamsters, for bad chaff is sold by the pound and corn is worth its weight in gold.
Mitchell and I turned off the track at the rabbit-proof fence and made for the tank in the mulga. We boiled the billy and had some salt mutton and damper. We were making back for Bourke, having failed to get a cut in any of the sheds on the Hungerford track. We sat under a clump of mulga saplings, with our backs to the trunks, and got out our pipes. Usually, when the flies were very bad on the track, we had to keep twigs or wild-turkey-tail feathers going in front of our faces the whole time to keep the mad flies out of our eyes; and, when we camped, one would keep the feather going while the other lit his pipe—then the smoke would keep them away. But the flies weren’t so bad in a good shade or in the darkened hut. Mitchell’s pipe would have smoked out Old Nick; it was an ancient string-bound meerschaum, and strong enough to kill a blackfellow. I had one smoke out of it, once when I felt bad in my inside and wanted to be sick, and the result was very satisfactory.
Mitchell looked through his old pocket-book—more by force of habit than anything else—and turned up a circular from Tattersall’s. And that reminded him.
“Do you know what I’d do, Harry,” he said, “if I won Tattersall’s big sweep, or was to come into fifty or a hundred thousand pounds, or, better still, a million?”
“Nothing, I suppose,” I said, “except to get away to Sydney or some cooler place than this.”
“I’ll tell you what I’d do,” said Mitchell, talking round his pipe. “I’d build a Swagman’s Rest right here.”
“A Swagman’s Rest?”
“Yes. Right here on this very God-forsaken spot. I’d build a Swagman’s Rest and call it the Lost Souls’ Hotel, or the Sundowners’ Arms, or the Half-way House to ——, or some such name that would take the bushmen’s fancy. I’d have it built on the best plans for coolness in a hot country; bricks, and plenty of wide verandas with brick floors, and balconies, and shingles, in the old Australian style. I wouldn’t have a sheet of corrugated iron about the place. And I’d have old-fashioned hinged sashes with small panes and vines round ’em; they look cooler and more homely and romantic than the glaring sort that shove up.
“And I’d dig a tank or reservoir for surface water as big as a lake, and bore for artesian water—and get it, too, if I had to bore right through to England; and I’d irrigate the ground and make it grow horse-feed and fruit, and vegetables too, if I had to cart manure from Bourke. And every teamster’s bullock or horse, and every shearer’s hack, could burst itself free, but I’d make travelling stock pay—for it belongs to the squatters and capitalists. All carriers could camp for one night only. And I’d—no, I wouldn’t have any flowers; they might remind some heart-broken, new-chum black sheep of the house where he was born, and the mother whose heart he broke—and the father whose grey hairs he brought down in sorrow to the grave—and break him up altogether.”
“But what about the old-fashioned windows and the vines?” I asked.
“Oh!” said Mitchell, “I forgot them. On second thought, I think I would have some flowers; and maybe a bit of ivy-green. The new chum might be trying to work out his own salvation, and the sight of the roses and ivy would show him that he hadn’t struck such a God-forgotten country after all, and help strengthen the hope for something better that’s in the heart of every vagabond till he dies.”
Puff, puff, puff, slowly and reflectively.
“Until he dies,” repeated Mitchell. “And, maybe,” he said, rousing himself, “I’d have a little room fixed up like a corner of a swell restaurant, with silver and napkins on the table, and I’d fix up a waiter, so that when a broken-down University wreck came along he might feel, for an hour or so, something like the man he used to be. But I suppose,” Mitchell reflected, “he wouldn’t feel completely his old self without a lady friend sitting opposite to him. I might fix up a black gin for him, but I suppose he’d draw the colour line. But that’s nonsense.
“All teamsters and travellers could camp there for one night only. I’d have shower-baths; but I wouldn’t force any man to have a bath against his will. They could sit down to a table and have a feed off a table-cloth, and sleep in sheets, and feel like they did before their old mothers died, or before they ran away from home.”
“Who? The mothers?” I asked.
“Yes, in some cases,” said Mitchell. “And I’d have a nice, cool little summer-house down near the artificial lake, out of earshot of the house, where the bullock-drivers could sit with their pipes after tea, and tell yarns, and talk in their own language. And I’d have boats on the lake, too, in case an old Oxford or Cambridge man, or an old sailor came along—it might put years on to his life to have a pull at the oars. You remember that old sailor we saw in charge of the engine back there at the government tank? You saw how he had the engine?—clean and bright as a new pin—everything spick-and-span and shipshape, and his hut fixed up like a ship’s cabin. I believe he thinks he’s at sea half his time, and shoving her through it, instead of pumping muddy water out of a hole in the baking scrubs for starving stock. Or maybe he reckons he’s keeping her afloat.”
“And would you have fish in this lake of yours?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” said Mitchell, “and any ratty old shepherd or sundowner, that’s gone mad of heat and loneliness—like the old codger we met back yonder—he could sit by the lagoon in the cool of the evening and fish to his heart’s content with a string and a bent pin, and dream he’s playing truant from school and fishing in the brook near his native village in England about fifty years ago. It would seem more real than fishing in the dust as some mad old bushmen do.”
“But you’d draw the line somewhere?” I asked.
“No,” said Mitchell, “not even at poets. I’d try to cure them, too, with good wholesome food and plenty of physical exercise. The Lost Souls’ Hotel would be a refuge for men who’d been jail-birds once as well as men who were gentlemen once, and for physical wrecks and ruined drunkards as well as healthy honest shearers. I’d sit down and talk to the boozer or felon just as if I thought he was as good a man as me—and he might be, for that matter—God knows.
“The sick man would be kept till he recovered, or died; and the boozer, suffering from a recovery, I’d keep him till he was on his legs again.”
“Then you’d have to have a doctor,” I said.
“Yes,” said Mitchell, “I’d fix that up all right. I wouldn’t bother much about a respectable medical practitioner from the city. I’d get a medical wreck who had a brilliant career before him once in England and got into disgrace, and cleared out to the colonies—a man who knows what the d.t.’s is—a man who’s been through it all and knows it all.”
“Then you’d want a manager, or a clerk or secretary,” I suggested.
“I suppose I would,” said Mitchell. “I’ve got no head for figures. I suppose I’d have to advertise for him. If an applicant came with the highest testimonials of character, and especially if one was signed by a parson, I’d tell him to call again next week; and if a young man could prove that he came of a good Christian family, and went to church regularly, and sang in the choir, and taught Sunday-school, I’d tell him that he needn’t come again, that the vacancy was filled, for I couldn’t trust him. The man who’s been extra religious and honest and hard-working in his young days is most likely to go wrong afterwards. I’d sooner trust some poor old devil of a clerk who’d got into the hands of a woman or racing men when he was young, and went wrong, and served his time for embezzlement; anyway, I’d take him out and give him another chance.”
“And what about woman’s influence?” I asked.
“Oh, I suppose there’d have to be a woman, if only to keep the doctor on the line. I’d get a woman with a past, one that hadn’t been any better than she should have been, they’re generally the most kind-hearted in the end. Say an actress who’d come down in the world, or an old opera-singer who’d lost her voice but could still sing a little. A woman who knows what trouble is. And I’d get a girl to keep her company, a sort of housemaid, with a couple of black gins or half-castes to help her. I’d get hold of some poor girl who’d been deceived and deserted: and a baby or two wouldn’t be an objection—the kids would amuse the chaps and help humanize the place.”
“And what if the manageress fell in love with the doctor?” I asked.
“Well, I couldn’t provide against love,” said Mitchell. “I fell in love myself more than once—and I don’t suppose I’d have been any worse off if I’d have stayed in love. Ah, well! But suppose she did fall in love with the doctor and marry him, or suppose she fell in love with him and didn’t marry him, for that matter—and suppose the girl fell in love with the secretary? There wouldn’t be any harm done; it would only make them more contented with the home and bind them to it. They’d be a happy family, and the Lost Souls’ Hotel would be more cheerful and homelike than ever.”
“But supposing they all fell in love with each other and cleared out,” I said.
“I don’t see what they’d have to clear out for,” said Mitchell. “But suppose they did. There’s more than one medical wreck in Australia, and more than one woman with a past, and more than one broken old clerk who went wrong and was found out, and who steadied down in jail, and there’s more than one poor girl that’s been deceived. I could easily replace ’em. And the Lost Souls’ Hotel might be the means of patching up many wrecked lives in that way—giving people with pasts the chance of another future, so to speak.”
“I suppose you’d have music and books and pictures?” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said Mitchell. “But I wouldn’t have any bitter or sex-problem books. They do no good. Problems have been the curse of the world ever since it started. I think one noble, kindly, cheerful character in a book does more good than all the clever villains or romantic adventurers ever invented. And I think a man ought to get rid of his maudlin sentiment in private, or when he’s drunk. It’s a pity that every writer couldn’t put all his bitterness into one book and then burn it.
“No; I’d have good cheerful books of the best and brightest sides of human nature—Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, and Bret Harte, and those men. And I’d have all Australian pictures—showing the brightest and best side of Australian life. And I’d have all Australian songs. I wouldn’t have ‘Swannie Ribber,’ or ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ or ‘Annie Laurie,’ or any of those old songs sung at the Lost Souls’ Hotel—they’re the cause of more heartbreaks and drink and suicide in the bush than anything else. And if a jackeroo got up to sing, ‘Just before the battle, mother,’ or, ‘Mother bit me in me sleep,’ he’d find it was just before the battle all right. He’d have to go out and sleep in the scrub, where the mosquitoes and bulldog ants would bite him out of his sleep. I hate the man who’s always whining about his mother through his nose, because, as a rule, he never cared a rap for his old mother, nor for anyone else, except his own paltry, selfish little self.
“I’d have intellectual and elevating conversation for those that——”
“Who’d take charge of that department?” I inquired hurriedly.
“Well,” reflected Mitchell, “I did have an idea of taking it on myself for a while anyway; but, come to think of it, the doctor or the woman with the past would have more experience; and I could look after that part of the business at a pinch. Of course you’re not in a position to judge as to my ability in the intellectual line; you see, I’ve had no one to practise on since I’ve been with you. But no matter—— There’d be intellectual conversation for the benefit of black-sheep new chums. And any broken-down actors that came along could get up a play if they liked—it would brighten up things and help elevate the bullock-drivers and sundowners. I’d have a stage fixed up and a bit of scenery. I’d do all I could to attract shearers to the place after shearing, and keep them from rushing to the next shanty with their cheques, or down to Sydney, to be cleaned out by barmaids.
“And I’d have the hero squashed in the last act for a selfish sneak, and marry the girl to the villain—he’d be more likely to make her happy in the end.”
“And what about the farm?” I asked. “I suppose you’d get some expert from the agricultural college to manage that?”
“No,” said Mitchell. “I’d get some poor drought-ruined selector and put him in charge of the vegetation. Only, the worst of it is.” he reflected, “if you take a selector who has bullocked all his life to raise crops on dusty, stony patches in the scrubs, and put him on land where there’s plenty of water and manure, and where he’s only got to throw the seed on the ground and then light his pipe and watch it grow, he’s apt to get disheartened. But that’s human nature.
“And, of course, I’d have to have a ‘character’ about the place—a sort of identity and joker to brighten up things. I wouldn’t get a man who’d been happy and comfortable all his life; I’d get hold of some old codger whose wife had nagged him till she died, and who’d been sold off many times, and run in for drowning his sorrows, and who started as an undertaker and failed at that, and finally got a job pottering round—gardener, or gatekeeper, or something—in a lunatic asylum. I’d get him. He’d most likely be a humorist and a philosopher, and he’d help cheer up the Lost Souls’ Hotel. I reckon the lost souls would get very fond of him.”
“And would you have drink at Lost Souls’?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mitchell. “I’d have the best beer and spirits and wine to be had. After tea I’d let every man have just enough to make him feel comfortable and happy, and as good and clever, and innocent and honest as any other man, but no more. But if a poor devil came along in the horrors, with every inch of him jumping, and snakes, and green-eyed yahoos, and flaming-nosed bunyips chasing him, we’d take him in and give him soothing draughts, and nurse him, and watch him, and clear him out with purgatives, and keep giving him nips of good whisky, and, above all, we’d sympathize with him, and tell him that we were worse than he was many a time. We wouldn’t tell him what a weak, selfish man he was, or harp on his ruined life. We’d try to make him out a good deal better morally than he really was. It’s remorse that hurries most men to hell—especially in the Bush. When a man firmly believes he is a hopeless case, then there’s no hope for him: but let him have doubts and there’s a chance. Make him believe that there are far worse cases than his. We wouldn’t preach the sin of dissipation to him, no—but we’d try to show him the folly of a wasted life. I ought to be able to preach that, God knows.
“And, above all, we’d try to drive out of his head the cursed old popular idea that it’s hard to reform—that a man’s got to fight a hard battle with himself to get away from drink—pity drunkards can’t believe how easy it is. And we’d put it to him straight whether his few hours’ enjoyment were worth the days he had to suffer hell for it.”
“And, likely as not,” I said, “when you’d put him on his feet he’d take the nearest track to the next shanty, and go on a howling spree, and come back to Lost Souls’ in a week, raving and worse than ever. What would you do then?”
“We’d take him in again, and build him up some more; and a third or fourth time if necessary. I believe in going right on with a thing once I take it in hand. And if he didn’t turn up after the last spree we’d look for him up the scrub and bring him in and let him die on a bed, and make his death as comfortable as possible. I’ve seen one man die on the ground, and found one dead in the bush. We’d bury him under a gum and put ‘Sacred to the Memory of a Man who Died. (Let him R.I.P.)’ over him. I’d have a nice little graveyard, with gums for tombstones—and I’d have some original epitaphs—I promise you.”
“And how much gratitude would you expect to get out of the Lost Souls’ Hotel?” I asked.
“None,” said Mitchell, promptly. “It wouldn’t be a Gratitude Discovery Syndicate. People might say that the Lost Souls’ Hotel was a den for kidnapping women and girls to be used as decoys for the purpose of hocussing and robbing bushmen, and the law and retribution might come after me—but I’d fight the thing out. Or they might want to make a K.C.M.G., or a god of me, and worship me before they hung me. I reckon a philanthropist or reformer is lucky if he escapes with a whole skin in the end, let alone his character—— But there!—— Talking of gratitude: it’s the fear of ingratitude that keeps thousands from doing good. It’s just as paltry and selfish and cowardly as any other fear that curses the world—it’s rather more selfish than most fears, in fact—take the fear of being thought a coward, or being considered eccentric, or conceited, or affected, or too good, or too bad, for instance. The man that’s always canting about the world’s ingratitude has no gratitude owing to him as a rule—generally the reverse—he ought to be grateful to the world for being let live. He broods over the world’s ingratitude until he gets to be a cynic. He sees the world like the outside of a window, as it were, with the blind drawn and the dead, cold moonlight shining on it, and he passes on with a sour face; whereas, if he took the trouble to step inside he’d most likely find a room full of ruddy firelight, and sympathy and cheerfulness, and kindness, and love, and gratitude. Sometimes, when he’s right down on his uppers, and forced to go amongst people and hustle for bread, he gets a lot of surprises at the amount of kindness he keeps running against in the world—and in places where he’d never have expected to find it. But—ah, well! I’m getting maudlin.”
“And you’ve forgot all about the Lost Souls’ Hotel,” I said.
“No, I haven’t,” said Mitchell; “I’d fix that up all right. As soon as I’d got things going smoothly under a man I could trust, I’d tie up every penny I had for the benefit of the concern; get some ‘white men’ for trustees, and take the track again. I’m getting too old to stay long in one place—(I’m a lost soul that always got along better in another place). I’m so used to the track that if I was shut up in a house I’d get walking up and down in my room of nights and disturb the folk; and, besides, I’d feel lost and light-shouldered without the swag.”
“So you’d put all your money in the concern?”
“Yes—except a pound or two to go on the track with—for, who knows, I might come along there, dusty and tired, and ragged and hard up and old, some day, and be very glad of a night’s rest at the Lost Souls’ Hotel. But I wouldn’t let on that I was old Mitchell, the millionaire, who founded Lost Souls’. They might be too officious, and I hate fuss. . . . But it’s time to take the track, Harry.”
There came a cool breeze with sunset; we stood up stiffly, shouldered our swags and tucker-bags, and pushed on, for we had to make the next water before we camped. We were out of tobacco, so we borrowed some from one of the bullock-drivers.
“A dipsomaniac,” said Mitchell, “needs sympathy and commonsense treatment. (Sympathy’s a grand and glorious thing, taking it all round and looking at it any way you will: a little of it makes a man think that the world’s a good world after all, and there’s room and hope for sinners, and that life’s worth living; enough of it makes him sure of it: and an overdose of sympathy makes a man feel weak and ashamed of himself, and so moves him to stop whining—and wining—and buck up.)
“Now, I’m not taking the case of a workman who goes on the spree on pay night and sweats the drink out of himself at work next day, nor a slum-bred brute who guzzles for the love of it; but a man with brains, who drinks to drown his intellect or his memory. He’s generally a man under it all, and a sensitive, generous, gentle man with finer feelings as often as not. The best and cleverest and whitest men in the world seem to take to drink mostly. It’s an awful pity. Perhaps it’s because they’re straight and the world’s crooked and they can see things too plain. And I suppose in the bush the loneliness and the thoughts of the girl-world they left behind help to sink ’em.
“Now a drunkard seldom reforms at home, because he’s always surrounded by the signs of the ruin and misery he has brought on the home; and the sight and thought of it sets him off again before he’s had time to recover from the last spree. Then, again, the noblest wife in the world mostly goes the wrong way to work with a drunken husband—nearly everything she does is calculated to irritate him. If, for instance, he brings a bottle home from the pub, it shows that he wants to stay at home and not go back to the pub any more; but the first thing the wife does is to get hold of the bottle and plant it, or smash it before his eyes, and that maddens him in the state he is in then.
“No. A dipsomaniac needs to be taken away from home for a while. I knew a man that got so bad that the way he acted at home one night frightened him, and next morning he went into an inebriate home of his own accord—to a place where his friends had been trying to get him for a year past. For the first day or two he was nearly dead with remorse and shame—mostly shame; and he didn’t know what they were going to do to him next—and he only wanted them to kill him quick and be done with it. He reckons he felt as bad as if he was in jail. But there were ten other patients there, and one or two were worse than he was, and that comforted him a lot. They compared notes and sympathized and helped each other. They discovered that all their wives were noble women. He struck one or two surprises too—one of the patients was a doctor who’d attended him one time, and another was an old boss of his, and they got very chummy. And there was a man there who was standing for Parliament—he was supposed to be having a rest down the coast. . . . Yes, my old mate felt very bad for the first day or two; it was all Yes, Nurse, and Thank you, Nurse, and Yes, Doctor, and No, Doctor, and Thank you, Doctor. But, inside a week, he was calling the doctor ‘Ol’ Pill-Box’ behind his back, and making love to one of the nurses.
“But he said it was pitiful when women relatives came to visit patients the first morning. It shook the patients up a lot, but I reckon it did ’em good. There were well-bred old lady mothers in black, and hard-working, haggard wives and loving daughters—and the expressions of sympathy and faith and hope in those women’s faces! My old mate said it was enough in itself to make a man swear off drink for ever. . . . Ah, God—what a world it is!
“Reminds me how I once went with the wife of another old mate of mine to see him. He was in a lunatic asylum. It was about the worst hour I ever had in my life, and I’ve had some bad ones. The way she tried to coax him back to his old self. She thought she could do it when all the doctors had failed. But I’ll tell you about him some other time.
“The old mate said that the principal part of the treatment was supposed to be injection of bi-chloride of gold or something, and it was supposed to be a secret. It might have been water and sugar for all he knew, and he thought it was. You see, when patients got better they were allowed out, two by two, on their honour—one to watch the other—and it worked. But it was necessary to have an extra hold on them; so they were told that if they were a minute late for ‘treatment,’ or missed one injection, all the good would be undone. This was dinged into their ears all the time. Same as many things are done in the Catholic religion—to hold the people. My old mate said that, as far as the medical treatment was concerned, he could do all that was necessary himself. But it was the sympathy that counted, especially the sympathy between the patients themselves. They always got hold of a new patient and talked to him and cheered him up; he nearly always came in thinking he was the most miserable wretch in this world.. And it comforts a man and strengthens him and makes him happier to meet another man who’s worse off or sicker, or has been worse swindled than he has been. That’s human nature. . . . And a man will take draughts from a nurse and eat for her when he wouldn’t do it for his own wife—not even though she had been a trained nurse herself. And if a patient took a bad turn in the night at the Boozers’ Home and got up to hunt the snakes out of his room, he wouldn’t be sworn at, or laughed at, or held down; no, they’d help him shoo the snakes out and comfort him. My old mate said that, when he got better, one of the new patients reckoned that he licked St Pathrick at managing snakes. And when he came out he didn’t feel a bit ashamed of his experience. The institution didn’t profess to cure anyone of drink, only to mend up shattered nerves and build up wrecked constitutions; give them back some will-power if they weren’t too far gone. And they set my old mate on his feet all right. When he went in his life seemed lost, he had the horror of being sober, he couldn’t start the day without a drink or do any business without it. He couldn’t live for more than two hours without a drink; but when he came out he didn’t feel as if he wanted it. He reckoned that those six weeks in the institution were the happiest he’d ever spent in his life, and he wished the time had been longer; he says he’d never met with so much sympathy and genius, and humour and human nature under one roof before. And he said it was nice and novel to be looked after and watched and physicked and bossed by a pretty nurse in uniform—but I don’t suppose he told his wife that. And when he came out he never took the trouble to hide the fact that he’d been in. If any of his friends had a drunkard in the family, he’d recommend the institution and do his best to get him into it. But when he came out he firmly believed that if he took one drink he’d be a lost man. He made a mania of that. One curious effect was that, for some time after he left the institution, he’d sometimes feel suddenly in high spirits—with nothing to account for it—something like he used to feel when he had half a dozen whiskies in him; then suddenly he’d feel depressed and sort of hopeless—with nothing to account for that either—just as if he was suffering a recovery. But those moods never lasted long and he soon grew out of them altogether. He didn’t flee temptation. He’d knock round the pubs on Saturday nights with his old mates, but never drank anything but soft stuff—he was always careful to smell his glass for fear of an accident or trick. He drank gallons of ginger beer, milk-and-soda, and lemonade; and he got very fond of sweets, too—he’d never liked them before. He said he enjoyed the novelty of the whole thing and his mates amused him at first; but he found he had to leave them early in the evening, and, after a while, he dropped them altogether. They seemed such fools when they were drunk (they’d never seemed fools to him before). And, besides, as they got full, they’d get suspicious of him, and then mad at him, because he couldn’t see things as they could. That reminds me that it nearly breaks a man’s heart when his old drinking chum turns teetotaller—it’s worse than if he got married or died. When two mates meet and one is drunk and the other sober there is only one of two things for them to do if they want to hit it together—either the drunken mate must get sober or the sober mate drunk. And that reminds me: Take the case of two old mates who’ve been together all their lives, say they always had their regular sprees together and went through the same stages of drunkenness together, and suffered their recoveries and sobered up together, and each could stand about the same quantity of drink and one never got drunker than the other. Each, when he’s boozing, reckons his mate the cleverest man and the hardest case in the world—second to himself. But one day it happens, by a most extraordinary combination of circumstances, that Bill, being sober, meets Jim very drunk, and pretty soon Bill is the most disgusted man in this world. He never would have dreamed that his old mate could make such a fool and such a public spectacle of himself. And Bill’s disgust intensifies all the time he is helping Jim home, and Jim arguing with him and wanting to fight him, and slobbering over him and wanting to love him by turns, until Bill swears he’ll give Jim a hammering as soon as ever he’s able to stand steady on his feet.”
“I suppose your old boozing mate’s wife was very happy when he reformed,” I said to Mitchell.
“Well, no,” said Mitchell, rubbing his head rather ruefully. “I suppose it was an exceptional case. But I knew her well, and the fact is that she got more discontented and thinner, and complained and nagged him worse than she’d ever done in his drinking days. And she’d never been afraid of him. Perhaps it was this way: She loved and married a careless, good-natured, drinking scamp, and when he reformed and became a careful, hard-working man, and an honest and respected fellow-townsman, she was disappointed in him. He wasn’t the man that won her heart when she was a girl. Or maybe he was only company for her when he was half drunk. Or maybe lots of things. Perhaps he’d killed the love in her before he reformed—and reformed too late. I wonder how a man feels when he finds out for the first time that his wife doesn’t love him any longer? But my old mate wasn’t the nature to find out that sort of thing. Ah, well! If a woman caused all our trouble, my God! women have suffered for it since—and they suffer like martyrs mostly and with the patience of working bullocks. Anyway it goes, if I’m the last man in the world, and the last woman is the worst, and there’s only room for one more in Heaven, I’ll step down at once and take my chances in Blazes.”
It was Mitchell’s habit to take an evening off now and then from yarning or reflecting, and proceed, in a most methodical manner, to wash his spare shirts and patch his pants. I was in the habit of contributing to some Sydney papers, and every man is an editor at heart, so, at other times, Mitchell would take another evening off, and root out my swag, and go through my papers in the same methodical manner, and make alterations and additions without comment or reference to me; and sometimes he’d read a little thing of my own which didn’t meet his views, and accidentally drop it into the fire; and at other times he’d get hold of some rhyme or sketch that was troubling me, and wrap it up and give it to a passing mailman unbeknown to me. The unexpected appearance of such articles in the paper, as well as the effects of the involuntary collaboration in other pieces, gave me several big surprises.
It was in camp on a fencing contract west of Bourke. We had a book which we’d borrowed from a library at Bourke for a year or two—never mind the name of it—it was in ninety-one or ninety-two, and the sex problem was booming then.
I had been surreptitiously tearing some carefully-written slips of manuscript—leaves taken from an old pocket-book—into small pieces; I dropped them, with apparent carelessness, into the fire and stood with my back to it.
“I’ll bet five pounds,” said Mitchell, suddenly, “that you’ve been trying your hand on a sex-problem story.”
I shifted uneasily and brought my hands from behind me into my pockets. “Well, to tell you the truth,” I admitted, “I have.”
“I thought so,” exclaimed Mitchell. “We’ll be put to the expense of sending you to Sydney for medical treatment yet. You’ve been having too easy times lately, plenty of hard graft and no anxiety about tucker or the future. What are the symptoms?”
“Well,” I said, taking a hand out to scratch the back of my head, “the plot looked all right—at first sight.”
“So there’s a plot, is there? Well, in the first place, a plot is a problem. Well, what’s the plot? . . . Come on, you needn’t be frightened to tell an old mate like me.”
“Well,” I said, “the yarn looked all right at first sight; that article of ‘T’s’ in the Bulletin turned me off it; listen and see what you think of it: There was a young fellow, a bit of a genius ”
“Just so, it’s the geniuses that build the sex problems. It’s an autobiography. Go on.”
“Well, he married a girl.”
Mitchell (sotto voce): “God help her.”
“He loved her, and she loved him: but after they’d been married a while he found out that, although he understood her, she didn’t and couldn’t possibly ever understand him.”
“Yes,” commented Mitchell, “and if he hadn’t caught the sex problem, nor been reading about it, he would never have found that out.”
“It was a terrible disappointment,” I continued—I had got into the habit of taking Mitchell’s interruptions and comments as matters of course—“He saw that his life would be a hell with her——”
Mitchell: “Didn’t strike him that her life would be a hell with him?”
“They had no thought in common.”
Mitchell: “She was in her right mind then.”
“But he couldn’t leave her because he loved her, and because he knew that she loved him and would break her heart if he left her.”
“Must have been a pretty cocksure sort of a fellow,” remarked Mitchell, “but all geniuses are.”
“When he was with her he saw all her obstinacy, unreason, and selfishness; but when he was away he only saw her good points.”
Mitchell: “Pity such men don’t stop away.”
“He thought and thought, and brooded over it till his life was a hell——”
Mitchell: “Jes-so: thanks to the problemaniacs.”
“He thought of killing her and himself, and so taking her with him——”
“Where?” asked Mitchell. “He must have loved her a lot. . . . Good Lord! That shows the awful effects of the sex problem on the mind of a healthy young man like you;” and Mitchell stood up.
“He lay awake by her side at nights thinking and fighting the thing out.”
“And you’ve been lying awake, thinking, with me and ‘the Oracle’ by your side. We’ll have to plant the tommy-hawk, and watch you by turns at night till you get over this.”
“One night he rested on his elbow, and watched her sleeping, and tried to reconstruct his ideal out of her, and, just when he was getting into a happier frame of mind, her mouth fell open, and she snored. . . . I didn’t get any further than the snore,” I said.
“No, of course you didn’t,” said Mitchell, “and none of the sex problemers ever will—unless they get as far as ‘blanky.’ You might have made the snore cure him; did it?”
“No, it was making things worse in my idea of the yarn. He fell back and lay staring at the ceiling in a hopeless kind of a way.”
“Then he was a fit case for the lunatic asylum. . . . Now, look here, Harry, you’re a good-natured, soft old fool when you’re in your right mind; just you go on being a good-natured, soft old fool, and don’t try to make a problem out of yourself or anybody else, or you’ll come to a bad end. A pocket-book’s to keep your accounts in, not to take notes in (you take them in your head and use ’em in your arms), not to write sex-problem rot in—that’s spoilt many a good pocket-book, and many a good man. You’ve got a girl you’re talking about going back to as soon as we’ve finished this contract. Don’t you make a problem of her; make a happy wife and mother of her. . . . I was very clever when I was young”—and here Mitchell’s voice took a tinge of bitterness, or sadness. “I used to make problems out of things. . . . I ain’t much to boast of now. . . . Seems to me that a good many men want to make angels of their wives without first taking trouble of making saints of themselves. We want to make women’s ways our ways—it would be just as fair to make our ways theirs. Some men want to be considered gods in their own homes; you’ll generally find that sort of men very small potatoes outside; if they weren’t they wouldn’t bother so much about being cocks on their own little dunghills. . . . And again, old mates seldom quarrel, because they understand each other’s moods. Now, if you went brooding round for any length of time I’d say to you. ‘Now then, Harry, what have I been doing to you? Spit it out, old man.’ And you’d do the same by me; but how many men would take even that much trouble with their wives?”
A breeze stirred the mulga and brought the sound of a good voice singing in the surveyors’ camp
‘Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to min’?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And the days of Auld Lang Syne?’
“That damned old tune will upset the Oracle for the rest of the night,” I said.
“Now, there’s the Oracle,” said Mitchell. “He was wronged by a woman as few men are wronged; his life was ruined—but he isn’t the man to take any stock in sex problems on account of her. He thinks he’s great on problems, but he isn’t. It all amounts to this—that he’s sorry for most men and all women and tries to act up to it to the best of his ability; and if he ain’t a Christian, God knows what is—I don’t. No matter what a woman does to you, or what you think she does to you, there come times, sooner or later, when you feel sorry for her—deep down in your heart—that is if you’re a man. And, no matter what action or course you might take against her, and no matter how right or justified you might seem in doing it, there comes a time when, deep down in your heart, you feel mean and doubtful about your own part. You can take that as a general thing as regards men against women, and man against man, I think. And I believe that deep-down feeling of being doubtful, or mean, or sorry, that comes afterwards, when you are cooler and know more about the world, is a right and natural thing, and we ought to act more in accordance with it.”
Came the refrain from the surveyors’ camp:
‘We twa hae run about the braes,
An’ pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wandered mony a weary foot
Sin’ Auld Lang Syne.’
“We feel sorry for our quarrels with our worst enemy when we see him lying still and quiet—dead. Why can’t we try and feel a bit sorry beforehand?”
Auld Lang Syne.
We twa ha’ padl’t i’ the burn,
Fra mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid ha’ roar’d
Sin’ Auld Lang Syne.’
“I used to feel blazing bitter against things one time but it never hurt anybody but myself in the end. I argued and quarrelled with a girl once—and made a problem of the thing and went away. She’s married to a brute now, and I’m what I am. I made a problem of a good home or the world once, and went against the last man in God’s world that I should have gone against, and turned my back on his hand, and left him. His hand was very cold the next time I took it in mine. We don’t want problems to make us more bitter against the world than we get sometimes.”
‘And here’s a han’ my trusty frien’,
An’ gie’s a han’ o’ thine,
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne.’
“And that song’s the answer of all problems,” said Mitchell.
* * * * * * * * *
But it was I who lay awake and thought that night.
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