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Title: Knocking Round Author: J Le Gay Brereton * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402861h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2014 Most recent update: November 2014 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat 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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TO MY WIFE AND MY COBBER
Acknowledgment for matter reprinted in this book is hereby made to Art in Australia, The Australasian, Australia Beautiful, The Australian Magazine, The Booklover, The Commonwealth Annual, Hermes, The Lone Hand, and The Sydney Morning Herald.
RECOLLECTIONS OF A FEW
They travel on; and weary pain
Attends our lagging feet:
Yet somewhere is the glittering plain'
Where all the poets meet.
O, at the Mermaid, long ago,
The wine and wit were good!
Yet here as well the passing jest
And learned saw were of the best,
And very sweet and free the flow
Of crimson brotherhood.
To you the man we mourn may be
Australia's friendly voice renowned:
But more than this he is to me—
The mate with whom I knocked around.
Some corner grant where I may dwell
Away from haunts of erudition,
And leave to bubble in their hell
The alderman and politician.
With wine of love and bread of truth
I face the winding way
And, dowered with everlasting youth,
Through bush and city stray,
And hope the far receding goal
May never cease to lure my soul.
I wander with you once again
Across the hoary Tiers,
Or loaf beside the ripened grain
And rob the rustling ears;
I wonder if you yet have found
Where all the spheres are ringing,
As on you pass, a sweeter sound
Than Dolly Plunkett singing.
HENRY LAWSON'S GHOST
My comrade of the street defies
Poor Death's repeated boast;
In every bar I meet the eyes
Of Henry Lawson's ghost.
A flash upon the sudden click,
And, where the mind was dark before,
Upon the film of memory stick
The lights and shadows evermore.
OFF HIS BEAT
From what queer varied worlds emerge,
Timid, indifferent, dull or brave.
Our souls, that wander to a verge
Unknown and vanish in the grave?
FROM THE BUSH
With will implacable as fate's
Where droughty silence drops a blight,
The bush, expectant, grimly waits
For what we know not, day and night.
If all our dream-girls wait afar
With heavenly gifts of love,
That's just the reason why there are
No marriages above.
When I observe how very neat
The trees are, ranked along the street,
I turn with pleasure, I confess,
To God's supreme untidiness.
Behold in these (the brute and man,
One friendly, one the mortal foe
Of love and beauty where they grow)
The good and bad Australian.
THE KING OF THE CATS
There is grief in the harem; the monarch is dead;
But my boots are at rest by the side of the bed,
For the wailing has ceased, and the cries of delight
No longer will shatter the peace of the night.
Though kicks be painful, I advise, instead,
The prudent mortal to attack the head.
Keep still to rearward, or expect the worst—
The motto of to-day is "Safety First!"
My father was a poet and a friend of poets, but his time was so fully occupied by his duties as a physician and as the leader of the Swedenborgian church in Sydney that, as a small boy, I never thought of him except as a beneficent but seldom-seen angel who wore a pith helmet and went to the Turkish bath for refreshment. He was broadly-built, and I recollect a happy evening when he crawled about the floor, a realistic elephant, with one or two of us on his back. His kind blue eyes and his great fair beard were a joy to the heart of many an ailing child, and his presence must often have done even more good than medicine.
It was his friendship with poets that accounted for my only interview with the most distinguished Australian writer of his time. I was playing solitarily in the paved courtyard in front of our home in Richmond Terrace, when a rather haggard man, whose trousers seemed to flap about his legs, came in from the Domain. After a moment's hesitation he approached me and said, "I suppose you'd like a penny." I supposed so too, and answered accordingly. He regarded me with deep melancholy, shook his head, exclaimed, "I wish I had one to give you," and walked up the steps to the front door. Disappointment impressed upon my memory that simple conversation with Henry Kendall.
Another versifier, whom I remember well, used to come—a few years later I suppose—to read his lines to my father and consult him as to their merit. If my father found fault with the metre, this poet controverted the objection by triumphantly counting the syllables on his fingers. Once he brought a political epigram, which he repeated magnificently:—
Better that in cold obstruction Old obstructionists should lie And our veins be filled with new blood Running deep and running high.
"Better than what?" asked my father with polite interest. The question was evidently unexpected and disconcerting.
Probably the first poet in whom I took a warm personal interest was Dowell O'Reilly, who, when I made his acquaintance, was teaching the boys in his mother's school at Parramatta. He sought me out, at a school cadet camp, because he had read stray verses of mine which engaged his sympathy, and we formed an immediate friendship. My home was at Gladesville, and more than once I walked up to Parramatta—eight miles—in the evening, talked with Dowell till nearly morning, and then walked home again; such was the charm of his companionship. He did not sleep under the same roof with the rest of the family but in what had been a fowl-house, though, when I knew it, it had been converted into very comfortable quarters. The window opened upon the interior of a large cage, occupied by pigeons, and sometimes Dowell would throw a handful of wheat on his floor for the birds. They were friendly and picturesque, though not as fastidiously careful of their manners as they might have been.
Dowell O'Reilly was an athletic young fellow in those days, an enthusiastic cricketer, a lieutenant in a volunteer regiment, and a fellow of happy disposition. He had vast ambitions and fiery enthusiasm and a great heart. Humorous and quick-witted and glib-tongued, he soon developed into a public speaker whom nobody could hear without appreciation, so that he naturally chose politics as the quickest and most effective way of using his talents for the public benefit. By way of introducing himself to what was to be his constituency he delivered a lecture in Parramatta on "The French Revolution." The town crier had made a slight mistake, and had publicly announced that the subject of the address was to be "French Revelations," and consequently the size of Dowell's audience was amazing; nevertheless, his oratory gave them no opportunity to feel regret. But in the political sphere, as elsewhere, though he had some success he met with many disappointments, his ardency was dimmed, and his faith in human nature tarnished. He seemed to have no firm anchorage, but was tossed on the surface of theories and events. Still, he retained to the end much of his old impulsiveness, his power of affection, his eagerness to acknowledge merit, and his pathetic belief in his ability to summarize the characters of his friends and enemies. As a protection against the shafts and poison-gas of the Philistine, he kept his armour of bright humour and his mask of whimsical irony. His face was wonderfully expressive, and, even when he did not seize advantage for a quip, his lifted brows and laughing eyes were eloquent. I remember well his extraordinary look of dismay and astonishment and delight when a poet, for whom we both had an affection, said solemnly and sonorously, "I am very fond of birds, myself. I never allow my boys to shoot them within half a mile of the house."
As the editor of the Sydney University undergraduates' journal, Hermes, I received, one afternoon, a song, with musical accompaniment, printed on yellow paper; and I think there was an anonymous note, begging for a review. Blankly ignorant of music, I published a notice in which I gave my sufficiently favourable opinion of the verses, and almost ignored the accompaniment. That led to an acquaintance with the author of the lyric, a rallying song for "The men of the New Australia." She was Miss M. J. Cameron, now better known to Australia as Mary Gilmore, and she had sent the sulphur-tinted publication merely to secure some encouragement for the young collaborating composer. She was not a student of the University, but she had a room in a terrace opposite the main building, and there I would meet her sometimes in the evening. Her alert manner and abrupt speech went well with an active and original mind which gave a wonderful interest to her talk. When she had endured my conversation longer than politeness demanded, she would turn me out without ceremony, and, I hope, slept the better for her weariness. One night she took me wandering over districts that were strange to me, and we called at the house of the burly, kind-hearted John Farrell, ex-brewer, poet, staunch single-taxer, and able journalist. As I mention elsewhere, it was she who introduced me to Henry Lawson, and then tactfully waved us into the street while the night was yet young. Of all the women I know, there is none who better understands the nature of men than the greatly sympathetic poet of The Passionate Heart. It is pleasant to recall that recently she introduced me to another poet—Shaw Neilson, who combines hard manual labour and the delicate handling of felicitous rhythms—and that she repeated her old tactics.
Lawson and I used to wander into all sorts of queer corners and neglected backwaters in Sydney and he pointed out to me the localities which he fancifully associated with the scenes described by the one novelist with whose work he was fairly familiar—Charles Dickens. He was never a great reader, and, at the height of his powers, devoted more of his time to the perusal of Deadwood Dick's adventures than to anything that could be called literature. I remember his borrowing only one book from me in all the years of our friendship; it was Barrack Room Ballads. His knowledge of Edgar Poe and Bret Harte, he told me, came from his mother, who used to read aloud to her family.
Looking back over the crowded years in which Lawson's reputation spread and strengthened until, at his death, he was deemed worthy of a public funeral, and thereafter was recognized throughout our continent, and even in Europe, as the most typically Australian of our literary figures, I am glad to remember that, from the day when I read one of his earliest contributions to the Bulletin, I knew his worth—I hope without the exaggeration which is habitual with some of his later admirers—and was the first to give a lecture on his work and possibly the first to publish an article in recognition of his pre-eminence. When the article was written, he had not yet published a book; the lecture was delivered in hope of increasing the sales of his then forthcoming volume, In the Days when the World was Wide. He and I together selected and revised the poems for that volume, and I still perceive, with some annoyance, my own handiwork in a passage where neither of us could find the exact word and he insisted on adopting my desperate suggestion instead of recasting the line.
He used to compose his poems gradually, without setting them down upon paper. Shut in from outward disturbance by his deafness, he would walk along, with that intense look of his, fitting his words to the chosen metre. Sometimes he would say, "Here's a bit of a piece I have in mind;" and then, with an almost mechanical insistence on the metrical beat, he would recite a few lines. He could store the stanzas in his head without trouble. The trouble came with the writing.
Though Lawson had a childlike instinct for strongly-marked metres, he had no feeling whatever for subtleties of rhythm. He took up a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass one day, and glanced piercingly at a few pages. "I can't make anything out of that," he complained; "the lines don't seem to match. Look at this now! It begins all right—'To get betimes in Boston Town, I rose this morning early,' but the next line ought to be, 'Tum tumty tumty tumty tum amang the rigs o' barley,' or something like that." In one poem of his I thought I detected signs of a greater delicacy of ear. It was an early piece, describing the dream of a mother whose little girl had been drowned, and its refrain was the call of the phantom child—.
"Come, mamma! come!
Quick! follow me!
Step out on the leaves of the water-lily!"
The use of the unaccented syllable for the rhyme has the kind of beauty that Rossetti often obtained by similar means. I asked Lawson how he came to use such a rhyme. He was apologetic. He should have made it clear, he explained, that he was imitating a child's way of stressing the word—"putting all the weight on the last syllable."
One afternoon, in the dim parlour at McGrath's, Lawson introduced me to his friend Roderic Quinn, who sat and ruminated and said little, though the glint of his beaming eyes showed how humorously observant he was; and I dare say there was a good deal in both of us to amuse him. Rod and I have never seen much of each other, but enough for mutual good-will. His best poetry, I suspect, is better than he knows. Often his truest images seem to mean less to him than to an imaginative reader. Chris Brennan once objected to the last line but one in "The Hidden Tide," because the moon that shines therein is so much more than "the full moon of peace;" the words "of peace" set a false limit. Again, in "The Red-tressed Maiden," Quinn is so extraordinarily anxious to indicate that his ancient but ever-youthful girl is fire, that he seems to forget that fire is a primeval symbol of creative, vital and purifying love—the grace and wrath of God; but, because his imagery is beautifully true, one can dream over his comforting fire and divine meaning beyond meaning.
I met Brennan first in the quadrangle of the University of Sydney, in the year in which he took his Bachelor's degree and I entered as a freshman. Jack Peden introduced us. The common-room was still humming with stories of Brennan's pranks as an undergrad, and he had set a standard for raggedness of gown and dilapidation of trencher cap—the ne plus ultra of academic fashion. A travelling scholarship took him to Germany, and several years had passed when I met him again. Then began a close friendship, which I hope nothing can break, though in substantial results it has been entirely onesided: he has had nothing to gain from me, whereas intercourse with him is a perennial education. The extent and thoroughness of his learning reduces fine scholars to a humble docility. His thought ranges everywhere, deeply penetrating. All essentially human qualities are developed in him and combined in a most impressive unity. It would be grossly unjust to view him from only one angle. He is so comprehensive, his nature so spacious, that in him contraries meet and are reconciled. Those who are baffled and lost in the mosses of the borderland are apt to disbelieve in the rich region that spreads beyond. People who have only heard him boom and laugh have little conception of the intimate secrets of his nature—his sensitiveness, his tenderness and spiritual delicacy. Finding his attitude defiant or evasive, they are unable to realize that this is the protective guise of shyness. He is a turbulent sea concealing its lucid deep. He hides often behind his scholarship, for always he is ready to impart knowledge, to open the treasury of his mind to anybody who is interested; and nobody who listens can fail to be interested. His poetry is of the kind that gains 'more and more appreciation with the lapse of time—as people catch up with it, one might say. After a hundred years, when most of us have been forgotten, his honoured name will be familiar. His is not a poetry of occasional felicities and lucky shots. Every line is firmly moulded and genuinely poetic. Have a look at the cluster of his poems in Percival Serle's Australasian Anthology, and notice how thin, how pale and diffuse, the verses contributed by many other Australian writers suddenly appear by contrast. His poetic quality is essential.
Among all the poets who have attended our University of Sydney as students, Brennan easily takes first place, though there are several who have striking merits. Dowell O'Reilly, for example, and L. H. Allen, and H. M. Green. A poet cannot be made, but literary talent can be fostered and the evidence is clear enough that young poets are not daunted by the academic discipline of Sydney, but that people who are interested in the development of Australian literature should be grateful to an institution where literary gifts are recognized and encouraged.
Among the younger poets who are now gaining recognition, there are two university men who seem to me to show remarkable promise. One is R. D. FitzGerald, in whom joy gushes up with the force and constancy of an artesian spring and expresses itself with spontaneous power. The other is Raymond McGrath, who handles words with an artist's instinctive feeling for sound and colour values; for McGrath is a pictorial artist and an architect as well as a poet.
I diffidently bask in a little reflected glory from FitzGerald, inasmuch as I happen to be his uncle. At first, I thought, his parents seemed inclined to discourage his uncommercial talent. I suspect that this was because they had a kinsman who wrote verse and had Bohemian friends, and could easily have been regarded as an awful example. But the superstition that a poet is necessarily an unpractical idler has long been exploded, even in Australia. FitzGerald is an able surveyor.
McGrath and I have been friends ever since he was good enough to show me some of his verses in the first year of his university course and to listen without impatience to my criticisms.
Victor Daley, whose ideas became so naturally incarnate in lovely imagery that he seemed to be able to write poetry on demand, was the centre of a group of which I was not a member. With him I was never intimate until he was dying at Killara, though I saw him occasionally in happier days. I think the first occasion was when he was beating up a party for a merrymaking on a visiting yacht; when Bertram Stevens mentioned my name, he tried to include me among the revellers. I pleaded a strict engagement. "Break it," he commanded. I told him I had no desire to break it. "With whom is it," he asked, "a man or a woman?" "A woman, of course." "Then you can be no true Bohemian," he cried theatrically, "for no woman on earth is worthy of such a sacrifice as this." I recalled his words, at a later meeting, on hearing him say, with melancholy intonation, "I must give up Bohemianism; it makes too many demands on a fellow." That is the danger, no doubt, when Bohemia becomes an -ism and its traditions are fossilized to Draconic law. The Bohemianist is atrociously conventional, and, for the sake of strict conformity, he may even find inebriety forced upon him by his conscience and may regard frowsiness as a virtue. Daley was fastidious, and he shrank from any such rigid code of morals.
Looking far back, I see myself as a curious kid gazing at a boy named Bartie Paterson. He took no notice of me. He had been shooting pelicans on the Parramatta River, a sport that seems somehow to have fallen into disuse. When I was a schoolboy and he was a man, we lived in the same suburb. He and some other bachelors had an establishment of their own at Gladesville, when he first thought of attempting verse. He had been reading the poems of Gordon and of Cholmondeley Pennell, and believed that he could compose ballads, with a swinging metre in harmony with a rushing action, at least as well as they. Knowing that I was already a writer of verse, he asked me if I would collaborate with him. I was astonished, for that kind of verse was scarcely in my line; and the idea of collaboration was promptly dropped. Soon afterwards some of Banjo's most successful ballads were appearing in the Bulletin.
There are many other things I could tell you of my meetings with poets. For example I might describe how I entered the apparently deserted library of the Supreme Court in Melbourne, and, noticing a stream of grey smoke floating upward from behind a desk, peeped round the barricade and found a poet whose eyes appeared now and then to be covered with a filmy dreaminess from behind which he looked mystically into infinity—that was Bernard O'Dowd. Or I might tell you of the shy idealist, dark-bearded and earnest-eyed, who has somehow been absorbed into the later personality of Arthur Adams. And how many others there are! the exuberant Hugh McCrae, who discovered an unexpected fauna in the Australian bush, was photographed as a smooth-skinned Pan playing his pipes in the shrubbery, and finds himself surrounded by a poetic progeny of skipping fauns; Zora Cross who achieved her reputation by an extraordinary intensity, and added to it by writing the finest of Australian elegies; Arthur Bayldon who astonished the Bushmen by swimming miraculously in inland tanks, while his limbs were trussed, and whose courage and exaltation of spirit give worth to the books for which he secured a sufficient sale by personal canvassing; McKee Wright, who read his delicately-moulded quantitative verse with a voice that passed over the rhythm soothingly, as a soft hand over the curves of a cat; and Dora Wilcox, Dorothea Mackellar, Furnley Maurice, H. M. Green, L. H. Allen, Arthur Maquarie and the rest! But enough for the present.
I have recalled a few personalities and incidents that have interested me, and my only excuse is a hope that somebody else may also be interested.
If you believe the often-repeated sneer that artists are jealous, quarrelsome creatures who are easily excited to petty malice against each other, let me assure you that that is not my experience. It is certainly not true of those artists for whom words and phrases are the materials of creation. As I think of the poets whom I know and have known and of my relations with them, the air about me grows bright and warm with friendliness.
(Inaugural Address to the Sydney University Literary Society)
That I-a lecturer whose talk so many of you are forced to endure at painfully regular intervals—should be asked to address you now is a proof of extraordinary kindness on your part, or of extraordinary cruelty; I am not sure which. You are compelled to attend my lectures. Is it from a stern sense of justice that you compel me now to maunder at an unaccustomed hour? But really I am as much the victim of fate as you. Still, I believe in compulsory lectures, because they bring together, in impressive surroundings, a number of young enthusiasts of similar tastes and aspirations. And no young people are more likely to gain enormous benefit from this enforced companionship than those who delight in literature and aim at literary expression. Nothing clarifies thought more than the effort to communicate it; nothing expands and corrects it more effectively than free discussion. And if you desire your literary purpose to be clear and precise—to move directly to its goal instead of wavering uncertainly towards it—nothing will help you more than the necessity of exercising your critical faculty on the work of others. At first you will find your own work so near that it will not be easy to focus a critical eye on it; you will be too ready to offer yourself explanations and excuses. You will not find it easy to stand off and take an impartial view, and your personal interest will possibly blur your judgment. But when you are accustomed to taking the critical attitude towards your friends' attempts, you will very soon be able to join with the others in detecting the genuine merits and defects of your own.
Hitherto there has been no attempt, at this University, to organize the literary group for that mutual criticism which is the most effective form of mutual help. At all times academic birds of the literary feather must have found comfort and encouragement in each other's company; and, as the students increased in number, the need of a Literary Society became more imperative. You have recognized the call and have answered to it. The result of your organization, it may be hoped, will not be overlooked in future histories of Australian literature.
We had nothing to hold us together in the old days, except our magazine Hermes. There was no Union building, and our common-room was a bleak place, furnished with cane-seated benches and sawdust-bedded spittoons. Hermes was not the organ of the Undergraduates' Association, but the private property of the editors. Just before I came to the University, the men who were working most actively for the struggling journal were Dick Windeyer, H. R. Curlewis, Leslie Curnow, Jim Pickburn, Vallack and Chris Brennan. On turning up the file in the Fisher, I get the impression of an academic fashion—a mixture of assumed seriousness and extreme flippancy. The most consistently flippant of the group seems to have been Brennan, the most purposely earnest was Windeyer; Curlewis held the balance by being seriously humorous. When I arrived, Pickburn was still an undergraduate, and during my course and for a while afterwards he and I conducted Hermes. There were others on the staff, but, as always happens, the work fell on the small minority. He supplied the brilliance and I suffered the anxieties and heavy yoke of copy-collecting. He was the only colleague in whom I had trust—the only one in whom I recognized a genuine literary talent; and his high enjoyment of the immediate present and facile methods of making the most of the moment prevented him from developing his gifts. He knew no discipline. He was wayward and exuberant, an able speaker, an accomplished parodist; and one always felt—this particular one always felt—that he was squandering mental treasure. His admiration of heroic sacrifice and his sympathy with the oppressed made him an almost fanatical lover of William Morris. Honours students may be interested in his translation of "The Battle with Grendle's Mother" into the verse of Sigurd the Volsung; it was issued on 23 May, 1892. But he shone chiefly as a writer of light, brisk prose and of hilarious verse. When an irreproachably attired Englishman filled for one year the chair of the mathematical professor, it was Pickburn who put into his mouth the Swinburnian chant beginning—
Lo, I am a man
Most faultless of raiment
I am he that began,
When Gurney away went,
To lecture on high mathematics in Sydney for similar payment.
It was he, too, who produced an excellent drinking-song, of which I recall the opening lines—
Or ever we sever and part
I must drown the dull care of my heart;
All you who think with me, come here and drink with me,
Drink, ere we sever and part.
The evening students of those days were in evil case, and we day men knew nothing of them and never thought of them. The Union has made a difference since then. I doubt if Dowell O'Reilly wrote anything for Hermes while he was attending evening lectures, but I had made friends with him elsewhere, and soon he was quite a constant contributor. When the paper was issued three times a term, and the proprietors had to disguise their multifarious contributions by anonymity and a variety of pseudonyms, a constant contributor was like an angel with manna. He began at the end of 1891 with a story galled "A Theosophical Romance" and a revised version of one of his brief but much-polished lyrics—"The Loves of the Rivers." Later he contributed a metrical serial, "The Rime of a Hairpin," in six Fyttes, characteristically fantastic and satirical. But his most memorable contribution was a delicately beautiful poem, "The Sea Maiden," as light and lovely as foam itself. This we printed on 17 October 1893. He was always at his best when a seawind blew his verses into shape.
You must understand that we young University writers were not and could not be closely associated. Even Pickburn I should not have seen with any frequency, after he became a law student, had we not both been active members of that excellent body, the Dramatic Society; and the best of our helpers were no longer at the University.
Among those of our contributors who have since gained some celebrity as men of letters was Brennan. He had ceased to be the perpetrator of high spirited jokes and nonsensical paragraphs. His first published poem was a sonnet which appeared in Hermes on 6 November, 1891, after his departure for Europe with a scholarship, and it expresses very plainly the austere courage of an intellectual adventurer:—
Farewell, the pleasant harbourage of faith,
The calm repose 'neath sunny skies and bright—
Or was it darkness, vainly thought the light,
And all we worshipped but a fleeting wraith?
Me from that haven, with vexation fraught,
Doubt drives to wander: in adventurous bark
I follow e'er, 'neath lowering skies and dark,
O'er gulphs of gloom and misty seas of thought
Upon their oar-blades' vanished track, who sped
To greet the rising sun, if sun there be.
Yet never unto them that light was shown,
Nor ever, since these mingled with the dead,
Hath sun arisen on that shoreless sea,
Nor man won way into the vast Unknown.
This was, I believe, Brennan's first attempt at poetry, and if it has not the strong individual note of his collected verses, it has the advantage of being universally intelligible. The following number contained a sonnet in reply, laboriously compiled by some theological students at St Paul's, who thought that a skiff that had been driven from the shores of Roman Catholicism might be lured from dim horizons to the safety of an Anglican roadstead.
All that we can reasonably hope, Brennan once said to me, is that we may survive, by virtue of one or two pieces printed and reprinted in anthologies. He and Dowell are sure of that measure of immortality, if of no more. But the worst of the unencouraged University littérateur is that he is apt to allow his ambitions to be swamped by the waves of worldly interest, or to abandon his pilgrimage for the sake of some more alluring quest. I can think of many a man whose promise thus remains unfulfilled. And sometimes a cruel destiny cuts the branch that might have grown full straight.
There was a very interesting group just before the war. You will see the names of a couple of them in the Oxford Book of Australasian Verse. In that volume you may read the sonnet in which Duncan Hall tells how he feels the majesty of Night and hears "The shudder of her plumes among the pines." But Duncan is more widely known for his comprehensive book on The British Commonwealth of Nations—work of a kind which begins to grow obsolete almost before it is completed—and at present he is in Geneva, preparing, for the League of Nations, reports on the drug-traffic. He has rightly followed the most insistent call.
Of that same group was Roderick Kidston who then listened to the voice of Oine.
In a land of many waters, by a sun-forsaken
Oine, fairest of the siren daughters, gave her heart to me;
And her voice was low and tender, and her tresses floated free,
But her eyes in magic splendour mocked the foaming-crested sea.
His poems were sometimes thin in substance but always had a sufficiency of poetic meaning, and he was a master of melodious rhyme and rhythm. Perhaps he attained a limited perfection too early and despaired of further triumph. He sits now in the unfertile dust of the law.
An intimate comrade of his was the brilliant young wit, Adrian Consett Stephen, who bade fair to be a dramatist of distinction. But then came the war, and darkness.
I have not forgotten another notable group—that which included Leslie Holdsworth Allen and Henry Mackenzie Green. The University Librarian knows more about it than I.
What I wish to emphasize is that all of those young literary entrants of the past would have profited by such an association as you have happily founded, and that Australian literature would have gained appreciably.
And outside the University, too, there is no association that will provide for writers and other artists the kind of social intercourse which would give incentives to the original worker. What we want, I suppose, is a place where we can go when we please with a sure and certain hope of meeting congenial spirits, and where we can talk and listen as we please, on the topics that we find of common interest.
There is a Junior Literary Society, of course. It admits young writers "provided they are over sixteen years," but I've not been told at what age the membership must cease, nor the degree of youthfulness which disqualifies one for enrolment. I am not feeling old, myself, but I doubt if they would admit me, after finding out that I was writing for the press in the eighties. Mrs Curlewis ("Ethel Turner") is the president, but, as her books prove, she is eternally young. As long as you are no older than she, the Junior Literary Society should attract you. It provides a springboard for diving into journalism of the more literary kind, and encourages an enthusiasm for artistic effort. I hope that it may presently supply your own society with annual recruits.
The Women Writers have their own organization, but what they do no man may dare to guess. And there is a Fellowship of Australian Writers, which gathers once a month in a noisy room to hear discussions and lectures, but has no premises of its own.
Casting an eye over the last thirty years, or thereabouts, I see the phantoms of several little clubs in Sydney—regular gatherings of men who took a special interest in literature or included it in their devotion to art at large.
One of these was the Dawn and Dusk Club which clustered about that lover of smooth verse and beautiful images, Victor Daley. I'm not sure that it was bound by any severe regulations, or that its meetings were more notable for intellectual communion than for conviviality; but it was satirically stated that it derived its name from its practice of meeting at dusk and parting at dawn. Had I been a member, no doubt I should be able now to rebut the slander. Roderic Quinn was one of the happy band, and with him were Billy Melville, Bertram Stevens, who was always defying his philistine instincts by giving his hat a Bohemian tilt, and Fred Broomfield, who swaggered and boomed with melodramatic fervour, talked with vociferant eloquence, and swept up the ends of his moustache with the air of a Bobadil. The late George Taylor was another haunter of Dawn and Dusk, and, indeed, was the chronicler of the Club. His little book, Those were the Days, will interest you all.
The Boy Authors were a very different crew. Though I was privileged to attend their meetings, I understood that I was not a fully qualified member, but at best an out-patient. The name of the club indicated no more, I suppose, than that they were of the coming race—that they had the buoyancy and faith and force of a new generation. They tolerated a few visitors, but they themselves were the real thing. The world would never be the same again when once they had "arrived." They had all the confidence of creative genius. Among them was a vigorous young man, not, strictly speaking, an author, but a painter and a boxer, whose name was George Lambert—a fellow of power and ambition, to whom difficulties were a pressing invitation. He had the deep humility of the true artist, though humility was almost the last quality which his friends would have ascribed to him; he knew precisely what he could do, he judged his own potentiality aright, and he was aware of the need of development. It must have been he who set the tone of the whole club. Strength of character is always an impressive quality.
W. B. Beattie, another Boy Author, was a musician, a teacher of singing, but he had lately blossomed into literature, and "The Love Story of Tamar Niell" was being published in the short-lived Australian Magazine, with illustrations by his friend Lambert. It was a highly original story, for the name of the hero was Chelub. I remember watching Beattie languidly dropping sheet after sheet of a voluptuous romance on the floor, as he reached the end of the manuscript page. He read his own words unemotionally, as if they were the list on a washing bill—as if his lovely princess, who rose pinkly glowing from her bath of snow, were no more than a frog in a puddle, and his ecstatic prince a small boy waiting to nab it.
Arthur Adams also was there. He had not yet lost the ingenuous shyness which he brought from Maoriland, and he uttered his verses with a world of tender appreciation. Since then he has attempted to veil his native sentimentalism with a figleaf of worldliness.
There was a more prosaic style about Souter—the artist who is haunted by impossible cats that he created in an unguarded moment. He was a watchful critic, humorously awake to absurdity.
Women attended the meetings, too—after unavailing protests from some of the members. The lady who was to become Mrs Lambert wrote short stories, and, as Lambert considered that she, at least, ought to have a chance to read them, of course she had to be admitted. And Louise Mack, looking round and fluffy and infantile, settled into a cosy chair like a chicken in a broken egg-shell. In those days, the presence of women seemed inevitably to mean a suppression of normal thirst, so the meetings closed with the distribution of sweet biscuits and small cups of coffee.
One evening, Brennan was invited to come and read something of his own composition. He came, perched uneasily, and read—
Because this curse is on the dawn, to yield
her secrecy distill'd of nuptial tears,
and day dismantles, casual, nor reveres
whate'er august our brooding dream reveal'd;
because that night to whom we next appeal'd,
no more gestation of inviolate spheres,
shameless, is mimic of the day, nor fears
the scant occurrence of her stars repeal'd:
Therefore, if never in some awful heart
a gather'd peace, impregnable, apart,
cherish us in that shrine of steadfast fire,
be these alone our care, excluding hence
some form undesecrate of all desire,
the wings of silence, adamantine, dense.
The wings of silence folded heavily over the astounded company, till Louise Mack timidly asked the poet if he would mind reading his sonnet again. With fitting solemnity he read it again. There were murmurs of thanks, and inarticulate ejaculations. Criticism was stricken dumb. For once at least the educational purpose of the Boy Authors lay gasping for breath.
That society lasted only a few months. Perhaps its vitality was drained by the departure of Lambert for Europe. It was otherwise with the Casual Club, which survived for many years. The Casuals began as a tiny group gathered for reasonable conversation by R. F. Irvine. They dined together in town once a fortnight, and then repaired to some artist-member's studio, where they sat and smoked and said the wisest things they could force their brains to formulate. In those days one could get a fairly good meal for a shilling, and when we took to haunting a dining-room where we paid eighteen-pence each, and had the privilege of drinking a kind of red ink which, though it was called "ordinaire," would not have proved a satisfactory substitute for the fluid sold by stationers, one member at least complained that the expense was excessive, and pined in exile. The rest of us became extravagant. We abandoned ordinaire and bought burgundy, which the proprietor evidently kept in a very dusty place. The waiter treated the dirty bottles reverently and carried them round in a basket to match. That is the height of luxury; but even then we were not contented but sought out new inventions. We bought supplies on our way to the studio, and a regiment of bottles stood to attention and then manoeuvred about the table while we talked. The talk became less deliberately sapient, but not less brilliant. The number of members increased. Sometimes visitors came and dined with us and were granted an opportunity to converse with us. Hornell, the English artist whose pictures are made up of a harmony of flowers and foliage and blossomy childhood, was one of our guests; another was Jack London, who talked about the ways of prize-fighters; and I have vivid recollections of the burly Randolph Bedford, breezily telling stories that require the full force of his personality to produce their extraordinary effect. One evening, too, a well-known journalist dropped in, and I knew by the dignity of his bearing that all was not well. Our burgundy tipped the scale towards insobriety, and he grew portentously irritable, till at last he challenged the meekest of us to a duel. We escaped the swashbuckler by scattering, as if the "casualty" were over; but we gathered a little later in a wine-shop.
When a studio was not to be had, a wine-shop was a comfortable rendezvous, and there was one which provided an excellent retreat among portly barrels in a rather dimly-lighted cellar.
The club had only one rule—that every member should be, ex officio, a vice-president; there were no other office-bearers. It was generally agreed that there should be no speeches.
In the course of time, some members discontinued their attendance, though not their membership—once a casual, always a casual, dead or alive—and new members drifted in. One of the eldest in years among us was the youngest in spirit—Julian Ashton, the veteran artist, a sturdy fighter in the cause of art, and consequently a firm opponent of many of his fellow painters. The talk, when it turned on art, was illuminating to all of us. Julian Ashton learned what he had not realized earlier, that words must be selected and placed as carefully as colours, and immediately he tried to apply this new lore by writing some prose sketches, which he ventured, in defiance of all precedent, to read to us. In all his talk there was a flavour of what would be called cynicism in a less happy and genial spirit. He thought this was the result of long observation, the fruit of experience, an opening of the eyes to reality. Of course it was temperamental. He sucked it with his mother's milk. It was always welcome. Would one ever quarrel with the bitterness of beer at its best?
If he was the youngest member, his son Howard was the most elderly; his scornful maturity was decisive. He was as incompletely equipped with doubts as a fossil with nerves. Even Arthur Adams, who had adopted all the cynical certainties of the Bulletin office, seemed a simpering youth by contrast. But let me hasten to add that Howard Ashton was then, as he is now, a thoughtful, original, and able artist; and I should not venture to jest at his expense if I were not aware that his sympathies are as liberal as his knowledge is wide and his talent manifold. One passion of his childhood he retained under the veil of scientific research: he swapped locusts with collectors who foraged in other lands.
The most buoyantly enthusiastic member was Lionel Lindsay, who blew in like a sea-breeze, and spoke in quick brief sentences, with rapidly repeated monosyllables that he fired like a Lewis gun.
We had two men who shone as wits. First came Norman Gough, the French lecturer, whose swift word-play was so slick that its flashes were a dance of white sparkles. W. B. Beattie was no less witty, but his manner was less vivacious and his jests, over which he himself chuckled infectiously, were even more telling.
Dowell O'Reilly, watchful and eager-eyed, was slyly provocative. He was equally a delight to look upon, whether he were obstinately argumentative—patting his arguments with his pipe-stem, as if they were foundation-stones—or joyously absorbing the general chatter.
But I cannot describe them all—Harry Weston (with his air of innocent surprise at his own jokes), Souter (using a Scottish accent, and scratching the palm of his hand on his stubby head), Bertram Stevens (who had the reputation of an impartial Boswell), J. J. Quinn (the beaming authority on French fiction), Sid Long (whose refined taste for good wine made him a little untrustworthy as custodian of our surplus supplies), Leon Gellert (who went to the war to find out if he were a coward, and came back, as he said, convinced that he was), Hal Eyre (the cartoonist, a dryly humorous raconteur), Radcliffe Brown (the bearded young anthropologist, who left us to become Director of Education at Tonga), H. S. Nicholas, Arundel Orchard, Carl Kaeppel, Vivian Crockett, the universally informative A. W. Jose, the wandering Austrian, Hemmer (who was afterwards deported for his follies), and the rest of the varied company which was held together by good-fellowship and a devotion to art.
In its latter years the club was dominated by Brennan. His scholarship was broad and deep, his artistic interests varied, his voice a thunder from the Olympian throne. What he said came with authority. Whatever the topic, his knowledge was a charm that could command silence in all but the flippant or foolish. The club had found its Johnson, and became gradually a group of admirers and disciples. Its tone changed. It lost some of its effervescence. Its very existence depended on its dictator.
I offer none of these other clubs as a model for you. If you have any originality you need no model, but will create your own manners, breathe an atmosphere that no predecessors have inspired, and help each other in ways peculiar to yourselves; but there are some qualities that you must have in common with these others—a joy in life, an impulse to artistic expression, a willingness to learn, a 'readiness to be of service. A true comradeship will then bind you together, and the world in which you live will be the better for it.
Was it a taste for the gruesome that caused a Grammar School boy, so many long years ago, to cut from the Bulletin a poem that presented a haunting vision of a dead but unresting figure?—
Heaven! Shall his ghastly, sodden
Corpse float round for days and days?
Shall it dash 'neath cliffs untrodden?
Rocks where nought but sea-drift strays?
God in Heaven! Hide the floating,
Falling, rising face from me.
These, at any rate, were the first of Lawson's words to impress my imagination, and from that day I saved from the papers what I found of his work, and waited for a meeting which I felt to be inevitable. Several years passed. I came to the University and was swept by the general current to a degree. Early in 1894, Miss M. J. Cameron, a school-teacher from Old Junee, who was saving the money required of intending settlers for the Communist colony in Paraguay, asked me to have tea with her and Mrs Lane at Enmore. Lawson, who had recently returned from his wanderings along the Darling, was to be present. They had begun the meal before I arrived, for I had some difficulty in finding the house, and, as I stepped into the room, I saw facing me, with head bent forward and eyes dark and deep and eloquent looking up at me, a lank, shy, bearded young man. He rose rather awkwardly, mumbled a brief greeting and sat once more, watchful and silent. By an incautious movement of his arm, he clumsily upset his tea, and was filled with mute confusion. The talking was maintained chiefly by the two women. I was thinking of Lawson, and he spoke only with his appealing eyes. But at last we two emerged into the night together, and his tongue was loosed. We drank each other's health at the nearest bar, and walked down to the Quay, happy in a new comradeship. He was full of his experiences in the bush, where his deafness, sensitiveness, diffidence and a melancholy tendency to dwell upon the pains of life had exposed him to misunderstanding and misery. As we turned the corner of George Street, near the Quay, he stopped and stared at me with all the grey wisdom of youthful disillusion. I was talking of democracy and the future that the workers were about to win for us all. "Now listen," he said. "I know what I'm talking about. I couldn't say it in public because my living depends partly on what I'm writing for the Worker; but you can take it from me, Jack, the Australian worker is a brute and nothing else." Such was the bitterness in his heart, after association with the careless, rough company of the shearing-sheds. It was a mood, but one that was characteristic of his shrinking self-consciousness. His condemnation was harsh and unjust, but it was honest and heartfelt. Read his sketch of "A Rough Shed," which is true in every detail, but shows only one side of the truth—and you will understand. He was to make full amends in many a tale and poem commemorating the courage, generosity and self-sacrifice of the Australian worker.
He was lodging in North Sydney with an extremely tolerant aunt, whose temper was not in the least roughened, even when we once broke our way into her house in the small hours, and ate what was intended for the family breakfast. She merely supposed I must be another poet.
For several years we were closely associated, wandering together into strange nooks and corners and enjoying our Bohemian adventures cheerfully and irresponsibly. We shared a common purse; I mean that, when we were together, the one who happened to have money spent it, and the other accepted the arrangement as a matter of course. A gift was not a gift between us, but a natural sharing of the bounty of Providence. Sometimes when our supplies were on the ebb, we would save our last florin for a final flourish. There was a broad, cool, low-ceiled bar, where the best free-lunch in Sydney was to be had, and adjoining it was a sheltered winter-garden. Behold us at a marble table with foaming tankards of ale at sixpence each. We made significant signs to a waiter, whom we had tipped liberally when we could afford it, and he brought us gratis a meal of choice dainties, as much as we could eat. Magnificently replete, we lolled indolently in the winter-garden, smoking sixpenny cigars, and then lounged into the street, penniless and content. But ordinarily, three-penny beer and scraps of bread with little squares of cheese sufficed. Even so, we were sometimes surprised by the sudden simultaneous assaults of penury and hunger. I remember one night when three of us sat on the kerbstone in Dailey Street, and happily shared a dry tea-cake—the largest meal we could get for fourpence. Each of us had tried in turn to charm a pretty shop-girl into adding a small pat of butter, not for cash but for love, but the eye of the proprietor was on her, and she rejected our prayers with a reluctance that was almost tearful.
It was after a similar accident that Henry and I found ourselves astray, very late, with insufficient money for a bed. The Domain had a broad and hospitable breast, but already a fine rain was visible at every lamp-post. Besides, in the Domain one was liable to lose one's boots. Henry said he knew of a Dago lodging-house, in the vicinity, where the price of a doss was not too high, but he doubted if it was very savoury, and he feared that the temper of the Dagoes, stirred out of their sleep, might result in violence. Still, we required a roof, and we dared damnation. The dingy door opened after repeated knockings from without and an incoherent growl from a window. A dirty-looking pirate with a lighted candle-end clawed us hastily into a dark, narrow passage, shut the door and asked our business. He spoke a kind of English, but his expression was foreign and unfriendly. He said he had no room. We indicated the floor of the bare passage. He expostulated. We stood our ground. "No room!" he said with a snarling emphasis, and, beckoning, he led us up a rickety staircase, of which the hand-rail, broken away at its lower end, swung over empty gloom when I inadvertently put a little pressure on it. He opened a door and threw a dim light upon rows of men sleeping on the floor. Some had blankets, some lay merely in their clothes. A fair number had ancient mattresses, but those who were on the boards were probably subject to less disturbance. Here and there, shoulders heaved impatiently and legs straightened or drew up as the candle rays fell on the forlorn crew. A rank odour pushed at us. I entered the room, stepping gingerly over the slumbering figures, but in the dark I made a false step. I trod on a man—not on any thick or squashy part of his fat body, but on some unimportant outlying portion. I don't know what language he talked, and as the sympathy of the crowd seemed to be distinctly with him, we waited for no interpretation. "I tell you so!" exploded the landlord, shaking his greasy black curls at us as he drove us into outer darkness.
One day I helped Henry in his moving from a cheap lodging-house near the Cathedral, to McGrath's Hotel. His worldly goods were in a large sack, and I was rather surprised at its weight. We took turns in carrying the load on our backs. Everything in that bag was in admired confusion—togs, scraps of copy, photographs, and a general miscellany. He promised to show me a particular photograph, and dived into the mass. His head and shoulders were out of sight but the movements of the sack indicated that he was rummaging actively, and, somehow or other, he found at last what he was seeking as well as some manuscript which he had given up as irretrievably lost. He emerged, red, ruffled and triumphant.
It was at McGrath's that I obtained an insight into his mode of composition. He asked me if I minded acting as his amanuensis, for he always hated the labour of pen-driving; and we went to the parlour with a few sheets of paper. He walked up and down, sorting in his head a heap of couplets almost as disorderly as his luggage in the sack. For weeks he had been composing what was to be a poem. As he selected and recited the verses, I scribbled them down. Sometimes, after reflection, he altered a phrase. Sometimes he changed his mind as to the most effective order of the couplets. "Stop a bit, Jack," he would say, "I think we'll stick that verse in, a bit lower down." It was an eloquent, swinging poem, partly heroic in tone and partly ironical and humorous, and it was probably the longest piece he had ever put together. He afterwards submitted it to Mr George Robertson of Angus and Robertson's, who thought that it would be better if the comic element were omitted. Nothing easier. So adaptable was Lawson's gunyah style of poetic architecture that he published the work as two separate poems. "The Star of Australasia" and "After the War" are the titles adopted in the final version.
A number of Lawson's friends used to meet us occasionally at McGrath's. There I first met the fair, observant, smiling Roderic Quinn, who stretched his long legs and beamed benevolently over his pint. "Peter Anderson" rushed in in the intervals of rent-collecting. Frequently the broad, jolly face of "Dan the Wreck" appeared. No seediness of costume or cloudiness of linen could quell his geniality. He had been to the Grammar School and retained a few shreds of Latin, so he bore the reputation of a scholar with bluff dignity—or dignified bluff. "Arma virumque cano," he assured me at our first meeting; and I agreed that it was an excellent procedure.
Then there was Jack Moses, teetotal traveller for wines, who was known all over the country for his recitations, his humour and good nature. I don't believe there was ever a better-hearted friend than Jack, or one who regarded Lawson with more affection and respect. He seemed to have made himself responsible for the poet's hats. I have seen him take Lawson's hard-hitter as we walked along George Street, gaze at its dim and indented crown with disapproval, and drive his fist and arm through it. That was his way of proving that he must provide a new one. Lawson told me that once, when the hat was just a little too good for such treatment, Jack made him swap it for the ragged headgear of a street beggar. He remembered, ten minutes later, that he had hidden half-a-sovereign in the lining. But the beggar had vanished. I met Jack at the Cathedral on the day of the funeral and we gripped hands, neither of us able to say a word of what was in our hearts.
On the wall of my room hung a pair of foils. I was a little dubious when Lawson proposed to try his skill with them, but he was so eager that I consented. I explained the difference between lungeing and prodding, and gave him a hasty lesson in thrust and parry. The ordinary methods were too fine for his vigorous temper. He made the blade swish and whistle as he swung it, and if I hadn't known something of single-sticks I should bear the marks of that combat still. To hold a weapon excited him. He felt gallant and exultantly martial. What a panic he created when he found a sword in a wine bodega and hunted the proprietor on pretence of a chivalrous regard for the poor man's wife!
All that was before Lawson married. Neither of us were married in fact. Later we saw less of each other; but we never forgot.
His wife had sympathy, patience, humour, energy and resource, and she needed them all. She did her best for Lawson, encouraging him in his moods of depression, and guarding him against himself and others. And, in those old days, he understood and was grateful. No one who saw them in their home could doubt the love that bound them. He spoke to me with deep gratitude of her staunchness and self-sacrifice. He congratulated me on my love of a dark girl. "The dark ones are the best, old man," he said. Mrs Lawson was dark.
A boy was born to them in New Zealand, a girl in Sydney. Then they went to London. I was at the boat, where Henry, bright and hopeful, stood with a child in his arms. He was fond of children, and nothing wrought upon his heart more swiftly and deeply than their light, tender love and pity. He tried to appear at his best in their company. They seemed to know so much. After the return to Sydney, a time came when Mrs Lawson boldly faced the future alone, fighting for her children. She steeled herself to work with incessant energy, to find opportunities to earn a living for her delicate boy and gentle girl. She had to part from them, having secured them a healthy home in the country, while she was battling on their behalf. At last she was able to keep them with her, and she brought them up nobly, and taught them to honour their father. And they know that no better mother lives in all the world.
The inartistic visitor is apt to complain of monotony in the scenery of Australia. If he has witnessed no more than some part of our coast, he says that the place is gum-trees, rocks and gullies, varied by rocks, gullies and gum-trees. If he has travelled inland, and has seen, at the beginning of the day, flat land with tormented trees, and, when the day's journey was over, still tormented trees on the stretching plain, he moans at the interminable sameness. "Your foliage is all of one tone of grey," he says, petulantly, "hard and changeless." He has come looking for something to which he is accustomed—the almost garish brilliance of colouring and the persistent contrasts in some country where such brightness of growing things is happy compensation for the lack of our clear flooding light—and he is blinded by prejudice and unjust without intention. He is like one who has long been accustomed to flutes and fiddles and pianos, and who hears for the first time a carillon; the new instrument has unanticipated effects. Before the listener can adjust himself to the fresh conditions, he is impudently loud in condemnation. Ours is a country of vast spaces and endless munificence. For the full range of its almost infinite variety you must travel far, and, if your soul is awake to it, you will find beauty at every step from the extravagant lushness of tropical jungles to the clear-cut snowy slopes where the clouds hold counsel, from the green-gold brakes of the sugar-cane to the shining cherries that demand the discipline of frost.
Traditions die hard. It was an Englishman who described our country, in awkward sibilant verses, as—
A land where bright blossoms are scentless
And songless bright birds,
repeating the accusations of early settlers, who were pleased to regard Australia as a land of paradoxes; but the lyre-bird, with all his musical mockery, and the manifold fragrance of our spring have not yet shamed the libellous lips even of some Australians to absolute silence. And there are still some among our countrymen whose eyes are open but their sense is shut, so that in their ancestral trance they are unaware of the subtle and glorious changes of our seasons. One has to tell them that the face of spring blushes in the pride of youthful life; to show the vital red flush glowing on every bush-clad hill; to insist that the spreading gum-leaves are "like spear blades dipped in blood," and that in every glen the ferns advance their croziers of delicate rosy tints. This one may observe with exultation in the Sydney district where I happen to live. Of course, too, though there is no month when the bush is void of bloom, there are seasons when the flowers rejoice multitudinously in the light. And inland where, in a dry season, the grey plains bake, and the red soil cracks, and the heat quivers visibly up in a crystal silence, or the dust advances, a body of threatening darkness, and the roly-polies, globular skeletons of perished plants, run and leap fantastically for miles and miles, there is no time when beauty is not present, brooding and menacing though her aspect be till the rains come and bring a resurgence of riotous life and splendid colour.
And if it be true that the eucalyptus generally dominates our scenery, who but the pitifully ignorant will babble that gum-trees are all alike? Look with me at these two—that with the dark grey, fibrous crumbly bark on its trunk, while its boughs are smooth and silvery, and every branch and branchlet curves upward making an interlaced pattern adorned with broad but rather scanty leaves of dull green that reflect the light in silver flashes; and this, with the smooth bark of pale terra-cotta tint from the foot of its knobbed bole to the end of each of its erratically contorted boughs, its thick clusters of narrow leaves in a lighter green mottling the undergrowth with shade. How many kinds of gum-trees there are I neither know nor care to know; to the eye of love their variety seems inexhaustible. And an artist will find in a single tree a multiplicity of charm that custom cannot stale. A gaunt grey-blotched giant of the bush, with the long strips and cylinders of dry discarded bark hanging about him, will stand like a sentry sternly at watch in the noontide glare; but amid the evening shadows his outline will soften and he will seem like a waiting lover in sheltering dusk; and in one of those mornings when the early sun turns to a silvery film the mist as it floats upward aslant, he will become etherealized, an ecstatic spiritual calm embodied or an old tree transfigured to an image of peaceful joy.
In the mass the gum-trees proclaim Australia. They give some of their most unmistakable characteristics to many of our landscapes. Before the war, a German scholar, Robert Schachner, spent a year or two in our land, studying its social and industrial conditions, and becoming more and more attracted by its loveliness. On the eve of his return to Europe, he went back to the Blue Mountains to gaze for the last time across a valley where the heads of innumerable gum-trees were like a sea swept by huge waves that surged against the bases of islanded rocks and swept about the cliffs, pushing upward at vast shores where the mordant wind has revealed, in the crumbling sandstone, broad bands and splashes of red and cream and yellow. All the valley and the hills were suffused daintily with hazy blue, and across the uneven surface of that sea crawled the indigo shadows of white glowing clouds. "Of all that I have seen in Australia," said Schachner, "this alone I shall see nowhere else."
From the precipice beside him a stream leaped into the gorge, falling in waves that felt the support of the air and floated downward swaying and curving in their own ghostly mist, and finally "rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below." For those hills are full of clear creeks that dance and sing in the cool shade, and fall where they may in veils and lucent fringes and long wavering lines. Yet the queen of all Australian waterfalls is not in the Mother State, but in the island of Tasmania. Not for size or grandeur, but for enthralling beauty, one returns to the glancing cascades of Russell Falls.
And what differences one may notice in our streams, whether they be these hurrying waters of the hills or broad placid streams that loiter as if enchanted by their own lily-decked attractiveness. Between steep banks, where the thick pale gumtrees gather, flow the inland rivers on meandering pilgrimage. On a coastal river one may voyage between fields of maize and sugar-cane and rest the eyes on blue hills that flank the valley. And one stream of sweet water that calls to the tired spirit is hemmed in by rugged precipitous crags, clothed with such trees and shrubs as perch upon ledges and cling by crevices; and the short steep talus is thick with a tangle of wild growth. It is an abode of peace and friendliness, of blessed quietude, in harmony with clear reflections of blue and green and the still trunks of tall white trees that grow sparsely just above the average floodline. All is well till the noise of guns shatter the silence with blasphemous reverberations of stupidity and tyranny.
It is not the purpose of the writer to attempt impossibly to enumerate the elements that combine in the beauty of Australia, but merely to glance here and there and idly sketch this fragmentary scene or that, not fully, but by suggestion—to sing, as it were, as they come to his memory, a few bars of the songs that have thrilled his heart. And as he hails from Sydney, his reader will expect him to say something of the most beautiful of harbours—its estuaries winding among wooded hills; its verdant gardens sloping to the shores; its innumerable inlets; the rich green weeds that shine at low-tide about its rocks; the jade-coloured waters at the Quay; the stretches of sunlit turkis blue; the jewel dance of lights when the night is like a pall of deep-blue velvet; and, in short, that fascinating splendour that alters with every change of light and atmosphere. But one who has watched the spread of population about the harbour for half a century is saddened by the reflection that the beauty created by Nature is more often marred than enhanced by the meddling of Man. Greed and vulgarity do their worst. Where there should be groves of native trees behind our beaches, for example, there are staring walls of brick and stucco. It is to the honour of our best architects that they adapt dwelling-houses to their chosen situation, harmonizing the buildings in line and colour with their surroundings and skilfully making alliance with the forms and forces of Nature; but all our houses are not designed by men of taste, and there is unfortunately no committee of artists empowered to protect us against piles of horror. Still, Nature has been so profuse in her gifts that her generosity triumphs in spite of the wanton insults she sustains.
If generalization were legitimate, I might venture to say that Australians have not much aesthetic sense. It is only a few years since some observant person told them that there was a beauty in "gum-tips." They have been engaged, ever since, in destroying the charm of every gum-sapling within easy reach. They cultivate in their gardens a few Australian plants which they are assured are beautiful, but they neglect others which appeal without a human champion. Few people cultivate, for example, the blue-berry—Elaeocarpus reticulatus (E. cyaneus). But those that have eyes to see, let them see.
Our artists are doubly to be congratulated—first that they live in a land of lavish beauty, and secondly, that they have taken such full advantage of their wealth of opportunity.
In Australia, we have tramps of two kinds, and neither class exclusive of the other. On the one hand there are those whom circumstances saddle with a swag; on the other are the born wanderers, the men who have not where to lay their heads, but who drift into the open ways simply because the wind calls to them. When home grows too hot, a man must move. When work is not to be had in one place, it must be looked for in another. And so the rolled-up blanket is heaved to the shoulder, and away goes another vagabond on the track. And when the shearing-season commences, there is a flow of swagmen to the inland districts. When the sheds are cut out, the attractions of the towns are irresistible. These fellows do not concern us. They are trudging to clutch money or to spend it, for the most part; or maybe, in some cases, because it has been spent. The type is too common to be interesting. But occasionally the wind and sunlight winnow and burn away the conventionality—the husks of vulgar aspiration—from a man's soul; and then, if no new interest enthrall him, he is a wanderer for ever. Perhaps, when the season is dreary—when cold and cheerless skies face a sodden drooping landscape—he may take to work and a roofed-in fire for a time, but the fret is on him, and glowing green and infinite blue will call him forth again on the quest. He seeks the face of Beauty, and because he does not know for what his heart cries out, he grows lonely, and perhaps daft. There are many hatters on the track. Old men totter towards a dusty sunset rather than submit to confinement in an "asylum." Young men march from station to station until their only conscious object is the filling of their tucker-bags. But their hunger is not to be satisfied with a ration of flour and tea. Even when their mouths are filled with the last poor meal of crumbled earth, I think the keenness of their appetite is yet undulled. On the northern tableland in winter a frost-bitten outcast staggers on gangrened feet until he finds a corner where he may die in comfort; after a hellish summer of drought, the dry leathery shell of a man is found on the western plains. But the fret of the wanderer is never to be overcome by death.
Many men feel the curse of custom and long for a simpler life. Many are eager for the knowledge which only comes to the man who can "loaf and invite his soul." Many love sunlight and seashine and the glitter of leaves. They need not tramp for ever, hopelessly, madly, towards an unseen goal. Most of them are trammelled by duties. Some are almost Respectable. I advise them to spend their holidays on the track, sleeping in caves and under trees, with tramps and the stars for congenial company. If you need a change, why not be yourself for a while? Strip off your coat and trousers and shirt of false comfort, conventionality and miscalled Decency, and bathe freely in the flood of life. Incidentally you may find out what you can do without—and do better. You are not the swathed-up mummy you seem to be, trust me. You are alive and as free as need be. Do not think of staying at home. In the sordid city you are, perhaps, a pauper alien. If you wish really to be at home—in the citadel where you are master of yourself and have the wealth of the world at your command—off you go, adrift on the open road.
And whither must you travel? What matter? I can only give you bare hints of places I have wandered in myself. In New South Wales there are many temples where Pan may be fitly worshipped. The inland country is great in distances, but a country of sheep is a country of flies. To slouch along a blazing track, with the weight of a swag and water-bag sending a blade of pain down between your shoulders into your chest, while the flies swarm busily with tickling feet and sucking trunks over every inch of sunburnt flesh—this is the fate of the luckless trav'ler of our land of the golden fleece. There is nothing more maddening than those flies, and no amount of fury will prevent their crowding and fighting for place about your eyes like pigs about a trough. Only at night can the beneficent Pan prevail over the hordes of Beelzebub. The broad, silent night is good, when your limbs feel the luxury of rest that none but the weary know. The white blaze of the stars is glorious; but one need not walk so far to see the stars. The coastal slope of this State is the really beautiful part of it—the part which our brethren find most ready to the spoiling hand. In the Blue Mountains, if you know how to make your way along the ranges without losing yourself among deceptive spurs and bewildering gullies, you will find pleasant byways and secluded beauty, where you may worship at shrines undesecrated, so far, by the offerings of the profane—sardine-tins and greasy newspapers. And along the main road (if you know where to look) you will sojourn in pleasant hostelries (namely, broad sandstone caves) where guests are welcomed free of charge. All are on equal terms—hearty shearers, perennially flowing with cheerful obscenity of speech; drink-ruined artisans seeking new fields of labour and intoxication; quaint old grey-beards who hate the monotony of settled life, searching for a temporary billet; young men from the land, slow and drawling, afoot for the city; the reckless black-sheep of his family, whose humour baffles all inquiry, as ripples hide the secrets of a pond; the low-browed ruffian who may be off with your boots and blankets while you sleep, and will stop at no small obstacle if he thinks that you have money in your pouch—a suicide tramp is no surprising object; and many another. Among the rest you may even chance on a simple-minded bush poet, with a fringe of corks dangling on strings about the brim of his hat to keep off the flies. He will laboriously compose descriptive verses and sell them, if possible, to a local journal. The rest will "bum" the neighbouring township for their tucker. None will stay long. If you spend each night of your holiday in the same cave—especially in rainy weather, at the beginning or end of the shearing-season—you may have no lack of human comradeship, and may learn a lesson of sympathy with the unfortunate, the vicious and the criminal. (Pardon me, Madam, I did not say with vice and crime. Even the Chief Justice must be sympathetic—must be a possible assassin or burglar—or what right has he on the bench?) The manufactured tragedy and comedy of the modern theatre will, perhaps, appeal to you less forcibly for a while thereafter, but that wild sea of dark tree-tops is as fine a scene as the blue water which formed a fitting background for the simplicity and pomp of Attic drama.
* * *
It was on the mountains that I met old Harry and his mate Tom, just after they had been attacked by garrotters, at Katoomba. Tom told me how it happened:—
"'Arry always was an old fool—wasn't you, 'Arry?"
"Fool yerself," said Harry, complacently, spitting into the fire.
"It ain't long since I met 'Arry, you know, but it was jest about time some one begun to take care of 'im. I was at the Ringer's Arms in Bathurst, where I'd been doing a few little jobs for the missus for a few days. And one day she come out in the yard and says, 'Tom,' she says, 'jest come through inter the bar and see yer own shadder.' 'Garn,' I says. 'Fair do,' she says, 'there's an old bloke in there wot's the very high tentacle dead spit o' yer,' she says. So in I goes, and there stud 'Arry, like me as two flamin' peas—same beard, same size, same way o' liftin' a glass."
The superficial resemblance he referred to was very slight. Any two unshaven long-hoarys of average size would present as many points of similarity. But I only said: "A long-lost twin brother I suppose?"
"No! Never seen 'im before that minute. But the missus says, 'Ow's that fer a feller's double?' an' everybody in the bar said it wuz wonderful, an' 'Arry shouted the lot. An' after a bit we got talkin' together, an' we 'ad a few drinks—'Arry paid for 'em—an' we got quite chummy, an' we've bin mates ever since. And 'Arry told me 'ow he was pretty well off up in Goulburn. He owns a tannery there, don't y' 'Arry? But he got to thinkin' o' th' old days when he use' ter 'ump his bluey like the rest of us, an' 'e thort of 'ow 'e 'adn't bin to Sydney fur twenty bloomin' years. An' 'e ups an' says: 'I'm goin' down,' 'e says, 'to see the champeen boat-race, an' I'm goin' to walk there an' back,' 'e says. So 'e puts thirty quid in notes into 'is pocket, an' waltzes down the road with 'is matilder till 'e runs across me in Bathurst. An' after tellin' me this, 'e tells me 'ow 'e finds the track lonesome without a mate, an' the end of it was, I come on with 'im. Well, 'e soon showed 'e was a goat with money. 'E'd yank out a handful o' notes if 'e was on'y buyin' a plug o' terbacker, an' wotever I said cudn't stop 'im. But, night before yestiddy, 'e shouted a crowd in Blackheath, an' I seen some ugly-lookin' blokes in the bar lookin' at the bundle o' money when 'e changed a note. Tried to make 'im drunk after that, they did, but I was too fly for 'em. I told 'im afterwards 'e was a fool—didn't I 'Arry?—an' I fixed it up we wouldn't camp till we'd got a good way on the road. It got dark early with a lot o' thick clouds, but we went on, although it got that thick at last you cudn't see the edges o' the trees. By and by, 'Arry says, 'Where are we, Tom?' 'e says, 'I reckon it's time we camped,' 'e says. 'Well,' I says, 'I'm beggered if I know, but wait a bit,' I says, 'there seems to be somethin' here I oughter know.' An' I lights a match an' has a look, an' sure enough, we were alongside o' the Explorers' Tree, near Katoomba y' know. I'd put down me swag while I was lookin', and now I got out me plug and opened me knife to cut a fill. 'Arry says: 'Come on;' so I heaves up me swag, with the knife and plug in me 'and. Then, in the dark an arm was crooked round me neck so's to hold me head back, while I felt a hand inside me coat. But 'e 'ad more than me neck. In hoistin' the swag I'd lifted me elbow up level with me face, an' it jest happened that he gripped right round me arm an' I wasn't bein' choked at all. And me knife bein' in me left 'and, I jest stabbed with it over me shoulder where 'is 'ead or neck seemed to be, an' 'e gives a yell and lets go, an' I 'eard 'im go for the fence an' over, an' then I 'eard a bump an' a scrape an' a thud down the railway cutting, an' some one says; 'Are y' 'urt Jim,' an' there was somebody else runnin' down the road. An' then—it wasn't till then—I 'eard 'Arry about twenty yards ahead singin' out to me askin' what was the matter."
"It was all over in what you might call the shakin' of a sheep's tail," explained Harry.
"So we reported it to the pleece in Katoomba, an' we went back an' traced the blood across the line an' into the bush, an' then we left it till mornin'. But you know what a rain there was night before last. There wasn't no traces in daylight."
* * *
If you have only a little time to spare, and would like to travel through country where there is a greater variety and tenderer charm of scenery, I advise you to saunter down through the Illawarra and Shoalhaven districts. Tourists and manufacturers and other go-ahead people will have the place spoiled before long, so you had better go now. There you will find broad panoramic views as bright as ever painter dared to put on canvas—long stretches of coast with dazzling white lines of foam between a brilliant sea and beaches like golden sickles, and a series of headlands growing dim and more dim till the most distant fades into purple mist where the sea-line and the sky are blent in a region of dreams. You will see broad flat meadows with sleek dairy cattle luxuriously chewing the cud; green rounded foothills where the sunlight and shadow play over brown furrows, and chase each other across young crops that blaze like sheets of green fire. And on the higher slopes are the thick tangles of semi-tropical jungle, with cool shadows and drip-dropping water, and graceful ferns and palms and festooned creepers, and fresh and sudden gushes of song from birds that flit like happy spirits through the fragrant dusk.
If you have more time, go northward along the coast, to the rivers that water some of the most beautiful valleys in the world. Do not waste your time and mine by getting me to babble about it. Find out for yourself.
* * *
Whenever the spring arrives the hunger of the trav'ler is upon me. Bricks and mortar are offensive, and yet certain bonds keep us tethered to the city, and I cannot drift away through the moist haze into the outer regions of "the track." I feel my chrysalis cracking down the back to let me out with quicker nerves for the new life. But what is to be must be. As I lie on the edge of a field to pencil down these few inconsecutive and lazy notes, I watch the illumination of the crimson leaves of some buckwheat which the frost has failed to kill (a branch of bush-apple overhung and protected the soft, sappy growth). A kind of wild bee or fly hovers motionless with triangular blurs in the place of wings—makes a horizontal dart of several inches, and again halts. Many spiders creep about under the shade of the weeds, and just now I had to flick away a scorpion which seemed determined to take refuge under my arm. I can hear a spine-bill singing in the bush; and a wagtail is chattering everlasting compliments to his mate—"Sweet pretty creature—sweet pretty little creature—pretty little, pretty little creature." Across the horse-paddock a pair of Jacky Winters are calling to each other. A few hundred yards away there is, I know, a yellow robin's nest, containing three eggs, dull green speckled with brown. In the morning the swallows, which have built their mud homes under the veranda, sing like canaries about my window. As I think of all this—and of how much more!—a final crack of my shell follows on a vigorous wrench, and I stretch my wings to fly for the bush. Old clothes, familiar swag and nose-bag, battered billy and longing heart—to-morrow the open road!
* * *
So I wrote in the first year of the Commonwealth. Since then, an age of high-pressure and disastrous hurry has made many of our youth almost incapable of genuine indolence. Instead of enjoying happiness, the crowds are madly pursuing pleasures in the strange belief that they can be accumulated and that the sum of them will be abiding joy. The wayfarer can no longer slouch comfortably along the open road, but has to be on the alert and ready to jump from the course of swerving motor-cars. But the motor-car is a curse to its user as well as to the furtive pedestrian. Motorists believe that they have special advantages for seeing the country, and this strange deception persists till its victims become blind to everything but broad effects and mere dashes of colour. From a car, all the intimate detail of the landscape is obliterated, and the friendliness, the feeling of close kinship with what is gathered by the senses, is dulled and gradually lost. The loveliness of a tuft of grass, or the delicate mottling of a post with lichen, or the inverted depth of blue sky in a watery rut enters unbidden the consciousness of the man afoot, but is ignored by the motorist, to whom the passing beauty is a smudge. A road, to please the staring votaries of speed, must be black or grey and glassily polished by innumerable tyres. The old roads, which here were brown and there might be an earthy red that harmonized restfully with the green grass at its edges, must give way to the long unlovely streaks which are constructed without the slightest effort to meet the demand of the soul for what is beautiful.
It is impossible to saunter in a motor-car. Nobody in a car is free. I sit jammed between people for whom a general motion in any direction is insanely regarded as desirable progress. For a moment I see a clear stream with mossy rocks and smooth foam-fringed little falls, and I should like to follow it up in the deep shadows of overhanging shrubs, and rejoice with the ferns whose eager life is evident in the flush of uncoiling fronds. I see soft-looking leaves that I should like to touch lovingly. I want to bathe all my senses in what is flashing back from our inhuman machine—to smell the warm moist earth, let the lapping water flow over naked limbs, put my tongue against cool aromatic growths, remain still to watch the birds and hear their songs. I could merge myself in this environment, and become a part of it. Phut! It's gone. We are aliens.
Where are we to find rest? The car penetrates everywhere. The fastnesses of the hills are invaded. The stillness of the valley is desecrated. The haunts of meditative fancy are bestrewn with tins and paper. Vulgarity is rampant in the sullen bush, and every quiet solitude has been transformed to a wilderness of monkeys.
There can be no better way for two young men to gain an intimate knowledge of each other than to tramp together for the sake of mere enjoyment. During the day, they may often be far apart, unless some convention of strict continuous companionship mar the fraternal freedom, but, when the lazy labour of the road ends in the indolent relaxation of the camp, and tucker and tobacco have made a temporary home, a resting-place in the wide universe, the time comes for careless self-revelation. Talk in those hours when the little circle of light and warmth seems lit in a friendly infinitude of darkness, and the heart is exalted in its loneliness, has now and then hardly more definite limit of reticence than idle soliloquy. Though I had enjoyed a close friendship with Dowell O'Reilly for two or three years, it was in January 1894, that I saw most clearly what manner of man he was, for in that month he and I shouldered our swags and drifted haphazard through Tasmania. Yet it is not of our talks together that I would tell you now, but rather of the way in which he met the accidents of our wayfaring and the people into whose lives we sauntered and from whose memories we passed like a summer cloud.
He had something of the chameleon nature that takes colour from environment, and that was why "Raggles," to use his adopted name, was so delightful a travelling companion. He became a creature of the wild, consciously, humorously, and he and I drifted on a stream of common inclination, hither and thither, almost without consulting each other. And just as he seemed native to road and river and forest and lake, so that the gracious loneliness of nature was never disturbed by him, so he adapted himself without effort to the manners and moods of such friends as each day gave and took. His quick sympathies knew how to evoke confidence. The tones of his voice varied like an actor's to the occasion. A mile beyond New Norfolk we met an old woman, whose bright eyes were set in a harsh wrinkled face over which elf-locks of grey hair straggled. Her back was bent to a great load of dry saplings and fallen boughs, the ends of which trailed on the wet road behind her. "Good morning, Mother!" was Dowell's salutation. In a few moments, in spite of her protests, he had shouldered her wood and we were heading again for the little town. His tenderness to the rugged woman was musical in every intonation of his voice, and his few questions brought out a vivid story. There was abundance of firewood rotting each side of the road, but the owner, whose name she gave, was accustomed, through "pure doggery," to prosecute anybody who set a leg across his fences, so she had to drag her supply from a distance. She had no family left. Once she had been better off, and sold milk and butter, but competition in washing New Norfolk linen had forced her to sell her cows one by one. Luckily she could live on "the half o' nothing," but if it were not for the hop-picking she'd have less than the half of that. I remember his wistful smile as he bade her good-bye—a smile of humorous understanding—and her hearty handgrip.
Sometimes his adaptability was shown in more purely laughable fashion, as in our dealings with a Hobart cabman, whom we hired to carry our bags of decent clothes to the railway station for transmission to Launceston. The quiet streets were almost free of traffic, and the cabman turned easily on his box-seat and chatted with us, giving occasional encouragement but no visible guidance to his leisurely horse. It must have been Dowell who introduced the topic of beer. The cabman flew amiably to the lure. Did we like good beer? We did. And plenty of it, cheap? That also. And we had no particular train to catch? We were almost at the station, but our chuckling driver turned his horse's head, and we went up into the town again. The cabman led the way, at Dowell's invitation, down a couple of steps to a bar, with sanded floor, and there, at threepence a head, we enjoyed great glass jugs of cool foaming ale. Then we completed our journey to the station, while Dowell and his new crony talked as if they had known each other all their lives; and when the luggage had been delivered, the good cabman was loud in his disappointment that we wouldn't allow him to drive us back to the bar and make return of courtesies. "It wouldn't be any loss, you know," he explained; "I'd only be spending your fare." Humanly he was right, though his logic was rickety. (Thirty years later, when I revisited Hobart, I sought that sanded bar in vain.)
In Launceston, where we stayed a night or two at a homely old-fashioned tavern, there was a typical maid of all work. She warmed to Dowell, for the sole reason that he knew the tone of frank friendliness, tinged delicately with condescension, which would touch her heart, and was able to cheer her rather bleak Sunday with prophecies of some glad to-morrow when "Mr Right" was to provide all that she craved. I happened to walk into the room as she was making the bed, and, when I saw how softly she was smoothing one of the pillows, wondered how she had guessed that Dowell slept on that side. How sentimentally pleased she would have been had she known that in his pocket was the just-received acquiescent answer to a proposal of marriage!
Ready as he was in assuming an interest in what interested other persons, there was always a basis of sympathy for the assumption, even when his tricksy spirit gave it an ironical aspect. It was so, I felt, even when he discoursed with a Presbyterian minister in solemn denunciation of "vestments." The three of us were walking in single file on a narrow path that led through the snake-haunted moors near Great Lake. The minister was in front with his eyes on the track, and I was in the rear. Dowell had draped an exceedingly dirty handkerchief across his haunches, and twitched it to a jig whenever the word "vestments" was uttered. His abundant sympathies were divided between the serious churchman and irreverent me.
Even when his insinuating friendliness had a practical aim, it was genuine, and that was why he was so successful a mendicant, when we were in need. Those to whom he appealed, if they had hearts, were glad in response. I was taciturn and shy, a mere Asticot to his Beloved Vagabond. Was it not he who accosted in the streets of New Norfolk the veteran berry orchardist, Mr Plunkett, and secured from him an invitation to the raspberry mazes at Glen Fern, where the picking was in full swing? And do I not remember that night at Bridgewater, when I asked an old lady, after looking over her fence, if she could spare a few potatoes? The idiom of her doubtful reply proved her Irish, and Dowell's voice was beautifully tinged with brogue as he put in a coaxing word. She gave us the potatoes. "An' I'm sure you must have sons of your own," said Dowell, beaming grateful affection, "an' you so kind to two boys and them strangers." The random shaft struck deep. She had had a boy; O'Reilly reminded her of him; but now she had no son. By no means abashed, Dowell was lord of the conjuncture, and when the old lady returned to the house a few minutes later, I was aware that she was the happier for having met him.
How quick he was to seize the essentials of a situation and turn
them to advantage! We reached The Cressy one night, after a walk of
twenty-seven miles by bush and road, and Dowell was ripe for homely
comforts, so, instead of camping tinder a hedge, we sought an
hotel. The landlord left us in the parlour while he went to consult
his wife, who was apparently the manager. As he returned, I heard
her final directions: "Put 'em in the Professor's room." I had
never heard of professors who liked tramps in their bedrooms; but
fear of making intrusion was soon dissipated. This particular
professor must have been a legendary fugitive, for the room that
still bore his name was a tiny three-walled attic in which there
was barely room for two men to lie. Dowell looked at the kennel
with distaste, and, as soon as the landlord had gone creaking down
the dark narrow staircase, remarked that a window that wouldn't
open offered no facilities for escape in the event of fire; nor was
this his only objection. "No matter," he said at last, "I'll see
that we're given a better room." I urged him not to make a fuss,
but he asserted with decision that he would not ask for what we
wanted, and yet we should get it. He made his toilet with more than
ordinary care, used a brush and comb, shook and dusted his coat,
tied his neckerchief neatly and wiped his boots with his blanket.
At the tea-table his manners were the essence of refinement.
Without being importunate, he made it evident that he was
momentarily disconcerted by the lack of a serviette. Then his gaze
wandered over the tablecloth, till out hostess asked him,
pleasantly enough, what he was seeking. Apologetically, he
confessed that it was a butter knife; but "it was really of no
consequence." In conversation with the landlord, he talked
intelligently of horse-racing and politics, but kept making
accidental incursions into art and literature and then
self-reproachfully subsiding to the more popular topics. After tea,
he listened with keen appreciation to the piano playing of the
children, and asked who was the teacher of the younger musician,
who was evidently regarded by the father as an infant prodigy. The
conversation naturally turned to music, and Dowell's talk, crammed
with technical terms, was as unintelligible to me as to his other
hearers. "Quite right!" said the landlord at intervals. At bedtime
Dowell shook hands with the landlady with respect and heartiness.
We were on our way towards the narrow staircase when the landlord
called to us, "This way, sir!" and escorted us, with lighted
candle, to a well-furnished room on the ground-floor. And there lay
our swags on the bed.
So far I have given examples of Dowell's success in moving people by word, manner and expression to active sympathy, but he met with failure now and then, though very seldom, One afternoon, when the clouds were gathering, we wandered about New Norfolk looking for a roof to shelter us for the night. A casual passer-by told us that Mr X, the wealthiest man in the district, had some sheds where swagmen sometimes camped. Following directions, we found three bare and weather-beaten little houses. One of Mr X's employees, who lived close by, saw us approaching these huts, and told us that they were in his care, and that he had orders not to allow any trespassing. "I'm sorry," he confessed; "it's going to be a rough night; but you can't expect me to lose my job for ye." He advised us to see the boss. O'Reilly wished he had had a shave, and his regrets deepened when, as we marched along Mr X's avenue of blue-gums towards his comfortable home, we saw three young ladies on the veranda. Still, he brightened at every step of our advance, for he always seemed fairly confident of his charm when girls were to be met. While he was still glancing with arch admiration, I was asking if we might sleep in one of the old houses across the road. The eldest of the ladies, regarding even poor Dowell with scorn, replied loftily, "I don't think so, but I'll ask Pa." She went inside, and a little later out strode "Pa," with his face red, his grey hair ruffled, and the edges of his trouser-legs hitched over the tags of his boots. Dowell, with an air of manly frankness and thorough confidence in human goodwill, stated the case—that we were sorry if we had disturbed him, but need not keep him long, for all that we required was a shelter, however poor, against the weather. But the old man was very grim. He snapped "No" at us, as if it were a symbolic bite. Dowell grew eloquent in his claim for compassion and trust. The night, he remarked, was thickening, the sky was menacing, and we, poor harmless wayworn wanderers, were faced with the dire necessity of sleeping in the open air. He promised that we would leave everything as we found it. "Just what the last two tramps said," was the comment of Mr X; "and they used the lining-boards for their fire," Scowling and growling, the old man turned his back, and the interview was over.
It was not long, however, before we met with a signal example of hospitality. A couple of miles from the town, we noticed, in a paddock, a fine belt of timber at some distance from the road, so situated that a camp there would be sheltered from observation by inequalities of the ground. A closer view confirmed favourable impressions. By the time it was dark, we had cut an abundance of bushy saplings, built a thick gunyah, and strewn a springy bed of foliage. Before this luxurious nest we made a huge fire against a solid back-log. Then into the cheerful radiance strolled a man. We nodded. He looked about. Desperately assuming a childlike innocence, I blurted, "No harm, I suppose, in camping here for the night?" He shook his head at once. "I don't mind," he said. There was a long pause before he added, "'Tain't my land."
In the highlands to the north of Bothwell, Dowell was rebuffed once more. The day was far spent, the wind bit shrewdly, and, in that country of igneous rock and stark forest, there was no place to camp, without more preparation than we cared to make. Imagine our relief when the bush-track brought us to the home of a shepherd. Light shone from a window of the small slab cottage. Dogs barked, voices were heard, and a door opened. A large-bearded man stood in the doorway, and over each shoulder and at each side were the necks and heads of peering girls. "This will do us," Dowell murmured. He played the unfortunate hero to perfection, and his handsome animated face must have had its effect on the girls, though their father was adamant. "You can see for yourself," said the shepherd, "that I've scarcely got room for my own family." I asked if we might shelter in a smaller and older building that loomed about a hundred yards away in the clearing. "If the sheep and pigs'll let you," he assented; "that's the remains of where I lived before I built this place." There was one room of that ruin in fair order, though the door was off its hinges and there was no window frame. The sheep left quietly, but the pigs retired unwillingly and noisily from their sleeping-quarters. Some fowls, that had been roosting above on a joist, fluttered protestingly out. With shingles we shovelled out the more solid dirt, and scraped the flooring boards. Then, in the dimness of the night, we cut great bundles of grass and reeds that grew beside the creek, and made of them a carpet and a bed. It was no comfortable camp. Dowell looked wistfully out of the window-space towards the shepherd's house, and sighed. We used the door as a necessary barricade against the pigs, fastening it in place with wall-slabs from another part of the dilapidated building. Early in the morning, a white rooster found his way into our sty, and I woke to find that he had pecked all the soft bread out of our last half-loaf. I crumbled a fragment of crust and sprinkled it gently on the blanketed form of the sleeping Dowell. The rooster sprang greedily to the attack. There was a sudden outcry from Dowell, a flapping of the blanket, and a wild squawk from the terrified fowl. "I don't care how soon we leave this place," admitted Raggles. It was the only occasion on which he was very nearly ill-humoured. He regained his faith in human nature when, on the shore of Lake Crescent, we found a solitary shepherd who had just cooked his breakfast, and who, hearing that we were still fasting, cheerfully shared it with us.
Truly we found the Tasmanians a hospitable people, and almost invariably I fared the better for having so attractive a companion. At Bothwell it was certainly Dowell's easy talk that caused young Evans, the storekeeper, to introduce us to his wife and partner, invite us to dinner, and even offer the diffident Dowell a loan of his razor. And Wilson, the police inspector on the road to Great Lake, having heard from Evans that we were coming, welcomed us heartily and gave us a couple of meals and a night's lodging. And the shepherds, too, about the shores of Great Lake, treated us as guests. Old Jack Early gave us his best bunk to sleep in, and furnished it with an ample possum-fur coverlet. Doran entertained us at lunch in the midst of his splendid tribe of young Dorans, to say nothing of the wombats that pushed about our legs as we sat at table. Palmer, the gigantic red-bearded youth, who drummed heavily on his chest as he cried "It's good to be alive, ain't it?" was a little uncertain at first whether he should shoot us as detectives in search of possum-trappers and trout-spearers, or fraternize and be glad of our company; but he took us to his savage heart at last. And then there were the Brandums!
Mrs Brandum's neat weather-board cottage commanded a magnificent lake view from its panelled front door and its lace-curtained windows. Inside, the place was miraculously, not to say painfully, tidy and clean. The bedrooms had dressing-tables with lace cloths, and the curtained beds were adorned with spotless coverlets. Every chair displayed its immaculate antimacassar. The fireplaces were daintily proportioned to the rooms.
I call the house Mrs Brandum's because it was evidently built and furnished to suit the taste of that brisk, practical grey-haired Scottish lady, who spent her life, so far as I could gather, in household tasks, the tanning of native skins, and the working of antimacassars, though her bookshelf showed that she was willing also to read such books as came her way.
Behind the house was a bark hut, such as most of the shepherds inhabited—a dark, low-browed, smoky place with a fireplace constructed to accommodate great logs. There, in the evening, sat Mr Brandum, "old Dan," smoking his cutty, for tobacco was forbidden amid the antimacassars. He was a typical old shepherd, grey-bearded and brown-faced, rugged in character, dress and general appearance, and an alien to his wife's precise and persistent culture.
At first, Dowell was a great favourite with Mrs Brandum, for he showed a bright interest in her belongings and acquirements—her tanned trout skins, her vegetable patch—and that really was interesting—, her volumes of fiction and theology, her knitting, and her excellent cookery; but all this was changed when a Scottish minister arrived and began to revive memories of her native land. The Rev. Mr Thompson spent the evening in the house, interchanging scraps of dialect with his enraptured hostess, while Dowell and I swapped yarns with Dan in the hut. Mrs Brandum may be forgiven if she regretted that her best bedroom had been assigned to her two swagmen, while her redheaded compatriot, who dreamed exclamatorily that he was being attacked by snakes, had to suffer the indignity of second-best.
"How long do you think we ought to stop here?" Dowell asked, as we were preparing for bed. I took a mental view of the bed of young turnips, and replied that a couple of days more would be a fair thing. "Well, I'm sorry," he admitted, "but I told Thompson we might be going down over the Tiers in the morning. No matter! I'll catch him early and tell him we've altered our plans." Man proposes. After breakfast came family devotions. We pushed our chairs back to the walls, and listened while the minister read the parable of the prodigal son. Then we turned and knelt. The first few words of the prayer were of the commonplace exacted on all such occasions, but, with a sinking heart, I heard Mr Thompson—his beard was of Judas' own colour—proceed to offer up a humble supplication for "our young friends, who are about to leave us this morning on a perilous journey." He was right. I have never met a more convincing illustration of the efficacy of prayer.
At Gerringong there are two empty cottages on the slope behind a long pale-brown beach. On the door of the smaller and older of the buildings there are chalked many inscriptions to inform the weary wayfarer that this is a "haunted house" and to warn him to "look out for the ghost at 12." The verandas and partition of both houses are gradually disappearing, for wood is scarce. Once there were thick curtain-poles, a cedar mantelpiece and two cupboards in the more recent abode. The cupboard doors, I recollect, kindled with almost miraculous rapidity. The white pine lining is a tradition—a sweet dream of the distant past. The flooring is hard and unsatisfactory, but can be put to profitable use by a man with a tomahawk. Even now there are traces of what was once a garden, and evidence that a sanguine agriculturist planted his beds with aloes and tomatoes. The whole of the surrounding estate is a grazing-ground for cattle.
It was almost dark when we reached the familiar camp. Certainly the light was not bright enough to justify a walk to the scrub at the northern end of the beach in search of firewood. The foam shone white along the edge of the dusky sea. 'Arry took the billy and fetched water from the swamp which lies between the camp and the beach, while I lit a fire in the fireplace of the haunted house.
"Why not the big house?" said my mate slinging the billy on the wire hook which was suspended from an iron bar in the chimney.
"This is cleaner," I explained.
"Smaller, and not so much room for the dirt," he amended, unrolling his swag in a corner near the fire. "I wonder why they say this place is haunted."
"Dunno! I reckon somebody put up a notice for a joke, and others have added their little say. There's a new inscription there on the wall to say: 'Prepare to die when the ghost tramps on the front verander.' That must have been written by some fellow who was wakened by the cows."
"No," said 'Arry, "here's the ghost now. Have you got the tobacco?"
There was a shuffling step outside, as somebody made his way carefully over the ruins of the veranda. Then the door was thrust open and in stepped a traveller. He was small and dark, with a Jewish face and bright eyes. He advanced and lowered his swag. In accordance with etiquette he asked: "Any room, mates?" and I answered: "Lots!" He asked the way to the water, but was obviously glad when we offered to make enough tea for three. He took a piece of raw steak from his nose-bag, and grilled it on a zigzagged piece of hoop-iron that he found on the hearth. All the while, he chatted of the usual topics of the road, told us which were the best places for "tucker," and jeered at the wages offered by the Illawarra pastoralists. "The local chaps take anything, and don't know any better," he said. "A fellow who's never been out of the district cuts a bit of a figure on eight bob a week." As he spoke he slapped down his hissing steak on a slab of bread and said: "Billy's boiling, I think, mates! in with the tea!" Then a happy thought struck him. The ends of his moustache lifted, and wrinkles rayed from the outer corners of his eyes, as he asked: "Ever read them stories called While the Billy Boils?"
"Pretty good, ain't they?"
We thought they were.
"Read When the World was Wide?"
We passed favourable judgment on the volume of poems.
"Yes, some likes 'em," he murmured. He chewed a tough bit of steak for a few minutes, and finally bolted it in despair. Then he added: "Some don't."
We railed on the unappreciative.
He was sitting on his swag directly in front of the fire; we were lounging on either side. He looked from one of us to the other, and said: "You like poetry, an' you know what's good when you see it. I don't mind telling you—perhaps, I'd better not, though—O, bust it! I'm drinking your tea, too! well, I wrote them poems; my name's Henry Lawson."
He looked round for admiration, and got it. When I considered that Lawson's portrait had been thoroughly published throughout Australia, I was charmed by the audacity of the little impostor.
"Oh," I said, "do have some more tea!" And I refilled his pannikin.
"If you don't believe me—"
"Oh, we do," 'Arry assured him, and I corroborated with "Easily."
"I can prove it. You know Lawson's style—my style. Something about it a chap can't mistake."
"Oh, there is—strong individuality."
"Well, run your eye over that."
He took a couple of dirty sheets of paper from his pocket and handed them to me. I unfolded them and read these lines, which were written in a neat round hand:—
It was just before the diggers made a rush for Lie-an'-Rot,
That the swaggie who was gone on Jimmy Nowlett's girl was shot;
He was drinkin' in the shanty where she useter serve the grog,
When Jimmy got the needle an' told him he must shog;
But the gleam of Mary Carey's single eye was like a star
Above a mighty tempest, as they bumped about the bar.
They bit each other's noses as along the floor they rolled,
(O, there's nothing in the present like the gory days of old!)
They plugged each other's peepers an' they gripped each other's hair,
An' Mary laughed an' sooled 'em; but her dad begun to swear,
For over every inch of floor an' wall they whirled an' crashed,
Till every bit of glass about the bloomin' bar was smashed.
In the corner by the counter was a sorter canvas bag
Where Carey kept his cartridges with bits of oily rag,
An' the lovers tumbled over, an' the back o' Billy's head
Went bangin' on the canvas, an'—next minute—he—was dead.
He'd bumped agin' a cartridge, an' it freed him from his pain,
For it went off like a blast an' lodged a bullet in his brain.
We buried him in secret an' a belt of mulga scrub,
An' fought about his blankets at the back o' Carey's pub;
But I often think about him when I open out his swag
Or pull my tea an' sugar from his swellin' tucker bag;—
Of course he doesn't want 'em now, he's got his bed and board
An' a rum-an'-nectar, maybe, at the shanty of the Lord.
I was astounded. The hand was the hand of Lawson, or a very close imitator of his style. Had this bead-eyed little Jew written the verses? If not, how had they come into his possession? "They are pretty lines," I said, "pretty and pathetic."
He waved the paper aside when I held it towards him. "If you think it's a good pome," he remarked diffidently, "you'd better keep it. It's never been printed. Sometime, when you're on your uppers in the city, you can publish it. You ought to be able to get a couple of quid for it, if you tell 'em who wrote it. I don't think it's quite as good as some of the pieces in the book, myself."
I thanked him for his gift, and stowed it carefully away. The conversation drifted to other topics. Lawson was enthusiastic in his praise of Banjo Paterson. "Not but what I didn't like him at first," he admitted. "First time I ever met him, we had a fight—nothin' much you know; just a spar round—on the Lavender Bay wharf. But, bless you he didn't mind. Took it well, he did. Come up to me with his handkerchief to his nose and says: 'Shake hands, old man. You're a bit smarter with them paws o' yours than you look.' And we've been friends ever since."
"I'd always heard Lawson was a bit hard of hearing," 'Arry said, "but you seem to hear all right."
"Well, in Sydney, you know, a man has to protect himself agin' these interviewers. If you sham stone deaf, it helps to keep 'em off."
He related his discreditable experiences in Maori-land, and his adventures in New Guinea. His revelations became more confidential, more interesting, more unprintable. He represented himself as a sentimental but unprincipled vagabond, and he libelled all the best-known writers and journalists in Sydney. He gave a full and brilliant account of a spree which he had enjoyed with a well-known editor who is generally credited with a demeanour of almost puritanic severity. He was carried away by the torrent of his own eloquence, and the volcanic flow of his lurid unveracity swept over politicians, actresses and the clergy. Nothing daunted him. He was the most superb liar I have ever met.
When he was tired, and we could no longer supply him with any more names to hang his purple stories on, he abruptly bade us good night; and in a few moments no sounds were to be heard save the roaring of the sea, the clicking of the sinking fire, 'Arry's deep and regular breathing, and the snoring of "Henry Lawson."
It was all Jim's fault.
Because he was a mounting member of the junior bar when he was at home, he thought he carried an air of respectability with him even in the bush. But after six weeks' wandering, with a swag and without a razor, he lost much of his urban charm. I kept telling him that he ought to wash every day, precedent or no precedent. I anticipated a terrible degeneration at the outset, when I saw him wrap raw steak and a copy of Shakespeare in the same bandanna handkerchief. If it had not been for his untidy appearance, we never should have come into collision with the police at all. And his attempt to prove an alibi only made my explanations incredible. As for his midnight recitation of Sigurd the Volsung in the stuffy little lock-up, it was in bad taste, and was not calculated to improve the temper of the sergeant.
We were having a smoke-oh on the wavy little path near Cox's River when the man with scattered whiskers overtook us. He allowed his skinny old moke to stop, and slid to the ground. He was so thin—so obviously a skeleton with only enough fleshy covering to satisfy the requirements of decency—that if he had collapsed rattling into a heap, I should hardly have been surprised. But he shuffled a few steps and then dropped suddenly, as though his knee-joints had given way, and there he crouched. He had nodded when he first came up, so he smoked in silence for a few minutes, reaching from between his outstretched knees and clutching fitfully at a tuft of grass. At last he said it was hot; and we admitted that it was. He painfully discussed the weather of the past week, smoked, spat, turned his rickety head on one side and cocked a hollow eye at the blue, and prognosticated. Jim sat leering at him, and grunted affirmatives. I tried variations on the theme. Conversation flagged, and the man with scattered whiskers was depressed and reflectively chewed his knuckles. After a pause, he asked us where we came from.
"Jenolan Caves." I gave him the name of the last settlement we had passed through.
It seemed at first as though that had closed the discussion, but another idea was clutched from the grass-tuft.
"It's pretty dark in them caves, ain't it?"
"Black as the inside of a dark cell," I agreed.
There was a startled look in his haggard eyes, but it was not until I noticed Jim's sinister grin that I realized that my simile was ill-chosen.
"Not that I've ever been in one," I said hastily. "I don't look much like a criminal, do I?"
He looked at me, shifted his gaze to Jim, and mumbled: "No, mate, no. But looks goes for little."
I might have felt annoyed, but that his latter words seemed from his manner to be no more than the utterance of a reassuring reflexion. Jim, of course.
I tried humour, and it only increased his melancholy. His laughs were mirthless snorts, delivered in couples. I told him stories about snakes and fish, and they did not surprise him—only reminded him of still more extraordinary occurrences. He related his fantastical legends without interest and without hope of exciting interest in his hearers.
The whisky flask happened to be in my inner coat-pocket, and it still contained enough liquor for a nip, or a nip and a half if the first man went easy. Under pretence of gaining shelter to light my pipe, though the day was breathless, I went to a tree a few paces behind the wretched traveller, and, glancing inquiringly over his head at Jim, I exposed the neck of the flask. The man with scattered whiskers turned suddenly, without a premonitory creak, and saw me hastily thrusting something away, and wrinkling my forehead at Jim. He too looked at Jim, and was in time to catch him scowling blackly and shaking his unkempt locks at me.
"Are you going far to-night?" I asked weakly.
The man with scattered whiskers leaped at a chance of escape. "I am that," he said. "So long, mates! I must be gettin'."
He "got" with unexpected agility. In a moment or two he had flung himself at his horse, hauled himself aboard, and violently prodded the creature's ribs with his large loose boots. The steed woke with a start, jumped indignantly, and jerked itself over the rise in a lumbering canter.
That the traveller had not gone very far before nightfall became evident when he overtook us next day at the foot of Nellie's Glen. He was afoot now, and carried slung on his shoulders two half-filled sacks tied together by the mouths. We were seated in the shade beside a waterhole. Perhaps he would have passed us, but Jim called out: "Hello! Come and have a drink. My shout."
"Well—er—," he began diffidently.
Jim cut him short: "Sit down!"
There was dead silence.
It became painful.
I was determined to put the gentleman at his ease—to remove from his mind the impression left upon it by Jim's forbidding appearance. I thought hard. At that time Butler, the murderer who used to take men prospecting and come back from the mountain gullies without them, was supposed to be on the high seas. Everybody was talking about him and wondering whether he had really taken ship for America, or had given the police the slip and concealed himself somewhere in Australia. I felt that here was a subject fresh and cheerful.
I said: "I suppose there's no sort of suspicion that Butler may be hanging about these parts still?"
"No, mate, no—oh no!" he jabbered ecstatically. "I 'aven't 'eard 'im mentioned—not lately—not what you might call mentioned. No, there ain't no suspicion. Leastways, the police is watching for him still, and he'd soon be caught if he was to—not but what he couldn't walk safely enough along the main road if he wanted to—if he didn't do anything suspicious like. Small blame to him, I think. I wouldn't give him away."
"Even if you had the chance?" suggested Jim.
His jaw dropped. I saw that Jim was exercising a disturbing influence upon him again. It disgusted me.
"Well," I said, "I'm off."
"Me too," said the man with scattered whiskers, rising shakily under the weight of his sacks and setting his face towards Katoomba.
His rear view was an extraordinary caricature. His clothes hung upon his scarecrow frame-work in long limp folds. His trousers had been let down a foot to compensate for the shortness of their legs. The seat was drooping, a triangular bag, as though he had been using it as a pocket.
There was a little kodak in our larger billy. "Can't you get a shot at him?" Jim whispered.
I knew by the stiff jerkiness of the man's walk that he had overheard; but what a snapshot he would make! I swung my swag to my shoulder, took the kodak, handed Jim both billies, and stole very quietly after the quarry. I concealed the camera behind my nose-bag, and crept closer and closer. When I was well within range, I pushed the button across to set the shutter. There was a slight click, and the man with scattered whiskers looked round. His mouth was open, and his tongue lolled over his lower lip. His eyes were stretched as wide as he could get them without a rip at the corners. He cast one glance of despair at me, and ran. I ran too. Most of the path was in shadow, but here and there a broad band of sunlight improved the conditions for snapshots. At last I aimed rapidly and pressed the button. Then I gave up the chase. He tore away up the steep path, taking the biggest and quickest strides his trousers would permit. Breathlessly he took a short cut by way of Bonnie Doon, and I saw him leaping the rocks like a wallaby, and scooting along the path in the face of the cliff. I never expected to see him again.
It was all Jim's fault.
There is an iron tank of water at the High Range half-time Public School, so travellers used to camp in the playshed. The school itself is a wooden structure, with a large fireplace; but it was always locked against the intrusion of wayfarers, until Jim and I smashed in a pane of the window with a sapling, turned the catch, and swung back the frame on its hinges. This method of effecting an entrance was simple, easy, and productive of pleasant results; yet nobody seemed to have thought of it before. Once in, we soon had the door in working order. Then we stripped the bark from the roof of the shed, and rigged ourselves a couple of comfortable bunks opposite the fireplace.
In the morning, while I was still lying between my blankets, the upper half of an unsavoury old tramp appeared at the window. His felt hat was pushed back, and he was noisily scratching his head.
"Mornin'," he said, in a dull, uninterested tone, and I grunted a return greeting, and flung my arms out to stretch into working elasticity.
"You lie pretty late, don't you, mate?" he inquired, with a monotony of voice that was less suggestive of weariness than of death or mesmeric somnambulism. "Sun's pretty 'ot out 'ere."
"Billy's just on boiling," said Jim, who was sitting in the doorway mending his trousers; "better come in and have some tea."
"I don't mind," droned the grey-bearded vagabond; "I ain't had any brekfuss yet."
He eased himself of his swag at the door, entered, and sank stiffly upon the long school form; and there he sat, while his expressionless gaze crept over the surroundings. Slowly he drew forth an ancient pipe and a little tobacco dust—the latter wrapped in a twist of greasy newspaper—and with mechanical continuity of action made preparation for a smoke.
"Got a match, mate?" he said, but without any note of interrogation in his voice.
We supplied him; and he puffed away, making little popping explosions every time he ejected a mouthful of smoke.
"What's the road like, on, that way?" He indicated the direction with his thumb.
"Pretty fair," I told him; "tucker at most of the houses. Not too many chaps on this road yet—nor likely to be."
"Which way'd you come?" Jim asked.
"Bourke," he said, with as much expression as a clock striking one.
"Along the line?"
"No. Railway at Condobolin, and I crossed it again at Tichborne. I came along through Cowra an' a place called Bolong, and right along a track through the mountains. I'm not goin' back to the railway."
"I believe yer. Starvation."
"What's it like out west—along the Darling?" I enquired.
"Well," he said, plugging the bowl of his pipe with his thumb, regardless of the heat, "I've been there a good number o' years, an' a man could always be sure of his rations; but it's played out now, all right—just played out."
He sat gazing against the bare wall of the schoolhouse, but in his dim, bleared eyes I could see the hopeless life-in-death of the grey inland plains. Like the chameleon, his soul had changed to harmonize with its environment, and his existence was a mirror of flat, dry, monotonous desert.
"Where are you bound for Jim asked, as he pulled on his mended breeches.
"I thought I'd try the Northern Rivers," he explained, in his dead-and-buried voice.
I was taking the billy to the fire at the time. I turned and stared at him, but he was unmoved. He meant it, if he was capable of meaning anything. Jim winked. I gave the old man a pannikin of tea and a lump of bread, and then set to work to enlighten his mind—if he had a mind. I said:
"If you're going to the Northern Rivers district you'll have to cross the railway again, unless you go round by the back of Bourke."
"Not the Western Railway," he persisted.
"Not the Bourke Railway."
"I crossed it at Tichborne, so I must be to the north side of it, you see?"
There was hope; he was beginning to show rudimentary reasoning powers. I said: "That was a branch line—the line to Forbes."
"Where am I now?" he asked, as though it did not matter, anyway.
"Going towards Berrima."
He stopped chewing and tried to think. "Never heard of it," he said. "Where is it?" and he recommenced his chewing.
"Near the Southern Railway."
The words failed to penetrate. He heard, but did not comprehend. Perhaps his effort at thought had exhausted him.
"Now you're here, you'd better go up and have a look at Sydney," Jim remarked, cheerfully.
The expressionless eyes turned towards the door, as a day-old infant's sight is attracted by light.
"Not me; I left Sydney in sixty-three, and I'm not going back there any more."
Possibly a pathetic history lay behind the words. If so, it had long since ceased to affect its hero.
"What'll you do?" I said, puzzled.
"Go north along the line."
"But then—don't you see?—you're south of Sydney."
"By Gawd!" The exclamation was a bare form of words, without a rag of emotion to adorn it. After a few minutes interval, he said: "An' if I go south where do I get?"
There was a long silence.
"Where do yous come from?"
"South Coast—Illawarra and Shoalhaven districts."
"What's it like?"
"Dairy district. Nothing doing—unless you go in for coal-mining."
"No chance of work," Jim interjected, decisively; "but there's no end of tucker."
The old trav'ler picked up his pipe from the desk and put it in his pocket.
"What more does a man want?" he said, simply. "Ah well." He hoisted his swag, muttered "So long!" and plodded away mechanically in the direction of Berrima.
There was a demonstration when we left Bullah Delah this morning. A crowd of men clumped on the veranda of the pub and cheered, and women stood in every doorway. I kissed innumerable children, and took off my hat right and left. Smith says he can't stand tommyrot; but then nobody offered him a drink.
We were making for Cooloongolook, but we missed one turning through there being no signpost. Later on I wished they had consistently omitted their posts right along. We left a path which we should certainly have followed if a signboard, ambiguously placed, hadn't misled us. Gradually our bush road became a faintly-marked dray-track, and at last petered out in a gully. It was merely the spoor of a timber-cutter.
What are we to do? Go back miles, for the second time? Smith said there was no other possible course, and abused me for leading him astray. That decided my plans. We rested by the creek for a while. The gully was deep with fern, and here and there a lovely white orchid spread its delicate blossoms—so delicate that a finger-touch leaves vivid bruises. We sat on the rocks and smoked, till Smith said: "We'd better hurry, or we'll never get to Cooloongolook to-night."
I said: "Hurry, then. I'm not going to Cooloongolook."
"Where are you going?"
I pointed with my pipe.
"Up there! Rot! What for?"
"Top of the range, and northward, to the Maclean."
"But there's no track; it's as wild as they make it!"
I filled the billies and started, Smith expostulating till he was breathless. We climbed laboriously up the steepy spur, through ferns and rotting foliage, round or over great logs. Our hearts thudded and our bodies steamed, and the salt sweat stung our eyes. We gasped in the still heat. The summit appeared to recede before us. Whenever we rested Smith swore at me faintly. He was so incongruous—so grotesquely at variance with the grand silence of the expectant bush—that I could not help laughing; yet, somehow, the humour of the situation seemed as grim to me as the Dance of Death. The bush mutely protested, and sounded in my ear some inarticulate threat. The ferns that brushed my hands gave mysterious warning. But a lyre-bird sang in the myrtle-shade, and my soul danced in the shower of his notes. Still, there is a mood in these waiting trees that I have never felt before.
I thought that there would be fairly smooth walking on top of the range (as there is in the Blue Mountains), but I was badly mistaken. The tangled jungle on the ridge is worse than the canopied ferneries of the lower land. Vines—many of them armed with strong, hooked claws—clutch at our arms, trip us, lasso our swags, and drag us this way and that in their serpent coils. Often I walked ahead, slashing a way with my sheath-knife, while Smith stumbled behind, spilling the water, and wailing in gasps. I try to shut out his voice—to forget and ignore him—but he is as persistent as fate. I thought the bush was fiercely glad to see him falling, and tearing himself through the brakes, and panting up the slopes. We pass many snakes—copperheads mostly—and I almost wonder that they do not feel this irresistible spirit of the solitude urging them to turn and strike at him with deadly fangs. Once he said he was too tired out to go a step further. He dropped his swag, and bundled himself down beside it, and there he lay, with arms thrown wide. I sat at a little distance from him—out of range of conversation. Then he squealed, and I saw him jump up, grabbing at his legs, slapping himself, squirming, and jerking. He had thrown his swag upon a nest of hopping ants, and the ground about him was a flickering swarm of venom. He tore off his clothes, and I got a stick and scraped away such of the creatures as he couldn't easily reach. I found it necessary to scrape energetically. He has been in a sort of high fever ever since—thirsty and flushed, and regretting that he hasn't brought his bottle of somebody's patent painkiller.
We are very travel-worn this evening. My clothes are torn; my hands and arms are covered with bleeding scratches, and I feel as though I had been wading to the knees in sand. Smith is a haggard wreck. We have made a fair course northerly, and have found no great difficulty in striking the saddles, although they dip low and are thickly veiled. Of course our rate of progress has not been great. We see a good many lyre-birds. Once I found the playground of the bower-birds, and left them a few coloured blanket-threads for decoration. We have had to go a good way down into the gullies each time we wanted water, and consequently use it sparingly. Whereat Smith—but bust him, anyway! He lost his blessed old sketching-block to-day!
We've pitched our camp between the roots of an enormous tree, on one of the saddles. The water is not too far away, in a gully full of palms, myrtles, orchids, ferns, and creepers. The bush is beginning to wake in the dusk, and a multitudinous whisper rises from the sinister shadows. Nature is murmuring against intrusion.
* * *
Smith has found a big leech on his leg, and is gibbering because he has heard that the Northern Rivers leeches get under a man's eyelids. We searched, and caught six, looping towards us, or standing on their tails and wavering. I shouldn't be much surprised to find Smith sucked nearly dry in the morning; but it's too dark to shift camp in this network of wilderness. The arms of the bush are about us. But Smith is her enemy—an alien, as distasteful to her as a leprous cabbage-Chinaman would be to a gathering in high society. The aromatic scent of wild foliage floats from the dusky jungle, and pleasant sounds are filling the night with sympathetic thoughts, and the life of the bush flows over and through me; and yet I am sick at heart.
I wish to God I had come on this journey by myself, or with anybody but Smith! But I'll keep to my word with you, and give you a letter-diary, telling you everything of note in due order.
This bush is very noisy in the night, when all the wild creatures are abroad—mopokes and curlews, and birds whose notes are strange to me; wombats tearing up earth and rotten logs in search of roots; wallabies thudding in the scrub; bears grunting to each other in the trees; bandicoots squealing and tumbling; on every side a woof of uncouth sound—squeaking, drumming, shouting, flapping, and rending; and the leaf-mattressed earth full of a tiny, creeping rustle; and high up in the tree-tops the brush of the night-wind's trailing skirts. Once an old bush-giant fell, somewhere to the south-west, with a groaning rush and crackle, followed by one grand crash. Spare me the task of recording Smith's comments.
Early in the morning the birds began their concert, and the bush was washed from end to end with their fresh, unfaltering notes. A lyre-bird settled on the ground a few feet from me, and hopped cautiously towards me, uttering short, enquiring whistles. I lay still and watched him; but when Smith snorted and heaved in his blanket, the frightened creature rose, screaming. I got up and looked about. Within a stone's throw I saw a pair of beautiful round-breasted wonga pigeons, parading on a log. I went a little closer and watched them. They showed no fear; probably they had never before seen anybody in that part of the mountains. I left them murmuring, breast to breast, and took the billies for water. I am always the one to get water, light the fire, and cook our food. I waded slowly down through the thick ferns and decaying foliage. At each bird-note, blossoms of pure emotion sprang to sudden fullness, and drenched me with inspiriting fragrance. I sat for a minute by the creek and let the mood have play. Then a cold breath whispered up the glen, and I thought of Smith. I hastily filled my billies to the brim, and scrambled back to our camp.
"How's that for luck, Jack?" said Smith. It was the first time he had spoken with enthusiasm since the day we left Newcastle.
"What?" I asked, without looking.
"That bird—blast you!"
I glanced hastily where he pointed. There, with ruffled plumage, lay the body of a pigeon—a male wonga. Its head was crushed and boltered with blood, and its feet were curved in helpless immobility. A steam of rage rose in my brain, and dimmed my eyes, and filled my soul with dangerous apathy. As I set down my load, I asked:
"How did you get him?"
"I chucked a stick at him. He was pretty tame, you know; but it was a good shot all the same."
"Why did you kill him?"
"Because I wanted fresh meat, of course."
He sat down, and began tearing the feathers from the bird.
"Here, you don't want all that water. I want a bit to clean this brute."
I poured out some water on the ground, and left just enough for our cooking. He protested:
"Don't be a fool, Jack! Hang you, don't look at me like that! I'm not going to be looked at as though I were a murderer, even if you do eat nothing but nuts and grass!"
He used some of his tea to wash the blood and entrails from the poor creature's body. But he had not finished roasting the meat when I shouldered my swag and started.
"Wait a bit!" he shouted. "I haven't half cooked this pigeon."
I took no notice.
"Aren't you going to wait for a smoke? Oh!"
He thrust the carcase into his pocket, and hurriedly rolled his blankets. He was afraid of being lost.
* * *
We plunged through the thickets until midday, and then halted on a saddle. I threw the billies to Smith, and told him I thought the water would be nearer on the western slope.
"Take care," I added, "that you come back the right way."
"You'd better go," he replied, sulkily; "I know nothing about this mountaineering rot."
But he went.
I can't tell you intelligibly what followed. You have not endured Smith and his befouling of clear waters. You have not sat and listened to the almost articulate prompting of the trees. You don't know what it is to have the bush about you filling you with primeval passion till you are pure savage. I cannot even attempt explanation. I don't want to dwell on it, either; so you must pick your way as best you can.
As soon as he was out of sight, a rush of determination swelled up and engulfed me like a tide. "Determination" I call it, for lack of a better word; but I seemed to have surrendered my will to the vast powers that reign in that solitude. I was their all-but-passive instrument. With the stealthy watchfulness of a prowling beast I hid our swags among the ferns in the edge of the eastern gully, and lay beside them, listening. The day was hot, and fairly still. He came up and looked about carefully; but I had concealed all traces of our halting-place. Then he shouted, carelessly:
In the silence a dead branch snapped and fell almost at his feet. The bush had flung her gage. He sang out louder, and walked about the saddle, searching. As he passed me I could see the sweat on his face and could hear his muttering. He cried out as loud as his lungs would let him, and was answered by the ironical whispers of the wind. He started north along the range, but missed his way. I followed him quietly. When he went, shouting wildly, into a gully, I skirted the dip, and waited among the ferns on the opposite spur. I heard him labouring through the mazes of that hostile wilderness. When I caught sight of him I noticed that his eyes were starting and his jaws twitching. He stopped and cooeed in a strange voice. Then, as though he had lost time he ran along the edge of the hill, without noticing that he was going back to his starting-point. I tracked him with the relentless patience of a panther. I can't tell you all about it now—it's too fresh. When he threw away the billies I picked them up, and hung them on a tree where I could easily find them.
He shrieked, and tore at random about the range. His clothes were tattered by the thorny growths; his face and arms were astream with blood. Three times he blundered across the gullies. And I moved on his trail and lurked in the coverts of the snakes. At last he sat down and buried his face in his arms.
I watched him from behind a log. His whole body, retaining its attitude of rest, was writhing in each separate muscle. He sprang to his feet, facing me, and stretching his hands towards the sky, burst into uncontrollable laughter. Good heavens, Broome, do you know the sound of a madman's laugh? I could have stood his shrieks; but I knew that if I left him in the ranges now, my life would be a hollow dome filled with echoing peals of mirthless laughter. That hideous sound would ring in my ears for ever. With such unnatural yells did the furies pursue Orestes! In mere self-defence, I rose to my feet behind the log, and stood glaring. I could feel my face set stiff against the fore-bones of my skull, and my teeth impressed upon their protecting flesh. He saw me, and gaped in dead silence. He shrank and cowered, and by degrees there came into his eyes a knowledge of what had happened. He knew what I had intended. So we stared at each other, till I said coldly:
"You'd better come for the swags."
But the stark trees droop their leaves in bitter reproach. I have broken faith with the bush.
Looking backward across the years, Louisa, I realize that to thee and to none other did I give my virgin heart. Purged of its flesh my spirit shall go forth with thee as guiding star. Sophronia, Rosie, Olive Undine, Alice—all, all shall be forgotten: but thou art still the angel of my baptism.
My brother, with his hands plunged deep amid the stamps and string and pencil-ends of his knicker-bocker pockets, boasted of his sweetheart an dshamelessly tossed her name to us. Bert Muston did likewise; and the swaggering amorists exchanged critical remarks on their respective lady loves. I listened in timid and wondering silence. How was one to acquire a sweetheart? What was one to say to her? Did she always confess that she was a sweetheart? Had my brother—my brother, good heaven!—dared to exchange vows with Hilda Swaine? While I was yet rapt in the wonder of it, I was suddenly dragged from the privacy of my meditation, and hustled into combat with my fraternal braggadocio. He mocked me, and held me up to scorn as one lacking the joy of a secret devotion—a devotion which one might proclaim as a careless challenge to all the world. He summed up all my deficiencies in a word; I was a kid. I winced, but struck back blindly. I let them know that I did not babble of such things to all who had ears, but that I, too, frenziedly abased myself before the shrine of Venus Vitulina. They demanded the name of the damsel. I stood upon my dignity, and referred darkly to the decease of the monkey. My inventive powers were feeble; they required time. But my brother was insistent. I gracefully yielded them a hint of her identity, her initials, I told them, were L.C. My brother's brain was instantly to work. "He means her name is Elsie—don't you see?" And while he was mentally running his finger down the list of our acquaintance I escaped.
When he returned to the charge, after his dismal search for air-born Elsie, I replied glibly. He did not believe in the existence of my sweetheart. If she was real, he would have heard of her, or seen her. I laughed in high disdain. He played boldly, having nothing to lose: "Where do you see her?" I trumped him; "On the way to school." I attended a dame's school, and he was a grammar-school boy. Her name, then—her name! He swore secrecy. I knew he lied, but I, with leisure for the task, could scale the heights of mendacity, and prove myself his equal. "Her name—you won't tell—her name is Louisa." I had thought of that. What was her other name? I was unprepared, and yet the word sprang to my lips: "Cady—Louisa Cady." What power had inspired me to utter that holy name? Was it thou, O secret visitant? Was it thou, Louisa?
Slowly the myth formed itself under repeated questionings. From day to day, I learned from my own tongue, from my own heart, the truth about Louisa. Her father made hats at the shop where there was a cabbage-tree hat under a glass case in the window. Her brown hair was fine and plentiful, and she always wore it brushed out, and the sun shone right into the middle of it on either shoulder. Her eyes were very dark. She could play marbles better than my brother. She wore a pinafore and the dress she had on week-days was red. She had given me a bottle-oh—a glass marble out of the neck of a lemonade bottle. I showed the bottle-oh!
At length my brother came to me, glorying in a new discovery. Bert Muston had said that they did not make hats at that particular shop; they only got them from England and sold them. I had no pity. Louisa, I said, ought to know better than Bert Muston, considering that her father worked there. Argument could go no further.
Louisa became the constant object of my waking thoughts. Louisa marched in the endless procession that haunted my pillow. Louisa even spoke to me in dreams. I longed to see her in the flesh, to touch her dress as she brushed by me, to bless her with unspoken worship. Alas, at times I was a doubting Thomas. If a little brown-haired girl passed me in the street, I strove to invest her with the divine attributes of my visionary love. It was in vain. However fair to see, all living maidens fell short of the perfection of Louisa. Perhaps my wistful gaze was too searching. I remember that some of the little girls put out their tongues at me. Louisa would never have—the very thought was worse than blasphemy. Louisa, damsel ever young! Louisa in the red frock and the pinafore! Louisa with the sunbeams in thy hair! Never have these mortal eyes been blessed with sight of thee, and yet I love thee still. Thy memory is a fragrant incense in the dimness of my soul. Louisa—Oh, Louisa!
In his portraits, partly because of his wig and partly because of the frozen demeanour of the man who gravely sits for a painter and remembers his own dignity, George Washington is a remote creature, more fit for a frontispiece than for a place within "the red-leaved table of the heart." The story of the cherry-tree shows him as human, but with an unfortunate trend towards the formal gravity of the pictures. We would willingly forget though we cannot forgive his magniloquent declaration that he could not tell a lie, but we like to remember that to him, as to all other little boys who have learned to wield a tomahawk, a tree was something to be cut down. He loved to swing his weapon and feel the edge take the green wood. He watched the chips fly and the notch gape wider, heard the leaves tremble together, and rejoiced in the crackle and crash. The exercise of power delighted him. The small boy has not learned to create, so he is by nature destructive. And yet, in a little while, he begins to wake to the beauty about him and to its mystery, and he is likely enough to become something of a nature-mystic, feeling a strange comradeship with invisible beings who dwell in green places. The trees are no longer mere wood, and the sap that runs in their veins is no longer utterly unlike the blood that beads on his own scratched fingers. The less he mixes with other children, the closer is he drawn to his silent friends in bush and garden; but particularly in the bush, for his wild shy spirit craves for something that is not orderly and that produces beauty for its own sake and not to please the inmates of square rooms.
I was a member of a gang of diminutive ruffians who used to raid the Botanic Gardens for guavas, nuts and all that a child finds edible in such a place. We knew every hiding-place, and every hole through which a rabbit or a boy could dodge. Our triumph was supreme when we discovered a cinnamon-tree, for green cinnamon was an exotic delicacy which not even our parents could obtain. We took long thin strips of the bark, and chewed them surreptitiously in school, to the envy of those who could not discover where we got them. We may not have liked the flavour much, but we did enjoy the glory. Next time we visited the tree we took larger strips and more of them, and cinnamon bark became an article of trade throughout the school. We ruminated furtively and there was masticated fibre everywhere under the desks. But how fleeting is joy! At last our stocks were depleted. The tree was small, and it was looking conspicuously naked. Two gardeners were posted to watch it and capture the vandals. By marching past guiltily we succeeded in attracting attention. Then we separated into two groups, one of which betook itself in the direction of the guavas while the other, with a sly demonstration of silk twists, made for a pond where we sometimes angled for gold-fish. To our delight, the sentries were lured from their posts, and, while we sauntered amiably about distant flower-beds, a desperado, whom we had left in ambush, stripped from the cinnamon-tree every vestige of bark within reach. That was a day of perfect happiness.
It cannot be denied that I had taken an intelligent interest in the tree, but it was a selfish and unsympathetic interest, only a step higher than that of the baby-boy who loved the old gum-trees in the Domain because the loose bark at the foot of each grey trunk harboured beetles and earwigs. It is significant that, though I remember the appearance of cinnamon bark, I know nothing of the native beauty of the tree and have no recollection whatever of the shape of the leaves. Yet a year or two later I was wandering naked in the bush and thrilling—as I still do—at the touch of living foliage on my body. God seemed afar in his Heaven, but the gods are always near.
Being lonely, a rebel in the home and an Ishmael among children, I made a particular friend of a Chinese elm in a thicket of the garden. To the spirit of that tree I paid reverential tribute. I burnt the aromatic gum of grass-trees beneath its branches, and its shelter over me was a blessing. I whispered my fears and hopes with my lips brushing against its bark. I shed tears above its roots. I flung my arms about it passionately as I muttered the stories of my love and hate. I have fallen asleep in its shadow and waked so calmly that my troubles seemed to have been purged from me during my slumbers. The turbid waters of many years have gone over me since then, but the adorations of childhood are not to be forgotten. It is less than a week since I put an arm around the old tree and laid my cheek against its trunk for comfort. I ask no sympathy with my folly. I am still Ishmael, but in the desert where I take refuge there are trees.
In the evening, just before the pleasant interval in which one realizes that the light is growing too dim for comfortable reading, though it is still too early for lamps, there is a stirring of a soft body and a little scratching of claws in the long wooden box which forms the ceiling above the bay window. The possum is awake. One imagines his wide eyes and upright ears in the darkness, as he glances about to make sure that his day is really begun and that the hours of slumber with their strange noises—clatter, and heavy footfall, and tumult of children—are really drawn to their close. I suppose his dreams are vexed and confused at times by our incomprehensible interruptions, as ours too may be brought into strange and monstrous ways by unseen life about us. He listens and considers and makes his toilet—scratches his ear, perhaps, or rubs his whiskers. Then he moves along the rafters very cautiously towards the only exit from the warm gloom beneath the iron roof. At that end of the house dwells his consort, a large and unsociable person, who, for sufficient reasons, prefers to live apart from him. There is a warning cough, followed by a rush, a sharp cry of passion, and a fierce struggle above the kitchen. Furry bodies thump and roll, and claws and teeth are surely at work, and both combatants are squealing. They tear themselves apart, and the larger possum retires, coughing resentfully, while her excited little mate watches in silence, and finally makes for the doorway. He pushes through the hole under the eaves, and emerges upon the sloping roof of the porch. The daylight is still a little too strong, for he is on the western side, so he sits for a while enjoying the silence and coolness of the air, before he adventures farther, as a man might pause in the freshness of life when he had left his cumbersome but comfortable house of moulded clay. The light thickens. He waddles up the roof, looking rather ungainly, for his heavy haunches and short forelegs find their true use only in a world of trunks and branches. Over the ridgecap he goes, his down-curled tail-tip vanishes, like a farewell blessing from uplifted crozier, and one hears a dashing of leaves as he leaps into a sheltering bough of a bloodwood-tree. Then Wilf, who is eleven years old, a boy who is shy and awkward in the presence of human creatures, comes out from the back door with a slice of bread in his hand—a slice so clumsily cut that the loaf will convict him when we have our tea. Being sensitive and tender-hearted, my Wilf is quick to take umbrage, and rough and uncouth in his primitive methods of self-defence. He is utter boy, more subtle and less easy to understand than a child of the simpler and more whimsical sex.
No injustice of haste or impatience glides off and leaves him unwounded, for the way to his heart is undefended by the drove of sylphs that watch over Belinda's welfare, and when he is hurt he strikes back savagely and without judgment. The dogs in the road greet him without restraint as a friend and equal, and he fondles even the dirtiest of them with immediate sympathy. It is Wilf, then, who is most intimate with the possum. He approaches the tree, and peers up into the branches where the grey fur has become merely a patch of darkness in the deepening shadows. The possum is still and watchful. "Hullo Poss!" says Wilf; "I see you, old chap. Come on, Poss." And he holds out the hunk of bread. The wild animal understands the free and careless fellowship in the boy's voice, and he likes the taste of bread. He leaps from one bough to another on the downward way, and then descends the trunk head foremost till he is close beside his friend. He stretches out his head, delicately takes the bread between his teeth, turns with leisurely care, and runs up the trunk to the first branch, where he sits and, holding the gift in his forepaws, proceeds to break his fast. And the other wild creature, the human runagate, looks up at him and utters kindly words. Meanwhile the large resentful lady has crept from the shelter of the eaves, and regards the scene with jealous eyes. Whether her malice or his love be the cause, fur will fly. One catches rumours of the feud now and then during the night, when there comes an angry chattering from the gum-trees, or when scampering feet pad rapidly on the veranda.
Not till the dawn is broken does Poss return to his home. He drops heavily upon the iron roof from the tree which provides him with his nearest shelter, playground and food, and one hears him coming presently along the rafters, plunging heavily, and making a sound like the irregular trampling of a man who has discovered his keyhole with difficulty—a sound so difficult to locate, that one might easily imagine that some wanderer of the night had missed his way and was stumbling along the passage. My wife tells me it took her some time to distinguish certainly between the possum's step and mine. Why he comes home so heavily I have never learned. It may be that his encounters with foes and friends leave him so tired that he simulates involuntarily my work-wearied walk. I have never heard that gum-leaves are intoxicating, though I have been rapt into ecstatic dreams by the report that an excellent liqueur can be distilled from the blossom of the eucalypts. At any rate, we seldom fail to know when the possum thuds back into his box, and coils himself for sleep.
I was talking one evening with a friend, the smoke of whose huge cigar drifted through the moonlit chasms of the bloodwood, when Poss rose into sight above the ridgecap. "By gosh! What a shot!" said my friend. I explained that Poss was a lodger. He asked a few irrelevant questions in his alert manner, while the quiet animal stared down at him and wondered why he was there. "Lives up in the roof, does it? Can't you trap it? Possum skins are worth a bit just now, you know." There really are people who think in that fashion.
It was a night of lucid darkness in August—a cold, still night—a night of expectation, when anything might happen. Hour after hour, as we lay, we heard, like the keening watchword of insane sentinels, the melancholy wailing of cats. It was not broken by winds, nor hurried by the spasms of passion; but rose and fell with a calm and horrifying precision. It was formal and deliberate, and reminded one of the decorous woe of paid mourners. It was disturbing. Even the boys on the veranda stirred uneasily and whispered excitedly to each other, and it is not easy to rouse the boys when once they have slipped into the quietude of the night.
At dawn it seemed as though all the cats but one, ashamed to expose their ghostliness to the day, had slunk to obscure corners; but still we heard a short wail, repeated at intervals, and coming with painful regularity, as a miserable creature ran wearily about the house. Two wails from the south, one shrill cry as the cat passed our window, which faced eastward, two as it ran along the north front, and one, dulled by the bricks between, by the back door to the west. And so one seemed to measure at once the sides of the oblong building and the sad animal's rate of tired running.
My wife sighed. "Do find out what is the matter with that cat," she murmured. Merlin, our dark, gentle boy, whose eyes are like wells of darkness, in the depths of which is a glitter of jewelled laughter, pushed open our door. He is always the earliest to rise, and he always comes to kiss his mother. "Merlin," I said; "just go out, will you, and see what on earth ails that cat?"
He went, and, after an absence of five minutes, returned. In his slow distinct way he reported, "It's not one cat, Dad. It's a lot of cats."
"I mean the one that's running about the house."
"Yes; but it's not one, and it's not running. It's lots of cats, and they're just sitting about; but some of them move on when you go near them."
"How many do you call a lot?"
"Well, there's two at the back door, and a good many round the front, and I saw five or six over in the garden, where the peaches grow—and all round the garden."
"Are there ten, all told?"
"Oh, dad! Of course. And there seems to be a good many in the bush, too."
My wife was wide awake now. She shuddered at the memory of fragmentary slumber, as she rose on her elbow, and tried to get a view of the garden.
"Merlin has done his share now, Jack." She pulled the blanket to her chin, as she spoke; "Now go, and see what he means." And she subsided.
I slipped into a suit of pyjamas and went to the back door. Twenty feet away was a paling fence, and on each of the three nearest posts sat a tom-cat. Each tom-cat was tabby and very large, with puffy cheeks and thick whiskers, and each was staring with wide golden eyes straight at the doorway. I called my wife, and she came, shivering in her red wrapper.
"What brings them?" she asked. "I never saw such monsters. And there's another." She pointed at a big tabby in the she-oak. The problem puzzled her, and she meditated over it with a wrinkled brow. "It's love," she decided; "they've been serenading."
I thought not. Those particular cats did not look as though romance would interest them.
I shouted suddenly. Not a cat moved. Then I walked to the front, and cats scurried from under the geranium bushes, and stole along the shrubs near the fence. Grey and yellow fur moved in the shadows under the cypresses, and crouching cats were stealing, with lowered tails, between the cabbages. They seemed to spring from the earth, so swiftly and so silently did they slink from their hiding-places, and make for better cover. I glanced over the cliff into the bush, and saw a scatter of cats among grey rocks and a tangle of undergrowth. They passed out of sight like shadows, and, as I turned away, I felt that innumerable unseen golden eyes watched my going.
My wife had thought the matter over. She said that there must be a dead cat about.
"Well," I admitted, "you're generally right when there's no evidence to mislead you. But do you mean to tell me you think those furry ghosts have been holding a wake?"
It was Saturday, and I returned home at noon. Wilf met me. "Dad," he said, in his offhand manner, "there's such a big dead cat in the bush."
When I saw the corpse, I wondered why we had not found it before. It was a huge bulk—the largest cat I had ever seen—and it had been lying on the rock so long that its dull tabby fur was loose. Cremation seemed the preferable course. I dropped leaves gently above the gigantic Tom, dodging when the light wind from the harbour swayed in my direction. Then I heaped sticks, and threw matches at the heap, till it burst into flames. I fetched more wood, larger pieces, and built a goodly pyre. The flames leaped, rich orange, and the heart of the fire glowed like silver, and, as the rotting sinews felt the fervency, they answered to it horribly. Slowly the stiff neck moved, and the brown glistening head rose from the mouldering legs. Ashes and flaming twigs parted as the mummy budged. The shoulders heaved lifelessly, and the stiff, straight forelegs, from which the paws were already burned, pressed down upon the rock. Amid licking flame the hideous beast rose slowly, and sat like a demon, grinning at me with sharp teeth, which once were hidden by whiskered lips. From hollow eye-sockets, lead-grey bubbles slowly bulged and burst reluctantly.
The cliff, twelve feet in height, was only a few paces from where I stood. A subdued wail sounded from aloft. I looked up, and amid the fringe of grass on the edge of the rock I saw a row of cats gazing fixedly down upon the exequies of their king. They drew back, and vanished as I turned my head; but I knew they were still crouching, and waiting. The bones of the dead monarch's legs had yielded to the heat, and he sank forward. I brought logs, and heaped them, and threw grass-tree into the flames to make a fragrance which I love.
I have never been able to reconcile myself to the amusement of kicking people. In fact, all kicking is distasteful to me. Long before I directed my attention deliberately to the subject, I felt instinctively that kicking a ball was futile, kicking an animal indecent, and kicking a man, woman or child a rather joyless entertainment on both sides. The few occasions on which I have overcome my repugnance have not widened my outlook or enlarged my sympathies, but—through no fault of mine, I am sure—have merely confirmed me in my prejudice. Don't think I am trying to justify myself if I relate a couple of my experiences. I know an explanation is no excuse.
When I was about eighteen, I went to stay with a friend, whose elderly parents maintained social dignity on a small income. The father particularly was obliged to add something of pomp to his manner in order to atone for deafness and a scarcity of cash. The morning after my arrival I woke rather early, and went barefooted to my friend's room only to find that he had already risen. At first I supposed that he had gone to the kitchen to pre pare the breakfast, and I was on my way to that quarter of the house, when I heard him splashing in the bathroom.
The door was ajar, so I pushed it open and entered. He was having rather a dip than a bath, for he was fully clothed, and was leaning well over the end of the bath and laving his face with double handfuls of water. His back was towards me, so of course I kicked. He plunged feebly forward into six inches of water, rolled over and scrambled to his feet; and then I saw that I had lifted an impious foot against my friend's father.
Even now, I have a glow of pride at recalling my immediate realization that it was no time for apologies. I said, "Good morning!" with great heartiness, and retired to the kitchen before he had time to think of what he intended to remark. Now, in a way, that was quite a joyous experience, and yet it was a long while before I attempted anything like a repetition of it.
The last time I broke away from the inhuman inactivity which fetters me was comparatively a few years ago. I owe my involuntary dash for freedom to my wife. She had bought a pair of boots which were too small for her, and, as her ideas of economy are quite unpractical in such circumstances, she wouldn't throw the pointed things away, and buy a better pair, but insisted that she must wear them out. Consequently, when I asked her to come with me to Manly and loaf on the sand, she replied that her shoes were giving her corns, and she didn't think the trip would be pleasurable. I offered her a pair of my boots—I have two pairs—but she declined. Finally, however, she consented to come with me. The pain in her feet grew more and more distressing, and in my imagination her sore feet attained gigantic proportions. They pressed upon my brain till it could scarcely throb. I was obsessed by corns. My mental vision was obscured by blistered toes.
From Manly we returned by tram. At the Spit we waited long for a punt to carry us across Middle Harbour, and, when it came, a great number of people surged aboard. An empty tram departed for Mosman before the overcrowded craft reached the southern shore. Then several hundreds of us waited for the next tram. I let my wife know that if she kept close behind me, I would make a rush and secure her a seat on the front—a pleasant position; one never misses the accidents.
I mentally measured the distance, and took my station a tram's length from the terminus. Others were equally eager for front seats. I looked about, and noticed, at a little distance, three young men who were clearly from abroad, for they spoke with a distinctly foreign brogue. I think it was Scotch. They were talking about me, and enjoying my appearance, for, as I didn't wear a hat, my hair was somewhat disarranged by the wind—and there were other reasons; but there is no need to mention them now. The eldest of these men was red-haired, and large, and looked as though his disposition were as warm as his colour. As the tram drew up, I stepped forward, but the red-haired man shouldered me violently aside just as I was climbing upon the footboard. I stepped back to save myself, and felt my heel crush down upon the toes of my wife.
A cold rage filled my heart, and I acted without undue hesitation. The red-headed man was mounting to the seat that he and I had chosen. I waited a fraction of a second until he was accurately posed, and at the convenient elevation, and then I kicked. He rose lightly and swiftly into the tram, but immediately returned and expressed his extreme dissatisfaction at my conduct. I explained to him quite clearly that I was avenging an injury to my wife. There was lively altercation, in which the passengers took a sporting interest, and suddenly the tram started. He plunged for one compartment, and I for another, in which I found my wife. She was annoyed. Chivalry is the very mischief for getting a man into that sort of trouble. In her opinion I had made a fool of myself and her.
"It was for you," I pleaded; "after being forced to tread on your foot—"
"But it wasn't my foot."
Suddenly I became aware of a furious lady in a neighbouring compartment. She was talking aloud for the benefit of the public at large, and I was the subject of a discourse which lasted the whole of the journey. Her view was that I was a lunatic who tempted Providence by neglecting to wear a hat, and she made no secret of her loathing for rabid, grey, shaggy, half-dressed larrikins who rushed into a crowd for the purpose of stamping upon the feet of highly respectable ladies and kicking gentlemen violently into trams.
It all lies in the point of view. My prejudice against kicking is as obstinate as ever.
Brimstone would never have entered the field of literature if he had been allowed to choose his own course. He was driven in by his wife. And now that he has gained the reputation of a reckless plagiarist, he believes he can detect beneath her expressions of trust and sympathy a lurking suspicion and a secret contempt which, by comparison, almost make the flippant and openly hostile criticism of his friends and business acquaintances a sufferable torment. He spends less of his time at home now, and frequents quiet lounge bars where he can smoke and curse his luck without aggravation or interruption.
She began to goad him to disaster very shortly after they were married. "They say every man can write at least one book," she would say reproachfully, "and I think it's time you proved you are a man." He spent hours in trying to shew her the fallacy involved in her remark. She pointed out the financial advantages of literary fame, and quoted (from Snipped Bits) the prices of stories by Kipling and Marie Corelli. She told him that his lack of self-confidence was not a thing to be proud of; and that he knew very well that he had "lots of imagination and all that sort of thing;" and that he was wasting valuable time; and that if he really loved her he would do what she asked him to. And at last he fell. He started to write a novel. Every night he sat up late in his dressing-gown, until she was afraid that he would injure his health. In the morning he would read her what he had written, and she would pause in the middle of dressing or doing up her hair, and ask him to read some especially inflated passage over again. She declared that the story was lovely, and reiterated her praise until he began to believe in his own genius. When he read the more pathetic parts, his voice trembled and tears came into his eyes, and she watched him in sympathetic silence, with parted lips. He thanked Heaven for a wife with ideas, a helpful mate, a woman who understood him. Without her loving insight, he might never have discovered his vocation. She asked him how he ever thought of his plot—it was just too delightful. He answered simply and with an air of easy modesty that it "came." He did not mention that he had drawn very largely on personal experiences, and events which had occurred before he had met her. As a matter of fact, his hero was an idealized reflection of himself, while his leading lady was sketched from vivid memories of Miss Adelina Wolde. Miss Wolde had gone to England with her parents. She and Mrs Brimstone had never met. Consequently she was good "copy."
By the time that he reached Chapter XXII, the author's borrowed enthusiasm had grown weary, but Mrs Brimstone baited it with eulogy, and whipped it up with reproach, and Brimstone continued to sit late in his dressing-gown. She diffidently proposed new incidents, which he, embedded in the narrative without regard to their relevance, and he accepted her modifications of the plot without demur. After each reading, he discussed the next move with her, and came at last to expect and depend on her suggestions. She revised the last few chapters, and made substantial alterations.
The difficulty now was to find a publisher. The first time the manuscript came back, she was shocked and surprised. But by the time it had been rejected six times she was confident and almost jubilant. Even Charlotte Bronte and Marie Corelli and Thomas Carlyle had met with rebuffs; great and original work seldom finds ready acceptance. But Brimstone went through stages of despondency, self-distrust, and impatience, and welcomed home the much-travelled bundle with scowls and sniffs. However, the eleventh voyage resulted in an offer of ten pounds down or a small percentage of the profits of sale.
"Well, dear?" he said.
She threw the letter down impatiently. "It's absurd."
"Still, ten pounds is ten pounds."
"Reggie!" she cried in deep reproach.
"Eh!" he muttered, with the air of a dog caught stealing.
"You'd take the ten pounds—not the percentage?"
"Well, you know, it's a certainty."
"Is that all your self-confidence? Well, if I were a man, and had—! You know that even a trifling share like this will mount up; perhaps not directly, but in years to come, when the public realize—Of course you must take the percentage. But it's shameful, all the same."
Her eloquent omissions bore him down. He wrote and agreed to take the percentage.
His interest in his work revived when he saw the printer's proofs. He was proud and happy when he wrote the corrections and scribbled hieroglyphics of deletion on the margin. He even flushed with pleasure when his wife said to lady visitors: "My husband is very busy just now. He is revising the proofs of his new book." It made him feel as though he already had an established reputation as an author. He could not share her private indignation when they asked how long it would be before it was procurable at the lending libraries. She thought there should be an Authors' Society formed for the express purpose of boycotting all establishments which circulated literature on payment of a subscription. For a whole week she refrained from taking advantage of her Book Club membership.
The great book was printed and bound, and press copies were issued. Mrs Brimstone's anxiety at this period reacted upon her husband's nerves and he bought stacks of papers and examined them furtively in his office. He walked about the streets in a tremor of excitement, and expected his friends to rush up to him with congratulations.
On Saturday morning Mrs Brimstone hastily glanced at the pages of the Herald. Suddenly the heading "New Fiction" caught her eye, and she looked carefully down the column. Then she flushed, started, and muttered to herself.
"Anything there?" enquired Brimstone, trying to appear calm and nearly choking himself with toast and emotion. She had forgotten to pour out his tea.
"It must have been put in by somebody who dislikes you. It's shameful that such a thing should be allowed."
The novelist gulped hopelessly at his toast.
"Just listen to what they say, Reggie." And she read:—
"'Messrs Grabbett and Keep send us a novel entitled In All His Glory, by Reginald Brimstone, which we have not the least hesitation in advising our readers to avoid, not only because it is incoherent, full of artistic blemishes and grammatical blunders, and as flat, stale and unprofitable as beer left overnight, but because it reveals in the author a literary dishonesty which is as daring as it is discreditable. At least one half (the earlier) of the plot of In All His Glory has been unskilfully conveyed from a work which received its meed of praise in these columns nearly six months ago—we refer to Winsome Wilhelmina, by George Burdett. One scene in special (a love scene between Adolphus Lissome and Felicia Holt) is nothing more than a ridiculous travesty of a similar scene in Mr Burdett's powerful and stimulating psychological romance. We print the passage in full that our readers may form an independent judgment.' And then they go on with Chapter XXI—Adolphus was shown into the drawing-room.'"
"Yes," Brimstone said feebly, "you needn't read that."
But she went on defiantly. Really she was trying to fortify herself behind this fragment of a masterpiece.
Loudly beat the daring heart ensconced in his manly breast, and long seemed the time that he waited. He was very ill at ease, and was not able to remain seated in comfort on the luxurious cushions of the sofa, so he rose and paced to and fro, stately and dignified as a lion even at this crisis, till he saw the pale reflection of his own face in the great pier-glass that stood above the marble mantel. Could it be possible that that white countenance was his, those mournful hollow eyes, that drooping moustache, those gently-parted trembling lips? Was this the jovial hero of the hunting-field? His hyacinthine locks were disordered by the rude wind of the street, and he raised his delicately-modelled hand to deftly smootth them into place. His whole figure drooped with melancholy. Who, he thought, could view me without a pang of pity, which they say is akin to love? Whilst thus he stood preparing with what loving care for the approaching interview, the fair Felicia glided into the room. He was overcome with joy and confusion, and when he turned he felt that he was flushing with the rapid irruption of a thousand mingled feelings. He had no time to properly prepare for her sudden entrance, but stood trembling on the hearth-rug even as a tall mountain pine lonely on a crag and shaken by the coming of the lusty wind. She came to him with an outstretched hand which took his nerveless fingers for a moment and thrilled him to the core of his soul, and then she asked him to sit down. He sank upon the foot of the sofa, negligently leaving the cushion end free, but she gracefully sat on a chair and said the weather was warm. His heart was bursting with his passionate affection, but he agreed with her in a pleasant tone of voice. Something warned him in his secret, heart not to speak on this occasion, and he felt the said heart sinking; but it was still the undaunted heart of a hero. He coughed to clear his throat, but what in any other man might have been mistaken for dread held him entranced in silence. But she had noticed his cough, and rose to close the window with charming sympathy. He sprang to assist her, and his hand touched hers. Volcanic rushed the fire through his being, and choked his utterance. "I," he began, and stammered he knew not what. "I am afraid I do not understand you," replied she. "I am not feeling the draught," he cried. "I see," was her self-possessed reply. Again he addressed himself to the most exquisite of her sex. "I"—here he paused for breath—"I have not come to talk about the weather." "No, Mr Lissome?" said she, "and may I ask what your purpose was?" Then his heart stopped beating, and the room swam round him, as he whispered: "Miss Holt—Felicia—I can't help it, really; I love you." O, what a silence, in which he heard flies buzzing, and thought the veins of his temples would burst. But when she spoke, he yearned for the silence again, because she said: "If you'll believe me, Mr Lissome, I'm even more sorry for this than you can be." Then his mind was in a whirlwind of incongruous elements and despairing he thought of his mother and the manual reproaches she had given him when a boy—so near, alas! are comedy and tragedy! "Is there another?" he said or gasped. "No, certainly not," said she, "but I can never love you." He clasped his hat in his hands, forgetting that the hard felt would retain the impression, and with wild eyes he exclaimed: "May I not hope?—I will give you time to answer." "No," said she with a look of the profoundest sorrow, "but I will always be your friend." But he turned away and staggered with a crushed heart towards the door.
Mrs Brimstone concluded with an air of triumph that hardly matched the sad condition of the rejected lover. "At least," she said energetically, "this extract will serve to undeceive all intelligent readers. It's a pity there are so few of them. And do you notice, dear, the fellow hasn't dared to say anything about the fine way the situation is handled, or the way the characters are treated?"
Brimstone admitted that he had observed it.
"And what about this other book, this" (she referred to the paper) "Winsome Wilhelmina? I've never heard of the name."
"My dear Cara," he said with a show of decision, "neither have I. It's too ridiculous altogether. I don't remember ever noticing anything by this George Burdett, and I'll swear I've never read his Winsome Whats-his-name."
She fed his indignation, and he went to the city with his head high in confidence. But grins, nudges and hand-veiled whispers hemmed him in, and he felt the lack of her presence. His step gradually lost its elasticity and his eye its fire. He longed to procure a copy of the book which so resembled his own, but was afraid of being seen, and hurried past the booksellers' shops with apprehensive glances before and behind. Some of his friends rallied him on the "dressing-down" he had got in the Herald. Most of them professed to believe him when he denied all knowledge of George Burdett, but they smiled knowingly. Brimstone squirmed.
He arrived home in the evening with a splitting headache. His misery was abject, and his self-contempt was equal by reaction to his elation during the season of authorship. His wife received him with gravity. He flopped heavily into his armchair, lay back, and intertwined his fingers across the lower buttons of his waistcoat.
She watched him, knitting her brows. At length she said: "Reggie, I got a copy of Winsome Wilhelmina to-day, and I've been reading it."
He rolled his eyes wearily, without turning his head. "Well?" he queried.
"There is a resemblance in the plot—certainly a resemblance, of a kind—mind, Reggie, I say of a kind."
"But, after all, it's not very strong—"
"—except in the scene quoted by the Herald."
"Blow the Herald!"
She respected his state of mind, and had no words of censure for the vulgarity. Mentally she echoed his sentiment. An open book was lying face downward on the little side-table. She brought the volume and placed it in his hands. He sighed, and read:—
Rapt in such reveries, maidenlike, boxed in with considerations proper to a sex ebullient to emotional fervency, she received with fatal scarcity of patience the fear-coloured oblong which bore the name of Lord Markham FitzMarkham. A touch, dainty and swift, such as all women, and only they, effect or perceive in result, gave symmetry to the outline of her head by recall of errant fluffiness; and the stairs pattered to the run of her feet, anxious, one would suppose, for the interview and its terminal point. The air of the room was charged with who shall say what element of warning. Certain it is, the sex that is more delicately dowered, richer in depth and fuller of glow and glory of imagination than ours, has senses transcending sense, reaching the truth of blue skies beyond masculine pinions. She knew his intention as she opened the door; felt it with subtle inter-blending of two waves of laughter and dread tremulous with foam, herself the boat borne on the crest. His folly was the shore whereon pranced fantastic negroes, acts of idiocy, grimaces, and nervous stammerings, to greet her arrival. He was posing limp before the mirror, rehearsing his clown's part not inaptly, clawing his hair with twitching fingers. Surprised in preliminaries, anticipated, as it were, in his most grievous brilliancy of sensationalism, he turned, helpless, open-mouthed, hued in maculate crimson of lilied suggestiveness. She indicated a sitting posture. The sofa, on the extreme edge of its least upholstered projection, supported his perspiring frame. She nestled cosily into a chair, a practical exposure of male awkwardness. Approaching from afar, willing to offer herself a target to his blunt shafts of an overfed Cupid, hoping to present herself within range after slow progress wide-reaching under cover, the warmth of the summer was flung into the pool of oonversation. The circles widened, contorting all reflected things, so that he stood an ape jabbering, oonfessed and undefended. Echoes of laughter in Cimmerian wastes of clouded mirth were jogged to angular activity by his cough, an oratorical resort for those to whom Rosalind's cleanlier shift is denied. She knew that the champagne-sparkles of Nature's vintage, old in the human cellar since the primeval Eden press, leaped from sources unbidden to cream at her eyelids. Say what you will, the very mention of wine, not flat vintages untasted but by mere men of mud, but of inextinguishable stilly flavour and tinct of miraculous prenatal suffusion of sun and air of the sea, projects even the greatest of word-fingerers, makers of ink-well pyrotechnic scintillation, into ecstatic Paradises of metaphor, converting sobriety to the figure of a howling dervish.
"I don't know that I quite understand all this," said Brimstone, clasping his forehead with his left hand, his little finger resting across his eyes.
"Let me see," said his wife. "Oh, about the wine? No." She turned a couple of pages. "Here, dear; go on there."
Laughter must be cabined in hypocrisy. She swam to
the window, uncounting on proffered assistance; clumsiness sprang
the mine, when his hand (paw of the ursine blunderer, call it
rather) thumped hers on the ledge, and immediate, as water from
bottle upturned with under-cavity to exact skyward, an intermittent
stream of incoherencies, void of uttered signification, gurgled
with choking blobs. She implied lack of comprehension, and
acknowledged his disowning of objection to free circulation of the
atmospheric flow. He prepared for the plunge, grotesque; painful to
himself, a quaint delight to a spectator; an inexperienced diver
baulked by qualmish spasms. He flung aside his garment of the
weather, her generous gift, and advanced to the edge. She pushed
him, mercifully desirous to drown him expeditiously, with enquiry
of his purpose. He sprang with wind-mill whirlings. "Miss
Wintergold—Wilhelmina—I can't help it; I really
can't—I love you." His hat was in his hand, and he revolved
it foolishly by the edges. She expressed regret for the situation,
for his infatuation of presumptuous aspiring; inwardly writhing to
the tickle of unappeasable mirth.
"Is there then another?"
She waved the suggestion away, a feather in the void. He clutched the camel's straw: "May I hope?"
Friendship she intimated, with unenthusiastic precision, and he fled. She watched him from between the blinds, tickling triumphant. He straightened his cuffs at the street corner, preparing for fresh onsets, oblivious of a hat indented, suggestive of moony revels.
Whitefaced and sullenly indignant, Brimstone hung his hand over the arm of the chair, and let the book fall to the floor. His mouth twitched, and two deep wrinkles stood upright between his eyebrows.
"Well, dear?" Mrs Brimstone invited explanation.
"It's like—it's like—it's like," he snapped rapidly, to her surprise and horror.
"Beg pardon, my dear. I can't explain it. I don't know. But whoever the person is who wrote that book, she might write it so's to be understood."
"But it's a man," she said, her triumph overlaid with compassion.
"Well, he! a man, of course—so it is, I forgot." He was subdued.
"Are you sure you never read the book, dear?" she prompted him soothingly, like a mother inducing her child to contradict what he knows is fact.
"Certainly! I swear I never saw the stuff in my life. It's a case of what the doctors call unconscious cerebration, I suppose—two brains at the same work simultaneously, taking their notions from the air where they're afloat, without either knowing about the other."
"But really, Reggie!"
"Oh, it's pretty common, they say. Darwin and another fellow both invented evolution at the same moment," he said recklessly. "It often happens."
"Isn't it more likely, dear, that you read the Herald's review? I dare say it gave a sketch of the plot, and quoted this scene in full. You may have glanced over it in the train. It would be so easy to forget."
"No," he said, ruffled beyond precedent, "nobody could be more absolutely certain of anything—." He broke off suddenly, realizing that he was blocking one of his holes of escape. "Um!—perhaps it is possible," he muttered sulkily. "It may be so, dear."
"Anyway, dear," she said, with the calm dignity of one who held aloof from slippery ways, "I think perhaps you made a mistake in writing. It—well, it doesn't seem to be your vocation. Really, I think, it would be better—I don't want to make you feel discouraged, and I don't want to blame you—please don't think that—but wouldn't it be better to stick to your office work and leave authorship to those who have made a study of it?"
No married man is amazed at a woman's changes of front. Brimstone was angry but frightened. He felt hysterical, so he got his hat in silence, and walked out into the cool evening air.
"So Adelina is writing under an assumed name, is she?" he murmured savagely to himself. He shook his head and snapped his teeth viciously. "But if I'd known that was what she thought of it all, I'm hanged if I'd have been so cut up about it."
Cyril Harwood, for the past three years, had spent all his available holidays at Burgess's. It was a pleasant place. The whitewashed farmhouse stood just above the highest floodmark on grassy slopes that were backed by rugged sandstone ridges. Before it stretched a broad alluvial flat along the edge of which the line of thick foliage, from which a few great spotted gums lifted their bunches of flat hanging leaves, marked the far-flung loop of a rives full of still reflections. It had the double charm of unmixed wilderness and pastoral decorum, for the bush began just behind the house, and its waiting spirit brooded over miles of gorge and commanding pinnacles of rock, but on the smooth slopes beyond the quiet stream one could distinguish white farmhouses, about which drawling but quickwitted men did their day's work with leisurely strength. Yet it was no mere holiday inclination that led Cyril regularly to the hills, where the wallabies thudded, and the paddocks, where fat dairy-cows chewed everlastingly with an expression like that of their contented masters. He had long thought of "going on the land," and from Burgess and his neighbours he gained many hints that he hoped might be of value. Unmarried and unassuming, he had spent the years of his earlier manhood quite agreeably but inexpensively, and, at the age of thirty, he had in the bank a small stock of capital which the death of his father, a moderately successful medical practitioner, had suddenly increased to quite respectable dimensions. His mother had died ten years ago, and he was the only surviving member of the family, with the exception of an elder brother, who does not come into the story. He was in no hurry, but he dreamed of farming. His work in the statistician's office was a bore, and discontent moved in him like water that is thinking of coining to the boil. This Easter he was particularly troubled, almost bad-tempered.
Burgess, a long-necked, hook-nosed man, who resembled a partially-plucked parrot, met the car and shook the hand of the alighting visitor.
"Fine weather for this time o' year, Mr Harwood," he said. "And how are ye? The missus is sick; I suppose Middlehurst, here, told ye?" He indicated the chauffeur.
"How are you? Yes," replied Harwood, "and I thought of turning back. Hope she's no worse? Better?"
"Not a bit. Why, if all visitors that came were like you, and took as much interest in stock an' crops, I'd be well enough off, after a bit, to pay 'em for coming." He chuckled, and looked more like a cockatoo than ever. "Come in for a while, Middle-hurst. No? Right. So long!"
As the car snorted and backed and turned, he led Harwood to the shelter of the flagged veranda at the back of the house.
"They dunno' what's the matter with her. I don't think Whipple is much of a doctor, anyways. So I've got my niece to come over from Wattle Hollow to look after the place. Cooking, you know, and cleaning up and the likes o' that. Here, Jinny," he exclaimed, as he caught sight of a bright eye and half a curly head at the kitchen door, "tell your mother to come here a moment."
Jinny disappeared and then came partially into sight once more, clinging to the skirt of a young woman, whose sleeves were rolled above her elbows.
"This is my niece, Mr Harwood—Mrs Robson. You've heard about Mr Harwood, Daisy."
"Often," she said. "When things seem to be going a little wrong, Uncle often says he wishes you were here to lend a hand."
Her voice was as gentle as the look of her large dark eyes. The compliment was almost a caress, and, for once in his life, Harwood nearly felt shy. He took her hand for a moment, with an unreasonable expectation of feeling it soft and yielding, and was disconcerted to find it firm and strong. It was moist and warm, and a breath of soapsuds from beyond the kitchen betrayed unmistakably her recent activities.
"I'll wring," he exclaimed.
"No," she said, "that won't do at all. Go and see Auntie. She's lonely and likes to talk, and she's expecting you. I've put her stretcher on the other veranda."
"Of course, of course. Silly of me. I'll help you later, though, if Mr Burgess doesn't round me up to bring the cows in."
"They're in," said Burgess with a grin; "or Toni and Sally would a' bin up here to meet you. They're milkin', an' I'm goin' back to the shed meself now. Go round an' see the missus." He strode off.
On the front veranda, which looked on a little garden full of old-fashioned plants, Harwood found at one end two young women, evidently boarders, who sat and smoked cigarettes, the one with awkward vigour and the other with languid grace. "I told her she was being a fool, and she said he could spend his money as he pleased," he heard the lean and rather bleak-looking lady say. The other blew a long stream of smoke and answered: "Why not? She hasn't much." "Shocking, I call it," snapped the first, glaring suddenly at Harwood. At the other end, behind the rickety flower-stand with its array of spindling geraniums and lanky begonias, he was welcomed feebly by Mrs Burgess, propped up on pillows and looking flushed. She seemed to gather strength spasmodically as she talked. She had no wish to listen, but was eager to describe all the symptoms of her sickness. Harwood put on an appearance of cheerfulness and sympathetic interest, but he suspected that the illness was more serious than she herself thought, in spite of her querulous pride in all her pains. He told Burgess so, later, and recommended a hospital. Burgess, whose life was one of routine, frowned and spat thoughtfully at a March fly.
At the tea-table, Harwood made the acquaintance of the two boarders, Miss Lancaster, who pressed her lips together and bowed like a clockwork figure in want of oil, and Miss Vindin, who murmured like a sleepily seductive cat. Neither interested him, and he decided that, if Mrs Robson didn't object, he'd have the rest of his meals with her and Burgess in the kitchen. Tom and Sally had already protested against his exile, he learned later from Burgess, but Mrs Robson thought he might like a chance to meet the ladies. Very good of her. He wondered if she meant it.
After tea he strolled into the kitchen and insisted on washing up. Mrs Robson, who knew he had done it before, let him have his own way, and dried the crockery as he placed it on the tray. She talked freely on every topic except herself. When he tried unostentatiously to get her to reveal anything of her own life, she quietly parried. He saw the glint of laughter in her eyes. With a man's approval of methods foreign to his own nature, he noticed the neatness of the kitchen and the general air of cleanliness about the place. It looked different, somehow. As he looked at the orderly rows of utensils, he wondered if they'd be easier to find than when they lay untidily within reach. The cats, he observed, still slept in the corner, but their straw was in a box, not strewn on the boards. Her arms were well-shaped, and her movements had a quiet firmness, a deftness that was graceful and soothing. Or was it soothing? He looked at her eyes and she met his look with a smile. He felt like a diver who plunges into deep cool water, finds no bottom, and returns breathless. He began to feel adventurous. The click of her golden ring on a plate recalled him.
Soon the things were cleared away, and they sat about the table, talking. Jinny, whose shyness had almost worn off, was on Harwood's knee, and he tore some leaves from his note-book and made grotesque drawings to please her—pigs in bonnets, cows of the age of fable, and a cockatoo that bore a dangerous resemblance to Mr Burgess. After the child had gone to sleep, with her pictures in her hand, and had been duly carried off to bed, there was a game of cards in which Sally, a freckled cheerful girl, took a hand, while her young brother looked on and annoyed her by making suggestions that revealed the weakness of her play. Mrs Robson played well, and Harwood was glad she was his partner, because it gave him an excuse for sitting opposite her and studying her face. She had a way of pursing her lips slightly in moments of consideration. He found it charming, alluring. It made him restless. Damn Robson, anyway. But who was Robson?
She thanked him for his help, as she shook hands with him before retiring. "As though the sun should thank us for letting light come in," he thought. Afterwards he sat on the doorstep with Burgess, and they smoked and discussed farm interests.
"Dunno what I'd a' done, if Daisy hadn't come," said Burgess. "She's a handy gell. Sally couldn't a' managed on her own. A good gell, Daisy!"
"I suppose she is," replied Harwood. "Lucky her husband could spare her."
"She's a widder," said Burgess shortly, and sucked at his pipe.
Harwood said "Oh!" He wondered if he hadn't said it unnecessarily loudly. But it passed. So he needn't have damned Robson. Perhaps he was damned already. No; she was too fond of laughter for her life to have been sordid or constantly unhappy. Poor old Robson! And yet in the dark depths of her eyes, wasn't there something that spoke of old pain? In the soft obscurity of the night he seemed to see those eyes like windows to the unfathomable sky. Oh, hang Robson! He was out of it now, anyway. But was he? If it came to fighting, it was harder to grip a phantom than a living man.
The piano was being played in the sitting-room, and he heard Miss Vindin's cooing voice in a song of sentimental regrets. She was perhaps informing him, in her own way, of what he had missed by washing up.
In her own room Mrs Robson, in her nightdress, took out her hairpins and shook down her thick hair. She sat with her face half-shadowed by it, and gazed into the reflection of her own eyes. They looked back at her inscrutably. She solemnly poked out the pink end of her tongue, shook her head impatiently, and sighed. Finally she jerked the gold circlet impatiently from her finger, threw it into a drawer, which she closed as though she were thrusting a dead mouse out of sight, and slid into her bed.
To Harwood the holidays seemed shorter than of old. He worked on the farm with his usual energy, but he felt that he was living for the moments he spent in the kitchen. It was not till the evening of Sunday that he saw her alone and by that time he had lost all taste for popularity, and was comically rueful, in his own sight, over the affection that brought Tom and Sally to his feet, and the comradeship that planted Burgess solemnly at his side. Only in one respect had he made any progress. To the rest she was Daisy, and, as though accidently acquiescing in the domestic habit, he too addressed her by her baptismal name. She gave him a sidelong look when first he uttered the word, but answered as if she had noticed nothing unusual. Still, undoubtedly it placed them on better terms. But, after all, did it? He was not sure. He had heard no more of Robson. He wondered how long her married life had lasted—oh, hang Robson! Dead or alive, hang him! Jinny was perhaps three years old, perhaps older, or younger. He was inexperienced in estimating the age of infants. Dear little kid, anyway. Robson's kid. There it was again. But like her mother. A very dear little kid. He caught himself noting small differences and trying to reconstruct Robson. He was throwing out from his mind the fragments of that dinosaurian monster when he managed to intercept Daisy between the bedroom, where she had just tucked the blanket about Jinny, and the kitchen, where Tom and Sally were still laughing over one of his jokes.
"It's a lovely night," he said. "Don't go in yet."
They stepped off the end of the low veranda, and as he touched her hand to steady her—a quite unnecessary precaution—he thought she shivered.
"Are you cold? Shall I get a wrap?" he said.
"No. I'm not cold."
They sauntered to the gate in the shadow of cypress and native apple. She was silent, crooning in her heart a sad farewell. He spoke of the scents that blew from the garden and the bitter fragrance of a patch of burnt grass. They leaned together on the gate, and there was silence. She waited, with beating heart, to welcome and dismiss.
"Daisy!" he said suddenly.
"Yes, yes. I know. I know," she answered.
"Daisy, I want you. Since the world was made I've been wanting you, Daisy, I think. And now you're here." He reached for her hand, but she drew it away, and stood before him quietly, wearily.
"Oh, yes. I know. I believe what you say. I know. But it's impossible. I can't tell you. I can't. But it's impossible."
"Because I know—yes, you love me." She stayed his abrupt movement with a gesture. "And I can't give you everything. It's—oh, it's cruel; but I can't tell you." She was gasping as though for breath. "You are good to me."
"Mr Harwood!" bawled Tom from the kitchen door.
"Quick," he whispered. "What is it? Is there anybody else with a claim? Are you true against your own feelings—true to another man, or a memory?"
"No." He heard the shudder in her voice.
In a moment he threw his arms about her, pressed her tightly to him, kissed her hair, for her head drooped and her face was hidden against his coat, and released her as Tom came along the track. He heard her catch her breath.
"I thought it was you," said the boy with great self-satisfaction. "Dad wants to know if you're going to have a game."
"Right-oh, Tom!" he answered lightly. "But we'll have to do without Daisy. She's tired out. I think she's going to bed."
"Good shot!" was Tom's happy comment. "Dad'll let me take a hand."
A minute or two later Daisy lay on her bed, face downward, heaving with silent sobs. At last she rolled over, gave one long trembling sigh, sat up, lit a candle, and examined her swollen face in the mirror. "Well," she muttered, with a wry smile, "he wouldn't want you, if he could see you now, I'm glad he can't."
Harwood, on his way to bed, stood for a minute or two at her door, his muscles tense and his heart longing. From the veranda, close at hand, came the hard voice of one of the boarders: "Well, he's a fellow of pretty vulgar tastes. A gentleman doesn't wash up. As for her, it's easy to see she's setting her cap at him." And then the indolent tones of the other: "Oh, I don't know. He's not so bad, Madge. And if she likes him, why not?" He grinned grimly, withdrew as softly as he could, and approached the house from the front, whistling "Rackety-Coo."
Next day he had to get back to town, and she gave him no opportunity of seeing her alone. The car arrived. He bade farewell to Mrs Burgess, whose thin handsome face looked more drawn than ever, though she could still take a communicative interest in the unpleasant details of her complaint. He chased Sally round the car, according to his wont, and gave her a kiss which she said was like the smack of a whip. There was handshaking and the usual sorry cheerfulness of a departure. To Daisy he said, "I'll be back in the summer;" and at her simple statement, "I'll be at Wattle Hollow then," he returned, "So shall I." Burgess turned his back and winked at a cow that was chewing the cud just at the other side of the fence.
When Harwood looked back, the others were lost to sight behind the cypresses; she stood, a lonely figure, at the gate.
He had forgotten to bid farewell to the boarders.
One evening, a couple of months later, he found at his dingy lodgings a letter from Burgess. It announced the death of Mrs Burgess. "Things were upset a while. I suppose they are upset now," he wrote; "I always thought that feller Whipple wasn't much good. Poor Sarah, I thought she was getting a bit better, because she left off talking about her simtoms, but she took real bad all of a sudden. Lucky Daisy was here. She's a good girl. She says she will stay on while I want her now but I don't know. I feel Ide like to ask poor Sarah about that."
Harwood was genuinely sorry. He liked the Burgesses, and he knew how lost the farmer would feel without his helpmate. He wrote a sympathetic note of condolence. Then he wrote another letter:—
"My dear Girl,
"The worry and trouble has been largely your share, and it makes me mad to think I couldn't be there to take it over, as much as a man could. I want to share sorrow and joy with you, Daisy; to make the one lighter and the other brighter. In the summer, I'll see you. I know you are not indifferent to nie, dear Girl. Whatever it is, I've got to know. I hope it's something I can heave into the river. In any case, I've got to know, so you can spend the time from now to Christmas in putting the story together. And when next my arms are round you I'll keep them there if Tom brings all the neighbours." And thereafter the letter became rather incoherent. He received no reply. He hardly expected one.
In January he arrived at the river for a stay of two weeks. There had been rain shortly before, and, though the weather was hot, the place was delightfully green. He welcomed the freshness and beauty of the landscape as a happy promise of good fortune. They were all waiting for him. He was frank and eager—spoke to her first, and held her hand while he nodded at the two younger people. She looked at him with a grave smile and heightened colour.
"Daisy, I'm glad to see you. Have you put it together?" was his greeting.
"Yes," she replied doubtfully, "but it won't stay together. A hot wind blows it to bits."
"What's that?" interposed Burgess. "No hot wind lately. How are you, Mr Harwood?" He shook hands rather listlessly. "Is it a puzzle?"
"It is," assented Harwood.
The atmosphere of the place seemed to have changed. Somehow, in spite of the green grass and the blue sky and the shining river, there was a touch of desolation, of decay, upon the farm. The house was as spotless and neat as at Easter, of course; and from a derisive remark of Tom's he gathered that Daisy had spent the day before his arrival in an unprecedented, universal, double-banked cleanup. But he noticed indications of neglect outside—unmended fences, a cultivation patch, overgrown with weeds, and a hundred smaller signs that the grip of the master had relaxed.
Burgess unburdened himself as they fed the pigs.
"They like that, don't they?" he remarked, as a crowd of little black pigs shouldered at the trough, while two of the greediest stood thigh-deep in the skimmed milk and refuse. "I wish I could feel like that about my tucker. It ain't the same, Mr Harwood. Poor Sarah made more difference than you'd think. I had my eye on Sarah when I was a kid, no more than fifteen, an' I told her nothing for years. It was a hard job. Not but what she knew, of course. I wanted a place to put her in, an' there were bad seasons and tries that didn't work, and I s'pose I was a bit of a failure. It wasn't till the old man died an' left me the farm that I got me chance. I might a' kept her before, I know. P'raps I was wrong. I don't know what poor Sarah would say to that. I wanted a place real fit for her."
"I understand," Harwood said gently. "And she must have understood too."
"She did. She did that. Oh, yes," he reflected, and fixed his eye on the pigs. "It's just fifteen years since I brought her over from Wattle Hollow—just fifteen years, Mr Harwood; and the prettiest woman in the district, and the best. Well, it ain't the same. Not but what Daisy don't do her best. She's a good gell. But it ain't the same."
They took up the empty kerosene-tin buckets, and as they walked up the slope, he began again. "I wouldn't have any boarders this year. You don't count. But it wouldn't hardly be fair to Daisy—she has enough to do without 'em—and Lord knows I don't want 'em."
"Perhaps they'd have been company," ventured Harwood.
"No!" was the abrupt reply. "And there's more I'd like to say. Wait here a while. Put down those buckets. Are you still thinkin' o' takin' a farm, Mr Harwood? Because, if you are, I'll let you have this one cheap."
"But what do you mean to do?"
"Go down near Sydney, and take a cheap place, or a lodging, or anything. Sally's runnin' wild, and she's pretty near fourteen. I want to send her to a good school for a year or two, an' I want to be where I can see her pretty often. An' when I say pretty often, I mean pretty often."
"I see," said Harwood. "What terms?"
Burgess had thought it all out, and went into figures. The offer was reasonable, and it was within Harwood's means. He considered it for a few moments in silence. Then he said, "Before I go, I'll tell you."
Burgess looked him in the eye. "Right," he said gravely, "an' I wish you luck."
The two men shook hands.
After the tea-things had been washed, Jinny claimed him for a romp. Then Sally reached the cards from the mantelpiece.
"Daisy and I are going for a pull on the river," Harwood announced calmly.
"Good shot! I'll take one oar," cried Tom.
"What about me?" Sally asked.
"You and Tom can stop with your father. I'll take you to-morrow night. To-night Daisy and I are going by ourselves."
"Well, you are mean, Daisy," Tom expostulated. "You won't leave us out, will you."
"Do you really mean it?" said Sally.
And Daisy said, "Yes."
He pushed the boat out into the stream, and noticed how pale her face looked in the moonlight. He turned the prow against the current.
"Up?" she said. "It's more snaggy that way."
"Yes," he said, "I know; and one can only go a mile in this direction. and it's five down to the weir. But there are fewer boats up here. And, besides, we needn't go far."
After pulling steadily for a few minutes he ran the boat ashore in the thick shadow under an osier, tied the painter to an overhanging bough, and silently helped her ashore. There they lay side by side on a slope of grass. There was a faint fragrance of maidenhair fern, and across the flats came the regular hooting of a more-pork.
He raised her limp hand to his lips.
"Well?" he said.
She turned suddenly to him, hid her face on his breast, and cried, shaken from head to foot with violent sobs. He stroked her hair, put an arm protectingly about her, and waited.
"I'm sorry," she said at last, as the storm of sobs subsided. She swabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, and blew her nose. "I can't help being a fool." And she took his arm and thrust it gently away, and lay back, looking with wide eyes at the branches above her.
"I've deceived you," she said, with a forced calmness. "I was very young. I thought he loved me. I thought I loved him. One night—one night I was mad. He was doing a harvesting job at our place. He'd been a sailor, but deserted his ship. When I told him that I—well it was Jinny. Next day he was gone. I didn't want him then. I knew him. I loved Jinny, not him." She lay still with a white face, mottled by the light of the moon. "You understand? I've deceived you. I'm not a widow."
"Thank God," he said, as he drew her to him and pressed his lips on hers. And through the vast silence that encircled them she heard clearly the notes of the more-pork.
It was half an hour before he thought again of the phantom who had been his rival. Then he took her left hand in his and felt the fingers. She withdrew the hand with a happy sigh, produced a gold ring from her pocket, and gave it to him without a word. There was a flash in the moonlight, and a sharp plop from the surface of the river.
"There goes Robson," he said.
(A Specimen of Method and Result in Shakespeare-Study)
The two greatest bores in literature are Dugald Dalgetty and Fluellen, and Fluellen would be worse than Dalgetty if we had a scene or two more of him; as matters stand, we may grant them a dead heat in dreariness. The traditions of the stage and the study present Shakespeare's Welshman as a diverting comic character and a man of courage and military efficiency: according to Shakespeare, he is a dull prater, a coward, and certainly no soldier. That he is a bore is proved by experiment. Shake off the hypnosis induced by a contemplation of Shakespeare as known to the critics, and pretend for a few moments that Fluellen is the creation of Bernard Shaw, or of any American humorist; well, there you are!
We meet the fellow first at the siege of Harfleur. Henry has led a charge against the breach, and as soon as all immediate danger is past, the poltroon crew—Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol—come up from the rear. Only one man has hung back further than they. Fluellen, redfaced and abusive, knowing well from their bearing and inaction that they are utter curs, assumes an air of valour, follows them up and, under protection of his military rank, beats them toward the breach. It may be objected that we are not clearly told from which direction he came, and that possibly he had taken part in the charge. That is quite true; he may have been the first to sneak away from the fighting. In any case, he does not follow his victims to the breach, but stays at a safe distance and talks. Gower brings him an order from his superior officer, the Duke of Gloucester. He is to go immediately to the mines, for the Duke wishes to speak to him. Fluellen ignores the order, and criticizes the work done by the miners. He thinks the Irishman, Mackmorrice, who has directed the operations, is an ass; and why? Because the valiant Mackmorrice is no scholar, and knows nothing of the military methods of the Romans. Fluellen's military knowledge is mere pedantry and has no bearing on the actual fighting. In modern tactics he is a fool. Henry says he is "a little out of fashion;" he is, in fact, hopelessly out of date. We learn from Holinshed that the mines were the direct cause of the town's capitulation: and this Welsh babbler would abandon them, because they are "not according to the disciplines of the war" as it might have been waged by Sulla or Caesar. He praises the Scots captain, Jamy, because Jamy is cautious enough to agree with him when he blithers about ancient warfare. When Mackmorrice, who takes a soldierly delight in burrowing and throat-cutting, is angry at the abandonment of the mines, Fluellen wishes to argue with him from the standpoint of an antique Roman. He has no taste for blows with mattock or blade, for he is a talker in the hour of action, a windy skulker. "It is no time to discourse," blares Mackmorrice, and even the prudent Jamy is shamed into a momentary determination to do good service; but Fluellen still holds forth in his ridiculous jargon, and betrays a conceit that is founded on schoolboy reading and the merit of his ancestors. Then a parley is sounded from the walls of the town. For the time being, the fighting is over, so the tongue-wagging hero rushes off to his place among the warriors.
It soon becomes evident that the Duke of Gloucester is sick of him, for, when next we come across him, he is under the command of Exeter, who, with an advance party, is holding the bridge over the Ternoise. A sharp action has been taking place, but Fluellen is well in the rear and has his back to the river when he is met by Gower, who has been sent by the King for a report on the safety of Exeter's force. The shirker hastens to divert attention from himself by praising the Duke and Pistol. He knows so little about modern military rank that he calls the latter "an aunchient lieutenant" (an impossible title), and proves himself a poor judge of character by his inability to distinguish bluster from courage. It is clear that, in his flight, he has observed Pistol waving a sword and bellowing encouragement to the men in front, so he has no doubt that the swasher is as valiant as Mark Antony and was about to do gallant service. "I did see him do as gallant service—," he lies. He flatters himself that he has merited some love at the hands of Exeter; probably he had talked to him about Pompey. Pistol comes up and begins an oration in defence of Bardolph, and pauses for breath just as he is in the midst of a detailed description of the goddess Fortune. He is on the pedant's own ground. Before he can resume his speech, Fluellen interposes a lecture, in pidgin-English, on classical symbolism. Pistol hears him out, and returns to the attack; for, though Henry of Monmouth may desert his friends and snuffle their funeral sermons, the blustering ancient retains some sense of decency. Fluellen will not use his influence to protect a criminal. He thinks he knows what Pompey would have done, and is ready to hang a man on Roman precedents. He may not have a true sense of justice, but he knows what belongs to an antiquary. Properly contemptuous, Pistol insults his captain, who would immediately have handed him over to the guard if he had known his business, but instead, believing him to be a man of courage, meekly puts up with the affront with, "It is well!...very good!" As soon as he hears that his adversary is a "counterfeit rascal," he begins to whip up his own courage. He will act "when time will serve" and will tell him his mind. On the arrival of the rearguard he must suddenly invent an excuse for his absence from the skirmish, so he pretends he has a message from the bridge. He gives the King a vague and fanciful account of the action, and once more diverts attention from himself by directing it to the Duke. When asked what loss the English have sustained, he is in some confusion. He begins at first to babble of the "perdition of the athversary," though he can give no intelligible account of it. He knows nothing of the English loss, but desperately refers to the fate of Bardolph, of whose case he has just heard from Pistol. To make it appear like an actual loss of life he inconsistently pretends that the execution has already been carried out. No doubt he is delighted when the interview is broken off by the arrival of Montjoy.
On the eve of Agincourt the pedantic bore chatters to Gower about the necessity for silence in the camp, for, though he seems to have no knowledge of his own General's orders, he is confident that there was no tiddle-taddle in Pompey's camp. Pompey, one concludes, had no time for Roman Fluellens. The King approvingly notes that there is "much care and valour in this Welshman;" but this is what we might have anticipated, for Henry is a moron. He could not see through the conspirators or the two dishonest Bishops, and even believes that he himself is sincere.
Honours are easy on the field of Agincourt. Even Pistol can catch a Frenchman: but where is Fluellen? He keeps out of sight until the prisoners have been murdered. Then he bravely lifts up his voice, and we hear him denouncing the French for their raid, which, he says, was not in accordance with precedent. It is all a book matter to him—a breach of law, not an offence against humanity. Accordingly he can consistently praise the gallantry of Henry's order that every soldier should cut his prisoner's throat. Smugly patriotic, he is delighted at the reflection that the royal murderer was born in Wales. His laboured comparison of Henry of Monmouth with Alexander of Macedon is a masterpiece of dreary asininity. He exhibits his usual bad manners in his familiarity with the King, whom he addresses abruptly with an insolent assumption of equality. Taking it for granted that his Majesty is no student, he tries to impress him with a reference to the Chronicles, and impudently pretends to have read in them an account of an incident which is entirely his own invention. To cap this, he says, in his self-satisfied manner, "I need not to be ashamed of your Majesty, praised be God, so long as your Majesty is an honest man!" What superb insolence! And when the King appeals to him on a point of honour, he answers as a man of untainted reputation, a hero and a champion of truth, and boldly appeals to his conscience in support of his arguments. To Gower, whom we remember as a quiet gentleman who knows how to keep out of harm's way, he gives a certificate of military merit:—"Gower is a good Captain, and is good knowledge and literatured in the wars." We have heard him speak similarly of poor Jamy. When Henry gives him the glove to wear in his cap he swaggers, never believing that it will be challenged, and is excessively eager to protest that he is a fire-eater. "I would fain see the man...that shall find himself aggrieved at this glove," he says truculently, "...but I would fain see it once, and please God of his grace that I might see!" Like many other essentially irreligious scamps, he is very fond of a blasphemous invocation of the Almighty. And, of course, Henry, the unconscious hypocrite and pious fraud, is taken in, and mistakes bragging and bad temper for ready valour. When Williams challenges the glove, Fluellen throws words at him and slinks behind Gower. From this point of vantage he speaks with his usual ostentation of bravery:—"Stand away, Captain Gower! I will give treason his payment into plowes, I warrant you!" And then, as Williams begins to look formidable, "I charge you in his Majesty's name, apprehend him." Why should he charge Gower to act? He and Gower are of equal rank. Why does he not effect the arrest himself? When the man is in safe custody, Fluellen regains confidence and covers him with the vilest abuse. Is this conduct proper to an officer and a gentleman? He is bitterly vindictive and clamours for the execution of the prisoner. But what a change when the King displays good-will toward Williams! Anything to curry favour! Fluellen spends a whole shilling and condescendingly advises Williams to keep out of brawls. A little later, Henry proclaims that it is to be a capital offence to take from God the credit of the victory of Agincourt, and naturally Fluellen is the first to seek a way to make the decree null and void. He desires to retain the right of advertising the number of the slain, though we may easily estimate his share of the slaying, and to Henry's reminder that God was, as usual, on the English side, he replies, with irreverent irony, "Yes...he did us great good."
After Gower has informed him that Pistol is a pretender, Fluellen doubtless watches his enemy narrowly and assures himself that there is nothing to be feared from him. He decides that the fellow will not dare to resist him, if he put on a bold front, and he spends the several years that elapse between Act IV and Act V in screwing his courage to the sticking-place. Then, taking good care to have the support of a friend and to catch his adversary alone, he forces Pistol to eat a leek. Throughout the scene there is evidence that the blows which he showers upon the unhappy ancient are directed at the head. This is no ordinary drubbing; its purpose is to reduce the victim to a state of semi-consciousness and complete helplessness. No wonder Gower, in disgust, begs his friend to desist. "Enough, Captain!" he says, "you have astonished him!" Pistol is the last of the roystering crew who once were the comrades of Falstaff and the seal of his utter degradation is this—he is forced to accept a beating and a groat from the hands of the abject Fluellen.
The portrait of Fluellen is painted with such vigour of dislike that one would naturally surmise that it was drawn directly from a living model. The model has been found. One William Fluellen and eight other persons, among whom was Mr John Shakespeare, the dirty wretch who heaped a mountain of manure beside his front door, were named by Sir Thomas Lucy and other commissioners in a list dated 25 September 1592, "for not coming monthly to the church according to Her Majesty's laws." That is Fluellen all over. He neglected his duty to Heaven, and sat at home reading Plutarch (or, perhaps, only pretending to read) and hatching malicious plots against his neighbours. And upon his head be the curse of all who have been forced in their schooldays to endure his tediousness!
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