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Title: Three Stories Author: Henry Lawson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000651h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2020 Most recent update: July 2020 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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The Hairy Man
A Romance of Three Huts
A Long Way to Cork
As far back as I can remember, the yarn of the Hairy Man was told in the Blue Mountain district of New South Wales. It scared children coming home by bush tracks from school and boys out late after lost cows; and even grown bushmen, when going along a lonely track after sunset, would hold their backs hollow and whistle a tune when they suddenly heard a thud, thud of a kangaroo leaping off through the scrub. Other districts also had spooks and bogies—the escaped tiger, the ghost of the convict who had been done to death and buried in his irons; ghosts of men who had hanged themselves; the ghost of the hawker’s wife whose husband had murdered her with a tomahawk in the lonely camp by the track; the ghost of the murdered bushman whose mate quietly stepped behind him as he sat reflecting over a pipe and broken in the back of his head with an axe, and afterwards burned the body between two logs; ghosts of victims whose murders had been avenged and of undiscovered murders that had been done right enough—all sorts and conditions of ghosts, none of them cheerful, most of them grimly original and characteristic of the weirdly, melancholy and aggressively lonely Australian bush. But the Hairy Man was permanent, and his country spread from the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range right out to the ends of the western spurs. He had been heard of and seen and described so often and by so many reliable liars, that most people agreed that there must be something. The most popular and enduring theory was that he was a gorilla, or an ourang-outang which had escaped from a menagerie long ago. He was also said to be a new kind of kangaroo, or the last of a species of Australian animals which hadn’t been discovered yet. Anyway, in some places, he was regarded as a danger to children coming home from school, as were wild bullocks, snakes, and an occasional bushman in the D.T.’s. So now and then, when the yarn had a revival, search parties were organized, and went out with guns to find the Hairy Man, and to settle him and the question one way or the other. But they never found him.
Dave Regan, Jim Benley and Andy Page, bush mates, had taken a contract to clear and fence the ground for a new cemetery about three miles out of the thriving township of Mudgee-Budgee. Mudgee-Budgee had risen to the dignity of a three-pub town, and people were beginning to die. Up to now the casual and scarce corpses of Mudgee-Budgee or of Home Rule, a goldfield six miles to the west—the bushman who had been thrown from his horse or smashed against a tree while riding recklessly, as bushmen do, or the boozer who had died during a spree in hot weather—had to be taken to the cemetery belonging to the farming town of Buckaroo, about nine miles east of Mudgee-Budgee. This meant a nine-mile, or, in the case of Home Rule, a fifteen-mile drag, which was a long-drawn-out agony in blazing hot, dusty weather, or even in the rain when the roads were boggy. The Buckaroo undertaker could only be induced to bring his hearse out two miles along the road to meet the corpse, which was carried so far in a drag, spring cart, or wagonette. This so detracted from the dignity of Mudgee-Budgee and Home Rule, that they agreed to get a cemetery between them, and Dave Regan got the contract to prepare the ground for corpse planting.
Dave and his mates camped in an old deserted slab and bark hut which happened to stand on the ground. It was a lonely place, which stood in a dark stringy-bark bush, the nearest house being the hut of a timber-getter and his family, about two miles along the track on the Home Rule side.
It was the day after Anniversary Day. Dave and Jim were patriots, and therefore were feeling very repentant and shaky. They had spent the day at the Buckaroo races, half the night in Buckaroo, and the other half in Home Rule, where the early closing law as regarded public houses was not stringent. They had enjoyed a good time; had betted and shouted away all their cash, as well as an advance drawn on the contract, had run up scores at all the pubs, and had been in several rows, and at least three fights. They weren’t sure with whom, that was the trouble, but had a drink-lurid recollection of having got off their horses several times on the way home to fight each other. They were too sick to eat or to smoke yet; so they sat outside the hut with their nerves all unstrung and their imaginations therefore particularly active. Under these conditions, they so magnified the awful importance of the unknown and the nightmare portions of the prior night, that they felt very dismal and hopeless indeed. Dave had a haunting idea, which grew at last to be a sickening conviction, that he had insulted and had wanted to fight the big squatter of the district, from whom he had the promise of a big fencing contract. Jim had a smothering recollection of a row with the leading Mudgee-Budgee storekeeper, who gave them credit. And so they swore off drink—they were going to chuck it for good. Each was firmly resolved this time. But they said nothing about it to each other. They had sworn off mutually so often that the thing had become boresome. But the worst of it was that they had broken the bottle with the morning reviver, and had nothing to straighten up on, and their nerves were not in a fit state to allow of their going to Mudgee-Budgee at the risk of hearing some new and awful truths of last night’s doings, and they hadn’t the courage to ask Andy to go. They were very contrite and gentle towards him with their “Yes, Andy,” and “No, Andy,” and “No, thank you, Andy,” when he fried chops and made coffee for them. The day before they had both sworn to him—solemnly, affectionately, and at last impatiently, and even angrily—that they wouldn’t get drunk, that they wouldn’t bet, that they wouldn’t draw a penny on the contract, that they’d buy a week’s provisions first thing, that they’d bring the things home with them on their horses, and that they’d come home early. And now— they’d spent his money as well as their own! Andy made no remarks and asked no questions when they woke at midday; and they took his silence in a chastened spirit.
Andy Page was a patriot and a democrat, too, the most earnest of the three; but he was as obstinately teetotal as he was honest and truthful. Dave was the head of the party, but Andy was the father. Andy had, on several occasions, gone into town with Dave and Jim on pay nights—to look after them, to fight for them if necessary, and to get them home, if possible, when they’d had enough. It was a thankless job, but Andy was loved by his mates, who nevertheless, when drunk, even wanted to fight him when he stood out against “one more drink for the last.” He was as strong physically, as well as morally, as the two put together; and was respected even by the publican whom he abused for serving his mates when they’d had enough. But the last spree but one had disgusted Andy. He swore he’d never go into town with them again, and like most simple-minded, honest, good-natured fellows whose ideas come slowly, who are slow at arriving at decisions (and whose decisions are nearly invariably right), when he’d once made up his mind nothing short of a severe shock of earthquake could move him. So he stayed at home on Anniversary Day, and washed and mended his clothes.
Dave and Jim were still moping wretchedly about the hut when, towards the middle of the afternoon, an angel came along on horseback. It was Jack Jones from Mudgee-Budgee, a drinking mate of theirs, a bush-telegraph joker, and the ne’er-do-well of the district. He hung up his shy, spidery filly under a shed at the back of the hut.
“I thought you chaps would be feeling shaky,” he said, “and I’ve been feeling as lonely and dismal as a bandicoot on a burnt ridge, so I thought I’d come out. I’ve brought a flask of whisky.”
Never were two souls more grateful. Bush mate-ship is a grand thing, drunk or sober.
Andy promptly took charge of the whisky, and proceeded to dole out judicious doses at decent intervals.
Jack, who was a sandy-complexioned young fellow with the expression of a born humorist, had some news.
“You know Corny George?” They had heard of him. He was an old Cornishman who split shingles and palings in the Black Range, and lived alone in a hut in a dark gully under the shadow of Dead Man’s Gap.
“He went in to Buckaroo to the police station yesterday,” said Jack Jones, “in a very bad state. He swore he’d seen the Hairy Man.”
“Yes, the Hairy Man. He swore that the Hairy Man had come down to his hut the night before last, just after dark, and tried to break in. The Hairy Man stayed about the hut all night, trying to pull the slabs off the walls, and get the bark off the roof, and didn’t go away till daylight. Corny says he fired at him two or three times, through the cracks, with his old shot gun, but the Hairy Man didn’t take any notice. The old chap was pretty shaky on it.”
“Drink, I s’pose,” grunted Andy contemptuously.
“No, it wasn’t drink. They reckoned he’d been ‘hatting’ it too long. They’ve got him at the police station.”
“What did he say the Hairy Man was like?” asked Jim Bentley.
“Oh, the usual thing,” said Jack. “’Bout as tall as a man and twice as broad, arms nearly as long as himself, big wide mouth with grinning teeth—and covered all over with red hair.”
“Why, that’s just what my uncle said he was like,” exclaimed Andy Page, suddenly taking great interest in the conversation. He was passing in with some firewood to stick under a pot in which he was boiling a piece of salt beef; but he stood stock still and stared at Jim Bentley, with the blank, breathless expression of a man who has just heard astounding news.
“Did your uncle see the Hairy Man, Andy?” inquired Dave Regan feebly. He felt too sick to take much interest.
“Yes,” said Andy, staring at Jack with great earnestness. “Didn’t I tell you? He was drivin’ home up the pass to Dead Man’s Gap, where he lived then, and he seen the Hairy Man, bundlin’ off among the rocks.”
Andy paused impressively, and stared at Jack.
“And what did your uncle do, Andy?” asked Jack, with a jerky little cough.
“He stood up in the cart and hammered into the horse, and galloped it all the way home, full-bat up to the door; then he jumped down, leaving the cart and horse standing there, and went in and lay down on the bed, and wouldn’t speak to anybody for two hours.”
“How long?” asked Jim, still feebly.
“Two hours,” said Andy earnestly, as he went in with the firewood.
Jack Jones proposed “a bit of a stroll”; he said it would do them good. He felt an irresistible inclination to giggle, and wished to get out of the hearing of Andy, whom he respected. As they slouched along the track there was an incident which proved the state of their nerves. A big brown snake whipped across the dusty path into a heap of dead boughs. They stared at each other for a full minute, then Jack summoned courage to ask—
“Did you chaps see that snake?”
“Yes,” and so it was all right. Then they put a match to the boughs, and stood round with long sticks till the snake came out.
They went back to the hut, and managed a cup of coffee. Presently they got on to ghost and Hairy Man yarns again.
“That was God’s truth,” said Jack, “that yarn I told you about what happened to me going up Dead Man’s Pass. It was just as I told you. I was driving slowly up in that little old spring cart of mine, when something—I don’t know what it was—made me look behind, and there was a woman walking along behind the cart with her hands on the tail-board. It was just above the spot where the hawker’s wife was murdered. She was dressed in black, and had black hair, and her face was dead white. At first I thought that it was some woman who wanted a lift, or a chap in woman’s clothes playing the ghost, so I pulled up. And when I looked round again she was gone. I thought she’d crouched under the cart, so I whipped up the horse and then looked round again, but there was nothing there. Then I reckon I drove home as fast as Andy’s uncle did. You needn’t believe me unless you like.”
“Thunderstorm coming,” said Dave, sniffing and looking round the corner to the east. “I thought this weather would bring something.”
“My oath,” said Jim, “a regular old-man storm, too.”
The big, blue-black bank of storm cloud rose bodily from the east, and was right overhead and sweeping down the sunset in a very few minutes. Then the lightning blazed out, and swallowed up daylight as well as darkness. But it was not a rain storm—it was the biggest hail storm ever experienced in that district. Orchards and vineyards were stripped, and many were ruined. Some said there were stones as big as hen’s eggs; some said the storm lasted over an hour, and some said more—but the time was probably half or three-quarters of an hour. Hail lay feet deep in the old diggers’ holes for a fortnight after. The mates half expected the hail to come through the roof of the hut.
Just as the storm began to hold up a little, they heard a louder pattering outside, and a bang at the door. The door was of hardwood boards with wide cracks; Andy rose to open it, but squinted through a crack first. Then he snatched the big crowbar from the corner, dug the foot of it into the earth floor, and jammed the pointed head under a cross piece of the door; he did the same with a smaller crowbar, and looked wildly round for more material for a barricade.
“What are you doing? Who is it, Andy?” wildly cried the others.
“It’s the Hairy Man!” gasped Andy.
They quickly got to the door and squinted through the cracks. One squint was sufficient. It was the Hairy Man right enough. He was about as tall as an ordinary man, but seemed twice as broad across the shoulders. He had long arms, and was covered with hair, face and all. He had a big, ugly mouth, and wild, bloodshot eyes. So they helped Andy to barricade the door.
There was another bang at the door. A cart rattled past, a woman screamed, and the cart went on at an increased pace. There was a shot-gun hanging on the wall, loaded—Andy had left it loaded to save ammunition the last time he’d been out kangaroo shooting. Andy, like most slow-thinking men, often did desperate things in a crisis. He snatched down the gun, stepped back a pace or two, aimed at the door low down, and fired. He doesn’t know why he aimed low down—except that it “was too much like shooting at a man.” They heard a howl, and the thing, whatever it was, running off. Then they barricaded the door some more ere they scanned the door planking and found that about half the charge had gone through.
“The powder must have got damp,” said Andy. “I’ll put in a double charge to make sure,” and he reloaded the gun with trembling hands. The other three bumped their heads over the whisky. They can’t say for certain how they got through that night or what they said or did. The first idea was to get out of there and run to Mudgee-Budgee, but they were reluctant to leave their fort. “Who’d go out and reconnoitre?” “Besides,” said Jack Jones, “we’re safer here, and the thing’s gone, whatever it was. What would they think of us if we went into town with a yarn about a Hairy Man?” He had heard his horse breaking away, and didn’t care to take the chance of being chased on foot.
About an hour later they heard a horse galloping past, and, looking through the cracks, saw a boy riding towards Mudgee-Budgee.
“It’s young Foley,” said Jack, “the son of that old timber-getter that’s just taken up a selection along the road near Home Rule.”
“I wonder what’s up?” said Andy. “Perhaps the Hairy Man’s been there. We ought to go along and help.”
“They can take care of themselves,” said Jack hurriedly. “They’re close to Home Rule, and can get plenty of help. The boy wouldn’t ride to Mudgee-Budgee if there was anything wrong.”
The moon had risen full. Some two or three hours later they saw Mahoney, the mounted constable, and the young doctor from Buckaroo, ride past towards Home Rule.
“There’s something up, right enough,” said Jim Bentley.
Later on, about daybreak, Andy was sitting obstinately on guard, with the gun across his knees and the others dozing on the bunks (and waking now and then with jerks), when Constable Mahoney rode up to the door and knocked a business knock that brought them all to their feet.
Andy asked him to come in, and placed a stool for him, but he didn’t see it. He looked round the hut.
“Whose fowlin’ piece is that?” he asked.
“It’s—it’s mine,” said Andy.
Mahoney took the gun up and examined it.
“Is this fowlin’ piece loaded?” he asked
“Yes,” said Andy, “it is.”
“Now, listen to me, boys,” said the constable. “Was the fowlin’ piece discharged last night?”
“Yes,” said Andy, “it was.”
“What’s up? What have we done?” asked Jim Bentley, desperately.
“Done?” shouted Mahoney. “Done? Why, you’ve filled old Foley’s legs with kangaroo shot. That’s what you’ve done! Do you know what that is?”
“No,” said Jack Jones. He was thinking hard.
“It’s manslaughter!” roared Mahoney. “That’s the meanin’ of it!”
They explained what had happened as far as they were able. Now, Mahoney had a weakness for the boys, and a keen sense of humour—outside himself.
“Best come along with me,” he said.
Andy had a stiff Sunday sac suit, of chocolate colour, and a starched white shirt and collar, which he kept in a gin case. He always put them all on when anything happened. On this occasion he fastened his braces over his waistcoat, and didn’t notice it until he had gone some distance along the road.
There was great excitement at Foley’s shanty—women and children crying, and neighbours hanging round.
Foley was lying on his face on a stretcher, while the young doctor was taking shot from the hairiest leg that Regan and Co. had ever seen on man or beast. The doctor said, afterwards, that some of the shot had only flattened inside the outer skin, and that others had a covering of hair twisted round them. When Foley was turned round to give his “dispositions,” as Mahoney called them, they saw that he had enough hair on his chest to stuff a set of buggy cushions. He had red whiskers all over his face, rusty-red, spikey hair all over his head, and a big mouth and bloodshot eyes. He was the hairiest and ugliest man in the district.
His language was hardly understandable, partly because of the excitement he was still labouring under, and partly because of his peculiar shade of brogue. Where Mahoney said “shtone” Foley would say “stawn”—a brogue with a drawl which sounded ridiculous in an angry man. He drawled most over his oaths.
It seems that he was splitting fencing timber down “beyant the new cimitry,” when the storm came on. He thought it would be the usual warm thunderstorm, and it was too far to run home. He didn’t want to get wet, so he took his clothes off, and put them in a hollow log till the storm should be past. Then the lightning played round his tools—the cross-cut saw, axe, wedges, etc.—and he had to get away from there. He didn’t bargain for “thim blanky hail-sta-w-ns.” “It’s a wonder I wasn’t scalped and drilled full of hawls.” He thought of the hut, and made for it, but they wouldn’t let him in. Then he suddenly saw some women in a tilt cart comin’ round a bend in the road, and saw no chance of getting out of sight—there was a clearing round the hut, and so he banged at the door again. “I thawt the wimmin would stop.”
“Whoy did ye think that?” asked Mahoney. “What would they shtop for?”
“How th’ hell was I to know?—curiosity, I suppose. They welted into their old hawse, an’, as I turned to look after thim, the murderin’ villains inside shot a gun at me. I got back to me clawthes, an’ dressed somehow. Some one will have to pay for it. I’ll be laid up on me back for six weeks.”
The young doctor excused himself, and went out for a few minutes. Mahoney winked at Regan and party—a wink you could hear—and it comforted them mightily. When they went out they saw the doctor hanging to a sapling, some distance from the hut. He swung with his back to the sapling, and slid to the ground, his legs stretched out in front of him, He said he would be all right presently. The thing was fixed up, but the young doctor wanted badly to have the case brought into court. He said it would cheer up the district for years, and add ten years to the life of the oldest inhabitant.
The cloud of thick, brownish dust, that indicated the passing of the mail coach, paused opposite the claim, and the driver left a brown paper parcel on the corner post of the new-split, two-rail fence which had recently taken the place of the old, convict-built log fence round the Log Paddock. The Quiet Man took the parcel, and put it in a box, which held nails, candle ends, etc., under the bellows of the pick-pointing forge. Then he climbed to the top of the logged-up waste-heap, sat on the edge, and dropped his feet over the shaft into the suspended green-hide bucket, and took a grip of the rope, and his mate, taking a turn of the rope round a cross-piece on the whip-pole, lowered him to the bottom for his shift below.
“Now, I wonder what Tom got up by the coach,” reflected the man on top, with a lazy mental effort. “It was too light for groceries, and it can’t be fancy goods.”
There were three huts on the siding of a spur of the ridge that came down to the corner of Log Paddock. One, a one-roomed bark hut, with the chimney and door in an end, stood down close to the road, within stone-throw of the claim. The other two were up the hill a bit, to right and left, the one on the left a two-roomed bark hut, the other had four rooms, a skillion, and a shed, and whitewashed slab walls, and was called a house—“Mrs. Foster’s House,” or “Mrs. Foster’s Place,” or, for short, “the Fosters’.” Mrs. Foster’s husband and sons were away mostly, working with the drays—tank-sinking, dam-making, etc.—and her daughter was in service with the old land-grant family who owned Log Paddock—several thousands of acres of good, clear, level creek and river frontage land—and did nothing with it, while the selectors broke their backs and hearts trying to make farms in the barren ridges. Mrs. Foster was just a gaunt, practical bushwoman, who, in long years of hardship, drought and struggle, had lost the faculty of bothering about things. She kept some cows and fowls and sold eggs and butter, and assisted at bush confinements gratis. She worked hard always—it was a habit she couldn’t break herself of; besides, there was nothing to rest for. She took the good, old, quiet Australian Journal—they had got into the habit of subscribing for it years and years before—and when it came she read it by snatches, between mending and patching, or over a lonely cup of tea, as if it were a less important part of her work, or duty, yet a part. She gave tramps their allowance of tucker, too, as a matter of course, as though she regarded them as details of ordinary bush life, in the ordinary bush day’s work. And so they were.
The woman who lived in the two-roomed hut was quite a young woman—thirty-two or thirty-three—and quite good-looking. She had in her grey eyes something that was past being haggard, and past being haunted, and past being contemptuous; an expression—if you might call it an expression, or the ghost of an expression—as if hope, love, terror, horror, remorse, hatred and ice-cold contempt for the world and all in it had all been there at one time, but years ago. I saw just such an expression once in the eyes of a girl-singer who was playing a harp and singing in a low pub in a sailors’ bar in Genoa. The woman in the hut had a weak face, or a face that had been weak, with a curved-down mouth, but looking as if it had been chiselled down with hard cuts in hard stone. She had belonged to a family of publicans on the old Pipe-clay goldfield; had run away to Sydney with some one as a girl, and come back in two or three years with a sewing machine and a baby girl; had gone with the rush to Gulgong and other fields, keeping grimly to herself, and working as a dressmaker. The vicious cackle of women’s tongues had died out with the years, other children had been allowed and encouraged to play with her little girl—now a sweet, gentle little thing of ten or twelve—and from being referred to viciously as “Mrs. Brent-as-she-calls-herself,” she came to be called Mrs. Brent by courtesy, then by custom, and now respectfully. The quiet influence of quiet, respectable men, who knew the world, had a lot to do in bringing this change about—they always treated her very respectfully. Mrs. Foster was her friend. They had been neighbours on Gulgong, too, where, one day, Mrs. Foster got a suspicion. Then she watched, and next day, after breakfast, and when Mrs. Brent’s little girl had gone to school, she dropped on her unexpectedly with a length of dress material. Mrs. Brent hastily threw a sheet of newspaper over half a loaf of bread, a saucer of dripping, and a cup of milkless, sugarless tea on the table; but she was too late. She was making moleskin trousers for the stores at that time. Mrs. Foster was a woman of hard, practical kindness, and little or no tact, and she offended Mrs. Brent at once.
“What do you mean,” she demanded, “to come here and talk to me like that? What is it to you whether I had any breakfast or not? I don’t know you! It’s a new thing for a strange woman to come into a woman’s house and insult her. Who are you, and what do you want?”
“I’m Mrs. Foster, and I was there when you were born, but you don’t remember that. All I know is that you’re starving yourself—you can’t work on an empty stomach; no woman can. You’ll break down. And there’s your little girl——”
“She had an egg for her breakfast,” broke in Mrs. Brent passionately. “There’s the shell in the fireplace if you don’t believe me. If you think I’m a pauper to be—to be—But why! To think of the brazen impudence of it!” she gasped. “Now you just get out of this house, whoever you are! There’s the door!”
And so it was, but so there was Mrs. Foster, who had managed men in the D.T.’s and had nursed a mad woman in her time; and so, in two minutes, the door was shut, and the girl who had gone wrong was sobbing on the flat breast of the woman who had never got the chance.
They often sewed together, mostly in silence, and had a cup of tea together—sometimes at Mrs. Brent’s hut and sometimes at Mrs. Foster’s. I don’t know whether Mrs. Brent told Mrs. Foster all about it, but most probably she did once, and was done with it. When they sat and worked together in silence the chances are that the younger woman brooded over the old wrong, and her relatives who were scattered, and from whom she had never heard “since it happened.” It would, I think, be impossible to puzzle out what women like Mrs. Foster think about over their work. She was past hoping or fretting, and past complaining. There was nothing in the future, and there could have been very little brightness in the past. Yet she knitted her forehead, and seemed to be thinking deeply at times; but perhaps she was only considering the advisability of buying another yard or two of that stuff she got at the store in town.
The Quiet Man lived in the hut near the road, with his little boy of five or six. The Quiet Man’s name was Tom Moore, and he had been a popular man on the goldfields. He married a girl at Gulgong about seven years before, and she died before they had their first serious quarrel. She died in child-birth. Mrs. Foster was a neighbour then; she nursed Mrs. Moore, took charge of the child, cooked Tom’s meals, and saw that he ate them. He had been a quiet man ever since. There had been talk of him and Mrs. Brent when she was a girl and he little more than a boy, on the old Pipeclay diggings years ago; but he very seldom spoke to, and never of, her, and he treated her with the greatest respect. It was noticed that while other diggers gave her clothes to make and mend, he never did; but he saw that her water cask was kept filled, in dry weather, from the spring on the flat, and that a load of cut firewood was dumped at the back of the hut occasionally.
Log Paddock was nearly done, and there were fewer diggers than selectors in the vicinity. The children went to a small “provisional” school, over the ridges—where, by the way, little else than geography was provided, the teacher being well up in that branch, and no other.
Little Harry Moore went there occasionally, and was taken in strict and motherly custody, from the time he left his father’s hut until he returned to it, by little Lily Brent. Mrs. Foster looked after little Harry’s stomach, and the seats of his breeches, while the father was at work; and little Harry usually slept at her place while Tom was on night shift. The child knew her as “Aunty Foster” all his life, and every male in the vicinity was “uncle” to him.
Now, along about this Christmas time, Aunty Foster got another suspicion. On one or two occasions Tom thanked her for certain repairs and additions to his son’s wardrobe, which she couldn’t remember—wasn’t responsible for, in fact; and it puzzled her vaguely, but she was past bothering over riddles. But one day he thanked her very kindly for a new shirt for Harry, and insisted on paying for the material, anyhow; and she knew she hadn’t made that shirt. And this, of course, puzzled her a bit. Then she said, “Oh, that’s all right!”
Some days later Mrs. Brent fell ill, and Mrs. Foster nursed her for a day and a night. Early next morning Tom saw her hurrying across from Mrs. Brent’s hut to her own, and stumbled hastily up the hill to cut her off—and seemed to have nothing to say to her when he stopped her. But Mrs. Foster understood him as he stood helplessly and purposelessly before her.
“She’s much better, Tom,” she said. “She’s had a good sleep, and she’ll be alright by to-morrow.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Foster,” said Tom, and retreated in confusion to his hut, where he let the chops burn, and started to put on his little boy’s trousers back to front.
“Father,” said Harry suddenly, “are you in love?”
“Wha’—what?” gasped Tom.
“Because,” said Harry, “Lily Brent says that when people are in love they forget and do things wrong.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, sonny,” said Tom, so the conversation closed.
Tom had always been extremely shy of his little boy, and avoided conversation, and they were strangers yet; but an incident was coming along that was to bring those two lonely hearts close together.
It was Christmas Eve, and Tom and his mate knocked off a few minutes before twelve at night. The hut and its shadow stood a dark patch in the bright moonlight. Tom went in softly and lit the candle. Little Harry was asleep—or seemed asleep. Tom changed his wet flannel and moleskins, and then opened the parcel he had brought with him. A woman’s stocking hung to a nail at the head of the boy’s bunk, and the sight of it gave Tom a pang; he thought at first that it was one of his wife’s stockings, which had remained all this time unnoticed amongst his belongings, and which the boy had found; but, on second thoughts, he concluded that it must have been borrowed for the purpose from Mrs. Foster. Moving softly, Tom put the lollies, ball, stem of a jumping-jack and tin whistle in the stocking, and laid a Chatterbox and a popgun on the table close handy. He turned to see if he had missed anything, when the boy spoke suddenly, and Tom started as if he had been shot. Little Harry was sitting up, his eyes wide open and bright, and his arms stretched out towards his father.
“Father! Father!” he cried. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re Santa Claus. I suspected it for such a long time.”
And the lonely man went down on his knees by the bunk, and the little arms went round his neck.
“Father,” said Harry presently, “why do you turn your face away? Why don’t you look at me?”
But the father couldn’t for a while. Presently he asked, in a strange voice—
“Where did you get the stocking, sonny?”
“From Mrs. Brent,” said Harry; “but I promised her not to tell.”
A thought struck Tom.
“Did Mrs. Brent make any clothes or things for you, Harry?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Harry. “And, father, she’s got an old portrait of you—same’s what we’ve got. I saw her looking at it one day—but I promised not to tell that either.”
Just then there was a step outside, and Tom opened the door, and there stood Mrs. Brent, who started, gasped, turned very white, and then flushed in the moonlight.
“Oh!” she gasped, “I—I—didn’t know you were home, and—and I just come to see if little Harry was alright.”
Tom suddenly stepped forward, took both her hands, and looked into her startled eyes. They stood so for a moment; then, as she felt, or fancied she felt, his hands loosen, she cried out, as though pleading for life.
“Tom—Tom! It happened so long ago, and I’d be a good wife to you; forgive me.” And Tom took her to him.
And, one morning in the New Year, after the wash-up (and the claim panned out very well), the four of them went away in the coach, and for a long time after the dust cloud disappeared down the road, Mrs. Foster sat staring blindly at the pages of the Australian Journal.
They were spelling in the shade of a bush fence, or pile of cut scrub, or something, and Pat O’Brien had a place that ought’ve bin covered by his pants, or a patch; and it was in the sun with Pat’s outlying regions. And Dave Regan had a burning glass. Whispered Dave to his mate lazily—
“I’ll pop the glass onter Pat, Joe, an’ when he jumps you jump too, an’ yell ‘Snake!’”
“Uh-um,” murmured Joe, and he reached carelessly for a new axe handle, which he fingered abstractedly.
Joe rolled over very lazily on to his elbow, and applied the glass like a magnifying glass to a common print.
In a little while Pat got up like a nervous horse that had thought it was miles away from man, and alone, till suddenly yelled at. And his language was bad about bull-dog ants. But at the same time, almost, Joe jumped up, yelled “Snake!” and started to slash the bushes with the axe handle.
“Beggod, boys,” said Pat, “I’m bit!”
They were all up now.
“I’m bit, boys; an’ where ye can’t tie it!”
Joe and Dave took him, one on each side, and started to run him on the track to Government House; but they hadn’t gone far when at the hurried suggestion of one of the others, and clamorous approval of the rest (there were four others), they threw Pat on his flat, and knelt and sat on him while Dave cut the place with his pocket-knife, and squeezed out as much blood as he could.
Then they ran him on again, only stopping once to take more of his blood, till they got to the huts.
The storekeeper was absent after his horse, so they walked Pat up and down while the super opened the store with the wood axe, and handed out two bottles of brandy.
They gave Pat a long pull, gave two fresh men a nip, who relieved the pacers, and walked Pat up and down with a spurt, while the rest had a nip to brace their nerves.
“It’s a long way to Cork, boys,” said Pat. “It’s a long way to Cork.”
They gave him another pull, and walked him up and down.
“I can feel it goin’ through me like fire, boys,” he said. “I can feel it going through me like fire. Can’t ye tie up me roomp somehow? Take a twist on a bit of fincin’ wire or something.”
One of them picked up a piece of fencing wire, but dropped it hopelessly.
They gave him another pull, and walked him up and down. And every time they walked him up and down the others had nips to keep up their spirits.
“I’m drowsin’ down, boys,” he said, wearily. “I’m drowsin’ down. Ah! boys, it’s a pity to lose such a man.”
They roused him up, and walked him up and down before giving him another pull, but they had nips themselves to keep up to it.
“Ah! boys!” he said. “It’s a long way to Cork.”
“So it seems,” said the super; but he got out a couple more bottles to be ready. He had some himself. They gave Pat another pull, and walked him up and down. The relief had pulls before they went in, and the relieved had pulls when they fell out.
And they walked him up and down.
They started one off on horseback to “Stiffners,” on the main road, to see if there was a doctor or snakebite expert there, and to bring back more spirits, in case they ran short. The super gave him two quid, but he never came back.
And they walked Pat up and down and did exactly as before, till they couldn’t wake him, nor the super—nor themselves till next day.
Pat woke first, and thought, and remembered; then he roused Dave, and, staggering, walked him up and down.
“Dave,” he said (in conclusion). “Dave, me friend. Ye saved me life wid ye’re pocket-knife, and soocked me blood. Here’s a couple of quid for ye’re sweetheart, me boy. An’ there’s wan of the same again whinever and any time ye ask for it.”
“Don’t mention, Pat,” said Dave. “It was nothing. I’d do the same to yer any day.”
“I know ye would, me boy,” said Pat, and, the super being still unconscious, they lay down again, well within the home gums’ shade, and slept like brothers.
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