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Title: Collected Short Stories Volume 6 Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2001091h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2020 Most recent update: September 2020 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore and 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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A Backblock Pubbery
A Courting Catastrophe
A Deal in Brumbies
Bill Studders of Mooli Creek
Courting Under Difficulties
On the Track
Some Droving Days in Queensland
Strike Days in Gossip Lane
The Surprise Party
A stranger staying awhile at the Travellers' Rest, which was an ancient caravansary in a remote backblock town, and seeing nobody appearing on the dull scene day after day, and only himself and a multitude of flies answering the bell for meals, might well wonder how the place paid its license, especially as there was a rival pub in the vicinity waiting with equal patience for someone to come along with a thirst.
The Travellers' Rest was kept by "our esteemed citizen and genial host, Mr. Jeremiah Grum," as the local correspondent of the Mulgaland Recorder described him on the occasion when he fell down the cellar and hurt his leg. If the stranger liked a drop, and had money to spend, Mr. Grum was certainly genial, and helped in a great variety of ways to while away the tedious hours; but if he only wanted board and lodging, he soon realised that the host was Grum in more than name. He was left to his own resources—and the main resources were to lol round and meditate on the dreariness of existence, and to watch the lifeless horizon for a chance comer, and to smack at flies, and to walk up and down when he wearied of inactivity. He couldn't read, for Mr. Grum didn't subscribe to the Recorder, and he left no literature about that customers might become absorbed in and so lose interest in cards and dice and the billiard table. Books and newspapers were injurious to business. There was a piano on the premises, but Miss Grum only played between drinks to customers who were merry; and if one wanted to do a little spooning with Miss Grum at other times he had to do it across the bar. She was a chip of the old block. She liked her admirers in mellow mood, and had no use for the teetotal stranger who wished to amuse himself cheaply and kill time without expense.
When the monotony was broken anon by the appearance of travelling cattle, and drovers spent the evening and a good part of next day there; when shearers arrived in little jovial crowds from cut-out sheds, and chucked money about as though it were as plentiful as pebbles, then the stranger began to understand things a little. He glimpsed the marvellous recuperative possibilities of a place that more than half its time had no visible means of support.
In the off-season there might be a three-months' wait for a customer; but that customer might be worth a hundred pounds to mine host, Jerry. Travellers indiscreetly pulled up to have a drink in passing; they got talking, having another, and just one more, until nothing at all mattered but "one more," and in the end they parted with everything that was negotiable, and "left a dog tied up" as well.
Jerry knew everybody within a radius of 200 miles. He knew the steady workers and the good payers, and these could get unlimited credit at the pubbery and a swag of bottled liquor to go home with. It might be six months before Jerry would see one of these debtors again, but he was quite content to wait for his money. His booking business was extensive. Every drink that had to be booked was particularised as "refreshments." There were some suspicious-minded people who generally had a hazy idea, when they came to settle up, that Jerry's book was a liar.
His bar reminded one of a spider's web, cunningly set to catch the passing fly. A man might have no intention of calling whatever. This the watchful spider observed, when he passed a certain point without turning. Then he was hailed, and the spider stepped out to inquire about a team he wasn't expecting, or an imaginary person named Smith, or the state of a waterhole that didn't concern him. Then he struck up a conversation, and insidiously lured the fly to step into his parlor. The dice-box was conspicuous on the counter, and when there was too long an interval between the jingle of sixpences it was introduced like a good old friend whose hand he must take. There were indoor quoits strewn under his feet, and various reminiscences on tap concerning them to lead to a game. There was a ring suspended from the centre of the ceiling, with a hook on the wall, doing its little part in keeping the caller on the premises, and filling in time between shouts. There were cards and draughts and chess and dominoes calling for players. There were attractive pictures, clippings and notices on the walls, preserved snakes on the shelves, which were handed down for inspection; some tricks and puzzles that he would be invited to try his hand at; and there was the billiard-table. Besides these, at times when there was likely to be a little more traffic than usual, a deadbeat was retained on the premises, whose office was to hang about and talk some conversation into the ears of unsuspecting visitors, and introduce the cards to the cheque man.
When shearing was on at any shed within ten miles or so, Jerry sent out a waggonette (known as the Lambs' Express) on Saturday afternoon, and particularly at cut-out, for the convenience of any of the men "who would like a run down for a change." It was not uncommon to see Miss Grum on a seat behind the driver, lonesome and sweet. And in the course of sundry chats with Tom, Dick and Harry she lost no opportunity of expatiating on the delights of a dance they were going to have that night. Dances and girls usually hooked a good many shearers.
According to the notice over Jerry's door, he was "Licensed to sell fermented and spirituous liquors"; but in the glorious days of lambing down, when Jerry was younger, and grew fat and independent, he dispensed some astonishing mixtures—known as tanglefoot, snake-juice, paralysers, double-distilled lightning, mulga rum and blue-murder rousers. It was customary for a man to hand his cheque over with an injunction to notify him when it was cut out. Then Bushy would proceed to paint things vermilion; every available man within coo-ee would be called up to assist in the process; and after a few stiffeners the whole lot would be spread out in various unpremeditated attitudes about the place.
Those good times lived long, and their passing was deeply regretted. Many a one came in with a pair of good horses and a first-class outfit, and a week later tramped away with a scanty swag on his back, and a head like a volcano. Travellers with big cheques, bound for "down below," sometimes called for a wet in passing, and in a few minutes were "dead to the world." Eventually, like the others, they went back to the bush on foot to make another start. Usually in such cases no statement of account was asked for or given; in fact, no accounts were kept. The life of a cheque was decreed on the highest estimate of what the company could drink in a given time.
Election day was a glorious one in those times. Candidates shouted barrels of beer, which were rolled out into the street. The crowd gathered round them, helping themselves till the soakers, of whom there was a sprinkling in every crowd, got down to it and slept off their debauch round the empty barrels like so many gorged pigs round a trough. It was common, too, on election day for free drinks to be served out to all comers at the bars. The electors refreshed themselves at the expense of one candidate at Jerry Grum's, and at the expense of the other candidate at the rival pub, thus being divided according to their political views into two big drinking contingents, each endeavoring by any means possible to capture votes from the opposition. Men were inveigled into trap houses, where drink was stored; others were openly kidnapped and, having been made blissfully drunk, they were led up like lambs to the slaughter to vote for the wrong party. There was no such thing as splitting votes in that township, as there was no pub for a third candidate.
A hard-working, hard-drinking bush contractor known as Morginty Bob struck Jerry's hotel one day in that hogging period, and the way Morginty's finances evaporated was described in immortal rhyme by the local poet (every backblock town has a local poet):
They were twenty 'ardened boozers out o' jobs,
An' though answ'rin' to such names as Jack an' Pat,
Jerry's ledger made 'em all "Morginty Bobs,"
An' it was no use o' contradictin' that!
Bob was fat—
But the leeches couldn't muster up a sprat.
In the saner time that followed the days of lambing down, the thirsty souls of Outback took more care of their hard-earned wealth. Still the old spider had many ways of catching the fat fly, and once he got him safely trapped he squeezed every drop of juice out of him.
Soft drinks were rarely to be had at Grum's pubbery. Only a few liquors of a specially-paralysing character were kept in stock. The bottlelessness of his bar-room at most times would have made a city man feel lonely. Perhaps not more than a dozen receptacles would meet the eye, and they were mostly rum and brandy, and whisky concocted of pale brandy and water. He served brandy and whisky out of the same bottle in emergencies. Rum was the most profitable tipple to Jerry. It gathered strength, and was a good patient in the doctor's hands. Every fortnight or so a strong brew of black tea was dumped into it. When it gave out, under exceptional circumstances, an imitation made from chemicals, or an extract of boiled-down casks, strengthened with pain-killer, methylated spirits or tobacco, could be substituted. Much of the wine he sold was made from chemicals; likewise the vinegar on the table was often simply sour beer from the bottom of casks. A fairly good liquor was served out to any sober man who was likely to be a judge; but as he progressed through the various stages of intoxication he went through a course of bottles containing as many grades and qualities till he was finally drinking the water the glasses were washed in.
Close to hand, the observant visitor noticed what was apparently the same blend of spirit kept in separate bottles, which were used in accordance with the condition or social standing of the customer. There were the magistrate's or the sergeant's bottle, the squatter's bottle, the boundary-rider's bottle, the drunks' bottle and the blacks' bottle. The latter contained a vile mixture composed of dregs from the glasses, perhaps a promiscuous blending of every liquor served out for a month past. The drunks' bottle contained mostly water; occasionally it was "dosed" and put the recipient to sleep, when he could be conveniently stowed away in the dead-house—minus his cheque. That was considerably diminished, if not wiped out, for him while he slept—which was a fine consideration for his health. When he came to his senses he found a horrifying array of dead marines strewn about him, including one or two under his pillow, from which he deduced that he had been having a glorious time. He would feel bad enough, anyhow, to have swallowed a distillery.
Financial drunks were shepherded with the most commendable care. If one happened to slip over to the rival pub before he had become too far shikkered to hand his money over to the barman for safe custody, someone would be sent across with the information that a telegram had just come for him, or somebody wanted to see him on urgent business. Enticed back, he was assiduously waited upon and entertained until he was well tanked. Then he was locked up in a back room, and as much grog brought in to him as he liked to ask for. If he got a few hours' sleep during the night he might feel fairly steady in the morning, and inclined for a ramble round. But his money wasn't done yet, so his boots couldn't be found, or it was necessary to send his clothes to the wash, "as he slipped into a puddle-hole last night." He had a pick-me-up—which often knocked him down, and, clothed in a misfit suit, that he didn't care to be seen abroad in, he had breakfast, after which he was wheedled into a game of cards, and so gradually worked back into the lockup and the entertaining company of fantods.
It was common knowledge that Jerry got the biggest cheque out of every shearing shed about, and from nearly every squattage. There was hardly a job of any kind that was done in the neighborhood that did not add something to his till. Naturally he was on the Progress Committee, and took an enormous interest in the development of the district, especially in the way of building culverts, making roads, putting down bores, excavating tanks and erecting schools and other public buildings—excepting public houses. All these meant an expenditure of money and the employment of many men, and the jobs were calculated to make men thirsty. He liked to see the road in a very bad condition a little way from the hotel on each side, and good and level just opposite, where teams could rest after a stiff pull over the bad parts: and of course Jerry's window, decorated with a tempting assortment of bottles and staring the heated drivers in the face, would remind them that a drink would go very well just then. Jerry spent a lot of his superabundance of spare time in devising ways and means of attracting business.
For all that, Jerry's life was not all beer and skittles. He was nominally lord of his house: but in reality his house was everybody's. He was never his own master, and had no time that he could call his own. From six in the morning till eleven at night were his legal hours, but the travelling public and the people about him didn't recognise any closing time at all. He might be just getting to sleep at midnight after a hard day when he would be roused again by late comers. Occasionally the rap-tap at the door was unheeded; then it was repeated at his bedroom window, and continued until he got out and admitted the disturber. That person might be a stranger or an old customer, he might want a bed or only a drink. Sometimes the desideratum was an oyster supper (the oysters being tinned): and not infrequently the fuming publican was called out of bed to serve a "Jimmy Woodser" which he was asked to book. And these fellows talked and talked and talked, and took offence if the impatient Grum didn't show that he was pleased to sit up and listen. Men, too, who had been drinking during the night, put in an appearance again about daylight for a reviver. He would hear himself being hailed in this fashion:
"Mr. Grum!" softly and courteously.
"Mr. Grum!" three notes higher. Getting impatient.
"Hey, GRUM!" loudly, and becoming discourteous.
Still no answer.
This would be accompanied by a fierce rapping on the window, followed by a lump of road metal bouncing violently on the roof. As business was not continuous, Jerry was his own barman, manager, butcher, stockrider and groom. Sometimes he worked for months at contracts, leaving the care of the hostelry to Mrs. and Miss Grum during the day, and taking up the duties at night. When the police were about Jerry frequently found himself between two fires. Men in various stages of intoxication insisted on gambling—and they gambled with an excess of noise and endless argument. They were keen on thumping the piano, and singing and dancing; and Jerry ran the risk of losing good customers by stopping it and of being fined by permitting it to go on. When he mildly remonstrated with the more obstreperous persons they threw beer and insults at him and some wanted to fight him. Jerry did not forget that it was whisky talking—his whisky—and he let it pass in the interests of business.
His pubbery was periodically visited by half a dozen squatters' sons. When they had imbibed more freely than wisely they rode their horses into the bar and insisted on the indignant landlord refreshing each animal with a drop out of a lemonade bottle. They rode the quadrupeds through the passage and into the billiard-room, driving the players out with stockwhips, to the accompaniment of ear-splitting yells. They carried the forms out, and had hurdle races in the street. They ornamented the tree-guards in front with bedroom furnishings in the small hours of the morning. They raided the pantry and kitchen and dragged the girls out to dance. Now and again they created a sensation by wrecking the furniture and smashing the bottles on the shelves. Mr. Grum looked on helplessly. Afterwards, when those worthies got home and recovered their sanity, they sent for the bill, which they promptly paid by cheque. One bill, for damages alone—according to Jerry's assessment—amounted to £175. He got a new piano out of that. The old one accounted as smashed beyond repair, he sold to the blacksmith.
If Jim, the rouseabout, or Sam, the charcoal-burner, started to make merry in the same way as the Squattocracy he was promptly run in. The way Jerry Grum showed his authority on such occasions, and his determination to maintain an orderly house, was a sharp lesson to everybody who hadn't plenty of money.
Conyers was thirsting for revenge. Gregory Cramp, the fat little draper at Klinker's Emporium, had held him up to public ridicule by basely intervening at the last moment and preventing him marrying his daughter, the fair Rubina. In his bitter humiliation and disappointment he had sought the seclusion of Lankey's Hut, an empty habitation, two miles above Sleepy Hollow, that was seldom occupied except by travellers. There he simmered and plotted, and muttered fearful threats against the insufferable person who refused to be his father-in-law.
He had the company of Murty Brown, since the little paddock in which the hut stood was a good spelling place for horses. Murty went into town every day, and thus kept Conyers posted as to the doings of Gregory and other people he was interested in. If Murty mentioned that he had a yarn with a mutual acquaintance, Conyers would immediately ask: "Did he say anything about me?" He had a suspicion that a lot of people were talking about him, instead of minding their own business.
In this way Conyers came to know that Gregory Cramp and George Katz, the barber, had suddenly developed the warmest regard for each other. Mr. Katz had recently been elevated to the dignity of an alderman; and a flourishing business, together with other activities of his in Sleepy Hollow, placed him on the proud pinnacle of a leading citizen. He was squat of figure, his face broad, and ornamented with a thick moustache that always looked as if it was gummed on.
"If you don't look alive, Mat, he'll be cuttin' you out," Murty remarked by way of encouragement. "They say Gregory's domestic establishment has such a powerful attraction for him that he sometimes runs across to see it in the middle of shaving a customer."
"Cramp would crawl after anybody who was in a little bit of a position. He's that sort," growled Conyers, "But he's got no hope of persuadin' Ruby to take up with his latherin' alderman. Ruby wouldn't be found dead with him."
"Don't make too sure," Murty cautioned. "Girls are mercenary creatures; an' I don't suppose Miss Cramp is very extraordin'ly different from the average."
"She's engaged to me," Conyers reminded him.
"Consequently she knows you've got two horses, an' a couple of saddles, an' a cattle-dog," Murty rejoined. "But a girl expects the man she marries to have something more than that. She expects him to have a home to set her up in."
"She was going to marry me, wasn't she?" Conyers demanded nastily. "I'm no worse off now than I was then, am I?"
"Perhaps you told her you had a squattage outback," Murty retorted. "I know that imagination of yours runs away with you sometimes, 'specially when under the influence o' girl. Anyhow, she can't help makin' comparisons when Mr. Katz is usin' his blandishments on her. He's got a snug little place of his own, with a pretty flower garden in front; an' he's got a business that will provide fine dresses an' jewellery. Besides, bein' a person of some tonnage in the municipality, his wife would be right in it at the mayoral ball an' other social functions. If Rubina doesn't succumb I'll be much surprised."
"You'll be more surprised if you hear she's eloped with me, won't you?"
Murty's candor had an irritating effect on Conyers. He walked out of the hut in a sulky temper and, glaring at the inoffensive township, he threatened to stagger its commercial props by never spending another copper in Katz's dirty shop, or in Klinker's rotten emporium.
At that moment a buggy came rattling along the road. He watched it listlessly until it drew opposite. Then he gave a start as if something had prodded him in the back; his eyes opened wide, with an expression in them like an angry snake's, and his face assumed a ghastly hue.
The driver of the vehicle was Alderman George Katz, and at his side, apparently in the happiest of spirits, sat Rubina Cramp. Her musical voice, as she chatted past, made his heart ache, and her merry laugh sounded like mockery in his ears.
Murty came out and added fuel to the raging flames.
"Hulloa!" he said. "Blest if George ain't fair on the job already! Now, that's the way I like to see a young man go about courtin'. Dash right in an' carry the little peach off her feet, instead o' leanin' against the doorpost for a month, talkin' about the weather. Twig the ardorous attitude of him! Ken scarce see where the horse is goin' for admiration." His gaze shifted from the receding vehicle to Conyers' scowling face. "Who's goin' to be Mr. Cramp's son-in-law now?"
"Not that swine!" snapped Conyers. "I'll give Cramp enough o' Katz before I'm done with him. You'll see!"
He rushed inside again, tore round the boundaries of the interior, swinging his arms recklessly, and finally sat down in the fireplace and nursed the germ of a crude, commonplace idea that had come to him from a frequent repetition of the barber's detested name.
That evening he went down to the Boomerang Hotel. In the parlor he obtained pen and ink and a square sheet of paper, with which materials he busied himself for some minutes. Then, with the paper held behind him, he went to the door and glanced furtively up and down the street. It was the hour when properly-regulated citizens usually sat down to tea. Seeing nobody about, Conyers stepped forth, and in a minute the document was surreptitiously pasted up on the notice-board at the corner of the hotel. Half an hour afterwards Abner Boker sauntered along, looking for somebody who would be generous enough to ask him to have a drink. The notice attracted his roving eye, and, putting on his spectacles, he thrust his nose at it and read:
WANTED. Half a dozen cats. Good price paid for first-class mousers. Apply at Boolahna, Myrtle Street.
"Boolahna? That's Gregory Cramp's place." Abner mused, scratching his chin thoughtfully. He read it again, tracing the line with his finger: "Good price paid for first-class mousers."
"Well," he cogitated, moving slowly off towards home, "there's not a better mouser in town than our old Sandy. I'll go bail on that."
The more he thought of Sandy's excellence the more his mouth watered and the quicker his legs moved. Sandy was a pet of Mrs. Boker's, but it occurred to Abner that that sort of pet wasn't healthy, and ought to be got rid of. Its breath was poisonous, and it harbored fleas.
He crept round to the back like a burglar, calling "Puss, Puss," very softly. Presently a welcome purr was heard, and a tail brushed against his legs. Abner tucked the beast under his arm, drawing his coat over it to keep it warm, and departed with a smartness that few people would have credited him with.
On the way to Boolahna he nearly ran into Josh Taylor. The latter was sprinting down a back lane, his terrier in front of him, and a frantic cat a few yards in front of the terrier, making desperate efforts to reach cover. Abner hurried on. Round the next corner he surprised Bill Waggles squatting at a gap in a paling fence. There was a big black Tom inside, and Bill was good-naturedly offering it a piece of fresh meat. Abner hastened breathlessly.
Near Boolahna something scurried wildly across his path. A lumbering dog that had been following collided with him and in th' resultant fall he lost Sandy. He had no time to ascertain who owned the dog, for Sandy seemed to have developed suspicions, and a quarter of an hour elapsed before Abner got hold of him again.
When he reached the house there were already two sellers at the door. One was a barelegged boy, holding an animated bag by the mouth, and the other was an indignant old lady with a basket, who wanted to know what Mr. Cramp meant by fooling people. Mr. Cramp, who was very red in the face, and equally indignant, was saying that it must be a hoax played on them by an outsize in idiots, for he knew nothing about the matter.
Abner, thinking they were wrangling over the quality of the goods, pushed to the front.
"Here," he said, shoving the clawing animal against Gregory's white shirt. "If it's a good mouser you want, there ain't a better in town than that old Sandy."
Gregory heaved Sandy from him with vituperation, and Sandy, escaping from his master's clutches, took to his heels, with Cramp's dog in hot and noisy pursuit.
"What do you mean by it?" Mr. Cramp vociferated.
"What do you mean?" Abner countered, thrusting his face forward. "You want cats, don't you?"
"No, I don't!" Cramp roared at him. "I've got all I want."
"Why couldn't you say so civilly then, instead of insultin' a man?" Abner demanded, turning wrathfully away.
Bill Waggles bustled up before he had got off the verandah. Bill had four cats which, after a heated encounter with Mr. Cramp, he unloaded on the premises. Bill was short-tempered, and called Cramp vile names. He also threw his hat down and his coat after it, and invited him to come outside and get stiffened.
The other disappointeds were trying to calm him, when Josh Taylor stepped briskly up to the door and butted the furious draper with two scared creatures that clawed and spat at him.
Mr. Cramp retreated hastily and slammed the door. For a few seconds Josh Taylor stood on the mat, staring blankly at wood. Abner called out to him that Cramp had got all he required.
"Oh, is that it?" said Taylor, sourly. "Dashed polite way of lettin' a man know it, anyway."
He looked about him with an ugly droop at the corner of his mouth and fire in his eye. The fanlight over the door was open. Grasping his cats, he hurled them one by one into the room, and decamped with a leisurely, defiant stride. Muffled shrieks and thuds issued from inside as the others followed him away.
A couple of the castaways, being hustled by Cramp's dog, took refuge on the roof. At a late hour, when the perturbed household had retired to rest, the family grimalkin climbed up to investigate. Discovering the strangers in his domain, he hurled loud and abusive challenges across the roof, and the strangers from their side yowled defiance and made ugly faces at him. For two hours they caterwauled in nerve-wracking cadences from opposite sides; then they clashed with tremendous applause, and proceeded to settle the argument in the centre of the skillion roof, tumbling all over the resounding iron, and hitting it with terrific thumps, intermingled with savage grunts and fortissimo yowls.
Mr. Cramp got up, seized his revolver, and rushed out with murderous intentions. He fired wildly at the noise. The first shot smashed the kitchen chimney-pot, and the second left a gaping wound in the iron, which subsequently needed the attentions of a plumber. By that time the midnight rioters had dispersed.
In the morning Cramp found three dead cats in his yard, but they were hanging by the tails to the clothes line. The sight so affected him that he couldn't eat any breakfast.
More of the feline species arrived during the day. The news had spread that Cramp wanted cats, and everybody who had a surplus in that line, or could catch the nuisance next door, brought it along to his residence. The draper had gone to business. Mrs. Cramp answered the first couple of callers, dismissed them summarily, and thereafter sat quiet, watching through the window, till the cat-hawkers got tired of waiting and left the place. They also left the cats. One of them was so mad that he broke the window with his cat.
A wild humorist presented some felines to Rubina, saying that as she was going to marry Katz she was doubtless fond of them. At this point she wept bitterly.
"The whole town is making fun of us!" she wailed to her mother. "Everybody's laughing at us!"
That evening the barber called, bearing a floral offering for his friend's pretty daughter. The friend and his wife talked cats with him for half an hour, and then Mrs. Cramp went in search of Rubina. She found her lying on the bed, dabbing her nose with a tiny handkerchief.
"Ruby, what's the matter with you?" the old lady remonstrated. "Mr. Katz is here."
"Katz!" Ruby shrieked. "For Heaven's sake, haven't we had enough of cats?"
"Don't be silly!" said her mother impatiently. "He has something for you. Come on out."
But Ruby was obdurate.
"I won't!" she said, turning her face to the wall. "Send him away! Don't mention him to me. I hate him!"
Her mother returned to the sitting-room and apologetically informed the visitor that Miss Cramp had gone to bed with a bad headache.
When the amorous barber called again Miss Cramp had retired with the toothache; and on the third occasion that he presented himself she was laid up with the earache. Mr. Katz expressed a hope that the young lady would never suffer with the heartache, and left early. He did not call any more, and within a week from the posting of the fatal notice he and Mr. Cramp had left off speaking to each other.
Conyers was jubilant.
"What about your dashing alderman now?" he twitted Murty, digging him playfully in the ribs.
"What about Rubina?" Murty parried.
"You wait a while--" confidently. "If I get half an hour's talk with her, you'll hear of an elopement in this district very soon afterwards."
"Better be slippery," Murty advised. "I saw Constable Murphy talkin' to her the other day. 'Twas the mornin' Cramp found his clothes-line decorated with dead animals."
"So Gregory got the law to work, did he? I didn't know that."
"Murphy's been lookin' for clues about Boolahna ever since," Murty went on. "Better look out for him."
"Oh, he won't catch me," said Conyers, boastfully.
"I don't say he'll catch you," said Murty. "But seems to me that cat-plague was the means of a pleasant introduction."
The happy look vanished suddenly from Conyer's face. He eyed his comforting mate with the aspect of a sheep.
"Ruby is a pretty girl," Murty explained, "an' Constable Murphy is a lot better lookin' than you, Conyers, if you don't mind me tellin' you so."
"Fat lot you know about looks," Conyers snarled. "If I had a face like yours I'd swop it for a baboon's."
"He's got a steady job, too, which you haven't," Murty added, unabashed.
"I haven't got your narrow mind an' disgruntled views either," Conyers retorted. He lit a cigarette, and then continued, as if speaking to himself: "Old scallywags, who've been jilted in their youth, think every girl's a heartless flirt."
"I was never jilted," Murty informed him. "'N' if I've insinuated that girls were flirts, because a lot of 'em dropped you when they got to know you better, I apologise."
Conyers dabbed his hat on and went down the paddock to look at his horses. He sat on a log and looked at them till sundown.
In the dusk he steered for Boolahna, and after viewing the place from every possible point, he glued himself to the back fence and waited. For three hours he kept a vigilant eye on the back door, in the expectation that Miss Cramp would come out to empty the scraps, or to get a dipper of water, or some kindling wood for the morning. The notes of a dreamy waltz floated out to him, making him feel desperately love-sick; and he wondered if he would ever be able to buy her a piano. Hope died when the lights were extinguished, and he trudged miserably back to Lankey's Hut.
He returned the next night, and for several following nights he crouched against the same fence, only detaching himself and taking brisk exercise when a pedestrian happened to pass along that way. On the sixth night his patience was rewarded. Some clothes hung on the line near the back gate, and the girl came tripping down the path to take them in. Conyers hastened to the gate, which he opened with the care of a man handling an infernal machine, and crept noiselessly into the yard.
Just then a heavy hand fell on his shoulder, and he was jerked violently backwards. The next instant his eyes lit on the burly figure of Constable Murphy.
"Caught you in the act, my man," said that officer, clapping the handcuffs on the protesting Conyers. "I thought I would. I've been keeping an eye on Boolahna and its precincts for some time, having been informed on good authority that a blackguard was prowlin' about it with suspicious frequency."
"I was only waitin' to see the girl." Conyers wailed in his ear.
The constable chuckled.
"'Twill be a month at least before you'll see another girl." he said cheerfully. "Come along, Conyers!"
He was a true prophet. Conyers got a month without the option for being illegally on Mr. Cramp's, premises, for trying to steal clothes off the line, and on general suspicion of theft of cats.
Two days before he came out Miss Cramp was married to Constable Murphy.
WE had finished shearing at Kinnoul, a small shed on the Dawson, and on Monday morning Stahmer, Deaf Harry and I left for Eurombah, a squattage 12 miles distant that was famed for its brumbies, barramundi and bunyip. The brumbies ran in big mobs in the brigalow scrubs; the barramundi grew to huge proportions in Eurombah Lagoon, which, according to the blacks, who had long shunned it, was also the home of the bunyip.
A thunderstorm the day before had left pools and sheets of water gleaming all over the flats. There was still a drizzling rain when we started and, as none of us had overcoats, we substituted flour-sacks, cutting a hole in the bottom and slitting the sides for armholes before slipping them over our heads. Reaching below our knees, they kept us fairly dry. The idea was Harry's. He had a fondness for bags. The greater part of his pack consisted of Wagga rugs and Murrumbidgee blankets.
Harry led the way. He also led a short-tailed chestnut horse, an attenuated and melancholy animal which carried our swags. He slipped down in the mud three times, and required our conjoint assistance to stagger up again. We walked one behind the other, through slush and water, scattered branches, driftwood and bullyfrogs. Each man carried a billycan in one hand and a pair of boots slung over his shoulder on the end of a stick. We were like three wandering advertisements, each bearing the name of a particular brand of flour, the trade-mark, the miller's name and the name of his factory in big red letters on the back.
In this fashion we trudged and slipped along to Eurombah, and had just got nicely settled in the harness-room when another storm came on.
We had heard a good deal about Eurombah brumbies, and intimated to Mr. Lord that we wished to buy some. (I had two pounds sterling in my pocket.) Mr. Lord promised to have several hundred horses in for our inspection on Wednesday. He offered to keep us in meat and to lend us fishing lines (that was to save the meat); so my two mates promptly decided to wait. I would have gone on, as buying a horse meant buying riding gear; and when you take the price of a horse out of two pounds you haven't much left to spend on accoutrements. But that evening I met a wandering ex-jockey named George Boyce, who was going my way and knew the road. The others were bound for Roma. George, whose small, wrinkled face was ornamented with a sandy moustache, was a cheerful sort who could joke and sing in the face of his own adversity. He was so near-sighted that he nearly had no sight at all. Deaf Harry, who had met him before, endeavored to persuade him to go to Roma.
"You're kind an' I'm deaf," he argued, "an' we'll only be a twin nuisance to them other fellers. I can't hear the horse-bells, an' you can't see the horses. They'll have ter horse-hunt for us. But if we go together you'll be able to hear the bells an' show me the direction, an' I'll be able ter see the horses."
This brilliant idea didn't come off. George had three horses, and had agreed, if I bought a brumby, to quieten and ride it for me whilst I rode one of his. When we reached the Maranoa he would give me another for it. This generous offer was induced by the fact that George had neither money nor tobacco, and badly wanted a financial mate. I agreed to his proposal, while desperately calculating how much I could apportion to the various items I had to purchase out of my two pounds.
Tuesday was mainly spent on the banks of the lagoon fishing for barramundi, the excitement of which saved me a lot of suspense.
Everybody was astir early on Wednesday, Harry and Stahmer talking horse and cracking jokes about riding. They were also displaying a lively interest in all such things as saddle-straps, buckles and stirrup-irons. Lots of these articles were going to ruin in out-of-the-way corners, and it was marvellous how quickly an energetic man could amalgamate into something of utility.
There was a great muster of brumbies during the morning, and after lunch Mr. Lord took us up to the stockyards. He was a big, hearty man, clean-shaven, with a ruddy and happy cast of countenance.
We clustered at a little drafting-yard through which the horses we're passed. There seemed to me to be enough of them to supply the Indian market, most of them well-set and attractive animals. They were worked through the yards by two stockmen and two brumby-shooters—for thousands of the horses were trapped and shot every summer for their hides.
The first eight were snorters, and the buyers stood off. Then a wild black colt took Stahmer's fancy. He was a handsome beast, with great neck and quarters, and an ebony coat that shone like silk.
"What's the figure?"
"Thirty bob. Dirt cheap to anyone who can ride."
As Stahmer had been blowing about his riding, this sounded like a challenge. George, who wanted to see some fun, offered to give a hand with the breaking-in as an extra inducement. Stahmer hunted the colt round the yard several times, and could find no fault with him. He was certainly cheap. I would have bought him myself if he had been cheaper.
"I'll take him." said Stahmer.
Three more went through; then a big bay colt was blocked. Deaf Harry got down off the rails to look at him. He was a handy sort of horse, suitable for saddle, pack or harness. The owner highly recommended him, and on this recommendation Harry became the purchaser.
I was the only buyer left.
A splendid-looking chestnut was the first blocked for my inspection. Five pounds! I searched it desperately for a fault, and concluded that it was too fiery about the heels. Another chestnut followed. Three pounds. This one was easier for a buyer of limited means to judge; it was too clumsy. Two beautiful bays were the next at 50s. each. Too wild. They sent in the fifth, and the sixth—they sent in 75, and the 75 were rejected as being defective in 75 different ways. Mr. Lord was beginning to talk to himself, and to wonder what he had brought the horses in for. The drafters were using uncomplimentary language; and this unfortunate buyer began to wish himself several miles and a furlong up a dry gully.
Only a few now remained of the first yard for me to inspect. I continued to inspect. Presently along came a weedy, brown galloway, slab-sided and lop-eared like a donkey. Its mane was long and matted, its tail trailed on the ground. It had one good point—it looked quiet.
"There you are—twenty-five bob."
"What's his breeding?" I asked.
"He was got by Drought out of Trapyard," said Lord. Somebody giggled.
I looked the animal over from his hoofs to his back, while I wondered what the seller would be asking for an old saddle; I drove the quadruped round and scrutinised him fore and aft, while I mentally fumbled about for a bridle to put on the brute. At last I made a desperate plunge.
"I'll give you a pound for him," I said.
"Take him, take him!" said Lord, and as he walked across the yard he lifted his hat and brushed his hair back with his hand. Boyce came into the yard and examined the bargain at close-quarters. Boyce was considered a judge.
"A trifle small," he commented, "but he'll fill out, an' grow a bit, too. Only a colt yet."
Lord came to the gate.
"What's his age, Mr. Lord?" I asked.
"I don't know exactly," he replied, "but I don't think he's much over nine."
"I knew he wasn't very old," said Boyce. "A 'orse is just in his prime at nine. I reckon he's well worth a pound."
We commenced breaking in at once; that is, we captured our purchases with ropes, indulged in some weird and whirling exercise behind them for a time, and left them in tackle for the night.
Next day the civilising process was continued with mixed results. Lord Brumby—by Drought, out of Trapyard—turned out a very docile animal, and I had the satisfaction of riding him bareback round the yard in the afternoon. Such is the benefit of inspecting well before buying. When we had pulled his superabundant tail and combed out his superfluous mane, he didn't look at all bad. In fact, with his ears stiffened a little and his sides inflated, Lord Brumby would have looked worth a couple of pounds anywhere.
The black colt sulked from the beginning, and by this time he was a most deplorable quadruped. His mouth was cut and bleeding, his lips swollen to the size of six; he had two black eyes, and there were lumps on him and lumps knocked off him. He leaned back in the corner with his forelegs spread out and his head down. Stahmer pulled his head this way and that way; but nothing else of him would come with it, barring a grunt.
"Calls himself a horse-breaker!" said Lord. "He wants three months."
Harry's big bay was a different character. He was a defiant animal, and had Harry thoroughly cowed. He didn't allow the deaf gentleman in the same yard with him, his vicious proclivities being distressingly evident. Harry walked round outside, with a bag on the end of a long stick, with which he bashed the rebel whenever he got a chance. Harry was a good-tempered, patient person, and persistence eventually wore the outlaw into submission.
On Friday the horses were considered quiet enough to go on the track, and arrangements were made to start after dinner. I still wanted a saddle to complete my equipment. Lord brought out several from a lumber room, and the groom swept the oust and cobwebs off them. They ranged from 80s. down to five. I examined the five-shilling article.
"Will you take three bob for it? I asked. It was in an advanced state of disrepair. Lord made a gesture of impatience.
"If it's not worth five bob it's worth nothing," he said. "It's not worth arguing over."
George, who was mooching around with some straps and pieces of bridle-rein in one hand and a rusty bit in the other, signalled approval and intimated that I wouldn't have to buy a bridle, as he was seeing to that. So the deal was completed. After all, a horse, saddle and bridle for 20 shillings wasn't excessive.
All hands on the place, including several ladies, assembled to see the start. Harry and Stahmer packed their colts, and led them around as a preliminary. There was very little life left in the black one. He rolled from side to side with his head down; now and again he spread out his front legs and groaned in protest. The ladies said "Poor brute!" severally and unanimously, whilst Mr. Lord remarked that the other brute ought to get six months.
Harry mounted his old chestnut and essayed to start. The colt pulled back and dragged him off. Then the brute heaved the pack on to a pile of raw horse-hides that had just been unloaded, smashed through a gate and bolted to the bottom corner of the home paddock. When we had brought him back, Lord claimed him for damages. While interest centred in the argument, Stahmer pulled the black colt down the track as one might drag a log, Boyce actively assisting in the rear. Harry spent half an hour trying to mend the gate; then he paid 10s. in requital. He got on again with an injured air, requesting me to form a rearguard to prevent further damage and to accelerate his departure, and we left Eurombah.
Lord Brumby, tractable and pacing in fine style, gave George an expression of beaming satisfaction. The tittle brown hack, he said, was a credit to my judgment.
Our road hugged the Dawson River, and while passing along the edge of a steep bank the black colt pulled back and tumbled over. He turned a dozen somersaults and landed on his back in a muddy hole, where he lay half covered with water.
When we had recovered from this shock we found Harry spread out in the grass, and the bay colt bucking into the bush, scattering old shirts, pants, tinware and blankets as he went. Harry scrambled to his feet, clawed some dry herbage from his hair, and collected his pipe and hat.
"See my horse anywhere?" he inquired dejectedly. The rebel had got into a hollow.
"I can hear him," said Boyce. "Can't you see him?"
Harry rubbed several parts of his anatomy.
"'S a strong 'orse that," he reflected.
I went in pursuit of the runaway, whilst the others unpacked the black colt and lifted him up. Between shoving and dragging and belting they got him to the top. Harry did some more collecting, and we camped.
It was the last camp for the black colt. During the night he caught his hobbles against a stump and, turning over, broke his stiff neck.
From here we had a short ride to Hornet Bank. We must have been something unusual in the way of travellers, for half a dozen women gathered on the verandah and stared at us.
Boyce and I endeavored to pass on, but the pack-horse and the spare one objected. They split up and ran back. Lord Brumby had no idea of stockwork, so the onus of blocking and driving devolved upon me. I raced towards the fence to block the pack-horse. The old mare I bestrode propped at the fence and slewed sharply. The girth broke, and I and the saddle dropped on to the fence and thence straggled to the ground. A boisterous laugh from Harry—who was yarning with Stahmer a little way back on the road—was followed by a merry ripple from the women.
While we were repairing the breakage we became suddenly aware of something like a tornado rushing along. It was Harry's mutinous bay. He went flying through the timber, leaving bits of the pack hanging to branches. When we saw the last of him on a far ridge he was stripped of his burden; Harry was riding hard on the lean chestnut to keep the outlaw in sight, and Stahmer was running laboriously behind him to gather up the pieces.
George and I were half an hour fixing things up, and then we started again. The pack-horse turned into a little pen at the side of a cottage, to the accompaniment of shrieks from the audience. I dismounted and dragged the cantankerous thing out and Boyce flung a sliprail at it, which turned its head in the right direction. We passed through the yards and came to a waterhole. There we provided more entertainment free of charge. The pack-horse seemed to think that his only mission in the world was to circumnavigate that waterhole. He circumnavigated it 20 times. Then Boyce met him with a sapling, which changed his opinions, and he went well till we reached the river crossing. Right in the middle of it he lay down and rolled with the pack. We stopped on the other side to unroll our drenched swags, and spread the contents over the landscape.
In one way Bill Studders considered himself the most fortunate young man on Mooli Creek. He was only 19 yet, but he had done his share so long with the best men about that age was not a material point with him in the definition of man's estate. If a mate remarked that he was "only a boy yet," Bill did not take it in the nature of a compliment. Hadn't he won the love of the best girl on the creek? And wasn't he engaged to be married to her? He had beaten all the men for her hand when he was little more than 17—a ragged, unpaid drudge on his father's selection.
He was still on the selection, but his prospects had improved somewhat. He had been taking small contracts and breaking in horses in various parts of the district, till he had acquired half-a-dozen hacks and a few heifers of his own and £50 in the Savings Bank. There were lots in the neighbourhood better circumstanced, but then he was loved by little Maudie Bucknell, and they were not. That was why he considered himself the most fortunate man on Mooli Creek.
Maud Bucknell was now a neat, trim little lady of 18. Just an ordinary bush girl, pretty enough, with a sunny smile and sparkling blue eyes. The only unattached girl thereabouts, she had not wanted for suitors. A couple of them had well-stocked selections of their own, and to a selector's daughter the position they offered was certainly to be considered good, if she overlooked the disparity between their ages. But she did not, and turning them away she had not improved her relations at home, for the antiquity of the suitor who had property was not a matter that weighed with her parents.
Then there was Colly Smith, a bullet-headed, "puddin'-faced" youth who had not been as well off even as Bill himself till he went to Solferino diggings. Two years' mining, however, made a difference that filled Bill Studders with envy and restlessness. Colly returned with £300. He took up a 640-acre block adjoining Bucknell's, and talked largely of the mansion he was going to build. Of course, Bucknell extended the hand of good-fellowship, and Mrs. Bucknell made him warmly welcome whenever he chose to call; though they had been wont to laugh at Colly before he went away, and to regard him as one mapped out by Nature to be a simple-minded, easygoing failure to the end of his days.
Knocking around with the diggers had improved him a little, and given him a broader view of life. Still, Bill Studders did not think of him as being ever likely to come between him and Maud. Had anyone suggested such a possibility he would have scouted it indignantly as a slur on her character. In his eyes she was the embodiment of tenderness, faithfulness and purity; a creature of magic to whom he was the axis of the whole universe.
Bill was so much in love that he could hardly think of anything else. He wanted to begin at once making preparations for the wedding which, he resolved, would eventuate in two years' time.
"How old must a person be before he can take up a selection?" he asked his father as they sat down for a smoke-o. They were splitting slabs to build a milking shed.
"Ain't got to be any particular age at all, so far 's I know," said his father. "Why do you want to know?"
"I was thinkin' o' takin' up that next block, up the creek, before someone else snapped it."
"Let 'em snap it," said his father. "You'll have as much here as you'll manage."
"But this isn't mine," Bill protested.
"It will be when I'm gone—all of it." He sat up and encompassed the selection with an ostentatious sweep of his arm. "All the work you do here, all the improvements you help to make, you're doing for yourself. You'll get the benefit of it by-and-bye."
Bill was dubious. He had been working and improving since he was old enough to pick up kindling wood, and he had not been materially benefited so far.
"Suppose I—I wanted to get married," he hazarded, "where would I put her?"
Mr. Studders looked at his aspiring son with a broad smile. He was one of the offenders who treated Bill as "only a boy."
"Want to get married?" Mr. Studders repeated, and laughed.
Bill grinned, and screwed the heel of his boot into the ground.
"Better wait, boy, till you grow up." Ephemeral roses burned in the boy's cheeks, and he bent down suddenly to blow his pipe out on the pretence that it wasn't drawing freely. Mr. Studders puffed meditatively, with a happy look on his face. Perhaps he was thinking of long past days when he was obsessed by similar silly notions as now perturbed his son and heir. It being Saturday, they ceased work at four o'clock. Bill, nothing discouraged by the sensible advice he had received, at once "cleaned" himself and went off to see the girl. At nineteen life is full of hopes.
He had confidence in himself, for he possessed that patient courage of the average bushman that overcomes obstacles. He had not the shadow of a doubt that everything would be ready at the appointed time, and that he would be a credit to M. B.
Nevertheless an impish fate had arranged a tragic scene for the lover's eyes that for a moment left him speechless with horror and amazement. He could hardly believe what he saw; he looked, and looked again, before he could realise the awful truth.
Sitting on a log at the woodheap was Maud Bucknell and beside her, with his obtrusively fat arm about her waist, sat Colly Smith!
Maud's arms were bare to the elbows, one of them in the contaminating grasp of a beastly fat hand. Bill strained his astonished eyes in search of the jewelled token he had placed on her finger. It was not there. Had she removed it to lead that puddin'-faced fellow to think that she was free?
Their backs were towards him. He stood at the corner of the milking-yard, glued to the spot where that awful picture had flashed upon him. To that point he had walked in Paradise; now the deep, dark pit of the jilted, yawned before him. It was as a stab to his heart, leaving a cold, heavy, sinking feeling. Then wild, jealous rage seized him; his hands clenched as if he meant to add some bumps to the bullet head that was held so maddeningly close to Maud's.
He could not hear what was said. Nor did he want to. His first impulse was to punch Colly Smith. Then he thought: "If she doesn't want me, what's the use? 'Twould only let everyone know I cared...I'll punch him another time—about that bridle of mine he lost...Oh, Maud, I thought you were true!"
He drew back behind the corner, undecided what course to take. When he looked again they had both gone into the house.
After a while he strolled resolutely towards the door. But again a sinister fate intervened. Bucknell, going towards the yard with a shovel on his shoulder met him half-way.
"Where are you bound for?" asked Bucknell.
"I'm goin' to see Maud," Bill said determinedly.
"Better change your mind," Bucknell returned.
"Why should I?" Bill asked, recklessly.
"Come here!" said Bucknell, and led the way down into the yard, where he stuck the shovel into a heap of mullock and stood with his foot on it. "I suppose you haven't heard that Maud and Colly Smith are engaged to be married?"
"N-no!" said Bill, in a dry, hoarse voice.
"He's in there with her now," Bucknell continued. "I thought it just as well to let you know."
"Right!" the boy responded, stiffening himself with an effort. "That's good enough for me!" He left immediately, feeling years and years older as he plodded slowly homeward.
The following week was one long remembered on Mooli Creek. Sensations happened so quickly, one after another, that the gossips were kept in a ferment of excitement.
First it was reported that Bill had called on Colly Smith. They had words over a bridle; the word's led to blows and ended in Colly receiving an unmerciful hiding. When the news reached Maud she seemed strangely pleased.
Shortly afterwards it came to her ears that Bill had left the same day for Solferina. At this her face went deadly white, and that night her pillow was wet with tears.
Next she heard that Bill had drawn £500 in Tattersall's Sweep. That, Mrs. Bucknell said, explained why he had not come to say good-bye to them. He was too purse-proud to recognise them now.
"An' it's not long since he hadn't a boot to his foot, an' was glad to borrow a pipe of tobacco from your brother Bob. An' I suppose Liz Studders will be puttin' on airs, too," Mrs. Bucknell went on, with the acidity of a woman who has been slighted. "Nobody on the creek will be good enough for her now. Not that I want her, [illegible word]. If she waits till I ask her, she'll drop stiff!"
Mrs. Bucknell was thirsting for news, and being nearest to the Studders, she was offended because Liz had not run over and told her all about everything.
But Maud refused to believe anything that was said against Bill. She could not understand why he had not come over on Saturday and Sunday; why he had gone away so suddenly, and without a word; but she could not believe that his altered financial position had anything to do with it. Heavy at heart, she at last went over to get the truth from Liz. She reached Studders' place just after tea. Liz was in the kitchen washing up. Maud entered by the back door.
"Hulloa!" said Liz. "What brings you over, here?"
Maud was conscious of a coolness in the greeting.
"I heard that Bill had gone away. Has he?"
"Yes," said Liz, without looking up.
"Where's he gone?"
"To the diggings."
"W-what did he go for?"
"Oh!" said Liz, with a toss of her head. "As if you didn't know!"
"Indeed I don't!" Maud answered. "He—never came near me." She stiffened her mouth with an effort, and struggled to keep back the tears.
"What about Colly Smith?" asked Liz.
"What about him?" Maud repeated with genuine surprise.
"How very innocent we are!" The covert sneer stung Maud.
"I don't know what you mean, Liz!"
"Ain't you and Colly Smith engaged to be married?"
"No, we're not!"
Liz left off washing and faced her.
"Then your father's a liar!"
Maud's wistful grey-blue eyes opened wide.
"Because he told Bill so, and stopped him from goin' to your place. We're not good enough for him, it seems, since Colly Smith came back with his dirty money."
Plucking agitatedly at the front of her dress, Maud could only look at her in pained and speechless amazement.
"Bill saw him with his own eyes sittin' on the woodheap with his arms round you," Liz continued.
"Last Saturday afternoon?" Maud queried.
"Oh! you own up then?" chirped Liz, and resumed washing with so much energy that she narrowly missed breaking a cup.
"Look here, Liz," said Maud, "I was getting some wood that afternoon when Colly Smith came up to me. He asked me to sit down for a little while, as he had something important to tell me. When I did so he put his arm round my waist and held me...and asked me to marry him. I told him I was already engaged."
"Did you show the ring on your finger?" Liz cunningly inquired.
Maud raised her hand and looked at the ring she wore. It was the ring Bill had given her.
"No!" she said; "I didn't have it on."
"I was washing out some towels, and I always take it off when I'm washing. Mother takes her rings off, and I suppose your mother does too, doesn't, she?"
"Ye-es," Liz replied, reflectively. She began to realise that a mistake had been made.
"Why did your father tell that lie?" she asked.
"He wants me to marry Colly Smith, I suppose that's why. Colly thought the girls about here were to be bought. He's proposed to two other girls since."
"Who?" Before Liz could elicit that delightful tit-bit Mrs. Studders came into the kitchen.
"Oh!" the latter exclaimed, drawing her-self up magnificently. "Good evening, Miss Bucknell!"
"Good evening, Mrs. Studders," Maud responded with a timid, injured air.
"I suppose you heard about the fortune Bill's come into?" said the old lady, going to the dresser and pretending to look for something.
"I heard something about it," Maud returned.
"I guessed as much," Mrs. Studders asserted. "I suppose Colly will be gettin' the cold shoulder now. Five hundred is more than three hundred, isn't it?"
Maud's cheeks flamed at the nasty insinuation.
"You are labouring under a mistake, Mrs. Studders," she reproved.
"Oh, no, I'm not," Mrs. Studders returned. "I'm not much of a one at 'rithmetic, but I know five hundred is more 'n three hundred. So do some of the girls around here."
She brushed some imaginary dust from the cupboard, and returned to the front room.
Maud's head drooped. Slowly she lifted her hands to her face and went out. Liz ran after her, and caught her by the arm.
"Maud," she said, "I believe you. As soon as I get Bill's address I'll write and tell him everything."
Bill knew nothing about his luck in the sweep. He had speculated in a ticket one day, after making a good deal with horses. He left the ticket in a little box on his table, where Liz found it. A couple of days after he left home the result arrived, and Liz, in a tremor of excitement, discovered that the ticket was a prize-winner. Mr. Studders immediately appointed himself trustee. He drew the money, and with an eye to improvements that would result in ultimate benefit to Bill, would have set about spending a lot of it had not Liz and her mother objected. They took charge of affairs at that point, and the money was placed in the Savings Bank to the credit of Elizabeth Gertrude Studders, pending Bill's return.
Mr. Studders, being anxious to see that money invested to Bill's advantage, after waiting three months for tidings, made a journey to Solferina, only to learn that Bill had just left for parts unknown.
He was very much discontented for the next three months, during which time he pointed out to himself, while riding through his paddocks, what might be done with a little bit of capital, and formed great plans that would make his homestead the finest property on Mooli Creek. The comforting thought occurred to him also that he was old enough to be superannuated.
Then he inserted an advertisement in two or three back-country papers, setting forth that, if such should meet the eye of William J. Studders, native of Mooli Creek, and last heard of at Solferina, he would hear of something to his advantage by communicating immediately with his father.
For the next half-year he met the mail coach regularly at the roadside. He was so constant that he became a landmark. Sometimes he received a pamphlet, which aroused suspicions in his mind that he was afflicted with a score of complicated diseases. It proved to him, on an exhaustive examination, that he was breaking-up and ought to retire from active service. This thought made his disappointment all the keener when the expected communication did not arrive.
Bill didn't communicate with anybody. Among the hardy western men, he spent his days in the excitement of conquering wild cattle and mastering equine rebels. Now and again he went on a long droving trip; and ever on the lonely night watches he thought of Maud. He had tried to forget her, but after four strenuous years on the fringe of civilisation her spirit was still with him, following him on his day-long rides, stealing to him in the still night as he lay under a glory of stars. When he sat smoking by a quiet camp-fire, the smoke wreaths assumed the form of her wavy tresses, and often, gazing into the fire, he saw the vision of an imperishable face that wrung a cry from his heart:
"Oh, Maud, I thought you were true!"
He was always 'going to write home' at the end of his trips, or when his address was permanent enough to catch a return mail; but, like hundreds of other men who go out-back, he always neglected to do so. It was not because he did not want them to know where he was. Going home was a different matter. He wondered how they were getting on, and what had happened since; but he wasn't going back there any more. And yet—
"I'd just like to know," he said to himself, as he rode along behind the cattle, thinking of one thing and another on Mooli Creek. "I suppose she's got a family by now."
At the thought, his whip swung sharply and viciously at a lagging bullock.
That trip took him to Muswellbrook—not a very great way from Mooli Creek, considering the distances he had travelled. Had he known it, there was a letter waiting for him at the post office, explaining how advantageous it would be for him to give up droving and return home post haste; but as he had no correspondence with anybody, Bill did not call at the office, and in due course, the important missive was returned, via the Dead Letter Office, to the writer. That disgusted person, who had to pay 4d on receiving it, was Bill's father.
Mr. Studders, searching every paper that came into his hands in the desperate hope that he might find some mention of the wanderer, had at last dropped upon this item under "Stock Passings":—
"1000 head of fat bullocks from the Diamantina to Muswellbrook. Drover W. J. Studders in charge."
Subsequently Liz showed the item to Maud who was, thereafter, like Studders, senr., interested in stock passings in all parts of the country, and in all seasons of the year.
It was a consolation that Bill had kept his head up and walked the straight path, in spite of his blighted hopes. But—did he care? Had he forgotten her?
Bill visited the picture shows when in Muswellbrook, but the love scenes hurt him, and unstiffened the corners of his mouth. He went back to his camp with his thoughts divided between Mooli Creek and the far-off Diamantina. For the thousandth time he took a treasured kiss-curl from its many wrappings, and fondled it and talked to it. When a tear dropped on it he wiped it away quickly, and called himself a d—d fool.
"Time I was done with that sort of sentimental rot now," he said. "To-morrow we head back to the west." He tied up the little keepsake again and sighed. "By gum, it's hard, though!"
About a year later Bill was preparing for another trip to the east. With a dozen others one morning he was holding a big mob of cattle on Carrandotta run for the buyer, who was due to inspect. The latter had been inspecting and buying on neighbouring runs; in fact, he had travelled most of the West-Queensland runs on that business.
He drove up in a motor car. With him were two ladies, daintily robed in white, and wearing green veils. White women were not plentiful in that region, and the presence of these, far away even from the homestead, affected the men with a curiosity that amounted almost to rudeness.
The car pulled up under a tree, a quarter of a mile from the cattle. A black boy met the party with a led horse, which the buyer mounted. A couple of the stockmen found excuses to ride in that direction; others when galloping after a beast, could not pull their horses up until they had got close to the car. It was noticed, too, that the mob gradually drew nearer, and there was a general readiness to go after any beast that strayed in that direction.
Bill alone showed no desire to inspect the fair visitors at close quarters. The sight of them there pained him like the love scenes in the picture, shows. He kept to the opposite side, his mind dwelling on an obtrusive woodheap 2000 miles away.
But he was not to escape. The ladies had made a fire and boiled the billy, and Bill, being boss drover, was invited with the station manager to lunch.
The manager introduced him to the buyer.
"Studders?" the latter repeated, musingly. Suddenly he opened his pocket-book, and rapidly turned over several leaves. "Will J. Studders—is that your name?"
"That's it," said Bill.
"Are you from Mooli Creek?"
"Left there five years ago?"
"Yes," Bill answered again, wondering what he was up against.
"You're the very, man I want," said the buyer. "I was in Mooli district a couple of weeks, and met your father. Hearing that I would be travelling the Diamantina, country, he asked me, if I dropped across you, or happened to hear where you were, to tell you that the Tatt's ticket you left at home drew a big prize."
"A big prize!" Bill repeated, incredulously. He had a vague suspicion that this was a lure to get him home. "How much?"
The buyer referred, to his pocket-book again.
"About £600 waiting in the Savings Bank," he read.
Bill looked at him in silence, while the buyer closed his book and put it in his pocket.
"Was the guv'nor strictly sober when he told you that?" he asked.
"Oh, it's all right, old chap," he was assured. "It's common knowledge all over the district that you'd run away from money to rough it outback."
"By gum!" Bill exclaimed, and with the heels of his palms propped against his kneepads, looking vacantly down, he sat thinking.
"Come on," said the buyer. "We can talk while we're having lunch."
The women had spread a white cloth on the grass at a pretty spot overlooking a broad, clear hole in the Georgina River. That cloth was another relic of civilisation which Bill had seen little of during the past five years.
The flies being troublesome, the women still wore their veils, tied down under the chin, so that he had but a faint view of their faces. Still, he could see that one was a matronly dame, while the other was a graceful specimen of young womanhood who might have been her daughter.
The elder one was introduced to him as the buyer's wife, and then—
"This is Miss Bucknell—Mr. Studders. By the way," said the buyer, "you two oughtn't to be strangers; you both come from the same part—"
He stopped. The attitude of Miss Bucknell and Mr. Studders was ample evidence that they knew something about one another. Bill, tanned and brawny, and wearing a thick beard, stood with his hand half-extended, as if turned to stone.
"Here!" he thought. "Two thousand miles from Mooli Creek. Impossible! And yet—it is—"
"I—I think we've met before, Mr. Studders," Miss Bucknell said with an assumption of gaiety that was not very successful. Her cheeks had paled at the moment of meeting, now a rich colour flooded up to her eyes.
"How do you do, Miss Bucknell?" Bill returned, accepting the proffered hand in a painfully embarrassed manner. She turned away immediately to attend to the table.
"Do you take sugar, Mr. Studders?" She knew very well Bill took sugar. Did she think he had soured outback?
"Yes, please, Miss Bucknell."
"One or two spoonfuls?"
"Oh, I'm not particular."
"Which is it?" holding the spoon suspended over the enamelled mug, and smiling somewhat in the old mischievous way.
"Two," said Bill, slapping unduly hard at a fly to hide his embarrassment.
She sat directly opposite, and when she drew back her veil his eyes rested hungrily on her face, which seemed to have grown more magically beautiful. Then, as he reached for a sandwich, he noticed the ring—his ring—on her finger, which so affected him that he dropped the sandwich in his tea.
Miss Bucknell watched him furtively, whilst the buyer and the station manager talked of cattle, and of grass, and water-holes. Conscious, of his fascinated gaze reverting frequently to the ring, the crimson flush again sprang into her cheeks. For all that, she gave him every chance to assure himself that it was the one he gave her—ages and ages ago, it seemed to both.
"You've been out here a good while, haven't you, Mr. Studders?" she asked. As if she did not know to the hour how long he had been away.
"Yes, a good while," he answered. "I never thought to see you on the Georgina."
"I suppose not," she rejoined.
He was aching to know what had brought her there—and incidentally what had become of a certain person named Smith; but apparently she was not disposed to enlighten him. The elder lady allayed his curiosity.
"I don't know what I should have done without her," she said. "I happened to mention to some friends of Miss Bucknell's while I was in Mooli district that I wanted a companion to share my travels outback, and that's how we came to meet."
"I wanted to see a bit of the country," Miss Bucknell added, whilst her heart confessed that she had sought the engagement because it offered her the best possible opportunity of finding the wanderer.
Lunch over, Bill seized the first chance of a quiet talk with her. The conviction had been growing on him that there was a blunder somewhere.
"Why are you wearing this?" he asked, seizing her jewelled hand.
"I have always worn it," she answered. "Didn't you give it to me for that purpose?"
"But—what about that—puddin'-face—"
"Nothing! I hate him! Please don't insult me by connecting my name with his."
"I saw him with his arm round you, and your father—"
She put up her hand to stop him.
"I know; Liz told me all about that." Then, half-vexed, half-crying, she repeated what she had told her sister.
"And you wanted me all the time—just as I wanted you?" cried Bill, With a trouble-some dry feeling in his throat.
Her fingers went searchingly to his coat.
"How could you ever have believed anything else?"
Her lips quivered, her eyes brimmed over, and as her head dropped, Bill suddenly found an excellent use for his big arms; and on the banks of the lone Georgina the heart-hunger of years was appeased.
Conyers had been away three years. He thought of it with something like a pang as he pulled up near the little bush school at the Cross Roads. In the interval his old fancy, Pauline Cowdery, whom he had left with her mother in Gunnedah, had taken charge of the academy, which was a small weatherboard building fronting a thick scrub. Mrs. Cowdery's home was a mile further down the main road. The other road ran through the scrub, and was principally used by Rusmus Bolger, a bachelor farmer. Conyers intended to look that person up about bedtime as he was an old acquaintance, and the farm was the only place thereabouts to stay at.
For the present he hid his horse and posted himself among the bushes. He judged by the sun that school would soon be out, and Pauline would be walking home. A man could say a lot in the course of a mile walk on a lonely road, and Mrs. Cowdery would be glad to see him, and would ask him to tea. Then Pauline would play the piano, and he would sing that song he sang to her last in Gunnedah. He reckoned it would make a stir among the old memories. They had been as good as sweethearts.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Rusmus Bolger. The big farmer halted at the end of the scrub track, holding a cabbage under one arm and a turkey under the other, and looked towards the school.
"Not out yet," he remarked. Then he deposited his poultry and his vegetable on the ground, consulted his watch, which he carried in a leather pouch on his belt, and finally seated himself on the end of a log.
"Make they a good Sunday dinner," he said, addressing the cabbage and the gobbler. "Ought to ask I up arter this."
School came out, and the yelling juveniles rapidly dispersed in various directions. Bolger peered through the bushes, nervous and excited, and as Miss Cowdery stepped out he made a clumsy effort at throwing a kiss—which she couldn't see. Conyers stared—and frowned. He itched to kick the fellow, but Bolger was too big, and a scene just then would not improve matters. Apart from his size and his finances, there was nothing about the simple agriculturist to attract a smart young woman like Miss Cowdery.
He was as dull as ditch-water, and his face was like tanned hogskin, set in a frame of tawny bristles that swept down under his throat from both ears. His chin and upper lip were shaven. He was well over 40 and half that time, to Conyers' knowledge, he had been in pursuit of a wife. The most neglected women laughed at him and called him "a booby." Yet Conyers was jealous. The booby had money, and matrimony is very often a matter of money.
Miss Cowdery came on to the road, carrying a pink parasol. Rusmus stepped out to meet her. So did Conyers, to the other's discomfiture. The smile evaporated from his broad face, and a look of defeat and resentment came into his eyes.
"'Day, Rusmus," said Conyers. "Goin' to market?"
Rusmus scowled. "Did ye want to see I?—suspiciously.
"Not just now. I'll be down to-night," Conyers informed him. "How d'ye do Miss Cowdery?"
"Why, Mr. Conyers, you're quite a stranger!" said that young lady, shaking hands delightedly. Rusmus couldn't shake hands; he was handicapped with too much farm produce. "When did you get back?" she asked.
"Just arrived," he answered.
"Lookin' for a job, baint ye?" Bolger interposed viciously.
Conyers didn't notice him.
"How's your mother?" he asked.
"Cabbage an' turkey for she," added Rusmus, pushing forward and nodding right and left.
"Oh, thank you! I'm sure she will be delighted, said Miss Cowdery, with a faint blush. I'll take the cabbage, and Mr. Conyers will carry the bird for me."
"I'll carry 't," said Rusmus emphatically. The corner of his eye for a moment rested fiercely on the presumptuous Conyers.
"But there's really no necessity to trouble you, Mr. Bolger—"
"No trouble 't all," said Mr. Bolger, warning the young man off with a frown.
"Mr. Conyers is coming up to see mother," Miss Cowdery concluded.
"I'll be company for him comin' back," said Bolger. "He be goin' to th' farm."
"Don't put yourself out on my account, Rusmus," said Conyers. "I'm used to bein' alone, an' I know the way to the farm."
"There be a pair on us, then," Rusmus returned with a vibrating laugh. "Come along, Miss Cowd'ry."
Conyers took the cabbage and walked on one side of the little school-teacher, and Bolger walked on the other with the turkey. Conversation was strained and awkward. Mr. Bolger was the most embarrassed of the three, and he soon began to loathe turkeys. The presence of the intermeddling Conyers had turned his good intentions into a farce.
"Lovely weather we're having, aren't we?" Miss Cowdery remarked when they had studied the landscape for some time.
"Splendid weather," Conyers assented.
"Grand weather," Bolger corroborated.
She scanned the firmament during the next few yards.
"I think we'll soon have rain," she said then.
"I think so," Conyers agreed.
"I think we will," Bolger iterated, looking aloft.
His foot hooked a protruding root, and in the effort to recover himself he dropped the turkey. The bird, with a couple of kicks, freed its legs and cut into the scrub, Bolger plunging after it with his hat in his hand, and distress signals streaming behind. Miss Cowdery laughed, and went on.
"Mother will be disappointed," she said.
"Was she expectin' the turkey?" asked Conyers.
"She was expecting Mr. Bolger," Miss Cowdery answered. "I wanted to get rid of him, though, as you were coming up."
Conyers felt highly flattered, and for a while his feet seemed to tread on air.
"Seems to have quite an attachment for your family," he said generously.
"Yes," Miss Cowdery admitted. "Don't be surprised to hear of a wedding in our neighborhood in the near future."
Conyers was suddenly chilled.
"Young men must be pretty scarce round here." he remarked sarcastically.
"Rusmus Bolger's old enough to be your father."
"Well, he'll be a father, or, more correctly, a stepfather."
"Oh," said Conyers, his spirits on the upgrade again. "It's your mother he's after?"
"Of course, goose! Did you think he'd be running after a chicken like me?"
"Old birds have young ideas at times," said Conyers. "You left off writing to me?"
"It was best, Mr. Conyers," she rejoined. "It isn't customary, you know, for ladies to write to their gentlemen friends. It gives rise to false impressions. Here's mother, she'll be glad to see you."
Conyers was puzzled. At one moment he was at fever heat, at the next he felt like an ice chest. Three years ago, he understood her, he thought, and was quite at his ease in her company; but the present Pauline Cowdery moved in a new atmosphere. Then she was the girl friend; now she was the young woman, more polished, more reserved, perhaps with loftier ideals. At all events she made him feel that she was above him.
They were still sitting at table after tea, when a horseman arrived. when a horseman arrived. Pauline received him in the front room, and thereafter Matthew Conyers saw no more of her, though he heard her animated voice and merry laughter at frequent intervals. Then they adjourned to the piano and played and sang as though they were enjoying each other's society. Matthew tried to appear unconcerned, but it was hard, despite the old lady's efforts, to entertain him.
"You'll help me with the washing-up won't you Mr. Conyers?" she said, bustling around the table, after explaining that Pauline would be engaged for an hour or more; "and they don't want us, you know."
Mr. Conyers chuckled and nodded, because her smile and wink indicated that there was a joke about the premises somewhere.
"You used to be quite smart at wiping the cups, when we were in Gunnedah," she added.
So while the young man in the front room monopolised Pauline, Matthew wiped the cups for mother and put away the plates and dishes. After that he filled the kettle and cut the least bit of wood for the morning. Then the old lady produced a peck or two of green peas and emptied them out on the table.
"You used to like shelling peas in Gunnedah, Mr. Conyers," she insinuated. "'Twill seem like old times to you."
Conyers drew his chair up, and commenced on the pile of pods, with rebellion in his eyes. It was a terrible infliction, but his patience survived it. He glanced at the clock, wondering if that person in the next room was going to make a night of it.
"Its early yet," said Mrs. Cowdery. "Let me see; there's the raisins for the pudding. You used to enjoy stoning raisins when we were in Gunnedah. They were good times in Gunnedah, weren't they now, Mr. Conyers?"
"They were," Mr. Conyers admitted, and sighed.
The raisins took an hour. It was now 10.30. The entertainment beyond the partition had ceased, and only a low laugh occasionally reached his ears. Conyers, consumed by jealousy, began to probe into the why and wherefore of things, and the information he elicited made him sadder than ever.
"He'll be going directly," said Mrs. Cowdery. "Meantime, I'll get you to peel a few small onions. You remember how we used to pickle them in Gunnedah?"
"Dynamite Gunnedah!" muttered Conyers. Aloud he said: "I'd be only too pleased, Mrs. Cowdery, but I'm afraid I can't stay—"
"Oh, stay as long as you used to," she said, laughing. "I'll make a drop of coffee, if you don't mind blowing the fire up for me, and we can do the onions while the kettle's boiling. Many's the time you blew the fire for Pauline when we were in Gunnedah. You remember those nights, Mr. Conyers?"
"Mr. Bolger will be tired of waitin' for me," Mr. Conyers protested. "I'm sorry to er—"
"Well, you'll come again, Mr. Conyers, won't you? I do like to talk to someone I knew in Gunnedah. And I'll be glad to see Mr. Bolger any time, tell him."
* * *
An hour later Conyers was admitted into the farmhouse by the crusty Bolger.
"Wonner ye didn' put 'n th' night while ye wor bart it," was that worthy's welcoming remark.
"You must make allowances for lovers, you know, Rusmus," said Conyers, maliciously.
Rusmus dropped on to a block at the corner of the fireplace, and regarded him with the serious, meditative look of an owl.
"Did you overtake the gobbler, Rusmus?"
"Sit ye down," said Rusmus, motioning him to the block opposite. He spoke almost savagely, and for a minute after Conyers was seated he stared sulkily into the dying fire.
"Look ye 'ere, Conyers," he said, presently, "that gal up yon es good es b'longs to I, an' ye 'ave no right to come pokin' abart sp'ilin' things. 'Tis onfriendly."
"Well, that's pretty cool!" gasped Conyers, straightening up. "She was my girl before I went away, as you're aware, an you took a mean advantage by makin' up to her in my absence. An' now—well, I would never 'a' thought it of you, Rusmus!"
"How wor she your'n?" Rusmus demanded. "Ye wur never engaged to she; ye wur never th' man to ask she: an' ye've been away these three year. I tell ye, Conyers, 'tis I have th' best right to she an I'll take it as onfriendly if so be ye doan't disappear in th' 24 hour."
"The case seems to be a bit involved," said Conyers, grinning. "I thought Mrs. Cowdery was th' peg you were tryin' to hang your hat on."
Bolger shot two vindictive side glances at him, then crossed his legs and stroked his chin in silence.
"You send her cabbages." Conyers pursued, "an' the chook that stampeded was intended for her."
"Never mind abart they," said Bolger. "I know what I'm adoin' of, Mat Conyers, I want to know what be your intentions right now."
"Well, frankly, Rusmus, I came back to take her in tow again; but, seein' as you're so struck, an' I'm not particularly shook on her myself, I don't mind giving way to old mate, if you like to make it worthwhile."
"Spit it out," said Rusmus, as Conyers paused.
"You'll admit you've got no show while I'm about," Conyers went on. "You haven't my good looks—"
"Never mind th' danged looks. Go on."
"You haven't my youth—"
"I 'aven't yer poverty, neither," snapped Bolger.
"Well then, the position is this," said Conyers. "I've got the girl, an' I'm hard up; you've got plenty of money, and you want her."
"Buy me out."
"Buy ye out!" cried Bolger. "Out'n what?"
"My right, title an' interest in Pauline Cowdery."
"One 'undred pounds."
"Phugh!" cried Bolger, slewing away. "Ye never 'ad'n th' title 'n' int'rest in she."
"You'll see all about that if I remain in the running," said Conyers. "She won't look in the direction of your pumpkin-patch. Didn't she try to shake you off this afternoon—before I'd say more'n good-day to her?"
Mr. Bolger recalled this circumstance with a grimace.
"It'd be a big lot o' money to pay for th' chance of a gal," he grumbled.
"It's your only chance," said Conyers. "Faint heart never won fair lady."
"This 'ere touches th' heart an' th' pocket same time," said Bolger meditatively. "An' there baint no guarantee es I'll get she arter all."
"You've got to risk that. I'll guarantee you'll not get her any other way," said Conyers. "Stands to reason," he went on, thrusting out his chest. "Here am I—young, smart an' good-lookin'—"
"An' poor 's Lazarus," snapped Bolger.
"An' there's you, a slomicky, thick-headed, ugly old fossil."
"Don't be too darn pussonal, Conyers, Bolger interrupted, fidgeting uneasily on his block.
"Why," Conyers went on, "it's worth half the farm to you to get a formidable rival like me out of the way, an' have her all to yourself here in th' quiet bush. A man that couldn't win a girl under those circumstances wants pole-axin'. An' it's only because I'm dead pushed, an' must realise on the security, mind you, that I'd countenance such a proceeding at all."
"I'll give ye £25 down, an' £75 when I marry she," Rusmus bargained.
"Won't do," said Conyers, seriously. "Haggling over the price like that is an insult to Pauline Cowdery. What would she think of me, selling out for a paltry sum like that? I'm ashamed of you, Rusmus!"
"Fifty poun' down," said Rusmus.
"There ain't a girl in the district can hold a candle to Pauline," Conyers went on. "She's a real charm, any way you take her...Dunno as I ought to give up my claim at all. 'Tisn't the right thing to do by her. Girls fret terrible after a chap they're shook on. I must see 'er again first, anyhow. I'd like one kiss—"
"'Ere," said Rusmus, anxiously, "I'll give ye £60 now if so be ye sign th' 'greement, an' clear out'n 'ere be sun-up to-morrow 'thout savin' good-bye. There ye are!"
Conyers considered, while Rusmus produced a cash bag and writing materials. Conyers was really in a tremor of excitement at his success, but he was afraid a too-ready acceptance would arouse the other suspicions. He haggled for another half-hour: then, with much show of reluctance and many remorseful mutterings, as "Poor little Pauline!—You'll take care of her, won't you. Rusmus?" he pocketed the money, and surrendered his privileges in the following terms:—
This is to certify that I have received the
sum of £60 from Rusmus Bolger, Esq., for my right, title and
interest (if any) in the person of Pauline Cowdery, spinster; and I
promise faithfully that henceforth I will not make love to her, or
see her, or write to her; neither will I talk, walk, ride or dance
with her, or connive and covenant with her in any way whatsoever.
God save the King!
(Signed), Matthew Conyers.
Conyers departed north next morning, and that evening Rusmus Bolger called on the Cowderys.
"Where's Mr. Conyers?" asked the widow.
"Mrs. Cowdery," said Rusmus, seriously, "That man be a fraud. He—he—betrayed ye."
"Goodness me!" cried the old lady, in shocked tones.
"I didn't ought to tell ye," said Rusmus; "but, seein' as ye be a neighbor—"
"Whatever do you mean?" Mrs. Cowdery demanded, angrily, as Rusmus paused and made grimaces at the cat.
"He told me, Mrs. Cowdery, that bein' a friend o' your'n, he didn't care to be pokin' abart, there bein' an old love affair 'tween he an' she—"
"Miss Pauline. An' seein' es he be hooked to 'nother gal up country—"
He shut up like an oyster as Mrs. Cowdery dropped into a chair and laughed heartily.
"Oh, the goose!" she said. "As though he didn't know last night!"
"Why, she's to be married next month to Mr. Crosby, the station manager."
Bolger's mouth opened involuntarily, and pale blotches broke out on his tanned cheeks. Mrs. Cowdery was rocking herself and smiling good-naturedly.
"Poor Mat," she said, musingly. "He used to be such a help to us when we were in Gunnedah. I'm sorry he went away without saying good-bye."
"That a fact?" Mr. Bolger, having just now found his voice, gasped out.
"About Mr. Conyers—"
"Oh. yes. Didn't you know?"
"'Tis a fact!" Bolger couldn't believe it.
"Of course. Why, what's the matter, Mr. Bolger?"
Bolger looked as if he were going to have a fit. Suddenly he brought his hand down on his thigh and jumped up.
"You'll excuse I, Mrs. Cowdery," he said, awkwardly. "I forgot to feed th' pigs!" And dabbing his hat on his head, he retired in disorder.
A year later Mat Conyers received a letter from Pauline's mother.
"You will be surprised to hear that we have bad a double wedding since you left." she wrote. "The contracting parties, as you will guess, were Pauline and Mr. Crosby, and myself and your friend of the farm...Don't forget to call when you are round this way, and we'll have a chat about old times in Gunnedah.—Yours faithfully, Helen Bolger."
Murty was sitting on a form in front of the Boomerang Hotel in Sleepy Hollow, when a tall, spare-built young man, who looked like a stockman, rode up and hitched his horse to one of the posts. He was as straight as a gum sapling, carried his head high, and walked with the stiff dignity of a staff-sergeant. From a cursory inspection Murty concluded that he was a person who held a high opinion of himself.
The stranger put one foot on the form, and, resting his elbow on the elevated knee, twirled his small black moustache while taking stock of Mr. Brown.
"Haven't I seen you before?" he asked at length.
"Perhaps you have; lots of people have seen me before."
"You passed here a couple of weeks ago with Queensland cattle, didn't you?"
"I did! Just makin' back for more."
"I might go up with you. I work among stock myself; but I've got a little matter on hand first in which I think you can help me. Your name's' Brown, isn't it?"
"You're an old friend of the Crowes—up the river?"
"Well, I've known 'em a year or two," Murty answered.
"Includin' Hilda," Murty repeated, looking up sharply. "Nice girl—Hilda," he added.
The stranger drew a crumpled letter from his pocket and, after glancing around to see that no one was about, handed it to Murty. The latter, with a serio-comic expression, bent over it and read:
Dear Mat,—The new school in the Bight is to be opened on Monday. There are to be a picnic and sports during the day and a dance at night. It will be real jolly. To blind the old people I got Sarah Muddle to write and ask me to meet her there, stating also that she was sending a horse for me by Murty Brown. Joe Spudd has been wanting to take me; so I rang in this supposed promise early to stall him off. You will have to arrange with Murty. Mind, I am depending on you. I'll be ready at 10.—Sincerely yours, HILDA.
"I don't quite get the hang of this," said Murty, much mystified. "I called at Muddle's yesterday, an' Sarah didn't say anything to me about it."
"She's got nothing to do with it, an' won't be there," said the other man. "You see, I'm the party that Miss Crowe wants to meet. 'We—we're keepin' company, you understand; an' I expect to have everything satisfactorily arranged between us before the dance is over."
"Why can't you take the horse to her yourself?" Murty inquired.
"Because old Martin Crowe has got me set. Thinks I'm not good enough for his daughter. This Joe Spudd she mentions in the letter is a neighbour's son. Got a selection an' some stock of his own. He's hanging after Hilda, an' Crowe an' the old lady wants her to marry him. They reckon I'm a homeless, good-for-nothing, who's come between an' spoilt a good match. They don't allow me to put a foot on the estate. In fact, old Martin seems to do little else these times but watch for me, for as sure as I pass within a mile of his boundary I'm bound to meet him—or see him. I don't meet him if I can avoid it, for he's so beastly insulting that I'm afraid I might forget what I owe to Hilda, an' do him some serious injury."
During this speech a glimmer of intelligence lit up Murty's sun-tanned face.
"You're Matt Conyers, aren't you?" he queried.
"Yes," the other admitted. "How did you know?"
"Oh, Octo Muddle was tellin' me about a chap that Martin Crowe caught sneakin' into his barn, an' Martin shut him in an made him husk a big pile o' corn that was stored there 'fore he'd let him out. An' I presumed that chap was you."
"Octo Muddle told you that?" Mr. Conyers questioned, with a sour look. "It just shows you how the truth gets perverted. I suppose he thinks I was there to steal something."
"Oh, no," Murty hastened to assure him. "He said you were there to meet the girl."
"So I was," said Conyers sulkily. He rolled up a cigarette with deft fingers and lit it. "Old Martin sneaked up an' fastened the door on me, an' told me I could take my choice: husk the corn or go to gaol for being illegally on his premises," he explained between puffs. "I sat down an started to husk, but as soon as he went away I reflected that he had no witnesses so far, an' hunted round for a way o' gettin' out. The barn was built of heavy slabs, the bottoms of 'em set in a groove cut in the sleeper, and the top ends in a similar groove in the wallplate. So the only way I could see was to burrow under the sleeper. A crowbar an' a shovel standing in one corner suggested the idea, an' I got to work. In half an hour I was out. I heard the pigs got in through the hole I made an' husked a lot o' the corn 'fore old Martin discovered that I'd escaped.
"I also heard that he's been layin' for me since."
"Rather humiliating wasn't it?" said Murty, inwardly chuckling.
"If I meet Hilda at the school," said Conyers, ignoring the remark, "I'll bet tuppence I'll get back on old Martin. Will you do what she proposes?"
"What's the plans an' specifications?" Murty asked guardedly.
"First of all, the horse she wants is in a little paddock about a mile below her place, an' only two miles above the school, but on the other side of the river. We'll have to swim across for him. I want you to go over with me, as he's a hard brute to catch."
"Want me to swim over?" Murty repeated rebelliously. "Why can't we go up for him on the other side?"
"It's a long ride up on the other side, an' we'd have to cross all the same, else have another long ride back to the bridge. We'd have to go up to-night to do it; whereas, by a mere bit of a swim, we can save all that trouble. We can go straight up on this side in the morning, an' as soon as we've swum the horse over—I've swum him often before—we'll be on the spot, as you may say."
"Well, I ain't much of a swimmer; but the river ain't very wide there, so I suppose I 'II be able to manage that much. What next?"
"You'll go on up to Crowe's with the horse, an' I'll ride back to the school an' wait for you there."
"What' about a saddle?"
"She's got a saddle. An' keep in mind all the time that Sarah Muddle sent you. If old Martin had the least suspicion that I was concerned in it, or saw me about the neighbourhood, he wouldn't let her go at all. Of course, when you take her to the school, you can consider yourself one of the guests, an' have a good time with the rest of us."
"Just so," said Murty, as though the honour and the good time did not appeal very strongly to him.
However, the little scheme was agreed to, and next morning the conspirators rode up to a spot opposite the little paddock. Tying their horses in a clump of bushes, they left their clothes alongside, and swam across. Almost immediately a clamper was thrown on Conyer's hopes. Some one had dropped the sliprails, and the horse had got out into the bush.
"I'd like to know who did that," snapped Conyers viciously. "I'd just like to know."
"Might a been Joe Spudd," Murty suggested cheerfully.
Conyers was wrestling with the fresh problem that confronted him.
"I wouldn't 'ave disappointed her for the world," he said. "What will she think of me?"
"Mightn't look at you again," Murty hazarded as they turned back.
It was a cold day, and he was in a hurry to get into his clothes. When they got back to the clump of bushes he stopped short, and his jaw dropped as if an invisible hand had hit it. Conyers panted up to him, halting in the same abrupt manner; and a sickly pallor overspread his face as his staring eyes searched wonderingly from the clump to the open forest beyond. Their horses were gone; worse still, their clothes had disappeared.
"Not even a sock left!" moaned Conyers.
"An' what 'ud be the use of a jumpin' sock if it was left!" rasped Murty through chattering teeth. "By cripes, this is a nice pickle you've brought me into."
"It's' old Martin that's done this," Conyers declared, leaning helplessly against a tree. "He's got wind of it somehow, an' must have been watching us. I can see it as plain as day."
"Can't see any clothes, can you?"
Being red and blue with cold, and in an ugly predicament, Murty's irritability was excusable.
"There's a woman washing on the bank, half a mile below us," said Conyers. "I saw the clothes on the line as we passed. Suppose we borrow something there till we get our own?"
"Are you goin' to ask her for them?" Murty queried.
"Oh, talk sense! We'll have to take them. Come on."
He led the way down through a thin strip of scrub that lined the river bank. The woman was still washing, and as she stood facing the clothes-line, which was temporarily rigged between two trees, they halted a few yards from the end of it. The display of wearing apparel was not promising; it consisted wholly of women's and children's clothing.
"We'll have to wait our chance," said Conyers. "Maybe she'll turn out some trousers in the meantime."
"I was just thinkin' what nice togs Joe Spudd will be puttin' on about now," said Murty maliciously. "I suppose he'll call at Crowe's as he conies along."
Conyers deigned him no reply. He crouched behind a tussock of grass, with a baleful eye glued on the industrious washerwoman.
"Ought to be all plain sailin' for Joe," Murty continued. "Hilda will keep him talkin' till the last moment, an' when the young man she put her confidence in doesn't turn up accordin' to contract, she'll graciously consent to go with Joseph. Fact, she'll be that put out at bein' disappointed that I wouldn't be surprised if she eloped with Mr. Spudd."
Conyers, consumed with impatience and jealousy, nibbled at a blade of grass, and glared savagely at the washing-tub.
"Wonderful how the schemes of some clever people miscarry, an' how other people fall on their feet," Murty persisted. "Wouldn't mind bettin' this 'll be the turnin' point in Joe's career. Savin' young man, I suppose?"
Conyers had no ears for anything but the swish-splash in the tub. Presently the woman emptied it out, put the clothes in the boiler, and went up to the house. On the line was a pair of boy's pyjamas, the only male attire that the shivering watchers could get on; and in their anxiety to get possession they darted out and raced for them before the woman had quite reached her door.
Murty won. He was only a medium-sized man, but that suit made him look big. Conyers seized on a red petticoat because it looked warm, and a print blouse that was much too small. It should have buttoned up the back, but a mere detail like that didn't matter: as he put it on like a jacket it wouldn't button at all. To a man of his temperament the garb was an infliction. He shrank from the mere thought of being seen in it.
Hardly had he got it on when a screech announced that the theft had been discovered. Conyers gave a nervous jump. One scared look revealed the woman running towards them, shouting and shaking her fists. Murty was already dashing along the river, and with the red petticoat flapping noisily Conyers set sail after him. They were soon past the house, and speeding down towards the school.
Crossing a clear space they became aware of a new terror. A small troop of picnickers, whom the old lady had called from the road, were in hot pursuit.
Murty pulled up in the next cover.
"We'll stop here an' tell them what's happened," he panted. "It will be all right...Some of 'em will help us get our horses."
Conyers looked back across his shoulder, his eyes glaring like a hunted beast's.
"Come on!" he gasped, and dashed away again.
"What's th' good o' runnin', you fool?" cried Murty. "What is there to run for? We're not robbers."
Conyers almost wept with mortification.
"One of those fellows is Joe Spudd," he groaned; "an' Hilda Crowe is with him!"
Murty glanced back as they came nearer, and satisfied himself that such was the case. Joe was leading the jubilant cavalcade. Riding near him on a spirited little chestnut, was Conyer's girl, her eyes sparkling and her pretty face aglow with excitement. The sight made Murty feel quite cheerful again. When he looked from the pair to the ludicrous figure in front of him he nearly fell down laughing.
"Come on," hissed Conyers, "an' don't be splutterin' an' coughin'. You don't want to be recognised by them, do you?"
"N-no!" Murty bubbled in reply.
"We'd be the' talk of the country...Never hear the last of it," Conyers groaned.
"Specially from Martin Crowe and Joe Spudd," Murty added. "They'd make Hilda so ashamed of the man in the red petticoat that she'd never want to look at him again."
"Don't forget the party in the limited pyjamas," growled Conyers. "Look out, hang you! Keep down lower."
The pursuers were abreast, easing up and listening. To make the most of the fringe of the scrub, Conyers kept as close as he could to the water's edge, scrambling over roots and tussocks, rolling down broken banks, and crawling under drooping boughs. The schoolhouse was near. Luckily, a deep, scrubby gully forced the pursuers to deviate nearly a quarter of a mile before reaching it. It was the fugitives' last desperate chance of escape.
"We'll make a dash into the school," panted Conyers. "There'll only be the old caretaker there, an' he'll hide us for a consideration...It's too early for the picnickers yet."
"Barrin' Joe Spudd," Murty supplemented.
"I'll get even with Joe Spudd," Conyers muttered. "I'll make mashed potatoes of the dog."
As soon as they got opposite the building they crept up the bank. All was quiet. The door, which faced the river, stood ajar. From the other side of the building came a clatter of hoofs, which told that the pursuers had crossed the gully. There was not a moment to lose. Close together they flashed across the intervening space and sprang into the room.
Conyers had intended to slam the door and lock it. But he had no sooner entered than he wanted to rush out again. His horrified eyes lit simultaneously on a dozen women sitting on the forms ranged along the wall, and just within the door the bulky form and stern visage of Martin Crowe.
Conyers almost fainted, and no one ever wished more fervently than he did that the floor would open and swallow him up.
After a momentary look of amazement the women began to titter, then to shriek. Conyers faced about with a sickly grin, only to find his retreat cut off by the big farmer. He tried to shove past him, and made a desperate effort to tear the door open.
"Stand back, you disreputable scamp!" said Crowe, shaking a whip in his face. "And you, Brown," turning to the staggered Murty. "What do you mean by this conduct?"
"'Twarn't my fault," said Murty. "Ask him."
Between the merriment of the women inside and the noise of the crowd outside, Conyers endeavoured to explain how they had swum the river to get a horse, which he had sold to Murty Brown, and during their absence some miscreant had taken their hacks and their clothes. At that stage of the recital three heads were thrust round the edge of the door, and as many voices called out: "Here they are!"
Martin Crowe, still barring the way, shifted his graze momentarily from the confused Conyers to the foremost head.
"What have they been doing?" he asked.
"Shakin' Mrs. 'Bundy's clothes off her line!"
The party appealed to, shouted it exultantly into the room. One or two shocked elderly ladies said, "What a shame!" but the others, realising the straits they had been reduced to, smiled sympathetically at the culprits.
It was soon known to the impatient crowd outside that Murty was one of them. Interest centred in the identity of his mate. Joe Spudd was heard repeatedly asking, "Who's the man in the red petticoat?"
Conyers blushed painfully, and clenched his hands as though he meditated some injury to Joe Spudd.
Martin fixed a withering eye on Conyers.
"Only a fortnight ago I caught you prowling about my barn, and now you've been caught stealing clothes—"
"You know very well we didn't steal them!" Conyers protested hotly.
"You've got them on, man!" cried Martin, pointing to the red petticoat, at which a couple of the women showed signs of hysterics.
"Mrs. Bundy didn't give them to you!"
"He grabbed them an' run!" said the voice at the door. "An' Mrs. Bundy asked us to catch him."
"We only took the loan of them," Conyers asserted in a high key.
"Will you go back with them to Mrs. Bundy and tell her so?" asked Martin.
"Of course!" said Conyers. "As soon as we got our own."
The rattling of wheels and tramping of horses apprised him that, several more people had arrived, and his feverish alertness suggested that he didn't want to keep Mrs. Bundy in suspense.
Suddenly Martin threw the door open, revealing a score of merry, expectant faces. Conyers noticed only two persons particularly—the triumphant. Mr. Spudd and the abashed young lady whom he had intended to meet.
His appearance was greeted with a joyful roar. His face flushed, then instantly turned as white and bloodless-looking as a scraped pig. With a sudden leap he dived wildly through the crowd, and tore down to the river, with the indignant Murty jogging close behind him, and the shouts and laughter of the picnickers drowning the patter of their feet.
A few steps brought them to the lower corner of the school paddock, where they pulled up sharply with ejaculations of surprise. Behind a clump of bushes they found their horses and their clothes, the latter strapped to the saddles. Conyers was too exasperated to speak. He merely looked at Murty, then jerked his head two or three times like a hen trying to swallow something that had stuck in her throat. In a few minutes he mounted and rode sulkily away, bearing a parcel which Murty enjoined him to deliver to Mrs. Bundy with the utmost despatch.
Murty was intercepted by Martin Crowe, who brought him back and soothed his injured feelings with something out of a bottle. Martin professed to know nothing about the horses, and no questioning could elicit how they came into the school paddock.
Murty returned to Sleepy Hollow in the morning, and found Conyers lounging gloomily in the parlour of the Boomerang Hotel.
"I've got a bit of news for you, Matt," he said pleasantly, sitting down opposite and lighting his pipe.
"Joe Spudd an' Miss Crowe arc goin' to be married!"
"Conyers scowled, then got up slowly, plunged his hands into his pockets, and walked out.
IT was the night of the husking party in Muddle's barn. A lantern and a couple of slush-lamps threw a glare on a row of figures seated on pine blocks before a huge pile of unhusked corn, with a straddle of yellow cobs on either side, and a growing heap of white husks behind them. The central figure of the party was Tom Muddle. Beside him sat Murty Brown; and distributed among the Scullys and the Garrys were his son and daughter, Octavius and Sarah Muddle.
The men yarned, and smoked and worked; the women gossiped and worked; the stripped cobs rained into the straddles. Now and again a cob would slip from someone's hand and hit someone else's head, which had the effect of invigorating the whole party; and sometimes they had a race, a hundred or a thousand up, for the championship of Big Bend, which was good business at least for Tom Muddle.
When the buskers had got well settled down to work and reminisce, the dogs on a sudden sprang out of their warm beds in the husks and barked with enthusiasm, whilst someone approaching from the darkness growled back at them to "lay down."
Tom Muddle waded out through the husks to investigate and Murty, not being used to husking, followed to stretch his legs.
At the corner of the barn they found a tired-looking parson approaching sideways, with his eyes on the dogs. His horse had knocked up, and he had left it at the sliprails down the flat. He wished to get to Barmon's that night—if Mr. Muddle would oblige him with the loan of a horse till to-morrow.
"Certainly, certainly," said. Muddle. "Lend 's a hand to ketch old Captain, Murty. As luck has it, I've got him in the little paddock 'ere, but he's a blamed old rogue to ketch."
When the rogue had been caught and mounted, the parson said:
"If this young man will come with me to the bottom sliprails he can fetch your saddle back on my horse. He'll lead up without trouble after his rest."
Murty said "Right-o!" and started off down the track before Muddle could offer any objections. Murty didn't like husking corn, and it was a pastime he too frequently walked into when he visited the farm.
That was the last they saw of Murty that night.
The sliprails were a mile from the house. Arrived there, the parson dismounted and, producing a long-barrelled pistol from his pocket, levelled it at the head of his astonished attendant.
Murty's hands shot up smartly, and his hair, by the feel of his scalp, seemed to be following suit.
"Have you any weapons?"
"Have you any cord to tie yourself up with?"
Murty dropped them with pleasure.
"What's your name?"
"How old are you?"
Murty raised them again rebelliously.
"Can you ride?"
"Mount that horse."
Murty noticed that the weapon pointed at him was old and rusty, and the stock appeared damaged; but he never doubted that it was capable of doing him violent injury, and lost no time in getting into the saddle. Then the parson bound his hands behind him with a strap and, taking the reins off, tied his feet to the stirrups with them. Next, standing on a stump, he gagged him tightly with two folded handkerchiefs and, finally, giving Captain a whack with his hat, sent him oft with a jump that nearly dislocated Murty's neck. Then he mounted the knocked-up horse and galloped furiously away into the bush.
"By cripes, this is a queer go if you like!" muttered Murty, kicking at Captain's sides in the hope of working him round to the house. But Captain steered for a big swamp in the middle of the paddock, stopping at intervals to take in grass. "What did he do it for?" he kept asking himself, without deriving any satisfaction from the query. "Where's there any common sense or reason in a caper like this? Lord love a duck, what did I ever do to him that he should make it his special business to come 'ere an' tie me to this animal? Nothing!" with emphasis. "Never saw the lunatic in my life before."
It was the greatest conundrum Murty had ever encountered in his wandering career. There was no motive, no apparent object; the thing was inexplicable.
"I've had to do with some cranky pranks in my time," he mumbled, "but this one's away top of the whole bunch."
He tried some more contortions on Captain with the object of changing his course. Captain treated them all with indifference.
"If I owned such a cow of a horse as this," Murty dreamed vengefully, "I'd buy a pig an' feed it with the beast. He's a pearl!" Getting wild, he kicked him into a jog. Then Murty bumped up and down till his teeth rattled, without getting any nearer home. Fortunately Captain was a quiet horse, he didn't seem to mind being sat on continuously, providing he was let graze about. He grazed about for hours, while Murty watched the 'possums and squirrels, listened to the mopokes and curlews, and studied astronomy.
At intervals he sat up and mumbled the following remarks to the shadows:—
"What's your name, you cow?"
"How old are you, darn you?"
He saw the fire blaze up at the barn, and knew they were burning the husks; then he saw lights at the house, and knew they were having coffee and doughnuts; and later he heard the visitors talking and laughing as they made their way home across the flat. He kicked Captain again on the off-chance of intercepting somebody. Captain walked into the swamp, and the more Murty tried to kick him out of it the deeper he went into it, till Murty's feet were under water and his toes were partially frozen. He cursed him inwardly for a stubborn beast, while Captain fed greedily on water-grass and rushes. He bit desperately at the gag, worked his jaws and twisted his face into all manner of contortions. If he could get his mouth free he would soon let them know where he was and what was keeping him. But free he could not get it.
"It's no use," he concluded. "I'm part an' parcel of this gormandisin' quadruped, an' jes' got to graze about till mornin'."
By-and-bye Captain got tired of the swamp, and going out on to a rise, picked up several mates. They trotted round him and snorted, and one came up and smelt him. Captain wheeled round and lashed out so Suddenly that Murty very nearly toppled over. He was a fair horseman, but he wasn't used to riding in that fashion, and when the mob galloped away, and Captain kicked up his heels and galloped after them, it tried him to the utmost to maintain his equilibrium. They went round the swamp twice before Captain pulled up; and when he turned into a clump of trees and showed a disposition to camp, Murty encouraged him to do so. He was very tired and stiff, and after trying an hour to keep his eyes open, be fell asleep.
When he woke, the sun was up. Looking towards the house, he saw Octavius and a stranger riding away. He was still in the clump of trees. Leaning towards a friendly limb, be succeeded in forcing the gag from his mouth. Then he kicked Captain into the open and coo-eed lustily. Sarah and her father had been standing on the verandah watching along the track and wondering what had become of Brown.
A few minutes later they were down the paddock, making frantic efforts to catch Captain, Tom Muddle holding out his hat with a few clods in it, and saying. "Kerp, kerp, kerp!" while Murty sat back and said "Whey-e-e-yah!" with great emphasis. But Captain had seen the hat-trick before, and dodged away. Sarah, being more nimble-footed than her father, ran after him, flying to right and left, till she had him going towards the yard.
"Who tied you up, Murty?" she yelled after him.
Murty, between jerks, related the circumstances in as few words as the English language would permit.
"That was poor old Brushook from down the river," she shouted.
"Samyel Brushook," Sarah repeated. "He's broke out again."
"It's a pity he didn't break his blamed neck!" snapped Murty.
"He gets queer fits at times, an' plays high jinks. One time he imagines he's a bushranger, an' then he thinks he's a parson—an' other things. He was a squatter one time, owned a station somewhere on Cooyar Creek, but lost it all. He's always been a bit weak like since, but there's no harm in him."
Murty grinned at the irony of it. He found himself wondering, as she dodged him into the yard, what might have happened to him if there had been harm in Brushook.
"His uncle was here this morning." Sarah rattled on as she unbound him. "He's been all night chasin' around. Seems Mr. Brushook went off yesterday with an old pistol he'd found. 'Twasn't loaded—"
"'Twarn't loaded!" Murty exclaimed with disgust and mortification in his voice.
"No," Sarah answered. "It has no hammer or trigger; but he stuck up a parson with it on the road. Took his horse and made him change clothes. Lucky, uncle found th' parson, or there might 'ave been trouble."
They met on the Darling. One was a raw new-chum, smoking a silver-mounted pipe. The steamer Rob Roy had landed him at Wilcannia the day before. He was going west. The other was an old stager, who had spent his five-and-thirty years in the backblocks. His back was turned to the western heat, the western duststorms, and the western flies. Old and grizzly, leg-weary, careworn and gray, he was "going in."
The new-chum put down his swag very carefully. He was fond of it, as they all are in the honeymoon stage of "the wallaby." Recognising a brother in misfortune, he held out his hand with effusive greetings. The old stager said nothing, just stared. It was a treat to see him stare. Down went his swag like a ton of bricks, and down he flopped on top of it.
"Damn me," he said, "but you're the greatest chump I've run agin since old Brickfielder died. How long 'ave yer been at this, in the name o' God?"
"Only to day."
"To-day? Phugh! I sed that meself 35 year ago. That's a tidy while afore you left the dock yard. An' this is the game that'll make yer curse the day yer ever did leave it. An' fore you go any further, lemme give yer some advice. Yer not above takin' advice?"
"By no means. I'd be obliged, sir."
"Sir! be ——! I'm old Bill Tarkalson. I aint one o' them coves as hankers after 'sirs' an' 'beg yer pardons,' an' that sort o' tommyrot. Now, listen to me. In the first place, never 'old out yer 'and to a man without a bit o' baccy or a bob in it. Where's the good o' offerin' him a empty 'and? Many a cove would 'a' knocked yer sprawlin' for that. It's like rubbin' it in when he's down. Don't make that mistake ag'in. By-an'-by you'll want some baccy. Now, the golden rule on the track's this: Never cadge off a footman, or the one-horse bloke. The cove wot has two nags is good game. So's drovers an' carriers, an' anyone that's in a billet. Go for them—all of 'em, an' partic'ly the cove at the store. Nail him! Don't wait till yer want a smoke. Cadge every chance yer see till yer get a supply in. Gorra match on yer? When yer can't carry no more baccy, cadge matches. Gorstruth, safeties!
"In a day or two yer'll want rations. Do a sneak, see, and land yerself in the kitchen. Soon's the cook twigs yer, if it's a shemale, stop short an' gasp. Always put the gasp in. Then start givin' 'er taffy as if yer couldn't help it, an' with all the big words ye can manage. She'll want to know then what you want. Ask her for anything in the tucker line—you'll get it! Then yer want to go to the boss with yer bags—big 'uns. No use thinkin' yer'll get 'em filled if they're small ones. Yer won't. He's nearly sure to be into his last 'alf bag o' flour. Never mind that. 'Alf bag's more'n you want. Never mind if he scratches his 'ead and performs. You just hold fast, an' he'll shell out.
"Have to change the style o' yer clo'es though. Gorany with patches on? Then keep an eye about yer and cop the first bit o' stuff yer see an' patch yer oldest pair o' pants with it. No holes in 'em? What's that matter? The patches will cover the places where the holes ought to be. Them'll be yer ration-pants. You only want two more pair—track pants and Sunday pants. Sunday's the day yer in a town. Doesn't signify what the day really is. If it's not Sunday, it's Sunday-pants day anyway.
"Lemme see, now. You've got baccy and matches and tucker and rations. Well, now, young fellow, you want a job. Reach us that fire-stick, will yer? Yer a d—— poor hand at makin' a fire, I can tell yer that much. Shove that billy in a bit. Some ask for 'yacker,' some's lookin' for 'graft,' and some's 'after a job.' One cove wants something to do; another cove wants to know if anything is doin'. The men that asks for 'employment' is laughed at. He should say, 'Ken yer give us a job, sir?' or 'Eny chance of a billet, sir?' Don't forget the sir, whatever you do. Be a little awed in the boss's presence. That flatters his vanity. If yer can't feel awed, look it. By-an'-by you'll feel it, in spite of yerself, and sink to the level of the rank-and-file. They all do. Yer want to cringe and crawl, beg and smooge, else yer'll get no job. Study slang for all you're worth, an' be careful not to use genteel talk. Don't betray yer edgecation—if yer gorany. Bosses don't like edgecated servants. Inconvenient to 'ave a man about them who knows more'n they do. Jerk us off a hunk o' that there brownie o' your'n. Looks better'n mine. Woman-made? Ah, thought so. Lor' bless her doughy fivers!
"Sometimes yer'll meet a gentleman. Yer'll know him the moment he speaks. Gen'ally the other doesn't speak. He merely looks important at yer, and waits for you to speak. Then he grunts. Don't cringe to a gentleman or your cake'll be dough. Be 'onest an' 'upright, be polite but independent like, forget yer've rubbed shoulders with the toe-rags. Damn you, be a man!"
Being on good feed in clear country, and being also dead tired, we decided to let the cattle have a night off for once, and turned in, unanimously. Swiker, the boss, arrived on the peaceful scene at 3 a.m., and woke us up with a terrific yell.
"Who's supposed to be on watch?" he demanded of, Phil Street, who was looked upon as second in command.
"I was round 'em an hour ago," Phil answered sleepily, "an' they were all right. There's rippin' feed here, an' seein' as they're pretty well done up, there's not much danger of 'em shiftin'."
"What if something frightens them an' they rush?" Swiker questioned.
"If they got a bad fright they might fall down," said Phil; "they can't rush."
Swiker had doubts on this point; he rode off to have a look at them. The cattle had a big spread on, but were feeding quietly. He had got round to the lead, riding wide on the look-out for stragglers, when a low branch brushed his hat off. Up to that moment he had been pleased with the experiment; pretty soon afterwards his choler rose against the experimenters. The hat hopped on to the horse's tail, causing that animal to bound unexpectedly over a log that lay in front, with the result that Swiker's stirrup-leather broke and he fell off. It took him half an hour, groping with his foot and striking matches, to find his hat; he spent another hour tramping about looking for the camp. When he ultimately reached it he announced the fact by an explosion of violent language.
He roused the horse-boy out with unnecessary noise; he bellowed at the cook to get the breakfast ready; he stood over the recumbent drovers and inquired, in a loud voice, if they thought they'd had enough sleep for one night. In a few seconds that slumbering camp was a hive of industry.
We were on Tambo stock reserve and, as we could not camp two successive nights on it, the cook shifted into a lane. We got there after dark, having travelled only two miles in a direct line from our last camp. Such a rate of progress suited the men, who were paid by the week; but it was not profitable to Swiker, who was paid according to mileage. He was impatient to get along, but the weakened condition of his mob demanded careful nursing.
So much per head per hundred miles was Swiker's contract. He did not look for short cuts; he took every advantage of currant reports as to scarcity of feed and water on the usual routes to make a detour, and while he was at it he generally made a very material sweep to escape even the suspicion of bad country. The longest way home was the shortest way to fortune.
The weekly drover, who received a regular wage, or so much per hundred head per week, could also afford to see a lot of country, but he saw it in the leisurely manner of a tourist who wanted to absorb the scenery. Swiker's aim was to travel as far as possible in the shortest time.
Many drovers were restricted to particular routes—and a twelfth of the total mileage to be travelled gave the regulation number of days the trip should occupy; but the drover is a man who has plenty of time to think, and 'unforeseen circumstances' which kill time and cause deviations are as plaus- [words missing?] came excited and clamorous.
The lane we camped in was wide and straight, making droving easy. Broad grey plains succeeded, veined by timbered creeks, in one of which a horse and a bullock got bogged. We pulled the horse out, but so strangled him in the process that we had to leave him. The bullock we could not budge, so Swiker ordered him to be killed for camp meat.
Three-parts of the beast was buried in mud, and there was mud and slush all around. The butchering task was allotted to the cook and the horse-boy—who was really a diminutive man, wearing a scraggy beard.
Bags were spread on the bank, and the pair, armed with knives, waded in up to their waists. Both worked on one side of the beast. The hide was split down the backbone, and taken off as far below the surface of the mud as possible, leaving both ends connected with the carcase. Then one held it up to keep back the mud and water, whilst the other cut off the meat and threw it on to the bags. When one side was finished, they waded round to the other and operated on that in the same way. It was a peculiar-looking bogged animal when they were done with it.
The following stage terminated in more mud. Swiker had misinformed us as to the distance of the camp, and when Jim, the horse-boy, came to us at sunset we learnt that we had still three miles to go. At dusk a terrific storm burst over us, with a howling hurricane blowing in our faces. The cattle turned and travelled with the storm, driving us before them.
When the thick of it was over we got them under control again and, steering for the bonfire that Swiker had lit, forced them through the benighted bush to camp. A delightful camp it was—over our boot tops in slush. The fire was made on banked-up earth. The cook waded about with one boot on, sulkily prospecting with a shovel for the other boot, which had stuck in the quagmire and pulled off while he was dragging a log in for the fire.
Swiker was the only man who Was comfortable that night. He had a tent over him, pleasantly lighted by a suspended lantern, by which he read the latest periodicals during the first watch; he had a spring mattress under him, the joke of the stock route. Of all the things that were ever carried in a drover's waggonette, nothing was so roundly anathematised as that mattress. It was always in the cook's way; he blamed it for the numerous breakdowns that embittered his journeyings. He stuck it high on the load, where all who might look could see—a peregrinating thing of ridicule.
The next day was a disastrous one. The course of the previous night's storm had been so narrow that we had passed clear of its zone by sunrise. By noon the cattle wanted water; that peculiar moan, familiar to drovers, which is the first indication of this, became general through the mob. As the hours passed they became noisy and more restless, wandering about instead of feeding.
We knew of water in some small holes ahead. The proper course was to have taken the cattle on in small lots; but Mr. Swiker's orders were to hold them back till evening. He did not understand cattle sound; he considered that they were not badly in want of water, as they were in a storm the night before.
We followed instructions, drawing towards the holes late in the afternoon. When half a mile off, a puff of wind came from the creek. Every head was lifted and, as they scented the water, the craving brutes became excited and lamorous (sic).
From a fast walk they got into a trot, from a trot into a gallop. We were on a long incline, at the foot of which was the first hole. The high bank dropped sheer to the water, which was shallow, scummy, edged with glutinous mud.
Phil rode full speed along that right flank, and I along the left, to head them. We got in front, and for a moment the swinging whips steadied the leaders. The weight of numbers behind pressed them on again; they spread and broke at each side of us.
Phil got clear easy enough, for the right wing ran wide of the hole. But I was in a pickle; a dense mass of crowding cattle on my left, a steep bank on my right—to go over which meant certain death. My only chance of escape was to make a dash through that narrow lane. With a creepy sensation about the roots of my hair, and a variety of thrills permeating me generally, I started for clear country.
It seemed to me as I galloped along that the lane was wedge-shaped, and it closed in to a point in front of me, though, as a matter of fact, it had closed to the same extent behind me. Nearer and nearer I was forced to the edge of the bank till it seemed that I must go over. I heard a yell from Swiker, who was riding on the outside.
"Hey! Look out behind you!"
"Look out behind me!" I had enough to do to look out before me. The gap was closed, though by one bullock only on the outside. There was no time to pause. I was at full gallop, and several long horns were within touch of the horse's side. My stirrup caught and was carried away on the horn of one as it swerved slightly to rearward. Even while it hung the horse bounded in the air, and just cleared the front bullock as its forepart dropped over the bank. The horse landed on his head; so did I—some yards in front of him.
Swiker checked his horse for an instant, his manner and expression betraying great concern. He said:
"Why didn't you stop them?"
I led my puffing mount to a tree and, squatting at the butt of it, looked upon one of the most thrilling sights I ever witnessed; about two hundred bullocks sweeping over the brink and tumbling into a huddled heap in the pool below.
The others swung wide, passing across the flat towards the other holes. Twenty thousand sheep, in three mobs, were just making away from these. The cattle dashed through them, scattering sheep, dogs and shepherds in all directions. The latter climbed into trees, where they remained for nearly an hour, perched among the branches like so many gorillas.
I now rode for the lead again. Having steadied them and strung them along the bigger holes, I returned to the first pool. All hands and the cook were engaged there, up to their waists in liquid mud, pulling out bogged cattle. About twenty ware smothered. Others were very dicky, and charged their rescuers as soon as they were dragged out.
The worst job of all was cutting brands out of smothered beasts. Some that lay on the branded side had to be raised from the mud with levers, and the brand cut out under water. The marked ears were all cut off and burnt.
"Travellers and station people talk," Swiker remarked; "and without knowing the circumstances, that kind of talk gets a man a bad name."
The next night we acquired a new cook—a big burly fellow named Dan. As a rule we were never long enough in the society of Swiker's men to discover their prenomens. Dan wasn't a bad sort, take him all round. He gave us a tip-top supper, the first decent meal we'd had for a week, and Jim, who was Swiker's oldest hand, at once predicted a short stay for Dan.
Swiker never dined with his men. He carried a private tucker-box, in which were condiments and luxuries not usually enjoyed on the road. The top of it formed his table, upon which a white cloth was always spread. A serviette was also nicely rolled alongside of him. Every man who came into the camp resented this conduct, for the boss drover customarily shared and fraternised with his men.
Swiker had the cattle jammed in the corner of a paddock, across the angle of which, and within a few yards of the mob, was a sheet of surface water. We were strictly enjoined to keep them out of this as the cook had to fill his drums and bags in the morning. Only about half the cattle had been able to water at the little potholes that day, and the sight of this sheet, under their noses, maddened them.
Little Peter was on first watch. These aggravating circumstances compelled brisk movement continuously from the start. Some would string waterwards from one side and, whilst he rode to turn them back, another lot would trot in behind him. This necessitated frequent gallops through a clump of thorny bushes, which soon convinced Peter that he was playing a fool's game. He pulled under an umbrageous tree to consider the situation. In five minutes the whole mob was bellowing around in the water.
Presently there was a roar from Swiker. Peter swung out of the saddle and, breaking off a green bough, smacked the horse across the rump with it. He trotted towards the tents. Swiker caught him, and yelled again. Only echo answered. He came towards the cattle, leading the horse. Every ten yards or so he stopped to coo-ee. Getting no reply, he mounted and rode towards the corner.
When close to the thorn clump he called again, and this time Peter gave a feeble response.
"Is that you, Peter?"
"What's the meaning of this?" Swiker demanded.
Peter was limping, holding one hand to his side, and breathing hard.
"Horse—fell—over—a bush—Mr. Swiker."
"Are you hurt?"
He leaned over, peering down at the watchman. Peter groaned.
"Bit pinched—in the side."
"Are your ribs broken?"
"Not quite; pretty badly strained, though."
"H'm! You'd better go an' lie down," he said in a softer voice.
Peter recovered immediately and made haste to bed. Swiker finished the watch—the only watch he ever did.
Next day we passed through a dense five-mile scrub in pouring rain. We were so cold and stiff that we could hardly hold the reins. Another drenching on watch induced us to commission Mr. Swiker to purchase oilskins. He was always glad to buy things for us. When we approached a town he would interview each man in turn, inquiring in his most gracious manner if there was anything we wanted. The reply was mostly in the negative.
"You're quite sure now?" Swiker would say.
"Got plenty of tobacco? Matches? Want a new pipe? A warm shirt? Boots?"
We attributed this concern to his probable dislike to our leaving the cattle or the camp to "go talking" in town. That Mr. Swiker might in some way or other be responsible for the exorbitant price of everything never occurred to me till long after, when I came to buy things myself in the same places.
We were four days flood-bound on the Warrego. On the fifth day we swam the cattle over at Caroline Crossing, twenty miles above Augathella. A zig-zag course above it was a trifle less than a swim for the horses. The cook's team stuck up in mid-stream, and the waggonette threatened to turn over. We had no harness for extra horses, neither had we any desire to go in and push. There was no alternative.
"Ride in and back your horses against the leaders," said Swiker.
There were five horses in the waggonette—two in the pole and three in front, enough to pull the old thing to pieces; but the water was deep, the bottom uneven and slippery.
We rode in and backed our horses one against each leader. Then Swiker tied their tails to the collars, requesting us, as we started, to keep a good strain on. We did. They pulled like demons, whilst Swiker kept the others hard into the collars. Up the bank was a desperate ride for the postillions. It was steep, and there was a tidy weight hanging to our horses' tails. They cracked and stretched till we feared they would pull out or break off. One horse slipped on to his knees. Several hairs flew, but the tail held. We got to the top and dismounted to fill our pipes; but Swiker hastily untied the tails and said:
"Get away now after the cattle." The rear part of my horse moved stiffly, and I missed the swing of his tail all day.
"Talkin' of jibbin' horses," said Dan that evening, "reminds me of Spanker—a moke I had while lookin' after a small out-station on the Nive. Took him down the paddock for a load of wood one mornin' an' when I'd loaded the cart the old villain wouldn't pull a pound. Well, I just tied him to a tree an' let him stand to think over it. Gave him another shot at sundown; no go—he wouldn't draw worth a cent. I made up my mind that the old scamp wouldn't go 'ome till he took that wood with him. The night warn't very cold, an' I was down to see him purty early in the mornin'; but he hadn't changed his mind yet.
"I gave him his own time. Paid him another visit at noon, an' he was lookin' hungry an' lonesome like. He drawed that wood 'ome at the first askin'. I went back an' got another load 'fore I fed him. Then I patted the old chap, an' give him all he could eat. Drawed tons with him after, one time an' another. He jibbed once; but as soon as he saw me startin' for 'ome, he put down his head an', my oath!, he fetched that load 'along full lick."
FROM THE DIARY OF EDINBURY SWAN
We were about a day's stage on the Nive River when our "Second-in-charge" left us, and contemporaneously a Dutch swagman, who gave the name of Joe, was put on. By reason of the unhandsomely puffed face he possessed, we called him Joe Puffy. He was short and fat, and excessively energetic. His qualifications for the billet did not include good horsemanship, a fact that was immediately disclosed on his introduction to the quadruped. In getting on he swung himself clean over the saddle, and dropped like a bag of meat on the other side. He did better at the next attempt; but he flopped about tremendously, and at lunch time it was noticed that his movements had become painfully deliberate. His endeavour to hide effects of the unwonted exercise drew him more under the critical eyes of his fellows, and it was not soothing to his feelings when he caught the wags of the camp acting as if they, too, were afflicted with saddle-itis.
Boss Swiker treated him encouragingly Drovers were so hard co pick up about there that even such unpromising material as Mr. Puffy was worth cultivating. Besides, it was Swiker's peculiar nature to favour a man whom the other men objected to. Shortly after Joseph's advent we had a count, and discovered that we were 19 bullocks short. We counted again, and found that a mistake had been made in the first count; there were 20 missing; At this juncture Mr. Swiker interviewed his men with much, asperity. None of them had a clue to offer, which incensed him all the more. He wound up a tirade of abuse, directed at nobody in particular, by making Joe Puffy head man.
The appointment nearly provoked a mutiny, as even the horse boy had claims to priority over Joe. The position carried more pay, besides a certain amount of prestige and other advantages.
Swiker rode with Joe until the waggonette and horses came along, then went off to pick a night camp. He had pointed, out a wandering bullock to Joseph, and enjoined him to keep his eyes on the beast. When he was gone, Joe said to Little Peter: "You stop here, Peter"—meaning that he was to keep in that position with the cattle—'an' watch that brown bullock all day.
Peter pulled up and fixed his eyes on the wandering animal, which was feeding out by itself, while Joe rode importantly along to the front. An hour later he rode back to the tail, and discovered that Peter was a mile and a half behind, sitting patiently in his saddle and diligently watching one bullock. When Joe clattered up to him, with fire in his eye, and wildly expostulating in two languages, Peter looked surprised and hurt.
"Didn't you tell me to stop here all day and watch this animal?" he asked innocently.
Joe stared with saucer-like eyes. Then, remembering his own instructions, he laughed in the manner of a horse whinnying.
"Vell, vell, Peder," he said pityingly, "I hafe meet some simble peoples somewhere, but you beat everybody altogether."
Joe started the yarn in circulation with relish, holding Peter up to ridicule; but after a time the fun evaporated. He discovered that Peter was not an exception; the whole camp was affected with the same dullness of comprehension. Their child-like simplicity was extraordinary. Each man listened attentively to Joe's instructions and obeyed him literally, with results that soon convinced him, that he had undertaken a hopeless task.
We were approaching a scrub on Biddenham Plains, and the cattle had a big spread on. Before that they were bunched, and Joe had said to let them spread out; so they were allowed to spread until "further orders," even if they spread over into the next State. Nobody had any initiative.
Peter was on the left wing, riding slowly with one leg thrown over the pommel, and singing a sailor song. Joe called out to him to "turn them round a bit." Peter didn't hear.
"Hey!" shouted Joe. "Coo-ee!"
Peter continued to sing: "The Good Ship, Jano—"
"—'s in port again—"
"Potztansendhimmelsdonnerwetter!" snapped Joe. "Hey! Coo-ee!"
"—An' Jack's come home to-day!"
"Th' teffel take Yack an' der goot ship Yane!" cried Joe. "Ya-ho!"
"Our Jack's—come home—to-da-ay!"
Joe cantered round, his legs and arms swinging as he beat a tattoo on the seat.
"Hemmil!" he gasped. "You vos so deaf as some lamp post. Vy can't you turn der straggle bullock already?"
"Turn them round?" queried Peter, with a sweep of his arm.
"Yah!" Peter galloped away, and Joe rode slowly back towards the tail. When he got there he found Peter had turned the leaders right round. He yelled and gesticulated, and orated with so much feeling that he threatened to go into a fit. Peter continued to crowd them up, forcing them back on Joe. Shouting and pantomimic's were useless, so Joseph had to ride round again. This time he expressed his opinion of Peter's obtuseness with warmth and volubility.
"Didn't you tell me to turn them round?" Peter demanded.
"Veil, Got love me, can't you understand such simble tings?" cried Joe. "Keep der plessed road, can't you!"
Swiker rode up just as we got out of the tangle. Joe had already acquired a short, dry cough, and if left in charge a little longer he must have burst a blood vessel.
That evening he said to Peter:
"You drive much pefore?"
"Drove for years," said Peter.
"Didn't say cattle."
"Vot you drive, then?"
"A steam punt."
"Ugh!" grunted Puffy. Then he turned to another man. "Vot you drive pefore?"
"Nails," was the reply.
"How you drive nails?" snapped Joe.
"With a hammer."
"Ugh! No vonder I yell my eyeballs out. Von deaf engineer an' von fool placksmidt! This billet no good to me."
With which remark he went to Swiker's tent and tendered his resignation.
We were four days flood bound on the Warego, during which time we farewelled Mr. Puffy, and saw George, the newcomer—a total stranger to Swiker, installed as head man. George was a taciturn, morose individual, who brought several horses with him and used his own gear. Most of Swiker's horses were in condition at this time, so he considered himself lucky in getting George. The new man was experienced, but he was obviously a hatter; wherefore the split in the camp continued.
Boxing Day and the two days following saw me hunting for a chestnut mare we had lost. She was the best stock mare we possessed. Swiker suspected one of the men of "putting her away," so as to pick her up on his return.
Cattle were also mysteriously disappearing. It was whispered that one man was in the habit of cutting them off camp in little lots and driving them away—with a view to obtaining a possible reward for finding them; it was further remarked that no such leakage had occurred before the advent of Sulky George.
Some men, when paid off, take the risk of finding lost horses on their way back, and buy them for a small sum. They usually have a shrewd idea where to find them; at times they are located by friends before the purchaser returns, and not infrequently a re-sale is effected through the post at a considerable advance on the purchase price.
It was all new country to me, most of it thickly timbered. Setting out soon after sunrise, I rode till about midday, when I hobbled the horse out for a couple of hours; then on again, camping near water at sundown. The second evening I unpacked on the bank of a lagoon. On going down to fill my quart, I found a brindle cow lying with her back in the mud, and her legs up the slope. She had evidently been knocked over. Squaring her horns on the ground, I levered her over down hill, when she easily regained her feet. I expected to see her trot gratefully away; but she was a thankless beast. She also had more activity than I had imagined. She hardly waited to get properly balanced before she made a rush at me, accompanying the action with a savage snort. I dodged aside spontaneously. The nearest tree was on the edge of the bank about 20 yards away. I sprinted for it, with the aggressive brindle in hot pursuit. I reached it just clear of the tips of her horns, but had to double round the trunk so smartly that I shot sprawling into the lagoon.
Afterwards I had to make a big fire to dry my clothes, wrapping a blanket round me, while having tea, to protect my body from mosquitoes.
The cattle were 20 miles below Mitchell when I got back from my fruitless quest. A coolness had meantime developed between George and Swiker; and Peter wanted to leave. The cares of a responsible drover weighed heavily on Mr Swiker, and the burden was further augmented when Sulky George failed to materialise at breakfast next morning.
"Now, then," he cried, "are you goin' to stop there all day?"
George didn't stir.
"Hey!" yelled Swiker. "All aboard."
George uncovered his head.
"I'm a free man this morning," he announced.
"What do you mean?" Swiker gasped, glaring at him.
"I've chucked it."
Swiker bubbled for a bit, and his face turned crimson.
"You can't leave me in the lurch like this," he said. "I want a week's notice."
"You'll get no week from me. I've chucked it."
Peter strolled off to a gilghi hole to wash, singing as he went:
"I'll drink the honey of Freedom's cup,
An' do as It pleases Brown;
I'll roll my swag when the sun gets up,
An' I'll camp when the sun goes down."
This exasperated Swiker.
"Do you know," he cried to the obstinacy under the blankets, "I can give you six months? A Chinaman wouldn't treat a man like this."
George covered his head up again.
"You beauty! O, you beauty," Swiker muttered, shaking a vengeful fist at the recumbent form. After a few more endearments he turned to Jim, the substitute cook. "Put that tucker away at once," he continued, "and don't give that fellow a bite." Then he mounted his horse and rode after the cattle.
George got up after awhile and, brushing the chef aside, hauled Swiker's private tucker box out of the waggonette, spread the white cloth, and sat down to a sumptuous repast. The obsequious James stood by, alternately frowning and grinning, while the sulky one helped himself liberally to the big man's preserves, and put pickle stains on the immaculate serviette. He was waiting for his money when Swiker returned.
"Not a copper penny!" said Swiker, glaring at the proletarian tracks around his breakfast table.
"Right!" said George, riding away. "You'll come back to Mitchell."
That left us short-handed again, which lengthened the night-watches.
We were working on the shift principle; that is, the man who has first watch tonight, takes the second tomorrow night, the third the next night, and so on. This system is favored by some drovers as being fair to all hands; while it is objected to by others, who prefer fixed watches, on the ground that a man going to bed at at a different hour every night, can't go to sleep when he lies down. Against this the shift-watch advocates argue that the first and last watches are the best, permitting of one unbroken sleep, whereas the middle watches make it necessary to take sleep in two instalments.
One of our camp mates was addicted to sleeping under trees when he was supposed to be watching cattle. We all used Swiker's chronometer at night, and when this person overslept himself, as often happened, he would put the watch back before calling the next man. Jim was another offender. He got much more than his share of sleep by putting the watch on. One morning the sun would rise at 5 o'clock, next morning it wouldn't appear till eight.
Then every man took it into his head to regulate that watch nightly by the stars; and whenever a watch-doctor approximated, Swiker would bear down on him with the eccentric chronometer to have its works examined. The doctor mostly discovered some serious defect in the hair spring or the main spring; or it was in shockingly foul condition—though Swiker protested he had just had it cleaned.
One night Swiker was writing very late, and when Jim came off duty, he stepped out of the tent and took the chronometer to compare it with a watch he had bought that morning. It had gained 75 minutes in the two hours that Jim had it, and the minute hand was bent. Then Swiker performed an impromptu gallop round the tea bucket and disturbed the camp's rest with vile language. The five-shilling watch was used after that, and it showed no irregularities in the movements of the planets.
Peter went after the horses at 3.30 on New Year's morning and for once found them handy. It was too early to take them in, as he considered that would establish a bad precedent. He lay down in the long grass and went to sleep. He was an adept at going to sleep. When he woke it was considerably after daylight. A cautious peep tentward revealed Swiker standing on a log, surveying the surrounding landscape with growing impatience. In deference to his feelings, Peter stole away out of sight to get a start on, then raced the mob in full gallop.
"What's the matter with the horses this morning?" asked Swiker.
"Passed them by in the dark," said Peter.
Swiker meditated a moment. "Put every bell on tonight," he instructed, "and get up earlier tomorrow."
Peter's drowsiness became more pronounced. Like the rest of us, he had a long watch that night, and near the finish of it he dozed off in the saddle. The night horse was like the cattle—very quiet; but he was a rogue. If you kept him standing a few minutes he would turn his head round and pull the off stirrup-iron away from your foot with his teeth, as a gentle intimation to you to get off and give his back a rest. When you did get off, you could hear his sigh of satisfaction all round the vicinity. He must have lost all patience this night; perhaps he thought Peter had died on him. Anyhow, he lay down and rolled. Peter woke in a mild panic, and, thinking the cattle were rushing over him, made a dash for the nearest accessible tree. Then perched on a stout limb, he breathlessly took in the situation. The cattle were off camp, moving about like a bellicose ant, and creating a disturbance. He knew what was the matter at once—several cows had got in amongst them.
Swiker came out in his pyjamas and coo-eed.
"Hulloa!" came the answer.
"Where are you?" cried Swiker.
"Up a tree," Peter truthfully replied.
"What are you doing there?"—in a louder voice.
The docile beasts were getting fresher every day, and though they had never been known to break camp at a greater velocity than a walk, still a stampede at this stage was not improbable.
"Why ain't you rushin' after them?"
"Horse went down."
Swiker came nearer.
"Where are they?" he cried.
"Doin' a corroboree on the sand patch."
"Fetch 'em back!" Swiker roared. "Dash your bloomin' eyes, fetch 'em back! No wonder the brutes get lost. No wonder I'm poor. Where are you? Coo-ee! Coo-ee! Fetch 'em back! Fetch 'em ba-ack!"
Peter fetched them back, strangers and all. It was risky to draft them out in the dark; consequently the mob gave each man considerable trouble to keep it in compact order.
Some miles below this place, while we were lunching under a tree, a terrific thunderstorm burst over us. Heavy limbs fell thickly around, scattering horses and cattle, while the rain poured down in torrents. Huddled against the lee side of the tree, with streams of water trickling down our backs, and hail and rain pelting round the trunk, we finished the meal.
Whilst we crouched there, two bullocks were struck dead by lightning close in front of us, and an ironbark, fifty yards away, was shattered into a thousand Pieces. Great slabs of wood and bark flew in all directions. "Mr. Andrew," a pale streak of humanity, who had just been put on, received a shock that dropped him on to his face. He was not hurt, though he trembled like a leaf when we picked him up. In a few minutes, every flat was a sea; the water rushed along the road and roared down the gullies.
Just above where the confluence of the Maranoa and Condamine Rivers form the Balonne, we came upon the main track of this storm—through a dense forest of gum and box. The ground was covered with fallen giants, packed one upon another, and twisted and smashed in a manner indescribable. Crows and other birds lay dead among it, and on the outskirts we came upon the remains of two dingoes. Only an odd bare trunk stood here and there; not a leaf remained on any, and many were stripped of bark from top to bottom. Solid trees, three feet in diameter, had been so twisted that, when released from the cyclonic grip, they had shattered and splintered from end to end. At intervals, on each side of the narrow storm course, trees were reduced to shreds by lightning. The whole was a scene appalling to look upon.
While it was still raining, Sulky George rode up with a summons for Mr. Swiker. Beyond advising the troublesome person to go to a tropical place, the big man at first ignored him. George said "Right-o!" and rode away. He was a compliant young man in some ways, was George. He never argued the point with anybody. Swiker, however, could not afford to go back to Mitchell to defend the case, so the plaintiff was hailed before he had gone far and beckoned to return. Then Swiker wrote out a cheque under difficulties. He sat on a log by the waggonette, which had just come up, and there being no gingham in the camp, Jim and I held a bag over him to keep the rain off.
The waggonette, piloted by a new cook, broke down completely at the junction, of the Condamine and Maranoa. We had gone on with the cattle, and camped at a rocky crossing above St. George. Here we borrowed some bread and sugar from a selector and half a billy of Irish stew from a swagman, for supper. Jim and the cook arrived with pack-horses at midnight.
In ten minutes Swiker and the cook had utilised every word that Webster left out of his dictionary in expressing their opinions of one another. At 1 a.m. Swiker handed him his cheque and ordered him off the premises.
The cattle were crossed through a deep current next morning and tailed on the opposite side. From camp to camp they travelled one mile; but the plant, which had to go round by the bridge, traversed 12; therefore the conditions of the Act (requiring 12 miles to be covered from camp to camp) were faithfully fulfilled.
An aborigine came out early in the day with a two-wheeled relic of antiquity, which Swiker had bought in town. I took the packs round with this, whilst Murri drove the horses. An old lady in a poke bonnet ran after us as we were passing through St. George. She wanted to know if I had seen anything of her son Jimmy in my travels. He was droving with somebody somewhere.
I regretted I had not had the honour of meeting Jimmy, and was sorry to hear he had gone astray. She said I might drop across him on the Mooni. If I did, would I kindly write a letter for him (he couldn't write himself), and let her know if his moleskins were worn out; also if his boots were pinching him yet—though, Lord knows, they ought to be broke in by this; and, further, if he was as freckly as ever. She would be so obliged if I would take that much trouble for a mother's sake, who had only the one to her name, and where he was she didn't know any more than myself.
"What sort of a man is he?" I asked.
"You'll know him," she said with confidence. "He's got a dog with spotted ears, an' he carries a white-handled pocket-knife. He 'ad sunstroke once, an' sometimes he's troubled with spasms. You mightn't notice that; but you'll know him by his dog an his freckles."
She was a simple old body and still fondly talking of Jimmy as we drifted away.
Little Peter was paid off at the rocky crossing, his place being filled by "Long Bob," from Mungundi. We learnt so much about this man in twenty-four hours that we seemed to have known him a long while. He was a man you couldn't help knowing, though you wanted to avoid him. "Mr. Andrew," who had grown up in a grocery store in St. George, was particularly impressed. They had met before. His tale of Robert shall be enshrined in metrical language.
A very good fellow is Mungundi Bob,
No better there's living to yacker;
A man who can do any kind of a job
That offers from Mooni to Pelican Knob,
But alone should you meet him, or meet in a mob,
It's "Give us a pipe o' tobacca."
He's a peaceable, affable sort of a chap,
That a woman would reckon a catch;
If you call at the place that's marked his on map,
He'll find you a scrap an' provide you with nap,
But every five minutes his pipe he will tap,
An' say to you, "Lend us a match."
He'll happen around when you hang up your hat,
Which the same is the place where you cook,
With frequency born for a fondness for chat,
An' his optics will wander to this an' to that,
An' be sure he will ask when, he's sampled your fat,
"'Ave you got such a thing as a book?"
Don't think that he's mean or a miser, I pray,
Such a notion I couldn't endorse;
He reaps all the pleasure that comes in his way;
He goes to the races, the show an' the play;
But ere he sets out, 'tis a moral he'll say:
"Old chap, ken you lend me a horse?"
In the township you'd think him a person of rank,
Which isn't to say he's a snob;
He'll shout for the crank from the Seven-mile Tank
As soon as he will for the man at the bank,
Tho' immediately after he'll tickle his flank,
An' whisper him, "Lend us a bob."
Tho' he's rather too free, an' a little too, fast,
He's a jovial, sociable type;
But the gulf 'tween us now, is a gulf that is vast;
Our mateship is blasted, our friendship is past,
An' our lots evermore are divergently cast,
'Cause I ventured to raise an objection at last,
When he wanted to borrow my pipe.
Eight or nine miles below St. George our wheeled substitute broke down. Swiker tumbled it over the bank into the river, and went back to town in an animated condition. We went on with pack horses, reaching camp at midnight, when we had to cook supper for three famishing drovers.
In the morning Jim and I ventured with horses to the breakdown, where Swiker met us with a new vehicle. Our load had depreciated, for the meat was bad, and had to be deposited on the public highway.
Night overtook us in scrubby country near Bandy Andy, and we got off the road. Jim pulled up and waited, whilst I searched about, striking matches. Struck two boxes which occupied an hour, and found the road half a mile away. The horses in the meantime had disappeared, two with packs on, and we saw them no more that night.
When we had got on to the road again, I walked along in front with Swiker's lantern, instructing Jim where he might wreck the new vehicle, and pointing out places where he could break his neck with equal facility.
We reached Bandy Andy, a small excavated tank, about 2 a.m., both perishing for water. The water here was thick with mud and slime. In the vernacular of the road, it hummed; but still we had to drink it.
Swiker arrived at daylight, and sat dejectedly under a tree whilst I cooked a damper and some meat (Jim "wasn't himself", he was a sick person). With this he went on to look for the other men. Mustering the horses occupied five hours. The pack-horses were nine miles away—standing in a swamp with the packs under their bellies.
The heat was so intense at mid-day that we could not leave the shade to harness up. Not a living thing was moving; nothing stirred but the everlasting shimmer of heat-haze on the flat. The edges of leaves withered on the trees, birds dropped dead out of the branches. A magpie lark stood at my elbow with bedraggled wings and mouth agape, no fear of man now in its palpitating heart. Water became heated in the billycan. Even the flies had ceased to buzz.
Late in the afternoon we started for Mindi Gully. Swiker met us at the wayside hotel and was so pleased to see us with everything safe that he said: "Come-an'-'ave-a-drink."
Here we met The Streak, alias Mr. Andrew, coming back. He didn't want, any more droving; he didn't even want his wages, his only ambition was to get back alive, and grow old and respected in the beautiful store at St. George. The following receipt explains next morning's transaction: "I have this day sold to Edwinbury Swan for value received: two second-hand saddles; also one bay mare named Judy, and one bay mare named Julia.—Christopher John Swiker. Mooni River, Jan. 17, 1896."
Though a blustering, hard man, for the most part, on the road, the good that was in him was uppermost that morning. He talked cheerily, and smiles played on his (often apoplectic) face like sunbeams. He presented me with a broad-leafed felt hat, as my own had become dilapidated, and loaded me up with rations for the road. Then he shook hands with me, and wished me success in whatever ventures I might enter into thenceforth. That was the last I saw of Swiker.
At nearly all times Gossip Lane lived up to its nickname. It was a short, secluded thoroughfare; so much secluded that it was hard to find by people who occasionally had business there, and was unknown to many who lived quite near to it. There are plenty of such places about Sydney, hidden away by the haphazard surveying or lack of systematic planning for which this sprawling city is notorious. It suggests to the sightseer a town that has several times lost its way in the course of its development. The numerous blind alleys and dead ends are instances which exasperate the foot-weary stranger who strikes into them in the hope of making a short cut and is compelled to retrace his steps. Some of the byways are worth exploring, for they present phases of life and means and methods that are novel to most, but the majority of them have nothing attractive. If they have an appeal to the passing eye, it is to be demolished and remodelled. There are good houses and good people in them, but they are smothered up and craving for space and the light of the open. In the same way as isolated people are said to be buried in the bush, thousands of these citizens are buried in the bewildering maze of the city.
There was no dead end to Gossip Lane. If you wandered into it, you could soon wander out again. Nor was it narrow and unkempt. There were half-a-dozen houses on each side, all presenting neat fronts with little flower gardens. A good place for a hatter who liked a quiet life, you might think. Yet it was not quiet either. It was shut out from all the busy traffic of the municipality; scarcely the rumble of a cart penetrated from the main roads; but it was not dull. The women gossiped across the lane, they grouped on the footpaths; to the few callers, and the adjacent citizens who knew the place, they seemed to be always gossiping. They began early in the morning, with brooms in their hands; they finished late at night, sitting on the front steps or on the kerbstone. On warm evenings a cluster of them sometimes obstructed the footpath with chairs—a cluster on each side.
A regular caller was a Chinaman with a hand-cart. He stopped about midway along the lane and there the female population and the youngsters surrounded him. They rooted about the cart and loaded their aprons and talked; they remained there talking, each standing with an apron full of vegetables, till long after the cart had disappeared. Regularly at a certain hour in the forenoon they went off, one by one, to the butcher; and they came back in twos and threes with a fund of news to exchange and discuss. It was astonishing what a lot they could find to talk about, and how news grew in that neighbourhood. The tiniest item became a volume in a few hours. A squabble between two then became a street riot in which a couple of policemen were half killed, whilst a slight mishap to a tram became a fatal tram collision. The wildest news, the most sensational reports, emanated from Gossip Lane.
It seemed to the casual observer that the desire of each one was to be the bearer of something thrilling. If she heard anything very interesting, she nearly fell over herself getting home to tell it. When she got her neighbours around her she made the most of it. She let her tongue and her imagination run away with her; and one by one the others took up the yarn and stretched it a bit further, till finally the original item was hardly recognisable. A gale swept over the vicinity recently, and an old woman was toppled over on the pavement, and dropped some groceries in a wet gutter. Next day Gossip Lane reported that two old women had been blown over and rolled across the street; one had her leg broken, whilst a pound's worth of groceries the other was carrying was scattered over the next suburb.
The lane was never dull. They kept each other excited every day of the week, though the marvel was how they continued to believe each other. The men were seldom seen, as they left early in the morning and returned late in the evening. So the women had their little world to themselves. While they gossiped, morning, noon and night, the youngsters played their games and made all the noise they could in the lane. It looked a happy place, a sociable community who talked the days away without boredom. They appeared to place implicit trust in each other, too; for when one told anything about one of the others, it was always with an injunction not to let it go any further; and the listener promptly told it all round with the same injunction, but it never got back to the ears of the one who was talked about. The mischief-maker, from whom all things go back, apparently did not live in Gossip Lane.
WHEN THE STRIKE BROKE OUT.
It was when the strike broke out that the Lane fairly buzzed. Excitement was at its height the first week, and as a tit-bit drifted in, the good lady who caught it first rushed out to acquaint next door. It didn't matter whether the baby was in the bath or the chops were on the fire; the baby stopped there and the chops burnt. All manner of rumours came floating in, and wonderful were the tales that went out. Half the men were on strike or affected by the strike early in the disturbance, and this gave the Lane an immediate and personal interest in passing events. The women were jubilantly militant. There were plenty of little sensations every day, to keep excitement going, and they lost nothing in the telling in Gossip Lane. It took an hour longer to go for the meat; there were many more visits to the grocer at the corner. Nobody believed the papers; the papers were keeping the truth of vital happenings from the people. The men went to meetings, they marched in the processions; but these women could tell them more in a day of what was going on than they could discover themselves in a week. They knocked about town, visited the centres of the deadlock, listened to the speeches in the Domain—and came home to hear news.
The first shock came when the gas was cut off. That dampened their ardour a bit. Likewise various types of character began to show out from that time. Those who had been prominent sympathisers with the strike, if not advocates of it, were Mrs. Twoface, Mrs. Twinge, and Mrs. Bunch. They had said, "Stand out, sacrifice anything, but be staunch to your mates." When the hardship of doing without gas struck them, they said it was a rotten game. There was no coal, wood and kerosene were expensive, and lighting a fire in the morning was a nuisance. Still they showed a fair face to the world, grumblingly bearing the hardship till a poor supply of gas became available for morning and evening. Everything seemed to be going smoothly then—until the inspector dropped in during prohibited hours, after which their meters were taken away. They explained that they had forgotten to turn the cock off at the meter as instructed. Their neighbours sympathised with them, but when the victims were out of hearing it was said: "Of course, they were using the gas, and they've been using it all the time."
FEELING THE PINCH.
Mrs. Bunch was the first to feel the pinch. Why she should have been hard up so soon, Mrs. Twinge said she didn't know. Mrs. Twinge had no children, Mrs. Bunch had four. "She puts it all on her back and in her house and, of course, as soon as the old man is out of work a week they've got nothing," Mrs. Twoface declared. "Bad management, I call it; bad housekeeping."
The strike band came down the lane and, after playing awhile, one of the bandsmen went round with the box. Mrs. Twoface strode out with a donation, which she held for a moment before dropping it in, so that everybody might see it was silver. "Plenty or poor devils will want every little we can give them, before it's over," she remarked. "But never mind, stand firm."
By this time a local committee of ladies were going round, quietly and unobtrusively ferreting out and relieving cases of distress. Their movements were a sore trial to Mrs. Twoface, who avowed that she wouldn't accept the kind of charity they dispensed if she were starving. The committee were working unselfishly, and hiding their tracks from the gossips, in deference to the feelings of those they relieved.
"I've always paid my way, and I don't want anything off anybody," she declared. "As I said to my man this morning: 'You stick out, and we'll pull through as well as the rest.'"
Her "man" came down the lane then, and she followed him in.
"Well?" There was more vinegar than sugar in the query. "Nothing doing," he said.
"Didn't you get a job?"
"No—there's nothing but black jobs to get."
"How are we goin' to live?" she demanded. "Black or no black, we can't starve!"
He took up a pick and went into the backyard. Many were employing their enforced leisure at gardening, for which they had had no time previously. In this useful work Mrs. Twoface gave her husband a parting word of encouragement.
"You'll wait a precious long while for dinner if you're going to grow it."
The next day Mrs. Bunch went down to the Trades Hall, and came back loaded with provisions. She made no secret of where she had got them. She was one type. Mrs. Twoface was another. She went off early the following morning. She walked a couple of blocks, then boarded a tram. She too received a supply of necessaries at the Trades Hall. She got out at the corner where she had boarded the tram, and walked home.
"Oh, dear, I'm knocked up!" was her announcement to the lane. "I've been down-town shopping, and you've got to wait such a time to be served, and then the awful drag walkin' down and back."
Mrs. Twinge, having no children to keep, didn't want help. She had a small poultry yard and a cabbage garden to fall back on, anyway. But after hearing Mrs. Bunch's description of the relief work in operation at the Trades Hall, she went down just out of curiosity, and while looking round, to her surprise, she met Mrs. Twoface coming out with a kit bag.
"Oh, Mrs. Twinge!" she exclaimed. "Fancy meeting you here!"
Mrs. Twinge explained her errand.
"That's just what brought me here," said Mrs. Twoface. "I've heard such a lot about the doings down here that I came to have a look for myself."
Mrs. Twoface got home first.
"What do you think?" she said to Next Door. "I went down to the Trades Hall today to have a look at the crowd, and who should I bump there but Mrs. Twinge. When she saw me, she didn't know which way to look. An' her boastin' of her independence!"
Next Door was a quiet, unassuming woman. She was never heard to say a word against anybody. For all the lane knew, she and her three children were getting along all right. Her husband had been for weeks out of work as a result of the strike, but both appeared cheerful, and no shadow of want appeared to lurk about their home. One day, however, the relief committee stole in quietly through the back. By some mysterious means they had got the information they were always seeking, and they came loaded with necessaries, which they put down on the table, while the woman looked on in wonder.
"Who sent you here?" she asked.
"Never mind that," was the reply. "We're here to help—and if you know of anybody else about here who is in difficulties we'd be glad if you'd tell us."
She told them of Mrs. Bunch, but said she was getting along all right herself. The committee continued to question her, while the children looked wistfully at the packages. Then the mother broke down. She dropped into a chair and cried. Whilst one soothed her, another opened the cupboard. There was nothing in it. She looked into the pantry, and there was nothing there either. The woman, in fact, had been thinking of pawning her furniture to get the next meal. She was another and a common type.
Sleepy Hollow on Sunday afternoon was all that its name implied. The streets were deserted; the houses slept in profound peace. To Murty Brown, temporarily separated from his droving mates, it was dreariness. Visiting it for short periods every two or three months, he knew pretty well everybody in the place; but on Sunday, ere his watch-hands had dragged round to 3 p.m., the young fellows had gone out with their girls, and all his old cronies seemed to have buried themselves.
Murty had no girl to walk out with, so he mooched along the river bank by himself, viewing familiar scenery, and casting bashful glances at amorous couples disposed in shady nooks.
A mile below the town he suddenly became interested in two persons whose actions promised a thrill in the near future.
They were Mr. Gregory Cramp, who worked in the drapery department of Klinker's Emporium, and his daughter Rubina, who was considerably in advance, striding briskly along as though she had an appointment somewhere. The suspicious parent followed from tree to tree, and from bush to bush, crouching low where the cover was scanty, and furtively watching the girl. He was a slight, ladylike little man, clean shaven, with a girly bloom in his cheeks and pink carnations in his buttonhole. Some of his shop-mates, who scorned his airs and graces, said that he painted and wore corsets.
Murty considered it quite natural, if it wasn't strictly proper, that the gentle Rubina should steal forth in search of a different atmosphere than that in which Mr. Gregory Cramp desired to confine her. He secretly approved of her actions, whilst he felt mildly resentful towards the foxing draper.
Mechanically he fell into line with them.
The girl went on to a small reserve where cedar-getters rafted their timber. A number of huge logs lay scattered about on the high bank. On one of them sat a tall spare young man whom Murty, with a little gasp of surprise, recognised as Mat Conyers, an old mate of his. He jumped down and smiled broadly as Rubina approached him. He raised his hat with an elegant bow and shook hands, and presently they sat down together behind the log, out of view of the unsuspected audience.
"Can't be engaged yet, or he'd 'ave kissed her," was Murty's comment as he waited for Gregory's next move.
Gregory pondered for a moment, then dropped on his hands and knees and crept up behind the log. Placing his hat and walking stick with great care on the ground, he raised himself slowly and turned an attentive ear in their direction.
The conversation seemed to be of an engrossing character; Gregory shifted two or three times and leaned nearer and nearer, as though he didn't want to lose a word of it. Once he acted as if a bull-ant had stung him. He sprang up stiffly and haughtily erect, but immediately recollected himself and bobbed down again.
"Must 'ave kissed her that time," Murty surmised with satisfaction.
It was a salve to his conscience that he could not see the lovers, aided and abetted by the reflection that Gregory Cramp might be meditating violence.
From the draper's antics the lovers' dialogue appeared shortly to become of a most touching nature. At times he seemed to be crying and tearing his hair; at other times he gripped his chin with thumb and finger and ruminated as though a weighty problem had been wafted up to him. Then he was apparently seized with an almost irresistible impulse to jump on his hat. This was succeeded by a wildly hostile demonstration. He shook his fists across the log, jerked his elbows and shoulders in fierce spasms, and punched holes in the atmosphere.
The lovers chatted on in blissful ignorance of the pantomime going on behind them. Other couples began to dawdle homewards along the road. Mr. Cramp eyed them maliciously, as if he suspected their ancestors of having established the disreputable practice of falling in love without parental consent.
He seemed nonplussed for a time. Suddenly he bethought him of his walking stick. Grasping it by the middle, he held it at arm's length and shook it vengefully. That stick seemed to have a fascination for him. He took it by the small end, weighed it thoughtfully, and turned it about like a purchaser looking for flaws. Evidently satisfied with it as a weapon, he struck a series of alarming attitudes with the stick swinging and quivering in the air.
Murty was agitatedly debating within himself as to whether he should rush out and warn Conyers of the threatening calamity, when the pugnacious draper abruptly dropped into a mood of comparative calm. He picked up his hat and tiptoed away in the opposite direction.
Twenty yards off Mr. Cramp turned and strolled leisurely back, swinging his stick in dude fashion, and admiring the beautiful sunset. He was walking on past the end of the log, when he apparently noticed for the first time that a young couple were sitting there. He started splendidly on recognising Rubina, and looked again, moving a step or two closer, as if he doubted the evidence of his eyes.
"What!" he cried in a shocked voice. "Do I see my daughter? Surely--surely not!"
He took out his spectacles, wiped them with his handkerchief, and putting them on, peered closely into her face.
"Heavens above! It is!" he exclaimed, starting back and regarding her severely. "Rubina! I'm surprised at you."
Rubina hung her head and blushed furiously.
"What does the Bible say?" Mr. Cramp demanded, after an impressive pause. "'Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.' Is this what you call honoring your father and your mother?"
Rubina, who was painfully distressed, made no reply.
"I thought you had at least some self respect, Ruby," continued the irate parent in tremulous accents. "I thought my daughter had more pride than to lower herself like this."
Conyers here put in a mild protest.
"How is she lowering herself?"
Mr. Cramp eyed him disdainfully, then turned again to his daughter, who had risen and now stood nervously digging the ferule of her parasol into the ground.
"Who is this fellow?"
She glanced at him timidly.
"Mr. Conyers, Dad."
"You know me well enough, Cramp!" Conyers snapped.
Cramp ignored him.
"Where did you meet this person?" he asked loftily.
"H'm! For the future, your mother or I will accompany you when you go to dances. I wasn't aware that you were so easily imposed upon. Come home at once!"
She went off obediently, only glancing out of the corner of her eye at the indignant Conyers, who leaned with his back against the log, sulkily twisting his moustache.
At this juncture Murty wiped his eyes and, imitating Mr. Cramp, backed away a bit, and then walked boldly forward with his gaze fixed on the horizon. He would have passed Conyers without seeing him had not the disconsolate swain looked up and hailed him.
"You're the very man I want," said Mat, ranging alongside and lighting a cigarette. "Just been havin' some words with that conceited little pig of a draper," he added, indicating the retreating pair with a jerk of his thumb.
"Who's the lady?" asked Murty.
"Ruby Cramp," said Conyers. "I'm going to marry her."
Murty's eyes opened like port-holes.
"Are you sure?" he ejaculated.
"Wednesday week at 8 p.m.," Conyers informed him.
"You're not losin' much time," Murty remarked. "Where's it goin' to happen?"
"At the Registrar's house."
"In defiance of parental authority," added Murty to himself. Aloud he said: "Wonder Mr. Cramp would consent to that, bein' such a good churchman."
"She's over 21, and she's willing," Conyers responded with unnecessary vehemence. "So it doesn't matter about him. But to spare his feelings, we've decided to be married quietly."
Murty, remembering Gregory's spasms behind the log, coughed softly to hide an intrusive grin. What Gregory had decided upon he couldn't guess, but he had a shrewd idea that the wedding wasn't going to be as quiet as Conyers expected.
"I want you to be best man," said the latter.
"Me!" he cried, staring wide-eyed at a vision of waving walking-sticks. At that moment he was positive the draper's walking-stick would be in attendance at the ceremony. "C-couldn't you get somebody else?"
"Yes," said Conyers, "but we've knocked about so long together that I'd rather have you than anybody I know. When a man's gettin' married he chooses the friend he thinks most of."
Murty wasn't at all flattered; he felt that it was a disadvantage to be that honored person.
"Wouldn't it be better to wait till Gregory thawed a bit?" he suggested.
"I've always noticed that secret marriages never turn out well; an' if you go an' wreck your happy life, Mat, it'll always be a painful remembrance to me that I helped you do it."
"Shugh!" laughed Conyers. "Mr. Gregory Cramp will thaw quick enough when he finds I've become related to him. He can't do anything, Murty. Don't you worry."
Murty cudgelled his brains desperately for further excuses, but being taken unawares, could not think of a good one with sufficient smartness, and in the end he went home convinced that he had committed himself to a most foolhardy project.
The ten-day interval had a depressing effect, and when the eventful hour arrived he drove off with Conyers feeling as happily expectant as a boy going home to be whipped.
They pulled up near the Cramps' back gate, and shortly afterwards the bride elect, wearing a heavy veil and a hat that shut down over her ears, glided out and heaved a heavy portmanteau into the buggy.
"Where's the bridesmaid?" asked Murty, as they drove quietly away. He felt lonely.
"She's to meet us at the registrar's," was the whispered reply.
Conyers was in too much of a hurry to talk; there would be plenty of time for that on the joyous honeymoon that would soon begin.
All was very quiet at the registrar's house. The old gentleman himself admitted them. He was a tall man with a long grey beard, and wore a tasselled cap and a wide smile. He led them a little way down the hall, and then, to Conyers' horror, showed them into a room that was full of people.
Murty gave a gasp and staggered back, whilst Conyers, propping in the doorway, fumbled with his hat and stared.
"It's all right," said the old gentleman. "We're having a little party to-night; and our friends would like to remain, if you don't mind."
Conyers returned their cheery greetings with a sickly smile, and said he didn't mind at all. He fell into a chair, and his face reddened as all eyes were turned on to him. A red rose, emblem of love and desire, bloomed in his brand-new coat, a scented silk handkerchief stuck out of the top pocket, crystalite studs glistened in his shirt front, whilst an unaccustomed stiff white collar propped his chin uncomfortably high.
Most of the guests were old acquaintances. He wished some of them had been taught better manners than to intrude where their company wasn't wanted. The presence of the local editor set him reviewing the gathering in a cynically journalistic fashion: Among those present were Martin Crowe, the farmer from up the river, who had made a laughing stock of him more than once; Joe Spudd and his bride--who was formerly a sweetheart of his; two assistants from Klinker's Emporium and their young ladies; the barber, the auctioneer, the Mayor of the municipality, the blacksmith, and several gossipy old women he didn't want to associate with.
"Thought you were going to give us all the slip, eh?" chaffed Martin Crowe. "Well, well, Conyers, I didn't think you'd treat old friends like that." "He won't," the auctioneer declared. "He's going to do the thing properly, or he's not going to do it at all. It won't cost him more than five pounds for a wedding cake and a few bottles of wine. I saw a beautiful cake in the baker's window this morning--three decker, all iced, and only two pounds." "I'll go an' get it," said the blacksmith enthusiastically. "Ill fetch the wine," Joe Spudd volunteered. The company received the announcements with glee. Conyers squirmed and smirked like a sensitive schoolboy who has been stood in front of his class for misbehavior. The registrar, who had got his books and papers ready, motioned the principals to draw nearer to the table. "Hold on!" Martin Crowe interposed. "Conyers is going to have a spread ready first. A dry wedding means bad luck." "We can attend to that afterwards," Conyers objected, shuffling his feet uneasily. "No, we can't," Martin persisted. "Hang it, Conyers, it's the fair thing to drink the bride's health when the ring's on." Conyers, anxious to have the ordeal over, reluctantly threw the money on the table. Joe Spudd and the blacksmith divided it between them and went out. They were gone half an hour, during which time Conyers bore a running stream of good-humored chaff with what fortitude he could muster, and Murty Brown, who was making desperate efforts to look pleasant, resolved that getting married was an infliction that he would never be guilty of. The willing pair brought the baker and the publican back with them, to help carry the good things, and both were pressed to stay by the good-natured guests. When the table had been spread for the feast the ceremony began. A hush fell on the gathering, while Conyers gave particulars as to his name, his parentage, the date and place of his birth, his occupation and condition, and so forth. These details completed, the registrar turned to the bride, who had sat still and silent all through, modestly studying the pattern of the carpet. "Your full name?" The answer came in loud, deliberate tones: "Gregory Olando Cramp." "Eh? What!"
The bride stood up and' clutching the crown of orange blossoms, tore it off, together with the veil and the nicely done-up bunch of hair to which it was attached.
Murty's mouth opened in amazement. Half rising, he stared stupidly at the beaming face of Rubina's father. Conyers started so violently that he tilted his chair back and crashed to the floor. For five breathless seconds he sat there, propped on the heels of his palms, and glared white-faced at the dreadful apparition.
The shrieks and roars of the guests galvanised him into new life and, staggering to his feet, he leaped wildly through the low window into the night.
Murty made a bolt for the door, but Martin Crowe dragged him back and persuaded him to stay for the wedding supper. During its progress he learnt that Rubina had been taken for a drive by a friend of the family that afternoon, and had been unaccountably delayed; and at the appointed time the genteel Mr. Cramp, who had previously notified his friends of the coming event, donned her bridal robes and tripped forth with an old portmanteau that he had no further use for. It contained a dead dog, which Conyers had taken the precaution to poison the night before.
* * *
Conyers discovered the nature of the luggage as soon as he got back into his buggy, and for a moment he stormed in impotent rage. Then he began to think, and his face gradually brightened. As the sounds of laughter came faintly from the house he had left, a cunning devilish sort of smile played on his lips and, whipping up his horses, he drove straight back to the girl's home.
There was a light in her window. The coast was clear, as Mr. Cramp and his friends were but just settling down to the feast he had provided; so he strode across the garden, heaving the luggage into the Summer house on the way. A tap on the pane brought the window up promptly, and Rubina looked out with reddened eyes.
"Come on, Rube," Conyers whispered. "We're goin' to elope."
The window slipped down again smartly, and in 10 minutes Miss Cramp was outside, with her bag in her hand. In another 10 minutes they were heading for the next town, towards the border. And the biggest surprise of the night awaited Mr. Cramp when he returned home in the small hours and found that the great joke had been turned against him.