an ebook published by Project Gutenberg
Title: The Haunted Shanty and Other
Author: Thomas E. Spencer
eBook No.: 2300901h.html
Date first posted: July 2023
Most recent update: July 2023
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore and Colin Choat
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1. By the Camp Fire
2. The Haunted Shanty
3. The Yankee Skipper
4. Captain Comet
5. The Naturalisation of Stuntze
6. Packham's Pride
7. Almost a Millionaire
8. Peter's Luck
9. Clancy on Gambling
10. Old Barker
11. Piebald Jim
12. Josephine Mcginty
13. Commercial Competition
14. Lou's Young Man
15. The Half-way House
16. A Week End at Walker's
2. "Hulloa, Boulder!"
3. Beauty Saves The Situation
4. Cooling Otto's Ardour
WHEN the sun of one's prosperity is at its meridian, it is not always pleasant to be reminded of the time when we shivered, cold and miserable, in the chill shades of adversity. It is not kind, when a man is living on his rent roll, supplemented, by a little interest on funded stock, to remind him of the time when he tossed his last sixpence and, upon the uncertain contingency of heads or tails, hazarded the question whether it were better to invest it in a good square feed, or to tighten his belt and barter the coin for the privilege of sleeping away his hunger in a sixpenny bed.
I am an alderman, and a prospective mayor. I also have a vague ambition that, as time rolls on, I may be called upon to represent my fellow citizens in the Parliament of my country, when I shall loll comfortably on the well-stuffed benches in Macquarie Street, with a gold pass on my watch-chain, and a special tram to take me home at night.
It is, I say, not pleasant, for a man of my position and prospects, to be suddenly reminded, in two words, of the time when, poor and penniless, he was glad to accept a subordinate position in a camp of surveyors, being lured thereto by the promise of fifteen shillings per week and his tucker.
It came about thus.
A few weeks ago, I was chosen one of an influential deputation to wait upon a Minister of the Crown, to bring under his notice several matters of local importance, the most urgent of which, in my opinion, was the necessity that existed for laying a new drain past a terrace of houses that I had recently purchased, and which I had obtained at a very low figure on account of their insanitary condition. I was, at my own request, deputed to address the Minister on the important matter of the drain; and had prepared a speech, bristling with points, and overflowing with statistics. In the company of a number of my fellow aldermen, and the member for our electorate, I was waiting outside the office of the Minister, when I was rudely startled by receiving a heavy slap on the shoulder, and was greeted with the two words previously alluded to. They were, "Hulloa, Boulder!"
I turned and beheld a face and form I had not seen for years, but which, alas! I know too well. It was that of Flanagan, the principal chain-man in the gang of railway surveyors with which I had been associated some years ago on the Murrumbidgee.
I pretended, at first, that I did not recognise him, but it was no use. Flanagan was remorseless. He had an atrociously good memory for faces, and was, as I could remember, a violent and a dangerous man when contradicted.
Judging by his appearance, he had sunk as much in the social scale as I had risen. My feelings may be imagined when he hiccupped.
"It's no use me bhoy. It's no use. Ye're a bigger swell than ye were when ye were choppin' pegs for me on the Murrumbidgee. Ye've filled out a bit. Yer nose is redder, and yer long-tailed banger and yer top hat althers yer appearance, but I'd know ye, me bhoy, if ye were boiled."
He grasped my hand with the grip of a giant, and exclaimed, affectionately, "And how are ye, me bhoy? How are ye, afther all this time?"
It took me some minutes to get rid of Mr. Flanagan, and when he departed, there went with him, half my loose silver, and all my points, and statistics. My speech to the Minister fell flat, and the question of the drain is shelved.
My name is not "Boulder," and it never was. "Boulder" was simply a vulgar nickname given to me without my consent, and in contradiction to my expressed wish. When I first became associated with the camp of surveyors before mentioned, and while I was new in my position, and only partially acquainted with its duties, I was deputed one day to make a damper. It is not necessary for me to explain, minutely, the manner in which I executed my commission, it is sufficient to observe, that, as it was the first damper I was commissioned to make, so also, was it the last. It was preserved for a long time as a relic. It was noted for its density and its high specific gravity. They hung it to a tree, where it resisted for months the denuding effects of the atmosphere, the ruthless tooth of the marauding opossum, and the destroying influence of time. As a result the camp was called, and is known to this day, as Damper Gully. It was at this time that I acquired the nickname of "Boulder." And it stuck to me as long as I formed one of Mr. McTavish's retinue.
My accidental rencontre with Flanagan brought vividly to my mind's eye this remote period of the existence. As I sat in my study that evening, the name of "Boulder" seemed once again to be echoing through the valley of the Murrumbidgee, and many forgotten events flashed across my mind. I saw once again the bronzed faces of the men who were then my companions. Once more I inhaled the incense from the burning pine, the perfume from the peppermint, and the scent of the healrth-giving eucalyptus. I saw again the ruddy glow of the camp fire, the sparks flying upward in the still, pure air, the impenetrable darkness of the surrounding bush, and the glorious canopy of stars above. I listened to the crackling of the twigs, as the sleek opossum started on his nocturnal ramble. I heard the mournful cry of the curlew, and the distant tinkle, tinkle of the bell, which, growing fainter and still more faint, reminded us that the horses were feeding their way towards the grassy flat at the foot of Fern Gully.
Whence comes the magic charm of the Australian Bush? Why is it that those who have felt its call are eager to respond? Is it that a closer acquaintance with the works of Nature leads to a more just appreciation of the Great Designer of those works? It is hard to say, but this we know, that once a man has felt its subtle spell, its influence lives while life and reason last.
Thus I thought, as I sat in my room. The faces of my old companions seemed to pass in view before me, as they used to appear in the glow of the camp fire when, with many a story, we relieved the hour between the evening meal and bed time. When quips and cranks and merry jests flew sparkling around us, even as the sparks flew upward from the camp fire.
First came McTavish, the head of our party. In his presence, we called him "Mr. McTavish," in his absence, "Old Dryasdust." He was a typical Scotchman, shrewd, yet kindly, with a good-humoured twinkle in his benevolent grey eye, but a power of resolution in his square chin and firm-set mouth. His assistant, Charlie Falconer, was an intelligent bright young fellow, so devoted to his work that he would frequently sit in his tent half the night, checking the work done during the day. Flanagan was head chainman and general factotum. He was, at that time, a genial, light-hearted Irishman. He was full of mischief, but the life and soul of the camp, especially when free from the influence of the restraining eye of Mr. McTavish.
Joe Millner, another chainman, was of a more stolid disposition, He loved, sometimes, to talk of the departed glories of the old digging days.
Then there was a youth named Arthur. Where he had come from, no one seemed to know. He was pale and delicate, and had been well brought up. His modest unassuming behaviour, and his large, dreamy eyes, made him a general favourite. I was only a casual hand, and our party was completed by Otto, the cook.
Otto Von Stuntze was a German. According to his own account, Otto was of ancient and noble lineage. He was cross-eyed, and had a huge scar across one side of his forehead. He wore a sheath knife at his belt and, winter or summer, his well-worn flannel shirt was open at the breast. While we spun our yarns, he would sit on his haunches by the fire, with one eye on the fire and the other fixed with a contemptuous expression on the speaker. He was supposed to have been a sailor, and boasted the possession of a mate's certificate, which, however, we never saw. He had been everywhere and seen everything, and no problem was so hard that Otto could not solve it. Joe Millner used to call him "Otto the Liar." But Otto had one redeeming feature, he was a good cook; and, in a rough country, where appetites are keen, flies plentiful, and delicacies scarce, good cookery covers a multitude of sins.
As my fancy recalled the faces of my friends, so did my memory recall the tales they used to tell, and I resolved to commit some of then to writing. I know that they will lose half their charm by reason of the absence of the surroundings. I may, perhaps, reproduce the words, but not the flashing light, the ruddy faces, the scent of the wattle, nor the sights and sounds that met our eyes and ears as we sat in the gloaming, spinning our yarns—by the camp fire.
One night, after tea, the conversation turned on ghosts.
"Do you believe in ghosts?" asked Joe.
"I always pelieves in vat I sees," said Otto. "I remember, vhen I vas pearl fishin' in Vestern Australia—"
"We don't want to hear about Western Australia now," said Joe, "Mr. McTavish is in his tent and is perhaps trying to go to sleep."
"Nay mon," said a cheery voice from the tent, "Dinna fret for me. I can maistly succeed in extracting a little wheat from the chaff. Even the strings of lies that Otto tells convey a moral, if it is only to teach us to avoid lies, lest in time we become, like him, unconscious and habitual perverters of the truth. Go on, lads. Tell your yarns, but try to let them have a semblance of truth. Dinna mind me."
"I have never seen a ghost," said Charlie Falconer, "but I once spent a night in a haunted shanty."
"I vas vonce in a ship dhat vas haunted," remarked Otto. "It vos—"
"The devil's cure to you," said Flanagan. "'Tis like an ould hin ye are wid ye're cluckin'. Give it a rest, man, or I'll trow the billy at ye."
"Ach," said Otto, as he spat in the fire.
"Tell us about the haunted shanty, Mr. Falconer," said Joe.
"There is not much to tell," said Charlie, "but, if Mr. McTavish does not mind—"
"Go on," shouted Mr. McTavish, "but remember that when you approach the supernatural, you are treading on dangerous ground. In such cases the human mind seems to have a tendency to spread itself, as it were, and we sometimes drift, unconsciously and imperceptibly, from the main road of fact into the by-paths of fiction."
"I will tell the tale exactly as it occurred," said Charlie. Thus encouraged and admonished, Charlie proceeded with his story:—
"THE large bank of clouds looming in the southwest was occasionally split by streaks of lightning. I urged my horse forward, because the river at the foot of the mountains was in the habit of rising quickly. A smart thunder shower in the hills would sometimes make it impassable for hours. If once I could get across I should be all right, for McMahon's comfortable hostelry was near the opposite bank, and it was there that I proposed to spend the night.
Before I arrived at the last descent the sky had grown black, and a few large, drops of rain were falling. I hurried along, and just as the grey dusk was deepening into premature darkness I came within sight of the river.
To my great disappointment it was running a banker, and I knew that it would be impossible to cross before morning.
The outlook was not a pleasant one. The ominous roll of thunder in the distance gave warning of the impending storm. Before me, in McMahon's comfortable sitting-room, distant only a few hundred yards, were warmth and shelter but the seething river rushing between made that shelter inaccessible. The only refuge from the storm was in the ruins of the old 'Diggers' Arms.' This was an old 'shanty,' which had long since been deserted, even by the least fastidious tramp. At one period of its history it had flourished, but that was in the old bushranging days. Its name was associated with evil deeds, and it was said that there was blood upon its walls. It had succeeded, in a very early period of its history, in gaining an unenviable notoriety. So bad did its reputation become, that even its friends found it too warm, and deserted it, and it then became a camping place for tramps, who used its rude fittings to boil the billy.
For some years prior to the date of the adventure I am about to relate, it had been shunned, even by the tramps. The tide of its depravity had reached its lowest ebb, for it was said to be haunted. Now, ruined in appearance, usefulness and reputation, it merely existed as an awful example to all shanties which may be tempted to stray from the paths of strict rectitude.
One end of it remained fairly weatherproof, and this fag end of a deserted shanty, with an evil history, and an uncanny reputation, was the only spot within five miles that was accessible, where one might hope to keep reasonably dry.
I had no belief in ghosts, so I led my horse to the doorway, removed the saddle and bridle, and entered.
As I remarked, I did not believe in ghosts, but, except for the brilliant flashes of the lightning, the night promised to be very dark, and although one may, under normal conditions, laugh at the supernatural, that is no reason why one should absolutely prefer a lodging that has the reputation of being haunted.
I must confess that my heart beat faster as I entered, but, smiling at my own groundless fears, I struck a match and, putting the saddle and bridle in the driest corner of the room, whose walls had once echoed the noisy revelry of the bushrangers, I sat down to wait patiently for the storm to pass.
I lit my pipe and, spreading my saddle-cloth on the ground, I sat on it with my back against the rough slabs of the wall. By this time the rain was falling in torrents, Frequent flashes of blinding lightning lit up the cracks in the crumbling walls, and illuminated the gaping apertures where doors and windows had once been.
I thought of the ridiculous stories that were current about the place. How rough, hardened sinners, who feared neither God nor man, had arrived, pallid and trembling at McMahon's, declaring that they had heard voices in the ruins of the old 'Diggers' Arms.' How one man had offered to sleep there for a wager, and had arrived at McMahon's, just after the family had retired to bed, declaring that a ghostly voice had commanded him to go to sleep. I thought of these things, and many more about as cheerful, until I found myself listening, with a creepy sensation, for the faintest unusual sound.
The thunder grew more distant, and the lightping less vivid, but the rain fell in a steady stream; and I could hear the boiling river rumbling between its banks.
My pipe had gone out, and once or twice I found myself nodding. Suddenly I started and became very wide awake, for I could have sworn I heard a dismal wailing voice, close to my ear.
For some moments my heart beat wildly. I felt a curious sensation in the region of the spine, as though drops of cold water were slowly following each other down my back. Then I tried to laugh my fears away. I said to myself 'What nonsense! It is the wind playing among the chinks in the walls, or swaying a loose shingle on the roof.' But I could not help listening intently. I tried to compose myself to sleep, and had almost succeeded, when, after a brilliant flash of lightning, I heard, louder, plainer and more distintly than before, the same dismal cry. It commenced lowly and faintly, increased gradually in intensity, rose in pitch, and died away in a sobbing, heartrending wail. And without a doubt, the voice was within the room.
I sat bolt upright, and perspiration stood in great beads upon my forehead. I fumbled for my match-box with trembling fingers, when, just as I had them on a match, another voice, plainer and more distinct than the former said, 'Don't be afraid. The storm is passing. Go to sleep.'
I shall never forget the shock. I was never considered be a coward, yet I confess that my limbs shook as though I had the palsy. In my fright I dropped my matches.
The man who knows no fear is not necessarily the bravest. The brave man is he, who, feeling afraid, can yet overcome his fear in the presence of awful impending danger. I expected every moment to feel skeleton fingers closing round my throat, or some other indefinable horror; and yet, in spite of my fear, I did not lose my head. I groped for my match-box and found it. I struck a match, but a gust from the gaping window opening blew it out.
I struck another, and another, and, at length I succeeded in keeping one alight long enough to examine the room. There was nothing there but my saddle and bridle, and the debris that is usually found in a disused, crumbling building.
Making a determined effort to master my fear, I sat down again on the saddle-cloth, and tried to persuade myself that the whole was a dream, or some curious fantasy of an over-wrought brain. In this I was so successful that I began to be amused at my former fears.
For some time all was quiet, except the swish of the falling rain, for the thunder had ceased.
At length, as sleep seemed out of the question, I decided to smoke. Slowly and deliberately, for I was in no hurry—my object was to kill time—I cut up some tobacco, and filled my pipe. I put away the knife and tobacco, struck a match and lit my Pipe, and then, holding the match high above my head, I made another careful survey of my surroundings. All was the same as before, and I laughed at my fears. I felt inclined to chaff the ghost, and I had just began to quote 'Be thou spirit of earth or goblin damned—' when a gruff voice, louder, sharper, more distinct than ever, said sternly: Put out that light, and go to Sleep.'
I tried to call out but my tongue was frozen. The match dropped from from my hand. A chill crept through me from my brain to the tips of my fingers and my toes. I was like a man paralysed, and must have fainted, for I remember no more until I awoke, chilled to the marrow, and shaking in every limb.
The rain had ceased and the moon was shining through the openings of the ruined building.
I went outside and walked in the moonlight, for my nerves were shattered. The river had fallen a tittle, but was still impassable.
The trees were dropping moisture and everything was sodden.
I have seen the dawn break in many places, but I never welcomed it with greater pleasure.
When the light was sufficient to distinguish the objects around me, I carefilly examined the ground round the the old builing. I thought I might have been the victim of a trick but I could find no traces of a human being. My horse, which was grazing peacefully some distance away, was the only living thing in sight.
Gradually the bush began to wake. A magpie sounded his welcome to the dawn, a laughing jackass replied, and the bush became alive with sweet familiar sounds.
As the dawn grew brighter, my fears left me, but I was still nervous and weak. I judged that it yet take some hours before the river would be safe to cross, so I entered the old building again—it was the only dry spot—and flung myself down upon the saddle cloth.
I was weary, and upset with nervous tension. I was ashamed of my fears, and, although entirely unable to explain my night's experience, I was unwilling to attribute it to supernatural causes.
I sat, watching the daylight brighten, and feeling inclined to doze, yet I was awake. I could see every corner of the room. I had recently inspected the outside of the place.
With a heart filled with gratitude, I saw through the window opening the first ray of the rising sun glint on a distant hill, when, with startling suddenness, a voice shouted in my ear, 'Now then. Jump up. It's time to be moving.'
I did jump up. Then, and not till then, did I believe that the place was accursed. I seized my saddle and bridle, and ran outside. I called aloud, but the echo of my own voice was my only answer. Again I searched the vicinity, and again I found nothing.
I caught and saddled my horse, and rode round the place, but could find no sign. I was in a frenzy, so I rode quickly down to the river, and plunged my horse into the swollen stream. I crossed somehow, and arrived at McMahon's just as that worthy came out on to the verandah to stretch himself.
'Hulloa!' he exclaimed. 'Why man, what's up? Have you seen a ghost? Why, your face is like a plaster of Paris image.'
I tumbled somehow off the horse, and he took me in and gave me some brandy. He asked me what ailed me, and, like a fool, I told him.
He eyed me carefully from head to foot and, with a smile of incredulity upon his face, he said:
'I've heard these yarns before, but I did not expect them from you. I'd advise you to go to bed and, for the future, to take more water with it.'
He thought I had been drinking, but he was wrong. I could not argue with him, so I went to bed, conscious of having fallen several degrees in McMahon's estimation.
But I had received a serious, shock, and I was in a state of complete nervous prostration for weeks. I decided to go to town for a change. When I got there I met young Joe McMahon, who was a student at the Technical College. In a moment of weakness, I told him my story.
'What did the ghost say?' he asked.
'I did not say it was a ghost,' I replied indignantly. 'I told you that I saw nothing, and that I don't believe in ghosts.'
'Never mind,' said Joe. 'What did the voice say?'
'Well! the first sound I heard was a low, wailing cry, as of a lost spirit in pain.'
'That was the baby,' said Joe, chuckling.
I took no notice of his irrelevant remark, but continued. 'Then a voice said, 'Don't be afraid, the storm is passing. Go to sleep.'
'That was mum,' said Joe.
'If you don't want to hear,' said I, why did you ask?'
'Go on,' he said, grinning. He did not seem to realise the awful gravity of the situation.
'Well!' I continued, seriously, 'When I was lighting my pipe, a voice said, 'Put out that light, and go to sleep.'
'Yes!' said Joe.
'And in the morning, when it was daylight, the voice said, 'Now then, jump up.' I heard it distinctly. I'll swear it.'
'Yes,' interrupted Joe, 'that was Dad. He always has to tell Jim to put his candle out at night, and he always rouses him out at daylight in the morning.'
'But,' said I angrily, 'I told you I was at the 'Diggers' Arms.' If you doubt my word, be good enough to say so.'
'But,' he said, 'I don't doubt your word, old man. I know it's all as true as Gospel.' Then he explained.
'You know,' he said, 'that they always said I was a clever child. And I was pretty smart. I was fond of reading and experimenting. That was how Dad came to send me to the Technical College. I read a book once about 'How to make a telephone,' and I got some old jars, and jam tins, and some copper wire and things, and I made one. I connected it with the telegraph wire that passes our house and the old shanty across the river. But it would only talk one way. The transmitter is in Dad's bedroom, and the receiver in the chimney of the old shanty. Many a time I have sat in the old shanty, and heard dad and mum talking secrets in the bedroom. I learnt a lot of things they thought I didn't know. I remember the first tramp that got scared. He was a sight to look at. His hair was all bristled up, and he had a face like a plaster of Paris image. He was—'
'But I suddenly remembered that I had an appointment, and I bade Joe 'Good-day.'"
* * *
"Der Teffil fly avay mit you, Yoe Milnner. Vhat for you boomps me oop against like dhat "' shouted Otto, as Joe touched Otto, who, sitting as usual upon his haunches, and delicately poised upon his toes, was nearly precipitated into the fire.
"What's the matter, Ananias?" said Joe, innocently.
"Ananias yourself," answered Otto, "you creat big awkvordncss. Yeerusalem! you vas make me purn der fryin'-pan mit mine fingers."
"Why don't ye serve him as ye did the Yankee shkipper, Otto?" said Flanagan.
At this Otto only said "Ach!"
"What about the Yankee skipper?" said Joe, "I haven't heard that yarn."
"Ach," said Otto, "I suppose you tink a fool's a man pecause he cook for you fellows. Ach!"
But Joe apologised until Otto threw an extra log on the fire and thus began:—
"Shoost tventy years ago, more or less, I vas chief mate of a Yankee prig. She sailed from New York to Melpourne, mit a cargo of proom handles, and a Yankee shkipper, apout seven feet high. Dhat vas der time for hard vork und short commons if you like. Vhen der sailors used to lif hard, die hard, und go to der teffil at last. Der shkipper he reckoned he vas der pully poy mit der glass eye and no mistake. He used to roar and rafe, and knock down effery man vhat look at him. He neffer knock me down, pecause I neffer look at him, till ve gets near Melpourne. Dhen, von night it cooms on to plow. Py shenks! how it did plow! Der vind it plow vest-sou'-east, and it plow apout nine-eighths of a gale. Der vater vas coom ofer der pows in pucketfuls. I though dat effery hour vas pe our last minute. Der shkipper, he roosh on deck, und cuss and shvear, und knock his head against der combin' of der hatch, und he shout, 'All hands on deck, to man der main prace.'
Und der shticks vas flyin' out of her, and tings vas goin' crash, pang, poom, like efferytings. Und der shkipper he runs round himself, and as I look at him, he seems apout nine feet high. Dhen he shouts, 'Vhere vas dhat lazy Dutch lubber?'
Dhat vas me.
I say nottings, but py shenks, I grind mine teeth and say to minself, 'Shoost vait avhile, und I coom down on you directly pefore long like a donder polt, mit a tousand of bricks.'
Dhen he shouts, Sphlice der main prace! Let go der flyin' chib town all! Trow der main deck ofer poard!
Shoost dhen der lookout man he say, 'Preakers ahead!'
Und der shkipper he say, Vhere away?' und he look only apout eight feet high.
'Ond der weadher pow,' says der man.
Dhen says der Shkipper, 'Ve vas lost!' Und he look round and say, 'Vhere vas Stuntze?' und he look about seffen feet high.
I keep mine mout shut but I say not a word. I only grind mine teeth mit mine gums, und hold on to der hencoop like grim death to a dead nigger.
Und der shticks go crash! pang! poom!
'Land on, der weadher pow,' shouted der man at der mast head.
'Vill nooody pring Mr. Stuntze?' cried der shkipper, und he look apout six feet high.
But I only vink at der man at der mast-head und say nottings, und der shticks go crash! pang! poom! all ofer der shop.
Dhen der shkipper he cry, shoost like a leetle child, and he tear his hands mit his hair, und he say, 'Oh Mr. Von Stuntze, vhere are you?'
Dhen, vhen he he call me be mine proper name, Mr. Von Stuntze, I valk oop to him, and in a voice apout ten times as loud as der shtorm, I say, 'I am here,' and he look apout five feet six high, as I look him straight in der face.
'Oh! Mr. Von Stuntze,' he say, 'can't you do nottings to safe us. Vhere are ve goin' from?'
'Vell,' I says, 'I tink dhat in apout fife minutes, or an hour or two, ve all go to Dafy Yones's locker.' Und he turned vhiter dhan he vas look afterwards, and look apout fife feet high.
'Safe us, Mr. Stuntze,' he says, 'and—'
'Von Stuntze!' I shouted, in a voice like forty tousand claps of donder.
'I peg your pardon, Mr. Von Stuntze,' he says, 'safe us and I vill do anytings for you.' Und he looked apout four feet twelve high.
So I looks at him, mit both mine eyes, and says, 'Vill you promise to pehave mit yourself, mud not knock no more mens down mit your fist?'
'Yah,' he says, and he look apout four feet six high, as I look town at him.
'Dhen,' says I, as I kick him pehind and pull his nose in front at der same time, mit von eye on him and der odher on der rock, 'Go pelow mit yourself, and don't show your ugly face on deck again mithout I calls for you.' Und I hit him anodher kick mit my foot pehind as he tank me, und as he toombled down der hatchway, he look apout four feet high.
Dhen I shouts to der men, 'Loosen her stays! Keep her head apout three sheets in the vind! Take a reef in der shpanker poom und belay der pinnacle! Let go der fore-top-gallant mizzen—mast! and clew opp der capstan!' It vas all done as qvick as you could go from here to some odher place. Pefore you could sing Der Vacht on der Rhine ve go svish past dhat rock. It schrape all parnicles off us and neffer touch our pottom. Der shkipper he neffer look pig soom more.
Der next day, ve gets to Melpourne, und two men on der vharf, dhey hold a publick meetin' ud dhey say ve vas der tenth ship in a veek vhat coom past dhat same rock mithout touchin' it. Vhat you call dhat for seamanship? Ach!"
* * *
When Otto had finished, there was a dead silence for about two minutes. At length Joe Millner heaved a sigh, and, with an appealing glance at Otto he said, "You don't expect us to believe that yarn, de you Otto?"
"Do, you tink I would shpoke you a lie?" demanded Otto.
"Well," said Joe, reflectively, "I wouldn't like to call it by a hard name, but don't you think you may have made a mistake? About that man at the masthead for instance, that you winked at, in the middle of a storm on a dark night, he must have been pretty uncomfortable, when the sticks were flying, crash, bang, boom, all over the place."
"Dhat vas nottings," replied Otto, warmly. "I remember, vhen I vas in der Pay of Piscay—"
"No thanks, not just now," said Joe, quickly, "We'll believe it; it will be easier."
"That will do for to-night, boys," chimed in the voice of Mr. McTavish. And so, after a drink of tea, we went to bed.
* * *
Some time after this, we were sitting round the fire as usual, when someone mentioned bushrangers. This brought Otto to the front.
"I vas vonce travelling from der Lachlan to der Bogan, vhen I coomed to a—"
"Wait a bit, Otto," said Charlie, "Wait until we hear that yarn that Joe promised us about bushrangers."
"I vas told you apout der push. Yumping! yehoshaphat!"
The last exclamation was caused by the fact that a wet towel struck Otto a smart thwack on the side of the head, and coiled itself lovingly round his neck. Who threw that towel is a mystery to this day. It could not have been me, nor Arthur, nor Joe, nor Charlie; we were all sitting in front of him. Mr. McTavish was in his tent, but as Mr. McTavish never indulged in practical jokes, it could not have been he, so the occurrence is to this day a complete mystery.
"I know vhat you vill soom day do," shouted Otto, "You vas soom day play mit der horns till You get der bull shtickin' in you. You can't keep on playing mit your fingers mithout burnin' der fire. You see if you don't."
"Keep quiet, Otto," cried Mr. McTavish, "and let Joe tell his story."
As the voice of Mr. McTavish was the voice of authority, Otto collapsed and Joe Millner proceeded as follows:—
"In the summer of 186- I had been assisting to drive a mob of cattle from the Lachlan to Goulburn. Having delivered the cattle, I started one morning to make my way back to the Lachlan alone. During my first day's journey I left the road, to take a short cut through the bush, which I thought would save me a mile or two, and bring me out on to the Burrowa road, somewhere near Wheeo. For some hours I rode contentedly onward, until I noticed with surprise that the sun was getting low, and that the road was not yet in sight. I shook up the old horse I was riding and continued on for some time longer, when the uncomfortable feeling began to dawn upon me that I had, at some part of the journey, taken the wrong gully, and that I was lost.
I was not very much troubled at this fact, as the weather was fine, and I was well used to sleeping with the stars for a canopy. So I resolved to jog along until sundown, and then, if I did not strike the road, to hobble my horse and camp until daylight. I knew that I could then, by riding in a straight line, strike either a road or a fence, and find out my position.
While thus making my resolutions I heard in the distance the sound of an axe. I rode in the direction of the sound and in about ten minutes I came to a small clearing in the midst of which a man was mortising some posts. He paused in his work at the sound of my horse's footsteps, and when I approached him he rested, leaning in a careless attitude upon his axe. He stood with one foot resting upon a fallen log, upon which the head of the axe was also resting. His hands were clasped over the end of the axe-handle, and his chin rested on his hands.
Like most Australian natives he was tall and rather slim for his height, and although he displayed no superfluity of flesh, there was no lack of bone, muscle and sinew. His hat was pushed back from his forehead and displayed to full advantage the sunburnt features of a man about thirty years of age. His hair was light and curly, and as I gazed at his face and form, his close-cropped beard and drooping moustache, his frank expression, keen grey eyes, and muscular form, I thought that an artist, with this man for a model, could have drawn a faithful portrait of a Saxon chief.
He bade me a polite 'good-evening' as I approached, and in answer to my enquiries he said that the nearest point of the road was three miles away, and that from there to Brady's was about four miles. 'But,' he added, quickly, 'it is nearly sundown. Come up to my place and stay for the night. You are welcome to a cup of tea and a shakedown; there is plenty of feed for your horse, and in the morning I will direct you to the road.'
I accepted his hospitality as frankly as it was offered, and as he was thinking, he said, of knocking of work as he heard me approach, he led the way to the house, which was about a quarter of a mile away. During our short journey he pointed with pride to the various improvements he had made. There were paddocks under cultivation, enclosed with substantial fences; the cottage was almost surrounded with fruit trees, a neat pallisading fence enclosed the vegetable garden, cows were lying on the grass—so fat and lazy that they refused to stir at our approach, and a flock of sheep were feeding upon a distant slope.
'It has taken me five years,' remarked my host, 'to make these improvements. I was courting my wife nearly the whole of that time, for I could not ask her to come and share my home until it was ready for her. But now,' he added, 'I have some of the best-bred horses in the district; I have a sheep-dog that they cannot match for fifty miles round, and I have been married six months to the best little woman in the world. All I have is my own, and I wouldn't change places with the Governor, would I, Jip,' he added, as he patted the head of a faithful collie that ran to meet him. 'All right, old girl,' he continued to a handsome bay mare that trotted, whinnying to the fence at the sound of his voice, 'All right; you shall have your oats.'
I removed the saddle from my horse, and he gave the poor brute a feed of oaten hay, and then invited me into the house.
The interior of the dwelling, though rude, was a. picture of comfort and cleanliness. There was a large table, on which a snowy cloth was ready laid for supper, a few chairs, a couch covered with an opossum skin rug, and a rough stool or two.
This was all the furniture; but there were gay prints on the walls, and the cool breeze that wafted through the open windows, laden with the perfume of roses and lilac, gave to the room an air of delightful repose.
'Are you there, Kate?' he shouted, as we entered.
'I am here,' responded a pleasant voice from the kitchen; and a moment later she entered the apartment.
'My wife,' said he, as he imprinted a kiss upon her lips. Then added: 'This gentleman is going to stay with us to-night.'
She laughingly scolded him for being so foolish before strangers, bade me make myself at home, and promising that supper would be ready in five minutes, disappeared into the kitchen.
As we sat at our evening meal, I learned that the name of my host was Benjamin Powell. He did full justice to his wife's excellent cookery, and the manner in which he stowed away corned beef and pumpkin, and topped it off with some peach pie and a dish of stewed quinces, was a sight to behold.
Mrs. Powell seemed in every way qualified to act as a fitting helpmate to her husband. She was above the medium height, straight as a rush, with a handsome countenance, dark, piercing eyes, and a profusion of glossy black hair. Her well-rounded arms were bare to the elbows, and her closely-fitting, clean print dress displayed to perfection the undulating motions of her faultless figure.
As I watched her face, I speculated upon the price that some fine ladies would cheerfully pay for a cosmetic that would faithfully imitate the healthy bloom upon her cheeks. If one were inclined to have found fault with her beauty, it would have been because the aquiline nose was a trifle too long, and the cheek bones were slightly too high but he who would go out of his way to notice such slight blemishes upon an otherwise faultless face would be hypercritical indeed.
Supper ended, we entered into an animated conversation. We discovered that Ben and I had some mutual acquaintances on the Lachlan, and so a bond of friendship was quickly established between us.
During a pause in the conversation, I was attracted by a slight motion on the part of my hostess. It was scarcely perceptible, but subsequent events brought it vividly to my mind. She seemed to hold her breath for a moment, and to listen intently, and then the colour seemed to deepen upon her cheek.
She rose quietly, took a rapid glance at a small mirror that hung above the fireplace, arranged with a quick movement the collar of her dress and a stray curl upon her forehead, and left the room.
In about ten minutes she returned, and said, 'Here's Mr. Gordon, Ben.'
'Hullo! Hughie,' said Ben, rising; 'glad to see you.' Then he added to me: 'This is Mr. Hugh Gordon, the eldest son of Mr. Gordon, the squatter. He drops in for a yarn occasionally.'
Mr. Gordon did not have much to say, and Ben soon proposed a game at euchre. He and I played Mrs. Powell and Mr. Gordon, and we passed a pleasant evening. About half-past nine Ben told me to put down my hand as he was going alone.
'Do you think we can euchre him, Mr. Gordon?' said Mrs. Powell.
'We'll try,' said Gordon.
They did euchre him. Ben threw down his hand laughing, and said: 'Well, you know, the game's euchre; those that play the game must take the chances.'
We soon after retired for the night, and the next morning Ben insisted on riding with me far enough to point out the road. I thanked him for his kindness, as I bade him good-bye and went on my way, envying him his sturdy independent peace and happiness.
I arrived at my destination without further incident worth mentioning, and soon afterwards left for Queensland.
Two years elapsed before I found myself once more in Forbes.
When I returned I found the whole country in a state of terror and excitement, owing to the exploits of a gang of bushrangers, who, under the leadership of a determined character known as 'Captain Comet,' had been committing all sorts of depredations.
Banks had been robbed, mail coaches stuck up; and, although hundreds of police were scouring the bush in all directions, the gang defied them and laughed at the majesty of the law.
The leader, whose name had become a terror to the neighbourhood, seemed to be ubiquitous. Today, with his accomplices, he would stick up a station, keeping the inoffensive inhabitants bailed up at the muzzle of a revolver for hours together, and by the time the report reached the police, and they had started in pursuit, a mail coach would be robbed fifty miles away.
Several encounters had taken place between the police and the bushrangers, but always with advantage to the latter. Two troopers had lost their lives, and several had been slightly wounded. For two hundred miles around, the country was in a state of ferment, for none could tell where the next raid would be.
Whilst the movements of the gang were involved in mystery and uncertainty, it was evident that a system of bush telegraphy was in existence, by means of which the bushrangers were accurately posted in the movements of the police.
This state of things had prevailed with increasing intensity for about eighteen months when I returned to Forbes.
The police were in a state of perpetual anxiety. Sometimes they would scour the wild country between Forbes and the Weddin Mountains for days, each moment, by night and day, liable to become targets for the revolvers or carbines of the gang, and then they would return, dispirited and worn out, to Forbes.
They would scarcely have the saddles from their horses, when an alarm would reach them that the bushrangers had stuck up a public-house twenty-five miles away, and were murdering the people of the inn.
They would start again in hot pursuit, and after a ride of twenty-five miles, would find that nothing had occurred more serious than a fight between two drunken shearers.
Returning again to town, jaded, weary, and dispirited, they would learn that during their absence, the gang had visited a store on the outskirts of the town; bailed up those on the premises, and all who happened to enter, and after helping themselves to cash, jewellery, clothes, and anything else to which their fancy prompted them, had disappeared, no one knew whither.
The bushrangers had been quiet for about a fortnight, when I had occasion to book my passage the mail coach that ran from Forbes to Molong.
It was a beautiful morning when I took my seat upon the box by the driver. There were four other passengers, of whom two were females. The latter, together with a well-known stock and station agent, were inside the coach, and by my side, on the box, Was an individual who, from his conversation, delivered with a drawl and a peculiar nasal twang, I took to be an American citizen. The ladies were sisters. One was single, and the other the wife of a local doctor, and they were going to Sydney to visit some friends.
The roads were fairly good—but dusty, and for the first few miles all went well.
The stock and station agent, who was acquainted with the doctor, was chatting freely with the ladies, and between the jolting of the coach I could hear scraps of their conversation.
'Do you think, Mr. Jago,' said the doctor's wife, 'that there is any danger of the coach being stuck up by those horrid bushrangers?'
'Well, we have to chance it, you know,' said Mr. Jago, 'but I have travelled this road scores of times and have never been stuck up yet.'
'I suppose,' said the single lady, 'that the tales of the bushrangers are very much exaggerated?'
'Well, Miss Millsop,' answered Mr. Jago, 'I dare say some of them are; and I have heard say that people have found it convenient to pretend to be robbed who were never robbed at all. But still that fact remains, that the country is kept in a continual state of unrest by a band of determined armed men, who are apparently prepared to go to any extreme to accomplish their ends. But you have little to fear. I suppose you do not carry the Bank of England in your pockets, and your sex is a sufficient protection against personal violence. I will do the blackguards the justice of saying that it has never yet been reported that they have acted with unnecessary violence towards a female.'
'Is it true,' asked the doctor's wife, 'that Captain Comet was driven to his present evil course by his wife?'
'Well,' answered the stock and station agent, 'there are many rumours about; but the most authentic seems to be this: They but that, a few years ago, he was a hard-working respectable man. He married a handsome wife, upon whom he lavished the whole love of a strong and passionate nature. She requited his love by running away with a young squatter with whom her husband had long been on terms of intimacy. The blow came suddenly. He went out, unsuspectingly, one morning, to his work, and returned at night to find his dove-cote empty, and the bird flown.
'The sudden catastrophe seems to have changed the very nature of the man. He became gloomy and morose. His farm was neglected, and he rode round the country with a rifle, ostensibly for the purpose of shooting dingoes and kangaroos, but really, it is supposed, in search of the fugitives. He gradually got mixed up with some bad characters—horse and cattle stealers—and, by force of character, soon became their leader. Since then his assumed name has been in everybody's mouth.'
'How long was he married when his wife left him?'
'About six months, I think.'
'How many men are supposed to be in the gang?'
'Only three or four.'
'And do you mean to tell me,' said the American citizen, turning to me—'Do you mean to tell me that three or four men can set the law at defiance, and rob peaceful citizens in a civilized country in the nineteenth century?'
I replied that I had told him nothing but that I was afraid that what Mr. Jago had stated was about true.
'Then, sir,' said he, 'I can tell you that if these men were in my country, sir, they would be shot at sight. We would not stand this nonsense. I guess they would not stick up an American citizen twice.'
'What would you do,' said I, 'if we were to meet them?'
'What would I do?' he replied, indignantly. 'I guess I'd make it warm for them. I always carry a six-shooter, sir. I can tell you, that when Ezekial Rasmus gets a sight on a six-shooter suthin's got to drop. I didn't spend five years in California for nothing, you bet your bottom dollar; and there'll have to be more than three or four bushrangers, or bush whackers, or whatever you call them, before they stick up a coach with me on board. You bet.'
We were at this time passing through a dense pine scrub, and just before us was a sudden bend in the road. The leaders were driven smartly round the bend with a sharp crack of the whip when the driver suddenly pulled at the reins, for across the road, about ten yards ahead, a small tree had apparently fallen.
The horses wore pulled on to their haunches, and we were nearly jerked off the box. At the same moment a sharp voice rang through the clear morning air—
I glanced in the direction of the voice, and saw a tall man standing near the stump from which the log had fallen. He was dressed in riding boots and pants, a red Crimean shirt, and a cabbage-tree hat. In his belt were a couple of revolvers, and in his hand, pointing directly at the coach, was a short carbine, such as is usually carried by the mounted troopers.
I ducked my head instinctively, for I expected to hear the report of the American citizen's six-shooter, but I heard nothing but a short scream from the ladies, and the voice of Mr. Jago as he exclaimed:
'Don't shoot; there are ladies in the coach.'
'It will be your own fault if the ladies get hurt,' replied the tall man. 'Jump out and put up your hands; and no tricks, or, by thunder, you will have shooting enough.'
I then perceived that, in addition to the tall man, who was evidently the leader of the gang, there was another man on each side of the coach, each armed with a revolver in his hand, and another in his belt.
'Jump out, all of you!' said the leader; and be quick, for we have no time to lose.'
I glanced at my American friend and saw that he was in considerable difficulty, for he found it no easy task to climb down from the box seat of the coach, and to hold up his hands at the same time.
He was endeavouring to fulfil his instructions literally, and at length solved the problem by faaling off the coach andand rolling in the dust.
As soon as we were off the coach, one of the rob bers took the harness from the coach horses, and sent then scampering off into the bush. We were then ordered to stand in line, with our hands up, and and while one man covered us with a loaded revolver, the leader satisfied himself that we were unarmed. I noticed by this time that a mounted man, armed, like the leader, with a carbine, sat upon a well-bred dark chestnut horse, just in the bend of the road that we had passed, and as soon as the leader was satisfied that we were without weapons, another man went to a clump of bushes near at hand, led out a superb grey horse, mounted it, and rode leisurely along the road in the direction of Molong.
We were then ordered in turn to produce our money and valuables. The ladies were the first to produce their purses, but the leader, with a careless wave of the hand, bade them not to trouble themselves.
'Dr. Lancet set a broken collarbone for me once,' said he, and I want nothing from his wife or her sister.'
'You seem to know me,' said Mrs. Lancet, who had, after the first shock, admirably retained her self-possession.
'It is my business, madam, to know everybody.'
He took possession of a watch and small roll of notes that Mr. Jago reluctantly produced, and then, addressing me gruffly, he said:
'You need not trouble. We don't expect anything from a poor devil of a drover.'
I then for the first time looked straight into his bright grey eyes, and in an instant the idea flashed acress my mind that I had seen that face before.
'Good heavens!' I exclaimed, 'Mr. Powell.'
'Put up your hands, and don't be an ass,' he retorted, angrily. 'Put up your hands, and keep them up. This isn't a game of euchre, and we don't take any chances.'
The coachman he ignored, and the only passenger remaining to be dealt with was the American citizen. He had been standing all the time with his hands stretched above his head, and looked as though he were ready to drop with fatigue.
'Now, sir,' said Captain Comet, 'hand out your spondulicks.'
'May I put my hands down, sir?' said Ezekial, humbly.
'Yes, you may,' said the captain; 'but no tricks.'
'No tricks, sir,' answered Ezekial; 'no tricks—on the honour of an American Citizen.'
He then produced his purse and watch, a pocket knife, and a plug of tobacco, an old wooden pipe, and a toothpick.
'That's all, sir,' said he, as he once more put up his hands.
'Where's your six-shooter?' asked the captain. 'It's in my brown leather portmanteau, under the driver's seat, sir,' he answered—'the one with the straps, sir.'
The captain then leaving us under the close surveillance of the remaining member of the gang, made a minute and systematic examination of the coach. He ripped open the mail-bag, read some letters, and tossed them aside with contemptuous coolness, and was just putting a packet of selected letters into his pocket when he was startled by a sharp ringing report which came from the direction of Molong.
This was immediately followed by the clattering of horses' hoofs, and the member of the gang who had ridden off on the grey came galloping up to the coach.
'Quick!' said he; 'troopers are coming.'
'Mount, Steve!' said the captain. 'Towards Forbes. I will catch you.'
The man whom he had called Steve ran to the clump of bushes and mounted his horse, and he and his companion disappeared into the bush, the leader meanwhile walking slowly backwards in the same direction, with his carbine in the hollow of his arm.
At this moment two troopers appeared, galloping towards us at breakneck speed. There was a crack—a puff of smoke—and the horse of the leading trooper reared, stumbled, and fell, the rider just managing to escape being crushed by the falling steed.
The captain was swinging himself into the saddle as the remaining trooper, a middle-aged grey-bearded man, came galloping up to the fallen log.
'Surrender, You scoundrel!' he shouted, in the Queen's name; or I'll fire.'
A short, mocking laugh was the only reply he received, and then there was another report, and the left arm of the captain fell powerless to his side.
He uttered a wild exclamation of rage and pain, drew a revolver from his belt, and firing point blank at the trooper, wheeled his horse and disappeared after his companions.
The trooper gave a short, sharp cry, which seemed to be stifled as he uttered it, his weapon fell from his grasp, and throwing up his arms, he reeled from the saddle.
He made one attempt to regain his feet, but rolled back. He drew up his legs convulsively, and by the time we reached him, blood was streaming from his mouth. He had been struck in the breast. The ball had evidently penetrated his lung, and in five minutes he was a corpse.
The trooper who had been thrown from his horse arrived just as his comrade breathed his last, and the whole tragedy had been enacted so suddenly and quickly that we could scarcely realise what had happened.
The surviving trooper was a fair young fellow of about two and twenty years of age. His grief at the loss of his companion was excessive, and he insisted on mounting his dead comrade's horse, and pursuing the gang alone.
'But, my dear fellow,' said Mr. Jago, 'it would be madness for you to do so. You could never overtake them, and if you did you would be surely shot for your pains.'
'Let me go!' he exclaimed excitedly. 'Let me go; is it not ten times better to be shot doing one's duty than to go back, and be the butt of all the boys and girls in the township? To be pointed at as the trooper who was afraid to follow the scoundrels who murdered the poor sergeant? How can I face his wife, and her bonny daughter? Let me go.' And he struggled wildly to get away from Mr. Jago, who held him tightly.
He broke away at last, and limped towards the horse, then staggered, and would have fallen if we had not caught him in our arms.
'You are hurt?' said Mrs. Lancet. 'No!' he answered. 'It is nothing. I shall be all right in a minute. I think my ankle is slightly hurt, but it is nothing. Let me go.' And he made h another attempt to rise from the log on which he had seated himself.
But he could not stand, and he let his face drop into his hands and sobbed. Sobbed like a child because he was physically unable to ride forward and die, in the discharge of his duty.
We removed his boot, and found that one of his ankles was terribly black and swollen and that the horse had evidently partially rolled on it when it had been shot under him.
We left Mrs. Lancet and her sister to bathe and bandage his ankle, and succeeded in catching the horses and harnessing them. The dead body of the Sergeant was wrapped in his overcoat, and placed in the coach. The ladies, with the disabled trooper between them, were accommodated with seats on the box and Mr. Jago was preparing to mount the Sergeant's horse, when he exclaimed, 'Where is our other passenge?'
I looked around but the representative of the Stars and Stripes was nowhere to be seen. I searched for him, and, happening to walk round a hollow log, I saw a pair of boots sticking out at the end. Looking as far into the log as I could, In saw there were a pair of legs sticking out at the end of the boots, and the legs were suspiciously like those of Ezekial Rasmus.
'Here! What are you doing there?' said I, as I pulled at one of the boots.
Then a voice replied from the log in a sepulchral tone—
'Let me alone, sir; I have got my hands up. No tricks, sir, upon the honour of an American citizen.'
We partly persuaded him, and partly pulled him, out of the log, and when he sat on the ground, exposed to the full light of day, with his face and clothes covered with charcoal, he presented a ludicrous appearance.
'Come, get up,' said Mr. Jago, impatiently, 'The bushrangers have gone.'
'And is the firing over?' enquired Ezekial.
'It is,' said Jago. 'And we are ready to start.'
Mr. Rasmus rose cautiously and approached the coach.
Upon seeing the trooper he exclaimed—
'What does this mean, sir'? What sort of a guardian of Law and Order are you? Are peaceful citizens of a friendly nation to be maltreated and robbed of their purses, watches, toothpicks and things, while the paid minions of the Law are riding between women on the box seats of coaches? I demand, sir, that you shall do your duty. Follow the miscreants instantly, sir. Shoot them down at sight, and avoid international complications by restoring me my property.'
Look here, sir,' exclaimed Mr. Jago, 'of the two troopers who came to our assistance, one is dead, and the other disabled. I am a peaceful citizen, sir, but if you speak another word in that strain, sir, there'll be another fight before we leave this spot, and there'll be war between those friendly nations you mention, before you are two minutes older.'
We resumed our sorrowful journey. Mr. Rasmus, now silent and gloomy, and I, riding inside the coach with its grim burden. We returned to Forbes, and upon receipt of our startling intelligence, the country was again scoured by bands of armed and determined men, but with no result.
The necessity of staying to the inquest made me forego my proposed visit to Molong.
* * *
About two months after the above events I was standing near the front of the Albion Hotel, talking to an old acquaintance, when who should pass but Mr. Ezekiel Rasmus. I pointed him out to my friend, as the American citizen who had exhibited such conspicuous bravery upon the occasion of the coach robbery.
My friend laughed and said, 'Why, I've known that fraud for years. He an American citizen! Why, he used to sell pills in Paddy's Market, and the nearest that he ever was to America was Woolloomooloo.'
A day or two after this, excitement was again at fever heat, for the news was brought to town that the leader of the gang of bushrangers had been shot by the police, and that his dead body was being brought into Forbes.
They brought him in, and I was called to identify him.
In spite of the blood, and the dirt, and the wounds, I could not be mistaken in the fair curly hair, the sandy heard, and the drooping moustache. The keen grey eyes were closed, but the once athletic form was there, although whether so many bullet holes were necessary was a moot question.
I could not help thinking as I stood beside his corpse, that with him life was a game of euchre—that he had taken his chances—and lost.
I Saw in my mind's eye a peaceful home, with the Scent of the roses and the lilac pervading it. I saw a handsome face with piercing black eyes. I remember the start and the heightened colour and the hasty glance at the mirror, and I thought I heard again the question—
'Do you think we can euchre him, Mr. Gordon?' And the answer—
'We will try.'"
* * *
Joe's story had rather a saddening effect upon the camp, and we were all glad when Otto broke silence by saying:
"You have not got a vote," retorted Joe. "You a re not a British subject."
"Who told you so?" answered Otto, warmly. "I vas a full plown Pritisher, since I vas got naturalised."
"When did you get naturalised?" asked Joe.
"I vas get naturalised a long time ago," answereded Otto, proudly. Then he added, reflectively, "Der first time I vas naturalised, I vas unnaturalised."
"How did that happen?" said Charley.
"A man," said Otto, "is like an apple. He is green pefore he get ripe. I vas green. Ach! So green as von leetle gooseberry."
"That must have been a long time ago," remarked Joe, "you are getting a bit withered now."
"Vhen you go to der places I go to, and see vhat I see, und go trough vhat I go trough, py shenks! but you vas get withered too," said Otto. He shook his head, as he reflected, and then he said, "Put anodher log on der fire and I vas tell you all apout it."
So Joe threw another log on the fire, and Otto began—
"Der 'lections vas coomin' apout for der houses of parliament, und I vas not haf a vote pecause I vas a Dutchman. Dhat vos not nice. I vas vorkin' apout der vharves, und I hear der chaps all talkin' und sayin' dey votes for dhis von und dhey votes for dhat von, und dhey say to me, 'Who you votes for, Stuntze?'
Und I say, 'I vas not pe let to vote at all. I vas unnaturalised,' I vas say dhat von day, vhen a man dhat vas sit on my right hand, in a billy-cock hat mit a red nose, he say to me, 'Vhy for you not get yourself naturalised?'
I say, 'I don't know der right vay to get apout it.'
He say it vas as easy as fallin' off der post office tower. 'Why,' he say, 'It vas only to get yourself soom naturalised papers und you vas a full-plown Pritish subyect of Australia. You get your name rolled out, und dhen you votes for free peer und no vork petween meals.'
So I tells him, What must you haf to do to get mineself rolled out und naturalised?'
Und he say, 'Can you read der English?'
Und I say, 'No. I talks him like a pook, put all I read of him vas mine own name, Stuntze.'
So he say, 'Dhat vas goot enough. It vas cost you a pound.'
I tell him dhat vas all right.
Dhen he say, 'Coom along mit me, and I get you naturalised pefore you say Yack Robinson.'
So he took me along to der police station. He tells me to gif him der pound and to sit me town on a chair vhile he gets me der form. I tells him I don't vant no form, dhat der chair vas goot enough for me. Put he say it vas a paper form, and I gifs him der pound. Vhen he prings me der form, it vas not a form, it vas a pit of paper. Hee showed me mine name on it, 'Stuntze,' and I say dhat vas all right. Dhen he go avay again and he pring me anodher pit of paper, and tells me to put it avay till 'lection day, and vhen I goes to vote to take it mit me, and to vote as mine mates tell me. It seemed it vas as easy to get naturalised as to shlip down on a banana shkin.
I shout him for a drink and he shout me for von. I vas so pleased to get naturalised, I cock up mine head like a new member of der Parliament House, and he vas so pleased, dhat he get drunk and shtop drunk for the rest of der veek.
You pet I vas proud. Vhen der time coomed for der 'lections, I takes mine naturalised papers, and I goes to der place dhey calls a pole. I say to a man mit soom papers in front of him, that I vant to vote.
He say, 'Vhat your name vas?'
I say, 'Otto Von Stuntze.'
He say, 'Vas you naturalised?'
Und I say, 'You pet your poots I vas. Look at him.' Und I outpulls mine paper.
He laughs, and says, 'What vas you giffin' us, Mr. Stuntze?'
Und I say, 'Dhat vas mine naturalusation papers, don't it?'
He laughs again, like as if he vas crack himself, and he say, 'Dhis vas not a naturalisation paper, dhis paper vas only register Stuntze as a dog.'
Vhat? Py tonder! You vait till I gets hold of dhat man dhat vears der billycock hat mit der red nose. I vas unnaturalise him, till dhey register him among der funeral notices. Eh! Vhat you tink?
"Well," remarked Mr. McTavish, "the man who took such an advantage of your ignorance, must have been an unprincipled scoundrel."
"Ach!" said Otto.
"I reckon," said Flanagan, "that ye were disappointed, when ye were not allowed to vote."
"Who said I vas not allowed to vote?" said Otto.
"You said that your papers were not right," said Flanagan.
"I know that," replied Otto; "but I goes avay and cooms back soom more in a leetle vhile, and I says mine name was Yoe Yinkens, dhat vas der name of der man vhat register me, and as his name vas rolled out all right, I vas vote for him, and I vote for der man he didn't vant, and he get him by von vote. You can't play no dricks mit Otto."
"I hae ma doubts," said Mr. McTavish, "whether that was strictly honourable."
"It vas all right," said Otto, "I see der man aftervords, and he gifs me ten bob to say nottings apout it."
"It was purty hard 'on the man that got beat," remarked Flanagan. "It was a close shave, as the dog said when the train ran over his tail."
"Talking of elections," said Mr. McTavish, "reminds me of an occurrence that happened not a hundred miles from here. In that case a man lost his seat in a manner that was somewhat remarkable."
"Tell us about it, Mr. McTavish," we all said, in unison.
"Well," said he, "I will try," and Mr. McTavish, clearing his throat, thus began.
We will not try to tell the story in Mr. McTavish's exact words, because, although his words might be reproduced, his accent was one, the full flavour of which could only be communicated orally.
"Packhaln was a hard-headed, close-fisted man, yet it always seemed to me that he was mad upon one point. He had a most insane affection for his old red cow. She was an ugly, mischievous brute, continually getting him into trouble, while, as a milker, she was not worth the grass she ate. Yet Packham adored her, and he has been heard to say that there was not a bank in Australia that possessed money enough to buy her.
The last time I saw Packham, he was sitting on a log near the bank of the creek. A week previously the creek had been flooded, and Packham now sat, with his head on his hands, moodily contemplating its muddy banks. I bade him good-day, but he sighed, and, drawing the back of his hand across his eyes, said, in a voice tremulous with emotion: 'That's the place, sir, near the bend. Just under the big willow.'
'What place?' said I.
'The place where it happened. That's where she got bogged durin' the flood. That's where I found her last Sunday, stone dead and swelled as big as a balloon. My poor old cow, sir, as I wouldn't' have parted with for her weight in gold. My heart's fair busted, when I hear her calf, now a motherless orphan, calling for her up near the A-callin in vain. Not that she was an extry good mother, but she was the only one he had, and she's gone.'
A tear glistened in Packham's eye, then ran down one of the furrows in his cheek, and finally lost itself in a tangled mass of grey whiskers.
'Was that the red cow,' said I, 'that used to eat the blankets off the clothes line?'
'The same, sir. It was her only fault. At the same time it was her one redeeming feature.'
Ignoring the paradox, I said: 'I could never see the qualities that cow that caused you to set such value on her.'
'No sir, probably not. It was, perhaps, her misfortune to be misunderstood. Maybe you didn't know her history. She was the most remarkable cow in the country, sir, bar none. She was a cow, sir, that had intellect and patriotism. I prized that cow, sir, for the service she had rendeted to the State. That cow was loyal to her country. She saved the State from ruin; not by makin' blather-skitin' speeches, and throwin' dust in the eyes of the electors, but by doin' of her obvious duty in a time of emergency. She saw her opportunity, sir, and she seized it, the same as she used to do the the blankets, and by seizin' of it, she altered the history of Australia. How many cows can boast of doin that, sir? Tell me of one.'
I confessed that I could not, and I asked him to explain.
'Well, sir,' said Packham, as he made room for me beside him on the log, 'it was like this. You, remember the last general election? How close it was between the parties? How the fate of the Government hung in the balance until the last moment? How the country was going to destruction, and how it would have got there, if the Government had not been beaten? You know that they were only beaten by one vote in the House, but that vote did it, sir, and Beauty (that was her name, sir), she gave them that vote.
'We had two candidates in this district. One was the old member. He was a lawyer and a great swell. He was a strong supporter of the Government and in return for his support, they spent a lot of money in the district. They spent two thousand pounds on scrub cuttin'. The scrub's all grown again now, but that don't signify. The money was spent, and it gave him a strong holt. He was a moral certainty, and would have waltzed in if it had not been for Beauty. His name was Primrose, and he was a great talker, but he was not clever enough for Beauty.
'His opponent was old Bloggs. Not a brilliant man, sir—nobody ever accused Bloggs of bein' brilliant—but as solid a man, sir, as this log on which we're sittin'. There was plenty of people supporten' him, but very few of them intended to vote for him. Primrose used to poke fun at Bloggs, and everybody thought it was all over, barrin' the shoutin'. But they didn't reckon on Beauty.
'A lot of Bloggs's friends advised him to retire, and I believe he would have done, only there were some who wanted an election for the fun of the thing, and others who wanted it for the sake of trade, so they persuaded old Bloggs to keep on pegging away. And so he did. I went into town the day before the nomination. I took the missus with me, and left the four girls at home in charge of the house. It so happened that Primrose, havin' nothin' better to do that afternoon, made up his mind to run out and do a bit of canvassing. It is just three miles from my place to the post office and vice versa, and he rode out by hisself. It was about three o'clock when he arrived, and the girls told him that they expected me back about half-past three or four. Of course they knew that I was dead agin him and his party, but, of course, they had to be civil, and they asked Mr. Primrose would he wait, and he said he would. So they put his horse in the stable and gave it a feed. Beauty was lookin' over the fence' near the stable.
'Is this one of your cows?' said Mr. Primrose to Selina (that's the eldest).
She said it was.
'What a pretty cow,' he says.
He was the first and last man that ever called Beauty a pretty cow. Selina says he must have been a first-grade liar, or a mighty poor judge of cows.
'Poor cow!' he says; tryin' to rub her nose, which was restin' on the fence.
But he couldn't smoodge Beauty, not even by appealin' to her vanity, and praisin' her good looks which, seein' that Beauty was a female, is most convincin' evidence of her remarkable reasonin' faculties.
Mr. Primrose chatted for a few minutes with the girls, and then, lookin' at his watch, he says, 'How far is it from here to Brodie's place?'
'It depends on the way you go,' says Selina. 'If you go round the road it's two miles, but if you walk across the paddocks you can do it easy in a quarter of an hour. We always take the short cut and walk.'
'Which way do you go?' says he.
She went to the corner of the stockyard fence and showed him. 'Follow this track across the flat till you come to the creek. Cross the creek by the log, and keep along the bank till you come to the water-hole. Then you'll see a track up between two big rocks. Follow that to the top of the ridge, and you'll see Brodie's place on the flat below.'
'I'll be back by four at the latest,' he said, 'and if your father is not back then I cannot wait. I must be in town by five. My nomination paper must be in the hands f the returning-officer by six, and I have not signed it yet.'
'Why didn't you put it in this morning?' said Selina.
'Well,' said Mr. Primrose, 'I have had a legal training, and I take no risks. A nomination to be legal must be signed by six electors and the candidate. Now, if I had lodged my nomination this morning, and one of my nominators had broken his neck this afternoon, it is plain that, as the law says the nomination must be in by six, it would not recognise, as legal, a nomination signed by a man who became physically, and, consequently legally, defunct at five. No. I take no risks.'
So off he went to Brodie's, but as Brodie's were all out, he started to walk back. It was a hot day, and as he had plenty of time, he sat down after he had crossed the creek to cool off. He sat and smoked for a while, and then, seein' the pool of water, so cool and invitin' under the willows, he decided to have a dip. And he did. How little he thought, as he undid his clothes, of how he was a undoin' of hisself.
The girls prepared some afternoon tea and waited. Four o'clock came, but no Mr. Primrose.
'It's strange he isn't back,' said Selina, 'he said he couldn't wait after four.'
They all took their fancy work out, and sat under a hickory tree, where they could watch right across the flat, and they waited for him to come.
'I think he's coming,' said Polly (that's the youngest').
'Where?' says Selina, lookin' across the flat. I don't see him.'
'I thought I saw his head, over that briar bush,' said Polly, 'but just as I looked he bobbed down.'
'What would he be hiding behind the briar bush for?' said Selina. 'You must have been mistaken.'
So they went on with their work and waited. Then Polly, who had been keepin' her eye on the briar hush, says, 'There he is again!' But when they looked at the bush they couldn't see him, and they said that Polly was mad.
'But I'll swear I saw him,' says Polly.
'Well, anyhow,' says Selina, 'it don't signify. I ain't goin' down to fetch him. Perhaps he's up to some lark. Anyway, it's half-past four, I suppose he's got a watch?'
And they worked away again, keepin' one eye on the bush and another on their work. At last the clock struck five.
'He is behind the briar bush,' exclaimed Selina suddenly. 'I saw his head then, as plain as a pumpkin on a gate post. I wish Dad and Mum would come. I begin to feel quite creepy.'
Just then they heard the front garden gate rattle.
'See if that's Dad and Mum,' said Selina, and Ada (that's the youngest but one) went to the front door to look.
'Oh!' she screamed, 'come here and look. Selina! come and look at Beauty' (that's the cow as was, sir).
Selina went, and there stood Beauty, lookin' over the front gate, with a look of triumph in her eyes, and, hangin' on her horns, was a pair of garments, without which, sir, no civilised man but a Scotch-man would dare to appear in the presence of ladies. They were of a peculiar check pattern, and the girls recognised them at once.
My girls had been well brought up, sir, but, like all girls, they has their instincts, and I suppose it was their natural instincts that made 'em laugh.
When their natural laughter had wore itself out, they tried to catch Beauty. But Beauty was a knowin' beast, sir, and I believe she knew exactly what o'clock it was, for she refused to be caught.
They tried to drive her into the stockyard, but she wouldn't go. She jumped the fence into the wheat paddock, doubled back through the potatoes, went four times through the flower garden, and twice through the tomatoes; and all the time she never went out of sight of the briar bush.
Then she trotted across the flat towards the creek and then round the briar bush and up to the house again; and all the time the girls after her, yellin' and laughin' and callin' on Beauty to stop. She, instead of stoppin', kept repeatin' the performance and Mr. Primrose kept circumnavigatin' that briar bush.
When I got home at a quarter to six, Beauty was cavortin' around, with her tail stuck straight out, a look of triumph in her eyes, and flyin' from her horns was 'a banner with a strange device,' as the song says, which was the signal that heralded the return of peace and prosperity to our beloved country. It was a touchin' picture, sir, to them as could see the moral of it. There was Beauty, trottin' across the flat near the creek, with the check pattern garments on her horns; there was the girls all flushed and out of breath, a chasin' of her, and laughin' fit to kill theirselves, and there, on the near side of the briar bush, was Mr. Primrose, his white garments flutterin' in the breeze, watchin' the performance, usin' most unparliamentary language, and catchin' rheumatics in his lower extremities.
I sent the missus into the house, and I went down and caught Beauty and restored the dilapidated but still useful garments to their rightful but unhappy owner.
He never stopped to thank me, or to say goodbye to the girls. He didn't even fasten his braces, but he rushed for his horse and started for town as if Beauty herself had been a chasin' of him.
I believe he covered the three miles in less than fifteen minutes, but he was too late. He had lost his seat in more ways than one.
The next day, old Wilcox, the returnin'-officer, announced that there was only one candidate, and that Mr. Bloggs had been returned unopposed.
The friends of Mr. Primrose, who had been workin' for him for weeks, all said that he had been bribed to throw them over, and when he tried to explain, somebody hit him in the mouth with a too ripe tomato.
You know what happened, sir, the vote of censure was carried by one vote. That vote was Bloggs's. The country was saved and Beauty was triumphant.
Don't tell me it was an accident, sir, I know better. That cow knew what she was about.
Do you believe in the trans—what-d'you-call-it—of souls, sir? I do. Hangin' in my front room is the portrait of a late distinguished statesman. He died the day Beauty was born. I noticed that there was a strikin' likeness and I believe that the cow was inhabited by the the spirit of that statesman. Likehim, she did her duty to her country; like him, she couldn't be smoodged; like him, she got bogged in her old age; and like him, sir, she shall have moniment to her memory, if I have to erect ti with my on hands. Have you such a thing as a match?"
* * *
"Dat vas not a bad yarn," said Otto, "It reminds me of der time I vas on der Pogan."
"I think we'll be afther getting some rain tomorrow," said Flanagan.
"Dhat vas more as likely," said Otto. "But as I vas coomin' to say—Vhen I vas' on der Pogan—"
"What time is it?" enquired Charley.
"I vas apout eight o'clock," replied Otto. "But as I vas sayin', Vhen I vas' on der Pogan—"
"What have we for breakfast?" asked Mr. McTavish.
"Ve haf soom corned beef and I vill make soom yohnny cakes. It vas apout two years ago, vhen I vas on—"
"Pass the billy, please," said Arthur.
Otto passed the billy, as requested and began again, "Vhen I vas on der Pogan—"
"To, the divel wid you and the Bogan," shouted Flanagan. "Bouldher has a story he promised to tell us. Don't you see he's just burstin' to begin. Give it lip, Bouldher."
"I don't know that I promised to tell a story," said I, with my usual modesty.
"Well, you did then," said Flanagan, "and anyway ye'll have to."
I knew that the easiest way out of the difficulty was to comply.
"'You've missed her this morning, sir.'
The speaker was my old acquaintance, the pensive fisherman.
He sat, as was his daily custom, on the head of the Watson's Bay wharf, fishing patiently, but apparently catching nothing. He looked at me in a sympathetic manner from beneath the ragged brim of his old straw hat, while I, with some annoyance, watched the fast-receding boat I had hoped to catch.
'I thought you'd miss her when I seen yer comin' down the hill,' said the fisherman.
Then, after a moment's reflection, he added, as he fixed a fresh bait on his hook: 'Many a man misses more than that, sir, in his lifetime. Why, Lor' bless yer, sir, some on us has missed being millionaires.'
I told him that I was afraid a great many of us had missed being millionaires. And then, seeing that the boat was gone, that I should have to wait half an hour for another, and feeling, moreover, that my pensive friend was inclined to be communicative, I sat down on the step of the wharf, and watched him as he fished.
The morning was balmy, the sun not too hot, and the sound of the water as it lapped idly against the timbers of the wharf had a soothing influence. For some time we sat in silence, but at length the disciple of Izaak Walton shook his head suddenly, spat energetically into the water, and said:
'Yes, sir, yer mightn't believe it, but I missed being a millionaire—just missed by the skin of my teeth.'
'Indeed?' said I, interrogatively. 'How was that?'
'Well,' he said, 'if you don't mind listening, I'll tell you the whole yarn.' And, spitting once more into the water, he commenced as follows:—
'Fifteen year ago, come next shearin' time, I got married. I was knocking about at that time, doing all sorts of work, driving bullocks, shearing, and so on.
My wife, she was supposed to be great at farming and milking and all that sort of thing, so, after-shearing was over, I selected eighty acres of land. It was on a nice-looking flat, with a frontage to a creek, and with a big ironstone ridge behind it. But it was in a God-forsaken part of the country about forty miles from anywhere.
Well, I tried to grow maize and wheat and a bit of barley for the horse, but there was only about six inches of soil on the flat and the rest was stones. Nothin' would grow to any extent.
Once a year I used to go shearin', and what I earned shearin' used to pretty well have to keep us. My wife, she got dissatisfied, and so I used to spend half my time sittin' up on top of the ironstone ridge, where I was out of the sound of her voice, and where I could admire the prospect and cuss without interruption.
The prospect wasn't much—just a chain of waterholes in the bed of the creek, and a fiat, swampy-looking plain beyond, with the bullock track leading as far as the eye could reach, right away to the very middle of the setting sun. The only sign of life, when there was a sign of life, was a flock of crows stripping the bones of a dead horse.
Well, I completed the conditions, and I got my title to the land—eighty acres of as barren a piece of wilderness as you could find in New South Wales. Then I went shearin' again. The missus and I we didn't part none too friendly. She objected to be left alone, and one word brought up another, and so our parting was not quite as affectionate as it might have been.
When I got back, about two months later, she was gone. So was big George, the stockman from Maguire's station, the other side of the mountain. And there was I left by myself, with no company but my horse and a cow, and eighty acres of wilderness.
After sittin' on the ridge for about a week, vowing vengeance and lookin' at the prospect, I made up my mind to sell the farm and the cow, just as it was, as a goin' concern, to the first bidder. But the difficulty was to find a bidder. I used to ride ten miles to the Squatters' Arms, where the track joins the main road, and where the coach stopped; if there was any passengers, I used to ask 'em did they want to buy a farm.
Three times a week, regular, for six weeks I met the coach, but couldn't get a purchaser, although I offered to sell the whole blooming lot for forty pounds.
Each day when the coach druv up, flash Jerry, the driver, would say, 'Well, Jimmy, sold yer farm yet?' And then I'd speak to the passengers, if there were any, and they'd say: No, they didn't want to buy no bloomin' farm; they only wanted to get away out of that God-forsaken hole as quick as possible. And the coach 'ud go on, and I'd have a drink, or, maybe, a couple, and I'd mount my horse and get back to my home again.
Home, sweet home! I used to cuss it every time I set eyes on it.
Well, as I said, this went on for six weeks. One day the coach came bowling up as usual, and there was only one passenger. He was a man about thirty, dressed very neat, and wore gloves and a white collar. I hadn't seen a man with gloves on for years, and he sort of took my attention.
He got, out of the coach and looked about him, curious-like, as he stretched his limbs. Then, seein' me a-leanin' up agin the verandy-post, he says: 'Good-day,' says he.
'Good-day to you, sir,' says I, and I was just a-goin' to ask him did he want to buy a farm when he interrupted me.
'Nice farming district, this,' he said as he looked across at the broken fence the other side of the road.
'Exceedin' nice,' says I. 'The finest in the country—only wants' cultivating,' says I.
'The crops look well,' says he, as he looks at a splendid assortment of sweet-briars and thistles in the paddock behind the pub.
Well, I looked at him, and I thought he was the greenest thing I'd seen for many a long day. It was quite refreshin' to look at him. The briars looked quite brown alongside of him.
I got a-talking to him, and I reckoned he was a commercial or something of that kind. I joined him in a drink, and I found that he couldn't tell the difference between a colt and a filly. He was the most verdant production I ever struck.
I changed the subject, and talked about stock, but with him, cows was bulls, steers was sealed envelopes, and heifers was Greek. I tried sheep; but merinos, crossbreds, ewes, lambs, hoggets, and wethers was just sheep, and nothin' more.
I asked him did he want to buy a farm—not a bally jumped-up heap of boulders, but a farm—a real farm—on a flat, with a permanent water supply; that only wanted cultivatin' to produce anything in the world, from tobacco to cornflour; with an ironstone ridge behind it that commanded extensive views.
'Well,' he says, 'I couldn't say till I sees it,' says he.
'Will you come and see it?' says I.
He asked me how far it was, and I told him how far within a mile or two. Then he asked if I could borrow him a horse, and I said yes; and the upshot was I took him home with me that very night.
As we went along the road my conscience reproached me, and I wondered what that young man's parents would say if they knew where I was taking their unsophisticated offspring. And then I thought of Amelia, and the voice of conscience grew silent.
Next morning he said that I could get on with my work (as if I had any work), and he would look round the farm alone. He looked round, just about once, from where he stood, and then he went and climbed up the ironstone ridge, and he stayed up there until dinner time.
In the afternoon he said he would have another look round, and he went up the ironstone ridge again.
In the evening I asked him how he liked the farm, and he said 'Middlin'. So I produced a bottle of schnapps and two pannikins, and we tallied it over again. Before we went to bed I had sold my farm to that young man for two hundred sovereigns. We caught the coach next day, and went to Cowra where we completed the business. His name was Ivins and when Mr. Ivins went to Sydney to make arrangements, as he said, for stocking the farm, I went to look for Amelia.
It was a long search, but I found her at last. I tracked her to a small mining township in Queensland. I located her and him in a bark hut on the outskirts of the town, and I crept up to it one night, intending to do something—I don't know what.
When I got to the hut I heard a voice within. It was Amelia's voice. She was a-slatin' of him, and she was a-givin' of him 'ell-for-leather she was. I listened, and as I heered her familiar voice a-runnin' up and down the gamut, I puts a question to myself: 'What am I here for?' says I to myself. 'Is it to punish him?' I says. And as her voice rose higher, and was borne on the night wind in tones about as soothin' as the howlin' of a dingo, I says to myself: 'Could the devil and all his imps punish him more than that?' says I.
'Then I repeats the question: 'What the 'ell am I here for?' says I. 'Is it to take her back?' I says, 'God forbid!' I says. 'Not if I knows it.' So I crept away, and I crept away and they never knowed I was near 'em. And I knocked about here and there, and, of course, the money I got from the farm soon went.
Some years afterwards I came back to Sydney and started 'awkin' fish. One day, as I was carrying my basket along a street, out near Potts Point, who should I meet, in a tall hat and kid gloves and a silver-knobbed walking-stick, but Mr. Ivins.\ I gammoned at first I didn't know him, but he knowed me.
'Hulloa, Jimmy!' he says. 'Hawkin' fish?'
'Yes,' says I. 'Got to do somethin' for a livin'.'
'I suppose so,' says he. Then he says: 'Have you been up to Hampdenville lately?'
'Don't know where it is,' says I.
'Why, you know,' he says, laughin', 'the farm.'
'Oh!' I says, 'you've christened it, have you? I should think that a real nice name for it,' says I. 'Have you growed any tobacco there yet?'
'No,' he says, 'but I've growed somethin' better. Do you know the ironstone ridge?' he says.
'The ironstone ridge?' says I. 'Rather! I knew every inch of it. I spent months—years—on it, meditatin'. There ain't a stone on it I don't know; and there ain't a boulder on it I ain't sat on,' says I.
'Well,' he says, 'perhaps you don't know that that ironstone ridge was full of copper?'
'What? says I.
'Clopper,' says he. 'I pegged it all out when I was up there,' he says, 'and when I came back to Sydney,' says he, 'I took up a lease of it. Then I went back and developed it. Twelve months after that I floated it,' says he. 'I got thirty thousand pounds cash and twenty thousand shares for my interest,' he says. 'There are twelve hundred men working there now, not counting horses and carts.'
'Then,' says Mr. Ivins, 'I built an hotel where Your house used to stand, and I let it for ten pound a week,' says he. 'Then I sold the block next to it for a store, and the one on the other side for a wheelwright's shop. Then I sold several more blocks for more stores. Then the Bank of New South Wales bought the piece opposite to the hotel for ten pound a foot,' he says. Then I leased a lot,' he says. 'I gave away your old stockyard,' he says, 'for a Wesleyan Church. Where your cow bail was is a billiard saloon,' he says, 'and on the site of your pig-sty is the Mechanics' Institoot, where they have a Debatin' Society. And now,' says he, 'I have a thousand a year comin' in from rents,' says he, 'and forty pounds a week from the mine,' he says.
'And then,' he says, smiling, 'this is my house,' and he opened an iron gate in a long fence with iron railin's on a stone wall. 'If your fish is good,' he says, 'and fresh,' he says, 'and the price is reasonable,' says he, 'you may call round at the back and see the cook,' he says.
And he went in and shut the gate, and left me outside a-lookin' at the railin's. All picked out with gold, they was.
And that was how I missed bein' a millionaire.
Here's your boat coming, sir, and I wish you good-mornin', sir, and I thank you kindly.'
And I left the pensive fisherman putting a fresh bait upon his hook, and protesting mildly against the wash of the steamer which was disturbing his meditations and frightening the fish away."
* * *
As we were sitting round the fire one evening, Flanagan made a startling announcement. He said he had a new idea.
"What is the new idea, Flanagan?" enquired Charley.
"It was one that struck me this afternoon," said Flanagan.
"Vas it hurt you very mooch vhen it shtrike you," enquired Otto.
"'Tis a sinsation that you'll never experience," said Flanagan. Then he added, "Sit down bhoys and draw up to the fire, till I tell you my idea. It is this. We have been telling all sorts of yarns, and Arthur has been listening as hard as ever he could, with both his ears, but he has never yet opened his mouth to tell us a yarn himself. Now I believe he could tell us one if he liked. So I propose that he be called on for a story to-night."
This suggestion was received with great applause, but Arthur blushed, and said he knew no stories.
"Tell us about your sweethearts," said Flanagan, "a smart young fellow like you must have had plenty of sweethearts."
But this Only made Arthur blush more vividly.
"Don't tease the young fellow," said Mr. McTavish, "Arthur will tell us a story, but let him tell his own story, and let him tell it in his own way."
After a little more coaxing, Arthur said that he once knew a young fellow at Parramatta, but there was nothing particular in his story, although it made an impression on him at the time, but—
"Go on," said Flanagan. "I knew you could tell us one if you liked."
"Vonce I knew a man at Parramatta," said Otto. "If you like I vill tell you about him."
"If you open your mouth again I'll put a fire-stick in it," said Flanagan. "Go on Arthur."
And Arthur hesitatingly proceeded.
"Peter Paton was twenty-five years of age, and the possessor of a most unenviable reputation.
So bad was it that his society was shunned. It was not that Peter was immoral, dishonest, or quarrelsome. He was not lazy. He was neither a murderer, a thief, a bigamist, a swindler, a gambler, nor a blackguard. Neither was he a drunkard. Yet, so bad was his reputation, that had he been all these, had he committed every crime in the criminal code and invented a few original ones, he could not have inspired a greater degree of aversion in the mind of the average dweller at Geebung Flat.
The blot on Peter's escutcheon was Peter's luck. He was universally known as an unlucky man. His bad luck was proverbial, and followed him as faithfully as his shadow. It had dogged him consistently for a quarter of a century; that is to say, from the hour of his birth, when a careless exposure of his infantile anatomy had planted the seeds of an intermittent influenza, which, like his shadow and his luck, had never entirely deserted him.
His mere presence was sufficient to impress the stamp of failure upon the most promising enterprise. Many a digger, who would have indignantly repudiated any imputation of superstition, has been known to abandon a half-sunk shaft, merely because Peter Paton had chanced to look down it.
If a new rush broke out, and it was reported that Peter Paton had gone to it, it was without further investigation at once voted "a duffer." His arrival at a township or a camp was tolerated with subdued mutterings, whilst his departure was celebrated with lively manifestations of joy. When a digger bottomed a shaft and was asked 'What luck?' if he replied 'Peter's luck,' all further interest in the locality was lost.
Peter was perfectly cognisant of the reputation he had acquired, and did not dispute its correctness; in fact, he frequently confirmed it. Yet, Peter thought it necessary to live; not because it really was necessary, but because it was natural for him to think so.
And so he kept plodding on. He dug and delved in claim after claim without success. Sometimes a perfect stranger would be induced to go mates with Peter. Then, for a brief period Peter would be almost happy. He and his partner would work early and late without success, until his mate, becoming disgusted, would curse his own and Peter's luck and bid Peter good-bye.
Then Peter would get lonely, and mope, and sell out his claim for a pound or two, if he could find a purchaser; or abandon it, if unable to sell; and before Peter had struck his tent, the newcomer would strike the lead, and when Peter left would be raising washdirt going an ounce to the ton.
This was Peter's luck.
A pretty little girl at Parramatta had promised Peter that she would marry him as soon as he was out of debt, and could provide a home for her. He had been working hard for four years—and at the moment our story opens he was sitting on a log near his tent at Geebung Flat taking stock. After summing up the position, he came to the conclusion that his zssets during that time had not materially increased, while his liabilities had doubled. So Peter was despondent.
'Just my luck,' he exclaimed, with a sigh. 'It was always the same. Luck such as mine would break the Bank of England. No wonder the boys keep out of my way, for I bring bad luck wherever I come. The only being who knows me and don't shun me is Boodle. Poor old faithful Boodle. 'Here Boodle,' he added, 'Why don't you call me an unlucky beggar, eh?'
Boodle looked wistfully at Peter out of the only eye the native bears had left him, wagged his stumpy tail vigorously, ran round two or three times in a vain endeavour to bite the end of it, said 'Bow-wow,' and then stretched himself on the ground, with his shaggy head resting on his master's foot, and his one good eye peering with trustful confidence into his master's face.
'It's all up, Boodle,' said Peter, dolefully, as he rested his chin on his horny hands, 'the flour bag is nearly empty, the meat is done, and the tea and sugar have been finished these three days. I've bottomed another duffer, and the storekeeper says, 'no more tick.' I have decided that there is just one man too many in this world, and his name is, Peter Paton. And so he is going to leave it, Boodle, and you must fossick for yourself. You will find another master' (Peter's voice quivered as he said this) 'and no one else will miss me.'
He patted Boodle's shaggy head, and went into his tent. A sheath-knife was lying on a sheet of bark, and Peter took the knife into his hand. 'It's only one short, quick stroke,' he muttered, 'and then—'
Here Peter paused, and sat down on his bunk. 'And then?' he repeated. 'Then what?' He sat for some minutes deep in thought and then, starting to his feet, he exclaimed, 'Surely the Great Governor of the Universe will not be hard on a poor beggar, who, having tried his best, has failed.' He ran his thumb along the edge of the knife, and found that it was dull. 'I might as well have a decent edge on it,' he thought.
And, going outside, he whetted the knife on a boulder, and re-entered the tent.
He grasped the weapon firmly in his right hand, and raising his eyes towards the ridge-pole of the tent he said reverently—
'Oh, good Lord, I have tried to do my best, but bad luck has got me down and worried me. I am going to do now what I believe is for the best. If it is wrong in Your sight, forgive me, oh, Lord, and don't let my had luck follow me beyond the grave. Let me—'
But just then he was interrupted, for a voice outside his tent said—
'Hulloa there. Is there anybody in?'
Peter flung the knife into the corner of the tent, and muttering 'Just my luck,' he went to the entrance.
He there saw an old man on a grey horse, which, in addition to its rider, was carrying a large swag, a billy, a small pick and shovel, and a prospector's dish.
'Can you tell me the nearest way to Sawpit Gully? I've got off the track somehow.'
Peter gave the required direction, and the rider, thanking him, explained that he was going to the new rush at Sawpit Gully, where good gold had been struck.
'If you are not on anything good,' he added, 'you ought to go too. I hear that it's all right, and shallow sinking.' And the rider, a stranger to Peter, rode away.
Peter dropped the flap of the tent and sat down to think.
At length he muttered, 'A new rush at Sawpit Gully. Good gold and shallow sinking. It's onlyfifteen miles. I must have a change of luck. I'll go.'
So he struck his tent, folded his belongings into a swag, which, with his tools and cooking utensils, weighed about 50lb. and started to walk the fifteen miles to Sawpit Gully.
He camped in the bush at night, and arriving at the new rush early in the morning, he selected a likely spot, pitched his tent, and commenced to sink a shaft.
He had nothing but flour in his bag, and not much of that; but in the evening he took his old muzzle-loading gun, and managed to secure a wallaby. So, with some stewed wallaby and Johnny cake, washed down with clean water from the creek, he made a tolerable meal.
It took him three days to bottom the shaft, but, alas, it was a duffer. After he had satisfied himself that it was a duffer, he made the last of his flour into a Johnny cake and ate it. Then, taking the old muzzle-loader, he started off into the bush. Having reached a spot where he was out of sight of the camp, he stopped and began to load the gun.
Boodle, upon seeing this, poised himself upon three legs, and keeping the other raised, stood watching Peter with an expectant air.
'Yon need not trouble yourself Boodle,' said Peter sadly, 'I'm not going to shoot a wallaby; I'm going to shoot a calf.'
And he laughed spasmodically at his own ghastly joke.
'Ah, Boodle, I wish I had done it at Geebung Flat. You see it has got to be done.' And he savagely rammed home the wadding. 'Another duffer, Boodle, and all the flour gone.' And he banged the ramrod down on a double charge of shot. 'There will be no mistake this time, Boodle. Nobody will interrupt us here.' And he felt in his pockets for his caps.
'Where did I put the caps, Boodle?' he said, as he searched his pockets in vain. He felt inside his shirt, he looked on the ground, then dashing his hat on the grass he exclaimed, in a tone of bitter disappointment—
'Just my blamed luck, Boodle, I've forgotten the caps.' Boodle gave two short barks, made a strenuous but ineffectual attempt to catch his tail, barked again, and then poised himself in readiness as before.
'Come on, Boodle,' said Peter, 'we must go back to the tent for the caps.'
Upon reaching the vicinity of the tent Boodle began to bark furiously, and Peter, being thus roused from his melancholy reverie, saw a queer little man sitting by the side of the fire, which he had evidently replenished.
As Peter approached, the old man was softly whistling 'Way Down Upon the Swanee River.'
'Good evening,' said the little old man. 'Is this your tent?'
'It is,' said Peter gruffly.
'Are you alone?' said the little old man.
'Yes,' answered Peter. 'At least, I was before you came.'
'Yes, of course,' said the stranger, whose only luggage appeared to be an old grey blanket, which lay at his side. 'I meant was you living alone. Because if you was, I was going to ask you a favour. It looks like rain to-night, and I was going to ask if you'd mind me spreading my blanket in your tent, as I'm subject to rheumatics.'
'You may sleep in the tent, and welcome,' said Peter, gloomily; 'but I've nothing to offer you to eat.'
'That's all right,' said the stranger. 'That will be a fair deal. I've got plenty,' and he pointed to a bag lying near the tent, which Peter had not noticed before. 'You find the tent, and I'll find the tucker. And now, if you'll lend me your billy, I'll make some tea.'
The old man then took from the bag two loaves of bread, a lump of corned beef, cooked; another lump of corned beef, raw; and two smaller bags, the one containing tea and the other sugar.
Peter's eyes sparkled as he saw the food, and, throwing the gun upon his bunk he assisted his visitor in the cooking, thinking at the same time how near the latter had been to the enjoyment of both 'tent and tucker undisturbed.
The meal over, they sat by the fire and talked. The little stranger was very communicative, and told Peter in confidence that he was known amongst his friends by the name of 'Bandicoot.'
'It ain't my name, you know,' he said, 'but it's the one as I answers to. You see, I've been almost everything in my time, and amongst others a jockey. Many's the winner I've rode in some of the big races years ago, and many a stiff'un, if it comes to that. A jockey that rides to live can't always pick his horses, but I always did my best, and if I didn't win it was the fault of the horse, and not of Jimmy Coote. That's the name I was christened, but constant riding made me a trifle bandy, so the boys put that and my name together, and called me 'Bandicoot,' and sich is the force of habit, that it comes as natural to me now as if my godfather and mother had given it to me. I was always pretty lucky on the course, and the boys used to follow me. I've heard 'em asking, just before a race, 'Who's up on Sandfly?' and if they said 'Bandicoot,' the money used to go on, and the odds 'ud shorten. I'm getting too old to ride now, but my luck sticks to me. I generally fall on my feet. Look at me to-night. There's a lot of big clouds a-banking up to the southward, and me a-dreading the rheumatics, when what should I see but a tent, and who should be the owner of the tent but an agreeable young fellow, who don't say much, but looks as if, like the parson's parrot, he could think a lot.'
Peter remarked that he was much afraid that he was bad company. He was dull to-night, and not much of a talker at any time.
'That's just it. That's exactly where it comes in. The right number for a pleasant conversation is two. One to talk and the other to listen. Then you have all the essentials of a pleasant and profitable chat. Now I'm fond of talking, and you're a demon at listening. Well, what more do you want? What are you doing here—digging?'
'I was,' said Peter, 'but I think I must knock it off. I get no luck.'
'Well,' said Bandicoot, 'I shouldn't expect to get any luck if I was digging here. I always prefer a gully, for alluvial, as runs towards the east. This one runs towards the west. I passed a real, likely looking spot about a half a mile from here, that's never been tried. I should have tried it, but I had no tools. What do you say if we try it to-morrow? There's a grand water-hole just at the bottom of the gully.'
Peter said that he was 'dead broke,' but expressed his willingness to provide the tools and tent, if his new acquaintance was prepared to find the tucker. He warned Bandicoot, however, that he was a most unlucky beggar.
'Why,' exclaimed Bandicoot, slapping his thigh in ecstasy, 'look at that now. You've got a tent and tools, and no tucker. I've got no tools, but I've got some tucker and a bob or two in my pocket. I can talk the leg off an 'orse, you can listen like a—a—goanna. You're an unlucky cove. I'm a cove as always drops on my feet. Why, we're made for mates by Nature, and a wonderful Providence has throwed us together. And now, suppose we turn in?'
The next day they shifted their camp to the place indicated by Bandicoot, and by dinner time had pitched their tent and were ready to commence digging.
They dug a hole about four feet by two, and as it was only about six feet to the rock, they were not long in reaching bottom. Just as the sun was sinking, Bandicoot, who was in the hole, said—
'Hand me down the dish, and I'll give you a prospect. I think this is the washdirt.'
Peter handed the dish to Bandicoot, who filled it with yellow gravel and passed it back to him.
'Go and wash it,' said he, 'and if there's not gold in that, call me an 'orse instead of 'a jockey.'
To the surprise and delight of Peter, the dish of dirt, when washed, yielded about a half a pennyweight of coarse shotty gold.
Bandicoot was jubilant. 'By gosh!' he exclaimed, 'we're struck it. There is not much chance of interruption here, but we'll put in some pegs to make sure, and then we'll have tea.'
They pegged out a claim and had tea, and that night Peter's sleep was disturbed by visions of a sweet girl at Parramatta, and the realisation of his long-cherished hopes.
The following morning they washed the remainder of the dirt from the bottom of the shaft. The result was about a half an ounce of gold. This, at Bandicoot's request, Peter carried to the store, about a mile distant, and sold, converting the proceeds into food.'
Next they cleared, a paddock about 20 feet square, and in three weeks, by working from daylight until dark, they had secured from it over sixteen ounces of gold, and Peter felt at last his luck had turned. But when they proceeded to extend the paddock they found that the gold they had won was only a patch, and that the patch was worked out. They tried in all directions, until their provisions were completely exhausted, and then they held a consultation.
'Never say die,' said Bandicoot, who, as usual, was optimistic. 'Where there's one patch there's bound to be more. We'll sink another shaft or two, and we'll strike it again. In the meantime, I'll run up to the store, sell the gold, and get a new stock for the larder. Don't you get down-hearted. I always drops on my feet.'
So Bandicoot took the gold and started, whistling, for the store, and Peter commenced another shaft.
He bottomed it by sundown, but it was a duffer. He put on the billy and waited for Bandicoot, but no Bandicoot came. He went to his bunk, and lay for a long time listening for footsteps, but the only sound that broke the silence of the night was the hoarse croaking of the frogs in the waterhole below the tent. He fell asleep at length, and when he awoke the sun was shining through, the tent. Still there were no signs of Bandicoot.
He sank another shaft, which was a duffer, and at midday, hungry and weary, and unable to bear the suspense any longer, he started for the store. There he was told that Bandicoot had not been seen since he called there to buy some provisions nearly a month before. 'And did he not call here yesterday to sell some gold?' said Peter, in dismay.
'No,' replied the storekeeper. 'The only gold I bought yesterday was from a Chinaman, from whom I purchased two pennyweights.'
Then Peter smelt a rat. 'Just my luck,' he exclaimed; 'just my luck.'
And the names he called Bandicoot as he wended his way to his solitary camp will not bear repetition.
He had left Boodle tied up to the tent pole, and in reply to Boodle's demonstrative welcome Peter said, 'It's all up, old fellow. Our luck has caught us again. Bandicoot's gone, the gold's gone, the tucker's gone, and I'm going. I can stand it no longer. Good-bye, old boy.'
At the foot of the gully was a still deep pool, and Peter resolved to seek in its cold embrace the peace he could not find on earth.
He started swiftly down the hill and reached its brink. Round about were a number of smooth stones, and picking up several of these Peter put them inside his shirt.
'Now,' said he, as he buttoned his shirt over the stones, 'there will be no mistake this time. A splash, a few bubbles, and all will be over, The parrots will scream as loudly as ever, and Peter's luck will be buried with Peter in the depths of the silent pool.'
At that moment a sound reached his ear which caused him to pause. It was Boodle's bark. 'Good heavens,' exclaimed Peter, I forgot poor Boodle. He is tied up. He has not had a drink all the morning, nor a bite to eat. If I leave him like that he will hot be able to fossick, and he will starve.'
A tear glistened in Peter's eye, but it was not for himself he shed it. It was for his poor dumb, faithful friend. He looked around and the world seemed wondrous fair. The bright foliage of a silver wattle was reflected in the glassy waters of the pool. On the farther bank grew an immense willow, and among its graceful, pendant branches parrakeets with gorgeous plumage were flitting. A white cockatoo lifted its golden crest proudly on the topmost bough, and all nature, animate and inanimate, seemed rejoicing. Fair as it was, however, Peter would willingly have exchanged the beauty of the world for the peace and tranquility of the silent pool. But the mental vision of his poor dumb companion, doomed to die a lingering death from hunger and thirst, was more than Peter could bear. Reluctantly taking the stones from his shirt, he murmured 'Just my luck,' and returned towards his tent.
He had traversed about half the distance from the pool to his camp when he heard a sound which, though weird, was evidently human. Somebody was whistling in a doleful minor key; something which bore a faint resemblance to 'Home, Sweet Home.'
At the same moment, the gentle breeze that swayed the graceful fronds of a grass tree at his side, brought to Peter a faint odour, peculiarly gratifying to his olfactory nerves. It was the odour of steak and onions. He hastened to the camp, and then the saw no less a personage than Bandicoot, who was bending over a fryingpan, and softly whistling 'Home, Sweet Home.'
'Come on,' said Bandicoot, 'you are just in time for dinner. Did you think I was lost? Just hold the pan for a minute while I get the salt.'
And Peter, feeling faint and giddy, held the pan, while Bandicoot, in a shaky treble warbled softly, 'A hexile from 'ome splendour da-hazles in vain' Oh, give me my—. Did you think I was lost? Eh? There's no darned fear of Bandicoot getting lost. I was doctoring the rheumatics. You was up at the store this morning, wasn't you?'
'Yes,' answered Peter. 'I went to look for you.'
'Did you see a tent about a quarter of a mile this side of the store?'
'With some old bags for a fly?' asked Peter.
'With some old bags for a fly. Right. Well, if You had looked in that tent as you passed, You would have seen me a sleepin' as peacefully as a possum, in a hollow log. Passing that tent yesterday I saw my old pal Billy Bumper a sittin' at the entrance. I sat down to have a yarn, and the conversation, somehow, turned upon rum.
'Billy,' says I, 'I feels a touch of my old complaint. Is there any place handy where a man could get a toothful of the right sort?'
Billy shook his head sadly and said—
'No nearer than the bridge, and that's eight mile away.'
'Oh,' says I, 'if: a man only had a horse.'
'I can lend you a horse,' says he.
So the long and short of it was I borrowed Billy's horse and went to the township, sold the gold, and laid in a stock, which included two bottles of rum. One we emptied last night. The other is in the tent It must have been near daylight when we turned in so we took it out this morning. You must know, Peter,' continued Bandicoot, dropping his voice to a whisper, 'Billy Bumper's a man in a thousand. He gave me some wrinkles. He says that what we have struck is only a floater, and that if we sink at the bottom of the gully, under the floater, we may strike the bar. And if we do that we shall strike it heavy. We'll tackle it to-mororrow.'
And they did 'tackle it.' And what was more important, Billy Bumper's prediction was correct.
They struck the bar and they struck it so rich that every shovelful of earth glistened like a jeweller's window with the precious metal. From this circumstance and the extreme richness of the claim the spot became known as 'the jeeweller's shop,' and is so designated at the present day.
Three months afterwards, Peter started by the coach to fulfil a long-standing engagment with a little girl at Parramatta. Peter was now a man of importance and a bank draft of some thousands of pounds was in his pocket. The day was fine, the coachman genial, and the passengers in a state of wonderful good humour.
For some hours all went 'merry as a marriage bell.' The coach was descending a steep hill towards the crossing of a creek. The coachman was relating his experiences of the old hushranging days when, in turning a bend in the road, the off wheel of the coach struck a stump, and in a moment the vehicle was overturned, and the passengers were scattered broadcast among the ferns.
There was shout, a scream, and then some laughter, mingled with much swearing, as those who had been oso suddenly ejected gathered themselves together, to which a laughing-jackass, from a perch on a withered gum tree, addressed a discordant note.
There was no one injured but Peter. His neck was broken. It was Peter's 'luck.'"
* * *
"Ach!" said Otto, "Peter's luck vas vhat you call luck oopside down. But py shenks! it vas cold sittin' here mit der fire nearly out. I talk I vas pe gettin' vhat you call it, der influency, dhen vhat vould you fellows do if you hafe no cook and I lie in mine ped mit mnine toes htickin' oop und mine head all pound oop mit a mustard plaster. Yoe Millner, put soom vood on der fire."
"When did they make you boss?" said Flanagan.
"If I vas der poss it vas not pe der first time," answered Otto, "I vas der poss of a whole ship's crew."
"How many were on board?" asked Flanagan.
"Dhere vas me and der rest of der crew," said Otto.
"Who were the rest?" asked Joe.
"Der crew vas a Chinaman," said Otto. "Und py shenks! I vas make him sit oop, you pet. Eh, vhat you tink?"
Jee Millner threw some wood on the fire, and by its genial blaze Otto thawed.
"I vas tell you a yarn apout dhat Chinaman," he, said.
"I think," said Joe, "that as I mach up the fire, I have the first call. Mr. Falconer promised us last night, that he would tell us a story."
"Vait till I tell you apout dhat Chinaman," persisted Otto.
"You let the Chinaman wait," replied Joe.
"I'll pet you ten bob mine yarn vas petter dhan Sharley's."
"How often have I said that I would have no gambling in the camp?" said Mr. McTavish.
"Vas it gambling to pet ten bob?" asked Otto.
"Did ye ever hear what Clancy said about gambling?" enquired Flanagan.
"I'll tell you you while Charley is getting ready. It will not take long." As there was nothing said against this, he proceeded:—
"'I see," said Clancy, as he lit his pipe and fastened up the line for another course of brickwork, 'that the Guv'mint are thryin' to put down gaulblin'.'
'They are,' said his mate, 'And they'll do it too.'
'Will they?' said Clancy. 'They might as well thry to lift themselves in a baskit. Put down gamblin', is it? I tell you, Payther, that before they put down gamblin' they'll have to put down human nature, so they will. Show me the man or woman who is not a gambler, and I'll show you a corpse or a looney.
'The papers mustn't publish the odds on the races; but they publish 'em on everything else. Look at this mornin's paper, and you'll see the shtock and share list, which contains the odds of the biggest gamblin' institution in the wurruld.
'We're all gamblers and we're all givin' or talin' the odds, from the cradle to the grave, and the Guv'mint publish the odds themselves. If you turn up phwat they call the shtitastics ye'll find that when you were born the odds were two to one that you'd never live till ye'd be able to walk, and you won, or you wouldn't be layin' bricks wid me now.
'When your wife was born, the odds were six to four that she'd never get married, and she won—if you can call it winnin' when it would have paid her bether to lose. When she got married the odds were seven to four that she'd live to be a widow, and two to nine that she'd get married again. On your weddin' day the odds were tin to two that you'd married the wrong woman, and nine to one that she'd married the wrong man.
'Phwat buildin' are we wurrukin' on this minit? Ain't it an insurance office? 'Tis for an institution that will make a book on the lingth of a man's loife. They have different odds on different min, accoedin' to their pedigree and their performances, and they make their book so that if they lose on one the other bets 'ull shquare it.
'If you build a house they'll bet you three hundred to one that it won't be burnt down in a year. Whin you've been tippin' 'em up on Saturday night, and go home and leather the ould woman, and smash the furniture, and raise Cain phwat are you doin'? You are bettin' your immortal soul that, there's no such place as hell. And whin, owin' to the Liquor Act, you're sober on Sunday, yo maybe to church and hedge a little. You put threepence in the collection on the off chance of drawin' a harp and a pair of wings. I bought a ticket for the Eight-hour Demonsthration. Phwat does that mane? It manes that I wagered a shilling that I'll live to see it. I tell you, Payther, that our whole life is a gamble, and death is the biggest gamble of the lot.
'Bedad! There's the whistle for dinner! I'll bet you drinks I'll be down first.'
With this Clancy and his mate raced for the ladder. Clancy tried to cut off a corner by jumping the well-hole. He won his bet, but never collected the stake. Clancy was down first, but when they lifted him from among bricks and timber in the basement, sixty feet below, they knew that Clancy's last race was over. The post was passed, and Clancy was being weighed in. And of those who knew Clancy, there was not one who doubted that he would stand the test.
They covered him reverently with some bags until the ambulance could come. They then proved the truth of Clancy's axioms by tossing a coin to see who should be compelled to be the first to face that smiling, bright-eyed little woman, who, with Claney's curly-headed boy, was sitting on a stack of timber in front of the building with Clancy dinner."
* * *
"Dhat vas shoost like an Irishman," said Otto, "to yump vhere he vas not lookin'. I vas always look der vay I vas goin'."
"Well, you don't always go the way you are looking," said Flanagan, "for if you did, you would have to go two ways at once."
"Ach!" said Otto, as he spat in the fire, with an air of disgust. "Soom people open dhere mouths and let 'em say vhat dhey likes. If you vas in mine country dhey vas make you sit oop mighty gvick. Vhy, it was a Yerman dhat vas discovered by Ireland."
"The Germans were as wild as bandicoots until we sent some missionaries over from Ireland to civilise them," said Flanagan.
"When you have quite finished exchanging amenities," said Mr. McTavish, "I think we will call upon Charley to reedeem his promise and tell his story. It is foolish to abuse a man on account of his birthplace. No man Can choose the place of his birth. And I think that it is perhaps a wise dispensation of of Providence. We could not all be born in Scotland. And We never miss what we never had. Some people, born in other places, think they are quite as good as if they had been born in the heart of Midlothian. Puir things, they know no better. It is a wise dispensation of Providence."
"Do you mind reading of the time," said Flanagan, "when Owen Roe O'Neill, at Benburb, in Tyrone, in the year 1646, at the head of four thousand men, made twice the number of Scots run, and killed so many of them in their flight, that a man could walk on their dead bodies over the River Blackwater dryshod?"
"That is merely a matter of profane history," said Mr. McTavish. "I have always been of opinion that there is a slight inaccuracy. I think that O'Neill should be spelt McNeill. But let Charlie proceed with his story."
The discussion being ended, Charley at once began:—
It was not Barker's fault that he had to sweep his own verandah and cook his meals. It was his misfortune. And yet, in our little bush township, where excitement was rare, the young men, and even the girls, used to find a mild amusement in ridiculing Barker for what they knew was the consequence of his misfortune.
He had married a sickly wife, and not being a rich man, when she became unable to perform her household duties, Barker performed them for her. He was kind to her, and, as far as his means allowed, supplied her wants. When at length she died he gave her a quiet funeral, and went on cooking his own meals and sweeping his own verandah.
As soon as a decent period had elapsed he seriously considered the advisability of filling the gap left by the decease of the late Mrs. Barker; but, being of a shy disposition, not particularly handsome, not very rich, and nearer forty than thirty, his progross was slow. So, when Barker was seen sweeping his verandah, attending to his darning, mending, or cooking, the young men and maidens of the township, instead of sympathising with his loneliness, made him a butt for their ridicule, and a target for their unfledged witticisms.
'I saw old Barker sweeping his verandah as I passed,' was a remark frequently heard down at the store. The same remark had been made in the presence of the same people, hundreds of times, but it always provoked a laugh. Nothing makes people laugh as readily as an allusion to the misfortunes of somebody else.
So 'Old Barker,' as they called him, became the stock joke among the two Or three hundred people who inhabited our township. They were never so merry as when they were making imaginary matches for 'Old Barker.'
If a young man met a girl of his acquaintance going up the street, he would say, 'Hulloa, Kate! (or Mary, as the case might be). Going up to see old Barker?' Then there would be a laugh and an indignamt blushing denial.
Our township was almost unbearably dull. Without old Barker it would have been dead. He was our salvation, and deserved a gold medal from the Humane Society.
When Barker was not engaged in his domestic duties he spent the bulk of is spare time sinking a well. The urgent need of a well was not apparent because his tank was never empty, and the running creek was within a hundred yards of his house; but it was assumed that he was providing for the future expansion of his household. So the well was added to the stock-in-trade of the jokers.
'Expect to have a big family some day. Eh, Barker?'
And Barker would smile in his quiet, good-humoured way, and go on digging.
His cottage faced the end of the main street, and stood on a freehold block of five acres, most of which was devoted to the cultivation of briars.
Adjoining Barker's place was a snug hotel, kept by Mrs. Macalister. She was a buxom young widow of about thirty-five, and, of course, many a discussion had taken place in her bar as to a possible union between the widow and Old Barker, to the great amusement and substantial profit of Mrs. Macalister.
One day in early November the coach, as was its daily custom, stopped in front of Mrs. Macalister's door, and found the usual crowd of idlers awaiting its arrival.
On the box seat, chatting merrily with the driver, sat a young lady, who was dressed in a neat tailor-made dress. Almost before the coach stopped was on the ground, and she was scarcely on the ground when she was clasped to the ample bosom of Mrs. Macalister. It was then noticed that, though she was some years younger, and considerably slimmer, she bore a striking resemblance to that lady. When at length the younger woman was released, with her hat awry and one escaping curl glinting in the morning sunshine, the bystanders were not surprised to be told that this was Mrs. Macalister's sister from Sydney.
The blacksmith wiped his face on his leather apron, and bowed awkwardly; The saddler said it was a fine morning. William, the schoolmaster's son, said it was warm; old Joe, the widow's handyman, stood with his hat in his hand, at the imminent risk of sunstroke; and the boy from the post-office, who had come for the mail, forgot his errand, and stood with his mouth wide open.
And Mrs. Macalister's sister stood bowing, and smiling just sufficiently to show a row of pearly teeth between her cherry lips. When she extended a small, though plump, gloved hand to the blacksmith, he looked at his own dirty paw, and felt that it would be sacrilege for him to touch it. We all breathed more freely when, with her sister, she disappeared into the house.
The blacksmith was the first to recover his powers of speech.
'By gum!' he said, 'What price that? Did you ever see a smarter little filly than that?'
'I wonder does she play tennis?' said the schoolmaster's son.
'My word,' said the saddler, 'she's a real plum. Did you notice her eyes?'
'What price that fer Old Barker?' said the mail-boy, as he threw back his head and grinned.
But the blacksmith said, 'Garn, yer rip,' and threw his hat at him. The mail-boy ducked, and the hat hit old Joe's dog, who picked it up and ran away with it. As the blacksmith had to follow the dog to recover his hat, that broke up our conference.
Mrs. Macalister received more than her usual amount of patronage that evening, but her patrons were doomed to disappointment, for Mrs. Macalister's sister, being somewhat fatigued after her coach journey, had retired early.
'Is your sister going to stay long, Mrs. Macalister?' inquired William, the schoolmaster's son.
'About a month or six weeks,' replied Mrs. Macalister, as she beamed across the bar.
'Does she play tennis?'
'I think so. Anyway she would be pleased to learn.'
'She can come to our court, if she likes.'
The blacksmith and the saddler cast looks of envy on the school'master's son.
'Vas she like gooseperries? said Peter the Dutchman, who had a selection about two miles out, and had come in to get his horse shod.
'I think so,' said Mrs. Macalister.
'Den, if she cooms out to mine place she shall hafe all der gooseperries she can't carry. Let her coom, and I fill her oop mit gooseperries like efferytings, till she don't know where she vasn't.' And he struck a match and lit his pipe, gazing with an air of triumph at the schoolmaster's son. Then he added, impressively, 'Fill 'em oop again.'
'What might your sister's 'name be, Mrs. Macalister?' said the blacksmith, as he wiped the froth from his moustache.
'Mrs. Atkins,' said. Mrs. Macalister.
'Vhat!' exclaimed Peter. 'Vas she married?'
'Oh, yes,' replied the genial hostess.
'Did you say water with yours?'
And Peter and the blacksmith and the saddler and the schoolmaster's son gazed at each other in blank dismay.
But Mrs. Macalister put her finger on her lips and said, in a tone of mystery, 'Don't say a word about it. I am only telling you in confidence. I'm thinking of having some fun. I want to have a lark with old Barker.'
Here the boys began to look interested.
'I'm going to make old Barker believe that she's a widow. That her husband was killed in the Boer war. I have not spoken to her about Barker, but she's awfully fond of a joke. She'll help us. In the meantime say nothing, but watch the fun. Of course, if he comes round making up to her, you must all pretend that she's a widow, and to be awfully jealous of him. Oh, it will be fun!'
And the blacksmith and Peter and the saddler and the schoolmaster's son nudged each other and laughed, and Peter said:
'Py Shenks! Dat was goin' to pe der pest yoke vat never was. Bring dem poth oot to mine place. I'll fill old Barker oot mit gooseperries, too. Py shenks! I vas make him bust mineself.'
Barker went to his little garden plot the nex morning to pick some tomatoes for his breakfast. The garden plot was near the fence, and the fence was not far from Mrs. Macalister's hotel. He picked as many tomatoes as he required, and was upon the point of returning to his house when he raised his eyes to the back verandah of the hotel and then he dropped some of his tomatoes, for he had seen a vision. It was early morning, and the rising sun flung a golden beam into the corner of Mrs. Macalister's verandah. The beam was reflected from a mass of auburn curls, and the curls formed a fitting crown to the bonniest face that Barker had ever seen.
Mrs. Atkins was sitting on a rocking-chair. She was so absorbed in her book that she was quite unaware of the proximity of Barker. Barker was spellbound. How long he gazed he knew not. Suddenly the book closed with a snap, the eyelashes were lifted, and a pair of laughing blue eyes looked into his. Barker at once dropped his own eyes, blushed, and sighed, and went in to cook his chops and tomatoes, and to cat his breakfast in lonely solitude.
He was sweeping his veraldah after breakfast when the schoolmaster's son sauntered by.
'Good morning, Barker.'
'Good morning,' said Barker.
After some remarks about the weather William said:
'Did you see Mrs. Macalister's sister?'
'Yes.' said Barker. 'I saw her this morning on the verandah.'
'She is a widow,' remarked William. 'Her husband was killed in the Boer war. They had only been married a week when he started. Sad, wasn't it?'
'Very sad,' said Barker.
'By the way,' said William, 'you didn't have those khaki trousers on when she saw you, did you?'
'Yes,' said Barker. 'I always wear them, you know, except on Sundays.'
'That's a pity,' said the other, 'and you living so close. Since her husband was killed she can't bear the sight of khaki. It makes her ill for days.'
William chuckled as he repeated this conversation in the evening, and still more when Johnson, the storekeeper's assistant related how Barker had been to the store in the morning and bought a pair of tweed trousers to work in.
The following day as Barker, in his new tweed trousers, was weeding his front garden, who should pass by but Mrs. Macalister and her sister. Mrs. Atkins was introduced to Barker and he, covered with confusion, asked the ladies to step inside. They did so, and Mrs. Macalister was so jolly, and Mrs. Atkins so charming and so kind, that Barker lost some of his shyness, and surprised himself. In the course of conversation Mrs. Macalister expressed her regret that her horse was lame, and that she was thus prevented from taking her sister for a drive.
The same evening Barker was seen leading his mare home from the paddock. He fed her and groomed her, and on the next day he took Mrs. Macalister and her sister for a drive, and the first place they drove to was Peter's. They sampled his gooseberries, and drove home in the gathering twilight.
Events progressed rapidly during the next month, and the boys chuckled, and Mrs. Macalister smiled when they exchanged confidences; and they pictured the disappointment of Barker when the time would come for Mrs. Atkins to return to her husband in Sydney.
At this time Mrs. Atkins used to go for a drive every day. Sometimes Mrs. Macalister went, too; but it often happened that she was too busy, and at these times Barker would drive Mrs. Atkins.
The boys gnashed their teeth, but consoled themselves with the comforting thought that the time was fast approaching when Barker's illusion would be ended.
'It would be good to get home on her, too,' said the blacksmith, 'for her earryin' on. Her flirtin's outrageous.'
'So it would,' said William.
There was great and unexpected excitement that evening in Mrs Macalister's parlour.
Just before sundown the boys were assembled, but Mrs. Maealister's sister was nowhere to be seen. The worthy hostess herself, who was in a state of great excitement, explained that an awful thing had happened.
I don't know what to do,' she exclaimed. 'I'm so sorry I allowed this joke to go so far. Ada has got a telegram to say her husband is coming. He is on his way now, and will be here in the morning, or perhaps to-night. I don't know what Mr. Barker will say or do. I wish I had had nothing to do with it. Isnn't it dreadful?'
But the boys laughed, and said it was the funniest thing in the world.
'Won't old Barker buck?' said William.
I don't know who will tell him,' said Mrs. Macalister.
'I'll go and tell him, if you like,' said William.
'You'll break it to him as gently as you can, won't you?' said Mrs. Macalister. 'And make it as light as you can for Ada. Oh, dear. I'm afraid there'll be trouble.'
'I think we'd better all go,' said the blacksmith. 'He might cut up rough. Besides, we're all entitled to see the fun. I wouldn't miss seeing the look on his face for anything.'
So they all strolled along to Barker's place. He was just sitting down to tea, and the blacksmith nudged William when he noticed that Barker had been indulging in the luxury of a clean shave.
William had promised to break it gently to Barker, so he said: 'Good evening, Barker.'
'Good evening, William,' said Barker, as he sugared his tea. 'Any news?'
'Nothing much,' said William, 'except that Mrs. Atkins will be able to take a drive with her husband to-morrow.'
'What.' said Barker, as he dropped the sugar spoon, and turned very red in the face. 'What do you What do you mean?'
'I mean that it was all a fake about her husband being killed in the war. He'll be with her to-morrow. He's on the road now. Mrs. Macalister and her sister have been deceiving us.'
But Barker simply said:
'Great Scott!' and dropped his face on his hands, while his whole body shook with emotion.
They watched him for some time in silence. At length he murmured:
'He'll he with her to-morrow. Great Scott! Can this be true?'
He raised his head, and they saw that there were tears in his eyes. With trembling lips he said:
'Excuse me, boys, but I'd rather not talk about it.'
'Don't be too hard on her,' said the blacksmith. 'She's only young.'
'I won't be hard on her,' said Barker.
'I suppose,' said William, maliciously, 'that if she and her husband want your mare to-morrow, you'll let them have her?'
'Oh! yes,' said Barker, quietly. 'They can have her altogether if they want to. They can have all I have after to-morrow.'
Then, waving his hand in token of appeal, he said:
'Good night, boys; I want to be alone.'
So they filed out, and, to tell the truth, they felt sorry for Barker. When they got outside they strolled to the corner of the paddock and sat on the fence. After some discussion, they agreed to punish Mrs. Atkins for her heartless flirtation, and they separated, after arranging to meet at Mrs. Macalister's in an hour.
The first to make his appearance was the blacksmith, and he noticed as he passed Barker's place that it was in darkness, from which he drew the inference that Barker was in bed.
'Well?' said Mrs. Macalister. 'How did he take it?'
'Dashed bad,' said the blacksmith. 'He carried on dreadful. I shouldn't wonder if he does something to himself before mornin'.'
'I hope he won't do anything dreadful,' 'said widow.
Then came the saddler and young Johnson, until they were all there except William, the schoolmaster's son. The saddler was just describing the wild look that Barker had in his eye, when they left him, and the the widow was listening intently, when were all startled by the loud report of a gun in the direction of Barker's house.
'Struth!' exclaimed the blacksmith. 'He's gone and done it.'
The landlady screamed.
'Oh!' she cried. 'Go, for heaven's sake, and see what is the matter.'
'Not me,' said the blacksmith. 'I don't want to be summoned to no inquests.
'Nor I.' said the saddler.
'If he has shot himself,' said young Johnson, 'it will all come out now. And what led him tomdo it?' What will Mrs. Atkins's husband say?'
Just then a hurried footstep was heard on the verandah. A moment later, in rushed Willam, the schoolmaster's son.
'Give me a drink, quickly!' he ssaid. I'm fainting. Oh, here's the dreadful thing. Old Barker's shot himself.'
'You don't say so,' said the landlady.
'Yes; police will will be coming along directly, and they'll carry the body in here. It's lying alongside the fence in pools of blood.' There'll be an inquest to-morrow, and Mrs. Atkins will be called as a witness. I'm off. I don't want to be here when they bring the corpse in.' And he departed. He was quickly followed by the others, and the landlady was left alone.
The boys went up the road, nudging each other as they went, and they sat on the fence talking in low tones for half all hour. Then they began to wonder how Mrs. Atkins received the news, and they drew lots to see who should go and reconnoitre. The lot fell upon William, and the others promised to wait for him.
Ina quarter of an hour he returned, looking seared and troubled.
'Look here, boys,' he said, 'Barker's shot sure enough.'
In answer to frightened inquiries from his mates, he eontiuued:
'It's a fact; and there's worse than that. I asked Mrs. Macalistcr whether the police had brought the body in, and how Mrs. Atkins was, and what do you think she told me? She said that Mrs. Atkins was no more. The shock had gone to her heart, and she was no more. They are in awful trouble up there. I saw the Methodist parson on the stairs, and they've wired for a doctor, but it is all no use. When Mrs. Macalister went upstairs after the shot was fired it was all over with Mrs. Atkins. And then she told me that, to save the disgrace of the thing, she paid old Joe a pound to go and bury old Barker down his own well, and that he'd done it. So he must have shot himself after all.'
'But there was only one report,' said the blacksmith. 'Why, you must have shot him in the dark when you fired the gun.'
'Oh, good gracious! Don't say that,' said William, 'or we shall all be run in as murderers and accessories and things. Let us get home out of this.'
The next morning William had such a severe headache that he was unable to come to breakfast. But, through the window blind he could see Mrs. Macalister's, and the coach in front of the door. The mails were on board, and the coach about to start, but the usual idlers were absent.
The coachman stowed some luggage into the coach, and when the last package had been arranged to his satisfaction, he went into the hotel, and, after a brief interval, came out wiping his lips.
Suddenly William shuddered, and ducked away from the window, for he saw the local policeman coming up the street. With a throbbing heart, and with beads of cold perspiration on his clammy forehead, he sat on the side of his bed and waited. But he could not wait long. He could not restrain his curiosity, and so, 'screwing up his courage to the sticking point,' he peeped again. And the sight he saw nearly took his breath away. For there, on the doorstep, in her tailor-made suit, and looking more bewitching than ever, was Mrs. Macalister's sister; and close behind her, in a new tweed suit, with a bandbox in his hand, a flower in his coat, and a real cigar in his mouth, was old Barker.
William thought he was dreaming. He rubbed his eyes, and looked again. And now old Barker had the cigar out of his mouth, and he was actually kissing Mrs. Macalister. Then William rushed for his waistcoat, and his coat, and his hat, but before he could find them he heard the whip crack, and when he looked again the coach was gone. There was nothing to be seen but Mrs. Macalister, standing on the doorstep waving her handkerchief, with a tear glistening in her eye, but with a roguish smile upon her lips.
Curiosity is a sensation not confined to women, notwithstanding rumours to the contrary; and so it came about that shortly after eleven o'clock that morning a party of shame-faced young men sneaked into Mrs. Macalister's bar.
As they entered that lady placed her elbows on the bar, rested her chubby chin upon her hands, and smiled benignly upon them.
'Well!' she said. 'None of you came to see my sister off.'
'Tell us all about it, Mrs. Macalister,' said the blacksmith. 'Didn't you tell William that your sister was dead?'
'No,' she said.
'Oh, Mrs. Macalister!' exclaimed the unhappy William, 'you said she was no more.'
'I said,' replied Mrs. Macalister, 'that Mrs. Atkins was no more. And it was true. She was Mrs. Barker then. The ceremony was concluded just before William fired the gun.'
'Me?' said William.
But Mrs. Macalister only smiled.
'And are they married?' inquired Johnson, plaintively.
'They are, God bless them,' said Mrs. llacalister.
'And what about her husband?'
'He was killed in the Boer war. Barker was with him when he died. Did Barker never show you his Victoria Cross?'
'Oh! Just like him. He is too modest. He got it for rescuing Mr. Atkins under a murderous fire at Modder River. And Atkins got shot a week afterwards in a skirmish. But what will you take? Mr. Barker left a sovereign for his friends to drink the health of his wife and himself. You must want a drink, William. You look paler, now than you did after seeing all those pools Of blood last night.'
So our standing joke was gone, and the township was left without its one redeeming feature. It was as dull as a neglected cemetery until Mr. and Mrs. Barker returned from their honeymoon. Barker brought back the news that he was a rich man, and what had enriched Barker subsequently enriched the township. His well was a prospecting shaft. At the bottom of the well lay, not Barker's corpse, but Barker's fortune. He had floated his five acres into a company, and our days of dullness were gone for ever."
* * *
"I tink," remarked Otto, reflectively, "dhat I vas not mind to pe old Parker, mineself. He vas haf better luck dhan Peter."
"Fancy Otto getting married," said Flanagan.
"Und vhy for vouldn't I tink of gettin' married?" asked Otto.
"Wather will be running up hill when you get married, wid that face," said Flanagan. "The girl that would tie herself to that face for life, ud be a fit subject for an asylum. Her life 'ud be one long-drawn-out nightmare."
"Ach!" said Otto, "your face vas not too good. I neffer had but der von face, but dhere vas a girl vonce dhat vas vaht you call gone on it. Ah, she vas der girl. Vas I effer told you apout der girl I vonce go courtin' along of? Her name vas Yosephine. Und she vas a fine girl und no mistake."
"She must have been a little bit dotty," said Flanagan.
"I don't know," said Joe. "I once knew an extremely pretty girl who married a worse looking man that Otto."
"I should not have thought that possible," said Mr. McTavish, "but women are curious creatures, and you do not always know what they will do nor why they do it."
"If Flanagan vas try to keep a civil head in his tongue, I vas told you apout Yosephine McGinty der girl dhat vas vhat you call 'gone on me."
"Well," said Flanagan, "I should like to hear it, because it must be a strange story, but I think we had better have Joe's first. It might prepare us. If we hear about one man that was uglier than Otto, and who got married, it might at least make Otto's yarn seem possible."
"I think we'll have Joe's tale first," said Mr. McTavish. Mr. McTavish's word was law, so Otto had to subside while Joe told his story.
"'Did you ever hear of Piebald Jim?' asked the coachman.
'No; what was Piebald Jim—a horse or a man?'
'Oh, it was a man,' he answered, as he flicked a fly off the ear of the near leader; 'You see, Piebald Jim was a nickname given to him by the boys at the Muckerawa. He was about as ugly a chap as you would meet in a hundred mile drive. One half of his face was not so bad, and if you caught a glimpse of his profile on that side it was passable. The other side, taking his nose as a dividing line, was like the ground about the Muckerawa—patchy. It varied in colour from rose pink to lead colour. He had neither eyebrows nor lashes on the variegated side of his face, and his mouth was twisted up at the corners like that of a bull pup when he's aggravated. When he tried to laugh, which wasn't often, he used to laugh with one side of his face only, while the other side remained fixed, with a snarling expression, as if it was rebuking the side that laughed, for its levity.
He lived in a tent along the Macquarie, near the Muckerawa, and worked as a hatter. He never spoke unless he was spoken to, and then it was never more than a quiet 'good day' as he passed the camp. His name was Jim, and owing to his peculiar physiogonomy the boys nicknamed him 'Piebald Jim.'
He had been living on the river about a year, when an event happened which caused quite an excitement among the boys in the district. This was the arrival of the new governess at Harper's Flat.
Old Harper had struck it pretty rich on the Muckerawa, and had been known to clean up as much as two pannikins full of gold in a day. He then invested in sheep and did pretty well; and so as he had been made a J.P., he engaged a governess from Sydney to teach his children.
Before the new governess had been a month at Harper's all the young fellows for miles around were going mad about her. There were not many women about there in those days, in proportion to the men, and what there were, were a mixed lot; but this new governess was a beauty, and no mistake. I've knocked about a bit and seen a few. I've been in Bathurst three times, and I once spent a fortnight in Sydney; but Miss Kingsmill was about as fine a specimen as I ever struck.
She was tall and straight, with a colour that always reminded me of a bunch of red and white roses. She had brown eyes, as tender in expression as those of a kangaroo, while the clustering curls of her wavy brown hair seemed to be always inviting you to caress them. Her mouth and lips, with the rows of pearly teeth within, were simply perfect. I'm not good at describing females; I could tell you the points of a horse better, but you can take my tip she was a gem.
Well, the boys wanted to do the polite thing, you know, and they talked it over at night around the camp fire. Jack Carson wanted to serenade her, but we howled him down. He only suggested that because he thought he could sing. He knew the first five or six verses of 'The Bailiff's Daughter of Islington,' but I never knew him to get beyond the third verse. When he got to the place where it says:
'When all the maids of Islington,
Went forth to sport and play'
somebody was bound to hit him on the head with a wet soogee bag, and that stopped him.
After several meetings it was carried unanimously that we should invite the new governess-to a ball. We got the use of Harper's woolshed, and each of the boys tried to outdo the other in making the preparations. When the night arrived, it was a treat to see them roll up. They each had on a new suit of clothes, and as there was only one store at 'The Barks' in those days, there was a certain amount of uniformity about the dress, but there wasn't a pair of moleskins among them.
They had rounded up all the eligible females in the district, and two or three came from 'The Barks.' We were all there before sundown, and while the ladies were having a cup of tea in the house we were all sitting round, smoking, on the grass, when who should come cantering across the flat and through the slip-rails but Piebald Jim.
Now; he had never been to any of the meetings, and nobody had thought of asking him, because the idea of Piebald Jim coming to a ball was too funny for anything. I should as soon have thought of entering my near wheeler for the Melbourne Cup. What girl would be seen dancing with Piebald Jim? The boys all started laughing when they saw him coming, and I thought some of them would take a fit.
'Coming to the ball, Jimmy?' said Jack Carson.
'Yes,' drawled Jimmy in his quiet way, 'I thought I'd come in honour of Miss Kingsmill.'
Then there was another laugh, but he took no notice; and turned his horse into the yard.
Soon after that the ladies came down from the house, and the boys all got excited. There was an agreement among them that there was to be a fair start. Nobody was to engage Miss Kingsmill for a dance until the M.C. gave the signal. Sullivan from 'The Barks' was M.C., and when he sang out 'Take your partners for the first quadrille,' you may bet there was a rush for her. Amongst the rest, who should walk forward, but Piebald Jim. The moment she saw him she left off laughing and turned pale, and several of us were going to remonstrate with him, for we thought that she was frightened at his ugly physiognomy, when he said quietly, 'Miss Bessie,' and his voice seemed to quiver and shake a bit, as if it had got over the traces, and he had a job to manage it.
She started forward, and we might as well have been a lot of sheep waiting in that shed to be shorn, as I'd often seen them, for all the notice she took of us.
She seized his two hands in hers, and looked him straight in the face. There was a tear glistening like a dewdrop in each of her eyes, as she said in a soft tone, 'Is that you, Mr. Haydon?'
And then came the most curious part of the whole performance, for she threw her two pretty arms round his neck and—kissed him! actually kissed him! kissed Piebald Jim! in front of all the company! kissed him twice! once on the good cheek and once on the patchy one. And then the colour spread like a sunset all over her face, neck and shoulders, right up among the curls that clustered on her forehead. All the roses were turned to red ones. Then she covered her face with her hands and sobbed as if her heart would break.
Mrs. Harper took her outside, and we stopped the music. Of course we couldn't open the ball without her, and about half-a-dozen young fellows got into a group at the lower end of the shed and talked the matter over.
Dan Fitzgibbons, a young giant from the Yahoo, wanted to take Jim outside and 'stouch' him.
'Ain't he got a blinded cheek,' said he, 'to let the handsomest girl in the country put her arms round his neck and kiss him?'
But just then Harper came in and got up on a table at the other end of the room. Now, Harper, although he was a J.P., wasn't a bad sort, an and the boys all respected him, and so they listened to hear what he had to say.
'Boys,' he commenced, 'we are going to start the first quadrille, and Miss Kingsmill and our esteemed friend, Mr. Hayden (here he pointed to Piebald Jim), are going to take tops. Before we start the music, however, and so that there will be no misunderstanding among us, I am going to tell you a little story.'
And then he told us the following yarn:—
'Eight years ago,' said he, 'there was a small rush at Cawley's Creek. Miss Kingsmill's father kept a store there. Down the creek there was a young fellow working named James Haydon, who was known among his friends as 'Handsonne Jim.' You needn't laugh, Carson, it's a fact, and any man who don't believe what I say, or who don't want to listen, can leave my woolshed.'
They were all quiet after this, and he went on:—
'Well, Jim Haydon used to call at the store as he passed, and never called without some little present in his pocket for Kingsmill's daughter, Bessie, then a golden-haired little lassie of ten. One night, while Kingsnnill was away, the store caught fire. Mrs. Kingsmill had barely time to drag the two Younger children out in their night dresses, when the whole of the frail structure was a mass of flame. A crowd soon collected, but the people felt that they could do nothing except watch the flames as they leapt upwards, licking with tongues of fire, weatherboards, and studs, tie beams and rafters, right up to the ridge-pole.
Suddenly Jim Haydon came running up, and his first words were, 'Where's Bessie?'
'My God!' exclaimed Mrs. Kingsmill, 'my child, where is my child? She is not here, she must still be sleeping, or suffocated. For Heaven's sake, save my child.'
Jim Haydon at once ran forward, but for a man to attempt to enter that burning building seemed insanity itself. The roof was likely to fall at any moment.
'Come back!' shouted a dozen voices, but Jim took no notice and went steadily forward. 'Come back Jim you can't do any good,' said several of his mates. Still Jim, with his arm before his face to protect it from the heat, continued his advance.
Then a voice, louder than the rest, and in a tone which sent a thrill of horror through every heart in the crowd said:—
'For God's sake, Jim, come back. There's powder in the store.'
But even this did not make Jim come back. On the contrary, he redoubled his efforts and his speed. He made a wild dash forward, and disappeared\ into the burning building. For a few moments everybody held their breath. Not a sound was heard but the roaring and crackling of the flames as they cast a lurid light upon the horrific faces of the spectators. Even Mrs. Kingsmill's sobs were stifled.
Suddenly Jim was seen at a side window, groping his way, with a bundle in his arms. He had taken off his coat and thrown it round the sleeping child, and now, with his shirt ablaze, he handed his precious burden through the window to a sturdy miner who, bolder than the rest, had sprung forward to receive her, and who quickly ran with her to a place of safety.
Jim attempted to follow, but at that moment two burning rafters from the roof fell across the window and barred his pasage. A cry of horror burst from every throat as Jim was seen to tug for a moment at the blazing timber, and then, before the cry had ceased there was heard a dull report. Burning pieces of timber, sheets of hot iron, and myriads of glowing embers were scattered in all directions. Like a fiery fountain a mass of sparks flew upwards towards the sky, eclipsing fora moment the light of the stars, and then, scarcely ten minutes from the first alarm, what had before been a mass of fire, was nothing but a smouldering heap of ruins.
And where was Jim?
Among the debris they found him, blackened, bleeding, scorched, and perfectly unconscious, but still alive. Tenderly they bore him to the nearest hospital, and for weeks the spark of life flickered in his poor, wounded body, threatening every moment to expire.
He mended, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, for Jim had wonderful endurance and vitality, as well as splendid courage, and in six months he was discharged, He was cured as well as surgical skill could cure him, but all the surgical skill could not restore his good looks, and he was terribly and permanently disfigured.
Immediately after the fire Kingsmill sent his family to Sydney, and when Jim was out of danger, followed himself. Since the night of the fire Bessie and Jim had never met until this evening, 'but now,' concluded Harper, with a determined glance at the company, 'now, at my special request, they are going to take tops.'
Every man in the room pressed forward to shake hands with Piebald Jim.
When Dan Fitzgibbons had shaken hands with him, he said solemnly to those around him: 'Look here, boys, ten minutes ago I was talking like a blinded fool, about stouching Mr. Haydon, and I beg his pardon. I never begged a man's pardon in my life, but I beg his pardon, and if any man in the room objects to me begging his pardon, if that man will step outside, by ghost, I'll stouch him.' There was no objection, however, and we went on with the music.
That was five years ago.
Do you see that little cottage under the hill yonder—the one with the baby roses and wistaria growing up the verandah? That's where Mr. and Mrs. Haydon live. As she remarked to Mrs. Harper: 'She gave into his keeping the life he had risked his own to save.'
The two little dots you can see moving about among the peach trees are the sun-bonnets of their two little girls. They both take after their mother; they are neither of them like 'Piebald Jim'."
* * *
"I am glad," said Arthur, "that Bessie married the man who saved her life. Most women would have forgotten their debt of gratitude, and married a man for his good looks."
"I don't think so," said Charlie, "you know the most beautiful of the Goddesses married the ugliest of the Gods."
"Yes," remarked Mr. McTavish, "but she was na faithful to him. All other things being equal, no woman would prefer an ugly man to a handsome one."
"If they did," said Flanagan, "what a lady-killer Otto would be."
"If ugliness were a passport to the female heart," said Charley, "Otto would be first and the rest of us nowhere."
"Fancy Otto having a sweetheart," said Arthur.
"He did have one," said Charley. "He is going to tell us all about her."
We waited for sonic time while Otto ruminated. "What are you thinking about, Otto?" said Joe.
"Mine mind vas lookin' forvards a long time into der past. I vas tinkin' of der story I vas promise to tell you. Ah! Yosephine, how I vas lofe you. You vas der apple of mine eye, and der milk of mine cocoanut. But listen and I vill told you apout her."
"It vas like dhis. I vas prospecting in der New England district. I vas camp at a place apout ten miles from Armitale, und I egspect a letter from Sydney. So, von Saturday afternoons I puts me on a clean shirt, und I valks to der post office, apout two miles avay. In der front of der post office vas a leetle hole, vhere dhey gifs out der letters. So I go to der leetle hole und I looks in, but I sees nobody or nottings. I knocks mit mine knuggles at der shlabs, und dhen I fills mine shmoke pipe. I gets mine pipe full und dhen I shtrikes a match, und all at vonce der leetle hole he seemed to fill mit sunshine. I know no more till der match he burn mine finger, und dhen I say soomtins, und a shveet voice say mit a shmile, 'Oh fie! You ought not to shvear.'
I looks again, und I forget I burns mine finger. I sees, in der leetle hole, like a picture in a frame, der lofeliest face mine eye vas neffer seen. It vas Yosephine McGinty. Her shkin vas as shmooth as a sheet of paper, her cheeks und her lips vas as red as der end of mine nose, und vhen she laugh, she show a set of teeth, better und vhiter as vhat you see in der dentists' show cases. Her eyes vas like two black diamonds, und her hair vas friz all ofer her head, und as black as der ace of shpades. Her dress vas not button qvite oop to der top, und her throat look like it was carve out of ifory. I look at her for effer so long, und she look at me. I tink of Lurline at der bottom of der Rhine, und all der lofely female vomens I hear of in odher places, und I laughs und dhen she laughs, und dhen ve both laughs together. Dhen she say:
'Can I do anytings for you?'
Und I say, 'Yah, you can do efferytings mit me.'
Dhen she say, 'Do you coom for a letter?'
Und I say, 'Yah,' und I drops mine pipe on der ground und laughs again. Dhen she ask me mine name, und I say 'Von Stuntze,' und she gifes me a letter. Dhen she cooms out on der verandah, und my vord, she vas a fine girl. She veigh apout twelfe shtone, und vhen she shtep on der verandah, she made der tin on der roof rattle again. Und I tink I neffer seen so fine a girl, mithout she vas a vax vone in a barber's shop. Und I say to her, Vhat vas your name?'
Und she say, 'Yosephine McGinty.' Und she bite der corner of her teeth mit her apron, und look at me mit der corner of her eye, und I drops mine pipe again, und dhen ve both laughs again, und I goes avay to mine camp, und I neffer seem to touch der ground till I got dhere. I valk on der air. I see her all der vay, I see her vhite teeth bitin' her apron, und her two eyes lookin' at me out of der corners. I sees der leetle hole filled mit sunshine, und I hears der tin on der roof rattle again. Vhen I gets to mine camp, I heafes a sigh, und I say to mineself, 'Ach! but she vas a fine girl. I vas a better good mind to shtick oop to dhat Yosephine.'
Vell, I neifer egspects no more letters, but I go effery day or two to der post, und dhat Yosephine she get to know me, und she call me 'Otto,' und I call her 'Yosephine,' und effery day I say to mine-self, 'I tink I vas shtick oop mit dhat Yosephine.'
Und I hear she hafe no modher und her father is old, und he own der farm, und she have no brodhers, und no sisters, und no nobody. So I say to mineself, 'I vill shtick oop mit dhat girl Yosephine.'
Und I shticks oop mit her, und she shticks oop mit me, und ve both shticks oop mit von anodher. I buy her ribbons, und glofes, und tings, und she borrow money of me und forget to pay me, und I say to her, 'Yoseplriiie, vill you be mine frau?'
Und she say 'Yah,' und she laugh, und shmack mine face und loosen two of mine teeth und preak mine pipe, und ve vas shoost as happy as two leetle toves.
I vas on good gold at this time, un peside vat I pay for mine tucker, I shpend all mine money on Yosephine. I buy her new pridles und ridin' whips, und all sorts. She porrow more half-crowns, und half-sovereigns, und neffer pay me back soom more.
Von day I goes to der post, und I knocks at der leetle hole, und I shtoops minself down, mit mine head under it, until I hears soom von coom to it, und dhen I says to mineself, 'Now der hole is filled mit sunshine, und I vill hafe a lark.' So I pops up mine head und say 'Boo.' But vhen I look, dhere vas no sunshine dhere. Instead of mine Yosephine, it vas her Father, und he say, 'You dirty Dutch pig, if you play your larks on me soom more like dhat, I knocks you outside in.'
So I peg his pardon, und say I vas lace oop mine poot, und tell him it vas a fine day, und ask him for letters und he get cool again.
Dhen I say, 'Where vas Yosephine?' Und he tell me she vas go for a holiday. Und I say, 'Vhere to!' Und he shlam, der vindow in mine face.
Und I goes pack to mine camp, und it seemed apout ten miles. Mine feet got as heavy as if mine poots vas soled und heeled mit lead. Vhen I got pack, der fire vas out, und I couldn't light it; und der vind vas moanin' und sighin in der trees, und I couldn't eat mine tea mit a lump in mine throat, und I vondered vhere vas Yosephine, und vhy she go und not tell me first. Und I neffer go to der post any more for a month egsept apdut vonce a veek, und I take tobacco for der old man, und I shmoke mit him for half an hour or two, und dhen I say to him again, 'Vhere vas Yosephine. Did you hear from her?'
Und he say 'No.' Und I go pack to mine camp, und I creep into mine tent, und lay avake all der time I am asleep, und I get as thin as a pick-handle.
She vas gone tree veeks vhen I goes to Armitale. I sells mine gold, und I buys soom tucker, und soom pants und a shirt, und I shpends all der rest in glofes und lace und a pound of lollies und a leetle gold prooch und I goes pack to wait for anodher veek.
At last I counts oop der time und I find she vas gone four veeks. So I puts on mine new pants und shirt, und I takes der glofes und der lollies und avay I goes to der post. As I go along, a leetle bird seem to sing in mine ear, 'Yosephine is pack! Yosephine is pack!' So I shteps out qvick until I gets vhere I could see der post—und dhen I goes slow.
I sees, on der verandah' a lots of peoples, und among der rest vas Yosephine. How lofely she look, mit her vhite dress und her pink cheeks all covered ofer mit plue ribbons. Der peoples vere all talking und laughin', und vhen she laughed it reminded me of a Yerman band, vhen der flute play a solo und all der rest of der instruments accompany. Und she vas der flute. She valked along der verandah, und der tin rattle again. Und dhen I tinks of nottings but Yosephine, und I sees nottings but Yosephine, und I hears nottings but Yosephine. She fill mine eyes, mine prain, mine ears, mine efferytings. I roosh forvards und I say, 'Yosephine! mine leetle frau!'
I vas like to be able to forget der rest vhat followed aftervord. Vhen I dhat forgets, I, shall nottings at all remember. I goes to roosh at Yosephine und to take her hand, but she looks at me und laughs. (She vas alvays laughin'). Und she says, 'Dutchy, you vas fool.'
Dhen I looks at her, und I says, 'I hafe peen so lonely all der month mithout you. Gife me von leetle kiss, now you vas pack.'
Shoost at dhat moment, if not sooner, a great pig fellow in a red shirt mit sandy vhiskers and ridin' pants, cooms to me und says:
'Look here, Dutchy, do you know dhat you vas speakin' to mine vife?'
I looked at him und I tried to speak, but mine tongue vouldn't vork. Mine heart yumped into mine throat, und dhen fell into mine poots. I got hot, und dhen I got cold. Mine eyes vas shvimmin' und der people on der verandah got mixed. Der rattle of der tin seemed to be a mile avay. Dhen mine tongue began to vork again. Und I zay, 'You red teffil, you lie like efferytings.'
Dhen he say, 'Get out of dhis, or I varm it oop for you.'
I look him town und oop, und dhen oop und town again, und dhen I ducks mine head, und I at him runs like a dozen mad bulls. I tries to putt him in der pelly, put he svings his great pig fist, und vhen I vas goin' to hit him in der pelly, I hits him a shlog in der fist mit mine head, und town I fall und see apout ten million shtars all at vonst. Und I vish der ground vas der sea, so dhat I could sink down und neffer coom oop some more. Dhen I shoomps me oop again, und I sees a pig shtone in der front of der verandah, as pig as mine two fists, und I shtoops to pick it oop, but as I vas shtoopin', he vas so mean as to take hold of mine collar und mine trousers pehind, und he ooplifts me ofer his head, carries me across der road und drops me into a pig vater-hole, und I go splash, vhere dhey drinks der cows. Dhen he throws after me mine parcel, mit der glofes und der lollies und all der odher things, und der first ting I hears vhen I cooms oop und vas shpittin' out der vater, vas dhat Yosephine, laughin' like efferytings.
So I crinds oop mine teeth, und I shakes mine fist, und dhen I picked oop mine parcel und valked pack to mine camp. Und I neffer know how far it seemed. I vas a long vay off from mineself all der vay. I makes oop der fire, und I pokes der parcel into der fire, und I crawl into-mine tent all cold und vet, und I lay all night thinkin' of Yosephine in der arms of dhat pig red teffil, mit der pig fist.
At daylight I shtrike mine tent, und make mine tracks for anywhere. Vhen I gets on der top Of der pig hill, I looks at der post-office for der last time, but dhere vas no more sunshine, nor music nor anytings. Und I tinks of der days dhat vas gone, und I shakes mine fist und sigh und hoomps mine shvag. Und I valk, mit der lead on der soles of mine poots, und der sun, instead of cheerin' me he only burn me till I shiver again. Dhere vas der magpies all pokin' dheir fun at me, und der laughin' yackass, he say, 'Ha, ha, ha! Yosephine coom pack. He-he-he-he! Ha-ha-ha-ha! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!'
Und I valk, und valk, und valk, for a long time I don't know vhere. But at last I gets mineself petter again. But I neffer writes no more letters, und I neffer goes to no post-offices, und if I, at any time sees "a pig man mit red vhiskers I tinks of Yosephine, und I grinds oop mine teeth und say 'Ach,' und I shvears und kicks mineself, und I vish der ground vas der sea, so dhat I could sink me down und neffer coom oop soom more for effer und effer und effer."
* * *
"Faith," said Flanagan, when Otto had finished, "She shtruek him hard in a soft place, but it's just like the women, they'll play wid a man till they break his heart, und then they'll drop him like a hot shpud."
"Well," said Mr. McTavish, "we have only the one side of the story. Perhaps, if we heard the tale told by Miss McGinty it might put a different light on it. It struck me as Otto was telling the tale that he was not altogether a disinterested lover. I noticed as he told us of his love, that he was not sufficiently infatuated to declare his passion before he had made sure that her father was pretty snugly off. Perhaps he mourned the loss of the farm as much as the lass. And it is just possible that she saw through him. Women have great intuition. I have known cases where men have made love through motives of self-interest. I could tell you of a case that happened not so far from here; but perhaps somebody else has a story to tell."
But everybody repudiated the idea of telling a story while Mr. McTavish was willing to tell one, and he was unanimously pressed to begin.
"Well," he said, "it is not a very long story, but I think it contains a moral, and it may serve to illustrate, to a certain extent, the remarks I was making about Otto's tale. So, as you seem to wish it, I will tell you."
"There were two hotels in the township of Gumbargo. They were characteristic of the township. One—the Gumbargo Hotel—stood in the hollow near the bridge. It was a low, one-storeyed building, frequented by teamsters and shearers. It represented a class—the class that gained its living by the sweat of its brow.
The other represented those who usually wore white collars, and called themselves the genteel class. It was called the 'Commercial,' and boasted a sample room. It was here that bank managers played billiards with the school inspector, in the presence of the postmaster and the principal storekeepers. It stood on the hill, was two storeys high, had a balcony, and, with an air of importance, looked down upon its humble neighbour in the hollow, near the bridge.
They both did a thriving trade, which was the only similarity, between them. They each had their own peculiar advantages. The Gumbargo Hotel could boast that, in the olden times, the police had had an encounter with a noted bushranger under its very verandah, and it could point with pride to the bullet holes in the posts.
The Commercial could claim no such distinction, but it could boast of the fact that its affairs were ruled by as handsome a widow as ever smiled at a weary bagman over a cosy bar.
There were only two stores in Gumbargo and the volume of trade was small, but the number of commercial travellers who found it necessary to spend a night there was surprisingly large. It was remarkable, too, that ninety-nine per cent. of them were bachelors. It may be mentioned that rumour credited Mrs. Pringle with being the owner of a snug banking account.
Josiah Nickleskin represented the Commonwealt Gas Engine Company. The nearest gas to Gumbargo was twenty miles away, yet Josiah Nickleskin used to call regularly once a month.
Peter Switcham travelled for Messrs. Spark and Cable, importers of electric light appliances. He never yet got an order in Gumbargo, but he came all the same.
One hot evening in December, when Gumbargo was looking even sleepier than usual, Mr. Peter Switcham drove in from the east as Mr. Josiah Nickleskin drove in from the west, and they pulled up simultaneously at the door of the Commercial.
'Good evening, Switcham,' said Josiah, scowling as he spoke; 'just keep an eye on the horses, and I'll go in and tell them we are here.'
'Sorry, old chap,' said Switcham 'but I must go in—I'm parched.'
'So am I!' said Josiah.
It happened that Peter's horse would stand anywhere, while it was not safe for Josiah to leave his, so Peter entered the bar first.
'Good evening, Mrs. Pringle, said he. As blooming as ever. I hope you are well?'
'Quite well, thank you,' said the widow, smiling graciously. 'Who is in the other trap?'
'Oh!' replied Peter, 'it is only that bounder, Nickleskin. Let him wait. I'm dying for a drink!
'Joe!' called the wldow, see to the horses.' Then, turning to Peter, she asked what it was to be.
He had scarcely mentioned the name of it, when Niekleskin entered the bar, and with no very good grace, Peter invited him to say, 'What it was to be.' And he promptly gave it a name.
'How's business?' said Peter, as he blew the froth off it.
'Fairly brisk,' replied Josiah, following his exam ple.
'I suppose you are going on to-night,' remarked Peter, casually.
'No, I'm not!' said Josiah.
'That's a pity,' said Peter. 'I met a man in Boolah that was inquiring after a gas engine. He'll probably be gone in the morning.' Then, as Josiah did not reply, he added, 'Its only twenty miles and there'll be a beautiful moon to-night.'
'Couldn't do it!' said Josiah; 'my horse wouldn't stand it. Your horse seems fresh enough. Old Raynor, at Dingo Creek, is talking of installing the electric light in his shearing shed. You ought to push on to his place. It's only ten miles, and he'll put you up for the night.'
'Couldn't think of it, old chap—my mare wants a shoe.'
'Won't you go into the smoking-room?' said the widow. 'Dinner will be ready in about half an hour.' And, as she led the way, they both followedd.
She chatted for a few moments, and then ran ay to superintend the preparations for dinner.
Nickleskin, who was short and fat, sank into an easy chair. Switcham, who was tall and thin, leaned against the mantelpiece. They both yawned.
'You'll have nice time to take your mare and get her shod before dinner,' said Josiah. 'I'm going to have a doze.'
'Doze away,' said Peter; 'don't mind me. I'll get the mare shod in the morning.'
He took up a paper and pretended to read; in the meantime eyeing Nickleskin furtively. But Josiah didn't sleep; and every time Peter glanced up from his paper he caught Josiah's eye.
Josiah at length remarked to him, 'Don't You think it a was a waste of time to come to a place like Gumbargo to try to sell electric appliances?'
'No, I don't!' spapped Peter. 'And if I did I suppose I can please myself. If, however, I was travelling for gas engines, I should confine myself to places where gas was available.'
'Not if you were me,' said Josiah. 'I don't come here to sell gas engines.'
'I thought nota' said Peter, smiling sarcastically.
'What do you mean?' snorted Nickleskin.
'What I say!' snapped Switcham.
'I believe,' said Nickleskin, 'that you have an ulterior motive in coming here.'
'Well, and if I have?'
'If I thought you had I'd—'
'Never you mind.'
'Well, then, never you mind.'
For some time they smoked in silence, Nickleskin puffing huge clouds from a pipe, Switcham curling fantastic rings from a cigar.
Nickleskin was the first to break the silence. He gently murmured, 'Cad!'
Mr. Switcham softly responded, 'Puppy!'
'Did you speak?' snorted Nickleskin.
'I was speaking to myself,' said Peter.
'Oh!' replied Josiah. 'Then, in that case the remark was very appropriate.'
'Look here, Nickleskin,' said Peter, speaking convulsively, 'you are wasting your time. I know why you hang about here. But if you think Mrs. Pringle would throw herself away on a hedgehog, you are vastly mistaken!'
'Switcham,' said Josiah, 'you cannot hoodwink me. But let me tell you you are making an ass of yourself. If you think that that woman would tie herself up for life to a scarecrow, it is simply a proof that you are suffering from chronic mental aberration. You ought to take advice. Your brain wants cleaning.'
'Nickleskin,' exclaimed Switcham, scornfully, 'I despise you! You are an abnormity!'
'Switcham!' retorted Nickleskin, sarcastically, 'go and get analysed. You are a bye-product!'
'Gentlemen,' said Mrs. Pringle, popping her head through the doorway, 'dinner is ready.'
'You are looking as stout and well as ever, Mr. Nickleskin! said the widow, when they were seated.
Nickleskin bowed, and beamed at the widow.
'It's not healthy fat,' remarked Switcham. 'Permit me to help you to bread.'
Stout men are good-tempered as a rule,' he said. 'Don't you think so Mrs. Pringle?'
'I don't know,' said the widow, glancing alternately at Peter and Josiah. 'I always prefer to value a man by his intellectual qualifications.'
'Quite right!' said Nickleskin. 'Dr. Johnson was inclined to be stout. So was Lord Salisbury and—
'So was the prize pig's fat aunt,' interjected Peter.
'Did you address that observation to me?' demanded Josiah.
'I did not,' replied Peter; 'but if you think the comparison is obvious, I have no objection.'
Custard, gentlemen or stewed fruit?' said the widow, smiling sweetly.
'Neither, thank you,' said Josiah.
'Both, please,' said Peter.
Josiah played nervously with his serviette, while Peter ate his stewed fruit and custard; then, taking a letter from his pocket he tore off a blank sheet and scribbled: 'Switcham, you are a bounder. Will you meet me in the back paddock immediately after dinner?'
He tossed it over to Peter, and glared at him, drumming his fingers upon the table.
Peter turned up the corner and wrote, Nickleskin, you are another; I will.' And he passed it back to Josiah.
They met. And, according to the usual custom on such occasions, they pulled off their coats and faced each other with grim determination.
'Nickleskin,' said Peter, 'I'm willing to give you a chance. Will you apologise?' and his voice was tremulous with suppressed rage or some other emotion.
'No,' snorted Josiah; 'I will not apologise. Will You?'
'Then come on.'
For some tine they danced round each Other, waving their fists frantically, and several times they approached so closely that there seemed imminent danger of one or other getting hurt.
At length they paused for breath. They glared savagely at each other, when suddenly Switcham, who had the advantage in length of limb, reached forward far enough to touch Nickleskin's nose.
A copious stream of red liquid at once began to flow from that organ. Josiah, when he saw his vital fluid ebbing uselessly away, gave a snort of rage, and regardless of consequences, he rushed forward and planted his head with terrific force in that portion of Peter's anatomy where, at that moment, the stewed fruit and custard were presumably reposing.
With a sigh something like that of a broken-winded horse, Peter doubled up like a jack-knife, sank gracefully to the ground, and placed his hand upon the bottom of his light fancy waistcoat. When he raised it and saw that it was stained with blood he groaned.
'Miserable wretch!' he exclaimed, 'you have punctured me. My blood will be upon your head. Hereafter you will wander beneath the curse of Cain. Leave me to die in peace.'
'Since you so desire it, I will, with pleasure,' said Josiah, and gathering together his coat, hat and other belongings, he made his way back to the house. For some minutes, thinking his end was nigh, Switcham lay on the ground groaning. He tried to pass in review all the events of his life, as he had read of dying people doing; but he could not. Then the thought suddenly flashed across his mind that perhaps while he was lying there his rival was talking with the widow, and thus getting an unfair advantage; so jumping to his feet, he, too, made his way to the house.
On his arrival he was told that the widow had gone out to spend the evening with a friend, and that Mr. Nickleskin had gone to bed. After a stiff glass of whisky he retired, too.
The following morning Peter, who could not bear the thought of sitting at table with his hated rival, stayed in bed until half-past nine. Nickleskin, who would have gone without breakfast for a week rather than eat it in company with his adversary of the previous evening, stayed in bed until twenty minutes to ten. The result was, as the clock was striking ten, they entered the breakfast room simultaneously by opposite doors.
The widow bade them a pleasant 'Good morning,' and ordered breakfast. Josiah and Peter were taciturn and morose, the widow talkative and merry.
When the meal was drawing to a close she said, 'Gentlemen, you are both old friends of mine, and have been good customers. You will be leaving this morning, and it is only fair that I should tell you that before you come again there will be some alterations here. We are going to put some additions to the building. You both know Mr. Dingle, who keeps the Gumbargo Hotel? No? Well,' continued the widow, as she toyed with her teaspoon, 'he is a very nice man. He and I were talking the matter over last night, and we have decided that under judicious management one hotel could do all the business that is now done by two. And so—he is going to close the Gumbargo Hotel, and we are going to run the combined business at the Commercial. We shall build fresh stables, enlarge the sample-room, and—'
'Are you going into partnership?' said Switcham, nervously.
'Yes,' said the widow, coyly. 'We are—to be—married to-morrow.'
Half an hour later Mr. Nickleskin drove off to the east, and Mr. Switcham to the west, and the township of Gumbargo saw them no more."
* * *
"I vas told you a yarn apout vhen I vas on der vest coast of New Zealand," said Otto.
"I beg leave to propose that the West Coast of New Zealand be adjourned sine die," said Charley.
"Vhat you call sine die?" enquired Otto.
"It means," said Charley, "that it be postponed without any definite time being fixed for its hearing."
"If you put it off for so long as dhat," growled Otto, "you might put it Oof for so long as neffer vas. It vas a good yarn, und—Ach! yurnpin' Moses!"
Otto had been sitting on the bottom of an upturned bucket, and he uttered the above exclamation because, while he was speaking, the bucket had been suddenly kicked from under him, and as a consequence, Otto was left sprawling upon the ground.
"Yumpin' Moses!" repeated Otto, as he sprang to his feet, "If I vas catch der man vhat kick dhat bucket, I vas be all ofer him pefore he could say Yaek."
"Sure," said Flanagan, "you wouldn't be hard on a man that was just afther kickin' the bucket, would you?"
"Py shenks! I vas soon make him mind his Q's and P's," said. Otto. "I vas pretty gvick show him dhat I know how many five beans make. He might hafe made me preak mine pipe."
"Hulloa, Jim," said Flanagan, "What brings you here?"
The question was addressed to a boy who made his appearance, carrying a bag on his shoulder.
"I've brought the butter," said Jim.
Jim was the son of a neighbouring farmer, and was in the habit of visiting the camp at intervals to bring supplies of butter, eggs, and other commodities to replenish our stock.
"Vas you der von dhat kick dhat pucket?" enquired Otto.
"When?" asked Jim, innocently.
"Vhy, shoost now," said Otto. "If I tought you vas, py shenks!"
"Do I look like a boy that had just kicked the bucket?" asked Jim.
"Do I, Mr. Falconer?"
"No, Jim," said. Charley, "you do not."
"I've brought the butter," repeated Jim, evidently wishing to change the subject, "and Ma said she thought Otto might like a turkey for tomorrow, so she sent one as a present. She says she won't put it in the bill."
"Ach!" said Otto, as Jim took a fine fat turkey from his bag, "you vas der pully poy mit der glass eye."
Peace being restored, Jim took his seat by the fire, and remarked that it was fine weather for lambing.
"What's the news over at the farm?" said Flanagan.
"Nothing much," said Jim, "it's always the same old thing you know, milking and churning, and fetching up the cows, and all that sort of thing. We don't get much change. I sometimes feel as if life wasn't worth living, I do."
And then Jim began to laugh softly to himself.
"What are you laughing at?" said Flanagan.
"Oh, nothing," said Jim, "I was thinking of Mr. Thatcher, that's all."
"Who's Mr. Thatcher?" enquired Flanagan.
"Oh," said Jim, "he was a visitor. He was a bit of a change."
"Tell us about him," said Flanagan.
"I will, if you promise not to tell Lou."
"What has Lou to do wid it?" said. Flanagan.
"You'll know when you hear it," said Jim.
We all entered into a solemn promise not to tell Lou, and Jim began.
"We all had a down on him before we saw him. That wasn't his fault. It was Lou's. She blowed about him so. If she hadn't cracked him up the way she did, we shouldn't have had a down on him.
She met him in Sydney. She went down to the Show, and she stayed with Aunt Betty. Lou was the only one of us, except Dad, who had ever been to Sydney. That made her proud and uppish. She had a good time when she was in Sydney. At least, she said she did, but girls will say anything when they get uppish. I suppose she reckoned she had a good time because she met him there.
When Dad went to bring Lou home, Dad met him. Dad didn't get uppish about it; he invited hint to come up to our place for Easter. But we had enough of him long before Easter. Lou never gave him a rest. She was the only one of us who ever had a young man, so far as I know. Ma might have had one once. I don't know. I never heard her say so, but Ma's pretty close.
I didn't mind Lou having a young man. I'm only a boy—at least, they treat me as a boy, although I've got a moustache coming—but the other girls didn't like it. At least they didn't like her blowing about it so.
It was sickening. From morning to night it was Mr. Thatcher this, and Mr. Thatcher that, until we were all chock full of Mr. Thatcher.
If Dollie said the jam was nice, Lou was sure to say:—
"Oh! yes. We must save some of that till Mr. Thatcher comes!"
The back bedroom wanted papering. I had promised her for months that I would paper it—some day—when we got newspapers enough. There was plenty of time, but she wouldn't let me rest.
"Now, Jim, how about that back bedroom? We must get it done before Mr. Thatcher comes, you know."
She made us do her share of the milking while she was amusing herself whitewashing the kitchen, and digging and weeding the garden, because she wanted it to look nice before Mr. Thatcher came.
Then she got Dad to get her a new riding habit, and some new gloves, and lace, and back combs and things, because she wanted to look nice when Mr. Thatcher came.
She's not a bad sort, for a girl, and I did all t could for her, but she wanted too much. I got tired.
One day I had a geography lesson to study, so I took a couple of apples, some scones, and some comic papers down under the willows, so as to study nice and quiet, but I hadn't been there half an hour—at least, it didn't seem half an hour—when down she bounced, and whisked the paper out of my hand, and said she wanted me to nail Some palings on the garden fence, because the fowls were getting in, and scratching up the flowers, and Mr. Thatcher was so fond of flowers.
So I said, 'Oh! hang Mr. Thatcher!' the before I knew where I was, she had me by the collar of my shirt, and was shaking me that way that if she'd kept on much longer I should have spit blood or something.
Dollie asked Lou, one day, what Mr. Thatcher was.
'Oh!' says Lou, getting uppish again, 'He's in the soft goods line.'
'What's that?' says Dollie.
'You mind your own business!' says Lou.
I could see she didn't know what it was, any more than we did, but she pretended that she knew everything since she'd been to Sydney.
But, as Archie Boyle says: 'Everything comes to those who wait.'
Archie Boyle lives on the place adjoining ours. He's a grand chap, is Archie. He's got a sheep dog that took first prize at the Sydney Show. But as I was saying, everything comes to those who wait, and so the day came when he was to come.
Dad drove to the station to meet him. All the time he was gone Lou was in a fidget.
Even Ma had to speak to her, and Ma don't often grumble, especially at Lou, but I heard Ma say:—
'Sakes alive, girl, what are you dodgin' in and out for? That won't fetch him no quicker. Come here a minute. One of your hooks is undone.'
Then Lou made me go and wash myself. That was twice in about half an hour.
'And you put on your boots and stockings,' she says. 'What sort of a family do you think Mr. Thatcher will imagine we are if he sees you like that?'
And then she went on arranging the flowers on the table.
At last he came. I saw him the very first. I was behind a briar bush, down near the slip-rails. Dollie and Selina were behind the tank, and so they couldn't see him until he came round the stock-yard fence.
He looked all right, although he was a bit stiff; wearing a starched shirt and high collar made him look that way. Lou told us he was tall, with a beautiful blonde moustache.
Well, he wasn't as tall as the stockman at Harvey's, and his moustache wasn't blonde at all. It was ginger.
We were not very hungry, not being used to eat before strangers, and Lou, with an eye on us to see we didn't make a hole in our manners, but the way he put away the corned beef, and stewed fruit and junket, was a caution. I should have liked some of the chocolates he brought up, but he called me 'Sonny.' I hate anybody to call me 'Sonny,' so I said I didn't like chocolates. They were only for girls.
He got on very well with Dad. But most anybody can get on with Dad. He brought Dad up a box of cigars, and while Dad was chewing the end of one of them on the verandah, Mr. Thatcher talked.
He must have been talking pretty funny, because Dad was shaking his sides and chortling that way, I thought he'd bust! Oh, yes. He got on all right with Dad.
The next morning he was up early. So was Lou. Instead of putting on her thick boots, and going over to the milk yard, as was her obvious duty, she puts on her Sunday shoes, and her best apron with the lace on it and the things that cross on the back, and she showed Mr. Thatcher round the place.
She took him into the woolshed and explained to him how they shore the sheep. She took a long time to do it too—and—well! it's all over now. I'm satisfied, and so I 'won't split on her. But she doesn't know to this day that I was in the wool-press all the time.
Before he had been there twenty-four hours, you might have thought that he was the Shah of Proosia, and that the whole place belonged to him. They were all fussing round him, and Lou was as proud as a calf with two tails.
But, as Archie Boyle said, his reign was brief. Archie says some funny things sometimes. At least they are not always funny, but they always seem good, if Archie says them. He's going to give' me a foal next year.
He (that is, Mr. Thatcher) arrived on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday, Lou said she was going to ride to church with him.
While she was putting on her new riding habit, and back combs and things, I had to go and catch the brown mare for Mr. Thatcher to ride. Any other time she would have gone herself. She used to like to catch the brown mare. She always took a halter with her, and she'd slip it on the mare and lead her to a stump. Then She'd get on her, straddle-ways, like a man, and ride her bare backed, full canter across the paddock and jump the slip-rails.
But she wouldn't ride straddle while Mr. Thatcher was about, although I reckoned she looked best that way. But girls have no taste. They think they're clever, and especially Lou, but they don't always know when they look best.
Lou was going to ride the bay and, after I had caught the mare and rubbed her down and saddled her, Lou came out in her new riding habit, and waited for Mr. Thatcher.
Her habit looked all right. Nobody said it didn't. But anything looks well on Lou. It's not the things she wears, so much as her eyes, and fresh colour, and her figure, and she didn't make them, so there's nothing for her to be uppish about.
When Mr. Thatcher came out, I thought I should explode. He had on a long tailed coat that Ma said was a frock coat. It was something like the coats the parsons wear: a stiff collar, about three inches high, and a tall hat. It was the first tall hat I'd ever seen except in pictures, although Lou said they were quite common in Sydney.
Lou stood there a while, holding the bridle of her horse, and waiting for Mr. Thatcher to help her mount, but he took no notice, and so she led her horse round to the chopping block, and mounted him there.
I was holding the mare for him. He looked a bit pale, and says:—
'Is he quiet?'
'It ain't a he,' I says, 'It's a mare.'
And then he tried to mount.
'Steady, old boy!' he says.
'I wouldn't try to mount her like that,' I says, 'She's as quiet as a lamb, but she wouldn't let me mount her on the off side.'
'Oh!' he says. 'Is that what you call the off side, Sonny?' and he went round to the other side.
'Whoa! old boy?' he says, as he was hopping round on his left foot, and trying to put his right into the stirrup.
Just then I heard a choking sound behind the tank and I knew that Dollie and Selina were there, and when I saw Dad and Mum peeping through the window blind, I did explode. Dad's grin made me do it. I couldn't have helped it if I'd had to be killed for it.
I looked at Lou. She was getting red in the face, and biting her lip, but she pretended to be buttoning her glove.
I showed him which foot to put in the stirrup, and after a lot of struggling he managed to get on top of the brown mare. She was as quiet as anything, but she was getting impatient so, as soon as he was on the saddle, and before he had his foot in the stirrup, she started.
Then Mr. Thatcher let the reins fall over her head, and gripped her by the mane.
'Whoa! Old boy!' he said.
I picked up the reins and gave them to him, and as I did, the brown mare turned her head round and looked at him, and then she gave me a glance out of the corner of her eye that was almost human.
I showed him how to hold the reins, and I put his other foot in the stirrup, and then Lou says, in her sweetest tone:—
'Are you ready, Mr. Thatcher?'
'I think so,' he says, and then he started chirruping to the mare.
'Get up, old boy,' says he. But the brown mare only sighed and took no notice. So I gave her a flick with my hat, and off they started. Lou went first, and the mare followed her.
Just at the corner of the garden fence there was a lilac tree, and as the mare took a short cut round the corner, one of the branches caught Mr. Thatcher's tall hat, and off it went, and away went Mr. Thatcher across the paddock after Lou, without his hat.
Lou was going at an easy canter, and the mare was trotting. As she trotted, Mr. Thateher bumped. Every time he rose he went a foot out of the saddle, and every time he came down he landed in a different place. Sometimes he bumped on the saddle, sometimes on the pommel, and sometimes on the mare's neck, but never twice in the same place, even by accident.
I shouted for Lou to stop, and I picked up his hat and ran after him, straightening out the dents as I went. I soon caught up to them, but the mare didn't like the look of the tall hat, and kept backing away, so that Mr. Thatcher couldn't reach it.
By this time, he was like a picture in a comic paper. His long tailed coat was all hunched up between his shoulders, and his trousers had worked up that way that you could see his bare calves above his socks.
All the time I was trying to give him his hat, Lou was sitting on the bay horse, cutting leaves off a sapling with her riding whip, as vicious as could be.
Just at this moment, who should come riding across the paddock on his way to church, but Archie Boyle. He was riding a colt that he had just broken in, and when he pulled up to speak to Lou, the colt started bucking. But Archie sat there as comfortable as if he was in a rocking chair. While the colt was bucking, he was talking to Lou and mending his whip.
'Hold the reins short,' I says to Thatcher, 'and then grab your hat, quick!' and I managed to give it to him.
He was just fixing it on with one hand, and holding tight on to the reins with the other, when the mare saw a tussock of grass that took her fancy, and she bobbed down her head to reach it. When she did so, Mr. Thatcher kept his grip of the reins, but lost his balance, and went clean over the mare's head into a briar bush.
His face and hands were scratched a bit, his hat was a wreck, and his pants torn that way that it was a mercy that his coat had long tails to it.
Lou's face was a study. I know what it means when Lou gets all red, and then pale directly after.
'Jim!' she screamed, 'Catch the brown mare, take the saddle off her, and turn her into the paddock. I'm going to church with Mr. Boyle.' Then she laughed, and said:—
Come on, Archie,' and away she went across the paddock, full gallop. She jumped the slip-rails, with Archie close after her, and I helped Mr. Thatcher out of the briar bush.
When Lou came back she said she had a headache, and didn't want any dinner.
Mr. Thatcher didn't stay long after that, and while he did stay, Lou was cold to him. Ice was a fiery furnace compared with her.
I've only heard her mention his name once since. It was while she was on the verandah one night with Archie. I was sitting under the lilac tree and they didn't know I was there, but if she reads this she needn't be afraid. I won't split on her. I'm quite satisfied, and besides, Archie's sheep dog is going to have pups, and he's going to give me one.
But this is what she said:—
'Don't be stupid, Archie!' (she needn't be afraid, I won't split) 'Don't tease me about Mr. Thatcher. I laugh every time I think of him. The idea of me caring two straws about a man who couldn't ride our old brown mare.'"
* * *
By the time Jim had finished his story, Otto had forgotten the bucket, and was in his customary good humour. He wanted to tell us a yarn about a man who rode a buckjumper, but Mr. McTavish said it was time to stop yarning for the night, and soon after that we went to bed.
Our task was getting near its completion, and an air of sadness reigned over the camp in consequence. We were sitting, one night, each occupied with his own thoughts, which, to judge by the air of gloom which hung over the camp were not of the pleasantest, when Mr. McTavish enquired the reason of the apparent want of spirits.
"What ails you, lads?" said he, "you are all as grumpy as a lot of old hens that have lost their chicks. Why don't you tell some yarns? Our time is getting short, and we shall be soon separating. Do not let us part in sadness. Let us rather part with the satisfactory feeling that we have done our duty to our employers and to each other, and trust to Providence that we shall meet again."
"Tell us a yarn, Charley," said Flanagan, "and let us get rid of the blues."
"I could not tell a yarn to-night," said Charley, "I feel too dull."
"I vas tell you—" said Otto.
"Oh, shut up," said Flanagan. "You don't think that anybody is frettin' because they are partin' from you, do you?"
"You vas very often part mit a better man," said Otto.
"I belave ye, me bhoy," answered Flanagan, "but wid the greatest respect for your veracity and your eloquence, and all that kind of thing, we are goin' to dispense wid your services to-night. If we have a yarn, there is Arthur, he will tell us something, and we shall be all thinkin' of Arthur for many a long year afther we have left this camp and forgotten that such a person as Otto ever lived. Tell us something, Arthur."
As usual Arthur was modest, but after a little coaxing began:—
"Marjorie Medlyn was an only child, and, as is frequent in such cases, she had been petted, and, perhaps, slightly spoiled.
She was pretty and accomplished, clever and affectionate, but decidedly sentimental. Her twenty-first birthday was only just passed, and yet she felt that the noon-tide of life was gone forever. For her, the future held no promise of Hope or Joy.
She was suffering all the pangs of disappointed love, for she had bestowed her youthful heart upon a plumber.
His name was Edwin, and it was not his fault that Fate had placed him in a somewhat humble sphere of life. Nor was he to blame because Nature, being in a stingy mood, had endowed him with a form of diminutive proportions. But, if his stature was small, his heart was large. Nobody but Marjorie knew the great things of which he was capable, had Fate been kinder, and Nature more liberal. During their stolen interviews at the back gate, he had told her all about them. He had shown her his heart, and she was satisfied.
She sympathised with him for the cruel way in which Nature and Fate had combined to make a martyr of him. And so she loved him, not for what he was, but for what he might have been. He hinted that he might yet be great socially (alas, he could never be great physically), if she would only stick to him.
'It's all a matter of Fate and Figure,' he used to murmur, but more Fate than Figure. I'm as big as Lord Roberts, or nearly, and might have been as great as he, but for Fate. He's a fairish General. I'm a fairish Plumber. That's all the difference. I might not be able to win a battle as well as he, but I'd like to see him mend a gutter, make a tank, or wipe a joint. I'd beat him hands down every time. Yet, look at him, and look at me. He kills people and gets rewarded, gets a pile of money, and they make him a Duke or something. I saves people's lives by attending to their sanitary appliances, and then gets abused because their drains get out of order, which is mostly their own fault, through chokin' of 'em and expecting of 'em to do impossibilities.'
So Marjorie promised to stick to him, and, for a while, the future beamed upon them with a rosy but uncertain light.
But inexorable Fate, like a grim Nemesis, was still on Edwin's track. It materialised one night and took the form of old Medlyn with a big horsewhip in his hand.
Medlyn was a retired shoemaker, with several terraces of houses of his own, and a good round sum invested in stocks and shares. He was, therefore, in the social scale, several degrees above a mere plumber. Medlyn was a big man, Of a kindly disposition, but of a violent temper. He had his own peculiar views as to the kind of suitor who ought to come wooing his handsome, bouncing daughter. And Edwin did not correspond with those views.
'A whippersnapper of a plumber, who mends one leak and makes two. Acting as if he was a man; when he only wears threes. To come sneaking round after a fine handsome girl who will someday have terraces of her own. I'll show him!'
And he did.
When a big, strong man, with an ungovernable temper, flourishes a large whip and threatens to use it, to a small man, with a peace-loving and sensitive nature, there is but one course open.
Edwin adopted that course and did what his prototype never did. He bolted. He disappeared over the back fence, as if he were a cat with a bull-dog after him.
Two brief, agonising, stolen interviews followed, at the last of which, Edwin, with many sighs (and frequent glances up the lane) had told her that he was suffering from nervous prostration, and that the continual dread of meeting a violent man with a horsewhip was breaking him down. It was more than he could bear.
Fate was too strong for him, and he had resolved to submit to the inevitable. He had brought her back the matchbox she had given him, and henceforth he would let Fate do with him as it pleased.
Hence it was, that at the age of twenty-one, the world, to Marjorie, had lost its charm, and life was a drear, dead waste. For her the sun had ceased to shine, the moon and stars had lost their lustre, the flowers their perfume, music its charm, and ice cream its flavour. She felt that it would be only a question of time when the roses would fade from her cheeks, and she consulted her glass daily to discover on them that tinge of 'green and yellow melancholy' which she had always considered a fitting and proper accompaniment of a broken heart.
But she was twenty-one, and legally her own mistress. She inherited some of her father's spirit, and so she resolved to do something. She did not at first know what, but she must and would do something. She would not submit tamely. She decided at last that she would go away. Anywhere, so long as it was away from the home of her infant nurture, and ultimate disappointment. She would seek the drug Nepenthe, and she would pass the few remaining days of her miserable existence in oblivion. So, with this object in view she sought a registry office.
In answer to her inquiries, the keeper of the office said 'Yes, he knew of a nice place up the country, where they wanted a good-looking young lady as companion.'
'Is it a quiet place,' asked Marjorie, where one could live, as it were, away from the cruel crowd, in a kind of oblivion?'
'Yes,' said the registry office keeper. 'It is about the most oblivious place I know of. It is a little roadside inn, ten miles from the nearest township, in a most romantic district, where the 'possums roost on the ridge pole, and the wallabies camp in the back yard. Where, if it wasn't for the laughing jackasses, you might fancy yourself in Heaven.'
Marjorie had never been farther from Sydney than Parramatta, and her only idea of a country inn had been derived from a house by the roadside, where, while the horse was feeding, her father had regaled her with afternoon tea. It was near Granville, and she remembered the roses that hung in clusters round the rustic porch, the scent of a magnolia whose leafy branches shaded the verandah, and the air of sweet drowsy peace that pervaded the place.
This was her ideal of a country inn, and, with this memory in her mind, she accepted the situation, and paid the registry office keeper his fee.
The next morning Marjorie was missing from breakfast. The servant girl, dispatched to seek her, returned with a note which had been found on Marjorie's dressing table. It was brief, but to the point. It stated, in the fewest possible words, that Marjorie, having been thwarted in her fondest hopes, had gone to seek oblivion, trusting that heaven would forgive everybody for their cruel conduct towards her. In the corner were the initials M.M., and near the initials were two smears, where two drops of moisture had evidently been wiped away.
While her father swore, her mother wept, and the breakfast was getting cold, Marjorie, who had been travelling all night in the mail train, sat waiting, with a small carry-all by her side, and a big lump in her throat, at a little railway platform some distance south of Cootamundra, for the 'conveyance' which was to take her to her destination. The 'conveyance' turned up at last, and it turned out to be a large springless dray with four horses, the driver of which had promised to take her to the 'Half-way House.'
After a rough journey, which seemed to Marjorie as though it would have no end, they arrived at their destination and, while the teamster adjourned to the bar with the landlord, Marjorie was enabled to obtain her first glimpse of her new home.
It was a low, one-storied building, standing a little distance from the road. It was built of slabs, and had, at some remote period of its history, been white-washed. The verandah, with its floor of slabs, bore evidence of being a camping ground for poultry. A weather-beaten swagman was sleeping at one end, and near the other, a consumptive-looking pig was rooting. In a kerosene tin, near the corner post of the verandah, were the decaying remains of a creeping plant, which had once rashly attempted to climb the post, but, receiving little or no encouragement in its efforts, had died in the attempt.
A small sign-board, which creaked mournfully upon its rusty hinges, proclaimed, in dissipated characters, that this was the "Half-way House," by Michael Sullivan.
Why it was called the half-way house, no one knew, but it was as good a name as any othe, so no one cared.
The surrounding country was level and monotonous. The only signs of vegetation were a few wattle trees at the side of the house and, scattered about in the distance, some stunted gums, from most of which bark had peeled in shreds and patches, giving to the trees a sad and forlorn appearance.
Marjorie had scarcely time to notice these things, when she was startled by the discordant voice of Mrs. Sullivan, the lady to whom she had come to act as companion.
'I see ye've got here,' said that lady.
Marjorie turned, and in the door-way, which was filled by her ample proportions, she saw the landlady of the Half-way House. She was clothed in a short grey dress, beneath which could be seen a pair of men's boots. One corner of her dirty white apron was tucked up through her apron string, her arms were red and bare, and her hair was twisted into an untidy knot, above a face the colour of a dirty brick.
'Don't be afther shtandin' in the sun and ruinin' yer complexion. Come in and get something to ate and a cup of tay. I suppose it's tired ye'll be afther thravellin',' and she led the way into the house.
Pointing to a small door leading from the dining room, she said:—
'You can take off your things in there; it is your bedroom. If you want a wash, you'll find a tin dish out on the shtool, and a towel behind the kitchen door. There's wather in the tank, but be shparin' of it. If we don't soon get rain, it's from the creek we'll have to be cartin' it, and it's three miles away.'
Marjorie could scarcely touch the coarse food placed before her by Mrs. Sullivan, but she swallowed some of the strong tea and felt somewhat refreshed. After a critical examination, Mrs. Sullivan seemed to be favourably impressed by Marjorie's apearance and, lunch over, she proceeded to coach her in her duties.
'Have ye ever served in a bar?' she inquired.
'No,' answered Marjorie, 'I don't think I could do that.'
'Sure, ye don't know what ye can do till ye thry,' replied Mrs. Sullivan. ''Tis aisy enough, so it is. All you have to do is to make yourself look nice and be agreeable to the min. That'll of courss come nathural to ye. The min do come here in patches. Sometimes the whole day will pass and divel a man will we see barrin' the coachman, and we don't see him because he passes in the night, and then perhaps, we'll get a half a dozen or so, tamesters and the like, wid maybe a shearer or two, and when we get them we like to keep them as long as we can and their money houlds out. So you must shmile at them, and not mind their little familiarities. It pays to plaze them.'
'If you please,' said Marjorie, 'I think I would rather not have anything to do with the bar, if it is all the same to you.'
'But it is not all the same to me,' retorted Mrs. Sullivan, warmly.
'But I thought—that is—I understood, that I was to be a companion?'
'A companion, is it? And sure, how can you be a companion unless you make yourself companionable whin we have company? 'Twill maybe be awkward at first, but you'll soon get used to it. Ye'll soon get accustomed to the min and their little ways. It'll grow on you, till you come to like it. I was shy myself once—a long time ago.'
Marjorie happened to arrive at a slack time, and so nothing of moment occurred during the first few days of her stay at the Half-way House, but her ideal of a roadside inn was shattered. She was plucky and proud and obstinate, or she would have written to her father at Once; but the dirt, the rough accommodation, the ugly monotony' of her surroundings, and the habitual untidiness of Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan were totally different to anything she had ever seen or imagined.
Her sleeping apartment was a little skillion room, which had apparently been dabbed on to the side of the house. In one end was a straw mattress on a canvas stretcher, while in the other lay a miscellaneous heap of broken saddlery and harness, a plough-share, and some milk cans and empty bottles. The only seat was a gin-case. The toilet accommodation was strictly limited, but the ventilation was ample, because the door refused to shut, and the moonlight fell through the joints of the slabs, forming streaks of light on Marjorie as she slowly sobbed herself to sleep.
One afternoon, about a week after her arrival, there was an unusual stir. It was caused by the advent of guests at the hotel. There were three of them, and they were shearers journeying from one shed to another. Two of them were personally known to Sullivan, and the third, who was introduced as Big Mat, the Ringer, was known by reputation.
They were shy at first, and awkward, but Mrs. Sullivan, with a few coarse jokes, soon put them at their ease. After each had shouted in turn, and Sullivan had shouted for the honour of the house, their tongues were loosened. Then they all talked at once; and to Marjorie, the conversation was almost as unintelligible as a foreign tongue.
With many strange expletives, they talked of 'hoggets,' 'wethers,' 'yews,' and 'weaners,' while Big Mat, a dark-bearded man of herculean proportions, descanted on the relative merits of crossbreds and merinos. At length, he remarked that it was time to be moving.
'Come wid me into the bar,' said Mrs. Sullivan to Marjorie, who was sitting on a stool near the door of the dining-room. 'Come in, till I introduce you.'
'I would rather not,' replied Marjorie, shrinking.
'Faith! but you must,' said Mrs. Sullivan peremptorily. And Marjorie was so terrified, that she allowed herself to be half led and half dragged into the bar by Mrs. Sullivan, who introduced her to the shearer trio.
After this, it was comparatively easy for Mrs. Sullivan to persuade the men to take a snack of cold corned beef and hot fried onions, the odour from which was floating temptingly through the house.
When they had finished their repast, Sullivan remarked that he thought a storm was brewing, and that he wouldn't be surprised to see the creeks flooded before morning. As if to confirm his opinion, a few big drops of rain pattered on the roof of the verandah; so with a side-long glance at Marjorie, and another at the weather, the shearers agreed to turn their horses into the paddock and to stay for the night.
This being done, Big Mat called upon Sullivan to fill 'em up again, and the object of the Sullivans was achieved.
The three shearers were on the spree, and before many hours had passed, they were all noisily and uproariously drunk.
The spree lasted for a week, and during this time Marjorie was in a state of terror. At first, the men were bashfully and effusively polite. Then they got familiar, and after that, rude.
Marjorie avoided them when she could, but the place was small, and in the intervals between drinking, gambling, arguing and swearing, they used to seek her out as though she were a part of the entertainment for which they were paying. It was Saturday evening, and Marjorie, to get as far as possible from the sounds of revelry, had strolled, as she thought, unnoticed, to a clump of wattles that grew about a hundred and fifty yards from the houe. Here she sat, listening to the monotonous croaking of the frogs, the mournful cry of the curlew, and the calling of a distant mopoke. She was thinking of home. How she wished she could see the burly form of her father. She tried to think of the plumber, but she could not think of him without seeing his coat-tails flying over the fence.
She was suddenly startled by the sound of a footstep, and, before she could move, she was confronted by the whisky-flushed face of Big Mat, who approached her with a leer, which he intended for a propitiatory smile.
'So I've found you, my little beauty, have I?' he said, advancing, 'It's no use you getting up. Stop where you are, and we'll have a nice little talk. I've been wanting to have a pitch with you.'
But Marjorie rose from her seat with a look or anger and contempt.
'You might as well sit still,' said Mat, 'You can't get away, and it's no use singing out, because nobody but the frogs could hear you. Come and sit down with me for a while.'
He made a grab at Marjorie, who was trembling with fear, but she eluded him, and started to run for the house, but the ground was rough, and she had not gone a dozen yards when Mat caught her, and gripped her round the waist.
Marjorie struggled and fought, but although she was a strong girl, she was as an infant in the grasp of a giant.
'Keep still, darn yer,' he said. 'You'll make me hurt you. You can't hurt me. But mind, for every punch I'll have a kiss. So punch away, that's about ten you owe me now. It's no use kicking, I'm going to take 'em.'
But if Mat was strong, Marjorie was lithe and supple, and so she struggled, and managed eventually to slip away from him, with no further damage than a flushed face, a torn blouse, and the loss of some hair-pins.
Taking advantfige of her liberty, she ran towards the house, with Big Mat stumbling and cursing behind her.
He was within three yards of her as she turned the corner of the house, and felt certain he would catch her on the verandah, but on turning the corner after her, he found that she had taken refuge behind a horse, which a young man was just hitching up to the verandah post.
'What the dickens do you mean?' said the young man. 'Do you want to frighten my horse. If you had come round that corner like that a second earlier, he would have bucked me into the middle of next week.'
'Get out of my road,' panted Big Mat. 'I'm after that there girl, and by ghost I'in going to have her.'
'Please,' pleaded Marjorie, 'Don't let him touch me. He has insulted me.'
Big Mat laughed.
'Fancy!' he said, 'Fancy one of Mother Sullivan's chickens being insulted.'
The young man looked at Marjorie with a glance in which there was not much sympathy, but, turning to Mat, he said, 'It doesn't matter what the girl is, she evidently doesn't want to have anything to do with you, so leave her alone.'
'And what the blazes is it to do with you, Mr. Murray?' said Mat, fiercely. You mind your own business. This isn't your station. This is Sullivan's pub. One man's as good as another here, and perhaps a derned sight better. You're not the boss here.'
'Take the advice of a friend,' said Murray, 'and leave the girl alone.'
'Friend be hanged,' said Mat. 'Who ever heard of a squatter being the friend of a shearer'? All you want of us, is to graft and get your wool off. And that we've done.'
'And you got your cheque,' answered Murray, 'and by all appearance you are not making the best use of it.'
'Bah!' retorted Mat, 'I've got no time for you. Get out of my road or I'll flatten you.'
'You won't touch that girl while I am here,' said Murray, quietly.
But Mat was excited and tried to thrust Murray aside. Finding the young man obstinate, he aimed a swinging blow at Murray's face.
Owing, however, to the face shifting, he missed his aim, and instead, received a stinging blow from the shoulder, that sent him sprawling on to the verandah.
In a second, Mat was on his feet, and as he tugged at his shirt, to pull it over his head, his language was picturesque in the extreme.
The noise attracted Sullivan and the other shearers from the house, and they tried in vain to pacify Big Mat.
I will not try to describe the events of the quarter of an hour that followed. Mat was the hero of a hundred fights. His fame had extended to every shearing shed from Monaro to the Darling, and many a shearer, and many a rouseabout, carried indelible mementos of Mat's big fist.
But Murray had been champion boxer of his college, and, three years ago, had shone brilliantly in intercolonial football. He was, moreover, always in condition, and he was sober.
When they carried Big Mat to bed, and Murray had removed from himself all traces of the recent battle, Marjorie summoned up courage enough to thank him.
'Oh, that's all right,' he said. 'Only a young and pretty girl like you ought to try to do better than act as a decoy in a place like this.'
'You are mistaken,' said Marjorie, with a flush of anger, 'I am not a decoy. I have only been here a fortnight, and I was brought here under false pretences.'
Murray began to take more interest.
'In what way?' he said. 'I don't quite understand. Are you here against your will?'
Marjorie explained as much as she thought necessary, and Murray whistled and hitched up his horse again.
'I don't know what to do,' he said. 'I don't like the idea of leaving you here among these ruffians. Can you ride' If you can, I will try to get a horse from Sullivan and take you home to our place.'
'I have never been on a horse in my life,' said Marjorie.
'That's awkward.' And Murray whistled again. Then he added, 'But perhaps you would not care to come?'
'I cannot stay here,' said Marjorie. 'I will walk. I do not care how far, if you will tell me where I can go.'
'Our place is only six miles,' Murray said. 'The Mater would think it strange, but she would understand if I explained. Will you trust yourself with me?'
'Cannot you make up your mind?' enquired Murray.
'I have made up my mind to leave this place,' she said, 'but I can only trust you if you trust me. If you still believe I am a decoy, I will walk to the railway.'
'I believe you are speaking the truth. Will you come with me and stay with my mother until we can see what is best to be done?'
'Yes,' she said, 'I can walk.'
'I will tell you what we will do then,' he said. 'You shall ride my horse and I will lead him. You will be perfectly safe.'
Marjorie consented, and so, after running in to get her hat, and straighten her hair, she started off with Murray towards the setting sun.
Mrs. Murray was at first shocked, and then, after hearing Marjorie's simple confession, pleased, and she remarked to Miss Murray that it was just like Don. The dear boy was always doing something unexpected and eccentric. He was so brave, and he never paused to ask himself what the world might say.
The next post carried a contrite letter from Marjorie to her father, and an explanatory note from Mrs. Murray to Mrs. Medlyn. In a couple of days old Medlyn was there to claim his daughter, and to thank Donald Murray for her rescue. Visitors were scarce at Murray's Flat, and so, as Medlyn was a jolly old chap, and took a keen interest in station life, he was easily induced to stay for a few days and the days accumulated until he had been there a month.
'You must come and stay With me, when you come to Sydney,' he said, when leaving. And so, it came to pass, that when Don took his mother and his sister to Sydney, they stayed some time with the Medlyns. Besides staying with them they made several calls. Sometimes Donald took his mother, sometimes he took his sister, and sometimes both. It also happened that he called at times alone.
The next time Marjorie passed the Half-way House, she had learned to ride. The diminutive plumber had faded from her memory, for by her side, rode a stalwart young squatter. The frogs were still croaking, and the mopoke calling, but she heard them not. She was journeying to Murray's Flat to take her place as its mistress."
* * *
I well remember the last Sabbath in the camp by the Murrumbidgee. We were all glad that our work was done, and we were elated at the prospect of a change and a holiday. But over our elation rested a great shadow. It was the consciousness that, before another Sabbath could come, the dwellers in our camp would be separated, in all human probability, never to meet again. We forgot each other's weaknesses, and remembered only the good qualities in our mates, which before had not been so apparent.
Mr. McTavish was the first to break a somewhat gloomy silence.
"We have finished our work lads, and must soon break camp and part, but you must not let that make you sad. It is ordained that a things must have an end, and we have the satisfaction of knowing that we have been fairly happy together. When men have to work together, eat together, and camp together, they find out all the weaknesses and follies of their neighbours, but they also discover many good qualities which a less close acquaintance would never reveal. It is the small things of a man's life that make up his character. But away wi' melancholy. Tell us a tale, Otto."
"I vas hafe no tale in mine head," said Otto sadly, "And if I did it von't coom out. I vas tinkin' all der day as I vas do der cookin' dhat it vas der last Sunday I vas cook for you all, and—" Otto shrugged his shoulders, spat in the fire, and said "Ach!" Then he collapsed.
No one seemed inclined to try to dispel the gloom, and so, conquering for the moment my proverbial modesty (which I have previously alluded to), I said that I remembered a little incident which might interest them, and, if they liked, I would try to tell it.
The suggestion was hailed with acclamation, and so, thus encouraged, I told them the following little story:—
John Walker sat in the smoking room of his club. His good-tempered face beamed with an expression of supreme satisfaction. As he turned up his cigar to an angle of forty-five degrees, and blew the smoke in curling clouds above his head, he smiled the smile of a man who has wrestled with a knotty problem and mastered it. John Walker (or Jack Walker, as he was more familiarly styled), was the manager of a large Sydney company and, being the owner of considerable property, was looked upon by his acquaintances as a solid and substantial man. By those who knew him more intimately, and valued him for his personal qualities, he was known as a genial jolly good fellow.
In the midst of his meditations entered Billings.
'Well, Jack,' said Billings, as he straddled a vacant chair, 'you seem to be remarkably pleased with yourself. More lucky speculations, I suppose?'
'My present speculations,' replied Walker, 'concern the future, and as you happen to be concerned with that future, you might as well learn what they are. Of course you know that Billy Graham is going to get married? I thought you did. The news is public property. The auspicious event is to take place on the sixteenth. Well, Saturday next is the fifth, and I am going to ask you and Tom Spicer, with Watty Strachan, and Jack Vennis, to meet Billy at my place on the mountains, and stay until Monday. Billy is going to take a trip to Europe after the wedding. The passages of himself and the future Mrs. Graham are booked by the Mulgravia, which leaves on the day after the ceremony, and so, we may not have a chance to meet all together again for some time. We are all such old chums that I think it will be nice to spend a couple of days together before we separate. What do you think?'
'I think the idea is splendid,' replied Billings. 'But you are sure we can get back on Monday? Let me see, Monday is Bank Holiday. I can spare Monday, but on Tuesday morning I must be back at the bank. You know that I am chief cashier, and must be on duty to the tick.'
'I suppose the bank would burst if you were not there,' said Walker, laughing.
'The bank might not burst,' said Billings, 'but if I were not there, there would be a row—a devil of a row,' he added, thoughtfully.
'Ah, well,' said Walker, 'you need not fear. I must be back on Monday myself. There is a meeting of the Great Bonanza Syndicate on Tuesday. I am proposing a candidate for secretary, and old Stinson is proposing another. He always makes it a rule to oppose me, and I wouldn't let him beat me this time for a thousand pounds.'
After some more conversation, which does not affect this story, Jack Walker adjourned to the library and wrote his invitations.
They were short but effective.
'Meet the 2.20 train on Saturday. Bring your tooth-brush and a divided skirt. Train accommodation and tickets will be provided. From the time the train leaves Redfern until it arrives there again, you are my guest.'
Jack Vennis said that he thought it was a mean way of doing things.
'He expects us,' said he, 'to pay our own cab fare.'
It would be difficult to find a more jovial party than that which filled the special compartment of the 2.20 train on that particular Saturday afternoon. Every man was punctual, and all were in high good humour. They were delighted to leave the cares and responsibilities of business behind, and to breathe the pure air of the mountains even for a little while.
Billy Graham was the lion of the party, for it was given in his honour.
'By Jove!' he said, as the train puffed out of the station, 'This is a treat. Jack must have got wind of my arrangements. I have got just three days to spare. My intended wife—you never met her, Spicer—she is the dearest little woman in the world. Tall and fair, with eyes like—like—'
'All right.' Spicer, 'we'll take her eyes for granted, and I'll write some verses about her. I know the style, all intended brides are like that. What about her?'
'Well, she's the dearest little woman, but she can't bear me out of her sight. I couldn't possibly have got away, you know, but for the fact that she had to go to Goulburn to bid good-bye to her cousins there. She will be down by the train arriving at 4.45 on Monday, and I have promised faithfully to meet her. We have an awful lot to do next week.'
'I suppose you will be coming down on Monday?' said Walker to Strachan.
'I must,' answered Strachan. 'I have been for weeks making up an estimate for the North Coast Railway, and the tenders have to be in on Tuesday morning. I must be on the spot in person, for I have to arrange for the deposit.'
'I,' said Jack Vennis, 'am retained for the defence in a case that is coming on at the Criminal Court on Tuesday. It promises to be a remarkable trial. I have been making a special study of it, and I reckon to make a name through it. It is the sort of case I have been dreaming about ever since my admission to the bar. When are you going back, Spicer?'
'I was just trying,' said Spicer, as he nibbled the point of a pencil, to find a rhyme for silver.'
Jack Walker's mountain residence was a large, square-built stone house, standing in the middle of a ten acre block, and was replete with every comfort and convenience. The grounds had been tastefully improved, and the flower and vegetable gardens, and orchard, were well kept by James Spratt, the caretaker, whose wife was responsible for the tidiness of the house itself.
Walker had sent up his daughter and his niece on the previous day, to prepare for his guests, and dinner awaited them.
The meal being over, some of Walker's cigars were sampled on the verandah, moistened with some whisky, at which, even the fastidious Strachan smacked his lips. The girls played and sang, Jack Vennis sang, Walker related anecdotes of the old coaching days, and so good-tempered were the party, that they even allowed Tom Spicer to recite some of his own verses.
The next morning all were up early, and the men went down the gully at the back of the house and enjoyed a shower bath under the waterfall near the Lady's Bower.
After breakfast they started on a trip to the Kanimbla Valley, arranging to call on the way at the Bushranger's Cave. Before they started, Walker apologised for a slight alteration in his plans.
'I intended,' he said, 'to send Spratt ahead with a hamper, and he would have lit a fire and boiled the billy, but his wife is not well this morning, and I don't like to leave her alone all day as she is sick, so it comes to this, we must take it in turns to carry the hamper, or we must leave the girls at home with Mrs. Spratt. Which do you prefer?'
'I'll carry the hamper until I drop,' said Jack Vennis, 'rather than leave the girls at home.'
'I'll take my turn,' said Strachan.
'So will I,' said Billy Graham.
'And I,' said Billings.
'And I,' echoed Spicer.
'Rather than leave the girls, I'll take the hamper,
And like a What's-his name, I'll gaily scamper.
'Oh! shut up,' said Jack Vennis. 'And, as a warning against repeating that kind of thing, you shall carry the hamper first.'
'It is all down hill to the valley,' said Walker, 'and I guess the hamper will not be quite so heavy coming back.'
They took a short cut through the bush, the sombre colouring of which was relieved by the brilliant flowers of the waratah, and they soon arrived at the top of the zigzag path which forms the only practical approach to the valley from this direction. Fresh views of gorgeous mountain scenery were revealed by every turn of the path. Hill was piled upon hill, and rock upon rock, in the wildest confusion, while, in the background, rose mountain upon mountain, until the farthest ones lost themselves in the blue haze of the distance.
The path to the valley had been hewn out of of the side of the hill. On the one hand rose the mountain, thickly tangled with ferns of every description, on the other fell a steep precipice, low down which could be seen, like a piece of white tape, a continuation of the same zigzag path.
Jack Walker and Vennis walked ahead, Strachan was busy examining the rocks and calculating their possible commercial value, Billings and Graham were paying particular attention to Miss Walker, and her cousin, Miss Bell, whilst Spicer toiled slowly along in the rear, carrying the hamper.
They reached and explored the Bushranger's Cave, then prepared to continue their journey to the bottom of the valley. After going some little distance, Vennis, looking back, saw Spicer sitting on the hamper with his notebook in his hand.
'Come along Spicer,' shouted Vennis.
'I can't,' said Spicer, 'I haven't found that rhyme for silver.'
'You can think that out going along,' said Vennis.
'No I can't,' said Spicer. 'Not while I'm carrying that hamper.'
Then he added, as he mopped his face with his handkerchief, 'It is a curious fact that the higher, the altitude the lower the specific gravity. When we commenced to descend this path, this hamper weighed about fifty pounds. It now weighs a hundred and fifty. If I carry it to the bottom it will weigh a ton. That is beyond me. I will come, if you desire my company, but the hamper remains. I think it will be better for you all to go on. I will stay here and mind the hamper.'
'Not if I know it,' said Vennis. 'Why Miss Walker is turning pale at the mere suggestion. Let me take the hamper.'
'With the greatest pleasure,' said Spicer.
So Vennis took the hamper, and Spicer paired off with Miss Walker, to discuss the relative merits of Browning and Longfellow.
When the party reached home in the evening they were all tired, but of the unanimous opinion that they had had a glorious outing.
After dinner they rested. Music was prohibited, because the caretaker's wife was not well, so they talked. Walker of the meeting of the Great Bonanza, Billings of financial matters, Strachan of the number of men he should require to build the new railway, Vennis of the intricacies of the law, while Billy Graham discussed lawn tennis with Miss Bell. In the meantime, Tom Spicer, out on the verandah, in the bright moonlight, compared the relative merits of Browning and Longfellow with Miss Walker.
When bidding his guests good night, Walker announced that he had arranged to take a drive along the Bathurst Road-in the morning.
'We shall return,' he said, 'in time for an early lunch, which will give us ample time to catch the train at two o'clock, and then, Hey! for Sydney and business.'
'Well,' said Vennis, 'We are having a real good time, and I feel that I shall be all the fresher for my case, after this little relaxation.'
'In going down that zigzag this morning,' said Strachan, 'I thought out a scheme that will save ten per cent. of the cost of the ballast on the new railway.'
'I was wishing,' said Billings, sadly, 'that I could leave the bank, and live this life for ever. But my desk is waiting, and I must be at it on Tuesday.'
'What do you say,' said Jack Walker to Spicer. 'Haven't you got an engagement for Tuesday morning?'
'I beg your pardon,' said Spicer, blushing, and glancing at Miss Walker, 'I was not listening. I was just trying to find a rhyme for dove.'
'I was asking you what engagement you have for Tuesday morning,'
'Oh,' replied the poet, 'The usual engagement at the office. You know what a continual grind it is to be a Civil servant. One long monotonous grind from ten till four. The hours are too long.'
'You have an hour off for lunch. It is only five a day.'
'I was not alluding to the length of the day,' said Spier, 'but to the length of the hours. They are too long.'
'Ah, well!' said Walker, 'Good night, sleep sound, andd don't get up in the morning until I call you.
The sun was shining over the Kanimbla Valley on they morning, long enough to dispel the morning, mists, when in response to Walker's call, his guess assembled in the large dining room.
'Are we all here?' he asked.
'All but Jack Vennis,' replied Billings.
'Then we are all here,' said Walker, 'for Jack Vennis is gone.'
'Gone!' echoed the others, in some surprise.
Yes,' said Walker. 'I have a note in my hand, left by him in his bedroom, and as it partly explains the situation I will read it. I may first say that I have been up since four o'clock this morning, and that I found this note when I went to call Jack about eight.'
Dear Walker,—I don't want you to think that I am a cocktail or that I would would fly away from danger merely because it was danger. The fact is, I must be in Sydney to-morrow morning. My case is coming on, and to be absent wotdd be to miss the chance of my life. Therefore I take no risks. I trust, for your sake that my rapid departure was unnecessary, but I will be on the safe side. You told us not to rise early, but I can never sleep when the magpies are whistling merrily outside so I got up intending to take a walk and return in time for breakfast. What I heard induced me to walk to the station instead. My door was partly open when the doctor was talking to you in the hall. I heard him mention "Scarlet Fever" and and "Local Health Officer." I put these two expressions together, and knowing the new regulations, I reduced them to one word. The word was "Quarantine." I thank you for your hospitality, and trust to see you again very soon. I also hope that my fears may be groundless. Goo-bye. Many thanks. Hope to see you all soon at the Club.
Walker paused, and then continued,
'I regret to say, that before I discovered Jack's note, his prophecy had been fulfilled. The caretaker's wife has scarlet fever, and the Health Officer has placed the house in quarantine.'
'For how long?' enquired Spicer.
'It depends on the progress of the case,' replied Walker. 'It may be for a fortnight, or it may be for six weeks, but for a fortnight at least.'
'But this is nonsense,' said Strachan. 'They can't do it.'
'They have done it,' said Walker, shaking his head sadly. 'There is a policeman at the front and a policeman at the back.'
'I simply must leave,' exclaimed Billings. 'I have to be at the bank to-morrow morning or—'
'The simple fact is,' said Walker, 'that you can't leave. I would not have missed that director's meeting for a thousand pounds. I have begged, pleaded, and threatened in vain. I am sorry, but we must make the best of it.'
'The best of it!' echoed Billy Graham. 'But my dear fellow, you don't comprehend the situation. I have to meet my intended this afternoon at the 4.45. We are to be married on the 16th, and sail the next day for Europe. Our passages are booked. So you see, it is absolutely impossible. I can't stop here.'
To this Walker returned no answer, except a shrug of the shoulder.
'Your wedding can be put off,' said Strachan. 'But how about me?' And he faced Graham aggressively. 'The tenders for the new railway close to-morrow at eleven. If I am not there I can't tender, and if I don't tender I lose all my trouble and a cool twenty thousand pounds. Great Scott! man, can't it be arranged?'
'Thank heaven!' said Spicer, 'my clients can wait. I am a Civil servant. The same Government that has so thoughtlessly placed us in this peculiar position, will have also to pay my screw while I am here. Can anybody suggest a rhyme for funny?'
At this moment attention was diverted to Billings. He had fallen to the floor in a dead faint. Under the influence of restoratives he soon recovered consciousness. He complained, however, of a violent headache and retired to his room.
Billy Graham raved, Strachan swore, and the genial Jack Walker lost his temper. It was a melancholy, ill-tempered party, that sat down to lunch. Each was fretting over his own trouble. In the midst of the meal there was a commotion on the back verandah. This was caused by one of the policemen arresting Billings as he was trying to escape through his bedroom window. He was granted his parole on his promising, in a most dejected manner, that he would not do it again.
During the afternoon, he remained closely shut in his bedroom. Walker, Strachan and Graham were busy writing letters and dispatching telegrams, which were all delayed owing to the necessity for fumigation, while Spicer sat on the verandah, quietly puffing one of Walker's cigars and discussing, with Miss Walker, the relative merits of Browning and Longfellow.
The party which journeyed to Sydney some three weeks later, could not, by any reasonable expansion of the truth, be called a merry one. Pratique had been granted, it was true, but Walker and Strachan were seedy and morose. During their three weeks enforced companionship, they had discovered many subjects on which they differed, and only one on which they cordially agreed. That was the consumption of abnormal quantities of whisky.
Billy Graham sat in the corner of the carriage with his hat over his eyes, and in his pocket a letter, in which his intended stated that she had been told by a friend in whom she could trust (the word trust being heavily underlined), that there was no quarantine except at the proper quarantine station, and that he could have come down if he had liked. She had therefore returned all the wedding presents and all was over.
Billings travelled in a separate compartment. A quiet-looking gentleman, in a tweed suit sat at his side; and in the quiet-looking gentleman's pocket was a piece of paper authorising the quiet-looking gentleman to safely convey Mr. Billings to Sydney to answer a charge of embezzling large sums of money from the bank, which fact had been discovered by the officer who had to take charge of his books while Mr. Billings was in quarantine.
Among the male members of the party, but one was happy. That one was Spicer. During his enforced holiday he had, like the busy bee, improved each shining hour. He had written a poem which he had been long contemplating. He felt in his inmost soul that it would be the means of bracketing his name with those of the leading Australian poets. And Miss Walker agreed with him. Not only did she agree with him on this matter, but they had so effectually discussed the relative merits of Browning and Longfellow, that they were returning to Sydney an engaged couple. And what was more important, he has never changed his mind. The last time I saw him he was trying to find a rhyme for 'Cradle.'"
* * *
Our task was done. The day had arrived when we had to part. The horses were harnessed to Mr. McTavish's trap, and his instruments and personal belongings were carefully packed therein. Over a parting cup of tea, he was saying "good-bye."
"Well, boys," said he, "If we never meet again, take my parting advice. Wherever it may please God to place you, do your duty. Earn the guid will of your neighbours, if you can. But do your duty. Earn no man's guid will at the expense of your own self respect. Guid-bye boys, God's blessing and mine be with you all."
He shook hands with us warmly, jumped into the trap, and in five minutes no trace remained of our respected chief, but a cloud of dust which marked the track he had taken.
We had all been more or less afraid of Mr. Mctavish, but when he had gone, an air of supreme loneliness seemed to pervade the camp. No one called him "Old Dry-as-dust" after he had left.
For some time we sat, each busy with his owu thoughts, until at length the silence which enveloped us like a cloud, was broken by Otto.
"Ach!" said he, as he knocked the ashes from his pipe, "I vas glad to leave der old camp, and I vas sorry I vas glad. Mr. McTavish says I vas sure to go to der teffil. If I vas, I von't see Mr McTavish no more effer und effer. He vas neffer go to der teffil. Und he was neffer fix me mit his eye again. It vas alvays make me feel qveer vhen Mr. McTavish fix me mit his eye."
"There was a mighty conthrollin' power in thet eye of Mr. McTavish," remarked Flanagan. "But he has gone. 'Twill be a long time before we see the likes of him again. Faith! ye can never see the good there is in a man until ye've lost sight of him for ever, and ye can never feel the comfort of his presence so much as when he's absent."
The next day the camp was deserted, and the kookaburra was free to sit and chuckle on the empty ridge-poles of our tents.