Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

Jimmy Grimshaw's Wooing by Henry Lawson

 

The Half-way House at Tinned Dog (Out-Back in Australia) kept Daniel Myers — licensed to retail spirituous and fermented liquors — in drink and the horrors for upward of five years, at the end of which time he lay hidden for weeks in a back skillion, an object which no decent man would care to see — or hear when it gave forth sound. `Good accommodation for man and beast'; but few shanties save his own might, for a consideration, have accommodated the sort of beast which the man Myers had become towards the end of his career. But at last the eccentric Bush doctor, `Doc' Wild' (who perhaps could drink as much as Myers without its having any further effect upon his temperament than to keep him awake and cynical), pronounced the publican dead enough to be buried legally; so the widow buried him, had the skillion cleaned out, and the sign altered to read, `Margaret Myers, licensed, and continued to conduct the pub. just as she had run it for over five years, with the joyful and blessed exception that there was no longer a human pig and pigstye attached, and that the atmosphere was calm. Most of the regular patrons of the Half-way House could have their horrors decently, and, comparatively, quietly — or otherwise have them privately — in the Big Scrub adjacent; but Myers had not been one of that sort.

Mrs Myers settled herself to enjoy life comfortably and happily, at the fixed age of thirty-nine, for the next seven years or so. She was a pleasant-faced dumpling, who had been baked solid in the droughts of Out-Back without losing her good looks, and had put up with a hard life, and Myers, all those years without losing her good humour and nature. Probably, had her husband been the opposite kind of man, she would have been different — haggard, bad-tempered, and altogether impossible — for of such is woman. But then it might be taken into consideration that she had been practically a widow during at least the last five years of her husband's alleged life.

Mrs Myers was reckoned a good catch in the district, but it soon seemed that she was not to be caught.

`It would be a grand thing,' one of the periodical boozers of Tinned Dog would say to his mates, `for one of us to have his name up on a pub.; it would save a lot of money.'

`It wouldn't save you anything, Bill, if I got it,' was the retort. `You needn't come round chewing my lug then. I'd give you one drink and no more.'

The publican at Dead Camel, station managers, professional shearers, even one or two solvent squatters and promising cockatoos, tried their luck in vain. In answer to the suggestion that she ought to have a man to knock round and look after things, she retorted that she had had one, and was perfectly satisfied. Few trav'lers on those tracks but tried `a bit of bear-up' in that direction, but all to no purpose. Chequemen knocked down their cheques manfully at the Half-way House — to get courage and goodwill and `put it off' till, at the last moment, they offered themselves abjectly to the landlady; which was worse than bad judgment on their part — it was very silly, and she told them so.

One or two swore off, and swore to keep straight; but she had no faith in them, and when they found that out, it hurt their feelings so much that they `broke out' and went on record-breaking sprees.

About the end of each shearing the sign was touched up, with an extra coat of paint on the `Margaret', whereat suitors looked hopeless.

One or two of the rejected died of love in the horrors in the Big Scrub — anyway, the verdict was that they died of love aggravated by the horrors. But the climax was reached when a Queensland shearer, seizing the opportunity when the mate, whose turn it was to watch him, fell asleep, went down to the yard and hanged himself on the butcher's gallows — having first removed his clothes, with some drink-lurid idea of leaving the world as naked as he came into it. He climbed the pole, sat astride on top, fixed the rope to neck and bar, but gave a yell — a yell of drunken triumph — before he dropped, and woke his mates.

They cut him down and brought him to. Next day he apologised to Mrs Myers, said, `Ah, well! So long!' to the rest, and departed — cured of drink and love apparently. The verdict was that the blanky fool should have dropped before he yelled; but she was upset and annoyed, and it began to look as though, if she wished to continue to live on happily and comfortably for a few years longer at the fixed age of thirty-nine, she would either have to give up the pub. or get married.

Her fame was carried far and wide, and she became a woman whose name was mentioned with respect in rough shearing-sheds and huts, and round the camp-fire.

About thirty miles south of Tinned Dog one James Grimshaw, widower — otherwise known as `Old Jimmy', though he was little past middle age — had a small selection which he had worked, let, given up, and tackled afresh (with sinews of war drawn from fencing contracts) ever since the death of his young wife some fifteen years agone. He was a practical, square-faced, clean-shaven, clean, and tidy man, with a certain `cleanness' about the shape of his limbs which suggested the old jockey or hostler. There were two strong theories in connection with Jimmy — one was that he had had a university education, and the other that he couldn't write his own name. Not nearly such a ridiculous nor simple case Out-Back as it might seem.

Jimmy smoked and listened without comment to the `heard tells' in connection with Mrs Myers, till at last one night, at the end of his contract and over a last pipe, he said quietly, `I'll go up to Tinned Dog next week and try my luck.'

His mates and the casual Jims and Bills were taken too suddenly to laugh, and the laugh having been lost, as Bland Holt, the Australian actor would put it in a professional sense, the audience had time to think, with the result that the joker swung his hand down through an imaginary table and exclaimed —

`By God! Jimmy'll do it.' (Applause.)

. . . . .

So one drowsy afternoon at the time of the year when the breathless day runs on past 7 P.M., Mrs Myers sat sewing in the bar parlour, when a clean-shaved, clean-shirted, clean-neckerchiefed, clean-moleskinned, greased-bluchered — altogether a model or stage swagman came up, was served in the bar by the half-caste female cook, and took his way to the river-bank, where he rigged a small tent and made a model camp.

A couple of hours later he sat on a stool on the verandah, smoking a clean clay pipe. Just before the sunset meal Mrs Myers asked, `Is that trav'ler there yet, Mary?'

`Yes, missus. Clean pfellar that.'

The landlady knitted her forehead over her sewing, as women do when limited for `stuff' or wondering whether a section has been cut wrong — or perhaps she thought of that other who hadn't been a `clean pfellar'. She put her work aside, and stood in the doorway, looking out across the clearing.

`Good-day, mister,' she said, seeming to become aware of him for the first time.

`Good-day, missus!'

`Hot!'

`Hot!'

Pause.

`Trav'lin'?'

`No, not particular!'

She waited for him to explain. Myers was always explaining when he wasn't raving. But the swagman smoked on.

`Have a drink?' she suggested, to keep her end up.

`No, thank you, missus. I had one an hour or so ago. I never take more than two a-day — one before breakfast, if I can get it, and a night-cap.'

What a contrast to Myers! she thought.

`Come and have some tea; it's ready.'

`Thank you. I don't mind if I do.'

They got on very slowly, but comfortably. She got little out of him except the facts that he had a selection, had finished a contract, and was `just having a look at the country.' He politely declined a `shake-down', saying he had a comfortable camp, and preferred being out this weather. She got his name with a `by-the-way', as he rose to leave, and he went back to camp.

He caught a cod, and they had it for breakfast next morning, and got along so comfortable over breakfast that he put in the forenoon pottering about the gates and stable with a hammer, a saw, and a box of nails.

And, well — to make it short — when the big Tinned Dog shed had cut-out, and the shearers struck the Half-way House, they were greatly impressed by a brand-new sign whereon glistened the words —

HALF-WAY HOUSE HOTEL, BY JAMES GRIMSHAW. Good Stabling.

The last time I saw Mrs Grimshaw she looked about thirty-five.

At Dead Dingo.

It was blazing hot outside and smothering hot inside the weather-board and iron shanty at Dead Dingo, a place on the Cleared Road, where there was a pub. and a police-station, and which was sometimes called `Roasted', and other times `Potted Dingo' — nicknames suggested by the everlasting drought and the vicinity of the one-pub. township of Tinned Dog.

From the front verandah the scene was straight-cleared road, running right and left to Out-Back, and to Bourke (and ankle-deep in the red sand dust for perhaps a hundred miles); the rest blue-grey bush, dust, and the heat-wave blazing across every object.

There were only four in the bar-room, though it was New Year's Day. There weren't many more in the county. The girl sat behind the bar — the coolest place in the shanty — reading `Deadwood Dick'. On a worn and torn and battered horse-hair sofa, which had seen cooler places and better days, lay an awful and healthy example, a bearded swagman, with his arms twisted over his head and his face to the wall, sleeping off the death of the dead drunk. Bill and Jim — shearer and rouseabout — sat at a table playing cards. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon, and they had been gambling since nine — and the greater part of the night before — so they were, probably, in a worse condition morally (and perhaps physically) than the drunken swagman on the sofa.

Close under the bar, in a dangerous place for his legs and tail, lay a sheep-dog with a chain attached to his collar and wound round his neck.

Presently a thump on the table, and Bill, unlucky gambler, rose with an oath that would have been savage if it hadn't been drawled.

`Stumped?' inquired Jim.

`Not a blanky, lurid deener!' drawled Bill.

Jim drew his reluctant hands from the cards, his eyes went slowly and hopelessly round the room and out the door. There was something in the eyes of both, except when on the card-table, of the look of a man waking in a strange place.

`Got anything?' asked Jim, fingering the cards again.

Bill sucked in his cheeks, collecting the saliva with difficulty, and spat out on to the verandah floor.

`That's all I got,' he drawled. `It's gone now.'

Jim leaned back in his chair, twisted, yawned, and caught sight of the dog.

`That there dog yours?' he asked, brightening.

They had evidently been strangers the day before, or as strange to each other as Bushmen can be.

Bill scratched behind his ear, and blinked at the dog. The dog woke suddenly to a flea fact.

`Yes,' drawled Bill, `he's mine.'

`Well, I'm going Out-Back, and I want a dog,' said Jim, gathering the cards briskly. `Half a quid agin the dog?'

`Half a quid be ——!' drawled Bill. `Call it a quid?'

`Half a blanky quid!'

`A gory, lurid quid!' drawled Bill desperately, and he stooped over his swag.

But Jim's hands were itching in a ghastly way over the cards.

`Alright. Call it a —— quid.'

The drunkard on the sofa stirred, showed signs of waking, but died again. Remember this, it might come in useful.

Bill sat down to the table once more.

Jim rose first, winner of the dog. He stretched, yawned `Ah, well!' and shouted drinks. Then he shouldered his swag, stirred the dog up with his foot, unwound the chain, said `Ah, well — so long!' and drifted out and along the road toward Out-Back, the dog following with head and tail down.

Bill scored another drink on account of girl-pity for bad luck, shouldered his swag, said, `So long, Mary!' and drifted out and along the road towards Tinned Dog, on the Bourke side.

. . . . .

A long, drowsy, half hour passed — the sort of half hour that is as long as an hour in the places where days are as long as years, and years hold about as much as days do in other places.

The man on the sofa woke with a start, and looked scared and wild for a moment; then he brought his dusty broken boots to the floor, rested his elbows on his knees, took his unfortunate head between his hands, and came back to life gradually.

He lifted his head, looked at the girl across the top of the bar, and formed with his lips, rather than spoke, the words —

`Put up a drink?'*

— * `Put up a drink' — i.e., `Give me a drink on credit', or `Chalk it up'. —

She shook her head tightly and went on reading.

He staggered up, and, leaning on the bar, made desperate distress signals with hand, eyes, and mouth.

`No!' she snapped. `I means no when I says no! You've had too many last drinks already, and the boss says you ain't to have another. If you swear again, or bother me, I'll call him.'

He hung sullenly on the counter for a while, then lurched to his swag, and shouldered it hopelessly and wearily. Then he blinked round, whistled, waited a moment, went on to the front verandah, peered round, through the heat, with bloodshot eyes, and whistled again. He turned and started through to the back-door.

`What the devil do you want now?' demanded the girl, interrupted in her reading for the third time by him. `Stampin' all over the house. You can't go through there! It's privit! I do wish to goodness you'd git!'

`Where the blazes is that there dog o' mine got to?' he muttered. `Did you see a dog?'

`No! What do I want with your dog?'

He whistled out in front again, and round each corner. Then he came back with a decided step and tone.

`Look here! that there dog was lyin' there agin the wall when I went to sleep. He wouldn't stir from me, or my swag, in a year, if he wasn't dragged. He's been blanky well touched [stolen], and I wouldn'ter lost him for a fiver. Are you sure you ain't seen a dog?' then suddenly, as the thought struck him: `Where's them two chaps that was playin' cards when I wenter sleep?'

`Why!' exclaimed the girl, without thinking, `there was a dog, now I come to think of it, but I thought it belonged to one of them chaps. Anyway, they played for it, and the other chap won it and took it away.'

He stared at her blankly, with thunder gathering in the blankness.

`What sort of a dog was it?'

Dog described; the chain round the neck settled it.

He scowled at her darkly.

`Now, look here,' he said; `you've allowed gamblin' in this bar — your boss has. You've got no right to let spielers gamble away a man's dog. Is a customer to lose his dog every time he has a doze to suit your boss? I'll go straight across to the police camp and put you away, and I don't care if you lose your licence. I ain't goin' to lose my dog. I wouldn'ter taken a ten-pound note for that blanky dog! I ——'

She was filling a pewter hastily.

`Here! for God's sake have a drink an' stop yer row.'

He drank with satisfaction. Then he hung on the bar with one elbow and scowled out the door.

`Which blanky way did them chaps go?' he growled.

`The one that took the dog went towards Tinned Dog.'

`And I'll haveter go all the blanky way back after him, and most likely lose me shed! Here!' jerking the empty pewter across the bar, `fill that up again; I'm narked properly, I am, and I'll take twenty-four blanky hours to cool down now. I wouldn'ter lost that dog for twenty quid.'

He drank again with deeper satisfaction, then he shuffled out, muttering, swearing, and threatening louder every step, and took the track to Tinned Dog.

——————————

Now the man, girl, or woman, who told me this yarn has never quite settled it in his or her mind as to who really owned the dog. I leave it to you.

Telling Mrs Baker.

Most Bushmen who hadn't `known Bob Baker to speak to', had `heard tell of him'. He'd been a squatter, not many years before, on the Macquarie river in New South Wales, and had made money in the good seasons, and had gone in for horse-racing and racehorse-breeding, and long trips to Sydney, where he put up at swell hotels and went the pace. So after a pretty severe drought, when the sheep died by thousands on his runs, Bob Baker went under, and the bank took over his station and put a manager in charge.

He'd been a jolly, open-handed, popular man, which means that he'd been a selfish man as far as his wife and children were concerned, for they had to suffer for it in the end. Such generosity is often born of vanity, or moral cowardice, or both mixed. It's very nice to hear the chaps sing `For he's a jolly good fellow', but you've mostly got to pay for it twice — first in company, and afterwards alone. I once heard the chaps singing that I was a jolly good fellow, when I was leaving a place and they were giving me a send-off. It thrilled me, and brought a warm gush to my eyes; but, all the same, I wished I had half the money I'd lent them, and spent on 'em, and I wished I'd used the time I'd wasted to be a jolly good fellow.

When I first met Bob Baker he was a boss-drover on the great north-western route, and his wife lived at the township of Solong on the Sydney side. He was going north to new country round by the Gulf of Carpentaria, with a big mob of cattle, on a two years' trip; and I and my mate, Andy M`Culloch, engaged to go with him. We wanted to have a look at the Gulf Country.

After we had crossed the Queensland border it seemed to me that the Boss was too fond of going into wayside shanties and town pubs. Andy had been with him on another trip, and he told me that the Boss was only going this way lately. Andy knew Mrs Baker well, and seemed to think a deal of her. `She's a good little woman,' said Andy. `One of the right stuff. I worked on their station for a while when I was a nipper, and I know. She was always a damned sight too good for the Boss, but she believed in him. When I was coming away this time she says to me, "Look here, Andy, I'm afraid Robert is drinking again. Now I want you to look after him for me, as much as you can — you seem to have as much influence with him as any one. I want you to promise me that you'll never have a drink with him."

`And I promised,' said Andy, `and I'll keep my word.' Andy was a chap who could keep his word, and nothing else. And, no matter how the Boss persuaded, or sneered, or swore at him, Andy would never drink with him.

It got worse and worse: the Boss would ride on ahead and get drunk at a shanty, and sometimes he'd be days behind us; and when he'd catch up to us his temper would be just about as much as we could stand. At last he went on a howling spree at Mulgatown, about a hundred and fifty miles north of the border, and, what was worse, he got in tow with a flash barmaid there — one of those girls who are engaged, by the publicans up country, as baits for chequemen.

He went mad over that girl. He drew an advance cheque from the stock-owner's agent there, and knocked that down; then he raised some more money somehow, and spent that — mostly on the girl.

We did all we could. Andy got him along the track for a couple of stages, and just when we thought he was all right, he slipped us in the night and went back.

We had two other men with us, but had the devil's own bother on account of the cattle. It was a mixed-up job all round. You see it was all big runs round there, and we had to keep the bullocks moving along the route all the time, or else get into trouble for trespass. The agent wasn't going to go to the expense of putting the cattle in a paddock until the Boss sobered up; there was very little grass on the route or the travelling-stock reserves or camps, so we had to keep travelling for grass.

The world might wobble and all the banks go bung, but the cattle have to go through — that's the law of the stock-routes. So the agent wired to the owners, and, when he got their reply, he sacked the Boss and sent the cattle on in charge of another man. The new Boss was a drover coming south after a trip; he had his two brothers with him, so he didn't want me and Andy; but, anyway, we were full up of this trip, so we arranged, between the agent and the new Boss, to get most of the wages due to us — the Boss had drawn some of our stuff and spent it.

We could have started on the back track at once, but, drunk or sober, mad or sane, good or bad, it isn't Bush religion to desert a mate in a hole; and the Boss was a mate of ours; so we stuck to him.

We camped on the creek, outside the town, and kept him in the camp with us as much as possible, and did all we could for him.

`How could I face his wife if I went home without him?' asked Andy, `or any of his old mates?'

The Boss got himself turned out of the pub. where the barmaid was, and then he'd hang round the other pubs., and get drink somehow, and fight, and get knocked about. He was an awful object by this time, wild-eyed and gaunt, and he hadn't washed or shaved for days.

Andy got the constable in charge of the police station to lock him up for a night, but it only made him worse: we took him back to the camp next morning and while our eyes were off him for a few minutes he slipped away into the scrub, stripped himself naked, and started to hang himself to a leaning tree with a piece of clothes-line rope. We got to him just in time.

Then Andy wired to the Boss's brother Ned, who was fighting the drought, the rabbit-pest, and the banks, on a small station back on the border. Andy reckoned it was about time to do something.

Perhaps the Boss hadn't been quite right in his head before he started drinking — he had acted queer some time, now we came to think of it; maybe he'd got a touch of sunstroke or got brooding over his troubles — anyway he died in the horrors within the week.

His brother Ned turned up on the last day, and Bob thought he was the devil, and grappled with him. It took the three of us to hold the Boss down sometimes.

Sometimes, towards the end, he'd be sensible for a few minutes and talk about his `poor wife and children'; and immediately afterwards he'd fall a-cursing me, and Andy, and Ned, and calling us devils. He cursed everything; he cursed his wife and children, and yelled that they were dragging him down to hell. He died raving mad. It was the worst case of death in the horrors of drink that I ever saw or heard of in the Bush.

Ned saw to the funeral: it was very hot weather, and men have to be buried quick who die out there in the hot weather — especially men who die in the state the Boss was in. Then Ned went to the public-house where the barmaid was and called the landlord out. It was a desperate fight: the publican was a big man, and a bit of a fighting man; but Ned was one of those quiet, simple-minded chaps who will carry a thing through to death when they make up their minds. He gave that publican nearly as good a thrashing as he deserved. The constable in charge of the station backed Ned, while another policeman picked up the publican. Sounds queer to you city people, doesn't it?

Next morning we three started south. We stayed a couple of days at Ned Baker's station on the border, and then started on our three-hundred-mile ride down-country. The weather was still very hot, so we decided to travel at night for a while, and left Ned's place at dusk. He parted from us at the homestead gate. He gave Andy a small packet, done up in canvas, for Mrs Baker, which Andy told me contained Bob's pocket-book, letters, and papers. We looked back, after we'd gone a piece along the dusty road, and saw Ned still standing by the gate; and a very lonely figure he looked. Ned was a bachelor. `Poor old Ned,' said Andy to me. `He was in love with Mrs Bob Baker before she got married, but she picked the wrong man — girls mostly do. Ned and Bob were together on the Macquarie, but Ned left when his brother married, and he's been up in these God-forsaken scrubs ever since. Look, I want to tell you something, Jack: Ned has written to Mrs Bob to tell her that Bob died of fever, and everything was done for him that could be done, and that he died easy — and all that sort of thing. Ned sent her some money, and she is to think that it was the money due to Bob when he died. Now I'll have to go and see her when we get to Solong; there's no getting out of it, I'll have to face her — and you'll have to come with me.'

`Damned if I will!' I said.

`But you'll have to,' said Andy. `You'll have to stick to me; you're surely not crawler enough to desert a mate in a case like this? I'll have to lie like hell — I'll have to lie as I never lied to a woman before; and you'll have to back me and corroborate every lie.'

I'd never seen Andy show so much emotion.

`There's plenty of time to fix up a good yarn,' said Andy. He said no more about Mrs Baker, and we only mentioned the Boss's name casually, until we were within about a day's ride of Solong; then Andy told me the yarn he'd made up about the Boss's death.

`And I want you to listen, Jack,' he said, `and remember every word — and if you can fix up a better yarn you can tell me afterwards. Now it was like this: the Boss wasn't too well when he crossed the border. He complained of pains in his back and head and a stinging pain in the back of his neck, and he had dysentery bad, — but that doesn't matter; it's lucky I ain't supposed to tell a woman all the symptoms. The Boss stuck to the job as long as he could, but we managed the cattle and made it as easy as we could for him. He'd just take it easy, and ride on from camp to camp, and rest. One night I rode to a town off the route (or you did, if you like) and got some medicine for him; that made him better for a while, but at last, a day or two this side of Mulgatown, he had to give up. A squatter there drove him into town in his buggy and put him up at the best hotel. The publican knew the Boss and did all he could for him — put him in the best room and wired for another doctor. We wired for Ned as soon as we saw how bad the Boss was, and Ned rode night and day and got there three days before the Boss died. The Boss was a bit off his head some of the time with the fever, but was calm and quiet towards the end and died easy. He talked a lot about his wife and children, and told us to tell the wife not to fret but to cheer up for the children's sake. How does that sound?'

I'd been thinking while I listened, and an idea struck me.

`Why not let her know the truth?' I asked. `She's sure to hear of it sooner or later; and if she knew he was only a selfish, drunken blackguard she might get over it all the sooner.'

`You don't know women, Jack,' said Andy quietly. `And, anyway, even if she is a sensible woman, we've got a dead mate to consider as well as a living woman.'

`But she's sure to hear the truth sooner or later,' I said, `the Boss was so well known.'

`And that's just the reason why the truth might be kept from her,' said Andy. `If he wasn't well known — and nobody could help liking him, after all, when he was straight — if he wasn't so well known the truth might leak out unawares. She won't know if I can help it, or at least not yet a while. If I see any chaps that come from the North I'll put them up to it. I'll tell M`Grath, the publican at Solong, too: he's a straight man — he'll keep his ears open and warn chaps. One of Mrs Baker's sisters is staying with her, and I'll give her a hint so that she can warn off any women that might get hold of a yarn. Besides, Mrs Baker is sure to go and live in Sydney, where all her people are — she was a Sydney girl; and she's not likely to meet any one there that will tell her the truth. I can tell her that it was the last wish of the Boss that she should shift to Sydney.'

We smoked and thought a while, and by-and-by Andy had what he called a `happy thought'. He went to his saddle-bags and got out the small canvas packet that Ned had given him: it was sewn up with packing-thread, and Andy ripped it open with his pocket-knife.

`What are you doing, Andy?' I asked.

`Ned's an innocent old fool, as far as sin is concerned,' said Andy. `I guess he hasn't looked through the Boss's letters, and I'm just going to see that there's nothing here that will make liars of us.'

He looked through the letters and papers by the light of the fire. There were some letters from Mrs Baker to her husband, also a portrait of her and the children; these Andy put aside. But there were other letters from barmaids and women who were not fit to be seen in the same street with the Boss's wife; and there were portraits — one or two flash ones. There were two letters from other men's wives too.

`And one of those men, at least, was an old mate of his!' said Andy, in a tone of disgust.

He threw the lot into the fire; then he went through the Boss's pocket-book and tore out some leaves that had notes and addresses on them, and burnt them too. Then he sewed up the packet again and put it away in his saddle-bag.

`Such is life!' said Andy, with a yawn that might have been half a sigh.

We rode into Solong early in the day, turned our horses out in a paddock, and put up at M`Grath's pub. until such time as we made up our minds as to what we'd do or where we'd go. We had an idea of waiting until the shearing season started and then making Out-Back to the big sheds.

Neither of us was in a hurry to go and face Mrs Baker. `We'll go after dinner,' said Andy at first; then after dinner we had a drink, and felt sleepy — we weren't used to big dinners of roast-beef and vegetables and pudding, and, besides, it was drowsy weather — so we decided to have a snooze and then go. When we woke up it was late in the afternoon, so we thought we'd put it off till after tea. `It wouldn't be manners to walk in while they're at tea,' said Andy — `it would look as if we only came for some grub.'

But while we were at tea a little girl came with a message that Mrs Baker wanted to see us, and would be very much obliged if we'd call up as soon as possible. You see, in those small towns you can't move without the thing getting round inside of half an hour.

`We'll have to face the music now!' said Andy, `and no get out of it.' He seemed to hang back more than I did. There was another pub. opposite where Mrs Baker lived, and when we got up the street a bit I said to Andy —

`Suppose we go and have another drink first, Andy? We might be kept in there an hour or two.'

`You don't want another drink,' said Andy, rather short. `Why, you seem to be going the same way as the Boss!' But it was Andy that edged off towards the pub. when we got near Mrs Baker's place. `All right!' he said. `Come on! We'll have this other drink, since you want it so bad.'

We had the drink, then we buttoned up our coats and started across the road — we'd bought new shirts and collars, and spruced up a bit. Half-way across Andy grabbed my arm and asked —

`How do you feel now, Jack?'

`Oh, I'M all right,' I said.

`For God's sake!' said Andy, `don't put your foot in it and make a mess of it.'

`I won't, if you don't.'

Mrs Baker's cottage was a little weather-board box affair back in a garden. When we went in through the gate Andy gripped my arm again and whispered —

`For God's sake stick to me now, Jack!'

`I'll stick all right,' I said — `you've been having too much beer, Andy.'

I had seen Mrs Baker before, and remembered her as a cheerful, contented sort of woman, bustling about the house and getting the Boss's shirts and things ready when we started North. Just the sort of woman that is contented with housework and the children, and with nothing particular about her in the way of brains. But now she sat by the fire looking like the ghost of herself. I wouldn't have recognised her at first. I never saw such a change in a woman, and it came like a shock to me.

Her sister let us in, and after a first glance at Mrs Baker I had eyes for the sister and no one else. She was a Sydney girl, about twenty-four or twenty-five, and fresh and fair — not like the sun-browned women we were used to see. She was a pretty, bright-eyed girl, and seemed quick to understand, and very sympathetic. She had been educated, Andy had told me, and wrote stories for the Sydney `Bulletin' and other Sydney papers. She had her hair done and was dressed in the city style, and that took us back a bit at first.

`It's very good of you to come,' said Mrs Baker in a weak, weary voice, when we first went in. `I heard you were in town.'

`We were just coming when we got your message,' said Andy. `We'd have come before, only we had to see to the horses.'

`It's very kind of you, I'm sure,' said Mrs Baker.

They wanted us to have tea, but we said we'd just had it. Then Miss Standish (the sister) wanted us to have tea and cake; but we didn't feel as if we could handle cups and saucers and pieces of cake successfully just then.

There was something the matter with one of the children in a back-room, and the sister went to see to it. Mrs Baker cried a little quietly.

`You mustn't mind me,' she said. `I'll be all right presently, and then I want you to tell me all about poor Bob. It's seeing you, that saw the last of him, that set me off.'

Andy and I sat stiff and straight, on two chairs against the wall, and held our hats tight, and stared at a picture of Wellington meeting Blucher on the opposite wall. I thought it was lucky that that picture was there.

The child was calling `mumma', and Mrs Baker went in to it, and her sister came out. `Best tell her all about it and get it over,' she whispered to Andy. `She'll never be content until she hears all about poor Bob from some one who was with him when he died. Let me take your hats. Make yourselves comfortable.'

She took the hats and put them on the sewing-machine. I wished she'd let us keep them, for now we had nothing to hold on to, and nothing to do with our hands; and as for being comfortable, we were just about as comfortable as two cats on wet bricks.

When Mrs Baker came into the room she brought little Bobby Baker, about four years old; he wanted to see Andy. He ran to Andy at once, and Andy took him up on his knee. He was a pretty child, but he reminded me too much of his father.

`I'm so glad you've come, Andy!' said Bobby.

`Are you, Bobby?'

`Yes. I wants to ask you about daddy. You saw him go away, didn't you?' and he fixed his great wondering eyes on Andy's face.

`Yes,' said Andy.

`He went up among the stars, didn't he?'

`Yes,' said Andy.

`And he isn't coming back to Bobby any more?'

`No,' said Andy. `But Bobby's going to him by-and-by.'

Mrs Baker had been leaning back in her chair, resting her head on her hand, tears glistening in her eyes; now she began to sob, and her sister took her out of the room.

Andy looked miserable. `I wish to God I was off this job!' he whispered to me.

`Is that the girl that writes the stories?' I asked.

`Yes,' he said, staring at me in a hopeless sort of way, `and poems too.'

`Is Bobby going up among the stars?' asked Bobby.

`Yes,' said Andy — `if Bobby's good.'

`And auntie?'

`Yes.'

`And mumma?'

`Yes.'

`Are you going, Andy?'

`Yes,' said Andy hopelessly.

`Did you see daddy go up amongst the stars, Andy?'

`Yes,' said Andy, `I saw him go up.'

`And he isn't coming down again any more?'

`No,' said Andy.

`Why isn't he?'

`Because he's going to wait up there for you and mumma, Bobby.'

There was a long pause, and then Bobby asked —

`Are you going to give me a shilling, Andy?' with the same expression of innocent wonder in his eyes.

Andy slipped half-a-crown into his hand. `Auntie' came in and told him he'd see Andy in the morning and took him away to bed, after he'd kissed us both solemnly; and presently she and Mrs Baker settled down to hear Andy's story.

`Brace up now, Jack, and keep your wits about you,' whispered Andy to me just before they came in.

`Poor Bob's brother Ned wrote to me,' said Mrs Baker, `but he scarcely told me anything. Ned's a good fellow, but he's very simple, and never thinks of anything.'

Andy told her about the Boss not being well after he crossed the border.

`I knew he was not well,' said Mrs Baker, `before he left. I didn't want him to go. I tried hard to persuade him not to go this trip. I had a feeling that I oughtn't to let him go. But he'd never think of anything but me and the children. He promised he'd give up droving after this trip, and get something to do near home. The life was too much for him — riding in all weathers and camping out in the rain, and living like a dog. But he was never content at home. It was all for the sake of me and the children. He wanted to make money and start on a station again. I shouldn't have let him go. He only thought of me and the children! Oh! my poor, dear, kind, dead husband!' She broke down again and sobbed, and her sister comforted her, while Andy and I stared at Wellington meeting Blucher on the field of Waterloo. I thought the artist had heaped up the dead a bit extra, and I thought that I wouldn't like to be trod on by horses, even if I was dead.

`Don't you mind,' said Miss Standish, `she'll be all right presently,' and she handed us the `Illustrated Sydney Journal'. This was a great relief, — we bumped our heads over the pictures.

Mrs Baker made Andy go on again, and he told her how the Boss broke down near Mulgatown. Mrs Baker was opposite him and Miss Standish opposite me. Both of them kept their eyes on Andy's face: he sat, with his hair straight up like a brush as usual, and kept his big innocent grey eyes fixed on Mrs Baker's face all the time he was speaking. I watched Miss Standish. I thought she was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen; it was a bad case of love at first sight, but she was far and away above me, and the case was hopeless. I began to feel pretty miserable, and to think back into the past: I just heard Andy droning away by my side.

`So we fixed him up comfortable in the waggonette with the blankets and coats and things,' Andy was saying, `and the squatter started into Mulgatown. . . . It was about thirty miles, Jack, wasn't it?' he asked, turning suddenly to me. He always looked so innocent that there were times when I itched to knock him down.

`More like thirty-five,' I said, waking up.

Miss Standish fixed her eyes on me, and I had another look at Wellington and Blucher.

`They were all very good and kind to the Boss,' said Andy. `They thought a lot of him up there. Everybody was fond of him.'

`I know it,' said Mrs Baker. `Nobody could help liking him. He was one of the kindest men that ever lived.'

`Tanner, the publican, couldn't have been kinder to his own brother,' said Andy. `The local doctor was a decent chap, but he was only a young fellow, and Tanner hadn't much faith in him, so he wired for an older doctor at Mackintyre, and he even sent out fresh horses to meet the doctor's buggy. Everything was done that could be done, I assure you, Mrs Baker.'

`I believe it,' said Mrs Baker. `And you don't know how it relieves me to hear it. And did the publican do all this at his own expense?'

`He wouldn't take a penny, Mrs Baker.'

`He must have been a good true man. I wish I could thank him.'

`Oh, Ned thanked him for you,' said Andy, though without meaning more than he said.

`I wouldn't have fancied that Ned would have thought of that,' said Mrs Baker. `When I first heard of my poor husband's death, I thought perhaps he'd been drinking again — that worried me a bit.'

`He never touched a drop after he left Solong, I can assure you, Mrs Baker,' said Andy quickly.

Now I noticed that Miss Standish seemed surprised or puzzled, once or twice, while Andy was speaking, and leaned forward to listen to him; then she leaned back in her chair and clasped her hands behind her head and looked at him, with half-shut eyes, in a way I didn't like. Once or twice she looked at me as if she was going to ask me a question, but I always looked away quick and stared at Blucher and Wellington, or into the empty fireplace, till I felt that her eyes were off me. Then she asked Andy a question or two, in all innocence I believe now, but it scared him, and at last he watched his chance and winked at her sharp. Then she gave a little gasp and shut up like a steel trap.

The sick child in the bedroom coughed and cried again. Mrs Baker went to it. We three sat like a deaf-and-dumb institution, Andy and I staring all over the place: presently Miss Standish excused herself, and went out of the room after her sister. She looked hard at Andy as she left the room, but he kept his eyes away.

`Brace up now, Jack,' whispered Andy to me, `the worst is coming.'

When they came in again Mrs Baker made Andy go on with his story.

`He — he died very quietly,' said Andy, hitching round, and resting his elbows on his knees, and looking into the fireplace so as to have his face away from the light. Miss Standish put her arm round her sister. `He died very easy,' said Andy. `He was a bit off his head at times, but that was while the fever was on him. He didn't suffer much towards the end — I don't think he suffered at all. . . . He talked a lot about you and the children.' (Andy was speaking very softly now.) `He said that you were not to fret, but to cheer up for the children's sake. . . . It was the biggest funeral ever seen round there.'

Mrs Baker was crying softly. Andy got the packet half out of his pocket, but shoved it back again.

`The only thing that hurts me now,' says Mrs Baker presently, `is to think of my poor husband buried out there in the lonely Bush, so far from home. It's — cruel!' and she was sobbing again.

`Oh, that's all right, Mrs Baker,' said Andy, losing his head a little. `Ned will see to that. Ned is going to arrange to have him brought down and buried in Sydney.' Which was about the first thing Andy had told her that evening that wasn't a lie. Ned had said he would do it as soon as he sold his wool.

`It's very kind indeed of Ned,' sobbed Mrs Baker. `I'd never have dreamed he was so kind-hearted and thoughtful. I misjudged him all along. And that is all you have to tell me about poor Robert?'

`Yes,' said Andy — then one of his `happy thoughts' struck him. `Except that he hoped you'd shift to Sydney, Mrs Baker, where you've got friends and relations. He thought it would be better for you and the children. He told me to tell you that.'

`He was thoughtful up to the end,' said Mrs Baker. `It was just like poor Robert — always thinking of me and the children. We are going to Sydney next week.'

Andy looked relieved. We talked a little more, and Miss Standish wanted to make coffee for us, but we had to go and see to our horses. We got up and bumped against each other, and got each other's hats, and promised Mrs Baker we'd come again.

`Thank you very much for coming,' she said, shaking hands with us. `I feel much better now. You don't know how much you have relieved me. Now, mind, you have promised to come and see me again for the last time.'

Andy caught her sister's eye and jerked his head towards the door to let her know he wanted to speak to her outside.

`Good-bye, Mrs Baker,' he said, holding on to her hand. `And don't you fret. You've — you've got the children yet. It's — it's all for the best; and, besides, the Boss said you wasn't to fret.' And he blundered out after me and Miss Standish.

She came out to the gate with us, and Andy gave her the packet.

`I want you to give that to her,' he said; `it's his letters and papers. I hadn't the heart to give it to her, somehow.'

`Tell me, Mr M`Culloch,' she said. `You've kept something back — you haven't told her the truth. It would be better and safer for me to know. Was it an accident — or the drink?'

`It was the drink,' said Andy. `I was going to tell you — I thought it would be best to tell you. I had made up my mind to do it, but, somehow, I couldn't have done it if you hadn't asked me.'

`Tell me all,' she said. `It would be better for me to know.'

`Come a little farther away from the house,' said Andy. She came along the fence a piece with us, and Andy told her as much of the truth as he could.

`I'll hurry her off to Sydney,' she said. `We can get away this week as well as next.' Then she stood for a minute before us, breathing quickly, her hands behind her back and her eyes shining in the moonlight. She looked splendid.

`I want to thank you for her sake,' she said quickly. `You are good men! I like the Bushmen! They are grand men — they are noble! I'll probably never see either of you again, so it doesn't matter,' and she put her white hand on Andy's shoulder and kissed him fair and square on the mouth. `And you, too!' she said to me. I was taller than Andy, and had to stoop. `Good-bye!' she said, and ran to the gate and in, waving her hand to us. We lifted our hats again and turned down the road.

I don't think it did either of us any harm.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page