On the Track
by Henry Lawson
The Songs They
used to Sing
A Vision of
I. The First
II. The Only
III. Doc. Wild
The Mystery of
No Place for a
I. Tom Smith
II. Jack Ellis
"A Rough Shed"
An Oversight of
told his Story
Of the stories in this volume many have already appeared in
(various periodicals), while several now appear in print for the first
H. L. Sydney, March 17th, 1900.
The Songs They used to Sing
On the diggings up to twenty odd years ago — and as far back as I
can remember — on Lambing Flat, the Pipe Clays, Gulgong, Home Rule,
and so through the roaring list; in bark huts, tents, public-houses,
sly grog shanties, and — well, the most glorious voice of all
belonged to a bad girl. We were only children and didn't know why
she was bad, but we weren't allowed to play near or go near the hut
she lived in, and we were trained to believe firmly that something
awful would happen to us if we stayed to answer a word, and didn't run
away as fast as our legs could carry us, if she attempted to speak to
us. We had before us the dread example of one urchin, who got an
awful hiding and went on bread and water for twenty-four hours for
allowing her to kiss him and give him lollies. She didn't look bad —
she looked to us like a grand and beautiful lady-girl — but we got
instilled into us the idea that she was an awful bad woman, something
more terrible even than a drunken man, and one whose presence was to
be feared and fled from. There were two other girls in the hut with
her, also a pretty little girl, who called her "Auntie", and with whom
we were not allowed to play — for they were all bad; which puzzled us
as much as child-minds can be puzzled. We couldn't make out how
everybody in one house could be bad. We used to wonder why these bad
people weren't hunted away or put in gaol if they were so bad. And
another thing puzzled us. Slipping out after dark, when the bad girls
happened to be singing in their house, we'd sometimes run against men
hanging round the hut by ones and twos and threes, listening. They
seemed mysterious. They were mostly good men, and we concluded they
were listening and watching the bad women's house to see that they
didn't kill anyone, or steal and run away with any bad little boys —
ourselves, for instance — who ran out after dark; which, as we were
informed, those bad people were always on the lookout for a chance to
We were told in after years that old Peter McKenzie (a respectable,
married, hard-working digger) would sometimes steal up opposite the
bad door in the dark, and throw in money done up in a piece of paper,
and listen round until the bad girl had sung the "Bonnie Hills of
Scotland" two or three times. Then he'd go and get drunk, and stay
drunk two or three days at a time. And his wife caught him throwing
the money in one night, and there was a terrible row, and she left
him; and people always said it was all a mistake. But we couldn't see
the mistake then.
But I can hear that girl's voice through the night, twenty years
Oh! the bloomin' heath, and the pale blue bell,
In my bonnet then I wore;
And memory knows no brighter theme
Than those happy days of yore.
Scotland! Land of chief and song!
Oh, what charms to thee belong!
And I am old enough to understand why poor Peter McKenzie — who
was married to a Saxon, and a Tartar — went and got drunk when the
bad girl sang "The Bonnie Hills of Scotland."
His anxious eye might look in vain
For some loved form it knew!
And yet another thing puzzled us greatly at the time. Next door to
the bad girl's house there lived a very respectable family — a family
of good girls with whom we were allowed to play, and from whom we got
lollies (those hard old red-and-white "fish lollies" that grocers sent
home with parcels of groceries and receipted bills). Now one washing
day, they being as glad to get rid of us at home as we were to get
out, we went over to the good house and found no one at home except
the grown-up daughter, who used to sing for us, and read "Robinson
Crusoe" of nights, "out loud", and give us more lollies than any of
the rest — and with whom we were passionately in love,
notwithstanding the fact that she was engaged to a "grown-up man" —
(we reckoned he'd be dead and out of the way by the time we were old
enough to marry her). She was washing. She had carried the stool and
tub over against the stick fence which separated her house from the
bad house; and, to our astonishment and dismay, the bad girl had
brought HER tub over against her side of the fence. They stood and
worked with their shoulders to the fence between them, and heads bent
down close to it. The bad girl would sing a few words, and the good
girl after her, over and over again. They sang very low, we thought.
Presently the good grown-up girl turned her head and caught sight of
us. She jumped, and her face went flaming red; she laid hold of the
stool and carried it, tub and all, away from that fence in a hurry.
And the bad grown-up girl took her tub back to her house. The good
grown-up girl made us promise never to tell what we saw — that she'd
been talking to a bad girl — else she would never, never marry us.
She told me, in after years, when she'd grown up to be a
grandmother, that the bad girl was surreptitiously teaching her to
sing "Madeline" that day.
I remember a dreadful story of a digger who went and shot himself
one night after hearing that bad girl sing. We thought then what a
frightfully bad woman she must be. The incident terrified us; and
thereafter we kept carefully and fearfully out of reach of her voice,
lest we should go and do what the digger did.
I have a dreamy recollection of a circus on Gulgong in the roaring
days, more than twenty years ago, and a woman (to my child-fancy a
being from another world) standing in the middle of the ring, singing:
Out in the cold world — out in the street —
Asking a penny from each one I meet;
Cheerless I wander about all the day,
Wearing my young life in sorrow away!
That last line haunted me for many years. I remember being
frightened by women sobbing (and one or two great grown-up diggers
also) that night in that circus.
"Father, Dear Father, Come Home with Me Now", was a sacred song
then, not a peg for vulgar parodies and more vulgar "business" for
fourth-rate clowns and corner-men. Then there was "The Prairie
Flower". "Out on the Prairie, in an Early Day" — I can hear the
digger's wife yet: she was the prettiest girl on the field. They
married on the sly and crept into camp after dark; but the diggers got
wind of it and rolled up with gold-dishes, shovels, and gave them a
real good tinkettling in the old-fashioned style, and a nugget or two
to start housekeeping on. She had a very sweet voice.
Fair as a lily, joyous and free,
Light of the prairie home was she.
She's a "granny" now, no doubt — or dead.
And I remember a poor, brutally ill-used little wife, wearing a
black eye mostly, and singing "Love Amongst the Roses" at her work.
And they sang the "Blue Tail Fly", and all the first and best coon
songs — in the days when old John Brown sank a duffer on the hill.
The great bark kitchen of Granny Mathews' "Redclay Inn". A fresh
back-log thrown behind the fire, which lights the room fitfully.
Company settled down to pipes, subdued yarning, and reverie.
Flash Jack — red sash, cabbage-tree hat on back of head with
nothing in it, glossy black curls bunched up in front of brim. Flash
Jack volunteers, without invitation, preparation, or warning, and
through his nose:
There was a wild kerlonial youth,
John Dowlin was his name!
He bountied on his parients,
Who lived in Castlemaine!
and so on to —
He took a pistol from his breast
And waved that lit—tle toy —
"Little toy" with an enthusiastic flourish and great unction on
Flash Jack's part —
"I'll fight, but I won't surrender!" said
The wild Kerlonial Boy.
Even this fails to rouse the company's enthusiasm. "Give us a
song, Abe! Give us the `Lowlands'!" Abe Mathews, bearded and
grizzled, is lying on the broad of his back on a bench, with his hands
clasped under his head — his favourite position for smoking, reverie,
yarning, or singing. He had a strong, deep voice, which used to thrill
me through and through, from hair to toenails, as a child.
They bother Abe till he takes his pipe out of his mouth and puts it
behind his head on the end of the stool:
The ship was built in Glasgow;
'Twas the "Golden Vanitee" —
Lines have dropped out of my memory during the thirty years gone
And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!
The public-house people and more diggers drop into the kitchen, as
all do within hearing, when Abe sings.
"Now then, boys:
And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!
"Now, all together!
The Low Lands! The Low Lands!
And she ploughed in the Low Lands, Low!"
Toe and heel and flat of foot begin to stamp the clay floor, and
horny hands to slap patched knees in accompaniment.
"Oh! save me, lads!" he cried,
"I'm drifting with the current,
And I'm drifting with the tide!
And I'm sinking in the Low Lands, Low!
The Low Lands! The Low Lands!" —
The old bark kitchen is a-going now. Heels drumming on gin-cases
under stools; hands, knuckles, pipe-bowls, and pannikins keeping time
on the table.
And we sewed him in his hammock,
And we slipped him o'er the side,
And we sunk him in the Low Lands, Low!
The Low Lands! The Low Lands!
And we sunk him in the Low Lands, Low!
Old Boozer Smith — a dirty gin-sodden bundle of rags on the floor
in the corner with its head on a candle box, and covered by a horse
rug — old Boozer Smith is supposed to have been dead to the universe
for hours past, but the chorus must have disturbed his torpor; for,
with a suddenness and unexpectedness that makes the next man jump,
there comes a bellow from under the horse rug:
Wot though! — I wear! — a rag! — ged coat!
I'll wear it like a man!
and ceases as suddenly as it commenced. He struggles to bring his
ruined head and bloated face above the surface, glares round; then, no
one questioning his manhood, he sinks back and dies to creation; and
subsequent proceedings are only interrupted by a snore, as far as he
Little Jimmy Nowlett, the bullock-driver, is inspired. "Go on,
Jimmy! Give us a song!"
In the days when we were hard up
For want of wood and wire —
Jimmy always blunders; it should have been "food and fire" —
We used to tie our boots up
With lit — tle bits — er wire;
I'm sitting in my lit—tle room,
It measures six by six;
The work-house wall is opposite,
I've counted all the bricks!
"Give us a chorus, Jimmy!"
Jimmy does, giving his head a short, jerky nod for nearly every
word, and describing a circle round his crown — as if he were
stirring a pint of hot tea — with his forefinger, at the end of every
Hall! — Round! — Me — Hat!
I wore a weepin' willer!
Jimmy is a Cockney.
"Now then, boys!"
Hall — round — me hat!
How many old diggers remember it?
A butcher, and a baker, and a quiet-looking quaker,
All a-courting pretty Jessie at the Railway Bar.
I used to wonder as a child what the "railway bar" meant.
I would, I would, I would in vain
That I were single once again!
But ah, alas, that will not be
Till apples grow on the willow tree.
A drunken gambler's young wife used to sing that song — to
A stir at the kitchen door, and a cry of "Pinter," and old Poynton,
Ballarat digger, appears and is shoved in; he has several drinks
aboard, and they proceed to "git Pinter on the singin' lay," and at
last talk him round. He has a good voice, but no "theory", and
blunders worse than Jimmy Nowlett with the words. He starts with a
Way down in Covent Gar-ar-r-dings
A-strolling I did go,
To see the sweetest flow-ow-wers
That e'er in gardings grow.
He saw the rose and lily — the red and white and blue — and he
saw the sweetest flow-ow-ers that e'er in gardings grew; for he saw
two lovely maidens (Pinter calls 'em "virgings") underneath (he must
have meant on top of) "a garding chair", sings Pinter.
And one was lovely Jessie,
With the jet black eyes and hair,
And the other was a vir-ir-ging,
I solemn-lye declare!
"Maiden, Pinter!" interjects Mr. Nowlett.
"Well, it's all the same," retorts Pinter. "A maiden IS a virging,
Jimmy. If you're singing, Jimmy, and not me, I'll leave off!" Chorus
of "Order! Shut up, Jimmy!"
I quicklye step-ped up to her,
And unto her did sa-a-y:
Do you belong to any young man,
Hoh, tell me that, I pra-a-y?
Her answer, according to Pinter, was surprisingly prompt and
unconventional; also full and concise:
No; I belong to no young man —
I solemnlye declare!
I mean to live a virging
And still my laurels wear!
Jimmy Nowlett attempts to move an amendment in favour of "maiden",
but is promptly suppressed. It seems that Pinter's suit has a happy
termination, for he is supposed to sing in the character of a "Sailor
Bold", and as he turns to pursue his stroll in "Covent Gar-ar-dings":
"Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!" she cried,
"I love a Sailor Bold!"
"Hong-kore, Pinter! Give us the `Golden Glove', Pinter!"
Thus warmed up, Pinter starts with an explanatory "spoken" to the
effect that the song he is about to sing illustrates some of the
little ways of woman, and how, no matter what you say or do, she is
bound to have her own way in the end; also how, in one instance, she
set about getting it.
Now, it's of a young squoire near Timworth did dwell,
Who courted a nobleman's daughter so well —
The song has little or nothing to do with the "squire", except so
far as "all friends and relations had given consent," and —
The troo-soo was ordered — appointed the day,
And a farmer were appointed for to give her away —
which last seemed a most unusual proceeding, considering the
wedding was a toney affair; but perhaps there were personal interests
— the nobleman might have been hard up, and the farmer backing him.
But there was an extraordinary scene in the church, and things got
For as soon as this maiding this farmer espied:
"Hoh, my heart! Hoh, my heart!
Hoh, my heart!" then she cried.
Hysterics? Anyway, instead of being wed —
This maiden took sick and she went to her bed.
(N.B. — Pinter sticks to `virging'.)
Whereupon friends and relations and guests left the house in a body
(a strange but perhaps a wise proceeding, after all — maybe they
smelt a rat) and left her to recover alone, which she did promptly.
Shirt, breeches, and waistcoat this maiding put on,
And a-hunting she went with her dog and her gun;
She hunted all round where this farmier did dwell,
Because in her own heart she love-ed him well.
The cat's out of the bag now:
And often she fired, but no game she killed —
which was not surprising —
Till at last the young farmier came into the field —
No wonder. She put it to him straight:
"Oh, why are you not at the wedding?" she cried,
"For to wait on the squoire, and to give him his bride."
He was as prompt and as delightfully unconventional in his reply
as the young lady in Covent Gardings:
"Oh, no! and oh, no! For the truth I must sa-a-y,
I love her too well for to give her a-w-a-a-y!"
which was satisfactory to the disguised "virging".
". . . . and I'd take sword in hand,
And by honour I'd win her if she would command."
Which was still more satisfactory.
Now this virging, being —
(Jimmy Nowlett: "Maiden, Pinter —" Jim is thrown on a stool and
sat on by several diggers.)
Now this maiding, being please-ed to see him so bold,
She gave him her glove that was flowered with gold,
and explained that she found it in his field while hunting around
with her dog and her gun. It is understood that he promised to look
up the owner. Then she went home and put an advertisement in the
local `Herald'; and that ad. must have caused considerable sensation.
She stated that she had lost her golden glove, and
The young man that finds it and brings it to me,
Hoh! that very young man my husband shall be!
She had a saving clause in case the young farmer mislaid the glove
before he saw the ad., and an OLD bloke got holt of it and fetched it
along. But everything went all right. The young farmer turned up with
the glove. He was a very respectable young farmer, and expressed his
gratitude to her for having "honour-ed him with her love." They were
married, and the song ends with a picture of the young farmeress
milking the cow, and the young farmer going whistling to plough. The
fact that they lived and grafted on the selection proves that I hit
the right nail on the head when I guessed, in the first place, that
the old nobleman was "stony".
In after years,
. . . she told him of the fun,
How she hunted him up with her dog and her gun.
But whether he was pleased or otherwise to hear it, after years of
matrimonial experiences, the old song doesn't say, for it ends there.
Flash Jack is more successful with "Saint Patrick's Day".
I come to the river, I jumped it quite clever!
Me wife tumbled in, and I lost her for ever,
St. Patrick's own day in the mornin'!
This is greatly appreciated by Jimmy Nowlett, who is suspected,
especially by his wife, of being more cheerful when on the roads than
when at home.
"Sam Holt" was a great favourite with Jimmy Nowlett in after years.
Oh, do you remember Black Alice, Sam Holt?
Black Alice so dirty and dark —
Who'd a nose on her face — I forget how it goes —
And teeth like a Moreton Bay shark.
Sam Holt must have been very hard up for tucker as well as beauty
Do you remember the 'possums and grubs
She baked for you down by the creek?
Sam Holt was, apparently, a hardened flash Jack.
You were not quite the cleanly potato, Sam Holt.
Reference is made to his "manner of holding a flush", and he is
asked to remember several things which he, no doubt, would rather
. . . the hiding you got from the boys.
The song is decidedly personal.
But Sam Holt makes a pile and goes home, leaving many a better and
worse man to pad the hoof Out Back. And — Jim Nowlett sang this with
so much feeling as to make it appear a personal affair between him and
the absent Holt —
And, don't you remember the fiver, Sam Holt,
You borrowed so careless and free?
I reckon I'll whistle a good many tunes
(with increasing feeling)
Ere you think of that fiver and me.
For the chances will be that Sam Holt's old mate
Will be humping his drum on the Hughenden Road
To the end of the chapter of fate.
An echo from "The Old Bark Hut", sung in the opposition camp across
You may leave the door ajar, but if you keep it shut,
There's no need of suffocation in the Ould Barrk Hut.
. . . . .
The tucker's in the gin-case, but you'd better keep it shut —
For the flies will canther round it in the Ould Bark Hut.
What's out of sight is out of mind, in the Ould Bark Hut.
We washed our greasy moleskins
On the banks of the Condamine. —
Somebody tackling the "Old Bullock Dray"; it must be over fifty
verses now. I saw a bushman at a country dance start to sing that
song; he'd get up to ten or fifteen verses, break down, and start
afresh. At last he sat down on his heel to it, in the centre of the
clear floor, resting his wrist on his knee, and keeping time with an
index finger. It was very funny, but the thing was taken seriously all
Irreverent echo from the old Lambing Flat trouble, from camp across
Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!
No more Chinamen will enter Noo South Wales!
Yankee Doodle came to town
On a little pony —
Stick a feather in his cap,
And call him Maccaroni!
All the camps seem to be singing to-night:
Ring the bell, watchman!
Ring! Ring! Ring!
Ring, for the good news
Is now on the wing!
Good lines, the introduction:
High on the belfry the old sexton stands,
Grasping the rope with his thin bony hands! . . .
Bon-fires are blazing throughout the land . . .
Glorious and blessed tidings! Ring! Ring the bell!
Granny Mathews fails to coax her niece into the kitchen, but
persuades her to sing inside. She is the girl who learnt `sub rosa'
from the bad girl who sang "Madeline". Such as have them on
instinctively take their hats off. Diggers, strolling past, halt at
the first notes of the girl's voice, and stand like statues in the
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod?
The beautiful — the beautiful river
That flows by the throne of God! —
Diggers wanted to send that girl "Home", but Granny Mathews had
the old-fashioned horror of any of her children becoming "public" —
Gather with the saints at the river,
That flows by the throne of God!
But it grows late, or rather, early. The "Eyetalians" go by in
the frosty moonlight, from their last shift in the claim (for it is
Saturday night), singing a litany.
"Get up on one end, Abe! — stand up all!" Hands are clasped
across the kitchen table. Redclay, one of the last of the alluvial
fields, has petered out, and the Roaring Days are dying. . . . The
grand old song that is known all over the world; yet how many in ten
thousand know more than one verse and the chorus? Let Peter McKenzie
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min'?
And hearts echo from far back in the past and across wide, wide
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o' lang syne?
Now boys! all together!
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wandered mony a weary foot,
Sin' auld lang syne.
The world was wide then.
We twa hae paidl't i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine:
the log fire seems to grow watery, for in wide, lonely Australia —
But seas between us braid hae roar'd,
Sin' auld lang syne.
The kitchen grows dimmer, and the forms of the digger-singers
seemed suddenly vague and unsubstantial, fading back rapidly through
a misty veil. But the words ring strong and defiant through hard
And here's a hand, my trusty frien',
And gie's a grup o' thine;
And we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
And the nettles have been growing for over twenty years on the spot
where Granny Mathews' big bark kitchen stood.
A Vision of Sandy Blight
I'd been humping my back, and crouching and groaning for an hour
or so in the darkest corner of the travellers' hut, tortured by the
demon of sandy blight. It was too hot to travel, and there was no one
there except ourselves and Mitchell's cattle pup. We were waiting till
after sundown, for I couldn't have travelled in the daylight, anyway.
Mitchell had tied a wet towel round my eyes, and led me for the last
mile or two by another towel — one end fastened to his belt behind,
and the other in my hand as I walked in his tracks. And oh! but this
was a relief! It was out of the dust and glare, and the flies didn't
come into the dark hut, and I could hump and stick my knees in my eyes
and groan in comfort. I didn't want a thousand a year, or anything; I
only wanted relief for my eyes — that was all I prayed for in this
world. When the sun got down a bit, Mitchell started poking round,
and presently he found amongst the rubbish a dirty-looking medicine
bottle, corked tight; when he rubbed the dirt off a piece of notepaper
that was pasted on, he saw "eye-water" written on it. He drew the cork
with his teeth, smelt the water, stuck his little finger in, turned
the bottle upside down, tasted the top of his finger, and reckoned the
stuff was all right.
"Here! Wake up, Joe!" he shouted. "Here's a bottle of tears."
"A bottler wot?" I groaned.
"Eye-water," said Mitchell.
"Are you sure it's all right?" I didn't want to be poisoned or
have my eyes burnt out by mistake; perhaps some burning acid had got
into that bottle, or the label had been put on, or left on, in mistake
"I dunno," said Mitchell, "but there's no harm in tryin'."
I chanced it. I lay down on my back in a bunk, and Mitchell
dragged my lids up and spilt half a bottle of eye-water over my
The relief was almost instantaneous. I never experienced such a
quick cure in my life. I carried the bottle in my swag for a long
time afterwards, with an idea of getting it analysed, but left it
behind at last in a camp.
Mitchell scratched his head thoughtfully, and watched me for a
"I think I'll wait a bit longer," he said at last, "and if it
doesn't blind you I'll put some in my eyes. I'm getting a touch of
blight myself now. That's the fault of travelling with a mate who's
always catching something that's no good to him."
As it grew dark outside we talked of sandy-blight and fly-bite,
and sand-flies up north, and ordinary flies, and branched off to
Barcoo rot, and struck the track again at bees and bee stings. When
we got to bees, Mitchell sat smoking for a while and looking dreamily
backwards along tracks and branch tracks, and round corners and
circles he had travelled, right back to the short, narrow, innocent
bit of track that ends in a vague, misty point — like the end of a
long, straight, cleared road in the moonlight — as far back as we can
"I had about fourteen hives," said Mitchell — "we used to call
them `swarms', no matter whether they were flying or in the box —
when I left home first time. I kept them behind the shed, in the
shade, on tables of galvanised iron cases turned down on stakes; but
I had to make legs later on, and stand them in pans of water, on
account of the ants. When the bees swarmed — and some hives sent out
the Lord knows how many swarms in a year, it seemed to me — we'd
tin-kettle 'em, and throw water on 'em, to make 'em believe the
biggest thunderstorm was coming to drown the oldest inhabitant; and,
if they didn't get the start of us and rise, they'd settle on a branch
— generally on one of the scraggy fruit trees. It was rough on the
bees — come to think of it; their instinct told them it was going to
be fine, and the noise and water told them it was raining. They must
have thought that nature was mad, drunk, or gone ratty, or the end of
the world had come. We'd rig up a table, with a box upside down, under
the branch, cover our face with a piece of mosquito net, have rags
burning round, and then give the branch a sudden jerk, turn the box
down, and run. If we got most of the bees in, the rest that were
hanging to the bough or flying round would follow, and then we
reckoned we'd shook the queen in. If the bees in the box came out and
joined the others, we'd reckon we hadn't shook the queen in, and go
for them again. When a hive was full of honey we'd turn the box upside
down, turn the empty box mouth down on top of it, and drum and hammer
on the lower box with a stick till all the bees went up into the top
box. I suppose it made their heads ache, and they went up on that
"I suppose things are done differently on proper bee-farms. I've
heard that a bee-farmer will part a hanging swarm with his fingers,
take out the queen bee and arrange matters with her; but our ways
suited us, and there was a lot of expectation and running and
excitement in it, especially when a swarm took us by surprise. The
yell of `Bees swarmin'!' was as good to us as the yell of `Fight!' is
now, or `Bolt!' in town, or `Fire' or `Man overboard!' at sea.
"There was tons of honey. The bees used to go to the vineyards at
wine-making and get honey from the heaps of crushed grape-skins thrown
out in the sun, and get so drunk sometimes that they wobbled in their
bee-lines home. They'd fill all the boxes, and then build in between
and under the bark, and board, and tin covers. They never seemed to
get the idea out of their heads that this wasn't an evergreen country,
and it wasn't going to snow all winter. My younger brother Joe used
to put pieces of meat on the tables near the boxes, and in front of
the holes where the bees went in and out, for the dogs to grab at.
But one old dog, `Black Bill', was a match for him; if it was worth
Bill's while, he'd camp there, and keep Joe and the other dogs from
touching the meat — once it was put down — till the bees turned in
for the night. And Joe would get the other kids round there, and when
they weren't looking or thinking, he'd brush the bees with a stick and
run. I'd lam him when I caught him at it. He was an awful young
devil, was Joe, and he grew up steady, and respectable, and respected
— and I went to the bad. I never trust a good boy now. . . . Ah,
"I remember the first swarm we got. We'd been talking of getting a
few swarms for a long time. That was what was the matter with us
English and Irish and English-Irish Australian farmers: we used to
talk so much about doing things while the Germans and Scotch did them.
And we even talked in a lazy, easy-going sort of way.
"Well, one blazing hot day I saw father coming along the road, home
to dinner (we had it in the middle of the day), with his axe over his
shoulder. I noticed the axe particularly because father was bringing
it home to grind, and Joe and I had to turn the stone; but, when I
noticed Joe dragging along home in the dust about fifty yards behind
father, I felt easier in my mind. Suddenly father dropped the axe and
started to run back along the road towards Joe, who, as soon as he saw
father coming, shied for the fence and got through. He thought he was
going to catch it for something he'd done — or hadn't done. Joe used
to do so many things and leave so many things not done that he could
never be sure of father. Besides, father had a way of starting to
hammer us unexpectedly — when the idea struck him. But father pulled
himself up in about thirty yards and started to grab up handfuls of
dust and sand and throw them into the air. My idea, in the first
flash, was to get hold of the axe, for I thought it was sun-stroke,
and father might take it into his head to start chopping up the family
before I could persuade him to put it (his head, I mean) in a bucket
of water. But Joe came running like mad, yelling:
"`Swarmer — bees! Swawmmer — bee—ee—es! Bring — a — tin —
dish — and — a — dippera — wa-a-ter!'
"I ran with a bucket of water and an old frying-pan, and pretty
soon the rest of the family were on the spot, throwing dust and water,
and banging everything, tin or iron, they could get hold of. The only
bullock bell in the district (if it was in the district) was on the
old poley cow, and she'd been lost for a fortnight. Mother brought up
the rear — but soon worked to the front — with a baking-dish and a
big spoon. The old lady — she wasn't old then — had a deep-rooted
prejudice that she could do everything better than anybody else, and
that the selection and all on it would go to the dogs if she wasn't
there to look after it. There was no jolting that idea out of her.
She not only believed that she could do anything better than anybody,
and hers was the only right or possible way, and that we'd do
everything upside down if she wasn't there to do it or show us how —
but she'd try to do things herself or insist on making us do them her
way, and that led to messes and rows. She was excited now, and took
command at once. She wasn't tongue-tied, and had no impediment in her
"`Don't throw up dust! — Stop throwing up dust! — Do you want
to smother 'em? — Don't throw up so much water! — Only throw up a
pannikin at a time! — D'yer want to drown 'em? Bang! Keep on
banging, Joe! — Look at that child! Run, someone! — run! you,
Jack! — D'yer want the child to be stung to death? — Take her
inside! . . . Dy' hear me? . . . Stop throwing up dust, Tom! (To
father.) You're scaring 'em away! Can't you see they want to settle?'
[Father was getting mad and yelping: `For Godsake shettup and go
inside.'] `Throw up water, Jack! Throw up — Tom! Take that bucket
from him and don't make such a fool of yourself before the children!
Throw up water! Throw — keep on banging, children! Keep on
banging!' [Mother put her faith in banging.] `There! — they're off!
You've lost 'em! I knew you would! I told yer — keep on bang—!'
"A bee struck her in the eye, and she grabbed at it!
"Mother went home — and inside.
"Father was good at bees — could manage them like sheep when he
got to know their ideas. When the swarm settled, he sent us for the
old washing stool, boxes, bags, and so on; and the whole time he was
fixing the bees I noticed that whenever his back was turned to us his
shoulders would jerk up as if he was cold, and he seemed to shudder
from inside, and now and then I'd hear a grunting sort of whimper like
a boy that was just starting to blubber. But father wasn't weeping,
and bees weren't stinging him; it was the bee that stung mother that
was tickling father. When he went into the house, mother's other eye
had bunged for sympathy. Father was always gentle and kind in
sickness, and he bathed mother's eyes and rubbed mud on, but every now
and then he'd catch inside, and jerk and shudder, and grunt and cough.
Mother got wild, but presently the humour of it struck her, and she
had to laugh, and a rum laugh it was, with both eyes bunged up. Then
she got hysterical, and started to cry, and father put his arm round
her shoulder and ordered us out of the house.
"They were very fond of each other, the old people were, under it
all — right up to the end. . . . Ah, well!"
Mitchell pulled the swags out of a bunk, and started to fasten the
Andy Page's Rival
Tall and freckled and sandy,
Face of a country lout;
That was the picture of Andy —
On Middleton's wide dominions
Plied the stock-whip and shears;
Hadn't any opinions ———
And he hadn't any "ideers" — at least, he said so himself —
except as regarded anything that looked to him like what he called
"funny business", under which heading he catalogued tyranny,
treachery, interference with the liberty of the subject by the
subject, "blanky" lies, or swindles — all things, in short, that
seemed to his slow understanding dishonest, mean or paltry; most
especially, and above all, treachery to a mate. THAT he could never
forget. Andy was uncomfortably "straight". His mind worked slowly and
his decisions were, as a rule, right and just; and when he once came
to a conclusion concerning any man or matter, or decided upon a course
of action, nothing short of an earthquake or a Nevertire cyclone could
move him back an inch — unless a conviction were severely shaken, and
then he would require as much time to "back" to his starting point as
he did to come to the decision.
Andy had come to a conclusion with regard to a selector's daughter
— name, Lizzie Porter — who lived (and slaved) on her father's
selection, near the township corner of the run on which Andy was a
general "hand". He had been in the habit for several years of calling
casually at the selector's house, as he rode to and fro between the
station and the town, to get a drink of water and exchange the time of
day with old Porter and his "missus". The conversation concerned the
drought, and the likelihood or otherwise of their ever going to get a
little rain; or about Porter's cattle, with an occasional enquiry
concerning, or reference to, a stray cow belonging to the selection,
but preferring the run; a little, plump, saucy, white cow, by-the-way,
practically pure white, but referred to by Andy — who had eyes like
a blackfellow — as "old Speckledy". No one else could detect a spot
or speckle on her at a casual glance. Then after a long bovine
silence, which would have been painfully embarrassing in any other
society, and a tilting of his cabbage-tree hat forward, which came of
tickling and scratching the sun-blotched nape of his neck with his
little finger, Andy would slowly say: "Ah, well. I must be gettin'.
So-long, Mr. Porter. So-long, Mrs. Porter." And, if SHE were in
evidence — as she generally was on such occasions — "So-long,
Lizzie." And they'd shout: "So-long, Andy," as he galloped off from
the jump. Strange that those shy, quiet, gentle-voiced bushmen seem
the hardest and most reckless riders.
But of late his horse had been seen hanging up outside Porter's
for an hour or so after sunset. He smoked, talked over the results
of the last drought (if it happened to rain), and the possibilities of
the next one, and played cards with old Porter; who took to winking,
automatically, at his "old woman", and nudging, and jerking his thumb
in the direction of Lizzie when her back was turned, and Andy was
scratching the nape of his neck and staring at the cards.
Lizzie told a lady friend of mine, years afterwards, how Andy
popped the question; told it in her quiet way — you know Lizzie's
quiet way (something of the old, privileged house-cat about her);
never a sign in expression or tone to show whether she herself saw or
appreciated the humour of anything she was telling, no matter how
comical it might be. She had witnessed two tragedies, and had found a
dead man in the bush, and related the incidents as though they were
It happened one day — after Andy had been coming two or three
times a week for about a year — that she found herself sitting with
him on a log of the woodheap, in the cool of the evening, enjoying
the sunset breeze. Andy's arm had got round her — just as it might
have gone round a post he happened to be leaning against. They hadn't
been talking about anything in particular. Andy said he wouldn't be
surprised if they had a thunderstorm before mornin' — it had been so
smotherin' hot all day.
Lizzie said, "Very likely."
Andy smoked a good while, then he said: "Ah, well! It's a weary
Lizzie didn't say anything.
By-and-bye Andy said: "Ah, well; it's a lonely world, Lizzie."
"Do you feel lonely, Andy?" asked Lizzie, after a while.
"Yes, Lizzie; I do."
Lizzie let herself settle, a little, against him, without either
seeming to notice it, and after another while she said, softly: "So
do I, Andy."
Andy knocked the ashes from his pipe very slowly and deliberately,
and put it away; then he seemed to brighten suddenly, and said
briskly: "Well, Lizzie! Are you satisfied!"
"Yes, Andy; I'm satisfied."
"Quite sure, now?"
"Yes; I'm quite sure, Andy. I'm perfectly satisfied."
"Well, then, Lizzie — it's settled!"
But to-day — a couple of months after the proposal described above
— Andy had trouble on his mind, and the trouble was connected with
Lizzie Porter. He was putting up a two-rail fence along the old
log-paddock on the frontage, and working like a man in trouble, trying
to work it off his mind; and evidently not succeeding — for the last
two panels were out of line. He was ramming a post — Andy rammed
honestly, from the bottom of the hole, not the last few shovelfuls
below the surface, as some do. He was ramming the last layer of clay
when a cloud of white dust came along the road, paused, and drifted
or poured off into the scrub, leaving long Dave Bentley, the
horse-breaker, on his last victim.
"'Ello, Andy! Graftin'?"
"I want to speak to you, Dave," said Andy, in a strange voice.
"All — all right!" said Dave, rather puzzled. He got down,
wondering what was up, and hung his horse to the last post but one.
Dave was Andy's opposite in one respect: he jumped to conclusions,
as women do; but, unlike women, he was mostly wrong. He was an old
chum and mate of Andy's who had always liked, admired, and trusted him.
But now, to his helpless surprise, Andy went on scraping the earth
from the surface with his long-handled shovel, and heaping it
conscientiously round the butt of the post, his face like a block of
wood, and his lips set grimly. Dave broke out first (with bush
"What's the matter with you? Spit it out! What have I been doin'
to you? What's yer got yer rag out about, anyway?"
Andy faced him suddenly, with hatred for "funny business" flashing
in his eyes.
"What did you say to my sister Mary about Lizzie Porter?"
Dave started; then he whistled long and low. "Spit it all out,
Andy!" he advised.
"You said she was travellin' with a feller!"
"Well, what's the harm in that? Everybody knows that —"
"If any crawler says a word about Lizzie Porter — look here, me
and you's got to fight, Dave Bentley!" Then, with still greater
vehemence, as though he had a share in the garment: "Take off that
"Not if I know it!" said Dave, with the sudden quietness that comes
to brave but headstrong and impulsive men at a critical moment: "Me
and you ain't goin' to fight, Andy; and" (with sudden energy) "if you
try it on I'll knock you into jim-rags!"
Then, stepping close to Andy and taking him by the arm: "Andy,
this thing will have to be fixed up. Come here; I want to talk to
you." And he led him some paces aside, inside the boundary line,
which seemed a ludicrously unnecessary precaution, seeing that there
was no one within sight or hearing save Dave's horse.
"Now, look here, Andy; let's have it over. What's the matter with
you and Lizzie Porter?"
"I'M travellin' with her, that's all; and we're going to get
married in two years!"
Dave gave vent to another long, low whistle. He seemed to think
and make up his mind.
"Now, look here, Andy: we're old mates, ain't we?"
"Yes; I know that."
"And do you think I'd tell you a blanky lie, or crawl behind your
back? Do you? Spit it out!"
"N—no, I don't!"
"I've always stuck up for you, Andy, and — why, I've fought for
you behind your back!"
"I know that, Dave."
"There's my hand on it!"
Andy took his friend's hand mechanically, but gripped it hard.
"Now, Andy, I'll tell you straight: It's Gorstruth about Lizzie
They stood as they were for a full minute, hands clasped; Andy
with his jaw dropped and staring in a dazed sort of way at Dave. He
raised his disengaged hand helplessly to his thatch, gulped
suspiciously, and asked in a broken voice:
"How — how do you know it, Dave?"
"Know it? Andy, I SEEN 'EM MESELF!"
"You did, Dave?" in a tone that suggested sorrow more than anger
at Dave's part in the seeing of them.
"Tell me, Dave, who was the feller? That's all I want to know."
"I can't tell you that. I only seen them when I was canterin' past
in the dusk."
"Then how'd you know it was a man at all?"
"It wore trousers, anyway, and was as big as you; so it couldn't
have been a girl. I'm pretty safe to swear it was Mick Kelly. I saw
his horse hangin' up at Porter's once or twice. But I'll tell you what
I'll do: I'll find out for you, Andy. And, what's more, I'll job him
for you if I catch him!"
Andy said nothing; his hands clenched and his chest heaved. Dave
laid a friendly hand on his shoulder.
"It's red hot, Andy, I know. Anybody else but you and I wouldn't
have cared. But don't be a fool; there's any Gorsquantity of girls
knockin' round. You just give it to her straight and chuck her, and
have done with it. You must be bad off to bother about her.
Gorstruth! she ain't much to look at anyway! I've got to ride like
blazes to catch the coach. Don't knock off till I come back; I won't
be above an hour. I'm goin' to give you some points in case you've got
to fight Mick; and I'll have to be there to back you!" And, thus
taking the right moment instinctively, he jumped on his horse and
galloped on towards the town.
His dust-cloud had scarcely disappeared round a corner of the
paddocks when Andy was aware of another one coming towards him. He
had a dazed idea that it was Dave coming back, but went on digging
another post-hole, mechanically, until a spring-cart rattled up, and
stopped opposite him. Then he lifted his head. It was Lizzie herself,
driving home from town. She turned towards him with her usual faint
smile. Her small features were "washed out" and rather haggard.
But, at the sight of her, all his hatred of "funny business" —
intensified, perhaps, by a sense of personal injury — came to a head,
and he exploded:
"Look here, Lizzie Porter! I know all about you. You needn't
think you're goin' to cotton on with me any more after this! I
wouldn't be seen in a paddock with yer! I'm satisfied about you! Get
on out of this!"
The girl stared at him for a moment thunderstruck; then she lammed
into the old horse with a stick she carried in place of a whip.
She cried, and wondered what she'd done, and trembled so that she
could scarcely unharness the horse, and wondered if Andy had got a
touch of the sun, and went in and sat down and cried again; and pride
came to her aid and she hated Andy; thought of her big brother, away
droving, and made a cup of tea. She shed tears over the tea, and went
through it all again.
Meanwhile Andy was suffering a reaction. He started to fill the
hole before he put the post in; then to ram the post before the rails
were in position. Dubbing off the ends of the rails, he was in
danger of amputating a toe or a foot with every stroke of the adze.
And, at last, trying to squint along the little lumps of clay which
he had placed in the centre of the top of each post for several panels
back — to assist him to take a line — he found that they swam and
doubled, and ran off in watery angles, for his eyes were too moist to
see straight and single.
Then he threw down the tools hopelessly, and was standing
helplessly undecided whether to go home or go down to the creek and
drown himself, when Dave turned up again.
"Seen her?" asked Dave.
"Yes," said Andy.
"Did you chuck her?"
"Look here, Dave; are you sure the feller was Mick Kelly?"
"I never said I was. How was I to know? It was dark. You don't
expect I'd `fox' a feller I see doing a bit of a bear-up to a girl, do
you? It might have been you, for all I knowed. I suppose she's been
talking you round?"
"No, she ain't," said Andy. "But, look here, Dave; I was properly
gone on that girl, I was, and — and I want to be sure I'm right."
The business was getting altogether too psychological for Dave
Bentley. "You might as well," he rapped out, "call me a liar at once!"
"'Taint that at all, Dave. I want to get at who the feller is;
that's what I want to get at now. Where did you see them, and when?"
"I seen them Anniversary night, along the road, near Ross' farm;
and I seen 'em Sunday night afore that — in the trees near the old
culvert — near Porter's sliprails; and I seen 'em one night outside
Porter's, on a log near the woodheap. They was thick that time, and
bearin' up proper, and no mistake. So I can swear to her. Now, are
you satisfied about her?"
But Andy was wildly pitchforking his thatch under his hat with all
ten fingers and staring at Dave, who began to regard him uneasily;
then there came to Andy's eyes an awful glare, which caused Dave to
step back hastily.
"Good God, Andy! Are yer goin' ratty?"
"No!" cried Andy, wildly.
"Then what the blazes is the matter with you? You'll have rats if
you don't look out!"
"JIMMINY FROTH! — It was ME all the time!"
"It was me that was with her all them nights. It was me that you
seen. WHY, I POPPED ON THE WOODHEAP!"
Dave was taken too suddenly to whistle this time.
"And you went for her just now?"
"Yes!" yelled Andy.
"Well — you've done it!"
"Yes," said Andy, hopelessly; "I've done it!"
Dave whistled now — a very long, low whistle. "Well, you're a
bloomin' goat, Andy, after this. But this thing'll have to be fixed
up!" and he cantered away. Poor Andy was too badly knocked to notice
the abruptness of Dave's departure, or to see that he turned through
the sliprails on to the track that led to Porter's.
Half an hour later Andy appeared at Porter's back door, with an
expression on his face as though the funeral was to start in ten
minutes. In a tone befitting such an occasion, he wanted to see
Dave had been there with the laudable determination of fixing the
business up, and had, of course, succeeded in making it much worse
than it was before. But Andy made it all right.
The Iron-Bark Chip
Dave Regan and party — bush-fencers, tank-sinkers, rough
carpenters, — were finishing the third and last culvert of their
contract on the last section of the new railway line, and had already
sent in their vouchers for the completed contract, so that there might
be no excuse for extra delay in connection with the cheque.
Now it had been expressly stipulated in the plans and
specifications that the timber for certain beams and girders was to be
iron-bark and no other, and Government inspectors were authorised to
order the removal from the ground of any timber or material they might
deem inferior, or not in accordance with the stipulations. The
railway contractor's foreman and inspector of sub-contractors was a
practical man and a bushman, but he had been a timber-getter himself;
his sympathies were bushy, and he was on winking terms with Dave
Regan. Besides, extended time was expiring, and the contractors were
in a hurry to complete the line. But the Government inspector was a
reserved man who poked round on his independent own and appeared in
lonely spots at unexpected times — with apparently no definite object
in life — like a grey kangaroo bothered by a new wire fence, but
unsuspicious of the presence of humans. He wore a grey suit, rode, or
mostly led, an ashen-grey horse; the grass was long and grey, so he
was seldom spotted until he was well within the horizon and bearing
leisurely down on a party of sub-contractors, leading his horse.
Now iron-bark was scarce and distant on those ridges, and another
timber, similar in appearance, but much inferior in grain and
"standing" quality, was plentiful and close at hand. Dave and party
were "about full of" the job and place, and wanted to get their cheque
and be gone to another "spec" they had in view. So they came to
reckon they'd get the last girder from a handy tree, and have it
squared, in place, and carefully and conscientiously tarred before the
inspector happened along, if he did. But they didn't. They got it
squared, and ready to be lifted into its place; the kindly darkness of
tar was ready to cover a fraud that took four strong men with crowbars
and levers to shift; and now (such is the regular cussedness of
things) as the fraudulent piece of timber lay its last hour on the
ground, looking and smelling, to their guilty imaginations like
anything but iron-bark, they were aware of the Government inspector
drifting down upon them obliquely, with something of the atmosphere of
a casual Bill or Jim who had dropped out of his easy-going track to
see how they were getting on, and borrow a match. They had more than
half hoped that, as he had visited them pretty frequently during the
progress of the work, and knew how near it was to completion, he
wouldn't bother coming any more. But it's the way with the Government.
You might move heaven and earth in vain endeavour to get the
"Guvermunt" to flutter an eyelash over something of the most momentous
importance to yourself and mates and the district — even to the
country; but just when you are leaving authority severely alone, and
have strong reasons for not wanting to worry or interrupt it, and not
desiring it to worry about you, it will take a fancy into its head to
come along and bother.
"It's always the way!" muttered Dave to his mates. "I knew the
beggar would turn up! . . . And the only cronk log we've had, too!"
he added, in an injured tone. "If this had 'a' been the only blessed
iron-bark in the whole contract, it would have been all right. . . .
Good-day, sir!" (to the inspector). "It's hot?"
The inspector nodded. He was not of an impulsive nature. He got
down from his horse and looked at the girder in an abstracted way; and
presently there came into his eyes a dreamy, far-away, sad sort of
expression, as if there had been a very sad and painful occurrence in
his family, way back in the past, and that piece of timber in some way
reminded him of it and brought the old sorrow home to him. He blinked
three times, and asked, in a subdued tone:
"Is that iron-bark?"
Jack Bentley, the fluent liar of the party, caught his breath with
a jerk and coughed, to cover the gasp and gain time. "I—iron-bark?
Of course it is! I thought you would know iron-bark, mister."
(Mister was silent.) "What else d'yer think it is?"
The dreamy, abstracted expression was back. The inspector,
by-the-way, didn't know much about timber, but he had a great deal of
instinct, and went by it when in doubt.
"L—look here, mister!" put in Dave Regan, in a tone of innocent
puzzlement and with a blank bucolic face. "B—but don't the plans and
specifications say iron-bark? Ours does, anyway. I—I'll git the
papers from the tent and show yer, if yer like."
It was not necessary. The inspector admitted the fact slowly. He
stooped, and with an absent air picked up a chip. He looked at it
abstractedly for a moment, blinked his threefold blink; then, seeming
to recollect an appointment, he woke up suddenly and asked briskly:
"Did this chip come off that girder?"
Blank silence. The inspector blinked six times, divided in threes,
rapidly, mounted his horse, said "Day," and rode off.
Regan and party stared at each other.
"Wha—what did he do that for?" asked Andy Page, the third in the
"Do what for, you fool?" enquired Dave.
"Ta—take that chip for?"
"He's taking it to the office!" snarled Jack Bentley.
"What—what for? What does he want to do that for?"
"To get it blanky well analysed! You ass! Now are yer satisfied?"
And Jack sat down hard on the timber, jerked out his pipe, and said to
Dave, in a sharp, toothache tone:
"We—well! what are we to do now?" enquired Andy, who was the
hardest grafter, but altogether helpless, hopeless, and useless in a
crisis like this.
"Grain and varnish the bloomin' culvert!" snapped Bentley.
But Dave's eyes, that had been ruefully following the inspector,
suddenly dilated. The inspector had ridden a short distance along the
line, dismounted, thrown the bridle over a post, laid the chip (which
was too big to go in his pocket) on top of it, got through the fence,
and was now walking back at an angle across the line in the direction
of the fencing party, who had worked up on the other side, a little
more than opposite the culvert.
Dave took in the lay of the country at a glance and thought
"Gimme an iron-bark chip!" he said suddenly.
Bentley, who was quick-witted when the track was shown him, as is
a kangaroo dog (Jack ran by sight, not scent), glanced in the line of
Dave's eyes, jumped up, and got a chip about the same size as that
which the inspector had taken.
Now the "lay of the country" sloped generally to the line from both
sides, and the angle between the inspector's horse, the fencing party,
and the culvert was well within a clear concave space; but a couple
of hundred yards back from the line and parallel to it (on the side on
which Dave's party worked their timber) a fringe of scrub ran to
within a few yards of a point which would be about in line with a
single tree on the cleared slope, the horse, and the fencing party.
Dave took the iron-bark chip, ran along the bed of the water-course
into the scrub, raced up the siding behind the bushes, got safely,
though without breathing, across the exposed space, and brought the
tree into line between him and the inspector, who was talking to the
fencers. Then he began to work quickly down the slope towards the tree
(which was a thin one), keeping it in line, his arms close to his
sides, and working, as it were, down the trunk of the tree, as if the
fencing party were kangaroos and Dave was trying to get a shot at
them. The inspector, by-the-bye, had a habit of glancing now and then
in the direction of his horse, as though under the impression that it
was flighty and restless and inclined to bolt on opportunity. It was
an anxious moment for all parties concerned — except the inspector.
They didn't want HIM to be perturbed. And, just as Dave reached the
foot of the tree, the inspector finished what he had to say to the
fencers, turned, and started to walk briskly back to his horse. There
was a thunderstorm coming. Now was the critical moment — there were
certain prearranged signals between Dave's party and the fencers which
might have interested the inspector, but none to meet a case like this.
Jack Bentley gasped, and started forward with an idea of
intercepting the inspector and holding him for a few minutes in bogus
conversation. Inspirations come to one at a critical moment, and it
flashed on Jack's mind to send Andy instead. Andy looked as innocent
and guileless as he was, but was uncomfortable in the vicinity of
"funny business", and must have an honest excuse. "Not that that
mattered," commented Jack afterwards; "it would have taken the
inspector ten minutes to get at what Andy was driving at, whatever it
"Run, Andy! Tell him there's a heavy thunderstorm coming and he'd
better stay in our humpy till it's over. Run! Don't stand staring
like a blanky fool. He'll be gone!"
Andy started. But just then, as luck would have it, one of the
fencers started after the inspector, hailing him as "Hi, mister!" He
wanted to be set right about the survey or something — or to pretend
to want to be set right — from motives of policy which I haven't time
to explain here.
That fencer explained afterwards to Dave's party that he "seen what
you coves was up to," and that's why he called the inspector back.
But he told them that after they had told their yarn — which was a
"Come back, Andy!" cried Jack Bentley.
Dave Regan slipped round the tree, down on his hands and knees,
and made quick time through the grass which, luckily, grew pretty tall
on the thirty or forty yards of slope between the tree and the horse.
Close to the horse, a thought struck Dave that pulled him up, and
sent a shiver along his spine and a hungry feeling under it. The horse
would break away and bolt! But the case was desperate. Dave ventured
an interrogatory "Cope, cope, cope?" The horse turned its head
wearily and regarded him with a mild eye, as if he'd expected him to
come, and come on all fours, and wondered what had kept him so long;
then he went on thinking. Dave reached the foot of the post; the horse
obligingly leaning over on the other leg. Dave reared head and
shoulders cautiously behind the post, like a snake; his hand went up
twice, swiftly — the first time he grabbed the inspector's chip, and
the second time he put the iron-bark one in its place. He drew down
and back, and scuttled off for the tree like a gigantic tailless
A few minutes later he walked up to the culvert from along the
creek, smoking hard to settle his nerves.
The sky seemed to darken suddenly; the first great drops of the
thunderstorm came pelting down. The inspector hurried to his horse,
and cantered off along the line in the direction of the fettlers'
He had forgotten all about the chip, and left it on top of the
Dave Regan sat down on the beam in the rain and swore
I. The First Born
The struggling squatter is to be found in Australia as well as the
"struggling farmer". The Australian squatter is not always the mighty
wool king that English and American authors and other uninformed
people apparently imagine him to be. Squatting, at the best, is but a
game of chance. It depends mainly on the weather, and that, in New
South Wales at least, depends on nothing.
Joe Middleton was a struggling squatter, with a station some
distance to the westward of the furthest line reached by the ordinary
"new chum". His run, at the time of our story, was only about six
miles square, and his stock was limited in proportion. The hands on
Joe's run consisted of his brother Dave, a middle-aged man known only
as "Middleton's Peter" (who had been in the service of the Middleton
family ever since Joe Middleton could remember), and an old black
shepherd, with his gin and two boys.
It was in the first year of Joe's marriage. He had married a very
ordinary girl, as far as Australian girls go, but in his eyes she was
an angel. He really worshipped her.
One sultry afternoon in midsummer all the station hands, with the
exception of Dave Middleton, were congregated about the homestead
door, and it was evident from their solemn faces that something
unusual was the matter. They appeared to be watching for something or
someone across the flat, and the old black shepherd, who had been
listening intently with bent head, suddenly straightened himself up
"I can hear the cart. I can see it!"
You must bear in mind that our blackfellows do not always talk the
gibberish with which they are credited by story writers.
It was not until some time after Black Bill had spoken that the
white — or, rather, the brown — portion of the party could see or
even hear the approaching vehicle. At last, far out through the
trunks of the native apple-trees, the cart was seen approaching; and
as it came nearer it was evident that it was being driven at a
break-neck pace, the horses cantering all the way, while the motion of
the cart, as first one wheel and then the other sprang from a root or
a rut, bore a striking resemblance to the Highland Fling. There were
two persons in the cart. One was Mother Palmer, a stout, middle-aged
party (who sometimes did the duties of a midwife), and the other was
Dave Middleton, Joe's brother.
The cart was driven right up to the door with scarcely any
abatement of speed, and was stopped so suddenly that Mrs. Palmer was
sent sprawling on to the horse's rump. She was quickly helped down,
and, as soon as she had recovered sufficient breath, she followed
Black Mary into the bedroom where young Mrs. Middleton was lying,
looking very pale and frightened. The horse which had been driven so
cruelly had not done blowing before another cart appeared, also driven
very fast. It contained old Mr. and Mrs. Middleton, who lived
comfortably on a small farm not far from Palmer's place.
As soon as he had dumped Mrs. Palmer, Dave Middleton left the cart
and, mounting a fresh horse which stood ready saddled in the yard,
galloped off through the scrub in a different direction.
Half an hour afterwards Joe Middleton came home on a horse that
had been almost ridden to death. His mother came out at the sound of
his arrival, and he anxiously asked her:
"How is she?"
"Did you find Doc. Wild?" asked the mother.
"No, confound him!" exclaimed Joe bitterly. "He promised me
faithfully to come over on Wednesday and stay until Maggie was right
again. Now he has left Dean's and gone — Lord knows where. I suppose
he is drinking again. How is Maggie?"
"It's all over now — the child is born. It's a boy; but she is
very weak. Dave got Mrs. Palmer here just in time. I had better tell
you at once that Mrs. Palmer says if we don't get a doctor here
to-night poor Maggie won't live."
"Good God! and what am I to do?" cried Joe desperately.
"Is there any other doctor within reach?"
"No; there is only the one at B——; that's forty miles away, and
he is laid up with the broken leg he got in the buggy accident.
"Gone to Black's shanty. One of Mrs. Palmer's sons thought he
remembered someone saying that Doc. Wild was there last week. That's
fifteen miles away."
"But it is our only hope," said Joe dejectedly. "I wish to God
that I had taken Maggie to some civilised place a month ago."
Doc. Wild was a well-known character among the bushmen of New South
Wales, and although the profession did not recognise him, and
denounced him as an empiric, his skill was undoubted. Bushmen had
great faith in him, and would often ride incredible distances in order
to bring him to the bedside of a sick friend. He drank fearfully,
but was seldom incapable of treating a patient; he would, however,
sometimes be found in an obstinate mood and refuse to travel to the
side of a sick person, and then the devil himself could not make the
doctor budge. But for all this he was very generous — a fact that
could, no doubt, be testified to by many a grateful sojourner in the
II. The Only Hope
Night came on, and still there was no change in the condition of
the young wife, and no sign of the doctor. Several stockmen from the
neighbouring stations, hearing that there was trouble at Joe
Middleton's, had ridden over, and had galloped off on long, hopeless
rides in search of a doctor. Being generally free from sickness
themselves, these bushmen look upon it as a serious business even in
its mildest form; what is more, their sympathy is always practical
where it is possible for it to be so. One day, while out on the run
after an "outlaw", Joe Middleton was badly thrown from his horse, and
the break-neck riding that was done on that occasion from the time the
horse came home with empty saddle until the rider was safe in bed and
attended by a doctor was something extraordinary, even for the bush.
Before the time arrived when Dave Middleton might reasonably have
been expected to return, the station people were anxiously watching
for him, all except the old blackfellow and the two boys, who had gone
to yard the sheep.
The party had been increased by Jimmy Nowlett, the bullocky, who
had just arrived with a load of fencing wire and provisions for
Middleton. Jimmy was standing in the moonlight, whip in hand, looking
as anxious as the husband himself, and endeavouring to calculate by
mental arithmetic the exact time it ought to take Dave to complete his
double journey, taking into consideration the distance, the obstacles
in the way, and the chances of horse-flesh.
But the time which Jimmy fixed for the arrival came without Dave.
Old Peter (as he was generally called, though he was not really
old) stood aside in his usual sullen manner, his hat drawn down over
his brow and eyes, and nothing visible but a thick and very horizontal
black beard, from the depth of which emerged large clouds of very
strong tobacco smoke, the product of a short, black, clay pipe.
They had almost given up all hope of seeing Dave return that night,
when Peter slowly and deliberately removed his pipe and grunted:
He then replaced the pipe, and smoked on as before.
All listened, but not one of them could hear a sound.
"Yer ears must be pretty sharp for yer age, Peter. We can't hear
him," remarked Jimmy Nowlett.
"His dog ken," said Peter.
The pipe was again removed and its abbreviated stem pointed in the
direction of Dave's cattle dog, who had risen beside his kennel with
pointed ears, and was looking eagerly in the direction from which his
master was expected to come.
Presently the sound of horse's hoofs was distinctly heard.
"I can hear two horses," cried Jimmy Nowlett excitedly.
"There's only one," said old Peter quietly.
A few moments passed, and a single horseman appeared on the far
side of the flat.
"It's Doc. Wild on Dave's horse," cried Jimmy Nowlett. "Dave don't
ride like that."
"It's Dave," said Peter, replacing his pipe and looking more
unsociable than ever.
Dave rode up and, throwing himself wearily from the saddle, stood
ominously silent by the side of his horse.
Joe Middleton said nothing, but stood aside with an expression of
utter hopelessness on his face.
"Not there?" asked Jimmy Nowlett at last, addressing Dave.
"Yes, he's there," answered Dave, impatiently.
This was not the answer they expected, but nobody seemed surprised.
"Drunk?" asked Jimmy.
Here old Peter removed his pipe, and pronounced the one word —
"What the hell do you mean by that?" muttered Dave, whose patience
had evidently been severely tried by the clever but intemperate bush
"How drunk?" explained Peter, with great equanimity.
"Stubborn drunk, blind drunk, beastly drunk, dead drunk, and
damned well drunk, if that's what you want to know!"
"What did Doc. say?" asked Jimmy.
"Said he was sick — had lumbago — wouldn't come for the Queen of
England; said he wanted a course of treatment himself. Curse him! I
have no patience to talk about him."
"I'd give him a course of treatment," muttered Jimmy viciously,
trailing the long lash of his bullock-whip through the grass and
spitting spitefully at the ground.
Dave turned away and joined Joe, who was talking earnestly to his
mother by the kitchen door. He told them that he had spent an hour
trying to persuade Doc. Wild to come, and, that before he had left the
shanty, Black had promised him faithfully to bring the doctor over as
soon as his obstinate mood wore off.
Just then a low moan was heard from the sick room, followed by the
sound of Mother Palmer's voice calling old Mrs. Middleton, who went
No one had noticed the disappearance of Peter, and when he
presently returned from the stockyard, leading the only fresh horse
that remained, Jimmy Nowlett began to regard him with some interest.
Peter transferred the saddle from Dave's horse to the other, and then
went into a small room off the kitchen, which served him as a bedroom;
from it he soon returned with a formidable-looking revolver, the
chambers of which he examined in the moonlight in full view of all the
company. They thought for a moment the man had gone mad. Old
Middleton leaped quickly behind Nowlett, and Black Mary, who had come
out to the cask at the corner for a dipper of water, dropped the
dipper and was inside like a shot. One of the black boys came softly
up at that moment; as soon as his sharp eye "spotted" the weapon, he
disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him.
"What the mischief are yer goin' ter do, Peter?" asked Jimmy.
"Goin' to fetch him," said Peter, and, after carefully emptying his
pipe and replacing it in a leather pouch at his belt, he mounted and
rode off at an easy canter.
Jimmy watched the horse until it disappeared at the edge of the
flat, and then after coiling up the long lash of his bullock-whip in
the dust until it looked like a sleeping snake, he prodded the small
end of the long pine handle into the middle of the coil, as though
driving home a point, and said in a tone of intense conviction:
"He'll fetch him."
III. Doc. Wild
Peter gradually increased his horse's speed along the rough bush
track until he was riding at a good pace. It was ten miles to the
main road, and five from there to the shanty kept by Black.
For some time before Peter started the atmosphere had been very
close and oppressive. The great black edge of a storm-cloud had risen
in the east, and everything indicated the approach of a thunderstorm.
It was not long coming. Before Peter had completed six miles of his
journey, the clouds rolled over, obscuring the moon, and an Australian
thunderstorm came on with its mighty downpour, its blinding lightning,
and its earth-shaking thunder. Peter rode steadily on, only pausing
now and then until a flash revealed the track in front of him.
Black's shanty — or, rather, as the sign had it, "Post Office and
General Store" — was, as we have said, five miles along the main road
from the point where Middleton's track joined it. The building was
of the usual style of bush architecture. About two hundred yards
nearer the creek, which crossed the road further on, stood a large
bark and slab stable, large enough to have met the requirements of a
legitimate bush "public".
The reader may doubt that a "sly grog shop" could openly carry on
business on a main Government road along which mounted troopers were
continually passing. But then, you see, mounted troopers get thirsty
like other men; moreover, they could always get their thirst quenched
`gratis' at these places; so the reader will be prepared to hear that
on this very night two troopers' horses were stowed snugly away in the
stable, and two troopers were stowed snugly away in the back room of
the shanty, sleeping off the effects of their cheap but strong
There were two rooms, of a sort, attached to the stables — one at
each end. One was occupied by a man who was "generally useful", and
the other was the surgery, office, and bedroom `pro tem.' of Doc.
Doc. Wild was a tall man, of spare proportions. He had a
cadaverous face, black hair, bushy black eyebrows, eagle nose, and
eagle eyes. He never slept while he was drinking. On this occasion
he sat in front of the fire on a low three-legged stool. His knees
were drawn up, his toes hooked round the front legs of the stool, one
hand resting on one knee, and one elbow (the hand supporting the chin)
resting on the other. He was staring intently into the fire, on
which an old black saucepan was boiling and sending forth a pungent
odour of herbs. There seemed something uncanny about the doctor as
the red light of the fire fell on his hawk-like face and gleaming eyes.
He might have been Mephistopheles watching some infernal brew.
He had sat there some time without stirring a finger, when the door
suddenly burst open and Middleton's Peter stood within, dripping wet.
The doctor turned his black, piercing eyes upon the intruder (who
regarded him silently) for a moment, and then asked quietly:
"What the hell do you want?"
"I want you," said Peter.
"And what do you want me for?"
"I want you to come to Joe Middleton's wife. She's bad," said
"I won't come," shouted the doctor. "I've brought enough
horse-stealers into the world already. If any more want to come they
can go to blazes for me. Now, you get out of this!"
"Don't get yer rag out," said Peter quietly. "The hoss-stealer's
come, an' nearly killed his mother ter begin with; an' if yer don't
get yer physic-box an' come wi' me, by the great God I'll ——"
Here the revolver was produced and pointed at Doc. Wild's head.
The sight of the weapon had a sobering effect upon the doctor. He
rose, looked at Peter critically for a moment, knocked the weapon out
of his hand, and said slowly and deliberately:
"Wall, ef the case es as serious as that, I (hic) reckon I'd better
Peter was still of the same opinion, so Doc. Wild proceeded to get
his medicine chest ready. He explained afterwards, in one of his
softer moments, that the shooter didn't frighten him so much as it
touched his memory — "sorter put him in mind of the old days in
California, and made him think of the man he might have been," he'd
say, — "kinder touched his heart and slid the durned old panorama in
front of him like a flash; made him think of the time when he slipped
three leaden pills into `Blue Shirt' for winking at a new chum behind
his (the Doc.'s) back when he was telling a truthful yarn, and charged
the said `Blue Shirt' a hundred dollars for extracting the said
Joe Middleton's wife is a grandmother now.
Peter passed after the manner of his sort; he was found dead in his
Poor Doc. Wild died in a shepherd's hut at the Dry Creeks. The
shepherds (white men) found him, "naked as he was born and with the
hide half burned off him with the sun," rounding up imaginary snakes
on a dusty clearing, one blazing hot day. The hut-keeper had some
"quare" (queer) experiences with the doctor during the next three days
and used, in after years, to tell of them, between the puffs of his
pipe, calmly and solemnly and as if the story was rather to the
doctor's credit than otherwise. The shepherds sent for the police and
a doctor, and sent word to Joe Middleton. Doc. Wild was sensible
towards the end. His interview with the other doctor was
characteristic. "And, now you see how far I am," he said in
conclusion — "have you brought the brandy?" The other doctor had.
Joe Middleton came with his waggonette, and in it the softest
mattress and pillows the station afforded. He also, in his innocence,
brought a dozen of soda-water. Doc. Wild took Joe's hand feebly, and,
a little later, he "passed out" (as he would have said) murmuring
"something that sounded like poetry", in an unknown tongue. Joe took
the body to the home station. "Who's the boss bringin'?" asked the
shearers, seeing the waggonette coming very slowly and the boss
walking by the horses' heads. "Doc. Wild," said a station hand. "Take
yer hats off."
They buried him with bush honours, and chiselled his name on a
slab of bluegum — a wood that lasts.
The Mystery of Dave Regan
"And then there was Dave Regan," said the traveller. "Dave used to
die oftener than any other bushman I knew. He was always being
reported dead and turnin' up again. He seemed to like it — except
once, when his brother drew his money and drank it all to drown his
grief at what he called Dave's `untimely end'. Well, Dave went up to
Queensland once with cattle, and was away three years and reported
dead, as usual. He was drowned in the Bogan this time while tryin' to
swim his horse acrost a flood — and his sweetheart hurried up and got
spliced to a worse man before Dave got back.
"Well, one day I was out in the bush lookin' for timber, when the
biggest storm ever knowed in that place come on. There was hail in it,
too, as big as bullets, and if I hadn't got behind a stump and
crouched down in time I'd have been riddled like a — like a
bushranger. As it was, I got soakin' wet. The storm was over in a few
minutes, the water run off down the gullies, and the sun come out and
the scrub steamed — and stunk like a new pair of moleskin trousers.
I went on along the track, and presently I seen a long, lanky chap
get on to a long, lanky horse and ride out of a bush yard at the edge
of a clearin'. I knowed it was Dave d'reckly I set eyes on him.
"Dave used to ride a tall, holler-backed thoroughbred with a body
and limbs like a kangaroo dog, and it would circle around you and
sidle away as if it was frightened you was goin' to jab a knife into
"`'Ello! Dave!' said I, as he came spurrin' up. `How are yer!'
"`'Ello, Jim!' says he. `How are you?'
"`All right!' says I. `How are yer gettin' on?'
"But, before we could say any more, that horse shied away and broke
off through the scrub to the right. I waited, because I knowed Dave
would come back again if I waited long enough; and in about ten minutes
he came sidlin' in from the scrub to the left.
"`Oh, I'm all right,' says he, spurrin' up sideways; `How are you?'
"`Right!' says I. `How's the old people?'
"`Oh, I ain't been home yet,' says he, holdin' out his hand; but,
afore I could grip it, the cussed horse sidled off to the south end of
the clearin' and broke away again through the scrub.
"I heard Dave swearin' about the country for twenty minutes or so,
and then he came spurrin' and cursin' in from the other end of the
"`Where have you been all this time?' I said, as the horse came
curvin' up like a boomerang.
"`Gulf country,' said Dave.
"`That was a storm, Dave,' said I.
"`My oath!' says Dave.
"`Get caught in it?'
"`Got to shelter?'
"`But you're as dry's a bone, Dave!'
"Dave grinned. `——— and ——— and ——— the ————!' he
"He said that to the horse as it boomeranged off again and broke
away through the scrub. I waited; but he didn't come back, and I
reckoned he'd got so far away before he could pull up that he didn't
think it worth while comin' back; so I went on. By-and-bye I got
thinkin'. Dave was as dry as a bone, and I knowed that he hadn't had
time to get to shelter, for there wasn't a shed within twelve miles.
He wasn't only dry, but his coat was creased and dusty too — same as
if he'd been sleepin' in a holler log; and when I come to think of it,
his face seemed thinner and whiter than it used ter, and so did his
hands and wrists, which always stuck a long way out of his
coat-sleeves; and there was blood on his face — but I thought he'd
got scratched with a twig. (Dave used to wear a coat three or four
sizes too small for him, with sleeves that didn't come much below his
elbows and a tail that scarcely reached his waist behind.) And his
hair seemed dark and lank, instead of bein' sandy and stickin' out
like an old fibre brush, as it used ter. And then I thought his voice
sounded different, too. And, when I enquired next day, there was no
one heard of Dave, and the chaps reckoned I must have been drunk, or
seen his ghost.
"It didn't seem all right at all — it worried me a lot. I
couldn't make out how Dave kept dry; and the horse and saddle and
saddle-cloth was wet. I told the chaps how he talked to me and what he
said, and how he swore at the horse; but they only said it was Dave's
ghost and nobody else's. I told 'em about him bein' dry as a bone
after gettin' caught in that storm; but they only laughed and said it
was a dry place where Dave went to. I talked and argued about it until
the chaps began to tap their foreheads and wink — then I left off
talking. But I didn't leave off thinkin' — I always hated a mystery.
Even Dave's father told me that Dave couldn't be alive or else his
ghost wouldn't be round — he said he knew Dave better than that. One
or two fellers did turn up afterwards that had seen Dave about the
time that I did — and then the chaps said they was sure that Dave was
"But one fine day, as a lot of us chaps was playin' pitch and toss
at the shanty, one of the fellers yelled out:
"`By Gee! Here comes Dave Regan!'
"And I looked up and saw Dave himself, sidlin' out of a cloud of
dust on a long lanky horse. He rode into the stockyard, got down,
hung his horse up to a post, put up the rails, and then come slopin'
towards us with a half-acre grin on his face. Dave had long, thin
bow-legs, and when he was on the ground he moved as if he was on
"`'El-lo, Dave!' says I. `How are yer?'
"`'Ello, Jim!' said he. `How the blazes are you?'
"`All right!' says I, shakin' hands. `How are yer?'
"`Oh! I'm all right!' he says. `How are yer poppin' up!'
"Well, when we'd got all that settled, and the other chaps had
asked how he was, he said: `Ah, well! Let's have a drink.'
"And all the other chaps crawfished up and flung themselves round
the corner and sidled into the bar after Dave. We had a lot of talk,
and he told us that he'd been down before, but had gone away without
seein' any of us, except me, because he'd suddenly heard of a mob of
cattle at a station two hundred miles away; and after a while I took
him aside and said:
"`Look here, Dave! Do you remember the day I met you after the
"He scratched his head.
"`Why, yes,' he says.
"`Did you get under shelter that day?'
"`Why — no.'
"`Then how the blazes didn't yer get wet?'
"Dave grinned; then he says:
"`Why, when I seen the storm coming I took off me clothes and
stuck 'em in a holler log till the rain was over.'
"`Yes,' he says, after the other coves had done laughin', but
before I'd done thinking; `I kept my clothes dry and got a good
refreshin' shower-bath into the bargain.'
"Then he scratched the back of his neck with his little finger,
and dropped his jaw, and thought a bit; then he rubbed the top of his
head and his shoulder, reflective-like, and then he said:
"`But I didn't reckon for them there blanky hailstones.'"
Mitchell on Matrimony
"I suppose your wife will be glad to see you," said Mitchell to his
mate in their camp by the dam at Hungerford. They were overhauling
their swags, and throwing away the blankets, and calico, and old
clothes, and rubbish they didn't want — everything, in fact, except
their pocket-books and letters and portraits, things which men carry
about with them always, that are found on them when they die, and sent
to their relations if possible. Otherwise they are taken in charge by
the constable who officiates at the inquest, and forwarded to the
Minister of Justice along with the depositions.
It was the end of the shearing season. Mitchell and his mate had
been lucky enough to get two good sheds in succession, and were going
to take the coach from Hungerford to Bourke on their way to Sydney.
The morning stars were bright yet, and they sat down to a final billy
of tea, two dusty Johnny-cakes, and a scrag of salt mutton.
"Yes," said Mitchell's mate, "and I'll be glad to see her too."
"I suppose you will," said Mitchell. He placed his pint-pot
between his feet, rested his arm against his knee, and stirred the tea
meditatively with the handle of his pocket-knife. It was vaguely
understood that Mitchell had been married at one period of his
"I don't think we ever understood women properly," he said, as he
took a cautious sip to see if his tea was cool and sweet enough, for
his lips were sore; "I don't think we ever will — we never took the
trouble to try, and if we did it would be only wasted brain power that
might just as well be spent on the blackfellow's lingo; because by the
time you've learnt it they'll be extinct, and woman 'll be extinct
before you've learnt her. . . . The morning star looks bright, doesn't
"Ah, well," said Mitchell after a while, "there's many little
things we might try to understand women in. I read in a piece of
newspaper the other day about how a man changes after he's married;
how he gets short, and impatient, and bored (which is only natural),
and sticks up a wall of newspaper between himself and his wife when
he's at home; and how it comes like a cold shock to her, and all her
air-castles vanish, and in the end she often thinks about taking the
baby and the clothes she stands in, and going home for sympathy and
comfort to mother.
"Perhaps she never got a word of sympathy from her mother in her
life, nor a day's comfort at home before she was married; but that
doesn't make the slightest difference. It doesn't make any difference
in your case either, if you haven't been acting like a dutiful
"Somebody wrote that a woman's love is her whole existence, while a
man's love is only part of his — which is true, and only natural and
reasonable, all things considered. But women never consider as a
rule. A man can't go on talking lovey-dovey talk for ever, and
listening to his young wife's prattle when he's got to think about
making a living, and nursing her and answering her childish questions
and telling her he loves his little ownest every minute in the day,
while the bills are running up, and rent mornings begin to fly round
and hustle and crowd him.
"He's got her and he's satisfied; and if the truth is known he
loves her really more than he did when they were engaged, only she
won't be satisfied about it unless he tells her so every hour in the
day. At least that's how it is for the first few months.
"But a woman doesn't understand these things — she never will, she
can't — and it would be just as well for us to try and understand
that she doesn't and can't understand them."
Mitchell knocked the tea-leaves out of his pannikin against his
boot, and reached for the billy.
"There's many little things we might do that seem mere trifles and
nonsense to us, but mean a lot to her; that wouldn't be any trouble or
sacrifice to us, but might help to make her life happy. It's just
because we never think about these little things — don't think them
worth thinking about, in fact — they never enter our intellectual
"For instance, when you're going out in the morning you might put
your arms round her and give her a hug and a kiss, without her having
to remind you. You may forget about it and never think any more of it
— but she will.
"It wouldn't be any trouble to you, and would only take a couple of
seconds, and would give her something to be happy about when you're
gone, and make her sing to herself for hours while she bustles about
her work and thinks up what she'll get you for dinner."
Mitchell's mate sighed, and shifted the sugar-bag over towards
Mitchell. He seemed touched and bothered over something.
"Then again," said Mitchell, "it mightn't be convenient for you to
go home to dinner — something might turn up during the morning — you
might have some important business to do, or meet some chaps and get
invited to lunch and not be very well able to refuse, when it's too
late, or you haven't a chance to send a message to your wife. But then
again, chaps and business seem very big things to you, and only little
things to the wife; just as lovey-dovey talk is important to her and
nonsense to you. And when you come to analyse it, one is not so big,
nor the other so small, after all; especially when you come to think
that chaps can always wait, and business is only an inspiration in
your mind, nine cases out of ten.
"Think of the trouble she takes to get you a good dinner, and how
she keeps it hot between two plates in the oven, and waits hour after
hour till the dinner gets dried up, and all her morning's work is
wasted. Think how it hurts her, and how anxious she'll be (especially
if you're inclined to booze) for fear that something has happened to
you. You can't get it out of the heads of some young wives that
you're liable to get run over, or knocked down, or assaulted, or
robbed, or get into one of the fixes that a woman is likely to get
into. But about the dinner waiting. Try and put yourself in her
place. Wouldn't you get mad under the same circumstances? I know I
"I remember once, only just after I was married, I was invited
unexpectedly to a kidney pudding and beans — which was my favourite
grub at the time — and I didn't resist, especially as it was washing
day and I told the wife not to bother about anything for dinner. I
got home an hour or so late, and had a good explanation thought out,
when the wife met me with a smile as if we had just been left a
thousand pounds. She'd got her washing finished without assistance,
though I'd told her to get somebody to help her, and she had a kidney
pudding and beans, with a lot of extras thrown in, as a pleasant
surprise for me.
"Well, I kissed her, and sat down, and stuffed till I thought every
mouthful would choke me. I got through with it somehow, but I've
never cared for kidney pudding or beans since."
Mitchell felt for his pipe with a fatherly smile in his eyes.
"And then again," he continued, as he cut up his tobacco, "your
wife might put on a new dress and fix herself up and look well, and
you might think so and be satisfied with her appearance and be proud
to take her out; but you want to tell her so, and tell her so as
often as you think about it — and try to think a little oftener than
men usually do, too."
"You should have made a good husband, Jack," said his mate, in a
"Ah, well, perhaps I should," said Mitchell, rubbing up his
tobacco; then he asked abstractedly: "What sort of a husband did you
"I might have made a better one than I did," said Joe seriously,
and rather bitterly, "but I know one thing, I'm going to try and make
up for it when I go back this time."
"We all say that," said Mitchell reflectively, filling his pipe.
"She loves you, Joe."
"I know she does," said Joe.
Mitchell lit up.
"And so would any man who knew her or had seen her letters to you,"
he said between the puffs. "She's happy and contented enough, I
"Yes," said Joe, "at least while I was there. She's never easy
when I'm away. I might have made her a good deal more happy and
contented without hurting myself much."
Mitchell smoked long, soft, measured puffs.
His mate shifted uneasily and glanced at him a couple of times,
and seemed to become impatient, and to make up his mind about
something; or perhaps he got an idea that Mitchell had been "having"
him, and felt angry over being betrayed into maudlin confidences; for
he asked abruptly:
"How is your wife now, Mitchell?"
"I don't know," said Mitchell calmly.
"Don't know?" echoed the mate. "Didn't you treat her well?"
Mitchell removed his pipe and drew a long breath.
"Ah, well, I tried to," he said wearily.
"Well, did you put your theory into practice?"
"I did," said Mitchell very deliberately.
Joe waited, but nothing came.
"Well?" he asked impatiently, "How did it act? Did it work well?"
"I don't know," said Mitchell (puff); "she left me."
Mitchell jerked the half-smoked pipe from his mouth, and rapped
the burning tobacco out against the toe of his boot.
"She left me," he said, standing up and stretching himself. Then,
with a vicious jerk of his arm, "She left me for — another kind of a
He looked east towards the public-house, where they were taking
the coach-horses from the stable.
"Why don't you finish your tea, Joe? The billy's getting cold."
Mitchell on Women
"All the same," said Mitchell's mate, continuing an argument by the
camp-fire; "all the same, I think that a woman can stand cold water
better than a man. Why, when I was staying in a boarding-house in
Dunedin, one very cold winter, there was a lady lodger who went down
to the shower-bath first thing every morning; never missed one;
sometimes went in freezing weather when I wouldn't go into a cold bath
for a fiver; and sometimes she'd stay under the shower for ten minutes
at a time."
"How'd you know?"
"Why, my room was near the bath-room, and I could hear the shower
and tap going, and her floundering about."
"Hear your grandmother!" exclaimed Mitchell, contemptuously. "You
don't know women yet. Was this woman married? Did she have a husband
"No; she was a young widow."
"Ah! well, it would have been the same if she was a young girl —
or an old one. Were there some passable men-boarders there?"
"_I_ was there."
"Oh, yes! But I mean, were there any there beside you?"
"Oh, yes, there were three or four; there was — a clerk and a
"Never mind, as long as there was something with trousers on. Did
it ever strike you that she never got into the bath at all?"
"Why, no! What would she want to go there at all for, in that
"To make an impression on the men," replied Mitchell promptly.
"She wanted to make out she was nice, and wholesome, and well-washed,
and particular. Made an impression on YOU, it seems, or you wouldn't
"Well, yes, I suppose so; and, now I come to think of it, the bath
didn't seem to injure her make-up or wet her hair; but I supposed she
held her head from under the shower somehow."
"Did she make-up so early in the morning?" asked Mitchell.
"Yes — I'm sure."
"That's unusual; but it might have been so where there was a lot of
boarders. And about the hair — that didn't count for anything,
because washing-the-head ain't supposed to be always included in a
lady's bath; it's only supposed to be washed once a fortnight, and
some don't do it once a month. The hair takes so long to dry; it don't
matter so much if the woman's got short, scraggy hair; but if a girl's
hair was down to her waist it would take hours to dry."
"Well, how do they manage it without wetting their heads?"
"Oh, that's easy enough. They have a little oilskin cap that fits
tight over the forehead, and they put it on, and bunch their hair up
in it when they go under the shower. Did you ever see a woman sit in
a sunny place with her hair down after having a wash?"
"Yes, I used to see one do that regular where I was staying; but I
thought she only did it to show off."
"Not at all — she was drying her hair; though perhaps she was
showing off at the same time, for she wouldn't sit where you — or
even a Chinaman — could see her, if she didn't think she had a good
head of hair. Now, I'LL tell you a yarn about a woman's bath. I was
stopping at a shabby-genteel boarding-house in Melbourne once, and one
very cold winter, too; and there was a rather good-looking woman
there, looking for a husband. She used to go down to the bath every
morning, no matter how cold it was, and flounder and splash about as
if she enjoyed it, till you'd feel as though you'd like to go and
catch hold of her and wrap her in a rug and carry her in to the fire
and nurse her till she was warm again."
Mitchell's mate moved uneasily, and crossed the other leg; he
seemed greatly interested.
"But she never went into the water at all!" continued Mitchell.
"As soon as one or two of the men was up in the morning she'd come
down from her room in a dressing-gown. It was a toney dressing-gown,
too, and set her off properly. She knew how to dress, anyway; most
of that sort of women do. The gown was a kind of green colour, with
pink and white flowers all over it, and red lining, and a lot of
coffee-coloured lace round the neck and down the front. Well, she'd
come tripping downstairs and along the passage, holding up one side of
the gown to show her little bare white foot in a slipper; and in the
other hand she carried her tooth-brush and bath-brush, and soap —
like this — so's we all could see 'em; trying to make out she was too
particular to use soap after anyone else. She could afford to buy her
own soap, anyhow; it was hardly ever wet.
"Well, she'd go into the bathroom and turn on the tap and shower;
when she got about three inches of water in the bath, she'd step in,
holding up her gown out of the water, and go slithering and kicking
up and down the bath, like this, making a tremendous splashing. Of
course she'd turn off the shower first, and screw it off very tight —
wouldn't do to let that leak, you know; she might get wet; but she'd
leave the other tap on, so as to make all the more noise."
"But how did you come to know all about this?"
"Oh, the servant girl told me. One morning she twigged her
through a corner of the bathroom window that the curtain didn't
"You seem to have been pretty thick with servant girls."
"So do you with landladies! But never mind — let me finish the
yarn. When she thought she'd splashed enough, she'd get out, wipe her
feet, wash her face and hands, and carefully unbutton the two top
buttons of her gown; then throw a towel over her head and shoulders,
and listen at the door till she thought she heard some of the men
moving about. Then she'd start for her room, and, if she met one of
the men-boarders in the passage or on the stairs, she'd drop her eyes,
and pretend to see for the first time that the top of her
dressing-gown wasn't buttoned — and she'd give a little start and
grab the gown and scurry off to her room buttoning it up.
"And sometimes she'd come skipping into the breakfast-room late,
looking awfully sweet in her dressing-gown; and if she saw any of us
there, she'd pretend to be much startled, and say that she thought
all the men had gone out, and make as though she was going to clear;
and someone 'd jump up and give her a chair, while someone else said,
`Come in, Miss Brown! come in! Don't let us frighten you. Come right
in, and have your breakfast before it gets cold.' So she'd flutter a
bit in pretty confusion, and then make a sweet little girly-girly dive
for her chair, and tuck her feet away under the table; and she'd
blush, too, but I don't know how she managed that.
"I know another trick that women have; it's mostly played by
private barmaids. That is, to leave a stocking by accident in the
bathroom for the gentlemen to find. If the barmaid's got a nice foot
and ankle, she uses one of her own stockings; but if she hasn't she
gets hold of a stocking that belongs to a girl that has. Anyway,
she'll have one readied up somehow. The stocking must be worn and
nicely darned; one that's been worn will keep the shape of the leg and
foot — at least till it's washed again. Well, the barmaid generally
knows what time the gentlemen go to bath, and she'll make it a point
of going down just as a gentleman's going. Of course he'll give her
the preference — let her go first, you know — and she'll go in and
accidentally leave the stocking in a place where he's sure to see it,
and when she comes out he'll go in and find it; and very likely he'll
be a jolly sort of fellow, and when they're all sitting down to
breakfast he'll come in and ask them to guess what he's found, and
then he'll hold up the stocking. The barmaid likes this sort of thing;
but she'll hold down her head, and pretend to be confused, and keep
her eyes on her plate, and there'll be much blushing and all that sort
of thing, and perhaps she'll gammon to be mad at him, and the
landlady'll say, `Oh, Mr. Smith! how can yer? At the breakfast table,
too!' and they'll all laugh and look at the barmaid, and she'll get
more embarrassed than ever, and spill her tea, and make out as though
the stocking didn't belong to her."
No Place for a Woman
He had a selection on a long box-scrub siding of the ridges, about
half a mile back and up from the coach road. There were no neighbours
that I ever heard of, and the nearest "town" was thirty miles away.
He grew wheat among the stumps of his clearing, sold the crop standing
to a Cockie who lived ten miles away, and had some surplus sons; or,
some seasons, he reaped it by hand, had it thrashed by travelling
"steamer" (portable steam engine and machine), and carried the grain,
a few bags at a time, into the mill on his rickety dray.
He had lived alone for upwards of 15 years, and was known to those
who knew him as "Ratty Howlett".
Trav'lers and strangers failed to see anything uncommonly ratty
about him. It was known, or, at least, it was believed, without
question, that while at work he kept his horse saddled and bridled,
and hung up to the fence, or grazing about, with the saddle on — or,
anyway, close handy for a moment's notice — and whenever he caught
sight, over the scrub and through the quarter-mile break in it, of a
traveller on the road, he would jump on his horse and make after him.
If it was a horseman he usually pulled him up inside of a mile.
Stories were told of unsuccessful chases, misunderstandings, and
complications arising out of Howlett's mania for running down and
bailing up travellers. Sometimes he caught one every day for a week,
sometimes not one for weeks — it was a lonely track.
The explanation was simple, sufficient, and perfectly natural —
from a bushman's point of view. Ratty only wanted to have a yarn. He
and the traveller would camp in the shade for half an hour or so and
yarn and smoke. The old man would find out where the traveller came
from, and how long he'd been there, and where he was making for, and
how long he reckoned he'd be away; and ask if there had been any rain
along the traveller's back track, and how the country looked after
the drought; and he'd get the traveller's ideas on abstract questions
— if he had any. If it was a footman (swagman), and he was short of
tobacco, old Howlett always had half a stick ready for him.
Sometimes, but very rarely, he'd invite the swagman back to the hut
for a pint of tea, or a bit of meat, flour, tea, or sugar, to carry
him along the track.
And, after the yarn by the road, they said, the old man would ride
back, refreshed, to his lonely selection, and work on into the night
as long as he could see his solitary old plough horse, or the scoop
of his long-handled shovel.
And so it was that I came to make his acquaintance — or, rather,
that he made mine. I was cantering easily along the track — I was
making for the north-west with a pack horse — when about a mile
beyond the track to the selection I heard, "Hi, Mister!" and saw a
dust cloud following me. I had heard of "Old Ratty Howlett" casually,
and so was prepared for him.
A tall gaunt man on a little horse. He was clean-shaven, except
for a frill beard round under his chin, and his long wavy, dark hair
was turning grey; a square, strong-faced man, and reminded me of one
full-faced portrait of Gladstone more than any other face I had seen.
He had large reddish-brown eyes, deep set under heavy eyebrows, and
with something of the blackfellow in them — the sort of eyes that
will peer at something on the horizon that no one else can see. He had
a way of talking to the horizon, too — more than to his companion;
and he had a deep vertical wrinkle in his forehead that no smile could
I got down and got out my pipe, and we sat on a log and yarned
awhile on bush subjects; and then, after a pause, he shifted uneasily,
it seemed to me, and asked rather abruptly, and in an altered tone,
if I was married. A queer question to ask a traveller; more
especially in my case, as I was little more than a boy then.
He talked on again of old things and places where we had both been,
and asked after men he knew, or had known — drovers and others —
and whether they were living yet. Most of his inquiries went back
before my time; but some of the drovers, one or two overlanders with
whom he had been mates in his time, had grown old into mine, and I
knew them. I notice now, though I didn't then — and if I had it
would not have seemed strange from a bush point of view — that he
didn't ask for news, nor seem interested in it.
Then after another uneasy pause, during which he scratched crosses
in the dust with a stick, he asked me, in the same queer tone and
without looking at me or looking up, if I happened to know anything
about doctoring — if I'd ever studied it.
I asked him if anyone was sick at his place. He hesitated, and
said "No." Then I wanted to know why he had asked me that question,
and he was so long about answering that I began to think he was hard
of hearing, when, at last, he muttered something about my face
reminding him of a young fellow he knew of who'd gone to Sydney to
"study for a doctor". That might have been, and looked natural enough;
but why didn't he ask me straight out if I was the chap he "knowed
of"? Travellers do not like beating about the bush in conversation.
He sat in silence for a good while, with his arms folded, and
looking absently away over the dead level of the great scrubs that
spread from the foot of the ridge we were on to where a blue peak or
two of a distant range showed above the bush on the horizon.
I stood up and put my pipe away and stretched. Then he seemed to
wake up. "Better come back to the hut and have a bit of dinner," he
said. "The missus will about have it ready, and I'll spare you a
handful of hay for the horses."
The hay decided it. It was a dry season. I was surprised to hear
of a wife, for I thought he was a hatter — I had always heard so;
but perhaps I had been mistaken, and he had married lately; or had
got a housekeeper. The farm was an irregularly-shaped clearing in the
scrub, with a good many stumps in it, with a broken-down two-rail fence
along the frontage, and logs and "dog-leg" the rest. It was about as
lonely-looking a place as I had seen, and I had seen some
out-of-the-way, God-forgotten holes where men lived alone. The hut
was in the top corner, a two-roomed slab hut, with a shingle roof,
which must have been uncommon round there in the days when that hut
was built. I was used to bush carpentering, and saw that the place had
been put up by a man who had plenty of life and hope in front of him,
and for someone else beside himself. But there were two unfinished
skilling rooms built on to the back of the hut; the posts, sleepers,
and wall-plates had been well put up and fitted, and the slab walls
were up, but the roof had never been put on. There was nothing but
burrs and nettles inside those walls, and an old wooden bullock plough
and a couple of yokes were dry-rotting across the back doorway. The
remains of a straw-stack, some hay under a bark humpy, a small iron
plough, and an old stiff coffin-headed grey draught horse, were all
that I saw about the place.
But there was a bit of a surprise for me inside, in the shape of a
clean white tablecloth on the rough slab table which stood on stakes
driven into the ground. The cloth was coarse, but it was a tablecloth
— not a spare sheet put on in honour of unexpected visitors — and
perfectly clean. The tin plates, pannikins, and jam tins that served
as sugar bowls and salt cellars were polished brightly. The walls and
fireplace were whitewashed, the clay floor swept, and clean sheets of
newspaper laid on the slab mantleshelf under the row of biscuit tins
that held the groceries. I thought that his wife, or housekeeper, or
whatever she was, was a clean and tidy woman about a house. I saw no
woman; but on the sofa — a light, wooden, batten one, with runged
arms at the ends — lay a woman's dress on a lot of sheets of old
stained and faded newspapers. He looked at it in a puzzled way,
knitting his forehead, then took it up absently and folded it. I saw
then that it was a riding skirt and jacket. He bundled them into the
newspapers and took them into the bedroom.
"The wife was going on a visit down the creek this afternoon," he
said rapidly and without looking at me, but stooping as if to have
another look through the door at those distant peaks. "I suppose she
got tired o' waitin', and went and took the daughter with her. But,
never mind, the grub is ready." There was a camp-oven with a leg of
mutton and potatoes sizzling in it on the hearth, and billies hanging
over the fire. I noticed the billies had been scraped, and the lids
There seemed to be something queer about the whole business, but
then he and his wife might have had a "breeze" during the morning. I
thought so during the meal, when the subject of women came up, and he
said one never knew how to take a woman, etc.; but there was nothing
in what he said that need necessarily have referred to his wife or to
any woman in particular. For the rest he talked of old bush things,
droving, digging, and old bushranging — but never about live things
and living men, unless any of the old mates he talked about happened
to be alive by accident. He was very restless in the house, and never
took his hat off.
There was a dress and a woman's old hat hanging on the wall near
the door, but they looked as if they might have been hanging there for
a lifetime. There seemed something queer about the whole place —
something wanting; but then all out-of-the-way bush homes are haunted
by that something wanting, or, more likely, by the spirits of the
things that should have been there, but never had been.
As I rode down the track to the road I looked back and saw old
Howlett hard at work in a hole round a big stump with his long-handled
I'd noticed that he moved and walked with a slight list to port,
and put his hand once or twice to the small of his back, and I set it
down to lumbago, or something of that sort.
Up in the Never Never I heard from a drover who had known Howlett
that his wife had died in the first year, and so this mysterious
woman, if she was his wife, was, of course, his second wife. The
drover seemed surprised and rather amused at the thought of old Howlett
going in for matrimony again.
I rode back that way five years later, from the Never Never. It
was early in the morning — I had ridden since midnight. I didn't
think the old man would be up and about; and, besides, I wanted to get
on home, and have a look at the old folk, and the mates I'd left
behind — and the girl. But I hadn't got far past the point where
Howlett's track joined the road, when I happened to look back, and saw
him on horseback, stumbling down the track. I waited till he came up.
He was riding the old grey draught horse this time, and it looked
very much broken down. I thought it would have come down every step,
and fallen like an old rotten humpy in a gust of wind. And the old
man was not much better off. I saw at once that he was a very sick
man. His face was drawn, and he bent forward as if he was hurt. He
got down stiffly and awkwardly, like a hurt man, and as soon as his
feet touched the ground he grabbed my arm, or he would have gone down
like a man who steps off a train in motion. He hung towards the bank
of the road, feeling blindly, as it were, for the ground, with his
free hand, as I eased him down. I got my blanket and calico from the
pack saddle to make him comfortable.
"Help me with my back agen the tree," he said. "I must sit up —
it's no use lyin' me down."
He sat with his hand gripping his side, and breathed painfully.
"Shall I run up to the hut and get the wife?" I asked.
"No." He spoke painfully. "No!" Then, as if the words were
jerked out of him by a spasm: "She ain't there."
I took it that she had left him.
"How long have you been bad? How long has this been coming on?"
He took no notice of the question. I thought it was a touch of
rheumatic fever, or something of that sort. "It's gone into my back
and sides now — the pain's worse in me back," he said presently.
I had once been mates with a man who died suddenly of heart
disease, while at work. He was washing a dish of dirt in the creek
near a claim we were working; he let the dish slip into the water,
fell back, crying, "O, my back!" and was gone. And now I felt by
instinct that it was poor old Howlett's heart that was wrong. A man's
heart is in his back as well as in his arms and hands.
The old man had turned pale with the pallor of a man who turns
faint in a heat wave, and his arms fell loosely, and his hands rocked
helplessly with the knuckles in the dust. I felt myself turning
white, too, and the sick, cold, empty feeling in my stomach, for I
knew the signs. Bushmen stand in awe of sickness and death.
But after I'd fixed him comfortably and given him a drink from the
water bag the greyness left his face, and he pulled himself together a
bit; he drew up his arms and folded them across his chest. He let his
head rest back against the tree — his slouch hat had fallen off
revealing a broad, white brow, much higher than I expected. He seemed
to gaze on the azure fin of the range, showing above the dark
blue-green bush on the horizon.
Then he commenced to speak — taking no notice of me when I asked
him if he felt better now — to talk in that strange, absent, far-away
tone that awes one. He told his story mechanically, monotonously —
in set words, as I believe now, as he had often told it before; if
not to others, then to the loneliness of the bush. And he used the
names of people and places that I had never heard of — just as if I
knew them as well as he did.
"I didn't want to bring her up the first year. It was no place for
a woman. I wanted her to stay with her people and wait till I'd got
the place a little more ship-shape. The Phippses took a selection
down the creek. I wanted her to wait and come up with them so's she'd
have some company — a woman to talk to. They came afterwards, but
they didn't stop. It was no place for a woman.
"But Mary would come. She wouldn't stop with her people down
country. She wanted to be with me, and look after me, and work and
He repeated himself a great deal — said the same thing over and
over again sometimes. He was only mad on one track. He'd tail off and
sit silent for a while; then he'd become aware of me in a hurried,
half-scared way, and apologise for putting me to all that trouble, and
thank me. "I'll be all right d'reckly. Best take the horses up to the
hut and have some breakfast; you'll find it by the fire. I'll foller
you, d'reckly. The wife'll be waitin' an' ——" He would drop off,
and be going again presently on the old track: —
"Her mother was coming up to stay awhile at the end of the year,
but the old man hurt his leg. Then her married sister was coming,
but one of the youngsters got sick and there was trouble at home. I
saw the doctor in the town — thirty miles from here — and fixed it
up with him. He was a boozer — I'd 'a shot him afterwards. I fixed
up with a woman in the town to come and stay. I thought Mary was
wrong in her time. She must have been a month or six weeks out. But I
listened to her. . . . Don't argue with a woman. Don't listen to a
woman. Do the right thing. We should have had a mother woman to talk
to us. But it was no place for a woman!"
He rocked his head, as if from some old agony of mind, against the
"She was took bad suddenly one night, but it passed off. False
alarm. I was going to ride somewhere, but she said to wait till
daylight. Someone was sure to pass. She was a brave and sensible
girl, but she had a terror of being left alone. It was no place for a
"There was a black shepherd three or four miles away. I rode over
while Mary was asleep, and started the black boy into town. I'd 'a
shot him afterwards if I'd 'a caught him. The old black gin was dead
the week before, or Mary would a' bin alright. She was tied up in a
bunch with strips of blanket and greenhide, and put in a hole. So
there wasn't even a gin near the place. It was no place for a woman!
"I was watchin' the road at daylight, and I was watchin' the road
at dusk. I went down in the hollow and stooped down to get the gap
agen the sky, so's I could see if anyone was comin' over. . . . I'd
get on the horse and gallop along towards the town for five miles, but
something would drag me back, and then I'd race for fear she'd die
before I got to the hut. I expected the doctor every five minutes.
"It come on about daylight next morning. I ran back'ards and
for'ards between the hut and the road like a madman. And no one come.
I was running amongst the logs and stumps, and fallin' over them,
when I saw a cloud of dust agen sunrise. It was her mother an' sister
in the spring-cart, an' just catchin' up to them was the doctor in his
buggy with the woman I'd arranged with in town. The mother and sister
was staying at the town for the night, when they heard of the black
boy. It took him a day to ride there. I'd 'a shot him if I'd 'a
caught him ever after. The doctor'd been on the drunk. If I'd had
the gun and known she was gone I'd have shot him in the buggy. They
said she was dead. And the child was dead, too.
"They blamed me, but I didn't want her to come; it was no place for
a woman. I never saw them again after the funeral. I didn't want to
see them any more."
He moved his head wearily against the tree, and presently drifted
on again in a softer tone — his eyes and voice were growing more
absent and dreamy and far away.
"About a month after — or a year, I lost count of the time long
ago — she came back to me. At first she'd come in the night, then
sometimes when I was at work — and she had the baby — it was a girl
— in her arms. And by-and-bye she came to stay altogether. . . . I
didn't blame her for going away that time — it was no place for a
woman. . . . She was a good wife to me. She was a jolly girl when I
married her. The little girl grew up like her. I was going to send
her down country to be educated — it was no place for a girl.
"But a month, or a year, ago, Mary left me, and took the daughter,
and never came back till last night — this morning, I think it was.
I thought at first it was the girl with her hair done up, and her
mother's skirt on, to surprise her old dad. But it was Mary, my wife
— as she was when I married her. She said she couldn't stay, but
she'd wait for me on the road; on — the road. . . ."
His arms fell, and his face went white. I got the water-bag.
"Another turn like that and you'll be gone," I thought, as he came to
again. Then I suddenly thought of a shanty that had been started,
when I came that way last, ten or twelve miles along the road,
towards the town. There was nothing for it but to leave him and ride
on for help, and a cart of some kind.
"You wait here till I come back," I said. "I'm going for the
He roused himself a little. "Best come up to the hut and get some
grub. The wife'll be waiting. . . ." He was off the track again.
"Will you wait while I take the horse down to the creek?"
"Yes — I'll wait by the road."
"Look!" I said, "I'll leave the water-bag handy. Don't move till
I come back."
"I won't move — I'll wait by the road," he said.
I took the packhorse, which was the freshest and best, threw the
pack-saddle and bags into a bush, left the other horse to take care of
itself, and started for the shanty, leaving the old man with his back
to the tree, his arms folded, and his eyes on the horizon.
One of the chaps at the shanty rode on for the doctor at once,
while the other came back with me in a spring-cart. He told me that
old Howlett's wife had died in child-birth the first year on the
selection — "she was a fine girl he'd heered!" He told me the story
as the old man had told it, and in pretty well the same words, even
to giving it as his opinion that it was no place for a woman. "And he
`hatted' and brooded over it till he went ratty."
I knew the rest. He not only thought that his wife, or the ghost
of his wife, had been with him all those years, but that the child had
lived and grown up, and that the wife did the housework; which, of
course, he must have done himself.
When we reached him his knotted hands had fallen for the last time,
and they were at rest. I only took one quick look at his face, but
could have sworn that he was gazing at the blue fin of the range on
the horizon of the bush.
Up at the hut the table was set as on the first day I saw it, and
breakfast in the camp-oven by the fire.
"I'm going to knock off work and try to make some money," said
Mitchell, as he jerked the tea-leaves out of his pannikin and reached
for the billy. "It's been the great mistake of my life — if I hadn't
wasted all my time and energy working and looking for work I might
have been an independent man to-day."
"Joe!" he added in a louder voice, condescendingly adapting his
language to my bushed comprehension. "I'm going to sling graft and
try and get some stuff together."
I didn't feel in a responsive humour, but I lit up and settled back
comfortably against the tree, and Jack folded his arms on his knees
and presently continued, reflectively:
"I remember the first time I went to work. I was a youngster then.
Mother used to go round looking for jobs for me. She reckoned,
perhaps, that I was too shy to go in where there was a boy wanted and
barrack for myself properly, and she used to help me and see me through
to the best of her ability. I'm afraid I didn't always feel as
grateful to her as I should have felt. I was a thankless kid at the
best of times — most kids are — but otherwise I was a straight
enough little chap as nippers go. Sometimes I almost wish I hadn't
been. My relations would have thought a good deal more of me and
treated me better — and, besides, it's a comfort, at times, to sit
and watch the sun going down in the bed of the bush, and think of your
wicked childhood and wasted life, and the way you treated your parents
and broke their hearts, and feel just properly repentant and bitter
and remorseful and low-spirited about it when it's too late.
"Ah, well! . . . I generally did feel a bit backward in going in
when I came to the door of an office or shop where there was a `Strong
Lad', or a `Willing Youth', wanted inside to make himself generally
useful. I was a strong lad and a willing youth enough, in some things,
for that matter; but I didn't like to see it written up on a card in
a shop window, and I didn't want to make myself generally useful in a
close shop in a hot dusty street on mornings when the weather was fine
and the great sunny rollers were coming in grand on the Bondi Beach
and down at Coogee, and I could swim. . . . I'd give something to be
down along there now."
Mitchell looked away out over the sultry sandy plain that we were
to tackle next day, and sighed.
"The first job I got was in a jam factory. They only had `Boy
Wanted' on the card in the window, and I thought it would suit me.
They set me to work to peel peaches, and, as soon as the foreman's
back was turned, I picked out a likely-looking peach and tried it.
They soaked those peaches in salt or acid or something — it was part
of the process — and I had to spit it out. Then I got an orange from
a boy who was slicing them, but it was bitter, and I couldn't eat it.
I saw that I'd been had properly. I was in a fix, and had to get out
of it the best way I could. I'd left my coat down in the front shop,
and the foreman and boss were there, so I had to work in that place
for two mortal hours. It was about the longest two hours I'd ever
spent in my life. At last the foreman came up, and I told him I
wanted to go down to the back for a minute. I slipped down, watched my
chance till the boss' back was turned, got my coat, and cleared.
"The next job I got was in a mat factory; at least, Aunt got that
for me. I didn't want to have anything to do with mats or carpets.
The worst of it was the boss didn't seem to want me to go, and I had
a job to get him to sack me, and when he did he saw some of my people
and took me back again next week. He sacked me finally the next
"I got the next job myself. I didn't hurry; I took my time and
picked out a good one. It was in a lolly factory. I thought it would
suit me — and it did, for a while. They put me on stirring up and
mixing stuff in the jujube department; but I got so sick of the smell
of it and so full of jujube and other lollies that I soon wanted a
change; so I had a row with the chief of the jujube department and
the boss gave me the sack.
"I got a job in a grocery then. I thought I'd have more variety
there. But one day the boss was away, sick or something, all the
afternoon, and I sold a lot of things too cheap. I didn't know. When
a customer came in and asked for something I'd just look round in the
window till I saw a card with the price written up on it, and sell the
best quality according to that price; and once or twice I made a
mistake the other way about and lost a couple of good customers. It
was a hot, drowsy afternoon, and by-and-bye I began to feel dull and
sleepy. So I looked round the corner and saw a Chinaman coming. I got
a big tin garden syringe and filled it full of brine from the butter
keg, and, when he came opposite the door, I let him have the full
force of it in the ear.
"That Chinaman put down his baskets and came for me. I was strong
for my age, and thought I could fight, but he gave me a proper
"It was like running up against a thrashing machine, and it
wouldn't have been well for me if the boss of the shop next door
hadn't interfered. He told my boss, and my boss gave me the sack at
"I took a spell of eighteen months or so after that, and was
growing up happy and contented when a married sister of mine must
needs come to live in town and interfere. I didn't like married
sisters, though I always got on grand with my brothers-in-law, and
wished there were more of them. The married sister comes round and
cleans up the place and pulls your things about and finds your pipe
and tobacco and things, and cigarette portraits, and "Deadwood Dicks",
that you've got put away all right, so's your mother and aunt wouldn't
find them in a generation of cats, and says:
"`Mother, why don't you make that boy go to work. It's a
scandalous shame to see a big boy like that growing up idle. He's
going to the bad before your eyes.' And she's always trying to make
out that you're a liar, and trying to make mother believe it, too. My
married sister got me a job with a chemist, whose missus she knew.
"I got on pretty well there, and by-and-bye I was put upstairs in
the grinding and mixing department; but, after a while, they put
another boy that I was chummy with up there with me, and that was a
mistake. I didn't think so at the time, but I can see it now. We got
up to all sorts of tricks. We'd get mixing together chemicals that
weren't related to see how they'd agree, and we nearly blew up the
shop several times, and set it on fire once. But all the chaps liked
us, and fixed things up for us. One day we got a big black dog — that
we meant to take home that evening — and sneaked him upstairs and put
him on a flat roof outside the laboratory. He had a touch of the mange
and didn't look well, so we gave him a dose of something; and he
scrambled over the parapet and slipped down a steep iron roof in
front, and fell on a respected townsman that knew my people. We were
awfully frightened, and didn't say anything. Nobody saw it but us.
The dog had the presence of mind to leave at once, and the respected
townsman was picked up and taken home in a cab; and he got it hot from
his wife, too, I believe, for being in that drunken, beastly state in
the main street in the middle of the day.
"I don't think he was ever quite sure that he hadn't been drunk or
what had happened, for he had had one or two that morning; so it
didn't matter much. Only we lost the dog.
"One day I went downstairs to the packing-room and saw a lot of
phosphorus in jars of water. I wanted to fix up a ghost for Billy, my
mate, so I nicked a bit and slipped it into my trouser pocket.
"I stood under the tap and let it pour on me. The phosphorus burnt
clean through my pocket and fell on the ground. I was sent home that
night with my leg dressed with lime-water and oil, and a pair of the
boss's pants on that were about half a yard too long for me, and I
felt miserable enough, too. They said it would stop my tricks for a
while, and so it did. I'll carry the mark to my dying day — and for
two or three days after, for that matter."
I fell asleep at this point, and left Mitchell's cattle pup to hear
Bill, the Ventriloquial Rooster
"When we were up country on the selection, we had a rooster at our
place, named Bill," said Mitchell; "a big mongrel of no particular
breed, though the old lady said he was a `brammer' — and many an
argument she had with the old man about it too; she was just as
stubborn and obstinate in her opinion as the governor was in his.
But, anyway, we called him Bill, and didn't take any particular
notice of him till a cousin of some of us came from Sydney on a visit
to the country, and stayed at our place because it was cheaper than
stopping at a pub. Well, somehow this chap got interested in Bill,
and studied him for two or three days, and at last he says:
"`Why, that rooster's a ventriloquist!'
"`Go along with yer!'
"`But he is. I've heard of cases like this before; but this is the
first I've come across. Bill's a ventriloquist right enough.'
"Then we remembered that there wasn't another rooster within five
miles — our only neighbour, an Irishman named Page, didn't have one
at the time — and we'd often heard another cock crow, but didn't
think to take any notice of it. We watched Bill, and sure enough he
WAS a ventriloquist. The `ka-cocka' would come all right, but the
`co-ka-koo-oi-oo' seemed to come from a distance. And sometimes the
whole crow would go wrong, and come back like an echo that had been
lost for a year. Bill would stand on tiptoe, and hold his elbows out,
and curve his neck, and go two or three times as if he was swallowing
nest-eggs, and nearly break his neck and burst his gizzard; and then
there'd be no sound at all where he was — only a cock crowing in the
"And pretty soon we could see that Bill was in great trouble about
it himself. You see, he didn't know it was himself — thought it was
another rooster challenging him, and he wanted badly to find that
other bird. He would get up on the wood-heap, and crow and listen —
crow and listen again — crow and listen, and then he'd go up to the
top of the paddock, and get up on the stack, and crow and listen
there. Then down to the other end of the paddock, and get up on a
mullock-heap, and crow and listen there. Then across to the other
side and up on a log among the saplings, and crow 'n' listen some
more. He searched all over the place for that other rooster, but, of
course, couldn't find him. Sometimes he'd be out all day crowing and
listening all over the country, and then come home dead tired, and
rest and cool off in a hole that the hens had scratched for him in a
damp place under the water-cask sledge.
"Well, one day Page brought home a big white rooster, and when he
let it go it climbed up on Page's stack and crowed, to see if there
was any more roosters round there. Bill had come home tired; it was a
hot day, and he'd rooted out the hens, and was having a spell-oh under
the cask when the white rooster crowed. Bill didn't lose any time
getting out and on to the wood-heap, and then he waited till he heard
the crow again; then he crowed, and the other rooster crowed again,
and they crowed at each other for three days, and called each other
all the wretches they could lay their tongues to, and after that they
implored each other to come out and be made into chicken soup and
feather pillows. But neither'd come. You see, there were THREE crows
— there was Bill's crow, and the ventriloquist crow, and the white
rooster's crow — and each rooster thought that there was TWO roosters
in the opposition camp, and that he mightn't get fair play, and,
consequently, both were afraid to put up their hands.
"But at last Bill couldn't stand it any longer. He made up his
mind to go and have it out, even if there was a whole agricultural
show of prize and honourable-mention fighting-cocks in Page's yard.
He got down from the wood-heap and started off across the ploughed
field, his head down, his elbows out, and his thick awkward legs
prodding away at the furrows behind for all they were worth.
"I wanted to go down badly and see the fight, and barrack for Bill.
But I daren't, because I'd been coming up the road late the night
before with my brother Joe, and there was about three panels of
turkeys roosting along on the top rail of Page's front fence; and we
brushed 'em with a bough, and they got up such a blessed gobbling fuss
about it that Page came out in his shirt and saw us running away; and
I knew he was laying for us with a bullock whip. Besides, there was
friction between the two families on account of a thoroughbred bull
that Page borrowed and wouldn't lend to us, and that got into our
paddock on account of me mending a panel in the party fence, and
carelessly leaving the top rail down after sundown while our cows was
moving round there in the saplings.
"So there was too much friction for me to go down, but I climbed a
tree as near the fence as I could and watched. Bill reckoned he'd
found that rooster at last. The white rooster wouldn't come down from
the stack, so Bill went up to him, and they fought there till they
tumbled down the other side, and I couldn't see any more. Wasn't I
wild? I'd have given my dog to have seen the rest of the fight. I
went down to the far side of Page's fence and climbed a tree there,
but, of course, I couldn't see anything, so I came home the back way.
Just as I got home Page came round to the front and sung out, `Insoid
there!' And me and Jim went under the house like snakes and looked out
round a pile. But Page was all right — he had a broad grin on his
face, and Bill safe under his arm. He put Bill down on the ground
very carefully, and says he to the old folks:
"`Yer rooster knocked the stuffin' out of my rooster, but I bear no
malice. 'Twas a grand foight.'
"And then the old man and Page had a yarn, and got pretty friendly
after that. And Bill didn't seem to bother about any more
ventriloquism; but the white rooster spent a lot of time looking for
that other rooster. Perhaps he thought he'd have better luck with him.
But Page was on the look-out all the time to get a rooster that would
lick ours. He did nothing else for a month but ride round and enquire
about roosters; and at last he borrowed a game-bird in town, left five
pounds deposit on him, and brought him home. And Page and the old man
agreed to have a match — about the only thing they'd agreed about for
five years. And they fixed it up for a Sunday when the old lady and
the girls and kids were going on a visit to some relations, about
fifteen miles away — to stop all night. The guv'nor made me go with
them on horseback; but I knew what was up, and so my pony went lame
about a mile along the road, and I had to come back and turn him out
in the top paddock, and hide the saddle and bridle in a hollow log,
and sneak home and climb up on the roof of the shed. It was a awful
hot day, and I had to keep climbing backward and forward over the
ridge-pole all the morning to keep out of sight of the old man, for he
was moving about a good deal.
"Well, after dinner, the fellows from roundabout began to ride in
and hang up their horses round the place till it looked as if there
was going to be a funeral. Some of the chaps saw me, of course, but I
tipped them the wink, and they gave me the office whenever the old man
"Well, Page came along with his game-rooster. Its name was Jim.
It wasn't much to look at, and it seemed a good deal smaller and
weaker than Bill. Some of the chaps were disgusted, and said it wasn't
a game-rooster at all; Bill'd settle it in one lick, and they wouldn't
have any fun.
"Well, they brought the game one out and put him down near the
wood-heap, and rousted Bill out from under his cask. He got
interested at once. He looked at Jim, and got up on the wood-heap and
crowed and looked at Jim again. He reckoned THIS at last was the fowl
that had been humbugging him all along. Presently his trouble caught
him, and then he'd crow and take a squint at the game 'un, and crow
again, and have another squint at gamey, and try to crow and keep his
eye on the game-rooster at the same time. But Jim never committed
himself, until at last he happened to gape just after Bill's whole
crow went wrong, and Bill spotted him. He reckoned he'd caught him
this time, and he got down off that wood-heap and went for the foe.
But Jim ran away — and Bill ran after him.
"Round and round the wood-heap they went, and round the shed, and
round the house and under it, and back again, and round the wood-heap
and over it and round the other way, and kept it up for close on an
hour. Bill's bill was just within an inch or so of the game-rooster's
tail feathers most of the time, but he couldn't get any nearer, do how
he liked. And all the time the fellers kept chyackin Page and singing
out, `What price yer game 'un, Page! Go it, Bill! Go it, old cock!'
and all that sort of thing. Well, the game-rooster went as if it was
a go-as-you-please, and he didn't care if it lasted a year. He didn't
seem to take any interest in the business, but Bill got excited, and
by-and-by he got mad. He held his head lower and lower and his wings
further and further out from his sides, and prodded away harder and
harder at the ground behind, but it wasn't any use. Jim seemed to
keep ahead without trying. They stuck to the wood-heap towards the
last. They went round first one way for a while, and then the other
for a change, and now and then they'd go over the top to break the
monotony; and the chaps got more interested in the race than they
would have been in the fight — and bet on it, too. But Bill was
handicapped with his weight. He was done up at last; he slowed down
till he couldn't waddle, and then, when he was thoroughly knocked up,
that game-rooster turned on him, and gave him the father of a hiding.
"And my father caught me when I'd got down in the excitement, and
wasn't thinking, and HE gave ME the step-father of a hiding. But he
had a lively time with the old lady afterwards, over the cock-fight.
"Bill was so disgusted with himself that he went under the cask and
"Domestic cats" we mean — the descendants of cats who came from
the northern world during the last hundred odd years. We do not know
the name of the vessel in which the first Thomas and his Maria came
out to Australia, but we suppose that it was one of the ships of the
First Fleet. Most likely Maria had kittens on the voyage — two lots,
perhaps — the majority of which were buried at sea; and no doubt the
disembarkation caused her much maternal anxiety.
The feline race has not altered much in Australia, from a physical
point of view — not yet. The rabbit has developed into something
like a cross between a kangaroo and a possum, but the bush has not
begun to develop the common cat. She is just as sedate and motherly
as the mummy cats of Egypt were, but she takes longer strolls of
nights, climbs gum-trees instead of roofs, and hunts stranger vermin
than ever came under the observation of her northern ancestors. Her
views have widened. She is mostly thinner than the English farm cat —
which is, they say, on account of eating lizards.
English rats and English mice — we say "English" because
everything which isn't Australian in Australia, IS English (or
British) — English rats and English mice are either rare or
non-existent in the bush; but the hut cat has a wider range for game.
She is always dragging in things which are unknown in the halls of
zoology; ugly, loathsome, crawling abortions which have not been
classified yet — and perhaps could not be.
The Australian zoologist ought to rake up some more dead languages,
and then go Out Back with a few bush cats.
The Australian bush cat has a nasty, unpleasant habit of dragging
a long, wriggling, horrid, black snake — she seems to prefer black
snakes — into a room where there are ladies, proudly laying it down
in a conspicuous place (usually in front of the exit), and then
looking up for approbation. She wonders, perhaps, why the visitors
are in such a hurry to leave.
Pussy doesn't approve of live snakes round the place, especially if
she has kittens; and if she finds a snake in the vicinity of her
progeny — well, it is bad for that particular serpent.
This brings recollections of a neighbour's cat who went out in the
scrub, one midsummer's day, and found a brown snake. Her name — the
cat's name — was Mary Ann. She got hold of the snake all right, just
within an inch of its head; but it got the rest of its length wound
round her body and squeezed about eight lives out of her. She had the
presence of mind to keep her hold; but it struck her that she was in a
fix, and that if she wanted to save her ninth life, it wouldn't be a
bad idea to go home for help. So she started home, snake and all.
The family were at dinner when Mary Ann came in, and, although she
stood on an open part of the floor, no one noticed her for a while.
She couldn't ask for help, for her mouth was too full of snake.
By-and-bye one of the girls glanced round, and then went over the
table, with a shriek, and out of the back door. The room was cleared
very quickly. The eldest boy got a long-handled shovel, and in another
second would have killed more cat than snake; but his father
interfered. The father was a shearer, and Mary Ann was a favourite cat
with him. He got a pair of shears from the shelf and deftly shore off
the snake's head, and one side of Mary Ann's whiskers. She didn't
think it safe to let go yet. She kept her teeth in the neck until the
selector snipped the rest of the snake off her. The bits were carried
out on a shovel to die at sundown. Mary Ann had a good drink of milk,
and then got her tongue out and licked herself back into the proper
shape for a cat; after which she went out to look for that snake's
mate. She found it, too, and dragged it home the same evening.
Cats will kill rabbits and drag them home. We knew a fossicker
whose cat used to bring him a bunny nearly every night. The fossicker
had rabbits for breakfast until he got sick of them, and then he used
to swap them with a butcher for meat. The cat was named Ingersoll,
which indicates his sex and gives an inkling to his master's religious
and political opinions. Ingersoll used to prospect round in the
gloaming until he found some rabbit holes which showed encouraging
indications. He would shepherd one hole for an hour or so every
evening until he found it was a duffer, or worked it out; then he
would shift to another. One day he prospected a big hollow log with a
lot of holes in it, and more going down underneath. The indications
were very good, but Ingersoll had no luck. The game had too many ways
of getting out and in. He found that he could not work that claim by
himself, so he floated it into a company. He persuaded several cats
from a neighbouring selection to take shares, and they watched the
holes together, or in turns — they worked shifts. The dividends more
than realised even their wildest expectations, for each cat took home
at least one rabbit every night for a week.
A selector started a vegetable garden about the time when rabbits
were beginning to get troublesome up country. The hare had not shown
itself yet. The farmer kept quite a regiment of cats to protect his
garden — and they protected it. He would shut the cats up all day
with nothing to eat, and let them out about sundown; then they would
mooch off to the turnip patch like farm-labourers going to work. They
would drag the rabbits home to the back door, and sit there and watch
them until the farmer opened the door and served out the ration of
milk. Then the cats would turn in. He nearly always found a
semi-circle of dead rabbits and watchful cats round the door in the
morning. They sold the product of their labour direct to the farmer
for milk. It didn't matter if one cat had been unlucky — had not got
a rabbit — each had an equal share in the general result. They were
true socialists, those cats.
One of those cats was a mighty big Tom, named Jack. He was death
on rabbits; he would work hard all night, laying for them and dragging
them home. Some weeks he would graft every night, and at other times
every other night, but he was generally pretty regular. When he
reckoned he had done an extra night's work, he would take the next
night off and go three miles to the nearest neighbour's to see his
Maria and take her out for a stroll. Well, one evening Jack went into
the garden and chose a place where there was good cover, and lay low.
He was a bit earlier than usual, so he thought he would have a doze
till rabbit time. By-and-bye he heard a noise, and slowly, cautiously
opening one eye, he saw two big ears sticking out of the leaves in
front of him. He judged that it was an extra big bunny, so he put some
extra style into his manoeuvres. In about five minutes he made his
spring. He must have thought (if cats think) that it was a whopping,
old-man rabbit, for it was a pioneer hare — not an ordinary English
hare, but one of those great coarse, lanky things which the bush is
breeding. The selector was attracted by an unusual commotion and a
cloud of dust among his cabbages, and came along with his gun in time
to witness the fight. First Jack would drag the hare, and then the
hare would drag Jack; sometimes they would be down together, and then
Jack would use his hind claws with effect; finally he got his teeth in
the right place, and triumphed. Then he started to drag the corpse
home, but he had to give it best and ask his master to lend a hand.
The selector took up the hare, and Jack followed home, much to the
family's surprise. He did not go back to work that night; he took a
spell. He had a drink of milk, licked the dust off himself, washed it
down with another drink, and sat in front of the fire and thought for
a goodish while. Then he got up, walked over to the corner where the
hare was lying, had a good look at it, came back to the fire, sat down
again, and thought hard. He was still thinking when the family
Meeting Old Mates
I. Tom Smith
You are getting well on in the thirties, and haven't left off
being a fool yet. You have been away in another colony or country
for a year or so, and have now come back again. Most of your chums
have gone away or got married, or, worse still, signed the pledge —
settled down and got steady; and you feel lonely and desolate and
left-behind enough for anything. While drifting aimlessly round town
with an eye out for some chance acquaintance to have a knock round
with, you run against an old chum whom you never dreamt of meeting,
or whom you thought to be in some other part of the country — or
perhaps you knock up against someone who knows the old chum in
question, and he says:
"I suppose you know Tom Smith's in Sydney?"
"Tom Smith! Why, I thought he was in Queensland! I haven't seen
him for more than three years. Where's the old joker hanging out at
all? Why, except you, there's no one in Australia I'd sooner see than
Tom Smith. Here I've been mooning round like an unemployed for three
weeks, looking for someone to have a knock round with, and Tom in
Sydney all the time. I wish I'd known before. Where'll I run against
him — where does he live?"
"Oh, he's living at home."
"But where's his home? I was never there."
"Oh, I'll give you his address. . . . There, I think that's it.
I'm not sure about the number, but you'll soon find out in that street
— most of 'em'll know Tom Smith."
"Thanks! I rather think they will. I'm glad I met you. I'll hunt
Tom up to-day."
So you put a few shillings in your pocket, tell your landlady that
you're going to visit an old aunt of yours or a sick friend, and
mayn't be home that night; and then you start out to hunt up Tom Smith
and have at least one more good night, if you die for it.
This is the first time you have seen Tom at home; you knew of his
home and people in the old days, but only in a vague, indefinite sort
of way. Tom has changed! He is stouter and older-looking; he seems
solemn and settled down. You intended to give him a surprise and have
a good old jolly laugh with him, but somehow things get suddenly
damped at the beginning. He grins and grips your hand right enough,
but there seems something wanting. You can't help staring at him, and
he seems to look at you in a strange, disappointing way; it doesn't
strike you that you also have changed, and perhaps more in his eyes
than he in yours. He introduces you to his mother and sisters and
brothers, and the rest of the family; or to his wife, as the case may
be; and you have to suppress your feelings and be polite and talk
common-place. You hate to be polite and talk common-place. You aren't
built that way — and Tom wasn't either, in the old days. The wife
(or the mother and sisters) receives you kindly, for Tom's sake, and
makes much of you; but they don't know you yet. You want to get Tom
outside, and have a yarn and a drink and a laugh with him — you are
bursting to tell him all about yourself, and get him to tell you all
about himself, and ask him if he remembers things; and you wonder if
he is bursting the same way, and hope he is. The old lady and sisters
(or the wife) bore you pretty soon, and you wonder if they bore Tom;
you almost fancy, from his looks, that they do. You wonder whether
Tom is coming out to-night, whether he wants to get out, and if he
wants to and wants to get out by himself, whether he'll be able to
manage it; but you daren't broach the subject, it wouldn't be polite.
You've got to be polite. Then you get worried by the thought that Tom
is bursting to get out with you and only wants an excuse; is waiting,
in fact, and hoping for you to ask him in an off-hand sort of way to
come out for a stroll. But you're not quite sure; and besides, if you
were, you wouldn't have the courage. By-and-bye you get tired of it
all, thirsty, and want to get out in the open air. You get tired of
saying, "Do you really, Mrs. Smith?" or "Do you think so, Miss Smith?"
or "You were quite right, Mrs. Smith," and "Well, I think so too, Mrs.
Smith," or, to the brother, "That's just what I thought, Mr. Smith."
You don't want to "talk pretty" to them, and listen to their
wishy-washy nonsense; you want to get out and have a roaring spree
with Tom, as you had in the old days; you want to make another night
of it with your old mate, Tom Smith; and pretty soon you get the blues
badly, and feel nearly smothered in there, and you've got to get out
and have a beer anyway — Tom or no Tom; and you begin to feel wild
with Tom himself; and at last you make a bold dash for it and chance
Tom. You get up, look at your hat, and say: "Ah, well, I must be
going, Tom; I've got to meet someone down the street at seven o'clock.
Where'll I meet you in town next week?"
But Tom says:
"Oh, dash it; you ain't going yet. Stay to tea, Joe, stay to tea.
It'll be on the table in a minute. Sit down — sit down, man! Here,
gimme your hat."
And Tom's sister, or wife, or mother comes in with an apron on and
her hands all over flour, and says:
"Oh, you're not going yet, Mr. Brown? Tea'll be ready in a minute.
Do stay for tea." And if you make excuses, she cross-examines you
about the time you've got to keep that appointment down the street,
and tells you that their clock is twenty minutes fast, and that you
have got plenty of time, and so you have to give in. But you are
mightily encouraged by a winksome expression which you see, or fancy
you see, on your side of Tom's face; also by the fact of his having
accidentally knocked his foot against your shins. So you stay.
One of the females tells you to "Sit there, Mr. Brown," and you
take your place at the table, and the polite business goes on. You've
got to hold your knife and fork properly, and mind your p's and q's,
and when she says, "Do you take milk and sugar, Mr. Brown?" you've
got to say, "Yes, please, Miss Smith — thanks — that's plenty." And
when they press you, as they will, to have more, you've got to keep on
saying, "No, thanks, Mrs. Smith; no, thanks, Miss Smith; I really
couldn't; I've done very well, thank you; I had a very late dinner,
and so on" — bother such tommy-rot. And you don't seem to have any
appetite, anyway. And you think of the days out on the track when you
and Tom sat on your swags under a mulga at mid-day, and ate mutton and
johnny-cake with clasp-knives, and drank by turns out of the old,
battered, leaky billy.
And after tea you have to sit still while the precious minutes are
wasted, and listen and sympathize, while all the time you are on the
fidget to get out with Tom, and go down to a private bar where you
know some girls.
And perhaps by-and-bye the old lady gets confidential, and seizes
an opportunity to tell you what a good steady young fellow Tom is now
that he never touches drink, and belongs to a temperance society (or
the Y.M.C.A.), and never stays out of nights.
Consequently you feel worse than ever, and lonelier, and sorrier
that you wasted your time coming. You are encouraged again by a
glimpse of Tom putting on a clean collar and fixing himself up a bit;
but when you are ready to go, and ask him if he's coming a bit down
the street with you, he says he thinks he will in such a
disinterested, don't-mind-if-I-do sort of tone, that he makes you mad.
At last, after promising to "drop in again, Mr. Brown, whenever
you're passing," and to "don't forget to call," and thanking them for
their assurance that they'll "be always glad to see you," and telling
them that you've spent a very pleasant evening and enjoyed yourself,
and are awfully sorry you couldn't stay — you get away with Tom.
You don't say much to each other till you get round the corner and
down the street a bit, and then for a while your conversation is
mostly common-place, such as, "Well, how have you been getting on all
this time, Tom?" "Oh, all right. How have you been getting on?" and
But presently, and perhaps just as you have made up your mind to
chance the alleged temperance business and ask Tom in to have a drink,
he throws a glance up and down the street, nudges your shoulder, says
"Come on," and disappears sideways into a pub.
"What's yours, Tom?" "What's yours, Joe?" "The same for me."
"Well, here's luck, old man." "Here's luck." You take a drink, and
look over your glass at Tom. Then the old smile spreads over his face,
and it makes you glad — you could swear to Tom's grin in a hundred
years. Then something tickles him — your expression, perhaps, or a
recollection of the past — and he sets down his glass on the bar and
laughs. Then you laugh. Oh, there's no smile like the smile that old
mates favour each other with over the tops of their glasses when they
meet again after years. It is eloquent, because of the memories that
give it birth.
"Here's another. Do you remember ——? Do you remember ——?"
Oh, it all comes back again like a flash. Tom hasn't changed a bit;
just the same good-hearted, jolly idiot he always was. Old times back
again! "It's just like old times," says Tom, after three or four more
And so you make a night of it and get uproariously jolly. You get
as "glorious" as Bobby Burns did in the part of Tam O'Shanter, and
have a better "time" than any of the times you had in the old days.
And you see Tom as nearly home in the morning as you dare, and he
reckons he'll get it hot from his people — which no doubt he will —
and he explains that they are very particular up at home — church
people, you know — and, of course, especially if he's married, it's
understood between you that you'd better not call for him up at home
after this — at least, not till things have cooled down a bit. It's
always the way. The friend of the husband always gets the blame in
cases like this. But Tom fixes up a yarn to tell them, and you aren't
to "say anything different" in case you run against any of them. And
he fixes up an appointment with you for next Saturday night, and he'll
get there if he gets divorced for it. But he MIGHT have to take the
wife out shopping, or one of the girls somewhere; and if you see her
with him you've got to lay low, and be careful, and wait — at another
hour and place, perhaps, all of which is arranged — for if she sees
you she'll smell a rat at once, and he won't be able to get off at
And so, as far as you and Tom are concerned, the "old times" have
come back once more.
But, of course (and we almost forgot it), you might chance to fall
in love with one of Tom's sisters, in which case there would be
another and a totally different story to tell.
II. Jack Ellis
Things are going well with you. You have escaped from "the track",
so to speak, and are in a snug, comfortable little billet in the city.
Well, while doing the block you run against an old mate of other days
— VERY other days — call him Jack Ellis. Things have gone hard with
Jack. He knows you at once, but makes no advance towards a greeting;
he acts as though he thinks you might cut him — which, of course, if
you are a true mate, you have not the slightest intention of doing.
His coat is yellow and frayed, his hat is battered and green, his
trousers "gone" in various places, his linen very cloudy, and his boots
burst and innocent of polish. You try not to notice these things —
or rather, not to seem to notice them — but you cannot help doing so,
and you are afraid he'll notice that you see these things, and put a
wrong construction on it. How men will misunderstand each other! You
greet him with more than the necessary enthusiasm. In your anxiety to
set him at his ease and make him believe that nothing — not even money
— can make a difference in your friendship, you over-act the
business; and presently you are afraid that he'll notice that too,
and put a wrong construction on it. You wish that your collar was
not so clean, nor your clothes so new. Had you known you would meet
him, you would have put on some old clothes for the occasion.
You are both embarrassed, but it is YOU who feel ashamed — you
are almost afraid to look at him lest he'll think you are looking at
his shabbiness. You ask him in to have a drink, but he doesn't
respond so heartily as you wish, as he did in the old days; he doesn't
like drinking with anybody when he isn't "fixed", as he calls it —
when he can't shout.
It didn't matter in the old days who held the money so long as
there was plenty of "stuff" in the camp. You think of the days when
Jack stuck to you through thick and thin. You would like to give him
money now, but he is so proud; he always was; he makes you mad with
his beastly pride. There wasn't any pride of that sort on the track or
in the camp in those days; but times have changed — your lives have
drifted too widely apart — you have taken different tracks since
then; and Jack, without intending to, makes you feel that it is so.
You have a drink, but it isn't a success; it falls flat, as far as
Jack is concerned; he won't have another; he doesn't "feel on", and
presently he escapes under plea of an engagement, and promises to see
And you wish that the time was come when no one could have more or
less to spend than another.
P.S. — I met an old mate of that description once, and so
successfully persuaded him out of his beastly pride that he borrowed
two pounds off me till Monday. I never got it back since, and I want
it badly at the present time. In future I'll leave old mates with
their pride unimpaired.
"Y'orter do something, Ernie. Yer know how I am. YOU don't seem
to care. Y'orter to do something."
Stowsher slouched at a greater angle to the greasy door-post, and
scowled under his hat-brim. It was a little, low, frowsy room opening
into Jones' Alley. She sat at the table, sewing — a thin, sallow
girl with weak, colourless eyes. She looked as frowsy as her
"Well, why don't you go to some of them women, and get fixed up?"
She flicked the end of the table-cloth over some tiny, unfinished
articles of clothing, and bent to her work.
"But you know very well I haven't got a shilling, Ernie," she said,
quietly. "Where am I to get the money from?"
"Who asked yer to get it?"
She was silent, with the exasperating silence of a woman who has
determined to do a thing in spite of all reasons and arguments that
may be brought against it.
"Well, wot more do yer want?" demanded Stowsher, impatiently.
She bent lower. "Couldn't we keep it, Ernie?"
"Wot next?" asked Stowsher, sulkily — he had half suspected what
was coming. Then, with an impatient oath, "You must be gettin' ratty."
She brushed the corner of the cloth further over the little
"It wouldn't cost anything, Ernie. I'd take a pride in him, and
keep him clean, and dress him like a little lord. He'll be different
from all the other youngsters. He wouldn't be like those dirty,
sickly little brats out there. He'd be just like you, Ernie; I know
he would. I'll look after him night and day, and bring him up well and
strong. We'd train his little muscles from the first, Ernie, and he'd
be able to knock 'em all out when he grew up. It wouldn't cost much,
and I'd work hard and be careful if you'd help me. And you'd be proud
of him, too, Ernie — I know you would."
Stowsher scraped the doorstep with his foot; but whether he was
"touched", or feared hysterics and was wisely silent, was not
"Do you remember the first day I met you, Ernie?" she asked,
Stowsher regarded her with an uneasy scowl: "Well — wot o' that?"
"You came into the bar-parlour at the `Cricketers' Arms' and
caught a push of 'em chyacking your old man."
"Well, I altered that."
"I know you did. You done for three of them, one after another,
and two was bigger than you."
"Yes! and when the push come up we done for the rest," said
Stowsher, softening at the recollection.
"And the day you come home and caught the landlord bullying your
old mother like a dog ——"
"Yes; I got three months for that job. But it was worth it!" he
reflected. "Only," he added, "the old woman might have had the knocker
to keep away from the lush while I was in quod. . . . But wot's all
this got to do with it?"
"HE might barrack and fight for you, some day, Ernie," she said
softly, "when you're old and out of form and ain't got no push to back
The thing was becoming decidedly embarrassing to Stowsher; not
that he felt any delicacy on the subject, but because he hated to be
drawn into a conversation that might be considered "soft".
"Oh, stow that!" he said, comfortingly. "Git on yer hat, and I'll
take yer for a trot."
She rose quickly, but restrained herself, recollecting that it was
not good policy to betray eagerness in response to an invitation from
"But — you know — I don't like to go out like this. You can't —
you wouldn't like to take me out the way I am, Ernie!"
"Why not? Wot rot!"
"The fellows would see me, and — and ——"
"And . . . wot?"
"They might notice ——"
"Well, wot o' that? I want 'em to. Are yer comin' or are yer
ain't? Fling round now. I can't hang on here all day."
They walked towards Flagstaff Hill.
One or two, slouching round a pub. corner, saluted with "Wotcher,
"Not too stinkin'," replied Stowsher. "Soak yer heads."
"Stowsher's goin' to stick," said one privately.
"An' so he orter," said another. "Wish I had the chanst."
The two turned up a steep lane.
"Don't walk so fast up hill, Ernie; I can't, you know."
"All right, Liz. I forgot that. Why didn't yer say so before?"
She was contentedly silent most of the way, warned by instinct,
after the manner of women when they have gained their point by words.
Once he glanced over his shoulder with a short laugh. "Gorblime!"
he said, "I nearly thought the little beggar was a-follerin' along
When he left her at the door he said: "Look here, Liz. 'Ere's
half a quid. Git what yer want. Let her go. I'm goin' to graft again
in the mornin', and I'll come round and see yer to-morrer night."
Still she seemed troubled and uneasy.
"Well. Wot now?"
"S'posin' it's a girl, Ernie."
Stowsher flung himself round impatiently.
"Oh, for God's sake, stow that! Yer always singin' out before yer
hurt. . . . There's somethin' else, ain't there — while the bloomin'
"No, Ernie. Ain't you going to kiss me? . . . I'm satisfied."
"Satisfied! Yer don't want the kid to be arst 'oo 'is father was,
do yer? Yer'd better come along with me some day this week and git
spliced. Yer don't want to go frettin' or any of that funny business
while it's on."
"Oh, Ernie! do you really mean it?" — and she threw her arms round
his neck, and broke down at last.
"So-long, Liz. No more funny business now — I've had enough of
it. Keep yer pecker up, old girl. To-morrer night, mind." Then he
added suddenly: "Yer might have known I ain't that sort of a bloke"
— and left abruptly.
Liz was very happy.
I met him in a sixpenny restaurant — "All meals, 6d. — Good beds,
1s." That was before sixpenny restaurants rose to a third-class
position, and became possibly respectable places to live in, through
the establishment, beneath them, of fourpenny hash-houses (good beds,
6d.), and, beneath THEM again, of THREE-penny "dining-rooms — CLEAN
There were five beds in our apartment, the head of one against the
foot of the next, and so on round the room, with a space where the
door and washstand were. I chose the bed the head of which was near
the foot of his, because he looked like a man who took his bath
regularly. I should like, in the interests of sentiment, to describe
the place as a miserable, filthy, evil-smelling garret; but I can't —
because it wasn't. The room was large and airy; the floor was
scrubbed and the windows cleaned at least once a week, and the beds
kept fresh and neat, which is more — a good deal more — than can be
said of many genteel private boarding-houses. The lodgers were mostly
respectable unemployed, and one or two — fortunate men! — in work;
it was the casual boozer, the professional loafer, and the occasional
spieler — the one-shilling-bed-men — who made the place
objectionable, not the hard-working people who paid ten pounds a week
for the house; and, but for the one-night lodgers and the big gilt
black-and-red bordered and "shaded" "6d." in the window — which made
me glance guiltily up and down the street, like a burglar about to do
a job, before I went in — I was pretty comfortable there.
They called him "Mr. Smellingscheck", and treated him with a
peculiar kind of deference, the reason for which they themselves were
doubtless unable to explain or even understand. The haggard woman who
made the beds called him "Mr. Smell-'is-check". Poor fellow! I didn't
think, by the look of him, that he'd smelt his cheque, or anyone
else's, or that anyone else had smelt his, for many a long day. He was
a fat man, slow and placid. He looked like a typical monopolist who
had unaccountably got into a suit of clothes belonging to a Domain
unemployed, and hadn't noticed, or had entirely forgotten, the
circumstance in his business cares — if such a word as care could be
connected with such a calm, self-contained nature. He wore a suit of
cheap slops of some kind of shoddy "tweed". The coat was too small and
the trousers too short, and they were drawn up to meet the waistcoat
— which they did with painful difficulty, now and then showing, by
way of protest, two pairs of brass buttons and the ends of the
brace-straps; and they seemed to blame the irresponsive waistcoat or
the wearer for it all. Yet he never gave way to assist them. A pair
of burst elastic-sides were in full evidence, and a rim of cloudy
sock, with a hole in it, showed at every step.
But he put on his clothes and wore them like — like a gentleman.
He had two white shirts, and they were both dirty. He'd lay them out
on the bed, turn them over, regard them thoughtfully, choose that
which appeared to his calm understanding to be the cleaner, and put it
on, and wear it until it was unmistakably dirtier than the other;
then he'd wear the other till it was dirtier than the first. He
managed his three collars the same way. His handkerchiefs were washed
in the bathroom, and dried, without the slightest disguise, in the
bedroom. He never hurried in anything. The way he cleaned his teeth,
shaved, and made his toilet almost transformed the place, in my
imagination, into a gentleman's dressing-room.
He talked politics and such things in the abstract — always in the
abstract — calmly in the abstract. He was an old-fashioned
Conservative of the Sir Leicester Deadlock style. When he was moved
by an extra shower of aggressive democratic cant — which was seldom
— he defended Capital, but only as if it needed no defence, and as
if its opponents were merely thoughtless, ignorant children whom he
condescended to set right because of their inexperience and for their
own good. He stuck calmly to his own order — the order which had
dropped him like a foul thing when the bottom dropped out of his boom,
whatever that was. He never talked of his misfortunes.
He took his meals at the little greasy table in the dark corner
downstairs, just as if he were dining at the Exchange. He had a chop
— rather well-done — and a sheet of the `Herald' for breakfast. He
carried two handkerchiefs; he used one for a handkerchief and the other
for a table-napkin, and sometimes folded it absently and laid it on
the table. He rose slowly, putting his chair back, took down his
battered old green hat, and regarded it thoughtfully — as though it
had just occurred to him in a calm, casual way that he'd drop into his
hatter's, if he had time, on his way down town, and get it blocked, or
else send the messenger round with it during business hours. He'd
draw his stick out from behind the next chair, plant it, and, if you
hadn't quite finished your side of the conversation, stand politely
waiting until you were done. Then he'd look for a suitable reply into
his hat, put it on, give it a twitch to settle it on his head — as
gentlemen do a "chimney-pot" — step out into the gangway, turn his
face to the door, and walk slowly out on to the middle of the pavement
— looking more placidly well-to-do than ever. The saying is that
clothes make a man, but HE made his almost respectable just by wearing
them. Then he'd consult his watch — (he stuck to the watch all
through, and it seemed a good one — I often wondered why he didn't
pawn it); then he'd turn slowly, right turn, and look down the street.
Then slowly back, left-about turn, and take a cool survey in that
direction, as if calmly undecided whether to take a cab and drive to
the Exchange, or (as it was a very fine morning, and he had half an
hour to spare) walk there and drop in at his club on the way. He'd
conclude to walk. I never saw him go anywhere in particular, but he
walked and stood as if he could.
Coming quietly into the room one day, I surprised him sitting at
the table with his arms lying on it and his face resting on them. I
heard something like a sob. He rose hastily, and gathered up some
papers which were on the table; then he turned round, rubbing his
forehead and eyes with his forefinger and thumb, and told me that he
suffered from — something, I forget the name of it, but it was a
well-to-do ailment. His manner seemed a bit jolted and hurried for a
minute or so, and then he was himself again. He told me he was
leaving for Melbourne next day. He left while I was out, and left an
envelope downstairs for me. There was nothing in it except a pound
I saw him in Brisbane afterwards, well-dressed, getting out of a
cab at the entrance of one of the leading hotels. But his manner was
no more self-contained and well-to-do than it had been in the old
sixpenny days — because it couldn't be. We had a well-to-do whisky
together, and he talked of things in the abstract. He seemed just as
if he'd met me in the Australia.
"A Rough Shed"
A hot, breathless, blinding sunrise — the sun having appeared
suddenly above the ragged edge of the barren scrub like a great disc
of molten steel. No hint of a morning breeze before it, no sign on
earth or sky to show that it is morning — save the position of the
A clearing in the scrub — bare as though the surface of the earth
were ploughed and harrowed, and dusty as the road. Two oblong huts
— one for the shearers and one for the rouseabouts — in about the
centre of the clearing (as if even the mongrel scrub had shrunk away
from them) built end-to-end, of weatherboards, and roofed with
galvanised iron. Little ventilation; no verandah; no attempt to
create, artificially, a breath of air through the buildings.
Unpainted, sordid — hideous. Outside, heaps of ashes still hot and
smoking. Close at hand, "butcher's shop" — a bush and bag breakwind
in the dust, under a couple of sheets of iron, with offal, grease and
clotted blood blackening the surface of the ground about it. Greasy,
stinking sheepskins hanging everywhere with blood-blotched sides out.
Grease inches deep in great black patches about the fireplace ends of
the huts, where wash-up and "boiling" water is thrown.
Inside, a rough table on supports driven into the black, greasy
ground floor, and formed of flooring boards, running on uneven lines
the length of the hut from within about 6ft. of the fire-place.
Lengths of single six-inch boards or slabs on each side, supported by
the projecting ends of short pieces of timber nailed across the legs
of the table to serve as seats.
On each side of the hut runs a rough framework, like the partitions
in a stable; each compartment battened off to about the size of a
manger, and containing four bunks, one above the other, on each side
— their ends, of course, to the table. Scarcely breathing space
anywhere between. Fireplace, the full width of the hut in one end,
where all the cooking and baking for forty or fifty men is done, and
where flour, sugar, etc., are kept in open bags. Fire, like a very
furnace. Buckets of tea and coffee on roasting beds of coals and
ashes on the hearth. Pile of "brownie" on the bare black boards at
the end of the table. Unspeakable aroma of forty or fifty men who
have little inclination and less opportunity to wash their skins, and
who soak some of the grease out of their clothes — in buckets of hot
water — on Saturday afternoons or Sundays. And clinging to all, and
over all, the smell of the dried, stale yolk of wool — the stink of
"I am a rouseabout of the rouseabouts. I have fallen so far that
it is beneath me to try to climb to the proud position of `ringer' of
the shed. I had that ambition once, when I was the softest of green
hands; but then I thought I could work out my salvation and go home.
I've got used to hell since then. I only get twenty-five shillings a
week (less station store charges) and tucker here. I have been seven
years west of the Darling and never shore a sheep. Why don't I learn
to shear, and so make money? What should I do with more money? Get
out of this and go home? I would never go home unless I had enough
money to keep me for the rest of my life, and I'll never make that Out
Back. Otherwise, what should I do at home? And how should I account
for the seven years, if I were to go home? Could I describe shed life
to them and explain how I lived. They think shearing only takes a few
days of the year — at the beginning of summer. They'd want to know
how I lived the rest of the year. Could I explain that I `jabbed
trotters' and was a `tea-and-sugar burglar' between sheds. They'd
think I'd been a tramp and a beggar all the time. Could I explain
ANYTHING so that they'd understand? I'd have to be lying all the time
and would soon be tripped up and found out. For, whatever else I have
been I was never much of a liar. No, I'll never go home.
"I become momentarily conscious about daylight. The flies on the
track got me into that habit, I think; they start at day-break —
when the mosquitoes give over.
"The cook rings a bullock bell.
"The cook is fire-proof. He is as a fiend from the nethermost
sheol and needs to be. No man sees him sleep, for he makes bread —
or worse, brownie — at night, and he rings a bullock bell loudly at
half-past five in the morning to rouse us from our animal torpors.
Others, the sheep-ho's or the engine-drivers at the shed or wool-wash,
call him, if he does sleep. They manage it in shifts, somehow, and
sleep somewhere, sometime. We haven't time to know. The cook rings
the bullock bell and yells the time. It was the same time five
minutes ago — or a year ago. No time to decide which. I dash water
over my head and face and slap handfuls on my eyelids — gummed over
aching eyes — still blighted by the yolk o' wool — grey,
greasy-feeling water from a cut-down kerosene tin which I sneaked from
the cook and hid under my bunk and had the foresight to refill from
the cask last night, under cover of warm, still, suffocating darkness.
Or was it the night before last? Anyhow, it will be sneaked from me
to-day, and from the crawler who will collar it to-morrow, and
`touched' and `lifted' and `collared' and recovered by the cook, and
sneaked back again, and cause foul language, and fights, maybe, till
"No; we didn't have sweet dreams of home and mother, gentle poet —
nor yet of babbling brooks and sweethearts, and love's young dream.
We are too dirty and dog-tired when we tumble down, and have too
little time to sleep it off. We don't want to dream those dreams out
here — they'd only be nightmares for us, and we'd wake to remember.
We MUSTN'T remember here.
"At the edge of the timber a great galvanised-iron shed, nearly all
roof, coming down to within 6ft. 6in. of the `board' over the
`shoots'. Cloud of red dust in the dead timber behind, going up —
noon-day dust. Fence covered with skins; carcases being burned; blue
smoke going straight up as in noonday. Great glossy (greasy-glossy)
black crows `flopping' around.
"The first syren has gone. We hurry in single files from opposite
ends of rouseabouts' and shearers' huts (as the paths happen to run to
the shed) gulping hot tea or coffee from a pint-pot in one hand and
biting at a junk of brownie in the other.
"Shed of forty hands. Shearers rush the pens and yank out sheep
and throw them like demons; grip them with their knees, take up
machines, jerk the strings; and with a rattling whirring roar the
great machine-shed starts for the day.
"`Go it, you —— tigers!' yells a tar-boy. `Wool away!' `Tar!'
`Sheep Ho!' We rush through with a whirring roar till breakfast time.
"We seize our tin plate from the pile, knife and fork from the
candle-box, and crowd round the camp-oven to jab out lean chops, dry
as chips, boiled in fat. Chops or curry-and-rice. There is some
growling and cursing. We slip into our places without removing our
hats. There's no time to hunt for mislaid hats when the whistle goes.
Row of hat brims, level, drawn over eyes, or thrust back — according
to characters or temperaments. Thrust back denotes a lucky absence of
brains, I fancy. Row of forks going up, or jabbing, or poised,
loaded, waiting for last mouthful to be bolted.
"We pick up, sweep, tar, sew wounds, catch sheep that break from
the pens, jump down and pick up those that can't rise at the bottom of
the shoots, `bring-my-combs-from-the-grinder-will-yer,' laugh at dirty
jokes, and swear — and, in short, are the `will-yer' slaves, body and
soul, of seven, six, five, or four shearers, according to the distance
from the rolling tables.
"The shearer on the board at the shed is a demon. He gets so much
a hundred; we, 25s. a week. He is not supposed, by the rules of the
shed, the Union, and humanity, to take a sheep out of the pen AFTER
the bell goes (smoke-ho, meals, or knock-off), but his watch is
hanging on the post, and he times himself to get so many sheep out of
the pen BEFORE the bell goes, and ONE MORE — the `bell-sheep' — as
it is ringing. We have to take the last fleece to the table and leave
our board clean. We go through the day of eight hours in runs of about
an hour and 20 minutes between smoke-ho's — from 6 to 6. If the
shearers shore 200 instead of 100, they'd get 2 Pounds a day instead
of 1 Pound, and we'd have twice as much work to do for our 25s. per
week. But the shearers are racing each other for tallies. And it's
no use kicking. There is no God here and no Unionism (though we all
have tickets). But what am I growling about? I've worked from 6 to 6
with no smoke-ho's for half the wages, and food we wouldn't give the
sheep-ho dog. It's the bush growl, born of heat, flies, and dust.
I'd growl now if I had a thousand a year. We MUST growl, swear, and
some of us drink to d.t.'s, or go mad sober.
"Pants and shirts stiff with grease as though a couple of pounds
of soft black putty were spread on with a painter's knife.
"No, gentle bard! — we don't sing at our work. Over the whirr and
roar and hum all day long, and with iteration that is childish and
irritating to the intelligent greenhand, float unthinkable adjectives
and adverbs, addressed to jumbucks, jackaroos, and mates
indiscriminately. And worse words for the boss over the board —
behind his back.
"I came of a Good Christian Family — perhaps that's why I went to
the Devil. When I came out here I'd shrink from the man who used foul
language. In a short time I used it with the worst. I couldn't help
"That's the way of it. If I went back to a woman's country again
I wouldn't swear. I'd forget this as I would a nightmare. That's the
way of it. There's something of the larrikin about us. We don't exist
individually. Off the board, away from the shed (and each other) we
are quiet — even gentle.
"A great-horned ram, in poor condition, but shorn of a heavy
fleece, picks himself up at the foot of the `shoot', and hesitates,
as if ashamed to go down to the other end where the ewes are. The
most ridiculous object under Heaven.
"A tar-boy of fifteen, of the bush, with a mouth so vile that a
street-boy, same age (up with a shearing uncle), kicks him behind —
having proved his superiority with his fists before the shed started.
Of which unspeakable little fiend the roughest shearer of a rough shed
was heard to say, in effect, that if he thought there was the
slightest possibility of his becoming the father of such a boy he'd
—— take drastic measures to prevent the possibility of his becoming
a proud parent at all.
"Twice a day the cooks and their familiars carry buckets of
oatmeal-water and tea to the shed, two each on a yoke. We cry, `Where
are you coming to, my pretty maids?'
"In ten minutes the surfaces of the buckets are black with flies.
We have given over trying to keep them clear. We stir the living
cream aside with the bottoms of the pints, and guzzle gallons, and
sweat it out again. Occasionally a shearer pauses and throws the
perspiration from his forehead in a rain.
"Shearers live in such a greedy rush of excitement that often a
strong man will, at a prick of the shears, fall in a death-like faint
on the board.
"We hate the Boss-of-the-Board as the shearers' `slushy' hates the
shearers' cook. I don't know why. He's a very fair boss.
"He refused to put on a traveller yesterday, and the traveller
knocked him down. He walked into the shed this morning with his hat
back and thumbs in waistcoat — a tribute to man's weakness. He
threatened to dismiss the traveller's mate, a bigger man, for rough
shearing — a tribute to man's strength. The shearer said nothing. We
hate the boss because he IS boss, but we respect him because he is a
strong man. He is as hard up as any of us, I hear, and has a sick
wife and a large, small family in Melbourne. God judge us all!
"There is a gambling-school here, headed by the shearers' cook.
After tea they head-'em, and advance cheques are passed from hand to
hand, and thrown in the dust until they are black. When it's too dark
to see with nose to the ground, they go inside and gamble with cards.
Sometimes they start on Saturday afternoon, heading 'em till dark,
play cards all night, start again heading 'em Sunday afternoon, play
cards all Sunday night, and sleep themselves sane on Monday, or go to
work ghastly — like dead men.
"Cry of `Fight'; we all rush out. But there isn't much fighting.
Afraid of murdering each other. I'm beginning to think that most bush
crime is due to irritation born of dust, heat, and flies.
"The smothering atmosphere shudders when the sun goes down. We
call it the sunset breeze.
"Saturday night or Sunday we're invited into the shearers' hut.
There are songs that are not hymns and recitations and speeches that
are not prayers.
"Last Sunday night: Slush lamps at long intervals on table. Men
playing cards, sewing on patches — (nearly all smoking) — some
writing, and the rest reading Deadwood Dick. At one end of the table
a Christian Endeavourer endeavouring; at the other a cockney Jew,
from the hawker's boat, trying to sell rotten clothes. In response to
complaints, direct and not chosen generally for Sunday, the shearers'
rep. requests both apostles to shut up or leave.
"He couldn't be expected to take the Christian and leave the Jew,
any more than he could take the Jew and leave the Christian. We are
just amongst ourselves in our hell.
"Fiddle at the end of rouseabouts' hut. Voice of Jackeroo, from
upper bunk with apologetic oaths: `For God's sake chuck that up; it
makes a man think of blanky old things!'
"A lost soul laughs (mine) and dreadful night smothers us."
Among the crowds who left the Victorian side for New South Wales
about the time Gulgong broke out was an old Ballarat digger named
Peter McKenzie. He had married and retired from the mining some years
previously and had made a home for himself and family at the village
of St. Kilda, near Melbourne; but, as was often the case with old
diggers, the gold fever never left him, and when the fields of New
South Wales began to blaze he mortgaged his little property in order
to raise funds for another campaign, leaving sufficient behind him to
keep his wife and family in comfort for a year or so.
As he often remarked, his position was now very different from
what it had been in the old days when he first arrived from Scotland,
in the height of the excitement following on the great discovery. He
was a young man then with only himself to look out for, but now that
he was getting old and had a family to provide for he had staked too
much on this venture to lose. His position did certainly look like a
forlorn hope, but he never seemed to think so.
Peter must have been very lonely and low-spirited at times. A
young or unmarried man can form new ties, and even make new sweethearts
if necessary, but Peter's heart was with his wife and little ones at
home, and they were mortgaged, as it were, to Dame Fortune. Peter had
to lift this mortgage off.
Nevertheless he was always cheerful, even at the worst of times,
and his straight grey beard and scrubby brown hair encircled a smile
which appeared to be a fixture. He had to make an effort in order to
look grave, such as some men do when they want to force a smile.
It was rumoured that Peter had made a vow never to return home
until he could take sufficient wealth to make his all-important family
comfortable, or, at least, to raise the mortgage from the property,
for the sacrifice of which to his mad gold fever he never forgave
himself. But this was one of the few things which Peter kept to
The fact that he had a wife and children at St. Kilda was well
known to all the diggers. They had to know it, and if they did not
know the age, complexion, history and peculiarities of every child and
of the "old woman" it was not Peter's fault.
He would cross over to our place and talk to the mother for hours
about his wife and children. And nothing pleased him better than to
discover peculiarities in us children wherein we resembled his own. It
pleased us also for mercenary reasons. "It's just the same with my
old woman," or "It's just the same with my youngsters," Peter would
exclaim boisterously, for he looked upon any little similarity between
the two families as a remarkable coincidence. He liked us all, and
was always very kind to us, often standing between our backs and the
rod that spoils the child — that is, I mean, if it isn't used. I was
very short-tempered, but this failing was more than condoned by the
fact that Peter's "eldest" was given that way also. Mother's second
son was very good-natured; so was Peter's third. Her "third" had a
great aversion for any duty that threatened to increase his muscles;
so had Peter's "second". Our baby was very fat and heavy and was
given to sucking her own thumb vigorously, and, according to the
latest bulletins from home, it was just the same with Peter's "last".
I think we knew more about Peter's family than we did about our
own. Although we had never seen them, we were as familiar with their
features as the photographer's art could make us, and always knew
their domestic history up to the date of the last mail.
We became interested in the McKenzie family. Instead of getting
bored by them as some people were, we were always as much pleased when
Peter got a letter from home as he was himself, and if a mail were
missed, which seldom happened — we almost shared his disappointment
and anxiety. Should one of the youngsters be ill, we would be quite
uneasy, on Peter's account, until the arrival of a later bulletin
removed his anxiety, and ours.
It must have been the glorious power of a big true heart that
gained for Peter the goodwill and sympathy of all who knew him.
Peter's smile had a peculiar fascination for us children. We would
stand by his pointing forge when he'd be sharpening picks in the early
morning, and watch his face for five minutes at a time, wondering
sometimes whether he was always SMILING INSIDE, or whether the smile
went on externally irrespective of any variation in Peter's condition
I think it was the latter case, for often when he had received bad
news from home we have heard his voice quaver with anxiety, while the
old smile played on his round, brown features just the same.
Little Nelse (one of those queer old-man children who seem to come
into the world by mistake, and who seldom stay long) used to say that
Peter "cried inside".
Once, on Gulgong, when he attended the funeral of an old Ballarat
mate, a stranger who had been watching his face curiously remarked
that McKenzie seemed as pleased as though the dead digger had
bequeathed him a fortune. But the stranger had soon reason to alter
his opinion, for when another old mate began in a tremulous voice to
repeat the words "Ashes to ashes, an' dust to dust," two big tears
suddenly burst from Peter's eyes, and hurried down to get entrapped
in his beard.
Peter's goldmining ventures were not successful. He sank three
duffers in succession on Gulgong, and the fourth shaft, after paying
expenses, left a little over a hundred to each party, and Peter had to
send the bulk of his share home. He lived in a tent (or in a hut when
he could get one) after the manner of diggers, and he "did for
himself", even to washing his own clothes. He never drank nor
"played", and he took little enjoyment of any kind, yet there was not
a digger on the field who would dream of calling old Peter McKenzie "a
mean man". He lived, as we know from our own observations, in a most
frugal manner. He always tried to hide this, and took care to have
plenty of good things for us when he invited us to his hut; but
children's eyes are sharp. Some said that Peter half-starved himself,
but I don't think his family ever knew, unless he told them so
Ah, well! the years go over. Peter was now three years from home,
and he and Fortune were enemies still. Letters came by the mail,
full of little home troubles and prayers for Peter's return, and
letters went back by the mail, always hopeful, always cheerful. Peter
never gave up. When everything else failed he would work by the day
(a sad thing for a digger), and he was even known to do a job of
fencing until such time as he could get a few pounds and a small party
together to sink another shaft.
Talk about the heroic struggles of early explorers in a hostile
country; but for dogged determination and courage in the face of
poverty, illness, and distance, commend me to the old-time digger —
the truest soldier Hope ever had!
In the fourth year of his struggle Peter met with a terrible
disappointment. His party put down a shaft called the Forlorn Hope
near Happy Valley, and after a few weeks' fruitless driving his mates
jibbed on it. Peter had his own opinion about the ground — an old
digger's opinion, and he used every argument in his power to induce
his mates to put a few days' more work in the claim. In vain he
pointed out that the quality of the wash and the dip of the bottom
exactly resembled that of the "Brown Snake", a rich Victorian claim.
In vain he argued that in the case of the abovementioned claim, not a
colour could be got until the payable gold was actually reached. Home
Rule and The Canadian and that cluster of fields were going ahead, and
his party were eager to shift. They remained obstinate, and at last,
half-convinced against his opinion, Peter left with them to sink the
"Iawatha", in Log Paddock, which turned out a rank duffer — not even
paying its own expenses.
A party of Italians entered the old claim and, after driving it a
few feet further, made their fortune.
We all noticed the change in Peter McKenzie when he came to "Log
Paddock", whither we had shifted before him. The old smile still
flickered, but he had learned to "look" grave for an hour at a time
without much effort. He was never quite the same after the affair of
Forlorn Hope, and I often think how he must have "cried" sometimes
However, he still read us letters from home, and came and smoked
in the evening by our kitchen-fire. He showed us some new portraits
of his family which he had received by a late mail, but something gave
me the impression that the portraits made him uneasy. He had them in
his possession for nearly a week before showing them to us, and to the
best of our knowledge he never showed them to anybody else. Perhaps
they reminded him of the flight of time — perhaps he would have
preferred his children to remain just as he left them until he
But stay! there was one portrait that seemed to give Peter infinite
pleasure. It was the picture of a chubby infant of about three years
or more. It was a fine-looking child taken in a sitting position on a
cushion, and arrayed in a very short shirt. On its fat, soft, white
face, which was only a few inches above the ten very podgy toes, was a
smile something like Peter's. Peter was never tired of looking at and
showing the picture of his child — the child he had never seen.
Perhaps he cherished a wild dream of making his fortune and returning
home before THAT child grew up.
McKenzie and party were sinking a shaft at the upper end of Log
Paddock, generally called "The other end". We were at the lower end.
One day Peter came down from "the other end" and told us that his
party expected to "bottom" during the following week, and if they got
no encouragement from the wash they intended to go prospecting at the
"Happy Thought", near Specimen Flat.
The shaft in Log Paddock was christened "Nil Desperandum". Towards
the end of the week we heard that the wash in the "Nil" was showing
Later came the news that "McKenzie and party" had bottomed on
payable gold, and the red flag floated over the shaft. Long before
the first load of dirt reached the puddling machine on the creek, the
news was all round the diggings. The "Nil Desperandum" was a "Golden
We will not forget the day when Peter went home. He hurried down
in the morning to have an hour or so with us before Cobb and Co. went
by. He told us all about his little cottage by the bay at St. Kilda.
He had never spoken of it before, probably because of the mortgage.
He told us how it faced the bay — how many rooms it had, how much
flower garden, and how on a clear day he could see from the window all
the ships that came up to the Yarra, and how with a good telescope he
could even distinguish the faces of the passengers on the big ocean
And then, when the mother's back was turned, he hustled us children
round the corner, and surreptitiously slipped a sovereign into each
of our dirty hands, making great pantomimic show for silence, for the
mother was very independent.
And when we saw the last of Peter's face setting like a
good-humoured sun on the top of Cobb and Co.'s, a great feeling of
discontent and loneliness came over all our hearts. Little Nelse, who
had been Peter's favourite, went round behind the pig-stye, where none
might disturb him, and sat down on the projecting end of a trough to
"have a cry", in his usual methodical manner. But old "Alligator
Desolation", the dog, had suspicions of what was up, and, hearing the
sobs, went round to offer whatever consolation appertained to a damp
and dirty nose and a pair of ludicrously doleful yellow eyes.
An Oversight of Steelman's
Steelman and Smith — professional wanderers — were making back
for Wellington, down through the wide and rather dreary-looking Hutt
Valley. They were broke. They carried their few remaining belongings
in two skimpy, amateurish-looking swags. Steelman had fourpence left.
They were very tired and very thirsty — at least Steelman was, and
he answered for both. It was Smith's policy to feel and think just
exactly as Steelman did. Said Steelman:
"The landlord of the next pub. is not a bad sort. I won't go in —
he might remember me. You'd best go in. You've been tramping round
in the Wairarapa district for the last six months, looking for work.
You're going back to Wellington now, to try and get on the new
corporation works just being started there — the sewage works. You
think you've got a show. You've got some mates in Wellington, and
they're looking out for a chance for you. You did get a job last week
on a sawmill at Silverstream, and the boss sacked you after three days
and wouldn't pay you a penny. That's just his way. I know him — at
least a mate of mine does. I've heard of him often enough. His name's
Cowman. Don't forget the name, whatever you do. The landlord here
hates him like poison; he'll sympathize with you. Tell him you've got
a mate with you; he's gone ahead — took a short cut across the
paddocks. Tell him you've got only fourpence left, and see if he'll
give you a drop in a bottle. Says you: `Well, boss, the fact is
we've only got fourpence, but you might let us have a drop in a
bottle'; and very likely he'll stand you a couple of pints in a
gin-bottle. You can fling the coppers on the counter, but the chances
are he won't take them. He's not a bad sort. Beer's fourpence a pint
out here, same's in Wellington. See that gin-bottle lying there by
the stump; get it and we'll take it down to the river with us and
rinse it out."
They reached the river bank.
"You'd better take my swag — it looks more decent," said Steelman.
"No, I'll tell you what we'll do: we'll undo both swags and make them
into one — one decent swag, and I'll cut round through the lanes and
wait for you on the road ahead of the pub."
He rolled up the swag with much care and deliberation and
considerable judgment. He fastened Smith's belt round one end of it,
and the handkerchiefs round the other, and made a towel serve as a
"I wish we had a canvas bag to put it in," he said, "or a cover of
some sort. But never mind. The landlord's an old Australian bushman,
now I come to think of it; the swag looks Australian enough, and it
might appeal to his feelings, you know — bring up old recollections.
But you'd best not say you come from Australia, because he's been
there, and he'd soon trip you up. He might have been where you've
been, you know, so don't try to do too much. You always do mug-up the
business when you try to do more than I tell you. You might tell him
your mate came from Australia — but no, he might want you to bring me
in. Better stick to Maoriland. I don't believe in too much
ornamentation. Plain lies are the best."
"What's the landlord's name?" asked Smith.
"Never mind that. You don't want to know that. You are not
supposed to know him at all. It might look suspicious if you called
him by his name, and lead to awkward questions; then you'd be sure to
put your foot into it."
"I could say I read it over the door."
"Bosh. Travellers don't read the names over the doors, when they
go into pubs. You're an entire stranger to him. Call him `Boss'. Say
`Good-day, Boss,' when you go in, and swing down your swag as if
you're used to it. Ease it down like this. Then straighten yourself
up, stick your hat back, and wipe your forehead, and try to look as
hearty and independent and cheerful as you possibly can. Curse the
Government, and say the country's done. It don't matter what
Government it is, for he's always against it. I never knew a real
Australian that wasn't. Say that you're thinking about trying to get
over to Australia, and then listen to him talking about it — and try
to look interested, too! Get that damned stone-deaf expression off
your face! . . . He'll run Australia down most likely (I never knew
an Other-sider that had settled down over here who didn't). But don't
you make any mistake and agree with him, because, although successful
Australians over here like to run their own country down, there's very
few of them that care to hear anybody else do it. . . . Don't come
away as soon as you get your beer. Stay and listen to him for a
while, as if you're interested in his yarning, and give him time to
put you on to a job, or offer you one. Give him a chance to ask how
you and your mate are off for tobacco or tucker. Like as not he'll
sling you half a crown when you come away — that is, if you work it
all right. Now try to think of something to say to him, and make
yourself a bit interesting — if you possibly can. Tell him about the
fight we saw back at the pub. the other day. He might know some of the
chaps. This is a sleepy hole, and there ain't much news knocking
round. . . . I wish I could go in myself, but he's sure to remember
ME. I'm afraid he got left the last time I stayed there (so did one
or two others); and, besides, I came away without saying good-bye to
him, and he might feel a bit sore about it. That's the worst of
travelling on the old road. Come on now, wake up!"
"Bet I'll get a quart," said Smith, brightening up, "and some
tucker for it to wash down."
"If you don't," said Steelman, "I'll stoush you. Never mind the
bottle; fling it away. It doesn't look well for a traveller to go
into a pub. with an empty bottle in his hand. A real swagman never
does. It looks much better to come out with a couple of full ones.
That's what you've got to do. Now, come along."
Steelman turned off into a lane, cut across the paddocks to the
road again, and waited for Smith. He hadn't long to wait.
Smith went on towards the public-house, rehearsing his part as he
walked — repeating his "lines" to himself, so as to be sure of
remembering all that Steelman had told him to say to the landlord, and
adding, with what he considered appropriate gestures, some fancy
touches of his own, which he determined to throw in in spite of
Steelman's advice and warning. "I'll tell him (this) — I'll tell him
(that). Well, look here, boss, I'll say you're pretty right and I
quite agree with you as far as that's concerned, but," And so,
murmuring and mumbling to himself, Smith reached the hotel. The day
was late, and the bar was small, and low, and dark. Smith walked in
with all the assurance he could muster, eased down his swag in a
corner in what he no doubt considered the true professional style,
and, swinging round to the bar, said in a loud voice which he intended
to be cheerful, independent, and hearty:
But it wasn't a "boss". It was about the hardest-faced old woman
that Smith had ever seen. The pub. had changed hands.
"I — I beg your pardon, missus," stammered poor Smith.
It was a knock-down blow for Smith. He couldn't come to time. He
and Steelman had had a landlord in their minds all the time, and laid
their plans accordingly; the possibility of having a she — and one
like this — to deal with never entered into their calculations. Smith
had no time to reorganise, even if he had had the brains to do so,
without the assistance of his mate's knowledge of human nature.
"I — I beg your pardon, missus," he stammered.
Painful pause. She sized him up.
"Well, what do you want?"
"Well, missus — I — the fact is — will you give me a bottle of
beer for fourpence?"
"I mean ——. The fact is, we've only got fourpence left, and —
I've got a mate outside, and you might let us have a quart or so, in a
bottle, for that. I mean — anyway, you might let us have a pint. I'm
very sorry to bother you, missus."
But she couldn't do it. No. Certainly not. Decidedly not! All
her drinks were sixpence. She had her license to pay, and the rent,
and a family to keep. It wouldn't pay out there — it wasn't worth
her while. It wouldn't pay the cost of carting the liquor out,
"Well, missus," poor Smith blurted out at last, in sheer
desperation, "give me what you can in a bottle for this. I've — I've
got a mate outside." And he put the four coppers on the bar.
"Have you got a bottle?"
"No — but ——"
"If I give you one, will you bring it back? You can't expect me
to give you a bottle as well as a drink."
"Yes, mum; I'll bring it back directly."
She reached out a bottle from under the bar, and very deliberately
measured out a little over a pint and poured it into the bottle,
which she handed to Smith without a cork.
Smith went his way without rejoicing. It struck him forcibly that
he should have saved the money until they reached Petone, or the city,
where Steelman would be sure to get a decent drink. But how was he to
know? He had chanced it, and lost; Steelman might have done the same.
What troubled Smith most was the thought of what Steelman would say;
he already heard him, in imagination, saying: "You're a mug, Smith —
Smith, you ARE a mug."
But Steelman didn't say much. He was prepared for the worst by
seeing Smith come along so soon. He listened to his story with an air
of gentle sadness, even as a stern father might listen to the
voluntary confession of a wayward child; then he held the bottle up to
the fading light of departing day, looked through it (the bottle), and
"Well — it ain't worth while dividing it."
Smith's heart shot right down through a hole in the sole of his
left boot into the hard road.
"Here, Smith," said Steelman, handing him the bottle, "drink it,
old man; you want it. It wasn't altogether your fault; it was an
oversight of mine. I didn't bargain for a woman of that kind, and, of
course, YOU couldn't be expected to think of it. Drink it! Drink it
down, Smith. I'll manage to work the oracle before this night is out."
Smith was forced to believe his ears, and, recovering from his
"I promised to take back the bottle," he said, with the ghost of a
Steelman took the bottle by the neck and broke it on the fence.
"Come on, Smith; I'll carry the swag for a while."
And they tramped on in the gathering starlight.
How Steelman told his Story
It was Steelman's humour, in some of his moods, to take Smith into
his confidence, as some old bushmen do their dogs.
"You're nearly as good as an intelligent sheep-dog to talk to,
Smith — when a man gets tired of thinking to himself and wants a
relief. You're a bit of a mug and a good deal of an idiot, and the
chances are that you don't know what I'm driving at half the time —
that's the main reason why I don't mind talking to you. You ought to
consider yourself honoured; it ain't every man I take into my
confidence, even that far."
Smith rubbed his head.
"I'd sooner talk to you — or a stump — any day than to one of
those silent, suspicious, self-contained, worldly-wise chaps that
listen to everything you say — sense and rubbish alike — as if you
were trying to get them to take shares in a mine. I drop the man who
listens to me all the time and doesn't seem to get bored. He isn't
safe. He isn't to be trusted. He mostly wants to grind his axe
against yours, and there's too little profit for me where there are
two axes to grind, and no stone — though I'd manage it once, anyhow."
"How'd you do it?" asked Smith.
"There are several ways. Either you join forces, for instance,
and find a grindstone — or make one of the other man's axe. But the
last way is too slow, and, as I said, takes too much brain-work —
besides, it doesn't pay. It might satisfy your vanity or pride, but
I've got none. I had once, when I was younger, but it — well, it
nearly killed me, so I dropped it.
"You can mostly trust the man who wants to talk more than you do;
he'll make a safe mate — or a good grindstone."
Smith scratched the nape of his neck and sat blinking at the fire,
with the puzzled expression of a woman pondering over a life-question
or the trimming of a hat. Steelman took his chin in his hand and
watched Smith thoughtfully.
"I — I say, Steely," exclaimed Smith, suddenly, sitting up and
scratching his head and blinking harder than ever — "wha—what am I?"
"How do you mean?"
"Am I the axe or the grindstone?"
"Oh! your brain seems in extra good working order to-night, Smith.
Well, you turn the grindstone and I grind." Smith settled. "If you
could grind better than I, I'd turn the stone and let YOU grind, I'd
never go against the interests of the firm — that's fair enough,
"Ye-es," admitted Smith; "I suppose so."
"So do I. Now, Smith, we've got along all right together for
years, off and on, but you never know what might happen. I might stop
breathing, for instance — and so might you."
Smith began to look alarmed.
"Poetical justice might overtake one or both of us — such things
have happened before, though not often. Or, say, misfortune or death
might mistake us for honest, hard-working mugs with big families to
keep, and cut us off in the bloom of all our wisdom. You might get
into trouble, and, in that case, I'd be bound to leave you there, on
principle; or I might get into trouble, and you wouldn't have the
brains to get me out — though I know you'd be mug enough to try. I
might make a rise and cut you, or you might be misled into showing
some spirit, and clear out after I'd stoushed you for it. You might
get tired of me calling you a mug, and bossing you and making a tool
or convenience of you, you know. You might go in for honest graft (you
were always a bit weak-minded) and then I'd have to wash my hands of
you (unless you agreed to keep me) for an irreclaimable mug. Or it
might suit me to become a respected and worthy fellow townsman, and
then, if you came within ten miles of me or hinted that you ever knew
me, I'd have you up for vagrancy, or soliciting alms, or attempting to
levy blackmail. I'd have to fix you — so I give you fair warning. Or
we might get into some desperate fix (and it needn't be very
desperate, either) when I'd be obliged to sacrifice you for my own
personal safety, comfort, and convenience. Hundreds of things might
"Well, as I said, we've been at large together for some years, and
I've found you sober, trustworthy, and honest; so, in case we do part
— as we will sooner or later — and you survive, I'll give you some
advice from my own experience.
"In the first place: If you ever happen to get born again — and
it wouldn't do you much harm — get born with the strength of a bullock
and the hide of one as well, and a swelled head, and no brains — at
least no more brains than you've got now. I was born with a skin like
tissue-paper, and brains; also a heart.
"Get born without relatives, if you can: if you can't help it,
clear out on your own just as soon after you're born as you possibly
can. I hung on.
"If you have relations, and feel inclined to help them any time
when you're flush (and there's no telling what a weak-minded man like
you might take it into his head to do) — don't do it. They'll get a
down on you if you do. It only causes family troubles and bitterness.
There's no dislike like that of a dependant. You'll get neither
gratitude nor civility in the end, and be lucky if you escape with a
character. (You've got NO character, Smith; I'm only just supposing
you have.) There's no hatred too bitter for, and nothing too bad to be
said of, the mug who turns. The worst yarns about a man are generally
started by his own tribe, and the world believes them at once on that
very account. Well, the first thing to do in life is to escape from
"If you ever go to work — and miracles have happened before — no
matter what your wages are, or how you are treated, you can take it
for granted that you're sweated; act on that to the best of your
ability, or you'll never rise in the world. If you go to see a show on
the nod you'll be found a comfortable seat in a good place; but if you
pay the chances are the ticket clerk will tell you a lie, and you'll
have to hustle for standing room. The man that doesn't ante gets the
best of this world; anything he'll stand is good enough for the man
that pays. If you try to be too sharp you'll get into gaol sooner or
later; if you try to be too honest the chances are that the bailiff
will get into your house — if you have one — and make a holy show of
you before the neighbours. The honest softy is more often mistaken
for a swindler, and accused of being one, than the out-and-out scamp;
and the man that tells the truth too much is set down as an
irreclaimable liar. But most of the time crow low and roost high, for
it's a funny world, and you never know what might happen.
"And if you get married (and there's no accounting for a woman's
taste) be as bad as you like, and then moderately good, and your wife
will love you. If you're bad all the time she can't stand it for ever,
and if you're good all the time she'll naturally treat you with
contempt. Never explain what you're going to do, and don't explain
afterwards, if you can help it. If you find yourself between two
stools, strike hard for your own self, Smith — strike hard, and
you'll be respected more than if you fought for all the world.
Generosity isn't understood nowadays, and what the people don't
understand is either `mad' or `cronk'. Failure has no case, and you
can't build one for it. . . . I started out in life very young — and
"I thought you were going to tell me your story, Steely," remarked
Steelman smiled sadly.