The Hero of Redclay
by Henry Lawson
An Extract from,
Over the Sliprails
The "boss-over-the-board" was leaning with his back to the wall
between two shoots, reading a reference handed to him by a green-hand
applying for work as picker-up or woolroller — a shed rouseabout. It
was terribly hot. I was slipping past to the rolling-tables, carrying
three fleeces to save a journey; we were only supposed to carry two.
The boss stopped me:
"You've got three fleeces there, young man?"
Notwithstanding the fact that I had just slipped a light ragged
fleece into the belly-wool and "bits" basket, I felt deeply injured,
and righteously and fiercely indignant at being pulled up. It was a
fearfully hot day.
"If I catch you carrying three fleeces again," said the boss
quietly, "I'll give you the sack."
"I'll take it now if you like," I said.
He nodded. "You can go on picking-up in this man's place," he
said to the jackeroo, whose reference showed him to be a non-union man
— a "free-labourer", as the pastoralists had it, or, in plain shed
terms, "a blanky scab". He was now in the comfortable position of a
non-unionist in a union shed who had jumped into a sacked man's place.
Somehow the lurid sympathy of the men irritated me worse than the
boss-over-the-board had done. It must have been on account of the
heat, as Mitchell says. I was sick of the shed and the life. It was
within a couple of days of cut-out, so I told Mitchell — who was
shearing — that I'd camp up the Billabong and wait for him; got my
cheque, rolled up my swag, got three days' tucker from the cook, said
so-long to him, and tramped while the men were in the shed.
I camped at the head of the Billabong where the track branched,
one branch running to Bourke, up the river, and the other out towards
the Paroo — and hell.
About ten o'clock the third morning Mitchell came along with his
cheque and his swag, and a new sheep-pup, and his quiet grin; and I
wasn't too pleased to see that he had a shearer called "the Lachlan"
The Lachlan wasn't popular at the shed. He was a brooding,
unsociable sort of man, and it didn't make any difference to the chaps
whether he had a union ticket or not. It was pretty well known in the
shed — there were three or four chaps from the district he was reared
in — that he'd done five years hard for burglary. What surprised me
was that Jack Mitchell seemed thick with him; often, when the Lachlan
was sitting brooding and smoking by himself outside the hut after
sunset, Mitchell would perch on his heels alongside him and yarn. But
no one else took notice of anything Mitchell did out of the common.
"Better camp with us till the cool of the evening," said Mitchell
to the Lachlan, as they slipped their swags. "Plenty time for you to
start after sundown, if you're going to travel to-night."
So the Lachlan was going to travel all night and on a different
track. I felt more comfortable, and put the billy on. I did not care
so much what he'd been or had done, but I was green and soft yet, and
his presence embarrassed me.
They talked shearing, sheds, tracks, and a little unionism — the
Lachlan speaking in a quiet voice and with a lot of sound, common
sense, it seemed to me. He was tall and gaunt, and might have been
thirty, or even well on in the forties. His eyes were dark brown and
deep set, and had something of the dead-earnest sad expression you saw
in the eyes of union leaders and secretaries — the straight men of
the strikes of '90 and '91. I fancied once or twice I saw in his eyes
the sudden furtive look of the "bad egg" when a mounted trooper is
spotted near the shed; but perhaps this was prejudice. And with it all
there was about the Lachlan something of the man who has lost all he
had and the chances of all he was ever likely to have, and is past
feeling, or caring, or flaring up — past getting mad about anything
— something, all the same, that warned men not to make free with him.
He and Mitchell fished along the Billabong all the afternoon; I
fished a little, and lay about the camp and read. I had an instinct
that the Lachlan saw I didn't cotton on to his camping with us,
though he wasn't the sort of man to show what he saw or felt. After
tea, and a smoke at sunset, he shouldered his swag, nodded to me as if
I was an accidental but respectful stranger at a funeral that belonged
to him, and took the outside track. Mitchell walked along the track
with him for a mile or so, while I poked round and got some boughs
down for a bed, and fed and studied the collie pup that Jack had
bought from the shearers' cook.
I saw them stop and shake hands out on the dusty clearing, and
they seemed to take a long time about it; then Mitchell started back,
and the other began to dwindle down to a black peg and then to a dot
on the sandy plain, that had just a hint of dusk and dreamy far-away
gloaming on it between the change from glaring day to hard, bare,
I thought Mitchell was sulky, or had got the blues, when he came
back; he lay on his elbow smoking, with his face turned from the camp
towards the plain. After a bit I got wild — if Mitchell was going
to go on like that he might as well have taken his swag and gone with
the Lachlan. I don't know exactly what was the matter with me that
day, and at last I made up my mind to bring the thing to a head.
"You seem mighty thick with the Lachlan," I said.
"Well, what's the matter with that?" asked Mitchell. "It ain't
the first felon I've been on speaking terms with. I borrowed
half-a-caser off a murderer once, when I was in a hole and had no one
else to go to; and the murderer hadn't served his time, neither. I've
got nothing against the Lachlan, except that he's a white man and
bears a faint family resemblance to a certain branch of my tribe."
I rolled out my swag on the boughs, got my pipe, tobacco, and
matches handy in the crown of a spare hat, and lay down.
Mitchell got up, re-lit his pipe at the fire, and mooned round for
a while, with his hands behind him, kicking sticks out of the road,
looking out over the plain, down along the Billabong, and up through
the mulga branches at the stars; then he comforted the pup a bit,
shoved the fire together with his toe, stood the tea-billy on the
coals, and came and squatted on the sand by my head.
"Joe! I'll tell you a yarn."
"All right; fire away! Has it got anything to do with the
"No. It's got nothing to do with the Lachlan now; but it's about a
chap he knew. Don't you ever breathe a word of this to the Lachlan or
anyone, or he'll get on to me."
"All right. Go ahead."
"You know I've been a good many things in my time. I did a deal
of house-painting at one time; I was a pretty smart brush hand, and
made money at it. Well, I had a run of work at a place called Redclay,
on the Lachlan side. You know the sort of town — two pubs, a general
store, a post office, a blacksmith's shop, a police station, a branch
bank, and a dozen private weatherboard boxes on piles, with
galvanized-iron tops, besides the humpies. There was a paper there,
too, called the `Redclay Advertiser' (with which was incorporated the
`Geebung Chronicle'), and a Roman Catholic church, a Church of England,
and a Wesleyan chapel. Now you see more of private life in the
house-painting line than in any other — bar plumbing and gasfitting;
but I'll tell you about my house-painting experiences some other time.
"There was a young chap named Jack Drew editing the `Advertiser'
then. He belonged to the district, but had been sent to Sydney to a
grammar school when he was a boy. He was between twenty-five and
thirty; had knocked round a good deal, and gone the pace in Sydney.
He got on as a boy reporter on one of the big dailies; he had brains
and could write rings round a good many, but he got in with a crowd
that called themselves `Bohemians', and the drink got a hold on him.
The paper stuck to him as long as it could (for the sake of his
brains), but they had to sack him at last.
"He went out back, as most of them do, to try and work out their
salvation, and knocked round amongst the sheds. He `picked up' in one
shed where I was shearing, and we carried swags together for a couple
of months. Then he went back to the Lachlan side, and prospected
amongst the old fields round there with his elder brother Tom, who
was all there was left of his family. Tom, by the way, broke his
heart digging Jack out of a cave in a drive they were working, and
died a few minutes after the rescue.* But that's another yarn. Jack
Drew had a bad spree after that; then he went to Sydney again, got on
his old paper, went to the dogs, and a Parliamentary push that owned
some city fly-blisters and country papers sent him up to edit the
`Advertiser' at two quid a week. He drank again, and no wonder — you
don't know what it is to run a `Geebung Advocate' or `Mudgee Budgee
Chronicle', and live there. He was about the same build as the
Lachlan, but stouter, and had something the same kind of eyes; but he
was ordinarily as careless and devil-may-care as the Lachlan is grumpy
— * See "When the Sun Went Down", in "While the Billy Boils". —
"There was a doctor there, called Dr. Lebinski. They said he was
a Polish exile. He was fifty or sixty, a tall man, with the set of an
old soldier when he stood straight; but he mostly walked with his
hands behind him, studying the ground. Jack Drew caught that trick off
him towards the end. They were chums in a gloomy way, and kept to
themselves — they were the only two men with brains in that town.
They drank and fought the drink together. The Doctor was too gloomy
and impatient over little things to be popular. Jack Drew talked too
straight in the paper, and in spite of his proprietors — about pub
spieling and such things — and was too sarcastic in his progress
committee, town council, and toady reception reports. The Doctor had a
hawk's nose, pointed grizzled beard and moustache, and steely-grey
eyes with a haunted look in them sometimes (especially when he glanced
at you sideways), as if he loathed his fellow men, and couldn't always
hide it; or as if you were the spirit of morphia or opium, or a dead
girl he'd wronged in his youth — or whatever his devil was, beside
drink. He was clever, and drink had brought him down to Redclay.
"The bank manager was a heavy snob named Browne. He complained of
being a bit dull of hearing in one ear — after you'd yelled at him
three or four times; sometimes I've thought he was as deaf as a
book-keeper in both. He had a wife and youngsters, but they were away
on a visit while I was working in Redclay. His niece — or, rather,
his wife's niece — a girl named Ruth Wilson, did the housekeeping.
She was an orphan, adopted by her aunt, and was general slavey and
scape-goat to the family — especially to the brats, as is often the
case. She was rather pretty, and lady-like, and kept to herself. The
women and girls called her Miss Wilson, and didn't like her. Most of
the single men — and some of the married ones, perhaps — were gone
on her, but hadn't the brains or the pluck to bear up and try their
luck. I was gone worse than any, I think, but had too much experience
or common sense. She was very good to me — used to hand me out cups
of tea and plates of sandwiches, or bread and butter, or cake,
mornings and afternoons the whole time I was painting the bank. The
Doctor had known her people and was very kind to her. She was about
the only woman — for she was more woman than girl — that he'd
brighten up and talk for. Neither he nor Jack Drew were particularly
friendly with Browne or his push.
"The banker, the storekeeper, one of the publicans, the butcher (a
popular man with his hands in his pockets, his hat on the back of his
head, and nothing in it), the postmaster, and his toady, the lightning
squirter, were the scrub-aristocracy. The rest were crawlers, mostly
pub spielers and bush larrikins, and the women were hags and
larrikinesses. The town lived on cheque-men from the surrounding bush.
It was a nice little place, taking it all round.
"I remember a ball at the local town hall, where the scrub
aristocrats took one end of the room to dance in and the ordinary scum
the other. It was a saving in music. Some day an Australian writer
will come along who'll remind the critics and readers of Dickens,
Carlyle, and Thackeray mixed, and he'll do justice to these little
customs of ours in the little settled-district towns of Democratic
Australia. This sort of thing came to a head one New Year's Night at
Redclay, when there was a `public' ball and peace on earth and good
will towards all men — mostly on account of a railway to Redclay
being surveyed. We were all there. They'd got the Doc. out of his
shell to act as M.C.
"One of the aristocrats was the daughter of the local storekeeper;
she belonged to the lawn-tennis clique, and they WERE select. For
some reason or other — because she looked upon Miss Wilson as a
slavey, or on account of a fancied slight, or the heat working on
ignorance, or on account of something that comes over girls and women
that no son of sin can account for — this Miss Tea-'n'-sugar tossed
her head and refused Miss Wilson's hand in the first set and so broke
the ladies' chain and the dance. Then there was a to-do. The Doctor
held up his hand to stop the music, and said, very quietly, that he
must call upon Miss So-and-so to apologise to Miss Wilson — or resign
the chair. After a lot of fuss the girl did apologise in a snappy way
that was another insult. Jack Drew gave Miss Wilson his arm and
marched her off without a word — I saw she was almost crying. Some
one said, `Oh, let's go on with the dance.' The Doctor flashed round
on them, but they were too paltry for him, so he turned on his heel
and went out without a word. But I was beneath them again in social
standing, so there was nothing to prevent me from making a few
well-chosen remarks on things in general — which I did; and broke up
that ball, and broke some heads afterwards, and got myself a good deal
of hatred and respect, and two sweethearts; and lost all the jobs I
was likely to get, except at the bank, the Doctor's, and the Royal.
"One day it was raining — general rain for a week. Rain, rain,
rain, over ridge and scrub and galvanised iron and into the dismal
creeks. I'd done all my inside work, except a bit under the Doctor's
verandah, where he'd been having some patching and altering done
round the glass doors of his surgery, where he consulted his patients.
I didn't want to lose time. It was a Monday and no day for the Royal,
and there was no dust, so it was a good day for varnishing. I took a
pot and brush and went along to give the Doctor's doors a coat of
varnish. The Doctor and Drew were inside with a fire, drinking whisky
and smoking, but I didn't know that when I started work. The rain
roared on the iron roof like the sea. All of a sudden it held up for
a minute, and I heard their voices. The doctor had been shouting on
account of the rain, and forgot to lower his voice. `Look here, Jack
Drew,' he said, `there are only two things for you to do if you have
any regard for that girl; one is to stop this' (the liquor I suppose
he meant) `and pull yourself together; and I don't think you'll do
that — I know men. The other is to throw up the `Advertiser' — it's
doing you no good — and clear out.' `I won't do that,' says Drew.
`Then shoot yourself,' said the Doctor. `(There's another flask in
the cupboard). You know what this hole is like. . . . She's a good
true girl — a girl as God made her. I knew her father and mother, and
I tell you, Jack, I'd sooner see her dead than. . . .' The roof
roared again. I felt a bit delicate about the business and didn't
like to disturb them, so I knocked off for the day.
"About a week before that I was down in the bed of the Redclay
Creek fishing for `tailers'. I'd been getting on all right with the
housemaid at the `Royal' — she used to have plates of pudding and hot
pie for me on the big gridiron arrangement over the kitchen range;
and after the third tuck-out I thought it was good enough to do a bit
of a bear-up in that direction. She mentioned one day, yarning, that
she liked a stroll by the creek sometimes in the cool of the evening.
I thought she'd be off that day, so I said I'd go for a fish after
I'd knocked off. I thought I might get a bite. Anyway, I didn't catch
Lizzie — tell you about that some other time.
"It was Sunday. I'd been fishing for Lizzie about an hour when I
saw a skirt on the bank out of the tail of my eye — and thought I'd
got a bite, sure. But I was had. It was Miss Wilson strolling along
the bank in the sunset, all by her pretty self. She was a slight girl,
not very tall, with reddish frizzled hair, grey eyes, and small,
pretty features. She spoke as if she had more brains than the
average, and had been better educated. Jack Drew was the only young
man in Redclay she could talk to, or who could talk to a girl like
her; and that was the whole trouble in a nutshell. The newspaper
office was next to the bank, and I'd seen her hand cups of tea and
cocoa over the fence to his office window more than once, and
sometimes they yarned for a while.
"She said, `Good morning, Mr. Mitchell.'
"I said, `Good morning, Miss.'
"There's some girls I can't talk to like I'd talk to other girls.
She asked me if I'd caught any fish, and I said, `No, Miss.' She
asked me if it wasn't me down there fishing with Mr. Drew the other
evening, and I said, `Yes — it was me.' Then presently she asked me
straight if he was fishing down the creek that afternoon? I guessed
they'd been down fishing for each other before. I said, `No, I
thought he was out of town.' I knew he was pretty bad at the Royal. I
asked her if she'd like to have a try with my line, but she said No,
thanks, she must be going; and she went off up the creek. I reckoned
Jack Drew had got a bite and landed her. I felt a bit sorry for her,
"The next Saturday evening after the rainy Monday at the Doctor's,
I went down to fish for tailers — and Lizzie. I went down under the
banks to where there was a big she-oak stump half in the water, going
quietly, with an idea of not frightening the fish. I was just
unwinding the line from my rod, when I noticed the end of another rod
sticking out from the other side of the stump; and while I watched it
was dropped into the water. Then I heard a murmur, and craned my neck
round the back of the stump to see who it was. I saw the back view of
Jack Drew and Miss Wilson; he had his arm round her waist, and her
head was on his shoulder. She said, `I WILL trust you, Jack — I know
you'll give up the drink for my sake. And I'll help you, and we'll be
so happy!' or words in that direction. A thunderstorm was coming on.
The sky had darkened up with a great blue-black storm-cloud rushing
over, and they hadn't noticed it. I didn't mind, and the fish bit best
in a storm. But just as she said `happy' came a blinding flash and a
crash that shook the ridges, and the first drops came peltering down.
They jumped up and climbed the bank, while I perched on the she-oak
roots over the water to be out of sight as they passed. Half way to
the town I saw them standing in the shelter of an old stone chimney
that stood alone. He had his overcoat round her and was sheltering her
from the wind. . . ."
"Smoke-oh, Joe. The tea's stewing."
Mitchell got up, stretched himself, and brought the billy and
pint-pots to the head of my camp. The moon had grown misty. The
plain horizon had closed in. A couple of boughs, hanging from the
gnarled and blasted timber over the billabong, were the perfect shapes
of two men hanging side by side. Mitchell scratched the back of his
neck and looked down at the pup curled like a glob of mud on the sand
in the moonlight, and an idea struck him. He got a big old felt hat
he had, lifted his pup, nose to tail, fitted it in the hat, shook it
down, holding the hat by the brim, and stood the hat near the head of
his doss, out of the moonlight. "He might get moonstruck," said
Mitchell, "and I don't want that pup to be a genius." The pup seemed
perfectly satisfied with this new arrangement.
"Have a smoke," said Mitchell. "You see," he added, with a sly
grin, "I've got to make up the yarn as I go along, and it's hard work.
It seems to begin to remind me of yarns your grandmother or aunt
tells of things that happened when she was a girl — but those yarns
are true. You won't have to listen long now; I'm well on into the
"After the storm I hurried home to the tent — I was batching with
a carpenter. I changed my clothes, made a fire in the fire-bucket
with shavings and ends of soft wood, boiled the billy, and had a cup
of coffee. It was Saturday night. My mate was at the Royal; it was
cold and dismal in the tent, and there was nothing to read, so I
reckoned I might as well go up to the Royal, too, and put in the time.
"I had to pass the Bank on the way. It was the usual weatherboard
box with a galvanised iron top — four rooms and a passage, and a
detached kitchen and wash-house at the back; the front room to the
right (behind the office) was the family bedroom, and the one opposite
it was the living room. The `Advertiser' office was next door. Jack
Drew camped in a skillion room behind his printing office, and had his
meals at the Royal. I noticed the storm had taken a sheet of iron off
the skillion, and supposed he'd sleep at the Royal that night. Next to
the `Advertiser' office was the police station (still called the
Police Camp) and the Courthouse. Next was the Imperial Hotel, where
the scrub aristocrats went. There was a vacant allotment on the other
side of the Bank, and I took a short cut across this to the Royal.
"They'd forgotten to pull down the blind of the dining-room window,
and I happened to glance through and saw she had Jack Drew in there
and was giving him a cup of tea. He had a bad cold, I remember, and
I suppose his health had got precious to her, poor girl. As I glanced
she stepped to the window and pulled down the blind, which put me out
of face a bit — though, of course, she hadn't seen me. I was rather
surprised at her having Jack in there, till I heard that the banker,
the postmaster, the constable, and some others were making a night of
it at the Imperial, as they'd been doing pretty often lately — and
went on doing till there was a blow-up about it, and the constable got
transferred Out Back. I used to drink my share then. We smoked and
played cards and yarned and filled 'em up again at the Royal till
after one in the morning. Then I started home.
"I'd finished giving the Bank a couple of coats of stone-colour
that week, and was cutting in in dark colour round the spouting,
doors, and window-frames that Saturday. My head was pretty clear
going home, and as I passed the place it struck me that I'd left out
the only varnish brush I had. I'd been using it to give the sashes a
coat of varnish colour, and remembered that I'd left it on one of the
window-sills — the sill of her bedroom window, as it happened. I knew
I'd sleep in next day, Sunday, and guessed it would be hot, and I
didn't want the varnish tool to get spoiled; so I reckoned I'd slip in
through the side gate, get it, and take it home to camp and put it in
oil. The window sash was jammed, I remember, and I hadn't been able
to get it up more than a couple of inches to paint the runs of the
sash. The grass grew up close under the window, and I slipped in
quietly. I noticed the sash was still up a couple of inches. Just as
I grabbed the brush I heard low voices inside — Ruth Wilson's and
Jack Drew's — in her room.
"The surprise sent about a pint of beer up into my throat in a
lump. I tip-toed away out of there. Just as I got clear of the gate
I saw the banker being helped home by a couple of cronies.
"I went home to the camp and turned in, but I couldn't sleep. I
lay think—think—thinking, till I thought all the drink out of my
head. I'd brought a bottle of ale home to last over Sunday, and I
drank that. It only made matters worse. I didn't know how I felt — I
— well, I felt as if I was as good a man as Jack Drew — I — you
see I've — you might think it soft — but I loved that girl, not as
I've been gone on other girls, but in the old-fashioned, soft, honest,
hopeless, far-away sort of way; and now, to tell the straight truth, I
thought I might have had her. You lose a thing through being too
straight or sentimental, or not having enough cheek; and another man
comes along with more brass in his blood and less sentimental rot and
takes it up — and the world respects him; and you feel in your heart
that you're a weaker man than he is. Why, part of the time I must
have felt like a man does when a better man runs away with his wife.
But I'd drunk a lot, and was upset and lonely-feeling that night.
"Oh, but Redclay had a tremendous sensation next day! Jack Drew,
of all the men in the world, had been caught in the act of robbing the
bank. According to Browne's account in court and in the newspapers,
he returned home that night at about twelve o'clock (which I knew was
a lie, for I saw him being helped home nearer two) and immediately
retired to rest (on top of the quilt, boots and all, I suppose). Some
time before daybreak he was roused by a fancied noise (I suppose it
was his head swelling); he rose, turned up a night lamp (he hadn't lit
it, I'll swear), and went through the dining-room passage and office
to investigate (for whisky and water). He saw that the doors and
windows were secure, returned to bed, and fell asleep again.
"There is something in a deaf person's being roused easily. I know
the case of a deaf chap who'd start up at a step or movement in the
house when no one else could hear or feel it; keen sense of vibration,
I reckon. Well, just at daybreak (to shorten the yarn) the banker
woke suddenly, he said, and heard a crack like a shot in the house.
There was a loose flooring-board in the passage that went off like a
pistol-shot sometimes when you trod on it; and I guess Jack Drew trod
on it, sneaking out, and he weighed nearly twelve stone. If the truth
were known, he probably heard Browne poking round, tried the window,
found the sash jammed, and was slipping through the passage to the
back door. Browne got his revolver, opened his door suddenly, and
caught Drew standing between the girl's door (which was shut) and the
office door, with his coat on his arm and his boots in his hands.
Browne covered him with his revolver, swore he'd shoot if he moved,
and yelled for help. Drew stood a moment like a man stunned; then he
rushed Browne, and in the struggle the revolver went off, and Drew got
hit in the arm. Two of the mounted troopers — who'd been up looking
to the horses for an early start somewhere — rushed in then, and took
Drew. He had nothing to say. What could he say? He couldn't say he
was a blackguard who'd taken advantage of a poor unprotected girl
because she loved him. They found the back door unlocked, by the way,
which was put down to the burglar; of course Browne couldn't explain
that he came home too muddled to lock doors after him.
"And the girl? She shrieked and fell when the row started, and
they found her like a log on the floor of her room after it was over.
"They found in Jack's overcoat pocket a parcel containing a cold
chisel, small screw-wrench, file, and one or two other things that
he'd bought that evening to tinker up the old printing press. I knew
that, because I'd lent him a hand a few nights before, and he told me
he'd have to get the tools. They found some scratches round the
key-hole and knob of the office door that I'd made myself, scraping
old splashes of paint off the brass and hand-plate so as to make a
clean finish. Oh, it taught me the value of circumstantial evidence!
If I was judge I wouldn't give a man till the `risin' av the coort' on
it, any more than I would on the bare word of the noblest woman
"At the preliminary examination Jack Drew said he was guilty. But
it seemed that, according to law, he couldn't be guilty until after he
was committed. So he was committed for trial at the next Quarter
Sessions. The excitement and gabble were worse than the Dean case, or
Federation, and sickened me, for they were all on the wrong track.
You lose a lot of life through being behind the scenes. But they
cooled down presently to wait for the trial.
"They thought it best to take the girl away from the place where
she'd got the shock; so the Doctor took her to his house, where he had
an old housekeeper who was as deaf as a post — a first class
recommendation for a housekeeper anywhere. He got a nurse from Sydney
to attend on Ruth Wilson, and no one except he and the nurse were
allowed to go near her. She lay like dead, they said, except when she
had to be held down raving; brain fever, they said, brought on by the
shock of the attempted burglary and pistol shot. Dr. Lebinski had
another doctor up from Sydney at his own expense, but nothing could
save her — and perhaps it was as well. She might have finished her
life in a lunatic asylum. They were going to send her to Sydney, to a
brain hospital; but she died a week before the Sessions. She was
right-headed for an hour, they said, and asking all the time for Jack.
The Doctor told her he was all right and was coming — and, waiting
and listening for him, she died.
"The case was black enough against Drew now. I knew he wouldn't
have the pluck to tell the truth now, even if he was that sort of a
man. I didn't know what to do, so I spoke to the Doctor straight. I
caught him coming out of the Royal, and walked along the road with him
a bit. I suppose he thought I was going to show cause why his doors
ought to have another coat of varnish.
"`Hallo, Mitchell!' he said, `how's painting?'
"`Doctor!' I said, `what am I going to do about this business?'
"He looked at me sideways — the swift haunted look. Then he
walked on without a word, for half a dozen yards, hands behind, and
studying the dust. Then he asked, quite quietly:
"`Do you know the truth?'
"About a dozen yards this time; then he said:
"`I'll see him in the morning, and see you afterwards,' and he
shook hands and went on home.
"Next day he came to me where I was doing a job on a step ladder.
He leaned his elbow against the steps for a moment, and rubbed his
hand over his forehead, as if it ached and he was tired.
"`I've seen him, Mitchell,' he said.
"`You were mates with him, once, Out Back?'
"`You know Drew's hand-writing?'
"`I should think so.'
"He laid a leaf from a pocketbook on top of the steps. I read the
message written in pencil:
"`To Jack Mitchell. — We were mates on the track. If you know
anything of my affair, don't give it away. — J. D.'
"I tore the leaf and dropped the bits into the paint-pot.
"`That's all right, Doctor,' I said; `but is there no way?'
"He turned away, wearily. He'd knocked about so much over the
world that he was past bothering about explaining things or being
surprised at anything. But he seemed to get a new idea about me; he
came back to the steps again, and watched my brush for a while, as if
he was thinking, in a broody sort of way, of throwing up his practice
and going in for house-painting. Then he said, slowly and
"`If she — the girl — had lived, we might have tried to fix it up
quietly. That's what I was hoping for. I don't see how we can help
him now, even if he'd let us. He would never have spoken, anyway. We
must let it go on, and after the trial I'll go to Sydney and see what
I can do at headquarters. It's too late now. You understand,
"`Yes. I've thought it out.'
"Then he went away towards the Royal.
"And what could Jack Drew or we do? Study it out whatever way you
like. There was only one possible chance to help him, and that was to
go to the judge; and the judge that happened to be on that circuit
was a man who — even if he did listen to the story and believe it —
would have felt inclined to give Jack all the more for what he was
charged with. Browne was out of the question. The day before the
trial I went for a long walk in the bush, but couldn't hit on anything
that the Doctor might have missed.
"I was in the court — I couldn't keep away. The Doctor was there
too. There wasn't so much of a change in Jack as I expected, only he
had the gaol white in his face already. He stood fingering the rail,
as if it was the edge of a table on a platform and he was a tired and
bored and sleepy chairman waiting to propose a vote of thanks."
The only well-known man in Australia who reminds me of Mitchell is
Bland Holt, the comedian. Mitchell was about as good hearted as Bland
Holt, too, under it all; but he was bigger and roughened by the bush.
But he seemed to be taking a heavy part to-night, for, towards the
end of his yarn, he got up and walked up and down the length of my
bed, dropping the sentences as he turned towards me. He'd folded his
arms high and tight, and his face in the moonlight was — well, it was
very different from his careless tone of voice. He was like — like
an actor acting tragedy and talking comedy. Mitchell went on,
speaking quickly — his voice seeming to harden:
"The charge was read out — I forget how it went — it sounded
like a long hymn being given out. Jack pleaded guilty. Then he
straightened up for the first time and looked round the court, with a
calm, disinterested look — as if we were all strangers and he was
noting the size of the meeting. And — it's a funny world, ain't it?
— everyone of us shifted or dropped his eyes, just as if we were the
felons and Jack the judge. Everyone except the Doctor; he looked at
Jack and Jack looked at him. Then the Doctor smiled — I can't
describe it — and Drew smiled back. It struck me afterwards that I
should have been in that smile. Then the Doctor did what looked like
a strange thing — stood like a soldier with his hands to Attention.
I'd noticed that, whenever he'd made up his mind to do a thing, he
dropped his hands to his sides: it was a sign that he couldn't be
moved. Now he slowly lifted his hand to his forehead, palm out,
saluted the prisoner, turned on his heel, and marched from the
court-room. `He's boozin' again,' someone whispered. `He's got a
touch of 'em.' `My oath, he's ratty!' said someone else. One of the
"`Arder in the car-rt!'
"The judge gave it to Drew red-hot on account of the burglary being
the cause of the girl's death and the sorrow in a respectable family;
then he gave him five years' hard.
"It gave me a lot of confidence in myself to see the law of the
land barking up the wrong tree, while only I and the Doctor and the
prisoner knew it. But I've found out since then that the law is often
the only one that knows it's barking up the wrong tree."
Mitchell prepared to turn in.
"And what about Drew," I asked.
"Oh, he did his time, or most of it. The Doctor went to
headquarters, but either a drunken doctor from a geebung town wasn't
of much account, or they weren't taking any romance just then at
headquarters. So the Doctor came back, drank heavily, and one frosty
morning they found him on his back on the bank of the creek, with his
face like note-paper where the blood hadn't dried on it, and an old
pistol in his hand — that he'd used, they said, to shoot Cossacks
from horseback when he was a young dude fighting in the bush in
Mitchell lay silent a good while; then he yawned.
"Ah, well! It's a lonely track the Lachlan's tramping to-night;
but I s'pose he's got his ghosts with him."
I'd been puzzling for the last half-hour to think where I'd met or
heard of Jack Drew; now it flashed on me that I'd been told that Jack
Drew was the Lachlan's real name.
I lay awake thinking a long time, and wished Mitchell had kept his
yarn for daytime. I felt — well, I felt as if the Lachlan's story
should have been played in the biggest theatre in the world, by the
greatest actors, with music for the intervals and situations — deep,
strong music, such as thrills and lifts a man from his boot soles. And
when I got to sleep I hadn't slept a moment, it seemed to me, when I
started wide awake to see those infernal hanging boughs with a sort of
nightmare idea that the Lachlan hadn't gone, or had come back, and he
and Mitchell had hanged themselves sociably — Mitchell for sympathy
and the sake of mateship.
But Mitchell was sleeping peacefully, in spite of a path of
moonlight across his face — and so was the pup.