― 192 ―

Books at Barracaboo.

A Sketch.

Part I.

THEY were all very sore at Barracaboo station. From manager to horse-boy, from jackaroo to boundary-rider, they felt aggrieved and vengeful. First it had been ‘Around the World by Sea and Land,’ copiously illustrated, and in monthly parts. This was dull—unutterably dull—and each instalment turned out duller and heavier than the last. Also, the pictures resembled those on the specimen sheets as nearly as a mule does a grindstone.

After this came ‘Diseases of All Known Domestic Animals,’ with gorgeously coloured pictures. As nothing could be found in the whole work relating to horses or cattle or dogs, except the illustrations, this was also voted a fraud. However, they cut out the plates, and stuck them upon the walls of the huts and cottages, so that it was not clear loss altogether.

But the last straw was ‘The Universal Biography of Eminent Men—Dead and Alive,’ with splendid portraits.

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When they discovered that the notices they had been led to expect of their own ‘Boss,’ ‘Hungry’ Parkes of Humpalong, the Mayor of Atlanta, etc., etc., were absent, and their places filled by paragraphs and wood-cuts relating to Nelson, Julius Cæsar, Pompey, Scipio Africanus, and such-like characters, they one and all bucked, and refused to pay on delivery. Then they were hauled to Quarter Sessions, confronted with their signatures, and made to pay.

In vain they swore that the thing had never been ordered; that it wasn't up to specification; that their handwriting was a palpable forgery. In vain they related how they had never touched it, but had left their copies lying on verandahs, stockyard posts, in mud, in dust, wherever, in fact, the agent had chanced to bail them up. All in vain; they had to pay—costs and all.

Therefore was it that Barracaboo had forsworn literature by sample, or in uncertain instalments, and vowed vengeance upon all shabby men with indelible pencils, and printed agreements with a space left for signature. More especially had they a ‘down’ on people who wore goatees and snuffled when they talked.

‘If you see one of 'em at the station,’ said the manager — a rough, tough old customer, and disappointed at being ousted by Julius Cæsar — ‘set the dogs on him. I'll pay damages. If he don't take that hint, touch him up with stockwhips. It'll only be justifiable homicide at the worst. I know the law: an' I don't mind a fiver in such a case!’

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‘Let us only get a chance, sorr,’ said the sheep-overseer, ‘an' we'll learn 'em betther manners wid our whups. Doggin's too good for the thrash!’

This state of affairs was pretty well known at Atlanta, the neighbouring township; and book-fiends, warned, generally gave Barracaboo a wide berth. Once, certainly, a new hand at the game, and one who fancied himself too much to bother about collecting local information, came boldly into the station-yard just as the bell was ringing for dinner, and produced the advance sheets of a sweet and lively work, entitled, ‘Hermits, Ancient and Modern: Illustrated with Forty-seven Choice Engravings.’

He had got to ‘Now, gentlemen,’ when, hearing the howl of execration that went up, he suddenly took in the situation and started back to Atlanta, pursued for half the distance with thunderous whip-crackings by the sheep-overseer and the butcher, who were the only two who happened to have their horses ready.

Chancing to have a capital mount, he distanced them and galloped into town, and up the main street, reins on his horse's neck, and trousers over his knees, half dead with fright, only to be promptly summoned and fined for furious riding within the municipality.

For weeks afterwards sheets of ‘Hermits’ strewed the cleared line,’ and he received a merciless chaffing from his fellow-fiends, who could have warned him what to expect had he confided his destination to them.

About this time came to Atlanta a small, ’cute-looking, clean-shaven, elderly man. He was unknown to any

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present, but modestly admitted that he was in the book trade, and had a consignment with him. And he listened with interest to the conversation in the ‘Commercial Room.’

‘The district's petered out,’ remarked a tall American gentleman, with the goatee and nasal voice abhorred of Barracaboo. ‘Clean petered out since that last “Universal Biography” business. They're kickin' everywhere. Darned if a feller didn't draw a bead on me yesterday afore I'd time almost to explain business. Then he got so mad that I left, not wantin' to become a lead mine.’

‘Been here a week and haven't cleared exes.,’ said another mournfully. ‘Off to-morrow. No use trying to work such a desert as this now.’

‘Big place, this station with the funny name, you're talkin' about?’ asked the newcomer, who had introduced himself as ‘Mr Potts, from London.’

‘Over a hundred men of one sort or another all the year round,’ was the reply. ‘Capital shop for us, once too. But it's sudden death to venture there now. I did real good biz at Barracaboo for the Shuffle Litho. Company. It wouldn't pay, though, to chance back again.’

‘Ah, that was the “Around the World” thing, wasn't it? Didn't come up to guarantee, eh?’

‘Well, hardly,’ replied the other. ‘However, that wasn't my fault, you know. All I had to do was to get the orders, which I did to the tune of a couple of hundred or thereabout.’

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‘That's the worst of those things,’ said Mr Potts. ‘Instalments always make a mess of it. Then the agent loses his character, if nothing else. I was out delivering in the Western District for Shuffle Litho., and was glad to get away by the skin of my teeth. But's it's not only the personal danger I object to,’ continued Mr Potts, after a pause. ‘It is the, ahem, the moral degradation involved in such a pursuit—you know what I mean, sir?’

‘Just so, just so,’ answered the other vaguely, with a hard stare at the round, red face looming through cigar smoke.

‘That's what made me throw the line up,’ went on Mr Potts, ‘more than anything else. The money's not clean, sir! I'd rather carry about a ton of print, and risk selling for cash at a fractional advance upon cost price.’

‘That's all right,’ replied his companion with a grin. ‘Only take my advice, and don't trouble Barracaboo with your ton of print, or you'll be very apt to leave it there. They won't give you time to open your mouth. Ask “The Hermit,” if you don't believe me.’

For a whole day Mr Potts drove around and about with a selection from his stock.

But he never was allowed even a chance to exhibit a sample. Farmers, selectors, squatters, townsfolk, had all apparently quite made up their minds.

Times out of number he was threatened with personal violence, and greeted with language quite unprintable here. Once sticks were thrown at him; and once an

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old copy of the ‘Biography’ was hurled into the buggy, whilst cattle-dogs were heeling his horses. Clearly it was useless to persist. The district was fairly demoralised; and with a sigh, Mr Potts drove home to receive the ‘What did I tell you's’ of the other ‘gents.’

But he was a resourceful man was Mr Potts, and he determined, before leaving the district for ever, to have one more attempt under conditions which should, at all events, give him an opportunity of displaying a specimen of his goods. Besides, he thirsted for vengeance on the community, and knew that if he could but get an opening it was his, full and complete.

No objection to my camping here to-night, I s'pose?' asked a rather forlorn-looking traveller of the cook at Barracaboo, shortly after the events related above.

‘Chop that heap o' wood up, an' you gets your supper an' breakfus',’ said the cook, laconically.

The traveller worked hard for an hour, and finished his task, handling the axe as if born to it, and provoking the cook's admiration to such an extent that he went one better than his promise, and proffered a pint of tea and a lump of ‘brownie.’

Presently, lighting his pipe, and undoing his swag, the new-comer, remarking that there was nothing like a read for passing the time away, took out a gorgeously bound volume, sat down at the table, and was soon so interested that he let his pipe go out. Save for the cook, the long kitchen was empty, all the men being away on the run.

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For a time, busy with a batch of bread, the former took no notice of the stranger. Then, his work done, he came and looked over his shoulder, saying, ‘What you got there, mate?’

‘Finest thing ever you read,’ said the other, carelessly turning over some vivid pictures. “The Life and Adventures of Dick Turpin, Claude Duval, and Other Eminent Outlaws.” Something like a book this is,’ he continued. ‘Six hundred pages full of love and murder; and that excitin' you can't bear to put it down!’

This was charming; and the cook, and the butcher, and a couple of boundary riders dropped in for a yarn, at once became inquisitive, and anxious to have a look.

‘See here,’ said the owner of the wonderful volume, pointing to an outrageous effort in coloured process, ‘this is the bold Dick Turpin on his wonderful mare, Black Bess, taking the ten-foot gate on the road to York. See, he's got the reins in his teeth and a pistol in each hand.’

‘By gum, she's a flyer!’ ‘Twig the long-necked spurs.’ ‘No knee-pads to the saddle either!’ ‘Ten foot! there ain't a horse in Hostralia as could do it!’—exclaimed his audience, becoming excited.

‘And here you have,’ went on the traveller, the gentle highwayman, Claude Duval, stickin' up the Duke of York's coach on 'Oundslow 'Eath. And here he is again, dancing under the moon with the Duchess.’ And so he continued, setting forth in tempting sequence the

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glories of the work, pausing at intervals to read aloud thrilling bits, and comment upon them.

‘Where did you get it, mate?’ at length asked the cook.

‘Bought it in Atlanta,’ replied the other. ‘Fellow there's got lots of 'em, and only thirty bob apiece. Cheap at double the price, I reckon, considerin' the amoun' of readin' in it.’

‘Ain't no deliv'rin' numbers, or signin' 'greements, or any o' that game?’ asked one suspiciously. ‘'Cause if there is, we're full.’

‘No,’ was the reply; ‘you pays your money and you takes your bargain. But I don't think you fellows 'll ever get the chance. I heard him say he'd as soon face a mad bull as come to this station.’

The men, of whom the hut was now full, laughed; and said one,—

‘The chap as sells, out an' out, an honest article like that un needn't be scared. It's them coves as gets you to sign things, and keeps sendin' a lot o' rotten trash, not a bit like what you seen furst; an' then comes, as flash as you please, summonsin' of you an' a-gettin' of you bullyragged in Court—them's the coves as we've got a derry on. Let's have another squint at that pitcher o' Dick Turpin an' Black Bess, mates.’

‘Give you five bob on your bargain!’ shouted a tall stockman, presently, from the outer edge of the circle, where he had been impatiently waiting for a look.

‘Couldn't part with it,’ said the owner decidedly.

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‘But I'll tell you what I will do. I'm going back to the township to-morrow. If the chap ain't gone, I'll let him know he can sell a few here. He might venture if you'll all give your word not to go for him when he does come. He's got lots of others, too. There's “The Bloody Robber of the Blue Mountains,” and “The Pirate's Bride,” and “The Boundin' Out-laws of the Backwoods,” and plenty more—all same price, and all pictures and covers same as this one is.’

‘Right! Tell him to come! It was pay-day yesterday,’ yelled the crowd unanimously.

‘Not a bad night's work, I do believe,’ muttered the traveller to himself, as he reluctantly stretched out on the hard bunk-boards. ‘I hope, though, this confounded beard and moustache won't come off while ‘I'm asleep, if I ever do get any on such a bed.’

Part II.

‘Is your life insured?’ ‘You'll get sudden notice to vamose the ranche, sir!’ ‘Mind the dogs!’ ‘Look out for whips!’ ‘You'll lose your stock!’

Such were some of the warnings and admonitions dealt out to Mr Potts by his friends, as he heavily

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loaded his buggy preparatory to starting for Barracaboo.

‘I'll chance it!’ said he. ‘Haven't sold a cent's worth yet; and it's the only place I haven't tried. They can't very well kill a fellow, anyhow. I'll chance it; faint heart never won fair lady!’

‘Give you five pounds to one you don't deal!’ cried one.

‘Give you five pounds to one you're hunted!’ shouted ‘The Hermit.’

‘Bet you slap-up feed for the crowd to-night, and wine thrown in, that somethin's broke afore you come back,’ said the American gentleman.

‘Done, and done, and done,’ replied Mr Potts placidly, as he carefully booked the wagers and drove off; whilst the bystanders, to a man, agreed to delay their departure for the sake of not only eating a cheap dinner, but witnessing a return which they were all convinced would be ‘as good as a play.’

But they were mistaken. Mr Potts was received at Barracaboo with open arms, no one recognising in the clean-shaven features those of the bearded, dilapidated swagman who had the other night spied out the lay of the land and the leanings of its people. The manager was absent; but the overseer, who had already by personal inspection satisfied himself of the merits of ‘Bold Dick Turpin,’ etc., was amongst the earliest purchasers.

‘Everything went like wildfire. Mr Potts could hardly hand them out fast enough. Those present

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bought for others away on the run, and in a very short time there were only three volumes left.

These were of a different calibre to the rest of the rubbish, being nothing less than ‘The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha,’ with illustrations by Gustave Doré. However, as no one would even look at them at the price—five pounds—the dealer, having pretty well cleaned out ‘the Hut,’ determined to try his luck at ‘the House.’

Now, it happened that Mrs Morris, the manager's wife, wished just at this time to buy something for her eldest boy, whose birthday was approaching. Recognising, as a reading woman, that the work was genuine, and not more than a pound or two over price, she bought it. It was so much less trouble than sending to the capital, with a chance of disappointment.

‘It'll do very nicely for Master Reginald,’ quoth she; ‘I'm sure he'll be pleased with it. And I'm glad to see that you people are at last beginning to carry something better than the usual lot of trash. I hope you did well amongst the men with these standard works?’

‘Very nicely indeed, thank you, ma'am,’ replied Mr Potts, smiling, as he bowed and withdrew.

John, the waiter, had twice informed the ‘commercial gents’ that dinner was ready, before the anxious watchers saw the man who was expected to pay for it drive into the yard of the hotel.

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‘He looks kinder spry,’ remarked the American gentleman disappointedly. ‘Guess he's got clear off with a caution this once.’

‘Buggy seems to run light,’ chimed in another. ‘Shouldn't wonder if they'd unloaded it into the river.’

‘Never had such a haul since I've been in the business, gentlemen!’ exclaimed Mr Potts, as he presently entered the dining-room with a big roll of paper in his hand. ‘There must have been some mistake about the place. Why, they're the mildest crowd you'd see in a day's march. Sellin' 'em books is like tea-drinkin'. It actually kept me goin' as fast as I could to change their stuff for 'em. Here, you know the Barracaboo cheques. Look at this, and count em', one of you. Blessed if I've had time! I hope dinner's ready. Never let me hear a word against Barracaboo after this!’

There was a long silence of utter astonishment, during which the American rapidly thumbed strips of green paper, and made mental calculations.

‘Eight hundred dollars!’ exclaimed he, at last, in tones of unalloyed admiration. ‘Mister Potts, sir, you're a gifted genius! I ante-up, Colonel, to once, an' allow I'll take a back seat.’

And so, in their several fashions, said the rest; whilst the lion of the evening ate his dinner, sipped his porphyry, and kept his own counsel.

‘Cost me four bob, landed in Sydney, averaging the lot,’ said Mr Potts confidentially to a friend that evening, as they enjoyed their coffee and cigars

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on the balcony. ‘I'm on my own hook, too, now. I seen that the specimen-sheet-monthly-delivery-collection-per-agent game was blown—not that I guessed it was near as bad as it really is. So I sends straight away to New York for this consignment, specially got up and prepared for the Bush. It was a regular bobby-dazzler! You see, the boards are only stuck on with glue, type and paper's as rough as they make 'em, and the picturin's done by a cheap colour patent. I've got another lot nearly due by this— not for here, though. You fellows have ruined this district. Of course the Dorees was genuine. I bought the three of 'em a job lot in town for a song. They're the only books I've got left now. If I'd had a score more of Turpins and such, I could have sold 'em at the station.’

‘There's old Morris, of Barracaboo, just come in,’ remarked someone the next morning. ‘He's on his way home from Larras Show, I expect.’

‘Which is him?’ asked Mr Potts eagerly (all literary people are not necessarily purists).

‘Sorry to disturb you at lunch, sir,’ said Mr Potts presently, as he entered, bearing a large book. ‘But Mrs Morris was kind enough to say that this would do nicely for Master Reginald's birthday. ‘Don Quixote,’ sir, the most startling work of that celebrated author, Gustavus Do-ree, sir. Splendidly illustrated, sir. Your good lady was very much pleased with it.’

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‘Umph, umph,’ growled the manager. ‘Been out at the station, eh? Didn't they run you, eh? No whips, no dogs! Eh! eh! What?’

‘I am not an advance agent for books I know nothing about, sir,’ returned the other with dignity, as he took the volume up again. ‘I sell a genuine article, sir, for cash on the nail. In transactions of that kind there can be no mistake, sir.’

‘Umph!’ growled the squatter doubtfully. ‘Well, as long as the missus says it's all right, I s'pose it is. How much?’

He paid without a murmur. Mrs M. was a lady who stood no trifling.

‘Wrap the thing up and put it in the buggy,’ said he. ‘Gad, it's as big as the station ledger! Look sharp, now, I'm in a hurry!’

‘So am I,’ quoth Mr Potts, as he returned. ‘John, what time does the next train start?’

When the manager reached home that afternoon with ‘Don Quixote,’ and compared notes and books, there was a row, the upshot of which was that he received orders to hurry off at once in pursuit, and avenge the trick played upon them.

‘You're a J.P.,’ stormed the lady, ‘and if you can't give that oily villain three months, what's the use of you? Besides, isn't five pounds worth recovering?’

Mr Morris would much sooner have let the matter drop quietly. No man likes to publicly advertise

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the fact of his having been duped, least of all by a book-fiend.

‘Well, well, my dear,’ said he at last, ‘never mind. I'll go directly. I've got some letters to write first. But I'll send M‘Fadyen into town to see the fellow doesn't get away.’

‘Tell him,’ said the manager, as the overseer was preparing to start, ‘tell him I'm coming in presently, about—um—er—about a book. Oh, and if he gives you anything, perhaps you'd better take it. No use,’ he muttered to himself, with a side glance to where his wife sat, ‘letting all hands and the cook know one's business. The beggar 'll only be too glad to stump up when he finds I'm in earnest. Thought, I suppose, that I wouldn't bother about it, eh, what!’

Inquiring at the ‘Royal,’ the overseer was told that Mr Potts had left; although, perhaps, if he hastened, he might yet see him, as the train hadn't started. Sure enough, galloping up to the station and searching along the carriages, he found his man just making himself comfortable in smoking-cap and slippers.

‘Be jakers, mister,’ he gasped breathlessly, ‘the Boss wants to see ye badly! Have ye got anythin' for him? It's of a book he was spakin'. Tould me to tell ye that he'd be in himself directly.

‘Too late! Can't stop! Time's up!’ replied Mr Potts. ‘But’—rising to the occasion, and taking the last copy of ‘Do-ree’ out of his portmanteau—‘this

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is it. It's for Master Reginald's birthday. Your Boss wouldn't miss having it for three times the money. Six pounds—quick!’

In a desperate flurry, the overseer ransacked his pockets. No; he could only muster four.

‘All right, guard, wait a minute!’ he yelled as, borrowing the balance, he clutched the book, whilst the train, giving a screech, moved away, with Mr Potts nodding and grinning a friendly farewell.

‘Be kicked now!’ exclaimed the overseer, ‘if that wasn't a close shave! The Boss oughter think himself lucky, so he ought!’

So, carrying the book carefully under his arm, he jogged Barracaboowards.

Half way he met Mr Morris coming in at full speed.

‘No hurry in loife, sorr!’ cried the overseer, beamingly, and showing ‘Don Quixote.’ ‘I ped six notes for it, an' had to borrow two. It was just touch an' go, though, so it was!’