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  ― 132 ―

An Experience of Old Yorkie's.

A flat, uninteresting stretch of country, mostly under potatoes, dismally lonely; under a rain-pouring dun sky, with raw, blood-red, jagged slashes across the west; trenched by a road whose shallow ruts froth yellow water, on either side of which contorted trees whine maledictions. Not a moving object but a swagman, crawling like a crab, callously indifferent. Crouching beneath a fifty-pound swag, he limps slowly along through slush and pool, avoiding only stranded road-metal instinctively. Once he paused to pick up and spit on a horse-shoe and pitch it over his left shoulder. Squinting ahead he discerned a small shed with a few sheep pens where the road crooked to the left. With the same, slow, deliberate limp he proceeded towards it, ignoring the opposite dwelling on the right, pulls back the door, jerks off his swag with a sigh of relief, and enters with subdued satisfaction appearing for a moment in his wrinkled face and peering, crab-like eyes at the sight of the heaped-up straw. Depositing his swag carefully on its end, he thrust his billy under the jetting of the roof's flooded spout, squints across at the dwelling, retreats, settles himself slowly


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down on the straw, and with the same methodical unhastiness unfastens his loose boots and uncoils from his sockless feet mud-oozing ragged clouts, which he carefully spreads out beside him. He then removes his dripping, thread-bare coat, and holds it up at arm's length, scrutinizing it thoughtfully. The coat drops, and his legs draw up with a jerk at the sudden appearance of a tall, long-legged, bony woman at the door. His withered face assumes its old weariness at the abuse streaming against him. He attempts a mild protest as she twists aside bawling, “Sool the dorg on 'im, Jim.” With a deep sigh he crawls to his feet, slips on his coat and boots, thrusts the clouts into his coat pockets, and sallies out with his swag and billy of water. The woman watches him from her garden gate, her apron over her head. Ere he turns the crook of the road he slowly wheels round: “That's all leg and tongue,” he grunts. Divining he had said something uncomplimentary, the woman dives into the garden for the “dorg,” and the old man limps on a little quicker than usual. Ever now and again he chuckles to himself at his criticism of the woman. Meanwhile his gimlet eyes are fixed on the road, noting every scrap of paper—nothing escapes them. His loose, riddled' boots squelch mire, his old hat-brim slides water threads down his neck, his patched-up pants cleave with soaking insistence to his spider-like legs grotesquely defined.




  ― 134 ―

The sun had withdrawn its stabbing red shafts, and the doleful roof of clouds increased, lowering with funereal shade. The rain sloped and fell precipitate under the sigh and cessation of the inconstant wind, and had evidently set in for the night. The level flats alongside the road stretched obscurely under a smoke-like fog. There was not a sign of habitation in sight. Only a long rambling building, half in ruins, with a clump of acacia trees, beside it, projecting from a small eminence, arrested the wandering gaze. The old man stood regarding it with misgiving, his memory uncomfortably bringing back the stories he had heard about its spooks and ghosts. Many a time he had passed it on his yearly rounds. It was shunned and banned by everyone, especially swagmen. He rubbed his nose sideways, muttering, “They're nobbut yarns,” but limped on a little nevertheless. “Dang it!” he exclaimed, suddenly hurrying back, “Awl camp, chance the ducks, Ghoarsts av'n't rheumatiz.”

He cautiously approached the front of the “rookery,” whose frameless windows gloomed on him like eyeless sockets, and again paused to survey it suspiciously. Heaps of weather-stained stones and broken, age-worn bricks were littered about. The cankering walls were fissured with abrupt gaps. Lappets of corroded galvanised iron dangled from the roof. The whole building appeared enveloped in a smoking fog, smelling of


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swamp fungus. The spectral trees shook their cypress-like tops, and swayed woefully to the fitful wind, their leaves setting up a faint hissing dirge on the ground work of the stealthy rain-patter on the roof.

He now moved silently forward and peered intently into the chamber, the walls of which, oppressed with a subterranean-like gloom, seemed slimy with a flocculent ooze. Stepping with great care over the sprawling debris, he proceeded to the large kitchen, with barrack-like walls of discolored plaster that had tumbled in lumps and crumbling flakes here and there and lay scattered over piles of damaged bricks, musty iron, dust, and a medley of odds and ends. A fireplace, huge enough to roast an ox, yawned like a cavern. After letting down his swag and much fumbling in his waist-coat pockets, the old man struck a match on his thumb nail, and lighted a bit of candle, which he held aloft, peering about him through the murky twilight. His eyes lighted with gleeful susprise when they fell on a heap of dead boughs and lumps of wood near the fireplace. “Ghoarsts humped none o' yon, fur they're not wick, the varmints,” he muttered, losing his nervousness. In a little while he had a good fire blazing under his billy, and busied himself in rummaging in his tucker-bag, from which he presently hauled half-a-loaf of bread, an onion, a little bag containing


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his tea, a mustard-tin his sugar, and a piece of boiled salt meat carefully wrapped in what looked like the tail-end of a shirt. He had succeeded in touching the heart of a cocky's wife that day. His billy now boiling merrily, he squatted before the fire, and was soon chewing with great gusto his “tucker” and steaming most delightfully. When he had finished he replaced his food in his tucker-bag, spread his coat to dry, withdrew his pipe from his waist-coat pocket, pressed his finger down the half-filled bowl and lighted it from an ember. For a few minutes he puffed with lazy contentment, blinking at the fire and drying beautifully. Then placing his pipe aside after quenching its glow with the end of his knife, he began peering at the odds and ends strewn about, endeavouring with knitted brows to connect them with some clue as to how they came there. The rusty fragment of a manacle interested him greatly. He weighed it several times with his hand, rubbed it against a brick, turned it over and over, shaking his head solemnly, and finally put it in his swag. The walls now received his attention. He strove to decipher the bits of rhyme pencilled here and there. Once he grunted as though something had annoyed him. Apparently satisfied with his observations, he carried his belongings to a corner at the far end of the kitchen; spread his swag, setting a brick, on which he placed his rolled-up coat, for a


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pillow; removed his boots; put his pipe near his pillow; wound himself in his blanket, and lay peering at the wall. In a little while his withered face puckered as with perplexity. Something in his mind seems worrying him. Is it his past life considered misspent? Is conscience twinging him? Not a bit of it. He is disturbed by two opposing inclinations, the one urging him to light up his last bit of “baccy” in his pipe, the other to keep it for a puff at daybreak. Meanwhile the fire has burnt down, and is throwing a smouldering red glow into the surrounding darkness. The wind is wailing through the lone “rookery,” the loosened iron on the roof clatters, the trees hiss and their aged boughs rub together creakingly betwixt the pauses of the rain's wild sobs. A dislodged brick tumbles in the next chamber with a dull shock that held his thoughts suspended for a moment. At last his eyes close wearily, and he gradually sinks into slumber, breathing as peacefully as a sleeping child.

All at once he awoke startled and half-bewildered—he must have had nightmare. He couldn't say what, but something dreadful has passed through his mind. When he had recovered a little from his alarm, he felt a vague surprise at the reflection of light on the wall. He didn't remember having replenished the fire. Just then a wild shriek rang through the kitchen. “Holy Moses! What's that?” he exclaimed. With instinctive


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apprehension of self-preservation, he ducked his head under the blanket. A cold shiver went up his spine at the thoughts of ghosts, at what he had heard about the devil haunting this old building. Then a frightful fear lest he should be grabbed without a chance of resistance, combined with uncontrollable inquisitiveness, possessed him. He peered cautiously out with head askew so as to see the fire, and his thin, grey hair slowly lifted with horror. In front of the fire, which was heaped up with wood and burning like a furnace, was a black figure turning somersaults. Over and over it went, sometimes seeming to stand on its head, sometimes to twist on its feet, cracking its fingers. Naked and black, and unearthly, the figure seemed to the old man, with its glittering eyes and long hair, flying wildly in its antics, lighted fiercely up by the fire. Once it leaped as if towards the old man, who snatched up a brick and kicked up his feet. He was still quivering from the shock, when again the shriek rang out, and his head ducked under the blanket. Sweat streamed down his body, his heart thumped like a drum, he shook as with ague. He mumbled at haphazard an incongruous string of phrases from the psalms and prayers of different denominations. Then a bright idea struck him. He made the sign of the cross on his forehead, on his breast, and not being a catholic got mixed and repeated


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it several times. He then listened; gradually his nose peeped out like a hedgehog's. The figure was stalking to and fro in the shadow beyond the fire, chanting. The old man, craning his neck, strained his ears, muttered: “Aw's not freiten't of his gas.” There was the flapping of wings and a series of long, unearthly shrieks that were smothered to the old man, whose head was under the blanket long before they ceased. He lay quaking, with no further desire for investigation. It was at least an hour before he ventured to again peep out, during which his mind was in a state of terrible suspense, a prey to grotesque imaginings. Having an impression his feet were the most unprotected because they were the furthest away from his head, he had huddled himself into an uncomfortable position that increased his distress. He only relinquished his strenuous clutch of the half-brick when he had satisfied himself by a prolonged peering that the figure had disappeared from before the fire, which had sunk to a flameless glow. Although his nervous excitement was fast subsiding, his mind was yet kept alert by an uneasy suspicion that the figure was somewhere plotting against him. Every sound made his heart jump. His mind was stretched on the rack of anticipating every second a recurrence of those unearthly shrieks and flapping of wings.

At daybreak the old man mustered enough courage to crawl to his feet and warily approach the fire, peering


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about him. The sight of a man stretched asleep in a blanket pulled him up with a start. An unmistakable snore, however, reassured him, and with, “Dang me, if it ar'n't one of them Cing'lee blokes,” he shook the sleeper roughly. He nearly tumbled with fright at a loud shriek behind him. In another moment a big green parrot that had been suddenly knocked off its perch of firewood by the exasperated old man's fist would have been a lump of battered feathers had not the Cingalee sprung to his feet and caught at the stick the other had snatched up.

“Gerrout, yer black divil! What yer meean with yourn jimjam capers, eh? Yer thort to freiten me, dang yer. Awl crack yer on yourn heeth'n nut if yer jump yourn ratty tricks on old Yorky. Clear out and take youn varmint to 'ell with yer, or awl spiflicate the two on yer!”

The Cingalee, thinking it best for the safety of his parrot, hastily decamped into the open air from the threatening gestures of the infuriated old man. Not till after a smoke and his breakfast did old Yorky relent towards the unfortunate colored man, his anger meanwhile deriving much satisfaction at the spectacle of his and his feathered companion's drenched and woeful appearance in the rain. An ugly look had come into the Cingalee's eyes when he was hunted out of the other chamber into which he sought refuge, but the


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determined attitude and the way the old man flourished his stick dismissed thoughts of resistance. His concern for the welfare of his parrot and perhaps a clear apprehension of the cause of the other's hostility contributed to his obedience. Anyway, amid the old man's grunts and chuntering, he succeeded in pacifying him by an exhibition of some of his juggling tricks with his parrot and gymnastic feats that appeared so wonderful that old Yorky was greatly relieved when the weather took up and he departed with his swag and parrot in the direction of the town to which he was tramping to exhibit at its annual show.

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