Chapter XVI. Old Times.

‘COME, Douglas! I want you to see an original inhabitant of these foreign parts,’ said Mr Roberts to his friend.

Away they went. They came to one of the original old grants made to soldiers, and to prisoners emerging into freedom. Judging from appearance, the land had endured fewer changes than the owner. It was fenced in after a fashion, though admitting ready ingress and egress for trespassers. However it might once have been ploughed and sown, there were few marks of cultivation now about the lot. Native trees had again

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seized possession of the soil, though a few ragged specimens of peach and apple trees remained. If the proprietor lived much longer, the whole would return to the primitive wilderness.

‘What a shame to let a farm run to waste like this!’ exclaimed Captain Douglas.

‘May a man not do as he likes with his own?’ asked the other.

‘If his own, as he cannot get a living on it, why don't he sell it?’

‘That is his business. But I dare say he won't be offended by your enquiry. Here he comes.’

‘Good-day, Mr Roberts. Glad to see you down these parts. Ain't often troubled with visitors.’

The speaker, though evidently very old, had a brisk walk of his own, and held up his head with extra stiffness on this occasion. His dress was not of modern cut. It was suitable to his condition, and to the climate.

‘How are you, Daddy?’ said the cheerful official. ‘I have brought a friend to see you.’

‘Any friend of yours is welcome, sir.’

‘But he is a friend of yours, too.’

‘He must be, sir, if he is a friend of yours.’

‘Why, Dad, I swear you are an Irishman.’

‘And you'd swear right, sir, for once in your life.’

Then I must come out of the fog of poetry, and talk prose to you. This is Captain Douglas, of the Indian army.

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‘Your servant, sir,’ cried the old man, with a military salute.

‘Not a servant,’ answered he, ‘but a comrade. We have both retired from active service, and are on the same level.’

‘Saving your presence, sir, its higher ground near my hut. I should fancy, sir, our pensions are not on the same level, either. But walk in, both of you, gentlemen; my old woman is up in the chimney corner.’

Then, turning to Mr Roberts, he whispered.

‘Drunk as usual, sir. She is often very moist. But it is early yet. There's no vice in her. When she's extra bad she tells me I'm no gentleman; yet, though that hurts my feelings, I bear with it. She has been an old fellow campaigner.’

‘How old is she?’ asked the gentleman.

‘That I can't tell. When I got her, she was fullmouthed; but that don't help a man as a horse's mouth does. I never put my finger in her mouth to try her teeth. She snaps down hard enough on me without that. But I should take it she might have been rising thirty when I first housed her.’

‘And how long ago is that?’

‘Why, it was in old Governor Davey's time.’

‘But that is fifty years since.’

‘Perhaps it is. I think sometimes, poor thing, she will get old and helpless on my hands. It is a woman's business to wait on a husband, not a man to make

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gruel for his wife. If Sal don't leave off the rum, she'll never weather my days.’

‘And what are they?’

‘That I don't know. But you're a reckoner, Mr Roberts; so tot it up. I'm as old as my wife since we've been married.’

‘You mean you have been married as long as she has.’

‘No, I don't mean that, or I should mean a lie; because, do you see, I don't know how many husbands she had before me, and I never told her what I had before her.’

‘Never mind, I will put down fifty for that term. How old were you then?’

‘I can't tell, it's too long ago to recollect. But I went into the Marines when I was eighteen. I served two years at home; then I served in India ten years; afterwards at the Cape a year or two, and then home. When old Colonel Collins came out I was drafted off with him, and picked up Sal six years after. What's the tot, sir?’

‘Why, bless my heart, you are over ninety!’

‘Like enough, sir, like enough. I do feel I am getting old sometimes; but, thank God, I can do my rations yet.’

‘But why is your ground in such a state?’

‘And do you expect me to go grubbing up now? I have not a single child left me. It will last my time.’

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‘But you can never get your living off this,’ interposed the Captain; ‘and a soldier never begs.’

‘No, sir, a soldier never begs, except for tobacco. But I get my rations, and they do me and the old woman too.’

‘You don't seem to grow anything.’

‘Yes, I do; I grow grass, and that grows cattle and horses that people put in here and pay me for. Then, as old England wasn't swallowed up by old Bony, I get my pension regular.’

‘And is that enough? How about the grog?’

‘There you have me in a tender place. I have taken my drops. A British soldier, though he is an Irishman, likes to drink the health of his sovereign, and the nobles, and the clergy, and the governor, and the officers, and his old mates and new mates. This, I admit, does take a few drops to get through the list. But I am not like Sal; I don't forget my manners, and call folks no gentleman.’

‘Do you get to church on Sundays?’

‘Can't say I do. I've always found that many people can walk easier on Saturdays or Mondays than Sundays. Then chapel is a deal further than any public-house. If the priest called, I'd be going; but when he passes by this shanty, he thinks it a place that holds no shillings for collections, and goes on.’

‘But surely,’ remarked the Captain, ‘you consider yourself on marching orders for another world, and

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should have yourself drilled up to the mark for future service.”

“No, Sir, its not my intention to 'list again, and I'm on half pay now. No more marching orders for me.”

Here Mr Roberts drew the Captain aside.

“It is of no use talking to that fellow about religion. He is no more than a bullock, as he has lived so long like one. He has no future, and his past is a long way back. He seems to have no notion of anything that has taken place since his favourite Colonel Davey's time. Tap him about the early days.”

The Captain, therefore, resumed the conversation with Daddy.

“It is a long day since you first came to this country.”

“Country, sir! it wasn't a country, but a kangaroo run. No—I mistake—the Blacks were here, and a deal more trouble to us than all the kangaroos, I assure you.”

“You must have thought it a pretty place.”

“No, I didn't. There was no moving for the scrub. To get water from the creek we had to cut through with an axe. We rigged some tents first, and then the prisoners fetched down some trees, and put up huts. We had a deal of trouble with the prisoners.”

“You mean the Bushrangers?”

“No, I don't. They were gentlemen compared to the sneaks about town, who took the stolen goods, and then told of the thieves, and got them hanged. I've seen a deal of hanging—eight one morning before

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breakfast, and six the week after. But that was nothing to the cat.”

“Does it not please you to see the country so advanced, and to know that the Government don't send out convicts now?”

“As to that I have my opinion. The convicts we did know, and knew what to do about them; but these new chums, the free emigrants, as they are called, I can't make out. I haven't much to lose, or I would lock up against them when I never did against the old prisoners.”

“Do you never want to go back to Ireland?”

“No, I'm a regular kangaroo, gum sucker, and cornstalk rolled into one, and mean to dic so.”

Captain Douglas came away by no means gratified with his visit to the old soldier, a type of a degraded class in the old settlements.