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  ― 64 ―

A Bush Tanqueray.

THE coach creaked round a path hewn out of the grey sand-stone, leading to the road that ran white and bare over the summit of a hill. The driver pulled up. Away down in the smoke-laden hollow a number of men gathered and sent up a faint cheer. Then a shirt of many colours, supported by yellow moleskin trousers, rose solemnly from the box-seat and made some parabolic gestures in return. The driver touched his leader tenderly on the flank, and the coach wound through lichen-covered boulders into a dingy mulga background. Simultaneously the crowd below adjourned to the public-house. A mottle-faced old whaler peeped in at the door to remark, for the fifth time, that “water was bad, and the road too stinkin' for anything.” No one noticed him until, pressed by a great thirst, he hazarded another cast of the die:

“Anybody want to 'ear a song—a real blanky song without funny business? Ever 'eard ‘When Molly marries the Ringer’? I'd sing ‘Billy the Bound'ry,’ only I'm gone in the 'igh notes through sleepin' in the wet without a bluey.”

A derisive, withering reply sent him hobbling to the kerb to examine further the grey ridges that bounded an everlasting plain, and the question of his life—the road. Conversation in the bar turned upon Benjamin Stokes, the man who had just left by coach for Sydney. Everybody admitted that Ben was too reserved and sullen. In the first place, his life had been spent beyond the enlightening influence of his fellow-townsmen, in long night-watches with stamping herds and vicious colts. “And the result,” said Tackler, the school-master, “is a product as rough as Nature, his god. Gentlemen,” continued Tackler, seizing a gin-and-peppermint, “the man Stokes is a heathen idolater.”




  ― 65 ―

And Mottle-face went lamely over the hill, his tattered clothes flapping weirdly through a vista of white dust.

Ben's trip was to last a month, and each week of his absence was duly notched off on the post outside the pub. When the notches grew to ten, and he did not return, the circumstance was referred to in the Deep Creek Watchman.

Ben had never seen a train before; his ideas of city life had been drawn from the rough word-pictures of bushmen. The cause of his prolonged absence was explained in the first page of his new pocket-book—

Stoping two Teath, one ginny. Millysent Lee—cab—Mattrymonal agenc, 3£ 2s. 6d.

One afternoon the coach dropped them at the door of a hut near the creek. The driver shook hands with Ben, winked at Ben's wife, and flogged his horses over the wooden bridge to the township. They stood watching the coach till attention was claimed by a tabby cat which brought out several blind kittens for inspection. Her sinful pride led to painful consequences, for a few minutes later the anxious mother mewed piteously near the tank, while Benjamin did strange things with her blind offspring in a bucket of water.

Millicent threw herself wearily on a biscuit-box and slowly took out her hat-pins. The room was stuffy and dark; the tiny window and the little tin mirror filled her with profound astonishment. In a corner was a narrow bed that met the requirements of a long single man, and its presence plainly indicated that the whole wedlock business was unpremeditated. A sporting print on the wall depicted “Jimmy the Biff” going sweet and fresh after ten hard rounds with “Mick the Nipper” from Bendigo.

Through a large hole in the wall near the fire-place Ben apologised for the speckled condition of the nuptial chamber—due, he explained, to the goats and fowls. By-and-by he might nail up the hole with a bag; it was getting too big. Some night an enterprising cow would squeeze through and breathe over a married


  ― 66 ―
couple—he'd nail it up now. He rushed away, and there were sounds of a man chopping wood.

The next day was Sunday. Ben took out a concertina from the hollow log where it had lain for weeks; and, tucking it under his arm, stole down to the creek bend, where the belt of coolabahs would hide his musical proceedings from Mill. He began to wonder if she were really found of music. Anyhow, he would practise a bit before submitting anything to her judgment. She had lived all her life in swell boarding-houses where the aristocracy sat down to the piano and gave it what for. He reckoned that Mill would be very hard to please; still, a concertina was as good as a piano, and if he could only get hold of a few rattling tunes he'd spring 'em on her suddenly—he'd go marching up the track swinging his instrument over his head and filling the bush with an imitation of cathedral bells. His mother used to say he had a grand forehead for music. He looked back over his shoulder to see if Mill were watching him from the door. A screw of smoke trailed from the tiny chimney, winding like a scarf across the roof of the bush.

How different the country seemed since he had returned! The blazed eucalypt that had always reminded him of a crucified man looked quite cheerful; the cattle were in better condition; the very atmosphere held some hidden witchery that set him aglow as if he had drunk wine from the billy instead of tea.

He sat on a boulder hugging his concertina. The coming of this grey-eyed town-girl would change his life. There had been times when he used to sit alone clasping his knees and smoking until he felt sick and giddy. People said he was sulkier than a calf. Yet there were hundreds of lads who lived as he had lived, with the unresponsive bush for a mistress and slavering, red-eyed cattle for comrades.

The first few notes from his concertina seemed to wake the morning stillness; a couple of inquisitive magpies chortled back melodiously as if defying the big sun-tanned stripling to out-clamour them.




  ― 67 ―

He rose suddenly and pitched a stone in their direction. “Go way, yer bloomin' cadgers! yous sneak about when yous ain't wanted. Gerrout!”

Ha, ha, ha! ho, ho, ho!

A kingfisher sailed over the hut roof and settled on the lower branch of a gun.

Ho, ho, ho!

The savage, insulting laughter cracked discordantly along the hollow.

For a moment the hot blood swam in Ben's cheeks; the same bird had shed laughter a thousand times over his hut, but never till now had he felt how closely the cackle resembled the fierce mockery from a human throat.

When he returned Mill was clearing out the garnered litter of his bachelor days—leaky, rust-eaten billies, old boots and bridle straps, fearsome pictures of groggy pugilists and bush racehorses. He whistled softly, with his body half in the doorway, wondering whether he had better take off his hat before entering.

After breakfast Millicent hinted weakly about going to church. “Right, Mill!” said Ben, dropping the saw he was greasing; “we'll go now, though I've never been before. Put on your grey dress and the hat with the big black feather.”

He followed her inside.

When they started, Ben walked ahead swinging his arms so that the shortness of his sleeves might not attract Mill's attention. For the first time in his life he took an interest in the long shadow that stretched about six fathoms ahead. In the middle of it was a hideous kink where the saddle had pressed his coat-tail outwards. The ridiculous shape of it hurt Ben beyond words.

Mill panted after him—he was sublimely unconscious that his terrific pace distressed her. She caught his hand: he slackened instantly and blushed a peony red.

The track swung over a hillock where the scattered cairns


  ― 68 ―
of pick-torn stone recalled a one-time mining camp. They rested awhile: Ben propped himself against a blue-gum.

“Yer git a good breeze here on hot nights, Mill. Grand place fer a breeze.”

She did not answer; her fingers were shut over his, her parted lips drank the mountain air.

The rocks filtered great drops of mouth-cooling water into their outstretched hands: the sun stalked valiantly across the naked East, over treeless gullies and rolling downs. Through the still scrub they caught the moving gleams of tawny light radiated from leaf to leaf into the deeps of ebon shadows. He touched her hand unconsciously, and the wanton blood leaped to her throat and temples. She looked at him, and he seemed to her a part of the big, secret Bush. The light of morning was in his eyes, a fierce young light that she had not seen in the eyes of men who lurked under gasaliers and crouched over desks. He was staring absently at the red cattle wallowing in the reed-choked lagoon. He turned suddenly; his long arm went out towards the tin-roofed box in the hollow.

“It ain't a flash place I've brought yer to, Mill. Yer might ha' done better.”

Mill tugged at her cheap gloves and laughed softly. “Yer right, Ben, it ain't flash; but, Lord! we'll pull through.”

“Course we will.” He glanced at her stealthily, and noted the handful of shop violets tucked cunningly under the brim of her straw hat. There was n't a woman in the township who could fix violets over her little ear in the same way. He moistened his lips.

“We oughter be happy here, Mill,” he said, “seein' it's me an' you.”

“Yes, Ben,” she acquiesced.

“They're alright people in Pyers when you know 'em,” went on Ben; “an' they're bound to take to you—bein' friendly with me, yer see.”

She rose and took his arm. “O' course, Ben.”

He stretched himself on his disengaged side and breathed lustily. The world seemed so young and glorious—it made his eyes


  ― 69 ―
water. His voice trembled a little as he said, “Yer wouldn't believe what a place this is fer a breeze.”

They moved onwards.

He chose a seat directly under the pulpit. “Keep yer 'ead agin the mahogany, Mill; they'll be dyin' to see yer face when they come in; don't let 'em!”

The church at this time was empty; but it filled—filled to overflowing. “Don't forgit the mahogany, Mill!” whispered Ben behind his hand.

Their pew remained as sacred as a Hindu cow. The coach-driver pointed them out from a crowded porch, and his audience appeared spasmodically grateful for the information concerning Mrs. Ben. The driver admitted regretfully that his friend, Sam Hopkins, knew her pretty well, thanks—“wished I knew her as well.” Still, it was n't for him to take away the character of a respectable married woman. Heard that she could cook as good a feed as anybody in Pyers, and if—— The organ took it up, and sent out a moaning “Adeste Fideles.”

The minister thundered at his stoic congregation, and charged the air with strange, charitable precepts. At the end he waved a calm benediction over his respectable flock: “Go in peace, and sin no more!”

The men leered at Ben and Mill as they passed out; young girls gathered up skirts and scattered; obese wives and mothers cannoned in circling, agitated groups.

“Thank God the roof did n't fall on us this blessed day! The idea!”

Ben lifted his head and eyed the hostile gathering; some of them had known him for years—since the time when he used to drive about Pyers in a billy-goat tandem. A shout of mocking laughter followed them to the gate. Ben clinched his mouth; an unknown shame spread to his neck and face: something gripped his arm, and a word hummed in his ear that an ordinary woman never uses at any period of her life.




  ― 70 ―

So they tramped along, voiceless and sullen, through paddocks where flowers nodded to a caressing wind, while the sun drew perfumes from the moist Spring earth. Mill's right hand bruised her breast savagely; the other held his sleeve.

She glanced furtively at him across the room—his head down, his chin resting in the heel of his palm.

“Did I ever say I was a good girl, Ben? I ain't, Gawd 'elp me!”

She thrust herself beside him, shaking and trembling. Then Benjamin Stokes listened, almost for the first time in his life, to the commonest story in the world—a betrayal, a little shame, a gradual hardening, a world-defiance.

“The old woman at the boardin'-house said she'd clear me out unless I was obligin' and civil to the gentlemen. So there were presents for Mill, and gloves planted in my bed … It all helped to take my head away from the damned 'ard scrubbin'. I ain't old—nineteen ain't very old, is it? Gimme a chance, Ben—gimme a chance!”

Something simmered in the fireplace; plates clattered; a shadowy girl moved about him all the afternoon in a dull, half-frightened way. He stumbled outside to the wood-heap, and the soft-eyed collie hung at his heels for a word.

The sun dropped to the edge of the plains, drenching the far-off hills with yellow mist. A rush of cool air brought the clang of bells; he raised a rough and haggard face and spoke a word to the night—a word he used when punching cattle through an overflow. The dog fawned joyously … “Away, you beast!”—and a savage kick sent it howling down the track.

A candle flickered in the little bedroom, throwing a shape across the chintz curtain. “That bell again!” He walked a short distance from the house. How everyone knew! How everyone guessed the truth! What had happened at the church to-day would happen again with sickening regularity. He might force the


  ― 71 ―
men to respect him with his fists; but that cackling brood in the porch!

He struck a match and groped into the room to fling a word of hate at this Magdalen—and fell into a chair, silenced. The face was so pretty, so weak—prey for every libertine. The minister had said something about a woman who wiped the feet of Christ with her long meshes of hair; nobody believed it, of course; if they did, why was Mill treated as she had been? He sat through the long night, heavy-browed and brooding, until a grey light from the east whitened the window-pane.

“Mill!” She smiled sleepily at the word.

“Mill!” The sound of his voice made her crouch on the rough pallet; she stared at the white, haggard face in the half-light.

“Don't be frightened, Mill!—don't be frightened; I shan't hit yer. I've been thinkin'; and we ain't goin' to church again to let 'em worry us. I'll build another place over at Red Point on the hundred-acre patch; if they come there to carry on I'll be about to receive 'em.”

Her face was hidden from him, but her hand crept into his big palm.

A few hours later Ben led a bay horse to the front and hopped into the saddle. She came to the door, her white arms splashed with milk and flour.

“It's a long way to the Point, ain't it, Ben?”

“Yeh!”

She stole nearer—obviously to examine the horse. He threw himself forward and kissed her on the lips.

ALBERT DORRINGTON.

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