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  ― 200 ―

An Error In Administration.

SMITH was brought up in the city, though his fathers before him had been men of the forest and sea; and he naturally became a clerk. But the blood asserted itself, and he threw away his billet to go up-country, and finally got a job on a Gippsland selection, where he spent his days and nights in the “cleared country” with the sheep. In Gippsland the country is thoroughly cleared when most of the undergrowth has been hacked or burned away, and the trees ringbarked so that they all stand dead.

Such a country is bad for the nerves, especially for those of a man like Smith, whose father had not been particularly virtuous. It consists of an interminable stretch of gaunt gray timber, and in the morning and evening twilight the dead trees seem to wobble their crooked arms towards one another, and join their skeleton hands in a ghastly, jerky minuet which makes your flesh creep. They begin to do this when you have known them for about a week; and very soon, if you have a steady head and an adequate supply of tobacco, they stop, and turn into inanimate timber again. But an ex-clerk who has been addicted to inhaling cheap-cigarette smoke, and finds a pipe too much for him, sees their antics for a good while longer. When the darkness has put a stop to this entertainment, the sheep sometimes get restless, and an unquiet flock of sheep at midnight makes a most dispiriting noise, which is a shade worse than the dead stillness. Sometimes, too, a tree falls without any apparent reason just as you are dropping off to sleep; and when a Gippsland tree comes down it shakes a whole hillside and sounds louder than a cannon. Altogether, a cleared selection in South Gippsland is a cheerless home for a solitary neurotic man.

So it came to pass that Smith contracted many little


  ― 201 ―
peculiarities in his behaviour. He would spend hours on his back, looking up towards the sky and trying to fix the outline of a tree on his mind, and it always vexed him that he forgot one limb as soon as he set himself to master the next. He began to talk to the sheep like human beings, for he had no dog; and he swore at them because they did not answer him in English and he had forgotten the French and Latin he had learnt at school. He got tired of the trees being so gray, and he took to staining them with grass, and watering their bases in the hope of making them sprout again. He was conscious that there was something wrong in his being out there all alone, and he came to the conclusion that he had a deadly enemy somewhere, but he couldn't quite settle who it was. It wasn't the sheep, for they seemed as frightened as himself; and it wasn't the trees, for two of them had fallen within a chain of his hut without doing any damage. After this event he regarded them as his especial friends, and he laughed and clapped his hands when the dance got more than usually mixed—in the mazurka, for instance. At other than twilight hours he sat still and brooded over his wrongs.

One day the boss rode out himself instead of sending a man with Smith's rations, and explained that he intended to build new yards where the hut stood, because the railway was going to pass right there. The shepherd smiled as if he did n't quite understand, and said that the railway would find it rather lonely, and he hoped it wouldn't hurt his trees. “They're just learning the quadrilles,” he said. The boss stared at him and went away. Soon after, a couple of men came and told Smith to take his sheep out of the road, and he drew off and watched them for the rest of the afternoon. When it dawned on him what they were going to do, and he saw the destruction of all his hopes of the grand chain in the evening, he went up and asked them who had ordered it. Then he sat down and thought a great deal about the boss, until at last he came to a decision.

Now it is very clear that the Government of Victoria has much to answer for. If it had not decided to build that railway, Smith's trees would have been left untouched, and he might have gone on


  ― 202 ―
quite harmlessly until it was discovered that big timber was bad for his brain. The sheep would not have been left alone that night while a man with a sharpened knife made his way to the homestead. The kitchen-maid would not have been driven screaming along the passage, three men would have been without a very exciting experience of ten minutes' duration, and one of them would not walk lame. Also, the boss's only son would be two months younger and a good deal stronger, and his wife would be able to give an intelligent answer to a simple question—which, as matters stand, she cannot do.

Smith came out, probably, better than anyone else. He was supported for six months in an asylum, and then sent to a situation up Yackandandah way, where he will not see a stretch of big timber in a lifetime. If he ever happens to get into different country, most probably someone will be murdered.

A. C. M'CAY.

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