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  ― 98 ―

A Baronet of Sloan Creek.

Sloan. Creek was a typical little bush township, with its one long stragling street, a gigantic dust-bin in summer, a slough of stygian horror in winter. This cheerful thoroughfare was fringed with the usual half-dozen shanties, some score or so of weatherboard cottages, the single respectable hotel, a bank, a lock-up with its one trooper's quarters, an “assembly” hall, a school-house, and a general store and post-office. Sloan Creek's visible population comprised a few besotted swagsmen and a pack of yelling, snapping, snarling curs. The township was asleep; for it was only 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and the great event of the day—the arrival and departure of Cobb's red-painted coach—lacked still an hour of happening. The drowsy hum of summer insect life hung in the air. A hiccoughed chorus droned forth from the open door of the “Cosmopolitan”—as the most imposing of the drinking-houses was named. The distant bumping of a springless dray, the clucking of a laying hen, the abrupt yelp of a spiritless dog startled from his slumbers, the ring of a chopper's axe, the whinny of a horse or the lowing of a cow were the only other sounds that punctuated with a staccato suddenness the universal quietude.

Sloan Creek was nested in a hollow of the hills. All round it rose tree-clad heights fledged to their bosky summits with towering eucalypts and close undergrowth. Nearer the township gaunt skeletons, the dry bones of a one-time vegetable life, reared their weird forms, and pointed grisly fingers at the sky. The stream which gave the place its name formed the arc of a circle's segments, of which the street was the chord. The water flowed sluggishly between its banks, a deep yellow current, leaving on each side a deposit of rich creamy mud of viscid consistency, for Sloan Creek was an alluvial field. The workings were all now deserted; and the shallow shafts, marked with their little heaps of cradle-tailings, were pockets of fern and bracken and marsh reeds. Higher up the creek, however, within sound but out of sight of the township, a few delvers for gold still wrought with sporadic gleams of fortune, and tinged the current of the stream with the chrome evidence of their intermittent exertions. One only among the diggers was a persistent worker. To him high-day or holiday brought never a hint of idleness or revelry. He was, however, no anchorite, and no hater of his kind; albeit his reserve concerning his past was impregnable, and his silence about his own affairs was a proverb among the good folk whose business embraced that of five leagues of countryside dwellers in every direction.




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Hugh Macdonald might have been any age between 40 and 50. His full-brown beard and moustache showed not a single grey hair. His head's hair of a darker brown was only slightly frosted where it grew above the temples. His features were clean-cut on a somewhat severe model, but his expression was kindly, almost benign. Tall and strongly knit, with an ample chest and broad, spreading shoulders, his every movement was characterised by conscious strength and an athletic grace. He was a man, every inch of him, and his dark grey eyes looked level with an undimmed honesty; they were mitigated, however, in their undeviating straightforwardness by the suggestion of a sense of Doric humour; for Hugh Macdonald was a Scot of the Scots, although his cultured voice betrayed nothing of his origin in the land o' cakes. If a man, his voice told also he had been born and bred a gentleman. His dress was the ordinary dress of a digger. A felt hat, of the style in former times known among bushmen as “Yankee,” was carelessly slouched on his crisp-haired head. His shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled to the elbows, the neck of which was open at the throat, was made of rough blue frieze. His moleskin trousers, smeared with yellow clay and splashed by yellow water, were buckled around his waist by a leathern strap, and were tucked into the clay-daubed Wellington boots which completed his costume. He was resting now in a pause of his labour, with his hands on his digger's cradle, sun-tanned and perspiring in the hot sun's rays, listening to the remarks addressed to him by another man, who sat a little apart on the ground in the shade of a huge white umbrella lined with green. This second man was also named Hugh Macdonald, but he was dressed as a gentleman of a past period of fashion. His napless high hat was of Strand manufacture, but its style was of a bygone age. His faded frock-coat might have graced the form of a Regent-street dandy of some 30 years ago, and his frayed trousers the superfine legs of an ancient Mr. Mantalini; while his flowered waistcoat would have enraptured the heart of a Dickens or a Disraeli in the days of their sartorial magnificence, albeit his boots were those of a clod-hopper, and were built after the model immortalised by the great name of Prussia's puissant Blucher. There was something of the scholar about the bearing of this grotesquely-attired gentleman, though his gentility was of a seedy and snuffy character. Plentiful stains and grease-spots and marks of careless debauch were upon him. His face was old and bloated, wrinkled, and puffed. His lips hung pendulous; his cheeks were red and flabby; his nose was long and bulbous, and of a rich purple; his grey eyes were dim and watery, almost hidden by their swollen lids; his broad high brow was corrugated as fire-wrinkled leather; and his large ears stood out from beneath his shapeless hat dropsically crimson. His hair was thick, and matted, and grey, his beard and heavy moustache were straggling and unkempt, his whole appearance was that of a man pitiably neglected, yet still there was about him an air as of better days, an aroma, as it were, of books, and the study, and of midnight oil—midnight oil, mayhap, too often latterly mingled with midnight potations and the atrocious fumes of unutterable tobacco. Even as he spoke to his stalwart namesake he emitted in punctuative pauses vile clouds of uncataloguable nicotian smoke.




  ― 100 ―

If Macdonald the first was uncommunicable anent his past, and ever consistently silent about himself, Macdonald the second made ample amends. He had, he often said, nothing on earth to conceal. He was a gentleman and a scholar, the son of a Scotch baronet, the heir to a title and illimitable estates, to say nothing of a princely personality. Everybody knew how he had drifted to Sloan Creek in the earlier days, dragging at his chariot wheels a slatternly wife and a host of stairlike pledges of her love and constancy. Mrs. “Mac.” was the female scandal of the township, and her raucous voice often competed in midnight madrigals with the frogs that croaked from the waterside rushes what time the lady referred to was (at her lord's urgent and earnest request) safely immured in the durance vile furnished by the township lock-up. Trooper O'Brien was ever an obliging man, and, being deaf as the proverbial post, little recked the pathetic plaint of the imprisoned fair. Besides, he took quite the pride of a mediaeval gaoler in the impregnability of his prison, and delighted in the extension of its hospitality to the erring wayfarer the while he dreamt of the incarceration of the desperate bushranger whom it was never fated he should capture and lay by the heels in his insignificant Newgate. Poor Mrs. “Mac.” She was an illiterate virago and a shiftless drab, as well as an unbridled drunkard, it is true; but her heart beat fondly for her gifted “Hughie,” and when she was not drinking stronger decoctions her religion, her politics, her economics, and all her social aspirations found powerful tannic expression in brewing for him strong billycans of strongest tea. The pathetic woman's whole aimless existence alternated spasmodically between tea and gin—but gin was oftener the god of her heart's idolatry. Peace to her ashes! The mortal remains of “Lady” Macdonald now lie mouldering in the quiet, tiny cemetery of the deserted alluvial field of Sloan Creek.

The baronetcy was a magnificent thing for the township, and the aureole thereof penetrated effulgently quite a few miles into the surrounding district. The baronet in futuro was an interesting personality to all and sundry. Sloan Creek was proud of him—would, in any case, have been proud of him, even though he had never been a possible Sir Hugh, “Bart.,” for the abbreviated form of the title was the township's distinctive reference. There was proprietorship in a some-day-to-be baronet of an essentially unique description. Come-by-chance diggers and casual bullock-drivers, the half-dozen publicans, the general store-keeper, who was also the postmaster, the trooper, the bank manager, the schoolmaster, the neighbouring farmers and sawmill hands besides their womenfolk and families, all called the dilapidated gentleman “Sir Hugh Macdonald”—thus post-obitally giving him his title of quasi-nobility. Nevertheless, Sloan Creek would still have honoured and esteemed highly their distinguished citizen, though heir to a baronetcy he had been none; for he could take his whisky like a man, and never flinch a hair's breadth; no single resident of all Sloan Ceek had ever seen the gentleman the slightest bit “fou.” But above and beyond all he was the chronicler of the district's happenings in the columns of the “Goldtown Advertiser,” with which was incorporated (so ran the ambitious heading), “the Sloan Creek, Brimstone Gully, Biddledong Marsh, Coovap Swamp, and Mooranbangolong Times.” “Sir” Hugh had the wonderful


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gift of the phrase, and was honoured accordingly by those to whom writing their signature to a cheque or a contract was a vast deal harder than a day's work with the pick and shovel, and by those also to whom keeping account books accurately offered no difficulty, but to whom composing a readable letter was a greater task than to Homer was the composition of the “Iliad.”

Five years had passed since “Sir” Hugh had strayed with draggle-tailed wife and herd of half-wild progeny within the auriferous area of the alluvial field of Sloan Creek. The other Hugh Macdonald had dwelt in the diminutive Ophir's neighbourhood for only five months. He came none knew whence. He boasted no family, and he told no lies. His day's toil over, Macdonald the gold-searcher wandered down to the township, chatted pleasantly enough with whomsoever he met to chat with, took a hand at billiards with whomsoever chose to play, and was not above drinking a glass of toddy in a quiet, abstemious way. On “assembly” nights he would good-humouredly act as master of ceremonies, if importuned to do so; and he “never failed to give satisfaction to all,” as Sloan Creek's phrase ran. “He danced like an angel,” so the girls of the township averred who enjoyed the privilege of a waltz with the good-looking, well-mannered stranger; but he sought the favour of no sweetheart, and made no intimates. However, he soon attracted a Creekite to his company, and he became his persistent shadow—that is to say, whenever the shadow had any time to spare from his own pursuits and devices. The shadow was no less and no other than “Sir” Hugh Macdonald, “Bart.,” who attached himself to his namesake with a pathetic fidelity. Similarity of name and a community of culture made the association natural in some respects, but the men in themselves, in character, tastes, pursuits, and social behaviour, were wide as the poles asunder.

“Sir” Hugh Macdonald, “Bart.,” and Hugh Macdonald, digger, were, on this hot summer's afternoon, discussing the ever-present subject of the succession to the Scotch baronetcy; or, to be more precise, “Sir” Hugh was monologuing anent his “great expectations,” and the other Hugh was amusedly and interestedly listening.

“I am afraid,” said the “baronet,” pompously, “that I am getting a trifle too old to enjoy the rare delights of the chase; but still I can contemplate with luxurious anticipation the meditative pleasure, the holy and philosophic ecstasy, as it were, of casting a line in fair Dunruddock's pool. Dear old Izaak Walton, my friend, shall be my guide, teacher, and literary comforter when I return to bonnie Scotland, while you, in the torrid rays of an Austral sun, will still dabble in the waters of Sloan Creek, like a second Midas in the Lydian stream of mythic story, perspiring in the quest, Jason-like, if not for the golden fleece, at least to fleece some gold,” and the baronet presumptive gave a loud guffaw at the excellence of his own quippish conceit.

The other Macdonald smiled indulgently, and replied: “I think that Midas, according to the myth, deposited gold in the sands of fabled Pactolus when he went to bathe in that auriferous river, instead of finding any there. In fact, the river was not auriferous to the value of a cent's worth of ‘colours’ until the ass-eared old monarchial drinker of bull's blood went in for his morning dip. But Midas be hanged! Ixion must be my exemplar, and my old cradle can typify his wheel.”




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With much more of learned discourse of a similar description intervals of rest in the stress of the digger's labour were filled by the alleged baronet, with huge satisfaction to himself, if not to his hearer. Poor lonesome “Sir” Hugh had a plentiful lack of subjects upon whom to inflict the pains and penalties of his rusting erudition, and his chance namesake was a positive godsend to him.

Meanwhile the township of Sloan Creek had awakened to a sense of its dignity and importance as a gold-mining centre. A bullock team was drawn up by the roadside flanking the general store. A dozen or so horsemen and boys, mounted on every varied condition of steed, from magnate's blood to scarecrow hack, came clattering up the street. Some dismounted abreast of the general store and hitched their nags to its verandah posts and to near-by fences; others rode into the hotel yard of the “Cosmopolitan,” in search of stabling and horse-feed. Two or three drays ploughed and pitched into the township's single street, navigating amid the shoals and rocks of ruts and stumps like Spanish caracks on a lee shore of West Indian reefs. The wastrels of the place gathered in little knots at the doors of the hostelries. Some of the womenfolk of the township came out on their verandah-floors and looked expectantly up the road in the direction of twenty miles distant Goldtown. Children came, in straggling twos and threes, forth from the schoolhouse. Even the township's curs bestirred themselves. Quite suddenly, like a bolt “shot from the blue,” the vivid vehicle of Cobb and Co. came swinging and rioting in, a flash of garish red coach and yellow dust, bit foam and horse-sweat and whip-lash, and wheels with spokes flaming as fire in the westering sunlight. The dusty driver tore from under the leathern apron strapped on the coach-roof Sloan Creek's undistinguished mailbag, and hurled it on to the verandah of the general store, following with his own long body and several parcels in his arms. Then he ploughed across the dusty rutted road into the bar of the “Cosmopolitan,” an anticipated taste of beer accelerating his foot-steps. Thither went also the solitary passenger, a dust-grimed man in a city suit, his clean shave invisible through much deposit of road material. With a wash and a brush-up he would have looked exactly what he really was, namely, a smart lawyer's clerk from the metropolis, a fellow with the know-all air of Solomon and the perky features of Joseph Chamberlain. This traveller “shouted” for Cobb's driver with all the magnificence of manner proper to a Persian prince; and then, turning half round to the one lounger in the bar, demanded with an impudent swagger and in a cross-examining bellow whether there were any “party knocking round with the name of Hugh Macdonald.”

“Yes,” the man responded, “there was the ‘Bar'net’—him that wrote things for the ‘Goldtown Advertiser,’ and them sort.”

“That's the very cove!” said the legal sprig, clapping his thigh with a dirty right hand, and liberating a cloud of dust which rose as smoke sneezingly into the air. Then the young fellow finished his whisky-and-soda, and ordered a room as a millionaire would engage a special train. His manners were magnificent and efflorescent, but his soul was of generous calibre. He “shouted” for the bar-lounger, asked the young lady who served to “join him, miss,” treated Cobb's driver a second time despite that worthy's independent


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expostulation, and treated himself. When the driver brought in the legal young twig's portmanteau, the bar-lounger again rejoiced, and the smart Solon from the city gave them a toast:—

“Here's the health of Sir Hugh Macdonald, Bart.!” Yes, he called the gentleman “Bart.,” just like a Sloan Creekite born and bred—and, by all that was wonderful, there was the very man, accompanied by Hugh Macdonald, the other. The “baronet's” entry was impressive and imperial. His appearance was like that of the King at the opening of his trusty and well-beloved Parliament.

“Gentlemen!” began “Sir” Hugh, in his second-best oratorical voice, “Gentlemen, language makes me a pauper in my thanks for this high distinction at your hands. Gentlemen, I feel as though I had been cut off with a verbal shilling, and my gratitude for your kindness, which calls loudly for a golden responsiveness, has at its dispensation only the base copper of a common courtesy.”

The legal spriglet took off his dusty bowler and bowed to the ground. An Australian of city birth and breeding, he cast about him mentally for terms wherewith to address a member of the British aristocracy, or, at least, a baronet of James the First's creation, no less; and stumbled on the following, picked up somewhere from an obsolets fashionable letter-writer of great-grand-motherly antiquity:

“Sir Hugh Macdonald, Bart., your most humble obedient servant to command, William Makepeace Thackeray Grounsell, managing clerk of the firm of Messrs. Smith, Brown, Robinson, Jones, and Smith, Attorneys, Solicitors, and Proctors of the Supreme Court of New South Wales;” and then, with a hasty concession of exaggerated politeness to the rank of the man whom he addressed, and another sweeping, Osric-like bow, he added, with stentorian rhetorical flourish: “Sir Hugh Macdonald, Bart., Dei Gratia!”

This was too much for the other Macdonald, who escaped into the billiard-room, coping with a vehement desire to roll on the floor and get rid of his repressed feelings. “Sir” Hugh, however, sustained the situation with a bearing of serene dignity. Truly, his fame was no figment. Nevertheless, it was in the power of know-all Mr. William Makepeace Thackeray Grounsell, “managing clerk of the firm of Messrs. Smith, Brown, Robinson, Jones, and Smith, Attorneys, Solicitors, and Proctors of the Supreme Court of New South Wales,” to disturb to its foundations the superb self-possession of even so great a man as “Sir” Hugh Macdonald, “Bart.” The old baronet in far-away Scotland was at last actually dead and indisputably buried; and the Sloan Creek correspondent of the “Goldtown Advertiser” was sought out by Mr. Grounsell's principals as the rightful heir to the title, estates, and bequeathed property. The poor Bart's” brain appeared to be in a whirl, now that the event so long talked about had been really and truly brought to pass. He gasped and tottered forward, to be caught in the strong arms of the other Macdonald just as he came out of the billiard-room, whither he had retired some time before. A few potent imbibitions soon, however, put the new “baronet” on his pins, and a messenger was hurried off to the Maison Macdonald, a none too lordly slab hut at the other end of the township, to convey the joyful tidings to her


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ladyship and the scions of the noble house. Sad to relate, “Lady” Macdonald celebrated her accession to that title in the small but secure lock-up of Sloan Creek. “Sir” Hugh was, however, magnificent. He took absolute control of the “Cosmopolitan,” and treated the entire township to whatsoever it fancied in the way of cool refreshment. Trooper O'Brien tarnished his reputation and soiled his uniform in the dust which lay thick under the long table in the hotel's commercial-room. The bank manager forgot every arithmetical operation save that of addition. The general store-keeper became a general consumer of liquor, and sorted his drinks with greater despatch than he did his letters in his reversionary capacity of postmaster. The school teacher on that one unique occasion was no example for his pupils.

The whole company became hilariously merry, and the fun waxed fast and furious. Two men were, among the jovial throng, commendably prudent and abstemious: to wit, the landlord, with his cunning grey-green eye on the main chance, and Macdonald the other, with his eye on his deliriously exhilarated namesake. A time came at length when everybody became maudlin after his kind, and some became cantankerous. A very few became unmanageably and murderously quarrelsome. Mr. Grounsell, insignificant city shaveling though he was, carried himself like a whisky-cask which had been previously seasoned by amontiladosherry. He grew neither maudlin nor cantankerous, but became outrageously obsequious to “Sir” Hugh, flamboyantly complimentary and attentive to the lady who served the drinks, and bitterly sarcastic on the rest of the company. His sarcasm ran, however, along lines followed by nobody but the bank manager and the school teacher, and by the latter vaguely. The nastiest-tempered man in the room was a sullen fellow named Sampson a huge, hulking giant, desperately poor, desperately lazy, and always desperately thirsty. Nobody liked him, and he hated everybody. “Sir” Hugh was his generous-handed host, but he hated “Sir” Hugh that night more than he hated anybody on earth, including even his half-starved drudge of a wife or the dog that he fed on boot-kicks. Sampson hated “Sir” Hugh for this new good fortune that had befallen him. Now, Sloan Creek was a quiet place, a law-abiding, good-humoured, hail-fellow-well-met, peace-on-earth sort of township. The trooper's berth was a sinecure, although he was never done dreaming of outrage and bushranging, murder, and sudden death. The vision of sudden death was in that room, however—and the one representative of the strong arm of the law, Trooper O'Brien, was slumbering peacefully in the dust under the long table. Grounsell said something to Sampson about his red hair, or his scowling face, the insulting sarcasm of which was broad and hot enough for even that dense-witted rufflan to understand; and in a minute he had whipped out a long sheath-knife and made a slash at the lawyer's branchlet. Sheath-knives were common enough in Sloan Creek, though few troubled to carry them about to a convivial evening. Their use was, however, usually confined to cutting string, or tobacco, or whip-sticks. Never were they used by Sloan Creekites on the carcase of a man and a brother. The legal sprig from Sydney slipped nimbly aside, and the savage blow spent itself in the resistless gloom of much tobacco smoke. But the bully in Sampson was on top. He raged and swore and stormed. His face grew red, he spluttered and foamed at the mouth; his giant chest heaved


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again with unrestrained fury. The “baronet,” clothed in the invisible divinity of inherited titular distinction, approached the brute with tipsy gravity, mollifying intent, and an outstretched expostulatory arm. It was a second edition of good King Canute and the incoming tide. Sampson's hairy arm went up like a flash of lightning, and like a second flash it as swiftly descended. “Sir” Hugh fell back—but not stabbed to the heart. Quick as Sampson was, the other Macdonald was quicker. He gripped the hairy wrist in a clamp as of steel, and made the giant writhe again. Sampson dropped the sheath-knife as though it were a piece of searing iron fresh from the forger's fire. The other Macdonald marched the fellow off and locked him up for the night in the “Cosmopolitan's” stable, in order to give duty-neglecting Trooper O'Brien a chance to sober up. When he returned in search of the “baronet,” he found that distinguished ornament of King James the First's creation in a meditative mood.

“You saved my life,” he said quite simply, never once referring to a mythological deity.

“Let us both go home,” said the other Macdonald, just as simply. And they went out into the clear starlight, and walked together down the one street of the township.

“You saved my life,” again remarked the “baronet.”

“Now we are quits,” said the other Macdonald. “Ah! I see you don't remember—and has time so changed me? Why, Davie, we are only about the same age!”

“Great God!” sharply cried the “baronet.” “Little Hughie! little Hughie! My own boyhood's chum, my foster-brother, my fellow-pupil, the companion of a hundred fights and frolics. The lad whom my father taught. Why, man, I dreamed you were dead years ago; although I once saved you from a watery grave in Dunruddock's Pool.”

“Is that why you changed your name and took up a claim to the title?” said the other.

“Tut, man! It was done at first more in fun than in earnest. But it grew earnest enough as time went on, and I thought you dead. At last I began to believe I was Hugh Macdonald, and not David Drummond, son of the old Aberdeen professor of classics. Anyhow, it would have served your father right if I had gone home and claimed the title and estates, after the way in which he treated you. But I do not believe I should ever have carried it through, after all! Who knows? And now you are alive—well, everything is all right. But Alice—is she——”

“Yes, she is dead!” and the other Macdonald sighed with a great weariness.

“And now you will go?” asked “Sir” Hugh.

“Yes,” said he very simply, as a mere matter of course.

“Ah! well,” said “Sir” Hugh, “it is all finished. My silly reign is ended!”

“Not so,” responded the other. “Stay here, keep your own counsel, and still be a baronet of Sloan Creek.”

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