― 251 ―

The Passing of Dickie.

At last old Dickie was dying. The wrinkled old face was still, quite still, and wasted to the bones. The tongue that had made its noise in the world for two and ninety years was silent, perhaps for ever.

The father—nay, the grandfather, the great-grandfather—of the district was gliding peacefully towards the realms of rest. Over Denton and the surrounding district there hung a strange expectancy. For old Dickie had kept his counsel. The solicitor from the city, with witnesses, had been with him a few days before. Something had been done, some settlement reached. But what?

Dickie's thousands! Who would possess them? For he was the father of ten, all residents of Denton. And they were the fathers or mothers of scores more, and the grandparents of hosts. To-day grey-headed men and gossiping old women, men and women in their prime, youths springing into manhood, girls blooming into womanhood, merry children by the score—to-day all of these waited and prayed and hoped. And all their prayers and all their hopes centred round that simple old wooden bed in the dingy old house amidst the pines where Dickie lay surrendering his earthly ghost.

Twenty thousand pounds, some said thirty. Who would possess them? Who?

Brown-faced stalwart fishermen sat beneath their brown sails out on the blue waters of Port Phillip Bay, and considered their chances as grandchildren. They gazed across at the township, faint in the distance, and with their eyes on the dark clump of pines showing on the hillside, they bought new boats and new sets of nets, they built new cottages.

The old white-haired farmer out on the slopes trudged deep in thought and calculation behind his team, secure in the rights of eldest son. He was surely safe, for he, too, was a Dickie. That mortgage obstinately growing for twenty years would at last be wiped away.

A storekeeper, another grandson, made bad parcels in his uneasiness about his chances. Several mothers and a couple of grandmothers waited feverishly. There were dreams of new furniture, new frocks, and boots for the children; even thoughts of “college.” Little Edwards would be turned by Dickie's thousands into gentlemen, into doctors maybe, little Evas would march two and two in the city parks, and the world would know that they were on the highway to becoming genteel. Many-coloured brilliant schemes, all supported by Dickie's hard-won gold. A miserable woodcutter, a few labourers, a rouseabout in the township for whom Dickie had been buying beer for years—they all hoped hard.

  ― 252 ―

There were recollections of Dickie's visits, of Dickie's smiles; hopes based upon a nod here and a sovereign or a playful pinch of the cheek there. For Dickie had broken the law of averages. Sixty had seen him working young men blind on the haystacks of midsummer. At seventy he was still disputing their strength and activity, and unshaken in the love of his beer and his yarn. He had raced up to eighty, his shoulders, perhaps, a little closer to his head, his wiry body perhaps a little hooped, his booked nose, that he had stamped on all his race, apparently more hooked, his face with a few more furrows. But the alert grey eyes which had seen so many years go past seemed to shine out of the ageing face with increasing lustre: and Dickie's spirit was indexed by his eyes.

Through the eighties he had worked less, walked less. But he must be about, and so he rode. He had not jogged about on old stagers. Not he. At eighty-five he had handled a young 'un, a harum-scarum chestnut with a blazed face and a deal of white in his eye. “He be a bit wicked,” rasped the old man. “But you help me up, and I be his master.” And he showed it by feeding the colt well, and riding him into submission.

I had the misfortune to be away from Denton at this crucial moment. My friend in the little town, a cricket enthusiast, sent me the wire. “Dickie fluking badly. Won't see century,” I, too, began to weigh the chances. I thought of dashing into my chief and asking for leave. But I didn't. I was only a great-grandson, and to hasten down would be indecent. “Let 'em scramble,” I muttered; “I'll trust to the will.”

But I recalled with sneaking pleasure some preferences which old Dickie had shown for me. Perhaps it was because I left the district and used to go home only once a year or so, when I wore a high collar, a city-cut suit, and yellow boots. And I was among those who inherited not only my great-grandfather's hooked nose, but also his sharp grey eyes. I chuckled as I thought of one day at Denton a couple of springs ago. That would surely be worth a thousand. Old Dickie and I had ridden together along the beach and had come on to a mile stretch of good grass going. “Be he fast?” asked the old man, indicating my horse. “Too fast for you!” I replied, lightly. “That he be not!” he shouted, and a moment later we were racing neck and neck. I recalled with pride my fine presence of mind in letting my little old great-grandfather win by a length or two, and thought what a different story it would have been if my bridle reins had broken. Dickie was too fond of a win even at ninety, and too good a sport to think of me “pulling.” And so I, too, passed the hours praying and hoping.

Dickie was dead. Yes, he had slipped away quietly in the presence of a dozen of his many relatives; slumbered off happily to the “other side” that had so long awaited him. There was a decent silence in the room; even a tear or two. But not many. And Dickie had really been so long about it that he could not expect a flood. My great-aunt Kate, a feminine replica of Dickie, with the same hooked nose and the strangely keen eyes, was there in charge, and after a pause she murmured: “Doctor.” And a great-grandson, another Dickie on diminutive lines (I can't tell you how many Dickies there

  ― 253 ―
are among us, such is the feminine hope and trust in the appellation) was sent speeding off for Doctor Grover.

The doctor was only an infant beside Dickie; but still he was sixty-five, an ancient for a rough country practice.

“Dickie's dead!” gasped the youngster irreverently; for the old man was “Dickie” and “Old Dickie” to man and child for twenty miles around.

“So!” said the doctor. “So! I expected it. A great age, a great age. I am coming, my boy.”

Young Dickie, thus relieved, went flying down the township bearing the news. “Dickie's dead!” he panted. “Died just now. I saw him die.” And the little shops put up their middle shutter, and tattered old flags floated out half-mast in the breeze.

On went the news from tongue to tongue and house to house, on beyond the township from farm to farm, until the last relative, ten miles out, had picked it up. There was dressing in hot haste, and much harnessing of horses, and hurried setting out for the dingy house among the pines. They rolled like a cloud into the town, all in decorous black, fished out I know not where.

There was halting in the township. Little knots lumped about the stores and hotels, questioning and answering. No one mentioned money, no one touched upon the will. It was: “Poor old Dickie!.. A great age!.. Do you mind how he used” … and “I can remember. … A great age! A fine old age!” And much more of a sort. The “great age,” however, was an easy first. It served to apologise for all the thoughts not expressed, and the hopes half realised.

My friend strode across to the telegraph office, and I got the wire: “Dickie clean bowled. A great innings.” That, too, was his idea of consolation.

Meanwhile Doctor Grover strode under the dark pines, past the slightly tearful women, the silent men, and the curious children, into the room of death. He carelessly took the wasted old hand, felt momentarily for the pulse, and replacing it with more than professional tenderness, he muttered: “A great age! A great, great age!”

And great-aunt Kate laid Dickie out, and spread over the form a snowy sheet. Then she went quietly out and closed the door.

The little house was filling up with generations of old and young—the farmers from the hills, the brown fishermen and their brown children, the labourers, the woodcutter, the storekeeper, and the rouseabout—the latter, with the assistance of a couple of nips, weeping genuinely. Perhaps he would miss my great-grandfather more than any of the rest, so why should he not weep? And they all stood about awkwardly, with solemn faces and silent tongues, that belied their eagerly expectant hearts. Then the women sipped the tea and the men the wine that my great-aunt Kate produced—a quiet and apparently very sad function. There were whispered allusions to Dickie's funeral, and orders, with indications already of trouble about supremacy in control. But, so far, great-aunt Kate continued to hold the wheel.

  ― 254 ―

She bustled in and out, and soon a flutter spread. They were to go in and see him. They rose awkwardly, with much shuffling of heavy feet and conventional sniffing from the women, and followed Aunt Kate. Those who could pressed into the room after her and made a wide circle round the bed; the others stretched their necks from the doorway. And the white-sheeted form lay still, very still. Aunt Kate advanced to remove the cover from Dickie's old face, but hesitated. They waited nervously.

Then the men started violently, the women screamed in chorus. For the sheet moved. Undoubtedly it moved, and then settled again, plainly crinkled. The scream died away and there was a hushed, tremulous pause. Again the sheet moved, more distinctly than before. The screaming began afresh, and there was a crush towards the door. My great-aunt Ellen, who affected a weak heart (although it had bravely pulsed her into the sixties), fainted quietly into one of the brown fishermen's arms.

The sheet moved repeatedly. There was a clutching about its top edge; bony fingers appeared, caught it, tore it down; and Dickie's grey eyes, bright as ever, and his hooked nose peered out on the throng. For a few moments he surveyed them, lifting himself slightly to get a better view. Then, as his faculties returned, and he glanced from them to the sheeted bed, the situation burst over him. A strange smile was followed by a hoarse chuckle, and he croaked: “You all be beat. I be alive!”

And I got the wire: “Umpire's decision reversed. A short ball. Dickie lashing out strongly. Century assured.”