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  ― 49 ―

The “Ne'Er-Do-Weel.”

A Doctor's Story

“OH, Billy has gone wrong altogether,” said Tom Finch; “and I'm afraid he'll never come right again. You know he was engaged to be married to little Bessie Hardwicke. Well, he carried on so outrageously that her people were obliged to break it off. You see, he got mixed up with a bad set, and it's quite a rarity to see him sober now.”

“I'm sorry to hear it,” said the doctor.

“Yes,” I remarked, “Billy is a confirmed ‘ne'er-do-weel.’ ”

“Don't say that!” said the doctor, quickly.

“Why not?” I asked, surprised to see a rather pained expression on his face.

After a moment's pause he replied:

“Because the term cannot be applied literally to any man. You may be sure that there is some good in Billy Smart. Some day it may


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come out. Shall I tell you a story of a ne'er-do-weel?”

“Yes, do!” we all cried; and the doctor began:

The first practice I had in the colonies was some hundreds of miles in the interior of New South Wales. I was located in a small township called Wambat; but my practice really extended over a district somewhat larger than Wales. I have frequently ridden over a hundred miles to attend a case, and I soon began to think very little of such a journey through the bush. My patients, of course, had to pay in proportion, and altogether the practice was not unremunerative, while the life was eminently healthy, if sometimes a little solitary.

Twelve miles from the township was situated the “homestead” of a wealthy squatter named Macpherson, with whom and his family I soon became intimate. Macpherson was a splendid type of the genus squatter: a tall, wiry old fellow, with a keen, hard head—but not a hard heart—giving fair value for what he received, and exacting the worth of his money; calculating, but generous; proud of his horses, his breed of sheep, his “station”—which covered about one hundred and fifty thousand acres—and his family, which included a wife, three daughters, and a boy. I hope I may never meet a worse man than old Ben Macpherson.

“Nor worse girls than his daughters,” put in


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Tom Finch, with a knowing wink, in which there was perhaps a little port and water.

“Nor worse girls than his daughters,” assented the doctor. “It is not impossible that you will meet one of them—the eldest—some day. Never mind the congratulations now. I will tell you more some other time. Don't interrupt me again, please.”

Well, as I have told you, I became intimate with the Macphersons. They were immensely kind to me, and I was soon a constant visitor at the “homestead,” which was called Badjally. I have said that it was twelve miles distant from Wambat. By the road it was really sixteen; but by following a rough bush-track, passing through some slip rails, fording a creek, and jumping a few fences, four miles could be saved. In the daytime, and on moonlight nights, I always chose the latter route; but on dark nights the road was preferable, as being safer and more comfortable.

Among Macpherson's station hands was a young fellow they called Ruffy; whether as an allusion to his appearance and manners, which were rough and unpolished, or to his resembling the second Norman king in the possession of a great shock of red hair, I never knew; nor did I ever learn his real name. I know, however, that he came from England, and I believe of respectable parents, and that he had no relations in Australia; whither, I have reasons for suspecting, he was sent, like many another English boy, as hopelessly incorrigible.




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Among many vices Ruffy had two virtues: he was the most daring and skilful rough-rider in the district, and he was passionately devoted to Macpherson's little son Harry. As a rider I can honestly say I never saw his equal. He was more at home on horseback—whether with or without saddle—than on foot. No buckjumper could shake him off. His manner of catching and breaking a wild horse was to me as novel as it was daring.

Armed with a halter, and mounted on a fleet animal, he would ride into the bush, and, having found a mob of wild horses, charge them. In the stampede which followed he would ride alongside one of the flying brutes, and, halter in hand, leap from his own horse upon its back. Then he would stretch along its neck, put the halter on its head, and simply ride it into subjection.

But such feats as those, in a country where horsemanship is not only a very general accomplishment, but very often with many squatters a sine qua non in the engagement of station hands, were not of sufficient value to admit of Ruffy's many failings being winked at. It was virtue number two that covered a multitude of sins in the old squatter's eyes, and had that not been accompanied by devotion of another kind, I believe that his laziness, untrustworthiness, and his many other moral blemishes would have been overlooked.

Ruffy was a confirmed inebriate. The only


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way to keep him from the bottle was to keep the bottle from him, and as you know that drunkenness, like every other form of lunacy, is attended with the cunning of the serpent, that was a task almost beyond human ingenuity. I have seen Ruffy at noon perfectly sober. I knew that there was no public house or “shanty” within twelve miles, and that the store keys were in Macpherson's own pocket. I could conceive of no possible means of his obtaining drink, and yet I have stumbled across him within an hour perfectly incapable.

I remember once living for a short time near an institution where men of means were sent by their friends to be cured of intemperate habits. From what I learned of it, I believe the system pursued to have been an admirable one, and I know that the institution annually turned out a large number of eminently satisfactory cases. No alcoholic drink of any kind was kept in the establishment; patients were not permitted to go outside the grounds unaccompanied by one of the attendants, and their friends were not allowed to see them until it had been ascertained that nothing alcoholic was being conveyed to them. And yet, in spite of these precautions, I was informed that patients frequently succeeded not only in getting drink, but also in getting drunk.

So it was with Ruffy; the most careful and systematic precautions failed in keeping him sober. It was his youth that made the case so


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utterly sad and deplorable. He was but twenty-three or twenty-four, and he was a drunkard and a ne'er-do-weel.

One evening, old Macpherson and I were sitting on the verandah at Badjally, smoking and talking. The conversation turned upon Ruffy, who was giving little Harry a lesson in riding in a paddock in front of us.

“What am I to do with that fellow?” asked Macpherson, pointing in the direction of the paddock with the stem of his pipe. “He's sober now, you see; but he managed to get blind drunk before eleven o'clock this morning, and last week he narrowly escaped an attack of the horrors.”

“I'm afraid he's a very bad lot,” I said. “I wonder that you have kept him on so long.”

I really did not wonder, for I knew that Harry, the most winning and high-spirited boy you could imagine, was the apple of his father's eye, and that the devotion between the child and Ruffy accounted for a world of forbearance. Ruffy's fidelity was perfectly dog-like, and as I then looked at them out in the field, they struck me as resembling a slim, sleek greyhound, and a great, rough, homeless mongrel.

“To tell you the truth,” said Macpherson, almost apologetically, as he too looked at the pair in the field, “I can't get rid of the fellow. You know that I'm not the sort to keep idlers about my place. If he didn't drink so terribly


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I'd overlook his laziness, and keep him on as a sort of servant for Harry. I assure you, I've given him the sack scores of times, but, like all ne'er-do-weels and bad pennies, he always turns up again after his bout. Last week I thoroughly made up my mind that he should go. I gave him a blanket, something to eat, and a couple of weeks' wages, and I told him that if ever I caught him on the station again I should give him a taste of the stock-whip. Well, he went. For the next two days little Harry did nothing but cry and mope; but on the third day he recovered his spirits, and I congratulated myself upon having at last got well rid of Master Ruffy. But, as you shall see, I cried before I was out of the bush. On the fourth day, I was riding along the creek down yonder, when I came across a very pretty picture. Harry stood on the bank with a long rod in his hand fishing for perch, and his friend Ruffy sat alongside of him, getting outside the remains of a leg of mutton and a lump of plum duff, which Harry had fetched from the house in a piece of newspaper. I found that my gentleman had camped there since I turned him away, and that he had contrived to see the youngster and effect the pleasant little arrangement.”

“Well, what did you do?” I asked.

“Do? What the dickens could I do? I believe I swore a little at first, and then I flourished my whip. I meant to use it, too; but


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I caught my boy's big eyes fixed on me, and—well, I hadn't the heart.”

As old Macpherson prided himself upon his firm and unyielding character, he made this confession with no little shame.

“All I did,” he continued, “was to take Harry up on the horse in front of me, and turn homewards. At a signal from the youngster, Ruffy shouldered his swag and followed, which I believe he'd have done without any encouragement. Doctor, that child was sent to make a fool of me in my old age. It's a very singular thing that the only man who has ever bamboozled me is my own boy.”

After delivering himself of this delightful and unconscious Irishism, Mr. Macpherson sank back upon his chair and vented his feelings in thick clouds of yellowish-brown smoke. The sun had just sunk beyond the wooded hills in the west; the soft, golden glare, which had lingered caressingly upon the hilltops for a space, had almost melted away, and with the sudden swiftness of the south the darkness was spreading over the trees. With the disappearance of the sun, the locusts in the bush ceased their monotonous humming, but the night was welcomed in by the great world of crickets under the old verandah suddenly bursting into chirping chorus, and by the croaking of a huge frog, which had found home in the water-tank hard by. Couple with these sounds the occasional cry of some strange bird


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in the trees, and the distant tinkling of the cow-bells, and you may imagine yourselves seated that evening with old Macpherson and me on the verandah at Badjally.

The long silence which ensued between us—the result, I believe, of the melancholy influence of the hour in the lonely bush, when day swiftly fades into night—was broken by Harry, who, having been called indoors by his mother, had come to say good-night. As he put his arms round the old man's neck he said:

“Dad, I want to whisper.”

“Very well, darling,” answered Macpherson, tenderly. “But how feverish you are, and your hair and coat are quite wet with dew. You shouldn't have been out so late with that nasty cold you have. Be quick and whisper, and then run off to bed.”

“You mustn't ever send Ruffy away again, dad,” I heard the child whisper, “because he's promised to be good, and never to drink any more.”

Then he kissed us both and disappeared.

Again a silence fell upon us. Macpherson smoked with a violence which was suspicious. He was a rough squatter, and by many who did not know him intimately he was looked upon as a stern and hard, although a just man; but though I did not turn to look at him (in any case, I should not have been able to see his face through the darkness and smoke), I could swear


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that there were tears upon his cheeks just then.

“What do you think of the temperance lecturer, doctor?” he asked, at last.

“I think that he is more likely to succeed with this case than Father Mathew himself would have been.”

“I fear that neither would ever succeed with that ne'er-do-weel,” remarked Macpherson, knocking the ashes out of his pipe. “He's made the same promises to me scores of times. He's a hopeless case.”

“Good-night, doctor,” said the squatter, a little later, when I mounted my horse. “It's very dark, and looks overhead like gathering for a storm, so you'd better go home by the road. And, I say,” he added, before turning to go indoors, “I don't think, after all, that it was to make a fool of me that little Harry was sent.”

As I rode along the lonely road, pondering upon my host's last vague and yet simple remark, I suddenly realized that his prognostications about the weather were well founded, for lightning began to flash in the thick darkness above, followed by crashes of thunder and heavy drops of rain. When I reached home, I was drenched to the skin. Having made my horse comfortable (at that time I had not been able to secure a servant of any kind to live at the cottage), I changed my clothes, lighted a fire, and made myself some hot grog. Before turning into bed I looked out at the


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weather, and found that, although the thunder still growled like some angry beast retiring into its lair after a fight, the storm had abated and the rain had ceased. The moon, too, had risen; but its light was mostly obscured by the heavy black clouds which were chasing each other in disorder across the sky.

At the end of about two hours' heavy and dreamless sleep I was awakened by a noise at the back door. I sat up and listened, and as the noise—which sounded like the thumping of a fist against the door—was repeated, I sprang up and pulled on some clothes, mentally deploring the bad taste of Mrs. Higgs, the publican's wife, in choosing such an unearthly hour to present the world with a little Higgs.

The surprise I experienced was not unmixed with alarm, when on opening the door I saw Ruffy half lying on the step.

He crawled into the room.

“What is it?” I demanded, anxiously.

He turned his face upwards, and by what light the moon afforded I saw that it was very pale, and that his eyes had a bleared, filmy look, with also a strange wild expression. I swear to you they might have been the eyes of a man bordering on delirium tremens. His head was bared, and the red matted hair beaten about his cheeks added to the weird repulsiveness of his appearance at that moment. He could not stand; he seemed unable to articulate. I concluded that he was drunk.




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“What is the matter?” I demanded again, angrily. “Speak, you idiot!”

His features writhed most horribly, and he opened his mouth, but for a moment no sound came. Then I heard the word “Harry!”

It was evident that something was wrong with the child; but, so that I might go provided for any emergency, it was necessary that I should learn some particulars.

“What is the matter with him?” I asked.

Again his features writhed as though he were making desperate efforts to conquer his inability to speak. It seemed to me that, notwithstanding his condition, he was terribly conscious of the importance of his mission.

“Croup!” he managed to ejaculate thickly. “Dying! Go!” And raising one of his arms on which he was leaning, he waved it with a backward movement as if imploring me to lose no time. Then he rolled over on the floor helpless and insensible.

“Even in a matter of life and death—the life or death of the child he professes to love—the brute could not keep sober,” I thought, and with my foot I spurned the worthless heap that lay in the dim light of the moon.

Then I hurried to the stable, where I fortunately had a fresh horse, and was soon galloping at full speed along the road to Badjally.

At the slip rails about a hundred yards from the house, I found Macpherson standing bare-headed,


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his long, thin hair blown about by the wind. His terrible anxiety was painful to witness.

“How could you delay so?” he said, with intense reproach. “My boy may now be dead.”

“Delay?” I cried, as we hurried to the house. “Look at my horse. I cannot have been much more than an hour on the road; the delay was your messenger's. He is drunk.”

“The scoundrel!” said Macpherson, grinding his teeth with rage. “If my child dies I'll shoot him!”

I found poor little Harry in a sad plight. If you have never seen a child suffering from croup you can have no conception of the height which childish agony can reach. When I first saw him, Harry was writhing and twisting his poor little body in the fearful and vain effort to draw a breath. I am perfectly certain that had I arrived a quarter of an hour later I should have found a corpse. As it was, I saved him. At the end of about three hours, during which I never left his side for a moment, he was in a deep sleep and out of danger.

Then I sought Macpherson, to whom the good news had been carried by one of the girls. He was in the garden, whither he had fled unable to bear the sight and sound of his darling's agony.

I found him utterly overcome by the reaction, and sobbing like a woman. His excess of gratitude was almost painful to me. I believe that had I asked him then for half his wealth he would have given it to me.




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In the morning before I left Macpherson spoke of Ruffy.

“Don't let me see that fellow again, doctor,” he said; “I couldn't bear it. My child has been spared to me; but had it been otherwise, I should have looked upon Ruffy as his murderer. Send him away somewhere. I will pay his fare to Sydney if you will have the kindness to see that he goes; only never let me look upon him again.”

“I can't understand his getting drunk,” I said, thoughtfully. “Was he sober when he left?”

“Apparently as sober as a judge,” replied Macpherson, “or I should have gone myself. He was sleeping somewhere at the back, and was the first of the servants to hear the alarm. He ran in to me, and said that he would fetch you quicker than any one else could. Black Mary was fortunately in the stockyard close handy. She's only half broken, but you know she's as fleet as the wind, coming as she does of a racing family, and Ruffy would ride any horse that was ever foaled. So I told him to go, and he ran to the yard, put a bridle on her, jumped on her bare back, and was out of sight and tearing along the bush-track in less time than it takes to tell it. I can only suppose that he had a bottle of spirits in his pocket.”

“It is certainly very strange,” I said, beginning to feel vague misgivings. “I can't imagine that he would drink at such a time; nor can I understand his getting intoxicated so quickly. And


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it strikes me now—which I did not remark in the excitement—that I did not see the mare when Ruffy arrived at the cottage. I think I'll be off now,” and I shook hands with him; “and,” I added to myself, my misgivings regarding Ruffy becoming more intense, although not more tangible, every moment, “I'll go home by the bush-track.”

It was a beautiful morning. A warm sun reigned in the perfectly clear sky. The rain had been a boon to the trees and grass, which looked greener and brighter than on the previous day. The bush had had a long-needed shower-bath, and it seemed very much the better for it; while the teeming myriads of birds, insects, and reptiles it sheltered expressed their gladness and gratitude in a ceaseless humming, buzzing, and chirping.

At another time I might have ridden leisurely along, smoking, reflecting, and enjoying nature's carolling.

But the thoughts which filled me then urged me forwards. All along the track I could follow, without slackening my pace from the quick canter in which I had started, the traces of Black Mary's hoofs, and I could judge—by their depth, their distance apart, and by other signs—of the speed to which her reckless rider had urged her. I jumped my horse over two fences where Ruffy had crossed on the stormy night just over. I followed the mare's tracks to the creek—which was now somewhat swollen with the rain—forded


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it in the same place, and then on for three or four miles to the sheep fence which bounded the station about a quarter of a mile from my cottage. This fence was composed, like many sheep boundaries in Australia, of fallen trees and branches laid together to a height varying from three to five feet. It was an easy hurdle enough in some places, and I have taken a pony over it scores of times. I was riding at it now, when I saw something which caused my heart to jump. The animal I was riding saw it too, and when about to take the leap he stopped so suddenly as almost to send me over his head. A horse lay on the other side apparently dead—a black horse!

Having crossed the fence a little lower down I rode to the spot. Yes, it was Black Mary. She had fallen upon her head, which was twisted underneath her. Her neck was broken. The explanation of the accident flashed across me in a moment. A broken branch lay half under the mare's body. I remembered having noticed it standing up from the fence only a few days before at that place. At a moment when the moon was obscured by the clouds Ruffy had ridden at the fence, the ill-fated mare had struck the branch, and here was the result!

But did the catastrophe end here? I asked myself. Ruffy had been unable to either speak or stand. Had he escaped unhurt? Then why did he crawl?—the idea of drink having been the


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cause had now altogether fled from my mind—and why did he twist and contort his features? I could think of nothing else as a cause but physical agony, and a great shudder of fear passed over me, mingled even then with a feeling of unutterable self-reproach. I feel it now, boys, and shall to the end of my life—for I had kicked him. The ground in that place was bare of grass, and wet and muddy with the heavy fall of rain. I examined it closely and quickly, but could find no impression of Ruffy's boots. All that I could see was a thick, irregular trail, as though some body had been dragged over the soft ground in the direction of the cottage.

I galloped home, rushed into the house, and found Ruffy lying there upon the floor as I had left him. I bent over and examined him. Nearly all the ribs of his left side were broken, dented right in, and one of his legs was fractured just above the ankle. Filled with a devotion heroic and sublime, he had dragged his poor, mangled body foot by foot over a quarter of a mile of rough ground on that wild night, suffering with each movement worlds of intense agony which cannot be even partially imagined, which must be known only to Him who, judging not his weakness and imperfections, but only his great last sacrifice, took him home to Himself that night.

Yes, Ruffy was dead! As I knelt on the floor by his side in an agony of spirit, I lived


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through the scene of his coming again—the efforts he made to speak without betraying his own sad plight, and the manner in which he waved me away. He must have seen my anger and disgust when I questioned him, and he must have guessed the erroneous impression I was under. And so, even as he allowed me to leave him to die, he allowed me to go misjudging him. Ruffy, you see, was a true martyr.

Clasped in his right hand, which was pressed against his breast, I afterwards discovered a little tin match-box containing a piece of paper, on which were scrawled, in a childish handwriting, the following words:

“I promis not to drink any mor.

Sined, RUFFY.

Witnes, HARRY.”

And I remembered the child's words: “You mustn't ever send Ruffy away again, dad, because he's promised to be good and never to drink any more.”

“That, boys,” concluded the doctor, “is my story of the ne'er-do-weel.”

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