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PART I




  ― 3 ―

JOE WILSON'S COURTSHIP.

THERE are many times in this world when a healthy boy is happy. When he is put into knickerbockers, for instance, and ‘comes a man to-day’, as my little Jim used to say. When they're cooking something at home that he likes. When the ‘sandy-blight’ or measles breaks out amongst the children, or the teacher or his wife falls dangerously ill — or dies, it doesn't matter which — ‘and there ain't no school’. When a boy is naked and in his natural state for a warm climate like Australia, with three or four of his schoolmates, under the shade of the creek-oaks in the bend where there's a good clear pool with a sandy bottom. When his father buys him a gun, and he starts out after kangaroos or 'possums. When he gets a horse, saddle, and bridle, of his own. When he has his arm in splints or a stitch in his head — he's proud then, the proudest boy in the district.

I wasn't a healthy-minded, average boy: I reckon I was born for a poet by mistake, and grew up to be a Bushman, and didn't know what was the


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matter with me — or the world — but that's got nothing to do with it.

There are times when a man is happy. When he finds out that the girl loves him. When he's just married. When he's a lawful father for the first time, and everything is going on all right: some men make fools of themselves then — I know I did. I'm happy to-night because I'm out of debt and can see clear ahead, and because I haven't been easy for a long time.

But I think that the happiest time in a man's life is when he's courting a girl and finds out for sure that she loves him and hasn't a thought for any one else. Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, and keep them clean, for they're about the only days when there's a chance of poetry and beauty coming into this life. Make the best of them and you'll never regret it the longest day you live. They're the days that the wife will look back to, anyway, in the brightest of times as well as in the blackest, and there shouldn't be anything in those days that might hurt her when she looks back. Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, for they will never come again.

A married man knows all about it — after a while: he sees the woman world through the eyes of his wife; he knows what an extra moment's pressure of the hand means, and, if he has had a hard life, and is inclined to be cynical, the knowledge does him no good. It leads him into awful messes sometimes, for a married man, if he's inclined that way, has three times the chance with a woman that a single man has — because the married man knows. He is


  ― 5 ―
privileged; he can guess pretty closely what a woman means when she says something else; he knows just how far he can go; he can go farther in five minutes towards coming to the point with a woman than an innocent young man dares go in three weeks. Above all, the married man is more decided with women; he takes them and things for granted. In short he is — well, he is a married man. And, when he knows all this, how much better or happier is he for it? Mark Twain says that he lost all the beauty of the river when he saw it with a pilot's eye, — and there you have it.

But it's all new to a young chap, provided he hasn't been a young blackguard. It's all wonderful, new, and strange to him. He's a different man. He finds that he never knew anything about women. He sees none of woman's little ways and tricks in his girl. He is in heaven one day and down near the other place the next; and that's the sort of thing that makes life interesting. He takes his new world for granted. And, when she says she'll be his wife ——!

Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, for they've got a lot of influence on your married life afterwards — a lot more than you'd think. Make the best of them, for they'll never come any more, unless we do our courting over again in another world. If we do, I'll make the most of mine.

But, looking back, I didn't do so badly after all. I never told you about the days I courted Mary. The more I look back the more I come to think that I made the most of them, and if I


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had no more to regret in married life than I have in my courting days, I wouldn't walk to and fro in the room, or up and down the yard in the dark sometimes, or lie awake some nights thinking…Ah well!

I was between twenty-one and thirty then: birthdays had never been any use to me, and I'd left off counting them. You don't take much stock in birthdays in the Bush. I'd knocked about the country for a few years, shearing and fencing and droving a little, and wasting my life without getting anything for it. I drank now and then, and made a fool of myself. I was reckoned ‘wild’; but I only drank because I felt less sensitive, and the world seemed a lot saner and better and kinder when I had a few drinks: I loved my fellow-man then and felt nearer to him. It's better to be thought ‘wild’ than to be considered eccentric or ratty. Now, my old mate, Jack Barnes, drank — as far as I could see — first because he'd inherited the gambling habit from his father along with his father's luck: he'd the habit of being cheated and losing very bad, and when he lost he drank. Till drink got a hold on him. Jack was sentimental too, but in a different way. I was sentimental about other people — more fool I! — whereas Jack was sentimental about himself. Before he was married, and when he was recovering from a spree, he'd write rhymes about ‘Only a boy, drunk by the roadside’, and that sort of thing; and he'd call 'em poetry, and talk about signing them and sending them to the ‘Town and Country Journal’. But he generally tore them up when he got better. The


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Bush is breeding a race of poets, and I don't know what the country will come to in the end.

Well. It was after Jack and I had been out shearing at Beenaway shed in the Big Scrubs. Jack was living in the little farming town of Solong, and I was hanging round. Black, the squatter, wanted some fencing done and a new stable built, or buggy and harness-house, at his place at Haviland, a few miles out of Solong. Jack and I were good Bush carpenters, so we took the job to keep us going till something else turned up. ‘Better than doing nothing,’ said Jack.

‘There's a nice little girl in service at Black's,’ he said. ‘She's more like an adopted daughter, in fact, than a servant. She's a real good little girl, and good-looking into the bargain. I hear that young Black is sweet on her, but they say she won't have anything to do with him. I know a lot of chaps that have tried for her, but they've never had any luck. She's a regular little dumpling, and I like dumplings. They call her 'Possum. You ought to try a bear up in that direction, Joe.’

I was always shy with women — except perhaps some that I should have fought shy of; but Jack wasn't — he was afraid of no woman, good, bad, or indifferent. I haven't time to explain why, but somehow, whenever a girl took any notice of me I took it for granted that she was only playing with me, and felt nasty about it. I made one or two mistakes, but — ah well!

‘My wife knows little 'Possum,’ said Jack. ‘I'll get her to ask her out to our place and let you know.’




  ― 8 ―

I reckoned that he wouldn't get me there then, and made a note to be on the watch for tricks. I had a hopeless little love-story behind me, of course. I suppose most married men can look back to their lost love; few marry the first flame. Many a married man looks back and thinks it was damned lucky that he didn't get the girl he couldn't have. Jack had been my successful rival, only he didn't know it — I don't think his wife knew it either. I used to think her the prettiest and sweetest little girl in the district.

But Jack was mighty keen on fixing me up with the little girl at Haviland. He seemed to take it for granted that I was going to fall in love with her at first sight. He took too many things for granted as far as I was concerned, and got me into awful tangles sometimes.

‘You let me alone, and I'll fix you up, Joe,’ he said, as we rode up to the station. ‘I'll make it all right with the girl. You're rather a good-looking chap. You've got the sort of eyes that take with girls, only you don't know it; you haven't got the go. If I had your eyes along with my other attractions, I'd be in trouble on account of a woman about once a-week.’

‘For God's sake shut up, Jack,’ I said.

Do you remember the first glimpse you got of your wife? Perhaps not in England, where so many couples grow up together from childhood; but it's different in Australia, where you may hail from two thousand miles away from where your wife was born, and yet she may be a countrywoman of yours, and a countrywoman in ideas


  ― 9 ―
and politics too. I remember the first glimpse I got of Mary.

It was a two-storey brick house with wide balconies and verandahs all round, and a double row of pines down to the front gate. Parallel at the back was an old slab-and-shingle place, one room deep and about eight rooms long, with a row of skillions at the back: the place was used for kitchen, laundry, servants' rooms, &c. This was the old homestead before the new house was built. There was a wide, old-fashioned, brick-floored verandah in front, with an open end; there was ivy climbing up the verandah post on one side and a baby-rose on the other, and a grape-vine near the chimney. We rode up to the end of the verandah, and Jack called to see if there was any one at home, and Mary came trotting out; so it was in the frame of vines that I first saw her.

More than once since then I've had a fancy to wonder whether the rose-bush killed the grape-vine or the ivy smothered 'em both in the end. I used to have a vague idea of riding that way some day to see. You do get strange fancies at odd times.

Jack asked her if the boss was in. He did all the talking. I saw a little girl, rather plump, with a complexion like a New England or Blue Mountain girl, or a girl from Tasmania or from Gippsland in Victoria. Red and white girls were very scarce in the Solong district. She had the biggest and brightest eyes I'd seen round there, dark hazel eyes, as I found out afterwards, and bright as a 'possum's. No wonder they called her ‘'Possum’. I forgot at once that Mrs Jack Barnes was the prettiest girl in


  ― 10 ―
the district. I felt a sort of comfortable satisfaction in the fact that I was on horseback: most Bushmen look better on horseback. It was a black filly, a fresh young thing, and she seemed as shy of girls as I was myself. I noticed Mary glanced in my direction once or twice to see if she knew me; but, when she looked, the filly took all my attention. Mary trotted in to tell old Black he was wanted, and after Jack had seen him, and arranged to start work next day, we started back to Solong.

I expected Jack to ask me what I thought of Mary — but he didn't. He squinted at me sideways once or twice and didn't say anything for a long time, and then he started talking of other things. I began to feel wild at him. He seemed so damnably satisfied with the way things were going. He seemed to reckon that I was a gone case now; but, as he didn't say so, I had no way of getting at him. I felt sure he'd go home and tell his wife that Joe Wilson was properly gone on little 'Possum at Haviland. That was all Jack's way.

Next morning we started to work. We were to build the buggy-house at the back near the end of the old house, but first we had to take down a rotten old place that might have been the original hut in the Bush before the old house was built. There was a window in it, opposite the laundry window in the old place, and the first thing I did was to take out the sash. I'd noticed Jack yarning with 'Possum before he started work. While I was at work at the window he called me round to the other end of the hut to help him lift a grindstone out of the way; and when we'd done


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it, he took the tips of my ear between his fingers and thumb and stretched it and whispered into it —

‘Don't hurry with that window, Joe; the strips are hardwood and hard to get off — you'll have to take the sash out very carefully so as not to break the glass.’ Then he stretched my ear a little more and put his mouth closer —

‘Make a looking-glass of that window, Joe,’ he said.

I was used to Jack, and when I went back to the window I started to puzzle out what he meant, and presently I saw it by chance.

That window reflected the laundry window: the room was dark inside and there was a good clear reflection; and presently I saw Mary come to the laundry window and stand with her hands behind her back, thoughtfully watching me. The laundry window had an old-fashioned hinged sash, and I like that sort of window — there's more romance about it, I think. There was thick dark-green ivy all round the window, and Mary looked prettier than a picture. I squared up my shoulders and put my heels together and put as much style as I could into the work. I couldn't have turned round to save my life.

Presently Jack came round, and Mary disappeared.

‘Well?’ he whispered.

‘You're a fool, Jack,’ I said. ‘She's only interested in the old house being pulled down.’

‘That's all right,’ he said. ‘I've been keeping an eye on the business round the corner, and she ain't interested when I'm round this end.’




  ― 12 ―

‘You seem mighty interested in the business,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ said Jack. ‘This sort of thing just suits a man of my rank in times of peace.’

‘What made you think of the window?’ I asked.

‘Oh, that's as simple as striking matches. I'm up to all those dodges. Why, where there wasn't a window, I've fixed up a piece of looking-glass to see if a girl was taking any notice of me when she thought I wasn't looking.’

He went away, and presently Mary was at the window again, and this time she had a tray with cups of tea and a plate of cake and bread-and-butter. I was prizing off the strips that held the sash, very carefully, and my heart suddenly commenced to gallop, without any reference to me. I'd never felt like that before, except once or twice. It was just as if I'd swallowed some clockwork arrangement, unconsciously, and it had started to go, without warning. I reckon it was all on account of that blarsted Jack working me up. He had a quiet way of working you up to a thing, that made you want to hit him sometimes — after you'd made an ass of yourself.

I didn't hear Mary at first. I hoped Jack would come round and help me out of the fix, but he didn't.

‘Mr — Mr Wilson!’ said Mary. She had a sweet voice.

I turned round.

‘I thought you and Mr Barnes might like a cup of tea.’

‘Oh, thank you!’ I said, and I made a dive for


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the window, as if hurry would help it. I trod on an old cask-hoop; it sprang up and dinted my shin and I stumbled — and that didn't help matters much.

‘Oh! did you hurt yourself, Mr Wilson?’ cried Mary.

‘Hurt myself! Oh no, not at all, thank you,’ I blurted out. ‘It takes more than that to hurt me.’

I was about the reddest shy lanky fool of a Bushman that was ever taken at a disadvantage on foot, and when I took the tray my hands shook so that a lot of the tea was spilt into the saucers. I embarrassed her too, like the damned fool I was, till she must have been as red as I was, and it's a wonder we didn't spill the whole lot between us. I got away from the window in as much of a hurry as if Jack had cut his leg with a chisel and fainted, and I was running with whisky for him. I blundered round to where he was, feeling like a man feels when he's just made an ass of himself in public. The memory of that sort of thing hurts you worse and makes you jerk your head more impatiently than the thought of a past crime would, I think.

I pulled myself together when I got to where Jack was.

‘Here, Jack!’ I said. ‘I've struck something all right; here's some tea and brownie — we'll hang out here all right.’

Jack took a cup of tea and a piece of cake and sat down to enjoy it, just as if he'd paid for it and ordered it to be sent out about that time.




  ― 14 ―

He was silent for a while, with the sort of silence that always made me wild at him. Presently he said, as if he'd just thought of it —

‘That's a very pretty little girl, 'Possum, isn't she, Joe? Do you notice how she dresses? — always fresh and trim. But she's got on her best bib-and-tucker to-day, and a pinafore with frills to it. And it's ironing-day, too. It can't be on your account. If it was Saturday or Sunday afternoon, or some holiday, I could understand it. But perhaps one of her admirers is going to take her to the church bazaar in Solong to-night. That's what it is.’

He gave me time to think over that.

‘But yet she seems interested in you, Joe,’ he said. ‘Why didn't you offer to take her to the bazaar instead of letting another chap get in ahead of you? You miss all your chances, Joe.’

Then a thought struck me. I ought to have known Jack well enough to have thought of it before.

‘Look here, Jack,’ I said. ‘What have you been saying to that girl about me?’

‘Oh, not much,’ said Jack. ‘There isn't much to say about you.’

‘What did you tell her?’

‘Oh, nothing in particular. She'd heard all about you before.’

‘She hadn't heard much good, I suppose,’ I said.

‘Well, that's true, as far as I could make out. But you've only got yourself to blame. I didn't have the breeding and rearing of you. I smoothed over matters with her as much as I could.’




  ― 15 ―

‘What did you tell her?’ I said. ‘That's what I want to know.’

‘Well, to tell the truth, I didn't tell her anything much. I only answered questions.’

‘And what questions did she ask?’

‘Well, in the first place, she asked if your name wasn't Joe Wilson; and I said it was, as far as I knew. Then she said she heard that you wrote poetry, and I had to admit that that was true.’

‘Look here, Jack,’ I said, ‘I've two minds to punch your head.’

‘And she asked me if it was true that you were wild,’ said Jack, ‘and I said you was, a bit. She said it seemed a pity. She asked me if it was true that you drank, and I drew a long face and said that I was sorry to say it was true. She asked me if you had any friends, and I said none that I knew of, except me. I said that you'd lost all your friends; they stuck to you as long as they could, but they had to give you best, one after the other.’

‘What next?’

‘She asked me if you were delicate, and I said no, you were as tough as fencing-wire. She said you looked rather pale and thin, and asked me if you'd had an illness lately. And I said no — it was all on account of the wild, dissipated life you'd led. She said it was a pity you hadn't a mother or a sister to look after you — it was a pity that something couldn't be done for you, and I said it was, but I was afraid that nothing could be done. I told her that I was doing all I could to keep you straight.’

I knew enough of Jack to know that most of this


  ― 16 ―
was true. And so she only pitied me after all. I felt as if I'd been courting her for six months and she'd thrown me over — but I didn't know anything about women yet.

‘Did you tell her I was in jail?’ I growled.

‘No, by Gum! I forgot that. But never mind I'll fix that up all right. I'll tell her that you got two years' hard for horse-stealing. That ought to make her interested in you, if she isn't already.’

We smoked a while.

‘And was that all she said?’ I asked.

‘Who? — Oh! 'Possum,’ said Jack rousing himself. ‘Well — no; let me think —— We got chatting of other things — you know a married man's privileged, and can say a lot more to a girl than a single man can. I got talking nonsense about sweethearts, and one thing led to another till at last she said, “I suppose Mr Wilson's got a sweetheart, Mr Barnes?”’

‘And what did you say?’ I growled.

‘Oh, I told her that you were a holy terror amongst the girls,’ said Jack. ‘You'd better take back that tray, Joe, and let us get to work.’

I wouldn't take back the tray — but that didn't mend matters, for Jack took it back himself.

I didn't see Mary's reflection in the window again, so I took the window out. I reckoned that she was just a big-hearted, impulsive little thing, as many Australian girls are, and I reckoned that I was a fool for thinking for a moment that she might give me a second thought, except by way of kindness. Why! young Black and half a dozen better men than me were sweet on her, and young Black was to get


  ― 17 ―
his father's station and the money — or rather his mother's money, for she held the stuff (she kept it close too, by all accounts). Young Black was away at the time, and his mother was dead against him about Mary, but that didn't make any difference, as far as I could see. I reckoned that it was only just going to be a hopeless, heart-breaking, stand-far-off-and-worship affair, as far as I was concerned — like my first love affair, that I haven't told you about yet. I was tired of being pitied by good girls. You see, I didn't know women then. If I had known, I think I might have made more than one mess of my life.

Jack rode home to Solong every night. I was staying at a pub some distance out of town, between Solong and Haviland. There were three or four wet days, and we didn't get on with the work. I fought shy of Mary till one day she was hanging out clothes and the line broke. It was the old-style sixpenny clothes-line. The clothes were all down, but it was clean grass, so it didn't matter much. I looked at Jack.

‘Go and help her, you capital Idiot!’ he said, and I made the plunge.

‘Oh, thank you, Mr Wilson!’ said Mary, when I came to help. She had the broken end of the line and was trying to hold some of the clothes off the ground, as if she could pull it an inch with the heavy wet sheets and table-cloths and things on it, or as if it would do any good if she did. But that's the way with women — especially little women — some of 'em would try to pull a store bullock if they got the end of the rope on the right side of the fence. I took


  ― 18 ―
the line from Mary, and accidentally touched her soft, plump little hand as I did so: it sent a thrill right through me. She seemed a lot cooler than I was.

Now, in cases like this, especially if you lose your head a bit, you get hold of the loose end of the rope that's hanging from the post with one hand, and the end of the line with the clothes on with the other, and try to pull 'em far enough together to make a knot. And that's about all you do for the present, except look like a fool. Then I took off the post end, spliced the line, took it over the fork, and pulled, while Mary helped me with the prop. I thought Jack might have come and taken the prop from her, but he didn't; he just went on with his work as if nothing was happening inside the horizon.

She'd got the line about two-thirds full of clothes, it was a bit short now, so she had to jump and catch it with one hand and hold it down while she pegged a sheet she'd thrown over. I'd made the plunge now, so I volunteered to help her. I held down the line while she threw the things over and pegged out. As we got near the post and higher I straightened out some ends and pegged myself. Bushmen are handy at most things. We laughed, and now and again Mary would say, ‘No, that's not the way, Mr Wilson; that's not right; the sheet isn't far enough over; wait till I fix it,’ &c. I'd a reckless idea once of holding her up while she pegged, and I was glad afterwards that I hadn't made such a fool of myself.

‘There's only a few more things in the basket, Miss Brand,’ I said. ‘You can't reach — I'll fix 'em up.’




  ― 19 ―

She seemed to give a little gasp.

‘Oh, those things are not ready yet,’ she said, ‘they're not rinsed,’ and she grabbed the basket and held it away from me. The things looked the same to me as the rest on the line; they looked rinsed enough and blued too. I reckoned that she didn't want me to take the trouble, or thought that I mightn't like to be seen hanging out clothes, and was only doing it out of kindness.

‘Oh, it's no trouble,’ I said, ‘let me hang 'em out. I like it. I've hung out clothes at home on a windy day,’ and I made a reach into the basket. But she flushed red, with temper I thought, and snatched the basket away.

‘Excuse me, Mr Wilson,’ she said, ‘but those things are not ready yet!’ and she marched into the wash-house.

‘Ah well! you've got a little temper of your own,’ I thought to myself.

When I told Jack, he said that I'd made another fool of myself. He said I'd both disappointed and offended her. He said that my line was to stand off a bit and be serious and melancholy in the background.

That evening when we'd started home, we stopped some time yarning with a chap we met at the gate; and I happened to look back, and saw Mary hanging out the rest of the things — she thought that we were out of sight. Then I understood why those things weren't ready while we were round.

For the next day or two Mary didn't take the slightest notice of me, and I kept out of her way. Jack said I'd disillusioned her — and hurt her


  ― 20 ―
dignity — which was a thousand times worse. He said I'd spoilt the thing altogether. He said that she'd got an idea that I was shy and poetic, and I'd only shown myself the usual sort of Bush-whacker.

I noticed her talking and chatting with other fellows once or twice, and it made me miserable. I got drunk two evenings running, and then, as it appeared afterwards, Mary consulted Jack, and at last she said to him, when we were together —

‘Do you play draughts, Mr Barnes?’

‘No,’ said Jack.

‘Do you, Mr Wilson?’ she asked, suddenly turning her big, bright eyes on me, and speaking to me for the first time since last washing-day.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do a little.’ Then there was a silence, and I had to say something else.

‘Do you play draughts, Miss Brand?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but I can't get any one to play with me here of an evening, the men are generally playing cards or reading.’ Then she said, ‘It's very dull these long winter evenings when you've got nothing to do. Young Mr Black used to play draughts, but he's away.’

I saw Jack winking at me urgently.

‘I'll play a game with you, if you like,’ I said, ‘but I ain't much of a player.’

‘Oh, thank you, Mr Wilson! When shall you have an evening to spare?’

We fixed it for that same evening. We got chummy over the draughts. I had a suspicion even then that it was a put-up job to keep me away from the pub.

Perhaps she found a way of giving a hint to old


  ― 21 ―
Black without committing herself. Women have ways — or perhaps Jack did it. Anyway, next day the Boss came round and said to me —

‘Look here, Joe, you've got no occasion to stay at the pub. Bring along your blankets and camp in one of the spare rooms of the old house. You can have your tucker here.’

He was a good sort, was Black the squatter: a squatter of the old school, who'd shared the early hardships with his men, and couldn't see why he should not shake hands and have a smoke and a yarn over old times with any of his old station hands that happened to come along. But he'd married an Englishwoman after the hardships were over, and she'd never got any Australian notions.

Next day I found one of the skillion rooms scrubbed out and a bed fixed up for me. I'm not sure to this day who did it, but I supposed that good-natured old Black had given one of the women a hint. After tea I had a yarn with Mary, sitting on a log of the wood-heap. I don't remember exactly how we both came to be there, or who sat down first. There was about two feet between us. We got very chummy and confidential. She told me about her childhood and her father.

He'd been an old mate of Black's, a younger son of a well-to-do English family (with blue blood in it, I believe), and sent out to Australia with a thousand pounds to make his way, as many younger sons are, with more or less. They think they're hard done by; they blue their thousand pounds in Melbourne or Sydney, and they don't make any


  ― 22 ―
more nowadays, for the Roarin' Days have been dead these thirty years. I wish I'd had a thousand pounds to start on!

Mary's mother was the daughter of a German immigrant, who selected up there in the old days. She had a will of her own as far as I could understand, and bossed the home till the day of her death. Mary's father made money, and lost it, and drank — and died. Mary remembered him sitting on the verandah one evening with his hand on her head, and singing a German song (the ‘Lorelei’, I think it was) softly, as if to himself. Next day he stayed in bed, and the children were kept out of the room; and, when he died, the children were adopted round (there was a little money coming from England).

Mary told me all about her girlhood. She went first to live with a sort of cousin in town, in a house where they took in cards on a tray, and then she came to live with Mrs Black, who took a fancy to her at first. I'd had no boyhood to speak of, so I gave her some of my ideas of what the world ought to be, and she seemed interested.

Next day there were sheets on my bed, and I felt pretty cocky until I remembered that I'd told her I had no one to care for me; then I suspected pity again.

But next evening we remembered that both our fathers and mothers were dead, and discovered that we had no friends except Jack and old Black, and things went on very satisfactorily.

And next day there was a little table in my room with a crocheted cover and a looking-glass.




  ― 23 ―

I noticed the other girls began to act mysterious and giggle when I was round, but Mary didn't seem aware of it.

We got very chummy. Mary wasn't comfortable at Haviland. Old Black was very fond of her and always took her part, but she wanted to be independent. She had a great idea of going to Sydney and getting into the hospital as a nurse. She had friends in Sydney, but she had no money. There was a little money coming to her when she was twenty-one — a few pounds — and she was going to try and get it before that time.

‘Look here, Miss Brand,’ I said, after we'd watched the moon rise. ‘I'll lend you the money. I've got plenty — more than I know what to do with.’

But I saw I'd hurt her. She sat up very straight for a while, looking before her; then she said it was time to go in, and said ‘Good-night, Mr Wilson.’

I reckoned I'd done it that time; but Mary told me afterwards that she was only hurt because it struck her that what she said about money might have been taken for a hint. She didn't understand me yet, and I didn't know human nature. I didn't say anything to Jack — in fact about this time I left off telling him about things. He didn't seem hurt; he worked hard and seemed happy.

I really meant what I said to Mary about the money. It was pure good nature. I'd be a happier man now, I think, and richer man perhaps, if I'd never grown any more selfish than I was that night on the wood-heap with Mary. I felt a great


  ― 24 ―
sympathy for her — but I got to love her. I went through all the ups and downs of it. One day I was having tea in the kitchen, and Mary and another girl, named Sarah, reached me a clean plate at the same time: I took Sarah's plate because she was first, and Mary seemed very nasty about it, and that gave me great hopes. But all next evening she played draughts with a drover that she'd chummed up with. I pretended to be interested in Sarah's talk, but it didn't seem to work.

A few days later a Sydney Jackaroo visited the station. He had a good pea-rifle, and one afternoon he started to teach Mary to shoot at a target. They seemed to get very chummy. I had a nice time for three or four days, I can tell you. I was worse than a wall-eyed bullock with the pleuro. The other chaps had a shot out of the rifle. Mary called ‘Mr Wilson’ to have a shot, and I made a worse fool of myself by sulking. If it hadn't been a blooming Jackaroo I wouldn't have minded so much.

Next evening the Jackaroo and one or two other chaps and the girls went out 'possum-shooting. Mary went. I could have gone, but I didn't. I mooched round all the evening like an orphan bandicoot on a burnt ridge, and then I went up to the pub and filled myself with beer, and damned the world, and came home and went to bed. I think that evening was the only time I ever wrote poetry down on a piece of paper. I got so miserable that I enjoyed it.

I felt better next morning, and reckoned I was


  ― 25 ―
cured. I ran against Mary accidentally and had to say something.

‘How did you enjoy yourself yesterday evening, Miss Brand?’ I asked.

‘Oh, very well, thank you, Mr Wilson,’ she said. Then she asked, ‘How did you enjoy yourself, Mr Wilson?’

I puzzled over that afterwards, but couldn't make anything out of it. Perhaps she only said it for the sake of saying something. But about this time my handkerchiefs and collars disappeared from the room and turned up washed and ironed and laid tidily on my table. I used to keep an eye out, but could never catch anybody near my room. I straightened up, and kept my room a bit tidy, and when my handkerchief got too dirty, and I was ashamed of letting it go to the wash, I'd slip down to the river after dark and wash it out, and dry it next day, and rub it up to look as if it hadn't been washed, and leave it on my table. I felt so full of hope and joy that I worked twice as hard as Jack, till one morning he remarked casually —

‘I see you've made a new mash, Joe. I saw the half-caste cook tidying up your room this morning and taking your collars and things to the wash-house.’

I felt very much off colour all the rest of the day, and I had such a bad night of it that I made up my mind next morning to look the hopelessness square in the face and live the thing down.

It was the evening before Anniversary Day. Jack and I had put in a good day's work to get the job


  ― 26 ―
finished, and Jack was having a smoke and a yarn with the chaps before he started home. We sat on an old log along by the fence at the back of the house. There was Jimmy Nowlett the bullock-driver, and long Dave Regan the drover, and big Jim Bullock the fencer, and one or two others. Mary and the station girls and one or two visitors were sitting under the old verandah. The Jackaroo was there too, so I felt happy. It was the girls who used to bring the chaps hanging round. They were getting up a dance party for Anniversary night. Along in the evening another chap came riding up to the station: he was a big shearer, a dark, handsome fellow, who looked like a gipsy: it was reckoned that there was foreign blood in him. He went by the name of Romany. He was supposed to be shook after Mary too. He had the nastiest temper and the best violin in the district, and the chaps put up with him a lot because they wanted him to play at Bush dances. The moon had risen over Pine Ridge, but it was dusky where we were. We saw Romany loom up, riding in from the gate; he rode round the end of the coach-house and across towards where we were — I suppose he was going to tie up his horse at the fence; but about half-way across the grass he disappeared. It struck me that there was something peculiar about the way he got down, and I heard a sound like a horse stumbling.

‘What the hell's Romany trying to do?’ said Jimmy Nowlett. ‘He couldn't have fell off his horse — or else he's drunk.’

A couple of chaps got up and went to see. Then there was that waiting, mysterious silence


  ― 27 ―
that comes when something happens in the dark and nobody knows what it is. I went over, and the thing dawned on me. I'd stretched a wire clothes-line across there during the day, and had forgotten all about it for the moment. Romany had no idea of the line, and, as he rode up, it caught him on a level with his elbows and scraped him off his horse. He was sitting on the grass, swearing in a surprised voice, and the horse looked surprised too. Romany wasn't hurt, but the sudden shock had spoilt his temper. He wanted to know who'd put up that bloody line. He came over and sat on the log. The chaps smoked a while.

‘What did you git down so sudden for, Romany?’ asked Jim Bullock presently. ‘Did you hurt yerself on the pommel?’

‘Why didn't you ask the horse to go round?’ asked Dave Regan.

‘I'd only like to know who put up that bleeding wire!’ growled Romany.

‘Well,’ said Jimmy Nowlett, ‘if we'd put up a sign to beware of the line you couldn't have seen it in the dark.’

‘Unless it was a transparency with a candle behind it,’ said Dave Regan. ‘But why didn't you get down on one end, Romany, instead of all along? It wouldn't have jolted yer so much.’

All this with the Bush drawl, and between the puffs of their pipes. But I didn't take any interest in it. I was brooding over Mary and the Jackaroo.

‘I've heard of men getting down over their horse's head,’ said Dave presently, in a reflective sort of way — ‘in fact I've done it myself — but I


  ― 28 ―
never saw a man get off backwards over his horse's rump.’

But they saw that Romany was getting nasty, and they wanted him to play the fiddle next night, so they dropped it.

Mary was singing an old song. I always thought she had a sweet voice, and I'd have enjoyed it if that damned Jackaroo hadn't been listening too. We listened in silence until she'd finished.

‘That gal's got a nice voice,’ said Jimmy Nowlett.

‘Nice voice!’ snarled Romany, who'd been waiting for a chance to be nasty. ‘Why, I've heard a tom-cat sing better.’

I moved, and Jack, he was sitting next me, nudged me to keep quiet. The chaps didn't like Romany's talk about 'Possum at all. They were all fond of her: she wasn't a pet or a tomboy, for she wasn't built that way, but they were fond of her in such a way that they didn't like to hear anything said about her. They said nothing for a while, but it meant a lot. Perhaps the single men didn't care to speak for fear that it would be said that they were gone on Mary. But presently Jimmy Nowlett gave a big puff at his pipe and spoke —

‘I suppose you got bit too in that quarter, Romany?’

‘Oh, she tried it on, but it didn't go,’ said Romany. ‘I've met her sort before. She's setting her cap at that Jackaroo now. Some girls will run after anything with trousers on,’ and he stood up.




  ― 29 ―

Jack Barnes must have felt what was coming, for he grabbed my arm, and whispered, ‘Sit still, Joe, damn you! He's too good for you!’ but I was on my feet and facing Romany as if a giant hand had reached down and wrenched me off the log and set me there.

‘You're a damned crawler, Romany!’ I said.

Little Jimmy Nowlett was between us and the other fellows round us before a blow got home. ‘Hold on, you damned fools!’ they said. ‘Keep quiet till we get away from the house!’ There was a little clear flat down by the river and plenty of light there, so we decided to go down there and have it out.

Now I never was a fighting man; I'd never learnt to use my hands. I scarcely knew how to put them up. Jack often wanted to teach me, but I wouldn't bother about it. He'd say, ‘You'll get into a fight some day, Joe, or out of one, and shame me;’ but I hadn't the patience to learn. He'd wanted me to take lessons at the station after work, but he used to get excited, and I didn't want Mary to see him knocking me about. Before he was married Jack was always getting into fights — he generally tackled a better man and got a hiding; but he didn't seem to care so long as he made a good show — though he used to explain the thing away from a scientific point of view for weeks after. To tell the truth, I had a horror of fighting; I had a horror of being marked about the face; I think I'd sooner stand off and fight a man with revolvers than fight him with fists; and then I think I would say, last thing, ‘Don't shoot me in the face!’ Then


  ― 30 ―
again I hated the idea of hitting a man. It seemed brutal to me. I was too sensitive and sentimental, and that was what the matter was. Jack seemed very serious on it as we walked down to the river, and he couldn't help hanging out blue lights.

‘Why didn't you let me teach you to use your hands?’ he said. ‘The only chance now is that Romany can't fight after all. If you'd waited a minute I'd have been at him.’ We were a bit behind the rest, and Jack started giving me points about lefts and rights, and ‘half-arms’, and that sort of thing. ‘He's left-handed, and that's the worst of it,’ said Jack. ‘You must only make as good a show as you can, and one of us will take him on afterwards.’

But I just heard him and that was all. It was to be my first fight since I was a boy, but, somehow, I felt cool about it — sort of dulled. If the chaps had known all they would have set me down as a cur. I thought of that, but it didn't make any difference with me then; I knew it was a thing they couldn't understand. I knew I was reckoned pretty soft. But I knew one thing that they didn't know. I knew that it was going to be a fight to a finish, one way or the other. I had more brains and imagination than the rest put together, and I suppose that that was the real cause of most of my trouble. I kept saying to myself, ‘You'll have to go through with it now, Joe, old man! It's the turning-point of your life.’ If I won the fight, I'd set to work and win Mary; if I lost, I'd leave the district for ever. A man thinks a lot in a flash sometimes; I used to get excited over little things, because of the very paltriness


  ― 31 ―
of them, but I was mostly cool in a crisis — Jack was the reverse. I looked ahead: I wouldn't be able to marry a girl who could look back and remember when her husband was beaten by another man — no matter what sort of brute the other man was.

I never in my life felt so cool about a thing. Jack kept whispering instructions, and showing with his hands, up to the last moment, but it was all lost on me.

Looking back, I think there was a bit of romance about it: Mary singing under the vines to amuse a Jackaroo dude, and a coward going down to the river in the moonlight to fight for her.

It was very quiet in the little moonlit flat by the river. We took off our coats and were ready. There was no swearing or barracking. It seemed an understood thing with the men that if I went out first round Jack would fight Romany; and if Jack knocked him out somebody else would fight Jack to square matters. Jim Bullock wouldn't mind obliging for one; he was a mate of Jack's, but he didn't mind who he fought so long as it was for the sake of fair play — or ‘peace and quietness’, as he said. Jim was very good-natured. He backed Romany, and of course Jack backed me.

As far as I could see, all Romany knew about fighting was to jerk one arm up in front of his face and duck his head by way of a feint, and then rush and lunge out. But he had the weight and strength and length of reach, and my first lesson was a very short one. I went down early in the round. But


  ― 32 ―
it did me good; the blow and the look I'd seen in Romany's eyes knocked all the sentiment out of me. Jack said nothing, — he seemed to regard it as a hopeless job from the first. Next round I tried to remember some things Jack had told me, and made a better show, but I went down in the end.

I felt Jack breathing quick and trembling as he lifted me up.

‘How are you, Joe?’ he whispered.

‘I'm all right,’ I said.

‘It's all right,’ whispered Jack in a voice as if I was going to be hanged, but it would soon be all over. ‘He can't use his hands much more than you can — take your time, Joe — try to remember something I told you, for God's sake!’

When two men fight who don't know how to use their hands, they stand a show of knocking each other about a lot. I got some awful thumps, but mostly on the body. Jimmy Nowlett began to get excited and jump round — he was an excitable little fellow.

‘Fight! you ——!’ he yelled. ‘Why don't you fight? That ain't fightin'. Fight, and don't try to murder each other. Use your crimson hands or, by God, I'll chip you! Fight, or I'll blanky well bullock-whip the pair of you;’ then his language got awful. They said we went like windmills, and that nearly every one of the blows we made was enough to kill a bullock if it had got home. Jimmy stopped us once, but they held him back.

Presently I went down pretty flat, but the blow


  ― 33 ―
was well up on the head and didn't matter much — I had a good thick skull. And I had one good eye yet.

‘For God's sake, hit him!’ whispered Jack — he was trembling like a leaf. ‘Don't mind what I told you. I wish I was fighting him myself! Get a blow home, for God's sake! Make a good show this round and I'll stop the fight.’

That showed how little even Jack, my old mate, understood me.

I had the Bushman up in me now, and wasn't going to be beaten while I could think. I was wonderfully cool, and learning to fight. There's nothing like a fight to teach a man. I was thinking fast, and learning more in three seconds than Jack's sparring could have taught me in three weeks. People think that blows hurt in a fight, but they don't — not till afterwards. I fancy that a fighting man, if he isn't altogether an animal, suffers more mentally than he does physically.

While I was getting my wind I could hear through the moonlight and still air the sound of Mary's voice singing up at the house. I thought hard into the future, even as I fought. The fight only seemed something that was passing.

I was on my feet again and at it, and presently I lunged out and felt such a jar in my arm that I thought it was telescoped. I thought I'd put out my wrist and elbow. And Romany was lying on the broad of his back.

I heard Jack draw three breaths of relief in one. He said nothing as he straightened me up, but I could feel his heart beating. He said afterwards


  ― 34 ―
that he didn't speak because he thought a word might spoil it.

I went down again, but Jack told me afterwards that he felt I was all right when he lifted me.

Then Romany went down, then we fell together, and the chaps separated us. I got another knock-down blow in, and was beginning to enjoy the novelty of it, when Romany staggered and limped.

‘I've done,’ he said. ‘I've twisted my ankle.’ He'd caught his heel against a tuft of grass.

‘Shake hands,’ yelled Jimmy Nowlett.

I stepped forward, but Romany took his coat and limped to his horse.

‘If yer don't shake hands with Wilson, I'll lamb yer!’ howled Jimmy; but Jack told him to let the man alone, and Romany got on his horse somehow and rode off.

I saw Jim Bullock stoop and pick up something from the grass, and heard him swear in surprise. There was some whispering, and presently Jim said —

‘If I thought that, I'd kill him.’

‘What is it?’ asked Jack.

Jim held up a butcher's knife. It was common for a man to carry a butcher's knife in a sheath fastened to his belt.

‘Why did you let your man fight with a butcher's knife in his belt?’ asked Jimmy Nowlett.

But the knife could easily have fallen out when Romany fell, and we decided it that way.

‘Any way,’ said Jimmy Nowlett, ‘if he'd stuck Joe in hot blood before us all it wouldn't be so bad as if he sneaked up and stuck him in the back in the


  ― 35 ―
dark. But you'd best keep an eye over yer shoulder for a year or two, Joe. That chap's got Eye-talian blood in him somewhere. And now the best thing you chaps can do is to keep your mouth shut and keep all this dark from the gals.’

Jack hurried me on ahead. He seemed to act queer, and when I glanced at him I could have sworn that there was water in his eyes. I said that Jack had no sentiment except for himself, but I forgot, and I'm sorry I said it.

‘What's up, Jack?’ I asked.

‘Nothing,’ said Jack.

‘What's up, you old fool?’ I said.

‘Nothing,’ said Jack, ‘except that I'm damned proud of you, Joe, you old ass!’ and he put his arm round my shoulders and gave me a shake. ‘I didn't know it was in you, Joe — I wouldn't have said it before, or listened to any other man say it, but I didn't think you had the pluck — God's truth, I didn't. Come along and get your face fixed up.’

We got into my room quietly, and Jack got a dish of water, and told one of the chaps to sneak a piece of fresh beef from somewhere.

Jack was as proud as a dog with a tin tail as he fussed round me. He fixed up my face in the best style he knew, and he knew a good many — he'd been mended himself so often.

While he was at work we heard a sudden hush and a scraping of feet amongst the chaps that Jack had kicked out of the room, and a girl's voice whispered, ‘Is he hurt? Tell me. I want to know, — I might be able to help.’

It made my heart jump, I can tell you. Jack went


  ― 36 ―
out at once, and there was some whispering. When he came back he seemed wild.

‘What is it, Jack?’ I asked.

‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, ‘only that damned slut of a half-caste cook overheard some of those blanky fools arguing as to how Romany's knife got out of the sheath, and she's put a nice yarn round amongst the girls. There's a regular bobbery, but it's all right now. Jimmy Nowlett's telling 'em lies at a great rate.’

Presently there was another hush outside, and a saucer with vinegar and brown paper was handed in.

One of the chaps brought some beer and whisky from the pub, and we had a quiet little time in my room. Jack wanted to stay all night, but I reminded him that his little wife was waiting for him in Solong, so he said he'd be round early in the morning, and went home.

I felt the reaction pretty bad. I didn't feel proud of the affair at all. I thought it was a low, brutal business all round. Romany was a quiet chap after all, and the chaps had no right to chyack him. Perhaps he'd had a hard life, and carried a big swag of trouble that we didn't know anything about. He seemed a lonely man. I'd gone through enough myself to teach me not to judge men. I made up my mind to tell him how I felt about the matter next time we met. Perhaps I made my usual mistake of bothering about ‘feelings’ in another party that hadn't any feelings at all — perhaps I didn't; but it's generally best to chance it on the kind side in a case like this. Altogether I felt as if I'd made another fool of myself and been a weak


  ― 37 ―
coward. I drank the rest of the beer and went to sleep.

About daylight I woke and heard Jack's horse on the gravel. He came round the back of the buggy-shed and up to my door, and then, suddenly, a girl screamed out. I pulled on my trousers and 'lastic-side boots and hurried out. It was Mary herself, dressed, and sitting on an old stone step at the back of the kitchen with her face in her hands, and Jack was off his horse and stooping by her side with his hand on her shoulder. She kept saying, ‘I thought you were ——! I thought you were ——!’ I didn't catch the name. An old single-barrel, muzzle-loader shot-gun was lying in the grass at her feet. It was the gun they used to keep loaded and hanging in straps in a room of the kitchen ready for a shot at a cunning old hawk that they called ‘'Tarnal Death’, and that used to be always after the chickens.

When Mary lifted her face it was as white as note-paper, and her eyes seemed to grow wilder when she caught sight of me.

‘Oh, you did frighten me, Mr Barnes,’ she gasped. Then she gave a little ghost of a laugh and stood up, and some colour came back.

‘Oh, I'm a little fool!’ she said quickly. ‘I thought I heard old 'Tarnal Death at the chickens, and I thought it would be a great thing if I got the gun and brought him down; so I got up and dressed quietly so as not to wake Sarah. And then you came round the corner and frightened me. I don't know what you must think of me, Mr Barnes.’




  ― 38 ―

‘Never mind,’ said Jack. ‘You go and have a sleep, or you won't be able to dance to-night. Never mind the gun — I'll put that away.’ And he steered her round to the door of her room off the brick verandah where she slept with one of the other girls.

‘Well, that's a rum start!’ I said.

‘Yes, it is,’ said Jack; ‘it's very funny. Well, how's your face this morning, Joe?’

He seemed a lot more serious than usual.

We were hard at work all the morning cleaning out the big wool-shed and getting it ready for the dance, hanging hoops for the candles, making seats, &c. I kept out of sight of the girls as much as I could. One side of my face was a sight and the other wasn't too classical. I felt as if I had been stung by a swarm of bees.

‘You're a fresh, sweet-scented beauty now, and no mistake, Joe,’ said Jimmy Nowlett — he was going to play the accordion that night. ‘You ought to fetch the girls now, Joe. But never mind, your face'll go down in about three weeks. My lower jaw is crooked yet; but that fight straightened my nose, that had been knocked crooked when I was a boy — so I didn't lose much beauty by it.’

When we'd done in the shed, Jack took me aside and said —

‘Look here, Joe! if you won't come to the dance to-night — and I can't say you'd ornament it — I tell you what you'll do. You get little Mary away on the quiet and take her out for a stroll — and act like a man. The job's finished now, and you won't get another chance like this.’




  ― 39 ―

‘But how am I to get her out?’ I said.

‘Never you mind. You be mooching round down by the big peppermint-tree near the river-gate, say about half-past ten.’

‘What good'll that do?’

‘Never you mind. You just do as you're told, that's all you've got to do,’ said Jack, and he went home to get dressed and bring his wife.

After the dancing started that night I had a peep in once or twice. The first time I saw Mary dancing with Jack, and looking serious; and the second time she was dancing with the blarsted Jackaroo dude, and looking excited and happy. I noticed that some of the girls, that I could see sitting on a stool along the opposite wall, whispered, and gave Mary black looks as the Jackaroo swung her past. It struck me pretty forcibly that I should have taken fighting lessons from him instead of from poor Romany. I went away and walked about four miles down the river road, getting out of the way into the Bush whenever I saw any chap riding along. I thought of poor Romany and wondered where he was, and thought that there wasn't much to choose between us as far as happiness was concerned. Perhaps he was walking by himself in the Bush, and feeling like I did. I wished I could shake hands with him.

But somehow, about half-past ten, I drifted back to the river slip-rails and leant over them, in the shadow of the peppermint-tree, looking at the rows of river-willows in the moonlight. I didn't expect anything, in spite of what Jack said.

I didn't like the idea of hanging myself: I'd been


  ― 40 ―
with a party who found a man hanging in the Bush, and it was no place for a woman round where he was. And I'd helped drag two bodies out of the Cudgeegong river in a flood, and they weren't sleeping beauties. I thought it was a pity that a chap couldn't lie down on a grassy bank in a graceful position in the moonlight and die just by thinking of it — and die with his eyes and mouth shut. But then I remembered that I wouldn't make a beautiful corpse, anyway it went, with the face I had on me.

I was just getting comfortably miserable when I heard a step behind me, and my heart gave a jump. And I gave a start too.

‘Oh, is that you, Mr Wilson?’ said a timid little voice.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Is that you, Mary?’

And she said yes. It was the first time I called her Mary, but she did not seem to notice it.

‘Did I frighten you?’ I asked.

‘No — yes — just a little,’ she said. ‘I didn't know there was any one ——’ then she stopped.

‘Why aren't you dancing?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, I'm tired,’ she said. ‘It was too hot in the wool-shed. I thought I'd like to come out and get my head cool and be quiet a little while.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it must be hot in the wool-shed.’

She stood looking out over the willows. Presently she said, ‘It must be very dull for you, Mr Wilson — you must feel lonely. Mr Barnes said ——’ Then she gave a little gasp and stopped — as if she was just going to put her foot in it.

‘How beautiful the moonlight looks on the willows!’ she said.




  ― 41 ―

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘doesn't it? Supposing we have a stroll by the river.’

‘Oh, thank you, Mr Wilson. I'd like it very much.’

I didn't notice it then, but, now I come to think of it, it was a beautiful scene: there was a horseshoe of high blue hills round behind the house, with the river running round under the slopes, and in front was a rounded hill covered with pines, and pine ridges, and a soft blue peak away over the ridges ever so far in the distance.

I had a handkerchief over the worst of my face, and kept the best side turned to her. We walked down by the river, and didn't say anything for a good while. I was thinking hard. We came to a white smooth log in a quiet place out of sight of the house.

‘Suppose we sit down for a while, Mary,’ I said.

‘If you like, Mr Wilson,’ she said.

There was about a foot of log between us.

‘What a beautiful night!’ she said.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘isn't it?’

Presently she said, ‘I suppose you know I'm going away next month, Mr Wilson?’

I felt suddenly empty. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I didn't know that.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I thought you knew. I'm going to try and get into the hospital to be trained for a nurse, and if that doesn't come off I'll get a place as assistant public-school teacher.’

We didn't say anything for a good while.

‘I suppose you won't be sorry to go, Miss Brand?’ I said.




  ― 42 ―

‘I — I don't know,’ she said. ‘Everybody's been so kind to me here.’

She sat looking straight before her, and I fancied her eyes glistened. I put my arm round her shoulders, but she didn't seem to notice it. In fact, I scarcely noticed it myself at the time.

‘So you think you'll be sorry to go away?’ I said.

‘Yes, Mr Wilson. I suppose I'll fret for a while. It's been my home, you know.’

I pressed my hand on her shoulder, just a little, so as she couldn't pretend not to know it was there. But she didn't seem to notice.

‘Ah, well,’ I said, ‘I suppose I'll be on the wallaby again next week.’

‘Will you, Mr Wilson?’ she said. Her voice seemed very soft.

I slipped my arm round her waist, under her arm. My heart was going like clockwork now.

Presently she said —

‘Don't you think it's time to go back now, Mr Wilson?’

‘Oh, there's plenty of time!’ I said. I shifted up, and put my arm farther round, and held her closer. She sat straight up, looking right in front of her, but she began to breathe hard.

‘Mary,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Call me Joe,’ I said.

‘I — I don't like to,’ she said. ‘I don't think it would be right.’

So I just turned her face round and kissed her. She clung to me and cried.

‘What is it, Mary?’ I asked.




  ― 43 ―

She only held me tighter and cried.

‘What is it, Mary?’ I said. ‘Ain't you well? Ain't you happy?’

‘Yes, Joe,’ she said, ‘I'm very happy.’ Then she said, ‘Oh, your poor face! Can't I do anything for it?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘That's all right. My face doesn't hurt me a bit now.’

But she didn't seem right.

‘What is it, Mary?’ I said. ‘Are you tired? You didn't sleep last night ——’ Then I got an inspiration.

‘Mary,’ I said, ‘what were you doing out with the gun this morning?’

And after some coaxing it all came out, a bit hysterical.

‘I couldn't sleep — I was frightened. Oh! I had such a terrible dream about you, Joe! I thought Romany came back and got into your room and stabbed you with his knife. I got up and dressed, and about daybreak I heard a horse at the gate; then I got the gun down from the wall — and — and Mr Barnes came round the corner and frightened me. He's something like Romany, you know.’

Then I got as much of her as I could into my arms.

And, oh, but wasn't I happy walking home with Mary that night! She was too little for me to put my arm round her waist, so I put it round her shoulder, and that felt just as good. I remember I asked her who'd cleaned up my room and washed my things, but she wouldn't tell.

She wouldn't go back to the dance yet; she said


  ― 44 ―
she'd go into her room and rest a while. There was no one near the old verandah; and when she stood on the end of the floor she was just on a level with my shoulder.

‘Mary,’ I whispered, ‘put your arms round my neck and kiss me.’

She put her arms round my neck, but she didn't kiss me; she only hid her face.

‘Kiss me, Mary!’ I said.

‘I — I don't like to,’ she whispered.

‘Why not, Mary?’

Then I felt her crying or laughing, or half crying and half laughing. I'm not sure to this day which it was.

‘Why won't you kiss me, Mary? Don't you love me?’

‘Because,’ she said, ‘because — because I — I don't — I don't think it's right for — for a girl to — to kiss a man unless she's going to be his wife.’

Then it dawned on me! I'd forgot all about proposing.

‘Mary,’ I said, ‘would you marry a chap like me?’

And that was all right.

Next morning Mary cleared out my room and sorted out my things, and didn't take the slightest notice of the other girls' astonishment.

But she made me promise to speak to old Black, and I did the same evening. I found him sitting on the log by the fence, having a yarn on the quiet with an old Bushman; and when the old Bushman got up and went away, I sat down.




  ― 45 ―

‘Well, Joe,’ said Black, ‘I see somebody's been spoiling your face for the dance.’ And after a bit he said, ‘Well, Joe, what is it? Do you want another job? If you do, you'll have to ask Mrs Black, or Bob’ (Bob was his eldest son); ‘they're managing the station for me now, you know.’ He could be bitter sometimes in his quiet way.

‘No,’ I said; ‘it's not that, Boss.’

‘Well, what is it, Joe?’

‘I — well the fact is, I want little Mary.’

He puffed at his pipe for a long time, then I thought he spoke.

‘What did you say, Boss?’ I said.

‘Nothing, Joe,’ he said. ‘I was going to say a lot, but it wouldn't be any use. My father used to say a lot to me before I was married.’

I waited a good while for him to speak.

‘Well, Boss,’ I said, ‘what about Mary?’

‘Oh! I suppose that's all right, Joe,’ he said. ‘I — I beg your pardon. I got thinking of the days when I was courting Mrs Black.’




  ― 47 ―

BRIGHTEN'S SISTER-IN-LAW.

JIM was born on Gulgong, New South Wales. We used to say ‘on’ Gulgong — and old diggers still talked of being ‘on th' Gulgong’ — though the goldfield there had been worked out for years, and the place was only a dusty little pastoral town in the scrubs. Gulgong was about the last of the great alluvial ‘rushes’ of the ‘roaring days’ — and dreary and dismal enough it looked when I was there. The expression ‘on’ came from being on the ‘diggings’ or goldfield — the workings or the goldfield was all underneath, of course, so we lived (or starved) on them — not in nor at 'em.

Mary and I had been married about two years when Jim came —— His name wasn't ‘Jim’, by the way, it was ‘John Henry’, after an uncle godfather; but we called him Jim from the first — (and before it) — because Jim was a popular Bush name, and most of my old mates were Jims. The Bush is full of good-hearted scamps called Jim.

We lived in an old weather-board shanty that had been a sly-grog-shop, and the Lord knows what


  ― 48 ―
else! in the palmy days of Gulgong; and I did a bit of digging (‘fossicking’, rather), a bit of shearing, a bit of fencing, a bit of Bush-carpentering, tank-sinking, — anything, just to keep the billy boiling.

We had a lot of trouble with Jim with his teeth. He was bad with every one of them, and we had most of them lanced — couldn't pull him through without. I remember we got one lanced and the gum healed over before the tooth came through, and we had to get it cut again. He was a plucky little chap, and after the first time he never whimpered when the doctor was lancing his gum: he used to say ‘tar’ afterwards, and want to bring the lance home with him.

The first turn we got with Jim was the worst. I had had the wife and Jim out camping with me in a tent at a dam I was making at Cattle Creek; I had two men working for me, and a boy to drive one of the tip-drays, and I took Mary out to cook for us. And it was lucky for us that the contract was finished and we got back to Gulgong, and within reach of a doctor, the day we did. We were just camping in the house, with our goods and chattels anyhow, for the night; and we were hardly back home an hour when Jim took convulsions for the first time.

Did you ever see a child in convulsions? You wouldn't want to see it again: it plays the devil with a man's nerves. I'd got the beds fixed up on the floor, and the billies on the fire — I was going to make some tea, and put a piece of corned beef on to boil over night — when Jim (he'd been


  ― 49 ―
queer all day, and his mother was trying to hush him to sleep) — Jim, he screamed out twice. He'd been crying a good deal, and I was dog-tired and worried (over some money a man owed me) or I'd have noticed at once that there was something unusual in the way the child cried out: as it was I didn't turn round till Mary screamed ‘Joe! Joe!’ You know how a woman cries out when her child is in danger or dying — short, and sharp, and terrible. ‘Joe! Look! look! Oh, my God! our child! Get the bath, quick! quick! it's convulsions!’

Jim was bent back like a bow, stiff as a bullock-yoke, in his mother's arms, and his eyeballs were turned up and fixed — a thing I saw twice afterwards, and don't want ever to see again.

I was falling over things getting the tub and the hot water, when the woman who lived next door rushed in. She called to her husband to run for the doctor, and before the doctor came she and Mary had got Jim into a hot bath and pulled him through.

The neighbour woman made me up a shake-down in another room, and stayed with Mary that night; but it was a long while before I got Jim and Mary's screams out of my head and fell asleep.

You may depend I kept the fire in, and a bucket of water hot over it, for a good many nights after that; but (it always happens like this) there came a night, when the fright had worn off, when I was too tired to bother about the fire, and that night Jim took us by surprise. Our wood-heap was done, and I broke up a new chair to get a fire, and had to run a quarter of a mile for water; but


  ― 50 ―
this turn wasn't so bad as the first, and we pulled him through.

You never saw a child in convulsions? Well, you don't want to. It must be only a matter of seconds, but it seems long minutes; and half an hour afterwards the child might be laughing and playing with you, or stretched out dead. It shook me up a lot. I was always pretty high-strung and sensitive. After Jim took the first fit, every time he cried, or turned over, or stretched out in the night, I'd jump: I was always feeling his forehead in the dark to see if he was feverish, or feeling his limbs to see if he was ‘limp’ yet. Mary and I often laughed about it — afterwards. I tried sleeping in another room, but for nights after Jim's first attack I'd be just dozing off into a sound sleep, when I'd hear him scream, as plain as could be, and I'd hear Mary cry, ‘Joe! — Joe!’ — short, sharp, and terrible — and I'd be up and into their room like a shot, only to find them sleeping peacefully. Then I'd feel Jim's head and his breathing for signs of convulsions, see to the fire and water, and go back to bed and try to sleep. For the first few nights I was like that all night, and I'd feel relieved when daylight came. I'd be in first thing to see if they were all right; then I'd sleep till dinner-time if it was Sunday or I had no work. But then I was run down about that time: I was worried about some money for a wool-shed I put up and never got paid for; and, besides, I'd been pretty wild before I met Mary.

I was fighting hard then — struggling for something better. Both Mary and I were born to better things, and that's what made the life so hard for us.




  ― 51 ―

Jim got on all right for a while: we used to watch him well, and have his teeth lanced in time.

It used to hurt and worry me to see how — just as he was getting fat and rosy and like a natural happy child, and I'd feel proud to take him out — a tooth would come along, and he'd get thin and white and pale and bigger-eyed and old-fashioned. We'd say, ‘He'll be safe when he gets his eye-teeth’: but he didn't get them till he was two; then, ‘He'll be safe when he gets his two-year-old teeth’: they didn't come till he was going on for three.

He was a wonderful little chap — Yes, I know all about parents thinking that their child is the best in the world. If your boy is small for his age, friends will say that small children make big men; that he's a very bright, intelligent child, and that it's better to have a bright, intelligent child than a big, sleepy lump of fat. And if your boy is dull and sleepy, they say that the dullest boys make the cleverest men — and all the rest of it. I never took any notice of that sort of clatter — took it for what it was worth; but, all the same, I don't think I ever saw such a child as Jim was when he turned two. He was everybody's favourite. They spoilt him rather. I had my own ideas about bringing up a child. I reckoned Mary was too soft with Jim. She'd say, ‘Put that’ (whatever it was) ‘out of Jim's reach, will you, Joe?’ and I'd say, ‘No! leave it there, and make him understand he's not to have it. Make him have his meals without any nonsense, and go to bed at a regular hour,’ I'd say. Mary and I had many a breeze over Jim. She'd say that I forgot he was


  ― 52 ―
only a baby: but I held that a baby could be trained from the first week; and I believe I was right.

But, after all, what are you to do? You'll see a boy that was brought up strict turn out a scamp; and another that was dragged up anyhow (by the hair of the head, as the saying is) turn out well. Then, again, when a child is delicate — and you might lose him any day — you don't like to spank him, though he might be turning out a little fiend, as delicate children often do. Suppose you gave a child a hammering, and the same night he took convulsions, or something, and died — how'd you feel about it? You never know what a child is going to take, any more than you can tell what some women are going to say or do.

I was very fond of Jim, and we were great chums. Sometimes I'd sit and wonder what the deuce he was thinking about, and often, the way he talked, he'd make me uneasy. When he was two he wanted a pipe above all things, and I'd get him a clean new clay and he'd sit by my side, on the edge of the verandah, or on a log of the wood-heap, in the cool of the evening, and suck away at his pipe, and try to spit when he saw me do it. He seemed to understand that a cold empty pipe wasn't quite the thing, yet to have the sense to know that he couldn't smoke tobacco yet: he made the best he could of things. And if he broke a clay pipe he wouldn't have a new one, and there'd be a row; the old one had to be mended up, somehow, with string or wire. If I got my hair cut, he'd want his cut too; and it always troubled him to see me shave — as if he


  ― 53 ―
thought there must be something wrong somewhere, else he ought to have to be shaved too. I lathered him one day, and pretended to shave him: he sat through it as solemn as an owl, but didn't seem to appreciate it — perhaps he had sense enough to know that it couldn't possibly be the real thing. He felt his face, looked very hard at the lather I scraped off, and whimpered, ‘No blood, daddy!’

I used to cut myself a good deal: I was always impatient over shaving.

Then he went in to interview his mother about it. She understood his lingo better than I did.

But I wasn't always at ease with him. Sometimes he'd sit looking into the fire, with his head on one side, and I'd watch him and wonder what he was thinking about (I might as well have wondered what a Chinaman was thinking about) till he seemed at least twenty years older than me: sometimes, when I moved or spoke, he'd glance round just as if to see what that old fool of a dadda of his was doing now.

I used to have a fancy that there was something Eastern, or Asiatic — something older than our civilisation or religion — about old-fashioned children. Once I started to explain my idea to a woman I thought would understand — and as it happened she had an old-fashioned child, with very slant eyes — a little tartar he was too. I suppose it was the sight of him that unconsciously reminded me of my infernal theory, and set me off on it, without warning me. Anyhow, it got me mixed up in an awful row with the woman and her husband — and all their tribe. It wasn't an easy thing to explain


  ― 54 ―
myself out of it, and the row hasn't been fixed up yet. There were some Chinamen in the district.

I took a good-size fencing contract, the frontage of a ten-mile paddock, near Gulgong, and did well out of it. The railway had got as far as the Cudgeegong river — some twenty miles from Gulgong and two hundred from the coast — and ‘carrying’ was good then. I had a couple of draught-horses, that I worked in the tip-drays when I was tank-sinking, and one or two others running in the Bush. I bought a broken-down waggon cheap, tinkered it up myself — christened it ‘The Same Old Thing’ — and started carrying from the railway terminus through Gulgong and along the bush roads and tracks that branch out fanlike through the scrubs to the one-pub towns and sheep and cattle stations out there in the howling wilderness. It wasn't much of a team. There were the two heavy horses for ‘shafters’; a stunted colt, that I'd bought out of the pound for thirty shillings; a light, spring-cart horse; an old grey mare, with points like a big red-and-white Australian store bullock, and with the grit of an old washerwoman to work; and a horse that had spanked along in Cob & Co.'s mail-coach in his time. I had a couple there that didn't belong to me: I worked them for the feeding of them in the dry weather. And I had all sorts of harness, that I mended and fixed up myself. It was a mixed team, but I took light stuff, got through pretty quick, and freight rates were high. So I got along.

Before this, whenever I made a few pounds I'd sink a shaft somewhere, prospecting for gold; but


  ― 55 ―
Mary never let me rest till she talked me out of that.

I made up my mind to take on a small selection farm — that an old mate of mine had fenced in and cleared, and afterwards chucked up — about thirty miles out west of Gulgong, at a place called Lahey's Creek. (The places were all called Lahey's Creek, or Spicer's Flat, or Murphy's Flat, or Ryan's Crossing, or some such name — round there.) I reckoned I'd have a run for the horses and be able to grow a bit of feed. I always had a dread of taking Mary and the children too far away from a doctor — or a good woman neighbour; but there were some people came to live on Lahey's Creek, and besides, there was a young brother of Mary's — a young scamp (his name was Jim, too, and we called him ‘Jimmy’ at first to make room for our Jim — he hated the name ‘Jimmy’ or James). He came to live with us — without asking — and I thought he'd find enough work at Lahey's Creek to keep him out of mischief. He wasn't to be depended on much — he thought nothing of riding off, five hundred miles or so, ‘to have a look at the country’ — but he was fond of Mary, and he'd stay by her till I got some one else to keep her company while I was on the road. He would be a protection against ‘sundowners’ or any shearers who happened to wander that way in the ‘D.T.'s’ after a spree. Mary had a married sister come to live at Gulgong just before we left, and nothing would suit her and her husband but we must leave little Jim with them for a month or so — till we got settled down at Lahey's Creek. They were newly married.

Mary was to have driven into Gulgong, in the


  ― 56 ―
spring-cart, at the end of the month, and taken Jim home; but when the time came she wasn't too well — and, besides, the tyres of the cart were loose, and I hadn't time to get them cut, so we let Jim's time run on a week or so longer, till I happened to come out through Gulgong from the river with a small load of flour for Lahey's Creek way. The roads were good, the weather grand — no chance of it raining, and I had a spare tarpaulin if it did — I would only camp out one night; so I decided to take Jim home with me.

Jim was turning three then, and he was a cure. He was so old-fashioned that he used to frighten me sometimes — I'd almost think that there was something supernatural about him; though, of course, I never took any notice of that rot about some children being too old-fashioned to live. There's always the ghoulish old hag (and some not so old nor haggish either) who'll come round and shake up young parents with such croaks as, ‘You'll never rear that child — he's too bright for his age.’ To the devil with them! I say.

But I really thought that Jim was too intelligent for his age, and I often told Mary that he ought to be kept back, and not let talk too much to old diggers and long lanky jokers of Bushmen who rode in and hung their horses outside my place on Sunday afternoons.

I don't believe in parents talking about their own children everlastingly — you get sick of hearing them; and their kids are generally little devils, and turn out larrikins as likely as not.

But, for all that, I really think that Jim, when he


  ― 57 ―
was three years old, was the most wonderful little chap, in every way, that I ever saw.

For the first hour or so, along the road, he was telling me all about his adventures at his auntie's.

‘But they spoilt me too much, dad,’ he said, as solemn as a native bear. ‘An' besides, a boy ought to stick to his parrans!’

I was taking out a cattle-pup for a drover I knew, and the pup took up a good deal of Jim's time.

Sometimes he'd jolt me, the way he talked; and other times I'd have to turn away my head and cough, or shout at the horses, to keep from laughing outright. And once, when I was taken that way, he said —

‘What are you jerking your shoulders and coughing, and grunting, and going on that way for, dad? Why don't you tell me something?’

‘Tell you what, Jim?’

‘Tell me some talk.’

So I told him all the talk I could think of. And I had to brighten up, I can tell you, and not draw too much on my imagination — for Jim was a terror at cross-examination when the fit took him; and he didn't think twice about telling you when he thought you were talking nonsense. Once he said —

‘I'm glad you took me home with you, dad. You'll get to know Jim.’

‘What!’ I said.

‘You'll get to know Jim.’

‘But don't I know you already?’

‘No, you don't. You never has time to know Jim at home.’

And, looking back, I saw that it was cruel true.


  ― 58 ―
I had known in my heart all along that this was the truth; but it came to me like a blow from Jim. You see, it had been a hard struggle for the last year or so; and when I was home for a day or two I was generally too busy, or too tired and worried, or full of schemes for the future, to take much notice of Jim. Mary used to speak to me about it sometimes. ‘You never take notice of the child,’ she'd say. ‘You could surely find a few minutes of an evening. What's the use of always worrying and brooding? Your brain will go with a snap some day, and, if you get over it, it will teach you a lesson. You'll be an old man, and Jim a young one, before you realise that you had a child once. Then it will be too late.’

This sort of talk from Mary always bored me and made me impatient with her, because I knew it all too well. I never worried for myself — only for Mary and the children. And often, as the days went by, I said to myself, ‘I'll take more notice of Jim and give Mary more of my time, just as soon as I can see things clear ahead a bit.’ And the hard days went on, and the weeks, and the months, and the years —— Ah, well!

Mary used to say, when things would get worse, ‘Why don't you talk to me, Joe? Why don't you tell me your thoughts, instead of shutting yourself up in yourself and brooding — eating your heart out? It's hard for me: I get to think you're tired of me, and selfish. I might be cross and speak sharp to you when you are in trouble. How am I to know, if you don't tell me?’

But I didn't think she'd understand.




  ― 59 ―

And so, getting acquainted, and chumming and dozing, with the gums closing over our heads here and there, and the ragged patches of sunlight and shade passing up, over the horses, over us, on the front of the load, over the load, and down on to the white, dusty road again — Jim and I got along the lonely Bush road and over the ridges, some fifteen miles before sunset, and camped at Ryan's Crossing on Sandy Creek for the night. I got the horses out and took the harness off. Jim wanted badly to help me, but I made him stay on the load; for one of the horses — a vicious, red-eyed chestnut — was a kicker: he'd broken a man's leg. I got the feed-bags stretched across the shafts, and the chaff-and-corn into them; and there stood the horses all round with their rumps north, south, and west, and their heads between the shafts, munching and switching their tails. We use double shafts, you know, for horse-teams — two pairs side by side, — and prop them up, and stretch bags between them, letting the bags sag to serve as feed-boxes. I threw the spare tarpaulin over the wheels on one side, letting about half of it lie on the ground in case of damp, and so making a floor and a break-wind. I threw down bags and the blankets and 'possum rug against the wheel to make a camp for Jim and the cattle-pup, and got a gin-case we used for a tucker-box, the frying-pan and billy down, and made a good fire at a log close handy, and soon everything was comfortable. Ryan's Crossing was a grand camp. I stood with my pipe in my mouth, my hands behind my back, and my back to the fire, and took the country in.




  ― 60 ―

Reedy Creek came down along a western spur of the range: the banks here were deep and green, and the water ran clear over the granite bars, boulders, and gravel. Behind us was a dreary flat covered with those gnarled, grey-barked, dry-rotted ‘native apple-trees’ (about as much like apple-trees as the native bear is like any other), and a nasty bit of sand-dusty road that I was always glad to get over in wet weather. To the left on our side of the creek were reedy marshes, with frogs croaking, and across the creek the dark box-scrub-covered ridges ended in steep ‘sidings’ coming down to the creek-bank, and to the main road that skirted them, running on west up over a ‘saddle’ in the ridges and on towards Dubbo. The road by Lahey's Creek to a place called Cobborah branched off, through dreary apple-tree and stringy-bark flats, to the left, just beyond the crossing: all these fanlike branch tracks from the Cudgeegong were inside a big horse-shoe in the Great Western Line, and so they gave small carriers a chance, now that Cob & Co.'s coaches and the big teams and vans had shifted out of the main western terminus. There were tall she-oaks all along the creek, and a clump of big ones over a deep water-hole just above the crossing. The creek oaks have rough barked trunks, like English elms, but are much taller, and higher to the branches — and the leaves are reedy; Kendel, the Australian poet, calls them the ‘she-oak harps Æolian’. Those trees are always sigh-sigh-sighing — more of a sigh than a sough or the ‘whoosh’ of gum-trees in the wind. You always hear them sighing, even when you can't


  ― 61 ―
feel any wind. It's the same with telegraph wires: put your head against a telegraph-post on a dead, still day, and you'll hear and feel the far-away roar of the wires. But then the oaks are not connected with the distance, where there might be wind; and they don't roar in a gale, only sigh louder and softer according to the wind, and never seem to go above or below a certain pitch, — like a big harp with all the strings the same. I used to have a theory that those creek oaks got the wind's voice telephoned to them, so to speak, through the ground.

I happened to look down, and there was Jim (I thought he was on the tarpaulin, playing with the pup): he was standing close beside me with his legs wide apart, his hands behind his back, and his back to the fire.

He held his head a little on one side, and there was such an old, old, wise expression in his big brown eyes — just as if he'd been a child for a hundred years or so, or as though he were listening to those oaks and understanding them in a fatherly sort of way.

‘Dad!’ he said presently — ‘Dad! do you think I'll ever grow up to be a man?’

‘Wh—why, Jim?’ I gasped.

‘Because I don't want to.’

I couldn't think of anything against this. It made me uneasy. But I remembered *I* used to have a childish dread of growing up to be a man.

‘Jim,’ I said, to break the silence, ‘do you hear what the she-oaks say?’

‘No, I don't. Is they talking?’




  ― 62 ―

‘Yes,’ I said, without thinking.

‘What is they saying?’ he asked.

I took the bucket and went down to the creek for some water for tea. I thought Jim would follow with a little tin billy he had, but he didn't: when I got back to the fire he was again on the 'possum rug, comforting the pup. I fried some bacon and eggs that I'd brought out with me. Jim sang out from the waggon —

‘Don't cook too much, dad — I mightn't be hungry.’

I got the tin plates and pint-pots and things out on a clean new flour-bag, in honour of Jim, and dished up. He was leaning back on the rug looking at the pup in a listless sort of way. I reckoned he was tired out, and pulled the gin-case up close to him for a table and put his plate on it. But he only tried a mouthful or two, and then he said —

‘I ain't hungry, dad! You'll have to eat it all.’

It made me uneasy — I never liked to see a child of mine turn from his food. They had given him some tinned salmon in Gulgong, and I was afraid that that was upsetting him. I was always against tinned muck.

‘Sick, Jim?’ I asked.

‘No, dad, I ain't sick; I don't know what's the matter with me.’

‘Have some tea, sonny?’

‘Yes, dad.’

I gave him some tea, with some milk in it that I'd brought in a bottle from his aunt's for him. He took a sip or two and then put the pint-pot on the gin-case.




  ― 63 ―

‘Jim's tired, dad,’ he said.

I made him lie down while I fixed up a camp for the night. It had turned a bit chilly, so I let the big tarpaulin down all round — it was made to cover a high load, the flour in the waggon didn't come above the rail, so the tarpaulin came down well on to the ground. I fixed Jim up a comfortable bed under the tail-end of the waggon: when I went to lift him in he was lying back, looking up at the stars in a half-dreamy, half-fascinated way that I didn't like. Whenever Jim was extra old-fashioned, or affectionate, there was danger.

‘How do you feel now, sonny?’

It seemed a minute before he heard me and turned from the stars.

‘Jim's better, dad.’ Then he said something like, ‘The stars are looking at me.’ I thought he was half asleep. I took off his jacket and boots, and carried him in under the waggon and made him comfortable for the night.

‘Kiss me 'night-night, daddy,’ he said.

I'd rather he hadn't asked me — it was a bad sign. As I was going to the fire he called me back.

‘What is it, Jim?’

‘Get me my things and the cattle-pup, please, daddy.’

I was scared now. His things were some toys and rubbish he'd brought from Gulgong, and I remembered, the last time he had convulsions, he took all his toys and a kitten to bed with him. And ‘'night-night’ and ‘daddy’ were two-year-old language to Jim. I'd thought he'd forgotten those words — he seemed to be going back.




  ― 64 ―

‘Are you quite warm enough, Jim?’

‘Yes, dad.’

I started to walk up and down — I always did this when I was extra worried.

I was frightened now about Jim, though I tried to hide the fact from myself. Presently he called me again.

‘What is it, Jim?’

‘Take the blankets off me, fahver — Jim's sick!’ (They'd been teaching him to say father.)

I was scared now. I remembered a neighbour of ours had a little girl die (she swallowed a pin), and when she was going she said —

‘Take the blankets off me, muvver — I'm dying.’

And I couldn't get that out of my head.

I threw back a fold of the 'possum rug, and felt Jim's head — he seemed cool enough.

‘Where do you feel bad, sonny?’

No answer for a while; then he said suddenly, but in a voice as if he were talking in his sleep —

‘Put my boots on, please, daddy. I want to go home to muvver!’

I held his hand, and comforted him for a while; then he slept — in a restless, feverish sort of way.

I got the bucket I used for water for the horses and stood it over the fire; I ran to the creek with the big kerosene-tin bucket and got it full of cold water and stood it handy. I got the spade (we always carried one to dig wheels out of bogs in wet weather) and turned a corner of the tarpaulin back, dug a hole, and trod the tarpaulin down into the hole, to serve for a bath, in case of the worst. I had


  ― 65 ―
a tin of mustard, and meant to fight a good round for Jim, if death came along.

I stooped in under the tail-board of the waggon and felt Jim. His head was burning hot, and his skin parched and dry as a bone.

Then I lost nerve and started blundering backward and forward between the waggon and the fire, and repeating what I'd heard Mary say the last time we fought for Jim: ‘God! don't take my child! God! don't take my boy!’ I'd never had much faith in doctors, but, my God! I wanted one then. The nearest was fifteen miles away.

I threw back my head and stared up at the branches, in desperation; and — Well, I don't ask you to take much stock in this, though most old Bushmen will believe anything of the Bush by night; and — Now, it might have been that I was all unstrung, or it might have been a patch of sky outlined in the gently moving branches, or the blue smoke rising up. But I saw the figure of a woman, all white, come down, down, nearly to the limbs of the trees, point on up the main road, and then float up and up and vanish, still pointing. I thought Mary was dead! Then it flashed on me ——

Four or five miles up the road, over the ‘saddle’, was an old shanty that had been a half-way inn before the Great Western Line got round as far as Dubbo and took the coach traffic off those old Bush roads. A man named Brighten lived there. He was a selector; did a little farming, and as much sly-grog selling as he could. He was married — but it wasn't that: I'd thought of them, but she was a childish, worn-out, spiritless woman, and both were pretty


  ― 66 ―
‘ratty’ from hardship and loneliness — they weren't likely to be of any use to me. But it was this: I'd heard talk, among some women in Gulgong, of a sister of Brighten's wife who'd gone out to live with them lately: she'd been a hospital matron in the city, they said; and there were yarns about her. Some said she got the sack for exposing the doctors — or carrying on with them — I didn't remember which. The fact of a city woman going out to live in such a place, with such people, was enough to make talk among women in a town twenty miles away, but then there must have been something extra about her, else Bushmen wouldn't have talked and carried her name so far; and I wanted a woman out of the ordinary now. I even reasoned this way, thinking like lightning, as I knelt over Jim between the big back wheels of the waggon.

I had an old racing mare that I used as a riding hack, following the team. In a minute I had her saddled and bridled; I tied the end of a half-full chaff-bag, shook the chaff into each end and dumped it on to the pommel as a cushion or buffer for Jim; I wrapped him in a blanket, and scrambled into the saddle with him.

The next minute we were stumbling down the steep bank, clattering and splashing over the crossing, and struggling up the opposite bank to the level. The mare, as I told you, was an old racer, but broken-winded — she must have run without wind after the first half mile. She had the old racing instinct in her strong, and whenever I rode in company I'd have to pull her hard else she'd race the other horse or burst. She ran low fore and aft,


  ― 67 ―
and was the easiest horse I ever rode. She ran like wheels on rails, with a bit of a tremble now and then — like a railway carriage — when she settled down to it.

The chaff-bag had slipped off, in the creek I suppose, and I let the bridle-rein go and held Jim up to me like a baby the whole way. Let the strongest man, who isn't used to it, hold a baby in one position for five minutes — and Jim was fairly heavy. But I never felt the ache in my arms that night — it must have gone before I was in a fit state of mind to feel it. And at home I'd often growled about being asked to hold the baby for a few minutes. I could never brood comfortably and nurse a baby at the same time. It was a ghostly moonlight night. There's no timber in the world so ghostly as the Australian Bush in moonlight — or just about daybreak. The all-shaped patches of moonlight falling between ragged, twisted boughs; the ghostly blue-white bark of the ‘white-box’ trees; a dead naked white ring-barked tree, or dead white stump starting out here and there, and the ragged patches of shade and light on the road that made anything, from the shape of a spotted bullock to a naked corpse laid out stark. Roads and tracks through the Bush made by moonlight — every one seeming straighter and clearer than the real one: you have to trust to your horse then. Sometimes the naked white trunk of a red stringy-bark tree, where a sheet of bark had been taken off, would start out like a ghost from the dark Bush. And dew or frost glistening on these things, according to the season. Now and again a great grey kangaroo, that had been feeding on a green


  ― 68 ―
patch down by the road, would start with a ‘thump-thump’, and away up the siding.

The Bush seemed full of ghosts that night — all going my way — and being left behind by the mare. Once I stopped to look at Jim: I just sat back and the mare ‘propped’ — she'd been a stock-horse, and was used to ‘cutting-out’. I felt Jim's hands and forehead; he was in a burning fever. I bent forward, and the old mare settled down to it again. I kept saying out loud — and Mary and me often laughed about it (afterwards): ‘He's limp yet! — Jim's limp yet!’ (the words seemed jerked out of me by sheer fright) — ‘He's limp yet!’ till the mare's feet took it up. Then, just when I thought she was doing her best and racing her hardest, she suddenly started forward, like a cable tram gliding along on its own and the grip put on suddenly. It was just what she'd do when I'd be riding alone and a strange horse drew up from behind — the old racing instinct. I felt the thing too! I felt as if a strange horse was there! And then — the words just jerked out of me by sheer funk — I started saying, ‘Death is riding to-night!…Death is racing to-night!…Death is riding to-night!’ till the hoofs took that up. And I believe the old mare felt the black horse at her side and was going to beat him or break her heart.

I was mad with anxiety and fright: I remember I kept saying, ‘I'll be kinder to Mary after this! I'll take more notice of Jim!’ and the rest of it.

I don't know how the old mare got up the last ‘pinch’. She must have slackened pace, but I never noticed it: I just held Jim up to me and


  ― 69 ―
gripped the saddle with my knees — I remember the saddle jerked from the desperate jumps of her till I thought the girth would go. We topped the gap and were going down into a gully they called Dead Man's Hollow, and there, at the back of a ghostly clearing that opened from the road where there were some black-soil springs, was a long, low, oblong weatherboard-and-shingle building, with blind, broken windows in the gable-ends, and a wide steep verandah roof slanting down almost to the level of the window-sills — there was something sinister about it, I thought — like the hat of a jail-bird slouched over his eyes. The place looked both deserted and haunted. I saw no light, but that was because of the moonlight outside. The mare turned in at the corner of the clearing to take a short cut to the shanty, and, as she struggled across some marshy ground, my heart kept jerking out the words, ‘It's deserted! They've gone away! It's deserted!’ The mare went round to the back and pulled up between the back door and a big bark-and-slab kitchen. Some one shouted from inside —

‘Who's there?’

‘It's me. Joe Wilson. I want your sister-in-law — I've got the boy — he's sick and dying!’

Brighten came out, pulling up his moleskins. ‘What boy?’ he asked.

‘Here, take him,’ I shouted, ‘and let me get down.’

‘What's the matter with him?’ asked Brighten, and he seemed to hang back. And just as I made to get my leg over the saddle, Jim's head went back


  ― 70 ―
over my arm, he stiffened, and I saw his eyeballs turned up and glistening in the moonlight.

I felt cold all over then and sick in the stomach — but clear-headed in a way: strange, wasn't it? I don't know why I didn't get down and rush into the kitchen to get a bath ready. I only felt as if the worst had come, and I wished it were over and gone. I even thought of Mary and the funeral.

Then a woman ran out of the house — a big, hard-looking woman. She had on a wrapper of some sort, and her feet were bare. She laid her hand on Jim, looked at his face, and then snatched him from me and ran into the kitchen — and me down and after her. As great good luck would have it, they had some dirty clothes on to boil in a kerosene tin — dish-cloths or something.

Brighten's sister-in-law dragged a tub out from under the table, wrenched the bucket off the hook, and dumped in the water, dish-cloths and all, snatched a can of cold water from a corner, dashed that in, and felt the water with her hand — holding Jim up to her hip all the time — and I won't say how he looked. She stood him in the tub and started dashing water over him, tearing off his clothes between the splashes.

‘Here, that tin of mustard — there on the shelf!’ she shouted to me.

She knocked the lid off the tin on the edge of the tub, and went on splashing and spanking Jim.

It seemed an eternity. And I? Why, I never thought clearer in my life. I felt cold-blooded — I felt as if I'd like an excuse to go outside till it was all over. I thought of Mary and the funeral — and


  ― 71 ―
wished that that was past. All this in a flash, as it were. I felt that it would be a great relief, and only wished the funeral was months past. I felt — well, altogether selfish. I only thought for myself.

Brighten's sister-in-law splashed and spanked him hard — hard enough to break his back I thought, and — after about half an hour it seemed — the end came: Jim's limbs relaxed, he slipped down into the tub, and the pupils of his eyes came down. They seemed dull and expressionless, like the eyes of a new baby, but he was back for the world again.

I dropped on the stool by the table.

‘It's all right,’ she said. ‘It's all over now. I wasn't going to let him die.’ I was only thinking, ‘Well it's over now, but it will come on again. I wish it was over for good. I'm tired of it.’

She called to her sister, Mrs Brighten, a washed-out, helpless little fool of a woman, who'd been running in and out and whimpering all the time —

‘Here, Jessie! bring the new white blanket off my bed. And you, Brighten, take some of that wood off the fire, and stuff something in that hole there to stop the draught.’

Brighten — he was a nuggety little hairy man with no expression to be seen for whiskers — had been running in with sticks and back logs from the wood-heap. He took the wood out, stuffed up the crack, and went inside and brought out a black bottle — got a cup from the shelf, and put both down near my elbow.

Mrs Brighten started to get some supper or breakfast, or whatever it was, ready. She had a clean


  ― 72 ―
cloth, and set the table tidily. I noticed that all the tins were polished bright (old coffee- and mustard-tins and the like, that they used instead of sugar-basins and tea-caddies and salt-cellars), and the kitchen was kept as clean as possible. She was all right at little things. I knew a haggard, worked-out Bushwoman who put her whole soul — or all she'd got left — into polishing old tins till they dazzled your eyes.

I didn't feel inclined for corned beef and damper, and post-and-rail tea. So I sat and squinted, when I thought she wasn't looking, at Brighten's sister-in-law. She was a big woman, her hands and feet were big, but well-shaped and all in proportion — they fitted her. She was a handsome woman — about forty I should think. She had a square chin, and a straight thin-lipped mouth — straight save for a hint of a turn down at the corners, which I fancied (and I have strange fancies) had been a sign of weakness in the days before she grew hard. There was no sign of weakness now. She had hard grey eyes and blue-black hair. She hadn't spoken yet. She didn't ask me how the boy took ill or I got there, or who or what I was — at least not until the next evening at tea-time.

She sat upright with Jim wrapped in the blanket and laid across her knees, with one hand under his neck and the other laid lightly on him, and she just rocked him gently.

She sat looking hard and straight before her, just as I've seen a tired needlewoman sit with her work in her lap, and look away back into the past. And Jim might have been the work in her lap, for all she


  ― 73 ―
seemed to think of him. Now and then she knitted her forehead and blinked.

Suddenly she glanced round and said — in a tone as if I was her husband and she didn't think much of me —

‘Why don't you eat something?’

‘Beg pardon?’

‘Eat something!’

I drank some tea, and sneaked another look at her. I was beginning to feel more natural, and wanted Jim again, now that the colour was coming back into his face, and he didn't look like an unnaturally stiff and staring corpse. I felt a lump rising, and wanted to thank her. I sneaked another look at her.

She was staring straight before her, — I never saw a woman's face change so suddenly — I never saw a woman's eyes so haggard and hopeless. Then her great chest heaved twice, I heard her draw a long shuddering breath, like a knocked-out horse, and two great tears dropped from her wide open eyes down her cheeks like rain-drops on a face of stone. And in the firelight they seemed tinged with blood.

I looked away quick, feeling full up myself. And presently (I hadn't seen her look round) she said —

‘Go to bed.’

‘Beg pardon?’ (Her face was the same as before the tears.)

‘Go to bed. There's a bed made for you inside on the sofa.’

‘But — the team — I must ——’




  ― 74 ―

‘What?’

‘The team. I left it at the camp. I must look to it.’

‘Oh! Well, Brighten will ride down and bring it up in the morning — or send the half-caste. Now you go to bed, and get a good rest. The boy will be all right. I'll see to that.’

I went out — it was a relief to get out — and looked to the mare. Brighten had got her some cornnote and chaff in a candle-box, but she couldn't eat yet. She just stood or hung resting one hind-leg and then the other, with her nose over the box — and she sobbed. I put my arms round her neck and my face down on her ragged mane, and cried for the second time since I was a boy.

As I started to go in I heard Brighten's sister-in-law say, suddenly and sharply —

‘Take that away, Jessie.’

And presently I saw Mrs Brighten go into the house with the black bottle.

The moon had gone behind the range. I stood for a minute between the house and the kitchen and peeped in through the kitchen window.

She had moved away from the fire and sat near the table. She bent over Jim and held him up close to her and rocked herself to and fro.

I went to bed and slept till the next afternoon. I woke just in time to hear the tail-end of a conversation between Jim and Brighten's sister-in-law. He was asking her out to our place and she promising to come.




  ― 75 ―

‘And now,’ says Jim, ‘I want to go home to “muffer” in “The Same Ol' Fling”.’

‘What?’

Jim repeated.

‘Oh! “The Same Old Thing”, — the waggon.’

The rest of the afternoon I poked round the gullies with old Brighten, looking at some ‘indications’ (of the existence of gold) he had found. It was no use trying to ‘pump’ him concerning his sister-in-law; Brighten was an ‘old hand’, and had learned in the old Bush-ranging and cattle-stealing days to know nothing about other people's business. And, by the way, I noticed then that the more you talk and listen to a bad character, the more you lose your dislike for him.

I never saw such a change in a woman as in Brighten's sister-in-law that evening. She was bright and jolly, and seemed at least ten years younger. She bustled round and helped her sister to get tea ready. She rooted out some old china that Mrs Brighten had stowed away somewhere, and set the table as I seldom saw it set out there. She propped Jim up with pillows, and laughed and played with him like a great girl. She described Sydney and Sydney life as I'd never heard it described before; and she knew as much about the Bush and old digging days as I did. She kept old Brighten and me listening and laughing till nearly midnight. And she seemed quick to understand everything when I talked. If she wanted to explain anything that we hadn't seen, she wouldn't say that it was ‘like a — like a’ — and hesitate (you know what I mean); she'd hit the right thing on


  ― 76 ―
the head at once. A squatter with a very round, flaming red face and a white cork hat had gone by in the afternoon: she said it was ‘like a mushroom on the rising moon.’ She gave me a lot of good hints about children.

But she was quiet again next morning. I harnessed up, and she dressed Jim and gave him his breakfast, and made a comfortable place for him on the load with the 'possum rug and a spare pillow. She got up on the wheel to do it herself. Then was the awkward time. I'd half start to speak to her, and then turn away and go fixing up round the horses, and then make another false start to say good-bye. At last she took Jim up in her arms and kissed him, and lifted him on the wheel; but he put his arms tight round her neck, and kissed her — a thing Jim seldom did with anybody, except his mother, for he wasn't what you'd call an affectionate child, — he'd never more than offer his cheek to me, in his old-fashioned way. I'd got up the other side of the load to take him from her.

‘Here, take him,’ she said.

I saw his mouth twitching as I lifted him. Jim seldom cried nowadays — no matter how much he was hurt. I gained some time fixing Jim comfortable.

‘You'd better make a start,’ she said. ‘You want to get home early with that boy.’

I got down and went round to where she stood. I held out my hand and tried to speak, but my voice went like an ungreased waggon wheel, and I gave it up, and only squeezed her hand.




  ― 77 ―

‘That's all right,’ she said; then tears came into her eyes, and she suddenly put her hand on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek. ‘You be off — you're only a boy yourself. Take care of that boy; be kind to your wife, and take care of yourself.’

‘Will you come to see us?’

‘Some day,’ she said.

I started the horses, and looked round once more. She was looking up at Jim, who was waving his hand to her from the top of the load. And I saw that haggard, hungry, hopeless look come into her eyes in spite of the tears.

I smoothed over that story and shortened it a lot, when I told it to Mary — I didn't want to upset her. But, some time after I brought Jim home from Gulgong, and while I was at home with the team for a few days, nothing would suit Mary but she must go over to Brighten's shanty and see Brighten's sister-in-law. So James drove her over one morning in the spring-cart: it was a long way, and they stayed at Brighten's overnight and didn't get back till late the next afternoon. I'd got the place in a pig-muck, as Mary said, ‘doing for’ myself, and I was having a snooze on the sofa when they got back. The first thing I remember was some one stroking my head and kissing me, and I heard Mary saying, ‘My poor boy! My poor old boy!’

I sat up with a jerk. I thought that Jim had gone off again. But it seems that Mary was only referring to me. Then she started to pull grey


  ― 78 ―
hairs out of my head and put 'em in an empty match-box — to see how many she'd get. She used to do this when she felt a bit soft. I don't know what she said to Brighten's sister-in-law or what Brighten's sister-in-law said to her, but Mary was extra gentle for the next few days.




  ― 79 ―

‘WATER THEM GERANIUMS’.

1. I. A Lonely Track.

THE time Mary and I shifted out into the Bush from Gulgong to ‘settle on the land’ at Lahey's Creek.

I'd sold the two tip-drays that I used for tank-sinking and dam-making, and I took the traps out in the waggon on top of a small load of rations and horse-feed that I was taking to a sheep-station out that way. Mary drove out in the spring-cart. You remember we left little Jim with his aunt in Gulgong till we got settled down. I'd sent James (Mary's brother) out the day before, on horseback, with two or three cows and some heifers and steers and calves we had, and I'd told him to clean up a bit, and make the hut as bright and cheerful as possible before Mary came.

We hadn't much in the way of furniture. There was the four-poster cedar bedstead that I bought


  ― 80 ―
before we were married, and Mary was rather proud of it: it had ‘turned’ posts and joints that bolted together. There was a plain hardwood table, that Mary called her ‘ironing-table’, upside down on top of the load, with the bedding and blankets between the legs; there were four of those common black kitchen-chairs — with apples painted on the hard board backs — that we used for the parlour; there was a cheap batten sofa with arms at the ends and turned rails between the uprights of the arms (we were a little proud of the turned rails); and there was the camp-oven, and the three-legged pot, and pans and buckets, stuck about the load and hanging under the tail-board of the waggon.

There was the little Wilcox & Gibb's sewing-machine — my present to Mary when we were married (and what a present, looking back to it!). There was a cheap little rocking-chair, and a looking-glass and some pictures that were presents from Mary's friends and sister. She had her mantel-shelf ornaments and crockery and nick-nacks packed away, in the linen and old clothes, in a big tub made of half a cask, and a box that had been Jim's cradle. The live stock was a cat in one box, and in another an old rooster, and three hens that formed cliques, two against one, turn about, as three of the same sex will do all over the world. I had my old cattle-dog, and of course a pup on the load — I always had a pup that I gave away, or sold and didn't get paid for, or had ‘touched’ (stolen) as soon as it was old enough. James had his three spidery, sneaking, thieving, cold-blooded kangaroo-dogs with him. I was taking out three months'


  ― 81 ―
provisions in the way of ration-sugar, tea, flour, and potatoes, &c.

I started early, and Mary caught up to me at Ryan's Crossing on Sandy Creek, where we boiled the billy and had some dinner.

Mary bustled about the camp and admired the scenery and talked too much, for her, and was extra cheerful, and kept her face turned from me as much as possible. I soon saw what was the matter. She'd been crying to herself coming along the road. I thought it was all on account of leaving little Jim behind for the first time. She told me that she couldn't make up her mind till the last moment to leave him, and that, a mile or two along the road, she'd have turned back for him, only that she knew her sister would laugh at her. She was always terribly anxious about the children.

We cheered each other up, and Mary drove with me the rest of the way to the creek, along the lonely branch track, across native-apple-tree flats. It was a dreary, hopeless track. There was no horizon, nothing but the rough ashen trunks of the gnarled and stunted trees in all directions, little or no undergrowth, and the ground, save for the coarse, brownish tufts of dead grass, as bare as the road, for it was a dry season: there had been no rain for months, and I wondered what I should do with the cattle if there wasn't more grass on the creek.

In this sort of country a stranger might travel for miles without seeming to have moved, for all the difference there is in the scenery. The new tracks were ‘blazed’ — that is, slices of bark cut off from both sides of trees, within sight of each other, in a


  ― 82 ―
line, to mark the track until the horses and wheel-marks made it plain. A smart Bushman, with a sharp tomahawk, can blaze a track as he rides. But a Bushman a little used to the country soon picks out differences amongst the trees, half unconsciously as it were, and so finds his way about.

Mary and I didn't talk much along this track — we couldn't have heard each other very well, anyway, for the ‘clock-clock’ of the waggon and the rattle of the cart over the hard lumpy ground. And I suppose we both began to feel pretty dismal as the shadows lengthened. I'd noticed lately that Mary and I had got out of the habit of talking to each other — noticed it in a vague sort of way that irritated me (as vague things will irritate one) when I thought of it. But then I thought, ‘It won't last long — I'll make life brighter for her by-and-by.’

As we went along — and the track seemed endless — I got brooding, of course, back into the past. And I feel now, when it's too late, that Mary must have been thinking that way too. I thought of my early boyhood, of the hard life of ‘grubbin'’ and ‘milkin'’ and ‘fencin'’ and ‘ploughin'’ and ‘ring-barkin'’, &c., and all for nothing. The few months at the little bark-school, with a teacher who couldn't spell. The cursed ambition or craving that tortured my soul as a boy — ambition or craving for — I didn't know what for! For something better and brighter, anyhow. And I made the life harder by reading at night.

It all passed before me as I followed on in the waggon, behind Mary in the spring-cart. I thought of these old things more than I thought of her.


  ― 83 ―
She had tried to help me to better things. And I tried too — I had the energy of half-a-dozen men when I saw a road clear before me, but shied at the first check. Then I brooded, or dreamed of making a home — that one might call a home — for Mary — some day. Ah, well! ——

And what was Mary thinking about, along the lonely, changeless miles? I never thought of that. Of her kind, careless, gentleman father, perhaps. Of her girlhood. Of her homes — not the huts and camps she lived in with me. Of our future? — she used to plan a lot, and talk a good deal of our future — but not lately. These things didn't strike me at the time — I was so deep in my own brooding. Did she think now — did she begin to feel now that she had made a great mistake and thrown away her life, but must make the best of it? This might have roused me, had I thought of it. But whenever I thought Mary was getting indifferent towards me, I'd think, ‘I'll soon win her back. We'll be sweethearts again — when things brighten up a bit.’

It's an awful thing to me, now I look back to it, to think how far apart we had grown, what strangers we were to each other. It seems, now, as though we had been sweethearts long years before, and had parted, and had never really met since.

The sun was going down when Mary called out —

‘There's our place, Joe!’

She hadn't seen it before, and somehow it came new and with a shock to me, who had been out here several times. Ahead, through the trees to the right, was a dark green clump of the oaks standing out of the creek, darker for the dead grey grass and blue-grey


  ― 84 ―
bush on the barren ridge in the background. Across the creek (it was only a deep, narrow gutter — a water-course with a chain of water-holes after rain), across on the other bank, stood the hut, on a narrow flat between the spur and the creek, and a little higher than this side. The land was much better than on our old selection, and there was good soil along the creek on both sides: I expected a rush of selectors out here soon. A few acres round the hut was cleared and fenced in by a light two-rail fence of timber split from logs and saplings. The man who took up this selection left it because his wife died here.

It was a small oblong hut built of split slabs, and he had roofed it with shingles which he split in spare times. There was no verandah, but I built one later on. At the end of the house was a big slab-and-bark shed, bigger than the hut itself, with a kitchen, a skillion for tools, harness, and horse-feed, and a spare bedroom partitioned off with sheets of bark and old chaff-bags. The house itself was floored roughly, with cracks between the boards; there were cracks between the slabs all round — though he'd nailed strips of tin, from old kerosene-tins, over some of them; the partitioned-off bedroom was lined with old chaff-bags with newspapers pasted over them for wall-paper. There was no ceiling, calico or otherwise, and we could see the round pine rafters and battens, and the under ends of the shingles. But ceilings make a hut hot and harbour insects and reptiles — snakes sometimes. There was one small glass window in the ‘dining-room’ with three panes and a sheet of greased paper, and the


  ― 85 ―
rest were rough wooden shutters. There was a pretty good cow-yard and calf-pen, and — that was about all. There was no dam or tank (I made one later on); there was a water-cask, with the hoops falling off and the staves gaping, at the corner of the house, and spouting, made of lengths of bent tin, ran round under the eaves. Water from a new shingle roof is wine-red for a year or two, and water from a stringy-bark roof is like tan-water for years. In dry weather the selector had got his house water from a cask sunk in the gravel at the bottom of the deepest water-hole in the creek. And the longer the drought lasted, the farther he had to go down the creek for his water, with a cask on a cart, and take his cows to drink, if he had any. Four, five, six, or seven miles — even ten miles to water is nothing in some places.

James hadn't found himself called upon to do more than milk old ‘Spot’ (the grandmother cow of our mob), pen the calf at night, make a fire in the kitchen, and sweep out the house with a bough. He helped me unharness and water and feed the horses, and then started to get the furniture off the waggon and into the house. James wasn't lazy — so long as one thing didn't last too long; but he was too uncomfortably practical and matter-of-fact for me. Mary and I had some tea in the kitchen. The kitchen was permanently furnished with a table of split slabs, adzed smooth on top, and supported by four stakes driven into the ground, a three-legged stool and a block of wood, and two long stools made of half-round slabs (sapling trunks split in halves)


  ― 86 ―
with auger-holes bored in the round side and sticks stuck into them for legs. The floor was of clay; the chimney of slabs and tin; the fireplace was about eight feet wide, lined with clay, and with a blackened pole across, with sooty chains and wire hooks on it for the pots.

Mary didn't seem able to eat. She sat on the three-legged stool near the fire, though it was warm weather, and kept her face turned from me. Mary was still pretty, but not the little dumpling she had been: she was thinner now. She had big dark hazel eyes that shone a little too much when she was pleased or excited. I thought at times that there was something very German about her expression; also something aristocratic about the turn of her nose, which nipped in at the nostrils when she spoke. There was nothing aristocratic about me. Mary was German in figure and walk. I used sometimes to call her ‘Little Duchy’ and ‘Pigeon Toes’. She had a will of her own, as shown sometimes by the obstinate knit in her forehead between the eyes.

Mary sat still by the fire, and presently I saw her chin tremble.

‘What is it, Mary?’

She turned her face farther from me. I felt tired, disappointed, and irritated — suffering from a reaction.

‘Now, what is it, Mary?’ I asked; ‘I'm sick of this sort of thing. Haven't you got everything you wanted? You've had your own way. What's the matter with you now?’

‘You know very well, Joe.’




  ― 87 ―

‘But I don't know,’ I said. I knew too well.

She said nothing.

‘Look here, Mary,’ I said, putting my hand on her shoulder, ‘don't go on like that; tell me what's the matter?’

‘It's only this,’ she said suddenly, ‘I can't stand this life here; it will kill me!’

I had a pannikin of tea in my hand, and I banged it down on the table.

‘This is more than a man can stand!’ I shouted. ‘You know very well that it was you that dragged me out here. You run me on to this! Why weren't you content to stay in Gulgong?’

‘And what sort of a place was Gulgong, Joe?’ asked Mary quietly.

(I thought even then in a flash what sort of a place Gulgong was. A wretched remnant of a town on an abandoned goldfield. One street, each side of the dusty main road; three or four one-storey square brick cottages with hip roofs of galvanised iron that glared in the heat — four rooms and a passage — the police-station, bank-manager and schoolmaster's cottages, &c. Half-a-dozen tumble-down weather-board shanties — the three pubs., the two stores, and the post-office. The town tailing off into weather-board boxes with tin tops, and old bark huts — relics of the digging days — propped up by many rotting poles. The men, when at home, mostly asleep or droning over their pipes or hanging about the verandah posts of the pubs., saying, ‘'Ullo, Bill!’ or ‘'Ullo, Jim!’ — or sometimes drunk. The women, mostly hags, who blackened each other's and girls' characters with their tongues, and


  ― 88 ―
criticised the aristocracy's washing hung out on the line: ‘And the colour of the clothes! Does that woman wash her clothes at all? or only soak 'em and hang 'em out?’ — that was Gulgong.)

‘Well, why didn't you come to Sydney, as I wanted you to?’ I asked Mary.

‘You know very well, Joe,’ said Mary quietly.

(I knew very well, but the knowledge only maddened me. I had had an idea of getting a billet in one of the big wool-stores — I was a fair wool expert — but Mary was afraid of the drink. I could keep well away from it so long as I worked hard in the Bush. I had gone to Sydney twice since I met Mary, once before we were married, and she forgave me when I came back; and once afterwards. I got a billet there then, and was going to send for her in a month. After eight weeks she raised the money somehow and came to Sydney and brought me home. I got pretty low down that time.)

‘But, Mary,’ I said, ‘it would have been different this time. You would have been with me. I can take a glass now or leave it alone.’

‘As long as you take a glass there is danger,’ she said.

‘Well, what did you want to advise me to come out here for, if you can't stand it? Why didn't you stay where you were?’ I asked.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘why weren't you more decided?’

I'd sat down, but I jumped to my feet then.

‘Good God!’ I shouted, ‘this is more than any man can stand. I'll chuck it all up! I'm damned well sick and tired of the whole thing.’

‘So am I, Joe,’ said Mary wearily.




  ― 89 ―

We quarrelled badly then — that first hour in our new home. I know now whose fault it was.

I got my hat and went out and started to walk down the creek. I didn't feel bitter against Mary — I had spoken too cruelly to her to feel that way. Looking back, I could see plainly that if I had taken her advice all through, instead of now and again, things would have been all right with me. I had come away and left her crying in the hut, and James telling her, in a brotherly way, that it was all her fault. The trouble was that I never liked to ‘give in’ or go half-way to make it up — not half-way — it was all the way or nothing with our natures.

‘If I don't make a stand now,’ I'd say, ‘I'll never be master. I gave up the reins when I got married, and I'll have to get them back again.’

What women some men are! But the time came, and not many years after, when I stood by the bed where Mary lay, white and still; and, amongst other things, I kept saying, ‘I'll give in, Mary — I'll give in,’ and then I'd laugh. They thought that I was raving mad, and took me from the room. But that time was to come.

As I walked down the creek track in the moonlight the question rang in my ears again, as it had done when I first caught sight of the house that evening —

‘Why did I bring her here?’

I was not fit to ‘go on the land’. The place was only fit for some stolid German, or Scotsman, or even Englishman and his wife, who had no ambition but to bullock and make a farm of the place. I had


  ― 90 ―
only drifted here through carelessness, brooding, and discontent.

I walked on and on till I was more than half-way to the only neighbours — a wretched selector's family, about four miles down the creek, — and I thought I'd go on to the house and see if they had any fresh meat.

A mile or two farther I saw the loom of the bark hut they lived in, on a patchy clearing in the scrub, and heard the voice of the selector's wife — I had seen her several times: she was a gaunt, haggard Bushwoman, and, I supposed, the reason why she hadn't gone mad through hardship and loneliness was that she hadn't either the brains or the memory to go farther than she could see through the trunks of the ‘apple-trees’.

‘You, An-nay!’ (Annie.)

‘Ye-es’ (from somewhere in the gloom).

‘Didn't I tell yer to water them geraniums!’

‘Well, didn't I?’

‘Don't tell lies or I'll break yer young back!’

‘I did, I tell yer — the water won't soak inter the ashes.’

Geraniums were the only flowers I saw grow in the drought out there. I remembered this woman had a few dirty grey-green leaves behind some sticks against the bark wall near the door; and in spite of the sticks the fowls used to get in and scratch beds under the geraniums, and scratch dust over them, and ashes were thrown there — with an idea of helping the flower, I suppose; and greasy dish-water, when fresh water was scarce — till you might as well try to water a dish of fat.




  ― 91 ―

Then the woman's voice again —

‘You, Tom-may!’ (Tommy.)

Silence, save for an echo on the ridge.

‘Y-o-u, T-o-m-may!’

‘Ye-e-s!’ shrill shriek from across the creek.

‘Didn't I tell you to ride up to them new people and see if they want any meat or any think?’ in one long screech.

‘Well — I karnt find the horse.’

‘Well-find-it-first-think-in-the-morning and. And-don't-forgit- to-tell-Mrs-Wi'son-that-mother'll-be-up-as-soon-as-she-can.’

I didn't feel like going to the woman's house that night. I felt — and the thought came like a whip-stroke on my heart — that this was what Mary would come to if I left her here.

I turned and started to walk home, fast. I'd made up my mind. I'd take Mary straight back to Gulgong in the morning — I forgot about the load I had to take to the sheep station. I'd say, ‘Look here, Girlie’ (that's what I used to call her), ‘we'll leave this wretched life; we'll leave the Bush for ever! We'll go to Sydney, and I'll be a man! and work my way up.’ And I'd sell waggon, horses, and all, and go.

When I got to the hut it was lighted up. Mary had the only kerosene lamp, a slush lamp, and two tallow candles going. She had got both rooms washed out — to James's disgust, for he had to move the furniture and boxes about. She had a lot of things unpacked on the table; she had laid clean newspapers on the mantel-shelf — a slab on two pegs


  ― 92 ―
over the fireplace — and put the little wooden clock in the centre and some of the ornaments on each side, and was tacking a strip of vandyked American oil-cloth round the rough edge of the slab.

‘How does that look, Joe? We'll soon get things ship-shape.’

I kissed her, but she had her mouth full of tacks. I went out in the kitchen, drank a pint of cold tea, and sat down.

Somehow I didn't feel satisfied with the way things had gone.




  ― 93 ―

2. II. ‘Past Carin'’.

NEXT morning things looked a lot brighter. Things always look brighter in the morning — more so in the Australian Bush, I should think, than in most other places. It is when the sun goes down on the dark bed of the lonely Bush, and the sunset flashes like a sea of fire and then fades, and then glows out again, like a bank of coals, and then burns away to ashes — it is then that old things come home to one. And strange, new-old things too, that haunt and depress you terribly, and that you can't understand. I often think how, at sunset, the past must come home to new-chum blacksheep, sent out to Australia and drifted into the Bush. I used to think that they couldn't have much brains, or the loneliness would drive them mad.

I'd decided to let James take the team for a trip or two. He could drive alright; he was a better business man, and no doubt would manage better than me — as long as the novelty lasted; and I'd stay at home for a week or so, till Mary got used to the place, or I could get a girl from somewhere to come and stay with her. The first weeks or few months of loneliness are the worst, as a rule,


  ― 94 ―
I believe, as they say the first weeks in jail are — I was never there. I know it's so with tramping or hard graft:note the first day or two are twice as hard as any of the rest. But, for my part, I could never get used to loneliness and dulness; the last days used to be the worst with me: then I'd have to make a move, or drink. When you've been too much and too long alone in a lonely place, you begin to do queer things and think queer thoughts — provided you have any imagination at all. You'll sometimes sit of an evening and watch the lonely track, by the hour, for a horseman or a cart or some one that's never likely to come that way — some one, or a stranger, that you can't and don't really expect to see. I think that most men who have been alone in the Bush for any length of time — and married couples too — are more or less mad. With married couples it is generally the husband who is painfully shy and awkward when strangers come. The woman seems to stand the loneliness better, and can hold her own with strangers, as a rule. It's only afterwards, and looking back, that you see how queer you got. Shepherds and boundary-riders, who are alone for months, must have their periodical spree, at the nearest shanty, else they'd go raving mad. Drink is the only break in the awful monotony, and the yearly or half-yearly spree is the only thing they've got to look forward to: it keeps their minds fixed on something definite ahead.

But Mary kept her head pretty well through the


  ― 95 ―
first months of loneliness. Weeks, rather, I should say, for it wasn't as bad as it might have been farther up-country: there was generally some one came of a Sunday afternoon — a spring-cart with a couple of women, or maybe a family, — or a lanky shy Bush native or two on lanky shy horses. On a quiet Sunday, after I'd brought Jim home, Mary would dress him and herself — just the same as if we were in town — and make me get up on one end and put on a collar and take her and Jim for a walk along the creek. She said she wanted to keep me civilised. She tried to make a gentleman of me for years, but gave it up gradually.

Well. It was the first morning on the creek: I was greasing the waggon-wheels, and James out after the horse, and Mary hanging out clothes, in an old print dress and a big ugly white hood, when I heard her being hailed as ‘Hi, missus!’ from the front slip-rails.

It was a boy on horseback. He was a light-haired, very much freckled boy of fourteen or fifteen, with a small head, but with limbs, especially his bare sun-blotched shanks, that might have belonged to a grown man. He had a good face and frank grey eyes. An old, nearly black cabbage-tree hat rested on the butts of his ears, turning them out at right angles from his head, and rather dirty sprouts they were. He wore a dirty torn Crimean shirt; and a pair of man's moleskin trousers rolled up above the knees, with the wide waistband gathered under a greenhide belt. I noticed, later on, that, even when he wore trousers short enough for him, he always rolled 'em up above the knees when on


  ― 96 ―
horseback, for some reason of his own: to suggest leggings, perhaps, for he had them rolled up in all weathers, and he wouldn't have bothered to save them from the sweat of the horse, even if that horse ever sweated.

He was seated astride a three-bushel bag thrown across the ridge-pole of a big grey horse, with a coffin-shaped head, and built astern something after the style of a roughly put up hip-roofed box-bark humpy.note His colour was like old box-bark, too, a dirty bluish-grey; and, one time, when I saw his rump looming out of the scrub, I really thought it was some old shepherd's hut that I hadn't noticed there before. When he cantered it was like the humpy starting off on its corner-posts.

‘Are you Mrs Wilson?’ asked the boy.

‘Yes,’ said Mary.

‘Well, mother told me to ride acrost and see if you wanted anythink. We killed lars' night, and I've fetched a piece er cow.’

‘Piece of what?’ asked Mary.

He grinned, and handed a sugar-bag across the rail with something heavy in the bottom of it, that nearly jerked Mary's arm out when she took it. It was a piece of beef, that looked as if it had been cut off with a wood-axe, but it was fresh and clean.

‘Oh, I'm so glad!’ cried Mary. She was always impulsive, save to me sometimes. ‘I was just wondering where we were going to get any fresh meat. How kind of your mother! Tell her I'm very much obliged to her indeed.’ And she felt behind her for


  ― 97 ―
a poor little purse she had. ‘And now — how much did your mother say it would be?’

The boy blinked at her, and scratched his head.

‘How much will it be,’ he repeated, puzzled. ‘Oh — how much does it weigh I-s'pose-yer-mean. Well, it ain't been weighed at all — we ain't got no scales. A butcher does all that sort of think. We just kills it, and cooks it, and eats it — and goes by guess. What won't keep we salts down in the cask. I reckon it weighs about a ton by the weight of it if yer wanter know. Mother thought that if she sent any more it would go bad before you could scoff it. I can't see ——’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Mary, getting confused. ‘But what I want to know is, how do you manage when you sell it?’

He glared at her, and scratched his head. ‘Sell it? Why, we only goes halves in a steer with some one, or sells steers to the butcher — or maybe some meat to a party of fencers or surveyors, or tank-sinkers, or them sorter people ——’

‘Yes, yes; but what I want to know is, how much am I to send your mother for this?’

‘How much what?’

‘Money, of course, you stupid boy,’ said Mary. ‘You seem a very stupid boy.’

Then he saw what she was driving at. He began to fling his heels convulsively against the sides of his horse, jerking his body backward and forward at the same time, as if to wind up and start some clockwork machinery inside the horse, that made it go, and seemed to need repairing or oiling.

‘We ain't that sorter people, missus,’ he said.


  ― 98 ―
‘We don't sell meat to new people that come to settle here.’ Then, jerking his thumb contemptuously towards the ridges, ‘Go over ter Wall's if yer wanter buy meat; they sell meat ter strangers.’ (Wall was the big squatter over the ridges.)

‘Oh!’ said Mary, ‘I'm so sorry. Thank your mother for me. She is kind.’

‘Oh, that's nothink. She said to tell yer she'll be up as soon as she can. She'd have come up yisterday evening — she thought yer'd feel lonely comin' new to a place like this — but she couldn't git up.’

The machinery inside the old horse showed signs of starting. You almost heard the wooden joints creak as he lurched forward, like an old propped-up humpy when the rotting props give way; but at the sound of Mary's voice he settled back on his foundations again. It must have been a very poor selection that couldn't afford a better spare horse than that.

‘Reach me that lump er wood, will yer, missus?’ said the boy, and he pointed to one of my ‘spreads’ (for the team-chains) that lay inside the fence. ‘I'll fling it back agin over the fence when I git this ole cow started.’

‘But wait a minute — I've forgotten your mother's name,’ said Mary.

He grabbed at his thatch impatiently. ‘Me mother — oh! — the old woman's name's Mrs Spicer. (Git up, karnt yer!)’ He twisted himself round, and brought the stretcher down on one of the horse's ‘points’ (and he had many) with a crack that must have jarred his wrist.

‘Do you go to school?’ asked Mary. There was a


  ― 99 ―
three-days-a-week school over the ridges at Wall's station.

‘No!’ he jerked out, keeping his legs going. ‘Me — why I'm going on fur fifteen. The last teacher at Wall's finished me. I'm going to Queensland next month drovin'.’ (Queensland border was over three hundred miles away.)

‘Finished you? How?’ asked Mary.

‘Me edgercation, of course! How do yer expect me to start this horse when yer keep talkin'?’

He split the ‘spread’ over the horse's point, threw the pieces over the fence, and was off, his elbows and legs flinging wildly, and the old saw-stool lumbering along the road like an old working bullock trying a canter. That horse wasn't a trotter.

And next month he did start for Queensland. He was a younger son and a surplus boy on a wretched, poverty-stricken selection; and as there was ‘northin' doin'’ in the district, his father (in a burst of fatherly kindness, I suppose) made him a present of the old horse and a new pair of Blucher boots, and I gave him an old saddle and a coat, and he started for the Never-Never Country.

And I'll bet he got there. But I'm doubtful if the old horse did.

Mary gave the boy five shillings, and I don't think he had anything more except a clean shirt and an extra pair of white cotton socks.

‘Spicer's farm’ was a big bark humpy on a patchy clearing in the native apple-tree scrub. The clearing was fenced in by a light ‘dog-legged’ fence (a fence of sapling poles resting on forks and X-shaped uprights), and the dusty ground round the house was


  ― 100 ―
almost entirely covered with cattle-dung. There was no attempt at cultivation when I came to live on the creek; but there were old furrow-marks amongst the stumps of another shapeless patch in the scrub near the hut. There was a wretched sapling cow-yard and calf-pen, and a cow-bail with one sheet of bark over it for shelter. There was no dairy to be seen, and I suppose the milk was set in one of the two skillion rooms, or lean-to's behind the hut, — the other was ‘the boys' bedroom’. The Spicers kept a few cows and steers, and had thirty or forty sheep. Mrs Spicer used to drive down the creek once a-week, in her rickety old spring-cart, to Cobborah, with butter and eggs. The hut was nearly as bare inside as it was out — just a frame of ‘round-timber’ (sapling poles) covered with bark. The furniture was permanent (unless you rooted it up), like in our kitchen: a rough slab table on stakes driven into the ground, and seats made the same way. Mary told me afterwards that the beds in the bag-and-bark partitioned-off room (‘mother's bedroom’) were simply poles laid side by side on cross-pieces supported by stakes driven into the ground, with straw mattresses and some worn-out bed-clothes. Mrs Spicer had an old patchwork quilt, in rags, and the remains of a white one, and Mary said it was pitiful to see how these things would be spread over the beds — to hide them as much as possible — when she went down there. A packing-case, with something like an old print skirt draped round it, and a cracked looking-glass (without a frame) on top, was the dressing-table. There were a couple of gin-cases for a wardrobe. The


  ― 101 ―
boys' beds were three-bushel bags stretched between poles fastened to uprights. The floor was the original surface, tramped hard, worn uneven with much sweeping, and with puddles in rainy weather where the roof leaked. Mrs Spicer used to stand old tins, dishes, and buckets under as many of the leaks as she could. The saucepans, kettles, and boilers were old kerosene-tins and billies. They used kerosene-tins, too, cut longways in halves, for setting the milk in. The plates and cups were of tin; there were two or three cups without saucers, and a crockery plate or two — also two mugs, cracked and without handles, one with ‘For a Good Boy’ and the other with ‘For a Good Girl’ on it; but all these were kept on the mantel-shelf for ornament and for company. They were the only ornaments in the house, save a little wooden clock that hadn't gone for years. Mrs Spicer had a superstition that she had ‘some things packed away from the children.’

The pictures were cut from old copies of the ‘Illustrated Sydney News’ and pasted on to the bark. I remember this, because I remembered, long ago, the Spencers, who were our neighbours when I was a boy, had the walls of their bedroom covered with illustrations of the American Civil War, cut from illustrated London papers, and I used to ‘sneak’ into ‘mother's bedroom’ with Fred Spencer whenever we got the chance, and gloat over the prints. I gave him a blade of a pocket-knife once, for taking me in there.

I saw very little of Spicer. He was a big, dark, dark-haired and whiskered man. I had an idea that


  ― 102 ―
he wasn't a selector at all, only a ‘dummy’ for the squatter of the Cobborah run. You see, selectors were allowed to take up land on runs, or pastoral leases. The squatters kept them off as much as possible, by all manner of dodges and paltry persecution. The squatter would get as much freehold as he could afford, ‘select’ as much land as the law allowed one man to take up, and then employ dummies (dummy selectors) to take up bits of land that he fancied about his run, and hold them for him.

Spicer seemed gloomy and unsociable. He was seldom at home. He was generally supposed to be away shearin', or fencin', or workin' on somebody's station. It turned out that the last six months he was away it was on the evidence of a cask of beef and a hide with the brand cut out, found in his camp on a fencing contract up-country, and which he and his mates couldn't account for satisfactorily, while the squatter could. Then the family lived mostly on bread and honey, or bread and treacle, or bread and dripping, and tea. Every ounce of butter and every egg was needed for the market, to keep them in flour, tea, and sugar. Mary found that out, but couldn't help them much — except by ‘stuffing’ the children with bread and meat or bread and jam whenever they came up to our place — for Mrs Spicer was proud with the pride that lies down in the end and turns its face to the wall and dies.

Once, when Mary asked Annie, the eldest girl at home, if she was hungry, she denied it — but she looked it. A ragged mite she had with her explained things. The little fellow said —




  ― 103 ―

‘Mother told Annie not to say we was hungry if yer asked; but if yer give us anythink to eat, we was to take it an' say thenk yer, Mrs Wilson.’

‘I wouldn't 'a' told yer a lie; but I thought Jimmy would split on me, Mrs Wilson,’ said Annie. ‘Thenk yer, Mrs Wilson.’

She was not a big woman. She was gaunt and flat-chested, and her face was ‘burnt to a brick’, as they say out there. She had brown eyes, nearly red, and a little wild-looking at times, and a sharp face — ground sharp by hardship — the cheeks drawn in. She had an expression like — well, like a woman who had been very curious and suspicious at one time, and wanted to know everybody's business and hear everything, and had lost all her curiosity, without losing the expression or the quick suspicious movements of the head. I don't suppose you understand. I can't explain it any other way. She was not more than forty.

I remember the first morning I saw her. I was going up the creek to look at the selection for the first time, and called at the hut to see if she had a bit of fresh mutton, as I had none and was sick of ‘corned beef’.

‘Yes — of — course,’ she said, in a sharp nasty tone, as if to say, ‘Is there anything more you want while the shop's open?’ I'd met just the same sort of woman years before while I was carrying swag between the shearing-sheds in the awful scrubs out west of the Darling river, so I didn't turn on my heels and walk away. I waited for her to speak again.

‘Come — inside,’ she said, ‘and sit down. I see


  ― 104 ―
you've got the waggon outside. I s'pose your name's Wilson, ain't it? You're thinkin' about takin' on Harry Marshfield's selection up the creek, so I heard. Wait till I fry you a chop and boil the billy.’

Her voice sounded, more than anything else, like a voice coming out of a phonograph — I heard one in Sydney the other day — and not like a voice coming out of her. But sometimes when she got outside her everyday life on this selection she spoke in a sort of — in a sort of lost groping-in-the-dark kind of voice.

She didn't talk much this time — just spoke in a mechanical way of the drought, and the hard times, ‘an' butter 'n' eggs bein' down, an' her husban' an' eldest son bein' away, an' that makin' it so hard for her.’

I don't know how many children she had. I never got a chance to count them, for they were nearly all small, and shy as piccaninnies, and used to run and hide when anybody came. They were mostly nearly as black as piccaninnies too. She must have averaged a baby a-year for years — and God only knows how she got over her confinements! Once, they said, she only had a black gin with her. She had an elder boy and girl, but she seldom spoke of them. The girl, ‘Liza’, was ‘in service in Sydney.’ I'm afraid I knew what that meant. The elder son was ‘away’. He had been a bit of a favourite round there, it seemed.

Some one might ask her, ‘How's your son Jack, Mrs Spicer?’ or, ‘Heard of Jack lately? and where is he now?’

‘Oh, he's somewheres up country,’ she'd say in the ‘groping’ voice, or ‘He's drovin' in Queenslan',’


  ― 105 ―
or ‘Shearin' on the Darlin' the last time I heerd from him.’ ‘We ain't had a line from him since — les' see — since Chris'mas 'fore last.’

And she'd turn her haggard eyes in a helpless, hopeless sort of way towards the west — towards ‘up-country’ and ‘Out-Back’.note

The eldest girl at home was nine or ten, with a little old face and lines across her forehead: she had an older expression than her mother. Tommy went to Queensland, as I told you. The eldest son at home, Bill (older than Tommy), was ‘a bit wild.’

I've passed the place in smothering hot mornings in December, when the droppings about the cow-yard had crumpled to dust that rose in the warm, sickly, sunrise wind, and seen that woman at work in the cow-yard, ‘bailing up’ and leg-roping cows, milking, or hauling at a rope round the neck of a half-grown calf that was too strong for her (and she was tough as fencing-wire), or humping great buckets of sour milk to the pigs or the ‘poddies’ (hand-fed calves) in the pen. I'd get off the horse and give her a hand sometimes with a young steer, or a cranky old cow that wouldn't ‘bail-up’ and threatened her with her horns. She'd say —

‘Thenk yer, Mr Wilson. Do yer think we're ever goin' to have any rain?’

I've ridden past the place on bitter black rainy mornings in June or July, and seen her trudging about the yard — that was ankle-deep in black liquid filth — with an old pair of Blucher boots on, and an old coat of her husband's, or maybe a


  ― 106 ―
three-bushel bag over her shoulders. I've seen her climbing on the roof by means of the water-cask at the corner, and trying to stop a leak by shoving a piece of tin in under the bark. And when I'd fixed the leak —

‘Thenk yer, Mr Wilson. This drop of rain's a blessin'! Come in and have a dry at the fire and I'll make yer a cup of tea.’ And, if I was in a hurry, ‘Come in, man alive! Come in! and dry yerself a bit till the rain holds up. Yer can't go home like this! Yer'll git yer death o' cold.’

I've even seen her, in the terrible drought, climbing she-oaks and apple-trees by a makeshift ladder, and awkwardly lopping off boughs to feed the starving cattle.

‘Jist tryin' ter keep the milkers alive till the rain comes.’

They said that when the pleuro-pneumonia was in the district and amongst her cattle she bled and physicked them herself, and fed those that were down with slices of half-ripe pumpkins (from a crop that had failed).

‘An', one day,’ she told Mary, ‘there was a big barren heifer (that we called Queen Elizabeth) that was down with the ploorer. She'd been down for four days and hadn't moved, when one mornin' I dumped some wheaten chaff — we had a few bags that Spicer brought home — I dumped it in front of her nose, an' — would yer b'lieve me, Mrs Wilson? — she stumbled onter her feet an' chased me all the way to the house! I had to pick up me skirts an' run! Wasn't it redic'lus?’

They had a sense of the ridiculous, most of those


  ― 107 ―
poor sun-dried Bushwomen. I fancy that that helped save them from madness.

‘We lost nearly all our milkers,’ she told Mary. ‘I remember one day Tommy came running to the house and screamed: ‘Marther! [mother] there's another milker down with the ploorer!’ Jist as if it was great news. Well, Mrs Wilson, I was dead-beat, an' I giv' in. I jist sat down to have a good cry, and felt for my han'kerchief — it WAS a rag of a han'kerchief, full of holes (all me others was in the wash). Without seein' what I was doin' I put me finger through one hole in the han'kerchief an' me thumb through the other, and poked me fingers into me eyes, instead of wipin' them. Then I had to laugh.’

There's a story that once, when the Bush, or rather grass, fires were out all along the creek on Spicer's side, Wall's station hands were up above our place, trying to keep the fire back from the boundary, and towards evening one of the men happened to think of the Spicers: they saw smoke down that way. Spicer was away from home, and they had a small crop of wheat, nearly ripe, on the selection.

‘My God! that poor devil of a woman will be burnt out, if she ain't already!’ shouted young Billy Wall. ‘Come along, three or four of you chaps’ — (it was shearing-time, and there were plenty of men on the station).

They raced down the creek to Spicer's, and were just in time to save the wheat. She had her sleeves tucked up, and was beating out the burning grass with a bough. She'd been at it for an hour, and


  ― 108 ―
was as black as a gin, they said. She only said when they'd turned the fire: ‘Thenk yer! Wait an' I'll make some tea.’

After tea the first Sunday she came to see us, Mary asked —

‘Don't you feel lonely, Mrs Spicer, when your husband goes away?’

‘Well — no, Mrs Wilson,’ she said in the groping sort of voice. ‘I uster, once. I remember, when we lived on the Cudgeegong river — we lived in a brick house then — the first time Spicer had to go away from home I nearly fretted my eyes out. And he was only goin' shearin' for a month. I muster bin a fool; but then we were only jist married a little while. He's been away drovin' in Queenslan' as long as eighteen months at a time since then. But’ (her voice seemed to grope in the dark more than ever) ‘I don't mind, — I somehow seem to have got past carin'. Besides — besides, Spicer was a very different man then to what he is now. He's got so moody and gloomy at home, he hardly ever speaks.’

Mary sat silent for a minute thinking. Then Mrs Spicer roused herself —

‘Oh, I don't know what I'm talkin' about! You mustn't take any notice of me, Mrs Wilson, — I don't often go on like this. I do believe I'm gittin' a bit ratty at times. It must be the heat and the dulness.’

But once or twice afterwards she referred to a time ‘when Spicer was a different man to what he was now.’




  ― 109 ―

I walked home with her a piece along the creek. She said nothing for a long time, and seemed to be thinking in a puzzled way. Then she said suddenly —

‘What-did-you-bring-her-here-for? She's only a girl.’

‘I beg pardon, Mrs Spicer.’

‘Oh, I don't know what I'm talkin' about! I b'lieve I'm gittin' ratty. You mustn't take any notice of me, Mr Wilson.’

She wasn't much company for Mary; and often, when she had a child with her, she'd start taking notice of the baby while Mary was talking, which used to exasperate Mary. But poor Mrs Spicer couldn't help it, and she seemed to hear all the same.

Her great trouble was that she ‘couldn't git no reg'lar schoolin' for the children.’

‘I learns 'em at home as much as I can. But I don't git a minute to call me own; an' I'm ginerally that dead-beat at night that I'm fit for nothink.’

Mary had some of the children up now and then later on, and taught them a little. When she first offered to do so, Mrs Spicer laid hold of the handiest youngster and said —

‘There — do you hear that? Mrs Wilson is goin' to teach yer, an' it's more than yer deserve!’ (the youngster had been ‘cryin'’ over something). ‘Now, go up an' say “Thenk yer, Mrs Wilson.” And if yer ain't good, and don't do as she tells yer, I'll break every bone in yer young body!’

The poor little devil stammered something, and escaped.




  ― 110 ―

The children were sent by turns over to Wall's to Sunday-school. When Tommy was at home he had a new pair of elastic-side boots, and there was no end of rows about them in the family — for the mother made him lend them to his sister Annie, to go to Sunday-school in, in her turn. There were only about three pairs of anyway decent boots in the family, and these were saved for great occasions. The children were always as clean and tidy as possible when they came to our place.

And I think the saddest and most pathetic sight on the face of God's earth is the children of very poor people made to appear well: the broken worn-out boots polished or greased, the blackened (inked) pieces of string for laces; the clean patched pinafores over the wretched threadbare frocks. Behind the little row of children hand-in-hand — and no matter where they are — I always see the worn face of the mother.

Towards the end of the first year on the selection our little girl came. I'd sent Mary to Gulgong for four months that time, and when she came back with the baby Mrs Spicer used to come up pretty often. She came up several times when Mary was ill, to lend a hand. She wouldn't sit down and condole with Mary, or waste her time asking questions, or talking about the time when she was ill herself. She'd take off her hat — a shapeless little lump of black straw she wore for visiting — give her hair a quick brush back with the palms of her hands, roll up her sleeves, and set to work to ‘tidy up'. She seemed to take most pleasure in sorting out our children's clothes, and dressing them.


  ― 111 ―
Perhaps she used to dress her own like that in the days when Spicer was a different man from what he was now. She seemed interested in the fashion-plates of some women's journals we had, and used to study them with an interest that puzzled me, for she was not likely to go in for fashion. She never talked of her early girlhood; but Mary, from some things she noticed, was inclined to think that Mrs Spicer had been fairly well brought up. For instance, Dr Balanfantie, from Cudgeegong, came out to see Wall's wife, and drove up the creek to our place on his way back to see how Mary and the baby were getting on. Mary got out some crockery and some table-napkins that she had packed away for occasions like this; and she said that the way Mrs Spicer handled the things, and helped set the table (though she did it in a mechanical sort of way), convinced her that she had been used to table-napkins at one time in her life.

Sometimes, after a long pause in the conversation, Mrs Spicer would say suddenly —

‘Oh, I don't think I'll come up next week, Mrs Wilson.’

‘Why, Mrs Spicer?’

‘Because the visits doesn't do me any good. I git the dismals afterwards.’

‘Why, Mrs Spicer? What on earth do you mean?’

‘Oh,-I-don't-know-what-I'm-talkin'-about. You mustn't take any notice of me.’ And she'd put on her hat, kiss the children — and Mary too, sometimes, as if she mistook her for a child — and go.




  ― 112 ―

Mary thought her a little mad at times. But I seemed to understand.

Once, when Mrs Spicer was sick, Mary went down to her, and down again next day. As she was coming away the second time, Mrs Spicer said —

‘I wish you wouldn't come down any more till I'm on me feet, Mrs Wilson. The children can do for me.’

‘Why, Mrs Spicer?’

‘Well, the place is in such a muck, and it hurts me.’

We were the aristocrats of Lahey's Creek. Whenever we drove down on Sunday afternoon to see Mrs Spicer, and as soon as we got near enough for them to hear the rattle of the cart, we'd see the children running to the house as fast as they could split, and hear them screaming —

‘Oh, marther! Here comes Mr and Mrs Wilson in their spring-cart.’

And we'd see her bustle round, and two or three fowls fly out the front door, and she'd lay hold of a broom (made of a bound bunch of ‘broom-stuff’ — coarse reedy grass or bush from the ridges — with a stick stuck in it) and flick out the floor, with a flick or two round in front of the door perhaps. The floor nearly always needed at least one flick of the broom on account of the fowls. Or she'd catch a youngster and scrub his face with a wet end of a cloudy towel, or twist the towel round her finger and dig out his ears — as if she was anxious to have him hear every word that was going to be said.

No matter what state the house would be in she'd


  ― 113 ―
always say, ‘I was jist expectin' yer, Mrs Wilson.’ And she was original in that, anyway.

She had an old patched and darned white table-cloth that she used to spread on the table when we were there, as a matter of course (‘The others is in the wash, so you must excuse this, Mrs Wilson’), but I saw by the eyes of the children that the cloth was rather a wonderful thing to them. ‘I must really git some more knives an' forks next time I'm in Cobborah,’ she'd say. ‘The children break an' lose 'em till I'm ashamed to ask Christians ter sit down ter the table.’

She had many Bush yarns, some of them very funny, some of them rather ghastly, but all interesting, and with a grim sort of humour about them. But the effect was often spoilt by her screaming at the children to ‘Drive out them fowls, karnt yer,’ or ‘Take yer maulies [hands] outer the sugar,’ or ‘Don't touch Mrs Wilson's baby with them dirty maulies,’ or ‘Don't stand starin' at Mrs Wilson with yer mouth an' ears in that vulgar way.’

Poor woman! she seemed everlastingly nagging at the children. It was a habit, but they didn't seem to mind. Most Bushwomen get the nagging habit. I remember one, who had the prettiest, dearest, sweetest, most willing, and affectionate little girl I think I ever saw, and she nagged that child from daylight till dark — and after it. Taking it all round, I think that the nagging habit in a mother is often worse on ordinary children, and more deadly on sensitive youngsters, than the drinking habit in a father.




  ― 114 ―

One of the yarns Mrs Spicer told us was about a squatter she knew who used to go wrong in his head every now and again, and try to commit suicide. Once, when the station-hand, who was watching him, had his eye off him for a minute, he hanged himself to a beam in the stable. The men ran in and found him hanging and kicking. ‘They let him hang for a while,’ said Mrs Spicer, ‘till he went black in the face and stopped kicking. Then they cut him down and threw a bucket of water over him.’

‘Why! what on earth did they let the man hang for?’ asked Mary.

‘To give him a good bellyful of it: they thought it would cure him of tryin' to hang himself again.’

‘Well, that's the coolest thing I ever heard of,’ said Mary.

‘That's jist what the magistrate said, Mrs Wilson,’ said Mrs Spicer.

‘One morning,’ said Mrs Spicer, ‘Spicer had gone off on his horse somewhere, and I was alone with the children, when a man came to the door and said—

‘ldquo;For God's sake, woman, give me a drink!”

‘Lord only knows where he came from! He was dressed like a new chum — his clothes was good, but he looked as if he'd been sleepin' in them in the Bush for a month. He was very shaky. I had some coffee that mornin', so I gave him some in a pint pot; he drank it, and then he stood on his head till he tumbled over, and then he stood up on his feet and said, “Thenk yer, mum.”

‘I was so surprised that I didn't know what to


  ― 115 ―
say, so I jist said, “Would you like some more coffee?”

‘“Yes, thenk yer,” he said — “about two quarts.”

‘I nearly filled the pint pot, and he drank it and stood on his head as long as he could, and when he got right end up he said, “Thenk yer, mum — it's a fine day,” and then he walked off. He had two saddle-straps in his hands.’

‘Why, what did he stand on his head for?’ asked Mary.

‘To wash it up and down, I suppose, to get twice as much taste of the coffee. He had no hat. I sent Tommy across to Wall's to tell them that there was a man wanderin' about the Bush in the horrors of drink, and to get some one to ride for the police. But they was too late, for he hanged himself that night.’

‘O Lord!’ cried Mary.

‘Yes, right close to here, jist down the creek where the track to Wall's branches off. Tommy found him while he was out after the cows. Hangin' to the branch of a tree with the two saddle-straps.’

Mary stared at her, speechless.

‘Tommy came home yellin' with fright. I sent him over to Wall's at once. After breakfast, the minute my eyes was off them, the children slipped away and went down there. They came back screamin' at the tops of their voices. I did give it to them. I reckon they won't want ter see a dead body again in a hurry. Every time I'd mention it they'd huddle together, or ketch hold of me skirts and howl.

‘“Yer'll go agen when I tell yer not to,” I'd say.




  ― 116 ―

‘“Oh no, mother,” they'd howl.

‘“Yer wanted ter see a man hangin',” I said.

‘“Oh, don't, mother! Don't talk about it.”

‘“Yer wouldn't be satisfied till yer see it,” I'd say; “yer had to see it or burst. Yer satisfied now, ain't yer?”

‘“Oh, don't, mother!”

‘“Yer run all the way there, I s'pose?”

‘“Don't, mother!”

‘“But yer run faster back, didn't yer?”

‘“Oh, don't, mother.”

‘But,’ said Mrs Spicer, in conclusion, ‘I'd been down to see it myself before they was up.’

‘And ain't you afraid to live alone here, after all these horrible things?’ asked Mary.

‘Well, no; I don't mind. I seem to have got past carin' for anythink now. I felt it a little when Tommy went away — the first time I felt anythink for years. But I'm over that now.’

‘Haven't you got any friends in the district, Mrs Spicer?’

‘Oh yes. There's me married sister near Cobborah, and a married brother near Dubbo; he's got a station. They wanted to take me an' the children between them, or take some of the younger children. But I couldn't bring my mind to break up the home. I want to keep the children together as much as possible. There's enough of them gone, God knows. But it's a comfort to know that there's some one to see to them if anythink happens to me.’

One day — I was on my way home with the team


  ― 117 ―
that day — Annie Spicer came running up the creek in terrible trouble.

‘Oh, Mrs Wilson! something terribl's happened at home! A trooper’ (mounted policeman — they called them ‘mounted troopers’ out there), ‘a trooper's come and took Billy!’ Billy was the eldest son at home.

‘What?’

‘It's true, Mrs Wilson.’

‘What for? What did the policeman say?’

‘He — he — he said, “I — I'm very sorry, Mrs Spicer; but — I — I want William.”’

It turned out that William was wanted on account of a horse missed from Wall's station and sold down-country.

‘An' mother took on awful,’ sobbed Annie; ‘an' now she'll only sit stock-still an' stare in front of her, and won't take no notice of any of us. Oh! it's awful, Mrs Wilson. The policeman said he'd tell Aunt Emma’ (Mrs Spicer's sister at Cobborah), ‘and send her out. But I had to come to you, an' I've run all the way.’

James put the horse to the cart and drove Mary down.

Mary told me all about it when I came home.

‘I found her just as Annie said; but she broke down and cried in my arms. Oh, Joe! it was awful! She didn't cry like a woman. I heard a man at Haviland cry at his brother's funeral, and it was just like that. She came round a bit after a while. Her sister's with her now…Oh, Joe! you must take me away from the Bush.’

Later on Mary said —




  ― 118 ―

‘How the oaks are sighing to-night, Joe!’

Next morning I rode across to Wall's station and tackled the old man; but he was a hard man, and wouldn't listen to me — in fact, he ordered me off the station. I was a selector, and that was enough for him. But young Billy Wall rode after me.

‘Look here, Joe!’ he said, ‘it's a blanky shame. All for the sake of a horse! And as if that poor devil of a woman hasn't got enough to put up with already! I wouldn't do it for twenty horses. I'LL tackle the boss, and if he won't listen to me, I'll walk off the run for the last time, if I have to carry my swag.’

Billy Wall managed it. The charge was withdrawn, and we got young Billy Spicer off up-country.

But poor Mrs Spicer was never the same after that. She seldom came up to our place unless Mary dragged her, so to speak; and then she would talk of nothing but her last trouble, till her visits were painful to look forward to.

‘If it only could have been kep' quiet — for the sake of the other children; they are all I think of now. I tried to bring 'em all up decent, but I s'pose it was my fault, somehow. It's the disgrace that's killin' me — I can't bear it.’

I was at home one Sunday with Mary and a jolly Bush-girl named Maggie Charlsworth, who rode over sometimes from Wall's station (I must tell you about her some other time; James was ‘shook after her’), and we got talkin' about Mrs Spicer. Maggie was very warm about old Wall.




  ― 119 ―

‘I expected Mrs Spicer up to-day,’ said Mary. ‘She seems better lately.’

‘Why!’ cried Maggie Charlsworth, ‘if that ain't Annie coming running up along the creek. Something's the matter!’

We all jumped up and ran out.

‘What is it, Annie?’ cried Mary.

‘Oh, Mrs Wilson! Mother's asleep, and we can't wake her!’

‘What?’

‘It's — it's the truth, Mrs Wilson.’

‘How long has she been asleep?’

‘Since lars' night.’

‘My God!’ cried Mary, ‘Since last night?

‘No, Mrs Wilson, not all the time; she woke wonst, about daylight this mornin'. She called me and said she didn't feel well, and I'd have to manage the milkin'.’

‘Was that all she said?’

‘No. She said not to go for you; and she said to feed the pigs and calves; and she said to be sure and water them geraniums.’

Mary wanted to go, but I wouldn't let her. James and I saddled our horses and rode down the creek.

Mrs Spicer looked very little different from what she did when I last saw her alive. It was some time before we could believe that she was dead. But she was ‘past carin'’ right enough.

A DOUBLE BUGGY AT LAHEY'S CREEK.




  ― 121 ―

1. I. SPUDS AND A WOMAN'S OBSTINACY.

EVER since we were married it had been Mary's great ambition to have a buggy. The house or furniture didn't matter so much — out there in the Bush where we were — but, where there were no railways or coaches, and the roads were long, and mostly hot and dusty, a buggy was the great thing. I had a few pounds when we were married, and was going to get one then; but new buggies went high, and another party got hold of a second-hand one that I'd had my eye on, so Mary thought it over and at last she said, ‘Never mind the buggy, Joe; get a sewing-machine and I'll be satisfied. I'll want the machine more than the buggy, for a while. Wait till we're better off.’

After that, whenever I took a contract — to put up


  ― 122 ―
a fence or wool-shed, or sink a dam or something — Mary would say, ‘You ought to knock a buggy out of this job, Joe;’ but something always turned up — bad weather or sickness. Once I cut my foot with the adze and was laid up; and, another time, a dam I was making was washed away by a flood before I finished it. Then Mary would say, ‘Ah, well — never mind, Joe. Wait till we are better off.’ But she felt it hard the time I built a wool-shed and didn't get paid for it, for we'd as good as settled about another second-hand buggy then.

I always had a fancy for carpentering, and was handy with tools. I made a spring-cart — body and wheels — in spare time, out of colonial hardwood, and got Little the blacksmith to do the ironwork; I painted the cart myself. It wasn't much lighter than one of the tip-drays I had, but it WAS a spring-cart, and Mary pretended to be satisfied with it: anyway, I didn't hear any more of the buggy for a while.

I sold that cart, for fourteen pounds, to a Chinese gardener who wanted a strong cart to carry his vegetables round through the Bush. It was just before our first youngster came: I told Mary that I wanted the money in case of extra expense — and she didn't fret much at losing that cart. But the fact was, that I was going to make another try for a buggy, as a present for Mary when the child was born. I thought of getting the turn-out while she was laid up, keeping it dark from her till she was on her feet again, and then showing her the buggy standing in the shed. But she had a bad time, and I had to have the doctor regularly, and get a proper nurse,


  ― 123 ―
and a lot of things extra; so the buggy idea was knocked on the head. I was set on it, too: I'd thought of how, when Mary was up and getting strong, I'd say one morning, ‘Go round and have a look in the shed, Mary; I've got a few fowls for you,’ or something like that — and follow her round to watch her eyes when she saw the buggy. I never told Mary about that — it wouldn't have done any good.

Later on I got some good timber — mostly scraps that were given to me — and made a light body for a spring-cart. Galletly, the coach-builder at Cudgeegong, had got a dozen pairs of American hickory wheels up from Sydney, for light spring-carts, and he let me have a pair for cost price and carriage. I got him to iron the cart, and he put it through the paint-shop for nothing. He sent it out, too, at the tail of Tom Tarrant's big van — to increase the surprise. We were swells then for a while; I heard no more of a buggy until after we'd been settled at Lahey's Creek for a couple of years.

I told you how I went into the carrying line, and took up a selection at Lahey's Creek — for a run for the horses and to grow a bit of feed — and shifted Mary and little Jim out there from Gulgong, with Mary's young scamp of a brother James to keep them company while I was on the road. The first year I did well enough carrying, but I never cared for it — it was too slow; and, besides, I was always anxious when I was away from home. The game was right enough for a single man — or a married one whose wife had got the nagging habit (as many Bushwomen have — God help 'em!), and who wanted


  ― 124 ―
peace and quietness sometimes. Besides, other small carriers started (seeing me getting on); and Tom Tarrant, the coach-driver at Cudgeegong, had another heavy spring-van built, and put it on the roads, and he took a lot of the light stuff.

The second year I made a rise — out of ‘spuds’, of all the things in the world. It was Mary's idea. Down at the lower end of our selection — Mary called it ‘the run’ — was a shallow watercourse called Snake's Creek, dry most of the year, except for a muddy water-hole or two; and, just above the junction, where it ran into Lahey's Creek, was a low piece of good black-soil flat, on our side — about three acres. The flat was fairly clear when I came to the selection — save for a few logs that had been washed up there in some big ‘old man’ flood, way back in black-fellows' times; and one day, when I had a spell at home, I got the horses and trace-chains and dragged the logs together — those that wouldn't split for fencing timber — and burnt them off. I had a notion to get the flat ploughed and make a lucern-paddock of it. There was a good water-hole, under a clump of she-oak in the bend, and Mary used to take her stools and tubs and boiler down there in the spring-cart in hot weather, and wash the clothes under the shade of the trees — it was cooler, and saved carrying water to the house. And one evening after she'd done the washing she said to me —

‘Look here, Joe; the farmers out here never seem to get a new idea: they don't seem to me ever to try and find out beforehand what the market is going to be like — they just go on farming the same old


  ― 125 ―
way and putting in the same old crops year after year. They sow wheat, and, if it comes on anything like the thing, they reap and thresh it; if it doesn't, they mow it for hay — and some of 'em don't have the brains to do that in time. Now, I was looking at that bit of flat you cleared, and it struck me that it wouldn't be a half bad idea to get a bag of seed-potatoes, and have the land ploughed — old Corny George would do it cheap — and get them put in at once. Potatoes have been dear all round for the last couple of years.’

I told her she was talking nonsense, that the ground was no good for potatoes, and the whole district was too dry. ‘Everybody I know has tried it, one time or another, and made nothing of it,’ I said.

‘All the more reason why you should try it, Joe,’ said Mary. ‘Just try one crop. It might rain for weeks, and then you'll be sorry you didn't take my advice.’

‘But I tell you the ground is not potato-ground,’ I said.

‘How do you know? You haven't sown any there yet.’

‘But I've turned up the surface and looked at it. It's not rich enough, and too dry, I tell you. You need swampy, boggy ground for potatoes. Do you think I don't know land when I see it?’

‘But you haven't TRIED to grow potatoes there yet, Joe. How do you know ——’

I didn't listen to any more. Mary was obstinate when she got an idea into her head. It was no use arguing with her. All the time I'd be talking she'd


  ― 126 ―
just knit her forehead and go on thinking straight ahead, on the track she'd started, — just as if I wasn't there, — and it used to make me mad. She'd keep driving at me till I took her advice or lost my temper, — I did both at the same time, mostly.

I took my pipe and went out to smoke and cool down.

A couple of days after the potato breeze, I started with the team down to Cudgeegong for a load of fencing-wire I had to bring out; and after I'd kissed Mary good-bye, she said —

‘Look here, Joe, if you bring out a bag of seed-potatoes, James and I will slice them, and old Corny George down the creek would bring his plough up in the dray and plough the ground for very little. We could put the potatoes in ourselves if the ground were only ploughed.’

I thought she'd forgotten all about it. There was no time to argue — I'd be sure to lose my temper, and then I'd either have to waste an hour comforting Mary or go off in a ‘huff’, as the women call it, and be miserable for the trip. So I said I'd see about it. She gave me another hug and a kiss. ‘Don't forget, Joe,’ she said as I started. ‘Think it over on the road.’ I reckon she had the best of it that time.

About five miles along, just as I turned into the main road, I heard some one galloping after me, and I saw young James on his hack. I got a start, for I thought that something had gone wrong at home. I remember, the first day I left Mary on the creek, for the first five or six miles I was half-a-dozen times on the point of turning back — only I thought she'd laugh at me.




  ― 127 ―

‘What is it, James?’ I shouted, before he came up — but I saw he was grinning.

‘Mary says to tell you not to forget to bring a hoe out with you.’

‘You clear off home!’ I said, ‘or I'll lay the whip about your young hide; and don't come riding after me again as if the run was on fire.’

‘Well, you needn't get shirty with me!’ he said. ‘I don't want to have anything to do with a hoe.’ And he rode off.

I DID get thinking about those potatoes, though I hadn't meant to. I knew of an independent man in that district who'd made his money out of a crop of potatoes; but that was away back in the roaring 'Fifties — '54 — when spuds went up to twenty-eight shillings a hundredweight (in Sydney), on account of the gold rush. We might get good rain now, and, anyway, it wouldn't cost much to put the potatoes in. If they came on well, it would be a few pounds in my pocket; if the crop was a failure, I'd have a better show with Mary next time she was struck by an idea outside housekeeping, and have something to grumble about when I felt grumpy.

I got a couple of bags of potatoes — we could use those that were left over; and I got a small iron plough and a harrow that Little the blacksmith had lying in his yard and let me have cheap — only about a pound more than I told Mary I gave for them. When I took advice, I generally made the mistake of taking more than was offered, or adding notions of my own. It was vanity, I suppose. If the crop came on well I could claim the plough-


  ― 128 ―
and-harrow part of the idea, anyway. (It didn't strike me that if the crop failed Mary would have the plough and harrow against me, for old Corny would plough the ground for ten or fifteen shillings.) Anyway, I'd want a plough and harrow later on, and I might as well get it now; it would give James something to do.

I came out by the western road, by Guntawang, and up the creek home; and the first thing I saw was old Corny George ploughing the flat. And Mary was down on the bank superintending. She'd got James with the trace-chains and the spare horses, and had made him clear off every stick and bush where another furrow might be squeezed in. Old Corny looked pretty grumpy on it — he'd broken all his ploughshares but one, in the roots; and James didn't look much brighter. Mary had an old felt hat and a new pair of 'lastic-side boots of mine on, and the boots were covered with clay, for she'd been down hustling James to get a rotten old stump out of the way by the time Corny came round with his next furrow.

‘I thought I'd make the boots easy for you, Joe,’ said Mary.

‘It's all right, Mary,’ I said. ‘I'm not going to growl.’ Those boots were a bone of contention between us; but she generally got them off before I got home.

Her face fell a little when she saw the plough and harrow in the waggon, but I said that would be all right — we'd want a plough anyway.

‘I thought you wanted old Corny to plough the ground,’ she said.




  ― 129 ―

‘I never said so.’

‘But when I sent Jim after you about the hoe to put the spuds in, you didn't say you wouldn't bring it,’ she said.

I had a few days at home, and entered into the spirit of the thing. When Corny was done, James and I cross-ploughed the land, and got a stump or two, a big log, and some scrub out of the way at the upper end and added nearly an acre, and ploughed that. James was all right at most Bushwork: he'd bullock so long as the novelty lasted; he liked ploughing or fencing, or any graft he could make a show at. He didn't care for grubbing out stumps, or splitting posts and rails. We sliced the potatoes of an evening — and there was trouble between Mary and James over cutting through the ‘eyes’. There was no time for the hoe — and besides it wasn't a novelty to James — so I just ran furrows and they dropped the spuds in behind me, and I turned another furrow over them, and ran the harrow over the ground. I think I hilled those spuds, too, with furrows — or a crop of Indian corn I put in later on.

It rained heavens-hard for over a week: we had regular showers all through, and it was the finest crop of potatoes ever seen in the district. I believe at first Mary used to slip down at daybreak to see if the potatoes were up; and she'd write to me about them, on the road. I forget how many bags I got; but the few who had grown potatoes in the district sent theirs to Sydney, and spuds went up to twelve and fifteen shillings a hundredweight in that district. I made a few quid out of mine —


  ― 130 ―
and saved carriage too, for I could take them out on the waggon. Then Mary began to hear (through James) of a buggy that some one had for sale cheap, or a dogcart that somebody else wanted to get rid of — and let me know about it, in an offhand way.

2. II. JOE WILSON'S LUCK.




  ― 131 ―

THERE was good grass on the selection all the year. I'd picked up a small lot — about twenty head — of half-starved steers for next to nothing, and turned them on the run; they came on wonderfully, and my brother-in-law (Mary's sister's husband), who was running a butchery at Gulgong, gave me a good price for them. His carts ran out twenty or thirty miles, to little bits of gold-rushes that were going on at th' Home Rule, Happy Valley, Guntawang, Tallawang, and Cooyal, and those places round there, and he was doing well.

Mary had heard of a light American waggonette, when the steers went — a tray-body arrangement, and she thought she'd do with that. ‘It would be better than the buggy, Joe,’ she said — ‘there'd be more room for the children, and, besides, I could take butter and eggs to Gulgong, or Cobborah, when we get a few more cows.’ Then James heard of a small flock of sheep that a selector — who was about starved off his selection out Talbragar way — wanted to get rid of. James reckoned he could get them for less than half-a-crown a-head. We'd had a heavy


  ― 132 ―
shower of rain, that came over the ranges and didn't seem to go beyond our boundaries. Mary said, ‘It's a pity to see all that grass going to waste, Joe. Better get those sheep and try your luck with them. Leave some money with me, and I'll send James over for them. Never mind about the buggy — we'll get that when we're on our feet.’

So James rode across to Talbragar and drove a hard bargain with that unfortunate selector, and brought the sheep home. There were about two hundred, wethers and ewes, and they were young and looked a good breed too, but so poor they could scarcely travel; they soon picked up, though. The drought was blazing all round and Out-Back, and I think that my corner of the ridges was the only place where there was any grass to speak of. We had another shower or two, and the grass held out. Chaps began to talk of ‘Joe Wilson's luck’.

I would have liked to shear those sheep; but I hadn't time to get a shed or anything ready — along towards Christmas there was a bit of a boom in the carrying line. Wethers in wool were going as high as thirteen to fifteen shillings at the Homebush yards at Sydney, so I arranged to truck the sheep down from the river by rail, with another small lot that was going, and I started James off with them. He took the west road, and down Guntawang way a big farmer who saw James with the sheep (and who was speculating, or adding to his stock, or took a fancy to the wool) offered James as much for them as he reckoned I'd get in Sydney, after paying the carriage and the agents and the auctioneer. James put the


  ― 133 ―
sheep in a paddock and rode back to me. He was all there where riding was concerned. I told him to let the sheep go. James made a Greener shot-gun, and got his saddle done up, out of that job.

I took up a couple more forty-acre blocks — one in James's name, to encourage him with the fencing. There was a good slice of land in an angle between the range and the creek, farther down, which everybody thought belonged to Wall, the squatter, but Mary got an idea, and went to the local land office and found out that it was ‘unoccupied Crown land’, and so I took it up on pastoral lease, and got a few more sheep — I'd saved some of the best-looking ewes from the last lot.

One evening — I was going down next day for a load of fencing-wire for myself — Mary said, —

‘Joe! do you know that the Matthews have got a new double buggy?’

The Matthews were a big family of cockatoos, along up the main road, and I didn't think much of them. The sons were all ‘bad-eggs’, though the old woman and girls were right enough.

‘Well, what of that?’ I said. ‘They're up to their neck in debt, and camping like black-fellows in a big bark humpy. They do well to go flashing round in a double buggy.’

‘But that isn't what I was going to say,’ said Mary. ‘They want to sell their old single buggy, James says. I'm sure you could get it for six or seven pounds; and you could have it done up.’

‘I wish James to the devil!’ I said. ‘Can't he find


  ― 134 ―
anything better to do than ride round after cock-and-bull yarns about buggies?’

‘Well,’ said Mary, ‘it was James who got the steers and the sheep.’

Well, one word led to another, and we said things we didn't mean — but couldn't forget in a hurry. I remember I said something about Mary always dragging me back just when I was getting my head above water and struggling to make a home for her and the children; and that hurt her, and she spoke of the ‘homes’ she'd had since she was married. And that cut me deep.

It was about the worst quarrel we had. When she began to cry I got my hat and went out and walked up and down by the creek. I hated anything that looked like injustice — I was so sensitive about it that it made me unjust sometimes. I tried to think I was right, but I couldn't — it wouldn't have made me feel any better if I could have thought so. I got thinking of Mary's first year on the selection and the life she'd had since we were married.

When I went in she'd cried herself to sleep. I bent over and, ‘Mary,’ I whispered.

She seemed to wake up.

‘Joe — Joe!’ she said.

‘What is it Mary?’ I said.

‘I'm pretty well sure that old Spot's calf isn't in the pen. Make James go at once!’

Old Spot's last calf was two years old now; so Mary was talking in her sleep, and dreaming she was back in her first year.

We both laughed when I told her about it afterwards; but I didn't feel like laughing just then.




  ― 135 ―

Later on in the night she called out in her sleep, —

‘Joe — Joe! Put that buggy in the shed, or the sun will blister the varnish!’

I wish I could say that that was the last time I ever spoke unkindly to Mary.

Next morning I got up early and fried the bacon and made the tea, and took Mary's breakfast in to her — like I used to do, sometimes, when we were first married. She didn't say anything — just pulled my head down and kissed me.

When I was ready to start Mary said, —

‘You'd better take the spring-cart in behind the dray and get the tyres cut and set. They're ready to drop off, and James has been wedging them up till he's tired of it. The last time I was out with the children I had to knock one of them back with a stone: there'll be an accident yet.’

So I lashed the shafts of the cart under the tail of the waggon, and mean and ridiculous enough the cart looked, going along that way. It suggested a man stooping along handcuffed, with his arms held out and down in front of him.

It was dull weather, and the scrubs looked extra dreary and endless — and I got thinking of old things. Everything was going all right with me, but that didn't keep me from brooding sometimes — trying to hatch out stones, like an old hen we had at home. I think, taking it all round, I used to be happier when I was mostly hard-up — and more generous. When I had ten pounds I was more likely to listen to a chap who said, ‘Lend me a pound-note, Joe,’ than when I had fifty; then I


  ― 136 ―
fought shy of careless chaps — and lost mates that I wanted afterwards — and got the name of being mean. When I got a good cheque I'd be as miserable as a miser over the first ten pounds I spent; but when I got down to the last I'd buy things for the house. And now that I was getting on, I hated to spend a pound on anything. But then, the farther I got away from poverty the greater the fear I had of it — and, besides, there was always before us all the thought of the terrible drought, with blazing runs as bare and dusty as the road, and dead stock rotting every yard, all along the barren creeks.

I had a long yarn with Mary's sister and her husband that night in Gulgong, and it brightened me up. I had a fancy that that sort of a brother-in-law made a better mate than a nearer one; Tom Tarrant had one, and he said it was sympathy. But while we were yarning I couldn't help thinking of Mary, out there in the hut on the Creek, with no one to talk to but the children, or James, who was sulky at home, or Black Mary or Black Jimmy (our black boy's father and mother), who weren't oversentimental. Or maybe a selector's wife (the nearest was five miles away), who could talk only of two or three things — ‘lambin'’ and ‘shearin'’ and ‘cookin' for the men’, and what she said to her old man, and what he said to her — and her own ailments — over and over again.

It's a wonder it didn't drive Mary mad! — I know I could never listen to that woman more than an hour. Mary's sister said, —

‘Now if Mary had a comfortable buggy, she


  ― 137 ―
could drive in with the children oftener. Then she wouldn't feel the loneliness so much.’

I said ‘Good night’ then and turned in. There was no getting away from that buggy. Whenever Mary's sister started hinting about a buggy, I reckoned it was a put-up job between them.

3. III. THE GHOST OF MARY'S SACRIFICE.




  ― 138 ―

WHEN I got to Gudgeegong I stopped at Galletly's coach-shop to leave the cart. The Galletlys were good fellows: there were two brothers — one was a saddler and harness-maker. Big brown-bearded men — the biggest men in the district, 'twas said.

Their old man had died lately and left them some money; they had men, and only worked in their shops when they felt inclined, or there was a special work to do; they were both first-class tradesmen. I went into the painter's shop to have a look at a double buggy that Galletly had built for a man who couldn't pay cash for it when it was finished — and Galletly wouldn't trust him.

There it stood, behind a calico screen that the coach-painters used to keep out the dust when they were varnishing. It was a first-class piece of work — pole, shafts, cushions, whip, lamps, and all complete. If you only wanted to drive one horse you could take out the pole and put in the shafts, and there you were. There was a tilt over the front seat; if you only wanted the buggy to carry two, you could fold down the back seat, and there you


  ― 139 ―
had a handsome, roomy, single buggy. It would go near fifty pounds.

While I was looking at it, Bill Galletly came in, and slapped me on the back.

‘Now, there's a chance for you, Joe!’ he said. ‘I saw you rubbing your head round that buggy the last time you were in. You wouldn't get a better one in the colonies, and you won't see another like it in the district again in a hurry — for it doesn't pay to build 'em. Now you're a full-blown squatter, and it's time you took little Mary for a fly round in her own buggy now and then, instead of having her stuck out there in the scrub, or jolting through the dust in a cart like some old Mother Flourbag.’

He called her ‘little Mary’ because the Galletly family had known her when she was a girl.

I rubbed my head and looked at the buggy again. It was a great temptation.

‘Look here, Joe,’ said Bill Galletly in a quieter tone. ‘I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll let YOU have the buggy. You can take it out and send along a bit of a cheque when you feel you can manage it, and the rest later on, — a year will do, or even two years. You've had a hard pull, and I'm not likely to be hard up for money in a hurry.’

They were good fellows the Galletlys, but they knew their men. I happened to know that Bill Galletly wouldn't let the man he built the buggy for take it out of the shop without cash down, though he was a big-bug round there. But that didn't make it easier for me.

Just then Robert Galletly came into the shop.


  ― 140 ―
He was rather quieter than his brother, but the two were very much alike.

‘Look here, Bob,‘ said Bill; ‘here's a chance for you to get rid of your harness. Joe Wilson's going to take that buggy off my hands.’

Bob Galletly put his foot up on a saw-stool, took one hand out of his pockets, rested his elbow on his knee and his chin on the palm of his hand, and bunched up his big beard with his fingers, as he always did when he was thinking. Presently he took his foot down, put his hand back in his pocket, and said to me, ‘Well, Joe, I've got a double set of harness made for the man who ordered that damned buggy, and if you like I'll let you have it. I suppose when Bill there has squeezed all he can out of you I'll stand a show of getting something. He's a regular Shylock, he is.’

I pushed my hat forward and rubbed the back of my head and stared at the buggy.

‘Come across to the Royal, Joe,’ said Bob.

But I knew that a beer would settle the business, so I said I'd get the wool up to the station first and think it over, and have a drink when I came back.

I thought it over on the way to the station, but it didn't seem good enough. I wanted to get some more sheep, and there was the new run to be fenced in, and the instalments on the selections. I wanted lots of things that I couldn't well do without. Then, again, the farther I got away from debt and hard-upedness the greater the horror I had of it. I had two horses that would do; but I'd have to get another later on, and altogether the buggy


  ― 141 ―
would run me nearer a hundred than fifty pounds. Supposing a dry season threw me back with that buggy on my hands. Besides, I wanted a spell. If I got the buggy it would only mean an extra turn of hard graft for me. No, I'd take Mary for a trip to Sydney, and she'd have to be satisfied with that.

I'd got it settled, and was just turning in through the big white gates to the goods-shed when young Black, the squatter, dashed past the station in his big new waggonette, with his wife and a driver and a lot of portmanteaus and rugs and things. They were going to do the grand in Sydney over Christmas. Now it was young Black who was so shook after Mary when she was in service with the Blacks before the old man died, and if I hadn't come along — and if girls never cared for vagabonds — Mary would have been mistress of Haviland homestead, with servants to wait on her; and she was far better fitted for it than the one that was there. She would have been going to Sydney every holiday and putting up at the old Royal, with every comfort that a woman could ask for, and seeing a play every night. And I'd have been knocking around amongst the big stations Out-Back, or maybe drinking myself to death at the shanties.

The Blacks didn't see me as I went by, ragged and dusty, and with an old, nearly black, cabbage-tree hat drawn over my eyes. I didn't care a damn for them, or any one else, at most times, but I had moods when I felt things.

One of Black's big wool teams was just coming away from the shed, and the driver, a big, dark,


  ― 142 ―
rough fellow, with some foreign blood in him, didn't seem inclined to wheel his team an inch out of the middle of the road. I stopped my horses and waited. He looked at me and I looked at him — hard. Then he wheeled off, scowling, and swearing at his horses. I'd given him a hiding, six or seven years before, and he hadn't forgotten it. And I felt then as if I wouldn't mind trying to give some one a hiding.

The goods clerk must have thought that Joe Wilson was pretty grumpy that day. I was thinking of Mary, out there in the lonely hut on a barren creek in the Bush — for it was little better — with no one to speak to except a haggard, worn-out Bushwoman or two, that came to see her on Sunday. I thought of the hardships she went through in the first year — that I haven't told you about yet; of the time she was ill, and I away, and no one to understand; of the time she was alone with James and Jim sick; and of the loneliness she fought through out there. I thought of Mary, outside in the blazing heat, with an old print dress and a felt hat, and a pair of 'lastic-siders of mine on, doing the work of a station manager as well as that of a housewife and mother. And her cheeks were getting thin, and her colour was going: I thought of the gaunt, brick-brown, saw-file voiced, hopeless and spiritless Bushwomen I knew — and some of them not much older than Mary.

When I went back down into the town, I had a drink with Bill Galletly at the Royal, and that settled the buggy; then Bob shouted, and I took the harness. Then I shouted, to wet the bargain.


  ― 143 ―
When I was going, Bob said, ‘Send in that young scamp of a brother of Mary's with the horses: if the collars don't fit I'll fix up a pair of makeshifts, and alter the others.’ I thought they both gripped my hand harder than usual, but that might have been the beer.

4. IV. THE BUGGY COMES HOME.




  ― 144 ―

I ‘WHIPPED the cat’ a bit, the first twenty miles or so, but then, I thought, what did it matter? What was the use of grinding to save money until we were too old to enjoy it. If we had to go down in the world again, we might as well fall out of a buggy as out of a dray — there'd be some talk about it, anyway, and perhaps a little sympathy. When Mary had the buggy she wouldn't be tied down so much to that wretched hole in the Bush; and the Sydney trips needn't be off either. I could drive down to Wallerawang on the main line, where Mary had some people, and leave the buggy and horses there, and take the train to Sydney; or go right on, by the old coach-road, over the Blue Mountains: it would be a grand drive. I thought best to tell Mary's sister at Gulgong about the buggy; I told her I'd keep it dark from Mary till the buggy came home. She entered into the spirit of the thing, and said she'd give the world to be able to go out with the buggy, if only to see Mary open her eyes when she saw it; but she couldn't go, on account of a new baby she had. I was rather glad she couldn't, for it would


  ― 145 ―
spoil the surprise a little, I thought. I wanted that all to myself.

I got home about sunset next day, and, after tea, when I'd finished telling Mary all the news, and a few lies as to why I didn't bring the cart back, and one or two other things, I sat with James, out on a log of the wood-heap, where we generally had our smokes and interviews, and told him all about the buggy. He whistled, then he said —

‘But what do you want to make it such a Bushranging business for? Why can't you tell Mary now? It will cheer her up. She's been pretty miserable since you've been away this trip.’

‘I want it to be a surprise,’ I said.

‘Well, I've got nothing to say against a surprise, out in a hole like this; but it 'ud take a lot to surprise me. What am I to say to Mary about taking the two horses in? I'll only want one to bring the cart out, and she's sure to ask.’

‘Tell her you're going to get yours shod.’

‘But he had a set of slippers only the other day. She knows as much about horses as we do. I don't mind telling a lie so long as a chap has only got to tell a straight lie and be done with it. But Mary asks so many questions.’

‘Well, drive the other horse up the creek early, and pick him up as you go.’

‘Yes. And she'll want to know what I want with two bridles. But I'll fix her — YOU needn't worry.’

‘And, James,’ I said, ‘get a chamois leather and sponge — we'll want 'em anyway — and you might give the buggy a wash down in the creek, coming home. It's sure to be covered with dust.’




  ― 146 ―

‘Oh! — orlright.’

‘And if you can, time yourself to get here in the cool of the evening, or just about sunset.’

‘What for?’

I'd thought it would be better to have the buggy there in the cool of the evening, when Mary would have time to get excited and get over it — better than in the blazing hot morning, when the sun rose as hot as at noon, and we'd have the long broiling day before us.

‘What do you want me to come at sunset for?’ asked James. ‘Do you want me to camp out in the scrub and turn up like a blooming sundowner?’

‘Oh well,’ I said, ‘get here at midnight if you like.’

We didn't say anything for a while — just sat and puffed at our pipes. Then I said, —

‘Well, what are you thinking about?’

I'm thinking it's time you got a new hat, the sun seems to get in through your old one too much,' and he got out of my reach and went to see about penning the calves. Before we turned in he said, —

‘Well, what am I to get out of the job, Joe?’

He had his eye on a double-barrel gun that Franca the gunsmith in Cudgeegong had — one barrel shot, and the other rifle; so I said, —

‘How much does Franca want for that gun?’

‘Five-ten; but I think he'd take my single barrel off it. Anyway, I can squeeze a couple of quid out of Phil Lambert for the single barrel.’ (Phil was his bosom chum.)

‘All right,’ I said. ‘Make the best bargain you can.’




  ― 147 ―

He got his own breakfast and made an early start next morning, to get clear of any instructions or messages that Mary might have forgotten to give him overnight. He took his gun with him.

I'd always thought that a man was a fool who couldn't keep a secret from his wife — that there was something womanish about him. I found out. Those three days waiting for the buggy were about the longest I ever spent in my life. It made me scotty with every one and everything; and poor Mary had to suffer for it. I put in the time patching up the harness and mending the stockyard and the roof, and, the third morning, I rode up the ridges to look for trees for fencing-timber. I remember I hurried home that afternoon because I thought the buggy might get there before me.

At tea-time I got Mary on to the buggy business.

‘What's the good of a single buggy to you, Mary?’ I asked. ‘There's only room for two, and what are you going to do with the children when we go out together?’

‘We can put them on the floor at our feet, like other people do. I can always fold up a blanket or 'possum rug for them to sit on.’

But she didn't take half so much interest in buggy talk as she would have taken at any other time, when I didn't want her to. Women are aggravating that way. But the poor girl was tired and not very well, and both the children were cross. She did look knocked up.

‘We'll give the buggy a rest, Joe,’ she said. (I thought I heard it coming then.) ‘It seems as far off as ever. I don't know why you want to harp on


  ― 148 ―
it to-day. Now, don't look so cross, Joe — I didn't mean to hurt you. We'll wait until we can get a double buggy, since you're so set on it. There'll be plenty of time when we're better off.’

After tea, when the youngsters were in bed, and she'd washed up, we sat outside on the edge of the verandah floor, Mary sewing, and I smoking and watching the track up the creek.

‘Why don't you talk, Joe?’ asked Mary. ‘You scarcely ever speak to me now: it's like drawing blood out of a stone to get a word from you. What makes you so cross, Joe?’

‘Well, I've got nothing to say.’

‘But you should find something. Think of me — it's very miserable for me. Have you anything on your mind? Is there any new trouble? Better tell me, no matter what it is, and not go worrying and brooding and making both our lives miserable. If you never tell one anything, how can you expect me to understand?’

I said there was nothing the matter.

‘But there must be, to make you so unbearable. Have you been drinking, Joe — or gambling?’

I asked her what she'd accuse me of next.

‘And another thing I want to speak to you about,’ she went on. ‘Now, don't knit up your forehead like that, Joe, and get impatient ——’

‘Well, what is it?’

‘I wish you wouldn't swear in the hearing of the children. Now, little Jim to-day, he was trying to fix his little go-cart and it wouldn't run right, and — and ——’

‘Well, what did he say?’




  ― 149 ―

‘He — he’ (she seemed a little hysterical, trying not to laugh) — ‘he said “damn it!”’

I had to laugh. Mary tried to keep serious, but it was no use.

‘Never mind, old woman,’ I said, putting an arm round her, for her mouth was trembling, and she was crying more than laughing. ‘It won't be always like this. Just wait till we're a bit better off.’

Just then a black boy we had (I must tell you about him some other time) came sidling along by the wall, as if he were afraid somebody was going to hit him — poor little devil! I never did.

‘What is it, Harry?’ said Mary.

‘Buggy comin', I bin thinkit.’

‘Where?’

He pointed up the creek.

‘Sure it's a buggy?’

‘Yes, missus.’

‘How many horses?’

‘One — two.’

We knew that he could hear and see things long before we could. Mary went and perched on the wood-heap, and shaded her eyes — though the sun had gone — and peered through between the eternal grey trunks of the stunted trees on the flat across the creek. Presently she jumped down and came running in.

‘There's some one coming in a buggy, Joe!’ she cried, excitedly. ‘And both my white table-cloths are rough dry. Harry! put two flat-irons down to the fire, quick, and put on some more wood. It's lucky I kept those new sheets packed away. Get up out of that, Joe! What are you sitting grinning


  ― 150 ―
like that for? Go and get on another shirt. Hurry — Why! It's only James — by himself.’

She stared at me, and I sat there, grinning like a fool.

‘Joe!’ she said, ‘whose buggy is that?’

‘Well, I suppose it's yours,’ I said.

She caught her breath, and stared at the buggy and then at me again. James drove down out of sight into the crossing, and came up close to the house.

‘Oh, Joe! what have you done?’ cried Mary. ‘Why, it's a new double buggy!’ Then she rushed at me and hugged my head. ‘Why didn't you tell me, Joe? You poor old boy! — and I've been nagging at you all day!’ and she hugged me again.

James got down and started taking the horses out — as if it was an everyday occurrence. I saw the double-barrel gun sticking out from under the seat. He'd stopped to wash the buggy, and I suppose that's what made him grumpy. Mary stood on the verandah, with her eyes twice as big as usual, and breathing hard — taking the buggy in.

James skimmed the harness off, and the horses shook themselves and went down to the dam for a drink. ‘You'd better look under the seats,’ growled James, as he took his gun out with great care.

Mary dived for the buggy. There was a dozen of lemonade and ginger-beer in a candle-box from Galletly — James said that Galletly's men had a gallon of beer, and they cheered him, James (I suppose he meant they cheered the buggy), as he drove off; there was a ‘little bit of a ham’ from Pat Murphy,


  ― 151 ―
the storekeeper at Home Rule, that he'd ‘cured himself’ — it was the biggest I ever saw; there were three loaves of baker's bread, a cake, and a dozen yards of something ‘to make up for the children’, from Aunt Gertrude at Gulgong; there was a fresh-water cod, that long Dave Regan had caught the night before in the Macquarie river, and sent out packed in salt in a box; there was a holland suit for the black boy, with red braid to trim it; and there was a jar of preserved ginger, and some lollies (sweets) (‘for the lil' boy’), and a rum-looking Chinese doll and a rattle (‘for lil' girl’) from Sun Tong Lee, our storekeeper at Gulgong — James was chummy with Sun Tong Lee, and got his powder and shot and caps there on tick when he was short of money. And James said that the people would have loaded the buggy with ‘rubbish’ if he'd waited. They all seemed glad to see Joe Wilson getting on — and these things did me good.

We got the things inside, and I don't think either of us knew what we were saying or doing for the next half-hour. Then James put his head in and said, in a very injured tone, —

‘What about my tea? I ain't had anything to speak of since I left Cudgeegong. I want some grub.’

Then Mary pulled herself together.

‘You'll have your tea directly,’ she said. ‘Pick up that harness at once, and hang it on the pegs in the skillion; and you, Joe, back that buggy under the end of the verandah, the dew will be on it presently — and we'll put wet bags up in front of it to-morrow, to keep the sun off. And James will


  ― 152 ―
have to go back to Cudgeegong for the cart, — we can't have that buggy to knock about in.’

‘All right,’ said James — ‘anything! Only get me some grub.’

Mary fried the fish, in case it wouldn't keep till the morning, and rubbed over the tablecloths, now the irons were hot — James growling all the time — and got out some crockery she had packed away that had belonged to her mother, and set the table in a style that made James uncomfortable.

‘I want some grub — not a blooming banquet!’ he said. And he growled a lot because Mary wanted him to eat his fish without a knife, ‘and that sort of Tommy-rot.’ When he'd finished he took his gun, and the black boy, and the dogs, and went out 'possum-shooting.

When we were alone Mary climbed into the buggy to try the seat, and made me get up alongside her. We hadn't had such a comfortable seat for years; but we soon got down, in case any one came by, for we began to feel like a pair of fools up there.

Then we sat, side by side, on the edge of the verandah, and talked more than we'd done for years — and there was a good deal of ‘Do you remember?’ in it — and I think we got to understand each other better that night.

And at last Mary said, ‘Do you know, Joe, why, I feel to-night just — just like I did the day we were married.’

And somehow I had that strange, shy sort of feeling too.

THE WRITER WANTS TO SAY A WORD.




  ― 153 ―

IN writing the first sketch of the Joe Wilson series, which happened to be ‘Brighten's Sister-in-law’, I had an idea of making Joe Wilson a strong character. Whether he is or not, the reader must judge. It seems to me that the man's natural sentimental selfishness, good-nature, ‘softness’, or weakness — call it which you like — developed as I wrote on.

I know Joe Wilson very well. He has been through deep trouble since the day he brought the double buggy to Lahey's Creek. I met him in Sydney the other day. Tall and straight yet — rather straighter than he had been — dressed in a comfortable, serviceable sac suit of ‘saddle-tweed’, and wearing a new sugar-loaf, cabbage-tree hat, he looked over the hurrying street people calmly as though they were sheep of which he was not in charge, and which were not likely to get ‘boxed’ with his. Not the worst way in which to regard the world.




  ― 154 ―

He talked deliberately and quietly in all that roar and rush. He is a young man yet, comparatively speaking, but it would take little Mary a long while now to pick the grey hairs out of his head, and the process would leave him pretty bald.

In two or three short sketches in another book I hope to complete the story of his life.

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