― 99 ―

Sweetbriar in the Desert

ANDREW LATIMER gave a long sigh and shifted his bluey uneasily from one shoulder to the other. He was just a little out of his reckoning, and he had not been within sight of human habitation for a couple of days. In this desolate country, stations were few and far between. At Yalla Yalla he and his mate had got enough flour and salt meat, they reckoned, to carry them on to the lonely station that lay half-way to Port Vincent, and since leaving there they had met no signs of settlement. They did not expect to meet any.

A man in the bush must have a mate, but Andrew, looking at his, wondered with a sudden imperious wonder how the Fates had ever thrown him, a man of birth and education, with this forlorn, foul-mouthed old wreck. Possibly it was the case in which extremes meet. He, with his Oxford training, had been superior to the average bushman, just as Wall-eyed Bill had been inferior, and so the two friendless ones had drifted together. He had looked at Bill thoughtfully that last night at Yalla Yalla, and in the morning, finding a broken triangle of looking-glass hung against the slab wall of the travellers' hut, he had looked at himself equally thoughtfully.

After all, there was not so very much difference between them. His beard was ragged, his hair unkempt, his cheeks were lean and brown, and there were great lines at the corners of his eyes and round his mouth. His shirt was open at the throat, and the button was gone; it was not over clean, his trousers were moleskins of a doubtful colour, and his boots—

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well they had tramped many weary miles, and they do not have anyone to clean boots in the travellers' huts. How different he was—he suddenly seemed to realise it—how different from the good-looking, spick-and-span young Englishman who had come out to Australia to make his fortune only three years before!

He thought of that man now as he tramped on steadily by his mate's side. A man full of hope for the future, a man well dressed and needing all the comforts, not to say the luxuries, of life, a man who intended to stay in Australia only till he had made his fortune—say three years at the very most—and then back to England and culture and comfort. He had had five hundred pounds in his pocket then. And now? He felt uneasily in his trousers' pocket; there was just a little silver threepence there, not enough to buy a drink in this thirsty land. He picked out the threepence and looked at it as it lay on the palm of his hand, and then he heard his mate chuckle.

“Is that all yer got, mate? Well, a cove can always get tucker out back, anyway.”

Yes, after all, in the bush a man could always have food for the asking. It struck him how low he had fallen, actually begging his bread, and feeling no shame. He looked at his mate and asked a question he had never thought to ask in all the long months they had wandered together.

“Bill, where did you come from? You weren't always on the wallaby?”

Wall-eyed Bill stood stock still and shifted his swag uneasily as his mate had done. Overhead was the faraway sky, hard bright blue from horizon to horizon, and underneath was the rolling grass country, all brown grass bending its head to the gentle breeze, and away in the distance a shimmer of something white that might be water, only it seemed unlikely there could be any water in such a place.

“No,” said Bill slowly, and suddenly into his speech there came something that Andrew Latimer had never heard before, a tone of refinement that made him look

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up quickly. “No, I wasn't always on the wallaby. Christ! that I should come to this! God bless my soul!” the bitterness went from his voice and surprise took its place, “did you smell that? Did you smell the sweetbriar?”

Latimer looked at his mate in astonishment. Was he going mad? Here, with the brown grass under his feet and the blue sky overhead, he was asking him did he smell the sweetbriar. Could anything be more ridiculous? He was thinking of a carefully tended English garden surely—a garden waking up at the first touch of summer, after the long winter sleep. Was he going mad? Men did that sometimes in the bush.

“Wall-eye,” he began, and then the old, familiar term that he had used hundreds of times struck him as unkind, to say the least of it. One side of the man's face had been blown away, and his eye was gone, giving him a peculiarly vacant look like a blank wall, but surely it was a misfortune that should be treated tenderly. “Mate,” he said kindly, “you're dreaming. How could there be sweetbriar here?”

“I don't know,” said the man, with a quick catch of the breath that made him quite unlike the slouchy old swagman Andrew had known. “It is sweetbriar. It makes me think of the days when I was young, the golden-haired girl I kissed——”

He broke off with a little hard laugh and turned fiercely on the man beside him.

“Latimer,” he said, dropping the old, familiar Christian name, the old, familiar Australian drawl, and speaking as one man speaks to another in the rush and hurry of the world, “what are you doing here wasting your life? You're just drifting. What's a job of fencing here and splitting there, and a little shearing now and then, to a man of your education?”

“I am only doing the same as you are,” said Latimer lamely, and then he started, for to his nostrils, too, came the scent of the sweetbriar.

“I?” said the older man bitterly. “You don't mean

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to say you're setting up me for an example. I went under about the time you were getting your first birching.”

He laughed, and Latimer echoed the laugh, and the other turned on him savagely.

“Oh, laugh,” he said, “laugh like the world. I don't know why I bother my head about you. You think an unfortunate wretch like I am only fit to be mocked at.”

“I don't,” said Latimer soberly. “I assure you I don't. I am sorry and——”

“Don't be mawkishly sentimental. I've made my bed, and I've got to lie on it, and I don't know that for myself I'd have things different. There's the fresh air and the sunshine, and, after all, come to think of it, human nature's much the same in the traveller's hut out back here as it is in a London club or drawing-room.”

Andrew straightened himself. “Still, a London drawing-room——” There was a wistfulness in his tones. “Think of the pretty English girls with their pink and white complexions, think of the dainty women——”

“Don't think of them. The best woman's a devil, taken any way. For a good many years I excepted the pretty little girl I kissed when I was nineteen. Did I kiss her, by the way? No, I don't believe I ever dared so much. We put women on a pedestal at nineteen, and they spend their time breaking that pedestal, the fools! I looked and longed in an English garden, and the smell of the sweetbriar was in my nostrils. What an ass I was!”

“You don't know that,” said Latimer; “she might have been all that you fancied her.”

“The chances are against it. I've learned enough about women since to—— Well, anyhow, I've paid her the compliment of remembering her.”

“Is that more than you have done for the other women who have come into your life?”

“A long sight more. Well, there's one I remembered, the she-devil who cost me this,” and he touched

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his scarred cheek. “No, take an older man's advice. Never trust a woman. Even when she loves you she'll make you pay for it—aye, and pay heavily too.”

“Talking about women and love here!” said Latimer mockingly, but he could not help wondering at the change that had come over his companion. “Much chance I have of either in my life.”

“That's it. You go back to civilisation. Don't waste your life here. Take my advice.”

“Who cares what becomes of me?”

“You care yourself. Never think anyone else cares. Don't count on anyone else to help you, to go one hairbreadth out of their way for your sake, because they won't—man or woman, they won't. Well, a woman will sometimes, but she makes you pay in the end. Believe me, my dear chap, there's nothing disinterested in this world. You pull yourself together and get out of this. It only wants a little effort. Not half the effort that's required to tramp along in this burning sun over this infernal desert.

Latimer looked at him plodding along in the scorching, pitiless sunshine, a weary, bent man dragging one ill-shod foot wearily after the other, a man who had no faith in tenderness or love, no belief in the kindliness of human nature. He felt he hated him for one brief second, and then he pitied him. And yet it shamed him to think he had fallen so low that this man was his mate. He would get out, he would. There was a man he knew in Adelaide, he would go to him and ask him to give him another chance, for his father's sake to give him another chance. The thought that he must do it or sink like this was galling. He lifted his eyes again. The white shimmer in the distance was nearer now, much nearer.

“Water?” he said wonderingly. He wanted to break away from his thoughts. “Surely it is water.”

“Salt,” said the other man succinctly, “it's salt.”

Salt. Yes, of course it was salt, one of that great chain of salt lakes that for so long barred Sturt's progress north. They walked down to the margin, and it

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lay before them in the sunlight glittering like snow; on every side rolled away the grassy plain, and the smell of the sweetbriar was stronger than ever.

“Why, it comes from the salt,” said Latimer, and the other flung himself down on the ground as if utterly worn out.

“Yes,” he said quietly, in the new voice his mate was so unaccustomed to, “I remember now, it comes from the salt. It makes me thirsty, that glittering salt. Have you any water, Latimer? My bag's dry. Not that there's any reason you should give me yours.”

Andrew looked at his own canvas bag. There was not much in it, evaporation is very rapid under that fierce sun; but what there was he poured into a pannikin and handed to his mate, who drank it off at one gulp, without even a “Thank you.”

“More, a little more,” but he did not swear, he who had the reputation of being the foulest-mouthed man between Cape York and the Leeuwin.

“I have no more,” said Andrew. “I doubt if there's any more between here and Port Vincent. But it can't be very far now, perhaps not a matter of twenty miles—forty at the very most. We're a little out of the track, I think; but, after all, that's nothing, we'll soon find it.”

The other man laughed, and then, throwing off his swag, lay back with a sigh.

“It's not nothing to me,” he said. “I can't do another step. I'm about played out.”

“We can't camp till we find water,” said Latimer, looking over the glittering salt lake that, when he closed his eyes, mocked him with its promise of green fields and dewy, flowering hedgerows. “To camp by this salt pan would be just courting death.”

“And I drank the last of the water. Latimer, you're a fool! Do you know where we are?”

“Well, we're on the Peninsula now. If we walk to the east, we must strike the sea; and coasting along the shore, we're bound to fetch Port Vincent.”

“Perhaps a three days' tramp,” said the other,

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letting his fingers close on the blades of grass. “You must go by yourself, my dear chap. I'm not on the wallaby any longer.”

“Mate!” Andrew came and bent over him.

“Only another old swaggy going to his long last home. Buck up, mate! It's an everyday occurrence. And look here, it is not much good giving advice, I know, but do look after yourself a bit in the future. You're too soft. I weathered you in the matter of that water. We ought to have shared. By Jove! smell the sweetbriar! I feel as if that golden-haired girl must be coming along presently.”

“Mate, mate!” There was distress in Latimer's tone. What was he to do with a man whose mind was wandering? They were miles from help, miles from water. “Pull yourself together. You want to get back to her.”

Wall-eyed Bill looked the young man straight in the face.

“Get back to her. That's in the past, man. She's an old harridan now, I reckon. Well”—his voice was very weary—“I thought a lot of her once, so we'll give her the benefit of the doubt and say she only grew into a fool. She drifted, I guess, like I did. I always chose the easy way, always, or—perhaps I shouldn't be here. I wonder if she did. The smell of the sweetbriar made me think of her. I haven't done it for years. They say it's so easy to go down, Latimer, but it isn't. In one way it's mighty hard.”

The deep caw of a crow broke the stillness, and Latimer, looking up, saw black specks coming across the blue sky—one, two, three, four, and more were winging their way towards them. Harbingers of death they seemed. How did they know that they two were here without water on the borders of the salt lake? Oh, they would wait, those crows. Many a time had he seen them stalking round a dying beast, waiting till their turn should come.

“Man, man!” he said, putting his hand on the other man's shoulder. He was shocked to find how

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thin he was, merely a bag of bones. Had this despised mate of his been dying under his very eyes, dying as he tramped, and he had never noticed? A great scorn of himself, a great pity for his mate, filled his heart. “Man, man, friend, pull yourself together! I'll help you. Isn't there anyone for whose sake you want to get back?”

“I tell you,” said the other, falling back again on the ground and pillowing his head on his swag—and his voice still had the mocking tone—“there isn't anyone for whose sake I'd trouble to cross a road. What does the world care for me?” and he put his hand over his scarred face as if he could not bear the light of the sun upon it.

Andrew Latimer rose to his feet then. He drove away the waiting crows and he walked down to the salt lake. A salt lake does not necessarily imply water. This one did not; it was smooth, white, glittering salt, like so much coarse snow crystals, and Latimer stepped on to it vaguely. It was possible there might be a little water towards the centre, and he held his billy in his hand and walked slowly away from the shore. The water would be salt, but he might at least bathe his mate's face. He looked round him. It was indescribably desolate. There was the lake of glittering white crystals, and all around the country rose in a gentle curve, brown and dreary, with just here and there one or two lonely trees, ragged and bent almost to the ground in a vain endeavour to escape the strong winds. There was not a bird or a beast to be seen save crows; there was not the sound of an insect to be heard in the hot, still air. The salt crunched loud beneath his feet, and, looking down, he saw that his footsteps were marked apparently in blood. It was eerie. A little farther out and he began to sink slowly in the moist salt as in a quicksand, and water like blood oozed up over his boots, and he could only return as aimlessly as he had set out.

What could he do? How could he stay here? Already the thirst was catching at his throat. He knew

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only too well how quickly a man succumbs to the cruel enemy. He looked up into the deep, dark blue overhead, and thought longingly of the cool grey English skies, and then he thought of the man lying there in the garish sunshine, the cynical old swagman to whom he was bound by all the ties of bush honour. Could he leave a dying comrade? No, a thousand times no. Could he carry him that unknown number of miles that lay between them and Port Vincent? And to stay meant death to them both, certain death. There were no two words about it. To stay there twenty-four hours in this sweltering heat meant death. The strong, sweet scent of the sweetbriar, so incongruous, so out of place, seemed to be emphasising it—certain death. Such a tiny thing as the fallen man looked in the great waste, just a heap of worn-out clothes, with the waiting crows around. As he came back they fluttered away.

“Mate, you must let me help you,” and he put his arm round him and raised his head to his shoulder.

“Do you think I'm worth saving, Latimer?”

Perhaps in the bottom of his heart Andrew did not think it, a cynical man who had wasted his life and come to this; but because of this vagrant thought, he spoke roughly.

“For pity's sake, don't be a fool! I'll manage to hump you somehow. We can't possibly stay here.”

“Go on, man, go on. What's the good of risking your life for Wall-eyed Bill, a man who never cared a cuss for you—or anyone else, for that matter. You get back to civilisation and begin again.”

“I'm going to begin again,” said Andrew with determination, and he spoke slowly because the desire for life was strong in him. He saw it a goodly thing. “I'm going to make a better thing of my life, but I'm hanged if I'll begin by deserting my mate.”

The other put his rough, toil-worn hand on his just for a moment.

“You fool, you d——d fool! You can't begin again if you stay by me. Good Lord! how my head is

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swimming! No,” as Latimer tried to raise him; “won't you let me have ten minutes' peace? You would if you knew how tired I am.”

There was such weariness in his voice that for very pity Andrew desisted. Ten minutes was not much to give a comrade who was sick and weary, and yet the place had got on his nerves, the crows looked menacing, the scent of the sweetbriar was mocking; it seemed to him that every moment was hours lost, and minutes were of consequence.

“Come!” he said roughly, with a roughness born of dire necessity; “once we get to water, you'll be better.”

“Water?” said the sick man sharply, “I never expected to appreciate water so much. That's another of life's lessons, I suppose; and, like most of life's lessons, it comes when we are not in a position to profit by it. I'll never taste water again. How the sweetbriar makes me think of it! With all this sweetbriar about, there must be water.”

“I'm going to take you to water.” Latimer spoke in a whisper and spoke fiercely.

“Let me alone. Just five minutes. You go ahead and get help, and come back for me. We can't be very far from Port Vincent.”

“Too far to leave you behind,” said Latimer stolidly, though the crows seemed to be saying that his mate was right. It was the only way. He could only get on and get help. To stay here meant that both lives must be sacrificed.

“Supposing you can't get me along?” There was a little mock in the tones.

“I can only try.”

“Suppose I'm past all help? I may be.”

“Then”—Latimer spoke very deliberately—“I'll stay here and see you through. It isn't a quarter of an hour since you lay down. Things can't be so bad.”

Was it only a quarter of an hour? It seemed to him hours and days and weeks since he had first smelled

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the smell of the sweetbriar—that scent that here in this sweltering heat had filled his heart with a desire for better things—and behold! already death in an awful guise was staring him in the face!

“Man, we must start!” he said fiercely. “I'll carry you. You're only a bag of bones. I never noticed,” he added a little remorsefully, “how thin you were.”

“Just give me three minutes—only three minutes,” prayed the sick man. “This isn't much of a world, but how do we know what is coming after?”

Latimer answered impatiently. What was the good of moralising on the chances of a future world and letting the sands of life run out in this manner.

“Hang it all!” he said. “All I'm asking of you is a chance in this world. It's quite good enough for me.”

The man on the ground looked at him enviously.

“A strong young fellow like you will get down to Port Vincent easily enough.”

“Yes,” said Latimer, softening again. The man was ill, very ill. He would stay by him; he would try to carry him to water; and if he would do so much for him, he might as well put a curb on his tongue. What was the good of offering his life in surly fashion? His life? Well, of course, if he stayed, it would come to that. There were no two ways about it. To stay by this man meant offering him his life—his young, fresh, strong life—just to soothe the last hours of a cynical, worn-out rake who would not even understand the sacrifice, and would not appreciate it if he did. The taste of it was bitter in his mouth. Even though they were both dying, he felt he could hardly curb his tongue.

“Well, why don't you go?” The sick man's voice was mocking.

“If you think,” said Latimer grimly, “I'm such a mean hound as to leave you, you're much mistaken. Two minutes more and then I hump you.”

“Only two minutes?”

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“Only two minutes.” Latimer sat down and began impatiently breaking off the tops of the grass.

“It'll mean death to both of us.”

“You never know your luck.”

“I'm not worth saving.”

“Perhaps not. I shall try.”

“At the risk of your life?”


“Think of England, and the life the sweetbriar reminds you of.”

“My God!” cried Andrew, “I do think of it. Do you think it's easy to sit here and see you waste my chances?”

“And I've always taken the easiest way,” said the tired, cultured voice with the little mock in it. “I'm going to do it for the last time.”

“If you see an easy way out of this,” said Andrew, “you're cleverer than I took you for.”

“Nevertheless”—and the twisted face smiled—“there's a mighty easy way for me. It has its drawbacks, of course; but, then, everything has some drawback.” He raised himself on his elbow and looked slowly round the horizon—brown, rolling plain and hard blue sky and sparkling, white salt.

“I wish,” he said suddenly, “I had kissed that girl. The women I have kissed since! And I never did more than touch her hand!”

“Are you mad?” cried Andrew angrily.

“They say you go back to your youth at the end.” He caught Latimer's reluctant hand. “Well, I've found out there's one decent chap in the world. As I said before, it is unlucky life's lessons so often come too late. Smell the sweetbriar. I'm glad it was here at last.”

He pressed Andrew's hand, and then Andrew saw that in the other he was holding a little phial, and before he could stop him he had poured the contents into his mouth.

Latimer started up in horror. One convulsion and it was all over. Truly he had chosen the easier way—

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the easier way for Andrew Latimer. The crows fluttered away as he moved, a little wind sprang up, a cool, scented breeze, and before him lay, plain and easy for a strong man, the way to Port Vincent and safety. The kingdoms of the earth were at his feet, bought at a price.