― 151 ―

A Good Samaritan

THEY talk about the West Coast now; but, my word, they ought to have seen it before they found gold and silver and tin there, and the Government of Tasmania was just beginning to wake up to the fact that there was unexplored, unexploited land there that possibly might, some day, be valuable. I was in the Lands Department then. No, I'm not now. I tried to do my duty, and the man who tried to do his duty in those days ended by being sacked, and I was sacked in the end. For my own good, no doubt; but that's quite another story. What I was going to tell you was of the occasion on which I played Good Samaritan. It sounds beautiful—yes, I admit, it sounds beautiful; but somehow, like one's duty to the Lands Department of Tasmania in the old days, it didn't work out properly.

Well, I was chief surveyor at Scarf, on the West Coast. Scarf wasn't a town, it wasn't even a township. I don't know that you'd even have dignified it by the name of hamlet. It was in my day just two or three shacks set at the head of what in Norway would be called a fiord, and in Tasmania we didn't give any particular name to at all. A little steamer came in about once a fortnight and tied up to the frail little pier, and brought stores round from Hobart, and if it was very rough—well she didn't come, and we made out as best we could without. We were the Government Surveyor and his party, I being the surveyor in charge, with a couple of young assistants and a few men under me, chainmen, storemen, a cook and a couple of boys. We were the aristocracy of the place,

  ― 152 ―
and the rest of the society was made up of the few settlers dotted about inland. I suppose now that the land was being surveyed for their benefit, but neither I nor they thought so then. Our chief use in their eyes was as lenders of tools. Hammers and axes were greatly in request. I've known a man walk ten miles to borrow an adze, and every man who had an axe sharpened it on the Government grindstone. As I say, they didn't care a mite about the opening up of the country, but they did take a very great interest in the Government tools.

It was wild country: steep hills densely timbered, scrub it would take you a day to push forward a mile in, and a rainfall they measured by the yard. They had a certain wild grandeur of their own, those mist-covered hills; but in those days I don't know that I appreciated it, and I remember seeing anything but beauty in them when one wet day in July I found I had to get twenty miles back to a place they called King to interview a subordinate of mine who was coming down another fifteen miles to meet me and confer on some question connected with a corduroy road.

You don't know anything about corduroy roads in England, I am told. Really, I don't know that you are any losers. But in those days about Scarf, when we had any roads at all, they were mostly corduroy. A feminine friend of mine tells me she only knows corduroy velvet, and, after all, corduroy velvet is very like a corduroy road in miniature. To make a corduroy road—you can only do it in heavily timbered country—you chop down the trees that stand in the way, cut them into the lengths you want, and lay them, side by side, filling up the interstices with mud, earth, stones, sand, and smaller branches, in fact anything you can lay hold of that you think will make that road durable and substantial, and when you've finished travelling over it would make angels weep.

It was a corduroy road up to King; also since it was July and Scarf on the West Coast, it is hardly necessary

  ― 153 ―
to say it was raining like the very dickens. The little creeks coming down from the hills were rushing streams, the trees were shrouded in mist, so were the hill-tops, and the road was a yellow quagmire. However, the weather wasn't like to clear, so I started with my little swag on my back, for there was no other mode of progression possible in those days than by Shank's pony.

The road to King was up-hill, also it lay at the bottom of two slopes, so that it formed a very natural and convenient watercourse for all the rain that fell on those hills. And if a corduroy road is bad when it is dry, it is the very devil and all when it is kneedeep in a sort of stiff, sticky, gluey material that is neither honest earth nor water. But it had to be faced, so up I went. Up, and up, and up. Gentle Annie, they called it. There's always a Gentle Annie among those hills, simply because it's not quite as steep and impossible and back-breaking as those around.

Well, the scrub on either side was dense, and the trees stood tall and close like serried giants. In between was fern and creeper, supple Jack and tea-tree, but you could see no great distance anywhere; it was all blotted out by the mist and rain.

When I had walked, I suppose, a good five miles, and was warm, not to say hot, with the exertion, I suddenly saw ahead of me out on the road the legs of a man. There was a body attached, of course, but that was hidden by the thick scrub he was leaning up against. Now, I knew a man must be pretty well petered out when he sat down to rest in that mud in that soaking rain, and when I came up I found I was right.

He was a man I didn't know at all. He'd probably come in from out back for stores, for the steamer was at the pier, and he leaned back against the scrub so wearily that he never raised his eyes when I came up, though, heaven knows, travellers were few and far between on the road to King.

“Hallo, mate!”

  ― 154 ―

“Hallo!” answered the man grudgingly and unwillingly.

“Petered out?”

“No,” in a mind-your-own-business sort of tone. But I had come up Gentle Annie with only my little swag on my back, and I saw he had a great pack.

“You've got a pretty heavy load.”

“No”—he relented a little—“it's nothen when you're used to it.”

“I don't know. Coming up Gentle Annie's no joke. Let's see what you have got.”

He didn't seem to like it, but my intentions were good, and I looked.

Well, he had thirty pounds of flour, several tins of preserved meat, a heap of other odds and ends, and of all things in this wicked world to be hauling up Gentle Annie—a grindstone.

I expressed my surprise in no measured terms.

“You're not bein' asked to carry it,” said he ungraciously.

No, I wasn't, but I didn't see quite how I was to let him toil on under such a load and go light myself.

“What in heaven's name do you want a grindstone for?” I asked, aggrieved that he should have put me in such a predicament. “There's the Government one at Scarf.”

Then it was he who was aggrieved.

“Yes, there is,” said he, “and that little”—and here he made some very uncomplimentary remarks upon my personal appearance which I will not quote because they were not true—“keeps the key of the store. It's easier to get into heaven than to get at the Government grindstone”—I assure my readers that that also was untrue. I only exercised reasonable care. “Besides, what's the good of a grindstone at Scarf when I quamby twenty mile away in the forest. Reason enough for hawkin' up a grindstone. An' I ain't askin' you to carry it.”

That was just my grievance. Sitting there tired out with thirty pounds of flour and other odds and ends

  ― 155 ―
as well as the grindstone, he certainly was asking me to carry something, and I found the corduroy road bad enough when I humped my own little swag.

“Look here, I'll give you a hand when you're rested.”

“I ain't askin' you,” he said again, turning away ungraciously.

“Nonsense. What shall I take—the flour or the grindstone?”

He looked at me a little scornfully.

“You ain't up to it.”

That settled the matter. I took the grindstone.

Now a grindstone is an awkward thing to carry at any time; up a corduroy road knee-deep in sticky mud, a road that goes for ever upwards, it is almost an impossible thing. In five minutes I had repented, in ten I was in sympathetic accord with those much-maligned men, the Priest and the Levite; but, of course, I said nothing. I had undertaken to carry that grindstone, and carry it I had to. It would have been humiliating to give in now.

I had slung it over my shoulder, and as I quelched forward into the mud it hit and hit hard the top of my shoulder; then as I drew my leg out of the sticky mess, it fell back and hit my back—hit it just a little harder, for it took a certain amount of energy to get out of the mud. When it seemed to me that a raw hole had been worked in my back I put my left hand behind to catch it, and when that was so bruised and sore I could stand it no longer, I put my right. Oh, that was a journey! It was raining, and it was cold, but the sweat poured off my face and ran into my eyes, and, let me tell you, sweat in your eyes stings. Squish, squash! Every step was an effort; the weight made the mud work into my boots through the laces, and there were all sorts of stones and sand in that mud. I ached in every bone, I was bruised all over, I could have fallen down by the wayside in the mud panting for breath; but the one thing I could not do was to give up that grindstone. Partly I pitied the poor

  ― 156 ―
beggar who would have to carry it, and partly I could not own myself beaten; but I did consider once when we stopped and boiled a billyful of tea—mine—whether I would have one of those solid haloes or one of those streaky things that go off into nothingness. I decided in favour of the streaky ones. I had had enough of round solids with that grindstone for the remainder of my natural life. And when we went on again— well, I consider I did my share of purgatory on that corduroy road to King. As for my friend, he was a man of magnificent silences. He plodded on more as if he were conferring a favour on me than I on him.

I was just about played out, wondering how I could best break it to him and save my own dignity, that I did not intend to carry that blamed thing one yard farther, when we came to a narrow track through the bush and my companion stopped dead.

He pointed his thumb over his shoulder.

“That's my way, mate. I guess you're going to King.”

I said nothing. I didn't ask his name or where he was going to, or what he was, or where he dwelt. I simply handed over that grindstone in silence. He took it in silence without even a word of thanks, and I watched him go up the narrow track between the tall trees in the pouring rain. When he had disappeared I sat down—in the mud—stretched out my arms, and relieved my feelings. Why cuss words do that I can't say, but they do, or rather they did on the West Coast in those days. Then I resumed my weary tramp to King and got there just before nightfall.

My subordinate wasn't there. For that matter nobody was there. King was just a little plateau in the surrounding mountains where we expected a town to spring up in time, but, as yet, no one had put up so much as a hut. I didn't see even a native bear, and I'd lost my matches. I remembered I'd a box when we boiled our tea, and I remembered putting them down on a log and looking for them when we got up to go on, and, as they weren't there, thinking I had

  ― 157 ―
put them in my pocket. Now I knew my grumpy companion must have pocketed them. Anyhow, here was I, worn out, miles from anywhere, the rain coming down as steadily as ever, and without the where-withal to light a fire. Once more I realised how wise and farseeing were the Priest and the Levite, and I arranged a piece of bark against a tree trunk and, wet, stiff, and weary, spent the night there.

Next day I went back. It isn't quite as bad going down a corduroy road as climbing up it; but it's pretty bad, especially when your back and arms are stiff and bruised, and your feet are worked raw with sand and gravel. So it took me the best part of the next day to reach Scarf.

We didn't live luxuriously in those days, but I did raise a man to cook me an evening meal and get me some hot water to bathe my sore feet in before I turned in. Just as I was thinking of the blankets my headsman appeared on the scene looking a little upset.

“Look here, boss,” said he, “the Government store's been broken into.”

It was annoying, but I could only ask “When?”

“I don't know. I've got the key, and I haven't been asked for anything since the day before yesterday. It must have been last night or the night before, I guess. Some of them riff-raff down to meet the steamer.”

“Anything gone?” After all there wasn't anything of any great value in the place.

“I can't seem to miss anything but the grindstone. That's clean gone.”

“Great Scot!” I knew then that for ten weary miles I had carried my own grindstone away from its happy home; that if I had only taken the trouble to look at it I might have seen the Government arrow upon it, and—well that's why I swore off playing the Good Samaritan for many a long day; and as for haloes— I never look at a stained-glass window but I remember how I toiled up that corduroy road and at every step my own grindstone hit me and hit me hard in the back.