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Itinerant Toilers

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Sketch on page 140 of 'Itinerant Toilers'

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WHAT hours we used to spend in the garrulous society of the labouring men on the old farm; how happy we were fraternising with Jim, the pig-feeder, or absorbing the oracular wisdom of One-eyed Mick the while he made the axe ring: in such society we were assured of two things— a subject of real interest, whether it were the bold digging days of Victoria, or moving adventures by stranger floods and fields; secondly, that the delight of the story would not be minimised by the appendage of a moral homily. Mick, and Jim and their peers were no Æsops—the old fable-writer must, according to our experience, have been an uncle. One's relations have a knack, I have observed generally, of spoiling a narrative by a moral postscript that is much in the nature of an anti-climax. Moreover, when our graver elders discoursed to us we were obliged to listen in silent deference; we were not privileged to interrupt. Now, One-eyed Mick never reproved us for our manners when we broke in upon his recital with impatient questions, urging him, when dallying on the edge of his climax, to “hurry up.” The severest reproof he ever administered to our eagerness was, “Don't ask no questions and you won't be told no stories.”

Oh, the deeds of derring-do that we drank in from the lips of this romantic fellow and his ilk! How hard and strange must have been the circumstances that had brought such heroic darers of fate as they had been to the necessity of drudging about our flats in the performance of obscure and unromantic chores! In spite of the gallant past, their extraordinary native capacity for large things, they had come to such poor ways! The prodigal son himself, for example had not known greater vicissitudes than had befallen Mick.

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But, unlike the hero of St. Luke's story, Mick wasted his substance without regrets. They drifted on, these men, never long in one place; taking life easily and with a Mark Tapley jollity—here to-day and gone to-morrow. Men learned a cheery philosophy in the hazards of the goldfields from which most of these swagmen, coming in search of a job, had wandered. The El Dorado done, the pirate ship sailed upon its last voyage on lawless seas: what may a man do but trim his life to new and quiet ways?

There was one man who for a season drove our single-furrow plough. This was when I was very small and very credulous; but even I came at last, by much hearing of them, to notice that Tommy's stories had remarkable variations. Like the narratives of most of those tale-tellers in moleskin, his stories were usually personal, and of a character laudatory of the central figure. Tommy lacked a finger, a fact interesting and question-provoking in itself. In all he must have furnished Claribel and myself with twenty different accounts of how the mutilation befell him—accounts ranging from a drastic attack upon the unfortunate member with his own knife after a snake-bite, to a blood-curdling struggle with a brigand, during which the brigand took toll of Tommy's finger, and Tommy took toll of the brigand's head. No wonder the discrepancies in the man's narrative puzzled us; but when we frankly drew his attention to his contradictions, the unblushing comment would be, “That's true, too; it happened in several different ways.” But variety lends charm, 'tis said, and it was no wonder that, like Oliver Twist, we always wanted more. No wonder, either, that the very tame themes of visiting lady friends, told with “rotatory thumbs on knees,” failed to rival seriously the loquacity of these fine fellows.

There was one of these itinerant toilers who was with us many times. He, of them all, in his own person, suggested the picturesque things of which he talked. He was a delightfully lawless-looking man, Hooper, albeit quiet and unaggressive, and from my knowledge of him he never uttered a word to us children that Mr. Podsnap's Young Person might not fitly have heard. He talked little, though, and not readily,

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contenting himself mostly by looking the character others more commonplace aped in their tales. Hooper, in our eyes, might have been of any dark, foreign race—a Spaniard, a Mexican, even a Turk. In occupation we made him a Corsair —“linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes”—I was tasting my first joy in Byron at the time. Claribel insisted on a noble origin, and a dark sorrow in youth that had made of Hooper a desperate wanderer. Thus we made stories about him for ourselves; now he sailed the Spanish Main; again he plumbed with Captain Nemo the depths wherein lie the bones of Clarence, and many another being of fact and fiction. I have since seen Hooper's very self the central figure of the bandits in the picture of The Brigands in our Gallery—the pale face, the dark, flung-back hair, the boldly picturesque presence of that romantic figure were Hooper's. As a mild-mannered tiller of the soil, he always carried a terrible knife at his belt, slipt in a sheath attached to the red scarf he wore round his waist. The knife was chiefly for ornamental purposes, as far as we saw. When it was put to use it was simply to cut the “meditative weed” or release a too-tight bowyang. But the knife was in keeping with our melodramatic reading of Hooper's past, and was fascinating proof of his lawless character. Though our imagination was pleasurably stimulated by all this, we had a half-fear of the man. The red sash, the dark, gleaming eyes, the mass of hair and beard— were they not terrible enough? We hovered about him as we returned to the pages of Kit Carson and of “Pirate Desborough.” Once Hooper made an urgent call on the humanity of Claribel. We had taken his tea to the paddock where he was mowing oats, and found him in distress with an oaten husk in his eye. With the red handkerchief twirled at the corner, our gentle bandit was endeavouring to dislodge the intruding particle. Claribel has never ceased to boast of that brave act of hers, though in faith (was I not witness to it?) her first impulse had been incontinently to bolt, when poor Hooper, his distressed eye in fine frenzy rolling, claimed her humanity. I admit that I was passing scared myself, and was glad that the arresting call was to Claribel. She,

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making a virtue of the obvious necessity, did his bidding with the twirled handkerchief, while the sufferer rolled his marauder eye in truly fearsome manner. He was a grateful patient, poor Hooper, for I remember that on his next visit to the township he brought home for Claribel a beautiful handkerchief with the whole story of “This is the house that Jack built” in picture and verse upon it.

It was always the older men who appealed to us; the younger ones who tarried on our farm a while from their vagabondage were full of their themes of sport, and did not interest us greatly. But most of those who came were past their youth, as I have suggested—disillusioned gold-diggers who, sinking deep for gold—mercurial in men's fingers in those days—had come later to till the surface of the ground for other men's harvests. We loved the stories of the “roaring fifties.” There was Ned, for instance. What tales he could tell of quartz “dripping with nuggets”; of winnings and of losings! He had a scar on the wrist just under the leather band he wore tightly against the hand. He used to push this band obligingly aside to display the scar, and tell us about it when we took his afternoon tea to the paddock. There was an enthralling story of the Eureka Stockade attached, as it were, to that scar—a story that we never tired of hearing or Ned of telling. Tommy, one day, sprawled suddenly on the stubble as the result of a sneering remark about “Bill Adams and the Battle of Waterloo,” while Ned was embellishing for our satisfaction the details of his personal part in the stockade affair. Ned had a temper as well as huge muscles.

I was a favourite with the men, being even then a reader of the newspapers. I constituted myself the medium by which the huts were supplied with the weeklies as soon as the house was finished with them. There was old Edward, than whom no one of them all could with more gusto clear a dish of pudding. Without the last week's Leader for his Sunday reading, Edward was indeed an object of tidied-up desolation. He was omnivorous in all things, and in all things jealous of his prestige, and ticklish, too, about his age. The Californian gold rush was but yesterday with him, for he

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needs must, where all men had been adventurers, have had part in those spacious days, and yet assume the youthful jauntiness befitting a man who was not unsusceptible to the charms of Minnie Grave.

No more curious figure ever trod those virgin flats along the creek than “Old Angus.” Angus was neither old nor young, I think, yet he was one of those men it is hard to imagine were ever children—or even youthful. He wore a grey “jumper” reaching to the knees, and one saw but that and the blurred eyes looking dimly forth from the wilderness of hair that covered his head and face. A blasting-accident he told us—have I not said how greedy we were for first causes? —had almost destroyed his sight. Still, Angus was a great reader; mere newspapers did not satisfy him, or books of passing moment. With spectacles and a powerful magnifying glass—how we loved the loan of that by which to pore upon the infinity of a caterpillar or a blade of grass!—Angus spent his spare time with “The Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man.” I remember it was jocularly said the man himself looked not unlike a “missing link” in his hairiness and primitive attire. He is the only man of the swag-carrying fraternity I have ever known who bore about with him such literature. The volumes, not long published then, were expensive to buy, and looking back I reflect that only a deep love of their profound themes could have caused the itinerant Angus, half blind and wholly poor, to weight his swag with such books. Darwin's was a strange name to my ears then, and in my later reverence for the bringer of the new cosmos I have wished that I had been of an understanding age when that shaggy old idolater of his, book and magnifying glass in hand, descanted upon the great discoveries. As it is, I have a hazy recollection of unintelligible words, stumblingly uttered, as Angus gave them to my mother, or, his poor sight failing, of his coming to her with the book, to read some enthralling portion. She, poor soul, regarded the theories of those pages as impious, and I know that only kindness for the man's infirmity set her, notwithstanding her faltering repugnance, among those ungodly pages.

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There was Peter, who always sang hissingly through his teeth while he milked old “Blackie,” our first cow, and who never sang at any other time. He declared that “Blackie” put the music into him. Poor “Blackie”! And Frank Murphy! What memoir of those times would be complete without mention of him? He bent eternally over a potato-fork in the mellow autumn afternoons. What a pride he took in laying the potatoes, as he dug them, in neat rows for the pickers-up! His recreation was a short pipe and a long fishing-rod. These things were his “glass of wine.” Full many a dish of fine blackfish Frank provided for our breakfast—his pleasure was in the catching, not in the eating of them. He had some kind of magic that lured the fish to his hook when no one else could land one. Then there was Speckly George —just “Speckly George”; his surname, along with that of many another of those wanderers, was hopelessly lost under the spontaneous intrusion of a picturesque nickname. “Speckly George” had a hobby, too. Nearsightedly he would bend over a piece of machinery, mending or making for pastime when not as part of his day's work; he never spoke, but of machinery; his soul—if he had one—was caught securely in the cogs. He was a mute, inglorious Stephenson, a Watt guiltless of a steam engine. Poor “Speckly George,” his monomania sent him at last to “Yarra Bend,” where, as was gruesomely said, he walked round and round in a circle all day, whim-horse to his own imaginary invention.

I remember a young horsebreaker, who later deliberately broke his own neck, as I heard them tell. It was somewhere up-country after a drinking bout. He was a fair-haired, innocent youth when he first ran our little “Jewel” in the long-shafted cart. It seemed an unforgettable tragedy to us, that suicide of one we had known, and it is so to me still. It haunted me at night, and Claribel and I would clutch each other, thinking of the rope and all.…

What endless work the procession of the seasons demanded of the labourers on that virgin soil, producing its ever-springing harvest of intruding vegetation that sought to oust the interloping that the settler brought to supplant it! The natural

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primal owners of the soil—inheritors of it from far Darwinian eras of time—they died hard, springing, it seemed, almost under the eradicating blade. What a forest of hands, a myriad of muscles went from first to last to the clearing, the sowing, the harvesting, the making, and repairing of that little span of fertile valley land during the days of my recollections. And since those who laboured there were rovers smitten with the inconsequence of wanderlust, moving on, and ever on, it is no wonder that when I look back it is a long procession that I see filing across the changing face of the old spot. They were of those days, those labouring men, and of my picture of my childhood, rough, yet kind, full of virtues and of faults; and they take their due place in the commonalty of those impressionable years.