previous
next



  ― 73 ―

Dictionary Ned

I

EMERSON says somewhere that it is an achievement of high eloquence to confer an expressive nickname, but no particularly fine quality (oratorical or otherwise) was needed to attach a bye-name to Ned——

Ah—now I'm stuck! It has never dawned upon me till this moment, that in all the years I knew Ned to be spoken of I never heard his surname once. Perhaps none of the men who referred to him constantly as the biggest “cure” in that region of “cures” and “queer cards,” the Riverine district—where each square mile has its tale of some human soul going to wreck on its sea of grey plain—knew his surname. Perhaps he hadn't one to know. Most likely, indeed, was this the case. His earliest recollection went back to the time when he was tending Parson Marsden's black poleys on the venerable Principal Chaplain's grant at Bathurst, so, as likely as not, Ned was


  ― 74 ―
one of the hundreds of infants that were cradled in Parramatta factory, and were sent into the world worse than motherless, and with a choice among fifty fathers. All the same, I am sure none of the fellows who spoke of Ned to me knew his surname, else it must have slipped out sometimes. But it was always “Dictionary Ned.”

Now I was saying that any one without the faintest touch of eloquence could have given Ned that name—would have conferred no other on him had the selection of a hundred appellations been offered. Even a Victorian shire-councillor, who is the least oratorical person in existence, would have called him “Dictionary Ned.” The congruity of the term was so obvious that a blind man could have seen it.

The name had its origin in the fact that Ned always carried a dictionary—a wonderful sort of one. It was based “upon the labours of Johnson, Worcester, Webster,” and Heaven knows how many more, “and incorporated the latest results of the most modern and scientific lexicographers.” Further, it was illustrated by “one thousand superb engravings from drawings by the best artists” (I am quoting from the title-page), and as though that was not enough to furnish to the humble student, it supplied, at the forepart, an “Analytical


  ― 75 ―
History of the Growth of the English Language” (in two pages), and in appendices a “Glossary of Scientific Terms, a Classical Encyclopædia, and a Collection of Proverbial Sayings and Phrases from all Languages.” The whole of this overflowing repository of learning had been published at sixpence. And Ned paid ninepence for it on his solitary trip to Melbourne, at Cole's bookstall, in Paddy's Market, in Bourke Street, twenty-five years ago. Cole wasn't a millionaire then, and you couldn't buy books at English prices. You paid ninepence for a sixpenny publication, and fifteen-pence for a shilling one, and a half-crown, and sometimes three shillings, for a two-shilling volume. And Ned, paying ninepence, had therewith purchased a treasure of wealth untellable, of joys limitless, and all the glorious orbs in the firmament of culture swam into his ken when he pocketed the book.

Keats never extracted from Chapman's Homer, Landor from Shakespeare, Lindsay Gordon from Horace, Marcus Clarke from Balzac, one thousandth part of the delight Ned obtained from his dictionary. The only volume he ever possessed, to him it was a library, a literature, many-volumed life itself. Somehow or other, the intangible charm that the mere study of words as words, as


  ― 76 ―
the fossils of human experience and emotions, has for many people, had entranced this illiterate wanderer whose home was always on the fringe of “settled country,” who was never at ease except he was “inside,” who got astray in a one-street township, and who was utterly lost in the solitudes of a great city. Amongst the thousand-and-one types of humanity that wandered over the Old Man and One Tree Plains, there was the man who had never turned in till he had read a chapter out of his Bible; there was the man who carried a shilling Shakespeare, and the one who kept his mind alive on Byron; there was the fellow who always kept a woman's photograph, and the one who nourished his soul amid deadening wastes by the crucifix dangling around his neck. The consolation that each and all derived from his and their several idols Ned drank in from his pocket dictionary.

He had bought it with the vain hope of making up the deficiencies of his early education. “Never too late to larn, boys,” he would assure the scoffers. And though he was wise in the wondrous lore of the plains and rivers, “up to any dodge” in free-selection and station life, knew every trick of bush-craft and of river-craft, and overlanded cattle in the early gold days from Adelaide to Forest Creek,


  ― 77 ―
and (earlier still) ship from Bathurst to the valley of the Wannon in far western “Port Phillip,” and had held the wheel of the Lady Augusta when she ran up to Tocumwal months before Cadell made his first chart of the Murray, he esteemed his precious knowledge, out of which “smarter” men had coined small fortunes, to be worthless compared with “book-larnin'.” At every interval of leisure, and during the times of work when the duty of the moment would not be impeded by “study,” out would come his book. When other men smoked, or swopped yarns, or drank, Ned studied. There was nothing complex about his methods. He went straight at the business of mastering its contents.

Somewhere about forty years of age when he invested his ninepence, by the time he became bargeman of the Royal Duke barge—she was built in the epoch when ferocious “loyalty” dislocated a man's neck—as consort of the Currency Lass steamer, he was within a year or two of fifty. And unremitting in his pursuit of knowledge, with all sorts of difficulties he had mastered the dictionary so far as “V,” the page that begins with “vital” and ends with “votive.” Ten words a day for a minimum, and one hundred for a maximum—when he had a rare holiday he totted




  ― 78 ―

up the hundred—he had got off by rote the words and their meanings. And this was without counting the Sundays. He had devoted those to the “Glossary” and to the “Proverbial Sayings and Phrases,” and to the horrible combination of letters which the dictionary-compiler, on the authority of the most modern and scientific lexicographers, used to express the pronunciation of the foreign phrases. It was a gigantic task this last, and Ned had done well to devote his Sabbaths to it when he had no other occupation than to boil his white shirt for next Sunday. Mezzofanti himself would have felt the task of memorizing the phrases to be herculean, if he had also found it necessary to recollect the key to their pronunciation. Just think of the labour of getting off by heart not merely the interpretation, for instance, of L’homme propose et Dieu dispose, but the weird and mysterious conjunction of letters with which the latest modern and scientific lexicographer expressed the sound of the phrase—“lōm-prō-pōz-ā-dyoo-dis-pōz.” But all these fearful and wonderful shibboleths were gradually being mastered by Ned—to an accent. He was a beggar to learn, was Ned. As he himself said—“He warn't no slouch at stickin' to it.”

That was the curious thing about Ned. All


  ― 79 ―
his grinding away at vocabularies never seemed to tinge by the faintest degree of refined colour his vigorous colloquialism. Perhaps, in some distant period, when he contemplated sitting under his own vine and fig-tree—the most errant knight of the Murrumbidgee plains has always a vision of some roof-tree o' his ain—he intended to employ his “dictionary words,” but in the days of his scholarship he kept to the rude, energetic speech of his kind.

Nor was it clear why he hadn't begun “larning” before he reached middle age. Once he was interrogated upon the point, but the answer, though apparently at the time conclusive, does not appear a sufficient explanation now that we can look back.

II

It was in the following circumstance that the question was put to him, and the answer received. Ned was running shares in a fencing contract on Benduck at the ’Bidgee. Sunday came, and Ned, having washed and ironed the white shirt he had worn at intervals during the week, in readiness for the next Sunday, donned his other “b’iled rag” and the “moleskins,” which he called his


  ― 80 ―
“go-to-meetin's,” though they never went there. His toilette operations were observed with keen interest by one of the fellows who had sundowned it to the men's hut the previous night in expectation of the plum-duff and tot of rum which Benduck, even more liberal than other stations, invariably gave to the Saturday to Monday “whalers.” A man of middle height and naturally sturdy frame, already, while still young, he carried himself with the swagsman's stoop, and his watery eyes gave the lie to the story of natural or acquired refinement which the clear-cut features would have otherwise told. Dirty with the indescribable dirt of the man of position who is debased to a congenial gutter, College Bill revolted, as he lay on a sheepskin in the early sunshine, against Ned's sacrifice at the altar of cleanliness.

“Who's that toff?” he asked of the cook.

“’Im? W’y, that's Dic-shun-ery Ned! Never ’eard of ’im?”

“That Dictionary Ned! My word, I didn't know he went in for white shirt and collars! I'll have some fun with him, boys—just you come and watch!”

Now, College Bill was esteemed a bit of a humourist, or rather of a satirist. For a “Bishop Barker” he would compose a quatrain on any


  ― 81 ―
subject—a person preferred—suggested by the man who tipped him the drink, and for a bottle of brandy he would write a fifty-line satire and recite it with becoming action. It was whispered among the bosses and “colonial experiencers” that he was a University prize-poem man, but that could hardly be so, for Bill's “Ode to Swipes,” the shanty-keeper at One Tree, was quoted all over the Riverine for its originality and force, and since the first University was, there has never been a prize-poem that contained those qualities.

Being what he was, Bill always had a claque, and when he meandered his odorous carcass to the tank-side, where Ned was performing his toilette, he was followed by several others of the sundowning brotherhood, prepared in advance to applaud his satirical efforts at old Dictionary's expense. They were already in laughter by the time that they had covered half the distance between the hut and the tank, for Bill, as he walked, improvised—

Devoted student! while other “whalers” slumber
He studies hard, does Dictionary Ned!
But still he's storing only useless lumber
In the squash-pumpkin which he calls his head!

“You're Dictionary Ned, arn't you?” began


  ― 82 ―
Bill as he approached. “I'm Bill—College Bill the boys call me. Shake!”

Ned turned at the remark. Perhaps it was the circumstance that his fingers were busy buttoning his collar—he had only the one collar—that prevented him accepting Bill's proffered hand. Anyhow, he did not take it; he simply nodded and said—

“Oh, yer Bill, are yer?—College Bill? I've hern o' yer!”

“Yes,” responded Bill, not feeling quite so easy as he should, his reception was so chilling. “No doubt you have. Being brother students, y’ know”—he paused to wink impressively at his admirers—“we ought to be acquainted!”

“Ye—es,—yer think so?” drawled Ned.

“Of course, men of culture are not too numerous on the river country.”

“So?”

There was a titter, not quite at Ned's expense. Bill was annoyed at it, and grew truculent.

“Do you know, I think you should drop the ‘Ned,’ my friend.”

“Yes?”

“You should style yourself ‘Dick.’ ‘Dictionary Dick’ would be not only alliterative, but would be more euphonious!”




  ― 83 ―

The chorus of laughter again went up—now on Bill's side. Wasn't Bill rubbing it in! What jaw-breakers he could use!

Ned didn't reply, but drew his dictionary from his hip-pocket where he always carried it.

“Going to look up ‘alliterative’ and ‘euphonious,’ old chap?” Bill continued. “Now turn up ‘h'—you'll find the first under ‘A,’ and ‘euphonious’ under ‘E.’ ” And the rouseabouts and swagsmen grew merrier. Bill was getting on well with his chiacking of old Ned! Ned, however, was still silent.

“Ned,” went on Bill, “the only two men I ever heard of were books in breeches were Macaulay and yourself. Macaulay was a beggar to talk, but you're a beggar to keep your mouth shut. Oh, and by the way, why didn't you take your schooling earlier?”

“I don't usually ring my clapper on'y when I've got some toon to play,” now responded Ned. “That answers yer first remark. An', as ter the second, it's my turn ter ask questions. Yer can read French, Mr. Bill Boozer—I beg parding—I mean Mister College Bill?”

Over his drunkard's rosiness Bill's face showed a deeper red. And the audience rejoiced exceedingly.




  ― 84 ―

“Who'd ’a thought that ol’ Dicshunery war goin' ter take down College Bill?”

“Can yer read French, mister? I've hear say as how yer says as yer could. An' if yer can, jest rip out that for the present company!” He held out in one hand the dictionary open at the “Appendix of Foreign Phrases,” and with his other forefinger pointed out the phrases which he wished interpreted. Bill stared, and the carmine of his dissoluteness and of his shame vanished together. Grey-green, like the salt-bush scrub near by, was his quivering face.

“Look y’ere, coves,” went on Ned. “He's a college chap, an' can't tell yer what mau—mo, vais—va, su—soo, jet—ye means! Or is it that he's ashamed ter tell yer?” He paused, and there were muttered requests from the audience to Bill to respond to the challenge and “take up the parable.” But he was dumb.

“As he can't, or won't, coves, I'll tell yer. ‘Mo-va-soo-jay,’ that's a ‘bad subject,’ the dic'shinary ses, an' a bad subject is a no-good-sort-o'-chap, a reg’lar bad egg, a rotten spud; an' who's that I should like ter know? Ain't that Bill's picter—ain't that the spit o' the chap as comes down ’ere to chiack me, the poor ignorant roust-about as is tryin' ter make up the loss o' what he


  ― 85 ―
never ’ad, an' him what chiacks me ’as ’ad it all the time? An' what's he done wi’ it now he's ’ad it? Used it, ain't he, ter lower hisself ter the swine as is in the styes—don't he act as decoy-duck ter get shearers to ev’ry knock-’em-down shanty in the Rivereena? He's used his larnin', ain't he, ter prove that Gawd Almighty don't know His own bizness?” He had closed his precious book as the speech lengthened, and, with his final words, raised his right hand as though in defiance of the Supreme Wisdom.

“What do you mean, Dicshinnery?” said one of the group.

“What do I mean? Here Gawd gives that boozer, that cove what'll sell his larnin' for a ball—I forgot as yer fellows call it a shout now-a-days—and his soul for a bottle o' the stuff; Gawd, I say, gives him—him, the swine—’Varsity eddication, an' me, an' some o' yer as well, who thirsts for it, and hungers for it, why, He don't give us our A B C!”

Bill quailed beneath the artillery of scorn that all eyes now levelled upon him, and walked away. In that brief space he had lost a nickname, and gained a choice of two others. He was no longer College Bill, but ever after, according to his company,


  ― 86 ―
“God Almighty's mistake,”note and “mo-va-soo-jay.” More French was spoken in Riverina in consequence of this episode than was taught in its schools. And the teacher was simple “Dictionary Ned,” and the manual his ninepenny compilation of the lexicographers’ labours.

III

A man's hobby is oftentimes his death as well as his delight. This was Ned's case.

The great spurt of pastoral enterprise in South Riverina, which occurred in the late sixties, operated advantageously upon Ned, as it did upon every one else except the shepherds, who found themselves being gradually replaced by “Rylands” and “Whitecross,” and the old-style squatter who wouldn't move with the times, and who consequently got “shifted” into back-country and Queer-street in one and the same impulse. Ned,


  ― 87 ―
when the spurt set in, gave up rouseabout and odd-job work, and took finally to the rivers. One short season as deck-hand proved his trustworthiness, and the next season he was promoted to bargeman. Ten pounds three and fourpence per month, live like a fighting-cock—there never was a boat on the rivers which kept its hands on skimpy allowance, save one—and the best chance, if he wished it, to ullage the cargo: this was his billet. Too honest, however, to ullage, accustomed to live too sparely to revel in luxury, Ned seemingly put his increased screw to no better purpose than the re-binding of his dictionary.

The cloth cover of the treasured volume had become dilapidated, and one day when the Currency Lass was moored at Echuca Wharf, he took advantage of a “smoke-oh!” spell to run up to the Riverine Herald Office, then managed by Johnny D——for Angus Mackay, of Bendigo.

“Yer can get this re-bound for me, Johnny— fine now, an' gilt edges.”

“I'll send it to Melbourne,” said Johnny, gingerly turning over the greasy, thumb-marked pages, “to Detmold. But don't you think, Ned, it's time you had a new copy?”

“A new copy?” echoed Ned. “It's easy ter see as yer not a readin' man, Mr. D——, for all


  ― 88 ―
yer run a noospaper. If yer were, ye'd know as a book a lone man ’as used for the matter of ten years, is mother, an' missus, an' kids, an' drink, an' all ter him! A new copy! Blazes!”

And so the old book, round which the tendrils of Ned's heart had grown, went down to Detmold, the famed Melbourne binder, to be dressed in delicately-perfumed leather, with flexible sides, and richly-tooled bands, and gloriously-gilt edges, and all the rest of the finery so delightful to the book-lover's mind and so ruinous to his purse.

During the month following Ned felt all the distractions and all the sorrows that spring from a gap made in one's life when his hobby-horse is stolen from him. No man gets half the pleasure out of his business that he does out of his hobby, and he bears, therefore, the loss of his business better than he does that of the avocation of his leisure. And Ned was disconsolate, and would not be comforted—“moped,” as his mate said, “like a native companion, and sorrowed as Jim Dickson, of the Cumberoona, didn't when he became a widder-man.” It was a standing joke on the rivers how Dickson had sorrowed when the news of his wife's death reached him from Sydney. He was at Hay, and he hired the galvanized-iron Temperance Hall for a dance that same night.


  ― 89 ―
“I've got to dissipate my grief, ladies and gents!” he said to his guests. And if the depth of his sadness is to be gauged by the extent of his dissipation, he was pre-eminent in grief among men. Ned, however, didn't drown his sorrow in Lindsay's beer, he simply moped.

But as the time drew near when he might expect the book, he brightened up. The Currency Lass, with her somewhat disreputable consort, the Royal Duke, was coming down stream from Burrabogie station to top up at Hay with back-block clip, when just in the narrow bend opposite the town cemetery, the crafts met the Resolution and barge laboriously steaming with timber and wire for the up-river runs. The warning signals were exchanged, and the steamers were slowed down. It was an awkward place to meet in. It takes careful steering enough to allow for the tangential force of the current in a sharp bend in carrying a steamer round the curves; it is trebly difficult when it is a question of getting a barge round as well; but the task becomes formidable when the surge and sweep of the current is complicated with the rule of the road and two not too smartly handled boats going in the opposite direction. Still all would have gone well if it had not been for the dictionary.




  ― 90 ―

Linton, skipper of the Resolution, was at her wheel. On recognizing the Currency Lass ahead, he had sent down to his cabin for a parcel which had been entrusted to his care, and when he saw Ned, as he expected, at the wheel of the Lass's barge, he hailed him, and brought the Resolution's stern a point nearer to the slowly-moving Royal Duke.

“Ned, there! Diction-ary Ned!”

“Aye, aye, Mr. Linton!”

“'Specting anything, Ned?”

All Ned's desolation and expectation went out in his eager tones.

“Yes, skipper! My book—’ave yer got it?” In his excitement he had forgotten his usual cautious devotion to the work in hand. Instead of keeping his barge's head inshore, he steadied it mechanically.

“Yes,” shouted Linton in reply. “Johnny D—— said you'd growl like h—— if it was knocked about in the mail, and as I was first boat he asked me to bring it. Here you are!”

Holding his wheel with his left hand, he drew with his right the carefully-wrapped package from the seat of the pilot-house, and swung his arm so as to gain impetus for the throw.

“Ready, Ned!” he called. “Look out!” He did not notice that in the movement he had


  ― 91 ―
shifted the Resolution's course dangerously near the Royal Duke. Nor did Ned, fearful the book might fall in mid-stream, perceive his duty. He shouted to Linton—

“Hold hard, skipper!” and ran along the wheel-platform so that the toss would be an easy one.

On river barges the wheel-stand is shifted with the disposition of the cargo—now for’ard, now aft; now raised, now lowered. On long trips it is geared; on short ones held in position simply by its own weight and the rudder-chains. Now, from Burrabogie to Hay was but a few hours' trip, and as the top bales would have to be bestowed at the township wharf, the platform of the Duke was not stayed. Running to its flat end to get his precious book, Ned forgot this. When he remembered it, he was between the sheathing of the Duke and the steamer—jammed! A crunch, a shriek, and a horrid splash!

In their beginnings all catastrophes are so simple—are so easily preventible if the initial blunder in the man or the weakness in the thing could only be understood to be the beginning of disaster. The gearing of that wheel-platform to the vessel's sides—and it would not have slipped under Ned's rush to port! A turn of her wheel


  ― 92 ―
and the Resolution would have stood up-stream ten feet away from the barge. But the platform of bolted planks was not stayed down, Linton's hand failed to send the gaily-painted spokes revolving, and the result was that poor old “Dictionary” was done for. It was not a very heroic way of dying, perhaps—and for the sake of a ninepenny book, too. But then the book was Ned's hobby, and men go to the death, do they not, all the world over for their hobbies. A king is but a hobby, a woman another, and Ned's hobby had never deceived him—and never smitten him with the despair of broken faith! And of what king or woman can that be said?

IV

He lingered for a few days, sometimes partly conscious, sometimes delirious—oftener still pathetically dead to sound, almost to sight. But about ten hours before his death—he “went inside” at sundown one Sunday—he revived to a calm clearness of brain. Among the watchers—there were as many as the hospital surgeon would permit—was one whom Ned was vainly trying to


  ― 93 ―
recognize. And the man saw the glance and understood.

“Don't you know me, ‘Dictionary’? I'm Bill— College Bill! The fellow you gave it to so hotly on Benduck three or four years ago—don't you remember?”

A flicker of a surprised smile shone on Ned's face, whose tan was changing to pallor.

“Yer—Bill?” he whispered. “Yer've a col-lar?”

A change indeed had come over Bill's appearance. He wore not a collar alone, but a “b’iled shirt,” and—heresy!—studs, and his suit of cast-’em-aways was replaced by Geelong-tweed slops.

“Yes, I'm Bill! I pulled up, Ned, soon after you let me have it. I went on one big spree and then gave the drink best. I tried my best to get out of the styes, Ned. And you helped me.”

“Ye-es? W’ere are yer—now?”

“At Pimpampa, teaching the super's kids! I'm putting my education to some purpose, Ned, at last!”

There was a silence, broken by Ned.

“Now, Bill—Mister Bill—on yer oath ter a dyin' man! D'yer mean ter keep straight?”

“Before God I do, Ned!”

“Where's my dic'shun-ery?”




  ― 94 ―

This was the first time he had asked for it. The surgeon gave it to him, in its luxurious garb of Russian leather, with graceful scrolls of gilt lines relieving the dark brown. He took it, but it slipped through his nerveless fingers to the counterpane. He gazed on it curiously.

“Ter think as I can't hold the ol’ book!” he whispered. “Bill, page 1–4–7, please!”

Bill turned up the page. Against one word was pencilled a cross.

“See that?” He pointed to the cross.

Bill nodded.

“Read it—slow!”

“In-cin-er-ate—to burn to ashes.”

“I've a few hund’erd—ev’rybody listen, please— in Boyd's Bank.note They're yours, Bill——”

“No, no!” exclaimed Bill.

“Wait! What do folks do with their corpsuses— when they don't want ter be buried?” Strange how strong his voice grew!

“Order their bodies to be given to the hospital!” said the surgeon, with an eye to business.




  ― 95 ―

“Cremate them?” suggested Bill, thinking of “incinerate.”

“That's the word! Lor,’ what a thing it is to have larnin', Bill! But the word ain't in any dic'shunery, an' that chap there”—pointing to the marked word—“was nearest I could find!”

“You wish to be cremated?” said the surgeon, still professionally alert.

“Yes—cre—cre—oh, dash it, I don't see what they want ter use words not in the dic'shunery for. In-cin-er-ate—that's my ticket.”

“And the expenses will be defrayed by the money in the bank! Hadn't you better sign a will?” Still the surgeon.

“Hang a will! Bill's ter have all the spons— yer all witness—after he's burnt me. Boyd'll fix it!” And he mumbled on and on into slumber— and at sundown he went “beyond the boundary.”

Boyd did fix it—very irregularly, and to the detriment of the Curator of Intestate Estates’ commission—as soon as he was satisfied that Bill's claim was bonâ-fide. And it is gratifying to know that Ned's few hundreds planted his legatee's feet firmly on the upward path. Bill has suffered in all these years only one relapse from decent behaviour. That was when, in ’77,


  ― 96 ―
he stood for Parliament. But by that time he had won popular respect, and people thought too much of him to give him his way. They rejected him, and he is still, therefore, an honoured member of the community and unqualified for gaol.

And as to the manner of the incineration of Bargeman Ned and his dictionary—why, that is a tale for another time.

previous
next