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The Doom of Walmsley's Ruby

Not Randall's Ruby, but Walmsley's—an older boat than Randall's pretty, gay little craft, so familiar to the Mildura people—a boat of the seventies and not of the nineties, and built therefore when the river-trade was best going into by wise and keen men. With engines of twelve horse-power nominal, she worked up to fifty; with the firewood aboard for the run from Swan Hill to Echuca she could also carry fifty bales wool and “sundries” on a draught of three feet, while hauling her barge with four hundred bales on a draught of five feet. So she was “a neat ’un to handle” (as the river phrase went), and if she could not exactly travel over “wet grass” (the boat to which was accorded the praise of floating upon dewy pastures touched perfection in the judgment of the river-men), she could achieve the next best thing—she could skim the rivers

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when they were “down” longer than any other boat, and consequently earned for her owner a considerable sum in dealing “in trade,” in timber-running, and in bringing in to the port the wool-cargoes of larger crafts which had been stuck on a falling river. A clever craft, and no mistake about it.

Fred Walmsley, owner and skipper, was justly proud of her. She had not an inch of gilt-beading anywhere, or a scrap of velvet on her cushions, and yet she was always pleasant to the eye of her passengers, and restful to their bodies. Fred, as a rule a taciturn, gruff, unpolished sort of fellow, was expansively eloquent and courteous to his fares about his boat's performances. Every other skipper worth his salt on the rivers—with the exception of Locky M’B—'s skipper—was accustomed to affect a delight in his own particular boat, even to the verge of unveracity. Fred, however, was under no necessity to fib regarding the Ruby. He talked big about her, but she justified every word, and he was a curious man indeed, who, being borne along by the Ruby, did not respond to her skipper's generous enthusiasm as to her “lines” and her “model,” the taste with which her coat of white paint had been picked out, here with red and there with blue, the shiny

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brass of her engine-work and of the wheel, the musical note in her exhaust-pipe, the rhythmic beat of her paddles. Without wife or child, Fred found all the solace of a home in his craft, and gloried in her as other men glory in their home, their pictures, their books, their bank-balance. He would make oath in his rough, ungenial way that he would stick to the little Ruby as long as she'd stick to him. He didn't believe, he said, in selling the little craft, which had made the first money for the owner, as soon as a second and larger boat could be bought. That was the river practice, and Fred disapproved of it. It is a curious thing how, in this age that throbs with mercenary passion, and brawls, and cheats, and grows mad with lust of gold, even coarse-bred men grapple to their hearts the most fantastic of affections. Here was a rude river-man, shrewd and keen and not over-scrupulous, a blusterer to his equals, and a tyrant to those over whom he was entitled to exercise a petty authority, who loved the combination of iron and wood called the Ruby steamer, as finer-fibred men love their ideal woman, or the inspiring spirits of their art. He loved every plank in her—every bolt and nut. When chaffed about marrying, it was his standing retort that while he had the

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Ruby he didn't care (a quite superfluous word) for any petticoat alive.

Of course, other men interested in their vocation, whose energies are concentrated in the routine of life, have said the same thing, and yet succumbed to a rounded cheek and the flash of a long-lashed eye; and while Fred Walmsley was listened to with the respect commanded by his big brawny shoulders and iron fist, he was never believed. It was a popular jest—never, though, indulged in while he was present—that when the “neat-footed gal came along the little Ruby ’ud ha’ to take second place an' sing small.” The amours of the river-men might sometimes be coarse, but while they lasted Cupid had, as a rule, no more devoted or willing subjects. Not one in ten of the boat-hands could boast truly of being unsusceptible to his shafts, and they did not conclude that Fred-o'-the-Ruby was constituted with any peculiar impregnability.

“Go ’long! There ain't a chap on the rivers as I couldn't get over if I wanted ter!” retorted Miss Jenny Forbes, daughter of a wood-pile keeper on the Goulburn, to the indirect challenge jocularly issued to her by “a snagger” to try her hand at subjugating Walmsley. “But you

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needn't think as I'm agoin' to fling the handkerchief to any river chap. A reel squatter is my dart!”

Half in jest, half in earnest she retorted so. And the men who listened to her, and glanced admiringly at her, though they resented her words partly, yet thought most of the squatters they knew would surely think themselves lucky if they could win a girl like Jenny.

They were river-men, all of them—all of them, too, snaggers—hands of the Melbourne, the famous old snagging boat which did some of the best work ever done in the Riverine. The time was Sunday afternoon. The Melbourne was tied to the bank, and the men, in their white shirts and Sunday Geelong tweeds, lay on the green slopes, luxuriating in the balminess of the time, in their thirty-six hours' freedom from work, and in the smiles of beauty.

A beauty Jenny Forbes most certainly was. Straight as a sapling, she held herself with a springy erectness that added height to her perfectly-moulded figure. Dressed now only in a snowy muslin, she would have graced regal velvet, for as she moved, wholesomely ignorant of all artificial laws of deportment, she gave to

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the unrefined spectators a sensation of unreasoned pleasure which a master of the arts and fripperies of the great world would have found it impossible to rebuke. The wonder was, however, not her figure and her airiness of carriage, though indeed both were wonderful enough to people who knew that her parents were poor, wizened, labour-stunted creatures, but her complexion and her voice. That mysterious faculty of nature which prompts her to return upon herself after a lapse of generations, and to revive, in the present, the physical type she had apparently displaced a century ago, had been manifested in this girl. The full, voluptuously-contoured features, the fruity bloom which tinged the cheeks, and contrasted with the pallor of the forehead and chin and neck, should have belonged to one of those fine ladies who, first flinging away their lives at passion's shrine, sat thereafter for saintly profiles to some deathless painter of altar-pieces.

And then her voice! It wanted but that superb touch of education which is communicated by a broken heart to make it an organ of surpassing quality. It had a range in ordinary speech that was as musical as any accomplished singer's, while in laughter it left on the ear echoes so enamoured of their own sweetness that they

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refused to die. Give it, give her, but soul and refined intelligence, and tune it and her to the key of a gracious life, and she would be a woman of destiny to more than one strong man. As it was, she was—but a wood-cutter's daughter; a girl of undeveloped instincts and of faculties which, naturally rude, were coarsening quickly in the soulless surroundings of the bush. The “chaff” of the snaggers she answered in her glorious voice with zest and vigour; for other homage she could not imagine than the audacious jesting which was the only form of compliment her admirers preferred; and which she relished. Illiterate, barely able to read, and even less capacity in writing, the girl's fancy was at once stimulated and satiated with such incense of gallantry as the crews of the boats and the timber-getters for Echuca saw-mills lavished upon her. Men of that rough mould are never unimpressed by the delicacy of a woman's nature, and make some response to the thousand little intangiblenesses of accent, and look, and gesture with which the woman who is sheltered by her womanliness chastens the angularities of masculine tempers.

When, however, the woman is herself coarse the rough-natured fellows become rougher. Bodily beauty alone does not refine the woman, and she

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guides him in his defects as well as in his better qualities. And so, instead of Jenny's voice charming away the asperities of these uncultivated spirits with its melody like a throstle's song, they rejoiced the more gladly and applauded her the louder that her golden notes dealt out to them the badinage of their time. And the topics that were discussed! The men did not exchange double entendres, for there was no need. Neither she nor they felt under any obligation to beat about the bush. Their speech was Elizabethan in its coarse frankness.

So this smiling Sunday afternoon on which Nature rested and permitted the river toilers to rest also, Jenny sat among ten or twelve snaggers, and jested at them and with them, and accepted their patent homage of jests with appropriate eagerness. The Ruby had left the Goulburn with timber for Barbour's mill in one of Barbour's barges, and had left her own barge to be loaded up so that on her return she should lose no time in being dispatched with a second load. And Walmsley's name being mentioned incidentally in the girl's presence had led to her asking, “Why the dickens that Fred didn't get spliced?”

“Why, he's waitin' till yer 'll say yer 'll ’ave ’im, Miss Forbes!” had grinned a rouseabout.

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“Oh, Fred,” broke in a fireman before the girl could speak, “ses as there ain't a gal alive who'd get him ter give her first place in his ’fecshions so long as the Ruby don't get snagged an' ruins him!”

Then the girl had answered the implied challenge by the remark we have reported. “Go ’long! There ain't a chap along the rivers as I couldn't get over if I wanted ter!” And as though these words were not depreciative enough of their class, she added poison to the gall by insinuating her ambition to become a squatter's “laädy.” A girl who belonged “o' rights” to the rivers to think of going over to the hated squatterdom! Not to be thought of—even though the squatters would jump down one another's throats to get so fine a piece of womankind.

They attacked her then with a humorous earnestness. “Marry a squatter—she! Throw away the cleanest-cut limbs an' nattiest waist, an' most kissable lips on all the rivers—aye, in all Victoria!—on rascally, dummyin' squatters as was a-stealin' o' the lands? Get out, Jenny!” And after a while they changed the mode of their satire. “A squatter! No bloomin' squatter wants a wood-piler! For yer are a wood-piler, Jenny, an' no mistake! Didn't ol’ Capt'n Hill”

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—Hill, skipper of the snagging boat Melbourne, that was—“see yer a-cuttin' down a red-gum tree one day, when th' ol’ man was laid up with r’eumatics? An' which o' th' young blokes o' squatters would you be after goin' for, Jenny? Mick of Moira or young Tom of Cannoon; or there's Ewey Mac of up-river? No, no, Miss Forbes, yer stick to th' rivers. You marry Fred Walmsley if he arsks yer—the young Walmsleys 'll come in handy to train up as mates and steermen and to save screws! Nothin' like a lot o' your own youngsters round you, Jenny, to save screws!”

It was their notion of humour to link the girl's fortunes with Fred's, because Fred was distinctly unmarriageable, they thought, and it was by no means unlikely that if any one snapped up Jenny he would be actually a squatter, or at the least a young boss cockie. And the hours slipped away in all their marvellous wealth of colour and scent, till the shadows of trees high up on the western bank dipped into the stream or fell athwart the old Melbourne. The girl went homewards then to the miserable hut, standing beyond flood-point on the rise. She refused escort. “Yer afraid o' makin' Fred jealous, or the bloomin' squatter—that's why!” was the parting

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shot of the snaggers, and, not displeased, she bade them for answer—“Go ’long an' shoot themselves!” The repartee was not without aimlessness, but it provoked laughter, and much keener wit does not always do that.

The girl, all untutored as she was, was yet sufficient of the woman to perversely dwell in her spasmodic thinkings upon the possibility of Fred Walmsley giving her a share in his name and in his boat. She really had made up her mind to marry a squatter; but then, till the squatter came along, why not amuse herself with Walmsley? She knew she was “a strikin' piece o' goods”— she had something about her that was pleasing to the men, for on the last snag-boat pay-day had the hands not cleared out Walmsley's stock of jewellery for her? Had not Walmsley himself sold her a length of dress-stuff at less than Echuca prices? Wasn't that an indirect compliment to her charms? Didn't she know that it was her looks that kept the wood-pile going, and not any special need to which the boats were now subjected of obtaining the fuel supplies at her father's pile? And so the thoughts flitted over the surface of her consciousness as the rays of star-shine wavered on the ripples of the river,

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till she came to a decision that might hold and might not, just as her feelings swayed her when once Walmsley was in her neighbourhood again.

That happened a week later. He came to pick up his own log-laden barge to run it down to Barbour's mill, and called at the pile to pay his fuel account.

“So many cords, so much, Jenny, an' you owe me for the dress.”

“Right, Fred. But you kin let the wood stand. Dad ain't short just now for a wonder.”

“No—I'll square up now, for I'm not a-comin' this way till the rivers are down again. The snow-water's coming down the Murray, an' as soon's it's safe to get afloat for ’Bidgee up-stream, I'm off. There's heaps of back-season wool waitin' to be collared on wayside stations.”

“Oh!” The girl, wondering at herself for the feeling, could not help being somewhat pained at the news.

The skipper did not notice it.

“So here's the damage, Jenny—unless you want something more?” Walmsley simply saw in a pretty girl somebody to trade with.

“No!” Impulsively, knowing nothing of what she was doing, she challenged his admiration with

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the coquettish arts of which she was ignorant. “I want nothing except——”

“What?” questioned Fred, intent on business.

“You!” With something of coyness, something of hoydenish dash, she muttered the syllable. Blaming herself the next instant, she yet would not have recalled it. All defiant, she had yet become entangled in the delicious meshes of an entangled affection. Thinking much of Fred, she had unconsciously learnt to love him.

Fred did not understand her immediately. Then he disbelieved her. A jolly good joke she was having! But no petticoats for him; so—

“Lord, Jenny! what's made you sweet upon splicin' just now?” He laughed gaily before he resumed. “An' you're pokin' borak at me!”

“I ain't! Look here, Fred—I'm tired o' this firewood bizness. Won't you have me for your gal—an'—an' take me ’way? Oh, I'll make yer a d——d good wife, Fred, I will—an' you'll see how smart I kin be at sellin' thin's!”

She was convincing herself as she proceeded to the point of emphasizing her newly-born desire for a lover by the oath which was not infrequently on her lips. As for the Ruby skipper, he stood for a minute amused and amazed. Then, turning away, he gave her good-bye.

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“No wimmen for me, Miss Forbes, even if yer weren't a sort o' jokin' with me. I don't wish for no other kind of wife than my little Ruby. So long!”

The girl quivered with the shame of her repulse. She knew now her fate; she really did love this river-man who cared not a rap for anything beneath the sky save his boat; and he—well, he had laughed at her, and would tell the chaps at the public-house bars how Jenny “had given herself away.” Hitherto, with much reason to feel ashamed at times, she had never known the sensation, but now she knew what it was to be pricked with the myriad needle-points of a late-born modesty. Till now she had been but a beautiful lissom animal. Henceforth she was a woman, from whose eyes looked, for the first time in her score of years of life, a soul. She had learned to suffer, and to the feminine nature which is deriving that lesson from the Nessus robe of circumstance, all things are possible.

Even revenge. True, 'tis an old story how a woman scorned becomes at heart a hell-fury, but all modern art is but the presentiment of the old, old episodes of life in newer settings. And yet this story differs from its prototypes, which speak

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of the woman's revenge direct upon the man. Not so was the man hurt herein.

The rivers came down suddenly, bearing in their swollen currents the juices of the snowy ridges, and the oozings of lowland hillsides, and the lower streams took upon themselves depth and breadth, and became alive with fish and fowl, and those creatures of prey, the humans. But only for a few weeks. It was a short rise—a brief foretaste of flood-time, when the great wheels would turn and churn the waters into foamy spray, and take the ore of the yellow water and mint it into precious gold. And the boats enjoyed but a spurt of work. Some were stuck up in the narrow ridges of the Murrumbidgee—two, with their several barges, on the reef near Pental Island—a fourth within hail of Sturt's Billabong, where some day Australia will build a pilgrims’ shrine “on those shelving banks.” But Walmsley's Ruby was fortunate enough to regain the port.

Fred, doubtful whether he should tie up his craft, or join in what, in that state of the river, was the risky work of exploring the State forests on either side of the Murray, was musingly regarding the “State of the Rivers” sheet, posted under the Post Office verandah, when a saw-mill manager hailed him.

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“Can you run up to Goulburn at once, Fred, for us? We have a couple of barges ready loaded. They've dropped ’em down from Shepparton to near the junction.”

“I was just thinkin' whether 'twas too risky to go up as far as Tocumwal.”

“Take my word for it, it is! Better run up for us. You can only get a short job till it's certain whether there is more water to come down, or whether it's run out. What d’ye say?”

“Done!” said Fred Walmsley.

Jenny had attributed to him an injustice. He had not told the story of her love-making at the township pubs, for he had, after his first amusement, let the thing slip from his mind in the concentration of his energies upon the day's task. Nor did he recollect the incident until he had brought the Ruby carefully to the spot where the mill's two barges were tied up, waiting haulage to Echuca. Then he thought of it, for Jenny stood on the rise, waiting the approach of the boat. She had heard the Ruby's exhaust, and had recognized it.

In the time that had gone since the Ruby's departure and her return, the girl had changed. Her colour, once so steadfast, came and went

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with the passing tempers of her mind. To out-breaks of coarse speech directed towards her parents succeeded moods of pathetic self-loathing, which they understood as little as she did herself. The mystery of sorrow was pressing upon her in all its poignancy. Death—even the uneducated can comprehend his presence; physical disasters too can be understood by the common people; but the finer issues “in clear dream and solemn vision” are perceptible only to cultivated minds. They in whom fortune has not sown refinement cannot recognize but only suffer. Jenny Forbes was such.

She had been crying in dumb, inarticulate fashion for Walmsley to come back, and here he was! Had he come for her? The hope that plucks at straws, and the shadows of straws, was fledged in her heart—and died in the instant she saw him. She knew he had not thought of her.

“Mornin,’ Jenny!” He hailed her from the bank.

“Good-mornin,’ Mister Walmsley!” she, hugging the pain, forced herself to say. She would never call him “Fred” again till he asked her to marry him.

Unconscious of the wound he was inflicting, and quite unmindful till the response had passed her lips, that the form of his question was identical

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with that which had led to her curious outburst on the last occasion of their meeting, he called out—“Do you want anything?”

He meant, of course, stores — dress-stuffs, groceries, what-not. But the girl, whose humiliation was ever present to her mind, took the inquiry in the light of a reminder.

She flamed red—then her pulse stopped, it seemed to her, and the pain within her so tightly clenched her vocal organs, that instead of the exclamation rushing forth in the rich throatiness of her voice, it was uttered in a sharp cutting whisper:

“You devil!”

Fred remembered then all the details of the former episode. And he laughed at the recollection—with humorous tones in his harsh laugh.

The girl, holding a clenched fist to her side, ran up the slight hill, maddened. On the crest of the rise she paused and looked back. Through a cleft in the clearing an expiring sun-ray, widening like a blaze of fire, enveloped the pilot-house and the jeering boat-captain.

It must have been from that simulacrum of a conflagration that she drew the inspiration of her deadly thoughts.

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The Ruby was to return in the morning. And because no danger could be suspected in her snug resting-place by the Goulburn junction no watch was kept. Only the great lamps with their hundred facets sheened the placid stream. Walmsley saw they were trimmed for the night before he turned in at ten o'clock.

At midnight there was no sound but the lapping and the wash of the river. The girl who is moving forward makes no noise, you may be sure. She is in stockinged feet.

At sundown there had been stored against the wood-pile keeper's hut, in a lean-to, a great heap of dried wattle-bark. It was so much tinder. And the bulk of it, or at least sufficient for her purpose, this girl had moved to the boat to serve as tinder. Upon it she had heaped wool waste from the Ruby's own engine-room. Tinder, all of it! And, yet not content, she unscrewed the cork of a kerosene-tin, and the fluid trickled and covered the waste and the bark.

It had been dead calm. But, an instant before she struck the match, a gentle breeze arose to help her in her work. The decking was set ablaze without trouble.

She had calculated upon ten minutes’ burning before the smoke and the crackling would rouse

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the men. The breeze must surely have been the breath of Erinnys. Within her allotted ten minutes it gave her the advantage of double the space.

The ill work sped as ill work always does. And when Fred, at last aroused by his men, dragged himself to the bank, half-dazed by the smoke, he knew the task of fighting the flames was hopeless. The little Ruby was doomed. And, as so frequently happened during the off-season, he was uninsured. He had let his policy lapse with the last wool-trip.

From the west of the rise the girl looked down upon her work and her rival. The boat was gone —that was evident! Neither seriously nor jocularly could Fred avow that the steamer would ever contest his affections with her again. Stark still, save for the trembling that shook her, she gazed, and hated herself for her triumph. Yet she would not have undone the work if she could. Let the consequence of a woman's hate stab herself to death daily, yet, under like conditions, she would so act again.