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  ― 161 ―

Jim the Rebater

ON the Upper Murray.

The snow-water is rushing swiftly between the eucalypt-bordered banks, and on the fretted and billowy surface of the green water float boughs and branches that drank their primal sap from the ice-cold heights of the Snowys. Nestling in a fork of a sapling are some sprigs of a blooming acacia, whose roots are in the Tumberumba country; a tortuous creeper, torn by a storm-blast from the valley of the Eucumbene, clings to a trunk which was nourished hard by Kiandra. Like a big-sized bully into a throng of school lads comes crashing through the swirl of the current and the lighter timber a monstrous bole that the water has just wrested from the clayey banks of the greatest of Australian rivers. The tangle goes down-stream together to communicate, in the quaint language of Nature, its message from lofty, snow-rimmed peaks to plains which burst


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and split under the brazen sky, and to tell the poor human, who toils and sweats amidst dust and aridity, that, after all, there is a joy and a glory in the world which the great Riverine squatter, who tops the market with his wool, cannot purchase with his wealth. And with the tangle and the stream goes—a soul.

The big log will forge its way through reach and bend, and will evade the grappling rope as the sawmillers try, one after another, to lasso it as it is hurled by their craft. It will voyage so for hundreds of miles, and then it will be stopped by a snag, which will hold it tight and still tighter, till the suction of the under-tow draws it down and down, and embeds it in the bottom drift, and it becomes a snag in its turn—the fatalest of tools to rip up planks and open seams, and to destroy in one desperate instant the fruit of laborious years.

And the soul, too, goes down-stream with the mass of wood stuff, and after its journey of a few hundred miles it too falls a victim to the vicious undertow of life, and becomes in its turn a snag, which shall wreck another soul.

Jim Fitzgerald came of a second generation of “gully-rakers.” The grandfather had been one


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of the assigned hands of a Monaro pioneer, and, by the time he had won his freedom, had gathered a tidy little herd together—a head here and a head there, a “clear skin” of his master's now, and a Umeralla “wild ’un” then. He put his brand on them, and, with a block of “out country” and an occasional addition of a “stolen and strayed” bull or cow, did well. The ex-convict's son took congenially to the business. The father had known some restraints of conscience, but had been careful to give his boy a training which had dulled in his earliest youth any tendency towards straightforwardness in dealing with other's goods. A course of instruction which consisted almost entirely in scouring gully and plain in order to stock a mountain fastness at a neighbour's expense, was not likely to induce a delicacy of discrimination between what belonged to him of other species of property and what did not. And nobody was surprised when, after an excursion to Boyd Town, on Twofold Bay, with cattle, he did not return promptly. A sentence of twenty years on the roads for horse-stealing interfered with his engagements—and no living soul regretted his fate.

He had a wife and a boy of five when his “misfortunes” happened. The boy was too young to understand, and the wife—well, she thanked


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God for the crowning mercy of her husband's arrest. She had the habit of consulting Providence on all occasions, for she had “found Christ.” When a young woman who had just left school at Sydney, she had heard in the old York Street Chapel a sermon of the red-hot Methodist stamp. The discourse was warm with the old-fashioned hell, and splendid with particular details of the old-fashioned heaven, and instinct with a passionate yearning over a doomed race, fierce with an intense horror of sin, gluttonous of conversions, mad with the madness of the Hebrew prophets over the stiff-necked and the perverse. No wonder the girl, whose people had sent her to school because her home-life was not likely to make her “a lady,” became “convinced of sin.” She knew nothing of life, but of sin she knew (so she fancied) much. And then, after one of those experiences of storm and struggle which are all indispensable conditions of growth, so the old-style Methodists thought, to the new soul, she “found peace.”

When she married, inveigled, she scarcely knew how, by the dashing young cattle-dealer who came once or twice a quarter with stock to Boyd Town where her people kept store, she did not lose her faith. On the contrary, it deepened and strengthened. Every fresh revelation of her husband's


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wrong-doing was a stab welcomed to the martyr's heart. Only, when the child came, she craved that the Lord would help her to save the boy from his father—perhaps for the Church. And in the father's arrest she saw the hand of God.

By the time news of his conviction reached her in the Fitzgerald homestead in a Cooma valley, she had made up her mind what to do. Some few head of stock she had brought with her upon her marriage. These and their increase she sold, and then, first bidding the police do their will on the rest of the stock on their run, she took her child and her money and disappeared from the knowledge of the district. The child was hers, and the money she took was hers—and as to the future, was not the God of Sarah and Rebekah and Mary her God? He surely would save the lad's soul as He had saved hers.

And now, seventeen years after, the child of five, grown into the young man of twenty-two, stands upon the river-bank at Corowa, and watches the struggle of the brush and timber with the stream. He has settled everything with his dead mother's lawyer, and has just been handed, in the form of a bank-draft on Melbourne, his fortune. Not many hundreds—only five or six; and yet a fortune to the lad who has never


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left the river-side, and to whom the cities are places unknown, save for the one dread fact—“the bad men lived there.” “Mrs. Fitzgerald's Jim” had been known to all the country-side and river-side people, and while many quietly laughed at, all, at least apparently, deferred to her method of training him. A storekeeper only, though she might have coined wealth by joining a drink-shanty to the store, she had always paid her way. To do that and to bring Jim “to a sense of sin” were her two ambitions. One other desire had she— to keep from her boy the knowledge of his father!

Men who did not hesitate to swindle her, yet respected her wishes as regards Jim. Not for the youngster's sake, but for hers, they stripped their blasphemy of its ornate blooms, and refrained from telling yarns which are unprintable and singing songs which pollute the ear. They would not teach him euchre, nor induct him into the comparatively innocuous mysteries of “fifteen-two, fifteen-four.” They even reduced, when in his presence, the length of their snakes, and the amount they had lost when Dan Morgan had stuck them up. They spoke of Jim among themselves as “Jim the Vargin.” To his mother he was the child of many prayers, and as she could not be blind or deaf to the difference in


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the way the bullockies and bushies generally treated her lad and the way they treated others, she felt the prayers would be answered sooner or later. Were the rough fellows kept from tempting her Jim, that was God—her God! and surely, though the signs were as yet uncertain, God's mercy was following, and He would be moved by her strenuous strugglings to give unto her boy both the “conviction of sin” and the grace that sustaineth under the conviction, and that drives the penitent to Christ.

And so, while Jim whistled in his care-free youth, his mother wrestled in her agony for his salvation.

When she was dying, her faith was undimmed. She murmured that charter-song of the Methodist who has “found peace”—

“O happy day, that fixed my choice,”

and pleaded that the Lord would bless her at the last with the knowledge that Jim, too, “could read his title clear.” And Jim, wrought on by his grief and his desire to grant unto her the one consolation she craved, fancied, as so many others have done, that the emotions of his impressionable nature were the stirrings of the Spirit, and said


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words to her and the Wesleyan minister who had come from Corowa to her bedside that made her completely happy.

Waiting at the river-bank at Corowa to be picked up by Mackintosh's boat going down stream with huge logs lashed fore and aft on her hulking barge, he fingered mechanically the envelope in his pocket containing the draft. He took it out and looked at it. From the folds dropped a bit of cardboard. It was the “society class-ticket of the people called Methodists.” They had lost no time in enrolling him, and as he looked at it, he recalled the whispered appeal which had accompanied its issue to him.

“Jimsey,” said the class-leader, an old south-country man, “thee be motherless now, lad, an' I know nawt o' yer airthly father, but ye ’ast a heavenly one, Jimsey—don't never forgit that. An' stick to th' class, lad—it'll ’elp your soul mighty w’erever y’ be.”

The words came back to him, borne, so it seemed, on the rush of the current. They reminded him of his loss, and strangely drove in upon his mind, in a manner quite foreign to his ordinary experience, that he had never known his father. Father and mother and sister and brother had the one parent he had known been


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to him, and somehow, with that easy acquiescence of youth, he had never troubled himself to specially inquire as to his father. The district gossip allusively referred to Mrs. Fitzgerald as “the widow” as often as by her own name, and he had taken the implication for a granted fact. But now, with the new rootings in his being of thought and reflection, he pondered over this gap in his personal history. Was his father dead? Then was it not singular that his mother should not have spoken of him and his resting-place?

Suppose he was not dead, but alive? Suppose, further—the young man was gaining some insight into life, and was becoming familiar with some of the more vulgar aspects of family relationships —that his father had abandoned his mother? Would he, in that case, ever meet him?

With the fervency of his new-born enthusiasm for religious practices breathing upon him, what more natural than that he should then and there pray that he should meet his father, if his father were still in the flesh? And he knew, in the curious reflex action of spiritual exaltation, that his prayer would be answered.

Carpet-bag in hand, he sprang lightly from the bank to the dingy which rowed in shore for


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him. The dingy, on returning to the steamer, was steered round the surging mass of river drift-wood. Young Jim, still boyish in his ways, dropped his disengaged hand into the water, against the current. A tiny branch of the acacia, laden with golden snow, the fluffy globules glistening dewily in their bath, was swept against his fingers. He grasped it, and scarcely knowing why he did so, withdrew it from the stream. As he sprang on the decking of the steamer, his impulse was to throw the wattle back into the water. But the hand of fate arrested the movement, and a thought, new to him in its suggestiveness of sentiment, arose.

Why should he not keep it as a memento of his home country? It would dry and shrivel perhaps, but it would still speak to him of the Upper Murray country wherever he went. So he retained it.

“Now, my young cockerel,” exclaimed the mate as he came up to the new passenger, ticket-book in hand—Jimmy Mackintosh, of the Echuca sawmills, cannily Scotch in his ways, was careful to demand vouchers for every trifling transaction of his multifarious business—“wot's yer name, an' w’ere 're yer for?”




  ― 171 ―

“Echuca,” said the youth, “and James Fitzgerald is my name.”

“Oh! oh! Jim Fitzgerald, is it? An' who's yer dad?”

“My father—but what's that got to do with you?”

“Oh, nuthin',” answered the brawny timber-jigger, “on'y our bargeman is named Jim Fitzgerald—an' I b’leeve he comes from somew’eres up this way.”

“My father is dead,” answered the lad, and paying his sovereign for the fare, he turned away.

Timber-getting on the Murray, even when varied by a little judicious evasion of the forest regulations and a quiet bit of smuggling—not all the tobacco smoked in Riverina paid border, or indeed any, duty—was a somewhat monotonous life, and the steamer-mate was but one of many who would have seized upon such a trifle as the coincidence of the names of his bargeman and his passenger to spin upon it jokes as to their supposititious relationship. At the mid-day spell, when a rouseabout relieved bargeman Fitzgerald at the wheel of the barge, so that he might go aboard the steamer for his snack, the mate was fertile with chat—more fertile than delicate.




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“Hello, Jim! ’ave yer seen that young shaver we're takin' down—the chap we picked up at Corowa?”

“No,” growled the bargeman, “an' I don't want to, neither.”

“Wal,” joked the other, shaking himself with laughter, “that's bad, now, consid’rin' as he's your son.”

Fitzgerald, tall and lathy for all his years, thin-flanked, bushy-bearded, with eyes that strove in vain to look straight at men and things, was pierced by the arrow shot at random.

“What the——do you mean?” he sharply said, starting from the seat.

“Oh, nuthin',” said the other, “on'y you jest go an' ask the chap—he ses as he's yer son!”

Now, Fitzgerald the younger had said nothing of the kind, but the humorous mate thought it an element of fun to be unveracious. Strange that he had thought so, for he had not cultivated his sense of humour in the city club smoking-rooms, where they discuss reputations with a regard for wit as pronounced as their disregard for truth!

With a repeated oath, the bargeman swung out of the cabin. “he'd see, he would, what the —— young blag’ard meant by sayin' he was his


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son!” As though the relationship when proved would be a disgrace to him—him, the erstwhile gully-raker, ex-Cockatoo-Island felon, and present timber-getter.

The elder found the younger sitting aft, gazing at the rolling, swaying barge, and wondering, in the introspective fashion of youth, where this voyage was to lead him.

“I say, younker,” demanded the bargeman, “who are you? An' wot do yer mean by sayin' yer my son?”

Shaken out of his reverie, the young fellow looked up wonderingly.

“I—I—said nothing of the sort! My father's dead.” And then a filmy reminiscence floated like a vaporous cloud just within the horizon of his experience, and through it loomed indistinctly and undefined a bushy-bearded face, and hands that used to toss him to a horse's mane.

“At least,” he stammered, “I always understood so!”

Face to face with the youth the father knew his son. There was the outline of his wife's features; something in his eyes of that clearness of vision which had never failed to look straight at things and at men, save when her husband had shamed her, and when she bore vicariously


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his disgrace. These he saw. Moreover, from the heart of one the impalpable, irresistible shafts formed of kinship went to the heart of the other.

The father knew his son, and the son knew his father, and accepted the recognition as the answer to his prayer. Such curious survivals does Nature give us, first blurring or crossing them. The mother had craved that the son might lean on prayer as on a rock. The strain of her intense faith came up in him—and lo! it had worked to the destruction of her other great hope, that he might never know his father. Of such paradoxes is life full.

Had there been in the mind of either the slightest doubt as to the identity of the other, the one feeble link needed to complete the chain of evidence would have been supplied by the dripping branch of acacia which the younger Fitzgerald held in his hand.

The father caught it, and the lore of the bush, which seems to implant itself unconsciously in the natures of men who are careless of its value, prompted him to the inquiry—“Where did you get that wattle?”

Not now the half-impertinent retort of youth:


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“What business is that of yours?”—but the bare truth:

“I picked it up an hour ago!”

“Did you? Why, that is Tumberumba wattle! You can't get that in these parts.”

“I picked it out of the river as I was coming aboard.”

“Oh,” said the father, with an accent of disappointment. “You didn't pick it up near the Tooma Creek?”

“No,” said the other; “just as I told you—but it could have come down stream, you know. Where is the Tooma? Doesn't the Tooma run into the Murray?”

“Why, that was where you was born, between the Tooma and Tumberumba!”

Again the inquiry which yet to the questioner seemed so unnecessary:

“How do you know that?”

For answer: “What was your mother's name?”

“Emma!”

The father received the shock outwardly unmoved. Did he not know it?

“Was she good—religious?”

“She was a Wesleyan, and they thought a good lot of her.”

The words were convincing.




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“Come to the barge—I must have a talk with you,” said the elder.

The steamer slackened a second to allow the barge to draw up, and to be fended off when father and son leapt on its for’ard cargo. They pursued their conversation, which meant so much to both, so fatally much to one, on the wheel-platform.

The talk revealed many things to the man as well as to the youth. He told his son how he had gone gold-digging, how after years of failure success had come at last, and how then he had sought his home, but, to his dismay, found his wife and child missing. And the young Jim swallowed the lie. “I ain't a-denyin' it, my lad”—the rogue forced a paternal kindness into the words—“I ain't been as good a chap as I ought to ’a been. I wasn't never good ’nuff for your mother.” Affecting repentance now, and sobriety of behaviour and speech, he did not jar upon the lad, and won his liking insensibly.

Now, there was in existence at this epoch of Riverine trading a practice that robbed the Victorian railways of no inconsiderable portion of their revenue. The system of making rebates or refunds of freight on all goods carried over the


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lines for destinations beyond the Wakool Junction, in order to attract the lower Riverine trade to Melbourne, supplied the reason for this practice— and the profit of it. The method of the fraud need not be told at the present time of writing. Suffice it to say that big men made big money by it. Some small men were ambitious of doing the same. One of these latter was bargeman Fitzgerald. When his son handed him undoubtingly the bank-draft on Melbourne, he saw a way to do it. He bought a share in a boat.

A railway-clerk, a shipping-agent's clerk, and at least a mate or bargeman—these were the tools necessary to the fraud. Fitzgerald himself could look after the boat's share of the swindle; he had the shipping-agent's clerk “readied up”; he wanted but one more accessory—the railway-clerk. And here, in his son, he found the desideratum; for it was an easy matter in those days for a riverman well known in Echuca to obtain for his son a billet in the Customs or railway. And Jim, junior, had been not indifferently educated, and was soon well up in the routine of checking way-bills and freight invoices. In two months he was rebate clerk—expert in checking and passing the sheets on which shipping-agents and boat-owners presented their claims for refunds.


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To distinguish him from the father, who was “Jim Fitzgerald the Bargeman,” colloquially Jim, junior, became “Jim the Rebater.” And the bargeman's plans throve right prosperously.

For some months they throve, and then the mocking devil which lives in the core of every ill deed and forces it, from sheer derision, into the light of day to become a thing abhorrent, prompted Jim the Bargeman to reveal unto Jim the Rebater a scheme for an unusually large haul of fraudulent rebate vouchers. Then the boy, so far an innocent tool—doing things in routine fashion because others had done so, and his superior officers had told him to do it—awoke to the criminal nature of his doings. He refused.

Several times he was pressed, but refused always—swore, moreover, to inform the station-master of the roguery that went on under his nose, were he asked once more.

And there was, the bargeman thought, that mother's strain in his son's blood which would have made him carry out his threat in spite of consequences. So he would not press him further.

The great mills were busy. Night and day


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were the giant saws going, tearing into beams, and planks, and battens the spoil of New South Wales forests, and shivering into the timber of commerce monster red-gums with a breaking-weight of 10,000 lbs. to the square inch. And the boats were busy too, unloading the raw logs, loading with the milled material. Jim's barge lay under the shoots up which the huge boles were chain-hauled to slide down similar ways to the saw-beds. Jim was guiding the chains one night when his boy came down. The night was gloomy, and the work was proceeding in the glare of big reflector-lamps, which threw here broad splashes of brilliancy, and there shadows as of midnight.

“Good-night, father. I heard you were in, and came down to——”

“Well—what?” The bargeman felt that pretences need hardly be kept up longer.

“To say that I must tell Mr. Francis”—Francis, now acting-commissioner, was station-master then —“of these rebate tricks.”

“You've got —— vartuous all of a sudden. Who's put you up to this now?”

“My mother's memory!”

“Hell! ’Tis always your cantin' hypocrite of a mother. You're gettin' as big a sneak as she was!”




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“My mother was a good woman—and I'm sorry I cannot be as good. But I've been to class——”

“What!” roared the father. “Methody class?”

“Yes.”

“D——n you! That means as you mean to give me ’way, do you?”

The head of the shoots was in a sheet of darkness. Who can say what happened? A slip either side would precipitate the stumbler. On the river-side he could receive no injury but a shaking. On the other——

Jim the Rebater tripped—or was thrown. The guiding-chains slacked, but it was not the great descending trunk that gave him the fatal blow.

The saw caught him first.

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