― 31 ―

The Idyl of Melool Wood-Pile

THE time was 8.50 on an August afternoon in 187—. The old Pride of the Murray, trustiest of river steamers, was making ready to swing into the stream for another of her profitable trips from Echuca to the Darling. Captain “Bill” Davies, senior and most respected of the river-skippers, and the most encyclopædic of authorities on snags and shallows, currents and channels, and all other detail of riverine science, had just stepped into the pilot-house; a deck-hand was paddling across to the old and stolid red-gum stump in Air and Westegard's boat-building yard on the Moama bank, to fix the warp to guide round her head; the huge steam-wheel had just beaten the turgid water into foam with a preliminary clash and lash; the Custom-house officers had performed the solemn task of clearance; and the crowd of wharf loafers and stevedores’ men were canvassing the relative chances as to whether “Old Bill” would

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let his barge drop through the punt first and then pick her up, or whether he would adopt the quicker but riskier proceeding of taking her in tow. All these things were happening or had happened, when one of the clerks attached to the office of McCulloch, the big shipping agent, came rushing up the wharf.

“Hold hard, Mr. Davies,” he jerked out in breathless syllables, “we've another passenger for you—a lady!”

“Can't take her,” growled the skipper; “I'm cleared, and steam's up.”

One of the most genial of men and obliging of skippers, Captain Davies grew crusty at the numberless red-tapeisms of the border Customs; and as all passengers’ names were supposed to be described in the clearance papers, any addition to the list after the final dab of sealing-wax to manifest and transire meant another hour's delay and overtime charges. Customs’ overtime charges were no joke. The well-paid officials of Her Majesty's Custom-house at Echuca and Moama required double remuneration for crossing “t's” and dotting “i's” after four p.m. And this was, and is, but one of a score of ingenious contrivances for promoting brotherly love and reciprocal intercourse between Her Majesty's subjects on the

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south side of the Murray and their fellow-subjects on the north.

“But, Captain, the lady says it's a case of urgency, and there'll be no other steamer for a couple of days.”

“Can't take her!” came back from the pilot-house, the voice mingling with the creaking of the wheel as it revolved to the skipper's grasp. “Cast off the wharf lines for’ard there,” and the whistle sent a shrill intimation to the puntman at old historic Hopewood's Ferry to open his pontoons.

“Sir, sir, do take me!” The steam shriek was breaking up in squally, discordant echoes when this cry was heard. There was a pathetic tremulousness in its appeal that compelled everybody within hearing—skipper, stevedores, boat-hands, loafers—to turn and gaze at the speaker. A tall, slender, darkly-draped figure, evidently the lady referred to by the shipping agent's clerk, stood against the wharf chains. A half-veil hid part of her features, but the rounded contour of the lower face and the sweet fulness of her voice revealed that she still enjoyed the richness of early womanly beauty.

“Two to one,” whispered the Pride's cook to the steward, “the skipper won't back down.”

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The steward sneered at this offer to back a certainty, and didn't accept the wager.

It was a tradition on the river that “Captain Bill” never “backed down.” Once he expressed an opinion, gave a decision, or determined upon a course of action, whether it was a big matter or a little matter, he was resolute, not to say obstinate. Whether it was a cargo of wool or a deck-hand's ration that was in question was all one.

“I'll clear your store of Momba bales as I come down stream,” he said to the agent at Wilcannia. “I'm going up-river to load Gundabooka clip, and I'll top up with your lot.”

But before he got back Momba teams had come in with another hundred and fifty bales of greasy. Instead of forty bales waiting him to top up, there were four times the quantity. He took them, however, and never left the pilot-house for an hour at a time during the fortnight of combat with treacherous channels, and blind snags, and falling rivers, that elapsed before he hung up his craft at Echuca bank.

It was proverbial, that load, in the annals of river-trips. Old Captain Freeman, the inspector for the Melbourne and Sydney Underwriters’ Association, saw the Pride with her barge-consort come quiveringly and laboriously round the park

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bend, and went home with a sudden and convenient fit of asthma. He knew perfectly well that his ancient comrade had topped up so from no motives of greed, but simply through a determination to carry out an undertaking. Otherwise, the trusty walking-stick with which he used to measure load-lines, and thereby protect the interests of insurers and consignees, would have been brought into requisition, and the Pride's certificate might have been in jeopardy.

Now, however, to everybody's surprise, the skipper “backed down.” Evidently Captain Davies, with all his bluffness, could not bear to see a young and lovely woman in distress.

It is possible, that had the lady's veil dropped a couple of inches lower, or her words had been uttered in tones of rarer timbre, she might have been taken for an older woman. And in this contingency we would not like to say that the skipper's refusal already given would not have been confirmed.

As it was, he let go the wheel, and stepped out of the pilot-house on to the upper-deck. Touching his weather - stiffened felt not ungraciously, he called out—

“Weel, ma'am, if you must go I s’pose you must. Where's it to?”

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McCulloch's clerk answered for the lady.

“To Melool wood-pile, Mr. Davies,” he said.

“Melool wood-pile. Well, I'm——”

With what personal reflection the skipper closed his response cannot be told, for a loud burst of laughter from the wharf-loungers precluded its being heard. There wasn't a man within earshot of the brief colloquy we have reported that did not apprehend the situation as clearly as the Pride's master himself.

With flour £25 a ton, and potatoes £10 at Wentworth and £40 and £20 respectively at Wilcannia, with a river falling three inches every twelve hours, with a barge laden chiefly with his own flour and “spuds,” with two seasons’ back-block clips waiting river-transit, to have to lose an hour at the start and another hour en route for a beggarly £1 fare—well, the occasion would have justified an explosion of emphatic remarks from the mildest-tempered man that ever disturbed with a steam-whistle the echoes lingering in the Riverine forests. Had it been a passenger for Wentworth—fare £7 10s.—that would have been bad enough—but Melool!

Melool landing was on the crookedest, snaggiest part of the river, and from the Pride's time of starting could not be reached by the boat till

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dusk of the following day. What with the actual loss of time and possible risk involved in making the landing, the captain would have willingly sacrificed a “fiver” to be off his bargain.

But while Skipper Davies was inwardly blessing his luck and cursing McCulloch's agent for “letting him in to this,” and while the wharf-loafers were enjoying their laugh at his expense, the passenger for Melool landing—those who know the middle Murray need not be told the wood-pile juts over the station landing—had got aboard.

The men who “run” the wood-piles that furnish fuel during the seasons when the river navigation is open to the steamers trading on the Murray, Murrumbidgee, and Darling, widely though they may differ in their personal characteristics, have one striking bond of resemblance—they are lovers of solitude, or if not that, are haters of the “common haunts” of their fellow-creatures.

They lead the dullest of monotonous existences, the only excitement derivable being associated with the precariousness of their means of subsistence. When the river is “up” there is a fairly good time before the wood-cutters. When

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they are “down” and non-navigable, which they generally are, the woodcutter's luck is down too—to the hardest bed-rock. Before the owner of a wood-pile there is none of that prospect of wealth which induces men to follow other solitary pursuits, to graze their cattle in untrodden wilds, and to penetrate with a prospecting-pick into remote and trackless mountain recesses. He can see ahead of him nothing but brief periods of moderate prosperity and hard work, alternating with far longer stages of harder work and the grimmest poverty. Only a man who is sick of society certainly, of life probably, would “run” a river wood-pile.

Such a man obviously was the stalwart fellow who, dressed in flannel shirt and dingy tweed, stood leaning against the mass of mixed “stringy” and box and red-gum which composed Melool wood-pile, as the Pride of the Murray turned into the snaggy reach leading to the landing. His bearded face was set in lines which seemed to speak of forty years’ disappointment, and broken hopes and lost faiths; but otherwise his appearance was that of a man of thirty, of far from rude parentage. The delicacy of breeding was apparent in the nostrils and the angle of the face, and in the long wiry fingers that played with a

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Collins axe which he held in his grasp. This he moved mechanically to and fro, catching on and then losing in its pendulum movement, a beam of the fast-dying sunlight.

He had heard the steamer's exhaust twenty minutes before; he had not come out of his tent, which stood against a sheltered and sheltering clump of timber a hundred yards from flood-mark, till her whistle had sounded. Dwellers on the banks learn to recognize, even at night, each boat passing up or down stream by her exhaust, and the peculiar symptoms of the Pride's high-pressure engines—a deep throbbing sigh, then two quick, short gasps, and then another long-drawn breath—told him at once that it was Davies’ boat out on the river. He had never previously called during his ownership of the pile. Accordingly, till the whistle was blown he did not leave the tent. When it shrilled in his ears, startling plovers and ducks resting for the night, he knew he was wanted, and went down to the bank, speculating as he walked what business the Pride had up Melool Reach, and whether she would get out of it without smashing a float or two of her paddles. He was quite sure she would not want fuel, as she invariably wooded lower down stream.

As the boat advanced slowly, now stopping,

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now going astern, as the rouseabout in the stern fathomed the channel with a pole, and now driving her nose up another channel, the watcher on the bank saw through the dim half-light a lady standing by the gangway. The mate, the veteran Dave Bowers, was beside her with a valise in his hand, and a deck-hand stood ready to run out the gang-plank.

“The deuce!” muttered the man by the pile. “A visitor for the station and no one to meet her! This means giving her up the tent, and camping out for the night. Pleasant!” Nevertheless, the prospect of a night's discomfort did not deter him from throwing down the axe and leaping to the incline that formed the landing. Old-time training flushed his veins once more with the craving to be of service, were it but for a moment, to a lady. As for the passenger, while the steamer was making a path between snags and over shallows, she had given no thought to the skill that was serving her. The gleam of the axe-blade had caught her eye at the entrance to the reach, and her instinct had told her that the hand that held the glittering object was that of the man she had come from the ends of the earth to seek. Her visit was not to the station but to the wood-pile.

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The gangway of the boat breasted the landing-place, and the plank was propelled forward. The man on the bank extended it with his foot and at the same time stretched forth his hands.

He said, “You are for the station, madam, I presume. I must tell you that there is no one here to meet you, and you can't get to the home-stead to-night.”

His hand was clasped firmly. Still standing on the plank, careless of the curious observers of the scene, the lady with her free hand lifted her veil.

“Ned!” she said.

“My God, Bess!”

And Skipper Davies, and Mate Bowers, and the crew, who saw the meeting and heard the exclamations, wondered as the old Pride drew in her plank and trembled reluctantly through the perilous passage to broader water, what relation the lady passenger was to the owner of Melool wood-pile.

“So you have found me, Bess?” the man cried hoarsely after some minutes’ silence. He added with a bitter satire burdening each syllable of his utterance — “I beg your pardon — Lady Erskine, I should say.”

“Yes, Ned,” the lady replied reproachfully; “and I am ‘Bess’ to you still and always.”

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He made no response, and she continued—“I have found you out; though the lawyers failed to find you. When they said they could do no more I took up the search myself—and I am here—never to leave you, if you will have it so, Ned.”

The night had closed in rapidly. He had dropped her hand when she had stepped upon the bank, and had moved some paces away from her. But it was not so dark but what she could see him start and shudder at her words.

“I don't understand you,” he said at last.

“You make it hard for me, Ned. Must I make it plainer? Must I say that I have come from England to—to—marry you—if you will have me for your wife?”

“Are you mad,” he exclaimed, “or am I dreaming?”

“Neither; I mean what I say.”

“And Dick, my cousin—what of him?”

“Your cousin—my late husband—is dead, died two years ago. For twelve months I have tracked you step by step to ask you, is the old love dead? When he lay dying he reminded me that social conventions and rules had separated you and me once, and told me not to let them keep us apart after he had gone. That was generous of him

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at least. And, Ned,” her voice lowered into the pleading accents of love—“I am here.”

“My cousin dead!” he cried wonderingly. “Then I——”

“You are Lord Edward Erskine.”

“I see it all,” he said sardonically. “You threw me over once for his title, position, and wealth. And now that the position and, I suppose, the wealth, or some of it, are mine, you will throw his memory over for me! I fear, my lady, you have outraged convention in vain, after all!”

She burst into bitter sobs.

“You are cruelly unjust, Edward,” she moaned; “you knew I married your cousin solely to gain his help for my father and to save him from ruin. As for the property and the money, they are left to me. And these I came to offer you with myself.” And then, with a sudden burst into impetuous passion, she cried, “Ned, Ned, the old love cannot be dead; it cannot! Do not say it is; do not say I have sought you—and have humbled myself thus—in vain!”

“No,” he answered, slowly and painfully. “No, Heaven knows it is not dead. But it is worse than dead—it is useless now. You are too late, Bess!”

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“Too late?” she repeated.

He replied to her question by another.

“Do you remember, Bess, how we read Locksley Hall together years ago?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“You said then you would have had a greater respect for the hero had he carried out his threat to ‘mate with a dusky maiden' when he was jilted by his love. Well, I have done that. I have married—legally married, you understand—a half-caste girl from the Maloga Aboriginal Mission Station. Come, let me introduce you to my wife, the other Lady Erskine.”