Such is Life, by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) [chapter 2, part 1]

[Editor: This is the first part of Chapter Two of the novel Such is Life by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy). A glossary has been provided to explain various words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to modern readers.]

Chapter II

When I undertook the pleasant task of writing out these reminiscences, I engaged, you will remember, to amplify the record of one week; judging that a rigidly faithful analysis of that sample would disclose the approximate percentage of happiness, virtue, &c., in Life. But whilst writing the annotations on Sept. 9th (which, by the way, gratuitously overlap on the following day), I saw an alpine difficulty looming ahead. At the Blowhard Sand-hill, on the night of the 10th, I camped with a party of six sons of Belial, bound for Deniliquin, with 3,000 Boolka wethers off the shears. Now, anyone who has listened for four hours to the conversation of a group of sheep drovers, named, respectively, Splodger, Rabbit, Parson, Bottler, Dingo, and Hairy-toothed Ike, will agree with me as to the impossibility of getting the dialogue of such dramatis personae into anything like printable form. The bullock drivers were bad enough, but these fellows are out of the question.

Then it occurred to me that a wider scope of observation might give in perhaps fewer pages, a fairer estimate of that ageless enigma, the true solution of which forms our all-embracing and only responsibility. I therefore concluded to skip one calendar month, dipping again into my old diary at Oct. 9th in the same year, namely, ’83

After this, I shall pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day for amplification and comment, keeping not too long in one tune, but a snip and away. This will prospect the gutter of Life (gutter is good) at different points; in other words, it will give us a range of seven months instead of seven days.

The thread of narrative being thus purposely broken, no one of these short and simple analyses can have any connection with another — a point on which I congratulate the judicious reader and the no less judicious writer; for the former is thereby tacitly warned against any expectation of plot or denouement, and so secured against disappointment, whilst the latter is relieved from the (to him) impossible task of investing prosaic people with romance, and a generally hap-hazard economy with poetical justice. Go to, then.

TUES. OCT. 9. Goolumbulla. To Rory’s.

This record transports you (saving reverence of our ‘birth stain’) something more than a hundred miles northward from the scene sketched in Chap.I, thus unveiling a territory blank on the map, and similarly qualified in the ordinary conversation of its inhabitants.

The Willandra Billabong, which in moderately wet seasons relieves the Middle Lachlan of some superfluous water, and in epoch-marking flood-times reluctantly debouches into the Lower Darling, divides the country between those rivers into two unequal parts. Roughly speaking — the black-soil plains (which are chiefly light red) lie to the south of this almost imperceptible depression, whilst on the north — sometimes close by, sometimes out of sight, and sometimes thirty miles away — the irregular scrub — frontier denotes an abrupt change of soil, though the uniform level is maintained.

Here you enter upon a region presenting to the rarely clouded sky an unbroken foliage-surface, with isothermal zones rigidly marked by their indigenous growths. A tract of country until yesterday bare of surface water for lack of occupation, and lacking occupation for dearth of surface water. Which goes to show that regularity of rainfall is not ensured by copious growth of timber.

However, a hundred miles back in that leafy solitude, — just where the line of water conservation, creeping northward from the Lachlan, here and there touched the line creeping southward from the Darling, — I was standing in the veranda of the barracks, on Goolumbulla station, when the narangies’ pagan henchman announced, “Brekfit leddy, all li.”

During the meal, Jack Ward, the senior narangy, made some remark implying that certain cattle, on a certain occasion, had scented water from a fabulous distance. Whereupon Andrews, the storekeeper, interrogated deponent with some severity, driving him down, down, to three hundred yards’ range, where he made a final stand. But the two junior narangies supported Ward in the endowment of cattle with the faculty in question; and, as a matter of course, each young fellow supplemented his limited experience by a number of instances, all alike distinguished by that want of proper hang which makes the judicious grieve.

A practical knowledge of the subject, founded on irrefragable proofs, led me to side with Andrews; and it was thus that I came to quote a case in point, with all the advantage of local reference. It will be necessary to lay the facts before you: —

In Feb., ’81 — two years and eight months before the date of this record — I had drawn up to Goolumbulla homestead with six tons of wire. The manager, Mr. Spanker, in his fine, off-hand way, asked me to just dump it down carelessly in five or six places over the run, as the contractor would be using it at once. He would pay me for the extra mileage; and Dan O’Connell would show me where to sling it off. I objected to the mileage agreement, inasmuch as carting over raw ground was a very different thing from travelling on a track. I wanted £1 a day for the extra time — a fair current rate, and easily counted. Mr. Spanker, in reply, had no objection to paying by the day; but, as my account came to £42, and as it had taken me twelve weeks to do the two hundred and thirty miles from Hay, and as the contractor had been cursing me steadily for the last four weeks — well, if I asked him anything about it, he thought that ten shillings came nearer the mark, and was almost as easily counted. Finally, with that pliancy of temper which keeps me down in the world, I assented to these terms; whereupon Spanker, with characteristic perversity, called it fifteen.

Next day, following Andrews’ directions, I took the faint track of the ration cart for seven or eight miles, and found a tank without any trouble. (Remember that this is a recital of what happened long before the date of our record.) Early next morning, Dan O’Connell joined me, and we crawled along for another five or six miles, on a still fainter track, marked only by a few trips of the contractor’s wagonette. In the afternoon we struck a line of bored posts, and dumped twenty coils. In due time, I unyoked, and Dan led me to a new tank, half-full of horribly alkaline water. Thence, after arranging to meet me in the morning, he cut across to his own boundary hut, six or eight miles away.

Next day, still following the line of posts, we dropped the rest of the wire; and, before Dan left me, I made him repeat again and again his directions for finding a gilgie, which he knew to be full of first-class water, and which I ought to strike about sunset. Next day I would reach the station in good time, thus completing a loop journey of thirty-odd miles in four days.

Dan had impressed me as a person likely to be of considerably more account in the estimation of his Maker than of his fellow-products; and, having previously studied men of the same description, I now accepted this involuntary sentiment as the only way of accounting for something not unfamiliar in his voice and bearing. A man of average stature, with a vast black beard, and guileless blue eyes, set off by a powerful Armagh accent. Evidently unobservant, uncritical, and utterly destitute of devil in any form, it seemed that the Spirit of the Bog had followed him into the bush, preserving his noxious innocence and all-round ineptitude in their pristine integrity. Naturally, he had taken a slight local colour, but this seemed to express the limit of his susceptibility to altered conditions.

Yet he twice startled me by the breadth and exactness of his information — once when America was mentioned, and he glanced at the character and policy of each President, from Washington to Van Buren; and again, when he spoke of the Massacre of Cawnpore, almost as if he had been there at the time. Also, an unconscious familiarity with the Bible and Shakespear was noticeable in his conversation, though he was evidently a Catholic of the Catholics.

When I complimented him on his erudition, he remarked, with amusing incompatibility of dialect and manner, ‘Mebbe it’s thrue fur ye. Me father hed consitherable mains, so he hed; an’ A har’ly ivver done a han’s turn, furbye divarsion, to A come out here.’ However, you will now understand why I made him repeat his topographical notes half a dozen times before I let him go.

Just at sunset I struck the partly-plain patch of sixty or eighty acres, where the gilgie ought to be. I unyoked with despatch, then left the bullocks, and rode round, looking for a clump of mallee, which would indicate the immediate neighbourhood of the water. No use. I could find no mallee anywhere. Night came on — richest starlight, though, of course, dark in the scrub — and still I objurgated round, and purposely scattered the bullocks to search for themselves, and anathematised in all directions, and consigned the whole vicinity to the Evil One, for lack of that clump of mallee. Hour after hour passed; the bullocks from time to time trying to clear off for the distant Lachlan, and I spending half my time in using them as divining rods, and the other half in execrating back and forward in search of that mallee. It was about midnight when I gave it best. I must have struck the wrong spot. Now — would it be advisable to make a bee-line to the station at once, with the bullocks loose? — or to wait for morning and take the wagon with me? The distance was eight or ten miles.

I was standing near the edge of the open scrub, with the reins over my arm. The mare was famished and exhausted. The bells were almost silent, for the bullocks stood still in the agony of thirst. The weather was hot; and they had barely sipped the alkaline water at last camp. I was absently observing one white bullock close by, when, with a low bellow, he suddenly darted forward eight or ten yards, and began drinking at the gilgie. That bellow was answered from all sides; and in two minutes his nineteen mates were sharing the discovery. Meanwhile, I had let Fancy go amongst them, after putting on her bell, and taking off the saddle and bridle. I had done with her for the night. And I knew that the water was good, for all the beasts stood on the brink, and drank without wetting their feet.

But how had the first bullock found the water, after he and his mates had passed it a dozen times, and within a few yards? This was worth investigating at once. So, before thinking about supper, I went to the exact spot where the beast had been standing, and there saw the stars reflected in the water. Of course, if it had been anything like a permanent supply, the sound of frogs or yabbies would have guided the beasts to it at once. But even wild cattle can no more scent water than we can, though they make better use of such faculties as they possess. I have tested the supposition deliberately and exhaustively, time after time; and this instance is cited, not controversially, but because it has to do with the present memoir.

However, next morning — after verifying the tracks of the thirsty bullocks so near the gilgie that it seemed a wonder they hadn’t walked into it — I looked for the clump of mallee. I don’t believe there was a stick of it within miles; but there was a clump of yarran where it should have been. A stately beefwood, sixty feet high, with swarthy column furrowed a hand-breadth deep, and heavy tufts of foliage like bundles of long leeks in colour and configuration — the first beefwood I had seen since leaving the homestead — stood close to the water, making a fine landmark; but Dan’s sense of proportion had selected the adjacent bit of yarran; and — as I told the breakfast-party — he had never concerned himself to know the difference between yarran and mallee.

“Curious combination of a fool and a well-informed man,” remarked Ward.

“Is he either of the two?” asked Broome. “My belief, he shams both.”

“Easy matter to sham foolishness,” obsened Williamson. “Not so easy to sham information.”

“Any relation to the late Liberator?” I asked.

“Dan O’Connell’s only his nickname,” replied Andrews. “His proper name is Rory O’Halloran.’

“Rory O’Halloran!” I repeated. “I thought I had met him before, but could n’t place him. And so Rory has found his way here?”

“Well, he was brought here,” replied Andrews. “Twelve or fourteen years ago he turned up at Moogoojinna, down Deniliquin way, and froze to the station. Then when Arbuthnot settled this place — five years ago now — Spanker brought Rory with him, and he’s been here ever since. Got married at Moogoojinna, a year or two before leaving, to a red-hot Protestant, from the same part of the globe as himself; but she stayed at Moogoojinna for her confinement, and only came up four years ago, after Dan was settled in the Utopia paddock. Good woman in her way; but she spends her time in a sort of steady fury, for she came to Moogoojinna with the idea of collaring something worth while. So Spanker says; and he was there at the time. Seems she did n’t want Dan, and Dan did n’t want her, but somehow they were married before they came to an understanding. He’s very good to her, in his own inoffensive way; and she leads him a dog’s life. One kid. Likely you knew him on Moogoojinna. According to his own account, he came straight through Vic., only stopping once, when he chummied for a few weeks with a squatter that took a fancy to him and treated him like a long-lost brother. Grain of salt just there.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied. “I can verify his statement to the letter, for I was that land-cormorant.” And I straightway unfolded to the boys an earlier page of Dan O’Connell’s history ——

It was about thirteen years before. At that time I was really suffering the embarrassment of riches, though the latter consisted only of those chastening experiences which daily confront adventurers of immature judgment and scanty resources, on new selections. The local storekeeper, however, was keeping me supplied with the luxuries of life — such as flour, spuds, tea, sugar, tobacco — whilst turkeys and ducks were to be had for the shooting, and kangaroos for the chasing. The storekeeper had also taken charge of my land license, for safety, and occasionally presented documents for my signature, making me feel like some conscious criminal, happily let off for the present with a caution.

One summer evening, whilst dragging myself home from work, I encountered a young fellow, who, I flattered myself, resembled me only in age. Soft as a cabbage in every way, he was footsore and weary, as well as homesick and despondent to the verge of tears. In one hand he carried a carpet bag, and in the other a large bundle, tied up in a coloured handkerchief. In his conversation he employed the Armagh accent with such slavish fidelity as to make it evident that he regarded any other form of speech as showing culpable ignorance or offensive affectation. His name was Rory O’Halloran.

Of course, I offered him the rugged hospitalities of my hut. In the morning, perceiving that his feet showed startling traces of the hundred-and-twenty-mile walk from Melbourne, I constrained him to rest for a few days. But the poor fellow had a painfully outspoken scruple against eating the damper of idleness; so, as soon as he was able to get his boots on without supplication for Divine support, he started to help me with my work.

Soon our acquaintance ripened to intimacy; and I learned something of his history. Like the majority of us, he was the scion of an ancient family. He was the youngest of eleven, all surviving at latest advices (praise God). Seven of these had swarmed to America, and were doing well (glory be); two remained in their native hive, with full and plenty (Amen); whilst he and his brother Larry had staked their future on the prosperity of Australia (God help us).

His father must have been a man of wealth and position, as he apparently spent his whole time in following the hounds, shooting pheasants, and catching salmon, with the other gentlemen. But just before Rory left home, his father and mother had withdrawn from society. And here the narrator’s sudden reticence warned me not to inquire into the details of the old couple’s retirement.

Larry, it appeared, had been doing Victoria and Riverina for five or six years, with magnificent, though unspecific, results. Anyway, he had franked Rory to Port Melbourne pier by passage warrant; but seemed to have made no provision for further intercourse. And Rory, having walked the streets of Melbourne for two whole days without finding any trace of Larry, had concluded that he must be in Riverina, and that it would be a brave notion to slip over, and take the defaulter by surprise. Hence his present pilgrimage.

Poor Rory, in spite of his willingness, was naturally awkward with the splitters’ tools, nor did he know how to harness a horse. All this, he explained to me, was a penalty adherent to people who, by reason of their social-economic position, are emancipated from manual labour. But when a heavy, soaking pour of summer rain brought the ground into fencing condition, I noticed that he could handle the spade with a strength and dexterity rarely equalled within my observation.

“You’re a Catholic — are n’t you, Rory?” I speculated, one evening, struck by the simple piety of some asinine remark he had made.

A startled look of remonstrance and deprecation was his only reply. However, as it has always been my rule to seek information at first hand, I tried, in a friendly and confidential way, to draw him out respecting certain of his Church’s usages and tenets, which I knew to be garbled and falsified by Protestant bigotry. But it was evident that throughout every fibre of his moral nature there ran a conviction that the mere mention of Purgatory or Transubstantiation would be fatal to our friendship. And he, at all events, would be no party to the unmasking of that great gulf which hereditarily divided us.

[It may be worth while, before we go any farther, to inquire into the nature and origin of this gulf — not merely for the sake of information, but because it is a question which affects the moral health of our community.

When Australia was first colonised, any sensible man might have foreboded sorrel, cockspur, Scotch thistle, &c., as unwelcome, but unavoidable, adjuncts of settlement. A many-wintered sage might have predicted that some colonist, in a fit of criminal folly, would scourge the country with a legacy of foxes, rabbits, sparrows, &c. But a second and clearer-sighted Jeremiah could never have prophesied the deliberate introduction of hydrophobia for dogs, glanders for horses, or Orangeism for men. Yet the latter enterprise has been carried out — whether by John Smith or John Beelzebub, by the Rev. Jones or the Rev. Belphegor, it matters not now. Some one has carried his congenial virus half-way round the globe, and tainted a young nation.

It is no question of doctrine. There is a greater difference between the Presbyterian and Episcopalian creeds than between the latter and the Catholic. But in tracing sectarian animosities back to their source, you may always expect to crash up against Vested Interests. For instance, the great Fact of the English Reformation was the confiscation of Church property. Afterward, a Protestant England submitted peaceably to the Inquisition; but when Mary proposed restitution of the abbey tenures — whoop! to your tents, O Israel! The noble army of prospective martyrs could n’t conform to that heresy; and the stubborn Tudor had to back down. Again, Wesleyanism tapped the offertory of Episcopalianism, and thus earned the undying hatred of that Church — though in point of doctrine, the two are practically identical. But the prejudice of the Irish Protestant against the Irish Catholic has the basest origin of all.

The English and Scotch colonists drafted into Ulster by Elizabeth, James I, Cromwell, and William III, always evinced a tendency to become Irish in the second generation. The reason is plain. Devil-worship — the cult of Fear — was the territorial religion of Ireland; and, in this bitter fellowship, native Catholic and acclimatised Protestant sank their small sectarian differences. The almighty and eternal Landlord, of course, was the Power who had to be placated by tribute and incense, approached on all fours, and glorified in the highest.

We don’t know much of the non-political history of Ireland during the 18th century, and indeed there is not much to be known. An Irish Parliament, consisting solely of landlords and their nominees, legislated as men do when the personal equation is allowed to pass unchecked. Meanwhile the agent collected such rents as he could get, with an occasional charge of slugs thrown in gratis: and the finest peasantry in the world slaved, starved, lied, stole, attended the means of grace, got drunk as often as possible, married and gave in marriage, harnessed itself to the landlord’s carriage whenever that three-bottle divinity deigned an avatar, and hoarded up its pennies for the annual confiscation. Broadly speaking, it rendered unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, and unto God the things that were God’s — social-economic conditions being so arranged that Caesar’s title covered everything except an insignificant by-product of atrophied souls.

However, we are concerned only with Ulster, where the native element of population, oblivious to Thrift, and instinctively loyal to anything in the shape of supremacy, had become alloyed with an ingredient derived from the most contumacious brood at that tirne in Western Europe, namely, the so-called Anglo-Saxon — a people unpleasantly apt in drawing a limit-line to aggression on its pocket, and by no means likely to content itself with an appeal to the Saints or the Muses. But was there no sectarian line of cleavage? — was there no party spirit abroad, seeing that, for the alleged safety of the Protestant population, the Catholics lived under severe penal laws? Well ——

‘We hold the right of private judgment in matters of religion to be equally sacred in others as in ourselves; and, as men, as Christians, and as Protestants, we rejoice in the relaxation of the penal laws against our Roman Catholic fellow-subjects; and we believe the measure to be fraught with the happiest consequences to the union and prosperity of Ireland.’

That is part of a resolution carried with only two dissentient voices in a meeting composed of the delegates of 143 corps of Ulster Volunteers, numbering 25,000 men. The meeting was held at Dungannon, Tyrone, in 1782. The Volunteers were tenants who, in 1778, had spontaneously enrolled themselves for defence against foreign invasion; all Protestants, of course, inasmuch as the possession of arms, except by special license, was prohibited to Catholics; — though at this time (the American War being then in progress) the feeling of the Irish Protestant was strongly revolutionary, while the Irish Catholic, true to his fatal instinct of illogical veneration, was distinctly loyalist. Otherwise, the bond of a common nationality had overborne sectarian estrangement; and never before or since has Ireland seen a period when the professors of those hostile creeds got drunk together in such amity. This is a historical fact which cannot be too often repeated.

‘Probably at no period since the days of Constantine,’ says the accomplished and trustworthy Lecky, ‘was Catholicism so free from domineering and aggressive tendencies as during the Pontificates of Benedict XIV and his three successors.’ This covers a period extending from 1740 to 1775; and we know that cycles of ecclesiastical polity never close abruptly. The Catholic was first to perceive that ‘when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.’

But the Volunteers — armed and organised without the invitation or concurrence of Government — now began to propose reforms in parliamentary representation, amendments in internal legislation, a relaxation of trade restrictions, &c. So it was time for the man with a stake in the country to think about doing something.

Divide and govern! A good ideal though not a new one! And, providentially, here was the latent spark of religious dissent, ready to respond to the foulest breath ever blown from the lips of Greed. In 1785 the spark was first fanned into flame, with the best results; then, the satisfactory working of the experiment being assured, the first Orange Lodge was formally inaugurated at Loughlea, Armagh, in 1795 — exactly 105 years after the dethronement and expulsion of James II, and 93 years after the death of William of Orange.

Patronised by noblemen, gentlemen, clergymen, and intermediary pimps of substantial position, the institution naturally appealed to the highest sentiments (which is saying extremely little) of a Protestant half-population forced into servility by agrarian conditions. Soon it became self-supporting, and waxed mighty in the land, feeding itself with fresh vendetta from each recurring 12th of July.

Observe its origin well. The profound cunning of a propertied class, operating with sinister purpose on the inevitable flunkeyism of a dependent class, per medium of that moral kink in human nature which makes sectarian persecution an act of worship, generated an accordant monster. Hence any L.O.L. convocation, however slenderly attended, may fitly be called a monster meeting.

The domestic history of the movement in its palmy days — the brutal and cowardly baiting of a penalised class; the boorish insult to ideals held sacred by sensitive devotees; the deliberate cultivation of intra — parochial blood-feud; the savage fostering of hate for hate’s own sake; the thousand squalid details of affray, ambuscade, murder, maltreatment, malicious injury to property — these, happily or unhappily, rest on fast-perishing oral tradition alone. But the whole record, though not the most flagrant in modern history, is undeniably the vilest. ‘Who,’ asks Job, ‘can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?’ And his answer is superfluous.

A fixed resolution to avoid the very appearance of digression in these annals prevents my referring to various sporadic Irish combinations of the 18th century — Whiteboys, Steelboys, Oakboys, Peep-o’-day Boys, Defenders — some Catholic, some Protestant, some mixed; but each representing an inarticulate protest against agrarian or ecclesiastical aggression. Notice, however, that the customary dragging in of these irrelevancies, to confuse the main issue, is not to be wondered at, seeing that Orangeism itself is based, in a large, general way, on the Bible. But again, what fanatical lunacy or class-atrocity of Christendom was ever based on anything else?

O Catholic and Protestant slaves of dogma! Zealots, Idumaeans, partisans of ye know not what! Fools all! — whooping for your Ananus, your John of Giscala, your Simon of Bargioras; and fighting amongst yourselves, whilst the invincible legionaries of Science advance confidently on your polluted Temple! Small sympathy have ye from this Josephus.]

But Rory, poor fellow, had all the impressions of party spirit built into his moral system. It was a vital and personal fact to him, though only a historical truth to me, that this hereditary war of the Big-endians and Little-endians had been conducted by our own immediate forefathers. Strictly speaking, mind you, neither party cracked the egg — that too — dainty product being taboo for rent — but they compromised by cracking each other’s domes of thought. Rory could n’t get away from the strong probability that my grandfather had overpowered his own contemporary ancestor in the name of the Glorious, Pious and Immortal Memory, and had chopped his head off with a spade. He was willing to let bygones be bygones; but —— No more o’ that, an thou lovest me!

Yet he showed a distinctly intelligent interest, as well as a complacent assent, when I pointed out to him the irony of the Orangeman’s situation. England’s original title to the over-rule of Ireland — and a perfectly valid one, as times went then — was the momentous bull of Pope Adrian IV, issued to Henry II, in 1155. And any private title to land in Ireland, traced back through inheritance, purchase, or what not, must lead to a Royal grant as its source; the authority for such grant being the Papal bull aforesaid, and the validity of the bull resting on the Pope’s temporal power. Now, the Orangeman is prepared to die in his last hiding-place in vindication of the English domination, that rests on the Papal bull, that is warranted by the Pope’s temporal power, that lay in the house that Peter built. To be sure, provided a title be safe, its value is not affected though it may have emanated from the Father of Lies himself. But we should frankly say so.

Rory’s character was made up of two fine elements, the poetic and the prosaic, but these were not compounded. There was a dreamy, idealistic Rory, born of a legend-loving race; and there was a painfully parsimonious Rory, trained down to the standard of a model wealth-producer. The first was of imagination all compact, living in an atmosphere of charms, fairies, poetic justice, and angelic guidance: the second was primed with homely maxims respecting the neglected value of copper currency. Which reminds me ——

We had been together about a week when the thresher came round. I had no crop of my own — the wild cattle having walked over the dog-leg fence, and eaten it (the crop, of course, not the fence) — but we both went to help a neighbour. I was deputed to sew the bags, and Rory to pull out the tailings and bag them up for sending through again. I noticed that the fan pulley of the machine was secured with a home-made key, projecting about two inches beyond the end of the shaft; and as this was close beside where Rory was kneeling at his work, I pointed it out to him as a thing that meant mischief to the unwary. Half an hour afterward, there was a yell from the vicinity of the fan, and I knew that the key had found Rory. The engine driver shut off at once, and I made for the fan, whipping out my pocket knife as I went. The key had snatched the sleeve of the young fellow’s homespun linen shirt, midway between elbow and shoulder, twitching the strong fabric into a knot, and burrowing into the soft meat of his arm. Already the fan was pulled up, while the belt slipped and smoked on the drum pulley above. The blade of my knife was just touching the twisted nucleus of linen, when Rory exclaimed wildly,

“Aisy, Tammas! For marcy sake, don’t! Can’t ye take the shurt aff the nail without cuttin’ it?”

At this moment, the engine driver threw the fan belt off, and Rory was soon liberated. His satisfaction at finding the garment almost uninjured was but slightly dashed by the bruise on his arm. The latter would heal of itself; the former would n’t. But for the rest of the day he kept his eye on that key.

Among the few things he brought out with him from home was the old-fashioned habit of sleeping in his skin — a usage, by the way, more to be commended than the converse custom, practised by English coal-miners, of turning into the blankets and out again fully dressed, till the raiment, never removed, rots off by effluxion of time. Rory maintained that his system added considerably to the lifetime of a shirt.

However, one Sunday forenoon, while we were enjoying that second sleep which gives to the Day of Rest its true significance, the smouldering fire ate its way through the side of the log chimney, and caught a couple of hundred two-foot shingles, stacked in the angle outside. It was about half-past ten when Rory was awakened by a crackling sound close beside him; and the first sight he saw was a broad tongue of flame leaping in under the eave, and licking the rafter above his head.

He had heard of bush fires; and though he knew the locusts were starving on the surrounding plain, his roar of despair brought me to my feet on the floor. Immediately grasping the situation and a long-handled shovel, I called on him to bring a bucket of water. The barrel was empty, as a matter of course; and Rory cantered away down the road a quarter of a mile, to where a deep crab-hole — replenished by the rain before referred to — furnished our supply. But, in the panic of the moment, it escaped his observation that he was affording a scandalous spectacle to two spring-cartloads of assorted Cornish people, on their way to the local tabernacle. In fact, he had swooped up a bucket of water and turned back with it before he was aware that they had been close behind him all the time. His first thought was to squat down, taking cover behind the bucket; but, remembering the exigency of his errand, he girded up his fortitude — which was the only thing he had to gird — and faced the springcarts, for the sake of my hut, as bravely as his ancestors had faced earcropping, and similar cajoleries, for the sake of the wan thrue Church. And there was no more joke about the later martyrdom than about the earlier. However, by the time he returned, I had thrown the burning shingles to a safer distance, and removed all the loose fire, so that the bucket of water made everything safe.

Owing to the fire being on the side of the hut furthest from the road, the church-goers never noticed it. Hence they assumed that Rory was casually bringing the water for domestic purposes; and their unavoidable inference placed the Irish Catholics on a lower moral plane than the Aborigines, by reason of their priests keeping them in ignorance. This misconception had acquired all the solidity of fact before it reached me; consequently, my explanation was received as a well-meant fib. Anyway, these details will give you some idea of Rory, in his natural state as a colonist.

After the first fortnight or so, I frankly told him that, though nothing would suit my own interests better than a lifelong extension of his assistance, I would n’t advise him to stay, as there could be no wages forthcoming. I had absolutely no money, nor was I likely to have such a thing in my possession till the forty-acre paddock was fenced, ploughed and sowed, and the crop (if any) harvested and sold. Even then — taking the average of the district — I could n’t expect a return of more than £100; and out of this I would have to pay off an accumulated shortage of about £200.

“It’s a quare, quare counthry, anyhow,” sadly soliloquised the exile of Erin, after he had thought the matter over. “Wondhers’ll niver quit saisin’. At home, iv a body hed twenty English acres o’ good lay lan’, at a raisonable rent — let alone a graat farrum like thon — he needn’t do a han’s turn the year roun’, beyant givin’ ordhers; an’ he would hev lavin’s iv iverything, an’ a brave shoot o’ clo’es till his back, an’ mebbe a gool’ watch, furbye money in his pocket. Bates all! Bates all!”

But the anomalous and baffling nature of Australian conditions made Rory all the more reluctant to tear himself away from his present asylum — though its shelter seemed to resemble the shadow of a great deficit in an insolvent land.

So another fortnight passed, whilst each of us learned something from the other. I constantly endeavoured, by reminiscence and inference, to post him up in the usages of his adopted country; and he regaled me with the folk-lore of the hill-side where his ancestors had passively resisted extinction since the time of Japhet. Purposeless fairy tales and profitless ghost stories for the most part, with another class of legend, equally fatuous; but ah! how legitimately born of that auroral fancy which ceases not to play above the grave of homely ambition, penury — crushed and dead! Legends wherein the unvarying motif was a dazzling cash advance made by Satan in pre-payment for the soul of some rustic dead-beat; delivery being due in seven years from date. And a clever repudiation of covenant, with consequent non-forfeiture of ensuing clip, always came as a climax; so that the defaulter lived happy ever after, while the outwitted speculator retired to his own penal establishment in shame and confusion of tail.

At last a queer thing happened. I received a letter, containing a bank draft for £2, from a friend to whom I had lent the money three years before, on the diggings. In case there might have been some mistake about the remittance, that draft was cashed before the postmaster had missed me from the window, and I was on the way home before the bank manager thought I was clear of his porch. On the same evening, I placed one of the notes in Rory’s hand, adjuring him not to let the storekeeper know anything about it, but to depart from me while he was safe.

He shrank from the note as from a lizard, while his lip quivered, and he tried to swallow his emotion down. Then ensued mutual expostulation, which he terminated by producing a knitted purse, which might have belonged to his grandfather — or to Brian Boru’s grandfather, for that matter — and disclosing a hidden treasure of seven shillings, two sixpences, and ten coppers. I nearly hit him in the mere fury of pity. Ultimately, however, my superior force of character told its tale, and we added the note to his reserve fund.

I got him started next morning. I gave him my Shakespear as a keepsake, with a billy and pannikin, and a few days’ rations. I made up his swag scientifically while he lay heart-broken on his bunk; then I walked with him to the Echuca road. So he sorrowed his way northward, in renewed search of his brother Larry; and, as I watched his diminishing figure, I prayed that he might be enticed into the most shocking company in Echuca, and be made fightably drunk, and fall in for a remembersome hammering, and get robbed of everything, and be given in charge for making a disturbance, and wind up the adventure with a month in Her Majesty’s jail. It seemed to me that no milder dispensation of Providence would satisfy his moral requirements. Drastic, but such is life.



Published in:
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903

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