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

[Editor: This is the second 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.]

I had a letter from him a month afterward, but as the postmark was hopelessly illegible, and as he had omitted to head the communication with any address, and as he referred to the place where he was working as “the station,” mentioning no names except those of his fellow-workmen, I had to withhold the response for which his forlorn soul craved.

“Takes a lot of different sorts of people to make a world,” observed Williamson, referring to the hero of my reminiscences.

“Original remark,” commented Ward. “And it seems to me that people’s as much alike as sheep; and Dan’s just one of the flock. I always speak of a man as I find him.”

“Another original remark,” said Broome. “But there’s greater fools than Dan — if you only knew where to drop across them.”

“Original remark, number three,” put in Andrews, who was five years older than any of the boys. “You’re all chaps of great experience.”

“Speaking of Dan, as you call him,” said I; “by the foot we recognise the Hercules; and if he knows as much about all other historical subjects as he does about Cawnpore and the American Presidents, he must have ripened into an extraordinary man. But then, an extraordinary man should have learned the difference between mallee and yarran in five years of solid scrub — observation.”

“Well, you are gauging him by a standard that’s foreign to his class of mind,” replied Andrews. “If he had been as strange to that gilgie as you were, and had got the same directions he gave you, he would have found it first shot. When a certain class of bushman says ‘mallee’, he means any sort of scrub except lignum; and when he says ‘mulga’, he means any tree except pine or currajong. Same mental slovenliness in women. A woman will tell a yarn that no man can make head or tail of, but it’s as clear as day to any other woman. And if you tell a woman a yarn, as it ought to be told, she’ll think she understands it, and you’ll think so too, if she says nothing. But if she chances any remark about it, you’ll see that the correctness of style has carried it over her head.”

“Speaking of style reminds me that Dan’s a bit of an author,” remarked Williamson. “One day I was in his place, and he casually showed me a page of some treatise he’s on of evenings. And, my word, the style was grand. Knocks Ouida into a cocked hat.”

“Well, I am glad to hear that,” I observed. “Useful sort of man on the station, too, I should imagine?”

“Average, or better,” replied Andrews. “Nothing brilliant, but careful and trustworthy. Revolves in his orbit without a what-you-may-call-’im.”

“Perturbation,” I suggested. “How far is his hut from here?”

“Twelve mile. Let’s see — six or eight mile north-west of where you dropped the first lot of wire that time.”

“Can’t I take him on the way to Mulppa?”

“Yes; but don’t trust him for directions beyond his own place. We’ll give you the geography. Better put up at his place to-night, and you’ll reach Mulppa in good time to-morrow evening. And look out for that dog of yours when you get in range of Dan’s place. He’s great on strychnine; and the station gets the benefit of it in two ways — he keeps his paddock clear of dingoes, and he never has a scalp to sell.”

By this time, breakfast was concluded; and in two minutes the combined topographical knowledge of the young fellows had laid down the best route to Mulppa, via Dan’s hut.

Then a short official interview with Mr. Spanker, followed by a long, desultory gossip, brought me another couple of hours nearer the final reward of my orthodox upbringing. In another hour, my horses were saddled, and I was having a drink of tea and a bit of brownie in the men’s hut.

A few minutes afterward, Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down by means of the exercise with which he habitually opened the day’s work. But this was to be accepted in the same spirit as the abusive language of a faithful pastor. It was all in the contract. I had made a rule of backing him only on loose sand-hills, or in soft swamps, for the first fortnight. By that time, an amicable understanding had been established between us, at an expense of only three spills — once through an unexpected change of tactics; once through my own negligence; and once in spite of my best endeavours, for the faithless swamp was dry. I dare say I might have gradually weaned him from his besetting sin, but I did n’t want to be pestered with people borrowing him.

However, before midday I was out on the ration-cart track, along which I had started with the wire, nearly three years before. Here and there the marks of the wagon were still identifiable, where the long team and heavy load had cut off corners of the winding track.

Presently the heavy wheel-marks diverged to the right, and disappeared in the all-pervading scrub. Then the faint track became suddenly fainter, where half the scanty traffic branched off to the left, in the direction of Lindsay’s paddock.

It is not in our cities or townships, it is not in our agricultural or mining areas, that the Australian attains full consciousness of his own nationality; it is in places like this, and as clearly here as at the centre of the continent. To me the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub has a charm of its own; so grave, subdued, self-centred; so alien to the genial appeal of more winsome landscape, or the assertive grandeur of mountain and gorge. To me this wayward diversity of spontaneous plant life bespeaks an unconfined, ungauged potentiality of resource; it unveils an ideographic prophecy, painted by Nature in her Impressionist mood, to be deciphered aright only by those willing to discern through the crudeness of dawn a promise of majestic day. Eucalypt, conifer, mimosa; tree, shrub, heath, in endless diversity and exuberance, yet sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal savage. Faithfully and lovingly interpreted, what is the latent meaning of it all?

Our virgin continent! how long has she tarried her bridal day! Pause and think how she has waited in serene loneliness while the deltas of Nile, Euphrates, and Ganges expanded, inch by inch, to spacious provinces, and the Yellow Sea shallowed up with the silt of winters innumerable — waited while the primordial civilisations of Copt, Accadian, Aryan and Mongol crept out, step by step, from paleolithic silence into the uncertain record of Tradition’s earliest fable — waited still through the long eras of successive empires, while the hard-won light, broadening little by little, moved westward, westward, round the circumference of the planet, at last to overtake and dominate the fixed twilight of its primitive home — waited, ageless, tireless, acquiescent, her history a blank, while the petulant moods of youth gave place to imperial purpose, stern yet beneficent — waited whilst the interminable procession of annual, lunar and diurnal alternations lapsed unrecorded into a dead Past, bequeathing no register of good or evil endeavour to the ever-living Present. The mind retires from such speculation, unsatisfied but impressed.

Gravely impressed. For this recordless land — this land of our lawful solicitude and imperative responsibility — is exempt from many a bane of territorial rather than racial impress. She is committed to no usages of petrified injustice; she is clogged by no fealty to shadowy idols, enshrined by Ignorance, and upheld by misplaced homage alone; she is cursed by no memories of fanaticism and persecution; she is innocent of hereditary national jealousy, and free from the envy of sister states.

Then think how immeasurably higher are the possibilities of a Future than the memories of any Past since history began. By comparison, the Past, though glozed beyond all semblance of truth, is a clinging heritage of canonised ignorance, brutality and baseness; a drag rather than a stimulus. And as day by day, year by year, our own fluid Present congeals into a fixed Past, we shall do well to take heed that, in time to come, our own memory may not be justly held accursed. For though history is a thing that never repeats itself — since no two historical propositions are alike — one perennial truth holds good, namely, that every social hardship or injustice may be traced back to the linked sins of aggression and submission, remote or proximate in point of time. And I, for one, will never believe the trail of the serpent to be so indelible that barefaced incongruity must dog the footsteps of civilisation.

Dan O’Connell’s ten-by-five paddock lay end-on to my route; his hut being about midway down the line of fence. On striking the corner of the paddock, I went through a gate, and was closing and securing it behind Bunyip and Pup, when I became aware of a stout-built, blackbearded man on a fat bay horse, approaching along the inside of the fence.

“Rory?” said I inquiringly.

“Well-to-be-shure! A ken har’ly crarit it, Tammas!” exclaimed the evergreen, grasping my proffered hand, while his face became transformed with delight.

“You’re so much changed,” said I — “so manly and sunburnt, and bearded like the patriarchs of old — that I did n’t know you when I brought that wire. But I wonder how you failed to recognise me, considering that you heard my name.”

“Och, man dear! A thought ye wur farmin’ in Victoria,” he replied. “An’ Collins is a purty common name, so it is; an’ A did n’t hear yer Chris’n name at all at all. But ye’ll stap wi’ me the night, an’ we’ll hev a graat cronia about oul’ times.”

“That’s just what I was looking forward to, Rory. Which way are you going now?”

“No matther, Tammas. A’ll turn back wi’ ye, an’ we’ll git home a brave while afore sundown.”

So we rode slowly side by side along the narrow clearing which extended in endless perspective down the line of fence. After giving Rory a sketch of the vicissitudes and disasters which had imparted an element of variety to the thirteen preceding years of my life, I yielded myself to the lulling influence of his own history during the same period. As you might expect, he glanced lightly over all points of real interest, and dwelt interminably on the statistics of the station — such as the percentage of lambs for each year since the stock was put on; the happily decreasing loss by dingoes; the average clip per head, and all manner of circumscribed pastoral shop.

I reined our conversation round to the future prospects and possibilities of the region wherein his lot was cast, and tried to steer it along that line. But he merely took the country as he found it, and left things at that. It had never occurred to him that a physical revolution was already in progress; that the introduction of sheep meant the ultimate extirpation of all trees and scrubs, except the inedible pine; and that the perpetual trampling of those sharp little hoofs would in time caulk the spongy, absorbent surface; so that these fluffy, scrub-clad expanses would become a country of rich and spacious plains, variegated by lakes and forests, and probably enjoying a fairly equable rainfall.

I have reason to remember that I quoted Sturt’s account of the Old Man Plain as a desert solitude of the most hopeless and forbidding character. But, as I pointed out, settlement had crept over that inhospitable tract, and the Old Man Plain had become a pastoral paradise, with a possible future which no man could conjecture. Then I was going on to cite instances, within my own knowledge and memory, of permanent lakes formed in Northern Victoria, and a climate altered for the better, by mere settlement of a soil antecedently dessicated and disintegrated by idle exposure to the seasons. But I had brought round the subject of exploration; and again Rory amazed me by the extent and accuracy of his information.

Glancing from Sturt to Eyre, he firmly, yet temperately, held that the expedition carried out by this explorer along the shores of the Great Australian Bight was the ablest achievement of its kind on record; and he forthwith proceeded to substantiate his contention by a consecutive account of the difficulties met and surmounted on that journey. Also he expatiated with some severity on the slightness of public information with respect to Eyre’s exploit.

He listened with kindly toleration whilst I adverted to the excellent work of more recent explorers, whose discoveries had made the Transcontinental telegraph line a feasible undertaking. But his discursive mind ricochetted off to the laying of the Transatlantic cable, in ’65; and he dwelt on that epoch-marking work with such minuteness of detail, and such confident mastery of names, dates, and so forth, that I half-resented — not his disconcerting fund of information, but his modest reticence on other subjects of interest. It is a morally upsetting thing, for instance, to discover that the unassuming Londoner, to whom you have been somewhat loosely explaining the pedigrees of the British Peerage, has spent most of his life as a clerk in the Heralds’ College.

But I noticed a growing uneasiness in Rory’s manner, despite his efforts towards a free-and-easy cordiality. At last he said deprecatingly:

“We’re about a mile aff the house now, Tammas. A must go roun’ be a tank thonder, an’ that manes lavin’ ye yer lone. Jist go sthraight on an’ ye’ll come till the horse-paddock fence, wi’ a wee gate in the corner, an’ the house furnent ye. An’ ye might tell hurself A’ll be home atoast sundown.”

He shook up his horse, and dived through the scrub at an easy trot, whilst I went on down the fence. Before I had gone three-quarters of a mile, my attention was arrested by the peculiar apple-green hue of a tall, healthy-looking pine, standing about a hundred and fifty yards from the fence. Knowing that this abnormal deviation in colour, if not forthwith inquired into, would harass me exceedingly in after years, I turned aside to inspect the tree. It was worth the trouble. The pine had been dead for years, but every leafless twig, right up to its spiry summit, was re-clothed by the dense foliage of a giant woodbine, which embraced the trunk with three clean stems, each as thick as your arm. No moralist worthy of the name could fail to find a comprehensive allegory in the tree; but I had scarcely turned away from it before my meditations were disturbed ——

Ten or fifteen yards distant, under the cool shade of a large, low growing wilga, I observed a man reclining at ease. A tall, athletic man, apparently, with a billy and water-bag beside him, and nothing more to wish for. When I caught sight of him, he was in the act of settling himself more comfortably, and adjusting his wide-brimmed hat over his face.

My first impulse was to hail him with a friendly greeting, but a scruple of punctilio made me pause. The clearing of Rory’s horse-paddock was visible here and there through gaps in the scrub; even the hut was in sight from my own point of view; the sun was still a couple of hours above the horizon; and the repose of the wilga shade was more to be desired than the activity of the wood-heap. To everything there is a time and a season; and the tactical moment for weary approach to a dwelling is just when fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, and all the air a solemn stillness holds. So, after a moment’s hesitation, my instinctive sense of bush etiquette caused me to tum stealthily away, and seek the wicket gate which afforded ingress to Rory’s horse-paddock. But I want you to notice that this decision was preceded by a poise of option between two alternatives. Now mark what followed, for, like Falstaff’s story, it is worth the marking.

[Each undertaking, great or small, of our lives has one controlling alternative, and no more. To illustrate this from the play of Hamlet: You will notice that, up to a certain point of time, the Prince governs his own destiny — at least, as far as the Ghost’s commission is concerned, and this covers the whole drama. He is master and umpire of his circumstances, so that when two or more lines of action, or a line of action and a line of inaction, appear equally efficacious, he can select the one which appears to be of least resistance. But subsequent to that point of time, he is no longer the arbiter of his own situation, but rather the puppet of circumstances. There are no more divergent roads; if he desires to leave the one he has chosen, he must break blindly through a hedge of moral antagonisms. His alternatives have become so lopsided that practically there is only one course open. The initial exercise of judgment was not merely an antecedent to later developments of the plot; it was a Rubicon-crossing, which has committed the hero to a system of interlaced contingencies; and the tendency of this system bears him away, half-conscious of his own impotence, to where the rest is silence. The turning-point is where Hamlet engages the Players to enact the Murder of Gonzago.

A major-alternative may create and enclose all the secondary alternatives of after life. A minor-alternative may exhaust itself in one minute, or less, leaving its indelible, though imperceptible, scar on the experimenter, and, through him, on the world in which he lives. The major-alternative is the Shakespearian “tide in the affairs of men,” often recognised, though not formulated. In any case, each alternative brings into immediate play a flash of Free-will, pure and simple, which instantly gives place — as far as that particular section of life is concerned — to the dominion of what we call Destiny. The two should never be confounded. “Who can control his fate?” asks the ruined Othello. No one, indeed. But every one controls his option, chooses his alternative. Othello himself had independently evolved the decision which fixed his fate, recognising it as such an alternative. Thus:—

Put out the light, and then — Put out the light?
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; — but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is the Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have plucked thy rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again;
It needs must wither.

Also he perceives that it is a major-alternative which confronts him; and he contrasts this with the supposititious minor-alternative of extinguishing the lamp. But how often do we accept a major-alternative, whilst innocently oblivious to its gravity!

In Macbeth, the alternatives are very obvious. The interest of the play centres on the poise of incentive between action and non-action, and the absolute free-will of election. But that election once made, we see — and the hero himself acknowledges — a practical inevitableness in all succeeding atrocities which mark his career as king.

Such momentous alternatives are simply the voluntary rough-hewing of our own ends. Whether there’s a Divinity that afterwards shapes them, is a question which each inquirer may decide for himself. Say, however, that this postulated Divinity consists of the Universal Mind, and that the Universal Mind comprises the aggregate Human Intelligence, co-operating with some Moral Centre beyond. And that the spontaneous sway of this Influence is toward harmony — toward the smoothing of obstacles, the healing of wounds. In the axiom that “Nature reverts to the norm,” there is a recognition of this restorative tendency; and the religious aspect of the same truth is expressed in the proverb that “God is Love.” For the grass will grow where Attila’s horse has trod, while that objectionable Hun himself is represented by a barrow-load of useful fertiliser. But say that this always comes about by law of Cause (which is Human Free-will) and Effect (which is Destiny) — never by sporadic intervention. Yet a certain scar, tracing its origin to an antecedent alternative, will remain as the signet of that limitation under which the Divinity works — the limitation, namely, of Destiny, or the fixed issue of present effect from foregone cause; such cause having been perpetually directed and re-directed by recurring operation of individual Free-will, exercised, independently, by those emanations from the Moral Centre which, by courtesy, we call reasonable beings.

Vague? Yes. Well, put it in parable form. A young man has reached an absolute poise of incentive. He tosses a shekel. “Head — I go and see life; tail — I stay at home. Head it is.” The alternative is accepted; whereupon Destiny puts in her spoke, bringing such vicissitudes as are inevitable on the initial option. In due time, another alternative presents itself, and the poise of incentive recurs. The Prodigal spits on a chip, and tosses it. “Wet — I crawl back home; dry — I see it out. Wet it is.” So he goes, to meet the ring, and the robe, and the fatted calf. His latter alternative has taken him home; and a felicitous option on the old man’s part has given him a welcome. But the earlier alternative is following him up, for the farm is gone! The old man himself cannot undo the effect of the foregone choice.

Or put it in allegorical form. The misty expanse of Futurity is radiated with divergent lines of rigid steel; and along one of these lines, with diminishing carbon and sighing exhaust, you travel at schedule speed. At each junction, you switch right or left, and on you go still, up or down the way of your own choosing. But there is no stopping or turning back; and until you have passed the current section there is no divergence, except by voluntary catastrophe. Another junction flashes into sight, and again your choice is made; negligently enough, perhaps, but still with a view to what you consider the greatest good, present or prospective. One line may lead through the Slough of Despond, and the other across the Delectable Mountains, but you don’t know whether the section will prove rough or smooth, or whether it ends in a junction or a terminus, till the cloven mists of the Future melt into a manifest Present. We know what we are, but we know not what we shall be.

Often the shunting seems a mere trifle; but, in reality, the switch is that wizard-wand which brings into evidence such corollaries of life as felicity or misery, peace or tribulation, honour or ignominy, found on the permanent way. For others, remember, as well as for ourselves. No one except the anchorite lives to himself; and he is merely a person who evades his responsibilities.

Here and there you find a curious complication of lines. From a junction in front, there stretches out into the mist a single line and a double line; and meantime, along a track converging toward your own, there spins a bright little loco., in holiday trim, dazzling you with her radiant head-lights, and commanding your admiration by her ’tractive power. Quick! Choose! Single line to the next junction, or double line to the terminus? A major-alternative, my boy! “Double line!” you say. I thought so. Now you’ll soon have a long train of empty I’s to pull up the gradients; and while you snort and bark under a heavy draught, your disgusted consort will occasionally stimulate you with a “flying-kick”; and when this comes to pass, say Pompey told you so. To change the metaphor: Instead of remaining a self-sufficient lord of creation, whose house is thatched when his hat is on, you have become one of a Committee of Ways and Means — a committee of two, with power to add to your number. Dan O’Connell, for instance, had negotiated this alternative, and, in the opinion of the barracks, had made his election in a remiss and casual way.

And as with the individual, so with the community. Men, thinking and acting in mass, do not (according to the accepted meaning of the phrase) follow the line of least resistance. The myriad-headed monster adopts the alternative which appears to promise such a line, but Its previsions are more often wrong than right; and, in such cases, the irresistible momentum of the Destiny called into being by Its short-sighted choice drives It helplessly along a line of the greatest conceivable resistance. Is n’t history a mere record of blundering option, followed by iron servitude to the irremediable suffering thereby entailed? Applied to the flying alternative, the “least resistance” theory is gratuitously sound; beyond that, it is misleading. However, all this must be taken as referring back to my own apparently insignificant decision not to disturb the masterly inactivity of that sundowner under the wilga. Mere afterthoughts, introduced here by reason of their bearing on this simple chronicle.]

As a matter of fact, I approached Rory’s neat, two-roomed hut speculating as to why he had purposely left me to feel my own way. I soon formed a good rough guess. A neatly-dressed child, in a vast, white sun-bonnet, ran toward me as I came in sight, but presently paused, and returned at the same pace. On reaching the door I was met by a stern-looking woman of thirty-odd, to whom I introduced myself as an old friend of Mr. O’Halloran’s.

“Deed he hes plenty o’ frien’s,” replied the woman drily. “Are ye gunta stap the night?”

“Well, Mr. O’Halloran was kind enough to proffer his hospitality,” I replied, pulling the pack-saddle off Bunyip. “By the way, I’m to tell you that he’ll be home presently.”

“Nat a fear but he’ll be home at mail-time. An’ a purty house he’s got fur till ax a sthranger intil.”

“Now, Mrs. O’Halloran, it’s the loveliest situation I’ve seen within a hundred miles,” I replied, as I set Cleopatra at liberty. “And the way that the place is kept reflects the very highest credit upon yourself.” Moreover, both compliments were as true as they were frank.

“Dacent enough for them that’s niver been used till betther. There’s a dale in how a body’s rairt.”

“True, Mrs. O’Halloran,” I sighed. “I’m sure you must feel it. But, my word! you can grow the right sort of children here! How old is the little girl?” My custom is to ask a mother the age of her child, and then express incredulity.

“Oul’er nor she’s good. She was five on the thurteenth iv last month.”

“No, but seriously, Mrs. O’Halloran?”

“A’m always sayrious about telling the thruth.” And with this retort courteous the impervious woman retired into her house, while I seated myself on the bucket stool against the wall, and proceeded to fill my pipe.

“We got six goats — pure Angoras,” remarked the little girl, approaching me with instinctive courtesy. “We keep them for milkin’; an’ Daddy shears them ivery year.”

“I noticed them coming along,” I replied. “They’re beautiful goats. And I see you’ve got some horses too.”

“Yis; three. We bought wan o’ them chape, because he hed a sore back, fram a shearer, an’ it’s nat hailed up yit. Daddy rides the other wans. E-e-e! can’t my Daddy ride! An’ he ken grow melons, an’ he ken put up shelves, an’ he knows iverything!”

“Yes; your Daddy’s a good man. I knew him long, long ago, when there was no you. What’s your name, dear?”

“Mary.”

“She’s got no name,” remarked the grim voice from the interior of the house. And the mild, apologetic glance of the child in my face completed a mental appraisement of Rory’s family relations.

Half an hour passed pleasantly enough in this kind of conversation; then Rory came in sight at the wicket gate where I had entered. Mary forgot my existence in a moment, and raced toward him, opening a conversation at the top of her voice while he was still a quarter of a mile distant. When they met, he dismounted, and, placing her astride on the saddle, continued his way with the expression of a man whose cup of happiness is wastefully running over.

I had leisure to observe the child critically as she sat bareheaded beside Rory at the tea-table, glancing from time to time at me for the tribute of admiration due to each remark made by that nonpareil of men.

She was not only a strikingly beautiful child, but the stamp of child that expands into a beautiful woman. In spite of her half-Anglican lineage and Antipodean birth, there was something almost amusing in the strong racial index of her pure Irish face. The black hair and eye-brows were there, with eyes of indescribable blue; the full, shapely lips, and that delicate contour of chin which specially marks the highest type of a race which is not only non-Celtic but non-Aryan.

It is not the Celtic element that makes the Irish people a bundle of inconsistencies — clannish, yet disjunctive; ardent, yet unstable; faithful, yet perfidious; exceeding loveable for its own impulsive love, yet a broken reed to lean upon. It is not the Celt who has made Irish history an unexampled record of patience and insubordination, of devotion and treachery. The Celt, though fiery, is shrewd, sensible, and practical. It has been truly said that Western Britain is more Celtic than Eastern Ireland. But the whole Anglo-Celtic mixture is a thing of yesterday.

Before the eagle of the Tenth Legion was planted on the shore of Cantium — before the first Phoenician ship stowed tin at the Cassiterides — the Celt had inhabited the British Islands long enough to branch into distinct sub-races, and to rise from paloeolithic savagery to the use of metals, the domestication of animals, and the observance of elaborate religious rites. Yet, relatively, this antique race is of last week only. For, away beyond the Celt, paloeontology finds an earlier Brito-Irish people, of different origin and physical characteristics. And there is little doubt that, forced westward by Celtic invaders, of more virile type, and more capable of organisation, that immemorial race is represented by the true Irish of to-day. The black hair, associated with deep-blue eyes and a skin of extreme whiteness, found abundantly in Ireland, and amongst the offspring of Irish emigrants, are, in all probability, tokens of descent from this appallingly ancient people. The type appears occasionally in the Basque provinces, and on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, but nowhere else. Few civilised races inhabit the land where the fossil relics of their own lineal ancestors mark the furthest point of human occupancy; yet it would seem to be so with the true Irish. In what other way can this anomalous variety of the human race be accounted for? Ay, and beyond the earliest era noted by ethnography, this original Brito-Irish race must have differentiated itself from the unknown archetype, and, by mere genealogical succession, must have fixed its characteristics so tenaciously as to persist through the random admixture of conquests and colonisations during countless generations. “God is eternal,” says a fine French apothegm, “but man is very old.”

And very new. Mary O’Halloran was perfect Young-Australian. To describe her from after-knowledge — she was a very creature of the phenomena which had environed her own dawning intelligence. She was a child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees. The long-descended poetry of her nature made the bush vocal with pure gladness of life; endowed each tree with sympathy, respondent to her own fellowship. She had noticed the dusky aspect of the ironwood; the volumed cumuli of rich olive-green, crowning the lordly currajong; the darker shade of the wilga’s massy foliage-cataract; the clearer tint of the tapering pine; the clean-spotted column of the leopard tree, creamy white on slate, from base to topmost twig. She pitied the unlovely belar, when the wind sighed through its coarse, scanty, grey-green tresses; and she loved to contemplate the silvery plumage of the two drooping myalls which, because of their rarity here, had been allowed to remain in the horse-paddock. For the last two or three springs of her vivacious existence, she had watched the deepening crimson of the quondong, amidst its thick contexture of Nile-green leaves; she had marked the unfolding bloom of the scrub, in its many-hued beauty; she had revelled in the audacious black-and-scarlet glory of the desert pea. She knew the dwelling-place of every loved companion; and, by necessity, she had her own names for them all — since her explorations were carried out on Rory’s shoulders, or on his saddle, and technicalities never troubled him. To her it was a new world, and she saw that it was good. All those impressions which endear the memory of early scenes to the careworn heart were hers in their vivid present, intensified by the strong ideality of her nature, and undisturbed by other companionship, save that of her father.

This brings us to the other mark of a personality so freshly minted as to have taken no more than two impressions. Rory was her guide, philosopher, and crony. He was her overwhelming ideal of power, wisdom, and goodness; he was her help in ages past, her hope for years to come (no irreverence intended here; quite the reverse, for if true family life existed, we should better apprehend the meaning of “Our Father, who art in heaven”); he was her Ancient of Days; her shield, and her exceeding great reward.

A new position for Rory; and he grasped it with all the avidity of a love-hungered soul. The whole current of his affections, thwarted and repulsed by the world’s indifference, found lavish outlet here.

After tea, Rory took a billy and went out into the horse-paddock to milk the goats — Mary, of course, clinging to his side. I remained in the house, confiding to Mrs. O’Halloran the high respect which Rory’s principles and abilities had always commanded. But she was past all that; and I had to give it up. When a woman can listen with genuine contempt to the spontaneous echo of her husband’s popularity, it is a sure sign that she has explored the profound depths of masculine worthlessness; and there is no known antidote to this fatal enlightenment.

Rory’s next duty was to chop up a bit of firewood, and stack it beside the door. Dusk was gathering by this time; and Mrs. O’Halloran called Mary to prepare her for the night, while Rory and I seated ourselves on the bucket-stool outside. Presently a lighted lamp was placed on the table, when we removed indoors. Then Mary, in a long, white garment, with her innocent face shining from the combined effects of perfect happiness and unmerciful washing, climbed on Rory’s knees — not to bid him goodnight, but to compose herself to sleep.

“Time the chile was bruk aff that habit,” observed the mother, as she seated herself beside the table with some sewing.

“Let her be a child as long as she can, Mrs. O’Halloran,” I remarked. “Surely you would n’t wish any alteration in her.”

“Nat without it was an altheration fur the betther,” replied the worthy woman. “An’ it’s little hopes there is iv hur, consitherin’ the way she’s rairt. Did iver anybody hear o’ rairin’ childher’ without batin’ them when they want it?”

“You bate hur, an’ A’ll bate you!” interposed Rory, turning to bay on the most salient of the three or four pleas which had power to rouse the Old Adam in his unassertive nature.

“Well, A ’m sure A was bate — ay, an’ soun’ly bate — when A was lek hur; an’ iv A did n’t desarve it then, A desarved it other times, when A did n’t git it.”

An obvious rejoinder rose to my mind, but evidently not to Rory’s, for the look on his face told only of a dogged resolution to continue sinning against the light. He knew that his own contumacy in this respect would land his soul in perdition, and he deliberately let it go at that. Brave old Rory! Never does erratic man appear to such advantage as when his own intuitive moral sense rigorously overbears a conscientiousness warped by some fallacy which he still accepts as truth.

Yet the mother loved the child in her own hard, puritanical way. And, in any case, you are not competent to judge her, unless you have to work for your living, instead of finding somebody eager to support you in luxury for the pleasure of your society; unless, instead of marrying some squatter, or bank clerk, or Member of Parliament, you have inadvertently coupled yourself to a Catholic boundary man, named nothing short of Rory O’Halloran.

The embittered woman retired early, and without phrases. As she did so, I casually noticed that the bed-room was bisected by a partition, with a curtained doorway.

“Ever try your hand at literature, Rory?” I presently asked, remembering Williamson’s remark.

“Well, A ken har’ly say No, an’ A ken har’ly say Yis,” replied Rory, with ill-feigned humility. “A’ve got a bit iv a thraytise scribbled down, furbye a wheen o’ other wans on han’. A thought mebbe” — and his glance rested on the angelface of the sleeping child — “well, A thought mebbe it would do hur no harrum fur people till know that hur father — well-as ye might say — Nat but what she’ll hev money in the bank, plaze God. But A’ll lay hur down in hur wee cot now, an’ A’ll bring the thrifle we wur mentionin’.”

He tenderly carried the child into the first compartment of the bedroom, and, soon returning, placed before me about twenty quarto sheets of manuscript, written on both sides, in a careful, schoolboy hand. The first page was headed, A Plea for Woman.

“My word, Rory, this is great!” said I, after reading the first long paragraph. “I should like to skim it over at once, to get the gist of the argument, and then read it leisurely, to enjoy the style. And that reminds me that I brought you an Australasian. I’ll get it out of my swag, and you can read it to kill time.”

But it became evident that he could n’t fix his mind on the newspaper whilst his own literary product was under scrutiny. The latter unfolded itself as a unique example of pure deduction, aided by utter lack of discrimination in the value of evidence. It was all synthesis, and no analysis. A certain hypothesis had to be established, and it was established. The style was directly antithetical to that curt, blunt, and simple pronouncement aimed at by innocents who deceive no one by denouncing Socialism, Trades-Unionism, &c., over the signature of “A Working Man.” But the Essay. I am debarred from transcribing it, not only because of its length, but because ——

“Rory, you must let me take a copy of this.”

“Well, Tammas, A’m glad it plazes ye; right glad, so A am; but A thought till — till” ——

“Spring it on the public — so to speak?”

“Yis.”

“Well, I’ll faithfully promise to keep the whole work sacred to your credit. And if ever I go into print — which is most unlikely — I’ll refer to this essay in such a way as to whet public curiosity to a feather edge. Again, if anything should happen to this copy, you’ll have mine to fall back upon.”

“A’ll thrust ye, Tammas. God bless ye, take a copy any time afore ye go.”

The object of the essay was to prove that, at a certain epoch in the world’s history, the character of woman had undergone an instantaneous transformation. And it was proved in this way:

The two greatest thinkers and most infallible authorities our race has produced are Solomon and Shakespear.

Solomon’s estimate of woman is shockingly low; and there is no getting away from the truth of it. His baneful evidence has the guarantee of Holy Writ; moreover, it is fully borne out by the testimony of ancient history, sacred and profane, and by the tendency of the Greek and Roman mythologies. Examples here quoted in profusion.

The fact of woman’s pre-eminent wickedness in ancient times is traceable to the eating of the apple, when Eve, being the more culpable, was justly burdened with the heavier penalty, namely, a preternatural bias toward sin in a general way.

On the other hand, Shakespear’s estimate of woman is high. And justly so, since his valuation is conclusively endorsed by modern history. Examples again quoted, in convincing volume, from the women of Acts down to Mrs. Chisholm and Florence Nightingale.

Now how do you bring these two apparently conflicting facts into the harmony of context? Simply by tracing the Solomon-woman forward, and the Shakespear-woman backward, to their point of intersection, and so finding the moment of transition. It is where the Virgin says:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden; for, behold! from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”

This prophecy has not only a personal and specific fulfilment, as pointing to the speaker herself, but a transitive and general application, as referring to her sex at large. There you have it.

But no mere abstract can do justice to the sumptuous phraseology of the work, to its opulence of carefully selected adjective, or to the involved rhetoric which seemed to defeat and set at naught all your petty rules of syntax and prosody. Still less can I impart a notion of the exhaustive raking up of ancient examples and modern instances, mostly worn bright by familiarity with the popular mind, but all converging toward the conclusion striven for, and the shakiest of them accepted in childlike faith. Integrally, that essay conveyed the idea of two mighty glaciers of theory, each impelling its own moraine of facts toward a stated point of confluence — represented by a magnificent postulate — where one section, at least, of the Universal Plan would attain fulfilment, and the Eternal Unities would be so far satisfied. There was something in it that was more like an elusive glimmer of genius than an evidence of understanding, or, still less, of cleverness. Remarkable also, that, though the punctuation was deplorable, every superb polysyllable was correctly spelled. But as a monument of wasted ingenuity and industry, I have met with nothing so pathetic. A long term of self-communion in the back country will never leave a man as it found him. Outside his daily avocation, he becomes a fool or a philosopher; and, in Rory’s case, the latter seemed to have been superimposed on the former.

At ten o’clock, I hunted him to bed. I had plenty of blank forms in my writing-case, and on these I took a preliminary copy of A Plea for Woman. This occupied about three hours. Then not feeling sleepy, I took down one of four calico-covered books, which I had previously noticed on a corner shelf. It was my own old Shakespear, with the added interest of marginal marks, in ink of three colours, neatly ordered, and as the sand by the sea-shore innumerable. I put it back with the impression that no book had ever been better placed. The next volume was a Bible, presented by the Reverend Miles Barton, M.A., Rector of Tanderagee, County Armagh, Ireland, to his beloved parishioner, Deborah Johnson, on the occasion of her departure for Melbourne, South Australia, June 16, 1875. The third book was a fairly good dictionary, appendixed by a copious glossary of the Greek and Roman mythologies. The fourth was Vol. XII of Macmillan’s Magazine, May to October, 1865.

Opening the latter book at random, I fell upon a sketch of Eyre’s expedition along the shores of the Great Australian Bight. In another place was a contribution entitled ‘A Gallery of American Presidents.’ The next item of interest was an account of the Massacre of Cawnpore. And toward the end of the volume was a narrative of the Atlantic Telegraph Expedition. Of course, there were thirty or forty other articles in the book, but they were mostly strange to me, however familiar they might be to Rory.

Hopeless case! I thought, as I blew out the lamp and turned into my comfortable sofa-bed. If this morepoke’s Irish love of knowledge was backed by one spark of mental enterprise, he might have half a ton of chosen literature to come and go on. And here he is, with his pristine ignorance merely dislocated.

When I woke at sunrise, Rory was kindling the fire, with the inseparable Mary squatted beside him in her nightgown. After putting on the kettle, he dressed the little girl, and helped her to wash her face. By this time, I was about; and Mary brought me a blank form, which I had dropped and overlooked the night before.

“Keep it till you learn to write, dear,” said I.

“She ken write now,” remarked Rory, with subdued exultation. “Here, jewel,” he continued, handing her a pencil from the mantelpiece — “write yer name nately on that paper, fur Misther Collins till see.”

The child, tremulous with an ecstatic sense of responsibility, bent over her paper on the table for a full minute, then diffidently pushed it across to me; and I read, in strong Roman capitals, the inscription, MRAY, with the M containing an extra angle — being, so to speak, a letter and a half.

“Ye’re wake in spellin’, honey,” remarked her father merrily; “an’ the M’s got an exthry knuckle on it.”

“It’s right enough,” I interposed. “Could n’t be better. Now, Mary, I’ll keep this paper, and show it to you again when you’re a great scholar and a great poetess. See if I don’t.”

The entrance of Mrs. O’Halloran cut short this nonsense; and Rory went out to milk the goats, accompanied, of course, by Mary.

After breakfast, we took our bridles and went out toward where the five horses were feeding together, the inevitable child pattering along by Rory’s side.

“You have a lot to be thankful for,” I remarked.

“Blessed be His Name!” thought Rory aloud; and I continued, “You must make up your mind to send her away to school in another four or five years.”

“Iv coorse,” replied Rory sadly.

“A convent school, mind. None of your common boarding schools for a child like Mary”

Rory’s only reply was a glance of gratitude. My stern admonition would be a moral support to him in the coming controversy.

“You mentioned some other literary work that you have on hand?” I remarked inquiringly.

“Yis; A’ve jotted down a few idays. Now, Tammas — where was the Garden of Aden supposed to be?”

“My word, Rory, if a man could only disclose that to the world, he would command attention. However, one theory is that it was on the lost continent of Atlantis; another, that it was in the Valley of Cashmere. There are many other localities suggested, but I think the one which meets most favour is the Isle of Kishm, in the Straits of Ormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.”

“Will ye repate that, Tammas, iv ye plaze.”

I briefly rehearsed such relevant information as I possessed, whilst Rory kidnapped the geographical names, and imprisoned them in his note-book, trusting to his memory for the rest.

“Oul’ Father Finnegan, at Derryadd, useteh argie that the Garden iv Aden hed been furnent the Lake o’ Killarney; an’ no one dar’ conthradict him,” he remarked, with a smile. “But people larns till think fur theirselves when they’re out theyre lone. An’ afther consitherin’ the matter over, A take this iday fur a foundation: The furst Adam was created in a sartin place; then he sinned in a sartin place. An’ when the Saviour (blessed be His Name!) come fur till clane the wurrld o’ the furst Adam’s sin, He hed till be born where the furst Adam was created; an’ He hed till die where the furbidden fruit was ait. An’ A’ve gethered up proofs, an’ proofs, an’ proofs — How far is it fram Jerusalem till Bethlehem, Tammas?”

“Nearly six miles.”

“A knowed the places must be convanient. Now ye mind where the Saviour (blessed be His Name!) says, ‘all the blood shed on earth, fram the blood iv righteous Abel’ — and so on? Well, ‘earth’ manes ‘land’; an’ it’s all as wan as if He said, ‘shed on the land.’ An’ what land? Why, the Holy Land. An’ the praphets lived there when the Fall was quite racent; an’ hear what they say: — ”

(Here he gave me some texts of Scripture, which I afterward verified — and I would certainly advise you to do the same, if you can find a Bible. They are, Isaiah li, 3; Ezekiel xxviii, 13-xxxi, 9-18-xxxvi, 35; Joel ii, 3.)

“Rory, you’re a marvel,” I remarked with sincerity. “And, by the way, if there’s anything in the inspiration of Art — if the Artist soars to truth by the path which no fowl knoweth — your theory may find some support in the fact that it was a usage of the Renaissance to represent the skull of Adam at the foot of the cross.”

“Ay — that!” And Rory’s note-book was out again. “Which artists, Tammas?”

“Martin Schoen — end of 15th century, for one. Jean Limousin — 17th century — for another. Albert Dürer — beginning of 16th century — in more than one of his engravings. However, you can just hold this species of proof in reserve till I look up the subject. I won’t forget.”

“God bless ye, Tammas! Would it be faysible at all at all fur ye till stap to the morrow mornin’, an’ ride out wi’ me the day?”

“Well — yes.”

“Blessin’s on ye, Tammas! Becos A’ve got four more idays that ye could help me with. Wan iday is about divils. A take this fur a foundation: There’s sins fur till be done in the wurrld that men ’on’t do; an’ divils is marcifully put in the flesh an’ blood fur till do them sins. ‘Wan iv you is a divil,’ says the Saviour (blessed be His Name!). ‘He went to his own place,’ says Acts — both manin’ Judas. An’ there’s a wheen o’ places where Iago spakes iv himself as a divil. An’ A’ve got other proofs furbye, that we’ll go over wan be wan. It’s a mysthery, Tammas.”

“It is indeed.” Whilst replying, I was constrained to glance round at the weather; and my eye happened to fall on the creeper-laden pine, a quarter of a mile away. Suddenly a strange misgiving seized me, and I asked involuntarily, “Do you have many swagmen calling round here?”

“Nat six in the coorse o’ the year,” replied Rory, too amiable to heed the impolite change of subject. “Las’ time A seen Ward,” he continued, after a moment’s pause, “he toul’ me there was a man come to the station wan mornin’ airly, near blin’ wi’ sandy blight; an’ he stapped all day in a dark skillion, an’ started again at night. He was makin’ fur Ivanhoe, fur till ketch the coach; but it’s a sore ondhertakin’ fur a blin’ man till thravel the counthry his lone, at this saison o’ the year. An’ it’s quare where sthrangers gits till. A foun’ a swag on the fence a week or ten days ago, an’ a man’s thracks at the tank a couple o’ days afther; an’ the swag’s there yit; an’ A would think the swag an’ the thracks belonged till the man wi’ the sandy blight, barr’n this is nat the road till Ivanhoe.”

“My word, Rory, I wish either you or I had spoken of this when you came home last night. Never mind the horses now. Give me your bridle, and take Mary on your back.”

As we went on, I related how I had seen the man reclining under the tree; and Rory nodded forgivingly when I explained the scruple which had withheld me from making my presence known.

“He must ’a’ come there afther ten o’clock yisterday,” observed Rory; “or it would be mighty quare fur me till nat see him, consitherin’ me eyes is iverywhere when A’m ridin’ the boundhry.”

“But he was n’t near the boundary. I had turned off from the fence to see that dead pine with the big creeper on it.”

“Which pine, Tammas?”

“There it is, straight ahead — the biggest of the three that you see above the scrub. You notice it’s a different colour?”

“‘Deed ay, so it is. A wouldn’t be onaisy, Tammas; it’s har’ly likely there’s much wrong — but it’s good to make sartin about it.”

No effort could shake off the apprehension which grew upon me as we neared the fence. But on reaching it I said briskly:

“Stay where you are, Rory; I’ll be back in half a minute.” Then I crushed myself through the wires.

Fifteen or twenty paces brought me to the spot. The man had changed his position, and was now lying at full length on his back, with arms extended along his sides. His face was fully exposed — the face of a worker, in the prime of manhood, with a heavy moustache and three or four weeks’ growth of beard. So much only had I noted at first glance, whilst stooping under the heavy curtain of foliage. A few steps more, and, looking down on the waxen skin of that inert figure, I instinctively uncovered my head.

The dull eyes, half-open to a light no longer intolerable, showed by their death-darkened tracery of inflamed veins how much the lone wanderer had suffered. The hands, with their strong bronze now paled to tarnished ochre, were heavily callused by manual labour, and sharply attenuated by recent hardship. The skin was cold, but the rigidity of death was yet scarcely apparent. Evidently he had not died of thirst alone, but of mere physical exhaustion, sealed by the final collapse of hope. And it seemed so strange to hear the low voices of Rory and Mary close by; to see through occasional spaces in the scrub the clear expanse of the horsepaddock, with even a glimpse of the house, all homely and peaceful in the silent sunshine. But such is life, and such is death.

Rory looked earnestly in my face as I rejoined him, and breathed one of his customary devotional ejaculations.

“Under the big wilga, just beyond that hop-bush,” said I, in an indifferent tone. “Stay with me, Mary, dear,” I continued, taking out my note-book. “I’ll make you a picture of a horse.”

“But A’m aiger fur till see the pine wi’ the big santipede on it,” objected the terrible infant.

“Nat now, darlin’,” replied Rory. “Sure we’ll come an’ see the pine when we’ve lavin’s o’ time; but we’re in a hurry now. Stap here an’ kape Misther Collins company. Daddy’ll be back at wanst.”

He kissed the child, and disappeared round the hop-bush. Then she turned her unfathomable eyes reproachfully on my face, as I sat on the ground.

“A love you, Tammas, becos ye spake aisy till my Daddy. But O!” — and the little, brown fingers wreathed themselves together in the distress of her soul — “A don’t want till go to school, an’ lave my Daddy his lone! An’ A don’t want till see that picther iv a horse; an’ A ’on’t lave me Daddy.”

I weakly explained that it was a matter of no great importance whether she went to school or not; and that, at worst, her Daddy could accompany her as a schoolmate. Presently Rory returned.

“Mary, jewel, jist pelt aff, lek a good chile, an’ see if the wee gate’s shut.” Mary shot off at full speed; and he continued gravely, “Dhrapped aff at the dead hour o’ the night, seemin’ly. God rest his sowl! O, Tammas! iv we’d only knowed!”

“Ay, or if I had only spoken to him! He must have got there yesterday morning. Likely he had heard the cocks crowing at your place before daylight, and was making for the sound, only that the light beat him, and he gave it best five minutes too soon.”

“Ah! we’re poor, helpless craythurs, Tammas! But A s’pose A betther see Misther Spanker at wanst?”

“No,” I replied; “you stay and do what you can. I’ll ride back, and see Mr. Spanker. How far is it to where that swag is on the fence?”

“About — well, about seven mile, as the crow flies.”

“Better have it here. Now we’ll catch the horses. Come on, Mary! Take her on your back, Rory; we must hurry up now.”

I have already exceeded the legitimate exactions of my diary-record; but the rest of the story is soon told. Mr. Spanker, as a Justice of Peace, took the sworn depositions of Ward, Andrews, Rory, and myself. In the man’s pockets were found half-a-dozen letters, addressed to George Murdoch, Mooltunya Station, from Malmsbury, Victoria; and all were signed by his loving wife, Eliza H. Murdoch. Two of the letters acknowledged receipt of cheques; and there was another cheque (for £12 15s., if I remember rightly) in his pocket-book, with about £3 in cash. He was buried in the station cemetery, between Val English, late station storekeeper, who had poisoned himself, and Jack Drummond, shearer, who had died — presumably of heart failure — after breaking the record of the district. Such is life.



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

Such is Life
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Speak Your Mind

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