Such is Life, by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) [chapter 3, part 1]

[Editor: This is the first part of Chapter Three 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 III

FRI. NOV. 9. Charley’s Paddock. Binney. Catastrophe.

What fatality impelled me to fix on the 9th, above all other days in the month? Why did n’t I glance over the record of each 9th, before committing myself by a promise to review and annotate the entries of that date? For, few and evil as the days of the years of my pilgrimage have undeniably been, the 9th of November, ’83, is one of those which I feel least satisfaction in recalling. Moreover, I incur a certain risk in thus unbosoming myself, as will become apparent to the perfidious reader who hungrily shadows me through this compromising story. But it may be graven with a pen of iron, that, at my age, no man shirks a promise, or tells a fib, for the first time; and so, “Sad, but Strong” — -the family motto of the Colonnas, that offshoot of our tribe which settled in Italy in the year One — I answer to my bail.

One reservation I must make, however. For reasons which will too soon become manifest, it is expedient to conceal the exact locality of the unhappy experience now about to be disclosed; but I think I shall be on the safe side in setting forth that it was somewhere between Echuca and Albury.

Any person who happens to have preserved the files of the —— Express may find, on the second page of the issue of Nov. 12th, the following local intelligence: —

LUNATIC AT LARGE!

On the night of Friday last the inhabitants of — — were thrown into a state of excitement which may better be imagened than described by the appearance of a lunatic in puris naturalibus whose mania was evidently homicidal. During the earlier portion of the night the unfortunate man was seen from time to time by quite a number of people in places many miles apart. Some of the pleasure-seekers returning from the picnic held by the Sunday School Teachers’ Re-union (noticed elsewhere in our columns) saw him scuttling along the three-chain road at a breakneck pace, others saw him dodging behind trees or endeavouring to conceal himself in scrub. At about 9 o’clock in the evening one of the picnic party, an athlete of some repute, made a plucky and determined attempt to capture the madman, and succeeded in overpowering him. This accomplished secundem artem, an impulse of humanity prompted Mr. K—— (for as some of our readers have already guessed, the gentleman referred to was Mr. K—— , of the firm of D—— and S—— , Drapers, ——) to divest himself of part of his own clothing for the benefit of his prisoner. The latter, when Mr. K—— attempted to force the clothing upon him, rent the air with horrible shrieks heard by many others of the party, and by exertion of the unnatural strength which insanity confers, broke from his captor and escaped. Mr. K—— humorously comments on the difficulty of holding a nude antagonist. If we were inclined to be facetious on the subject we might suggest that mens sana in corpore sano is not an infallible rule. Late in the evening the maniac horresco referrens made a furious attack on the residence of Mr. G—— who was unfortunately absent at the time. Mrs. G—— with the splendid courage which distinguishes the farmer’s wife, kept him at bay till some wild impulse drove him to seek “fresh fields and pastures new.” The black trackers (who were brought on the scene on Saturday afternoon) have found his tracks in Mr. A——’s flower garden close to the parlour window, and also around Mr. H——’s homestead. The trackers aver that he is accorpanied by a large kaugaroo dog. It is a matter of congratulation that he has so far failed in effecting an entrance to any habitation. The police are scouring the neighbourhood and though the thunderstorm of Saturday night has unfortunately placed the trackers at fault, we trust soon to chronicle a clever capture, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Various surmises are afloat regarding the identity of the lunatic but to our mind the suggestion of Inspector Collins, of the N.S.W. Civil Service appears most tenable: On Saturday afternoon when the excitement was at its height this gentleman called at our office, and in course of conversation on the all-absorbing topic pronounced his opinion that the lunatic is no other than the late escapee from Beechworth Asylum! Anent his mysterious disapearance at some time late on Friday night Mr. Collins supposes that he must have drowned himself in the river, and advances many ingenious and apparently conclusive arguments in support of both his hypotheses.

Notwithstanding the ingenuity and conclusiveness of those arguments, the chain of fatalities which has headed this story with the entry of Nov. 9th brings the reluctant secret to light: I was that homicidal maniac.

The second page of the newspaper just quoted will be also found to contain, in another column, the following local item: —

We regret to learn that on the morning of Saturday last Mr. Q—— lost a valuable stack of hay by fire. The conflagation was detected almost immediately on its breaking out but no steps could be taken to check the progress of the “devouring element.” It might be reasonably expected that Mr. Q——’s well-deserved popularity would be a sufficient safeguard against such barbarous incendiarism, but of a truth there are people now at large who ought to be in “durance vile.” At the moment of our going to press we are happy to add that the police have a clue, and will soon no doubt unearth the cowardly perpetrator of this un-British outrage, and drag him forth to condign punishment.

However, the perpetrator in question, being even more cunning than cowardly, took special order that the police should not unearth him; and here he sits in his temporary sanctum, inviting them to come on with what is left of their clue — though at the same time keeping, like Sir Andrew, o’ the windy side o’ the law, by putting initials and dashes in place of full names, and by leaving the exact locality unspecified. Drag me forth to condign punishment! My word! Drag a barrister.

Now for my narrative. Charley V——, a boundary rider on B—— Station, N.S.W., is one of my very oldest acquaintances. Away back in the procuratorship of Latrobe, two angels, in wreaths of asphodel, had almost simultaneously deposited Charley and myself on the same station; respectively, in the hut of a stock-keeper, and in the hut of a petty overseer. Together, as the seasons passed, we had looked forward to the shearing, the foot-rotting, and the lambing; and together we had watched the lagoon for the bunyip. We had aimed our little reed-spears at the same mark, we had whirled our little boomerangs over the same big tree, and we had been welted an equal number of times for crossing the river on the same slippery log.

Whatever may be the development of my own inner nature, Charley, at least, walks faithfully in the moral twilight which his early training vouchsafed to him. His fidelity to B—— Station is like that which ought to distinguish somebody’s wife — I forget whose, but no matter. The mere ownership of the property is a matter of perfect indifference to Charley. When the place changes hands, he is valued and sold as part of the working plant, without his concern, and almost without his knowledge; owners may come, and owners may go, but he virtually goes on for ever. His little hut, three or four miles north from the Murray, is the very headquarters of hospitality. He has some hundreds of pounds lent out (without interest or security) though his pay is only fifteen shillings a week — with ten, ten, two, and a quarter — and he is anything but a miser. Many people would like a leaf out of his book. It is my privilege to be able to furnish this, though in a sort of ambiguous way, having received the information in confidence. Here it is:

In a bend, on the north bank of the Murray, a few miles from Charley’s hut, is a tract, about a hundred acres in extent, of fine grass land, completely isolated by billabongs, reed-beds, dense scrub, and steep ridges of loose sand. At the time I write of, it was impossible to ride to this island of verdure, and no white man could track a horse through the labyrinth that led to it. Once placed in that spot, no horse would ever try to get away. This is all the information I feel justified in giving.

During the afternoon of the 9th, I was sitting on a log, in the shade of a tree, on the north bank of the river, about a mile from that secluded Eden, and four or five from Charley’s hut. I had camped at dusk on the previous evening; and the equipment of my two horses, with other impedimenta, was lying about. A small damper was maturing under the handful of fire, and a quart pot of tea was slowly collecting a scum of dirt which made it nothing the worse to a man of my nurture. Pup was reposing on my possum rug, and Cleopatra and Bunyip were in Eden, per favour of the kindly scoundrel who held that property by right of discovery, and who, in spite of some reluctance on my part, had made me free of it. Along with my two horses were ten or twelve others, all strangers, and in various stages of ripening for rewards.

Owing to the broken character of the country, the N.S.W. river-road lay three or four miles north of Charley’s very private property; but a short cut, impassable during the winter, and impracticable at any time to wheeled vehicles, saved about three miles in ten, and passed within a mile of the property. It was beside this pad that I was camped.

The refined leisure of the day had been devoted chiefly to the study of my current swapping-book — Edwards on Redemption — and now, half-stifled by the laborious blasphemy of the work, I was seeking deliverance from the sin of reading it by watching the multitudes of white cockatoos through my binocular, and piously speculating as to their intended use.

Presently, sweeping the ground-line with the glass, I noticed, crossing an open place, about a mile away, the figure of a swagman approaching from the west — that is, coming up the river. I kept the glass in his direction, and whenever he disappeared I was on the watch, and caught him again as he came in sight, tramping wearily along in the roasting sun. That swagman had a history, highly important, at all events, to himself. He had been born; he lived; he would probably die — and if any human being wants a higher record than that, he must work for it. This man’s personal value, judged by the standard which I, for one, dare not disown, was certainly as high as that of the average monarch or multi-millionaire. But was I as much interested as I would have been had one of these personages been approaching my camp in state? And if not, why not?

I immediately filled and lit a mighty German meerschaum, an ally of established efficiency in ethical emergencies such as this. Then laying the pipe, so to speak, on the scent of the swagman, I attempted a clairvoyant rear-glance along his past history, and essayed a forecast of his future destiny, in order to get at the valuation presumably placed upon him by his Maker. But the pipe, being now master of the position, gently seduced my mind to a wider consideration, merely using the swagman as a convenient spring-board for its flight into regions of the Larger Morality. This is its hobby — caught, probably, from some society of German Illuminati, where it became a kind of storage-battery, or accumulator, of such truths as ministers of the Gospel cannot afford to preach.

Ah! (moralised the pipe) the man who spends his life in actual hardship seldom causes a trumpet to be blown before him. He is generally, by heredity or by the dispensation of Providence, an ornament to the lower walks of life; therefore his plea, genuine if ungrammatical, is heard only at second-hand, in a fragmentary and garbled form. Little wonder, then, that such a plea is received with felicitous self-gratulation, or passed with pharisaical disregard, by the silly old world that has still so many lessons to learn — so many lessons which none but that unresisting butt of slender-witted jokers can fitly teach, and which he, the experienced one, is usually precluded from teaching by his inability to spell any word of two syllables. Yet he has thoughts that glow, and words that burn, albeit with such sulphurous fumes that, when uttered in a public place, they frequently render him liable to fourteen days without the option.

And even though he be not a poor rogue hereditary; even though he may once have tasted the comfort ambiguously scorned of devils; even though his descent into Avernus be, like that of Ulysses or Dante, temporary and incidental, you need n’t expect him, on reaching the upper air, to be the prophet, spokesman, and champion of the Order whose bitter johnny-cake he has eaten. You must n’t be surprised to find him reticent, not to say mendacious, respecting details which he may regard as humiliating. A sort of Irish pride will probably lead him to represent that he had abundant, though unavailable, resources during the period of his perdition. For one or the other of these reasons — orthographical inability, or Irish pride — the half is never told; therefore, as a rule, the reading public is acquainted only with sketchy and fallacious pictures of that continuous, indurating hardship which finally sends reluctant Hope after her co-tenants of the box.

And further, of this, my son, be admonished (continued the pipe): The more bitter the hardship, the more unmixed and cordial is the ignominy lavished by the elect upon the sufferer — always provided the latter is one of the non-elect, and more particularly if he is a swagman. Yet this futureless person is the man who pioneers all industries; who discovers and unearths the precious ores; whose heavy footprints mark the waterless mulga, the wind-swept plains, and the scorching sand; who leaves intaglio impressions of his mortal coil on the wet ground, at every camp from the Murray to the Gulf; and whose only satisfaction in the cold which curls him up like cinnamon bark — making him nearly break his back in the effort to hold his shoulders together — is the certainty that in six months he will scrape away the hot surface sand, in order to sleep comfortably on the more temperate stratum beneath; he is the man who, with some incoherent protest and becoming invective, metaphorically makes a Raleigh-cloak of himself, to afford free and pleasant passage for the noblest work of God, namely, the Business Man.

The successful pioneer is the man who never spared others; the forgotten pioneer is the man who never spared himself, but, being a fool, built houses for wise men to live in, and omitted to gather moss. The former is the early bird; the latter is the early worm. Like Rosalind’s typical traveller, this worm has rich eyes and poor hands — the former often ophthalmic, the latter always brown and wrinkled, and generally dirty. Life is too short to admit of repeated blunders in the numeration of beans, and this being his one weak point, the dram of ale does its work. And so, neither as pharisee nor publican, but rather as the pharisee’s shocking example, and the publican’s working bee, he toils and swears his hour upon the stage, and then modestly departs to where the thrifty cease from troubling, and the thriftless be at rest. Little recks he then for lack of storied urn or animated bust, little that for him no minstrel raptures swell; for his animated busts are things of the past, and there never was anything of the swell about him.

Heaven help him! that nameless flotsam of humanity! (mused the pipe). Few and feeble are his friends on earth; and the One who, like him, was wearied with his journey, and, like him, had not where to lay his head, is gone, according to His own parable, into a far country. The swagman we have always with us —— And comfortable ecclesiasticism marks a full stop there, blasphemously evading the completion of a sentence charged with the grave truth, that the Light of the world, the God-in-Man, the only God we can ever know, is by His own authority represented for all time by the poorest of the poor. Yet whosoever fails to recognise in the marred visage of any social derelict the image of Him who was despised and rejected of men — whosoever resents not the spectacle of that image weighted down by fraternal neglect and oppression till a human heart pulses with no higher aspiration than that which prompts a persecuted animal to preserve its life for further persecution — such a person, I say, can have no place among the Architect’s workmen, being already employed on the ageless Babel-contract.

This special study of hardship (resumed the pipe, after a pause) leads naturally to the generic study of poverty; for, as the greater includes the less, poverty includes hardship, along with disfranchisement, social outlawry, proud man’s contumely, and so forth; entirely without reference to the moral worth of the person most concerned. In a word, poverty is, in the eyes of the orthodox Christian, a hell in the hand, better worth avoiding than two hells in the book, which latter may be only figurative after all.

But the great institution of poverty (ruminated the pipe) is too often referred to in this large, loose way. There are two kinds — or rather, the condition exhibits two opposite extremes of moral quality. There is a voluntary poverty, which is certainly the least base situation you can occupy whilst you crawl between heaven and earth, and which is not so rare as your sordid disposition might lead you to imagine. There is also a compulsory poverty, shading down from discontented to contented. And, paradoxical as it may appear, the contented sub-variety is the opposing pole to voluntary poverty. The discontented sub-variety is the perpetual troubler of the world, by reason of its aiming only at changing the incidence of hardship, and succeeding fairly well in its object. Touching the contented sub-variety — well, possibly the Hindoo language might do justice to its vileness; the English falls entirely short. Compulsory-contented poverty is utterly, irredeemably despicable, and, by necessity, ignorantly blasphemous — not because its style of glorifying God is to place His conceded image exactly at the plough-horse level, but because it teaches its babies, from the cradle upward, that a capricious Mumbo-Jumbo has made pollard-bread for them, and something with a French name for its white-headed boy; moleskins, tied below the knee, for them, and a belltopper for the favourite of the family; the three R’s for them, and the classics, ancient and modern, for the vessel chosen to honour; illicit snakejuice for them, and golden top for the other fellow. The adherents of this cult vote Conservative, work scab, and are rightly termed the “deserving poor,” inasmuch as they richly deserve every degree of poverty, every ounce of indignity, and every inch of condescension they stagger under. But their children don’t deserve these things. And just mark the slimy little word-shuffle which, in order to keep the “deserving poor” up to their work, pronounces upon them the blessings obviously adherent only to that unquestionable guarantee of unselfish purpose, namely, voluntary poverty. A subtle confusion of issues; but the person who homilises on the blessings of compulsory poverty should be left talking to the undefileable atmosphere.

Yet do I cling (continued the pipe) to Plato’s beautiful thought, that no soul misses truth willingly. In bare justice to brave, misguided Humanity; in daily touch with beings in so many respects little lower than the imagined angels; in dispassionate survey of history’s lurid record of distorted loyalty staining our old, sad earth with life-blood of opposing loyalty, while each side fights for an idea; in view of the zeal which fires the martyr-spirit to endure all that equal zeal can inflict; in contemplation of the ever-raging enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, the Ormuzd and the Ahriman in man; in view even of that dismal experiment indifferently termed “making the best of both worlds,” and “serving God and Mammon” — in view of all these things, I cannot think it is anything worse than a locally-seated and curable ignorance which makes men eager to subvert a human equality, self-evident as human variety, and impregnable as any mathematical axiom. And this special brand of ignorance is even more rampant amongst those educated asses who can read Kikero in the original than amongst uneducated asses who know not the law, and are cursed.

Remember (pursued the pipe, with a touch of severity) that Science apprehends no decimal of a second adequate to note, on the limitless circle of Time, the briefness of a centenarian’s life; and yet the giddiest pitch of human effrontery dares not carry beyond the incident of death any vestige of a social code now accepted as good enough to initiate a development which, according to your own showing, goes on through changing cycles till some transcendent purpose is fulfilled. The “love of equality” — that meanest and falsest of equivocations — sickens and dies, and the inflated lie of a social privilege based on extraneous conditions collapses, under the strict arrest of the fell sergeant, Death. If we seek absolute truth — which can never be out of place — surely we shall find it beyond the gates which falsehood cannot pass. And here we find it conceded by all; for as material things fade away, human vision clears, and truth becomes a unit.

Osiris’ balances weighed impartially the souls of Coptic lord and slave, before the pyramids rose on Egypt’s plains; austere Minos meted even justice to citizen and helot, while the sculptured ideals of Attica slept in Pentelican quarries; Brahmin and Sudra, according to deeds done in the body — strictly according to deeds done in some body — awake beyond the grave to share aeons of sorrowful transmigration, and final repose; Nirvana awaits the Buddhist high and low alike; Islamism sternly sends all mankind across the sharp-edged Bridge, which the righteous only cross in safety, while wicked caliph and wicked slave together reel into the abyss below. The apotheosis of pagan heroes rested on personal merit alone. No eschatology but that of High Calvinism anticipates, in the unseen world, anything resembling the injustice of a civilisation which, of set purpose, excludes from the only redemption flesh and blood can inherit, that sad rear-guard whose besetting sin is poverty. Yet John Knox’s wildest travesty of eternal justice never rivalled in flagrancy the moving principle of a civilisation which exists merely to build on extrinsic bases an impracticable barrier between class and class: on one side, the redemption of life, education, refinement, leisure, comfort; on the other side, want, toil, anxiety, and an open path to the Gehenna of ignorance, baseness, and brutality. Holy Willie’s God, at least, heaps no beatitude on successful greed; and your Christian civilisation does so. Dare you deny it?

Chastened by contemplation of levelling mortality, awed into truth by the spectacle of a whole world made kin by that icy touch of nature, the belated soul seeks refuge in a final justice which excludes from natural heirship to the external home not one of earth’s weary myriads. Your conception of heavenly justice is found in the concession of equal spiritual birthright, based on the broad charter of common humanity, and forfeitable only by individual worthlessness or deliberate refusal. Why is your idea of earthly justice so widely different — since the principle of justice must be absolute and immutable? Yet while the Church teaches you to pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven,” she tacitly countenances widening disparity in condition, and openly sanctions that fearful abuse which dooms the poor man’s unborn children to the mundane perdition of poverty’s thousand penalties. Is God’s will so done in heaven? While the Church teaches you to pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” she strikes with mercenary venom at the first principle of that kingdom, namely, elementary equality in citizen privilege. Better silence than falsehood; better no religion at all — if such lack be possible — than one which concedes equal rights beyond the grave, and denies them here.

I wish you to face the truth frankly (continued the pipe), for, heaven knows, it faces you frankly enough. Ecclesiastical Christianity vies with the effete Judaism of olden time as a failure of the first magnitude. Passing over what was purely local and contemporaneous, there is not one count in the long impeachment of that doomed Eastern city but may be repeated, with sickening exactitude, and added emphasis, over any pseudo-Christian community now festering on earth. Chorasin and Bethsaida have no lack of antitypes amongst you. Again has man overruled his Creator’s design. The mustard seed has become a great tree, but the unclean fowls lodge in its branches. The symbol of deepest ignominy has become the proudest insignia of Court — moths and professional assassins, but it is no longer the cross of Christ. Eighteen-and-a-half centuries of purblind groping for the Kingdom of God finds an idealised Messiah shrined in the modern Pantheon, and yourselves “a chosen generation,” leprous with the sin of usury; “a royal priesthood,” paralysed with the cant of hireling clergy; “a holy nation,” rotten with the luxury of wealth, or embittered by the sting of poverty; “a peculiar people,” deformed to Lucifer’s own pleasure by the curse of caste; while, in this pandemonium of Individualism, the weak, the diffident, the scrupulous, and the afflicted, are thrust aside or trampled down.

And whilst the world’s most urgent need is a mission of sternest counsel and warning, from the oppressed to the oppressor, I witness the unspeakable insolence of a Gospel of Thrift, preached by order of the rich man to Lazarus at his gate — a deliberate laying on the shoulders of Lazarus a burden grievous to be borne, a burden which Dives (or Davis, or Smith, or Johnson; anything — anything — but Christ’s brutal “rich man”) hungry for the promised penalty, will not touch with one of his fingers. The Church quibbles well, and palters well, and, in her own pusillanimous way, means well, by her silky loyalty to the law and the profits, and by her steady hostility to some unresisting personification known as the Common Enemy. But because of that pernicious loyalty, she has reason to complain that the working man is too rational to imbibe her teachings on the blessedness of slavery and starvation. Meanwhile, as no magnanimous sinner can live down to the pseudo-Christian standard, unprogressive Agnosticism takes the place of demoralised belief, and the Kingdom of God fades into a myth.

Yet there is nothing Utopian (pleaded the pipe) in the charter of that kingdom — in the sunshiny Sermon on the Mount. It is no fanciful conception of an intangible order of things, but a practical, workable code of daily life, adapted to any stage of civilisation, and delivered to men and women who, even according to the showing of hopeless pessimists, or strenuous advocates for Individualistic force and cunning, were in all respects like ourselves — delivered, moreover, by One who knew exactly the potentialities and aspirations of man. And, in the unerring harmony of the Original Idea, the outcome of that inimitable teaching is merely the consummation of prophetic forecast in earlier ages. First, the slenderest crescent, seen by eyes that diligently searched the sky; then, a broader crescent; a hemisphere; at last, a perfect sphere, discovered by the Nazarene Artisan, and by him made plain to all who wish to see. But from the dawn of the ages that orb was there, waiting for recognition, waiting with the awful, tireless, all-conquering patience for which no better name has been found than the Will of God.

History marks a point of time when first the Humanity of God touched the divine aspiration in man, fulfilling, under the skies of Palestine, the dim, yet infallible instinct of every race from eastern Mongol to western Aztec. “The Soul, naturally Christian,” responds to this touch, even though blindly and erratically, and so from generation to generation the multitudes stand waiting to welcome the Gospel of Humanity with palms and hosannas, as of old; while from generation to generation phylactered exclusiveness takes counsel against the revolution which is to make all things new. And shall this opposition — the opposition by slander, conspiracy, bribery, and force — prevail till the fatal line is once more passed, and you await the Titus sword to drown your land in blood, and the Hadrian-plough to furrow your Temple-site?

I think not (added the pipe, after a pause). I think not. For a revolt undreamt of by your forefathers is in progress now — a revolt of enlightenment against ignorance; of justice and reason against the domination of the manifestly unworthy. The world’s brightest intellects are answering one by one to the roll-call of the New Order, and falling into line on the side championed by every prophet, from Moses to the “agitator” that died o’ Wednesday. Inconceivably long and cruel has the bondage been, hideous beyond measure the degradation of the disinherited; but I think the cycle of soul-slaying loyalty to error draws near its close; for the whole armoury of the Father of Lies can furnish no shield to turn aside the point of the tireless and terrible PEN — that Ithuriel-spear which, in these latter days, scornfully touches the mail-clad demon of Privilege, and discloses a swelling frog.

Contemporaneous literature (continued the pipe thoughtfully) is our surest register of advance or retrogression; and, with few exceptions indeed, the prevailing and conspicuous element in all publications of more than a century ago is a tacit acceptance of irresponsible lordship and abject inferiority as Divine ordinances. Brutal indifference, utter contempt, or more insulting condescension, toward the rank and file, was an article of the fine old English gentleman’s religion — “a point of our faith,” as the pious Sir Thomas Browne seriously puts it — the complementary part being a loathsome servility toward nobility and royalty. In that era, the most amiable of English poets felt constrained to weave into his exquisite Elegy an undulating thread of modest apology for bringing under notice the short and simple annals of the Vaisya caste. Later, Cowper thought poverty, humility, industry, and piety a beautiful combination for the wearer of the smock frock. Even Crabbe blindly accepted the sanctified lie of social inequality. And this assumption was religiously acquiesced in by the lower animal himself — who doubtless glorified God for the distinctly unsearchable wisdom and loving-kindness manifested in those workhouse regulations which separated his own toil-worn age from the equal feebleness of the wife whose human rights he should have died fighting for when he was young. And, as might be expected, this strictly gentlemanly principle looms larger in your forefathers’ prose than in their poetry. At last, Burns and Paine flashed their own strong, healthy personalities on the community, marking an epoch; and from that day to this, the Apology of Humanity acquires ever-increasing momentum, and ever-widening scope. Now, if social-economic conditions fail to keep abreast with the impetuous, uncontrollable advance of popular intelligence, the time must come when, with one tiger-spring, the latter shall assail the former; and the scene of this unpleasantness (concluded the infatuated pipe) is called in the Hebrew tongue, Armageddon.

The swagman approached, plodding steadily along, with his billy in one hand and his water-bag in the other; on his shoulder, horse-shoe fashion, his forty years’ gathering; and in his patient face his forty years’ history, clearly legible to me by reason of a gift which I happily possess. I was roused from my reverie by some one saying:

“How fares our cousin Hamlet? Come and have a drink of tea, and beggar the expense.”

“Good day,” responded Hamlet, still pursuing his journey.

“Come on! come on! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”

“Eh?” And he stopped, and faced about.

“Come and have a feed!” I shouted.

“I’ll do that ready enough,” said he, laying his fardel down in the shade, and seating himself on it with a satisfied sigh.

I rooted my damper out of its matrix, flogged the ashes off it with a saddle-cloth, and placed it before my guest, together with a large wedge of leathery cheese, a sheath-knife, and the quart pot and pannikin.

“Eat, and good dich thy good heart, Apemantus,” said I cordially. Then, resuming my seat, I took leisure to observe him. He was an everyday sight, but one which never loses its interest to me — the bent and haggard wreck of what should have been a fine soldierly man; the honest face sunken and furrowed; the neglected hair and matted beard thickly strewn with grey. His eyes revealed another victim to the scourge of ophthalmia. This malady, by the way, must not be confounded with sandy blight. The latter is acute; the former, chronic.

“Coming from Moama?” I conjectured, at length.

“Well, to tell you the truth, I ain’t had anything since yesterday afternoon. Course, you of’en go short when you’re travellin’; but I’m a man that don’t like to be makin’ a song about it.”

“Would n’t you stand a better show for work on the other side of the river?”

“Eh?”

“Is n’t the Vic. side the best for work?” I shouted.

“Yes; takin’ it generally. But there’s a new saw-mill startin’ on this side, seven or eight mile up from here; an’ I know the two fellers that owns it — two brothers, the name o’ H——. Fact, I got my eyes cooked workin’ at a thresher for them. I’m not frightened but what I’ll git work at the mill. Fine, off-handed, reasonable fellers.”

“Would n’t it suit you better to look out for some steady work on a farm?”

“Very carm. Sort o’ carm heat. I think there’s a thunderstorm hangin’ about. We’ll have rain before this moon goes out for a certainty. She come in on her back — I dunno whether you noticed?”

“I did n’t notice. Don’t you find this kind of weather making your eyes worse?”

“My word, you’re right. Not much chance of a man makin’ a rise the way things is now. Dunno what the country’s comin’ to. I don’t blame people for not givin’ work when they got no work to give, but they might be civil” —— he paused, and went on with his repast in silence for a minute. It required no great prescience to read his thought. Man must be subject to sale by auction, or be a wearer of Imperial uniform, before the susceptibility to insult perishes in his soul. “I been carryin’ a swag close on twenty year,” he resumed; “but I never got sich a divil of a blaggardin’ as I got this mornin’. Course, I’m wrong to swear about it, but that’s a thing I ain’t in the habit o’ doin’. It was at a place eight or ten mile down the river, on the Vic. side. I wasn’t cadging, nyther. I jist merely ast for work — not havin’ heard about the H——s till after — an’ I thought the bloke was goin’ to jump down my throat. I didn’t ketch the most o’ what he said, but I foun’ him givin’ me rats for campin’ about as fur off of his place as from here to the other side o’ the river; an’ a lagoon betwixt; an’ not a particle o’ grass for the fire to run on. Fact, I’m a man that’s careful about fire. Mind you, I did set fire to a bit of a dead log on the reserve, but a man has to get a whiff o’ smoke these nights, on account o’ the muskeeters; an’ there was no more danger nor there is with this fire o’ yours. Called me everything but a gentleman.”

“Possess your soul in patience. You have no remedy and no appeal till we gather at the river.”

“O, I was in luck there. Jist after I heard about this saw-mill — bein’ then on the Vic. side — I foun’ a couple o’ swells goin’ to a picnic in a boat; an’ I told them I wanted to git across, an’ they carted me over, an’ no compliment. Difference in people.”

“I know the H——s,” I shouted. “When did you hear about them starting this saw-mill?”

“O! this forenoon. I must ast you to speak loud. I got the misfortune to be a bit hard o’ hearin’. Most people notices it on me, but I was thinkin’ p’r’aps you did n’t remark it. It come through a cold I got in the head, about six year ago, spud-diggin’ among the Bungaree savages.”

“I’m sorry for you.”

“Well, it was this way. After the feller hunted me off of his place this mornin’, who should I meet but a young chap an’ his girl, goin’ to this picnic, with a white horse in the buggy. Now, that’s one o’ these civil, good-hearted sort o’ chaps you’ll sometimes git among the farmers. Name o’ Archie M——. I dunno whether you might n’t know him; he’s superintender o’ the E—— Sunday School. Fact, I’d bin roun’ with the H——’s thresher at his ole man’s place four years runnin’; so when he seen me this mornin’, it was, ‘Hello, Andy! — lookin’ for work?’ An’ the next word was, ‘Well, I’m sorry we ain’t got no work for you’ — or words to that effect — ‘but,’ says he, ‘there’s the H——s startin’ a saw-mill fifteen or twenty mile up the river, on the other side. They won’t see you beat,’ says he, ‘but if you don’t git on with them,’ says he, ‘come straight back to our place, an’ we’ll see about something,’ says he. So I’m makin’ my way to the saw-mill.”

“Well, I hope you’ll get on there, mate.”

“You’re right. It’s half the battle. Wust of it is, you can’t stick to a mate when you got him. I was workin’ mates with a raw new-chum feller las’ winter, ringin’ on the Yanko. Grand feller he was — name o’ Tom — but, as it happened, we was workin’ sub-contract for a feller name o’ Joe Collins, an’ we was on for savin’, so we on’y drawed tucker-money; an’ beggar me if this Joe Collins did n’t git paid up on the sly, an’ travelled. So we fell in. Can’t be too careful when you’re workin’ for a workin’ man. But I would n’t like to be in Mr. Joe Collins’s boots when Tom ketches him. Scotch chap, Tom is. Well, after bin had like this, we went out on the Lachlan, clean fly-blowed; an’ Tom got a job boundary ridin’, through another feller goin’ to Mount Brown diggin’s; an’ there was no work for me, so we had to shake hands. I’d part my last sprat to that feller.”

“I believe you would. But I’m thinking of Joe Collins. To a student of nominology, this is a most unhappy combination. Joseph denotes sneaking hypocrisy, whilst Collins is a guarantee of probity. Fancy the Broad Arrow and the Cross of the Legion of Honour woven into a monogram!”

“Rakin’ style o’ dog you got there. I dunno when I seen the like of him. Well, I think I’ll be pushin’ on. I on’y got a sort o’ rough idear where this mill is; an’ there ain’t many people this side o’ the river to inquire off of; an’ my eyes is none o’ the best. I’ll be biddin’ you good day.”

“Are you a smoker?” I asked, replenishing my own sagacious meerschaum.

“Because you might try a plug of this tobacco.”

Now that man’s deafness was genuine, and I spoke in my ordinary tone, yet the magic word vibrated accurately and unmistakably on the paralysed tympanum. Let your so-called scientists account for that.

“If you can spare it,” replied the swagman, with animation. “Smokin’s about the on’y pleasure a man’s got in this world; an’ I jist used up the dust out o’ my pockets this mornin’; so this’ll go high. My word! Well, good day. I might be able to do the same for you some time.”

“Thou speakest wiser than thou art ’ware of,” I soliloquised as I watched his retreating figure, whilst lighting my pipe. “As the other philosopher, Tycho Brahe, found inspiration in the gibberish of his idiot companion, so do I find food for reflection in thy casual courtesy, my friend. Possibly I have reached the highest point of all my greatness, and from that full meridian of my glory, I haste now to my setting. From a Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector — with the mortuary reversion of the Assistant-Sub-Inspectorship itself — to a swagman, bluey on shoulder and billy in hand, is as easy as falling off a playful moke. Such is life.”



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

Such is Life
[next part of this chapter]

Speak Your Mind

*