Such is Life, by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) [chapter 4, part 2]

[Editor: This is the second part of Chapter Four 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 never dealt better since I was a man. No one has dealt better since Antony harangued the Sollickers of his day on dead Caesar’s behalf; but I differed from Antony so largely in result that the comparison is seriously disturbed. There was no more spring in my auditor than in a bag of sand. The honest fellow’s double-breasted ignorance stood solidly in the way, rendering prevarication or quibble, or any form of subterfuge unnecessary on his part. He merely formed himself into a hollow square and casually glanced at the impossibility of those particular bullocks loafing on his paddock. If they came across the river again, he would hunt them back into Mondunbarra — he would do that much — but Muster M’Intyre’s orders were orders. Two bullock drivers (here a truculent look came over the retainer’s face) had selected in sight of the very wool-shed; and now all working bullocks found loafing on the run were to be yarded at the station — this lot being specially noticed, for Muster M’Intyre had a bit of a derry on Alf.

By way of changing the subject, Sollicker became confidential. He had been in his present employ ever since his arrival in the country, ten years before, and had never set foot outside the run during that time. He was married, three years ago come Boxing Day, to the station bullockdriver’s daughter; a girl who had been in service at the house, but could n’t hit it with the missus. Muster M’Intyre wanted to see him settled down, and had fetched the parson a-purpose to do the job. He had only one of a family; a little boy, called Roderick, in honour of Muster M’Intyre. His own name (true to the 9th rule of the Higher Nomenology) was Edward Stanley Vivian — not Zedekiah Backband, as the novel-devouring reader might be prone to imagine — and his age was forty-four. If I knew anyone in straits for a bit of ready cash, I was to send that afflicted person to him for relief. He liked to oblige people; and his tariff was fifteen per cent. per annum; but the security must be unexceptionable.

I gave him some details of Alf’s sickness, and asked whether he had any medicine at home — Pain-killer, by preference. I have great faith in this specific; and I’ll tell you the reason.

A few years before the date of these events, it had been my fortune to be associated, in arduous and unhealthy work, with fifteen or twenty fellow-representatives of the order of society which Daniel O’Connell was accustomed to refer to as ‘that highly important and respectable class, the men of no property’ — true makers of history, if the fools only knew, or could be taught, their power and responsibility. Occasionally one of these potential rulers and practical slaves would come to me with white lips and unsteady pace ——

“I say, Tom; I ain’t a man to jack-up while I got a sanguinary leg to stan’ on; but I’m gone in the inside, some road. I jist bin slingin’ up every insect-infected sanguinary thing I’ve et for the last month; an’ I ’m as weak as a sanguinary cat. I must ding it. Mebbe I’ll be right to-morrow, if I jist step over to the pub., an’ git” ——

Here I would stop him, and endeavour to establish a diagnosis. But a man with the vocabulary of a Stratford wool-comber (whatever a woolcomber may be) of the 16th century — a vocabulary of about two hundred and fifty words, mostly obscene — is placed at a grave disadvantage when confronted by scientific terminology; and my patient, casting symptomatic precision to the winds, and roughly averaging his malady, would succinctly describe himself as sanguinary bad. That was all that was wrong with him. Nevertheless, having a little theory of my own respecting sickness, I always undertook to grapple with the complaint. I had noticed as a singular feature in Pain-killer, that the more it is diluted, the more unspeakably nauseous and suffocating it becomes; wherefore, my medicine chest consisted merely of a couple of bottles of this rousing drug. My practice was to exhibit half-a-dozen tablespoonfuls of the panacea in a quart of oxide of hydrogen (vulgarly known as water). When my patient had swallowed that lot, I caused him to lie down in some shady place till the internal conflagration produced by the potent long-sleever had subsided to cherry-red; and then sent him back to his work like a giant refreshed with new wine. I never knew one of those potentates to be sick the second time.

Sollicker did n’t know whether his wife had any medicine, but we could see. Accordingly, when the twenty bullocks and the horse had landed themselves on Mondunbarra, close to Alf’s camp, we started at a canter, and, after riding a couple of miles, pulled up at a comfortable two-roomed cottage, half-concealed by the drooping, silvery foliage of a clump of myall. Sollicker turned his moke loose in the paddock; I tied my horse to the fence; and we entered the house. A tall, slight, sunburnt, and decidedly handsome young woman, with a brown moustache, was replenishing the fire.

“Theas (gentleman) ’e be a-wantin’ zoom zorter vizik f’r a zick man,” remarked the boundary rider, taking a seat.

“D—d if I know whether I got any,” replied his wife, with kindly concern, and with an easy mastery of expression seldom attained by her sex. “I’ll fine out in about two twinklin’s of a goat’s tail. Sit down an’ rest your weary bones, as the sayin’ is. I shoved the kettle on when I seen you comin’.” She opened a box, and produced a small, octagonal blue bottle, which she held up to the light. “Chlorodyne,” she explained; “an there’s some left, better luck. Good thing to keep about the house, but it ain’t equal to Pain-killer for straightenin’ a person up.” She handed me the bottle, and proceeded to lay the table. I endeavoured to make friends with Roddy, but he was very shy, as bush children usually are.

“He’s a fine little fellow, ma’am,” I remarked. “How old is he?”

“He was two years an’ seven months on last Friday week,” she replied, with ill-concealed vainglory.

“No, no,” said I petulantly. “What is his age, really and truly?”

“Jist what I told you!” she replied, with a sunny laugh. “Think I was tryin’ to git the loan o’ you? Well, so help me God! There!”

“Helenar!” murmured her husband sadly. And, as he spoke, an inch of Helenar’s tongue shot momentarily into view as she turned her comely face, overflowing with merriment, toward me.

“My ole man was cut out for a archdeacon,” she remarked. “I tell him it’s all in the way a person takes a thing. But it’s better to be that way nor the other way; an’ he ain’t a bad ole sort — give the divil his due. Anyway, that’s Roddy’s age, wrote in his Dad’s Bible.”

I laid my hand on the boundary rider’s shoulder. “Look here, sir,” said I impressively: “you’re an Englishman, and you’re proud of your country; but I tell you we’re going to have a race of people in these provinces such as the world has never seen before.” And, as I looked at the child, I drifted into a labyrinth of insoluble enigmas and perplexing hypotheses — no new thing with me, as the sympathetic reader is by this time well aware.

The boundary rider shook his head. “Noa,” he replied dogmatically. “Climate plays ole Goozeb’ry wi’ heverythink hout ’ere. C’lonians bea n’t got noo chest, n’ mo’n a greyhound.” And he placed his hand on his own abdomen to emphasise his teaching. “W’y leuk at ’er; leuk at ’ee ze’f; leuk at ’e ’oss, ev’n. Ees, zhure; an’ Roddy’ll be jis’ sich anutheh. Pore leetle (weed)!”

He took the child on his knee with an air of hopeless pity, and awkwardly but tenderly wiped the little fellow’s nose. I was still lost in thought. We are the merest tyros in Ethnology. Nothing is easier than to build Nankin palaces of porcelain theory, which will fall in splinters before the first cannon-shot of unparleying fact. What authority had the boundary man or I to dogmatise on the Coming Australian? Just the same authority as Marcus Clarke, or Trollope, or Froude, or Francis Adams — and that is exactly none. Deductive reasoning of this kind is seldom safe. Who, for instance, could have deduced, from certain subtly interlaced conditions of food, atmosphere, association, and what not, the development of those silky honours which grace the upper lip of the Australienne? No doubt there are certain occult laws which govern these things; but we have n’t even mastered the laws themselves, and how are we going to forecast their operation? Here was an example: Vivian was a type Englishman, of his particular sub-species; his wife was a type Australienne, of the station-bullock-driver species; and their little boy was almost comically Scottish in features, expression, and bearing. Where are your theories now? Atavism is inadmissible; and fright is the thinnest and most unscientific subterfuge extant. The coming Australian is a problem.

Mrs. Vivian overwhelmed me with instructions concerning Alf, and frankly urged me to hurry back to his assistance. I paid little heed to her advice, for I knew he would soon come round; and in the meantime, my mind was fully occupied with his team. After drinking a cup of tea, I shook hands with her, and lingered at the door, looking at her husband, as he amused himself with Roddy.

“I’ll leave your coat on the fence, Mr. Vivian,” said I at length.

“Horrite.”

“You want to be as lively as God’ll let you,” said the excellent woman, accompanying me to my horse. “I won’t be satisfied till I see you off.”

Very well, thought I; on your own head be it. So I took off the linen coat, and handed it to her.

“You should ’a’ kep’ on a inside shirt,” she remarked kindly. “Them shoulders o’ yours’ll give you particular hell to morrow. Why, you’re like a boiled crawfish now. Hides like that o’ yours,” she added, testing with her finger and thumb the integument on my near flank, as I hastily placed my bare foot in the stirrup, “ain’t worth a tinker’s dam for standin’ the sun.” (For the information of people whose education may unhappily have been neglected, it will be right to mention that the little morsel of chewed bread which a tin-smith of the old school places on his seam to check the inconvenient flow of the solder, is technically and appropriately termed a ‘tinker’s dam.’ It is the conceivable minimum of commercial value).

The sun was still above the trees when I unsaddled Cleopatra at my camp, and resumed my clothes. The bullock-bells were ringing among the lignum, as the animals exerted themselves to make up for lost time.

“And how are we now?” said I, assuming a cheerful professional air, as I swung myself on the platform of the wagon. “I’ve secured a drop of one of our most valuable antiphlogistics, which is precisely what you require, as the trouble is distinctly anthrodymic. You’ll be right in a couple of days.”

“No, Collins,” replied Alf gently: “I’ll never be right — in the sense you mean. I won’t take any medicine. I’ve done with everything. Help me to turn over again, please, and give me another drink of water. I want to tell you something.”

After giving him a turn over, I took the billy and replenished it at the river. Before getting into the wagon again, I emptied the contents of Mrs. Vivian’s bottle into half a pannikin-full of the oxide of hydrogen, and stirred the potion thoroughly with a stick. Then returning to my patient, I raised his head, and held the pannikin to his lips. He finished the draught, unconscious of its medicinal virtues; and I refolded the old overcoat which served as a pillow, and laid him down as gently as possible.

“The water seems to have a peculiar taste,” he murmured. “I don’t notice my sight failing yet, but my hearing is all deranged. I hear your voice through a ringing of bells, and a sound like a distant waterfall. I’m just on the border-land, Collins. I’ve very little more to suffer; and why should I come back, to begin it all again? How long is it since you left me?”

“From four to five hours, I think. I put your bullocks together; they re close by.”

“Well, now, I would n’t have the slightest idea whether it was one hour or twelve. I’ve been in the spirit-world since then, or a spirit has visited me here. I heard, plain and clear, the voice of a woman singing old familiar songs; and that voice has been silent in death for ten years — silent to me for three years before that. Thirteen years! That may not seem much to you; but what an age it seems to me! It was no dream, Collins; I saw everything as I see now, but I heard her glorious voice as I used to hear it in our happy days; and I felt that her spirit was bringing forgiveness at last. I’m not a religious man, Collins; I don’t know what will become of me after death; but God does, and that’s sufficient for me. I never believed on Him so devoutly as I do now that He has vindicated His justice upon me. I praise him for avenging an act of the blindest folly and heartlessness; and I thank Him that my punishment is over at last. There! Listen! No, it’s nothing. But it was a favourite song of hers; and while you were away I heard her sing it, with new meaning in every syllable. My poor love!”

“Alf, Alf,” I remonstrated; “compose yourself, and go to sleep if you can.” The tears of feebleness had accumulated in the hollows of his sunken eyes, and, not having the use of his hands, he was throwing his head from side to side to clear them away.

“Did you ever make a terrible mistake in life, Collins?” he asked, at length. Before I could reply, he resumed absently, “When I was a boy, away on the Queensland border, I knew a squatter — as fine a fellow as ever lived — and this man married some young lady in Sydney, and brought her to live on the station. A few months afterward, he came home unexpectedly at about two o’clock one morning, and found his place occupied by an intimate friend of his own — a young barrister, who was staying at the station as a guest. He managed to conceal his discovery; and, within the next few days, he got his friend to draw out a new will, by which he left everything, without reservation, to his wife. A day or two after completing the will, he took his gun and went out alone, turkey-shooting. He didn’t come home that night; and next day one of the station hands found him at a wire fence, shot straight through the heart. Accidentally, of course. But we knew better.”

“It might have been accidental, Alf,” I suggested. “There’s a lot of supposition in the story.”

“None, Collins. Before going out with his gun, he wrote a letter to my father, and sent it by a trustworthy blackfellow. My father got the letter about ten o’clock at night; and he had a horse run-in at once, and started off for the station through a raging thunderstorm, arriving next day only in time to see his friend’s body before it was moved to the house. My father was terribly cut-up about it. He was manager of an adjoining station at the time.

“Now let me tell you another true story,” pursued Alf dreamily. “Five years ago, I knew a man on the Maroo, a tank-sinker, with a wife and two children. The wife got soft on a young fellow at the camp; and everybody, except the husband, saw how things stood. Presently the husband began to circulate the report that he was going to New Zealand. In the meantime, he sent the two children to a boarding-school in Wagga. He was in no hurry. Afterward, he sold his plant to the station, and bade good-bye, in the most friendly way, to all hands, including the Don Juan. Then he started across the country to Wagga, alone with his wife, in a wagonette. Are you listening?”

“Attentively, Alf. But suppose I boil your billy, and” ——

“Two years afterward, a flock was sold off the station I was speaking of, for Western Queensland; and one of the station men went with the drover’s party, to see the sheep delivered. Curious coincidence: he met on the new station his old acquaintance, the tank-sinker, with his two children and a second wife. The tank-sinker told him that his first wife had died soon after leaving the Maroo, and that he had changed his mind about going to New Zealand. Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes; so far. You know the man you’re speaking of?”

“Slightly. I delivered goods to him once on the Maroo, and casually heard the scandal that was in the air. Well, the shearing came round on the Maroo just as the station man got back from Queensland; and while the adjoining station was mustering for the shed, a boundary man found, in the centre of one of the paddocks — in the loneliest, barrenest hole of a place in New South Wales — he found where a big fire had been made, and some bones burnt into white cinders and smashed small with a stick. He kicked the ashes over, and found the steel part of a woman’s stays, and the charred heel of a woman’s boot, and even a thimble and a few shillings that had probably been in her pocket. I was on the station at the time, waiting for wool, and saw the relics when the boundary man brought them in. There are queer things done when every man is a law unto himself.”

“Supposition, Alf; and strained supposition at that. But why should you trouble your mind about these things?”

“There was no supposition on the station where the things were found, nor on the station the tank-sinker had left, when they compared notes. The things were found three or four miles off a bit of a track that led to Wagga; and there was a pine of a year and a half old growing in the ashes. But we’ll pass that story. I want you to listen to another.”

“Some other time, Alf. I’ll make you a drink of tea, and” — —

“When I was young,” continued Alf doggedly, “I was very intimate with an American, a man of high principle and fine education. Best-informed man I ever knew. This poor fellow was a drunkard, occasional, but incorrigible. Misfortune had driven him to it. His wife was dead; his children had died in infancy; and at forty-five he was a hopeless wreck. He worked at my father’s farm on the Hawkesbury for two or three years, and died at our place when I was about twenty-five, immediately before I left home” — —

“I don’t like to correct you, Alf,” I interposed; “but I understood you to say that your father was a station-manager, on the Queensland border.

“Up to the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two. Then he bought a place on the Hawkesbury, intending, poor man! to spend the evening of his life indulging his hobby of chemistry, while I took the care of the place off his hands — for though I have two sisters, I was his only son. His great ambition was to bequeath some chemical discovery to future generations. But I demolished his castles in the air along with my own. It’s no odds about myself; but my poor father deserved better, after all his work and worry. Ah, my God! we parted in anger; and now I don’t know whether he’s alive or dead!” The prodigal paused, and sighed bitterly.

“And your mother?” I suggested experimentally.

“She was an invalid for several years before I left home,” replied Alf, his tone fulfilling my anticipation.

(Have you ever noticed that the prodigal son of real life, in nineteen cases out of twenty, speaks spontaneously and feelingly of his father, with, perhaps, a dash of reverent humour; whereas, to quote Menenius, he no more remembers his mother than an eight-year-old horse? This is cruel beyond measure, and unjust beyond comment; but, sad to say, it is true; and the platitudinous tract-liar, for the sake of verisimilitude, as well as of novelty, should make a memo. of it. Amongst all the hard-cases of my acquaintance, I can only think of one whose mother’s unseen presence is a power, and her memory a holy beacon, shining, by-the-way, with a decidedly intermittent light. Unfortunately, a glance along the three 9ths yet to come shows me that this nobly spurious type of prodigal-Jack the Shellback, vassal of Runnymede Station — will not come within the scope of these memoirs).

Alf dreamily resumed his inconsequent story: “However, this Charley Cross, or Yankee Charley, was an old Victorian digger. About twelve years before his death, he was working on Inglewood, with a mate that he would have trusted, and did trust, to any extent, and in any way. But it was the old, old story. He got a friendly hint, and watched, and watched, for weeks, without betraying any suspicion. At last he was satisfied. Then he carefully laid down his line of action, and followed it to the end. One day, his mate, sitting on the edge of the shaft, ready to put his foot in the rope, suddenly overbalanced, and went down head-foremost. Of course, Cross was close beside him at the time, and no one else was in sight. Cross gave the alarm, and, in the meantime, went hand-under-hand down the rope, intending, like Bruce, to ‘mak sicker’; for the shaft was only about forty feet deep. But it happened that the man’s neck was broken in the fall. Cross forgave his wife, and never breathed a word of his discovery or his vengeance; but in spite of this, the woman seemed to live in fear and horror. During the next couple of years, luck favoured him, and he made an independence. He invested his money judiciously; but there’s no guarantee for domestic happiness — in fact, there’s no guarantee for anything. First, his two surviving children died of diphtheria; then his wife followed, dying, Cross assured me, of a broken heart. He sorrowed for her more deeply, perhaps, because she had cost him so dear; and this, no doubt, was what drove him to drink.”

“Very probably,” I replied. “But, Alf, this taxing of your mind is about as good for you just now as footballing or boxing. Are you a smoker?”

“No.”

“That’s what I feared. Now, take my advice, and give yourself absolute rest, while I boil” ——

“One more story, Collins, as well authenticated as any of the three I have told. I knew a young fellow of between twenty-five and thirty” ——

“This won’t do,” I interposed firmly, for he had become restless and excited. “Why should you allow your mind to dwell so exclusively on the manifestations of one particular phase of moral aberration, and, to do bare justice to womanhood, an exceedingly rare one — except among the very highest and the very lowest classes? Unless you handle such questions in a scientific spirit, you’ll find them — or unfortunately, you won’t find them — envelop your reasoning faculties in a most unwholesome atmosphere. The perpetual brooding over any one evil, however fatal that evil may be, naturally side-blinds the mind into a narrow fanaticism which is apt to condone ten times as much wrong as it condemns; and you drift into the position of the man who strains at the moderate drinker, and swallows the usurer. We see this in the Good Templar, the Social Purity person, the Trades Unionist, and the moral faddist generally. Musonius Rufus sternly reminded Epictetus that there were other crimes besides setting the Capitol on fire.”

“Have you done? “ asked Alf, coldly but gently. “Let me tell you one more story while I’m able. I’ll soon be silent enough. — — The man I’m thinking of was a saw-mill owner. He had been married a couple of years, and had one child. I could n’t say that he actually loved his wife; in fact, she was n’t a woman to inspire love, though she was certainly good-looking. At her very best, there was nothing in her; at her worst, she was ignorant, and vain, and utterly unprincipled — no, not exactly unprincipled, but non-principled. She was essentially low — if you understand my meaning — low in her tastes and aspirations, low in her likes and dislikes, low in her thoughts and her language, low in everything. She may not have been what is called a bad woman, but — that miserable want of self-reverence — I can’t understand how —— Would you give me another drink, please?”

He drank very little this time. He had been speaking with an effort, and a haggard, hopeless look was intensifying in his face. I began to suspect a temporary delirium. The presentiment of impending death was unreasonable, though not ominous; so also with the determination to narrate irrelevant stories; but the incongruity of the two associated notions set me speculating in a sympathetic way.

“Alf,” said I gravely; “it’s foolish to tax your memory for anecdotes now. Try if you can settle yourself to sleep. I’m sure I’ll have great pleasure in exchanging yarns with you at some future time, when you’re more fit.”

“Listen, Collins,” he replied sullenly. “Our saw-mill owner got the inevitable glimpse of the truth. He was blind before; now he was incredulous. He condescended to play the spy, and he was soon satisfied. This time it was a Government official-clerk of the local Court — a blackleg vagabond, with interest at head-quarters — about the vilest rat, and certainly the vilest-looking rat, that ever breathed the breath of life. Our hero took no further notice of him than to terrify him into confession, and drive him into laying the blame on his paramour. And the amusing feature of the case was, that she, finding herself fairly run to earth, thought she had nothing to do but to turn from the evil of her ways, and take her husband’s part against the other fellow. But no, no. Our hero, after thinking the matter over, took her into his confidence, without giving her any voice in the new arrangement. He sold-out to the best advantage, and divided the proceeds with her; reserving to himself enough to start him in a line of life that he could follow without the annoyance of being associated with anyone. All that he earned afterward, beyond bare expenses, he forwarded to her, to save or squander as she pleased; the only condition being that she should acknowledge each remittance, and answer, as briefly as possible, such questions as he chose to ask. She humbly assented to all this, evidently looking forward to forgiveness and reconciliation, somewhere in-time or eternity. But, by God! she mistook her mark!” He laughed harshly, paused half-a-minute, and resumed,

“One restraint upon our hero was the thought of his little boy, only old enough to creep about, and incredibly fond of him; though this never softened him towards the worthless, cursed mother. Anyway, after about three years, the little boy died; and his heart was turned to stone. Still, through mere bitterness and obstinacy he followed the course he had adopted; meeting with a run of success that surprised himself. The very curse that was on him seemed to protect him from the mishaps that befell other men in his line of work; and he found life worth living for the sake of hating and despising the whole human race, including himself. There’s no pleasure like the pleasure of being a devil, when you feel yourself master of the situation, and — Now I’ve done, Collins.”

“That’s right. I’ve been thinking how to fix things for you till you’re able to” ——

“First, I have one question to ask you,” persisted Alf. “You notice that all these men acted differently. Which of them acted right? — or did any of them? You know, there are two other courses open: to appeal to the law, or to pass the matter over quietly, for fear of scandal. Is either of these right? One course must be right, and all the others must be wrong.”

By this time, I had made up my mind to humour him. “Well,” I replied; “it happens that I have given the subject some thought, as I intend, if I can find time, to write a few words on the varied manifestations of jealousy in the so-called Shakespear Plays. You’re familiar with the plays, of course?”

“I’ve read bits of them.”

“Possibly you remember, then, that Posthumus, in Cymbeline, on receiving proofs of his wife’s infidelity (we know her to be loyal, but that does n’t affect his proofs) harbours not one thought of revenge toward the man who has supplanted him. Indeed, as an artistic illustration of Iachimo’s immunity from retribution, Posthumus is afterward represented as disarming and sparing him in battle — a concession he would n’t have made to an ordinary enemy. He looks to Imogen alone. Nothing but the sacrifice of her life will satisfy him. On the eve of the same battle, we find him, though seeking for death himself, still gloating over the handkerchief supposed to be stained with her life-blood. Very well. Now Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, is a man very much resembling Posthumus in temperament — brave, resolute, truthful, unsuspicious, and more liberally endowed with muscle than brains” ——

“But this has nothing to do with it,” interrupted Alf. “I was asking your opinion as to which of the four acted rightly? — or did any of them?”

“Yes, Alf; I’m coming to that. I was going to remark that, though the temperamental conditions of Posthumus and Troilus are apparently so similar — apparently, mind — and their position as betrayed husbands so identical, we find them acting in directly opposite ways. Troilus entertains no thought of revenge upon his faithless wife; he gives his whole attention to the co-respondent. Now let us glance at Othello. Here is a man who, allowing for his maturer age, is much like the Briton and the Trojan in temperament, even to the extent of being more liberally endowed with muscle than” ——

“But you’re not answering my question,” moaned Alf. “Which of the four acted right?”

“Well,” I replied; “I’m afraid my conclusions won’t have the rounded completeness we value so much in moral inferences unless I’m allowed to empanel Leontes, in the Winter’s Tale, as well as Othello, and thus work from a solid foundation. But we’ll see. I’ll put my answer in this way: A casual thinker might pronounce it impossible to lay down any hard-and-fast rule of conduct here, on account of necessary diversity in conditions. He would, perhaps, argue that, though abstract Right is absolute and unchangeable, the alternative Wrong, though never shading down into Right, varies immeasurably in degree of turpitude; so that the action which is intrinsically wrong may be more excusable in one man than in another, or under certain conditions than under others. Now, I’m not going to deny that it lies within our province, as rational beings, to classify wrongs, provided we do so from a purely objective stand-point. I shall endeavour to deal with that issue by-and-by. I merely notice” ——

“Stop! stop!” interrupted Alf, rolling his head from side to side. “Answer my question!”

“Well, if you must have it like a half-raw potato, I give my vote in favour of Potiphar the Fourth, the saw-mill man. I don’t see what better he could have done. It was n’t the most romantic course, perhaps; but I’m not a romantic person — rather the reverse — and it meets my approval.”

“And your deliberate conviction is that he acted rightly — rightly, mind?”

“Assuredly he did. That is what I was driving at; but now you have to take my conclusion as an ipse dixit, rather than as a theorem. The misanthropy of the gentleman’s after-life is another question, and one which would lead us into a different, and much wider, region of philosophy. But I think we’ll find it interesting to trace, step by step, from its genesis to its culmination, the involuntary process of thought which led each of your Potiphars, separately, to his independent action. We can’t embark on this inquiry just now, Alf, for we shall have to grapple with the most minute and subtle shades of psychical distinction, and we shall have to deal largely in postulates; for though” ——

“I want to tell you something, Collins,” interrupted Alf, in a tone now free from all trace of the distraction and constraint which made it painful to listen to him. “Like poor Cross, I feel impelled to place my tragedy on record, but in one man’s memory only. I trust entirely to your discretion. Did you know I was a married man?”

“No; I certainly did n’t,” I replied, recalling myself; for I had been half-listening to a sound in the lignum. But as he spoke there flashed across my mental vision the picture of his wife — a tawny-haired tigress, with slumbrous dark eyes; a Circe, whose glorious voice had been silent in death for ten years, and lost to him for three years longer. Hence, by some sequence worth tracing, the voluntary exile, the Ishmaelite occupation; the morbid, malevolent interest in the Messalinas at large; and the generally pervading smell of husks. This, let me tell you, is what comes of meddling with tawny-haired tigresses, who harass a man out of individuality, and then die or abscond, leaving him like the last cactus of summer.

“No young fellow could have started in life with a fairer prospect than I had,” continued Alf, in a grave, composed tone. “But I was guilty of one deliberately fiendish and heartless action, and following upon that action, I made a mistake that nothing but death can absolve. I married a woman, who, I believe, was divinely assigned to me as a punishment. I’ll tell you the whole story” ——

“Wait, Alf,” said I hastily. “I must leave you for a few minutes. Do you want anything before I go?”

“Nothing, thank you. Don’t stay long.”

“You may be sure I won’t. Try if you can go to sleep.”

I jumped off the wagon. There was no time to lose. During the last few minutes, a peculiar cadence in the sound of Alf’s bells had told me, just as surely as words could have done, that the bullocks were mustered, and travelling away. My horses were not far off; and, to save time, I took Alf’s saddle and bridle from under his wagon. As I did so, I heard his voice, low and monotonous. I paused involuntarily. ——

“O Molly! Molly, my girl! — my poor love! — my darling!” ——

I hurried away, and put the saddle and bridle on Bunyip. Body o’ me! I thought — can a tawny-haired tigress be called Molly? This must be seen into when I have time.

In a couple of minutes Bunyip had settled down to that flying trot which would have been an independence to anyone except myself. After clearing the lignum, I got a back elevation of the bullocks, half-a-mile out on the plain; and, rapidly overhauling them, I perceived that I should have to pit myself against the Chinese boundary rider this time. Consequently I felt, like Cassius, fresh of spirit and resolved to meet all perils very constantly.

“Out of my way, you Manchurian leper, or I’ll run over you!” I shouted gaily, as I swung round the cattle, turning them back.

“Muck-a-hi-lo! sen-ling, ay-ya; ilo-ilo!” remonstrated the unbeliever, drawing his horse aside to let them pass.

“You savvy, John,” said I, suiting my language to his comprehension, while from my eye the Gladiator broke — “bale you snavel-um that peller bullock. Me fetch-um you ole-man lick under butt of um lug; me gib-it you big one dressum down. Compranny pah, John?” The Chinaman had turned back with me, and, as if he had been hired for the work, was stolidly assisting to return the cattle to the spot whence he had taken them.

“Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” I asked, thanklessly quoting from the familiar hexameter, and lighting my pipe as I spoke.

“Eulopean dam logue,” responded the heathen in his blindness.

“In contradistinction to the Asiatic and the Australian, who are scrupulously honest,” I observed pleasantly. “You savvy who own-um that peller bullock, John?”

“Walligal Alp,” replied the pagan promptly. “Me collal him bullock two-tlee time to-molla, all li; two-tlee time nex day, all li.”

“All li, John — you collar-um that peller bullock one more time, me manhandle you; pull-um off you dud; tie-um you on ant-bed, allee same spread-eagle; cut-um off you eye-lid; likee do long-a China; bimeby sun jump up, roast-um you eye two-tlee day; bull-dog ant comballee, eat-um you meat, pick-um you bone; bimeby you tumble-down-die; go like-it dibil-dibil; budgeree fire long-a that peller. You savvy, John?”

“Me tellee Missa Smyte you lescue,” replied John doggedly. “All li; you name Collin; you b’long-a Gullamen Clown; all li; you killee me bimeby; all li.” With this the discomfited Mongol turned his horse in the direction of Mondunbarra homestead, and, like a driver starting an engine when there is danger of the belt flying off, gradually worked up his pace to a canter, leaving me in possession of the field.

But in cases of this kind, there is only one thing worse than victory. I was fairly in a fix with Alf’s bullocks. You must understand that these beasts had no legal right to be anywhere except travelling along the track, or floating down the river. If they scattered off the track — not being attended by some capable person — their owner would, there and then, and as often as this occurred, be liable for trespass; twenty times a day, if you like, and a shilling per head each time. If I wished to remove them across a five or ten-mile paddock, the only way I could legally do so would be by means of a balloon. The thousands of homeless bullocks and horses which carry on the land-transport trade had to live and work, or starve and work, on squatters’ grass, year after year. So the right to live, being in the nature of a boon or benefaction, went largely by favour — like the slobbery salute imagined by poets — and poor Alf was no favourite with anyone.

The managers of all these three stations were out of reach; and besides, there was no great hope in appealing to any of them.

Yoongoolee homestead, across the river, was about sixteen miles distant; and Hungry M’Intyre, from what I knew of him, was little likely to make concessions to any member of the guild whose representatives had selected within sight of his wool-shed. Yoongoolee was avoided by all the floating population of the country, and particularly by those who could n’t afford to be independent, forasmuch as there was nothing there but Highland pride, and Highland eczema and hunger. Most squatters have titles; M’Intyre had two, which were used indifferently; one of these was derived from the hunger, the other from the eczema.

And, of all Alf’s enemies, perhaps the most inveterate was the Chinaman’s boss, Mr. Smythe, managing partner of Mondunbarra. This gentleman, whose exclusiveness took the very usual form of excluding all considerations not tending to his own profit, and whose refinement manifested itself to the vulgar eye chiefly in cutting things fine about the station, had, a couple of years previously, taken Alf in the very act of running one of his own bullocks out of the station cattle. An altercation had ensued, followed by a summons; and Alf had been mulcted in five shillings trespass, with six guineas costs, besides having to travel seventy or eighty miles to Court, and the same distance back to his wagon. This was trying enough to a man of Alf’s avaricious and irascible bent. It had caused him to speak a word in private to Mr. Smythe; and, from that time forward, the squatter hated the bullock driver considerably more than he hated sin, and feared him more than he feared his reputed Maker.

Poor Smythe! the remembrance of him wrings my soul with pity, even now. He was parsimonious, cunning, pusillanimous, fastidious, and hysterically excitable. He was cruelly sat-on by his inexorable partner, M’Gregor; contemned by his social equals; hated by his inferiors, and popularly known as the Marquis of Canton. His only friend was his brother Bert, a quiet youth, who attended him with Montholon-fidelity; and his appreciation of the cheap and reliable Asiatic was passively recognised by a station staff of Joss-devotees.

There was no use in my appealing to this gentleman, for, though most men in his place would have accepted the opportunity of laying Alf under an obligation, I knew his unhappy moral organisation well enough to be certain that neither policy nor magnanimity could intervene on behalf of a prostrate enemy. And to make matters more hopeless, Confucius would be just ahead of me, with his story of forcible rescue, coupled with personal threats of the gravest character.

Avondale remained. This station belonged to that grand old colonist, Captain Royce, who governed the seigneury from his Toorak mansion, like Von Moltke commanding an army from his telegraph-office. The large-hearted patriarchal traditions of early days were still current on the station; but that property had to pay, and pay well, at the manager’s peril. To illustrate this: Captain Royce, in responding to ‘Our Pastoral Interests,’ never failed to remark that no working beast had ever been impounded from Avondale. This, of course, conveyed the impression that it was a run flowing with grass and water for distressed teams; but the unhappy manager, watched and reported always by at least one narangy, and ground, as you see, between the upper mill-stone of Royce the munificent and the nether and much harder one of Royce the businessman, had to transmute every blade of grass, or twig of cotton-bush, into a filament of wool, or let somebody else have a try. Consequently, the boundary riders of Avondale had strict orders to hunt all strays and trespassers across the frontiers of stations that did impound; so the fine old squatter-king got there just the same — also the carriers’ teams and the drovers’ horses.

One characteristic of Avondale was that the rank and file of the station were always treated with fatherly benevolence, and were never discharged. They gradually got useless by reason of mere antiquity, and, without actually dying, slowly mummified, and were duly interred in the cemetery at the homestead.

In view of the rigorous usages specified, it was no marvel that a deficiency in the Avondale clip of ’83 had led to the resignation of Mr. Angus Cameron, and the installation of a new manager, a few weeks before the date of these incidents. But the appointment of a strange boundary rider to the paddock adjoining Alf’s camp — an event which had taken place three or four months before the same date — seemed like a sudden angle and break in the corridor of Time.

Avondale home-station was nine miles distant. I had never met the new manager; but his name was Wentworth St. John Ffrench; and, by all accounts, he acted up to it. Popular rumour likened him to the man with the whole pound of tobacco, who had sworn against borrowing or lending. Mr. Ffrench could afford to be independent of such men as Alf, but couldn’t afford to establish a precedent for invalided carriers loafing on the run. Of course, you would n’t look at the thing in that light; but then, your name is not Wentworth St. John Ffrench, and you would n’t do for a manager of Avondale. You would have the run swarming with a most tenacious type of trespassers before you knew what you were doing. Moreover, the moral responsibility (if any) of the matter rested on Mondunbarra, not on Avondale.

Neither had I ever seen the new Avondale boundary man; but I was prejudiced against him also. It required no deep dive into the mysteries of Nomenology to augur ill from the nickname of ‘Terrible Tommy.’ The title was, of course, satirical; the man an imbecile and fickle windbag. Still, this name was better than the manager’s.

Evidently, my only chance was to deal directly with some one of the boundary men. I had already failed to melt the musing Briton’s eyes; and though I had, in a sense, prevailed over the Mongol, I could make no use of him; so I found myself hanging, as you might say, by one strand, that strand being Terrible Tommy.

I must enlist this man, I mentally concluded, as a willing accomplice; and, by my faith, I’ll do so before I leave him. I care not an he be the devil; give me faith, say I.

By this time, the sun was just setting. I left the bullocks near the boundary fence, turned Bunyip adrift, and placed the saddle and bridle where I could find them again. Then crossing into Avondale, I picked my way through a belt of tall lignum, sloppy with warm water, and alive with mosquitos; then on through scattered timber until, a mile from the fence, appeared the one-roomed abode of the man I wanted. I knew where to find the place, having stayed there one night when Bendigo Bill was in charge of the paddock. But now, nearing the house, how I wished I had that frank, good-hearted old Eureka rebel to deal with instead of the hard-featured, sandy-complexioned man whom I saw carrying home a couple of buckets of water on a wooden hoop. Our old friends, the Irresistible and the Immovable were about to encounter once more.

“Evening, sir,” I cooed, with an urbanity born of the conditions already set down.

“Gude evenin’ (Squire Western’s expression!) Ye maun gang fairther, ye ken; fir fient haet o’ sipper ye’se hae frae me the nicht. De’il tak’ ye, ye lang-leggit, lazy loun, flichterin’ roun’ wi’ yir ‘Gude evenin’ sir!’ an’ a’ sic’ clishmaclaver. Awa’ wi ye! dinna come fleechin’ tae me! The kintra’s I-sy wi’ sic’ haverils, comin’ sundoonin’ on puir folk ’at henna mickle mair nir eneugh fir thir ain sel’s. Tak’ aff yir coat an’ wark, ye glaikit-De’il tak’ ye; wha’ fir ye girnin’ at?”

“Gude save’s!” I snarled; “wha’gar ye mak’ sic’ a splore? Hoo daur ye tak’ on ye till misca’ a body sae sair’s ye dae, ye bletherin’ coof? Hae ye gat oot the wrang side yir bed the morn?-ir d’ye tak’ me fir a rief-randy? — ir wha’ the de’il fashes ye the noo? Ye ken, A was compit doon ayont the boondary, an’ A thocht A wad dauner owre an’ hae a wee bit crack wi’ ye the nicht. A wantit tae ken wha’ like mon yir new maunager micht be, an’ tae speer twa-three ither things firbye; bit sin’ yir sae skrunty, ye maun tak’ yir domd sipper till yir ain bethankit ava, an’ A’ll gang awa’ bock till ma ain comp. Heh!” And I turned away with unconcealed resentment and contempt.

“Haud a wee,” said the boundary rider, setting down his buckets, and slapping the back of his neck. “Ye ken, A’m sae owrecam wi’ thir awfu’ mustikies that whiles A canna — Bit cam awa’ tae the biggin; cam awa’ tae the biggin, an’ rest yirsel’.” The Irresistible had scored this time. Such is life.



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

Such is Life
[next part of this chapter]

Speak Your Mind

*