Such is Life, by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) [chapter 7, part 2]

[Editor: This is the second part of Chapter Seven 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.]

Satan approached, carrying his negatively gifted rider, at a free, flying canter; his gregarious instinct prompting him to join my horses. His tawny skin was streaked with foam, and his off flank slightly stained from the repeated puncture of Jack’s spur. Ten yards from where I had pulled up, he suddenly sulked, and stood.

“Good morning, Jack.”

“Well, I be dash! Did n’t know you from a crow! Reckoned some member o’ Parliament, or bishop, or somebody, had bin swappin’ horses with you. You are comin’ out! Oh, I say! Nosey give me the letter, with the three notes in it; but I couldn’t make head or tail of it about the saddle. No more could n’t Moriarty.”

“I’ll explain all that to you some time. How are you getting on with Satan?”

“Bad,” replied Jack humbly. “You can easy enough steady him down, but then, the swine, he wants a spell; an’ when he gits a spell, you jist got to steady him down agen. Always got some new idear in his head. There!” — hastily rooting the horse’s side with his spur — “he’s goin’ to laydown, an’ make chips o’ the saddle. Up! you swine” — and, lying backward, he reached down to grip the sensitive membrane connecting the swine’s hind-leg with his body. The maddened beast shot past me like a yellow streak for another ten yards; then, with a flaring bound and a snort that was between a whistle and a shriek, spun half-round in the air, and alighted rigidly on his front feet, his ears between his knees, and his neck and back describing a vertical semicircle, with the saddle and Jack on the centre of its forward curve.

“Jist his style,” continued Jack dejectedly. “Never be worth a dash for general” —— I lost the next word or two, for the young fellow’s face was buried in the mass of silver mane, as the horse reared rampant to the balancing point; and the next word, again, was dislocated by a blow from the crupper buckle, just below the speaker’s shoulder-blade. “An’ Magomery wants a person to make a lady’s hack out o’ sich an outlawr as him!” he continued, in hopeless protest, whilst the ‘outlawr’ exerted his iron muscles to the utmost, and the saddle creaked like a basket. “Nummin’ good horse, too; on’y spoiled with — Jist look at that!” Satan had suddenly gathered his lithe, powerful limbs, and was tearing across toward the adjacent pine-ridge, spinning round, every thirty yards, in two or three terrific bucks. “I don’t want to sawr his mouth,” shouted Jack over his shoulder, in polite apology — “I’ll see you agen by-’n’-by ——

“Away on the evergreen shore, probably,” I soliloquised, resuming my journey. But, turning in the saddle, and pushing up my glasses out of the way, I watched the receding contest. I saw Jack wrench the horse aside from the timber; whereupon the animal reared rather too rashly, and just saved himself from falling backward by dropping on his quarters and flapping down on one side. When his broadside touched ground, Jack was standing beside him; and when he leaped to his feet, Jack was in the saddle. Exeunt fighting.

Toby, with his bare feet and brown, good-humoured face, was the only person visible on the station premises as I rode up.

“Gosh, I didn’t know you till I seen you side-on, when you was shuttin’ the Red Gate,” he remarked. (The Red Gate was about a mile and a half distant). “I thought you was somebody comin’ to buy the the station. Magomery, he’s buzznackin’ roun’ the run as usual,” he continued, helping me to unsaddle. “Butler, he’s laid up with the bung blight in both eyes. All the other fellers is out. Mrs. Bodysark” — and his grin deepened — “she ’s all right. Moriarty, of course, he ’s loafin’ in the store; lis’n him now, laughin’ fit to break his neck at some of his own gosh foolishness. I’ll shove your horses in the paddick. I say! ain’t they fell-away awful?”

“Yes; the season’s telling on them. Now will you look after Pup, like a good chap? Here’s his chain. I want to keep him fresh for travelling.”

“Right. I don’t wish you no harm, Collins; but I would n’t mind if you was in heaven, s’posen you left me that dog.”

I went across to the store, and looked in. Moriarty’s laughing suddenly ceased, as his eye fell on me; and he respectfully rose to his feet.

“Wherefore that crackling of thorns under a pot? “ I asked sternly, as I removed my belltopper and placed it on the counter. “Don’t you see the spirits of the wise sitting in the clouds and mocking you?”

“Well, I’ll be dashed!” he exclaimed admiringly. “You are coming out in blossom. Now you only want the upper half of your head shaved, and you could start a Loan and Discount bank, with a capital of half a million.”

“Thanks, worthy peer,” I replied, with dignity. “But, talking of finance, I trust you have n’t forgotten the trifle that there is between us, and the terms of our agreement?”

“I’m not likely to forget. Take that chair. I’ve got such fun here.” He had sliced some corks into flat discs; into the centre of each disc he had stuck a slender piece of pine, about two inches in height, and spatulated at the upper end, like a paddle. Then to the flat part of each upright he had attached a blow-fly, by means of a touch of gum on the insect’s back, and had placed in the grasp of each fly a piece of pine an inch long, cut into the shape of a rifle. The walking motion of the fly’s feet twirled and balanced the stick in rather droll burlesque of musketry drill; and a dozen of these insects-at-arms, disposed in open order on the counter, were ministering to the young fool’s mirth.

“Just you notice the gravity of the beggars,” he laughed. “Not a smile on them. Solemn as Presbyterians. ’Tention! Present! Recover! Not a lazy bone in their bodies. I say, Collins: a person could make a perpetual motion, with a fly on a sort of a treadmill? Ah! but then it would n’t pass muster unless it went of its own accord — would it? Perpetual motion’s a thing I’ve been giving my attention to lately. You remember you advised me to study mechanics? Well, I ’ve been thinking of arranging a clock so as to wind itself up as it went on. That ’s one idea. Another is a little more complicated. It ’s a water-wheel, driving a pump that throws a stream into the race that feeds the water-wheel, so that you use the same water over and over again, and the whole concern’s self-acting. The idea came into my head like an inspiration. Mind, I’m telling you in confidence, for there ’s a thousand notes hanging on to it.”

“Moriarty,” said I sadly; “you ’re worse than ever. Try something else. You’re not a born mechanician.”

“If I’m not, I’d like to know who the devil is?” replied the young fellow hotly. “Possibly, your own self? Was n’t my father a foreman in one of the largest machine-shops in Victoria, in his day? I know what ’s the matter with you. Jealousy.”

“It must be so. Plato, thou reasonest well,” said I hopelessly. “But supposing you are a born mechanician, you have neither the theoretical nor the practical training. Do you know for instance, the use of the brass slide you often see on a carpenter’s rule?”

“Of course I do! Why I could calculate with that slide before I was ten years old.”

One to Moriarty. I should have remembered that his abnormal breadth across the temples qualified him to do a sum in his head, in ten seconds, that I could n’t do on a slate in ten hours, nor for that matter, in ten years. No accounts in Riverina were better kept than those of Runnymede.

“Good, so far,” I replied benevolently. “But how much do you know of prismoidal formulae, or logarithmic secants? — not to speak of segmental ordinates, or the cycloidal calculus; or even of adiabatic expansion, or torsional resistance, or the hydrostatic paradox, or the coefficient of friction? Now, these things are the very A B C of mechanics, as you’ll find to your utter confusion.”

Moriarty’s countenance fell; but happening to glance at the performing flies, he laughed himself weak and empty. “Just look at the beggars,” he murmured, wiping his eyes.

“Business first,” said I. “How about my scandal?”

“It’s going grand!” replied Moriarty, beaming with new pleasure. “I carried out your suggestions to the letter. First, I took Mooney and Nelson into my confidence; and we arranged to meet accidentally, one evening after dusk, under that willow beside her bed-room. At last we sat down, with our backs against the weatherboard wall, and talked about” ——

“Day, chaps,” said a stranger, appearing at the door of the store. “Got any pickles in stock, Moriarty?”

“Lots. Half-a-crown a bottle.”

“Say three bottles,” replied the stranger, seating himself on the counter. “And — let ’s see — a pound of tobacco; a dozen of matches; a tin of baking-powder; and a couple of hobble-chains. I’ll make that do till I get as far as Hay. My chaps are squealing for pickles,” he continued, turning to me. “I did n’t know you at the first glance. Your name’s Collins — is n’t it? You might remember me passing by you last spring, a few miles back along the track here, where you ’d been helping Steve Thompson and a big, gipsy-looking fellow to load up some wool on a Sydney-pattern wagon? So that chestnut was a stolen horse, after all. Smart bit of work. Another devil of a season — isn’t it? I’ve been trying to shift 900 head of forward stores from Mamarool to Vic.; but I advised the owner to give it best, though it was money out of my pocket, when I had none in it to begin with. Managed to arrange for them on Wooloomburra till the winter comes on.”

Whilst speaking, he had opened his knife and removed the capsule and cork from one of the bottles of pickles; then, after drinking some of the vinegar out of the way, he began harpooning the contents of the bottle, and eating them with a relish that was pleasant to see.

I made a suitable reply, whilst Moriarty, having made up his order, noted the items and price on the paper which contained the tobacco.

“I see Alf Jones is gone, Moriarty,” I remarked, after a pause — the stranger being occupied with his pickles. “Wisest thing he could do.”

“Foolishest thing he could do,” replied the storekeeper. “Nosey was a fixture on Runnymede; he was one of Montgomery’s pets; and if he thinks he can better that in Australia, he’s got a lot to learn. And what a hurry he was in, to get out of the best billet he’ll ever have, poor beggar! with his shyness and his disfigurement. But he’s been on the pea, like a good many more. Let’s see — it was just the day after you went away that he came to Montgomery, and said he must go. That’ll be six or eight weeks ago now. Montgomery went a lot out of his way to persuade him to stop, but it was no use; he was like a hen on a hot griddle till he got away. Decent chap, too; and, by gosh! can’t he sing and play! We found afterward that he had given his books to the station library, with the message that we were to think kindly of him when he was gone. I felt sort of melancholy to see him drifting away to beggary, with his fiddle-case across the front of his saddle, and his spare horse in his hand. He knew no more where he was going than the man in the moon.”

“Don’t you believe it,” I replied. “These cranky fellows have always sane spots in their heads; and Alf is particularly lucky in that respect. There’s not above two — or, at the most, three — lobes of that fellow’s brain in bad working order. Just you watch the weekly papers, and you’ll get news of him in his proper sphere. He’s gone to Sydney, or perhaps Melbourne, to do something better than boundary riding.”

“No; he’s gone to Western Queensland,” remarked the stranger, who had been watching Moriarty’s flies, without the trace of a smile on his saturnine face. “I met him sixty or eighty mile beyond the Darling, on the Thargomindah track, three weeks ago.”

“Not the same fellow, surely?” I suggested.

“Well,” replied the stranger tolerantly, “the young chap I’m speaking of had some disfigurement of the face, so far as I could distinguish through a short crape veil; and he was carrying a box that he evidently would n’t trust on his pack-horse, but whether it was a violin-case or a child’s coffin, I was n’t rude enough to ask. Old-fashioned Manton single-barrel slung on his back. Good-looking black-and-tan dog. Brown saddle-horse; small star; WD conjoined, near shoulder; C or G, near flank. Bay mare, packed; J S, off shoulder; white hind-foot. Horses in rattling condition; and he was taking his time. He’d been boundary riding in the Bland country before coming here. Peculiar habit of giving his head a little toss sometimes when he spoke.”

“That’s him, right enough,” said Moriarty. “Had you a yarn with him?”

“Not much of a yarn certainly,” replied the stranger, holding his bottle up to the light while he speared a gherkin with his knife. “It was coming on evening when I met him; and, says he, ‘I ’m making for the Old-man Gilgie — haven’t you come past it?’ So I told him if he wanted to camp on water, he’d have to turn back five mile, and come with me to where I knew of a brackish dam. I’d just been disappointed of water, myself, at the Old-man Gilgie. It had been half-full a few days before, but a dozen of Elder’s camels had called there, carrying tucker to Mount Brown; and each of them had scoffed the full of a 400-gallon tank. Talk about camels doing without water!” — Just here, though the stranger’s ordinary language was singularly quotable in character, he digressed into a searching and comprehensive curse, extending, inclusively, from Sir Thomas Elder away back along the vanishing vista of Time to the first man who had conceived the idea of utilising the camel as a beast of burthen.

“So we camped late at night,” he resumed, in a relieved tone; “and this friend of yours cleared-off early in the morning. He was n’t interested in anything but the Diamantina track, and I was nasty over the gilgie, so we did n’t yarn much. However, that chap ’s no more off his head than I am. Bit odd, I daresay; but that’s nothing. I often find myself a bit odd — negligent, and forgetful, and sort of imbecile — but that’s a very different thing from being off your head. Why, just now, I saw your two horses in the paddock as I came up; and, if I was to be lagged for it, I could n’t think where I had seen them before — in fact, not till I recognised you. Want of sleep, I blame it on. Well, if I don’t shift, there won’t be many pickles left for my chaps. They were to boil the billy at the Balahs. Better give us another bottle.” He handed Moriarty the money for the goods, and stowed them in a small flour-bag. “So-long, boys — see you again some day.” And the imbecile stranger trailed his four-inch spurs from our presence.

“Do you know him, Moriarty?” I asked.

“I can’t say I do,” replied the storekeeper. “One day, last winter, I happened to be out at the main road when he passed with 400 head of fats; and somehow I knew that his name was Spooner. Never saw him again till now. But how about Nosey Alf — was n’t I right for once? — and were n’t you wrong for once?”

“So it appears,” I replied. “But you haven’t told me how you worked the scandal. You were sitting with your backs against the wall — Go on” ——

“Sitting with our backs against the wall,” repeated my agent complacently. “Well, we began to talk about the jealousy there was amongst the station chaps on account of Jack the Shellback being picked to take Nosey’s place; and from that we got round to gossip about you stopping with Nosey the evening you left here, and wondering how you got on together, being queer in different ways. Then the conversation settled down on you; and we even quoted a remark Mrs. Beaudesart had made about you, only a couple of hours before. She had said that, though you were such a wonderful talker, you were surprisingly reticent respecting your own former life, and your family connections, and the place you came from. We commented on this remark, and laughed a bit, not at you, but at her. Clever engineering — was n’t it?”

“Not unless she was in her room, with her ear against the wall.”

“Trust her,” replied my ambassador confidently. “She saw us sitting down as she went across the yard; and we counted on her. We knew her meanness in the matter of listening.”

“Don’t say ‘meanness,’” I remonstrated. “I must take her part there. You can’t judge even a high-minded woman by the standard of a moderately mean man, in this particular phase of character. Our deepest student of human nature makes his favourite Beatrice, on receiving a hint, run down the garden like a lapwing, to do a bit of deliberate eavesdropping; whilst her masculine counterpart, Benedick, has to hear his share of the disclosure inadvertently and reluctantly. Similarly, in Love’s Labour Lost, when the mis-delivered letter is handed to Lord Boyet to read, he says: —

This letter is mistook; it importeth none here;
It is writ to Jaquenetta.

That, of course, settles the matter in his mind; but the Princess, true to her sex, says eagerly, and with a perfectly clear conscience: —

We will read it, I swear;
Break the neck of the wax, and let every one give ear.

“Don’t let us judge women by our standard here, for we can’t afford to be judged by their standard in some other” ——

“Hear, hear; loud applause; much laughter,” interrupted the delegate flippantly. “Well, we were yarning and laughing over Mrs. Beaudesart’s simplicity; and it came out that Nelson and Mooney knew there was some reason why you dare n’t go back to where you were known; but they had never heard the story; so I put them on their honour, and told them the whole affair.”

“How did the story run?” I asked.

My vicar repeated it. (Which is more than I can do.)

“Well, that ought to drum me out of her esteem,” I remarked, with the feeling of a man respited on the scaffold. “And it hangs together fairly well for a fabrication. But I’m honestly sorry to have been forced to put such an office on you, Moriarty. Indeed, I wonder how you could have the nerve to tell such a yarn in a woman’s hearing.”

“Friendship, old man,” replied my factor wammly. “But it ain’t a fabrication. I found I couldn’t invent anything with the proper ring of truth about it; so, the evening before the disclosure, when Jack the Shellback was in the store getting some things to take out with him, I asked him what was the most blackguardly prank he ever got off with; and that was the yarn he told me. Of course, I altered it a bit to suit you.”

“And Mrs. Beaudesart believes it?” I queried hopefully.

“I don’t see what else she can do, considering the way the thing came-off. She would have to be like one of the ancient prophets.”

“And you think it has the proper effect?”

“No effect at all,” replied the nuncio decidedly. “Her manner’s just the same when she hears you talked about promiscuously; and she does n’t take it any way ill to overhear a quiet joke about the thing that’s supposed to be coming-off some time soon. It’s a failure so far as that goes. Certain as life.”

“Well, Moriarty, if dishonour has no effect, we must try disgrace.”

“Why, they’re the same. You better go back to school, Collins.”

“They’re entirely independent of each other — if you insist on bringing me back to school, to waste my time over one barren pupil. Poverty, for instance, is disgrace without dishonour; Michael-and-Georgeship is dishonour without disgrace. In cases like mine, the dishonour lies in the fact, and the disgrace in the publicity. You must set the whole station commenting on your scandal.”

“That’s just what the whole station is doing at the present time,” replied my legate unctuously. “Surprising how these things spread of themselves, when they ’re once fairly started. And everybody believes the yarn; bar Mooney, and Nelson, and myself; and you can depend your life on us to keep it jigging. No, I’m wrong; Montgomery’s got the inside crook on us.”

“Montgomery?” said I inquiringly.

“Yes. I got a fright over that,” explained the diplomatist. “The other morning, I was at some correspondence here, and I heard a quick step, and when I looked up, who should I see but Montgomery, as black as thunder.

“‘Moriarty!’ says he, in a voice that made me jump; ‘what is this story I hear of Collins? Now, no shuffling,’ says he; ‘I’ve traced it home to you, and I want your authority. I always looked upon Collins as a decent sort of oddity,’ says he; ‘and I’m determined to sift this matter thoroughly.’ Frightened me out of a year’s growth.” Moriarty paused, and drew a long breath.

“Well?” said I, hazily; wondering whether this piteous wreckage of plot was owing to some defect in my own strategy, or to bad lieutenantry in the working out.

“So I had to make a clean breast of it,” continued the plenipotentiary, in a reluctant and apologetic tone. “No use talking. It was impossible to stand to the yarn, when Montgomery’s eye was on me — let alone being taken by surprise. It was dragged from me by a sort of hypodermic influence; and all the fun seemed to have died out of it, till it sounded mean and small and unmanly. Yes; I had to tell him the fix you were in, and the commission you had given me, and everything from first to last; bar that infernal wager. Well, you know, Montgomery never laughs; but I saw his face twitching, once or twice; and before I had done, he wheeled round and stood looking out of the door, as if I was n’t worth listening to. Then he went away, coughing fit to break his neck.”

“I may thank him for being tree’d, in the first place; and he knows it,” I remarked, with a sourness which appears pardonable even at this distance of time.

“What had he got to do with it?” asked Moriarty.

“How the tempus does fugit!” I replied. For the mid-day bell was ringing at the hut.

“Best sound since breakfast-time,” said Moriarty, rising. “Come on to lunch.”

As we left the store, half-a-dozen representatives of the lower classes were stringing-in from different directions toward the hut, to attend to the most ancient and eminent of human institutions — the institution which predicates and affirms the brotherhood of our race as positively, and, to the philosophic mind, as touchingly, as death itself; being recognised and remembered by the aristocrat who forgets his own personal dirt-origin and dirt-destination; by the woman who forgets the date of her birth; by the friend who forgets the insulting language he used to you when he was under the influence; and by the boy who forgets his catechism. The meal-signal is the real Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame; the Greek invocation which calls fools into a circle as surely as wise men; for neither folly nor wisdom is proof against its spell.

Just then, two swagmen on foot came into the yard, and approached Moriarty and me. I fixed my belltopper, adjusted my specs, and assumed my stately pipe, whilst my soul went forth in psalms of thanksgiving. Here was the true key to the Wilcannia shower; here was the under-side of my imagined precaution against ophthalmia; here was the hidden purpose of that repetitional picking and sorting of the hawker’s stock which had left Jack the Shellback his Hobson’s choice in coats; here was a Wesleyan converging of the whole vast order of the universe toward the happiest issue. For here was Tom Armstrong at last; and I stood prepared to force a temporary renewal — albeit for double the original amount — of the bill, drawn by me on the Royal Inevitable, and now about to be presented by the legitimate holder.

“Is the bose at hame?” asked the holder briskly, turning first to Moriarty and then to me. “Losh! it’s no Tam M’Callum!” — he swung his swag to the ground, and extended his hand — “Mony ’s the thocht A had o’ ye, mun. Ma certie, A kent weel we wad forgather ir lang. An’ hoo’re ye farin’ syne?”

“Excellent, i’ faith — of the chameleon’s dish,” I replied, with winning politeness, and a hearty hand-grip, though I felt like a man in the act of parrying a rifle bullet. “I have a wretched memory for faces, yet yours seems familiar; and I ’m certain I’ve heard your voice before. Pardon me if I ask your name?”

“Tam Airmstrang,” replied my creditor, in an altered tone.

“Now, where have we met before?” I pondered. “Armstrong? I know several of the name in Riverina, and several in Victoria. Wait a moment — Did we meet at the Caledonian Sports, in Echuca, two years ago, past? No! Well, perhaps — yes — didn’t we have a drink together, at Ivanhoe, three or four months ago?”

“Od sink ’t,” muttered the honest fellow, in vexation; “A thocht ye was yin Tam M’Callum, frae Selkirksheer.”

“I’m a Victorian myself, and my people are Irish,” I remarked gently. “But my name’s Collins,” I continued, brightening up; “and Collins sounds something like M’Callum.”

“Ye ’se no be the mon A thocht ye was,” replied Tam decidedly — and the unconscious double-meaning of his words sank into my heart — “Bit hae ye onything tae dae wi’ Rinnymede?”

“No; I ’m only a caller, like yourself. Moriarty, here, is the storekeeper.”

“D’ ye want ony han’s?” continued Tam, addressing Moriarty.

“I think we do,” replied the young fellow, moving toward the barracks. “The boss was saying there was a few burrs that would have to be looked after at once. Call again in the evening, and see him.”

“Yon wad fit mysen like auld breeks,” persisted Tam; “bit A’m takkin’ thocht o’ Andraw here. Puir body’s sicht’s nae fit fir sic wark; an’ A mauna pairt wi’ him the noo. An ye henna onythin’ firbye birrkittin’, we maun gang fairther ava.”

He resumed his swag. I made a sign, perceptible only to Moriarty, and the latter hesitated a moment.

By virtue of a fine tradition, or unwritten law, handed down from the time of Montgomery’s father, a subaltern officer of Runnymede had power to send any decent-looking swagman — or a couple of them, for that matter — to the hut for a feed. Certain conditions, however, had formulated themselves around this prerogative: first, the stranger must of necessity be a decent-looking man; second, he must be within the precincts of the homestead at the ringing of the bell; third, the officer must walk down to the hut with him, as a testimony; fourth, no particular sub must make a trade of it. The prerogative was something like one enjoyed by abbots, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries, in the ages of faith; namely, the right to extend the jurisdiction and protection of the Church over any secular prisoner accidentally met on his way to execution — a prerogative, the existence of which depended on its not being abused. And though Moriarty was only on the Commissariat, and was therefore unmercifully sat-on by the vulgar whenever he presumed to give orders, he held this right through a series of forerunners extending back to the time when Montgomery I. had been his own storekeeper. Don’t you believe the yarns your enthusiast tells of the squatter’s free-and-easy hospitality toward the swagman. Such things were, and are; but I would n’t advise you to count upon the institution as a neat and easy escape from the Adamic penalty. You might fall-in. Hence Moriarty’s personal reluctance in the matter was perfectly natural. The meal at the hut, and the pannikin of dust at the store, are two widely different things. But a faithful and exhaustive inquiry into the ethics of station hospitality would fill many pages, for the question has more than one aspect.

“Go down to the hut, and have some dinner,” said Moriarty, turning back; and we preceded the two men on their way. “Can you make room for these chaps, Matt?” he asked, looking into the hut.

The cook growled assent; and the two strangers took their places at the table.

“Scotty thought he knew you,” observed Moriarty, with characteristic profundity, as we turned again toward the barracks. The remark broke a spell that was coming over me.

“And I thought I knew his mate, though I can’t manage to locate him,” I replied. “But, as I was telling Scotty, I have the worst memory in the world for faces.”

“Ay, that poor wreck would n’t fetch much in the yard,” remarked Moriarty, referring to Tam’s mate. “When a fellow comes to his state, he ought to be turned out for the summer in a swamp paddock, with the leeches on his legs; then you ought to sell him to Cobb and Co., to get the last kick out of him. Or else poll-axe the beggar.”

“Very good system, Moriarty. Apply it to yourself also. You’re not dead yet.”

“But I’ll never come to that state of affairs.”

“Assuredly you will, sonny — just for the remark you’ve made. But I ’d like to see that fellow again. Go on to the barracks; I’ll be after you in two minutes.”

Confused identity seemed to be in the air. Had I seen that weary looking figure, and that weather-worn face, before? I could n’t determine; and I can’t determine now — but the question has nothing to do with this record. At all events, impelled partly by a desire to have another look at the man, and partly, perhaps, by a morbid longing to flaunt myself before Tam, I grandly dipped my lofty belltopper under the doorway of the hut, and, without removing it, helped myself to a pannikin of tea from the bucket by the hearth, and sat down opposite the silent swagman. Farther along the table, Tam was already breast-deep in the stream of conversation. In answer to some question, he was replying that he had been only twelve months in the colonies.

“And what part of the Land o’ Cakes are you from?” I asked, wantonly, but civilly.

“A’m frae Dumfriessheer — frae a spote they ca’ Ecchelfechan,” he replied complacently. “Bit, de’il tak’t, wha’ gar’d ye jalouse A was a Scoatsman?”

“What the (sheol) was the name o’ that (adj.) place you come from?” asked the station bullock driver, with interest.

“Ecchelfechan.”

“Nobody ’s got any business to come from a place with sich a (adj.) name”

“An’ wha’ fir no?” demanded Tam sternly. “Haud tae ye ’se hae ony siccan a historic name in yir ain domd kintra. D’ye ken wha, firbye mysen, was boarn in Ecchelfechan syne? Vinna fash yirsel’ aboot” —

“I say, Scotty,” interposed Toby; “Egglefeggan ’s the place where they eat brose — ain’t it?”

“A’ll haud nae deeskission wi’ the produc’ o’ hauf-a-dizzen generations o’ slavery,” replied Tam haughtily. “A dinna attreebute ony blame tae yir ain sel’, laddie; bit ye canna owrecam the kirse o’ Canaan.”

“Cripes! do you take me for a (adj.) mulatter?” growled the descendant of a thousand kings. “Why, properly speaking, I own this here (adj.) country, as fur as the eye can reach.”

“Od, ye puir, glaikit, misleart remlet o’ a perishin’ race,” retorted Tam — “air ye no the mair unsicker? Air ye no feart ye’se aiblins see yon day gin ye ’se thole waur fare nir a wamefu’ o’ gude brose? Heh!”

“Oh, speak English, you (adj.) bawbee-hunter!” muttered H.R.H. “Why, they ’re a cut above brose in China — ain’t they, Sling?”

“Eatee lice in China,” replied the gardener, with national pride.

“Plenty lice — good cookee — welly ni’.”

“By gummies! Hi seed the time Hi’d ’a’ stopped yer jorrin’, Dave!” said a quavering voice, dominating some argument at the other end of the table. “Hi seed me fightin’ in a sawr-pit f’r tew hewrs an’ sebmteen minits, by the watch; an’ fetched ’ome in a barrer. Now wot’s the hupshot? Did ’n’ Hi say, ‘Look hout! we’ll git hit to rights’?”

“But you (adv.) well thought we’d get rain,” persisted the old man’s antagonist — an open-mouthed, fresh-faced rouseabout, who was just undergoing that colonising process so much dreaded by mothers and deplored by the clergy.

“’Ow the (fourfold expletive) do you hundertake to know wot Hi thort?

But wot war the hupshot? ‘Look hout!’ ses Hi; ‘we’ll git hit to rights!’

An’ did we, hor did we not? Straight, now, Dave?”

“You’re like Cassandra, Jack,” I observed, to fill up the pause which marked Dave’s discomfiture.

“That bloke as spoke las’, ’e’s got more hunder ’is ’at nor a six-’underd-an’-fo’ty-hacre paddick full o’ sich soojee speciments as you fellers,” said the old man impressively. “Wich o’ you knows hanythink about Cassandra? Hin ’twenty-six hit war, an’ hit seems like las’ week. Hi druv ole Major Learm’th to them races, Hi did; an’ wen the ’osses comes hin, ’e looks roun’ an’ ses to ’is labour, a-stannin’ aside the kerridge, ‘Cassandra fust,’ ses ’e, ’an’ the rest nowheers,’ ses ’e. Now what’s the hupshot? Collings’ll see the day. Them’s ole Jack Goldsmith’s words, an’ jis’ you mark ’em. Collings’ll see the day! Yes, Dave,” continued the heart of the old man to the Psalmist; “Hi won ten bob on Cassandra that day; an’ ten bob war ten bob them times,” &c., &c.

All this while, I had been observing the silent swagman, who seemed to grow uneasy under my notice.

“I was remarking to a friend just now that I fancied I had seen you before,” I explained.

“Well, they ain’t actilly sore, so much as sort o’ dazzly and dim,” replied the man, in evident relief. “I been tryin’ mostly everything this last four year, but I got better hopes now nor ever I had before. A boundary man he give me a little bottle o’ stuff the other day; an’ it seems to be about the correct thing. Jist feels like a spoonful o’ red-hot ashes in your eye; an’ if a drop falls outside, it tums your skin black. That ought to cut away the sort o’ glassy phlegm off o’ the optic nerve?”

“No; you want none of these burning quack remedies; you want three months’ careful treatment” ——

“I ain’t denyin’ it,” interrupted the man, sadly and sullenly. “An’ I don’t thank Tom for bein’ so fast,” he continued, raising his voice in attempted anger. “He ain’t the man I took him for — an’ I’m sayin’ it to his face.”

The general conversation dropped, and Tam, pannikin in hand, rose and advanced to his mate’s side.

“An’ wha’ is’t ye’re sayin’ till ma face, Andraw?” he asked loudly, but with gentleness and commiseration. “Puir body’s haird o’ hearin’,” he explained to the company.

“I’m sayin’ you’d no right to go blurtin’ out about a man gittin’ a stretch for a thing o’ that sort. Seems like as if there was a job for one of us on this station, an’ you was takin’ a mean advantage to collar it. It ain’t like you” ——

“Od, whisht! ye puir thrawart body! “ interrupted Tam hastily.

“You might ’a’ went about it a bit more manly,” continued the other, with the querulousness of a sick child. “I don’t deny I done three months; but so help” ——

“Whisht! ye daft” ——

“So help me God, I never deserved it. I knowed no more about it nor the babe unborn, till I got it off o’ the bobby that nabbed me.”

“But how could you (adj.) well get three months for a thing you (adj.) well knew nothing about?” asked the catechumen rouseabout. (Henceforth, the reader will have to supply from his own imagination the clumsy and misplaced expletive which preceded each verb used by this young fellow.)

“Ye moight foine it dang aisy yeerself, Dave,” observed a middle-aged diner significantly.

“I been a misfortunate man, there’s no denyin’,” continued the swagman; “but I never done a injury to nobody in my life, so fur as I’m aware about.”

“What did he get the three months for?” asked Dave, turning to Tam.

“Gin ye speer onythin’ frae me,” replied Carlyle’s townie, after slowly surveying his questioner from head to foot, “A maun inform ye A ken naethin’ bit gude o’ Andraw; an’ A hae warkit wi’ him mair nir fowr minth. ’Deed, the puir body taks owre muckle thocht fir ithers, an’ disna’ spare himsel’ ava. A ken naethin’ aboot yon three minth; yon ’s atween Andsaw an’s Makker; an’ A’ll nae jidge onybody, sin’ we maun a’ be judgit by Ane wha jidgeth iprightly. Bit as lang’s A hae a pickle siller, Andraw’ll no want.” And Tam returned to his seat.

“What would I want of burnin’ a stack?” remonstrated Andrew, blinking defiantly round the table. “Tell you how it come. Hold on a minute” — he went to the bucket, and refilled his pannikin — “It was this way: I was jist startin’ to thatch a new haystack for two ole bosses o’ mine, on the Vic. side o’ the Murray, when up comes a trooper.

“‘What’s your name?’ says he.

“‘Andrew Glover,’ says I.

“‘Well, Andrew Glover, you’re my prisoner — charged with burnin’ a stack,’ says he. ‘I must fetch you along,’ says he. So he gives me the usual warnin’, an’ walks me off to the logs.”

“And how did it go?” shouted Dave, who had shifted his pannikin and plate to Andrew’s side.

“Well, the Court day it come roun’; an’ when my case was called, the prosecutor he steps down off the bench, an’ gives evidence; an’ I foun’ him sayin’ somethin’ about not wantin’ to press the charge; an’ there was a bit of a confab; an’ then I foun’ the Bench askin’ me if I’d sooner be dealt with summary, or be kep’ for the Sessions; an’ I said summary by all means; so they give me three months.”

“What was the prosecutor’s name?” shouted Dave.

“Waterman.”

“So called because he opens the carriage-doors,” I remarked involuntarily.

“Do you know him, Collins?” persisted Dave.

“I neither know him nor do I feel any aching void in consequence,” I replied, pointedly interpolating, in two places, the quidnunc’s flowers of speech.

“How did the evidence go, mate?” asked the young fellow greedily.

“Eh?”

“How did the evidence go?”

“Oh yes! Well, I’m a bit hard o’ hearin’ — I dunno if you notice it on me, but I am — an’ sometimes I’m worse nor other times; so I did n’t ketch most o’ what went on; an’ the prosecutor he was a good bit off o’ me; an’ there was a sort o’ echo. But I foun’ one o’ the magistrates sayin’, ‘Quite so, Mr. Waterman — quite so, Mr. Waterman,’ every now an’ agen; an’ I was on’y too glad to git off with three months. I’d ’a’ got twelve, if I’d bin remanded for a proper trial. The jailer told me after — he told me this Waterman come out real manly. Seems, he got the charge altered to Careless Use o’ Fire. So I can’t help giving him credit, in a manner o’ speakin’. But, so help me God, I never burned no stack.”

“Did you know this Waterman?” interrogated Dave. “Was you ever on his place?”

“Well, yes; I was on his place, askin’ him for work, as it might be this mornin’; an’ he give me rats for campin’ so near his place, as it might be las’ night. Seems, it was nex’ mornin’ his stack was burnt, jist after sunrise. But, so help me God, I never done it.”

“(Adj.) shaky sort o’ yarn,” commented the bullock driver, in grave pity.

“Let it drop, Dave.”

“Divil a shaky,” interposed the hon. member for Tipperary. “Arrah, fwy wud the chap call on the Daity? Fishper — did ye iver foine justice in a coort? Be me sowl, Oi’d take the man’s wurrd agin all the coorts in Austhrillia. An’ more betoken — divil blasht the blame Oi’d blame him fur sthrekin a match, whin dhruv to that same.”

“Shoosteece iss (adj.) goot, mais revahnsh iss (adj.) bat,” remarked another foreigner — a contractor’s cook, who had come to the homestead for a supply of rations. “Vhere iss de (adj.) von? — vhere is de (adj.) autre? All mix — eh? De cohnseerashohn iss — I not know vat you vill call him ohn Angleesh, mais ve vill call him ohn Frahnsh, (adj.) cohnplecat.”

“Much the same in English, Theophile,” I observed.

“You vill barn de (adj.) snack,” continued Theophile, turning politely to me; “you vill call him shoosteece; mineself, I vill call him revahnsh. Mineself, I vill not barn de (adj.) snack; I vill be too (adj.) flash. I vill go to (sheol).”

“Not for your principles, Theophile,” I replied, with a courteous inclination of my belltopper.

“Course, it’s all in a man’s lifetime,” pursued Andrew resignedly. “Same time, it seems sort a’ hard lines when a man’s shoved in the logs for the best three months in the year for a thing he never done. ’Sides, I was on for a good long job with two as decent a fellers as you’d meet in a day’s walk. I’d met one o’ them ten mile up the river, as it might be this afternoon; an’ the fire it took place as it might be to-morrow mornin’.”

“But where was you when the fire broke-out? — that’s the question,” demanded Dave, with a pleasant side-glance round the table.

“Eh?”

“You’ll be bumpin’ up agen a snag some o’ these times, young feller,” muttered the bullock driver.

“I was only askin’ him where he was when the fire broke out,” protested Somebody’s Darling; then in a louder voice he repeated his question.

“Dunno. Somewhere close handy,” replied the swagman hopelessly. “Anyhow, I never done it. Well, then, I’d jist got well started to work on Monday mornin’, when up comes the bobby, an’ grabs me. ’S’pose you’ll have to go,’ says the missus — for the bosses was both away at another place they got. ’S’pose so,’ says I. ‘Better take my swag with me anyhow.’ Course, by the time my three months was up, things was at the slackest; an’ I could n’t go straight back to a decent place, an’ me fresh out o’ chokey. Fact, I can’t go back to that district no more. But as luck would have it, I runs butt agen the very man I’d ratherest meet of anybody in the country.” The swagman paused, and slowly turned toward me, in evident trouble of mind — “He did n’t tell you two blokes I was logged for stack-burnin’?” And the poor fellow’s flickering eyes sought my face appealingly.

“Indeed he did n’t, mate.”

“Why, you let the cat out of the bag yourself!” exclaimed Dave triumphantly.

Then the conversation took a more general turn.

By this time, I had provisionally accounted for my vaguely-fancied recognition of the man. With the circumspection of a seasoned speculatist, I had bracketed two independent hypotheses, either of which would supply a satisfactory solution. One of these simply attributed the whole matter to unconscious cerebration. But here a question arose: If one half of my brain had been more alert than its duplicate when the object first presented itself — so that the observation of the vigilant half instantaneously appeared as an intangible memory to the judgment of the apathetic half — it still remained to be determined which of the halves might be said to be in a normal condition. Was one half unduly and wastefully excited? — or was the other half unhealthily dormant? The thing would have to be seen into, at some fitting time.

But this hypothesis of unconscious cerebration seemed scarcely as satisfactory as the other-namely, that, having at a former time heard Terrible Tommy mention the name of Andrew Glover, my educated instinct of Nomenology, rising to the very acme of efficiency, had accurately, though unconsciously, snap-shotted a corresponding apparition on the retina of my mind’s eye.

Then there were lessons to be gathered from Tom Armstrongs’s prompt acceptance of such alibi evidence, touching myself, as would have merely tended to unfathomable speculations on metempsychosis in an ether-poised Hamlet-mind. Tom, though crushing for a couple of ounces, was one of your practical, decided, cocksure men; guided by unweighed, unanalysed phenomena, and governed by conviction alone — the latter being based simply, though solidly, upon itself. These men are deaf to the symphony of the Silences; blind to the horizonless areas of the Unknown; unresponsive to the touch of the Impalpable; oblivious to the machinery of the Moral Universe — in a word, indifferent to the mysterious Motive of Nature’s all-pervading Soul. In such mental organisms, opinion, once deflected tangentially from the central Truth, acquires an independent and stubborn orbit of its own. But the Absolute Truth is so large, and human opinion so small, that the latter cannot get away altogether, however eccentric its course may be; indeed, the more elongated the orbit of Error, the greater chance of its being swallowed up by the scorching Truth, on its return trip. In the present instance, my own ready co-operation with a marvellously conducive Providential legislation had been sufficient unto the deflection of Tom’s opinion; and I was content to let the still-impending collision take thought for itself, particularly as Mrs. Beaudesart’s conjunction was just about falling due. Then I rose to go.

“Here, mate,” said I, fearlessly removing my clouded glasses, and handing them, with their case, to Andrew; “you’ll find the advantage of these.”

There was no trace of recognition in Tom’s look of gratitude as his eyes rested on my face. But I sighed to reflect that he was still looking out for the tracks of that miserable impostor from the braes o’ Yarra.

Now I had to enact the Cynic philosopher to Moriarty and Butler, and the aristocratic man with a ‘past’ to Mrs. Beaudesart; with the satisfaction of knowing that each of these was acting a part to me. Such is life, my fellow-mummers — just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity. But let me not hear any small witticism to the further effect that its story is a tale told by a vulgarian, full of slang and blanky, signifying — nothing.

THE END.

NOTE — The proportional intensity of sunlight to moonlight is subject to fluctuations, from many causes, and is therefore variously stated. The highest accepted ratio is 600,000 to 1.; the lowest 200,000 to 1. A constutional repugnance to anything savouring of effect prompted me to indicate the lower proportion. The error in the text unfortunately escaped observation. — T.C.



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

Editor’s notes:
The above note, regarding “The proportional intensity of sunlight” was appended to the end of the final chapter, in relation to the paragraph in Chapter Six referring to “the sunlight, though two hundred times as intense”.

Such is Life

Speak Your Mind

*